Six months after he let Sternwood go a second time, Max feels the buzz again.
His soulmate is near.
The feeling is the first release of Guinness into his bloodstream or the resonating hum of a guitar string. It comes coupled with a wash of dread and Max is again reminded that his life is a Greek tragedy.
He's shoved into the cold side of the van as they round a corner. The van clatters over a gouge in the city roads, decaying under use and the elements and years of neglect. Some of the racket stays after the rattling metal settles, growing in volume like someone was turning the knob slowly up. He's reminded of playing games in primary.
His dry lips protest as he pulls them into a smile. His seatmate glares at him as the cold mirth in his chest manifests into a chuckle.
The guard labors to his feet, taking wide and rocking steps to account for his girth. He's got body armor on, miles of it, decorated with distaste and a false sense of superiority. Max's fellow prisoners grimace at his presence. Max presses his forehead to the chill glass of the window and bares his teeth in a grin.
"Something funny, gimp?" asks the guard. The buzz turns into a roar, sunlight bursting in his bones.
"You might want to put on your seatbelt," Max says, low and unhurried.
The guard scowls and prepares to use his misbegotten power while Max watches a truck barrel through a red light and straight on into the side of the prison transport. Then everything is moving in ways it really shouldn't, up and over and sideways with the force of the impact. Even after the van stops rolling Max keeps going, flies out of place until he lands days later on a darkly made hotel bed overlooking the bright city of Tokyo.
His leg feels like a prosthetic held on by a knife. Even his shoulder, which had healed without issue, has taken to twinging after too many days with too much activity. Seated and relaxing for the first time in days, everything else down to his fingertips picks then to remind him it’s sore to match. His hands are rummaging in the pharmacy bag before he's taken a second breath.
Jacob returns from his nervous sweep of the room to stand close. He does that, probably the oddest thing for a notorious master criminal, sticking close enough that Max can taste him on the air. It doesn't feel as invasive as it should, a combination of what they are and the bizarrely unthreatening presence Jacob has. Jacob is all opposites, looming tall in front of Max's seated form yet seeming less like a monolith and more like shelter.
It's the first opportunity they've had to talk, but he's getting the impression that Jacob doesn't talk much even given the chance. Not that they need to, but the observation remains.
"Took you long enough," Max says, breaking the oppressive quiet of the hotel room.
Jacob's expression flickers and Max feels a niggling remorse flare to life. He'd feel vindicated if it wasn't so easy to make Jacob feel like he could have done more.
"I had to wait. You'd been shot, it was better to let you heal in prison."
"So you could swoop in at the last minute. My hero." Max drawls, getting the syringe out of its impossible packaging at last.
Jacob bristles a bit at Max's wry humor. "You've just been through a prison break. You think you could have done it with a bum arm?"
Max tips his head up to look at him, letting the irony singing in his blood slam right into Jacob's psyche. "I did it with a bum leg."
Shame and regret wash over Jacob in equal measures. Max leaves him to it and rolls up the shitty thrift store jeans he’d thrown on in Russia.
He stabs himself a little harder than necessary just to see the flicker of pain in Jacob's eyes. It isn't fair of him really, since the aging scour of anger in his heart was something planted there for him. Still, it was Jacob's bullet.
Jacob doesn't shy away like most everyone else has. Hadn't the first time either. He watches, regret lurking in his eyes, a cold horror at the result of the bullet permeating their bond.
Max pulls the stopper up and relief is immediate if not entirely pleasant. The burning leaves a vicious throb in its wake as discolored fluid drains into the syringe, too many days' buildup leaving too much compression to decompress. Even so he blows out air like a bellows as the pressure fades.
It occurs to Max that every throbbing pins-and-needles step and every wrenching black-out worthy shot of pain on their breakneck rush across the world has been felt by the both of them. Before, Jacob was too far away to fully appreciate just how fucked up Max's knee was, but he's been within arm’s reach for days now.
Finished, he hucks the syringe at the bin, lacking the patience to clean it properly more now than ever.
Jacob crouches before him. The quiet in the room is deafening, the shifting of Jacob’s clothes a whisper beneath it. He rests a careful hand on the curve of Max's knee and swipes away the dollop of blood that marked where the needle had pierced. A red smear paints a hundred silvering divots where a hundred other punctures have been made. Another droplet wells up to take the place of the first and Max feels an echo of poeticism that isn't his own zing into his chest.
Can't wash it away.
Jacob's fingers trace the train track scar from where they'd pieced what was left of Max’s knee back together. The touch is light and exploring, and Max feels so exposed he wants to pull away, but he doesn't.
"I'm sorry," Jacob says at last, looking into Max's eyes. "My path was set by the time you were born. We had no way of knowing."
Sort of the definition of a tragedy, Max thinks wryly. Jacob shifts, pushes himself up to rest one knee on the bed between Max's legs, and frames Max's face with broad hands. His palms rest on Max's recently trimmed beard and his fingers tangle in his over-long hair and Max should stop him, he figures. He should want to stop him. Jacob's eyes are dark and sad, and Max is tired of fighting him. Of fighting himself.
"They never should have put you on my case."
Max wants to know why he's speaking when he doesn't need to speak. Max already knows everything Jacob’s saying and everything he's not, the guilt and regret holding him hostage, the helplessness that resonates between them. Of course they shouldn't have put Max on the Sternwood case, of course they should have yanked from it him the moment he filed with the match department. But that didn't fit the careful plan, the outline of their lives. The two of them were just little boys playing cops and robbers, in the end.
Chess pieces, Jacob whispers back. Max breaks script and drags him down into a hungry kiss.
It seems like seconds later he's sprawled out naked and open and hard beneath Jacob. Jacob, who's stupidly large and stupidly strong, kissing along his shoulder where another ugly mass of scarring has taken root.
Jacob leans back and strips off his own shirt, revealing silvering scars of his own, one shot Max knows, a dozen other wounds he doesn't. There's a locket around his neck that stays even after he's lost the rest of his clothing.
The city lights are colder than moonlight, shining in from the window onto the two of them. Jacob's chest is hot when he nudges Max onto his side and draws him back, solid and shielding. He's careful with Max's knee as he guides his leg out to rest on a pillow.
"Alright?" Jacob whispers into his ear. Max responds with a flash of emotion that's equal parts irritation and gratitude. The buzz he associates with their proximity has reached new heights, expanding into an almost tangible glow at the edges of his vision, a whisper of warmth along his skin. Solidifying, they call it. He’s hard-pressed to decide if it's victory or defeat he's experiencing.
Jacob's fingers press back inside him, slicker and less gentle, and Max turns his face into the pillow with a groan. Some broken part of him doesn’t want this tenderness Jacob seems made of, he wants the truth as it was first presented to him. A world with black and white, where the men who ruined his life were his enemies and the people who had power over him were his friends. Where he's a damn good police officer, and his soulmate isn't one of the most notorious thieves in the world.
That's not the real truth. The truth is that Jacob refuses to hurt him any more than he already has above a city they can't be extradited from, and when Jacob at last holds his hip and pushes in Max feels nothing but pressure and pleasure and Jacob's sharp exhalation against his neck.
Jacob twines their fingers together against Max's chest with the hand he's slid beneath him and starts to move. His free hand unhooks from Max's hip and travels heavily over his body, traces along hardened scars, presses anywhere that draws a hiss or a gasp. He keeps on until Max is panting, the hand not captive twisted in the black sheets, cursing any time he tries to put enough weight on his knee to shove into Jacob’s thrusts.
Jacob doesn't hide what he's doing when he at last lowers his hand to wrap around Max's leaking erection. There's no teasing, just the slow drag of his hot palm down Max's softening abs and up the straining jut of his cock until he gets a hand around it and starts to stroke. The touch sparks fire in his gut, sends him gasping and quivering and twisting in Jacob's arms for more. Jacob untangles their hands and shifts, and Max doesn't need to ask to know what he's going to do. They're well in each other's heads now, so when Jacob turns Max's face and leans over him Max is already parting his lips for the kiss.
Max's breath stutters as the soulmate buzz rises to a crescendo, roaring over their hushed breathing and flooding his body with a rapturous completion. It fills the room, fills him, and Jacob lets out a strangled sound, and then Max is shivering as his orgasm bursts along his nerves and out, echoing in Jacob before washing back with an answering round of fireworks.
Before he's even caught his breath Max turns and curls into Jacob's side.
Sitting over Jacob's heart, though it ought to have wrapped itself around his throat by then, is the silver locket, gleaming in the artificial day of the city lights. Max contemplates it blearily for a while, the delicate flowers molded into the metal face, the scuffed and stained crevasses marking it as an aged thing. His fingertips brush it when he unfurls them against Jacob's chest. Jacob doesn't move to stop him so, obstinately, he flicks it open.
On one side is a picture of a young woman, thick curls of black hair taking up what would be the background of the photograph. Her smile is warm and kind, something only a sweet and loving person was capable of. On the other is a little boy, grinning the innocent grin of a child, his mother's black hair a wild mop on his head.
A family. Soft, precious, gone, lost like everything that's ever mattered to either of them to the blind ambition of men they've never met. Looking at the little boy Max is reminded of the ugly triumph he'd felt at his death, the black victory in his heart, and the sick, sour guilt seconds later at his own abhorrent behavior. It comes back with a vengeance now, burning like bile in his throat. What a miserable wretch they'd made him, what gouges his fragmented heart had cut.
The words come out crunched gravel, torn from his throat though they’re the truest words he's spoken in years. Jacob draws him in with a hushing sound, kisses his forehead, and Max shakes and tries to hold back as many of the hot tears as he can. Jacob's arms band around him, and Max's throat betrays him on a sob.
Stuck in Japan, ripped from his life and his bespoke mistakes, tucked in the arms of his fugitive soulmate, he feels something he thought he'd lost ages ago slot into place and wonders if maybe, back in London, he was never looking for forgiveness.