In the back of a coffee shop in Manhattan, Gilbert Beilschmidt curled up in an armchair with a vanilla cappuccino he hadn’t had to pay for and watched his program sift through the Department of Justice files for information on an Arthur Kirkland.
This was his favorite part of his hacking method. He’d written the code and gotten past the firewalls, and now he just had to sit back and watch his beautiful little baby do her work. Coming to the coffee shop had several benefits; the primary one being free coffee since the barista was one of the Vargas’s informants, but after that, it was the ability to steal the WiFi from the rival family’s clubhouse situated a few buildings down. Gilbert had put in an extra powerful wireless sensor in his programming and porn laptop exactly for this purpose.
The program, who he’d named Lola in one of the late nights of code writing, flashed purple and red at him as she found a folder for ‘Arthur Kirkland’, then proceeded to automatically copy everything in the folder to his hard drive before backing out and quitting without a trace. It had been ages since the code monkeys at the DOJ had seen his presence in their system, as vast and untended as it was. They would barely feel Lola’s touch in their database.
Gilbert sat up and pulled the laptop to its designed location, petting the side of the screen fondly as he scrolled through the folder and started scanning the files present.
Half an hour later, his cappuccino was gone and he knew everything about Arthur Kirkland but his favorite color and his shoe size. He packed up his laptop in his shoulder bag and handed his empty cup to the informant barista, who flipped him off on his way out the door.
Italians. Lovely people, really.
He merged back into the sidewalk crowd of the Upper East Side, pulling out his phone in the process.
“This better be good news. I need some today,” a deep voice said in German on the other end after two rings.
“Always so down! Come on, boss, cheer up sometime,” Gilbert replied with a grin, speaking in German as well as he walked briskly down the road. “I found out the location of Toni’s witness. I’ll tell you when I get back in a few, but what were we gonna do with him? I’m sure Natalia and Bridget wouldn’t object to the change of pace.”
The voice grunted. “Actually, I’ve been thinking about that.”
Gilbert gasped in mock shock, slinging himself around a street sign pole as he waited for the walk signal. “You? Thinking? What an unprecedented occurrence!”
“Shut up.” Gilbert laughed, and the voice continued. “What’s the thing that the witness protection program is most proud of?”
Gilbert frowned in thought, pushing off the street sign and picking his pace back up. “I dunno, their rep, I guess.”
“Exactly. Their spotless, shining, beloved reputation.”A dramatic pause; Gilbert raised his eyebrows and snorted quietly. His brother was in a funny mood if he was being cute about his conversation. “I have begun to think that it is time to remind them of why they exist at all. The day of the trial should be an appropriate time.”
A slow smile crept across Gilbert’s face, causing a young mother to pull her stroller to the far side of the sidewalk. “I am really glad you’re my boss sometimes, bro.”
“Don’t call me bro.” The dial tone echoed under Gilbert’s always grating laughter.
It was only after he had put his phone away that he realized all of his and Lola’s hard work was now useless.
At the end of January, Arthur moved out of the Williams residence.
It had been a long timing coming, to be honest. Of course, Arthur liked them, and the couple liked him in return, but two and a half months of any house guest can try even a saint’s patience.
Arthur just wanted a bigger room.
With Alfred’s help and the secret authority of a federal agency, Arthur leased a furnished apartment in one of the quickly expanding developments trickling down the side highway from the interstate. The complex backed up against the golf course, which gave Arthur’s constant guilt from depending on Toris for transportation a reprieve. Now, it was just a walk across the fifth hole and the street to work.
At first the sudden solitude was strange. However, as a practiced introvert, Arthur settled into it quickly, only broken by work and Fridays with Alfred.
They tried so hard to keep it basic, keep it platonic. They didn’t want to get attached to each other. They knew it could only end badly, with Arthur halfway across the country and both of them heartbroken.
But the sex was as fantastic as it was unavoidable.
That was part of the reason he moved out, really. At some point, imposing yourself and eating dinner with the family of your friend-with-fucking-phenomenal-benefits,
The place he bought had just been built and smelled slightly like a new car. It lacked character, but he hadn’t picked it out for its unique qualities. It had a kitchen, a television, and a bed, and that was all that really mattered.
February brought four straight days of rain, from drizzle to downpour. Arthur bought rain boots for his walk to work that purposefully did not match his umbrella, and Jake bullied the managers of the course into closing it until the rain went away to save what was left of the grass.
On the second day of rain, Alfred disappeared.
It was completely normal for Al in his line of work, Matt assured him the next day at breakfast. He’d called him early that morning to ask if he’d heard from Alfred last night, since it had been the first night since his arrival in Alabama that he hadn’t answered his phone or called Arthur himself. Arthur ended up getting picked up by Matt on his way into work. He dunked his teabag in his mug without really paying attention to it as Matthew explained.
“Marshals always have to be on their toes,” he said, serving the usual crowd their usuals with memorized motions. “I remember when we were kids, Al’s parents would have to get up and go all the time after bad guys, leaving Al with Mom ‘n’ me while they hunted down justice.” He paused for a moment to ring up someone’s ticket, then went on, “There was this one time they called Mom at, like, dark o’clock in the morning, saying that they had to go now, but they didn’t want to wake up Al – we were probably, like, seven or eight then – so they just… left him. Alone in that house. Mom went over as soon as she could that morning before school, ‘course, but he was already awake when she came in to explain things.” He frowned at the bar he was wiping down, scrubbing particularly hard at a spot of syrup that had faded several seconds ago. “He’s always been an early riser.”
They both frowned at the countertop for a moment before Matt slapped it with his rag, making Arthur jump. “Anyway!” he said loudly. “There’s no tellin’ where he went, or how long he’s gonna be gone. He’s worse than his parents were in the communicating with normal people area. They’ll let us know if he gets hurt, but until then, easiest thing to do’s get on with life and try not to worry about him too much. He knows how to handle himself a ton better than we do,” he finished, turning back to his job and the orders waiting for him from the window to the kitchen.
Arthur took a sip of tea to find that it had gotten overly bitter without his permission. “Does trying work?”
Matt paused, plates of food balanced down one and a half of his arms. “You’re good at this psychology thing, ain’t ya?” Arthur shrugged and attempted a smile. Matt walk around the bar to pass out the food to a table of older men, then gripped Arthur’s shoulder briefly on the way back. “Honestly? Not really. But, hey – it can’t hurt, right?”
By the fourth day of rain, the golf course had turned to mush and mud. All but the most determined enthusiasts had given up on showing up to the country club, and the holes remained closed until the weather improved. Ivan had offered to let two of the three of them go home early to cut back on hours, and Arthur had volunteered to stay behind just to avoid going back to his empty apartment and pine for Alfred.
Because pining he was. He tried to keep himself busy, but far too often he found himself staring out the window over the course, or at his phone, or at the ceiling of his bedroom, sighing like a schoolgirl over a man he wasn’t even in a real relationship with. When he realized himself he’d invariably jerk to reality and mentally – sometimes physically, if there was no one around – slap himself before finding something distracting to do. It never seemed to last.
On that day, the few people at the clubhouse were drawn to the alcohol, giving him enough to handle to stay moving. He was busy with a circle of thirty-somethings – regulars of the bar, the kind of men who were there to make an impression and make connections – when he was in the middle of a ‘snap out of it’ stage and eavesdropping on their conversation.
“Y’know, I really think that Kirkland fellow – you know, that Scottish guy – has really lost a few steps,” one of them said to the others before knocking back the bourbon Arthur had just poured him. His friends were too busy agreeing to see Arthur jerk and splash rum on the carpet.
He cursed and knelt down to try and mop it up with a dishrag, listening to the conversation with fresh attention as he went on.
“I mean, he’s been hangin’ onto that past glory for way too long. It’s like, come on, get out of the game before you break a hip, Grandpa.” Arthur, who had learned to play golf with his great uncle hitting golf balls off of a cliff in northern Scotland, bristled as the group laughed. “He’s what, like, seventy now?”
“Sixty-three, actually,” Arthur said as he straightened from his crouch and leaned on the counter, wrists turned to hold onto the edge of it backwards so they couldn’t see his knuckles go white.
All five of them looked at their usually silently obliging bartender in surprise. “What?”
“Duncan Kirkland. That’s the old Scottish player you’re discussing, is it not?” He waited for the original commenter to nod slightly. “He’s sixty-three; nowhere near seventy,” he said calmly, staring down the man who had talked down about his favorite relative. In fact, Uncle Duncan was the only one he still talked to on a regular basis before the whole witness protection fiasco.
“You keep up with golf?” one of the others asked curiously. His tone was innocent enough, but Arthur could tell from their amused surprise that they had been pampered to believe that only the influential and affluent knew enough about golf to care. Arthur smiled at him sourly.
“Darling, I’m British,” he explained, shocking them twice over – once by remembering the man’s last name, and twice by disproving their suspicions that his accent was just a front. “I grew up on golf.”
A different man in the group sat forward, a gleeful smile in his eyes. “Really now?”
“Yes, really,” Arthur snapped, then reined himself in. No use losing your temper on the job.
Instead of being taken aback by his slight outburst, the third man (Jason, nice enough, probably the only one of the bucks who actually cared about the sport for the sake of the sport), grinned excitedly. “Do you play?”
“A little.” Arthur had spent every summer of his childhood with his uncle, either at tournaments or at their cliff side practice green, and had even briefly played on his university team before he got bored.
Jason clapped his hands together. “Excellent.”
That was how Arthur found himself wading through murky sandpits and half-dead grass the next day in rented cleats and remembering why he liked his summers with Uncle Duncan so much as a tortured soul of a teenager.
All five of yesterday’s group turned out for the small competition, joking with each other and Arthur easily as they got their white and argyle filthy with masculine pleasure. A few of them had taken a while to get past the fact that they were playing golf with their bartender, but after he got a birdie on the first hole and an eagle on the second, they shut up fast.
Arthur was grinning insatiably by the seventh hole. He had forgotten how much fun it was to beat someone soundly at something you were good at. Jason, although an easygoing guy and a good sport, was growing more subdued with each hole, no longer bursting with his usual overconfidence.
After the ninth hole, Arthur spun his putter around his hands, having kept his two under par average with only a little stumbling as he got back into the feel of things. “Give up yet, love?” he asked the stony-faced Jason. “I’ll go on if you’d like, but I think we’ve gotten the gist of this game.”
Jason scowled at the ground and kicked at a dirt clod, then sighed in defeat and smiled sheepishly at Arthur. “Fine, fine. You win.” They shook hands on it to the applause and taunts of their peanut gallery. Jason winked at him. “Just don’t let it get to your head, bartender. There’s always someone better’n you.”
Arthur smiled. “I’ll keep that in mind.”
A week after Alfred’s disappearing act, Arthur was woken up in the middle of the night by loud banging at his front door.
He groaned, rolling over to check the time – just after three in the morning – and sat up, pushing away from his warm bed and blundering his way to the door with his eyes mainly closed. He was too bleary and weary with sleep to think about what kind of devil’s concoction could be on the other side.
He fumbled the chain on the door and threw the deadbolt as the banging grew in intensity. “Shut your gob, I’m right here,” he called through the door. Finally he got the chain off and the deadbolt drawn, cracking the door and peering though. “What in the bloody hell do you want?” he growled, glaring without much effect with barely cracked eyes.
The door was shoved open out of his hands and he was shoved back against the wall by the door. He gasped as his eyes finally really opened to lock with Alfred’s, heavy and intense and very blue. “Alfred, wha-” he began, only to get cut off by a mouth furiously engulfing his, strong arms pulling him in and holding him close. He responded just as viciously, teeth clacking together as his hands wove into Al’s hair, anchoring their faces to each other as they desperately tried to reconnect.
When had a week become such a long time apart?
Arthur broke to breathe first, gasping as he clung to Alfred, who kissed down his face toward his neck, whispering against his skin. It took Arthur several moments of gasping before he could focus enough to make out his words; a rotation between ‘want you’, ‘missed you’, and ‘love you’.
He writhed in Alfred’s grasp, pushing him away and stumbling back against the wall, staring at Alfred in horror. Al was panting slightly, gaze still intense and searing, and Arthur couldn’t look away. Slowly, Alfred seemed to realize what he had said exactly, and his eyes widened behind his glasses before he turned away, pulling at his hair.
“Shit,” he swore, drawing out the vowel as he started to pace, cursing himself out in a furious, fast-paced mutter. Arthur stared at him, shocked. It wasn’t so much shock at Alfred – although he certainly hadn’t been expecting this to happen tonight – but more about himself and his rapidly fluttering heartbeat.
He pushed off the wall and intercepted Alfred’s pacing, although he continued muttering. “I’m such an idiot, Arthur, I’m sorry, this never happens to me, I don’t do real sap-and-flowers kinda love, I’ll- I’ll drop your case or something, I’m sorry-”
Arthur reached up and cupped Al’s face in his hands, shutting his jabbering mouth with his thumbs. “Stop talking, Alfred.” Al breathed heavily through his nose a few times, staring at Arthur from only a few inches away, glasses tilted and hair mussed. Arthur sighed and let himself fall out of those eyes to rest his forehead on Alfred’s collar. “You’re torture to me sometimes, love,” he said quietly, holding onto him tightly to keep him there and quiet. “You look at me with those big blue eyes, and all I want to do is hold you forever.” His hands slid around to tease the hair at the nape of Alfred’s neck as he talked into his shirt, which he had begun to notice was covered in dust and mud and desperately needed to be washed. Al’s arms came up to hold him tentatively, loose around his waist but still very there. “And- and I keep telling myself that I can’t do that, but you know what? I’ve started to forget why we can’t.” He sighed and let his eyes slip closed. “Oh, Alfred.”
The throat against his temple gulped. “Yeah?”
Arthur smiled softly. “Alfred-” his fingers dug into Al’s neck – “I think I’ve loved you for a while, my darling.”
Under him, Alfred’s chest rumbled with shaky laughter. “Really? Me too!” Arthur finally looked up at his face to find the brightest grin he’d ever seen beaming at him. He smiled giddily in return, only laughing as Alfred spun him around his living room, too happy to pretend he didn’t like it. Somehow, the spinning turned back into kissing, and they toppled onto the couch, Arthur on top of Alfred, hands searching for any skin they could find.
That night, they stopped holding back.
The next day, Alfred held true to his promise and traded Arthur’s case with a coworker.
They talked about it first, curled together in Arthur’s bed that could finally fit two grown men at once. Al explained that he wasn’t getting rid of him, or, God forbid, rejecting him so soon. He just felt that with such an intense personal interest in him, he was in danger of becoming biased and not doing his job properly. He had been considering doing this for a while, he admitted, face against Arthur’s scalp. He knew a guy who had an assignment he was looking to get rid of, and their boss didn’t really care as long as the job was done and the paperwork was filled out on time. When they finally crawled out of bed just after noon, Al called his coworker up and offered to pay for lunch, dragging Arthur along to meet him before they decided if the paper shuffling would be worth it. Arthur insisted that Alfred go home and change first, since he had come to Arthur’s in the same clothes he had been on the manhunt in. (Apparently it had been unsuccessful, slogging through the southern Alabama swamps and sticky pine forests without a whiff of their target, which had made Alfred frustrated and unable to wait until morning to see Arthur again.)
They met him at an Applebee’s, ten minutes late and rushed. The other Marshal, a small Middle Eastern man with very short hair and a manner that reminded Arthur uncannily of the Shannon police chief, was waiting for them at a booth, stirring his water with his straw and vastly unimpressed.
Al snorted. “No shit, Sherlock.” He let Arthur slide into the booth first, then sat down beside him and continued, “Be glad I am, G. I smelled like a horse rolled in shit half n’hour ago. By the way, Arthur, Gupta Hassan.”
Marshal Hassan nodded a greeting at Arthur while simultaneously frowning at Alfred’s simile. “Thank you, Alfred. I really needed to hear that at the table.”
Once again, Arthur realized with a flash that he was going to like this man.
With that taken care of (Al got the short end of the stick, really – now he had a Chinese mafia informant with a sprawling family to tend to), they split from Marshal Hassan and drove around idly, talking. They ended up at an old playground near Alfred’s house, sitting on a bench under a willow tree and watching the group of local children play. Al almost got up and joined them when he recognized two of them as his next-door neighbors, but Arthur held him down with a hand on his sleeve.
“Not so fast,” he said with a smirk, and Al sighed with a dramatic eyeroll before flopping back down next to Arthur, arms sprawled along the back of the bench. Arthur had to fight himself to keep from leaning into his shoulder. “We need to talk.”
Al laughed. “Feels like all we’ve done today is talk.” He smiled at Arthur’s sharp look. “But go right on ahead.”
“What are we now, Alfred?”
“Human beings, last time I checked. Homo sapiens, Family Hominidae, Order-” Arthur slapped him hard on the back of the head even as he hid a grin. Alfred cried out and slapped him back, more playful than Arthur’s had been, then laughed again. “I dunno, I guess. It’d feel weird callin’ you my boyfriend, really, and partner is too… workish.”
Arthur snorted. “No, we don’t need for me to remind you of work.” Alfred chuckled. “You know, honestly, Al, I don’t care what we call each other, as long as it’s only us.”
“Well, duh.” Al pushed at his shoulder lightly with the arm not draped behind Arthur’s back. He chewed his lip for a moment. “Wanna know a secret?”
Arthur fluttered his eyelashes at him. “Oh, please, do tell.”
“Shut up.” Al stuck his tongue out at him, then continued, looking at the ground, “You’re the only person I’ve slept with in over a year.” A brief pause, filled by the background shrieks and laughter of children. “That’s measured since we first had sex, by the way.”
Arthur furrowed his eyebrows in confusion. He knew that Al didn’t have many close friends or relationships, but Arthur had always had it in the back of his head that someone as burningly attractive as Alfred would at least have a few drunken one night stands under his belt, if not more than that.
Or maybe that was just his own perception of Alfred getting in the way of his judgment. He had fallen for him ages ago, after all.
He sat back and joined Al in staring at the ground. “If it makes you feel any better, my sex life was equally bland,” he said quietly.
Before Alfred could respond, the brother and sister that he had recognized earlier ran up to him, the older girl pulling on his arm while the younger boy tried to climb into his lap. “Mr. Al, Mr. Al!” they chanted, tugging on him and causing him to laugh and sit up straight, drawing his arm from behind Arthur to help the boy up.
“Hey, guys!” he said, grinning widely and ruffling their hair in unison. They giggled, and Al put the boy back down next to his sister so he could lean forward on his knees to look at them from their eye levels. “So, what can I do for ya?”
The sister, who looked to be about six, pulled and pushed him to his feet, helped minutely by her just-beyond-toddler brother. “You gotta push us!” she ordered, leading him to the nearby swingset.
He chuckled and let himself be pushed a few feet before digging in his heels stubbornly. She pushed his legs, then came around front to pull his hands. “Come ooon,” she whined, using all her kindergarten force. “You push us way better’n Mommy, and she’s talkin’ anyway,” she reasoned. Her brother hovered, thumb in his mouth and big brown eyes pleading.
Al laughed, clear and bright. “Fine, fine, you win, Abby,” he relented, and they cheered. Al winked at Arthur over his shoulder. “But only if my friend Arthur helps me.”
The siblings seemed to see Arthur for the first time. He was still sitting on the bench, fighting with himself over being completely taken with Alfred playing with small children or being frightened out of his wits at having to interact with them personally. He had always been utter shit with little kids.
Apparently, no one bothered to tell the kids that, because they swarmed him with no warning, pulling him up like they had with Al while the bastard just laughed at him and followed them to the swing set.
Alfred helped the boy, who he introduced to Arthur as Todd, into one of the kiddie swings before standing behind Abby on the regular one, leaving Arthur with the perplexing dilemma of a small human being.
“I’m going to kill you for this, Alfred,” he said quietly to Alfred as he started pushing Todd tentatively. Al just snorted and rolled his eyes.
“Yeah, sure you will.”
“Mr. Arthur, are you a wizard?” Abby asked as she breezed past his shoulder.
Arthur blinked in confusion, both at being called ‘Mr. Arthur’ and the question. “I beg your pardon?”
“You talk funny like they do in Harry Potter. Do you have a wand, too? Why don’t you have a cool scar? Do you know Voldymort? I bet he’s scary. He looks really weird. Can you fly on a broomstick? Hey, Mr. Al, why’d you stop pushing me?”
Arthur was frozen in bewilderment that anyone, much less a six-year-old girl, could talk so fast, staring blankly at her as she continued chattering away. Alfred was busy falling over laughing, clutching his stomach and wheezing. Arthur was jolted out of his daze by Todd squirming in his seat for attention and quickly started pushing him again as he tried to explain about countries, accents and fiction to a hyperactive small child.
Alfred couldn’t stop laughing until their mother came over to collect her children and meet her next-door neighbor’s new friend.