Alfred couldn’t pronounce half the words on the menu. The other half was soda.
Six months in, and he still didn’t know how to read the Cyrillic painted on the entrance. If anyone asked, he worked at that little Russian place, you know, with the sunflowers out front. Although, his time in the restaurant had taught him some things. First, pelmeni were not the same as pirozhki. Blini were kind of like crepes. A lot of people liked the borscht, even though it looked like a bowl of gore with sour cream on top. And, twice a week, some men in dark suits gathered at the table in the corner to play cards. They always tipped best.
He ducked under a veil of grey smoke. It curled toward the rafters, warping the shapes within like he was stepping into a mirage. Perhaps he was. After all, smoking was allowed in this hazy booth, and the word “no” wasn’t. Alfred felt something like a surge of magic when he approached. These men were bigger than the rules, he’d learned that by now.
“Oi, if it isn’t il pezzo di merda that ratted on us for smoking last month.” One man looked up, a stray curl bouncing against the rim of his trilby. He muttered something under his breath, something Italian, and ground his cigarette into the oaken table. “What is it then, eh? Come to swat our hands and make us share a bottle of milk?”
“He’s only following the rules, Lovino.” A mild-mannered brunette that Alfred had come to know as Toris spoke behind a fan of cards. Carefully, he pressed a stack of bills onto the center of the table. Lovino noticed them, hissed, and threw down his hand.
“I fold.” Pinstriped arms crossed his chest. His eyes flicked to Alfred’s. “What are you still doing here, huh? Fill up our drinks and scram. Vai.”
“My pleasure.” Alfred smiled and set to collecting empty bottles and mugs. They reeked of liquor too expensive for him to have tasted. Some still held dregs that he considered sampling once he got to the back. For now, he balanced each one on his tray, silently noting who had what. Lovino snorted.
“Ah! Excuse me!” A second Italian waved him down. Alfred once believed he and Lovino were twins. Matthew told him that was insensitive. But now, Alfred was convinced they were at least brothers. The man, Feliciano, smiled. “Would you mind bringing out a bowl of pasta when you come back? All this fun we’re having is making me very hungry.”
Lovino leaned over Feliciano’s shoulder. His eyes widened before he forced his expression back to neutrality. He tapped the other man’s wallet on the table, reminding him to place his bet. “They don’t serve pasta here, cretino. Unless you want that godawful stroganoff.”
“Oh…” Feliciano frowned. He perked up again when he noticed the growing cash pool. “Toris, you should tell the Old Bear to add pasta to the menu. I spend so much time in here with la famiglia, it would really help us feel welcomed!”
Toris smiled gently and folded his own hand. “I will tell him.”
“Damn.” Lovino’s forehead dropped into his palm. He shook his head as others started laying down their cards. “Ah… Where is the old bastard anyway? I swear he hasn’t been to a game night since his flag still had the sickle.”
“He’s visiting home.” Toris cradled an empty mug between his palms and nodded to Alfred when he retrieved it from him. “Shouldn’t be gone much longer. I hope I haven’t disappointed you too much, in the meantime.”
“Eh? Oh. No, no…” Lovino waved him off. His attention shifted back to Alfred. “The only thing disappointing me right now is the lull in service here. Well? Get on with it! Sbrigati! Hurry up!”
“Right away, sir.” Alfred maintained his smile until he stepped out of the fog. A pungent aroma clung to his all-black uniform, replacing his feeling of enchantment. His shoulders shook on a snicker. He knew he’d have to wait until the end of the night to fill his pockets, but he already felt richer. It put an extra spring in his step, carrying him all the way to the bar.
“Yo, Eduard!” Alfred’s tray clattered against the bar top. “You mind helping me refill these drinks?”
The blonde startled, eyes wide behind his glasses. Then, as he registered who stood before him, his muscles relaxed. His smile reminded Alfred how young he looked. Was he even old enough to be running the bar? Alfred returned the gesture either way.
“Hiya.” He indicated his tray of barren glasses. “Help me out?”
“Of course. Forgive my spacing out just then.”
“Hey, I’m not worried about it.” Alfred swung his legs up over the bar. “Just wanna show that black tie event over there some quality service. Y’know.”
Alfred had no sooner pulled a half-full bottle of Rosé from the cooler than he was interrupted by a gasp.
“Oh! No, no. We don’t serve that run-of-the-mill slop to our special guests.” Eduard laughed a nervous laugh before cutting himself off. “Erm, no. Here.” He ducked out of sight. There was a jingling of keys, and the snap of a lock, before he remerged with a sleek, dark bottle. “Bring over this Masseto. And—This is important—let them open it themselves.”
“Oh.” Alfred turned the bottle awkwardly in his hands. “Cool. ‘Cause I, uh, totally lost my corkscrew. Think they’ll have their own?”
Eduard stared at him a moment. He nodded slowly. Then, he leaned in and said, “You just better hope you don’t piss them off, so they use it for its intended purpose.”
Alfred laughed, because that seemed like what he was supposed to do. It petered off into silence. “Yeah, man. Yeah… But—What?”
The younger blonde blinked. “Have you never served them before?”
“Not by myself, no,” Alfred confessed. “Usually, someone’s hovering over my shoulder. But they always take the larger cut of the tips, so I’m doing it myself this time. Why?”
Eduard shook his head. With a whispered, “Good luck, friend,” he returned to his book.
Alfred shook off a vague feeling of uncertainty, replaced it with a smile. “Sure! Have fun zoning out, my dude.”
He tucked the wine—Mah-say-toe—into his arm and headed back toward the corner booth. Some of his other customers tried to flag him down along the way. They wanted refills on water or more servings of borscht. Then, they saw who he was tending to, and politely turned away. Alfred didn’t understand it, but he was grateful to have only one table to focus on. He pushed through the curtain of smoke and into a roar of applause.
“Please, gentlemen. Please. It’s all in a day’s work.” Alfred bowed his head jokingly, a hand pressed over his heart. His eyes searched the haze of faces, backlit by a halo of orange light. “I’m just your local hero, delivering the finest beverages to my lovely guests. It’s totally no big deal.”
“We’re not clapping for you, culo.” Lovino’s teeth bared on a sneer. He slapped his brother on the back, drawing Alfred’s attention to the heap of money sitting in front of them. “Game turned around. We’re rich! Siamo ricchi!”
“Bad luck is with us tonight,” Toris murmured against the crucifix in his hand. His green eyes turned distant. “Not a good thing for the boss to come home to.”
“Oi, if the old bastard’s still got his touch, he’ll double these winnings in a night.” Lovino cut a backhand through the air. “Feliciano, mio fratello, let’s get out of here while God’s still smiling on us, eh?”
Alfred shuffled the wine to his other hand. “Before you go, can I interest you in some Masseto?” He pronounced the word slowly, sampling each syllable. Even the name tasted expensive.
A fierce smile turned on him. “You want a cut of this, pig? Eh, piggy?”
Lovino strode toward him. Some of the others cringed back to allow him passage. A few men sighed and counted their money. Alfred stood up taller, even as something flipped in his gut. Without meaning to, he barred the wine bottle across his chest like a shield. Lovino wrenched it away. A crumpled wad of bills appeared in its place.
“That,” Lovino pinned the cash to his sternum, “is for the wine. You want a tip? You learn how to do your fucking job, eh?”
“Ah, Lovino…” Feliciano’s voice drowned beneath his brother’s slurred tirade.
“Maybe you start shining shoes.” Lovino swayed on his feet and Alfred understood: He was drunk. Suddenly, a drinking and sobbing Arthur didn’t seem so bad. “Hell, I’d tip you better if you licked my loafers. Put that pretty American mouth to good use.”
“That’s enough, I think.” Toris raised his head, his voice soft, but firm. Lovino snickered and lifted his own gaze. There was a long stretch of tension as each man stared down the other. Warm light painted Toris’ hair down to the shoulders of his grey vest. Lovino wore a crown of golden luminescence, and a slowly withering scowl. Feliciano snagged his brother’s sleeve, so he was the first to look away.
“Lovino, we made a lot of money tonight. This is good! I say we take our earnings and buy ourselves some good food, and maybe some pretty women.” Feliciano smiled and tugged more urgently. “Lovino… Come on, Lovino. All the shops are closing, and I still haven’t eaten, I don’t want to go to bed hungry—”
“Alright, enough.” Lovino snatched back his hand, creasing his sleeve into place. “It was a good game tonight. We’ll have to do it again when the Old Bear gets back from holiday.”
“We will.” Toris’ smile was placid, didn’t reach his eyes, but he maintained it well enough. “Raivis will show you out.”
Alfred stepped to the side, watching as half a dozen men rose onto glossy black shoes. The other half were people Alfred recognized as restaurant staff; they could translate Cyrillic even when it was written in cursive and pronounce every menu item perfectly. The latter bunch remained seated, all except Toris, who took Alfred’s hand.
“It isn’t much.” Toris’ smile thinned, apologetic, as he tucked a few crisp bills into his palm. “We should have walked away with a profit tonight, but…so should you. You’ve worked hard since your very first day here. That hasn’t gone unnoticed.”
“Oh. Hey, thanks.” Alfred smiled absently and forced himself not to start counting his earnings on the spot. His fingers twitched. Just then, a bell rang over the front exit. He turned his attention there instead.
“Buona notte! Goodnight, everyone!” Feliciano lingered in the doorway, framed by potted sunflowers and frosted glass windows. The dark beyond the panes matched the dark of his suspenders. Lovino snapped one as he shoved past. Feliciano laughed and trailed after him. When the door swung shut, the restaurant felt bigger, like an oppressive presence had opened the space to its smaller patrons. Everyone breathed a little easier.
“So… What was all that about?” Alfred nudged Toris with an elbow and laughed. Laughter also came easier. “That Lovino guy’s sort of a prick, ain’t he?”
Toris flaked at one of his fingernails. He appeared distracted, until Alfred’s voice stopped, and he realized it was his turn to respond. His smile was an instinctive quirk of the lips. “We all have our moments. And, you know the saying, don’t you? ‘When the cat’s away, the mice will play.’”
Alfred kept smiling.
Toris clarified, “It’s easier to be a ‘prick,’ as you put it, when no one’s around to supervise. They don’t always act so brash.”
“Huh.” Alfred followed Toris’ gaze to the empty doorway. “Well, what about you? You’ve been doing a good job supervising shit around here Don’t they respect you as head ‘cat’ or whatever? No offense.”
Toris gave a courteous chuckle. “I suppose I should have said, when the bear is away, the mice will play.”
That name again. Alfred’s expression brightened. “Yeah, by the way, who’s everyone talking about when—”
“Why don’t you get home early tonight, Alfred?” Another bundle of dollars appeared between Toris’ fingers. Alfred accepted them, slowly. A sheepish smile spread across his face.
“Is this your polite way of shutting me up?” he asked.
Toris returned the smile. Then he turned, and Alfred knew the conversation was done.
Alfred ambled to the rear of the shop. A whistled tune died on his lips. The other employees, and many of the diners, seemed to have a problem with whistling indoors. Whether it was a pet peeve, a superstition, or both, Alfred had been reprimanded enough times for him to know better. He bit his tongue.
When he finally joined the bustle and scents of the kitchen, Alfred stopped to count his cash. There were only a few bills. He shuffled through them with little interest before he realized—They were a few big bills. He fumbled with the money as he recounted it, and again.
“Wait… One hundred. One-fifty. Two hundred. Three, four…” He licked his lips as they worked soundlessly over numbers he never expected to hold. His heart skipped a beat when he confirmed the total for the fourth time.
There was almost a thousand dollars in his hands.
“Holy shit…” Alfred’s fingers shook around the cash. He hardly expected to make this much in two weeks, let alone in two hours. He crushed the money to his chest. Remembered to breathe. A smile shivered over his lips. Dinner was on him tonight. He just had one more thing to do before then.
“Yo, Eduard!” Alfred plucked a fifty from his stash and tossed in on the bar. “I’m here to pay for that wine. I’m heading out for the night, so I figure I can just give it to you.”
“Pay for the wine…” Eduard finished a line in his book before glancing up. His eyes widened on the fifty-dollar bill. “Erm, you mean the Masseto? Is that right?”
“Yeah, yeah. The Mah-say-toe,” Alfred drawled. “I don’t know how much it is, but I figure that’ll cover the price of the bottle, and then you can keep the rest. A little somethin’ extra, from me to you.”
He winked. Eduard flinched.
“Er, Alfred, my friend…” A hitched, nervous laugh as Eduard removed his glasses, wiping them down on the hem of his shirt. “I really don’t know how to tell you this…”
“What’s the matter, dude?” Alfred frowned, swiping instinctively at his mouth. “I got something in my teeth?”
Eduard took a breath, rubbed harder at a particularly stubborn fleck of dirt on his spectacles, and said, “The Masseto wine… The one we keep stocked for our special guests… It costs eight-hundred-and-fifty-six dollars.”
Alfred’s heart seized. “That’s… What the hell? Eight-hundred-and…” Laughter burst on his lips. “Dude, you’re messing with me. That’s hilarious! No drink could ever cost—” He stopped when he saw the sympathetic pallor in Eduard’s gaze. Eight-hundred-and-fifty-six dollars. All at once, he deflated.
“Well. Hey. That’s okay. I don’t need this much money for one night anyway. I don’t know what I was thinking.” Alfred laughed weakly. He tossed the rest of the cash on the counter and jammed his thumbs in his pockets, hoping to soothe his itchy palms. “Think you could count the rest out for me? I’ve looked it over so many times, I feel like I forgot my numbers.”
“Sure. Of course.” Eduard gave him another lingering look. He opened his mouth to say something else, but he hesitated, so Alfred spoke instead.
“It’s really not a big deal. I’m still walking away with, like, one-fifty, if I include my other tables. That’s how much I usually expect to make on a weekend.” Although, he had seen other servers leave with five hundred on ‘game nights.’ His smile cracked wider. “It all works out.”
“I’m glad.” Eduard nodded, though he didn’t seem convinced. He finished thumbing through six single dollar bills, and Alfred laughed again.
“Bastard really gave me exact change for that wine. God forbid I get the leftover four dollars for tip. Whatever.” He accepted the remaining cash with a “thanks,” and shoved a loose bill into the tip jar. Eduard’s brows shot up.
“Oh, Alfred, you really don’t need to—”
“I was gonna tip you anyway.” Alfred waved the protest away. “You’re always saving my ass out here, man. It’s the least I can do.”
He paused and looked out over the restaurant. Business was winding down. Tables were being cleared. The smoke had all but faded from the corner of the room. Finally, Alfred pushed off the bar and headed for the exit.
“I’ll see you Monday, Ed!” He turned to walk backwards as he said, “Hell, I might even see you tomorrow, depending on Arthur’s mood when I get home. Might need a drink!”
“I’ll keep a bottle of Masseto handy.” Eduard raised his hand in half a wave, and his lips in half a smile. “Have a good night, Alfred.”
Alfred generally tried to follow that advice. Have a good night. By the time he reached his second bus stop, though, he didn’t know if he was having a good night, or simply a long one. The bus squealed to a halt at its final destination. Alfred filtered into the familiar swarm of Manhattan foot traffic. An early spring chill clawed at his skin and he cursed himself for forgetting his coat. Again. His breath misted into white-grey puffs. He blew out a steady stream and pretended it was cigar smoke.
His apartment building boasted a mosaic of light and dark windows. Every so often, a silhouette appeared in one of those boxes, peering out over crowded city streets. Alfred tipped his head back to search for some. The cold crept under his collar, caressed his freckled cheeks. He succumbed to its touch, like that of an eager lover. There was something romantic about the nightlife in New York, even—And especially—when one experienced it alone.
“Wait…” Alfred jerked to attention. He fumbled into his pockets, groped the seams of his clothes. A flurry of laughter fogged before him. Of course. He’d forgotten his keys. “Well, shit.”
His eyes fell on the fire escape.
That wrought iron surface curled, like a black snake, over mismatched brick. His gaze followed it to the tenth story. The window there was one of the dark ones. Alfred’s chest swelled on a cold inhale. It wouldn’t be the first time, he thought, and started up the stairs.
His steps rang hollow against the metal runway. The higher he climbed, the less audible his footfalls became, muted by the high whistle of wind. Alfred turned his face toward the breeze. Cool tendrils of air carded through his hair, and he invited them. It was cold this close to heaven, but it was free.
On the tenth landing, Alfred set to jimmying a busted window latch. It had been broken since before he’d moved in, and it was his responsibility to have it fixed. But why would he, when it made such a convenient entrance? His heart skipped as the lock popped out of place. He paused, waiting in the dark for someone to approach. No one did.
A sigh of relief followed him into the window frame. He folded long legs beneath him, ducked his head, and perched upon a concrete sill. Merry laughter drew his attention below. He chased the sound with his eyes, to a group of faceless figures strolling in the dark. They looked so small from his vantage. So did the cars, and the shops, and the lights. Everything, tiny. Everything but him. He wondered if this was how the men in dark suits felt: Bigger than the world around them, always looking down on their surroundings.
A light came on.
“Whoa—” Alfred stumbled, narrowly catching himself on the window frame. His eyes watered as they adjusted to the glare of artificial light. One of the silhouettes from earlier stepped into view. It had a rigid stance, a mess of yellow hair, and a magnificent scowl.
“Why, in the queen’s name, are you sneaking into our apartment?” Arthur Kirkland crossed his arms over a pale green sweater. He looked ready for bed, or ready to fight. Alfred shifted his weight.
“I’m not sneaking.”
Arthur stared. He cut a hand toward Alfred’s body, still half tangled in the open window. One of Alfred’s feet slipped out of place. He kneed himself, hard, in the chin. With a grunt, he adjusted his balance and said, “I know what it looks like.”
“Oh, spare me.” Arthur rolled his eyes and spun away on slippered heels. Alfred clambered after him.
“I forgot my key.” He tripped, took a face full of carpet, then collected his glasses and followed along. “You said you’d get me a lanyard. You never did.”
“I advised you to get a lanyard,” Arthur corrected. “And you could call, you know. Have someone let you in, so you don’t look like a burglar in the middle of the night.” Arthur gave him a sharp onceover. “If you did that, perhaps you’d actually come home with milk and eggs, as so many of my texts requested.”
Alfred threw up his hands. “My phone died. What do you want from me?”
Arthur scoffed. He continued to the living room. Alfred followed, past empty picture frames and trophies he couldn’t remember the significance of. The hallway closed tight around them. Alfred thought the walls were too white, too sterile for a home. Arthur called the color eggshell and insisted it stayed. Whatever the name, it made Alfred feel confined, like a prisoner in some asylum. Arthur’s authoritarian tone didn’t help.
“Well, if you’d charge your phone overnight like I’m always bloody telling you…”
“Yet you always bitch at me about electricity costs when I leave stuff plugged in.” Tension built in the base of Alfred’s neck. He kneaded it with a palm. “You’ve really been waiting all day to yell at me, haven’t you?”
Arthur stopped midstride. Calmly, he said, “I’m not yelling.”
“You want to.”
An ironic smile twitched the corner of Arthur’s mouth. He spoke slowly, clearly. “Yes… I abstain from a lot of things I want to do. That’s the difference between you and I. Impulse control, Alfred.” In one swift motion, he snatched a tattered package off the coffee table. “What is this?”
Alfred’s eyes widened, then narrowed with recognition. “Dude, are you opening my mail now?”
“So, it is yours.” Arthur sighed, tossing the package down between them. “Here I’d hoped the mail carrier had delivered to the wrong flat, so I could still maintain an ounce of faith in you.”
“It’s just a hat,” Alfred snapped. He clutched the bundle against his chest. Through the gaps in manila packaging, he spotted a wide, upturned rim and pinstripes. “It’s not that serious.”
“We are going hungry here, Alfred!” Arthur stepped around the coffee table, indicating the hat with two fingers. “And this? Oh, this is quality material here. I’d estimate, what is it, forty dollars? Fifty? Genuine felt and wool… A gentleman’s accessory, yes?”
Arthur waited for an answer, so Alfred provided one. “Yes?”
“No.” Arthur raked both hands through his hair. “You know the landlord’s been up our arse these past few months. Your brother and I have been struggling to make ends meet, and now what do you do, instead of buying groceries?”
Alfred laughed and threw down the parcel. “Oh, right, and we’re just not gonna talk about the cost of your ‘recreational activities.’”
Arthur’s finger jammed into Alfred’s chest. “I do that to relax after a long day of study and tolerating your bullshit. If you take issue with it, please tell me directly instead of trying to use it against me whenever we disagree.”
“I’m just saying,” Alfred stepped forward and spread his hands in front of him. “You act like you’re the only one here whose hobbies are justified. I wanna have a good time too, you know.”
“As though you don’t take the utmost pleasure in tormenting me.”
“Tormenting you?” Another bark of laughter. “God, that’s rich. If anything, you’re the one always riding my ass.”
“Not anymore. Or haven’t you noticed?”
“Hey, guys?” Matthew Williams Jones stood in the archway leading to the dining room. He held a plate, piled high with something. “I know you’re busy venting pent-up frustrations, but I made some poutine. If you’re hungry.”
Arthur cut a hand between them. “Not now, Matthew.”
“Mattie, my man!” Alfred turned out of Arthur’s line of fire. He strode up to his twin, slugged him in the arm, and grabbed a handful of fries. “Thanks for your weird Canadian food, bro-ha. You saw Niagara Falls, like, once? And now you’re a culinary expert! How awesome is that?”
“I really can’t tell if you’re being sarcastic.”
“Matthew,” Arthur drawled. He glanced at Alfred in time for him to stuff his mouth full and rolled his eyes. “While I appreciate your contribution to the household, Alfred and I were in the middle of a conversation.”
“A lecture,” Alfred amended through a mouthful of gravy.
“Sorry. I get that.” Matthew gave a small smile. “And I was thinking, if it makes things easier, I’d be willing to trade rooms if one of you wanted the couch instead—”
“No.” They spoke at the same time, earning each a sharp look from the other. Arthur added, “Absolutely not.” Alfred piled more food onto his tongue.
“Just thought I’d offer.” Matthew redistributed a couple cheese curds with his fingers before examining his meal. “It must be hard for you two, still sharing a bedroom when things are clearly so contentious. And, I mean, I don’t particularly want to sleep on a pull-out couch forever, so…”
Arthur started to say something. That’s when Alfred’s mind began to wander. He leaned on an overstuffed recliner and hummed around his food. His eyes toured familiar pieces of decor, all meticulously vacuumed, dusted, and shined. Every so often, Arthur rearranged the furniture in a fit of obsessive compulsion. Alfred rarely noticed—Until recently, when redecorating became Arthur’s preferred form of revenge. The empty space on the entertainment center gave him pause.
“I understand what you’re saying, Matthew. I do. But regardless of how much French is spoken there, Canada is still heavily influenced by British culture. This is not a topic I’ll—”
“Dude, why do you keep moving Sam behind this vase?” Alfred pushed aside the ceramic pot in favor of a hidden statuette. A bald eagle, with its wings spread in the likeness of an American flag, was perched atop a wooden plaque that read Happy Independence Day from D.C. Alfred repositioned it while Arthur huffed.
“That bird is so ugly.”
“You used to tell me my eagle collection was cute.” Alfred plopped onto the sofa, crossing one leg over the other.
“And you used to tell me you loved me.” Arthur sat on the edge of the recliner and crossed his ankles. “How time changes us.”
“Wow, so, now’s a good time to stop, maybe.” Matthew sat in between them, ever the peacekeeper. Arthur smoothed a wrinkle out of his shirt. Alfred flashed a grin.
“Sure thing, Matt. I’m sorry for acting so petty. It was pretty immature, huh?” Alfred laid a hand over his heart and added, “I can’t speak for Huffy McSass over there.”
Arthur’s lip curled, but he said no more.
“Well, I think I understand why Arthur might be a little more stressed than usual.” Matthew glanced uncertainly at Arthur, who gave him half a nod. Matt took a breath and continued. “Al, you’ve kind of been…blowing your money—”
“Oh my god,” Alfred laughed. Caged energy drove him off the couch and onto his feet. He paced around the coffee table before speaking again. “Look, if this is about that stupid hat, I can return it. It’s really not—”
“And the archaeology kit,” Matthew said.
“Which I’m totally gonna make back all the money for once I hit up those goldmines in Cali.”
“And the model cars?”
“Are going to be worth a fortune in a few years! They’re collectibles.”
Matthew’s shoulders slumped. “Same with the comics, I assume.”
“Yeah.” Alfred’s smile turned crooked. “What…is the problem with you guys? It’s like you’re making me out to be some kind of villain here. I’m just trying to come up with as many different ways of making money as I can. I know we need it. I want to help.”
“Why don’t we get straight to it.” Arthur passed his hands over his face before dropping them into his lap. He straightened up and cut Alfred a burning gaze. “Rent’s gone up. You know that. I didn’t mind picking up your slack while you adjusted to your new job. That was reasonable. But we’ve been doing this for half a year, and with the water bill where it’s been lately, I simply cannot—”
“Don’t blame me for the water bill, dude.” Alfred crossed his arms, protection against the accusations laid before him. “You know five minutes under the shower is all I need.”
Arthur pursed his lips. He appeared to evaluate the diplomacy of a few different responses before he settled on, “That’s jolly good. The fact of the matter is, those five minutes are costing us even more these days. With all the loans I’ve already taken out—”
“Wait, wait, wait.” Alfred’s face crumpled in confusion. “‘Costing us even more these days.’ What are you saying? Do you mean they raised utility prices again?”
Arthur’s silence was all the answer Alfred needed. He spat a curse, which broke into a spell of laughter.
“You’re kidding! You’re fucking… What?” He laughed louder and snatched some fries off Matthew’s fork to muffle the sound. “Mmm. Y’know, we weren’t even supposed to be paying utilities when we first got this place? Then, they were all, ‘It’s a fixed price every month, don’t worry! You can use as much as you want, we just want a little somethin’ for it.’ Which was like, yeah okay. But now? Dude, I can barely afford to wipe my ass around here.”
“You said it all.” Arthur dropped his forehead into his palm, squeezed the bridge of his nose. “We’ve considered moving.”
“What?” Alfred snapped around to face Arthur. “No. No way. Your school is here. You’re basically a doctor already. We can’t… No. No. This is the cheapest place we can get this close to your campus. Right? We’ve checked. So, we’re gonna make this work.”
Arthur looked taken aback. He blinked down at his hands, which fidgeted restlessly over crinkles in his pants. “Well. Don’t inconvenience yourself for my sake.”
“You inconvenience me for your sake, more than anything,” Alfred said, but he winked when he did, and this time, Arthur didn’t argue. His eyes dropped once more.
“Um, I don’t mean to be skeptical, but how are we going to ‘make this work,’ exactly?” Matthew chewed half a fry before continuing. “I admire your optimism, Alfred, but it hasn’t really helped us these past few months. At this rate, I’ll have to go full-time at work instead of signing up for hockey, and—”
“No, no. You, join your hockey team. You’re gonna kick major ass, my dude, so don’t let anything hold you back from that. And you,” he turned to Arthur, who took a moment to meet his gaze. “Keep focusing on your studies, okay? And I’m gonna pay you back for every time you’ve had to cover my share of rent. Scout’s honor. As for this hat?” He crossed over to the coffee table and spun the package in his hands. “Well, I’m gonna keep it. But no more crazy spending after this. Not until everything else is sorted. Alright? Both of you have my word.”
Arthur and Matthew watched him from their seats. Matthew’s expression was the first to falter. He averted his gaze and said, “Al…”
Alfred knew he wanted to follow it with a hundred other things. Al, we’ve heard this before. Al, promises don’t keep the electricity on. Al, you haven’t been much of a hero lately; not at all. Looking at Matthew now, it was like Alfred’s own reflection doubted him. His smile wavered.
“I believe him.”
Arthur’s voice caught Alfred off guard. His brow furrowed and he couldn’t stop himself from saying, “You do?”
Arthur stood. When he met Alfred’s eyes again, Alfred noticed how tired he looked. Deep bruises circled forest green eyes, and insomnia etched faint lines into Arthur’s forehead, around his mouth. He shook his head and sighed. “You’ve really got to help me help you here.”
Alfred’s grin broadened. “I mean, of course you believe me. I’m right! And I totally won’t let you guys down. You’ll see. I’m working on, like, three different plans right now. I’ve got a lot of coals in the fire.”
“Irons in the fire,” Arthur said.
Matthew’s smile was tentative. “If Arthur’s backing you up, I won’t be the only naysayer. You just have to promise this won’t turn into another—”
“I promise. I totally do. And I know, I know words only mean so much, so I’ll show you.” Alfred scooped up one last fistful of poutine before Matthew had the chance to dig into it. He crammed the fries into his mouth, tugged off his apron, and wiped his hands on the crumpled fabric. “First things first, I think Arthur should get with the times, sell his lame old records, and start streaming music like a normal person.”
“Now, wait just a moment,” Arthur bolted to his feet. “Insulting me is one thing, but it is blasphemy to speak ill of Freddie, Elton, and Ozzy.”
Alfred tossed his head back on a cackle. Matthew shared a chuckle of his own and said, “I’m glad some things don’t change.” He looked between the two of them fondly. Alfred returned his smile.
“Shit, well, I don’t know about y’all, but I am so ready to hit the hay.” Alfred stretched his arms behind his head and nodded to the hall. “Gotta be well-rested if I wanna be on top of my hustle.”
“Yes, I think I’ll join you.” Arthur started to lead the way before he realized what he’d said. He hesitated, so Alfred flashed a smile drenched in oblivion.
“For sure, man, you’re already in your PJs. Let’s get to sleep.” He leaned against the wall with a hand on his hip and his apron strewn over his shoulder. “Yo, Matt, you gonna need any help pulling your bed out?”
Matthew’s eyes widened behind round glasses. “Actually, Al, that’d be really nice of you.”
“I’m kidding, bro, you do this every night.” Alfred pushed off the wall and headed for his bedroom. “You got it. I believe in you!”
He caught a murmured “thanks” and laughed to himself. Matthew might not be able to tell when Alfred was being sarcastic, but Alfred operated under the assumption that Matthew was always sarcastic. That way, he was right more often than he was wrong.
Alfred also operated under the assumption that Arthur didn’t know how to apologize. That way, he couldn’t be too disappointed when he was right. But it also meant Alfred didn’t know how to respond when Arthur did approach him.
“Alfred, I’d like to have a word with you.”
Alfred took a breath to prepare himself. His smile melted into place before he turned. “Sure, dude. What’s up?”
“I wanted to… Well. I felt that I should…apologize.” The words sounded clunky, coming from Arthur. It was as though he was learning a new language and the phonetics were still foreign to him, except he never had this much trouble with French or Russian. “I admit I’ve been…harsh on you lately. Not all of it is unwarranted, but. Ah, well, I could be more tactful, at the very least.”
Alfred raised his brows. They both stood there, crammed in the doorway of their shared bedroom. Arthur focused on straightening a picture frame. Just a few yards away, Matthew wrestled with a squeaky pull-out couch. It was kind of a poetic ambience, as far as Alfred was concerned. His smile tightened when he nudged Arthur’s arm.
“Awe, c’mon. You think I’m upset about that?” Alfred laughed. “I know how things are between us. It’s not exactly new.”
“Between us. Yes.” Arthur cleared his throat. His attention drifted away from the wall, and at first, Alfred thought he was going to look at him. Instead, his eyes settled over Alfred’s shoulder. “You know, Al, you make fun of my records a lot, but I remember how much you used to enjoy them. I just dug some old ones out of the closet, if you…wanted to have a listen.”
Alfred followed his gaze. A twin bed occupied the corner. Crisp white sheets peeked out beneath a burgundy comforter. Two pillows lay neatly pressed across the top. And, at the foot of the bed, Alfred recognized a throw pillow boasting the insignia of the Union Jack. It was a gag gift from the previous Christmas. For a while, Arthur kept it hidden under his bed. Now…
“Actually, Art, I’m real exhausted from work.” Alfred ducked out of Arthur’s range and into the bedroom. A floral sheet hung from the ceiling, dividing the space in two. Alfred pushed it aside en route to his own bed. “Another time, yeah?”
“Right.” Arthur’s voice turned hollow. Alfred disappeared behind the curtain before he could say any more. He stood still, finally allowing himself to frown, and listened to the slow creak of Arthur’s footsteps on the other side.
At last, Alfred collapsed into bed. It was unmade, scattered with crumbs. He remembered a time, not long ago, when his mattress had been pushed up alongside Arthur’s. They would fall asleep holding one another, and clothes were always optional. Now, Alfred didn’t even bother changing out of his work attire. He sprawled on his back as an invasive thought crept into his head: Who had been the first one to stop saying “I love you?”
Alfred sighed. He didn’t wonder all that hard, not really. It was him who’d stopped saying it first. It was usually him.
A pungent stench wafted in from Arthur’s half of the room. The smoke wasn’t quite the same as the kind he saw in the restaurant, but if he closed his eyes, it didn’t feel too different. Absently, he reached into his apron and withdrew a small bundle of cash. His thumb ran along rumpled edges as he wondered where it had been before it came to him, what its journey had looked like. More than that, he wanted to know how to get more.
Then, surrounded by the musky scent of marijuana, an idea sparked. The money crumpled in Alfred’s hand as a slow smile passed his lips. It was a fairly lucrative business he had in mind. After all, there was always a demand for his product of choice. As for his supply, well, it was right here. All he had to do was sort out the details.
He fell asleep in his uniform and dreamed of the day he’d get to wear another kind of black suit.