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Muffled yelling pierced the rap music blasting through Alexei’s earphones. The thin walls of his apartment did little to quiet the sound of the couple next door as the argument escalated.
Alexei sighed and tugged out his earphones, allowing them to drop into his lap. The tinny sound of the song he’d been listening to was drowned out by the loud male voice currently making his displeasure known.
He swung his legs over the side of his bed, the mattress squeaking under his weight, and turned his head towards the wall. Peeling paint in a colour that had once been white, now a sickly grey, decorated the otherwise bare walls of his apartment.
The voices rose again, and he winced. He couldn’t make out what they were saying. It was hard enough for him to understand English in normal circumstances, let alone when it was furious yelling behind a barrier.
It took Alexei a moment to realise it wasn’t actually a couple yelling. Because the woman he knew lived there—whom he’d never spoken to, but had seen once or twice in the hallway, and had thought she’d lived alone—wasn’t replying. Only the man had something to say. The extremely angry man.
Alexei hesitated a moment. He shouldn’t intervene, he knew that. It wasn’t his business if a couple got into an argument, and it was a common enough occurrence around here besides. Worse, if the police got involved it would compromise Alexei’s carefully constructed life under the radar of the authorities.
“Ah chyort,” Alexei muttered. Ah shit.
A crash sounded from beyond the wall, and Alexei was on his feet and moving towards his front door before he’d even made a conscious decision. Even as he stomped down the hall, having a moment to consider what he was about to do, he kept moving forward. He’d seen enough domestic violence first-hand to know the damage it could cause, and he wouldn’t sit by while another woman’s life was shattered.
He reached the apartment next door and stopped for a moment, chest heaving in anticipation of a fight. His blood was up, a surging lust for violence, a need to do harm to a man that hurt others smaller than himself.
He tried the doorknob. Locked. Very well. He bared his teeth and took a step back from the door. Another crash, and this time Alexei was sure he could hear a woman crying. Soft, subdued, as if she was trying to hold back the sounds, but even more heart-wrenching for the pretense.
Alexei readied himself with a deep breath, then charged forward. His shoulder slammed against the door with all his strength. The seams cracked as the wood splintered, but the door didn’t burst open.
The man hadn’t stopped his tirade, so Alexei assumed he hadn’t paid attention to the breaking and entering attempt. But Alexei could hear the woman’s voice now, clearer, and with a plaintive edge.
Those two words sliced rage through Alexei. He could no longer think rationally. Instead, he was a child again, hearing his mother plead in that same tone of voice. “Please, Grigori.” Alexei had been too young, too small, to do anything all those years ago, but the same couldn’t be said now.
Alexei gritted his teeth, raised his leg, and slammed his bare foot into the tilting door.
The door burst open, slamming against the wall with an almighty crash. It bounced off and swung back towards Alexei on uneven hinges, but Alexei didn’t let it close on him. He held out a fist and the door whacked into his arm and sailed harmlessly back again.
Alexei didn’t give it a second glance. He was too busy staring down the furious gaze of the man in front of him. Jimmy, he assumed, was a little over six foot, and had a decent set of muscles on him. Alexei would comfortably bet what little money he had on the fact that those muscles were gym-bought, and not from natural use. In fact, he’d be surprised if Jimmy used his muscles for anything another than intimidating women.
“Who the fuck are you?” Jimmy spat.
Alexei ignored him. He glanced at the woman, his neighbour, hunched on the floor near the wall. Broken glass scattered around her, the yellow shards reflecting the light from a small lamp a few feet from her. She looked so small, so vulnerable, sitting there amongst the wreck of her apartment. It whacked Alexei in the gut more effectively than any punch or kick. How could any man hurt such a woman, any woman?
She didn’t appear to be badly hurt, though a bruise was blooming vividly on her cheek, and her lip was split. She wasn’t looking at him, her gaze focused on the floor. It took Alexei a second to notice she was looking for something, until her hand closed around a small statue that hadn’t been damaged by Jimmy’s tantrum.
Alexei tore his gaze from her and glanced at his surroundings. A chair had been overturned, as had a table. But other items of furniture lay untouched, allowing him a glimpse of what her apartment usually looked like. Colourful, decorative items scattered the room, lifting it with a brightness that his own apartment lacked. Alexei got the distinct impression that she generally kept her place in perfect order, as if she was proud of her small, cheap apartment in an awful suburb, which just made its current state that much sadder.
The woman stared at him with wide, terrified eyes, her knuckles white where she clutched the statue, but Alexei had no time to placate her. He knew what he’d look like—a huge, muscled man with a perpetual scowl and violence in his eyes.
But the violence wasn’t directed at her.
Jimmy, clearly pissed that Alexei was ignoring him, strode forward, flexing his shoulders in what was meant to be an intimidating gesture. “Get the fuck out!”
Alexei stepped into the apartment, ducking his head to get under the door, then straightening to his full height. He had six inches on Jimmy, and twice the muscles. Even better, he knew how to use them to best advantage. In fact, he did so professionally.
Jimmy struck out with his fist, obviously having transferred his wrath from the girl to Alexei. Good.
The fist struck a few inches below Alexei’s solar plexus. Alexei barely flinched. As he’d suspected, the guy was an amateur. He survived far worse attacks in the cage once a week, and Jimmy didn’t have a chance.
Alexei grabbed him by the back of the neck and spun, slamming Jimmy’s head into the wall with brutal force. He kept himself together enough to pull back his attack slightly. As much as the rage pounding through his veins told him to kill this guy, he had enough control to know the woman cowering a few feet away wouldn’t appreciate her boyfriend’s brains smeared across her neat walls, even if the guy was a shithead.
Jimmy groaned, a pathetic sound that made Alexei want to sneer. The guy tried a weak swing back towards Alexei, but it didn’t connect. Then, he sagged. Alexei knocked his head once more against the wall for good measure. The guy collapsed to the ground with a thump.
All of Alexei’s rage and bloodlust drained out of him at the sight of the unconscious man crumpled on the floor. Unlike Jimmy, Alexei took no pleasure in beating on defenceless people.
Alexei turned towards the woman, immediately dismissing Jimmy from his mind. She stared up at him with wide eyes. He took a step towards her. At the movement, she scrambled to her feet, her eyes bouncing between Alexei and the sack of shit lying behind him. She was taller than he’d thought, coming up to his chin. She’d seemed so much smaller curled in on herself.
Alexei took a breath, not sure what he would say, but knowing it would be appropriate for him to say something.
Before he could get any words out, the woman straightened her spine and raised the small statue so it hovered between them like a weapon.
Alexei blinked and froze. At first he thought she must be talking to Jimmy, but her gaze was trained directly on Alexei. It was a show of strength and defiance he hadn’t expected, and an odd surge of pride welled up in him to know she was neither beaten, nor broken.
But then her words penetrated and he scowled. She took a step backwards at his expression, her lips pressing tightly together. But she didn’t back down.
“What?” he managed, the word coming out more as vhat in his surprise.
Her hands shook as she pointed towards the door. Her breathing was uneven, coming in fits and starts that told him she barely held it together.
“You broke my door and smashed my ex’s head in. You just caused more damage than he did. So, please. Get. Out.”
And then Alexei understood. She was afraid. Not of her unconscious boyfriend, but of him. His teeth clenched at the lack of gratitude, even as the logical part of his mind understood.
Alexei hesitated for a moment, his eyes roving over her face once to make sure she’d be okay. The flash of fire in her eyes told him she’d survive, so he gave her a wry smile. Then, he turned back to the groaning piece of trash on the floor and hefted the smaller man over his shoulder in a fireman’s carry. He ignored the guy’s half-hearted protest as he stepped out of the broken doorway and into the hall.
He turned back, once, to see the woman standing in the middle of her ruined apartment, her arms wrapped tightly around herself. She watched him go with an indecipherable expression on her face. Was that fear? Anger? Desperation? She looked so alone in that moment Alexei had the odd urge to comfort her. But she didn’t want that. And he shouldn’t want that.
Shaking his head against the strange impulse, he strode over to the ancient, rickety staircase that was the only mode of traversing the floors of this shitty apartment building. No one had ever bothered to install an elevator, but Alexei never minded the exercise.
He jogged two floors down with the wriggling man over his shoulder, careful not to touch the railing, lest it topple under his weight.
Once outside he quickly slipped down the alley that ran the side of the building. There, he hefted Jimmy onto the filthy ground. He breathed shallowly in an attempt to avoid the foul smell from the overflowing bins nearby. It was dark; the only light source was the flickering street lamp a few doors down. But there was enough illumination for Alexei to make out Jimmy’s displeased scowl.
He hesitated a moment, then bent over the other man. Jimmy blinked and his head reared back as Alexei got close. The other man’s breath stunk of alcohol and his eyes had the glassy belligerence of a habitual drunk.
Alexei paused for a moment, finding the words in English. “You come near her again, I’ll kill you,” Alexei told him in his most menacing tone. He let the violence of his life, his history, enter his eyes, so Jimmy would know he was serious. He knew his thick Russian accent added to the effect—too many Americans associated Russians with the enemy, with evil.
Jimmy got the message, because he swallowed and nodded. Alexei stood and stepped back. He stared down at the hunched man for a long moment before turning and walking away. He wouldn’t, couldn’t, call the cops on the guy, as much as he might want to. And besides, that would be the woman’s choice to make. A choice he knew survivors often didn’t make, for a variety of reasons, both good and bad.
Sighing, he trudged back up the stairs to his crappy apartment. He glanced at the woman’s door, now shut but tilting precariously in a way that told Alexei the hinges were permanently damaged. He winced, knowing he’d done what he had to, but she’d have to bear the effects.
He took a step towards her apartment, compelled to apologise, to check on her, to…something. But as he neared, the scrape of a heavy item of furniture being pushed across the floor sounded on the other side of the door. She was shoring up her place for the night.
Alexei’s mouth twisted again in some approximation of a smile. He was glad she could take care of herself.
Alexei returned to his own apartment, looking at it with new eyes after seeing the care with which his neighbour had tended to her own. The place hadn’t been in great shape when he’d moved in, and he’d never bothered to rectify that to any great extent once he lived there. The items he’d bought second-hand from various places on the internet had been for their low price, not their comfort or style.
He had no personal items. No photos, no trinkets or decorations. Just the bare minimum. He didn’t need much else.
Frustrated with himself for questioning that fact, even briefly, Alexei returned to his bed, picking up the still-playing ear buds as he threw himself on the squeaking mattress. He hesitated for a moment with the ear bud hovering near his ear. Then, he shut off the music, and placed the phone on the chair that passed for his bedside table.
Instead, he stared up at the dark ceiling and listened to the careful sounds of the woman on the other side of the wall.