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it’s always you

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Neil Josten lived in apartment C12 in one of the nicest apartment housing buildings in the state. He was the Vice President of his family business. They were stationed in Baltimore, but he lived in South Carolina to handle the business’ expansion in the South. While the business itself was small, it was a profitable one. That’s why Neil could afford things like a nice apartment and a car. The Josten family business had lots of business partners which is why there were often unfamiliar faces at his apartment.

 

That is what every person who was an acquaintance of his would say about him.

 

The only problem being that nearly every word of it was a lie.

 

Nathaniel Wesninski was the son of the biggest criminal power on the East coast. He was put in charge of the Southern district. He had a nice apartment and a nice car because of money earned through blood and suffering. The constant stream of new faces were business partners, but not the kind that his neighbors thought they were. Nathaniel was one of the most hated people in the South because of his power. He was not as cruel as his father, but no one wanted to see his face if they didn’t have to. No one would dare attack him, but that didn’t stop just about every person involved in shady businesses wishing his death at every chance they could.

 

What they didn’t know was that Neil hated Nathaniel more than all of them combined and prayed for his downfall with more devotion than their prayers could ever muster.

 

Neil Josten was only meant to be something that could add an extra layer of security. Being named after one of the most infamous living gangsters meant that it would draw extra attention. It was standard and should have been fine for Nathaniel, expect that Nathaniel began to realize that Neil was a lot better than he could ever be. The one lie that was constant between Neil and Nathaniel is that he loved his family. There was not a day in his life where he wasn’t disgusted by the mere existence of his father. Nathaniel was a lost cause. There was no hope left for damaged goods tied so closely to what damaged them in the first place. But Neil. Neil could be normal once and awhile. Neil didn’t have to be what Nathaniel was. Now that Neil was out of his father’s reach, he could sometimes go days with being Neil. Just Neil. And that was a better shot than what he used to have.

 

Today was not one of those days. Broken promises resulted in broken bones. Most bones breaking people can survive, but not all of them. Nathaniel was high enough in the rankings that he could have other people do his dirty work, but he still had to be in the room for it. But then when he stepped out of the abandoned warehouse, the screams of his former business associates died away. Nathaniel was gone and he was back to being Neil. Neil knew it was silly to differentiate between the two, but he had to. He couldn’t run away from this life, but Neil had a chance. A 0.000001% chance, but a chance. Neil Josten was the one thing he owned that was truly his. He couldn’t let the line between the two blur for even a second.

 

Neil went on with his normal day like he hadn’t watch five men get beaten to death under his orders that morning. Kevin stole his car for the past few days to go back to West Virginia, so Neil was left to walking and public transportation. He went to the local pet store. One thing Neil loved was cats. Pets weren’t much of an option to him growing up, but now he owned his own place and could do what he pleased. He had four and counting. But that meant he was always buying cat food. The workers knew Neil pretty well. Their conversations were mainly centered on the status of his cats, but Neil enjoyed it nonetheless. Neil left the store in a good mood, but apparently he was too distracted by it because the next thing he knew he was on the ground, his stuff everywhere.

 

Neil quickly assessed the situation, ready to switch at a moment’s notice. But instead of seeing some insolent thugs who didn’t have the fear of the Wesninski family in their hearts, he just saw a small blonde man dressed head to toe in black in a similar situation to him, expect oddly appearing to have zero care about the actual situation. The fact that the man appeared to be smaller than him was odd enough on its own. Neil inherited the short genes of his family, meaning he had been stuck with a generous height of five foot three inches. Neil hadn’t met a man over the age of sixteen he could look down to, until now.

 

“Uh, thanks,” Neil broke the silence with, as the other man handed Neil one of the fallen cat food cans.

 

The man didn’t acknowledge him. His hazel eyes stared at him through his blonde curly hair with utter apathy. The man stood up without saying a word. Neil grabbed the rest of the fallen cans and got up. He didn’t know why he did, but he turned around to look for the man. Neil saw him standing at a bus stop, still as wordlessly apathetic. It was hard to tell from the distance, but Neil swore he saw the man steal a glance in his direction as well.

 

 

 

 

Another similarity between Neil and Nathaniel was their distrust in coincidences. So when the same apathetic man was standing across the subway from him, Neil couldn’t help but be suspicious. Neil had finished his errands and gotten on the subway to head back home when he realized that he was across from the same small blonde-haired man who he had run into, quite literally, earlier that day. Regardless of what name he was going by, he was always armed and ready to fight. But as of now, all the man had done was run into him, and Neil wasn’t one for causing a scene. He decided to ignore the man and write it off on a once in a lifetime occurrence. If trouble happened, he knew how to handle that.

 

Neil’s stop wasn’t long after. Neil noticed that the man got off at the same stop as he did. He considered following him, trying to find out what was going on, but the man was lost in the crowd almost immediately. Curse their respective heights. Neil stayed on guard, hand on the knife hidden in his clothes. But nothing happened. He got out to the street and saw no sign of him, but then again a short man wearing all black when it was starting to get dark wouldn’t be the easiest person to find. It was a short walk to his apartment complex and Neil was guarded every single step of it. It wasn’t until he got to the lobby that he began to know that something was up. Because standing in the elevator was that man again. Before he could react, before he could cast out Neil temporarily and switch, the doors closed.

 

He bought off the security guards here two days after he moved in, so he was less concerned about any possible threats the man may be, but he was concerned about who the man worked for. Some local gang? Nothing to worry about. From his dad? A few things to worry about. Another crime empire? A lot to worry about. He had learned early on that individual lives don’t matter. A big enough empire has hundreds, if not thousands, of disposable people, but sending them after another empire, even if it is to their deaths, is a message only made clearer through blood. Even if this guy is a nobody, depending on who he works for, he could mean the start of massive issues with other criminal powers. Neil got into the next elevator, ready for Nathaniel to have to step out of it if the situation demanded it. It didn’t, because when Neil walked out and to his apartment, he was met by a different man entirely.

 

The new man stood about five inches over Neil. His smile was disarming, but Neil knew what smiles could be concealing. There were about a thousand and one ways that this situation could turn out, most of which would require Neil to get some of the peroxide he keeps in the kitchen to clean up.

 

“Hey, are you the guy who lives in C12?” the man asked.

 

“Yes,” Nathaniel answered.

 

“Great! I’m Nicky. Me and my cousins just moved in C13. We’re having a party Friday night to meet all our new neighbors if you want to come.”

 

“Oh,” Neil replied. The apartment next to him had been vacant for a while. He heard what sounded like people moving in earlier, but had overall ignored them. “I’ll see if I’m free.”

 

Nicky beamed. “Wonderful! What was your name by the way?”

 

“Neil.”

 

 

 

 

“You could have knocked.”

 

Kevin Day was spread across his couch with one of Neil’s cats on his chest. The TV was playing the news but Neil didn’t care.

 

“Last I checked, I lived here and you didn’t. I don’t remember giving you a key.”

 

“And last I checked, you don't care.”

 

Neil never had any siblings and Kevin wished he hadn’t. The duo’s parents were business partners and the two spent lots of time together as children. Even though neither of them had outright told each other, they both knew that they were after the same goal. They both wanted out. Kevin was the only person who knew that Neil was just a created persona but let him pretend it wasn’t. He never had to be anything but Neil with him, even though Kevin knew better than most the difference between the two. Because of their mutual goal, the two had developed a friendship of sorts outside of their childhood hangouts. Neil knew it was nothing like normal friendships, but nothing about Neil was normal.

 

Neil started to feed the cats, which quickly grabbed the attention of the one sitting on Kevin. Kevin stumbled in after the cat.

 

“How long have you been here?”

 

“I don’t know. A few hours? I left West Virginia this morning. I wanted to see if the reason my head felt like it was going to split in two was because of Riko or vodka from last night.”

 

“And?”

 

“Vodka,” Kevin winced, obviously still not fully recovered from the hangover.

 

Neil knew better than to ask about Riko, just like Kevin didn’t ask about his father. Their relationship was built on a mutual understanding gained through silent conversations, not talking about their demons.

 

“I need you to do me a favor tomorrow. I’d do it but I’ve got some business meetings.”

 

“What is it?” Kevin asked.

 

“There’s this guy. I kept running into him today. It’s probably nothing but I want to make sure. Last thing we need is another war. He’s a few inches shorter than me, blue eyes, curly blonde hair. He was wearing all black today. I saw him on the subway and going into the elevator.”

 

“On it.”

 

“Also see what you can find out about the people in C13. I don’t trust them.”

 

“They finally sold that place?”

 

Neil nodded. “They invited me to a housewarming party on Friday. Again, probably nothing, but I want to know who they are.”

 

Kevin nodded and then Neil worked on making the two dinner.

 

Friday was two days away. That was more than enough time for Kevin to get what Neil needed. Looking through the security footage and questioning the staff, Kevin was able to trace the mysterious apathetic man to being one of the residents of C13.

 

“Andrew Minyard. Born and raised in the California foster care system. Was arrested at thirteen for shoplifting. Got out on parole. Hasn’t been tied to anything since. Besides moving around every few years, he seems like a normal guy. Ran him through some systems and either he’s completely turned past his life of crime, is a meaningless foot soldier, or a secret so well kept that the higher-ups don’t even know about him.”

 

“Think it’s true?” Neil Josten had an entire backstory that any investigation would believe. You’d have to be looking for Nathaniel to find him in the elaborate lie that was Neil. Andrew may be the same.

 

“Unless this guy is a master, everything checks out. I couldn’t find any cracks in the story and none of my contacts had a clue who he was.”

 

“What about the rest of C13?”

 

“There’s his twin, Aaron. Also from California, but not ever put in foster care. No criminal record, but I found stuff about him going to rehab for a short period of time. Seems like he normally moves with Andrew. He works at a gas station but is enrolled in an online university, majoring in biomedical sciences.”

 

“And Nicky?”

 

“Ever since Andrew got out of jail, they appear to have all been living together. He’s also trying to get a business degree online. Besides a Lexapro prescription, he seems normal.”

 

Neil sighed. He was just being paranoid. But he’d rather be paranoid than dead.

 

“Their house party is tonight, isn’t it?” Kevin asked.

 

“Since when did you care about parties?”

 

“I’m not turning down free drinks.”

 

“In case you forgot, I’m the one who was invited and I’d rather not go if they’re just normal people.”

 

“We’re going and I’m your plus one.”

 

Neil knew that if he and Kevin ever made out of all this alive, he’d have to deal with Kevin’s blatant alcoholism but as of now that was a necessary evil. Neil was the last person to judge someone’s coping mechanisms.

 

 

 

 

Neil didn't know how they managed to cram so many people into the apartment. It was packed. There were people that Neil was pretty confident did not live there. Kevin had already gotten a bit tipsy. Neil didn't drink because he was scared of accidentally saying something he shouldn't, but Kevin had mastered the art form of not saying anything he shouldn't when drunk. He'll say dumb stuff, but not incriminating stuff. Nicky saw Neil and made his way over to them.

 

"Neil, right? So glad you could make it!"

 

"Yeah. You've got a lot of people here."

 

"I haven't met half the people here. Starting with you," Nicky said turning his attention to Kevin, "I don't believe we've met. Nicholas Hemmick," he said outstretching an arm.

 

"Kevin," he said shaking it, "I'm with Neil."

 

"Oh! Are you two together?"

 

"Yes," Kevin said with no hesitation.

 

Neil may be disconnected from normal life, but Kevin had never lived a normal day in his life. He knew what Kevin meant. The two of them only had each other. When you're both stuck in crime families and forbidden from interacting with anyone else, if you find someone with the same goal as you, you're together. It was a mutually beneficial arrangement where they both had someone who understood their traumas without them having to say anything. It was a far cry from what Nicky was taking from Kevin's statement. He considered clarifying, but it really didn't matter what Nicky thought their arrangement was.

 

"Oh! Do you live next door too?"

 

"More or less. I live with my brother officially."

 

Kevin didn't have a fake name, but he had a pretty bulletproof backstory that prevented anyone from really finding out what his family situation was like.

 

"Is he supportive of you two?"

 

"Supportive? I mean he doesn't know everything about the arrangement."

 

"I've been in your shoes before. My dad had no idea about what me and Erik were really doing and lord when he found out! It was hell on earth let me tell you."

 

Neil decided to let Kevin unintentionally misguide Nicky about their relationship and went on the balcony to escape the crowd of drunk people. The second he stepped out he regretted it. There was Mr. Apathy himself. He really didn’t want to talk to him, but going back would hardly be better. Neil decided to go on the farthest end of the balcony.

 

“So we meet again, huh?”

 

Neil was surprised. He paid attention to things like this because he’s a paranoid criminal, he didn’t think a normal guy would be as attentive. Well, he's not that normal. He is an ex-con.

 

“Do you greet all your new neighbors by running into them?”

 

“You ran into me.”

 

“I beg to differ.”

 

“Then beg. Did you come out here to harass me about knocking you over? Or do you have something interesting to say?”

 

“I came out here to escape your cousin.”

 

“Good ol' Nicky. He’ll talk anyone’s ear off. Any rational being would want to escape him.”

 

“Is that why you’re out here?”

 

“No, I’m out here because I want to be.”

 

A silence fell between the two of them.

 

“If you’re worried about Nicky having more of these parties, then you’re right. For your sake, I’d install some soundproof boards.”

 

Soundproofing the apartment was one of the first things that Neil did when he moved in. Couldn’t deal with people overhearing anything that went on in there.

 

“Used to have neighbors here who partied often. Already ahead of you.”

 

“Really? Because the landlord said no one around here really threw parties.”

 

“The landlord just says that to make the complex seem more classy than it really is.”

 

“Seems classy enough to me. In fact with how much I’m paying for rent, it should be classy.”

 

That reminded Neil that he never found out exactly what Andrew did. Nicky and Aaron’s salaries were not enough for them to afford to be next-door neighbors, so Andrew must be the one with the paycheck.

 

“Well, how do you live here then?” Neil asked, causing Andrew to cock an eyebrow at him, “What do you do?”

 

“This is why I left the party,” he mumbled. “I’m an independent contractor. I can basically do anything you want. People give a lot of money to have highly specific tasks done. So if we’re going to be boring small talk people, I suppose this is where I ask you your job.”

 

“Work for my dad’s business. I’m the Vice-President. It’s mainly just dealing with clients.”

 

“Here I thought you would be interesting.”

 

Neil almost felt compelled to tell this guy that his real job was a lot more interesting than just being a boring businessman, but quickly thought against it. What Andrew Minyard thought about him was ultimately inconsequential.

 

Before either of them could say anything else, a suddenly sober Kevin walked onto the balcony.

 

“There you are. Let’s go. Right now.”

 

“I thought you wanted to be here.”

 

“We’ve got work.”

 

Neil knew what that meant.

 

“What kind?”

 

“A deal fell through. You’re on cleanup duty.”

 

“Do we have to do it tonight? It’s Friday night.”

 

Neil knew that the weekend meant nothing for when he had to or didn’t have to work, but he had an audience and Neil needed to keep the idea of being a boring businessman alive.

 

“Ichirou asked.”

 

Nathaniel may be operating under his father, but his father only had his own empire because of Ichirou. This was a big deal. Andrew didn’t seem to care so Nathaniel and Kevin left the party. It didn’t take long for the two of them to get ready. Kevin may have been full-on drunk ten minutes ago but there’s nothing like the fear of Ichirou to sober him up in seconds. In less than ten minutes, they were in Kevin’s car, ready to do whatever Ichirou wanted them to do.

 

“Care to tell me what we’re doing here?” Nathaniel asked as they pulled into a motel parking lot. Kevin hadn’t shared any details of their task yet.

 

“A couple of guys stole a lot from the Moriyama family. Like a lot. They’ve been hunting them for weeks. There’s been some recent intel that they’re hiding here.”

 

“Why send us? They could have easily called in someone else. Hell, I’ve got about a hundred different guys who could—”

 

“It’s nearly a billion dollars.”

 

“Holy shit.”

 

“Ichirou isn’t going to trust some nobody from nowhere to grab the money and give it all back. But he knows that we will.”

 

There weren’t many children who hung around the Moriyamas or Wesninskis. Most people came into the families as teenagers or adults, but Kevin and Nathaniel have never known anything else. The fear that they have for the heads of the families have been drawn into their skin. Quite literally. Neither of them can look in the mirror without seeing the constant reminder of who they owe themselves too. It’s not loyalty that keeps them following orders, rather it's fear. Ichirou knew this, which is why he had no issue assigning them important tasks.

 

“What do we know about these guys?”

 

“There’s two of them. They appear to be lightly armed, but they’re probably terrified. Don’t fuck up and we’ll be fine.”

 

Nathaniel sighed. Kevin’s constant push for his perfectionism was annoying at best. He knew why Kevin was like that, but that didn’t mean Nathaniel had to like Kevin always telling him that he was going to fuck up. They both loaded their guns. Nathaniel may be the son of the Butcher of Baltimore, but that didn’t mean he had to like using knives all the time too. The room where the targets were was on the second floor so the duo made their way upstairs in silence. Room 211. Kevin didn’t even bother testing the doorknob, he just shot it off. The duo burst into the room. Immediately they saw their targets standing over a briefcase full of cash. They caught them by surprise. Before the targets could react, Kevin and Nathaniel had unloaded a clip into both of them.

 

“That went better than I thought,” Nathaniel remarked.

 

Kevin stepped over to the briefcase.

 

“Search the rest of the room. Make sure that this is all they have.”

 

Nathaniel walked over to the kitchenette and dining room. There were some shot glasses out.

 

“Hey, Kevin?” Nathaniel called.

 

“What?” Kevin asked as he went through the nightstands.

 

“You said that there were only two of them, right?”

 

“That’s what they told me.”

 

Nathaniel counted the shot glasses again. Three.

 

Before he could ask Kevin anything else, he was being slammed into the ground. He had enough time to dodge the knife coming at his face, but he didn’t miss the punch that the guy then laid on him. He heard Kevin rushing over. Nathaniel grabbed the knife he always kept on him. He then plunged it into the man’s neck. Blood splattered on him. The man fell limp on top of Nathaniel.

 

“Only two guys, huh?” Nathaniel panted.

 

“Guess the intel was wrong,” Kevin shrugged and pulled the man off him, “Did he get you?”

 

“I’m going to have one hell of a black eye, but otherwise I’m fine,” Nathaniel touched his face and looked at his hand, covered in the man’s blood, “On second thought, I may need a shower.”

 

“There’s one here. Use it so we won’t have to explain why you’re drenched in blood.”

 

“Better not be any more men hiding in the bathroom.”

 

There wasn’t. It didn’t take long for Nathaniel to clean himself up. He got a good look at himself in the hotel’s mirror. He had his father’s eyes and hair, something he hated. If he could change it, he would. Right below his left eye, the number 3 was tattooed, matching Kevin’s number 2. He normally covered it up with makeup to keep up his image of Neil Josten, but washing the blood off had taken the makeup too. It was a symbol of his loyalty to the Moriyamas and his place with them. He almost hated it more than Kevin hated his. It’s not like they had any choice though. Until they figure out how to escape, the symbol isn’t going anywhere.

 

Nathaniel walked out back into the hotel room. The blood was off his skin but there was little he could do about his clothes or his new black eye. Kevin had the briefcase. The bodies were laying where they left them.

 

“I called in clean up. I’ll drop you off at your apartment and take this up to Evermore. They’ll handle it from there.”

 

“You sure you don’t want me to do it?”

 

Kevin nodded. “Riko would sooner kidnap you and keep you in Evermore for the rest of your life than let you get any approval from Ichirou.”

 

“What, that little bitch is still upset that his brother refuses to deal with him? That piece of shit.”

 

Nathaniel could see how Kevin tensed up when he talked about Riko. The Nathaniel Wesninski and Riko Moriyama rivalry was well known amongst the gang. Nathaniel couldn’t stand Riko’s entitled ass and Riko's superiority complex made him want to crush everyone who spoke against him. Riko couldn’t kill Nathaniel because of who he was but that didn’t mean that Riko wouldn’t take every other opportunity to hurt Nathaniel that he could. After all, Nathaniel was only number three.

 

Kevin was in a similar place to Nathaniel, except he didn’t have the ability to stand up to Riko. Every time Nathaniel and Riko got into a fight, Kevin would freak out, caught between his fear of his adopted brother and his concern for his friend’s well being. Nathaniel knew this and it was just another reason on the long list of why Riko sucked.

 

“Fine. But you’re coming back tomorrow.”

 

Kevin nodded.

 

The two drove back in silence and Kevin dropped Neil off at his apartment. It was pretty late at night so there was hardly anyone around. Neil walked down the hallway to his apartment, ready to pass out the second his head hit the pillow.

 

“Oh this is interesting.”

 

Andrew Minyard was slumped in the hallway. The sounds of Nicky’s party was still coming from the apartment.

 

“Balcony not good enough for you anymore?”

 

“Got overrun. Had to escape somehow. But I want to know why Mr. Businessman dips from the party with his boyfriend to do work and then arrives hours later with a bloodstained shirt, a black eye, a face tattoo, and no boyfriend.”

 

“After we finished the job, we went out to celebrate. There were some assholes and we got into a fight. Gave one of the guys a bloody nose.” It was a good lie. Neil had lots of practice coming up with normal explanations of Nathaniel’s actions.

 

“That’s an answer to half of my questions.”

 

“The tattoo is from when we were teenagers. Our friend group all got matching ones. I normally cover it up with makeup but the fight wiped it off. Kevin went back to his brother’s house.”

 

“Good story. Not sure how much I believe of it. Tell me why a sober 5 foot something businessmen is getting into fights with people at two in the morning.”

 

“You’re one to talk about height. And I know how to fight.”

 

“Really? Because that black eye speaks differently. Did no one teach you how to duck?”

 

“Caught me by surprise. There was only supposed to two guys. Besides, you should see how he ended up.” Neil left out that he ended up with a knife in the neck and dead on the hotel floor.

 

“In that case, be at Palmetto gym tomorrow at eleven. I’ve seen a lot of interesting things but a tiny businessman who claims that he can fight is not one of them. Regardless of if you can or not, it should offer me some entertainment.”

 

Neil knew this was a bad idea, but he was too tired to think of an excuse.

 

"Fine. Tomorrow."

 

Neil opened the door to his apartment.

 

"Peroxide is good for getting blood out of clothes," Andrew called out to him.

 

Once he was inside, he took his shirt off and soaked it in some peroxide. He then immediately collapsed on his bed. His last thought was of his new apathetic neighbor before he passed out.