Lackadaisy Cats, its characters, and the general awesomeness that both tend to exude are the rightful property of Tracy J. Butler. But then, you probably already knew that.


February, 1927

In a body made mostly of worn-out parts, Viktor figures the knees are not so bad.

There is the pain, yes, but it is no use complaining. He has been hit with shrapnel from a trench mortar and would argue that having its shredded metal dug out was worse. Limping about as he does will often draw stares, but Viktor has already spent his adult life being stared at – the stumping gait itself only hastens a stranger's judgment of him as a giant brute, and he has learned to care very little about what strangers think. At least one of his knees still works, somewhat. That is more than can be said for his missing eye.

Besides, it is not good for a man to think of anything he might lose as his own in the first place. Nič nepovažuj za svoje čo môžeš ztratiť.

And there is the pain, yes. There is that.

There are winter days that coil themselves down around scars and bone, and all he can do then is lean up against something as he waits for it to pass. Which is not so bad, because Viktor knows it will. Worn-out parts will click themselves back in place, more or less, and it will pass.

If he waits long enough.

Meanwhile, the Little Daisy's oil furnace is in need of fixing.

"...You know, it's a good thing Atlas decided to separate the heating from the electricity when he refinished this place. As long as you give people a hot breakfast, I guess it doesn't matter how many fingers their poor waitress loses to frostbite...Now, do I want to make the potato and leek soup for lunch, or the split pea? Those potatoes are starting to look questionable, not that potatoes are the most attractive of foods to begin with... "

From outside the cramped space where he works, Viktor can hear an insectile click-click-click of chalk. Menus are being written on the café's display board. A whine from a wooden chair tells him that the person writing is not tall enough to reach up all the way.

Then the voice turns a loop in his direction.

"...So how are things going in there? Any luck yet?"

The boiler room, really a made-over storage closet, is filled with dust and rot and the smell of water-stained cement. A sneeze cracks its way out of him before Viktor can reply. This causes a dull ache down his right side, where several ribs had once been broken with a crowbar when he was thirty-six.

He forces a long sigh between clenched teeth and wishes for five minutes of quiet.

It is not a likely thing.

The knell of a telephone had woken him at 7:25 that morning. In a moment of poor judgement, Viktor had answered it. Noise came instantly spinning out of the ear-piece when he did –

"Hello? Hello? Excuse me, this wouldn't be the residence of a Mr. Viktor Vasko, would it? I'm very sorry to...Oh, Viktor! It's you! What a surprise! I told the operator there was a good chance the lines wouldn't even be connected...Okay, listen. I got to the café a bit early this morning, and tried turning on the...What? Why was I there, did you just ask? Because I forgot exactly how many bullet holes are in the ceiling and wanted to refresh my memory. Really, Viktor, why do you think? Because Miss M. asked me to work the opening shifts from now on, that's why..."

(God in Heaven, when did the girl breathe?)

"...So when I get here I try turning the thermostat up a few degrees, just to get some circulation back into my hands, and can you guess what happened? The Nokol just sputters and gives out on me! Kaput! I went in to see if there was something wrong with its blower, but...I said, 'its blower.' Its atomizer. The thing that makes...Okay, fine. The combustion chamber. Well, whatever you want to call it, it's broken. Could you come in and fix it? Miss M. can't afford a repairman right now, and she sure as hell can't afford to replace it..."

(Viktor had thought that a pointless thing for her to say. Of course not. Ms. Mitzi cannot even afford a bartender with two working knees.)

"..Yes, I know it's a Saturday, Viktor. I can read the calender just as easily as you can. But could you, please? You'll be saving a poor girl and her hungry patrons from hypothermia. I'll even give you my undying pledge of gratitude...Excuse me, did you just snort? Was that a snort of cynicism I just heard?... Fine. You'll at least have it until you do something stupid and bull-headed again, which means this social contract should be good through Tuesday at the earliest...Come on, Viktor. Don't you hear my teeth chattering? It's so cold in here I can barely grip the phone. Please? Please, please, please?"

And, because Ivy draws poor judgment from him the way a lodestone draws iron, Viktor had agreed.

"Viktor?" her voice now persists. The chalk's irregular clicking goes silent. "Hey, did you hear me? I asked, 'how are things going in there?'"

So now he finds himself seated in a chair beside the oil heater and its boiler, the three of them occupying a great deal of space in the already-agitating closeness. Overhead, a bare light bulb fizzes and thumps. An old edition of The Builder's Journal lies open atop a toolbox. It is turned to page forty-four, to an article detailing the operation of a Nokol Automatic Oil Burner. The written English means almost nothing, of course – it had taken one skittish post office clerk and a snapped pen for Viktor to even fill out his draft card. And aside from an occasional 'a', 'the', 'not' and 'stop' throughout the article's narrow stacks of text, its words remind him of blackened corn row stubble poking up through snow.

But the pictures are useful.

Out in the café, there is a paired clack-clack of feet stepping down off the chair. A stutter of the electric stove being switched on. Cookware tolls as it is knocked against something.

"...Viktor? Answer me, Viktor. How is it...Oh, futz."

He hears another striking clack-clack-clack of heels, and then suddenly Ivy peers in through the doorway at him wearing an expression of alarm. He notes with irritation that she is also wearing his coat draped over her shoulders, his scarf around her neck, which means both are going to stink of wisteria perfume all day.

"...Are you alright?"

Viktor's reply is a grunt of acknowledgement - he might have said more, if only just, but right then all of the muscles below his left knee go rigid like steel cables being twisted up.

"Hmpf."

Ivy lets go a sigh of exasperation so heavy it makes her lips flap.

"Don't scare me like that! Did you know there's a good chance of lead poisoning, after someone gets shot in a place with lots of bone? Dr. Quackenbush told me. Even if it's weeks or months afterwards, he said. For a minute I was worried you'd gone and passed out while you were sitting in here or something." She folds her bony arms. The sleeves of her blouse have been rolled up to the elbow. "But I see my concern was unfounded, because apparently the only thing capable of killing an ornery ox like you is a sincere attempt at good manners. Just answer me next time, would you?"

Viktor makes a dismissive motion with his hand. Neither her concern nor her chatter is welcome. The quack-doctor's advice can go hang, as well, along with whatever that word ornery means. Very likely he has killed men for lesser insults.

"Go back to work, dievka."

This is a futile attempt, he knows, but decades of crossing with people more gutless than she have made it a habit. Still, it gives Viktor occasion to remember how he has broken three fingers on that hand he is now gesturing with – two when he was eighteen, while repairing the drive belt of a grain thresher, the third when he was thirty-seven after hitting someone hard enough to break their jaw.

Viktor lowers his hand to crack some stiffness from the knuckles. It makes a noise like damp kindling being snapped.

Confirming his suspicions, Ivy remains standing there in the doorway. "I'm making Rocky's pancakes right now, so I can't do anything until the stove heats up anyhow. Have you figured out what's wrong with the heater yet?"

"No."

"Applesauce. Really? So I guess it's not the blower, then... Or the combustion chamber, if you want to be particular."

"No." He taps a socket-head screwdriver against the box in question. Panels have been pulled off of it. "That is fine."

"Well, I was looking through the Builder's Journal article before you got here... Can you believe Atlas actually kept that, by the way? The edition is from five years ago. Now I know what Miss M. meant, when she said he really liked collecting cobwebs more than anything else..."

Viktor looks at her.

The scarf around her neck is green wool, knitted for him by Lenci Bapka to match the awful sweater. On Ivy it falls to mid-thigh like a priest's stole. His coat, meanwhile, fits her about as well as a collapsed tent might, with about as much shape. Beneath it she wears a middy blouse, a serge skirt, her stockings and heels some momentary effort at womanhood. One of those ridiculous bell-shaped hats is pulled down on her head, its brim decorated all around with flowers. She looks like a silly little girl – suitable, he thinks, because she is one.

Following the path of his critical glare, Ivy takes her hat off and begins plucking at a silk sunflower.

"But anyway, I was just thinking about what I read. Do you suppose a safety device could be what did it? The article was talking about how a Nokol is supposed to come with a few of those as standard features. You know, to stop it from blowing us all to gloryland one fine day."

He mulls this over, along with what he knows of oil burners.

A turn of the wall thermostat will start things going. Oil is fed up from a small tank into the combustion chamber, where a pilot light flame ignites it to make heat. And if it were a problem with the pilot light or the combustion chamber, only the oil would be shut off now. Failure of current would result in the same thing. But instead, as Ivy has inadvertenly reminded him, the whole machine is stopped completely. Oil flow is controlled by a needle valve, a seemingly insignificant thing with an overly-important task and therefore one that must be given several safeguards.

So it is likely a problem with the needle valve, then.

Pressure in his knee has finally eased. Viktor scowls deeper anyway.

"...You know so much, dievka, then what was bothering me for?"

She spins her hat in both hands, which are themselves a pair of absurdly small but admittedly clever things.

"Well, because I thought you liked fixing stuff. Don't you?"

He does not answer.

Really, Viktor has no answer for that except to grind his teeth as he stands up. Joints give their usual snaps and crunches of protest. A spanner wrench is rummaged from the toolbox, along with a bottle of solvent. The closet's light bulb gives another flutter.

Meanwhile, a greased skillet on the stove is beginning to hiss. Ivy slips out of the doorway.

Clack-clack-clack.

But she goes on talking.

"I mean, you spend enough time tinkering around in the garage that it's a reasonable thing to assume. And from what I've gleaned, you're the sort of resident handyman for your apartment too. To hear Mrs. Bapka tell it, near as I can understand her, things just fall back into working order whenever you get within ten feet of them with a hammer. No doubt that's out of sheer terror, though. Did you really once spend all of Christmas Day repairing something for her?"

"Pah," Viktor snorts. Noise echoes inside the makeshift boiler room and he does not quite have to raise his voice. "A slepé hovädo would take all day for fixing tree lights, maybe."

"You fixed her Christmas tree lights? On the level? Well! I'll bet that put you in high spirits, didn't it? Fiddling around with circuits, crossing wires, blowing fuses, plunging a few city blocks into darkness... No wonder she calls you her pomocníčka. Or something like that. Maybe I'm remembering it wrong. Does that word mean anything, pomocníčka?"

Viktor sags down into the chair again. It is old and it creaks, but the same could be said for him. "No. You are speaking through your nose."

"Puh-moss-nick-ah?"

"No."

"Puh-mock-nee-kuh."

"Worse."

"Poh-moss-nicks-skah."

He shrugs, realizes Ivy cannot see him. "She has no one else for doing such things. That is all."

"Aren't you planning to tell me what it means?"

"No."

"Fine, then. Keep it a secret. Adds to the mystique you Lackadaisy gentlemen make such a hobby out of fermenting in."

And Viktor knows that she certainly has no plans for telling him what those nonsense words mystique or fermenting mean, either.

Which is fine.

He sets about undoing lock nuts along the needle valve.

There is not enough room for him to turn the spanner wrench all the way around. Staying hunched over like this troubles an old stab wound in his belly, gotten in the same fight as had cost him the eye when he was thirty-four, but oh well. Better stabbed than shot, especially with something so laughably-named as a butterfly knife – even if he remembers being mildly surprised at how cold the steel was as it went in.

He hears a thud of Ivy dropping a flour sack on the counter. Another thud as the sugar joins it. A spindly crick-crack of eggshells follow soon afterward.

"...But you don't just help out when there's things to fix, either," she chatters on. "Take the old Jewett De Luxe, for instance. Do you remember that car? The one that stupid piker Santino wouldn't take off our hands for anything less than half what Atlas originally paid? I seem to recall you tinkering around with it quite a bit before Miss M. had to sell it."

"Four-wheel brakes are special feature," Viktor tosses back. "They will cost extra."

Now there is a startled snort, muffled laughter, as if Ivy has buried her face into the folds of his scarf or the collar of his coat. It takes several minutes for her voice to resurface.

"No, no I really shouldn't...You actually...Oh, God, you're terrible. That was a pretty heavy-bodied car, too. It'd be like some sort of rouge elephant in a collision. Those Pillow Gang toadies probably found that out at an inopportune time."

"Ya. Probably."

More stifled laughter.

"...But how would you even do that? Weren't those brakes supposed to be the hydraulic kind? I remember Atlas bragging about them to Dad after he bought the car, something about balance and incompressibility and what-not. Of course that got poor Dad in a huff for weeks, because our Chrysler only has mechanical brakes. Those are just a mess of cables and rods, I don't know how anybody makes up or down of them..."

Viktor gives the wrench several more twists. Rust flakes onto his hands as the needle valve begins to loosen. One lock nut drops with a clear, tinny ring to go scurrying away across the floor, and he leans off of his chair to snatch it.

Beneath him, the left knee twists up again.

So he waits.

But really, Viktor thinks, a machine is not so difficult to understand. It is the simplest thing in the world, nothing more than a matter of knowing how separate parts all work towards a single end. Every piece has its order in the sequence, a purpose it was made for, every action a cause and a consequence – a needle valve regulates oil flow in the combustion chamber. A piston imparts rotary motion to the crank shaft and turns an engine over. A Thompson gun's bolt moves backward to eject a spent casing, forward to strip a new round from the magazine. A man's knee is made up of four ligaments, three different bones, and will work at least some of the time if he is willing to wait long enough.

Which is not so bad.

And should a machine break, it will either be fixed or it will not. If fixed it will go on with its tireless, measured toil, for no other reason than because it has not been made with the ability to stop. If it is beyond repair, then the machine has ceased to be useful and there is the end of it. There, as a matter of fact, is how most things end.

Which is not so bad either.

Nič nepovažuj za svoje čo môžeš ztratiť.

Another loose thread of Ivy's chatter snags at him.

"...Do you remember what the first thing you ever fixed was? Or tampered with, I should say. That counts."

After a few more twists, the needle valve pulls free. Viktor turns it over for inspection. Sure enough, black dirt has built up beneath the steel plunger. He puts some solvent on a rag for cleaning.

"You expect I would remember a think like that, dievka? Listen to yourself."

"What's so strange about it? I still remember the first real dance I ever learned, you know. The One-Step. Dad taught it to me a few months after he and Atlas got back from the War...Well, actually he cleared a space in our sitting room and taught it to Mom, but I sort of watched them and followed along. Dad said it was all the rage over in Europe. Of course it's hopelessly old-fashioned now, but back then I was all set on being the next Irene Castle..."

An odd, thickened slap-slap-slap noise starts now. He figures maybe Ivy is using a wire whisk to beat something in a bowl.

"...Come to think of it, I can even remember the first thing Grandma Joan taught me how to play on the piano, and that was when I was about five years old. It was 'Leaning on the Everlasting Arms,' I think. I wasn't very good. What were the opening bars to that song, again? Ah. I've got it. Hmmm-hmm, hm-hm-hm..."

The needle valve is so small it seems to vanish inside his hands, so Viktor has to grasp it very lightly as he polishes. Grime is transferred onto the oil rag, onto his fingertips. Once clean, the rounded steel shows a distorted reflection of himself.

"A engine," he says.

Ivy's humming pauses. The whisking noise does not. "Did you say something?"

"You ask what is the first thing I fix, I am telling you. A engine."

"A car engine?"

"No."

"Oh. A steam engine, then?"

"Ya."

"I know a little about those. My grandpa grew on a farm along the Arkansas River, he's told me how they used a shaft-governed steam engine for running their cotton gin. I think it was for turning the cylinder. Does that sound right? You could do something like that, couldn't you?"

"Maybe."

"What was wrong with the one you fixed?"

"The, ehh..."

Viktor tries to think of an English word that will fit around the thought. Nothing comes to mind.

He sets the needle valve on his lap and leans back in the chair.

This affords him a straight view out into the Little Daisy café, of Ivy where she stands stirring pancake batter with tail and skirts swaying. She swivels around – flour powders her nose, her forehead, and somehow her ears – to look at him in turn. The flowery hat has been thrown onto a stool, so Viktor can see it when both thinned eyebrows peak in question.

"The what, Viktor?"

He lifts one oil-stained hand to draw an illustrative loop in the air. This looks foolish but provides an adequate distraction when his knee does not unlock.

"A thing on the engine which will turn. Finishes a cycle."

What also prevents him from looking foolish, or at least looking foolish on his own, is that Ivy draws an imaginary loop in mimicry. Little gears seem to be turning behind her eyes as she thinks.

"So it makes the engine turn over, and it moves around in...What does it look like, would you say?"

"Wheel. As like a sawmill."

He can see the instant when realization strikes. She slaps the counter, far too pleased with herself over such a meaningless thing. "...A flywheel. You fixed the flywheel?"

"Ya. That."

There is a sizzle of batter being poured, a smell of pancakes being cooked that instantly mixes with the storage room's smells of dust and rot and water stained cement. The piping of a coffee pot causes one of Viktor's ears to tick in annoyance.

But Ivy's attention does not veer from him.

"So did you start with a small-scale, one-step sort of thing like the rest of us mortals, or should I assume this steam engine you're talking about was attached to a steam locomotive?"

"No."

"No it wasn't attached to a locomotive, or no you're not really mortal after all?"

"And what you think I would answer to that? Use your head."

"Oh, alright. Everyone has always suspected as much, by the way, so don't expect me to act all surprised and go falling humble before your divine powers in the near future. Can I tell anybody, or should we keep this between us for now?"

"...Go back to work, dievka."

Miraculously, she does.

He ducks down to bolt the valve in place again, lining up lock nuts and being careful not to drop any this time.

Implicit in what has been said is that Mr. Borovský's single-acting steam engine was the first thing Viktor – Viktor the sixteen-year-old plowman's son, at least – had ever actually repaired. The first thing he ever took apart and put back together, however, had been his uncle's pocket watch. The watch itself had not worked, obviously. His uncle had owned it only for the false pretense of being a rich city man.

But what a strange thing it had still been, to pull the brass casing off and look down into that certain perfect, mechanized order of a watch's jeweled gears. Of course, Viktor had thought. Of course. How simple it is. Things must either hold together or fall apart. They will either stop or they will keep going and it cannot be any other way.

Of course.

Viktor is not going to tell Ivy any of this, though, and figures a half-truth will be enough.

Such is usually the case.

As soon as the needle valve is secured on tight, a few bangs come from inside the oil heater - then one solid clank, then sputters in rapid succession, then finally the noise settles into a deep, even thrum. Warm air starts blowing quietly out through a vent.

"Say!" Ivy calls. "You fixed it!"

"Someone else could have done so," Viktor tells her.

He fastens a panel back onto the combustion chamber, kicks the toolbox shut and stands.

His knee is still twisted-up. Three ligaments, four bones, the simplest thing in the world. But Viktor does not feel like waiting this time and chooses to keep moving instead - he is used to this. Most things around him tend to end up broken, anyway, which must be what the hand for fixing things is meant to balance against.

Oh well.

Nič nepovažuj za svoje čo môžeš ztratiť.

He can make it far enough to stand in the doorway, at least.

Now Ivy has started washing a set of silverware. The stack of pancakes sits waiting in front of a bar stool. "Obviously, someone else could have done it. I'm sure any repairman in St. Louis would've been willing to put us back a few dollars, but I needed someone who wouldn't just spend the whole morning knocking around in there before telling me there was nothing he could do. My teeth really were chattering when I called you, honest. I went skating once when I was eleven and fell through the ice, I've never been able to stand the cold since. You would've all come in on Monday and found me frozen stiff right here by the stove with a spatula between my cold, dead fingers."

"You do not stand still long enough for such things."

"Alright, I'll give you that...Regardless, it's a good thing you showed up when you did. And brought this excellent coat and scarf, I should add." Ivy's shoulders hunch beneath the shapeless coat, tenting it further around herself. "Look at you, gadding about in shirtsleeves as if it were the middle of May. I can't believe you hog this kind of heat to yourself all the time. It's uncharitable. I should start sneaking into your coat while you're still wearing it. Would you mind that?"

This puts forth such a ridiculous mental image that Viktor raises an eyebrow.

"Give it back, dievka."

"Oh, fine. Fine." Ivy sets down a coffee cup she is washing and shrugs his coat off. It is tossed onto the counter. "Here. Big choleric cyclops. Rocky's not nearly so insistent when I borrow his coat, and he really has gotten hypothermia before. Something about being bound and gagged and dropped into freezing water, when his circus was doing a show up near Sioux Falls...Oh, damn. I just realized I've forgotten to heat up the syrup."

Soap suds are flicked off her hands. Flour is wiped from her face. A dishrag is rubbed about inside the mug, which is decorated with a diamond pattern around its edge. It is carried absentmindedly with her as she walks out from behind the bar and over to the pantry shelves.

As she passes by where Viktor is standing, Ivy holds the still-damp cup toward him.

"Hold this for a second, would you? I need to get down the strawberry preserve, too."

And because he knows Ivy will just stand there with her arm out all day if he does not, Viktor extends his hand to take it. She is just far enough away that he must move a half-step forward at the same time.

Which is the wrong thing to do, he learns.

Because just then his left knee wrenches inward so suddenly that his hand must dart back, snatch at the door frame to keep himself from pitching forward – which means there is nobody to catch the cup as it leaves Ivy's fingers, which means that it hits the floor instead. Small, continuous whole that it is, the glass shatters into a hundred pieces. The noise of it is a silver spike that drives clean through his forehead.

"Aww, Viktor!" Ivy snaps. "What did you do that for?"

He feels a familiar old anger grind around for another cycle. "I did nothing. You let it go."

And just as quickly, Ivy's temper has locked itself against the gear-teeth of his own. Such has always been the case.

"I did not! You pulled your hand away right when I was about to give it to you! What, is that some sort of diversionary feint they teach all you gin runners when you first join the business? Honestly! I thought my request was pretty clear."

"So I should catch it, when you are standing five feet away and choose to drop it?"

"And what do you suppose a person does, Viktor, if they're being offered something and it's too far away to reach? They walk forward. Really, it's not a very difficult concept to understand."

"Pah. You like to think so?"

"Oh, and what's that supposed to mean?"

He glares at her.

She glares back.

And this will end up coming to pieces as well, Viktor knows, likely by his own doing, because things cannot be any other way and never have been. They fall apart. If he waits long enough, they will either break on their own or he will break them himself. He knows this, has made something of a long career out of it, and his body of worn-out parts is nothing but the consequential result. It is no use complaining.

("Losses are endemic to this business, Viktor. I had thought you, of all people, would understand that. Now kindly stand still, would you please? I have been told this is a considerably painful thing to experience.")

Then his knee bends, slowly. His hand drops from the door frame.

And maybe Ivy sees his weight shift, because her mouth presses down into a careful line.

"Well, at least go get the...Oh, don't bother. I'll get it. Look, here's a part of the handle over there. See if you can find the rest of it." She turns to retrieve a dustpan from under the counter, crouches down in the broken glass. "On second thought, never mind."

An odd quiet swoops overhead.

It is disturbed only by the thin clinking noise of glass shards as they are swept up. Time seems to exist inside a pair of cupped hands, as it often does in the moment after such things.

"...I've always hated this dish set anyway."

He does not say anything. Ivy goes on picking up what is left of the coffee mug.

Clink-clink-clink.

"I don't know what the glassblowers did while they were making it, but everything is too fragile. And there's this ugly pattern on it, to boot. Even the saucers. I never understood why Atlas bought six sets to begin with... Then he had to change that to eight sets of three, which both Miss M. and I told him was even sillier. But apparently twenty-four is a lucky number because you can divide it perfectly in no less than six different ways, so there you have it."

The serge skirt has been tucked under her knees, the way a silly little girl would do if she had to stoop for something. Quick, sweeping motions cause her shoulder blades to part and meet in the middle of her back like a moth's wings.

Clink-clink-clink.

"Really, I should probably be thanking you for this. I've been devising various clandestine ways to get rid of these for months, now, seeing there's nobody around to pitch a fit about it anymore. Funny how it never occurred to me that I could just smash the damn things to pieces and be done with it..."

One hand is angled in a way that makes its knob of wrist-bone more prominent. A thread of hair sticks to the corner of her eye, another to her face where it is damp from being rubbed clean with soapy water. His green scarf, still around her neck, swings forward as she stands again with all the glass pieces gathered up.

"...So, right. Thanks."

And it strikes Viktor again how absurdly small she is, the same as it had struck him when Atlas May first put a hand on the girl's shoulder and ordered him to keep her safe - just so long as she was visiting them, of course. Just for the time being. This arrangement would, Atlas had promised, be a temporary matter.

Still, he cannot bring himself to think of her as a silly little girl again.

Nič nepovažuj za svoje čo môžeš ztratiť.

Viktor waits.

Then he gives another gruff, non-commital grunt of acknowledgement as he walks past her, shuffles into his coat. A familiar scent puffs out around him when he does. Wisteria perfume.

His nose wrinkles in distaste.

"Hmpf."

Then a bell on the front door gives its brassy jangle. They both turn.

"...Oh! Good morning, Viktor. Miss Pepper. Lovely day, isn't it?"

Rocky stands there, suit hanging off his stringy frame like a sail with the wind gone out of it. Through the window behind him they can see it has started to snow. Flakes of it dust his shoulders, his hat, dampen the cuffs of his pants. Dark bruises have formed under his eyes, the mark of someone who has either been awake for long hours or been hit in the face.

Knowing the boy, of course, it is probably both.

Ivy greets him as Viktor stumps along toward the door.

"Good morning, Rocky!" Broken glass is tossed into the dustbin. "Kick that mess off your shoes, would you? I don't want puddles everywhere. Then get over here, these pancakes are going to be cold if you dawdle. How was your night?"

Rocky performs a quick-step dance that scatters wet snow everywhere.

"I'd say it was passing fair, thank you..." Rocky tips his hat to Viktor when they pass by each other. In return, Viktor shoots him such a vitriloic glare that the hat ends up being used as a shield. "...Um. Had a little soirée with two of Palizzola's goons over in the boatyard north of Ashley Street, but it all worked out in the end."

"And by 'worked out,' I'm assuming you mean...?"

"That I escaped with the head secured as squarely on my shoulders as it was before."

"That's not a very high benchmark for judgment, Rocky."

"But it leaves very little room for disappointment, don't you think?"

Rocky's tone has remained blithe throughout the entire thing, and he douses the pancakes in syrup after he sits down. Over the past few months it has become apparent the boy is missing a cogwheel. Or several.

Ivy pours coffee into a new mug, one for Rocky and one for herself. "I guess it's a hard point to argue. Do you at least want some ice for your eye? It's starting to blacken, if you haven't noticed."

"Thank you, Miss Pepper, ice would be the elephant's eyebrows right about now. Or a raw flank steak, I've used those enough to learn they make a fitting substiture.. And how are you two this morning? I didn't know you both came in to work on Saturdays."

Viktor closes his hand around the doorknob. He can feel Ivy's gaze press itself against the center of his back.

When he still says nothing, she answers for them both.

"...We don't, usually. Viktor was just here fixing the furnace."

"Wasth heee?" The first forkful of pancake has been stuffed into the boy's face. There is a hinging groan of the bar stool he sits on turning slightly. "Here I thought his expertise was limited to cars and rumrunning. And breaking the noses of his hapless young protégées when they least expect it, which rounds the list out nicely. "

"That's about right. If he's not breaking things, he's usually fixing them."

"A fair enough balance of talents."

"I'd call it an equal exchange, actually...What would you call it, Viktor?"

Viktor shoulders out into the snow with no further words of departure. He sees no need for them.

The walk home down North 13th Street and over to Flourissant is a long one, because logically the binding cold out here is far worse than inside the café. Patches of ice show beneath a light dusting of flakes that have already gathered. Viktor is overly cautious of missing his footing – an easy enough thing to do, with one eye that will occasionally misjudge distance. And limping along as he is doing now would draw stares, except there are no strangers out on this cold morning who would give a damn either way.

It is not so bad.

A draft of wind picks up, bringing the whistle of a Union Pacific train from down by the river. Viktor pauses at the corner of North Market Street to dust snow from his collar - there is that intrusive smell of flowering vines again - and keeps walking. Numbers on the terraced brick houses tick by, until finally there he is.

At the front steps he must pause, though, because the knee has locked up beneath him once again. And again, and again, and again, and again, but still it is not so bad. In a body of worn-out parts, Viktor figures that nothing can really be so bad anymore.

Nič nepovažuj za svoje čo môžeš ztratiť.

So he waits.

This time it passes quickly enough, and he climbs the stairs of his building with as little trouble as can be asked for or reasonably expected. But then the wind rises, drops, rises again, and in the intervening gap of quiet another shrill noise is blown toward him. It sounds somewhat like a voice.

Viktor squints down the long street.

Several blocks away, the person walking toward him breaks into a run.

Behind them flies what, for one impossible second, looks to be a pair of spinning leaves – until he realizes that it is actually two flapping, dancing ends of a very long green scarf.

This scarf is taken off a moment later and swung overhead, waved about. The next draft of wind kicks off a hat decorated with sunflowers, and the person lunges forward to snatch it. The movement is too hasty and their shoes are not made for it, so they loose their footing on the ice with a skrim of snow. They fall.

And almost before both knees have even touched the ground, they are standing again.

Of course.

Then he knows who it is, and walks back to meet her.


Rozpadá vo Švíkoch = roughly, as Ivy put it in 'Lackadaisy Dotage,' the old expression "falling apart at the seams."

Nič nepovažuj za svoje čo môžeš ztratiť = Do not regard as your own anything you might lose.

Thank you for reading, as always. Thoughts, comments, critiques, suggestions, request, rants and raves should all be sent in the usual way.