The garden party was in full swing and Harry MacDowell was right in the middle of it. Randy Walter Lang, Decarte Scott Visco, Carson Radd – three of the most influential inner Family circle – surrounded him, quiet discussions punctuated with a laugh or two. Shere Walken's petite form was next to Harry, the hand not clutching the champagne flute holding his arm lightly, as if assuring herself of his presence. Behind them both Bear Walken loomed, a silent presence. But ever since the Blood War incident, the quality of the loom had taken a subtle change from disapproving vigilance to wary tolerance.

That was what they were calling it now, the Blood War Incident. It did not seem to quite convey the right imagery – of streets-wide slaughters, indiscriminate deaths that reached three digits in sum, houses and offices turned into barricaded fortresses, nights and days spent huddled in animalistic terror. Days of the Walking Dead, some of the more colorful bent called it. Zombie War, others more succintly put it. Rumours spread, even though Millenion did its best to squelch them. Not a good thing to let people know that there were things even Millenion could not control, things that could halt the massive Organization in its track and hunted down its elite Executives with impunity. The Mafia relied heavily on its image, an invincible image that worked as deterrent. And for those who were not impressed… well, that was why Millenion had people like Bear Walken and Brandon Heat.

Brandon sipped a little water from his wine glass, the beads of condensation from the glass trickling down to soak into the bandages around his hand and wrist. Both of his hands and shoulders still ached, even with the painkillers prescribed by the hospital doctor. He had been told that he was lucky he had not broken the bones in both wrists, considering how much abuse he had put them to. The D-pointers had had kickbacks like an irate mule, but they had worked. It was not until the adrenaline wore off that he realized that his fingers refused to bend properly, and the bullet grazes were not the reason that his right arm could not raise itself. Harry had given him a royal scolding all the while him and Bear Walken had reset his dislocated shoulder.

From where he stood, under the shadowed branches of the weeping willows, he had a wide view of Big Daddy's private garden and the activities of the guests while remaining mostly hidden himself. Big Daddy had thrown this party in honor of those who had fought off Blood War's invasion. Those who were in the known understood that it was Big Daddy's way of recognising the contributions made by Harry's clique, as they were beginning to be known. Harry MacDowell's Inner Circle – Brandon Heat, Bob Poundmax, Balladbird Lee, Kugashira Bunji. After all the fighting was over, Brandon, Bunji and Lee spent one week in the hospital only to come out hailed as heroes. Harry had been busy seizing the golden opportunity to raise their status and he was not above capitalizing on sympathy generated for his people's injuries.

Not that Brandon begrudged him the recognition. He was content with letting Harry reap the benefits, especially since he knew it would help Harry greatly in his climb to the top. If anything, he was uncomfortable with all the big hoo-hah over his part. To him, it was his job, his duty, his responsibility. It was something that he had to do and he did not see how doing it made him a hero. Well, all right, maybe he could, after Harry had drilled it into him a couple of times, but he still felt like a fraud.

Killing Blood War had not felt like a heroic thing to do. It felt… heavy. Like lead chains around his heart and it had hurt to pull the final trigger. All the killings sickened him and reminded him of how far down he had fallen, how much he had changed. Blood War had worshipped the bloody battle ground while he had detested it, but they were both players in the same field. The other man had his bloody war, he had Millenion. He was starting to realize that perhaps that was all there was for him.

He watched as Big Daddy detached himself from another group and walked over to Harry, clapping his shoulder amiably. Maria was beside him as she had been throughout the party, playing hostess. She looked radiant in the white taffeta dress and cerise shawl, elegant and so perfect it made him ache. Untouchable.

She had never been within his reach and never would be. It was time he woke up to the truth and released them both.

The group around Harry had broken up, Big Daddy and Maria drifting off to mingle with other guests, Sherry lingering for a while for a chaste peck on the cheek from Harry before walking away with her father. Brandon saw Harry cast a slow inspection around the garden before his gaze caught on to Brandon. A smirk on his face, he walked over, bending down to get under the veil of willow branches.

"Hiding again, Brandon?" Harry parked himself beside Brandon without waiting for a response, resting against the willow tree and lighting a cigarette. Brandon smiled, saying nothing. He had no need to, not with Harry. Harry was one of the few people who did not expect him to respond to casual talk, who was comfortable to let the silence be. They stood together in amiable hush, an island of calm hidden from the rest of the world.

"Randy and Bear just told Big Daddy that they would sponsor us into the Family," Harry said abruptly.

Brandon looked at him, unsurprised. "Congratulations." He said, paused, then added because it had felt inadequate. "It was what you wanted, right?"

Harry grinned at him, flicking the ashes off his cigarette. "Oh, yes. And I got to thank you for that, things wouldn't have moved along so well if it wasn't for you taking down Blood War."

Brandon shifted, uncomfortable. "I wasn't alone."

Harry nodded. "I know. Kugashira Bunji will make it in too, I'll make sure of that. And Lee and Bob." And with a sudden chortle, Harry slung his arm around Brandon's shoulders, pulling him close, a gesture of familiarity between them so old Brandon could not remember a time when Harry was not there beside him, shoulders touching, warm skin against warm skin, and close enough to smell his scent.

"Did you ever think that we could come this far?" Harry was asking, his voice wistful and just with a touch of wonder in it. "Back when we're just surviving day to day, mooching off Jolice, splitting one hot dog between the two of us to last the day. It seems so far away, isn't it, Brandon?"

Brandon just smiled. His thoughts from before had mirrored Harry's, but whereas he had seen the dark side of it, Harry had seen the good side. It was not so bad, though, to see it from Harry's point of view. And Harry looked so happy, animated, challenged. He thrived in Millenion, constantly thinking up more clever schemes to outwit competitors, jockeying for position, running with all his heart for the top. Harry MacDowell was not meant for small things, he was never content to just remain where he was. It was just the way he was, Brandon had long accepted that.

"It won't stop here though," Harry continued. "This is just the beginning. There's still a long road to go, but it will be worth it." Harry's eyes, Brandon saw, were staring at one clump of party-goers at a corner. He was staring at Big Daddy. A sliver of unease slipped into his heart. Harry's eyes were hungry, as if a starving man looking at a banquet out of his reach.


Harry shook his head, when he gazed back at Brandon it was the same old Harry that he had known for his whole life, his oldest and best friend, Harry. "We'll go together, won't we, Brandon? All the way to the top. That's a promise."

Brandon ducked his head, taking a sip from his warming glass for lack of something to do. It had probably never occurred to Harry, but he had never asked him if Brandon wanted to climb to the top. He had just assumed, and Brandon had let him, had never indicated otherwise. Perhaps Harry could not conceive of others not wanting what he wanted – Power, and the freedom it entailed.

Brandon could have told him that Power meant different things to different people, that one man's heart's desire did not necessarily equal another man's, no matter how close they were.

Brandon Heat did not know what freedom was, but he was content. To him, power had never been about freedom – it was about the ability to protect those he loved, to protect his family. His own needs were simpler – as long as they were together, Brandon Heat was content to be the shadow on Harry MacDowell's side, to be his shield and his gun arm. Millenion had given him that power and he would live and die for that.

For Harry, Big Daddy, Maria.

Brandon looked up and held Harry's eyes. "It's a promise," he smiled. "Together."