by Tari Gwaemir
"Sometimes, Xianglong, I think you actually enjoy--"
Nearly midday, but they were still in bed, the cracked blinds drawn and casting jagged shadows across the linoleum floor. He was sitting up and smoking a cigarette, too lazy to wipe away the sweat dripping down his neck. Her arm wrapped around his waist like a heavy chain. He watched her body twist and turn, legs kicking lazily at the thin, sodden sheets, and wished that she would roll away.
"Come on," he said, putting out the cigarette against the bedframe.
She groaned and pushed her face against his back. He shook her shoulder, but she didn't respond.
"Xinsha. It's almost noon."
She sat up, her fine, light hair falling over her face like a cloud. She combed her fingers through it as she yawned and squinted at him. "I'm up," she mumbled. "Get me my clothes."
"Get them yourself." He got out of bed.
The first thing he learned in the slums of Shanghai was how to walk. Heel to toe, a rolling swagger, shoulders back, hips forward. Eyes side to side, each glance a challenge. The mouth twisted to the side, a confident smirk. He didn't need to say, "Get out of my way." People moved to the side before they even registered his face.
"Xianglong," she said, touching his elbow.
"What is it?"
"We're in the ceasefire zone."
"And that's the Toulon leader sitting by that café window, staring straight at you."
He came to a stop but did not turn. "He's here, you say."
"Xianglong, we have to be--"
"Careful. Yeah, I know. But he can't touch us here."
They moved on. At the end of the block, he paused for a moment and allowed himself a swift look behind, his expression blank, a study in casual. He instantly recognized the dark head, the long, lanky legs, the muscled arms that he had last felt gripping his hips.
In an unguarded second, their eyes met. His shoulders tensed.
He jerked away and turned the corner. He breathed slowly to quiet the odd hammering in his chest.
When she wound her arms around his neck that night, he felt impatient at her softness, her sameness. Her movements were rote and mechanical; they had performed this dance a hundred times before. Next she would reach up to kiss his cheek, then he would reach around to undo her bra, finally they would fall on the bed and go at it as usual.
She kissed his cheek. The sticky-sweet scent of her perfume nauseated him. He grasped her by the shoulders and stared at her face. Her eyes were already closed, as if she was moving in her sleep.
He wanted to shake her but instead pushed her away. She opened her eyes slowly, unwilling to wake from whatever dream she was imagining. "Xianglong?"
"I'm not in the mood," he answered curtly and sat down on the bed.
She sat down next to him and tentatively touched his shoulder. "You all right? What's wrong?"
He shook his head. "You. Us. Everything."
"If it's about Dawu--"
"You're the one worrying about Dawu."
She fell silent. He kicked savagely at the floor.
"Xianglong," she said entreatingly. She reached up and cupped his face in her hands, leaned in and kissed him, her lips full and parted.
The memory of another kiss: the sour taste of alcohol at the back of his throat, the heavy pressure of a hot tongue against his, the sting that lingered on their lips as they bit at each other's mouths--
He shoved her away. "This isn't going to work."
She looked up at him, equally frustrated. "Well, what are we going to do? What do you expect of me?"
"Shut up!" He slung on a shirt, put on his shoes and slammed the door as he left.
At night, the city seemed harder, brighter, its streets made glossy with neon borders, its grimy corners and alleyways disappearing into the dark. He wandered haphazardly in circles for hours, before he found himself lost in a new district, its steel-and-glass buildings too glamorous for the slums.
He entered a bar, its tables varnished and gleaming, the floor lined in faux-marble tiles. He sat down on the nearest stool and glared at the bartender who approached him with a visible wince on his face.
"How may I help you, sir?"
"Give me something to drink."
"What sort of drink would you prefer?" The bartender had a high, mincing sort of voice that grated on his nerves.
"Get me a beer."
"A beer. Any brand." He leaned forward and grinned humorlessly.
The other customers looked askance at his torn, scuffed jeans and disheveled hair, but they were too polite to do more than stare. He laughed and spun around on his stool.
"I am going to rule this city," he informed the bartender bringing him his drink.
"Yes, sir." The man retreated hurriedly.
"It's true," he called out after him. "This city is mine."
"Not yet, it isn't," said a voice behind him as a hand clamped over his wrist.
He stiffened. "Well. If it isn't Toulon's Xima. This isn't your usual part of town."
"I could say the same of you. What are you doing here? Are you drunk?"
"No. But I will be." He downed the beer in one shot.
"I know the owner of this bar. They called me here because of a potential...disruption."
"Which means me." He snorted. "Fine, I'll leave."
He set down some bills. "This enough, bartender? I'll be going now."
The grip on his wrist tightened. "Wait--"
In a flash, he slipped his pocket knife out of his sleeve and held it poised in the air. "This isn't the ceasefire zone. You know what that means?" He leaned in against the man's taller body, pressing mouth and blade next to his neck. He whispered, "I could slit your throat here right now, in front of everyone."
"They'd find you."
"But you'd be dead, and I won't be going out of my mind." He gave him a sudden push and jerked his wrist free.
Xianglong brushed past him and ran out of the bar.
A narrow alleyway between two dilapidated buildings, the broken pavement littered with trash, and him backed up against the wall, caught beneath a taller, heavier body, the bricks digging into his spine. His breath coming out in short, heavy gasps.
A low chuckle. "Should I stop?"
"No, but--" He arched up and wrapped his hands around the other man's throat.
"But what?" That same, infuriating ripple of amusement in the voice. He could feel it in his hands.
"I saw you today, looking at me."
"You were looking back."
They kissed, and he could feel the muscles of the jaw shift under his hands. If he tightened his grip...if he kicked out with his knee...
"Sometimes, Xianglong, I think you actually enjoy--" The other man gasped.
Xima caught him by the waist and pinned him more securely against the wall. "Enjoy being trapped. Like this."
"Yeah?" He bit the man's shoulder, heard him stifle a groan. "Yeah, maybe I do."
From the open windows, red light seeped into the room, the first blink of the sun through the hazy sky. The air was cooler and less humid here, although they were very high up, on the twentieth or thirtieth floor. He could see the endless sea of skyscrapers and apartment towers, the curving paths of bridges and highways that led into the heart of the city.
He reached for a cigarette. Next to him, Xima continued to sleep, face turned away from the light, chest rising and falling soundlessly.
He wrapped his arms around his knees and stared out the window, watching the lights blink on and off in the multitude of windows in the distance. In the distance, he could hear the tolling of a bell, counting off the morning hour--one, two, three, four, five, six--and the sound seemed to accentuate the silence in the room.
He got out of bed, put on his clothes. He leaned out the window and squinted at the streets below, already crowding with people in cars and bicycles. The sun was only a red smear on the horizon, but the city was already awake.
"Someday," he said out loud, as a promise to the towering buildings, to the winding streets, to the millions of silent, lonely rooms waking up to the morning after--
He slipped out before Xima could awake. He couldn't stay, not yet.