Sergio Sebastiani looked up at the nice, pretty house in front of him, then back down at the slip of paper in his hand to make sure that he had gotten the address right. This couldn’t be the drop point for the antique sword he had relieved the Newark evidence locker of. It had a bright yellow door, a white fence, and African violets blooming in the windows.
Flowers. In a mafia safehouse.
He frowned, but shrugged and adjusted the duffel bag’s strap on his shoulder before walking to the front door and ringing the doorbell.
“Coming!” a woman’s voice called through the wood faintly. Sergio almost turned and left, dead certain he was at the wrong place now, but the door opened to show a pretty woman with long, dishwater brown hair and a bright smile. “May I help you?” she asked.
Sergio cleared his throat. “Yes, ma’am, I’m – I’m-a here with the olive-a oil shipment?” he said the memorized code phrase rolling off his tongue.
Her eyes lit up, and she stepped back and help open the door. “Come in, come in! Extra virgin’s always welcome here,” she responded with a wink. Sergio’s face burned as he ducked into the door. Somehow, the return code phrase had sounded distinctly less sexual when a fat old Italian man in a black jumpsuit taught it to him.
The woman led him through a typical upper middle class house to the kitchen before addressing him, still smiling but now with a slight professional manner. “Now, honey. What do you have for me?” she asked as she poured out a cup of coffee for him. “Cream or sugar?”
“Uh, no-a, thank you,” he stuttered, and she smiled kindly as she handed it to him. Sergio sat the duffel down in a chair and took it with a weak smile. He sipped at it, barely tasting how well made it was, before setting the cup down on the table and unzipping the duffel bag.
He lifted the sword out carefully, almost cradling it in his hands as he presented it towards her, grip forward. Her eyes lit up again and she pulled it from its sheath, swinging it through the air just enough to show she knew what she was doing before resting the flat of it against her palm, inspecting the blade carefully and flipping it to check the other side. Sergio was only able to hide his shocked expression through long years of practice as she reached for the sheath in his hands and slid the sword home.
“Thank you for bringing this back to us, honey,” she said, holding his upper arms to reach up and kiss his cheeks before turning away to fiddle with one of the drawers under the counter, blocking her actions with her body, humming lightly and tapping the sheathed sword against her leg.
Sergio gulped his coffee like his life depended on it.
She snapped the drawer closed and spun back around, trading his mostly-empty coffee cup for a small white envelope. Long habit made him check to see if all of his money was there; only after he counted it all did he realize this might be bad form in front of the lady. She just laughed at his cornered expression.
“Oh, it’s okay, dear. It’s all there, though, never fear,” she assured him, handing him the duffel bag. He shouldered it again as she opened the back door to a minuscule walled garden. “There’s a trellis in the back left you can use as a ladder,” she said, pointing to a climbing vine – bare of leaves this time of February, so he could see the white-painted wood beneath it. “Just take the alley to the left and you’ll be back on the street.” He nodded and wove through the dormant rose bushes and day lilies towards the corner.
“Oh, and Sergio?” she called from the door when he was halfway up the surprisingly sturdy trellis.
He looked back over his shoulder at her. “Yes-a, ma’am?”
She smiled and waved with the sword’s sheath, the actual sword in her other hand. “Welcome to the family!”
“Is it weird that I like this arrangement more?” Arthur asked Alfred a few weeks into their new relationship, Alfred’s head on his chest as they curled together on the couch and watched an old black and white movie on television. Alfred’s laugh rumbled down to his toes.
“Well, I dunno,” he answered, shifting between Arthur’s bent legs and trying not to crush the slightly smaller man beneath him. “I kinda like not havin’ your fat ass squeezin’ the air from my lungs, m’self.” Arthur shoved at his forehead and rolled his eyes while Al laughed.
“That’s not what I meant and you know it.” They settled back to watching the movie for a moment. “It’s been really nice, not having to dance around each other.”
Alfred hummed, tucking his head under Arthur’s chin. “This is true. Gupta’s a good agent – I wouldn’t have given you to’m if I didn’t think so, sugar – and now, well…” He pushed himself up to his elbows, leaning over Arthur and grinning. “Now I can kiss you whenever I want.” Arthur’s slow smile was covered by Al’s mouth, and he wound his arms around Al’s neck and pulled him close.
Marshal Hassan did things a little differently than Alfred.
Unlike Al, he was a seasoned veteran in the witness protection program, and handled Arthur with no more personal involvement than any other law enforcement officer in a case. He wasn’t exactly distant with Arthur, but after the intense attention from Alfred, Gupta’s biweekly home visits and weekly phone calls made it so he could almost pretend that he had a normal life, and that New York, the assassin, and his old life really had never existed.
Of course, Arthur’s life being Arthur’s, it couldn’t go too long before things went to shit.
Towards the end of April, Marshal Hassan reminded Alfred of Arthur’s upcoming birthday, and he insisted on having at least some kind of celebration for him. Arthur hadn’t had a real birthday party in at least fifteen years, and insisted that he would be perfectly fine just spending it at home with Alfred.
In the end, they compromised and went out to eat dinner somewhere that wasn’t the Sugar Maple with Susan, Matt, and Katyusha. They drove downtown to a little Indian place, where Arthur got to satisfy his lingering craving for curry while Matthew balked at the idea of anything spicy. His mother had hot sauce on her rice just to make him feel inadequate, and his wife compared him to her cancer patients.
Arthur was still laughing when he excused himself from the table and stepped outside into the slightly muggy open air to take his weekly phone call from Marshal Hassan.
“Hello, Marshal,” he said when he finally answered the call. “How may I help you?”
“You got your subpoena today.”
Arthur’s good mood shattered like it had fallen out of a ten-story window. “I’m terribly sorry, but what?”
“Your ten day warning for your court appearance came in today,” he elaborated. “Pack your things, quit your job, end your lease, the whole nine yards. It’s time to go back to New York and testify.”
Arthur fell back against the brick wall of the restaurant. “Just like that?”
“Just like that.”
Arthur inhaled deeply, held it, then let it out slowly. “Does Alfred know?”
“Not yet,” Marshall Hassan answered. “I put a memo in his box, but he had already left for the day by the time we got it.” He sighed into the microphone on the other end. “I gave him the paperwork for requesting to come with us as well. I wouldn’t be surprised if he joined your trial bodyguard, too.” A brief pause. “I really am sorry for springing this on you so suddenly, but you’re getting about as much warning as we are.”
“Ye-” Arthur’s voice cracked, and he cleared his throat before continuing, “Yes, I understand. Thank you.”
“Good luck, Arthur. I’ll let you know when I know more.”
They hung up, and Arthur stayed outside and stared in shock at the ground for several long moments until his palms got sweaty. He stuffed his phone in his pocket and pasted on a smile before going back to his birthday party.
He’d tell them later. Right now, he was going to try and forget about the looming deadline and have one more night of the best phase of his life so far.
The first thing Arthur had to do the next day was inform Ivan of his resignation.
He found him flirting unsuccessfully with his secretary the next day before his shift and asked for a private word. He accepted the secretary’s nonverbal gratitude and relief with a small nod before closing the door behind him and sitting in the chair in front of Ivan’s desk.
“I’m moving back to England.”
Ivan blinked, obviously not expecting Arthur’s blurted out statement. “What?”
“My visa’s almost expired, and I feel like I’ve overstayed my welcome in the States,” he lied, twisting his watch around his wrist. “I’m leaving next week.”
There was silence from Ivan’s end for a moment. “Is this about Alfred? Because if it is, I will gladly have a nice man-to-man chat with him-”
“No, God, no! It’s definitely not Alfred,” he cut him off quickly before the implications of Ivan’s statement suck in. “Wait, how do you know about me and – I mean, Alfred and me?” Good Lord, the boy was rubbing off on him. Next thing he knew he’d be wearing garish belt buckles and addressing everyone as ‘y’all’.
Ivan smiled. “Arthur, trust me, anyone who has eyes and has seen you two in the same room for five seconds knows.” Arthur’s face burned and he looked away again, crossing his arms over his chest. “Honestly, though, I had assumed you would have at least attempted to fully immigrate to here by now,” Ivan continued. “What happened?”
Arthur chewed the inside of his cheek. “I told you, my visa expired. That’s all.”
Ivan tutted, and Arthur scowled ferociously at the condensation in his tone. “Come now, let’s not keep secrets,” he said, smiling over his interlaced fingers. “You wouldn’t want me to remember Raivis’s old contract, would you?”
Arthur frowned at him while Ivan just kept smiling. “You’re a bastard, aren’t you.”
“It’s something I choose to take pride in,” Ivan replied easily, not offended in the slightest. “Now. Truth.”
Arthur fought with himself, then sighed in defeat. “I guess since it’s so close, it doesn’t really matter anymore,” he said quietly. He gave Ivan his most piercing glare. “But when I say you can’t tell anyone, I mean you can’t tell anyone, got it?”
“Now you just have me intrigued,” Ivan said, sitting forward. “I promise not to tell it, whatever ‘it’ is. Now tell me so I can stop calling it ‘it’.”
Arthur sighed. “My name isn’t Arthur Kensington, it’s Arthur Kirkland. I’ve never been married, and I technically already have my green card, if you must know,” he said slowly, staring at the carpet under his feet. He realized that he had never actually told anyone down here his real identity – everyone who knew found out from different sources. It was easier than he had thought. “I came down here under witness protection after I saw an Italian mob murder in New Jersey, and now I’m being summoned back to testify. Alfred was the Marshal in charge of my case until… Well. Until recently.”
The silence this time was long and oppressive, almost palpable, and Arthur tried to look anywhere but the heavily scrutinizing gaze of his now former boss.
“Well. This certainly changes things.” Arthur’s head snapped up as Ivan rolled back to the filing cabinet behind him, pulling out the middle drawer to get Arthur’s paperwork. “Can’t very well get in the way of the federal government, now, can I?”
Arthur smiled and laughed slightly in relief. “Thank you, Ivan. You know, you’re actually the only person I’ve told this to,” he admitted as he accepted the form handed to him by Ivan, sliding forward on his seat to take a pen from the cup on his desk and write on the edge of it.
“Just fill that out and sign it and you’ll be done,” Ivan said in regards to the form. “So who else knows about your situation besides Alfred?”
Arthur explained as he filled it out. “Well, Al’s friend, wife, and mum know. I pretended to be their relative, so they had to. And the police department at Shannon. I guess that’s really it, besides the Marshals.” He signed his name, almost writing ‘Kirkland’ despite not having used it for over six months, and wrote the date before handing it back to Ivan and standing up. “Well, Ivan, it’s been a pleasure knowing you. I’d like to say I’d keep in touch, but-”
“I understand.” Ivan smiled, and Arthur’s fight-or-flight instincts flared up in his head. “But, please, before you go, can I ask one thing?”
Arthur stopped with his hand on the doorknob. “It depends.”
Ivan rested his temple on the back of his hand, smiling as he said, “Oh, it won’t take too long, and then I’ll be out of your hair forever. I just want to know about the murder you witnessed.”
Arthur sighed, shoulders falling, but stepped away from the door and sat back down.
“It was late one night back in November and I was walking home from the bus stop across the park by my apartment…”
Over the next week, Arthur spent most of his now free time saying goodbye to everyone and packing between briefings from Al and Gupta on how to be a protected witness at a hearing. He was slightly surprised at how many people he had made such strong acquaintances with, from the staff and regulars at the golf course and the diner to the locals of Shannon to the people in his apartment complex.
The girl next door to Alfred made him read at least one chapter of a Harry Potter book for her and her brother so that ‘a wizard could read her a wizard book’, and they both latched onto his legs when he tried to leave. The high school waitress at the diner struggled not to cry, and Alejandro clapped him hard on the back. When Jake found out he was leaving, he almost tackled Arthur to the floor of the diner, bawling and smelling like beer. It took Matt and Al to pull him off after they stopped laughing long enough to stand on their own. Kiku, the Japanese banker who had been Arthur’s first friend, was the only normal person he gave his real email address to, not one affiliated with Kensington and the Marshals. It was an old account leftover from his college days that he still checked from time to time; it had been made based on his first name, so it was less suspicious than the ‘akirkland’ username he had been defaulting to since then. The other bartenders wished him luck, and Jason, who had adopted Arthur as his favorite bartender after the golf game, made him make one last Mudslide for him (even though he wasn’t in uniform or even on the payroll anymore) when he stopped by the golf course to say goodbye.
And then, of course, there were the Williamses.
All three of them tagged along when Matt drove Al and Arthur to the airport, the two women sitting on either side of Arthur in the backseat and fussing over him relentlessly. The waterworks didn’t break out until the luggage was on the curb.
Katyusha was, predictably, the first to crack, wailing and smothering Arthur and Alfred against her considerable cleavage for several clinging seconds, during which Arthur had never been sadder that he was gay. She sniffed, long and hard, and pulled away slowly, wiping her nose on the handkerchief she always kept in her purse with shaky hands. “Budite oberezhbi, molodiy cholovik,” she said, then shuffled into the passenger’s seat of Matt’s car before anyone could respond.
“Does anyone know what she just said?” Arthur asked, puzzled.
“Not a clue,” Matt responded. “Take care up there, Arthur,” he said, as awkward as the day they met as they shook hands.
“Darlin’, I’m gonna miss you so much!” Susan cried, almost picking Arthur off the ground with the force of her bear hug. “Now don’t go doing anything I wouldn’t do, y’hear?”
Arthur laughed, his tone getting a little watery. “That’s not ruling out much, then, is it?” He returned the hug for the first time, resting his forehead on her shoulder. “But I’ll do my best.”
“Mmm, you better.” She let him go as Matt and Al finished their manly farewell, then handed Arthur his suitcase and pushed him in the direction of the revolving doors. “Now go. Don’t want you to miss your flight, now, do we?” She lifted her glasses to wipe at her eyes, and Arthur smiled.
“Thanks for everything – all of you,” he said, trying to include Katyusha in the equation as well, even though she was purposefully turned away with the window rolled up. “Well. Goodbye, then.” He walked briskly through the revolving doors and didn’t look back until Alfred joined him, squeezing his shoulder. When he did, they were gone.
“What the flying fuck on a stick do you want?”
Roderich Edelstein jerked his head away from his phone instinctively at the shouted German in his ear, then frowned and brought it back. “This is the fourth time I’ve had to call you in a row to get your attention, Gilbert,” he snapped, leaning forward in his expensive leather office chair and glaring at nothing. “I am not willing to accept this from anyone, least of all you.”
“Yeah, well, I’m kind of busy fucking your wife right now,” Gilbert grunted. In the background, the distinct moans of a woman in the middle of sex rattled in Roderich’s ear. “So get to the point or come home and join us. We just got started.”
Roderich sighed, closing his eyes and massaging his forehead with his free hand. “I don’t have time for this,” he muttered. “Antonio’s trial is starting tomorrow, and the eyewitness is going to appear on the third day of court. That’s your window.”
“Yeah, yeah, I got it. Sheesh, you called me four times for that? You really need to get a girl.” He hung up on Roderich’s furious screaming that he had a girl and if he stopped thinking with his dick that he could have a normal relationship as well.
He threw the phone into its cradle and immediately reached for the brandy and aspirin he kept under his desk, considering the two before giving up all pretense and medical advice and washing down two of the pills with a shot of the brandy.
The flight from Birmingham to Newark was nonstop and painless, Al and Arthur using the close proximity of plane seats as an excuse to maintain contact and reassure themselves of the other’s continued existence. Marshal Hassan, sitting in the aisle seat next to Alfred, studiously read a large book on archaeology and ignored them. The closer they got to their destination, the more nervous Arthur became, fidgeting unstoppably and clutching Al’s arm at the slightest threat of turbulence. Al did his best to keep him calm, but the crossword puzzle in the back of the in-flight magazine only lasted so long.
They landed after sunset, and Arthur didn’t even try to hide how he clutched at Alfred’s hand as a group of very experienced Marshals herded them into a waiting car and a deceptively decrepit-looking motel on the outskirts of town. Al was given a different room than Arthur, who was sharing a two-bed deal with Marshal Hassan. However, not too soon after settling in, Alfred relieved him for a thirty-minute break and sat down with Arthur, pulling him back into his arms, leaning against the headboard and bending his knees up at Arthur’s side. He rested his chin on Arthur’s shoulder.
“Oh, God, Alfred, I have no idea what I’m going to do tomorrow,” Arthur blurted out, resting back against Alfred’s chest while staying tense as a bowstring. “I mean, I know what should happen since you’ve made me practice so much, but there’s so much gray area, so many ‘if’s, so much that could just go to hell-”
“Shhh.” Alfred kissed his neck softly. “It’s okay to be scared, sugar. It’s scary, I know, believe me. But you’ll make it through tomorrow, and you’ll live to see ‘nother day,” he assured him, speaking into the skin of his throat. “No one’s died in WITSEC before, and I’m not gonna let you be the first.” He smiled and flicked two fingers out from his forehead before returning his arm back around Arthur’s waist. “Scout’s honor.”
Arthur twisted in his grip, looping his arms around Al’s neck and folding his legs beneath him. “Just- hold me for a bit, please?” he mumbled into his shoulder. Al smiled softly and pulled him closer.
“You got it, sugar.”