“The doors of heaven and hell are adjacent and identical.”
James could hardly believe his luck. The young man up ahead had to be the one. If he wasn’t, James didn’t care. He was tired of looking, tonight. He would pick him up, anyway, and the loonies he worked for would just have to deal with his habit for the umpteenth time -- or take their terrorist business elsewhere. One couldn’t pass up a chance at heaven.
The young man turned slightly, and James stumbled on the uneven pavement. The shadows of the street lights wavered up the smooth lines of his pale abdomen and chest, dancing in every dip and curve. James caught and held his breath for a moment. His chosen had a chest that would make a Greek statue weep with jealousy.
He moved again, and James felt saliva pool under his tongue. He had never wanted to be a pair of jeans so badly in his entire life. The black fabric, graying slightly at the seams, was molded to the young man’s heat like a lover’s hand, greedily concealing nothing. No, he wanted to be seen, this young man...
All of them did, on this run-down block. That’s what they were there for: to be noticed. Paid. And James did pay, quite often. He liked relationships without strings. Most people in his business did.
James took another step forward, feeling the fine fabric of his gabardine trousers brush along his calves above his socks. Would this beautiful young man find him attractive? James wondered. He had a small paunch, and his hair had begun thinning in the last year or two. And the humidity always made James sweat
A nasty voice intruded itself in his head: You don’t pay them to like you.
A thin man, no a thin boy stepped forward into James’ path. His dark hair was lank with grease. The purple smudges under his eyes made James sneer and a voice that barely qualified as a tenor propositioned him. James quickly side-stepped him. Not his type. Not at all. Too thin, too experienced by far, and probably carrying a passel of diseases.
James took another step on the damp pavement as the young man shifted restlessly, his face briefly illuminated in the bleaching glow of a street light. James halted his steps and swung one hand out to the building wall beside him, scraping the meat of his palm against the rough brick. Dear God in heaven, he had never seen a man so perfect, so meant to be desired...
His eyes were still in shadow, but James hoped they would be green. A green he would never forget. James had always desired green-eyed men, the emotional ones with fire in their hearts and eager hands...
But the lips, slightly parted and glistening with the moisture of a coral tongue that had flicked out moments before, the lips held James’ attention as he continued forward. He skirted around a rancid bum curled up in a doorway and stepped around a broken beer bottle, the shards crunching under his expensive shoes. He was getting close enough to see the faint stubble along the high cheekbones and stubborn chin. Good, very good. James liked them proud.
Coercing them into pleasure was that much more rewarding.
Eyebrows swept over shadowed eyes, matching his curly hair. It was a color James couldn’t quite discern. Not brown, exactly, and not red. Something in between, mutable, changing every time he moved under the street light.
As if on cue, his young man shifted again, a lock of curly hair obscuring one eye. A lithe arm smoothed it back and James held back a chuckle. He would teach this young one to appreciate his beauty, to appreciate his untamed nature. James smiled as the man’s shoulders hunched and stretched again, brushing his aquiline nose with a finger; all he wore was a thin leather vest, open at the front. He had no idea -- none -- of how beautiful he was.
Or, if he did, maybe he was frightened by it. James would be. He had always been average.
Suddenly, James realized he was only a few yards from his chosen one. Somehow sensing him, the young one turned and tilted up his chin in a lazily defiant challenge. Oh, the eyes. He could see the young one’s eyes, now, and amidst the pale green was a fraying veneer of control. He was afraid. James could always tell a first-timer. He took a step closer and changed his mind. No, not a first-timer. But this was his first voluntary hook, here on the street. James would stake his best Armani suit on it.
Or maybe...not...voluntarily. Lack of money had a nasty way of equalizing everyone.
A smile lingered on James’ lips as he closed the distance. It didn’t matter why the young one was here. All that mattered was that he agree to come with him tonight. The young man shifted slightly to face him as he approached, and James’ eyes nearly rolled back in his head. The jeans were so very tight, the fly jutting out. Facing head on, his thighs were lean; sideways, James could see they were heavier than he first realized.
The night was just full of surprises.
James tugged his gaze down to glance at his feet. Barefoot and he wouldn’t take him home. It was too dangerous, no matter how exquisite he was. His searching eyes found a pair of battered, black combat boots. One of the laces had broken and he had mended it with duct tape.
Something jingled. James dredged his eyes up the young one’s angular calves, the faded knees of his jeans, past those tightly encased thighs to his waist. A shiny metal chain was twisted through the belt loops. James quirked his lips and met the defiant green eyes of the young man. He had a sense of humor, with that faux chastity belt. Even better.
James stepped so close that he could smell him, so close that the young one’s stubbled chin almost brushed his nose. He smelled of...soap...musk...leather. James felt his nostrils flare as he breathed in, attempting to fill every last cavity of his lungs with his intoxicating scent.
Involuntarily, James leaned in and caught a whiff of metal from the heavy chain along the column of the young one’s throat. It gleamed faintly under the shadow cast by James’ upper body. The young man stiffened, like he wanted to take a step back, yet knew better than to try it.
“What’s your name?” James whispered, pleased to find his own baritone voice soft and seductively husky. It wouldn’t do to frighten the young one away.
“What do you want it to be?”
James laughed softly, ducking his head. That accent...it piqued his interest. “Surprise me.”
The young one’s pale eyes traveled down James’ body in a leisurely pass. Probably taking in the quietly expensive cut of his suit, attempting to get a fix on his brand of watch. His eyes traveled back up again. James knew he had passed muster when the young man said, “You can call me...Michael.”
James nearly had to reach out for the wall again to regain his balance. That voice was unreal. The more James heard it, the more it he wanted to coax him to speak. “Michael, you said?”
There it was again. Crisp, yet sensuous. Soft and flinty. Challenging and liquidly submissive. James decided he had to be French...or Belgian? The French could do a lot of things right: bread, high fashion and anything involving the tongue.
Oh, yeah. James wanted Michael to be French.
Michael lifted his muscled bicep and tucked a curl behind one shell-shaped ear. James felt drawn towards him, a magnetism of sensuality and endearing innocence. He could teach him, show the young one pleasure...
And how to give pleasure in return. Definitely how to give pleasure in return.
“Michael,” James said, savoring the name on his tongue. Michael. Strong. It fit in a way James wasn’t expecting. “How old are you, Michael?”
The lids lowered on Michael’s green eyes, long lashes throwing shadows on his high cheekbones. His gaze asked if it mattered, but those full lips began forming the words, curling to speak a ‘v’ before recalling himself. “Old enough.”
James was guessing early twenties. He had a slightly unfinished look about him, a hint of boyishness in his jaw. All that would be burned away with age to leave perfection; James was sure of it. But by then, he would be a fruit ripe for plucking. James definitely preferred green things.
Michael’s lean fingers clenched nervously and he flicked his eyes over one shoulder that had yet to become fully fleshed out.
I’d love to see him turn around, James suddenly realized. If this is heaven, the other side must be hellishly tempting.
A soft sound ricocheted out from the next alley and Michael turned toward the noise, muscles quivering. James felt his lips part with a soft exhale as he got his unspoken wish. The black fabric caressed his curves, folding under his taut buttocks with a tempting crease. Tendons on the back of one leg flexed as Michael shifted, outlining the thick muscle once more.
I could die happy, James chortled, devouring Michael from heels up. His eyes took in the shoulders that tapered into slimly muscled hips. There was a slight knob at the top of Michael’s spine between the collar of his leather vest and the ends of his curly cinnamon hair. His fingers twitched with the need to touch it, to make this young one aware of him.
He felt the jolt as his fingers brushed along the smooth skin, skimming above the leather vest. Electricity shivered through him, dropped his defenses, made him yearn. His fingers tangled in the rough-velvet curls, something inexplicable drawing him forward to press himself along the hard length of the young one’s back.
He felt Michael stiffen, felt the layer of muscle underneath satin skin tense. His breath fluttered Michael’s hair and James buried his nose it the fragrant mass, his lips seeking and finding the back of the young one’s neck. He shivered when he felt Michael force himself to relax, individual muscles slowly unclenching. James couldn’t hold in his gasp as Michael took a quick breath and pressed back against him.
Michael moved, turning on one booted foot that creaked in protest. He pressed himself closer, close enough that James could smell the scent of his skin, the salty tang from under his neck. James tilted his head to gain further access to the reluctant young one, brushing his lips along his stubbly jaw. His lips stung.
He felt the slanting lines of Michael’s chest, his chiseled length squirming closer. James felt his heartbeat pounding in time with his groin as the rough fabric of the young one’s jeans pressed itself to his gabardine trousers. He knew, at that moment, he would hate himself forever if he didn’t kiss this wild creature.
James launched himself forward without thinking, without weighing his options or the risks. He pressed himself inexorably upward on toes pinched by his expensive loafers, and brushed his lips against the young one’s silky mouth. Michael’s lips locked into place a breath later, hard yet yielding to pressure.
Somebody pinch me, James thought. And then, his mind blanked as Michael opened his mouth.
James didn’t care that Michael had clearly not wanted to do it, had been slow in parting those sculpted, velvet lips. James ignored the fact that Michael half-heartedly participated in this open-mouthed tangling of tongues. He tasted like...like...salt and musk...youth and the faint acrid tang of tobacco. Michael must have drank a glass of acidic red wine recently. James tasted all of it.
His tongue delved further, lapping at the smooth interior of Michael’s mouth. James couldn’t help himself as he shifted closer, slanting his mouth over Michael’s delectable lips. His clean-shaven chin rubbed against Michael’s stubble, but James had long since ceased caring. The skin around his lips grew increasingly more sensitive, until, gasping, James pushed himself away from Michael’s reddened mouth.
Michael took a slow step back and cocked his head, lips curved into a sensual, knowing smile. But he didn’t know. The young one didn’t know the half of it; he couldn’t know and taste this sweet, this unsullied. There. James saw a flicker in Michael’s eyes, a slight darkening to a mossy green that belied his ease.
He had no idea of what he was doing, not really. He didn’t taste like a pro.
He didn’t smell like one, either.
James saw uncertainly flare in the young one’s eyes, and knew some of what he had been thinking had spilled onto his face. Michael took another step back, those lush lips parting in hesitation. The young one cocked his head sideways, curls sliding onto one unlined cheek. James had to close his eyes at the beauty of it.
“You don’t want me?”
His eyes snapped open as the words reverberated through every buzzing cell of his body. James bit back a harsh laugh, pulling his stinging lower lip between his teeth in a grimace. Not want him? In that moment, there wasn’t a creature that could not help but want Michael.
His chosen one was rampant with sensuality, gifted with a combination of textures and angles that drew the hands more surely then Michael would ever be able to comprehend. The young one’s muscles were drawn tight, his eyes wild. He wanted to bolt, but something kept him on that piece of damp pavement. James could feel his fingernails digging into his palm to keep from frightening the young one away.
“It’s more than want,” James answered, edging forward. “More like desire, like need.” James watched with fascination as the young one’s eyes swirled and changed color again, a green tinged with blue. His pupils were dilated. James flicked his eyes down Michael’s corded arms. No tracks. No drugs. A man couldn’t stay as fit as Michael doing that. There was only one answer.
Michael needed money badly, and he was willing to do anything to get it.
James allowed himself a moment to wonder what had driven the young man to this street, quickly concluding that he didn’t want to know. It was best not to know.
It was Michael who stepped forward then, a strong hand lifting to brush his fingers down James’ cheek. The gesture shocked him, delighted him. The young one’s eyes were averted, but James still shuddered and leaned into the caress.
PART II: MICHAEL
“I believe that I am in hell, therefore I am there.”
“Come with me.”
Michael blinked, his muscles clenching as the target pressed his palm against the bare skin at his shoulder. Something spasmed in his gut and Michael knew he was panicking. He had not panicked since...
It was best not to think of that time. It would not do to associate those memories with the current situation.
Michael clamped down on the rising emotion, careful not to let it show on his face. A few more minutes and the mission would be over when Jurgen ordered in the retrieval team.
“Where are we going?” Michael tried to swallow, but had found his throat clogged by the same blockage that had turned his own voice into that of a stranger’s.
“To a place...where we can be alone.”
Michael felt a momentary flash of emotion, his legs carrying him forward. James steered him down the street towards a better part of town, culling him from the mercenary flock. What had it been? Relief that it would be over soon? Triumph? The mission profile was going according to plan, that much was true.
The very mission profile that had been giving Michael dry heaves all day, because Jurgen was leading the team. It had taken some time, but Michael had eventually discovered from Walter that Jurgen had permission from higher up to...test him. He had yet to discover why. Walter had a way of giving out information piecemeal to avoid any complications and implications. But even Walter had been unsure of why he had been tapped for this mission.
All Michael had had as a basis for this seduction was his experience in prison. And that had been brutal...debasing...painful.
But it was not painful when James pressed his hand at the small of his back as they climbed into the taxi. Michael’s nose filled with the musty scent of the interior as he slid across the sticky seat. He felt a dull flush creep up his cheeks as James leaned forward to give the driver directions and placed a proprietary hand on his upper thigh.
What did it feel like?
The photograph in the target’s file had shown a clean cut man with an expensive suit; his profile was filled with his twisted personal habits. Paper and video had not prepared Michael for the reality of this mission, for being preyed upon. It had not prepared him for James’ gentleness.
No. Not James. The target. Michael wanted him to remain faceless. Nameless. It would be easier to pretend he did not exist, that way.
The taxi pulled over in front of a run-down motel and Michael slipped out from behind the target, discreetly surveying the streets for a sign of a black Section van. According to the profile, the target should have been grabbed by now.
He was steered towards the stairs of the motel and Michael numbly stepped onto the stained carpet, letting his thoughts wander. He didn’t want to think about the here and now. He would think about it later, when it hurt less. When it made more sense. When he had done what Jurgen seemed to be sending him to do.
It had taken a powerful assertion of Michael’s will to keep his fingers from trembling when he had touched the target on the cheek, there on the street. All his training had told him it was what the man had wanted, an assertion of Michael’s desire for him. Michael had struggled with the lose-lose situation, and had decided to work towards achieving closure. Anything was easier than failing in front of Jurgen’s watchful eyes. So, Michael had touched him. The target’s eyes had fluttered shut and Michael had felt him gasp, his fingers coming up to clutch at Michael’s forearm. A clutch which had quickly turned into a caress and a throaty laugh. Although his nerves had tingled in a perverse display of pride that he could arouse this man, Michael had been a breath away from vomiting in the gutter.
He had not done anything yet, but he knew, without question, what it meant to be a whore.
Jurgen had already tortured him earlier, joking about his prowess. His skills at seduction. He had even offered to fix Michael up with a male friend he knew to make it easier. The malicious raillery had ended with a sparring session. Michael had given Jurgen a vicious welt on the cheek, but it had not made him feel any better.
Nothing ever did.
Since he had finished his training period at Section, Michael had thought that the strict regimen of Section One would be the perfect antidote for his raging guilt. He would fight for the greater good; he would sacrifice himself. The one thing he had not counted on was that his guilt grew with every single act of atonement. And Michael was no longer sure how far he was willing to go to assuage that guilt. He had already drawn the line at building more bombs. Would they allow him to draw another?
He doubted it. No. He knew it.
Michael hated that, the lack of control he had over his life, over simple things like the need to acquire prior approval to cut his hair short. He was utterly bereft of choice. If Michael had to envision a personalized hell, Section would fall very close to the mark. He often wondered how long he would be condemned to burn there, five hundred feet below ground...
But Michael had known the nature of Section One from the first moment he had opened his eyes to Jurgen’s heavy-lidded gaze.
“Welcome to hell,” Jurgen had drawled, eyes watchful for a reaction. Prophetically, Michael had not lunged at Jurgen. He had simply blinked and remained silent, waiting for more information.
Now Michael knew from experience that the less one told Jurgen, the better. If his instincts had not led him right in that first year, Michael never would have made it out of training alive.
Not many did.
There was no one to talk to, no friends with whom he could discuss his problems. Michael could ask Walter the innocuous question or two, but if he pushed at all, the man would squint those blue eyes and skewer him with his tongue.
Michael still preferred the older man’s company to that of his trainer. At least Walter had a sense of humor.
He had slowly been accepting loneliness as a matter of course, as he accepted everything in Section...as Michael suspected he would accept what was happening tonight. But even in prison, even when the other inmates had forced themselves on him, Michael had never felt so completely alone as he did now. He had been weak and very young, and there had been a few men with hearts left who had tried to help him. But in Section...Michael sometimes suspected that Jurgen had conspired to keep him aloof and apart from the other recruits and operatives, just like he was.
Michael had asked him about it once, when they were both wincing from a strenuous workout. He had blurted out the question that had lurked behind his lips for months. Jurgen had answered, “Segregation by means of superiority.”
Whether it had been a compliment or a warning, Michael had not been able to determine.
But the idea of Jurgen complimenting him had been so foreign to Michael, that he had almost forgotten himself and smiled. Jurgen did not like Michael’s smile; he said it made him look wholesome.
Michael’s trainer had often had a heavy hand with irony.
Michael’s thoughts were jerked back to the present like the snap of a tensile wire as the target’s fingers moved down from his waist. They were alone in the hallway. A fluorescent light flickered.
Michael tried to hold his breath imperceptibly as the target’s fingers moved down, over his hip and pressing his palm flush against the fly of his jeans.
He inhaled sharply, abdomen contracting in an involuntary need to get away from that gentle hand. It felt...
No. Michael did not want to dwell on how it felt.
He was fiercely glad, at that moment, that he had not succumbed and allowed himself to call the target by his name. If Michael kept it impersonal, maybe it would not hurt as much. And then again, maybe it would hurt more.
Which one was better?
Michael slumped against the wall as the target stepped away and fumbled with the lock of the motel room, chipped plaster digging into his bare shoulder.
Where was Jurgen?
The profile had stated that this was to be a simple maneuver, capturing the target at the only time he was without an armed escort. Michael would separate the target from the crowd. A Section team would converge. The target would then be taken for interrogation.
Since Michael had left the Section van, Jurgen had not spoken once over the comm-link.
On no account did Michael believe it to be an accident. And on no account did Michael believe there had been an equipment failure.
Michael shoved himself away from the wall and preceded the target into the dingy room, chain belt jingling with the sway of his hips. He felt a hand between his shoulder blades, underneath the leather vest that had absorbed the warmth of his body. Questing, Michael turned his head, freezing before the target reached his peripheral vision.
Where was Jurgen?
His heart thudded to frantic life in his chest, and suddenly the chain necklace felt too snug around his throat. It had been...years...since someone had touched him that way. Gently, almost reverently.
“Would you like anything to drink?” His voice was soothing, pitched low to put Michael at ease.
Michael felt oddly bereft as the target’s warm hand left his back. He wandered farther into the dim room, nudging the TV stand with the toe of his boot.
“Is there wine?”
The target chuckled, then. Michael turned to catch his expression, hungry for real emotion after being held captive in Section.
“Wine? I doubt it.”
Michael blinked, reminded once again of where he was. Who he was.
“Nothing for me, then.”
Michael was faintly startled at the laughter in the target’s eyes. He must have made a ridiculous picture, a whore picky about his beverage. Michael knew he had to take better care in the future to stay within his role. Something tonight was making him distracted, and a distracted operative was a liability.
But where was Jurgen?
A glass clinked. Out of the corner of his eye, Michael saw the target’s Adam’s apple bob as he tossed back an amber liquid. He wiped his mouth on the back of his hand and turned to face Michael.
Unsure, Michael took it as a signal that it was time for him to earn his money. A flush blossomed on Michael’s face, creeping down his neck and making his hands feel swollen. A carved, silver ring bit into his index finger. Michael deflected the urge to flee.
Michael’s legs felt wooden and unresponsive as the target crossed the carpet. He advanced on Michael slowly, brown eyes narrowed. And then he was there, his lips fastened on Michael’s neck just below his earlobe.
Michael let out a shuddering gasp of surprise that the target took as approval. The middle-aged man pressed closer, his tongue hot on Michael’s neck. His hands were everywhere, soft like a woman’s.
Michael’s own hands were callused from nearly a decade of odd jobs for his father and later to support his sister. Which the target discovered, to his delight, a moment later. Michael fixed his eyes on his thumb as it disappeared into the target’s mouth.
The top of Michael’s head seemed to lift as he suborned all higher functions, as he ruthlessly denied everything but physical sensation while a tongue swirled over his knuckle. Air quivered in his ears, and the shattered feeling along his spine faded to a prickling sensation.
So this is how I do it, Michael thought wonderingly, closing his eyes.
It was so easy, he wanted to laugh.
Half on instinct, and half because he knew what it would do to him, Michael pulled his thumb from between the target’s teeth and slipped it into his own mouth.
“Whiskey,” Michael rasped, identifying the unfamiliar tastes on his skin.
The darkness began to blur as the target slipped Michael’s leather vest from his shoulders, hands touching the skin that had been hidden.
“Yes...let me...” the target was whispering. “Let me...show you...”
The backs of Michael’s knees bumped the edge of the bed and his eyelids snapped open. He felt bare skin against his chest and realized he had helped the target remove his shirt, his cufflinks. Fingers wound through Michael’s hair and he felt his head being pulled down, down to a smooth mouth.
If Michael closed his eyes, he could almost pretend he was somewhere else, that the hands and mouth belonged to a woman...
Then the target chuckled in a deep baritone, pushing Michael onto the bed, hands at his shoulders. He knelt and his fingers began tugging at the laces on Michael’s shoes.
“Were you going to leave your boots on?”
Michael simply leaned back and propped his elbows on the lumpy bed, letting him tug off his shoes. He watched from underneath lowered lashes, idly flicking a tongue over his lower lip.
It was odd how he could feel everything...and nothing...at the same time.
The boots made a soft sound as each settled on the threadbare carpet.
The target prowled up Michael’s body, hands gliding over the tight black jeans he wore. His fingers tangled at Michael’s waist. Chains jingled and loosened. The top button came undone.
A hand delved inside.
And then, the door of the dim motel room burst open.
Michael reacted instantaneously.
PART III: WALTER
“In heaven all the interesting people are missing.”
Walter tugged at his bandanna and glared at Jurgen’s back, heaving an audible sigh of disgust. His lips twisted as he heard Michael playing along, getting himself in deep. In real deep.
“This isn’t right,” he found himself muttering, kicking back in his chair. Walter started cracking his knuckles again, stopping himself when he realized what he was doing. The last thing a munitions expert needed was arthritis.
“He needs to learn,” Jurgen grated from the corner of the van.
“Michael is just a kid,” Walter countered.
Walter crossed his arms and let his chair slam back onto the floor. Michael didn’t need to learn this, and Jurgen knew it. Walter had been with Section since its inception. This wasn’t the way things were done, damnit.
But then, everything had been changing since they brought Michael inside Section. Walter had laughed when they told him Michael had been a terrorist. That the mop-haired, sweet-faced kid was going to be the first candidate in a training program Jurgen had designed. That this wide-eyed baby was going to become a highly efficient killing machine.
Naw. Couldn’t happen.
But it had.
Walter hadn’t been laughing when Michael had come to him for lessons. That first day had earned him another sprinkling of white hair. How in the world he was that good a shot without really handling a gun before, Walter was pretty sure he didn’t want to know. It could have been natural talent. Maybe.
Please, let it be natural talent.
The hard truth was that Walter had never seen anyone advance so quickly, in so many areas of study. The only thing that had comforted him was that the feat had yet to be duplicated. Which would make Michael a freak of nature.
Walter didn’t relish telling Michael that. He might look like a Renaissance painting of an angel, but the kid could kick Walter’s ass ten times over before he could blink. Nietzsche could write a whole book about Michael. Talk about Ubermensch.
Walter had to respect that in a guy.
Unfortunately, Michael wasn’t in a situation right now that he could fight his way out of; he needed back-up.
“What are we waiting for? Let’s grab the guy when the cab stops.”
“It’s too risky. We’ll wait until Michael gets him to the room.”
“What?” Walter barked out a laugh. “Michael’s not doing anything except getting himself into a real nasty situation. I say we -”
“I’m in charge and I say we wait,” Jurgen growled. The dim light in the van flashed off his glasses as the blonde-haired man turned to ram home his point.
Walter let the threat wait for a beat before giving Jurgen a sharp nod. His protest had been noted and Walter knew it would show up on the mission tapes. Short of wresting command from Jurgen, there was nothing else Walter could do.
Walter scratched the back of his neck, shifting uncomfortably in his chair. Jurgen was hanging Michael out to dry, but it was Walter who was letting the kid twist in the wind.
It was all he could do to sit there as he heard Michael and that...that....pervert enter the room. And when the foreplay started, Walter covered his eyes with his hand and considered reconciling with God just so he could pray for the kid.
“Dear God in heaven,” Walter whispered a minute later. The pervert was taking Michael’s boots off.
“Team one, go!” Jurgen barked. “Team two, on stand-by.”
Walter rubbed at his forehead under his bandanna, feeling the dampness of sweat. From what the other operatives were saying, Michael had pinned the pervert just as they busted open the door.
Damn, that kid had balls.
Walter let out a blustering sigh of relief as Jurgen ordered Michael in, propping his elbows on his knees. He hung his head, staring at Jurgen’s unmoving back. Well, if Jurgen wouldn’t open the door for Michael, Walter would.
He slid the door back and nearly fell out of the van when he saw Michael walking across the parking lot, lights playing over his bowed shoulders. The kid was dragging his leather vest in one hand and carrying his boots in the other. He was naked except for a pair of jeans that left nothing to the imagination. Top snap was undone.
And at that moment, he didn’t look much like a kid.
Michael’s bare feet slapped on the pavement and he hesitated outside the door. He looked up and met Walter’s pale blue eyes, green eyes quickly sliding away. But not before he could glimpse a tense flare of shame that Michael hadn’t wanted him to see. Walter moved aside in deference, and Michael climbed into the van. He seated himself without a word.
Walter slammed the door shut and pounded on the wall to let the driver know they were ready. He seated himself across from Michael and tried not to stare.
The kid looked like someone who had forever been denied entrance to heaven.
Made sense, Walter realized. Michael had probably been raised as a Catholic.
Walter tried to distract himself by idly rearranging the weapons on the table, but Michael’s silence was making him squirm.
He leaned forward and pitched his voice low. “Are you all right, kid?”
Michael lifted his eyes from the floor, staring at the wall over Walter’s left shoulder. His face had become impassive but for the hard glitter of his eyes. “I’m fine.”
“That’s good,” Walter said helplessly. Fine? He was nowhere near fine. But Walter had the uncomfortable feeling that Michael believed what he had said. That he had to believe it to stay sane. Walter tucked his arms around his middle and scrunched down in his seat. He wished Michael would scream. Cry. Break something. Hit Jurgen. Laugh. Grab a gun and start shooting. Walter wished Michael would just do something other than imitate a marble statue. It couldn’t be healthy.
A jacket thumped against Michael’s shoulder and slithered to the floor. He still didn’t move.
“Put some clothes on,” Jurgen ordered, his face pinched.
Michael blinked and slowly reached out an arm, picking up the black jacket as if it was a foreign object. He slid the coat on awkwardly, like a child that still needed his mother’s help.
Ah, finally, Walter thought. Shock. There’s a subject I know a little bit about.
He’d seen it with soldiers before, with women who had been attacked. With kids that had witnessed something unspeakable. Walter felt unaccountably soothed that Michael was at least reacting.
Walter let the uncomfortable silence ride until they were back at Section, watching apprehensively as Jurgen led the young man off to be debriefed. They unloaded the prisoner as Michael disappeared around a corner. Brown hair, brown eyes, average height...
Why is it always the normal-looking ones that have the freaky fetishes? Walter wondered. He could hear the guy’s neighbors saying what a nice man he had seemed to be, until they found out how he liked to give his young whores cigar-shaped scars. Among other things.
He shook his head as he walked back into his caged-in area and surveyed the mess the operatives had made on his counter from the last mission.
Sometimes it was good to have something to do, to take his mind off...things.
Walter immersed himself in work, rolling up the sleeves of his tie-dyed shirt. Walking back and forth between the supply bins, he methodically cleaned and checked each weapon. He read reports and typed up one of his own. Took inventory. He didn’t realize how much time had passed until he looked up and saw Michael standing outside his area. Looking like a kid again.
“Hey, Michael,” Walter greeted cheerfully.
Sometimes it was also good to pretend everything was just peachy.
“Done for the night?” Walter forged on, despite Michael’s starchy tone.
“Yes.” Michael stared down an empty corridor, unmoving.
He needed a nudge in the right direction, something to wipe that lost look off his face.
Walter sighed and walked to stand next to the kid. “I’m gonna tell you something I don’t think you know yet.”
That made Michael turn to look at him. Walter rarely doled out information voluntarily.
“About Jurgen...” Walter trailed off, squinting at nothing. “Well, he doesn’t like you, kid.”
Michael made a soft sound. It could have been a laugh or a grunt.
“He’s trained all his life for stuff like this, the stuff Section does. And you, a little pissant they picked up from nowhere -” Walter broke off and rubbed a finger over his nose. “After only a couple of years, you’re almost as good as he is. Another couple of years, and you’ll be better.” Walter waited a beat to make sure he had Michael’s undivided attention. “He’s just...jealous.”
Michael ducked his head and stared at his feet for a moment. When he looked up, he looked a little more alive. “I...know.”
Walter blinked rapidly and clapped Michael on the shoulder. “Yeah, I guess you do.” He turned away and rearranged a few things on his counter. A few minutes later, he noticed that Michael was still standing there.
“Let me guess,” Walter grunted, tugging at his earring. “You don’t wanna go home just yet.”
There was a dangerous cast to Michael’s eyes as the kid parted his lips to speak. “No.”
Walter was pleased. He knew how much it had taken for Michael to admit that. Maybe he could save the kid, after all.
“Great! Me neither. I was just finishing up here and thought I’d go grab a beer,” Walter said, pinning the kid with his most formidable stare. “I hate to get drunk alone.”
Michael gave him a half-frozen nod and matched Walter’s gait as they ascended through the levels of Section One. Michael hesitated as they reached the parking area, his eyes flicking between his own car and Walter’s dusty truck.
“Get in,” Walter rasped before the kid could find a way to escape. Michael nodded again and slipped into the truck. He stared out the window during the drive to a ragged, hole-in-the-wall blues bar. The dimpled metal sign out front proclaimed the name to be Seventh Heaven, but he had always called it The Pit. It was a place Walter liked to frequent when he needed the drinks strong, the music loud, and a dark corner to drown sorrows in...
Sounded just about perfect for Michael. And Walter’s nerves were pretty well shot, too.
Walter forged a path through the crowded bar and headed fora booth the back. Michael slid into the opposite seat, hunching over so far that his nose was in danger of getting a splinter from the table-top. Walter ordered for the both of them, sending the interested waitress on her way with a sharp look.
Nobody else was touching Michael tonight, not if Walter had anything to say about it. He wouldn’t be able to stop it from happening again in Section. The ruthless bastards who ran the place would assume that just because Michael had done something once, he could do it again. And again. It was just another skill that the kid had acquired, another way he was useful.
But Walter could protect him tonight.
When the drinks arrived, Michael took a hesitant sip and slanted Walter a wry gaze. “People drink this?” Walter shrugged, a smile breaking across his face at the hesitant joke. “Best for what ails ya, kid. Drink up.”
Walter ordered more rounds that night than he had in a long time, plying Michael liberally with fermented beverages. And Michael drank, eyes dark, mouth downturned.
All I have to do, Walter thought, is get him soused up to his eyeballs and let him sleep it off on my couch.
It wasn’t a solution, but it was better than letting Michael go home to an empty apartment. To think. Walter’s mind shied away from letting Michael be alone tonight. That look in his eyes...well...any moment now, Walter was expecting the kid to start talking about his mother.
The ones that cracked and shattered always started talking about their mothers before they imploded.
But Michael hadn’t been talking. Never a Chatty Cathy, the kid had said less than ten words since they arrived at the bar. Walter wasn’t complaining. Michael was the kind of guy you could be silent with and not feel the urge to make stupid conversation.
Belatedly, Walter realized that Michael was swaying a little in his seat, both hands wrapped around the tall glass that had long since been drained. Walter grunted as he flipped a roll of bills onto the table. Michael slid out of the booth without protest, as silently obedient drunk as he was sober.
Part of the reason Walter liked The Pit was that it was located two doors down from his apartment. He staggered down the cracked cement, trying not touch Michael too much as he steered him towards the correct door. The last thing Walter wanted to do was give Michael the wrong idea. They slowly climbed to the first landing and Walter unlocked the door, flipping on the light.
Michael swayed in the doorway for a moment, blinking rapidly. Walter could see that he was holding off a flashback, trying not to confuse him with the target. He could see Michael failing
“Get in here.” Walter irritably gestured him inside and jerked his thumb at the couch. He fumbled in the closet, smacking his shin against a coffee table as he tried to shut the sticky door. Walter uttered a soft curse as he tossed a pillow and a blanket on the leather couch and slammed into the bathroom.
He came out a few minutes later to see Michael perched on the couch, his head in his hands. Walter took a step forward.
That’s when he noticed Michael was crying.
Walter swallowed the white lie of comfort he had been about to offer and retreated to his bedroom. It wouldn’t be all right.
It would never be all right, again.