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She fishes in her handbag for something, then passes a travel-sized pack of tissues to each of Bucky and Barton. Then, as though nothing out of the ordinary has just happened, Ms. Potts turns to her companion. He glances over to where Steve, Scott, and the older guy have been joined by Bruce, who is gesturing animatedly.

Now he feels like Steve is the one who has changed beyond recognition. But first, since they seem to be back at the tree Barton sucked him off against, Bucky should consider whether he started as he means to go on. Bucky grabs Quill by the lapels of his jacket and backs into the tree, pulling Quill in close against him. Instead, he merely raises an eyebrow at Loki and heads back into the woods to what he is now thinking of as his tree.


To a funeral. Can you believe it? Yep, those are definitely Crocs. Strange raises one eyebrow.

He does something with his hand that makes the Time Stone disappear. Potts, or with Rogers, or even with Loki. Was it something worse? His typing stopped. Nothing was worse than fear. Give me a tease. I had to move fast. I was close enough to the plaza to hear the plummeting shriek when it happened.

I heard the yelling, the cries for help, the wails of terror. I knew, as I joined the crowd knotting up into a tight circle, what I would find.

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My reporter, split wide open from the force of impact against the plaza stone. A man stood grinning? I looked down and saw blood fringing the hem of her pants. At home, from fear, I wept beneath blankets on the floor of my closet. How had they gotten it? Politicians who had previously called for the concentration-camping of everyone with AIDS now felt emboldened to demand the internment of gays in general.

And while some of the bigger gay groups claimed our escalating bolshevism would alienate straights we needed on our side, our own numbers swelled fast enough to drown out those more decorous voices.

Tom was in our blood. Senators were kidnapped, ministers murdered. Gay men self-immolated at opening night at the Met, and at the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree lighting. The blaze claimed the entire tree. Subway conversation suddenly became a lot more exciting. Impassioned debate became de rigeur.

Buskers and bankers alike boasted incredibly articulate analyses, but also swallowed conspiracy theories like vitamins.

The CIA made the virus to exterminate blacks and gays. I never stopped wanting to take pictures, or have sex. A packed protest; a good brunch. And those moments made Tom angry. Too perfectly calibrated. And if that was true, maybe there was an opposing force. Not purely good or benevolent, necessarily, just like the demonic power I imagined gave birth to AIDS was not purely evil.

They were simply two different forces, two kinds of energy eternally interlocked. And maybe that second power had tapped into us, somehow, Jakob and Derrick and I, and fed on our emotions, used us to access the raw-grief tidal wave that AIDS had unleashed, and fashioned it into Tom.

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And that made me more scared, not less. Just ask Joan of Arc. Or Jesus.

At night, we broke into boarded-up buildings. We popped locks and moved people in, leveraged rogue employees of the power company and the waterworks to bring the building back to life. I would have to move fast, to keep him from catching up. I would have to work harder.

We started out housing homeless people with AIDS, but soon that came to seem grossly unjust. Homeless people without AIDS were victims of our vicious system too. The same hate that let people bleed to death blocks from a hospital because they were gay let other people freeze to death on subway grates for being poor. After a while, abandoned buildings proved inadequate, the housing stock damaged and deteriorated.

We moved a single mom with four kids out of the shelter and into a midtown suite that belonged to Queen Elizabeth II, which the monarch had occupied for precisely nine days in the past forty years.

Queer concierges booked hoboes into hotel rooms for free, charging their room service meals to corporate accounts that they knew went unexamined. Real estate agent comrades helped us find empty apartments in otherwise occupied buildings, many of them second or third homes for corporate CEOs and faraway celebrities. When we put out the call for round-the-clock eviction defense, we were shocked by the size of the response.

Tens of thousands of the straights we were supposedly alienating came to surround the buildings and stop any cops or landlords from stepping foot inside. Tom was the spark, but we were the fire.

And we were burning out of control. And I was terrified. Every protest put me in a place where it would be so easy to slip. To do something fatal. Pablo was a fashion photographer. He shot everyone. Every magazine; every cover. His style was edgy, editorial, high-contrast and grainy, urban, often black and white, think Weegee-meets-Avedon.

He was also a bit of a dog. He loved his man but some force of willful evil or childish selfishness would not let him resist the smiles and winks of boys on subway platforms and photo shoots. He refused to get tested, even when Allen withered before his eyes. Only afterwards, at the graveside, did he vow to change his ways.

By then, it was more about self-punishment than self-improvement. Pablo was a monster. Reagan canceled a trip to New York City, citing security concerns. Embarrassed, the city started cracking down on activism even harder. People in poor neighborhoods were targeted for random stops and searches, Gestapo-style. At night I dreamed of blood and sperm, sex and murder, the monsters coming for me from the Outer Dark. The Piers. Once the pride of shipping magnates, long since abandoned to the homeless and the homosexuals.

I entered an old warehouse with every window broken. Wind whistled erotically through high, bare eaves. I told myself I was there to hand out flyers.

I knew I was lying. A smell of urine so old, it had ceased to be unpleasant. There was something almost sacred in the smell, pure as linen vestments. Incense in the church of desperation. Someone grunted with the accelerated rhythm of approaching orgasm. Past pairings and groupings, and lone watchers with eyes even hungrier than mine. I heard the slop and slosh of the Hudson River underneath me. I had known this conversation would come, but conversation was the wrong word.

My sentence was being carried out. I heard what was in your heart. Someone to do what the rest of us are too scared to do. No man can do it. We need a monster.

I left it with someone. Laughing, his voice was not sexy. It was the sound a jackal might make, in the night. I could see the outlines of him now, in the gloom, broad shoulders and bushy eyebrows, his tight jeans and the way he filled them out. The composite features of hundreds of men. And in a shaft of rogue amber light from an arc-sodium light miraculously left unbroken at the edge of the pier, I saw the singular curve of his lips.

No generic substitutions there: in every Tom-photo I conjured up through darkroom necromancy, I always used the same pair of lips. You fear your emotions will lead you into a terrible mistake. I could feel his heat. It surprised me. My eyes shut in irresistible ecstasy.

His hips ground against me. I could feel him then, the whole of him, the thing behind or inside of Tom. We had not created this creature over brunch. He was something so much bigger, older, more malevolent. We merely gave him a name, and a body. What you fear. Man Derrick Drinks were drunk. Jokes were told.

The meeting stretched for hours, more a cordial business luncheon than a contract signing, although there was that, too. By the time I staggered out, four scotches added a slight wobble to my walk.

Several of them were gay, and I smiled to see that our erstwhile enemies had recognized the importance of making nice with the faggots, and hired fit young lawyers for that purpose. Potted palm trees dotted the fifty-seventh floor, below a soaring gorgeous glass ceiling built out of our blood. Subway posters and slick primetime commercials and everything in between.

Pablo would murder me for this, I thought, as the elevator descended. The cocktail. Highly Active Antiretroviral Therapy. A blend of entry inhibitors, nucleoside reverse transcriptase inhibitors, and a plethora of other inhibitors. The thing that would turn AIDS into a long-term, manageable, symptomless disease. The thing that would save all the men and women doomed by love to die. My head cleared slightly, stepping out into the street. October cold whisked the warmth and ego-stoking away.

I had lingered too long. I would never make it to Carnegie Hall in time for the start.

The Fabric of the Cosmos

Cab or subway? I stood there in a panic of indecision. The subway, it seemed to say, somehow, because I had gotten good at reading street art subtext.

We all had, we survivors, we with the dubious distinction of passing untouched through a plague. The thought of his death sent an almost-erotic thrill through me, the horror and absurdity of it. Irresistible agony, wondering just what the hell had happened. How I found, on my door, that morning, a scrawl in blood: an iron, complete with electrical cord.

Oh Pablo, I thought, even before his body was found—for only someone who knew me very, very well would know to draw the symbol of my greatest hurt. Maybe, drunk, I had the courage to face the story I most feared and most needed to tell. Rich Putnam, junior year of high school, softball star and the love of my life for six exquisite secret weeks. The decades-gone stink of him, in the bed of his bedraggled pick-up.

His exultant vigor and utter fearlessness when it came to sex; his rage and cowardice in every other moment.

Culminating in the incident with the iron, the day I told him I loved him, when his anger over what he felt for me exploded, leaving the iron-shaped scar my left thigh still carries. The door of every gay man in New York City, it seemed, had been marked. Months had passed by the time we realized what had happened. Doors were washed clean, no way to know the truth. Many of us suspected others were lying, jumping on a bizarre bandwagon by claiming a blood-smear they had not earned, and others were definitely lying when they claimed not to have found anything.

I walked faster, heading for the subway platform. That was when I began to wonder.

What if they were right, Jakob and Pablo—what if Tom Minniq was real, a beast burped out of hell or the collective unconscious by our actions? Because whenever you talked to someone whose door had been blood-smeared, and asked what sign or symbol or word had been left for them, there was always a pause—a shifting, inside; a figuring out what to say instead—and then an answer that never felt completely honest.

Not that I was honest myself.

I never told anyone about the iron. Tom knew what was in our hearts, knew who was gay and who was not, and knew the symbol of our greatest shame.

And used it, to site our anger into flames. But why had he visited Jakob and Pablo, but never me? So: I resolved to confront this monster, this angel. So far, he had refused to reveal himself to me; I would provoke him into it.

I would sell him off. The subway took a long time coming. I was furious with myself, for letting the hour get away from me. This was our night. It was my night. Because who could have imagined another year, let alone ten? Not me, certainly, when I watched my friends walk off stage one by one and waited to be summoned into the darkness myself. If that happens, I'm sure I'll go back to reading books on this subject; I won't be able to stop myself.

But until then, well, it may be beautiful math, but I feel no emotional connection to it. I'd love to hear from people who disagree, and can explain to me just what it is I'm missing out on. He'd come mainly to play chess, but when I found out that he was involved in looking for supersymmetric particles I took the opportunity to ask how it was going.

Well: assuming he's to be trusted, and he sounded pretty knowledgeable on the subject, we should know pretty soon. The LHC is now up to high enough energies. They're collecting data. If supersymmetric particles exist, there is every reason to suppose that we'll have clear evidence of them within a year or two. I wondered what would happen if they didn't find any supersymmetric particles? Would the theoreticians just retreat into saying that they needed a more powerful collider?

Not so, said my informant; if the particles can't be found at the current range of energies, the predictions were wrong. Sounds like we're finally getting a straight up-or-down vote. String theory, you can run but you can't hide! We had yet another particle physicist over, whose PhD topic had been something to do with searching for a supersymmetric quark.

I asked her if it really was the case that we'd soon know if supersymmetric particles existed.And I would never change a word or comma of it. Out of Print. The Fabric of the Cosmos is an astonishing grand tour of the universe and the best layman's guide to current thinking on 'how everything works'.

I chuckled at the weirdness of the timing, but kept walking, weaving through a clot of boys coming up the stairs from the C train, charmingly rambunctious things whose nights were just beginning while mine was winding down, and the weight of that realization slowed my step, so that when I passed another ringing payphone I stuck out my arm and answered it purely for the sake of getting my mind off my own mortality.

And if that was true, maybe there was an opposing force. A payphone rang from down the block, getting louder as I got closer, stopping as soon as I took one step past it.