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Armies

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*******

“And there’s all these cafés and bars just a few blocks down the street, you can get on the subway as well or take a train, it’s a great location,” Nicky chattered to a jet-lagged Andrew. “Erik and I fell in love with the place!” He motioned to the tiny room after he threw open the door. “Well, here it is, your new home!”

Andrew looked at the twin bed, the only thing which would fit into a space that one really should be calling a closet and not a guest room, then set down his suitcase. “Great, now get out.”

Nicky’s grin slipped. “All right, so it’s not much, but we were lucky to find the place, really.” He sighed when Andrew just continued to stare at him. “You know where the bathroom is, towel’s on the bed, we’ll try not to disturb you in the morning and just help yourself to anything in the fridge.” He made as if to approach Andrew then thought better of it. “I’m… I’m glad you’re here, really.” He offered Andrew a nervous smile. “Things will work out, you’ll see.” Then he finally got the damn hint and left.

Andrew made sure to close the door behind him and lock it before he dropped his backpack to the floor as well, then looked around the room. Beside the bed, there was a tiny dresser and a nightstand crammed into the closet-like space. Good thing he hadn’t brought much with him when he’d come to Stuttgart. Then again, he really hadn’t had much that he’d cared about when he decided to say ‘to hell with it’ back in Columbia, after he’d quit his job. Considering that his employers were unlikely to give him a decent referral, it was beyond time to move on, and there wasn’t anything holding him in Columbia. Wasn’t anything holding him in the States. Nicky inviting him to Germany saved him the cost to of a ticket, though selling the GS and all of his furniture as well as most of his belongings meant that he shouldn’t have much of a problem just… just doing whatever he wanted. Taking a much delayed gap year. Or three. However long he could stretch it out. Wasn’t like he planned on doing much of anything, other than seeing where he ended up at the end of the day.

Not like anyone gave a damn, right? Well, maybe Nicky, but Nicky should know better. Having Andrew crash with him for a month or two would teach the idiot better.

Peeling off his clothes, Andrew dropped them to the floor then dug into his luggage for the knives he’d had to remove because of the damn security protocols, which he then returned to his arm bands before climbing into the bed. The sheets were cold, but he didn’t care as long as they were clean. Soon enough he was asleep, exhausted from traveling and putting up with being stuck on a plane for so long, and when he woke up the next day, Nicky and Erik had already gone off to work. He went out into their apartment to find a pot of coffee still on and a note on the counter with a ridiculous smiley face left for him, in German, telling him to make his own breakfast. The coffee had turned a bit bitter but was strong, which was good, and there were eggs and sausage in the fridge, and bread left out on the counter. Andrew ate but left the dishes in the sink, then found another note with the wifi password on the table. He went to fetch his laptop, then spent most of the morning looking at things on the internet before he took a shower.

Nicky’s apartment was old but bright thanks to the many windows, filled with comfortable furniture and photos of him with his husband, Erik. There were also a couple of pictures of Nicky’s days back at Palmetto State, of him in his Foxes’ uniform with an unsmiling Andrew next to him, along with a sullen Aaron and a glowering Kevin; Andrew made sure to turn all of those pictures face down, along with a photo of Aaron and Katelyn at their wedding.

Andrew was reading a book and debating on if he should make himself something for dinner when Nicky and Erik returned, both of them laughing about something. “Ah, you look much better now,” Erik said, his handsome face split with a wide grin. “Did you sleep well? Was the bed comfortable?”

Kind, pleasant people were so damn annoying, Andrew thought. “Despite sleeping in a shoebox, yes,”

Erik laughed some more. “I apologize, it is small, isn’t it? Good thing it’s you staying in there, isn’t it?”

Nicky winced at that. “Ah, we’re talking about going down to a bar for something to eat, do you want to come?” He was quick to change the topic – and to bring up alcohol – before Andrew could say anything to his cousin’s husband for that reference about his height.

Well, Andrew supposed it would be discourteous to break his host’s kneecaps on the first day, right? “Sounds great. Let me grab my coat.” He gave Erik a narrowed look as he went back to the shoebox, and heard Nicky whisper something as he entered the room.

The area they were in – Bohnenviertel – was full of a bunch of shops and cafés and wine bars and shit like that, until Andrew wanted to gag at the quaintness of it all and start tripping the tourists. Nicky led then down some winding streets to a bar with a castle riven with a lightning bolt hanging out front, where a couple of people called out his and Erik’s name.

The bar was big on wine, of course, though it did have several taps of the regional German beers; Andrew just ordered some Irish whiskey, neat, pleased with the better selection available there. He was introduced as Nicky’s cousin to several of the couple’s coworkers and had the impression that Nicky was trying to pave the way to finding him a job in the company, which yeah, not happening. First, Andrew had a criminal record, and two, so not interested. He’d tried the whole nine to five thing after graduating, Wymack finding him a job with an old friend in an evident fit of charity, and it hadn’t gone well. He was tired of getting up every day to do the same old thing, tired of dealing with idiots and having to behave, just… tired and so full of anger at how this was what he had left, after all he had done. Only the fact that he wasn’t willing to spend the rest of his life locked up in a cage kept him from lashing out with that anger, and pushing it down each day only made him more tired. So he just stood there at the bar and let Nicky buy him another drink, and half-listened while these strangers prattle on about how much fun it must be to live in America and take a few weeks off of work.

He followed a tipsy Nicky and a laughing Erik back to their apartment, and went straight to his tiny room when Nicky began to make out with his husband. The next couple of days were much of the same, him getting up late, making himself something to eat and reading, then going out with the two in the evening. Sometimes they went back to the bar, sometimes Nicky decided to take him ‘sight-seeing’. Andrew much preferred the bar, even if he stood there quiet while everyone talked around him.

He could tell that Nicky was growing worried at his general apathy, and tried to bring up things back home once or twice, to bring up Aaron or Kevin. The cold look he got for doing that made him change the subject immediately, which proved that he could learn things. Wasn’t that nice?

After a weekend of hiking around some of the closer vineyards and Andrew revisiting his thoughts on hanging out a month or so with his cousin, they were back at the bar Monday night. Andrew had finished a much needed double whiskey and promised himself to go out the next day to buy a bottle or two, and had just stepped outside so he could light up a cigarette, grateful for the fresh air and lack of inane chatter. He had taken a puff or two when someone approached from the side and called out to him in German. “May I borrow one of those?”

“Sorry, don’t speak German,” Andrew lied in English, unwilling to be bothered at the moment.

“Ah, in that case, may I borrow one?” the person answered in a lilting British accent.

Andrew turned around at the amused voice to find a man maybe a couple years younger than himself, who had at the most three or four inches on him in height, too – hard to tell with those fancy dress shoes. The guy was giving him a slight smile, his light grey eyes cool, black hair a bit past chin-length and most of it pulled back except for a few strands loose and wavy around a gorgeous face. To top it all off, he was wearing what had to be an expensive as fuck suit, a dark grey one that was cut just so to reveal that the guy had a lean body and long legs, and Andrew could only think ‘fuck’. Something much too rare pulsed inside of him as he stared at the stranger.

“Well?”

Andrew started at the question and realized that the guy was waiting for an answer. “Why should I?”

The stranger’s lips twitched a little, the smile growing the tiniest bit. “Because it’s polite?”

“Do I look like I believe in politeness?” Andrew didn’t know why he was talking to the – okay, he knew, all right, because someone as hot as this British bastard didn’t come along every day. Still, he didn’t usually care; he put it down to it having been much too long since he’d indulged, what with Roland having found a boyfriend and all that.

The stranger cocked his head to the side and gave Andrew an assessing look. “Hmm, no, I have to admit I’m not getting that vibe from you, but it never hurts to ask, right?”

“Didn’t anyone ever tell you that asking strangers for things can get you into trouble?”

That time, the stranger gave him a full smile. “There’s so many things that can get one into trouble. I’m not going to worry about the little stuff.”

Andrew stared at him, for a moment distracted by that smile… until he noticed how those grey eyes remained cool, how the emotion didn’t carry into them. Huh, pretty boy was interesting. That was what convinced him to reach into his jacket for his packet of cigarettes and hand them over to the guy. Just as interestingly, British guy made sure to only come close enough to just reach for the pack…. and Andrew also noticed that despite the trim fit of his expensive suit, the sleeves of his jacket and shirt were rather loose. In fact, they were loose enough for something to slip out with any difficulty, say a knife or two. Not that Andrew knew anything about things like that.

Oh, pretty boy just stirred something else in Andrew, yes he did.

“So who is the person who just agreed to buy me a new pack of cigarettes, hmm?” Andrew asked as he flicked the ash off the tip of his own.

“Eh?” In the process of shaking one of out the pack, the stranger looked up at Andrew then huffed. “That’s quite the interest rate, don’t you think?”

“I’m not the one who had to ‘borrow’ off of me, am I?” Andrew pointed out.

“Too true.” British guy shrugged, the motion smooth. “Must have left them behind.” He tossed the pack back to Andrew rather than approach again, then reached into one of the jacket’s pockets to pull out what looked to be a silver lighter with something engraved on it. “My name is Abram.”

No last name, huh? Even more curious. “I’m Andrew.”

“Nice to meet you, Andrew.” Abram raised the cigarette to his lips as he lit it, and for a moment Andrew could just stare; it was a good thing that the guy had his eyes closed. Long time or not, it was indeed rare that someone affected him like ‘Abram’, but dammit, he was gorgeous and that accent….

Andrew continued to smoke his cigarette as he grew annoyed with himself, then frowned when all Abram did was blow out the one breath of smoke and hold the cigarette cupped between his fingers near his face then breathe in the delicate trails of smoke as they were released from the burning tip.

“You know, not sure how they do it over in England, but in the US, we actually smoke the damn things,” Andrew drawled. “You know, you put it between your lips and suck.”

Abram opened those pale eyes of his and smiled, the expression slight but that time, he truly appeared amused. “Why thank you for that, I had no idea. Imagine my embarrassment to learn I’ve been doing it wrong all this time.”

“Just saying,” Andrew told him before showing how it was done with exaggerated care just to piss him off.

“Hmm.” Abram just flicked off some ash while his expression smoothed out to a perfect mask. “Well, again, it’s appreciated, but I’m a strong believer in individuality. Just think how boring it would be if we all did the same thing. It’s a matter of… technique.”

Okay, now that was just… what had that been? Andrew gave Abram an intent look as he tried to figure out if there had been more to that statement than the obvious, yet Abram just stared back at him with the tiniest of smiles as if challenging Andrew to interpret it as he would. Before Andrew could say anything else, the front door of the bar opened up and Nicky stepped out. “Andrew, where the hell have you – Abram! You’re back!”

Abram’s slight smile disappeared, to be replaced by something more polite and much more distant. “Nicky, it’s good to see you,” he said in German.

“Andrew, I want you to meet Abram, Abram Hatford. He’s a friend, pops up now and then when he’s here on business.” Nicky frowned as he seemed to notice something. “Where’s your coat?”

“Left it back at the hotel.” Abram shrugged as if unbothered by the fall chill to the air. “We’ll just be going in and out of places all night, can’t be bothered with it.”

“Come on, you idiot, let’s get you inside.”

Both Andrew and Abram ditched what remained of their cigarettes and went inside while Nicky glared at them, and Andrew felt a slight measure of satisfaction when Abram followed him to the bar; the British man stood near him once there and ordered a glass of wine, which he sipped from while Nicky, Erik and the others continued to chat. All of them knew him and asked questions such as how long he was in town and if he was up for doing anything, and Andrew noticed that Abram’s answers were for the most part evasive. He also noticed that one or two of Nicky’s friends who were also gay were doing their best to hit on Abram, but he just shrugged off the attention – he also did the same to Martina, one of the women in the group. He was polite about it, but it was clear that he wasn’t interested in them.

About twenty minutes later, after Andrew had finished his drink and started on another while Neil had barely had half of his wine, the door opened to admit a well-dressed older man in a trench-coat while there was the hum of an expensive and well-tuned engine outside. Andrew caught what looked to be an Aston Martin sports sedan pulled up to the curb, with an ostentatious Rolls Royce parked behind it, out of which two more gentlemen exited. “Ram!” the older guy shouted in a clear British accent and in English. “How the hell do you always beat us here?”

Abram smiled as he set his glass aside and went over join the man. “I keep telling you, I take the metro.”

The man’s face twisted in displeasure at that. “The hell? What have I told you? Your mother’s rolling around in her grave right now, you idiot.”

“My mother taught me how to use it,” Abram told the man with a slight bite to his voice.

“Jesus fucking Christ.” The man rubbed his gloved right hand over his face, and as they stood together, Andrew noticed a slight resemblance; the pale eyes, the slender build, the lack of height. “Stop doing it, all right? Before you give me a heart attack.”

Abram didn’t say anything, and the two men from the Rolls Royce stepped into the bar, one of them an older, slightly overweight man with his balding, dark brown hair slicked back and a man in his thirties who had a stocky yet muscular build. The older British guy motioned all of them over to a table in the corner, where they huddled together and ordered a round of drinks. After talking a while, he gestured to Abram, who took over speaking to the two new guys; Andrew went near the table on the pretense of going to the bathroom, and heard what he took to be Russian.

When he came back out, the four of them were gone, along with the fancy cars. Well, now wasn’t that interesting?

He waited until they were walking home to speak up. “So, Abram, huh?”

Nicky spun around, his right arm linked through Erik’s left, and grinned at Andrew. “Ooh, I knew it! So, you like him?”

Andrew regretted his cousin finding out about him and Roland that last year in university. “I think he’s interesting. Those two things have nothing in common with each other.”

“Yep, you like him!” Nicky laughed until Andrew continued to give him a flat look. “Aw, come on! He’s gorgeous, he’s got that incredible accent, and wait until summer! You’ve got to see him in jeans and a t-shirt! Oh my god!” Nicky made a fanning motion while even Erik nodded. “He’s on our list of ‘if we ever have a threesome’.”

“Number two,” Erik agreed. “Non-celebrity.”

“I don’t want to know this shit,” Andrew informed them. “And what, so he’s gay?”

Nicky let out a heartfelt sigh. “Unconfirmed, but he makes no reaction at all, *none* to the women. Even when Monika wore the one blouse where you can see *everything*, and that usually makes the straight men forget their names. Didn’t so much as blink.”

That was good, Andrew supposed. “Who was that guy he was with earlier?”

“His uncle.” Nicky waved his left hand in the air. “He works for him, something about translating and… and stuff.” Nicky frowned as if trying to remember. “Family business, he travels a good bit. It’s so cute, the way his uncle looks out for him.” For a moment, sorrow made Nicky’s face crumple. “Think he doesn’t have any parents, but he doesn’t talk too much about himself. Just know his uncle looks out for him.”

“Yeah, you said that.” Andrew considered what was being said, and what wasn’t. He found it odd, that Nicky didn’t know more about someone he considered a ‘friend’ – the man could get a life history out of a house plant, he was that talkative. Still, Andrew didn’t want to put up with his cousin anymore that night – or his cousin’s matchmaking attempts, so he let the topic rest for the moment.

The next day, Andrew spent some time on his laptop looking up what he could find on ‘Abram Hatford’, which wasn’t much. The name didn’t seem all that popular, relatively speaking, but any he came across on Facebook or any other social media didn’t match the guy he’d met the night before. A bit frustrated by the lack of results for his efforts, he decided to go out shopping.

He had managed to pick up a decent selection of sweets and two bottles of whiskey, and was looking for a place to have lunch when he recognized a familiar face in one of the small restaurants on his way back to Nicky’s. He entered the place and went over to the table where Abram was seated, busy typing on a sleek laptop with his own hotspot, a neglected sandwich off to the side along with a cup of coffee.

“You get my pack of cigarettes yet?” Andrew asked in English as he sat down.

Abram tensed at first, then sighed as he looked up from the screen. “If you’re at the bar tonight, I’ll bring them then.” He was dressed more casual than he had last night, in a sweater and what looked to be jeans, though Andrew had the impression that they were no less expensive, and his hair was loose and falling onto his face, save for the strands tucked behind his ears. Sitting this close, Andrew could tell what he’d guessed at in the dimly light bar, that those were contacts in Abram’s eyes. “So, busy surfing for porn?”

“Hmm, nothing quite so banal,” Abram said as he continued to type. “Hacking into the queen’s personal journal so I can spread it across the net. Seems she’s been caught nipping at the gin again, it’s all so titillating.”

Andrew reached over to help himself to the untouched sandwich since he was hungry; Abram raised an eyebrow at his audacity, but didn’t say anything. One had to love that British civility. “Let me know when you get to the part where she did in Diana because she felt that she wasn’t the prettiest in the land anymore.”

“Please, we all know that was that was Phillip, all because Diana stole his favorite tiara,” Abram scoffed.

Andrew waited until he swallowed a bite – chicken, not some weird liver shit, thank god – to respond. “I thought you Brits got all offended if anyone dared to slander your precious royal family.”

“Ooh, we’re already starting on the stereotypes. Good. Aren’t you missing your cowboy boots and southern twang, Bible-belt boy?”

Andrew cocked his head at that and had another bite. “I do believe that’s the first time I’ve been referred to as that. Points for originality, but never do it again,” he warned.

“Ah, and here I thought we were developing a rapport or something, considering that you stole my food and insulted my national heritage. Forgive me.” Abram put enough sarcasm behind those words to choke a horse.

“I’m considering this interest on those cigarettes you owe me,” Andrew explained as he held up the remains of the sandwich.

“You should be a banker,” Abram told him, his lips twitching as if he wanted to smile. “You’d be good at it, with the percentage you charge.”

“Is that what you do?” Andrew motioned at the computer. “Nicky said something about you translating and a family business.”

And just like that, the smile was gone. “Not exactly.” It didn’t escape Andrew’s attention that Abram didn’t elaborate on what ‘exactly’ he did do.

At that point, a server came over to check up on them, not the most diligent of souls, so Andrew ordered a coffee as well while Abram just shook his head, uncaring that his meal was gone. Andrew tried again, feeling out of sorts at the strange sense of curiosity that filled him – he wasn’t used to the sensation, to, well, to *feeling*. “What type of name is ‘Abram’?”

Abram paused in typing for a moment, his face blank as he stared at the screen. “It’s the name my mother gave me, why?” He looked up at Andrew, face still devoid of emotion, eyes like ice, and Andrew had a blast of realization that there was something much more than physical attraction that was drawing him to this man. “Isn’t that how it goes? We take the names our parents give us?” There was an odd tightness to his voice just then.

“More or less,” Andrew told him, his own voice devoid of emotion.

He noticed how Abram didn’t really ask him any questions back, not really, not unless Andrew asked him something first. He noticed how Abram’s sweater despite the long sleeves also had loose cuffs to it, even as it showed off a rather fit body for someone who ‘translated’ and stuff. How the two times Andrew had seen Abram, he had been carefully covered up from head to toe despite the mostly close fit of his expensive and elegant clothes.

Andrew sat there and drank his coffee, and was halfway through a second one when Abram’s phone rang. Abram picked it up off of the table as his face once more became expressionless, and Andrew watched on as the Brit answered in what sounded to be Chinese. After a few seconds, Abram began to shut down his laptop and collect his things in a leather satchel, then pull on what looked to be a Burberry coat. He nodded once to Andrew then left some money on the table, more than enough to cover the cost of the sandwich and several coffees, and walked toward the door, still talking on the phone.

A different very expensive, very fancy car was waiting for him, a man in another designer suit hurrying to open the door for Abram so he could get in the back. A man who looked as if he would have no problem working as a bouncer back at Eden’s Twilight, despite that designer suit.

It was rare for Andrew to feel anything other than boredom, exhaustion and anger most days, and lately bitterness as well. There was the occasional flash of desire and lust, and pleasure when he allowed himself to act upon them, though not in months. Yet since meeting Abram…. The desire was there, along with a strong sense of interest. Curiosity, because oh was he such an intricate puzzle to figure out. And most dangerous of all… was that want? Andrew attempted to make sense of the strange emotion as he returned back to Nicky’s apartment with his purchases.

Kevin had failed to hold up his end of their bargain, to make Andrew want something. Exy hadn’t done it, had only left him frustrated and unfulfilled. Yet a gorgeous enigma with a British accent threatened to do just that? Was it the hint of danger? The flashes of brokenness? Or the challenge of it all?

Andrew had a couple of months to figure it out.

*******

Abram forced himself not to fidget while Dobrynin and Vikhrov eyed the neat rows of grapes stretching on out front of them as if they had any clue about winemaking. Off to the side, Stuart and the winery’s owner, Batterman, watched the two Russians while smoking.

“So these grapes, they’re good?” Dobrynin asked for the third time, in Russian.

“Yes,” Abram said in the same language. “The land is fertile and the grapes are productive, it’s just the machinery that needs updating. New vats, new buildings, new methods of irrigation and so forth. It’s all in the documentation I put together for you.” That he spent quite a few days working on, only for it not to be read, apparently.

Dobrynin waved that aside. “Bah, I have people do that for me,” he said with a grin. “Just want to know if I’ll get some good wine out of this, yes?”

Abram translated that for Batterman, who nodded while grinning and said there were some cases back at the main building if Dobrynin wanted to test his investment. Dobrynin laughed at the offer, along with Vikhrov, who was staring a bit too much at Abram for his liking.

“Then it looks good to me, and Xue vouches for you guys, he does.” Stuart straightened up at mention of the Chinese ‘investor’ even if he couldn’t understand the rest of what the mobster had said.

“Yeah, he’s really selling this clever little scheme you’ve got going here,” Vikhrov added, his gaze still heavy on Abram. “And on how much of an… asset you’re to the Hatfords. Him and Wei.”

Abram stiffened at mention of Xue Zheng’s second in command, and it looked as if Dobrynin was growing annoyed with his talkative underling. “The young man works hard for his family, you could learn something from him, Kiryl,” Dobrynin said with a hint of reproach before turning toward Stuart and Batterman. “Ah, so now we drink to seal… uhm, what word?” he asked in heavily accented English.

“Deal,” Abram offered.

“Yes, deal!” He laughed as he grabbed onto Vikhrov’s arm and pulled the man along, and Abram didn’t object when his uncle moved to block him from the underling’s view as they walked back to the large barn where Batterman had cases of lush red wine, along with dozens of oak casks and various vats of fermenting wine.

It would take a few more days to settle all of the legal documents to make Dobrynin a partial partner in the winery, which would be handled by other people loyal to the family, and then tie some of his financial network into the winery, which Abram would oversee since that was the whole point of the transaction. Dobrynin didn’t care about wine (well, maybe he did a little, considering how fast he was drinking it down), but as a means to launder money? To diversify his funds and tap into the EU money market?

“So, you said there are other wineries like this, yes?” Dobrynin asked as they went back to their cars, a case of wine in Vikhrov’s hands.

“Yes,” Abram assured the Russian mobster as he brushed aside a stray lock of hair that had slipped free from the tie that held the rest of it back. “Here in Germany, others in France, in Spain and in Australia. We even have some in South America as well that are great investment opportunities, and are branching into distilleries.”

“But nothing in the United States?” Vikhrov asked with a sharp grin, his gaze once more intent on Abram.

“No,” Abram replied without letting any emotion show in his face other than politeness. “We feel the market’s a bit saturated there, and there’s better maneuverability elsewhere. Besides, other than South America, most of our clients don’t want to travel too far to check out their investments.”

“It sounds to me like you have something against the US.”

“Kiryl,” Dobrynin barked, his voice sharp and pleasant smile from the wine tasting now gone, while Stuart’s expression was carefully blank since he couldn’t follow the conversation – at least, couldn’t follow the words. “My apologies, Hatford.”

Abram shrugged as if to say that he wasn’t bothered, but he was grateful that the underling remained in a sullen silence until they got to their cars. Dobrynin, through Abram, told Stuart that they would see each other soon, and the four of them parted ways.

Micha was quick to notice the tension in Stuart’s shoulders and scurried to open the back door of the Aston Martin for them, and Stuart motioned for Abram to get in first. Then he let out a harsh breath as he jerked at the buttons of his coat as if it was constrictive or something while cursing under his breath.

“Okay, so what the hell was going on with that smug prick, eh? The one who looks as if he needs a right thrashing?”

Abram undid the tie holding back his hair and rubbed at his scalp as if that would help with the budding headache. “I’m not sure, really. Just know he kept pushing with stuff.” At his uncle’s narrowed look, he shrugged. “Brought up Xue and Wei, and asked why we’re not working in the States.”

“Fucker,” Stuart snarled as his right hand clenched in a fist. “And Dobrynin? What did he do?”

“He wasn’t happy with Vikhrov.”

“Hmm, good. Xue wouldn’t have sent along trouble, not intentionally.” Abram’s uncle seemed to think about something, his hand still clenched. “Still, I don’t trust that guy – what’s his name?”

“Vikhrov,” Abram answered, an automatic response to provide his uncle with the necessary information. “Kiryl Vikhrov.” He hoped his uncle was correct about the Russian mobster because they couldn’t do much against Xue, but it made sense. The Hatfords had proven their loyalty and value to Xue Zheng time and time again, and it was a profitable ‘partnership’. But that didn’t mean that they could take anything for granted.

“Whatever. I don’t trust him, so be careful around the guy, all right?” Stuart gave Abram a considering look as his fingers unfurled and then tapped against the leather seat between them. “I wish you’d reconsider having someone watch over you.”

Not this again, Abram thought with a sigh. “No, I don’t see why that’s necessary,” he argued. “I’ve got enough of the family’s people around me most of the time, and I can look after myself.” He flexed his left arm, with the blades strapped beneath his clothes, and stared back at his uncle. “I’m not-“

“Don’t say you’re not important enough, you dumb twat,” Stuart said with more than a little exasperation. “Will’s been on me for months to have someone watch over you properly, and it’s not helping, you doing stupid shite like taking the metro instead of having Micha or Joey drive you around.”

Abram hated getting into arguments like this with his uncle, hated feeling like his life was being dictated to him. He’d realized that he was giving up certain things when he’d made that call several years ago, but some days it felt as if he never stopped giving. That things kept being taken away. If he didn’t know that his family also gave up things for him as well….

“I’ll be more careful,” he promised as he gave a slight bow of his head.

“Dammit, Ram, I’m not trying to lock you up or something.” Stuart rubbed at his forehead as if he had a headache himself. “So damn much like your mother, I swear. Just… just watch out for yourself, okay? And if anything else happens, you *are* getting a bodyguard, do you understand?” he said when he dropped his hand. “No arguing, no more shite from you, nothing. I’m not going to hear from you *and* Will, it’s settled.”

“It won’t happen again,” Abram said as he tugged on the sleeves of his trench coat; he wasn’t a senior member of the family like his uncle, or the head of the family like Uncle William. He might be good at numbers and translating stuff, but that was it – he was just a wayward nephew brought back into the fold. Micha dropped Abram at the Arcotel Camino hotel, then continued to take his uncle to Le Méridien Stuttgart.

Once up in his room, Abram removed his coat and then the jacket to his suit along with the light grey cotton shirt beneath that. Uncle Stuart hadn’t said anything about needing him again for the night, which meant that he should be able to relax for a little while. The pants were the next thing to go, so he changed into a pair of light cotton pants and a t-shirt, but left the arm bands on with his knives; he never felt entirely at home in a hotel, even though he spent an increasing amount of time in them anymore. Then he retrieved his laptop from the hotel safe and logged on for a bit of work.

There were several new emails, some from Jamie asking how the Dobrynin deal was going, so he spent a bit of time giving his cousin an update. A request from Zhou to translate some information into Russian and Portuguese Brazilian, which he got to next. A reminder from Aunt Miriam that Uncle William’s sixty-fifth birthday celebration was coming up in another month and she expected *everyone* not traveling to be there for the event, which lead Abram to send a panicked email off to Jamie asking what the hell he was supposed to get a man he barely knew (and suspected barely tolerated him, but he left that part off – maybe he could beg Uncle Stuart to send him to Australia for a couple of weeks, or maybe Shanghai. It would be worth dealing with Wei Jain to not put up with the extended family).

He told Ally to ‘fuck off’, he wasn’t going to help the bastard with French pick-up lines (how was he supposed to even know any?), then checked a few numbers for Sabine. By then it was getting dark outside, and Abram realized that he hadn’t eaten since breakfast. He could order something from room service or go out to one of the nearby restaurants… or he could do something about the box of cigarettes that Joey had picked up for him. He could do something about Andrew.

Knowing that he really shouldn’t, Abram powered down his laptop and put it back in the safe for the night, then went to take a shower. He removed the arm bands and set them on the sink’s counter, and only paid enough attention to his image to make sure that he didn’t need to touch up his roots just yet, that there wasn’t enough auburn showing against the black dye. It bothered him, how he continued to look more and more like his father with each passing day, albeit a more slender, smaller version, how his uncles had to look at the visage of the man who had killed their sister all the time.

Abram threw aside his clothes and stepped into the shower, displeased by his thoughts. He couldn’t change the past, and couldn’t escape it, either. It was there whenever he looked in the mirror, was there whenever he removed his clothes and laid bare the scars that covered his torso; the cuts and burns inflicted by his own father, by the people Nathan Wesninski sent after his son and wife in an effort to drag them back when they dared to run away. Though not all of the wounds could be blamed upon the Butcher of Baltimore: Abram ran the washcloth lightly over the scar tissue around his wrists, scars he did his best to hide from Stuart.

Once he was clean, he stepped out of the shower and dried off, running a towel over his hair then combing it out of his face. He slipped back on the arm bands then got dressed, picking out a pair of jeans and a soft sweater that was thick enough to hide the sleeve of red poppies tattooed on his right bicep and the Hatford coat of arms on his upper left chest. A quick check to make sure that he could access the knives without any trouble as well as that the sleeves hid both the bands and his scars, and Abram stepped into a pair of worn but comfortable ankle boots before grabbing a leather jacket, his phone, wallet and the box of cigarettes which Joey had picked up earlier that day; he’d asked the man to grab just a pack, but Joey tended to go overboard on things like that. Probably figured it would save him time and that Abram was switching brands or something.

Before he could reconsider what he was doing, Abram was out the door and headed to the metro station which would take him to the bar where Andrew Minyard would be – where Abram Hatford shouldn’t be, really. Not considering who Abram Hatford had been once upon a time.

Abram had left so much behind on that beach in California several years ago, when he’d set afire the latest car he and his mother had stolen with his mother’s body inside of it, only to pull her half-burnt corpse from it hours later, the sun starting to light up the very edges of the sky out over the ocean. He’d buried her in the grave he’d dug with his own hands in that rough sand, then burned his last ties to the United States, had burned the binder with the list of contacts his mother had given him. He’d also burned any hopes he’d had of one day of having some sort of normal life, of maybe being free of the life of crime that was sunk into both sides of his blood. Had given up on his dreams of Exy once and for all.

Because as they’d fled from Washington, his mother slowly dying all the while because of the vicious blows his father had dealt her, she’d finally told Abram – had told Nathaniel – the truth. Had told him why they’d fled Nathan Wesninski in the first place, about how Nathaniel had been promised to the Moriyamas, about that awful day at Castle Evermore when he’d believed he was just playing Exy with Kevin Day and Riko Moriyama as an escape from Baltimore or something. As a treat. Not an audition to see if he was good enough for Tetsuji Moriyama, to be handed over as an asset or to be killed as a failure.

So his mother had grabbed him, five million dollars from his father – from the Moriyamas, since his father worked for them – and ran. And with her dead, Nathaniel hadn’t seen any reason to keep running by himself, not when he knew exactly what he was running from, and he had called his uncle. Within twenty-four hours he was in England, was somewhere safe, was out of the Moriyamas’ reach. Or so they had thought. Uncle Stuart had tried to give him a fresh start, had tried to give him time to grieve and figure out what he was going to do, to honor his sister’s wishes and enrolled Nathaniel in school… only it hadn’t worked out so well. Standing on the metro, wary of the people around them, Abram flexed his wrists as he pushed aside that memory. No, it became clear that there was only one choice for Nathaniel, and that was to accept his mother’s family and their protection, to become a Hatford. To become Abram Hatford.

No more dreams of Exy. No more chance of a normal life, but no more running. It… it worked out. He’d lost his mother, but he’d found support in Uncle Stuart, for all of his gruffness and rough affection. Abram had floundered at first, uncertain what he could offer his mother’s kin, but he’d always been good at languages and math had been his favorite subject in school whenever he could attend. It hadn’t taken long for the family to figure out how to put both of those talents to use, especially when Abram didn’t have much to do but learn. Didn’t want to do much of anything but learn, after the Romanians.

So why was he going out to a bar by himself, when he could back at the hotel, away from people, away from crowds and noise and people touching him, people looking at him and… and…. Yeah. Because he’d been at the bar waiting for Uncle Stuart the one night and seen Nicky Klose. Seen Nicky Hemmick, and even if it was years later, even if he’d given up on the old obsession, he’d felt a bit of thrill at being able to go up to the bar and chat with a Palmetto State Fox (even if the man wasn’t that great of a backliner). Because Nicky Klose had played with Kevin Day, one of the best strikers out there. Abram knew the truth about Day, knew he was a puppet for the Moriyamas, knew that he’d never be the best anymore, not after what Riko had done to him, but enough of an Exy fan remained inside of Abram that he still enjoyed talking to Nicky. There was also the fact that Nicky Klose was one of the nicest people he’d ever met, so friendly and easy-going and open. Considering that Abram dealt with criminals on a daily basis… yeah, it was refreshing to hang out a few nights with the former backliner whenever he was in Stuttgart.

So if it was a bit of a thrill to spend time with Nicky Klose… it was even more so to talk with Andrew Minyard, who had been good enough to go professional, who had been the only person so far to turn down the Ravens when recruited by the team, who - according to the Hatford’s sources, and they had every reason to keep up on the Moriyamas – had been the reason why Kevin Day had managed to stay out of the Moriyama’s clutches for almost five years. At least until Andrew had graduated from PSU and then turned down all of the professional Exy contracts offered to him, and then Kevin Day had lost whatever bit of spine he’d possessed soon afterward, only to sign with the same professional team as Riko Moriyama. Abram hadn’t been able to resist going up to Andrew Minyard and asking for a cigarette, merely wanting to talk to him for a few minutes, to see what it was about the man to draw in Kevin Day, to make Nicky talk about his cousin in such an awed manner. Though really, he should have. Oh, would Uncle Stuart have something to say about him and his little ‘obsession’.

He still wasn’t certain what it was about the man, other than the fact that Andrew certainly didn’t give a damn about what anyone thought. That he didn’t care if he drove anyone away with his actions or words. Yet Abram could respect that, because it wasn’t as if the man was going out of his way to be obnoxious, he was just being himself. After wearing so many masks, after sacrificing so much of himself to others… Abram could appreciate that. Could envy it, even if it annoyed him at times.

He got off at the station closest to the bar and walked along the narrow streets, enjoying the cool air and the warm glow of the lights around him. The bar was about half-full when he got there, so it was easy to spot Nicky and Andrew. Well, it was easy to spot Erik Klose, and then the others gathered around him.

Abram went up to the bar and waited a moment for an older couple to leave before stepping forward, his right hand raised a little in acknowledgement of the greetings that Erik, Nicky and a couple of others called out to him. Andrew merely gave him a slight nod, in no manner surprised to see him.

“You finish your business for the day?”

“Yes,” Abram said while he waved to the bartender. “What about you? Busy day lounging around? Find anyone else to entrap with outrageous interest rates? Speaking of which.” He handed over the box of cigarettes tucked against his left side. “I hope that’s enough.”

Andrew gave him a cool, assessing look as he accepted the box. “Just how well does translating shit pay?” the American asked as he tapped the long end of the box against the bar’s polished wood surface.

Abram gave him a casual shrug in return then told the bartender that he’d like a glass of Trollinger red and the fried fish special. When he found Andrew still staring at him, he just shook his head. “It pays the bills.” The family took care of everything for him so he wasn’t concerned about money. Wasn’t concerned about much, to be honest, other than letting Stuart down.

“Must be some impressive bills considering the outfits you wear,” Andrew said with a slight sneer. “I love how people who make money always say shit like that.” He scoffed as he waved Abram aside as if he was an annoyance.

That was a bit much, wasn’t it? “So what’s your issue with money? That you don’t make enough? Upset with people who have more?” Abram asked as he leaned against the bar. “How is any of that my fault?” He didn’t ask Stuart or Jamie or anyone else in the family to buy him expensive clothes, had tried to make them *not* do that the first year or two. Then he got tired of everyone throwing out his ‘rags’ and not having anything to wear, of hearing the lectures on how the Hatfords had an image to uphold and he wouldn’t shame the family with his ratty clothes.

It had taken some getting used to, no longer wearing the too-large, cheap clothes he’d always used to blend in, until he realized that the suits and the expensive sweaters and the tailored trench coats made him merge among all of the other Hatfords and their employees, to fade away among them.

Andrew scoffed again, this time at the questions. “That would assume I care,” he told Abram while he propped his chin up on his hand, his expression oh so bored. “No, it’s annoying when rich shits like you always say things like that, just proves you have no fucking clue.”

The bartender returned with Abram’s glass of wine, and he shook his head as he picked it up. “Yeah, no fucking clue at all.” No idea what it felt like living in cheap motels and hostels because they only had so much money until his mother could reach her next contact and access the accounts where she’d stashed the millions she’d stolen from her husband – millions that was steadily being eaten into for new passports, new identities and plane tickets so it couldn’t be spent on ‘frivolous’ things like new clothes when second-hand stores were fine. No idea what it felt like to go to sleep hungry because it was too dangerous to risk leaving the safe house for the night, even to run out for something to eat.

No idea what it felt like to grow up in a lavish house yet to live in fear, to hate the sight of it because returning to it meant nothing but pain and fear and more scars. Because it wasn’t a home, it could never be a home, but with each passing day you realized it might very well be your grave.

Abram drained the glass of wine in a few steady swallows, his appetite gone as well as his desire for company. “We should all be so lucky to so clueless,” he told Andrew as he pulled some money out of his wallet – money he had because of Uncle Stuart. Money that was there because Abram never knew when he might have to pick up and run, not because he wanted to impress anyone, not because he tended to buy things – he was lucky if it got spent on the occasional meal or drink out.

He should know better by now that stepping outside of the life he’d built for himself was a mistake; it was too different a world, too foreign. “You got your cigarette back, plus interest, so I think we’re finished.” He tipped an imaginary hat at Andrew Minyard and set the cash down on the bar before moving away.

He heard Nicky call out his name, but he ignored it as he headed for the door, which he had partially open when he felt a tug on the sleeve of his jacket. Abram jerked his arm free as he turned around and forced himself not to pull a knife. “Don’t,” he warned, displeased at being touched, and found that Andrew had snuck up on him. “What do you want?”

“Don’t you rich guys believe in eating?” Andrew asked as he motioned back at the bar. “It a new thing, to order food and just leave it there? Rather wasteful.”

“Consider it another meal on me,” Abram told him. “British hospitality.”

Andrew’s thick brows drew together. “I don’t like owing people anything.”

“Funny, considering how you seem to enjoy making them owe you things.” Abram waved him away, unwilling to talk any longer, to be in the bar any longer. “Not my concern, good night.” He continued on his way, and grew irate when Andrew followed him. “What now?”

He got a blank look in response. “I’m walking.” Andrew made it sound like he was an idiot for asking the question.

“Yes, I can see that,” Abram gritted out. “Why?”

“To have a cigarette.” Andrew pulled his pack out of a pocket in the black jacket he was wearing and shook out one. “No smoking in the bar.”

“Then stand outside the bar,” Abram told him. “Back there. That bar.”

“But walking is good exercise,” Andrew countered without any emotion, then paused to light one up. “You seem annoyed, probably low blood sugar.”

“I think it’s more due to a lack of manners.” Abram ran his right hand over his hair. “I left the bar so I could be alone, you know.”

Andrew shrugged, still displaying an utter lack of emotion – if he was at all smug about things, then Abram would have an excuse to punch him or yell. “That’s your problem, not mine.”

Abram managed to bite his tongue for about a block. “Are you this annoying with everyone, or am I special?”

Andrew seemed to consider the question for a moment. “Probably the first.”

“Oh, joy, I was afraid it was the latter,” Abram said as he undid the tie holding back his hair so he could scrub at his scalp; he sighed in relief after a moment and looked forward to just stretching out in bed when he returned to the hotel room. If he got an early night’s sleep, he could wake up, do some work and then put in a few miles on the treadmill at the gym before it got too busy, then be ready for whatever running around that Stuart needed done.

“You don’t add up.”

“Hmm?” Abram frowned, startled from his thoughts by that weird statement, and looked over at Andrew to find the man staring at him. He didn’t usually like people staring at him, so it was odd that Andrew doing so hadn’t made him nervous or feel self-conscious. Perhaps because it was done in such a reserved, clinical manner. “I don’t what?”

“You don’t add up,” Andrew repeated as he jabbed two fingers holding a cigarette between them at Abram. “There’s something off about you.”

If it wasn’t so true, Abram would be offended. As it was, he was mildly miffed that Andrew could pick up on it so easily. “It’s not polite to point, or to point out people’s faults, you know.”

Andrew snorted in derision, twin plumes of smoke rolling from his nostrils as if he was some sort of blond, humanized dragon. A small, blond, humanized dragon. The mental image amused Abram more than it should. “Who’s the stereotype now, huh? You always so polite and well-mannered? Even when you’re stabbing someone?”

The question almost made Abram trip. “I beg your pardon? What’s stabbing got to do with anything?”

“Like I said, you don’t add up.” Andrew cast a loaded look toward Abram’s right wrist. “But I’ll figure you out. For some reason you seem worth the interest.”

Abram didn’t know what to say to that, which wasn’t good. He latched on to the fact that they were near the metro station and ran his right hand through his hair, which was once again falling onto his face. “It’s not always a good thing, to be so curious,” he warned as he stepped toward the metro entrance.

“Always so damn polite,” Andrew complained as he waved Abram aside. “Try making a threat without being so British, will you?” Before his arm lowered, Abram took note of the loose sleeve, of the hint of darkness on the pale skin, and wondered if he’d allowed his infatuation with the man to blind him to the potential threat earlier. Not good, Abram, he chided himself.

No wonder Andrew had spotted another knife wielder; Abram debated telling Stuart, but knew his uncle would be furious if he did – at him for not noticing sooner and at Andrew since the man had, albeit rather distant, Moriyama ties. Abram might have been a bit slow to pick up on the weapons, but he didn’t believe that Andrew was on the yakuza family’s payroll. No, best to just keep quiet and mark this down as a lesson to improve his observation skills.

Skills which normally were rather good, so how had Andrew gotten past his guard like that? Abram pondered it the entire way back to the hotel, and didn’t come up with much of an answer.

*******

Andrew didn’t see Abram the night after the walk to the subway station, which led him to wonder if he had pushed too far with the stabbing comment. Then he decided if the British man was so easily spooked, that maybe he wasn’t worthy of Andrew’s interest – Andrew had wasted enough time on cowards, after all. On people who couldn’t grow their own spine, no matter how much you pushed and cajoled and beat up others for them. All it got you was bruised fists and broken promises and little else to show for it in the end.

He was back at the bar with Nicky and Erik, having some whiskey and debating if he wanted to stick around in Germany for a few more weeks or just move on when Abram came in, dressed in those damn expensive clothes of his and appearing worn out. He sidled up to the bar next to Andrew and ordered a glass of wine while giving Nicky a little wave.

“Is translating that exhausting?”

“It can be,” Abram remarked as he ran a hand over his slicked back hair. “When it seems I’m the only one able to do a damn bit of work.”

Andrew thought about that for a moment. “How many languages do you speak? There’s four that I’ve heard.”

Abram gave the bartender a grateful smile when his wine was dropped off. “More than that,” was his evasive answer, which earned him a flat look from Andrew. “Why didn’t you join a professional Exy team?” Abram countered, which turned Andrew’s flat look into a displeased one.

It was clear that they weren’t going to do the ‘I’ll tell you mine if you tell me yours’ thing. “So you know about the Exy stuff?”

“It’s difficult not to,” Abram answered as he turned around to lean his back against the bar, the wine glass held cradled in his left hand, between his long fingers. “Nicky talks about it a lot, about how you, your brother and he played at Palmetto State with the ‘great’ Kevin Day.” Andrew found it interesting how there was a slight mocking note to Kevin’s name, considering how Kevin was still considered one of the top strikers out there.

“Nicky always did talk too much,” Andrew complained.

“Yes, especially when he’s had a few drinks in him.” Abram looked over at Andrew’s cousin, who currently was talking the ear off of one of his coworkers. “I give it five minutes before the man comes up with an excuse to make his escape.”

“Sooner than that, Nicky’s had him pinned for ten minutes already. I’m surprised Erik hasn’t rescued the guy already.” Still, it was amusing to see others suffer, after Andrew had put up with his cousin for all those years.

Abram hummed a little before sipping his wine. “I think that’s because Erik’s currently under siege himself – Jürgen over there is known to – oh bloody hell,” he cursed in a rather fervent manner as he ducked down a bit, not that he was that tall to begin with. “Dammit.” He glared as he set his wine on the bar then fumbled with his wallet to pull out some money – too much for the wine, really, but he seemed to just grab something and slap it down.

While he did that, Andrew craned his head up and around to see what had set Abram off, and recognized the one Russian guy from a few days ago, the younger one. He had just entered the bar and seemed to be looking for someone – Andrew had the suspicion it was a certain well-dressed British guy. “What, you don’t want to run into this asshole?”

No,” Abram hissed. “Now if you’ll excuse me, good night.” Still hunched over, he managed to slip through the crowd toward the back of the bar, heading for what Andrew knew from previous visits was the back exit. Meanwhile, the Russian guy meandered through the bar for several minutes before heading out the front door.

Now hadn’t that been curious? Andrew used the money Abram had set down to buy himself a few more glasses of whiskey, since waste not, want not, and spent the night wondering just how much trouble a ‘translator’ could get himself into. A translator who felt the need to arm himself with knives, that was.

It only got that much more interesting the next night when Andrew returned to the bar, sans Nicky and Erik, to find Abram there with his uncle and both Russians. The four were seated at a corner table with several drinks in front of them, and the majority of them didn’t appear very happy at the moment. Abram’s face was too blank at the moment, his uncle was glaring at the younger Russian who was staring at Abram, and the older Russian kept shaking his head. Abram was doing an awful lot of talking, with the occasional remark from his uncle and the older Russian.

After about half an hour, the four of them got up to leave, and Andrew noticed that Abram’s uncle shot a look his way as they walked to the door. The man’s expression was still rather disgruntled, and it didn’t improve when Andrew raised his glass in a slight salute.

Abram wasn’t at the bar the next night, but the following day when Andrew was out doing some shopping (and getting the hell out of the apartment before he killed Nicky), he caught sight of the British man being escorted around by two well-dressed and very large men. They towered over Abram by a foot, yet Andrew noticed the way that Abram carried himself, the looseness of his limbs and the lightness of his walk, and knew that anyone who mistook Abram for an easy target would regret it very much.

There was more whiskey the next night, while he listened to some idiot argue about how Americans were too lazy to use public transportation (he would like to see that person try to get around on a fucking bus outside of a major city, let alone some non-existent train or subway system) when Abram came into the bar. For once he seemed to be ‘slumming’ it, wearing a hooded sweatshirt over his jeans and worn but well-made boots.

“Okay, don’t tell me that’s some sort of clever disguise,” Andrew said in disgust. “That’s just pathetic. No wonder we kicked your asses centuries ago.”

Abram gave him a narrowed look as he approached the bar. “Go to hell,” he snapped. “Why I bother with a prat like you, I’ve no clue.”

Andrew had the feeling that he’d just been insulted. “Careful there, Guv’ner, your knickers are getting all in a twist. Can’t have that.”

“I’m not Australian,” Abram sighed as he ran the fingers of his right hand through his loose hair. “Keep your stereotypes straight, dammit.”

“Some people are just too easy to rile up.” He motioned to the bartender for another whiskey and watched while Abram ran both hands through his hair as if attempting to rein in his temper. “So rough day at work? Fuck up tenses or something? Get a verb wrong?”

“Oh, people must have just loved firing shots off at you, didn’t they?” Abram asked as he dropped his hands. “Did they ever do it when you were outside the goal? You know, just ‘conveniently’ forget and all? I can so see it happening.”

Andrew gave the bastard the finger, even if these verbal sparring sessions were becoming the highlight of his day.

They spent the next couple of hours sniping back and forth at each other, and Andrew noticed how the tension slowly eased from Abram’s lean frame as time passed and he got a glass or two wine in him. He didn’t know if the man was just a lightweight and knew his limits or refused to allow himself to lose too much control – he had a feeling it was more the latter.

Nicky and Erik left at some point since they had to go to work in the morning, while Andrew and Abram were debating who could survive a zombie apocalypse better – Great Britain or America. Andrew argued in favor of resources, Abram in isolation, and it went downhill from there.  Though to be fair, it was one of the better debates Andrew had on the topic in years.

They were down to debating population sizes when Abram’s phone chimed and, after checking it, he sighed. “I really should be going. There’s a few things I need to do tomorrow.”

Andrew looked around and was a bit surprised to see how empty the bar was – it was rare that he spent so much time talking to someone, and to the point that he lost track of the time. “Another hard day of politely telling people to go fuck themselves in a few different languages?”

Abram chuckled a little at that as he settled his tab. “Something like that. I’d say it’s the perfect job for you, except for the whole ‘politely’ thing.”

“I do believe that I should be offended right now,” Andrew said with an affected sniff as he put down some money himself to pay for the whiskeys.

“If you’re only now becoming offended, you haven’t been paying attention much to our conversation tonight,” Abram informed him with a sly smile, one that took away the shadows in his pale eyes and made Andrew wonder yet again what would happen if he asked the man to a motel one of these nights. If maybe Abram’s politeness and restraint would translate well into following instructions, and Andrew could vent the rare and lingering desire that flared in him whenever Abram laughed or smiled or tucked back a wavy lock of black hair.

Except Abram didn’t seem to send out any of the right signals, didn’t pick up on the one or two little innuendos Andrew had slipped into their conversations, didn’t allow Andrew – or anyone, really – close enough for a lingering touch, didn’t do any suggestive looks. Andrew was beginning to suspect that the man was Ace or something, because he seemed utterly oblivious to most people’s interest in him, the couple of times when Andrew had seen someone be blatant about it, Abram had politely turned them down. The bastard used manners as a weapon of sorts, to disarm his attacker and leave them unable to mount a proper counter-attack because it just wouldn’t be right.

Underhanded as shit, but pretty brilliant. That seemed to sum up Abram pretty well, Andrew thought as he pulled on his jacket to follow Abram out the door. “Are you stalking me again?”

“Your stop’s mostly on the way back to Nicky’s place, and your ugly face will scare away any muggers,” Andrew argued as he stepped outside with Abram and lit a cigarette as he walked, the first draw of smoke-laden air soothing to his nerves after a couple of hours without any nicotine and all the time spent inside the bar. Abram slanted him a knowing look as he shook out a cigarette of his own, and did that weird thing where he only inhaled enough to start the stick burning and then held it cupped near his face so he could breathe in the trails of smoke.

“So damn odd,” Andrew murmured as they strolled through the mostly empty streets.

“Pot, kettle, black,” Abram said, his tone amused as he stared straight ahead.

That prompted a semi-amused snort from Andrew; not many people willingly grouped themselves with him in any manner. “That’s a waste of a decent cigarette, you know.”

“What does it matter, if it’s not yours?” Abram asked.

“It’s the principle of the thing.”

That earned him a slight quirk of the Brit’s lips. “Somehow I don’t think it’s often, you having anything to do with ‘principles’.”

Andrew flicked ash on the bastard in response for that bit of insight. “Those fancy manners of yours aren’t going to save you from getting your ass kicked by me, you know.” He wondered, from time to time, what it would be like to fight the man. Abram had the advantage of reach on him, if not by much, but lacked Andrew’s muscles. It could be interesting. “Do you apologize for getting your blood all over someone’s fists as they beat you into the ground?”

“No, but I’m oh so sorry for slicing their throat open,” Abram admitted with a smile that Andrew found a bit chilling. It was around then that he noticed that they were taking a back way to the train station, which made him raise an eyebrow as he looked around then at Abram, who shrugged. “What, you don’t appreciate the scenic route?”

“Still having problems with that one Russian fellow?” He knew he was right when all Abram did was shrug again. “Why don’t you just sic one of those friends of yours on him, the guys in the fancy suits who look like walking steroid advertisements?”

Abram made a tsk’ing sound as he flicked aside his cigarette. “Violence doesn’t solve everything, you know,” he said, his lilting voice dripping with sarcasm.

The flat look Andrew gave him in return made him huff, and they walked about half a block in silence.

“I’ll probably be taking off in another day or two,” Abram said as he shoved his hands into the pockets of his jeans. “Just about wrapped up the business here.”

“Ah.” Andrew thought about that, and how the man avoided answering any real questions when they were posed to him. Most likely wouldn’t be worth it to ask if he’d be back any time soon, even if Abram would know. Best to just figure out where to move on to next and leave the man as an unanswered mystery, have him as a nagging sensation in the back of Andrew’s mind. It would be annoying… but it would be something different, maybe help break up the exhaustion and anger and bitterness. Maybe that was what he needed.

“Well, you’re not the first man to run fleeing from Nicky’s incessant yapping,” Andrew said as they came up to a branch in the small, narrow street, and beside him, Abram went stiff; three figures stepped forward from a shop’s shadowed alcove, and as Andrew watched, another two approached from the left.

He recognized one of them, the Russian who was obsessed with Abram, dressed in dark clothes and smiling as if very pleased while he called out something to Abram. Andrew didn’t speak Russian, but he recognized one word in all of that which put him on guard immediately – Moriyama.

Whatever was said made Abram’s expression go blank as he stood there with his hands loose at his side. “Andrew, I believe it would be a very good time for you to leave now.”

“Probably,” Andrew agreed as he eyed the men circling around them – definitely brawlers, possibly armed. “But not happening.” Not when they’d said the magic word. Oh yes, Abram was proving to be very interesting indeed.

Abram sighed as if in disappointment, then called out something in Russian. Whatever he said, it wiped the smile off of the face of the one guy, and before Andrew could blink, Abram was moving forward, right at the man with a flash of silver in his hands. Huh, fast bastard, Andrew had the time to think, and then he was swinging his fists at some Russian prick almost twice his size who came rushing at him. Why did they always think that just because he was short, he was an easy target? Andrew ducked beneath a meaty fist and hit him hard in the left kidney, then followed it up with a punch to the throat. One guy down, he spun around just in time to dodge another bastard, this one with a knife in his hand.

Well, if he wanted to play that way…. Andrew pulled one of his own, and noticed that two of the other Russians were already down, and Abram was in the middle of taking out a third. Nearly distracted by the sight of Abram slipping beneath the guard of the guy trying to pin him against the wall, Andrew had to backpedal out of reach before he was sliced across the chest then kicked the bastard he was fighting away about a foot or two before rushing in to slash at his face to blind him. While the guy yelped in pain, he flipped the knife in his grip and brought it across the bastard’s exposed throat.

Andrew watched the man crumple to the ground, then jerked to the side when he heard Abram choke out his name; he caught a glimpse of the guy he’d knocked down earlier lurch toward him with something in his hand and lashed out with his knife, the blade catching on bone. As he punched the man in the side of the head with his left hand, Abram sidled up and jammed a knife into the man’s upper right thigh before pulling him aside.

“Dammit.” The curse came out quiet but heartfelt as Abram looked around as if searching for something, but there wasn’t anything but five men scattered about the cobblestone street, either dead or bleeding out. Meanwhile, Andrew stood there breathing in and out with blood on his hands and an oddly serene air to him now that the violence was done. He didn’t feel a sense of guilt or panic, just felt a little tired as the adrenalin rush started to fade away. Tired and curious and more alive than he had in years. Funny, how someone trying to kill you did that.

He stood there for a few seconds as if waiting for someone to yell at him, for the sounds of sirens or screams or… or something, because in the past something bad always happened when he had defended himself or stood up or shit like this had happened… and nothing. When Abram bent down to wipe his hands and knife on the coat of the one Russian who had started the mess, Andrew stirred and took that as a sign to do the same with the corpse nearest him; it took a little effort to find a clean bit of material, because yeah, throat wounds bled out like a bitch.

“What was that about?” he asked as Abram then began to riffle through the coat of the Russian who had spoken to him, the one who had tried to track him down and had met with him and his uncle. “What did he want with you?”

Abram ignored the questions as he pulled out the man’s wallet, and Andrew noticed that the man was carrying a gun. That surprised him, and he wondered why the prick hadn’t pulled it, but surmised that it would have been too loud, would have drawn too much attention if bullets had been fired. When Abram moved on to the next body, he spoke up again. “How are you involved with the Moriyamas?”

That got a reaction; Abram’s shoulders tensed beneath his bloody sweatshirt and he paused before he moved on to the next dead Russian. “You don’t need to know that.” He spoke in a blank tone, with no emotion whatsoever.

Oh to hell with that. Andrew moved to get in Abram’s way when he was ready to pick clean the next body. “I just helped you kill a couple of guys, so yes, I think I do need to know,” he said with a cold smile.

Abram answered him with that chilling smile from before. “No, you do not.” He began pull money out of the stolen wallets then shoved it at Andrew, who refused to accept it. “All you need to know is that remaining here will be a big mistake, so take this money and get on the first plane back to the States.”

“Like hell I will,” Andrew told him while he attempted to shove the money back, only for Abram’s hand to refuse to budge.

“Like hell you won’t,” the Brit said in an almost personable tone, that same cruel smile still on his lips. “Because if you don’t, you’ll be dead before morning. No, Canada probably will be better,” he continued while Andrew stared at him. “Toronto should be lovely this time of year, or there’s Vancouver.”

“You’re not serious.”  Andrew glared as more money was shoved at him. “What, you kill a few people together and then that’s it, go fuck off? Where’s the commitment?”

The smile finally slipped away, to be replaced by exasperation. “This isn’t a joke, dammit! They’ll kill you, you prat!”

“Who, those guys’ friends?” Andrew waved a bloody hand toward the dead bodies behind him.

“No, not them.” Abram gave him a level look as he shoved the money into the pockets of Andrew’s jacket. “No more questions, just go.”

“Or?”

“Or nothing. You don’t understand what this is,” Abram told him in a condescending tone as he pulled out a phone. “In less than twenty minutes, this mess is going to be well on its way to cleaned up. Any video footage, any witnesses – any record will vanish. Any problems will vanish.” Abram nodded to him. “Do you know what you are?”

“Bigger than a breadbox but smaller than a house?” Andrew drawled as he reached out to finish wiping his hands clean on Abram’s sweatshirt.

Abram’s lips twisted in outright annoyance. “I’d like to say that I’d miss you, but then I’m sure I can just stub my toe against the bloody wall and I’ll feel much the same. Goodbye, Andrew. Get on the damn plane or die, it’s up to you now.” He gave a slight wave as he tapped on the phone, clearly making a call as he turned to walk away.

Andrew heard him talk to someone named ‘Micha’, his voice growing faint the further away he got, and decided that it might be best to have a change of scenery – it was beginning to become a bit ripe just there at the moment. He backtracked a few blocks, mindful to avoid attention because of the state of his clothes, to a small fountain where he washed off his hands better, as well as the knife he’d used, before pulling out the money that Abram had shoved into his pockets.

Hmm, apparently it paid to be a Russian gangster or whatever those assholes had been, considering the nice stack of euros he’d been given. Andrew tapped his fingers against the wad of money before he shoved it into the back pocket of his jeans, then removed his bloody jacket. After emptying out its pockets, he then threw it away in the next trash bin he found, where he pushed the ruined jacket deep inside.

There was a bit of a chill in the air, but if Abram could walk around in just a sweatshirt, Andrew certainly wasn’t going to complain. Once that was done, he lit a cigarette and headed toward a busier part of the city while he figured out what he was going to do.

From what Abram had said, it was safe to assume that he ‘translated’ for a powerful crime organization. It was probably also safe to assume that his uncle was a part of it, considering that the man had associated with the Russians on several occasions. Not to mention that Nicky said that Abram worked for his uncle.

So did Andrew do the wise thing and take the money, go pack his bags and return home? Or pay O Canada a visit like Abram had suggested? Hmm, Andrew had never done the ‘run and hide thing’ very well. Or the wise thing. He wasn’t much on taking anyone’s advice, to be honest.

There was the simple fact that tonight had been the first time in much too long that he’d felt alive, that he’d been surprised, that he hadn’t felt as if he was just going through some rote motions. That people had died so he could feel this way… didn’t really bother him. They would have killed him without any pause, that much had been clear, and somehow he doubted that Abram would have been happy if things had turned out differently. Not with the Moriyamas involved.

There was that name again – Moriyama. Andrew had thought he’d left that behind at Palmetto State when he’d walked away from Kevin Day, when he’d been offered the pro contracts for Exy and realized that he didn’t care for any of them, that the prospect of playing at a professional level didn’t excite him after all, that it didn’t push him to so much as get out of bed each day. Kevin had promised him something to live for, something to make him feel alive… and had failed to come through in the end.

But this? Andrew glanced at the bruised knuckles holding the lit cigarette, at the slight tremble in his hand not from exhaustion but the rare pulse of excitement. There was something here, was possibility and the hope for more violence and a challenge. All things he hadn’t had in much too long.

And perhaps some answers, too, in regards to a certain British mystery.

Andrew pulled out his phone to send a text to Nicky that he wouldn’t be back that night, in case his cousin hadn’t figured it out, then went looking for a hotel. He’d need to get some rest, because tomorrow was going to be a busy day.

*******