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You're a work of art, baby

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“Lay off the drink, old man. And stop messing with cufflinks, what are you, amateur?”

 

Alex looks up, clicking his tongue mournfully. “The sass on you, Yevgeniya Vladimirovna, is shocking.”

 

Yevgeniya Malkina walks towards him, hips swaying in a long gold and black dress slit high up on her thigh. Her legs look like they go on for miles.

 

“And are you wearing heels again? Aren’t you supposed to blend in? Because I don’t exactly see many other six-foot-three women standing around drinking cocktails.”

 

Malkina’s grin is shark-like, teeth glinting in the light reflected from a dozen crystal chandeliers. “SVR not like pussy FBI, we handle agents not cookie-cutter.”

 

“Guys.” Sidney sighs in their ears, put-upon. “Can we not with the pissing contest, again? Keep your eyes peeled for Gray. That’s why we’re here, engaging in this delightful exercise in inter-agency cooperation.”

 

“Aw, Sid. You not like my dress? I try so hard. Even wear ugly earrings with earpiece your Flower give me.”

 

“Gina, no, I—your dress is lovely.”

 

Alex makes gagging sounds. “Need more drink if I have to listen to this. Or switch channel. Just said we’re here to work.”

 

Sidney mutters something Alex doesn’t bother making out. Malkina rolls her eyes fondly and nudges Alex in his shoulder. Good thing he’s twice the size of her in muscle, or he might embarrass himself and his agency by losing his footing. Yevgeniya Malkina is not a small woman by anyone’s account.

 

“I’m go to bar, get another drink and look around. Keep contact.”

 

They exchange a look. Much as Alex despairs of the sass, Malkina is a damn good agent and Alex trusts her. Not many SVR agents would work with a defector’s son without also trying to kill him in their spare time.

 

Malkina moves slowly in the direction of the bar, drawing appreciative glances all the way. Alex turns his back on her and focuses on the other side of the room.

 

What makes this assignment a living nightmare is that no one knows who they’re supposed to be looking for. Code name ‘Gray’, the man is a ghost. If he is even a man. All a depressing number of agencies know is that Gray deals with appropriating art and antiquities that don’t belong to him, and mysteriously fencing them without anyone being the wiser. He only flagged on their radar because a minor dealer got busted, who had very bad encryption on his email and a note in it from a third party looking to obtain Gray’s latest item on offer.

 

So Alex keeps his eyes open and his mind open wider, never dismissing a person out of hand before an assessment of everything their body language gives away. He circulates slowly, sparing a glance for the beautifully displayed cameo brooches that glow in their lit cases. Word on the street is that certain enquiries have been made about this exhibition – particular enough to warrant not one but two agencies’ attentions. The Russians, worried that the items on loan from the Hermitage were in danger, insisted on working together, and so here Alex is, sharing space with his counterpart yet again. At least it is Malkina this time. That one op where they’d sent Datsyik had been brutal. Alex doesn’t need to worry about not dying as well as catching the bad guy.

 

“May I ask you a personal question?”

 

The voice is soft, masculine, a pleasant timbre. Alex turns, eyes slowly drifting over the man standing next to him. He is around Alex’s height, filling his black smoking jacket deliciously. His blond hair curls around his jaw. His eyes are very blue.

 

“By all means,” purrs Alex. What? He’s still alert, and his earpiece is blessedly silent for the time being.

 

The corner of the man’s mouth lifts and he dips his head, like he is pleased that Alex agreed, and Alex find it despicably charming. He wonders if it would be rude to ask for the man’s number in exchange.

 

The man lifts a tumbler of whiskey, using it to gesture at the display. “Do you truly like these? Or do you think we are all pretending to be impressed while we use the opportunity to network?”

 

Alex coughs on a startled laugh. This is not something he expected to find tonight – a man who looks like an angel with an agenda, and speaks his mind besides.

 

“I like them, personally,” he admits. “They remind me of holidays spent in Saint Petersburg. It is beautiful city. Have you been?”

 

The man takes a sip from his glass before shaking his head. “No, I can’t say I’ve had the pleasure. But that would be more of what I enjoy. I like cities, architecture. Not fiddly little coat buttons.”

 

Alex lets out a delighted giggle. Oh, he is so naughty, unrepentantly maligning the reason they are all gathered here tonight.

 

“Alex,” he says impulsively, offering the man a hand that is observed carefully before it is taken.

 

“Nick.”

 

“Gina,” Malkina says, sidling up to the two of them and leaning on Alex’s shoulder. She doesn’t have to lift her arm far to do it, which irks Alex to no end.

 

Nick blinks at her, retracting his hand. Alex is going to kill her. “Work colleague,” he explains hastily. He doesn’t want Nick to get a wrong impression here.

 

“Hello,” Nick nods, but doesn’t offer his hand. Alex gloats in silence. But then Nick says, “I should leave you to enjoy the party,” and that is not okay.

 

Before he can protest, Malkina steps away and asks Nick what he does. Alex perks up his ears.

 

“Financial advice,” Nick says blandly. “Some of my clients are thinking about investing in a couple of the pieces on display. I came for an assessment.”

 

“Won't be glowing, I suppose?” Alex smiles. He is growing fond of this man already.

 

“On the contrary. It is a solid investment that will return value. My personal taste does not enter into account. But I must take my leave. I have an early flight tomorrow.”

 

“Oh,” Alex whispers. Then, louder, “You do not work in DC?”

 

“No. My office is based in LA.”

 

It is so, so far. Alex’s spirits dip.

 

“It was lovely to meet you,” Nick says, mouth curling in a half smile. He nods before walking away.

 

“Aw, sorry, Sasha.” Malkina pats his arm. “He seemed nice.”

 

“Yeah,” Alex replies, despondent. Sidney is blessedly silent. Alex will buy him a coffee next time he sees him.

 

The evening is a bust, anyway. There isn’t even a peep of Gray, and Alex and Malkina retire to their separate corners before midnight.

 

---

 

The operation would have been dead in the water, except for how two dozen of the brooches are stolen en route to their new owners – plucked seemingly out of thin air, marked as delivered by the courier but never actually received.

 

Alex gnashes his teeth and slams his fist on the desk, over the small tower of thin agency files detailing heist after heist that no one had linked before now.

 

“Delivery for you, Agent O. Sign here.”

 

Alex takes the small padded envelope, giving it a cursory glance before throwing it to one side of the desk. He signs for it and grabs his jacket. Time for a coffee run, maybe a sandwich. He’s starving. Post can wait.

 

---

 

Post, apparently, can’t wait. He returns with a bag of take-away lunch to find half of the floor clustered around his desk and Sidney holding something in a gloved hand.

 

It is a small cameo, ivory on sapphire blue, the silhouette of a peacock with each tail feather lovingly carved, the whole of it framed by antique silver lacework. It is beautiful, and reminds Alex strongly of his mother’s home.

 

“Ovechkin,” Sidney says. Alex recognizes his Boss voice and wisely keeps his mouth shut. It's counterproductive, trying to argue. Alex would never breathe a word of it out loud, but Sid in Boss mode is ruthlessly efficient, and… usually right. “My office.”

 

“I have absolutely no idea,” Alex says when Sidney grills him on where the cameo could have come from. It wasn’t part of the exhibit, and it wasn’t declared stolen. It is worth a small fortune. Malkina sits in Sidney’s guest armchair, legs and arms crossed tightly.

 

“Is Russian,” she growls. “From atelier of Faberge.”

 

Alex and Sid breathe in sharply. That is… Holy shit.

 

“Holy shit,” says Alex.

 

Sid hands it to him. Alex takes it reverently. He could sell it and buy a new car.

 

(He won’t sell it.)

 

“There are no grounds for confiscating this. All evidence points to someone giving you a very expensive gift.”

 

“Who?” Alex wonders, a little - okay, a lot - overwhelmed.

 

Sidney shrugs.

 

Malkina shrugs also. “Can trace receipt of purchase. Maybe. Unless paid cash. Lot of cash, though.”

 

Alex thinks about someone walking into an antique dealer’s office and putting a suitcase of cash on their desk.

 

“Well, let us know if you think of a connection to the case,” Sid says, leaning back in his chair with his hands clasped loosely in his lap. Alex only bristles a little, before reminding himself nobody is accusing him of anything, and that Sid is his friend as well as his superior.

 

Then he hops out of Sid’s visitor chair and takes the steps two at a time back to his desk. The envelope lies innocuous in the center of it, the off-yellow of old tobacco all crinkled up from the distance it travelled. There are several postage stamps from London in the top right hand corner, and Alex’s address written out neatly in black sharpie. There is no return address.

 

His first thought is fingerprints, but going through Royal Mail and international delivery means any original prints are by now hopelessly contaminated. Whoever sent this is smart, in a devious, bastardly way. They wave the tantalizing promise of revelation in Alex’s face, only to snatch it away a second later when reality breaks through again. There is no note, no indication whatsoever where the jewel could have come from – or why it came to Alex of all people.

 

Disappointed, Alex drops into his chair and brings the brooch up to his face, held between forefinger and thumb. Light glints softly through the sapphire, deepening the contrast between the stone and the ivory inlay. It is, for lack of a better definition, a work of art. Alex doesn’t know enough about Russian art history to be able to place it, but Malkina’s scowl is enough to convince him it’s genuine.

 

He has no idea what the hell he’s supposed to do with it. But the thought of getting rid of it sends a violent sensation of NO through his body, so he supposes he’s keeping the thing.

 

---

 

With no leads and no new information surfacing for a month, the case is summarily closed and Alex and Malkina go their separate ways – until the next time they end up working together. Sidney mopes for a week after Malkina leaves, but on the Tuesday after, a brand new iPhone gets delivered to his desk and he cheers up considerably, even taking into account the incessant complaining about how damn complicated the thing is.

 

Rumours of a new Gray hit surface in Spain, and Alex has to field a bunch of Interpol calls for the next while. He gets assigned three new cases and his life speeds up enough that he doesn’t have the time or the mental energy to spare holding a grudge.

 

Sometimes, he takes out the cameo and just looks at it, marveling at the skill and the time that had gone into crafting it to such a beautiful finish.

 

Sometimes, he sits in his chair with a glass of whiskey and thinks about Nick, the strange, enticing man he only met for a few minutes, but whom he cannot forget. He considers, very briefly, asking Oshie to run a check on financial advisors called Nick working in LA, and then forgets about it because honestly, it wouldn’t be worth the hassle and the chirping. He chalks the whole thing to a missed connection and tries to get it out of his mind.

 

---

 

When Sid calls him in his office six months later and has him close the door, Alex is maybe a tiny little bit apprehensive about what it might be about.

 

“Got a call from Jon Toews from the Chicago office. He wants you to consult with him on a case. They think it’s a potential Gray.”

 

Alex sits up. “Target?”

 

“An exhibition of Japanese pottery displaying the art of Kintsugi. The same discreet enquiries have been made around the Chicagoan crime underbelly. Go and poke around.”

 

Alex is thrilled. He always felt the Gray case was left somehow unfinished. Now, he’s getting another crack at it, and travelling expenses paid for, and he’ll get to check in with the half-Russian baby agent he’s been hearing about, Tema Panarin.

 

He leaves with the evening flight, so he hurries home to pack a bag before starting the trek to the airport. He takes the usual – a couple of suits, five shirts, underwear and socks, a pair of track pants and a couple of loose t-shirts to sleep in. He’s on his way out of the door when his eyes fall on the brooch, sitting innocuously on the side table by Alex’s favourite armchair.

 

It finds its way into his pocket before he locks up and goes.

 

---

 

Jon Toews has the crazy eyes. Where Sid is calm and contained unless frustrated out of his mind, Toews is open and effusive and likes to yell instructions at his subordinates, instead of using the office phones like a normal person.

 

His people like him, though – that much is blindingly obvious even when Alex isn’t looking for it. Panarin practically gushes about what a great boss and agent he is. Alex is in two minds about telling him to ‘talk less, smile more’, at least to start with, but Tema seems to fit in well at the office, so in the end he decides against dispensing what could be unwelcome advice. The kid’s doing just fine.

 

Toews gets him into his office with a few of his other agents – Brent Seabrook, Carey Crawford, and Nana Fujimoto, who will be running point on this assignment for obvious reasons.

 

“Can you tell me what you’ve heard so far?” Alex requests, and the agents oblige with gusto while Toews sits back and lets them talk.

 

Alex makes a point of speaking up when their findings coincide with things he remembers from his Gray case, and soon enough it becomes obvious that they have another one on their hands. The last time, the hit had happened en route, but they can’t risk assuming that’s the way it will happen this time, too. Alex prepares himself for another evening of rubbing elbows with rich people of little sense. Good thing he thought ahead and packed one of his swankier suits.

 

“Nice,” Carey comments, tapping a perfectly manicured, firetruck-red nail on Alex’s lapel, next to where the brooch sits.

 

“You think it’s too much?”

 

“Not at all, makes you fit in with this crowd. Pretty little thing. Wasn’t expecting something like this from you. Where’d you find it?”

 

After hesitating a moment, Alex just says, “It was a gift.” He suppresses the instinct to cover it with his hand, tuck it away. He questions yet again the impulse to wear it at all. But there was something about the way he’d received it… He couldn’t seem to keep it out of his mind.

 

Carey says something else, inane chatter that spills from her mouth and disguises the way her eyes take in the room. She’s good at this, if not the same way Malkina operates. Alex tunes most of it out and does his own looking around.

 

“Split up?” he suggests quietly after another ten minutes of slow circulation.

 

“Go,” Toews agrees.

 

They go. Alex clasps his hands behind his back and walks the big, open space of the gallery that hosts this particular exhibition. The art is beautiful, and Alex finds himself in danger of becoming mesmerized. Something about this technique speaks to a part deep inside him that resonates with the notion of taking the cracks and keeping them lovingly displayed, tended to and valued for what they are. He has always loved the idea; the execution is, as expected, flawless.

 

“I must confess, this is much more my speed.”

 

Alex can’t help it; he jerks around, eyes wide. “Nick!”

 

Nick smiles at him, a little wider than last time but still small, pleased. “You remember.”

 

“You’re a hard man to forget,” Alex confesses. His face feels too warm. He clears his throat. “You like this, then?”

 

“Very much. I appreciate the philosophy as well as the art itself.”

 

“Me too,” Alex agrees, making a discreet ‘a-ok’ sign behind his back when Toews demands to know if they have a problem.

 

“Here for work again?” Nick asks. He takes a sip of his drink – another amber-coloured whiskey.

 

“I’m afraid so. You?”

 

“Likewise. A different set of clients, but the same idea. At least my recommendation will be heartfelt this time.”

 

Alex notices Nick’s eyes resting on the brooch. He dips his head self-consciously.

 

“It suits you,” Nick says softly. “Perhaps if you had modelled the others, I would have gained a much deeper appreciation for them.”

 

Oh, God. There’s flirting, and there’s… this. Alex wants to answer, but he doesn’t know what to say. It’s not an event that has happened to him a lot in his life.

 

“Alex.” Carey is standing next to him. When the hell did that happen? “Introduce me to your friend?”

 

Alex blinks. Nick has stepped away, much too far, observing them neutrally.

 

“Carey, this is Nick. He is a financial advisor. Nick, Carey, my colleague.”

 

“Hello,” Nick says. Just like last time, he doesn’t offer his hand. “I’m sorry, I can’t stay. Early flight again.”

 

Alex’s stomach sinks.

 

“Hey,” he calls softly, closing the space between them before Nick can walk away. “I know… Maybe this is strange. But do you think… Can I have your email? I could write.”

 

Nick turns towards him now, surprise clear on his face. “Really?”

 

Alex huffs a slightly hysterical laugh. “God, Nick, yeah. Really.”

 

He notices Carey has discreetly melted away, for which he is so very grateful. He takes out his phone, tapping Nick’s email into his contacts.

 

“Thanks,” he breathes. Exhilaration rushes through him, making him grin helplessly. “This is… Thanks.”

 

Nick grins at him. It’s like a lightning strike earthing itself into Alex’s chest; he gapes, shocked, because Nick is beautiful.

 

“I look forward to hearing from you. Have a nice evening, Agent Ovechkin.”

 

“What—I mean, yeah, definitely. I’ll—yeah.”

 

He stares as Nick walks away, and startles badly when Toews drawls, amused and a little impatient, “If we can get back to work now that Ovechkin is done making plans.”

 

---

 

It takes him six hours and another busted stakeout to realise what Nick said. What he called him. Alex jerks upright from where he’d been lying sprawled on top of his hotel bed, insides going cold.

 

“Shit. Shit.

 

Nick is Gray.

 

There is absolutely no evidence to support this hypothesis, and Alex knows better than to think he would ever find any. Nick is good. Way better than the law enforcement agencies out to get him, it turns out. He also doesn’t entertain any illusions that they’ll be able to find him again after tonight. Not until the man himself decides to resurface.

 

The next hurdle is, is it worth it for Alex to tell anyone about this.

 

He imagines the questions. ‘How do you know? Did he say anything to you?’ –‘Yeah, he said my name, which he shouldn’t know.’

 

Uh huh. Sure.

 

It’s just that. Alex know it’s true. He doesn’t know how he knows, he just does. Which means…

 

Alex gets up and pads towards his jacket, draped carelessly over the back of the chair by the desk. He turns it and very carefully unpins the cameo brooch from the lapel. Nick sent him this. Nick dropped a boatload of cash, with no expectations, no plan to ever let Alex know who it was from. Just because Alex told him of a half-forgotten memory that made him happy.

 

This is crazy. Maybe Alex is losing it.

 

He thinks about the email stored in his phone. Thinks about things like entrapment, grooming, cultivation.

 

He opens a new message.

From: a.ovi.8@fbur.com
To: nick_b_19@gmail.com
Subject: I know.

 

You bastard.

Then he deletes the message from his Sent folder and the contact from his phone.

 

---

 

He doesn’t tell anyone.

 

Well, if ‘anyone’ excludes Malkina, that one time he has to go to Moscow for a consult and Malkina takes him out and gets him drunk so she can ask about Sid without Alex glaring at her.

 

“I’m crazy, I know. I just… I really liked him,” he slurs. He sighs forlornly at the table before tipping another shot of vodka into his mouth.

 

Malkina is quiet. “You sure?” she asks eventually. Alex glares at her anyway. She should be more drunk, commiserate more.

 

He shrugs. “Maybe. I think so. He never write back.”

 

Malkina hums, tossing back another shot. “Did buy you stupid expensive jewellery. I think he likes you, Sasha.”

 

Alex drinks another shot. “What’za point? He thief. He might go to jail and then what I do?”

 

Malkina doesn’t answer. There’s nothing to say.

 

---

 

The hit targets the storage center where the pottery is kept before shipping. Six pieces are taken. There is no evidence it ever happened – the Bureau only finds out when the enraged buyers call the gallery to ask why they haven’t received their purchases.

 

Alex lives on tenterhooks for the next two weeks - that’s how long it took for his ‘present’ to show up last time. When the third week passes with no package assaulting him at work, Alex starts to breathe again.

 

It’s a mistake.

 

He gets home one cold November evening to find a parcel sitting at his door. There are no stamps; there is an international courier slip bearing Alex’s home address and a gallery in Tokyo as the sender. Alex’s whole body starts to tingle.

 

He takes it inside with shaking hands. He could run prints this time. There might be something. (There won’t be, he knows. But there might be.)

 

He Googles the gallery. It is very upscale, specializing in Japanese pottery. They have their whole catalogue up on their site, together with prices. Alex can see how it would have gone down: an order placed online, an anonymous bank deposit in cash as payment.

 

He takes the parcel into the kitchen, places it on the table under the glaring spotlights he uses when he’s cooking. He grabs a knife from the stand and very carefully slits the flaps open. The item is packed extremely thoroughly, in Styrofoam peanuts and acres of bubble wrap. At last, Alex holds in his hands a bowl of white porcelain yellowing just a little with age. At the center of it, there is a stylized heart. Two cracks run through it, at roughly 60° to each other, dividing the heart into uneven quarters – like it had, once upon a time, broken into pieces big and small; but someone, somehow, found the pieces and spent the coming years gluing them back together with dust and gold until they formed a whole once more.

 

The symbolism is blatant enough to give Alex a great big wallop over the head. Jesus Christ, where the fuck does this asshole get off, doing something like this?

 

Alex wants to take the bowl and smash it on the floor. He wants to take the bowl and crawl into bed and hold it safe, wrapped with him under the covers.

 

Mostly, he wants to get really, really drunk. He feels an irrational spike of resentment towards Malkina for being so far away and not here supplying him with expensive vodka, because seriously, what is he supposed to do with this shit?

 

Worst part is, he can’t even call Nick and yell at him and then thank him with a blowjob for this ruined, beautiful thing he has given Alex.

 

This whole thing sucks.

 

---

 

Sidney, predictably, gets sick of Alex’s unexplained shitty mood lasting for “over six months, Ovechkin, six fucking months, get it together or go fuck this person out of your system, I don’t care, just sort it out”, and pawns him off to the National Gallery of Art to review their safety measures in preparation for a big Pre-Raphaelites exhibit rolling into DC in September.

 

There hasn’t been a single mention of Gray anywhere, on any continent, in all of that time. It’s like he disappeared into thin air. Alex wonders if Nick’s cover as an international finance advisor was more than just a lie he fed stupid FBI agents too enamoured of his quiet good looks to actually do their jobs. (Not that he wants to think of Nick acting like that with anyone else. Jealousy was never something Alex thought he was capable of. Shows how much he knows.)

 

Anyway. The NGA. Alex shakes himself and heads across town, into the touristy part he usually avoids like the plague. It’s not that he doesn’t like art – he wouldn’t be working in the Art Theft department if that were the case – but he likes to take his time and actually enjoy looking at it, rather than arguing over securing it with a bunch of other ‘experts’, all of them with conflicting views on how to go about it.

 

It’s his own fault, he supposes. No one made him fall for someone unattainable who is also an actual criminal. He should snap out of it, and he should definitely stop thinking about how he misses a guy he has met all of twice and who he was supposed to arrest. He can’t really complain about being given the shitty jobs until he does.

 

He trudges up the stairs (why so many?) and into the cavernous lobby, where he is directed to the office of the Head of the department. He makes his way down corridor after corridor, winding and twisting through the building until Alex has serious doubts he will ever be able to find the way out again. At last, he sees a door with the plaque he was told to look out for, and knocks before letting himself in.

 

“Ah, you must be Agent Ovechkin,” the middle-aged woman behind the desk says. She gets up to offer him a hand. “I am Doctor Pranjavi. It’s great to meet you. May I also introduce Doctor Nicklas Backstrom, from the Tate Museum in London?”

 

Alex’s knees almost give out.

 

“Doctor Backstrom,” he says, after a brief pause to swallow the instinctive ‘Fuck me’ he’d been about to blurt out. “I don’t believe we have met.”

 

Nick gets up and turns towards Alex, holding his hand out first this time. “Agent Ovechkin. No, I don’t think I’ve had the pleasure.”

 

Nick’s touch is warm and confident, big hand cradling Alex’s so safely. It lingers before he lets go. In a daze, Alex sinks into the offered chair and tries to pay attention to the conversation happening before him.

 

God, Nick is here. In the flesh, right next to him. What does Alex do? Is he even legit? Or did Alex get it all wrong?

 

But Nick just said he hasn’t met Alex before. Why would he lie, if he didn’t have something to hide? Something like being an internationally wanted art thief, perhaps?

 

Or is this who Nick has been all along, and Alex’s short, rude, cryptic email has broken things irrevocably between them?

 

“Are you all right, Agent Ovechkin? You look quite pale. Can I get you a glass of water?”

 

“Thank you, that would be very kind,” Alex manages.

 

Doctor Pranjavi walks out of the room, leaving Alex and Nick to stare at each other. Alex takes the opportunity to really look at Nick, his pale skin dusted with freckles over his nose and cheekbones, the snug fit of his suit over his shoulders. Nick watches him calmly, no hint of apprehension on his face.

 

“Are we just going to sit in silence like strangers, then?” Nick’s voice holds a hint of amusement that cuts through Alex like a knife. All this time, he’s been obsessing over this guy, and Nick just…

 

“We are strangers,” Alex says, surprised at the roughness in his voice. “I don’t know you at all.”

 

Nick hums. “I think you know enough.”

 

Did he just—

 

“Are you admitting it, then?”

 

“Admitting what? You haven’t asked me anything.”

 

Alex grinds his teeth in frustration. Just as he opens his mouth again, Doctor Pranjavi returns, handing him a tall crystal glass of water.

 

“Here. Small sips, now.”

 

“Thank you,” Alex murmurs, before drinking down a third of it in one go. It helps clear his head a little, push back the rising wave of anger at Nick’s pretended innocence.

 

“Better? Now, Doctor Backstrom and I have been talking about the entry and exit points into the room, and we think that we should focus on…”

 

Alex nods and hums at the appropriate places, letting the rest of her words flow over him and away again. He wonders whether he is supposed to agree, or if he should be suggesting entirely different countermeasures, considering the elephant in the room that Doctor Pranjavi is unaware of. Maybe he should conduct his own security campaign, plugging any holes Nick leaves himself open to explore. But, to his growing unease, Nick’s plan is watertight. Solid. There is nothing that Alex would want changed if he were in charge of the operation.

 

There must be something fishy going on. There must be.

 

“Shall we leave it here for today, gentlemen? Start afresh tomorrow, see if we can poke any holes in the plan.”

 

With no other choice, Alex agrees, shakes Doctor Pranjavi’s hand, then stands outside the door with no idea what to do next. Nick steps out after him, walking a few feet down the corridor before stopping and turning to look at Alex.

 

“Can I take you to dinner?” he asks. No excuses, no explanation. Just… An offer.

 

Alex considers him. “If I go to dinner with you, will I get some answers?”

 

“Depends on the questions,” Nick says placidly. He gives Alex his half-smile. It makes Alex’s heart jump, the traitor.

 

He sighs. Who is he kidding anyway?

 

“We’re going to a really nice restaurant, and you’re paying.”

 

“I can live with that.”

 

---

 

Alex should arrest him. Really. For one thing, Nick eats like he’s on trial, partitioning his food neatly into groups and making a precise combination of each section into a bite, which he then pops primly into his mouth. Alex can’t stop staring. Also, Nick drinks water, which usually Alex would rail against, except nope, he is not becoming inebriated in front of this man. Who knows what will come out of his mouth.

 

“How is work?” Nick asks before taking another bite. Alex, long past the realization that he never actually told Nick what he did - which didn’t faze Nick in the slightest - shoots him a glare.

 

“Fine.”

 

“This assignment strikes me as somewhat beneath your competence,” Nick observes. His fork makes another trip to his mouth.

 

“Yeah, well. International art criminals have been a little thin on the ground the past few months.”

 

“Did you get bored? Is that why you’re consulting museums now?”

 

“I could ask you the same thing,” Alex snaps.

 

Nick watches him coolly. “I have impeccable credentials. Feel free to check them.”

 

“I will.”

 

Alex attacks his steak with vengeance that might go a trifle overboard. “Did you get bored?” he demands. “Is that why you stopped?”

 

Nick swallows his bite and smiles. It’s that full-out grin that got Alex into trouble the last time.

 

“I received a rather… emotional email. It made me think about my options. Real options, that is.”

 

“Don’t you mean ‘legal’?"

 

“I said what I meant.”

 

The anger ticks under Alex’s skin, just waiting for the permission to explode. Alex isn’t going to give it.

 

“Why did you send me those things?”

 

For once, Nick looks serious. “Because I wanted to give them to you.”

 

Alex watches his face for a lie. He finds no signs of deceit, but he doesn’t trust himself around this man. Nick always manages to give him feelings Alex can’t evade.

 

He slumps back into his seat, taking his glass of water with him. He wishes it was something stronger.

 

“Where do we go from here?” he asks.

 

Nick places his knife and fork together on his plate and reaches for his water.

 

“Wherever you want, Alex.”

 

Alex watches him, uncertain. The silence stretches between them, accompanied by the clinks of glasses and silverware at the neighbouring tables.

 

“I walked away,” Nick offers after a while. He is looking straight at Alex, who feels like there is nowhere to hide from that open, frank gaze.

 

“For good?”

 

“Yes.”

 

“Why?”

 

Nick sighs gently. “Because… Because I was tired. It gets wearing, thinking on your feet all the time. Also, I met this person who seemed so settled in his own skin. Not bored, but content. He gave me a glimpse of who I could be. You know. In another life.

 

“A life where I could have an apartment I actually live in. Maybe someone to share it with.”

 

Alex tries to pretend that Nick’s words aren’t twisting his insides wide open with hope. “Is that right?”

 

“It is.”

 

“And you’re not conning me right now?”

 

“No.”

 

Nick puts his glass back down and reaches into his pocket. He puts a small black box on the table, close to Alex’s right hand.

 

Alex looks between him and the box a few times. Nick remains silent, watching him. Alex’s hand only shakes a little when he reaches for the box and flips it open. A pair of cufflinks lie nestled within, miniature reproductions of Flaming Juno tucked behind little glass domes.

 

“Is this your version of giving me your letterman jacket?” Alex asks after a couple of minutes of trying and failing to speak.

 

Nick shrugs. “They’re for you. You don’t have to wear them. You don’t have to do anything you don’t want to.”

 

“What if I do want to?”

 

Nick flushes across his cheekbones and over the bridge of his nose.

 

Nicky.

 

---

 

It doesn’t mean anything, except for how it means everything. Nicky’s mouth is hot and firm under Alex’s, pliant and insistent at the same time. Alex somehow manages to wait until they get to his apartment before dragging Nicky towards him by the lapels and pressing their lips and bodies together. For all that Alex is tall and broad and is frequently referred to as ‘a tank’, Nicky more than holds his own against him, pressing him into walls and doors like it’s nothing, like he could manhandle Alex just fine if called for, and Alex has to be honest: it’s hot as fuck.

 

“Yeah,” he mouths against Nicky’s jaw. “Yeah, God, please, feels so good.”

 

Nicky slides his hand under Alex’s shirt, tugging it out of his pants in a bid to get at more skin. Alex’s stomach contracts sharply, aching for more. Nicky bites gently at his throat; Alex lets out a sound he honestly didn’t know was in him.

 

“Want you,” he gasps, touching Nicky everywhere he can reach. He smells so good, like something woodsy and sharp, lemon and moss, and Alex can’t get enough. “Want you so long.”

 

“Alex,” Nicky says. His voice is rough, a hitch running through it that goes right to Alex’s cock.

 

“Come on,” he says. He takes Nicky’s hand and tugs, leading him towards the bedroom.

 

They don’t reach it. Nicky stops, eyes locked on the narrow glass cabinet where Alex put the bowl and the brooch, like a testament to some deity he doesn’t care to name. Alex flushes bright red. It’s not like he wanted to play hard to get, exactly, but this is perhaps a little too revealing.

 

It’s fine, though, apparently, because Nicky makes a noise and pushes Alex through the last doorway and onto the bed.

 

“Wanted you the first moment I saw you,” he says into Alex’s collarbone. “You don’t even know, you don’t realise how you look to other people. I saw you and I thought, him. That’s what I’ve been waiting for.”

 

“How you say such things,” Alex breathes, holding tight onto anything he can get his hands on – Nicky’s shoulders, his biceps, his stomach and back packed tight with muscle. He opens his legs and winds them around Nicky’s thighs. Nicky is hard between them; he kisses Alex deep and wet, and Alex's spine liquefies.

 

"I," he groans, arching into Nicky's sinuous, ruthlessly controlled thrusts. "Nicky, I--"

 

"What? Tell me, baby. Anything you want."

 

Fuck it, Alex thinks. He grabs hold and doesn't let go for a long time.

 

---

 

"You fucked him out of your system, then?"

 

"Not... as such."

 

Sid sighs. "I expect an invitation for me and Gina to the wedding."

 

---

 

From: YVM congrats on getting laid. hear wedding bells in air. what if i come for wedding and not leave? fbi need people who speak russian right?

 

From: AMO are you serious

 

From: YVM y can you ask Mama O what life like

 

From: AMO we live in 21c. youve BEEN to the US

 

From: AMO may have to marry Sid to stay

 

From: YVM that = plan

 

From: AMO ARE YOU SERIOUS

 

From: YVM y i already say

 

From: AMO he's from Canada tho. made-up country.

 

From: SPC fuck off, Little Sheep.

 

From: AMO to YVM YOU ARE DEAD.

 

---

 

"I was thinking I might want to open a gallery."

 

Alex hums as he snuggles closer to Nicky's side. Nicky brings his arm around Alex's shoulders and pulls him in, kissing the corner of his mouth.

 

It's a moment before Alex can process what was said.

 

"Wait. A real one? No illegal stuff, Nicky."

 

"All above board. Could showcase new talent. Give kids a place to make a name for themselves, maybe learn the business if they want to."

 

Alex beams at him, pride filling him up. "I think it's great." Nicky is so great. "I'd feel safer than if you set up a security business."

 

Nicky grins. "I still might consult. But I'd like to do this full time, if I can."

 

Alex hugs Nicky's arm and kisses his cheek. "Tell me about the plan. I want to help."

 

Nicky does, taking Alex through finding a space and setting it up, the kinds of things he would like to show. "The one thing I'm worried about is getting a work visa. I hate paperwork."

 

Alex looks at him for a moment, drinking it all in - the easy friendship, the way Alex fits in Nicky's arms just right, how his favourite time of day has become any time he can entice Nicky into bed - even just to cuddle like this. How much he wants to keep this forever.

 

He sits up and climbs on top of Nicky, knees on either side of his waist. "You know, there's a way around that," he says.

 

Nicky lifts an eyebrow, but his hands have already started the slow, comforting stroke along Alex's hips and sides.

 

"I am an American citizen."

 

"Oh, yes?"

 

"Yes. I know Sid and Yevgeniya joke, but we could do it. We could get married."

 

Nicky watches him, blue eyes soft and so fond, Alex can barely stand it sometimes. "Is that right? And what happens when the Immigration Officials come round to see if it's real?"

 

"I tell them it's real. I tell them I first fell in love with your brain. You're so clever, Nicky, you make me not forget you for a long time. And what will you tell them about how you first love me?"

 

Nicky scrunches his eyebrows in consideration. Alex slowly narrows his eyes. Nicky laughs, hands sliding lower.

 

"I'll tell them the truth: that I first noticed the aesthetically pleasing distribution of your ample assets."

 

"Nicky."