(Previously published in "Sanctuary #2" available from In Person Press.)
LIGHT-TRAP Series # III(Which was planned to be a six-part series, only three of which are presently in existence. They can be read individually. )
The Screws Of Twilight
When once the twilight screws were turned,
And mother milk was stiff as sand,
I sent my own ambassador to light;
By trick or chance he fell asleep
And conjured up a carcass shape
To rob me of my fluids in his heart.
According to the Eyes-Only file, Vincent Terranova was the next agent in line for notification. Edwin Lucas, Station 2276 of Iowa, got around to warning him in due course: Elvis Primm, a.k.a. Sidney David Royce, is missing without authority, he's in breach. State of mind, uncertain. A scrapbook found in his home, open to specific clippings, might indicate he's retaliatory.
It wasn't as if Elliott Ness had just found out Al Capone was running loose out there with vengeance in his heart. Vinnie listened, shrugged, hung up the phone, sat back down at the kitchen table, his only concession to the news a glance at the windows to confirm the blinds were down. No sense affording Royce a free target. Of course, if the quivering jellyfish could hold a gun at all, he'd be more likely to shoot off a part of his own anatomy. Vinnie resumed eating his solitary dinner.
His mother would have a fit if she knew her second-best china was cheek-to-jowl with a carburetor scattered in oily pieces on her kitchen table. But it was too cold to work outside, Vinnie and his mother didn't see each other lately, and fiddling with mechanical objects was restful to him. No moods and mutability in machines. Just straightforward form and function. Predictable.
He'd bet Karen Malloy, capable and confident Karen Malloy, had never been scared of Sid Royce either.
All the same, Vinnie couldn't manage to take the man seriously as any sort of threat — until he remembered the damp, abandoned laundry and the scream ripping through it. He pushed away his plate, picked up the phone again. Belatedly, it dawned on him that Royce would have no way of knowing where Frank McPike lived now, but by then Frank's phone had rung too many times for Vinnie's suddenly too-active imagination. He dialed the Lifeguard.
"McPike's out on a date," Burroughs told him.
For an astonished moment the two ends of the sentence jostled one another in Vinnie's head, unable to coexist. "Date? Frank's out on a date?" And why the hell not? a rational part asked, but the rest kept right on balking at the notion.
"Yep, with Mrs. McPike."
Oh, okay, the world was on its axis after all. Heaven forbid Frank should do what any other man would've done a long time ago, find someone new and nice and willing, instead of banging his head into the same worn wall.
"Want me to beep him?" Lifeguard asked.
"No, Uncle Mike, that's all right." If by some remote chance things were going well, Frank wouldn't appreciate the interruption. "Thanks anyway. Later." If things were going really, really well, Frank might end up in the old homestead, from where Royce's henchmen had snatched him once before.
Vinnie hung up the phone, grabbed his gun, leather jacket and gloves, hurried to his car. He didn't want to get in the way, but he wasn't going to breathe easy until he knew where Frank's car was going to stay parked through the night. Great, Frank might spend a cozy night cuddled up in bed with his wife and Vinnie would freeze off his ass to watch over the house and make sure they stayed undisturbed. Wasn't that a hoot, considering?
Oh, well, chalk it up to any one of those too-many-to-count nights Frank had spent in various forms of discomfort to assure Vinnie's safety and peace of mind. Chalk it up to the fact that if anything happened to Frank McPike, Vinnie Terranova was going to be hard put to keep his mind, never mind its peace.
He'd crossed the Holland Tunnel into New Jersey when his car phone rang and he found out he was already too late. He swallowed his heart back down, put his foot heavy on the gas, and answered the FBI Intervention Team AIC on the line who was urgently asking him how many hostages were likely to be in the house. "Three. McPike, his wife and son, he's fourteen." If Frank got so much as a nosebleed out of this, he was going to do what he should've done when Karen Malloy had disappeared and whack that slimy son of a bitch. "Look, Royce's a gutless rat, he's more dangerous if he's spooked. Pass the word, no lights, no sirens. I'll be there in twenty."
The FBI team was in place when Vinnie arrived. The floodlights were already up, but dark. Some local cops were quietly evacuating the neighboring houses. The AIC was by the tech van. "The kid's not in the house," he updated Vinnie." The cops found him spending the night next door."
One less handicap for Frank. Too bad Jenny was in there. Without her, their only worry now would be how to scrape bits of Royce off a wall.
"One shot may have been fired already," the man continued, took one look at Vinnie's face and rushed to add, "Nothing definite, just a noise the neighbors heard. Anyway, Iowa reports McPike's been on he phone with them since then, he just got off."
Okay, no need to panic yet. Vinnie pulled out his gun, clicked off the safety. "Everybody, sit tight, I'm gonna circle the house." He shook his head at an agent's offer of a rifle. Frank was the one for rifles. Vinnie was more comfortable with his gun, especially up close and personal, and Royce had chosen to make it all too personal.
'The door's opening," somebody warned. Vinnie whirled around. He didn't need the lights that flooded the area a split second later to recognize Frank. Alone, under his own power, throwing up his arm to shield his eyes from the sudden glare, unhurt.
Thank you, God. I owe you one. "Frank," he called out. Guess you get to live, Sid, you lucky toad.
"Vince?" McPike crossed the yard quickly, making a beeline for the rifle and confiscating it. "That son of a bitch is armed and he's crazy."
"Frank, wait a minute."
McPike turned to him and Vinnie saw his eyes. Oops, I misspoke, Sid. You don 't get to live after all. "I know what I'm doing, Vince. Now, I want these lights out and I don't want you to make any move, he doesn't need to be stimulated."
If Frank thought he was going at it alone, he could think again. Vinnie passed on the orders and followed on his heels.
Jenny was screaming. Vinnie picked up Royce's gun and waited while McPike bundled his wife in his arms and urged her out of the kitchen. If she thought the small entry wound and the initial spurt of blood was that bad, she shouldn't glimpse the gaping exit hole and the pool collecting under the body. Once McPike led her out, Vinnie checked Royce to confirm what he already knew. Dead. As a door nail. Gee, wasn't that a crying shame?
Smilin' up there, Sonny? Bet that made your day.
He could still hear Jenny screaming and it was setting his teeth on edge. She was only having the normal reaction to sudden violence in the middle of her normal kitchen. Vinnie Terranova and his ilk were the abnormal ones here. He should stop resenting her on Frank's behalf and try to be fair, if only for tonight. Anyway, the sounds were turning into sobs and getting distant.
Other agents had started to pile into the kitchen. Vinnie stepped back to let them do their jobs. The AIC stuck his head through the door and motioned Vinnie out into the living room, pulled him to one side. "You saw the shooting, right?"
A routine inquiry, so Vinnie answered routinely, "Yeah. Of course."
"Would you tell me if it wasn't?"
Not so routine? "What the hell does that mean?"
The AIC lowered his voice. "It means I gotta sign off on this thing, so give me a break. I have to know, was Royce letting the woman go?"
"Oh, yeah, he was lettin' her go so far that she ended up wearin' his blood. Where'd you get that crap?"
"That's what she's saying out there, over and over."
How considerate of her. "She's hysterical, she doesn't know what she's talkin' about," Vinnie threw fairness to Jenny out the window, sending alongside a few struggling pangs of truth. "Even if Royce was lettin' her go, I couldn't tell from where I was standin' and I was standin' right next to McPike. How was he supposed to know?"
"And that's your story?"
"Hey, it's the only story."
The AIC shrugged. "Long as the scene agrees, fine with me. But you might want to tell your partner to get his wife away from here 'til she calms down."
Frank had taken the first shot available, the scene wouldn't reveal anything contradictory. Good idea, though, to lose Jenny for a while. Had Frank noticed that Royce was so sappy with cuddling Jenny and making kissy-faces at her —really dumb move, Sid— that the gun in his hand had been hanging loose, forgotten. If Frank had noticed, his own penchant for strict accuracy in reports was going to pose a problem.
Vinnie found them in front of the house. Jenny was now sobbing into McPike's shirt. He'd wrapped her in his coat and was holding her like — well, like a man who didn't know how not to.
"Mom! Dad!' Let loose by the cops, Drake was running toward his parents.
"It s okay, Drake, we're fine," McPike called out, leaving one arm around Jenny, reaching for his son with the other.
"Don't you touch him with blood on your hands!" Jenny screamed. She shook off McPike's hold and yanked the boy away, wrapping him in her own arms.
Vinnie watched Frank stand there and take that with no reaction except flatlined eyes. He so badly wanted to tap her on the shoulder and say: He doesn 't have any actual blood on his hands, you're the one getting blood all over the boy —and by the way, may I have that liver back now?
Instead, he tugged Frank away and whispered, "Sid didn't know what hit him. Good clean marksmanship, Frank."
"It's called sniping, Vince," McPike whispered back.
Uh-huh, just like he'd figured. "No, it isn't, especially not in your report. I already gave mine, don't put my ass in the sling."
"You gave – ? Dammit, Vince!"
"Just don 't. We'll raise a toast to Karen Malloy one of these days and call it even, okay?"
"I'm up for a new assignment any day now, Frank. You're gonna go on suspension for a technicality and leave me alone out there with God-knows-what, is that what you're gonna do to me?"
McPike glared at him. Finally he gave a sigh, part irritated, but part resigned.
"Yeah, Vinnie, yeah, okay."
"Shouldn't take long to wrap it up in there, but still," he indicated Jenny and Drake, "you should send 'em somewhere else for a day or two."
Jenny was finally letting Drake go. McPike furtively handed the damp towel he was holding to the boy who just as furtively wiped off the blood stains he'd inherited from his mother's shirt, father and son in a well-rehearsed conspiracy to spare mom. Mom was oblivious, busy with sniffling into her sleeve.
"We have to go back in, Jenny," McPike dug out a handkerchief, pressed it to her hand. "Don't worry, just to the bedroom."
She couldn't have looked more horrified if McPike had suggested a trip to the last circle of hell. "Oh, no, Frank!" When she continued, Vinnie realized it wasn't the location but the company. "You're not staying, no way. Not anymore. After this — I can 't!'
McPike clenched his jaw, took a deep breath to explain evenly, "You're not staying either, this is a crime scene. I'm the agent involved in the agent-involved-shooting here; I can't stay or go with you. Why don't you take Drake and stay at your mother's for a few days? You should change your clothes so she won't have a heart attack when she sees you."
"Look at me," she held her hands up accusingly. "I'm shaking. How do you expect me to drive?"
"I don't, somebody will take you. I'll give you a ride back when the house is cleared. I don't know when, but I'll call you."
"You don't know? You'd better know. I run a business, Drake has to go to school on Monday, I have a life here. Dammit, Frank, you can't screw up my life again, not again!"
"Sunday then, okay? Sunday, is that all right?"
"If that's the best you can do."
"Come on, I'll help you pack. Can I come into the bedroom long enough to help you pack?"
"You pack for Drake. I'll take care of myself. As usual."
Since doing the only thing he was dying to do and slugging Jenny was not an option, Vinnie spun on his heels and went back into the house ahead of them. He might as well be useful somewhere. Not much had been accomplished in the kitchen and he'd been chafing to yell at somebody, 'This isn't a butcher's yard, dammit, why's this carcass still here?"
"Wasn't this man a protected witness?" some busybody saw fit to pipe up.
"Yeah," Vinnie told one and all. "Yeah, he was a protected witness, in a case that wrapped up three years ago and not once did he sing. He was also the murderer of a damn good cop. Royce came lookin' for trouble and found justice, that's all. So dry your tears, boys, and let's sweep this garbage outta here."
It wasn't that easy, of course. Photos and measurements had to be taken, trajectories had to be noted by the Crime Scene Unit, the Coroner's wagon had to arrive, but finally everybody crossed their T's, dotted their I's and left. Vinnie stood in the living room and looked around for a moment. A much different house than the sparse, nomadic ones Frank had been keeping since getting his marching orders. This, Frank considered the mainstay of a whole life, the one he'd been wanting back, the kind he wanted Vinnie to have as well.
A part of Vinnie could see it, even want it, a cared-for home, wife, children, relatives, neighbors. Family. He'd grown up in one, after all. He was beginning to realize, though, that for men like them wanting such things was as unreasonable as a mongrel showing up at the purebred show and begging to participate. They simply didn't fit in. The rest of the people in the world sensed they didn't fit in and kept chucking them out of their normal, reasonable lives. Not a single neighbor tonight had come over to ask McPike: Hey, buddy, are you all right? Or offer: Anything I can help with? Something, at least an acknowledgment to indicate they considered the man who'd lived among them for years a part of their community.
Guess what, Frank, our community just filled out its triplicate reports, got in its many vans and left. The only family we have is, for better or for worse, you and me. I don 't know if that 's good news or bad news to you, but you can bet on one thing: I'm not Jenny.
He went looking for McPike, found him outside, standing next to a car at the curb, glaring at it. A sleek, red number. "Guess what this car does?" McPike asked him.
Vinnie took a stab at it, 'Takes you from point A to point B?"
"Wrong. This car projects." Sounded like a quote, one that had left a bad taste in McPike's mouth. "What would you say it projects, Vince?"
"I don't know, Frank, whopping insurance and repair bills?"
McPike threw him a dirty look. "Don't hustle me, Sport, you're still too young to be that practical."
Okay, maybe it was a neat enough car, but Vinnie sensed that, for some reason, Frank felt himself a smaller man standing next to the thing. He'd sooner bite off his tongue than say something complimentary. "Guess it's fine for people who haven't got a point to make without shoutin' 'bout it. Not for me," he shrugged dismissively, "I couldn't fit my legs in it."
McPike scowled at the car another minute, then decided to shrug also. "Well, it's no family sedan, that's for sure." He looked and sounded beat. No, hollow.
"Come on, Frank, I'll drive you home. We can get your car later."
"No, you go on. I have to clean up in there."
Now? Vinnie didn't ask. Didn't point out that Frank had been under such a constant barrage of adrenaline that he had to be feeling like a paper lantern about to go up. "Think I'll stick around, give you a hand." If the man needed to pretend he could reestablish some order to his life right then, the least Vinnie could do was help, and be there to catch him when he crashed.
"What am I doing?"
Vinnie arrested the hammer in mid-move, turned away from nailing the torn lock back into place to see if McPike was just grumbling or needed a practical answer.
On his knees, Frank seemed to be questioning the trash compactor half-loose from its cabinet. He looked up at Vinnie and asked again, "What the hell am I doing?"
You 're removing the unit so a repairman won 't trigger the gun stuck in there and blow a hole in his hand: unnecessary answer. You're doing your damnedest to kid yourself soap and water cleans blood, tools repair homes: unwanted answer. Best say nothing.
McPike wasn't waiting for an answer anyway. He was scrambling to his feet. "What am I trying to salvage here?" He frowned at the wrench in his hand as if it were offensive, then down at himself, as if he were offensive. Perhaps he was to his own eyes; coat and tie long gone, barefooted—they had discarded their shoes in order not to track more blood and glass over newly clean floor— his trousers stained dark from the knees down, the wrinkled shirt hanging open, sleeves rolled up his forearms, wet splotches on his undershirt.
One major crash coming up, Vinnie knew. "Let's take a break, huh?"
McPike slammed the wrench onto the counter. "There's nothing left here for me to fucking salvage."
By the saints of perpetual endurance, could this possibly be the first moment Frank realized that?
Francis McPike was no more immune to fooling himself than any other member of the human race, but he was among the few who were aware of doing it. This wasn't his moment of realization. It was the moment he gave up. Vinnie had heard Frank talk about giving up before, throwing in the towel. Irish by blood and temperament, always expecting the worst, suspecting the good, convinced that his pot of gold could only exist beyond reach, so sure, he talked about it. Talk was one thing.
From the first time Vinnie had looked across Hogan's Alley on the training grounds of Quantico and met a pair of unimpressed eyes measuring him from behind owlish glasses, to now, his friend and his partner and his sanity standing there, wearing anger for insulation, this was the first time Vinnie was seeing him give up. Actually, for real, give up.
Giving up on Jenny was just as overdue a process as putting an end to Sid Royce, in Vinnie's humble opinion. But of course, Frank wouldn't stop there.
McPike yanked off his glasses, tossed them carelessly aside. "I thought," he bent his head to his fingers, digging hard into his temples, "I really thought I was getting it back," and sure enough, his next words were, "I'm an idiot."
No, that award goes to Jenny, and worth is not lessened just because a dizzy idiot can 't appreciate its value. "You know, Frank, it's about time you…"
A self-mocking snort cut Vinnie off. "One minute I'm basking, 'cause all this time and finally my wife deigns to ask me back into my home. And my bed, wonder of wonders. Just for the weekend, mind you. 'No harm, no foul,' she makes sure she tells me, but I'm so up for it that I'm grateful enough. I'm planning a feast from a morsel, and it isn't even like I don't know it, 'cause the next minute some creep says he envies me it all boils up to the surface. There I am, pouring my heart out to Sid Royce, imagine that. Jesus, Vince, I'm pathetic. No wonder Jenny —"
"Stop it, Frank!" He could guess the ending of that sentence. "I don't wanna hear it." He threw the hammer onto the counter. "You did your best, just like you always do, and if that isn't good enough for —"
McPike whirled on him. "If that isn't good enough, what's left, Vinnie? What the hell's kind of consolation is that? I do my best and come up wanting?" By virtue of sharing a space, sure as thunder follows lightning, they were shouting at each other. "If my best isn't good enough, what the fuck do I do? Start waving a gun around like Royce? So maybe someone would put me out of my misery? Hell, a trigger's not all that hard to pull, maybe I should save everybody the trouble and – "
"Shut up!" Vinnie roared. Not anger. Cold-sweat fear. "Shut the fuck up! Forgive me all to hell for not being Jenny, but don't do this to me." Brilliant, trying to close the vent on the pressure cooker. But something in Frank's voice had rung true and suddenly he was terrified.
Eyes, blue-flint, met his. Whatever plea they read there, Frank tried. Almost visible, his struggle to re-gather his unfurled anger, to trap it inside himself, lock it under muscle and sinew. For stone-necked seconds he contained it, his face clenched like a fist around pain, then fissured and he erupted into fury.
The bottle and the glass on the counter went flying, trailing wine streaks through air, crashed amidst blood-red splatters. The wrench followed them, thudded against a cabinet, clattered to the floor. Then the toaster, hurled against the refrigerator, metal-on-metal, a drawer yanked out, contents spilling.
Clink and jangle and shatter...
I said, Doctor, Doctor, Mr. M.D. —
Crack and clang and rattle...
Can you tell me what's ailin ' me?
The blender next, its cord caught, McPike reaching for the plug —
— sheer blind panic. "No!" Next instant, Vinnie was all over Frank, trying to pull him under his skin, marrow him to his bones. "No, Frank, please? I'm sorry."
"Vin — what? Get off me!"
"I didn't mean it! I swear I didn't mean it. I don 't wish it was you."
"Let go!" Neither hearing the other, they struggled together, down to the roots, for and against each other, tug and pull and yank, arms, chests, hips, thighs.
"I swear, I don't. I never did. I hurt and I lashed out." Hands, mouth, everywhere on Frank he could reach without loosening the lock and vise of bodies. "I'm sorry, okay? I'm sorry."
"Don't do this to me, not now. I'm too wired right now — back off! Vince, let me go. Vinnie!"
Never. Never. Never.
"Vinnie, no — don 't! Don't wind me any tighter. Let go. Vince! Now."
Not now. Not ever.
Fever to plague, all at once. Hard, blunt hands prowled over him, got under his t-shirt, somehow managed to pull it up and off and lose it, hunted out his bare flesh. He'd wanted Frank in his skin, now Frank wanted to be in it. No, by the mouth and tongue and teeth at his shoulders and throat, wanted to eat it, by the lap and suck over the vein at his neck, wanted to drink it. By the digging of those fingers, wanted to unbutton his bones.
Hell, no problem. Sweet hell, no problem at all.
Half carrying, half carried, out of the kitchen, like a four-legged animal fused awkwardly, stumbling for the closest surface to fall on. Carpet underfoot, no glass, okay then, the floor would do. Stopped midway there by a pliant surface, the couch. Not enough room on it, out-elbowing each other in the cramped space, almost sliding off, so Vinnie left it to Frank, went with the sliding motion onto his knees to the floor.
McPike stayed sprawled on the couch, legs on either side of Vinnie, clenched-jaw silent, his face a taut mask. The only outspoken part of him, his sex. Vinnie looked at the sunken blues of his eyes and didn't know what to do about the hurt and anger churning behind them, but the body, that cluster of absolute, finite substances, he knew what to do with. He unfastened the pants. Simplest to pull down the elastic band of the boxers and lean in.
McPike's palms bracketed his face hard, holding him off or holding himself back, neither urging nor forbidding him.
"Come on, Frank, decide."
"Jesus, Vince," misgivings clear in his eyes, "Here?"
Damn. He hadn't thought. In the home where Frank bedded his wife, raised his son? In his church-sanctioned marriage home? Sex and sanctity weren't all that clear-cut for Vinnie. He simply hadn't thought.
Before he could mumble an apology and move away, a shudder went through McPike, something frighteningly intense crossed his eyes as he answered himself, "Oh, yeah, here, right here." A vicious smile, hell-born. "No harm, no foul,' right? Okay, fine, why not?" Fingers like talons suddenly, his hands pushed Vinnie's head down. "Just finish it," he grated. "Finish it fast."
A stiff-necked aspect of Vinnie immediately shot back: I m not a sawbuck whore, finish it yourself. The rest of him bent his neck and took Frank in. With more cause and better reasons, Frank had never refused him.
Not pure altruism, either. He liked it filling his mouth, hot and solid, silk and rough, he liked his mouth fulfilling it — until it turned on him. Piston-speared him until his jaws ached, his eyes stung and watered. Smothered him, until his lungs constricted. Clawed hands held him to it. Sheer, frozen disbelief Frank would use him like that held him to it. But most of all, his intimate understanding of the rat-teeth-gnaw of crazed need held him to it.
It wasn't fast enough, or it just wasn't enough, and Frank was pulling him up, tumbling him onto the couch. The red-shot darkness taking over his sight cleared up and he watched Frank's carnal haste, stripping away only his pants and shorts, then grasping at Vinnie and tugging him lower onto his back. Unbuckling, unclasping, unzipping, bunching the waistbands of the jeans and the briefs in his fists and yanking them halfway down the legs in a move that would've hurt if Vinnie had been erect. That he wasn't, Frank didn't notice or didn't care, hoisted Vinnie's denim-constricted legs up, doubled him over, dropped his weight on him.
In the pit of Vinnie s belly, the first kick of arousal. Not love, not lust, a desireless familiar: a shot of adrenaline. And its fight-or-flight chaser.
Neither, thank you. I can take it. So he's cracked across right now, so now it 's my turn to hold him together.
By being split himself.
Frank was the one to hiss in, then cry out. Vinnie bit into his cheek, kept his pain hidden and bleeding inside his mouth, unseen, unheard. Not the worst he'd been hurt by this. Just worse than he'd ever expected to be hurt by Frank.
Hands cuffed on his upper arms, held him down. Hard, harsh hands. Not Frank's kind of hands, not on Vinnie, shouldn't be. In some way, though, welcome.
Motion, piercing motion, his breastbone seeming to stab into his own navel, thighs pressing into ribs pressing into lungs, spine screaming, raw burn of dry friction. He fastened his eyelids and turned inward, called inward by battering male motion, taste of brassy blood in his throat, hard throb of blood in his genitals, hammered in to him pulse by pounding pulse, breakneck motion of nothing human, shaft and sink and stroke of flesh-turned-mechanical and suddenly he realized—
Relentlessly, pitilessly perfect. Yes, exactly, Christ, oh Christ, yes, that's it, exactly it, more, please, more —
Sudden seizure. An instant of rigor as all that live power grounded deep inside him, then —too soon, too soon!— discharged itself hollow. They lay lodged, each on a different rack, in heaving, barbed silence.
Salt on craving wound, Frank's withdrawal while still hard. His weight lifted, freed Vinnie's latch-locked body. The simplicity of measurable pain as his limbs uncramped caught Vinnie unawares, made him whimper.
Wildfire unchecked in his veins, his brain still a madhouse, still gibbering: more, more, more! He turned onto his side and let his aching legs hang off the couch to the floor, felt Frank lean over him. Against his flank, the body-warm undershirt and the cooler brush of a loose shirttail, coarse hair and softening flesh against his hip, tacky-wet.
Obviously, no more.
In a minute. Just let me pull myself together here. He got his elbow under him, struggled to sit up. You know, Frank, I sure hope Jenny believes in Scotch Guard. Okay, good, he could reshape himself back to sanity, settle for less than perfection.
He felt Frank jerk back as if burned. "Jesus," a threadbare whisper.
It called Vinnie's eyes to him, to see him looking like a sleepwalker who'd just awakened to find he'd walked off a cliff. He stared at Vinnie for another horrified second, tore his eyes away and bolted.
What in blue moon? Frank wouldn't leave him like this. He stumbled to his feet and realized his jeans were still binding his legs. He also realized the stiffening smears on his hip carried traces of red. Oh, hell. Guilt from Frank, Vinnie didn't want. Remorse from him, he emphatically didn't want. He pulled his jeans up, his breath catching at getting them past his erection. The zipper would have to wait another minute. He left it up to his hipbones to hold the jeans in place.
McPike was in the bathroom, hunched over the sink, his shoulders heaving. "Get out of here, he snarled without looking up, panting like he was trying to keep his stomach down.
"Get away from me!"
"Never, Vinnie. Never, ever again."
The demon inside Vinnie instantly sat up and clamored: Don 't lose him, he feeds me, I can't lose him.
Shut up, damn you! I can go to any sleazy pit and find someone willing to bend you over a barstool. I have so much more to lose here. If somebody has to lose him, you do.
He took a step forward, but McPike's hand snapped up like a barrier. "Go away."
"Come on, Frank, no need to — it's okay."
"Oka —" Choking on it. Swallowing visibly. "Okay? I have your blood on me! That's okay?"
What could he say, comparatively speaking it wasn't even in the running? They might have had an issue if there'd been enough blood to soak a pillow? This wasn't the time to tell Frank that literal truth. "Look, tonight, with everything that happened, Royce and all, you just, you just felt —"
"What?" His head jerked up and Vinnie could've screamed at his gutted expression. "I just felt impotent and had to prove otherwise? On you? I got caught up in bloodlust and had to have yours, too?" His voice cracked, "Devil take Sid Royce, he should've pulled the damned trigger."
Vinnie shut the door and barred it with his back, only afterwards realizing he'd responded to McPike's fugitive move toward it. "You never run out on anybody, you're not gonna start by runnin' out on me."
"Let me go, Vince," eyes drilled hollow, voice flat, "It's my night for killing things. Just let me go.'
"Nothin' dead here, Frank. Nothin '." Why shouldn't he love this Frank, too, as certain dark things are to be loved? Like an incestuous secret between them. The way Frank loved him. "So it got a little outta hand, nothin' major, trust me."
"You let me do that to you and I'm supposed to trust —" he cut off as if strangled. Then, with breath scratched from lungs, "Jesus, I sound like every other rapist in the world. Don't listen to me, you didn't do anything wrong, I did this. Oh, God, Vince," his face crumbling, "I did it, to you." His eyes, remorseful, brimmed.
No! Anything but that. Split me open, make me bleed, I don 't care. Just don 't cry over it. Don't be — I'll shoot myself! – him.
Vinnie clamped himself around Frank, hiding Frank's face in the cave of his shoulder — not good enough, not safe enough. His flesh would know. It would get wet and it would know. The shower: Wet is wet.
Shoving and tugging Frank into the stall, Frank no more and no less cooperative than a leaden statue in his hold, turning the water on, the abrupt-douse of icicle-cold spray a welcome, sobering slap. Hysteria neatly sidestepped, he could think to spare a hand to close the frosted glass door, adjust the water. Damp moss, Frank's eyes, when next he met them, but safe now: Wet is wet.
Okay, okay, he was a grown man again and he knew all about covers. His talent after all, to neutralize the hideous with the plausible. There'd been no childhood closet that had started to yawn open, simply two adults who'd indulged in some rough'n'tumble sex and would now wash. Go along with me, Frank, just go along with me and everything's gonna be fine.
He slipped his hands under the water-furrowed linen and cotton still covering Frank's torso —vaguely aware of the denim shrinking to his own legs— pushed them up, his gliding palms persuading Frank's heavy arms to move for him, let Vinnie bare him.
The sodden bundle, he simply dropped, picked up the soap and a washcloth, wetting and sudsing it raising a lavish scent, reminding him they were in woman's shower. Undesirable stowaways in Jenny's territory. Ignore it, Frank's specter, his specter, all of it, just wash, make it normal, make it acceptable.
It didn't fool Frank, but responsible to the core, he only saw it from the perspective of his own liability. "I did what I did, Vince." Still fixed gestureless, forty-five years of hewn stone under the soap and slide of Vinnie's hands. "You can't wash it clean."
"I don't need it clean." Just remorseless. He knew, of course, that he was entreating at the wrong altar.
He knew that, too. How could he know Frank McPike and not know? Roger had spared him that purgatory, and in his own way, so had Sonny. "Next to godliness, yeah, I know. You shouldn't've let me make it your problem in the first place then. You should've turned me down, thrown me out." Scraping with the washcloth now — no use, too late to peel himself off of Frank. "Should've let me take it out to some dark alley where it belongs."
"Cut that out!" Frank stepped back, almost viciously yanked away the washcloth and dropped it, turned off the water that was running into his eyes as he tried to look up at Vinnie, but his hands coming to band Vinnie's wrist were gentle, damnably solicitous. "How did my sin become yours?"
"Don't flatter yourself, Frank, it was never yours. Sin just happened to come to you in the shape of your best friend."
"I know what you're trying to do, stop it." For once, Frank was not hiding sadness under his customary winding sheets of anger. "I'm not buying absolution at your cost.'
Vinnie looked down at the benevolent shackle of Frank's fingers and suddenly hated them, pulled away from them. "Came to you under guise of friendship, tricked you so's you couldn't toss it out with the rest of the garbage. Roger had a thing for whores and even he caught on real fast I was worse news."
Frank slapped him. Open palmed and not nearly hard enough. The way a man slaps a boy. "Stop it, now."
Vinnie caught the hand whose fingers he could feel gently warming his cheek, "Think you were much of a challenge? Hey, if I can corrupt a priest, what chance did you —"
Frank slapped him again, hard enough to jolt. The way a man slaps a very, very bad boy.
Vinnie caught that hand, too, looked at the fingers whose imprint he could feel burning on his cheek and suddenly loved them. 'That's right, let's get real here. I have ten years, six inches and forty pounds on you. I coulda stopped you, didn't want to." A phantom flash of that keen, emphatic possession still burning in him, and even the remnant of the cramping pain ached with uncrested need. "You're worried about a little blood? Hell, Frank, you're the one bleeding here, I'm just turned on harder than I can stand."
He forced Frank's hand, the one that had hurt so blessedly, into the opening of his jeans. Just as proof. Wasn't expecting anything.
Wasn't at all expecting Frank to kneel and promptly pull his jeans down. Second skin to Vinnie's legs by then, the jeans took some effort until they cleared his thighs, then, wet-weight, pooled at his ankles as Frank gathered his hips close with arms wearing water but no reserve. 'Told you before, Vince, this," watching the dumb flesh as it lifted toward him, "does not make the shame yours."
Oh, Christ, the damp, half-open darkness of his mouth, widening to take him, take him in.
It made his breath catch as it had the first time Frank had done it, struck anew by how nude a man's mouth could look, all mouths coverless, but a man's wrapped around another man's lust so stark bare. He almost couldn't stand to see Frank laid so explicitly bare.
No part of Vinnie left untaken by men, with or without his consent, but no part of him taken in, not a single man before willing to unseal of his own male nature for him. Fingers splayed around Frank's face, he traced with his thumbs the border of lips stretched to his shape, allowing themselves to be breached and used, the cheeks suctioning under his palms. Jesus. "Don't — don't have to, you know," more exhalation than utterance and on just this side of truth.
Whatever was said in answer was smothered mute by Vinnie's breadth, but articulate around it, an intimate rumbling felt to the root. Oh, sweet Jesus, Frank was going to finish it like this, just like this, between his lips, in the depths of his mouth.
Frank tried, soaking wet and on unyielding tiles, all candor and no art, except the art of loving enough to do it and do it with such passionate intensity, he tried and tried, long past the point where Vinnie wished he'd give up, he kept trying. Vinnie loved him for it, loved also the moist and mobile mouth, the slight rasp of the tongue lapping at his nerves, washing him vein by shaft by ridge, and he thrilled to it, softly rocked with it, and later sobbed with it, but couldn't get to the edge, let alone go over. For some cureless ache in him, too uninherited an act.
He tried to pull away, but Frank caught him back, pulled him in again, giving only the pain of too much patience, engulfing him over and over in a singsong of pleasure. A part of Vinnie still deaf as a wound that can only hear its own pain — until he closed his eyes to the sight of Frank at his feet, threw back his head, tasted not this sweet care in his mouth but the earlier blood and salt and scald, resufferred Frank as a ruthless blade in his guts, and suddenly, suddenly that keening voice was his, the unlenient hips were his, moving with ravenous motive, his, too, were the hands riveting Frank to his stone-ram center, but it was fast, his body gathered fast, clenched hard, let him spasm and erupt, spew and end.
Had to be like acid to swallow — he was sure it was burning bitter, it seemed to coat his throat, too — but Frank did, swallow him dry and only then take his mouth away. His arms banded tight around Vinnie, who didn't need their support, or the support of the cooled tiles against his shoulders. His muscles had frozen shut, keeping him upright when he just wanted to curl up around the trembling, shivering weakness in his middle. Frank's forehead came to rest over it, afforded it some warmth. With shaking fingers, Vinnie found his down-turned face, traced the curve of the hard-used jaws. "I'm sorry."
"Sshh," an indulgent current of warm air against his belly.
Frank stood up, fumbling, stiff, slumped against Vinnie, then aligned their heads and quietly touched his tired lips to Vinnie's. Such a long way, to arrive at a kiss.
What a wasted journey for Frank. He'd tried with all his heart and done his best and his best hadn't been good enough for Vinnie, either.
Oh, sweet Mother of mercy, please, don't let Frank ever so much as suspect — 'If my best isn't good enough...save everybody the trouble...' — not ever.
Vinnie put his arms around him — so he was no better than Jenny, only greedier than her —opened his mouth to him, surprised to find his taste in Frank's mouth no different than Frank's in his, unaccountably surprised to find his taste in Frank's mouth at all.
And there, most surprising of all, at the center of the meager warmth two chilling-wet bodies managed to generate against each other and share skin-to-skin, the blunt evidence that somewhere within that interminable, unappreciated labor of love Frank had found something arousing. Vinnie didn't know if the feeling that crested in him was joyful or sad, but he knew it was humility, and a measure of gratitude for being wanted. He swept his hands down, intending to seal their bodies closer, just for a start, but Frank's hands reached back, captured his, yanking them down, keeping their arms locked straight at their sides.
"Let go of my arms, Frank." They had to speak for him, the rest of him was too inadequate.
"I will. When I do, I just want you to turn the shower back on, 'cause we're freezing here."
'Sure, but first —"
"Frank, just let me —"
"I already told you, and I meant it: never again."
He'd managed to forget. With good reason, he'd thought. "But you just — what, that doesn't count?"
"Oh, Vince," Frank sighed out his name, his voice abraded by fatigue and ill-use. "If you think that was the same thing, you've got a lot to learn, kiddo,"
"So what was it then, an apology?" It just slipped out. He knew better. Oh yes, he knew much better, except never was such a nightmare.
Frank looked so disappointed in him. "Some things, you can't apologize for. You can't wash it away, scrape it blank, or amputate it either, We both have to live with it. How, we'll figure out later. But, Vince, if there's going to be a later, you have to understand, this stops, right here, right now."
"You're gonna stand there like that and tell me you don't want me? Right here, right now?"
"Yeah, well, I want a lot of things. What I don 't want is another unhealthy relationship." Frank unlaced their fingers and released Vinnie, stepped back, putting an outstretched arm between them. A barrier or a mooring line, unclear. "I said 'no harm, no foul.' I was an idiot. The only way that works is when you don't give a damn about what you're corrupting. I do give a damn. Too much to keep fouling it, so please, just some heat and some sleep, okay?"
He'd have done anything Frank asked, easily. Doing only what Frank asked was harder. But who'd said it had to be easy?
The heat, the shower provided. The sleep, the closest bed. That it happened to be Frank's marriage bed, neither commented on.
The darkness was all right, Frank's back toward him, not so all right. The silence…Vinnie couldn't stand the silence. "Frank?"
"Are we gonna be okay?"
"I think so — Vince?"
"Are you okay?"
"Huh?" Oh, that. "I was nothing, Frank, trust me — Frank?"
"Can I — you mind if I just put an arm around you?"
"Why would I mind?"
"Well, you said...all that stuff…you know."
Frank sighed. "You do have a lot to learn. This is another that goes under the heading of 'not the same thing,' Vince, so go ahead and splurge, put two."
Oh, that felt much better. Of course, the arm under Frank's head was going to go numb soon and feel like a pincushion come the morning, but he didn't care. "Frank?"
"I give a damn, too.
"You were right about one thing, Vinnie, we should never have started this. Back then, I mean. As an Irishman once said: What's never known is safest in this life."
"Yeah, well, they who have no arms," tightening his own to stress he, indeed, owned a pair, for better or for worse, "have the cleanest hands." A start, as if Frank hadn't expected him to know the quote, let alone continue it. "Hey, no law 'gainst an Italian bein' familiar with an Irishman."
As an unexpected bonus, Vinnie's words tugged Frank's sense of humor out of hiding. A chortle bubbled up. "Yeah, well, I can think of a few against him being this familiar with one." He sobered fast, though.
Vinnie felt Frank's brief smile against the inside of his arm disappear and grieved for it. "It. shouldn't be like this. I mean it should be like this," tenderness, affection, he had no problems with, but Frank had made it clear they weren't going to be enough to ransom the rest. "But not like...you know."
"Yeah, I know what you mean," Frank's hand found his, laced their fingers. "Glad you do, too."
Not really, no, I don 't. But I'm learning. And if he learned well, really well, maybe he could get a reprieve. One day. The day he deserved it. For now, he held Frank and told him, just between the mouth of his heart and the ears of his mind, because tainted or not it was his truth, so he told Frank: I love you... love you...