Yay! An update on the story that has consumed my soul for a brief period of time!
Ludwig rubbed his fingers against his temples. “Please tell me you’re joking.”
Lovino scowled and crossed his arms and legs, sulking in the armchair across the smoky room. “Believe me, I wish I was.”
The large blonde man let out a great sigh and leaned forward, the leather of his own chair creaking under him. “Did he finish the job?”
“Yes, of course, he always finishes the job, but he’s in jail, they have his sword, and they have a fucking eyewitness,” Lovino answered testily.
“Evidence can be compromised,” Ludwig said wearily. “That witness is going to be a problem, however. You say Antonio didn’t know anything about him?”
He shook his head sharply, picking at a hole in the leather of his armrest angrily. “All I know is it’s a civilian. I don’t even have a gender, although it’s obviously someone he doesn’t know, otherwise he’d have told me.”
Ludwig sat back and resisted the urge to run his fingers through his slicked back hair. “So that just leaves us with a few million people to search through.” He closed his eyes. “My head’s hurting just thinking about it.”
“That’s why you give the job to me,” a sharp voice said from the shadows. “I’ll find the witness in a flash.”
Ludwig frowned. “No one asked you, brother.”
Clothing rustled from the source of the new voice, and a small albino man emerged into the dim light coming in from the false dawn of the window set at the street level a few feet above their heads. “Do they ever?” He sat down on the arm of Lovino’s chair, smirking down at his boss, who sneered at him. “Don’t worry, I’ll spring your boyfriend out. It’s been a while since I got to hack into the feds, anyway.” Lovino grumbled and looked away at the boyfriend comment.
Ludwig could recognize a losing battle when he saw one. “Do whatever you like, brother, like usual,” he said, waving him off, then stood up. His hand automatically reached out to hold away the hanging light from his head. “I’m going back to sleep. You should, too. Both of you.” He glared at them sharply, then turned on his heel and melted into the shadows of the basement apartment.
Lovino watched him go with narrowed eyes and a growl crawling out of his throat, but was distracted by a hand clamping heavy onto his shoulder. The albino brother was staring at him with intensely serious red eyes.
“He’s my friend, Lovi. I want him out as much as you.” Lovino bit his lip and nodded, then marched away to his own cubby of a bedroom before he gave into the urge to cry into the albino’s shirt.
Mob bosses couldn’t cry, no matter which hitman or lover had just been arrested.
When Arthur finally woke up, the sky was grey outside his shuttered window and he felt better than he had in ages. He sat up slowly and ran his hands through his hair a few times, blinking the sleep from his eyes as he reoriented himself in the unfamiliar room. Pale peach walls surrounded him in a room not big enough for a normal-sized person to live in comfortably for too long. Arthur was lying in the lone twin bed, the headboard pushed against one wall; there was a small dresser on one side of him and a nightstand on the other that sported a table skirt that matched the horrible cabbage rose print of the bedspread. Arthur threw it off of him and wrinkled his nose in distaste, then got up and wandered into the hallway. Voices and the smell of something wonderful wafted out of a doorway down the hall towards the front door, light spilling out of it into the corridor. Arthur shuffled towards it and poked his head around the door and looked into the kitchen.
Matt and a very busty woman with short pale hair were sitting at the table and looked up at his appearance. The woman “Oh, good, you’re awake. Come on in, breakfast is almost ready,” Matt said, standing up and going back over to the waffle iron on the counter.
Arthur’s mind stumbled to a halt as he walked fully into the room and sat down at the table. “Breakfast?”
“Yep. You went out like a light as soon as you came in, and Kat didn’t want to wake you up.” He smiled at his wife over his shoulder. She gave him a small one in return. “Oh, by the way, Kat, Arthur; Arthur, Katyusha.”
Katyusha rolled her eyes affectionately. “And you wonder why I do not take you home,” she said softly, a Slavic accent heavy on her tongue. “No manners, any of you.” She shrugged at Arthur, who laughed quietly.
“I completely sympathize. After all, I’ve met Alfred.” She covered a giggle with her hand, and he smirked at her in mutual European understanding.
Suddenly, Matt slammed the serving plate of waffles on the table between the two of them, glaring sharply at Arthur while blocking most of Katyusha from view. “Rule one if you wanna live long, bud. Don’t flirt with my wife.”
Arthur sputtered as Katyusha blushed and slapped her husband’s back. Matt just glared harder at Arthur. “I wasn’t- I didn’t mean-” He looked away from the icy stare and fidgeted with his hands, feeling his face grow hot. “You don’t have to worry about that with me at all,” he said quietly. Katyusha stopped in her background chastising of her husband, and Arthur heard Matt’s clothes shift as he straightened.
“Ooh. I see. Well, that’s good.” Arthur didn’t look up from cleaning the fingernails of one hand with the thumbnail of the other. “So I guess you should be worrying instead, eh, Kat?” Matt joked. Arthur jerked his head up sharply as she laughed.
“I’m not a homewrecker!” he exclaimed, crossing his arms empathically and sitting back in his chair.
Matt just smirked at him with eyes narrowed in amusement. “Hurry up, your food’s getting cold,” he said, walking around Katyusha’s chair to sit back down at the table. Arthur blinked twice and looked at Katyusha; she gave a small shrug and took a waffle from the serving plate.
After breakfast, Matt and Katyusha took it upon themselves to give him a small tour of the area before Alfred returned later that day. Like Arthur suspected, there wasn’t that much to see, especially after four years of New York City; there was a golf course up the main road and a high-end resort down it for the golfers, but otherwise, Shannon was in the middle of the Alabama deciduous forest. It was mid-November, so most of the leaves had fallen from the trees and there was a slight nip to the air, but not enough for Arthur to want more than a jacket. The three of them ended up wandering a half tank of gas away, Matthew driving them around cow fields and rolling, tree-covered hills as they used the relative safety of the car to talk about Arthur’s old identity and his new. By the time they found their way back to Shannon, the two of them had helped Arthur come to terms with his new life and craft a more in depth background for Arthur Kensington than what the government had already designed.
Shannon was a very small town. Most of its residents worked at the golf course or the resort; a few, like Katyusha, worked in downtown Birmingham, but didn’t mind the extra few minutes’ commute in exchange for the chance to get away from the sprawl of the suburbs and into the forested wilderness that most of the American South was famous for. Until a year or two ago, they hadn’t even been a town, but a ‘community’. Since then, however, they’d pulled together enough money for a five-man council and a police department, and were very proud of their new status after fighting against the behemoth of Hoover to the south.
Even with all of this growth, ‘downtown Shannon’ was still fundamentally a crossroads with the police station, gas station, church and grocery store on the corners. Matthew’s Sugar Maple was technically zoned residential, but since his mother lived above it, and it was somewhere to eat and get a drink closer than the interstate exit Arthur had driven through on his way in, no one in the town felt there was a reason to protest.
After the extended tour, Matthew pulled around to the back of The Sugar Maple and parked the car. “I figured since we had some time before Alfred came over, we could stop in and see Mom for a bit.” He laughed at Arthur’s widening eyes in his rear view mirror. “Don’t worry, she’s not in the diner today, so she won’t act like your aunt this time. Too much.” Katyusha giggled and stepped out of the car at the same time as her husband, leaving Arthur to hurry to follow them up the metal stairs to the second story, where Matt let himself in.
“Mom!” he called. Further inside, metal clanged together before his mother’s head poked through a door on the far side of the front room.
“Oh, Mattie! You brought guests!” she said, her face lighting up at seeing Arthur and Katyusha behind her son. “Just a mo’, let me dry off my hands.” Her head disappeared. “Make yourselves comfortable!” she called back. Matthew sprawled across one of the collection of sofas, Katyusha sitting next to him in the circle of his arm laid along the back of the couch. Arthur sat in a loveseat awkwardly, taking in the eclectic décor. Even though he barely knew Susan, he already saw her influence all over the room.
She emerged a moment later, beelining to the chair beside Arthur. “It’s wonderful to see you again, darling, it really is,” she told him, holding his eyes and patting his arm on the armrest. He nodded.
She smiled over at her daughter-in-law. “And it’s always lovely to see you, Kat.” Her eyebrows rose and she waved a finger in the air as she said, “I have an idea! Why don’t you two head back home so Arthur and I can have some quality chat time, as new aunt and nephew? I’ll bring him with me when I come over tonight.”
Matt shrugged. “Doesn’t matter to me. What would you like to do, Arthur?”
Arthur looked at Susan, then asked, “Do you have any tea, by chance?”
She beamed. “Of course! Which blend would you like?”
Arthur sighed in relief and smiled happily at an amused Matthew. “I think I’ll stay here for a while.”
Susan’s collection of tea was as eclectic as everything else about her, and they chatted at her kitchen table over a citrus-flavored loose leaf. She told him about herself, Matthew, and Alfred, and in return, Arthur vented to her about everything he’d hated about New York.
“There’s too much city up there,” he muttered, staring into his tea leaves. At one time, he’d fancied that he could divine from them. “They don’t lie when they sing about concrete jungles. It’s nothing like down here.”
“Mmhmm,” Susan nodded along, pouring the last few drops of the hot water into her red and white leaf-patterned mug. She didn’t seem to want anyone to forget that she was Canadian. “So do you like the change so far?”
Arthur shrugged. “It’s only been a day so far, of course. But I think I will.” He snorted. “At least there’s no snow on the ground.”
She chuckled. “You most likely won’t see any snow at all, with Southern winters being what they are. My family back in Barrie thinks I’ve gone soft with all this time spent down here,” she laughed, then glanced at the analog clock on the wall. “We better start heading over to Mattie’s, or Alfred’s gonna pitch a fit.” They stood up, and Arthur was swept into another impossible bear hug. “If you ever need anyone to talk to, just come on in. The door’s always open if I’m not downstairs.” He nodded into her shoulder.
She let him go, then set their cups in the sink before slipping on the cardigan hanging off her chair. “Come on, we’ll walk. It’s just around the corner.”
Alfred was sitting in the chair closest to the door when they walked in, and stood up instantly when he saw Arthur. “Thanks for stealing my witness, Miss Susan,” he said, rolling his eyes and grabbing Arthur’s elbow. “Not like he’s in constant danger or anything.”
She flapped her hand at him. “Oh, you’ll get over it. Now play nice, you two,” she ordered, the mother part of her seeping into her tone before she walked down the hallway to the kitchen.
Alfred steered Arthur to the couch, sitting him down before dropping beside him, shuffling the mess of paperwork spread over the coffee table.
Arthur stared at the avalanche of paper. “Is this all for me?”
“Yep. Most of these are just copies from the computer files, of course, but I figured that I’d have everything here so I could tell you anything ‘n’ everything you need to know,” he told him, tongue slipping over his words as he talked too fast. Then he smiled sidelong at Arthur, and he wondered how in the world he hadn’t noticed yesterday that his marshal was handsome. “I got so lucky with you, y’know.”
Alfred pulled a few sheets together and tapped them on the table to straighten them out. “Most people who come into WITSEC are ugly, fat, dirty mob guys with dirty records and dirty brains,” he explained. “And, s’far as I can tell, you don’t fit any of those bills.”
Arthur blinked and willed away the blush at the indirect compliment. “I wouldn’t judge too soon on that.”
Al laughed. “If you say so.” He handed Arthur the papers he’d collected, then leaned in to direct him through the forms.
After dinner, Susan went back home and Matthew put Al and Arthur on dish duty (“You live here now, and you basically live here, so you might as well work like it”).
“It’s still gonna be a week until your visa comes in, and who knows how long it’ll be until I can find you a place to stay. Apartment shopping is hard, man! You’d think being a fed would make life better, but nooo,” Alfred complained as he dried out the rice pot. “Until then, do you think you can just, like, hang out around here without blowing up the place?”
Arthur smiled. “I’m good at that, don’t worry. I’m sure I can find something to amuse myself with for a week.” Al smiled in return.
“Just remember, no old life contact. The only ones who know you as Kirkland are the four of us and the police, and it has to stay that way.”
Arthur sighed. “Yes, I understood the fourth time you told me that.”
Al laughed. “Hey, you can never be too careful.” They lapsed into silence for a few more dishes. “If you wanna meet people around here,” Alfred said suddenly, wiping off the silverware, “just go hang out at The Sugar Maple tomorrow. Everyone comes through there, and it’s rare enough for a new person to show up that you’ll have someone to talk to all day long.” He gave Arthur another sidelong smile. “I’ll call you tomorrow evening to check in.”
“If I can make the dratted thing work, of course,” Arthur grumbled about the new phone he’d been given along with the other electronics and personal effects of Arthur Kensington. Alfred laughed.
“You’re such a stuffy old priss sometimes, Arthur.” He scowled up at Al.
“Yes, well, you’re just another cocky Yank.” Alfred raised his eyebrows and snorted.
“I’m not a Yank. I’m from the South.”
Arthur scoffed. “To-may-to, To-mah-to.”
“Arthur, if you don’t want to get shot, I’d suggest not calling anyone down here a Yank. I’m supposed to protect you, but if you go around insulting people, there’s not much I can do.”
Arthur looked up at him curiously. “You’re actually serious?”
Alfred laughed and spread his hands. “Welcome to Alabama."