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Roman and Xylos: Murphy's Law

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It was a street Caz had walked down many times before—strutted, in his usual careless way, confidence making him reckless—but today it felt different, and he couldn’t concentrate on the shady citizens crowding the corners, loitering around storefronts, eyeing the unattended cars. He was distracted, preoccupied, useless for business, though fortunately he didn’t have much to do today. But why, that was the question. He felt like something was pulling on him, like there was a rope tied around his ribs dragging him down the block restlessly, his lads following at a distance, not knowing when he would change his mood.

Of course he got distracted sometimes. Normal human thing. But this felt different from a rough night with little sleep, or worry over a deal. Caz forced himself to focus, to push his mind up to another level and analyze the sensation. And then he recognized it, and he started to run, following the tug.

Around the corner he saw him, and a grin burst across his face. Just for a moment—he was obviously young, dressed in a school uniform no less, and had to be approached delicately. Although Caz wasn’t good at delicate.

“Oi, you! Kid!” Charlie looked up and around, seeing a man in a long leather coat jogging towards him. The sight made him very nervous, but he didn’t see what he could do about it, except glance around at the local businesses and decide which one seemed safest to run to if there was trouble. None stood out.

He tried to keep moving, but more slowly, as the man approached. He didn’t want to be rude or antagonize anyone. He realized he should probably not worry about that so much, but street savvy was not his strong suit. “You, kid, hold up,” the man instructed, and once he got a look at him Charlie was inclined to obey. Tall, muscular but wiry, great cheekbones, eyes that socked him in the gut, brilliant grin with too many teeth. “What’s your name, you?”

“Charlie,” he answered automatically. He’d meant to say something else, or nothing.

“Charlie, huh,” the man repeated with interest. “My name’s Caz. Where you walkin’ from?”

Charlie shuffled his feet on the sidewalk, knowing instinctively that he shouldn’t have stopped, but now he was caught in Caz’s magnetic gaze. “School,” he replied.

“Yeah? Which one?” Caz flicked his scarf away to reveal the uniform logo. “St. Francis? You must be a smarty-pants, huh?” He said this with a pleasant grin, not the contempt some people showed, and Charlie found himself starting to smile back. “Come have a drink with me, Charlie,” Caz suggested.

Charlie couldn’t help it, he laughed a little bit. It was just too absurd, he was only fifteen and if anything looked younger. “I can’t,” he replied politely. “I have to get home. I’m expected,” he added, which was completely untrue. The house would be empty for another couple of hours at least.

Caz looked him up and down, and let himself be caught doing so. It should have been creepy, wasn’t this one of those street-corner perverts kids were warned about? But Charlie almost felt like he knew him somehow, knew he was a bit of an a-s but not dangerous—to Charlie, anyway. “You new here?” Caz asked.

“Yeah,” Charlie admitted.

“It can be dangerous here, especially at night,” Caz warned him seriously. He’d kept his distance, staying out of arm’s reach, and his hands stayed in his coat pockets. “You gonna take this route all the time? People will get used to you. Anyone hassles you, you let me know. Caz Miller.”

“Right, thank you,” Charlie told him, and turned slowly away, continuing his brisk walk home. His heart was pounding in his chest, but not from fear so much as… excitement. Like he’d just had a bit of an adventure, with someone older and good-looking who thought he was worth their time. Probably something wrong with that.

Caz watched him go, satisfaction suffusing his body. In a perfect world he would’ve hauled the kid into his car and driven straight home to bed—but people tended to frown on that nowadays, which Caz thought showed a marked lack of romance. The important thing was that he existed; he’d been brought into Caz’s life, and Caz was going to make a place for him in it, for the next time they met. And eventually, he would get him home to bed—of that, Caz was certain.

**

The next day Caz was busy, and couldn’t get free until after Charlie would’ve already gone by. No doubt someone had reported yesterday’s encounter to Dave, but it was of little importance at the moment and Dave hadn’t mentioned it. Caz had cultivated an air of volatility, eccentricity, and menace, so people didn’t mention things to him idly.

He didn’t have much to go on at the moment—the path Charlie had taken from St. Francis Academy led to a decent but sizable neighborhood, no way to tell which house was his. Well, Caz could cheat, of course, but he wasn’t ready to do that yet. He wasn’t above cheating, but used too liberally it led to boredom.

Two days later, he was free again, and hung around a bar a little earlier in the route, eyes on the window. He pretended he was just having a couple of mid-afternoon drinks with the boys, laughing and yapping about whatever, but when he saw Charlie go by he left the table mid-sentence to go after him, not caring what the others thought. They were assault-and-battery types; no one gave a s—t about their feelings.

“Charlie! Hold up!” The boy turned suddenly, and his expression when he saw Caz was apprehensive. Eh, too bad. He slowed but didn’t stop entirely, and Caz hurried to catch up. “Hi. You remember me?”

“Sure,” Charlie agreed, with the placating pleasantness one gave a crazy person. It made Caz smirk.

“Caz Miller,” he repeated. His name was worth something in these parts, though Charlie wouldn’t know that yet.

“Yes.”

“You wanna have that drink with me now?” Caz asked again.

“I don’t, um, drink, actually,” Charlie answered carefully. “Sorry.”

“Well I’m gonna keep walkin’ with you, then,” Caz stated. “So you’re new around here. How long you been here?”

“A couple weeks,” Charlie told him. Caz nodded; he’d been busy on a job for that long, and hadn’t been in the area much.

“How old are you?”

“Fifteen.”

If he thought saying that would dissuade Caz, he was wrong. “You ever have weird dreams?” Caz asked idly. He faced straight ahead, glancing at the boy only from the corner of his eye. “Like dreams where you’re doin’ something weird, like fightin’ Nazis on the moon, or livin’ in the past?” He didn’t know what exactly the boy would remember, but he bet there was something.

Caz turned to see that the boy had stopped walking, several steps behind him, and was staring at him, recognition blooming in his wide blue eyes. Unfortunately he’d chosen to stop in the middle of the street.

“J---s C----t, kid!” Caz snapped, yanking him bodily away from an oncoming car, which he flipped off when it honked angrily. “Be a little more careful, huh, I’m not gonna let you out by yourself.” The comment slipped out without Caz really meaning it to, but Charlie seemed too shaken to really notice it.

“Sorry,” he stuttered. “Thanks.” Was that just a lucky guess on this crazy guy’s part, something he asked everyone he met? Because it was remarkably like the dreams that had been permeating Charlie’s sleep increasingly for the last few months—no Nazis on the moon, but there had been Nazis—in fact, Charlie could suddenly picture the man tightly gripping his arm wearing a Nazi uniform, clean-shaven with his hair slicked back, the epitome of debonair evil. That image was not really making Charlie feel any better.

Caz shook him. “Kid. Charlie. You okay?”

Charlie snapped back to the present, and realized he was standing on a not especially nice street corner, with a stranger who was probably not a Nazi but could very well be dangerous or unhinged. Or both. “Could you let go of me, please?” he tried politely.

Caz released him immediately. “Sure thing. You okay, though?”

Charlie thought there was genuine concern in his eyes, but honestly he wasn’t very good at judging that. “I’m fine, thank you very much,” he assured him. “I really have to get home now, if you’ll excuse me.”

He started to move away, and Caz stayed in place. He didn’t want to scare the boy—well, too late for that, probably, but he wanted to show him he could be trusted, even if he was aggressive. Plus the politeness was cute, Caz didn’t get that a lot in his life. “Have a good night,” Caz called after him, and Charlie waved a little bit before hurrying away.

**

Caz gave him a day to calm down, and then there was the weekend, and then he was busy, which was f-----g inconvenient—you’d think he would have a lot of meetings with shady characters late at night, not mid-afternoon, but there it was. He didn’t think Charlie would forget him, but he might not realize Caz planned to be a permanent fixture in his life from now on. And the sooner he realized that, the better.

This time he was leaning against the side of a building watching a street hustler do card tricks when Charlie came by. His collar was drawn up, his shoulders were hunched, and he walked quickly, eyes on the ground. Was he hoping to get by Caz unnoticed?

“Charlie.” The boy stopped, back still to Caz, and his shoulders heaved like he was sighing. Then he spun around.

“I haven’t got any money,” he announced forcefully, and Caz’s eyebrows shot up as he approached carefully. Nervous tension poured off the boy like a wounded bear cub.

“Why would you tell me that?” Caz asked evenly. He stopped a couple feet away and kept his hands in his pockets.

“I guess… in case you wanted to steal it,” Charlie admitted. “I haven’t got any.”

“Kid, I’m not lookin’ to steal from you,” Caz assured him, glad they were being a bit more frank. “I’m not gonna hurt you.”

“Well—what do you—what do you want, then?” Charlie seemed very frustrated, his body language much less controlled than it had been earlier, and Caz frowned.

“I just wanna talk to you,” Caz claimed. “What are you upset about? Something happen to you?”

This was foolish, he should not be getting into a conversation with anyone on the street, Charlie told himself. He should be heading straight home, and using Google Maps to plan a new route from school, maybe look for a bus he could take instead of walking. But Caz was just standing there patiently, looking worried about him, maybe the first person who had looked that way all week.

“There were some guys hassling me. Before,” Charlie finally explained. Caz’s eyes flared with anger, which made Charlie immediately regret saying anything. The last thing he wanted was trouble. More trouble.

Sensing this, Caz calmed himself, relaxed his body language. “Come and tell me about it,” he suggested, indicating the low stone wall nearby. That would put them out of the way but still in public view. He leaned against it casually, waiting for Charlie to join him.

Reluctantly the boy did so. “Tell me about it,” Caz repeated. “Are you embarrassed? Don’t be embarrassed. Where did this happen?”

“A few blocks away,” Charlie said, every word dragged from him. “Closer to school. I see them around, they hassle a lot of the students.”

“Spendy school, they figure you got cash on you,” Caz assessed knowledgeably. He was keeping his temper on a very short leash, ignoring his instinctive urge to find these hoodlums and make sure they never bothered his boy again.

“Yeah, but I don’t,” Charlie insisted. “Just a few quid. And not even that now.”

“They take it?” Caz surmised. He worked hard to stay still, just leaning against the wall. “How many times this happen?”

“A couple,” Charlie muttered, which was a slight understatement. He was going to have to ask his mum for an advance on his allowance, or maybe start packing a lunch so he didn’t have to buy anything.

“Why are you embarrassed?” Caz asked, as if he didn’t know.

Charlie thought it was blindingly obvious. “Because—people only hassle someone if they think they’re a wimp,” he forced out, face flushing. “If they won’t fight back. So I guess that’s me.” He stared at his shoe scuffing the sidewalk.

“You’re not a wimp,” Caz corrected simply, making Charlie snap his head up to look at him. “You’re not a tough guy, either,” he added, reaching up to touch the boy’s jaw gently. “You wouldn’t like bein’ a tough guy.” He wouldn’t see those blue eyes go hard and cold for anything. With a start he realized what he was doing and dropped his hand. “Sorry. You remind me of someone I used to know.”

Charlie wondered if the explanation could possibly be that benign. “Who?”

Caz just flashed that impossible grin again. “Would you let me give you some money?” he asked, not reaching for his wallet.

“No,” Charlie replied immediately. He didn’t want any obligation between them. “Thank you.”

“I don’t like you gettin’ hassled,” Caz said. “You want me have someone keep an eye on you?”

Caz watched with some amusement as Charlie struggled to pretend this was a normal conversation. “No, thank you,” he repeated firmly. “I think I’m going to take the bus.”

Caz did not think that would be very convenient, but he didn’t want to explain how he’d already researched every viable route between the school and that neighborhood. “They didn’t hurt you, did they?”

“No.”

Caz let himself stare for a long moment—the blue eyes, the red lips, those perfect cheekbones—until another flush stained Charlie’s cheeks. “Go on home,” Caz allowed, before his memories could overwhelm him. “But you’re gonna keep seein’ me, so get used to it. I’m not gonna hurt you.” He knew that wasn’t the kind of thing you believed just because someone kept saying it.

Charlie nodded anyway and took his opportunity to leave. “Right,” he agreed. “Goodbye.”

“Bye, Charlie.”

Walking away Charlie thought he ought to feel worse, that he’d somehow attracted the attention of—well, he bet Caz Miller rarely got hassled or robbed. He had always been a good lad, never got in any trouble or did other than he was told—which was obvious to people who wanted to take advantage of him. But he didn’t feel that was Caz’s motivation. He honestly felt like they were old friends, somehow, who had just reconnected, which was physically impossible given their ages, and Charlie fought his instincts to be more open, to accept whatever help Caz offered. He had to be a little bit smart here. He would take the bus, and forget about these people who weren’t part of his world.

Caz watched him go until he was out of sight, then whirled away, determined to find whatever random toughs were hassling his boy and make sure they knew how displeased he was. Of course, there were a lot of toughs in this area, and rich schoolboys made a tempting target.

**

A couple days went by. Caz hung out around the bar—it was one of Dave’s, so he could claim he was checking up on things—but he didn’t see Charlie. If he didn’t see him today, he promised himself, he would cheat and find out what route he was taking, and be there tomorrow. Because that wouldn’t freak him out at all.

The cold rain was pouring down outside when Caz felt a flicker and turned abruptly towards the window, where a small dark bundle had just come into view. He pushed away from the bar and stood in the doorway, trying not to get too wet. “Charlie! Get in here!”

That did not seem like a bad idea, Charlie decided. He could barely see through the rain and his chest ached from shivering.

“Get in here, come on,” Caz encouraged, grabbing him as soon as he was close enough and hauling him into the dark, quiet interior. “Why don’t you have an umbrella or a raincoat or something? Here, take this off.” He pried the wet, heavy backpack from the boy’s shoulders and set it on the floor. “George, get me a towel.” Before the boy could object Caz started unbuttoning his coat and pulled it away, then wrapped the towel George the bartender had produced around him. “Sit down here. We’re havin’ that drink now. Jack and Coke.”

George raised an eyebrow. “Just Coke, please,” Charlie corrected politely. “Do you have diet?”

“J---s, kid, live a little,” Caz suggested.

Charlie sighed. “Okay. Regular Coke, then.”

This made Caz laugh and he looped his arm around Charlie’s shoulders, the better to keep him close. “How’s that bus workin’ out for you, then?”

“I missed it,” Charlie admitted, discouraged. Today had been an overall winner of a day so far. Though, he had now put seeing Caz in the ‘good’ column for the day, which was something new. “If I get out of class even a couple minutes late, I miss it, and I’d have to wait an hour for the next one.” He stopped talking abruptly to slurp at his Coke, worried he was being boring or whiny.

Caz’s arm still sat heavily on his shoulders. “So now you’re walkin’ home in this weather?” He disapproved of this plan and flourished a business card before the boy. “Gimme a call next time you need a ride, I’ll pick you up.”

Charlie examined the card dubiously. It just contained Caz’s name—apparently Caz was a nickname for Colin—phone number, and the words Callard Enterprises. “What’s Callard Enterprises?” Charlie asked.

“That’s where I work,” Caz replied, sipping his own drink.

Charlie was relieved to know Caz actually had a job, one you could put on a business card—he’d been thinking he was a layabout, or maybe a gangster. “Oh, what do you do?”

“I’m an executive assistant,” Caz told him with a smirk, his tone suggesting maybe that was really code for gangster. “You ever heard of Dave Callard?”

Charlie did not keep up with the business news, or maybe crime. “No, sorry.”

“That’s my boss,” Caz explained anyway.

“And what sort of business does he run?” Charlie prompted. Caz was the one who had started this conversation, after all. Although, from the way he draped himself all over Charlie, maybe he was a bit drunk, and not quite on point.

“Construction, real estate, import-export, distribution—“ Caz began to list. All true, some legit and others euphemisms. He saw that the words were meaningless to the teen, though. “He owns this bar, for example,” he added, which Charlie showed some interest in.

“Oh, I see. So, you’re actually here… working.” Three was a little smile on Charlie’s face, a teasing glint in his eye that was too old for a teenager, and achingly familiar to Caz. Then it was gone, and Charlie flushed slightly, unsure where that tone had come form, that was verging on flirtatious.

Caz covered his moment of longing with a laugh and pulled away from the boy, patting his back instead. S—t, and now the kid looked worried he’d said something wrong. “Yeah, I am workin’ hard,” he claimed, knocking back the rest of his drink. “I don’t have what you might call regular hours, I’m more on call. So don’t you worry, you need something, call me. Or come by here,” Caz added, inspired. “George’ll look after you.” He could make George his puppet in this regard, no problem there.

“Thanks,” Charlie replied, as if he had no plans to ever do that.

Well, plans changed. Caz nudged the boy’s foot with his own, then kept it there so he could touch him while better able to watch his expressions. “Tell me about your classes,” he requested. “What’s your favorite one?”

“Um, biology,” Charlie said, a bit sheepishly.

“Biology, huh? That’s very good,” Caz complimented. “You gonna be a doctor or something?”

“I’d-I’d like to be a scientist,” Charlie told him, a bit hesitantly. He could not imagine this being very impressive to someone like Caz, although his blue eyes watched him intently. And his foot certainly seemed interested enough. Charlie cleared his throat and drank some more Coke. “Maybe in genetics,” he added, when Caz looked at him expectantly. Might as well hang a big ‘nerd’ sign right on his forehead, he supposed.

Caz smiled, slow and devastating, and casually reached out to tuck a stray piece of hair behind Charlie’s ear, his fingers lingering on the skin. “You’re a bright boy,” he finally said, and Charlie had nearly forgotten the context by that point. “You can do anything you want.”

“You remind me of someone,” Charlie breathed, without really meaning to. Then he realized what he’d said, but couldn’t think why he’d said it, because he’d never known anyone like Caz, and he turned away abruptly to his drink. “Um, that’s what you said earlier,” he tried, a bit desperately. “Isn’t it?”

“Yeah,” Caz agreed. He almost wasn’t sure which to hope for, that Charlie would remember him soon, or not. When he finally did, they’d have to leave town, get new lives, end all the fun that Caz got up to now, and there would probably be some chiding lectures to endure. On the other hand Caz would do anything to see the depth of connection in Charlie’s eyes once again—but he was willing to start with a connection here and now, and work up to more.

“Little brother?” Charlie guessed hopefully, and Caz smirked.

“Definitely not.” He pushed away from the bar. “Come on, kid.”

Charlie looked up with some alarm. “Where are we going?”

“I’m takin’ you home,” Caz told him, as if that was a perfectly normal thing to do. Charlie was torn between relief and skepticism. “Well, if you’ve got nothing better to do, you can hang out here,” he added, “but I thought maybe you had homework or something.”

“I do,” Charlie agreed, not wanting to waste an opportunity to go back to his normal life. Though a small part of him felt slightly… disappointed. “Um, have you been drinking, though?” he checked delicately.

“No.”

Charlie frowned. “You just had a drink.” And if Caz was actually sober when he was hanging all over Charlie, Charlie had some serious thinking to not do.

“Charlie, I’m totally fine to drive you,” Caz stated, with a simple sincerity that seemed at odds with his usual cocky attitude. “I’m not gonna put you in danger, kid.”

“Right, okay,” Charlie agreed quickly, before he could get sucked in by those eyes again and embarrass himself further. He dropped the towel back on the bar. “Thank you,” he told George, wondering if he ought to tip him—he assumed Caz was paying for his drink, but no money had changed hands. He decided against it, mainly because he was still short on cash.

“Don’t even think about it, kid,” Caz told him. “Your money’s no good here.”

Charlie did not ask how Caz had guessed what he was thinking, he knew he could be transparent in that regard. “Thank you,” he repeated, pulling on his coat, which was now dry and miraculously slightly warm.

Caz grabbed his backpack for him. “How do you carry this thing?” he complained. “You’re gonna get spine problems.”

“I have a lot of homework,” Charlie said apologetically. You wouldn’t guess it was that heavy from how casually Caz swung it over his shoulder, though, and Charlie found himself wondering what Caz’s muscles looked like when he did so. Which was absolutely not the sort of thing he should be thinking about right now, or possibly at all.

“Come on. My car’s over here, looks like a break in the rain.” Caz didn’t quite grab the boy’s hand—that would not be advisable just yet—but rather the sleeve of his jacket and towed him towards the door, letting go when he tugged slightly.

Caz opened the car door for him—it was a nice model but not flashy—and put his bag in the back, then settled into the driver’s seat. Of course Charlie had already put his seatbelt on, he was a good lad. The rain, held back just long enough for them to get undercover, poured down again.

“Is it safe to drive in this?” Charlie worried.

“How else am I gonna get you alone?” Caz shot back, whipping away from the curb. He kept his tone ambiguous enough for Charlie to tell himself it was just a joke, but if the teen’s furtive gazes were anything to go by, he becoming less and less opposed to such comments. “So where am I goin’, kid?”

“Oh, um, Grandbury Street. It’s back that way,” Charlie tried to direct. “I’ve been taking the Blue Line, when I can catch it.”

Caz drove confidently but attentively, and Charlie started to relax a little. At least regarding vehicular safety. “So you’re new here,” Caz recalled. “Where’d you live before?”

“Croughton,” Charlie answered, and Caz nodded. “My stepfather got transferred at his job—he works at a bank. So we moved here.” There was a pause which seemed significant. “And he’s paying for me to go to St. Francis’s, so…”

Caz sensed an underlying tension he didn’t like. “Stepdad, huh? You get along alright?”

“Oh yeah, sure,” Charlie answered, too quickly. “He married my mum five years ago.” Which seemed like a long time to him, being one-third of his life.

“You got any brothers or sisters?”

“No, just me. How about you?” Charlie returned, not wanting to talk about his home life any longer. It surely couldn’t be that interesting.

“I got an older sister,” Caz told him. “Nephew and two nieces. She married a black, so the kids got this crazy hair, right? My nephew’s got, like, an Afro, but it’s red. People give us really s—t looks when we’re out.”

Charlie snorted a little, taking this to mean Caz was trusted around children, and was not a racist. Always good to know. “How old is he?”

“Eleven. Loves to play football.” He glanced at Charlie. “I’ll bring you to a game sometime. Grandbury Street. Where now?”

Charlie hadn’t been paying attention and was startled to see where they were. “Um, anywhere is fine. This corner is good.”

Caz smirked but didn’t push for the exact address. “Okay.” He pulled over. “Don’t lose my number, Charlie,” he warned, before the boy could leave. “I expect you to call me, if you need something.” He held his gaze for a long moment, searching those blue eyes for anything familiar, until Charlie flushed and forced himself to look away.

“Okay, thanks.”

“Don’t forget your bag.”

Charlie did not. “Thanks for the ride,” he added, before shutting the back door.

Such a polite kid. Caz could think of a lot of things he would like to hear him say in that polite voice—ask for, beg for. Patience, he reminded himself. Charlie was walking slowly, getting soaked all over again, and Caz suddenly realized he probably didn’t want him to see which house he went into. Polite, yet paranoid.

Though, it wasn’t paranoia when someone really was out to get you.

Caz gave him a break and drove on past.

**

Caz let a few days go by before he actively looked for Charlie again. He had work, and even if he didn’t it was best to hang around Dave for a bit, act normal. He was certain his new friendship had been reported, but undoubtedly no one could make sense of it. Caz was equal opportunity when it came to sex but never bothered with anyone regular—humans could be so annoying, with their tiny lives. That was Roman talking, Roman holding out for Xylos. Caz was fine taking advantage of the human bodies that threw themselves at him, when they found he was Dave Callard’s man.

Dave was just as small-minded as the others—racist, homophobic. So there were a lot of things he didn’t like about Caz, but mainly he kept them to himself. For a villain, Dave had some complexities Caz found interesting—Caz wasn’t merely useful to him, they were friends. Dave’s girls called him Uncle Caz—he took them out with his nephew and nieces sometimes, looked after their hamster when they went out of town.

He’d see if Dave still allowed that, once he’d gotten hold of his boy good and proper. Caz smirked at the scene that might follow—though in the end he didn’t mind twisting Dave’s brain a bit, to make him accept it.

Finally he was back at the bar, but Charlie hadn’t come by at his usual time so Caz assumed he’d gotten to the bus again. He was just about to leave—having done something actually professional and gone over the books—when he felt the familiar tingle and scrambled over to the window. Charlie was barreling past, almost running, and Caz stepped out the door to grab him. The boy’s momentum swung them around but Caz kept them upright. A quick check confirmed no one was chasing him.

“Charlie! What’s wrong? What’s—“

“I have to go, I’m sorry!” Charlie interrupted, slightly frantic. “I have to get home, I’m going to be late—“

Caz did not let him go. “Come on, I’ll give you a ride,” he said, tugging the boy in that direction. “It’ll be faster.”

The boy hesitated for only a fraction of a second. “Okay, thanks.” Caz hoped this meant he felt more comfortable with him, but suspected it was actually desperation.

They got in the car and Caz pulled away. “So what’s goin’ on?”

Now stuck in the vehicle, Charlie twitched with nervous energy, feeling foolish for his reaction but also unable to stop. But Caz was waiting patiently for an answer—funny how it was Caz who was patient with him, and not other people he knew.

“Um, my mum complained that my stepdad was never home for dinner,” he explained in a rush. “So he’s taking off work early tonight, so we can all have dinner together. And I was studying at the library and I missed the bus and—“ He sounded really stupid right now, didn’t he? That only added to his frustration.

Caz frowned, not liking the state Charlie had gotten himself into. “What time you gotta be there?”

“Five-thirty,” Charlie blurted. “If I’m late—well, I just can’t be.”

“You won’t be late, baby,” Caz assured him. The endearment slipped out before he could stop himself, but he didn’t think Charlie really noticed. “It’s only just after five.” This did not relax the boy. “What happens if you’re late?” he asked.

An image flashed through Charlie’s mind, and he winced. Caz noted it. “It’s very disrespectful,” Charlie finally answered. “It’s disrespectful of me to be late when he’s taking time off so we can be together.”

That sounded like something Charlie had been told, many times. “Well relax, we’re almost there,” Caz promised. “What would he do to you, if you were late?”

“It’s very rude, and dis—“

“Charlie.” The boy gazed out the window, trying to avoid the question. “Would he hit you?” Caz let the car drive itself, unable to pay attention to the road with that thought in mind.

Charlie opened his mouth to deny it, then looked at Caz. He would know if he was lying, probably knew the answer already. He turned back to the window. Caz beat people up all the time, Charlie had finally Googled him and found his name in the papers as an alleged gangster, working for a bigger gangster. He lived in a violent world. So it probably seemed normal to him. Charlie had still gotten in the car with him though, so what did that say about him?

“Answer me, Charlie.”

“I’m never late,” Charlie replied instead. “I’m never any trouble.” That was his goal.

“No, you’re a good boy,” Caz agreed, patting his leg. His hand lingered there, on Charlie’s thigh, which Charlie noticed but didn’t really process. “If your stepfather ever hits you again, I want you to call me. I’ll come get you.” He squeezed his thigh, making the boy jump finally. “You hear me? I’m serious.”

“He won’t hit me, because I won’t be late,” Charlie reasoned, cheering up slightly as he recognized the neighboring houses. It wasn’t even five-ten yet. Caz pulled over and Charlie jumped out, but turned around at the door to say goodbye. “Thanks so much, I’m sorry I couldn’t stay longer.” And he really meant it.

“That’s okay, I’ll see you later,” Caz promised.

Charlie turned around and realized they were directly in front of his house, when he’d never given Caz the address. Slowly he faced the other man again, who had rolled down the window for him. “How did you know where I live?” he asked Caz.

Caz smirked like Charlie was a little slow on the uptake. “Charlie, I know where you live,” he shot back, as if this was vital information he would not be without. Charlie waited to feel scared, scared that a man with a violent, criminal lifestyle had taken an interest in him and knew where he lived. But that feeling didn’t come. Instead he leaned down to the window more. “What would you do, to my stepfather?” he couldn’t help asking.

“I’d f----n’ kill him, Charlie,” Caz answered matter-of-factly.

That should have been scary too. Charlie knew this. But it wasn’t. It was scary that it wasn’t scary. But Charlie didn’t see a violent criminal in that car, staring back at him with intense blue eyes—he saw someone confident and capable, who cared about him. He didn’t know anyone else like that.

“Right, I’d better go,” Charlie said, walking away again. No need to get his stepfather killed today.

Caz watched him up the sidewalk, then drove away as he reached the door, not sure if someone would see Caz, and if that might make things worse. Anyone who laid a hand on his boy was going to face his wrath, and Caz was very good at wrath. It seemed sadly inevitable, though. Charlie wasn’t the sort to break free without a catalyst, and there was often a bad family member in the mix.

**

Charlie had passed through fear and panic, and now a crushing sense of despair—humiliation—gripped him. He wiped the tears away from his eyes, hopefully fast enough that they wouldn’t leave a trace, because the only thing worse than being hit and mugged was being caught crying about it.

He was just walking, trudging home the way he was used to, the route that took the least amount of thinking, and he saw the bar where he sometimes met Caz coming up. Caz had said he wasn’t a wimp, but he wasn’t a tough guy either—said it like it was a good thing, like he didn’t want Charlie to be tough. Caz lived in a world of tough people—maybe he found something different appealing.

Charlie desperately wanted Caz to find him appealing at that moment.

It was a crazy wish, but Charlie didn’t take it back or qualify it immediately, the way he often did with reckless wishes, in case by some twist of cosmic fate that influenced anything. He hoped Caz would run out, or call to him from the bar, because seeing him would lift Charlie’s day, which had taken a sharp downward turn recently. Caz wouldn’t make him feel like a failure, like his stepdad, or speculate ‘helpfully’ on how the situation had been his fault, like his mum.

Actually, Charlie reflected, Caz might be angry—not at Charlie, but at his attackers. That made Charlie a little bit nervous. But not nervous enough to turn away. His heart pounded and he knew he was playing with fire and he never played with fire, he was a good lad and people took one look at him and thought they knew everything about him.

But they didn’t. They didn’t know about the crazy dreams he had, the pictures that would pop into his mind at random times, impossible things that felt so real, like memories. Caz knew. Caz had known before Charlie even told him. So Caz knew—believed—that Charlie could be so much more than he appeared on the surface.

Charlie took a breath and opened the door of the bar.

He was blinded at first in the dark space, but it was fairly quiet at this hour, just a few regulars who glanced over at him and then glanced away. They had seen him here with Caz—they knew he belonged even if that seemed strange to them. But no one jumped to greet him, so Charlie assumed Caz wasn’t here, and the bravado that had made him open the door began to stutter.

“Charlie,” said a voice, but it was George, the bartender. Now Charlie was stuck, regretting his impulsive decision, but he shuffled over to the bar anyway.

“Hi, George,” he greeted, eyes downcast.

Expertly the bartender handed him some ice wrapped in a towel, which Charlie applied to his split lip. It felt swollen and sore, and he didn’t dare glance in a mirror. “What happened to you?” George asked, in his seen-it-all tone.

“I got mugged,” Charlie admitted, sipping the Coke George placed before him.

“Those same guys who were hassling you before?” George asked, because George knew everything, and Charlie nodded miserably. They had stepped up their game, from mere intimidation for lunch money to taking his entire wallet. Not to mention the really unnecessary violence. “Caz is not gonna be happy,” George predicted, understatedly.

“Should I—should I call him?” Charlie asked. That was the logical next step in his plan, but he no longer felt so confident about it.

“I’ll call him,” George offered. “Don’t go anywhere.”

“Do you think he’ll be mad?” Charlie worried, before George could leave. “If he’s busy, I don’t want to interrupt him—“ How pathetic would that be, tough Caz with his little wimpy kid friend—

“He’ll be mad,” George confirmed dryly. “But not at you.” Then he went off.

Charlie sighed, leaning heavily on the bar with his bookbag at his feet. What was he even doing? Crazy dreams were just crazy dreams, a lot of people had them, they didn’t mean he was anything special. He was fifteen years old and a straight-A student, he did not hang out in bars asking criminals to avenge the petty wrongs done to him.

Even devastatingly handsome criminals, with piercing blue eyes and striking cheekbones, who played increasingly prominent and intimate roles in his dreams. Who made him feel like he was someone special. And who had, Charlie hastened to add, approached him first.

With a start Charlie realized George was serving a plate of fish and chips to someone, meaning he was off the phone with Caz, and he began to get nervous all over again. George glided over to him. “Caz is on his way,” he reported. “You want anything to eat?”

“No, thank you,” Charlie responded. He didn’t think he could choke any food down right now. “Did he seem—“ He broke off on his own.

“You’re to stay right here,” George informed him after a moment, when Charlie didn’t say anything else. Charlie imagined that George had a pitying look about him, as if he was thinking, ‘You have no idea what you’ve gotten yourself into, kid.’ Or maybe Charlie was just projecting.

But sometimes he could see it so clearly—him and Caz, lounging on a tropical beach in the Dutch East Indies… when that was a place… unconcerned about the religious wars raging at home. Or, stranger still, brothers, in America, before their civil war, running a big Southern cotton plantation and owning slaves—except they treated them well, of course, and set them free after a few years and smuggled them up north. Or something sci-fi, where he could read minds and Caz could manipulate metal, and Caz was as charmingly disreputable there as he was now, but more serious, with a tragic backstory.

Charlie was not an imaginative, creative person; when he daydreamed it was about discovering something great in genetics someday, curing a disease maybe. Or girls. At least until recently. So it seemed unlikely that these images and feelings could be conjured up from his own mind, but then where else would they come from? He liked to read and watch telly, yes, but did not recall any similar adventures. Yet there they were, and as vivid as memories, tastes and smells, sounds and feelings fully realized for an instant here or there.

Maybe he was going crazy. Charlie had learned in his psychology class that many mental illnesses began in the teenage years, when the brain was rewiring itself to face adulthood. Cross a couple of those wires, and bam! You thought you were living in a science base on the Moon with a local tough. Only the Moon, having been accidentally blasted out of Earth’s orbit, was now flying through space towards uncharted territory... Because that totally made sense.

If he sat here any longer, Charlie was going to talk himself into making a run for it, to the nearest psych ward.

“Charlie!” He turned so suddenly he almost spilled his Coke, Caz silhouetted against the window in his nice but slightly flashy suit. Charlie was vaguely aware of a group of men entering the bar behind him, but his view, his world, was filled by Caz as he came closer and gently tipped Charlie’s face up to the light, fingers brushing over his split lip.

“I’m really sorry about this, Charlie,” Caz told him, like it was somehow his fault. “I told those little s—ts to stay away from you. But I guess they didn’t listen.” He seemed very personally disappointed by this.

Absurdly Charlie felt the need to cheer him up and tried to smile, which just pulled on his lip painfully. “I don’t think comprehension is one of their strengths,” he suggested dryly. “That’s nice that you tried, though—“

Caz did not try, he did. He knew he’d gotten the right schoolyard thugs because he’d cheated to figure out their identities; but they were so low level, big fish in their own tiny pond, that they must not have realized how seriously they should take a threat from him. And now his boy was sporting a fat lip, and felt scared and embarrassed and defeated. Caz worked to keep the fury from sparking in his eyes, not wanting to upset Charlie further.

“Okay,” he told Charlie, smoothing his hair down. It was more a gesture to calm Caz, but also a good excuse to give in to his desire to touch the boy. “Okay, you did the right thing, comin’ here and callin’ me. There’s nothing for you to worry about.”

Actually there were a lot of things to worry about, but for a few moments Charlie truly believed what Caz said. He felt good around Caz. That seemed like a rare thing in this world, as little experience as Charlie had in it. “I hope I didn’t interrupt you—“ Charlie suggested, glancing around Caz at the men behind him. They would not have been out of place as extras in a gangster movie, but with Caz in between them and him, Charlie didn’t feel as nervous as was probably sensible.

Caz glanced back. “These are my lads,” he introduced vaguely. “This is Charlie.” He stepped aside so they could get a better look, which left Charlie clinging to his sleeve. Caz did not think his crew would soon forget their boss’s special teenage friend, which to his mind was a good thing.

“Hello,” Charlie said politely, though Caz was pretty sure this situation had never been covered in etiquette class.

“C’mon,” Caz encouraged Charlie, taking his shoulder lightly. “We’re gonna get your money back.”

Charlie’s expression changed with comical speed. “How?” he asked, resisting movement. He was afraid he had a pretty good idea of how.

“Well,” Caz replied thoughtfully, putting Charlie’s bookbag in his arms, “I’ll start by asking nicely.”

The men let out some rude snickers at this, which were not reassuring to Charlie. But Caz steered him along out the door, not pushing, just guiding, and Charlie felt the inevitability of it take hold. “Caz, I—“ he tried anyway.

“Don’t worry, I won’t let you get hurt,” Caz promised earnestly. “Now where did this happen?”

Charlie looked around at all the faces watching him, leaning on their cars. They had scars, broken noses, like stray dogs you stayed away from because you knew they’d been in—and won—a lot of fights. Caz’s face didn’t look like that—he was almost too handsome for his job, trying to blunt it with a tacky cockiness. But somehow Charlie knew he’d won the most fights of all.

Maybe because there was something special about him, too.

And if they were both special, maybe Caz knew more about what was going on here, and maybe it was okay for Charlie to follow his lead.

“Benton Street, near 75th,” Charlie answered. “There’s a vacant lot, with a hole in the fence.”

“You heard him, lads,” Caz announced, and they parted with exhilarating coordination, piling into three different cars. “You’re in the back,” Caz directed to Charlie, who was the only one who didn’t know what to do. Caz got in beside him and the driver pulled out.

Caz slid his arm under Charlie’s, not really holding his hand, just being closer to him than was necessary, even in the small car. He knew the boy was anxious, but this was how things worked in Caz’s world, and Charlie was a part of that now, whether he understood why or not. “Are you okay?” Caz said suddenly. “I didn’t ask if you were okay or not.” He needed to remember these little human niceties.

Charlie smiled a little again, carefully, finding it endearing and also powerful how Caz seemed concerned about this, even though he surely had other things on his mind. “I’m okay,” Charlie promised, and Caz gave him a skeptical look. “Well, you know, it was upsetting at first,” he admitted, mindful of their audience in the front seat. “But I feel better now. It was—it was nice to have somewhere to go,” he tried.

Caz nodded, accepting this answer. “You need something, you call me,” he reiterated, “even if you’re not in this neighborhood.” He spoke as if this was perfectly normal behavior, willing Charlie to believe it. The boy seemed a bit calmer now, anyway.

In just moments they pulled up to the fenced lot, which was on the most direct route home from Charlie’s school. He should have taken the long way round and avoided this place, but he’d missed the bus again and the weather was growing cooler. A distinct lack of caution, he chided himself, as he rode around in a car with gangsters.

He saw two of the cars stop near the hole in the fence, while the third went around the corner, perhaps to cut off an escape route. One got the sense Caz’s lads had done this before, perhaps over slightly larger sums of money.

Charlie started to get out when the men in the front seat did, but Caz caught his arm and stopped him. “Let’s wait here for a bit,” he suggested, like someone was just checking how full the restaurant was before they bothered going in. “I could have someone pick you up at school every day,” Caz offered, apparently serious.

“No, thank you,” Charlie replied, trying to firm but calm. “I just—I need to be a bit smarter. Stick to the safe route.”

Caz grinned then, crazy-wide with too many teeth. “Sometimes the safe route ain’t much fun,” he told Charlie, letting more than a little flirtation creep into his tone. He liked the way Charlie’s cheeks flushed in return, even as he smiled back receptively—this was clearly new territory for him, probably would’ve been even if Caz was a girl his own age. How boring did that suddenly seem?

Well, it depended, actually. “You ever know any blond girls?” Caz asked suddenly. “Maybe go by Jane or Raven—“ There was a second when Charlie maybe looked surprised, surprised that Caz knew something else he’d never told him, but then Boyd the Butcher tapped on the car window. Boyd was not unusually violent, he merely had a face that looked like it had been smashed by the flat of a meat cleaver, or so someone had decided when they were handing out street names. “We’ll talk about that later,” Caz postponed, patting Charlie’s thigh. “Come on.”

Still clutching his backpack—he didn’t want to presume to leave it somewhere, and have someone drive off with it—Charlie climbed out of the car, following Caz through the hole in the fence where he’d been dragged earlier that day. Nice that the local miscreants had their own little sheltered spot for misadventures, which were not limited to mugging younger students, based on the crushed beer cans, crisps packets, and even less savory items littering the ground, which Charlie was only looking at so he didn’t trip and look a fool.

Which was why it took him a moment to realize that Caz’s men had three teenage boys kneeling on the tattered grass, looking very scared and slightly as though they’d resisted at first. Charlie was not sure how he was supposed to feel at this point, but numb and disconnected described it well.

Caz clearly found the three lads a pathetic lot. “You, what’s your name?” he demanded of the first boy, whom Charlie distinctly recalled from the earlier encounter, being the mouthiest of the group.

“Billy Carver,” he answered haltingly, staring at the ground.

“Billy Carver,” Caz repeated, committing it to memory. “And where do you live, Billy Carver?”

He stuttered out an address, and Caz glanced at the man standing behind him, who checked the boy’s ID he held and nodded. Satisfied for the moment, Caz went on to the next boy, the ringleader, who foolishly tried to lie about his address. He reward was a sharp cuff on the back of the head from the man standing behind him. It was not the sort of light-ish whap upside the head teachers gave students in old movies—Caz appearing very much as the most menacing headmaster ever—but a full-on thunk that sent him careening over into the next boy, and then the ground. Charlie jumped a little, clutching his bookbag to his chest, but could dredge up very little in the way of sympathy.

“Now, what was that address?” Caz asked him again, as if he’d merely misheard the first time, and the boy gave the correct one. The third lad, a skinny fellow who was heartily regretting giving in to pressure to join the other two, rattled off accurate information right away.

“Good,” Caz told them. “Now I know your names, and where you live. Let’s just pause for a minute and think about what I could do with that information.” Caz knew Charlie’s name and address, too; at one point that had frightened Charlie, but now it seemed right to him, comforting. He was guessing these three boys, once so cocky in their greater strength and aggression, did not feel the same way.

“Right,” Caz resumed. “Now, I told you before to leave my friend Charlie alone, and for some reason, you didn’t listen. That really upsets me, that you didn’t listen. That’s a lack of respect, isn’t it, lads?” Caz’s men agreed. Lack of respect could be a capital crime on the streets. But Caz wasn’t planning to go that far.

“Sorry,” stuttered one of the boys, the first one, and Caz crouched down beside him effortlessly, a tiger sniffing at a trembling baby deer.

“Sorry,” Caz repeated. “He’s sorry, lads. Well, that’s important.” Apologies rarely got anyone anything in the real world, the criminal world these boys were playing at. Real brass Caz could have respected, but these twits were disgusting, crying like children being reprimanded.

Caz stood swiftly, stepping away from the pitiful figures. Charlie was looking a little vacant, probably best to wrap this up before he either fainted or went into a berserker bloodlust. “Alright, where’s his wallet gone?” The delinquents indicated a bag and fished it out on command—it was not the only piece of stolen property present, and Caz tsked them. “Tomorrow, you’re gonna give all of these back,” he ordered brightly. “Don’t worry, I’ll know when you’ve done it. Here.” He walked the battered wallet over to Charlie, who had to be shaken a bit. “Tell me if there’s anything missing.”

Taking a breath, Charlie focused on the wallet in his hands, opening the soft folds. His father had given it to him, before he died, and Charlie preferred to carry it over something newer and in better shape. It still held his school ID, his bus pass, his library card. The cash was gone, though. “I had about five quid,” he noted to Caz, who was watching him intently, like he had all the time in the world.

“Five quid? That’s all you carry?” Caz teased.

“It keeps getting stolen.”

Good point. Caz turned on the three waiting boys. “Let’s have their cash,” he ordered, and this was swiftly handed over, roughly a hundred pounds in all, the bills wrinkled and only questionably clean. Still, Charlie didn’t usually see that much unless it was his birthday or Christmas.

But he couldn’t keep it all. “No, I don’t think they’ve taken that much from me,” he told Caz, when the man tried to pass it to him.

“Interest,” Caz suggested. “Pain and suffering fee.”

Charlie shook his head scrupulously. He had a feeling he knew what was going to happen to those three miscreants as soon as Caz was done toying with them, and while he couldn’t help but feel they’d brought it on themselves—Charlie wasn’t the only one playing with fire here—he didn’t want to be… punitive about it. “I’ll take fifty quid,” he decided, trying to choose the cleanest bills.

Caz tried not to laugh, because Charlie was being very serious about this. A well-timed crazy laugh could be very effective, but he didn’t want anyone to think the situation had become lighthearted. When he faced the delinquents again—the humans who had dared to injure his friend, because they thought he was weaker than them and that made everything they wanted to do okay—wrath flared in his eyes, all thought of mirth gone.

Deliberately, Caz dropped the remaining cash in the bag of stolen wallets and electronics. “You’ll give this back to other people you stole from,” he ordered, and he felt the green-black tingle of his powers rising up and forcing its way into their brains. They would make reparations to their other victims, not because Caz cared about what was right but because it would humiliate them, to humble themselves before people they had bullied, out of fear of even greater bullies. That was justice in Caz’s world, and justice was actually mercy—usually people got worse than they deserved.

Of course, the evening was still young.

“Go wait in the car,” Caz suggested to Charlie.

The teen didn’t need to be told twice and hurried out to the vehicle he’d arrived in. It smelled strongly of cigarettes, and though it seemed like a nice car, there were numerous nicks and scratches in the seats, like they had been transporting a lot of large dogs, or heavy boxes, or perhaps people who didn’t want to be there.

Charlie let his mind drift away from that. Caz was strong; he did what he needed to do in a world full of bad people. That seemed too simple, though; right now he was dealing with other bad people, but his boss, Dave Callard, had been accused of killing a policeman, and his criminal schemes stole money from ordinary, unsuspecting people.

Charlie felt his logic beginning to falter, as he waited there alone. How could Caz be special and powerful, but use his abilities to do bad things? Anyone could do bad things. Charlie wanted to help people, and if there was anything special about him that could assist with that, so much the better. What if Caz wasn’t special at all, just lucky and amoral and slightly crazy, and he’d taken a shine to Charlie—

The car door opened and Caz slid in, just as the icy panic was beginning to clench Charlie’s stomach. The older man smiled at him, and Charlie felt better—surely no one with such a smile, like a solar flare, could be truly bad. Caz ran a hand through his hair, effortlessly taming it, and turned to Charlie conversationally. No one else got in the car; the two men who’d ridden in the front loitered near the fence, smoking.

“You alright?” Caz asked, scrutinizing the teen closely. There were thoughts churning through Charlie’s head, very knotty ones, and Caz was never sure where they would lead.

“Sure,” Charlie answered quickly. “Um, thanks a lot.”

“No problem,” Caz assured him. He took a chance and scooted closer, his arm going to the seat back behind Charlie’s shoulders. “Listen, Charlie, I know it seems like we ain’t got much in common…” Charlie blinked at him, clutching his bookbag to his chest protectively. “…but I think you know that’s not true. You and me, we go back a long ways.”

An image suddenly flashed before Charlie’s eyes, of Caz as a Roman soldier, bedecked with sword and spear, standing outside a hut made of sticks. Charlie knew he was there too, and looked down at his rough woolen clothing, so different from Caz’s. They were not in Rome, they were in Charlie’s land, and Caz was going to need his help to survive, pursued by a deadly foe. As Charlie stared, feeling the pinch of his boots and smelling pine trees on the breeze, Caz raised his spear and pointed at him, saying—

“Charlie?” Caz prompted, and the boy started, blinking rapidly as though waking from a dream. Caz hoped it was a good one, or at least insightful.

“Have we met before,” Charlie began carefully, “at fancy dress parties?” This was of course absurd, but no more so than anything else lately.

Caz laughed pleasantly. “I think you’re catchin’ on, Charlie,” he claimed, then his gaze pinned the teen in place. “Or should I call you something else?”

There was a word on the tip of Charlie’s tongue; his lips struggled to work it out. It was not a common sort of word, or name, and in the end it evaporated, like frost in the sunlight, leaving him frustrated.

“It’s okay, it’s okay,” Caz soothed, his arm dropping down to Charlie’s shoulders. He spared a thought for his waiting men, and decided they would become neither impatient nor witnesses. “You’ll remember pretty soon.” He tipped the teen’s chin up to meet his gaze. “You understand there is something to remember, though?” That was critical.

Charlie did not know how it was possible, had no framework for how to deal with these kinds of thoughts; but he felt they had to be true. Slowly he nodded, meeting Caz’s laser-intense gaze. “We’re special, aren’t we, Caz?”

“That’s right, Charlie,” Caz agreed. Funny how the whole bloody complex thing could be reduced to one word. “We’re very special.” He ached to see the spark of recognition in the boy’s eyes, the familiar depths after what felt like so long on his own. It wasn’t there yet, but Caz sensed a tentative acceptance, a willingness to learn more, and that was a start.

Caz leaned down slowly, his eyes flickering over Charlie’s face to check his reaction. His lips brushed against Charlie’s lightly, then pressed a little more firmly, the thought of what he was finally doing snapping through his brain like electricity, making his heart pound.

Then Charlie jerked back like he’d been stung and his hand flew up to his mouth. “Sorry, I’m sorry,” he mumbled, eyes huge. “My lip—“

“Oh, sorry,” Caz remembered belatedly, of Charlie’s injury. He thought seriously about fixing it here and now, so they could have a proper snog; but he imagined Charlie freaking out, and this wasn’t exactly the place for a proper snog anyway. “Sorry. Are you okay?” He stroked Charlie’s hair, curling his fingers around the back of his neck, pushing forward with whatever gestures were now permitted. “Sorry.” He nuzzled Charlie’s ear instead, lips hot against his skin.

“It’s okay,” Charlie murmured in return. He felt light-headed, like he was watching a movie of someone else, even as he twined his fingers around the silky fabric of Caz’s shirt. He just wanted, wanted like he’d never wanted anything before—not necessarily sex, just more, more of Caz’s attentions now, more of these impossible memories from the past. Had he really been loved so strongly and fiercely once? Was he still, somehow, by this man he barely knew, who seemed to be the opposite of everything Charlie understood? It felt like being in a dream that he never wanted to wake up from, because reality without this feeling, this man, was devastating.

They could hardly sit in a car necking for all eternity, though. Even if Caz really wanted to see what Charlie would do as he got more comfortable. Sadly one had to be pragmatic about these things, and Caz straightened up reluctantly. “No one should hurt you, Charlie,” he told the boy, holding eye contact with him. “I’m gonna take real good care of you from now on.”

Charlie smiled, trying to be careful of his lip. “That sounds nice,” he replied. “Do you mean, like, go out for dinner?” he added curiously. The idea of being seen with Caz, chosen by him, sent a thrill through the teen; but at the same time he was not wholly ignorant of the issues this could cause—Caz being at least twice his age, male, and a known criminal. Actually that was also a thrill, now that Charlie understood it was okay.

Caz grinned even as he pulled his arm away. “We will definitely go out for dinner,” he promised. He would have to obtain some regular leisure time from Dave, not too difficult. “But right now, we’re gonna take you home,” he went on, pinging his men to get back in the car. “Should be safe for you to walk home from now on,” he continued, as the car started up. “But you give me a call if you have problems.”

“Okay,” Charlie agreed readily. “Thank you, Caz. I appreciate you doing this.” There was an element of stealth involved, he understood—the people around them didn’t know they were special, didn’t know it was even an option. They had to pretend to be ordinary. Well, relatively speaking—Caz was definitely not ordinary. And it didn’t seem very ordinary that he would be interested in Charlie. But being ordinary was something Charlie himself had a lot of experience with.

All too soon they were approaching Charlie’s street. “Stop here,” Caz ordered, while they were still a block away from Charlie’s house. “How you gonna explain this?” he asked Charlie, indicating his lip.

The teen shrugged. “Stray ball in gym class.”

Caz did not like how readily he came up with that excuse, as though he’d used it before. It worked, though, for the moment. “Okay. You good to walk from here?” He didn’t want to make trouble for the boy with anyone at home.

“Sure,” Charlie agreed, opening the door. “Thanks again, Caz. I’ll see you later, yeah?”

Caz liked this newfound eagerness. “Yeah, you will,” he promised, and watched the boy walk away, his steps lighter than before.

**

Charlie wanted to see Caz again, and felt himself very bold sending him a text the next day, asking if he’d be at the bar that afternoon. Disappointingly Caz could not make it, and said he would let Charlie know when he’d be available again. This was very frustrating for Charlie; surely nothing could be more important than the two of them together! What else really mattered? Not school, not the family and friends he felt increasingly distant from, not Caz’s work. If Charlie’s dreams were even halfway accurate, the things they could do—fly, alter time and space, heal from injuries, control people’s actions—far surpassed the limitations of the humans around them. He needed to know more.

Charlie was disappointed, frustrated, angry, hurt, confused, sullen, all in succession—by the time Caz texted him, suggesting they meet at George’s bar, Charlie didn’t even want to respond. Maybe he could just figure things out on his own. Obviously he had in other lives.

But he found himself walking past the bar anyway, his feet automatically turning into it. George glanced up from behind the counter and gave a significant nod towards the booths at the back, and Charlie saw Caz waiting in one, the dark corner allowing them some privacy.

Caz seemed slightly unimpressed as Charlie slid into the seat across from him. “Why didn’t you answer me?” he asked the teen coolly. He had sent three texts.

Charlie shrugged, maddeningly, feeling like he did when his stepfather chided him—wholly juvenile and unhelpful. “Where’ve you been?” he asked in turn.

“Working,” Caz told him. “I had to go up to Scotland with Dave, sort some stuff out.” That was valuable intel, but Charlie failed to appreciate it.

“But you didn’t really have to,” he countered. “You don’t have to work at all, if you don’t want to.”

“I like my job,” Caz replied. “Most of the time. Don’t you start getting snitty ‘cause I have to work,” he warned the teen. “I keep odd hours.”

“But you don’t—“ Charlie paused as George appeared with a Coke and a plate of nachos. “You don’t really have to,” he persisted. “And I don’t have to go to school.”

Caz glanced up at this remark. “You having problems at school?” he guessed. “Thought you liked it.”

“Well, it’s not very exciting,” Charlie spelled out, “compared to—whatever we really are.”

This was, Caz thought, what they called a moral dilemma. “Well, obviously, I’ve got no problem telling you to give up school and join me in a life of crime,” he admitted to Charlie, helping himself to some nachos. “But, I think later you’ll regret it and be mad at me.”

This was not Charlie’s point. “But what are we, Caz?” he pressed.

“You tell me, kid,” Caz invited curiously.

“Don’t you know?” Charlie asked in frustration. “Is this some kind of Luke Skywalker thing where you can’t ever answer a question directly?”

Caz laughed at this, which Charlie did not appreciate. “Eat something, baby,” he encouraged, and Charlie grudgingly took a few chips. “Am I like f-----g Yoda now? Or Obi-Wan Kenobi?” He kept on laughing at the idea.

Charlie did not share his amusement. “My entire life turns out to be a lie, and you think that’s funny,” he snapped in frustration. He started to scoot out of the booth. “Fine, I’ll figure it out myself—“

“Charlie! Charlie.” Caz could not let him walk away—he might be an overdramatic teenager right now, but inside he was the person Caz had been searching for. “Come back here. I’m sorry. Come on. Sit here.” He coaxed the boy into the seat next to him and slid his arm around his shoulders.

“I just want to know what’s going on,” Charlie stated, trying not to sound sullen.

“I know, I know,” Caz agreed. “When I was younger, I wanted to know what was goin’ on, too. Only I didn’t have anyone to ask.” Probably the confusion led him straight to his life of crime—that, and crime was so much fun when you could wave away the consequences. “Now I could just tell you crazy things, and you could decide whether you believed me or not.” His thumb stroked Charlie’s cheek when the teen turned away from him. “Or, you could come up with crazy things on your own, with me to help guide you, and know they’re true.”

“I would believe you, Caz,” Charlie asserted, his blue eyes bright and deep, and just a touch too innocent for Caz’s tastes. Still, he had to force himself to look away and take a sip of beer.

“Oh yeah?” he remarked vaguely.

“I-I thought you were just trouble at first,” Charlie admitted hesitantly, which made Caz grin.

“Oh I’m still trouble.”

“But you know the things I see,” Charlie went on earnestly. “The things I remember. We’re different from everyone else, we’re special. I want to know more.”

“I know you do,” Caz agreed. Where to begin, though. Not to mention, certain points didn’t always make him look very good. Charlie would remember those in time on his own, but why rush it, right? “The most important thing,” he continued, turning the boy to face him, “is that we’re always together.”

The way he said that, his eyes darting down to Charlie’s lips, brought a faint flush to the boy’s cheeks. “Together?” Charlie repeated significantly, and Caz smirked lazily.

“Somehow,” he replied ambiguously. “Maybe brothers. Often lovers. Sometimes both,” he added cheekily, which made Charlie roll his eyes. “Always together,” Caz repeated more seriously, catching Charlie’s gaze again. “Always searching for each other. I’ve been waiting a long time for you, Charlie. And I’m not going to give you up.” That was the most imperative thing for the teen to understand, the most vital. Everything else, in Caz’s opinion, was just details.

“Caz…” Charlie breathed, his fingers clutching at the other man’s shirt as he leaned closer. What he said was not merely affecting, it was right, and Charlie knew it as surely as he knew his own name.

Although apparently that was in question as well.

Charlie shoved that thought aside and pressed closer to Caz, hand sliding across his chest as Caz’s arm tightened around his shoulders. Their lips brushed, and this time there was no injury to get in the way as Caz pushed further. Charlie did not know what to do, but that was alright, Caz preferred it that way—it meant he’d never done this with anyone else, and never would.

“Oi!” interrupted a rough voice, and Charlie jerked back, turning to find some kind of drunken ruffian looming over the table. “What you f-gs think this is, some kind of—“ He cut himself off when Caz leaned more into the light, his expression unamused. “Oh. Caz. Sorry, mate,” he tried belatedly.

“No, go on with what you were saying, Billy,” Caz invited dangerously. “Come on, out with it.” Charlie squirmed self-consciously, his face red as he knew everyone was staring at them, feeling sick to his stomach.

Billy knew he’d stepped in it, and was not at his best trying to clean it up. “Sorry, Caz, never mind,” he attempted, backing away hastily. “Didn’t know it was you. Sorry! Um, I’ll buy you a drink.”

As Caz had previously observed, ‘sorry’ did not get one very far in this world. “Scoot out a second, Charlie,” he said, and the boy hurried to obey, looking like he might heave up his lunch any second.

“It’s okay, Caz, I’ll get it,” Billy insisted optimistically, turning towards the bar.

Caz had a reputation to maintain. People had to respect you out here, or at least fear you, especially if you seemed to be a bit different—overcompensation, Caz supposed. Still, it didn’t bother him, to assert himself over these insects. All too easy, really.

“You’ll get it?” he repeated to Billy. “Yeah, you’ll get it.” And he picked up a bottle of beer from the bar and smashed Billy in the face with it, making sure the glass shattered for maximum effect. “You got it now, Billy?! You f-----g got it?!” He had to shout to be heard over the screams of the man as he rolled around on the floor, hands over his face.

Caz turned his gaze on the rest of the bar patrons. “Anyone else got a problem with my boy?” he demanded. “Let’s talk about it now!” Shockingly, no one volunteered.

“Uh, Caz—“ George finally said, and nodded at the booth he’d been sitting in. It was now empty, and Caz just caught a glimpse of Charlie racing out the back way.

“S—t,” Caz growled, running after him. “Charlie!”

He put on a burst of speed and caught the boy in the alley out back. “Let go of me—“ Charlie demanded, struggling in Caz’s grasp.

“Stop, Charlie! Just—Come on, stop it—“ He was not calming down. “Charlie! I’m not going to hurt you, I’m never going to hurt you—“ He had to release the boy to avoid breaking that vow on accident, but fortunately once Charlie got a few steps away he turned back to stare at Caz.

“You just—“ His thoughts were clearly on the man in the bar, and tears sparkled in his eyes.

“I’m sorry, Charlie,” Caz tried soothingly. “I didn’t mean to scare you—“ He reached out but the boy jerked away.

“You just—hit him—“

“That’s what I do, Charlie!” The teen was not the only one getting frustrated here. “That’s who I am!”

“Not always,” Charlie replied, with utter conviction. He knew—remembered—that Caz could be gentle, honorable, kind.

Caz huffed—naturally, the boy would remember that. “I’m always strong, Charlie,” he insisted, trying to hold him in place with just his gaze. “I protect the people I care about.” This seemed to make a little headway, and Caz risked a step closer. “Right now, this is the life I have,” he said steadily. “If it’d been anyone but me, that f----r would be doing the exact same thing to whoever he caught. That’s my life right now, Charlie.” The boy had to understand that—Caz was still following rules, just a different sort than Charlie had learned. Though he also enjoyed a lot of them, because Billy was a git anyway.

“You could’ve done something else,” Charlie said.

“Not as Caz Miller,” he countered, hoping no one was around to hear him refer to himself in the third person. “That’s what Caz Miller does.” He’d been scooting slowly closer and was finally within grasping distance, but resisted the urge to do so, not wanting to set the boy off again.

Charlie did not live in a world where people hit each other in the face with bottles. Even his stepfather—he could be rough, but he wasn’t a bar brawler. But that was just a difference of degree, wasn’t it? His stepfather got mad and shook him, smacked him across the face—he lost his temper and lashed out, even though Charlie was smaller than him, and only made mistakes. The man in the bar had done something hateful on purpose—his only ‘mistake’ was doing it to the wrong person—and even though Caz had hit him, Charlie knew he’d never lost his temper, lost control.

Charlie wasn’t sure if that was better, or worse. Lord help the world if Caz ever really lost control, though. The memory was vague but sinister as it played around the edges of his mind, and he shook it away guiltily.

Retreat seemed the most viable option at the moment, time to think and adjust his mindset, because he knew he could not walk away from Caz for long. “I’ve got to go home,” he stated, and turned away.

“I’ll give you a lift,” Caz offered, trying not to sound too desperate.

“No. Thanks. I’ll walk,” Charlie told him, slinging his bag over his shoulder. Alone, said his tone, so Caz stopped in his tracks. He felt like he was using every ounce of strength to stay in place, to not run after the boy and grab him and bundle him off somewhere safe. He had to let Charlie come to him, in his own time.

**

Caz didn’t hear anything from Charlie for a few days, and he tried to keep his mind on his work and not do anything rash like stalk the boy’s house. He kept a line open with his powers, just to make sure nothing had happened to him, but otherwise kept his distance.

Word got around about Billy, but no one seemed to care. It was hard to maintain a moral stance on anything when you were deep in the criminal world, especially with Caz being so effective in his job; so no one commented on his recent proclivity for teenage boys, whatever they actually thought. Caz knew it probably disgusted Dave, but he was great at compartmentalizing when there was work to be done, and Caz didn’t exactly crave Dave’s personal approval anyway. The man was ruthless and ambitious, and just smart enough to get by without overthinking and ruining things, so he was useful to Caz for a while longer.

Friday evening, he finally got a text from Charlie. Are you busy tomorrow?

Caz grinned as he texted back. No. You want to hang out? Did teenagers today still ‘hang out’? Was his slang hopelessly outdated?

“Am I straining your attention, Caz?” Dave asked pointedly.

“No,” Caz assured him boredly. He could pay attention to multiple things at once, especially when one of them was as simplistic as Dave’s nefarious future plans. “I don’t trust Garvey. Them slick types always have an exit plan for themselves, and everyone else gets left behind.”

Dave snorted. He did not necessarily disagree, but felt there was little to be done on the matter. “Maybe you’d like to go to Pakistan and smuggle back the heroin yourself,” he suggested briskly.

Sure, Charlie responded.

“Sorry, I got weekend plans,” Caz replied flippantly.

Mom & Steve going to art show, Charlie added, which suggested he would be unsupervised. Caz immediately had some ideas, but wondered if maybe they were a bit more advanced than Charlie had in mind.

“All I’m sayin’ is,” Caz continued more reasonably, “if he changes the location of the drop again, it’s lack of respect.” You like football? “He’ll claim it’s someone else’s fault, but really he just doesn’t give a s—t about you, or he’d whip the others into shape.”

Dave gave him a stony look, but that was merely his thoughtful expression. He was a cagey sod, which was smart because you never knew when someone around you was wired up.

Sure, Charlie replied again.

I’ll pick you up, Caz offered.

“I mean, I think you’ve got the power here,” he went on to Dave. He tried not to sound too intelligent; he didn’t want Dave to feel threatened by him. He merely needed to nudge the man in the right direction. “What’s Garvey gonna do with his kilos if you refuse to deal? They’d be sitting on a truck somewhere, waiting for Customs to sniff around and find them.”

Okay, Charlie agreed. The pause was longer, as if he had been debating whether it was wise.

10? Caz asked.

“I don’t like being treated like his lackey,” Dave revealed slowly. Like many lower-class people who had made their own wealth, he was sensitive to condescension, especially by posh types like George Garvey—a man who’d made millions in antiques and hotels, but kept his nose so clean the authorities would be shocked to learn he was sneaking heroin into the country among his dusty vases and statues.

Okay, Charlie repeated, and Caz grinned at his phone.

“And his son is a liability,” he added to Dave. “Druggie kids always cause trouble.” Looking forward to it.

“Just focus on the business at hand,” Dave snapped at him, but Caz didn’t take it personally. Dave didn’t always handle stress well, and he’d chosen a stressful profession. “Did you get the new building permits?”

“Right here,” Caz assured him, pulling some folded papers from his jacket with a flourish. Sometimes he bribed people, sometimes he threatened them; in this case he’d merely filled out a mountain of forms correctly and produced the required documentation until the clerk was forced by law to issue the permits. Caz did not think this aspect of his talents was adequately appreciated.

Dave gave the permits a cursory glance and set them aside for his secretary to file later. Then he moved on. “Where are we with the Corbin project?”

**

Caz drove up to Charlie’s house at ten AM sharp the next day. Decisively he turned off the engine and got out of the car, determined to show his respect in the way he knew—for a fast date you sat in your car and waited for them to come out, but for a serious relationship, you went up to the door. Normally with flowers or some other gift, but Caz was afraid that might be overwhelming for Charlie, and then he might have to explain it to his parents somehow.

Caz rang the doorbell and the door was flung open immediately. He never got tired of seeing that face—Charlie smiled, and Caz smiled back, something warm and real like he probably never gave anyone else in his life. Well, no one else was Charlie.

“Come in,” Charlie said quickly, when he realized he’d just been standing there staring at Caz goofily. “I just have to—Do you want a drink?” he asked, trying to remember his manners.

Caz was gazing around the living room with interest, wondering if it could tell him anything about his boy, the people who raised him. Everything was very ‘respectable middle class,’ with aspirations for more, and still had the artificially neat look of a place that hadn’t been occupied long. “No, thanks,” he responded to Charlie’s offer. “I could use a shoe, though.”

“Right,” Charlie laughed, because he’d answered the door holding a blue and white trainer, only socks on his feet. “I was just looking for my other shoe,” he admitted. “Um, I think they wander off. I’ll just go—“ He pointed vaguely up the stairs, presumably to his bedroom.

Caz really wanted to see his bedroom. The suggestive aspect, yes, but also that would be the place guaranteed to tell him more about the teen, and Caz craved that knowledge—what was the same, what was different from the past. There was always some of both, and while the familiar was comforting, the new could be thrilling as well.

But middle-class sensibilities being what they were, going up to his bedroom was probably too forward for Charlie at the moment. “Sure, I’ll wait here,” Caz promised, and the teen hurried off, slightly embarrassed at his predicament.

Once alone Caz zeroed in on the family photographs on the mantel. Like, who really did that? Such photos were a story-telling device in the movies, but he knew no one who was so narcissistic that they actually kept photos of themselves and others living in the house, in the house. Actually Dave did, but that was a story-telling device, too—claiming that he and Helen and Zoe and Phoebe were just a happy, normal, upwardly-mobile family with no secrets whatsoever. So honestly Caz was suspicious of family photos, and rightfully so, he thought as he gazed at one showing Charlie, his mother, and stepfather (presumably).

The mother was blond, slim in a self-conscious way, wearing a bit too much make-up with her smile plastered on her face. Charlie was a little bit younger than now, his face smaller and softer—his smile seemed genuine, but he leaned more towards his mother. His stepfather didn’t seem to go with them—older than Caz had expected, in a nice suit, his face fleshy like someone who mostly sat at a desk. The hand he rested on Charlie’s shoulder seemed heavy, his expression speaking more of duty and pride than love.

Maybe Caz was reading too much into it. But he burned the faces into his memory, in case he needed them later.

There was a sudden thump from upstairs. “Charlie?” Caz called, setting the photo down. He went to the foot of the stairs. “You okay, Charlie?”

“I’m okay!” Charlie replied, reappearing after a moment to trot down the stairs. “My room is messy, my stepdad’s always getting after me about it,” he admitted. “But as long as I can get the door shut, I don’t see why he cares—“ He broke off abruptly. Caz was leaning on the bannister, listening intently, but Charlie suddenly felt like he was being juvenile—Caz was an adult, no one told him to clean up his room. “Anyway, did you want to watch football somewhere?” he redirected.

Caz checked his watch. “Yeah, we’d better get over to the park,” he agreed. “Your mum know you’re going out?” He didn’t want to do anything to get Charlie in a tight spot at home.

The teen rolled his eyes, however, which Caz was amused by. “Yes, I told her I might go out with a friend,” he agreed, shrugging on his coat. “You’re a friend, aren’t you?” This was asked with a delightfully sly grin.

Caz held the door open for him. “More than,” he promised, his gaze strafing Charlie from top to bottom, and they both almost rethought their plan to go out.

Going out was definitely safer, though. “So we’re going to a park?” Charlie repeated, as Caz opened the car door for him.

“Yes,” Caz assured him, once he had gotten in. “My nephew’s playing in a game, you know, with kids. That alright?”

Charlie grinned. “Yeah, that sounds great.” At least he would not be the youngest person there, for once.

They chatted as Caz confidently swung the car through the streets, about Charlie’s week at school and how he used to babysit for pocket money at their old town, and about what Caz had done at work lately (the legitimate things anyway, no need to burden Charlie with more) and about his nephew and nieces and his sister, and her husband who he kind of liked better than his sister most of the time.

“Older,” Caz described his sister succinctly. “Naggy type. Our mum died a few years ago, now she thinks she’s the mum. You only kids don’t know anything about that, though,” he added with a touch of envy.

Charlie was about to disagree. “I had a sister—“ he said instead, then stopped himself in confusion. “No, that’s not right,” he asserted. “I’ve never had a sister.” Never somehow seemed too strong, however.

“I don’t know about that,” Caz replied, his tone suggesting just the opposite. “You think of any blond girls yet?”

Charlie had forgotten Caz had asked him that. “Well, I know lots of blond girls,” he huffed. “My school, my old school…”

“Girls from your dreams?” Caz suggested. Charlie’s face immediately flushed and Caz laughed. “No, I know you only dream about me, baby,” he claimed.

Charlie tried to regain his composure. He was fifteen, of course he was going to have all sorts of dreams about all sorts of people. But maybe… maybe there was a face or two that came to mind, one giddy and irrepressible, the other quiet and self-contained. “Who are they?” he wondered aloud. “How do I know them?” Were there more special people in the world than just him and Caz? Was he going to be tripping over them everywhere he went?

“We’re here!” Caz announced brightly, parking the car.

“But—“

“We’ll talk about it later,” he demurred, maddeningly, and popped out of the car.

Charlie heaved a sigh and opened his own door, even as Caz was coming around to do it. Were they not going to talk about this, then? Because handsome as Caz was, Charlie would not be hanging out with him without this mysterious connection, because Charlie did not do ill-advised things like hang out with gangsters. So he would really like to get the ball rolling on that topic.

But now Caz had other things on his mind. He really cared about his nephew and liked to watch him play; but he’d rather his sister not see him with Charlie just yet and start in on him about it (again). It wasn’t the maleness of his partners she objected to but rather their temporary nature and their youth—and none had been as young as Charlie. Who would not of course have caught Caz’s eye if he hadn’t been Charlie, because while Caz liked them young, that meant maybe twenty, twenty-two normally.

He thought he would be safe; Jocelyn had called and asked him to come to this game specifically, because she was at a dance recital with Miranda and Anthony was home with Fiona, who was sick. Still, he never knew when something unexpected would happen—families with young, active children were more unpredictable than shady criminals engaged in nefarious activities, it seemed.

Of course he would tell her about Charlie eventually. Later. When there was something to tell. That was suitable.

There was a fence around the swath of green, holding back the spectators, while the kids were already hard at work scrambling and kicking. At eleven they took football seriously, and were generally above average if they were playing on a team still—it had frankly been a little tedious when the boy was younger, and much of the game time was spent reminding the players which goal was theirs.

“There he is,” Caz pointed out to Charlie. “Number seventeen.” The boy had slightly dark skin and textured hair that bounced above his head, the tight curls showing a distinct ginger tinge. Charlie remembered Caz saying the boy’s father was black. “Come on, Colin!” Caz shouted at him.

“Oh, he’s named after you,” Charlie suddenly realized. That seemed to improve the relationship between the siblings, which he had felt was a bit ambivalent. But you didn’t name your child after just anyone.

“Yeah,” Caz agreed, with a touch of pride. “He’s a good kid. Come on, Colin! Run with it!”

The boy had glanced over at them and seen his uncle, but he had more important things to focus on than who Caz might be with. “You said your sister wouldn’t be here?” Charlie double-checked, slightly nervous at the prospect of meeting her.

“Probably not,” Caz confirmed. “Three kids, two parents, someone gets left out.” That was meant to sound negative, Charlie knew; but as the sole child focus for two adults, he sometimes wished there were one or two siblings around to take a share of the attention.

“Lucky he has his Uncle Caz around,” Charlie responded more cheerfully, liking the trustworthy, domestic side of the other man. It made him seem more complex and layered, disturbing the easy stereotypes of villainy.

“Eh, I wonder,” Caz shrugged ambiguously, before clapping and whistling at another play. He liked kids; and he could certainly get used to other people, like his sister and her husband. He didn’t have to be a complete loner in the world, unconnected to other human beings—rotten as other human beings could be sometimes.

But they could also be complications, vulnerabilities, especially for the long-term plans Caz had been piecing together since he first saw Charlie. Dave would not like his plans, suffice it to say, and Dave would go after Caz’s vulnerabilities in response—that was the law of the jungle. Caz could protect the people he cared about, of course; it was just a matter of how many rules he broke doing it, how much of a mess he made—and whether that attracted the attention of anyone with the power to undo his changes.

He could not explain all this to Charlie just yet. The boy couldn’t even remember his own true name; he did not need to be frightened by talk of higher powers and their punishments. And Caz was comfortable shoving such thoughts out of his own mind for the time being—he wanted to savor these early days, when everything was still so fresh and wondrous to Charlie, once again, and he slid his arm around the teen’s waist, pulling him closer.

Charlie warmed at the contact, resting his arm lightly against Caz’s ribs. He didn’t come from a touchy-feely household, and sometimes he felt like he craved human contact, but to seek it out was to risk looking weird, being pushed away. Even just sitting on the couch with a mate watching telly, their knees casually touching, was something Charlie noticed keenly. And now he finally had someone he was allowed to touch, encouraged to touch. Impulsively he hugged Caz.

Caz grinned down at the teen, startled but pleased by the sudden affection. He cast his mind out to the crowd, making sure no one was gearing up for an unpleasant comment or action against them—he should have been doing that at the bar the other day, but he had gotten complacent. That could not be allowed, not where his boy was concerned.

“Kick it, Danny!” someone yelled near them, breaking the moment as both Caz and Charlie remembered they were supposed to be watching the game. They freed their hands but stayed close to one another.

“Come on, Colin!” Caz repeated. The lad would know he was there and cheering him on, which he seemed to appreciate. That didn’t make a lot of sense to Caz, who often preferred to do things with no witnesses, but whatever, it was easy enough.

“Move it, Danny!” hollered the spectator near them. He was fortyish, heavyset, and stood out for the intensity of his shouts, seemingly almost angry as he exhorted Danny to run or pass or whatever he thought appropriate. Danny appeared to be a boy on the team opposing Colin’s, so the man and Caz often found themselves shouting out contradictory advice. Personally Caz felt that sports-parents were worse than hardened criminals in terms of viciousness—give him a bar of lowlifes over the sidelines of a kiddie game any day, and he’d feel more comfortable.

“Get him, Danny!” the man shouted, and Caz glanced over at him again, since the ‘him’ Danny was supposed to ‘get’ was Colin.

“Come on, Colin!” Caz called in return, deliberately not adding any reference another person, as the boys dogged each other down the field. “You can do it, Colin!”

“Take it, Danny!” the other man screamed, red-faced. “Knock ‘im out!”

“People—people get rather worked up, don’t they?” Charlie observed tentatively. He had a hand on Caz’s arm, not so much restraining him—who could ever hope to do that?—but just wanting to know the moment Caz tensed and started to move in the other man’s direction, if he was planning such a thing. “It’s a bit silly, isn’t it?”

Caz glanced back at the teen. “Don’t worry, I’m not gonna start a fight at a kids’ football game,” he promised. Obviously this was not unthinkable, because he had thought of it; but he could control himself. Caz was all about control. “Come on, Colin!” he repeated, more positively.

The referee intervened, penalizing Danny for some infraction, and the man near them took this very hard. “Oh, come on!” he huffed. “Are you blind, ref?!”

Charlie squirmed uncomfortably, remembering why he didn’t care for sports. It was supposed to be a healthy substitute for fighting, he felt, not a lead-up to it, but some people took it too seriously. “How long does the game usually run?” he risked asking Caz, though he didn’t want to give the impression he was bored.

“Seems longer when there’s jacka--ses around,” Caz commented, though he kept his voice low. He felt sorry for this Danny more than anything else, going home with a bloke like that. He glanced at Charlie speculatively. “Why don’t you try to calm him down?” he murmured in his ear.

Charlie looked at him sharply. “I can’t—“ But he could, or had in the past anyway, used his abilities to calm people in volatile situations. There were uses of their power that were disapproved of… by someone… but usually ‘calming things down’ was acceptable, morally right. The problem now was Charlie. “I don’t know how,” he told Caz, slightly frustrated.

Caz’s manner was easy and comforting, however. “Come here.” He maneuvered Charlie to stand in front of him, so Caz could put his arms around the teen and Charlie could lean back against him, like other couples were doing. Were they a couple? Charlie thought with a sudden thrill.

“Just relax,” Caz purred in his ear, which was significantly more difficult now. “Just relax, and think about that bloke, and think about him being calm. You’d like that, wouldn’t you, if he was calm, and just enjoyed the game?” The man in question was still muttering loudly, keeping just on the side of not being warned by the officials while making the atmosphere unpleasant for everyone around him. “Just think about that, and make it happen.” Well, it was hard to describe the exact process, like using muscles you didn’t realize you had. “I’ve got you,” he added, more usefully.

Charlie tried to concentrate. He felt self-conscious, with all these people around, but they were paying attention to the game, not him. And Caz was here, keeping an eye out, so he tried to focus on the suggested thoughts—like daydreaming, when his eyes were open but somehow a new scene had replaced what was really happening in front of him. Charlie was a champion daydreamer.

Charlie pictured the man’s ruddy face, his pinched features, without turning to look at him again. He must be very unhappy, and probably didn’t feel well much of the time—the usual discomforts of being older and overweight, his sedentary job not helping. He probably felt out of control much of the time—maybe it was customers or suppliers or his boss, but when things went wrong and people complained there was little he could do. So he took his frustrations out on a kids’ game.

Charlie did not think he had used any supernatural powers to arrive at those insights. They were just guesses anyway, he wasn’t Sherlock Holmes. But they helped him to study the man, to see him as a complex machine of many moving parts, that maybe Charlie could make a tiny tweak to.

If only the man understood that getting angry didn’t help—him or anyone else. If only he could be convinced that being calm and positive would make him feel better, and others too. But what did Charlie know about being calm and positive? This man was probably just like his stepfather, everyone thought he was so professional dealing with problems at work, but then on his off hours his temper was shot—

“Easy, easy, baby,” Caz soothed, rubbing Charlie’s arms. The boy had started out alright but then gotten off on the wrong track, or something—Caz could tell from the energy emanating from him, weak and unfocused though it was. “You don’t have to change the world, you just want him to be calm right now.”

Charlie nodded, gritting his teeth, and tried again. He was often frustrated when learning something for the first time; but usually he picked up on it quickly, and soon he would be at least competent, he told himself. Just calm the man down, right now. Calm. Right now.

The man stopped talking abruptly, so suddenly that the people around him turned to look at him. “Herb?” someone asked cautiously. Caz thought they were worried he had finally given himself a stroke or something, and he gave the man a little nudge to nonchalantly sip his drink, like he just wanted to watch the game in peace.

“I didn’t do it right, did I?” Charlie sighed with resignation. He didn’t know exactly what he’d been expecting, but this result was not satisfying.

“Hey, he’s quiet now,” Caz pointed out positively. “I think we’re all better off.” Reluctantly he returned to standing side by side with Charlie, because he needed to cheer Colin on and didn’t want to shout in the teen’s ear.

“The thing is,” he went on during a lull, his eyes on the field, “you want to make it seem natural. Subtle. Like it’s something they might have done anyway.” His gaze slid to Charlie, who was watching him avidly, eager to learn more. “You think of it like, people are instruments to be played—“

“Yes!” Charlie agreed immediately. “That’s exactly how I—“ Caz pulled him close suddenly, reminding him to be a little more circumspect, despite the noisy crowd. “I was thinking of him as a machine, with levers and gears,” he continued, quietly but no less fervently.

Caz grinned at him, dazzlingly. “That’s good, Charlie,” he praised. “You just need a bit of practice. I used to do it to my teachers, when I was bored in class,” he revealed with a mischievous smirk. “Crazy stuff is easier, subtle is hard.” His teachers had worked at a school in a tough neighborhood, the stress of which was usually blamed for any erratic behavior they exhibited while Caz was learning to control his powers on his own. “Go for it, Colin!” he added, seeing the boy running with the ball.

Charlie was hopping with impatience to know more—techniques, backstory, anything. But he also appreciated the kinder side Caz was showing in support of his nephew, and moreover he was understanding more and more strongly that maintaining a plausible cover was key. Caz the gangster seemed outrageous to him, but was reasonably normal within the world of gangsters. At least about most things.

“Do I—I make it difficult for you,” Charlie blurted suddenly.

Caz did a double-take, seeing how somber he’d become. “No, never,” he asserted, pulling the boy close again.

Charlie smirked ruefully. “Of course I do,” he countered. “It’s not normal, us being… friends.”

Caz was already shaking his head. “No, Charlie. Don’t think like that,” he insisted. “Wherever we are, whatever we’re doing, we’re together. That’s what’s norm for us.” He stroked the teen’s face, but did not forget to keep himself alert for trouble, which he knew was Charlie’s point.

“We make it work,” he stated. “We play the parts, Charlie. They don’t play us. If something tries to interfere—“ Caz took a breath, tensing at the very thought of this, and Charlie’s eyebrows went up. “We change the situation,” Caz finished firmly. “Or we leave.”

He turned back to the game abruptly—leaving often seemed like the best option in many ways, but sometimes, like now, there were people he’d gotten attached to, who could not easily be brought along. He was supposed to learn compassion for humans; 99.9% of them he still thought were s---e, but occasionally he started to like specific ones. Maybe his nephew and nieces would grow up to be little s—ts one day and he would be glad to be rid of them. Well, he could always hope.

Charlie wound his hand around Caz’s, seeing his mood swing. They had been through a lot together, he knew—not the details, but he had the feel of it, the struggles and the fears, until they could find each other and reach a safe place. Caz spoke as if that always happened, as if they had the power to make it so, but Charlie sensed that was not always a foregone conclusion. Things could still happen to them, things they could not guard against.

They said little more as the game ended. Young Colin ran to the fence and Caz reached over to pat him fondly, congratulating him on his efforts. “This is my friend, Charlie,” Caz introduced off-hand, when Charlie had been hanging back. Fortunately Colin was not the inquiring sort and quickly raced back to join his teammates.

Then Caz leaned back against the fence and looked Charlie up and down until the teen blushed awkwardly. “What time you gotta be home?” he asked leadingly.

“Not for a while,” Charlie promised him.

“You want to go back to my place?” Caz offered, so casually. “We’ll get takeaway for lunch.”

For a moment Charlie felt like the self-conscious teenager he had been—wondering if he should be alone with this older, disreputable man, embarrassed by his hesitation, more afraid of looking foolish than was probably wise. Then he remembered he didn’t have to worry about any of that anymore—he knew Caz, they were special, they were together, and he grinned suddenly. “Yeah, I’d like that,” he answered. “I’d like to see where you live.”

“Well, it’s no palace,” Caz warned, “but I do alright.” It was easy enough to obtain the things he wanted, to make the place comfortable while he waited for the only thing he truly needed. Charlie offered his hand for the walk back to the car and Caz took it, hoping they were finally making progress.

**

Caz took it slow, maddeningly slow: meals at his place, where they could talk, and making out on the couch was alternated with meals out, where they couldn’t talk as easily, but Charlie could get used to being seen with Caz. That was important, because Caz didn’t intend to hide. He wasn’t ashamed of Charlie, and moreover couldn’t let anyone in his world think he was.

Given their respective circles it was unlikely anyone Charlie knew would see them out together, but Caz kept his radar up for that as well. Charlie was still young—so young!—and at the mercy of others. Really it was amazing he knew as much as he did—but his development had been normal, and being with Caz sped things along. Had they not met he might easily have reached his late teens without being truly aware of his own abilities. And that would be such a waste, in Caz’s opinion.

Charlie was a very eager pupil—in all areas—but what Caz had told him earlier still held: what he wanted to know could not be learned by Caz merely telling him things, reciting their past adventures like he used to read bedtime stories to his sister’s kids. Charlie had to remember them for himself, recall the feelings, the tastes, the smells, the visceral sensation of really being there.

So far he remembered little that was cohesive, mainly fragments, images; Caz knew this frustrated him, and he tried hard not to show his own impatience. It was only because Caz wanted so much, that he felt impatience; he knew that at Charlie’s age he’d been much more ignorant.

They were on Caz’s couch, abandoned curry cooling on the coffee table, while Caz tried to take things slow—long and slow and delicious, sucking and nibbling marks down the column of Charlie’s throat (which he always removed before taking him home), feeling his pulse jump when Caz’s fingers brushed the bare skin under his shirt. Their feet tangled together companionably; Caz felt Charlie’s slide up to caress the back of his leg through his jeans. The boy reveled in being able to touch Caz in turn, his hands and lips alternating between hesitant and bold.

Sometimes too bold. “Relax,” Caz purred in his ear, retrieving Charlie’s hands from where they’d dipped below his waistband. “Just relax.”

“I’m really not relaxed,” Charlie noted flatly, and Caz smirked against his skin. “I don’t think relaxation is the point.”

Caz took this as his cue to back off slightly, leaving Charlie groaning in disappointment. “You’ll survive,” he assured the teenager cheekily.

“I’m not sure I will,” Charlie protested. It wasn’t so much the physical discomfort, as the feeling of disconnectedness he had whenever he returned to his parents’ house. He didn’t even think of it as home anymore—that was just an illusion. His mother wasn’t really his mother, his stepfather—well, he wished he was more of an illusion. The only thing that felt real now was Caz.

“Tell me about school,” Caz requested, trying to cool down, but Charlie only huffed.

“Who cares about school,” he scoffed, turning so his back was to Caz on the couch. This was not so much a deterrent as just trying, fruitlessly, to get comfortable.

“You used to,” Caz pointed out. “How was your science test?”

Charlie sighed. “What does it matter?”

“It matters a lot, if you’re going to be a scientist,” Caz countered, rubbing the teen’s hip soothingly.

“I’m not going to be a scientist,” Charlie muttered. “Why would I—We can do anything we want, Caz!” he reminded the other man. “We don’t need to have jobs, careers.”

Caz made an unimpressed face, assuming this was just a temporary hiccup. “You didn’t study, because you didn’t think it was important, and so you did lousy on the test,” he predicted.

Charlie squirmed uncomfortably, for a different reason this time. “Yes,” he finally admitted, and Caz rolled his eyes.

“Look at me, Charlie,” he commanded. This took a little doing and he feared his point would be lost. “We still have to play our parts,” he said. “How many times have I told you that?” Charlie wouldn’t meet his gaze, feeling (perhaps fairly) chided. “You know, I’d rather spend all my time with you, but I still go to work, I still deal with that little s—t Dave—“

“But why?” Charlie interrupted. He never received a satisfactory answer to this question. “We’re together now.” He stroked Caz’s collarbone, mesmerized by the movement of skin and muscle. “We can leave here, we can go someplace nice, like-like Hawaii.” The weather had been cold and damp, and he had been longing for tropical warmth.

“Hawaii?” Caz laughed, and leaned down to kiss the boy. Those full red lips were too tempting to have near and he pushed himself into a sitting position, further away. “Yeah, I suppose we could drop everything, run off to Hawaii, spend our days lyin’ on the beach…” Actually that didn’t sound half bad, not with the cold rain pattering at the windows.

He tried to regain his focus before Charlie could get too hopeful. “But you would get older, and you would remember things, and you would be mad I led you astray.” It was not a brilliant deduction; he just knew his partner. He grinned, trying to take the sting out of the words. “I’m the older one, I’m supposed to be more responsible.” Ridiculous as this was.

Charlie did not find this answer adequate. It seemed very close to, ‘You’ll understand when you’re older,’ which he really hated hearing. To him it just meant, ‘I can’t articulate a good reason, so just do as you’re told.’ He got that far too often, from people who thought he was just another stupid kid.

Caz didn’t think he was a stupid kid; Charlie understood that. But for whatever reason Caz didn’t want to just tell him things, and that didn’t leave Charlie with a lot of room to maneuver.

He sat up with a sigh, and Caz put his arm around him. “You’re doing so well, baby,” Caz promised. “You know so much more than when we first met.” Was that only a few weeks ago?

“I guess,” Charlie agreed grudgingly, but he had to admit it was true.

Caz scooted away and picked up his meal, as if he could ever be more interested in food than in Charlie. But he figured he ought to give the boy a break. “I’ve been thinking,” he began slowly, wondering if this was a terrible idea. When had that ever stopped him, though? This whole ‘being responsible’ thing was killing him, too. “I’ve been thinking that maybe you would like to spend a weekend with me.”

He glanced up to see Charlie’s eyes widen, a delighted grin spreading across his face. “I would love to do that, Caz!” he asserted. Then he thought about what they would be doing, that they hadn’t quite done yet, and he blushed furiously.

“We don’t have to do that anytime soon—“ Caz hastened to add.

“No, I want to,” Charlie insisted, trying to sound confident. It was silly to be nervous about little human things like that.

“Well, even if you spend the weekend, we don’t actually have to have sex,” Caz told him baldly. Though that would be a huge frustration for him. Rather that, than Charlie feeling pressured, though. “In fact we probably won’t,” he added, as if it was no big deal.

“Oh?” Charlie was torn between relief and disappointment, unsure which way to lean.

“Well, certain conditions would have to be met,” Caz went on. He was just making this up as he went along, but it suddenly seemed brilliant. “You have to show that you can be responsible, for one thing.”

Charlie blinked at him. “Do you—do you mean, like, bring condoms?” he asked. That seemed an unfair test.

Caz choked a little on his curry. “No,” he finally sputtered. “No, don’t worry about that. We don’t—we aren’t going to use them.”

Charlie thought maybe that wasn’t a good idea. “Why not?”

“We don’t need them, we can’t get sick,” Caz explained. Okay, maybe this hadn’t been mentioned before, but it was apparently relevant. “We won’t—I mean, of course we can use them if you want,” he allowed, “until you feel comfortable not using them.” This was his whole point, that Charlie make his own decisions, not just do whatever Caz told him. “But that wasn’t what I was talking about.”

Now Charlie was just confused. “Well, what were you talking about?” he asked. “Show that I’m responsible by…?”

“By doing better on your schoolwork,” Caz clarified. “Playing your part.” Charlie rolled his eyes. “Think of it as a game,” Caz suggested. “We’re in disguise. We can’t let anyone know anything special is going on. We have to keep things normal, on the surface.”

Afterschool special makers would be horrified to know Caz was offering sex as a reward for Charlie getting better grades again. But Charlie had to admit it was an effective bribe. And—well—he didn’t like the looks of disappointment and concern he was getting at school—he was one more bad grade away from getting sent to the counselor’s office. Charlie had always taken pride in his schoolwork—worried about it too much, but also appreciated it when discipline and his naturally keen mind paid off. Maybe it was okay to keep working at that, enjoying that.

It didn’t seem like he and Caz would be running off to Hawaii anytime soon, anyway. So perhaps Charlie ought to keep himself occupied in the meantime.

“Okay,” he said simply, nibbling on his meal again.

“Okay?” Caz repeated with cautious optimism.

“Yeah,” Charlie agreed casually. “I mean, it’s safer, isn’t it? To keep doing things like I was before. Otherwise I might attract attention.”

“Exactly,” Caz encouraged him. If he’d known it would go over this well, he would have thought up this deal earlier. “So you pick your grades back up, and maybe, when you stay for a weekend…” He let his tone become lascivious. “…well, we’ll just see what happens.”

Charlie blushed again, but only slightly; he had other things on his mind now. His stepfather did not like to see him do poorly in school, when he knew Charlie was capable of more, and was paying for a special school to help him realize his potential. Charlie would need to start being nearly perfect—completely perfect would be better—to avoid a noticeable drop in his grades by the end of the next marking period. He hadn’t cared about his stepfather’s reaction recently, but if Caz was insistent that they stay here and pretend to be normal… well, it was normal to keep the man’s reactions in mind.

“Charlie.” Caz touched his knee, bringing him back to the present. “You okay?”

“Yeah,” Charlie responded. “Just thinking of the homework I need to do tonight.”

Caz took a last bite of curry. “Clean up, I’ll take you home,” he offered. Being responsible was so disgusting.

Charlie supposed that was a good idea; he didn’t have much appetite anymore. “Thanks, Caz. Sorry to cut things short—“

“No, no,” Caz insisted, as they made themselves look presentable. “I think it’s a good thing. Where do you say you go, when you’re with me?”

“I have a friend at school, Hank,” Charlie explained. “I say I’m studying with him. He covers for me—well, I stopped telling him every time,” Charlie admitted. “If my mum called, she’d call my mobile, not Hank’s house.”

Caz had to smirk a little at that. “You’re very sly, Charlie,” he complimented. “Well, tell your mum you’re spending a weekend at Hank’s sometime, right? I’ll see what dates are good.” Caz could swap things around and squeeze Dave a certain amount; but if he was absent for a major operation, things would get messy.

“Are you making any progress,” he risked asking Charlie as he drove him home, “on remembering our real names?”

Charlie sighed and stared out the window at the gloomy evening, which Caz took as a no. “I would’ve told you if I had any ideas,” he noted, trying not to sound defensive. “It’s not really… I don’t know how to ‘work’ on that.” It wasn’t like he could just find the right line in a textbook, or repeat vocabulary terms until they stuck.

“I know, baby,” Caz promised. He had just set that up as a sort of progress marker, arbitrary though it was. “I think—well, maybe we should wait—“ The words died in his throat when he saw Charlie’s expression.

“You said pick my grades up,” Charlie reminded him sharply. “That, I can do. I shouldn’t have let them slip in the first place, that was really stupid of me—“

“Charlie—“ Caz did not like to hear his boy be so hard on himself—that was someone else talking, maybe his stepfather.

“—but it’s not fair to insist I remember this or that,” he continued, trying to keep his voice steady. He’d had a lot of ups and downs tonight already, and was looking forward to a late night of secretly doing his neglected homework instead of sleeping. “If I could remember things on cue, I would have already.” Since Caz seemed to feel that was when all the fun would begin.

“No, you’re right,” Caz agreed, backing down immediately. How his men would laugh to see him cowed by a teenager! But even with less than the full complement of powers and memories, this teenager’s eyes flashed in a very familiar and determined way, when he was being pushed too far. Caz could probably have spent less time worrying about being a bad influence, though. “I’m really looking forward to it, Charlie.”

“Me, too,” the teen answered more positively. “Maybe in a couple weeks, yeah?” He would need some time to make good on his end of the bargain and get caught up at school.

“Sounds good,” Caz confirmed. “Come by the bar after school, you can do your homework in the office even if I’m not there,” he suggested. “George’ll keep you supplied with Coke and nachos.”

“Cheers,” Charlie told him with a little grin, which encompassed so much more than free food and a ride home. The ride home was only partly useful anyway, since Caz always stopped a block away from his house.

“Okay, baby,” he said with finality—if they lingered to say goodbye they would never part. “Stay dry. I’ll text you tomorrow.”

“Okay. Bye, Caz,” Charlie added, and hurried from the car through the rain, fueled with a new sense of purpose.

**

Charlie thought maybe his schoolwork was getting easier. St. Francis was a more challenging place than his previous school, and it had been harder at first, especially jumping in late in the term. But he had worked at it, and first done well considering that he was new, and then done well period. And then, he recalled with a bit of shame at his foolishness, he had not done so well; but he was making a rapid turnaround now. More rapid than he felt was entirely natural.

He used to memorize his vocabulary words after a few passes; now it was once or twice. After puzzling over a couple of math problems and his notes, he used to see the pattern and complete the others; now he instantly remembered what the teacher had said in class and finished his math homework as fast as he could write the figures. And instead of merely recalling what the teacher or textbook had said regarding his history lesson, he could now answer the assigned questions without reading the book at all. He always double-checked himself, in case he was recalling a movie that had taken liberties with the truth, but so far he had always been correct.

It was a little spooky.

“Have you been helping me with my homework?” he asked Caz one day. They were in the office at the bar, Caz going over some accounts and Charlie his schoolwork.

Caz glanced up at him, blinking at the odd question. “No, I wouldn’t be much good at that, baby,” he finally answered. “Not much of an academic. You want me to call George in? He’s pretty brainy. He almost had a PhD in comparative literature at Oxford.”

Fascinating as that information was, it did not completely answer Charlie’s question. “No, I mean, have you been helping me, like, magically?” he attempted to clarify.

Caz’s blank look seemed response enough; then the older man let a smirk slowly creep across his face. “Do you feel like someone must be helping you,” he guessed, “because it seems easier than it should?” Oddly that had never really happened to him, but for someone like Charlie, who really cared about school, it seemed a natural response for his powers. Caz had gotten better at things he enjoyed, like stealing stuff.

Charlie, however, did not want to overstate the case. “Maybe,” he hedged. “Maybe I’m just—I don’t know.” ‘Maybe I’m just smart’ seemed immodest to say, even if it was the lesser alternative to being a superpowered special being. He tried to go back to his work.

“Well, use it if you got it, kid,” Caz advised, after observing him for a moment. “Makes things a lot easier.” They could get up to all kinds of misadventures, if Charlie didn’t have schoolwork to worry about.

He was going to quiz the boy more, despite obvious signs he didn’t want to discuss it further, when one of his alerts was tripped—that was how Caz thought of them, like tripwires he’d laid out, only for intangible things, in this case his boss entering a certain proximity unexpectedly. Caz zinged Dave’s mind to see what he was up to and then rolled his eyes.

“Charlie, you better pack up, baby,” he advised with a sigh. “Dave’s on his way over to check on me.”

“Oh,” Charlie replied with uncertainty, and then began to quickly shove his scattered papers into his many textbooks. “Okay, I’ll just be a minute.” So far he had only met gangsters who were below Caz in the hierarchy and thus controllable; but he didn’t fully understand how Caz’s boss fit in. Well, obviously he was above Caz, but not really, except Caz often did as the man said, and surely he wouldn’t be happy to find Charlie here—A cold pain sliced across his hand as he gave himself a papercut in his haste, and he hissed.

“You okay?” Caz asked in concern.

“It’s nothing, sorry—“

Caz was already out of his chair, eager to put his hands on Charlie and soothe the nervous tension that radiated off him. “It’s okay, baby, don’t worry about Dave,” he promised, embracing the boy. “He won’t hurt you. I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to scare you.”

Charlie rolled his eyes against Caz’s chest, even as he smiled fondly. “You didn’t scare me,” he claimed, which perhaps was not strictly true. “It just seems like it might not be… professional for me to be here.” When he was too young to stay home by himself, there were sometimes awkward days when he had to go to the bank with his stepfather, because school was out and the sitter was sick and some other unfortunate confluence of events. It was really not professional for Charlie to be there, so he had to sit quietly and read or scribble on some scrap paper until someone came to get him. The world had not, in fact, ended when Steve’s boss had stopped by one day and seen Charlie—actually the man had seemed rather nice—but his stepfather had still been very displeased.

Caz kissed the top of Charlie’s head. “You let me worry about being professional,” he insisted. “Pack up, but don’t hurt yourself.” He grinned suddenly. “Maybe it’s good for you to meet him.” The thought amused Caz greatly.

Charlie, not so much. Caz was a special gangster; the others were just gangsters, and Charlie had no interest in interacting with them more than was necessary. “Perhaps another time,” he demurred, shoveling his books into his bag.

Caz checked on Dave again. “Might happen anyway,” he warned, backing away slightly to lean against the desk. “He’s very focused. Making a beeline. Better meet him,” Caz suggested, trying to put on a more serious face. “You’ll just have to walk past him anyway.”

Charlie gave Caz a look, wondering if he had engineered this—he still wasn’t clear on how much Caz could or chose to control—but then he hurried to zip up his bag and put his coat on, so he could say he was just leaving. There was a moment of stillness, threatening to turn uncomfortable as they just stood there, Caz leaning expectantly towards the door; then suddenly Dave burst in without knocking, eyes darting between the two of them. Caz suspected he had snuck down the corridor deliberately, hoping to catch them at something.

Charlie, after he’d gotten over being startled, found himself slightly disappointed by Dave’s presence. He’d seen pictures of the man online—he had a very ordinary face that blended in to the crowd, except for the steely, slightly fanatic determination in his eyes—but Charlie thought maybe in person he would be more impressive. Instead he was of average size, dressed in business casual, five o’clock shadow marking his face like scores of people in bars all over the city right now. Charlie did not let this judgment relax him, however. This was a dangerous man to most people, and had to be treated with a certain wariness.

“Dave,” Caz greeted. “Wasn’t expecting to see you here.”

“I was in the neighborhood,” Dave claimed, studying Charlie.

Caz tried to stay in character, because snickering right now would not set a good example. “Dave, this is Charlie,” Caz introduced.

“Hello,” Charlie added politely, reaching out a hand. “Nice to meet you.”

For half a second Dave hesitated, and Caz was going to fry him because he didn’t want Charlie’s feelings hurt; but then Dave raised his hand and shook the teen’s. “Hi,” he responded stiffly.

“Charlie, this is my boss, Dave Callard,” Caz went on solicitously. “Charlie’s a friend of mine.”

“I was just leaving,” Charlie said hastily, hefting his schoolbag over his shoulder. Dave’s eyes flickered to it.

“Someone’ll give you a lift,” Caz promised, putting the idea in George’s head. “I’ll see you later.”

“Right, see you,” Charlie agreed and hurried past Dave out the door.

Dave wouldn’t say anything, because he wasn’t the chatty sort; he would just be thinking things, brooding inside his head and perhaps coming up with conclusions Caz didn’t like, if Caz didn’t predict and counter them. “The take for the last three months,” Caz redirected, holding out a slip of paper. He was being professional now, attending to his job. “That’s the real take, on the books it’s about three times higher.” Dave used his legit businesses to launder money for the less legit ones. “Business is booming,” Caz added with a cheeky grin.

Dave gave the figures some thought. “Show me the books,” he decided, and they got down to work.

**

Charlie was nervous. He told himself that was unreasonable. He was just going to stay with Caz. For the whole weekend. What if Caz found him irritating to be around for that long? Well, that was silly. Caz would love him anyway, had always loved him, and Charlie loved him. At this point a big goofy grin broke out on his face, but only for a moment, because Charlie overthought things, and he questioned whether he really loved Caz now, or just remembered loving him from before, when he was older and had better judgment. Then he winced at the absurdity of being older before now, and wondered whether it really mattered when the love had begun.

Thus went his bus trip to Caz’s neighborhood; if anyone had been studying his facial expressions closely, they would have been thoroughly confused by the end, which accurately reflected how Charlie himself felt.

Caz was leaning against a wall down the street from the bus stop—close enough to see when Charlie arrived, but not close enough to be uncool, waiting at the bus stop for someone. He promised he was going to follow Charlie’s lead for the weekend, except the boy might need a gentle nudge here or there, in the direction he surely would have wanted to go if only he understood what lay at the end of it. Sometimes, Caz admitted, he liked to be more aggressive with his partner—scary, even—all in good fun, more or less… Just the thought of it now, of dragging Charlie home and putting him up against the wall or over the back of the couch, before he was properly fed or even undressed, made Caz’s heart start to pound, his gaze intense as he watched Charlie walk towards him down the sidewalk.

But he didn’t think Charlie would really appreciate that. They were ancient and eternal but also a product of their times, and Charlie was a nice middle-class lad who had been taught to respect himself, and to dislike those who failed to do so. It wasn’t true in all eras; Caz kind of preferred the times when he could get away with more. Of course he got away with plenty in his current world, but Charlie wasn’t from there. He had to be handled carefully. Otherwise there would be h—l to pay when he remembered what he could do.

Charlie saw Caz staring and waved, then felt dumb. One probably didn’t wave in gangster-land. But Caz smirked at him and started walking towards him, and embraced Charlie when they met.

“Hey, baby,” he greeted, kissing Charlie’s cheek and taking his bag. He wanted all his neighbors to know who Charlie belonged to, whose territory he was. Though Caz suspected they didn’t really care that much. “It’s just a block,” he assured Charlie, who was trying to get his bearings. “You really bring your homework to do?” he teased, indicating Charlie’s backpack. “Maybe I shoulda saved my taxes to do now.”

Charlie huffed, fondly. “Well, I told my mum I was going to Hank’s to work on our science fair project, didn’t I?” he pointed out. “So it would look rather suspicious if I didn’t bring schoolbooks.”

“No, I know,” Caz assured him, putting an arm around his shoulders. “You’re being very clever, Charlie. I know it’s not natural to you, sneaking about.”

Charlie shrugged under Caz’s arm. “It was easier to tell her than I thought it would be,” he admitted. His feelings about this were, as always, complicated. “I barely had to give her a reason why I would be gone, she was so happy about it.” This came out with some bitterness.

“Why’d she want you out of the house for the weekend?” Caz probed. “Looking for a little one-on-one time with your stepdad?” he suggested cheekily, earning the typical grimace of a teen forced think about his parents having sex.

“It’s more that Steve just doesn’t like me being around,” Charlie predicted, as they reached the stairs to Caz’s house. “He’s always complaining about me… If I’m in the living room I’m underfoot, if I’m in my room I’m antisocial, I’m always too loud and too messy—“

“I cannot imagine you being any of those things, Charlie,” Caz assured him, unlocking the front door. He’d done a little surveillance on the adults over the last few weeks and had concluded that Steve Byer wanted Karen for a wife, but was much more ambiguous about the little burden she’d brought along. The more self-sufficient Charlie got, the more his stepfather thought he should be, until he wasn’t bothering the man anymore. Caz knew how that went. But he tried not to project too much of his own experience on Charlie.

“Well welcome to your home for the weekend,” he went on grandly, leading the boy inside. “Where you can be as loud and messy as you want. In fact it’s encouraged,” he added suggestively.

Charlie had not known what to expect when he came over to Caz’s house for the first time—from the outside it was small, slightly dingy, unexceptional. If he could, if he had money, Charlie would live in a big fancy mansion with a guarded gate, like Caz had described his boss having. “Too much work,” Caz waved off. “If it looks fancy on the outside, everyone knows you’re rich and targets you.” So Caz’s house did not look fancy on the outside.

But somehow, inside it was better—larger than it should be, not grand but comfortable, clean, well-lit, with space for whatever Charlie needed, from a big table in a quiet room for his homework to a state-of-the-art home theater with bone-jarring sound for watching movies. That was the sort of ‘magic’ Caz had no trouble using, to make life easier—he didn’t exactly have a lot of visitors anyway.

They set the bags down on the floor and Caz embraced Charlie again. “Well now I’ve got hold of you, what do you want to do?” He nuzzled the teen’s neck lightly, having a few ideas of his own.

“Actually,” Charlie replied in an apologetic tone, “I’m really hungry.” Caz backed off to give him a look but was not surprised. “I came straight here after school, I didn’t stop to eat—“

“Such a teenager,” Caz tsked, but took his hand and led him to the kitchen, having stocked up in anticipation.

They ate a snack. They watched a movie. They ate official dinner. They played a video game. That could have gone on much longer, but Caz set the controller aside definitively and pulled Charlie into his arms, which the teen did not object to.

They kissed slowly, like they had all the time in the world to savor each other; until suddenly they didn’t, and it seemed like the world would end if they couldn’t keep escalating, touches growing bolder, clothing being shed in a rush. Caz felt Charlie’s fingers, hot under the edge of his shirt where it had pulled from his trousers; he mimicked the position on Charlie’s skin and then pushed higher, working his t-shirt up. Excitement made the teen tense—he kicked Caz trying to get closer to him and didn’t even seem to notice, squirming a leg up over Caz’s hip, desperate for further friction.

“Okay, okay,” Caz soothed, pulling Charlie close when he made a noise of frustration. “Deep breath, relax.” He wanted this to be a deeply satisfying experience for the teen, not one that ended swiftly and ignominiously. “Is this okay?” He put his hand on Charlie’s belly, fingers slipping below the waistband of his jeans. “Can I do this?” He toyed with the button at the top of his jeans, flicking it open. “Can I go a little further?”

“Yes, please,” Charlie begged, clinging to Caz with bruising force. “Please don’t stop, Roman—“

They both froze. “What did you call me?” Caz checked, murmuring in his ear.

For half a second Charlie was horrified to think he had called out the wrong name. Then he realized it was not the wrong name at all.

“Roman,” he repeated more confidently, forcing his way to the other man’s lips again. “Roman, Roman, Roman—“

Caz cut him off with another kiss, rolling him over and barely avoiding tumbling off the couch. Elation surged through him, the high of recognition even better than sex, well, almost. “Come on, we need a bed,” he insisted, staggering up. “To do this proper—“

“Roman,” Charlie kept saying, relishing the taste, which made the other man laugh. “It’s confusing, because you were a Roman at one point, like a Roman soldier, and I thought—“ What he had thought vanished as he tried to pin it down, like smoke in the breeze.

Caz stopped him on the stair landing, unable to keep from kissing him further. “I had the name first,” he claimed. “They totally stole it from me!” That was his story and he was sticking to it.

They banged into the door to Caz’s room; he felt his knuckles scrape something as he pulled Charlie’s t-shirt off over his head, heard a button from his own shirt rattle as it was detached with force. Caz dropped to his knees, trailing his lips down Charlie’s chest and toying with his jeans again.

“Do you remember your name?” he asked, pushing it, and Charlie let out a groan of frustration at the delay. “Relax, relax,” Caz advised, nuzzling his hip bone as it emerged from the loosening jeans. “We have plenty of time, baby, just relax—“

Charlie was making noise continuously now, like he was trying to catch his breath while talking, which never worked out well. “It’s okay,” Caz assured him, maneuvering him to sit on the edge of the bed before he collapsed. “I’m gonna take all night, baby, getting those sounds form you—“

“Xylos!” Charlie blurted suddenly, then stared at Caz with wide eyes, as if he’d shocked himself by letting loose a curse.

Caz just grinned wickedly, baring his teeth. “That’s my boy,” he praised, and pounced.

**

The weather turned colder, wet and nasty. Criminals still had to do their work, always at night in damp, drafty places. Which at least meant Caz had some free time during the day to spend with Charlie.

But it wasn’t enough for him. He knew he should be patient, but the more he had the boy in his grip the more he wanted him, forever and always, without interference from the outside world. The outside world was just very good at interfering.

Caz had been restless all evening. Something didn’t feel right but he couldn’t put his finger on it. All of Dave’s nefarious deals were proceeding as planned, he was monitoring some areas of interest, he hadn’t left the stove on, and he’d dropped Charlie off at home just before six. An unfortunate fellow Dave needed disciplined took the brunt of Caz’s pent-up energy, until some of the others had to restrain him. Well, at least no one could say he did his job only half-heartedly.

Now he was at home, thinking maybe he should go to bed, but that sounded so horrible, the bed cold and empty. Well, he didn’t need sleep, so maybe he would watch a movie instead—

The alarm inside his head hit him like a punch in the gut. Charlie. Caz charged for his front door, ready to speed to wherever he was, but when he opened it the teen fell into his arms, bloody and gasping.

Caz dragged him inside, seeing no assailants out front, and laid him out in the hallway. “Charlie?” he demanded, scanning his injuries. “Charlie, talk to me!”

“I made it,” Charlie choked out. His weak smile showed bloody teeth. “I made it to you.”

This was not the time to ask how, or why Caz’s alerts had not been triggered earlier. He tore at Charlie’s clothes, easily detecting the internal damage. “Charlie, what happened?” Caz was already dialing a number on his mobile.

“My stepdad,” Charlie wheezed, grasping at Caz’s hand. His fingers were slippery with blood from where he’d coughed it up. “He found the money you gave me—“

“Your stepfather beat you?” Once was too much for Caz, at any level; but he’d understood from Charlie’s previous comments that the assaults were a slap, or a bruise on his arm. This was more like what Caz had meted out earlier.

Charlie was trying to explain. “We argued, and he hit me, and I fell down the stairs—broke everything—“

The phone was finally answered, groggily. “Marcus!” Caz snapped. “Wake up, I’m bringing someone in, emergency!”

Okay, sure, Caz,” the gangland doctor on the other end agreed, much more calmly. “Gunshot wounds?

“No, he was hit by a car,” Caz claimed. He’d put the mobile on speakerphone and laid it on the floor as he tried to bundle Charlie back up in some jackets against the cold.

You could just take him to a regular A&E, then,” Marcus suggested with a yawn, and if Caz could’ve shot the phone right then, he would have.

“I’m taking him to you, motherf----r,” he snarled instead, “and you’d better f-----g be ready!”

Okay, okay—“ Marcus was agreeing, but Caz had already hung up.

“Okay, baby, you’re gonna be okay,” Caz murmured, carefully picking his boy up.

Charlie groaned. “Caz, I just—“

“You made it here, how’d you do that?” Caz asked, as if this was the most important thing to talk about as he carried Charlie down the steps to his car.

“I wanted to get here so bad, Caz,” Charlie attempted to answer, as Caz laid him down in the backseat. “I just thought about it so hard, and I made it happen!”

“You sure did, baby,” Caz agreed, backing the car out. “You were so brilliant.” He headed towards the doctor they used for illicit injuries, the car on autopilot as his mind raced. His instinct was to heal Charlie immediately; but that wasn’t allowed. It would draw the attention of those who had the power to interfere in their lives, who would take a dim view of Caz’s anti-social activities. He growled to himself and tried not to crush the steering wheel. The rules they were supposed to operate under were simple in theory but opaque in practice, and enforced only haphazardly.

Charlie made a noise in the backseat, and Caz scanned his injuries again. F—k the rules, he would not let his partner die in this miserable world—not this way, not when they’d had so little time together. He traced the flow of blood back to its source, repairing the major sources of damage, making the organs whole again, the blood vessels intact.

Charlie must’ve crashed right through the banister, or something like that. And then he’d stumbled out into the night, leaving his parents to wonder what had happened to him. Good, Caz thought viciously. They deserved to wonder, and worry.

“You’re gonna be okay, baby,” he assured Charlie, less anxious now. He was still injured, would still have major bruises, but nothing that would require emergency surgery. Marcus was good, and well-equipped with a small surgery and team, but Caz didn’t want to risk the possible complications.

“Caz,” Charlie said from the backseat, “Caz, I can’t remember how ‘The Battle Hymn of the Republic’ begins!”

“The f—k—“ Caz replied, mystified, checking to make sure the boy hadn’t suffered any brain damage.

“I’ve got the part about the grapes of wrath,” Charlie went on, lucid if panting slightly with effort, “but I can’t remember how it starts.”

Why Charlie so desperately needed to remember the words to a song from the American Civil War, Caz had no idea. Maybe the physical trauma had jarred loose some memories of their previous adventures. At any rate Caz called up the lyrics from his store of knowledge. “’Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord,’” he recited, resisting the urge to sing.

“Yes, that’s it,” Charlie agreed, relieved, and fell silent.

Now Caz had that song stuck in his head. It had a strong beat, and an epic, vengeful tone that he identified with right now. “Charlie? Why did you want to know that?” Perhaps it was better if he kept the boy talking. “Charlie?”

“Hmm? Oh, I say things to myself,” Charlie explained slowly. “Poems and songs. It’s calming. I’m so sorry, Caz, I got blood in your car,” he went on.

“Don’t worry about it, baby,” Caz assured him, turning into the doctor’s parking lot. He may have bent a few laws of physics getting there.

“And your house,” Charlie added with a sigh.

“Not a problem,” Caz repeated. “I have to get you out now, okay?”

Marcus came out with a gurney and a couple of orderlies to help. “Hit by a car?” he checked, sounding more professional than he had on the phone.

“Something like that,” Caz replied vaguely. He was less frantic now, knowing Charlie’s injuries were not life-threatening.

Marcus sent his patient inside but stopped Caz from following, earning a growl. The doctor was not intimidated. “He’s a little younger than your usual villains,” he observed pointedly.

“He’s not a villain,” Caz corrected sharply. “He’s my boy, and someone else did this to him because of that.” He had not put this together explicitly until now, that Charlie’s injuries were in some sense his fault. Mostly his stepfather’s, of course; Caz had figured there would come a time when he had to dispose of the man for his treatment of Charlie, but he hadn’t thought it would be this serious. His thoughts began to drift towards revenge, dismissing any sympathy he might have generated in Marcus. “So go fix him up, Doc,” he ordered. “Whatever you need.”

“Alright, come on,” Marcus allowed, heading inside. “Does he have any allergies…”

**

The story was unraveling, but Caz didn’t care at this point. Charlie’s mother had called his mobile to no avail, so then she’d tried his friend Hank directly. Somehow the story came tumbling out about Charlie’s older boyfriend—about whom Hank knew nothing else—confirming what had been said in the heat of the moment during the argument at home. But no one knew who Caz was, and no one knew where Charlie was, and his mother could hardly go to the police, or let the school know anything was amiss, because then she might have to explain how her son received the injuries he was sure to have. Caz felt comfortable letting her swing in the wind.

Charlie had a broken rib and sprained wrist, and bruises like—well, like he’d fallen down the stairs. But no punctured lung (the rib had just missed it, according to Marcus) or seriously damaged organs, and merely a mild concussion. All things that could heal naturally, at Caz’s house, under the kindly eye of his next-door neighbor, Mrs. Malloy, when Caz had to go back to work. The grandmotherly woman fairly smothered Charlie with attention, which Caz felt was only right.

Even so, the boy might have had too much downtime, which led to worrying. “Caz, you’ve been so great to let me stay here—“ he began one night at supper.

“I don’t like where this is going,” Caz replied immediately, pushing more spaghetti and meatballs on Charlie. He was a growing boy, after all.

“—but I have to leave soon,” Charlie added reluctantly.

“Why?”

Charlie sighed, having known Caz was going to be difficult. “I can’t just—live here forever, Caz!” he insisted.

“Why not?” Charlie let out a long breath. “No, I’m asking why not, baby,” Caz told him, “because that’s exactly what I want you to do. Live here with me.” The plan seemed perfect to him.

“What about school?” Charlie tried. As much as he loved Caz, the man tended to see things as rather simple sometimes, or at least purported to.

“You can go to school,” Caz promised. “As soon as you feel like it, you can go back to St. Francis. I’ll have someone drive you there and back every day.” Charlie gave him a look that suggested this was, for some reason, too much. “Or you can take the bus,” Caz offered instead. This did not seem to suit Charlie either, implying a deeper issue. “Is it the actual house? Is it me?”

“No, it’s not you,” Charlie assured him, taking his offered hand. “Or the house!” The dwelling seemed to grow nicer by the day, including a first-floor room for Charlie so he didn’t have to navigate the stairs. “It’s just—“ Caz waited patiently, maddeningly. “I’m only fifteen, Caz,” Charlie was forced to point out, which he hated doing, because he felt like he was saying Caz was doing something wrong, when in fact it was pretty obvious they were exempt from society’s rules. Except for when they weren’t. “I have to live with my… legal guardians. I mean, someone would find out!”

“I don’t think they would,” Caz claimed, so matter-of-factly that it seemed like he might actually have a plan. “Your mum’s not gonna tell anyone.”

Caz had espoused this view before, and Charlie could see the logic of it, but he didn’t think logic would hold sway forever. “But she doesn’t know where I am,” he pointed out, trying to keep his tone neutral. He knew where Caz stood on that issue. “Eventually, she’ll have to tell the school I’m missing, and the police.” He was most afraid of the police getting involved; with Caz’s background they would take any excuse to lock him up, and this one would be too juicy to resist.

“Well, let’s go have a chat with her,” Caz suggested, not sure how this would go over. “We’ll tell her how things are gonna be from now on, and if she plays along, she may get to see you sometimes.”

He said this in a very proprietary fashion, and part of Charlie felt warmed by his protectiveness, by being considered worth protecting. Another part struggled to accept it, however. “Caz, she’s my mum, she’ll be worried about me—“

“Well she should’ve been worried about you before,” he responded coolly. The first instant her husband expressed such anger and contempt towards her son.

Charlie had to keep trying. “Really, the whole thing was a horrible accident,” he pressed, though he knew Caz hated this sentiment. “He didn’t push me down the stairs, he didn’t mean for me to fall—“

Caz took a deep breath, trying to prevent himself from tensing up too much. It was such a ridiculous thing to be arguing about, for Charlie to feel he had to defend his stepfather. His fate was sealed, in Caz’s mind, and there was no need to even think of him further. He reached out take Charlie’s hand again. “It’s okay to say he treated you badly,” he pointed out carefully. “That’s not unfair, or bad on you or anything.” He wasn’t sure what the psychological block was there, but he hoped in time—with his help—Charlie would get past it.

The boy looked away, toying with his meal instead of eating it. Things were so big now, decisions so momentous, and he just didn’t feel equipped to deal with them. He was just a kid, wasn’t he? But he looked around Caz’s house, where he’d spent so much time lately—in the kitchen helping make dinner, in the home theater watching movies, in the garage learning about cars. In the bedroom, learning about other things. He’d made a choice to do that, because he’d realized he wasn’t an ordinary person who had an ordinary development path, and could still shrug off responsibility by claiming he was just a kid.

He squared his shoulders and faced Caz, who’d been waiting patiently for him, as he’d been doing for a long time. “I would like to live here with you, Caz,” he agreed, because it was the truth. He felt more comfortable here, with Caz, than he felt anywhere else, with anyone else. “It just seems like there would be a lot of logistical difficulties, and I don’t want you to get in trouble.”

Caz grinned, always slightly off-kilter, reassuring in its confidence but also a little bit mad. “We’ll work on the logistics, baby,” he promised, relishing the chance to show Charlie some of the more subtle things they could accomplish—the correct data in the system, the correct forms in the file, the sorts of things that were vital to modern life but deeply unsexy. “And don’t worry,” he added reassuringly. “I never get in trouble. Unless I want to be.”

**

Charlie unlocked the door of the house with his key and limped in, trying to focus on what he needed to pick up, what he wanted to have. He didn’t know if his mother would be home or not; but he’d barely started up the stairs when she came in from the kitchen. “Steve, is that—“ She stopped and stared at her son in shock. “Charlie!”

Instinct took over and he backed down the steps, meeting her for an embrace; there were tears on both sides, and he had to caution her against squeezing his broken rib. To Caz, standing in the doorway, it was all very genuine and touching; but too late, far too late, on Karen’s part. As a parent she had a duty to protect her child, he felt, and in this she had utterly failed.

Finally he stepped inside all the way and shut the door, and Karen noticed him for the first time. He tried not to look too intimidating, the way he did when facing down some tough who’d crossed him. Still, she could easily tell he was not her sort, and she drew back slightly, her mind starting to put the pieces together.

Charlie crossed the few steps over to him and put his arm around him. “Mum, this is Caz, my boyfriend,” he said, finding that it flowed from his tongue far more easily than he’d imagined it. “He helped me after I was… hurt.”

“He was seriously injured,” Caz told her coolly. “Broken rib, concussion—“

“He fell down the stairs,” Karen noted. The banister had been removed entirely, pending replacement.

Caz tilted his head a little, to see if that made her look better. “We both know that’s not what happened,” he responded. Not exactly, and not most importantly.

Karen was clearly distressed, and she turned away to gather her thoughts. “Charlie, your stepfather’s been so worried about you,” she claimed, and she might have believed it. “He felt so awful about—about the accident, and then when we couldn’t find you—“

Caz could see Charlie beginning to soften, dangerously. “I don’t know what you tell yourself at night, Mrs. Byer,” Caz informed her, off-puttingly formal, “but the truth is, you let your husband lay hands on your son. Now that happens in my world all the time.” That was her hint of who she was dealing with. “But it shouldn’t happen in yours. Not to my boy.” He gave her a grin, shark-like. “So Charlie’s gonna be living with me from now on.”

Karen clearly did not think this was a good idea. “I’m just here to pick up a few things, Mum,” Charlie explained. His tone was apologetic, but he was still saying the words. “We’ll come back for more later—“

“You can’t—“ Karen began to object. “I mean, you’re only fifteen, you can’t—“ She glanced at Caz and he raised an eyebrow, daring her to call him too old or too male.

“I’m going to keep going to school, Mum,” Charlie assured her. “It will be alright—“

“Your stepfather is not going to like this!” Karen predicted, which was apparently the best objection she could come up with.

Caz was not impressed. “I really don’t give a f—k what he thinks, or you for that matter—“ Charlie put a hand on his chest, in both warning and restraint, and Caz calmed himself. “You made too many bad decisions regarding Charlie,” he stated icily. “So you don’t get to make any more. You have a problem with that, well, I have a problem with you.”

Karen was obviously not used to being spoken to this way. “What was your name again?” she asked stiffly.

“Colin Miller,” he pronounced. “My friends call me Caz, so you can call me Mr. Miller.” He’d always wanted to say that. “You know my name, I know yours. You know something about me, I know something about you. Now we can both try to work in Charlie’s best interests, or you can make trouble for me and see what happens.”

Karen was not a stupid woman. There was something missing in her heart to not protect her child, but in some ways her second marriage was a shrewd one. She was the type of girl, Caz thought, who had been taught to calculate her advantage from a young age, without ever calling it such an ugly term. And she could calculate it well enough now. Her husband didn’t even like her son, after all.

Caz saw the moment her attitude shifted, and he relaxed. “Steve won’t continue paying for the school,” she noted.

“I’ll take care of it,” Caz assured her. “Charlie, why don’t you go upstairs and pack?” he encouraged. Charlie glanced between the two of them warily, suspicious of this sudden calm; but Caz hadn’t magicked it about. This was all Karen. “Go on,” he suggested. “You need help? Be careful on the stairs, baby.” Since there was no railing at the moment.

“Okay. I’ll just be a few minutes,” Charlie promised, easing up the stairs.

“No rush,” Caz promised him. “Don’t try to carry things down, I’ll get them.”

He waited until Charlie was safely on the second floor, then turned to Karen with a look that said it was time to talk business. She knew that look very well. “Can I get you a drink?” she offered, already heading for the liquor tray.

Caz settled himself on the couch. “Don’t mind if I do.”

“Where, exactly, did Charlie manage to meet you?” she inquired, pouring the drink.

No doubt she was quite curious. But Caz did not make the mistake of thinking they were now allies. “The point is, he did,” he noted, accepting the drink from her. She’d poured a double for herself and sat in the chair opposite him. “And I’m not going to give him up.”

“What do you do for a living, Mr. Miller?” she went on, admirably pretending this was a normal conversation.

“I find things out,” he replied vaguely. He wasn’t sure if she would know how to Google him or not. “And I’ve found out some unfortunate things about your husband, Mrs. Byer. Other unfortunate things,” he added.

She raised an eyebrow expectantly, seeming neither surprised nor alarmed by this suggestion. “There’s money missing at the bank,” Caz went on. “He’s been very clever, but everyone makes mistakes. They’re close to catching him. Perhaps that’s why he was in such a bad mood.”

Karen studied him closely, and Caz studied her right back. If she didn’t buy the story, he could help her along. But somehow he thought her calculations would lead her in the right direction.

“Steve’s record at work has always been flawless,” she noted.

“Hence the big promotion and move,” Caz surmised. “That brought a lot of new pressures, I’m sure. St. Francis ain’t cheap.”

“So Steve is about to be arrested for embezzlement?” she suggested. It was difficult to tell how she felt about this, other than mildly skeptical.

“No, I don’t think so,” Caz predicted. “I think he’s a smart cookie, and he’s gonna take the money and run.”

Karen thought she knew where this was going. “And I’m to join him, I suppose?” she proposed dryly. “I hope our hideaway is somewhere warm.”

Caz did rather hope Steve Byer ended up in Hell, but he didn’t think that was what Karen meant. “Not much loyalty in Steve’s world, I’m afraid,” he revealed. “I suspect he’s flown the coop already.” His passport, suitcase, and some clothes disappeared from the house as Caz spoke, dissolving into thin air.

Karen frowned at this turn of the plot. “Steve left without me? That seems very unlikely.” She stood and went to the phone, dialing his office. Caz waited patiently as she spoke to her husband’s secretary, who was quite confused—wasn’t Steve at home sick, as he’d called in that morning? “Oh, I’m sorry,” Karen told her. “I’m out, he’d said he might go in if he was feeling better, but I guess he isn’t,” she went on nimbly. “Thank you.” She hung up quickly and turned back to Caz. “I presume you helped him leave town,” she said coolly. “I just want to know, did he protest leaving without me?” Clearly she was offended to be left out, and Caz tried not to smirk.

“I just find things out,” he repeated, denying more direct involvement. Of course, she should be glad she hadn’t joined her husband, with her lifeless body dissolving into elemental particles that could never be identified, but Caz couldn’t exactly say that. “Could be a bit rough for you,” he went on. “Questions from the police, finances suspended pending investigation.”

This finally alarmed Karen. “The accounts can’t be frozen, we have payments to make—“

Fortunately,” Caz interrupted leadingly, “your generous uncle is going to loan you some money to tide you over. Where’s he from again?”

“Edinburgh,” Karen replied immediately. “That is very generous of him. What sort of an amount are we talking about here?”

Pragmatic, that was an admirable trait at least, Caz told himself. “Enough,” he assured her. “To keep you in your current style. Until you can get a divorce from your fugitive husband, and start looking for the next one.”

Karen pondered this. It was not a bribe to keep her quiet about Caz and Charlie; merely a friendly gesture, since Caz’s disposal of her husband might otherwise have led her to say something intemperate to the authorities, in her shock or desperation. A show of good faith as they worked towards their mutual goal of protecting Charlie, for which she frankly had some catching up to do.

“Steve has been unusually tense since the move,” she finally agreed. She would soon believe it completely. “Working late, long hours. We hardly ever saw him.”

Caz loved it when the humans did all the work for him. They could be amazingly creative and dedicated, when given the proper motivation. “Well, true love is hard to find,” he commented philosophically.

“My first husband, Charlie’s father,” Karen added unexpectedly. “He was a very good person.” Genuine tears finally filled her eyes. “He was killed in a car accident.”

Caz wasn’t sure what to do with this. “Well, maybe third time’s the charm,” he suggested. Karen was the type who always needed to have a husband to look after her—that was her way of looking after herself, and she was very good at that.

He knocked the last of his drink back. Maybe her uncle would be generous enough that she could afford some decent whiskey next time. “I’m gonna go check on Charlie, then,” he decided, and dismissed Karen from his mind as he left the room. He would set up some safeguards to make sure she didn’t redo her calculations and decide that pointing the authorities at him was a good idea. Or consider that sending her husband to a tropical tax haven with a bunch of stolen money was too nice an ending after what he’d done.

“Charlie?” The upstairs was small and Caz found him easily, diligently packing clothes into a suitcase. “How’s it going?”

“Oh, it’s just—“ The boy seemed frustrated. “It’s hard to know what to bring,” he admitted. “I need my schoolbooks, but then there’s my other books, but we can’t cart boxes of books down the stairs, and I’m not sure which clothes to bring, colder ones I suppose—“

Caz stopped his fruitless pacing and rubbed his shoulders. “Start with the things you need, that can’t be replaced,” he advised gently. “Sentimental value. I can buy you more books and clothes.”

Charlie nodded slowly, taking a breath and surveying the room. Then he chucked the clothes from his suitcase and started over, this time grabbing photos and a teddy bear from a shelf. Caz stood in the doorway, out of the way.

Once he’d gotten the hang of what to bring, Charlie glanced at Caz. “What were you and Mum talking about?” he wanted to know.

Caz had no intention of going into detail. “Just coming to an understanding,” he tried to dismiss. He should’ve realized that was dangerously vague.

“Did you do anything to her brain?” Charlie demanded, his tone suggesting the answer better be no. “Because I’m not convinced that’s totally harmless—“

Caz raised his hands placatingly. “I honestly did not,” he promised. “Didn’t need to. Your mum saw the value in you staying with me.”

Charlie rolled his eyes slightly. “I’m sure. My stepfather will certainly see the value.”

Caz debated how to respond to that. It wasn’t that he needed Charlie to know what he’d done; it might be a little much for him, at this stage, though it was exactly what Caz had promised he’d do if the man ever hit Charlie again. On the other hand, there would be a lot of questions about Steve Byer’s disappearance, and Charlie would have to be prepared to lie to the police and say that everything had always been normal at home.

Caz decided that conversation could wait until they were safely back home.

“You need another bag?” he offered helpfully, producing one. “We should leave some stuff behind, a normal amount. In case anyone comes over.”

Charlie gave Caz a look that said he knew things were not as simple as Caz claimed, and he was not going to let that go forever. But maybe for the moment, while he had other things to think about. “Yes, I’ll put some things in that,” he decided. “Do you want to take this one and my bookbag to the car? Careful, it’s heavy—“

Caz smirked at the lingering human assumptions and hefted the backpack easily. “Sure thing,” he agreed. “Let’s grab some takeaway on the way home. Think about what you want.”

“Nando’s,” Charlie suggested immediately. Nothing more British than the ubiquitous spicy Afro-Portuguese chicken. His stepfather had rarely allowed it, preferring his food more bland.

Caz grinned. “Sounds good, baby.” A lot of things were going to be good from now on.

**

Contrary to popular belief, Murphy was always nervous before an undercover run—he just incorporated that into his character, like absorbing the pain of an injury to make himself stronger, able to continue. In the car he could joke a bit with Laura; but once they got to Dave Callard’s house he would become much more serious, his humor dry and dark. That made sense for his character; he was a wary sort, guarded around these other dangerous men, even at a cocktail party.

Especially at a cocktail party.

“Try to get a sense of the Callards’ marriage,” he reminded Laura as they drove up to the ostentatious house. “Anything personal that might not be in the file. Trips they’ve taken—“

“Right, I’ve got it,” she assured him. He found it difficult to know where he stood with her, while fully trusting that she was a good person; that made things a bit exciting, hopefully in a way that increased their chemistry to onlookers.

They walked into the house, trying to be blasé about all the marble and gold around them, everything ridiculously shiny and screaming, “I am rich!!!!” in that way of certain people who had once been poor. Tasteful, it was not. Murphy swore he passed an angel fountain spitting water at them, and was only surprised it wasn’t champagne.

Caz Miller greeted them as they entered a salon filled with well-dressed people. He raised an eyebrow at Murphy as if to say, ‘You couldn’t even shave for this?’ but then immediately turned to Laura.

“Well hello,” he said with interest. “Caz Miller.”

“This is Laura,” Murphy introduced. It was unnecessary to add that she was his girlfriend; their characters had been together too long to require that.

“Nice to meet you,” Caz claimed politely, giving her a kiss on either cheek. Murphy knew he could put a bullet in the head of anyone here without even blinking; but Dave must’ve told him to use his big-boy manners today.

Then someone appeared at Caz’s side who Murphy did not expect, a teenage boy with bright blue eyes and a ready smile. A quick glance around confirmed there were no other children present except Callard’s two daughters, who were younger still. That made the lad an outlier, and Murphy was always interested in outliers.

Caz put his arm around the teen’s shoulders. “This is my boy, Charlie,” he introduced proudly, and somehow Murphy did not think he meant his son. “Laura and Murphy, business associate of Dave’s.” He angled Charlie more towards Laura, as if they were equivalents.

Greetings were exchanged; Charlie had a posher accent than Caz, and he seemed perfectly comfortable with him. Murphy’s mind raced with the possibilities, even as he strove to make the right noises in return.

“Can I get you a drink?” Caz offered hospitably.

“Um, a dry white wine,” Laura suggested.

“Whiskey and soda, easy on the soda,” Murphy requested.

“Back in a tick,” Caz promised, as though he just lived to serve drinks at Callard’s parties. He gave Charlie a proprietary pat before swaggering away.

Charlie already had a drink in his hand. It might have been a Jack and Coke, or just a Coke. “Have you seen the new superhero movie?” he asked them, before Murphy could launch a more probing question. “What did you think?” Murphy let Laura handle that one—apparently she had seen it—while he tried to figure out if they had just been introduced to Caz Miller’s gay and possibly underage lover. At Dave Callard’s party. And Callard was not known for his inclusive attitude.

In one sense it didn’t matter; the lad might be sixteen, and even if he was slightly less, statutory rape was not the sort of big picture charge they were going for. Cynical but true—Callard had already beaten one murder rap and Miller had slithered out of charges for numerous assaults and murders, so it would take more than this to make them crack.

On the other hand, a posh teenage boy could be a very weak link.

At the bar, Caz waited for the drinks and kept an eye on Murphy in the mirrored backsplash, trying not to smirk. Dave’s wife, Helen, had just turned up with the girls to introduce herself, and Charlie was being his usual charming self. Caz could just imagine the wheels in Murphy’s head churning and clinking as he tried to figure out where Charlie fit in, and if he could be used. Good luck with that, Caz thought smugly.

Caz delivered the drinks, then delivered Murphy to Dave, past the snarling dog who was all bark and no bite. They were all just trying to play their parts, right? Sparky was supposed to be a guard dog, but he was really just a grouchy softy; Murphy was supposed to be a hardened gunsmith and hitman, but he was really a cop. Caz had spotted that right away, of course, even before he walked into the hotel room to purchase a gun from him—he had a sensor set for that kind of thing, naturally.

Usually Caz found a way to tip Dave off about undercovers and informants, like the poor sod Dave had subsequently beaten to death a couple years ago. But so far Murphy had intrigued him—being so brazen as to refuse to sell him the gun, and then offering himself up to do the hit! That was bold, and it was well-done. It amused Caz.

In a few minutes Dave and Murphy would head to the sauna to talk business, stripped down so any wire Murphy was wearing would be useless; Dave was clever in that way, at least. Caz was to search Murphy’s clothes for anything incriminating, which he hoped he didn’t find—that would be disappointing, to end his fun so quickly. Surely Murphy would be more professional than that—he gave off that vibe, anyway, one of those people so committed to the glorious crusade of their work that they had no time for anything else, joyless and driven. Laura was certainly not his girlfriend; he probably lived alone without so much as a houseplant to distract him.

Caz did not find anything in Murphy’s clothes, but let himself be caught looking. “They fell off the hook,” he claimed insincerely, hanging Murphy’s trousers up. “I was just putting them back.”

“Thanks,” Murphy deadpanned. He had a great deadpan.

“You and Dave have a nice chat, then?” Caz couldn’t help poking, just to see what Murphy would say.

“Oh yeah, beautiful,” Murphy grumbled. Richard Holloway, whose death Dave desired, had joined them in the sauna there at the end; that kind of callousness made Murphy uncomfortable, which Caz found interesting. “You just gonna stand there while I get dressed?” Murphy needled.

“No,” Caz promised with a smirk, turning away to join Dave and Richard in the sauna. “You’re too old for me.”

**

“Who is this boy? Can we use him?” Rees asked pragmatically.

“Dunno,” Murphy was forced to respond, as Allison flipped through numerous surveillance photos of Miller for him. “Didn’t seem like just a passing fancy, though. Helen Callard and the daughters knew him,” according to Laura’s report, suggesting he’d been around for a bit. “There, that’s him,” Murphy said suddenly, and Allison zoomed in on the photo. It was not the greatest, taken from a distance of Miller and the lad walking to a restaurant together, and they were both wearing sunglasses.

“I’ll see if I can find a better one,” Allison planned, “and check the databases for a match.”

“Flash it around some of the local schools,” Murphy suggested. “I would bet he’s still in one, or was recently.”

“Did we know Miller was gay?” Rees asked his team. “Is this a source of friction between him and Callard?”

“Rumors,” replied Angela, one of the researchers. “Callard’s been recorded making numerous homophobic remarks—“

“But he was at a party at his house,” Murphy reminded them, “and knows the family. So it would seem Callard chooses to overlook this. Miller’s his—“ He paused, lips twitching wryly. “Can I say ‘top man’ without anyone thinking I’m being tacky?”

“No,” Allison decided. “Here’s a bit better,” he added, indicating another photo. The lad was walking out of a Callard-owned bar with Miller, facing the camera and sans sunglasses. “D—n, he looks really young there.”

“It’s the school uniform,” Murphy decided dryly. “See if you can match it. He came off as a bit older at the party, very comfortable, posh. Chatty without actually giving anything away. They must’ve been together for a while.” This angle intrigued him, but ultimately it could be a dead end; what he knew for certain was that he had a hit on Richard Holloway to plan.

**

Caz was impressed with this Murphy fellow. Dave was livid when the recording of Holloway’s assault and kidnapping had come to light, but Caz saw it for what it was—Murphy had risked Dave’s wrath for being sloppy, but at the same time, apparently given him proof that the job had gone down. If Holloway had merely vanished without a trace, Dave might’ve grown suspicious and paranoid and demanded a body. It was a strong move, showing confidence and a certain unsettling insight into the criminal mindset.

And since Caz knew Holloway was not in fact dead or seriously injured, that meant the assault had been staged, with fake bats and all—there were resources behind this guy, people planning, covering details, authorizing serious actions. They were quite determined to put Dave away, it seemed. Probably it was the cop’s death that got them; Caz had suggested he get rid of the body in his expert way, but Dave had insisted they leave it to be found, because he was mad he’d allowed a spy in his midst. Anger leading to recklessness; that rare slip-up would be Dave’s downfall, Caz predicted.

“Okay, baby, don’t wait up for me,” he told Charlie reluctantly, kissing him goodbye as he rose from the dinner table. “I’ll be late.”

“You’re going out with Dave?” Charlie checked, toying with the remains of his meal. Caz indicated yes, knowing what that look meant. “I wish—“ Charlie paused to rephrase, and Caz tried to seem patient even as he put his coat on. “Dave is involved in bad things,” he finally said. “I don’t like it.”

“We’re villains,” Caz shrugged. He knew where Charlie was going with this but didn’t exactly have time to chat now. “I won’t get hurt. See you later.”

Charlie popped up to follow him to the door. “I know you won’t get hurt, Caz,” he acknowledged, “and I’m glad of that. But lots of other people get hurt because of what Dave does,” he persisted. “All the drugs—people commit crimes for money to pay for it, they neglect their kids—“

Caz turned to stop Charlie before he could follow him right into the car. “You watch a special report on the news again, baby?” he asked curiously, and Charlie rolled his eyes, thinking he was being patronized. “No, I understand your concerns,” Caz assured him. “You know hurting humans is like… stepping on ants, though, right?”

“I don’t step on ants,” Charlie pointed out, which was true. “And, I’m not sure I really agree with that theory, anyway.” Just the fact that he’d called it ‘a theory’ suggested he was starting to doubt the truth of Caz’s version of events.

As well he should. Caz unabashedly spun things to his best advantage, clouded them with his own opinions. Charlie starting to realize that and assert counter-arguments was really Xylos beginning to coalesce and emerge, and that excited Roman greatly, even if it meant the end of a certain leverage for him.

So he was not upset or annoyed by Charlie’s comments, which unfortunately made the teen feel like they weren’t being taken seriously. “Baby, let’s talk about this later, okay?” Caz suggested, gently steering him back from the car.

“We will talk about it!” Charlie insisted, before Caz got in the vehicle and drove off, to meet Dave for another night of villainy.

Tonight they were supposed to confront Murphy about the recording. How he responded was very important—he was going to be ambushed, pushed, threatened. Caz might even try to kill him a little bit—all in good fun though, well, not really of course, but Dave just wanted to see what he would do. It was tough to find reliable people in their business and if Murphy could survive this assault with his wits intact and his nerves steady, Dave might have some more work for him. A rival villain, or the police (were Murphy not one of them) might put similar pressure on an associate, and Dave had to know whether Murphy would bend or break.

Caz didn’t know what else Dave had in mind for Murphy; the Garvey drug-smuggling business was likely, but there might be a few other minor disturbances first. And if Murphy felt he was successful, he would start coming to Dave with his own ideas, trying to get in deeper himself—the better to rip away a large, painful chunk when the big reveal came.

Caz wasn’t sure if Murphy would succeed. Tonight was the turning point. If he did, however… If he did, he might be Caz’s way out. Because he was going to need a way out soon, Xylos would insist upon it. And if there was some police involvement, Caz could prevail upon them to protect his sister and her family, and just give them a boost, rather than doing it all himself. That was a more realistic scenario, anyway; Caz and Charlie could just run away to a tropical beach together at any time, but that wouldn’t assuage Xylos’s sense of justice, leaving Dave and his operation still out there, with only dodgy evidence against them.

Sometimes, Caz reflected, it was hard to know who to root for in these games. Ultimately he and his partner were on their own team, even if no one else realized that at first.

**

“Got a hit on Miller’s boyfriend,” Allison reported gleefully.

Miller was the last person Murphy was interested in hearing about, his hands and throat still healing from an attempted garroting at Callard’s order. It had just been a test, Murphy saw now—would he overcome Miller, would he keep his cool. Callard would be coming back to him soon for another job, he was sure of it, so one could say the misadventure had been worth it.

Still, he was not terribly interested in Miller’s love life at the moment.

“Charlie Ross,” Allison went on anyway. “He attends St. Francis. Sixteen,” so they couldn’t get Miller on a statutory charge.

Against his will Murphy felt his brain begin to churn over the information. “How’d they meet?” he wanted to know. “Don’t tell me Miller’s an alum.”

“Uh, no,” Allison replied dryly. “We’ve got the kid’s address. George’s Bar, a Callard holding Miller often operates from, is on his way home from school.”

Murphy was not buying it. “So the schoolboy stops off for a pint on the way home from school and falls for a gangster?” he proposed skeptically. “Not likely.” Reluctantly he picked up the teen’s folder. “Honor role, science fair prize, no disciplinary trouble,” he noted. There must be another angle here. “Who’s paying his tuition?”

“His mother, Karen Byer,” Allison reported. He’d thought to follow the money as well. “She’s a—“ He had to check his notes. “A party planner.”

“Does she come from money?” Murphy asked. ‘Party planner’ could mean a serious catering and logistics business, or it could just be the label a well-off woman gave herself to seem industrious but fun, when really the only parties she planned were for herself.

Allison blinked at him. “Oh now you think the boyfriend’s important?” he needled lightly. “Now you have questions?”

“He doesn’t fit,” Murphy answered vaguely, scanning the boy’s file. “Miller could get a dozen boyfriends just as young and pretty, in his own world. Who didn’t have homework or a posh mum waiting up for them. Where’s the kid’s father? Why don’t their last names match?”

“She’s divorced,” was all Allison could come up with, and Murphy gave him the side eye. “We’ll dig more if you think it’s important,” he said leadingly.

Murphy frowned, trying to decide. The team had limited resources; ultimately Rees decided how to allocate them, of course, but he listened to Murphy’s recommendations. And Murphy listened to his instincts.

Something in the file caught his eye, and then his phone buzzed with a text, distracting him. “It’s Callard,” he reported to Allison, going back into business mode. “Wants to meet, car park on Evans in ten minutes.”

“Perhaps he wants to apologize,” Allison quipped, already mobilizing his team.

“Better bring f-----g flowers,” Murphy agreed, standing to leave. “Oh, the kid, Charlie—“ he added, and Allison looked up. “Perfect attendance record, except he was out for over a week last year,” he noted. “Find out what that was about.” Another thing that didn’t fit. “And where Mum’s money comes from.”

“Alrighty,” Allison agreed.

**

So the north was now safe from Ellie Holloway’s psycho brothers, which was nice and all, but Murphy wasn’t sure Dave Callard would really be able to appreciate his newly-acquired gun-fixing skills, what with the brothers being dead and unable to give a letter of reference. But, the little adventure had kept Murphy out of sight of Caz Miller for a few days, with Miller purportedly angry about the little scar Murphy had given him. Such was life in thug land.

Miller didn’t fit either. He was flashy and brash, only slightly more intelligent than the average expendable villain, at least in Callard’s presence. Alone, he was still flashy and brash, but his eyes had a quickness that unsettled Murphy, and he always looked like he was secretly laughing at them all. Who tried to look worse in front of their boss? And then there was the domestic angle—meeting Murphy at his nephew’s football game, cultivating his honor roll boy. Well, people were complex, and weird; but still, on the whole any one person tended to be predictable. Unpredictable was much more work for Murphy to deal with.

“Now we’ve learned something interesting about Miller’s boyfriend,” Rees announced, and Murphy tried to pay attention, though his mind was going in a million directions, several of which seemed to lead back to Ellie Holloway. “His stepfather was Stephen Byer—last year he was implicated in the theft of three million pounds from the National Bank, where he was employed. He’s disappeared without a trace.”

Well, apparently young Charlie did not come from quite the golden background Murphy had imagined. “Is there a connection with Callard?” he asked.

“None that we can find,” Rees admitted. “The school absence you noted—it began several days before Byer and the money vanished. Of course both he and his mother were extensively interviewed by the police, but they both claimed to have no idea what Byer was up to. He apparently took his passport and left without them.”

“There’s family for you,” Murphy cracked. “I suppose their finances were frozen and checked. How’s she paying for his school?”

“She has an uncle in Edinburgh—“

“I know a joke that starts that way,” Murphy remarked, tacky but also legitimately suspicious.

“He’s been checked out, apparently that’s all genuine,” Rees shrugged. “The mother is trying to get herself divorced from Byer on the grounds of criminal abandonment. No love lost there, it seems.”

“But Callard must’ve been involved in the embezzlement somehow, right?” Allison proposed, as Murphy scanned the police file. “Helped him get away for a cut. Or he was in business with Callard and ran out on him, too, and Miller was sent to see if the wife and son knew where he was.”

“Stepson,” Murphy corrected. “His real father died in a car accident, his mother remarried when he was ten.” This seemed important to him, as he read it in the file, but he couldn’t say why. “Do we know when he met Miller?”

“No,” admitted Allison. “They’ve been together since we started surveillance. Why?”

“Says here when investigators first spoke to Charlie and his mother, he had bruises on his face,” Murphy noted. “He said he got into a fight after school. Nothing reported, though. Five days before was when he’d started his absence from school.”

“What are you thinking?” Rees asked with interest.

Murphy was not thinking. He was feeling, groping his way through the dark. There were a lot of plausible scenarios. But one came to mind right away, and wouldn’t leave.

“Suppose two things,” he began slowly, “which we have no evidence of, and probably won’t get. Suppose Charlie and Miller met well before his stepfather disappeared. And suppose his stepfather had a heavy hand with him.”

“Where are you getting that from?” Allison wanted to know.

“Someone beat that kid up,” Murphy noted. The investigator had observed not merely bruises but a stiffness of movement. “He was out of school for a week, but they didn’t take him to A&E, and they didn’t report it to the police. Who beats up on your kid, and you try to cover it up?”

“Family member,” Angela supplied immediately.

“Or a criminal who threatens to do worse in the future,” Allison countered, “unless you follow through and steal the money.”

Murphy couldn’t get behind that interpretation. “But Byer didn’t follow through,” he pointed out. There were no large transfers to any of Callard’s holdings around that time; it would seem that Byer skipped town with the money, acting all on his own. “And if he was supposed to give it to Callard, Callard certainly didn’t make good on his threat and off the wife and boy in revenge.” And Callard was pretty good with revenge.

“So what’s an alternate?” Rees pressed. “Miller meets the boy, sees him beaten by his stepfather, and… bribes him to leave town forever with three million pounds?”

“Bribery is not Caz’s style,” Murphy assessed, picturing those blazing eyes and shark-like grin. “I’d say he cut the b-----d’s throat, and the embezzlement is just a cover for the disappearance.”

There was a certain grisly romance in this scenario. “But what happened to the money?” Allison asked. “Three million pounds really is missing, wired to the Cayman Islands using Byer’s passcode.”

Murphy shrugged. “Maybe Miller told him it was for him, then cut his throat at the end. We don’t know where the money went next, that’s the point of the Caymans. Maybe Caz is planning to retire there.” Of course that also supported the original idea, that the money was transferred to Dave Callard later.

Rees nodded slowly, assessing the big picture. “We’re not going to do Financial Division’s work for them,” he decreed, “but let’s give that tree a shake and see if anything falls out. They aren’t aware of Charlie’s relationship with Miller, they might find that very interesting. In the meantime, Murphy,” he added briskly, “we think we have a line on that moody money you said Callard was interested in.” On with the main plot—that was their purpose here, after all.

**

Charlie shifted nervously in the chair. He didn’t like being at the police station, it made him feel like he’d done something wrong. And he hadn’t, really; well, nothing you could prove now, anyway. He provided aid and comfort to a criminal, he supposed, but he wasn’t sure that was actually illegal. He didn’t think he was really in trouble at all; but heaven help them if he was, when Caz found out. That made him more nervous than anything else, for the humans.

The door opened and a woman walked in, wearing a suit. “Hi, Charlie,” she greeted cheerfully. “I’m Elizabeth, your advocate. I’m here to make sure you understand what’s happening while you’re here.”

That sounded serious. “Oh,” he replied uncertainly. He knew he could seem younger than he was and did so deliberately. “Where’s my mum?”

“She’s in another room, the officers are talking to her,” Elizabeth explained, sitting down next to him. “Neither of you is in trouble, they just want to ask you some questions. If at any point you feel uncomfortable or you want to talk to me alone, just say so.”

“Questions about what?” Charlie asked, though he could guess.

“Well, I’ll let the officers explain,” Elizabeth demurred. “But if you want to tell me something first, it will remain confidential, if you’re worried it might get you in trouble.”

That seemed ominous, but before Charlie could ask further questions, two police officers came in. They started the tape recorder in the room and introduced themselves as Wilfred and Brown.

“Hello,” said Charlie politely. The police didn’t get a lot of politeness, he felt.

“Charlie, we talked to you last year, after your stepdad disappeared,” Wilfred reminded him. He was a heavyset but muscled fellow, like an aging athlete. “Do you remember that?”

“Yes, I think so,” Charlie agreed. “I’m sorry, we spoke to a lot of people.”

He could see Wilfred was softening a bit. “Sure, of course. I’m sure that was a very stressful time for you.” Charlie nodded.

Brown was going to be a harder fellow, he thought. He was skinny and wiry, without much of anything to spare. “Have you or your mum heard from your stepdad since then?” he asked.

“No,” Charlie answered honestly. “She’s divorcing him,” he added, though he was sure they knew this. “We were worried it wouldn’t be allowed.”

“Not a pleasant thing to go through,” Wilfred acknowledged. “All those personal questions, finances frozen.” His tone was leading, but Charlie just waited expectantly; he was sixteen, he wasn’t supposed to pay much attention to finances. “You go to a nice school, St. Francis,” Wilfred continued. Charlie was wearing his uniform, and missing his afternoon classes for this. “How does your mum manage to pay for that these days?”

Charlie blinked like he’d never thought about it before, careless youth that he was. “Oh, my Uncle Robin is helping us out,” he recalled. “Great-Uncle. He’s in real estate, in Scotland.”

“Generous fellow,” Brown commented, with a touch of skepticism.

Caz had said that setup was watertight, to the point of Great-Uncle Robin really believing the money was coming from him, so Charlie wasn’t worried. “Yes, he didn’t want my education to be interrupted,” he agreed, straight-faced.

“Well what would Great-Uncle Robin think,” Brown went on, pulling a photo from his folder, “about your boyfriend, then?” The picture he laid on the table showed Charlie and Caz holding hands as they walked into a restaurant—it was taken from a distance, and Charlie was a bit creeped out to see evidence people were watching them, though Caz had warned him when it started.

Elizabeth, like a good advocate, was objecting to Charlie being under surveillance; the detectives promised it was the gangster Colin Miller they were following, an underworld personage associated with numerous assaults, murders—and financial crimes. When Charlie finally looked up from the photo, he could see the detectives were very stern, and obviously expected him to crack and confess to something. What, Charlie wasn’t sure.

“Caz treats me very well,” he said calmly, keeping the defensiveness out of his tone. It probably would’ve been more realistic, but he was working on controlling those emotions, on stepping back and seeing the situation from a different angle. Right now he could see the detectives wandering around in a fog, nefarious scenarios spinning in this direction and that. They had thought this confrontation would brush the clouds away, give them a clear path, at least a few steps—but Charlie wasn’t going to let that happen.

When they realized he wasn’t going to offer anything else, Wilfred pressed, “This guy is dangerous, Charlie. How’d you get tangled up with him?”

The answer came to Charlie right away, fluidly, as if he was recalling lines from a script. “He helped me when some guys were hassling me on the way home from school one day.” He could not add that Caz was truly a good person, because frankly all the evidence they could see contradicted that. “He’s always been very nice to me,” he added anyway.

This was not going the way the detectives had planned—Charlie was supposed to be afraid, or ashamed, and let his guard down. Actually this just made him angry. “I’m not embarrassed to have a boyfriend,” he told them evenly, with just a hint of challenge—this was all on tape, and they could face a lot of trouble for implying anything unpleasant.

“Sure, nothing wrong with that in general,” Wilfred hastened to add. “But he’s so much older than you, and a known criminal.”

“Caz has never been arrested for anything,” Charlie countered. Why would he allow that to happen, when he had the power to prevent it?

“Sure, he’s a perfect angel,” Brown said sarcastically. “It’s just his boss and everyone around him who get arrested.”

“Does your mum know you’re seeing him?” Wilfred wanted to know, trying to seem concerned and paternal.

Charlie had had enough of paternal concern. “Yes,” he assured them. “He’s been over for dinner.”

“Look,” interrupted Elizabeth, “I agree the relationship is a bit unusual, but it’s not illegal.” Bless her for trying. “Is this really a matter for police questioning?”

“Charlie’s stepfather ran off with three million pounds, and his boyfriend is a known associate of criminals who’ve been implicated in money laundering,” Brown summarized sharply. “I’m just wondering if the two things are connected, or merely coincidence.” Clearly he thought the former.

This was probably not the time or the place to experiment with his powers. But Charlie took a long look at Brown, trying to see inside him the way Caz had encouraged him. At heart he wanted to bring bad guys to justice, and make the world a better place. So, he and Caz had that in common. Well, at least when it came to Charlie.

“My stepfather was not a nice person,” Charlie finally said, perhaps unexpectedly. “Everything that’s happened to him, he brought on himself. If you’d met him, you would’ve thought he was a decent sort. And you think Caz is a villain. But Caz has only ever been good to me,” Charlie continued fiercely. “So I suppose they’re connected, in that I look past appearances, and focus on how someone actually treats me.” Somehow he had the feeling he’d lost the advantage of looking youthful.

“How did your stepfather treat you?” Wilfred wanted to know, seizing upon this phrase.

“Like excess baggage,” Charlie replied bluntly, and let the judgment hang there.

“The first time we talked,” Wilfred went on, “you had bruises on your face. Looked like you’d been hurt pretty bad. What happened there?”

Charlie shrugged. “My walk home from school goes through some dodgy places,” he noted. “And people see the uniform and think I have money. I used to get hassled a lot.”

“But not anymore?” Brown probed.

Charlie turned his gaze on him. “No. Now Caz or one of his friends gives me a ride home.”

Brown narrowed his eyes. “So you get beat up by muggers walking home from school, and at the same time, your stepdad runs out with three million pounds.”

“It was a bad week,” Charlie deadpanned.

“Look, I’m confused here,” Elizabeth cut in. “His boyfriend’s dangerous, his stepdad is a wanted criminal, he gets set upon by muggers. I see that a lot. Not usually in Charlie’s neighborhood,” she admitted, “but still, it doesn’t mean he’s done anything wrong.” Charlie began to wonder if he was using his powers to influence her—or maybe this was just her natural state, as an advocate against police intimidation of the young. “If you’re trying to draw a connection between these facts,” she continued, “you’ll need to show some hard evidence.” Because obviously Charlie wasn’t going to crack and give anything away.

“Maybe the connection is, Charlie wasn’t set upon by muggers,” Brown suggested, watching the teen closely. “No police report on that, or A&E visit. Maybe your stepdad got a little rough with you, your boyfriend didn’t like it, and he knocked him off, made it look like he’d run off.”

This was their best card, Charlie saw, like he was watching the scene with binoculars, adjusting the focus until it was clear and sharp. They had no evidence for this, no reason to pursue this theory unless Charlie gave them one. Perhaps they didn’t even really believe it themselves, just grasping at straws trying to get a reaction from him, frame his relationship with Caz in terms their small minds could understand.

“You have a dark view of humanity, Detective,” Charlie observed. And that was it. He was done with this conversation. It could end any time.

Elizabeth was not impressed either. “The money’s really gone, isn’t it?” she pointed out dismissively. “So someone stole three million pounds. Maybe Financial Division should focus on the evidence for that, instead of harassing a teenager and interrupting his school day.”

The detectives sighed and looked at each other, and Charlie kept his mouth shut, resisting the urge to throw in a final quip as they gave up and let him go.

“Thank you so much,” he told Elizabeth sincerely, trying to imbue her with some sort of good fortune. “You were really wonderful. I felt so much better with you there.”

“Well, I’m glad I was able to help,” she replied. “I’m sure they were just trying to follow up every lead.”

“Oh yes,” Charlie agreed generously. “It’s a lot of money, and they don’t seem to have made much progress.” Then he went off to find his mother, not really worried about what she might have said—as he had learned, she could be extremely clever and believable when properly motivated.

**

Murphy watched the video later, even though Rees had informed him it was a no-go. “Kid is good,” he judged with some admiration. “That is a cool customer right there. Not to mention true love.”

Rees rolled his eyes. “Well, not an avenue we have time to pursue,” he judged. “Especially not with George Garvey entering the picture. Here’s what we’ve been able to turn up on that…”

**

“Can I get a Greek salad?” Allison asked a passing waiter in desperation. He was ignored.

“It’s a Turkish restaurant,” Murphy pointed out.

“Still—“

“S—t,” Murphy interrupted, his routine glance around the room spotting a familiar face coming in the door. “Caz Miller,” he warned Allison, before raising his voice in greeting. “Caz!” The man might not have noticed him, being focused on Charlie at his side, but being noticed later might have been awkward.

Caz smirked and towed Charlie over, holding his hand. “You remember Mr. Murphy,” he prompted the teen. “My boy Charlie.”

“Hello, Mr. Murphy,” Charlie replied politely.

“And who’s this?” Caz wanted to know, clapping a hand on Allison’s shoulder.

“Owen Williams, old rugby mate,” Murphy claimed easily. Sometimes he worried about how well lying suited him. Allison smiled thinly.

“Dave still wants to talk to you,” Caz relayed. “Why are you wearing a suit?”

“Funeral,” Murphy replied briskly. His own, if Callard ever found out he was an undercover cop, who had been testifying in court about another case which was most inconveniently timed.

“Funeral and the doctor, all in one day?” Caz asked. He seemed skeptical, but then he often did.

“That’s too bad,” Charlie chimed in sympathetically. “Was it someone you knew well?”

“Uncle Bill,” Murphy told them. He thought the teen was merely being a kind human being, not fishing for details, but after seeing that tape of him at the police station Murphy wouldn’t put anything past him. “Not sad to see the bugger go, actually,” he added grimly, hoping that would deter further conversation.

The move seemed to work. “Well call Dave sometime,” Caz reiterated. “You’ve got him all worried with your doctor talk.” There was definite mockery in his tone. Then he turned back to Allison. “What was your name again?” he asked. Clearly it was a test, and to Murphy’s horror, he saw his friend start to freeze up.

“Just call him Taffy,” Murphy suggested with a smirk. Casual racism was very common in the criminal world, though he had noticed Caz himself usually avoided it.

“Taffy, then? Alright,” Caz shrugged, and finally left them alone, heading off to a dark, private corner with Charlie.

Murphy tried not to relax too obviously. Eating out with Allison, still in the suit from court—was that sloppiness on his part, or something he ought to be able to do? The fact that he had friends, ate in restaurants, showed that he was a normal person, he decided, not just a ghost who appeared only when there was a job to be done.

Allison had lost his appetite, apparently. “Kid looks younger than I thought,” he finally commented.

Murphy shrugged. “Don’t let him fool you,” he advised. “Eat up, man. The funeral’s over.”

“Uncle Bill, was it?” Allison recalled. “I’ll have a program made up for you. Something from the hospital, too.”

“Good, Caz is fond of searching for those details,” Murphy assured him. “Nosy bugger.” Though right now it was him who kept glancing over to where Caz and Charlie had gone, wondering if they were glancing back at him.

They left the restaurant a few minutes later, not in the mood to linger—Murphy was looking forward to going home, well, his temporary home, where he could relax just a little bit more. Or maybe call Callard, once he’d thought up some plausible medical excuse for his earlier court-related absence.

“Murph!” he heard called behind him, and turned to see Caz rapidly leaving the restaurant as well. Charlie followed him, looking worried.

“What’s up?” Murphy asked seriously. He didn’t think Caz would interrupt his date for anything trivial.

“Dave just called, I gotta go,” Caz reported. Indeed, there was a car pulling up to the restaurant that Murphy recognized. “I need you to look after Charlie for me.”

“Whoa, I am not a babysitter,” Murphy denied immediately. He thought he saw Callard himself in the car, and he wanted in on whatever was going down there. “Dave need a hand? I’ll come with you—“

“No,” Caz countered. “Just take Charlie home with you, I’ll get him later.”

“Caz, I am not—“

Caz was murmuring to the teen and gave him a goodbye kiss, and the car honked impatiently. “Don’t give him to anyone else,” Caz warned, and hurried off to the vehicle. It sped away before he’d even gotten the door fully closed.

Charlie stood in the middle of the street, staring after the car and looking just a little lost, like a teenager ought to. Murphy could feel himself giving in, like he had with Garvey’s son—and that brilliant plan hadn’t gotten them very far. This wasn’t even a plan at all.

“Looks like you’re booked for the night,” Allison joked, and Murphy rolled his eyes at him.

“Charlie!” he summoned. “Come on, let’s go.”

Charlie trudged over, clearly disappointed by this turn of events. Obviously he enjoyed spending time with Caz, though Murphy couldn’t see why; usually he just wanted to punch the smug b-----d. “Thanks for helping out, Mr. Murphy,” Charlie said, attempting to rally his enthusiasm for the sake of politeness. “That’s very kind of you.”

“I am not kind,” Murphy contradicted, perhaps not as sharply as he’d meant to. “Miller is gonna owe me big time for this.”

“I’ll see you later, Murph,” Allison told him as he reached his car, trying not to smirk too much at his friend’s predicament. He was going to have a lovely time telling this story down at HQ.

“Goodbye, Mr. Williams,” Charlie told him. “Nice to have met you.”

“Er, you too,” Allison claimed, taken aback by the teen’s relentless good manners. Caz Miller surely didn’t find politeness an attractive trait. “Er, don’t let him feed you any bad milk.”

“Get out,” Murphy advised him chummily. He unlocked his own car and Charlie hurried around to the passenger seat.

Think of this as an opportunity, Murphy told himself, once he was sealed up in the car with a pining teenager. “What was Caz running off to?” he wanted to know.

“Dunno,” Charlie admitted, staring out the window. “We had just gotten our appetizers, when Caz’s phone rang and it was Dave, and next thing I know we had to rush away. That’s never happened before.”

At least Allison would be able to call this in, and maybe get some surveillance on them. “Something to do with business, maybe?” Murphy proposed innocently.

“Caz doesn’t talk to me about his business,” Charlie countered. “He says it’s better I don’t know, so I can’t tell anyone.”

Murphy snorted. “That’s trust for you.”

“Oh, I’m sure lots of people would try to trick or scare me into telling them things,” Charlie mused philosophically. “Caz is involved in activities of high interest.”

That was an odd phrase, and Murphy’s eyes slid over to him. “High interest to whom?”

“The police, mainly,” Charlie replied with a ghost of a smirk. “And other tough people,” he added, the smirk fading. It was clear who he was more worried about, which at least was appropriate.

“You know, I’m kind of a tough person myself,” Murphy was forced to point out. He was so glad he wasn’t wearing a wire so no one else would ever hear him saying that. “I’ve done some business with Dave before.” Was he really trying to scare the kid? That would be realistic, anyway.

But it wasn’t working. “Caz wouldn’t leave me with you unless you were a good person,” Charlie stated, with utter confidence.

“I’m not a good person,” Murphy snapped immediately. He bit his tongue before he could enumerate the ways.

“Well, good enough,” Charlie amended. “Caz said he would come for me personally, I wasn’t to go with anyone else.”

“Why would someone else come looking for you?” Murphy wanted to know. He’d had no indication that a gang war was brewing, or about to turn personal.

Charlie shrugged. “Dunno. But it’s good you’re tough, in case someone else comes looking for me.” So now Murphy was his protector, not merely his babysitter. This was getting better and better. “I’m not very tough,” he went on unexpectedly, sounding rather conflicted about this.

“How did you even get hooked up with Miller?” That seemed natural question to ask. “You seem like a nice lad, you should be seeing other nice lads your own age.”

This made Charlie laugh, for some reason. “Caz is nice to me,” he asserted, and it didn’t sound like a sexual innuendo. “There’s bad people in the world, and he keeps me safe from them.”

Murphy recalled the video from the police station, Charlie’s devotion to Caz quiet but unshakeable. “Someone told me”—always a good vagary—“that your stepdad ran off with some money.” He glanced at the boy in the mirror, tracking his expression.

“Yeah, he wasn’t a very nice person,” Charlie agreed readily. “Good riddance, really. Even if he left me and my mum in the lurch.”

“He someone Caz kept you safe from?” Murphy tried. The boy’s eyes flickered over to him, then away, and Murphy knew that whatever he said next would be a lie, or at least not the full truth.

“Hardly necessary,” Charlie finally answered, “since he left on his own.” Murphy knew then that his earlier theory was correct—the stepfather had been eliminated by Caz for mishandling Charlie, and the money was just a ruse. He doubted he could ever prove this, though. But it helped to explain their relationship, the boy’s loyalty to his rescuer. Even if it didn’t explain why Caz would go to so much trouble.

“You hang about with Callard a lot?” Murphy went on. “I remember you were at that party at his house.”

“I like Helen a lot,” Charlie sidestepped, speaking of Mrs. Callard, “and the girls.” He snorted. “Well, I’m closer in age to them, aren’t I? We go to the zoo sometimes.”

“Well, Dave’s an open-minded fellow,” Murphy claimed dryly.

“Caz said to avoid speaking to him,” Charlie admitted. “He’s not very friendly. Very serious, I mean.”

Murphy approached the main road. “Say, why do you have to come home with me, anyway?” he wondered aloud. “Won’t your mum be worried about you?”

“I live with Caz,” Charlie reported, which was new info. “Our house is very safe—I mean, there’s an alarm system and all—but sometimes he doesn’t like me to be there alone.”

“Get up to mischief, do you?”

Charlie huffed slightly at this suggestion, as only an honor roll student could. “No, I just get a bit nervous, especially at night,” he countered. “Which is silly, of course, because the house is safe. But there you go.” He seemed somewhat embarrassed by this confession.

And Caz didn’t want his boy to be nervous alone at night, or troubled the heavy hand of his stepfather, or hassled by anyone on his way home from school. This was sounding rather serious to Murphy, though with a psychopath like Miller, who knew what he was really thinking. Having seen what the man could do at Dave’s behest, or even on his own when annoyed, Murphy avoided assigning him any softer sentiments.

They pulled into Murphy’s driveway and entered the house. He saw the teen’s eyes roving over it curiously and wondered how he saw it; Miller would have a flashier place, no doubt. Ought he to have more personalization, though? Family photos or souvenirs or something? No, Murphy decided, as he always did; he was a man who traveled light, in possessions as well as memories.

“You want a beer?” he asked irreverently, deciding he needed one himself.

“No, thank you,” Charlie replied politely, sitting down quietly on the couch. “I’m really sorry to have interrupted your evening, Mr. Murphy,” he went on after a moment. “Were you planning something with your friend?”

“Taffy?” Murphy asked, taking a chair. “No. Just dinner. Ran into him at the funeral.” He wondered if Charlie thought they were on a date, because everyone was gay in his world. “Just an old mate,” he emphasized.

“Oh. You don’t have a girlfriend, or a dog or anything?”

Murphy hoped he did not consider the two equivalent. “No. Well, she’s out of town right now,” he amended, thinking of Laura, whom Charlie had chatted with at the party at Callard’s house.

“Well, don’t let me stop whatever you were going to do,” Charlie insisted. “Perhaps I could…” He looked over his shoulder to the kitchen. “Shall I do some washing up?” he suggested.

Murphy saw that he was the worst sort of houseguest—the helpful sort. “No,” he denied. “Any idea how long Miller might be? What time does his work usually end?”

“It varies,” Charlie shrugged, taking off his jacket. His clothes were newer, good quality, but sedate; Miller was paying but not choosing them. “He tries to get more done during the day, while I’m at school.” Like it was mainly just paperwork, and not nefarious activities best carried out under cover of darkness.

Murphy flipped on the telly, searching for a sporting match. That was generic enough. “Caz pay for your school, too?” he inquired, as though he didn’t really care.

“I have an uncle in Edinburgh,” Charlie replied. “He’s helping out Mum and I, while she gets set up. Money was a mess after Steve left, you know, they froze everything.”

“What’s she do, then?”

“Oh, she’s going to start her own business,” Charlie claimed brightly, his tone indicating he knew it was stupid. “Party planner. I expect she’ll use it to meet another man, and then she’ll be fine.”

“What happened to your dad?” Murphy interspersed this question with some colorful advice for the athletes on the screen, so as not to appear too interested.

“He was killed in a car accident when I was little,” Charlie told him. “What about—well, what sort of background does one have, in your profession?”

“My profession?” Murphy repeated sardonically. “Did you want a CV?”

“I like to ask people,” Charlie replied curiously.

Murphy snorted. “Military, and jail. And I’m a real self-starter.”

Charlie nodded. “Yes, that’s very common among Caz’s colleagues,” he noted. Then he winced at a particularly rough rugby tackle on the screen.

“Not a sports fan?” Murphy surmised.

“It’s a bit violent for me,” Charlie admitted. “Ironic, I know,” he added, before Murphy could.

He smirked but began to flip through the channels anyway. “Maybe there’s some cartoons on for you.”

“Oh, wait!” Charlie said excitedly. “Could you go back one, please?” Murphy brought them back to an old black-and-white movie. “That’s The Thin Man,” Charlie proclaimed happily. “Well, one of them. Caz and I watch these all the time.”

“You and Caz watch old detective comedies?” Murphy rephrased. He did not know where to go with that nonsensical bit of information.

“Yeah,” Charlie agreed, following the action avidly. He laughed at a very G-rated witticism, then turned back to Murphy abruptly. “Oh, sorry, you can watch whatever you want, of course.” He glanced around. “I could read—er, do you have any books?”

“No,” Murphy replied. “I’m not a library. When is your bedtime, anyway?” Maybe he could pack the kid off to sleep and then relax.

Charlie checked his watch. “Oh, well, it’s Friday, we usually stay up later,” he described. “But, er, I don’t want to be in your way, Mr. Murphy—“

“Too late.”

“I could watch a movie on my phone,” Charlie continued. “Just—a quiet corner, wherever.” He sighed then, his enthusiasm flagging.

Murphy stared at him. It was not the first time he’d been bewildered by love and would not, he suspected, be the last. Either Miller was a totally different person with this kid, or he was really that good in bed. And no one was that good.

“Are you hungry?” Murphy heard himself offering. “I’ll heat up a tin of soup.”

The boy perked up at that. “Cheers, that would be great,” he agreed, following Murphy into the glorified nook known as the ‘kitchen.’ Murphy had been hoping Charlie would stay on the couch so he could at least have a facial expression that wasn’t a put-on, but no such luck. “We had to leave just as the appetizers came.”

He watched Murphy open the promised tin of soup, after wiping the dust off the top. “Caz is teaching me how to cook,” Charlie revealed brightly, turning to the refrigerator. “Maybe I could make you—“ He stopped when he saw the fridge’s contents, mainly beer and takeaway leftovers of dubious age.

“Tinned soup,” Murphy repeated dryly, heating it in a pot on the stove.

“Yes, it smells very good,” Charlie claimed politely. “Is there anything I can help with?”

Murphy checked his cabinet. “You could wash a couple of bowls,” he decided. “And spoons. And a glass, unless you want a beer.” He did not entertain much, and thus did not have many dishes.

Charlie set about the washing-up with zest. “No, I don’t really drink,” he replied. “Maybe some wine, Caz is teaching me about that, but actually I don’t think it tastes good,” he admitted. “I thought it would taste like fruit juice, only with extra awesomeness, but instead it just tastes like juice that’s gone off.”

“That’s a fair description,” Murphy agreed, thinking of the (usually cheap) wine he favored. “So Caz is teaching you to cook and appreciate wine, huh? That’s not really how I pictured him.” To say the least.

“Caz is so complex,” Charlie avowed, his tone lovelorn as only a teenager could be. “People don’t really appreciate it.”

“He hides it well,” Murphy quipped, tasting the soup. Passable.

“Yes, he’s very private also,” Charlie agreed, if this could be called agreeing.

They ate the soup sitting at the tiny table that mainly just got in the way. Murphy threw in some crackers as well, from a takeaway meal. He would’ve thought this constituted a normal meal for a companion of Miller’s, but now he realized the two of them had greater aspirations.

Perhaps not only in food.

“You stuck with Caz for the long haul?” he inquired, as if he was just being a nosy sod but didn’t really care. “I suppose gay pride had to come to gangsterdom eventually.”

Charlie laughed good-naturedly, as though at a private joke. “I’m sure you’ll think it’s foolish,” he prefaced, munching a cracker with humanizing messiness, “but yes, Caz and I are quite serious. I don’t think he’ll be a gangster forever,” he added unexpectedly, and Murphy feigned disinterest.

“Oh?”

“Well, I want to be a professor, you know, at uni,” Charlie went on blithely. “I want to teach and do research, maybe in genetics. I’m sure Caz couldn’t be a gangster in that case, always running off with Dave in the middle of the night.”

There were several interesting tidbits for Murphy to unpack there. “Thought he didn’t like to leave you alone at night,” he countered. “Hence, me feeding you this five-star meal.” Clearly, all he cared about was his own inconvenience.

“Well, usually it’s planned at least,” Charlie clarified. “Sometimes I go stay with my mum, or with Caz’s sister and her family. They’re awfully nice,” he added cheerfully. “Of course, I’m closer in age to their kids as well!”

So: surveillance on where Charlie spent the night might reveal that Callard and Miller were going to be busy doing some villainy. Noted.

“Well what’s Caz going to do, anyway?” Murphy went on, as if he found the idea of him doing legitimate work preposterous. Which he did. “Become an insurance salesman?”

Charlie chuckled. “No! I don’t think Caz is suited to desk work, do you?” Murphy answered with a dry look. “I don’t know,” Charlie went on more thoughtfully. “He’d like something exciting, I’m sure, but I don’t want him to do anything dangerous.”

And, s—t, there it was. Murphy had been playing contingency plans in the back of his mind, thinking that someday he might have to take the trigger-happy Miller out—Callard would be more sensible, and assume he could get out of trouble later, alive—and now he was going to be remembering that Charlie was sitting at home alone, waiting for Caz to come back and be kind to him. G-------t.

“Caz is very creative, I think he could be an artist,” Charlie was saying as Murphy tuned back in. “I suppose being an artist doesn’t really pay well, though.”

“Not ‘til after they’re dead,” Murphy quipped without thinking, and Charlie gave him a chiding look.

“Morbid,” he complained. “Anyway, I’m sure Caz has some sort of plan, he just hasn’t told me about it yet.” As insurance against occasions just like this.

Charlie insisted on washing up more after dinner, leaving the kitchen in far better shape than he’d found it, and then they watched some more non-violent telly until the teen’s head began to droop.

“Charlie. Charlie!” Murphy prompted, and he sat up right away, blinking sleepily in a ridiculously adorable way.

“Did Caz call?” he wanted to know.

“No.” Murphy had been hoping the boy would be obtained before he had to decide about sleeping places. “Caz said not to give you to anyone else,” Murphy reminded him. “Is someone else actually going to come looking for you, or is he just being paranoid?”

Charlie was not sure how to answer this, or what that answer might mean. “Caz isn’t usually paranoid,” he finally said.

Murphy made a quick calculation. “Okay then, you’re going to sleep upstairs in my bed,” he determined. “Er, don’t mind the sheets. I’ll stay down here.”

“Gosh, Mr. Murphy, I didn’t mean to kick you out of your bed,” Charlie assured him apologetically. “I’m sure Caz will really appreciate your help.”

Murphy kept up a gruff façade about it but nonetheless ushered the boy upstairs—if someone did come looking for him, they’d be less likely to find him up there. “You get a lot of unsavory visitors at Caz’s house?” he wanted to know.

“No, Caz wants it to be very safe,” Charlie told him, which no longer surprised Murphy. “He takes his meetings elsewhere.”

“Okay, if someone comes to the door tonight, or the phone rings, you stay up here and let me handle it,” Murphy instructed sternly. “Don’t move about or make noise. If it’s Caz I’ll come get you. Understand?” Charlie nodded, his blue eyes wide. Well, this was life when you were in love with a gangster—you couldn’t trust everyone.

But apparently Caz trusted Murphy, with his most treasured possession. G-----n him.

“Okay, go to sleep,” Murphy advised, shutting the bedroom door. He went back downstairs to watch something violent.

**

A pounding on the door woke him from an uncomfortable slump in his chair; at first he thought it was just the telly. But it didn’t go away when he shut the box off, so he shook himself to alertness.

“Yeah, what?” Murphy called through the door in an unfriendly tone, his gun held low by his side.

“Caz sent us,” said an unfamiliar voice. “Wants us to pick up his boy, bring him home.”

Murphy paused a moment, listening to the house and hoping Charlie had sense enough to remember what he’d been told and keep quiet. Then he opened the door, keeping his gun hidden behind it. He didn’t recognize either of the men on his doorstep, but they were definitely fellow tough guys.

“C----t, what time is it?” Murphy complained. “What the f—k are you doin’ here?”

“Caz Miller sent us,” the other one repeated helpfully. “We’ll take Charlie off your hands now.” He paused, politeness clearly an ill fit on him. “Caz says thanks for looking after him.”

Murphy blinked at them, glaring. “What the f—k are you goin’ on about?” he replied. “If Caz wants to talk to me, he can call me at a civilized hour.”

The two men glanced at each other, slightly confused. Confusion was the best weapon Murphy had right now; they were both packing and he would not do well in a firefight with them. Nor could he call for backup without giving his identity away.

“You’ve got Caz’s boyfriend here,” the one was forced to clarify. “Charlie. We’ve come to take him home.”

“What, you think me and Caz are passin’ him back and forth?” Murphy asked with deep sarcasm. “No thanks, not my taste. Who are you, anyway?” He was not aware of anyone who was out to damage Caz somehow, but obviously Caz was, as he had predicted this. Charlie had picked a dangerous boyfriend indeed.

“Caz sent us,” the other man said again, instead of identifying himself. They were getting the slightest bit uncertain now, and Murphy leaned into that, amping up his irritation. “He gave you his boy to look after, when he went off with Dave.” Had they been in the car, and seen this happen? Murphy took a chance that they had not.

“Are you just going around to every house, waking people up to ask about Caz f-----g Miller’s boyfriend?” Murphy accused. “Or am I one of the lucky few?”

“Caz said we was to offer you some money,” the one tried, though sensibly he did not reach for his wallet, which Murphy might have interpreted as a threatening gesture. “Er, for the inconvenience.”

Murphy rolled his eyes. “Well much as I would love to take money from Caz, I’ve got no f-----g idea what you’re on about,” he stated, explicitly. “I barely even know the kid, much less agreed to babysit him. Do I look like Mary Poppins to you? Think carefully before you answer that,” he warned sharply.

The two men shared a glance. “Oh. Well, I guess we misunderstood,” one claimed slowly.

“He said the Paddy had him,” the other pressed.

“Right, I’m the only Irish bloke in London,” Murphy responded derisively. “You work for Dave Callard? Seriously, am I gonna have to complain about you to him?”

Mentioning Dave’s name did not seem to throw them, which might mean they were not connected to him. “Sorry, I guess we just got it wrong,” one said, starting to back away.

“Well that’s one thing you’re right about,” Murphy muttered. He did not let his guard down but rather watched them get in their car and leave, memorizing the tag to have it run, and finally locked the door firmly behind him, for all the good the flimsy lock on the cheap door would do.

Then he listened again, and watched the lights coming in through the windows. The two men could double back and break in easily enough, and Murphy felt a palpable sense of dread—not for himself, but for this kid who had gotten mixed up in a nasty world, who thought he was in love and that love was all he needed to get by. Murphy didn’t think he’d ever been that young himself.

He said nothing as he went upstairs, as if he was just going to bed finally. Then he paused at the closed bedroom door. “Charlie,” he said in a low voice. “Charlie, it’s me. Murphy.” He opened the door slowly—the kid might be a fool in love, but he had also stared down two police detectives, so Murphy didn’t want to risk startling him. The room appeared to be empty, the bed abandoned. “Charlie, they’re gone, you can come out.”

After a moment there was a noise, and Charlie came wriggling out from under the bed, filthy with dust. “C----t, not under the bed,” Murphy complained. “That’s literally the first place someone would look! And a stray bullet could go right through the floor from below.”

Clearly the under-bed cavities at Caz’s house were of better quality, from Charlie’s expression. “Who was it?” he wanted to know, trying to pick the dust bunnies off himself.

“I dunno,” Murphy replied, checking out the view from the back window. Nothing suspicious, but he knew he wasn’t going to be sleeping the rest of the night. “Any word from Caz?”

Charlie had already checked his phone. “No,” he sighed, sitting back down on the bed. “You?”

“No,” Murphy denied. “So who has Caz p----d off enough, that they’d want to grab you?” he asked sharply.

“I don’t know,” Charlie told him. He seemed rather upset by the idea, as he should be. “You’re sure they wanted me?”

Yes,” Murphy emphasized. “Two common street villains, armed, saying Caz asked them to pick you up. Coulda turned ugly, Charlie, and I do not need that kind of heat on me!” A man like him would be angry at Charlie, so Murphy channeled his irritation about the whole situation towards the boy.

“Well, I’m sorry, Mr. Murphy,” Charlie told him. He was sincere, and polite, but there was a shift in his tone, his posture, like Murphy had seen on the tape from the police station, as if he had flipped a switch and calmed himself down. “But you got rid of them, didn’t you? You told them I wasn’t here. So they’re gone.”

“They might come back,” Murphy was forced to point out. “And I’m not exactly Rambo, you know. Nor am I getting myself killed for you.”

“Oh, I’m sure Caz isn’t asking for that, Mr. Murphy,” Charlie said, settling back down under the blankets. “I really feel quite safe here with you.” He yawned, like a golden retriever puppy, and Murphy rolled his eyes. “D’you mind if I go back to sleep now? I’m awfully tired.” He was practically falling asleep as he spoke.

Murphy wanted to say something dark and cutting; but it would be wasted on someone who was half-asleep already, and anyway, what outcome did he really want? A scared, sobbing teenager or a calm, sleeping one? If Charlie wasn’t tough in terms of throwing a punch or shooting a gun, he at least needed to be tough in attitude, to be with Caz.

Instead Murphy let out a sigh and started to leave, pausing to drape the blanket more over Charlie’s shoulder. The kid looked even younger asleep, like he ought to have a teddy bear clutched in his arms. He and Caz would make a good couple for a Tarantino flick, Murphy decided, as he went back downstairs to make some coffee. But unfortunately, this was the real world, not a movie.

**

Dawn was creeping over the horizon and Murphy was reduced to watching energetic infomercials when he heard a car pull into his driveway and muted the TV. A moment later there was a light rapping on the door and Murphy hoped, with sudden anxiety, that it was not one of his police associates.

“What?” he demanded through the door.

“It’s me, Murph,” said Caz’s voice, and Murphy understood the irony of being relieved to greet Caz Miller. “Open up.”

This he did, revealing Caz on his doorstep, his clothes from the night before slightly rumpled and a bruise blooming across his stubbled cheek; but otherwise he looked far better than Murphy, on even less sleep. “Where the f—k have you been?” Murphy demanded of him.

Caz rolled his eyes. “Working,” he replied obnoxiously. “You still got Charlie?”

“Yes,” Murphy sighed, letting him in. “Charlie!” he hollered up the stairs. “It’s Caz!” A thump answered. “Two goons came to get him,” he informed Miller, who frowned.

“Who?”

Murphy shrugged. “Never seen ‘em before—“ He was drowned out by Charlie thundering down the stairs and launching himself into Caz’s arms.

“I missed you!” Charlie enthused. “Are you alright? Mr. Murphy fed me soup and we watched The Thin Man! Oh, what happened?” He had pulled back enough to see Caz’s bruise.

“Nothing, I just ran into something,” Caz claimed. “You behave yourself?” he asked with mock sternness.

“Yes, I did the washing up,” Charlie insisted, fingers playing with the buttons of Caz’s jacket. The older man couldn’t seem to keep his hands off him, either, tugging on the belt loops of his jeans. “And Mr. Murphy let me sleep in his bed—“ Belatedly he realized this might not sound right, and Caz raised an eyebrow.

“For safety,” Murphy supplied. Caz would know what he meant.

“Go on, go get your stuff,” Caz encouraged, letting the boy go. “I know you had shoes, at least. We’ll grab breakfast on the way home.” Charlie pounded back up the stairs, hurrying to comply.

Murphy turned his disgruntled face back on Miller. “Do not stick me with him again,” he hissed in a low voice, “when you know people are gunning for him! I am not getting mixed up in your s—t.”

Miller dismissed this. “I didn’t know they would,” he denied. “Anyway, you did alright. Let me know if you see ‘em again.”

Of course Murphy had been up all night, and he had to face court and Dave Callard at some point today, but clearly Miller didn’t care about that. “You owe me,” he tried anyway.

“Yeah, I know,” Caz replied unexpectedly. “Thanks for looking after him.” He sounded alarmingly sincere. “Got something to talk to you about later.”

The thoughts seemed connected. “What?” Murphy wanted to know. “Where’d you run off to last night?”

This Caz waved off. “Eh, stupid f-----g nonsense,” he complained. “All of Dave’s relatives are idiots.”

Murphy was not aware of Callard’s family being players. “What relatives?”

Caz seemed on the point of saying more, but Charlie bounded down the stairs again, racing around the living room looking for anything he might have left behind.

“Soup, huh?” Caz commented idly. “Tinned?”

“Oh, we only serve the best here,” Murphy replied sarcastically.

“Come on, baby,” Caz insisted to Charlie. “I’m starving, no one fed me soup. Get on.”

“Okay. Thanks so much, Mr. Murphy,” Charlie told him. Murphy put some furniture between them in case Charlie was thinking of hugging him. “I’m sorry I was so much trouble!”

“Nonsense, you weren’t any trouble at all,” Caz assured him. “Mr. Murphy didn’t have anything better to do. Let’s go. I’ll call you,” he added over his shoulder to Murphy as he steered Charlie out the door.

Murphy watched them drive away, wondering if Caz’s cryptic remarks actually meant anything, or if the man was just winding him up again, He would’ve assumed the latter automatically, except now he had Charlie’s view to consider, and lovesick or not Charlie was too smart to fall for the shallow psychopath Murphy had figured Miller for. So clearly he was a more complex psychopath.

Whatever. Murphy needed some more sleep before he could sort this latest mystery out, and he headed upstairs to bed.

**

Murphy did not know what Caz was playing at. And this was not the time to be playing at all, not with Callard and Garvey setting up a major drugs swap that Murphy was going to be part of. He was finally going to get something that nailed both Callard and Garvey to the wall, and Miller had better not be mucking it up.

“Can you hear me?” Murphy murmured in the car.

A moment later he received a text from Allison. Loud and clear. He was wired up, the better to catch whatever Miller had said he wanted to talk about; though, if it seemed necessary, Murphy would be quick to ditch the wire. He was just going with his instincts that it would work out today—something in Miller’s tone that had seemed less snarky than usual. Or maybe Miller was still put out about being forced to meet in a (female) strip club—a not very subtle rebuke from Callard, Murphy had felt.

He’s pulling up, his mobile relayed, and Murphy put his game face on, affecting boredom as Caz walked up to his car and rapped on the window.

Murphy lowered it. “What do you want?” he asked gruffly.

Miller rolled his eyes. “Well good morning to you, too,” he shot back. “Can I get in? It’s p-----g rain out here.”

With a huff Murphy unlocked the passenger door and rolled his window back up. Caz climbed in, flinging water around, and took a moment to settle. “Are we going somewhere?” Murphy demanded of him.

“No, not unless you want to,” Caz replied innocently.

Murphy did not. He’d positioned his car so the boys across the street would have a clear view to photograph him and Miller together. “Well what do you want then?” he repeated. “You said it was urgent. Is it about the meet tomorrow night?”

“Sort of,” Caz replied, with maddening vagueness. He reached into his jacket, but not in a threatening way, and produced a folded card. “Charlie wrote you a thank-you note.”

Murphy stared at the card Miller was holding out to him. “Are you f-----g kidding me?”

“No, he’s got nice manners,” Caz pointed out. He shook the card a little. “Don’t p—s me off by disrespecting it.”

Murphy snatched the card away and, since Caz was giving him an expectant look, opened and read it. It was as horrible as he’d imagined—sincere, specific, not gushing or with too many exclamation points. The kid could give a seminar in how to write thank-you notes.

Miller waited a few moments for him to finish it. “He wanted to give you money for the soup,” he revealed, “but I told him that would be insulting.”

A dozen rude comments came to Murphy’s mind, but he thought of Charlie and said none of them, instead silently tucking the note away inside his jacket. “Anything else?” he asked of Miller.

“Yeah. I know you’re a cop and I want to defect.”

Murphy blinked at him for a moment, then rolled his eyes. “Get out,” he ordered. “Next time mail the card, so I don’t have to speak to you.”

Miller was laughing, so Murphy had supposed he was just being obnoxious; but once he calmed down he continued, “No, seriously, mate, I sniffed you out from day one. I assume you’re planning a big take-down tomorrow night,” he went on, as Murphy sat very still, “since Dave stupidly suggested you bring your own mates along. And I’m willing to help out.”

This had to be handled delicately, Murphy knew. Caz might be wired up as well, just waiting to collect a confession he could bring to Dave. Or he might shoot him in the head where he sat, the way he’d done to the drug dealers troubling Garvey’s son.

“So you think I’m a cop,” Murphy repeated carefully, “and you’re willing to turn on Dave, over the deal tomorrow night?” Caz blinked at him with dangerous sincerity. “What the f—k is this?” Murphy demanded angrily. “Is this Dave not trusting me, or is this all you?”

“Oh, we both trust you, Murph,” Caz claimed. “You’re a very trustworthy guy.” He frowned. “Is that irony, or does it come all the way back around?” he mused.

Murphy was beginning to think, terrifyingly, that Miller might be for real. For real, or he’d finally snapped, and in his delusion hit upon the truth. What would a true villain do in this situation? Some would laugh; some would get angry. Murphy had to admit he was very curious about where Caz was going with this, however, and didn’t want to drive him away too fast.

“Have you shared these fantasies of yours with Dave?” he asked of Miller, who rolled his eyes.

“Obviously not,” he replied. “If I had, either you or me would be dead right now. Probably me, I think Dave likes you better.”

“How flattering.”

Caz could see Murphy still doubted him. “Okay, picture Dave wanting to set you up,” he suggested. “By trying to make you admit you’re a cop.”

“He’s accused me of it before,” Murphy bit off gruffly. He remembered well sitting in the hot sauna, cold terror in his stomach as Callard tested his nerve.

“Right,” Miller agreed blithely. “Now, picture Dave asking me to take that on, try to shake you.”

Murphy had to admit that Caz had a point there. If you wanted someone brutally murdered without hesitation or remorse, Miller was your man. For a complex psychological manipulation? Not so much.

“It does seem unlikely,” he conceded, “that Dave would ask you to test me.”

“Exactly. And why is that?” Miller asked rhetorically. “’Cause Dave doesn’t think I’m smart enough for it.”

“Is that what this is about?” Murphy accused. “Are you so mad at Dave you’re going around looking for a cop to rat him out to?” He was going to be very disappointed if that was the motive. “Why don’t you just walk into a police station in that case?”

Caz waved this off. “Please. I don’t care what Dave thinks,” he dismissed. “He’s about reached the limit of what he can achieve, don’t you think? This Garvey business is too big for him.”

Murphy was careful to admit to nothing. “You think you can do better?” he suggested, still groping for a motive. “Last I heard, the police don’t let you keep the criminal empire you helped topple.”

But this wasn’t Caz’s goal, either. “Nah, I’m getting out of the life,” he claimed. “You know, I’ve got my boy to think of now. You know Charlie, he’s not cut out for this.”

“C----t Almighty,” Murphy swore, resting his forehead on the steering wheel for a moment. He really should’ve seen that one coming, he decided. Charlie had said as much to him the other night. But he had thought that was a teenager’s wishful thinking—not a hardcore criminal’s actual plan, to leave villainy behind. Who really did that? It was in the blood.

“I’ve got some money put away,” Caz went on. “I think me and Charlie could go somewhere warm and tropical for a while.”

Murphy took a leap. “Would that be the money his stepfather stole for you, before you killed him for hitting Charlie?” he asked, in a rhetorical tone.

Caz gave him a narrow look—not as if he was about to shoot Murphy, more like he was annoyed with his lack of focus. “You’re wired up, right?” he countered, and Murphy kept his expression neutral. “Your buddies are listening in somehow. I’m offering you some help here, Murph,” he pointed out. “I’m not gonna confess to murder on tape.”

“Well if you’ve got money why don’t you just skip out, then?” Murphy asked him. “I know you don’t feel sorry for anything you’ve done.” Caz cackled in confirmation. “What you want to be a rat for, then? Just take off, leave Dave short.”

“That would be kinda funny,” Caz mused. “But, no,” he sighed regretfully. “I need police protection. For my sister and her kids.” He shrugged matter-of-factly. “You know how Dave is. Or maybe you don’t,” he added thoughtfully. “You weren’t around when he hauled himself outta the gutter, clawed his way to that fancy house.” Caz’s gaze was unnervingly serious. “When he’s cornered, he’ll be desperate, and bold, and cleverer than you’d expect.” Murphy did not know what to make of this warning, which sounded almost prophetic.

“Anyway, I’m not bringing my sister to my tropical paradise,” Caz went on in a lighter tone, “so someone needs to look after her for a while, ‘til Dave’s bottomed out. Plus, Charlie wouldn’t want me to just walk away,” he added. “He’d want me to help put Dave away. But he doesn’t know anything himself,” he continued sharply, “so don’t think of calling him as a witness.”

Murphy had not gotten that far down the road yet. “I think you’re serious,” he finally responded.

“Yes.”

“You’re really convinced that I’m a cop.”

Miller rolled his eyes at his recalcitrance. “I told you, I been on to you from the first,” he insisted again. “I wanted to see what would happen. Adds a bit of fun to things, doesn’t it?”

“Yeah, I’m having a lot of fun right now,” Murphy deadpanned, and Caz laughed.

“You’re funny!” he complimented. “Dave is not funny. Man does not even smile. There’s something wrong with that,” he judged. “And you’re tough, too, you got b—ls of steel, mate.”

“Stop, I’m getting misty-eyed.”

But Caz was not done praising Murphy, apparently. “But, you’re still a good person,” he went on. “I knew you’d take good care of Charlie the other night, that he’d be safe with you.”

“Who were those two men who came looking for him?” Murphy demanded. If Caz was serious about giving up information he could just start now. “And what did you run off to do with Dave?”

“Don’t worry about those two guys, I found them,” Caz promised, which was actually not very reassuring. “Couple of local mooks gettin’ above themselves. Won’t bother you again.”

“’Cause they’re at the bottom of the river,” Murphy predicted grimly.

“What can I say, Murph?” Caz shrugged facetiously.

“Going straight is going to be very difficult for you,” he observed, and Caz smirked.

“Eh, I’ll manage. Me and Charlie will just stay away from people,” he planned. “For a while, anyway, until he wants to go to uni. He wants to be a professor!” he bragged. “Science. Kid is f-----g brilliant.”

“Questionable taste, though,” Murphy dared.

“Can’t fight fate,” Caz replied philosophically. “Oh, the other night. That was Dave’s cousin Louis being a moron again. Have you heard about Louis Wrexham?”

Murphy had, after some extensive research by his team to locate a miscreant relative of Callard’s. But the connection between them was tenuous, and he wasn’t sure if it was common knowledge on the street. “Can’t say that I have,” he finally answered, in a not very sincere way.

Caz smirked as if he understood Murphy’s calculation perfectly. “Well, Dave rightly doesn’t have much to do with him,” Caz explained. “Owns a little store in Chesterton, thinks he’s Al Capone mixed with Bill Gates.” A potent combination indeed. “Anyway he called up all blubbering about how some local hood was gonna kill him over a bad business deal, so Dave and some of the boys had to go sort things.”

“And if I checked the news from Chesterton, would I find out how you’d ‘sorted’ things?” Murphy inquired.

“No deaths, sadly,” Caz admitted. The fact that he sounded truly regretful told Murphy all he needed to know about Miller’s ability to stay out of trouble in the future. “Dave wouldn’t have wanted you to come,” Caz added unexpectedly. “He’s embarrassed by Louis. And he likes you and wants to impress you.”

“Well he should send flowers, instead of you,” Murphy snarked. He felt rather uncomfortable with the knowledge that he had done his job so well.

“He’ll likely spill all the details about the drug deal to you, if you press him,” Caz countered. “I mean, we all know it’s drugs, but how much and what quality and what price and all that.”

“Don’t you know?” Murphy accused. “Tell me if you’re such an insider.”

“I don’t need to know,” Caz shrugged. “I’m just gonna do my job, take my cut, and show up like usual the next day. I’m a salaryman,” he added with an oversized, shark-like grin. “But you’re an independent contractor, you can renegotiate terms as you see fit.”

Murphy clung to whatever sense he could make out of this. “And would my new terms include an extra cut for you?” he suggested.

Miller rolled his eyes. “No, Officer Krupke, I already told you my terms,” he refuted sarcastically. “Police protection for my sister and her family. I’ll take care of myself and my boy. Make sure it’s not any of those officers secretly on Dave’s payroll,” he added off-hand. Murphy didn’t respond and Caz prodded at him. “Don’t you want to know who they are?”

He did, he really did. “Why would I want a list of dirty cops?” he shot back. “If we run into each other, we’ll just give the secret handshake and move on.”

“Well, I’ll tell you later,” Caz decided, maddeningly. “Who are you bringing to the meet?”

Murphy thought about saying it was none of his business. “My driver from a while back, and Taffy, my old rugby mate,” he finally admitted. They were both known faces to the criminal element.

“Both really cops, I assume,” Caz commented, which Murphy didn’t acknowledge. “Well, look sharp, Garvey’s gonna foul something up,” he predicted. “He’s always changing the meet times and places at the last minute. I think he just likes jerking Dave around. You sure that moody money you got for Dave will pass inspection?” Caz quizzed. “That’s what Garvey’s paying the dealer with. He’s to think it’s real.”

“Who’s the dealer?” Murphy asked in turn.

“Sahir Masud, out of Afghanistan,” Caz replied promptly. It was a rather important piece of information for him to let slip to a mere colleague, bolstering the case that he really thought Murphy was a cop who could help him out. “Say, did you find out who killed the bird?” he asked casually.

Murphy did not need to be thinking about that waste of Jill’s life right now. “Stalker,” he replied shortly.

“Yeah?” Caz seemed interested. “Suppose he’s been arrested. If you weren’t a cop you could’ve just taken care of him. If our conversation wasn’t being recorded right now,” he continued cheekily, “I could offer to take care of him for you.”

The idea was more temping than usual. “Arrested,” Murphy confirmed instead. “Do you have anything else sensible to say, or just more delusions?”

“I think that’s about it,” Caz shrugged. “I’ll just act natural around Dave, don’t worry, I can be ‘undercover’ too,” he planned gleefully. Murphy feared he would suggest code names next but narrowly avoided making a quip about it, which might appear to incriminate himself. “Dave isn’t gonna know what hit him. Now, when do we blow the plan? When we see the drugs, or later, or…?”

“Why don’t you just keep acting natural,” Murphy suggested carefully, as if he was humoring a crazy person, and Caz laughed knowingly.

“Alright then,” he conceded. “Just remember the deal. I’m sending my sister and her family up to Edinburgh for a week, by the way, in case this thing goes south,” he added. “They’re staying with Charlie’s great-uncle, he’s got a rambler in the country. You can find them if you need to.”

“Get out of my car,” Murphy ordered, done with whatever Caz was playing at. The man cackled again and finally left; and Murphy sat in the car for a long time after, ignoring his mobile and trying to figure out where Caz Miller fell on the trustworthy scale. A few days ago the answer had been obvious to Murphy; but now he wasn’t so sure. And being unsure in this business could get him killed.

**

Caz had been correct about one thing, at least; Garvey did foul things up, changing the location of the drugs pick-up to some isolated pig farm in the country. Murphy had no idea where they were but couldn’t contact HQ to describe it anyway.

So he was left to help Callard grade the heroin that the others extracted from tins of tomatoes stacked in the back of a truck, trying to look suitably villainous while keeping a million other things in mind—would Rees find them, and when? Would Ollie and Allison keep up their plots? Would the counterfeit cash pass Masud’s inspection?

And most immediately, how was Miller—who had been unusually quiet and industrious as he rinsed the drug packets in a bucket of water—going to follow up on his bizarre declaration from the other day? Rees had almost scrapped the whole plot when he heard it, thinking Miller couldn’t possibly be serious about defecting even if he was certain Murphy was a cop, somehow. And Murphy could not give him any concrete assurances, except his instincts said they should let it play, keep going along as planned.

Maybe Caz was just messing with him. Or maybe he really was turning on Dave. Either way, Murphy did not think he would be standing here handling heroin with Callard, with two of his own guys at his back to Callard’s one, if Dave had any lack of trust in him. So whatever Caz’s motivations, he obviously hadn’t poisoned the well for Murphy.

“I want in on this, Dave,” Murphy told the other man, pushing his luck. He thought about Caz’s ‘independent contractor’ line. “If this is gonna be a regular delivery, you need someone to help you handle it.”

Dave did not look like he wanted to object. His gaze darted over to Caz, who was positioned to be his right-hand man in such things. But Callard didn’t think he was smart enough, or reliable enough, or something—Murphy could see it in his eyes. Murphy had wedged himself into Callard’s consciousness above Miller but maybe, he was beginning to think, maybe Miller had helped with that somehow, in all kinds of little ways, that brought them to this final moment.

“We’ll talk about—“ Callard started to reply, but Caz looked up alertly—not at them but rather at the truck drivers, who had gotten a phone call and were now tossing out their cigarettes and getting back into the truck. Then the truck started up, just as Allison was pulling another box of tins off.

In a moment Murphy saw that the whole thing had gone wrong: Masud must’ve realized the money was fake and unusable for his purposes, and told his men to take off with the remaining drugs. Garvey could be dead right now. And there was only one way a man like Dave dealt with this kind of setback—violently.

The truck began to move, and the shooting and yelling started. Murphy ducked behind some crates, trying to look like he was doing something without actually contributing to the firefight. He wasn’t sure if the drivers had been told to shoot them, or were just reacting to being shot at themselves—hitting the gas and driving away would’ve been far safer for them at this point, Dave wouldn’t leave all the heroin he’d collected so far just to chase them. But no one was really thinking clearly at this point—except maybe Caz, who coolly marched up around the far side of the truck and put a bullet in each driver’s head, ending the drama definitively.

“Murphy!” Ollie called frantically, and Murphy looked over to see Allison clutching his chest, face pale and blood oozing out from between his fingers. Maybe it wasn’t blood, maybe he’d just been hit by some exploding tomatoes—Murphy scrambled to his friend’s side, his own skin going cold as he rotely performed a rudimentary examination of the wound. It was serious, and it was Murphy’s fault for dragging him into this—

“Come on,” Dave snapped impatiently. “We have to get out of here before anyone else shows up—“

“I have to get him to a doctor,” Murphy countered. It was ridiculous and wrong for his character, but he couldn’t stop himself from saying it.

“No, you’re with me,” Dave countered, as if they were divvying up for a beer run. “I’ve got a man in Harley Street, take him there,” he added, perhaps slightly unnerved by the look in Murphy’s eyes.

“Let’s get him in the car,” Murphy said to Ollie.

“No, help me with this,” Dave interrupted, irritated now, as he looked at the pile of drug packets to be moved. Then he suddenly tensed, and dropped like a rock to the ground.

Caz stood behind him with a gun, which he had whacked Dave on the head with. “G-d, I hate it when he gets bossy,” he commented. The others just stared at him. “Well, call it in,” he prompted. “You gonna drive him, or wait for an ambulance?” he went on matter-of-factly.

Murphy glanced at Ollie. “Do you know where we are?”

Caz rolled his eyes. “We’re ten-point-five miles southeast of the city, off West Beaton Farm Road,” he announced, as if it should be obvious.

Murphy was not prepared to tip his hand just yet. “Give me your gun,” he told Caz, who huffed but handed it over. “Call it in,” he ordered Ollie, going back to applying compression to Allison’s injury.

Miller laughed gleefully. “See, I knew it,” he crowed. “Poor Dave, the only villain on the scene!”

“Tell that to the drivers,” Murphy replied coolly. Not that he was sad to see them go, but still.

Caz shrugged without concern. “That was totally self-defense,” he claimed, sitting down comfortably on the ground. “You better tell them not to arrest me, I’ve got a clean record.”

“Shut up for a while,” Murphy suggested forcefully. He would be more amazed at Caz’s follow-through if his best friend wasn’t bleeding out in front of him.

“He’ll be fine,” Caz dismissed. “Oi, driver, you better tie Dave up or something,” he told Ollie. “You want me to do it?”

Ollie clearly did not know how to respond to this turn of events. “They’re on their way,” he assured Murphy, giving Caz a sideways glance.

“Can someone at least say thanks, maybe?” Caz complained. “I mean, just a mere acknowledgement that I helped.”

“Secure Callard,” Murphy told Ollie instead. He thought maybe he could already hear the helicopters approaching. “Stay with me, mate,” he said to Allison steadily. “Help is on the way. Hey, you win the bet about Caz,” he tried telling him, though Allison’s attention was intermittent at best. “The bugger came through for us.”

“You’re welcome,” Caz offered from the sidelines. “I can’t believe you bet against me, Murph!”

“What should I do with him?” Ollie asked of Miller, having tied Dave where he lay.

“Nothing,” Caz answered instead, indignant at the very idea. “What am I going to do? Run off with the pigs?”

“Just keep an eye on him,” Murphy decided. It was impossible to predict Miller’s behavior right now, after that turn and in Murphy’s current state of mind, but he was correct, running or resisting did not seem sensible right now, not with the place about to be swarming with cops.

The helicopters drew closer, lights and wind creating chaos. But at least it meant help was almost here, and maybe things would finally start to make sense again.

**

Caz handed Charlie a glass of wine, then dropped the towel around his waist and stepped into the hot tub, the warm water prickling his bare skin. He had somehow lost his swimsuit between the kitchen and the back patio, which made Charlie smirk as Caz scooted close enough to kiss him. There was no one else on this isolated stretch of beach, beautiful though it was, so Caz thought it was alright to be a little improper.

“I really like it here, Caz,” Charlie admitted when he pulled back. “I’ve seen pictures of the Caribbean, like in James Bond movies, but I didn’t realize it actually looked this way.”

Caz was happy to expand his boy’s horizons and put his arm around his shoulders, both of them facing the white sand beach and turquoise sea as they shared the drink. Charlie’s eyes were that exact shade of blue, he decided of the water. “Well, we can stay as long as you like,” he promised casually, running a wet hand through his hair. The hot tub was maybe a little much right now, in the abundant sunshine.

“Don’t we have to go back for the trial?” Charlie asked uncertainly. He was not looking forward to facing Dave Callard’s accusatory gaze, even if he was safely in police custody. The man’s reach could be long—even from jail he had tried to kill another witness in protective custody, using a corrupt cop on his payroll. Luckily Mr. Murphy had saved the day there, too.

“That won’t be for weeks,” Caz predicted dismissively. “They’ve got so much other evidence against Dave, I don’t think they’ll need me.” Charlie gave him a skeptical look and Caz tried again. “I think Dave will take a plea bargain.”

Across thousands of miles he gave the man a mental nudge to do just that. What with his dramatic escape from jail and subsequent recapture at the hospital where Murphy’s friend was laid up—he had warned Murphy what Dave could be like when cornered—Dave’s lawyers were likely already pressing this strategy on him. Salvage what he could and hope he got out of jail before his children could forget him entirely.

Maybe he could even still control his empire from inside—no, Dave wasn’t charismatic enough for that, Caz decided. With Garvey and Caz himself also out of the picture, the underlings and rivals would be fighting for scraps, whatever was left after the authorities had swooped in. “We’re well-rid of that mess,” Caz judged. “Maybe we could just stay here forever.”

Charlie could not indulge in that dream for long; he had others to pursue. “What about school? And uni?”

“They have those here.”

“And my mum?”

Caz grimaced. “That solicitor seemed very fond of her,” he noted. “He could probably keep her in the style to which she could become accustomed.”

Charlie was not yet deterred. “And what about Colin and Miranda and Fiona?”

“We shall invite them here once a year,” Caz proclaimed grandly, “to our tropical castle. And go back there once a year, at Christmas, to remind ourselves just how much better the Bahamas are. Seriously, you want to go back to dreary London? And leave this?” he pressed.

Charlie gave him a look that said this discussion was merely tabled, and settled back into his arms. “I wonder what will happen to Mr. Murphy,” he mused. “I hope he’ll be happy now, with the case solved and his friend getting better. I don’t think he was very happy before.”

Caz gave Charlie a sideways glance, wondering if the teen had used his powers to tap into Murphy’s head and see his dramatic, tragic history. Probably not, or he would’ve mentioned it by now. “Some people do not have the capacity to be happy,” he judged, setting the wine aside, “but that is not us. Come on, let’s go for a dip in the ocean instead.” He popped out of the hot tub, pulling Charlie with him. The boy grinned at him, his eyes sparkling with mischief and an understanding of their connection that deepened every day.

“Alright. Race you!” he announced and took off, but he didn’t get very far away as Caz kept hold of his hand, not wanting to let him go now that he’d found him. They hit the calm waters together, swimming out into the blue and enjoying their moment of peace.