Chapter 10

Gilbert Beilschmidt shifted uncomfortably as he lay stretched out on the third floor of an empty building across the street from the Newark courthouse. "I'm bored," he said out loud, peering through his sniper rifle's scope at the people milling around in front of the building. "Can't they just get here already so I can stop thinking about this?"

"Shut up," an angry voice said into his ear in Italian. "I know you're only bitching because I don't have a fucking choice but to listen to you, but on the motherfucking Madonna, shut the fuck up!"

Gilbert grinned, moving his scope to the side to see Lovino Vargas lurking in the shadows of one of the giant columns on the courthouse's front porch. He scowled at nothing, eyes flicking between everyone around him suspiciously. No one who wasn't deeply trusted by the underboss knew the faces or even the real names of the Vargas twins, but that didn't stop Lovino's natural paranoia. "Come on, now, you know you love it," he teased, watching Lovino's scowl get scowlier with glee.

"Just do the job so we can get the stupid bastard out of this fucking place," he growled. Gilbert chuckled lightly.

"You got it, boss." He moved his scope back to the street front drop off of the courthouse and settled back to wait.

Lovino Vargas didn't like this part of the job.

Bossing people around, organizing a brilliant scam or shakedown, abusing authority; now, that was fun. He could live on a job of just that – and, most of the time, he did.

Killing an innocent person, though, who had just been in the wrong place at the wrong time? That made him feel like the dirty, filthy scumbag the world believed him to be.

But, Antonio's life and freedom depended on this hit. He had to see this through, for fucking love.

"Stand sharp, Lovi," his sniper said in his earpiece, and he whipped his attention back to the street in front of the courthouse to see an unmarked car with fully tinted windows pull up.

"Show me why I keep you around, asshole," he grumbled low in his throat for only the mic stuck there to hear, glancing up at the open window he knew Gilbert was behind. He pressed slightly against the column he was using as a partial hiding place and watched as the back car door opened, two suits in sunglasses first, standing guard as a smaller man with the traditional canvas sack over his head ducked out, closely followed by two more suits in sunglasses.

Lovino stared at the witness, the one man on earth who held the key to Antonio's fate. He was shorter than he expected.

He shouldn't have come to see this. He shouldn't stay. He shouldn't watch.

The circle of men around the witness got to the stairs, heads darting around for any sign of trouble. Lovino gripped the iron railing in front of him hard enough for the designs etched into it to leave white marks on his palms.

They got up the stairs. Lovino was about to ask Gilbert what the hell he was doing up there when one of the rear guards saw the open window just as it flashed and the shot rang out.

Chaos – the people milling, a few women screaming, officers and agents swarming. Lovino watched the hive of activity intensely, waiting for an opening to clear up.

A split second break in the wall of people. Lovino clutched a hand to his mouth as the image of the witness, very much alive, mask torn off and crying openly as he knelt next to the suit who had seen Gilbert's angle and was now sprawled across the granite, sunglasses gone and breathing shallow.

Someone stepped in front of the opening, but a few heart-stopping seconds later, the other three Marshals in the personal guard managed to get everyone pushed back, giving Lovino a longer look.

The witness's mouth was moving furiously, shouting at the agent as his hands ran down his face and chest, searching for the injury with more desperation than method. Lovino couldn't hear anything they said from this far away with all the commotion, but it didn't take words to understand the weak smile and hand on the witness's wet cheek.


"Boss, you gotta speak up if you want me to hear you," Gilbert snapped. He didn't like disturbances on the job, especially one he didn't really want to complete anyway.

"No," he said louder, watching the paramedics take over as the witness was dragged away, struggling a little to get back to the agent's side.

"No what?"

"No, don't shoot," he muttered. "The job's off. I can't do it. I'll – we'll find another way. We're gonna leave this witness alone."

"Well that's a relief," Gilbert sighed. "I had a bad feeling about this whole thing, anyway."

They watched as the police and the feds got the remnants of the crowd under control and the paramedics stripped back the agent's coat and vest to reveal a bulletproof vest. Even though both Lovino and Gilbert had been the causes of many deaths, they were both slightly relieved at the sight.

"I'm going inside," Lovino said quietly, heading into the courthouse.

"I'll see you tonight, then," Gilbert responded. Lovino glanced back at the agent, who had sat up with the aid of two paramedics and was smiling at one of them. His reassurances that he was fine, just a little shaken up, reached Lovino now that most people had gone inside to watch the trial.

"Yeah. See you then."

If Lovino was completely honest with himself, he knew that this case was so cut and dry it was flaking at the edges. A blind person could see that Antonio had killed that goddamned snitch, and he knew personally how piss poor of a liar he was. It was one of the many things he loved him for, but in this case it was just infuriating.

Roderich did his job beautifully, of course. It was why he had his salary. In the end, though, even with the murder weapon mysteriously missing, the addition of the eyewitness – British, blond, surly and stubborn; Lovino didn't like how similar he was to himself – the jury had no trouble ruling him guilty.

When they all stood up to leave, Antonio looked out into the audience and found Lovino almost instantly, smiling brightly and trying to wave even as the bailiffs cuffed him to transport him back to prison. Lovino almost slapped his hand to his forehead, but instead gave him his best attempt at a smile, which just made Antonio beam wider before he was gone.

After the trial and subsequent conviction, Arthur strongarmed his burly Marshal guards into letting him visit Alfred in the hospital. Surprised more than intimidated at his insistence and desperation, they relented, taking as many back roads and misleading turns as possible to the emergency room that Alfred had been taken to.

Along the way, they informed him that the vest had done its intended job and stopped the killing force of the shot. However, whomever had tried to kill Arthur knew what he was doing, since the bullet still managed to break a few ribs. His right side would be a mess, and it would hurt to cough or laugh for a few months, but otherwise he was fine.

By the time Arthur got to Alfred, though, the staff had put him under anesthesia until the worst of the pain passed. He held his hand tightly anyway as two of the Marshals left, leaving only Marshal Hassan behind.

"What do I do now?" Arthur asked him, weaving his fingers into the unresponsive Alfred's.

"We'll keep you close for a few days, just in case the Vargas's try anything in revenge," he responded, leaning against the window frame on the other side of Alfred's bed. "Then you're free to go back to your old life." Arthur laughed bitterly, then pressed his free hand over his mouth to stop it before it got hysterical. The Marshal smiled, equally as bitter. "Yeah, we get that a lot."

Arthur snorted and stared at Al's sleeping face. "Is there any way to just… stay where I was?"

Marshal Hassan shrugged. "It's your call. After this week, you're back to being your real self again." Arthur nodded in understand, stroking his thumb over the back of Alfred's hand.

"Whatever my real self is anymore, right?"

The Marshal smiled grimly. "I'll wait outside, whenever you're ready to go," he said, pushing off of the wall and leaving the room, closing the door behind him.

When Al woke up about an hour later, Arthur was still there, holding onto his sweaty hand. They smiled at each other for a moment.


"Hey yourself."

A brief pause, then Arthur threw himself forward and clutched Alfred's neck, burying his face in his shoulder, "You are such an idiot, Al, I can't believe you did that, you had me worried bloody sick-"

Alfred started laughing, winced and pushed Arthur away from his broken ribcage. "Arthur, sugar, what makes ya think I wouldn't take a bullet for ya?" he asked simply, smiling at Arthur. He stared at Al numbly before pulling his face roughly to him and attempting to kiss him senseless.

"You-" he said against his mouth when they broke for air- "are the most perfect man-" another long, hungry kiss- "I have ever known."

Al laughed again and winced harder, hand instantly going to his impacted side. "Aw, now, don't say that," he said quietly, trying not to breathe too deeply as Arthur kissed his face and neck. "I was jus' doin' my job."

"Bullshit." Arthur climbed onto the bed to kneel at Alfred's side, pulling the sheets down and his hospital gown up to show him the spreading purple-yellow bruise at his side. "Does this look like 'jus' doin' your job'?"

Al did a breezy half-laugh to avoid sparking up the pain in his ribs. "Your Southern accent is shit, man."

"Shut up and look," Arthur snapped, poking the bruise gently – but not gently enough. Al cried out and moved away from Arthur instinctively, which effectively sobered him up. Al grumbled, face pink under his perpetual tan, and fumbled for the remote for his bed, sitting it up so he could look at his side without breaking his ribs further. When he finally could see it, he whistled.

"Well damn. Glad that was me and not you," he said with a grin. Arthur scowled, then his face softened as he carded his hands through Alfred's sweaty hair. Alfred closed his eyes and sighed at the feeling.

"Thank you, by the way," Arthur said softly.

Al cracked an eyelid, then closed it again. "S'not a problem, really," he mumbled. "I'd do it again, y'know."

"Yes. I know." They fell quiet for a few minutes, Arthur petting Alfred and Alfred resting after the exertion of the conversation, until a nurse poked her head in to check on Al. Arthur scrambled off the bed and cleared his throat nervously as she frowned at him and said that visiting hours were long over.

"I'll come back tomorrow, all right?" Arthur said from the door. "We'll talk about the future then."

Al smiled as the nurse fussed over him, setting his bedding straight and checking his IV. "See ya then, sugar."

Arthur stayed in New York City.

It was only going to be for a little while, he assured Alfred as they sat in one of the sitting rooms in the hospital. He hadn't really had a chance to close up his old life, and there were a few people that deserved a proper goodbye before he vanished again into the American South. Alfred reluctantly saw the reason in it and went to Birmingham upon being discharged from the hospital with only minor complaints, and they went back to daily phone conversations as their only contact.

Vash Zwigli sat down across from a dark-haired man in a tightly pressed suit in an upper Manhattan coffeeshop, eyes flickering back and forth around the establishment. "Are you sure this is safe?" he asked the other in a low voice, fingers clutching the butt of the gun that he wore even as a civilian like a security blanket.

"Don't you worry, old friend," the other said, sitting back with his tiny espresso cup. "The owner is a good friend of mine."

Vash didn't loosen up, but he gave in. "I know a way to break your hitman out of jail."

The dark man's eyebrows rose over his wire-rimmed glasses. "Really."

"Yes. I know a few guys in his prison's guards who have a bone to pick with their superiors, and, well – you've met Antonio. They don't feel right keeping him in a cell. It's like kicking a puppy who's still always happy to see you." The dark man smiled faintly.

"And what about you?"

Vash glared at him, always small pupils barely pinpoints after the harsh June sun of the outdoors. "I want you to forget all about my sister and me. You know I never wanted in this… business in the first place. I do this for you, you do this for me." He sat back and crossed over his chest. "Tit for tat, and all that."

The dark man stared into his cup for several long seconds. "And when would this break out be?"

"Sunday. Early morning. Before the church service."

"I see." He stood, leaving his cup on the table. "As always, it's been a pleasure working with you." He picked his briefcase up from the floor and headed out. Vash stood and called after him, "Hey! What about Lili?"

The dark man stopped in the doorway and looked at him curiously. "Lili who?" He gave him a small smile. "Take care, old friend."

It was a slow, muggy day in Shannon, Alabama. The humidity and stifling heat of late June had everyone hiding inside from the worst parts of the day. Business at the Sugar Maple was equally slow, conversations subdued and everyone moving sluggishly despite the air conditioning. Matthew Williams and his mother, Susan, leaned against the counter, Matthew playing with the change in the tip jar idly while Susan's eyes drooped as she tried not to fall asleep standing. They barely noticed the taxi in the gravel parking lot drive away or the chimes above the door ring.

"Bloody hell, is it always this terribly hot down here? I think I broke a sweat just walking inside," a British-accented voice said from the doorway. Matthew, Susan, and several of the customers looked to the source and saw a blond man with green eyes and a sweater vest standing there with a large smile and a suitcase.

Susan screamed and scrambled over the bar, not noticing as an errant foot knocked over the day-by-day calendar by the register and raced to throw herself at him, almost knocking him back through the door with sheer force. Matthew stared dumbly, then pulled out his phone and tapped out a text message before joining his mother at a slightly slower pace, waiting to the side as she finished her enthusiastic greeting.

"It's nice to see you, too, Susan," the newcomer said, laughing as they parted. He nodded at Matt. "Hello, Matthew."

Matt grinned. "Ah, c'mere, you." This time, the newcomer was lifted off the ground by the greeting, and he laughed and pushed at Matt's shoulders as he yelled at him to put him down.

When he had both feet on the floor, Susan took over, taking his suitcase and herding him to the bar under the curious eyes of her patrons.

"C'mon, sit, Arthur, and tell us everything," she said, tucking his suitcase into the leg room under the bar and picking up the calendar off the floor. Arthur obliged, sitting in front of her as she bustled about to make him tea. Matthew decided it was break time and sat down next to him, ruffling his hair.

"The trial went well – besides Alfred getting shot, of course," he began, accepting the tea from her and noticing the light yellow tab on the bag of the blend he'd found was his favorite during his stay here. It had been two months since he had left Alabama, and she still remembered. He covered his embarrassing surge of affection by clearing his throat and continuing, "I stayed with an old… acquaintance of mine for a while. Went back to England for a time, actually." He smiled, slightly sour. "felt like it was time for my once-a-decade chat with my family."

"Now hold on just a cotton-pickin' minute," one of the customers said, standing from his table behind them where he had been eavesdropping to lean on the counter at Arthur's side. He was one of the post office workers from down the street, and one of the regulars who had become very familiar with Arthur in his winter stay. "I thought you left for England? And what's this 'bout a trial?"

Arthur sighed and put his face in his hands. "Oh Lord – I'm going to be doing this for months," he moaned into his hands before spinning on his bar stool to face the rest of the diner. All of them were paying some degree of attention to the commotion his arrival had caused, and at least most of them were familiar faces. "I need to tell you all something," he said, loud enough for all of them to hear. "My name isn't Arthur Kensington, it's Arthur Kirkland. I'm not related to Susan and Matt, and I've most certainly never been married. I lived in New York City for four years before I witnessed a murder and got sent down here under witness protection. When I left in April, it wasn't to go back to England, but to testify at the trial." He looked at Matt. "Is that everything?"

Matt shrugged. "Sounds like it to me."

There was a brief silence from the audience, then the postal worker who had confronted him grinned and clapped him on the shoulder. "Took ya long enough to come back!" he said brightly, and everyone laughed – Arthur more in relief than in humor.

They all went back to their own conversations, and Arthur faced Susan again and accepted the grilling, returning it in full force.

Matthew had just finished telling him about Katyusha's pregnancy – she was entering the second trimester – when the door flew open and Alfred was there, glaring at Matt, who was sitting on the near side of Arthur and blocking him from view.

"Matt, there better be a good reason for callin' me over here like it was an emergency, or so help me God, you owe me a month of Mc… Donald's…" he trailed off as Arthur peered around Matthew's back. The door fell shut behind him as they stared at each other – Alfred dumbstruck and Arthur biting his smile into submission.

"Hello, Alfred."

The dumbstruck morphed into a wide grin as Arthur turned away from the bar and stood up, brushing off his straight clothes and blushing furiously even as he did his best nonchalant act. It was promptly ruined as Alfred crossed the room in wide steps and swept him up off the ground for the second time that day, spinning around once and making Arthur latch onto his neck for dear life.

"Why didn't you tell me you were coming back?" Alfred asked, still holding him up even though he was standing still again. Arthur grinned.

"What, and ruin the surprise?" Al laughed and put him down at last, their arms taking just a few seconds too long to fall away. Arthur suddenly realized how quiet it had gotten and glared at the patrons just in time to see them all turn back to their own companions or food and resume their previous activities quickly. He snorted, then looked back up at Alfred, who was still smiling.

"It's good to have you back, sugar," he said through his grin. Arthur blinked slowly and smiled back softly.

"It's good to be back."

Alfred smiled back at him for a few more seconds before he winked over at the Williamses. "I think I'll take him off your hands now, if you don't mind," he said to them. Susan smirked and Matt rolled his eyes. Arthur ducked his head and shook his hair in front of his face, then wrestled his suitcase out from under the bar. Alfred took it from him, then asked, "So, where were ya plannin' on stayin' tonight?"

Arthur shrugged, hiding a smile. "I thought I could find a place somewhere."

Al grinned and held the door open for him. "I think I can help ya there."

It was just after sunset on Christmas eve, and the Williamses' living room was bursting with the season. Dinner was over, and the five adults had gathered on the floor and the couch for a few hours of conversation. Katyusha cooed constantly over her newborn baby boy, only two weeks old and already the happiest thing in any room that Alfred wasn't in. Matthew kept one arm around her as he and Arthur had a heated discussion about beer and other forms of alcohol. Alfred and Susan sat on the floor, playing with six-month-old Zoe, Al and Arthur's chocolate Labrador puppy.

Arthur's phone rang while he was lecturing on the difference between ale and lager. He was tempted to ignore it when it was labeled 'UNKNOWN'; however, his new job as the pet press release writer for the Department of Justice had him getting calls at any time of the day or night, so he excused himself and hid in the hallway to answer it.

"This is Arthur Kirkland."

"You are a fucker to find, did you know that?"

He blinked, leaning heavily in the door frame of the guest room he had lived in for over two months last year. "I'm terribly sorry, but who do I have the utmost pleasure of speaking to?"

"You can call me Romano."

Arthur turned the name over in his head, but couldn't make a connection. "You're going to have to be more specific than that, I'm afraid."

"I almost had you killed earlier this year, fucktard!"

Arthur's eyes widened. "Oh." Then his eyebrows furrowed and he glared at the wall, which was still painted peach. "Well, what the bloody fuck do you want?"

"Calm yourself down, I'm not gonna do anything-"

There was a rumble and angry curses from the other end, and Arthur frowned in confusion until a new but eerily familiar voice said happily, "Cielito! It's been so long! How are you?"

Arthur opened his mouth to reply but was saved by more rumbling and angry Italian cursing before Romano growled at him, "Sorry about Antonio, he's a dickwad."

Antonio. Arthur clutched at the door frame as he listened to murmured Spanish and more angry Italian. "Anyway, Kirkland, all I wanted to tell you was that you're not in any more trouble with us, so-" In the background, someone shouted in German, and Romano broke off in his English sentence to yell back in Italian. Arthur began to wonder how many different nationalities and languages this mafia contained.

The German got louder and was quickly followed by the same rumbling that Arthur now understood as the phone changing hands forcefully. "Hey, Arthur, buddy! 'Sup, man? Dude, I'm so glad I missed you way back when, I've never seen Frankie so happy as when you came back!"

"…Who's Frankie?"

"Oh - Frankie B, Francis, you know who I'm talking about!" The new voice laughed gratingly, and Arthur decided to stop being surprised by these people.

"You know what? I don't want to know how you know Francis," he said, massaging his forehead. "Would you just- give the phone back to Romano?"

Arthur didn't have to see this guy - who had apparently been the sniper at the trial - to imagine the shit-eating grin on his face. "Righto, prisspot."

Arthur sputtered and yelled as the sniper handed the phone back to its rightful owner, who caught the tail end of Arthur's denial and replied, "Yeah, I hate the bastard, too."

Arthur frowned. "Has he ever tried to shoot you and instead hit your boyfriend in the fucking back?"

Romano snorted, static blowing in Arthur's ear. "Nah, I pay him too much for that." A brief pause. "I'm kind of sorry about that, by the way."

"Kind of?"

"Well, it was my fucking boyfriend on trial!" Romano snapped back. Arthur drummed his fingers on the door frame agitatedly.

"But he's there with you now."

"Yeah, he is." Arthur waited for the explanation. "I know a guy who knows a guy."

"I see."


A few moments of silence. "So why did you call me?"

"Fe-Veneziano made me do it!" Arthur waited, not even bothering to ask who Veneziano was this time. "We wanted to let you know that you're safe from us now. There isn't anyone alive that's gonna touch ya, Vargas or not. You got our protection."

"Oh. Well, thank you." Arthur switched shoulders, leaning on the other side of the door frame. "Why?"

Romano coughed. "You just take good fucking care of that Marshal of yours, got it? Oh, and Merry Christmas or something." He hung up, and Arthur stared at his phone for a moment, then smiled at his old room and went back to the living room and his new family.

"Tomorrow - or, well, day after tomorrow," he said at the door, pointing at Katyusha and Matthew on the couch, who looked up at him curiously. "I am repainting that fucking room and banning the color peach from this house."

"Language, Arthur!" Al said from the floor, putting his hands over Zoe's ears. She wriggled out of his hold and bounded over to Arthur, who bent down and picked her up, hiding his smile in the loose skin of her shoulder and sitting down carefully on the floor next to Alfred, letting Al pull him into his side. "So who was on the phone, sugar?" Alfred asked. Arthur let Zoe lose to go poke her nose in baby Nathan's face again and tucked in closer.

"No one you need to worry about, darling," he said quietly, watching Katyusha and Matt juggle the dog and the baby with a smile. Al shrugged and kissed his temple sloppily, then scooped up Zoe as she trotted past and held her in his lap despite her struggling. Arthur laughed and scratched her ears, letting her teethe on his hand for a second before taking his hand back and wiping the dog slobber on Al's cheek, laughing as he fought away from it and wiped it off on his sleeve. He wrinkled his nose, then bent down to steal a kiss from Arthur, who smiled against his mouth.

He was happy, and in the end, that was all that mattered.

{A/N: And I cop out with an ending and leave it at that. Hope you enjoyed, guys. Glad you stuck with me this far! Like any other author, I adore reviews like a lap full of kittens.}