The taxi pulled up to Crystal. A shaft of fear drove straight through Fane’s core. I’m intruding. This isn’t my place and way out of my league. Those thoughts ran around him as he held the taxi door for Orlov with a slight bow, putting himself between the Prince and curious onlookers. Orlov’s gleaming amber eyes slid over him approvingly. “Maybe I should hire you as a bodyguard,” the Prince whispered in Fane’s ear as he clapped him on the shoulder.
Fane shivered. “You jest,” he muttered, straightening.
Orlov evaluated the soldier’s clothing, prodding the texture of the coat, testing its legitimacy. “Not your normal clothes, are they?” Fane pursed his lips, dashing his eyes down from Orlov’s mesmerising gaze. “You keep messing with your cuff.”
“I don’t wear these kinds of things.” Fane dropped his hands into a relaxed stance at his sides.
“They fit you well enough to pass scrutiny by the people in there,” Orlov reassured quietly.
A flush of colour swept Anson’s face. “You’re too kind.”
“Confidence goes a long way with people in power.” Orlov motioned for Fane to follow him. The soldier instead put himself in a protective spot to the front and side of Orlov. The New Punjabi scout watched the enlisted man’s actions. Fane’s position was subconscious, but it was not lost on the Prince.
“Why did you bring me with you?” Fane whispered as they walked through the door to the lobby of Crystal.
“Because I feel as out of place as you do.” Orlov studied the ornate furnishings in the lobby as they walked to the lift.
“You’ve at least been to a high-end function like this before.” Fane probbed the entrance, taking note of people milling around and the shadowed alcoves that held possible threats.
“Meh, my mother and father forced me into this, so yeah, I’ve done this rodeo before. I’d rather be back home running a campaign with my friends,” Orlov told him. Fane surreptitiously glanced at the elegant man.
“Campaign? War games?” Fane shifted to divert Orlov’s path off potential collision with a drunk man in a tuxedo.
“Table top games. Had a few college friends who are still willing to play through a few sessions, though we all tend to be busy more often than not.” Orlov took Fane’s direction.
“Who DMs?” The soldier spotted a corner near the lifts that was quiet and empty as a milling crowd waited to enter the set of small compartments.
“I have no capacity to direct a story. My old theatre buddy runs most of the games. He’s had a third kid now, though, so there’s been no time this last year.” Orlov leaned against the burgundy wallpaper.
“I guess these kinds of functions are more for those who like to primp and preen.” Fane eyed the delicate embroidery on Orlov’s outfit.
“And an inconvenience to those of us who don’t,” mumbled Orlov.
“You look…” Fane trailed off, suddenly nervous. He was at first going to complement Orlov, thinking to reassure him of his outfit. Orlov’s glance settled on his face. Fane ducked, embarrassed. What am I trying to prove, coming here with this man? The pain in his side had subsided, at least.
“What?” Orlov smirked.
“Nothing,” Fane clammed up. The group in front of them had thinned. “The lifts are open.” He drew in a steadying breath. The man was not overly fond of the tiny boxes. He also was not about to say that to Orlov.
They rang the lift and crowded in when the door slid open. It was small; not more than four people could fit into the cramped compartment comfortably. It was older. The type that Fane hated the most.
His palms dampened with sweat. “I’m sorry, I’m not much of a conversationalist,” Fane apologised as the door slowly slid closed. Orlov glanced over at him, his brow furrowing. Fane licked his dry lips. Whatever happened, he was going to try to act normal. Orlov waited. “I’m not sure what I can and cannot talk to you about,” Fane supplied, trying to defend his earlier statement, trying to distract himself from the shoebox he found himself stuffed in.
“I don’t need to be made privy to any military secrets,” Orlov’s familiarity evaporated with the stagnant air.
“I didn’t…I didn’t mean that,” Fane mumbled around the white noise in his ears.
“What exactly did you mean?” Orlov held his ground on the other side of the lift.
“I don’t want to offend you. You seem like a decent guy, and I’d rather keep things civil, so…I don’t really know what I can talk to you about,” He straightened. All he wanted to do was cower into himself. Fighting ever instinct he had to break free of the box, he needed to find a safe distraction from the groaning in the winch system above his head.
“First impressions aren’t everything, are they?” Orlov finally leaned over to press the button to the top floor. Fane’s barely audible gasp of incredulity startled Orlov. He flicked a glance to Fane. The soldier’s hands were balled up.
The lift rang at the top floor. Fane and the Prince made their way out of its repressive confinement. Tension released as fresh, cold air hit Fane in the face. He glanced around, noticing a window in a wall on the other side of the lift hall. Behind a young man at the window was a line of coats. The coat check!
“Mr Orlov, if you don’t mind, I need to step over to the coat check real quick.” Fane pointed toward the man and the window.
“After you.” Orlov followed him.
Fane walked over to the clerk. “Has a Zephyr Abeddelli checked in with you yet?”
“Yes?” The man raised an eyebrow.
Tension released in Fane’s shoulders. “Wonderful. Did he leave a wallet and cell phone for a Fane Anson?”
“Are you Fane Anson?” Te man at the coat check reached under the counter.
The coat check man pulled out a white plastic bag with Crystal’s logo printed on it. The man pulled out a few items and handed Fane a worn black leather wallet and a battered flip cover cell phone. The redhead went to pocket them, only to discover his pants were too tight. He looked down at himself, perplexed and annoyed by his clothing yet again.
“Try the inside pocket of your jacket,” Orlov supplied.
Fane pulled his blazer open to discover a series of pockets hidden in it. He shoved his wallet in one side and dropped his phone in the other. It felt weird, the weight. They weren’t the usual things he’d keep in a jacket pocket. This better not be all lumpy. He turned to Orlov.
“What?” Orlov rocked half a step back, on edge at having the soldier meeting his eyes for once that evening.
“Is this okay?” Fane brushed a hand over his jacket to indicate the spot where his wallet and phone were hidden and broader to the rest of his ensamble.
Orlov shrugged. “Yeah, sure. Why?”
Fane reached for his wallet but thought better of it. He tried to swallow against a nervous, dry throat. “I can pay for a cab to get back to base now. If you would rather not have me tagging along making you look bad, I can leave.” Fane glanced at the lift.
Orlov considered the man in front of him. He did not exude the rock star confidence his physique and clothing tried to lend him. Fane shifted uncomfortably under the Prince’s gaze. “Stay. Join me. It’ll be fun.” Orlov motioned for them to start walking.
“If you’re sure.” Fane hopped to match Orlov’s longer stride. They walked the length of the hall to the far end, where a double door opened to the dining hall. Inside, at least two hundred people mingled in formal wear. Fane’s nerves went on edge.
“Shall we?” Orlov whispered.
Fane followed the Prince’s lead, plastered on an egotistic ease, and strode confidently into the room. All eyes settled on Orlov’s gleaming costume. That was a quick way to draw attention. Fane wanted to hide. He shook the feeling, though, realizing it would deter from Orlov’s image if he did that. Straightening his shoulders, Fane tried to emanate a sense of entitled complacency. The people streaming around the room could very well fire him that night, but for this moment, he was at the hand of a Prince.
Orlov made for the General, the boss of this particular travesty called a dinner party. Several individuals wished the Prince a good evening on the way. At each instance, Fane watched the man shift to a fake smile, one that touched the lips but never traveled further.
“Prince Orlov, nice to see you made it.” The General shook hands with the Prince, a stern smile plastered to his face.
Fane figured that smile was probably a foreign movement for the man’s face. At least this Prince can make a fake smile look pleasant. The General looks like a shark.
“I am glad that you could join us. I hope there was no trouble in finding the place,” he continued with superficial small talk. His eyes went round as they slid to Fane standing back and to the side of the Prince.
Fane wanted to squirm, to apologise. Catching Orlov’s glance, the soldier took a breath, trying for confidence. He smiled.
A subtle shift of red blossomed across Orlov’s cheekbones before he could clear his throat. “My dinner partner for the evening, Mr Anson.”
“General, it is an honour.” Fane extended his hand. The man’s face paled as he hesitated to shake the soldier’s hand. Fane’s smile tightened at the minuscule reaction.
“Have we met before?” the General’s shake was limp, not what one would expect of a man who looked to spend more time behind a barbell then a desk..
“No, sir. I’ve seen you motivate the troops.” Fane kept his smile plastered to his face. The General’s eyes narrowed. The commanding officer was trying not to recognise his subordinate. He knew exactly who was standing in front of him and was being too obvious about it.
“General, this is who I was telling you about earlier. Prince Orlov was bringing Fane Anson with him. I already had the waiter get a placard put together for him,” a familiar voice supplied the General. Zephyr clapped a hand on Fane’s shoulder. He came around to stand next to him in a cut tux, a woman in a bombshell red dress hanging off his arm. He leaned in and whispered, “Left a note with the waitstaff for your plant-based food plan.”
“Thank you,” Fane whispered back.
“Oh yes, Anson.” The General turned back to Fane, grasping his hand more firmly. “I hope to see your next shot test. Abbadelli, remember to arrange that for me, would you?” The General nodded a dismissive goodbye and continued walking the room. Fane slid a glance across the Prince’s features to estimate how much of that interaction the royal had caught.
“Shot test?” Orlov shifted from his study of the quickly escaping general to the Chief Warrant Officer.
“Good lord, I can’t believe you actually showed up!” Zephyr tapped Fane on the arm when the General was out of earshot.
“I told you I was coming. Thank you for dropping off my wallet and phone, by the way.” Fane slid a step to the side to displace the clingy man who had no concept of personal space.
“Well, I knew you said Prince Orlov was bringing you, but I figured you’d scat before actually getting in here. You hate parties!” Zephyr laughed.
“I-” Fane shot a glance at the displeased look creasing Orlov’s face with a frown. “I thought I’d take a chance.” Fane hoped he sounded convincing.
“What shot test was the General talking about?” Orlov asked again, now that Zephyr had taken a breath.
“Wait, you came all the way here and didn’t realise Anson was…?” Zephyr’s whistled low. Orlov stared at the man, contemplating. The soldier’s name floated out of his subconscious. Fane scooted out of their circle, trying to make himself small. Orlov’s amber eyes pinned him to the floor. He was a butterfly in a bell jar. Pain radiated up his side again. That look, possessive.
“You’re who I came here for? I thought Fane was supposed to be a woman!” Orlov hissed.
Fane ducked under the indignant accusation before snapping, “Came here for? Sorry, my name sounds like a woman. Not like I picked it out.”
Zephyr smiled mischievously.
Orlov grabbed the redhead firmly by the chin, lifting his face to meet his gaze, turning him this way and that. “You’re split-shot Anson?”
Fane jerked out of Orlov’s grasp. He rubbed his chin. Forcing eye contact like that left a cold pick of rage burrowing down his spine.“ Quit grabbing my chin, you can see my face just fine. I don’t know anything about split-shot. I’m just fast.”
“Mr Abbadelli, are you certain this is the split-shot?” Orlov turned to Zephyr.
“Is this why you had me apologise to this peacock jackass?” Fane demanded of Zephyr at the same time.
“Yes,” Zephyr responded to both the questions.
“Peacock-?” Orlov’s face mottled red.
“This? I’m a this now apparently. Why hello, yes, my pronouns are this that. Why would he come all the way from New Punjab for me? I’m not that great of a shot, but he’s about to make it worth my while to get better,” Fane hissed.
“Not the split-shot then!” Orlov bolstered his initial opinion.
“It’s a feckin’ nickname, ye dense cockswobble!” Fane bit back.
“Dude, humility and humbleness have their place, and right now, it’s not here. No one has bested your record. You’ve broken enough of them to make that almost impossible,” Zephyr quipped. A small crowd of people were taking notice of the interchange.
“Is the split-shot?” Orlov returned in confusion.
“Of course, I am! Are your ears full of wool just when words leave my mouth? It’s a bloody nickname.” Fane folded his arms across his chest. A gong at the end of the room rang, interrupting them.
“Looks like dinner is served.” Zephyr swept past them, leaving the conversation hanging between the Prince and the soldier. Fane glanced uneasily at the room. Orlov’s disdainful eyes slid down him. He prickled under the viscous sensation.
“Shall we find our seats?” Orlov asked tightly. Fane nodded, following behind the man as they made their way towards the head of the room. They found their seats arranged to the left of the podium where the General was putting together his speech notes. The Prince and the soldier slid into their seats quietly.
“Why didn’t you tell me you were split-shot? Could have been helpful knowing who I was having bloody coffee with,” Orlov hissed at Fane under the dun of the waitstaff placing plates on the table.
“I hate that nickname. It wasn’t my place to act so arrogantly in front of a Prince,” Fane shot back.
“Have some confidence. Not like my position is all I am.” Orlov glared.
What is this guy’s problem? Fane couldn’t understand why Orlov was so put off with him. “As you say. Take me or leave me; we’ve got some other good shots in here,” Fane lost his bluster. Orlov stared at his plate mutely. Fane couldn’t tell if he had lost his steam too or was angry enough to not warrant a reply.
They suffered quietly under the deluge of the General’s monologue. The food, though beautiful, was bland. The evening wore on gratingly. They couldn’t even muster small talk together. By the time the last plate had been collected by the wait staff, and the guests started mingling once again, Fane made up his mind to leave. When Orlov was caught in a conversation that had him thoroughly distracted, Fane slipped away. He snuck out of the hall and made his way for the fire exit. Sometimes there wasn’t an alarm set. Sadly, this one was set with an alarm, which meant he had to use the lift. He sighed. All he wanted was for this evening to be over already.
It was only after a lull in the conversation Orlov was trapped in that he noticed a lack of a short redhead near his personage. He glanced around but didn’t spot the red blazer. The Prince paled at having lost his partner. Excusing himself from the people that only wanted his attention for his heritage, he hunted down Zephyr.
Orlov cornered him near the open bar. “Where is he?” The Prince hissed, a thin rage leaking out of his quaffed persona.
“Who?” Zephyr blinked, then glanced around. “Where’s Fane?”
“That’s who I came to ask you for,” Orlov bit out.
“He probably dashed. I’d bet you by now he’s buried in the barracks.” Zephyr smiled sadly.
“Is he as good as everyone says?” Strain left Orlov’s shoulders. There was nothing to be gained this evening by being hostile.
Zephyr appraised the ornate man. “It’s probably a good thing for us that he’s a shy, accommodating fellow.”
Orlov narrowed his gaze. “Why?”
“Because it’s easier to control him that way.” The black-haired man downed the glass of bourbon in his hands. Orlov tilted his head. With a deep sigh of admiration for the burn, Zephyr raised his now empty glass to Orlov. “His shot test was supposed to be tomorrow. I told him he didn’t have to come back in until his doc checked him out at the end of the week. I’ll have him come in anyways for the test. Join us.” Zephyr dropped the glass back down on the counter with a clunk. He turned to walk away, waving offhandedly back to the Prince. “It’ll be an enlightening experience, I promise you.”
Chapel Orahamm (C) 2022-2023. All Rights Reserved.
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