There's a stranger in Mikey's class, fresh from the West. He goes by Luke: he's got a shock of blond hair, blue eyes the colour of the morning sky in December, Mikey can tell from across the room, and he doesn't tan well at all, burnt on the bridge of his nose. But ― but Mikey's seen him around town, with two husky boys who are probably his brothers, and sometimes an older man, wrinkled and weathered and emitting an aura Mikey knows too well, who walks in front of them.
Mikey's seen the register. Luke's a Luca, and in Mikey's world, he's no stranger.
Mikey smiles at him three days in a row ― outside the school gates, in music class, and on his way out of the toilets. Luke hunches his shoulders three days in a row, looks away every time. Mikey doesn't mind. He'll meet him soon enough, and probably not within the four walls of their high school.
Mikey's barely started smiling before Calum tries to stop him.
"Leave him alone," he mutters, staring intently at his lunch, looking mildly repulsed by the old hot dog sat in the middle of his plate, and distracted, though Mikey knows it's feigned. Calum's quiet enough that Mikey shouldn't have heard him, but they're sat close enough, as always, that Mikey could probably hear Calum's heartbeat if he listened hard enough. Calum doesn't need to raise his voice to get Mikey's attention.
He doesn't ask who he means, either. It goes without saying. Calum's dark eyes and Inglese name mean nothing in Mikey's world ― they mean nothing when that heart beats for Mikey and his family, steady and sure, when the words in his mouth twist and his big hands wound for Mikey and his family, and have for years and years. Many things go without saying.
"What was that, Colombano?" Mikey teases, hooking his ankle over Calum's under the table. Mikey shouldn't ― call him Colombano, that is. It is his father's affections on his tongue, and by the way Calum flinches, minutely, it's loud and obvious in their corner of the cafeteria. Mikey's voice is stark and Australian, no matter how much his mother laughs, and the name always sounds put on, never as easy or as affectionate as his father makes it sound.
Mikey doesn't care, will never care. Calum's his, he can call him what he wants.
Barely a moment later, Calum's face smooths back out, calm as anything. He smiles at Mikey, fondly, small enough that Mikey knows it would be larger than life if they were alone.
"Let him come to you, Mikey. Don't force it," Calum says, looking him purposefully in the eye. Mikey's never been one for taking orders, not from outsiders, and they both know it. But Calum's not an outsider, Calum is family, and he rarely asks for anything. Mikey flicks his eyes to Luke, sitting alone in the middle of the cafeteria, picking at his own hot dog.
He sticks out like a sore thumb, in the crowd, folded over in such a way that screams either it's for the best if you stay away or please don't look at me too hard. Mikey suspects he's aiming for the former, but has tripped up and fallen into the latter. He desperately wants to go over, wants to make Luke trip up on sweet-nothings and old words, know their blood is the same. He wants to open the boy up and know him, Luca with the blue eyes and the blond hair and the husky brothers and the dark, proud father.
He doesn't, though. He turns back to the window, and Calum smiles, slow and pleased. It'll be worth it, Mikey thinks.
Ashton is tall and blond and golden, has never been out of the country, is loyal in the easy way that everyone is and is loyal to no one.
It's Mikey's father who introduces him, of course, calls him his local boy and pats him firmly on the shoulder, strong enough that Ashton lurches forward the first time he does it. But Mikey notices his father has set him up in their front room; the blinds are pulled up and the street outside is bright and in full view. The whole place is lit up, airy and open, filled with pictures, little strings of coloured glass tinkling obnoxiously. The doors to the back of the house are shut firm, and none of Mikey's uncle are in sight.
Mikey's father doesn't trust Ashton just yet, it's obvious.
Calum likes him on sight, and that's obvious, too, from the way he straightens his shoulders and lets Ashton shake his hand. Calum makes snap judgements ― sometimes they're wrong, sometimes they're right, and often it doesn't matter. He's still fine-tuning, after all. Mikey keeps his hands in his pockets the whole time, and when Calum notices, Mikey can feel him slump at his shoulder. Ashton is golden, yes, but his hands are large and his feet are spread in a fighter's stance.
Mikey does not know how much Ashton has grasped, how much his father has deigned to share, and he's quite possibly simply a local boy out of his depth. He can't help but think of Luca, and Mikey runs his tongue over his teeth and enjoys the parallel: two tall, blond boys making homes in the wrong places.
"I want you to take Ashton with you this Friday, Michele, I want you to show him what I want from him," Mikey's father says. Mikey nods, faces and numbers and names unfurling in his mind, searching for a place in his head to hold this new associate. Mikey's father stands now, and Ashton, Mikey notices, takes an instinctive step back. At his side, Calum seems to take an instinctive step forward, and Mikey's father smiles, maybe for the second time this hour. "Take Colombano with you, my brothers have been asking after him."
Calum smiles, properly, in Mikey's peripheral, so easily pleased.
"Thank you, Uncle," he says, and Calum, who should be doing his homework or wooing girls at the arcade, is Mikey's.
"I can't keep you hidden forever, can I?" Mikey's father asks, carefully, and Mikey doesn't like thinking about Calum's sister, breaking the wrong hearts around the harbour, or Calum's mother, restless under house arrest. He knows it's messy, this, but Calum has dark eyes and an Inglese name and it shouldn't have been this messy.
"Calum," Mikey's father continues, sharply, and a name's a name, however foreign it sounds, "take Ashton to the office. I want his contact details: address, numbers, kin, basic procedure." Basic procedure is much more than that, but Calum nods, and Ashton follows him wordlessly as he leaves through the door by the television.
Mikey stays where he is, and it's becoming more common, people being sent away so Mikey and his father can meet. He'll be capo di capi one day, and everyone within two hundred miles knows it, of the 'Ndrangheta son with hair as red as the setting sun and all the blood that's been spilt for his world. Mikey's father turns back to him, and his direct attention is still heady, even though Mikey is older now, practically a man. Mikey takes his hands out of his pockets.
"Ashton," Mikey's father says, stilted. "What did you think?"
Mikey's father has never been one for explanations. Mikey has learnt to catch on, do what his father says and figure out the reasons later, and he likes it that way, likes learning, likes earning. It's throwing, being asked.
He hesitates, where usually he would let something loud and loose slip out, about his age or his open face. In his silence, Mikey's father chuckles, lowly, and picks up his beer from the coffee table, but the skin around his eyes is tight and Mikey knows this is more serious than he thought.
"His father ― his father did a hit for us, many years ago." He pauses, takes a long swig of his beer. "He got hit back. Left a widow and a kid. There're two more now."
The coloured glass has stopped tinkling and Mikey's father is giving reasons, for the first time, and Mikey knows what his father means. Family is family is family. Maybe Ashton is in the right place.
"We can make him, Michele. I need you to make him," he looks Mikey right in the eye and Mikey nods, fingers flexing at the thought. Calum's never had to make his bones, and might never ― he is here because of something outside the mob, and that is respected, and blind eyes are turned. He will be Mikey's consigliere, no matter who kicks up a fuss about made men or bloodlines.
Ashton, however. Ashton's part of the old guard, and his future is with the traditional 'Ndrangheta, with the Onorata Società. Apparently it has always been. He will be golden with blood smearing his face and his knees pressed into the dirt.
"Yes, father," Mikey says, and one day, people will say the same thing to him.
It takes three months.
Mikey's father has been sat at his old, mahogany desk for three months, tearing his hair out and smashing glasses. Luke's father is a busy man, a man about town, his fingers smearing places that should be spotless. That are paid to be spotless.
Mikey hears murmurs of hitting the mattresses between his uncles, hears his mother and her sisters through the walls, even hears it from the local boys who really don't know anything beyond the rare loose lips of the messaggero.
"He wants in," they tell him, if they find him walking to school, almost giddy. "He wants the junk business, wants more than cannabis, wants Griffith to the Gold Coast."
Mikey's father is not an idiot, and neither is Mikey.
"What, he and his three boys? They can have a pop, sure," Mikey bites out, one day, tired and irritable and late for his first class. After this year, he'll be full-time with his father, but for now he needs to be in Math and not going around in circles with the local boys.
(He had begged his mother to let him and Calum drop out of school, knew they'd be so much more useful on the job, getting their hands dirty and finally, fully committing themselves. "I didn't travel half way across the world to have my only son drop out of high school, Michele," she had said, sharp and short.
He hadn't asked again.)
It takes three months, but Luke finally approaches him, just like Calum said he would.
Mikey's waiting outside the school, wrapped up in his winter coat, waiting for Calum to finish with band practice and for Ashton to roll up and drive them home. He's distracted by two BMWs parked down the end of the road with tinted windows and their engines running, and so jerks when he feels a hand at his elbow, hand flying to his pocket on instinct. When he whips around, it's summer-eyed Luke.
He blinks, and is glad, to his gut, that he stopped carrying around knives like some local boy with boots too big for his small feet.
"Hello, Luca," he says, trying not to look too smug. He's not trying very hard.
"Hello, Michele," Luke replies, light hair ruffling in the breeze, lanky limbs unfurling, and Mikey wants to push him back against the brick and take him for himself, wants to hear his name fall from Luke's lips over and over and over. He wants Luke on his knees, blood on his hands, for Mikey. He wants Luke on his knees, mouth busy, for Mikey.
He draws himself together, and thinks, purposefully, wait, give it a minute. Thinks, you could have him forever, if you wait. The voice in his head sounds eerily like Calum.
Luke's uneasy smile smooths out to something more self-assured, and Mikey's heart skips a beat and his throat feels like it's closing up, and he hopes Luke doesn't know, can't tell.
"I heard your father was busy," Mikey says, instead of I can keep you safe.
"And yours," Luke replies, hand dropping from Mikey's elbow, instead of I already am.
"Do you want to talk to him?" Mikey asks, disappointed and thrilled, at once. Luke looks at him, looks down at him, just slightly, his eyelashes brushing his cheek as he scuffs his shoe on the pavement.
"Yes," he says, "well, no." Mikey raises an eyebrow, leans back against the wall and watches as the BMWs inch closer. Luke follows his eye line and seems to be trying to hide a smile. "My father wants to meet, yes. Wants in, we all know that. But he doesn't want a fight, doesn't want any of that. He wants ―" Luke runs a hand through his hair, fluffing it up, and Mikey wants to tug at it, wants to see if Luke would like that, "― wants to merge."
A slow smile curls onto Mikey's face; he can feel it, an unstoppable force of nature.
"Were you sent to talk to me?" He asks, leaning forward, into Luke's space. Three months, and Luke doesn't back away.
"No," he replies, admits, and Mikey thinks there we go.
He is the only archangel, Saint Michael, he is the leader of heaven's armies, he is the patron saint of soldiers, he judges and he redeems and he guards. Mikey's soldiers are lined up in front of him, jaws locked and hands steady and hearts beating for him, always, because he judges, he redeems, and he guards.
Under Australia's red sky, golden Ashton will slink and spin and Sydney will fall at his feet, starry eyed in the presence of his bright grin and sharp teeth, blinded and oblivious to the tommy gun tucked in his palm. The local boy who'd never left the country, who knows nothing of his forefathers, who is loyal in that easy way that everyone is. The local boy who held fire in his palm and who swore I enter alive and I will have to get out dead and who made Mikey shake with how hard he'd believed it.
Under Australia's red sky, in Mikey's childhood home, tucked in the shadows and in the corners and into Mikey's side, Calum will stay. "Ask me to do it," Calum will say, when it's dark and it's only the two of them left up, hunched over names and numbers, "I want to do it, ask me to make my bones, ask me to do it for you."
Mikey does't say a word, turns away, hot on the back of his neck. A fortnight later, however, Mikey's father walks in with the brightest smile Mikey's seen since they made it to the Coast, Calum a second behind him, with the smallest smudge of blood under his chin. Mikey wants to rip his heart out and throw at it Calum's feet, wants to climb into his skin, wants to lick the blood away, wants to steal him away and never let him see someone else's fear again ― not anyone's, not Mikey's, never again.
Under Australia's red sky, Luke will begin to tan, will grow broad and husky, too, just like his brothers, will shoot once and won't be able to stop, not for hell or high water. Mikey's brother, in arms and in blood and in tradition, made just for him. Just for him. Just for him, the last son, and he knows Mikey's world in the most intimate way ― knows the smell of gunpowder and cannabis and pride, feels the sand beneath his feet and thinks this is mine, too.
Ashton's escape might be in death, but Luke has none: in hell or heaven they'll be stuck together, the last two sons for whom the world will bleed for.
Mikey's soldiers are lined up in front of him, and they will lie and they will wound and they will kill for Mikey, for his family, for his land. Mikey will drop to his knees in the dirt, in return, because this is it. This is cosa nostra, this is his family, a tangle of blood and choice and no returns.