Chapter 1: Borscht
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.
Chapter 2: Aces
He made his first sale two weeks ago. Word spread, after that.
Alfred almost felt bad, using such a charming diner as the site of his business. Bursts of yellow flora ornamented every window, always bundled in odd numbers. Five matryoshka dolls smiled at him from the front desk, a little family of painted perfection. On the walls, nature scenes hung in hand carved frames. People came here with their sweethearts, their children. The whole place looked innocent and unassuming; if Alfred hadn’t seen the dark-suited men that frequented the corner booth, he might have believed it really was.
Besides, he’d made enough to pay for utilities, so he couldn’t feel too guilty.
“Alrighty, I’m just gonna leave the bill with you here.” Alfred set the little black folder at the edge of his last table. “There’s no rush, okay? Just go ahead and pay whenever you’re ready.”
His smile lingered on the man with the red eyes. He had a feeling about this one, and his intuition hadn’t failed him too many times before. Then, the girl across from him pulled out her purse, and Alfred turned to leave.
“Hey, before you bail on us—”
Alfred stopped. His smile snapped back into place as he pivoted. “Yes, sir?”
The man rattled the ice in his otherwise empty cup and said, “Get me some diet Pepsi to go, will ya?”
Alfred’s heart leapt. He swallowed his delight, so his smile didn’t crack any wider. Besides, there was still a chance this request didn’t mean what he thought it meant. This guy could genuinely want a refill on soda, and nothing more. To make sure, Alfred said, “Sorry, dude, we only have Coke products. Will the diet Cola be alright?”
“Damn, see…” Crimson eyes locked on Alfred’s beneath a fringe of silver hair. “I really wanted the Pepsi.”
And there was the confirmation.
“Are you deaf?” The girl’s head shot up. Her brows furrowed over sharp green eyes. “He just said they don’t have Pepsi products here.”
“Shut your mouth, Héderváry. Seriously.” The man leaned toward Alfred and dropped his voice, confidentially. “Chicks, right? Always trying to ruin shit for us.”
Alfred grinned. “I’ll be right back with your drink.”
No one gave him a second glance when he stepped into the kitchens. And why would they? He behaved the same as he always did, greeting other workers and cracking jokes with chefs that didn’t speak English and didn’t laugh. Perhaps he was a bit giddier than usual. After all, people he didn’t even know were picking up on his code: If a customer asked for diet Pepsi, twice, when they knew the restaurant didn’t carry it, Alfred knew what they were really looking to buy.
He snagged a plastic cup from the dispenser and filled it with water. Then, he moved aside and looked over his shoulder. One person made eye contact. Alfred waved. They swiftly glanced away before he tried to talk to them. Alfred smiled to himself and went back to work.
While one hand wrestled with the cup’s lid, the other snuck into his shirt. He fished out a small baggy, curled his last three fingers around it. Then, he adjusted the lid with both hands, dropped the bag inside the cup, and secured the top. And no sir, he certainly did not just hide an eighth of Arthur’s shitty weed in a to-go cup, thank you very much.
“Pardon me.” He dodged another server and started out onto the floor. A voice stopped him.
“Oh! Alfred. Like, thank god. Hey, you can totally help me with something, can’t you?”
Alfred hesitated, then turned to look at his coworker. His short ponytail had come loose during the day, and various liquids stained the front of his uniform. He struggled under his food tray with both hands, and gasped when the dishes on top tilted dangerously to one side. Alfred caught the other end and offered half a smile.
“Hey Feliks. I’m actually just taking care of my last table for the night, but uh…” The kitchen doors swung open behind another server. Through them, Alfred saw his customer, the snowy-haired figure standing near his table like he was eager to go. Then the doors shut, and a groan sounded beside him. He snapped back to attention and forced his smile wider. “But yeah, hey, no. Don’t look so sad. I can totally help you! What’s up?”
Another groan, this time full of relief. “Okay, okay, I have just been having the craziest day. Like, oh my god, you wouldn’t believe it.”
“Try me,” Alfred joked. He was distracted by the door opening again. The red-eyed diner was looking around now, searching for him, Alfred was sure. He shuffled the cup to his other hand.
“Right, you think you can handle anything. Totally forgot that about you. Okay, tough guy. So, it all started last week, when the new schedule came out. Well, the new schedule was bullshit, I wasn’t getting any hours, so I started trying to pick up shifts, right?”
“Uh huh.” Alfred shifted his weight. His eyes flicked to the clock.
“Right, so like, no one was giving me any shifts. They were all acting like they needed the money so much more than I do, because it’s not like I’m working to pay my bills too or anything. Anyway, I called up Toris and I was like, ‘Excuse me, what is the deal here? I swear I’m about to lose power this week or something because I can’t freaking pay my bills.’ And he was all, ‘Okay, here, take some more shifts.’”
“That’s good!” Alfred offered. He took a step toward the door. Feliks intercepted him.
“Yeah, except it’s totally not good at all. He gave me like four double shifts this week! It feels like I’ve been working for, like, seventy-two hours straight. No joke.”
“Oh. That’s…not good.”
“No, it’s not good. I, like, just said that. Like, just now. Anyway, normally I can handle it because I’m totally the hardest worker in this joint, but like, now they have me serving those freaks in the corner and, oh my god, those guys make me so anxious, Al. Like, they don’t even make meds strong enough to chill me out on their weird ‘game nights.’”
“Look, Feliks, I’d love to help, but you gotta—”
“So, like I said, I’m running on literally no sleep, and my hands keep shaking so I’m spilling shit everywhere. Do you know how much of that weird beet soup is seeping through my shirt? Oh my god, Al, I look like a crime scene right now. Don’t even lie to me, because I know it’s true. And they just keep asking me for things. Except the one big guy with the scarf? You know him? He, like, doesn’t even ask me for anything. He just smiles at me when I come by, and it totally freaks me out because I feel like, should I be doing more? Did I forget something he wanted? Oh my god, is he going to fire me? Because he totally could. He could totally fire me.”
“Feliks, I’ve got to go. I really can’t—”
“Basically, I’m burning up in a living hell right now, and being in this hot ass kitchen so isn’t helping me, so I’m gonna dip. But first, can you like, just check on those guys for me? You’re so good with people, Al! They’ll totally like you, and maybe they won’t ask you for as much bullshit since your shift is pretty much over, and I swear I’d owe you, like, my whole life, because—”
“Sure thing.” He agreed automatically, because he was only half listening. Because it would get Feliks to stop talking. Because then, he could go back out there and get his money. “I’ll go check on the guys. Let me just finish up with my last table, ‘kay?”
“Oh my god, thank you, Al.” Feliks pushed his tray onto a counter and tore off his apron. He started pulling off his nametag next, but by the time Alfred thought to protest—Because Jesus Christ, he didn’t agree to take the table off his hands completely—Feliks said, “You are, like, my hero. For real.”
A smile returned to Alfred’s lips. “Sure I am. Don’t mention it. Except to anyone who asks.”
“Like, no one asks about you, I promise.” The blonde turned on a heel and threw a wave over his shoulder. “Bye-bye, you totally heroic guy, you!”
Alfred scratched the back of his neck. He wondered if he’d ever be able to say the word ‘totally’ again without wincing. But he couldn’t dwell. He shifted the to-go cup to his opposite hand and shoved through the kitchen doors.
“Shit,” he muttered to himself. Impatience was written in every line of his client’s body. The man had resorted to pacing. Alfred put on a smile. He’d not yet had to deal with angry customers in this line of work, but he’d heard plenty horror stories. Not to mention everything movies had taught him about drug deals gone wrong. He remembered a few lines he’d seen heroes use to deescalate situations, and that made him feel more confident. As he approached, he caught the tail end of a hushed conversation.
“…supposed to know that douchebag would be back today? Of all fuckin’ days, right?” The red-eyed man snatched a leather jacket off the back of his seat before attempting to pull the girl’s chair out for her. She swatted him away and stood herself. The man laughed sharply before turning face-to-face with Alfred. “You. Dammit. Look, we’re getting out of here. I’m not trying to stick around until Borscht diarrhea hits the fan and starts flying all over the place.”
“Yeah, I get it,” Alfred said, not getting it. “Let me just collect your payment and you guys are free to go.”
His eyes fell to the crinkled bills lumped on the table. He frowned. His pay was supposed to be fanned out, for easy counting. It was one of his policies. Made it easier for him to see, right away, if he was being stiffed. Maybe his customer just forgot. He was new, after all. Alfred picked up the cash in his free hand, thumbed through it, and frowned. “Hey, this isn’t enough for your—Cola.”
“Screw the Cola, Barbie boy. No one told us that son of a bitch was here.” The man stepped close, so Alfred could smell the liquor on his breath. “Listen here. You might be chained to this hellhole like a schoolgirl strapped to her kinky lover’s bedpost, and that sucks balls for you. But that’s not my problem, and I don’t like rope burns on my wrists. You understand what I’m saying?”
“Gilbert, no one ever knows what the fuck you’re saying,” the girl said, and snorted a laugh when he glared at her. “It’s true.”
“Well then, allow me to translate to Stupid Motherfucker.” Gilbert’s focus slid back to Alfred. “We’re leaving. It was safe here for a while. Now it’s not, and I’m just upset I had to find it out myself. But that’s okay because, I repeat, we are getting the fuck out of here.”
“You can’t…just do that, though.” Alfred frowned and switched the cup to his other hand. “You already said you were buying. I risk my ass every time I drop this shit in a to-go cup. You can’t just walk off now.”
Gilbert looked surprised. The corner of his mouth curled on a sneer. “Oh yeah? I can’t walk out? What do you wanna do about it, candy ass? Gonna knock my teeth out and make me pick ‘em back up? Gonna turn my kneecaps to silly putty? ‘Cause I guarantee you, whatever you have in mind, it’s Candyland compared to what that Soviet-born sadist jerks himself off to.” Crimson eyes flicked from one of Alfred’s, to the other, and back. “I heard your business was running real good…while he was away. If I were you, though? I’d find a new pot to piss in, now that the bear’s come out of hibernation.”
Alfred stared at the other man, blue eyes locked on red. His fingers tightened around the top of the to-go cup. For a moment, no one said anything. Only their breathing was audible. Gilbert was first to retreat.
“Grab your keys, babe. We’re driving to Buttfuck Egypt before I’ll torture myself another second in this place.” He looked over his shoulder at the girl texting behind him. “Elizabeta? Oh, you’re messaging the hubby. I see. Star-crossed lovers who can’t stand to be apart for longer than it takes the damn appetizer to come out.”
“What?” Elizabeta looked up. When she registered what he’d said, she scowled. “Eat shit. We’re planning something for you, so at least read the group chat before you start getting all jealous.”
Gilbert stepped beside her, slinging his jacket around her shoulders. “Ooh, kinky. You should write the new Kamasutra.” He glanced at Alfred one last time. “And you should write an autobiography, before you’re gone, and everyone forgets the brand of stupid you used to be.”
Elizabeta smiled, glanced at his nametag. “I tipped you extra, for putting up with his shit. Have a good night, Alfred!”
With that, the pair made for the exit. Alfred watched them go. Cursing, he fumbled with the lid of the to-go cup until he heard a pop. He hunched in around himself to block the view, snatched up the baggy, and swore again as he shook water off the plastic, before tucking it back in his shirt. Just then, an invisible thread of energy drew his attention to the back corner. A haze of smoke confirmed what he already knew: Game night was at its peak.
Alfred trashed the cup of water on his way over. More people populated the table than usual. An animated buzz clung to the air, like so many volts of electricity. Alfred wandered close, choking on the stink of too much booze. This was more than just another game night, he thought. This was a celebration. And the guest of honor appeared to be…
The tails of a white scarf stole his focus. Alfred followed it up to the curve of a broad jawline, and higher still. Pale lips smiled a pale smile set against paler skin. This creature must have been chiseled from marble, Alfred thought, because each of his features was precisely cut, from the high planes of his cheeks to the hooked bridge of his nose. Even his imperfections looked deliberate—And there were many—like the dimple set into only one corner of his mouth, or the pencil thin scar that curled over the top of his scarf and under his chin. A fringe of silver-beige hair skewed across his brow. Lower than that, light lashes framed eyes the color of lilacs. And they were watching him.
“Hi!” Alfred blurted, and realized he was already grinning too much to put on his Customer Service smile. “My name’s Alfred and I’ll be taking over as your server for the night. I…guess. Can I get y’all some beverages? Soups? Snacks?”
He scanned the blur of faces around him, notepad at the ready. Lovino glowered off to his left, but instead of piping up with insults or threats, the Italian flicked his cigar and returned to his cards. Even Feliciano was quieter than usual, humming gently to himself while he studied his hand. The mice weren’t playing anymore.
Movement flickered in the corner of Alfred’s eye. He snapped to attention, which was easy, because he’d never completely strayed from the figure at the head of the table. This, he thought, must be the Old Bear. He must be. The man twitched a finger, looking ready to speak. Alfred leaned forward, hooked on the promise of putting a voice to the face. He did his best to drown out the surrounding chatter, but he could swear it lowered on its own. Then, Toris spoke instead.
“Oh! Um, he’ll want another bottle of vodka, please.” A too-cheery smile flashed on Toris’ face. He bowed his head awkwardly. “Eduard will know the one. Thank you.”
The bear closed his mouth and looked back at his cards. A feeling of vague dissatisfaction replaced his gaze, but Alfred smiled anyway. “My pleasure. Anything else? What about you, Lovino?”
Lovino’s expression darkened. He met Alfred’s eyes, and Alfred wondered if he could see the mischief dancing there. His smile crept wider. He knew he was pushing it, they both did, but Alfred needed to know something: How did mice behave when the cat—Or bear—wasn’t away? He cocked his head.
“Some of that Masseto sound good?”
Lovino looked at him. Looked at the man in the scarf, but not for long. His eyes dropped as he ground out the word, “Whatever.” And that was it.
Victory surged Alfred’s veins. He suppressed a laugh, continued taking orders. The whole time, his attention kept flicking back to the man with violet eyes. Once, those eyes were already on Alfred by the time he glanced up. His breath caught. He played it off by looking to Toris instead.
“And what can I get you, Toris, my dude?”
“Oh, I’m fine, thank you.” Toris sat next to the bear, but he pressed against the back of his seat, like he would rather phase through it and disappear. “I should keep a clear head.”
“A water, then.” Alfred grinned and scribbled it down. “No problem. I’ll be back faster than you can spell Mississippi.”
Alfred resisted the urge to look back. He could feel that gaze now, all purple and guarded and—Curious? Alfred thought that was it. What the bear was curious about, he had no way of knowing. He tried not to let his imagination run wild with theories.
He reached the bar. Counted to three. Whipped his head around. But he couldn’t see anyone watching him now; if they were, the smoke was too thick to tell.
“Hey Eduard?” Alfred leaned against the counter, eyes never straying from that back corner. “You’ve worked here a while, yeah? Can you tell me anything about the, uh, Old Bear?”
“Hm?” A presence filled the space behind Alfred as Eduard’s voice filled his ears. “Tsk. Don’t even recognize your boss. I’d say it’s sad but…honestly, you can consider yourself lucky.”
“Lucky?” Alfred murmured. A pale blur flickered behind the veil of smoke. He squinted. He was pretty sure it was the bear, but the table was too far away to tell.
“Or unlucky,” Eduard allowed, “seeing as you’ve had to meet him at all.”
“Like…what’s so bad about him, though?” Alfred turned, and a bottle blocked his view.
“Is this why you came over here? Because if it is, you’d better get it to him.”
Alfred accepted the bottle, fumbling to read the label. It was vodka. “Yeah, how’d you know he…? Well, whatever. I’m working on it. I’m just trying to see—”
“And something for the others.” Eduard piled a few more bottles into Alfred’s arms and swatted him away. “Go, now. You want to know about the boss, yes? First lesson, you never keep him waiting. Not ever. So, go. Or you’ll learn more about him than you ever wanted to.”
“Yeah… Okay.” Whatever that means. Alfred flashed half a smile in farewell. “You’re a great bartender, dude. I’ll put in a good word for you!”
Eduard flustered, proud. “Oh. Well, yes, I am. But, I wouldn’t know if, erm, there’s no reason to, well—”
Alfred sauntered away before he could hear the rest. He glanced at the front door as he passed by. He should be heading out for the night. He should be on a long bus ride home, planning how to get to his side of the room without encountering Arthur. Maybe he’d sneak a little more of his marijuana; it wasn’t stealing, exactly, because the money he made would come to benefit all of them.
Instead, Alfred found himself concerned with how to initiate a conversation with this bear everyone kept buzzing about. He wondered if the man even spoke English, tried to recall a few Russian words Arthur had taught him. The problem was, Arthur taught strictly, verbally, by-the-book. He didn’t acknowledge Alfred’s preference for kinesthetic learning until much later on. And by that point, well, they were too caught up in the kinesthetics of their lessons to really pay heed to the content matter.
Those thoughts dissolved as Alfred stepped through the smokescreen. Half the table was shouting, applauding. The other half was cursing in Italian. He couldn’t suppress a smile when he saw Toris kiss the crucifix around his neck. He cleared his throat once the noise died down.
“So, who had the vodka?” Alfred watched the head of the table. He didn’t bother with subtleties. He knew who the bottle in his right hand was for. What he didn’t know was, well, just about everything else about this man. He intended to learn. “Vodka?”
“Right down here.” Toris smiled and Alfred’s eyes shifted half an inch to look at him, before flicking back. The Old Bear didn’t so much as quirk a brow in Alfred’s direction. His focus was on his cards, and certainly not on Alfred.
Alfred’s smile wavered. “Sweet. Coming your way.”
He distributed bottles of whiskey, wine, and a couple drinks he couldn’t pronounce the name of. Then, he stood back and watched when Toris presented the bear with his vodka. The man murmured something to Toris, without looking at him, and placed a bet on the table. Alfred’s attention flickered to the bear’s hands. They were large, pale, with tension written into every tendon. The skin around his knuckles was cracked and scarred, and Alfred could tell it felt rough to touch—Not that he was thinking of touching him. Those calloused fingers returned to his cards, idly stroking blunted edges. Every so often, he flicked the corner of one, and though Alfred didn’t hear it, he could imagine the gentle thwick, thwick, thwick of his nail against the cardboard. Never before had a silent sound proven so hypnotic.
“Are you wanting to play?”
Alfred startled. For one frantic second, he searched the table for the source of the question. But, as he registered each harsh syllable, as that rolling accent nestled in his mind, he knew who the words belonged to. Blue eyes met violet once more.
“Well?” The Old Bear arched his brow. Something very much like a smirk traced the corners of his lips. “You seem very interested in the game.”
“Oh.” Alfred laughed, an involuntary hitch of sound. His mouth went dry. “Uh. I mean—”
“Oi, look at him! He is il bambino!” Lovino cut both hands across the table to emphasize his point. “He cannot play cards.”
“Bambino,” Alfred repeated to himself. His nose crinkled. “Like, as in, Babe Ruth?”
Lovino clicked his tongue and took a long swig from his cup. A few other men laughed. The Old Bear didn’t.
“Can you play?”
That voice again; it sounded like a purr. Alfred shuddered when he followed it back to the head of the table. Lavender eyes watched his with smoldering intent.
“Oh. Huh. I don’t know.” One side of Alfred’s mouth quirked higher than the other. “What is this anyway? Rummy?”
That was his first bluff of the night.
The air erupted into gales of laughter. Applause thundered around him. Whoops and howls of amusement accented the sound. Even the Old Bear smiled as he shook his head. Someone with an accent that wasn’t quite Italian spoke above the din.
“Hey, as long as the kid’s got money to bet, I say we let him in!” The man grinned with bright green eyes. “How many tips did you make tonight, amigo?”
“If that bastard’s playing, he ain’t joining our side,” Lovino grumbled.
Others piped up with encouragement or complaints. An argument sparked in a language Alfred didn’t understand. Then, the bear’s rumbling accent broke through the noise; he didn’t even raise his voice, everyone else just quieted to listen.
“Toris, stand up so this boy has a place to sit.”
“Right away, boss.” Toris stumbled in his haste to flee his chair. He straightened up and smiled when he beckoned Alfred over. “Don’t worry, Alfred. Poker isn’t very hard. You’ll learn while you play.”
Alfred maintained his absent smile. That was his poker face. “Gosh, thanks, Toris. I hope you guys will have patience with me. I’m gonna do my best.”
He paused in front of his seat. The Old Bear lit a cigarette beside him. Alfred stood so close, he swore he could feel the heat of his match. Smoke shivered and curled over the edges of the boss’s lips. Alfred’s eyes hooked on glowing orange embers. The man looked like he was breathing fire.
Alfred had only choked on a cigarette drag once in high school, and his dad threatened to make him smoke a whole pack when he found out. But now, something about that delicate paper cylinder dangling loose between the boss’s teeth, the way his tongue nudged against it every so often… It was captivating. Alfred took his seat and asked, “Can I have one?”
“No,” the Old Bear murmured, and passed the carton to someone else.
The boss gestured once, and everyone began gathering their cards, collecting their cash. Then, he stacked the cards against the table, tapping them all into place. He set the deck in front of Alfred and said, “Cut it.”
“Oh, shit, actually… Can I shuffle?” Alfred beamed. “I just learned how to do the bridge thing and I wanna try it out.”
Violet eyes studied his. For a time, Alfred wondered if they could read the truth on him, like that he’d been playing poker since high school. Or that Arthur had taught him ‘magic tricks’ that improved his sleight of hand. But then, the bear shrugged and handed over the cards.
“Cool! Okay, so, I just gotta remember how to…” Alfred ignored the impatient clicks and clucks of the people watching him. He bent the cards over one another, listened to the satisfying rush of paper. Then, he twisted his fingers, and the cards spilled out of his hands.
“Shit, sorry! I got it.” Alfred ducked under the table. A choir of curses and groans sounded overhead. He heard the irritable drumming of people’s fingers against the wood and didn’t care. He searched the scatter of diamonds and hearts, clubs and spades. Swiftly, he found a pair of aces, a king, and flipped them into his sleeve. Then, with the rest of the cards secured, he returned to his seat.
“Sorry,” he repeated, bashful. “I guess I’m not as good as I thought.”
“Keep practicing.” The Old Bear mumbled around his cigarette. Smoke streamed between his teeth. He reached out a hand, and Alfred gave the cards back. In a few practiced motions, he shuffled the deck and thunked it onto the table. “Why don’t you cut the deck now?”
Alfred perked up. “I can do that!”
He divided the deck as equally down the middle as he could. He set the top half closest to him. A low rumble caught his attention. The Old Bear was chuckling. Alfred cocked his head.
“What’s up?” he asked.
The boss shook his head, stacked the cards, and began to distribute them. “They say if you cut the deck away from the dealer, you do not trust him.”
“Oh, shoot, I didn’t even realize I’d—”
“Do you not trust me?” The Old Bear paused what he was doing. His eyes locked on Alfred’s. A thread of tension crackled between them. Suddenly, they were the only two there. Without thinking, he licked his lips; the bear’s own tongue flicked against the end of his cigarette. Alfred’s throat bobbed when he swallowed, but he couldn’t tell if the boss did the same; he was protected by that damned scarf.
Quietly, Alfred said, “I trust you.”
The boss broke into a smirk. All at once, the tension shattered. The candles around them seemed to glow brighter, then flicker when he said, “You really are a beginner, then.”
“Unlucky for you,” Lovino called, “because it’s your turn, bambino.”
Unlucky for you, Alfred thought, because those hearts on the table match the ones in my sleeve.
“Oh man. Okay! I’ll bet the tip from my last table. So, that’s ten bucks, if that’s okay? And, I’m trying to collect one card from every suit, right?” Alfred looked from his cards to the cards in the community hand. “And, like, all the different numbers too? Or no?”
“Ai, Madonna.” Lovino rolled his eyes and threw twenty bucks on the table. The men to his left also raised their bets.
“Ah, Alfred, are you familiar with the different card rankings?” Toris frowned and started to set down his own cards. “Maybe I should—”
“Don’t hover, Toris.” The bear flicked ash into a glass tray. Alfred noticed a muscle twitch in his jaw, but he tugged his scarf up to hide it. A bad hand, then. “Let him figure it out.”
And “figure it out,” Alfred did. Or that was how it appeared to his competition. Each round, Alfred played a little more confidently, encouraged a few more people to fold. When he got the Old Bear sweating, he knew he was close to taking the pot. And this wasn’t the one he planned to piss in.
“Figlio di troia.” Lovino finished his drink with a hiss. “I fold. I’m out. Done.”
“Ah, Lovino, I think—”
“Don’t say it, bastardo.” Lovino interrupted his brother with a scowl.
“I have to fold too!” Feliciano cried, tossing down his cards. “I have to. There is no way I’ll win, and he’s just going to keep taking our money.”
Alfred looked around at all the cards folded on the table. He heard some people whispering about “American luck” and smiled to himself. He didn’t know about luck, but he did know he’d have to swap out his cards soon, before he had to reveal his hand. He also knew the Old Bear next to him didn’t know when to give up—And there was no way he had a better hand than what Alfred was about to have. He twisted his wrist against his hidden hearts and waited for the final round.
Two more men laid down their cards.
Alfred’s chest swelled with excitement. His eyes flicked to the pool of cash in the middle. Then, he counted the number of dead hands. Almost everyone was out. Everyone except…
“Looks like it’s you and me, boss.” Alfred angled his chair toward his opponent and straddled it more comfortably. His smile never faltered; he’d worn it the entire game.
“Four hearts on the table,” the Old Bear mused. “That is almost a straight flush right there.”
“I guess it is,” Alfred drawled. He crossed one leg over the other, threw in a wink for good measure. “I know what I got, so it’d be a shame if you had a couple of black cards in that hand of yours. You’d basically be—I don’t know how to say this in technical terms—screwed?”
A low whistle rose in the audience. “This kid has some balls on him, viejo, I’ll say that.” The man with the not-Italian accent spoke. Alfred learned to call him Antonio, though Lovino preferred impolite pet names.
The Old Bear considered those words. Then, his eyes found Alfred’s. He pushed the cigarette stub from between his teeth and crushed it with the pad of his thumb. Dying embers sizzled against the wood. The two of them held each other’s gaze for a long time: Alfred grinning with casual arrogance, the boss entirely impassive. The smoke around them had grown thin, but the air thickened with something else now. Alfred liked to think it was victory—His victory, drifting ever closer.
“I am going to raise,” the Old Bear said, and placed his bet on the table.
“Boss.” Toris smiled nervously, and the bear turned to face him. “Caution might be our best tactic now. This is a new opponent, and we don’t know his tells. It feels impossible to know when he’s bluffing.” A hesitation, and then, “I don’t think he even knows when he’s bluffing.”
Perfect opportunity. Alfred settled back in his chair. One of his fingers curled, to the graze the cards in his sleeve. An ace of hearts, and a king of the same suit. Maybe he did owe some of this to luck.
“Hey Raivis.” Alfred shuffled his cards together idly and waited for the teenager’s attention. “Sorry to make you take over as server, dude. I know it’s a lot to handle, but I promise I’ll be tipping you real good at the end of the night.”
Large eyes brightened on the young blonde’s face. “Oh! I don’t really mind. It’s only bad when the Italians start being rude, and the boss ends up in a bad mood. Sometimes he’s better when he’s been drinking, but sometimes he’s worse.”
“Raivis…” Toris warned.
The two started up a hushed conversation, but Alfred stopped listening. He only watched them, giving the illusion of focus, while his hands did the real work. His cards shuffled and twirled between his fingers. Then, one slipped into his sleeve as he thumbed the other one out. The swap happened quickly, as expertly as Arthur had taught him. He did it again, as seamlessly as before, until he held the cards to complete a royal flush.
“So, we ready to call the round, boss—?” Alfred’s eyes flicked over the rims of his glasses. His breath stuttered. The Old Bear was looking right at him.
Had he seen Alfred switch his cards? A trickle of sweat skipped along his hairline. And the bear smiled.
He was caught. His opponent—His boss—had seen him cheating and… But, no. The man looked back at his cards, as calmly as before. So maybe he hadn’t seen? Or was he only letting Alfred get away with it? Alfred glanced at his own hand. Up again. And—there. Something wasn’t right. The Old Bear’s cards… One of them had a bent corner and that, that wasn’t there before, was it? He…
He was cheating too.
“Should we call the round?” the bear repeated, nonchalant. “I don’t recall you making your bet.”
“Uh. I’ll…” Alfred’s eyes darted over the man’s face. The subtle curve of his lips. The faint purple rings around his eyes. He looked tired, but he also looked aware. “I’ll raise.”
Alfred stretched forward to set his money on the table. It was the last of his tips and, though he knew he’d win it back just as quickly, the emptiness didn’t feel right. He couldn’t even catch a bus home without something in his pocket. He shook off the thoughts. He held the royal flush. There was nothing higher than that. He was invincible.
“Alright,” the bear allowed. His eyes wandered from his cards to the cards on the table. “I win.”
“What?” Alfred sat forward. The corner of his mouth twisted sharply upwards. “Bullshit, you win. Lemme see your hand.”
The Old Bear raised his brows. A quiet murmur buzzed around the table. Maybe it was the way Alfred made his demands. Maybe it was bad enough, calling the boss a liar. Either way, the man shrugged and placed his hand on the table. Alfred’s blood froze solid.
“Ace and king of hearts,” the Old Bear said, as though Alfred couldn’t freaking see that with his own stupid eyes. “So, you see? I win. You don’t have anything that can beat a royal flush, do you?”
Violet eyes bore into Alfred’s own. It was a trick question. That hand was the highest in the game. And Alfred had it too, he was holding it right now, but he couldn’t say that or… He could accuse his boss of cheating, but then all the man needed to do was make Alfred unbutton the cuffs of his shirt. And, if he wasn’t careful, something more than cards might fall out. He still had some of the day’s cannabis supply stocked in his shirt.
“Ha.” Alfred forced a weak laugh. A cold numbness trickled through him as he tried not to look at all the money heaped upon the table. He tossed his cards face down in the discard pile and dropped his palms to his lap. “You got me. You win.”
“Ah! Congratulations, boss.” Toris smiled, nearly touched the bear’s shoulders, then thought better of it and recoiled.
“Yeah, boss!” Raivis chimed in. “We knew you would win back twice as much as Toris lost last time—Which was a lot!”
“Oh, yes, è tutto molto perfettisimo.” Lovino lit another cigar, coughing around a fresh plume of smoke. “I lost my money, but at least I didn’t lose it to the twink who didn’t learn how to play Old Maid until last week.”
Alfred mustered half a smile and slid out of his seat. The sounds of celebration drowned out his voice. “Good game, guys. I guess I better get going. Long walk home and all.”
He threw up a lazy peace sign, even though no one was watching. Then, he ambled off toward the exit. Maybe, on the way home, he could sell the last of what he had hidden in his shirt. The hard part would be coming up with an excuse for Arthur as to why he’d made hardly any money on a Saturday night. Alfred sighed, the bell rang overhead, and he resolved to take the long way home.
A deep, accented voice caught him at the door. “Alfred.”
A shiver licked up his spine. His name, said like that… He turned and, though he was expecting him, his temperature spiked when he spotted the Old Bear.
“Hey, boss.” Alfred hesitated. He wouldn’t get fired for cheating at a card game, would he? Suddenly, he remembered Gilbert’s warnings. Maybe there were worse things to fear than being laid off. His mouth twitched. “Really close game tonight. I was sure I had you.”
“You played well. For a beginner.” He said it deliberately, knowingly, and Alfred’s smile turned sheepish.
“Yeah, well, I watch a lot of movies.”
“And in the end of your movies, the hero always wins, no?” The man stood tall, formidable. The breadth of his shoulders blocked the light behind him, so only the edges of his suit, and the very ends of his hair, glowed a deep, iridescent orange. “You are making big tips, I noticed.”
“Oh, yeah.” Alfred shivered again. He told himself that, this time, it was from the breeze creeping through the open door. “What can I say? People like me.”
“So, you must be a hero.” A green bundle appeared, pinched in the man’s fingers. He nodded once, casting most the shadow off his face. “Take your winnings.”
Alfred stared. His mouth dropped open on empty syllables before he managed, “I didn’t win, though. You beat me fair and—Well, you beat me.”
Another one of those roiling chuckles. It sounded like how an earthquake felt. The bear gestured with his cash. “I am only returning the money you put down, no more. You earned it first, by working hard. I respect that.”
Alfred considered. Another gust of wind ruffled his hair, fogged the edges of his glasses. Somehow, seeing this man through frosted panes of glass felt…fitting. And then, Alfred didn’t care about the money. He put his hand out because he wanted to confirm two suspicions: First, his earlier theory that the man’s hands were rough. And his second, newer idea that this man felt as cold as he looked.
He shivered one last time when the Old Bear’s skin grazed his. It was coarse and cool, like asphalt on an autumn eve. The contact only lasted a second, and when the man pulled back, a roll of rumpled bills remained.
“Hey… Hey!” Alfred’s astonishment grew, brightened into an expression of heartfelt joy. He closed his hand around his pay. “That’s…real good of you, boss. Thanks. Er…Old Bear? I don’t…really…” He bit the inside of his cheek and asked a question that hadn’t occurred to him until now. “What should I call you, exactly?”
That soft smile found its way back to the man’s lips. In that moment, he looked like a sculpture, or something ethereal. Moonlight bathed his skin, his hair, in silver luminescence. Meanwhile, the candles inside sent shadows and flame whirling across his clothes, and the fabric of his scarf. He tugged it up higher, almost to obscure his mouth. Alfred watched the hand lingering near his jaw; he didn’t want to touch it again, but he wouldn’t exactly protest if he had to.
It seemed a long time before the answer came. “Ivan.”
“Ivan.” Alfred sampled the name, decided he liked it better than any of the wine he served. He nodded, once, and shifted against the door. “Good to meet ya. I’m Alfred. You…know that, though.”
The other man’s eyes glinted, like the edge of a violet blade. His smile was softer than the next whisper of wind. “Be careful who you play with, Alfred. Very few people follow the rules.”
“But the hero always does.” He said it because he could feel the conversation ending. Because he couldn’t think of anything else to say, but he didn’t want to go—Not yet—and this sounded true enough, so it was as good a response as any.
“Does he?” Ivan, the Old Bear, gave Alfred a slow onceover. Then, without waiting for an answer, he stepped back into the dim glow of the restaurant. Long wisps of cigarette smoke trailed behind him, then vanished.
“Holy…shit.” Alfred’s fist crumpled around his money. Something stiff prevented his hand from closing all the way. Frowning, he brought the bills up close for examination. A splash of red caught his eye, and he realized: The bills were curled around a single ace of hearts, the one with the bent corner. Alfred’s chest lurched. His smile returned.
Money was valuable, he knew, but this card was a treasure.
Chapter 3: Quality
It was the end of the month, and Alfred was broke.
Since the Old Bear’s return, Alfred’s sales had plummeted. Begrudgingly, he realized Gilbert was right: Business was going well before, but now the boss was back, and no one wanted to step on the toes of his finely polished shoes. Alfred didn’t see the big deal. Ivan hardly ever appeared in the restaurant itself, except on game nights. Sure, Alfred had seen him outside a few times, tending the sunflowers in an early morning mist. He looked like a ghost out there, a pale spirit with blurred edges, drifting among bright yellow blossoms. Other than that, his presence was scarce.
Well, Alfred supposed he shouldn’t say that. Just because Ivan didn’t physically visit the diner, that didn’t mean he was not present. Indeed, the man’s essence clung to the space like a lingering frost. The weather outside grew warmer with the passing days, but the restaurant’s interior remained cool. It drove everyone to work harder, as though they feared standing still might freeze them.
No matter how hard Alfred worked, though, he couldn’t afford rent. His tips weren’t enough to live on. People stopped asking for diet Pepsi, and when they did ask, they corrected themselves once he said they didn’t have it. So, Alfred moved to the streets. He wanted to avoid that option, but the electricity bill was three days late, and water was due. It was desperation that led him to the nearest medical school, where he stood for over three hours.
The building towered high and grey above him. Students who looked just stressed enough to self-medicate filtered past. They reminded him of Arthur, except they nagged him less, and their eyebrows were thinner. He ambled through the crowd, adjusted his jacket, and wondered if he would get arrested for loitering. Then, a second thought: If the police did show up, loitering would be the least of his trouble.
“Hey!” He flashed a smile at one fellow, a bespectacled brunette with a mole on his chin. The student glanced over his shoulder, as though he expected Alfred to be talking to someone else. He kept walking. Alfred followed. “Hey, wait. You know Gilbert, don’t you?”
The student turned, regarding him with cool violet eyes. He said nothing.
“I’m just asking because I’ve seen you hanging out with him a couple times. Outside that Russian place. You know, with the sunflowers out front.” Alfred's smile widened, more desperate than welcoming. “You see, Gilbert's a good customer of mine and, seeing as you're his friend, I was thinking—”
“Does he owe you money?”
“Uh…” Alfred shifted his weight. The way this man spoke, with such obvious distaste, Alfred began to doubt his own intuition. But he knew he’d seen the pair together just the other day. They sat so close their knees touched and spoke in whispers intended only for each other. And sure, the brunette often looked annoyed during those meetings—Alfred figured that was just the natural state of his face—but he certainly didn’t appear malicious. So, Alfred kept on. “No money, no. Actually, I kinda feel like I owe him. Like I said, he’s a great customer of mine and, seeing as you’re his friend—”
The student crinkled his nose.
“Okay, seeing as you’re his…acquaintance…?” Alfred paused for a protest that didn’t come, then continued. “I thought you might also be interested in what I, uh, in what I have to sell.”
Violet eyes narrowed. “What is it?”
“Oh, well, I’m happy to explain.” Alfred flashed a winning smile. His muscles loosened up as his confidence returned. “First, let me introduce myself. I’m Alfred. And you are…?”
“Roderich,” the student said after a beat. He didn’t move to accept Alfred’s outstretched hand, so Alfred stuck it in his pocket instead.
“Roderich. Pleased to meet ya.” His thumb grazed a hidden Ziploc bag and he took a breath, exhaling on a brighter smile. “You see, Roderich, I like to consider myself a sort of small-scale self-starter. You know what I’m saying? I’m just your typical college-aged dude, trying to pay rent and afford instant noodles like all the rest of us. Only, the food business isn’t cutting it anymore. So, yeah, I had to take it upon myself to find another source of income. That’s what I wanted to talk to you about.”
“A self-starter, you say?” The student straightened up, speaking more fluidly now. “Is it art you’re selling, then? Music? I've been looking for some new independent artists to commission. I’m not trying to fund any corporate ‘art festival’ nonsense.”
“Oh, yeah, no, it’s nothing like that.” Alfred shuffled his feet, nudging the item in his pocket. “I mean, it is art…in a way. Look, how about I just show you what I’m—”
“Ciao! Alfred! Yoo-hoo!”
Alfred stiffened at the familiar voice. Violet eyes flicked over his shoulder, and the student turned to go. Alfred tried to catch his arm. “Hey, wait, we can just ignore him a minute. I was talking to you first so—”
“Alfred, amico!” A hand clapped around Alfred’s shoulder, startling him. Roderich took the opportunity to escape. “You didn’t hear me, did you?”
Alfred smelled the man before he saw him: A deep blend of cologne and cigar smoke. His smile turned stony as he watched his potential customer slip away. He took a deep breath, tried to shrug the hand away. It stayed, so he did his best to ignore it instead.
“Hey, Feliciano.” Alfred watched the younger Vargas brother step out in front of him. The man was dressed sharply in a navy three-piece. A pink flower blossomed from his breast pocket, matching the socks that peeked under his pantlegs. And of course, his signature hat sat tilted over his brow, reminding Alfred that he hadn’t yet worn his own.
“I was going for a walk when I saw you trying to sell something.” The young man smiled brightly and tilted his head to the side. Sunlight reflected in his eyes, like pools of molten honey. “You look like you’re having a hard time, mm?”
“Actually, I think I was just about to make a sale before…” Alfred glanced at the hand on his shoulder, at the rosy glow of Feliciano’s cheeks, and smiled a little wider. “I mean, it hasn’t been a super busy day or anything, but that’s not because my product isn’t good. I could prove it, if you wanted to consider buying—”
“Is it the same stuff you were selling at the restaurant?”
Alfred choked. “What?” He laughed, high and broken, before clearing his throat. “I don’t know what you’re…” Alfred paused. He looked instinctively from side to side, then stepped in close. “Was it that obvious to people who weren’t buying?”
“Ah? You were trying to keep it a secret?” Feliciano’s brow creased in a troubled little frown. “I’m sorry, I couldn’t tell. But I would like to try some, if you’re feeling generous!”
“Try some?” Now, it was Alfred’s turn to feel troubled. His hand flexed over the lump in his pocket. “Feli, this isn’t something I can just give out free samples for. And trust me, I love free samples. But if you wanna try it, you’ll have to pay. If you want, you can just buy a little bit at first, and then come back for more when you see how awesome it is.”
Feliciano leveled him with a blank but cheerful gaze. His fingers tightened over Alfred’s shoulder, at once reminding him that they never left. “Why don’t we take a walk together, mm?” He gestured widely with his other hand and said, “It is a very beautiful day. Bellissimo.”
“I was actually hoping to stay here and try to get some business going before Arthur—” That iron grip on his shoulder steered him out onto the sidewalk, so he changed tactics. “Yeah, okay. Let’s walk.”
“I’m happy you agreed.” Feliciano’s smile confirmed his words. He walked with a natural bounce in his step that Alfred tried to emulate, lest he fall behind. All around them, high buildings reached toward swirling white clouds. Cars started and stopped in congested city traffic, and the flow of pedestrians wasn’t much better. Alfred cursed as he sidestepped someone on their phone, and they cursed back at him, louder. Feliciano hummed low.
“It is sad how self-centered some people can be.” Feliciano crossed the street, and Alfred scrambled to follow. “It’s sad because, if they only paid attention to their surroundings, they would know they were stepping on other people’s toes. Don’t you hate that, Alfred? When people step on your toes?”
Alfred’s mouth opened, but then he caught the glint in Feliciano’s eye. The man was asking more than his words implied. Alfred nearly groaned. He hated questions like these. He never knew what he was supposed to be answering.
He finally decided on honesty. “It was just an accident. I don’t think he meant anything by it.”
“Ahh. My brother always says there are no accidents. Only stupidity.” Feliciano hesitated, then laughed. “I don’t think that’s a very nice way of looking at things, but it’s okay. Maybe there’s some truth to it, even.”
“So, Lovino thinks people do things on purpose, just…stupidly.” Alfred tried to follow both the conversation and the unpredictable course of Feliciano’s feet.
“Yes, I think so. But Alfred,” Feliciano turned large, doe-like eyes on him. “Can I ask you a question, about the way you think?”
Alfred stumbled, taken aback by the other man’s sudden seriousness. “Oh. Sure, dude. Go ahead.”
Feliciano’s face softened into a smile, though his eyes still brimmed with curiosity. He tilted his head again. “Thank you, that is very nice of you! Ah, so, you said I can’t try your product unless I buy it first, right?”
“That’s right. Yeah.” Alfred hesitated, then added, “Sorry, dude.”
“Ohhh, okay. So, would you buy an apartment if the owner refused to give you a tour of the inside first?”
Alfred frowned, pensive. “I mean, I don’t know, it really depends on…like…”
“Oh! Or how about, at my family’s restaurant, we have a dish called bottarga. You don’t know what that is, do you?” Alfred shook his head before Feliciano continued, “So? Would you buy it without even knowing what it looked, or smelled, or tasted like?”
“No, I…I guess I wouldn’t.”
“You wouldn’t! Because a customer likes to know what he is buying, or else how can he be sure it isn’t una perdita di tempo totale? A total waste of time? And money?”
“Hey.” Alfred stopped walking. Feliciano staggered, then wheeled around to face him, patient. “I can guarantee you will not be wasting your time or money on this gold.”
“Ah? That’s so funny because I guarantee the same thing.” Feliciano laughed and squeezed Alfred’s shoulder, just a little too tightly. His gaze slipped to Alfred’s pocket before he turned away to search his own jacket. “Can you keep walking with me? My ride is just around the block, and I get so nervous, traveling alone. People in the city can be so scary.”
Alfred looked over his shoulder, at the long stretch of sidewalk separating him from his original destination. “Right… Sure, Feli. Not a problem.”
“Thank you, Alfred! I appreciate it, so much.” A plume of smoke trailed off the end of a newly lit cigar. Feliciano sucked on the other end before speaking again. “Have you ever tried a cigar, amico?”
Alfred perked up, eyes growing in wonder. Was this man, who played cards with the Old Bear twice a month, really going to share one of his fancy cigars with him? His lips quirked at the thought. “No, sir. No, I haven’t.”
“Oh.” Feliciano smiled at him, sunnier than the sky above. “I guess you will just have to buy one then!”
Alfred’s shoulders slumped. “Yeesh, okay, I get it…” His fingers drummed over the rough material of his jeans. One pocket was full of unsold product. The other was empty. “Okay, what if…we make a deal?”
“You want to make a deal? That idea sounds fun.” Feliciano smiled through a cloud of smoke. “What kind of deal did you want to make, Alfred?”
Alfred glanced over his shoulder, both ways. Then, with a sigh, he tugged the plastic bag from its place. He cupped a palm around it and showed it to the other man. “You can try some of this, if you let me try that. That’s fair, right?”
Feliciano considered. Alfred tried to convince himself it was a good proposal. He didn’t care much about the cigar, he didn’t even like smoking, but he had to sell something today, and he couldn’t get a reputation for letting people sample his weed for nothing. So, fine, a trade would have to work. At least then, maybe, he could walk away with something in his wallet besides that bent ace of hearts.
Finally, Feliciano offered out the cigar. “You’re sharing now? That’s good! Sharing makes you friends.”
“I guess it does.” Alfred accepted the cigar between his thumb and forefinger and tossed Feliciano his bag in return. “I don’t have any papers or anything. If you want to try it here, you’ll have to, like…”
“I don’t want to smoke it, silly! I just wanted to see.” Feliciano tilted his head to examine the contents of Alfred’s bag. Alfred looked around, nervous. They were in public, in broad daylight, and Feliciano wasn’t being subtle at all. Alfred shifted so his back pressed against the brick of a nearby building, and he watched as Feliciano sniffed at the bag in his hand. Alfred’s lips twitched, uncertain, as he brought up the cigar.
“You like what you—”
Suddenly, Feliciano’s laughter filled the space around him. It almost distracted him from the leisurely approach of a sleek black sports car. Alfred watched from the corner of his eye. Vague apprehension pooled in his gut, like the smoke pooling in his lungs.
“Hey, Feli?” Alfred forced his eyes to the other man’s face. His fingers twitched, eager to retrieve the bag that Feliciano was now tossing from hand to hand. “Feliciano, did you say your brother’s picking you up?”
“Oh, that’s right! Lovino will want to take a look at this too.” Feliciano gestured sharply with one hand, and that mysterious vehicle, circling them like a predator from some black lagoon, crept to the curb. “That’s really considerate of you, Alfred. Thank you for thinking of him.”
“What’s the deal, eh?” The tinted, driver’s side window rolled down, revealing a pair of sunglasses set on a scowling face. “We gonna have a problem with this rompicoglioni, or no?”
Feliciano smiled at Alfred. His expression was warm, friendly, but his slip of laughter wasn’t. He ambled toward the curb and handed over Alfred’s weed. Lovino snatched it up and flicked his sunglasses back over his hair.
“Hey…” Alfred took a few slow steps toward the car. The cigar burned, unattended, in his hand. “Hey, look, this isn’t a free handout, okay? I need money if you’re gonna buy that shit, and I need it up front.”
Lovino glanced up. He leaned forward, plucked away Alfred’s cigar, and tossed it into the street. “You. Shut your mouth.”
Alfred bit his tongue when he obeyed. He watched, tense, as Lovino raised the bag of weed for inspection. He glanced at his brother, who nodded, and took a whiff of the contents. A giggle slipped past Feliciano’s lips. Lovino cut his eyes toward the sound. Slowly, his own mouth peeled back on a sneer.
“I’d tell you not to sell around here, culo, but your bullshit product already spoke for me.” Lovino threw the bag at Alfred, and Alfred fumbled to catch it. Lovino snickered at the display. “Come on, Feli, this pompinaro isn’t a threat. Not even close.”
“You should consider a serving position at our restaurant, amico.” Feliciano smiled and waved before ducking into the passenger seat. “Italian food is very tasty. People like it a lot more than Russian food, in my experience.”
“No.” Lovino scowled and settled his shades back over his eyes. “I already said, no dumbasses working at my restaurant. Hiring you was enough.”
An engine roared as Lovino sped away from the curb. His windows rolled up so Alfred couldn’t see him when he laid on the horn, startling a crowd of pedestrians out of his way. Then, tires squealed around a corner, and the Vargas brothers were gone. Alfred watched, dumbfounded, before he remembered to tuck his bag away.
“Well, that was anticlimactic.” Alfred sighed, hooking his thumbs in his beltloops. Normally, he’d tuck them in his pockets, but he didn’t want to be reminded of how empty they felt. He was about to head back the way he came when another familiar voice caught his attention.
“Alfred F. Jones, where in the nine hells were you?”
And here comes the climax . He turned back to the curb. The car that idled alongside him was not as new, not as cared for, and certainly not as expensive as Lovino Vargas’s, but the peeling green paint was familiar, even if Alfred wished it weren’t.
“Yo, Arthur! What’s up, my dude?”
“You asked for a ride home when I got out of class. Well, I got out, went to the parking garage, and you were nowhere to be found.” Arthur pressed his first two fingers against his eyelids. “You can’t expect me to drive all over New York City every time you feel like taking a stroll.”
“Sorry, man. I lost track of time.” Alfred jogged alongside the vehicle. If he reached out, he could touch the flaking rust below the mirror. Arthur offered a thin smile.
“That’s quite the coincidence. I lost track of something too, as it happens.”
Here we go , Alfred thought. Arthur was using his Extra Fussy British Voice, which was worse than his usual fussy British voice. Alfred grinned regardless. “Yeah? What’s that?”
Arthur hummed, and his next words were sugar sweet. “Are you certain you have no idea?”
“Why would I know what—?”
“My weed, Alfred,” Arthur hissed, leaning out the car window. His visage of false cheer crumbled away. He glanced ahead, flicked on his turn signal, and gestured for Alfred to go the same way.
“What?” Alfred’s face twisted in exaggerated confusion. “Dude, are you accusing me of smoking your weed?”
“Hush.” Arthur glanced around, then scrubbed a hand through his hair and sighed. “Honestly, I’m not trying to let everyone on campus know my business. Before I know it, I’ll have twenty new friends who all want to come over and play the sharing game. BYOB, they’ll say. Bring Your Own Bong.” Arthur snorted, even as his expression warped in disgust. “No, no. I’ve already had to turn away that frog, Francis Bonnefoy, on multiple occasions. Forgot my damn cologne one time and that bastard wants to make me edibles. Ridiculous.”
“Sounds rough.” Alfred paused, gave a little shrug. “Look, Art, I gotta—”
“I’ll tell you what you ‘gotta’ do.” Suddenly, a little blue box came hurtling through the window. Alfred caught it in against his chest. He gave one sharp laugh when he read the label.
“Dude, you’ve had me do a lot of weird, kinky shit over the years,” Alfred said, voice low. “But now? You want me to piss on a stick for you?”
“Yes, dude.” Arthur flipped on his turn signal again, and Alfred followed. “If you are innocent, as you claim, there shouldn’t be an issue. Isn’t that right?”
Alfred stopped walking. Arthur glanced in his rearview mirror, and he slowed to a stop as well. The two watched one another, stone-faced. A silent challenge hung between them. Finally, Alfred spoke.
“You don’t believe me? Fine. I will shed my dignity and go take a leak in your honor.” Alfred rattled the box in his hand. “You can clone me with it later or do whatever other pervy thing you have planned.”
Arthur ignored him. “Run in to the pharmacy there, they have a public restroom. And make quick work of it. I’ll circle around the building a few times. I’m not paying for a meter while I wait.”
With that, Arthur pulled off the curb. His engine didn’t roar when he did; it clunked along in a loud, laborious whine. Alfred watched the red glow of taillights and groaned to himself. Then, he turned and headed into the pharmacy.
Once inside a bathroom stall, Alfred tore apart the cardboard box. He examined the little plastic cup inside and rolled his eyes as he wrestled with his zipper. He had nothing to worry about. He wasn’t guilty—At least not of the thing Arthur accused him of. Which reminded him…
“Shit.” Alfred fished the plastic bag out of his pants pocket. He stared at the crumbly green buds inside, separated them with his fingers. This was the most incriminating piece of evidence against him, wasn’t it? His eyes slid from the bag to the toilet. His chest clutched.
“No… No, no, fuck that.” Alfred gave a low whistle and shoved the bag in his waistband instead. Then, he adjusted himself to aim at the cup. “Arthur can fuckin’ strip search me if he wants.” He paused, as the full implication of a strip search dawned on him. That could get…awkward.
Alfred finished filling the cup, studied the provided instructions, and dropped a little plastic stick inside. With a huff of impatience, he brushed his hands off on his jeans and leaned against the stall door. Five minutes, the manual said. He had five minutes to sit alone with his thoughts. It was too long of a time period, allowed too much rumination, but it also wasn’t long enough to piece together anything more than fleeting frustrations. Like how Arthur was still hovering over him, still making demands as though they hadn’t broken up months prior. Or how Feliciano Vargas had interrupted his one potential sale of the day, only to laugh in his face alongside his brother. What was up with that, anyway?
Finally, Alfred’s thoughts drifted back to lavender eyes and smoky smiles. He thought of the husky timbre of a man’s voice, and the way his hands felt—Cold, rough—when they grazed Alfred’s own. Absently, Alfred stroked the inside of his wrist to remind himself of that sensation. He moved slowly, lightly over his skin, watching as goosebumps shivered to the surface. The slamming of a stall door jarred him from his fantasy.
“Fuck—” Alfred jumped, nearly knocking over the cup of piss before righting it again. A heave of breath flooded his lungs. He needed a fucking break.
“You all good?” A voice came from the stall next to him.
“Yeah! Uh, yeah. I’m good. Thanks.” Alfred laughed, coughed, and picked up his test. A little pink line indicated a negative result, as he knew it would. Even so, Alfred smiled. This was physical proof of his triumph against Arthur. With that in mind, he dumped the cup’s contents down the toilet, tossed his trash in a nearby bin, and went out to wash his hands. His reflection was that of a victorious man. Victorious…but still broke.
“Have a good one,” he muttered to the stranger in the occupied stall.
With a strip of paper towel securing his testing stick, Alfred waited out front for Arthur to pick him up.
“Hey, yo!” Alfred smiled at Arthur’s approach. Their secondhand (or third- or fourth-hand) Ford scraped against the curb. “Hey, I’ve got a delivery for a Mr. Asshole Kirkland?”
“Asshole Kirkland. That’s very entertaining. Why don’t you get in the—” Arthur shouted when Alfred’s drug test flew through the window at him. He dodged out of the way, hands up and shoulders hunched, before his surprise curdled into annoyance. “Alfred.”
“What? That’s what you wanted right?”
“Get in the car and pick this thing up.”
“Was I supposed to bring the cup I pissed in too? I can go back and get it.”
“Get in the car now.”
Arthur’s tone brooked no argument, which only made Alfred want to argue more. In the end, he didn’t. He knew there would be plenty to fight about without him aggravating the matter.
“You see that?” Alfred sprawled across the passenger seat and lifted the testing stick for examination. “That, my good sir, is a negative result. Which means you are officially invited to gargle my balls.”
Arthur glanced at the faded pink line. He didn’t look surprised. In fact, his face didn’t change when he pulled onto the road and said, “So, you’re selling it.”
Fuck. Alfred’s smile froze. “Why would you think I—”
“Alfred, please.” Green eyes met Alfred’s in the rearview mirror. Arthur looked tired. He always looked tired. “Have some respect for me here.”
Alfred inhaled deep. For a long while, he watched the traffic lumbering along outside his window. Music floated faintly through a single car speaker; the rest were broken. The song was familiar, one of Arthur’s old cassettes, because this damn car was old enough to still accept cassette tapes. Alfred sighed and tossed his bag of marijuana on the dashboard.
“I was just trying to make us some money.”
Arthur glanced over and his gaze shuttered. It wasn’t a surprised expression, exactly, but something similar. It was the look of someone who prepared for the worst but, even so, hoped for something different. Something better. Alfred summed it up as disappointment. He shied from that expression.
“How long have you been doing this?” Arthur asked finally, softly.
Alfred shrugged. He tucked the weed into the glove department and started playing with the handle, determined to look anywhere, anywhere else but Arthur’s face. “A while, honestly. I’m kind of surprised you didn’t notice sooner.”
“Well, I don’t smoke every day. And they were testing at school. I had to take a break.” Arthur watched the road, seeming just as intent on avoiding Alfred’s eyes. “Alfred… I know your heart was in the right place.”
“Please don’t do that.” Alfred cut him a look. “I mean, it was. It is. But I just—”
“Your heart was in the right place,” Arthur repeated. “And yet, you must realize this is essentially my money you’re making when you sell this stuff, yes?”
Alfred didn’t say anything.
“Blimey.” Arthur shook his head. “Surely that crossed your mind. I mean, I pay for this stuff out of pocket. And you thought, what, you’ll redistribute it and I’ll just…take the loss?”
“Hey, I’m not an idiot, okay? I sell it for a profit.” Alfred’s voice dropped when he added, “Besides I…thought you got a discount.”
Arthur’s words went flat. “A discount.”
“Yeah, dude!” Alfred threw up his hands, defensive. “You buy so much I thought you… Thought you got a discount or something. I don’t know. Yeah.”
They drove in silence for a while after that. Freddie Mercury lamented not having someone to love, while New York drivers bemoaned one another’s incompetence. When Arthur did speak again, it was with an eerie calm.
“Alfred… You go to McDonald’s every bloody day. Tell me…” A slow hiss of breath preceded the question, “Do you get a discount?”
“I have a punch card!” Alfred flipped open his wallet as evidence. “See? A punch card. What, you don’t get a…?” He cut himself off when he caught Arthur’s glare. “Fine. Never mind. Forget I asked.”
“Can I just…ask you this.” Arthur licked his lips, as though preparing himself for a difficult conversation. His hands pressed flat against the wheel. He asked his question like he didn’t want to know the answer. “How did you do this? Walk me through it.”
“You want to know how I sold the weed? Okay. Well…” Alfred thought for a moment, then shrugged. “Normally, I’d hide it in my shirt or something.”
“Where in my shirt?”
“No. Where did you sell?”
“I mean, just, you know. The restaurant. Why?”
The car jerked as Arthur’s foot came down too hard on a pedal. “You were selling drugs at your place of business? Really Alfred? Are you joking with me right now?”
“What’s the big deal? Weed’s gonna be completely legal in a few years anyway, and—”
“That is not the point.” Arthur rubbed at his temples before cutting a hand toward Alfred. “Go on. What else?”
“I kinda don’t wanna tell you now.” A smile broke on Alfred’s face. “But I will ‘cause it was totally genius.”
“Say it then.”
“Okay. You know how my restaurant carries Coke products? Well, we do. So, there’s no Pepsi, you know. So, basically, I just had people ask me for diet Pepsi whenever they wanted to buy. It was like a… It was a…”
“You had a codeword.” Arthur shrugged one shoulder in allowance. “Alright, that’s clever. I can appreciate a covert operation. What more?”
“So, when they asked for the Pepsi, the diet Pepsi, I would go into the kitchen and—I’m proud of this, actually. I’d get a to-go cup, right? And I’d fill it with water, because soda would be all sticky, so, no way. But I’d fill it with water and drop the bag of weed inside.”
“Wait, you put—Why did you put water in the cup?” Arthur grimaced. “Why not just use an empty cup? You’ll get your product wet.”
“Well, no, ‘cause it was in a bag. And also, I mean, I didn’t want anyone asking me why I’m bringing an empty to-go cup to one of my tables. That’d be even more suspicious, right? It has to have something in it.”
“You realize you’ve done this in the most obvious, irresponsible way?” Arthur sighed, pulling the car off the main road. Their apartment complex rose on the horizon. “Honestly, you might as well wear a sign that says, ‘I’m selling cannabis’ and carry the bag around on your head.”
“Wait.” Alfred laughed. He turned to Arthur, blue eyes bright with amusement. “Are you seriously scolding me about my method of selling weed? Just when I thought I’d heard every single lecture imaginable… Gotta say, Artie, this is a new one.”
“Listen to me, Alfred.”
“Oh, here we go.” Alfred rolled his eyes toward the window. Shadows swallowed the car as they delved into their designated parking structure. The Beatles serenaded them with a familiar melody Alfred couldn't place the name of. Then, the engine cut, and all was thrown into silence. Arthur twisted audibly in his seat and waited until Alfred looked his way. Then, he spoke, as quiet as the silence itself.
“Alfred. If you’re going to be selling this...” Arthur’s eyes locked on his, flashing green. All at once, Alfred understood something he hadn’t considered before. This was not a lecture. He was not being reprimanded. This was something else entirely. Confusion mixed with anticipation; both fueled the drum of Alfred’s heart.
Arthur’s lips barely moved when he said, “We’re going to need a higher quality product.”
Chapter 4: Arithmetic
The Old Bear was in today. He sat alone in the corner booth, poring over documents Alfred couldn’t see. Only Raivis ever approached his table, to bring over another bottle of vodka or nod in response to something Ivan said. Everyone else ignored that half of the restaurant; servers and diners alike flocked to the southmost wall. Occasionally, when Ivan rose to move to the back room, or to deliver a file to Toris, people parted before him like water around a smooth stone. Alfred itched to get in his way, just once, but his tables kept him busy. Besides, the air vents on Ivan’s side of the building must have broken recently, because it was cold.
Alfred craned his neck to watch Ivan pass, too far away to make an impression. He bumped into the table he was supposed to be serving and set down a bowl of soup without looking. His eyes followed Ivan through a doorway that was almost too short for him. Padded muscle shifted beneath his coat, and his pants fit tight around his waist, and Alfred pondered those details until the tails of his scarf vanished from sight.
“Dude,” Alfred marveled. “Isn’t he hot?”
“Isn’t he your boss?” Matthew scraped his spoon idly against the side of his bowl. Alfred grinned, and his gaze found its way back to his twin.
“You say that like the two are mutually exclusive.” He busied himself by stacking Matthew’s empty dishes, careful not to drip anything on his homework. Matthew gathered his textbook and laptop in closer anyway. “Come on, you can’t tell me you’ve never had a crush on one of your coaches or a professor or something like that.”
“So, you have a crush on your boss?”
Alfred paused in the middle of pouring a fresh drink. “What? No. Dude, you’re putting words in my mouth. Just—One sec.” He ducked his head into the neighboring set of booths. “Refills?” Ice clinked together as he catered to those who nodded. When he finished, he leaned a hip against Matthew’s table and set aside his pitcher. Matthew rushed to save his notebooks from the growing puddle of condensation.
“Anyway, yeah. No. I don’t… It’s not a crush. It’s just like… You ever see a really hot celebrity? I mean, you like those Canadian actors, yeah? The ones with the flowy hair? And you know you’d never actually go out with them or get to bang them or anything, but it’s still fun to think about.”
Without looking up from a block of text titled Classical Theories of Psychology, Matthew said, “How often do you fantasize about ‘banging’ your boss?”
“Okay, we’re dropping this. Forget I said anything, Doctor Jones.” Alfred smiled, good-natured, and retrieved his pitcher and tray. “Besides, I gotta go check on this other table. They’re not as low maintenance as you, y’know.”
“Yeah, you should get back to work,” Matthew agreed, thumbing to a new section of his book. “Your hot boss is watching.”
“What?” Alfred whirled, searching for a glimpse of silver-beige locks. Matthew giggled softly behind him. He turned again and slugged his brother’s arm. “Jackass. Don’t false alarm me like that. I’ll be right back.”
Alfred still looked over his shoulder when he stepped back on the floor. He knew Ivan wasn’t watching, he would have noticed him come out of that back room, but even so… Alfred’s eyes lingered on the empty doorway near the bar. He knew what was back there: A whole lot of nothing. But now, there was a whole lot of nothing plus Ivan, which lent the space a new aura of attraction.
Less attractive was the string of Italian curses that reminded Alfred where he was supposed to be. He snapped his smile back into place and followed that voice to an occupied table. A veil of tension blanketed all four pairs of shoulders. Alfred hesitated a few paces back and listened.
“…saying, your little family’s been getting pretty stingy when it comes to our borders.” Antonio speared a grape with his toothpick and leveled pleasant green eyes across the table. “What’re we gonna do about that, amigo?”
“With all due respect,” Toris began, tucking loose strands of hair behind his ear. “I really don’t know how you can call us ‘stingy’ when you yourself have been racking up quite a debt with us these past months.”
Antonio breathed a laugh, seeking support from the Vargas brother at his side. Mildly, he began, “I know I owe money—”
“He knows he owes money.” Lovino lurched forward, elbows slamming on the tabletop. “Now, do you wanna stop busting our balls about it? Eh?” He slumped back in the booth, flicking his hat down over his brow. “He’ll pay. You understand? He’s good for it. We’ve always been good for it.”
Toris smiled. It didn’t reach his eyes. “In the meantime, I’m sure you understand why we have to push our boundaries a bit, to make up for the revenue you’ve withheld from us.”
“What’s the big idea here? Huh? You’re expanding your territory. Recruiting more lackeys to your motherfucking bratva. Raising your prices on supplies we used to get for free. We had a trade agreement! But now, oh, hey, our shit isn’t good enough for you.” Lovino sneered. He dug into his vest for a cigar, but Antonio caught his hand, pointed out the No Smoking sign, and Lovino tucked it away, cursing. “You know, half your newbies aren’t even Russian. What happened to keeping it in the family, huh?”
Eduard pushed up his glasses. The glint of light on the lenses drew attention to him. He indicated Antonio and said, “And this one? He’s Italian?”
Antonio raised his brows. Disbelief curled his lips into an open-mouthed smile. “Well, you know, historically—”
“Chiudi il becco. You kidding me? You don’t dignify that disrespect with a response.” Lovino’s eyes darkened when he clutched Antonio’s sleeve. “You don’t owe these bastards an explanation. You owe them a goddamn skull-busting.”
“Okay!” Alfred stepped forward, grinning so hard it hurt his face. “We thinking about any more soup tonight? Dessert? I’d recommend a slice of the vatrushka. It sounds complicated, but it’s basically just cake. I swear you won’t be disappointed.”
Lovino’s eyes crept from Eduard’s face, to Toris’, to Alfred’s and stayed. Alfred felt his stomach clench around a knot of apprehension. He tried to smile wider, but couldn’t, and a muscle strained in his jaw. Then, as though Lovino didn’t realize he could kill with looks alone, he opened his mouth to deal the final blow.
“Make it two slices.” Antonio spoke first. His hand came down on Lovino’s shoulder, hard, and Lovino shook it off before turning back to his original company. Antonio’s smile distracted from the menace in Lovino’s scowl. “Por favor.”
“Sure. Coming right up.” He jotted down the order with great care. He never wanted to forget a request from these customers. “Toris? You want anything?”
“Oh. Um. Yes. Another drink. That’s fine. Thank you.” Toris smiled belatedly.
“More medovu… Me-do-vuk-ha?” Alfred cocked his head. “I don’t really know how to pronounce that. Medovukha? Yeah? Right on. Ed?”
Eduard shook his head, some unreadable emotion flickering behind his glasses. “No thank you.”
“Here’s some water, at least.” Alfred winked as he poured. Lovino clicked his tongue, impatient. Alfred almost ignored the sound until Toris placed a hand on his forearm.
“Thank you, Alfred.” Toris smiled too tightly and squeezed before letting him go. Alfred took the hint.
“I’ll just leave this with you guys, then.” He set down his pitcher, smiling vacantly at each of the diners. Then, before Lovino could comment, Alfred stumbled off toward the kitchen.
And collided with a solid wall of flesh.
“Whoa, my bad. Pardon—”
Alfred scrambled to catch his tray of dishes. Two heavy hands fell on his shoulders, drawing his attention up. His voice caught. There was Ivan, the Old Bear, with a faint crease in his brow and his mouth thinned in a hard line. He steered Alfred out of his way and kept walking. A scent like cigarette smoke and wintertime went with him.
“Pardon me!” Alfred called. Cold imprints lingered on his shoulders. He brushed one away, absently, and watched the hem of Ivan’s coat swirl around his ankles. He blinked, noticed someone looking at him from the corner of his eye. Matthew. He flashed a quick grin, gestured to the kitchen, and continued in that direction before his brother could say what he so clearly wanted to.
What did Matthew know anyway?
Alfred stopped at the computer station outside the kitchen doors. He set down his tray of dishes, fished through his breast pocket for his server ID card, swiped it, and swiped it again when it didn’t work the first time. He rang in two vatrushka, then a third because, hey, he was feeling generous. His generosity had nothing to do with it when he voided the charge for that table’s meal. It was another lesson he’d learned from his coworkers: The men in dark suits tipped well, sure, but they tipped better when they didn’t have to blow any money on a bill.
A low beeping at the computer next to him caught his attention. “Hey, Feliks. How’s the dinner shift treating ya?”
“Oh my god.” Feliks startled, a manicured hand flying over his chest. “Al, you cannot sneak up on me like that. My anxiety is, like, off the charts right now. I’m not kidding.”
“Yo, I’m sorry.” Alfred propped a hip against the computer stand and crossed his arms. “Anything I can do to help out?” He almost regretted the offer, but the appreciation in Feliks’ eyes made it worth it.
“Okay, can you just, like, figure out this math shit?” Feliks took a wide step back from the computer and wiped his hands on his apron, as though the technology had sullied him somehow. “These people want to split the bill a million different ways and there’s no preset option for the way they want to do it. That means I have to divide up the numbers myself and enter everything manually and I’m losing my grip here, Al, seriously.”
“Alright, well, let’s try to hang on a little tighter, huh? Lemme see what you’ve got.” Alfred took Feliks’ place in front of the screen. He glanced at the crumpled, ink-damp notes scattered over the keyboard. Once he’d deciphered Feliks’ handwriting—Was that cursive?—the hardest part was over. He nodded. “Easy enough. I’ll take care of this for ya, if you wouldn’t mind breaking into the bar for me? I need another bottle of that med… That honey-flavored mead stuff, and Eduard’s busy.”
“Like, the medovukha? Honestly, could you be any more American? You can’t pronounce half the words on the freaking menu, can you?” Feliks rolled his eyes, unclipping a set of keys from his waist. “I say that lovingly. I can totally help you out, babe. But you’ve got to tell your clone over there to quit, like, staring at me every time I walk by. It’s creepy.”
“Mattie?” Alfred glanced at Matthew’s booth, where his brother was engrossed in a textbook. “Uh, yeah, I really don’t think—”
“You can stop there.” Feliks’ nose crinkled playfully when he added, “We know you don’t.” And he strode off toward the bar.
Alfred let out a low whistle, shaking his head. This place was full of characters, that much was certain. Then again, it was better than his old job, sitting in a call center for twelve hours a day at some obscure banking company. At the very least, he had gained some experience dealing with numbers. He returned his attention to the task at hand. His lips moved silently around different figures and equations. Blue light from the computer screen reflected off his glasses, and he smiled to himself when he realized he must look like one of those hacker heroes in a spy film. He never should have given up on coding. If only Kiku Honda could see him now. Maybe it wasn’t too late for them to continue their lessons together.
“Here’s your medovukha, nerd.” Feliks offered out the bottle, pulled it back when Alfred reached for it, then laughed and gave it to him for real. “You figure out that bill for me?”
“Sure did. Looks like you’ll be getting a fat tip from it too, even if they only do fifteen percent.” Alfred stood proudly aside while Feliks studied the receipt. Half-jokingly, he added, “I should make you split some of it with me, for helping you out.”
“Oh, I didn’t realize Superman upped his prices these days.” Feliks rolled his eyes, printed his receipt, and set off toward his table. His single pigtail bounced while he walked. “How about you grab this dessert from the window and earn your own tips?”
Alfred snorted, dropping his hands to slap against his thighs. He spoke to himself when he said, “Yeah. I should do that. Shit.”
He loaded three pastries onto the tray, then started back to his table. He couldn’t be sure, from so far away, but it didn’t look like the four were arguing anymore. A relative calm even misted over Lovino; although, that might have had something to do with—
“You’re kidding me.” Alfred scoffed as he read the No Smoking sign through a cloud of grey. Sure enough, a thick cigar rested between Lovino Vargas’s ringed fingers. It glowed brightly when he brought it to his lips. Behind him, a family with three kids sat enjoying their dinner. Alfred bit his lip, hard. “Bullshit.”
He made a beeline for the back of the restaurant. The section leading to that final booth sat empty. While Alfred walked, he shifted his tray to his opposite arm and wondered—Was he doing this because he really gave that much of a shit about the rules? Or was he just eager to start a conversation with the Old Bear that wouldn’t be blatantly ignored? He set his tray on Ivan’s table with a clatter. The other man finished reading a passage of text in front of him before looking up. Alfred was struck again by the purple dusk captured in his gaze.
“Hey.” Alfred said. He cut a hand behind him, aimless, and snorted another laugh. “You see that? Like, are they supposed to be smoking at that table over there?”
Ivan’s eyes drifted somewhere over Alfred’s shoulder. He sucked at his own cigarette with an audible intake of air. Smoke hissed between his teeth before he met Alfred’s face again. “What?”
“I’m just saying,” Alfred hesitated and quickly found a second surge of passion. “I know you allow smoking over here, in this booth. Okay? You allow that, for game nights or whatever. But Lovino over there?” He nodded in the Italian’s direction. “He’s smoking on the main floor, in front of everyone. Kids, even. Totally disrespectful.”
Ivan regarded Alfred coolly. A long sigh of smoke spiraled from his lips. Finally, he settled more comfortably in his seat, took another drag, and said, “Why are you telling me this?”
Alfred faltered. He grasped at fleeting justifications before offering a jumbled, “You’re the…boss?”
Ivan hummed, somewhere deep in his chest. He tapped out some ash on the edge of a crystal tray, watching the embers sizzle into black. “If someone is giving you a problem, you go over there and you tell him to stop.”
“I’ve tried before but, I—” Alfred looked over his own shoulder, hesitated. “Look, I just don’t think I wanna be the one to break the news to him, you feel me?”
“Ah.” One corner of Ivan’s mouth twitched upward. It was like he’d just heard the explanation to a joke that wasn’t very funny, but he was glad he understood the punchline nonetheless. “A cowardly hero. I cannot say I’ve seen this type before.”
Alfred drew up rigid. “Dude. Boss. I’m not scared of them, m’kay? I just feel like, you know, this is your establishment, and if you have a rule, you should be informed when—”
“Don’t be a rat, Alfred.” Ivan spoke simply, with a voice like liquid velvet. He started to raise his cigarette again, when another thought gripped him. His eyes fell back on Alfred’s. “Unless…that is your hero name? Rat Man? No… Ratboy.”
“I… Sir.” Alfred’s brow furrowed. Because he couldn’t place that little smirk on Ivan’s face. Because he’d never called anyone ‘sir’ that seriously in his life. Maybe his dad, once, when he was little and watching too much TV. He shifted his weight. Then, as he flicked his attention between cool, lavender eyes, he smiled. “The rat and the bear, huh? Sounds like a fairytale. Those usually have a happy ending, you know.”
Maybe it was because Alfred’s eyes glittered so brightly behind his frames. Maybe it was the hopeful chime in his voice. Whatever it was, it made Ivan smile a small, lopsided smile. It only lasted a second.
“You want a happy ending?” Ivan asked, training his expression back to neutrality. He nodded over Alfred’s shoulder. “Let the man smoke in peace. You are better off.”
“But…” Alfred tracked Ivan’s nod. Lovino was on his feet now, talking animatedly with both hands. “Doesn’t that make you look less credible or something? Like a pushover? I mean, if they can get away with small shit—Er, stuff, sorry—like this, it’s only a matter of time before they start taking advantage of you in other ways. Right?”
A sliver of white peeked from the corner of Ivan’s mouth. “You will learn for yourself which rules are the most important to enforce. But you should count your teeth, too. Decide how many of them are worth losing along the way.”
Alfred pursed his lips. His tongue pondered the hard ridges of his molars, canines. He laughed through his nose. “I like all my teeth.”
“Then do not risk your precious Hollywood smile.” Ivan snuffed his cigarette with a shrug. But something about what he said, the way he said it…
Alfred smiled, sardonic. “Are you patronizing me?”
“Why would I do that,” Ivan asked with a tilt of the head, “like I have something to prove?”
Alfred held his gaze. Something hot trickled in his veins. Pride, maybe. Indignation. Ivan sat perfectly still. Like a doll, Alfred thought, and looked to see if he was even breathing. He followed the deep contours etched into Ivan’s shirt, the broad planes of muscle and fat that padded his chest. They rose and fell on slow, subtle breaths. And, still, the only thing Alfred could think as he sized the man up was—I could take him in a fight.
He blinked the thought away.
“Yeah, well, sorry to bother you,” Alfred mumbled. He picked up his tray, turned, and started in the other direction. Ivan’s voice caught him.
“I have upset you.”
Alfred drew up short. He licked his lips and spoke over his shoulder, slowly. “No. The cake’s just getting stale.”
He didn’t wait for an answer, not that he thought he’d receive one. It wasn’t even that Ivan had angered him. Not really. It was just—Lovino. With his insults and his cruel laughter and the way he talked down to Alfred and threw his weed at him like he was an animal. Bundles of crushed pride flared up inside him. He knew he couldn’t do much about it, usually; Lovino wore a dark suit, and Alfred did not. Even now, his boss discouraged him from retaliating, despite that he was totally in the right. But, if the only satisfaction Alfred could get was by making Lovino put out his stupid cigar in his place of business, then goddammit, Alfred didn’t care what clothes the guy wore. He counted his teeth and approached.
“…to go there? Huh? Okay, alright, we will address this.” Lovino blew a long stream of smoke over a shoulder that shook with agitation. He made a poor attempt to compose himself, then listed halfway over the table. “You and your little banditti got a lot of balls taking our money from under our noses.”
Toris and Eduard exchanged a glance. They didn’t look worried—Far from it—but they weren’t thrilled either. Toris opened his mouth to speak. Lovino didn’t let him.
“Oh, oh yes! Did you think I wouldn’t notice? Did you?” Lovino muttered under his breath, took another drag, and went on narrating with his hands. “You, accepting our product and inflating the price. You distribute it for almost double our agreed-upon price. And that’s good, that’s good, I have to hand it to you. But the thing that disgusts me?” Lovino’s lip curled, and Alfred thought he might spit on his audience right there. “The thing I find revolting is that you sons of bitches…didn’t even tell us you were selling for more. We have not been getting our full percentage. Not. At. All.”
Toris’ mouth closed. He looked patiently at Antonio, who was building a house of napkins and straws. It took a moment for him to notice the silence and glance up.
“What are you looking at me for?” Antonio nodded at his partner and collapsed the disposable structure between his palms. “He’s right.”
“Sì, and I thought Russians liked sharing the wealth.” Lovino scoffed around another puff of smoke. “Times are different now, I guess.”
No one paid Alfred attention when he stepped forward, positioning a few serving plates on the table. When he leaned down to place the dessert, a foul stream of smoke blasted into his face. He coughed against gritted teeth. His eyes flashed on the glow of Lovino’s cigar.
“Sir.” Alfred cleared his throat. He’d resorted to formalities once tonight; he might as well keep up the habit. “Excuse me. Sir.”
“I’m very sorry for your grievance.” Toris spoke up, his words soft and well-rehearsed. “I’ll be sure to discuss it with our boss. He’s quite busy, so I would expect to hear back sometime next week.”
“Bring it up with the boss, eh?” Lovino sucked on his cigar, and more smoke spilled from his lips in an uncontrolled haze. His eyes wandered over the table, dark as the wood that crafted it. Then, he snatched up Toris’ wine glass and smashed it against Eduard’s. Both exploded in a hailstorm of glass. Stunned silence followed. Lovino broke that, too. “You’re gonna listen to me now, how about that?”
“Dude.” Just like that, Alfred’s formalities dropped. He hovered between two courses of action: Finding something to clean up the glass, and tossing Lovino out of the diner like a bouncer at a disreputable nightclub. Every muscle locked, suspended between his choices.
“Everyone clean the shit out of their ears, or am I gonna have to start cracking skulls next?” Lovino demanded. Beside him, Antonio laughed. Lovino noticed and a smirk colored his features. Then, Eduard shifted, and brown eyes locked on him instead. “You got something to say to me? Better make it sweet.”
“Since we’re talking about things that disgust us…” Eduard picked some glass from his lap and flicked it onto the table, looking pensive. “I am appalled by the way you do business. If it can be called business. You don’t pay your dues, and you refuse to accept your consequences. Even when they are very generous consequences. Lovino. You’re sloppy.”
“Now, it is not me who—”
“The people you choose to do business with,” Eduard interrupted calmly, pointedly, “are sloppy.” He sighed and wiped his glasses with the edge of his tie. “Honestly, you act like we’re the ones causing you trouble, when your real problem is… Well.” His eyes flicked to Antonio, who was beginning to rise from his seat. “Really, Lovino, I won’t tell you how to do your job, but if I made the mistake of recruiting someone careless, I’d at least have the nerve to take him out back and—”
“Gut him like a fucking pig?” Lovino sneered around his cigar. There was a moment of peace as he took in a fresh lungful of smoke and blew it over Antonio’s head. Then, he pitched forward, grabbed Toris, and hauled him onto the table. “Is that what you want me to do? You want me to carve up my fucking partner, Eddie? Or are you bastards already thinking of handling that for me?”
“Hey, what the fuck?” Alfred sprung forward, adrenaline buzzing around his ears. He felt a wash of vertigo, and when it passed, Antonio was wrenching him back by the scruff of his collar.
“Take a walk, little guy,” Antonio said, and shoved. Alfred caught himself against an adjacent table. He glanced around, heart racing, and found that no one else was paying attention. And how? How could this be happening? One couple was chatting with Raivis behind the front desk. Another family ate their meals with their heads bowed, eyes averted. No one was doing anything.
“You want me to cut up my partner, Eddie?” Lovino snarled. He shook Toris by the throat, and Eduard looked on with thinly veiled horror. “Think it would make my life easier? Do ya, Eddie? Cazzate. How ‘bout I cut yours instead? I owe you so many debts, right? How about I pay you this one, since partners are such a fucking liability.”
Toris didn’t make a sound as his knees raked through shards of glass. His face betrayed no emotion—Not even when he saw the knife.
The sudden flash of steel triggered a different response from Alfred. He cried out, hands flying instinctively to his belt. He kept his own knife there, there, somewhere, but his fingers kept scrambling and coming up empty and he kept sucking up smoke in hitched little breaths and all he could think to yell was, “Vargas, put out that fucking cigar.”
Lovino did a doubletake, as though he couldn’t believe Alfred was stupid enough to stick around. Yeah well, surprise, Alfred thought, and he rushed forward. Lovino cracked a laugh, waving his cigar in front of him.
“This? Hey, you want me to put this out?” He clicked his tongue and nodded. Toris braced himself more securely on the table. “Bene, bene… I’ll put it out.”
For a long moment, nothing happened. Antonio stood firmly at Lovino’s side. Eduard floated halfway between sitting and standing. Toris’ throat moved, almost imperceptible, beneath his collar. Suddenly, Lovino’s lips curled over too-white teeth, and he pushed the burning end of his cigar under Toris’ jaw.
Toris did make noise, then, even if it was muffled.
Alfred’s blood froze over, pooling in his feet. That didn’t stop him from lunging. It certainly didn’t stop him from barreling into Antonio, when the shorter man moved to intercept him. Nor did it stop him from decking the guy in the temple, though it might have prevented Alfred from knocking him unconscious. He wasn’t on top of his game. But then it didn’t matter, because an icy presence entered the scene, and the voice that accompanied it was even colder.
“What is the problem here?”
Alfred’s breath snagged. He untangled himself from Antonio, who appeared just as eager to separate. Eduard rose to his full height. Something flickered beneath the dark smudge of Lovino’s lashes. He breathed hard through parted lips. One by one, he unfurled his fingers from Toris’ shirt, and retreated. His attention snapped to their newest arrival, face blanching with distrust. At last, Alfred turned, tilting his head back to meet Ivan’s eyes. They were the only part of him not smiling.
“We were talking money, big man,” Lovino said, glowering. “Strictly business, as always.”
“I see. So, you are discussing the hundreds of thousands of dollars that your syndicate owes to me?” Ivan steepled his fingers under his chin. A rosy glow pooled in the center of his otherwise pale cheeks. It made him look younger, but it also made Alfred wonder: What has his blood pumping so warm?
Ivan tapped a cigarette out of its carton, lit it, before continuing. “I am tired of talking about it, personally. Very soon, I think you will be too.”
Lovino watched the smoke streaming from Ivan’s hand. He glanced at his own useless cigar and discarded it before hooking his fingers in his pocket. His free hand thumbed the side of his nose. Antonio took notice, tried touching his back, and got elbowed away.
“We’re more than happy to host the next meeting, viejo.” Antonio offered. “We have a nice little section in the back of our own restaurant, surrounded by these adorable potted plants. Very private—”
“No.” Lovino cut a hand over Antonio’s chest. “You let me do the talking.” A beat, before Lovino stepped forward. He watched Ivan’s cigarette warily. Behind him, Toris rubbed his burn. “Look. We have the money for you. You understand me? We’re making it right now. Not to mention the profits you’ve already robbed from us, but that can be forgiven. All’s I’m saying is, you think you could stop riding our dicks about this? It’s interfering with business.”
“‘Interfering with business…’” Ivan mused around his cigarette. He slipped another from its package and lit that one too. He held it out to Lovino, who recoiled. Ivan stayed still; the only thing that moved was his mouth, which quirked around the edges. Lovino hissed a curse, reached out, retreated, then snatched the cigarette from Ivan’s fingers. The taller man looked satisfied when he said, “Personal matters always do.”
Lovino’s focus startled away from his cigarette. He gritted his teeth around the paper filter. “So, it’s personal now?”
Ivan didn’t answer. His gaze shifted to Toris’ jaw, the blistering skin there. His lips didn’t move when he said, “You two will be showing yourselves out.”
At first, neither Lovino nor Antonio moved. Lovino let his cigarette burn, forgotten between clenched teeth. Antonio brushed a piece of fallen ash off Lovino’s pantleg. Then, Ivan’s smile grew wider, softer, and ice moved through Alfred’s gut. Antonio was the first to shift.
“Vamos, querido.” He nodded at the exit and offered a hand. “We’ve said our piece.”
Lovino’s expression soured. He looked around at all the men that surrounded him. Finally, he shoved past Antonio’s open arm. “Jerk bastard. You’re supposed to back me up.” He turned once he’d put some distance between himself and Ivan. It was then that Alfred noticed, all the tables between them had emptied. “Wait ‘til we’re on my turf, old bastard.”
“Keep shirking your payments,” Ivan said, “and I will make sure you have no turf left to speak of.”
Lovino spun on a polished heel. He gestured sharply, and Antonio followed, looking unsure of what to do with his hands. He used one to hold open the front door. Then it closed again, and the two were gone.
“I am very sorry you had to witness such rudeness from my associates.” Ivan’s voice cleared the fog from Alfred’s mind. He blinked the older man into view, noticed the way he kneaded his temple as a grimness overtook his former smile. “It is embarrassing.”
“Yeah. No, it’s…” Alfred shrugged and shuffled closer to Toris. “Yo, Toris, you good? I think a, uh, cool compress should help with that.” He nodded awkwardly to the fresh blossom of raw skin and fought to remember some of Arthur’s medical remedies. “Oh, and aloe vera. Um. Honey, too. Something about…anti-bacterial…somethin’.”
Toris waited for him to trail off, then offered a placid smile, like he’d been practicing it all his life. “It’s nothing, Alfred. Battle wounds.”
“That should not have happened to you.” Ivan sucked on his cigarette. His gaze was distant, like he was seeing somewhere else.
Toris looked taken aback. He touched his burn, flustered. “Oh, boss, really, I appreciate your concern, but it was my fault—”
“I know.” Ivan looked at him. “It should not happen again.”
Toris faltered. Eduard came to his side, gestured silently for them to go. Alfred watched them, even as the injustice of it all crept over him. It wasn’t Toris’ fault. It was Lovino’s, for being a crazy, violent jerk. Or Antonio’s, for not reeling in his partner when things got out of hand. Or maybe it was a little bit Alfred’s fault, for not coming to the rescue fast enough. Regardless of who was to blame, it wasn’t Toris. Alfred nearly said as much, when a bundle of cash was pressed into his palm.
“They should have tipped you.” Ivan withdrew his hand so fluidly, Alfred had to wonder if it ever touched his in the first place. Only the phantom chill of his skin remained, to assure him. “Clean up this glass.”
Alfred rifled through the bills with one hand. He did a quick count in his head. Twenty, forty, sixty… Five hundred dollars folded in his possession. His fist spasmed around it. The last rays of sunlight filtered through the windows, and the whole space brightened. Alfred hitched a laugh. His sinuses stung, all of a sudden.
“Holy shit, thank—” By the time he looked up, Ivan had gone. He closed his mouth and flicked his nail against the wadded cash, just like he’d seen Ivan do with his playing cards. Thwick, thwick, thwick. He tucked it into his apron and went to fetch the broom.
“Al. What were you thinking?” Matthew piped up when Alfred passed him. His face was harried and pale behind his glasses. He held his books to his chest, and Alfred was only surprised he couldn’t hear his twin’s heart slamming against them. “I thought you were about to get stabbed.”
“Yeah? Well. Have faith, brother.” Alfred shrugged, switching the broom handle to his other palm. He grinned. “Besides, dude, it’s all worth it.” He leaned in close, glancing over either shoulder, as though whoever overheard him might retract his pay. “We’re rich.”
“I saw him give you that money,” Matthew said, almost guiltily. He leaned in to bridge the gap between them, as if on instinct. “How much is it?”
Alfred’s grin crept wider, irrepressible, as the confirmation passed his lips. “Five. Hundred. Dollars.”
Matthew’s eyes filled their rounded frames. “I, you, what—Alfred.”
“Breaking out the full name. That impressive, huh?”
Matthew edged inward. His skin blanched further, revealing every spatter of freckles on his cheeks and nose. “You can’t keep that.”
“Uh, dude’s got it to give. So, like, watch me.” Alfred plucked the money out of sight, back into his apron, before Matthew’s protests could turn physical.
“Al, I’m just saying…” Matthew shrank in his seat, picking at the cover of his textbook rental. His eyes flicked to Alfred’s, reflecting a very familiar, very vibrant blue. “Be careful. Okay? I don’t know much about your boss but, from the look of things, he isn’t…someone you want to owe a debt to.”
“Debt?” Alfred propped the broom under his arm, leaning on it while he laughed. “There isn’t any debt, dude. Okay? It’s a tip. It's my pay.”
“Yeah, well…” Matthew shuffled his belongings into his lap and shook his head. “That’s my tip for you. Also?” His voice dropped low, somehow lower than usual, until Alfred had to strain to hear. “Consider finding a new job, maybe.”
“It’s not usually like this,” Alfred said, immediate, dismissive. He found he didn't mind the jitter in his pulse. Quite the opposite, actually. “Anyway, I gotta clean up some broken glass so…Zdrastvuyte, motherfucker.”
Matthew sighed when Alfred got up, waved, and headed off. He just barely heard his brother say, “That means hello,” before he was out of earshot, left to entertain a thousand other thoughts.
He had been involved in something today. He wasn’t sure what, exactly; just that his heart was still pounding and excitement spilled through his blood like ecstasy. He replayed bits of conversation in his head, while glass tinkled softy under his broom. Antonio owed Ivan money. How much, Alfred wondered. And for what? Not restaurant business, surely. Then there was the thing Lovino said about distributing product. That made perfect sense to Alfred. He had a product of his own, after all; although, he felt certain Lovino Vargas was not talking about petty weed sales. No one dragged another guy onto a table and burned him with a cigar over weed. Then again—
“Shit.” Alfred dropped his broom. The sun was setting. Matthew had already gone. Their bus would arrive in fifteen minutes. And Arthur was going to want to burn him if his negligence cost them any of their new product.
Swiftly, he dumped a scatter of glass in the trash and snatched his apron off his hips. His eyes already ached with the stark memory of LED lights. He was getting used to them. He had to, for business’ sake.
Tonight, it was his turn to tend their new garden.