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Excerpt for Star-Crossed by , available in its entirety at Smashwords

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Star-Crossed


(Ajax & Orion Book 2)

By L. Loryn


Copyright 2018 L. Loryn


This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events, locales, and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.


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Part 1. Prepare


“Please don’t kill me.” The boy clasped his hands together and gazed into Ajax’s face. His eyes were dewy sprigs of fresh grass glittering in the sunrise.

Ajax unlatched the safety on his pistol, pointing it between the boy’s tailored eyebrows before the bridge of his nose.

The boy sank to his knees on the blood-soaked Persian rug covering the living room floor. Tears welled in his eyes and slid down his tanned cheeks, and salty water droplets fell from his sharp chin. They disappeared in the mottled wool foundation and the shining silk pile weave.

Ajax had wasted two bullets on a man he’d never met before. The third hit his target in the side of the head. It created a spidering hole in the living room window to the left of the wall-mounted flat screen television. The television was bigger than any television Ajax had seen. A squat man in his late fifties with sparse blonde hair plastered over a shining bald head had fallen face forward. He had knocked the coffee table on his trip to the floor. His evening whisky spilled from limp fingers.

His instructions required the boy’s disposal, too, but Ajax hesitated. His hand clenched at his side as the boy shivered and locks of rich auburn hair swept over his eyes, shielding distraught features. His defeated shoulders sagged, and he studied the ground. Ajax latched the safety with a soft click.

The boy shuddered.

“What’s your name?” Ajax rasped. His vocal cords were raw, and his voice was coarse.

“Lawrence,” he squeaked.

“What’s your middle name?”

“Orion. You c-can have anything you want.”

“Obviously.” Ajax tucked his gun away and stepped back, steel-toed boots hitting the hardwood floor with a heavy thunk. He moved around the couch, glass crunching under his feet, and approached a half-eaten tray of food resting on the side table. He pressed the backs of his fingers into the round dinner roll and tasted a chunk of coagulated casserole. It was chicken, rice, and melted cheddar cheese.

“W-what are you doing?” Orion sat back on his ass, rubbing the length of his bare and blood-soaked legs.

“You made this?”

“Y-yes. Hours ago.”

“Someone wants you dead. And they’re willing to pay two hundred grand for it. Tell me what makes you worth more than two hundred grand.”

“I-I can give you fifty-thousand dollars, a-and I can help you. W-with things.”

“You can help me? You ever shot a gun before?”

“Yes!” His features brightened and then dimmed. “No.”

Ajax sucked the inside of his cheek, prowling back around the couch. Welts painted the boy’s creamy thighs, and yellow bruises blotted his legs and arms. Hunger consumed his eyes. “If you want to come with me, we leave in five minutes. You ransack the house, take any money lying around. Leave your clothes and anything traceable.”

“I-I don’t have fifty-thousand dollars here.”

“Well, intelligent criminals don’t steal credit cards. Four minutes. Get me a plate of casserole and an extra biscuit.” Ajax squinted again, tugging his skull cap over his ears and pulling gloves from his pocket. He slipped his fingers in them as he crossed the room and exited the front door.

Mister Nikolai Ivanov Rostislav owned three houses: One in the city, one back in Russia, and one in the secluded countryside where his body lay decomposing. The countryside home faced a translucent lake and a mountainous backdrop. It towered over a smaller guest house. The two-floor guest house paid for the countryside dwelling. Ajax occupied the guest house.

He lit a cigarette as he stepped out of his boots and peeled woolen socks from his toes, stuffing them in the shallow pockets of his jeans. He stepped into the moist grass barefoot. Ajax pulled from his cigarette, heat traveling through the stick and warming his lips.

“I-I’m ready,” Orion stammered. He joined Ajax outside after trashing the house, backpack over his frail shoulders and a covered plate of food in his hands.

Ajax peeked in the backpack, thumbing through folded underwear, green stacks of dollar bills, and toiletries with a grunt. He zipped the bag. “Take off your shoes.”

Orion obeyed, placing them next to Ajax’s sagging boots.

“All right. My car is this way.” He was a ghost. His footfalls made hushed sounds as he followed a stone pathway around the house. Ajax unlocked the doors to an aged, white sedan with chipping paint and missing rims sitting in front of the guest house. “Toss your bag on the seat and get in.”

“Okay. What about your food?”

“I’ll eat once we get on the road.” He unloaded his guns into the trunk, nestling them in their cushion and slamming the door down, twisting the key to the right. Without another word, he climbed into the driver’s side, turned over the engine, and drove away from the mountain estate.

He drove in silence with Orion clutching the plate of warm food on his lap.

Ajax kicked the vehicle into the next gear once they left the mountains and merged onto less winding roads. “Pass me the bread.”

Orion’s fingers spurred into action, peeling the aluminum foil back from the plate and fishing out the roll, presenting it to the other man.

Ajax snatched it from him, taking a hefty bite. “You can talk, you know.”

“There is nothing to say.” He replaced the foil around the lip of the plate. It crinkled under his delicate fingers.

“Fine. I’ll talk. Do you know what I am?”

“Y-yes. A person for hire. You were sent by my father, weren’t you?”

“I thought you had nothing to say.” Ajax’s lips twitched. He almost smiled. “I was.”

“Why?”

Ajax chewed the cold biscuit. The chicken casserole tainted its flavor. “Why isn’t my concern. Usually my target knows the why more than I do. So, I should ask you. Why does your father want you dead?”

Orion’s shoulders shrugged, “Because he never wanted me alive.”

“Interesting.”

“Where are we going?”

“Away.”

“Why?”

“Because it’s the job.”

“I guess.” Orion picked at the wrinkled foil, frowning into his lap.

They drove through two small towns and one large city. The freeway weaved around, and Ajax took exits and changed streets with confidence, signaling each time he rolled to a stop. Hours after they had set out, the old sedan pulled into the Cowboy Inn, a hotel off the interstate. The vowels on the sign blinked in and out, and there were two beat up vehicles in the parking lot. The smell of gasoline and stale sewage water filled the air vents.

Ajax closed them. “Wait here, I’ll get us a room.” He lifted the center console, digging through a collection of identification cards. He peeled off his black skull cap revealing a mass of matted, dark curls on his head and stuffed his feet in a new pair of steel-toed utility boots he dug out of the back seat.

“Wait. What’s your name?”

“My name is if-you-move-out-of-this-car-I’ll-kill you.” Ajax’s eyes fixed on Orion, black against the faint glow from the moon. He tucked an identification card and a credit card in his pocket as he climbed out of the vehicle, slamming the door behind him and leaving the keys in the ignition.

Ajax checked in, presenting his identification card to the young worker behind the desk. She glanced at the card and back up at the man’s surly features before nodding and tapping on her computer.

“Mister Johnson, we have your room right here.” Her acrylic nails pecked the keys. “How many nights are you staying?”

“One.”

“How many room keys do you need, sir?”

“One.”

“All right. Just sign this form for me as I process your payment, and you’re good to go.” She exchanged his identification card with his credit card as he scribbled a signature on the form and placed the ink pen on top of the crisp white paper. After two swipes, the computer bleeped, and she puckered her lips and placed a hand on her waist. She swiped the card a third time, and the computer bleeped again. “Oh, shucks. Our internet is down again so I’m going to have to pull out the knuckle buster. Be right back.”

“No problem.” Ajax slipped his hands into the pockets of his dark blue jeans. The girl slipped from the lobby to the office, retrieving rectangular contraption with a raised handle and similar rectangular paper. She clunked it on the counter and poked her tongue out the side of her mouth as she lined up a three-page booklet with his credit card, placing the credit card under the booklet.

“I’ve only done this once before,” she warned before she pushed a sliding handle over the booklet and his credit card. She held her breath as she held up the manual print of Ajax’s card, flipping to each page before exhaling in relief. The print was on each page. “Okay. Here ya go. This’ll be processed tomorrow morning, then you can check your card statement and it should pop up. Sorry for the inconvenience.” She returned his credit card and passed him one keycard.

“Thank you.”

“Is there anything else I can get you?”

“Yes, one question. Vending machines?”

“Oh, sure. Your room is two-thirteen. When you walk out into the hallway, if you come back towards here, the lobby, you’ll see two vending machines and an ice dispensary. There is a washer and dryer on the first floor, if you need it.”

“Ah, perfect.” His lips twitched in a smile as he left the quiet lobby and returned to his idling vehicle, climbing back in the driver’s seat.

“What took so long?” Orion ventured, glancing towards Ajax.

“Internet is down so she had to use a manual credit-” Ajax tilted his head, “I don’t owe you answers.”

“It was a simple question.”

“See previous statement.” Ajax parked the vehicle right in front of their room, grabbing a black backpack and Orion’s bag. He tossed Orion a pair of worn sneakers. “We’re room two-thirteen.” He handed the boy the keycard.

“Okay. Should we get anything else out?”

“Not for tonight. We’ll sleep a few hours and get back on the road in the morning.” Ajax led the boy up the winding staircase to the room and dumped their bags at the door. He dug through his suitcase and laid out a new pair of black clothes, draping a pair of slim black jeans and a slim black shirt over the bed. He kicked off his boots, yanking his shirt over his head.

Orion gasped, “I-I should do something. Oh my god.” He scrambled over to his own bag.

“All right. Take the clothes you’re wearing off and put them in this pile.” Ajax dropped his shirt on the ground, bulging muscles rippling as they relaxed under his dark skin. Old scars stretched as he unfastened his jeans, adding them to the pile.

“R-right here?”

“Did you have a better place?”

“Perhaps in the restroom?”

“There’s nothing you have I ain’t seen before, and I’m not interested. So, we’re good here.” Ajax put his underwear and socks on the top of the pile and walked barefoot across the carpeted floor, squatting in front of his bag again.

“Oh.”

Ajax pulled brown unlabeled bottles out of his bag, smelling them before setting them on the carpet. “You’re not moving.”

“I-I know.”

“Get undressed.”

“What am I going to wear otherwise?”

“I have an extra shirt and drawers.”

“D-drawers?” Orion stretched his shirt, pulling his arms to his body and shimmying out of it. He dropped it on top of Ajax’s clothes. He squirmed out of his shorts and briefs, clutching them close to his body. He traced the stitching and surrendered them, too.

“Better.” He placed the bottles on the table next to the keycard and placed another shirt and a pair of boxers next to his clothes on the bed. Ajax turned to Orion, opening his mouth to speak, and paused. He gulped air as he pressed his lips together and swallowed around the knot growing in his throat. “Clothes.” He jerked his thumb to the bed, but his eyes didn’t leave the boy’s form.

Orion clasped his hands behind his back, puffing out his osseous chest. His legs curved out at his lean thighs and back together at his ankles. He bent one leg, bringing his knees together and arching one foot, toes digging into the carpet. “I’d like to wash first?”

“No.”

“I have stained blood on me.”

Ajax’s eyes narrowed, “No.”

“Then, I’m going to stay covered in blood?”

Ajax cursed under his breath and snatched a towel from the bathroom, wetting it with lukewarm water and thrusting it at Orion. “Here. Wash.”

“I need soap.”

“No,” the assassin hissed. “Fine.” He retrieved the small bar of hotel soap and offered it to Orion.

“Thank you.” He unwrapped the soap, smearing it over the towel.

“Are you going to be this irritating all the time?”

“No, I suppose not, but you could have shot me.”

“I still could.”

Orion lathered his pink tinted legs. “You could,” he agreed. “Why didn’t you?”

“A moment of weakness.”

“I noticed, but why?” He lathered the rest of his body before sliding another wet corner over his bruised skin, washing away the soap.

“Because you weren’t surprised.”

“What do you mean?”

“Scared, sure. Usually when I have to kill families, the partners run screaming through the house like crazy people. Not you. You were too ready to accept your fate.”

“I guess.” Orion patted his skin dry. “I’m finished.”

“Put the towel in the pile. Anything else fabric-wise you need to get rid of?”

“I-I don’t think so.”

“All right.” Ajax tucked the clothes in a black drawstring bag he recovered from his backpack.

“What are you going to do with our clothes?”

“Destroy them.”

“Why?”

“Because I don’t want to get caught, and something tells me you don’t want to go back to where you came from, either.”

“What tells you?”

“You’re traveling with an assassin,” he pulled the drawstring closed, “and you’re not scared of him. So, what are you, like fifteen years old?”

“I’m twenty-one.”

Ajax glanced over the boy’s body again. “You look fifteen.”

“We call it shaving and good genes.”

“All right. You were married to the guy I killed?”

“Yes.”

“How old was he, like, fifty?”

“I don’t know how old he was.” Orion picked at the clothes Ajax had set out, pulling the oversized black shirt over his head and sticking his legs into the bottoms.

“You into older men?”

“Who says I’m into men at all?”

“You were married to one.”

“I wasn’t attracted to him, and I’m not attracted to older men.” Orion crawled into bed. He folded his arms across his chest and drew his legs close, resting his chin on his knees.

“All right.”

“It was arranged. My father set it up. Like a business deal.”

“Huh.” Ajax dressed himself again, covering his scarred chest with a black T-shirt and sliding his muscled legs into his jeans. He shoved his feet in his boots. “Well, get some rest. I’ll be back in a few minutes.” Ajax tucked the keycard in his pocket, grabbing the unlabeled bottles and the bag of clothes. He poured an expert mix of clear, pungent liquids on the clothes, pulled the drawstring tighter, and threw the bag into an open full-size dumpster before returning to the hotel room.

Orion had burrowed into the sheets by the time he returned, leaving his wavy, brown hair visible on the pillow. Pink toes poked out from under the heavy comforter. Ajax checked his watch and retrieved a primitive cell phone from his bag, flipping it open. He dialed a number and put it to his ear.

“Hello?”

“I’m calling for Mister Cromwell,” Ajax groused.

“This is he.”

“This is Mister Black.”

“How are you, Mister Black?”

“Very well.”

“I need a location and date for the rest of the exchange.”

“I will let you know.” Ajax ended the call and dialed a second number, glancing at Orion as he did.

“Nn. Hello?”

“Trav. I need an identity package.”

“AJ?”

“Yeah. What do you need from me?”

“For starters, a picture, a fingerprint, and the cash.”

“Same as before?” Ajax paced the room, resting a hand on his hips.

“Same as before. How soon do you need it?”

“I’ll be in your area in a week, but I can send the information you need tomorrow.”

“Perfect. It’s good to hear your voice, AJ.”

“Yours, too. Take care, all right?”

“Sure thing.” The call ended, and Ajax returned the cell phone to his backpack, kicking his shoes off. He posted himself in the lumpy chair next to the rattling air conditioner closing his eyes and resting his head on the back of the chair. He slept for two hours and jolted awake as morning light peeked through the thin curtains. Dull, dark eyes traveled to the bed where Orion lay exposed.

Orion’s angelic features frowned in his sleep. His tanned legs opened against the sheets, and his back arched, giving his body breathing room. The oversized boxers covering his bottom half had ridden up, showing his curved asscheeks and welted skin. Faint stripes crisscrossed the backs of Orion’s thighs.

Ajax grumbled, “Kid. It’s time to get up and get moving. We have a lot of miles to cover today.”

“Hnn, no,” Orion whined, stretching his arms in the sheets. He tucked his face away.

Ajax clenched his jaws. “Now. Get up, now.” He approached the bed, brushing the backs of his fingers along Orion’s calf, sandpaper caressing flower petals. The boy didn’t react at first, but when Ajax’s chaste touch continued, he bolted upright and snaked away, gathering the blankets in his arms and covering himself.

“I’m up!” He gasped, head hitting the wall with a muffled thump. “My god. I’m up.” Sweat washed over his forehead and redness over his cheeks and down his neck.

“Well, good.” Ajax frowned. “Piss and pack up, we’ll get food on the road.”

Orion rolled his eyes up to Ajax, white knuckles clutching the blankets. “I-I can’t.”

“You can’t pack up? What are you talking about? You packed it--” Ajax paused and looked away from Orion, squinting at the faded hotel door. “Okay, well just pack. And we’ll go.”

“I need better bottoms,” Orion whispered.

“You need better bottoms. Look, I didn’t prepare for a travel companion. You couldn’t take your clothes because it would’ve been too obvious and it wouldn’t have looked like an accident. I didn’t stop yesterday because I have markers, plans, but now I have to change them because of you. I have double the liabilities, double the chances of getting caught now.”

Orion flinched, “I-I’m sorry?”

“No, it’s fine,” Ajax growled. “It’s fine. Can you wear those to the car and then first thing, I’ll get you something better?”

Orion nodded, exhaled, and slithered from the bed to his backpack. He packed himself up again, sticking his feet in a pair of Ajax’s worn shoes and throwing the bag over his shoulder. “Shoes, too.”

“You can make a list on the drive.” Ajax packed methodologically, checking and double checking his surroundings before he shouldered his bag and put on his steel-toed boots. After one last check, they vacated the room, leaving the keycard on the counter by the door. They tossed their bags in the backseat, and Ajax rolled out of the parking lot as the sun made its first appearance over the horizon.

“Where are we going?” Orion kicked the oversized tennis shoes off and crossed his legs in the chair.

“West.”

“Do you live west?”

“No.”

“Then, why are we going west?”

“To get your father’s money and to get your new identity, which reminds me. You need to dye your hair, and I need a fingerprint. Then I need to take a picture of you.”

“What color?”

“I don’t know. Different.”

“I could bleach it.”

“Sure.” Ajax turned into a striped orange and white burger joint and rolled his window down. His soft, curly hair rippled in the wind as he leaned forward, ordering two number ones with orange juice, a number two, and an additional large coffee.

“What did you get for me?”

“One of the number ones.”

“And the rest is for you?” Orion smirked

Ajax lifted his hips, grabbing his wallet. “Yeah.” He handed smooth dollar bills to a pimply teenager at the first window after he confirmed his order. A round-faced, long-haired girl at the second window handed him two separate bags of food and a paper drink holder with two orange juices and a steaming-hot coffee nestled inside. He passed the food along to Orion who checked each bag.

“Ask for jelly, butter, and syrup packets,” Orion whispered.

“I need jelly, butter, and syrup.”

“And napkins!”

“And napkins,” Ajax grunted.

“Sure thing!” The short-haired worker dumped his requested items in a small plastic bag. “Can I get you anything else?”

Ajax looked at Orion after handing the plastic bag over. Orion checked this one, too, and then shook his head. Ajax looked back to the smiling employee, “No. We’re good, thanks.” He pulled away from the drive-thru window and into a parking space.

“We’re going to eat here?” Orion retrieved a hash brown from the boxes. “Oh, shoot. I should’ve asked for ketchup.”

Ajax presented the coffee to his lips, taking one slow sip before grumbling, “Deal with it.”

“I am. I was just saying for next time, don’t let me forget the ketchup.”

“Uh huh.” Ajax sipped his coffee again. They ate their first meal together in an awkward silence. Orion sliced his soggy pancake into triangles with the plastic knife and dipped them in the little square container of syrup while Ajax slathered butter and syrup on his stack of pancakes and ate them unceremoniously.

“I’m finished. Do you want the rest of my eggs and my third pancake?” Orion looked at Ajax who was still steadily working through his pile of food.

“Yeah, I’ll take it. Set it there.” He motioned to the dashboard and went back to eating.

Orion sipped his cup of orange juice, staring out the window with a sigh. He smiled to every person passing their vehicle, waving his fingers at happy little children and nodding to adults. When they were alone, his features fell into a neutral expression. His eyes focused on the thick trunk of an old, oak tree.

“What are you thinking about?” Ajax packed the trash in one bag as he continued eating from the other.

“Nothing. Well, my youngest sister’s birthday is today.”

“And?”

“She’s fifteen. We usually have a big family dinner on birthdays.” Orion swiped the condensation off the side of his cup, squinting as moisture sprang to his eyes. His chin trembled.

“Well, you’re dead now, so you can’t waltz into your parents’ house and sit down at the table.”

“I know, but I’m still allowed to be sad.”

“Sure. Doesn’t help anything, though.”

“They’re my family, and I miss them. I’m the youngest boy and she’s the youngest girl, we always had a connection in being the youngest.”

“What? You were the most spoiled?”

“No, we were the most disposable.”

“How many siblings do you have?”

“Three older brothers, three older sisters, one younger.” Orion chewed his straw.

“Damn. Your mom and dad enjoy having sex with each other?”

“No. It’s complicated.”

“Is it? We’ve got plenty time, baby.” Ajax’s raspy voice shifted to a deep, southern drawl.

“Baby?”

Ajax flushed, chewing and swallowing a bit of eggs, “I knew a guy who used to say that.”

“I see.”

“Tell me.”

“He didn’t want her using birth control and he refused to use protection. So, eight children. The two oldest boys are going to take over the family business.”

“What about the girls?”

“If they’re lucky, he’ll marry them off to other rich men.”

“So he can send a bounty hunter after them, too?”

Orion lowered his head.

“Sorry.” Ajax finished eating, compacting all of the trash. “We’ll stop at one of those big service stations, and I’ll get you something to wear. Then we can go to a convenience store, and you can pick out a few things.”

“He wouldn’t marry them off like he did me. He sees value in women, or at least a way to spread his claim. He didn’t like me.”

“He surely didn’t,” Ajax agreed.

When they arrived at the service station, Ajax hopped out of his vehicle with the trash from breakfast, tossing it as he moved inside. He purchased a small pair of sweatpants, a small shirt, and a cheap pair of shoes, guessing Orion’s size. Alongside the clothes, he tossed several colorful packs of candy on the counter and swayed back and forth on his feet as the cashier rang his items.

“You wanna bag for these?” The older woman asked.

“Sure.” He exchanged cash for his purchases and left with two plastic bags. One bag held Orion’s clothes and the other was filled with their sugary road snacks.

Orion wiggled into the new clothes as Ajax buckled his seatbelt and drove out of the service station parking lot. He traded Ajax’s boxers for the sweatpants and his huge shirt for the smaller one. “These shoes are too big.”

“Wear them anyway.”

“I-I was going to, but my shoe size is a nine.”

Ajax grunted his reply. He drove for hours listening to the roar of wind passing the vehicle. He didn’t play music or listen to a book, and Orion soon fell asleep using Ajax’s bundled clothes for a pillow. The boy rested his head on the body of the car and curled up, bony feet resting on the dashboard and knobby knees against the window.


***


It was nighttime in an unfamiliar city when Ajax pulled into a twenty-four-hour superstore and turned off his vehicle. He had stopped for fuel three times, Orion’s bathroom breaks five times, and once for a short nap. He sandwiched his car next to two local vehicles and looked at Orion.

“All right, listen. You want to roll with me, you have to learn the rules. Rule number one is, you’re whoever you need to be in the moment. In this moment? We’re a cute couple getting groceries and what not. Got it?”

Orion rubbed sleep from his eyes as he peered back at Ajax’s stony face. The soft moonlight highlighted the man’s square jaw and weathered, swarthy skin. His cavernous dark eyes snuffed the light as it shined into them, leaving nothing but gaping holes of emptiness.

“Yes. I got it.” His heart somersaulted in his chest, but his stomach churned. He nibbled his bottom lip as he stuffed his feet in the new shoes.

“Good. While we’re in here, you need to pick two more names. We’ll get identification for them.”

“And what do I call you?”

“Ajax, AJ, Jax, or Axel.”

“What’s your favorite?”

“I don’t have one.” Ajax rifled through the vehicle, uncovering a small safe from under Orion’s seat. He unlocked it and thumbed through stacks of twenty-dollar bills, handing Orion five and tucking five more in his pocket before locking and stashing the box away again.

“Okay. Ajax is your main name?”

“It’s the one I’ve had the longest. We can discuss names later, let’s go get these supplies and check into a hotel for the night. We’re going to have to overnight your fingerprint and picture to my guy because we’re behind schedule.”

“How are we behind schedule? You’ve been driving all day.”

“Yeah, well, I didn’t factor in five-bathroom breaks averaging thirty-nine minutes each.”

“I had to stretch my legs.”

“Whatever. Get out of the car.”

“Fine.” Orion hopped out of the vehicle, tripping over his too-big shoes as he stumbled around the vehicle, grabbing Ajax’s hand.

Ajax jerked away. “What are you doing?”

“Couples hold hands,” Orion whispered, cutting his eyes up to Ajax’s face and reaching for his hand again. He pressed his smooth palm into Ajax’s rough skin, latticing their fingers.

Ajax’s hand twitched. His swollen lips pursed at the corners. He trudged towards the sliding-door entrance, and a wash of cold air greeted him.

“Do you think we need a cart?” Orion tilted his head up to Ajax.

“Yeah. I’ll grab one.” He wrestled his hand away from Orion, grabbing a wire shopping cart and a sanitation wipe. He swiped it over the cart’s handle as Orion popped up beside him.

“Okay, so, we need hair dye, clothes for me, food for you because we can’t keep buying everything, a small ice chest, and sodas.”

“Woh, woh. This isn’t a camping trip. We don’t need an ice chest.”

“Actually, honey, this is a camping trip.” Orion giggled, leaning into Ajax and walking alongside him inside the supermarket.

Ajax lips curled, and he squared his head with his spine. The muscles in his neck wound tight. “Where are we going to put the ice chest?”

“Behind your seat, if we put all of our bags on the other side. Then I can reach it whenever you’re thirsty.”

Ajax grunted and wheeled the cart to the clothing section first with Orion calling out items and grabbing things from the center aisles. “Pick your clothes, b-baby,” he gruffed.

“Anything I want?”

“Within reason.”

“What do you prefer? Boxers or briefs?”

“I don’t need new underwear.”

“Not for you, for me. What would you prefer to see my ass in?”

“Oh. Briefs, I guess.” He snatched a six-pack of neutral-colored underwear. “These’ll work.”

“Okay, and shorts? Booty shorts?”

“You’re not a chick.”

“Right, but what if I like them?”

“You’re not a chick, though. So, you’re not supposed to wear them.”

“Okay, but do you like booty shorts on women?” Orion plucked a pair of faded denim shorts from one of the round clothing racks. “Shorts like these?” Rounded pockets extended past the leg cuts of the shorts, and they were two inches longer in the back than they were in the front.

“Yeah, they’re good.” Ajax’s nostrils flared.

Orion tossed them in the cart. He didn’t consult Ajax on the three shirts he picked out for himself, or the pair of black jeans. In fact, aside from glancing at him every once in a while, Orion didn’t ask him another question until they reached the shoe department. “What shoes?”

“Utility.”

“Right.” His dark eyebrows laced together as he tried on pair after pair of basic utility boots. Each one had an issue: the color was off, the fit too tight or too slender, the interior felt cheap.

After seven pair, Ajax growled, “Pick a pair. We have more shopping to do.”

Orion flicked his eyes up to the other man, “You could help.”

“Fine.” He snatched the closest pair of shoes off the concrete floor. “These.”

“I didn’t like those because they hurt my heel.” Orion returned the oversized slip-ons Ajax had purchased from the service station to his feet. “And I need another pair of these.”

“You’re not getting two pairs of shoes. We don’t have time for you to pick out a whole closet of clothes,” Ajax hissed, moving close to Orion.

“It’s one more pair of shoes. They’re less than five dollars,” the boy quipped back. “And you are a terrible boyfriend.”

“We’re pretending.”

“No, I’m pretending. You’re being yourself but, like, extra.”

Ajax growled, “Watch it, boy. You’re on my good graces right now and you’re treading paper-thin ice.”

“Two pairs of shoes,” Orion insisted, defiance glowing in his green eyes.

“If I have to--”

“Hello there! Y’all finding everything okay?” A frizzy-haired man turned the corner with an illegal amount of cheer in his tone. His dazzling smile startled Orion.

“Yes.”

“No, actually,” Orion cut in. Ajax glared at him. “Actually I was looking for these boots in a half size? I’m usually a size nine, but I think nine-and-a-half would be better for these.”

“Sure, I can check the back for you. I’ll be right back.” He nodded, smiling at them both and retreating with the pair of shoes in tow.

Ajax scowled at Orion, “You keep this up and I will end you.”

A flicker of worry highlighted Orion’s eyes, and he looked away, tucking his hands between his thighs. He set his jaw, teeth clenching together, but his trembling lower lip betrayed him. Orion rubbed his face, checking for tears before standing. “I have to use the bathroom. I’ll be right back. J-just get the nine-and-a-half or ten.”

Ajax grunted.

Blinded by the tears welling in his eyes, Orion stumbled past several aisles on his way to the bathroom. His palm pressed into the wall for support as he disappeared in the gender-specific room and hid in a stall, bursting into tears as soon as he was alone. He cried in silence, tapping the back of his head on the blue stall walls, and sank to his feet, wrapping his arms around his legs. The stall was uncomfortable. The whole bathroom stank of cleaning products mixed with stray bodily fluids, but he was alone. His ribcage stretched with each violent breath. His heart assaulted his sternum.

Orion sat on the cold tiles for ten minutes as his galloping pulse ebbed. His eyelids drooped, and he rested his cheek on his legs, tucking his arms between his torso and his thighs. His ribcage stretched with each violent breath

The bathroom door swung open.

“Boy? You in here?” Ajax called. Annoyance overflowed in his tone.

Orion bolted awake and swiped at puffy eyes, “Yes! God.” His voice wavered. He scrambled to his feet and pushed the bathroom stall open.

“You all right?”

“I’m fine.” He tugged his pants in place, approaching Ajax.

“Your face is red, and your eyes are puffy.” Ajax touched the backs of his fingers to Orion’s cheek.

“Yes. Sometimes my face gets like this when I’m upset.” Orion ducked away from his touch and stormed out of the bathroom. “Where are the shoes?”

Ajax followed. “In the cart. Nine-and-a-half like you wanted.”

“Okay.”

“Yeah. And the slip-ons you wanted.” He pointed at them.

“Okay.” Orion wiped his face again, “What else do we need?”

“You made the list.”

“I did, but I don’t want to be here anymore. So, can we go? I want to leave.”

Ajax studied the contents of the cart. “Fine. Grab bleach for your hair, and we can go.”

Orion’s mood improved as they walked to the food department, and he tossed bleach in the basket. Ajax added sodium percarbonate, hydrogen peroxide, and potassium carbonate.

“What is potassium carbonate?”

“You probably know it as lye.” Ajax squinted and snatched a few brown bottles of other substances, placing them in the basket as well.

“I’ve heard of it, but what do you use it for?”

“Cleaning drains. You want something to eat?”

“No.”

“You ain’t eat anything all day.”

“We had a large breakfast.” Orion hugged himself.

“I guess.” Ajax raked his fingers through his wispy curls, and his thick black eyebrows wrinkled. “We’re done, then.”

Orion shrugged. He walked behind Ajax up to the cash register, hands clasped behind his back as Ajax emptied the cart onto the counter, dumping the clothes in a bundle and adding the cleaning supplies behind them.

“Wowee. It’s late tonight,” the old woman behind the counter exclaimed, a smile on her rosy cheeks. “What are you two kids doing out so late?”

Ajax thumbed through his bills, ignoring the woman’s smiling face.

“Oh, well, we’re going to go decompose some dead bodies and destroy all the evidence.” Orion piped up, finally approaching Ajax’s side. His green eyes sparkled.

“Are you now?” The woman laughed. Her round belly jumped at every musical chuckle.

Ajax looked at Orion.

“Well, not technically. I have a biology experiment where I’m going to test the decomposition rate of various objects in various substances. The scientific method and all, but it sounds so much cooler the first way.”

“Oh! You’re in school around here?” Somehow the woman’s face lit up even more at Orion’s further explanation.

“Sorta? I go to school at the University a few hours away.”

“Oh? Stringham University?”

“Yep. I’m majoring in Biology there.” Orion beamed.

“What about you? You go there too?” The woman looked at Ajax, and Ajax looked back at her. Her stringy silver hair clung to her round cheeks and her crooked nametag read Eleanor. Eleanor’s fat fingers double-bagged the chemical products.

“Me? I’m done with school, ma’am,” Ajax’s voice rasped. “Just, uh, working so he can follow his passion.” Ajax looked at Orion, scrunching his eyebrows together. He swept his fingers through Orion’s hair, and a smile lifted the corners of his lips. His features softened.

“Aw. You’re a good man. I tell ya, my first husband, ex-husband now, wouldn’t give me bread if I was starving, let alone make a sacrifice so I could get an education. You oughta keep this one here.” She wagged a finger at Orion.

“Oh, I will,” Orion teased, running a hand down Ajax’s shoulder.

Ajax cleared his throat. “Yeah. How much?”

Eleanor rattled off the total as she knotted the bagged chemicals. Orion placed them in the cart, and Ajax handed over twenty-dollar bills.

“Keep the change,” he muttered, tucking his wallet away and wheeling the cart to the exit.

As they drew closer, Orion’s heart rate quickened, and his legs were wooden. They were stiff as he forced himself forward. When they got to the traffic jam of discarded shopping carts, Ajax grabbed the bags and nudged the basket away.

Orion froze. “I-I have to use the restroom,” he stammered, eyes searching the space.

“You went earlier, remember? When we were looking at your shoes.”

“Yes. I r-remember, but I have to g-go again.”

Ajax adjusted the items in his arms, shifting his weight all to one leg in a classic contrapposto and puckered his lips. With curly hair and full, pouty lips, Ajax was the modern rendition of the classic Greco-Roman gods. “Well, fine. I’m going to the car. Don’t take forever this time because we really need to get to the hotel before midnight.”

“Okay. Right, yes.” Orion swallowed around a swelling knot in his throat as Ajax left the store with their supplies. He retreated back inside, walking up and down the aisles as his breathing returned to normal and his heart rate slowed down. He picked through the candy before selecting a few of Ajax’s favorites, similar ones to the ones he ate earlier. He paid at the same register as before, smiling weakly to the woman as his heart rate increased again. When he neared the exit again, he sucked in his breath and went to the vehicle, opening the passenger door and collapsing in the seat.

“Feel better?” Ajax had unfolded a map across the steering wheel, tracing paths with a stubby pencil.

“Yes. I-I bought you candy.” Orion shoved the bag at Ajax. The plastic caught on the lifted parking brake, and the bag ripped at the seams, dumping the contents into Ajax’s lap. Big bars of chocolate flopped out of the bag while individually wrapped taffy scattered in Ajax’s lap and on the seat. “Oh! Shit. Oh my god. I’m so sorry.”

“Woh.” Ajax jumped, snatching the map out of the way as Orion dug in his lap. Orion shoved the large packs of candy back in the torn bag, and then collected the individually packaged smaller pieces.

“I’m so sorry!” The boy’s cheeks flamed under his tan skin. He rooted around Ajax’s lap quicker until the other man grabbed one wrist.

“Stop,” Ajax groaned, his commanding words weak with a gasp.

“W-what? I have to-oh.” Orion paused, one hand still resting on Ajax’s corded thigh. His ears burned, and his eyelashes kissed his freckle-dusted cheeks.

Ajax shifted, hips curling back into the seat as the distinct outline of his cock pressed against his jeans. “I’ll get it,” he whispered, releasing Orion’s arm.

“Oh-okay,” Orion sighed, a little smile playing on his face as he leaned back in his seat and crossed his legs. “T-the hotel?”

“Yeah.”

“A-are you upset with me?”

Ajax collected the candies, depositing them in the bag. He frowned at Orion’s question. “Should I be?”

“Y-you said you would kill me.”

“You pissed me off.”

“Y-yes, but are you still mad? Are you going to--” Orion’s words cut off and he shook his head. “Nothing.”

“Am I going to what? Say it.”

A surge of adrenaline went through Orion again. His heart pounded against his ribcage. “A-are you going to kill me?”

“No.”

“Ever?”

Ajax gripped the gear shift and looked at the boy. “I don’t know.”

“Okay.”

Ajax turned back to the steering wheel, and the little car sputtered to life when Ajax turned the key and pressed the clutch pedal. Ajax reversed out of the parking spot. They disappeared in a sea of cars. The stoic man sat back in his seat, rooting into the drive. His thumbs drummed the worn leather steering wheel.

Orion studied the car’s interior. From the outside, the car was unremarkable in every way. It was an old, reliable vehicle and nothing more. The square shaped car had sharp angles, slightly tinted windows, and a trunk accessible through the middle console on the backseat. The assassin stashed weapons in the storage pockets attached to each door. Each pocket contained a knife, a can of pepper spray, and a tiny pistol with a full magazine beside it.

The glove compartment and front, center console contained medical supplies. Wads of gauze were weighed down by saline, hydrogen peroxide, and prescription painkillers.

The most impressive part of Ajax’s old car was the radio and information panel. While the car’s exterior metrics hadn’t changed in ten years, the brilliantly lit information panel had a plethora of options. It showed the mileage Ajax was getting per gallon, the speed they were going, the weather and temperature for the coming days, and the current time in various cities.

It dazzled when Ajax had an incoming call, and Ajax pressed the blinking phone button.

“Hello.” Ajax glanced at the number highlighted on the screen before back at the road. Orion stared at the number. It was nine digits and unrecognized by the vehicle or Ajax’s connected cell phone.

“Hey, Jax. I didn’t hear from you after your last job. How’d everything go?”

“I’m well. Still on my way out.”

“Yeah, listen. I heard something on the wind.”

“What’d you hear?”

“I heard you have a travel partner now.”

Ajax didn’t reply right away. He shifted gears as they reached highway speeds and rested his elbow and forearm on the center console between the front seats. “What wind?”

“Trav mentioned you needing an identity package.”

“Figures.”

“Well?”

“Did you call for a reason, or to ask about my personal life?”

The man on the other line exhaled in a rolling chuckle. “Listen, I got a project for you. Any chance you’ll be in the Midwest anytime soon?”

“What kind of project?”

“Nothing involving heat. I need you to get something for me.”

“Oh, I’m a delivery boy now?”

“We’ll split it seventy-thirty.”

Ajax grumbled, “Fine. What’s your timeline?”

“Within the next couple weeks.”

“Good. We have a few things to attend to and then we’ll be up your way.”

“We? So, you do have a partner.”

“It’s complicated, Ricky. You’re babysitting while I do your job.”

“Deal.”

“I’ll catch up with you after I see Trav.”

“Good.” The call ended.

Orion looked at Ajax, “Do assassins not say bye?”

“No. Too predictable.”

“What kind of job is it?”

“I don’t know,” Ajax grunted.

“Ricky? Is he your friend?”

“I don’t have friends.”

“Okay, well, are you and him close?”

“Yeah, I guess. He’s a little older than me. He’s been in the game for a while.”

“Is he as good as you?”

“How do you know I’m any good?”

“Because he called you to asking for help,” Orion shrugged, “and offered you seventy percent of the payment.”

“Fair. He’s not as light-footed.” Ajax slowed the car down as he veered off the highway and into another deserted hotel parking lot with a flashing neon sign. “I’ll go in.”

“Okay.”

Ajax grabbed an identification card and slipped out of the vehicle. Orion barely heard his feet touch the ground, and he closed the car door lightly, sealing it shut with a muffled thump.

The boy sat in the car staring at the hotel’s glass doors. A trucker, a hooker, and another young couple trickled in as he waited. The trucker stomped back out, pausing at the entrance and pocketing wrinkled bills as he glanced around. He peered at Orion, nodding to him before turning and strolling down the side of the building, eyeing the faded door numbers.

The hooker, a skinny woman wearing too-high heels and a too-short skirt stumbled out of the building, hanging on Ajax’s arm. Halfway to the car, he disentangled himself from the woman’s grasp and motioned to the sidewalk. She reached for him again, but he stepped away, putting distance between them and administering her a hard, unyielding stare.

They exchanged words. Orion squinted and examined Ajax’s lips. When he couldn’t decipher any of the words, his eyes darted around the vehicle before he pressed his hands against the glass. With all his force, he pushed in and downward, but the glass didn’t budge. His fingers squeaked across the window, leaving sweaty stripes.

Orion squinted at Ajax’s lips again, but the conversation was over. The woman stalked away from Ajax as he approached the car and sat down inside.

“What were you talking about?” Orion asked, nostrils flaring as the heavy scent of perfume flooded the vehicle.

“Nothing. She wanted to take me for a ride.”

“An actual ride? Or a ride in the figurative sense?” Orion folded his arms across his chest.

“She wanted me to pay her for sex. I told her I wasn’t interested tonight.” Ajax handed the boy the keycard. “I said I already had plans.”

“Why would she ask a random guy for sex?”

“Not random. I’ve fucked her before.”

“Did you pay her the other time?”

Ajax drove the car across the concrete lot, parking right in front of their room door. They were on the first floor. “Sort of.”

“What is sort of?

“You know, we’re not pretending to be a couple anymore. I don’t owe you answers.”

“I know, but I was curious.”

“They have a saying about curiosity.” Ajax carried both backpacks and all the bags from the store, dumping them on the table inside. He handed Orion the peroxide. “Fix your hair. Then I need your fingerprint.”

“Right. Okay.” Orion chewed the inside of his cheek. “What are you about to do?”

“Take a nap.”

Orion nodded and moved into the bathroom. He left the door cracked and positioned where he could see Ajax slumping into the lumpy chair between the air conditioning and the hotel window. With a little smirk, Orion turned away and slipped out of his clothes. Lounge pants dropped to the ground, and he peeled the shirt over his head.

It had been two days since he saw his husband bleed to death from a precise head wound on their Persian rug. It had been two days since Ajax pointed a gun to his head with the intention of killing him, too. It had also been two days since he had lain awake in his four-poster bed with the sheets curled around his neck praying for a quiet night. His bruises were now muddy yellow against his tan skin.

Orion combed his fingers through his thick, dark hair and puckered his lips in the mirror. “Um, Ajax?”

“Yeah?”

“Should I cut it? My hair?”

“Do you want to?” Ajax looked up from the ground, peering at Orion through the cracked door.

“I don’t know. It would look more different. Perhaps if I cut it even and then grew it long.”

“It’ll look ugly for about six months, won’t it?”

“Yes.” Orion chuckled. “Which do you think will look better? Short or long?” Orion dabbed the hydrogen peroxide on a towel and streaked it through his hair in sections. As he reached the shaved sides and back, the long waves on the top of his head lightened.

“You’ll look like a girl with long hair,” Ajax grunted, digging a gun from his bag and disassembling it. He placed each piece on the dark oak table, aligning them in a row.

“Is there a problem with looking like a girl?”

“Nope.”

“Short or long?”

“It don’t matter. It’s going to be short before it gets long.”

“You sound like a fortune cookie.”

“Stop talking and focus on what you’re doing.”

“I am. I already put the peroxide in my hair, and now I’m waiting to rinse it out.” Orion creaked the bathroom door open more, leaning against the frame.

This hotel room was as unremarkable as the last. The rooms had the same orange, floral comforter, the same dark oak furniture set, and the same rumbling air conditioner. Placement and smell were the only differences. The rooms mirrored each other with the bed anchoring everything in place, and cigarette smoke clung to the faded curtains.

“Good.” When the gun was disassembled, Ajax cast it aside with a bored frown and reached for his backpack, sliding it closer to him.

“What would you be doing if I wasn’t here?”

“Watching television, probably.”

“Oh? Watching what?”

“The news. Sometimes cartoons.”

“Why aren’t you watching television right now?”

“Because,” Ajax shrugged, “I need to hear.” He retrieved a change of clothes from his backpack and peeled his black t-shirt off his body. Ajax’s torso shifted, curving and swaying like an entranced snake as he pulled the shirt over his broad shoulders.

“Ah,” Orion whimpered. “R-right. H-hear. Oh-okay. I’m-I’m going to rinse my hair now.” He stumbled back into the bathroom, turning on the shower and jumping in when the stream was warm. He dipped his head under the water. After the quick rinse, he conditioned his hair with one of the small bottles of complementary liquid conditioner and rinsed again. Nimble fingers roped a towel around his hair and another around his torso.

“How’s it look?” The television played from the main room.

“I haven’t looked yet.” Orion wandered out of the bathroom with one hand supporting the towel around his waist.

Ajax had moved from the chair to sprawled on the bed. He muted the television and regarded Orion, resting his head on his forearm and the remote on his muscled belly. His features sagged with exhaustion, lids drooping over dark eyes. “Let me see.”

Orion scrubbed his hair again before letting the towel fall to his shoulders. His auburn waves had lightened to a yellow-blonde with the roots of his hair a little darker than the rest. “How does it look?”

“You’re blonde.”

“Okay, but do you like it?”

“You look different. More ethereal. Because the green eyes.”

“Really? Well, good. We should have purchased purple toner. I forgot.”

“Why?”

“Because it’ll make it look less California-surfer-dude and more platinum.” Orion opened the pack of underwear and pulled a pair of briefs over his body.

“Ah.”

He smoothed down the prickly start of new pubic hair as his underwear snapped to his hips, and he looked at Ajax again. “I need-” Orion paused and exhaled in a soft giggle. The man’s eyes had closed. His muscles had all relaxed and shaved off several years of hard work from his features. He almost looked innocent. “Nevermind.” Smiling, Orion repacked their things.

He packed the bleach next to the rest of Ajax’s chemicals and folded his new clothes into his backpack. He placed the candy on the table as he slouched into the chair beside the air conditioning and studied Ajax’s disassembled pistol.

With the candy beside him, he spent the rest of the night half-way reading the captioning on the television and assembling Ajax’s pistol. As the sun peeked into the room, Orion slid the magazine into the handle of the gun, snapping it in place and checking over his work.

Ajax groaned in the bed, rolling onto his side and burrowing his face in the stiff hotel pillows. His chest rose and fell with deep breaths until he thrashed awake. He sat up and glared at the front door, eyes unblinking until he convinced himself it was secure. Then, sullen eyes landed on Orion. “What are you doing?”

“Me?” Orion massaged bloodshot eyes. “I packed our things. We’re ready to go.”

Ajax grunted and moved over to the table. The room vibrated each time his heavy boots made contact with the floor. The economical light fixture jingled, and the pistol wiggled closer to Orion. “You put this back together?” Ajax snatched the handgun off the table.

“I-I tried to, yes.”

With thick eyebrows knit together, Ajax checked the assemblage of the gun. “Looks good,” he muttered. “Keep the magazine out or have the safety on unless you want to kill someone. If you want to kill someone, take the safety off.” He held the firing end as he presented the gun to Orion.

“T-thanks?” Orion’s voice quaked. He took the gun from Ajax, removing the magazine. “What do we have to do today?”

“Take a picture of you, get the picture developed at the drugstore, take your fingerprint, mail items to Trav, pick up a package, pack car, leave.”

“Wouldn’t it be smarter to take my fingerprint before we leave? Then we only have to be away from the hotel one time, unless you want to pack everything in the car before we leave.” Orion popped a piece of chocolate into his mouth.

“Hm.” Ajax placed his backpack on the table, removing a pack of cigarettes, a lighter, a roll of clear tape, a make-up brush, and a small tile block.

“How do you take a fingerprint, anyway?”

Ajax thumbed a cigarette from the pack and lit it, inhaling a slow drag before exhaling. “Ash, smooth surface, tape.”

“I-what?” Orion blinked. “It sounds deceptively simple. Also why do you have those things on-hand with you?”

“Just in case.”

“In case of what?”

“In case I need a fingerprint. My sole profession isn’t killing people. Sometimes it’s getting information. Most of the time it’s getting information.” Another drag on the cigarette before he flicked it on the hotel-branded notepad. “Clean the tile. Soap, water, towel. And then don’t touch the surface.”

The curls of smoke burned Orion’s nose and clung to his now-blonde hair as he snatched the tile from in front of Ajax, scurrying to the bathroom. He returned a few minutes later with the clean tile and placed it back in its original spot.

“Put your thumb on the tile like you’re doing one of those ink-print things,” Ajax instructed.

Orion pressed his thumb into the cold tile, rolling it left and right, top and bottom. “Why does he need a fingerprint?”

“Security.” Ajax littered the blank tile with cigarette ash and swiped away the excess with the make-up brush, revealing a perfect thumbprint.

“Now what?”

“The tape.”

“How did you learn these things?”

“Learn what things?”

“Like how to assemble a gun, knowing to travel after you do the crime, getting fingerprints.”

“Mentors.”

“Like Ricky?”

“Yeah and others. Everyone has someone to offer you if you have the patience to listen.”

Orion bit his lip as he looked down at his fingerprint. “Thanks.”

“For?”

“Not killing me three days ago.”

Ajax shrugged and grabbed the clear tape, peeling it back and tearing it with his teeth. Holding the tape taut, he lowered it onto the fingerprint, smoothed it, and lifted it off, securing the back with another piece of raggedly torn tape. “Done. What else is on my list?”

“A photograph of me. Do you have a cellphone with a camera?”

“Maybe.” Ajax sat six cell phones on the table, one after the other. Three of them were simple, black flip phones, one slid upwards, one slid out to the side, and the last was a black touch-screen phone with a tiny dot in the center for a front-facing camera.

“Why do you have so many cell phones?”

“Different people call on different ones. Except the nice one. No one calls on the nice one.”

“Why not?”

“They’re too easy to track. Nice ones are for GPS and emergencies. Cheap ones are for clients.”

“Oh.” Orion picked up the touch-screen phone and pressed the button on the side until it lit up and played a musical jingle. “Will you take the picture?”

“Put on more clothes.”

“Right.” With the cell phone in his hand, he draped a shirt over his shoulders and shorts on his hips. “We forgot socks,” Orion muttered as he stuffed his bony feet into the boots.

“Thought you wanted the thongs.”

“I did, but this looks more rugged.” Orion combed his fingers through his hair, thumbs tapping on the cellphone.

“What are you doing?”

“Checking to see how traceable you are. I know you don’t use this one often, but I want to know how much information is sent and retrieved when you do.”

“Hm.”

“I mean, anything can be traced via phone call, right? If you stay on the line too long.”

“Yes. Except maybe calling from a computer with a foreign internet protocol address.”

“Yes.” Orion smiled. “But you don’t have a computer.”

“No. Never could figure out the IP address junk.”

Orion chuckled, “So there’s something you can’t do.”

“Never said I was perfect. Give it here.” He curled his fingers, beckoning for the phone and tapped on the screen when Orion surrendered it. “Go against the wall.”

Orion raked through his hair as he got into position, directing his pale green eyes to Ajax. He quirked his lips in a smile as the man fussed with the phone, hooking his thumbs in the loops of the jean shorts. “Ready?”

“Would be easier if I bought a damn camera. Cameras and phones aren’t meant to go together.” Ajax held up the phone and snapped a picture as Orion snickered. “Done.”

“Hey! I wasn’t ready. Let me see how it looks.” The boy grabbed at the phone. Ajax lifted it out of his reach.

“It looks fine. We don’t have all day to take pictures.”

Orion pressed into Ajax’s body, standing on his toes as he reached for the phone. “Give-it.”

“No. It’s fine.” He dangled it over Orion’s head, a boyish smile highlighting his face.

“No, I need to see it. It’s my ID card, and I want to see the picture.” He hopped, flailing his fingers in the air and brushing the corner of the cell phone.

Ajax rooted in his spot, corded legs holding him steady as Orion crashed into his body, “Nope.”

“Give-it-Ah!” He stumbled, roping his arms around Ajax’s neck and falling into him. Ajax smelled heavenly despite the cigarette smoke on his lips and the lack of a recent shower. He was the perfect combination of natural spice, sweat, and musk, exciting all of Orion’s nerve endings. Orion felt Ajax’s strong arm grab him around the middle, sweeping over his shirt and fingers curling around his torso. “My god,” Orion whispered.

Ajax squeezed him closer to his warm body, and Orion felt every rippling muscle of his chest through the thin film of his t-shirt. “You all right?”


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