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Men at Some Time
by Sylvia

Men at some time are masters of their fates;
The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars
But in ourselves, that we are underlings.
Shakespeare, "Julius Caesar"

He'd been sitting in the dark for over an hour before he realized that he could no longer see the picture on the opposite wall. He'd evidently been staring at it all the while, although he hadn't been aware of doing it. He wondered when he'd begun—he'd stopped looking at the photo after Li Ann confessed that she didn't want to marry him after all. He'd all but made himself forget it was still there.

But it was still there. And now, despite his attempt to force the thought down before it could crystallize into something solid enough to be consciously acknowledged, the realization formed that it was truly pathetic to have a picture of himself hugging his ex-lover and fiancée, both of them happily smiling into the camera, hanging on the wall months after she had told him to take a hike.

Of course, that wasn't how she'd put it. No, she'd never be that blunt and ill bred. She'd phrased it nicely—made it sound good. almost gentle. Almost considerate. It's not you, it's me. This is not fair to you. You deserve someone who can commit to you as I can't. It's not you, Vic. I'm just not ready for that kind of commitment with anyone. It's not you.

Yeah, right.

Vic got up and moved around the low sofa table without bothering to turn on the light, reaching out to unhook the frame from the wall. He put the picture face down on a bookshelf and stopped, one hand resting on the plywood backing.

It wasn't truly dark—the living room's windows overlooked a quiet, but urban neighborhood well-equipped with street lights, and even though Vic's Agency-owned apartment was above street-level and the headlights of passing cars didn't shine in directly, even the reflected light cast illumination into the room whenever someone drove by. The irregular, diffuse sweeps of light lent the scene a surreal touch as Vic stood motionlessly, staring into the semi-darkness and not thinking of anything at all.

After an indeterminate stretch of time had crept by, Vic walked to the door and stood with his back to it, imagining that he was a stranger who had just entered the apartment of Victor Mansfield, ex-son of George and Beth Mansfield, ex-cop, ex-partner and friend of Stan, ex-fiancé of Li Ann, ex-protégé and muscle of ex-capo Leo Orsini.

By rights, someone with so many exes to his name should be dead.

But, Vic reminded himself, he was a stranger, unacquainted with the owner of these rooms and his history... impartial and dispassionate.

He flipped on the lights and blinked in the sudden white glare until his eyes adjusted, looking around at this Victor's apartment, illuminated pitilessly by the bright overhead lamp.

The walls of the entrance and living area were painted in a shade that had probably come labelled as "sunlight yellow" or perhaps "sunflower yellow", meant to convey warmth and quiet cheer. The color looked pale and lifeless in the artificial light, simultaneously carrying a hint of tacky garishness. Pictures and a small Indian rug were carefully centered on the bleached cheer.

Advancing further, he had to step around a low table supporting a vase and a tall switch of dried plant, the entire ensemble seemingly transferred unchanged from the furniture store. He turned slowly to survey the large, dun-colored sofas and the wooden sofa-table with the obligatory bowl of fruit. The bookcase taking up the wall next to the door was pre-bought, filled with a collection of books and knick-knacks—Indian pottery, pretty rocks, a piece of petrified wood, an inlaid wooden box. Most of the stereo equipment was very new—sleek, black and streamlined, highly expensive and contrasting oddly with the old, comparatively bulky eight-track. Old records, jazz, blues, some soft rock, some traditional music.

The overall effect, he decided after some pondering, was that of planned, somewhat forced domesticity. Conservative, wholesome, a family-home atmosphere in the artificial furniture-catalogue style.

He moved into the kitchen and opened the refrigerator, surveying the contents critically. Fresh vegetables, milk, orange juice, butter, several Tupperware containers holding cheese, cold cuts, and assorted leftovers. The freezer held some steaks, home-made lasagne, spinach, half a cake and ice cream.

Spotless. Everything in its place. There weren't even dishes drying in the drainer next to the sink.

The furniture in the bedroom was a light pine, a vaguely rustic style. A blue and grey patchwork quilt served as the bedspread. Conservative and homey with a vengeance.

In the bathroom, he rummaged through the well-stocked medicine cabinet, looking for anything past the expiration date and finding nothing. There was also a telling lack of odd socks lying in corners, random clothes strewn about, or remains of beard stubble in the sink. A wet towel hung centered on the shower rod, spread out carefully in order to let it dry properly. There was a wicker laundry basket in the corner; upon inspection, it proved almost empty.

The clothes in the closet were neatly hung up and stacked. Several pairs of jeans in different stages of fading. T-shirts in white, blue, grey and black. Shirts mostly in denim and flannel, including several checked wood-cutter type flannel ones. and yes, down in a corner of the closet stood the cowboy boots to match. A dark suit, wrapped in the plastic foil of a dry cleaner's, hung in the least accessible spot.

He stood in front of the mirror fastened to the inside of the closet door and inspected the man who stared back at him. Scuffed Camel boots. Faded jeans like those resting in their allotted space inside the closet. Grey T-shirt. The faded denim shirt wasn't tucked into the jeans and couldn't quite conceal the bulk of the gun in the shoulder holster.

There was a silver ring in his left ear. He was suddenly, irrationally, absurdly glad of that ring, even though it wasn't a fashion statement at all. He'd had his ear pierced for the sole reason of pissing off his father, and it had worked beautifully, too. Later, he'd kept the earring because his lover had told him she found it sexy. By the time she'd found someone sexier than him he'd gotten used to the ring, and he hadn't actually thought about it since.

"It's you," he told the vaguely familiar young man with the short dark hair and narrowed eyes. "It has always been you."

There was no other explanation. The facts spoke for themselves.

Victor Mansfield was not one of the brightest lights on the face of the planet, he'd always known that. He hadn't let it bother him too much before. After all, in spite of what his father might have thought he was far from stupid, and not everyone could be a whiz at everything they turned their hand to. He'd never wanted to be good at everything. He'd only wanted to be good at the thing he chose to do.

And he had been—he'd been a good policeman. A very good one, right until the day the others had set him up. He just hadn't been smart enough to wise up to what was going on in his new department. He'd been too desperate for the approval of his peers. Too eager to fit in, to be one of the guys, to play ball.

Just like later, when he'd once again been blinded by the lure of family, a place to belong, the warmth of approval, friendship, security. Being wanted. Being needed. That time, he'd known he was dealing with criminals right from the start, but it had not made the slightest difference. He had been too heedlessly desperate to believe in the lie, even when he'd known—when he should have known—better.

"Too fucking stupid," he told himself. Hard green eyes stared back.

He'd been fortunate enough to find several wonderful women, but none of them had wanted him as part of their lives on a permanent basis. The way the relationship with Li Ann had gone was true to type. Probably Vic should have realized it couldn't work right from the start—but he'd been so smitten that he couldn't prevent himself from at least trying to get to know her better, and then he'd been so elated that she seemed interested in him, as well. He'd never stopped to think. He never did stop to think. He'd assumed that she would keep loving him just because he loved her, just because he knew that his feelings for her would not change.

Li Ann. intelligent, educated, warm-hearted, vivacious, charming, elegant, capable, competent, breathtakingly beautiful Li Ann. It had been exactly the things that had attracted Vic so irresistibly that had, in the end, made the relationship impossible. Vic had nothing to offer a woman like her. She didn't even need to be protected—in their work for the Agency, she'd saved his butt far more often than the other way around. Ironically enough, that, too, had been one of the things that had drawn him.

Self-destructive instinct, apparently. She was so far out of his league that he should never have tried for her at all. Mac was more her type, even if he had raised being insufferable to an art-form. It was painfully obvious that the man's buffoonery and arrogance were only a shield to conceal insecurity and vulnerability, though, and Vic expected that sooner or later, Mac would wise up and let Li Ann past the defences. All he had to do was drop the stupid carefree-playboy-act; the two had so much in common. They would be perfect for each other.

Vic had never been able to understand the attraction of promiscuity, anyway. All he'd ever wanted was to find that one person whom he was right for and who was right for him, the person he could be with until he died. Someone he belonged with.

His place in the world.

He'd thought he'd found it in the police force. He'd thought he'd found it with Li Ann. He'd even thought, with some kind of desperate, deliberately self-willed blindness, that he'd found it in the mob.

"Well, bozo, you were wrong every time," he told the grim-looking man glaring out at him from behind the mirror's glass.

Strike three, and you're out. New game. Victor had found the problem. Now it was time to do something about it.


For once, Mac had arrived at the Agency first. He was already lolling about when Vic got there, one foot propped on the edge of the table, the other crossed over it at the ankle. It looked dangerous, as though he'd tip over backwards and break his neck at any moment. Of course, knowing Mac it was probably the starting position of some advanced and lethal martial arts move.

"What's with the getup? Got a hot date?"

Vic chose to ignore the other man as he sat down in his usual chair, trying to sprawl elegantly instead of simply slumping into the cushions as he had been used to doing.

The silence did not last long. With Mac Ramsey, it never did.

"Well, don't feel like you have to answer me or anything. After all, it's not like we're supposed to be working together. Go ahead and treat me like the furniture, I got no problems with it. His Wonderfulness Victor Mansfield isn't condescending to speak to me today, I will just have to cope—"

"Good morning," Vic said quickly. It was the only thing that occurred to him, and as soon as it was out he knew it had been a damn stupid thing to say at this point in the conversation.

Mac's mouth hung open for a second as he stared at Vic with exaggerated astonishment. "Why, a wonderful and cheery good morning to you, too, bright eyes. Okay, let's rewind a bit here and start again. Why, Victor! Whatever has happened to you? Someone stole your jeans and leather jacket!"

Thankfully, the Director chose that moment to descend the stairs in the back of the room, effectively distracting Mac. Even Vic had to stop himself from staring at the get-up she'd chosen this time—thigh-high leather boots polished to a mirror sheen and a collection of strips of matching black leather held together only by thin silver chains at her sides. And yes, she was carrying a riding crop.

Li Ann hurried in the moment the Director slapped Mac's ankle with the crop, causing him to scramble backwards and almost fall out of the chair in a very inelegant move that did not resemble anything martial arts at all.

"Sorry," Li Ann breathed, dropping herself into her central seat with a quick smile at Vic and Mac.

"Miss Tsei, how good of you to join us, " the Director drawled.

Mac leaned over to Vic so far he almost toppled from his chair yet again, ducking out of the Director's line of sight behind Li Ann's back to grin at Vic widely. "Don't tell me—it was the Director!"

"I assure you, Mr. Ramsey, I do not rob my operatives of their clothing unless I particularly feel like it," the Director said cuttingly, leaning forward over the table in front of Mac, who hastily straightened and gave her one of his trademarked, dazzling but patently artificial smiles.

Her gaze wandered to Vic and she curved her mouth into a slow, predatory smile. Vic sat very still to prevent himself from shifting uncomfortably beneath her gaze.

"My, my, my. Very nice, Victor. I must say that I quite.enjoy you in Mac's clothes. You should wear them more often."

"They're not Mac's clothes!" Vic blurted at the same moment that Mac sputtered "Those're not mine!"

"Oh?" The Director took the denial as cause to once again rake her gaze over Vic in his new cream-colored wool turtleneck and expensive charcoal jacket, her smile turning even more wicked. "My mistake, children. But they certainly look as though they belonged to Mac, don't they?"

Vic could feel his face heating up and raised his chin defiantly, staring at his superior with the most impassive expression he could manage under the circumstances.

"Well, enough pleasantries. Down to business." She slapped the riding crop against her thigh, the crack echoing slightly in the large room. As though the sound had been a signal, the room darkened and the picture of a pale-faced young man with unruly dark hair was projected onto the wall behind the Director. "Henry Dowes, otherwise known as the Riverside Hacker. Ring any bells?"

"That was the name the newspapers gave to the unidentified hacker who broke into the files of the Riverside Corporation last year," Li Ann said, frowning. "I thought he was never caught."

The picture changed to a shot of Dowes sitting alone at a bistro table, lifting a cup to his mouth. The Director turned to regard him, shaking her head in mock regret. "Never is a long time, and our dear Henry has grown a mite careless lately—he works on commission and I do fear the poor boy has cast his hooks a little too far afield in search of new employers. Shockingly careless of him. I don't believe it will be too difficult to build a rather solid case against him. We should be able to reel in our little fish in a matter of a week or two."

They'd probably be working with him in the not too distant future, Vic reflected. He still wasn't certain whether he approved of the Agency or not. Its methods were certainly more than questionable, and all too often he had no idea what the ultimate ends were supposed to be, anyway.

"You three will keep an eye on him until we're ready for showtime. We wouldn't want him to skip out on us now, and his careless ways seem to have been noticed by people less benign and forgiving than my humble self. There is reason to believe these nameless persons will attempt to abduct him and convince him to atone for his transgressions against them by stealing from their business rivals' data banks for a change. Fortunately, so far everyone seems to feel that keeping Dowes alive is far more profitable than the alternative, so you shouldn't have to worry about assassination attempts. Another stroke of luck for you is that our boy is a partial recluse—he has his house rigged up like a fortress and is a creature of very regular habits, emerging from his shell twice a day almost as regular as clockwork. At some point during the morning or early afternoon, he goes to the supermarket, and in the evening he drops by his favorite club to. chat, I suppose."

She tossed two files on the table, one in front of Li Ann, the other in front of Mac. "Li Ann, for you I have procured a wonderful job unpacking goods and marking prices in the supermarket. I'm sure you will enjoy the fashionable frock and amiable working environment, not to mention the intellectual challenge."

Ignoring the young woman's low groan, the Director turned her slowest and least friendly smile on Mac. "And Mac, you and Vic get the fun part of the assignment. Have you ever heard of a club called Belvedere?"


The building that housed the Belvedere had started out as a factory; it was a huge, chunky and almost featureless concrete block. Because it was squarely in the middle of an industrial district, there was no parking problem—the lot was as huge as the club itself and surrounded it on all sides, providing potential snipers with a myriad of wonderful choices for clear shots and quick getaways.

Granted, the Director had seemed convinced Dowes wasn't in danger of being murdered, but guarding against kidnapping attempts or a self-orchestrated escape on the hacker's part was equally problematic under these conditions. Mac had been griping about this until Dowes had safely reached the entrance of the club a moment ago; now, he'd moved on to the other subject that had called forth his ire.

"This is truly the most outlandish, or should I say stupid, idea I have ever heard that woman come up with, and that includes the time she made us work together with that blood-thirsty bastard Matsumoto," Mac fumed, still giving no indication of meaning to get out of the car even though the endangered hacker had now disappeared from view. "Jeez, you'd think she'd learned her lesson the last time she tried to send you into a place like this undercover. No offence, Vic, but even in an ordinary nightclub you really, really stick out. We should at least go in separately, that way one of us won't look like the latest rookie to join the vice squad."

Vic didn't bother to reply, instead opting to follow the man they were meant to be guarding. They'd given him too much of a head start as it was.

If there was anything Vic didn't feel like at the moment, it was getting into one of the childish and frustratingly pointless arguments Mac seemed to revel in provoking. And there was no denying the fact that the other man was partly correct—it was true that Vic had never felt at home in nightclubs. Still, he'd done pretty well in his time in vice, notably in gay bars like the Belvedere, where any conspicuous awkwardness had apparantly been put down to the nerves of the freshly outed. No one had ever pegged him for a cop that he knew of—at least, he'd fairly frequently had to turn down offers that probably would not have been extended to a man recognizable as a vice cop.

Behind him, he heard his partner snort in disgust as he vaulted out of the car to follow. Mac had insisted they take his car, claiming that Vic's pickup looked like a farm vehicle, and Vic hadn't bothered to argue. He'd already put an ad in the paper offering the truck for sale. He was going to get himself a different car, something more like the sports cabriolet Mac drove perhaps.

The Belvedere's main entrance looked like that of an expensive hotel, right down to the short canopy, short strip of red carpet and the little alley of potted palms leading up to the front door. Inside, there was a reception area complete with a garderobe to check in superfluous coats and a front desk where a cheerful old man collected their entrance money and gave Mac a very blatant once-over.

"What the hell is wrong with you anyway?"

Vic was carefully not-watching Dowes, who was handing over his trenchcoat a couple of meters to the side, and didn't register Mac's question until it was repeated in a slightly higher and definitely more annoyed tone of voice.

"What do you mean?" he asked back distractedly.

Mac sighed and rolled his eyes. "I mean, what the hell has been wrong with you the last couple of days, Mansfield? You dress different, you act different, you don't pay attention, you're being really strange! If you're going to join another criminal organization anytime soon, could you at least tell me this time so I'll know why all the people with the black cars and the big guns are going to be shooting at me?"

The old guy with the roving eye was now looking at both of them with a decidedly peculiar expression. Vic gave him a quick shrug and slightly forced grin, quirking a meaningful eyebrow in Mac's direction.

"He always like this?" the cashier asked after a brief internal struggle.

"Nah, just on particularly bad days."

Mac looked affronted. Vic shrugged again. "There's nothing wrong with me."

Dowes had now headed into the club proper and Vic followed at a carefully unremarkable distance, ignoring his partner's exasperated head-shake and rolling of eyes. The former main production hall of the factory had been divided into a labyrinthine complex of rooms of widely differing size and decor, ranging from an Italian ice-cream parlor to a piano-bar and including everything from strobe-flashing discos to cozy cafes in between.

They made their way past several dance floors, each one well filled with people dancing to a different style of invariably loud music. Vic briefly lost sight of Dowes in the room where two men were undressing each other onstage; the crowd was particularly thick here, but Vic managed to slither through quickly enough to catch up to the hacker just as he slipped into another room furnished as a bar. By the time Vic caught up with his quarry again, he'd already settled down on a bar stool and was chatting with a drag queen in flashy blue sequins and a dove-grey feather boa.

Emerging from the press of the previous room together with a loud burst of music, cheers and rhythmic clapping of hand, Mac shouldered past and maneuvered Vic to an unoccupied table nook next to the entrance, practically pushing him down in the seat with the best view of the room. "Now stay right here while I go have a closer look at the queen our hacker's got there," he ordered brusquely. "Jesus. This assignment is bad enough already."

He left without elaborating on his last statement, but it wasn't really necessary. His meaning was abundantly clear. Vic could feel a headache coming on already, and they hadn't even been here half an hour. At least the music from the strip-show wasn't particularly loud in here. Good sound-proofing, obviously.

He put both elbows on the table in front of his and leaned his forehead into his fingertips, massaging his temples and trying not to think.

"Hey there."

Looking up, Vic found himself face to face with a thin-faced man with tousled blond hair and a tentative smile. The smile grew noticeably when Vic looked at the stranger; he paused briefly and blushed a very light pink before holding out a hand. "Uhm, hi. I'm Steve."

Vic shook the proffered hand, smiling back politely. "I'm Vic."

"Buy you a beer?"

Automatically, Vic's eyes went to the bar, where Mac was just draping himself over a stool to wait for the bartender to finish serving drinks at the other end of the room.

A crooked brow greeted the direction of Vic's glance. "Always takes a while at the bar, at least this time of the evening. Don't worry—I'll be gone the moment lover-boy gets back. I just want to get you a beer. What kind of manners has the guy got anyway, leaving you sitting here alone like this?"

"He's not—" Vic began, but broke off immediately and shook his head before starting again. "Sure. I'd love a beer."

Steve's new smile was almost blinding and lit up his narrow face to fleeting handsomeness. He was probably in his mid-forties, dressed simply in jeans and a blue T-shirt; Vic inspected him more closely while his new acquaintance waved down a waiter carrying a tray of full glasses and took two beers, dropping several bills onto the tray in their stead.

The waiter turned his head slightly to look Vic over as he passed. To his surprise, Vic found himself pleased at the small glint of approval he thought he saw in the man's eye as he hurried on with his drink-laden tray.

He inspected Steve more closely as he took a seat across from Vic. The first impression of lankiness was quickly revised—he was thin, but his shoulders were not, and he moved with an easy assurance that would have been called grace in a woman. The shortish blond hair would have curled if it had been even slightly longer; as it was, it was merely slightly wavy over his forehead and ears. Steve's smile crinkled up the corners of his eyes and lit his eyes into dark blue warmth. He wasn't handsome in the traditional sense, but Vic decided that if he'd been a woman—and if Steve had been interested in women, of course—he might well have taken an interest in the older man.

The thought sparked a slight feeling of unease and Vic looked down at his hands, locked around the beer-glass, before meeting Steve's earnest gaze again. "Look, I don't want to, uhm—" lead you on. The phrase was too odd when used in this context—when used by himself, speaking to another man; Vic couldn't quite bring himself to use it. Instead, he improvised. "This is probably pretty presumptuous of me, in regard to you I mean, but I've only just split up with my lover a while back and I'm—not really—I'm still not—"

Steve's smile had faded a bit, but now returned in full force. "Then it's even less of a good idea to leave you sitting here all alone with your thoughts. I meant it when I said I just want to buy you a drink. Sometimes flirting with a beautiful young man is all you need to make the evening perfect."

"Well you got the wrong guy then," Vic said, noticing with dismay that there was an almost wistful note in his voice. He cleared his throat hastily, smiled and pointed his chin at Mac. "He's beautiful. I just pass."

"Who, him?" Steve laughed easily and shook his head. "Nah. He's a diva, that's all."

Vic blinked. "A what?"

"A diva. A primadonna. Look at him perch on that stool—he knows every guy in the place is checking out his ass, and that's why he's doing the pose in the first place. Sure, he's gorgeous, but not half as gorgeous as he thinks he is. And he isn't beautiful, not like you are. With him it's all surface glitz and glamour. With you its something very different. you could be as gorgeous as him if you tried, but I hope you never do. And as for him—anyone with any sense should be able to see he's not worth the trouble it'd take to get him into bed, anyway."

Vic was interested in spite of himself, watching Mac spin around on the stool to face the room. He leaned both elbows onto the bar behind him and stretched his back a little as he looked casually off to the left, where the hacker was listening to the queen animatedly talking and illustrating her points by swinging a handbag through the air.

Several men had already started closing in on Mac. And he was posing, Vic realized. Thinking about it, Vic realized that Mac always posed. When he stretched with cat-like grace, when he tilted his head just so, when he perched on tables, sprawled on chairs. when he dangled his sunglasses elegantly from his fingers. even the way he settled them on the very tip of his nose and peered over them was studied, and so was the characteristic crooked smile, the expressive quirk of the eyebrow, the wry twisting of the mouth. Mac probably didn't realize that he did it anymore, if he ever had, but there was something studied—almost seductive—to most of his habitual motions.

Vic wondered why that was. He wondered if he could learn to do it, too, but decided with regret that on him, that kind of thing would only look ridiculous. You really needed Mac's sleek, panther-like grace and self-confident poise to carry off something like that.

"I think most people would disagree with you there," Vic murmured unhappily, thinking of Li Ann, who most probably did. "You've got to admit that he's. pretty stunning."

Steve shook his head briskly, drawing Vic's gaze away from Mac. "Listen to me, Vic. Don't let yourself be taken in by empty glamour. I know the kind, and believe me, he'll chew you up and spit you out if you let him, and you won't even like the way it feels while it lasts. With divas, there's just two possible ways it can go. One, she'll just lie there and expect you to be ravished with delight at the privilege of being allowed to touch that hallowed bod—you'll have to do all the work and then she'll bitch at you cause you forgot to rub her toes or some such. Or two, she'll climb over you so fast you won't know what hit you. Slam and bam, without the thank you ma'am, because getting fucked by Her Highness is honor enough for anyone, right?"

Vic smiled again, trying hard to make it look good. He suddenly felt like crying and didn't know why. From some dark and hitherto unsuspected recess of his soul, the thought popped up that actually, he wouldn't mind being fucked like that at the moment. At least it would mean that someone wanted him, and wanted him badly, even if it was only a fleeting and anonymous impulse.

"Where'd she pick you up, anyway? Doesn't seem like your type."

"Hmm?" Vic had somehow lost the thread of the conversation.

"The diva, luv."

"She—he didn't pick me up. We're just—he's not interested in me like that. In fact, you could say I'm. kind of the other woman." Vic laughed awkwardly, feeling stupid and ridiculous. "Didn't last that long once he turned up again, though. Maybe more a type of temporary substitute."

Jesus—he was making a complete fool of himself here, wasn't he. Damn.

Vic looked down at the polished wood of the table and the condensed moisture gathering around the base of his beer glass. Steve shifted and reached over to put a long-fingered hand over one of Vic's. Vic didn't pull away. After a moment, he turned his hand over to link his fingers with Steve's, and it felt good. Comforting.

"Must be one stupid bitch to leave you for that hollow diva over there. And there's your proof that the primadonna's got nothing but hot air in her wooden head, too—otherwise she'd have dumped the bitch for you. Look at you, you're handsome, you're warm, you're everything anyone with any sense—"

"Stop that," Vic interrupted a bit too harshly. "You don't know me. You don't know them. You're just saying that because—and it really isn't true, I'd have—you don't know what she's like, she's not like me. She's smart and beautiful and—"

"Obviously very stupid," Steve said with a new, cold note clear in his voice.

"Vic, come on."

Mac was suddenly there again, snatching up the coat he'd tossed over the back of a chair. He'd already half turned away to leave when he noticed Steve; his eyes widened as he looked from the stranger to Vic and back again, his gaze lingering on their linked hands for a long moment.

The hard blue stare Steve was giving Mac obviously took him aback at first, but then seemed to amuse him.

"Well, come on, baby," he drawled, a hint of almost malicious-sounding mockery in his voice. "Time to go."

Vic looked over to the bar surreptitiously; the queen was still there, but now talking with someone small, round and definitely not Dowes. Gathering up his own jacket, he smiled at Steve apologetically as he turned to scoot out of the booth.

Steve's hand closed over his arm before he could stand. "Vic. Don't sell yourself so short."

Mac's expression dissolved into complete incredulity. He was staring at the hand on Vic's arm as though he'd never seen such a thing before in his life; when his eyes rose to meet Vic's, Vic realized that without even thinking about it, Mac had expected the conservative, awkward and un-worldly-wise Victor Mansfield to be homophobic.

A hot surge of anger washed through Vic and without having to think about it at all, he'd sat back down and was again taking Steve's hand with his own, not looking away from Mac. "You go on, Mac. You didn't want me along anyway, remember? I'll join up with you again tomorrow."

The look on Mac's face would have been hilarious if Vic hadn't been so angry. The man seemed utterly unable to decide whether he was dreaming or whether Vic had gone insane. "Vic? What the hell is wrong with you? Jesus! Did he put something in your drink or what?"

"I'm taking the evening off, okay?"

Vic turned back to face Steve. He couldn't remember ever having felt quite like this before in his life. His mind was a swirling whirlwind of emotions too muddled and confused to be sorted out, his body an echoing twist of vertigo and blood rushing in his ears. He felt light-headed and peculiar, but strangely focussed at the same time.

"Would you like to fuck me?" he asked Steve conversationally.

He wasn't sure the words had actually come out of his mouth until he saw the stunned expression and the quick flush on the other man's face, the immediate, dramatic widening of the pupils. The answer was, very obviously, yes.

"Good," Vic went on evenly. "Your place okay?"

"Victor! What the hell have you done to him? Are you out of your goddamned mind? You're coming with me right now. You better not move, you bastard! Sit right back down there! Come on, Victor, we're getting out of here!"

Vic turned his head calmly to regard his frantic partner, flushed and wide-eyed, one hand clenched in the front of Vic's new turtleneck, the other one straying suspiciously towards the gun hidden beneath his jacket. His eyes were flicking rapidly back and forth between Vic, Steve, and the rest of the room, and Vic realized with muted surprise that Mac really did think he'd been drugged somehow.

"Mac," he said and waited until the other's attention focussed on him, waving Steve back down in his seat when the other man began to get up and come to Vic's aid. For a moment, Vic almost laughed at the thought that he was actually close to starting a brawl because two men were fighting over him.

"Mac, there is nothing the matter with me. I am not drugged, I am not feverish, I am perfectly rational. I have merely decided that I really need to get fucked tonight. Now, if you don't mind, let go of—"

Mac was breathing so rapidly he was almost panting, but gathered himself with a visible effort and relaxed his death-grip on Vic's sweater, though he didn't let him go completely. "Vic, listen to yourself, for God's sake. You're fine, you're not drugged, but you have at some point within the last five minutes been overcome by the completely rational wish to be fucked by some guy you have never seen before in your life, when you don't even like guys? Sure, Vic, that makes perfect sense!"

"And how the hell would you know whether I like to sleep with men or not?" Vic's voice had lowered to a low, growling husk and he didn't try to make it any less of a threat than it was. "You don't know a whole lot about me, Ramsey. Go fuck yourself, or do whatever the hell you want, but I'm getting fucked tonight and I don't much care who does it. Doesn't fit your image of me? Tough luck."

By now, men were beginning to draw close to the altercation, muttering, and some had begun to reach out to draw Mac back. Mac shot a killer glare at those standing closest and leaned in close to Vic, calming himself with an obvious effort.

"All right, Vic." His suddenly low tone was almost gentle. "You're right, I didn't know you liked men, too. My mistake, okay? Now, why don't you come with me and I'll fuck you, how's that? Come on, let's go."

Vic laughed scornfully. "Forget it, Mac, even I am not that dumb. You're just trying to get me out of here so—"

Mac's hand shot forward with the speed of a striking snake. He snatched Vic's wrist and dragged his free hand forward, pressing it roughly against his groin. When Vic tried to pull free, Mac held on, grinding himself into the involuntarily opening palm Vic had turned towards the heated bulge covered by the soft cloth.

There was a small, collective sigh from the men in the vicinity; Vic dimly felt them crowd closer, but now, they were no longer interested in intervening.

"Let's get out of here, baby," Mac said, his voice soft, almost pleading.

It was a ploy, of course. Vic knew it, but Mac's erection was heavy and hot beneath his palm and when he pressed down gently, Mac drew in a loud, unsteady breath.

"Okay," he whispered, mesmerized by the feeling of someone else's erection in his hand. He'd never touched another man like this, and he was amazed how much it turned him on to know that it was Mac—sarcastic, gorgeous, witty, exasperating Mac, who had somehow, for some reason, decided to allow Vic to touch him intimately. Who, for some reason, seemed to enjoy his touch.

Mac released Vic's turtleneck to grip his forearm instead, drawing him out of the nook and to his feet. Vic followed willingly this time, only remembering Steve when Mac leaned past him to fish his forgotten jacket from the bench behind him.

"Sorry," he mumbled, feeling a flush of pure embarrassment creep up his neck. He was relieved to find the expression in Steve's eyes was not one of anger or disgust when he finally brought himself to lift his gaze that far. "See you."

"Be careful, Vic," Steve said somberly. "You're letting him push you around. Just remember that you can stop letting him whenever you want."

Mac pulled Vic through the small crowd of onlookers that had gathered and out of the bar, towing him back out the way they had come in without saying a single word or giving him a single glance. His left arm stayed locked securely around Vic's waist, though, and he didn't let go even when the press of the crowd made their joint advance almost impossible.

Vic had always liked being held, being touched. He'd enjoyed it when a lover had put her hand on his arm casually, brushed against him, laid a hand on his thigh when they sat next to each other. Marking him. Claiming him as hers and warning the others off.

More than anything else, Vic needed to feel wanted. Li Ann had not been easy to live with—she was domineering, demanding, and sometimes moody. She had even been contemptuous in particularly bad moments, but as long as he'd felt she wanted him, he hadn't cared for anything else. He would have done almost anything she wanted, been anything she wanted him to be—but she'd never even given him a chance to become what she wanted—never honestly told him why she no longer wanted him.

"You really want me?"

"Sure, Vic," Mac said soothingly and leaned him against the side of his car to unlock the passenger door, pressing the side of his body against Vic to its entire length as if he thought Vic might fall if left unsupported. Vic leaned into the contact, rubbing against Mac and burying his face in the side of the other man's neck. He smelled of expensive after-shave and a subtle, but doubtless even more expensive male fragrance.

Mac finally got the door open and sat Vic down in the car, leading his movements with touches as though he needed to be guided and even fastening his seat-belt for him. Vic allowed it, trying not to think about why he was soaking up the attention in such a pathetically grateful way, for all the world as though he were starved for the touch of another human being. He wasn't... it just felt good, that was all.

He'd realized Mac was lying immediately, but even the pretence felt good. While Mac drove them back to Vic's apartment, his usually flamboyant, but certain driving style turned noticeably erratic by his preoccupation with sending Vic sidelong glances of disbelief and wariness, Vic tried to believe in the lie, for a little while, at least.

Mac didn't even let Vic get out of the car on his own. Maybe he thought Vic would run off to wrestle the nearest male he encountered to the ground if given the chance.

In the elevator, crowded into a corner by Mac's solid body, Vic seriously considered feeling the other man up and blaming it on the non-existent drugs that Mac suspected were circulating in his blood-stream. He didn't do it, though. It wasn't the kind of thing he could do—it would have been wrong. Mac might even have forced himself to endure the touch to supply what he thought was some kind of drug-induced need. No. That was a memory that Vic really didn't need rattling around in his head.

Although, come to think of it, that kind of thing would be out of character for Mac, anyway. Or would it? Vic couldn't decide. It was a side of Mac he had no experience with. People played so many roles, and Mac more than most— Vic didn't know what it was like to know Mac as a concerned friend rather than a pissed-off or reluctantly tolerant partner. Mac as a lover.

What would he be like? Would he be a warm lover—would he like to cuddle, touch casually, hug at odd moments like Vic did? Or would he prefer to keep aloof, urbane diva that he was—would he always keep a certain emotional distance? Would he always hold something of himself in reserve and someday tell Vic that he had gone as far as he was ready to go, that he was not going to commit to anything more permanent, not with him at any rate—

"You got your keys somewhere? Come on, Vic, give me your keys."

Vic dug the keys from his pocket and handed them to Mac, giving in to the impulse to lean a little into the other man's confining arm.

Mac was beautiful. Intelligent, too—funny, competent, charming, well-educated and widely interested, worldly-wise and experienced, impulsive and volatile, full of life and vivid energy. Someone who really would be able to do anything he turned his mind to, if only he decided he wanted it enough to really try.

Just like Li Ann. Way out of Vic's league.

It was better this way. Mac was far from perfect, after all. He was aimless. Reckless, too, moody and often sullen, childishly petty and egotistical. He chased everything in skirts, and maybe some things in trousers as well, as it appeared. A diva. A primadonna. An emotional vampire, who would suck you dry and leave you when you had nothing left to give.

He was not for Vic. He was not right for Vic at all. Mac was for Li Ann, she was like him, only more mature—she'd be able to handle him, she'd be able to hold him and give him what he needed and be given what she needed in return. Mac would never be right for Vic. Mac would never want Vic anyway.

"Holy Christ! What the hell have you done to your apartment, Vic?"

"Spiffed it up a bit," Vic said absently, shaking off Mac's suddenly loosened grip to wander inside and collapse on one of the stylish black leather and chrome easy chairs he'd had grouped around the glass coffee table.

Mac closed the door and stood in the middle of the room, turning around his own axis slowly. Vic glanced around at the starkly white walls in satisfaction, letting his gaze linger on the tall, abstract painting that took up the entire left wall of the living room, adding a dramatic splash of color to the otherwise monochromatic color scheme of black leather, chrome and glass. The bookcase was another favorite, composed entirely of slender silver rods and glass shelves. Vic's hanging plant looked vibrantly green against all of that white and silver. Very hip. Extremely trendy.

Mac's gaze finally fell on the twisted metal sculpture illuminated by a spotlight in the right-hand corner. "What the hell is that thing?"

"A genuine Rodfield-Anthony," Vic said with just the right note of casual dismissal in his tone. "1998. 'The New Era'."

"No kidding. Have you turned into your own evil twin or something? Christ, this is like something from the X-Files. Oh help, Agent Mulder, an interior decorating, modern-art-loving alien has taken over my partner's body, and I think it really likes me."

"Have a beer," Vic invited without enthusiasm, putting his head back and closing his eyes. He could feel the harbingers of a truly horrendous headache pressing behind his eyes.

"Thanks but no thanks, chum. Maybe it's something in the stuff you've been eating or drinking. I knew you were acting strange. Mind if I use your phone? Wow, new phone, too. Neat. Didn't know they came in brushed metal."

Vic got up to get some aspirin while Mac tried to call the Director, apparently not meeting with success. Finally, he slammed down the phone in frustration. "Screw her anyway! Always in your hair when you really don't want to see her, never there when you—Vic, gimme that!"

Before Vic knew what was happening, Mac had snatched the opened bottle of aspirin from him. "You're not taking anything from in here, kiddo."

"I have a headache," Vic complained.

"Well join the club."

Mac walked Vic over to the couch and sat him down, patting his shoulder once before moving off again. This behavior was so fascinatingly out of character that Vic let him do it without protest, staring at the bulge in Mac's pants.

After pacing back and forth with the telephone for a while, trailing the cable and attempting to reach Li Ann, Mac stopped in the middle of the room and spread out his arms, throwing back his head to bellow "Okay, you red-headed, controlling bitch—listen up! I know you're watching, so don't pretend you're not—I got a situation here, how about condescending to take an interest?"

"You think that's a good idea?"

"I know she's watching. Got any better ideas? On second thought, scratch that. I really don't want to know."

"I mean calling the Director a bitch."

Mac shrugged and grinned recklessly. "What the hell. Always wanted to do it, and she's gonna fry my ass anyway for abandoning the assignment. You're lucky you're not accountable for your actions."

Vic hesitated for a moment before giving in. "Just tell me one thing, Mac. If you were lying when you said you wanted me, why do you have a hard-on?"

Mac exploded. Suddenly, he was in Vic's face, all angrily flushed skin and jabbing index finger. "Look, Mansfield, I'm not gonna screw you, so shut up about it already, okay? You've obviously lost your wits—I speak metaphorically, seeing as you never had any to begin with. You are the last person in the world I'm ever gonna screw, got it? So I'm not blind and I'm not dead, is that a crime now or what? You're still an annoying s.o.b. so there's no need to get all puffed up. I'm never gonna be that desperate."

Vic stood, colliding with Mac briefly before Mac jumped back as if burned. Vic walked around him, heading towards the door.

He appeared between Vic and the door as though conjured from thin air. "Hold it right there. Just where do you think you're going?"

Mac didn't budge and Vic could feel a deep, gutting anger begin to rise from the pit of his stomach, burning in his throat like fire. "Get the hell out of my way. You don't want me, just like Li Ann doesn't want me, so what's it to you? I'm going to find someone who does."

He hadn't meant to say it out loud; he was afraid that it sounded every bit as pathetic as it was. Now that it was out, though, he wasn't about to waste time being embarrassed. He shouldered Mac aside and reached for the doorknob.

Only to find himself flying through the air, barely able to tuck himself into a controlled fall before colliding with the floor.

"No way, Mansfield. You're just begging to get into some major tight spot and if anything nasty happens to you the Director and Li Ann are going to tear my balls off."

Vic didn't bother with a rejoinder this time—he plowed straight in. The anger had reached his brain now and was hazing it in a burning fog of confused, unfocused wrath. He couldn't think. He didn't want to. He knew that fighting Mac Ramsey hand-to-hand was likely to get him nowhere and leave him feeling much worse than before, but maybe he'd get in a few good licks of his own before he was taken down, and right now, that was a good enough prospect for him.

The first blow didn't connect squarely, but it did catch Mac off guard, maybe more because he was expecting a feint than anything else. Immediately recovering, Mac whirled and jabbed out a foot, surprised into a favorite move that Vic had seen innumerable times and could evade. He grabbed at the leg flashing past his head, missed, and earned himself a near-stunning blow to the back of the head. He scrambled back and got to his feet, jumping back when Mac advanced and grabbing hold of a convenient object—the phone, as he noted with a corner of his mind—to hurl at his opponent.

Mac knocked the heavy metal telephone aside, not even wincing at the gash its corner opened in his arm. He was completely focused now, his expression calmer than it ever was in other moments—almost serene. Mac never seemed quite so much at peace as when he was fighting.

One of the new easy chairs obstructed Vic's path and he darted to the side, putting himself into Mac's range as the other man lunged forward. They exchanged a quick flurry of kicks and blows that failed to connect properly before Vic lost patience and charged forward, collecting a solid kick to one shoulder but dealing his opponent an equally solid right hook to the jaw before being tackled, taken down and dragged across the brand-new carpet by his left leg. He twisted around to kick Mac as he tried to pin his opponent's legs, bucked violently and finally even tried to head-butt Mac when he reached for his arms.

There was a brief, but bitter struggle that ended with Mac getting a good grip and expertly flipping Vic over onto his stomach, making his chin hit the floor with a painful thump. Within split seconds, Vic's legs were completely immobilized—Mac must be kneeling on them—and his left arm was twisted up behind him in a painful police hold while the other one was trapped between his own side and the easy chair.

Vic continued struggling hopelessly for several moments, Mac's panting breaths as loud as his own in his ears. Then, he gave up and relaxed into the carpet in defeat, turning his cheek to the pale beige wool (we got a genuine, one-hundred-percent combed lambswool carpeting here, quality you aren't going to get at this price anywhere else, guv).

Strike four. Couldn't even get laid.

His father had been right after all. Nothing he did ever turned out right. No one would ever care for him the way he had hoped Li Ann would. The best he could hope for—if he could ever get his courage up again and if he managed to shake the permanent guard the Director would no doubt post over him after this humiliating occurence—was to be fucked blind by someone who didn't know him.

Someone who saw only whatever it was Mac saw that gave him the erection even now pressing into Vic's backside. Someone who didn't know him well enough to see whatever it was Mac saw that made him refuse to act on the physical attraction.

He rubbed his cheek against the carpet gently, closing his eyes.


Mac loosened his grip on his arm and he pulled it away and tucked it underneath his body, feeling the other man tense above him. Vic ignored him.

There was still the gun in his shoulder holster, and the one he carried at his belt, and the one strapped to his left ankle. Mac hadn't even tried to take them away from him. But what was Vic going to do with them—threaten Mac? They both knew he'd never shoot, no matter how much he wanted to get out of here.

It was pretty much a hopeless situation. Vic could see the future stretch out before him like a bleak, featureless plain. Mac would guard him diligently until the Director took things in hand and locked Vic up for a few days until he was considered calmed down. She'd then hold a long, threatening lecture, perhaps tapping a whip of some kind against the palm of her hand while she spoke. Vic would get to do some disgusting grunt work and catch all of the truly terrible assignments for a while, and everything would carry on as usual.

Li Ann would get back together with Mac. Eventually, they'd marry, maybe even have children as bright and beautiful as they were themselves. Vic, for his part, would have a number of affairs with women he rescued from some scrape or another, women who would move on when they found he had nothing much to offer. Quite probably, he'd be killed one day during his work for the Agency. Then, the Director would send someone to tell his parents. His mother would scrunch up her face and have a migraine, retreating to her bed for the day, and his father would shake his head grimly and tell his buddies that he'd always known his son would come to a bad end, that he'd gone from intractable and disobedient child to crooked cop and only gotten worse from there.

"Vic? Are you hurt?"

"Nah, m'fine," Vic said tonelessly. "Give me a minute."

If he couldn't change here, he had to leave the Agency and try somewhere else. Maybe he'd get away, but more likely he wouldn't... Either way, he'd be spared the bleak vision he was faced with now. Either way was preferable to this emptiness.

Decision made, he turned to his back. Mac allowed it, sitting back watchfully, ready to pounce again in an instant.

Vic looked up at the other man with a peculiar kind of double-focus that made him simultaneously Mac Ramsey—very familiar, not entirely reliable partner and cocky pain-in-the-ass—and a handsome stranger wearing a puzzled, irritated and slightly worried expression.

It really didn't matter anymore. He was leaving, one way or the other.

He lunged, somehow catching Mac by surprise for the second time running, in itself a speaking testament of how confused Mac must be by Vic's strange behavior.

Mac's lips were softer than Li Ann's, and when he tried to draw back, he opened his mouth, either to draw breath or to speak. Vic slanted his lips against the other's and ran his tongue over the inside of the full lower lip, followed when Mac retreated, slipped deeper into the still opened mouth to stroke along the sensitive flesh and tease the quiescent tongue. By the time Vic drew back a bit to draw Mac's lip between his teeth and nip it gently, the other man had stopped moving, mouth open and slack with amazement and arousal, dark eyes fixed on Vic's face with a dazed astonishment slowly, but surely giving way to rising lust.

This was Mac Ramsey, after all. The tendency to think with his dick had always been one of the more glaringly obvious of Mac's weak spots. Vic hadn't been entirely certain of his own ability to invoke this particular weakness, but things were going quite well so far.

Vic settled his arms around Mac more securely and wriggled until their groins were aligned, Mac's erection pressing between Vic's thighs to meet the answering hardness there. He had only the most general of ideas how to go about seducing a man, so he went with the obvious, grinding himself against Mac's erection rhythmically and stroking his hands firmly over the other man's buttocks and the top of his thighs. He felt a bit awkward, but figured that he must be on the right track when Mac moaned and spread his legs slightly, allowing Vic to slip a hand down and press it against his ass and crotch.

Above Vic, Mac gasped, arching his back and driving himself against Vic. When he caught his mouth again, Mac held out only briefly against the assault of Vic's tongue.

Vic was working a hand between the press of their bodies when Mac gave in. One moment, Vic was holding a slightly trembling Mac in his arms, rubbing himself against him and trying to encourage his almost hesitant participation in the kiss; in the next, he found himself pinned beneath a hard and emphatically sensual creature who was devouring his mouth with practised strokes of the tongue, groin pressing almost painfully into Vic's. One determined hand was busy working off Vic's shoulder holster; the other was already diving down the front of his pants.

Oh God. Vic stiffened up for a second or two before he could force himself to relax. Fortunately, Mac was too far gone to care by now—if he even noticed.

Diva, Vic. Think diva. Looks like door number two is our winner tonight.

And really, that was fine with Vic. That was much better than fine with Vic, if truth be told. More like damned perfect.

Mac pulled back suddenly, straddling Vic's middle and grasping the bottom of his bunched-up turtleneck sweater with both hands, stripping it off with one practised movement and unceremoniously throwing it to the side. The T-shirt Vic wore beneath followed with equal dispatch, and then Mac's hands were hungry on his naked skin, skimming over his chest and down his sides, smoothing over the taut muscles of his stomach. It was less of a caress than a pure, tactile expression of the wish to possess, to devour alive.

One hand unbuckling Vic's belt, Mac leaned forward. Vic arched up to meet him, pressing his open mouth to his partner's for a harsh, needy kiss that ended only when Vic's zipper gave and Mac raised himself to his knees to yank down Vic's pants and boxers together, sitting down again on Vic's naked thighs and pressing the newly freed erection to his own still-clothed one.

With a definite sense of relief, Vic gave up on even trying to contribute to the encounter. He was going to be fucked by a master. He was going to be fucked by Mac.

"Oh yeah," Mac rasped, his usually smooth dark voice rough with arousal. "Oh Jesus. Vic."

Hands tugged at his thighs demandingly and he spread them as far as he could with Mac sitting on him and his pants tangled around his knees. It was enough; Mac slid a hand down the inside of his leg and caught Vic's balls up in the palm of his hand, lifting and pressing them slightly. Vic gasped and twisted, his body rising from the carpet convulsively.

"God, Vic, you're so fucking beautiful," Mac whispered roughly, voice heavy with a deeply sexual greed that called up an echoing hunger deep inside of Vic.

And even though Vic knew he wasn't beautiful, it was impossible to disbelieve Mac when he spoke with that tone in his voice. And Mac himself, oh yes, Mac certainly was beautiful. His face was flushed a very light rose, his eyes huge and black and locked on Vic's face. His breathing was quick, but controlled, his hair tousled and his generous mouth open slightly and very obviously freshly kissed.

Mac's free hand reached Vic's erection and closed around the base, stroking up along the shaft with excruciating slowness. Vic cried out softly and lifted himself upward again, trying to spread his legs further as Mac's other hand did something unbearably gentle to his testicles, sending jolts of torturous pleasure spearing through his entire body.

"Where—where d'you keep it, Vic?" Mac husked, his voice as urgent as the look in his eyes.

The question failed to register at first. Mac let go of Vic and leaned forward, draping himself onto him to his entire length. The soft wool of the shirt and pants Mac wore seemed to abrade Vic's hypersensitized skin almost painfully, stabbing needles of pain or pleasure through him, setting his nipples on fire and making him whimper and squirm to find more stimulation for his neglected cock.

"Vic," Mac breathed into his ear, running his hands down Vic's sides to curve beneath his buttocks and squeeze almost painfully. "The lubricant, Vic, quick, I can't wait to be inside you, Jesus you're hot—"

Lubricant. Vic had never even thought of lubricant. "Don't have any," he gasped, too far gone to feel irritation at himself for overlooking this little detail. "Got some condoms in the bathroom."

"Medicine cabinet, right?" Mac was off so suddenly that Vic gasped at the loss. He collected himself far enough to sit up, and by the time he heard Mac slamming the doors of the medicine cabinet and tossing things into the sink, his head had cleared somewhat and he realized that it might be a good idea to take his pants off now that he had the time.

He'd just achieved this monumental task, which was made considerably more monumental because he hadn't remembered to take his shoes off first, when Mac came racing back, clutching some foil-wrapped condoms in one hand. He didn't even glance at Vic, vanishing into the kitchen instead to slam doors and rummage in cabinets even more noisily than he had in the bathroom. Glass broke. Mac cursed in Chinese.

Vic's shoes and socks came off, and Vic was entirely naked and growing nervous again as his arousal receded slightly. He'd never had a male lover before and hoped it wouldn't be too obvious—Mac didn't strike him as the type to have much patience with clumsy virgins. Particularly since he hadn't originally meant to sleep with this clumsy virgin at all—what if he changed his mind? Granted, it seemed relatively unlikely, but what if he was even now wondering how to get out of this—

Fortunately, Mac returned before Vic had more time to think, now clutching a tall, square bottle in addition to the foil packets and wearing a small, almost smug smile.

"Virgin olive oil," he murmured, a hint of the familiar teasing back in his dark voice. He set down his find next to Vic's hip and stretched himself out full length on top of the other man, still fully clothed. "Very healthy, Vic."

"Hmm," Vic said, losing every doubt at the return of the warm body pressing him into the carpet. Yes. This was what he wanted.

"God yes," Mac murmured close to his ear. There was a less than gentle nibble at Vic's earlobe that made him suck in his breath sharply. "I'm gonna make you come screaming my name, baby, you're gonna scream my name for me—"

"Mac," Vic husked, trying to work his hand between their bodies to Mac's belt only to find Mac's hands already there.

Mac's erection sprang free and he gasped against Vic's neck as Vic curved his hand around it and pulled at it gently. Turning his head, Vic captured the tempting mouth again, drawing his partner into another demanding kiss.

Mac was all over Vic, stroking his chest and stomach, sliding up the sensitive inside of his thighs and finding his genitals once more, his hands as ravenous as the mouth devouring Vic's, sucking on Vic's tongue, biting his lip and neck and shoulders almost viciously. Vic reciprocated as well as he could, but Mac was still almost fully clothed and evidently not interested in pausing in his high-speed exploration of Vic's body to undress, which left Vic mostly to experience Mac's exploration rather than conduct his own. And really, he didn't have too many objections to that.

In the tempest of urgent sensations swamping Vic, he hardly registered the first invasion of his body as something alien. He couldn't tell whether it was pleasant or not, painful or not; in the midst of the deluge of sensory information flooding every nerve, the breaching of his anus by an olive-oil coated finger was nothing more and nothing less than one more stimulation that made him gasp for breath, writhing and burning for fulfilment.

Discomfort became distinct among the other sensations when Mac twisted the hand buried between Vic's legs, doing something that spread Vic open a little more. He slumped back against the carpet, catching his breath and relaxing consciously. He was going to be fucked by Mac Ramsey.

The reality of this notion went a long way towards defeating the twinge of uneasiness that had woken in him; a look at the man doing this to him dispelled the remains. Mac's gaze was flickering up and down Vic's body constantly, greedily drinking in every patch of exposed skin with eyes burning with black fire. He looked like a completely different person like this, every trace of cockiness or sarcasm or the self-defensive shell of aggressive certainty burned away, leaving only an elemental essence of maleness that was somehow intrinsically Mac.

He wanted Vic. At this moment, Mac wanted Vic and nothing else. Only Vic.

Mac's hand shifted and a brief, but stabbing pain shot through Vic. Caught up in watching Mac look at him, Vic noticed but didn't care, dismissing it as irrelevant and pushing against the invasive fingers to watch a flash of ravenous hunger widen Mac's already huge eyes even further.

Rustle of fabric, sharper crinkle of foil tearing. Mac was murmuring something, his voice slightly unsteady and husky enough that Vic imagined he could feel the vibration in the pit of his stomach. "Always wanted you, always, God you're fucking gorgeous with my fingers up your ass, ravishing, I could come just watching you writhe against me like that, got to have you now, gonna fuck you so hard and deep you'll never forget it, never—"

Mac knelt between Vic's spread thighs and lifted him into his lap, steadying his hips and positioning himself carefully before pushing in. The discomfort was harder to ignore this time and turned rapidly into true pain as Mac pushed himself into Vic's body as far as he would go, his eyes falling almost completely shut and his entire body arching backwards to push his pelvis flush against Vic's groin.

It was very difficult to keep from stiffening or even drawing away, but somehow, Vic managed it, staying relatively relaxed in spite of the sharp throbbing that threatened to overwhelm the arousal of a moment earlier. This was all part of the experience of being fucked by a man—part and parcel of being wanted by Mac Ramsey.

The thought helped, and so did the ecstasy that was written on Mac's face as he pulled back and slammed into Vic again, not noticing the little flinch that Vic couldn't quite catch in time. Again, and the pain could now be tuned out and dismissed as nothing but irrelevant discomfort.

Mac trembled a little and curled forward over Vic's body, eyes closing, fingers flexing almost convulsively on Vic's hips. A thin sheen of sweat glowed on his skin, turning him a pale shade of gold. The evident passion he felt thrilled Vic to the core of his being.

"Mac," he murmured.

Mac's eyes flew open and fixed on Vic's, dark and dazed. Vic wondered whether he looked like that, too. "You okay so far?" he husked with obvious effort.

"Oh yeah."

"You're like velvet. so tight—Vic, I'm not gonna last... Give me a sec here."

It took longer than a second, but Vic didn't mind at all. He loved seeing Mac like this, kneeling inside the V of his thighs, buried deep inside his body and all but overcome by desire for Vic. As he grew accustomed to the cock filling him, the remaining discomfort faded completely and Vic thrilled to the the feeling of holding Mac inside of his body almost like a woman would. He'd always wondered what his—up to now exclusively female—lovers had felt when he made love to them. Maybe it was something like this, but without the pain, and with more pleasure deriving directly from the act in addition to the emotional connotations surrounding it.

Mac lifted his head and devoured Vic's body with his eyes, lingering on the place where his own melded with it and the other man's wilting erection before sweeping up to his face again. "You're so lovely, you feel so good. I'm gonna make you feel so good, baby, I want you to scream so loud everyone in the whole damn building knows what I'm doing to you."

He pried his fingers loose from their grip on Vic's hips with obvious effort and shifted his stance a little, his hands urging Vic to settle a little higher on his thighs. Vic's back would hurt like hell tomorrow if he kept up this position for any length of time, but he truly didn't give a damn.

Mac started moving again slowly, and this time Vic concentrated on what his cock felt like sliding inside of Vic's body, withdrawing slowly until only the very tip remained inside. And pushing back in—

Vic cried out in surprise as a sudden burst of pleasure exploded outwards from Mac's penetration, curling upwards through his stomach, throbbing in his cock as a pulse of sheer sensation and drawing his spine into a taut bow. He threw his arms to the sides for balance and pushed his body into Mac's stroke as far as it would go.

"Oh man," he heard Mac breathe softly, almost reverently. "Jesus, Vic, I could make a fortune selling pictures of you like this."

The sensation was no less stunning the second time, or the third, and as Mac picked up the pace and strength of his thrusts, Vic whimpered and sobbed and twisted, locking his legs around Mac's body to draw him deeper, harder, faster, lifting himself off the sweat-damp carpet to meet each stroke, his entire body an inferno of rhythmically blazing flares of sheer sensation consuming him alive. He'd never even conceived of feeling like this—never even imagined it possible—

Mac was talking constantly now, the rough string of dark, slurred syllables an integral part of Vic's wild world of agonizingly intense sensation. The words were unclear and unimportant, the stark lust so plain in the tone firing Vic's ardour even as the deep, hard and rapid strokes of his cock did. Vic lifted himself into the thrusts greedily, trying to press Mac in ever deeper, wordlessly demanding a faster pace.

A touch on his painfully throbbing cock stole the oxygen from Vic's lungs and made him gasp. A single stroke of Mac's hand, his cock driving almost brutally into Vic's body at the same time, and Vic was screaming, every muscle locking into granite rigidity, every wildly hungering, passion-scorched fiber of his being flaring at once into a violent explosion of an ecstasy so intense that it blanked out everything for a moment of fragile, ephemeral eternity.


"Oh God. oh fuck. damn."

Vic had a blurred recollection of Mac's voice shouting wordlessly, hoarsely, and Mac's body bucking against his in sweat-glistening splendor, fingers digging painfully into Vic's hips and the sensation of Mac's cock erupting inside him, filling him with a sudden flood of liquid warmth.

He rolled his head to the side lazily and opened eyes he couldn't remember closing to the sight of Mac Ramsey collapsed in a sweaty heap on top of him, chin digging into Vic's left shoulder, dark hair sticking to his forehead in unkempt curls, panting for breath and flushed with exertion. Vic thought he'd never seen anyone so blindingly lovely in his life.

Mac was staring at Vic with a very peculiar expression on his face.

"Hey," Vic said. He suddenly realized that he was smiling so hard he could hardly get the word out. "I—" —love you.

The shock of what he'd been about to say slammed home with the impact of a fist in the stomach, abruptly dispelling the haze of post-orgasmic bliss. Vic turned his head to the other side, away from Mac, and stared at the chrome feet of the easy chair next to him as he ran a shaky hand over his face, fighting the heavy laxness of muscles unwilling to move.

He'd been about to tell Mac he loved him. Well, Vic reasoned, maybe it was just reflex—something that came automatically to his lips when he'd had sex, especially the kind of mind-blowing, physically and emotionally draining experience that being fucked by Mac Ramsey had turned out to be.

Reflex. Right. Not even Vic believed that one, and he'd believed a lot of shit in his time.

But how could he have fallen in love with Mac? When? He knew damned well he hadn't loved him that morning. Thought him attractive, yes, grudgingly acknowledged the good qualities hidden beneath the protective veneer of obnoxious smart-ass. But this. Was it really so simple to get Vic to fall in love—give him a really good orgasm and he'd be yours body and soul? What an appalling thought.

After another moment of deafening silence, Mac picked himself up off of Vic and reached down between their bodies. Belatedly, Vic realized that the other man was still partly hard and buried inside of Vic. There was an unexpected twinge of pain and Mac stood up, supporting himself on the backrest of the chair, knotting the condom he'd stripped from himself.

"You got a bed I could use somewhere around here?" Mac asked hoarsely. "Don't think I'd do too well behind the wheel right now."

"Yeah, sure," Vic mumbled, watching Mac as he walked into the kitchen and came out without the condom, zipping up his pants. Once again fully dressed, he disappeared in the direction of the bathroom.

Vic sat up slowly and buried his face in his hands. Good God. How cheap could you possibly make yourself—he'd been plowed on the floor in the middle of his living room by a man who hadn't even taken his pants off, and just because he'd managed to trick him into it after the begging and wheedling had failed.

The shower started up. Vic wondered what would happen if he followed the crazed impulse to join Mac in the shower. Mac would probably kill him. Either that, or ignore him entirely.

Actually, the course Mac seemed to have embarked upon might not be the worst one. Just act as though nothing particularly earth-moving had happened. Pretend nothing had changed.

Vic collected the bottle of olive oil and made his way into the kitchen, wincing a little at the unfamiliar sensation of soreness as he walked. He put the oil in the sink, certain that he wouldn't be using it to cook but not decided yet on whether he should throw it away or keep it around, just in case.

The doors of several cabinets stood ajar, and Vic closed them absent-mindedly, straightening up the kitchen implements and containers scattered over one counter and sweeping up the shards of a glass salad bowl that seemed to have been tossed half-way across the kitchen. He then wandered back out into the living room and managed to dawdle over picking up his scattered clothes until the sound of water raining down stopped. Determined not to be an even more abject coward than he had been already, Vic then headed for his bathroom and found the door locked.

Well. That answered one question, he guessed. They really were going to ignore this—ignore it, skirt around the issue. never mention it again. If that was the way Mac thought the thing should be handled, then it was doubtless the least humiliating option by far for Vic to give in and let the matter die silently.

When Mac emerged freshly scrubbed and modestly clad in a towel, he was alluringly rosy-skinned and subtly scented with a male fragrance Li Ann had once given Vic; he'd used it once or twice to please her and had then completely forgotten about it. Vic pushed past him without a word. By the time he'd finished his own shower and crept into the unoccupied side of the bed, Mac had curled into a loose ball beneath the covers and gave every impression of being fast asleep.

Vic hadn't really expected he'd be able to get any sleep under these circumstances, but he hadn't realized how drained he was, either. It didn't take long for his exhaustion to catch up with him, and he drifted off into blurred velvet nothingness gratefully.


Vic surfaced partially from deep and dreamless sleep because someone was nuzzling his ear, breathing into it loudly and regularly. He felt vague surprise; Li Ann was not a cuddler in the usual run of things and would most often push him away when he encroached upon her personal space unintentionally while asleep.

He turned drowsily, careful not to jolt and wake her as he lightly draped an arm across the body tucked against his side. He dropped back off to contented sleep with his chin brushing his lover's soft dark hair.


The next time he woke, sunlight striped the room where it fell in between the vertical shutters, and he was alone in the bed. He stretched lazily and cast a quick glance at the bedside clock, noting that he still had plenty of time until the regular meeting with Dobrinsky.

He scooted over to the side of the bed and winced in surprise when he sat on the hard wooden frame of the bed.

And only then did the events of last night come flooding back to him, filling him with instant horror, embarrassment and an undeniable frisson of sexual excitement. Mac. He'd slept with Mac.

No, he'd been fucked halfway to oblivion by the man. He'd been screaming loud enough to wake the dead, and he could hardly sit down this morning. After the act, Mac had ignored him; in the night, Mac had cuddled up to Vic in his sleep; and now, the morning after, Mac was gone. Maybe his subconscious had thought he was in bed with Li Ann, too.

Vic forced himself to drag himself to the closet even though he was suddenly so tired that all he wanted was to get back beneath the covers and sleep for a couple of hours longer. Or weeks, preferably... Hiding wouldn't accomplish anything, though. He didn't really want to think about what he'd done last night, but he'd have to face the music sooner or later.

"Running true to the usual abominable form, I see," he told his reflection, quoting his father.

But, the apparition with the spiky hair and bleary green eyes returned, he did want me. There was no doubt at all that, for however briefly, he truly wanted me.

"Your body," Vic retorted scornfully. With a last shake of his head, he collected some of his new clothes and went to get ready for another day in the life of Victor Mansfield of the many exes, now with another ex- added to an already impressive list—ex-one-night-stand of Mac Ramsey.

The bottle of "Antarctic" that Mac had unearthed still stood on Vic's sink. He stared at it while he was shaving and succumbed to the impulse to dab some of it on once he'd rid himself of the morning's stubble. It did smell nice. He wondered what that other scent had been, the one Mac had been wearing earlier yesterday. Maybe he'd ask the Director. She was certain to know seemingly inconsequential but intensely personal details such as what brand of cologne her agents used.

If Vic really did try to get away from the Agency, and if he lived long enough after making the attempt, he could buy a bottle of whatever it was and go around smelling like Mac. Not really, of course, because the underlying scent of Mac's skin would not be there, but approximately. No one could smell quite as good as—

"Hi," Mac said from where he sat on Vic's black leather sofa, several paper bags spread out over the glass table in front of him. The smile he gave Vic was almost hesitant and might, in another person, even have been called shy.

"Uhm," Vic replied lamely, freezing in his tracks in speechless astonishment.

"Thought I'd buy you breakfast, at least," Mac went on, trying for his usual jaunty and self-confident tone and almost succeeding. "Hope you like donuts and those bagel things. Personally, I can't stand the stuff, but those people in the bakery down there? They wouldn't know decent home-baked bread if it jumped on them and bit their noses off. Now I found a little place just three blocks from where I live, you know? They bake these really delicious French croissants and deliver them to you fresh from the oven. That's what I call breakfast."

Vic sat down across from Mac without saying a word, fielding the bag that was tossed to him automatically. His brain had switched to autopilot, prompting him to look inside and discover an assortment of muffins and donuts—glazed, unglazed and chocolate-covered.

He ate one as a good way to avoid speaking, afterwards noticing that he didn't know whether he'd had a glazed or a chocolate-covered one. He couldn't even swear to the fact it had been a donut at all rather than, say, a bagel, or perhaps a slice of garlic-bread.

Mac was picking apart a walnut-muffin, eating the chunks of walnut and strewing the crumbs all about himself like a three-year-old. He looked every bit as nervous and uncomfortable as Vic felt.

"I'm glad you're still here," Vic ventured at last. "I thought you'd left when I woke up. I'm glad you didn't."

"Yeah," Mac replied absently, tossing down the remains of the muffin at last and throwing himself back into the cushions, draping both arms along the top of the sofa's backrest to take up as much space as humanly possible.

"Okay," he said abruptly. "So now will you tell me what the hell was going on with you last night?"

Vic opened his mouth, closed it, shook his head and laughed painfully and without humor.

"You weren't drugged, were you." Mac didn't wait for an answer, catapulting himself from his seat instead and pacing over to the window to take a look outside. "So." He still wasn't looking at Vic. "What happens now?"

"What do you want to happen?" Vic asked more quietly than he'd intended.

"I don't know!" Mac whirled and crossed the room in two strides, leaning over the table with both palms pressed to the glass, shoving his face up against Vic's. "I don't know what the hell you thought you were doing and I know I sure as hell wasn't thinking at all towards the end there but I don't know why—you're easy on the eyes and all but you're not really my type and you're a man and I don't usually want men like that and I didn't even like you for the longest time and now I'm suddenly having the most incredible sex of my life with you? I don't know what happens now, I don't know what I want to happen, all I know is that you have got to be the best damn piece of ass I ever had and that doesn't just include the men and so God help me I don't know how the hell I'm gonna keep my hands off you from now on!"

"Oh," Vic said in a small, wondering voice.

Eyes so dark they were almost black searched Vic's face angrily for a long moment, and for a dizzy second or two Vic was certain that Mac was going to lean forward the last fraction of an inch and kiss him, or Vic would.

Mac stepped back and distorted his mouth into the crooked parody of a smile. "You tell me, Mansfield. This whole mess was your bright idea in the first place. This is your call."

Vic looked down at the hands clenched in his lap and relaxed them consciously, gathering himself to speak with more calm than he could bring himself to feel. "Not really. If—I know you sometimes like to just have sex, no strings attached. I know I pushed you much harder than I should have and... Part of the reason why Li Ann left me was because I'm too clingy. I try not to be but I can't help it. I just don't—some time back I had just sex a couple times and I really didn't like it at all, and that's not what it felt like with you. For me."

There was a brief silence. Then, very evenly, Mac said, "Are you calling me a slut, Victor?"

Awkwardness and mortification flared up into a brief, but intense flame of anger. Vic's head snapped up and he glared at Mac from narrowed eyes. "No, you dumb fuck, I'm telling you I want to have a relationship with you!"

Dark eyes widened noticeably. Mac sat down on the sofa again and stared at Vic intensely. Vic's anger had burned out almost immediately and he had to force himself not to fidget or look away, to meet the other man's steady regard evenly.

"I see," Mac said at last. Another long moment passed in silence before he smiled a smile Vic had never thought he'd see directed at him—the slightly overdone lady-killing smirk, confident to the point of smugness. "Has anyone ever told you that your eyes are the color of the finest green nephrite jade?"

Vic laughed, startled and embarrassed. "What?"

"Because they are. I always knew you were beautiful, but I could never see the true extent of it behind the surface good looks before." The smile dimmed somewhat, changed, acquiring a note of coaxing. "Come over here, baby. Plenty of room on this sofa."


"Hey, this is the only way I know to do this, okay? At least give it a try before you shoot me down."

This smile was so dazzling that Vic succumbed, getting up with a put-upon sigh to sit down next to Mac. Mac at once put an arm loosely around his waist and nuzzled the side of his neck. "Morning, baby. Hmm, you smell good—let me guess. Li Ann gave that scent to you, right? She always liked that one."

Vic put his head back compliantly and let Mac lick his throat. He even purred a little when the other man found a particularly sensitive spot and began to nibble.

"I'm gonna buy you something else," Mac whispered against his mouth when he'd worked his way up the long way, passing by Vic's left ear on the way and gently tugging on the earring with his teeth. "Don't want you wearing something someone else picked out for you."

The kiss was slow and leisurely, an almost playful mutual exploration. Vic clenched his hands in Mac's silky curls and sighed into his mouth.

"You were incredible last night," Mac murmured, drawing back a little. There was suddenly a hand on Vic's thigh that seemed to be slowly but surely sliding upwards, apparently without Mac's notice. "And believe me, I got high standards."

Vic laughed. "Mac, please."

Mac drew back and pouted demonstratively. He didn't take his arm from around Vic's middle, though, and the hand skidded up another couple of inches and began to curve inwards toward its ultimate goal. To his surprise, Vic discovered that he had parted his thighs slightly at some point.

"Okay, babe, you tell me then. How's the relationship schtick done with a man? Never got beyond the meaningless physical gratification stage myself. Show me."

The hand arrived and stilled, content to cup Vic lightly. Vic licked his lips and laughed almost nervously. "Well, I don't know."

"Then I guess we'll just have to wing it," Mac purred, leaning in again.

After another lengthy kiss, Mac removed both the adventurous hand and the proprietary arm and began feeding Vic one half of a muffin he broke into bite-sized pieces, alternately eating one himself and watching Vic eat one. Vic felt vaguely ridiculous, contemplated protesting, and finally decided to wait until after he'd eaten his part of the muffin. He'd always liked blueberries.

"So," Mac said after a slightly blueberry-flavored kiss. "Tell me about your other lovers. Were any of them as good-looking as me?"

In spite of the comically waggling eyebrows and obvious swagger, there was something like true anxiety underneath the question. Vic looked at his new lover searchingly for a moment. "Does it matter?"

Mac shrugged extravagantly and snagged a paper bag from the table, making a big production out of choosing a bagel. "Course not. Just curious."

Vic blinked, but shelved the reaction for now, deciding to follow this up at some more fitting time. "Well, it's hard to say. You know Li Ann. Francesca was small and dark, pretty, but not more than that really—I guess you'd call it character, very strong features, handsome almost. And my girl-friend in High School and for a bit afterwards was very athletic, blond and busty, kind of like Jackie, but not so. loud. Attractive, but nothing like Li Ann."

"I was actually talking about the guys, Vic. Not that I don't appreciate being compared to Li Ann in a way, but come on. It's really not the same, is it? So. Any special guys?"

Vic smiled, trying not to look as uncertain as he felt. "Well, you're pretty special."

Mac lifted his hands in surrender. "Okay! Fine, you don't want to talk about it, that's no problem, let me move on to the next standard topic for innocuous conversation to be held the morning after the orgasm to end all orgasms." He pretended to be entirely absorbed by the inspection of the filling of a bagel. "What is this stuff? Jeez, if this is cream cheese I'm the Marshmallow Man. Just look at this—"

"I can't talk about the other men I slept with because there are none."

Wide-eyed, openly incredulous and slightly disgusted stare. It was clear Mac didn't believe him.

If the heat in his face was any indication, Vic had lit up as red as a traffic light. He'd been glad Mac hadn't seemed to take much note of his inexperience—had been relieved that Mac had taken the initiative so energetically that Vic had gotten away with following his lead instead of being forced to improvise on the basis of his own limited and strictly theoretical knowledge of sexual intercourse between two males.

And now it seemed he'd given such a successful impromptu impression of a man who knew what he was doing that he was going to get in trouble with his contrary partner over the fact he couldn't contrast him favorably with a long row of previous lovers.

Maybe he should make something up. On second thought, maybe he should just tell Mac to stop acting like a sulking first-grader. Not that he would, but it might make Vic feel better.

"For God's sake, Mac, when will you start acting your—"

"Well, well, well. What a. charming. picture."

Mac groaned loudly and turned to bury his face in the sofa's backrest as the Director stepped around the corner from the kitchen, carrying the bottle of olive oil with an innocently quizzical expression on her face.

Trying for slightly more composure, Vic flushed an even deeper shade of scarlet and cleared his throat, casting around for something to say.

The Director sauntered further into the room, carefully stepping around the stain in the carpet with a little moue of fastidious distaste. She was wearing a dark purple latex catsuit that clashed with her hair; it was long-sleeved and zipped to the chin, but managed to leave nothing to the imagination without actually exposing one inch of extra skin.

"Really, boys. When I said that you had to learn to get along better, I strangely enough did not picture that you would take this to mean I was encouraging behavior such as, say, dropping everything RIGHT IN THE MIDDLE OF AN ASSIGNMENT in order to rush off and FUCK LIKE RABBITS!"

"That's not why we rushed off," Mac interjected hopelessly, his voice muffled by the couch.

Vic tried not to blush even further. Somehow, he didn't really think he succeeded.

The Director arched her eyebrows cuttingly. "Then perhaps Victor did not announce to the world at large that he was taking the evening off for precisely this purpose? And perhaps Dowes was not ambushed by two thugs on his solitary way home, to be rescued not by my agents, but by four individuals of indeterminate gender who drove the attackers off with blows with handbags and stiletto heels? While you, Mac, were not at that very moment entirely occupied with pouring virgin olive oil of all things over Victor and his new carpet?"

"It's not Mac's fault," Vic began. "He was only trying to—"

"I know precisely what he was trying to do, and to whom, Mister Mansfield."

Mac turned his head to the side to squint at the Director ill-temperedly. "Look, you didn't answer your Agency twenty-four-hour-hotline and you ignored me when I asked you to give me a hand here. What d'you expect, superhuman self-control?"

"From you? Hardly."

Vic cleared his throat again, more loudly. "It was my idea—I mean, you obviously know what happened, so you must know that it was my fault that Mac thought he had to bring me back here and—I'm sure he wanted to go right back, but—you know."

The Directors eyes narrowed dangerously as she stalked up to stand directly in front of Vic, legs slightly spread to either side of his knees. One perfectly manicured, lavender nail reached out to tap against Vic's chin, making him flinch back involuntarily. "So, Victor. You are trying to assume full responsibility for this little episode, are you? How very noble of you."

Sharp nails dug into the tender skin beneath Vic's chin, forcing his head up. "Victor, Victor. What am I going to do with you? Sometimes I wonder whether any of you comedians realize that the thing to be remembered about last chances is that they are the last ones. Hence the name."

The sofa shifted beneath Vic as Mac fidgeted uneasily. "Well, yeah, but the thing is, Vic wanted to stay at the Belvedere, you know?"

The Director didn't let go of Vic's chin as she swivelled her head and regarded her other troublesome agent expressionlessly. "Don't worry, Mac. I am not forgetting your rather substantial contribution to this little drama."

Mac leaned back, resting the back of his head on the couch and staring up at the ceiling. When he spoke again after half a beat of tense silence, his voice was once again sardonic, the trademarked over-stated, arrogantly sarcastic confidence back in place.

"Vic only asked me to take over alone for the rest of the evening, and hey, he probably should have checked with you first and all that, but after all it was a cushy job and I could have done it by myself, right? I was just surprised. I mean, this is Vic we're talking here, he never goes off duty, and certainly not in a gay bar. Victor? Come on. We're talking the original definition of solid and boring, one-hundred-percent straight family man here. Okay, so I was wrong, I admit it, but you gotta say it was just a little bit of a surprise."

The Director made a very quiet sound in the back of her throat; it sounded as though it might turn into a growl if given half a chance. Mac lifted a forestalling hand, grinning his widest and most clownish grin.

"I know, I know, I still shouldn't have left Dowes in there alone, and I shouldn't have stayed here instead of going back. And before you say it, I know I shouldn't have done that, either, okay? Go ahead and shoot me, Jeez. I just couldn't help myself, okay?"

"I see. You poor boy. We will have to do something to help you with your poor impulse control. Perhaps neutering will do the trick."

Mac's fake grin turned into a genuine grimace, but it took several long seconds of the Director's high-focus stare to unnerve him enough that he broke into protest. "Come on—I said I'm sorry and Dowes got away with a scare and Vic is okay too, which might not have been the case if I'd left him there all alone with those horny guys you know, and—"

The Director held up a commanding hand and Mac trailed off quickly. He traded apprehensive looks with Vic as their superior regarded the two of them steadily, tapping a lilac fingernail against her cheek as though lost in thought.

"Oh well," she mused at last, raising her eyebrows in philosophical resignation. "At least you're finally showing some team spirit. I suppose that's something."

"So that's her definition of team spirit," Mac muttered beneath his breath. Vic rammed an elbow into his side and earned an indignant yelp and offended glare.

"Let's see. If I were to, say, give you jokers three days of vacation, needless to say without pay, and if you spent that time screwing each other raw, do you think we could call the matter resolved and go back to the nice and, if not exactly quiet, then at least uncomplicated way things were before?"

"No way."

Vic stared at Mac with something like genuine shock. A slight pink tinge crept up Mac's neck, and he didn't look at Vic, focusing exclusively on the Director. "Come on. Look at the man, okay? Three days, you gotta be kidding me."

"Oh, I don't know, Ramsey. Considering your track record, three days should feel almost like a committed relationship to you."

If Vic hadn't been watching Mac so closely, he would have missed the brief flare of angry hurt that flashed across his lover's face, immediately hardening into an indifferent, crooked grin complemented by a loose-limbed shrug. "Ooh, now look who's hitting below the belt. Running out of ammo, huh?"

"Before today, I would have said that Victor will no doubt be a moderating influence on you," the Director continued, staring at Mac. "After this occurrence, however, I must say I have my doubts on that score."

Mac's smile was angelic, though it did show rather a lot of teeth.

"Uh," said Vic.

The Director turned very slowly and smiled an even slower smile as she swept a gaze across Vic from head to foot and back up again, lingering pointedly at his crotch. "Although you are being unusually reasonable in one respect, Mac. I dare say I would not be completely satisfied with three days, either. Not considering the way he sounds. And. moves. Very nice indeed. Such enthusiasm."

"Now look—" Vic's protest was cut short when Mac hooked a proprietary arm around his waist and gave a sharp tug, making him sprawl sideways on the couch. The arm around him re-settled immediately and a strong hand spread on his chest; by the time he had gathered his wits he was draped across Mac's lap, a firm, confident caress sliding languorously from his collarbone to his stomach and up again.

He was already drawing in breath to tell Mac in no uncertain terms just what he thought of this kind of peremptory manhandling when he looked up, muscles tensing in preparation for vaulting away from both Mac and the sofa.

Mac was staring at the Director with a hard, challenging glint in his eye and his jaw set at its most stubborn angle. If he'd been a cat, he would have been hissing and showing his claws with every hair on his body standing on end. The only way he could possibly have been more unsubtle would have been if he'd shouted "mine!" at the top of his voice.

He was warning the Director off. He was telling the Director to keep her hands off Mac's lover, or else.

And it was perhaps the most astounding thing about it that once Vic realized what Mac was doing, he found that he loved it.

The Director, for her part, seemed vaguely interested and vaguely amused, but mostly disgusted with the entire situation.

"All right boys, go ahead and try the alternate life-style if you think it will make you happy. Just remember that no matter who you fuck, your ass belongs to the Agency, and we have rules for this relationship thing."

She fixed both of them with a basilisk stare. Vic looked attentive for all he was worth, willing himself not to be distracted by the hand now creeping a little too low for comfort on his stomach, fingertips skimming beneath the waistband of his jeans.

"Absolutely no kissing, petting, making out, or fucking—or any variation thereof whatsoever—on an assignment. If you can't help yourself, children, then I know a doctor who will be very happy indeed to take care of the problem. This goes for both of you. Am I making myself clear enough?"

They nodded obediently. Mac shifted his weight and pulled Vic even closer, settling him more comfortably against himself until he was not only sprawled over Mac's lap, but practically draped across his front. His free hand stroked across Vic's stomach once more before sliding down to settle on his hip, fingers splayed widely enough to again be just a bit too close to interesting territory for comfort.

It was such a flamboyant and immature, typically Mac kind of display. And yet. Vic could have pulled away, but he didn't. He suspected that being publicly marked as private property by Mac Ramsey should have made him angry, but it didn't.

He liked it. He'd never been in this role—before, he'd always been the one to court his lovers, to seduce them and try to hold them, to be possessive, try to bind them to him any way he could. He'd never succeeded. But now Mac's hand was warm on his hip and a strong arm was wrapped tightly, possessively around his waist, and Mac was glaring daggers at the Director because of something that was nothing more than one of her usual power games, something that really had nothing at all to do with sex and everything with an only outwardly playful demonstration of dominance.

It felt good to be claimed like this. Perhaps it shouldn't have, but Vic didn't care about what he ought to be feeling. It felt good.

He relaxed into the other man's hold, arching his back into a small stretch that played to the audience quite blatantly before contentedly tucking his head beneath Mac's chin, eyes half-closed. He held back the small, purring rumble that wanted to escape his throat, but even so the sudden tightening of the other man's grip around his waist and the small, caressing movements of the fingers on his abdomen announced that Mac had understood his gesture.

The look in the Director's eyes was priceless. Evidently, she understood what was being played out in front of her, as well. It didn't look as though she were particularly happy about it.

Mac's breath stirred Vic's hair and Vic was certain that he felt the body pressed against his back shudder. The tremor had been so subtle that he would almost certainly have been unable to perceive it if he hadn't been molded against his lover's body so closely.

"Well," their superior said at last. "You two lovebirds are just full of surprises today, aren't you. Still, remember, kids, we are a shadowy government Agency. I have an image to uphold, hard as it may be for you clowns to believe. Some people may still have the impression that you are professionals. Try not to coo at each other too loudly, all right?"

She shook her head. "And just when I'd finally whipped you into some kind of shape. Let me tell you, I am not looking forward to the insane proportions your little disagreements will now inevitably take."

As she walked out, Vic could swear that he heard her mutter "Sometimes I think I should have stuck to lion taming after all."

Mac turned to the side and tugged at him and Vic allowed himself to be shifted to lie on the sofa full-length, his body still draped over Mac's, secured by Mac's arms wrapped around his chest and middle.

"So, we gonna try this then, huh?" Mac said directly into his ear.

Yesterday at this time, Vic might have taken the other man's tone of voice at surface value—yesterday, he might have believed that for Mac, this was a casual question of no more than mild interest, that he was already more than half thinking of something else, that the touch of bored arrogance coloring the tone reflected what he felt.

Yesterday seemed impossibly far away. At this moment, Vic could barely remember the man he'd been then or the way he'd perceived the world. Now, Vic heard the insecurity behind his lover's attempt to uphold a semblance of emotional distance with painful clarity.

His lover... Mac. Mac was his lover now. On the surface of it, the notion was so unlikely as to seem all but absurd. How could Vic expect a relationship with Mac, of all people, to work when even the one with Li Ann— mature, reliable, trustworthy Li Ann—had failed so spectacularly? He remembered that he had decided at some point that Mac wasn't right for him at all, that his flaws and shortcomings did not mesh well with Vic's own. that they would never be right for each other.

And he'd been so certain that Mac would never want him.

"Yeah," Vic said aloud. "We're gonna give it a shot."

He didn't think Mac realized how telling it was that he tightened his grip and dug his nose into the hair behind Vic's ear, blowing warm breath against sensitive skin in a pleased sigh. Vic snuggled as close to the welcoming body of his lover as he could, closing his eyes to concentrate on the warmth of Mac against his back, on the beating of Mac's heart against his body.

This was it—the change. The chance. Mac. And at this moment, it didn't seem unlikely at all.




Let's see, this story is: Once A Thief, NC-17, Vic/Mac slash...
And in the unlikely event that anyone was wondering, no, they're not mine. Except for the ones that are, of course.
The story was betaed by Trinity and Dr. Sue Ruthless—thank you again!
Feedback of any kind is very much appreciated! If anyone wants to archive the story or send it to other lists, ask me first so I can feel appropriately flattered.

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