A pale-skinned man with dark hair and a dark suit stepped out of the Newark precinct’s back door, straightening his tie and glasses as he stepped back into the shadows and waited.
Precisely five minutes after his appearance, the door opened again to let out a harried-looking police officer with chin-length blonde hair. “Keep it quick this time, Edelstein,” he snapped, facing the shadows where the other man was hiding. “I don’t have all day.”
A sigh. “Always so to the point, Vash,” a nasal voice said in a tone as sharp as his appearance. “Can’t we ever just talk like old times?”
The officer had his gun trained at the shadows in a flash of a draw. “Today, Edelstein.”
“Fine.” His glasses flashed as he stepped into the weak sunlight filtering into the back alley, ignoring the handgun trained on his chest with gloating ease. “I need the name of the witness in Antonio’s case.”
The officer frowned, then holstered his gun reluctantly. “You know they put him in WITSEC, right?”
Edelstein waved the comment away. “You shouldn’t worry about these things, Vash, it’s not healthy for you… or your sister.” The policeman stiffened at the comment about his sister, fingers dancing at his hip and lip curling.
“It’s Arthur Kirkland, and that’s all I know so don’t try any more of your slimy ways ‘cause it won’t do you any good.” He scowled deeper, and Edelstein smiled without it reaching his eyes.
“See, now that wasn’t so hard, was it, Vash?” he said smoothly.
Vash growled deep in his throat and crossed his arms over his chest. “Whatever. Can I just get my payment and go back to work now?”
Edelstein smirked. “Of course, old friend. Anything for such a loyal informant.”
Vash raised his eyebrows at him, his pupils tiny black dots in aqua green irises. “That’s not the reason I do this and you know it.” Without another word, he reared back and punched Edelstein in the jaw, the force of it sending him sprawling on his back into the shadow of the police station. He stomped back in the precinct with the smallest smirk on his face, letting the door slam behind him.
In the alleyway, Edelstein sat up slowly and rubbed at his jaw, a bitter smile on his face. “Always a pleasure doing business with you, old friend.”
Arthur ran out of things to do by Monday, since last week’s Indian summer had passed and made it too cold to spend all day outside and his new job didn’t start until Sunday, so he lapsed into his old fall back when he needed to stop thinking.
It started with simply straightening up the few odds and ends and dusting off the surfaces of his borrowed guest room with his hand, but it quickly descended into vacuuming the hallway and sorting the recycling by type and doing all three residents’ laundry and rearranging the books in the hall shelf by author. He was on his knees dusting the floorboards with Matt came home that afternoon.
“Dude. What are you doing?”
Arthur started and fell out of his crouch onto his ass, looking up at a very confused Matthew. His hands played with the dust cloth in his hands compulsively as he stuttered out, “Um, well, I got bored, you see, and I just needed something to do, so-”
“So you decided to clean my house?” Rather than sounding angry or upset, Matt just seemed bewildered.
Arthur smiled up at him sheepishly. “If you don’t mind?”
Matthew laughed, startling Arthur just as much as his sudden appearance a moment before. “Mind? Why on this good Earth would I mind you cleaning my house for free?” He shook his head. “By all means, if it makes you feel better, I won’t stop you.”
Arthur smiled for real and went back to the floorboards as Matt disappeared into the kitchen, calling through the walls at each other about what they wanted for lunch.
Between all the riot of the last few weeks, Thanksgiving Day appeared out of nowhere to Arthur. He’d tried to hide from his housers on Thursday, but Katyusha hunted him down and asked him to join them for dinner with such a hopeful expression that he couldn’t bring himself to refuse. He had never celebrated the American holiday, since all of his true relatives were very British and none of his New York friends celebrated either - or if they did, they didn’t care to invite him. The Williamses, however, would have nothing but his complete involvement (except in the kitchen, of course).
Which was how he found himself sitting next to his Marshal at the little-used dining room table with a plate full of turkey and dressing that evening, talking to Susan and Katyusha about living in New York City. There was too much sugar in his tea, and he was a firm believer that tea should never be iced, but he was able to ignore it as he lost himself in describing the city to the two very interested women. To his right, Alfred and Matthew kept up a steady stream of conversation about football or the Mesopotamians or something equally bizarre. When his monologue turned to the topic of Fashion Week, though, Al leaned over and butted into their conversation.
“Speakin’ a’ clothes - I’m taking you shoppin’ tomorrow, Arthur, and nuttin’ you can say will get ya out of it.” Al gave him a shit-eating grin as a look of pure horror crawled over Arthur’s face.
“Are you mental? It’s the Friday after Thanksgiving! In America!”
Al shrugged, sitting back in his seat and leaving Arthur’s personal bubble. “Yeah, but that’s when the best deals are, and I’m workin’ on a pretty tight budget for this job,” he said around a mouthful of mashed potatoes. “ ‘Sides, I bet you’re gettin’ tired of wearin’ the same things over and over again.” Arthur made a face at him, and everyone laughed. “And while we’re out we’ll go look at a few apartments I’ve found so we can finally get out of Matt’s hair!” He flashed a thumbs-up, but it and his face fell when the rest of the table fell silent. “What?”
Katyusha and Matt exchanged a glance, then she turned to Alfred. “Actually, Alfred, we’ve been thinking.”
“Oh, no,” he groaned, putting his face in his hands.
“Oh, yes,” Matthew answered with a gleeful smirk. “Do you think we can keep him?”
Arthur blinked at the married couple across the table from him. Katyusha smiled her warmest at him while Matthew winked. “What?”
“Dude, you’ve been cleaning my house for the past three days. Did you think we were gonna let you go that easily?”
Arthur looked over curiously at Alfred, who was mumbling into his hands. “Can they do that?”
Al lifted his face from his hands a little and rested his cheekbones on the heel of one hand, staring tiredly at Matt. “You would wait until I’d done all that work to find a place for him to live to tell me that.” Matt just kept grinning at him, and Alfred sighed and sat up straight. “Do you want to stay with them, Arthur?” Al asked him, pushing his glasses up his nose with a finger and staring at him intently. Arthur looked down at his plate.
“I wouldn’t mind, I guess. It’d certainly be much less lonely.” He smiled unconsciously, then looked up sharply at Katyusha across from him. “If I’m going to stay here, though, you will let me redecorate that God-forsaken room. No man should have cabbage roses on his bedspread and peach walls. Peach!” Kat and Susan giggled while Matt snorted.
“Do you have any idea how gay you sound right now?” Matt asked through his sneers of amusement. Arthur’s face burned, but Al just laughed louder than all three of them and clapped Arthur too hard on the back.
“Don’t worry, buddy, we’ll find ya somethin’ better tomorrow.” The conversation turned to which shopping district had the smallest crowds and the best selections, and Arthur went back to eating what Katyusha put on his plate and listening quietly.
Although neither of them were exactly accomplished shoppers, by the end of the day Alfred’s trunk had enough clothes for what they hoped was Arthur’s full stay in Alabama, along with the black pants, vest, and jewel-toned button ups that made Arthur’s new uniform and a denim duvet. Al introduced him to the Southern-based fast food chain Chik-Fil-A for lunch, then took him home as the sun was setting.
As they drove through the woods that buffered Shannon from the bustle of Alabama’s largest metropolitan area, Arthur finally gave voice to a question he had been pondering for a while now.
“Are you supposed to care this much about me?”
He tilted his head curiously at Arthur. “Of course I am! It’s my job!”
Arthur glanced at him sharply. “You’ve treated me more like a friend than like a job, Alfred. Now, I’m not going to pretend like I know the rules and customs of witness protection, but I’m fairly sure that it doesn’t include befriending me.”
“So you don’t want to be my friend?” Alfred asked tentatively.
Arthur sighed and turned to look out the window. “That isn’t what I meant, Alfred, and you know it. I just don’t want you to get in trouble for being too attached.”
There was silence for a moment, then Al exhaled slowly. “You’re probably right,” he said quietly, very unlike his usual boisterous nature. “It’s just… well, to be honest, I don’t have that many friends. My job eats up all my time, and – did I ever tell you my parents were Marshals, too?” Arthur shook his head, although Alfred was staring out the windshield and didn’t look to see his answer. “They were more on the ‘tracking down runaway criminals’ side of the job, and they were really good at it. A’course, that meant that they were never home. Miss Susan raised me more than them.” He wiped one of his palms on his jeans before returning it to the steering wheel, keeping his eyes on the road even as Arthur turned around to watch his features move. “Even now that they’re retired, they’re never around. They took a cruise down to Mexico this week.” They fell silent for a moment before Al shrugged and attempted his usual bright grin with only marginal success. “I told myself I’d never do that to anyone – kid, girlfriend, whatever – so I just stop it before it starts and keep myself from getting too close.” He shrugged again. “I guess it’s just nice to have someone to talk to - besides Matt, but he doesn’t count.”
Arthur frowned. “If it’s so much stress and you’re so lonely, why are you still doing this? This job, I mean.”
Alfred laughed for real. “You kiddin’? Chasin’ down bad guys, protectin’ people from the bad guys, guardin’ evidence that can put a bad guy in jail – Marshals are as close to superheroes as you’re gonna get without takin’ a dip in some used uranium.” Arthur let out a bark of laughter at the unexpected reply, and Al grinned at him.
They’d gotten to Shannon during their conversation, and Al parked the car in front of Matt’s. Before they got out, Al clasped his hand on Arthur’s shoulder and gave him the intense stare Arthur was almost used to enough to return it without blushing. “Don’t you worry too much about me, Arthur,” Al told him. “It’s my job to worry about you.”
According to the schedule Alfred and Arthur had picked up from the front desk of the golf course on their way out Friday morning, Arthur’s first shift was on Monday. Ray was more than happy to give him a ride to the course and show him the setup of his new workplace before he said goodbye to Alabama for good and set out for Silicon Valley. He introduced Arthur to the other bartenders working at the time – a large black man named Cameron and a slighter man with a ponytail named Toris. Cameron was friendly enough for not knowing Arthur yet, but Toris immediately took Arthur under his wing and led him through the specifics of his new job, allowing Ray to slip away before Ivan made his way down to see how his new employee was settling in.Arthur’s new job wasn’t too different from his previous bartending stint, so it wasn’t long before he was caught up in mixing drinks for stuffy rich golfers and the haughty waiters from the small restaurant to one side of the giant main room where the bar service was. For the first time in weeks, he had something productive to do with a definite reward, and Arthur couldn’t have been happier.