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Nova, Baby

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As far as shakedowns go, it wasn’t their most successful, but it hadn’t been for naught, either.

Aleks thumbed through the thin stack of cash as he walked across the empty street, Brett trailing behind him quietly.

It was Quiet Brett, which worried Aleks more than most other things in his life, including the people trying to muscle in on his territory. Quiet Brett was a Thoughtful Brett, and a Thoughtful Brett usually meant that Aleks was in for a lecture, a lesson, something he didn’t want to hear, or all three at once.

“Spit it out,” he finally sighed, stopping at the corner to stuff the money in his hoodie pocket and turning to look at Brett.

“It’s nothin’,” Brett shrugged him off, which just made Aleks more worried.

“Seriously. You’re too quiet. What?”

Brett rubbed at his face, expression not quite worried. More troubled.

“We barely got two hundred out of that guy.”

“His sales weren’t good this week,” Aleks shrugged, “so?”

“Yeah, except his sales aren’t good any week. And neither are any of the other dealers paying rent. We’re bleeding out.”

“Oh, cool, this again,” Aleks groaned, walking backwards across the street. “We aren’t bleeding out, for fuck’s sake. What do we even need fat stacks for, dude, we’re -”

“Tiny? Insignificant? Holding down a handful of blocks?”

“Dude.” Aleks stopped walking, frowning at him over his shoulder. “We aren’t insignificant.”

“We’re gonna be,” Brett said, for what felt like the millionth time, and might have been. “We need to start seriously thinking about this, Aleks. If you’re not growing you might as well be dying. And we’re stagnant.”

When they hit the sidewalk, Brett caught him by the back of his hoodie, so not to collide with a group of teenage girls, who he smiled at as they passed. They made an eyech sound and Aleks made it back - teenagers were really the fucking worst, always acting like they could see right through him and knew he was some kind of imposter, as if they even remembered what it had been before - then shook Brett off of him. There had to be a time and a place where being nice was worth it, but Aleks sure as hell hadn’t found it yet.

“Why can’t you just be content with what you have?” he asked, shoving his hands in his pockets as they walked on.

“Are you kidding?” Brett stopped but Aleks kept going, refusing to play into Brett’s theatrics. He had a habit of talking to Aleks like he was a kid or an idiot. Short and slow sentences like an asshole. As if he wasn’t sure Aleks had a complete grasp on English yet.

“Da,” Aleks said, nodding, and Brett started walking again. With his long-gone thick accent, he said, “That is me. Jokester.”

“I’m being serious.”

“So am I,” Aleks said, his jaw tight. He didn’t bother turning around to meet Brett’s eye. “I’m happy where we are. Why can’t you just, -”

“Because it’s been almost two years and we’ve done nothing but nickel-and-dime the same twenty square blocks.” Without looking he knew Brett was rubbing his face, trying to keep his temper from exploding out of it. His voice was a guitar string stretched an octave too high. “This isn't what I wanna do forever. This isn’t what you wanted. Sure as hell isn’t what you pitched.”

“Is this performance review?”

“Maybe it is.”

Aleks finally stopped and Brett did too, still a few feet behind him. There was a bar to his left that was a fire house just a few years ago, the big doors thrown open, and it looked fucking inviting. Good music, even on the street he could feel the bass under his feet, and from the corner of his eye he could see all the pretty girls and boys, the liquor bottles behind the bar sparkling. He thought very hard about slipping into the place and disappearing into that low lighting, the mess of bodies and avoiding Brett for the night, and then the rest of his life.

Brett was quiet, just waiting for Aleks to say something, and with every second that passed the tension between them got tighter. Heavier. After weeks of it, Aleks still had no idea how to shake it. Fighting with Brett would’ve been easy if Aleks didn’t understand. If he could just plant his feet and refuse to fucking move, not giving Brett an inch, just generally be a stubborn piece of shit. But he did understand, which made it all very, very fucking difficult.

There was just nothing he could do about it.

“What would be your plan here?” he said, and finally spun around to look at him. “You wanna push towards South Lo? That would go over real great, dude. Or maybe we should just relocate entirely right to the middle of fucking Vinewood.”

“You’re incapable of having an adult conversation.” Brett pushed past him, all but stomping to the corner just to stand there and wait for traffic to lighten up enough to cross.

“You realize there’s four of us now, right? It’s just us, Trevor, and Lindsey. That’s all we got. You wanna take over the world with four goddamn people.”

With a sigh, Brett faced him, and not for the first time Aleks was struck by how tired he looked. Under the bill of his hat, his eyes were shadowed and dark-ringed, and although he didn’t want to admit it, Aleks was starting to feel the same way. Their neighborhood had begun to feel like a cage and Brett was shouldering the bars of it, looking to break out, and maybe Aleks was starting to as well. But what they had was safe, and theirs, and expanding would be dangerous.

And maybe they’d lose what they had already. And what they had wasn’t expendable. Not to Aleks. He’d fought fucking hard for those twenty square blocks. Losing them was not an option. It wasn’t just some random fucking neighborhood. It was personal, it meant something to him, and Brett knew that.

But it wasn’t a lie - he’d pitched something much bigger when Brett agreed to be a part of this. Penthouses and Lamborghinis and heists, real fucking big-time heists, and he’d meant it all. Those things had always been the plan. And they still were, sort of.

But four people wasn’t shit. It was barely a crew.

They just didn’t have the resources.

“Look,” he said under the uncomfortable silence of Brett’s fucking glare, “we got this thing with Farid coming up - I don’t know. Maybe we can fucking...parlay it into something bigger, you know? Clone the VINs and turn them over. If we can’t move them we call Anonymous. That’s maybe half a mil and there’s a fucking lot we could do with that.”

Brett didn’t say anything. He just turned and headed across the street to his truck and Aleks followed, taking a deep breath and trying to calm down. Blowing up at Brett wouldn’t accomplish anything. But he’d been taking deep breaths for weeks over this shit and there was only so much he could contain.

“You and this fucking neighborhood,” Brett said lowly, more to himself than Aleks, but he heard it crystal clear anyway. “I know you got history with it, but fuck, man, we’re going nowhere fucking fast confined to it.”

Brett unlocked the doors but Aleks continued standing in the street, mouth dry and hands sweaty and suddenly so fucking angry he couldn’t see straight.

“If we had more people, maybe -”

“You don’t think there’s people?” Brett said, hand braced against the driver’s side window. “You don’t think there’d be people running to our fucking door if they thought you had it open? You act like we’re - like you’re going at this alone. We have friends, Aleks. We have fucking people we can count on. You know that. You just don’t wanna use it.”

“Why should we? Why fucking should we if we don’t have to?” Aleks said, just managing to stop himself from yelling. “We got this far alone - just us, hell, we didn’t even have Trevor when this started. It was just you and me and Lindsey. Why do we need anyone else? I’m happy, Brett.”

“I’m not,” Brett said and it fell between them like a fucking meteor. “I don’t think Lindsey is either. We want more, man. We’re ready as a crew for more than this. Aren’t you tired of living in the shadow of a fucking ghost?”

“Don’t,” Aleks said sharply. Brett sighed and shook his head.

Aleks glanced around to avoid Brett - the store fronts, the people walking and milling about, most of them laughing and drunk and flushed, they looked happy. They were happy. He couldn’t fucking remember the last time he’d seen Brett or Lindsey look like that. Or Trevor. Or himself, for all his bullshit posturing was worth.

He needed a drink.

Without saying a word, Aleks grabbed his skateboard from the backseat of the truck and slammed the door. He could practically feel Brett rolling his eyes.

Dropping the board, Aleks stepped on it with his left foot, rolling it back and forth as he tried to figure out what the hell he wanted to say. All his thoughts were loud, jumbled, and all the parts that were focused just wanted to get fucked up. Wanted to just forget about all this for another day.

“The Farid shit will - it’ll change things. Put us back on track. We can move those if it works out, maybe you can make a Haus call, I don’t know. We’ll fucking…” He popped the board up with his heel and let it fall. “Find our footing again.”

Brett didn’t respond and a long silence passed between them after Aleks tossed him the measly take from their shakedown. The avenue was loud, felt alive, and Aleks wanted to lose himself in it. It was his. It fucking belonged to him. And he planned on taking everything it had to offer for the night.

“You sure you don’t want a ride home?”

“I’m not going home,” Aleks said shortly. “Thanks though.”

Brett huffed out an unamused laugh, like, yeah, it figures, full of the kind of disappointment that could make Aleks’ blood boil, and climbed into his truck. Aleks didn’t even wait for him to start the engine before he kicked off, skating in the opposite direction Brett would be heading in. Maybe he’d circle around and go to the bar they’d passed.

Like every other time they almost, but not quite, had this conversation, Aleks was left feeling angry and empty in a way he didn’t understand. Brett wasn’t wrong but neither was Aleks, and he had no idea where that fucking left them. Stagnant, Brett had said. They were at a goddamn stalemate.

-

The deal was supposed to help soothe the ruffled feathers of his crew, but that wasn’t even the biggest issue. It wasn’t that it had taken weeks to set up the meeting because Farid was a busy fuckin’ guy around these parts. Not even the investment into the Immortal brand that was lost.

What made Aleks the angriest was that this imposter, if he existed, didn’t even have the balls to show the fuck up himself. That he’d sent some kid to lie through his teeth and snipe the deal.

And, fine, maybe he didn’t look much younger than Aleks, but he looked so goddamn out of place - like he’d just stepped out of a high school chemistry class and stumbled into a shady back alley transaction. With his jean jacket and dopey little smile, he’d looked so surreal just strolling toward their little huddle like he’d been a part of the original plans that it had taken them all a hot second to even bother reaching for their guns, Farid’s guys included.

“Hi, I hate to interrupt,” he said, tone so light Aleks thought he might ask for the time or talk about the weather. His fingers curled around the grip of his gun, finally, when the guy went on, “but my boss sent me. I’m sure glad I got here in time. I work for Nova.”

It wasn’t quite the punch it used to be, hearing that name, but it wasn’t easy to stop himself from reacting either. Brett put a hand out, a non-verbal reminder to not react how he used to and to be more fucking reserved in front of Farid. He couldn’t help but draw his gun, though, fingers tight.

“You’d better watch your fucking tongue,” he gritted, “and what names you’re throwing around, before I cut it out.”

“You’re definitely not from here, huh?” Farid gave the kid a once-over. “Definitely not from around these parts if you’re bringing Nova up in mixed company.”

“Nova’s dead,” Brett said shortly, cutting the topic off. His hand was on the .33 cal on his hip, but the other was still holding Aleks back, if only metaphorically. “Try again. Better yet, get out of here before you lose your life, kid.”

The guy blinked and Aleks had to narrow his eyes and kinda peer at him, try to figure out why this preschooler looked so calm while vulturing their deal or if he seemed to have any idea of the weight of what he’d just said. But no, there wasn’t a hint of stress on his face or in the casual slouch of his shoulders.

Looking closer, Aleks could make out a familiar logo on the breast of his jacket - a vertical rectangle that he hadn’t seen in almost a year. That patch had burnt away with the rest of the Hub.

“I just talked to him,” the guy finally said, slowly like he’d been weighing whether to reply or not. “He’s not dead. Who told you he was dead? Rumors can be so wild.” He turned back to Farid, “Anyway, I wanna talk about our relationship. Nova wants some pretty cars. He wants Lambos.”

“I got pretty cars,” Farid said, “I got Lambos.”

“He wants those Lambos,” the guy pointed at the cars - Aleks’ cars - where they were parked at the end of the alley, partially covered by tarp. “Specifically those Lambos.”

“Come on, dude,” Aleks scoffed, loud enough to get Farid’s attention. Trying to control the anger in his stomach, he forced, “Everyone knows Nova’s dead. No one’s gonna buy your bullshit here, right, Farid?”

Farid’s mouth tightened. He looked between the two of them, Aleks and this fucking guy with his logo, and Aleks barely held back a curse when he saw the way his expression darkened. “No offense, Immortal,” Farid shrugged, almost managing to actually sound sorry, “but… well. If Nova’s back and he wants the cars… It’s nothing personal, you know?”

Aleks’ fingers clenched for a moment around his gun but let go quickly when Farid caught the movement. There was a warning in the lines of his face. No matter how furious he felt, they had to leave on good terms. Giving Farid a problem was a bad idea. Arguing with him wouldn’t accomplish a fucking thing except give them a shitty reputation as sore losers and bad for business. So Aleks holstered his gun, shoved his right hand in his pocket where it was safe, and dragged the other through his hair.

“Yeah, I get it, man,” he said, and felt Brett shift unhappily beside him. “No big deal. We’ll hit you up in a few. See what else you got.”

Farid nodded and reached to shake both their hands, Brett and then Aleks, and when he and his guys turned towards the infant who’d barged in, Aleks let himself look at him again. He hoped to hell Farid wouldn’t move forward with just this guy’s word; it was crazy he’d even listened to him so easily to begin with. Nova was dead, patch or not, and everyone knew it.

Aleks had looked. Had waited almost too long, hoping.

I just talked to him or whatever, the kid was a liar, but Aleks bit his tongue the best he could and hoped that when Farid figured it out he’d make him pay for it, if Aleks couldn’t do it himself.

Brett managed to stay quiet until they reached the car and then he hummed, the tiny sound setting Aleks on edge, and said, “Well, that went well.”

“Don’t,” Aleks snapped. “Don’t fucking do that. What the fuck was that? Throwing around Nova’s fuckin’ - his name -”

“Don’t know, but Farid is going to kill that kid when he can’t produce Nova. And if he doesn’t, someone else will. A lot of people aren’t going to like that name in some little idiot’s mouth.”

“Yeah, no shit. I’ll be first in fuckin’ line.” Aleks slumped down in the passenger seat. He didn’t fucking like it. “This is such bullshit. I wanted those fucking cars, Brett.”

And maybe he’d wanted them to calm Brett down about their stagnation more than he actually gave a shit about the money, but he’d wanted them either goddamn way.

“Alright, calm down, Verruca,” Bret said easily, although Aleks could hear how angry Brett was too, maybe more than he was, simmering just underneath. “He’ll get in touch when this falls through, which it will. Farid’s good like that. No Nova, no sale, and he’ll call.”

Brett was using his I wanna shoot someone voice. It was sort of calming to not hear it directed at him for once.

“Who the fuck’s Verruca?” Aleks asked. He didn’t like to think about Nova or the Hub or the bloody history their stretch of land had. Didn’t like thinking about any of that shit and hadn’t had to for a long time now that people stopped bringing it up around him.

“Verruca Salt. Willy Wonka?” Brett peeled onto the street, making a face at Aleks’ silence. “Presents and prizes and sweets and surprises in all shapes and sizes. And now!”

“I hate you.”

“Don’t care how, I want it now.”

Aleks turned on the radio and cranked the volume to the highest notch to drown him out.

The ride back to base wasn’t quiet and Brett tried to joke the air clear but the car still stank of defeat when they parked. After what happened, he’d prayed for his apartment to be empty - that Brett would just drop him off and bounce and anything left to talk about could be saved for the morning - but he had no such luck.

Lindsey’s tiny yellow car was tucked neatly between two pickups down the street and chances were that Trevor was around too. Both of them would be anxious to know how the deal went and it was exhausting already just thinking about attempting to explain the clusterfuck of a situation they’d been a part of. Or maybe facilitated a little. Certainly didn’t help.

After Brett parked they sat in the truck for a minute, Aleks scrubbing his hand over his face and pressing hard on the bridge of his nose, fingers digging in right where a headache was blooming. It was fucking annoying he felt shook and embarrassing that he reacted the way he did. But it was more than a habit, it was instinct. He’d beat that name out of a lot of mouths, and to hear someone say it so fucking casually lit a fire in his gut he thought had blown out a long time ago.

“Aleks.” Brett turned off the engine and was looking at him only through his peripheral, his focus on the windows of Aleks’ apartment instead. “Don’t turn this into a thing. We’ll get the cars. It’s just a hiccup.”

There wasn’t any use giving Brett a response. He was just as angry as Aleks was, just for mostly different reasons, so they just climbed out of the truck and up the stairs to the apartment, where they found Trevor’s hopeful face and a very resigned looking Lindsey.

“Can’t help but notice neither of you rolled up in a Lamborghini,” she sighed, and gestured to Trevor until he went to get them a few beers.

“For now, we’re still living that Kia life, baby,” Brett said. “You wouldn’t believe me if I told you.”

“But you’re still gonna tell us, right?” Trevor asked. He had two beers in each hand, hanging from between his fingers, and they clinked loudly against the counter when he put them down.

Every noise felt like a fucking gunshot in Aleks’ head.

“Yep, gather ‘round,” Brett said, but Aleks was already gone.

He grabbed two of the beers and left them all in the kitchen, hustling down the long hall to his bedroom. Mishka was sitting on his bed at attention, tail wagging, and Aleks put the bottles on the nightstand as he collapsed next to her. He didn’t care what Brett told them. Didn’t give a shit what Lindsey or Trevor would think. He’d wanted those fucking cars. They needed those cars. Brett had all but promised Fakehaus they’d be ready by the end of the week to fence.

He sighed, burying his hands in Mishka’s thick coat as she licked at his face and neck.

The neighborhood was theirs, it was his, and if people were forgetting that - if they were going to start throwing around Nova’s name again - he’d just have to fucking remind them.

-

Aleks took a handful of chill pills to calm his nerves over the next week. When that didn’t work, he went for a few long walks with Mishka, got drunk with Lindsey, played some games with Trev, all while avoiding Brett. But the sting of it was too hard to shake off.

They were still waiting for Farid’s call. Brett assured them all that it would come when that kid’s bootleg Nova got made, but Aleks was sick of sitting around and waiting.

Instead, he headed to The AH Brew. Maybe he could catch Jack, if she was working, and ask for any leads on some other worthwhile rides to use for their now-paused deal with Fakehaus. If not, he could at least get some good coffee.

Around eleven was always prime time to stop in, after the morning commuters tapered off but the lunch rush was only a half an hour out and they were brewing fresh. Aleks became a regular when the shop was remodeled, and a week never felt complete until he stopped in to order his usual and relax in a no guns, no beef, no stress environment.

As usual, the place wasn’t busy when he pushed open the door, the tiny chime above his head announcing his entrance. A couple of bald, tattooed guys were sipping Americanos in the corner and a punk with more piercings than visible skin was chugging what Aleks could only assume was Godly Shit in one of the armchairs. Geoff, Jeremy, and Ryan were all working the counter - Geoff speaking closely with a guy he didn’t recognize, who was laughing loud enough that it immediately caught Aleks’ attention.

Aleks had never seen the guy around before, which wasn’t weird but was also…not not weird. Especially for how comfortably he stood with Geoff, of all people, as if he were a friend. Dark hair was pulled back and tied into a tight bun at the top of his head, a beard just barely groomed enough to be called kempt, baggy clothes that didn’t do him any favors, and that laugh taking up the whole shop even while his shoulders curled in to cut down his height. Something struck Aleks as familiar, though he couldn’t place what. Maybe he was just one of those neighborhood kids that gravitated to Geoff.

The guy said something and Geoff laughed that weird ass giggle of his, and when he leaned back to catch his breath, hand on his chest, he noticed Aleks.

“Hey, man,” he greeted, his voice still light with laughter. “Hot or cold?”

“Cold,” Aleks said. “And big, with like, ninety shots of espresso. I’m tired and it’s about a hundred and fifty degrees out there.”

“Coming right up,” Geoff slapped his hand on the counter. “Jeremy make that come right up.”

Seeing the Fakes like this was always strange and would never stop being strange. Most of them probably still had both feet in the business, but once Geoff got out of it for good, and got sober, all of them seemed to shift, somehow. And Los Santos had shifted around them.

Aleks hung back a little, giving Geoff and whoever the hell he was talking to some space, but it didn’t go unnoticed and Geoff waved him closer.

Even as just the owner of a coffee shop, it was smart to listen to Geoff. So Aleks went. Got closer. And the dude, the fucking stranger Geoff had been talking to turned his head, just a little, just a fucking enough for Aleks to see his nose and big, round eyes.

He thought of the patch on that kid’s jacket. Thought of him saying I just talked to him. Nova. It had been over a year, but Aleks knew his face, that absolutely not at all dead face. He was thinner and looked older but it was definitely fucking him and Aleks struggled for a second with his own tongue, trying to say a half-dozen things at once but none of it making it out of his mouth.

“You ever meet Nova?”

Aleks heard Geoff but couldn’t understand the question. Had he ever met Nova? A gunshot wouldn’t have left him as breathless as he felt, looking from Geoff to the man in front of him, a ghost, a fucking dead man with piercing eyes, a quickly disappearing smile, his cheeks rosy, and very much alive.

No, he’d never met Nova. Not in any way that would count.

And then he’d died.

There’d never been a reason for anyone to introduce them. The neighborhoods the Hub members ran were big but that never made their presence small, and every job Aleks had done coming up was under the shadow of them.

Aleks had admired them.

And when they were gone, when Nova was dead, Aleks had-

Before Aleks could process it any further, or even try to make sense of what was happening, Geoff continued on, “This is Aleks. You know about him, right?”

“Probably not,” Aleks said, feeling flush with some kind of embarrassment, his stomach turning. “Holy shit.”

He was moving forward without weighing whether or not it was a good idea, his feet carrying him right up to the counter. The instinct to touch was there, making his fingers itch, because this couldn’t be real. They’d all been so certain Nova was dead, that he’d been taken out around the same time the Hub collapsed. People had looked for him. Aleks had looked. But Geoff was smiling like this wasn’t strange, as if it wasn’t a fucking miracle.

“You’re alive,” Aleks breathed. “What the fuck. What the fuck?

He’d always liked Nova: the way he carried himself, his reputation, how people lowered their voices when they said his name, like they were superstitious. As if saying it loud enough, or three times in a row or something, could summon him. Rumors of the violence and blood and how dangerous he really was, and all of it contrasting with the easy way he could smile at a kid he didn’t even know.

Yeah, Aleks had liked Nova. He’d searched for a long time after it all blew up, spent weeks with his ear to the ground hoping he’d hear something. Because someone like Nova couldn’t be dead.

And, fuck, he’d been right.

Nova was looking at him warily, slow and calculating, and Aleks knew he was sizing him up. Trying to make sense of who he was to Geoff, who he was in fucking general, to be falling over himself so spectacularly just to see him standing there. But Aleks’ gut was churning, excitement and confusion and an unexpected thread of anger.

“Where the fuck have you been?” he asked, bracing one hand on the counter as he leaned closer. “We thought you were dead. What - did you just - fucking run? Where have you been?”

The suspicion on Nova’s face turned to anger faster than Aleks could blink. He straightened up, his shoulders squaring, and cast his eyes on Geoff in a way that was clearly demanding an explanation for Aleks’ entire existence.

Geoff clicked his tongue against the back of his teeth and said, simply as if it wasn’t a loaded fucking answer, “Aleks’ crew runs a few blocks of East Lo. You might be familiar with them.”

“The Immortals,” Nova said, and he didn’t sound happy but it still stirred something in Aleks to hear his crew - his name - in Nova’s mouth.

Geoff hummed.

“He wasn’t fucking blond,” Nova said and Geoff laughed.

“Nah, that’s pretty new.”

New feelings were popping up - frustration and annoyance - that they were talking about him as if he wasn’t there, that he wasn’t getting an answer, and they were fucking trivializing it all. Who Aleks was and what he’d done and that after all the time Nova had been a rotting goddamn corpse he was just standing there, breathing. Breathing as if he’d never stopped.

“Did you fucking run?” he asked again, louder than the first time. Everything from the last year and a half felt suffocatingly heavy suddenly: the disarray and the people who’d gotten hurt when everything blew to shit. The damage that had been done in the space Nova’s death had left behind.

The shadow of him, of who Nova was, cast across Aleks’ entire life since the moment he’d disappeared.

“Who the fuck are you?” Nova said, loud and dangerous, rounding on Aleks in an instant.

“He just told you who the fuck I am,” Aleks found himself saying, his fingers closing into a fist on the counter.

“Yeah,” Nova said quickly, his voice low, face so red it looked like he might pop. He laughed, humorless and dark. “You’re the small-time hustler who saw an opening and thought you’d try being a big boy.”

“I’m the one who’s been running this shit,” Aleks snapped. There was a heat crawling up the back of his neck and he pushed his knuckles into the counter until they ached. “‘Cause where were you? Where the fuck were you, dude? Things got hard and you fucked off? Do you even know what you left -”

From the corner of his eye Aleks could see Geoff’s back straighten and Ryan had moved out from behind the counter to lean on a display case just a few feet behind Nova.

“Say another fucking word,” Nova slammed his fist down next to Aleks’, and didn’t back away even when Ryan cleared his throat, “I’ll -”

“You’ll what?” Aleks pulled off his sunglasses and Nova took in his face like he was committing it to memory or trying to chase memories of it that already existed. “What the hell you gonna do? Rip my tongue out?”

Nova’s expression seemed to suggest maybe and Aleks swallowed, pushing away the flare of nervousness that swept over him. It stuttered his breath and Nova didn’t miss it. He lingered on Aleks’ face again, which he knew was flushed, hot from his ears down to the hollow of his throat. A mixture of a rage that sideswiped him and how close Nova was standing, his eyes, and the smell of his cologne.

And the fact, God, he was alive. Fucking alive after everything.

Nova slowed his voice, made each word a punch, “You moved in on the wrong real estate. But play time’s over.” He gave Aleks a once over, made a face like he wasn't particularly impressed by his skinny jeans and loose-fitting tank top. “Daddy’s home.”

Aleks felt his entire face go hot without his permission.

“Are you ser - are you for fucking real -” Aleks spit out, tongue racing to keep up with the way his brain was tumbling and not quite making the cut. Nova didn’t say anything but he gave off a distinct air of victory that tasted sour.

Geoff shifted to make room for Jeremy, who finally set his order down, and Aleks yanked his wallet and slapped a five dollar bill on the counter. Ryan was edging closer, and he could feel the tension radiating off the Fakes. Whatever was happening, it was rapidly spiraling out of control, and they couldn’t do it here.

“The deal,” he said, swiping his cup and trying not to squeeze the plastic so hard the lid fell off. “You - those were my fucking Lambos. You can’t just show up and act like -”

“Like I own the place?” Nova sniped, voice pleasant as he raised his own cup to his mouth to take a smug sip.

“Like people still give a shit,” Aleks snapped back, and popped the hot bottom of Nova’s drink so fast he hadn’t even decided to do it before it was done.

Nova choked as hot liquid tipped forward unexpectedly, spilling over the side of his mug, onto his face and beard and his stupid fucking graphic tee. It was immature and stupid and he regretted it immediately, even though he saw a stifled laugh from Geoff from the corner of his eye. If nothing else, it managed to diffuse some of the dangerous tension between them.

He whirled around, stomping back to the door and he tried not to feel smug about the shrieked “MOTHERFUCKER!” flung after him.

The bell chimed again and he didn't look back, but he made sure he had his middle finger high until he disappeared around the corner, just in case Nova chased after him.

-

The next couple weeks were a nightmare, both personally and outside of his crew. Aleks didn’t want to think about it, but whenever the inevitable thoughts did appear he did his best to imagine the upcoming headaches as a faceless fucker and not Nova.

That made it easier. Made it safer, in a way. Let him keep a distance and let the hot-white anger Aleks felt about the entire encounter at the Brew die down a little. Die down enough that he let himself feel happy - if only very, very briefly.

There was no doubt Nova was going to make his life miserable, but the wide-eyed kid in him was still happy he wasn’t dead. Nova was alive, and he didn’t feel bad about letting himself be fucking over the moon about it for a day or so. That kid couldn’t help it, but the man he was now - head of the Immortals, in charge of these twenty square blocks, a recognized name - was mortified and furious and beginning to itch for a fight, for Nova to just make a move already, to get whatever it was about to happen over with.

Aleks woke up to Brett and Lindsey already in his apartment two weeks after the Brew incident. Everything smelling like coffee, a rich dark roast that pulled at Aleks’ feet until he slid down the stairs, tired and boneless, and followed their voices into the kitchen. They didn’t always get along, but Lindsey was a goddamn vision, tossing a breakfast sandwich at him and holding out a cup of coffee where she was sitting at his counter by way of a greeting.

“You’re going to tell me something fucking annoying. I know it. It’s too early, Brett,” Aleks said, taking the coffee and slumping unhappily into a kitchen chair.

Brett had been weird about the Nova-Back-From-The-Dead thing. Objectively not as weird as Aleks, and not as weird as it probably warranted, but still weird. When not aggressively pushing his agenda towards Aleks, he’d been soft and kind which was probably more trepidation than anything else. It felt a little like him shoving a baby pacifier in Aleks’ mouth, like he thought having Nova back around was going to shatter him or something. He hated it, but it wasn’t worth calling out. Not yet anyway.

“It’s one in the afternoon,” Brett said, not turning around from making his own coffee but Aleks could see the look he exchanged with Lindsey. “Trevor saw some signs that,” he paused to scoff, for no other reason than emphasis, “Nova is pushing back in a little more overtly than a few shadows on the borders.”

“Are people talking or - how does Trevor know -”

“Literally signs,” Lindsey said and she almost sounded like she might laugh.

“Don’t tell me -”

“They’re tagging. That stupid stylized name of his. There’s also flyers.” Brett turned with his coffee and sat down next to Aleks, Lindsey following and taking the last empty seat. “They’re directed at you, I think. I’d assume. Pretty vague though.”

He tossed a folded up paper from his pocket at Aleks, his jaw doing that thing that meant he was trying not to laugh. Lindsey wasn’t even trying.

It was an advertisement. Aleks only got as far as daycare and bleach-blond baby before he closed his fist around it and leaned back to reach into his kitchen junk drawer for a lighter.

“He’s trying to get a rise out of you,” Brett said, putting out the embers of Aleks’ impromptu fire as they hit the table. “It’s working.”

“It’s not.” Aleks dropped the flaming paper into the sink and grabbed his breakfast sandwich, unwrapping it and shoving half of it in his mouth before Lindsey even put out the rest of the fire. “I want him dead.”

That made Brett laugh, because he was a fucking shithead.

“Businesses?” Aleks said around a mouthful of egg and bacon.

Lindsey made a face at him and said, “A few flipped. Probably whoever he bothered to talk to. They hear his name and…” She gave a little helpless, frustrated shrug then hide her face behind a coffee mug.

“We’re gonna need to do crowd control, fast.” Brett lost his amused look, “Before this gets out of control.”

Aleks didn’t bother to respond. He shoved the rest of his sandwich into his mouth to give himself time to think.

“Here’s what we do,” he said when he had swallowed, a little painfully, and downed the rest of Lindsey’s coffee before he could be stopped, “Lindsey, take Trev and go visit those fuckin’ turncoats. Remind them who took care of them when Nova fucked off without a word. And that they should remember what happened last time someone betrayed me.”

“Betrayal,” Lindsey wrinkled up her nose, “So dramatic. I like it.”

“We can’t burn down every storefront that turns their nose up,” Brett warned, “That’ll send ‘em all right to Nova’s arms.”

“Maybe,” Aleks smoothed out his sandwich wrapper and began to fold it without much thought, halves and then halves and then halves again, “But I’ll be real here, dawg. I’m gonna burn this motherfucker to the ground before I let that bitch take it from us.”

“Dark,” Lindsey slapped his hands from her mug and mournfully stared at the reminding coffee grounds, “He really pissed you off, huh?”

“I don’t wanna talk about it. Just take care of these shops. And get someone to clean up these fucking flyers.”

“You got it, boss,” Lindsey sighed, “But you know that isn’t gonna be enough to fix this. We need to take care of him.”

“I’ll figure something out.” Aleks promised as he watched her go and hoped it wasn’t a lie.

Brett didn’t say anything after the door closed, and neither did Aleks. The silence did nothing to calm his nerves. Part of him whispered that things would have been easier if Nova had just stayed dead. A different part of him was still relieved he hadn’t.

-

“Okay, girl, calm down. Jesus Christ, find your chill, Mishka. Please, just this once,” Aleks begged her, knowing she wasn’t listening, “Don’t find some other dog’s shit to roll in. Just fuckin’ play for an hour and then we can go home and not take a bath, okay?”

They were only at the entrance to the park but it was after nine pm, which meant she didn’t have to be leashed, so Aleks wrangled the wiggly fluff ball that was his dog and unhooked her from the back of her harness. Mishka didn’t hesitate. She took off into the park, darting into a spot of densely packed trees and out of sight.

The night was chilly for the season and Aleks’ fingers were cold as he ripped down another fucking flyer taped to the brick entryway. It wasn’t new; it was weathered and sun faded, and he tried not to let it get to him, but like every other time he spotted the stragglers Trevor managed to miss, failed. The paper crunched in a wholly satisfying way when he closed his fist around it, Kobe-ing it into the nearest trash can. For the last four weeks Aleks couldn’t take a step without running into Nova, or evidence of Nova, or just fucking something to set him off.

Not even his walks with Mishka were safe.

And The AH Brew had become a veritable nightmare. The last time he went, Nova had been there, just like the first time, and things had gone so bad so quickly Geoff seemed seconds away from siccing The Vagabond after them. Aleks was all about taking blame when he deserved it, and it was true he wasn’t trying to de-escalate the tension between them, but there didn’t seem to be a way to do that. And that wasn’t only because Nova was an insufferable prick.

James, he thought as he made his way in the direction Mishka had gone. Calling him Nova gave him power Aleks wasn’t willing to afford, not anymore. Nova was the gangster of Aleks’ youth he’d looked up to; James was the annoying dickhead who ruined his coffee breaks and was immature enough to think flyers were a good intimidation tactic. Although, maybe they had worked. A little.

The neighborhood wasn’t flipping as quickly as James probably expected, which gave Aleks a few warm and fuzzy feelings but not enough to keep out the chill. He knew there’d be people loyal to the Nova brand. Under different circumstances he’d have been loyal, too, so it wasn’t a surprise. The surprise was how many people weren’t. Shop owners and dealers and the local MCs that Aleks knew, people who respected him and saw what he’d done back when they didn’t have anyone else to turn to. How long that would last though was uncertain. Nova - James - had a way of changing minds.

The flyers were just the start. As much as he’d decided not to give James the power of the Nova name in his own mind, the facts of the matter were that he was Nova. And Nova wasn’t merciful. He’d been a boogeyman in this town, once. The kind of story that Aleks and his friends had whispered about in school, when they’d heard that the latest trouble-maker around the ‘hoods had disappeared. Nova had liked to play with his food, and maybe Aleks had found that fun to watch once - hear the stories of how he’d humiliated his enemies, beaten them down like it was all a game - but it wasn’t so nice possibly being his prey now.

Was his crew ready for that kind of fight? Maybe he could take James one-on-one, but there were serious doubts the Immortals were strong enough to take out this new crew Nova had brought. The chemistry class looking high school kid and the two strangers he’d heard rumors of around town might not be much to hear about, but if Nova was rolling with them there had to be a reason.

Aleks whistled for Mishka and heard her rustling in some nearby bushes, so he found a nice big tree, laid out the blanket he brought, and planted his ass in front of it.

As he listened for her, Aleks took off his hat and ran his fingers through his hair, rubbed his face over a yawn as he leaned back against the tree. His phone vibrated but he didn’t even look at it, just turned it off. A night off the radar was the least he deserved, or needed, really, and unless his apartment was burning down he didn’t give a shit what was going on. Brett could handle it. Probably better than Aleks was handling anything currently.

Just an hour or two where he didn’t have to think, or be furious, or worry. It wasn’t much to ask for.

He tilted his head back and closed his eyes, listening to nothing, just the sound of his dog playing and the wind through the trees, and felt thankful Los Santos could be so quiet, even if he had to wait until late for it to happen. When he opened his eyes again his brain felt fuzzy, eyes heavy, and he cursed, slowly realizing he’d fallen asleep. It couldn’t have been more than ten minutes but he rose up on his knees and whistled, called for her, and Mishka was fucking gone.

It wasn’t like her not to at least acknowledge his voice and he felt a sharp stab of panic through his chest as he gathered up his stuff, rolling the blanket into a ball and grabbing his hat.

The park wasn’t big, but it was big enough for her to get out of sight. And shitty enough for her to get out if she tried. The real fear was knowing she was pretty enough for someone to fucking kidnap.

“Mishka!” he shouted, and gave another whistle. In the corner of his eye, fast as a bullet, he saw her dart around a tree and disappear again through some bushes after a little golden dog. It was her low to the ground, excited run and not her angry chase, at least. Aleks sighed with relief, followed quickly by frustration when he called for her again and she continued to ignore him for the little Corgi she’d apparently made friends with. Or was trying to make friends with. Who else would even come to this place so late at night, didn’t they know this place was smack dab in the middle of a gang war?

Aleks watched, holding in a little huff of a laugh, as the Corgi barreled right into the legs of a dude sitting on a nearby bench. She slipped underneath the seat then back out between his calves, as if expecting him to protect her, but the guy reached out towards Mishka instead, who stood in front of them both, her tail and entire ass wagging happily. She licked his hand and he scratched behind her ears until the Corgi got jealous enough to muscle her way between them unhappily with a snap in Mishka’s direction that had Aleks speeding up a little.

It was sort of cute. And Aleks wasn’t blind; the guy looked like he might be good-looking. That was a thing, wasn’t it? Meeting cute people in parks and exchanging numbers? Wasn’t that how regular people hooked up? He could do with some meaningless stress-relief right about now.

He approached, holding his big pink and blue blanket, and was almost halfway there when the guy fucking spoke and ruined everything.

Again.

The Corgi barked and snapped again, Mishka jumping back, and it was definitely James’ voice that said, “Jesus Christ, Ein, what the hell is wrong with you? Be nice to her. She’s trying to be your friend, you dumb shit, and you could use one ‘a those”.

James kept one hand on his dog, petting the top of her head, and reached out again to Mishka, who took a few steps forward and licked his fingertips.

“Good girl,” Aleks heard him say, and she moved even closer. “Don’t mind her, she’s a little slow. She gets excited. She hasn’t see a lot of other dogs in a while.”

Aleks held his blanket tighter. The sight of James almost touching Mishka made him jerk into action, calling for her and whistling again. Mishka acknowledged him finally, turning away from James and bounding over happily towards him, almost all the way, before she changed her mind and sprinted back to James’ dog, crawling under the bench and pushing her snout against the Corgi’s back.

“You gotta be kidding me, dude,” James said, sounding tired, and Aleks couldn’t agree more.

“This is my park.” Aleks wrinkled his nose up. “Dude, you’re trying to take my coffee shop, my territory, and now you’re after my dog park?”

“Listen, asshole,” James pointed accusingly, voice lifting oddly on the curse, “I was here when the damn park opened, so you can fuck off with that shit if you wanna play firsties.”

His voice had started to raise toward the end of his excuse and Mishka and the Corgi both released gruff barks that made him fall quiet. Looks like they wouldn’t be allowed to yell at each other here, either.

Aleks took a second to look James over, wondering if he had a gun on him even in a place like this. Geoff wouldn’t be around to stop him this time, but he wasn’t around to stop Aleks either and Aleks had never needed a gun to take care of his problems before.

They’d seen each other around, but both of them had taken to avoiding each other whenever possible after the last café incident. Brett was taking James moving in pretty personally after the Lambos and Aleks was letting him handle that problem so he could focus on dealing with the Christ Punchers crawling back to bother them again after their last ass kicking. Trust Rian to turn up while he was dealing with Nova returning, too.

James looked as tired as Aleks felt, a thin scrape on his forehead and the fadings of a black eye Aleks couldn’t help but wonder about. Was it from his own crew? Or was James running into trouble with someone else, too?

“...look,” Aleks said finally, when they’d glared at each other in a tense silence long enough for Mishka and the Corgi to relax and start chasing each other again. He’d have to be the bigger man here, once again. “Look. It’s a big enough place for us both, James. Okay?”

“Fine by me, Aleks.” James snipped back, crossing his arms, “You’re the one making a big deal out of it.”

“I am not -” Aleks started, irritating flaring and then dying down just as fast, “Fuck you. Whatever. Don’t even talk to me, dude, I’m done.”

With that, he snapped his blanket back out a few feet away, and settled back down to watch Mishka and the Corgi - Ein? Maybe? - chase each other.

“Go somewhere else,” James whined after maybe twenty whole seconds of silence, “You’re ruinin’ my calming atmosphere,”

“Shut the fuck up,” Aleks said back, mocking his tone, “This is where my dog is, so this is where I’m staying.

James huffed and futzed with his beanie a little, but didn’t say anything else. After giving Aleks a long, unhappy look, his attention went back to the dogs and he sprawled out a little on the bench. The sprawl just made him look less comfortable, his body tense and left leg bouncing.

The dogs were barking and James called out for his, Ein, for sure, and Aleks made a note of it. Mishka and Ein. It was sort of annoying their dogs were getting along so well. Just about everything about this was annoying. His dog, his attitude, the way he was slowly making himself known in every fucking corner of Aleks’ life, but especially his messed up face. Aleks wasn’t curious by nature, but he wanted to know.

The silence that settled between them wasn’t comfortable but it was somewhat easier than James trying to pull a gun on him. Aleks sighed thinking about it, looking at the side of James’ face and still feeling his own bruised ribs whenever he moved the wrong way. Maybe it was just…that fuckin’ kid in him, or maybe it was that he didn’t like not knowing what was going on in his own turf. Either way, he couldn’t help but push.

“What happened to your face?”

“I thought you said to shut the fuck up.” James’ didn’t look at him, but he didn’t seem to be looking at the dogs either. Aleks didn’t respond, just waited, and eventually James sighed. “Don’t worry about it, you nosy fuck. Nothing that won’t heal. It didn’t have shit to do with you.”

James didn’t ask about his crew and so Aleks didn’t offer any information, and another weird, not-quite-awkward silence settled between them. Hunched to rest his elbows on his knees, Aleks sat cross-legged on his blanket and watched Mishka roll around in the grass with, what he hated to admit, was probably the cutest goddamn Corgi he’d ever seen. It was weird to think of James - of Nova - as a dog owner. Ein the Corgi, who Aleks watched as she pressed the side of her face to the grass, looking up at Mishka with one big eye, then half-barked, half-growled, frightening both herself and Mishka.

She was kind of an idiot. And it was fucking cute. Years ago there was whispers, and Aleks had believed them, about James’ fabled pet crocodile. Stupid rumors that turned Ein the Corgi into a man-eating beast living in the basement of Nova’s old apartment building.

She booked it back towards James, spooked by her own outburst, and rolled to a stop between his feet with Mishka bounding after her. And Aleks didn’t want to notice the way James’ hands immediately shot down to comfort her, scratching behind her big ears and rubbing over her face, but he did, and it didn’t mean anything, but it still made his stomach flip a little.

Mishka watched them for a moment, just as Aleks did, and then both of them seemed to catch themselves staring. Mishka looked away to Aleks and he looked at her, and she trotted over to collapse against his shins and rest in the shadows. It was a cool night, but she was still panting from the run.

Aleks wrapped his arms around his girl, talking to her softly, and it must have caught Ein’s attention because she wiggled her way over to him, pushing her nose up under his arm until he made room for her to half crawl into his lap.

James was watching, eyebrows up and drawn together, looking a lot like a man who just took a knife to the back.

“Hello, Ein,” he laughed and Mishka craned backwards to lick his face out of jealousy. “Hey.”

From the corner of his eye, Aleks could see James had turned completely towards them, and there was a guarded look on his face, somehow different than the one he was usually sporting.

“We can be civil in the stupid park with our stupid goddamn dogs. Like, neutral ground, okay?”

“Neutral,” James repeated, suspicious. “Like the Brew. No fighting in the coffee shop and no fighting in the park? Keep this up, we won’t be able to fight anywhere.”

It was an interesting thought, even though it was a bad joke, and Aleks forced himself not to dwell on it. What it would be like if they hadn’t gotten started on such a wrong fucking foot. If James was just a little reasonable. Or what it would feel like to have James’ gun pointed in the same direction as Aleks’ instead of his back.

“Guess we have to stop running into each other,” Aleks said, and gave both Mishka and Ein a little push to go back to playing. They took off running and Aleks swallowed thickly, keeping his eyes on them and not James.

“Yeah, maybe,” he said back, voice a little gruff with whatever he was feeling.

They didn’t say anything else, not until Aleks had to get back and James seemed ready to pass out in the cool air. They didn’t exactly walk to the entrance together, but they didn’t not either.

They both pretended it didn’t happen.