Grief was a bad guest, of course, he already knew that. This was a different circumstance though, different from their usual situational meetings, and even more different than their less common non-situational meetings. They had continued their fight up until the sun began to light the town when Grief, momentarily stunned by a ringing blow to the side of his head, had swung too low and landed his fist right into the still healing wound in Andrey’s gut.
Andrey, in a pained rage, had aimed a wide swinging kick into the other man’s side, right where he knew his own stitches to be. A truce was quickly decided as they both lay in separate heaps on the ground, gasping and cursing. They didn’t offer the other a hand so much as use the others body as leverage in climbing to their feet, almost falling over in the process a few times. Once on their feet they slung their arms around the other, switching between one pulling and the other being nearly dragged along to where the door to his apartment was. Once through the door, the smaller man let out a dramatic sigh at the sight of the stairwell.
The thief always took any opportunity to complain about the stairs in the building, moaning about his poor old joints (which only ever intensified when reminded that they were both, in fact, the same age), but with both of them nearly doubled over in pain, supporting yet being supported by the other, Andrey could see where he was coming from. He adjusted his grip on the other and began the ascent. At one point a few stairs up they began to tip backwards and, before they managed to right themselves, the resulting shriek that had premeditatedly burst from Grief had his ears ringing for the rest of the climb.
His apartment sat on the very top floor, a small studio, and once he had the door unlocked, they let go of one another. Grief breezed through with familiarity, very suddenly not needing any help to move, and began looking at and touching anything that was new or had been moved from his last time in here. Andrey tugged at the bandages wrapped around his stomach, wincing slightly as he eased himself down to sit on the edge of his bed. Nothing a drink wouldn’t fix. At some point Grief had swept by with a scrap of wet bandage in hand and scrubbed at his forehead, cleaning the blood from it and wiping at other patches of dirt or smeared blood. He danced easily out of range from Andrey’s irritated swipe while making obnoxious kissing noises, quick feet avoiding a patch of flooring they both knew to be loose.
Now the man sat eagerly on his desk, not having bothered to clear the papers away first, and was gladly lounging across his various work and sketches. Andrey overlooking the hastily written list Grief had brought with him, starting slightly when the other spoke, the oddly pitched, rasp of a voice breaking through the thrumming silence.
“So, what I’m thinking is this; I’m gonna start giving a code to my men that I trust more than the others, the ones that are twyre pickers, yeah? They’re to relay that code to your barkeep or you, and you’re only to accept to purchase from those who know the code. I’ll have to keep changin’ it, of course, word travels fast, so I’ll keep you updated on it.”
“Mhm. And how does this help you in finding out which of them are taking part in the killings at night?”
“I don’t know!” Grief flung an arm wide at that, nearly knocking into a neat stack of metal scraps and other objects Andrey had assembled one restless night. “I’m not sure what it will help, but it’s something! I don’t know how, but it is! C’mon, you have to agree.”
Andrey leaned back on his arm, fixing him with a questioning stare. “And in doing this you want me to turn away customers and sellers who will, in turn, help me make sales?”
Grief huffed and hunched in on himself, clearly disturbing his stitches at the way he flinched, hissing as he grabbed at his side. Andrey sighed, pushing himself to his feet.
“Alright. Let me see the damage.”
The man, nothing if not bothering, split his face in a wide grin at his words and attempted to recline lavishly across the small desk, almost knocking over a lamp and falling off it himself.
“Oh? Why didn’t you just start with that, we could’ve cut all that business talk. Look away,” he crooned, dropping his head back to stare down his nose at the other. He kept an arm tucked against his side; eyes bright with pain.
Andrey stared, wholly unimpressed. Grief held his pose a few seconds longer before collapsing with a huff, straightening back up.
“Fine. Have it your damn way.” The man shrugged out of his coat and made quick work of his vest, but chose to hike his shirt up enough to allow access to the swath of bandages covering his side. His face was bright red, which was odd seeing as this wasn’t the least dressed he had been seen by the other.
“Prude,” Andrey teased with a smirk that switched into a rasping laugh at the sight of the other scandalously dropping his shirt back down.
“What? That’s it, you don’t get to look, I’ve changed my fuckin’ mind.”
Andrey patted the side of his face and waited until the other sighed and lifted the fabric back up again. There wasn’t any visible bleeding, which he had noticed at the first flash, so he gently pulled at the bandages to get a look at the stitches.
The wound was scarring nicely and hadn’t torn at the earlier blow. It was a long, almost horizontal slash traveling over two ribs which had protected the blade from going too deep. The makings of an ugly scar, but he didn’t seem to mind. It had come about one night as Grief had travelled through the warehouses, a quick, heavy swipe from an unexperienced wielder. One of his own men, who had stilled as Grief shrieked and swung the heavy shotgun up from its place by his leg.
Grief refused to be seen as a killer, whether due to circumstance or complication Andrey couldn’t tell, the man was impossible to read at times. Regardless, he refused to be seen as such in any way his friends could find out. He had told Andrey that he’d ultimately let the assailant go, and if either man could smell the gunpowder that had still lingered on Grief, neither cared to mention it.
Initially after the attack, he’d stumbled to Stakh Rubin’s place, only for the man to not answer the door. Andrey had found him looking lost in the district, bloodied hand pressed against his side, crimson stained torso, sad eyes fixed to the ground. Looking for all the world like a kicked puppy thrown out. Andrey had patched him up as best he could after his loud refusal to see the elder Burakh, luckily having taken a semester of medicinal science in university. Plus, the bar had seen plenty of morphine come and go, back then. Back before some major reworking. He did a good enough job at patching him up, despite the movement whenever Andrey proved just a little too inexperienced, a little too unsteady, as Grief was… well, as fine as he’d ever been.
The man had been one of the first to truly intrigue Andrey after arriving in town. Not at first, no, as the man had yet to make an identity to display. If Bad Grief had a finger on the pulse of the town, then Andrey had an ear pressed to the door. No one talks more openly and honestly than a drunk with nothing to lose or gain, and luckily this town had plenty of those. Once that identity was figured out, town suddenly had a new leader. Not one who lorded over clocks or dreams or the stones of the street, but of the system beneath all of the shine and manors and stained-glass windows that covered the town in a haze.
Visually? Grief had not lived up to expectations. Talk had stretched his image tall and menacing, heavy and powerful, a king of rags and riches, which is why Andrey had not known who it was when he approached him for a fight.
Fights had to be picked carefully, otherwise there wouldn’t be a point. One that was too easy would be useless and unfulfilling, one too hard, however good it may feel, might end him. Originally Grief had been catalogued as an easy fight. Still, there was something about the man, so he watched. To a knowing, kindred eye the man changed, his lazy walk turned to an easy prowl, his distracted gaze flitted about taking in every detail and dismantling them. The way he would spread himself out over surfaces had people write him off and turn their backs to him, his thick coat and flashy clothes with their contrasting colors hid a buildup of muscle that was always poised to spring. His hands, which would flit about while talking, would go utterly still at a moments notice. Andrey watched, and Grief returned the favor.
Once he was moved from an easy fight to a good one, Andrey followed. He tailed him up until the point he rounded an empty warehouse and found the man waiting for him, stance ready. Andrey had stalked up to him, rolling his shoulders and watching. Held to his full height, Grief was only slightly shorter, though his hair tried to make up the difference. He had shed his fingerless gloves, refusing any cushioning, which had thrilled Andrey, as it turned out the man threw punches like he had something to prove. Of course, maybe he did.
Maybe they both did.
Regardless, the fight had turned from bloodied brawling into grappling, and as Andrey had Grief locked upright, a move he thought would work in his favor, the other had given him a blood-stained smile and wrapped their arms together before dropping deadweight, giving Andrey the options of dropping down with him or having his arms pulled from their sockets. Of course, once both in the dirt, the fight turned to something else, but those things were to be expected. Andrey pulled himself back from that train of thought.
“Yeah, just as I thought,” he addressed Grief in a serious tone. “Still ugly.”
He was given a sigh of a laugh from a crooked mouth, and a light kick to his shin.
Pleased with the lack of an actual problem that wasn’t just the man himself, Andrey moved away and went to sit back on the edge of the bed, allowing the man to put himself back together. The hairs on the back of his neck prickled uncomfortably and he clenched his fists rhythmically. It was too warm in the room, now. Too embracing. Grief leveled him with a soft, curious expression and Andrey mentally grasped for something he could say to provoke the man.
“Your men really don’t tend to like or respect you too much, huh?” He hoped the question would shatter the soft comfort of the room that was starting to make him feel panicked.
“Well, you know me.” Grief had one of his hands held in front of him, seemingly examining his nails. “Lot of reasons people aren’t too fond. Last gone but first forgotten, that kinda thing.” He had drawn into himself and Andrey felt a twist in his gut at his success, a far-off part of him suddenly missing how the air had felt before. He nearly felt barriers being gently placed back between them. Grief’s gaze dropped down to his lap and he kicked a leg idly.
“I’m sorry, Filin.”
The man jerked his head up to look at him, brows knit together. He stared for a long moment, emotions moving across his face that might have been clear to others were all but unreadable to Andrey. Letting out a heavy sigh Grief hopped off the desk, moving to begin rummaging through any drawers and on any shelves the room had to offer.
“You know,” he said while rustling through papers and various tools, “you used to have a lot of nice stuff. Not that you don’t have a nice look going for you now, of course.”
Andrey stared blankly at the glance and over the top wink sent his way before Grief continued.
“You and your brother both came here so shiny, necklaces and earrings and bright eyes. Now your lusters gone dull. The dust of the streets? Dust of the twyre, maybe. What happened to all your stuff? Sell it for a hit?”
There it was. Andrey had been wondering what this had been leading up to. He shrugged, if Grief wanted to play like that then he would have to try harder. He would have to hit harder.
“I think that stuff was lost a long time ago, Grief.” Something was lost a long time ago, Andrey thought glumly, not daring to voice that in the others presence. Grief was smarter than he played, though, and he had might as well said it aloud.
“Don’t get that look, Andrey,“ came the chastising tone from where the man now leaned a hip back against the desk. “You know I don’t make light of that. Who would I be to do so anyways? And, you know…”
Grief reached into a pocket high on his vest, cradling something in his palm for a moment before tossing it to Andrey whose hand jerked out to catch it. He looked down at the object, breath stalling.
It was an earring, old and dull, something made to dangle and catch the light. One of his, to be exact. He remembered wearing them the first day in town, as it had been his favorite, thought to have been lost some several years ago.
“Maybe you can try to start getting some of that shine back,” Grief smiled, suddenly beside him. “Been a while for that piece though, that shit might hurt going in, huh?”
He refused to rise to that easy of bait, instead huffing a laugh. “I don’t know if I can at this point. Wait, when- why did you take this-“ his sentence was cut off as he turned to address the man fully, only to be met with a feather-light peck against his lips.
“What can I say,” Grief responded as he stood and moved across the room, “I’m a sentimental bastard. Think it’s time I returned it, though.”
Andrey remembered a different fight of theirs, a vicious, hateful one that came one night after too soft a tough, too kind a word. Too gentle, too sweet, too caring. Things he wasn’t sure how to respond to, so he responded the only way he knew how, which effectively removed everything but annoyance and distrust from between the two. Something more familiar.
“I’m sorry, Filin.” He said for the second time that night.
Grief only shook his head.
“I don’t think it’s just me you should be apologizing to, pal.” He moved towards the door and Andrey looked back down at the earring.
“Wait, where’s the other one?”
Grief stalled at the threshold, doorknob in hand before turning to throw a sly grin his way.
“Now don’t be a hypocrite, we all have our rough patches. See you around, Andrey.” With that he swung the door open and stepped out, a raised hand thrown up, dark nails flashing in the light.
Andrey stared after him for a long while, not making a move to get up and lock the door. Eventually he curled up on his side atop the bed, earring placed beside him. He watched the light play across its surface. Goose could manage the bar without him for an hour or two.
The younger Vlad was in his pub. Sure, he was a good patron and seemingly had money to spare, and Andrey so rarely turned down a customer without good reason, but there was something deeply annoying about the man.
The way he spoke, flippant, as if people should not only listen but also be aware of the fact that they weren’t actually supposed to listen. The way his gloved hands moved in wide gestures and how he tried to make hard eye contact whenever Andrey’s gaze followed the movement from across the floor. His connections.
Vlad had been migrating closer and closer to him, holding conversations with whoever he stopped at during his deliberate journey. Andrey steadied his hands and counted his teeth with his tongue. Far too soon, though, the man stood above him, a wicked little smile gracing his lips. Andrey’s arms itched.
“So-“ the rest of his statement was immediately tuned out as Andrey registered a heavy, uneven sound of footsteps. Good. Anything but whatever conversation was about to happen.
He stood quickly, startling back the other man which gave him great satisfaction, and vaulted over the bar to busy himself with polishing glasses. Vlad followed him down its length to glare at him.
“I was just going to say-“ he was again cut off at the sound of someone clearing their throat.
“Vlad Olgimsky?” Rumbling from behind him stood Artemy, the Ripper, back in Andrey’s den. His hands were bloodied.
Vlad turned smoothly to the man, switching back into business mode with ease and set about doing what he did best; talking about himself. Andrey tuned out their conversation of introductions and fathers, continuing with his work and shooing away his barkeep. His gaze stayed on the Ripper, carefully watching how the man interacted, the way he seemed to stay hunched over, how he let his arms hang still at his sides. He looked utterly still, if not for his eyes periodically scanning the room and Andrey himself, and his chest moving with steady breaths.
The words key and note registered to him, but the conversation changed before he could pick up anything as Vlad was starting his usual litany of ownership over the Kin. He noticed Artemy change then, only just so, his eyes growing sharp and back going even more rigid. He tilted his head ever so slightly to the side as Vlad kept on, then responded in a rumble too low for Andrey to hear from behind the bar.
Well, he thought, that was more emotion than I had been able to pull from him. He eagerly looked back to the mans calloused, blood-stained hands. They flexed at something Vlad said and Andrey rocked on his heels, wondering how hard of a punch the man could throw, how much damage he could do.
The sound of Vlad excusing himself brought his focus back, and as the man walked further into the pub Andrey grabbed two glasses and a bottle of the closest alcohol he had. Strolling up so that Artemy was across the bar from him, he gave a pointed smirk and set the glasses down, pouring into them.
“Have a drink, sawbones. I insist. First is always on me.”
Artemy’s jaw tensed and his gaze was heavy on the other man, but he stepped forward with a stiff thank you, taking the offered glass.
“Good fight?” Andrey asked as he gestured to the mans bloodied hands that had curled gently around the glass.
Artemy was quiet for a moment before downing his glass, placing his hands flat on the bar, possibly to try and hide a tremor that had started in them. His eyes flicked up to Andrey.
“Well, on my way here, I passed the Termitary. There was a woman out on a ledge, she had crawled out of a window from one of the higher floors. She jumped to her death in front of me and some others. I checked her, but I already knew there was nothing I could do. That is where the blood is from. Not a fight.”
“Well that’s…” Andrey’s brain diverted quickly, racing for something else to say than anything he was originally intending. This wasn’t the right thing to provoke a fight about. “… Awful.” He finished lamely. Artemy looked back down at his hands before speaking again.
“Wouldn’t be the first awful death I’ve seen, especially since returning to this town, bodies all over this place now as you know. Yesterday, I saw them burn an Herb Bride at the stake, as if this is some kind of fucking witch hunt.” The man shook his head, and Andrey leaned on the bar, elbows resting on its surface, eyes focused.
“Unfortunately, that’s exactly what it is to them. Get people nervous and unsure, give them a monster to hunt and they lose their minds over it. They eat that shit right up. And listen… I know they buried your old man today, everybody in here has mentioned it at least once. For what it’s worth, you have my condolences. I know how important family is myself, I couldn’t bear losing mine.”
Artemy nodded, still staring down at his hands. They were both quiet for a moment, then Andrey tapped the bar lightly with two fingers before pushing himself upright.
“Well, you stay as long as you like, feel free to spend some coin.” He picked up another glass, tossing it in his hand. “Like I said, that first one was on me. Anything else is coming out of your purse, sawbones.”
He heard a quiet huff come from the other man, his broad shoulders rising then dropping. Andrey hummed to himself as he moved away, wondering the meaning.
In an instant a sharp, burning pain started up in his leg and he slammed down the glass he was holding, trying to avoid cracking it in his grip. Andrey clenched his jaw, not bothering to look down. There wouldn’t be anything to see, not here, not on him. He calmed his breathing, thinking of safe, far gone times.
Times when they were younger, Peter and him, baby fat still on their faces and hair wild, tangled with leaves and twigs. Running through the woods bordering their hometown, climbing trees and collecting bugs. Standing at the edge of a frigid river, picking out smooth stones and showing each other with fascination before lining them up in grand, swooping patterns. Digging small rocks out of the earth and piling them in a heap as treasure. Dancing in fields, playing games that no one else could understand in the light of the setting sun.
At that, the pain slowly faded. Andrey carefully stored the memory alongside others. He would have to visit his brother tomorrow.
Glancing back towards Artemy, he saw the man watching him with concern, half raised as if to help him. Andrey’s insides burned in a flash and he bared his teeth. Almost without thinking, he snapped at him.
“What the fuck are you gawking at, Ripper?” Artemy blinked, screwing up his face in what might have been confusion.
“I was just- are you okay? If you need me to check-“
“I don’t need you to do anything.” Andrey hissed at him through his teeth. “I’m not taking this shit right now, not from you of all people. Shit was better before you came through here, fuck.”
Artemy stayed in his position, lips parted as if to say something else, seemingly baffled at the break neck turn the conversation and very atmosphere had taken. Then, his mouth snapped shut, jaw clenching as he gave Andrey a once over that made said man audibly growl. He stood fully then, turning away and starting for the stairs. Andrey hated him, hated the spiked, tearing feeling of panicked desperation that was driven through him in that moment.
“Well, I’ll leave you to it then,” Artemy said over his shoulder before climbing the stairs and disappearing from his line of sight that the bar offered him.
Andrey bit the inside of his cheek and seethed. There was a far-off feeling of taunting humor, and he all but snarled at it. Tomorrow he would definitely be visiting his brother.