.

.

They slammed him against the wall. Johan's arms and legs collapsed like firewood, and the back of his head smashed into the plaster.

Where had it gone wrong?

Johan curled up into himself. A reflexive movement. The lead hitman went up to him and kicked him against the ribs, swinging one steel-toed boot hard into the tender underside of his stomach. Purple welts bloomed on the side of Johan's face until the cuts split open, blood running down the side of his temple.

Thwack. Snap.

His golden hair was tangled and matted with blood.

xXx

.

It had not started out this way.

The man Johan targeted, the one wielding the metal pipe, was a schizophrenic serial rapist. His mother had abandoned him; his father had left him for dead. Johan was tired and bored and fell back to his old ways again, and while he didn't have a master plan, he realized it would be best to keep useful men around him, on his side. A whisper of a threat, vague menacing reminders of the father the man had lost. The simple gestures to assert control.

The blow connected with a sickening crack, and Johan's eyes rolled backwards, gasping. Blood ran down his nose and into the back of his throat, making him gag.

"You pretend to be my father," the hitman said. Another strike. "You pretend to be my mother. Where's my father, now?"

"Your father is dead," Johan said. The metal bar whacked against his shoulder. He was probably bleeding on the inside. "Dead," Johan said.

The hitman's eyes widened. He could see his nostrils flare.

xXx

.

He had watched his sister's tournaments. It fascinated him, how someone as small as she could throw a man twice her weight as if tossing an unwieldy duffel bag, the fulcrum of her movements throwing them down with one well-timed strike. Funny. His sister was the athletic one, and somehow the irony was not lost on him.

If he wanted to kill her, he would use different means. Pinning her down, head shoved back against the mattress, he would gouge out her eyeballs with his thumbs and forgo his usual methods of killing. Gunshots and subtle threats kept himself and his victims at a manageable distance, while physical violence, the act of hurting someone with his own two hands, was far more intimate than he could ever be: more personal than tears, more intimate than the naked revelation of two souls converging in the dark.

This is how much he loved her, killing her as he would himself.

But he didn't want to kill her.

The sky was the color of dull dishwater and overcast, and around him there were no sounds except the scuffling of boots and the wheezy half-choked gasps of the men out of breath from beating him. Somewhere, a child was riding a bicycle. He could see old newspapers lying crumpled on the ground.

For some reason, a memory welled up, like beads of water on a cold drinking glass, and he was reminded of Czechoslovakia. The borderlands were long and harsh and he remembered how Anna looked, staggering beside him and clutching his hand. She looked exactly the same the night in Ruhenheim, breathless and shivering under the sheet of rain.

"Why aren't you saying anything?" the hitman said. He shoved a gun against Johan's temple, jabbing it against the cut. "Huh? Why aren't you doing anything?"

Johan's eyes were unfocused. He wondered if it were possible to survive three gunshots, even if the third one was at this close range, when the hitman swung his fist hard into the side of Johan's jaw. The force of it knocked his head sideways, the side of the gun splitting his lip. "Look at me!" the hitman said.

Johan looked. Even now, his control was perfect. He stared up at the hitman with the same blank, disaffected look he always used, and knew it had infuriated him.

A kick against his groin, something sharp like stars searing his insides. Johan winced, then curled up into himself. There was a deep throbbing pain then, a gnawing ache that was something like love.

xXx

.

Somehow, in between the incessant kicks and the battery of fists assaulting him, the pain seemed to bleed into a dull sort of ache, the sting of each fresh punch fading like a blot of ink on a blank page. His vision was dimming. From across the alley, he could hear footsteps, a woman in high-heeled shoes. Maybe she would call out to the child across the street. A strike. Johan rolled onto his side, one arm hanging uselessly over his ribs.

You did this on purpose, didn't you?

The thought floated out from the depths of his mind like vapor, and dizzily, he could almost see Anna standing at the periphery of his vision. She was wearing a lilac dress. She was smiling. Nothing goes against the plan. You make everything perfect.

You wanted them to do this, didn't you?

And somewhere, somehow, a sound came out from inside him, something like laughing or sobbing rolling out of him like fog.

xXx

.

They were ten years old again, Anna and Johan crossing the border. Winds rose, kicking up the dust and dirt and stinging their eyes.

"Nii-chan." Anna was crying. The scrape on her arm bleed. "Onii-chan, why does it keep hurting?"

"Let me see," Johan said, and he took her arm in both grubby hands, pushing up the sleeve. It looked raw and dirty and even at ten years old he knew better: he kissed her temple instead, hugging her the way their mother did, how she would kiss the cuts to make them both feel better.

Johan was laughing. Laughed until it hurt to breathe, throat tight and voice erupting in harsh half-gasps. He laughed and the laughter was sharp and piquant, electrocuting his insides until he was coughing up blood.

The hitmen took a step back. The schizophrenic one looked afraid. Johan looked up at them, laughing. Hysterically, uncontrollably laughing. Of course he wanted this. Nothing went against his calculations, not even this, this subconscious masochism, stupid aimless impulses that somehow had risen up and threatened to swallow him.

Gobble gobble. Munch munch...

They dropped their weapons and ran.

xXx

.

The metal beam rolled where they had dropped it, the blood-smeared metal picking up bits of dirt and gravel before it settled just beside Johan's forearm. Johan kept laughing. He clutched his side and pushed himself upright, laughing even as tears streamed down his face, tears dripping down his chin and mixing with dried old blood.

xXx

.

"I forgive you," Anna said.

"Even if we were the last two people in this world, I'd still forgive you."

Some things can't be taken back.

xXx

.

That night, Johan found himself standing at the bottom of Anna's apartment. It was dark except for the yellow lamplight from Anna's window, and if he waited long enough, he would catch a glimpse of her walking, or standing by the window, brushing her hair.

Distance. Always at a distance. Slowly he clutched his side then turned, favoring his ribs and moving far, far away.