“And they both fell to their knees, so no one could tell who was the lover, and who was the beloved.”
It all started with a sunset.
A simple person, or perhaps just one not paying attention, would call it purple-pink. But the sky was more than that. It was more than colors and clouds and overhead expanse. Like any part of life, it was complicated. Easy to define in simple terms. But better appreciated in detail.
He spent time, staring out the window of the bus. Soaking up what colors streaked in lines and curls. Delicate and intricate patterns, painted in hues that all at once seemed angry and vibrant, but sleepy and calm. All of it was less a matter of looks, and more a feeling. The tightness of the chest that came before a big sigh. The pang that always hit whenever he just stopped.
The bus pulled steadily away from St. Louis, Missouri.
He set his forehead against the glass and listened to the soft chatter of his teeth as tires rumbled along. The world was a massive, churning creature surrounding him on all sides. But in the moment, he was still. He was quiet. He stared out at the sky, painted in a way to demand it not be ignored. He analyzed the way the setting sun added edges of gold to everything across the horizon. He breathed.
The world was beautiful. Not just for stray sunsets of vibrancy, no.
A turn away from the window put the seats around him in better view. In front, two seats with tall leather backs rose up, one occupied and one empty. To the left, the two seats across the walkway were occupied by a young girl and her mother, keeping the daughter occupied by softly murmuring lines from a book in hand into her ear. Ahead of them, an elderly couple curled into one another, the woman napping and the man watching the driver absently with his partner’s head on his shoulder.
A turn back revealed six more rows, two seats on each side of the aisle. Only four chairs out of the other twenty-four were empty, and including the one beside him and the one in front of him left empty, they were six short of a full bus.
No one spoke to each other candidly. No one was particularly loud, or rude, or noteworthy beyond the fact they existed. They kept to themselves. Reading, listening to music, sleeping. Twenty-six people all together, arm’s reach from one another, keeping to themselves in relative silence.
Once they hit the highway the tires faded to a soft, even hum against the road. The sunset steadily faded from brilliant golds to a quiet dark, and the moon rose to a waning crescent in the dark sky. On the open road, far enough from city lights, the sky opened itself up into something greater. With the bus lights on low or off entirely as people slept, the stars outside almost seemed a set of bright beacons. All whispering knowledge of distant places, faraway times. Eons away but bright enough to rest overhead as stunning reminders that things stretched far, far beyond just what the Earth had to offer.
It was long after the sun set and the stars woke for the night that his phone buzzed in his pocket.
A call was a hard thing to take on a bus where people slept. He rose from his seat. Slinked past rows of unconscious strangers, nodding and smiling at the few weary faces still awake. Most nodded back, a few tried to muster tired smiles.
He slipped into the bathroom and shut the door. To call it roomy or even comfortable was a lie. But it was some space away from slumbering strangers, and he was thankful for at least that much as he checked the number of the missed call. It not being one he recognized failed to matter. Few people had this number- and fewer still had reasons to call now, when he had no ads posted online seeking a ride or place to stay.
He sat on the shut lid of the bus toilet and called back. It rang just once before picking up.
“Cain?” The voice was old. A kind of tired edge to the otherwise dignified rasp. It was the voice of a man who used to smoke, but not to a point of sickness. A man who used to drink scotch too often and laugh too loud, and if old rumor were true- party with the best of them. Benjamin was older now, by far. But his reputation and the memories of him were not so far removed with time and age as to be forgotten.
He was too young to have known Benjamin in the days of his youth. But he knew the man from three years ago, and the wild spirit older stories spoke of remained subtly hidden just behind his eyes. Cain had picked up on it back then, and he recognized it again miles apart and over the phone.
“Benjamin.” Cain greeted warmly, whispering.
On the other end of the line, his old tone rumbled in laughs like low rolling thunder.
“Amazing.” Ben huffed, as much fond in tone as impressed.
“It’s been three years and you can recognize me off one word over the phone.”
“I have an ear for voices.” Cain mused, staring at the floor. At the worn lines of his jeans and where they slipped into his tightly laced boots.
Ben hummed and seemed to muse over something only in brief, before clearing his throat.
“I wish I could say I tracked down your number just to catch up.” A somber tone filled the spaces around all the fondness. Cain remained quiet, giving pause wherein Ben continued swiftly.
“I have a job for you, if you’re still in the market for such things. Though judging by the fact it took me three days of digging and asking favors to pull your number out of records, I’m assuming that’s true.”
Cain sighed an almost-laugh, smiling in a way that wasn’t so much pride as it was a more complicated sense of sentimentality. A blend of nostalgia and something not far from bitterness, all of which he kept to himself and out of his lowered tone.
“You know me well.” He offered, nodding inaudibly. “What can I do for you?”
Ben hummed and sighed and seemed to squirm about for a moment, uncomfortable and unwilling to say. In all the time Cain had known him, he’d never been one for pussyfooting. The matter was either grave, embarrassing, or both. Cain waited, for only moments. When Ben still seemed to struggle with something, the younger cut in carefully.
“I’m somewhere in Illinois right now. On a bus headed for Springfield. If you’re still in New York, I could meet you?” The offer was delicate. An unsure sort of grunt still left the man on the phone though, birthing a small seed of worry in Cain’s gut.
“Time is of the essence.” Ben sighed, as cryptic as it was tired. “Where can you get off next?”
Cain cut off a low chuckle in the middle, and resisted making the tasteless joke. If Ben was amused or not, he made no sound to tell. Things lapsed into a mutual quiet as Cain rose, opening the door and slipping out. A new trek down the aisle took him to the bus driver’s side, where he crouched and murmured over the stranger’s shoulder.
“What’s the next place you could feasibly stop?”
The woman behind the wheel glanced his way, then put eyes back on the road. She bit her lip for a moment considering it, then responded- “Staunton. It’s about a half hour out.”
He nodded, reaching into the back pocket of his jeans as he whispered back into his phone.
“I can get off in Staunton in a half hour.” While Ben grunted approval and moved in some chair that squeaked disapproval, Cain flipped two bills out of his wallet and discreetly folded them over before slipping them to the driver.
“I’d greatly appreciate it if you could let me off there.” He stood up.
The bus driver glanced at the collective hundred dollars, then pocketed the bills.
“You know, most people ask for part of their fare back if they want to get off early.” She laughed quiet and wry, shaking her head. Cain retreated back to his seat with a smile.
“I’ll have a plane ticket set aside for you at the Willhoit Airport.” Ben informed by the time Cain was settled back down. The worry grew. Whatever was needed, it had to be vital.
“See you soon.” Was all Cain could say, and as simply as that Ben wished him a safe trip then hung up. In the silence that followed, Cain couldn’t help but feel nervousness fill where calm had been.
Something bad was on the way. Any idiot could feel it just on the horizon.
On the top five list of things Cain liked to avoid at all costs, planes and flying were a solid three.
One was hospitals, two was any body of water bigger or deeper than a bathtub, and four was any open, loud, busy place. (Like malls or, to add on to three, airports.) Five was a tie between churches and psychiatrists.
So it was a saving grace but only barely that Willhoit Airport was virtually dead empty when he rolled in. The dead of night wasn’t an uncommon time for flights to take off or land, but the small town had little traffic beyond some stops to refuel. Thus the security was lax, the lines nearly nonexistent, and the staff tired but less frazzled than the city workers who spent most of their shifts getting bitched out by strangers.
The lady behind the counter was older. Forties, mid to late. Brown hair pulled back in a ponytail with strands of grey threatening her hairline. Laugh lines across her face. Yellow nails suggesting a life spent smoking, a passing thought further supported as she coughed violently into a wad of tissues as he approached the counter.
“I have a ticket set aside.” Cain flashed a smile. The woman weakly returned it, ducking eyes immediately to her computer and typing rapidly. Her name tag was worn. Old. She’d been here a while. Her name was Karen.
“Name?” She asked, clearing her throat around the word somewhat.
“Cain. Croix.” He smiled, still. She didn’t look. Kept typing.
“I have a ticket for one of our layovers, headed for LaGuardia, New York City?”
She glanced up, and he nodded. “That’d be the one.”
A tap of a button, some more typing thereafter.
The usual routine unfurled and after paper and his passport exchanged hands, he was waving goodbye to the woman who barely said anything she didn’t have to. A glance in passing revealed a nicotine patch just visible above the collar of her button-up. As he went to sit and wait to board the flight, he felt strangely proud of Karen. Maybe it was too little, too late. But she was trying. That was all anyone could ever do. She was, after all, only human.
It took fifteen minutes for preparations to finish and the flight to board. The quickness of it left Cain almost nervous, wondering about all the extraneous details. How Ben knew he’d make it on time, what would have happened if he hadn’t. The luck and chance and paranoia of it all swirled around in his head until he was seated in first class and the captain was announcing the usual rundown. Someone- pilot or stewardess, he was barely paying attention enough to tell -said to “Sit back and enjoy the ride”. Cain lacked the ability to just accept the situation and enjoy it. Questions nagged, still.
He ordered rum. Tipped the stewardess discreetly and asked her to bring a new round any time she noticed he was out. She didn’t protest. Halfway through the two hour flight, Cain was pleasantly drunk. Enough to worry less about how and why. Enough to stop worrying about crashing in one of a thousand different ways. Enough to, finally, stop obsessing over the smaller details of every passenger he had line of sight on in first class.
A married couple near the front were having a silent argument. The woman thought she was winning. A teenager at the center kept quietly crying while reading a shopping magazine. Running away from home? Death in the family? Broken up relationship? The answers weren’t apparent. He stopped obsessing about it after the fifth small plastic ‘cup’ of rum. Instead, he leaned his head back. Shut his eyes. Heaved a sigh, put on some headphones, and relaxed. Sleep didn’t come. But hazy, intoxicated bliss swallowed up the rest of the flight and almost made him not hyperventilate slightly over the turbulence just before they went in to land.
By the time tires touched tarmac and the giant metal tube came to a full stop, Cain was dangerously close to being sloshed. The world spun. Things bled together all wrong and all right. It took him time to process, to move. To sway into the aisle once everyone else was out of the way and fuss with his single carry-on bag. The stewardess was discreet about making sure he didn’t trip on the way out of the plane. A harrowing feat, considering she was an average five foot six, give or take, and Cain all but dwarfed her by a little over half a foot. Through group effort she got him down the aisle, down the stairs, and to the right terminal.
Unfortunately, LaGuardia was everything he figured it would be.
Even at one in the morning, the place was busy as hell. People in every direction, shouting and chattering and laughing loudly. Bright lights for maps and stores lit up all over. A sea of perfumes and colognes swallowed baggage claim. Rows of chairs, all full of strangers. Loners, lovers, children- masses all around collected and parted in ways that denoted friendliness and relationships. He tried not to look. Tried not to dwell on it.
He just stumbled forward, stomach turning over and the spin of everything feeling suddenly too fast and too tilted. He wasn’t sure what terminal he was at. What branch. Where to go, what to do. Hands fumbled for his phone as he kept walking, hazily heading for an exit so he could make a call outside. Fresh air (well, cigarette smoke laden New York City air) would do him some good. Probably. Better than crowds and noise at every angle and more input than his senses knew what to do with.
Halfway to the doors leading to the parking lot, someone in the sea of strangers grabbed his arm. The first instinct was to fight. He held back. Flinched instead, taking a messy half-step away and turning to stare.
The guy was young. Thin. Short black hair gelled back. Glasses. Modern design, sleek and aesthetic. A nice suit, even at one in the morning. His tie was crooked though. Dressed in a hurry?
“Who’re-” Cain started. The kid (twenty-something year old?) smiled in a way that was both warm and entirely detached. Very professional. Very trained.
“Cain Croix? I’m Thanos.” The kid let go. Seemed.. expectant?
Cain squinted at him. Bullshit his name was really Thanos.
“Ben send you?” Cain grunted somewhat sloppily, continuing to head for the door.
The kid kept pace with him, laughing a little passively. Again the faux-mirth of professionalism.
“No, I was sent by the mob to come get you.”
Cain faltered a step. Stared at him. Eyes narrowed.
“No, you’re not.” He eventually huffed, turning away.
Not that he could see it, but Thanos’ smile twitched wider.
“Should I ask how you’re so sure or just leave that one be?” The kid held the door open for him. Cain nodded an unspoken thanks, letting him take the lead once outside to head to the waiting car.
“You’re tired. You got dressed in a rush. You’re missing a cufflink. Mafioso, decent ones, are used to odd hours and sudden calls. If you were mob, you’d have your shit together more.” Cain was a far cry from surprised when the car waiting at the end of the sidewalk strip outside was a sleek black mercedes. Leave it to Ben to spoil him the moment he was in the city again.
Thanos made a noise, and Cain wasn’t sure if it was a laugh or some kind of disbelieving gurgle, but he didn’t ask. Didn’t care. He wobbled his way closer as Thanos pulled the back door open and slid in a bit clumsy but all in place. He settled his messenger bag into the floor as Thanos got in the front passenger’s seat. As soon as the doors were all shut the driver, a curt looking red-haired lady, peeled away smoothly.
“So is your name really Thanos?” He broke the silence by the time they were out into main traffic, and most of the nausea had subsided. Or at least, that which the airport caused. The intoxication stayed heavy over him, hanging and dragging to a point it took him a minute when Thanos turned in his seat some to catch up to what he said.
The kid smirked- different from his business smile. This seemed honestly amused.
“It is indeed. My mom thought it would be good luck.” He seemed proud about it. That, or fond of his mother. Or just lying well and perking with fascination to see if present company noticed.
Cain was too slurred to play games, though. If the kid was Thanos or wasn’t, it wasn’t important. He didn’t fight to decipher any tells of a lie out of the exchange. Instead he tipped his head back, carefully laid one arm over his eyes, and tried to breathe. It was quiet for a while, until Thanos in turn broke the new silence.
“I’ve never heard Mister Engel mention you before.” He started.
When Cain didn’t say anything back, or so much as move, he gave it a minute then continued.
“You’re not a business partner. He didn’t say anything special about picking you up. Just to be quick, and stop anywhere if you asked to.”
Again, no reply. Again, Thanos waited.
And again, after a minute of driving in quiet, he kept on with it.
“If I may ask, who are you Mister Croix? How do you know Mister Engel?”
Cain finally grunted, but didn’t move his arm from his face.
“Don’t call me Mister.” He huffed, vaguely aware of.. something. Either hunger or sickness, it seemed hard to tell. He breathed in slow, deep. Held it, then exhaled. The process told him nothing, but it was something to fill the gaps in between trying to mentally chug and keep up with conversation.
“You Ben’s secretary or something?” He avoided the question. Thanos noticed.
“I’m his assistant, yes. One of them.”
Cain hummed but didn’t offer anything else up. While curiosity clearly remained, Thanos took the hint. The car fell silent. The redhead never said anything, and the rest of the drive was void of conversation as they turned into a parking garage tower.
METIS was an international corporation founded in plastics manufacturing and medical equipment. (And, off the record, some held with US weapons manufacturing of the non-metal variety.) At its helm there was always a man of the same family who adopted the company name upon taking over. When it was founded, that man was Andrew Engel. After him, his son Philip took over. And after him, Benjamin took the reigns after a tragic accident left him as one of the youngest company owners of all time. These days, Benjamin was old. He was not, however, old enough to declare an heir yet. At least not publically. Rumors circulated that out of his five kids, only three of which were boys, the two eldest seemed the most likely to be dubbed the new owner and face of METIS. Off the record?
Well, off the record he arranged for an express first class plane ticket for a man with limited records of ever even existing. All to have that man brought to his office at METIS’ main building in New York City. This, naturally, left the limited few aware of the event infinitely curious. It also left them more than mildly frustrated when the group of three arrived at the mostly closed down building in the dead of night, and Benjamin Engel himself ordered all but Cain to wait outside his office.
Both of the massive oak doors shut, leaving the two secluded in the open office, city lights illuminating the space on the horizon. The floor to ceiling windows and meticulously polished steel and oak furniture was hardly a worthwhile distraction, though. Not when Benjamin was crossing around his desk, a tired smile growing on his features.
Three years hadn’t aged Ben much. He still had white-silver hair, a well-managed beard, and a sharp fashion sense from custom cufflinks down to polished wingtips. He had a cane now, though. That was new. Oak and steel, matching his brown-silver office.
He walked around without hesitation or limp, and when he reached Cain didn’t hesitate to grasp his hand warmly and smile back. The reunion was brief- their meeting was not for pleasant circumstances, as much they were both aware of without having to outright address it. They shook hands. Ben pulled one of the two chairs in front of his desk out and sat, and Cain mirrored him in the one beside.
“This is something I can trust only you with.” Benjamin lowered his voice despite their being alone.
Cain just stared at him, expression leveling out into a careful neutrality. He blinked slow, almost catlike. Observing and listening with the usual keen precision that had first made them friends.
“You remember my granddaughter? The one from New Hampshire, polymath genius? I believe she won a nationwide gymnastics tournament last you were around.” Ben quirked a half-second smile. When Cain laughed, it lasted longer. Low and warm and rolling out of him easily.
He nodded, then sighed almost wistfully.
“I see bragging about her is still second nature to you. I remember the stories, though we never had a chance to meet.”
When Benjamin smiled again it stayed a fraction longer, but inevitably faded. Cain took note.
“This job concerns her. It.. concerns something she’s recently done, as it were.” He cleared his throat. Shifted in his seat. Unusually nervous gestures for a man who grew up heading board meetings, pushing his opinion, and keeping a cool face in front of press and bad news alike.
“Ashley has run away from home. Naturally, the police couldn’t do anything for two days despite insistence. She’s been declared a missing persons case, but I don’t expect her face on a milk carton to help any time soon. She can be a particularly clever child, when she puts her mind to it.” There was a telltale twinge to the way he sighed the words out. Equal measures concern, exasperation, and pride. Even now, thrown off his usual unreadable game by the event, he was praising her. Cain wanted to laugh at the strangeness of it. He swallowed the urge down.
“Benjamin..” Cain spoke soft, less to mirror the quietness Ben spoke with and more to emphasize caution in how he broached the topic. “With all due respect, surely you didn’t hunt down my number and fly me out here just to ask me to find your missing granddaughter..”
Ben pursed his lips. He kept eye contact. Even without proper lights on, with just the city view sprawling out to light the space, the worn green of his eyes was clear. A brilliance and life in them that was starting to fade from the wrinkles and thinning hair across the rest of his body. The silence that followed was answer enough, and for a moment things stayed precariously balanced between the two. Cain didn’t ask for more, Benjamin didn’t readily tell. Instead the blonde rose both brows, surprised and curious, and the grey fox just shifted in his seat again. His expression hardened just slightly. Serious. Pointedly so. This wasn’t a joke. This wasn’t as banal as it seemed. Apparently.
Cain waited for elaboration, and after a few more heartbeats of silence, Ben obliged.
“Ashley is.. more like me, when I was her age, than any son or daughter I have. She’s perceptive. She’s capable. She’s constantly bored by the things around her. Only in her case, a massive corporation didn’t fall into her lap and pin her down. I suppose I should have noticed sooner, that she was close to this kind of rash decision. She’s still young- impulsive. And her parents..” He made a huffing noise and rolled his eyes. While Ben shook his head, Cain just smirked. For an old man, Ben could still look remarkably like a fussy teenager sometimes.
“I see the papers lie.” Cain finally remarked, smirk staying firmly in place.
“You have settled on an heir.”
That time, it was Ben’s turn to laugh. “I suppose I have.”
He didn’t need to mention that information couldn’t leave the room. Cain understood.
“So you want me to go track down your runaway heiress and bring her back before childhood arrogance gets her into trouble?” It felt laughable, still. Almost trivial. Cain couldn’t help but wonder if Benjamin really was so biased and fond as to go through so much trouble just over a kid being a kid. But instead of nodding along and agreeing, Benjamin just grinned. It was the kind of sly, quiet thing that had Cain slowly but surely dropping back to a flat line of neutral expressionlessness.
“Something like that.” Ben hummed.
He stood, and Cain watched with a pinched look of confusion as he walked back around his desk to jot something down on a notepad. When he ripped the sheet off and handed it over, Cain took it and stared at the scribbled down address.
“I see your handwriting is still atrocious.” Cain muttered.
“My only regret in growing up in this position is never having the chance to do anything else. I like where I am. I like what I do. I wouldn’t trade any of this for the world. But I want better for her. I’d like to name her as my heir. If that’s what she wants.”
The confusion only grew.
Cain re-read the address. Didn’t recognize the street or numbers or zip code.
Ben eased into the plush leather chair behind his desk with a tired sound.
“I know why she ran away. Her situation with her parents has always been.. difficult. Thomas is never home, working abroad. Likely to escape Elisia. And that woman.. Well, let’s just say I never really approved of her. They don’t know how to handle a girl like Ashley. Just between us, I’d planned on suggesting they let me formally adopt her, but.. well. Situation is as stands.”
He rose his hands in gesture, then dropped them back to his lap.
Cain folded the paper. Tucked it away in the back pocket of his jeans.
“Ben..” He paused. Took a moment to process it all. To order his thoughts.
“If you’re not asking me to track her down and bring her back, exactly what do you want?”
Again, Benjamin smiled that old, sly smile of his.
Cain wouldn’t admit it was as charming as it was downright terrifying. He’d only ever seen people get that look for one reason. A knowing sort of amusement. The way perceptive people looked at parties. Or the way mob bosses looked when they were sure someone wasn’t going to be leaving a room alive. Experience proved Ben was always more intelligent than bloodthirsty, but the two were never very far apart. Cain didn’t ease any, even when he finally explained.
“I want you to protect her. I want her to do what she likes. If that’s run away, so be it. Bringing her back here kicking and screaming just means she’ll be smarter the next time she does it. And while I’ll admit seeing her get smarter would be nice, I also want her safe. She’s still too young and too clever to yet appreciate safety.”
At that, unable to help it, Cain laughed.
“I think you said that about me once.” He half-murmured. Ben just eased into a warm look, fond and somewhat nostalgic. He nodded. Cain settled. Ben went on.
“Which is exactly why I wanted you for this. I trust you, Cain. Ashley is the most important thing in my life- and not just for the sake of this company. She’s.. like me. Startlingly so.” He stared, pointedly. Cain took a moment, a look something like skepticism washing over him. Ben just nodded slightly, confirming the silent question.
“I just want you to track her down and stay close. Tell her I sent you, and tell her she doesn’t have to come back or call her parents or anything she doesn’t want to. I expect she’ll try to slip away from you. Just as much as I expect you’ll stay on her.” Ben simmered into silence, and Cain let it be for a time. He looked down. Stared at the silver-grey carpeting.
He’d done a lot of strange jobs in his time, trust and believe. Perhaps this wasn’t the weirdest one yet. But it was certainly one of the more noteworthy. At least it didn’t seem difficult. How hard could it be to track down an impulsive runaway?
“How long?” Cain asked.
How long did Ben expect him to do this?
How long until he had to drag her back, or let her go?
Ben stared for a time. He reclined somewhat, stretching out his legs. He sighed low and long.
“I want her to see the world. I want her to do things just because they’re there, and she can. I don’t want her to wind up stuck in an office building every day of her life lamenting that she never went sky diving, or bar hopping at three in the morning. And I know, if anyone can show her that sort of life safely, it’s you.” Ben looked away. His lips quirked up in what might have been a smile, before he turned somewhat to obscure his face from clear view.
“It’s inevitable, that one of you will get bored. You’ll tire of babysitting. She’ll realize the world is expansive but everything eventually blends together. She’ll do what all geniuses do. She’ll settle for the least boring option available. Whatever that is. Taking over METIS, going back home, going to college. I just want you to look out for her until the inevitable comes. If that’s a week or a month or a year. Whatever it takes until one of you tires of it. If that’s her, I support whatever she wants. And if that’s you, I’ll arrange a replacement to relieve you when that time comes.”
Absently, Ben moved to pluck up the cane leaned against his desk. He held it with both hands, loose and idle. His hands worried the length of it without seeming to realize. This matter, strange and arguably arbitrary as it sounded, was heavy on his mind.
Cain watched. He listened.
And after a long, dragging moment of nothing, he stood.
“The paper?” He patted his back pocket in reference.
Ben didn’t look. He didn’t turn back around. Cain fought the urge to step around to get a look at whatever expression he was hiding from view. His voice remained level. Unchoked by tears, not strained with anger. He sounded calm. Like usual.
“Her home, in New Hampshire. They live on a hill a bit off the main road in Pittsburg. Up in the woods. I figure you might want it, to reference where she would have gone or to check the place for any clues.”
Cain nodded. He didn’t leave.
He hesitated in front of the massive oaken desk. Across it, the decorations were minimal. A few shut folders. A computer monitor. A cup of pens. A rack of organized folders and papers. A spread calendar-planner. A glass paperweight shaped like a fox. A plaque reading “Benjamin Engel” in sleek glass and engraved silver text. Two picture frames on the corner.
Plucking one up, he inspected the image as much with sharp attention as indifference.
The image was professional but just slightly tilted. The backdrop of some lavish party sprawled out. The edges had cuts of strangers, indistinguishable in the frame. The focal point rested at a distance- Benjamin dressed to the nines with his hair groomed back and a wide, lively smile on his face. He was laughing about something. Beside him a tiny, young little girl with a flood of curled brown hair down her back was just barely making a face one could call smiling. She was small, round-faced and delicate looking. Like someone just propped up some doll next to the man at some gala.
“Do you love her?” Cain asked quietly, trying to memorize the way his old friend looked while seemingly enjoying himself.
The room went quiet.
Cain set the photo frame back down.
“Don’t be ridiculous.” Benjamin finally sighed.
“People like me can’t love anyone. You know that.”
He sounded as calm as ever.
They didn’t say goodbye.
Cain saw himself out.
Outside the office, Thanos was ready and waiting for orders. When Cain skirted by him, trying to dismiss the offer for a ride or help with anything, the kid just followed him along. The redhead driver was long gone, or at least out of sight, which left the two alone in the elevator down.
“I just don’t get it.” Thanos shook his head.
“Mister Engel is one of the most powerful men in this country. He’s on good terms with major politicians, millionaires, corporate leaders. He could have virtually anything for just a phone call, and yet..”
Thanos shrugged his shoulders. Gestured emptily, then dropped his hands to his sides. Cain smiled, crooked and sharp looking. When he grinned like that, it always pulled up more to the right of his face and showed off a cut of gums and teeth.
“And yet he calls in me?” Cain finished, sounding pleased about it.
Thanos just sighed heavily, nodding.
“I mean no disrespect, it’s just.. I don’t understand.” He sounded almost as if pleading.
Cain looked him up and down.
Nice clothes, straightened now that he’d had time to himself to wake up more and clean up in a bathroom somewhere. His hair was straightened, glasses cleaned. Though nothing could be done about the sign of sleeplessness still hanging under his eyes. A signature of meticulous groomed lied in his nails- cut precisely and cuticles pushed back. His nails and his shaped eyebrows were signals of grooming to a very exact, if not obsessive, degree. The kid was the image of order and exactness.
“You like knowing things?” Cain asked.
Thanos nodded, with a look just shy of seeming ashamed over the answer.
“No doubt that’s why he hired you, yeah? What all do you do for Ben?”
Cain watched as Thanos glanced away, staring at the elevator doors before looking up. The numbers ticked down one by one. They had a long way to go to hit the ground floor, and then a connecting hallway over to the parking tower.
“I know it sounds like menial secretarial work. But I get his morning coffee, I help organize his schedule. Mister Engel is a very independent man, he arranges a lot of his day himself. But I help, where I can. I sort his mail, screen his calls. I know him. I talk to his family when they call, I help send out christmas cards. It’s..” He broke off into a dip of quiet, shrugging almost defensively.
“It’s unpleasant.. to have a part of his life make no sense. To have something I don’t understand going on. My job is to look out for him. To monitor the people he comes into contact with and.. protect him. You.. you’re..” He looked up. Back at Cain. Made a face, a weird, uncomfortable blend of confusion and unsurity. “You make no sense. That he would go so out of his way to find you and bring you in, yet I know nothing about you.. It’s unsettling, is all.”
Thanos went quiet again. Cain nodded along for the most part, then went still as conversation ebbed. The elevator ticked down a few more floors before he replied.
“Ben and I met three years ago. We hit it off right away, and stayed in touch until my work had us parting ways. Neither of us are the type to call the other up and chat out of the blue. But, he needed a favor. So here I am. We’re friends. That’s the kind of friends we are.” It was Cain’s turn to shrug then, absent and harmless.
“Does that help at all?” He canted his head slightly, watching closely as Thanos shifted weight from foot to foot. His lips twitched. He slipped his hands into his pants pockets and looked away again, back at the elevator doors. All signs of being uncomfortable. Which made it clearly a lie when he just nodded in response and stayed quiet.
Cain let the elevator run down the rest of the floors in silence.
They got out and walked around and across to the parking tower, then up the three floors to the car. All the way, neither of them said another word. Cain knew Thanos was lying about it being sufficient. He also knew the intimate details of it all were off limits. So he offered nothing further. If Thanos understood that on some level or just gave up easy, it was hard to tell. But the lack of conversation remained before and after the brief exchange of Thanos asking where to go and Cain rattling off a stray apartment address.
The drive was as quiet as all the time before it, and when Thanos pulled the sleek mercedes over there was an almost paranoid sort of edge to the way he looked around out nearly every window. The area wasn’t exactly the safest, especially not at almost three in the morning. But there was no one around, and the worn looking streets rested in a faux-peace of emptiness.
Cain got out without a word, noting the sound of the car still idling on the curb as he shut the door and marched his way up the stairs of a weary looking brownstone. He knocked, twice, then took to leaning on one forearm in the doorway. From the car on the sidewalk Thanos watched, noting how the posture wasn’t unlike someone trying to block the doorway without being overtly hostile.
After what felt like too long spent waiting, and a third round of knocking, the door opened.
Looming there was a beast of a man- barely inches off from Cain’s own towering height, though with a contrasting build to the blonde. Whereas Cain was lithe and built more like a sleek athlete for speed, the man tiredly rubbing one eye was shaped like a truck. Broad shoulders made up a thick frame, where muscle and sharp lines composed his features head to toe. Scars littered his hands, and what was visible of his forearms beneath a baggy sweatshirt. He blinked a few times before slowly seeming to register someone standing on his porch, grinning crooked at him.
“Cain..” The man grunted after a sluggish moment.
The blonde’s grin quirked wider.
“I figured you were dead.” He tacked on after another pause to process. The haze of sleep not yet fully worn off only made his accent thicker, a messy russian drag to the words.
Cain straightened his posture and shrugged, wide grin staying plastered in place.
“I get that a lot.” He remarked, before shifting just enough to hook a thumb over his shoulder at the still idling mercedes on the curb.
“I got a job. Seven hour drive ahead of me, asap. You in?” Cain cut straight to the point, which left the black haired beast of a man to blink some more at him. He glanced to the car. Stared right at Thanos for all of five seconds, before settling back on the blonde.
“What’s the payout?”
“Ehh..” Cain made a face. A scrunched up kind of look that spelled out in big, bold letters ‘I’m not getting paid for this’. Right away, his groggy company looked irritated. He reached, grasping at the door to shut it. Cain didn’t hesitate to wedge himself into the doorway proper to stop it.
“It’s a favor for an old friend. C’mon, you’re not doing shit around here anyway.”
At that, the dark haired man grunted a low, deep disapproval. Cain rolled his eyes.
“Sila, come off it. You’re living in the same shitty brownstone apartment after.. what, five years? I bet you still have the same piece of shit phone and that broken stove, too.”
Sila narrowed his eyes down to grey slits and crossed his arms, tense with warning.
“I don’t see what any of that has to do with not wanting to pack into a car with you for seven hours.” His gaze darted away. Back to the sleek black car resting in the run down neighborhood, and the sharp dressed kid anxiously tappings his hands on the steering wheel. Thanos tried to pretend he wasn’t staring when no one was looking. It wasn’t working.
“Because!” Cain protested loudly, tossing his hands up in loose gesture.
“You never do anything fun! You sit here and you never change anything and you just.. You’re a rock, Sila. You’re a boring, stationary rock. I’m offering you the chance to get out and do something fun.”
There was a stretch of nothing, wherein Sila mastered the expression of a rock- flat, emotionless, and unchanging. He just stared, as unamused as humanly possible, and Cain heaved an overdramatic sigh in the face of it.
“You and I both know I do plenty of fun things. Besides, last time I went for your idea of fun I got shot at.” Just as soon as the words left him, Cain made a sort of dismissive whining sound.
“Plenty of people get shot at all the time! The important thing is you got shot at and not just shot.”
Sila did the staring thing again. Cain stared back, though less imposing and more just petulant.
“I haven’t seen you in over two years, Cain. You didn’t even say goodbye, or that you were leaving soon, or anything. One day you were just gone, and now you show up like nothing happened and-”
Abruptly, Cain backed away. Three steps backwards, off the steps and onto the sidewalk. He rose both hands up as if in defense, and shook his head. Sila stopped talking, only to narrow his eyes again and huff a sharp breath out through his nose.
“You don’t wanna go. I get it. I just thought I’d ask.” Cain promptly dropped his hands and turned, leaving Sila to take a step out the door and lean into the cool autumn air to shout after the blonde.
“You always do this!” Sila protested. “As soon as someone hits a nerve you just run away, won’t even say goodbye! I’d hoped if you ever came back, you’d be different. But you haven’t changed at all.”
Cain rose his hands in surrender and turned his back, heading back to the car.
Sila kept shouting after him.
“You didn’t just show up here after two years to ask me to go on a roadtrip, Cain!”
At that, there was pause. Cain stopped. Turned back around. Dropped his hands again.
His expression was neutral, void of the wild grin he’d had just minutes ago. Sila wasn’t fooled. It wasn’t an absence of emotion that had his face straight. It was a more careful, refined thing than that. A mask. A lie. A calm surface to hide the real turmoil behind. Something he knew well, even after two years apart.
“That’s exactly what this is.” Cain said, voice all too level. “That’s all this is.”
He gave it a moment. Rocked back a step, further towards the car. “Was.” He tacked on, then slipped into the mercedes.
Sila just lingered in his doorway, watching the blonde shut the car door and peel away, slipping as suddenly and easily away then as he had before. Though at least this time, he knew it was happening.