Val raged and fumed and hurled insults against James's name using every curse he could remember in every language he knew for three hours.

And he cleaned the kitchen. Not that the kitchen was in need of cleaning, but washing every dish in his cabinets by hand, reorganizing the shelves in the cabinets and refrigerator, and scrubbing and polishing every visible surface was a good, manageable way to vent.

It also meant he now had a very clean kitchen.

When he was at last finished and satisfied, and the kitchen was damn near sparkling from his efforts, Val set about the necessary preparations for his guest. He snorted and glowered at the gleaming surface of the counter. His guest. Guest. Right.

Calling him a guest made it sound as though Val himself had invited the kid to stay. This had been coercion. James had used the same tactics against Val that he used when making deals for Karl. He just kept picking at him and picking at him until Val finally just lost patience with the whole damn thing and said yes.

He was not some goddamn hospice, set down to take care of James random strays. Why James had even decided he was the best option was a secret best only known to him. Val did not share space. Mostly by choice, but that was hardly the damned point. He did not like other people, and even those he tolerated, he barely tolerated enough to want to share the same square of concrete with, his cousin aside. James was the anomaly that made the rule work.

James liked everyone, and Val liked no one. He knew—the bastard knew—how Val felt about sharing his space. Hell, Val had never even had roommates at college; he had moved out of the damned mansion because, large as it was, he still had been unable to escape all the people roaming around it. Family included.

Now James had foisted this on him, and why the hell had he not just said no? Val's glare darkened even more, and he itched to shoot something. Unfortunately, the preferred target was not present at the moment. James owed him more than the bastard could possibly imagine, turning Val's home into some sort of bed and breakfast.

For an entire summer. He did not care if it was only three months; he would not care if it were only three weeks. Either way it was time he was forced to spend playing host to someone he did not know.

James also owed Val for the door, because that molding? Was completely shot to hell. Mostly literally. Although, if he brought in someone to fix it, the super would probably demand that Val have the plaster in the hallway fixed, too.

Really, the man should be fired. He was mostly useless at his job anyway—as evidenced by the fact Val was even still allowed to live there—and it would save Val the nagging headache he was in for when he did have the door fixed…

Val shook his head. First things first, he had to make arrangements for his guest—Alex. For Alex. And it would be best to do that before he got lost in another tantrum. Muttering more curses under his breath, Val picked up the phone. It was a simple thing—with his name and money—to arrange to have the furniture place deliver and completely install a bedroom set before one.

He did not care what it looked like, and he knew the quality would be guaranteed, because well… they had learned their lesson about faulty, inadequate furniture when that bookshelf had collapsed, and Val had been forced to lodge a personal complaint.

The bed was installed in the spare room he used mainly to house all those books that would not fit on the shelves in the living room. Some might call it a library; he just called it The Room. He had intended at one time, when he was still feeling amenable toward his family, that it be a bedroom for his sister, a place she could escape to if ever their mother got to be too much, and she needed somewhere to unwind. But Valentina was not inclined to rest anywhere that was not the comfort and prestige of the Reising mansion, and how anyone could be comfortable living so commonly amongst other common people was beyond her understanding.

Val assumed she was being rhetorical, otherwise he might have answered that family was the driving force behind his decision. It mattered little enough, in the end. If she wanted to remain locked in the mansion with an insane dowager and an uptight staff, that was certainly her prerogative.

Just as it was his to avoid them at all costs. At least he had the decency to respect her decision, mock it though he may.

A series of stomping feet and obnoxious grunts made their way down the hallway, a sign Val took to mean the job was finished. He checked the clock—it had only taken them an hour this time. They really were learning. Val watched them leave, noting with distaste and some annoyance all the dirt and dust the movers had trailed through the apartment with. Yet one more reason he hated sharing his space.

So now he had still more cleaning to do. After that, though, with the bedroom put together and the kitchen already in a whole new state of clean, there was little else for him to do, but sit and wait.

And decide where best to aim his next shot.


"Kurt!" Alex shot forward in his seat, fatigue and wariness momentarily forgotten.

"What?" James glanced over at him, brow creased in that way that meant he was not quite on par with the conversation. "No, I'm James."

"No, no." Alex shook his head, cutting his hands through the air as though to ward off James's poor attempt at humor. "What I mean is, Kurt has space; I can just stay with him." It was such a brilliant idea, he should have thought of it sooner. They could have avoided this whole awkward silence. Sitting up straighter in the seat, Alex started rifling through the pockets of his jacket, trying to locate his phone.

But James was shaking his head long before Alex could fish it out and start pressing buttons to make the call. Adamantly. "No."

"Why not?" Kurt was his best friend, had been since Alex had first started coming to spend his summers with James. They were not the most likely pair, granted—Alex, the clean-cut, straight and narrow kid who disappeared every fall to attend a military academy two cities away, and Kurt Randolf, the laid back, rapscallion trouble-maker, who had spent half his years in detention and the other half avoiding school at all—but somehow they had managed to get along and have fun.

Sure, Kurt could get a little wild at times, but it was mostly harmless, and Alex at least had never gotten hurt. Besides, they were rather good for each other. Kurt's influence made Alex's life a lot more interesting, and Alex's influence kept Kurt out of jail.

James sent him one of those looks. "Because I know exactly what kind of garden he tends in his basement." Oh, yeah. That. "You're not staying with Kurt."

"Oh for the love of—" Alex fell back in his seat, huffing an exaggerated breath. "I bet if Val made his own bullets in his basement you wouldn't care…"

"Val doesn't have a basement."

"I'm being hypothetical."

"Well, it's a silly point."

"Only because I'm right." James did not respond to that, just rolled his eyes. They were actually inside the city now. Judging by the looks of the buildings, the were not very far from Val's apartment. "Jay, please." He turned pleading, banking on appealing to that part of James that was his protector. The guardian who had kept him safe from all those evils when he was younger.


He supposed the evil would have to not be his protector's best friend first. "You're gonna be real damn sorry when I get shot."

"He's not going to shoot you." James rolled his eyes as he keyed in a code to open the gate that lead to the underground parking garage. "You'd have to make him angry first."

"When isn't he angry? Because every time I see him he looks ready to shoot someone."

"That's because every time you see him he's with me." James grinned. He pulled into a spot between a bright red sports car that screamed "mid-life crisis" and an enormous SUV that could not possibly serve any real function in the city. "I promise you'll be fine."

"But we're related."

"So?" James shrugged as he swung out of the car, the tone of his voice and look on his face indicating that that was honestly the dumbest thing he had ever heard.

"So doesn't that automatically earn me a bullet."

"You're worrying too much over this. And unnecessarily." James lifted the hatch of the trunk while Alex fetched his messenger bag from the back seat. "Val doesn't keep a running count of people who deserve to be shot." He paused. "Well, with exception of the alley cat and sex kitten(!)… and me…" He lifted Alex's two heavier suit cases from the trunk as though they weighed nothing. "But those are special circumstances."

Alex blinked as he pulled his last bag out and shut the trunk. "Sex kitten and alley cat?"

"They like to visit us once or twice a year." He did not say anything more to clarify who those might be, but Alex was pretty certain he caught a muttered, "When Trickster decides to reinstate those contracts," as they stepped into the elevator, and James hit the button that would take them to Val's floor. That really explained it all.

"You know, with friends like yours, it's no wonder you have no enemies."

"With friends like mine, the enemies are held at a very safe distance."

The trip was a fairly short one, which surprised Alex. Somehow, he always envisioned Val Reising living in a penthouse on the top floor. The fact they were only five floors up and actually had to walk down a narrow, rather poorly lit hallway to reach Val's door was entirely incongruous with the image of the man he had—through both personal observation, distant though it was, and James's own chatter about him.

"umm…" Alex stared uncertainly around them as he followed James down the hallway, "This is Val Reising, heir to the Reising and Abrahmovich holdings, yes?"

James laughed. "Wait 'til you get inside. Val does not live in squalor, despite appearances."

"Then why does he live here? Why not one of the places closer to the center?" In a fancy loft or overblown penthouse? What exactly enticed a multi-million-dollar businessman who only worked and dealt contracts as a hobby to live in such simple—and by comparison to what he must have had and could still have, humble—quarters?

"Val likes his space; he just doesn't like a lot of it." James shrugged. He stopped before a door about a third of the way down. It was a solid door, Alex could tell that even in the dim light. Likely an oak or something. There were numbers stenciled in a fine script in the top right corner of the lintel, but otherwise there was no decoration.

In fact, the wall directly opposite the door did a lot more to attract his attention. "What are those?"

"Bullet holes." He said it so calmly, so matter-of-factly. As though the entire wall was not riddled with them like some strange, plaster-rendered homage to Swiss cheese.

"From what?"

"Well, 101 of those are mine."

"And the rest?"

"The Girl Scouts finally stopped trying to sell him cookies two years ago; the Jehovah's Witnesses, however, are still trying to save him."

"Oh…" James set the bags down to one side and raised a hand to knock, but paused before his fist could make contact with it, turning around to give Alex a considering look. "What?" Alex eyed James warily.

"Nothing," James said. "Only maybe..." He grabbed Alex by the shoulders and forced him back until he was just to one side of the door, "you should stand there."

Alex narrowed his eyes suspiciously. "Why?"

"No reason." He knocked, fist beating two very loud, forceful blows against the door. A bare second later the door swung open, and before Alex even had a chance to react or recoil properly, James was dropping to the floor as two gunshots rang loudly in the narrow hallway.


(!) references to Tybalt and Mickey (respectively), also of Amaretto's Paradise.