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Counting Out Time

Chapter Text

“The palpitating cherry-red organ was returned to its rightful place and began to beat faster as it led our hero, counting out time, through his first romantic encounter.”

Bookstores, it turned out, were good for more than just hiding oneself. Rael would have never noticed if he hadn’t been in trouble that day. He’d been caught stealing a hot dog from a street vendor, which didn’t seem like that much of a crime to him- if you lose a hot dog, just go and cook another. No big deal. But for whatever reason, the salesman was very annoyed by this. He’d yelled at Rael and chased him down the sidewalk, oblivious to the fact that leaving his vendor was tempt other thieves to it. “Hey, you! You come back right now!”
Rael didn’t obey. He supposed that this was what he got for not being careful- for not waiting until the salesman’s back was turned completely before trying to nick his wares. The salesman kept pace with him, catching up inch by inch. There was no subway to hide in. Rael sped up, turned a corner, and darted into the nearest building. And that was how he came to arrive at a bookstore, out of breath and only slightly annoyed that he had dropped his hot dog in the chase.
Rael traveled to the back of the shop and tried not to look suspicious. His charm worked, as it always did; the man keeping watch behind the front desk seemed to stare straight through him. Rael tucked himself away in one of the dark recesses of the store, right between two bookshelves. He slid to the floor and concentrated on getting his heart rate back to normal, tilting his head to read the titles on the books’ spines in front of him.
A sign above the bookshelf that Rael examined read “Enduring Classics”. Rael blinked at the titles beneath it- Gone With The Wind, War And Peace, Les Miserables. All were thick volumes, looking more like paperweights than stories. Rael wasn’t keen on opening any of them. He stood up, brushed his jeans off, and weaved his way down to another shelf, upon which sat a wobbling stack of unshelved, uncategorized books.
“Nonfiction” read the sign above this new shelf. Rael ran his finger along the stack, thinking that these books looked much more inviting. He picked the first one off the shelf, wiping the dust that had settled off of it. It was a thin, well-bound book, bearing the title of Erogenous Zones and Difficulties in Overcoming Finding Them. Rael’s curiosity was piqued.
He opened the book up, enjoying the way its spine cracked beneath his fingers, and gave the table of contents a cautious glance. There were several interesting headings- A Brief History of Sex, Zone Locations, How To Find The Right Partner. Rael closed the volume and fumbled around in his pocket. This book looked useful, and he was going to take it home with him.
Despite Rael’s hot dog thievery, he actually had a small sum of money in his back pocket. He approached the book seller with Erogenous Zones... under his arm, clearing his throat. The man looked up.
“Hello, sonny. What can I do for you?”
“I’d like to buy this book,” Rael said, producing the volume and handing it over to the man. He didn’t think he’d ever said those words before. The salesman took it and thumbed through the pages, emitting a soft chuckle. “You got a girl you want to use this on, sonny?”
“No...” Rael wasn’t aware he needed one. “How much is it?”
But the man wasn’t done soliloquizing. “I remember my first girlfriend,” he told Rael. “This book could have come in handy for me then! In fact, I think it was published during my time...” He flipped over to the copyright page and checked the date. “Yes, just as I thought... I don’t remember ever seeing it in stores...”
“How much is it?” Rael asked again.
“Oh... how much?” The man finally came back to himself and closed the book, pushing it across the counter to Rael. “Er, what’ll you take for it?”
“I have a five,” Rael said, showing it to the man, “and some coins.” He presented three grimy pennies.
The man clucked his tongue. “Hm, five dollars and three cents... Tell ya what. If you come back to this store tomorrow with five more bucks, I’ll let you have it today. As long as you pay!” he added as Rael grabbed the book back.
“Sure, sure,” Rael mumbled, tossing the bill onto the counter. “See you later, mister.” He departed from the bookstore, holding Erogenous Zones... under his leather jacket, while the salesman called behind him, “Have a nice day!”
And so, Rael had come to conclude, bookstores must be good for something other than hiding. As soon as he was far enough away from the bookstore- and any potential hot dog vendors- he took the book out from under his coat and stared greedily at its cover. Yes, this book was going to be useful, all right. As long as Rael found a girl to try its tricks on.

It didn’t take long for Rael to return to the warehouse that was his home for the week, in search of someplace to hide his book. He was glad that John wasn’t home, or else he would steal the book away from Rael. John was a voracious reader, always in search of new stories, and if he found Rael’s new purchase he would never give it back. Rael had to hide it and then assert his dominance over John to prove that the book was his.
By the time Rael had gotten to his floor, he was exhausted from climbing the stairs. Rael scoped out the room, wondering where he could hide his book. There weren’t many options. A few crates were spread out in various corners, providing storage for food that Rael and John wished to conserve. A couch with ripped up cushions sat pushed against the wall, and beside it lay John’s books and newspapers. Rael was always careful not to mistake John’s reading material for their bed, which was made of newspaper as well. There was no electric light in the warehouse- the building was abandoned, and to turn it on would raise suspicion anyway- but a there was a battery-powered lantern in the middle of the floor, which kept the night bright when Rael wasn’t away on a raid.
He hurried forward, dropping to his knees in front of the couch. Neither Rael nor John had yet to move the couch, and so it sat in the same place it had when they arrived at the warehouse, collecting dust. Rael cleared out a space beneath it with his hands and pushed Erogenous carefully, moving the book far back so that John would never notice it. He patted the dust back down, making sure nothing looked disturbed. Then he straightened up, convinced that John wouldn’t be able to find the book.
Rael couldn’t stay for long. The sunlight streamed through the broken window, asking him to come out and play. It was a brighter day than usual on the streets of New York, and the city music was far too tempting. Rael hurried back down the stairs, out of breath, but excited for exploration. Not that he needed to explore- New York City was his home, and he knew every street, every alleyway, every crevice by heart. But each day in the chameleon city was a new adventure, with all kinds of things lying in wait. And of course, Rael still needed his lunch.

Chapter Text

That night, shadows fell in every direction, cast by the thousand lights of the city that never sleeps, and under the cloak of darkness Rael and his brother John gathered with the street gang for a bit of nighttime excitement.
“Everybody here?” asked Henry, the tallest one of them all and the gang’s unofficial leader, surveying the alley. He was much admired by the street kids for being the oldest in their group, and for leading a double life. By day Henry had a job, working for money (though none of the kids quite knew what it was he did). By night, he led the gang in their raids, free from the constraints of social life. Rael had always hoped to be like him someday.
“We’re here,” chorused a few voices. Henry scrunched his face up, squinting at the faces of the gang members, and took roll call. “Who’s present tonight? Say your name if you came.”
There was a shout of many voices, and then Rael said, “I’m here!”
“Great,” Henry said. “Couldn’t pull this off without you, Razor.”
“I’m here,” John said. Henry ignored him.
“Don’t worry,” Rael whispered. “He knows you’re with me.”
“Who’s worrying?” John murmured back coolly.
Taxis passed in the street, and some small animal- a cat, most likely- jumped from the rooftop of one of the buildings onto the trash can in the alley. One of the gang members started at this, causing mocking laughter to sound across the brick walls. Henry silenced them. “Shut up!”
The gang turned their faces in his direction, and Henry began. “We all know what kind of a raid this is tonight, right? If you don’t know you shouldn’t have come.”
“I know!” piped up one of the kids in front. “It’s a-”
Henry cut him off. “It’s a fire raid. Now, do y’all have your bottles?”
Each boy hoisted his high, Rael and John included. Henry showed his approval in his eyes. “Good, good. If you forgot your bottle you shouldn’t have come.”
A wind began to blow at Rael’s back, and he tightened his jacket around himself. He looked to John automatically, checking to make sure his brother had worn the right apparel. He had- John was clothed in a World War II-era bomber jacket and long jeans, perfectly warm.
“Now,” Henry continued to the gang, “we all know what to do. Is this your first time on a raid?” No one raised their hands. “Well, if it’s your first time, you still shouldn’t have come. Rael, come up here. I need you to take the second group. There’s a big crowd tonight.”
“All right,” said Rael- it really was a big turnout. Most of the gang had nothing better to do at night anyway, but usually there were at least a few who wanted to sleep. But nobody would be crazy enough to miss a fire raid. Rael took his place at Henry’s side, and Henry began speaking again. “Divide yourselves into two groups. And no fighting, for the love of God. If you want to fight-” he paused for a moment, knowing that everyone knew what he was going to say- “you shouldn’t have come here anyway.”
The gang split into halves. John joined Rael’s group, much to Rael’s happiness. Henry looked on with approval.
“Now, follow me!” And they took off. It wasn’t running, not yet- the gang would save their running energy for later- but it was swift motion, and Rael could feel the wind in his shaggy hair. He liked how the night air felt on his skin- nice and cool.
There was a shopping center that was the gang’s target tonight. As soon as they arrived, Henry checked for passersby. Of course there were a lot- this was New York, after all- but Henry felt certain that the gang could keep themselves hidden. “My group gets to come with me. The rest of y’all follow the Razor. You get the front parking lot, I get the back of the stores. Don’t get yourselves caught. See ya back at the alley.” He departed with his excited group. Rael stared out at the light-washed lot, puffing with pride like a peacock. Henry trusted him with the cars! He’d better prove he was worthy of them.
Rael checked to make sure that Henry’s group was out of sight, and then turned towards his own group. “Okay, c’mon.” The gang silently descended on the parking lot, puddles of blackness exposed in the light. Rael ordered the group to split up, to dissolve suspicion.
“Should we slash their tires first?” one boy asked. Rael shook his head, wondering why slashing tires seemed to be so entertaining to the young gang members. “When I give the signal, you begin.” They nodded and split. John went with them, leaving Rael to his car.
It was a handsome one, that was for sure- a sleek black Mercedes with shiny metal door handles. Rael rubbed his hands together, half-wishing he didn’t need to destroy it. He could do a lot of good with a car that cool. But Henry was expecting him to pull it off. So Rael removed the glass bottle from within his leather jacket and uncorked it, discretely pouring the liquid onto the car’s hood. The smell of gasoline filled the air. Rael reached into his pocket and dug out the most vital ingredient in the recipe for fire- a box of matches. He opened the box and shook one out, striking it against the side of the box to light it. Rael admired the steadiness of his hand, no longer shaky and full of nervousness. He gave a glance around- no one but the gang was in sight, waiting on his signal- and whistled two off-key notes, one higher than the other, loud enough for the wind to carry them to the ears of his companions, before dropping the match onto the gasoline-infused car. The vehicle went up in flame.
Rael lit another match and tossed it onto the car, making sure the whole thing burned. Then he stepped back, his head whirling. His group was shrieking with joy as their individual cars burned. Rael breathed, seeing flame and fire and feeling adrenaline racing through his veins. He let out his own cry of joy, pumping his hands in the air. Exhilaration ruled his mind.
But the pleasure couldn’t last long. Onlookers caught glimpses of what was going on and raced towards the parking lot. Rael was torn from his celebration to instantly be shot with fear. Henry’s words rang in his ears- Don’t get caught. In a few moments it would all be over if Rael lingered. But should he call it off now, or should he wait for Henry and his group?
The people were running, and Rael’s instincts took over. He cupped his hands around his mouth. “To me!” The gang came running towards Rael and took off, not even bothering to check if everyone was there. Rael sped up, breaking into a run. He scanned the group for John, the light of the fire staining his retinas, and finally spied him weaving his way through the group, running faster than Rael was. Somewhere along the line Henry and his group returned from the back lot, mixing in with Rael’s group to make a fully-formed gang. They ran as one, as a pack, leaving the danger of the parking lot far behind them.
In the dark, Rael was usually more sure-footed. But the car fires had blinded him with their brightness, and so he stumbled once, and finally tumbled to the ground. Rael’s jacket caught the ground, ripping his leather-clad elbow, and Rael cried out as he hit the pavement, more for the sake of the jacket than anything else. The gang blew past him, not helping him up-their mindset was that if you fell, you deserved it.
“Uhhh...” Rael groaned as he rolled onto his side, winded. He tried to push himself up, but his limbs felt like rubber. That was when John appeared, snaking his way back through the night to help his brother. Without a word, he bent over and extended his hand to Rael, who took it and used it as a lever to get himself on his feet. John still said nothing, barely waiting to see if Rael was okay before he was off again. Rael checked himself for scratches or bruises, and then began jogging in an attempt to catch up with the gang, his heart burning with gratefulness for John.
So the juvenile arsonists scampered and gamboled playfully all night long, setting the city ablaze. But it wasn’t like that every night. Sometimes the gang would go tire-slashing as another way of destroying cars, which excited the younger members but was an activity that Rael saw no point in. His favorite nights were the spray paint raids, where every boy had a can for themselves and wrote on the walls until morning broke. Every night was something new, forgotten by morning, but wholly enjoyable while it lasted. The city was theirs, every man for himself, and they would never, ever grow old.

After a few more targets of flame and destruction, Henry called it quits for the night. He declared he was going back to his apartment, which inspired some kids to ask if they could come with him. Henry sighed, but gave in, as he always did. “But if you stick around for morning there’s no telling how fast you’ll be kicked out!” Rael looked around for John, intending to leave with him, but found no sign of his brother. He worried for a bit, hoping that John was safe on his own, and loitered around before finally departing. His stomach rumbled, begging for food. So Rael decided to swing by his favorite bar and find something to eat within his price range. At the very least he could find some late night entertainment.
As Rael entered the bar, he glanced forlornly, as he always did, at the sign which read: THOSE WHO ARE UNDER 21 YEARS OF AGE MUST NOT PURCHASE OR DRINK ALCOHOL HERE. Rael was only three years under that rule, an adult but not quite old enough to drink. He despised the rule that made it so he could not get drunk, and wistfully thought back to his first attempt at purchasing alcohol-
The bartender raised his eyebrow as Rael slouched down in a barstool, putting his tough face on. “I’d like a beer.” He growled these words at the bottom of his voice, in the lowest range he could muster.
“How old are you?” the bartender questioned.
“I’m 22.” Rael squinted, annoyed. Are you questioning me?
But yes, indeed the bartender was. “Suuuure you are,” he stated in disbelief. “Let’s see some ID.”
Rael sprang up, indignant. “But I’m tall for my age! Why don’t you believe me-” He fell silent, realizing immediately what he had done. A second later, Rael was sitting on the sidewalk outside, his head stinging from the cuff the bartender had administered to it, reading the sign on the door. THOSE WHO ARE UNDER 21 YEARS OF AGE MUST NOT PURCHASE OR DRINK ALCOHOL HERE.
That was just before he’d gotten hauled into the Pontiac, Rael remembered. He blinked, resurfacing and shaking off the remnants of old memories. He wondered, as he took a seat at the bar, if John was doing all right.
Somewhere in the back of the bar, a live band was playing. Rael didn’t know if they were any good or not. He wasn’t listening. The bartender came over, a man who was sympathetic to Rael’s age limit. He had made it clear before to Rael that he would gladly sell him alcohol if it didn’t cost him his job. The bartender and Rael chatted for a bit, and then broke apart as the man behind the counter went to get a nonalcoholic drink and a plate of food for Rael. He rarely minded if Rael didn’t pay. Rael supposed that he was the bartender’s favorite regular.
All around the room, couples danced to the live band. Their friends egged them on from their seats, cheering. The night was young and some folks were only on their second drinks. The atmosphere was teetering on the edge of controlled and wild, which was a tense feeling that Rael loved. The bartender whirled back over to him with his order, and Rael took it, sipping his drink slyly.
That was when he saw her.
Down at the far end of the bar, a woman came to sit. At first Rael thought she was a man- her dark hair was cropped short and close to her head. Then, as she swiveled her neck, Rael realized that she had on earrings, and a short silver dress. Wrapped around her shoulders was a black pashmina, and at the end of her feet were high, spindly heels. Her skin was the same color that Rael’s was. She ordered a drink and fiddled with her earrings.
Rael, openly staring, had never seen a woman more attractive. Especially not here in this bar. He slowly got to his feet and approached her from the side, sitting down on her left.
“Hola, chica.” The Spanish flowed easily from his mouth. “You come here often?”
She looked at him deeply. Her eyes were like two orbs of pure, dark chocolate.
“Nah. I’ve never even seen this place before. Who the hell are you?”
Her voice was flavored with a distinct Hispanic accent, the country of which Rael could not place. He struggled for words.
“I’m Rael. And who are you, chica?”
“Marina. Stop calling me chica. You’re not even fully Hispanic.”
Rael started. How did she know that...? Forgetting to be cool, he blurted, “How could you tell?”
Marina shook her head, rolled her eyes. “For heaven’s sake. The lights aren’t that dim in here. No Hispanic person had sky-blue eyes.”
Oh... Of course. Rael had forgotten his eye color for a moment. He tried to think of a snappy comeback. Unfortunately, his brain was empty. Rael was tongue-tied.
“So... where’re you from?” he eventually managed to say.
“You mean my home country? Colombia. I’ve been living here for a week, though. Where’re you from?”
Rael hesitated, unsure of what to say, before finally responding, “New York.”
Marina laughed. “I thought the natives around here were more suave. Bartender-” She stood up, catching the barman’s attention, who came over and refilled her glass. Marina sipped from it and glanced back to Rael. “Say, don’t you get enough sleep at night? There are huge circles under your eyes.”
“I know,” Rael huffed. He was fully aware of those strange circles, and felt uncomfortable whenever anyone pointed them out. “I’m... not one for sleeping.”
Marina wagged her head. “Makes sense to me. I’d go insane if I had to sleep exposed to all that honking and all that shouting every night. It’s bad enough for seven days so far.” She leaned over the counter, and conversation was lost for a few moments. Rael floundered for words. Desperate to say anything that would impress Marina, he opened his mouth and found his foot inserting itself in there as he blurted something that was definitely unimpressive- “Are you one of those women who do it for money?”
Marina, settling herself back down in her chair, whipped her head towards Rael so fast that Rael expected it to snap off. She glared evilly, coldly at him. “What the hell? Do you think I’m a hooker?”
“No-” Rael knew that he’d made a huge blunder, and wanted to slap himself. “I... I was just wondering if you were.”
“Bastard,” Marina hissed, standing up and taking her drink along with her. Rael wasn’t hurt by the insult- it was true, after all- but he was hurt by her departure. “Hey! Don’t leave! I’m sorry I thought you were a hooker!”
Marina stopped and looked back at Rael, her face hardening. She mouthed one word to him- “Unbelievable.” Then she gave him the bird and moved on to a new section of the bar. Rael wanted to drown in his nonalcoholic drink.
He set the glass down on the counter and spun around in his barstool, watching Marina on the other side. She sat alone, reaching down the top of her dress... Rael’s breath caught. Marina slid her hand out from beneath her clothes and produced a lighter. She looked around, and stood up to tap the shoulder of the man at the table in front of her. They conversed, and he gave her a cigarette. As Marina walked away, she let her pashmina drop, revealing her broad brown shoulders.
Rael was smoldering.
He leapt up suddenly and moved down the bar, away from the counter, away from Marina. The band was getting into a fast song and everyone was jumping around, energized. Rael joined them at the front of the makeshift stage and began dancing in time. He wasn’t exactly a good dancer, but his feet had a certain instinct and rhythm, and he hardly ever misstepped. Soon a space was cleared out as the couples parted to make room for Rael, the king of dance.
Up close, the band was so loud that Rael could barely even hear himself think. He closed his eyes, getting so much into his dancing that he was frightened when someone tapped him on the shoulder. Rael opened his eyes to find Marina there, offering herself to him. She said something, but he couldn’t hear her above the music. He grabbed her and pulled her against his chest, and the song sped up. Rael and Marina moved to the beat like there was no tomorrow.
Marina was quite the dancer, it turned out. Rael had never seen anyone who could groove so well. He was out of breath by the time the band finished their song, but kept it together to dance another. And another. Then a slow song came, and the couple rested on each other, Marina softly petting Rael’s shoulders. Rael was in bliss. Neither of them spoke.
The guitarist played a splendor of rippling notes, and Rael whirled Marina around. He dipped her at the climax of the song, and she lay limp in his arms, her soft skin exposed on her neck and shoulders, her delicate breast going up and down, panting. Rael imagined that they were the only two in the room, that her fluttering eyelids hid deep love for him, that her trembling lips were breathing, sighing his name... He leaned in.
And the song ended. Couples pulled away from each other and moved to sit down. Marina, a still life in Rael’s arms, suddenly flipped out from under his grasp. She stepped a few paces back, wiping the sweat off her forehead. The band retuned. Rael, drunk with the effect of Marina, tried to locate the words that would call her back to him.
“I’ve never danced with anyone before,” he said.
Then he turned around and left her.

Chapter Text

Rael slunk home through the unnatural New York night, hiding in plain view. He entered the warehouse and climbed to the third floor on aching feet, dying to rest. In the light from the window, Rael could make out John curled into a ball on the floor, asleep on spread out newspapers. His heart flooded with relief that no harm had befallen John while he was away.
Rael lay down next to his brother, closed his sticky eyes, and fell asleep cursing himself. That night, he dreamed of Marina.

Morning came less harshly to awaken the sleeping teens. Rael feigned sleep for a few minutes after John had gotten up, waiting for him to leave the warehouse. He pretended so well that soon he was actually asleep again, and rested his eyes for a few minutes more before coming to his senses. Rael’s eyes opened; John was gone.
Today was an unnatural day for Rael. Instead of going anywhere, he made himself at home on the couch and hung his head over the edge, looking for Erogenous Zones and Difficulties In Overcoming Finding Them. Rael’s dim eyes couldn’t see past the dust that he had so carefully replaced in front of the book, but his rough fingers came into contact with its leathery spine. He reached further, pulled the book out, and breathed a sigh of relief. John hadn’t discovered his book. It was all Rael’s.
Throughout the day, Rael’s nose was buried in Erogenous Zones...He had intended to just skip to the sections that would help him with impressing women, but the entire volume was compelling. Rael momentarily forgot about Marina as he devoured page after page. Morning quickly changed its shade, turning to afternoon to evening and, finally, to night.
Night was the time when John came home. He was hauling with him a bag of potato chips and a small pizza in its box. Rael, absorbed in his book, barely heard John come in. He had read Erogenous Zones... cover to cover several times, and was now approaching his fourth.
“Hey,” John greeted Rael dropping his load on the floor. He took off his coat and flung it into a corner. “Did you get anything for dinner tonight?”
Rael slowly emerged, rousing enough to respond, “No.”
John stopped in picking up the pizza box and shot up, letting out an angry huff of air. “No?! What do you mean, ‘no’? Haven’t you-” His vision focused, eyes falling on Rael at last. “Rael! What have you been doing all day?” He walked forward, spying the book in Rael’s hands. “What’s that?”
“Hmmm- a book,” Rael said, unaware and forgetful of John’s mounting annoyance. He mouthed the now-familiar words of the introduction to himself.
“A book?” John was scornful and incredulous. “You’ve never read a day in your life!”
“I’m not familiar with that title,” Rael stated calmly, turning a page and hoping he looked intellectual. He heard a sigh, and knew John was rolling his eyes.
“Have you eaten at all today?”
“Yes,” Rael said. “I had some food out of the crates.”
“Idiot,” John growled. “We were supposed to save that food.”
Rael was oblivious. The book had just reached a particularly engrossing part in the first chapter. He couldn’t look away from the print.
John waited for Rael to say something, but when no words came he turned and went back to his pizza and chips. He ripped the bag open and sat down on the floor, eating noisily and watching his brother warily. Rael went right on reading, as he had been all day.
Finally John said, “What’s that book about?” with a twinge of interest in his voice.
Rael at last looked up to answer him. “It’s a book about sex. It tells you how to make love.”
“Making love...” John laughed briefly. “Why are you reading that?”
Rael paused, and then sat up, sliding his finger between the pages to mark where he was. His head spun as blood rushed to it. His stomach rumbled. Rael looked down longingly at the pizza box that John was guarding.
“I met a girl last night,” he said. “At the Moonlit Knight. She was... amazing.”
“You met a girl?” John scoffed. “Was she interested?”
“Hell yeah,” Rael laughed, lying easily. “She was interested all right. If she hadn’t had to leave I would have taken her home.”
“Well, thank God you didn’t,” John said. “Who’d be impressed by a place like this?”
“I was gonna take her to Henry’s,” Rael clarified. John snorted again. “Henry’s probably got his own whore to sleep with.”
“Not to mention the gang,” Rael added.
A lull followed in the conversation, and John opened the pizza box, wiping his salty fingers on his shirt. Rael grew nearly delirious with the smell of fresh pizza. He started to hop off the couch, but stopped, remembering that John couldn’t be trusted around a book.
John sat cross-legged, took a bite of the pizza, and spoke with his mouth full. “What kind of girl would want to go out with you?”
“Any girl,” Rael replied, shrugging. He couldn’t stop staring loopily at the pizza.
“How about a blind one?” John suggested. He broke off a piece of pizza and held it out to Rael. “Come get your stupid pizza. If you’re gonna be lazy and sit around all day instead of getting food, you better thank me for this.”
Rael remained where he was, debating internally. Should he take the book with him to dinner, or leave it on the couch and have John pick it up? Well, spilling pizza sauce on its cover was nothing compared to losing it to John, so Rael got up and settled down on the floor, placing Erogenous Zones... in his lap.
The two brothers ate with nary a word before John made his move. “Can I see the book?”
Rael swallowed his lump of pizza and glowered, hugging Erogenous Zones... to his chest. “Don’t you dare.”
“I only want to look at it,” John said innocently.
“You’ll steal it and never give it back to me! I need this book!”
“Right, for your imaginary girlfriend. We all know no woman was interested in you last night, or any night, or ever. I need that book more than you ever will.”
“Oh, for who?” Rael shot. “Your imaginary girlfriend?”
“Nah,” said John, utterly cool. “I’ve just read everything we have in the house so far. Say, where’d you get the book, anyway?”
Rael wasn’t really in the mood to tell him. He felt like proving to John that the book was his and would stay his forever. He stood up, flexing his muscles. “Dare you to fight me for it.”
“Rael,” John groaned as if in mortal pain. “You’re such a child!”
“Oh yeah?” Rael was now eager and prepared. He laid Erogenous Zones... gently on the floor and took a step towards John, leering over him. “Come and get me!”
John gave him a what-is-this-are-you-kidding-me look. Rael lunged. He barreled into John, making sure not to strike him too hard, and knocked him over backwards on the floor. John was breathless. “Shit, Rael, get off me! Or I swear to God I’ll kill you!”
Rael knew the threat was empty. The one problem with John as a wrestling partner was that he rarely fought back. This was a battle already won in Rael’s favor. He grabbed John’s arms and tried to roll over. John lashed out. Using his stronger muscles, he wriggled from underneath Rael and pulled his brother’s hands behind his back. John then pushed Rael over onto his stomach, digging his knees into his back. Rael struggled, but John’s weight was too much for him.
“3...2...1!” John murmured. Rael slumped down, going limp. John clambered off of his back, and Rael rose to his knees, checking for bruises. “No fair, John! I want a rematch!”
John stood and brushed himself off, irritated. “That was fair and you damn well know it. I’m going out. God, Rael, you’re such a pain in the ass sometimes.” He breezed out of the room, picking up his jacket on the way. Rael heard footsteps pounding on the metal stairs. Soon there was no sound at all in the room save for Rael’s breathing.
He stared after the doorway that John had disappeared through, his head whispering the words Be careful. John often went out and about, for no reason at all other than to be alone, and Rael often worried about him during these times. His responsibility to John was great, and if anything ever happened to him Rael would never stop blaming himself.
Rael got up from the floor, his sides gently throbbing, and picked up the pizza box, the potato chip bag, and finally the book. He settled down on the couch, placing the food beside him and the book in his hands. As Rael opened back up to his place, he made sure to leave enough food for John in case he came back and was hungry.
God, Rael, you’re such a pain in the ass sometimes.
John was the most important person in Rael’s life. And he loved him no matter what.

Chapter Text

The daylit NYC streets saw very little of Rael for the following days. He hid himself from his talkative pals who were inclined to ask where he’d been. Rael was reluctant to tell them. He could imagine their scorn- “What would you want to read a fucking book for?” You’re just jealous that I can read at all, Rael addressed his mental tormenters, and continued his lengthy study of Erogenous Zones... The only times he went out at all were when he was hungry, or the food supply at home was running low. By night Rael went back to the Moonlit Knight, searching for Marina.
Erogenous Zones... continued to be just as engrossing as it was on the first day. It always gave Rael a thrill to crack the book open and read, for the whatever amount of time it was, the introductory words:
Greetings, comrade! So you’ve decided to purchase this book? You have made an excellent choice. This book will be the most important one you will ever read in your life. It endeavors to teach all the arcane secrets of love & sex, and most importantly, of locating the most stimulatory spots on your body. If you feel embarrassed for buying such a book, don’t be. Many others have the same problems! Your closest friends may even be suffering because they, unlike you, do not have a book to guide them in lovemaking. In owning this volume, you have an advantage over them all! By the end of this book you are guaranteed to be the best of the best in terms of sex.
The following pages were decorated with figures that Rael always stared after greedily, imagining that he was the one the pictures depicted. Early on, he had tried to follow the acts shown in the figures, but he never ended up with the right results.
Practice, the book said. Practice makes perfect. Practice makes permanent. Only time will tell when your work is cut out for you.
In the chapter “How To Find a Perfect Partner” or “Selecting a Suitable Mate”, Rael learned that in order to pull off the book’s writings, his girlfriend must not be dominant. The woman you choose to help you partake in these proceedings should be passive, unwilling to complain. It helps for you to charm her beforehand before getting her in bed. One suggestion is to leave her flowers every day.
Rael thought about Marina. She hadn’t seemed like a very passive woman to him. But the book continued on to say that if a woman was too headstrong, she could be calmed by alcoholic drinks. Rael kept that in mind, filing it away in his memory, and wondered where he could get flowers.
There was a passage towards the end of Erogenous Zones... that truly captivated Rael. He read it over and over.
The power of the masculine body should never be underestimated. Men are built for hard work, and so their bodies must be fit and durable. Once you’ve learned to control and focus your muscular power, lovemaking will be more enjoyable. Your body is like a steam train, and the body of your partner is its tracks. When engaging in activity detailed in this book, remember that you are the steam train. You are speeding down the railway to deliver an important load.
Rael repeated this metaphor- you are the steam train- often to himself. He couldn’t wait to find his tracks again.

Due to frequent studying and scrounging at the Moonlit Knight, Rael no longer participated in the gang raids he was accustomed to. His absence was well-noted, and to avoid explanation Rael decided to keep away from as many of his friends as he could. Sometimes he heard the gang running around outside the broken warehouse window, probably wondering if he was in. But no matter how tempting the raid was, Rael couldn’t afford to let it detain him in his search for Marina.
To his disappointment, Marina hadn’t shown herself once during Rael’s scouting in the bar. He had no other way of locating her, and sometimes wondered despairingly if she had been so offended the first time that she would never return. But then, Rael wasn’t staying out all night. He often gave up and went home early, or simply left because of fatigue and worry for John’s welfare.
One day Rael noticed that the supply of food in the crates, though still well-stocked, was running low on one crucial item- chestnuts. Chestnuts were not Rael’s favorite, but John was a fan of them. He had been eating them behind Rael’s back, thinking that his brother wouldn’t notice. Rael knew that if they ran out of chestnuts, John would have Rael to blame. So he snuck out of the warehouse come nighttime and lurked around all night street vendors for food to replenish the stock.
Soon Rael’s nimble fingers snagged two bags of the mushy nuts. It had been far too easy for him. He walked back down the sidewalk, swinging the bags with his arms, and on a whim decided to head over to the bar and embark on one more futile Marina search.
Rael entered the Moonlit Knight presently, sauntered past the age limit sign, sat down at the bar- and immediately spotted someone dancing. There was no live band tonight; music piped out of the radio speakers overhead instead. And right underneath them was Marina, whirling along to the Muzak. Rael’s search was over.
He almost didn’t recognize her at first because her attire had changed. Instead of the long silver dress and pashmina, Marina now wore jeans and a tank top. With her short hair, she looked nearly like a man from behind. Then Rael caught a glimpse of her breasts, and realized it was the same Marina from before.
She was still beautiful.
On she twirled, refusing to look over at the counter. If she saw Rael, would she remember him? Most likely she would, as Rael had inadvertently insulted her at least twice. He wanted to join her, but was unable to move his feet. The music stopped, and Marina stopped with it. Rael had to choose- now or never. He told the bartender to guard John’s chestnuts behind the counter and leapt up from his seat.
Marina turned around just as Rael came speeding towards her, hand outstretched to tap her on the shoulder. His motion left no time to halt and retract; thus Rael’s hand struck Marina’s collarbone and his body tipped forward awkwardly. Marina flinched at Rael’s touch, her eyes widening in shocked recognition. “Rael!”
“Hell-” Rael began in greeting, but left the word in mid-syllable as a curse as Marina, the only thing keeping his balance, moved sharply away and Rael stumbled backwards, catching himself on a chair- which happened to hold an occupant. The person turned around and stared as Rael steadied himself on his feet. It spoke. “Rael?”
“Rael?” said Marina, taking a hesitant step forward.
“Rael?” the person in the chair said, slowly getting up. His was a face that Rael knew all too well.
“Marina...” said Rael, the subject of these addresses, and turned to the second person weakly. “Henry...”
“What are you doing here?” both voices demanded at once.
Rael was trapped by two pairs of eyes. One belonged to his gang leader. The other belonged to his dream girl. He had no idea who to answer first, or even what to say.
Start with the chestnuts first.
“Um,” said Rael, clearing his throat. “Um, I went out to get chestnuts for John...”
Henry’s face settled into a hardened patience, while Marina looked on expectantly.
“And, well, I thought I’d stop by here,” Rael finished, looking from one person to the next. That was the full story. Marina nodded, while Henry turned his gaze onto her.
“Who’s that?” he asked, addressing Rael but staring openly at Marina. Jealousy slowly simmered in Rael’s stomach.
He leaned forward into Henry’s ear and hissed, “I’ll tell you later, okay?” Marina was waiting. Rael had to get her away from the gang leader as quickly as possible.
Henry opened his mouth, ready to blurt more confusion, but Rael had already left him, striding over to Marina. She was staring fixedly back at Henry. “Who’s that?”
Rael sighed, sick of questions. “Nobody. Just come with me.” He tried to take her hand, but she slapped him away and strolled forth. “I’ll lead myself if you don’t mind.” And Rael had no choice but to follow.
They came to a table together and Marina sat down, gesturing for Rael to pull up a chair. Rael did so and sat down nervously. Now that he was alone with Marina, he wasn’t sure what to say, especially after seeing Henry.
Fortunately, Marina spoke first. Unfortunately, her words were not something Rael wanted to hear. “For a nobody, that guy sure was a cute nobody.”
“Shut up,” Rael growled, burning with envy.
Marina laughed. “Someone’s jealous, huh? So, you’re surprised I still remember you? Did you think I’d have forgotten that awkward Hispanic guy with the blue eyes who called me a hooker and danced better than anyone I’ve ever danced with? Or did you forget me? Or maybe I never left your mind. Maybe you thought about me every night and wondered if I was out there thinking of you too. Did you think I’d fallen in love with you at first sight?”
She paused- Rael had nothing to say- and then murmured, “Well, I have.”
Rael was shocked, unable to believe his ears. “Wait, what? You like me?”
“Of course I like you!” Marina laughed. “You’re really not half-bad.” She reached forward and stroked Rael’s unyielding hand. “You wanna dance some more?”
“Um…” Concentrate! Rael tried to clear his head by staring past Marina’s shoulder. “Actually… um… I wanted to… um…”
“You wanted to what? Spit it out, Rael,” Marina said dryly.
“Um… um… um…” For a moment Rael had forgotten what he had to say. “I wanted, um, to ask you…” He had a feeling that he was about to say something stupid, but his mouth wouldn’t stop moving. “Um, would you be my train tracks for tomorrow night and go out to eat with me?”
He didn’t dare look back at Marina, which might have been a good thing to do because she wasn’t saying anything anyway. Rael couldn’t stand to look at whatever face she might be wearing at the moment. Finally he heard her voice in the silence- “You want to go on a date with me?”
“Yes!” Rael cried, turning his face back onto hers eagerly. “Yes, I want to go on a date with you!” He felt relieved that someone had said it more eloquently than he had.
Marina leaned forward into Rael’s line of vision. “You’re a funny one, you know that?” She tapped on his hand. “Sure, I’ll go on a date with you.”
“Great,” Rael said, and thought it again- Great! “I know a place we could go. I’ll give you directions.” He was exhilarated.
“Okay,” Marina said simply. “Hey, now do you want to dance?”
“Sure thing.” Rael allowed Marina to lead him away, his heart spinning. He had a date. He had a partner. Soon he would be tested in the book’s teachings. It was near impossible to wait.

Rael returned to the warehouse with his two bags of chestnuts, his mind filled with music and dancing and Marina. John was not asleep; instead he had turned the lantern on and was reading the day’s newspaper by its light. He gave a little glance upwards when Rael walked in, and zeroed in immediately on the bags. “What’s that you have?”
“Chestnuts,” Rael answered, moving over to the crates and opening one up to empty the bags into.
“Oh.” John wasn’t sure how to respond to this gesture of kindness. “Where were you?”
“The Moonlit Knight. John-“ Rael turned to his brother with a huge grin. “John, I have a date!”
“With your imaginary girlfriend?”
“No, she’s real,” Rael brushed the comment aside. He wasn’t in the mood to protest any further- he was too happy. “God, I need to start studying!” He ran to the couch and picked up Erogenous Zones and Difficulties in Overcoming Finding Them, settling down with it in his hands.
“Haven’t you done enough of that?” John asked.

That night was the first night Rael did everything correctly. The result made his head spin wildly. He gasped with pleasure.
John looked up from his newspaper. “I’m trying to read. Can you keep it down?”
Rael, floating pleasantly through blue skies and white clouds, didn’t hear John over the pounding of his heart. BOOM, BOOM, BOOM.
“Make sure not to spill your precious juices on our bed,” John said, giving one last warning before he went back to his reading.

Chapter Text

The next day was the day of Rael’s big date. Now that he had finally solved the book’s puzzles, he had no doubt this affair would be a breeze. Rael was now able to move from page one to page one hundred with tremendous sophistication and skill. After tonight, even tough Marina would want to stay with him. He imagined her beautiful face lying on the cold floor next to him, asleep.
But then a new thought occurred to Rael, something he hadn’t considered before. John’s words sounded vividly in his ears- Who’d be impressed by a place like this? Definitely not Marina, that was for sure. It wouldn’t suit a lady to have to sleep and make love on a cold warehouse floor, with only newspapers for warmth. And John had warned Rael not to try his tricks on the bed, because John would have to sleep there later. No, the warehouse wouldn’t do.
However, there was one place that Rael knew he could go to for the night- Henry’s all-access apartment, where he let members of the gang sleep over if they needed to. Of course, to ask Henry for his apartment would mean to meet him face to face, as Rael had no telephone, and that would mean the questions- where have you been lately, are you avoiding us, why were you in the Moonlit Knight last night, who was that woman? Rael hoped that Henry wouldn’t be too harsh on him when he found out the truth, and that Henry wouldn’t decide not to let Rael have his apartment for the night because of this avoidance.
Hopeful and sure that things would work out in his favor, because Rael considered himself great at persuasion, he left the warehouse and told John not to expect him until the next morning. John hid his grin beneath his newspaper, certain that Rael was not going to score. Rael, not seeing his brother’s expression, then rattled off a list of rules John was to follow on his own, which consisted mainly of “Don’t die and don’t eat all the chestnuts.” He left, glad to be free in the New York sunlight once again instead of trapped reading Erogenous Zones… in the warehouse.
Rael didn’t know where he could find Henry during the day, as he had never found where the man worked. So he set off for his apartment instead. The woman at the front desk then directed Rael, when he inquired, to a certain office building. She scrutinized Rael warily. “Are you one of those street urchins he takes in occasionally?”
“I’m not an urchin,” Rael told her. “And I certainly don’t live on the street.”
Bidding farewell to the receptionist, he crept back outside and, after studying a subway map, headed off in search of Henry. It wasn’t too long a trip. Rael ended up outside of the building, scanning the crowd in hopes that Henry hadn’t actually reached his workplace yet.
As it turned out, he hadn’t. Rising out of the crowd came a familiar brunette head, attached to a gray-suited body carrying a briefcase. Rael almost gasped in shock. If it wasn’t for the hair, Henry would have been unrecognizable. He had never imagined this great a change in Henry’s day life, and couldn’t wait to tell the rest of the gang about it.
“Henry!” Rael called, dashing through the crowd of people. “Henry!” Henry didn’t seem to see Rael, continuing to plod blankly ahead. Rael shoved through the flock until he was by Henry’s side. “Henry…” He touched his friend’s shoulder.
Henry stiffened, looked down, and froze when he saw Rael. “Rael- what the hell are you doing here?!” he blurted.
“I need to talk to you,” Rael said, sizing up this new Henry. “It’s about the girl in the bar…”
“Why couldn’t you wait until tonight to talk to me?” Henry whispered, glancing around anxiously. “Rael, I’m going to lose my job if I don’t show up today. I’m already running late.”
“But I can’t talk to you tonight,” Rael said. “That girl I mentioned that you met last night- I have a date with her! I need to know if-“
“Okay, if it’s that urgent, just come with me,” Henry sighed. “Don’t talk to anyone except me, and don’t call me anything but Mr. White. If you don’t obey these rules, you shouldn’t have come here.”
They stared at each other in recognition of Henry’s standby phrase, and then Henry started walking again, motioning for Rael to follow him.
It was the first time Rael had been in a skyscraper, or at least a healthy, inhabited one. He couldn’t stop staring at the workers in their cubicles, wasting their day away. Didn’t they know it was a beautiful summer’s day? What were they all doing in here? Henry pulled Rael into an elevator, and the bemusing sights faded as the doors closed.
Henry didn’t have an office to call his own. Instead, he led Rael into a room with a water cooler and a few large windows. Rael immediately hurried to the warm glass and peered out. A shock went through his body- he was high up! The warehouse wasn’t as tall as this.
“All right,” Henry said from behind Rael, checking out the hallway for passersby. “I don’t think anyone’s gonna come in now. Tell me what you need, Trailblazer.”
Rael turned around. “Well, basically I need your apartment. Just for tonight. I’ve been studying up on how to make love, and now I want to do it with Marina. That’s the girl from last night,” he clarified. “She said she’d go out with me tonight, and I really don’t want to screw this up.”
Henry blinked. “Rael, I can’t just lend you my apartment for tonight. Besides, we’re doing a spraypaint raid tonight. You don’t want to miss that, especially not after missing so many lately. And most chicks don’t do it on the first date, Razor. I don’t know what your Marina is like, but she probably won’t agree to sex right away. It’s best for you guys to wait for another time.”
Rael bristled. “I’ll get her drunk first, Henry. She won’t be able to resist when she’s wasted. And you just don’t want to let me have your apartment.”
“It’s Mr. White,” Henry corrected. “I’m just saying, I thought you’d like to go on a raid tonight. But you have a point. Where do you expect me to sleep after the raid is over?”
“Oh, just go find a whore and shack up at her place,” Rael suggested, utterly honest. “Please, Henry, don’t be unkind. There’s only room for one plus me in your apartment, and that one is Marina.”
“Mr. White. I told you to call me Mr. White.” Henry, usually more inclined to turn to anger at Rael, now only looked nervous. “Do you mean what you said about a whore, Rael?”
“Sure, why not? You can afford it,” Rael said, shrugging. “Just let me have the apartment for the night. I promise I’ll pay you back by going to all the raids you have after tonight. I’ll even send John when I can’t go myself. Please, Henry. It means the entire world to me.”
This time Henry didn’t bother to correct Rael about his name. He simply watched him for an unfathomable amount of time. It was hard to get in Henry’s good graces, and even a close comrade like Rael could still receive tough love from the businessman-turned-gang-leader. He’d never felt completely accepted when he was with Henry, and was the only gang member who didn’t sleep over regularly at his apartment. Rael had been there before, though, and greatly admired the place. It was perfect for Marina. He desperately hoped for Henry’s answer to be yes.
“…Okay,” Henry said finally, breaking Rael out of his musings.
“Okay what?”
“Okay, you can have the apartment tonight,” Henry sighed. “As long as you come to every raid following this. And never come here again. You shouldn’t have come here anyway, Razor. It’s not the place for you.”
Rael, giddy with excitement and disbelief, barely heard Henry’s words of caution. “I get to take Marina there tonight?”
“Yes, I just said that,” Henry told him, and Rael cheered for joy. “Yeah!”
“Keep it down!” Henry hissed, grabbing Rael’s arm. “They can’t find you here. You need to get out now.”
“Okay!” Rael replied, shaking off Henry’s hand, and darted for the door.
“Wait!” Henry called. “Rael, you need the keys!”
Rael paused, his hand hovering inches from the doorknob. “What keys?... oh, yeah,” he quickly corrected himself, remembering that not all dwellings were free to the public. He turned back to Henry and impatiently waited for him to dig out the keys, which, after an excruciating seconds-long search, Henry finally offered to Rael, who took them gratefully, happily.
“Now, what do you say?” Henry asked his comrade.
“Thank you so much, Henry!- I mean, Mr. White,” Rael blurted. Henry finally cracked the first grin he’d worn all day. As Rael prepared to leave for a second time, he yelled a few last words to him.
“Don’t make a mess in there, Rael! And leave everything exactly as you found it. And lock up after yourself!”
“I will!” Rael shouted, rushing down the hall. “Goodbye!”

Chapter Text

By nightfall, word had spread through Rael’s gang on the streets that there was a spraypaint raid tonight. Many of the boys decided to miss out on it, as they weren’t fans of the “sissy” raids. A little bird told John about it, and he decided he might as well go. Rael would be sorry he missed it.
But at the moment, Rael wasn’t sorry about anything. He was in the restaurant of his choice, waiting for Marina.
The restaurant of Rael’s choice was noisy and flashing with multicolored lights. A bass backbeat pulsated over the speakers, throbbing in the diners’ chests. An arcade was attached to the restaurant, and some gamers wandered in to stay and beat the high scores. It was Rael’s kind of place, where one could easily get lost amidst the sound and vision.
Rael, standing unnoticed in the middle of it all, looked a tad bit out of place. He’d spent much of the day scrounging for money on the streets and in the subways, enough to pay for tonight’s dinner. It had been long and hard work, and the eventual profit did not leave enough to buy flowers. The blooms that now sat clutched in Rael’s hands were stolen from a vendor. They were purple, a rare, attractive color, and gave off a wonderful scent. The flowers’ beauty made up for Rael’s appearance.
As it was a warm day, Rael hadn’t bothered to wear his leather jacket at all. The T-shirt he’d put on instead had started out white, but soon grew dusty gray as Rael loitered around subway stations and on the streets. He wanted to change it, but it was the only shirt he owned, and it wouldn’t do to show up for his date without one. Rael’s faded, formerly blue jeans were ripped in several places across the knee, a constant reminder that he should turn them into cutoffs but one that Rael never heeded. As usual, his hair was a spiky black mess, unbrushed cowlicks flying everywhere. With his beat-up sneakers completing the picture, Rael looked nowhere near ready to go out with Marina. But there was no time to straighten up, and besides, it was given that Marina would outshine him anyway. Rael only hoped that she hadn’t dressed formally for the occasion.
His blue eyes were permanently affixed to the door. There was no way he could miss Marina’s entrance. And yet when she did come in, Rael fell back into his old habits and mistook her for a man. In a similar jeans and T-shirt ensemble, it was entirely possible- at least until Marina was right in front of Rael. “Hello!”
Rael jerked, realizing he’d been caught unaware. “Hi, Marina-“ Quickly, he offered her the bouquet of wilting flowers, which she took and brought up to her nose.
“Mmm. These smell good. Thanks for the present, Rael!” Marina smiled.
“You’re welcome,” he mumbled. “Let’s go get a table.”
The young couple sat down and a waiter handed out menus. Rael’s preferred restaurant luckily offered alcoholic drinks, and to Rael’s satisfaction Marina went and ordered one herself. When Rael asked for soda, however, it created a brief moment of humiliation.
“Don’t you want anything stronger?” Marina questioned him.
“I don’t have my ID on me,” Rael mumbled.
“You don’t need an ID to order drinks,” Marina laughed. But almost immediately after that- “Wait. How old are you?”
“Eighteen,” Rael muttered, hoping that Marina would not hear him over the radio. However, her ears were sharp.
“You’re only eighteen?”
“Yeah, what’s it to you?” Rael snapped, his face flushing. Marina laughed. “If I hadn’t known better I’d say you were at least twenty-one! Eighteen. I’m sorry… kid.”
Rael winced at her light jesting and looked away. The night wasn’t off to a great start.
But after that mishap, things turned around. Rael and Marina fell into an easy conversation, learning about each other and, along the way, themselves. Rael did tell his share of lies- he never mentioned the warehouse, or his life on the streets, or the gang- but managed to beguile Marina all the same. He told her about his apartment, his job in an office, and mentioned that he was paying for everything tonight. Marina openly admired this, and in return described her life in Colombia to Rael. He listened intently, fascinated.
“So where are you from?” Marina eventually asked.
“Like I said- I’m from here.”
“No, not New York, silly,” Marina said. “I mean, what country are your parents from? Or one of them, anyway.”
“Uh, Puerto Rico,” Rael replied. It was one of the few truths he’d told all night.
“Puerto Rico,” Marina repeated. “Well. I can’t say I know the place well, but I have been there and it’s not too shabby.”
“Yeah, not too shabby…” echoed Rael.
He wasn’t in the mood to talk about himself. Marina had only had one drink tonight, and it didn’t seem to be bringing her any closer to intoxication. Rael knew from Erogenous Zones’ advice that without the aid of alcohol, things would go less smoothly at the apartment. In fact, he might not even convince Marina to go there unless she was too drunk to protest. Rael had to act. But how? His budget was low, and there was barely enough room for another drink.
Just as Rael was beginning to despair and considering just swiping some drinks, a deus ex machina appeared. It came in the form of a waiter, carrying an entire tray of cold beers. He set it down on a nearby table- Rael could almost feel its chill- and raised his voice, calling all diners to attention.
“Hello- everybody! Excuse me!” The music blaring over the speakers was abruptly turned down. Everyone, including Rael, glued their eyes to the waiter, wondering what the big deal was.
The waiter began again. “Just letting everyone know- we’re holding a contest and the winner gets this entire tray of drinks, free.”
Just my luck! Rael’s heart leapt.
“The contest will be at the arcade,” the waiter said, motioning with his hands. “The first person to beat three levels on a game will win. I encourage you all to join in.”
A few of the gamers, who were staked out in the arcade, realized that their habitat was being invaded and slunk away from the precious machines into the shadows to watch.
Rael stared at the hulking game machines. He hadn’t played one of them in a long time. But he was determined to win those beers for Marina. Some diners started to stand and walk over to the arcade, and Rael went with them, leaving his lover behind.
“Step right up…” the waiter was saying. Rael slipped unnoticed through the line of people and scanned the inward arcade warily, drumming his fingers on his jeans. Did it matter which game he played? He stood back for a moment and watched as the diners went to separate machines, and tried to decide as they played which game would be right for him.
None of the diners were particularly good at the games. Rael watched as many of them died during the first level. He made notes of their mistakes, trying to teach himself what to do for when his time came to play.
A soft hand landed on Rael’s shoulder. He whirled around, finding himself face to face with one of the gamers who had emerged from the shadows.
“Hey.” The tone was welcoming, friendly in a cool manner. The speaker was a boy about Rael’s age, maybe younger, with sunglasses pushing his hair back and a tanned face. “You’re going to play the games? You look like one of us.”
“I’m not,” Rael said. “I’ve hardly played before. I just want to win the prize for my date.”
The gamer sized him up. “You’ll probably do a lot better than those amateurs.” He nodded to the diners, who were still failing to win anything. “What’s your name?”
“Okay. Well, Rael, as soon as that machine’s free-“ he nodded to one in the far right- “you should go and play it. I’ll stand next to you behind it if you need any help. They won’t notice me at all.”
“Thank you,” Rael said, turning away from the gamer. In a short time the machine was free and the diner was walking disgruntled back to his table. Rael made his move.
“Anyone else?” the waiter was saying, looking around. Rael cleared his throat. “Um, there’s me.”
“Ah, good! Let’s see what you can do.” The waiter turned to look at Rael as he went over to his game of choice, and the gamer slipped into place next to the machine. Rael inserted a coin into the machine- one of the last on his budget- and with a whirring noise, the game started up. Rael selected his car- it was one of those racing games- and prepared to speed his way through level one.
The hidden gamer whispered tips to Rael, who employed them to the best of his ability. He was soon so enraptured by the game that he didn’t notice when people started to crowd, realizing that this skinny, quiet teenager was going to win the free beers. Rael blew past level one and moved to the second level, hands moving rapidly at the controls. He was so close- so close.
The surrounding crowd cheered when Rael neared the finish line, moving on to the third level. Rael didn’t hear them. His ears were tuned only to the whispers of the gamer at his side, controlling him with words. The diners held their breaths, waiting. Suddenly Rael’s car sped past the finish line at the end of Level Three. The diners burst into celebration.
“You’ve won!” the waiter cried, rushing towards Rael, who still stood uncertainly at the controls.
“You won,” whispered his friend the gamer. “Congratulations. I knew you could do it.”
Rael blinked, his vision slowly adjusting to the real world once more. “I… I did?”
Just then the waiter came running, excited. “Congratulations!” he cried out, clapping his hands down on Rael’s shoulders. “You win the drinks! What’s your name, boy?”
“Rael,” Rael murmured, staring about himself. His gaze latched onto the drinks greedily, and then onto Marina. His date had stood up when Rael won, cheering. Her brown eyes reflected happiness and joy. For Rael, that was all the prize he would need.
“And how old are you?” the waiter asked.
Rael stared up at him. “Eighteen,” he murmured in a daze.
The waiter’s face closed up.
“Well, Rael, it looks like you’re not old enough to win the prize.”
“No!” Rael cried. “I’m not old enough, but my date Marina is!”
“Oh?” The waiter took his hands from Rael’s shoulders and looked around the room. “Where is she?”
“Right there,” Rael said, pointing to his table. He beckoned Marina up. She came skipping to his side.
“Congrats, Rael! I didn’t know you were good at games.”
“Miss- Marina, was it?” the waiter addressed her. Marina stepped back from hugging Rael and stared at him. “Yes, that’s my name.”
“How old are you?” the waiter pressed her.
Marina continued to stare. “Twenty-one. What’s it to you?”
“Are you going to drink all this beer yourself?”
“What, you mean the prize? I’m not going to let Rael touch it, if that’s what you mean.”
“Let’s just get back to the table,” Rael spoke up. He was feeling uncomfortable with the waiter nearby. Marina tossed her head and strode forward to grasp the tray of beers. She saucily pranced back to the table, with Rael following.
“Bottoms up,” Marina said, lifting a mug in her hands. “Cheers. A toast- or whatever you want to say.”
Rael picked up his free-refilled-glass-of-soda and clinked it with Marina’s, a smile blooming on his face that Marina would fail to interpret correctly. The night was back on track again.

They exited the restaurant broke, drunk, and happy, with nothing but the clothes on their backs- Marina had, in her intoxicated stupor, left Rael’s flower bouquet behind. Rael himself was not drunk in the least, as Marina had kept to her word about not letting him touch the drinks. But little by little, he had persuaded her to drink every glass, which had led to fascinating results. Marina clutched Rael tightly to her and pressed her lips fervently to his, winding her fingers into his shaggy hair. Rael’s head spun. He wrapped his arms around her waist, never wanting to let her go. It was his first kiss.
They let go of each other and Rael whispered in Marina’s ear, “Want to go see my apartment?” She giggled and nodded quickly, sticking her finger in Rael’s own ear. He jumped and tugged on her hand. “Come on, let’s go!” They dashed through the New York streets together.
Henry’s apartment lay ahead, stretching its lit windows outward to any strays and vagrants. Rael opened the door and hauled Marina into the building, who moaned and collapsed about on his shoulder. “Come on, Marina, move it!” Rael shook her shoulder gently, hoping he had not gotten her so drunk that she could not move. But she hadn’t. She roused and soon was supporting herself on Rael’s body, moving with him as he got to the top of the building and fumbled for Henry’s keys.
“Won’t they find us?” Marina whispered, her lips very close to Rael’s ear. Rael stuck the key into the lock and steeled himself for Marina’s tongue in his ear. “Who’s ‘they’?”
“…they,” Marina mumbled, clasping Rael from behind. They pushed in through the door together. Rael disentangled Marina and flipped the lights on, illuminating Henry’s penthouse.
“No one will find us, Marina,” Rael said. “My brother’s out and everyone else is asleep.”
The place was spotless, with lush curtains and a large TV and glistening chrome in the kitchen area. The sofa was large enough to fit two people, but Rael wouldn’t settle for anything but the bed. His heart was racing with nervousness and excitement. Would he pass tonight’s test like he had done with himself last night? Would Marina be impressed? He stifled his fears by rushing back over to her and leading her towards the bedroom.
The lights were off and Rael found no reason to turn them on. He knew where the bed was- no one could miss it. It was the biggest piece of furniture Rael had ever seen in his life, and the mattress was soft and free of noisy springs. He closed the door behind himself and Marina, leading her through total darkness, and then they fell back along plush pillows and down comforters.
Once they had undressed among this opulence, Rael went into testing mode. His lips were busy with Marina’s, who lay still, her arms wrapped tight around Rael’s chest. Just lie there still, and I’ll get you turned on just fine, Rael thought, breaking their final barrier. Now they lay together as one being.
Rael frantically dredged up the teachings of Erogenous Zones… from the back of his mind. He knew where all the zones were located on his body, and he knew how to use Marina properly. To help himself remember, Rael began mentally counting out time.
There were the hotspots, 1-6… Rael had no problem unlocking those. Zone number 7 was a bit tricky… he had to remember all of his tricks… Marina gripped the hair at the back of Rael’s neck a bit painfully. Did she have a hair fetish or something? She seemed to really love touching his… ah! 7 was over and done with. Now on to 8, 9, 10… bam! Rael was flooded with the most beautiful pleasure, washing over his body. Heaven was in 11, for sure! His countings began to unravel, moving backwards in time. 3…2… It was rather like the way John had pinned Rael during wrestling, wasn’t it?...1! Rael rolled over, and Marina sprang up, suddenly lively. She switched on the light, revealing her naked self in all its glory. A goofy smile fell upon Rael’s lips.
But Marina wasn’t smiling. “If I had a drink I’d toss it at ya. You call that a roll in the hay?!” She was livid, nearly literally hopping mad, her lithe womanly frame shaking with anger.
“I call that a test, actually,” Rael said.
“A test! More like a pop quiz. That only took a minute!”
“78 seconds, actually,” said Rael. “I was counting. So it was more than a minute.”
“Well, it sure as hell wasn’t long enough!” Marina bent over and began to pick up her clothes.
“I thought it was too long, personally. I’m trying to cut it down to at least less than a minute…” Rael watched as Marina dressed, his heart starting to sink. “Hey, where are you going?”
She looked up at him, a glare on her face. “I can’t believe you. I’m not staying with you any longer tonight. I’m going out.”
“But- Marina!” Rael exclaimed as she rushed for the door. “I’ll do better if you give me the chance, I promise! I’m a red-blooded male, and the book said I couldn’t fail…”
“Book?” Marina arched her eyebrows. “What book?”
“Erogenous Zones and Difficulties in Overcoming Finding Them. It taught me everything about sex I know!”
Marina’s face was hard. “Goodbye, Rael. Don’t try to find me again.” She turned and ran, slamming the door behind her.
“No, wait! Marina!”
Only silence answered him. Marina had left the building.
“Yeah- well, you’re a bitch, too!” Rael yelled, and his voice echoed and bounced across the walls. He stood up, suddenly unable to stay in Henry’s apartment a moment longer. The bedsheets were a bit tangled, but Rael found no time to straighten them. He left the apartment, headed for home, unable to believe he had missed a spraypaint raid for this.

Upon returning to the warehouse, Rael, being a sore loser, decided to practice the book’s teachings one last time before he returned it and got his money back from the bookstore the next day. “Stupid woman,” he grunted to himself. “I never needed her. She doesn’t deserve to have me… mmmmmm.”
When it was over, Rael kicked Erogenous Zones… across the room and sank to his knees on the floor. That was when he heard what sounded like footsteps coming up the metal stairs. The wind whistled through the broken window.
“John?” Rael called out hopefully, but his hopes were wrong to be lifted. No one appeared in the door, not John with his bomber jacket and a spray can in his hand. Rael sighed and dropped to the floor, acknowledging that John was not going to come home when he was still awake. He curled up into a ball on the newspaper, resting his head on his bare, skinny arms, and was asleep within seconds.
Moments later, John appeared standing next to Rael, his hands stained with black and red paint. He watched Rael sleeping, uninterested, his arms folded across his chest, before taking off his jacket and lying down himself. John threw one arm around Rael and huddled into him for warmth, closing his eyes. Soon there was no sound but that of their hairless hearts beating in time, almost as if they were one.