Disclaimer: This is fanfic, based on the show Once A Thief. Characters are property of Alliance. This story was written for fun, not profit.
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Family

by: Shadowscast


| Part One | | Part Two | | Interlude | | Part Three | | Part Four |

Part One


London, England, November 1971

In a 3rd floor walk-up flat in North London, a young woman kept an anxious vigil.

Barefoot, she padded to the window to look down at the street and see if he was coming yet. All she could see was a dance of black umbrellas, protecting pedestrians from the chilly November rain. A red double-decker bus roared by.

The woman was tall and slender. She wore a yellow peasant blouse, and bell-bottom jeans which she'd decorated with embroidered flowers. Her thick chestnut hair, ironed straight, fell freely to her waist. Her intense brown eyes, thick eyebrows and strong chin gave her face a powerful look - she might be called beautiful, but not pretty.

The flat's door opened behind her, and she turned with a startled gasp. "William!"

The man who walked in was tall as well, with a wavy mop of strawberry-blond hair. He shook his umbrella and regarded the woman with a confident grin.

"Anita darling, give me a kiss." William put the umbrella to the side and opened his arms.

"You're all wet," Anita protested, hesitating away from him.

"Now that sentiment is not at all romantic," William scolded her with a mock pout. He strode across the floor in his wet rubbers, and scooped her into his arms for a passionate kiss. When she didn't respond as she usually did, he let her go. "Is something wrong, my darling?"

"William, I - I'm sorry I-" She turned away with a troubled expression, and gazed at the floor.

"My dearest girl, do tell me what's wrong," William insisted. He lifted her chin with an index finger and tilted her face towards him. Tears glimmered in her eyes.

She spoke very quietly. "I'm pregnant."

There was a moment of silence. She couldn't read him. He stared at her, a cypher. William was the most romantic and passionate man she'd ever met. He was the adventure she'd dreamed of when she came to London, alone, from Canada, and she was desperately in love with him - but there were times when she realized she knew nothing, absolutely nothing, about him.

And then he dropped to one knee in front of her, and kissed her hand. He pulled a small box from a pocket of his overcoat, and opened it. There was a ring inside, a gold band with a small inset diamond. "Anita, will you marry me?"

She hardly dared to breathe. "Yes. Oh yes. Oh my God William, you were going to ask me anyway!" All at once she was laughing and crying, and he stood up again and caught her in his arms.

"We'll see to it right away, my love. Within a fortnight, your name will be Anita Ramsey."

Barcelona, Spain, June 1973

"New York?" Anita repeated, suspicious. "And why the hell would we want to move to New York?"

"It's a fine city, very cosmopolitan," William insisted. He bounced the baby on his knee and made a cooing noise. "You'd like to see the New World, wouldn't you, Mac?"

The baby gurgled and squealed, and clapped his hands.

"See? See Anita? Mac wants to go."

Anita was unimpressed. "He can't even talk yet. Don't bring him into this. This is about that poker game you were at last night, isn't it?"

"How did you - what poker game?"

Anita grabbed the baby from him and stood up so that she could glare down at him. "I could smell it on your clothes."

"Picture it, darling." William stood up and spread his hands wide, ready to tell his tale. "The stakes were sky high, and I held in my hand four kings. I could tell by the twitch of Enrico's eye he was bluffing. It was a sure thing, the opportunity of a lifetime - of two lifetimes!"

Her mouth dry, Anita asked, "How much?"

"Everything. And then some."

"And?"

"And he had a straight flush."

"So we have to skip town? Again?" Anita put the baby down on the floor because the way her hands were starting to shake, she was afraid she would drop him. He crawled off across the floor in search of a toy to teethe on.

"Oh my dear, I wish you wouldn't think of it so crudely. We will relocate - people like us can't be tied down to one place for long."

"People like us? It's you!" Anita's voice rose into a yell; Mac looked up and whimpered. "You just keep fucking up your idiotic cons, and we have to run to another country in the dead of night because big men with guns are coming after us for your money or your blood! London, Paris, Amsterdam, now Barcelona - it's only been two years and we're on the run from half of Europe! What are you going to do when you owe money to someone in every city on Earth, huh? Run to the fucking moon and start trying to sell green cheese?"

Mac started to howl. A sharp thumping sound came from the floor, followed by a string of muffled Spanish insults.

"Fuck off, we're having a fight here!" Anita yelled at the floorboards. Mac started screaming louder.

"You're upsetting the baby," William said. "Calm down Anita. Come here, let me kiss you. We don't have to leave yet. Enrico isn't expecting the first payment until tomorrow morning. I'll think of something before then." He took a step towards her and she slapped him, hard, across the face.

"No," she said, her voice suddenly calm and cold in counterpoint to the baby's screaming. "Not again. I'm not falling for it again. You're charming, William, and you're sexy as all hell, but you've fucked with me enough. I'm taking Mac and I'm going back to Canada - without you."

Hong Kong, September 1991

"You wanted to see me, Father?" Mac asked, walking into the parlour where the godfather liked to serve British-style tea. The table was set with the imported silver tea set and several plates of cakes and biscuits. Mr. Tang, facing Mac, nodded to him and rose to his feet. A couple impassive thugs stood near the table; one Mac recognized as a Tang soldier, and the other must have come with the guest. Mr. Tang's guest remained seated at the table with his back to Mac. The guest was a white man with thinning strawberry-blond hair, speckled with grey.

"Yes, Mac," the godfather said with his trademark friendly smile. "I require your services as a translator."

"Um, pardon?" Mac raised an eyebrow.

"Our guest here does not speak Cantonese and I, as you know, do not speak English." The godfather said this without any odd emphasis, but Mac took his meaning. The godfather spoke better English than Mac did - there was some sort of game being played here. "He has a translator in his employ," Mr. Tang nodded towards the goon Mac didn't recognize, "but for the sensitive matters he wishes to discuss, I thought it would be prudent to have someone in the family translate instead, and he agreed." Mr. Tang motioned to his own man, and to the translator. "Leave us now." The two men left.

As soon as the door clicked shut behind the men, the visitor stood up and turned around.

And Mac felt the ground shift under him.

"Now come on," William Ramsey said, holding his arms open, "Aren't you going to give your old man a hug?"

Mac staggered a step backwards. "Dad?"

"In the very flesh, my dear son!"

Mac stared wide-eyed at the scene in front of him. His father - Mr. Tang - still stood near the table, frowning now. And his father - William Ramsey - stood in front of him, beaming at him and asking for a hug.

"This is your father, Mac?" Mr. Tang asked in Cantonese.

"No," Mac replied flatly, in the same language, "You're my father. This is the man who fucked my mother nine months before I was born."

"Language, Mac," Mr. Tang chided.

"I'd appreciate a translation," William said, finally letting his arms drop from their ridiculous invitation to hug.

Mac glared at William. "He's asking if I know you. What should I tell him?"

"Tell him the truth, dear boy!"

"What, that you're the one who abandoned me here when I was thirteen?"

William puffed up, taking offence. "I did not abandon you. You screamed that you hated me and never wanted to see me again, and you ran out of the hotel. What was I to do?"

"Oh, I don't know.... look for me!?"

"If I may interrupt?" Mr. Tang interjected, in Cantonese again. "Perhaps we should all sit down. I think you should drink some tea, Mac. I apologize for the shock - this man said that he knew you, but he didn't tell me the nature of your relationship."

"Yeah. Yeah, OK." Keeping a wary eye on William, Mac circled around the table to an empty chair. All three men sat down. Mr. Tang poured a cup of tea for Mac. Mac picked it up and was appalled to find that his hand was shaking so much that the tea nearly sloshed over the side - he put the teacup down quickly, and grabbed a biscuit instead.

"So what the hell are you doing here?" Mac demanded, glaring at William.

"I came to see you, of course." William took a dainty sip of his tea. "Please tell Mr. Tang that this is the best tea I've tasted since I left London."

"He says this is the best tea-" Mac started obediently in Cantonese. "Jeez, I don't have to tell you what he's saying!"

"Why do you suppose he's really here?" the godfather asked, sipping at his own tea.

"To con you, probably," Mac said grimly. "That's what he does for a living."

Mr. Tang shook his head, looking sad. "You should not speak so disrespectfully of your own father."

Mac met William's expectant look. "He says of course it's as good as the tea in London - all the good tea comes from China anyway. So how long have you known I was here?"

"Oh, I heard rumours years ago, and I took heart that you were safe and in better hands than mine." William set his teacup on its saucer with a clink, and gave Mac a rueful look. "I really was a terrible father to you, wasn't I?"

"I'll say." Mac stuffed a biscuit into his mouth.

William took a biscuit himself, and nibbled daintily at it. "Tell Mr. Tang that these biscuits are very good. Very authentic."

Mac rolled his eyes. He touched his thick linen napkin to the corners of his mouth to dab away any crumbs, and said to the godfather "Why did he tell you he was here?"

"He said he had a business proposition. He didn't give details, but he said that you would vouch for him."

"Vouch for him? The man's been telling so many lies for so long, he's completely lost his grip on reality!" Mac switched to English, and turned to William. "He says the baker we buy them from used to work in Balmoral Castle. He also says you said you have a business proposition for us."

"Oh yes, well, you know me," William offered with a grin, "Always five or six balls in the air."

Mac glared at him. "So, what's the con this time?"

His father turned his face slightly and sucked air through his teeth, as though Mac had slapped him on the cheek. "Such a nasty word, 'con' - I wish you wouldn't use it. This is straight-and-narrow, up-and-up, a totally sure thing."

Mac raised a skeptical eyebrow.

"Oil, my son. Black gold. Texas tea. A brand new source has been discovered in Indonesia. And, well, the situation in the Persian Gulf being what it is right now, you can imagine how hungry certain parties are for a new source of oil." William tapped the side of his nose and winked.

Mac sighed. "And where do the Tangs fit into your scheme?"

"Exploration and drilling equipment costs a lot of money up front. We need investors. Go on, translate this for Mr. Tang."

The godfather looked at Mac expectantly.

"I wouldn't trust him," Mac said. "He always had these crazy schemes for getting rich, and not one ever worked out as long as I knew him."

"But it's true that you haven't seen him in six years. Perhaps his luck has changed."

Mac stared at his adoptive father. "Tell me you're not thinking about giving him money."

"Now Mac, you know I never act in haste. I would need to hear your father's story confirmed by independent sources before any money changes hands. Now, ask him whether OPEC knows about this new oil field."

***

"Mac," Li Ann said, "if you can't stay still for five seconds, why don't you go somewhere else and stop bugging us?" Li Ann and Michael knelt facing each other on the floor, with a disassembled sniper rifle between them. Michael was trying to show Li Ann and Mac how to clean it and put it together, but as Li Ann had observed, Mac was pacing around the room instead of paying attention.

"Sorry, sorry," Mac said, returning to kneel beside Li Ann. Michael picked up a piece of the gun and opened his mouth to speak, but Mac interrupted him. "I just had a really whacked-out day."

Michael put the piece down again and, with a sigh, shifted into a more relaxed, cross-legged position. "We're not going to get any work done like this. So why don't you tell us what happened?"

"My father's here. My biological father."

Li Ann frowned. "I thought you said he was dead."

"I was speaking, uh, metaphorically."

Michael regarded Mac with interest. "Your father is alive, and he's here?"

"Yeah. The guy shows up six years after leaving me to die here, and expects me to talk Father into going into some kind of business deal with him!"

"What kind of business?" Michael asked.

"Oil speculation. It doesn't matter. My father is a con man, there's no way this is legit."

"Did you tell Father?" Li Ann asked, concerned.

"Of course!" Mac said. "He wanted to talk to him anyway, though. I don't know why."

Just then there was a knock at the door. They all looked up - and William Ramsey walked in.

"What do you want?" Mac asked in an unfriendly tone. "This is William Ramsey," he added for the benefit of Li Ann and Michael.

"Just the chance for a private conversation with my son, who I haven't seen in years." William gave Mac a pleading, wounded look.

Mac looked to his siblings for help. Li Ann shrugged. Michael said, in English, "Why don't you take him to the library?"

***

William settled himself in one of the big leather armchairs. He took out a pipe and a pack of tobacco, asking "Mind if I smoke?"

Mac shrugged. He pulled the other armchair around to face the first, and perched on the edge of its seat. "What do you want from me?"

William completed the business of stuffing his pipe, lighting the tobacco, and taking his first puff before he answered. "I'd like to make amends, if I can. Get to know my boy a little better."

"It's too late for that," Mac said quietly. "That boy is gone, and I was never 'yours' to begin with."

"I was never there for you when you needed me, was I?" William blew a smoke ring, and watched with a sad, thoughtful expression as it dissipated.

Mac snorted. "That's an understatement. You showed up what, twice? the whole time I was growing up. And then it took Child Services four months to find you after Mom...." His voice trailed off and he stared at the wisps of smoke drifting by.

"But then I did come, did I not?" William leaned forward, eyes flashing with intensity. "Deep in the Peruvian rain forests, I received a telegram that my dear boy needed a father, and in a flash I made the three day overland journey in two, and boarded a plane to Canada."

Mac crossed his arms. "That story would be more touching if you hadn't abandoned me in Hong Kong five months later."

William sucked on his pipe. "I do feel bad about that. You always were my favourite son. There was something about you, you had spunk, verve-"

"You have other sons?" Mac interrupted.

William chuckled. "Well, I have sown a few wild oats in my time. But your mother Lillian will always have a very special place in my heart-"

"Anita," Mac snapped.

William blinked, momentarily at a loss, and then found his stride again. "Anita, of course. Wonderful woman. Too bad about the end-"

Mac glared at William. "Who's Lillian?"

"Oh, just my third wife. After Anita. They were both in my life in the early seventies, so it's easy to get the names mixed up. Are you happy here, my boy?"

"What?!"

"Are you happy here?" William repeated himself. "To be sure, I can see that you're well fed, clothed - all the physical necessities are met. But I fear you may be lacking in affection, nurturing."

William sat back with a thoughtful air and puffed at his pipe, giving Mac a chance to catch up.

Mac was stunned at the man's nerve - to show up after six years without a real apology, to come into Mac's new home and new family and ask a question like that. The worst part was some corner of Mac's mind was considering the question seriously.

Of course the godfather had affection for Mac. He wasn't demonstrative, but he let Mac and Li Ann know he cared for them.

And all right, deep inside Mac there was still a lonely little boy who craved his real father's love and approval. Mac fought against that little boy, struggling to keep him buried.

Mac set his jaw. "You're just saying all this because you want me to convince Father to go ahead with your oil field scheme."

"Not at all," William denied, waving at the air. "I know that approval rests entirely upon the word his own source in Indonesia brings him."

"Wait a second." Mac furrowed his brow. "I didn't tell you about that."

"No, my dear son," William said in Cantonese. "He did." William's accent was quite bad, but he was entirely understandable.

"Son of a bitch," Mac breathed. "You understood every word we said."

"If it's any comfort to you, I am quite sure that Mr. Tang very quickly figured out that I could understand him."

Mac clenched his fists. "OK. I don't get it. So he knew what you were saying, and you knew what he was saying, and you knew that he knew and he knew that you knew - what the fuck did I have to be there for?"

William smiled and winked. "It was all about the game, my dear son. The grand joust. Mr. Tang and I were feeling each other out, communicating on many levels simultaneously. It was all very subtle and exciting. And this is exactly the sort of thing I want to show you. I want to come back into your life and teach you from my own experience."

Despite himself, Mac felt his heart starting to beat faster. Maybe this time he really meant it. It was possible. Now that Mac was grown up, maybe he was more interesting to this man than he had been as a child. But... "I'm not leaving the Tangs," Mac warned his father. "They're my family now, and I owe them everything."

"Of course, of course not," William murmured. "But surely we could spend a little time together? Consider me an old acquaintance, if you will. Perhaps we could go out for lunch tomorrow? My treat. You choose the place - show me what good Hong Kong cooking is. Deal?" William held out his hand with an expectant smile.

Mac hesitated. But... it had been six years. A man could change.

Besides, this was his father.

Mac gripped William's hand and shook it firmly. "Tomorrow. Lunch."

Hamilton, Canada, May 1978

Mac climbed the three flights of stairs to the apartment where he and his mom lived, counting the steps. He'd got into counting things lately.

It was nearly four o'clock. He was late coming home from school, but he didn't think his mom would notice.

"Mac, you're late!" Anita called out as soon as he opened the door.

Mac stared at his mom. She was dressed in day clothes, and the living room was all cleaned up!

"Give me a hug and a kiss, sweetie!" Anita said, scooching down to give Mac a peck on the cheek. Mac squirmed away, but he grinned. Mom had put on lipstick, and she looked pretty. It was a really nice change to come home and be greeted by Mom. Usually she'd be spaced out on the couch, watching TV and smoking a cigarette and not even noticing that Mac was home. "Why are you late?" she asked. "Where were you?"

"I stayed after school to help Mrs. Lyon clean the boards and the erasers," Mac answered, looking up at his mom with unblinking boyish innocence. What he'd said was totally true, and there was no need at all to mention that it had been a detention for swearing at the teacher.

"Oh, that's sweet, honey," Anita said. "Now take off your coat and shoes and come into the kitchen. There's someone I'd like you to meet."

Mac followed his mom into the apartment's tiny eat-in kitchen. A man sat at the table. To a six-year-old boy, he looked huge and old. He had short strawberry blond hair and a big nose. When the man saw Mac, he gave him a toothy grin.

"My, how you've grown!" the man said. He spoke too loudly for the small room, and he had some kind of funny accent. "You're a strapping young man, now. You've done a marvellous job, Anita."

"Mac," Anita said, putting her hand on Mac's shoulder, "This is your father."

***

Mac sat in the front passenger seat of his father's car, licking a chocolate ice cream cone. This was great. Mom never bought him ice cream cones. She always said she couldn't afford it.

"So, do you like school?" William asked. "What grade are you in?"

"I'm almost done grade one," Mac answered, sitting up straighter with pride at his father's attention. "School's OK. I like gym class. I can't wait for summer vacation. My teacher's an old witch."

William braked abruptly at a red light. Mac slid forward in his seat, and barely managed to save his ice cream from the dashboard. He laughed with excitement. It was so cool that his dad didn't make him wear a seatbelt.

"Are you doing well? Do you get good grades?"

Mac rolled his eyes at the typical grownup questions. He caught a drip of ice cream with his tongue just before it got to his hand. "I guess so," he hedged. "I like math better than spelling."

"Your mother tells me that your teacher thinks you're very bright, and you'd be at the top of your class if you'd apply yourself."

Mac snorted, but in a weird way he was enjoying this. This was exactly the kind of thing that the kids who had fathers complained about. Mac felt like he was earning membership in some exclusive club. "Mom doesn't even care if I do my homework," Mac mumbled around a mouthful of ice cream.

"Does she ever talk about me?" William asked.

"Who, Mom?" Mac shrugged. "She said she didn't know where you were. That's all she said about you before. She's really happy you're here now." Mac had seen his mom smiling and laughing in the past week more than he could ever remember. She got dressed every day, and even cooked all sorts of food. She hadn't screamed at Mac all week. It was great, and Mac hoped his dad would stick around forever.

"How would you like to go to a movie, son?" his dad offered.

Mac grinned so wide it almost hurt. "All right!!"

***

Mac woke up. It was dark, and his mom was yelling.

"Bastard! Asshole! I hate you!" she screamed. "Fucking prick! I hate you!" There was the sound of glass smashing.

Mac hid his head under his pillow. That way his mom's voice was muffled and he couldn't make out the words, but he still heard more things smashing.

After a while, things got quiet. Then Mac's bedroom door opened. Mom came in, and he felt her sitting at the foot of his bed. She was sobbing quietly.

Mac shoved the pillow to the side; it flumped to the floor. "Is Dad gone?" he asked in a very hushed tone.

Anita drew a shuddering breath. "Yes, sweetheart," she said. "Daddy's gone."

Hong Kong, September 1991

"I've had word from my source in Indonesia," Mr. Tang said.

Mac swallowed. The godfather's expression was tight-lipped, and grim.

"There is no oil. The supposed oil field is, in fact, filled with carbolic acid."

Mac felt slightly nauseous - but he couldn't claim to be surprised. "The old man's not much of a chemist, I guess," he muttered.

"I'm afraid there's more bad news," Mr. Tang continued. "There's no sign of your father anywhere. He seems to have left Hong Kong."

Mac nodded, acknowledging the information. It was amazing - it really was the exact same physical sensation as getting punched in the gut, an experience Mac was all too familiar with.

"I am truly sorry, Mac," the godfather said. He rose, gave Mac a slight bow, and left Mac alone in the parlour.

With a howl of rage, Mac punched the sofa cushions. It didn't help. Nothing would.

***

Michael bowed to Mac. He shifted his feet and bent his knees slightly, coming into a fighting stance. He held his bo steady in a defensive position, waiting for Mac's attack.

Mac bounced lightly on the balls of his feet, feinting once or twice with his own bo. Michael held his place, gazing steadily into Mac's eyes and watching for the flicker that always preceded Mac's real attack. The attack came and he blocked it; Mac followed through with a flurry of ineffective blows until Michael caught one between their chests and pushed Mac away. The younger, lighter man was thrown off balance and fell backwards, flat on his ass. With an angry scowl Mac jumped back to his feet and assumed a defensive position.

"You're still projecting your attacks, like I told you before," Michael lectured, circling Mac now and feinting a couple times himself. "Your eyes always flick sideways the moment before you strike."

"Jesus, who's going to notice that besides you?" Mac grumbled, managing to parry a couple playful blows.

"A skilled opponent will notice the second time you do it, and kill you on the third," Michael said, and started attacking Mac in earnest.

Mac dodged, parried, and counterattacked skillfully, as Michael had taught him. The thwock! of wood hitting wood rang out again and again, in an irregular and staccato percussion, and Michael felt sweat trickling down the side of his face.

There was something wrong today - something off about Mac's fighting. His reactions were fractionally too slow. His movements were a bit jerky, and there was something dark behind his eyes. All this was very subtle - Michael noticed only because he'd been training with Mac every day for years, and he knew the young man's every movement and expression as well as he would know a lover's body.

"You're upset about your father, aren't you?" Michael guessed. "I heard he left." Mac missed a beat and Michael got his bo in past Mac's defences, to tap his young adoptive brother lightly on the side of the head. "Got you. Keep going."

"That man is nothing to me," Mac insisted, though his scowl and the fury of the blows he directed at Michael said otherwise.

"He didn't stay long, did he?" Michael blocked Mac's volley easily as he spoke. He circled Mac, waiting patiently for a good opening. Mac clearly wasn't thinking about his attacks, he was just lashing out randomly. "How was lunch yesterday?"

"I had to pay. All he had in his wallet was fucking Icelandic kronur." Mac lifted his bo to block Michael's high snapping counterattack - and the weapons met with a different sound, a soft crunch.

Mac made a choked, gasping sound. His bo dropped to the mat and rolled away, as Mac sank to his knees and then toppled slowly sideways, clutching his left hand close to his chest. Mac's face had gone completely white, and his jaw was clenched. "fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck..." he chanted through gritted teeth.

Michael's heart started pounding harder than it had during the combat. Mac had made a novice mistake with that block, and now his hand was probably broken. Normally Mac was very skillful with the bo - not as good as Michael, but very good. His real father's leaving must have shaken him a lot.

Michael knelt on the mat beside Mac. "Hey. That was a bad mistake. Remember it."

Mac nodded, his eyes squinched shut against tears and his jaw clenched shut against screams.

There are a hell of a lot of nerves in the hand. Michael knew Mac was in severe pain. "If this is real combat, I kill you now while you lie there," Michael pointed out. "The hand is a non-lethal target, but if you go down like this it'll kill you anyway."

With a low moan, Mac uncurled his body and forced himself to his feet, swaying a bit. Michael stood up with him. "We're still in combat," Michael insisted. "What do you do?"

Mac lashed out with his right fist, a lightning punch to Michael's head. Michael deflected the punch and countered with one of his own, and Mac side-stepped away. Mac danced away a few more steps to give himself space. His left hand was protectively tucked against his chest, and his right was held loosely out, ready to block or attack. He shifted his weight and aimed a side kick at Michael. Michael stepped aside and punched at Mac, left hand followed by right. Mac instinctively tapped the second punch aside with his left hand - and couldn't stop himself from crying out at the pain. Combat forgotten, he clutched his wrist and swayed, his face even whiter than before. Concerned that Mac was about to pass out, Michael stepped forward and put an arm around him. He felt Mac shudder at his touch. "That wasn't bad," Michael said, intending to comfort Mac.

Mac made a gulping noise and his right hand flew up to cover his mouth. He tore out of Michael's grasp and dashed to the sink at the edge of the training room. He clutched one-handed at the side of the sink for support while he vomited into the white porcelain basin.

Michael came up behind Mac and turned the water on. Mac cupped his right hand under the stream, and washed out his mouth. Michael put a hand on Mac's back, and he could feel the young man trembling. "Let me see your hand," Michael said.

Mac lifted his left arm. The hand was already looking a bit swollen.

"Can you move your fingers?" Michael asked.

Mac stared at his hand - his fingers didn't move. "Uh, no. Oh fuck," and he bent over the sink, retching again.

Michael was fascinated by Mac's reaction to this injury. He should be scornful of the weakness Mac was showing - falling over, nearly passing out and then vomiting - but instead, Michael found the whole thing strangely appealing. Mac was usually so brash and full of himself. The intense pain had broken past that, to a place where Mac was vulnerable - where everyone was vulnerable, in fact. Michael realized with surprise that he enjoyed the feel of Mac helpless in his arms.

Michael put a steadying arm around Mac. "It's probably broken."

"No shit," Mac moaned.

Michael looked Mac in the eye. Mac's pupils were dilated wide, and his face was still pasty - even for a white guy. His too-long bangs were stuck to his sweaty forehead. He looked hurt, ill and vulnerable, and suddenly younger than his nineteen years. Michael reached up and brushed Mac's hair away from his eyes - which motion earned him a startled look from Mac.

"I'll take you to the hospital," Michael said.

***

None of the Tangs' regular drivers were around, so Michael hailed a cab on the street in front of the Tang residence. He gave the name of the nearest hospital with an ER, and opened the door for Mac.

At first Mac stared out the window, and Michael stared at Mac. Then Mac turned a wry grin on his older brother and said "Next time we use pool noodles, OK?"

"I don't think that would be properly instructive," Michael replied stiffly.

Mac crossed his eyes at Michael. "Can't we ever just have fun?"

Michael didn't dignify that with a response. Instead, he said "I apologize for mentioning your father while we were fighting. I didn't know it would throw you off so much."

Mac's head snapped around to look out the window again, avoiding Michael's eye. "Like I said, he's nothing to me."

They rode in silence for a few more heartbeats. Michael felt like prodding at this wound a little more to see what would happen, but before he could think of what else to say, Mac interrupted his thoughts with a strangled, choking noise.

Michael frowned, concerned. "Mac?"

Mac made the noise again. Michael tried to remember if Mac had had something in his mouth that he could be choking on now. Quickly, he wondered whether it would be possible to perform the Heimlich manoeuvre seated in the back seat of a compact car. Then Mac made the noise for a third time and Michael noticed the new wetness gleaming on Mac's cheek, and he realized that Mac was crying.

At first Michael could only stare in horrified fascination while the tempo of Mac's sobs increased. He'd never seen Mac cry before. Never.

When Michael's father had first brought Mac home, Mac had been a skinny, dirty street rat, unusual only because of his race. Predictably, Mac had played it tough and distant back then. Michael hadn't been much interested in the kid, but the godfather had insisted that Michael treat Mac like a younger brother, so he'd let Mac tag along with him sometimes. When history repeated itself about a year later with Li Ann, Michael was content to let the two strays amuse each other, but his father had other ideas. Mac and Li Ann were schooled and groomed and trained until it looked like they might actually be useful after all. Gradually, Mac had lost his I'm-from-the-streets-and-don't-you-forget-it prickly bravado, and replaced it with a frequently annoying mixture of wicked playfulness, impulsive boldness and spoiled petulance. But behind all that there was a real, honest toughness. Just thirteen years old, Mac had survived on his own in Hong Kong for half a year, somehow - without even knowing ten words of Cantonese at first. Sometimes, Michael even thought he admired the kid. And he knew for certain that never in six years had he seen Mac cry.

It was because his father had just abandoned him again, obviously. And then the intense pain of the broken hand had been the single drop of water that makes the cup overflow.

The driver glanced back curiously in his rear-view mirror, but didn't say a word. Michael reached over and pulled Mac towards himself. Mac let himself fall against Michael's chest, still shaking with harsh sobs.

Michael wrapped his arms around his younger brother, and held on. He felt a muted contempt for Mac's weakness, but that feeling was overpowered by a strange excitement at this new dynamic. Michael had never comforted anyone before. It was a powerful feeling.

***

"Hey, Michael."

Michael looked up from the newspaper he was reading. Mac was walking towards him through the hospital's waiting room, waving his left hand. It was encased in a white plaster cast which went halfway up his forearm.

"We can go now," Mac said.

Michael folded the newspaper, tossed it onto a table, and stood up. He took a close look at Mac. Mac's bangs were stuck to his forehead with sweat and he didn't quite have his normal colour back, but he seemed cheerful.

"They gave me codeine," Mac explained. "I feel good. Don't let me operate any heavy machinery, though. I've got this prescription for more painkillers."

"We can pick them up on the way home," Michael offered.

On the way home, Michael felt his gaze drawn again and again to the cast. It was beautiful, in its sterile whiteness. The pink tips of Mac's fingers protruded from the end, reminders of the soft vulnerability inside the shell. When he looked at it, Michael remembered the crunch of his weapon against Mac's hand, and Mac's cry of pain. Michael felt gentle stirrings of arousal at the memory; this disturbed him a little, but it was a good feeling.

"You want to sign it?" Mac asked.

"What?" Michael said. They were in the cab on the way home, and Mac had just caught Michael staring at his cast.

"You want to sign the cast?" Mac tapped it with his right index finger. "Do you do that here? When I was ten I broke my arm, and everyone in my class signed the cast. I kept it, after - 'till I had to leave home, anyway."

Michael smiled. "Sure. I'll sign it."

As soon as they got home, Michael found a felt-tipped pen and drew his characters on the cast in jet black ink. "There, now I've put my name on you, you're mine," he joked.

"Yeah...." Mac said, in a suddenly distracted and sad tone.

Michael frowned. "What's wrong?"

Mac shrugged it off. "Nothing. Hey, Li Ann'll probably want to sign too."

"You were just thinking about your father again, weren't you?" Michael guessed.

Mac glared at him. "All right. Yeah. So, he put his name on me, didn't he? Ramsey. But he never really wanted me."

Mac's tone was belligerent, but the pain in his eyes was clear. Michael remembered the cab ride to the hospital, and the way Mac had just collapsed, sobbing, in his arms. Michael wondered how Mac felt about that now - if it had changed the way Mac saw him. For sure, there was power in this. Michael wondered how far it might go.

"You want some ice cream?" Michael suggested.

Mac frowned slightly, understandably confused. Michael had never suggested a late-night snack together before. He generally avoided Mac and Li Ann when he could - which meant whenever they weren't training together. "All right," Mac agreed.

They went to the Tang household's well-stocked pantry. Michael found a tub of mango ice cream in the deep freeze. He scooped some into bowls for himself and Mac.

"The dining room's already laid out for breakfast tomorrow," Michael pointed out. "Let's go to my room."

Mac raised an eyebrow in surprise, but shrugged 'OK.'

In Michael's room, they both sat cross-legged on the mat in the middle of the room. Mac folded himself skillfully into position, holding the bowl of ice cream with his good hand and not using his broken hand at all.

The ice cream was frozen very hard. Michael watched as Mac tried to cut into it with his spoon, but the spoon slipped off the surface of the ice cream and the bowl slipped across the mat. With two hands, Michael had no problem; he held onto his bowl and cut into his ice cream. Mac growled with frustration - he was on a short fuse. He tried to brace the bowl against his cast to keep it steady, but that didn't work, it just skidded to the side. "Fuck!" he swore.

"Sorry, it's really hard," Michael said. "You could wait for it to warm up a bit."

"I hate melted ice cream," Mac complained. Michael could see that Mac was really angry. He was probably upset at the realization that there would be a lot of things he wouldn't be able to do for the next few weeks, but Michael guessed the anger was mostly leftover from his father's leaving.

Suddenly, Michael was struck with a crazy impulse. He dug out a spoonful of ice cream himself - and then held it up, offering it to Mac. "Here."

Mac put his spoon down and reached for the one Michael held out, but Michael shook his head. "Open your mouth." He felt his heart beating faster - would Mac do it?

Mac laughed, and Michael could see the angry tension in him easing up a bit. "You're the mommy bird and I'm the baby bird?" Mac opened his mouth, and let Michael slide the spoonful of ice cream in, and then he closed his lips over it. Michael pulled the spoon out again. Mac closed his eyes, tasting the ice cream. "That's good. Thanks."

Michael got another spoonful of ice cream and offered it again. Mac gave him an amused look, and opened his mouth for it.

"So what's with this?" Mac asked after he swallowed, while Michael took a spoonful of ice cream for himself. "All of a sudden you're acting like you like me, or something. Are you feeling guilty for breaking my hand?"

Michael glared at him. "No. That was your fault."

"If you had more control, it wouldn't have happened." Mac stated this matter-of-factly. He didn't seem to be particularly pissed off with Michael; training accidents were a regular part of life. He was just trying to nettle Michael, probably out of habit more than anything. Instead of rising to the bait, Michael just smirked and offered Mac another spoonful of ice cream.

Mac took the spoon in his mouth again, giving Michael a puzzled and challenging look at the same time. Michael, for his part, watched Mac's lips. Mac had such full, almost bruised-looking lips - they made the simple act of licking ice cream off a spoon startlingly sensual.

"Have I got ice cream on my face?" Mac asked, noticing Michael staring at his lips.

"Yes," Michael lied. He licked his finger, and then rubbed the corner of Mac's mouth. He felt a surge of excitement as he did this. This was all very unexpected - he'd never thought of Mac sexually before. "Got it."

Mac reached for his spoon. "It's soft enough now," he noted, digging the spoon successfully into his ice cream.

Michael sat back and ate the rest of his own dessert. When Mac had finished, he said good night and left.

Michael left the bowls where the maid would find them, and got ready to go to bed. Once he lay in his bed, though, he couldn't sleep. His mind kept teasing him with images from the evening: Mac shaking and sick in the training room, Mac sobbing in the cab, Mac letting Michael feed him ice cream. As the scenes played in Michael's memory, he felt himself becoming distinctly aroused.

Michael liked to be in control. The women he slept with were always very pliant, providing no challenge. Michael had always thought that was the way he liked it - he'd always sought out particularly submissive women for his lovers. Mac, on the other hand - he was definitely not submissive. When Michael found himself comforting Mac, in that unexpected position of power, it was a victory over a will as strong as Michael's own - and that was exciting.

Michael finally drifted into a light sleep.

He woke to the sound of knocking at his bedroom door. He blinked at the glowing clock near his bed - it was 2:43 a.m. "Who is it?"

"It's me." It was Mac. "I forgot to get the painkillers from you."

Michael got up, wrapped a silk robe around his nakedness, and went to open the door. In the dim light Mac looked like a pale, glowing ghost. His hair was rumpled, he was barefoot, and he wore a robe similar to Michael's.

"Come in," Michael said. They were both speaking in hushed tones, just because it was the middle of the night.

Michael turned on his desk lamp. "Are you sure you need the pills?" he asked.

"My hand's throbbing. I can't sleep," Mac said.

Michael took pleasure in the raw vulnerability of Mac's words. He decided to see if he could get Mac to stay with him. He found the bag from the drugstore. "Here they are." He handed the bottle to Mac.

Mac looked at it, sighed, and handed it back to Michael. "I can't open it."

Michael smiled. "Right, sorry." He'd known that; he'd just wanted to make Mac say it. Michael checked the label, then twisted the cap off and shook out two pills. "Here."

Mac popped them into his mouth and swallowed them dry.

"You want a glass of water?" Michael asked. Mac shrugged. "Wait here, I'll get you one," he said, and left before Mac could object.

When he came back with the water, Mac was sitting on Michael's bed. Michael handed him the water, and Mac chugged it. "Thanks," he said, wiping his mouth with the back of the hand that still held the glass.

"Why don't you stay here until the pills take effect?" Michael offered softly, sitting down on the bed beside Mac. He took the glass and set it aside.

"No, I'm fine," Mac said, going to stand up. Michael put an arm across his waist and stopped him.

"I can see you're in pain," Michael disagreed. "You shouldn't be alone."

Mac gave Michael a startled look. "What's it to you?"

"You're my brother, aren't you?"

Mac just stared at Michael for a heartbeat. Then he grinned. "Yeah. You can tell 'cause we have the same nose." He pinched Michael's nose between his thumb and index finger, grinning wider when Michael batted his hand away.

"I'm serious, Mac!" Michael lay a hand on Mac's knee, and looked steadily into Mac's eyes. Mac had been hurt by his father's leaving - Michael was sure he could step past Mac's defences now if Mac saw him as surrogate family. "When Father first brought you home, he told me that I had to treat you as my brother. I never had a brother before - I didn't know how to treat you. I know I was impatient with you a lot of the time. I'm sorry for that."

Mac shrugged. "No big deal. That's a pretty normal thing between brothers anyway."

"Do you have any real brothers?" Michael asked, suddenly curious. He'd never thought of Mac as having a real family before - Mac came from the street, that was all, and Li Ann came from the brothel. Now that he'd met Mac's biological father, it seriously occurred to him that both of them must have had a mother and a father at some point, and maybe siblings, too.

"No, I was an only child." Mac frowned. "Actually, I might have half-brothers somewhere. Dad said something.... but I don't know."

"I had a sister," Michael said suddenly. Inwardly, he cringed. He hadn't meant to say that. It had just slipped out. He was trying to draw out confessions from Mac, not make them himself.

"What happened?" Mac asked, of course.

"She was killed with our mother, in the car crash."

Mac put his hand on Michael's. "I'm sorry."

Michael jerked his hand away from Mac's. "It was a long time ago," he said sharply. "I was ten. It doesn't bother me anymore." He couldn't let Mac comfort him - that was an unacceptable shift in the balance of power. And truly, the memory of the accident didn't bother him anymore. It had been so long, he could barely remember his mother's and sister's faces.

Mac looked apologetic; he rubbed his upper arm with his hand, as though erasing Michael's touch. "I never even knew how your mother died. I asked Father once, right at the beginning, where Mrs. Tang was, and he told me she was dead. That was all he ever told me."

Michael wanted to change the topic - he was not interested in discussing that time with Mac. "What about your mother?" he asked.

That was an effective distraction. It was almost visible, the way Mac drew in on himself and closed up. "What about her?" Mac said.

"Where is she?"

"She's dead." Mac's gaze dropped to the bedspread. "She died when I was a baby. I don't even remember her."

"So your father raised you?"

"Nah, he wasn't around much. I grew up in foster care, mostly." Abruptly, Mac shifted to the edge of the bed and stood up. "I really should get to bed. I've got class in the morning."

Michael ignored Mac's last statement. "We both lost our mothers. That makes us true brothers."

"Whatever." Mac started for the door.

Michael still thought he could get Mac to stay. "How's your hand?"

"It fucking hurts!" Mac spun around to face Michael, angry now. "What did you think? Of course it fucking hurts. You broke it!"

Michael didn't react to the anger Mac showed, but he was quietly pleased - provoking Mac into losing control was a good first step in gaining control over him. "I want you to know that I don't think any less of you for what happened in the cab on the way to the hospital," Michael said.

Mac's expression darkened even more. With a low growl, he spun around and punched the door frame. The thud of the impact was so loud that Michael half expected the wood to shatter, but the Tang's residence was of solid construction. Mac raised his fist to his mouth, his back still to Michael.

Michael stood up and padded towards Mac. "You want to break the other one, too?" He kept his voice low and soft, as though he were talking to a spooked horse. "You're right, you should go to bed. It's been a long day. Maybe I asked too many questions. I'm sorry." He was close enough now to touch Mac; Mac still hadn't moved. Michael laid a hand on Mac's shoulder and Mac twitched at the touch. He was practically vibrating, he was so tense. Michael slid his hand along to Mac's other shoulder, so that he had his arm around Mac. "I'll walk you to your room. Come on."

Mac let himself be guided to his own bedroom. It was as though some sort of spell had been cast on him - he was tripping on anger and hurt, but he couldn't speak.

Michael left him on his bed, only to return with a bag of ice.

Mac looked up in surprise; he hadn't moved from the position Michael had left him in, sitting on the edge of his bed.

"For your hand," Michael explained. He sat beside Mac and took Mac's right hand and looked at it. The first and second knuckles were already swollen, but it didn't look too bad. "Can you wiggle your fingers?" In reply, Mac gave him the finger. "Hey." Michael grabbed Mac's fingers and pressed them closed, into a fist; he squeezed. "All I ask is that you treat me with respect." Mac winced at the pain, and Michael let up. "Here, take this, it'll hurt less." He held the bag of ice against the back of Mac's hand.

Mac tried to take over holding the bag of ice by placing his other hand, in its cast, against it. Michael let go and the ice slipped to the floor. "That's not gonna work," Mac observed in an impartial tone.

"And you're not supposed to get the cast wet, anyway," Michael reminded him. The bag of ice wasn't leaking, but it was already beaded with condensation. He picked the bag up. "Lie down. Get into bed."

Mac gave him a challenging look, but then he shrugged out of his dressing gown. He had boxers on underneath, Michael noted with mild regret. Mac crawled under his sheet and lay on his back, with both his hands on top of the sheet. "Give me the ice," he said.

Michael put the ice on Mac's right hand - and held it there.

"Leave it," Mac said.

"It would slide off."

"No it wouldn't."

"It will when you move."

"What do you care?"

"I'm sorry I hurt you," Michael lied. "Just relax, OK? I'll leave when you fall asleep."

Mac closed his eyes, but he complained anyway. "I can't fall asleep with you here. It's like napping with a tiger in the room."

Michael glowed secretly at the comparison. He would be a tiger to Mac. The thought added to his already considerable arousal. "I'll help you relax. Roll over and I'll rub your back."

Mac's eyes popped open again. "Really?"

"Sure."

Mac finally smiled a bit. "Well... I've never said no to a back rub."

Michael smiled too, at the slight sexual innuendo in Mac's words.

Mac rolled onto his stomach, lifting his arms over his head. Michael put the ice bag on Mac's right hand - it didn't slide off. Then he climbed onto the bed and knelt, straddling Mac over the small of his back.

Since Michael was wearing a bathrobe with nothing underneath, there was nothing but the thin sheet between Mac's skin and Michael's balls. Michael smiled with this secret knowledge, and his erection twitched.

The sheet was pulled up right to Mac's shoulders; Michael pulled it down so that Mac's back was exposed. Then he started by kneading Mac's shoulders.

Mac's shoulders were like one big knot, he was so tense. He gasped with pain at the roughness of Michael's touch, and Michael relented, working the knotted muscles more gently. If he hurt Mac too much at this point, Mac would just ask him to stop.

Michael was patient; he had nowhere else to go, nowhere he'd rather be. As he got the knots to release, one by one, he worked his way down the sides of Mac's spine. He stopped when he got to the small of his back. Then he started rubbing Mac's back in lighter, circular motions. Mac's skin warmed under his touch. Michael wished he had some oil to use, to make the motions smoother.

He stopped when he heard faint snoring. Michael sat back, satisfied. Mac had relaxed and trusted him enough to fall asleep while he was there - while he was touching him, even. It was a good start.

Michael got off Mac, careful not to disturb him. He took the half-melted bag of ice and put it on the floor. He turned the light off, and let his eyes adjust to the dark.

Mac had a double bed, and he was lying to one side of it. There was plenty of room for another.

Quiet like a cat, Michael crawled onto the bed and lay beside Mac. He was on top of the sheets, while Mac was under them, but other than that he was in bed with Mac. Mac lay on his belly still, with his face turned towards Michael. Seen dimly in the near-darkness, and in sleep, Mac's face looked peaceful and trusting. Staring at his adoptive brother's face, Michael reached into the folds of his dressing gown and wrapped his hand around the end of his penis. He started to stroke himself, slowly and gently. He would not let himself climax - not here. But he could enjoy the exquisite torture of bringing himself oh so close to the edge, again and again.

After a while, Michael fell into a trance-like state, but he didn't sleep. In this state, hours passed like nothing until the peace was broken by Mac frowning in his sleep, mumbling, and rolling over.

Michael came quickly into full wakefulness, shifting closer to the wall so that Mac wouldn't bump into him. Mac was quiet again for a moment, and then his legs scissored and his head tossed back and forth. He grunted, nothing like distinguishable words, but the tone was high-pitched, like fear. Then suddenly his hands flew up toward his face, and he banged himself in the eye with his cast. He woke up with a yell of shock and pain; he sat straight up and, seeing someone in bed with him when he thought he was alone, scrambled backwards away from Michael. His legs tangled in the sheets and he fell over the edge of the bed; amid the general thud of Mac's body hitting the floor there was the sharper sound of his cast hitting the wooden floorboards. That was presumably the reason for the next yelp of pain, followed by a string of desperate profanities.

Michael crawled over the bed and got down onto the floor where Mac lay in a heap, curled around his hands.

"Are you OK?" Michael whispered, laying a hand on Mac's head. His hair was damp with sweat. "Were you having a nightmare?"

Mac didn't say anything, but he was breathing hard. Abruptly a gasp caught in his throat and turned into a sob. For the second time that night and the second time ever, Michael drew Mac up into his arms and felt the young man shaking with sobs.

"What were you dreaming?" Michael asked again.

"...the b-blood..." Mac gasped out. "M-mom..." And then he buried his face in Michael's chest.

Michael frowned. "But you don't remember your mother."

Mac ignored him, if he heard him at all.

Michael stroked Mac's hair. The intensity of the moment was so pure. Mac had utterly abandoned himself into Michael's embrace. Michael wondered whether Mac had nightmares often, or whether it was only because of the pain and the drugs. If he spent more nights with Mac, would he get to see Mac like this again?

And how far, in his pain and disorientation, would Mac let Michael go?

Michael bent his head down to brush the top of Mac's head with a kiss. Mac gave no sign of noticing. Michael ran a finger along the edge of Mac's face. It was damp with sweat and tears. Mac noticed that touch; he was startled into near silence, broken by shuddering breaths.

"Come back onto the bed," Michael whispered. "I'll make it all go away."

Mac let Michael lift him up onto the bed. Michael pressed a tissue into Mac's unbroken hand. "Clean yourself up," he instructed him. Meanwhile, Michael rubbed the back of Mac's neck.

When Mac tossed the wadded-up tissue away, Michael leaned in to kiss Mac's neck. He felt Mac's pulse throbbing wildly under his lips.

"What are you doing?" Mac whispered.

"Don't you like it?" Michael lifted his face so his nose and Mac's were almost touching, and he caressed Mac's cheek with one finger. His cheek was rough with stubble. Michael had never done this with a man before, but it didn't seem to make much difference. Just like the women always did, Mac looked at him with eyes full of trepidation and longing. Michael leaned in fractionally closer so that their lips met. Mac drew a startled breath, opening his lips at the same time; Michael pressed their lips harder together, and let the tip of his tongue flicker between Mac's lips. It was just like kissing a woman, only rougher around the edges. Through slitted lids, Michael saw Mac close his eyes. Mac's good hand clutched at the front of Michael's dressing gown.

Michael let the kiss continue, gently exploring, for a while. Then he laid a hand on Mac's crotch. He had just enough time to feel the satisfying warmth and hardness of the bulge there before Mac pulled away from him.

"What are you doing?" Mac whispered, the same question as before.

"I want to make you happy," Michael said. "I want to erase yesterday for you."

"Yesterday?"

"It's dawn now." The window had a pale glow, and shapes in the room were becoming more clear with each passing moment. Michael could see dark bruising around Mac's eye where he'd hit himself with his cast. That made him want to kiss Mac again; he did, and Mac didn't resist. Then Michael took hold of Mac's right hand. He looked at it - the first and second knuckles were a dusky purple. He kissed them. "Does it hurt much?"

"Not too much."

Michael took Mac's hand and guided it through the folds of his dressing gown. Mac met Michael's gaze, unblinking, and didn't pull away. Michael laid Mac's hand on his hard, aching dick, and took his own hand away. "You see how much I like you," he murmured.

Michael felt Mac's fingers close around his dick. Mac's hand was rough with calluses from weapons training, and much bigger and stronger than a woman's. It felt similar to Michael's own hand when he pleasured himself - but different, too, because he didn't know what Mac would do next.

Michael was surprised that it had all been this easy. He'd half-expected Mac to attack him when he first kissed him. Michael wondered what exactly Mac's co-operation meant - had he fallen completely under Michael's spell so quickly, or had there always been potential here, that Michael simply hadn't seen?

In a quick motion that took Michael completely by surprise, Mac went down on him.

Michael gasped at the sudden sensation of tight, wet warmth. Mac's tongue danced crazy figures on the head of Michael's dick, while he caressed Michael's balls with his hand. Michael closed his eyes, leaned back, and groaned with pleasure. His whole body felt suffused with glowing, tingling warmth, with a white-hot centre at his groin. Losing himself, floating away, he grabbed at Mac's hair and tangled his fingers deeply in the warm, damp curls. Mac's hand wrapped around the base of Michael's penis, squeezing it, and Michael groaned. He felt Mac's head bobbing up and down. Mac took in more of Michael's length than any woman ever had. Michael swore at the ecstatic torture, and twisted his fingers harder in Mac's hair, pulling it. He felt the vibrations of Mac's cry of pain, muffled around his dick, and that sent him over the edge. In an endless moment of throbbing, sweet release, he ejaculated into Mac's mouth.

Michael lay back, boneless, momentarily relaxed and at peace. He felt the bed creak as Mac lay down beside him.

"Can I kiss you?" Mac asked softly.

Michael imagined the taste of his own semen - ugh. That would be going too far. "No."

"All right."

"You've done this before," Michael realized.

"I'm good, huh?" Mac sounded sad, rather than proud.

"When were you with another man?" Michael felt unexpected twinges of jealousy. He knew Mac had had a couple girlfriends, and that didn't bother him - but he'd expected to be Mac's first male lover. This was Michael's first time with a man - if Mac was more experienced than he was, that gave power to Mac, and Michael didn't like that.

"After Dad abandoned me. Before Father took me in."

"Oh." Michael turned his head so he could see Mac. Mac was staring up at the ceiling. Michael lifted a hand to cup Mac's cheek. "I'm sorry," he said, and actually meant it. "I hadn't thought of that."

Mac shrugged. "I lived."

"I never really thought about how you lived," Michael confessed. "I've never had to worry about where my next meal was coming from."

"Food wasn't the problem," Mac said, still staring at the ceiling. "I could steal food. But I needed protection from the gangs. That's why I stayed with Tom."

"Tom?" Michael prompted. Mac didn't say anything. Michael wanted him to keep talking - the more he knew about Mac's past, the better he could control him. "Who was he? What was he, your pimp?"

"I never knew his real name. Everyone just called him Tom around me. He wasn't a pimp. He was... my boyfriend, I guess. He liked me. He liked to have sex with me. A couple times he loaned me out to his friends, but I don't think they paid him. I was thirteen. He spoke some English, that's how we hooked up at first. He seemed old to me at the time - I guess he was in his mid twenties." Mac told his story in a low tone, without expression. At some point Michael took Mac's good hand in his, to encourage him; Mac squeezed back, hard, and held on, without looking at Michael. "He pulled some weight on the streets. People were scared of him. I think he'd killed a guy, before I met him. Everyone knew he was connected somehow with a real gang, one of the big crime families. Actually it was the Tangs - I didn't know that 'till later. He was just an informant for them, but still, people who aren't connected don't mess with people who are. So once everyone knew I was under Tom's protection, people left me alone."

This explained a lot about tonight, Michael reflected. And it was ripe with possibilities. Mac must have reacted with Michael as he'd been used to reacting with Tom. That's why he'd moved so quickly from 'What are you doing?' to giving Michael the best blow job of his life. Mac's experience here wasn't an asset to him, it was a liability. He was used to being taken advantage of by an older man on whom he was totally dependent for physical protection. That was definitely something Michael could exploit. "So what happened?" Michael asked, when it seemed that Mac wasn't going to say anything else. "How did you end up here?"

"One day Tom had this visitor," Mac recalled. "He sent me into the kitchen to make tea. I was still in there when I heard gunshots. Then a man sort of fell backwards through the kitchen door. I hadn't seen him before, he wasn't Tom's guest. He was bleeding from the chest. He fell onto the floor. He was still holding a gun." Mac took a deep breath. "There was shouting in the front room, more gunshots. I grabbed the gun from the guy on the floor and I ran into the front room. Tom was on the floor, and this other guy I hadn't seen before had a gun on Tom's guest. So I shot the guy. Actually I shot at him four times and I think I only hit once, but it was enough, and he didn't manage to turn around and shoot me. So it turned out the guest, the guy I saved, was a Tang soldier, and he took me away with him. A couple days later he brought me here."

"Did he die?"

"Tom? Yeah."

"No, I meant the man you shot."

"Oh. Yeah, he died too."

Michael felt afraid for a moment, and hostile towards Mac. He took his hand away. Michael had never killed anyone, not yet. His father had never let him take on that kind of risk. Michael imagined there was great power in a kill. He was not going to ask Mac about it. Instead, he rolled over and pinned Mac's body under his. "That was a long time ago," he said. "I'm here now." And he kissed Mac, hard. He was pleased to feel Mac kissing him back after a moment. Maybe Mac had killed a hit man when he was thirteen, but Michael could still dominate him, here, now, like this.

Hong Kong, November 1991

Mac and Li Ann sat in the parlour, studying. Li Ann was preparing for a Biology test the next day. Mac was reading a UNIX manual for the computer programming course he was taking. A peaceful silence enveloped them - the only sound was the ticking of the grandfather clock.

Mac tried to keep his mind on the book, but it was insanely dull, and he was distracted. He sipped at his can of pop, and let his eyes wander off the page.

He wondered where Michael was. Michael had been gone for a week. He missed him.

Since Mac came to live with the Tangs, Michael had been a remote older brother to him - admired and envied, and distant. And then, just when he'd been feeling completely abandoned and unloved, it had all changed. Michael had kissed him. He'd held him. He'd slept with him.

That first morning, Michael had crept out of Mac's room just before the household would start rising for breakfast. That day, life had gone on as usual - except for the secret glances Mac and Michael had shared.

Michael hadn't come back to Mac's bed that night, and Mac had instinctively known that he shouldn't go to Michael's - not so soon. A few days later, in the gym (Mac still had to train, even with a broken hand) Michael had come over to Mac and whispered "Come to me tonight." Li Ann had been close by, on the rowing machine; the thrill of the secrecy had shot through Mac. He shared something special with Michael. Wow.

He loved it when Michael kissed him. It made him feel special, like no one else ever had. He was glad he could make Michael feel good, too, by sucking him off.

They hadn't gone all the way yet. Mac knew Michael would only top, and he didn't mind, but when he thought about actually getting fucked he got tense and uncomfortable. He'd never exactly enjoyed it with Tom or his friends, though some times had been better than others. After Tom died, one of his first thoughts had been that he'd never have to do that again - and he'd immediately felt guilty for the thought, because Tom had been his protector and, in some ways, his only friend in Hong Kong. These days, Mac tried not to think about all that - but it was hard not to, when Michael started fingering his ass and acting like he was going to hold Mac down and just do it. So far, Mac had always convinced him not to.

Mac flexed his left hand, and turned the page in his book. The cast had come off two days ago. His hand was still weak and kind of funny-looking, but damn it was good to be able to turn the page of a book and hold a can of pop at the same time.

Michael had disappeared a week ago. The godfather said he was on a business trip. Mac wondered why Michael hadn't told him he was leaving. He missed him.

"I've had enough," Li Ann said, snapping her book shut. "I'm going to bed."

"Yeah, me too," Mac agreed.

Just then, the door opened and Michael walked in.

"Hi, Michael!" Li Ann greeted him. "Where were you?"

"Yeah, where were you?" Mac repeated. He wanted to bite his tongue as soon as the words came out - when Li Ann asked the question it sounded like mere curiosity, but when Mac repeated it, it came out as a whining accusation, at least to his ears.

"Kenya," Michael replied. His hair was tousled, and his eyes were bright, and he was flushed - sunburned, actually. "It was a wild trip! Father wanted me to collect the dividends from the Birchell-Wong operation. I had two bodyguards with me. While we were driving back to Nairobi, our jeep was attacked by brigands! They must have known we'd be travelling that way with a lot of money."

"What happened?" Li Ann asked, wide-eyed. "You're not hurt, are you?"

"No. They shot out our tires, and then they expected us to be scared into submission." He grinned. "We weren't." He looked at Mac. "I had to kill one of them." He paused, as though waiting for some reaction; Mac couldn't imagine what. "We disarmed the others, took them prisoner. Turned them over to the local police."

"I'm glad you're OK," Li Ann said.

"Me too," Mac added. "Not surprised, though - I've seen you fight."

Michael glowed at the praise. "But I'd never been tried in real combat before now. Maybe now Father will stop holding me back."

"I hope he lets me do something soon," Mac added. "It seems like I've been training forever."

"He has plans for us. He's just waiting 'till we're ready," Li Ann assured her brothers. "And I can't wait, either," she admitted with a shy grin.

"You worry about graduating from high school, first," Mac told her. "Like, get some sleep before your test?" Honestly, he wanted her to go to bed so he'd have Michael to himself.

Li Ann rolled her eyes at him. "You're such a great, responsible role model." She did gather up her books then and go, giving both of her brothers a kiss on the cheek.

Mac looked at Michael. 'I missed you,' he thought. He didn't say it. "So, hey, good work with keeping the money safe and everything. Wanna have a drink?"

"That sounds good. I want something to eat, too. I'm starving. I had a snack in Bangkok and some nuts on the plane, but I haven't really eaten since Dubai."

"Wow, you must be exhausted," Mac said. Looking closer, he saw that Michael's eyes were tinged with red, and there were shadows under his eyes. "I guess you'll want to go right to bed."

Michael shrugged. "I should be exhausted but I'm not. I feel hyper-awake. Maybe it's adrenaline. Anyway, I want to eat. Let's get the cook to send up dinner and some port to the roof."

Like much of the Tangs' residence, the rooftop garden was influenced by British aesthetics. Fragrant rose bushes hedged it into sections, and it was carpeted in soft grass. There was a wooden picnic table; a canopy was available, but had been rolled back because the night was clear. The garden was softly lit by Chinese lanterns hung on cords strung between poles planted in the rose bushes. Shortly after Michael and Mac ascended to the roof, a servant arrived with Greek salad on a silver tray for Michael, along with crystal bottles of vinegar and olive oil. Michael tucked in, while Mac wandered quietly around the roof. The night was warmer than usual for November in Hong Kong - somewhere around twenty-eight or twenty-nine degrees Celsius. The air felt thick and heavy.

Another servant brought a main course, and then the first returned with a bottle of fine port and two glasses.

Michael poured drinks for two, and Mac joined him at the table, perching sideways on the other bench. Michael held up his glass. "Chin chin," he said.

"Chin chin," Mac echoed, clinking his glass against Michael's. "What are we toasting?"

"The night," Michael replied with his tight smile. "Us. My first combat."

They both sipped at the strong, sweet drink, and just as they lowered their glasses the whole scene was illuminated by a momentary stark white light.

"Lightning," Michael observed.

Michael went back to eating his meal, while Mac silently counted the seconds, waiting for the thunder. Counting was an automatic reaction; he didn't even notice he was doing it until he got to six. Then he realized what he was doing and remembered his mother teaching him the trick, some summer in his childhood. The thought made him melancholy; he tried to forget it. The thunder finally rumbled, faint and distant. "It's over the water," Mac said. "Nowhere near here." He looked up at the sky. The stars were sparse, as always in the city, but there were no clouds at all.

Michael put down his fork. "I feel so alive."

"Because you're not dead?" Mac asked.

"Yes," Michael replied, missing Mac's sarcasm as usual. "Because the man who tried to kill me is dead instead, by my hand."

Lightning flashed again.

Mac took his pocket knife out and flipped it open. He pressed it against the edge of the table, making a tiny dent in the wood. "So?"

Michael ignored Mac's rudeness in taking out a knife at the table. "I want to have sex with you. Tonight. Now."

Mac switched the knife to his left hand and reached for his drink. He took a long swallow, watching Michael over the rim of the glass. Michael sipped his own drink and held Mac's gaze. The thunder rolled.

"Maybe," Mac said. "Need to drink more first."

Michael stood up, and moved around the table. "I wasn't asking you. I was telling you." His lips were wet from the port, and his expression was intense and hungry. Mac felt a shiver go down his spine. At the same time, he felt stirrings of arousal. Love-play with Michael was never gentle. To Michael, Mac had already learned, this was foreplay.

"Wait," Mac warned, holding up the knife. "I said I need to drink more first."

Lightning.

"I can't wait." Michael kept his distance, but his hands twitched. "I've been waiting since the road outside Nairobi. I haven't slept since then. It was... yesterday, I think."

"Well maybe you should just sleep, then. You're jet-lagged. You've been awake so long you're a little crazy." Mac kept the knife up between them, switching it to his good hand. He wanted to touch Michael, he wanted Michael to touch him.... but he didn't want to get fucked. That hurt. It always hurt.

Lightning, thunder, lightning. The storm offshore was picking up. The sky overhead remained clear, and the air was heavy and still.

"I need you," Michael insisted. "I'm aching for you. And I know you want it." His gaze fell pointedly to Mac's crotch. He took one step toward Mac.

"Maybe," Mac repeated. He stood up quickly, one motion getting his legs clear of the bench. He kept the knife up, and both brothers shifted automatically into loose combat stances.

Michael exhaled slowly. The frozen scene flashed white with lightning. In the moment Mac was blinded by the flash, Michael shifted forward and, quick like a striking cobra, knocked the knife out of Mac's hand with a crescent kick. Mac gritted his teeth against the pain and threw himself at Michael, aiming to head-butt him in the gut. He'd rather punch the bastard, but his right hand was numb from the kick and his left hand was weak, just two days out of six weeks in a cast. Michael leapt aside just in time and used Mac's momentum to throw him forward onto the ground. Mac landed on his belly in a rose bush with Michael on top of him. He struggled to free himself. He felt thorns pricking him all over. He managed to twist around and get on top of Michael, who showed his teeth in a grin. Mac panted and glared down at Michael. He couldn't hold on properly; Michael bucked and Mac fell, on the bottom again and crushing more bushes. The bruised flowers sent a heavy, sweet scent into the air. The thorns were ripping into Mac more than Michael, because Mac wore a short-sleeved t-shirt, while Michael was wearing a blue button-down shirt which protected his arms. Mac's arms were covered with scratches already, some of them bleeding. He stopped struggling for a moment, and felt Michael undoing his belt. Holy shit. Was Michael planning to just hold him down and rape him? Michael wouldn't do that. No. They were brothers. But Michael did like it rough, Mac knew that much.

Lightning flashed again. At the edge of his vision, in the grass, Mac saw a glint of metal. The knife.

Michael had one arm on Mac's neck while he undid their pants with his other hand. He wasn't in a good position to hold on. Mac kicked and bucked suddenly and got free, and scrambled for the knife. Michael dove after him and grabbed his wrist, and they wrestled for possession. Near-constant thunder accompanied the struggle. The knife twisted and slashed, not really under the control of either brother. Suddenly Mac felt a bright flash of pain along his left forearm. He let out a choked yelp. "Fuck! What are you doing?!"

Seeing the blood, Michael pushed away and came to his feet a safe distance from Mac. Mac glared up at him, panting. Blood trickled down his arm. The gash was several inches long.

"I'm sorry," Michael said in a soft, contrite tone. "That went too far. I was just playing with you."

"I know," Mac said. He did. Michael was like that. If Mac wanted Michael to accept him, he knew he had to accept Michael, too, just as he was. He wiped the knife blade on the grass, then folded the thing and put it back in his pocket. He felt like he was on speed or something. The lightning acted like a strobe, breaking every movement into distinct moments. Michael dropped to his knees, and crawled to Mac on the grass.

"How bad is it?" Michael asked, taking Mac's arm to look at the cut.

Mac shrugged. "Not bad. It'll need stitches, I guess."

Michael leaned in closer, and touched the blood running down Mac's arm. "I'll take you to the hospital."

"No big hurry." With Michael so close, Mac could ignore the pain from the cut and his scratches from the thorns. The sex hormones pumping through him gave him happy feelings. It had been a long and lonely week with just Li Ann for company.

Michael looked at Mac, and then kissed his forehead. Mac shivered. "What's wrong?" Michael asked. Mac didn't answer. He just returned the kiss, on Michael's lips, and they shared that for a while, gentle and sweet. Mac felt his heart beating like crazy. He knew that Michael still wanted what he'd demanded in the beginning. He thought now that he'd give it to him, just to feel Michael's arms around him again.

"Why did you fight me?" Michael asked. "We both want this, don't we?" His fingers trailed to Mac's waist. He'd already unbuckled Mac's belt; now he teased the fly of his pants open.

Mac put a restraining hand over Michael's hand. "I'm just not sure. It's been- I haven't-" He halted, not comfortable with what he wanted to say.

"Is this about Tom?" Michael asked gently.

Mac's pulse quickened. They hadn't talked about Mac's past since that first night. Mac had almost fooled himself into thinking Michael had forgotten what Mac had told him. "Yeah," he admitted. And was shocked to feel Michael pulling him against his chest, and hugging him. Mac felt himself starting to shiver, even though the night was sultry hot. With Michael holding him, Mac found he could speak. "When he- I never liked it. What he did. Fucking. I just endured it."

"It would be different with me," Michael promised, rocking Mac a bit.

"Why?"

"Because I love you." Michael's arms tightened around Mac. Mac stopped breathing. His head was cradled against Michael's chest, and he could hear Michael's heart beating even over the rumbles of thunder. It was beating so fast, Mac knew Michael was telling the truth.

"All right," Mac whispered. He felt Michael kiss his hair.

"Here, on the grass," Michael said. "No one will come up." He pulled Mac's t-shirt off and kissed his bare chest.

Mac started unbuttoning Michael's shirt. "But we need some kind of lube."

"I never used lube before." Michael tugged at Mac's pants, and Mac moved to let him pull them down. "Is it really necessary?"

"Yeah. It's different than with a woman. If you don't use lube, it'll hurt me a lot." Mac gave Michael a warning look. "I won't let you do that."

"All right." Michael shrugged out of his shirt, and touched the red-black wetness on Mac's arm. "We can use your blood."

Mac's stomach twisted. "Fuck, no! No way in hell." He stared at his arm. "Damn, that's bleeding a lot."

Michael stroked Mac's face with his bloody fingers. "What, then? What do you want me to use?"

"There's olive oil on the table. That'll work."

"First I'd better take care of you," Michael said. He picked up Mac's t-shirt. "This a good shirt?"

Mac shook his head.

Michael tied the shirt around Mac's arm, making it into a bandage. Mac kept still under Michael's ministrations. Michael loved him. He'd said it, and now he was proving it with this uncharacteristically gentle action. Mac felt a warm glow starting somewhere deep inside.

With Mac's arm taken care of, Michael fetched the olive oil. Mac was already naked; now Michael stripped his pants off and threw them to the side. He gave Mac a simmering look, and poured some oil into his palm. "Like this?" he asked, rubbing the oil over his erection.

Mac nodded. His mouth was dry. Michael was beautiful naked, his body sculpted by years of hard martial-arts training.

"I want you to lie down, on your stomach," Michael instructed him. His voice was tender. Mac did as he said. The grass tickled his neck.

"You know, we don't have to be in this position," Mac said. He'd rather be able to see Michael.

"I'd like to, though. Just this first time," Michael said.

Mac felt Michael's dick brushing his ass. Then suddenly, Michael pushed inside him. Mac gasped. It hurt; Michael was slick with oil, but Mac had been tense, so it hurt. Not Michael's fault.

Michael gasped too. "Oh, that's good," he moaned. Mac felt kisses on his shoulders. "That's good. That's wonderful. You're beautiful." Michael started to move, and Mac felt, unexpectedly, a flash of ecstatic bliss. His hips bucked automatically into Michael's movement. "Oh, yesss," Michael groaned, speeding up. "You're incredible, Mac."

Under Michael, Mac whimpered, but not in pain. It was a good feeling - a better feeling than he'd ever imagined. It had never, ever been like this with Tom or his friends. It got better and better, white hot like the lightning. He wasn't sure if the lightning flashes were in the clouds or behind his eyes. He yelled, and felt Michael crying out at the same moment, in a fantastic moment of unified bliss.

Michael collapsed on Mac's back, then rolled off. He lay on the grass beside Mac, keeping one arm over him. Mac snuggled against him, murmuring nonsense syllables.

"You see?" Michael let the words fall soft, like butterflies. "I love you."


Part Two



Hamilton, Canada, June 1981

Mac held on to the rail to keep his balance as the city bus lurched to a halt. It was rush hour, and the bus was crowded. He was surrounded by adults, so he couldn't see to the front of the bus where the new passengers were getting on.

As the bus pulled back into traffic, one of the passengers who'd just boarded worked his way to the middle of the bus, near where Mac was standing. This passenger was a man wearing a baseball cap, sunglasses, a Hawaiian shirt, and Bermuda shorts. He had a camera slung around his neck and a bright pink fanny pack around his waist; the outfit screamed "tourist."

"Excuse me, excuse me," the tourist said to a man in a business suit, in a tone sufficiently loud and strident to overpower the roar of the bus, "I wonder if you could help me? I'm looking for the museum."

"The museum?" the man repeated. "Which museum?"

"Oh dear, I don't remember the name, precisely. I know! Hold on a moment. I have a map here." The tourist shook out a full-size street map of Hamilton. The bus was too crowded for this to be done easily - several people had to shuffle aside to make room. Everyone immediately around the tourist watched as he turned the map around, trying to find the museum in question.

Mac's attention was elsewhere - on the wallet-shaped bulge in the back pocket of the man the tourist was speaking to.

"There it is!" the tourist exclaimed triumphantly. "The Art Gallery of Hamilton!"

"Oh, no, you're going in the wrong direction," the man said.

Just then the bus reached its next stop. The tourist with his awkward map had everyone around him off balance; the whole group of people stumbled a step or two forward. Mac stumbled against the back of the man, and let his hand slip quickly into the man's pocket and out again. With the wallet tucked under his jean jacket, Mac stepped coolly out the bus's back door and walked away.

He kept walking, unhurried. "Never run unless you see them chasing you," he whispered to himself. Mac checked the reflection in a plate glass window as he walked by. No one was chasing him.

Mac couldn't help grinning. He giggled. That was fun! What a rush!

***

William Ramsey met Mac a few minutes later, by the car. William had already taken off his pink fanny pack and his Hawaiian shirt.

"Did you get it?" William asked.

"Yep," Mac said, very casual, as if he did this all the time. It'd been boring as hell practising lifting a wallet out of his dad's pocket a million times in the past week, but this made it all worth while.

William smiled, and ruffled Mac's hair. "Good man! That was brilliant! You're a natural." He unlocked the passenger side for Mac, then went around to let himself in.

In the privacy of the car, Mac handed the wallet over.

William opened it up and checked out the contents. "Very good. Was there much cash for you?"

"Twenty bucks," Mac lied, just in case his dad was thinking of going back on their agreement. Actually, the wallet had contained $43.59 - more money than Mac had ever seen in his whole life.

"Good, that's your share then. The cards are good enough for me." William tucked the wallet into his own pocket, and started the car.

"That was great!" Mac exclaimed. He couldn't hide his enthusiasm. "You're the coolest Dad in the world!"

William's mouth twitched. "Of course, you needn't tell your mother about this."

Mac snorted. "I'm not stupid."

"No, you're not. In fact you're a very bright young man. I hope you realize that you don't need me to pull this game off. All I did was provide a made-to-order distraction. When you're on your own, you just have to look for opportunities. They'll come along."

"Yeah, but you are here to help," Mac pointed out. His dad had come back a long time ago, nearly three weeks. Mac was getting used to having him around, and he liked it. His mom liked it too. She smiled all the time, even when she was just home from her long shifts at the grocery store.

"Yes," William agreed. "I am, aren't I?"

***

"He's gone again, isn't he?" Mac slammed his schoolbag down on the floor and kicked it.

His mom didn't say anything, but Mac could tell. She should be at work right now, but she wasn't - she was sitting on the couch in her bathrobe, and her eyes were red, and there was an open whiskey bottle on the coffee table and a nearly-empty glass, and the air in the apartment was thick with cigarette smoke.

Finally, Anita looked up. "How was school today, honey?" she asked, with a feeble smile.

"I hate school." Mac kicked his bag again - this time it flew across the room. "Why did he leave?"

Anita shook her head, and hugged her knees to her chest. "I d-don't know," she said, her voice catching in a sob.

"Mom? Mom! Don't cry." Mac forgot to be angry; he ran over to his mom and put his arms around her. "I'm still here. It's OK, we don't need him, right?"

"Why d-did he leave?" Anita sobbed. "He said he loved me. He said it." She held on to her knees and rocked, weeping.

"Do you want a glass of water, Mom?" Mac offered. He still had his arms around his mom, and he didn't know what to do. She was scaring him.

"He said he loved me," Anita repeated. She said it again and again.

Finally Mac tried to move away, but his mom grabbed his arm. She stopped rocking, and sniffled, collecting herself. She looked at Mac. "Sweetie, when you grow up, don't - don't say it like he does. Not like he does. Never say it until you mean it, until you mean that you're going to stay with her for the rest of her life."

"OK," Mac agreed. He didn't bother to point out that girls were stupid and he'd never want to let one touch him, let alone get into this love stuff. His mom was hurting his wrist where she was holding it, and tears were falling down her cheeks again.

"Good boy." Anita pulled Mac to her chest and hugged him so hard he couldn't breathe. "Remember this."

He would.

Hong Kong, April 1993

"So, Li Ann, who was that guy who picked you up from school yesterday?" Loretta asked, with a twinkle in her eye.

Li Ann sighed. "My brother," she said without looking up from her lab book.

"23.4 centimetres," Yuan said. Li Ann noted it. The three girls were performing a physics experiment in which ball bearings ran down a ramp and then fell onto a piece of carbon paper. The activity wasn't very engaging, and really didn't require three people, so Loretta entertained herself by teasing Li Ann.

"I don't think so," Loretta sang out with a grin. "This was a white guy. A tall, gorgeous white guy."

"Like I said. My brother." Li Ann picked the ball up, put it at the top of the ramp, and let it go again. Yuan ran off to chase it.

Loretta frowned. "Huh?"

"He's adopted." Li Ann wondered whether Loretta was really so stupid, or if it was just that she thought the bubble-head act was attractive.

"Oh, well, then he's not really your brother."

"Not that it's any of your business, but he is my brother. Blood isn't everything, all right?"

Yuan spoke up. "This one's 22.9 centimetres."

"But you're not related, really," Loretta insisted, "So it'd be OK for you to have babies together."

Li Ann groaned, audibly. "That's disgusting. You're talking about my brother. Adopted or not, I'm pretty sure that's illegal."

"Well, if you're sure - how about you introduce him to me?" Loretta grinned hopefully.

Li Ann frowned at her, hoping she could induce some sort of feelings of shame in the other girl. Trust Loretta the ditz to fall for Mac. They'd be perfect for each other. Life was one big joke to Mac, and one big fashion show to Loretta. Of course they both had to be the centre of attention all the time, but that could work if they stood close enough together. Only problem was, if Loretta and Mac started dating, Li Ann might have to see Loretta outside of school. "He has a girlfriend," Li Ann said. Well, for all she knew, he did.

Hong Kong, July 1993

Michael caught up to Mac in the hallway just outside his room. "Hey, wait!"

Mac turned around, lifting his eyebrows in query.

The hallway was empty, other than the two of them. "I want to fuck you now," Michael said with a tight smile.

"Right now? I was just going to go out, I'm meeting some people-"

Michael cut off Mac's protests by shoving him against the wall and kissing him roughly. Michael knew Mac was supposed to meet a friend in a few minutes. Michael came on to Mac now because he wanted Mac to object, to push him away, to give Michael an excuse to push him harder. Maybe even to hurt him. He loved it when Mac fought back. Fighting before sex was the hottest foreplay Michael could imagine.

Mac disappointed him this time. He clasped his hands around Michael's ass and pulled him closer, murmuring "Yeah, my friend can wait," against Michael's lips.

And suddenly Michael found he just wasn't interested. A moment ago he'd craved the feel of Mac's lanky body pressed between him and the wall - now he felt indifferent, even a little disgusted. He pushed away. "Never mind, it's not a good time."

"What!?"

Mac watched, confused and frustrated, as Michael walked away. Michael hoped that Mac would chase him, grab him, and challenge him over the insult, giving Michael an excuse to overpower him and take him by force after all. That scenario had played out a time or two in the past, and it had ultimately been fantastic sex. Unfortunately, recently Mac had been becoming less and less willing to fight Michael. Without looking back as he walked away, Michael listened to the silence behind him and knew that Mac was standing there staring at him with that hurt, confused expression on his face. Then he heard the unmistakable thud of two fists pounding against the wall. Mac still had the fire inside him; he just wouldn't show it to Michael anymore. Michael walked away.

Hong Kong, September 1993

It was after midnight. Michael lay in his bed, satisfied. Mac was at the mirror with the light on, dabbing away blood from his shoulder where Michael had scratched him. The scratches weren't deep, but Michael hadn't wanted him to get any more blood on the sheets. The servants would talk; servants always talked.

Mac caught Michael's eye in the mirror. "I want to sleep here tonight," he said quietly.

Michael grimaced. Not this again. "You can't. You'd get caught in the morning."

"Not if we set the alarm early enough."

"You'd have to set the alarm for 5 am to get out of here before the maid starts cleaning the floors."

"So? I'll do that." Mac walked over to Michael's digital alarm clock and started pressing buttons.

"Stop it!" Michael snapped. "I don't want to get up at 5."

"You don't have to. Just ignore the alarm."

"I can't get back to sleep if I wake up that late." Realizing he was just making up excuses, Michael stopped. This wasn't how it worked. He didn't have to make excuses to Mac. "Get out of here."

Mac wasn't in a compliant mood. He came back to the bed and sat on the edge. "I want to stay. We never sleep together after sex any more. I miss it."

It was true, Michael reflected. He hadn't acted on any conscious decision, but it had been months since they'd shared a bed for any time after sex. Mac always wanted to snuggle; Michael always wanted space to himself. He couldn't fall asleep with someone warm and breathing in his space. In the beginning, when they'd just started having sex, Michael hadn't minded lying awake next to Mac. It had turned him on to see Mac so vulnerable and deceptively angelic in his sleep. Over time, that fascination had paled. Mac wasn't a challenge anymore. "I don't."

Mac's hands clutched at the blanket and he stared down at them. His mouth pulled into a tight line. Obviously Michael's curt dismissal had wounded his brother. What had Mac hoped for? An apology and a cuddle?

Michael lifted a hand to stroke the soft hairs at the nape of Mac's neck. "How long has it been since you've had a woman?"

"What?"

"How long?"

Mac shrugged. "Not since before that time my dad came here."

"That was two years ago. You need a woman."

"Why?" Mac met Michael's eyes with a confused look, bordering on hurt. "I'm happy with you."

"No. You're annoying me with this affection shit. What we do is sex, Mac. Just sex. You want affection, you need a woman."

Mac laughed softly and tried to kiss Michael. When Michael pushed him away, Mac said "You can't fool me Michael, I know it's more than that. You said you loved me."

"I'm serious, Mac." Michael's voice became very cold. He wouldn't fight Mac; a fight would end up in sex, and that would just encourage Mac. Michael needed distance. He needed Mac to stop thinking of the two of them as boyfriends or something. This whole thing had gone too far. What if Father found out? "Find a woman and leave me alone."

"Just like that? Find a woman?" Frustration and anger were creeping into Mac's voice. He was realizing that Michael meant what he was saying. "How am I supposed to do that?"

"Same way every other man in the Family does, little brother." Michael let his tone go dry and mocking. "You go to a brothel, you put your money down, you pick a pretty one-"

Mac moved so fast that Michael didn't even catch on to what was happening until he realized he was flat on the bed and his jaw hurt. He jumped up to retaliate but Mac was already gone, slamming the door behind him.

Hamilton, Canada, October 1982

Peter and Christian were waiting for Mac at the bottom of the hill behind the school, right at the edge of the grass where it met the asphalt schoolyard. With their heads close together, they were intently comparing hockey cards. Mac cleared himself a spot in the grass beside them by picking up the crushed beer can that was in the way and hucking it at the brick wall of the school. It hit the wall high up.

"Nice throw," Peter said. "Did you get them?"

"Of course." Mac produced three cigarettes and a lighter from his pocket.

"Told'ja he would," Peter said to Christian. Christian looked impressed, and a little nervous.

Studiously casual, Mac handed the cigarettes to the other boys, then put his between his lips and lit it. He handed the lighter to Peter, who did the same and handed it to Christian. Christian held the cigarette in one hand and tried to light it, but when he flicked the lighter nothing happened.

"You should put it in your mouth to light it, you gotta, like, suck the fire in," Peter explained helpfully.

"You gotta push in that little plastic thing at the back of the thing that you flick on the lighter," Mac added. "It's the childproof lock," he added with a grin. He took a drag on his cigarette and blew the smoke out, enjoying the cloud it made.

Christian put his cigarette in his mouth but he still failed to get a flame from the lighter.

"Here, let me," Mac offered. He took the lighter and flicked it the right way, and held it to the tip of Christian's cigarette. Christian inhaled, and the flame took.

Mac and Peter watched, amused, as Christian choked on the smoke.

"Don't worry, man," Mac said, thumping Christian on the back, "Everyone coughs the first time."

Peter cleared his throat and spat on the grass beside his feet. "Hey, know what Becky told me?" he asked. Becky was his older sister.

"No, what?"

Peter tapped the ash off his cigarette, and tried to look wise. "In England, they call cigarettes faggots."

Mac snorted. "They fucking don't!"

"Do too."

"Don't."

"Do."

"I was born in England, I should know."

While Peter considered the logic of Mac's last statement, Christian broke in with a question. "What's a faggot?"

"It's a really wussy guy," Peter explained.

Mac shook his head. "Mom said it's a man who kisses another man."

Peter spat again. "Ew."

"Better than kissing a girl," Christian said. "That's disgusting."

The other guys shrugged agreement.

A couple older boys rounded the corner of the school and sauntered towards Mac and his friends.

"Uh, oh," Peter muttered under his breath. It was Jason and Brad. They were a couple grades ahead of Mac, Peter and Christian, and they liked to bully younger kids.

"Hey, look at the juvenile delinquents!" Jason taunted. "I know no one sold you those things. Didja steal'em from your mom? Gimme one." Christian, looking pasty, handed his to Jason.

"I'll have yours," Brad said to Mac.

"Fuck you," Mac said casually, and blew smoke in Brad's face. He wasn't worried - Brad and Jason were bigger, but they were outnumbered two to three.

The smoke in his face really pissed Brad off. "Fuck you, you son of a whore."

"Hey!" That got Mac angry. He tossed the butt of his cigarette to the ground and stood up, clenching his fist. "Fucking watch what you say about my mother, or I'll beat the crap outta you!"

"What?" Brad grinned. "You can't beat me up for saying the truth, shithead. My dad says your mom's a whore."

Mac clenched his fists harder. "She is not."

Peter and Christian both looked like they seriously wanted to be somewhere else, but neither of them moved.

"Oh yeah?" Brad raised his eyebrows. "So why do you think she has a different boyfriend every night?"

Mac exploded. He threw himself at Brad so hard that he knocked him over onto the asphalt of the school-yard. "She's not!" he yelled, trying to punch Brad in the face. Brad moved his head and Mac's fist hit asphalt hard enough to skin his knuckles. Brad grabbed Mac and tried to throw him off, but Mac clung and they just rolled over each other in a mess of punching and kicking. Mac was dimly aware of the three other boys standing and watching, not interfering. Then one of Brad's punches connected with Mac's face, hard, over his left eye. Mac saw flashing lights and darkness, and the asphalt seemed to tip so that he had to cling to it or else fall off the world.

He felt a hand on his shoulder. "Are you OK?" Peter asked, anxiously.

The ground tilted back to horizontal, and Mac raised his head. Brad crouched a few meters away, with his hand to his mouth. He lowered his hand and Mac saw his lip was bleeding. Mac felt some satisfaction. "Yeah, I'm OK. Let's get out of here."

***

When Mac got home, Anita was sitting at the kitchen table. Mac went to the bathroom to wash the blood off his knees - which were scraped - and his hand. He looked in the mirror. His eye was starting to swell shut. His cheek was scraped, too. It all hurt, and he looked kind of stupid. But he felt OK because he'd given Brad as good as he got, and Brad was bigger than he was.

Mac went out to the kitchen. The smell of cigarette smoke was very strong. Anita was sitting at the table with a full ashtray, and she had a lit cigarette in her hand. As Mac watched, she pressed the lit end against the back of her arm.

"Mom!" Mac ran forward and knocked the cigarette out of her hand. A round red mark showed where it had made contact. "Stop it!!"

Anita shrugged. "I had another headache. Burning my arm makes the pain in my head go away."

"I don't think you should do that, Mom," Mac said. There were several round scabs on Anita's arm where she'd done it before, all in the last week. It scared Mac when she did it, but he didn't know how to explain this to her. She said there was nothing wrong with it, and she was the grown-up.

Anita hadn't really looked at Mac yet; she hadn't noticed he'd been beat up. He wasn't sure if he was relieved or disappointed. Anita picked up the cigarette Mac had knocked out of her hand, and put it in her mouth. She was wearing the pink housecoat with the holes in it over the blue jogging suit, and she obviously hadn't brushed her hair that day.

Mac's stomach growled. He looked at the kitchen clock; it was nearly six. He thought there should still be a couple of hot dogs in the freezer. He checked - yup.

The small frying pan was still clean, so he put it on the stove. He cut some butter and put it to melt in the pan, and when it had melted, he put two frozen hot dogs into the pan. His stomach growled some more at the smell of the hot butter.

"What happened to your face?" Anita said suddenly.

Mac had his back to her. "Nothing," he said.

"Don't fucking lie to me, kid," she warned him in her no nonsense tone.

"OK, I got in a fight." He kept facing the stove. He turned the hot dogs over with a spatula.

"Not over a girl, I hope."

"No! Jesus, who'd fight over a girl?"

"Right, you're only ten. Don't worry kiddo, you'll understand later." Anita chuckled, and Mac shrugged. "What was it, then?" Anita insisted.

Mac mumbled something.

"Didn't hear you," Anita said.

"...Brad said you were a whore." Mac spoke softly, angrily, staring at the hot dogs and turning them over and over.

His mom didn't say anything for a bit. He wanted her to deny it, to tell him it was all lies, to thank him for defending her honour. She didn't say anything. He felt a sick nervous feeling in his stomach. "Mom?"

"Well, sweetie, you gotta remember, I lost my job when I was sick a while ago, remember? And we need money for rent, and the phone bill, and the hydro bill, and the cable bill, and food, and clothes...."

"Shut up, Mom!" Mac spun around, the spatula held high in his hand. His mom's droning list of things they needed money for was making him feel as angry as he'd felt when Brad called her a whore in the first place. She hadn't denied it. She was a whore. A hooker. Like Brad said.

Anita shook her head. "You don't know what you're talking about. This is complicated, it's a grownup thing."

"I know what a whore is!" Mac shouted. He slammed the spatula down on the table. "You're an awful mother! I hate you!"

Anita started to yell angry denials at him. He had to get out of there. He ran past her to his room. He slammed the door shut and locked it, and threw himself on his bed. He was so angry he started to cry, and he shoved his face into his pillow so his mom wouldn't hear. He heard her pounding on his door and yelling things about how he was an ungrateful little bastard and he deserved to be homeless if he didn't like how she paid the rent. Then the smoke detector went off, and Anita went away.

Mac stayed face down on the pillow. He stopped crying, and he felt tired. He was still hungry, and his face hurt. The smoke alarm stopped beeping. After a while, there was a quiet knock on his door. "What?"

"It's me. I have supper for you." Anita's voice was soft and calm now.

Mac padded to the door and opened it. His mom was there with a hot dog in a bun on a plate. His stomach growled. He took the plate, and opened the bun. The hot dog was completely black.

Anita grimaced. "Sorry, it's all there is."

Mac took a bite. "It's not too bad," he said with food in his mouth.

Anita sat down on the floor and hugged Mac's knees. "I'm sorry, honey. I'm doing the best I can." And she started to cry.

"It's OK, Mom," Mac said. He felt terrible for yelling at her. He patted her head. "It's OK, see?" He took another bite of the disgusting hot dog.

"I love you, sweetie," she sobbed.

"I love you too, Mom."

Hong Kong, September 1993

Li Ann leaned against the low wall with her elbows resting on top of it. She gazed out over the rooftops of Hong Kong and past them to the inky sky.

She heard the door to the rooftop garden open and shut, and she turned to face the unexpected visitor. Her hands drifted to her sides, loose and empty, ready for anything. She'd never yet been in a real fight, but she'd been training for years, and she'd been warned many times: always be ready. We live a dangerous life.

Anyway, it was just Mac. She'd thought he was asleep, along with the rest of the household. It was nearly 1:30 am, and they all would be having breakfast with the godfather at 8:00.

"What are you doing up here?" he asked, coming closer. He sounded pissed off. He'd probably expected to have the garden to himself, just as she had.

Li Ann shrugged. "I couldn't sleep. I wanted some fresh air."

"There's no fresh air in Hong Kong." Mac kicked at the bottom of the wall. He was definitely upset about something; Li Ann would bet it wasn't the air pollution. She was mildly curious. Anyway, here was something to distract her from thinking about the nightmare that had woken her up.

"Why are you here?" She asked the question to his back; he'd taken off back to the door connecting the rooftop garden to the house. He didn't leave, though - he just picked up the iron rod leaning by the door and set it into its brackets, barring the door from the outside. Now no one could come up to the roof from the house.

Li Ann frowned. "Why'd you do that? Is anyone else even awake?"

"Michael is." Mac said that with a hard edge to his voice.

"You two had another fight?"

Mac ground his knuckles into the rough bark of one of the shade trees. "Yeah."

Li Ann was far from surprised. Her brothers fought like wild dogs whenever they weren't ignoring each other or working together like a dream. Sometimes she felt left out, but most of the time she was glad to keep a safe distance. Mac and Michael injured each other pretty regularly in training - actually, usually it was Mac who got hurt. Neither of them had ever hurt her, and she'd never hurt either of them. It wasn't that they were going easy on their kid sister, it was just that when they sparred with each other, they seemed to forget that they weren't actually trying to kill each other.

"Should I call an ambulance?" Li Ann asked, mostly sarcastic. "The police, maybe?"

Mac raised an eyebrow, looked at the door. "Nah, the bar'll hold."

"OK, so what happened?"

Mac shook his head. "I can't tell you."

Li Ann put her hand lightly on his elbow, and guided him towards the wall where she'd been standing before. "Why? Maybe I can help."

"I can't tell you," he repeated. "It's... guy stuff." He still sounded angry.

"So?"

"So you're a girl."

Li Ann looked sideways at him. He'd never pulled any 'you're a girl' crap on her before, ever. He was covering for something. She'd call his bluff. "Get over it. I'm done high school, I've trained with you for years, and you know Father's sending you, me and Michael out on a job soon. The three of us. As a team. So I need to know what's up with you two."

Mac leaned on the wall and stared out at the city for a few moments. Li Ann watched his face, and saw the moment when he decided to tell her. He sort of smiled, but not really, and he sighed. Then he turned to face her. "All right," he said in a 'you asked for it' kind of voice. "Michael told me to go to a brothel and hire a prostitute. And I punched him out."

Li Ann felt cold. So much for finding a distraction. The material of the nightmare came right back to her: she was lying on the bed in the brothel, waiting for the next customer. In the dream, the waiting was the worst part. She knew it was going to be terrible, but she couldn't run away - she'd been tied to the bed. In real life, she'd never actually been tied. It had been invisible ropes of need and shame that had kept her in the brothel. In the dream, the ropes were physical, and cut into her wrists, hurting her as she struggled to escape. When she'd thought she'd die of fear in another moment of waiting, she'd woken up.

With those images rushing back to her, Li Ann felt cold and angry and she needed to attack somebody. "You think it's that disgusting?" she asked Mac in a voice like knives. "Those women are so awful you'll punch Michael out for suggesting you sleep with one?" Even as she ripped into Mac, she knew she wasn't making sense. Prostitutes were disgusting. The shame of those nights with those men would live with her forever.

"What?" Mac said. "No! Fuck, that's not what I meant!"

"What did you mean, then!?" she shouted.

Mac stared at her, momentarily stunned. Had Li Ann ever yelled at him before? Probably not. She normally went in for icy glares and cold silences.

"It's - it's not right," he stumbled, after his pause. Li Ann stared at him, breathing hard. "I wouldn't use a woman like that. That's what's disgusting. He was talking about the women like they were meat. Like you buy them off the shelf."

Li Ann was still angry. Whether it made sense or not, she had to be angry at Mac, because he was there. She turned her back on him and tried to make her voice calm. "You talk a good line. Like William. But you're just another man."

"Hey! Leave William out of this!" Pain mingled with indignation in Mac's tone.

Li Ann knew she was fighting dirty, bringing up Mac's biological father. She just had to batter Mac away with words until he left her alone. "Well, you sound like him. Telling me what you think I want to hear."

"I don't understand. Li Ann -" he was almost pleading. "I was just telling you the truth. You asked, and I told you. I don't know what you want to hear."

"Why should I believe you? All the men go to brothels."

"I don't."

"Why?"

They froze, staring at each other. There was some sort of balance. Li Ann started to feel the anger ebb away, and she became a bit more aware that her rage at Mac was irrational. Mac just stared. Then he opened his mouth and from the twist at the corner of his mouth she was sure he was going to make a joke.

"I'm gay," he said.

She giggled. The last of the rage melted away, and she laughed, and she remembered how Mac could be so great. He could make a joke out of any situation. Often that annoyed her, but sometimes it made everything OK.

"No, really," she said. "Tell me why you're different from all the other men."

He walked away from her and sat at the picnic table. She followed him, wondering. He sat staring at the table top, and it seemed to her that he was really upset about something. She remembered how he'd been when he first came up to the roof. She put a hand on his shoulder. "Come on," she coaxed, "tell me."

"All right," he said, very softly, "but you can't tell anyone. Ever."

"I don't tell secrets," she promised.

"My mother was a prostitute."

"Ah." Li Ann let out a little sound of surprise. She hadn't expected that. If he was making this up, she'd kill him - but he looked totally serious, and even a little scared, like she might use this information to hurt him.

"I remember when the men used to come to our apartment, how much I hated them. I could never go to a brothel, remembering that."

She believed him. She'd never seen him so intense, or serious. "So your father was one of them?"

Mac shook his head. "No, my parents were married when I was born. They split up when I was a baby, though, and later Mom got sick, and lost her job, and that's when she started the - you know."

Li Ann took Mac's hands. "I promise I won't tell anyone."

He squeezed her hands, and smiled a bit. "Thanks."

"So what are you going to do about Michael?"

Mac's expression darkened. "Avoid him for a while, I guess. 'Till he forgets about it." He shrugged. "He's probably already gone to sleep. I guess I'll go back down. You coming?"

Li Ann shook her head. "I don't feel sleepy enough yet." She knew that if she went to sleep again tonight, the dream would come back. She'd rather push through 'till morning, drink lots of coffee, and sleep like the dead tomorrow night.

"Wanna borrow one of my textbooks?" Mac offered. "They put me to sleep like-" he snapped his fingers.

Li Ann let herself smile, but she shook her head. "I've got my old ones, thanks."

"No really, I swear, UNIX is more boring than anything else in the universe. You should need a prescription to buy the manual, it's such a powerful sedative." He waited for her to react, and when she didn't, he shrugged. "Oh well. See you at breakfast."

Mac unbarred the door and left. Li Ann let out the breath she'd been holding. She'd come so close to telling Mac about the dream. If he'd just asked her directly, 'what's wrong?' she probably would have. She was disappointed and relieved at the same time. Like she'd expected, he was too self-centred to really wonder what sent Li Ann up to the roof at night. Or maybe that wasn't fair - she'd told him that she just couldn't sleep, and he'd believed her.

It was fine. She was glad she hadn't told him. She'd forget the dream faster if she didn't talk about it, and she'd be happier facing Mac at breakfast knowing that he still didn't know that Li Ann had been a child prostitute before she came to live with the Tangs.

He didn't know, did he? A few years ago, Li Ann had asked the godfather whether her brothers knew where she'd come from, and Mr. Tang had said that Michael knew, but not Mac.

Mac didn't know. If he'd known, he would have said something tonight. It wasn't his style to keep a tactful silence.

She'd never suspected anything like what Mac told her tonight, though. After William visited a couple years ago, Li Ann had thought Mac had been raised by his father before he joined the Tangs. Weird how even though she and Mac saw each other every day, he'd never told her anything about his life before the Tangs.

No, she corrected herself, it's not weird. I don't want to talk about my life before the Tangs. So why would I ask him about his? She shook her head. There was no life before the Tangs.

Paris, France, October 1993

"Clear. Go."

Mac heard Michael's voice through the mini receiver tucked in his ear. The hotel security was still down. Mac nodded to Li Ann.

Li Ann pushed the hotel cart up to the door of suite 842, and knocked on the door. Mac tucked himself flat against the wall beside the door.

"Qui est-il?" queried a male voice from inside.

"C'est votre petit déjeuner, monsieur," Li Ann replied.

"Un moment, s'il vous plaît."

Mac kept his dart gun ready. He didn't remember much French from his classes back in Hamilton when he was a kid, but he understood enough to tell that everything was going as planned, and the door should open in a moment.

The occupant of the suite, Harry Wolfsheim, had in fact ordered breakfast from room service about twenty minutes ago, as he had every morning since arriving at the hotel. Li Ann and Mac had intercepted the breakfast in the service elevator, and now Li Ann was wearing a white hotel staff jacket and pushing the cart with Harry's eggs benedict and orange juice.

The door opened, and Li Ann started to push the cart through. When it was halfway through, fully blocking the door, she tilted her head upwards in the prearranged signal.

Mac stepped quickly into the doorway and fired over Li Ann's shoulder at the beefy man taking the cart from her. The dart struck, and the man's face twisted in surprise and rage. He started to reach under his jacket, probably for a gun, but Li Ann threw all her weight against the cart and it struck him hard, right at groin level. He yelled and fell down.

The big man was not Harry. Mac stepped past Li Ann and scanned the room. A thin, grey-haired man in a housecoat stared at him with a terrified expression, raising his hands in the air. That was Harry. Mac shot him. Harry fell backwards against a table, slid to the floor and lay there with his eyes closed. Mac winced. "That'll leave a bruise."

Li Ann shut the door to the hall, and Mac cautiously entered the other room in the suite, the bedroom. They'd been told Harry had just the one bodyguard, but it always paid to check.

The room was blatantly expensive, with thick carpets, textured wallpaper, and a wrought-iron bed. It was also empty. Mac went back to the outer room, where Li Ann was checking Harry's pulse.

"Slow and steady," she said. "The bodyguard's the same. Fast asleep. Let's get to it."

Li Ann stood guard by the door, while Mac found the room's built-in safe. It had a combination lock, and Harry would have set the combination when he first arrived. Mac spun the dial experimentally once, and grinned. It was a high-quality lock, but he'd beaten better.

He closed his eyes for concentration, and willed his heart to slow down. This was just like practising at home. He just had to feel it.

It was hard. His nerves were interfering. It was his first real job, and he was running on so much adrenaline he could hear his blood rushing in his ears.

"Get down!" Li Ann whispered. Mac jumped away from the safe, and tucked himself down behind the couch. Li Ann flattened herself against the wall beside the door. Then nothing happened. After a moment, Li Ann said "Sorry, just my imagination."

Obviously Li Ann was nervous, too. It was the first time for both of them.

Mac went back to the safe, took a deep breath, and tried again.

He was proud of his ability to crack safes. It was the only thing he'd ever tried that he was better than Michael at. Michael was faster than Mac, and stronger. He was better at sparring, better at gymnastics, and better at shooting. He usually beat Mac at go and chess and backgammon and every other game they played. Damn it, he even spoke better English than Mac did. But Michael had never managed to break into a combination lock by feel, and for Mac it came like breathing, and that was why Mac was here with Li Ann while Michael was distracting hotel security.

Mac smiled, and the safe opened. He reached inside and pulled out the small, black velvet bag. "Bingo." He peeked inside, and then pulled a diamond out and pinched it between his thumb and forefinger, holding it up to the light. "Nice. One point five carats, I'd guess. Good colour. I think there's about fifty of them in the bag."

Li Ann gave him a tight grin. "Great, now clean off the safe and let's go."

Mac pulled a wipe out of his pocket, and rubbed down every part of the safe he'd touched. He didn't wear gloves because he needed such high sensitivity in his fingers to crack the safe - but it would be bad to leave fingerprints.

When he finished, he joined Li Ann by the door. He held up the bag, and shook it a bit. "Was it good for you? It was good for me."

Li Ann shook her head. "It's not over yet. Come on." She put her hand on the door, but Mac stopped her.

"Li Ann, wait. You're practically vibrating. You're too nervous to go out there."

Li Ann glared at him. "I'm getting more nervous the longer we take. Michael won't be able to keep hotel security down forever. What if they've found the waiter we took the cart from?"

"When we're nervous, we make mistakes. You've got to calm down a little. Here, hold this." He handed her the bag. "Turn around. OK, now think about something really relaxing. Think about a warm sandy beach." He started kneading Li Ann's shoulders.

"You're insane," Li Ann hissed. "We've got to get out of here."

"In a few seconds." He let his thumbs dig into her back between her shoulders, and moved them in circles. He couldn't really feel her muscles through the layers of clothes she was wearing, but she moved her head a little in a way that suggested the massage was helping her more than she admitted.

Honestly, he was trying to relax himself more than her. His knees were shaking, and he hoped she hadn't noticed.

Suddenly Li Ann reached over her shoulder and grabbed his hand and twisted around so that he had to fall to his knees so his wrist wouldn't break.

"Fuck!" he yelped. "I was just trying to help."

"We're leaving now," Li Ann said.

"OK," Mac gasped. She let him go. "We leave now."

Hong Kong, two days later

"I would like to propose a toast." The godfather held his champagne flute high; the bubbles sparkled in the light from the chandeliers. "To my sons and my daughter, working together."

The toast was echoed around the ballroom, and glasses clinked. Li Ann smiled shyly and sipped at her champagne. She stole a glance at her brothers. Michael, dressed in a white tailored suit, glowed in the attention. His cheeks were flushed and his eyes sparkled. Beside him, there was Mac. Mac was Michael's dark counterpart, wearing black and an understated smirk. Then he caught Li Ann looking at him; he winked at her, and she turned away and covered her mouth so he wouldn't see that he'd made her giggle.

Honestly, Li Ann was giddy. They'd done it! After years of preparation, she and Mac had finally joined Michael, and pulled off their first job for the family. The diamonds they'd stolen were worth about one million American dollars on the black market. As Tang operations went, that was pennies, but what was important was the flawless execution they'd managed, individually and as a team. That was the reason the godfather had thrown this party for them.

Li Ann snuck another peek at her brothers. She wondered if Mac felt as strange as she did, suddenly yanked out of the shadows and made guest of honour at this gathering of, at a guess, at least two hundred friends of the Family. She suspected that he did. Something about his ironic detachment struck her as forced - a protective covering, maybe.

Michael, on the other hand, was lapping up the attention. She watched as he shook hands with several white men she recognized from times she'd served tea at Father's business meetings. Then a man she didn't recognize came to greet her and congratulate her. She wondered whether he knew the nature of the achievement he was lauding. As soon as she got rid of him, she looked around to see where Mac was.

Mac! Why did she keep thinking about Mac? There he was, over by the bar, getting another glass of champagne. She found herself staring at him. He said something to the bartender, and they both laughed. He leaned casually against the bar, one elbow on it, and surveyed the room. The way he moved, he reminded her of a cat. Smooth, and maybe a little lazy, but ready to react like lightning at any moment. And damn, he caught her staring. He raised his glass to her, and took a drink. She turned away.

She'd found herself weirdly fascinated by him ever since that night on the roof, when he'd told her about his mother. Suddenly her chronically shallow, childish older brother had a deep dark secret, and she couldn't stop thinking about that whenever she saw him. His mother had been a prostitute, just like Li Ann. As a child he'd watched the johns come into his home and disappear into his mother's room, and maybe he'd felt some of the same despair that Li Ann had felt when they'd come to her. And at this moment he was walking towards her.

Mac had left his champagne flute at the bar. The band had struck up a waltz, and the crowd was shifting to clear a dance floor. "Wanna dance?" he invited her.

Li Ann set her glass on a table. "All right."

He took her hand and led her onto the dance floor. She couldn't help but notice how warm and strong his hand was - and dry, too, not sweaty like that guy's who'd taken her to the ball after her high school graduation.

"You look great," he whispered, putting his arms around her.

She gave him a puzzled look. "What do you mean?"

"Oh come on Li Ann, it's the usual script," Mac teased. They started moving - neither of them knew more than the most basic steps, but at least they weren't stepping on each others' toes. "I say 'you look great.' You say 'thanks' and you blush and giggle, and maybe you tell me I look handsome."

"I blush and giggle?" She raised an eyebrow, trying to give him a withering look. She'd hoped he hadn't caught that blush-and-giggle moment earlier. Damn. She'd blame it on the champagne. And she was flushed now - why was she feeling so hot all of a sudden?

"Right, maybe not. Anyway, I've hardly ever seen you in a dress before," Mac said.

"I don't like them. It's too hard to kick someone in the face when you're wearing a dress."

Mac looked thoughtful. "Hey, that's a good point. I'll keep it in mind when I'm picking out my outfit for our next job. Also, do you think mother-of-pearl earrings would go with these shoes?"

Li Ann automatically looked down at his shoes before thinking. Damn! She managed to stop herself from laughing, until he grinned at her, and then she gave in. She missed her step and stumbled against him, chuckling.

"How much champagne have you had?" he asked her.

"One glass. Not even." They got back in step.

"I bet you'd be a cheap drunk," he mused.

"Oh, you are not going to find out." The idea of drinking enough to lose her self-control terrified Li Ann. She'd never had a drink at all before tonight - but tonight someone had put the champagne glass in her hand for the toasts, and she'd decided one drink couldn't hurt. In fact, one drink had been rather nice. "Now stop talking," she told Mac, "or I'll go dance with Michael."

"I'll be good, I promise," he whispered, and then he actually was.

And Li Ann danced, wondering how the lights got so dazzling, and Mac's suit got so soft, and why did he smell so good, and why did she feel so alive?

Tokyo, Japan, December 1993

"Well, the sushi's good here," Mac murmured softly to Li Ann.

Michael, busy talking to their contact Kobo, shot a glare at Mac across the table. Li Ann glanced sideways at him in a scolding kind of way.

Mac popped another piece of maki into his mouth and chewed. He knew he was supposed to keep quiet, but it was hard, he was bored. They'd been here for about three quarters of an hour already. Michael was doing all the talking with Kobo, because neither Mac nor Li Ann knew enough Japanese to do much more than ask where the bathroom was.

Kobo was a sweet-looking old man. He smiled all the time. Looked like somebody's grandfather. Probably was someone's grandfather. He was also high up in the Yakuza, which was why he was interested in the disk Mac, Li Ann and Michael had stolen from the Japanese bureau of Interpol. Michael's job now was to negotiate favourable terms. Mac knew it would take a while, but still... he wanted to move his legs. He longed to go outside and breathe. He felt like he was going to explode with all this being still and quiet and polite.

He took a sip of his saké. His cup was almost empty.

Li Ann looked completely calm and cool, infinitely patient. He wondered how she did it.

A waitress glided in between the rice-paper screens that had been erected around their table for privacy. She discreetly passed around the table, refilling each of their cups of saké.

"Arigato," Mac thanked her when she reached him. She smiled at him, but didn't say anything. She'd already learned that only Michael and Kobo at the table actually spoke Japanese.

The waitress left. She was pretty. Mac wished she'd stayed longer.

He was so bored.

Suddenly, there was the sound of a door banging and a harsh shout. Everyone's head snapped up in surprise.

"It's the police," Michael said quickly.

"Shit," Mac breathed.

"Stay cool, keep your heads down," Michael instructed them. "We were just eating here, right?" Kobo was already reaching for his chopsticks, which he'd laid down some time ago in the heat of the negotiations with Michael. "They might be looking for someone else."

One of their screens crashed to the floor. A scowling uniformed police officer shouted something at them. Mac didn't know what he'd said, but standing up slowly with his hands in the air seemed like a good idea, since that's what Michael and Kobo were doing.

Kobo's smile was gone.

Other diners were being ushered quickly out the exit of the restaurant. Five police officers were surrounding Mac and his companions with their guns drawn.

"Yeah, they're probably looking for someone else," Mac murmured in Cantonese. That earned him a hard crack on the ribs with a night stick, a string of really impolite-sounding Japanese from the guy with the stick, and death glares from both Michael and Li Ann.

A new player entered the restaurant. It was a fit, middle-aged Japanese man wearing a long beige trenchcoat. The looks the policemen gave him let Mac know that he was in charge.

He walked towards them, the lines in his face forming a deep scowl. He stopped a couple meters away, facing Kobo.

"Kobo," he said, with a tone of immense disgust and satisfaction. Then he said several more things which Mac couldn't follow.

Kobo responded. His tone was sullen and defiant.

Mac's arms were getting a bit tired, but with the number of guns pointing at him he figured twitching would be a bad thing. Some of the cops looked a bit stressed out, and they might overreact.

The conversation between the trenchcoat guy and Kobo was apparently over. A police officer approached Kobo from behind, and grabbed his wrists. The policeman pinned Kobo's hands behind his back, and started to march him out. Mac noted with some surprise that the policeman hadn't actually handcuffed Kobo.

Kobo got marched right out of the restaurant. The guns around Mac, Michael and Li Ann still forbade movement. Mac could see Kobo now through the restaurant's plate glass front window. There were several police cars parked out front, and Kobo was being taken to one of them; its back door opened.

Then Kobo twisted somehow, and the policeman who'd been holding him fell to the ground in obvious pain. The little old man took off at a run.

The man in the trenchcoat pulled out a gun, aimed, and fired.

The plate glass window spider-webbed; for a moment the scene outside was obscured.

Then the glass came showering down, a tinkling diamond rain. Outside, they could see Kobo lying on the sidewalk in a little puddle of blood which got bigger as they watched.

Mac caught the look on the face of the man in the trenchcoat. It was a look of deep, visceral satisfaction. Mac shivered.

Mac, Li Ann and Michael were patted down and their weapons were taken away, and then they were shepherded into three different police cars. There were plenty of guns trained on them at any given moment, but the fate of Kobo alone was enough to discourage resistance.

***

Li Ann sat on the splintery wooden bench in the holding cell, and worried.

She was in the basement of what seemed to be a small precinct station, somewhere outside of downtown Tokyo. The place had only one holding cell, though it was divided in half down the middle by thick iron bars and chain link. Michael was in the other half, pacing like a caged tiger. She'd been here for four or five hours - she wasn't sure, as her watch had been taken away. Michael had been thrown in just after her. Mac hadn't shown up yet.

Li Ann felt deeply afraid, verging on panic. This was only her second job for the Family, and it had all gone to hell. She didn't even know if Mac was alive. She didn't know what she and Michael were under arrest for - she'd asked Michael and he didn't know either. What if she ended up in Japanese prison for the rest of her life?

When she closed her eyes she saw the glass shattering, and Kobo lying on the concrete in a pool of blood.

She felt the walls closing in on her. She felt tears starting up in her eyes, and she hated them. She felt dizzy. She knew she should breathe more slowly, more deeply, but she couldn't quite get that message to her lungs.

A door opened, and there was shouting. Startled out of her panic attack, Li Ann looked up and saw the man in the trenchcoat leading Mac down the stairs into the hallway outside the cell, accompanied by a uniformed policeman. She felt relieved for a moment - until she saw the blood on Mac's face.

There was more shouting in Japanese. The door to the cell opened. Mac was thrown in, and Michael was dragged out. The man in the trenchcoat disappeared up the stairs with Michael.

"Mac!" Li Ann gasped, running to the fence that separated them.

Mac stumbled against the far wall, then braced himself against it. "Li Ann?" he asked without looking. "You all right?"

"I'm OK. What happened to you?"

Mac raised some fingers to his mouth and then looked at them, examining the blood. Then he wiped them on his pants. Li Ann noted that with worry. Mac was normally a diva about his clothes; he'd freak out at the idea of getting blood on them unnecessarily.

"He doesn't like me, I guess," Mac said.

"Who?"

"The guy in the trenchcoat. I think his name's McCoy, by the way. Weird name for a Japanese guy."

"Come here," Li Ann begged him. He was still hunched over, leaning against the far wall. He wouldn't be any better off close to her, she knew, but she still wanted him close as though she could help him somehow. Anyway, if he got close they could talk quietly so the guard couldn't hear, in case he happened to understand Cantonese.

Mac crossed the floor, favouring his right leg. He hooked his fingers through the chain link near hers.

Li Ann winced, seeing him up close.

"It's not as bad as it looks," Mac tried to reassure her. "Really. I'll be, uh, fine. Later."

His lower lip was swollen and bleeding, his cheek was bruised, and it looked like he'd been punched in both eyes. That, and he was limping.

"Did you try to get away?" she asked.

"What, after what happened to Kobo? Hell no. McCoy roughed me up while he was questioning me."

"He speaks Cantonese?"

"No, English. Guess he figured I'd understand it, since I'm white. And you're safe, I told him you don't speak English. He doesn't speak Cantonese. I tested him. So he couldn't question you without a translator, and I don't think he wants witnesses when he questions people. Too bad he found out Michael speaks Japanese."

They shared a silent moment of worry over what was happening to Michael at that moment.

Then Mac said, "Want to know how I know he doesn't speak Cantonese?"

Li Ann wasn't really curious, but she asked anyway, "How?"

Mac grinned, showing that at least his teeth were intact. "One time after he hit me, I yelled 'orange sticky candy with bunny ears!' And he didn't miss a beat, he shouted at me to shut up and he hit me again. If he'd understood, he would've had to react somehow."

Li Ann couldn't help smiling at Mac's absurdity, even while she stared at the appalling evidence of the beating. "But you should be careful. I think that man is evil. I saw how he looked when he shot Kobo. He enjoyed it."

"Yeah. I saw that too." Mac rubbed her fingertips with his through the fence. "Michael'll be OK, don't worry. I don't think McCoy's going to do anything more than play with us a bit. He must have to answer to some kind of rules."

Li Ann wished she were sure of that. And she wished she could reach through the bars and wipe the blood off Mac's face and touch more than just his fingertips for comfort.

He caught her look. "Hey, cheer up," he urged her, "it could be worse."

Li Ann shook her head. "Like, how?"

"What if the police hadn't come, and after dinner Michael and Kobo had decided to take us to a karaoke bar?"

"That wouldn't be worse than this." Li Ann wasn't in the mood for stupid jokes.

"Wow," he said very seriously, "I guess you've never heard Michael sing."

Li Ann laughed accidentally. All right, maybe she was in the mood for stupid jokes. She suddenly felt a rush of affection and admiration for Mac, who could get arrested and beat up and thrown in a Tokyo jail and still put effort into making stupid jokes to try to make her feel better about it all.

The tender moment was broken by the opening of the door at the top of the stairs. A uniformed cop walked down and talked to the prison guard, who shrugged, grabbed his keys, and came to their door. He opened it. Li Ann and Mac stared at him, confused, and he waved them over, and then herded them up the stairs.

McCoy and Michael were standing in the precinct's small office space. Michael wasn't handcuffed or anything. McCoy looked deeply unhappy.

"They're letting us go," Michael said, very quietly, in Cantonese. "You ever wonder how powerful the Tang family is? This is how powerful."

***

McCoy drove them to the airport to make sure they got on the next available flight out of the country. He was obviously not pleased to let them go, but determined to make sure they didn't stay in his country a moment longer than necessary. They ended up split between two flights - Michael on a direct flight to Hong Kong, and Mac and Li Ann on another which left at the same time, but included a one-hour stopover in Taipei.

McCoy handed them their tickets at the security gate. "If I ever see you again," he said softly in English, "I'm liable to shoot you first, and look for an excuse later."

Mac snatched his ticket out of McCoy's hand. "Why thank you, I did enjoy my stay in your beautiful country." Michael and Li Ann took theirs in silence.

Inside the departure area, Michael took both Mac and Li Ann by the arm. "I'll see you in Hong Kong," he said. "I'll talk to Father. It'll be all right."

"See you there, bro," Mac replied. They clasped hands briefly, and Michael left. Mac stared after him for a moment, then turned to Li Ann. "Right. Let's find our gate."

They got a lot of funny looks as they walked along. Not only was Mac strikingly tall and Caucasian, he still looked and walked like he just lost a bar fight. When they passed a washroom, he went in and quickly washed the blood off his face, at Li Ann's suggestion. When he came out he looked a little better.

They got to their gate just in time; the flight crew closed the door right after them. They were seated in the last row at the back of the plane, where there were only two seats because the washroom took up the rest of the space. Li Ann took the window seat. Mac grimaced, folding himself into the tiny space. His knees pressed into the back of the seat in front of him. "Ow," he whispered, touching his right side.

Li Ann winced on his behalf. "You hurt there?"

"Yeah. Where that cop hit me. Probably just bruised."

The plane started to taxi.

Under his breath, Mac started singing the line from the John Denver song. "I'm leaving, on a jet plane, don't know when I'll be back again...."

"I hope we never come back," Li Ann said.

"Yeah? I still want to see Mount Fuji." Mac went back to humming the song. Li Ann took one of the in-flight magazines from the pouch in front of her, and stared at the pictures.

The plane roared down the runway, and finally the acceleration of takeoff pressed Li Ann back against her seat. Japan dropped away underneath them. Li Ann felt her eyes filling up with tears, and she closed them.

"Hey, Li Ann? What's wrong?" she heard Mac ask. "Everything's OK now."

No it wasn't. Things done couldn't be undone. "I've never seen anyone killed before."

"Oh," she heard. And she felt Mac's hand close around hers and squeeze. She squeezed back. She kept her eyes closed, and felt tears run down her cheeks. She kept remembering Kobo smiling at the dinner, greeting her politely in the little Cantonese he knew, chatting with Michael.... He'd been such a sweet little old man.

She felt ashamed at crying, too. She was supposed to be hard. She was supposed to be cold. She was an ex-prostitute, she was Triad. Mothers told their little daughters stories about women like Li Ann to scare them into being good. She wasn't supposed to cry over the death of some ganster she didn't even know.

She felt something soft dabbing at her cheeks. She opened her eyes and saw that Mac was wiping her tears away with the linen handkerchief he kept in his pocket. She felt warmth rush to her cheeks. "I'm sorry, it's just - I've never seen anyone killed before," she repeated.

He put the hanky into her hand. "Take this. It's OK. I understand. And I won't tell anyone."

Li Ann wiped her eyes. "Thanks. Have you?"

"Huh?"

"Seen someone... kill someone... before?" Her voice caught on the phrase, and she bit back another sob.

"Oh." Mac shrugged. "I guess. Yeah. Just a few times. It gets old fast, believe me."

"I need to, um, blow my nose. Is that OK?" Li Ann asked awkwardly.

Mac sort of laughed. "Don't worry about that. I'll throw the hanky in the laundry when we get home."

Li Ann blew her nose, and tucked the hanky in her pocket. She felt calmer now. They were flying above the clouds, which were lit cotton-candy pink and yellow with sunrise. It was beautiful out there, and there was no sign of land. She put her hand in Mac's again without really thinking about it.

"We've been up for, like, thirty hours now," Mac pointed out. "We should try to sleep."

"Yeah," Li Ann agreed. It was a good idea. So they both put their seats back the fraction that the airplane allowed, and closed their eyes, and dozed. Holding hands.

***

Despite the discomfort he was in, Mac was exhausted enough to fall into a deep sleep on the plane. He didn't wake up until the flight attendant came around to make him put his seat in its upright position for the descent. He woke up disoriented, not remembering where he was or why he couldn't move his legs or why his face hurt, or whose hand he was holding.

Li Ann sat there blinking, looking similarly confused. She let go of Mac's hand to push her hair off her face. "Where are we?"

"Taipei," Mac remembered. "Almost."

Li Ann stared at his face. "God, you look awful."

Mac touched his face. Ow. His eyes felt puffy and his lip felt huge. Also his right side hurt. He experimentally shrugged a bit, and felt a jolt of pain. Shit. Maybe the rib was cracked. Oh well, nothing he could do about it until they got back to Hong Kong. "No, it's OK, haven't you read any fashion magazines lately?" he said to Li Ann. "All the models look like this. It's the latest thing. I had to pay McCoy, like, four hundred dollars to do this to me. And that was a bargain."

Li Ann laughed, reluctantly.

The plane landed in Taipei. Mac struggled painfully out of his seat and discovered, to his relief, that he could still move his legs. He limped down the aisle to the front of the plane, and out into the pedway. Li Ann then slipped to his left and tucked herself under his arm. It actually didn't help him walk much, but he was touched that she'd noticed his difficulty and was trying to help him. If it'd been Michael here with him, he wouldn't have done that.

They found the gate for their connecting flight without much trouble. Then they had an hour to kill. Li Ann went and got them bowls of noodles for breakfast, since they'd slept through the breakfast on the plane.

After they finished the noodles, Li Ann asked Mac how he was doing.

"All right," he said, "You?"

Li Ann shrugged. "All right. Thanks for being there for me earlier. On the plane."

"Where else could I have gone?" Mac pointed out. "We were strapped in."

He kind of expected her to glare at him for teasing her when she was trying to be serious, but instead she smiled at him. "I'm glad it was you and not Michael," she said. "He doesn't know how to make things better like you do."

"Huh?" Mac was honestly confused by her remark.

"I mean...." Li Ann trailed off. She touched his cheek and met his gaze with bright eyes. "I mean...."

And then she kissed him.

Just lightly. Just a brush of their lips, and then she pulled away looking startled, as though he had kissed her.

He hadn't expected that. But it had felt right. They'd held hands all morning in their sleep. They'd walked through the airport with his arm around her. A barrier had been breached.

He remembered dancing with her in October after Paris. He'd been seriously turned on that night; she was beautiful, and strong, and she was soft and she smelled good and all those female things... but she was Li Ann, so he knew nothing could, nothing should happen between them.

Only now, when she kissed him, he wondered 'why not?'

"I'm sorry," she said.

"No, it's all right." He caught her chin and stopped her from turning her head away. "I don't know where that came from, but I liked it."

"I'm sorry," she repeated, "I didn't think, I mean your lip, it must hurt..."

"It's OK," he whispered. "That's a good kind of pain." And he kissed her.

Hong Kong, a week later

Mac was just drifting off to sleep when he was startled awake by his bedroom door opening.

Michael walked in, closed the door behind himself, and came to sit on the edge of Mac's bed. He was dressed in his white suit. He smelled like alcohol and cigarettes; he'd been out at the race track, and probably a bar after that.

"What do you want?" Mac asked, sitting up and rubbing his eyes.

"What's going on with you and Li Ann?" Michael asked in a calm, even tone.

Mac's heart skipped a beat. "Nothing."

Michael's expression got dark. "Don't lie to me Mac, you know I hate it when you lie to me."

"What do you think is going on?" Mac countered.

In response, Michael put a hand on Mac's chest and shoved him down onto the bed.

"Agh," Mac gasped. "Fuck! You know I've got a broken rib!"

"So tell me. Are you lovers now?"

"Yes," Mac hissed through teeth gritted against pain. There was no point in lying to Michael; he'd find out eventually, one way or another. Not that Mac and Li Ann had actually had sex yet, but they'd been hiding in corners and kissing all over the house.

Michael let go of Mac. Mac gasped with relief.

"That's good," Michael said.

"What?" Mac stared at Michael. Michael didn't look angry; he looked satisfied. Happy, even.

"I told you to find a woman. It took you long enough, but Li Ann's even better than a prostitute."

"Um, yeah," Mac agreed weakly.

Michael suddenly grabbed a handful of Mac's hair and kissed him, hard and deep, like he hadn't in a long time.

"Oooohummm," Mac moaned under Michael's rough lips. He felt fire in his blood immediately, a hot hard warmth in his groin.... Li Ann didn't want to have sex, she said she wasn't ready yet, and a week of kissing and nothing else had left Mac right on the edge of breaking.

Michael shrugged his jacket off. Underneath, he was wearing a holster with a gun in it. He pulled off his pants, and his underwear. He pulled out the gun - and he didn't put it down. Mac froze, staring first at the gun, then at Michael gazing at the gun. Mac felt another spike of fear.

"I want you to suck on my gun," Michael said, his voice deep and throaty. "Like it was my dick."

"Uh, no," Mac squeaked.

"Unload it first," Michael said, handing Mac the gun.

OK, unloading it was a good step. Mac popped the clip out and set that on the table, and Michael snatched the gun out of his hand.

Then Michael pushed Mac flat on the bed again - ouch! fuck! the rib! - and jammed the barrel of the gun between his lips. It was cold and hard, and it grated against Mac's teeth. He started to protest and Michael pushed the gun between his teeth when his mouth opened. Michael moved so he was straddling Mac. Mac was grateful and surprised when Michael didn't actually put any of his weight on Mac - he was finally being careful of Mac's cracked rib.

"Suck on it," Michael demanded.

"Fug oo," Mac mumbled angrily around the metal shaft in his mouth.

"Suck on it," Michael repeated. At the same time, his free hand found Mac's dick and started playing with it.

And Mac was hard. Goddamn fucking hell, he was as hard as the gun Michael'd stuck in his mouth.

Mac closed his lips around the gun.

"Close your eyes," Michael ordered him. "Imagine it's my dick in your mouth"

Mac closed his eyes. Michael's demand didn't really make sense. The gun's barrel was cool while Michael's dick was hot. The metal shaft was much narrower than Michael's, and boxy.

Still, Mac moved his lips, bobbed his head a bit, even moved his tongue as though he was sucking the gun off. Meanwhile, Michael's hand caressed Mac's penis in long, firm strokes, and Mac felt a glow of pleasure building. His mind started to fade out. It was Michael's dick he was sucking, and any minute now Michael would come in Mac's mouth, explosive like a gunshot.... Michael pushed the gun in too far and Mac gagged. Michael eased up just a little with the gun, but stroked Mac faster and faster.

And then Mac came. He let out a muffled cry around the gun, he bit down on it, whimpering, he arched his back, he yelled.

And he felt a wet sticky warmth on his bare abdomen, and he knew it hadn't come from himself. Michael came from that? Mac marvelled, fuzzily.

The gun pulled out of his mouth. Mac lay on the bed with his eyes closed and listened while Michael cleaned himself up, put his pants back on, grabbed his clip off the table, reloaded his gun, and finally left.

"Wow," Mac sighed.

Hong Kong, February 1994

Li Ann lay back on her bed, smiling, while Mac kissed her up and down her body. He nuzzled one of her breasts, and sucked on the nipple, and she gasped and giggled a bit at the tingling. She'd never let him take her bra off before. Her heart beat fast. Her skin felt extra-sensitive. She let her fingers tangle in Mac's hair.

Then he roamed down to her hips, and started to tug her panties down a bit, kissing the hollow of her hip.

"Stop," she ordered him, yanking him quickly away from there by his hair.

"Ow!" he yelped. He rubbed his scalp. "A simple 'no' would have been enough."

"Uh, sorry. You took me by surprise."

"I want to make love to you, Li Ann," he pleaded, his big brown eyes wide open.

"I know," she sighed, sitting up. She trailed one finger down the middle of his chest. "I'm just not ready yet."

"Are you worried it'll hurt?" he asked. "'Cause it's true it sometimes hurts the first time for the woman, but it's not too bad, and it's better after that."

"Mac," Li Ann said drily, "I'm not a virgin."

"Oh," he said. Then "Oh?" again, confused, reconciling that with three months of 'I'm not ready yet.' Then he looked at her, his eyes narrowing a bit like he was thinking hard, and he said "Oh," again, soft and low, like he'd just understood something.

Li Ann turned away from him and lay down, pulling the covers up around her shoulders for protection; she suddenly felt more than naked, she felt transparent. She thought Mac had suddenly, without being told, figured out everything about her past. And Mac did not rate highly in the traits of perception and sensitivity; if he could see it all so easily, then probably everyone could. "I don't want to talk about it," she insisted.

"All right."

She was afraid he'd ask her questions. She was afraid he'd try to comfort her, and break down her fragile barriers of control. But she was forgetting something: what attracted her to Mac in the first place.

"Hey, I'm hungry," he said. No hint in his voice of what just happened. "Want some ice cream?"

"Ummm, not right before sleep. I want to sleep now."

"Can I stay?" he asked, infinitely hopeful.

"No."

Mac sighed, and rolled over to the side of the bed. "See you tomorrow, then."

***

Mac padded barefoot away from Li Ann's room. He stopped and leaned against a wall and groaned. He was so turned on, and she was so not ready.

"I'm not a virgin," she'd said. But she freaked when he got anywhere near her panties. Mac remembered how he'd been with Michael, back in the beginning - wanting the touching and the affection, but scared of the sex. He'd bet practically anything that Li Ann was coming from the same place he'd been back then - she'd had some really bad experiences with sex. Maybe even before she came to the Tangs, when she was just a little girl.

Not for the first time, Mac wondered how Li Ann had ended up with the Tang family. He wouldn't even have guessed that she was adopted if he hadn't been here for a year before her. She never talked about the times before. Neither did he. And he didn't want to, so why would he expect her to? He wouldn't.

Mac found himself standing outside Michael's room. He pushed the door open and walked in.

Michael wasn't asleep. He was sitting up in bed, reading a book.

Mac walked over to the bed. "Fuck me," he begged. "Now."

Michael didn't question it this time. He threw his book away, grabbed Mac's wrists and threw him onto the bed, and devoured him.

Hong Kong, July 1994

The night was steamy hot, and the air-conditioning was broken. Li Ann lay on her back on the floor, completely naked. Mac had a bowl of ice water, and he kept dipping a washcloth in it and then rubbing that over Li Ann, and himself. They were surrounded by towels to catch the drips.

Li Ann hissed at the cold when Mac touched the cloth, freshly wet, to her breasts. "Mmm, do that again."

"OK," he said, and did.

Li Ann felt the ice water drip down the sides of her rib cage. A bit of it pooled in the hollow around her belly button. Li Ann lifted her head to see it, and the movement made it run away. Beyond her belly button, she could see her dark patch of pubic hair. She took a moment to marvel that she was actually naked, with Mac, and not feeling weird about it.

It was too hot to feel weird.

Mac wet the cloth and rubbed it on his face, and smiled. He wet it again and let it drip on her right thigh - the drips running down the inside of her thigh, touching where she had never let him touch.

The heat made Li Ann feel soft, and lazy, and open.

She thought then that maybe she would like to try it. Sex. With Mac. Maybe. Was she ready? Was he the right man to do it with? Hard to decide.

"What are you thinking?" she asked him, looking for a clue.

He shrugged. "Nothing."

She sighed happily and closed her eyes. There was the sign. Mac was the antidote to the darkness that lurked around sex. He was bright and open, not worrying about hidden meanings or secrets. He'd showed her how to survive in Tokyo with jokes and lightness, and he would do the same now.

"Where are you hot now?" he asked, swishing the cloth around in the bowl. Ice tinkled against its porcelain sides.

"Here," she said, letting her fingers trail down between her legs. It was true. Thinking about sex with Mac, she suddenly felt warmer between her legs than anywhere else. That was a good sign, right?

"Uh?" he said in surprise. "Um, I don't think you want me to put ice water there."

"No," she agreed. "Something else."

"Li Ann?" He said her name all tentatively and wonderingly. She found that strange - she wasn't giving him anything particularly special, after all.

"I want to try sex tonight," she said.

"You sure?"

She wished he hadn't asked that, but she supposed it would have been rude of him not to. "Yeah. I mean, I know it's too hot, but...."

"No, it's OK." He covered her mouth with his in a hungry kiss. When he broke away again he said "I have to go to my room to get a condom. Is that OK?"

"Yeah," she said, glad he'd thought of that. That need hadn't even occurred to her.

He pulled his pants on and left. She got up onto her bed and waited, feeling the heat heavy in all her limbs, the sweat dripping off her forehead. She didn't think about what was coming, or anything at all.

Mac came back and pulled his pants off again, and joined her on the bed. He started kissing her all over. Really all over. She let out a startled yelp when she felt his tongue on her sex. He stopped, looked up, asked "Is that OK?"

"Yeah, it's OK," she breathed, and nudged his head back down.

She felt nervous, but it was too hot to get tense. Wherever Mac touched her their skins slid across each other, slippery with sweat. She felt an odd and unfamiliar sensation down around where Mac was licking her. It was warm, and tingly. She thought she liked it. She wasn't sure.

Mac stopped that, and kissed his way up her chest again. "What do you like?" he asked. "What do you want me to do?"

"I don't know," she said. "I'm not used to this. I don't know how it goes."

"Well, what do you like when you pleasure yourself?" he tried.

Li Ann frowned. "When I what?"

"When you masturbate."

"Oh." Li Ann felt herself blushing. "I, uh, I don't."

"You don't?" he repeated, sounding kind of confused.

"No. I don't masturbate."

"Oh, Li Ann," he sort of sighed, and nuzzled her arm. "All right. I'll experiment. Tell me if you like something or you don't, OK?"

He kissed her on the mouth - he smelled strange, like her, but she didn't mind that. Then, with him still kissing her, she felt his fingers teasing her sex. The warm, tingly feeling came back.

"I like that," she said against his lips, "I think."

His fingers moved faster, and maybe slipped inside her a bit. She felt hot between her legs, and open. The warm, tingly feeling got bigger and bigger.

And then suddenly her thoughts fizzed and exploded, and she felt tight in places where she'd never known she had muscles, and it felt good, wonderful, and she couldn't stop herself from crying out.

"What was that?" she whispered when she could.

"I think you had an orgasm," he answered in a warm, teasing tone.

"I never had one before," she whispered.

She felt him caressing her arms and her breasts, but she felt so loose and relaxed that the sensations seemed remote.

"I'd like to be inside you, Li Ann," he said after a bit. "Would that be OK?"

She knew what he meant. She'd avoided looking at his dick, but she could see now at the edge of her vision that it was hard and erect. She knew this was part of sex. It was the part that made her really nervous - only right now, she felt so good, so relaxed and warm and liquid that maybe it would be OK. "Yes," she said. "OK."

He put the condom on. She felt the tip of his penis bumping against her, and then she felt a familiar-unfamiliar fullness. Unfamiliar because it didn't hurt.

"You're really wet," he whispered.

"Is that good?"

"Yes."

Then he started to move. She remembered the up-and-down motion. She tried not to think about that. It was Mac on top of her now, no one else.

"You feel so good," he murmured, closing his eyes. She lay quietly, wondering. He moved in and out of her faster and faster. His face was really quite pretty.

Then he gasped, and froze on top of her, his face twisted into an expression something like pain but somehow different.

He sighed, suddenly loose again, and rolled off her. "That was amazing, Li Ann," he murmured into her ear. "That was wonderful."

"That was... interesting," she admitted.

"Interesting?" he repeated, opening one eye to look at her and raising an eyebrow.

"Well, I think I liked it."

"Good," he murmured, snuggling against her.

It was far, far too hot for this, but she didn't push him away. She closed her eyes, and waited for sleep.

***

Li Ann tried to move her arms, but they were tied to the bed. Her legs were tied, too. She looked down at her body and saw that she was wearing a white t-shirt, but nothing else - no pants, no underwear.

A man came in. It was a short, grey-haired Chinese man with bad skin and bad teeth. She wanted to scream, but she knew that if she did he would beat her, and no one would stop him.

He untied the string that served as his belt, and let his pants fall down. His huge, burgundy dick pointed straight at her. It was too big. It wouldn't fit in her. It would break her.

"No, please..." she begged.

He just leered at her, and straddled her, and poked it into her.

She felt herself ripping. She screamed.

She woke up.

Li Ann sat up in bed, whimpering.

"it's ok," she whispered to herself, "just another dream, it's not real...."

There was someone in bed with her.

She frantically scrambled out of the bed, landing on the floor with a painful jolt. Just as she hit the floor she remembered: Mac. Mac hadn't left the room. He'd fallen asleep in her bed, after they had sex.

She pulled herself up onto the bed as quietly as she could, hoping that somehow he'd slept through everything so far. She didn't want him to wake up. She didn't want him to know about the nightmares.

Miraculously, he was still asleep, snoring lightly.

She sat on the bed and hugged her knees. She didn't know what to do. Going back to sleep right now was not an option. Usually when she woke up from one of her nightmares, she'd go walking through the house, or up on the roof. But she didn't think it would be right to leave Mac alone in her bed.

So she just sat there and waited. Waited for her heart to stop racing. Waited for morning to come - it would, eventually, it always did.

After a while, she became aware of a change in Mac's breathing. He made a sort of groaning noise. His breath got faster. Li Ann stared at him. Was he having a nightmare, too? She felt an odd, unexpected twinge of panic. Mac wasn't supposed to have nightmares. Mac was supposed to the one who made jokes all the time, who never let anything get to him.

Mac, still sleeping, moaned again, and his face scrunched up in an expression of pain or fear, and she had to stop it. She grabbed his shoulder and shook him.

"Mac, wake up!" she demanded.

"Gah!" he gasped, his eyes popping open. He stared at her, wide-eyed, as though trying to comprehend who she was. Then he said "Li Ann," in a sort of wonderment, and he turned over and buried his face in the pillow. He shuddered once, and hugged the pillow.

"We can't sleep together," she said. "You have to go."

"What?" He sat up. "Sorry I woke you up...."

"You didn't, I woke you up. I want you to leave now."

"But-" he protested. He laid a hand on her shoulder. "It's too hot tonight, I know. Hey, I'll get more cold water."

"No, just go," she insisted, rubbing her cheek sadly against his hand. "We can't sleep together."

"Why not?" He traced her cheek with his fingers. "I really want to spend the night with you. I want to hold you all night - OK, when it isn't so hot - and wake up next to you in the morning."

Li Ann shook her head. It was impossible. She couldn't do it. When she slept, her carefully constructed shell dissolved, exposing the terror and pain that lurked inside. She couldn't stand for anyone to see that. And if Mac had nightmares of his own, she didn't want to know about them. She wasn't strong enough. But she didn't want to drive Mac away. She loved being with him, just not asleep. He was so fun, so playful, so sweet to her.... Miserable and confused, she decided to tell him the truth. "I don't want to share your nightmares. I don't want you to share my nightmares. I just want to be happy with you, and leave the rest out of it."

Mac frowned. "What nightmares?"

Li Ann turned her face away from his. "I don't want to talk about it. That's the whole point."

"No, I mean, I wasn't even having a nightmare. Really. I was just dreaming about Michael."

Li Ann managed a wry smile. "Well, it looked like you were dreaming he was killing you or something." She put her finger on Mac's lips to stop him from replying. "I don't want to talk about it," she reminded him. "So can we do it? Just be happy together and leave the rest out?"

"And 'the rest' includes sleeping together?"

"Yes. I guess I wish it didn't, but..." she shrugged, not meeting his eyes.

"Hey, come here." He kissed her on the lips. "Being happy together sounds good to me. Who needs the rest?"

Hong Kong, August 1995

Mac sipped at his beer and looked around the room while he waited for Michael to come back. He still couldn't quite believe that he was here. Michael had never brought Mac to a party before - it wasn't part of their relationship. They worked together. They had sex. But they never just hung out together as though they were friends. They usually didn't even go to the races together, though they both went separately, but today they'd gone together and both made winning bets, and Michael had brought Mac here to celebrate.

Mac didn't recognize anyone in the room. Michael had greeted a few of them as friends. Mac didn't know where he stood with these people - he didn't know whether they knew who he was, or what they thought he was to Michael.

Michael came back, his eyes shining with excitement. "I bought something for us."

Mac perked up. "What?"

"It's a surprise," Michael said. "Come with me."

Michael led him upstairs. As they passed by artwork and expensive furniture, Mac admired the taste of whoever owned the mansion they were in.

They entered a small, carpeted room lined with couches. A few people sat and lounged on the couches. Two of them were sharing a large hookah which sat on the floor between them.

One man stood up at their entry and grinned at them. Mac noted his gold front tooth with amusement, and his ostentatiously expensive rings. "You ready now?" the man said.

"Yes," Michael replied.

"Three hundred fifty dollars," the man said.

Mac raised an eyebrow as Michael pulled out a wad of bills, and traded it for a little plastic baggy of white powder.

"Is that what I think it is?" Mac asked Michael, under his breath.

"It's very fine cocaine," the man with the gold tooth said. "Very pure. I tried it this morning."

There was a glass coffee table in the middle of the room, slightly grungy, covered with empties and overflowing ash trays. There was also a razor blade lying in the middle of it. Michael knelt by the table and pushed things aside to make a clear place, which he wiped clean with his sleeve.

"Come on," he said to Mac, "it's my treat."

Mac shrugged to himself, and joined Michael by the table. "Have you done this before?"

"Of course," Michael said, "haven't you?"

"Hadn't got around to it. Too busy serving food to the poor with Li Ann, that kind of thing." Actually Mac had held back from doing any serious drugs because he didn't want to fuck up his body when he was doing such heavy physical training all the time. But hey, Michael kept the same routine Mac did. If he could manage it, so could Mac. "So is this how you keep your youthful figure?"

"Huh?" Michael said while he tipped some snow onto the table and divided it into two lines with the razor blade.

"This woman I know, she's a model, she uses coke all the time. Says it keeps her thin."

Michael gave him a slightly puzzled look. "It can suppress the appetite, yeah."

Mac gave up the small talk - always a struggle with Michael, usually they just fought or fucked - and took the straw Michael handed him.

Mac knew what to do - he had, after all, seen people doing coke at parties before. Feeling vaguely ridiculous, he put the straw in his nose and snorted his line. Then he handed the straw to Michael and sat back. He didn't feel anything to start with other than a burning sensation in his sinuses, and an overwhelming urge to sneeze, which he suppressed by pinching his nose.

Michael did his line, then stood up and extended a hand to Mac. "Come on. I know somewhere we can go."

Mac followed him out the door and down the hall, slightly stunned that Michael was leading him by the hand with other people around.

And suddenly - wow. It hit him. He felt exhilarated, euphoric, fantastic. He felt faster than a speeding bullet, stronger than a freight train.

Michael pulled him through a door into an empty bedroom. "This is going to be the most amazing sex you've ever had," he promised.

Mac believed it.

Hong Kong, December 1995

Mac picked at his food, and wished time would go faster. For the first time in several weeks, the godfather had arranged for a small, intimate dinner with his children - and Mac was trapped making polite conversation with Mr. Tang, Li Ann and Michael all at once, for another hour at least.

Mac had been avoiding being in a room with all three of them at once, lately. It felt far too potentially explosive. There was Li Ann, who he'd been dating, sort of, for two years, and having sex with semi-regularly for a year and a half. Sitting between her and Mac at the round table there was Michael, with whom Mac had been having sex semi-regularly for about four years. Michael knew about Li Ann, but Li Ann didn't know about Michael. And then there was Mr. Tang, who Mac loved and respected as a father and who he desperately didn't want to let down, but he knew he was letting him down, in far too many ways. The godfather wasn't supposed to know about Mac's intimate relationships with either Li Ann or Michael, but Li Ann and Mac weren't nearly as careful as Michael and Mac were, and Mac suspected that Mr. Tang knew Mac and Li Ann were lovers, and that he did not approve.

With all these undercurrents, something had to give.

On top of all that, Mac wasn't feeling well. He took another bite of shredded eel and chewed it slowly. It was one of his favourite dishes, but he just wasn't hungry.

"...and I think we should reward Tsing's loyalty, perhaps with a promotion to a management position in the Durban business. Or, if he wishes to stay in Hong Kong because of his family..." the godfather was saying. Li Ann and Michael both appeared to be listening intently. Mac couldn't focus. His nose was itching and burning, and running. He sniffled, and pulled his linen handkerchief out of his pocket to blow his nose as discreetly as possible.

"...profits are up," Michael was talking now, "but I'm hearing more people all the time talking about pulling out before the Chinese government takes control..."

Mac's nose started to tickle like crazy, and he realized he was about to sneeze. Fuck. He covered his mouth and nose with the handkerchief and turned away from the table. "heCHsh! hiCHsh!" he sneezed twice.

Li Ann, across the table, gave him a sympathetic look, and he replied with a weak grin. He'd told her he had a cold. Actually, it was the fucking coke messing up his nose.

"Mac," the godfather suddenly addressed him directly. Mac struggled to focus. "Have you made any progress getting past T.R.M.'s firewall?"

"Sort of. I ran a program to look for weaknesses and I didn't find any way in...." Mac sniffed, and dabbed at his nose with the handkerchief. It was tickling again. Shit. "I think we'll need to get physically insi-ah....ahhh..." Fuck! He rubbed his nose, trying to make the sneeze go away. He could see Michael glaring at him out of the corner of his eye, while Li Ann winced sympathetically. "We need to get inside. I wrote a virus, and if I can download it onto their syst-ahh...choo!" Mac groaned silently, holding the handkerchief over his nose again. It was getting worse. He needed to sneeze again. Why did this happen to him, not Michael? Michael'd been using longer than he had. It wasn't fair. "If I can get it onto their system," he tried again, his words muffled by the hanky, "it'll make a back door for us." That was as much as he could manage. He turned away from the table again - away from his father, so towards Michael - and breathed shakily into the handkerchief, waiting for the next sneeze. His eyes were watering, but he could see that Michael was giving him a look of profound disgust. "eh-chsh!" He blew his nose, and when he lowered the handkerchief he saw blood. Fucking hell. He folded it quickly so no one would see, and he stood up. "I'm sorry, Father," he said quickly, "I'm feeling sick. I've got to go."

Mr. Tang's concerned expression made Mac feel like shit. "Should I call the doctor?" the godfather asked.

"No, it's just a cold, I just need to lie down," Mac said, edging toward the door.

"By all means, rest now," Mr. Tang agreed. "We can talk business tomorrow."

Mac rushed out of the room before anyone could say anything else. He went straight to his bedroom, grabbed a box of tissues, and threw himself down on his bed.

It wasn't long before Michael intruded. He scowled at Mac. "You ever do that again, I'll kill you."

Mac sat up. "What, sneeze? Sorry, in the future I'll check with you first."

"Don't get smart with me." Michael's posture spoke of barely restrained violence.

Mac considered provoking him more, just for the hell of it.

"You know what I mean," Michael went on. "Father's not naïve. You let him see you like that again, he'll start to wonder if you're using. And when he starts wondering about you, he'll start wondering about me."

Michael was right, and Mac knew it. And the last thing Mac wanted was for the godfather to find out about the drugs; just imagining the godfather's disappointment in him made Mac feel nauseous.

"Well, what the hell can I do?" Mac demanded. And sneezed.

Michael paused, actually considering the problem. "Stop using so much coke. Or at least stop snorting it. Ever try freebasing?"

Mac shook his head.

"You should." Michael gave a tight grin. "The rush is intense."

There was a knock at Mac's door.

"Who is it?" Mac called out from his bed. Michael kept quiet.

"It's me," came Li Ann's voice through the door.

Mac looked to Michael. Michael shrugged, and went to open the door. Li Ann was standing outside with a bowl on a tray. She raised her eyebrows at Michael's presence, but just said "I brought you some broth."

"Uh, thanks," Mac said. "I'm not really hungry..." He was touched, though. Li Ann brought him soup. Michael threatened him with physical violence. Maybe there was a lesson in this?

"You should eat anyway," Li Ann insisted, bringing the tray over to Mac's bed. "Keep your strength up."

"She's right," Michael said, totally earnest. He stayed near the door, but didn't leave. "And it was very good of you to bring the soup for Mac, Li Ann. I hope you don't catch his cold."

Mac glared at Michael behind Li Ann's back. "She won't."

Li Ann shrugged. "I don't care, it's just a cold."

Michael gave Mac a darkly warning look, and finally left.

"What's with him?" Li Ann asked.

Mac shrugged, and sneezed. He blew his nose carefully, hoping it wouldn't start bleeding again with Li Ann here. "Bad mood. With Michael, who knows? Maybe his shoes are too tight."

"Come on, eat," Li Ann urged him again.

Mac took the bowl and the spoon and started sipping at the broth, realizing that was the only way she was going to leave him alone.

"Michael's intense," Li Ann mused in a quiet tone. "He scares me sometimes."

Mac looked at her sharply. "What? Why? Did he do anything?" If Michael had started threatening Li Ann....

"No, of course not!" Li Ann said, as though the idea was bizarre, and Mac felt reassured. Still, he wanted to know what Li Ann saw in Michael that scared her. Mac feared Michael and loved him, hated him and admired him, often all at the same time, notably during sex. Li Ann's relationship with Michael was, Mac thought, simpler.

"So, what is it about him?"

Li Ann shrugged. "The way he looks at people. Like he's wondering whether they'd scream if he stabbed them." She shook her head, and laughed uncomfortably. "All right, I don't know where that came from."

"Been watching late-night TV again?" Mac suggested. He sipped at another spoonful of soup, and thought about what Li Ann said. Considering what Michael liked to do with Mac, Li Ann might even be right.

Mac wondered suddenly why he let Michael do the things he did to him. It had all been going on for so long, it seemed like always. That in itself was not a good enough reason.

It had been a long, long time since Michael had said "I love you" to Mac. It had been a long time since Mac had felt at all safe when he was near Michael.

And here was Li Ann, bringing him soup because she thought he was sick. Li Ann knew how to fight, but she'd never get pleasure from hurting someone.

Mac knew right then that if he ever had to choose between Michael and Li Ann, he'd choose Li Ann. It was a no-brainer.

Only problem was, if it ever came to that, Michael would probably kill him.

Hong Kong, August 1996

Li Ann stripped the last of her clothes off and crawled onto Mac's bed, joining him there. "I wonder what kind of assignments Father's planning to give us tomorrow?" she mused.

"Dunno. Hope it's something fun. Probably won't be though, not with him talking about 'responsibility.'" Mac pouted, and tickled his fingers down Li Ann's back.

Li Ann grinned, and flicked his nipple with her finger. "Why do you always think about fun? This is serious work we do!"

"Well, I'd have more fun if you'd let me." Mac said it without rancour; he couldn't really be annoyed with Li Ann while he was kissing her breasts.

"Are you still upset I wouldn't let you take that trophy? How were you planning to escape on a motorcycle with that huge thing?"

Mac shrugged. "I'm innovative. I would've figured something out." Actually, that was a good point, and not something he'd thought of at the time. Last night, when they did the job at the Trade Association, he'd been high on speed, and that made it easy to act without thinking about the long-term consequences (like five minutes in the future). It'd made everything bright and exciting, and maybe he'd been more reckless than he should have been, but it had been fun.

Mac kissed Li Ann on the lips. That was enough to end the conversation. She returned his kiss hungrily.

They made love.

Afterwards, they lay on the bed together. Mac felt comfortably numb. Li Ann lay with her head snuggled against his chest.

"What are you thinking?" she asked, after a bit.

Mac laughed. "What do I ever think about?"

Li Ann tickled her fingers across his chest. "Nothing."

"And that's why you love me," he replied smugly. She'd told him that much, more than once. If he thought about it hard, it wasn't an especially good reason - but compared to the complexities of fear and pain involved in Michael's attraction, it seemed nearly idyllic.

Li Ann gave him a teasing smile. "Do you love me?"

Mac cringed inwardly. Not that again. He didn't know why, but he just couldn't say it. Not to her, and not to Michael. Making a joke out of it, he pretended to look at a watch on his naked wrist. "Wow, will you look at the time...."

"You know you do," Li Ann assured him affectionately. She gave him a light kiss. "You just don't know how to say it yet."

"Mmmm." Mac felt the same happy glow he had the first time she'd said that to him. He'd never even managed to confirm her faith with a nod, but somehow she seemed to understand. Li Ann was amazing. He was really glad he'd decided to get her a present today. "I've got a surprise for you," he said, reaching under his bed to pull out the bunch of white roses he'd hidden there earlier.

Li Ann sat up to receive the flowers. "They're beautiful," she said. Then, in a playful tone, she added, "Now, how did you fit them under your jacket?"

Mac pretended to be wounded. "I paid for those."

"Really? You're slowing down." She put the roses down. She was still joking with him, but something in Li Ann's tone spoke of real disappointment. Mac understood when she added "White roses mean friendship. Red ones mean love."

Damage control time. "Everyone sends red," Mac explained. "They're boring." Li Ann turned her back to him. "You get the white ones, you'll know they're from me." He kissed her shoulder, hoping that would get him off the hook.

Damn the secret language of flowers. Even without knowing it, he'd still managed to avoid telling her he loved her. But he did love her, and she knew it - wasn't that enough?

"You ever wonder what else we could be doing?" Li Ann asked out of nowhere, in a pensive tone.

"I always wanted to be a jockey." Yeah, a 6 foot 4 jockey. Mac snickered at his own joke, muffling his laugh in her shoulder. And then suddenly he felt one hell of a flash of foreboding. It filled him with a strong, inexplicable conviction that everything was about to change, that everything was about to end. He considered Li Ann's question more carefully. "Why'd you ask me that? You wanna leave or something?"

"It's all I know," was Li Ann's cryptic reply.

The foreboding was still pulsing in Mac's awareness, and it drove him to cross a barrier he'd never breached before with Li Ann. "You know," he said, pretending casualness, "you never told me how you got started." Of course she hadn't. It had been the number one unspoken rule between them from the very beginning. He asked now because... he didn't know why. Because he'd just developed a premonition that everything he counted on was about to fall apart.

He didn't expect her to answer him. He expected her to glare at him and leave, actually. Instead, she snuggled her head against his chest and said "I come from Canton province." She sighed.

Mac's feeling of foreboding got even stronger. Why the hell was Li Ann telling him this now, after all these years? Did she have the same strange feelings he did?

At the same time, he was fascinated. The mystery of Li Ann's past drew him in. He squeezed her arm encouragingly.

"When I was twelve," Li Ann went on, "my family sold me. I was the fourth girl, there wasn't any food. The woman who bought me brought children across the border."

Li Ann stopped there. Mac could more or less guess the rest. When he'd wondered about Li Ann's past, that scenario had occurred to him. It happened way too much around here. "For prostitution?" he said.

Li Ann nodded. Mac hugged his arm a little tighter around her, hoping he could bring her some sort of comfort, far too late.

"Father won the business from the Zhong family, and when he found out how old the girls were, he just let us go."

Mac gave her a little smile. "Except for you, huh?"

Li Ann rolled over, and her expression got brighter. "I stole his wallet. He thought I showed promise."

Mac grinned. He hadn't expected that. Wow. Li Ann was even cooler than he'd realized.

She kissed him. "That's why I could never leave," she explained, and kissed him again.

"I'm glad," Mac said, returning the kiss. The weird foreboding feeling started to fade away. She could never leave, he could never leave, nothing was going to change any time soon....

Li Ann suddenly looked over at the clock beside the bed, and Mac followed her glance. It was nearly 1:00 am.

"I have to go," Li Ann said.

"No you don't," Mac said, instantly falling into his part in their usual game. He'd try to convince her to stay the night - and she'd refuse. But hey, he could try. It was kind of like the game where she tried to get him to say that he loved her, and he couldn't. They had to keep playing, just to show that they still cared. "You stay."

He tried to distract her with a kiss.

It didn't quite work. She broke away from the kiss, looking troubled, but she didn't try to leave again. "We have a problem," she said instead. "Michael's been acting strange."

Mac's sense of foreboding snapped back into being, big time. He put his hand around Li Ann's shoulder. "What do you mean?"

"I think," Li Ann said carefully, "he thinks he's in love with me."

Mac laughed uncomfortably. "He'll get over it." Fuck. Michael in love with Li Ann? Mac hadn't seen that one coming, not at all. But as soon as she said it, he could believe it. Li Ann was beautiful, perfect, amazing - and she was with Mac. Of course Michael would want to possess her.

"He never gets over anything," Li Ann said in a flat tone.

Mac imagined them together, without himself in the middle - Michael acting like he did with Mac, Li Ann acting like she did with Mac. The thought made him sick. Michael would destroy her. "Hey, hey," he said, touching her face, "Michael doesn't know how to take you away from me." He kissed her, so that she couldn't see the worry in his eyes. "I'll figure something out," he promised.

She was right, of course, Michael never got over anything. And Michael always got everything he wanted. Mac didn't know what he could do to protect Li Ann - but he'd think of something.

Li Ann broke away from the kiss, and sat back, looking thoughtful. "You know..." she said, "You never told me how you ended up here, either."

"My dad abandoned me in Hong Kong when I was twelve. You know that - you met him." Mac knew he was being evasive, and it wasn't fair after what she'd told him that night, but he couldn't help it, it was such a thoroughly ingrained habit.

"But how did you end up with the Tangs?"

Mac sighed. He hadn't told anyone this story since Michael, years ago. "I saved a Tang soldier's life."

Li Ann's eyes widened. "Wow. That's better than stealing Father's wallet."

"Not really." He wondered how she'd react if he told her the whole story about Tom, and the hit men, and how he'd got into the Tangs by killing a man when he was thirteen. He didn't want to tell her that. "I didn't do anything much, the whole situation just kind of ... happened."

He hadn't told her much, but she let that thread go. "What I was really wondering about," she said, "is what happened with your mother."

"My mother?" Mac repeated. Shit. Why did she ask that?

"Remember, you told me about your mother." Li Ann took his hand and stroked the back of it. "How she was a prostitute. You understand, now, why I reacted so strongly when you told me?"

"Yeah..." Mac said.

"And she raised you, right? And William wasn't around? So how did you end up in Hong Kong with William?"

That was a bad, bad question. Li Ann waited, expectantly. Mac felt hollow, and cold, and a little dizzy.

There was only one thing to do. A straightforward lie.

"She killed herself," he said.

"I'm sorry," Li Ann whispered, and wrapped her arms around Mac. He couldn't relax in her embrace. He kept explaining, fleshing the story out, telling it so that it was almost true. It was almost true. It could have been true.

"She'd been depressed for a long time. I didn't really understand it - I was just a kid, right? I think that's why she lost her job, actually, and ended up selling her body. After she killed herself, I was put in foster care. They knew I had a father, but it took them a long time to track him down. Well, it seemed like a long time to me, but I guess it was pretty good, considering. Four months. I don't even know how they found him. He was in Peru." Mac relaxed a little, getting into marginally safer territory. The parts about his father were all true, and he didn't mind at all talking about what a bastard William was. "So he came and got me, but I guess he didn't really know what to do with me. He just sort of dragged me along while he did his thing. That lasted, I don't know, about a year. It was fun at first. He got me to help him out on some of his cons. He told me I was his protégé. But then, I don't know, he was a terrible father. We fought more and more. Finally one time, while we were in Hong Kong, we had this huge blow-up and I just walked out. I was so mad at him. I didn't ever want to go back."

Li Ann hugged him tighter. Mac let himself lean against her. "So, you struck out on your own?" she asked.

He laughed without humour. "Well, a night on the street changed my mind. The next day I found my way back to the hotel. I was ready to apologize. But when I got there... he was gone."

"How could he do that?" Li Ann murmured. It wasn't really a question, but Mac answered it anyway.

"Because he's an irresponsible, slimy bastard."

Li Ann stifled a yawn. Then, looking completely appalled at herself, she apologized to Mac.

"S'OK," Mac said. Then he yawned too, and grinned. "It's contagious. It's really, really late. We'll have to sleep."

"Yeah." Li Ann slid to the edge of the bed and stood up. She leaned over the bed to kiss him one more time. "Good night."

"I really wish you'd stay," Mac said softly.

"I know." Li Ann started to pull her clothes on. "But you know I can't."

"I know." Mac got out of bed and started to get dressed, too.

"What are you doing?" Li Ann asked.

"I'll walk you back to your room."

She shook her head, and laughed.

The finished dressing, Li Ann grabbed her flowers, and then they snuck quietly through the house to Li Ann's suite. Once inside, Li Ann put the flowers down on a table and Mac pressed her against the wall to steal one more kiss.

"OK, you have to go," Li Ann murmured against his lips.

"Oh, yeah?"

"Uhm hm," Li Ann said, not very convincingly. Mac started to get hopeful - there was no reason they couldn't end up in Li Ann's bed now, right?

"Make me," he teased, kissing her again. Li Ann smiled.

"Let him stay," said a third voice. Mac and Li Ann leapt apart, startled. It was Michael! What the hell was he doing in Li Ann's room?

"I'm sorry about the hour," Michael said. "I couldn't find you, so I waited here."

Li Ann and Mac came farther into the room. Li Ann looked very uncomfortable. She must have suspected that Michael knew about her and Mac - but he'd never caught them kissing before.

Mac perched on the arm of Li Ann's yellow couch, and waited to see what kind of shit was going to go down tonight.

"No problem," Li Ann said to Michael. "I'm going to make some tea." She tried to leave, but Michael grabbed her arm and stopped her.

"I've got some news," he said. "My father's reassigning me, sending me to Singapore. I leave in two weeks."

First Mac just caught the "my father" bit. Michael had been doing that more and more lately, acting jealous of Mac and Li Ann and their place in the family. It really grated on Mac's nerves when Michael did that. Mr. Tang was a father to Li Ann and Mac, too.

Then the rest of what Michael had said sunk in. "What the?" Mac whispered to himself. Reassigning? The way Michael'd just said it, it sounded permanent. But that wasn't possible, was it? Mac stood up, and felt himself grinning in his confusion. "Wait a minute. He's going to break up the team?"

"Not completely," Michael said. He took Li Ann's hand. "He's given me permission to marry you," he said to her. "As soon as possible."

Li Ann grinned helplessly, looking as desperate as Mac felt. Michael kissed her hand, and then met Mac's gaze and gave a toothy smile. Without another word, he walked away. Li Ann watched him go, then turned to Mac, appalled. They stared at each other for a moment, two helpless and lost children.

"You'd better go," she said then, with an air of finality.

"But shouldn't we-" Mac started.

"No." She put her hands on his shoulders and gave him a gentle push. "Just go."

He went - to the only possible place. Michael's room.

Michael was sitting on his bed, taking his socks off. He looked up when Mac opened the door. "What do you want?"

"What the hell is going on?" Mac demanded, just barely managing not to slam the door when he closed it behind himself. He stalked over to the bed and loomed over Michael. Michael just gazed innocently up at him. "Where'd all this come from?"

"I've been in love with Li Ann for a long time. Why don't you sit down, Mac?"

Mac didn't move. "In love with Li Ann?" he repeated. "You never said anything about that."

"But surely you understand." Michael held his hands out, in a conciliatory gesture. "I mean, you love her, too. She's - she's a goddess."

Mac clenched his fists. "But what about me? You're just going to take Li Ann and go to Singapore and - and leave me?" His voice cracked on the word "leave." Fuck.

"I have to, Mac. We couldn't go on like this forever. We're grown up now, and I've got to start thinking about taking over the Family someday."

"I'm part of your Family," Mac said through gritted teeth.

"You are," Michael agreed easily. He finally stood up, standing with his face a few inches from Mac's. "And you'll still be involved in the operations here, right? You'll have even more responsibility with me and Li Ann out of town."

"Fuck you!" Mac swore desperately. "I'm not talking about business here."

Michael didn't flinch. He stood there in his tightly-wound calm, and asked "And what else is there?"

Mac couldn't stand it anymore. He grabbed Michael by the shoulders and kissed him, hard, so hard that it hurt. "There's that," he hissed. "There's everything between us."

Michael pulled away from Mac and tugged his jacket to straighten it, looking annoyed.

"There's nothing between us to stop me from leaving," Michael said.

"What about love?" Mac demanded.

Michael laughed. "Love?"

"You said you loved me," Mac reminded him.

Michael shook his head. "I never said that."

Bastard. "Yes you did. You used to say it all the time." Mac felt threads of panic creeping in through his anger. Michael wasn't dumping him, was he? He couldn't. He loved him. They shared... something intense.

"I never said it," Michael insisted, keeping his infuriating calm smile on. "You never said it either."

"I...." Mac trailed off. That much was true. He'd never said it. He loved Michael, he knew he did, right down to his bones - but he couldn't say it. The same as Li Ann. He loved them both, but he'd never been brave enough to say it to either of them. But there was no way he was going to sit back and lose them both. "You don't really want Li Ann," he said. "She wouldn't satisfy you. She wouldn't let you do the things we do together."

Michael raised his eyebrow. "You don't know Li Ann as well as you think."

"I know her better than you do."

"You don't know what she did before she came to live with us."

"Yes I do." Michael looked surprised, and Mac felt some satisfaction. Never mind that Li Ann had only told him tonight - and how did Michael know, anyway? Maybe he'd known from the beginning. Mac had been only fourteen when Li Ann came into the Family, and no one had told him anything about her. Michael had been eighteen, and already participating in some of the Family's business. Anyway, the point was - "She was in a brothel. And she hated it. She was twelve, Michael!"

Was Mac trying to protect Li Ann from Michael, or trying to stop Michael from leaving him? He didn't know - it was all mixed up, and his thoughts were flying wildly from place to place. Both. It was both.

"It will be different with Li Ann than it is with you," Michael agreed. "That's fine. That's natural."

"How about I come to Singapore with you?" Mac suggested, struggling to say it casually.

"I don't think that would be wise," Michael said. "We can't do this anymore, Mac."

"This?" Mac's voice cracked on that word.

"You should leave now."

Mac stared at Michael. Michael's face was closed. He looked at Mac like he was a stranger.

Michael was dumping him.

Something snapped. Before he knew it Mac had spun around and grabbed Michael's desk chair and smashed it, hard, against the desk. One of the legs broke off in a mess of white splinters. Mac kicked the remains of the chair, and then felt his arms pinned to him. He fell to the floor with Michael on top of him.

"You shouldn't have done that," Michael said in a calm and dangerous voice. "It's the middle of the night! What if someone heard?"

"I don't care!" Mac yelled. "You can't just do this to me!" He tried to get away but Michael had a good hold.

Michael grabbed a handful of Mac's hair and pulled his head up by it. Tears came to Mac's eyes from the sharp pain. "I can do whatever I want to you," Michael said very, very softly. "And you'll like it. For instance.... sit up." He slid off Mac.

Mac sat up and stayed on the floor, keeping a wary eye on Michael, who now sat just in front of him, looking intense.

It didn't even occur to Mac to leave. It seemed like some kind of reprieve was coming. Michael had that hungry look now, which meant sex was on his mind.

Michael reached into his coat and brought out his gun.

Mac's heart sped up. He didn't like the suck-on-Michael's-gun game. Michael liked it though, a lot. If they did this, maybe Michael would realize he could never leave Mac.

Michael held the gun loosely, pointing the barrel towards Mac's head.

And he cocked the trigger.

Mac felt his heart just stop. "Aren't you going to unload it?" he asked. His mouth was suddenly dry.

"No." Michael's eyes gleamed. "Now suck on it."

It ran through Mac's mind that he could refuse. That he should refuse. That even though Michael was pointing a loaded gun - a loaded gun with the safety off - at Mac's head, it wasn't like he was going to shoot him, so Mac didn't have to do what he said. Sucking on a loaded gun - that would be pretty fucking stupid.

By the time Mac's brain had finished with that train of thought, Mac's mouth was already wrapped around the barrel of the gun.

His dry tongue rasped against the cold, bitter metal.

Mac's pulse was thumping in his ears. He closed his eyes. He was terrified, and it was such a rush. It felt like he'd just done a hit of speed.

With Michael, love was fear and fear was sex. Despite his terror, Mac felt his dick straining against his pants - and then he felt wonderful release, as Michael managed one-handed to undo Mac's fly and pull his dick out. Michael began to gently stroke Mac's penis, still holding the gun to his mouth.

"I could kill you," Michael said, softly and gently. "All I have to do is squeeze my finger. Maybe I'll wait until you're coming, so you can die in ecstasy. That would be a nice way to go, wouldn't it?"

Mac opened his eyes wide to see Michael looking at him in an almost tender way. Mac's fingers dug into his own knees - he didn't dare to try to touch Michael.

"Suck on the gun," Michael reminded him. "Imagine it's my dick."

Funny thing was, after Michael'd started playing this game with Mac, every gun Mac touched had made him think of Michael, and of sex. It had been pretty inconvenient sometimes, trying to hide a hard-on at the firing range.

They'd never played with a loaded gun before.

Mac tried to swallow. He had no spit. The gun tapped against his teeth.

Michael stroked Mac's dick harder, and faster. Mac moaned in pleasure and desperate fear. Michael had been talking about killing him when he came. He wouldn't, would he? Mac would find out soon. He could feel the wonderful tension building in his centre. He could feel the cold, deadly rod in his mouth.

Mac came, in a flash of brightness and blankness, and for a moment he wasn't sure if Michael had killed him or not.

Mac heard a click, and he blinked. Michael had just re-engaged the safety on his gun, which he then set aside.

"Take off your clothes," Michael said.

Fuzzily, Mac complied. His pants were sticky with cum, anyway. Damn.

Michael had taken off his pants, too. Now he pushed Mac over onto the floor and entered him. "You're mine," he said, starting to move.

Mac felt himself getting hard again. It felt amazing when Michael fucked him. He was angry as hell at Michael for the stunt with the gun - but it was normal to be angry at Michael while they were fucking. It hurt - Michael hadn't bothered with lube, and Mac wasn't exactly relaxed. But pain was a common aspect of sex with Michael, too. It was all part of the package. Mac moaned, "I'm yours."

Michael drove himself into Mac again and again, and Mac's body buzzed with pain and pleasure and adrenaline. He wanted it to go on forever.

Too soon, Michael tensed and froze on top of Mac, and then rolled off him to sit loosely on the floor. "Get out of here," Michael said. "Don't let anybody see you."

Mac knew better than to argue this time. He quickly pulled on his clothes - including his soiled pants - and made his way back to his room, quiet like a mouse.

He fumbled with the doorknob on the door to his own room. His hand was shaking too much. He tried again, and got in.

He pulled his clothes off again. He felt unsteady on his feet. He held his hand up; it was visibly trembling.

The gun. Fuck, the gun. Michael'd made him suck on a loaded gun until he came.

Michael was going to kill him. One of these days Michael was going to go too far, and he was going to kill him.

Unless, of course, Michael just left, like he'd said he was going to. Mac wasn't sure he could survive that, either - especially if Li Ann went with Michael. If Li Ann stayed, it would be all right. Li Ann wouldn't really marry Michael, would she?

Mac felt sick. He needed help.

He went to his dresser and opened the sock drawer and fished out the box that was hidden in it. He sat on the floor and opened the box. He measured a portion of heroin powder into the spoon, and used the eyedropper to add the mixture of water and lemon juice. His hands were shaking, so he had to do it all slowly and carefully, bracing his arms on his knees to try to steady them. He lit a candle, and heated the mixture. He sucked it into the syringe. He spilled a little bit doing that. He swore at his trembling hands.

He injected the heroin. Almost immediately, he felt calm. The night's events became remote, and sort of unimportant. He thought about the gun, and it didn't matter at all. He smiled. He crawled into his bed and felt warm, and soft, and comfortably numb.

Hong Kong, the next day

"Guess I should have figured this wasn't really about the noodle industry, huh?" Mac said, staring around the room at the guns. He'd come with Mr. Tang to the flour mill where he was supposedly going to learn responsibility, and it turned out the mill was a front for a major gun-running operation. Holy shit. The room was huge; there were at least twenty men in here, loading and unloading and checking the guns.

"The assault rifles are for the horn of Africa," the godfather explained. "The heavy ordnance goes to the Balkans, and the Tek-9's to America. A very good seller," he added. "Popular with the young people."

Mac swallowed, following his father through the room. "Not very appealing," he said. He felt betrayed. Yes, he knew the Tangs were a crime family - but he'd thought it was all white-collar crime. Industrial espionage, questionable dealings with the tax authorities, sure. The odd theft here and there. Good times, all that. But not... dealing death. "I mean, you think about what these things get used for?"

"Then don't think about it," Mr. Tang advised him calmly. "Think about what it means to us."

Mac followed his father into the safe, stared at the stacks of money, and thought about it.

Mac felt like crap from not enough sleep, too many drugs, and too much stress. Michael was taking Li Ann and leaving. Michael was unbalanced. He could have killed Mac last night. Li Ann wouldn't be safe with him, that was for sure. But for all that, Mac would have stayed in Hong Kong. This was his home; this was his Family, which had saved him when his real family had fucked him over and left him for dead. Loyalty was a central tenant of life here, and even if Michael betrayed Mac, Mac would not betray the godfather. At least, he wouldn't have... until this. The guns. The godfather sold guns to feed wars and murders and genocides.

It was time to leave.

Mac was terrified at the realization, but as soon as the thought formed, he knew he had no choice. If Michael didn't kill him outright, he'd lose his soul to this gun-running operation. There was no other way.

He thought about it more as he followed Mr. Tang along to the next leg of the tour. He admitted to himself that for the last year or so he'd been dying by degrees. He knew he was doing way too many drugs. That had crept up on him. It had started with Michael, and Michael was tied up in all of it because Mac turned to drugs for help now when he couldn't deal with Michael. If he could just get away from Michael, he'd stop it all. Make a fresh start.

He decided: he'd talk to Li Ann. He'd explain about the guns, and then she'd see that they didn't have to stay with the Family. They owed the Tangs a lot, but not this much. They could run away, and start a new life together. Mac would stop doing drugs. They'd hide in some corner of the world where Michael could never find them.

Everything would be OK.

Hong Kong, a few days later

Mac sat at his computer in the plant manager's office at the flour mill. He stared blankly at the screen, miserably making escape plans for one.

Li Ann was off somewhere having dinner with Michael. She'd made her choice. Mac had told her about the guns and it didn't matter to her. Her loyalty to the godfather still overrode every other consideration, including the fact that she didn't want to marry Michael.

She didn't know Michael, not like Mac did. Mac was tortured by indecision over that. What if he'd told her what he knew about Michael, and what it was like to be with Michael? That might have changed her mind. But then of course she'd need to know how Mac knew those things. If she found out Mac had been Michael's lover before he'd been hers, and in fact for the whole time he was her lover, she wasn't very likely to run away and start a new life with him. She was more likely to shoot him, actually.

But he shouldn't let that stop him. That was unbelievably selfish. She needed to know, before she tied herself so tightly to Michael that she couldn't escape.

But he couldn't tell her. He couldn't. How could he possibly even broach the subject with her?

The door to the office slammed open and Mac looked up, startled, just in time to see Li Ann overpower the guard who was trying to stop her from getting in. She twisted his wrist so his gun was pointing at his face. "Tell him to put it away, or I'll make him swallow it," she said. Her expression was bleak.

Mac was so surprised he almost laughed. He stood up. "I've seen her like this," he warned the guard. "You'll swallow it."

The guard gave up, and Li Ann closed the door behind him. She walked into the room and met Mac, face-to-face.

"I'll go with you," she said. She looked like she'd been crying.

Something had happened. That was obvious. Mac was torn between fear about what it had been that changed Li Ann's mind, and elation: she was coming with him!

"I know they're gonna kill us," she went on in a trembling voice, "but if I stay here I'm as good as dead, and if I'm going to die I want it to be with you."

Mac kissed her, and then wrapped his arms around her in a tight hug. She was shaking. Fuck. Was it Michael? What had he done?

"I prom-" Mac started, then stopped and pulled away a bit so he could look her in the eye. "I promise you, we're not going to die, OK?" Li Ann nodded, and Mac grinned. She was with him. They could do it. They could get away from here and start a new life. "I got a plan."


Interlude



Hong Kong, August 1996

The escape was a horrific failure. When Mac and Li Ann arrived at the safe in the flour mill, intending to steal some money and run, Michael was waiting for them with backup and guns.

They almost made it out together, but Mac got trapped on the wrong side of the laser beams in the corridor connecting the gun room to the flour mill.

"I know I made you wait too long for this," he said desperately to Li Ann, "but I love you. Go."

Li Ann disappeared from his view, and he waved his hand through the laser beam to shut the doors at either end of the corridor.

Moments later, he felt the building rock in a massive explosion. The corridor he was in was essentially a thick steel box; it saved his life.

A couple hours later he was rescued, and arrested.

Hong Kong, February 1998

After eighteen long months in jail, Mac was visited by a red-haired woman who offered to get him out of jail if he'd work for her - and threatened to let him out anyway if he wouldn't work for her, knowing that he'd be dead within a day on the streets. His will to live was relatively strong that day. He agreed to work for her.

Vancouver, Canada, February 1998

Mac had been at the Agency in Vancouver only a few minutes when he looked down a corridor and glimpsed Li Ann. She was alive! And she was in Vancouver!

He went to Li Ann's apartment to surprise her. He was surprised first, by another man. He thought that the man had been sent by the Tangs to kill him - until, in the middle of fighting him, Mac glimpsed a photo of Li Ann and that man, embracing.

Li Ann came home and interrupted the fight. "Mac, you're alive," she gasped.

"Yeah, well, for the time being," he said, on the floor with the other man and a couple of guns.

"You know this guy?" the stranger asked Li Ann.

"What are you doing to Victor?" Li Ann asked Mac.

"Victor?" Mac repeated. "Who's Victor?"

"He's my fiancé," Li Ann said.

***

The Tangs were trying to expand into Vancouver, and the Director pitted her new team against Michael himself. Mac broke into Michael's office and convinced him that he wanted to come back to him, back to the Family. Michael agreed to take him back - but the price was Li Ann.

In the final confrontation on a Vancouver pier, Michael drove his car off the dock rather than run into Li Ann. Mac and Li Ann grieved for him, despite and because of everything that had happened between them.

Vancouver, Canada, March 1998

The Director walked into the briefing room and clapped her hands twice. "Time to pack your bags, children," she said. "I'm taking you back to Toronto."

"About time," Vic muttered under his breath.

"Whoa, wait," Mac said. "Toronto? Ontario?"

"Good knowlege of Canadian geography," Vic noted. "I'm impressed. And shocked. Mostly shocked."

The Director arched an eyebrow in Mac's direction. "Do you have an objection to Toronto?"

"You said we'd be working on the Pacific Rim," Mac reminded her. "Last I checked, Toronto was not on the Pacific Rim."

"Oh, damn," the Director said mildly. "Did I lie to you again? I really am compulsive."

Toronto, Canada, May 1998

Li Ann and Mac had to pretend to be married, for a case. It was like a dream come true for Mac - except that it sucked. They bickered constantly.

Li Ann hated the experience so much that she decided marriage was a bad idea in general, and she broke off her engagement to Vic.

Toronto, Canada, June 1998

Mac came home one day and found William Ramsey looking through his kitchen cupboards.

Mac wasn't going to trust him, not this time. And then he did. Of course. It was like six years ago, all over again. And William lied to him again, and left again. He left Mac a good-bye video, care of the Director. Mac watched it alone. It didn't say much.

Toronto, Canada, November 1998

Mac thought he was over Li Ann. He really did. He'd even tried to marry someone else (it hadn't worked out). Then he nearly died of poisoning, and in the moments when he thought he was dead, all he could think of was Li Ann.

He still loved her. Desperately.

Toronto, Canada, December 1998

Michael was alive.

The godfather had plans to dismantle the Tang family's criminal holdings. Others in the family did not like these plans. Tang soldiers assassinated the godfather right before Mac and Li Ann's eyes. They were reunited with Michael at the side of their dying father.

Following the Director's orders, Vic, Mac and Li Ann helped Michael regain control of the Tangs. Then the Director asked Michael for help on another case, involving an assassin named Pucci.

Michael seemed to have reformed - but he had his own agenda. He needed Mac to trust him so that he could betray Mac as deeply as Mac had betrayed him. When Mac finally said that he trusted Michael, Michael sucker-punched him, shot a light fixture down on top of him, and left him to die in a warehouse that was about to explode. Then Michael tried to rewrite the past by running down Li Ann with his car. This time, she saw that he wouldn't turn away at the last minute, so she shot him. The car swerved and crashed and exploded. Michael did not survive.

Vic and Li Ann managed to pull Mac out of the warehouse, seconds before the explosion. They were singed and bruised, but otherwise unhurt. When they reached the Director, she greeted them calmly, hiding the pain she was in from her gunshot wound. She didn't let them know she'd already been grieving their deaths.

She told them that she expected them in the briefing room as usual at 9 am the next day, and she sent them home.


Part Three



Toronto, Canada, New Year's Eve 1998

The Director gazed over the rim of her martini glass with bemusement as Mr. Dobrinsky climbed up onto the bar. His tie was askew, and a ridiculous silver conical hat perched on his head. He glowed with enthusiasm. It was nice to see him happy, but the Director wished for a bit more dignity in her staff. Still, it was New Year's Eve.

Jackie Janczyk clambered up beside Dobrinsky and flung an arm around him. She was wearing a sparkling pink minidress with fake ostrich feathers ornamenting the hems. She obviously wasn't concerned that half the bar could now see up her dress - if she gave it a thought, the idea probably appealed to her.

"Ten!" Dobrinsky shouted out. "Nine!"

Prompted by the force of tradition, other Agency partygoers chimed in. "Eight!" "Seven!" "Six!"

The Director's attention was drawn to a small cluster of people standing in the far corner. Vic, Li Ann and Mac - her three pets, and her most dysfunctional team - were standing together. In a few moments, the countdown would end and everyone in the bar would kiss whoever was closest. The Director was most curious to see what would come of this.

"Five!" "Four!" "Three!" "Two!" "One!" "Happy New Year!!!!"

Mac, Vic and Li Ann all stood frozen for a moment. Then Vic leaned in and gave Li Ann a brotherly kiss on the cheek. She smiled.

Then Mac grabbed Vic's shoulder and pulled him away from Li Ann. The Director frowned. She hoped Mac wasn't about to do something stupid and embarrass her in front of the gathered Agency staff and hangers-on.

She was rather surprised by what happened next.

Mac kissed Vic.

It was quite a smooch - they locked lips for a good five seconds. Mac's hands were on Vic's shoulders, while Vic's hung loose at his sides. The Director began to wonder if she was seeing the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

Then Vic broke away from the kiss. He looked angry.

Suddenly Vic's fists clenched and he let loose with a furious right hook to the side of Mac's head.

The Director sighed to herself, put her drink down, and made her way briskly towards the combatants.

Meanwhile, Mac staggered but didn't fall. He let swing a wild punch which didn't have a hope of connecting; Vic skilfully side-stepped it and then used Mac's momentum to throw the younger man to the floor.

That was enough. The Director drew her gun. "Freeze," she snapped at Vic and Mac.

Taking her signal, half the agents in the bar took out their guns and pointed them at her boys. Trust Agency employees to come armed to their own staff New Year's party.

Vic and Mac, wisely, froze.

"Boys, boys, boys," the Director crooned, coming close. She tucked her own gun away and gave Mac a hand up off the floor. She saw right away that he was quite drunk - she'd have to remember to watch him. "Won't you two ever learn how to play nice?"

Hamilton, Canada, January 1983

Mac and his friend Peter were walking along the tops of the snowbanks on their way home from school. Every once in a while one of their boots would sink deep into the snow, but mostly it supported their weight. When they got to a driveway they'd jump down and then climb the mountain of snow on the other side, invariably knocking huge quantities of snow into the driveways.

"Look, we can't watch TV at my place because Mom's cleaning and she says I can't have anyone over today," Peter said.

Mac lost his footing and nearly slid down the side of the bank into the street. He caught himself, swearing. "But we don't have cable at my place," he said.

"Whatever. We could watch whatever's on. Or we could play G.I. Joes. But we can't go to my house today."

Mac came to the next driveway. He slid down the end of the snowbank on his butt. Peter followed, getting more speed because he slid in the track Mac had made. Mac didn't want to have Peter over to his place, but it looked like there wasn't any choice. "OK, yeah. My place." He scrambled up the side of the next snowbank. "Listen, about my mom...."

"Yeah?"

"She's got kind of a weird sense of humour. So if she, like, starts talking funny, just ignore her, OK?"

"What do you mean-shit!" Peter's right leg sank into the snowbank up to his thigh. He pulled it out, and scraped the worst of the snow out of the top of his boot.

"Like, if she starts talking about these messages she gets from the ceiling light, and asks you if you can hear it humming, just ignore her, OK? Like, don't encourage her, you know? She just thinks it's funny," Mac explained.

"OK." Peter sounded skeptical.

"She's not crazy," Mac emphasized.

Peter snorted. "Grownups are all crazy." He scooped up a handful of snow and threw it at Mac.

When they got to Mac's apartment a couple minutes later, they were both covered with snow.

"Do we have to take our boots off in the hall?" Peter asked.

Mac pulled out his key to unlock the door. "Nah. Mom doesn't care."

"That's so cool," Peter said.

Mac opened the door.

Anita was lying with her head hanging half off of the sofa.

"Um... I think there's something wrong with your mom," Peter said in a small voice. "Eww..."

There was a puddle of vomit on the floor by the couch, under Anita's head. There was some on her chin, too. Her eyes were closed.

"Mom?" Mac squeaked. He crept close enough to shake her foot. "Mom?? Mom wake up!"

"Look," Peter said. "Lookit all those bottles." There were four pill bottles on the coffee table, all of them open. A few pills were scattered around - white and yellow and red. "I think your Mom's tried to kill herself."

"Mom!! Mom, wake up!!" Mac shook her harder, but she didn't respond. Peter grabbed Mac's arm.

"We've gotta call an ambulance," he said. "Do you know the phone number?"

"No," Mac wailed, "do you??"

"No. Shit, man. My mom'll know. Let's go to my house. Come ON, we've gotta run!!"

Mac couldn't think. His brain was stuck in a panicked loop. He did what Peter said.

The two boys ran all the way to Peter's house - about five blocks away. The door was unlocked. They ran straight into the kitchen, where Peter's mom was.

"What are you boys doing?" Peter's mom asked angrily, glaring at the dirty snow they'd tracked through the house. "Out!"

"Mom-" Peter gasped. "Call an ambulance!"

"What?" Peter's mom's manner changed instantly. "Who's hurt? What happened?"

"Mac's mom, she was lying on the couch, there was all this puke, she wouldn't wake up, I think she swallowed all these pills," Peter replied, the words tumbling over each other. Mac, meanwhile, leaned against the cupboard and slowly slid to the floor, staring at Peter's mom's legs.

"Oh dear God," Peter's mom murmured. She reached for the phone. "Mac, honey, you need to tell me your address."

Mac's voice sounded flat and far away to his own ears. "2387 Lockwood Street. Apartment 42."

He heard Peter's mom dialling the phone, and then talking to someone. Peter squatted down beside him. "C'mon, Mac, we've gotta take our stuff off. The snow's all melting."

Mac followed Peter back to the front door, and stripped off all his outdoor clothes. If he concentrated on one thing at a time - left mitten, right mitten, unzip coat - he could almost forget the image of his mom's head hanging loosely off the couch.

"Peter?" Mac said.

"Yeah?"

Mac sat on the floor to pull his boots off. Staring at his feet, he said "Swear you won't tell anyone at school about this?"

"OK, I swear."

Mac's throat suddenly felt very tight, and his eyes prickled. His mom couldn't die. Sure she was pretty crazy, and sometimes she scared him, but she was his mom. He needed her. He loved her. He started to cry.

Peter knelt in a puddle of melted snow and awkwardly put his arms around Mac. "She'll be OK," he said. "And if she dies you can come live with me."

Toronto, Canada, January 1999

Vic buried his fingers in Mac's hair and pulled him close to kiss him. Mac closed his eyes as their lips pressed together. Vic felt Mac's tongue playing at his lips, teasing. Vic ran his hands hungrily over Mac's body, feeling the hard muscles, the rough hair.

Mac broke away from the kiss, and a moment later Vic felt Mac's mouth around his dick. Vic groaned with pleasure as Mac applied his tongue to Vic's penis. A warm glowing good feeling spread from his middle to the tips of his fingers and toes....

beep! beep! beep! beep! beep!

Vic groped blindly 'till he found the off button on his alarm clock. He sat up in bed and looked at the clock. It was 7:45 am, and it was Monday. He had to get to the Agency.

He had a wicked hard-on. What had he been dreaming, just before the alarm went off? It had been something nice... oh, shit. It came back to him. He'd been dreaming about Mac again.

Vic dragged himself out of bed and stumbled into the bathroom. He turned the shower on cold, gritted his teeth and stepped in.

He couldn't believe he'd had the Mac dream again. What was that all about?

Vic rubbed some soap onto a washcloth and started to scrub his body. His skin stood up in goosebumps under the cold spray of water, and his erection was fading away. He added a bit of warmer water to the mix.

Dreams were like tarot cards, right? Nothing ever meant what it literally should mean. You dream about death, it means you're about to go on a trip. Dream you're going on a trip, it means you're worried about your job. Dream you're having sex with your male co-worker, it means... it means you want to adopt a puppy, or something. Now, if you dream you're eating a pickle sandwich, then damn, that means you want to have sex with your male co-worker. But Vic hadn't had any dreams about pickle sandwiches, so everything was fine.

Vic rinsed off, stepped out of the shower and briskly towelled himself dry. He would like to adopt a puppy. A black lab. He'd had a black lab when he was a kid. Working for the Agency, though, he just couldn't take responsibility for a puppy. He never knew when the Director would suddenly send him away on a mission for days or even weeks at a time - and as a secret agent, he had to keep a low profile. He couldn't have some local kid coming into his apartment every day to dog-sit for him while he was away. So that was that; no puppy for Vic.

Vic put on his robe and wandered out to the kitchen to put on coffee and toast. The apartment was cold. Vic pulled the robe tighter around himself. Damn cheap landlord. He wondered idly if he should move into an Agency-owned apartment, like Mac and Li Ann had. He'd have to ask them how their heat was.

And let the Director get an even tighter grip on him? Naaah.

Vic went back to the bedroom to get dressed. One advantage of working at the Agency: at least he could wear comfortable clothes most of the time. He pulled on a favourite old pair of jeans, a thermal undershirt, and then a red plaid flannel shirt. It was soft and warm - perfect for the icy January day he faced. Sure would be nice to have a puppy around the house, he thought as he pulled his socks on. Dogs are loyal. A dog never stabbed anyone in the back. Not like... He tried to cut the thought off but the names ran through his head unbidden. Stan, Ivy, Gloria, Orsini... and oh, he could go on, but he heard his toast pop.

A few swallows of coffee perked Vic up some. He reminded himself to look on the bright side. It was a whole new year. Sure, a lot of people had screwed him over in 1998, but it was 1999 now. A new year was a blank slate, and he'd learned from the mistakes of his past.

1998 had been a crazy year. It was hard to believe that a year ago, he'd still been engaged to Li Ann, and he'd never even heard of Mac or Jackie.

Mac. The Mac dream. Damn, he'd nearly managed to forget about that.

Maybe it was because of the kiss at the Agency New Year's party. That kind of thing could mess with a guy's head.

Vic finished his toast, rinsed his dishes, and remembered the New Year's party. It had been just the sort of strange, awkward celebration he'd learned to expect from his colleagues. The bar had been decorated with silver and white helium balloons, which contrasted oddly with the inexplicable Soviet cold-war era decor. There had been lots of people there who Vic saw only at Agency parties, never at the Agency itself, and most of them wouldn't even talk to him. Murphy and Camier had attended, claiming a booth to themselves and driving away all comers with their gruesome reminiscences about their finer kills in the past year.

Vic had had to twist Li Ann's arm to get her to come. He could understand that she wasn't much in the mood for celebrating; her father had been killed in early December, and then she'd killed Michael only a week before Christmas. Still, he'd managed to convince her that a night out with friends (if they could be called that) would be better than another night alone with her memories.

When midnight had gotten close, Dobrinsky had climbed up onto the bar and joyfully counted down the seconds 'till the New Year, with Jackie hanging on his arm. Li Ann and Vic had been standing in a corner at that point, talking, and Mac had just wandered over to join them. Li Ann hadn't been drinking that night, but Vic had had a few, and Mac was clearly sloshed.

When Dobrinsky'd called out "Happy New Year!" everyone in the bar had grabbed someone nearby to kiss. Vic and Li Ann and Mac had all stared at each other for a moment, a frozen tableau. Then Vic had given Li Ann a kiss on the cheek, and whispered "This one'll be better than the last one, I promise," in her ear.

Mac had grabbed Vic's shoulders then and pulled him away from Li Ann. Vic had tensed, ready to defend Li Ann from Mac's drunken advances.

It hadn't worked out that way.

Instead of letting go of Vic, Mac had pulled him close and kissed him on the lips.

Vic had been so shocked, he hadn't broken away immediately. Mac's kiss had been rough, and tasted like vodka. Vic had never been kissed by a man, and it was the roughness he noticed the most - like sandpaper. Was that what Vic felt like to a woman?

Then Vic had felt Mac's tongue in his mouth, and his brain had finally clicked in to what was going on. Then he'd shoved Mac roughly away, and punched him in the face.

OK, maybe he'd overreacted just a little. But still - Mac had kissed him. With tongue. You don't do that to a guy without warning him, no matter how drunk you are.

Naturally, Mac had tried to hit him back. The punch had been wild, and Vic had evaded it easily, managing meanwhile to grab Mac and pull him off balance. Being completely drunk, Mac had fallen right to the floor.

Next thing Vic knew, there'd been about thirty guns on them. Never start a bar fight in a room full of secret agents. So that was the end of that. The Director had come over and scolded them, told them to play nice and start the New Year off right, but she hadn't seemed overly concerned.

Vic hadn't known what to make of the kiss. He knew that Mac was in love with Li Ann. What the hell had Mac kissed Vic for? Vic had avoided Mac for the next hour or so, hanging out with some guys from forensics, talking sports and drinking heavily. By the time Li Ann (who was Vic's designated driver) had come and pulled at his sleeve and said she wanted to go home, Vic had barely even remembered the kiss.

He remembered it now, though, at the wheel of his truck, backing into a spot in the Agency parking garage. He hadn't seen Mac since New Year's Eve. That had been Thursday night, so Friday'd been the holiday, and the Director hadn't made them come in over the weekend. Now it was Monday morning - the first work day of the New Year.

This could be awkward.

When Vic got to the briefing room, Mac was already there, slouched in the seat facing Vic at the left end of the table, wearing a black suit and dark sunglasses. That was a surprise. Mac was generally not the first one in Monday morning, especially after a long weekend. Vic glanced at his watch; it was ten to nine. Li Ann and Jackie weren't even late yet.

There were five chairs set around the table today, two to each long side and one obviously for the Director at the head. Vic took the place diagonally opposite Mac. He leaned back in the chair and glanced across the table at his partner. That was when he noticed the big greenish-yellow bruise behind Mac's left cheekbone. "Ooo," Vic winced, "Sorry about that."

"About what?" Mac asked. He touched his cheek. "This? Did you do this?"

"You don't remember?"

Mac shrugged. "Nada."

"Well, you know, that's probably for the best," Vic replied cheerfully. Any kiss initiated by someone too wasted to remember it later doesn't really count. "Anyway, take my word for it, you deserved it."

"I demand a recount," Mac muttered, slouching further into his seat.

"Hey, what are these?" Vic asked, noticing something new about the table. There was a rectangular section in front of him that looked like it would - yup. It flipped up to reveal a blank flat screen. A laptop-sized keyboard was sunk into the table's surface underneath. "Huh, new toys," he muttered. "Wonder how you turn it on?"

"'Morning," Li Ann greeted them, sliding into the seat beside Vic's.

"Like, hi, Happy New Year!" said Jackie, taking the fourth seat.

On cue, the Director descended from above.

If Vic didn't know better, he'd say that the Director was hung over from the weekend's festivities. Her hair and outfit were immaculate, of course, but he could swear there were dark crescents under her eyes. And she looked cranky.

"Good morning," Vic attempted.

"It would have been a better morning," the Director confided to Vic in an icy tone, "if I hadn't had to get up at six to bail one of my agents out of jail."

Mac slouched even farther down in his seat. The others looked at him, curiously.

"That was not an auspicious start to the New Year, Mr. Ramsey," the Director said, leaning over the table in a threatening manner.

Mac gave her a twisted grin. "Well, you know, Chinese New Year is still a month away. I could try again then."

"I expect you to start trying now." The Director held him in her powerful glare for another moment, before moving to the head of the table. She flipped up another flat screen from its surface. "Over the holiday the technicians have been busy updating our technology," she explained in a businesslike tone. "You all have display screens like Vic's at your stations. Open them up."

While everyone flipped the screens up, the Director drummed her fingers on the tabletop. "There was a prison break in Alberta last month," she said once everyone's attention was on her again.

"Oh yeah, I remember, it was on the news," Vic said. The Director gave him an approving glance. "It was at a nuthouse, wasn't it?"

"Well, the official term is maximum security penitentiary hospital, but yes, the prisoners who disappeared were all classed criminally insane." The Director hit a key on her own keyboard, and a graphic showed up on all the agents' screens: an outdoor photo of a bleak, institutional building surrounded by a high wall topped with coiled barbed wire. "Unfortunately, the RCMP don't have any good leads on the break. None of the prisoners have resurfaced yet. The guards at the building were all drugged; none of them remember anything. The security cameras were all disabled. If any of the remaining prisoners know anything, they're not talking. Or rather, they're not talking coherently - they've variously given the police stories about giant pink rabbits, purple mice and green kangaroos taking the prisoners away."

"People in costume?" Li Ann suggested.

"It's a possibility," the Director agreed. She tapped her keyboard again and a new graphic showed up on all the screens. It was a photo of graffiti, spray-painted red on a beige cinderblock wall. The graffiti consisted of a wild-eyed face and the words "MAD MILLENNIUM." The face was just two eyes and a mouth. The eyes were round, and one was significantly larger than the other; the larger eye had a diamond-shaped pupil. The mouth was grinning maniacally, showing lots of teeth, and the tips of the smile turned up into curlicues. "This graffiti was found on one of the inside walls of the prison, after the incident," the Director explained. She keyed up the next image; it was more or less the same graffiti, but this time it was in blue paint on a red brick wall which had already been tagged by multiple graffiti artists. "This one was sighted by the local police in Kingston on Saturday."

Mac perked up. "Jamaica, mon?" he asked, faking the accent. "How soon can we get there?"

"Not Kingston, Jamaica, twit," Vic muttered. "Kingston, Ontario. It's about three hours' drive from here. There's another nut- uh, penitentiary hospital there. The Harris Memorial."

"It's like, too bad, though," Jackie commented, "'cause I could really go for some beach time now. Work on my tan." She poked Li Ann and grinned. "Wouldn't that be great?"

Li Ann gave Jackie a disdainful look.

"Children, children," the Director sang out. "Please try to keep your attention on the matter at hand. Victor is correct about the Kingston in question, and you're all going to be going there today as soon as you can pack your things. Girls, you're going to be helping the prison staff improve security, and generally watching out for anything suspicious on the inside. Boys, you're going to be working the town; see if you can find any more graffiti, or anything that might give us some clues about what's going on. Let's see your detective skills, Vic. You'll have the full support of the local police; they've been told you're a special RCMP task force."

"You mentioned packing?" Li Ann recalled. "Are we going to be there for long?"

"We'll see how it goes," the Director said. "Three hours each way is too much time to waste on commuting, so you'll stay in a hotel in Kingston while you're working there, but you're not far from Toronto if I need you back."

"How 'bout a guesstimate?" Vic asked.

"Oh, I don't know," the Director shrugged, "A week? If nothing turns up."

Vic sighed to himself. Yup. No life for a puppy.

"So, class dismissed." The Director waved her hands at them. "Go pack your bags. Be back here in two hours, and I'll give you your mission dossiers before you go. Oh, Li Ann - Mac doesn't have his car. Would you drive him home? And Vic - you stay, I want a word with you."

Vic halted, halfway out of his seat. He had an unhappy suspicion that the "word" the Director wanted to have with him would have something to do with the bruise on Mac's face. Vic sat back down and prepared his defences.

The other agents slipped out of the room. The Director snapped the computer screen in front of Vic closed, and perched on the table in front of him. She was wearing a short skirt, and her long, smooth legs, clad only in transparent hose, nudged against Vic's knee. He felt the heel of her stiletto digging into his calf. He swallowed, and forced his gaze up, up, up to meet her eyes.

"Victor," she said, touching one finger under his chin. "You're the senior member of the team. I depend on you the most. I need you, to a certain extent, to look out for the others."

Vic felt himself blushing, ashamed. "I-I'm sorry I hit Mac," he mumbled. "I'll apologize to him if you want."

The Director raised her eyebrows, looking surprised. "My goodness Vic, you have such a Catholic sense of guilt. I wasn't thinking about that."

Vic felt confused. "You weren't?"

The Director slipped off the table and walked a few paces from Vic's chair, her heels clicking on the floor. She turned back to him and shrugged, with a bored expression. "You were drunk. He was very drunk. He kissed you. You're moderately homophobic. You punched him. He doesn't even remember it. The incident doesn't concern me."

Vic stood up. "I'm not homophobic," he said indignantly. "It was just - just the shock."

The Director wiggled her fingers dismissively. "Don't make me repeat myself. I said I don't care about that little incident. I want to talk to you now, as the senior member of the team, about the emotional well-being of Li Ann and Mac."

"Oh." Vic frowned, absently tucking his thumbs into his pockets. "What do you mean by that?"

"They both went through a very difficult time last month, starting with Mr. Tang's death and ending with Michael's."

"Yeah, I'll say," Vic agreed.

"How well do you think they're coping?"

Vic hesitated. He'd worked with the Director for several years before Li Ann, and then Mac, came along, but since the others had joined him they'd developed a strong sense of unity, a sense of "us" in which the Director was not included. Now the Director was asking him to talk about them behind their backs, and that felt weird - even if he was pissed off with Mac about that damn kiss.

"Come on, Vic," the Director coaxed, meanwhile wandering away from him to sit at her own desk. He followed her, stopping a meter or so from her chair. "I know you don't entirely trust me, but it's generally in my best interest to look after my agents' well-being, so let's assume enlightened self-interest and work together here, all right?"

Vic shrugged. He'd never entirely trust her, but she had a point there. "All right. I'm not sure about Mac. I think Li Ann's doing OK, considering. I mean, she was pretty upset the night after she killed Michael."

The Director nodded. "You spent that night with her."

Vic glared at the Director. She gave them no privacy, ever. What a fucked-up life. "Well, if you were watching on your little hidden cameras, then you know that nothing happened. She cried all night. I was just there to hold her hand."

"I know," the Director confirmed in a gentle tone. "You were good for her that night."

Vic didn't really know how to take a compliment from the Director; he shrugged it off. "She's been quieter than usual since then," he went on, "but the quiet seems... I don't know, lighter, maybe, than before."

"Go on," the Director prompted him.

"The first time she thought she killed Michael, she tortured herself over it. She used to wake up from nightmares where she relived the fight at the pier when his car went over the edge." Vic felt a twinge of sad nostalgia, remembering those weeks after the first time they'd thought Michael'd died, when he would hold on to Li Ann in bed and soothe her nightmares away. He knew it hadn't been easy for her to talk to him about her dreams - he still had the sense that she'd hidden far more than she'd ever revealed. He'd felt honoured that she trusted him with as much as she did.

Well, she still trusted him. They weren't lovers anymore, but they were still friends.

"And what's different this time?" the Director asked.

"I think this time she's just... sad."

The Director nodded, slowly. "You have an unfortunate tendency to trust anyone you feel sorry for, but other than that I find you a good judge of people, Vic. I agree with everything you said about Li Ann. I believe she found Michael's ultimate betrayal of her and Mac... cathartic. I think she may finally be able to let go of the Tangs now, and get on with her life. Once she's finished mourning, of course."

Vic shrugged his agreement. "Yeah."

"Mac, on the other hand, worries me." The Director opened her cigar box and selected a cigar. She didn't offer Vic one.

"I thought you were pissed at Mac," Vic said, watching the Director light her cigar.

The Director took a puff and blew the pungent smoke away from Vic. "Oh, I am," she assured him. "'Pissed' barely begins to describe my feelings towards Mac."

"Uh, what was the story with bailing him out of jail this morning?" Vic picked up a pen from the Director's desk and fiddled with it. He admitted to himself: he was curious. He was fishing for dirt.

The Director sat back and lifted the cigar to her lips again; its tip glowed red. She exhaled the smoke and rubbed her eyes with her free hand. Vic was struck again with the impression that she was tired.

"Mac disappeared from the New Year's party sometime around one in the morning," she said. "He didn't go back to his apartment that night. I couldn't track him down Friday or Saturday. Late Sunday afternoon he was arrested downtown for public intoxication. He spent the night in the drunk tank; I was notified early this morning. Near as I can tell, he'd been drunk since Thursday night."

Vic whistled. "That's some bender."

The Director nodded. "Second only to the one he went on starting the night after Michael tried to kill you all."

Vic raised an eyebrow. He hadn't known about that.

"I was in the hospital, you and Li Ann were together - Mac slipped off the radar for four days. He came back on his own that time, slept it off in his apartment," the Director said.

"Well, the guy lost his father, and then his brother tried to kill him - no wonder he wants to drown his sorrows a bit." Vic started to wonder what the Director was getting at, telling him all this.

"I believe Mac is precariously close to the edge," the Director said. "I need you to hold him back from it, if you can."

"Whoa," Vic said, setting the pen back on the desk. This was getting heavy. "What edge? I just work with him, I won't - I don't know - baby-sit him for you." The Director raised an eyebrow at Vic. "He's an adult," Vic went on, "he can take care of himself."

The Director blew a smoke ring. "Maybe," she said.

"Maybe?" Vic repeated. "What's that supposed to mean?"

"He attempted suicide while he was in prison in Hong Kong," the Director said. "More than once."

Vic stared at her. He didn't know how to react to that. Fuck.

"I'm telling you this in the strictest confidence of course," she said.

"Why the hell are you telling me at all?" Vic demanded, his confusion coalescing into anger. "What kind of game is this?"

"No game, Victor. I'm just telling you what I think you need to know to manage your team."

"No no, I know what you're doing," Vic said, feeling a flash of insight. "It's the wounded-bird-syndrome thing, isn't it?"

The Director gave him an innocent, curious look. "What do you mean?"

"Nikki told me. She saw my file, and she told me all about it. You think I have wounded-bird-syndrome. You think that if you get me to feel sorry for Mac, then I'll do what you want, I'll take care of him for you."

"Well, not to worry," the Director told him drily. "Now that you've seen through my brilliant plan, it won't work, will it?"

Vic glared at her. "He's my friend. I'll be there for him if he needs me."

"I do hope so." The Director took another puff of her cigar.

Vic turned his face away from the powerful smoke, wrinkling his nose.

"His recent drinking binges concern me particularly because he has a history of substance abuse," the Director confided.

"What!?" Vic could hardly believe the suicide thing, and now the Director was throwing this at him, too. It didn't make sense - he knew Mac, Mac was bright, brash, resilient, always joking. He couldn't have hidden all this darkness from Vic for so long... could he? Was the Director just messing with Vic's head? "What do you mean, he's alcoholic?"

"Not that I know of," she said. "But before his arrest in Hong Kong, he was using a number of drugs rather heavily. Cocaine, speed, ecstasy, heroin-"

"Whoa," Vic interrupted her. "Mac was a junkie?" Heavy shit, again. Vic had seen a lot of fucked-up people while he was working Narcotics on the force. And Mac wasn't like them. "I don't believe you. Li Ann never said anything about this. And I know what junkies are like, and Mac's not one."

"Well, I believe that Li Ann never knew about this," the Director explained. "And Mac went clean in prison, obviously." She tapped ashes off her cigar into her glass ashtray. "Eighteen months' solitary confinement is handy for that sort of thing. When he came to work for the Agency I set very firm rules, and he kept to them, until now." She paused, thinking back. "Well, except for one brief incident a few days after he arrived in Vancouver. Remember the day you were all supposed to watch Robertson Graves, and Mac started a fight with a couple of Tang soldiers, and they escaped with a hostage and you chased them down on a motorcycle?"

Vic nodded. Not like he was going to forget something like that.

"By the way, did I ever tell you how pleased I was with your work on that?" the Director interrupted herself. She grinned at Vic. "I wish I'd been there to see it. The reports were quite impressive."

"Uh, thanks."

"But as I was saying - Mac went and got himself very, very drunk after that. Luckily I had another agent tailing him; my people took him into custody and," she smiled grimly, "I locked him in the basement until he dried out."

"So why don't you lock him in the basement now?" Vic asked. He still didn't understand what the hell she wanted from him. It wasn't like he'd ever worked in rehab - if Mac really did have a problem, Vic wouldn't know what to do for him.

"Not a good long-term solution," the Director said. "I need him working. I need all of you working. If he can't work, he's no good to me."

That sounded ominous. "And, uh, then what?" Vic asked.

"Well, let's not find out, all right?" The Director gave him a very dangerous smile, and squished the butt of her cigar into the ashtray. "You'd better go pack. I want you back here by eleven thirty. Oh!" she called out as Vic turned to go. "One more thing. The girls are working inside the prison, you and Mac are working outside. You two don't go in under any circumstances, got it?"

Vic frowned. "Sure, whatever."

"Now shoo," she said, waving her hands at him. "Go."

***

When Vic got back to the Agency, Jackie and Li Ann were waiting in the briefing room.

"Where's Mac?" Vic asked Li Ann.

Li Ann rolled her eyes. "He's asleep in my car. I parked it in the underground garage, so he won't freeze."

So it worked out that they took two vehicles to Kingston - Li Ann drove Mac, and Vic drove Jackie. That was a historical first - the first time Vic had ever been relieved to spend three hours trapped in a small space alone with Jackie. He didn't know what the hell he'd say to Mac when he saw him, after everything the Director had told him.

Vic and Jackie arrived at their hotel in Kingston just in time to find Li Ann threatening to rearrange the desk clerk's face if he didn't find them two more rooms. Apparently the Agency had arranged for only two rooms for the four of them, and the rest of the hotel was booked for a "slash convention," whatever the hell that was. Vic just hoped it didn't involve as many knives as it sounded like it involved.

Vic put a restraining hand on Li Ann's shoulder. The desk clerk, a skinny guy barely out of his teens, was sweating visibly. "How many beds are in each room?" Vic asked the clerk.

"T-two," the poor guy replied in a cracking voice.

Well, it could have been worse. "It's OK, Li Ann, we'll make do," Vic said. "The government's gotta save money somehow, right?"

Jackie came up to Li Ann and laid a hand on Li Ann's arm. "Yeah, it'll be great, it'll be, like, a pyjama party every night!!"

"Like, what fun," Li Ann replied with venomous sarcasm.

"Could I, uh, have my room key please?" Vic asked the clerk over the heads of the girls.

Vic got the two room passkeys, and went to collect Mac. He left the girls baiting each other at the desk while the clerk watched them the way a guy might watch two very poisonous snakes having a territorial dispute around his feet.

Mac was slumped on one of the lobby couches, still wearing his sunglasses.

"Hey," Vic said. Mac looked up and Vic tossed him one passkey. "We're room 523."

Mac stood up. "And the girls are?" The guys started walking toward the elevator.

"525, next to us." Vic punched the elevator button and stole a glance back at the desk. "If they make it up there without killing each other first. Jesus, I thought they were getting along better these days."

"Oh, well, Li Ann may be in a bad mood right now," Mac said offhandedly, leaning against the wall beside the elevator. He didn't elaborate.

The girls joined them as the elevator arrived, and they all rode up to the fifth floor together and then separated into their two rooms.

Mac kicked his boots off, threw his bag onto the bed nearer the window, and flopped down beside it. "I'm going to take a nap," he announced. He didn't even take his coat off.

"You wouldn't consider, uh, doing some work with me this afternoon?" Vic suggested, his tone only moderately sarcastic.

If Mac had actually been drunk from New Year's eve until yesterday afternoon, he probably had some more sleeping it off to do and he wouldn't be any use today. Still, Vic couldn't let him slack off with no hassle at all - that would feel weird.

"What are you going to do, just check in with the Kingston police?" Mac spoke without moving; his eyes were closed behind his sunglasses. "You can do that better without me."

"I guess... whenever police meet you they seem to want to arrest you."

"It's their way of showing affection, y'know?" Mac mumbled. "They're pretty repressed."

Vic went to freshen up in the bathroom, and when he came out, Mac was snoring. Vic left, shutting the door quietly behind him.

***

"So, like, what's biting your ass?" Jackie said to Li Ann, hefting her bags onto the bed nearer the window.

"Nothing," Li Ann said. She opened her own duffel bag and started distributing its contents into the drawers of the bureau by her bed, and the closet.

"C'mon, we're friends, you can, like, confide in me," Jackie urged her cheerfully, heading for the closet with an armful of clothes. "God damn they never give you enough hangers in these cheap hotels."

"Well, it's just Mac." Li Ann pulled a handful of wire coat-hangers out of the side pocket of her duffel and handed them to Jackie.

Jackie took the coat hangers with a delighted squeal. "Wow, thanks, that's so cool, you're all like prepared and stuff." She started hanging her clothes. "So, what did Mac do?"

Li Ann made an exasperated half-laughing sound and pressed her hand to her forehead. "He puked in my car on the way up here."

Jackie scowled sympathetically. "God, men are such pigs."

"Hey, watch what you say about my brother," Li Ann said, but she smirked.

Really, sharing a room with Jackie wasn't so bad.

***

Around eight in the evening, Vic made his way back the hotel room.

He rubbed his eyes. They hurt. He'd asked the local police about graffiti, and they'd cheerfully provided him with the file one of the rookies was collecting of photos of every single piece of graffiti in town, lovingly labelled by date and location.

He'd gone through the whole file, and found exactly one hit. There'd been a photo dated yesterday with the same crazy face in it, though without the words "mad millennium." That graffiti had been on the side of a dumpster downtown. Vic had asked the police to keep an eye on that area, and report anything unusual to him. They had his cell number.

Vic got to the fifth floor, and hesitated between his door and the girls'. He wondered if Mac was awake. If he was, Vic didn't especially want to face him and have to make conversation. Vic knocked on the girls' door.

Li Ann opened the door. Her eyes were reddened and her cheeks were wet.

Vic instinctively grabbed her in a hug. "What's wrong?" he whispered into her ear.

"Nothing, it's all right," Li Ann whispered back.

Over Li Ann's shoulder, Vic saw that Jackie was sitting on one of the beds with a box of tissues by her. There was some black-and-white movie playing on the TV. Jackie turned to glare at Vic and he saw with amazement that she was crying too.

"Like, shut the door and come in or get out of here now," Jackie whispered fiercely at Vic.

"I'll, uh, I'll go," he said.

Li Ann went back to her own bed and sat on it, paying rapt attention to the TV.

Vic, feeling bemused, shut the door.

OK, whatever he faced with Mac couldn't be weirder than that.

Vic let himself into room 523. Mac was sitting on his bed, watching TV. At least he wasn't crying.

"So, uh, what's on?" Vic asked. He started stripping his outdoor clothes off.

"Movie. Rumble in the Bronx," Mac said.

"Oh yeah, wasn't that one filmed in Vancouver?" Vic asked absently, checking out his partner. Mac looked better now. He'd finally taken the damn sunglasses off, and he'd changed his clothes.

"Yeah. Hey, did you notice anything funny about this hotel?"

Vic climbed onto his bed and checked out the scene onscreen. Jackie Chan was kicking ass. "Funny ha-ha or funny strange?"

"Funny strange. Like, everyone staying here except for us seems to be women."

"Hey now, that doesn't sound strange. That sounds, uh," Vic searched for an appropriate word, "Idyllic?"

"I went down to the dining room for supper." Mac gave a dramatic shudder. "They were everywhere. Women. And they all looked at me like... like the Director does."

"It's some kind of convention," Vic recalled. "Uh, 'slash,' the clerk said. You know what that means?"

Mac shrugged. "No. But it sounds like something that the Director'd be into. You know-" he made a slashing, whipping motion with one hand, complete with sound effect.

Vic laughed. "Yeah."

OK, there was no need for things to be weird with Mac just because the Director had told Vic those things about Mac, or just because Mac had kissed Vic at New Year's, or just because Vic had recurring sexual dreams about Mac. They could just sit here, watch the movie, hang out, like any two guys stuck sharing a hotel room on a business trip.

Vic figuratively gritted his teeth and tried to pay attention to the movie.

It was useless. As soon as he decided not to think about something, he couldn't think about anything but.

The most morbid thoughts possible floated through Vic's mind, and he couldn't banish them. He wondered how Mac had tried to kill himself in prison. None of the easier methods were available in prison. You couldn't shoot yourself, you never had a sharp knife, no pills. Most prison suicides were hangings - Vic shook his head to try to kill that train of thought.

Vic glanced over at Mac. Mac had shaved in the afternoon. He'd showered, obviously, not long ago - his hair still looked slightly damp. He was wearing a charcoal-grey wool sweater and neat grey wool pants. He was grinning at the over-the-top martial arts action in the movie. He looked good. Er, fine. He looked fine. He looked OK.

Mac caught Vic staring at him. He frowned. "I miss a spot?" he asked, touching his freshly-shaved cheek.

"No." Vic flushed. "I was just thinking about something the Director said."

"What?"

"Nothing." Maybe the Director had just lied. Vic wouldn't put it past her. It wasn't like he was going to check her story by asking Mac.

Mac shrugged and kept watching the movie.

When that action movie finished they found another one to watch.

***

The credits to "Schindler's List" rolled across the TV screen.

Jackie and Li Ann stared at them in silence. Li Ann felt more tears running down her cheeks. She grabbed another tissue.

Jackie grabbed the remote and clicked the TV off. "Wow, major bummer," she said. Her voice was thick with emotion.

Li Ann tried to speak. She couldn't. She looked at Jackie. The former mob boss's eyes were puffy and her nose was pink.

"What? Like, surprised I can feel sad?" Jackie asked defensively.

Li Ann shook her head, even though she was. She'd never really got over her first impression of Jackie as an amoral psychopath. "No," she said, "I was just thinking...." she trailed off.

"What?"

"The movie - it puts things in perspective. My problems don't seem so huge next to that," Li Ann said, waving a hand in the direction of the TV.

"Yeah." Jackie sniffled. "Like, not much seems important next to the Holocaust, huh?" She crawled across her bed and onto Li Ann's. She curled up on Li Ann's bed with her face near Li Ann's knees. "People suck," she said, miserably.

"Uh, Jackie?" Li Ann moved her knees fractionally away from her unpredictable partner. "Not to spoil the moment or anything but... you know, you've murdered a few people yourself."

"Yeah, like, duh, I know that." Jackie sat up and pulled another tissue from the box. "Shit happens," she said, and blew her nose. "I used to be a little wacko, I guess."

"Yeah." Li Ann looked at her cautiously. "Used to be?"

Jackie's eyes snapped. "Hey, like, what're you implying?"

Li Ann tensed, ready to defend herself if Jackie flew at her.

Jackie defused the situation with a laugh. "They gave me drugs, OK? When I, like, came to work for the Agency? So, like, I can distinguish between right and wrong now. It's soooo cool. And I can feel, like, sad for all those people who died in the movie because I know that's wrong. Where before, I would have, like, thought it was really boring 'cause it was all in black and white."

Li Ann frowned thoughtfully. That explained a few things about Jackie, like the fact that she hadn't actually tried to kill Li Ann or Mac or Vic yet since she'd joined their side.

So, Jackie'd been given drugs that affected her awareness of right and wrong? That rang a bell. "Who gave you drugs?"

"Oh, the Director." Jackie fished a pack of gum out of her pocket. "Want some gum?"

Li Ann shook her head. "Do you know where they came from? If they had anything to do with Dr. Bernard Fry?"

Jackie popped gum into her mouth and started chewing on it. "Dr. Fry? ... uh, the name sounds, like, really familiar but I just can't place it, y'know?"

"Oh, right," Li Ann remembered, "You weren't around the first time we met him. And the second time you had your memories wiped."

Jackie snapped her fingers. "You mean that time, oh, like, when was it? - a couple months ago, that time that I woke up in this big empty warehouse and Mac and Vic were there, and the Director, and that other Director but he was dead, and the Cleaners, and a bunch of other people but none of us could figure out how we got there?" She snapped her gum. "Yeah, like, that was really weird."

"Dr. Fry was that guy I had in custody when you all got back to the Agency," Li Ann explained. "He's a neuropharmacologist. He's made a lot of mind-altering drugs for the Agency." And a lot of trouble, too - even if Li Ann never did properly find out what was going on the last time they dealt with him.

"Oh, huh, cool, you mean like acid? I did acid once. It was waaaay weird."

Li Ann imagined Jackie on acid. Now that was a scary thought.

The possibility that Jackie was taking some Dr. Fry concoction was pretty scary, too, remembering the droogs.

Li Ann decided to sleep lightly and talk to the guys in the morning.

***

Vic often slept fitfully his first night in a new bed. Tonight was no exception. First Mac's snoring kept him awake. When he got fed up, Vic threw a pillow at Mac. Mac mumbled, rolled over to his side, and stopped snoring. Vic finally drifted off into a light sleep, but he woke up a couple hours later, chasing the fragments of a nightmare. He couldn't remember it properly, but it had been something about Mac. Not the sex dream again, thank God, but something about Mac as a junkie. Vic had been walking through a crack house, and Mac had been there lying in a corner or something, and... Vic shook his head. He couldn't remember it, it was all floating away the way dreams do. Just as well.

He couldn't get back to sleep. When the room's digital clock blinked from 3:59 to 4:00, he gave up. He turned the TV on mute to the home shopping channel, sat back in bed, and stared at the overly enthusiastic models gesturing silently at their bracelets and earrings.

He looked over at Mac, and watched him for a while in the pale flicker of TV-light. Mac was lying on his side, facing Vic. He had his blankets pulled up to his chin. His lips were slightly parted. His expression wasn't quite relaxed; he looked kind of worried, actually. Vic wondered if he was dreaming.

Vic thought again about what the Director had told him. The core of it was: Mac's had a hard time lately, and he needs a friend.

Mac stirred in his sleep, as though he felt Vic watching him.

It was a natural impulse to resist the Director's manipulations and to take anything she claimed with a truckload of salt, but Vic knew what Mac and Li Ann had both been through in December, and Vic had been there as much as he could for Li Ann, but not so much for Mac. He'd wondered where Mac was the night after the showdown with Pucci and Michael, of course, but Mac hadn't answered his cell phone and Vic had been with Li Ann, so he'd just hoped Mac would be OK on his own. If the Director was to be believed - and she probably was, in this case - Mac had looked for solace in the bottom of a bottle. A series of bottles. Well, where else could he look for it? It wasn't like he had any friends. None of them did. All they had was each other.

Suddenly Mac sat straight up in bed, startling Vic. Mac hugged his knees under the blankets, and said something in Chinese.

"Uh, hey," Vic greeted him.

Mac's head snapped around and he looked wide-eyed at Vic.

"Um, have a bad dream?" Vic asked.

Mac kept staring at Vic like he didn't even recognize him.

Vic frowned. "You OK? Mac?"

Mac sort of shuddered, and then let himself fall back onto the bed. "Yeah, I'm OK. Just had a dream."

"Must have been a doozy."

"A... 'doozy'?" Mac repeated. "Is that, a good thing or a bad thing?"

"You looked pretty freaked just now."

Mac rubbed his face, and took another look at Vic. "What are you doing up? Getting caught up on the plot of the Home Shopping Channel?"

Vic shrugged. "Actually I couldn't sleep. Had... a dream that woke me up, too."

"That happen to you a lot?" Mac asked, staring at the ceiling.

Vic was glad Mac hadn't asked him what he'd dreamed about. He didn't feel creative enough to lie tonight. "Nah. First night in a new bed, you know?" Vic hesitated, then asked "What about you?"

"Most nights, yeah."

"Damn," Vic whispered. "What do you dream about?"

"Why do you want to know?"

Fair question. Vic shrugged. "I thought it might have something to do with Michael."

Mac sat up, fast. "How did you know that?"

Vic was surprised at the desperation in Mac's tone. Looked like Vic had guessed right - but maybe he should back off a bit. "Well, all that shit just happened with him. Li Ann was pretty messed up by it but she's doing better now. You ever talk to her about it?"

Mac shook his head.

"Maybe you should."

"She's doing OK."

"I meant-" Vic saw that Mac was hugging his knees again, and rocking a bit. He looked pretty whacked out. Vic wondered whether he should have started this conversation at all. Well, too late to back out now- "I meant maybe it would do you good to talk to someone." Mac didn't respond. "The Director told me about how you ended up in jail yesterday."

"Yeah, 'public drunkenness,'" Mac said. "What is this, a police state?"

"You can't ever drink enough to make your pain go away," Vic said softly. "But you can really fuck yourself up, trying."

Mac glared at Vic. "I'm not an alcoholic, if that's what you're getting at."

Vic hesitated. Should he reveal what the Director had told him about Mac's previous drug addictions, or not? Better not to - Mac seemed pretty touchy on this topic. "I just mean there's better ways to deal with it all."

"Like what?" Mac snapped.

This was getting nowhere. Mac was just getting pissed off at Vic, and Vic had to struggle not to respond with sarcasm of his own. He tried a different approach. "I, uh, I'm sorry I left you alone that night. After Michael tried to kill you."

Mac gave Vic a confused look. "Left me alone? I took off."

"Well, yeah... I should have looked for you." It was true. The more he thought about it, the more Vic berated himself for leaving Mac alone that night. Sure, Li Ann had needed him too - but the very fact that Li Ann had been so messed up should have reminded Vic that Mac would be, too. The two of them had been in it together, brother and sister; they'd experienced the same betrayal and loss. And neither Li Ann nor Mac had anyone to look out for them except each other, and Vic.

Mac shook his head, a faint smile on his lips. "Don't be stupid. You nearly died to save me that day. You didn't have to do anything else."

Vic shrugged awkwardly. "It's not about obligation. It's about... I don't know. Being friends. You're hurting, and I want to help if I can because I care about you." Vic felt himself blushing, realizing how sappy that little speech must have sounded. It was too easy to get emotional about stuff in the middle of the night. Vic felt a strong urge to bail out of the conversation by turning the TV's sound on and flipping channels. He couldn't do that, though. Now that he'd started this, he needed to help Mac. "So come on," he urged, "Talk to me."

Mac frowned and shook his head again. "You wouldn't understand."

That was not the right thing for Mac to say if he wanted Vic to lay off. Li Ann had pulled the "you wouldn't understand" card on Vic far too many times in the past, and it never failed to irritate him and make him determined to prove her wrong. "How do you know? You think you know everything about me?" Vic protested, a bit of an edge coming into his voice.

Mac looked sideways at Vic, raising one eyebrow. "All right, but if you laugh at me I'll kill you," he warned.

"Laugh?" Vic repeated. "Jesus, what do you think of me?"

"I think you're not... open to some things."

"Hey, I can be as open as the next guy."

Mac hesitated. Vic tried to look open and encouraging. Then Mac said "OK." He suddenly got off his bed and came over to sit on the edge of Vic's. Vic shifted back slightly, trying to keep his personal space. Looking Vic steadily in the eye, Mac said "Michael's ghost is haunting me."

"Oh, uh," Vic stuttered.

"I knew you wouldn't believe me." Mac started to stand up, but Vic grabbed his arm.

"Wait," Vic said. "Tell me more. I promise to try to be open."

"I see him. Not just when I'm asleep. When I'm awake, too. I see him reflected in windows, I see him just disappearing around corners, I glimpse him in crowds..."

It sounded to Vic like the haunting was in Mac's mind, but hey, it could be very real in that sense. "Why do you think he won't leave?" Vic asked, softly.

"Because he's still obsessed. Because his plan didn't work."

"Came close enough," Vic muttered under his breath. If Vic and Li Ann had been a few seconds slower realizing that Mac and Michael weren't behind them.... and they probably wouldn't have clued in so fast if there hadn't been the constant tension of Mac's distrust of Michael pricking their awareness. "You were right all along about Michael," Vic said, putting a hand on Mac's shoulder. "I don't think I remembered to apologize for not trusting your instincts."

"It wasn't just instincts," Mac said. "Fuck! I should have said something about... but anyway, he fooled me too in the end."

Mac should have said something about what? Vic filed that question away for later, and asked the other one Mac left him with. "What do you mean? I remember you didn't even trust him when we got to the warehouse for the showdown with Pucci."

Mac laughed humourlessly. "No, I didn't. But after he got my back in that fight, I finally did. I finally believed him that he was changed, that he didn't want to hurt me - and yeah, that was the moment that he'd been waiting for to kill me."

"Whoa," Vic breathed, taking that in. Mac's voice had become very tight, and the younger man was staring at his hands with suddenly bright eyes. "Do you mean - Michael was playing nice all along just so you'd trust him before he murdered you?"

"Yup."

"That's psycho."

"That's Michael."

"What did you mean, a minute ago - you said it wasn't just instinct that you didn't trust Michael?"

Mac shrugged. "Just that - I knew him."

"So did Li Ann," Vic pointed out. "And she was ready to trust him again."

"Li Ann is a little blind when it comes to family," Mac said. "And she didn't know everything about Michael that I knew," he added, quietly.

"Like what?" Vic asked. "Why didn't you tell her?"

Mac shrugged, looking unhappy. "I should have. But I never could, I thought she'd hate me. And we kept it secret for so long..."

"What?" Mac was obviously having trouble getting to the point, but Vic was getting frustrated.

"Michael's a sadist."

"Was a sadist," Vic corrected Mac automatically. "He's dead. What, you mean with leather and whips and stuff?"

"No, just with pain and fear. That's what he needed."

"For sex?"

"For anything. It's just... the way he was wired, I guess."

That went a long way toward explaining Mac's hostility to Michael, but some things still didn't make sense to Vic. "Why didn't Li Ann know?"

"Because..." Mac halted. Vic reached over and touched his arm. He was shaking.

"What's wrong?" Vic asked, knowing it was a stupid question, afraid he'd gone too far.

Mac let out a high pitched laugh. "Because I was Michael's lover," he finished his sentence. He gave Vic a challenging look.

Vic whistled, low-pitched. "Fuck," he whispered. Well, that explained a lot. It explained the intensity he'd seen between Mac and Michael. But it sure as hell raised a new set of questions. "At the same time you and Li Ann were lovers?"

"Yeah, so you can see why I didn't want to tell her," Mac said. He flopped down onto Vic's bed, looking drained.

Vic felt awkward. "I, uh, thought you were straight," he mentioned.

"Really?" Mac asked. He sounded honestly surprised.

"OK, hello, Li Ann, Kathy Chao, Claire Holland, Angie Rivers, Vivian Vixen... these were all women, right?"

"Hey, Vivian and I were just friends."

Vic rolled his eyes.

"OK, I see your point," Mac admitted. He shrugged. "But the Director told me once I didn't make a very convincing straight boy."

Vic let himself smile. He could see her saying that. "She just says whatever she thinks will get under your skin."

Mac sat up again, and looked carefully at Vic. "So, uh, you're not freaking out?"

"Why would I freak out?" Vic asked, offended. The Director's words that morning echoed in his mind - 'He kissed you. You're moderately homophobic. You punched him.' I am not homophobic, Vic assured himself silently. I'm just... not used to gay people.

"Well," Mac said with the beginnings of a really irritating grin, "Li Ann told me in the car on the way here about how I kissed you at the party, and you flipped out."

"I didn't-" Vic glared at Mac. "I did not flip out."

"Uh huh." Mac raised an eyebrow, and gingerly tapped the bruise on his cheek.

"Well, Jeez, you had no right to kiss me. That was... that was sexual assault," Vic blustered. He felt his cheeks getting warm. Mac was grinning widely now. He was having way too much fun with this.

"Aw, Vic, it was New Year's! Everyone's allowed to kiss everyone."

"Not everyone. The guys kiss the girls, the girls kiss the guys." Vic crossed his arms, protectively.

"Hey Vic," Mac said earnestly, quite deliberately laying a hand on Vic's arm, "Did you know it's a documented fact that the most homophobic people are often gay themselves?"

Vic shook Mac's hand off. "I am not homophobic," he snarled.

Mac grinned. "So prove it. Kiss me."

"What?!" Vic yelped. "Just because I'm not homophobic doesn't mean I'm gay, idiot. And even if I was gay, I wouldn't be attracted to you." That was a lie. If Vic were gay - which he wasn't - he'd definitely be attracted to Mac. He'd agonized long nights over what Li Ann ever saw in Mac, and he'd found plenty. Mac was tall, strong, and elegant. His full lips just begged to be kissed. You could get lost in the depths of his dark brown eyes - and the fact that Mac so often kept the windows to his soul shuttered away behind sunglasses only made them more intriguing. Mac was clever, resourceful, and playful. And he was a good person - even though Mac was a thief, even though he saw the world in shades of grey, Vic had learned over the past year that Mac knew right from wrong, and he was willing to put himself on the line to do what was right. There'd been moments, like that time they'd got messed up with McCoy and the Human Liberation Front, Vic had found himself looking to Mac to show him what was right.

Vic's heart was starting to beat really fast. He realized he was staring at Mac. Damn.

Mac snickered. "You don't have to love somebody to kiss them. A kiss doesn't have to mean a thing - unless you're afraid of it."

"I am not afraid," Vic growled. Mac still sat across from him on the bed, a satisfied expression on his face and a taunting smile playing on his lips.

"Are too," Mac mocked, very quietly.

Vic's self-control snapped. With a growl, he lunged towards Mac, caught his shoulders, shoved him down onto the bed, and kissed him. Hard. On the lips.

There. That'd show him who was afraid.

Vic sat up, breathless. Mac still lay on his back; he touched his lips and stared at Vic with a cryptic expression.

Mac was wearing navy blue silk pyjamas. The delicate fabric did nothing to disguise his erection. Vic caught himself looking and stood up quickly, fixing his eyes on the TV.

"I have to go to the bathroom," he mumbled, and escaped.

He shut the bathroom door behind himself and leaned on it, almost dizzy.

Mac had been turned on when Vic had kissed him. Jesus.

And Vic... Vic had been turned on by it, too. His dick was half-hard. He thought about the feel of Mac's lanky body pressed under his, and felt himself become even more aroused. Damn! That was wrong on so many levels.

Vic turned on the cold water in the sink and splashed some over his face, then scrubbed his face dry with a snowy-white towel. The sex dreams were getting to him, that was all.

When he opened the door he found that the TV was off and Mac was curled up under the blankets in his own bed, facing away from Vic, apparently asleep. Vic doubted he could have fallen asleep that fast, but Vic was willing to accept that charade. He crawled into his own bed.

Lying there in the dark, he remembered that when he'd started the conversation with Mac, he'd been trying to draw Mac into talking about why he'd started drinking. How the hell had he got so off track?

With that question unanswered, Vic finally drifted off to sleep.

***

Mac started on his second cup of coffee, and nibbled at his toast. He felt like crap for, approximately, the thirtieth day in a row. Ever since Michael had showed up in town, alive and well and accompanied by a new gweilo in Mac's place, things had been getting steadily worse.

Vic was working on his second cup of coffee, too. Mac wondered if he'd gotten back to sleep after the scene in their room last night. Mac hadn't. First there'd been the nightmare. In this one, Michael had tied Mac to a wrought-iron fence in a field somewhere and then Michael had left, and Paul, Michael's new "brother," had pounded the shit out of him. Finally he'd stuck a gun in Mac's mouth, said "This is for betraying Michael," and shot him.

And Mac had woken up.

And then Vic, for some reason, at four in the morning, had suddenly decided to grill Mac about the drinking binges. Which he shouldn't even have known about. The Director must have told him - but why? Still distracted and shaken by the dream, Mac had let slip way more than he should have - he'd told Vic about Michael's ghost, and he'd told him that he and Michael had been lovers. He was pretty sure that Vic didn't believe him about the first, but the second... he could only hope Vic wouldn't tell Li Ann.

Mac glanced at Vic. Vic stared at his plate and played with his scrambled eggs. He was probably embarrassed about the kiss. Teasing Vic about his sexuality had been a very effective distraction from the questions about Michael, but Mac was still surprised he'd actually managed to taunt Vic all the way into kissing him. Vic was always so very protective of his straightness.

And maybe that had been a mistake on Mac's part. He'd provoked Vic until Vic had practically attacked him with a kiss. And in that moment when Vic had lunged at Mac, full of anger, it hadn't been Vic's face Mac saw - it had been Michael's. Michael's ghost had taken over. Michael had kissed Mac, and left Mac frightened and longing for more when Michael changed back into Vic.

"So, uh, did you learn anything yesterday?" Li Ann asked the boys. Her breakfast consisted of whole-wheat toast, yoghurt and a fruit cup. Right now she was picking at the fruit cup with her fork.

"Well, I went through their graffiti files and found one match," Vic said, sounding eager to talk shop. "It was on a dumpster downtown, and it was spotted just two days ago, though of course it could be older than that."

Li Ann frowned. "Doesn't tell us much."

"Hey," Jackie interjected. "I found out what 'slash' is."

"Huh?" Vic said.

"Duh, you know, the conference? The reason we couldn't get extra rooms?" She grinned widely.

"OK..." Vic held his hands up. "Enlighten us."

She giggled. "Nah, you like, don't want to know."

Mac sighed and swallowed some more coffee. "You obviously want to tell us. That's why you brought it up."

"Nah, I just think it's, like, funny." She put her knife and fork down so that she could tweak Mac's and Vic's noses simultaneously. "You two are pretty cute. You'd better, like, watch your backs. Check out the next table checking you out."

Despite himself, Mac glanced over at the next table. There were three women, a blonde, a brunette and a redhead. Just like the women last night, they were watching him - and Vic - in a very Director-like way. As soon as he looked over they looked away, as though they hadn't been looking at him in the first place.

Jackie laughed, obviously delighted to have the upper hand. "I'm going back to the buffet table for more French toast," she announced. "Anyone wanna come with? Li Ann? No? OK, like, ciao!"

"What is with that?" Vic muttered under his breath, nodding his head towards the table with the scary women.

"Never mind that," Li Ann said quickly, "I've got to tell you what I found out last night about Jackie."

Mac and Vic gave her their attention. She looked over her shoulder to make sure Jackie was occupied at the buffet table, then leaned in towards the boys. "Did you notice how different she is now than she was when we first met her?" she asked, quietly. Mac and Vic nodded. "Turns out the Director's got her on drugs. They give her the ability to make ethical distinctions, and I think they calmed her down a bit, too. Does this ring a bell for you guys?"

"Dr. Fry," Vic whispered. Mac nodded. What Li Ann described sounded like the exact inverse of the drug that Fry had given the droogs.

"He's not around anymore, right?" Mac said. "Hey, what happened to him after that last time - you know, the time we all lost our memories except you?" he asked Li Ann.

Li Ann shrugged. "The Director took him off my hands and never said anything else about it. Anyway, he wouldn't have to be around to give Jackie the drug - once he's invented one, other people can produce it, right?"

"Sure," Vic said. "But what does this mean?"

Li Ann shook her head. "No idea. I just wanted to let you guys know as much as I know."

"Well, she's been pretty stable for - how long's it been? - four months?" Vic whispered. "Might not be a problem. But watch your back, OK?"

"She's coming back," Mac warned quietly, and grabbed his coffee cup.

Jackie sat down at the table and grinned happily at them all. "Like, hi again, everybody! I miss anything?"

***

"Jackie's not answering hers, either," Mac said, putting away his cell phone. "Shit. Think they're in trouble?"

"I hope not," Vic answered. "Maybe they can't get reception in the prison building. Should of thought of this before." Damn. Vic had told the local police to inform him of anything out of the ordinary, and they'd just called him to let him know that a Kingston costume shop had been robbed last night. The thieves had left the money in the register, but taken about twenty adult-sized full body costumes - things like a hairy gorilla suit, a plush panda costume and silver robot suits. Considering that the inmates left behind after the last prison break had described the assailants as giant pink rabbits, purple mice and green kangaroos, Vic and Mac thought this robbery might be significant - and the girls definitely needed to know about it. "OK," Vic said, thinking aloud, "We'll find a payphone and we'll call the main reception and we'll get them to page the girls-"

Mac interrupted him. "Hell with that. We're, what, ten blocks from the prison? We'll be there in two minutes. Faster than finding a payphone in this neighbourhood."

Mac had a point. "But, uh, the Director told me not to go in the prison," Vic remembered.

Mac rolled his eyes. "And since when do we listen to her?"

"Good point," Vic acknowledged. He put the truck in drive and pulled back out into traffic.

It didn't take them long to get to the Harris Memorial Penitentiary. They showed their badges to the front gate guard, and got him to call into the prison and page the girls. Li Ann called back on the internal phone a minute later, and asked the boys to meet them down in the prison cafeteria. Since they were there, she wanted their opinion on how to patch a couple of potential security holes she and Jackie had found.

Mac and Vic went through security, handed in their guns - all their guns - and got visitor's passes. Then a guard led them to the cafeteria in the women's wing, where the girls were waiting.

At this time of day, the cafeteria was empty. The room was, not surprisingly, drab, institutional and ugly. The long particle-board tables were bolted to the floor. On one of these tables, Jackie and Li Ann had spread out blueprints of the prison, which they were studying intently.

Vic delivered the cautionary message about the costume store robbery, and then Li Ann and Jackie explained their concerns about the building design. Mac and Vic helped them brainstorm quick fixes to the weaknesses they'd found, and Mac found another problem the girls had overlooked. Vic was amazed, as always, at how useful Li Ann and Mac's criminal past was when it came to finding holes in any security system.

After an hour or so, they'd figured out what they all needed to do next, and Mac and Vic asked their guard to escort them back out again. Vic still wondered why the Director had told him not to come in here.

The guard led them back out through the cell block. Vic kept his eyes forward, trying not to get drawn in to the spectacles of human misery he was passing by. He'd dealt with lots of criminals in his time, but the criminally insane were a class unto themselves. Most of the women in the cells had blank, haunted expressions. Some of them were howling like animals. Some wore straight-jackets. One woman was throwing herself against the bars of the cell again and again. Vic wondered why she hadn't been put in a padded room.

In an effort to distract himself from the madness surrounding him, Vic focused on supper. "Hey, I'm hungry," he said to Mac. "Want to grab a bite to eat after this?"

Out of the corner of his eye, Vic saw the woman in the cell to their right stand up quickly. "Mac!!" she cried out, her voice raw and hoarse.

Mac and Vic stopped walking and stared at the woman. She was a wasted figure, tall and gaunt with hollow eyes and wild grey hair, and she wore a straight-jacket. She stared intently at them, and shuffled another step forward. "Mac!" she said again.

She looked strangely familiar, but Vic couldn't place her. He wracked his brain, trying to remember if he and Mac had arrested her. They might have - they certainly had arrested enough crazy criminals in the past year.

"Come on," Mac said, tugging at Vic's arm. "Let's go, I'm hungry."

"Who was she?" Vic asked, letting himself be dragged along.

"Who?" Mac asked, walking quickly.

"That woman back there." Vic frowned, looking over at his partner. Mac seemed unusually pale all of a sudden.

"How should I know?" Mac asked in a cross tone, not looking at Vic.

Vic and the guard who was escorting them nearly had to run to keep up with Mac.

"Well, she knew you," Vic pointed out. "She called you by name."

"She must've heard you say my name."

"I didn't say your name."

"Yes you did," Mac insisted. "You said 'Want to grab a bite to eat after this, Mac?' She must have heard you."

Vic frowned. "That's not what I said. I didn't say your name."

"Well, you must have." Mac gave a tight grin. "Otherwise, how would she have known it?"

"Oh, right," Vic agreed. But as soon as he'd turned it over in his mind once more, he realized that didn't make sense at all. Mac was hiding something.

Vic let it go for the moment, because they were at the exit and they had to fill out the paperwork to get their guns back.

Out in the parking lot, where snow had started to fall, Vic tried again. "Come on, who was she?"

"Nobody." Mac sounded pissed off. "I don't know. Why, you have a crush on her?"

"Did we arrest her? Should I remember her?"

"I've never seen her before in my life," Mac snapped. "So fuck off and get in the truck."

Vic held up his hands. "Cool it. Jesus. What's going on here?"

Mac, scowling, crossed his arms and leaned against the truck. "You going to let me in, or not?"

Vic unlocked the truck and Mac hopped in. Vic didn't follow him. Vic was a detective deep down in his bones, and he couldn't stand to just leave a mystery standing like this. "Look, if you won't tell me, I'm going to go back inside and ask them who she is." Mac shrugged, staring straight forward. "Fine with me."

"You gonna wait out here?" Vic asked.

Mac didn't budge. "Yup."

Vic shrugged, and trudged back toward the guardhouse, tugging his hood up. The snow was falling thickly, and there was a good inch on the ground already. It was damn cold out, so the snow was powdery fine.

He got back inside, and found the guard who'd escorted him out. She was a medium-tall woman, well built, with a blonde buzz cut, and her name tag identified her as "Kim Majors."

"So, uh, Kim, do you remember that woman who called Mac by name?" he asked her.

"Sure," Kim answered. "Cell 341. How do you guys know her?"

Vic shrugged. "I'm just trying to figure that out. What can you tell me about her?"

"Not much," Kim said. "I can tell you she's in for life, for murder. Her name's Anita Ramsey."

Hamilton, Canada, August 1984.

Mac woke up. It was dark. He wasn't sure why he'd woken up, but now that he was awake he had to pee. He rolled over and looked at his clock. It was 2:47 a.m.

He sat up. He'd been sleeping in just his underwear since it was so hot. He pulled on an oversized t-shirt before he left his room, in case Mom had a visitor staying over. He knew why the men came, and he didn't want one to see him without clothes on.

He rubbed his eyes sleepily. The kitchen light was on. Was Mom up? Curious, he padded down the hall and into the kitchen.

Mom was singing. Very, very quietly, so he didn't hear her until he came into the kitchen. She was crouching on the floor in the corner against the cupboards, singing under her breath, "London Bridge is falling down, falling down, falling down, London Bridge is falling down, my fair lady, London Bridge is falling down, falling down...."

She was wearing a white shirt, splattered all over with red. Her hands were red, and her knees. Her face was flecked with red, around her wide, staring eyes which didn't focus on Mac at all. Her arms were clutched around her knees, and she rocked as she sang.

A big knife lay by her toes. Her toes were red and wet, and so was the knife. It was the biggest one, the meat cleaver.

"...falling down, London Bridge is falling down, my fair lady, London Bridge is falling down...."

Mac backed out of the kitchen, keeping a wary eye on his mom. She didn't even seem to have noticed that he was there.

Something bad had happened. Something really bad had happened.

He hadn't noticed the footprints when he first came out of his room, but he saw them now. Smears of red, leading to the kitchen at one end, and Mom's bedroom at the other.

He had to see. He didn't want to know, but he had to find out. The door to Mom's room was ajar. He nudged it with one finger and it opened inwards with a creak.

The room was too dark. He could see that someone was on the bed, but that was all. He flipped the light on.

The man's eyes were open. His mouth was open. His head was open, split down the middle of his forehead with the white bone showing. He was naked, his legs splayed apart, covered with deep gashes. Between his legs, where his private parts should be, there was just dark red blood and torn edges of flesh. His guts spilled out of a hole where his belly should have been. His arms were covered with deep gashes too, and one of his arms ended at a ragged stump. The hand lay near his feet. The bed was soaked red-black with blood. Blood was everywhere. Mac was standing in a warm, sticky puddle.

A high-pitched whimper escaped Mac's tight throat, and he turned the light off again.

He ran to the bathroom and slammed the door shut behind him and locked it. Then he felt his stomach turn inside out, and he barely made it to the toilet in time to puke. When his stomach was empty it kept heaving, the painful convulsions bringing up just sour bile, with the image of the dead man floating in front of his eyes. The image got darker and darker until all he saw was black; his legs gave out and he slumped to the floor.

He woke up with his cheek on the cool tile floor. The side of his face hurt; it must have banged either the side of the toilet or the floor. He hadn't been unconscious long, just a few seconds. The blood he'd tracked into the bathroom was still wet.

He stood up and ran the cold water tap. He rinsed out his mouth and splashed water over his face. Then he put the toilet lid down and sat on it, holding his head in his hands. He had to think. He had to figure out what to do.

Mom had killed the guy. That was pretty obvious. She'd totally flipped this time. Mac quickly wondered whether he could protect her from this, hide it from everyone. She'd be OK in the morning and they could keep going like they had been. He wouldn't have to go live in a foster home again the way he had after she'd tried to kill herself last year.

No. OK, that was a stupid idea. First of all, to hide it, he'd have to move the dead guy, and Mac knew he couldn't bring himself to touch him. Even the thought made him feel like puking again. And second, they couldn't keep going like they had been. He could handle Mom talking about hearing voices and screaming at him for leaving the curtains open in the day because 'they' were watching her. And she wasn't like that all the time, sometimes she was OK, sometimes she was great. But now she'd fucking killed a guy. She was really hard-core crazy, and Mac was scared of her, and that was why he was still hiding in the bathroom with the door locked.

OK. He had to call the police. He knew the number; he'd memorized the emergency numbers after that time he and Peter had had to run all the way to Peter's house to call an ambulance.

There were only two phones in the apartment. One was in the kitchen, with Mom and her meat cleaver. The other one was in the bedroom with the dead guy. To get out of the apartment, he'd have to go past the kitchen; last time Mom hadn't seemed to notice him, but he was too scared to go past her again. He'd have to go back to the bedroom.

Mac pressed his ear against the bathroom door. He couldn't hear anything. He knelt on the floor and peeked through the crack under the door. There was no one in the hall.

He opened the door, and tiptoed quickly to Mom's bedroom. He left the light off, and crept toward the table where the phone was. His toe hit something soft and moveable. He remembered the missing body parts. Oh Jesus. He doubled over, retching, but there was nothing left in his stomach to come up. He stumbled forward, and caught himself against the bedside table. He winced at the noise it made banging against the wall.

His hand was on pack of cigarettes. Mom kept cigarettes and a lighter by the phone. Suddenly Mac wanted a smoke more than anything else in the world. He knew that he wouldn't be able to speak on the phone without one. He shook one cigarette out of the package and grabbed the lighter. He held the cigarette between his lips; it was an effort not to crush it. His hand was shaking and it took him about seven tries to light it; he focused his eyes on the tip of the cigarette, not letting himself see anything farther away. Finally it lit and he sucked on it, watching the red glow and feeling the hot, comforting smoke fill his mouth and throat and lungs. The harsh smoke covered the smell of death. He felt a bit less nauseous.

He dialled the police. A woman answered.

"Hamilton Police. Can I help you?"

Mac realized he didn't know what to say. His throat closed tight. "I need police here," he squeaked. He took another desperate pull on the cigarette. "2387 Lockwood Street. Apartment 42."

"What's happened?" she asked. "Are you in danger now?"

"Um, yeah, m-maybe. There's a d-dead guy here. My mom she's in the kitchen." Mac's knees were shaking, but he didn't want to sit down because the floor was covered with blood. He sucked on the cigarette. Its tip glowed bright orange.

"The police are on their way. Can you get out of the apartment? Can your mom get out?"

"No... I can't get out, I'd have to go past her." Mac thought he heard a noise outside the door. His heart leapt into his throat. He dropped the phone and ran out of the room. There was no one in the hall. He skidded around the corner into the bathroom, and slammed the door shut behind him. He locked it again and stood there, panting. He looked down at his feet and saw the blood and whimpered. He sat on the toilet lid and smoked the rest of the cigarette and waited for the sirens. He heard them the same moment the stub of the cigarette got short enough to burn his fingers. He yelped and dropped it onto the floor and put his fingers in his mouth and listened to the sirens get louder. Soon there was a loud crash from the front of the apartment, and voices, and heavy footsteps. Someone hammered on the bathroom door and he thought he should open it but he couldn't make himself move. Then the door crashed inwards anyway; Mac blinked at the noise. A big policeman stood in the doorway. He held a gun, pointing it towards the ceiling. It was the first time Mac had ever seen a real gun.

"I found the kid!" the man called out. Then he tucked his gun into its holster, and held out an open hand towards Mac. "Come here, it's OK," the man said softly. "It's all over now."

Kingston, Canada, January 1999

Vic stood in the parking lot in the place where his truck had been, and swore. He turned around once, sweeping the whole snowy parking lot with his gaze. The truck was definitely gone. Mac had stolen his truck. Vic had taken the keys into the prison with him, but he'd forgotten to take that whole expert thief thing into account. Fuck!

The woman in the prison, the one who'd known Mac, had Mac's last name. Now that Vic thought about it, she sort of had Mac's features, too - that's why she'd looked familiar to Vic.

Shivering, Vic took out his cell phone and dialled the Director's emergency number.

"What?" she answered.

"Who's Anita Ramsey?" Vic demanded.

"I told you not to go into the prison," the Director snapped. "Where's Mac?"

"Wish I knew. He stole my truck. He's gone."

Vic could hear the Director groaning in the background - or maybe growling. He'd be afraid of her wrath, except he was feeling pretty wrathful himself. If she'd had a good reason to keep him and Mac out of the prison, she should have told him.

"Well, luckily, your truck is bugged," the Director told him.

"Lucky day," Vic agreed sarcastically. Not that he could claim to be surprised.

"You borrow a car from the police there. Call me back and I'll patch you in to a tech who can tell you where the truck is." The line went dead.

With a little bit of fast talking, Vic managed to borrow a police cruiser from the prison lot. He called the Director back.

"He's on the 401, heading for Toronto," the Director said by way of greeting. "I want you to catch him."

"I'm on it," Vic said, pulling out of the parking lot and fishtailing. Damn, the roads were slick. "So, you going to explain things now?"

"You don't deserve an explanation, Victor," the Director said in a tone of voice that made Vic very glad he was three hundred kilometres away from her.

"Maybe not, but I might need one when I catch Mac," Vic said. "So who the hell is Anita Ramsey?"

The Director answered quietly and precisely. "His mother."

Vic whistled through his teeth. "Oh, man. But I thought she was dead?" He'd thought Mac's father was dead, too, he recalled, until the man suddenly showed up one day. "Did he know she was in there?"

"No, he didn't, and he would never have found out if you had followed my orders and stayed out of the prison," the Director replied testily.

"Well, why didn't you tell me it was this important?" Vic noticed a red light and slammed on the brakes. The car skidded over the snow, finally stopping with its nose well into the intersection. He swore, and felt cold sweat trickling down his neck. The light changed to green.

"All of my orders are important. Why do you think I give them, Victor? Because I like to hear myself talk?"

Sometimes, Vic replied silently. "OK, well, I'm sorry, I fucked up, but now he knows, so maybe you could tell me a little about what's going on?"

"There's not much to tell. Anita Ramsey was a prostitute. One night fifteen years ago she went crazy and hacked one of her clients to pieces. She's been in the Harris ever since."

Vic did a little quick subtraction in his head, meanwhile trying to stay on the road and not drop the cell phone. Fifteen years ago would make Mac, what, about twelve? "Where was Mac when this happened?"

"In the next room. He's the one who called the police."

"Did he tell you all this?"

"No. It's in his file."

"How...?"

"We investigate our agents thoroughly, Victor." The Director sounded impatient with him. "We've been through this before. I know everything about you."

Vic frowned, focusing for the moment on the road signs directing him to the 401. "So what do I do when I catch up to him?"

"I'm concerned the shock of seeing his mother may have unbalanced him. Just make sure nothing happens to him, all right?"

Vic could hear the unwritten warning in her words. If anything happens to him, it's your fault, Vic. "He's heading back to Toronto, right? He might just be coming to see you."

"We can hope."

Vic swore as he narrowly missed hitting a car that skidded out of a cross street. "I've got to get off the phone, the driving is awful here," he said. "How do I keep tabs on Mac?"

The Director gave him the phone number for the technician who was tracking the bug in Vic's truck, and Vic committed it to memory. He tossed the phone onto the passenger seat, put both hands on the wheel, and concentrated on not crashing into anything.

In another minute he was on the highway. A snowplow had obviously been by only a minute or two ago; one lane was clear.

It was only five o'clock in the evening, but in early January that made it pitch black. His headlights lit a wild dance of snowflakes, and he couldn't see far beyond the nose of his car. All he could see were the rear lights of the one car ahead of him. He couldn't even see the car - just the glow of its lights.

The traffic was creeping along at about sixty kilometres per hour - half the speed it would normally be going. Vic felt his vehicle skidding and slipping even at that speed. He wondered how good his tires were. He longed for the four-wheel drive of his pickup truck.

He picked up the phone and, one-handed, dialled the technician who was tracking the truck. "Where is he? How far ahead of me?"

"Um. Just a minute..." a nervous male voice answered. The guy sounded about fourteen. Where did the Agency find these people? "He's, um, about twenty kilometres ahead of you. Still on the highway."

"How fast is he going?"

"Um, hold on... OK, he's going about eighty-five."

"Shit," Vic breathed. "Right, thanks, call me back if anything changes?"

"Sure."

Vic threw the phone back to the seat and looked at his speedometer. It was hovering around sixty. And the car barely felt under control. He groaned.

The truck would be better on this road, but not that much better. Mac was driving recklessly fast. Almost like he didn't care whether he made it alive....

Vic cursed the Director's reticence and his own idiocy. Mac had been messed up enough already, what with Mr. Tang and Michael. Oh, and that unrequited love thing with Li Ann, which Mac had been being uncharacteristically quiet about. So now Mac's mother gets thrown into the mix. Vic remembered her haunted, hollow face. He'd guess Mac hadn't seen her since - well, probably since the night she'd killed some guy. No wonder Mac had flipped out and stolen Vic's truck. Vic shouldn't have gone back into the prison. He should have seen that something was really wrong, he should have stayed with Mac instead of going back in just to satisfy his curiosity.

Vic growled under his breath. He would find Mac, and he would find some way to make things better.

Only as things stood, Mac was getting farther and farther ahead.

All right. Vic had one advantage. He was in a police cruiser. He flipped on his flashing lights and his siren.

The effect was dramatic. Suddenly the road in front of Vic cleared, as cars pulled off to the side of the highway to let him pass. Vic smiled grimly. There was a familiar rush of power. I own the road. He pressed the gas a little harder.

It was the longest drive of Vic's life. No contest. After an hour or so his shoulders ached with cramps from the tension. After a couple hours, he noticed that his stomach was eating its way through his spine - he hadn't eaten anything since a light, early lunch with Mac. Cold sweat dried on his neck. Whenever he checked in with the Agency tech, Mac was still well ahead of him. Vic could keep up, but he couldn't manage to gain on him - the danger of going off the road was too great, he couldn't speed up another five kilometres per hour. When Mac finally did slow down a bit, Vic was forced to slow down too, with strong winds blowing off Lake Ontario nearly taking his car off the road. Vic saw a car upside down on the side of the road, and without slowing down he called it in on his car's police radio. Vic's fear coalesced into rage. He became convinced that somehow, Mac was tracking Vic, too - that Mac knew how far away Vic was, and how fast he was going, and so was able to stay consistently ahead.

Finally, the road signs told Vic he was only thirty kilometres away from Toronto. And then the phone rang, and the tech told Vic that Mac hadn't turned off into Toronto. He was still on the highway, heading towards Hamilton now.

Vic groaned. Would it never end? He checked the gas gauge on the cruiser. It still had half a tank. How full had the truck been at the start of the day? Full - he'd gone to a gas station in the morning.

Vic called the Director to tell her that Mac hadn't gone into Toronto. She didn't answer her phone.

Finally, the tech called and let Vic know that Mac had actually gone into Hamilton. No idea what he'd want with that city, but Vic followed the road signs to get there. The tech called in again, not long after, to tell Vic that the truck had come to a stop somewhere in Hamilton. Vic nearly wept with relief. Mac had stopped. Vic could catch up to him now. It was almost over.

Then he started to worry. Why had Mac stopped? What the hell was in Hamilton? What if he'd stopped because he'd finally crashed into a telephone pole, or another car? What if he was dying? What if he was already dead?

Vic followed the tech's directions towards the truck. It had finally stopped snowing. The city of Hamilton was an eerie wonderland, all sweeping curves of glistening white.

Then he saw it. The pickup truck was sitting, intact, at the side of the road on a residential street that hadn't been plowed. Vic followed the tire tracks down the centre of the street and whispered prayers that he wouldn't get stuck.

Vic stopped beside the truck; he kept his flashers on and left the car in the middle of the street. He could already see that Mac wasn't in the truck. He got out of the car and looked around.

The street was quiet like a grave, all sound muffled by the snow. The area looked like mostly low-rent apartment blocks. Just where the truck had stopped, there was a playground. One nearby streetlight lit the playground. The equipment was all disguised by its thick blanket of snow.

Coming around to the other side of the truck, Vic saw footprints in the snow leading into the playground. At the other end of the footprints, a black-clad figure huddled on a snow-covered bench.

"Mac," Vic whispered, feeling immense relief, entwined with rage. Mac had led him nearly four hundred kilometres in a fucking blizzard at insane speeds just so he could sit on a bench in a playground in Hamilton?

Vic slogged through the snow over to where Mac was. Mac sat hunched over. He wasn't wearing a hat; a few snowflakes glistened in his hair. His black wool coat hung open in the front. He didn't acknowledge Vic.

"Mac?" Vic said, gently shaking his young partner's shoulder. "What are you doing here?"

"This's where I useta live," Mac answered. His words slurred into each other. "Wasin'a playground. Was a building."

When the hell did Mac have time to get drunk? He'd only been about half an hour ahead of Vic. Vic patted the sides of Mac's coat, looking for a bottle or flask. He didn't find anything. He hadn't had anything in the truck, had he? Shit. "Come on, Mac, it's time to go back home," Vic said. He put an arm under Mac's shoulders and hoisted him to his feet. "The Director's worried about you."

Mac stumbled forwards a couple steps and then his knees gave out and he fell into the snow.

Vic groaned. This wasn't going to be easy. He shivered, and hugged himself. It was cold as a witch's tits tonight; it had gotten even colder since it'd stopped snowing. Vic knelt down to help Mac up. "Come on, let's go, it's freezing out here."

"S'OK, I'll wait here," Mac mumbled into the snow.

"You can't wait here, you'll freeze," Vic insisted, grabbing Mac's arm again. Thinking about what he'd just said, Vic suddenly realized that Mac wasn't shivering. He'd been sitting out here in the severe cold for maybe half an hour, probably not moving, no hat, a thin coat and that not even done up.... Damn it! Maybe Mac wasn't drunk, he was hypothermic. That was worse.

Vic put two fingers to Mac's neck to check his pulse. His skin was ice-cold, and his pulse was sluggish. Fuck! Vic started to get scared again. Mac was severely hypothermic.

Mac mumbled something incoherently.

Vic thought back to his first aid training on the force. When he'd first started out on a beat, hypothermia had been a major concern in the winter, dealing with the homeless. So what do you do when you find a guy lying on the street in the winter? You've got to be careful, Vic remembered. Hypothermic people go into cardiac arrest very easily - that's how it kills. You can't let them move around. And you've got to get them warm. "We've got to get to a hospital," Vic said, thinking to himself out loud. "We'll take the cruiser, it's still warm. I remember passing a hospital on the way in here, I can find it." He looked at Mac, who was still curled up on the snow, not acknowledging Vic at all now. Vic's insides twisted. He was going to get him out of this.

Vic scooped Mac up in his arms, straining at the dead weight. All those hours at the Agency gym were worth it now. Vic staggered through the snow, desperate to keep his feet, to carry Mac as gently as possible. Mac's head hung back, exposing his neck, and his eyes were closed. His face was ghostly pale, and snowflakes clung to his cheeks without melting. Fear gave Vic strength. He made it to the car, got the door open, and laid Mac on the back seat. Then he rushed around to the driver's side, turned on the heater full blast, and started to drive.

Vic used the lights and siren again to get the sparse traffic to give way, and to allow him to run through red lights. He breathed something like a prayer of thanks when he found the hospital where he remembered it, and the sign marking "Emergency Entrance." He pulled into the drive with his siren still going, and paramedics rushed out to meet him.

The paramedics might have found it odd that Vic drove a Kingston police car in Hamilton, and that he wasn't wearing a uniform, but all they asked was what he knew about the patient as they transferred Mac onto a gurney.

"Exposure, I think," Vic answered their questions. "I'm coming in with you - he's a friend."

Someone called for heated oxygen, and a mask was strapped over Mac's mouth and nose. Vic stayed by his side, dizzied by the light and noise of the ER after the long solitude of his drive. Vic took Mac's hand; it was icy and limp. Mac seemed to be completely unconscious now.

"Are you a family member?" a woman in green scrubs asked Vic.

"Uh, no," Vic said, and found Mac suddenly being wheeled away from him while the woman blocked his way.

"You'll have to wait here, then," she said firmly.

Vic would have ignored her and followed anyway, but at that moment his cell phone rang.

"What?" he barked into it, following Mac with his eyes as he vanished around a corner.

"Vic." It was the Director.

"This isn't a good time," Vic said.

"No, it isn't," the Director agreed. "Have you caught up to Mac yet?"

"Yes-"

"Good," the Director cut Vic off before he could elaborate. "The Mad Millennium folk hit the prison. They got away with about twenty prisoners. The guards were drugged again, including Li Ann. Jackie is unaccounted for."

"What!?" Vic sat down in a nearby seat. He hunched over his phone and lowered his voice. "Is Li Ann all right?"

"She and the guards are in the hospital - they should all be fine. The guards at the prison in Alberta regained consciousness after a few hours. I need you back in Kingston."

Vic frowned. "No way. I'm at the hospital here with Mac."

"Hospital?" That got the Director's attention. "What happened?"

"We're in Hamilton. I found him sitting in some park. By the time I caught up with him he was nearly frozen."

"And he's receiving medical treatment now?"

"Yeah."

"Then he'll be fine. I need you in Kingston. You're the only operational agent on the team, Vic. Jackie's missing and the trail is getting colder by the minute."

"It's cold all right," Vic muttered. "Look, I barely survived the drive from Kingston, and-"

"This is not a discussion question," the Director interrupted Vic in her no-nonsense tone. "Mac is safe for now. Jackie isn't."

"I don't know if he's safe!" Vic felt his voice crack; he cleared his throat, and took a deep breath. He rubbed the back of his neck with his free hand. His neck ached. "We just got here. They took him away, I don't know what his condition is."

"All right, Victor, new orders," the Director told him. Her voice took on a maternal edge. "Go to the hospital cafeteria. Get a hot meal. Wait until you hear that Mac's stable. Then come back to Toronto. I'll find you a ride to Kingston, so you can rest on the way there."

"All right," Vic agreed, reluctantly. He could live with that. He'd rather stay here, but at least the snow had stopped so the highway was probably getting cleared. He'd be able to take his truck; he'd leave the squad car here in charge of the local police. As soon as he was sure that Mac would be OK.... "It's an order, Mr. Mansfield," the Director repeated. "I expect you to obey my orders from now on."

***

Mac slouched in a chair in the Agency infirmary. It was the middle of the night. When the doctors in Hamilton had released him, some Agency guy he didn't recognize had been there to collect him and drive him back to Toronto. An Agency doctor had looked him over for herself, and then told him to wait here for the Director. So he waited.

He shivered, and he pulled the blanket tighter around his shoulders. He was warm enough now, but he was shivery and he felt dull aches all over, and his throat was sore.

He wished Vic had left him in the playground. It was beautiful there. Much nicer than it used to be. He wondered when they'd torn the apartment building down, why they'd replaced it with a playground. He wondered if it was because of his mother - had no one wanted to live there after the murder?

The door to the infirmary opened, and the Director came in. She was wearing an oversized grey cashmere cardigan over a black wool pants suit, her hair fell loosely to her shoulders, and she was wearing her glasses.

"It's been a long night, hasn't it, Mac?" she said, keeping her voice soft. She closed the door behind her, and dragged another chair into place right in front of Mac's. She slid into the chair, and reached up to caress his cheek. He refused to look up at her. He wished he had his sunglasses to hide behind. "They say you're all right now," she went on. "You should stay warm, and rest for a few days. Oh, and you're coming down with a cold. You haven't been taking very good care of yourself lately, have you?" She stroked his cheek with her thumb as she talked. There was no sign of the Dominatrix or the Seductress; the Director was playing the Mother tonight.

"Did you know?" Mac asked.

"You mean about your mother?"

Mac nodded once.

"I know everything, Mac."

He was sure she was wrong. She didn't know that Mac and Michael had been lovers, for instance. But it wouldn't be so hard for her to find out about Anita. Mac could have found out where Anita was, if he'd tried. He hadn't. He'd worked hard for the last fifteen years at not thinking about that at all. His mother was dead. She'd killed herself when he was twelve.

"I knew there was danger that you'd meet her, when I sent you to Kingston... it was a calculated risk. For what it's worth, I'm sorry."

Mac shrugged.

"I need you to stay here, tonight," the Director went on. "There's a cot in the back room there," she nodded towards a door.

"I think I'd rather just leave," Mac said, finally lifting his head to look her in the eye.

She raised an eyebrow. "You don't have a choice."

"No, you know, I've been thinking about that." Mac reached up and took her hand, and pulled it away from his face down onto her lap. "How did you blackmail me into working for you?" he asked, conversationally. "The Tangs. But the Tangs don't exist anymore. What's left of the Family doesn't care about me. You don't have a hold on me anymore."

"Yes I do," she replied, her tone soft and confident. She twined her fingers through Mac's and squeezed his hand gently. "You'll stay with us because you have nowhere else to go, no one else to belong to."

"That's bullshit," Mac croaked. OK, it was true, he had nowhere else to go, but that wasn't a problem if he was willing to go to nowhere. Such as, for instance, a park bench on a cold January night.

The Director leaned in closer, and tipped her glasses down on her nose so that she could look Mac directly in the eye. "And you'll stay with us because deep down, you want to live. Your half-hearted attempt to freeze to death tonight was an act of pain and confusion, and a cry for help. You need to stay with us so that we can help you live."

Mac laughed, a short, derisive bark that turned into a cough. "Help me live? The first day I came to work in Vancouver, Dobrinsky - the other one - told me you take a fifty percent casualty rate. I can't count how many times you've nearly got me killed."

"Ah, but you've survived, haven't you? You've got the skills to stay alive, Mac, if you could find the will again. You're an excellent agent."

An "excellent agent," huh? Mac didn't think he could remember ever hearing such high praise from the Director. He should try to kill himself more often. It seemed to bring out the best in her.

Fuck. He had tried to kill himself, hadn't he? Mac started to shiver again. He barely remembered the wild ride from Kingston to Hamilton, but he knew he hadn't been trying very hard to stay on the road. By some miracle he'd made it, and found the block where he used to live, and found the playground where his home used to be. Then he'd got out of the truck and gone to sit in the playground. His intent hadn't formed in words in his mind, but he knew. You fall asleep in the cold and you never wake up.

It had been peaceful in the park, and wonderfully quiet. No one walked by on the street. The snow'd made the bench soft and comfortable, and Mac hadn't really noticed the cold.

After a while, Michael's ghost had come to sit beside him. Michael had been in a good mood tonight.

"So, you're finally dying, huh?" Michael had asked Mac.

Mac had shrugged. "I guess so. What's it to you?"

"It would have saved us both a lot of frustration if you'd just stayed in the warehouse until it exploded," Michael had pointed out, rather piquantly.

"Well, I would have, but Vic and Li Ann came and pulled me out."

"You know, I tried to kill Li Ann, too," Michael had mentioned, in a conversational tone.

"I know, I heard about it later. But she killed you."

"Yes, she did." Michael had shrugged. "I really didn't think she had it in her."

"There's a lot more to her than you ever saw." Mac had smiled, faintly. "I think she's actually the strongest of the three of us."

Michael had grinned, amused. "Well, in a few more minutes she'll win that contest by default."

"What do you mean?" Mac had asked, even though he sort of knew.

"Oh, your heart's slowing down. You'll die pretty soon."

Mac had put a hand over his heart. It did seem to be going pretty slowly, but he felt fine. He said as much to Michael.

"Well, that's because you're a ghost already," Michael had explained. "You're still linked to your body, though, for the moment." Then he'd leaned over and kissed Mac.

It hadn't felt like being kissed by a ghost. It had felt like being kissed by Michael. Michael had pressed his lips hard against Mac's, as he always did. He'd bit Mac's lip almost hard enough to draw blood, and shoved him back against the bench.

"I want to fuck you," Michael had breathed, sexy hot breath against Mac's cheek.

"Just like that?" Mac had asked, part wondering, part teasing. "Without any guns, or fighting, or anything?" Michael needed violence to get hard, he always had with Mac.

"It's sexy enough that you're killing yourself over me," Michael had whispered in Mac's ear, nibbling his earlobe, again not quite hard enough to draw blood, but almost.

"Hey, this isn't about you," Mac had protested.

"Don't you know Mac?" Michael had asked with a tight, scary grin. "Everything's about me." Then he'd looked over his shoulder, and frowned. "Fuck," he'd said, and disappeared.

And then Vic had been there.

"Come on, Mac," the Director said. "I'll tuck you into bed."

Mac blinked, reorienting himself. He let the Director give him a hand out of the chair and lead him into the small back room. There was a counter with a sink. A cot unfolded in the middle of the room took up most of the floor space. Several blankets were folded at the foot of the cot.

Mac climbed into the cot, still wearing his clothes. He had nothing else to change into. As with every other cot he'd ever slept on, his feet hung out over the edge. To his surprise, the Director literally tucked him in; she unfolded the blankets and spread them over him, and tucked them around his feet so they wouldn't get cold.

"Are you going to tell me a bedtime story, too?" Mac asked when she was done, trying to give her an endearing grin. He wasn't eager to admit it to himself, but he didn't want her to leave him alone.

"Actually, yes," she said, crouching by the head of the cot. "I do have a story for you." She stroked his forehead with her cool, smooth fingers. "Hm, you're a little feverish," she fussed.

"Tell me the story," Mac whispered.

"All right. Once upon a time," the Director began in a crooning tone, "there was a little boy whose mother couldn't take care of him. He was put in a foster home, but he kept getting in trouble. He stole things. He got in fights, he even hit his foster parents. So he was moved to another home, but he got in trouble there, too. He couldn't stop stealing, or fighting. He hid in the basement and smoked cigarettes, and one time he accidentally started a fire, nearly burned the house down. The family couldn't keep him, and he got moved to another home, the third in four months, and as soon as he got there it was the same old problems again. Then the boy's father came to town. The social worker thought maybe the boy would be happier with his father, so she let the father take the boy. The father was supposed to check in with the social worker after a week, but he never did."

Mac, with his eyes closed, listened to her story. It was his story, of course. His old case files would be available to her. He'd never guessed before tonight that she knew he'd lived in Canada as a child, or that she knew anything about his life before the Tangs. But of course if she knew about Anita, she could find out the rest. He wondered where the story was going. His head hurt.

"When the father didn't check in, the social worker asked the police to find him," the Director continued, still in her soft, lullaby voice. "The police couldn't find a trace, and they turned the case over to the RCMP. It landed on the desk of a young detective who was exceptionally good, the best on the force, but the father and the boy had disappeared so thoroughly, even she couldn't find them. Not long afterwards, the detective was recruited by a Shadowy Government Agency. All traces of her past life were erased, and she was told to forget it like it never existed - but her last unsolved case haunted her. She always wondered what happened to the boy. In her new job, she had access to all sorts of information. She would sift through it sometimes, looking for a trace of him. Finally, almost a decade later, she found something. A young man with the boy's name had been arrested in Tokyo, in connection with a crackdown on the Yakuza. The boy wasn't part of the Yakuza, but he was part of a triad gang, and had connections powerful enough to get him out of jail quickly - but not before his photo and fingerprints were taken. Her records confirmed the boy and the young man were one and the same. She sought out information on the young man. There wasn't much, but what she found was intriguing. He'd been adopted into a powerful Hong Kong crime family, and trained as an expert thief. He and his adoptive brother and sister worked together to pull off jobs that shouldn't even have been possible. The woman who had once been a detective realized that any of the three of them would be well suited to the needs of her Shadowy Government Agency, if only she could bring them over. She bided her time. Then opportunity and tragedy struck at once. The young man and his sister tried to escape their family. He died in the attempt, and she was arrested by the Hong Kong police. The woman who had once been a detective negotiated with the police for custody of the sister, and soon won it. The sister was everything the woman had hoped for, but still the woman mourned the loss of the boy she'd sought for so long. Then, nearly a year and a half later, the woman found out that the Hong Kong police had not been entirely honest with her. The young man had survived and was in their custody, but they'd kept this secret for reasons of their own. Whatever those reasons were, something had changed, and now the woman was able to convince the Hong Kong authorities to let her have him. And so she finally brought him home."

She stopped talking. Mac felt a little dizzy. He opened his eyes and grabbed her hand. "Is that true?" he demanded. "The whole time - when I was on the street in Hong Kong - when I was in jail - when I knew for sure that no one cared if I lived or died, you were looking for me?"

She shook his hand off and stood up. "Well, don't get excited, Mr. Ramsey," she said in her usual dry tone. "It's only a story."

She left, turning off the light and closing the door behind her.

***

The Director's heels clicked on the floor as she approached her desk, but Dobrinsky didn't turn to look. He was sitting in her chair, transfixed by the computer screen. He was wearing the same clothes she'd seen him in last night when she finally went home - only six hours ago. He obviously hadn't left the office, and probably hadn't slept at all.

When she was close enough to touch him, she cleared her throat. He finally turned and looked at her with bloodshot eyes. She pressed the coffee cup she'd been holding into his hand. "I thought you might need this," she said.

He stared at it blankly for a second, like he'd never seen a Starbucks cup before and didn't know what might be in it.

"Anything?" she asked.

He shook his head, and took a sip of the coffee.

"I'm going to have to pull Vic off it," the Director said. "It's high-profile, and the RCMP are dealing with it. Too visible for us. There's not much he can do at this point, on his own, anyway." She perched on the edge of the desk, and ran her hand over Dobrinsky's smooth head; she massaged his temples gently. "We have no reason to believe Jackie's dead."

"I know," he agreed. Worry lines showed at the corners of his eyes.

"I have a task to get your mind off it for now." She crossed her legs and leaned forward. "I want you to discipline Mac."

Dobrinsky raised an eyebrow. She knew he knew everything she did about Mac's flight from Kingston, except for the why of it. "What sort of discipline?" was all he asked.

"Something that'll keep him here all day. Keep his hands and mind occupied, but nothing physically taxing - Medical told me to let him rest for a few days."

Dobrinsky nodded, not even attempting a trademark sadistic smile. "I'll think of something."

***

Vic knocked on the door of room 525. Li Ann opened it a moment later.

"Ready to go back to Toronto?" he asked.

She nodded her head toward the packed bags sitting on the bed. "Ready if you are."

"I grabbed a few hours' sleep. I'll get some coffee on the way out and I'll be fine." Vic was wearing his coat, and he had his own bag and Mac's slung over his shoulders. Mac's stuff had all been left behind yesterday, of course.

"How are you feeling?" Vic asked Li Ann as she put on her coat and boots.

"Still a bit hung over, but they say I'll be fine by tomorrow." She picked up the bags - her own and Jackie's. "Let's go."

They headed through the hotel, toward the parking garage where Li Ann's car was parked. Vic had left his truck in Toronto, so he'd be driving them back in Li Ann's car.

"So, the Director brought me up to speed on the case but she told me to ask you why the hell you and Mac left town right before the attack," Li Ann mentioned, with a definite edge in her voice, as they rode the elevator down.

Vic grimaced. Trust the Director to make everything harder than it had to be. "She didn't tell you - ? Jeez." There was too much. He didn't know where to start.

He waited until they were in the car and on their way out of the city before telling Li Ann "We met Mac's mother in Harris."

Li Ann turned to him with a puzzled frown. "Mac's mother is dead."

"Yeah, well, that's what I thought, too." Vic tapped his fingers on the steering wheel, waiting for a red light to change. He thought back to the moment in the corridor - was it just yesterday? - when Anita had called Mac's name. "Well, she's not. She's in the nut-house, in a straight-jacket. Apparently she killed some guy. Chopped him up, the Director said."

"Oh my God," Li Ann whispered.

"Yeah, and Mac was there, he was in the apartment when she did it." Just thinking about it again made Vic's guts twist. He felt an unusual twinge of affection towards his own mother. At least she wasn't an axe-murderer.

"And the Director knew? Why didn't she warn us?" Li Ann asked, shock and rage mingling in her tone.

Vic rubbed the bridge of his nose uncomfortably. "Well, she sort of did order me to keep Mac out of the prison," he admitted. Feeling the weight of Li Ann's accusing glare, he added "She didn't make it sound like it was very important at the time."

Out of the corner of his eye, Vic saw Li Ann take a piece of paper out of her jacket pocket and unfold it. "What's Mac's mother's name?" Li Ann asked in a muted voice.

"Anita Ramsey."

"She's one of the missing," Li Ann said. "She's one of the prisoners who was kidnapped in the attack." She turned, wide-eyed, to Vic. "What does that mean?"

Vic shook his head. "I don't know."

***

Li Ann fished in her pocket for her apartment keys, bemused that Vic had insisted on seeing her to her door and waiting until she got in. He wasn't even coming in with her - he'd said he'd rather go straight home and collapse than stay for tea.

Her thoughts were full of Mac. His mother was alive. He'd lied to her. She felt hurt by this, but considering the truth she could understand why Mac had hidden it. Still... this made her wonder about other things he'd told her.

Vic had told her about the drive to Hamilton, too, and about finding Mac freezing in the playground. She felt furious at Mac for risking his life, and Vic's. Underneath the fury, where she could barely feel it, there was cold fear. Somehow, something was going deeply wrong with Mac, something she couldn't understand, control or fix.

She was so preoccupied that she nearly missed seeing the scratch marks around the keyhole - but she was a professional.

"Someone's picked this lock," she whispered to Vic. "An amateur. Left marks."

Instantly, Vic had a gun in his hand. He nodded towards the door. "Wanna open it and see?"

Li Ann set her duffle bag on the floor, got out her own gun, and unlocked the door. She eased the door open. The apartment was dark.

Vic made a move toward the door. "Cover me," he mouthed.

"Stop," Li Ann whispered, putting a hand on his chest. Something was wrong, she could feel it.

That flashing red LED light on the opposite wall. That shouldn't be there. "Get away from the door!" Li Ann shouted to Vic, throwing herself to the side. Vic hit the floor on the other side of the door.

A moment passed, and Li Ann felt a little silly. Maybe she was just being paranoid....

And then the apartment exploded.

***

Mac sneezed. He reached for another tissue, and saw Nathan wincing at the other end of the table.

Dobrinsky had outdone himself this time, in terms of sheer, psychological torture. As punishment for going AWOL, Mac had been assigned today to helping Nathan scan the Agency's apparently infinite stacks of old paper records into the computer.

Spending the day with Nathan in Records would be bad enough under normal circumstances. But today Mac had a cold. The worst cold he'd had in years. His throat was sore, his head ached, his body ached, he felt hot and shivery by turns, and he'd gone through two and a half boxes of Kleenex so far.

And Nathan (surprise) turned out to be severely germ-phobic. He was wearing a surgical mask and latex gloves, and all day he'd stayed as far from Mac as he could get and still do the job. Mac wondered, bitterly, if Nathan was also being punished for something, and his punishment was having to spend the day with Mac. Every time Mac sneezed or coughed, Nathan got twitchier.

It was really wearing Mac down.

Finally, like a signal from heaven, the PA system crackled to life. "Mac Ramsey," Dobrinsky's voice came fuzzily through the speaker, "report to the briefing room."

"Yes, sir," Mac saluted the speaker on the wall, simultaneously sarcastic and enthusiastic. Anything that took him away from Nathan and his baleful looks was a blessing at this point. Mac grabbed the half-empty Kleenex box and headed for the door. "Bye, Nathan."

When Mac got to the briefing room, Vic and Li Ann were there, sitting at the long table. They looked bedraggled. Their faces were dirty. Vic's left hand, resting on the table, was wrapped in a white bandage.

"What happened to you?" Mac asked, grabbing a chair for himself.

"There was an attempt on Li Ann's life this evening," the Director said. Mac spun around to face her - he hadn't realized she was in the room. She was sitting at her desk, bathed in shadows. Her elbows were resting on her desk, and her hands were steepled in front of her. He couldn't see her face. She didn't elaborate. Mac turned to Vic and Li Ann.

"There was a bomb in my apartment," Li Ann explained. "It went off a few seconds after I opened the door."

"Everyone got out of the building safely," Vic added. "But it could have been bad. The bomb started a fire. The fire department's still at the building."

"Holy shit," Mac swore softly, actually forgetting to be miserable about himself for a moment. He felt a rush of adrenaline, belated and useless, at the idea of Li Ann's life at risk. "So your whole apartment was destroyed?" he asked her.

Li Ann shrugged. "It's just things," she said. The tightness in her voice suggested she wasn't quite as philosophical about it as she was trying to seem. How many times in her life would Li Ann have to lose everything she had?

"At this point, we know nothing," the Director said. "The bomb may be related to your current case - or not. The security tapes show nothing. We'll get Forensics in as soon as it's safe."

"What are we going to do?" Vic asked, leaning forward in his chair. "We have to do something."

"No." The Director stood up and moved forward out of the shadows. Mac was shocked to see that she looked tired and frustrated. She wasn't wearing makeup, and her hair hung limp. "There's nothing you can do. Not one of you is fit to operate right now. Jackie's missing. Someone's trying to kill Li Ann. Vic's hand is burnt and Mac is... sick. The best I can do for you now is to try to keep you safe."

"How?" Vic protested. "We don't know anything. We don't even know if Li Ann is the only target."

The Director nodded. "Absolutely right. But I've had teams go over your and Mac's apartments - at least I can tell you there are no bombs in either one, at the moment."

Mac opened his mouth to protest the Agency's invasion of his home, but he sneezed instead. Fucking cold. He sneezed again and grabbed a tissue to blow his nose. Meanwhile, he'd missed the Director saying something.

"Not his place again," Vic was protesting. "Why is it always his place?"

"Because Mac's place is more secure, because the Agency administrates his building," the Director answered. "Now go. The three of you. Try to keep each other alive until I call you again, all right?" On that tender note, she stalked away from them.

Mac's head felt fuzzy, and he knew he'd missed a detail somewhere. "Where are we going?"

Vic clapped Mac on the shoulder with his good hand. "Your apartment," he explained, with a strained sort of pretence of enthusiasm. "All three of us. Until further notice."

***

Vic debated whether to take one of the painkillers the doctor had given him. His hand was throbbing.

He decided to tough it out. It suited his mood.

Li Ann and Mac were sitting at opposite ends of the white couch, both obviously miserable but withdrawn deep into their shells. They both sat with their legs tucked up under them, practically mirror images of each others' postures. Mac had flipped on the TV as soon as they got in, and he and Li Ann had been staring blankly in its general direction for the last half hour. Vic doubted either of them would be able to name the show they were watching, if he asked them.

Li Ann's apartment had been blown up. That was harsh.

Mac sneezed, twice.

"Bless you," Vic murmured for about the tenth time. Mac had obviously come down with one mother of a cold since Vic saw him last. And he hadn't even complained about it - he hadn't said five words since they left the Agency. That worried Vic. Mac was never quiet.

Vic groaned silently to himself. His partners were casting such a thick pall of gloom over the apartment that Vic could taste it. And he didn't have a fucking clue how to cheer either of them up.

"Hey, I'm starving," Vic finally said. "Anyone interested in ordering in?" No response. "If nobody says anything I'm going to get pizza," he warned them, hoping that one of them would perk up enough to insist on their usual weird and inedible version of Chinese food.

Mac looked up, and managed half a grin. "You're not gonna cook?" he asked in a raspy tone.

Vic shook his head, holding up his bandaged left hand.

Mac frowned slightly. "How bad is it?"

Vic shrugged, dismissing it. "It's just a second-degree burn. Hurts like a bitch right now, though." Vic normally wouldn't complain about pain, but he was hoping he could get Mac or Li Ann to talk about their problems by starting the ball rolling himself. This silent moping was just unnatural - especially from Mac. "How are you feeling?"

Mac rubbed the bridge of his nose, and blinked rapidly. "heh-tchshh," he sneezed, and reached for another Kleenex. "I feel like microwaved cat puke."

A tiny giggle escaped Li Ann's corner of the couch.

"How are you doing, Li Ann?" Vic prompted her.

She shrugged helplessly. "Adjusting to being homeless again."

"Hey, you're not homeless," Mac said. "You can always stay here, for as long as you need to."

"Thanks, Mac." Li Ann smiled slightly, and reached over to squeeze his hand.

"Or with me," Vic had to add. Even though right now the Director wasn't making that an option.

The moment had the feel of Mac's and Vic's rivalry over Li Ann in the early days. Each of them tugging at her, trying to convince her to stay with him. And Vic was definitely feeling a twinge of jealousy here. But... he was over Li Ann. He could think, abstractly, about her being with someone else, and it didn't bother him. So what was this jealous feeling about?

"Anyway, I guess I am hungry," Li Ann interrupted Vic's train of thought. "How about I order us something from Chang's? I promise I'll order chicken fried rice for you, Vic."

Vic shrugged his agreement. He'd already decided that Li Ann and Mac needed comfort food more than he did tonight. "Sounds good. Go ahead and order it. I'm going to have a shower now, wash the soot off."

Li Ann frowned. "You can't get that bandage wet."

"I'll put a plastic bag over it."

"That'll be awkward. Want some help?" Mac asked. He looked over at Vic and grinned for the first time that evening.

"With what?" Vic asked.

"Soaping, scrubbing, that kind of thing."

Vic felt his face flushing, and Mac's grin got even wider. "I can do that myself, thanks," Vic said with as much dignity as possible.

It was not nice of Mac to tease him like that. Especially not in front of Li Ann, who was looking at both of them quite curiously.

Leaving Mac to explain himself to Li Ann if he wanted to, Vic left the room quickly.

The shower was awkward with one hand in a plastic bag. While Vic fumbled with the shampoo bottle, his mind drifted back to Mac's joking offer, and before he knew it he was imagining Mac, naked, in the shower with him, soaping his back.

It was a nice thought.

Fuck.

Vic was attracted to Mac.

Vic stood still in the shower, letting the hot water beat against his front. His eyes were closed against the onslaught.

He set the shampoo bottle back on its rack.

"Fuck," he whispered to himself.

It was Mac's fault. He was so physical, always touching Vic, always so obviously aware of his body. He flirted with everything that moved, including Vic, especially Vic, right from the beginning, even when they were fighting over Li Ann.

The last time Vic had been attracted to another guy, well, that had been in high school, and that was just a phase. He'd grown out of it.

Anyway, there were so many things wrong with this idea, Vic hardly knew where to start counting. Vic wasn't gay. That was one. Two: Even if Vic did fall for another guy, it wouldn't be Mac. Vic recited the litany under his breath. "Mac is irresponsible, egotistical, immature, argumentative, and lazy. He's annoying." Yeah. And three: Mac was in love with Li Ann. Everybody knew it, except maybe Li Ann. And four: Mac was going through major shit in his life right now. The Director had asked Vic to help him out. Coming down with a stupid schoolboy crush on him did not count as helping.

When Vic finally emerged from the shower, all he knew was that he couldn't possibly say anything about this to Mac.

Li Ann told Vic that the food should arrive in about fifteen minutes, and then she went to take her turn in the shower.

Mac was lying on the sofa with his eyes closed, a green wool blanket draped over him. Vic wondered if Li Ann had gotten the blanket for him.

Mac looked so strangely fragile, lying there. His cheeks were flushed under the stubble of his beard. He was breathing through his mouth; Vic could hear his soft breaths.

Driven by deep instinct, Vic leaned over and placed his hand against Mac's hot forehead.

Mac's eyes blinked open.

Vic pulled his hand back as though he'd been scorched. "Uh, um, sorry, I, um, didn't mean to wake you up," he stammered, backing away from the couch.

Mac lifted himself up onto one elbow. "I wasn't asleep." He pulled another Kleenex out of the box, blew his nose, and tossed the tissue into a waste basket that had been pulled over to the couch.

"I just - I wanted to check - you sound awful," Vic continued to awkwardly explain himself. He sank into the round red chair near the couch, and promptly fell out of it. "Ack!"

"Don't try to sit on that. It's just for show," Mac said. He was giving Vic a funny, evaluating sort of look, which was only natural since Vic was stumbling and stuttering all over the place, trying to explain away the hand-on-the-forehead thing. Mac tucked his legs in and patted the couch next to him. "Sit on this, it doesn't move."

Vic sat on the couch, not quite as close as Mac had indicated. "When I was a kid, when I was sick, my mother used to do that to see if I had a fever."

Mac reached over and laid his hand across Vic's forehead. "You mean like this?"

Vic swallowed. His mouth was suddenly dry. Mac's hand was warm and rough against his face.

"Kind of silly. You need a thermometer to really tell," Mac noted, withdrawing his hand. "Anyway, don't you hate your mother?"

Vic silently cursed himself for bringing up the topic of mothers. What if this got Mac thinking about Anita? But Mac didn't look freaked out or anything. Vic answered his question. "Well, yeah, we didn't get along. It got worse when I got older. She was pretty good when I was sick, though. She did the mothering thing - made me soup, let me watch TV in bed all day, took me to the doctor, whatever. Problem was she didn't tone it down much when I wasn't sick."

Mac half-smiled. "There wasn't much mothering with the Tangs. If you could stand up, you could work."

"Sounds harsh," Vic commented.

"Just... not soft. In a crime family, it's all about strength, right? You gotta show that you're strong, even when you're not." Mac turned away from Vic suddenly, and sneezed. "Fuck," he muttered under his breath.

"I don't think that's right," Vic said. Mac looked at him curiously. "You shouldn't have to put up a front. Not with the people you trust." What Vic was trying to say was that Mac could talk to him about losing his father, or about Michael, or even about Anita - instead of keeping it all bottled up.

Vic had made his point very obscure, so naturally Mac didn't get it. "Well, the old man wasn't completely cold, he just had high standards," Mac explained. "It was a different story if you got really sick. I got malaria once, when I was seventeen. It was pretty bad - I was in the hospital, and there were a couple days in there I don't remember at all. Father stayed by my side 'till they knew I was going to be OK." Mac's eyes glimmered. He put his hands over his face. "I miss him," he whispered.

Vic put a hand on Mac's shoulder, feeling awkward. He thought he should say something but he couldn't think of anything.

And then the door buzzer went, and Li Ann stepped out of the bathroom at the same time.

Vic went to the door to buzz the delivery guy up, and Li Ann went to Mac. Vic heard her ask Mac what was wrong, and he heard Mac reply in Chinese. When Vic came back in with the bag of food, Mac and Li Ann were talking softly in Chinese with their heads close together, and both of them had tears running down their cheeks.

Vic felt uncomfortable, isolated by the intimacy of their pain. He also felt jealous, even though he knew it was a petty feeling. He wanted to remind them of the rule they'd established right in the beginning: no talking Chinese while Vic's in the room, it's not fair.

He found the container of fried rice, took it to the dining room table, and ate alone. He could make out the murmur of their conversation, and after a while there was laughter interspersed in it.

Mac and Li Ann came out to the dining area just as Vic was finishing up the rice. They were both red-eyed, but smiling.

"You didn't eat all the eel, did you, Vic?" Mac asked, sitting down and checking out the containers.

"Yeah, sorry about that. It just smelled so good...."

Li Ann gave Vic a puzzled look, until Mac showed her the untouched eel and she realized Vic was joking. "Sorry we left you to eat by yourself," she said softly to Vic.

"s'OK," Vic said, feeling vaguely guilty for having felt jealous. "I guess you two have a lot you need to talk about."

"Yeah." Mac reached across the table to take Li Ann's hand in his. Seeing this, Vic felt an envious twinge. He wished Mac had reached for his hand... or was he just feeling remnants of the old rivalry over Li Ann? It was so confusing.

"It was good to remember some good times, for once," Li Ann said, smiling at Mac. "It was good to laugh." And she squeezed Mac's hand, and then gently but firmly pulled her hand away from his.

A hurt-puppy look flashed in Mac's eyes, so quickly Vic wondered if he'd imagined it, and then Mac snapped apart a pair of chopsticks and reached into the container of eel, muttering something about the food getting cold.

Jesus, Vic groaned silently in his thoughts, It's like we're teenagers again. Vic likes Mac but Mac likes Li Ann, but Li Ann doesn't like Mac. Maybe I should lock myself in Mac's bedroom and light a candle and write some bad poetry.

***

Vic woke up to the sound of coughing. He rolled over - and nearly fell off the couch.

Vic and Mac were sleeping on the two couches in the living room, yielding Mac's bed to Li Ann. Mac wasn't sleeping now, though. In the dim city-glow from the window, Vic could see that Mac was sitting up.

Mac coughed again.

"You OK?" Vic asked, rubbing his sleepy eyes. What time was it?

"Yeah, go back to sleep," Mac replied. His voice was stuffy and raspy - he sounded even worse than he had in the evening. Go back to sleep? No way - Vic's protective instincts drove him into action.

Vic padded into the kitchen in the dark, and opened the fridge, hoping Mac would have orange juice or something. He didn't - but there was a carton of lychee fruit juice. Vic wasn't exactly sure what that was, but hey, it said "fruit" and the expiry date hadn't passed, so he poured a glass and brought it back out to the living room. "Here," he said, holding the cold glass out for Mac to take, "have something to drink, you'll feel better."

"I doubt it," Mac muttered darkly, sniffling, but he took the glass and sipped at the juice. Vic turned to head back to his own sleeping place, but Mac said "Wait! Stay here?"

"Uh-" Vic stuttered, taken totally off guard. "Um, OK - what?"

Mac moved his feet off the couch and patted the spot beside him. "Sit down?"

Vic sat, wondering what was up. Mac didn't sound quite normal. OK, obviously he didn't sound normal, he had a vicious head cold that was messing up his voice, but now he sounded... tentative? That couldn't be right - Mac was never tentative about anything. Full speed ahead and deal with the consequences later, that was Mac's style.

"This reminds me of that time you brought me a glass of water," Mac said. He sounded pensive, sort of wistful. He sipped at the juice again.

"Huh?" Vic rubbed his forehead, confused. Had he ever brought Mac a glass of water? Probably, but no incident stood out as memorable in any way.

"The night after you broke my hand, I mean," Mac clarified.

"Uh?" Vic looked sharply at Mac, frowning. "I never broke your hand."

"Yeah, sure," Mac shrugged, "It was my fault, right?" Before Vic could protest in confusion, Mac added "Seems like you're in a good mood tonight, huh?"

Vic shook his head slowly, trying to remember Mac breaking his hand. Vic hadn't just forgotten that, had he? No - there hadn't been many injuries in their team over the past year, and Vic wouldn't forget a major one like a broken hand. "You never broke your hand," he insisted.

"Forget it," Mac said. "Thanks for the juice. Wanna have sex?"

Vic choked. "ah, huh, what!?" he spluttered, barely remembering to keep his voice his voice down so as not to wake Li Ann.

Mac looked at him expectantly, waiting for an answer.

What the hell what the hell what the hell? Had Mac somehow picked up on the fact that Vic was maybe, kind of, attracted to him? And decided to act on it, that fast? Well, Vic knew now that Mac was bi. And Vic had always known that Mac was, um, forward.

No way. Vic was not going from zero to sex in five minutes flat.

Was Mac just teasing Vic, trying to get him uncomfortable, like always - or was he honestly attracted to him?

Vic stared at Mac, trying to sort through his whirling thoughts. Mac sipped at the juice, staring back at Vic over the rim of the cup. In the semi-darkness, Mac's eyes looked black. They were brown, really. How did Vic know that? He was a detective, he was observant, that was all. The silk pyjamas Mac was wearing looked black, too, but Vic remembered they were really navy blue. The top couple buttons were undone and at the bottom of the pale triangle of exposed flesh, Vic could just see Mac's dark, curly chest hair. He had a crazy impulse to reach over and touch Mac there, which he resisted. So different from the smoothness between Li Ann's breasts - but different didn't mean better or worse.

Vic's heart thumped wildly; he could hear his blood pumping. He was terrified that he was having these thoughts.

"Is something wrong?" Mac asked.

Vic realized he'd been silent for quite a while. But if Mac didn't think that there was anything wrong with randomly asking Vic, in the middle of the night, if he wanted to have sex, well then he certainly had a different understanding of their working relationship than Vic did. "No," Vic finally managed to say. His mouth was almost too dry to talk. He grabbed the juice glass from Mac and gulped a couple mouthfuls. The lychee juice tasted sweet and smooth and light - nice, actually. "No, I don't want to have sex," he elaborated.

Mac slumped back against the couch. "OK, whatever," he said softly. He sounded profoundly hurt.

The hurt in Mac's voice cut into Vic like a knife. Fuck. Why was he hurt? Did he have... feelings... for Vic? It seemed crazy, impossible. But he'd kissed Vic at the New Year's party - not Li Ann - Vic remembered. Maybe Mac had secretly been attracted to Vic for a long time. And now he'd finally managed to say something about it - not the most appropriate something, but Li Ann had mentioned before that Mac had a lot of trouble talking about his feelings for her, and maybe Mac had the same problem with anyone. So Mac had just managed to tell Vic, in a roundabout way, that he liked him, and Vic had shot him down. Fuck. Vic was messing things up here completely, wasn't he?

Vic tentatively put his hand on Mac's shoulder. Mac didn't move away; he looked at Vic. "I mean, um, everything doesn't have to go so fast, right?" Vic said, feeling so awkward, like a teenager. He was grateful for the darkness; Mac wouldn't be able to see him blushing, or see the sweat that Vic felt breaking out on his forehead. He was so nervous. "Maybe we could just try... kissing?" Vic's voice faded away on the last word, and he wasn't sure if Mac had even heard him.

Mac sniffled. "I have a cold," he reminded Vic, like Vic could have forgotten. "You'll get pissed with me if you catch it...."

"Jesus," Vic swore, almost laughing. "I already drank out of your glass. We're sleeping in the same room. If I'm going to catch it, I'll catch it without kissing you. And I won't blame you." It was weird for Mac to worry about Vic getting mad at him, anyway. Didn't they traditionally spend half their waking hours trying to antagonize each other?

And then Mac leaned over and kissed him.

Vic wasn't ready for this. He was. He wasn't. He was.

Vic's eyes popped open in stunned surprise when Mac leaned in and his lips met Vic's, but after a second or two, when they weren't struck by lightning for this transgression, Vic let his eyes close.

This was the third time they'd kissed, actually. The first was the New Year's party, which Mac didn't remember. The second was two nights ago at the hotel in Kingston. This time, Vic wasn't surprised by the sandpaper feeling of Mac's beard stubble. He was already familiar with that.

The surprising thing was how nice this felt.

The kiss went on, and Vic lifted a hand to Mac's chest, touching him in the V of his unbuttoned collar, just as he'd imagined doing a few moments ago. The hair on Mac's chest was softer than Vic had imagined it. Vic's fingers trailed upwards, over the ridge of Mac's collar bone, up the side of his neck. Mac shivered when Vic's fingers traced the side of his face, but he didn't break away from the kiss. Mac's face was warm against Vic's fingertips, and his lips pressing against Vic's were hot - too hot, actually, Mac was definitely feverish. Vic suddenly felt desperately afraid that for Mac, this was all a surreal fever dream that he wouldn't remember in the morning. Vic broke away from the kiss. "Tell me this is real," he whispered.

"You're acting weird tonight," Mac said. "I'm not used to you being so... gentle. What's wrong?"

Vic was seriously confused. "Nothing's wrong. I mean, I thought you realized... I'm sort of realizing that I like you..." OK, that didn't come out right at all. Vic sounded like an idiot to his own ears. This was all so fast and confusing.

"I don't understand why you don't want to have sex tonight," Mac said. He was using that strange, hesitant tone again. "I'll do whatever you want. Anything."

Vic sat back against the couch, making space between him and Mac. He needed space. "I don't... I don't move that fast." Vic stared out the window at the distant streetlights, his mind racing, trying to sort out Mac's mercurial advances. Mac was acting like it should be a given that Vic would have sex with him - where the hell had he got that idea?

"Anything you want," Mac repeated, and he grabbed Vic's hand. Vic turned to look at him again.

Since it was so dark in the room, it took a moment for Vic to resolve the new shapes and figure out what he was seeing.

Mac had grabbed Vic's gun off the table near the couch. He held it now with the barrel between his lips.

Oh God.

White-hot adrenaline flashed through Vic's veins. He'd left the ammo in the gun. He couldn't see, in the dim light, whether the safety was still on or not.

Mac was pulling Vic's hand up towards the gun. Vic didn't dare resist. He didn't dare make any sudden movements. "What's wrong with you?" he whispered.

Mac pulled the gun out to the edge of his lips, so he could talk. "Nothing's wrong," he said. "You taught me this game and I like it now."

Mac's eyes were black hollows in the pale glow of his face, and the gun was a deadly dark shadow in the middle. Vic wanted to pull it away but it was still Mac's finger on the trigger - Mac was just holding Vic's hand against the side of the grip. Vic could feel his hand shaking, but Mac was steadying it. Fear buzzed in Vic's ears. Mac had flipped, completely lost it. He didn't even sound upset, and he was sticking a gun in his mouth.

The only important thing, now, was to get the gun away from Mac. Vic could figure out everything else later. "OK, know what? I want to have sex after all," Vic said, forcing himself to sound calm.

"Really?" Mac sounded instantly happy. He let the gun drop a bit, but it was still pointing at his face.

"I'll put the gun away," Vic offered, keeping his tone casual, level.

"OK," Mac said easily, handing it butt-first to Vic.

Not quite daring to breathe, Vic re-engaged the safety - holy fuck, it'd been off the whole time - and popped the clip out. Beside him, Mac sneezed roughly. Jesus, what if he'd sneezed while he still held the gun to his mouth? Vic breathed a silent prayer of thanks for deliverance and, with trembling hands, put the gun and clip on the floor and shoved them both away, in different directions.

Mac was still waiting, co-operatively, on the couch. Vic took a deep breath, then grabbed him, shoving him face-down onto the couch and pinning his arms behind him in one motion. Vic pressed his knee against the small of Mac's back, making sure the other man couldn't move - but Mac didn't even resist.

"LI ANN!" Vic yelled, practically screamed. "LI ANN!!"

She appeared in seconds, gun at the ready. "What's going on?" she asked, scanning the room for threats.

Underneath Vic, Mac yelled "Hey!" and started trying to resist - but Vic had a really good hold on him.

"Call the Director," Vic demanded, straining to keep Mac immobile.

Li Ann, meanwhile, had come around to where she could see the boys. "Mac? What on earth is going on?"

"Mac's flipped out completely," Vic said, "he just tried to shoot himself!"

Li Ann made a choking sound of shock and horror. Meanwhile, Mac shook his head and struggled harder and insisted "No I didn't! Don't listen to him, Li Ann, he's lying!"

Li Ann hesitated for a moment, then ran to the phone.

Over Mac's continuing protests, Vic heard Li Ann speaking into the phone, distinctly but with an audible edge of panic, "My friend just tried to kill himself. .... No, he's not hurt but my other friend is holding him down now, and he's struggling, and I don't know what he might do next..." Li Ann gave Mac's address, and hung up.

Vic looked at her. "That wasn't the Director."

"No," Li Ann admitted. She flipped on the overhead light and came quickly to the couch, staying clear of Mac's flailing legs. "That was 911. The Director had him yesterday and she didn't do him any good, did she?"

"Li Ann, Michael's making stuff up to get me in trouble!" Mac shouted.

"Michael?" Li Ann repeated. She and Vic stared at Mac for a moment, both of them confused.

Vic suddenly had a terrible flash of insight. "Did Michael ever break Mac's hand?"

"What?" Li Ann stared at Vic now, still confused. "Uh, yes, actually. Years and years ago - I was still in high school."

All the inconsistencies, the strange questions, fell into perspective. "He thinks I'm Michael," Vic said dully. "Ever since he woke up, he's been thinking I'm Michael." When they kissed. When they kissed, Mac thought he was kissing Michael. Vic felt profoundly hurt, and enraged, and scared. He shoved Mac hard down into the cushions of the couch, drove his knee into his back. "I'm not Michael!" he shouted at Mac. "I'm Vic! Vic! VIC!"

"Vic!" the shout echoed in Li Ann's voice, and Vic found himself flying sideways to land on his ass on the floor. Li Ann had thrown herself at him to get him away from Mac. "What the hell were you doing?" Li Ann exclaimed. Her eyes were wide - they darted back and forth from one apparently crazy partner to the other, as she obviously wondered which one needed restraining more.

Mac sat up but he didn't try to go anywhere. "Vic?" he repeated in a small voice.

"I, uh, think he's been hallucinating," Vic explained himself lamely to Li Ann, standing up and rubbing his ass.

"Michael?" Mac said, still very softly, looking at Vic. He stood up and Li Ann and Vic both lunged toward him to grab him - so they both managed to catch him as he fell. He was staring blankly in front of him, now. His face was pale, he was shaking violently and his teeth were chattering. Vic wondered, wildly, if he was having a seizure of some sort.

The door buzzed. "The paramedics," Li Ann said. "Have you got him OK?"

Vic got a better grip on Mac and lowered him to the floor, holding him in a tight hug. Mac seemed completely oblivious to his presence now. He was making low-pitched gasping, moaning noises, like weeping maybe but his eyes were dry. Vic held on tight. His confusion and hurt buzzed in the background, shoved aside by fear.

Li Ann let the paramedics in. There were two, a black man and a red-haired woman. They both came and crouched near Mac and Vic. "What's his name?" the woman asked briskly.

Mac's shaking subsided a bit, maybe in reaction to the paramedics' calm, professional demeanour. "It's Mac," Vic said.

"Mac, can you hear me?" the woman asked. Mac didn't respond.

"We'd better take him in," the man said, and the woman nodded. "Mac, we're going to have to strap you to this chair to get you down to the ambulance."

Vic and Li Ann hovered close, ready to help out if Mac resisted the paramedics, but they didn't have to do anything. He'd gone completely passive and unresponsive.

"Can one of you come with us in the ambulance?" the female paramedic asked as she tightened the last strap.

"I'm his sister," Li Ann said immediately. "I'll come." Ignoring the slightly puzzled look the paramedic gave her, Li Ann squeezed Vic's arm. "You'd better call the Director," she said.

Li Ann pulled her winter coat and boots on right over her pyjamas. The paramedics wheeled Mac out the door. Li Ann shot one worried look back at Vic, then followed them.

Vic closed the door to Mac's apartment, and locked it. He leaned his back against the door, and slowly sank down to the floor, ending with his face resting on his knees and his hands entwined behind his head.

Alone in Mac's apartment, with no immediate responsibilities, no one to react to, no one to see him, Vic let the stress and the emotional roller-coaster ride of the past three days catch up to him. He sat on the floor with his back to the door and his head on his knees and wept, without wondering why.


Part Four



Location Unknown, January 7th 1999

tick...tick...tick...scritch!...tick...tick

Jackie started out of her light sleep at the sound. She lifted her head, wincing a little at the cricks in her neck. A few aches were inevitable given her sleeping position: curled up on a cold, dirty concrete floor, handcuffed to a heavy pipe that ran the length of the cinderblock wall she now leaned against. Her wrists ached where she'd been pulling on the cuffs in her sleep. She shivered. She was cold all over. At least someone had come by while she was asleep and put a blanket over her.

A short man in a ragged old green coat had entered the small room where Jackie and another woman were restrained. His boots clacked on the floor as though there were tacks stuck into their soles - that was the sound which had woken Jackie.

The short man approached the other woman first. She was handcuffed to a pipe running along the wall opposite Jackie's. She was young, maybe twenty, and quite overweight. Her drab denim clothes indicated that she had been a prisoner in the same institution Jackie had been trying to guard. A blanket had been draped over her shoulders, too.

"Wakey, wakey, time for your medicine, darling," the short man crooned. His voice was old and cracked. He reached out a wrinkled hand to shake the woman's shoulder.

The woman blinked her eyes open, and shifted into a sitting position. "Ow," she mumbled, obviously feeling some of the same aches Jackie was feeling.

"Time for your medicine," the man repeated. He wasn't the same person who had brought them pills before. That time - how long ago had it been? six hours? twelve? there was no real way to tell - it had been a young black man who brought the pills. This was an old white man. Jackie didn't recognize either of them.

"All right," the woman said. "Then can I go to the bathroom? I really have to pee."

The man gave no sign of noticing the puddle or the smell that indicated the woman had already been overcome by that particular need. "Very soon, dear," he promised. "Take your medicine, and then in a little while someone else will come and take the cuffs off, and give you the big introductory tour."

"Oh, good!" the woman said, smiling like the man had honestly pleased her. She opened her mouth wide, like a baby bird. The man put something on her tongue, then held a glass of water to her lips, from which she drank greedily. Then she gaped her mouth wide at the man. He nodded approvingly, then crossed the small room to crouch by Jackie.

"Now you, dear," he said. Jackie forced herself not to lean away from him, despite his bad breath and the three ugly hairs on his chin. She was taking her behavioural cues from the woman across the room. This time the woman had been alert and co-operative; therefore Jackie would be alert and co-operative. She opened her mouth wide and let the man put a round blue pill on her tongue; she successfully resisted the urge to bite his fingers off.

Jackie closed her mouth. When she was younger, she'd mastered the trick of tying a cherry stem into a knot using only her tongue. In comparison, the trick of quickly shifting the pill under her tongue before the man raised the water glass to her lips was dead easy. She gulped the water, keeping the pill securely tucked under her tongue. Then she smiled at the man.

"Now just let me see under your tongue, darling," the man said.

Damn. He wasn't quite as gullible as the last guy had been. Jackie thought fast. She started to open her mouth, but stopped, wrinkling her nose. "Just a sec," she gasped. "ah-Choo!" she pretended to sneeze. She let herself double over; her loose hair fell in front of her face, an effective shield as she quickly spat the pill out onto her lap, letting it get lost in the folds of her blanket. She sat up and sniffled dramatically. "Sorry," she said sweetly. "I think I'm catching a cold. The floor here's, like, kind of cold and damp, you know." Then she opened her mouth wide and let the guy look under her tongue.

It had been a pretty dumb ruse, but it worked on the guy. He nodded, satisfied, and left, telling them once more that someone would come for them soon.

Toronto, Canada, the same day

Vic shuffled his feet uncomfortably and tucked his thumbs into his pockets. By his side, Li Ann waited calmly for the orderly to come open the locked door to the psych ward and let them in.

Vic didn't want to be here, but he couldn't come up with an excuse good enough to keep him away without making Li Ann suspicious. He'd tried playing the "It's too dangerous, the Director told us all to stay in Mac's apartment because someone's trying to kill you," card, but that had failed for all the obvious reasons. Li Ann had just pointed out that she'd already gone to the hospital with Mac in the first place, last night, and then come home alone in a cab a few hours later, and the Director hadn't even reamed her out for it. Besides, Li Ann's loyalty to family far outstripped her concern for her personal safety, and Mac was the only family she had left.

A tall, dark-skinned Asian man in green scrubs opened the door for Li Ann and Vic. "Who are you here to see?" he greeted them, ushering them in to the quiet, brightly lit ward.

"Mac Ramsey," Li Ann said.

"Oh!" the man raised his eyebrows. "We've all been pretty curious about him." His tone of voice suggested a hope that they would give him some juicy news to pass on to his co-workers.

"Curious why?" Li Ann asked.

"The guard outside his door, for one thing. And then the doctor who's treating him - that doctor's not one of the hospital staff, and none of us have ever seen him before."

Li Ann met Vic's glance sideways, and mouthed the word 'Agency.' Out loud, she said to the inquisitive orderly, "We don't really know much of anything, we're just his family."

The orderly shrugged. "Oh well, that's his room - the one with the guard."

The "guard" looked vaguely familiar to Vic - he thought he'd seen him before, maybe at an Agency party. He looked like a Secret Service guy now, standing outside the hospital room in a neat black suit; he even had one of those little radio receivers in his ear. He turned his head slightly to face Vic and Li Ann, and gave them a fraction of a nod, keeping his face impassive.

Like all the rooms in the psych ward, Mac's room was single-occupancy and had a big window in the wall connecting it to the central hub, so the nurses at their station could keep an eye on the patient. Through the window, Vic saw Mac. He was sitting on the bed, picking at a tray of hospital food. He was still wearing the navy blue pyjamas, the only clothes he had with him. Vic had in his hand an overnight bag with some clothes and toiletries which Li Ann had packed for Mac.

Li Ann went into the room, and Vic was forced to follow. He couldn't tell Li Ann the real reason he didn't want to come to the hospital to visit Mac, which was that Vic was completely shattered inside by the discovery that Mac thought Vic was Michael when he kissed him last night. He didn't know what the hell he'd say to Mac now. He didn't know how much Mac would remember, and he didn't really want to find out.

"Hi, Mac, how are you feeling?" Li Ann asked. She grabbed the one chair in the room and pulled it over to the side of the bed. Vic remained standing, just inside the door. He leaned against the wall, trying to look casual.

"Not hungry enough to eat this," Mac said, grimacing at the tray of food he held. His voice and motions struck Vic as slightly subdued. Mac's tone was a bit softer than usual, and the rhythm of his words was just slightly too slow. "I think the white stuff's supposed to be potato. Not sure about the yellow stuff. Want some?" Finding no takers, he put the tray down on the table by the bed. He coughed, and grabbed a tissue from a nearby box to blow his nose. He still had a cold, of course, though he sounded better than yesterday.

Vic shifted his position slightly; the light switch was digging into his back between his shoulder blades. He wanted to know what Mac remembered from last night. No, he didn't want to know. He needed to know. But he couldn't ask. He stayed silent, letting Li Ann do the talking.

"I meant... what did the doctor say?" Li Ann was obviously trying to avoid directly asking Mac if he was still crazy.

"I had... an isolated breakdown, triggered by stress. That's what he told me. I don't know what he told the Director."

"The Director?" Li Ann repeated. "When was she here?"

Mac shrugged, and shifted back on the bed so he could lean against the wall. "Dunno. Earlier. I don't have a really good sense of time, I'm all tranked up."

He was on tranquillizers - that explained the strange, subdued way he was acting. Li Ann looked concerned. "What did they give you?" she asked.

Mac shrugged again. "They didn't tell me. I feel like there's a Plexiglas shield between me and the world." He lifted one hand, extending his fingers towards Li Ann as though he were touching the invisible shield. Then he stared at his fingers for a few seconds. He wiggled them, and watched them with an air of fascination. "It's kind of nice," he mused.

Vic cleared his throat. "Hey," he said by way of a greeting, "We brought some stuff for you. Clothes, and Li Ann bought you a couple magazines."

"I thought you might be bored in here," Li Ann explained.

"Yeah..." Mac agreed listlessly. He scratched his chin, which was dark with a couple days' growth of stubble, and slumped down more against the wall. "I guess. Right now I'm just sleepy."

Li Ann looked at Vic. "We should probably go, let Mac rest."

"Sure," Vic agreed, managing not to sound desperately enthusiastic.

Li Ann stood up. "I want to go to the washroom before we go - I'll just be a minute. Wait here."

Before Vic could propose an alternate plan, she was gone. A little voice inside Vic's head whimpered silently.

"Hey, Vic?" Mac said. He shifted, sitting up a bit straighter.

"Uh, yeah?"

"About last night. I'm not sure..." he hesitated, "I'm not sure what was real."

Neither was Vic, in a sense. "What do you remember?" he asked Mac, feeling his heart pounding faster.

Mac sort of laughed, without smiling. "I remember being with Michael."

Vic felt his heart breaking just a little bit more. "You were talking in your sleep," he lied. "Woke me up. You were mumbling, I couldn't make out what you were saying. Then suddenly you got up, grabbed my gun from the table, and stuck it in your mouth."

Mac nodded, slowly. "And that's when Li Ann called 911?"

"Pretty much."

"It wasn't as bad as it looked," Mac said. "I mean, I wasn't going to shoot myself." He darted a glance at the door, and lowered his voice to barely above a whisper. Vic had to move closer to hear him. "I know that's what you were thinking. But I wasn't. Michael and I used to play with guns. It was just a sex thing."

Oh, and that made it any less fucked up and terrifying?

"Talk about it with the doctor," Vic said gruffly. "It's none of my business."

Mac coughed again. "You haven't told Li Ann anything - about me and Michael, have you?" he asked, keeping his voice very quiet.

"Of course not," Vic answered, annoyed that Mac would doubt him. "You can trust me to keep a secret."

"Good," Mac said.

Li Ann returned to the room. They said their goodbyes, and the visit ended.

Location Unknown, the same day

Jackie hungrily slurped the bowl of ramen noodles she'd been given. She was fairly sure the food wasn't drugged. Since her captors believed they were successfully giving her pills, drugged food would be redundant.

She shifted her legs, enjoying her freedom of movement. A woman had finally come and removed her handcuffs, and brought her to this larger room where people were eating.

It was a motley collection of people in the room with Jackie. Most of them were dressed randomly and appallingly in what looked like Salvation Army leftovers. It was freezing cold in this place where they were, so everyone was wearing layers upon layers. A typical woman, grey-haired and stout, wore a bright green polyester sweater over a pale pink turtleneck, baggy yellow pants, and mismatched sneakers (one blue hightop, one red running shoe). She had a ragged purple feather boa draped artfully around her shoulder. She caught Jackie looking at her, and gave a dramatic wink. Jackie giggled; it was too absurd.

There were also a handful of people wearing denim prison jump-suits. They all looked rather stunned and uncomfortable, but all of them were enthusiastically attacking their noodles. They must have been taken from the Kingston prison and only now released into the cafeteria, like Jackie.

Jackie recognized most of the faces of the oddly-dressed people from the case files she'd studied before going to Kingston. They had all been inmates in the "nuthouse" - to use Vic's term - in Alberta. Interestingly, other than their criminally bad fashion sense, none of them seemed to be crazy. The same went for the new arrivals. In contrast to the bedlam Jackie had seen inside the Harriss Memorial, everyone here was behaving in a normal, orderly way, talking calmly with their neighbours as they ate. No one rolled on the floor screaming. No one stood up and tore their clothes off and ran around the room. No one tried to harm themselves with their soup spoon. Jackie suspected this had to do with the pills.

She recalled the progression of the woman she'd been locked in the room with, whose name she had learned was Sara. When they'd first been left, restrained, in the room, Sara had immediately fallen into ranting incoherently and occasionally banging her head against the wall. Then the man had come in with pills for Jackie and Sara - two pills for each of them, and of course Jackie had avoided taking hers. Not long after that, Sara had fallen asleep. Supposing that it was an effect of one of the pills, and seeing that there wasn't anything else she could do, Jackie had allowed herself to sleep, too. They woke up when the second man came with pills for them; that time, Sara had been alert and coherent. After the man left, Jackie had talked with Sara a bit. Sara remembered being liberated from prison by a purple kangaroo, and she remembered being tied up in a "dark, noisy, moving place" for a long time. That was consistent with Jackie's experience of being taken from the prison by people in costume (who had had mistaken Jackie as an inmate, despite the fact that she wasn't dressed as one, because when they arrived she had loudly proclaimed to the nearest giant bunny rabbit that she was the Queen of Spain and she demanded to know what the Vikings were doing in her castle), and then being bound and gagged and blindfolded and put in the back of a tractor trailer for an interminably long ride.

So. The Mad Millennium group kidnapped crazy people and drugged them into sanity? There had to be more to this picture. Jackie spooned up the last of the soup broth in her bowl, and considered her next move. She had to get away, but she wanted to learn as much as she could, first.

She had a drug-related problem of her own to consider. It had been at least one day, maybe two, since she'd last taken her medication. She could already feel herself starting to slip. Her mind and her emotions felt less controlled. Looking around the room at the oddly-dressed people, she could barely stop herself from laughing. And she knew that she had to get in contact with the Agency... but that need seemed less and less pressing all the time, next to her curiosity about what was going on here, and whether it might get more amusing.

All right. She had to find a way to contact the Agency fast, before she forgot which side she was on.

Toronto, Canada, the next day

Vic read the last lines of the paperback thriller he'd picked up at the hospital yesterday. He closed the book and put it down on the couch next to him, and sighed. He wished he'd bought another one. Mac hardly had any reading material in his apartment, and what there was, was in Chinese. There was nothing good on daytime TV. Vic was amazed to find himself wishing he could go to work - but the Director was still keeping them all in exile from the Agency. Mac had come home from the hospital around ten this morning, escorted by Dobrinsky. There were still no leads on who had planted the bomb in Li Ann's apartment, and the Director had ordered the three of them to keep lying low in Mac's apartment. That didn't sit well with Vic - not when Jackie was missing in action, probably being held prisoner by some sort of evil cult. Why wouldn't the Director let the team do anything?

OK, Vic knew the reasons. They didn't know where Jackie was, and Vic still had the injured hand which severely limited his usefulness, and Mac... well, Mac probably wasn't ready to work just yet.

At the moment, Mac was in the other room working out on his home gym. He'd been at it for hours. He was using the punching bag now; Vic could hear the staccato thuds of Mac's bare fists striking the bag.

Vic stood up. He felt restless. He decided to join Mac in working out. Vic hadn't had any real exercise in days, and his body didn't feel right.

He went into the bathroom to change into shorts and an old blue t-shirt, then joined Mac in the corner of the apartment where he kept his home gym. Mac was still working the punching bag, now practising those high kicks he liked so much. He was wearing loose black cotton pants, and a sleeveless grey t-shirt which was almost completely soaked with sweat. Sweat glistened on Mac's bare, muscular arms, held close to his body now as he extended his right leg in a series of high, snapping kicks to the punching bag, and sweat trickled down the sides of Mac's face. His short hair curled close to his head, dark in its dampness. His gaze was intense, focused on his target; his eyes didn't flicker towards Vic, though he must have noticed Vic's approach.

Vic caught himself staring, caught himself holding his breath. Mac was beautiful. How had Vic denied this for so long? His strength, his grace, his long limbs, the slight smile he allowed himself now as he switched his stance and started the same series of kicks with his left leg. The smile - he was aware that Vic was watching him.

Like everyone Vic had ever fallen for, Mac was beautiful, and flawed, and hurt, and unattainable.

Vic started doing a few stretches to warm up. He wouldn't do a hard workout today, he decided. With his left hand injured, he was limited in what he could do.

Mac stood in front of the punching bag, both feet on the floor. He was breathing hard. He leaned against the bag and coughed.

"You OK?" Vic asked, trying to sound casual. For a guy who'd been hospitalized twice in the past three days, Mac was working himself pretty hard.

Mac grinned at him and swiped his hand over his forehead, sending droplets of sweat flying. "Fine. Exercise is good for a cold." Mac went out to the kitchen and came back chugging a bottle of water.

Vic decided to start with the pec deck. He checked the weight; Mac had it set to 90 pounds. Good enough. He set down and braced his arms against the pads. He brought the pads together in front of his face, and started counting reps.

They worked out in mutual silence for a while. Mac worked on triceps extension; Vic could just see him out of the corner of his eye, grunting slightly with exertion every time he pulled the bar down to his shoulders. Then Vic switched to the leg press. In position for the leg press, he had a much better view of Mac. The muscles and veins on Mac's arms stood out in sharp definition as he strained to pull the bar down. His arms were shaking a bit. He must be getting tired; he'd been working out for hours.

Mac finished his set. He picked a small towel up off the floor and patted it over his face. "How's your hand?" he asked Vic.

"Can't use it yet," Vic answered, his voice tight with the force he was using to work the leg press. "Doesn't hurt much."

"How long do you think the Director's going to keep us penned up here?" Mac lay down on the floor with his knees bent, and started to do crunches.

"Dunno."

"This isn't right," Mac said, speaking in brief breaks between crunches. "We should be out there, finding who planted the bomb at Li Ann's place, looking for Jackie...."

Vic grunted his agreement.

Mac sat up all the way and looked at Vic. "So let's go. I know Li Ann'll agree."

Vic shook his head. He wasn't about to remind Mac of what had happened the last time Vic had ignored the Director's orders: Mac had encountered his crazy, axe-murderer mother in the Harriss Memorial after Vic ignored the Director's explicit instructions to keep himself and Mac out of that place. Mac had flipped out, and Vic had had to chase him across half of Ontario in a blizzard to save him from himself. All Vic said now was "The Director doesn't want us to get in the way of the RCMP. They're handling the Mad Millennium case now. And we don't have any leads on the bomb, so what could we do?"

Mac made a frustrated growling sound, and started doing crunches again, setting a faster pace than before.

"I don't like it either," Vic said. Mac ignored him. Vic sighed, and resumed working the leg press.

The phone rang in the other room.

"Hello?" Li Ann answered it.

A minute later she came in to the room where the boys were, looking excited. "Jackie's contacted the Director!" she announced. "We're going to go rescue her!"

***

Mac, Vic and Li Ann sat around the table in the briefing room, impatiently waiting for the Director. Mac drummed his fingers on the table. Li Ann crossed her legs, then re-crossed them the other way. Vic craned his head around to look up the stairs. She must know they'd arrived, she'd be down any second now....

The Director had told Li Ann on the phone that she wanted the team assembled in thirty minutes. Mac had quickly showered; his hair was still wet and Vic could just barely smell the soap he'd used. Vic hadn't even worked up a sweat in his aborted workout, so he'd just thrown some proper clothes on, and then Mac had driven them all to the Agency in his car.

"What's taking her so long?" Mac grumbled.

"Taking who so long?" the Director asked sweetly, right behind Mac. Mac jumped in his seat. Vic was startled, too. Damn, he'd only looked away for a second - how did the Director do that?

"Jackie's been missing since Tuesday," Li Ann pointed out. "I'm pretty tired of waiting for you to let us do something about it."

Vic looked with surprise at Li Ann - did she just tell off the Director? Over Jackie?

"Well let's just say that this team isn't my first choice." The Director made sure the boys, in particular, caught her glare. "I'd rather give you all another week of quiet time, but you know Jackie, so you're my best choice to go in and kidnap her."

"Kidnap?" Vic repeated, puzzled. "Aren't we rescuing her?"

The Director waved her fingers loosely in the air. "Rescue, kidnap, pot-aye-to, pot-ah-to... actually, Jackie may not come willingly. She's been off her meds for a few days, you see, and she may be unstable. There's no way to predict how she'll react when she sees you."

"So what's the plan?" Li Ann asked.

"Jackie's being held in an abandoned factory in Belleville." The Director perched on an empty chair, flipped up one of the computers inset in the table, and pressed a few keys to bring up a schematic map. "She estimates there are about thirty people there with her, including about eight of the prisoners from Harriss."

The prisoners from Harriss? God damn, Vic had managed to forget up 'till now that where Jackie was, Mac's mom might also be. And the Director was going to just send Mac in there?

Vic noticed Li Ann frowning; she caught his eye, glanced at Mac to make sure he wasn't looking at her, and then mouthed the word "Anita" at Vic across the table. He nodded slightly to let her know he'd thought of that too, then mouthed the word "later" at her. He'd ask the Director, but not in front of Mac.

The Director was still talking. "It's obviously not Mad Millennium's centre of operations, so we're not in a position to take them down yet. We need to learn more. But I want Jackie out of there. So I want you to go in covertly - get her out quietly, and get out of there."

Covert ops were one of this team's specialities. This shouldn't be too bad.

Vic quietly flexed his left hand, under the table, checking its range of motion. The movement hurt, and the thick bandage restricted him somewhat, but he could fire a gun with that hand if he had to. He didn't think he'd be able to support his weight with it, though - no climbing ladders, or hanging from windowsills.

"You'll have a couple hours to go over the mission plans, and then you'll be leaving for Belleville," the Director continued.

Hearing footsteps on the stairs behind him, Vic turned around to look. Dobrinsky came down the stairs and approached the table, holding a small stack of black-covered mission dossiers. He handed one each to Mac, Li Ann and Vic, leaving him with one still in hand.

"Who's the fourth folder for?" Li Ann asked.

The Director stood up. "Mr. Dobrinsky will be working along with you on this one. I suggest you all go over your dossiers now, and work out the details of your plan." The other agents looked at Dobrinsky with surprise.

"You don't go out on missions," Mac said.

"If anyone's got a chance of convincing Jackie to come willingly, it's me," Dobrinsky pointed out. He sat down at the table, and opened his folder. "Now, let's get cracking."

While everyone skimmed the papers they'd been given, Vic drew the Director aside. "I want to talk with you," he whispered. Li Ann looked up to see what he was doing; then, apparently trusting Vic to handle things, she turned her attention back to her folder.

The Director gave Vic an indulgent look, and beckoned him to follow her. She led him out of the briefing room and closed the door behind them; in the empty hallway, they had privacy to talk.

"You noticed that Anita Ramsey was one of the prisoners kidnapped from Harriss, right?" Vic asked her, making sure he was standing well inside her personal space. He was feeling slightly pissed at her, and he needed to show it.

The Director declined to back away; she looked at him scathingly. "That is a rather important detail, Victor. Am I in the habit of overlooking important details?"

"No," Vic admitted. "But don't you think it's dangerous to send Mac on a mission where he might run into his mom? Considering what happened last time?"

The Director smiled lazily, and took a half-step forward. Now she was the one invading his personal space. She picked an imaginary fleck of lint off Vic's shirt, 'accidentally' flicking his left nipple with her fingernail through the soft plaid flannel. "My goodness," she said, "haven't we become protective?" Vic thought he detected a thread of deep satisfaction in her tone. He recalled the talk she'd had with him back before the team left for Kingston - and his resolve not to fall for her wounded bird trick.

Fuck.

"If he sees her and freaks out like last time, it'll jeopardize us all," Vic pointed out, wishing he could manage to say that without it sounding so defensive.

Anyway, he hadn't fallen for her trick. He was concerned about Mac because Mac was his friend, and Mac was in trouble. Li Ann was worried about him too, and Vic knew she didn't have any "wounded bird" syndrome.

Vic just hoped the Director wouldn't see through to the rest of Vic's feelings about Mac. If she knew Vic had somehow developed a crush on Mac... Jesus, she'd find thirty ways to use it against him before breakfast.

"It's all right," the Director said, "Anita's not there. Jackie was sure that she'd seen everyone who's being held in the factory. Only eight of the prisoners from Harriss are there, and none of their descriptions matches Anita."

Vic was not entirely convinced. "What if Jackie's wrong? You said yourself she's mentally unstable."

"May be unstable," the Director corrected him absently. "We don't really know... there are no sure things, Vic. I calculate risks, and I make decisions."

"And sometimes you're wrong," Vic reminded her. He didn't need to say the names Pucci, or Michael. She'd know what he meant. Those wounds were fresh - including the new scar he knew she hid under her shirt.

"That's built into the definition of risk," she said, after a pause. "But really, this time, I think it'll be all right."

Belleville, Canada, that night

"I sure hope the crazy people sleep at night," Mac whispered to Li Ann as they worked together to hoist Vic up onto the roof. Vic came over the edge, grabbing the low wall with his good hand and pulling himself up and over. He was wearing all black, like the others - their standard night ops gear. He unclipped his harness, and tossed the end of the rope back down for Dobrinsky.

The roof they stood on was about eight metres off the ground. Other parts of the abandoned factory rose two or three storeys higher than this part; where this roof met the wall of the factory's taller section, it gave easy access to several third-floor windows.

Leaving Li Ann and Vic to keep watch and help Dobrinsky up, Mac went over to the window they planned to enter by. He tested to see if it was unlocked; no such luck. No problem. Mac checked over his shoulder to see that Dobrinsky was safely up with the others, then he reached into a pocket for his knife. He cut into the caulking around the edge of the pane of glass, and then used the knife to pry out one of the cut ends. Slowly, carefully, he started to peel the caulking strip away from the window.

Cold wind gusted over the rooftop. Mac shivered, and stifled a cough. His cold was getting better, but he was still feeling its effects. He paused, the caulking half away from the window now, to dig a Halls out of another pocket and pop it in his mouth. He went back to his task, bemusedly picturing himself in a cough drop commercial. Don't let an annoying cough due to cold get in your way when you're sneaking into a top secret enemy stronghold in the dead of night... He pulled the last of the caulking away from the window, smiling that he'd managed to get the whole thing intact. Wonder if he got a wish for that, like getting an orange peel off all in one piece? He dropped the caulking strip in the snow on the roof, and lifted the window pane out of its frame.

They all climbed in - Mac first, then Li Ann, Dobrinsky, and finally Vic, guarding the rear. Inside, they split up according to the prearranged plan. Floor plans of the abandoned factory had been made available to them, and even Mac had studied them carefully, knowing he'd be finding his way through this enemy territory in near total darkness.

Also knowing that this was probably the one chance the Director would give him to redeem himself of the complete and total fuck-up he'd made of the last mission. Not that he usually worried about pleasing her... but after that story she'd told him the other night, about his past and hers intertwining, he'd felt this strange desire for her to respect him.

If the story was even true. She'd implied it might not be.

Abandoning that pointless line of thought, Mac slipped his night vision goggles over his eyes and tiptoed his way to the staircase.

At the bottom of the staircase, Mac heard muffled thumping noises coming from around the corner. There seemed to be some light, too. He shifted the goggles up off his eyes again, and took a cautious peek around the corner.

He saw a huge, open area with a two-storey ceiling. This had once been the factory's main production floor. The machines were gone now, but in their place was an eclectic collection of gym equipment. There were parallel bars, mats, a wall and a wide pipe - an obstacle course, maybe? - and a few basketballs on the floor. A couple ragged climbing ropes hung from the ceiling. The scene was lit, dimly, by a few old-fashioned oil lamps which had been placed in a sparse circle around the equipment.

There were people in the scene. Being hidden in the shadows at the edge of the room, Mac didn't worry that they'd notice him. He watched, to see what he could learn.

If anything, they looked like clowns rehearsing for the circus. Their clothes were bright and mismatched. One of them, a grey-haired man, held a hula hoop perpendicular to the floor and about a foot above one of the gym mats. The other two, a very thin woman and a rather plump woman, took turns diving through the hoop to do somersaults on the gym mat.

Very strange.

This was a problem. He'd planned to cross the factory floor in order to reach the rooms, former offices, on the other side. There was no other access to those rooms. Even keeping to the shadows at the edge of the room, Mac was doubtful he could make it all the way across without being spotted.

He crept backwards into the stairwell, and whispered very softly, knowing the mike would pick it up, "I can't cross the factory floor. There are people there."

"Just wait, then," came Dobrinsky's whispered order through the earpiece, "see if we find her upstairs."

Just wait. Damn. Waiting was so not one of Mac's strong points.

Drawn to entertainment over safety, Mac peeked around the corner to see what the clowns were up to. The hoop lay discarded on the floor, and now the two women were climbing the ropes. Rather, they were both standing on the floor holding on to the ropes as though they'd like to climb them. The man was explaining something about how to put their hands and feet.

The women started trying to climb. The plump woman tugged at her rope, but her feet didn't leave the floor. The skinny woman managed to climb about a foot before dropping off the rope. She tried again.

It was quite sad, and Mac was tempted to go out there and show them the right way to do it. The grey-haired man's instructions to the women were practically useless. The skinny woman, at least, looked like she had the strength to pull her body weight up if only she had the right technique.

"Do not engage the enemy," Mac whispered to remind himself of his orders here.

"What was that, Mac?" Li Ann asked, through the radio.

"Nothing, sorry," he whispered back.

Man, he hated doing nothing. The problem with doing nothing was it gave him time to think. It'd been OK yesterday in the hospital, when he was drugged out of his mind, but now his head was clear. With nothing to do and no one to talk to, he couldn't distract himself when his thoughts turned to themes he'd rather avoid.

Was Michael's ghost real, or not? He'd seemed real enough two nights ago, when he'd come to Mac in the night in Vic's apartment. The doctor at the hospital had told Mac it was all in his head. Either way, real or not, it was bad news. As a ghost, Michael was certainly a vengeful ghost. As a hallucination, he was a portent of Mac's greatest, most deeply-buried fear: that he'd take after his mother.

And if Mac wasn't going crazy, then why had the doctor given him all those pills?

The white ones were for sleeping. The doctor said they'd send him into a deep sleep, without dreams or nightmares. "Take as required, not exceeding one every 24 hours," the label said. The pink ones were antidepressants, the doctor said. "Take one every 24 hours." And the blue ones, well, the doctor hadn't even told him what the blue ones were. "Take two daily. Take with food." None of them had brand names stamped on them. The Director had probably decided to use him as a guinea pig to test some weird experimental drugs for the Agency. Just like they'd apparently done with Jackie.

"Found her," Vic whispered over the radio. "Third floor, second door on the right. She's asleep. There's two other women sleeping in here too."

Good. Something to do. Mac put the night-vision goggles back on and started up the stairs.

He met Dobrinsky, Li Ann and Vic in the empty third floor corridor. With whispers and gestures, they decided that Dobrinsky and Li Ann would go in to the room to get Jackie, while Mac and Vic would stand guard in the corridor.

Dobrinsky and Li Ann went in. Moments later, Mac heard Jackie enthusiastically - and loudly - exclaiming "Hi, guys!" Down the hall, Vic winced.

There were sounds of a scuffle from the room. "I'm going in," Vic whispered quickly, and did.

The door across the hall opened. A skinny young man in sweat pants and a bulky sweater stepped out and looked at Mac, blinking sleepily. "What's going on?" he asked Mac.

"Oh, nothing," Mac assured him, flashing a reassuring smile. He flipped up the night vision goggles, too, so as to look less threatening.

The sounds of combat in Jackie's room intensified. The man looked worried, and took another step out into the corridor. "It's just some more practising," Mac added, taking a wild stab that the man might associate what was going on up here with hoop-jumping and rope-climbing that had been happening downstairs.

The explanation seemed to satisfy him. "Oh," he said, nodding. "I guess it's time for the new people to start practising now. They'll have to work hard to catch up."

"You might as well go back to sleep," Mac suggested, giving him a nudge back in the direction of his door.

The young man let Mac back him into his room, but he stared up at Mac, looking thoughtful again. "Who are you?" he asked.

There were two cots in the small room; one was empty, and on the other one another man snored lightly.

"Oh, I'm just helping with the practice." Mac suddenly needed to sneeze. It came over him too suddenly to stop it. "heCHsh!"

He sniffed, rubbed his nose. Fuck. The man in the other cot stopped snoring.

"Bless you," the young man said politely. "You sound like you have a cold. Do you have a cold?"

The man on the other cot rolled over and started snoring again.

"Yeah," Mac said. He cleared his throat. "Yeah, I do, actually. So I'm going to go finish practising, now, 'cause the sooner I finish the sooner I can get some rest." Hoping his bluff would hold - not that he couldn't knock this man out, but he really didn't want to - he turned and went out the door, and closed it behind him.

Vic came out of Jackie's room, across the hall, at the same time. "Trouble?" he asked Mac.

"With luck, no," Mac whispered. In a slightly louder tone he added "We woke up one guy, he didn't know we'd be practising tonight."

"Oh, OK," Vic said, understanding well enough. He beckoned behind him, and Dobrinsky came out of the room with Jackie limp in his arms.

The rest of the escape was trouble-free. They left the same way they'd come, using the harness to lower first Vic, then Jackie to the ground. They stuffed Jackie into the back of their van, tied her up, and sped away.

Toronto, Canada, the next morning

"Excellent work, Jackie," the Director purred.

"Yeah, like, I'm sorry about fighting with everybody when they came to rescue me," Jackie said. She grinned and squirmed in her chair, happy for the praise from the Director. The Director smiled back at her. Jackie had done good work indeed, penetrating Mad Millennium and finding out in some detail what the cult was all about.

"So, their leader, this Candyman fellow - you thought you recognized him?" the Director reminded her.

"Yeah, like, maybe." Jackie pursed her lips. "Like I saw him once a long time ago, or maybe just like a picture or on TV or something... there was something familiar about him. But I've got, like, no idea why."

"Perhaps he's on the Agency's 'watch list,'" the Director suggested. She walked back to her desk, unlocked the bottom drawer, and took out a thick photo album. "Here," she handed it to Jackie, "See if you can find his picture in here."

The Director returned to her desk, opened up her computer and browsed through the day's memos while Jackie flipped the pages of the book.

Several minutes later, Jackie let out a satisfied cry. "Got it! Here he is." She brought the book over to the Director, and pointed the man out.

The head shot showed a nervous, vaguely weasel-faced white man with short brown hair.

"Ah," said the Director, not surprised at all. "Him."

***

"First on today's agenda: the Mad Millennium case." The Director, at the head of the table, gazed at her palmtop and tapped it with a stylus. Her hair was swept up in a bun, and she wore her glasses today.

Vic stifled a yawn. By the time they'd brought Jackie back to the Agency, been debriefed by the Director, and finally returned to Mac's apartment to crash, it had been nearly 8 am. The Director had called Mac's apartment at noon, waking them all out of deep slumber to order them to report in to the Agency at 1 p.m.. Or rather, the phone ringing had woken Li Ann and Vic. Mac, they'd had to roll off the couch to wake up. Vic snuck a sideways glance at Mac now to see if his eyes were open behind his sunglasses. Nope. Vic kicked him under the table to wake him up. No reason Li Ann and Vic should suffer alone.

"Your execution of the mission last night was adequate," the Director allowed. "Jackie was able to tell me what I wanted to know about Mad Millennium. You won't have anything else to do with them."

Good riddance to that case, Vic thought. He could have hoped for a bit more closure - a nice dramatic shootout, maybe - but the Mad Millennium case had been trouble since the beginning and he was happy to see the end of it.

"Next," the Director continued, "The housing situation."

Li Ann perked up. "Can I get a new place now?"

The Director smiled at her. "Yes. I've located a condo for you. It's a very choice property, with a view of the lake; I'm sure you'll like it."

"When can I move in?"

"Today, if you wish." The Director tossed her a key ring.

"So, you're not making them stay at my place anymore," Mac extrapolated, looking hopeful.

"No. There's been no sign of any more attempts by the party who left the bomb in Li Ann's apartment." The Director sighed. "There have been no leads, either, unfortunately. Now that you're done with the Mad Millennium case, you can all take a shot at solving that mystery. Nathan has all the Forensics department's findings down in Research."

"So I can go home now," Vic asked to double-check her meaning.

"When I'm done with you, yes," the Director said.

"About time," Vic said. He leaned back and crossed his arms, smiling, making a great show of how relieved he was.

Inside, he was torn.

He wanted to get away from Mac's apartment and Mac's constant presence, the reminders of the fucked-up night when Vic had managed to find the courage to admit to Mac that he was attracted to him, and to kiss him, only to find out Mac thought Vic was Michael at the time.

At the same time, he wasn't really comfortable with the idea of leaving Mac alone. Jesus, the guy just got out of the psych ward yesterday. What if he dreamed about Michael again tonight, and decided to "play" with his own gun?

Li Ann was talking with the Director now, getting more details about the new condo. Mac, meanwhile, had closed his eyes again behind the sunglasses. Vic watched as Mac's head started to droop forward. Damn, that was so... cute. Vic considered reaching over and shaking Mac's shoulder. He decided to just let him snooze for a second. Li Ann and the Director talked on, not noticing. The condo wasn't furnished; the two women were negotiating a budget for Li Ann to furnish it. Mac's chin rested on his chest. His balance wasn't perfect; he started to tilt sideways, about to fall out of his chair. Instinctively, Vic leapt to the rescue, jumping out of his chair to grab Mac's arm and hold him up. At the same time Mac jerked awake. Feeling someone grabbing him, he naturally twisted and kicked to get away - knocking Vic's feet out from under him. Now Vic was the one falling, but Mac, by now alert enough to see that it was Vic he'd just knocked over, grabbed him around the waist. Instead of falling onto the floor, Vic fell into Mac's lap. The chair rocked backwards, but didn't tip over.

So Vic found himself sitting on Mac's lap, with Mac's arms hugging tight around his waist.

Li Ann and the Director stared at the boys. Li Ann stifled a giggle. The Director raised an eyebrow.

Mac grinned up at Vic. "And what would you like for Christmas, little boy?"

Vic froze for a moment. He couldn't think of a comeback. He felt his ears getting red. And, worse, he felt his dick getting hard.

He was sitting in Mac's lap. He could feel Mac's thighs under his butt. He could smell Mac's spicy, exotic scent. Mac's warm, strong arms held him close. Jesus, he wanted nothing more than to lean down and kiss those full, teasing lips.

"Let go of me," Vic said, trying to sound indignant. It came out much hoarser than he would have liked.

Mac let go, and Vic stood up. And caught the Director's gaze travelling from his crotch back up to his face, a thoughtful expression in her eyes. Oh God. She noticed.

"Mac, you know it displeases me when my agents fall asleep during my briefings," the Director said. Her tone implied there would be consequences.

Vic collapsed back into his own chair with all the dignity he could muster. She didn't say anything. Maybe she won't say anything. Maybe she didn't notice.

"It's not my fault I'm tired," Mac argued. "We were up all night!"

"The others are managing to stay awake," the Director pointed out.

Mac had to stifle a yawn before he could reply. "They didn't take sleeping pills."

Vic stared at him. "You took a pill to get to sleep? We were all falling asleep on our feet by the time we got to your place!"

Mac shrugged. "The doctor gave them to me."

"Is that safe?" Vic asked. He turned to the Director. "I mean, what if someone breaks into his place at night? He might not wake up."

"It's up to me if I take the damn pills or not," Mac snapped at Vic.

"Settle down, boys," the Director said. "Mac: Vic is right, in your line of work there is some risk involved in sleeping deeply. Please keep that in mind. Vic: Mac is right, it's up to him whether to take the sedatives. The doctor prescribed them for him to take as needed. This is a personal health issue and really none of your business."

She had a lot of nerve shooting Vic down like that, after she was the one who told him to look out for Mac. Vic bit back a retort to that effect; he didn't want to say it in front of Mac.

The Director waved her hands at the boys. "I don't need you two for anything else, now. Shoo."

"What about me?" Li Ann asked.

The Director smiled. "I thought we could look through some catalogues together."

***

"Why can't we just call a cab to the reservoir?" Mac complained as they walked out the Agency's front door into the cold, bright January afternoon.

Vic rolled his eyes behind the sunglasses he'd just put on. "I don't know. Why can't we call a cab to our secret headquarters? Do think it might, possibly, arouse suspicion?"

Mac hunched his shoulders against the wind and kept grumbling. "The Vancouver section gets an office building downtown. We get a stupid converted reservoir in the middle of nowhere."

"You sure are grumpy when you're tired," Vic observed.

They'd carpooled to work in Li Ann's car; since she was staying at the Agency, Vic and Mac had to walk fifteen minutes to a pay phone to call a cab.

"I'm not grumpy," Mac said. "I'm happy. I'm getting my apartment back. I'm getting my bed back."

They walked a while longer. The path away from the reservoir had been shovelled, but wasn't wide enough for two to walk abreast. Mac led the way, with Vic following him.

"You know," Mac said after a few minutes, "it really sucks when the person you love is sleeping in your bed, and you're sleeping out on the couch."

rip! went Vic's heart. Again. Not that he hadn't seen the way Mac was looking at Li Ann these days, but Mac hadn't said it out loud before. "You and Li Ann agreed just to be friends, didn't you?"

Mac stopped and turned; Vic barely stopped in time to not run into him. "You won't say anything to her about this, will you?" Mac asked, looking very vulnerable and worried. Vic could feel Mac's warm breath against his face; the white cloud hung between them. Vic took a step back.

"No, man, that's between you and her."

Mac turned and kept walking. Vic stared at his retreating back; it took him several seconds to get himself to start moving again, and then he hurried to catch up.

Mac kept walking, hands in his pockets, pitching his voice to carry back over his shoulder to Vic. "I don't understand how it changed between us. We loved each other. Then she thought I was dead, so she moved on - OK. But then she found out I was alive."

"But she was engaged to me," Vic contributed to the story. They'd rehashed this tale together dozens of times. In the early days it would take the form of an argument - later it was more about commiseration.

"But then she broke up with you. She never broke up with me!"

"She would have." Vic started to get angry with Mac. This whole conversation felt like rubbing an open wound. "If things had gone differently, if you'd made it away from the Tangs together, she would have broken up with you eventually."

"You don't know that."

"Yes, I do. I mean, she talked about all this with you, didn't she?"

Mac's shoulders slumped down a fraction. "She thinks I'm shallow."

"You are shallow," Vic replied automatically, letting the anger he was feeling direct his words but keeping it out of the tone.

"But she used to like that about me!" Mac exclaimed.

Vic frowned at Mac's back. What Mac just said struck him as profoundly sad. Vic regretted his snarky comeback of a moment ago. He grabbed Mac's arm to stop him. "Wait!"

Mac stopped, and turned around. "What?"

"I don't really think you're shallow." Vic said it fast, before he could lose his nerve. It wasn't quite up there with admitting he was attracted to Mac... but it was a step. A baby step.

Mac frowned. "Yes I am."

Um? "No you're not," Vic insisted.

"Yes I am," Mac repeated, raising his voice. "I am very, fucking, shallow."

"No you're not." This was not an argument Vic had ever anticipated having with Mac.

"Yes I am!" Mac was really angry now; Vic stepped backwards instinctively, getting out of range. "I live in the moment! I don't care about yesterday or tomorrow! I don't fucking care about anything besides clothes and cars and music!"

"If you don't care about yesterday, then why can't you let go of Li Ann!?" Vic shouted back at him.

He'd nearly said "Michael" instead of "Li Ann." That probably would have gone badly.

As it was, Mac just deflated. "Fuck," he said quietly, kicking a chunk of ice on the path, "I don't know." He turned and walked away. Vic followed him, silently, wondering what the hell they'd just had a fight about.

Toronto, Canada, February 1st 1999

Mac walked into the usual bar. It was pretty dead inside - not surprising on a Monday night. He was happy enough with this situation. He wasn't here to socialize; he was here to get drunk.

The sleeping pills the doctor had given him last month had been fantastic at first. Every night he took one and fell into a deep, dreamless sleep. No dreams, no nightmares.

Only... after about a week, the nightmares broke through again. He was locked in a cell with his mother. Michael stood outside the bars, taunting him. His mother had a knife, and she was going to kill him....

The next night, Mac took two pills. What could it hurt? Sure, the label said not to exceed one every 24 hours, but if one didn't kill him, then neither would two, right? And it was all right. He was a bit groggy the next day, but there hadn't been anything important to do that day anyway. The team had hit nothing but dead ends trying to solve the mystery of the bomb in Li Ann's apartment, and the Director hadn't assigned them to a new case yet.

Then, after another week or so, he had to increase to three pills.

And last night, he'd taken the last three pills.

He'd gone to the Infirmary today and tried to get the nurse there to refill his prescription. She refused, just because he'd gone through what was supposed to be two months' supply in about three weeks. He'd told her that he hadn't taken them all, that he'd lost most of them down the drain when he accidentally knocked the open bottle into the sink. She refused anyway - bitch.

Facing the hollow fear of a night without the pills, Mac had decided to fix this problem the old-fashioned way: with lots of alcohol. Unfortunately, by the time he got to the LCBO it was already closed. So putting plan C into action, he'd come to the bar.

Mac chose a bar stool and put a five dollar bill down on the bar. The bartender came over; it was the old guy tonight. Good; he never really seemed to care how drunk the patrons got. "Rum and coke," Mac ordered. "Hold the coke."

"Mac?"

Mac had noticed, when he came in, that there was a guy in a brown leather jacket sitting at the other end of the bar. He hadn't really looked at the guy; he hadn't been interested.

It was Vic, of course. Fuck.

"Oh, hi Vic!" Mac gave him a cheerful wave. "What's a nice boy like you doing in a low-down joint like this?"

Vic had a pained look on his face. It looked like he hadn't really wanted company tonight, either. Mac decided he'd just have the drink he'd already bought, and then go find another bar.

In the meantime, it would be rude not to go sit by Vic.

"I was just unwinding," Vic said. "Enjoying the quiet," he added, pointedly.

Mac took the glass out of Vic's hand and sniffed the drink, then took a sip. Cheap whiskey. He handed it back to Vic, who glared at him. From the deliberate way Vic spoke and held himself, Mac guessed he'd already had a few drinks.

"I was just passing through," Mac promised. The bartender handed Mac his drink. Mac tipped it up and drank half of it in one go. It burned its way down his esophagus; he welcomed the feeling.

But why was Vic getting drunk alone on a work night?

Mac put a hand on Vic's shoulder. "Hey, Vic, is everything all right?"

Vic pushed Mac's hand away roughly. "Fine," he snapped, staring down into the depths of his glass. Then he picked up the glass and tossed back the rest of its contents. He thunked the glass back down on the bar, and called to the bartender "Refill over here."

"Make that two," Mac added, quickly emptying his own glass.

The bartender brought them two whiskeys. Oops - Mac had meant two refills, not two whiskeys. Oh well. It had a high alcohol content; that was the important thing.

"No, something's wrong, I can tell," Mac insisted. He was quite sure that this was not part of Vic's normal program - he was much too bright-eyed on a typical morning in the Agency to be spending all his evenings getting drunk.

"All right, if there is something wrong, which there's not, it's none of your fucking business anyway." Vic glared at Mac momentarily, then went back to contemplating his drink.

Mac finished his drink and signalled for another one. Vic was several drinks ahead - he had to catch up. "Are you pissed at me for some reason? Did I do something? 'Cause you're acting pissed at me."

Vic sighed. "I'm not, OK? If I'm pissed at anyone, it's me. But that's private." Suddenly he looked up at Mac, frowning and crinkling his forehead. "Wait... why are you here?"

Mac sipped at his new drink. Rum again this time. "Liquor store was closed."

"Ah." Vic nodded. "Yeah, it's kind of late." He frowned again. "No but... why are you drinking? 's Monday night. 's work tomorrow."

"Same for you," Mac pointed out. He looked down at his glass. It was almost empty. He didn't remember it getting that way. Good; that was progress.

"Yeah, but I know I'm being an idiot tonight," Vic explained. "I decided. Fuck it. I'll get drunk." He punctuated his phrases by tapping his empty glass on the bar.

Empty. Mac's glass was empty. The bartender came over when he signalled, and gave him another one.

Vic shook his head. "You shouldn't drink that." He moved his hand as if he was going to take the glass away from Mac. Mac snatched it away, and drank the contents quickly before Vic got any funny ideas.

"One more," Mac said to the bartender.

Vic shook his head. "No. Don't give it to him."

Mac glared at his partner. "Don't listen to him, it's none of his business."

The bartender shook his head. "You two sort it out between yourselves," he said. "I'll be in the back."

"What the hell?!" Mac exclaimed to Vic. "What did you do that for?"

"The Director talked to me after New Year's. Told me to look out for you."

Oh. That was just great. They were conspiring behind his back, now. "Well, I have not had a drink since New Year's," Mac said, pronouncing the words very carefully so they wouldn't run together. He was starting to feel pleasantly dizzy. He just needed a few more drinks, and he could go home and pass out. "I just want one more..."

Vic sighed, then shrugged. "What the hell." He called out to the bartender, "Bring us two more!"

The bartender came back. He looked the guys over, and apparently decided that one refill each wouldn't kill them. He gave Mac his rum and Vic his whiskey.

Mac sipped at his drink. Wow, it was almost gone already. Time to go. He hadn't meant to stay here with Vic, anyway. He stood up.

The bar spun and tilted wildly, and then Mac was sitting on the floor for some reason.

He heard Vic's voice, somewhere remote, groaning "Fuck."

***

Vic dug a twenty out of his pocket and handed it to the cabbie. "Keep the change," he told him. Then he dragged Mac out of the back of the cab.

Damn it. This was so unfair. Vic was drunk. He was drunk on purpose, because he'd decided to get drunk, because he was frustrated and miserable over his fucking unrequited crush on Mac. So who comes into the bar, just when Vic is passing from nicely buzzed to nicely sloshed? That's right, Mac. And before you know it, Mac manages to catch up to Vic and pass him, in terms of inebriation, and the next thing you know Mac is passing out in the fucking bar and then Vic is dragging him, semiconscious, up the steps into Vic's apartment building because Vic can't leave him alone and Vic can't even remember Mac's address. Fuck.

"You fucking owe me, Ramsey," Vic growled as he manhandled Mac into the elevator.

Very unfortunately, Vic wasn't drunk enough to stop him from getting a hard-on from the sheer fact that his hands were all over Mac's body in the process of holding him up. The sweet scent of alcohol filled the elevator, but under that Vic smelled the special, warm scent of Mac. This clumsy, groping physical intimacy was hitting Vic deep down in the primitive parts of his brain.

The elevator reached Vic's floor. He stuck his foot in the door to hold it open, and guided Mac out into the hall. They got as far as Vic's door. Vic leaned Mac against the wall, and fumbled with his keys. It took him four tries to get his key to work in the lock. He was drunk. Meanwhile, Mac slid down the wall and sat on the floor with his head on his knees.

With the door open, Vic tried to convince Mac to come inside. Mac didn't acknowledge Vic.

"All right, stay in the hall all night," Vic said. "See if I care."

Vic went into his apartment and shut the door behind him. He stood there for a minute.

No. Wait. He couldn't really leave Mac in the hall.

He opened the door again. Mac looked up. "Come on," Vic said. "Come in." He grabbed Mac's arms and tried to pull him up. Mac managed to find his feet but not his balance; he fell forwards against Vic, pinning Vic against the door frame.

Vic moaned softly, feeling Mac's whole body pressed up against his. Mac's face was buried in Vic's hair. "I'm dizzy," he mumbled into Vic's ear.

Vic rolled his eyes. "No kidding. Come on. All the way into the apartment so I can shut the door."

He managed to shift them both, so Mac was leaning against the wall on the inside of the apartment. Vic shut his door and locked it. What next? Oh, right. Take his boots and his coat off.

Vic leaned over to untie his boot laces, and nearly fell. Damn. Balance was a bit off. He sat on the floor and undid them. Then he remembered Mac. He looked up. Mac was still standing, leaning against the wall where Vic had left him, with a glassy look in his eyes. He'd gotten as far as unbuttoning his coat, but he wasn't moving now. "You OK?" Vic asked him.

Mac shook his head. "I think I'm going to be sick."

"Fuck! Not here!" Vic stood up and grabbed Mac, and pulled him into the bathroom. They made it in time, thank God.

Vic sat on the edge of the tub, head in his hands, while Mac kneeled in front of the toilet, puking his guts up. The bathroom was small; Vic's knees were almost touching Mac.

"I think I remember now why I don't do this more often," Vic mused out loud.

Mac finished vomiting. He managed to pull himself up to the sink and, cupping water in his hand, rinsed his mouth out. Then he sank back down onto the floor and leaned against Vic's legs.

"Uh..." Vic said, startled and a bit disconcerted to suddenly find Mac's head in his lap.

"I still feel sick," Mac moaned softly.

"Okaaay, maybe you'd better stay in here 'till you don't," Vic suggested. "And get your head off my lap."

Mac didn't move. "I'm sorry," he said. "Didn't mean to be sick."

Vic rolled his eyes. "Of course you didn't." Vic put his hand on Mac's head and tried to shove him away. "Get your head off my lap." It didn't work. Mac's head seemed to be very, very heavy. Vic ended up with his fingers buried in Mac's hair. Soft hair. Warm.

"I didn't even drink as much as you," Mac insisted.

Vic shrugged. "Maybe my tolerance is higher."

Mac snorted. "I don't think so, Mr. Boy Scout."

"Hey, I'm not the one who passed out after five drinks," Vic pointed out, taking offence to the Boy Scout comment. He should never, ever have let Mac see that old photo of him in his Beaver uniform....

"Neither do I," Mac mumbled into Vic's leg. "Usually. Maybe the sleeping pills are still in my bloodstream."

"The what?" Vic stared down at Mac. A shot of fear made Vic suddenly feel a lot less drunk. "You went drinking after you took sleeping pills?!"

"So what?"

"So don't you know that can fucking kill you?"

Mac shrugged, disinterested. "Took the pills last night. Doesn't matter."

Vic swore again, under his breath. Sometimes Mac could be such a fucking idiot. "You just said yourself that you shouldn't be this wasted on five drinks, that the drug might still be in your blood."

"It's fine, I'm fine," Mac insisted, still not moving his head off Vic's lap.

Vic lifted Mac's head, holding the younger man's face between his hands to force him to look at Vic. "I want you to make yourself throw up again."

Mac shook his head out of Vic's hands. "No fucking way!" he said, looking outraged.

"If there's any alcohol left in your stomach, it's still being absorbed into your bloodstream. You've got to get rid of it," Vic told him, trying to sound calm and reasonable.

Mac set his jaw rebelliously. "You can't make me."

Well, maybe Vic could and maybe he couldn't, but that would be a messy fight and he didn't want to try. "If you don't, I'll call 911."

Mac blanched. "You can't. No way. No fucking way. If I end up in the hospital again and you tell them I was mixing sleeping pills and alcohol they'll think I was trying to kill myself. Three times in a month - they'll lock me up in a fucking rubber room." Mac was wide-eyed now, and obviously afraid. An image suddenly flashed in Vic's memory: Anita Ramsey, so familiar-looking because she shared Mac's features, locked in her cell and tied up in a straitjacket.

It was an effective threat, then. And Vic meant it. "So stick your fingers down your throat. Get rid of the alcohol. Or I'm calling 911 right now."

"Fuck," Mac swore, angry and defeated. And he knelt in front of the toilet again, and did what Vic told him to do.

Vic looked away, but he heard the awful gagging sounds, and then the unmistakable sound of Mac vomiting again. Sounded like he'd still had some liquid in his stomach, all right.

"I hate you," Mac moaned.

Ouch. That hurt. "It's for your own good, man," Vic replied gruffly.

OK, some perspective. Mac didn't really hate him. He was just saying that because Vic was forcing him to make himself puke. At some later point, he'd appreciate that Vic was only doing this because he didn't want Mac to fall into a coma from a drug and alcohol overdose. Hopefully.

Vic nudged Mac's back with his knee. "Do it again."

"NO!" Mac tried to stand up, but Vic grabbed him and pulled him down again without much difficulty.

"You have to keep doing it until nothing comes up. Or I call 911."

Under the circumstances, Mac didn't have a choice. He leaned over the toilet again, and did it again. The sounds were even more painful this time. Vic cringed, but didn't relent.

This was so not how Vic's evening was supposed to go. All he'd wanted was to go to the bar and get nicely drunk by himself, take a cab home, and sleep all night without having any more wet dreams about Mac. He'd even, deep down, looked forward to the inevitable pain of the next morning at work - that would be a suitable penance for the deeply wrong feelings he harboured for his co-worker.

Well, this could be seen as penance, too. Some sort of poetic justice. Vic had largely been avoiding Mac since he moved back into his own apartment. They had to work together, of course, but Vic had kept their interactions to the absolute minimum possible. Every time he saw Mac, it brought back Vic's embarrassment, confusion and bitter disappointment over the kiss. Both the kisses. All three of the fucking kisses. And he still wanted Mac. Just being in the same room as him made Vic feel warmer, more alive. He laughed at Mac's jokes. He admired the way Mac moved, finding himself too often entranced by Mac's beauty - and then looking over to see the Director watching him. She knew everything. Vic was sure of it. But she hadn't said a word. Of course, Mac wasn't at his best right now. Vic could definitely say at this moment that he was in the same room as Mac without being turned on at all.

There was nothing left in Mac's stomach. He clutched the edge of the toilet bowl, shaking with dry heaves.

"Hey man, it's OK, that's enough," Vic said. "You can stop." He patted Mac on the back - a nice, manly, platonic pat. He felt Mac shiver. "Can you get up?" Mac shook his head. "Come on, then." Vic grabbed Mac around the waist and helped him stand - sort of. They stumbled together against the sink, arms and legs all confused.

With a visibly trembling hand, Mac reached out and turned on the cold water tap. His face was pasty; he looked about as haggard as Vic had ever seen him. He rinsed out his mouth, and splashed some over his face. Some water was getting onto the sleeves of his black wool coat, too, and onto the front of his shirt where his coat hung open. That was OK. It was just water. He was OK for balance now, leaning against the sink, so Vic backed off. Mac cupped his hands under the tap and brought them to his mouth, drinking some water now.

Hey, Vic was still wearing his jacket. No wonder he was so warm. Vic unzipped his leather jacket, and hung it up on one of the hooks meant for towels.

Suddenly over the sound of the running water Vic heard Mac retching. "Shit," Vic swore, turning around in time to see Mac covering his mouth with his hand in an ineffective attempt to stop anything from coming out.

"Get it in the sink," Vic sighed. Apparently Mac's stomach was rejecting the water he'd just drunk.

Mac got control of himself again, and washed his hands off under the water, which was still running. He suddenly made a fist and pounded the edge of the sink. Vic winced at the thud. "Fuck!" Mac shouted.

"Cool it," Vic urged him. "Just wait a bit before you try to drink anything."

"Some got on my shirt," Mac said, meeting Vic's eyes in the mirror. He sounded angry, but there was this edge to his voice like it was about to break, like he might just start to sob any second. His eyes glittered.

"It- jeez, I'm sorry," Vic said, feeling intensely uncomfortable with the despair he thought he sensed hiding under Mac's accusing glare. "Look, we can wash it off. It'll be fine. Just hang on a second."

Vic pulled back the shower curtain and turned on the water in the tub. He made sure it was running warm, then switched the flow up to the shower head. "Get in," he said to Mac. "Wash it all off."

Mac frowned at the water. "With my clothes on?"

"The point is to rinse your shirt off, right?"

Mac shrugged, slipped his wool coat off and let it drop to the floor, and tried to step into the tub. His foot caught on the edge, and he fell in, half-catching himself against the tiled wall. "Ow," he mused. "That hurt."

"Fuck," Vic muttered to himself. He stepped into the shower to help Mac up.

The warm water blasted against Vic, plastering his hair to his head and his shirt to his back. Then, with a little teamwork, Mac was standing in front of him, and the water wasn't hitting Vic any more. Vic kept his arms around Mac's waist for a moment, making sure Mac had his balance, then let go quickly. He wouldn't want Mac to think he liked holding him.

Mac faced the showerhead and rubbed a bar of soap over the front of his shirt. The bar slipped out of his fingers. Mac swore and started to crouch down to pick it up again, and lost his balance. Vic grabbed at him, trying to help, and he fell too. His elbow hit the edge of the tub, right on his funny bone. Vic grabbed his elbow with his other hand and hissed at the sharp pain.

"You OK?" Mac asked, squinting at him through the water. He, like Vic, had ended up on his butt in the tub.

"Yeah. You?"

Mac shifted up to his knees so that he could move closer to Vic. "I just had an idea. Wouldn't it be easier if I took my shirt off to wash it?"

Vic looked at Mac. The water was falling right on him, flattening his hair and streaming over his shoulders. His dark blue shirt looked black, being totally soaked. It stuck to Mac's body like a second skin, showing every contour of his slim, muscular torso. Mac's pants, too, were completely waterlogged, especially now that he was sitting in the bottom of the tub. Even his boots - they were both still wearing their boots - were likely soaked through. Vic was just as wet.

Vic started to laugh.

"What?" Mac frowned. "What's so funny?"

"Take the shirt off to wash it," Vic choked out through the laughter. "Yep. That would've been a good idea. Very good idea."

Mac took a good look at Vic, and started to laugh too. "Oh yeah. Guess it's kind of late for that, huh?"

Even if he was laughing at his own drunken stupidity, laughter felt good. Vic had to grab the side of the tub for support. Mac took charge of the situation, turning off the water and prodding Vic to get up. Vic felt giddy. He was grateful that Mac had the sense to get them out of the shower.

It was time to sleep. Definitely time to sleep.

As Vic caught his breath and managed to get to his feet, dripping, he remembered one small problem: he wasn't sure yet if Mac was going to be OK. He seemed better now, after the shower, but there'd been plenty of alcohol absorbed into his bloodstream before Vic made him induce vomiting. Vic had to keep an eye on him, make sure. So either they both slept in the living room, on the easy chair and the couch, or they shared the bed.

Fuck. Might as well be comfortable. At least it was a queen-sized.

"Let's go to the bedroom," Vic said.

Mac was still unsteady on his feet, so he put an arm over Vic's shoulders and they staggered and dripped to the bedroom together. Vic stopped Mac before he got to the bed.

"Wet clothes off," Vic ordered.

"Yes sir," Mac said with a quick grin. He leaned against the door frame and started to fumble with his buttons.

Vic peeled off his soggy shirt. The jeans were harder; wet jeans are so awkward. Halfway through that he realized he should have taken his boots off before trying to get the jeans off. Damn.

Finally, Vic stood there naked, with all his clothes in a puddle at his feet. Mac was still working on his shirt buttons, frowning with intense concentration; he'd got just the bottom quarter of them undone.

Vic wasn't shy. It didn't occur to him to go find shorts to put on before he went over to help Mac with his buttons. After all, they'd seen each other naked plenty of times in the locker room at the Agency gym.

"That'll take you all night." Vic stood in front of Mac, batted the other man's hands away, and started to undo his buttons, starting at the top.

"I was doing just fine," Mac muttered in protest, but he let Vic do it.

And that was when Vic realized that he was standing in front of Mac, naked, undressing him. Oh God. He felt the heat of Mac's skin through the shirt. He saw Mac's breath rising and falling. If he looked up, if he looked away from the little round black buttons and up, he'd be looking into Mac's eyes from just inches away. As he slipped the second button through its hole, Mac's shirt started to part at the top, and Vic could see the shallow dip at the centre of his collar bone. He could see Mac's Adam's apple moving as the other man swallowed. Vic's own mouth felt suddenly dry. His heart beat faster, and he felt warmer. He felt his erection stirring. Oh God. He was naked, and Mac was looking down, watching Vic's fingers on his buttons. Vic edged closer to Mac. If he stood close enough, Mac wouldn't be able to see down between their chests. Vic's fingers moved to the next button. There was no sound but the whisper of their breathing; Vic's was faster than Mac's, going in and out and in again while Mac took and released one breath. Standing this much closer to Mac, Vic felt almost dizzy. He was getting drunk all over again. His fingers felt big and clumsy as he undid another button, and moved to the next one. Mac stood there peacefully, letting Vic undo his shirt. It was incredibly intimate, this act of undressing someone else. Intimate, and erotic. Vic wished he'd never started, because now he was almost finished and he could feel his dick becoming firm and rising up, and there was no way Mac would miss noticing that, even if he was falling-over drunk. It wasn't the sort of thing Mac would miss.

Vic was done with the buttons now; the shirt hung open. There was Mac's belly button, and the line of dark hair underneath it disappearing under the top of his pants. Vic had the tiger by the tail now; it was an intractable dilemma. If he moved away from Mac at all, Mac would see his erection. If he didn't move away, Mac would know something was wrong for sure.

Vic tried his best. He backed off and turned away quickly, and strode towards his bureau. "I'll get you a pair of shorts to sleep in," he offered.

"What was that about?" Mac asked, his voice full of surprise with a definite hint of teasing.

Vic felt his face flushing red. "Nothing." He opened a drawer and made much more of a show than necessary of digging through the contents to find a couple pairs of boxer shorts that would be comfortable for sleeping. He put his pair on before he turned around.

Mac had actually managed to undo his own belt. "Are you attracted to me?" he asked, putting on an expression of innocent curiosity while he pulled down his pants. Luckily for Vic's dignity, Mac was still very inebriated. He'd forgotten to take his boots off; his pants wouldn't come off over the boots, and he stumbled and fell down, swearing in Chinese.

"Not gonna help him," Vic muttered to himself. He'd embarrassed himself enough already.

With a little luck, Mac wouldn't remember this tomorrow.

Leaving Mac struggling with his pants on the floor, Vic climbed onto bed. He lay on top of the covers on the right side, closed his eyes, and tried to focus on something calming.

His hands were shaking - whether from frustrated sexuality, or the crushing embarrassment of Mac catching him with a hard-on for him, Vic didn't know and didn't care. He linked his fingers over his stomach and breathed in and out, slowly.

After a couple minutes, the muttered stream of Chinese ceased. A few moments later, Vic felt the weight on the mattress beside him and heard the bedsprings faintly creak as Mac lay down next to him. Vic pretended to already be asleep, intending actually to stay awake for a while and make sure Mac was really all right.

A few minutes later, Vic wasn't pretending anymore. He slept, dreamlessly and deep.

***

"Oh my God."

Vic woke up, hearing the words. Who said that? Voice was familiar... Li Ann.

Vic tried to open his eyes. They seemed to be gummed shut. With heroic effort, he managed to open them.

Oh fuck. The light.

Several thousand miniature hammers pounded on Vic's skull, all at once.

His mouth tasted like something had died in it. Something furry. About a week ago.

He was cold, too. Why hadn't he slept under the covers?

This had to be a hangover. Details at the moment were fuzzy, but Vic thought last night had somehow involved drinking.

"Vic?" Li Ann said, her voice oddly tight.

He squinted. Li Ann was standing at the foot of the bed. He'd have to open his eyes more to see what she was doing there.

Oh fuck... it was Tuesday. A work day. Li Ann must have come to get him.

"....hi," Vic managed to croak out.

"Tell me this isn't what it looks like." Li Ann sounded upset.

The plot line was a bit too complicated for Vic, just at this moment. What was Li Ann talking about? Vic started to sit up, to ask her.

He couldn't sit up. There was something heavy lying across his chest.

An arm.

Mac's arm.

"GAh!!" Vic gasped. He jerked Mac's arm off him and leapt out of bed.

Ooooooh, head. Bad idea.

Mac woke up, startled, coming quickly to a sitting position. "Aaaagh," he groaned, clutching his head with his hands. "Where are we? Who hit me?"

"This isn't what it looks like," Vic said quickly.

Li Ann looked relieved, if only slightly. "So what happened to you guys?"

"Oh, um," Vic stuttered, about to tell Li Ann the perfectly reasonable reason that he and Mac had been snuggled up together in bed, wearing only boxer shorts.

And that reason was....?

Vic tried to remember how he ended up in bed with Mac. He drew a blank. Fuck. Fuck fuck fuck. There was no way, no way that it was what it looked like....

"Hey, Vic, this is your place. How'd I get here?" Mac asked, not helping the situation.

"You don't remember?" Vic rubbed his temple. "Well, we were at the bar, and I...." he stopped, hitting nothing but a hazy blankness in his memory. He turned to Li Ann, who was staring at them both with a desperate expression. "We were drinking," Vic added.

"You guys didn't show up for work." Li Ann sounded like a recording of herself. "You weren't answering your phones. The Director told me to come check on you. There was no one at Mac's apartment. I came here and knocked on the door and there was no answer and I was worried so I came in, I still have a key remember."

Mac plucked at the shorts he was wearing. "Hey, this isn't my underwear," he said, sounding confused.

Vic let out a little moan.

"Why don't I, uh, let you get dressed," Li Ann suggested, backing away. Her voice was a tone or two higher than usual. "Your, uh, clothes are here on the floor. I'll be in the living room?" She shut the door behind her. Mac and Vic both winced at the thud.

"Oooowwww," Mac whimpered, rubbing his temples. "Whatever we did last night, it must've been some party."

Vic looked sideways at Mac. "You must remember something. What's the last thing you remember?"

"Oooww," Mac moaned again. "Don't talk so loud, OK?"

"Sorry." Vic stumbled around the foot of the bed, heading for his closet. He nearly tripped over the pile of clothes. His clothes, and Mac's, lying in a heap on the floor at the foot of the bed. Damn, that didn't look good at all.

They were wet, he discovered, nudging them with his toe. Very strange.

"I remember seeing you at the bar," Mac said in a voice so quiet he was almost whispering. "I wasn't going to stay long. Fuck, I feel like I'm going to die."

Li Ann banged on the outside of the door. Mac's expression became even more pained; Vic empathized thoroughly. "You'd better hurry up!" she called to them. "The longer this takes, the angrier the Director's going to get!"

"The Director," Mac repeated. "Do you think she'd know?"

"Huh?"

"What happened. She spies on us all the time."

Vic shook his head - and regretted the motion. He grabbed his head with his hands to try to steady the world, and explained "Ever since I found out about that, I've swept the room for hidden cameras twice a week. It's clean."

"Damn," Mac said. In response to the shocked look Vic gave him, he explained "Well, at least if she had a tape she could tell us what happened."

Vic yanked the closet open and pulled out some clothes. "It doesn't matter. Nothing happened. What could have happened? I mean, it's not like we'd do anything with each other, right? And there's no sign anyone else was here. So obviously we came home drunk and decided to sleep it off."

"Together," Mac added, skeptically. "In your bed. Wearing your underwear."

Vic pulled out another pair of pants and a shirt for Mac; they wouldn't quite fit him but they'd have to do, since Mac's own clothes were soaking wet for some mysterious reason. He tossed the clothes at Mac. "Put these on. Your clothes are wet."

Mac snatched the clothes out of the air. "Wet? How did we - oh, wait, I remember! We took a shower together!"

With that much help, memories of the previous evening came flooding back to Vic. Mac passing out at the bar, Vic bringing him back here, Mac mentioning that he'd taken sleeping pills before drinking, Vic making him induce vomiting to clear out his system and then shoving him into the shower to get cleaned up... but how did they end up in bed together?

While he thought, Vic got dressed. Instead of slowing his movements down to reduce pain, he relished the hurting. The sledgehammer headache and the rising nausea were just perfect accompaniments to his frantic speculation.

How did he end up in bed with Mac? What happened? He vaguely remembered undressing Mac. Fuck, fuck, fuck.... Had Vic come on to Mac? He wouldn't do that, never ever, but maybe, if he was drunk enough, uninhibited... and then Mac had been into it? Not possible. But maybe, if he was drunk enough....

And it was Li Ann who found them. How could she possibly come to any conclusion but the obvious? And how could Vic's friendship with Li Ann possibly survive this? She must think he was disgusting. Fuck!

"Socks?" Mac asked.

"Top drawer. Toss me a pair. Do you remember why we went to bed together?"

Mac dug out some socks and lobbed a pair across the room at Vic. "Nope." He flashed a grin at Vic that turned into a wince. "I could come up with some theories, but I don't think you'd like them."

Vic stood still, fighting down a wave of nausea. He rubbed his pounding temples. "Nothing happened," he said, as firmly as he could manage. "If we say that nothing happened, then nothing happened."

"Sure, whatever," Mac agreed faintly. He'd sat back down on the bed, and was holding his head in his hands.

Leaving Mac to pull himself together, Vic put his socks on and then, taking a deep breath, went out to face Li Ann.

She was sitting on the couch, knees together and hands clasped on her lap, looking very prim in the way she did sometimes when something big was troubling her. She turned to face Vic. "I'll drive you to the Agency."

Mac came out of the room and stopped next to Vic. "I have to go home first. I need some things."

Mac looked awful. Considering the care he normally took with clothes, the slightly-too-short sleeves and legs of his borrowed outfit made Vic cringe. His bloodshot eyes had dark crescents under them, and his face was pale under his dark morning growth of stubble.

Vic suspected he didn't look much better himself. At least he got to wear his own clothes.

Li Ann stood up and shook her car keys. "It doesn't matter if your clothes don't fit. The Director's going to skin you alive anyway. We're going straight to the Agency."

"No, I have to go home," Mac insisted. He leaned against the door frame; he was looking pretty green. "There's... fuck. There's medication I have to take."

Li Ann raised her eyebrows. "I didn't know you were taking anything."

"It's really none of your business," Mac snapped. Then he coughed softly, and pressed his hand over his mouth. With a quiet moan, he left the room quickly, heading for the bathroom.

Li Ann met Vic's eyes, looking concerned, as they both heard the retching sounds coming from the bathroom.

"We, uh, drank too much last night," Vic mumbled.

Li Ann's mouth made a tight line. "It looks that way," she agreed. She followed Mac to the bathroom.

Vic's stomach wasn't feeling too great either, so he decided to just sit down. Maybe he'd get something to drink in a minute - water or juice. He knew the headache he had was a result of dehydration.

He could hear Li Ann scolding Mac. "I'm not taking you in my car if you're going to throw up." That was unusually harsh, coming from Li Ann; she was obviously shaken by the whole finding-them-in-bed-together thing.

Vic couldn't hear how Mac answered her, but he could hear when Li Ann spoke again. "All right, how about I go get your pills and you stay here and get yourself together."

There was a bit more negotiation; Vic heard only Li Ann's side. She agreed to get clothes for Mac, too, but she said she was going to call the Director right away to let her know she'd found the guys. Vic covered his face with his hands, already dreading the Director's response.

Li Ann left, saying she'd be back in half an hour. Vic got up and poured two glasses of orange juice. He sipped cautiously at one, and left the other on the table where Mac should be able to find it.

He went to the bedroom, to look for clues. There must be some way to find out what had or hadn't happened last night.

What was a clue, anyway? A thorough search turned up no used condoms. That was a good sign, right? Or a bad sign, depending.

Impossible to tell from the bed itself if anything had happened. Vic knew from experience that the dark green sheets hid stains nicely.

Dammit! What had happened? Why couldn't he remember?

OK... Vic didn't remember. Neither did Mac. Vic was reasonably sure, after his search, that there were no new hidden cameras in the room, therefore even the Director didn't know what had happened last night. If a tree falls in a forest and nobody hears it, does it make a sound?

He went back out to the kitchen. "It's like a tree," he said. "In a forest." Mac looked up from the table; he'd been staring at the orange juice, possibly considering drinking it. He was wearing sunglasses.

"What the hell are you talking about?" Mac asked, reasonably.

"I mean if nobody knows what happened it's like nothing happened anyway, right?" Listening to his own words, Vic realized how lame that sounded.

Mac managed a weak smile. "Whatever happened, we were both totally wasted, so don't worry about it."

"Whatever happened?" Vic repeated. "So you think something might actually have happened?"

Mac shrugged. "Who knows?" He picked up the glass and took a very timid sip.

"It couldn't have. I wouldn't have- I mean, no matter how drunk I was, I wouldn't have done anything with you," Vic insisted. He felt this was a very important point to get across.

Too bad it was a total lie.

Mac didn't appear very concerned one way or the other. "I might do you if I was drunk," he admitted with a slight teasing grin and a shrug. He took one more sip of the juice, his eyes hidden behind the sunglasses.

Vic choked on his juice. "What?"

He wanted to kill Mac, for teasing him like this. He was teasing, Vic was sure of it. Mac had just found one more way to disconcert Vic, and he couldn't resist.

"I mean, you're attractive and all. Personality, meh," Mac made the so-so gesture with one hand, "much too uptight, but that's not such a big concern once you've had a few drinks."

Vic slammed his glass down on the table. Juice sloshed over the edge. "Shut the fuck up," he shouted, and stood up and left the table.

He went looking for his coat, so he could leave. He could drive himself to work, and leave Mac to wait for Li Ann.

He couldn't find it anywhere. What the hell? He must have worn it home last night. It was the dead of winter. His memories of last night were so sketchy, though, that he couldn't remember where he'd left it.

"Vic?" he heard Mac call out.

"I'm looking for my coat," Vic snapped.

A minute later, Mac came to him in the living room, holding the coat.

"Where was it?" Vic asked, snatching it from Mac's hands without looking at Mac.

"Bathroom," Mac answered. "Look, if it's any comfort, I'm pretty sure we didn't fuck last night."

Vic was shocked into looking at Mac by the bluntness of Mac's statement. Mac regarded him calmly through his dark glasses. "How do you know?" Vic managed to ask.

"There was nothing like lube in your room. If either of us had been fucked without lube last night, we'd feel it now."

"Thanks," Vic managed. "That's good to know."

It was good to know. Vic felt awkward and uncomfortable all the same, at the reminder that Mac was no stranger to anal sex. He felt a wave of frightened nausea rising at Mac's reference to what it felt like to get fucked in the ass, and he suppressed the thought quickly - that was not something he was ready to think about.

Anyway, Vic knew perfectly well there was more to sex than just penetration, so things still could have happened last night.

Could they have? That was quite a loaded question. Mac was acting as though maybe they could have. It was hard to tell if he was serious or not. If he was... Jesus, what then? What if Vic actually told him at some point when they both weren't drunk or hallucinating that he found him attractive? What would happen?

No. That was a terrible idea for so many reasons. There was no way Vic could make himself that vulnerable to Mac. And this whole thing was just a stupid crush, a phase. Vic was attracted to women, dammit!

Li Ann walked back into the apartment. She was carrying a bag. "Here," she said, tossing a couple pill bottles to Mac and handing him the bag, "there's a change of clothes in here. Get ready fast; the Director wants you guys in now."

Vic and Li Ann waited for Mac, eyeing each other awkwardly.

"We've pretty much remembered," Vic said, feeling an overwhelming need to explain himself to Li Ann. "Nothing happened. Our clothes, uh, got wet, so we had to take them off. That's all."

Li Ann nodded slowly. "All right. That's good. I thought it was something like that."

Vic wasn't sure if she really believed him - the story had been pretty thin and pathetic - but he sensed that she wanted to believe him. That would have to do.

Toronto, Canada, the following Friday

"My place or yours?" the woman asked with a self-aware, wry grin.

Liz, her name was. She was at least as tall as Li Ann, and much more generously curved. Her long, chestnut hair was done up in a loose bun, and she wore cat's eye glasses and tastefully minimal makeup. She was thirty-five, she'd said, divorced, no children. She was looking for a night's companionship, with no illusions and no strings. She liked jazz - that's why she was at this bar in particular. "Hey, even if I go home alone," she'd laughed, "at least the music was good!" She wore a long, black wool dress, high-collared but sleeveless. She was a smoker, which was probably why kissing her made Vic think of Ivy.

"If it's all right with you," Vic said, taking her hand in his, "I'd rather go to your place."

"Fine with me." Liz stood up. "Let's get our coats."

Outside on the cold street, Vic put his arm around her to keep her warm while he flagged down a cab. Vic deliberately let his mind wander while Liz gave the driver the address; he didn't want to be able to retrace his steps.

Liz's condo was neat and tastefully furnished in wood and beige; it had the feel of a professional woman living on her own. She had a Siamese cat, which wound around Vic's ankles mewling a greeting while he took his boots off.

She took Vic's coat, and when she came back he put his hands on her hips and kissed her.

One night stands were not Vic's style. Tonight felt very strange; he had a sense, almost, of disembodiment. He felt like he was watching two people in a movie walking through the paces of a cliché: now the woman undoes the man's shirt, now they move towards the bedroom, shedding clothing as they go, now the man picks the woman up and sets her on the bed and she giggles, surprised, because she hasn't been picked up by a man in a long time.

Her skin was warm, and soft. Her hands were soft, not callused like Li Ann's - or Mac's.

Vic hesitated, distracted for a moment by the thought of Mac. Mac, if Vic was honest with himself, was the reason Vic was here. Vic couldn't get Mac out of his head, and he desperately wanted to.

"You're so fit," Liz marvelled, winning Vic's attention back by caressing his bare chest with her hands and her eyes. "You must work out."

Vic shrugged, a little embarrassed. "I have to." He kissed her. "My job."

"What do you do?" she asked, of course.

Vic slid his hands around her body to unclasp her lacy black bra. "I'm a secret agent." He'd learned long ago that in situations where he knew he wouldn't be believed, the truth was just as deceptive as a lie. Hide in plain sight.

Liz chuckled. "Like James Bond?"

Vic cupped her breasts in his hands, and leaned closer to kiss one pink nipple. "Exactly," he murmured into her soft sweetness.

She laughed again, low and sexy. "I always wanted to be a Bond girl."

***

After, she wanted a cigarette.

"It's not that sex makes me want a smoke, exactly," she explained absently as she pulled on a faded pair of jeans, not bothering with underwear, "It's just that it's been two hours since the last cigarette, you know?"

It was a rhetorical question, so Vic let it go. He followed the trail of clothes out of the bedroom, putting things on as he came to them. It was like the foreplay in reverse. He had a brief, wistful fantasy that if he kept retracing his motions, he could undo the whole night.

He wasn't sorry that he'd come. The sex had been nice. Liz seemed nice. And, after weeks of being attracted to no one but Mac, Vic had been so relieved to find that he could still enjoy being with a woman. He hadn't turned gay.

But he didn't know Liz at all. It all felt so... sordid. And he couldn't get to know her, either - Vic knew exactly how the Director would react to a relationship with someone outside the Agency. 'Unacceptable risk,' she would call it.

Besides, Liz had said in so many words that she was only looking for a one night stand.

Liz pulled on a sweater, boots, and her coat, and then Vic followed her out onto her balcony.

The night was cold, but at least there wasn't any wind. The balcony was covered with a light skiff of snow, packed down in footprints. The downtown streets glittered 14 storeys down.

"You'd think I'd quit," Liz mused, taking a pack out of her coat pocket. "Or at least smoke inside - but I hate the smell of stale smoke. Want one?"

About to say no, Vic hesitated. He'd been so tense for so long, so worried about everything with Mac - and especially worried about how the hell they ended up in bed together Tuesday morning - the idea of a cigarette suddenly had strong appeal. It would calm him, a bit. He nodded. "Sure."

Liz frowned, slightly. "You don't smoke, do you?"

Vic was annoyed that she'd seen so much, when she didn't know him at all. "I used to," he said, an edge creeping into his voice.

Liz's raised her eyebrows. "Well, don't start again on my account."

"That won't happen," Vic assured her.

She shrugged, and shook another cigarette out of the box for him before she put it back in her pocket. "They're your lungs." She put her cigarette between her lips, and cupped one hand around the end to protect the flame of her little Bic lighter. She handed Vic the other cigarette. Rather than handing him the lighter, she waited for him to put the cigarette between his lips and then she lit it for him.

She smoked an unusual type: Gauloise, a French brand. The smoke was harsh. Maybe because of that, or maybe because he hadn't smoked in six years, Vic coughed.

The Director would have his balls if she caught him smoking.

In some ways, working for the Agency was just like being sixteen and living at home again.

"I get them in Montreal," Liz said. It took Vic a few seconds to realize she was talking about the cigarettes. "I could find them in Toronto, I suppose, but I like the idea that they're exotic. Pretentious of me, isn't it?" She laughed a little. Vic laughed too, only because she had. He didn't care where she bought her cigarettes. He realized she was only making small talk because she felt awkward with silence, and the two of them had nothing real to talk about. He would leave soon, he knew. He was already dressed for it.

The tip of Liz's Gauloise glowed orange. She turned her head and exhaled the smoke in a long stream over the edge of the balcony, then turned back to study Vic. "You don't seem like you do this much. And I've never seen you downtown before."

Vic shrugged. "Yeah, well." He took a drag on his cigarette.

Liz moved over to the edge of the balcony, so she could rest her elbows on the concrete ledge and stare out into the night. "Did you do it to hurt someone? Or to forget someone?"

"What do you mean?" Vic asked. Playing dumb was the only cover he could think of on such short notice - how the fuck did she guess? Was he that transparent?

"Don't worry, it doesn't bother me. I got what I wanted out of tonight." Liz flicked the ashes off her cigarette into the wind.

Feeling awkward and guilty, Vic touched her shoulder. He hated it that Liz thought he'd just used her. Even if, damn it to hell, it was true. "Even if I wanted to forget someone, it wasn't just - I mean, I did forget him. My attention was all on you." It had been, too. The whole time they were having sex, he hadn't thought about Mac. Right before and right after, yeah, but not during.

"Him?" Liz repeated, suddenly curious.

Vic winced. Fuck. He hadn't meant to say that. "Uh,...."

"Don't worry, I'm cool with that." Liz stubbed her Gauloise out on the ledge, grinning. "Actually, I find the concept of bi men very sexy. I have this fantasy where I make out with two gorgeous men at once, and then they fuck each other while I watch." She tossed the cigarette butt into a tin can on the floor of the balcony.

"It's late," Vic said. "I should go." Even in the frigid air, he felt himself blushing. He was starting to think Liz was some kind of sex freak. Normal women don't have fantasies like that, do they? This whole night had been a bad idea.

Liz sighed, but she didn't look unhappy. She gave Vic a quick kiss on the lips. "Go, then. Maybe I'll see you again someday."

Toronto, Canada, Chinese New Year 1999

"This is Mac's building!" Vic protested.

"Yes," Li Ann agreed, manoeuvring her car into a parking space. She'd decided that the awkwardness had gone on long enough; Vic had been avoiding Mac since the morning she found them in bed together a couple weeks ago, and it put Li Ann in an uncomfortable position. She finally decided the two of them just needed to have some casual time together to get them over the hump.

Vic crossed his arms in front of him. "I didn't know Mac was coming. I wouldn't have come if you'd told me."

"Right," Li Ann agreed easily. "That's why I didn't tell you."

"I'm not going."

"Oh yes you are. You promised," Li Ann reminded him. "I came to your New Year's party with you, and now you're coming to my New Year's celebration with me."

Vic pounded the dashboard lightly with one fist. "Damn, I hate it when you do that."

"What, remember what you promise me?" Li Ann raised her eyebrows and looked sideways at Vic.

"Yeah." Vic couldn't stop himself from smiling a bit.

Li Ann collected Mac, and brought him back down to where she'd left Vic. They left her car parked where it was. Li Ann knew from past years that it would be hopeless looking for parking near the big, outdoor festival, so she insisted they take the subway.

Mac had objections to taking public transit. "You don't know who sat there before you."

Vic rolled his eyes. "You'd rather rather spend half an hour looking for parking and end up walking two kilometres?"

Mac looked with distaste at the seat in question. "It was probably some homeless guy, some smelly old guy who hasn't washed or changed his clothes since last August."

"So don't sit down," Vic advised him, visibly irritated, and took the seat.

Li Ann let the bickering wash over her. At least Vic was talking to Mac again. Vic had been so upset after she discovered him in bed with Mac, it had been affecting all their work. Li Ann believed Vic that nothing had happened between him and Mac - really, how could it have? But Vic obviously was still worried about what Li Ann thought, and he'd been acting really awkward around Mac. Mac had told Li Ann about a few instances of Vic's new behaviour towards him - like a time last week that Vic had sent Jackie into the gym ahead of him, to warn him if Mac was there so he could avoid him. Mac was there, and Jackie, of course, chose amusement over tact and told Mac exactly what was going on. Mac had related this to Li Ann as a funny story, a joke on Vic, but Li Ann could tell it had bothered him. Thank goodness the Director had decided to pair off Jackie and Vic on a case, giving Vic some time off from both Mac and Li Ann.

Enough was enough, though. They couldn't avoid each other forever, and Li Ann was getting tired of the strain it was putting on her. After all, Vic and Mac were, among other things, her only two friends in the world. Li Ann hoped that having fun together tonight would get them over the hump and back into their normal working relationship.

Besides, Li Ann was still concerned about the breakdown Mac had had at the start of January. That wasn't something Li Ann was comfortable asking him about. The one time she'd got up the guts to mention it, he'd said he was fine now. He'd said that the doctor had given him medication that really helped, and he refused to talk any more about it.

He wasn't fine. He was tense and irritable. He'd shown up late for work three times last week, and ended up vacuuming the interiors of all of Dobrinsky's cars as punishment. And he'd mentioned something offhand to Li Ann about having trouble sleeping.

Li Ann remembered, suddenly, what it used to be like in Hong Kong - back when they were living with the Tangs, and everything they did was cloaked with secrecy. Li Ann remembered how she used to refuse to spend the night with Mac. She'd been so scared back then, and hiding it with all her might. She'd thought the only way to deal with all the pain and fear was to pretend it wasn't there, and that required very strict self-control. She wouldn't sleep with Mac because she knew her nightmares would betray her.

It all seemed so long ago and far away now - almost like it had happened to another person. Li Ann looked back on the girl who'd been Mac's lover with pity, for what she hadn't yet had the chance to learn about life and trust.

Li Ann had been so lucky to find Vic - especially in a workplace as cold and strange as the Agency. He'd saved her life by showing her a new way to live. He'd shown her that it was possible to trust someone in a deeper way than letting them take your back in a fire fight. She'd slept with him, and when she woke from the dreams he'd held her, and she'd remembered the distinction between present and past, and slowly a healing had taken place.

Watching Mac now from across the aisle of the subway car, Li Ann realized that he hadn't, yet, found someone like Vic. While Li Ann had been with Vic, learning about trust and healing, Mac had been in jail. Li Ann had never dared to ask him what that time was like.

Mac was standing, holding on to the overhead bar that ran the length of the car, swaying with the train's motion. He was far too stubborn to sit in the seats now that he'd made a point of it, even though the car was half empty. He was wearing sunglasses underground at night. What are you hiding? she wondered.

They got off the subway at St. Patrick's, and joined the crowd making their way to the blocked-off part of Kensington. Li Ann very deliberately put her worries aside, and embraced the happy energy of the crowd. Tonight, she was going to have fun.

The night wasn't too cold - just a few degrees below zero, and there was no wind. A light flurry of snow was falling. The flakes whirled festively in the streetlights.

Chinese lanterns were strung in lines over the street, marking off the area where people gathered. The crowd was thickest around the small stages that had been set up at intervals along the street. On the first one they came to, which was apparently the "Bell Canada" stage, a troupe of drummers was performing. Up close to the stage, people were dancing in the street.

The dancers caught Mac's eye. "Hey, that's a way to keep warm," he said, already sliding through the crowd towards the stage.

"C'mon, Vic," Li Ann said, grabbing her other partner by the sleeve. "If we lose sight of each other we'll never find each other again." He let her pull him through the crowd, after Mac.

Vic and Li Ann hung back from the edge of the dancers, in the more sedate part of the crowd that just tapped their feet and bobbed their heads to the beat. They watched Mac throw himself right into the dance.

There were maybe ten or fifteen dancers. Most of them were probably in their teens or twenties, but several young children jumped around at the edges, obviously having the time of their lives. There was nothing sophisticated about the dancing - it was primal, the dancers just jumping and swaying and undulating to the beat. Li Ann noticed that quite a few of the dancers wore unusual coats, brightly-coloured hats and scarves, and even mittens. They were obviously not shy people. Probably art students, she mused.

Vic leaned closer to Li Ann's ear. "Mac's dancing like he's at a rave."

Li Ann looked at Mac again. "Is he? I wouldn't know." At least he looked like he was having fun. Li Ann herself couldn't imagine ever moving that freely in public.

They watched the dancers for a little while, before Vic spoke up again. "You were right, I don't feel out of place here."

Li Ann poked him affectionately in the ribs. "I told you. It's not really a traditional Chinese celebration. It's sort of been adopted by the whole city."

Vic shrugged. "I pictured - well, I thought I might be the only white guy, and everything would be happening in Chinese, and I wouldn't understand anything...."

In some ways, Vic was very unadventurous. Li Ann gave him a reassuring smile, and patted his shoulder. "If you need anything translated or explained, just ask! I'm right here, and so's Mac."

"You know, I used to be jealous of him for knowing your language and your culture. I felt threatened by it."

Li Ann looked at Vic, a bit surprised at him bringing that up. He was watching the drummers on stage now; he looked thoughtful. "Really?" she said.

"It didn't help that he kept rubbing my nose in it," Vic added, grimacing slightly. "At the beginning, when he thought we were competing for you, he was always doing that. Like, he'd talk Cantonese to you in front of me, and then ask me why I hadn't learned Cantonese for you yet. Jeez - I mean, I'm just not good at languages. I barely passed French in high school."

Li Ann threaded her arm through Vic's. "I never expected you to learn Cantonese. We communicated fine in English. Mac was just being immature and petty." Li Ann felt an echo of the old twinges of guilt she'd always felt when she reassured Vic that Mac was no threat, trying to make Vic feel secure with her, while at the same time she was wondering if she wanted to be with Vic at all. Of course, it was all different now that they both knew she didn't want to be with either of them - she just wanted time to herself to grow and figure things out.

"Don't you think that's kind of harsh?" Vic said, surprising Li Ann. "Back then he was still reeling from finding out you'd got engaged to me so soon after you thought he died. He just didn't understand why you couldn't go back to the way things were, once you found out he was alive."

Li Ann smiled, and squeezed Vic's arm affectionately. It was amazing to hear him seeing Mac's side of that old rivalry. She was very glad that Vic was getting over that whole Tuesday morning fiasco, too. "You're right," she admitted. "He was just acting like that because he thought he was in love with me."

"Thought?" Vic repeated. From his tone, it seemed he didn't think Li Ann quite had that right.

Li Ann sighed. Her gaze fell on Mac. In the flow of the dance, he'd temporarily found a partner in a young black woman - they mirrored each other's movements, moving always with the drumbeat. "We were so young, in Hong Kong. We were so desperate. Neither of us knew what love really was."

"Well, he still thinks he's in love with you." Vic's words came out quickly, and harsh.

It took a second for the meaning to sink in, and then Li Ann snapped her head around to stare at Vic. "What?"

Vic stared stubbornly ahead, watching the dancers. He didn't elaborate.

Li Ann felt her heart sinking. Oh no. Vic was getting jealous again. God damn, she'd thought that was so far behind them.... "No, he doesn't," she reassured Vic patiently. "We've talked about it. We both agreed that it's best if we're friends, not lovers."

The muscles in Vic's cheek twitched. "Yeah, well, he lied."

"How would you know?" Li Ann challenged him. Already, doubt was creeping in. Without her permission, her mind was playing over the last couple months in fast forward, trying to see if it could be true.

"Everybody knows." Again, Vic sounded almost but not quite angry. "The Director knows. Dobrinsky knows. Jackie definitely knows. The Cleaners were making some really obscure insinuations at the poker game last week, and I think the gist of it was that they know, too. Everybody's figured it out but you."

Li Ann laughed as dismissively as possible. "Come on, Vic. You're talking about Agency speculations. The Agency's worse than a girls' boarding school for wild rumours."

Vic shook his head. "It's not just speculations," he said, quieter and calmer than a moment ago. "He told me himself. In so many words."

Li Ann's stomach sank. She couldn't dismiss that, no matter how much she wanted to. She knew Vic wouldn't lie about something like that, and anyway he had no conceivable reason to. She swore under her breath in Cantonese.

"What was that?" Vic asked.

Li Ann shook her head. "Nothing." She felt an almost irresistible urge to hit Victor. "So, why are you telling me this? Why now?"

Vic let out a deep sigh, making a billowing cloud in the cold air. "Actually I thought you knew. I thought you were just pretending not to, because it was easier."

"Well, I didn't." Li Ann made a fist and bit her gloved knuckles, trying to stifle the confusion of violent impulses she was feeling towards Mac, for falling in love with her again when he wasn't supposed to, and Vic, for telling her about it.

And the drumming stopped.

The crowd cheered, the troupe made their bows, and Mac rejoined Li Ann and Vic. His cheeks were flushed and he was grinning. His coat was half undone, but his sunglasses were still in place. "That was great!" he enthused. "C'mon, let's see what else there is!"

Mac didn't seem to notice his partners' simmering silence at first as they all made their way down the street, deeper into the festival area. He talked about how cool it was to dance with strangers on the street, and he compared the drummers' music to some other artists' he knew. He speculated about the drummers' influences, and he wondered aloud about how the local music scene was these days in Hong Kong.

"You should come to a dance party with me sometime, Li Ann," he said, throwing an arm over her shoulder. "I know you're shy about that kind of dancing, but if you just let go I know you'd be awesome, and it'd be so fun-"

Li Ann stopped walking. Since his arm was around her, Mac had to stop, too. Vic made it another couple steps before he realized he was alone, and turned around.

"You think you're still in love with me," Li Ann accused Mac. She spoke in Cantonese - too bad if Vic felt excluded. She needed to deal with this with Mac now - she wasn't going to wait until they could talk in private.

"I - what?" Mac's first confused response came out in English. He looked towards Vic, then leaned in closer to Li Ann and continued in Cantonese. "Why do you think that?"

"Vic told me."

Mac's eyes were hidden by his dark glasses, but still she could read the look on his face - desperate, and trapped.

It was true, then.

"Look," Mac hedged, "maybe this isn't the best time to talk about this?"

"I don't want this hanging open any longer," Li Ann insisted. She'd thought she had closure months ago. She wanted it now. "We talked about this. What we had in Hong Kong - it can never happen again. We're different people now."

"Different people? What the hell does that mean?" Mac's voice rose. Vic, hanging back and looking uncomfortable, took a half step towards them, obviously ready to intervene if he had to. He couldn't understand the words, of course, but he could understand the tone. "You're Li Ann Tsei, I'm Mac Ramsey - who else was there?"

Li Ann stood her ground. "Don't pretend you don't know what I mean. We were kids. We were isolated - all we had was each other."

"And how is that different from now?" Mac asked, angry and plaintive.

Li Ann spoke quietly and deliberately, looking Mac directly in the face. She needed him to understand this. "Now I have myself."

Mac didn't have a reply. He just stood there. The sunglasses hid his expression and yet Li Ann imagined she could see the deep hurt in it - like that which, she had to admit to herself now, she'd seen and ignored in November when they had their nice talk about how it was best to be just friends.

"You know, I'm really hungry," he said suddenly, in English, in a dead casual tone. "I think I'll see if I can hunt down that guy who does the really good eel. I'll catch up with you two later, OK?" Without waiting for a response, he walked away.

Li Ann hid her face in her hands. She felt terrible. She knew she'd had to say everything she said, but still, she felt like she'd just kicked a puppy.

She felt a hand on her shoulder, and, grateful, she put her hand on Vic's. "Am I a cold-hearted bitch?" she asked him, in a small voice.

Vic wrapped her in a quick, tight hug. "Don't say that about yourself. You do what you have to do."

Of course, Li Ann realized, Vic didn't even know what she'd just said to Mac.

Li Ann felt Vic shift, looking over his shoulder. "Maybe I should go after him," he said. "He, uh, you know he's been kind of unstable lately...."

Li Ann's eyes widened. "Oh no! I didn't even think of that. Shit." She bit her knuckle, fighting a sudden rush of fear. "You'd better go, now. I'll wait here. I'd only make things worse."

Vic took off, as fast as he could go through the thick crowd without getting into a fight. Li Ann waited where she was, cursing herself for not thinking more before she spoke.

She didn't regret making her feelings clear to Mac. There'd be no kindness in stringing him along. But she could have let him down a little more gently... damn.

She stayed where she was, letting the street party progress around her. She was still close enough to the Bell Canada stage to hear the next act; it was some kind of Chinese/Canadian rock fusion band.

After what seemed like an eternity, but was actually only twenty minutes by Li Ann's watch, Vic returned - alone.

Catching sight of Li Ann, Vic came over to her, shaking his head. "I couldn't find him. I'm going to call the Director." He took out his cell phone.

Li Ann was surprised at the suggestion, and she grabbed his hand to stop him from dialling. "The Director? How could she help?"

"She has resources. If anyone can find him, she can."

Li Ann shook her head. "I don't think Mac would appreciate us calling the Director down on him."

"It doesn't matter if he appreciates it," Vic said, something dark flashing in his green eyes. "The important thing is to keep him safe."

Li Ann felt shocked by Vic's intensity, and his palpable fear. "Don't you think this is a bit dramatic? Mac can take care of himself."

Vic gave a short, bleak laugh. "Yeah. Like he did after we met his mother in the nuthouse?"

"That was different," Li Ann said, but a chill ran down her back at the reminder.

Around them, the crowd was shifting. A space was clearing nearby for the Dragon Dance.

"And the night in his apartment, when we barely stopped him from eating his fucking gun?" Vic was getting increasingly agitated. Li Ann kept her hands around his, on the cell phone - she still wasn't convinced that calling the Director was a good idea. Getting the Director involved in personal matters was never a good idea.

"He was sick, he was hallucinating," Li Ann reminded Vic. "He thought it was Michael holding the gun. He's on antidepressants now, and he says he's fine."

"Yeah, and he said he wasn't in love with you anymore, too, didn't he?" Vic pointed out bitingly.

Li Ann didn't have an answer to that one. She let go of the phone.

All around them, the crowd clapped and cheered for the dragon dancers. Purely by accident, Li Ann and Vic had ended up on the edge of the space cleared for the dance. Now Li Ann looked over and saw the elaborate, terrifying mask bobbing up and down. The four feet of the two dancers moved like the feet of one creature. The illusion was perfect for those willing to believe - the dragon breathed, roared silently, and danced. Li Ann felt a dizzying moment of connection to all the New Years' celebrations she remembered from years gone by.

"Excuse me, Ms. Li Ann Tsei?" inquired an unfamiliar male voice behind her, speaking English with a thick Chinese accent.

Li Ann spun around to face the stranger. Vic paused, his finger poised to punch in the Director's number on his phone - he, too, stared at the strange man who knew Li Ann's name.

The man wore a red mask which covered his whole face; it was vaguely reminiscent of the dragon mask but more probably some demonic thing left over from Halloween. He was dressed in a quilted black bodysuit. He was a bit short, maybe 5 foot 6, and stocky but clearly not fat. Other than that, it was impossible to tell anything about him.

"I have a message for you, from the Director. I can't give it to you here," he said urgently, beckoning. "You must follow me." He didn't wait for agreement, but threaded through the crowd, heading away from the dragon dance.

Li Ann frowned, and saw Vic looking similarly suspicious and puzzled. "What the hell is she up to now?" he wondered out loud.

"Whatever it is, we'd better find out." Li Ann started pushing her way through the spectators, following the masked man in black. "You wanted to talk to the Director, anyway."

Li Ann followed the man, and Vic followed Li Ann, down a side street where the crowd thinned out, and then into an alley between two stores.

As she walked into the alley, Li Ann was extremely annoyed that the Director would choose now of all times to play some new mind game with them. But suddenly, she had a rush of instinct - something wasn't right.

This clever insight likely had to do with catching sight, in her peripheral vision, of a second masked guy lunging at her with a big, shiny knife.

"It's a trap!" she yelled to Vic, spinning and blocking. She deflected the lunge but the attacker, a much taller man, rolled away from her and came up with a crescent kick which caught her left elbow. She staggered backwards, her mind momentarily hazed with pain. Her back hit the brick wall behind her, and she saw the first guy coming at her with a length of metal pipe. She stepped into the attack, stopping his overhead strike by blocking his arms close in. She grabbed his wrist and twisted, trying to force him to the ground, but he threw his weight against her and managed to knock her off balance. She stumbled, but caught the pipe which was loose in his grip and yanked it away from him. She spun 360 degrees quickly, and caught him on the side of the head with the pipe. He didn't go down but he did stumble away from her, momentarily disabled. Meanwhile, from the sounds behind her she knew Vic was fighting the taller attacker. She turned in time to see Vic slamming against the wall, and the tall man turned on her again. His demon mask leered at her with its frozen, mass-produced fury. The knife still glinted in his right hand. This time he only faked with the knife, immediately moving into a spinning kick which he executed so fast she barely had time to move. She managed to get half out of the way but the kick caught her on the ribs and sent her flying right over the crouching figure of the shorter attacker, to land on her ass in the dirty slush with the breath knocked out of her and a red haze blurring her vision.

She didn't see what happened next, but she heard crashing and thumping and then several gunshots.

Then she heard Vic. "Li Ann!!"

"I'm here," she managed, not very loud. "Are you all right?"

Vic leaned over her. His mouth was bleeding. His gun was in his hand. "I'm fine - how bad are you hurt?"

Li Ann winced. "I think that kick cracked a rib or two. I'll be OK - you want to chase the bad guys?"

"I'll be back," he promised, and sprinted away.

Li Ann just lay where she was for the moment. Breathing hurt, a lot. She'd had a broken rib before and she was pretty sure she recognized the feeling. But she'd live.

The slush she was lying in was soaking through her coat. It was a nasty, icy wet feeling. She didn't know how long Vic would be - she had to move.

She gritted her teeth and pulled herself up. She waited, on her knees, for the new waves of pain to subside. Then she looked up, and saw that she was sharing the alley with a dead body.

She waited, gathering the strength to stand up. She'd have to get to a hospital soon. The slush soaked her pants. She shivered.

She stood up. Bracing herself with one hand against the closer wall of the alley, she shuffled over to the body. It was the shorter attacker - the one who'd approached her in the crowd and called her by name. The slush around him was tinted red. He'd been shot in the chest, right over the heart. Gingerly, she knelt again next to his head, and pulled off the mask. The man's eyes stared blankly at her. He looked Chinese. He had high cheekbones and smooth skin; he might have been attractive, alive. He looked vaguely familiar, but Li Ann couldn't place him.

Li Ann brushed her hand over his face to close his eyes, and then she reached for his right sleeve. She pushed it up, baring his forearm. He had an elaborate, green twisted dragon tattooed there. It was a design Li Ann knew intimately.

"That's the Tangs' symbol, isn't it?"

Li Ann looked up to see Vic at the entrance of the alley. He held up a red demon mask. "He got away," Vic said. "Not a fucking trace. I found this in a garbage can two blocks away."

"Yes, it's the Tangs' symbol," Li Ann confirmed quietly.

Vic swore.

"We're in public with a dead body," Li Ann pointed out. "We'd better call the Director right away. And then I have to get to a hospital."

Vic made the call while Li Ann waited, shivering with cold and pain and fear.

They had never found out who put the bomb in her apartment. With over a month gone by and nothing happening, Li Ann had let herself put it out of her mind. She couldn't afford to live scared.

She couldn't afford to keep her head in the sand, either.

Someone wanted her dead.

Toronto, Canada, three days later

The Director leaned forward, resting her elbows on the conference table and steepling her fingers together. "All our sources are saying the same thing: there are no 'Tangs' anymore. Michael's death was the last blow to the already weakened power structure. Most of the known criminal holdings had already been sold off. Most of the inner circle had already been killed. With no clear successor to Michael, what was left of the empire crumbled into its smallest constituent pieces."

Vic frowned. "So why was a Tang - or a former Tang - trying to kill Li Ann?"

"Revenge," Li Ann suggested. X-rays had revealed two cracked ribs. Now Li Ann moved gingerly and with a palpable frustration; she was off active duty for at least a month, and she had to leave the others to hunt down her would-be assassin. "I destroyed the Tangs." Vic heard the regret in her voice; they had been her family, after all, and her home.

"Not alone," Mac pointed out. "We all did it - and anyone who knew about your role would know about me and Vic, too. So why are you the only target?"

Mac had still been in the Kensington area when the fight happened. The Director had decided to deal with the cleanup through the regular emergency services this time, so several squad cars and ambulances had converged on the alley. Mac had been in a local bar, still on his first drink - he said - when he'd heard the sirens. If there was any silver lining to the assassination attempt, Vic reflected, it was this: that Mac had abandoned whatever self-destructive plans or non-plans he'd had for the evening when he ran out of the bar to see what the emergency was, and whether he could help.

"Maybe I'm not the only target," Li Ann pointed out. "They tried to kill Vic, too. And remember, he was also with me when the bomb went off."

"But it was you the guy found in the crowd, and called out by name," Vic reminded her. "I don't think he even noticed I'd followed you two until I got involved in the fight. And whoever planted the bomb in your apartment had no way of knowing I'd go home with you."

The Director rapped her fingers on the table. "These speculations are getting us nowhere."

It was true; they were basically just rehashing stuff they'd gone over the first night. They hadn't learned anything new since then.

"I have something new for you," the Director went on, and she smiled sweetly. "I have an ID on the man Victor killed. His name was Jok-Yu Li. He moved here from Hong Kong last August, to take a degree in business administration at the University of Toronto."

"He had a criminal record?" Mac guessed.

"No." The Director raised her eyebrows and looked mysterious. "You'll never guess how we found out who he was."

Vic shrugged, irritated that she hadn't brought up the new info right away. Did she toy with them for a reason, or was it just habit? "OK, we'll never guess, so tell us."

"Missing persons report. Filed this morning."

"By who?" Li Ann asked. Her surprise reflected Vic's own. Quite a few bad guys had 'disappeared' after encountering the Agency team in the past - but as far as Vic knew, no one had ever gone to the police looking for one of the missing before.

The Director called up an image on their display screens. It was a twenty-something white man with long blonde hair and a scraggly beard. "His roommate. Jonathan Dooley. He's a PhD student in Early Medieval Studies at U of T."

"Sounds like a fun guy," Mac commented drily.

The Director held up a slender dossier. "Here's what we know, including the address." She slid the folder across the table to Vic. "Vic, Jackie, you'll pose as police detectives investigating the missing persons case. You'll go talk to Dooley this afternoon, and find out everything you can. We want to track down the accomplice, and we want to find out who was calling the shots."

"If it was Jok-Yu calling the shots, then there may not be any more attempts." Li Ann sounded hopeful.

Jackie cracked her gum. "If it was the other guy, though, we've still, like, got a problem."

"Very likely, it's someone you haven't even encountered yet," the Director pointed out. "So, ask lots of questions and keep your eyes open."

***

"So," Vic said, taking out a notebook, "You reported your roommate missing this morning."

Jackie perched on the room's one easy chair, grinning at Jonathan Dooley and twirling a strand of hair around her finger. Vic had asked her, in the car, to talk as little as possible - he didn't think she played a very convincing police detective.

"That's right," Jonathan nodded. "He went out Monday afternoon, at about four. He hasn't been home since." Jonathan ran his fingers through his hair in a nervous gesture. "I thought about calling the police on Wednesday, but I thought 'no, I'm not his mother, he doesn't have to check in with me' - you know? But jeez, now he's been gone three days, and he didn't say he was going to be gone overnight and he didn't even take his wallet with him - it's on his dresser. He's never done anything like this before."

"How well do you know Jok-Yu?" Vic asked, nearly slipping up and saying 'did' instead of 'do.' This was a fucked-up situation - pretending to be a police detective investigating this guy's disappearance. Vic knew exactly where Jok-Yu Li was; he'd killed the guy.

"Not well," Jonathan admitted. "We aren't friends or anything, we're just sharing the rent. He's pretty quiet, keeps to himself. He does his share of the housework."

"Does he have friends who come around? Any family?" Vic asked.

"I think his family is back in Hong Kong - he never talked about it. And he never has friends come around, except this one guy who's been here a couple times. Thing is, that guy came over on Monday. Jok-Yu left with him. Before they left, it sounded like they had an argument, but I wasn't sure, 'cause they were talking Chinese."

"Well, that could be important," Vic observed.

"Like, yeah, why didn't you say so in the first place?" Jackie contributed, making no attempt to sound more like a detective than a Valley Girl.

Jonathan gave her a puzzled look - while he was looking away from Vic, Vic glared at Jackie and made the 'cut-it-out!' gesture, drawing a quick line across his neck with his index finger. Jackie rolled her eyes.

"I was, uh, just getting to it," Jonathan said to Jackie. He returned her grin, weakly.

"Could you describe this guy? Do you know his name? When did you see him before?" Vic asked, trying to get them back on track.

"I remember him coming over before, maybe a month ago?" Jonathan said. "I don't know his name. He never spoke a word to me. He never said a word in English, actually - he just talked with Jok-Yu in Chinese. He wasn't Chinese, though - he was white. He was very tall - maybe 6'4" or 6'5."

Jackie, wide-eyed, met Vic's gaze and mouthed the word 'Mac?'

That was impossible. It had to be someone else.

"Can you describe him in more detail?" Vic asked. The point of his pen dug into his notepad. "Do you remember his hair colour, his build, his age?"

"Ummm...." Jonathan squinched up his eyes and put his hand over his forehead, making a visible effort to remember. "I was never very good at recall.... His hair was brown, I think. He was pretty slender - not skinny, though, he looked like he worked out. Age, um, hard to say - about my age, I think? Mid twenties."

Vic made a show of taking down the details, but his writing wasn't legible at all. His heart skipped a beat with every detail that matched Mac. "Keep going," he urged Jonathan. "Describe his face."

Jonathan just shrugged. "I don't know what else to say! He had two eyes, a nose, a mouth."

Jackie stood up to whisper in Vic's ear. "Do you have a photo of Mac?"

"No, not on me." That was a good idea, though. They could come back with a photo, and Jonathan could say "No, that's not the guy," and Vic could breathe again....

"All right, like, thanks," Jackie said to Jonathan. "Now, if you wouldn't mind, it'd be great if you'd show us Jok-Yu's room."

They searched the room for potential clues. Vic moved on autopilot, putting a couple of notebooks full of hand-written Chinese into evidence bags. Jackie picked up Jok-Yu's wallet, and a post-it note with what looked like a couple of phone numbers. They found nothing else that looked useful.

When they were back in Vic's truck, Jackie gave voice to the question that was tormenting Vic: "Like, what the fuck is Mac up to?"

"It's not Mac," Vic said grimly. If he could convince Jackie, he could convince himself. "I know it looks bad, but... first of all, we both know Mac would never hurt Li Ann. And anyway, Mac was with me and Li Ann on Monday."

Jackie snapped her gum. "But he wasn't in the fight, right?"

"Well, no, he left us just before..." About twenty-five minutes before, Vic recalled. Right after Li Ann told him she didn't love him. And then he showed up again about twenty minutes after it was over. Fuuuuck...

"And what time did you pick him up at his place?" Jackie asked.

"About six," Vic answered, reluctantly.

"So, like, if he picked up Jok-Yu at four, that would've left lots of time to set up and get back home," Jackie pointed out.

"OK, but remember the bomb in Li Ann's apartment last month? That was planted sometime while he was in Kingston, or Hamilton, or under the Director's watch at the Agency. No way he could've done that," Vic insisted.

"Right," Jackie agreed, "but Jok-Yu could've done that. Or, like, somebody else."

"The guy wasn't Mac," Vic said, stubbornly. His grip on the steering wheel was white-knuckled.

Jackie laid a hand on Vic's shoulder. "Hey, like no offence Vic, but I think you're letting your personal feelings kind of make you stupid here."

Personal feelings? Holy shit, what did she know? "What do you mean?" Vic snapped.

"Like, everybody knows that you and Mac are doing it."

"What?!" Vic jerked the truck over to the side of the road and braked, hard. He and Jackie both fell forward against their seatbelts.

"Like, whoa, don't take a fit," Jackie said. "I just heard Li Ann caught you and Mac in bed together, is all."

"Nothing happened," Vic said defensively. "Anyway, how did you know about that?"

"Dobrinsky. The Director told him."

Vic felt a low growl starting, deep in his throat.

"C'mon, you can't pretend that's not why you're refusing to see what's in front of your face here," Jackie said, smoothing her hair out.

"There's nothing in front of my face. Just a whole lot of circumstantial evidence."

"OK, Vic, like get a grip," Jackie said, grabbing Vic's hands and staring him right in the eye. "Just think about this for a second. How many six-foot-four brown-haired white guys in their mid twenties who speak Chinese and have ties to the Tangs do you think there are in Toronto?"

"Fuck." She was so right. He was refusing to admit the obvious because of his feelings for Mac - and damn it, no one was supposed to know he had feelings for Mac! Vic dropped his head against the steering wheel and swore again. Then, with his forehead resting against the wheel, staring fixedly at the dusk on the steering column, he asked "How could I fight him and not even know it was him?" He thought back to the fight in the alley. The combat style of the tall, masked attacker had been so familiar, full of high kicks and acrobatics, but Vic hadn't thought anything of it. Li Ann fought that way too. Of course, she and Mac had trained together.... Vic shivered. "He was trying to kill us. I was trying to kill him." Feeling desperate and numb, Vic imagined if he'd defeated the second attacker. Imagined pulling off the demon mask to reveal Mac's face, cold and open-eyed in death.

That would have killed Vic. No matter what Mac had done, if Vic killed him, he wouldn't be able to live with himself.

Vic felt a hand on his back. "Well, don't, like, lose it," Jackie said. "I mean, the Director's sent one of us undercover before without telling anyone else. Maybe that's what's going on."

Vic was eager to grasp at the shred of hope Jackie had come up with, but he wanted her to convince him - to give him a hand out of the deep pit of despair he was wallowing in. "But, he broke Li Ann's ribs," Vic pointed out.

"To maintain his cover?" Jackie suggested. "And anyway, he didn't, like, actually kill either one of you. So maybe he wasn't really trying."

"That must be what happened." Vic sat up again, feeling immense relief. His eyes felt a bit wet - he hoped Jackie wouldn't notice. "Is that what you think happened?"

"Naaah, I think Mac went nuts 'cause Li Ann doesn't love him," Jackie admitted cheerfully. "He's been totally losing it ever since the godfather died. I just, like, said all that undercover stuff so you'd feel better and start driving the friggin' truck again."

"You're so sweet," Vic muttered, shoving the truck into drive. But he did feel better - the scenario Jackie had offered was totally plausible, and he clung to it, trying to ignore his persistent doubts which whispered Jackie's right, Mac's been mentally unstable since the godfather died. Especially after running into his mother. His criminally insane mother. That kind of thing could be hereditary, couldn't it? But then, maybe it would all be OK. If Mac really was going crazy - for real, chemical-imbalance-in-the-brain crazy - then maybe the Agency could fix him. They'd fixed Jackie... more or less.

When they got back to the Agency, they had an argument about how to reveal what they'd found. Jackie wanted to speak to the Director, privately. Vic wanted to go directly to Mac and confront him, and let him speak for himself.

"If the Director's behind all this - and ten to one says she is - then if we go right to her she'll just make up more stories to keep us in the dark," Vic whispered. They were in the main corridor. They seemed to be alone, but Vic would never trust that in the Agency.

"But if we go to Mac, then he can make up stories to explain everything," Jackie pointed out. "I mean, you know he's a con artist, right?"

They reached the double doors to the briefing room. When Vic pulled the door open, he saw the Director, Li Ann and Mac all sitting around the table, with several pieces of paper and a map scattered between them. "All right," he said under his breath to Jackie, "Let's just tell both of them at once. Give them both a chance to tell us their stories."

"Okey-dokey," Jackie agreed. Then she pitched her voice to carry. "Like, hi, everybody! We're back, and we found out some interesting stuff."

Mac leaned back in his seat. "Great! We're getting nowhere, here. What's the news?"

Jackie kept talking as she and Vic approached the table and sat down. Vic let her talk, and just watched Mac's face.

"So, like, we talked to Jonathan. He said that when Jok-Yu left Monday afternoon, he was with another guy. Jonathan'd seen this other guy, like, once before - a month ago. Like, maybe around the time when Li Ann's apartment blew up?"

Mac seemed totally calm as his listened to Jackie. He looked interested, sure, but he didn't look worried. The Director prompted Jackie to go on.

"So, like, Jonathan described the guy to us," Jackie continued. Her voice took on a slightly harder edge. "It's a white guy, mid-twenties, about 6'4". He's slender but, like, muscular, he's got brown hair and no beard or mustache, and he speaks Chinese."

Watching Mac, Vic saw his eyes widen in recognition as the description ended. And then Mac turned to look at Li Ann, and she looked back at him, and they held each others' gaze for a full second before they both spoke at once.

"Paul," they both said.

Jackie shook her head, confused. "What?"

"Paul was a... friend of Michael's," Mac explained. "He was here with him in December. The description fits him perfectly."

Vic felt dizzy for a second, as the tension in his body went poof and he found he could breathe again.

Jackie laughed. "Jesus! I thought Vic was going to faint, there! Mac, we thought it was you!"

Vic felt his face going red. He glared at Jackie, trying very hard to kill her with the look.

"Me? Trying to kill Li Ann and Vic?" Mac looked wounded.

"How many six-foot-four brown-haired white guys in their mid twenties who speak Chinese and have ties to the Tangs can there possibly be in Toronto?" Vic muttered into the table, and shot another death-glare at Jackie.

The Director, meanwhile, was frowning. "Are you talking about Michael's bodyguard?"

"Oh, he was more than just a bodyguard," Mac assured her quickly.

"In that case, you two should have mentioned him in your reports back in December," she said to Li Ann and Mac. She sounded seriously annoyed.

Li Ann looked uncomfortable, and shrugged. "It didn't occur to me. He didn't seem important - he was just kind of... there."

"He was a loose end," the Director pointed out, scowling. "I do not like loose ends."

"Well, now that we know he's behind the attacks on Li Ann, we'll take care of him." The tone of Mac's voice made it clear he didn't mean "take care" in a nice way.

"We don't know that he's the one calling the shots," Vic pointed out. "Like the Director said earlier, we probably haven't met the one in charge, yet."

The Director nodded her approval to Vic.

Mac shook his head. "It's Paul. He's the one." He sounded certain of himself, but not happy about it.

"But, like, what does this Paul guy stand to gain from killing Li Ann now?" Jackie asked, reasonably.

Mac grimaced. "Revenge."

"But Li Ann didn't take down the Tangs by herself," Vic reminded him. "We all helped."

"Even Michael and Paul had a part in it," Li Ann added.

Mac shook his head slowly. "Not revenge for destroying the Tangs. Li Ann... you're the one who killed Michael."

Li Ann's eyes widened. "Oh," she said quietly.

"This is a nice theory," the Director interjected, "but it's just a theory. Someone convince me, please. You've never even mentioned Paul before. Who is he that he would risk everything, months after Michael's death, just to avenge him?"

"I don't know where he came from." Li Ann looked to Mac, and Mac shrugged - he didn't know either. "He was with Michael when we met with him in private, in December. He didn't say much. He seemed to be acting as Michael's bodyguard."

"Michael called him his brother," Mac added, his expression dark.

The Director was wearing her glasses; now she tapped them so they slid down her nose and she peered intensely over them at Mac, calculating. "So Michael came back with a man who superficially resembles you, and named him as his brother. It sounds like he replaced you."

"Yeah, it does." Mac agreed, keeping his expression fixed.

"And based on this, you believe that Paul would be bound to avenge Michael's death," the Director went on.

Mac gave a short, curt nod. "Absolutely."

The Director crossed her arms, and sat back in her chair. "I'm not convinced yet. But I happen to suspect, Mr. Ramsey, that you know more than you're saying, and I think it's about time to come out with it."

Mac looked trapped. Li Ann and Jackie both looked curiously between Mac and the Director. As for Vic, he thought he could guess what the Director was fishing for.

The Director stood up. She walked around the table, to perch on its edge in front of Mac. Mac swallowed. The Director put a finger under his chin, to tilt his face up towards hers. "How far will Paul go in pursuit of this revenge?" she asked Mac. "How much will he risk?"

Mac swallowed again. "He'll risk everything." His voice was strained and soft, almost shaking. "He's willing to die for it."

"Why?" the Director pressed him, letting her voice get softer, too. The girls and Vic leaned closer to hear.

"Because he loved Michael," Mac whispered.

Li Ann frowned, looking puzzled. "How can you be sure? We only met Paul three times. He barely spoke to us."

"Yes, Mac," the Director said, keeping her physical and eye contact with Mac, who was becoming pale. "How can you be sure?"

Vic couldn't let this go any further. "Hey!" he said. He grabbed the back of Mac's chair and spun it around, breaking the Director's contact with Mac. Now Mac faced Vic, looking shaken and desperate. "He just is," Vic said over Mac's head, to the Director. "I trust his instincts. Don't you?"

The Director raised her eyebrows, but she didn't say anything about Vic leaping to Mac's rescue. "I put very little faith in anything as intangible as an instinct," she said instead.

"Remember what happened last time you didn't trust his instincts?" Vic asked. "We all nearly got killed by Michael and Pucci."

"Except for me!" Jackie interjected cheerfully. Everyone ignored her.

"Ah, but I believe there was more than instinct at work there," the Director said. She put a hand on Mac's shoulder and kneaded it slowly. "I think Mac knew something back then that he chose not to share. I think he's still hiding it."

Vic looked into the Director's eyes, and he knew that she knew. Maybe she didn't know the details, or maybe she did, but somehow she knew that Mac had been Michael's lover.

And she was going to make him say it.

In front of Li Ann.

Vic stood up. "This is between you and Mac," he said to the Director. "Li Ann and Jackie and I should go."

"Like, no way!" Jackie snapped at Vic, annoyed. "This is getting really interesting!"

The Director motioned for Vic to sit down. "You're all involved, because you all need to know everything possible about Paul in order to stop him."

Vic remained standing. "This isn't even about Paul!"

"Should I be questioning you, Vic, instead of Mac?" The Director made the question sound like a threat.

"All right!" Mac shouted suddenly. He spun the chair around to face the Director. "Michael and I were lovers! Are you happy now?" He sprang out of his chair and headed for the door.

The Director, expression calm, snapped her fingers to Jackie. "Stop him."

Jackie dashed and got ahead of Mac before he reached the exit. She stood in front of him, feet apart, arms loose and ready for if she had to use force. Mac just stopped and turned around. "What the hell do you want from me?" he demanded of the Director.

Vic snuck a glance at Li Ann. She was staring, wide-eyed, at Mac, with her hand over her mouth.

"I've known from the beginning that you and Michael had been lovers," the Director said, dry and calm. "You used to talk in your sleep, when you were in jail. It was in your files. Come here. Sit down."

Mac walked forward as though she'd put a spell on him. There was no sound in the room. Li Ann was still as stone, with her hand still over her mouth. Jackie stayed in her place, guarding the exit. Vic hardly dared to breathe.

Mac sat back down in his chair and looked up at the Director, who still sat on the edge of the table.

"What I need you to tell me," the Director said quietly in a calm, reasonable, low voice, "is what it is like to be Michael's lover. What is Paul feeling now? Why does he need to kill Li Ann?"

Mac stared at her unblinking while he answered. "Michael is so intense." When he spoke, his tone was flat. "Being with him feels like being a car on fire. Everything but the hardest parts of you gets burned away. I'm terrified of him. I never know what he's going to do next."

With a shock, Vic realized that Mac was talking about Michael in the present tense.

This wasn't healthy. This wasn't safe. Why was the Director making Mac go through with this? They didn't need to know this. All they needed to know was that Paul had had strong emotional ties to Michael, strong enough that now he'd devote his life to vengeance. All they needed to know, really, was that Paul was the one behind the attacks and that he'd certainly try again. Now they had to catch Paul, and stop him. Nothing Mac could say about Michael would help them find Paul.

"Michael thrives on pain. He wants people to be afraid of him. He wants me to be afraid of him. And I am. Because I know he's going to destroy me," Mac continued in the same flat, matter-of-fact tone.

Not healthy, not safe. Vic's heart raced. He was about to stand up, shout, grab Mac and take him out of here - anything to stop the Director's fucked-up game - but something stopped him. He couldn't bring himself to move.

"But you love him," the Director prompted him, her voice even, soothing.

"I'm not alive until he comes into the room," Mac said. "When he looks at me, I know that I'm nothing without him, but I'm everything while his eyes are on me. When he fucks me sometimes it hurts so much I scream, but at the same time I'm dying and being reborn, and I'm invincible."

"What would you do if someone hurt Michael?" the Director asked, still soothing.

"No one can hurt Michael. He's too strong."

An emotion flickered across the Director's face, and Vic thought it was pity. Then she snapped her fingers.

Mac slumped forward in his chair. Li Ann let out a high-pitched whimper. And Vic found he could move again.

Vic wanted to run right to Mac and see if he was all right, see if he was even conscious - but he couldn't, not with the Director, Li Ann and Jackie watching. "What the hell did that have to do with the case?" he demanded, instead, taking an aggressive step toward the Director.

The Director gave an easy shrug. "The case, your lives - it's all interconnected. Li Ann needed to know what she's up against. And you -" the Director pitched her voice lower, to just carry to Vic's ears, "You need to know what you're getting into."

Before Vic could process that thought, the Director snaked her hand down the front of her own shirt, and pulled out a couple of $100 bills. "You all must be terribly hungry," she said. "I think you should all go out and get some dinner now - my treat. That's an order, by the way."

Li Ann and Jackie were standing by the room's exit; Li Ann obviously wanted to leave, but Jackie was blocking her way. Li Ann looked haunted.

The Director placed $100 in Vic's hand, then walked over to the girls and handed the other bill to Jackie. "I would suggest," she added, "two separate restaurants. Jackie, Vic, do you follow me?"

"Yup!" Jackie nodded. "Come on," she said to Li Ann, taking her by the elbow, "You'll feel better after you eat."

Li Ann cast one hollow-eyed look back over her shoulder at Mac, and let Jackie lead her away.

"I have to go, now," the Director said to Vic. "I have..." she wiggled her fingers, "things to do. See if you can make it through without anyone getting hospitalized this time, all right?"

She was gone before he could protest.

Vic stood there, stunned, with a $100 bill in his hand. He felt drained by the scene he'd just witnessed.

Mac was still hunched forward in his chair, holding his head in his hands. Vic approached him hesitantly. "Uh, Mac?"

Mac sat up and looked bleakly at Vic. "Li Ann will hate me now, won't she?"

Vic shook his head slowly. "No. It'll take her some time to adjust, that's all."

"I didn't mean to say all that. I don't know why I did."

Vic recalled the strange, even tone Mac's voice had taken while he was talking, and the way Vic himself had wanted to stop the scene, yet had been unable to compel himself to move. "Fuck!" he realized, "She hypnotized us."

Mac furrowed his forehead. "Huh? Can she do that?"

"I've seen her do it to suspects a few times. It's like... she can use the force of her personality to get people to just fixate on her, and talk."

Mac shuddered. "That woman scares me more every day."

"But hey, she did give us $100 for supper," Vic pointed out, holding up the bill.

"I'm not hungry," Mac said. "You take the money, buy yourself dinner and a nice lap dance or something. I'm going home." He stood up.

"She ordered us to go out to a restaurant," Vic reminded him. "Come on, you can pick - we can even go somewhere with authentic Hong Kong food."

Mac grinned. "Really? Would you eat eel?"

"Uh, no," Vic winced, "But I'd try not to look too grossed out while you ate it."

"Actually I don't feel like Chinese food tonight," Mac said. "How about you pick a place."

"OK..." Vic wondered whether Mac wanting to avoid Chinese food had anything to do with reminiscing about Michael. "How about Greek? There's a really nice Greek place I've been wanting to go back to, and $100 will go a long way there."

"Greek, great, sign me up," Mac said, heading for the door in long strides. "I'll drive."

Vic expected Mac to be subdued after what happened in the briefing room. Instead, Mac talked non-stop the whole way to the restaurant. He started talking about the Greeks, and then togas, and then toga parties, and then Vic lost the thread. Vic contributed nothing but the directions to the restaurant, along with the occasional grunt, or "yeah," or "no," or "really?" He couldn't concentrate on what Mac was saying; he just kept thinking about what he had said.

'I'm terrified of him,' Mac had said. 'Michael thrives on pain,' he'd said. 'I know that I'm nothing without him, but I'm everything while his eyes are on me,' he'd said. 'When he fucks me sometimes it hurts so much I scream,' he'd said.

Jesus. Mac had been in an abusive relationship with Michael. Vic had sort of known that already - the very first time Mac told Vic he'd been Michael's lover, it was to explain how he knew Michael was a sadist - but Vic had never really put it together and thought of it in these terms. That word. Abuse. Honestly, it had been too weird at first to think of two guys even having a relationship - having sex, maybe, but a relationship? Given a month or so to think about it, and to start to come to terms with the fact that he was attracted to Mac, himself, in a tangle of feelings that had to do with sex but not just sex, he was starting to realize that whatever had been between Michael and Mac, it had been more than just sex.

And what had the Director said to Vic? 'You need to know what you're getting into.'

"Earth to Vic!" Mac said, snapping his fingers in front of Vic's face. "We're here."

Inside the restaurant, Mac gave Vic a funny look when he asked for a seat in the smoking section. There was a vacant table for two; they were seated right away.

"Since when do you smoke?" Mac asked, opening up his menu.

"Since I was sixteen," Vic replied irritably, taking a pack of Marlboros out of his pocket. He was not going to make it through this dinner without one.

Mac shook his head, scanning the menu. "You do not smoke. I would've smelled it on you. I think I'll get the stuffed grape leaves for an appetizer, and the moussaka."

"Well, the Director made me quit when I joined the Agency," Vic muttered. He lit his cigarette.

"And you started again...?"

"About two weeks ago. Want one?" Vic offered the pack to Mac.

Mac held up his hand in refusal. "No thanks, I quit when I was fourteen. The godfather made me. The Director's gonna kill you."

"She's not going to find out."

A waiter came over to their table. He was a stout, middle-aged man, and he looked authentically Greek. "Are you ready to order?"

Mac and Vic placed their orders, and then the waiter asked them about drinks. Mac ordered a litre of the house red wine.

"So, you quit smoking when you were fourteen?" Vic asked. "When the hell did you start?"

Mac smirked. "I was ten."

"Man." Vic tapped the end of his cigarette into the ashtray. "I should've known you'd be a juvenile delinquent."

"That was me all right." Mac looked pleased at the characterization. "All my teachers figured I'd end up in jail."

"Then they were right. You did end up in jail," Vic pointed out.

"Ah," Mac waggled a finger, "But did they predict I'd get sprung by a Shadowy Government Agency, and spend the rest of my days as a secret agent defending the world from evil?"

Vic grinned, and took a drag on his cigarette. "Oh, is that what we do? Defend the world from evil?"

Mac half shrugged, and looked less happy. "Well, sometimes. On the good days."

"Today wasn't such a good day," Vic suggested.

"I've had better. Like, remember the time we went on that jewellery heist with the Rivers family? Damn, that was fun," Mac grinned.

Vic didn't let Mac get away with changing the subject this time. He was starting to figure out how good Mac was at that - at changing the subject to avoid things he didn't want to talk about. Vic had the feeling that Mac had been doing it all the time, all along, without Vic even noticing. This time, though, Vic noticed. "Do you actually remember what you said to the Director?" he asked.

Mac balled his napkin up on the table. "You mean about Michael? Yeah, I remember." He looked up at Vic. "Did you really think that I was the one who attacked you and Li Ann?"

Vic shrugged. "I didn't want to. But the description sounded just like you. I thought maybe you were working undercover and the Director hadn't told us, or something."

"I wouldn't hurt Li Ann." Without looking down at his hands, Mac now twisted his napkin into a tight snake. The waiter arrived with the wine, and they paused in their conversation while he poured them each a glass.

"I know you wouldn't," Vic assured him as the waiter walked away.

"The Director thinks I might." The snake in Mac's hands doubled over on itself.

Vic frowned. "Huh? What makes you think that?"

"The last question she asked me, remember?"

Vic thought back. The last question had been 'What would you do if someone hurt Michael?' And Mac had said it was impossible, that no one could hurt Michael.

"I don't understand you," Vic said.

"Li Ann killed Michael. Paul wants to kill her, for doing it, because he loves Michael. And I love Michael, too - so what does that tell you?" Mac took his wine glass and drained it.

Vic pulled the bottle of wine away before Mac could pour himself a second glass. "You keep talking about Michael as if he was still here. Do you still see his ghost?" he asked.

Mac's eyes widened. "I didn't think you remembered about that," he said softly.

"Do you?" Vic insisted.

Mac shook his head. "Not when I'm awake. Not since I started taking the drugs."

"The antidepressants?"

"And the blue pills."

"What blue pills?"

Mac shrugged. "The doctor never told me what they were. You know what the Agency's like."

Vic knew, and it wasn't comforting to think they were trying weird experimental drugs on Mac.

Just then, the waiter arrived with their food. Vic let Mac change the subject, and they talked about trivial things while they ate.

The Director had been right. They'd needed food. Vic, at least, felt ten times better once he was full. Mac started talking about martial arts in movies, and he made Vic laugh so much he nearly choked on his food. Vic was entranced, too, by the way Mac waved his hands around while telling his stories, sometimes demonstrating the move he was talking about in ways which seemed dangerous to the table ornaments. Mac looked so young when he laughed, and innocent. That had to be because of the dimples.

They paid and left the restaurant, still chatting easily. Then they came to the place where Mac's car was parked.

Had been parked.

There was a lime green Volkswagen in the spot now.

"Somebody stole my car?" Mac said, dumbfounded.

"How much money did you put in the meter?" Vic asked.

"Money," Mac repeated. "Meter. Fuck."

"Looks like it got towed," Vic observed, unhelpfully. He looked at Mac; Mac was standing tight, with his hands clenched, staring at the Volkswagen.

Suddenly, growling, Mac turned around and kicked a nearby garbage can. The metal mesh can tipped, but didn't fall; it was chained to a lamp post. Mac kicked it again, harder, and again and again after it fell over. His face was pure fury. People walking by started to give him a wide berth, avoiding eye contact.

"Mac!" Vic yelled, and failed to get his attention. He grabbed him, pinning his arms behind him, and pulled him back away from the garbage can.

Mac tried to twist out of his grip, yelling "Get off me!" but Vic held tight.

"Come on, cool it!" Vic urged Mac. "We'll get your car out of the pound."

Mac stopped fighting, but he didn't relax. Vic let go, cautiously.

Mac stood there, staring down at the garbage can like it might get up and come looking for more.

"Come on, let's go," Vic said. Mac ignored him. "Come on," Vic insisted, and, without really thinking about it, took Mac's hand to pull him away from the garbage can.

In response, Mac squeezed Vic's hand so hard it hurt. "OK, let's go," Mac agreed. With his free hand, he pulled sunglasses out of his coat pocket and put them on.

"The subway's this way," Vic said, unnecessarily and awkwardly, nodding his head in the right direction. Mac was holding his hand. Vic had only meant to pull Mac away from the garbage can, he hadn't meant to hold on to him for more than a second... but Mac, without looking at Vic, was holding his hand in a death grip.

They started walking along the street, still holding hands. Vic felt strange and off-balance, and dangerously conspicuous, walking down this heavily-travelled, commercial street holding hands with another man. He had a feeling that the contact was important to Mac, though, so instead of letting go he tightened his grip.

It didn't take a trained psychiatrist to guess that Mac's explosion over his car getting towed had a lot more to do with the afternoon meeting than with the car.

"I don't have any money for the subway," Mac mentioned, his offhand tone at odds with the desperate grip he had on Vic's hand.

"No problem, I can cover us," Vic assured him.

Mac nodded. "Do you know where the pound is?"

"Yeah, but your car won't be ready to pick up 'till tomorrow." While he spoke, Vic kept an anxious eye on everyone approaching them on the sidewalk. Nobody seemed to be noticing them, particularly, but Vic feared that any moment they'd be jumped by a gang of skinheads, or something. They were holding hands on a public street!

"You're pretty familiar with this whole drill," Mac observed, glancing sideways at him with a grin. "Do you park in front of fire hydrants a lot?"

"Hey, I've never been dumb enough to get my truck towed," Vic protested. "I spent six months as a traffic cop at the start of my career."

Mac snorted. "That, I can see. I bet you loved giving out tickets, huh?"

Vic might have been deceived by the casual, joking conversation into thinking that Mac had already moved past the crisis and forgotten about it, except that Mac was still hanging on to his hand as though it were the only thing between Mac and a 20 metre drop off the edge of a cliff. Vic was starting to seriously think that his hand was going to bruise from this - but he wasn't going to let go.

They finally did have to let go, to get through the turnstile in the subway. Vic flexed his hand, trying to get the circulation back, and Mac noticed. He didn't say anything, but he looked troubled and turned and walked away from Vic.

Vic let him go. He figured maybe Mac needed some space. Anyway, Vic needed space - he needed to think about what that had meant. The holding-hands thing. Vic was buzzing with adrenaline from the experience. What had Mac been thinking, the whole time? Holding hands was just not something guys did unless they were dating. Women, maybe, occasionally, but not men. Not in Vic's culture.

Vic wished suddenly that he'd made more of an effort to learn about Hong Kong. He tended to forget that Mac had grown up in an entirely different cultural environment. Not all of his assumptions would be the same as Vic's. For all Vic knew, holding hands meant nothing in particular to Mac.

No, no. Vic's hand still ached. Holding on that tight could not possibly be casual. It had meant something to Mac. But what?

There were only a few other people on the platform. Mac had wandered all the way down to the end, and was standing near the edge leaning against the wall, next to the tunnel opening the train would come through.

He had planned to give Mac space, but suddenly Vic felt distinctly uneasy. Mac was standing so close to the edge, at the end of the station where the train would burst out of the tunnel....

Get a grip, Vic, he told himself. He was really letting his mother hen instincts get away with him. There was absolutely no reason to believe Mac was contemplating anything that stupid.

OK, sure, there'd been the hand-holding... and the unprovoked attack on the garbage can. Mac was obviously upset about what he'd revealed to Li Ann that afternoon.

A faint breeze against Vic's cheek let him know the train was coming. He hesitated for a moment longer. Mac, who had been leaning against the wall, stood up straight and took a step closer to the edge, bringing him past the safety line painted at the edge of the platform. Vic swore to himself, then jogged briskly towards his partner, calling out "Hey! Mac!"

Mac turned towards Vic, his eyebrows lifting quizzically over his dark glasses. Vic, getting close enough, grabbed Mac's hand. And stopped, panting a little, and feeling stupid. The train roared out of the tunnel beside them. "Uh, I thought we should ride in the same car," Vic said.

"...sure," Mac agreed. He'd obviously thought of saying something else, and then bit it back.

Mac had forgotten his previous objections to sitting down on public transit; they found a vacant double seat, and sat together. Their hands were still linked.

Mac maintained a broody sort of silence as the train travelled to the next stop. He held on to Vic's hand, which rested on Vic's thigh, and he stared out the window into the blackness - or maybe just at their own reflections in the window.

As the train pulled away from the next stop, he leaned in close to Vic and said softly in his ear "I wasn't going to jump."

"Who said you were?" Vic asked, automatically defensive, staring straight ahead.

"The Director said something to you, didn't she?"

"I don't know what you mean," Vic lied.

"Yes you do," Mac insisted. Vic could feel Mac's warm breath on his ear. Vic's heart was racing, and he didn't know if it was because of the electric feel of Mac's hand in his, or the intimate closeness of Mac speaking softly right into his ear, or because of his fear that Mac was about to cut right through Vic's lame excuses and see that Vic had been conspiring with the Director behind his back. Not that Vic had had a choice in the conspiracy, and not that there'd been any goal but protecting Mac, but Vic still suspected Mac wouldn't be happy about it. "You've been... hovering," Mac said.

"Still don't know what you mean," Vic said stubbornly.

"Like you think I'm going to go off again like... that time in Kingston."

Vic sucked in a breath through his teeth. Well, that put the cards more or less on the table. "So you think I shouldn't be concerned? After that?"

"That was a one-off. We ran into my fucking mother, Vic. The last time I saw her, I was twelve years old and she was sitting on the kitchen floor covered with blood from the guy she'd just hacked to pieces with a meat cleaver. So I flipped. Who wouldn't?"

"Jesus," Vic whispered, turning to face his partner. Mac's expression was calm behind his sunglasses, but he was squeezing Vic's hand again, so hard that his arm was trembling. At least it was the other hand this time. "Sorry."

Mac shrugged tightly. "I'm dealing."

"But it wasn't a one-off," Vic said, only barely loud enough for Mac to hear him over the subway car's rumbling. "The Director told me about when you were in jail." Vic hadn't planned to say that; it just came out. He was tired of carrying this secret knowledge around with him, tainting all his time with Mac, and there would never come a more topical moment in conversation.

Mac took that in; his jaw tightened. "What, exactly, did she tell you?"

"She told me you tried to kill yourself."

"Did she tell you I was half crazy from drug withdrawal at the time?"

Vic shook his head. "No," he admitted. She had mentioned that Mac had been using before he went to jail, but she hadn't connected that with the suicide attempts. OK, if Mac had only tried to harm himself because he was going out of his mind with drug withdrawal, then there was less to worry about now. And it would be just like the Director to leave out a detail like that, the better to manipulate Vic. But still, she'd said... "She said it happened more than once."

Mac gave a short, hollow laugh. "There is no privacy in this life," he mused out loud. "All right. It... I'm not so good with boredom, you know? With being still, doing nothing? And then I get locked in a cell for a year and a half.... I didn't know if Li Ann was alive or dead, I didn't know if Michael was alive or dead.... Hey, Vic, don't look now but you just missed your stop."

"I know," Vic said. Like he was going to stand up and walk away in the middle of this conversation? "I'll walk you home."

"And then what?" Mac challenged him. "Follow me into my apartment and strap me to the bed so I can't hurt myself?"

The bitterness in Mac's tone shocked Vic. "No, I just-"

"'Cause that's what it takes," Mac added, turning his head to look out the window, away from Vic. "That's what it takes to be sure. That's what they did with me in Hong Kong, for a week each time."

"I'm not here for that," Vic managed to say firmly. "Look at me, Mac." His left hand was still in Mac's right; now he took Mac's left hand with his right, tugging Mac partly sideways in the seat to make him face Vic. "If you're not safe, we can go to the hospital. I'm not here to do a suicide watch on you. The Director didn't tell me to do that - she just said to look out for you, nothing more. And I'd do that much anyway, because you're my... friend." Maybe they should go to the hospital. This conversation was scaring the hell out of Vic. This wasn't something he knew how to talk about. Mac talking about needing to be strapped to the bed - was that an implicit suicide threat? But no, he'd just been making the point that Vic couldn't really protect him, and that he was getting on Mac's nerves, trying. Or, anyway, that was Vic thought he'd meant... fuck. "Maybe I just want to go home with you because I like being with you, had you thought of that?" Vic burst out.

Mac stared at him, looking more confused than anything. OK, maybe that message would have come through a little more clearly if Vic hadn't sounded so pissed at Mac when he'd said it.

"Since when do you like being with me?" Mac asked.

Vic shrugged uncomfortably. All of a sudden he'd managed to bring the conversation way too close to the place where he'd find himself admitting out loud that he was attracted to Mac. "What, don't you like being with me?"

"Well, sure, sometimes," Mac said easily, "but you've been totally avoiding me since that morning we woke up in your bed together. I thought you were completely freaked out."

Vic's natural impulse was to deny that, but what good would that do? "I was," he admitted, an image of Liz flashing through his mind. That one-night stand had done nothing to ease Vic's confusion over Mac.

Mac tilted his head, to peer at Vic over the tops of his sunglasses. He looked bemused. "Well, OK, you want to talk about that?"

No no no no no no "Yeah."

The train slowed to a stop again, and it was Mac's station, so they got off. They weren't holding hands anymore. Mac had sloughed off the tight, desperate manner he'd had since discovering his car missing. Now he seemed normal and at ease, and it was Vic who was troubled. What was he going to say to Mac?

When they got out onto the street, Mac pulled out his cell phone and dialled a number. "Hey, everything OK there?" he asked into the phone. "Yeah, we're fine too. Just checking... Is she going to stay at the Agency again tonight?... OK, good night."

"Who was that?" Vic asked.

Mac tucked the phone back into his pocket. "Jackie."

Vic nodded. Mac was worried about Li Ann, naturally. So was Vic. They knew who was trying to kill her now, but they weren't any closer to stopping him. "Are they going back to the Agency?"

"No, Li Ann's going back to her apartment tonight, but Dobrinsky's going to stay over."

"That's going to get on Li Ann's nerves," Vic predicted.

"We'll find Paul soon," Mac said darkly.

When they reached Mac's place, Vic hesitated in the doorway.

"You said you wanted to talk," Mac reminded him.

"Yeah..." Vic admitted, taking a reluctant step inside and letting the door shut behind him. He didn't know what he wanted.

He wanted Mac to kiss him, knowing it was him, meaning it, remembering it afterwards.

He wanted it all to go away. He wanted everything to be like it used to be, before New Year's, before Pucci, before Michael came back from the dead.

He wanted to know what holding hands meant to Mac.

"Do you have anything to drink?" Vic asked, peeling off his winter clothes. He wasn't going to make it through this without a drink.

Mac wandered away to check his cupboard. "Scotch," he offered.

"That'll do. Could I get an ice cube in that?" Vic went and sat on the white couch, and fiddled with his hands. He wanted a cigarette, too, but he was too polite to light up in someone else's apartment.

Mac came out with two glasses in one hand, and the bottle in the other. There was an ice cube in one glass. He poured what looked like double shots for each of them, left the bottle on the coffee table, handed Vic his drink, and sat down on the other couch.

"So." Mac leaned forward, with his knees jutting out at angles and his elbows resting on them. "You're going to talk."

Vic took the first sip of his drink. The scotch burned its way down his esophagus. It was good stuff. "Take your fucking sunglasses off."

Mac shrugged, took them off and laid them on the coffee table. "Why did you start smoking?"

Vic winced, and took another good swallow of scotch. He'd started smoking because he was so fucking stressed out about being attracted to Mac. But he'd hoped to lead into the subject a bit more gradually than that. "I was with a woman... she was smoking."

Mac nodded. "Peer pressure. Aren't you a bit old for that?" A hint of a teasing smile played across his lips. "What woman? There aren't any women in your life but Li Ann, Jackie, and the Director."

"It was just some woman I picked up at a bar," Vic said, feeling his face grow warm. He stared into his glass, swirling the ice cube around, so that he wouldn't have to see Mac's surprised, curious grin. He knew, in theory, he should be bragging to Mac that he was actually getting some (for once)... but instead he felt embarrassed about the incident with Liz, and vaguely guilty. Like he'd cheated on Mac.

Mac snorted. "You picked up at a bar?"

Vic shrugged, and let himself get sarcastic. "It's this quaint mating ritual we have here in Canada."

"Nah, I don't believe you. I mean, I've seen you work. If anything happened, she picked you up."

Vic glared at Mac, pissed off primarily because Mac was right. Mac wasn't supposed to be that perceptive. He was supposed to be the self-absorbed one.

"But it didn't make you happy," Mac added, losing his grin.

"Says who?"

"You started smoking."

Fuck politeness. If Mac was going to keep bringing that up, and reminding Vic how much he wanted a cigarette, Vic was damn well going to have one. He took the pack out of his pocket, and shook out a cigarette and his lighter. "What can I use for an ashtray?"

Mac frowned, shaking his head. "Don't smoke that."

"Why not?" Vic challenged Mac with a look. He put the cigarette in his mouth but didn't light it yet.

"I don't like the smell."

"Do I look like I care?" Vic half-hoped Mac would kick him out of his apartment, cutting off the conversation.

Mac leaned in a fraction more, meeting Vic's eyes steadily. "I don't like the taste."

Vic's heart stopped for a moment. He stared at Mac. "What does that have to do with anything?" he asked, making his voice too gruff in his effort not to let it squeak.

"Tell me that's not what this is about." Mac raised an eyebrow, infuriatingly calm while Vic's blood roared in his ears. "You look kind of dumb with that cigarette hanging from your lips, by the way."

Vic took the cigarette and crushed it on the coffee table.

Taste.

Was Mac implying he was going to kiss Vic?

Vic tossed back the last of his glass of scotch. The ice bumped against his lips. "What is this about?" he asked. He thought they were talking about the same thing... but he couldn't be the first one to say it. That would make him way too vulnerable. He poured himself another drink.

Mac gave a slight smile. "How much do you remember about the night we slept together?"

Vic nearly choked. "We did not sleep together. We slept in the same bed. There's a difference." He felt his face getting hot again.

"How much do you remember?" Mac insisted. "Do you remember taking my clothes off?"

"No!" Vic snapped. But he did. He remembered - Mac was exaggerating, Vic had only unbuttoned Mac's shirt, but Vic had been naked at the time. Vic remembered the up-close scent of Mac, and Vic's fingers getting thick and clumsy as they accidentally touched the warm, curly hair on Mac's chest. He remembered turning away quickly to hide his erection, and not quite succeeding.

"Do you remember kissing me?"

"No," Vic repeated, feeling defensive and miserable. Mac was grinning; he was teasing Vic, and Vic was just squirming, unable to come up with any sort of comeback. Vic couldn't remember a damn thing after climbing into bed. He remembered unbuttoning Mac's shirt, climbing into bed... and nothing.

"Do you wish you did?"

"What!?" Vic glared at Mac, who was looking irritatingly gleeful. "Do you get Frequent Flyer points for these ego trips?"

Mac's smile wavered. "OK, neither do I, actually. Remember, I mean. I was just messing with you. Actually I don't think anything happened that night."

Vic sagged back against the couch. "Thank God." He drained his glass, and reached for the bottle to fill it again. He tried to keep his expression blank, to hide from Mac the emotional turmoil this conversation was causing him. When Mac let him think, for a second, that there'd been a kiss that Mac remembered and Vic didn't... that was a scary thing. He was losing control of this situation.

No, he'd lost it a long time ago.

Mac tossed back the last of his own drink, then said in an even, deliberate tone, "I remember that last night in Kingston, though. You're a good kisser."

Vic nearly dropped his glass. He stared at Mac, frozen. Mac put his glass on the coffee table, then moved over to Vic's couch, sitting beside him. Mac took the glass out of Vic's hand - his fingers brushed Vic's, and Vic felt the touch as an electric shock. After putting the glass to the side, Mac brought his hand close to Vic's again, so their fingers just barely touched. Vic remembered to breathe.

"Are you going to hit me?" Mac asked, sounding half teasing, half worried. "You sort of look like you're going to hit me...."

"No," Vic said, finding his voice low and hoarse. This wasn't really happening. Mac wasn't really reaching up with his other hand to touch Vic's cheek with his fingertips. He wasn't really leaning closer as though he was about to kiss Vic....

He was.

Vic's eyes closed. He felt Mac's warm breath against his lips an instant before the shock of lips touching.

Holy shit. In all of Vic's agony of dealing with realizing he was attracted to Mac, he'd never considered that Mac might be attracted to him, too. Not after that awful night when they kissed, and then Vic realized Mac thought he was Michael at the time.

This could change everything.

Mac's lips were a bit chapped, from the cold, dry winter air. The rough edges of skin added intensity to the sensation of Mac's lips brushing against Vic's, pressing for a moment, and then vanishing from Vic's touch perception.

Vic opened his eyes. Mac had moved back away from Vic, and he was giving him a look that seemed... curious, maybe. Waiting to see what Vic would do.

Unconsciously, Vic reached up and touched his lips with his fingers. "You're not drunk, right?"

Mac snorted. "I've had one drink, Vic. I'm not a ten-year-old girl."

"Why did you do that?" And why was Vic resisting it? Why was he holding himself stiff and aloof, not even looking straight at Mac?

Part of Vic wanted to grab Mac and pin him against the couch and kiss him back, hard.

Other feelings flitted through Vic's mind, fast and insistent. Vic was so terrified his mouth had gone dry. A man had just kissed him. And he'd liked it.

"Well, after careful observation," Mac said in answer to Vic's question, "I've realized you never make the first move. And you were making eyes at me all through dinner..."

Uncountable confused questions half-formed in Vic's mind, but one in particular stood out as critically important. "What about Li Ann? You're in love with her."

Vic looked at Mac. Mac seemed to go distant for a moment. He reached for his glass, found it empty, took Vic's glass instead and drank out of it. "I'll be lucky if she ever talks to me again, after today," he said quietly. "Things will never go back to the way they were."

So, what Mac was saying was, if he couldn't have Li Ann he'd settle for Vic?

Vic felt a dull hurt settle deep inside him.

But he'd never expected perfect happiness. He'd never been under the illusion he deserved it. He'd take what he always did - what he could get.

Vic took the glass away from Mac, the same way Mac had done to him. Vic drained the rest of its contents, put it aside, and kissed Mac.

It was strangely easy. He just shifted closer to Mac, and Mac leaned in to meet him, and their lips touched, and this time Mac didn't pull away after just a second. Mac's hands snaked around Vic's back, pulling him closer, and Vic reached up to touch Mac's face again, to feel Mac's sandpaper cheek with his fingertips while he nipped at Mac's rough lips, and Mac's tongue met Vic's and they explored each other, soft and warm and gentle.

Vic's heart raced. He was as nervous and excited as the first time he'd ever made out with a girl. Random thoughts flitted through his mind. He put his hand on Mac's chest, over his heart, and he thought he could feel Mac's heart racing, too. He noticed how soft the wool of Mac's cream-coloured sweater was. He noticed that Mac tasted nice, like mint, probably from the after-dinner mints at the restaurant. He worried that he tasted bad to Mac, because of the cigarettes. He promised himself right there that he'd quit smoking again, cold turkey.

And then the doubts came flooding back.

"The Director," Vic said, breaking contact with Mac. "Shit. She'll crucify us."

Mac frowned slightly. "She doesn't even have to know about this."

"Maybe she already does." Vic stood up, and started a near frantic scan of the room. "You know she bugs our apartments. Is this room clean?"

"I don't know, probably." Mac watched Vic with a puzzled expression. "I've never found one of her bugs in here. Only in the bedroom." He waited a while longer, while Vic searched under the pieces of furniture. Then he got up and came over to Vic, and Vic felt Mac's hand on his back. Vic froze. "Come on," Mac said, "Who cares what she knows? She knew about you and Li Ann."

"That was different."

"How?"

Vic stood up and walked away from Mac, back to the couch, but didn't sit down. "Li Ann's a woman."

"So?"

Vic wondered if Mac really didn't know what Vic meant, or if he was just playing dumb to force Vic to say things he wasn't comfortable with. Sometimes it seemed like everything between them was a power game, even this. "So, a man and a woman getting together is... normal."

Mac gave a wry half-smile, and went and flopped loosely on the blue couch. "Vic, I don't think the Director is too hung up on 'normal.'"

"Well, maybe she's not, but I'm.... I don't know. Shit," Vic finished weakly. He decided to pour himself another drink, and sit down on the other couch instead of next to Mac.

"You're what?" Mac prompted.

"I'm not gay!" Vic burst out. And immediately felt awful. 'Moderately homophobic,' the Director had called him once, and he'd protested.

"Of course you're not," Mac agreed easily. "You were in love with Li Ann, weren't you?"

"Yes!" Vic agreed, emphatically.

"Personally," Mac said, sliding close enough to put one hand on Vic's knee, "I have this theory that if you strip away all the social taboos, underneath, everyone's naturally bisexual."

"Everyone?" Vic snorted. "Come on."

Mac shrugged. "Just my theory." He shifted over to Vic's couch, and slung his arm over the back behind Vic. He seemed playful, now. Vic still felt confused, and conflicted, but he started to relax again. "And you're definitely helping to strengthen the theory, here. I mean, in the beginning I thought you were totally straight. Until I realized you were hot for me."

Vic felt heat rising to his cheeks again, but he made a wild decision: instead of protesting, instead of accusing Mac of narcissism, he deadpanned "Well, I didn't stand a chance of resisting, what with you being so astoundingly attractive." Vic had the satisfaction of Mac blinking in surprise, then grinning when he realized Vic was teasing him.

Mac let his arm slide down onto Vic's shoulders, and pulled him a little closer. Vic felt himself tense up, and he made himself relax. Mac's arm around him felt good. "You're pretty good-looking yourself," Mac murmured into Vic's ear.

"Really?" Vic blurted out, honestly surprised. OK, he'd been told before by women that they liked how he looked... but he'd never imagined Mac thinking of him that way.

Mac laughed softly, and kissed Vic's ear. It tickled. "Yeah," Mac said. "You're gorgeous. You have stunning eyes. You have a beautiful ass."

Vic laughed, pleased and uncomfortable at the same time. "Stop it," he protested, embarrassed.

It was weird, Mac saying those things. It was too far outside of Vic's conception of the way the world worked.

He kissed Mac again, to shut him up.

All right, not just to shut him up. He kissed him again because he liked it, and it was unbelievably amazing that they were here, they were doing this, and Vic knew this time that they'd both remember it after.

And if a little voice in the back of Vic's head kept reminding him about problems with this... like the trouble they'd be in when the Director found out, and the fact that Mac had as much as said that he was only coming on to Vic because he'd given up on Li Ann, and the fact that Mac was probably too screwed up to really know what he was doing with Vic... for once Vic ignored that voice. He wasn't going to let rational thoughts about consequences screw up this fantastic moment.

Mac kissed Vic back enthusiastically. This time, his hands played over Vic's body, stroking his arms, his back, his chest, his thighs... but when Mac's touch became too intimate, moving up the inside of Vic's thigh, Vic got nervous again. Sensing that, maybe, Mac took his hand away from Vic's legs and caressed the back of Vic's neck, instead.

Vic, in turn, began to touch Mac. It was a pleasant novelty to touch Mac gently, to explore by touch the curves of the muscles in his arms and chest through the thickness of his sweater. He imagined what the bare skin would feel like.

Mac, at that moment, broke away to pull his sweater off over his head. "I'm too warm," he explained as he did so, his voice muffled through the sweater.

"Uh, I'm not ready for this," Vic said quickly, his heart pounding, sliding away from Mac.

"For what?" Mac furrowed his brow - he looked puzzled, and a little uncertain. "Kissing? You were doing great."

"For undressing," Vic clarified. He felt too warm too, but he wasn't about to take his shirt off.

His pants felt too tight, too, and he really wasn't about to take them off.

Mac looked down at himself, and back at Vic, his expression still perplexed. Mac had been wearing an unbleached cotton button-up shirt under his sweater, and he still had that on. He wasn't exactly undressed.

Vic sighed, and rubbed the bridge of his nose. "I-I'm new at this." He glared at Mac, daring him to make fun of him.

Mac shrugged. "That's all right." He glanced at his watch. "It's almost 8:00. Want to see if there's anything good on TV?"

"TV," Vic repeated, feeling confused and let down. Mac had sure lost interest pretty fast when Vic didn't want to take any more clothes off. "OK... Sure. Why not."

Mac turned the TV so it was facing the couch they were sitting on, and then he rejoined Vic.

And then Vic realized, with a renewed sense of wonder, why Mac had suggested watching TV. Mac snuggled up to Vic on the couch, putting an arm loosely over Vic's shoulders. "Relax," he said quietly. Feeling as nervous as he had when they kissed, Vic tried to do as Mac said. He let himself lean, ever so slightly, against the other man. Mac used the remote to flip through channels until he found a sitcom he liked.

Vic understood, now, that Mac had wanted to watch TV so that they could do this. So that they could get used to the feel of each other without it being a situation that felt like it inevitably had to escalate towards sex.

Vic wasn't ready for sex. Oh, God. Not yet. His body wanted it, but his mind wasn't ready to get past 35 years of strict taboo.

He hadn't expected any of this. Even more amazing than the fact that Mac seemed to return some of the feelings of attraction Vic had for him, was the fact that Mac was now treating Vic gently, not pushing him or pressuring him into an intimacy he wasn't ready for.

Vic had thought he knew Mac... but he'd never seen this side of him before. He liked it. He snuggled closer against Mac's side as Mac laughed at something that had happened in the TV show that Vic hadn't been paying attention to. Vic felt a rush of affection for Mac, and all his contradictions.

Toronto, Canada, the next morning

Mac lounged in his chair, alone in the briefing room, and fiddled with the Rubik's Cube he'd found on his seat when he arrived. He'd seen these before - the goal was to get each face of the cube to be all the same colour. The thing had been totally scrambled when he found it. He'd managed to get eight of the nine blue squares onto one face, but he saw that he was going to have to mess that up if he wanted to solve the other faces....

While he played with the cube, his mind drifted over the events of yesterday. He wondered how Vic would act towards him today. Last night had been interesting. When Mac kissed Vic the first time, he'd been half-certain Vic would sock him one in the face, like he apparently had when Mac kissed him at the Agency New Year's party. Mac sort of wished he could remember that - not the pain, of course, but the look on Vic's face.

Vic didn't hit him, though. Vic kissed him back, confirming the wild theory Mac had been developing over the past month or so that Vic was actually teeming with repressed desire for Mac.

OK, possibly 'teeming' was too strong a word for it - they'd only kissed chastely for a minute or so, then watched TV for a couple hours, and then Vic had left with one awkward kiss goodbye.

Being with Vic last night had reminded Mac of the early days with Li Ann, when she was still afraid of sex. When Vic had flinched away from Mac's hand on his inner thigh, Mac had understood he'd have to go slow and gently at first, like with Li Ann. It wouldn't be exactly the same, though. Mac knew now that Li Ann had been so troubled about sex because she'd been abused, as a child, when she was forced to work in a brothel. Really it was amazing she'd found the courage to let Mac close at all. Vic, on the other hand, had had pretty healthy sexual relations as far as Mac knew - but always with women. Vic was freaked out at the idea of being 'gay.' He just needed a little time to get used to it....

What the hell am I doing with Vic? Mac asked himself. He blinked at the cube in his hands. While his mind wandered, he'd managed to collect more than half the reds on one face, and more than half the yellows on another, but the blues were screwed up again. There might be some sort of message in that.

Mac had neglected to ask himself, last night, exactly why he'd decided to seduce Vic. Mac was pretty sure the decision had happened on the subway, about the time he'd managed to get the conversation away from evaluating his own suicide risk. So, distraction had been a part of it. Distracting Vic, and distracting himself too - from the hollow, desperate realization that he'd truly lost Li Ann, forever.

And Vic was cute, of course. Stunningly gorgeous, in fact. Mac grinned to himself, twisting the cube. Vic had certainly squirmed when Mac told him that last night.

"Good morning, Mr. Ramsey," the Director startled him out of his contemplation.

"Oh, hi." Mac grinned up at her. "Good morning. What's this for?" He held up the cube.

The Director smirked, and patted him on the head. "To keep you from getting bored waiting for the others. They just came in the front door, by the way - get your feet off my table, the meeting's about to start."

According to Mac's watch, it was 9:00 a.m. on the nose when Li Ann, Vic and Jackie all took their places at the table. They'd all been cutting it close this morning. Mac discreetly checked out his fellow agents while they got settled. None of them looked like they'd had a good night's sleep - they all had that thick, tired look in their eyes. Vic and Li Ann were both definitely avoiding looking at Mac; Jackie was staring at him openly, and only looked away when he answered her look with a challenging one of his own.

"I think you all know what you're doing today," the Director told them.

Mac sure did. "Hunting for Paul."

The Director nodded. "You'll start with what Victor and Jackie picked up at Jok-Yu's apartment yesterday." She had the notebooks, the wallet, and a photocopy of the post-it note Vic and Jackie had found. "Mac, Li Ann - you can read Chinese, so you'll go through the notebooks and see if there's any useful information. Jackie, Vic, see what you can learn from the contents of the wallet, and the note. The numbers on the post-it look like phone numbers; find out if they are."

When the briefing was over, and they were all leaving the room, Li Ann approached Mac, touching his arm. "Could we talk?" she asked quietly.

Filled with equal parts hope and dread, Mac agreed casually and suggested they go to a coffee shop. They might as well read the notebooks somewhere comfortable, and for privacy they could speak Cantonese.

They agreed on a place - a small, independently run café that had comfortable couches and let you stay for hours even if you didn't keep buying drinks - and they drove there separately. Mac arrived first. The place was pretty empty at 9:30 in the morning. Mac bought a coffee and claimed a couch with a good view of the room. Li Ann arrived moments later, bought a drink for herself and joined him on the couch.

"I want you to know I'm not angry at you," she said right away.

That was good news, but Mac had sensed a silent 'but...' at the end of her sentence. "I'm sorry I never told you," he said. He didn't have to specify what he was talking about; they both knew they were talking abut Michael.

Li Ann took a slow breath, and rested her hand lightly on Mac's knee before she spoke. "Yesterday I was angry. And shocked, and hurt."

Mac blew on his hot coffee, and met her gaze. "And now?"

Her mouth turned up in a faint smile. "Would you believe I spent half the night in a heart-to-heart talk with Jackie and Dobrinsky?"

Mac blinked. "Would you believe I'm the 32nd reincarnation of Cleopatra?"

Li Ann swatted him. "Shut up Mac, I'm serious!"

"So am I. Why do you think I'm so terrified of snakes?"

"You aren't. You used to have a pet snake named Tiger." Li Ann glared at him, and Mac realized he'd better stop with the joking.

"OK, Jackie and Dobrinsky, heart-to-heart. I'm listening."

"So I realized that it's pointless to be upset about it now. It's all so far in the past."

"Let the past be the past," Mac agreed softly. That was what he and Li Ann had agreed after Mac told her he was in love with her again, a couple months ago, after one of the Cleaners' concoctions nearly killed him. Mac hadn't meant it then, and he didn't mean it now.

"Right," Li Ann said. Mac suspected she didn't catch the reference. "And after I ranted about it all to them for a while, I realized something else: that it hadn't been such a surprise, really, if I was honest with myself."

Mac frowned. "What do you mean? You knew before?"

Li Ann shrugged, looking very uncertain. She sipped at her coffee before she answered. "I didn't know anything really, but... I never let myself think about it, but there were hints. Clues. I mean -" She cleared her throat, and then with a soft voice asked "How long were you and Michael lovers?"

It was far too late for lies. "From when I was nineteen."

Li Ann's eyes widened slightly, but she maintained her composure. "Until we ran away?"

Mac nodded. Li Ann raised her coffee mug to her lips again, and she had to hold it in both hands to steady it.

"But you see," Li Ann said as though she was continuing a thought, "you couldn't keep a secret like that for so long, when we were all so close."

"But you didn't know."

"Only because I didn't want to." Li Ann half shrugged, and made a wry face at herself. "There were a few times when I went to your room in the middle of the night, and before I knocked on the door I heard Michael's voice inside. I didn't ask myself questions then - I just walked away."

All right. That made sense. It had been a niggling question in the back of Mac's head all those years in Hong Kong while he lived on the knife's edge between Li Ann and Michael - how long would his luck hold and Li Ann not catch him? It had never made sense that his luck held out to the end. So it hadn't been luck, not entirely.

"I just wanted to tell you that," Li Ann said then. "There's nothing else to say, is there? It's all in the past."

"Prehistoric," Mac agreed. What else could he say? He knew enough to count his blessings that Li Ann was talking to him at all - that she hadn't petitioned the Director to transfer her to another team or something.

They settled to work, then, reading Jok-Yu's notebooks. The one Mac had, a thick coil-bound scribbler, seemed to be all notes on various books and articles Jok-Yu had read about business and management. Bo-ring. Mac leafed through the whole thing, looking for anything different, but nothing leapt out at him. The last half of the book was blank. The entries weren't dated.

Li Ann was reading hers with more interest. When Mac bugged her, she told him it seemed to be a personal journal. She refused to trade books, though, even when Mac tried to bribe her with a piece of raspberry cheesecake. So he ate the cheesecake himself while he resentfully looked through the coil-bound scribbler more carefully, looking for any possible clues hidden in the text.

Finally, Li Ann looked up from her reading. "Did you find anything?" she asked Mac.

"No," he said impatiently. "But you must have found something."

Li Ann shrugged. "Maybe not anything that'll help. It looks like Jok-Yu was really trying to go straight. He came here to study business administration. The journal doesn't mention the Tangs explicitly, or Paul - I guess he was being careful, even in his private writing. Reading between the lines, I think Paul got in touch with him in early January, and blackmailed him into helping. Paul probably threatened to inform the immigration authorities about Jok-Yu's past. Jok-Yu didn't want to get involved, but he didn't want to get kicked out of Canada or arrested, either."

"Sucks to be him," Mac said, remembering Jok-Yu the only way he'd seen him - as a dead body lying in an alley. "Do you think there's anyone else helping Paul?"

"From what's in here, no. But like I said, I have to read between the lines to get anything out of this. Besides, maybe there's someone Jok-Yu didn't know about." Li Ann sighed, frustrated. "So, to sum up, there's nothing useful in here and we're no closer to finding Paul."

***

When Mac and Li Ann got back to the Agency, they discovered that Vic and Jackie had had a bit more success.

"We matched the numbers on the post-it with Jok-Yu's phone records," Vic explained. "There were four hits - all of them were local phone numbers. One's the foreign student aid office at the university, and the other three are grad students in Jok-Yu's department."

"The fifth number didn't match any numbers in Jok-Yu's phone records," Jackie picked up the explanation. "But, like, assuming it is a local phone number, we checked with the phone company and it matches the number for a cell phone."

"The cell phone is registered to a guy named Stanley Brown," Vic continued, starting to look smug. "But when we tried to find out who this guy is-" He made a gesture with his hands, opening them wide. "Nothing. He doesn't exist."

"Then it's Paul," Li Ann said.

Vic nodded. "That's what we're thinking. But that's as far as we've got. Since it's a cell phone, he could be anywhere."

"How does he pay the phone bills?" Li Ann asked.

"We thought of that," Vic said. "He pays them online, from a bank account in the name of some other guy who doesn't exist."

"We have his phone number," Mac said. "We can get him."

Vic looked skeptical. "How? Call him up and ask him over for a poker game?"

Mac shook his head. He had an idea forming. It wasn't a very pleasant one, but he thought it would work, and to save Li Ann he'd do a lot worse than this. "I have a plan...."

***

"Hello?" The voice on the phone was guarded. Maybe he hadn't expected a call on this phone. Mac thought the voice was Paul's, but it was tough to be sure.

"I know who you are, and I know what you need to do," Mac said. He was at a pay phone downtown. The phone's receiver smelled strongly of cheap perfume. He pressed it hard against his ear and covered his other ear with his hand, so that he could hear better over the roar of the traffic.

"Who is this?" It was Paul, all right. His voice had the same calm threat in it now that it had when he'd told Mac 'You hurt Michael, I'll kill you.'

"You know me," Mac said. "We've met. And I understand you like no one else does."

"Quit playing games," Paul said. "What's your name? How did you get this number?"

"Jok-Yu had it," Mac said, ignoring the first question. There was a serious risk that as soon as Paul figured out who Mac was, he'd hang up, maybe even ditch the phone. Mac had to get a hook into Paul before that. "He failed you, but I won't."

"What are you talking about?"

"I know what you need to do," Mac repeated, "and I understand. Completely. And I'll help you."

"Why should I believe you?"

"She killed him. She has to die. My reasons are the same as yours. Have you figured out who I am, yet?"

"Mac Ramsey." There was palpable hate in Paul's tone. "Now I know you're lying."

"Why? Didn't he tell you about me? I loved him, same as you."

"You betrayed him."

"And he betrayed me. So we're even. But now he's dead, and we both know who killed him."

"And he tried to kill you," Paul reminded him. It was a reasonable point. Why should Paul believe that Mac was ready to kill to avenge Michael's death, when Michael had died in the act of trying to kill Mac?

But he would believe it. Mac knew he could convince him, because he knew what it meant to be Michael's lover. Mac laughed, and let Paul hear him. "It wasn't the first time. You can't tell me you've never thought he was going to kill you, can you?"

Silence on the other end.

"That's part of loving Michael. I always accepted that. You do, too." Mac felt clammy sweat on the back of his neck, despite the fact it was below zero out.

"If you want to kill her, you don't need me. You see her every day." Paul sounded cold and suspicious, but he hadn't hung up yet. That was a good sign. It meant he was still open to letting Mac convince him. Paul was obsessed with his need to enact revenge on Li Ann, and he'd already failed twice. He wanted Mac to convince him that he really was willing to help.

"I can't do it. I - I've tried," Mac lied, "but something inside me just won't let me. We fucking grew up together. I loved her. I can't do it. But I could open a way for you."

"How?" Paul asked. His tone was still curt and cold, but Mac smiled, because he knew he had him now.

"I can bring her to you. I can switch her ammo for blanks."

"Would you do it tomorrow night?"

"Yes."

"Then give me your cell number. I'll call you tomorrow, and tell you where to bring her."

Mac, feeling a wild mix of relief and tension, reeled off his number. Paul had given in a little too quickly - he still had doubts, obviously, and he'd certainly spend the next 24 hours trying to set up a meeting that would work for him even if Mac double-crossed him. It wouldn't work, though. Paul was only one, and Mac had the Agency behind him.

***

Mac couldn't move his arms. He couldn't roll over. He was strapped into bed again, in the Hong Kong prison hospital. There was nothing he could do but stare at the painfully familiar patch of ceiling. Right over his head there was a water-stain that looked like a running horse. It was running in place, galloping full speed ahead and getting nowhere.

Mac's skin twitched all over. He wanted to move. He needed to move. The need was all-encompassing; he was going to rip apart if he didn't move. "Let me out of here!" he yelled, straining against the thick leather straps that held him in place.

He turned his head and saw Michael standing beside him, dressed in a doctor's white coat.

Michael crossed his arms. "I like it better when you can't move."

"Undo the straps," Mac begged him. "I promise I won't try it again."

"No, it's perfect like this," Michael said, and suddenly he was on top of Mac, straddling him, one knee to each side of Mac's hips. He smirked down at Mac, then bent down to kiss him on the lips. He bit Mac's lip hard enough to draw blood, and Mac moaned. Mac made another futile attempt to move; the restraints held fast. Michael licked the blood from Mac's lip and kissed him deeper, plunging his tongue between Mac's teeth. Mac kissed him back, hating his helplessness and his arousal.

Mac wasn't surprised when Michael suddenly had a gun in his hand. Michael kissed the side of its barrel, his eyes gleaming hungrily. Then he poked its tip against Mac's cheek. "Wake up, Mac."

Wake up, Mac.

Mac became fuzzily aware of darkness, and it occurred to him that Michael was dead, and he wasn't in jail in Hong Kong anymore, and he must have been dreaming.

He drifted half-awake, trying to separate the shreds of the dream from his reality. He tried to rub his eyes.

He couldn't move his arms.

Something cold and hard and very like the barrel of a gun was poking into his cheek.

"Wake up, damn it!" The poke became a jab.

Why couldn't he wake up?

Mac opened his eyes. The dim city-glow coming through his bedroom window was enough for him to make out the shape of a man standing next to his bed, holding a gun up to Mac's head.

Fuck. He wasn't asleep anymore. This was real.

His arms were pulled to the top corners of the bed, and he felt the familiar bite of handcuffs at his wrists.

Mac was confused. He tried to think of how he'd ended up like this. A memory surfaced involving a model named Chantelle, and a drugged water bottle... but no, that was a long time ago.

"You're awake now? Good," said the stranger.

Mac knew his voice, but he couldn't place it. He struggled to remember, but his thoughts felt sluggish and fuzzy. He knew where this drugged feeling came from - he'd taken a pill to sleep, the single pill the Director let the nurse dole out to him on a daily basis.

The gun moved away from Mac's face, and a moment later the bedside light clicked on, stabbing Mac's eyes with light. He tried to cover his eyes with his arm, but he couldn't move his arms, of course. He shut his eyes instead; the light glowed red through his lids. He waited until the light faded a bit, and opened them again.

Paul stared down at him.

"What the hell are you doing in my bedroom?" Mac demanded.

Paul stood still, impassive. "I need to satisfy myself that you were telling me the truth today."

"OK, sure," Mac agreed. He might as well agree. He was handcuffed to his bed and dopey from drugs - he wasn't in a position to offer much resistance.

Which was not to say his adrenal gland wasn't working overtime. Paul was a wild card. He'd barely spoken five sentences to Mac the times they'd met when Michael was alive. He may have plotted with Michael to murder Mac. There was no reason to believe he hadn't come here tonight to finish that job - except for the fact that Mac wasn't dead yet.

Paul sat down on the edge of Mac's bed, and leaned over Mac to rake him with an intense, scornful stare. "So convince me."

Mac could talk his way through this. He could. "Where do I start?" he said. "What did Michael tell you about me?"

"That you betrayed him."

Not the best start. "Did he tell you he loved me?"

Silence from Paul.

"Did he tell you how I betrayed him, what happened?" Still no response from Paul. Mac had to keep talking. He had to convince Paul. Or, even if he couldn't convince Paul, if Paul just let him keep talking long enough there was a chance of a rescue. The Director had Mac's room bugged for sound. Mac had known this for ages, but he'd never removed the bug. He'd always subscribed to the theory that knowing you're being spied on puts you in a position of power. Tonight, it might save his life - if anyone was listening. "He was going to leave me. For Li Ann."

Paul scowled. At least it was a reaction. "He told me that you ran off with Li Ann."

"Yeah. It was... complicated." That was an understatement. "I loved Li Ann, too. And the two of them were going to go away together, and leave me. I thought it would kill me."

"What are you on?"

The non sequitur threw Mac off. "Huh?"

"You're on something."

"Oh." Mac was surprised Paul could tell. He thought he'd been doing a pretty good job of hiding his fuzziness. There was no advantage to lying, though. In fact, this might help him convince Paul. "Just sleeping pills. I've been having a lot of trouble sleeping since Michael was killed." Paul's eyes flickered; Mac was sure he'd hit on something. "Does he come to you, too?"

"Fuck you!" Paul burst out, and whacked the side of Mac's head with the butt of his gun. White and yellow sparks flashed against Mac's eyelids. Mac thrashed against his bonds, trying to move to protect himself, but there was no way. He discovered his feet were tied, too. The only thing that wasn't tied was his tongue.

No more blows followed the first. After striking him, Paul retreated to the foot of the bed and turned his back on Mac.

"You know what I mean," Mac said, as calmly as he could with his ear ringing. Mac didn't know exactly what was going on in Paul's head, but he was sure it had to do with being fucked up by Michael. "He comes to me at night, in my dreams. He used to come at other times, but the Director made me start taking some kind of drugs, and now he only gets through to me when I'm asleep."

Paul swung around to face Mac again, and this time he was pointing the gun towards Mac's head, and it was shaking. "Liar." His tone was very low. "He does not come to you."

Mac stared into the barrel of the gun and hoped he wasn't about to provoke Paul into shooting him. "He comes because he wants revenge."

"He comes to me," Paul whispered. "I'm the one he loved." The gun was still pointing right at Mac. Paul's hands still trembled. Mac's mouth felt very, very dry.

"We have a lot in common," Mac said.

"You think so?" Suddenly Paul was up close again, and the gun, fuck, the gun was between Mac's teeth. "Do you know what to do now?"

Mac had the feeling that if it weren't for the sedative in his system, he'd probably be so scared he'd be having a fatal heart attack right now, relieving Paul of the dilemma of whether to trust him or not.

Still, he knew what to do.

He opened his jaw wider, wrapped his lips around the cold, angular barrel of the gun, and sucked on it. He took it in deep, not letting himself gag, though his eyes watered from the jabbing of the sight against his throat. He gave the gun a fucking blow job, just like Michael used to make him do.

He tried not to think about Paul's shaking finger on the trigger, because there was nothing he could do about that now.

He thought about the irony of the fact that he had, actually, been thinking about suicide again recently - and now Paul was going to blow his head off, probably by accident, and Mac didn't want to die. He didn't want to die because he had to beat Paul, to save Li Ann. And because yesterday Vic had kissed him, and meant it.

And then the gun was yanked out of his mouth. Mac gagged finally, and panted, and felt Paul's hand roughly grabbing his crotch.

"You're not hard," Paul noted disdainfully.

"You're not Michael," Mac croaked, with all the scorn he could manage. He was discovering there was a fine balance between convincing Paul he'd really loved Michael, and wanted to avenge him - and pissing Paul off by making him jealous.

Mac never found out whether he'd managed to maintain that delicate balance - because at that moment, Vic burst into the room, pointing a gun at Paul, yelling "Freeze!" Jackie was right behind him. Keeping her gun on Paul, too, she made her way quickly around the foot of the bed, aiming to corner Paul.

Paul must have been taken completely by surprise. For a moment, he stood there frozen, as though he was obeying Vic's command. But he still had his own gun in his hand. Before Jackie could get to him, Paul gave Mac a cold, dead look, and mouthed the word "Traitor." And raised his gun.

Three gunshots, in such quick succession it was hard to tell there'd been more than one. Mac felt himself slammed hard down into the bed, but he saw Paul stagger backwards and fall before he even felt the pain in his chest.

Then the pain hit. It was like nothing Mac had ever experienced. He couldn't move, he couldn't breathe, and the room was getting dark, and red.

There was shouting. Someone yelling about calling 911. Someone begging him to hold on. It was all so far away - like something that had happened in another life.

As those impressions faded away, Mac became aware that he wasn't alone. Michael was perched on the end of the bed, by Mac's feet. He was wearing a black-and-white tux, with a white rose in the buttonhole. When he saw that Mac had noticed him, he smiled. "About time you got here, Mac."

"Here?" Mac repeated, sitting up. "This is my bedroom. I've been here all along."

Michael tilted his head. "Yes and no. I couldn't quite get to you, as long as you were alive."

"Huh?"

Michael nodded towards Mac's chest. Mac looked down, and saw the front of the grey t-shirt he'd been sleeping in was soaked red-black with blood. There was a little hole in the fabric, just to the right of Mac's sternum. "Fuck," Mac swore softly. He pulled the t-shirt off over his head, and ran his hand over his chest. There was no wound - he wasn't even bloody under the shirt.

"The dead are flawless," Michael explained. "Your scars are gone, too."

"Oh yeah? Cool." Mac was distracted for a moment, running his fingers over the uncanny smooth skin in places where he should have scar tissue. Then he remembered that there were more interesting things going on here. "So, I'm dead?"

Michael waved his hand. "Pretty close. Once you've finished dying, we can blow this joint."

Mac got up and went over to his dresser, to get another t-shirt. When he touched the handle, he remembered to wonder whether he could even open the drawer. It felt strange - tingly, and kind of slippery - but he was able to open it without a problem, and he picked out a black t-shirt to put on. While he was pulling it over his head, Michael asked, "So who killed you?"

"I did," said Paul. When Mac had the shirt past his eyes so he could see, Paul was standing in the corner where he'd fallen, and Michael was looking his way.

"Paul! I didn't see you there," Michael said. His easy, smiling demeanour dropped away. He stood up, looking back and forth between Mac and Paul.

Mac tugged his t-shirt into position, and took stock of the bizarre love triangle that had formed in his bedroom.

The last time Mac, Paul and Michael had been in a room together, they'd all been alive, and Michael and Paul had been lovers.

"What happened?" Michael asked Paul. "Who killed you?"

"The ex-cop and the mob queen both shot me," Paul said. "He let them know I'd be there, somehow. He betrayed me just like he betrayed you." The direction of Paul's glare made it clear he meant Mac, in case anyone had any doubt.

"Hey," Mac protested, "I didn't know you'd be coming to my apartment. The Director bugs my room. You betrayed yourself."

"You didn't say anything about that when I came in. You wanted me to get caught."

"All right, it's true," Mac admitted. He turned to Michael. "Paul was going to kill Li Ann. I had to stop him."

"She's the one who killed Michael!" Paul snapped at Mac. "You said you wanted her dead, too!"

"So," Michael said quietly, looking at Paul, "he lied to you."

"He was full of lies," Paul said. He didn't raise his voice, but his tone dripped with hate. "He even told me you loved him."

Michael, in response, walked over to Mac, grabbed him by the shoulders, and kissed him. The kiss was rough and aggressive, classic Michael, and Mac's heart raced. He kissed Michael back, submitting without resistance - he belonged to Michael, heart and soul, as he had since the night Michael fucked him on the roof of their home in Hong Kong. He'd tried to escape, thought for a while that he had, but he should have known that he'd be Michael's again in the end.

Michael broke away from the kiss, shoved Mac down onto the bed, then turned to face Paul. "I do love Mac," he said, and Mac felt almost dizzy with joy. "That's why I took you home that night," Michael went on, still talking to Paul. "You reminded me of him."

"No," Paul said, his hands clenching into white-knuckled fists. "No. This is the traitor. He betrayed you, again and again. He betrayed me. We hate him. Let me kill him!"

To Mac's horror, Michael shrugged and stepped aside, and Paul lunged towards Mac. Mac rolled off the bed, and Paul's fist bounced off the mattress where Mac had just been lying. Mac, finding his feet, grabbed the bedside lamp and hurled it at Paul. Paul ducked, and it smashed against the wall. Then Paul closed the distance between them, and attacked Mac with a flurry of punches and strikes. Mac blocked and dodged and evaded them all, and counterattacked as fast and as hard as he could, but nothing got through. Just like the last time they'd fought, they were perfectly evenly matched.

Then they heard Michael laughing, and they stopped, panting, eyeing each other warily.

"You're both ghosts!" Michael said. "What do you think you can do to each other?"

Paul scowled at Mac. "I'll think of something."

Michael looked pensive. "I'd love to watch that. I'd love to watch you beat him up and tie him down and fuck him. Or maybe he'd beat you. And then I could fuck the victor while the loser watched. That would be fun. But," he shrugged, "there's no time. We have to go, Paul."

"Go?" Mac repeated. Michael beckoned and Paul, looking unhappy and uncertain, went to him. Michael kissed Paul, the same way he'd kissed Mac a minute ago. Mac stared at Michael, agonized and scared and longing. "You can't leave me."

"You can't tell me what to do, Mac," Michael said. "That's not the way it works, remember?" He smiled his tight, threatening smile, and pulled the white rose out of his buttonhole. He tossed it towards Mac; it landed at Mac's feet. "Goodbye, Mac Ramsey," said Michael, and he walked out of the room.

Paul hesitated a moment longer, his eyes flicking back to Mac. "He's mine," he said, calm and certain. And he followed Michael out of Mac's sight.

Mac stared after them. Somehow he knew he couldn't follow them. He felt unbearably empty, and alone.

He reached down and picked up the rose. A thorn on the stem pricked his finger. Mac hissed at the sudden jolt of pain. Completely disproportionate to the wound, the pain spread and intensified and washed over his whole body, concentrating in a tight, hot ball in his chest. Mac cried out and collapsed onto the bed, still clutching the rose. The rose, he saw, was red. Then his hand became too heavy to hold up; it dropped to the bed, and he lost the rose.

Mac's whole body seemed to be made of lead now. Wrapped up in the pain, he couldn't move. He moaned, and his eyes fluttered open. He saw a bright and hazy image. It was Vic.

"Mac!" Vic's voice was soft and hoarse. "Thank God."

Toronto, Canada, February 22nd 1999

Vic turned the page of the paperback novel he was reading. He read the first sentence on the new page, could make no sense of it, and realized he couldn't remember anything that had happened on the previous page. He dropped the book to his lap and let it close. He rubbed the flat of his hand over his face, massaging around his tired eyes. Two days' worth of stubble scratched his palm.

Beside him, Mac lay on the hospital bed, pale and still. Vic knew that the monitors would ring out an alarm if Mac crashed, as he had the first night a couple hours after getting out of surgery, but still Vic felt compelled to watch the sheet over Mac's chest until he could detect the shallow up-and-down of Mac's breathing.

It was agony, waiting. Since the first night, Li Ann and Vic had been waiting together, white-knuckled.

While Mac had been in surgery, they hadn't talked about him at all. They'd talked about stupid things, things that meant nothing. They found a pack of cards and played crazy eights in the waiting room. They'd developed a mutual, unspoken superstition that if they didn't talk about Mac, he couldn't die. Meanwhile, the Director had come and gone and come again, presumably busy with the business of covering up the incident and disposing of the body.

Li Ann had mourned Mac's death once already. Vic could tell that didn't make this any easier on her. She was Mac's sister; she had been his lover. Vic had never been more keenly aware of Mac and Li Ann's bond. Vic knew he had to be strong for Li Ann.

But no one knew that the day before Mac was shot, Vic had kissed him. No one knew exactly how much Vic cared for Mac - not even Vic. In the hospital, feeling alternately numb and on the verge of a breakdown, Vic was not in a great position to sort out what he felt about Mac. He could only hope and pray that he'd get to figure that out later, with Mac's help.

Now, as he watched, Vic became convinced Mac was breathing faster. Vic glanced up at the monitors, but no alarms were going off and other than that, Vic had no idea how to read the things.

Mac groaned. Vic nearly jumped. Mac hadn't made a sound in two days.

"Mac?" Vic leaned closer. He gently took Mac's hand in his. "Can you hear me, Mac? Can you squeeze my hand?"

Mac's hand stayed limp, but he groaned again, and his eyes fluttered open. His pupils fixed on Vic.

Vic was so overwhelmed with joy, he could barely talk. "Mac," he managed to croak. "Thank God."

Mac's mouth moved, but no sound came out. His lips were cracked and dry. He tried again, and Vic had to lean in close to hear his whisper. "what...hell?" he whispered.

Vic squeezed Mac's hand slightly. "Paul shot you," he said. "It was pretty bad, but you're going to be OK." Vic pressed the nurse call button.

"what...day?" Mac whispered.

"It's Monday morning."

Mac's lips twitched - it could have been a grimace or a smile. "monday morning?" he whispered, his words clearer now. "no wonder i feel like crap." He coughed weakly.

Vic jabbed the call button again, starting to worry. "Don't try to talk anymore. Just rest, OK?"

A nurse came through the door. "What's going on?" she asked Vic, already looking to the monitors.

"He just woke up," Vic started to say, then realized Mac's lips were moving again. Vic leaned in close to hear.

"...hurts like hell."

"What did he say?" the nurse asked, and Vic repeated it. The nurse frowned. "He shouldn't be in any pain at this point. We might have to change the dosages. I'll get a doctor."

The nurse left, and Vic held on to Mac's hand. Mac didn't blink or speak again. In a few moments the nurse was back with two other women. One was the doctor; one was the Director. While the doctor went to Mac's bedside, the Director pulled Vic out of the room.

"Where's Li Ann?" she asked.

Vic glanced at his watch. "She went down to the cafeteria about twenty minutes ago. She'll be back soon."

"Before she gets back, I want to talk with you about what comes next," the Director said. She started walking. Vic didn't want to get farther from Mac, but he was too wasted to resist the Director's will. She led him into an empty room, where they could talk in privacy.

"I'm disbanding your team," was the first thing the Director said.

Vic stared at her blankly.

"With her cracked ribs, Li Ann won't be ready for full active duty again for at least a month. Mac won't be ready for a lot longer than that. I can't afford to keep you on the sidelines for that long."

"Could we talk about this later?" Vic snapped. Stress and exhaustion and nicotine withdrawal made him cranky. "Mac's still in the ICU. I'm not going back to work yet."

"As soon as Mac is well enough to be moved, I'm transferring him to one of our own medical facilities."

"Sure, fine." Vic didn't exactly like it, but he knew that the Agency liked to keep tight control over its employees. It was probably giving the Director jitters, having Mac in an area she didn't control.

"I'm sending Li Ann away with him. They can convalesce together. And you'll be in charge of a new team."

"What!?" Vic stared at the Director, appalled. She couldn't do that. This wasn't just some office restructuring. Mac and Li Ann were his family!

"Pull yourself together, Victor. This isn't a family," the Director said, and Vic realized he'd spoken aloud. "It's a shadowy government agency. We've worked together for a long time, and I indulge you, but when it comes down to the wire you still have to do what I tell you."

"You told me to look after Mac," Vic reminded her. "I can't do that if you send him away from me."

For the first time, Vic thought he saw a glimmer of sympathy in the Director's expression. "The situation has changed since then," she said. "Other people will help him. Trained professionals. He'll have physiotherapy, Vic, and counselling. I'll bring him back when he's ready."

"You're sending Li Ann with him," Vic pointed out. He realized it sounded like he was whining. He didn't care.

"Li Ann will need physio too, once her ribs heal - albeit not for nearly as long as Mac." The Director paused. "You're jealous."

"No! It's not like that - Li Ann and I have been over for a long time."

The Director's expression softened, and she reached up to stroke his hair. "But you and Mac...?"

Vic tried to stammer out a denial, but he choked on it. Before he knew it, the Director's arms were around him, and he was sobbing.

"Shhh," she soothed him, embracing him, "I know it's been hard. It'll be all right. The doctor expects him to recover completely. It'll just take a while."

After a bit, Vic managed to bring himself back under control. The Director had led him over to a couch, and was sitting next to him, rubbing his back. He was too tired, stressed and wrecked to care about breaking down in front of his boss. She was more than that to him, anyway. Not really family... but something like it.

"I love him," Vic said suddenly. He hadn't planned to say it. He didn't know why he'd said it. As soon as he said it, he was terrified of what it meant.

All the Director said was "So do I." Then she stood up. "Li Ann just walked by. Get yourself cleaned up, then meet us by Mac's room."

She left. There was a sink in the room. Vic dampened a paper towel and rubbed it over his face, and steeled himself for whatever would come next.

Toronto, Canada, June 7th 1999

Mac used his passkey to let himself in the Agency's front door. He closed his umbrella and shook the rain off it. It was pouring outside. It had been raining since he got back to Toronto on Saturday. Quite a change from Arizona.

It was strange to come back to the Agency after more than three months away. He felt like it should have changed, somehow. It didn't seem to have. Anyway the main hallway was eerily empty, as usual. There was no sound but the air conditioning and the squeaking of his wet shoes on the tile floor.

As he neared a corner, Mac heard another set of footsteps approaching in a hurry. He stepped to the side to get out of the other person's way - but as Mac zigged, the other person zagged. The man came around the corner in a hurry, with his attention on a sheaf of papers in his hand, and he slammed right into Mac. The papers went flying.

"Why don't you watch-" the man started, annoyed, and then he looked up and saw who he'd banged into.

Mac, meanwhile, was staring dumbfounded at William Ramsey. "Dad," he finally managed to say. "What the hell are you doing here?"

"My dear boy!" William exclaimed, sweeping Mac into a hug before Mac could dodge it. "It's so good to see you! I heard what happened of course, though not until you were well on the road to recovery, so I was spared the worry." He held Mac at arm's length to take a better look at him. "You look like the picture of health, now!"

"What are you doing here?" Mac repeated, squirming out of his father's grasp.

"Oh, your Director got in touch with me a while ago - I'm doing freelance work for her again. I can't discuss it with you, I'm afraid." William laid his finger alongside his nose, and winked at Mac. "Top secret, you understand?"

"Sure, that's standard Agency procedure." Mac hesitated. His father was pretty much the last person he'd expected to meet here. He'd hoped to find Vic - he hadn't seen him since February. He'd expected to see the Director - she'd called Mac here to meet with her. But William Ramsey? It was true that William had done a bit of work for the Director about a year ago, but then he'd disappeared into thin air the way he always did - leaving Mac a short farewell message on a fucking videotape.

As Mac got over his initial shock, the usual mess of feelings emerged. He wasn't sure if he loved his biological father, or hated him. He knew he shouldn't trust him - and he remembered that he had, every single time William had shown up in his life. This time, Mac swore to himself, he'd remember all the other times. "How long are you around for?" Mac asked. He kept his expression carefully neutral.

William shrugged. "Hard to say. I certainly won't be leaving before tomorrow, at any rate, so why don't I take you out to dinner?"

"You know Toronto restaurants don't take Icelandic kronur, right?"

William looked at him blankly. "Why on earth would they?" He obviously didn't catch the reference to the time, eight years ago in Hong Kong, he'd taken Mac out to dinner and then stuck Mac with the bill because he had no local currency. But that shouldn't be a surprise. This was the man who couldn't even remember Mac's mother's name.

"Right," Mac agreed softly, "Why would they?" He wouldn't get taken in this time. He wouldn't.

"So that's settled," William said brightly. "We'll meet in the main conference room at five o'clock. See you then!" He crouched down to gather up the papers he'd dropped when he first ran into Mac. Mac started to help him - not so much to be helpful, as in hopes of catching a glimpse of what the Director had pulled William in to work on.

"No, no," William said, waving his hands, "I'm fine here, you go and do what you have to do."

Mac ignored him, quickly gathering papers off the floor. His fingers met a different texture, and he picked up an 8x10 photo that had fallen face-down. Before his father could snatch it from his fingers, he turned it over.

And stared. Time stopped. His heart stopped. "Holy shit," he whispered.

William grabbed the picture, but it was too late. Mac would never forget the image now.

The picture, obviously a surveillance photo, showed a man and a woman stealing a kiss beside an unmarked beige van.

The man was Dr. Bernard Fry, the Agency's former in-house mad scientist - the neuropharmawhatever.

The woman was Anita Ramsey, Mac's mother.

To be continued.
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Author's Notes

Title:
Author: Shadowscast
Fandom: Once A Thief
Pairing: Mac/Michael, Mac/Li Ann, Mac/Vic, and a brief Vic/OFC
Genre: drama
Rating/warning: NC-17. Explicit m/m and m/f sex, borderline n/c. The usual violence, and naughty words. Also, this is still a WIP. I'm expecting it to have five parts in all - but hey, originally I was expecting only three.
Spoilers: The whole series.
Disclaimer: Characters belong to Alliance. This was written for fun, not profit.

Notes:
Originally I wanted this story to fill in Mac's past, and fix up a few near-inconsistencies the series' writers had left us with. Also, it was supposed to be a trilogy. Still, I'm happy with how it grew.

And here are a couple explanatory notes that probably won't do anyone any good hidden way down here, but I'll feel better, anyway, that they're included somewhere:
LCBO is the Liquor Control Board of Ontario. They sell the liquor in the province.
gweilo means "foreign devil." It's a derogatory slang term used for non-Chinese people in Hong Kong.

This story is changed slightly from the version I originally posted to RatBoat, which is archived at the Agency. In particular, in this version I've changed the name of Mac's childhood friend from "Paul" to "Peter." I'd inadvertently put two different characters named "Paul" into this story, and that was a mistake that led to potential confusion.

Finally, I thank my husband for helping me with research, even though he knew exactly what I was going to use it for. And I thank Lorie for the beta, and her wonderful patience and dedication.

Feedback welcome!

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