Chapter 3- A Walk in the Park

Simon awoke with a cough, stirring from a dream about burning ships and a boxer drowning in dark waters whilst a young girl fiddled along to his screams. He fumbled with his right hand along a stained bedside table for the glass of water he'd brought to bed. Grasping the glass he drew it to his parched lips and gave a grunt of dissatisfaction when he realised it was empty.

He pushed himself upright from thin bedsheets in need of a wash and rubbed the sleep from his eyes. His eyes burned, his throat felt swollen and his head was tight and aching at the brow. Feeling his nose begin to run he reached out again, this time for the filthy handkerchief he had been using on and off through the night.

After wiping his nose, Simon stood up. He figured if he went to the bathroom, washed and put on clean clothes he might feel a little better. His tarnished silver belled alarm clock said it was just shy of eight in the morning. It was later in the morning than he had thought.

Simon hunted out some clean clothes before trudging wearily into a dank corridor themed with dark brown wood and the stains of the ages. He instinctively avoided the floorboards that creaked as he trod a familiar route to the single bathroom in the apartment.

"You'll have to wait your turn, Nevin's in there," Nico's cheery voice called from Simon's left side.

The blonde almost jumped at the sound and scowled at being so easily startled. He glanced over to the young Italian and his scowl deepened when he saw Nico's teasing smile.

"You still look sick," Nico observed, "isn't the medicine doing its work? The girl has a much healthier pallor."

The girl, such a simple term for the cause of Simon's woes. Simon doubted the Russians actually wanted her, it was far more likely they wanted the treasures and cash she had on her possession. It had now been five days since her rescue and they were no wiser as to why she had those things with her, why her ship had been on fire or who she really was. Simon had wanted to keep looking in on the Russians to see what he could learn but Lorenzo had ordered him house bound until he got over the worst of his cold and until they had learned the fate of the boxer he had beaten.

Yesterday word had arrived, Patrick 'Patches' Mulhoney was dead. Despite the severity of the blows he was found with the police had still written it up as a robbery gone wrong and grumbled that he probably wouldn't have known his attacker. Simon was in the clear. No one cared much about the death of an antagonistic man who boxed for fun.

His first kill. Simon wondered why the thought of it didn't invoke more emotion. When Nico had delivered him the news Simon had just felt an odd numbness and a sense of relief. His regret was that he had been so sloppy and taken so much risk to himself when committing it.

"I'm alright," Simon murmured in answer to Nico. He reached his right hand up to his throat and rubbed at it instinctively as another irritated cough slipped out.

Nico let out a soft chuckle. "Sure Simon."

They heard a lock click followed by the familiar groan of the bathroom door.

Simon continued on his way down the corridor where he met Nevin exiting the bathroom.

Nevin emerged smartly dressed in a coal grey jacket and vest over a plain white shirt with dark striped pants and shined black shoes. He was a proud man who always took care to get his shoes polished and when they scuffed too often or became beyond the point of being saved by a clean he discarded them for a new pair. It didn't matter if he went with cheaper meals that week so he could afford them, good shoes and eccentric hats were important to Nevin.

Nevin's hazel eyes looked to Simon and he took an instinctive step back.

Simon frowned. "If you were going to catch it you'd have caught it by now," he grumbled.

Nevin nodded but attempted to manoeuvre awkwardly around the blond anyway. He pressed his back up against the wall and took wide steps around him, all the while keeping a wary gaze on him.

"Dope," Simon muttered crossly before he stormed into the bathroom. He slammed the door hard for effect.

Simon washed and shaved. Ordinarily shaving brought a sense of joy and pride to him as it was evidence of him shedding his youth for manhood but this morning it just felt like a wearisome chore to try and get a smooth finish. His bristles were only slightly darker than his pale blonde hair and it was difficult for him to spy them all out. Smothering his chin in shaving cream and slicing the razor down hoping to simply catch them all by covering a wide mass never completely worked. Unlike Nevin, Simon wasn't vain enough to consider dropping into the barber's once a week for a clean up. It was cheaper to do the job at home and he wasn't yet at the point of blossoming a beard.

He donned a white shirt and grey trousers before heading out of the bathroom to the kitchen. Nevin and Nico were already gone. Nico had at least taken the time to clean the kitchen up from their breakfast but had not bothered to open a window to banish the odour of cheap coffee and burnt bacon grease.

Simon winced slightly at the smell as it invoked a brief wave of sickness in him. He staggered to the window behind the sink, pushed up the bar and nudged it with a grunt. Like all the other doors and windows in their apartment it was old and unruly. It opened out to a narrow spacing of alleyway granting him a direct view of the opposing brown apartment block, facing a rusting balcony, stained windows and a collection of old, drying washing.

The odour of bacon grease and coffee slipped out as the noise of people, diseased city pigeons and nearby traffic trickled in. A chilling breeze came with it and Simon found himself sneezing once more as it worried at his lungs and froze his chest.

The blonde moved to the tin kettle, filled it with enough water for one cup and placed it on the cooker after a struggle to light it. He desired tea, not for the taste but for the hopes that it would warm his insides a little and perhaps stir him towards life and away from the sickbed.

With little to do, Simon spoiled a morning hour on their battered couch that sat in an area designated as a living room though it was as much a part of the kitchen and the front room. Their apartment, old, cheap and, if one was being positive, full of the marks of history, was a small space in the city for three growing young bachelors but for all its quirks and damages it was sanctuary.

Lorenzo had bought the apartment for the three when he had united them under him. Prior to that Nico had lived in Little Italy with his family in an overcrowded building, Nevin had squabbled for privacy with four sisters down by the docks and Simon had lingered in a dark corner of the city, being bustled from relation to relation while his mother lamented her lost looks and youth with an obvious blame towards him anytime he tried to seek comfort from her.

Only here had Simon felt something akin to family and for that rare feeling he was happy to endure the gaps in the windows that let the icy air seep through, the noise of the neighbours above when they bickered, the endless odour of damp in the bathroom, and the loud clunks of faltering pipes in the night when he was trying to sleep.

It was at the halfway point between nine and ten that Simon's solitude was disturbed.

His grey-green eyes looked to the front door with intrigue as he heard light footsteps outside it. There was the sound of the key slipping in, faint as the owner used discretion, before the lock gave way and the door was opened.

Simon's sullen stare widened slightly with surprise.

Nico had returned but he was not alone. Gripping his right hand tightly with a frightened expression was the girl.

Simon took her in as she lingered in the doorway, motionless and quiet, too afraid to step into this unknown place. She was a little thing, thin with pointed cheekbones and tiny, delicate hands. Her colour was better than when he had last seen her although there was a faint undertone of grey to it as she was still undernourished and the whisper of a shadow at her eyes suggested her sleep was still troubled. Her hair was a bloom of colour and waves. It framed her tender, fragile face in a crown of dark auburn, which brought out the cute dusting of fawn freckles on her cheeks and nose. Her ovular eyes were large and animated, full of terror and gleaming like silver as they faced Simon.

Her attire boasted of Renata's influence, part of her hair was back to expose her face, snared in a silk, pale blue ribbon to match her dress, which was partially obscured by a cream capelet, which matched with a set of cream, blue ribboned gloves. Brown shoes and woolly, white socks protected her feet and part of her legs, which were only minutely exposed as the dress reached past her knees. The look was marred slightly by the tatty brown string that hung from her neck, supporting a silver dollar coin which hung at her chest, taking attention away from the dress' high lacy collar.

Nico pulled her into the apartment, pausing to close the door behind him. He released her hand and abandoned her as she was, still stiff and frightened, and walked over to Simon.

"Renata is sick," Nico murmured quietly.

Simon stood up from the couch and looked up at Nico. "The chill?" he queried.

Nico frowned and shook his head. "I think..." He hesitated and glanced over his shoulder at the girl. His voice dropped another octave as he turned back to Simon. "I think another loss," he said quietly.

Simon frowned too and dipped his head slightly. "That's...unfortunate," he settled awkwardly on the word.

Nico nodded. "It is. In the early hours of the morning I'm told, the doctor arrived about an hour before I did. Lorenzo was...angry. Rosa had the girl dressed and told me to get her out of the house before Lorenzo took his rage out on her."

Simon glanced past Nico to the girl. She was almost statue like save for the animation of emotions in her eyes. He felt sorry for her and again regretted the complicated situation he had put her in. He wondered how Renata would feel about her now, a living child to remind her of the ones she kept losing or perhaps a living child that had already survived the troubling experience of birth and was unlikely to die on Renata?

"Why did you bring her here?" Simon queried quietly.

"I don't know," Nico admitted with a glance of irritation at the blonde. "What do I know about taking care of children? Where should I take her?"

"To the park," Simon advised. He wondered if she had ever been to a park, had she come from a good life, had she been spoiled in Russia or had she suffered?

Nico gave a mocking laugh at this. "Sure, I can envision that."

Simon looked up at him crossly. "Why can't you? You've got kid siblings. This isn't a place to entertain her." He frowned as he knew what was coming next. "You want me to help, don't you?"

Nico smiled back at him. "Well you found her," he reminded her, "and you've made her cry, maybe you could make up for that. I know you're still sick," he added with a degree of sympathy, "but I really don't know what to do with her."

Simon sighed. "Alright, let me get dressed and then we will both take her out for the day."

Simon stepped past Nico and paused as his gaze fell on the girl once more. He extended his right hand and patted her loosely on the head before walking on to his room.

As the late morning shifted into an early noon, Simon and Nico found themselves chaperoning the still nameless girl around the park. There remained a spiteful chill in the air although it kept the skies clear and the grounds dry. The frost turned dew faded as the lemon yellow of a weak winter sun burned it away and cast a pleasant pale glow on the park grounds as they walked.

Nico complained about the cold, and the dead looking trees as they bypassed nannies and mothers alike exposing children too young for school to a healthy dose of fresh air. He ignored the wilting glowers Simon gave him at each complaint.

The girl walked between the men, clinging tightly to their hands and looking to everyone they passed with the same glimpse of fear.

Simon wondered at the girl's fright and undeserved trust in he and Nico. Did she know people were looking for her? Simon had been thinking about that every day since he had eavesdropped on the Russians. They hadn't sounded concerned for her, just for what she had taken but they had mentioned her family name, Volkonsky, so she couldn't be a stranger to them. It made Simon ponder if there was any concerned family member looking for her or if the girl hadn't just seized a chance to run with treasure but to run away from someone or some people.

Simon led them in the direction of the pond, it wasn't cold enough for ice and he knew there would still be water fowl there. The residents of the pond were too attached to human feeders to drift too far from the park, even in winter. When the water hardened and the snow came, they took shelter in the aptly nicknamed 'Fowl Hotel', a small wooden structure supplied by the council to house the ducks, geese and swans that chose to stay in the park through winter. The park wardens kept it supplied with straw and an ample amount of grain.

Simon gave a small smile as he felt a tug on his hand as the girl hastened forward at the sight of the birds.

"Hey," Nico protested crossly as she pulled at his hand too, "you don't need to get closer, you can see them fine from here!"

"What's wrong Nico, scared of the birds?" Simon queried mockingly as he stifled a cough.

Nico glanced over the girl to give Simon a frown in answer. "They stink," he grumbled, "and they've a nasty temper. A bit like you Simon," he taunted as his mouth curled up into a mocking smirk.

Simon shook his head before he started walking forward. Feeling his nose run, he reached out a used handkerchief with his free hand and dabbed at his damp nostrils with it.

Nico's frown returned as he was forced to follow suite and walk to the pond.

There were some quacks and honks as the few birds present spied the trio approaching the rippled mirror edge of the pond. The pond was a wide, uneven oval, guarded with a small slope of soft earth and choppy green grass that melded with aquatic plants both of which were starting to lose the war against winter, shrinking back to the earth for hibernation.

Two bold geese were at the edge of it, threatening to climb out as they hissed at a green headed drake and his nervous, brown feathered spouse.

"Oh geez," Nico murmured nervously as he spied the geese. He drew to a halt, causing the curious girl to jolt still.

Simon glanced over at his friend and smiled as he saw the unease on Nico's face as he frowned and fixed a wary gaze upon the geese.

The sound of fast paced steps on the stone path leading to the pond drew Simon's gaze from Nico and over his shoulder. A woman with a messy assortment of pale brown hair barely shoved under a crooked hat and a pale face smudged with dirt was coming towards them. She was wearing a stained, sloppy cardigan of unspooling navy wool, a high collared, cream shirt beneath it and a skirt to her ankles that had a shade of dark blue similar to the cardigan. She carried a small basket in her right hand and was jostling it in an animated manner as she hurried towards them.

"I've seeds and bread to sell!" she exclaimed to them as she came to a halt.

She raised her free hand to steady her uneven hat before sucking in a breath and drawing herself upright.

"For the birds," she added as she lowered her hand from her hat.

Nico snickered at the display. "And there I was thinking seeds for breakfast would be quite nice," he mocked.

The woman's small mouth creased into a line as she glowered back at Nico.

Simon started coughing and raised his free hand to his mouth into an attempt to smother the coughs.

"Your sister will want to feed them, won't she?" the woman quipped. She gave a wide smile as she looked down to the girl. "The geese are 'specially fond of grain, I've got that too. They'll take it right outta your hand."

"And take your fingers with it," Simon murmured dryly as he lowered his hand.

Simon looked to the girl and saw that she was looking at the woman's basket. He had to wonder again just how much English she knew.

Simon gave the small hand in his a gentle shake prompting the girl to turn her large eyes up to him. "Do you want to feed the birds?" he asked.

The girl looked over her shoulder to the waiting geese and then back up to Simon. She gave a solemn nod.

Nico let out a slight snort of protest. "We're being shaken down for bird seeds," he grumbled. He turned a wary stare back to the woman. "How much?" he demanded.

"Well," the woman became coy, "depends what you want."

Nico smiled. "What if I want a worm fed instead of birds?"

"Nico," Simon snapped at him. "Just give us something for the birds, few seeds and grain."

The woman, whose face was now crimson as she struggled between embarrassment and anger for Nico's comment, turned an unpleasant glare upon Simon. "A dollar," she commanded.

"Piss off greedy wench," Nico scorned her as he kicked dust in her direction with his right foot.

"Nico, stop it," Simon grumbled. He reached into his trouser pocket with his free hand, rustling about for the coins there, feeling their size with his fingertips before he tugged out two quarters.

"Fifty cents," Simon offered as he held out his open palm to show the woman the coins.

The woman leaned forward slightly to peer at the coins. "Hmm." She breathed out a small mist of air as she inspected the silver. "Alright." She leaned back and pulled back a scrap of cloth in the basket before rummaging amongst the goods within. She produced a small, burlap cloth pouch bound with a ratty, brown string, which she offered down to the girl.

The girl blinked at it dumbly before looking up to Simon.

"Go ahead," Simon commanded her.

The girl released Nico's hand to take the pouch.

"Now open it," Nico ordered, "make sure we aren't getting sold pebbles."

"We?" Simon quipped sardonically.

Nico sighed as he watched the girl attempt to open the pouch with one hand.

"Give it here if you can't let Simon's hand go," he ordered as he held out his hand to her.

The girl held the pouch out but when Nico reached for it she didn't let go. The Italian sighed again before he unbound the string and tugged it open in her hand.

"Alright, grain and seeds," he murmured, "can't vouch for the quality but I doubt the dumb birds will care." He tightened the pouch's opening but did not bother re-knotting the string.

Satisfied, Simon placed the coins into the woman's waiting hand.

The woman pocketed the coins hastily. "Have a good morning," she said stiffly as she gave Nico another look of unpleasantness.

"Yeah, you have a good morning too with your cons," Nico retorted with a smile, "bet you'll go offering grains for the pigeons and seeds for squirrels next."

The woman let out a 'humph' sound as her cheeks turned a faint pink. She turned away from them and stormed back up the path.

"She makes a more honest living than we do," Simon murmured wistfully.

"Let's see if the geese agree," Nico replied.

They turned back to the pond where the impatient geese remained at the edge, honking out their hunger.

Simon and the girl walked forward but Nico remained still, a wary gaze fixed upon the geese.

As the girl grew closer her face lit up with joy and she gave a smile wide enough to create dimples. Her knees bobbed up and down in an imitation of a jump as they drew within touching of the geese and she seemed only to be excited as the geese snapped out their orange beaks at her.

She looked up to Simon with a moment of worry as she realised she would need both her hands free to feed the birds.

"Ostan'sya," she said quietly.

Simon knew she was asking him to stay and he nodded.

"Ya budu," he retorted softly, wary that somehow Nico would hear him even over the noise of the waterfowl.

The girl released Simon's hand and reached into the pouch for the seeds. With a smile she sprinkled them out.

Simon watched on with a small grin as the girl attempted to be fair with her feeding. Even as the greedy birds squawked at each other crossly, she still tried to give them the same amount and made a point of tossing a few handfuls to the small ducks that lingered forlornly in the water, too afraid to compete with the larger geese.

Simon's chest had a dull ache to it and he knew he would be paying soon for breathing in so much of the cold air while he was unwell but the girl's joy did bring him some consolation for it.

Nico watched on with mild boredom, incapable of understanding why getting close to losing one's fingers to such savage beasts could be considered fun.

Once the seeds were done the girl bent down and for a moment Simon was afraid that she might stumble into the water but when she stood upright again and turned to him with an offering in her hand he realised what she had been doing.

With hope in her bright eyes she held a large, cream edged white feather up to him.

"Do you want me to take that?" Simon queried dubiously as he wondered about what dirt might be on it.

The girl nodded as she stepped closer and stretched her arm up as high as it could go.

Simon accepted the feather reluctantly. "Thanks," he mumbled. Seeing her eyes dim and the dimples vanish from her cheeks he knew he had upset her with his lacklustre response. Feeling guilty, he considered how he should make amends.

Simon reached up to the slightly dented, black fedora on his head and tugged it off. With a little effort he stuck the feather into the hat band, taking care to push it down firmly so that it hopefully wouldn't get blown away.

Simon smiled down at the girl. "Perfect," he said as he gestured to the feather with one hand.

Simon put the hat back on before extending a hand out to her. "Now, you and I have given gifts and can be considered friends I think, so, what's your name? What can we call you?" he pried.

The girl's uneasiness returned and worry darted through her eyes before she bowed her head.

"It's alright," Simon tried to reassure her. "Ty v bezopasnosti so mnoy," he told her quietly. "Safe," he insisted as he squeezed her hand.

"Safe," she repeated the word quietly. It sounded foreign on her tongue as her Russian accent was thick.

Simon nodded. "Yes, you do understand English, don't you?"

She nodded but it was an uneasy gesture. "Nekotoryye slova."

Simon wasn't surprised that her answer was 'some words', even native speakers did not necessarily has a grasp of every word in the English language. It was a wonderfully creative language, one made for the poets and writers, and therefore it was a notoriously difficult one to learn as well.

Nico had his arms folded as he watched the display. At first he had merely been impatient but now he was starting to grow suspicious. He couldn't see that the pair were talking, their heads were dipped and Simon's face was in the shadows of his hat. Yet there had been some sort of exchange when the girl had given Simon the feather. Nico had chuckled at that, it was primitive but poor Simon had been forced to make a show of the feather's value to spare the girl's feelings and now had it displayed in his hat, a prominent display against the black of the hat.

"Seraphina," the girl said softly, "mama nazvala menya."

"Seraphina," Simon parroted. He nodded. "It's a pretty name, your mama named you well."

The girl gave a bashful smile at this.