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Unspoken Chemistry

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Kala realizes too late that she’s bought too many groceries, and she struggles on the long walk back to her apartment. It’s an icy walk, and she nearly falls several times. She only agreed to pick up the groceries because Lito was depressed with Hernando gone on a research trip to Spain, and Dani was busy with a dance rehearsal. She tried to pick the right things. Cheerios with the honey. Bok choy. Yogurt with 2% fat. She wonders once again why she agreed to this as she trudges up the hill towards the large, drafty house the four of them are renting. Something about grocery stores has always perplexed and depressed her.

She stands for a moment in front of the house, frowning. They’re renting the second floor, and the stairs up to it are caked and crusted with winter. Snow, ice, salt. She picks up the bags, and starts up the stairs slowly. She’s nearly to the top when she slips and has to drop one of the bags to catch herself. The contents of the bag thunder down the steps and onto the sidewalk below. She sets the remaining bags on the landing and rubs her face, exhausted. She starts back down the stairs to gather everything that fell when she notices a young man on the sidewalk, apparently coming home from a night class, shouldering a backpack and carrying a Thermos. They hold each other’s gaze for a moment. Then he kneels down and begins to pick up her groceries.

Kala scampers down the steps to help. They don’t speak as they pick up apples, boxes of tea, several dozen strawberries that have spilled out into the snow. She watches his hands search the snow for anything they missed, and then she looks away, sucking in her cheeks a little and trying to stop her spiraling train of thought.

Doesn’t anyone else realize the most beautiful man on the planet is on my sidewalk?

Kala glances up at him as they get to their feet. He hands her the bags, and she smiles, turning even pinker than she already was from the cold.

“Thank you,” she says quietly.

He shakes his head to signal he didn’t mind and smiles back. His face is expressive, and despite sharp features and a strong jaw, he seems kind. Kala hopes she isn’t staring.

“I’m Wolfgang,” he says and shakes her hand.

His accent makes her momentarily weak.

“I’m Kala.”

He glances at her. “That’s beautiful.”

“Well, my parents must have thought so,” she says modestly.

“Where are you from?” he asks.

“Mumbai, which probably explains why I’m so terrible at dealing with the winter,” she says, laughing at herself and gesturing with her grocery bags. “You?”

“I just moved here from Berlin.”

“Oh, well at least you’re used to the cold. I’m sure I’ll never be warm again.”

“I wouldn’t be so sure of that,” he says, a smirk playing at the corner of his lips.

Kala blushes, and after a breath says, “Well -- thank you -- I should probably--”

He nods, hiking his backpack higher on his shoulder. “See you around.”

“See you around,” she replies, and returns up the stairs.

She gets inside, drops the groceries, and stares into the dark living room. What was that?

Chapter Text

It takes Kala a long time to wake up the next morning. She stretches several times under the covers, snuggling her nose into the pillow that she’s hugging. She blinks in the bleak morning light, poorly rested. Something must have been troubling her sleep. As a child, she would dream a demon was sitting on her chest, squeezing out all the air. It never attacked her. It never even moved. It just sat, and sat, and she would wake up gasping.

She spends a moment recalling these dreams, still safely under the covers, still warm. Then she throws off the blankets and yawns on her way to the shower. She has a typically draining day ahead of her. Three classes, a meeting with a professor regarding her dissertation, and a shift at the math lab. She’s particularly anxious about the meeting. Dr. Kolovi had agreed, reluctantly, to meet with her about her questions pertaining to gene sequence and chemical alteration of telomerase. She almost reconsidered given his hesitation, but she needed his input, and everyone at the university agreed he was the best one to ask.

She showers quickly, dresses in a warm white sweater and jeans, and makes her way downstairs to the kitchen, where Lito and Dani are preparing breakfast. Well, Lito’s preparing, Dani is talking excitedly about a new ballet on tour and how they have to, on pain of death, go with her to see it.

“-- so good, like, whoever designs their costumes is a miracle worker.” She notices Kala enter the kitchen and squeals. “Kala, oh my God, we’re going out this weekend to watch this, you have to come, it’s so beautiful, the director let me watch a few minutes of rehearsal and it’s heaven.”

Kala can’t help but smile. As annoying as Dani can be at times, she never provokes anger or sadness, and Kala can’t think of a better quality to have than enthusiasm for all things.

“I’ll go,” she agrees, reaching for a bowl of cut strawberries and sugar that Lito made.

She sits down and pours a cup of tea out of the pot that’s waiting on the table, then spears one of the strawberries with her fork. She pauses, memories flooding back, and wonders whether to tell Lito and Dani about her strange experience last night. She decides at the last second not to, because something about meeting Wolfgang felt dreamlike, surreal, fated; she doesn't want to explain it to anyone when she barely understands it herself.

“Ugh, Hernando would love this performance,” Dani goes on. “Maybe we can film some of it for him.”

Lito moans. “It sounds perfect for him, he’ll be devastated to miss it.”

“What’s it about?” asks Kala.

“It’s La Sylphide,” replies Dani. “It’s so haunting.” She sighs and shakes her head wistfully. “There’s nothing like the ballet.”

Kala smiles. “It sounds wonderful.”

They all lace on boots and zip up thick coats a few minutes later, and brave the impending blizzard. The news keeps describing it in apocalyptic terms. A blizzard to end all blizzards. Snowmageddon. Bone-chilling, brain-freezing, heart-stopping cold. Chicagoans find the reports excessive, but Kala disagrees. Every time she steps outside she thinks her delicate fingers and toes will simply snap off like icicles. But she also finds the winter calm and romantic and quiet in a way she likes, which is unusual for her. Normally silence frightens her, but the kind of quiet brought on by blanketing snow is different.

“I don’t know why I left San Diego,” grumbles Dani. “Mm, I’d be sipping a lemonade and walking to class in sandals right now.”

“I like the snow,” admits Kala.

Lito whines into his scarf. “I’ll never be warm again. This is it for me.”

They make it to campus after twenty minutes of raw cold. Kala nearly collapses in relief as she steps into the warm science building. She takes off her gloves and rubs her hands together on the elevator ride up to her floor.

Her classes pass quickly, and she decides her mind must be elsewhere, since chemistry never passes quickly. She takes a moment to eat a cinnamon bagel and gulp down some tea (she’s still tired) before wandering the labyrinth that is the genetics department. It’s poorly lit, which she finds irresponsible -- shouldn’t such an exacting discipline be studied in a bright space? But perhaps the lighting is due to the time, seven at night, when nearly all professors have gone home.

She finds Kolovi’s office. The door is slightly ajar, but she knocks all the same. She’s met by a startled and frantic, “Yes, one moment!” and she steps back, surprised.

She hears shuffling papers and a cabinet shutting. She frowns, leaning forward.

“Dr. Kolovi? I -- I can come back.”

“No, don’t be silly,” says Kolovi. He opens the door and smiles at her. “Kala Dandekar, I’ve heard good things. Come, come. You had a question about telomerase?”

Kala hesitates, but follows him into his office. Despite the odd start, the meeting goes very well, and she leaves with answers and a promise of a recommendation for any job she wants.

But she can’t help but wonder.

 

Chapter Text

“Would it be possible, for once in your sad life, to actually do the dishes ?” asks Felix as soon as Wolfgang steps in the door.

“Would it be possible, for once in your sad life, to actually shut the fuck up?” responds Wolfgang as he sits down on the couch.

Felix grins. “You know I have a big mouth, almost got me killed last year, remember that?”

“Sitting next to you in the hospital for two months? No, don’t remember that.”

“You know, for someone dedicated enough to sit next to his idiot friend for two months, you’d think you’d be dedicated enough to do the dishes.”

“I’ll do the dishes if you go get groceries.”

Felix sighs and sits next to him. “Well, this is it Wolfie. We should just get married. Listen to us.”

Wolfgang spends a moment drinking his coffee, which is long cold, and then glances at Felix.

“I need you to tell me if I’m crazy. I met this girl last night...”

Felix covers his face. “Here we go again.”

“She’s different.”

“How do you mean?”

“I don’t know yet, I just couldn’t look away from her. It's like I know her.”

“You probably do, you can't possibly remember all the girls at all the parties...”

“No, this isn't some girl that looks vaguely familiar... she's like something out of a different life.”

“Okay...”

“It’s almost like I could hear her in my head.”

That’s crazy.”

Wolfgang shrugs, playing with the stubble on his chin and gazing out at the snow.

“Do you ever feel like we left Berlin for a reason?”

“Uh, yeah, to escape a bunch of mass-murdering fuckheads.”

“Besides that.”

Felix shakes his head and pats Wolfgang’s shoulder. “You’re losing it, my friend.”

“Maybe,” he admits, getting up and heading for the stairs. “I’m going to keep unpacking, want to help?”

Felix groans. “I thought we were done with that...”

“Three more boxes came this morning,” says Wolfgang. “Get a couple beers, hurry up.”

“Why do I put up with you?” Felix asks himself after Wolfgang’s out of sight.

He returns upstairs to find Wolfgang with his head inside a large cardboard box that’s wrapped with too much packing tape, and covered in stamps from customs. Wolfgang stands up cradling several guns in his arms, and grins.

“You did not send those through customs,” says Felix.

“I know someone in customs, don’t worry,” says Wolfgang, dropping the guns on the bed.

Felix walks up to Wolfgang and shoves a beer into his hand. Then he takes his shoulder and looks at him solemnly.

“Wolfie, you know the idea was to get on the straight and narrow, to leave all this behind, to make a life here without ties back there--”

“What was I supposed to do? Leave them?”

“Get new guns here! It’s not exactly a hard thing to do in America!”

“These ones have always worked for me.”

“New ones would work for you!”

Felix can see he’s not changing Wolfgang’s mind, so he shakes his head and takes a long draft of beer.

“We won’t even need those here,” he adds.

“My uncle has men all over the world.”

“But we can’t live in fear like that!” shouts Felix. “I’m sick of just surviving, that’s not how I’m going to live here!” He sighs and runs a hand through his mop of hair. “I’m sick of that. I want a life here. A real life. I want to sleep in the same bed every night and get a job and marry a nice girl and stop...checking around corners and worrying I’m going to die or thinking you’re going to die and...pissing myself every time someone looks at me for a little too long.”

Wolfgang shakes Felix’s shoulder in a bracing way. “Felix, listen, we’re not going to live like that. But this isn’t something we ever get to leave behind. It’s part of our lives, always has been.”

Felix nods reluctantly and takes another swallow of beer. Then he gestures at the guns, “You’re a fucking moron.”

Wolfgang cracks up and clinks his beer against Felix’s. “Sometimes I get lucky.”

“You’re the unluckiest person I know besides me,” says Felix. “Fucking christ. Guns in customs. What were you thinking?”

Wolfgang shrugs and goes back to the box, smiling to himself.

“What else do you have in there? Chemical weapons? A dead prostitute?”

Wolfgang pulls out a book and holds it up for Felix to see. “Books. And...” He pulls out a jacket. “Clothes. Just in time, it’s fucking freezing here.” He throws the book to Felix. “Don’t just stand there.”

Felix throws the book on the bed. “I only put up with nagging if I’m getting some.”

Wolfgang walks across the room, pulls Felix roughly by the collar and kisses his cheek. “There, now I can nag all I want.” He pulls his phone out of his pocket. “I’m calling some place for dinner, what do you want?”

Felix wipes his cheek, groaning. “That’s not what I meant...”

Wolfgang holds up his phone. “Italian? Chinese? What?”

“Get whatever you want,” says Felix.

Wolfgang orders, and fifteen minutes later they’ve unpacked the first box, which is mostly clothes. In the very bottom, there’s a pair of Felix’s shoes.

He holds them up and laughs. “Remember these?”

Wolfgang smiles distantly. “We thought we were on top of the world.”

“Strange,” murmurs Felix.

He throws the shoes on the pile. Then he picks up a framed photo of Wolfgang’s mother, the only one that exists; he hands it silently to Wolfgang, who looks at it just long enough, and sets it carefully on his bed.

“I guess you’re right,” Felix says after a moment. “It would be wrong to leave everything behind.”

Wolfgang shakes his head, cutting into the next box with the hunting knife he keeps in his pocket. “If I could forget all of it I would.”

“There are some parts you don’t want to forget,” Felix says carefully.

Wolfgang shakes his head again. “I’d let the good go away with the bad if it meant I could forget all of it.”

“Fair enough,” says Felix.

There’s a knock on the door downstairs, and Wolfgang automatically reaches for a gun in his pocket, but it isn’t there; he’d made himself stop carrying, thinking it would make him less paranoid; instead, it’s made him feel extremely naked and helpless.

“It’s just the food,” says Felix. “I’ll go with you if--”

“Fuck off,” says Wolfgang, more roughly than he intended to. He jogs down the stairs, retrieves the food, grabs forks and plates, and returns a few minutes later with a quiet, “Sorry, didn’t mean to say that.”

“You’re terrible at apologies,” says Felix, but he sounds pleased. “Pass me a plate.”

They sit down for a few minutes, surrounded by dusty belongings and and packing peanuts.

“Wolfie tell me something,” says Felix around a bite of rice. “I met this girl last week at a party, and we hit it off, talked about music and shit, and she seemed to really like me. And she went home with another fucking guy!”

“So what’s your question?”

“How do you stop that from happening?” asks Felix, gesturing impatiently with his fork.

“You can’t, it happens to everyone,” says Wolfgang.

Felix groans. “It shouldn’t be that hard to make a girl stay.”

“She has to want to,” says Wolfgang, smirking, dangling a piece of buttery naan into his mouth.

“I’m not talking about getting a girl into bed! I’m talking about getting a girl into bed repeatedly!”

Wolfgang starts to laugh. “I’m not the person you should be asking.”

Felix frowns. “You do tend to date psychopaths. But I’d settle for a psychopath at this point.”

“No you wouldn’t. There’s a reason I stopped seeing girls more than once.”

“Oh, don’t turn your lifestyle of casual fucks into some sanctimonious choice. You just like pussy.”

“Thanks for that insight,” says Wolfgang.

“Maybe you’re right though,” says Felix.

“About?”

“About you being the wrong person to ask.” Felix chews musingly on a piece of naan. “But what about that girl you saw last night?”

Wolfgang shrugs. “I don’t know.”

Chapter Text

The meeting with Professor Kolovi sends Kala in search of a book he recommended. She’d ordinarily look online, but it’s a rather rare book, something Kolovi described as experimental. Kala is surprised the library has it at all, and is almost disappointed. The fact that the book is within reach means she’s taking on even more work than she intended to, and she’s already buried. She dutifully puts on her coat on Saturday morning, and tea in hand, trudges to the library to begin working. She picks out her usual spot, overlooking one of the soccer fields, just loud enough for her to feel comfortable. Having reserved the spot by placing her coat on the chair, she goes in search of the book. She had always assumed that modern American universities were altogether devoid of dust and darkness, but the section she finds the book in proves her wrong. It’s in the archives, the most disorganized and oldest part of the library where few science students ever venture. She has to put on her glasses to read the titles in the dim light.

She’s just found Biological Immortality of Planarian Flatworms when she feels someone’s eyes on her. She looks to her right, and notices a man a few feet away, holding a book open in his hand. She breathes in suddenly when she realizes it’s Wolfgang.

Kala is so surprised at the sheer improbability of running into him again that it takes her a moment to smile. He steps over to her when she finally does.

“What are you reading?” he asks.

She holds up Flatworms . “Not exactly beach reading.”

He laughs. “No.”

“It’s about cell line immortality... some cells can divide forever, depending on certain conditions and so hypothetically, an entire organism could live forever. And possibly not hypothetically. These flatworms, for instance, we’re not sure if they ever die from natural aging.”

Wolfgang wrinkles his brow. “Immortal worms?”

Kala nods. “Yes, I’m attempting to combine theories of immortal cell lines with new pharmaceuticals for certain neurological disorders, especially neurodegenerative ones.”

Wolfgang’s smile grows steadily wider as he listens to her talk.

“The idea is to combat the degeneration with some kind of cell therapy, although I’m not convinced, because the therapy may just make the cells infinitely degenerate rather than having the opposite effect. Although anything is worth exploring. Some therapies have come out of the most bizarre initial ideas. And the professor I’m working with thinks this is promising. It’s all a little too biological for me, I’m a chemist, but chemicals don’t really mean much outside the context of life.” She looks up suddenly, clenching the book. “Oh, I’ve done it again. I keep subjecting strangers to bits of my dissertation, it’s kind of consuming my life right now.”

He shakes his head and smiles. “I don’t mind.”

She can tell he means it, and she tucks her hair behind her ear, flattered. Then she smiles at him. “I never properly thanked you the other night.”

“It was nothing, don’t worry,” he replies.

“No, really, it was very sweet,” she says quietly.

They look at each other for a moment, interested, each wondering if the other will suggest a drink or a movie. But Kala’s too shy and Wolfgang’s not quick enough.

She gestures at his book. “And what about you? What are you reading?”

He holds it up. It’s in Russian. Brat'ya Karamazovy.

“It’s the Brothers Karamazov, I just figured I would read it in the original language, see if there’s any noticeable differences.”

Kala’s eyes brighten. “You like literature?”

He nods. “It’s one of the only things I like.”

“And you speak Russian?” she adds.

“I read it better than I speak it,” he says.

“But you grew up in Germany.”

“East Berlin, different thing,” he says.

She knits her brow softly, understanding the implications of that. “I see.”

He gives a short, cool smile and changes the subject. “Saturday in the library? You must be quite dedicated.”

“You too.”

He shakes his head. “No, I’m a terrible student, I just like it here.”

She glances around. “I’ve never been to this part of the library before. I didn’t know it existed.”

“It’s where they put everything no one wants,” he says.

“Except us,” she says, smiling slightly.

“Except us,” he agrees.

She smiles wider, and once again, they hold each other’s gaze and wait. The words are all there for the taking: Are you free tonight? Would you like to get a drink? He’s said those words a thousand times; they’ve always come easily to him. But something about this girl stops him. He’s suddenly and inexplicably speechless. It’s like being underwater, torn between the need to breathe and the urge to stay underneath where the world is quiet and untroubled.

Once again, he’s too slow.

“Well, I should study,” Kala says with a warm smile. “See you around.”

He smiles back. “See you around.”

Have you lost your mind? Don’t let her walk away.

But she’s gone.

Chapter Text

Wolfgang spends most of Sunday reading in bed, drinking vodka and trading friendly insults with Felix, who’s in pain. (“I don’t think they got all the bits of glass out of me, Wolfie. I still feel like a human pincushion.”/ “You still look like one, too.”/ “Fuck you, do we have any of the good pain killers left?”) At about 3:00, Felix insists they go to the clinic on campus and pick up something. Wolfgang acts annoyed, but Felix can tell he isn’t from the way he helps him down the stairs and makes sure he doesn’t slip.

“You’re quiet,” mentions Felix as they make their way down the street.

Wolfgang looks at him. “What’s unusual about that?”

“More quiet than usual,” says Felix. “It’s about that girl isn’t it?”

Wolfgang shrugs, searching in his pockets for a cigarette. “I saw her again.”

Felix frowns. “It’s a pretty big city to run into the same person.”

Wolfgang nods. “I was going to ask her out and I couldn’t.”

“Couldn’t?”

“Something stopped me.”

“Nothing’s ever stopped you.”

Wolfgang glances at him as he hands over a cigarette. “She’s one of those girls who’s never done anything wrong in her life.”

“Well, you could be her first mistake,” says Felix, lighting up.

“I don’t think she deserves that,” says Wolfgang.

“You do fuck things up,” agrees Felix, handing over the lighter. He doesn’t let go of it, though, because he wants Wolfgang to look at him for the next part. “However, you saved my life, so you’re not all bad.”

Wolfgang tugs the lighter out of his hand. “It was my fault that happened in the first place.”

“Bullshit, Steiner had it out for me,” says Felix. “He was jealous of you since you were kids, he wanted you to be as alone as he was.”

Wolfgang shakes his head. “We should have just left.”

“That’s for pussies,” says Felix. “I don’t regret any of it.”

“If you had died--”

“But I didn’t! Could you live in the real world for one fucking minute? I’m okay, you’re okay.” Felix shakes his head and takes a long drag. “I don’t know how you live with all that on your mind.”

“I don’t know how to stop thinking about it.”

“Just think about something else.”

“There’s nothing else to think about.”

***

Kala spends most of Sunday in the lab, and then she returns home to cook modak, planning to wrap it in foil and make the lengthy trip up the temple in Northside. It’s too cold to go out today, but there’s supposed to be a break in the snow tomorrow, and she’ll try to find time then. If there’s one thing she misses about home, it’s the short, sunny walk to the temple near the restaurant. It was so easy to be faithful there. Here, there’s disconnection. She usually calls her parents while she’s making modak to make up for this, but today, they’re rearranging the tables in the restaurant and hanging new curtains and can’t talk. So she makes it alone, humming quietly, wrapped in a big scarf to keep warm in the drafty house.

Lito and Dani drift in and out of the kitchen, stealing bites. Lito’s on the phone with Hernando for hours, and Kala experiences little pangs listening to Lito laugh, noticing his voice change in a way it does only when he’s talking to Hernando. She tries to focus on her work, on folding the dough, shredding the coconut just right, but her mind keeps drifting to the library.

This is what you get for never dating, Kala! You always make something out of nothing, you invent details that didn’t happen...there’s nothing unusual about two strangers having a conversation! He was just being polite. You were just being polite. Calm down for God’s sake!

She stirs cardamom and nutmeg into the filling, which she’s heating slowly on the stove. Lito laughs loudly in the other room, speaking rapidly in Spanish, sounding euphoric. Kala swallows hard and turns her attention to rolling out the dough. She’s a little rougher with it than she should be, working out some of her frustration.

But maybe you should go back to the library tomorrow. Just to see. Just to check. You can’t go through life like this any longer. Maybe he was talking to you for a reason.

She adds more ghee to the filling, and wonders if she should have used more poppy seeds.

Stupid! You were wearing a shapeless sweater and your hair looked like you hadn’t run a comb through it in a year.

She pulls the filling off the stove, and sprinkles some more rice flour on the dough. She uses the backs of her hands to move her hair out of her face, and she looks up at the ceiling, wondering.

Maybe he knows you’re friends with Dani. Wouldn’t be the first time someone flirted with you to get to her. But it didn’t seem like that this time...

She keeps rolling the dough, eyes closed, feeling her way with her fingers. She’s determined to quiet her mind, the endless stream of whys and what ifs and no ways.

She finishes the modak an hour later, and stores it in the fridge so it will be ready tomorrow. She’s surprised by the time, and she rushes upstairs to begin getting ready to go with Lito and Dani to the ballet. She’d much rather stay in tonight, watching a movie alone in bed, but she knows she’ll feel better as soon as she’s in her seat at the theater. She picks out a knee-length dress, blood red and slightly shiny, with a sweetheart neckline.

“Too much?” she asks Dani, who has never said yes to that question.

As expected, Dani melts and puts a hand on her heart. “Perfect.”

They share a mirror for a few minutes, applying eyeshadow and scrutinizing their brows.

“Stupid Lito,” says Dani. “Throws on a tux and looks like a movie star.”

“Stupid boys,” agrees Kala. “I don’t think they know how long this takes us.”

“They don’t deserve us,” says Dani with a satisfied sigh. “Look at us, we’re more than any guy would know what to do with.”

Kala laughs. Then she bites her lip and glances at Dani in the mirror.

“Can I ask you something?”

“Of course, love,” says Dani, puckering her lips as she applies some gloss.

Kala plays with her fingernails for a moment, thinking. Then she says, all in one breath, “A few nights ago, I was coming home from the store, and I dropped half the groceries on the stairs and they spilled everywhere and out of nowhere there was this man passing by and he helped me pick them up and...” Kala laughs at herself. “It sounds so silly to say out loud.”

“You never sound silly, Kala,” Dani says softly.

Kala takes a breath. “I ran into him again in the library, and we talked and...I can’t get him off my mind, no matter what I do.” She pauses. “I never go out, I haven’t been on a date since Rajan...and now I’m stupidly attached to this stranger, and I can’t decide if this is...”

“Something real,” finishes Dani. She hums in thought. “You’ll just have to find out.”

“How?”

“See him again.”

Kala looks down, smiling sadly. “I don’t have any way to reach him.”

Dani touches up her mascara. Then she squeezes Kala’s arm. “If it’s real, you’ll see him again. Don’t worry.”

Kala nods uncertainly. They finish their makeup and call an Uber. Lito, still on the phone with Hernando, is struggling to put on his shoes one-handed. Kala and Dani roll their eyes at one another and steal his phone. They give their love to Hernando, and force Lito out the door.

They stop quickly at a bar near the theater and split a bottle of wine. Lito tells the girls about Hernando’s life in Spain, which sounds too good to be true, and they all express their desire for summer to be here sooner, for tapas, for new sangria recipes.

Then they enter the theater, find their seats, and all take hands as the lights go down.

La Sylphide tells the story of a young man, engaged to be married, who haplessly falls in love with a spirit. He betrays his fiance to be with the spirit, resulting in his death, which seems to have been the spirit’s original intention. By the end of the dance, Kala finds herself excusing the young man. But he loved her, he didn’t love the woman he was supposed to marry. He was only doing what his heart told him to. He didn’t realize the risks. He didn’t think it would end up like that...

Kala cries as the dancers take their bows. She isn’t surprised by this. She’s always been eaten up by dancing, transformed by it. But she is surprised at the emotion it’s eliciting tonight. She usually cries from the beauty of the experience, but tonight she’s crying because she wishes desperately, like she never has before, that she had someone to share it with. Someone to hold onto while she watches, to whisper to as the lights go down, to walk slowly home with, hand in hand, and fall asleep next to as the images of the night fade from her mind. Someone to gently thumb over her cheek as they talk sleepily about the characters. Someone who’s comfortable and comforting; someone who feels like home when nothing else does.

She’s afraid she’ll never have this. Everywhere she looks, she finds the same message. Love is wrong. Love is dangerous. Even this ballet screams it at her.

“Kala, are you okay?” asks Dani as the dancers exit the stage.

Kala nods, wiping her eyes carefully so she doesn’t smear her makeup. “I’m okay.”

Dani rubs her arm. “It’s a depressing story, huh?”

“Very,” agrees Kala. “But very beautiful.”

They make their way down the aisle, heading for the bathrooms. Dani gets a text, an invitation to the afterparty, but Kala says she’s too tired. She can tell her friends are worried, but she puts on a brave face and insists they go without her.

She returns home alone, shivering on the doorstep as she digs through her purse for keys. Then she gasps softly, remembering that she set her keys down in the lab this morning. She starts to sort through her purse more frantically, but she’s sure she left the keys at the lab. She covers her face, swallowing the urge to cry, and calls Dani. No answer. She tries Lito. No answer. They’re obviously in deep conversation with actors and directors, and it could be hours before they check their phones.

Kala pulls her coat more tightly around her, puts headphones on, and sets her mind for the walk to campus. She plays her music loudly so she can ignore the storm. She tries not to think about the fact she’s walking through a blizzard in high heels. She keeps her hands deep in her pockets, sheltered from the cold. Still, by the time she arrives at the science building, she’s gasping and trembling from the cold. Her fingers have turned white in places, and her legs are covered in goosebumps. Her nose and ears are cherry red and they ache.

She thaws out for a moment on the first floor, massaging life back into her legs. Then she takes the elevator to her floor, walks to the lab, and finds that it’s locked. Of course it’s locked.

Kala nearly begins to cry again, wondering how long she’ll have to wait for Dani and Lito. She’s exhausted in her bones. She doesn’t think she can face a long wait, and she briefly entertains the idea of sleeping here, next to the lab door. At the very least, she’ll wait for a janitor to walk by; one has to eventually. She takes her coat off and uses it to sit on. Then she stretches out her legs, leans her head on the door, and closes her eyes.

Twenty minutes later, she notices a noise down the hall. She turns her head sleepily, watching a shadow advance closer. She sits up a little straighter, craning her neck. The shadow turns a corner, and after a moment, she can make out a figure walking towards her.

“Oh my God,” she murmurs to herself when she sees it’s Wolfgang. “Oh my God, I don’t understand.”

It takes him a long time to notice her. His head is down and his hands are in his pockets. He’s only a few feet away when he finally looks up and sees her, and he stops short. He tries, really he does, but he can’t help sweeping his gaze over her bare legs.

“Kala?” he asks.

“What are you doing here?” she whispers.

“I like to walk at night,” he replies, voice a little more strained than usual. “What are you doing here?”

She gestures hopelessly at the lab. “I left my keys inside. I’m locked out of my apartment.” She shrugs. “I’m waiting for a janitor to pass by.” He still looks confused, which she realizes must be due to her dress. “Oh.” She tugs the straps of her dress up and smooths the fabric over her legs. “I was at a ballet performance.”

Wolfgang could almost laugh, because of course she was. Of course the one night that she gets locked out is the night she looks like that. Of course she ran into him, the one person who could help. Of course she did. It’s all beyond coincidence at this point.

“I can get your keys” he says.

She laughs. “Funny.”

He pulls a pin out of his pocket and holds his hand out to pull her up. Kala frowns as he helps her to her feet, stepping away from the door and watching him closely.

“You can’t be serious,” she says as he crouches in front of the door. She hears the lock pop open a moment later and her eyes widen. “How did you do that?”

He looks at her over his shoulder. “It’s a really simple one.”

Kala hesitates in the doorway. “Is this legal?”

“No,” he says, getting to his feet.  He gestures at the open door. “After you.”

She looks at him appraisingly. “What if we get caught?”

“No one ever comes in here,” he says.

Kala hesitantly enters the lab, glancing around for her keys. She spots them near the micropipettes, grabs them, and hurries back towards the door. But a noise stops her. It's coming from Kolovi’s office, a man's voice, an argument. She and Wolfgang lock eyes.

“Oh my God, Kolovi’s working late.”

“Kolovi?”

Kala shakes her head to show it doesn't matter.

“What do we do?” she whispers.

“Leave,” Wolfgang says firmly.

They hear footsteps. Kala freezes, so Wolfgang takes her hand and pulls her out of the lab at a sprint. The door slams behind them, and they share a frantic glance, leaving her coat behind, Kala’s heels clattering on the tile. They round a corner and release each other’s hands, breathing heavily. A moment later, Kala giggles, and then she breaks into a full-throated, joyful, explosive laugh. She throws her head back. Wolfgang watches her, drunk on the image.

“I've never done anything like that in my life!” she says, beaming. “Where did you learn to do that?”

He gives a noncommittal shrug. “I like locks.”

She looks up at him, her excitement fading when she sees he doesn't share it.

“What's wrong?” she asks quietly.

He shakes his head. “Nothing.”

Kala watches him for a moment. She’s never met someone so inscrutable. Even the light from the street outside seems to stop just short of him. Kala looks away eventually, playing with her keys, searching for something to say that transforms the moment.

“We keep running into each other,” she says gently.

He had every intention to turn her away, to tell her he’s not good for her, insist it was all coincidence, but the words are out of his mouth before he can stop them.

“Maybe next time we should run into each other on purpose,” he replies.

Her eyes brighten. She smiles and nods.

“Tomorrow?” he asks.

“What about tonight?”

“Nothing’s open.”

“I’m sure we can find something.”

He has to smile. He nods, then takes off his leather jacket and drapes it on her shoulders.

“Shouldn’t I go back for my coat?” she asks.

“And get caught?” he replies.

“You’ll freeze,” she protests, but she knows he’s right.

“It’s okay,” he says.

Kala smiles in thanks and wraps his jacket closer around her small frame. She breathes in the scent, shutting her eyes for a moment and looking down to hide a delicious smile. They walk down the hallway, down the stairs, and finally make it outside. They glance at each other as the cold hits them.  

“I didn’t think I was going to see you again after yesterday,” she admits.

“I would have found you again,” he replies.

“Why’s that?” she asks.

“I couldn’t get you off my mind, I hate loose ends.”

She drinks in the words. He reaches for her hand and she takes it. They stay in comfortable silence for a few minutes, Wolfgang watching the sky, Kala breathing in his scent and memorizing the details of his hand.

Then she glances at him, “I’m starving.”

“My place is really close,” he says.

“Your place?” asks Kala, turning a cautious shade of pink.

“I’m not trying to get you into bed,” he says, a smile playing at the corner of his mouth.

Kala finds herself laughing. “You’re quite direct, did you know that?”

He laughs too. “I’ve been told.”

She grins softly and squeezes his hand. “Okay. It’s too far to walk to my apartment anyway.”

They turn down a nearby street, filling the silence with little touches. Kala promises herself she won’t question anything until tomorrow, though this is difficult, because the voice in her head is enumerating everything she’s doing wrong.

You agreed to go to his house.

You believed him when he said he wasn’t trying to get you into bed.

Stupid girl.

Kala takes a deep breath, focusing on the feeling of Wolfgang’s hand, muting the thoughts playing on repeat in her mind. A few minutes later, they’re approaching his apartment. All the lights are off, which means Felix is asleep, which is probably for the best. Wolfgang unlocks the door and holds it open for Kala.

She smiles as she passes him, then pulls him in after her playfully. He grins and they half-walk, half-tumble into the kitchen, looking at each other when they stop.

“Wolfgang,” she says softly.

He meets her eyes to show her she has his full attention. But she shakes her head, and simply touches her hand to his chest; he covers her hand with his, brings it up to his lips, and kisses it.

She looks down, bright pink, and smiles widely. Blood pounds in her ears, and the world beyond the two of them disappears; she drowns in the feeling. She nearly says what she wants to, but the movement of his hand down her back stops her. In fact, she thinks she may never speak again.

But, she manages to say, “So. Something to eat.”

He smiles and nods, then hands her two glasses and searches around the dimly lit kitchen.

“Beer or wine?”

Kala smiles. “Beer.”

He hands over two bottles and she pours two glasses. He holds up a loaf of bread and some processed cheese.

“Grilled cheese?” he asks.

Kala smiles. “Sure.”

Wolfgang hesitates as he undoes the twistie and pulls out some bread. And then hesitates some more, looking for -- butter? Eggs? What goes on the outside of a grilled cheese? Kala watches him, smiling very softly.

“You can’t cook, can you?”

“No,” he says.

She takes the bread out of his hands. “Then I’ll cook.” She gestures at the table for him to sit. “Not that I’m very good at it either.”

“I’m sure that’s not true,” he says, sitting down.

“Oh, it is,” she says. “At least compared to my father. He owns a restaurant.”

“In Mumbai?” he asks.

She smiles and nods. “He’s very good. The best there is, really, no one makes sutarfeni like he does. The only thing I’m any good at is modak, which is just because I make it so often.” She gets out a couple of plates and looks around for a pan. He points to the bottom cupboard. “And even that, I never get the consistency exactly right. I’ve been experimenting with sugar levels, but I look at it all too scientifically. See, my father cooks from the heart, doesn’t think about it. But I start measuring in my head and that’s where it all goes wrong.” She pauses, buttering each side of the bread carefully. “That’s what I do in every part of my life, actually.”

Wolfgang realizes suddenly that he’s never had this, a woman in his apartment, cooking for him because she wants to, talking openly. He’s never been taken care of. He also realizes that she’s the most beautiful woman he’s ever seen; not just how she looks -- although, yes, he can see she’s gorgeous -- but how she expresses herself; how sincerely she feels; how her eyes deepen and become like gold. He loves women, Felix thinks he overdoes it a bit, but he’s never felt like this. He’s never felt connected to someone.

Kala notices how he’s looking at her and she smiles in a shy way. “You’re not used to this, are you?”

He shakes his head. “No.”

Kala bites her bottom lip, trying not to smile so wide.

“So, yes, anyway. My father owns a restaurant, and he tried to teach me to cook, but my mind was always somewhere else. In fact, the thing I loved best about the restaurant was sleeping in one of the booths, I always had the best dreams there...”

“I could never sleep in all that noise.”

“I can’t sleep in the quiet.” She puts the sandwiches in the pan. “I’ve never been able to. Although, I do like the snow, the way the winter is quiet here.”

“I thought you hated the winter.”

“I hate the cold, but not the snow,” she replies. “I could watch the snow forever.”

He hums in thought. “I guess I never learned to appreciate it in Berlin.”

“That’s true, we do appreciate things that are unfamiliar to us,” she says. “Maybe you would love nearly being run down by tiny motorcycles.”

He laughs. “Is that a thing that happens often in Mumbai?”

“It’s terrifying,” says Kala. “The streets there are like nowhere else, especially during the festivals.” She pauses, leaning on the counter and looking up at the ceiling. “One year, I was walking with my mother and, like a complete fool, I let go of her hand and got horribly lost and I ended up inside one of the floats and...suddenly I could see everything, it’s like I could see the whole world, or at least, everything I knew of the world...I’ve never felt that way again. It was incredible .”

Wolfgang hopes he isn’t staring at her too intensely. “That sounds like a dream.”

“It was! It was just like a dream...” Kala smiles. “You know, sometimes I do wonder whether we get little...little glimpses of something supernatural while we’re in this life.”

Wolfgang thinks back to the glimpses of Kala that he experienced all day today. “Life’s unmanageable enough as it is, isn’t it?”

Kala nods. “True, it is.” She checks how done the sandwiches are. “So...Berlin. I told you about Mumbai, you tell me about Berlin.”

He takes a sip of beer and shakes his head. “It's not worth talking about.”

“Why?” asks Kala.

“My mother died when I was really young, and a lot I’d rather not talk about happened after that.”

Wolfgang is unprepared for the expression on Kala’s face. It's beyond understanding. It’s as if she knows precisely what he did and has already forgiven him for it. He’s never had someone look at him quite like that and it catches him off guard.

“You don't have to talk about it,” she says very softly.

He nods, stunned. “Thank...thank you.”

Kala nods too, solemn at first, and then she smiles. “I think home is more about people than place, anyway. There’s some people you feel at home with, and some people you don’t.”

Wolfgang nods. “Felix.”

Kala smiles. “My father.”

She looks around for plates and he points them out. She lifts the sandwiches onto them and goes to sit next to him, but he stops her.

“These chairs are shit, come over here,” he says, walking into the living room and taking a seat on the couch. She sits next to him. He glances at her, smiling, shocked at how much he’s talking, yelling at himself to shut up, ignoring that.

“I don’t think I’ve ever had a girl cook for me,” he says, taking a bite.

Kala tilts her head and blushes. “Really? Haven't you ever had a girlfriend?”

“Not exactly, no -- this is delicious -- you?”

“I was actually engaged a few years ago...my parents are good people, but they fell in love with this CEO’s son and he fell in love with me and...” She smiles distantly. “Well, I didn’t love him,  and I was just eighteen, and his father was difficult.”

“How so?”

“Very anti-religion, and I’m not religious exactly , but...” Kala debates for a moment whether she should tell him about the time when Rajan’s father was attacked in front of her, and decides no. “It was a very contentious time in Mumbai, and we were on opposite sides of it, that’s all.”

“And eighteen is young,” says Wolfgang, thinking of his mother.

“It is... I’m realizing that now.” She takes a bite of the grilled cheese and giggles. “This cheese is so bizarre. Do you have this in Germany?”

He cracks up and shakes his head “No. Nothing like it.”

“It’s good though.” She smiles around a bite. “This is the first thing I had when I got here.”

“Yeah?”

“Yes...I got here late at night, and it was the first time I had ever been alone in a hotel, and it was one of the only things on the menu that I recognized.”

“Why did you come here?” he asks.

She smiles thoughtfully. “After Rajan...I didn’t want to be in Mumbai anymore, and maybe that makes me a coward, but...the University of Chicago made me an offer I couldn’t say no to, and it all seemed right after that. I would have stayed in India, but with what I want to do, the opportunity to go to an American university was a dream.”

“What do you want to do?”

“Well, ideally, I would love to run a lab.”

I wouldn’t have guessed.”

“What did you think?”

“Something more emotional,” he admits. “I don’t mean anything by that. You just seem very openhearted.”

“Well, you might be surprised how emotional chemistry can be. It’s about improving lives, you know. I wish everyone saw it that way, the world would be better. Doctors, scientists, we’re all caretakers, we’re there to do good.”

“That’s true.”

“So why did you come here?” she asks.

He thinks for a moment. “Felix nearly died last year and after that, nothing else seemed worth the risk, so we gave it all up and came here.”

Kala nods gently. “Why Chicago?”

“Oh, Felix, has family here.”

Kala smiles. “You really care about him.”

“We’re like brothers,” agrees Wolfgang.

Kala hums in thought. “That’s sweet. I’ve never had that. I love my friends, they’ve always been good to me. But the three of them have been together for so long, and sometimes I feel like I’m not part of that. I know they care about me, but I’m not sure they understand me.”

Wolfgang shakes his head and takes a sip of beer. “I think that’s why I put up with Felix. I hate everybody I meet and expected to hate him too but he immediately understood everything.”

Kala watches him. “See, I love everyone I meet, I see the best in them, and then I’m left putting the pieces together when they don’t do what I thought they would do.”

“You wouldn’t rather know what you’re getting?” asks Wolfgang.

Kala shakes her head. “I think that would take so much joy out of life.”

Wolfgang’s knee brushes hers and she snaps her attention back to him.

“Sorry,” he says.

“Oh, don’t apologize,” says Kala softly. “I didn’t think you asked me here as a friend.”

He smiles. “No.”

She tucks her hair behind her ear and, in a burst of uncharacteristic boldness, moves her knee back so it’s touching his. She tilts her head, almost cocky. He grins.

“I hope you don’t think this is crazy,” she whispers, “but I feel like I’ve known you for a long time.”

“I don’t think that’s crazy,” he says softly.

“I couldn’t stop thinking about you after the night you picked up my groceries,” she admits. “And I thought it was just because...” She pauses, giggling softly, realizing the beer is taking effect. “Well, um, you’re very handsome, I was flattered when you kept talking to me.”

“Me?” he asks. “You’re the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen--”

“Stop, oh my God, I just walked two miles in the snow after crying my eyes out--”

“And you’re beautiful,” he says with an unapologetic shrug.

She grins and looks down. “Thank you.”

“Why were you crying?” he asks.

“The show was very close to home,” she says quietly. “And I kept thinking about...” How badly I wanted to be with you . “I kept thinking about why we listen more to what everyone else tells us to do than to how we feel.”

“What everyone else says is useless,” he replies.

Kala shivers when a sudden draft enters the apartment. Wolfgang motions for her to come closer, and she surprises herself when she doesn’t hesitate. He puts his arms around her and she rests her legs on his lap and her head on his chest. He gently thumbs over her thigh and she glances up at him with a delicate smile, then presses closer.

“I think I might fall asleep right here,” she murmurs. “You’re very comfortable.”

“I don’t mind,” he says.

He tucks his face into her hair and closes his eyes, lying to himself about how comforting it is to hold her, realizing she’ll be impossible to let go of.

 

Chapter Text

Wolfgang assumes he’ll wake Kala up by getting off the couch -- she’s asleep with her head on his chest -- but he underestimated how badly she needed sleep, and she only mumbles quietly and reaches her hand out, as if asking for him to come back. He pulls a blanket off a nearby chair and covers her with it, then looks at her for a moment, overwhelmed by something he can’t recognize because he’s never experienced it before. He pushes against his thoughts.

You said you wouldn’t get involved and now look. You couldn’t last a day. Pathetic. She’s one more person you have to protect, and you know you won’t be able to tell her no. Good fucking job.

He walks to the kitchen, trying to be as silent as possible, and starts a pot of coffee. He spots Kala’s shoes under the table. He instantly smiles, then forces the smile off his face, then can’t help smiling again. He rubs his face, mumbling variations of “fuck” and “oh no” to himself in German, then shakes his head hard, trying to erase the thoughts. He reaches for the can of coffee above the stove, focusing on the material objects around him, and measures out several spoonfuls.

But Kala’s voice is in his head like it’s his own, and he can’t stop thinking about how she looked last night, how her eyes crinkled softly when she laughed.

He’s deeply relieved when Felix walks into the kitchen, bleary-eyed and yawning, because at least Felix will distract him. He motions at Felix to be quiet.

“What? Are you that hungover that you can’t stand talking?”

Wolfgang gestures at the living room, and Felix peeks around the corner to see Kala asleep on the couch. Felix looks at Wolfgang unsurely, then sits down at the kitchen table.

“Why is there a girl on our couch?”

“We were talking and she fell asleep.”

“Fine, why isn’t she in your room?”

Wolfgang shrugs, pouring boiling water over the coffee grounds. “We just talked.”

Felix squints. “You didn’t fuck her.”

“No,” says Wolfgang, pulling three cups down from the cabinet.

Felix pauses, starts to speak, then pauses again. “Well, this is it. The world’s ended and this an alternate universe. Wait. Is this the girl you were talking about?”

Wolfgang nods, pouring the coffee and frowning at it. “Do you think she takes cream?”

Felix repeats in a whisper, “Do you think she takes cream? What are you on? You’re making her coffee?”

“What’s wrong with that?”

“I’m not sure you’ve ever let a girl stay the night and now you’re fucking around with coffee?”

“I like her,” says Wolfgang.

“You like her?” asks Felix.

“I like her,” Wolfgang says again.

“What the fuck does that mean?”

“No idea,” admits Wolfgang.

Felix chews on this for a moment while Wolfgang pours three cups of coffee.

“Are you going to tell her the truth?” asks Felix.

“About?”

“What do you think?”

Wolfgang looks in the fridge for cream - there’s a single banana and a take-out container - and shuts it, frowning, momentarily questioning his entire approach to life.

“Eventually, yeah,” he says.

“And you don’t think she’ll run away?”

“I don’t know. But I want to be honest with her.”

“Why?” asks Felix, wrinkling his nose.

Wolfgang puts a cup of coffee down in front of Felix, then leans on the counter and folds his arms. “Because I’m going to marry that girl.”

Felix stares at him, then wordlessly reaches for the vodka on the table and adds some to his coffee.

“What's happening?” he whispers as he drinks. “What the hell is happening?”

Just then, Kala appears in the doorway to the kitchen, holding a blanket around herself, smiling shyly.

“Hi,” she whispers, sounding slightly embarrassed. “I didn't mean to sleep so long.”

“It's okay,” says Wolfgang, adding, “this is Felix.”

Kala smiles at him.

Felix seems instantly in better spirits, and he stares at Kala until Wolfgang kicks him.

“I'm sorry, she's very beautiful!” he says, adding to Kala, “You're very beautiful. You’re a step up for him.”

Wolfgang snorts.

“I've heard a lot about you,” she says.

Felix raises his eyebrows. “Good things I hope.”

“Yes, very,” she says. She looks at Wolfgang. “Really, I didn't mean to fall asleep.”

“I fell asleep too,” he says, handing her the coffee.

“Ooh! Thank you,” she says and spontaneously kisses his cheek.

She blushes, remembering herself, and Wolfgang looks down to hide a smile. Felix watches this exchange, slack-jawed, and adds more vodka to his coffee. Then Kala notices her phone on the counter and runs to it.

Dani and Lito are understandably terrified by her disappearance.

Dani, 12:01 a.m.: Where are you?

Lito, 12:35 a.m.: Kala??

Lito, 12:37 a.m.: Please call.

Dani, 1:15 a.m.: WE'RE FREAKING OUT SWEETHEART

“Oh no,” whispers Kala. 

Kala, 9:07 a.m.: I'm alive, I’m so sorry!

Lito, 9:08 a.m.: Where are you???? You gave us a heart attack!

Kala, 9:09 a.m.: I may have run into someone...

Kala, 9:10 a.m.: And by someone I mean a boy.

Kala, 9:10 a.m.: And I may or may not be at his house.

Kala, 9:11 a.m.: Oops?

Dani, 9:12 a.m.: OOH IS THIS CUTE GROCERY GUY

Lito, 9:12 a.m.: I’m just now hearing about this?

Kala, 9:13 a.m.: Yes. I’ll be home soon.

Dani, 9:13 a.m.: No hurry! You should go for seconds. Or thirds. Seriously girl stay in his bed all day, you never do this.

Kala turns bright red and glances at Wolfgang.

“Are they teasing you?” he asks.

She frowns. “A little.”

Kala, 9:14 a.m.: See you soon.

“I should probably get home...” she says.

“I'll walk with you,” says Wolfgang. “This isn't the best neighborhood.”

She nods. “Okay. Did you happen to see my shoes?”

He picks them up from under the table and gives them to her, gently squeezing her hand before pulling away. She tucks her hair behind her ear and smiles quickly at him. Then she looks at the shoes and sighs.

“I don’t want to put these on again.”

Wolfgang thinks for a moment, then holds up a finger telling her to wait, and disappears up the stairs. Kala stands a few feet away from Felix, rubbing her arm and looking down at her bare feet.

“He adores you,” Felix says, unable to help himself. “I’ve never seen him like this.”

Kala looks at Felix. “Really?”

Felix shakes his head. “Never. How’d you meet?”

“Oh, we kept running into each other...then last night I locked my keys in a classroom and he got them back.”

Felix shakes his head. “That’s Wolfie. You would not believe how many girls he’s picked up that way.”

“Wolfie?” Kala giggles. “Oh my God, I cannot picture calling him that.”

“I couldn’t take myself seriously calling him Wolfgang,” says Felix. “What kind of name is that? I think his mom thought he’d take less shit from the West Berliners if he had an obviously German name, ended up being wrong about that. And they made it out in ‘88, but he still took shit from all the East Berliners for not being Russian enough. And shit from his father for not being Russian enough.” Felix shakes his head. “God that place was a pile of shit.”

“Yes, his childhood sounds very difficult,” Kala says carefully.

“That’s one word for it,” says Felix.

Then Kala frowns. “‘88? The wall didn’t come down until ‘89 I thought.”

“No, but his father was a crazy motherfucker and he dragged his poor wife out of bed and made her pack up everything and they left. Better business opportunities in West Berlin. Or maybe things were getting too hot in the Eastern bloc, not sure.”

“Wasn’t that quite dangerous? I’ve heard people got shot crossing the wall.”

“Oh sure, but they drove through one of the checkpoints, guards didn’t say no to three batshit East Berliners with kalashnikovs. And anyway, the guards probably would have let them through. Not worth pissing off Anton Bogdanow. Or Sergei. East Berlin probably wanted to be rid of them to be honest.”

Kala frowns deeply. “Mm. How old was he? Wolfgang?”

“About a year old,” says Felix.

“His poor mother,” murmurs Kala. “She must have been terrified.”

“Had to leave her whole family behind,” says Felix. “Never saw them again, wasn’t allowed back, Anton thought she’d leave him if she got to see her family. They weren’t big fans of his.”

“Why did she marry him?”

Felix shrugs. “She was pregnant, didn’t want Wolfie to grow up in an orphanage.”

“Not convinced that would have been any worse,” says Wolfgang, reappearing with an extra pair of boots and glancing at Kala. “Has he scared you off yet?”

Kala smiles. “No, not yet.”

“I’m not going to screw this up,” Felix says defensively. “This is the first time you’ve liked someone who isn’t a sociopath.”

“Oh, you don’t know, I could be a sociopath,” says Kala.

Wolfgang laughs and gestures at Kala to sit at the table. He sits next to her and holds up the boots.

“I wore these when I was a kid, they might fit,” he says, handing her the boots and a pair of socks.

She nods and puts on the socks, then the shoes, which are loose but will do.

“You have huge feet,” she remarks.

“Well, you know what they say,” says Felix from across the table.

Wolfgang looks at him incredulously and says “Really?”

“Just trying to be a good wingman,” says Felix.

Kala looks at them. “I...don’t understand.”

“That’s for the best,” says Wolfgang, pulling her to her feet. “One second, I’ll find you a jacket.”

He goes off in search of something that isn’t too big, and Felix and Kala are left in each other’s company once again.

Kala looks at Felix. “So did you come over from East Berlin too?”

Felix shakes his head. “Nah, I was already in West Berlin.”

“How did you two meet?” she asks.

“In detention.”

She smiles. “Of course. What were you in for?”

“Me? Lighting a fire in the boy’s bathroom. Wolfie for fighting, some ass told him to go back where he came from.”

“Why were you lighting a fire in the boy’s bathroom?”

“Not intentionally! I threw away a cigarette that wasn’t quite out.”

Kala nods. “Well, that’s understandable. I accidentally light things on fire quite often.”

Felix looks at her with a new appreciation. “Why’s that?”

“I’m a chemist. Things go wrong. Although, fire is rather fun, so it’s not always accidental.”

“You’re a chemist?”

“Well, actually I’m getting my doctorate in pharmacy right now. But yes, basically.”

Felix stares. “Wow, Wolfie is dumb as shit compared to you.”

Kala laughs. “He’s not.”

“He’s only here for the soccer,” Felix goes on.

“He plays soccer?”

Felix nods. “Pretty good at it when he doesn’t foul out. Americans are very sensitive. German men don’t stop playing till somebody’s died.”

“He plays for the school?”

Felix nods again. Kala squeals and suddenly takes a seat near Felix.

“Hurry, before he comes back, I need all the insider secrets. My roommates love the team, they’re going to die when they find out. I’ll be a celebrity if I know something they don’t.”

“Hmm... well, they’ve decided to change their strategy for next season. Two men out front, not three, more shooting from the back. Sometimes the goalie gets high off his ass before games, still hasn’t been caught. One of the guys, Otto? He’s gay. Let’s see...”

Kala leans even closer. “My roommate is gay. Engaged though so Otto is out of the picture. But still. Keep going.”

“That’s a funny story actually, Wolfie could not convince this guy that he wasn't interested, apparently thought I was involved with him, which makes some sense because before I got the crutches off he was pretty fucking doting.”

“He mentioned something about you getting injured,” says Kala.

“His asshole cousin decided to do a drive-by, I was in the way. They’re a very theatrical family. Anyway--”

“Wait. Why did he do that?”

“Because Wolfie cracked a safe he couldn’t crack, all jealousy. Well, the payoff wasn’t small, he wanted that too. Never got it, though, bastard.”

“Cracked a safe?”

“That’s his thing, he’s fucking great at it, never met anyone who can do what he can.”

“Where did he learn to do that?”

“His father, probably why he had it out for him since he was a kid...couldn’t handle his own kid being better at the game than he was. He beat the shit out of Wolfie the first time he went out on his own, told him he wouldn’t tolerate being in second place. Fucking male ego. Alcohol probably didn’t help, he was a mean drunk.” Felix shakes his head. “Had to drive Wolfie to the hospital twice in one week once and I thought that was it, thought the doctors were going to step in. Would have for any other kid but not Anton’s kid, they were all too scared of him.”

Kala grips her coffee cup very tightly, chest aching. “How horrible.”

“His father was a sadistic dick.” Felix shakes his head. “I know Wolfie worries about being too much like him but that’s something he’d never do.”

“No,” agrees Kala. She smiles. “He seems sweet to me.”

“Yeah, he can be,” says Felix. “Weirdly great with kids by the way.”

Wolfgang is back. He looks at Felix, brow wrinkled, and says in German, “Kids? Really?”

“Why not?” says Felix. “All girls want to know about that.”

“Hello?” says Kala. “I can’t speak German.”

Wolfgang apologizes and hands her a red and black flannel shirt. She holds it up to herself, grinning and gesturing at her dress and the boots.

“This is a very good combination,” she says.

Wolfgang laughs. “You can’t look bad.”

“Well, if I can, this is certainly the outfit that would do it.”

She puts on the shirt and beams at him, giddy, and then finishes her coffee. He grabs a hat off the hook near the door and puts it on her head.

“Perfect,” he says.

She laughs again, fighting the urge to fall into his arms and stay there.

“Should we go?” she asks.

He nods, reaching for his keys.

“Be back in a while,” he says to Felix, who’s gone back to adding vodka to his coffee.

“Don’t get mugged,” Felix says in response.

Kala frowns at this, but she feels reassured, and rather weak in the knees, after she watches Wolfgang put on his jacket and sees his muscles stretch under the fabric. She stands up straighter and clears her throat. He reaches for her hand, and they go out the door.

Chapter Text

The wind has died down and the snow has settled in gargantuan drifts, but the morning is still very cold and Kala shivers as soon as she steps outside. The roads are largely impeded, and the few drivers that are out are making very little progress. The snow is so thick and wet that the city is near silent. The only sound that can be heard is the snow crunching underneath their feet as they walk down the stoop.

Wolfgang, noticing how quiet Kala is, glances at her and says,“I shouldn’t have left you with Felix, should I?”

“No, it’s okay,” says Kala earnestly. “I’m just sad for you.”

“I don’t live there anymore, I’m okay,” he replies.

But Kala’s brows remain creased with worry. She grips his hand more tightly, rubbing her thumb on his knuckles. She had a moment of uneasiness when she first woke up this morning, wondering if the closeness and warmth she felt last night would have disappeared while she slept; whether she would still feel bewilderingly attached to him. Half of her, for the sake of her studies and sanity, wondered whether it would be better to wake up empty. To pass off the night as sweet but impermanent. But she didn’t wake up feeling that way. She woke up feeling as hopeful and unshaken as she could ever remember feeling, and the thoughts of the night before were fresh in her mind. Whatever you do...don’t walk away from this, from him.

“I’m not sure that you are okay,” she says carefully. “But you don’t need to be afraid of scaring me away.”

Wolfgang looks at her for a long time, processing. He’s unsure whether Felix told her more than he should have, though based on what she just said, it would appear he did.

“Kala, last night, I was going to tell you I didn’t want to see you again.”

“I know.”

“You know?” he asks, surprised.

She nods, gently biting her bottom lip. “I could tell, when we were standing in the hallway...but...I knew you wanted to see me again.”

He nods too, looking down. “I did.” I think you might be the only person I ever want to see again. “I’m sorry if I ever say something I don’t mean, I don’t really...understand what this is.”

Kala smiles, swallowing the sudden urge to cry. “I don’t either. But I don’t want it to end.”

He shakes his head. “Me neither.”

She presses closer as they walk, and he moves his arm so it’s around her waist. She rests her head on his shoulder and closes her eyes, confused, and for the first time in her life, willing to live with confusion if it means feeling like this.

“It wasn’t all bad,” she adds after a moment. “He also mentioned you play soccer.”

“Oh, well, that offsets all the other terrible things about me."

She laughs. “I should go watch you play.”

“It’s winter,” he says. “But you could watch me practice.”

She smiles. “Okay, I’d like that.”

“You like soccer?” he asks.

“No, but...” She breaks off, face flushing. “But I like you.”

He pulls her closer while they walk. She glances at him, smiling.

“I don’t know what’s gotten into me,” she says.

“You’re not shy,” he replies. “I just think you’re careful. It takes you a while.”

“But it didn’t take me long at all with you,” she says.

He looks at her with an expression that she would almost call fragile, and she spends a moment debating whether she should slow their pace, stretch on her toes and kiss him. But there’s a small part of her that wants him to kiss her first, so she makes herself put one foot in front of the other.

They finish the walk, talking little and paying attention to each other’s presence. They make their way out of Wolfgang’s neighborhood, which feels distinctly unsafe, and into Kala’s, which is marked by large snowy lawns and holiday lights.

“Why do you live in that neighborhood?” Kala asks, realizing she hasn’t breathed normally since stepping out of his apartment.

“I’m not used to nice places, they make me nervous,” says Wolfgang.

Kala’s never heard an explanation like that and she looks at him, curious, but doesn’t respond since they’re approaching her place. She sighs at the steps.

“I could shovel those for you,” Wolfgang mentions.

Kala allows herself a quick, indulgent smile. “That’s very sweet. I might take you up on that.”

Just then, Dani and Lito appear on the top porch, goggling down at them. Lito is in his characteristic skin-tight briefs, and Dani in the middle of winter, has somehow justified wearing glitter shorts and a sports bra.

“I forgot to mention that my roommates are nudists,” says Kala.

“So am I, we’ll get along,” says Wolfgang.

“Don’t encourage it!” whispers Kala.

Dani lets out a deafening squeal and shouts, “Oooh, walk of shame!”

Lito exacerbates the already-embarrassing situation by yelling, “Dani, oh my God! He’s on the soccer team!” He waves at Wolfgang. “I’ve thought a lot about you!”

Kala covers her face and waits it out.

“Oh my God! You’re right!” Dani leans over the porch railing. “You’re the one with the cute butt!”

“Please, we love you already, come inside!” shouts Lito, waving them up the stairs. “We made breakfast!”

Kala murmurs, “Oh my God. Oh no. Under no circumstances can you have breakfast with them.”

Wolfgang gently takes Kala’s hands off her face. “C’mon, we can be embarrassed together.”

Kala laughs weakly and nods at him. She looks up again to see Lito and Dani beaming down at them, waving like royals, then takes a steadying breath and pulls Wolfgang up the stairs after her. Dani throws her arms around Kala and looks at her solemnly.

“I lost a year off my life, we thought you died,” she says. “Never again. Promise, okay?”

“Yes, I promise,” says Kala. “Now please get inside, you’re going to freeze.”

Dani opens the door and they start to go in. Kala looks over her shoulder at Wolfgang with a dramatic grimace. He laughs and touches her waist to reassure her he’s right behind her.

The apartment smells like potatoes, sage and coffee. The heat is on full blast and the fireplace is lit in the living room. The whole place is decorated with comfy chairs, throw blankets, dotted with candles, books and art supplies. There’s soft Spanish music on in the background. The walls are heavy with paintings and posters, which Wolfgang studies, trying to pick up details.

Kala smiles, watching him, then touches his arm and says, “I’m going to go change. Do you think you’ll be okay with them for a moment?”

“He’ll be just fine,” says Dani, sliding between them and handing Wolfgang a mug topped with whipped cream. “Hot chocolate.”

He takes a sip and squints. “That’s -- strong.” Another sip, another squint. “What’s in this?”

“Some...peppermint schnapps.”

Some?”

Kala eyes the mug and says, surprising everyone, “That is a very good idea. Dani, make me one please? I’ll be right back.”

She disappears into the back of the house where her room is.

“Poor thing, she’s been in that dress all night,” says Dani. Then she looks at Wolfgang, eyes flashing mischievously. “Well, not all night.”

“We just talked actually,” says Wolfgang after a large sip of hot chocolate, which is possibly the best drink he’s ever tasted, though he’s not about to give her friends that satisfaction.

Dani melts, eyes suddenly wide and warm. “Aww. Oh my God, Lito! Lito listen, they just talked all night! That’s the cutest thing I’ve ever heard.” Dani sighs, overwhelmed. “That’s so Kala, good luck ever getting her clothes off, she’ll make you work for it.”

“Dani,” say Lito in the kitchen. “Think about your words, love. Don’t say everything that pops into your head.”

Dani frowns at Wolfgang. “I’m sorry, Lito and I kind of drank all night because we were worried about Kala. So we’re not exactly sober. However, we will be as soon as we eat, Lito’s an amazing cook, not as good as Hernando, but still. Amazing.”

She waves Wolfgang into the kitchen and gestures at the table for him to sit down. He takes another large drink of hot chocolate and motions at Dani for more. Lito and Dani are overwhelming and he wants a bit of a buffer. Then he looks around the kitchen, which is decorated similarly: colorful, warm, covered from ceiling to floor in art.

“Which one of you is the art major?” he asks.

“My Hernando,” says Lito, flipping an omelet onto a huge plate. “Well, he’s double majoring, art and literature.”

“I’m a lit major,” says Wolfgang.

Lito looks at Dani, pointing at Wolfgang. “I like this man.”

Dani beams, sitting down at the table. “Me too.” Then she looks at Wolfgang. “However. We need to get something out of the way. If you hurt her, in any way, we will find you. And we will make you pay. Understood?”

“Understood,” says Wolfgang.

“Good boy,” says Dani. “So, have you ever been arrested?”

Wolfgang chokes a little on his hot chocolate. “What?”

“This is an audition,” says Dani. “The most important one of your life.”

“Think of us as the three-headed dog that guards the underworld,” says Lito, turning around and crossing his arms over his chest. “We can’t let you in without asking some questions.”

Wolfgang looks at both of them, quizzical, and says, “You aren’t joking.”

“Dead serious,” says Daniela.

Wolfgang laughs and looks down. “Okay, I’ll play. What was the question?”

“Have you ever been arrested?”

“No,” he replies honestly.

“Really?” asks Dani. “Even I’ve been arrested.”

“I’m good at avoiding police.”

Dani takes a thoughtful sip of hot chocolate. “Have you ever cheated?”

“In a relationship?” he asks. “No.”

“Ever hit one of your girlfriends?” she asks, and he notices her voice take on a characteristic that is distinctly unhumorous.

“No,” he says quietly. “There was too much of that in my family, I don’t hate anything more than that.”

Dani softens. “Me neither.”

“Her ex is a piece of work,” explains Lito, “so if you know any good hitmen, let us know.”

“Lito,” laughs Dani, but she looks touched.

Wolfgang takes another sip of hot chocolate and shrugs. “I could probably convince him to stay away from you.”

Dani squints. “You’re not, like, in the Mafia or something, right?”

But Kala reappears before he can answer, holding her hands up at Dani. “No, absolutely not! You do this to everyone I’m even vaguely interested in and I find it highly inappropriate!” She looks at Wolfgang. “I’m sorry. I hope they didn’t get too deeply personal.” She looks at Dani again. “The Mafia? Does he look Italian to you?”

“The last guy you dated was involved in political corruption,” says Dani.

Wolfgang starts to laugh. Kala gestures at him.

“Look what you’ve done!” she says to Dani. “I leave for two minutes, you give him one of your deadly strong hot chocolates to open him up, and you ask him invasive questions!”

Wolfgang, still laughing, just pats the seat next to his and points at Kala’s brimming mug of hot chocolate. “Drink that, it helps.”

“You two, I swear,” she says, shooting a stormy glance at Lito and Dani before taking a seat and a few needy gulps of the hot chocolate. She winces. “Oh my God, that’s pure schnapps. It’s 10 a.m. and we’re all going to be walking into walls.”

“Political corruption?” asks Wolfgang.

“Oh don’t you start,” she says warningly. “It’s not like I usually date men with criminal backgrounds.”

“Well,” says Wolfgang.

Kala ignores whatever that response might imply and lets herself fume for another moment. Dani makes herself busy by cutting everyone a slice of omelette, pouring four cups of coffee, and spooning out potatoes.

“We’re sorry,” Lito says after a moment. “We’re protective. Kala is very precious to us, and we get a bit intense without Hernando here to stop us.”

“Hernando is the only sane one here,” says Dani.

Lito nudges Kala and holds up a forkful of omelet. “Please Kala? Try it, it’s the best one I’ve ever made.”

She gives him a final reproachful look, then takes the bite. She moans. “Omgod, that’s so good. Lito. What’s in that?”

“Just a little bit of sage and some fresh onion.”

“Oh my God,” she says again.

“Lito, seriously,” agrees Dani. “This is the best thing I’ve ever eaten.”

“It’s really good,” says Wolfgang. “So is this,” he adds, flicking the side of his mug.

“It’s my auntie’s special recipe,” says Dani.

“Was your auntie an alcoholic?” he replies.

Dani gasps. “Rude!” And immediately says, “Yes, she was. Too strong?”

“No, but I’m half-Russian, so.”

Everyone laughs. Kala takes seconds and thirds of the omelet, and between Auntie Velasquez’s hot chocolate and her mostly sleepless night, she feels exhaustion take over her. She leans her head on Wolfgang’s shoulder.

“Tired?” he asks.

She nods.

“Me too,” he agrees.

Then Dani gasps, looking at her phone. “Kala, oh my God, it’s Monday. I totally blanked.”

Kala jumps to attention. “Me too! Oh no, what time is it?”

“Almost eleven,” says Dani defeatedly.

“What’s wrong?” asks Wolfgang.

“My first class was at 10:30,” sighs Kala. My next one’s in about an hour, I should go take a shower--”

“Play hooky with me,” interrupts Wolfgang.

Kala looks at him, flustered. She weighs her options. On one hand, she’s never skipped class before. On the other, she wants to put Dani’s hot chocolate in a thermos and take it to a secluded spot in the park. At the same time, she’s already light-headed, and she thinks one more mug of hot chocolate will probably be all it takes to invite Wolfgang upstairs which she most certainly is not going to do. Not yet. At least not today. At least not right now.

“Kala?” he asks.

She bites her bottom lip. “Okay, but on one condition.”

“What’s that?” he asks.

“Take me to a movie,” she replies.

“On one condition,” he says.

“What?” she whispers.

He leans so he can talk into her ear. “It’s a movie we can ignore.”

She turns her head, popping one of her eyebrows. He smiles apologetically and she laughs.

“Okay, you two are cute,” says Dani. “Seriously, like puke my guts out cute, get a room.”

“How about this,” she says softly. “Walk in the park, movie, dinner.”

“I’m not sure you can put up with me for that long,” he says.

“Let’s find out,” she replies.

He nods, brushing her waist under the table, causing her to jump a little towards his touch, hungry for it. He notices this but doesn’t say anything.

“Dani, could we steal a bit more of that?” asks Kala, gesturing at the carafe of hot chocolate.

She nods, and Kala gets up to find a thermos. She pours the light brown liquid into it and goes in search of a scarf, gloves, boots that actually fit. Ordinarily, she would wear a hat, but she decides to wear the one Wolfgang gave her this morning. When he sees this, he smiles to himself, wondering if she’ll sleep in the shirt he gave her later.

“Ready?” he asks, looking at her as she takes her wallet off a nearby shelf.

She nods and he gets to his feet. They thank Lito for breakfast, Kala gives Dani a kiss on the cheek, and then they’re back outside in the wintry air.

 

Chapter Text

“For someone who hates the cold, you like being outside,” Wolfgang remarks as he and Kala set off towards Washington Park.

“See, I’ve never really liked being inside. And in Mumbai it was easy to be outside, unless it was raining, although I do love the rain. But here...I’m determined to put up with it, even if it’s cold.”

“I don’t like being inside either,” he says. “I don’t like small spaces.”

She nods. “Me neither and I believe I know why...when I was sixteen, I accidentally locked myself in the spice cabinet, and no one found me for hours. Hours!”

“Sixteen?” he asks.

“As if you didn’t do anything dumb and embarrassing when you were sixteen.”

His lips twitch, sifting through the stories, none of which are exactly appropriate to tell a new girlfriend. “Fair point.”

She smiles at this. “That same year...it was just before my 17th birthday so probably mid-July...I went wading out in the river by myself and being July it was quite full and...well, it was far too deep, and I slipped and I would have drowned but someone on shore noticed me.” She smiles again. “You know... you would imagine that I would hate the water after that, but I still love it.”

“I love the water too,” he says, “I love to swim.”

She nods. “Me too. I've always wanted to go snorkeling.”

He smiles, the glances at her. “Wait, when's your birthday?”

“August 8th.”

He raises an eyebrow. “Mine too.”

Kala stares and finally murmurs, “That’s...bizarre.”

He nods, eyes a little wider than usual. “Very.”

Kala frowns more deeply. “What year?”

“‘88,” he says.

“Oh my God, me too, we’re exactly the same age. I’ve never heard of such a thing...”

They look at each other for a moment, both slightly spooked.

“Well,” Kala says finally, nodding to herself, “my mother’s astrologist would love you. It’s guaranteed to be a good match if we were born on the same day.”

Wolfgang glances at her. “Do you believe in that stuff?”

“In astrology? No.”

“No, I wouldn't imagine you do,” he says, shaking his head as if to apologize for a stupid question.

“Why?” she asks.

“You're a scientist,” he says.

“Well, being a scientist doesn't mean I couldn't also believe in that,” she says. “And while, no, I don't believe in astrology... I do believe in God. Or Gods. I haven't quite determined whether I believe they're one thing comprised of many parts or many separate things.”

“I believe in God too,” he says, surprising her. “I just don't think he or she or it or whatever has any effect on our lives, so I don't see the point.”

“Hmm. God -- well I always mean Ganesha, who I've always felt closest to -- has had many effects on my life. When Rajan and I broke things off and I didn't know where to turn... I got a letter in the mail from the University.”

“Because you're extremely intelligent...”

“No, not that intelligent.... the graduate program takes so few students. It was more than my own qualities that got me in... and I know that because it's what Ganesha is especially good at. He removes obstacles, creates new starts.”

“Doesn't that take away from how hard you worked?”

“No, because I work hard to be faithful as well,” she replies. “And it also affected my life because it told me I was forgiven for ...” She pauses, playing with her fingers, which she has balled up inside her glove for warmth. “Well, Rajan, he didn't do anything wrong and breaking off the engagement was... hard on him. But worse than that... his father didn't appreciate how religious I am... he tried to tell me not to marry Rajan, but, see, his father was deeply disliked by the Hindu community and like every religion there are extremists and... he came to the temple to see me, to talk me out of marrying Rajan and he wasn't welcome there. We were talking and... he didn't see them coming and neither did I... he was stabbed right in front of me... many times, he fell down the stairs and...” Kala sniffles and trails off.

“But that wasn't your fault,” Wolfgang says gently.

“If I had been honest with Rajan to begin with, if I had told him I didn’t love him? That never would have happened.”

“There are lots of innocent things we do that we don’t realize the consequences of.”

“But it wasn’t innocent, I knew I should have been honest, even if it was just for myself.”

“But you can’t blame yourself for that,” he says.

She looks at him, liking her name in his mouth, liking the tone of his voice. It’s something to come home to.

She nods. “I know. That’s what I told myself for years. But I still blame myself, so I feel I must be to blame at least in some small way. But having the opportunity to come here...it must mean that I didn’t do something unforgivable.”

“Unforgivable is... relative,” he says slowly. “I pay more attention to whether the people I care about can forgive what I do.”

Kala looks at him. “But my people couldn’t. My family, Rajan...they didn’t forgive me. God did.”

Wolfgang feels something settle, uncomfortably true, in his chest. “I see what you mean.”

They walk in silence for a moment, each wondering what to say next.

Finally, Wolfgang says, “Is it okay with you that I don’t...?”

“Believe what I do?” asks Kala. “Of course. Because, in the end, we all believe in the same thing, if we believe in anything. We believe in something bigger, and whatever that is to each of us individually, well, it must be the same thing, mustn’t it?"

He breathes out, understanding her. He nods.

She smiles at him and goes on, “It’s okay if we’re not identical, it’s okay if we disagree about important things.”

“Why’s that?”

“Because we feel something about each other,” she says softly. “That’s what matters.”

They’re at the edge of the park, and Kala looks into the trees, beyond the empty white fields, and in her mind, silently pledges her loyalty. So it’s been a single day, but what does time mean compared to how she feels right now? They’ve stopped, and he’s put her arms around her waist and pulled her closer.

She looks up at him, their noses nearly touching, and she shuts her eyes. She can feel his breath, the permanent stubble on his chin. But instead of kissing him, she rubs her nose affectionately on his, nuzzles into his cheek, and then presses into a tight hug. She’s suddenly very moved, and so is he, though he shows this by holding her close, and she shows it by smiling against his jaw and murmuring, “I feel like I’ve been waiting for you forever.”

The words pass unspoken between them

I don’t know what this is.

I don’t understand it.

But I don’t want it to end.

They glance at each other. He tucks her hair behind her ears, and she spontaneously grins, and they laugh for a moment. Then she nudges him and gestures at the park.

“Shall we?” she asks.

He nods, hand on her waist to make sure she doesn’t slip as they turn onto one of the icy park paths. She takes his hand, squeezing it reassuringly, and leads him at a quick pace down a trail that parallels a frozen stream.

“Do you know where you’re going?” he asks.

She smiles over her shoulder. “I like exploring.”

He laughs and follows her -- he realizes he’d follow her anywhere -- and a moment later they come upon a small, sheltered glade. The trees are blue and caked with frost, and the river moves at a sluggish pace, in and out of ice. There’s a place that’s free of snow, so they sit down.

“It’s like a fairytale,” says Kala, looking up at the frozen moss that’s hanging low above them.

He glances at her, nudging the side of her head with his nose and letting his hand rest on the inside of her thigh. She turns her head to meet his eyes, then unscrews the thermos of hot chocolate and passes it to him after she takes a sip.

“None of this feels real,” she says softly, drunk on the feeling of his fingers swirling an indecisive pattern on her leg.

He shakes his head. “No, it doesn’t.”

“But it is, you are,” she murmurs, dragging her thumb briefly over his lips. She looks up at him. “Aren’t you?”

He laughs. “I think so.”

She smiles, and he moves his hand from her leg to her ribcage, and for a moment she imagines what it would be like to have him slip his hand under her sweater and touch her like she wants him to. She’s never needed so badly to be close to another person. He feels her heartbeat under his hand and pulls her a little closer.

She dips her head down, thinking, then looks back at him.

“Tell me something,” she says.

He peaks an eyebrow to show he’s listening.

“Tell me it isn’t just me,” she goes on in a whisper.

He shakes his head. “It’s not.”

She nods, focusing on the feeling of his hand as it trails from her ribs up the side of her breast. He brushes his nose gently against hers, glancing into her eyes for permission, and then touches his lips to hers. At first the kiss is soft, slow. Then he pulls her closer, and she opens her mouth and presses against him. He sucks briefly on the tip of her tongue and she feels her heart jump, moaning quietly into his mouth as the kiss deepens.

They kiss for another moment, then two, then five. Kala dissolves. Wolfgang touches her carefully, gauging how far to go by the sounds she makes.

He knows that he wants her, wants her more than anyone he's ever wanted, and he can picture it so clearly. It's not lust, exactly, though he would like to slip his hand under her jacket and gently, then not so gently, squeeze her breasts, leave her needy, kissing her and teasing her until she begs him to put his hand between her legs. He's wanted, from the moment he saw her, to feel her body tighten around him while he comes inside of her. But he also wants smaller things. The wave of brown-black hair over her shoulder, the way the bones of her wrists move when she gestures, the softness of her mouth just before she's decided to speak. He wants everything that she is, and he's happy to let her go at her own pace.

He expects her to keep a distance, but his hand on her thigh has her curious about what more might feel like. She's touched herself before, and recalling that feeling, she wonders how much more intense it would be if it was his touch rather than her own. She breathes in, watching him. She knows she's not ready for what she's imagining, but she does want more... she needs, no matter how small, a physical connection. So she leans closer.

She murmurs a quiet message of approval against Wolfgang’s lips, and he kisses her more forcefully. He moves his hand, almost too light to feel, over one of her breasts and she grins, luminously, enthusiastically, and maybe it’s the hot chocolate, maybe it’s the cold that’s compelling her closer to him... whatever it is, she can’t help responding to his touch, pushing into him, letting her body mold to his, to his hands. She lets him, just briefly, brush his thumbs over her breasts, and an electric current rushes to her toes. She breathes in sharply, mouth open against his, and then he kisses her more gently.

It's the first time she hasn't felt bad about desire. The first time she hasn't seen it as separate from love. They kiss another moment, then break away. They stay close, noses touching. He rubs his thumbs over her cheekbones and she giggles weakly, falling into him and wrapping her arms around him. He smiles into her hair, uncomfortably happy. He feels like he could stay in this moment the rest of his life, and for someone who is obsessed with moving on too quickly, leaving no clues, this feeling is staggering. He shuts his eyes hard, consumed by each individual backbone as his hands move over them, consumed by her warmth, by the feeling of her body against his, by the pace of her breath and the tempo of her heartbeat. He thinks he loves her, and those words, that idea, intimidate him.

He knows what he’s good at and this isn’t it.

After a moment, she looks up, very pink in the face. “I’ve wanted to do that since the first night we met.”

He’s too hypnotized by her soft eyes, by the way her jacket is slipping off her shoulder. All he can do is nod and kiss her again. She smiles, transfixed by his touch, and she’s suddenly flooded with gratitude. Someone understands. Someone exists who doesn’t require explanations or apologies.

She settles her head on his chest, and he combs through her hair. They pass the hot chocolate back and forth, and it’s as if they’ve never been cold, as if they found a small patch of summer by this river. Kala could cry, she almost does, and Wolfgang is overwhelmed by how strongly he feels for her. He wants to hold her, just like this, until his arms give out. Holding Kala, every memory disappears, and all he can see is the future he wants with her. 

She seems to feel the same. Her eyes are stars. She smiles up at him, touching his cheek and bumping her nose affectionately on his.

“Movie?” she asks.

He nods. They each take a final sip of hot chocolate, then get up from beside the river, take hands, and find their way to the path again.

Chapter Text

Kala, insisting she knows the park well enough, takes a path that leads right to the theater-- well, she thought it did, and she doesn’t realize her mistake until they’ve walked nearly half an hour.

“Are you sure you know where you’re going?” asks Wolfgang, a touch of laughter in his voice.

Kala nibbles her bottom lip, unsure, and glances around. “No, I think we’re lost.” She frowns. “I apologize if we become the next “University Students Murdered in Washington Park” headline.”

Wolfgang frowns. “Does that happen a lot?”

“Quite frequently,” says Kala, nodding knowledgeably and pulling out her phone to look at a map.

She whisks away the texts from Dani and Lito, and then notices an email alert from Dr. Kolovi.

“Oh, not you,” she mutters, pulling it up.

Dear Ms. Dandekar,

I see you left your coat near the laboratory last night. I’ve picked it up and placed it in my office for safekeeping. Any time you need something in the lab after hours, please, just ask. I’m nearly always working late.

Perhaps when you pick up your coat, we can discuss a new research opportunity. It involves a study done by university students. I don’t know how much background you have in statistics, but this would be a good opportunity to expand those skills, and I believe the subject is very much what you’re interested in. See the paper I’ve attached to this email.

P.S: Perhaps you should inform your friend that picking locks is against school policy. I’ll let it go this time, but it would be in both your interests if it does not happen again.

Best,

Dr. Kolovi.

Kala hands her phone wordlessly to Wolfgang, who knits his brow.

“I didn’t think he saw us,” he says slowly.

She frowns. “Me neither.”

“I don’t get that sort of thing wrong,” he goes on. “I’m sure he didn’t see us.”

“But he must have,” she says.

But Wolfgang shakes his head. “He didn’t. There must have been cameras.”

“Well... there are cameras in all the halls, it’s policy,” says Kala.

“Why would he have access to them?” asks Wolfgang.

Kala shakes her head, perplexed. “That can’t be it. He must have seen us at the last second--”

“Kala, he didn’t.”

“Why are you so sure of that?”

“I know when someone’s watching,” he says. “Trust me.”

Kala looks around for a moment, determining whether this sounds reasonable. Then she nods. “Okay, so he has access to the cameras, to spy on students outside his lab? That’s not...impossible. He’s working on some rather sensitive projects.”

Wolfgang also takes a moment to think. Then he asks for Kala’s phone. “Mind if I read what the paper is about?”

She shakes her head and gives him the phone. The title of the paper is Genetic Alteration of rs-1672, and the subtitle is Modifying Crucial Synapse Response in the Nucleus Accumbens of Rats. He reads for a moment until he reaches a description of the experiments. Propofol administered intravenously...iontophoresis of amphetamine at 2 µmol/cm2h applied to the NAcc ... subjects with altered rs-1672 experienced higher success rates...

He hands Kala her phone. “No fucking clue what that says.”

She laughs, but quickly frowns as she reads. “They’re basically applying amphetamines to a part of the limbic system...I don’t remember exactly what the nucleus accumbens is for...it’s different than doing it intravenously, that’s why they’re doing iontophoresis...it’s to administer it directly to the neurons, I’m assuming to see if they find a different response...and rs-1672 is a gene, it’s one of the ones that differentiates us from other hominid species..”

“What’s iontophoresis?”

“It’s using an electrical current to administer a chemical.”

“Like electroshock?” he asks.

“Similar, but the therapeutic benefit is about the chemical, not the electrical current.”

“What would they be doing that for?”

“Could be any number of things,” she says. “Although, considering he sent this to me, it likely has something to do with neuropharmacology...he probably sees potential to use it to administer the drugs I’ve been studying. I’m not sure what the gene alteration has to do with me, I’ve been working with telomerase, but that’s related to the drug and not to the individual patient... here it looks like a comparison study.” She frowns again. “It seems somewhat dangerous. I’d like to see the long-term effects of this. They can’t be administering the chemicals that way unless they opened up the brain cavity which makes this deeply problematic for use in humans. And also makes it unlikely there is a long-term study.”

“Would it be controversial if he was doing something like that?” asks Wolfgang.

Kala nods. “Anything like this is controversial. Doctors don’t like to approach the brain directly, it’s so fragile...” She glances at him. “You really think he would spy on students to make sure they don’t...?” She trails off, unsure what Kolovi would be concerned about.

“He would to make sure they don’t find something he doesn’t want them to find,” replies Wolfgang. “I would.”

Kala nods, then quietly admits, “I met with him last week and...he seemed to have forgotten we were meeting, and when I knocked on his office door, it was like I had walked in on him doing something...” She searches for the word. “Well, I was going to say embarrassing...but it seemed like something else. He didn’t seem embarrassed, he seemed...scared.”

They look at each other for a moment. Kala would have been happy to drag Wolfgang to an uncomplicated romcom and let him do unspeakable things to her in the back of the theater, but now, she’s distracted and slightly disturbed.

“I know this sounds silly,” she murmurs, “but I think something’s wrong.”

“You want to find out, don’t you?” he asks, half smiling.

She nods shyly. “I do. Will you be too angry if we don’t go to a movie?”

He shakes his head. “I won’t be able to get this off my mind at a movie.”

“Okay then,” she says. “The science building isn’t far from here, we can walk...”

“I don’t think I should go with you,” he says. “He won’t talk as openly as he will around you, he knows you.”

“You could listen outside,” she says.

“Cameras,” he says.

“We’re not sure if that’s what he’s doing.”

“It’s got to be.”

Kala nods, torn. Then her eyes light up, and she picks up her phone and dials. Wolfgang watches her, curious. A moment later, she smiles and says, “Yes, Nomi, hi! Hi! How are you? I know, it’s been so long, we need to do another brunch, Lito keeps bugging me about it -- no, no -- no Hernando isn’t back yet, a couple more weeks -- yes, I saw that! I saw, I know, that was so beautiful -- how’s Amanita? Oh good, that’s nice. Oh how sweet! She’s so thoughtful... “

Wolfgang mouths, “Who’s this?”

Kala holds up a finger and goes on, “So, I was hoping you might be able to do a favor for me? Yes, just a small thing, I have this suspicion that one of my professors is...well...illegally spying? Could you get access to a couple of cameras for me and just tell me where their feed goes?”

Wolfgang raises an eyebrow.

“Oh, that’s amazing, yes, thank you! Okay, third floor of the science building, office 344, yes Kolovi... mmhmm...okay yes, there should be two in the hallway.” She waits for a moment, then her eyes darken and she says more softly, “Really? Yes, that’s what I was concerned about. And there’s someone else? Okay, yes. No, that’s it...no, I’m okay. Yes, thanks Nomi, give my love to Neets. Okay. Yes, love you too, bye.” Kala gets off the phone and looks at Wolfgang. “He is monitoring the cameras.”

“How do you know?”

“My friend is very good at hacking security systems, and she could see where those camera feeds go, and those particular cameras go to campus security, which is expected, but they also go to Kolovi and to a third party, located in London.”

Wolfgang knows he should be concerned by this information, but he can’t help squeezing Kala’s waist and murmuring, “Okay, that’s hot. I underestimated you.”

Kala rolls her eyes and gently pushes him away. “ So, now we know, which means...”

“You have to talk to him,” says Wolfgang.

She nods. “I do.” She frowns. “Do you think it’s safe?”

Wolfgang shakes his head. “Can’t tell.”

Kala hums. “I have an idea.” She takes her phone out again and dials. “Yes, hi again, sorry. Do you and Neets still have those Bluetooth earpieces? Oh, you do! Oh my God, could I borrow them, for an hour at the most? You’re an angel, thank you, we’ll be there in ten minutes.”

“Bluetooth earpieces?” asks Wolfgang.

She smiles. “You can listen to everything Kolovi and I are talking about, while being safely out of reach of the cameras, and if you think I’m in danger, you can...interrupt somehow.”

“Here I was, worried I was the one with the criminal mind,” says Wolfgang.

“This is bending the rules, not breaking them,” replies Kala.

“That’s where it starts,” he says. “What’s your plan?”

“I’ll tell you.” She takes his hand and starts off in the opposite direction. “We need to pick the earpieces up from Nomi, and then I’ll go talk to Kolovi, and we can decide whether something seems wrong.”

“How’d you like me to interrupt, if...?”

“Yes, that is problematic since he recognizes you,” she says. Then she points at him. “Ask Felix to come.”

Wolfgang nods. “Good idea.”

He calls, speaking in German. “Do you have a couple hours? I need you to do something.”

“What?” asks Felix, sounding sleepy.

“One of Kala’s professor’s is up to something, we need you as a backup.”

“Seriously?” asks Felix. “This is what you’re doing on your first date? What are you, Bonnie and fucking Clyde?”

“Meet us in a half hour, I’ll text you where.”

He can almost feel Felix sigh. “If you die now , after all the shit in Berlin...fine. I’ll see you there.”

They hang up.

Wolfgang looks at Kala. “He’ll meet us there.”

“Good,” she says, then she can’t hold back a giggle. “Are we overreacting?”

“Maybe, but that’s better than the alternative,” says Wolfgang.

“True,” she agrees. Then she nudges him. “Sorry about the movie.”

“We wouldn’t have watched it anyway,” he says.

“I know that...I’m using movie as a euphemism.”

“A euphemism for what?”

She bites her bottom lip and smiles. “Use your imagination.”

“You're shameless,” he says, taken aback by this new gutsy side of her.

She grins. “You love it.” Then she turns up a nearby street. “Okay, they live right up here, they’ll definitely invite us in for lunch, but we need to get to campus...”

Kala knocks on the door, which is painted bright turquoise -- definitely Amanita’s doing -- and it opens instantly. It’s Bug, looking just like himself.

“Kala Dan-de-KAR!” he shouts, laughing. “I haven’t seen you in weeks! How are you?”

Nomi appears, gently pushing Bug out of the way and patting his shoulder. She pulls Kala inside and into a hug. “Hi love, you look frozen.” She glances at Wolfgang. “Who’s this?”

“Uh, he’s--”

“I’m her boyfriend,” Wolfgang says, extending his hand to shake Nomi’s. “Wolfgang, nice to meet you.”

Nomi glances at Kala, smiling very slowly. “Wait. You have a boyfriend. When did that happen?”

“Recently,” says Kala, overwhelmed by how proud Wolfgang sounds to introduce himself in those terms.

“Neets,” Nomi calls. “Kala’s here and you have to see this.”

Amanita appears a moment later, carrying a mixing bowl in one arm, stirring it. “I’d hug you!” she yells at Kala. “But these are muffins! I have to keep stirring!” Then she sighs and shoves the bowl into Bug’s arms. “Fuck it, c’mere sweetheart.”

Kala laughs and hugs her.

Nomi points at Wolfgang and mouths boyfriend at Amanita. Amanita’s eyes widen and she squeals a little, shaking Kala.

“Nice job,” she whispers. She shakes Wolfgang’s hand. “I’m Amanita, Nomi’s wife -- here, want to come in? It’s awful outside.”

“No, we have to get going, I’m sorry,” says Kala.

“Hold up, the Indian princess has a boyfriend?” echoes Bug from inside.

“Don’t call me that, Bug!” says Kala. “You know I hate that!”

Bug peeks his head around the door and looks at Wolfgang. “Wow. Nice. Like, Abercrombie and Fitch nice. Like, Ralph Lauren, nice. Damn.”

Kala rolls her eyes, and Nomi smiles apologetically at her.

“So, those earpieces?” She pulls them out of her pocket and gives them to Kala. “The connection is usually good, but it might cut out a couple of times. Want me to bounce the signal?

“Oh, no, no one will be listening to us,” says Kala. “We just can’t go to Kolovi’s office together without looking a bit suspicious.”

“Gotcha,” says Nomi, adding, “What’s his deal?”

Kala thinks a moment and finally says, “I don’t get a good feeling from him. “

“He saw us breaking into his lab and wrote Kala an intimidating email,” adds Wolfgang.

“You broke into a lab?” Nomi asks in a whisper.

“Well,” says Kala, glancing at Wolfgang, “he did. He has a thing for locks.”

Nomi looks at Wolfgang, nodding appreciatively. “You might have to teach me that.”

“Noms, you get in enough trouble,” says Amanita, going back to stirring.

“I always get out of trouble,” replies Nomi, smirking.

Amanita nods. “True.” She gives Nomi’s ass a light smack. “My sweet felon. I’ll be in the kitchen, gotta finish these, we’re going to the Ironic Thanksgiving Indigenous Rights Benefit! ” She sing-songs the last few words, grinning hard. “It’s going to be iconic.” She waves at Kala and Wolfgang. “Bye loves, brunch next week, both of you, okay?”

Kala nods, pocketing the earpieces and squeezing Nomi’s arm in thanks. They say goodbye, then Kala and Wolfgang turn up the street towards the school.

“I love them,” says Kala. “They might be exhausting, but I wouldn’t want anyone else as friends.”

He smiles. “They’re a sweet couple.”

“Aren’t they?” asks Kala, putting her hand on her heart. “God, their wedding, I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything so beautiful.” Then she glances at Wolfgang, suddenly flushed with warmth. “Boyfriend?”

“If you want” he says.

She nods. “I do.”

He takes her hand and they walk quietly the rest of the way. They meet Felix outside the science building. He has his arms folded over his chest and looks about as approving as a nun.

“This, whatever it is, is a bad idea,” he tells them.

“We’re just having a little fun,” says Kala, taking one of the earpieces out of her pocket and placing it firmly in Wolfgang’s ear. “There.”

“What’s that?” asks Felix.

“It’s so we can talk without being together,” explains Kala. “Thank you for coming, by the way.”

Felix gestures at the building. “You’re not going in together?”

Wolfgang shakes his head. “Too risky. I made a mistake, he saw me when I was picking that lock last night.”

Felix groans and replies in German, “God. Crack a fucking S&D safe and steal fifteen million, and this is what’s gonna take you down. Some fusspot old professor.”

“English,” says Kala, affixing her own earpiece. “Okay, ready?”

Wolfgang nods at her, and they set off for the science building. She fumbles with the Bluetooth.

“Can you hear me?” she asks.

“I can hear you,” he responds.

She smiles. “I’m going to look like I’m talking to myself.”

“It’s okay,” he says.

She opens the door to the building, glancing over her shoulder at him. “I’ll be back soon.”

He nods, touching her arm as a goodbye, and she goes inside.

“Maybe it’s fairly common for researchers to monitor their projects like this,” she conjectures as she gets in the elevator.

“I don’t think so,” says Wolfgang.

She fixes her hair and applies some chapstick. “No, neither do I, and the London bit is rather odd.”

The elevator opens on the third floor, and she walks slowly to Kolovi’s office. It seems like it was months ago when she and Wolfgang ran down this hallway, not a mere day.

“Okay, wish me luck,” she murmurs.

“Good luck,” he says.

She steps up to Kolovi’s door, takes a quick steadying breath, and knocks. Kolovi opens the door quite quickly and smiles at her. He opens his arms, as if welcoming a daughter.

“Kala, how good to see you, come in. I assume you’re here for your coat?”

She smiles, turning slightly pink. “I do apologize. I didn’t realize you were here last night, and all I was doing was retrieving my keys...I left them in the lab.”

“It’s convenient you have a friend who can pick locks,” says Kolovi with a smile.

His office is too warm, and Kala immediately wants to leave, to run.

“Don’t tell him I’m your boyfriend,” says Wolfgang over the earpiece. “That’s an easy thing for him to manipulate.”

So Kala just nods at Kolovi. “Friend of the family.”

Kolovi takes her coat off of one of his chairs. “Here you are. While I’ve got you here...did you happen to read the study I attached to my email?”

His eyes glimmer behind his glasses, and Kala swallows. “I skimmed it, I admit I didn’t read it thoroughly, but I think I have the general idea.”

“So you can see how it might apply to your work,” says Kolovi, gesturing at her to sit.

She sits, palms itching with sweat, and nods. “Yes, at least, the iontophoresis component.”

“Yes, yes, the genetic alteration -- while something you would find interesting -- isn’t directly relevant. However, I would love your input on this project. Have you ever read Brandt’s work on modifying rs-782?”

Kala shakes her head. “I’m afraid not.”

“Well, he uses a method you might consider in your telomere research, and beyond that...his work is quite interesting, I’m actually expanding on it next semester if you’re interested. You must know, a woman as smart as yourself, that tiny genetic differences, genotype of course, may have astonishing phenotypic consequences.”

“Well, yes, genetically we’re nearly identical,” says Kala.

“To each other, but also to other hominids,” says Kolovi. “With so much, yet so little, variation...a group of us, Brandt included, we’ve become interested in all hominids. Extinct, alive and well...thought to be extinct. See, 782...it may be the key to all that. Obviously, genetics are quite complex, it’s more than one gene that expresses height, for example, or eye color...but this gene is, I might say, a cornerstone. Removing its equivalent, rs-1672, in rodents...it has had profound effects on the response and adaptation of neurons, especially in--”

“The frontal cortex,” interrupts Kala.

Kolovi nods. “It’s fascinating. See, some of us, me included, we believe that certain hominids believed to be extinct aren’t...and that the differences between say, homo sapien and homo sensorium, are down to a few key genes, 782 being one of them...and the difference...it has to do with emotion, with ability to emphathize, and to language, communication.” Kolovi shrugs. “I’m one of the few that subscribes to the idea that language may not have been homo sensorium’s choice way to communicate. They may have communicated without language. Through thought.”

Kala sits forward. “I’m sorry, but...I’ve never heard of homo sensorium.”

“Few have,” says Kolovi. “Some say it’s a conspiracy. But... you wouldn’t see the government of every modern state pouring resources into the same thing if it’s a conspiracy.”

Kala hears Wolfgang snort.

“What do you mean?” asks Kala.

“Governments don’t like the idea of another extant hominid, it frightens them, and well it should...sensorium especially. Can you, Kala, imagine for a moment what the world might be like if we couldn’t lie? If all those convenient fictions of religion and gender suddenly disappeared?”

“I...imagine that might be better,” she admits.

“Well, yes, eventually. The question is....would we survive the transition period? Most experts say we would not, and I’m likely to agree. If power structures were to disappear overnight, the world would be in chaos.”

Kala thinks for a moment, then says, “Dr. Kolovi, forgive me, but are you looking to do a comparison study between Homo sapien and Homo sensorium? And if so, are you planning on using the methods described in that study? Because...”

“The methods are dangerous, yes,” agrees Kolovi. “The University isn’t keen on the idea. But, innovation takes risk. Every great idea requires casualties.”

Kala feels a chill. She takes a deep breath. “I’m not sure I agree.”

“Well, you may not agree, but history proves you wrong. Nothing great, nothing truly great, was accomplished without a price. You don’t have to decide now, but I would love your participation on this study. I think you’ll see how worthwhile it is.”

Kala nods, and Wolfgang must notice how unsteady her breathing is, because he says, “Relax. You’re not alone.”

“Could I give you my decision next week?” she asks.

Kolovi nods. “Please, just keep in mind...you’re one of our best and brightest, Ms. Dandekar, and you’d almost certainly get your name on a paper out of this. That would serve you well."

Kala nods again, and Kolovi offers to find more studies for her to read. While Kolovi searches through files, Wolfgang notices a woman crossing the street near him and Felix. Her hips sway sharply while she walks, and she pulls out a cigarette as she approaches the building. Felix raises his eyebrows at Wolfgang -- this woman is gorgeous -- and the woman smiles softly as she gets closer. When she reaches them, she stops and pushes her cigarette towards Wolfgang, her eyes raking over him.

“Light?” she asks.

Wolfgang recognizes her voice as European, though he can’t place exactly where she’s from. Italy, possibly. He pulls out his lighter, flicks it against her cigarette, and she smiles again.

“Thanks,” she says, and he notices her eyes settle briefly on his earpiece.

She walks into the building with a lit cigarette, unconcerned, and they see her tap the ashes off as the door shuts.

Kala, meanwhile, is becoming weighed down with research papers. She sets each new offering on the chair next to her, watching the stack grow, watching Kolovi become feverish and excited, listing the merits of each study, almost crazed. Wolfgang interrupts her train of thought.

“Is there a woman there?” he asks.

“No,” says Kala, quiet, confident Kolovi is too engaged to notice her speaking.

“Okay,” says Wolfgang, voice slightly strained.

Kolovi opens a closet in his study, looking through more files, and behind Kala, the door opens. A woman with a cigarette enters the office, her eyes darting over Kolovi’s desk. Then she sees Kala, and almost immediately, she looks at Kala’s earpiece. Her mouth twists in victory.

Kala, unsure what to do or say, quickly stands up and grabs the papers Kolovi set aside for her. Then Kolovi returns, and jumps slightly at the sight of the new arrival.

“Ms. Facchini, hello,” he says, voice shallow.

“He’s scared,” Wolfgang tells Kala.

Lila smiles pleasantly. “Dr. Kolovi. Who’s your guest?”

“One of my students,” he says with a twitchy smile.

“I’ll wait,” she says. She gestures at the closet Kolovi was searching through. “Go ahead, continue your work.”

He hesitates, then listens to her. While his back is turned, Lila looks at Kala.

“One of his students?” she asks.

Kala nods, her skin prickling. “I’m in the graduate program.”

Lila takes off her coat, exposing a tight black bodice. She throws the coat on a nearby chair, and takes a final drag off her cigarette, extinguishing it on Kolovi’s desk.

“That’s sweet,” she simpers. Then she lifts Kala’s chin up, drags long fingers through her hair, and taps on her earpiece. “I know you’re here for information. So am I. May I?” She takes out the earpiece and presses it into her own ear.

Downstairs, Wolfgang jumps at the voice.

“Trust me,” Lila tells him. “You don’t want to learn this the hard way, do you? Don’t get involved. You have one chance, okay? Go home.”

Lila gives the earpiece back to Kala, then sits in a nearby chair. Kala tries to steady her breathing, but she can’t. 

Finally, Kolovi turns around and hands Kala a few more papers.

“Well, Ms. Dandekar, consider my offer,” he says shortly. “I’m sure I’ll see you soon.”

Kala nods, thanks him, and takes her coat off the chair. She walks out of the office at a normal pace, but as soon as she’s out of sight, she sprints, moving her hands over her cheeks to dry the tears that abruptly sprung up. As soon as she’s outside, she flings her arms around Wolfgang, trying to catch her breath.

He hugs her close and tucks his face into her hair. “Kala, it’s okay. Shh, it’s okay.”

She looks up, tears streaming, and shakes her head very quickly. “No. Something’s wrong.”

He nods. “I know, I agree, but right now...we just need to get out of here, okay?”

She nods too, then glances at Felix and wipes her eyes.

“Sorry,” she says quietly.

He shakes his head. “No worries. What was that?”

“I don’t know,” she answers, then looks at Wolfgang and whispers just for him, “Can we go to your place? I feel safe there.”

He nods, putting an arm around her waist as the three of them walk away from the science building.

“Like I said,” says Felix. “Shitty idea. But who cares what I have to say?"

Chapter Text

Kala spends the rest of the day reading the studies Kolovi gave her. She takes her shoes off, puts on one of Wolfgang’s old thermal shirts, ties her hair up, borrows his reading glasses, and camps out on the couch with an endless supply of tea. Wolfgang lies next to her with his head in her lap, reading a novel, smoking a cigarette and napping on and off. She plays absentmindedly with his hair, stopping to hum when she reads something interesting, and making notes in the margins. The glasses keep sliding down her nose, which Wolfgang smiles at.

The studies are dense and confusing. Kala has to look up words she doesn't recognize, which she wouldn't have to do if she was reading about her own subject. Her background in genetics and neurology isn't exactly at Kolovi’s level. But, after a few dedicated hours, she feels she understands the implications of the research. She sets down her stack of papers, takes off the glasses, and yawns loudly, sliding down in the blankets to be closer to Wolfgang.

“How's it going?” he asks, putting down his book and glancing at her.

She shakes her head. “I'm uncomfortable with it. I’m not sure I should work with him.”

“I don't think you should,” says Wolfgang.

“But I might be the only one who knows what he's doing...”

“Exactly,” says Wolfgang. “Believe me, you don't want to be in that position.”

“I might be the only one who can stop him if he takes it too far,” says Kala. “I feel responsible. What if I'm the difference between this staying purely theoretical and it proceeding to clinical trials?”

“Maybe that would be true with Kolovi... but I don't think he's in charge of this. I think it's that woman." He pauses, rubbing his fingers over his stubble in thought. She looks extremely familiar, but he doesn't mention this to Kala, because she's likely familiar because he met her at a club or a party. "What was her name?"

“I don't remember,” says Kala.

“Okay, her,” says Wolfgang. “She knows we're suspicious of Kolovi and she's a professional.”

“A professional what?” asks Kala.

“Criminal of some sort,” he says. “She was carrying and she knew exactly how to do it without someone noticing. Just a small glock in her boot.”

“What's that?”

“Type of gun,” he says.

“She was carrying a gun? Why?”

“I thought about bringing mine,” he admits. “Something doesn't smell right about this, she probably senses that.”

Kala looks at him, troubled. “You were going to bring a gun?”

He shrugs. “Like I said. Something isn't right and I didn't want you to get hurt.”

She seems taken aback. “I know this is serious but I'm not sure it's dangerous.”

“Kolovi may not be. The woman definitely is. I got to look at her for a moment. I know the type. I don't want to get involved with her.”

“When was that?” asks Kala

“Before she went in, she came up to Felix and me and asked for a light...”

“You know the type?” asks Kala.

“She likes seeing people in pain,” says Wolfgang. “She’ll eat someone like you alive and think it’s fun.”

“Someone like me?” asks Kala softly.

Wolfgang responds by thumbing over her lips and tucking a stray hair behind her ear. “You don’t belong in that world.” He pulls his hand down her arm. “If my family was still alive, if they met you, they’d all think I’d lost my mind.”

Kala smiles at this. “Well, my family too, you’re a bit...pale.”

Wolfgang laughs and goes back to playing with her hair. “I could do with some sun.”

Kala giggles and snuggles into him. “Just a bit.”

He kisses her lightly, and she nestles her head on his chest and puts her arms around him. Then she glances up -- he likes the way the bridge of her nose bumps his chin -- and she says, “You really don’t think I should work with him? Even if that woman is in charge...she expects me to be involved. It was you she told to leave.”

“That was meant for both of us, she said it in front of you,” says Wolfgang.

“Maybe,” Kala replies. “But I think I want to give it one more try.”

Wolfgang looks at Kala, studying her, and he realizes she’s serious. He recognizes the look in her eyes, because he’s seen it in his own.

He nods reluctantly. Then he takes her hair out of the bun she’s tied it up in, and kisses her forcefully, running his hand through her curls and tilting her face up for a better angle. She’s a little surprised by the timing of this kiss, but then she notices the fear behind his touch, and kisses him back without equivocation.

“Kala,” he says against her lips, which sends a hot shiver down her legs.

“Wolfgang,” she replies gingerly.

He smiles. “Don’t die, I’m really starting to like you.”

She grins and kisses him again before responding. “You might be surprised by how well I fight when I want to.”

He shakes his head. “I wouldn’t be surprised by that at all.”

They kiss again, Kala dragging her fingertips over his jaw, swimming in the feeling of his stubble brushing her chin. She shuts her eyes tightly, taking a moment to explore, feeling over the back of his neck, spreading her fingers into his hair. She feels him breathe out harshly, and her own breathing accelerates, her chest rising and falling against his. He slides his hand over her waist, lifting up the overlarge shirt a little so his fingers skim her skin. He resists the idea of inviting her upstairs, though this is tempting, especially when he notices her abs tense slightly under his touch. He’s not sure if she’s simply unreserved or if she’s new to all this. Either way, he’s consumed by the idea of watching her react to things beyond a kiss and a superficial touch.

She seems to sense his hunger and she pulls back slightly. There are things to consider, for starters, the fact that Felix is right in the kitchen. Also, the fact that she’s had enough excitement for one day, and doesn’t want to turn to this feeling just because it’s soothing. And finally, the concern that she’ll humiliate herself. She’s already decided, perhaps subconsciously, that she wants this with him. Eventually, yes, he’s the one she’d like to sleep with for the first time. But she wants him in small doses, until she’s sure of herself.

He notices her hesitation, and says, “You can tell me to fuck off.”

She laughs. “No, no. I’m just thinking.”

“About what?” he asks.

She blushes and takes a moment before speaking. Finally, she says, “I never rush into anything.”

“Okay,” he says.

“At the same time, I don’t want to take things too slowly.”

“But...” he says, knowing she’s not done.

“But I don’t want to give you the wrong impression,” she says, heart suddenly beating very fast.

“Kala, no matter what we do right now, I don’t expect anything next time,” he says. “That’s up to you. Always, as far as I’m concerned.”

Kala wrinkles her brow, surprised that this man -- who is clearly, well, a criminal -- would say exactly the right thing, and mean it.

She nods. Then she pulls at her collar and murmurs, “I like wearing your clothes.”

“I like that too,” he says, pressing his face gently into her neck and kissing her there.

Her hips jump up spontaneously and she gasps a little. Wolfgang glances at her, trying not to grin. He’s never been with a girl who’s this sensitive and he can’t help but love it. He’s just curled the tips of his fingers under her hips when Felix comes in and shouts, “You guys want dinner? I’m ordering something!”

Wolfgang sits up, scowling.

Felix shrugs innocently. “Couch is a community space. You want to make out with your girlfriend uninterrupted, you have a room for that.”

Wolfgang rubs his face and squeezes Kala’s knee in apology.

“Pizza?” asks Felix.

He sighs when neither of them answer. “Can’t live on love alone. Anchovies? Pepperoni? What?”

They tell him their orders, then look at each other again as he leaves.

“I’d suggest my place,” Kala says, “but Dani and Lito would be decidedly worse.”

Wolfgang smiles too. “It’s okay.” Then he kisses the side of her mouth and gets up. “Gotta piss.”

Kala raises an eyebrow at this phrasing, but smiles despite herself and leans back on the couch. She picks up the last of Kolovi’s studies, one she didn’t get to, and finds glasses so she can begin to read. Wolfgang comes back, kisses her jawline and gives her an affectionate squeeze, then puts his head back in her lap. She thumbs over his temple, and he breathes in the scent of her perfume on her wrist, eyes crinkling slightly in relief to be back in her presence.

Kala reads and Wolfgang sleeps. A night of talking and a day of unexpected danger seem to have caught up with him, and when Kala is sure he’s asleep, she puts down her book. She runs her hand over his shoulder, down his arm, and gently plays with his knuckles. A smile burbles over her lips and she draws her hand back, pausing indulgently on his bicep for a moment, then runs her fingers through his hair, over his forehead, softly tracing his nose. She could do this forever. She bends her head down to kiss his cheek and then, overwhelmed, nestles into him so he’s spooning around her. He wakes up momentarily, puts an arm around her waist to pull her closer, and then she drifts into a quiet nap. She knows some people might find it silly and childish that they’ve slept next to one another twice now and haven’t made love. But she likes it. She likes the closeness and the trust. She likes knowing this is here for her. Anytime she’s scared or frustrated, she can fall asleep in his arms and wake up feeling like herself again.

The pizza arrives, and they both sleep through it -- Felix is half endeared, half enraged -- and it’s nearly eight at night when Kala wakes up with a soft gasp. She sits up. The TV buzzes on behind her, and the light in the kitchen flickers. Felix has gone out, and the house is quiet. A siren wails on a nearby street and the neighbor’s dogs bark. Kala glances around, and suddenly quite awake, she moves her legs off the couch. She gives Wolfgang’s arm a quick squeeze, then gets to her feet and looks around once more. She’s alone, in her boyfriend’s house, and she wants to explore.

No, it’s notentirely ethical. But she wouldn’t mind if he did the same, so she justifies it. She winds through the downstairs, which consists of a living room, the kitchen which she’s familiar with, and an office converted into a gym. The most prominent and most-used object in the gym is a punching bag. It bears several scars, the filling pouring out, and several patches of duct tape. Kala goes up to it and presses against it with her palm, watching it swing.

She wonders for a moment what it must be like to know how to fight with fists. It’s something she’s never understood. Something she’s never felt the impulse to do. She looks around another moment, at the movie posters, the black-and-white pin-ups of busty girls. She rolls her eyes, surprised to find herself mildly annoyed rather than on the verge of a heated feminist rant.

She continues her tour, going upstairs, where there are two rooms and a bathroom. She pauses, but it’s not hard to figure out which room belongs to Wolfgang. It’s neat and sparse, and there’s a stack of huge old books near the bed. She hesitates. Without him there, this room seems off-limits; and yet, he’s more open and understanding than he lets on, and she’s fairly sure he wouldn’t be upset. So she presses the door wider and turns on the light. The first thing she notices are boxes, large and small, stacked against the left wall. She notices the customs stamps, and realizes these must have been sent to him. This suggests he left Berlin in a hurry, without the opportunity to pack up his belongings properly.

She steps a few more feet into into the room, glancing at his bed, quickly looking away, then looking back. She fights the urge to sit down on it, because she knows as soon as she does, she’ll lay down, roll around on it like a little kid in summer grass, and giggle loudly. She has to avoid any and all giggling. So she merely looks, her heart filling with something heavy and hot and unshakable. Then she takes a steadying breath and glances to the right.

She stops in place. There’s another box, but this one contains at least a dozen guns, bold and black and shining in the light from the window. Kala murmurs aloud, “Oh.” She hugs herself. “Oh no.” She steps back. “Oh my God.” She looks around, suddenly paranoid, but seeing she’s alone, takes a cautious step towards the box. She extends a single index finger and brushes it against the muzzle of one of the rifles. There are several possibilities, none good. She watches her finger make contact with the guns, one by one, and settles into this new role. She’s not going to run, though maybe she should. She’s going to stay, though she can hardly explain why, and if she’s going to stay, she has to adapt to this reality. She’d like to say it’s a shock, but since the first night, she knew there was a part of him that is made of something she is not made of. Something she cannot understand or relate to. Something she can only react to.

And if she loves him, which she thinks she could, and in some moments, knows she does, then she wants to react the right way.

So, the possibilities. She has to deal with each individually.

Arms dealer. Unlikely. They have too many weapons to keep in one box.

Drug dealer. Possible, though based on the stories about his father, also unlikely.

Assassin. Not his style. She knows, whatever he might have done, he did it because he had to, not simply because he was good at it.

Thief. Very possible, given his ability to pick locks, and it fits his personality.

She keeps running through options, and as she does, she realizes she feels, more than anything, sympathetic. Perhaps she’s wrong, perhaps it’s how she has to cope with it, but she can only see him as a victim of terrible circumstances. Out of everything wrong in the world, much of it is caused by men with few options. What would she have done, without a mother, without a loving father?

She knows some people are strong enough to overcome these things. But she’s not sure she would be strong enough, and how can she hold him to a higher standard than she holds herself?

She’s just pulled away the box when a shadow obscures the room, and she spins around to see Wolfgang in the door. He doesn’t look upset, but he does look deeply worried, and he moves very slowly as he walks in and looks at her.

“I -- I’m sorry,” she says immediately. “I -- I woke up, I was curious--”

He shakes his head. “No, Kala...” He looks down, gripping the door frame. “I should tell you what happened in Berlin.”

She nods, and says quietly, “I would like that. But please...know that I...I want to be with you, Wolfgang...you don’t have to be afraid I’ll leave.”

He laughs humorlessly. “I’m not sure you’ll say that in a few minutes.”

“I am,” she says fiercely.

He looks at her, at once desperate to tell her the truth, embarrassed that she’ll see his true nature, terrified that she’ll leave, and equally afraid that she’ll stay.

But he nods, knowing this moment was inevitable, just as the moment was when his mother died, when he killed his father, when he ran with Felix from the shop and got on a flight to Chicago. Some things in life, as he’s always known, are inevitable.

“Want to sit down?” he asks softly.

She nods, and sits next to him on his bed. He looks down, struggling, so she puts her hands in his.

“This isn’t a confession,” she whispers. “In fact, you don’t have to tell me--”

“No, I don’t want you guessing.” He pulls out a cigarette. “You mind?”

She shakes her head and lights it for him with some matches he points to on his bedside table.

He focuses his eyes on a spot on the wall and says, “After we came over from East Berlin...my family took advantage of all the opportunities before the wall came down. Mostly laundering and extortion, like we did in East Berlin, but after a while my father got bored. He wanted bigger things.” Wolfgang pauses, contemplating the the wisps of smoke in the air. “He was always a good boxman. He could crack anything, nearly anything. And I grew up in that, he taught me how to live in that world.” He shrugs. “I don’t mean this as an excuse, but that life seemed more real to me than the lives of all the normal people. I was never worried about the consequences of the real world, it wasn’t the world I lived in.”

Kala nods.

“My father had to retire after an incident with a safe, went to a part of the city he shouldn't have been in, was too slow, tried to crack something no one could. After that we were poor, lost everything. My father drank and treated my mom and me like shit. The only good thing was Felix, he always defended me.” Wolfgang pauses, then impulsively takes the picture of his mother out of a nearby box. “That’s her.”

“She’s beautiful,” murmurs Kala, rubbing her thumb lovingly on the frame. “Young.”

Wolfgang nods. “She was seventeen when she had me.”

Kala’s brow wrinkles. “Oh my. Felix mentioned she married your father because...”

“She was too young to know better,” says Wolfgang. 

Kala nods, still looking at the picture, and asks, dreading the answer, “What happened to her?”

Wolfgang takes a moment to answer. “I’m not sure I’ll ever know if he meant to, but one night my father went too far and she...” He pauses for another moment. “Well, he realized what he'd done and we tried to get her to the hospital, but it was no good.”

Kala breathes out, catching her breath so she doesn’t cry, and wipes away her tears; they’re starting slow, but she’s sure by the end of the night she’ll be soaked. She thumbs over the picture once more, devastated for him, and glances into his eyes.

“I’m sorry,” she murmurs.

He lifts her chin. “Don’t cry, there’s been enough of that...”

“Your father...” she says, struggling to understand. “He...”

Wolfgang nods. “Would have killed me too, he didn't know when to stop.”

Kala hesitates. “How did you live like that?”

“I'm not sure I should tell you the rest of it,” Wolfgang says in response.

Kala shakes her head. “It’s okay.”

“I couldn’t live with it,” he says. “When I was twelve, I...” He stops, unsure how detailed he should be, and then says, almost as if he can’t help it, “I followed him to his favorite bar, waited until he was drunk and was walking back...I wouldn’t have done it, but I knew the look in his eyes, knew what was waiting for me, so I broke his neck and threw him in his car and lit it up.”

Kala nods hard, not meeting his eyes. “You had to.”

Wolfgang swallows. “I had to.”

Kala keeps nodding, and Wolfgang tries to believe that she’s not doing this to convince herself of his innocence.

“And after that I lived with my uncle, who wasn’t much better...he was involved in all the same shit my father was, so I was too...” He pauses. “I was good at it, better than my father, and better than my cousin...it was all stupid competition at first, but then we grew up, and we wanted the same things. There was...a hit we both wanted, diamonds, but it was an S&D safe, which was the same kind my father couldn’t handle, same one that got him caught...but I cracked it and I got them and everything seemed...solved. We had money, finally, and then..well, Steiner realized it was me, so he shot Felix, and he lived. And I wouldn’t have done what I did, but Steiner knew all the doctors...I knew Felix wasn’t going to make it out the front door if Steiner was alive, and I knew I was next. So I killed him, and I killed my uncle when he got suspicious, and we ran. We disappeared, we came here.” He looks at the floor. “They weren’t good men. That’s not saying I am, I’m not, but they weren’t either.”

“Are you safe here?” asks Kala, and Wolfgang looks at her, surprised that his safety is her concern, surprised she’s still sitting next to him.

He nods. “I think so.”

She sniffles, takes a long breath, and then she nods. “I had a feeling it was something like this.”

“I understand if you don’t want to be with someone like--”

“What you’ve done,” says Kala, “isn’t who you are.” Her voice is soft, but he doesn’t dare interrupt her. “Someone like you?” she goes on. “Someone like you has shown me more care, has been more gentle to me than anyone I can remember. You may have done things you are ashamed of, and afraid of, but those things do not define you...what defines you is this. Us. And as far as I’m concerned, you’ve already shown me everything I need to see.” She turns his face gently towards hers. “I won’t lie, this may take me some time...but if you think I don’t want this, that I don’t want you ...then you haven’t been paying any attention.”

He tries to nod, to answer her, but instead, he grips her in a tight embrace. She holds him, crying silently on his shoulder as she combs her fingers through his hair.

“Thank you,” he murmurs after a moment.

“For what?” she asks.

“For staying,” he replies.

She nods, and then she pulls away and meets his eyes.

“I’d like to stay here tonight,” she says softly, “if that’s okay with you.”

He nods too. She gets up and goes into the bathroom attached to his room. She takes off her jeans and her bra, left in his shirt and her panties. She washes her face, pressing her fingers hard into her eyes as she rinses off the soap, and then she ties her hair loosely over her shoulder. His shirt is long enough that she isn’t embarrassed to walk back into his room. She shuts off his light, shuts the door, and silently gets in his bed. When he looks at her, she twitches her fingers at him, asking him to join her. He walks around the side of the bed and kisses her quickly.

“I need to shower, I’ll be right back,” he says.

She nods, snuggling her face into his pillows as she waits. She listens to the shower turn on, and she turns over. She has always had a good sense of right and wrong, and as she stares at his ceiling, she feels she can understand what he did. She feels she may have done the same things if she was in his place. This realization scares her slightly, but it’s also a relief. If she can relate to what he’s done, then he can’t have done anything she can’t live with.

Some moments in life, like this one, leave her feeling hollowed out. Sometimes she’s so shocked, sometimes so removed from normal life, that she can’t feel the world around her. And as she stares, turns in his sheets, stretches her toes out to touch the cold air, she doesn’t recognize herself or this place. She could let this scare her. But tonight, after everything, it’s freeing. She’s new. She can do what she wants without old fears to stop her.

Wolfgang, meanwhile, stands with his head under hot water. He keeps his eyes shut tight, rubbing his face and letting the water drown out the thoughts. He wants to cry, but he doesn’t, not because he’s incapable of it, but because he taught himself not to. He’s not sure what Kala intended by getting in his bed, but he knows he can’t sleep with her, not after that conversation. He rubs his face harder, turning up the water. Then he sighs, it’s useless, and steps out of the shower. He dries off, still shaking slightly, and puts on a pair of boxers. When he goes back into his room, he notices that Kala has sat up and has taken one of his books from his bedside table.

She smiles shyly at him and gestures with the book.

“Will you read this to me while I fall asleep?”

He stops short. “You want me to...”

“Read to me,” she replies. “I like your voice.”

He decides this isn’t real life, but he gets into bed next to her and takes the book out of her hand. She nudges him with her nose, asking for a kiss, and he kisses her. Suddenly, it’s as if he’s gotten into bed next to her for years, and for a tiny moment, he lets himself think this is because that’s what their future together looks like. For a moment, he lets himself imagine this is normal... feeling her breath soften and slow down against him, reading to her in broken English-Russian-German, apologizing for that, listening to her laugh as she touches her foot to his ankle and sleepily kisses his shoulder.

For a moment, what happened in Berlin seems to be in the past.

He reads to her until he notices a soft snore, and then he carefully turns out the light and puts his arms around her. He doesn’t sleep for a long time, but he’s not restless. He’s just in disbelief that this woman, who is different from everyone he’s ever been with, has somehow decided to be with him, to live in this grey area.

He shuts his eyes and nuzzles against her, and she presses towards him in her sleep. He smiles, the first time in hours, and holds her close as he falls asleep.

Miles away at the airport, an elderly woman in a long fur coat walks off the night flight from Berlin, and types an address into her phone.

Chapter Text

Wolfgang wakes up before Kala, curled around her, his fingers still tangled in hers, which is how they fell asleep hours before. For a moment, he hesitates to believe that she's real, but then he feels her stretch against him, half asleep, and he holds her slightly closer. He gently moves her hair out of her eyes, and she gives the smallest, softest smile to let him know she's awake. She stays in his arms for a few decadent moments, before her thoughts kick in. Then she opens her eyes a sliver, and sees the light pouring in through the blinds, striping over the bed and casting long broken shadows on the floor.  It's snowing lightly, and she'd like to stay in bed with him. She presses closer and brushes her lips on his.

“Hi,” she murmurs.

He kisses her back and runs a hand through her hair. “Morning.”

She smiles indulgently and tucks her face into his chest. “I don't want to go to class.”

He nudges her. “You should go,  I already made you miss a day.”

Kala hums. “True. But I'm so comfortable.” Then she sighs,  pushing herself up onto her elbows and looking around for her phone. She has enough time to go home and shower, so she texts Dani and Lito to say she's coming back, then browses through her email. She sees some lecture announcements, scholarship invites, several notices about homework due dates, and an invitation to Nomi and Amanita’s annual Fall Bash.

“Oh my God, I forgot all about this!” she says excitedly. “Nomi and Amanita’s party... do you want to go with me?  It's usually wonderful, the food is excellent and everybody dances...”

“When is it?” he asks, sitting up.

“Tonight,” she says.

“I have soccer until 6, will that be okay?”

She nods, smiling. “You can meet me at my place and we’ll go from there.” She pauses. “Could I go watch you play tonight?”

He nods. “Sure.”

“And what about Dani and Lito?”

He smirks. Why would I mind having three people stare at me instead of just one?

Kala throws her head back and giggles. “You are so full of yourself!”

“I'm feeling a little overconfident since I woke up with a beautiful girl in my bed this morning.”

“Oh, very smooth,” Kala whispers.

He twitches his finger at her to get her to come closer and she shakes her head.

“Oh don't you dare, I'll get stuck here,” she says, kissing his cheek and forcing herself out of bed.

She walks to the bathroom, pulling his shirt more tightly around herself, and he watches her until she disappears behind the door. Then he rolls onto his back and grins softly to himself, putting his hand lightly over his face.

Kala gets dressed in her clothes from the previous day, and Wolfgang goes downstairs, makes coffee and warms up his car. The snow has melted off enough for the roads to be cleared so he figures he'll drive her. He throws on jeans and a leather jacket and has just reached for his keys when Kala shows up in the kitchen, wrapping a scarf around her neck. She's about to complain about the day in front of her, but then she sees him waiting for her with coffee, and she forgets what she was going to say. She smiles and takes the coffee from him.

“I’m starting to get used to this,” she says quietly, taking a sip.

“I’m surprised I don’t make it too strong for you,” he replies.

She smiles some more. “You do, but I like it.”

“Why?” he asks.

“Because you made it,” she says, popping her left eyebrow.

He laughs. Then he pulls a chair out from the kitchen table. “Have a few minutes?”

She nods and they sit down. She puts her feet on his lap and they drink their coffee without speaking. He rubs his thumb on her knee -- he seems to need physical contact with her to feel completely at ease -- and she looks outside at the snow. Wolfgang expected Kala to be distant and guarded this morning, questioning everything he told her the night before. But as she leans her head on his shoulder, flicking her eyes into his and giving him a quick, exuberant smile, he can tell she doesn’t regret any of it.

“Can I ask you something?” he says.

She nods and looks at him again.

“How the fuck did I meet you?”

She looks away, laughing so that her eyes crinkle into two sparkling crescents. But then she looks up again, studying him and slowly moving her hand over his chest.

“I don’t know,” she murmurs honestly, watching her fingers play with his collar. “It feels...miraculous.”

“I’ve never believed in that kind of thing,” he says.

“Well,” she replies. “Maybe you never had a reason to.”

He nods, knowing she’s right but not quite ready to admit it, and they go back to drinking their coffee in the quiet kitchen. Then they hear a noise upstairs -- Felix is up -- and they exchange a glance. They set their coffee down in unison and run out the door, wanting to avoid the inevitably embarrassing questions Felix will ask, and Wolfgang leads Kala to his car down the street

“I didn’t know you had a car!” she says, hurrying up to it. “Oh my God, Wolfgang, we walked for miles in the last couple days!”

“It’s been too snowy to drive,” he replies, kicking one of the tires and adding, “especially in this piece of shit.”

Kala gets in the passenger seat and he gets in the other side, lighting a cigarette before adjusting the shift stick and pulling out.

“You know, as a chemist and a future pharmacist, I do feel obligated to tell you how bad those are for you,” says Kala, glancing at the cigarette.

“All the men in my family smoked and they were fine. I'll be fine too.”

“That,” she says, “is a logical fallacy.”

He glances at her. “I’ve been in too many dangerous situations to die from this.”

“Also a logical fallacy,” she says.

He shakes his head, grinning. “You’re fun at parties, aren’t you?”

She nods, playing along, and they both laugh. She gives him directions to her place and turns up the heat.

“Speaking of parties,” she says as they wait at a red light, “do you have something nice to wear?”

“I have what I wore to my grandfather’s funeral,” he says, making a face that causes Kala to cover her face and giggle feebly.

“Wolfgang,” she scolds.

“Hey, you’re the one laughing,” he says.

“I don’t mean to be laughing! I wasn’t expecting that answer!”

“I’ll wear it, I’m not superstitious,” he says.

“Oh, no, absolutely not.” She gives a last giggle. “I’ll find you something.”

They pull up to Kala’s apartment a moment later and she looks at him as the car stops.

“I’ll text you, okay?” she whispers

He nods and kisses her goodbye. He drives back home, finishing a second cigarette, and pulls into his usual spot a block up the street. He starts to walk back to his apartment, but he sees an unfamiliar car parked in front of it. It’s nothing. Has to be nothing. A coincidence. A delivery driver. Felix’s cousin. Someone visiting the neighbor. But, force of habit, he reaches for the glock strapped underneath his car and pockets it. He realizes he doesn’t have his phone. Otherwise, he would call Felix for the all clear.

As he walks up the steps, he notices new footprints in the snow. Someone walking in heels. His first thought is the woman Kolovi works with-- not someone he wants to see now or ever -- but his second thought is his aunt, and of the two of them, he’d rather deal quickly with the woman who’s bound to be an excellent fighter but not better than him, than have a conversation with a relative who felt compelled to travel from Berlin.

He opens the door hard, looking around and fingering the safety of his gun. The kitchen is clear, but in the living room, he locks eyes with Felix, who is sitting on the couch, looking exhausted. The only thing visible is his aunt's head, sitting opposite of Felix.

“Tried to call,” says Felix.

Wolfgang throws his arms wide, stepping in front of his aunt. “What the fuck are you doing here? You came to Chicago?"

“Yes, I don’t expect you to understand,” she says, voice gravelly, perhaps tired from travel.

“So enlighten me,” says Wolfgang.

“Don’t be so confrontational. Sit down. We have something to discuss.”

“I assume if you found my address, you could have found my number. You could have called.”

Aunt Elke’s eyes narrow. “You could have avoided the conversation if I called.”

“I can avoid the conversation like this too,” says Wolfgang, leaving the room and entering the kitchen. He finds vodka, pours three sloppy shots, and takes them one after the other. Then he returns to the living room and motions at Felix. “C’mon, we’re going out.” He looks at his aunt. “You already know my answer. You knew it the moment I left. Felix, let’s go.”

Aunt Elke stands up. She’s more frail than he remembers, and when she speaks, it’s with an honesty she rarely displays. “Wolfgang, things are falling apart. Do you really want to do more damage than you have already done?”

“There’s no more damage to do,” says Wolfgang, handing Felix his coat. “You know there is nothing I can fix.”

“That is what you tell yourself,” she says. “Do you want your grandfather’s name to be forgotten entirely? Permanently? What would Berlin be without him? Without us? We are a cornerstone of the city.”

Wolfgang shakes his head. “Which Berlin, auntie? From which year? For which people?”

“Our kind is in danger,” says Elke, voice unsteady.

“Then leave,” says Wolfgang. “Get out like Felix and I did.”

His aunt’s mouth tightens into a grimace. “You are a fool, like your uncle was a fool, like your cousin was a fool, you are the only one who can salvage anything.

“My grandfather is dead, my father is dead, my uncle is dead, Steiner is dead. I’m the only one left, and you know if I go back there, without the protection of the family, I’ll die too. I’m not going back to survive a few months so that you can keep your money.”

“You would have the protection of the family if you hadn’t killed two of the four you named! And it is more than the money! You know it is more than the money!”

“It was never more than the money.”

Elke sniffs in anger. “You can’t deny how much you love that city.”

“Nothing is going to happen to Berlin. Just the Berlin no one knows about, and that would be fine by me, and by everyone else in the city.”

“You should be ashamed,” says Elke, nostrils flaring. “How would you feel if Sebastian Fuchs took over our kingdom--”

“Do you hear yourself? Let Fuchs take it. Go to London, somewhere safe.”

“Don’t be a child. Our whole life is there.”

“Don’t be a child? It’s all meaningless. The titles and the promotions and the fucking kingdoms bullshit. Get over it and leave or you’ll die. You know that’s true, I knew that was true, it’s why I left. Fuchs or anyone else will eliminate the stragglers, you know that.”

Aunt Elke looks down and nods. “No, you aren’t wrong. But if you’re a man, you’ll die fighting for your rights. Men don’t run away.” She gets up, pulling her coat on. “I’ll leave, I see you don’t want me here. But Wolfgang, while we’re being honest, how would you feel if you never saw Berlin again? Because that is what’s at stake.”

“I have a life here now,” says Wolfgang coldly.

Elke laughs. “I didn’t notice. Consider what I said to you, Wolfgang.”

She walks out of his apartment, and as soon as the door shuts, Wolfgang sits down on the couch, holding his head in his hands.

“I’m sorry,” Felix says tentatively. “I shouldn’t have let her in.”

Wolfgang shakes his head. “You had to, it doesn’t matter. She can’t do anything to make us come back.”

Felix hesitates. “She is right, though. If we don’t fix Berlin, we’ll never see it again.”

“I don’t care,” says Wolfgang disingenuously. “And even if I did, how would we fix it?”

Felix shrugs. “We were pretty good, the two of us against the world.”

“Not good enough for that. Let her go, let her drop it. She’ll be dead in a month anyway. I know Fuchs, he doesn’t risk any opposition.”

Felix squints suddenly. “You know that woman the other day? The hot one you lit the cigarette for?”

Wolfgang frowns. “What about her?”

“She looks like Fuchs’s girl,” says Felix.

“Maybe a little,” says Wolfgang.

“No, exactly like her.”

“I wasn’t paying attention,” says Wolfgang.

Felix shakes his head. “This new girlfriend of yours is dulling your senses, my man.”

“I’m not sure that’s a bad thing,” says Wolfgang. Then he looks at the floor, chewing on a thought he can’t let go of. “My aunt could have just called.”

“She’s scared, and admit it, you Bogdanows have a dramatic tendency. She wanted to show up here, confront you.”

Wolfgang shakes his head. “No. You’re right, she’s scared, but that’s not it, not all of it. Something’s up. Something with Fuchs, probably.” He keeps shaking his head. “Fuck all of this. We’re moving out of this place, getting a new one she can’t find.”

“Wolfie, we just moved here--”

“We weren’t careful enough. We have to do it again. If she can find us, so can Fuchs. This neighborhood is shit anyway.”

Felix breathes out harshly and leans back on the couch. “Well, you were right. This will always be a part of our lives.”

“Wish I was someone else,” muses Wolfgang. Then he looks around the living room. “I’m not letting anything happen to Kala, I’ll tell her what’s going on, explain why we have to--”

“You can’t tell her anything,” says Felix. “That’ll put her in more danger.”

Wolfgang nods reluctantly. “I’ll tell her we got kicked out. That’s believable.”

Felix nods too. “Shocked we haven’t been, actually.”

Wolfgang gets up, throwing his coat down and going towards the stairs.

“Where are you going?” asks Felix.

“Meeting Sun, need to get this out of my system anyway,” he answers.

Felix nods. “Okay.” Then, as Wolfgang is going upstairs, he shouts, “Wolfie? Don’t do anything stupid!”

Wolfgang grunts in a noncommittal way. When he gets into his room, he kicks the door shut and yanks his sweats off the coat rack near the bathroom. Then he sits on his bed, running his hand through his hair, which is damp with sweat and snow. His aunt isn’t wrong. The last time there was a vacuum in the criminal leadership in Berlin, there was an underground war. The police were never aware of it -- all the bodies were dumped privately by the families. It was quiet but bloody, a two-year revolution with each faction competing for the newly open sector. Hassan and his sons took risks other men didn’t and it paid off. Wolfgang, about twelve at the time, followed them through the city every night.

Wolfgang remembers clinging to his coffee thermos as his only source of warmth, bending over bodies to ensure whoever his father had shot was dead, waiting outside of brothels until he was fourteen, and once he was allowed in, sitting quietly on the edge of a bed and explaining to a girl younger than him that he didn’t want anything, standing with his back to a wall while his father took out minor losses on him, drinking until he threw up whenever they won, coming back to Felix’s house every morning and staring, dead-eyed, at the television screen while Felix asked if he was okay. His father called it training.

Wolfgang always knew, indirectly, how brutal the mobsters in Berlin could be. He could tell by the look in his mother’s eyes that there was a storm around them, always threatening to blow the windows in. But growing up, he wasn’t afraid of this. He was afraid of his father. He couldn’t understand how the mob, operating quietly outside his walls, could be worse. But that winter, Wolfgang saw the brutality first hand and knew he would be changed by it. His mother had been dead a year, and his father decided he was old enough to be involved. After the first night, he knew the undercover world that his father had kept a secret was now his world and his secret. And he knew he was powerless to refuse it.

But after nearly twenty years, with the three original Bogdanows dead, he felt no such obligation. True, with Sergei gone, there would be a war. There would be boys, just like he was, forced into positions they didn’t ask for and couldn’t handle. But they weren’t his responsibility. Were they?

And even if he did go back, it would be unlikely that he would survive. And without him, the same problems would occur. Losing was inevitable now. He knew it, his aunt knew it, and there was nothing they could do but leave. Still, the criticism that men don’t run away stung -- he’d never been good at swallowing that kind of insult, because there was nothing worse in his father’s eyes than being weak.

Wolfgang flops back on his bed, staring at the ceiling, and fights a strange urge to laugh. Of course his aunt found him here. Of course escape is impossible. Of course he’ll live with the weight of the past until he’s in the ground. Of course he’ll pay for what he did. Maybe he should return to Berlin. Why fight the inevitable rise and fall?

He stays on his back, momentarily indifferent, and then out of the corner of his eye, he notices a scarf draped on his reading chair. It’s Kala’s...bright orange and turquoise with elephants on it, slightly frayed on the ends. She must have forgotten it this morning. Wolfgang has gotten to his feet and picked it up before he realizes. He feels over the fabric, being delicate with it, and his chest suddenly clenches. The excuses that once made sense don’t anymore. The idea that he is destined to live and die a certain way doesn’t feel like the truth now.

Since meeting her, he started thinking, for the first time, about what his life after Berlin would look like. And that alone tells him that he can’t go back.

He puts her scarf in his bag, packing up a change of clothes and his cleats, and jogs back downstairs. Felix is still on the couch, looking washed out. Wolfgang pelts his keys at him -- they hit him square in the stomach -- and goes towards the door.

“Let’s go,” he shouts over his shoulder.

Felix lets out an impressive string of expletives and follows him, tugging on his jacket and scrambling for gloves.

“What bit you in the ass?” he asks as they head towards the door.

“We’re not going anywhere,” says Wolfgang. “We’re staying right here. I’ll deal with Elke or Fuchs or whoever else. That isn’t our life anymore. This is.”

Felix starts to grin. “So we’re not moving. And we’re not going back.”

“No, they can all get fucked.” Wolfgang throws open the car door. “You drive, I took a few shots when I went in the kitchen earlier.”

“Wow, Sun’s gonna kick your ass worse than usual,” says Felix, starting the car.

“I’m good when I’m drunk,” says Wolfgang.

“You tell yourself that brother,” says Felix, turning onto the road towards the campus.

“And anyway, I’m not meeting her until three. So...” He pulls up a map on his phone. “Turn left.”

Felix looks at him. “How much did you have? You know campus is this way, right?”

“We’re not going there. Left.”

“I don’t know why I put up with you,” says Felix, making the turn.

Wolfgang fiddles with the heat. “You love me.”

“You are drunk,” says Felix.

They drive for quite a while, heading towards Harwood Heights. Wolfgang gets a text from Kala.

Kala,12:57 p.m. -- I’ll be out of class at 4:00. Where will you be?

Wolfgang, 12:58 p.m. -- At the gym. You could meet me there.

Kala, 12:58 p.m. -- And do what?  And don’t say stare!

Wolfgang grins and rubs his thumb up and down the side of his phone. Felix glances at him and rolls his eyes.

Wolfgang, 12:59 p.m -- I wasn’t going to.

Kala, 1:00 p.m. -- You were.

Wolfgang, 1:00 p.m. -- I was.  I should be almost done at 4:00, we can walk over to the soccer field from there.

Kala, 1:02 p.m. -- Perfect.  I think I left my scarf at your house.

Wolfgang, 1:03 p.m. -- Yes you did and I’m keeping it.

Kala, 1:03 p.m. -- What for?

Wolfgang, 1:04 p.m. -- It matches my eyes.

Kala, 1:04 p.m. -- Why do I put up with you?

Wolfgang, 1:05 p.m. -- You’re the second person to ask me that today.

Kala, 1:06 p.m. -- Tell Felix I’m sorry he has to deal with you too.

“Kala says she’s sorry you have to put up with me,” says Wolfgang.

“I like that girl,” says Felix. “Tell her you’re making me drive who the fuck knows where in a blizzard because you got blitzed at noon.”

Wolfgang, 1:07 p.m. -- So 4:00?

Kala, 1:07 p.m. -- Yes, see you then :)

“Seriously, Wolfie, where are we going?”

“Just be patient.”

Felix shakes his head and keeps driving. Nearly ten minutes later, Wolfgang tells him to pull along the curb. They’re next to a large vintage theater featuring old movies. Wolfgang points at the display above the ticket booths, which spells out which films are being shown. Felix squints and starts to read through them. Then he sees it -- Conan the Barbarian.

He grins slowly and punches Wolfgang’s shoulder.

“I do love you,” he says as they get out. “How the fuck did you find a place with this movie?”

Wolfgang shakes his head and slings his arm around Felix’s shoulders. “C’mon.”

“Wolfie’s back!” shouts Felix. “Fuck Berlin!”

“Fuck Berlin,” agrees Wolfgang, and they disappear inside the theater.

Chapter Text

Kala, Dani and Lito walk slowly through the entrance of the university gym, unsure where anything is located. Kala isn’t sure of herself in places like this, and she’s glad to have Lito and Dani with her for support. She’s holding both their hands, inexplicably nervous.

“I feel like something’s wrong,” she murmurs to them.

“Like what, sweetheart?” asks Lito.

Kala shrugs. “Just something.” Then she sighs. “Why do relationships make us imagine things?”

“Because they force you to be vulnerable, and then that makes you insecure, and then that makes you paranoid,” says Dani, like this is self-explanatory.

“It seems like something else,” says Kala softy.

They keep wandering through the gym, looking around for a familiar face.

“Where did he say he was?” asks Lito.

“The gym,” says Kala with a dry smile.

“That’s helpful,” says Dani, gesturing around the massive building.

Someone taps Kala on the shoulder and she jumps. It’s Felix, who smiles widely at her when she turns around.

“Wolfie told me to go find you,” he explains. Then he looks at Dani and Lito. “Huh. Are all your friends this gorgeous?”

“Ooh, you’re sweet!” says Dani, pushing forward and shaking Felix’s hand.

“We live for compliments,” adds Lito, also shaking his hand.

Kala smiles. “These are my roommates, Lito and Dani. You two, this is Felix, Wolfgang’s roommate.”

They exchange a few “nice to meet yous” and then Felix waves the three of them to one side of the gym, where there is a large section of floor covered by a rubberized mat. They arrive just as Sun is pulling Wolfgang off the ground, clearly trying not to laugh at him. Kala has questions -- like why Wolfgang is fighting someone skinny enough to be blown away by the wind -- but she puts those on hold because Wolfgang is wearing black running shorts and not much else.

“Oh my,” Kala almost whimpers.

Dani crowds next to her and whispers, “Should have brought popcorn.”

“Oh my God, don’t tease me, this is already hard enough,” Kala whines. She crosses her arms over her chest. “I wasn’t expecting this.”

“He’s got nice abs,” murmurs Dani, drumming her fingers on Kala’s tummy.

Kala jumps at the feeling, and Dani stares at her.

“You need this so bad, girl.”

Kala gives up and leans against Dani, staring and biting her bottom lip. “I know.”

“The party tonight’s a good opportunity...” says Dani, resting her chin on Kala’s shoulder.

Kala’s toes curl inside her shoes at the thought of leaving early, having her apartment to themselves for a few hours.

“What happened to my self-control?” she whispers desperately.

“You’ve never really wanted someone,” says Dani kindly.

Kala nods. “That may be true.”

Dani smiles at her for strength, and she smiles back softly. Then they glance back at Wolfgang and Sun, who are circling each other, concentrating. Kala squints and looks at Felix.

“Does he usually fight her?”

Felix nods, watching.

“But she’s so small.”

“Yeah, and he always gets his ass kicked.”

“By her ?” Kala goes on.

“She’s stronger than she looks,” says a new voice, and Kala turns to see a handsome Korean man standing nearby, arms folded over his chest.

“I’m Kwon-ho, Sun’s boyfriend,” he says, extending his hand to Kala. “You can call me Mun.”

She shakes his hand. “I’m Kala, Wolfgang’s girlfriend.”

Mun raises an eyebrow at her, holding back a grin. “Really? Go Wolfgang. Sun’ll want to meet you, hold on a second--”

Mun whistles loudly, which distracts Wolfgang but not Sun, and Wolfgang takes an expertly-executed kick to the face. He leans over, grimacing, and waves Sun off. Kala gasps softly into her hands and looks at Felix, who shrugs.

“Sorry,” Sun says, throwing a towel over her shoulder. “But you should know better.”

Wolfgang straightens up and nods. He wipes a stripe of blood off his chin, glancing around for the source of the whistle, and spots Kala and the rest at the edge of the gym. He smiles at her, full of mischief, and her breath catches briefly in her throat. He starts towards her, but she can’t wait, and she hurries up to him and puts her hands all over him, checking that he’s whole.

“Are you okay? That looked terrible. Here...” She rubs her thumb gently over his chin to wipe away the rest of the blood. “Is it your nose? Are you sure nothing’s broken?”

He shakes his head. “I’m fine.”

Kala nods unsurely. Then she remembers herself, realizes she’s not alone with him, realizes that her hands are on his bare skin, growing damp with his sweat. She takes a quick, steadying breath and pulls her hands down, her fingers catching unintentionally on his waistband. She notices his throat jump at this feeling, and her eyes grow bright at the idea that she can make him feel this way.

“You could have warned me,” she whispers.

“What’s the fun in that?” he asks.

She looks down, turning pink, and grins softly to herself.

“We should probably...” she trails off.

He nods and they rejoin the others. Dani elbows Lito, who’s in a world of his own as he looks Wolfgang up and down, and the two of them introduce themselves to Sun. Then Sun shakes Kala’s hand, and Kala feels instantly calmer.

“I didn’t know Wolfgang was dating anyone,” Sun says, adding, “it’s lovely to meet you. I see you’ve met Kwon-ho?”

Kala nods and smiles.

“Well, you’re welcome at our place any time. You two should come over for dinner some time.”

“That’s so thoughtful, we will,” says Kala, adding, “when Wolfgang mentioned fighting I thought he meant boxing!”

Sun laughs and wipes her face with a towel. “No, I’ve been trying to teach him this.” She looks at him. “He’s not bad for someone who fights with his head instead of his heart.”

“I’m not sure you want to see him fight with his heart,” Felix says.

Sun smirks. “Don’t underestimate him, we’ll get him there. One more?”

“That okay?” Wolfgang asks Kala.

She nods. “As long as you don’t mind an audience...”

Wolfgang shakes his head, kisses the side of Kala’s head and grabs a fresh towel off a nearby bench. He follows Sun back out to the floor. Kala didn’t realize that by practice Wolfgang meant that they actually fought, and fought hard. She spends the rest of the time in the gym with her hand over her mouth, wincing frequently and asking Felix for reassurance.

Sun’s winning -- that’s clear -- but Wolfgang gets in a few solid punches, which prompts Kala to worry about Sun too.

“Do they enjoy this?” she wonders aloud.

Felix shrugs. “Wolfie’s always had a knack for it.”

“So has Sun,” says Mun. “Never seen anything like it.”

Kala nibbles on her bottom lip. “But it must be painful. Why would they go through that if they didn’t have to?”

“He’s always known how to take a punch,” says Felix.

“High pain tolerance,” adds Mun.

“He does everything so...intensely,” replies Kala quietly. She clenches her fingers as Wolfgang hits the floor. “Oh my God.”

Mun shakes his head. “That’s Sun for you. Just once, I’d like to see her lose.”

“She’s never lost against him?” asks Kala.

“Not yet,” says Felix. “He’s used to fighting with a gun in his hand, this feels unnatural to him. He offered to show her how to do that, but--”

“She doesn’t do weapons,” finishes Mun. “And why would she?”

Kala can’t help but agree. Sun’s unstoppable.

“Aw, that’s cute,” says Mun as Wolfgang knocks Sun off her feet. “She’s angry now.”

“He doesn’t know when to quit,” says Felix, wincing at the sound Sun’s foot makes as it connects with Wolfgang’s chest.

For a moment, it seems like he might push her away, but he makes the mistake of grabbing her leg, and she uses the leverage from this to swing herself back to her feet and hit him so hard in the stomach that he falls.

“Ouch,” says Daniela.

“This is extremely inspiring,” whispers Lito. “This reminds me of the scene from...”

Kala drowns them out and turns to Mun. “Where did she learn to fight like that?”

“She had a really wonderful teacher in South Korea,” he explains. “But I think most of it is who she is. She was born for this.”

Kala hums in agreement, then says, “I’ve heard South Korea’s very beautiful.”

“Oh, it is unless your family members are psychopaths,” says Mun, nodding.

“Nothing like bonding over shitty childhoods,” says Felix.

Kala’s brow wrinkles slightly as she watches Sun pull Wolfgang to his feet. Sun stays on the floor, stretching, and he heads to the locker rooms. He’s bloodied again, wincing a little with each step, and Kala would like to make sure he isn’t concussed, but she decides against subjecting him to a rigorous cognitive function test in front of his friends. Perhaps later.

He returns after a few minutes in his soccer uniform. Dani and Lito make a scene until Kala gives them the look a mother dragon might give her disobedient hatchlings, after which they settle for quiet giggling.

“Ready?” asks Wolfgang.

Kala nods and snugs up her jacket. “Are we walking?”

“No,” moans Dani. “No, no, no.”

“I can drive you,” says Felix immediately.

“My hero,” says Dani dramatically, linking arms with him and leading him towards the exit. (He looks over his shoulder at Wolfgang, points at Dani’s backside and mouths “nice!” and Wolfgang can’t help but shrug in agreement.)

“Anyone who wants a ride, follow us!” shouts Felix.

Lito trots after them, but Kala and Wolfgang stay behind. Kala takes Wolfgang’s hands, in an unusally good mood.

“Do you mind walking?” he asks.

“Not if it means I get to see you alone,” she replies, beaming at him.

“I need to talk to you about something, actually.”

Her smile dies on her lips and she pulls her hands away. He notices that her brows are knitted together with worry, so he rubs his thumb over her right brow and tucks her hair gently behind her ear.

“Everything’s fine,” he says. “Let’s talk about it while we walk, okay?”

Kala nods, steeling herself as they head for the exit. He takes her hand before they go outside, and he’s just started to speak when a car pulls in front of them. The door opens, and they see a woman extend a pair of long legs.

Chapter Text

Ms. Facchini takes her time walking up to them. Kala grips Wolfgang’s arm, standing in front of him protectively until he pushes her behind him.

“Aw,” simpers Lila, taking off her sunglasses and sucking on the end of them. “You’ll both be fun to play with.” She gestures at Kala, twitching her index finger. “But right now, I want you.”

Wolfgang holds Kala back.

“What do you think I’m going to do?” asks Lila. “Put a bullet in her precious brain right here? The University wouldn’t be happy, and besides, that’s your style, not mine.” She motions at Kala again. “C’mere sweetheart, I don’t have all day.”

Kala looks at Wolfgang and murmurs that it’s okay, and then she takes a step towards Lila, who reaches into her jacket. Wolfgang tenses, but all she pulls out are some papers, which she gives to Kala.

“Kolovi says to read these by tomorrow,” she whispers. “Keep them to yourself. That includes handsome over there. I’ll know if you show him.”

She pinches Kala’s cheek painfully, and then takes a step towards Wolfgang and puts a hand on his chest. She twists her face into a look of concern, and says, “How’s your aunt been?”

He looks into her eyes, and suddenly the memory of meeting her in Berlin crystalizes.

Lila smiles. “Thought so. Men are so easy. You can always rely on them forgetting a face...if I remember correctly, you were rather busy looking at other parts of me.”

She drags her hand down the front of his body, and then she circles around to her car and drives away. Kala stands still, clutching the papers to her chest, her cheek smarting in the cold air. Wolfgang touches her shoulder, hesitant, and she turns. Her eyes are fiery with anger, and he expects her to turn it on him. But she meets his eyes calmly.

“There must be something we can do,” she says.

Wolfgang shakes his head. “It’s complicated.”

“Why did she ask about your aunt?” Kala questions softly.

“Because she came here this morning,” says Wolfgang. “That’s what I was going to talk to you about. Berlin’s going to shit, my uncle, my cousin, and me are all gone, we all disappeared at once and it’s starting to be a problem.”

“Why?” asks Kala

“It's like a failed state,” says Wolfgang. “As soon as the dust settles all the wolves move in... a lot of people always die.”

“I’m confused. How did she know about your aunt?”

“Because she lives in Berlin,” says Wolfgang. “We met once. She's Fuchs’s girlfriend...Lila Facchini. I was at his apartment to talk about what Berlin would look like after what happened to Steiner and my uncle... everyone assumed I'd take their place--"

“Who's Fuchs?” asks Kala.

“Mobster... not one of the particularly dangerous ones but one of the richest...he wanted to team up with me and Felix.” Wolfgang reaches for a cigarette. “I didn't trust him. I left.”

Kala takes a breath, running her hand through her hair, working through this new information. “So this woman from Berlin... came here... to work with Kolovi... and the fact that you know each other is a coincidence?”

“As far as I can tell,” says Wolfgang, taking a long drag.

“I don’t believe it,” says Kala. “I believe you, but I don’t believe this is a coincidence. We’re missing something.”

“I can’t think of anything,” says Wolfgang. “And Kala? I didn't sleep with her.”

“I wasn't going to ask,” says Kala quietly.

“She meant to leave you with that impression,” says Wolfgang. “I didn’t want you to think she was telling the truth.”

Kala actually smiles. “She's very stupid to think that would bother me.”

“Why wouldn’t that bother you?” asks Wolfgang.

“Because I have you now,” says Kala, stretching her hands out to take his. She smiles wider. “In fact... she's already made her first mistake.”

“What?” asks Wolfgang, nonplussed.

“Underestimating us,” says Kala simply.

She puts the studies into her bag and pushes Wolfgang gently towards the sidewalk.

“You’re going to be late,” she says.

He starts to smile. “That’s okay.”

She looks up at him, and he sees that her eyes have taken on a new character. They’re sparkling with confidence. She’s clearly anything but intimidated, she might even be excited, and one of her words is still echoing in his head. Us, us, us . He can see it. At first, he was worried -- terrified, actually -- that she would learn the truth and run away. And then he was worried the truth would catch up with him again, which it did, and that she would run then. But here she is, more sure of herself than he is, holding onto him.

“I want today to be just for us,” she says, walking along one of the soccer fields and squeezing his hand. “I think we deserve that after dealing with Ms. Zucchini.”

Wolfgang laughs. “She might be upset if we call her that.”

“She might murder us,” agrees Kala.

Wolfgang shrugs. “She might do that anyway.”

“All the more reason to have a good day today,” says Kala.

Wolfgang cracks up, even though it’s not funny, and so does she. Then she breaks away from him, throwing her bookbag to the side, and scoops up a snowball to aim at him. She grins at him, dancing backwards and holding her snowball high. She raises her eyebrows, teasing him, and finally lobs it at him. After this, it’s chaos, snowballs flying from both sides, Kala laughing and screaming, Wolfgang falling for her more and more by the minute. After a while, one of Kala’s snowballs hits him in the face and she pauses, and he takes this opportunity to lift her off her feet and spin her. She bursts out laughing, and when he sets her down, she surges up to kiss him.

When they break away, she stays close, nudging his nose with hers. Before thinking about it, she whispers, “You make me so happy.”

He flicks his eyes into hers, understanding more clearly than he has before that letting her go is a lost cause, wishing he didn’t search for complications for the sake of complication itself, wondering for a moment what it must feel like to be comfortable in chaos the way she is.

Kala’s smile has faded slightly in the space of time it takes him to answer.

“Wolfgang? Is everything okay?” she asks quietly.

He nods, still watching her, still perplexed.

“I’m not sure I understand you,” he says finally, brushing his thumb over her jaw.

“What do you mean?” she asks.

“Aren’t you scared?”

Kala shakes her head.

“Why?”

She smiles. “In India, I felt responsible for everyone. I was the only one my parents could look to...and I feel like I spent years, balancing what they wanted, what my teachers wanted, what Rajan wanted, and worrying less about myself.” She pauses. “It made me very patient, very controlled...it taught me how to live without closure. But...it also exhausted me, because I see now how afraid I was constantly. I thought I would make one mistake and the sky would fall. So this...” She tilts her head, continuing to smile. “This doesn’t seem so bad.”

Wolfgang’s been listening to her with the soft, mesmerized expression he reserves only for her.

“No, it doesn’t,” he agrees quietly.

He catches his fingers lightly in hers. He’s never been with someone who takes away his tendency to doubt himself, to doubt what he wants.

“And besides,” she goes on, “if I have to be scared, at least I’ll be scared with you.”

He shakes this head. “That’s the thing. I’m not scared when I’m with you. I’m not used to that.”

“No, I wouldn’t expect you are,” she says gently, glancing up at him.

“I don’t know why you make me feel that way,” he admits.

She smiles playfully. “Probably my magnetic beauty, overall charisma, and lovable disposition.”

He nods, going along. “Probably.”

They smirk at each other, and then Kala pulls him closer and kisses him quickly.

“We’re going to be very late,” she says.

“Maybe we shouldn’t show up at all,” he replies.

“You did make me skip a class...”

“So?” he asks.

“So...you owe me,” she explains, tugging on his shirt. “My apartment is empty...so, skip soccer practice.”

He raises his eyebrows. “What would your mother say?”

“Nothing good,” says Kala, laughing.

He laughs too, and they turn around and walk away from campus. The texts start to come in as they walk.

Felix -- You’re skipping, aren’t you?

Dani -- Um? Are you coming?

Felix -- Coach says he’s going to skin you alive.

Lito -- I support you, Kala. Blow his mind. And other things!

Dani -- Lito! I do not support you, Kala! Get your ass, more importantly his ass, back here!

Felix -- Twenty eight years in Berlin and you’re gonna die at the hands of a fat old soccer coach. Sad.

Lito -- Dani, he’s her boyfriend, not yours.

Dani -- That doesn’t stop me from admiring him.

Lito -- It does.

Dani -- Like you can talk.

Felix -- I’ve told you before, women will be the death of you.

Dani -- We’re starting a groupchat called The Sexiled

“Our friends are terrible,” says Kala, wrinkling her brow.

“What are yours saying?” asks Wolfgang, frowning and texting Felix back.

“Nothing I want to repeat,” says Kala.

They glance at each other and Kala giggles. Then she pockets her phone and takes his hand.

Chapter Text

Kala picks up her pace when they reach her street, unlocks the door impatiently, and pulls Wolfgang inside after her. He notices she’s flushed and a little jumpy, and he tries not to make too many assumptions based on this, but then she pulls him down the hall and looks over her shoulder with a smile that can only be described as provocative.

“Don’t be shy,” she says.

He’s a little surprised at her timing, and he slows her pace. “You sure?”

Kala is not sure, but she’s impatient to try and taste and surrender some of her control. Her heart is beating faster than it should, and her knees feel like they might spontaneously buckle. She’s surprised at the way time advances when she’s with him. It’s as if a year has passed in a few days; it’s also as if this moment has lasted an entire hour. Her usual approach, slowly getting to know someone, seems out of place with him, because it’s as if she met him already knowing him, and all that was left to do was...this.

So she nods. “I’m sure.”

He glances briefly into her eyes, then takes her face in his hands and kisses her fiercely. Kala can feel the urgency and intent behind the kiss, and it’s enough to make her soften in his arms; he nearly has to hold her to keep her on her feet. She murmurs something unintelligible against his lips and he slides his hands down her back, then lower, gently squeezing her ass. She grins, so he pulls her closer, intending to kiss her more softly for a moment, but then she rolls her hips instinctively against his and it’s all he can do not to crush her against the nearest wall. She moans into his mouth at this new feeling, and tries it again.

He pulls back, momentarily overcome, and rests his forehead on hers. She’s panting slightly, her fingertips electric with want as she pulls them down his arms and over his hands. She’s sure her heart is beating loudly enough for him to hear. Her eyes search his for a moment, and then he helps her out of her jacket, discarding it on a nearby chair. She bites her bottom lip, playing with the hem of his shirt; then, before she can decide against it, she lifts it up gently and takes it off. She takes a moment to touch his chest, his abs, tilting her head like she’s seeing something she’s never seen. She pulls her index finger down the line between his pecs until it reaches the soft tuft of hair just under his bellybutton. She notices his breath increase slightly and she smiles.

Then she glances up at him. “Your turn.”

He laughs and pulls her sweater over her head, revealing a t-shirt, which he also removes, and then a camisole. He pulls at the strap, letting it go so it gently stings her skin.

“Huh, somehow I think I’m doing more work than you.”

She laughs. “It’s winter, what did you expect?”

He shakes his head and kisses her, then pulls the camisole over her head, leaving her in a sheer white bra that’s dotted with lacy roses. It’s more revealing than the one she would have worn had she’d known she’d be in this position (she likes the anticipation) but she can’t hide now. She glances down at herself, then up at Wolfgang, who looks a bit dazed. Kala can’t help but smile, pleased with herself. He moves his hand up her waist, letting his knuckles brush one of her nipples as he goes to put his hand in her hair. She shivers, goosebumps appearing on her arms, her skin suddenly oversensitive. He kisses her for a moment, pulling the fingers of his free hand in between her breasts, fingering the tiny bow at the bottom of her bra.

She gasps softly when he finally squeezes one of her breasts. He nudges his nose on her cheek, then into her neck, and kisses her there for a moment while he feels over her. Kala leans her head back, taken over by the way his stubble scratches her, and grins widely.

“Mmgod,” she mumbles.

He flicks his eyes into hers, smiling in a sly way that she absolutely does not trust and simultaneously loves, and moves his hands to her waistband. He pops the button of her jeans open with his thumb and she giggles.

“I do have a bedroom, you know,” she says.

“You do?” he asks, sliding her jeans down a few inches.

“I do...” she murmurs, untying his drawstring.

But they’re too consumed with their current activity to make any more progress down the hall. He slips his hands under her jeans and cups her ass, and she tugs his sweats down so they pool on the floor. He presses her against the wall, sliding his knee in between her legs, and she presses close to him. She can feel his cock growing pronounced against her, and she realizes abruptly that she’s soaked, which is something she can’t say she’s ever experienced, at least not like this. Heat shoots through her arms and legs and she’s suddenly woozy with longing. She expected this particular moment to be quite frightening, but she wants him too much to be aware of anything else. She groans softly when kisses her again, tangling her hands in his hair; her breath catches in her throat when he hooks a finger under her panties, and moans more loudly than she knew she was capable of when he tugs up on them to tease her.

“Upstairs,” she breathes. “Now.”

They kiss their way through the kitchen to get through the stairs. Kala turns on the light so they don’t stumble over the chairs, and out of the corner of her eye, she notices several unfinished desserts on the counter. She stops.

“Oh my God,” she whispers. “Oh my God .”

“What?” asks Wolfgang.

She crosses her arms, surveying the desserts. “These are for the party, they said they would finish them, and look. They’re not even baked.”

“Their problem,” says Wolfgang.

“No,” sighs Kala. “No, it’s not. These are for Nomi, she only throws this party once a year...” She glances up at the clock. “We only have an hour, they’re never going to get home in time...” Kala bites her bottom lip, wavering, and looks at Wolfgang. “We’ll still have tonight...I can’t let her down. I can’t, I’m sorry. Just give me ten minutes.”

He stares at her for a moment, and then he shrugs. “How can I help?”

“Really?” she whispers, overwhelmed with surprise. “Oh my God, thank you, I’m so sorry, here-- put the oven on, um, 350...”

Wolfgang can’t say he’s ever been cockblocked by baked goods, but this is Kala, and he’s not going to give into annoyance. If he’s honest, the fact that she puts her friends first is something he loves about her...and teasing her all night at the party before taking her home is something he’s not going to say no to, despite the fact that he wants her right now, more than he can remember ever wanting anyone.

“We should have a show,” says Wolfgang. “Naked baking.

Kala laughs, reaching into the fridge for whipped cream. “I think people might watch it for the wrong reasons.”

Wolfgang looks her up and down. “I think so.”

She blushes, holding the can of whipped cream up to her chest. “Are you going to help or are you going to stare at me?”

“Both,” he says.

She laughs again, and they spend the next few minutes frosting things, adding sprinkles of nuts and chocolate, feeding each other. Most of the whipped cream ends up in Kala’s hair, and in retaliation, quite a bit of powdered sugar ends up in Wolfgang’s. He kisses her against the fridge while they wait for something to finish baking.

“You taste like chocolate,” he tells her.

She smiles, then reaches for a cherry on top of a nearby cupcake and pops it in her mouth. “Now what do I taste like?”

He grins. “You shameless thing.”

“Are you going to tell me or not?” she asks, tilting her face up towards his.

He laughs and kisses her, pulling her closer. Then they hear the front door open, and both run to the hall to retrieve their clothes. They’ve just gathered them up when Dani, Lito and Felix come in, staring. Dani actually drops her purse.

Kala and Wolfgang glance at each other.

Then Dani gasps and throws her hands over her mouth. “The desserts! I just remembered! Oh my God!”

Wolfgang nods. “Yeah, thanks for that.”

“I’m so sorry! Oh my God, oh no, Lito ! We forgot about the desserts.”

“I’m missing something,” says Lito.

“I know you cook in your underwear but Kala doesn’t,” says Dani. “Use your big handsome brain, Lito.”

Lito’s eyes widen. “I see.”

Dani rolls her eyes and goes up to Kala, taking off her jacket and giving it to her. “We’re the worst friends in the history of the world, I’m so sorry.”

“No, it’s alright,” says Kala, covering up with the jacket.

Dani looks at Wolfgang. “You know we’re going to a party in like twenty minutes? Could you have gotten her any messier?”

“Yes,” he says, unashamed.

Kala meets his eyes, smiling playfully, and he grins.

Dani folds her arms, shaking her head. “I love you two. You’re perfect. And so hot. If you ever, you know, want an extra lady in the mix, I’m game.” She checks her watch, and before anyone can respond, adds, “Oh my God! Go, go, go! Everyone, upstairs, we’re going to be late. Kala, you take the first shower, then you Wolfgang. Anyone else need a shower? Who’s car are we taking? Are the pies done?” She breaks into rapid Spanish, directing Lito to pack up the desserts. “¡Deprisa!”

Chapter Text

The next twenty minutes are a mad rush. Kala takes the fastest shower of her life, nicks herself shaving, and runs around in a robe looking for Wolfgang. She pushes him into the shower, then returns to her room, debating with Dani about outfit choices.

“No, the lavender one, you look so pretty in lavender,” says Dani, holding up a short dress with a scoop neckline and a pattern of large-cut lace across the front.

“Isn’t that a bit low-cut?” asks Kala.

“It’s nothing we haven’t seen, my love.”

Kala blushes. “Hm. True. Sorry about that.”

“Are you kidding?” says Dani. “That made my day . And Felix’s.”

Kala covers her face. “God.” She takes the dress. “It is pretty.”

Dani nods in approval, then runs out the room to find a dress for herself. Kala puts on a bra and panties that match the dress, scrutinizing how she looks. She cups her breasts in her hands, looks at herself in the mirror and tilts her head. She bites her lip and lifts her hands up a little, seeing if she can create better cleavage. “Hmm.” Then she removes her hands, and stares critically. “Behave yourselves tonight,” she says to her boobs, pointing a stern finger. “You better look your best.”

“Kala, who are you talking to?” asks Dani from outside.

“No one!” squeaks Kala.

After a moment, there’s a knock on the door, and she opens it. It’s Wolfgang, standing in a towel and holding his clothes.

“Lito said I could borrow something of Hernando’s...?”

Kala puts down the shoes she’s about to put on and hurries with him across the hall. “Here, I’ll help...”

She goes into Lito and Hernando’s room, where Lito is sorting through ties, grumbling to himself.

“You look gorgeous,” Wolfgang says softly to Kala as she opens the closet.

She smiles over her shoulder. “Thanks.” Then she spreads her hands through many dress shirts, looking at several that catch her eye. “Lito?” she calls softly. “What color would he look good in?”

“Navy,” says Lito instantly, and Kala nods, pulling out a crisp navy dress shirt. She bends over to grab a pair of black slacks off the bottom shelf -- Wolfgang looks away when he notices how far her dress pulls up, because he’d prefer not to go through the entire night hard, though he’s starting to think this may be impossible -- and she straightens up and hands him the clothes. He throws his old clothes on a nearby chair and drops his towel.

“Wolfgang!” cries Kala, covering her face on instinct. “God!”

He shrugs. “I told you Europeans don’t care about nudity."

Kala laughs into her hands. “How many girls have you tried that on?”

“Quite a few,” he says.

“And it works every time, doesn’t it?” says Lito. “You can open your eyes, Kala.”

She peeks through her fingers first, and sees that Wolfgang is fully dressed.

“I’m not sure what you’re worried about,” he says, smiling slightly.

“There is a difference between scantily clad and naked,” Kala says seriously.

He shrugs. “That might be true.”

Lito balls up a tie across the room and throws it at Wolfgang. “Put this on.” He hears Dani call for him and excuses himself, and Kala takes the tie out of Wolfgang’s hands.

She smiles as she puts it on for him. “You clean up very well.”

“Thanks.” He rubs his fingers over his jaw. “I should shave, shouldn’t I?”

“Oh, don’t you dare,” says Kala.

He laughs. “Oh, you like that?”

She blushes and looks down. “I don’t mind it...”

He kisses her quickly, and she leaves to finish her hair and makeup with Dani. Felix appears in the doorway as she leaves, and looks at Wolfgang.

“What the fuck is this party we’re going to?” he asks.

“Not sure,” admits Wolfgang. “Seems important to all of them.”

Felix checks over his shoulder, then walks into the room a few feet. “Okay, be brutally honest, my chances with Dani are?”

“Low,” says Wolfgang.

Felix nods in a long-suffering way. “I figured.”

“Worth a try, though,” says Wolfgang, looking around for shoes.

Felix points out the rack of shoes near the mirror. “Did you tell her about your aunt?”

Wolfgang huffs, picking up some shoes to try out. “Yeah. And you were right.”

“About what?” asks Felix.

“She is Fuchs’s girl.”

Felix’s eyes widen. “Fuck, man! I told you!”

“And she knew about my aunt,” Wolfgang goes on.

“That can’t be good,” Felix says, frowning.

“No, it can’t,” says Wolfgang, adding, “I’m not sure Kala realizes how dangerous someone like her is.”

“Well, why would she?” asks Felix.

Wolfgang shrugs in agreement. “I don’t want her to get hurt.”

“She’s probably more capable than you think,” says Felix. “But tonight’s not the night to worry about it.” Then he grins. “Speaking of, want me to stay out late?”

Wolfgang shakes his head. “I think we’ll just be in my room.”

“Not in the hall? Or the kitchen?”

“Fuck off,” laughs Wolfgang. Then he gestures at the closet. “Better find something to wear.”

Meanwhile, Dani and Kala are fixing each other’s hair and putting finishing touches on each other’s makeup. Kala’s unusually quiet, and Dani nudges her after a moment.

“Are you going to sleep with him?” she asks.

“I was planning on it,” admits Kala.

“Are you worried?”

“A bit,” says Kala. “In the moment earlier, I wasn’t, but...well, I don’t really know what I’m doing, do I?”

“I know that’s made to be a huge deal,” says Dani. “But it doesn’t matter at all. Your body will know what to do, trust me.”

Kala knits her brow. “Perhaps.”

There’s a knock. It’s Lito, looking for cologne. They let him in, and Dani shuts the door.

“Can we put on some music?” asks Kala. “I could use a distraction...”

Dani takes out her phone, and starts to play The Sound of Music.

“Remember being seventeen?” Lito says wistfully as he looks through the medicine cabinet. “I was...” He pauses. “Deeply closeted and spending all my time choreographing alone in my room. Mm. Maybe seventeen wasn’t so good."

Dani makes a noise of agreement. “I was with Joaquin, so no, not so good.”

“I loved being seventeen,” Kala says honestly. “Working in my dad’s kitchen, starting to love school...I think that’s the year I realized what I wanted to do.” She applies a final coat of lipstick. “Can I ask you two something?”

“Of course,” Dani and Lito say in unison.

“Why haven’t I had sex? I’m 28.”

Dani glances at her. “Well, have you ever wanted to?”

“Not until meeting Wolfgang.” She runs her hand through her curls. “Is that abnormal?”

Dani shakes her head. “I think there are plenty of people who meet someone and everything changes.”

“I think he’s different,” agrees Kala. “I know I just met him, I know that sounds insane and immature and silly, but...”

“No,” Lito says quietly. “Hernando was different, I knew right away.”

Dani nods. “You know something’s right if it feels like home. There’s no reason that feeling can’t happen right away.”

Kala nods and sniffles. “I love you both so much.”

Dani and Lito meet eyes and share a quick smile.

“We love you too, Kala,” says Lito. “We’d be lost without you.”

“Oh, no you wouldn’t,” laughs Kala.

“We would, we’re terrible students,” says Dani. “We’d have been kicked out for sure by now without your tutoring.”

Kala pushes both of them away, hiding a grin.

Lito tugs a strand of her hair. “You look perfect, by the way.”

“You do,” says Dani.

She beams. “Thanks.”

Dani looks at her watch. “Oh, shit, we really need to go. Someone go find the boys.”

Kala leaves the bathroom, and finds Wolfgang and Felix where she left them. They’re fighting over a pair of shoes, and Wolfgang has just smacked Felix with the flat side of a loafer when Kala walks in.

“Could you behave, just for a moment?” she asks, looking around at the shoes scattered on the floor.

“No,” Wolfgang says honestly, smacking Felix again and dodging a retaliatory blow from a cowboy boot.

Kala hides a smile and extends her hand. “Let’s go, Mr. Bogdanow...before you destroy anything else in my apartment.”

Chapter Text

Wolfgang’s car is too small to accommodate everyone, so once again, he and Kala go separately. This time, they take a taxi. Kala’s initially hesitant to kiss Wolfgang in the backseat. She sees the taxi driver put in headphones -- normally something she would point out as a safety issue-- and feels slightly more secure.

She nudges Wolfgang with her nose and asks one last time, “Are you sure this isn’t rude?”

“Do you care?” he asks.

“Yes, I do,” says Kala.

He slides his hand up her thigh. “Do you care now?”

“Oh, you’re a bad man,” she says, giving into the kiss.

He laughs against her lips and pulls his fingers up her neck, pausing just under her ear. She lifts her face up for a better angle, kissing him, exploring. Then she grins softly, pops her seatbelt, and moves over to sit in his lap. He watches her, fascinated, as she tilts her head and straddles his waist. He decides immediately that this is how wants to fuck her. Her breasts are close enough to his mouth that he could lick them if wanted to, and from this angle, the way she tips her head back in pleasure is so erotic it’s almost holy. He glances up at her, eyes heavy with want, and slides his hands over her chest. She grins, leaning down to kiss him again, just briefly. She combs her fingers through his hair, equally fascinated, then thumbs over his lips.

She’s surprised how naturally her movements are coming to her. Perhaps it’s because being this close to him makes her wonder if they’re both in an secret unreality together, if they’ve both dreamed this. Perhaps it’s because she can’t help herself, because he is dangerously good at stopping her thoughts from properly expressing themselves. Things she once found important, all-consuming really, like timeliness, dignity, privacy...they don’t seem nearly as important as chasing the heat that’s pooling low in her tummy.

“Is this okay?” she asks softly, pressing a little closer.

He pulls her down to kiss her more deeply.

“This is good,” he replies after a moment. “This is how I want you later.”

Kala swallows a spontaneous whimper. She nods enthusiastically, and he notices her tremble slightly.

“You okay?” he asks.

She smiles and nods. “Mmhm, just, I’m a bit new at this. Quite new at this.”

She feels better having said this, but she’s anxious to see his response. He knits his brow softly, interested, maybe concerned, but not judgmental. He thumbs over her temple, watching her.

“Just tell me if you want me to stop,” he says.

“I don’t,” says Kala. “That’s why I’m nervous. I always want men to stop...but...I don’t want you to stop.”

“You must not have been with men who treated you very well,” he says.

She shakes her head. “No, I was just...never with men I felt attracted to.”

Wolfgang pushes her hair over her shoulder, touching the shell of her ear softly, thinking. She looks into his eyes, cautious.

“Do you wish I hadn’t told you?”

He shakes his head. “No, why would you ask that?”

She shrugs softly. “I thought you might think I’m too inexperienced for you.”

“And I thought you might think I’m too psychotic for you, so.”

She has to laugh. “Okay, fair point.”

“What matters is this,” he says, putting his arms around her. “Us.”

She nods, rubbing her nose on his. “You’re right. Just tell me something.”

He looks into her eyes to show she has his attention.

She hesitates for a fraction, and then asks, with genuine astonishment, “Have you ever felt this way?”

He presses against her in another kiss, shaking his head softly. “No. I’ve never felt this way in my life.”

She smiles against his lips. “I don’t understand it.”

“Neither do I,” he admits.

“But I don’t need to,” she goes on.

He nods in agreement, continuing to kiss her.

She’s pure sugar, the way she throws her head back and laughs when he ghosts his hands over her ribcage (“that tickles!”), the way she nudges her knees into his abdomen to get him back (“fuck, that tickles”), the sound she makes when he slips the straps of her dress of her shoulders to find skin he hasn’t kissed yet.

She wishes the drive was longer, but after a few short minutes, they get out in front of Nomi and Amanita’s apartment. Wolfgang tips the driver extremely well and apologizes, then follows Kala up the stairs.

Chapter Text

The apartment is pulsing with lights and music, and a huge banner is strung over the door.

Happy Thanksgiving! Fuck Columbus! Eat pussy, not animals!

Wolfgang chuckles. “Lesbians come up with the best shit.”

“Don’t they?” agrees Kala. “They’re vegetarian, by the way. So prepare yourself. Also, there may be live turkeys running around in there. There were last time.”

Wolfgang raises his eyebrows. “Live turkeys?”

“Mhmm,” says Kala. “I got pecked last time.”

Wolfgang cracks up and they knock on the door. Amanita opens it after a moment, wearing a dress constructed entirely of real leaves, and throws her arms wide.

“Ah! My favorite, hi my love, you look stunning .”

Kala grins, looking down at herself. “That’s good to hear. We were having a bit of a Partition moment in the taxi.”

Amanita is beside herself laughing. “That’s too much, Nomi’ll love that -- c’mon, come in! It’s freezing!” She looks at Wolfgang. “Wolfgang, right?” she asks. “Nice to see you again! Glad Kala dragged you to this... hope you like pie. Because we have about sixteen of them.” She squeezes Kala’s arm. “And thank you so, so much, for cooking! Everything you made looks amazing! Though, we were expecting more whipped cream.”

Kala points at Wolfgang. “Ask him what happened to that.”

“There’s better uses for whipped cream than dessert,” he says with a shrug.

Agreeed ,” says Amanita. “I like you. I think I met your friend, Felix? He and Bug are getting along like gangbusters, never seen anything like it.” She lowers her voice. “Oh, and Kala? Hernando is gonna surprise Lito tonight, okay? So...if you happen to..you know, make your way upstairs for some privacy? He’s hiding in one of the bedrooms. So don’t be alarmed.”

“Hernando came back?” whispers Kala.

“Just for a few days,” Amanita says, her hand on her heart. “Bless him, he didn’t want to miss this party.”

She waves them through the doorway. It’s the nicest apartment Wolfgang has been in since being in Chicago, and it’s crammed from wall to wall with partiers.

“So...they’re rich,” he says to Kala.

“Oh, yes, extremely,” she says. “Nomi’s one of the best hackers in the world. Not all of it is strictly legal, but then again, what the government does to us all isn’t either.”

The music is loud, and there’s a disco ball set up mid-room. Table after table, piled with food, line the walls. A dance floor, lit by rainbow floodlights, is at the center of the activity, and there’s a live DJ in the corner, a girl with a bright blue streak in her hair. Throughout the crowd, men and women in fairy wings are passing out edibles. Twin doors open to a heated porch, where there is a bar and a swimming pool.

“I see why you didn’t want to miss this,” says Wolfgang.

“It’s the best party all year,” Kala says jubilantly, adding, “I’m starving. But let’s find Dani and Lito, shouldn’t be difficult...”

They look around the dance floor, and spot Dani, who’s busy flirting with one of Amanita’s friends from the psychology department, and then Lito, who’s doubled over laughing with Nomi. They also see Felix, in rapt conversation with Bug, who’s idly petting a nearby turkey. They say hi to each of them, and then split up, Kala in search of food, Wolfgang in search of drinks. He comes back balancing two vodkas and two glasses of champagne, and she returns with puff pastries filled with red pepper.

She pops her eyebrows, then takes one of the shots from him.

“I have a confession,” she says. “I’ve never tried vodka.”

“Well Kala, I may like you, but I can’t date you now,” jokes Wolfgang.

She laughs. “Vodka isn’t popular in my country!”

“First time for everything,” he says. He isolates the other shot in one of his hands. “We’ll do it together, okay?”

She nods. “On the count of three.”

“One, two, three...”

They each take a shot. Kala’s face spirals inward a bit, and she hastily stuffs one of the puff pastries in her mouth. “Oh my God. Oh my. How do you drink that?”

He shrugs. “I’m not sure Russians have tastebuds. Or souls.”

“Oh, I’m not so sure,” laughs Kala. She gestures for the champagne, smiling. “Champagne?”

“I figured we were celebrating,” he says.

She smiles wider, nodding, and takes a sip. Then she holds up one of the puff pastries. “Open up.” He takes the pastry gently in his teeth and she grins. “Good, right?”

He nods, closing his eyes. “Really good.”

“We need more food,” she says. “What are you in the mood for?”

“Dessert,” he says firmly.

She grins. “I know the best dessert here...”

He squeezes her ass gently. “What’s that?”

She tries to breath normally, but her mind is preoccupied with the idea of him moving his hand down her thigh and pressing two fingers into her.

“Um...eclairs, but they’re tiny ones, so you can just...pop them into your mouth.”

She’s self-conscious. She feels like her words must be dripping with want.

“I’d love some,” he says.

She nods, and pulls him by the hand over to one of the tables. The eclairs are covered in powdered sugar. Kala takes one in between her fingers.

“Open up,” she says again.

He laughs, and she pops an eclair into his mouth. He sucks briefly on one of her fingers, and she swallows a moan.

“Here,” he says, picking up another eclair.

She opens her mouth, and he places the dessert gently on her tongue, and lets his fingers drag very briefly on her lips. Then he laughs.

“You’ve got -- there’s just a little powdered sugar on-- here.” He swipes his thumb over her chin to remove the powdered sugar, and it’s this simple gesture that has her trembling.

He can tell she’s barely holding together, and is so flattered that he actually blushes slightly.

“Kala?”

“Yes?”

“Dance with me,” he says.

The next natural words out of her mouth are oh my God, I love you but she stops herself and nods brightly. “You like to dance?”

He nods. “Yeah, you?”

She grins. “It’s my favorite thing.”

He smiles at her, and they finish their champagne, holding each other close. Then he takes her hand and leads her to an open spot on the dance floor.

“Fair warning,” she says, “I love dancing, but I’m not sure I know how to.”

“Fuck knowing how,” he says, taking her waist.

She tucks her hair behind her ear and looks up at him, eyes bright with happiness. On the sidelines, Dani motions at Riley to play a slower song, and Kala and Wolfgang both look up when the music changes. It’s Lovesong by the Cure

“Oh my,” says Kala. “That puts the pressure on.”

But Wolfgang shakes his head. “This is how I’ve always felt about you.”

Kala glances up, eyes growing glassy. “You have?”

He nods earnestly. “I’ve wanted you since the moment I met you.”

She shakes her head, not because she doesn’t believe him, but because these words are simply too much to take in. She sniffles.

“I’ve wanted you, too,” she says softly.

So they start to dance, scarcely taking their eyes off one another, filling the space with small touches and quick kisses. Kala hopes by the end of the night she’ll find the courage to say the words that, since this morning, have been threatening to burst from her lips. I love you, I love you, I don’t know how, but I love you. She smiles up at him, dancing close and leaning on him, and he kisses the side of her head, letting his eyes slip shut. If he could stay here forever, he would, and from the way she nestles her head against his chest, he can tell she feels the same.

Chapter Text

Kala and Wolfgang dance until the song fades to completion, laughing when their feet find the wrong spots, and then they decide they need more champagne. They stop one of the costumed girls who’s passing by with drinks, grab two, and find a table. They sit down and silently toast each other, take a healthy sip, and then smile stupidly at each other. Kala pulls Wolfgang by his collar and kisses him. He’s just put his hand on her thigh and pinched her lightly to make her laugh when Nomi appears.

“I’m not stupid, I know you two are trying to have a moment--”

Kala cuts her off. “No, oh my goodness! This is your party! How are you?”

Nomi grins softly and sits down. “Tired . I picked Hernando up from the airport really early this morning. Anyway...” She reveals a stack of papers, and sets them heavily on the table. “Now, Neets told me not to show you these, it’s a party, and I get that. But I didn’t think you would like it if I kept all this from you.”

Kala raises an eyebrow and puts a shy hand on the stack. “Is this--?”

“Kolovi’s records. Well, the electronic ones at least.” She shrugs. “I couldn’t help myself. After you two stopped by, I got curious. I could tell something was up.” She hesitates. “I...wouldn’t read those tonight. I’m not going to tell you my impression of them, I want you to come up with something on your own in case it’s different, in case I’m just being my usual alarmist self...but...if he’s doing what I think he’s doing...it’s not good.”

Wolfgang nods seriously. “Was there any mention of--?”

“Lila Facchini?” guesses Nomi. “Tons. Scary shit. A lot of involvement in organized crime in--”

“Berlin,” says Wolfgang.

“And Italy,” adds Nomi, nodding. Then she glances at Kala. “Have you noticed any...how should I put this...unprofessional conduct with Kolovi?”

“Like what?” asks Kala.

“Bad science,” explains Nomi. “Hasty results, questionable experimentation...”

Kala shakes her head, frowning softly. “No. He’s one of the most dedicated scientists I’ve ever met.”

“Funny,” says Nomi.

“Why’s that?” asks Wolfgang.

She taps her fingers on the stack of papers. “None of this is legit. Be careful what work you do for him. It’s probably the least of your problems, but you don’t want to lose your academic standing.”

Kala nods. “Thank you for telling us.”

“Thanks,” agrees Wolfgang.

Nomi smiles. “Anything else I can do, just ask.” She places a bag on the table. “You can use this to carry them, I figured you wouldn't have a backpack with you tonight. Now I’ve gotta run, I think Hernando’s getting antsy upstairs...”

Kala squeezes her hand, then looks at Wolfgang, then looks at the stack.

“Tomorrow,” says Wolfgang.

Kala nods reluctantly, transfers the papers into the bag, then zips it up swiftly.

“You don't have to get any more involved in this,” mentions Wolfgang.

“We had this conversation,” she replies.

“Kala, I'm not sure you realize how dangerous these people are.”

“I'm already involved, Wolfgang,” she says, in the tone he's sure she'll use the rest of their lives whenever she's sure she's right. “It will be more suspicious if I back out now.”

“Fine, just don’t get careless.”

She turns her eyes on him, smirking slightly. “I'm never careless.”

“The fact you're here with me says otherwise,” he says.

“No, you're a calculated risk,” she replies, giving him a quick kiss. “I did the math.”

“Huh. How did you stay objective?”

“Oh, I didn't. I was deeply influenced by my feelings for you and how good you look in shorts.”

He chokes a little on his champagne. Kala notices a slight color to his cheeks and she beams, feeling very accomplished.

“I may not be entirely comfortable with everything about you,” she goes on. “However, you're very ...” She pauses, searching for the right word as she thumbs over his bottom lip.“...skilled?”

He glances at her. “Slippery slope. You'll be in bed with arms dealers and terrorists before long.”

“Oh, that depends.”

“On what?”

She glances at him. “If they can do what you can.”

He plays along. “What can I do?”

“Hmm, remind me,” she says, and she takes his hand under the table and moves it to her leg.

He starts to smile. “You’re full of surprises.”

“You,” she says, “are talking too much.”

“If I knew danger turned you on, I would have told you everything much sooner,” he jokes.

“I wish you would have,” she says with a laugh, but then she shakes her head softly, sliding her nose against his, and he can tell she’s not joking anymore. “It’s not what you do or how you look...it’s you. I just want you.”

He runs his hand through her hair and kisses her gently. He was going to pull away and say something, but she doesn’t let him, and after another moment of kissing her, he doesnt remember what he was going to say or why he wanted to say it, so he pulls her closer and she smiles softly through the kiss. The music and the chatter soften around them, the kiss deepens, she notices the effect of the champagne, he notices her press closer under the table. She nods encouragingly when she feels his fingers against the inside of her knee, and he pulls back to look at her.

“I wasn’t that upset when we got interrupted earlier,” he says.

“Why’s that?” she asks.

He cocks an eyebrow. “Because...” He cups her inner thigh with his hand, moving up her dress, and brushes his fingers lightly between her legs. “I thought about doing this to you until you begged me to take you home.”

She’s stuck on him, staring. “I don’t think that will take long.”

“Me neither,” he replies.

She puts a finger on his lips, eyes closed, overcome with a smile.

“You’re terrible,” she tells him.

He laughs and kisses her. He’s slow at first, judging how far to go based on her breathing, and for a while, he strokes the inside of her thigh, occasionally brushing over her hipbone. She notices how rough his fingertips are -- something she missed this morning, too rushed to take her time with details -- and realizes this is something she likes. She gasps just slightly when she feels his fingers on the hem of her panties, swallows a giggle because this gesture almost tickles, and then he nudges her legs wider.

She breaks the kiss to look at him, her eyes bright and lit with determination, and he slides two fingers over her, with enough pressure to notice her body jump. Part of her wants to look away -- holding his gaze seems to be doubling the effect of his touch -- but another part of her wants him to be able to see her reactions, to express to him what he does to her, so she continues to look into his eyes.

She tangles her fingers in his shirt as he increases his pace, opening her mouth slightly in surprise at the feeling; she’s touched herself like this, but she realizes much of this is about intention, and she never intended to make herself come. He does intend that, though, and she can feel the difference. She’s a little embarrassed how quickly he would be able to accomplish that if he kept going -- the feeling has already threatened to become overwhelming --  but he moves his hand to her side. He pulls her closer, shifting to kiss the side of her mouth and her ear, and despite wanting to appear collected, she grins and gently laughs. She feels him smile against her lips, and she laughs louder on instinct. She always thought being with a man could only feel serious, but that isn’t true with him, which she’s grateful for.

He takes a moment to drag his fingers up her calf. He’s impatient to touch each unexplored inch of her skin. Things he never found particularly meaningful before -- the shape of a knee, the way a throat flutters, the subtle dimple on a chin -- they all seem meaningful with Kala, and he wants to make sure she knows that. He wants to express how much he loves her when he touches her, which is new to him, and he wants to make sure he does it right.

He’s just touched his fingers to her thigh again, just gone to kiss her, when an explosion of cheers sounds from across the room. They both jump and turn to look, and Kala quickly gasps and gets to her feet. Hernando has just come downstairs to surprise Lito. And Lito, teary-eyed, has just overwhelmed him with kisses, picked him up and spun him. Dani, standing arm in arm with Felix, sobbing, shouts something affectionate in Spanish.

Kala squeezes Wolfgang’s arm and kisses him quickly.  “I’ll only be a minute, I promise!”

“No, take your time,” he says.

Kala spends nearly half an hour catching up with Hernando. She cries at small, unimportant details about his trip, since she’s drunk, since her nerves are frayed due to the papers, due to Wolfgang.

Wolfgang waits for her, nursing a vodka, and he’s perfectly happy watching her from a distance, drinking in her shape, but Dani and Felix bump into him, hiccuping and laughing. Dani puts her hands on each of his arms, squeezing hard, and stares at him the way she might stare at newborn puppy. Felix stands by, sipping out of a bottle and giggling.

“I love you," Dani says to Wolfgang. “Have I said that? I love you.”

Wolfgang gives her an understanding glance. “Are you drunk?”

“Just a little,” says Dani.

“No, we’re very drunk,” says Felix.

“Felix!” whines Dani, stumbling. “We said we’d act sober!”

“So far so good,” says Wolfgang.

“Anyway,” says Daniela, “I love you, and I wanted to tell you you’re perfect for Kala and...” She frowns. “Something else. Something important...”

“Dani, did you see the table over there with water?”

Dani puts her hand on her heart. “Aw, you do care. That’s an unusual quality for a KGB agent.”

“Nope,” says Wolfgang.

Dani sighs. “I’ll guess right eventually.”

“You know I’m not from Russia, right?”

Dani waves off this information. “Once a Russian always a Russian.”

“Half-Russian, and I was born in Germany.”

Dani narrows her eyes. “Are you Putin’s secret lovechild?”

“Yeah, that’s it,” says Wolfgang.

Felix frowns and looks at her. “Wait, didn't you want to tell him about Lila?”

She gasps. “That was it!” She throws a chair out of place at the table and sits down. “I know her! Well, I don’t know her, but I take a class every Monday...wait, Tuesday...I don’t know, anyway, I have a class in the administration building. It’s right by the Dean’s office and I’ve seen her there. A lot. Like, maybe she’s fucking him or something, I don’t know, but she’s there constantly.”

Wolfgang looks at Felix. “Really? You told her about Lila?”

Felix shrugs. “She asked what was going on with Kala and Dr. Death.”

“You do realize that if Steiner hadn’t sent a pretty girl to knock on the door last year you never would have gotten shot? Haven’t you learned?”

Felix shrugs again and takes a swig out of his bottle. “No, not really.”

“Don’t be mad,” says Dani. “This is good! It’s good he told me, I can keep an eye out now--”

“No, nobody else needs to be involved in this,” says Wolfgang.

“It’s interesting though, right?” asks Dani. “Whatever her game is, she’s got the Dean on her side.”

“That’s not surprising,” says Wolfgang.

Dani huffs. “I expected a little more appreciation.”

Wolfgang finishes his vodka and looks back at her. “How did you know it was her?”

“Felix described her,” says Dani, shrugging. “Then we looked her up to make sure we were talking about the same person.” She pulls out her phone, grinning. “She was hard to find, but we found her.”

Wolfgang glances at both of them, frowning. “You looked her up?”

“Uh, yeah, why?” asks Dani.

“What were you thinking?”

“Wolfie, calm down,” says Felix. “It’s not like she knows who looks her up.”

“Of course she knows. Go ask Nomi to clean your phone up.”

“Bossy,” grumbles Daniela. “I mean, sometimes I’m into bossy guys, but like, more in a sexy spanking context.”

Wolfgang gestures at a nearby server for a refill, and doesn’t call it good until the vodka is up to the top of the class. He addresses Dani again. “Go get rid of your phone.”

Felix nudges her. “Better listen. He’s in a mood.”

Dani sighs and gives Felix her phone. “Do you mind? I really need to spend time with Hernando.”

Felix nods and pockets it, and she kisses his cheek and scampers away. Felix raises his eyebrows, looking after her.

“It’s the alcohol,” Wolfgang tells Felix before can say something hopeful.

Felix sighs. “Yeah, probably. Oh well.”

Wolfgang gets to his feet, turns Felix forcibly around in Nomi’s direction, and pushes him.

“Fine! Jeez, use your words...”

Wolfgang has to laugh. “Get out of here, Felix.”

Meanwhile, Kala is sharing a glass of wine with Hernando at the bar outside. Lito has his arms around Hernando’s chest, and is resting his head sleepily on his shoulder while he and Kala talk. Dani listens on a nearby stool.

“But you have a boyfriend now?” asks Hernando, looking just like himself, thick glasses, voice saturated with genuine excitement. “When did that happen?”

Kala shakes her head and laughs. “Uh, quite recently, and I’m terribly in love with him...”

“Are you really? Oh my goodness, I can’t tell you how exciting this is, this is so new for you, oh my God, I remember talking to Lito last year, we wanted this so badly for you...”

Kala blushes. “Yes, I know, I think you wanted it more than I did.”

“So what’s he like?” asks Hernando.

Kala dips her face down, smiling and sipping slowly on her wine. “I can’t describe him. You’ll just have to meet him.”

“He’s hot,” says Lito.

Kala barks a laugh. “Oh, okay, Lito. Why don’t you describe him?”

“Let’s put it this way. Hernando, you are the love of my life, I adore you, but...”

Hernando turns. “But you thought about it, didn’t you?”

Lito grins. “I did.”

Hernando laughs and kisses him over his shoulder. Then he looks back at Kala.

“How did you meet?”

Kala smiles. “He helped me pick up some groceries I dropped...”

Hernando’s face softens. “Oh my word, that’s lovely. That sounds like something out of a movie.”

“That’s how their whole relationship is, it’s amazing,” Dani puts in.

“It’s all felt very much like that,” agrees Kala, adding, “you’ll like him, he’s a lit major and he plays soccer.”

“Ooh,” says Hernando. “I imagine I will like him.”

“Cute accent, too,” says Lito.

Kala finishes her wine. “I would tell you more about him but...”

“But he’s waiting for you, I understand my love, go.” Hernando kisses Kala’s forehead. “I think someone of my own wants to get me home,” he adds, glancing at Lito, who laughs and nods.

Kala hugs each of them and returns to the table where Wolfgang is sitting. He's now talking to Bug, who is trying to convince him that the NSA is a paramilitary organization. Wolfgang glances up at Kala, silently communicating the fact that Bug is insane, and she giggles.

“Bug, we need to get home,” she interrupts quietly.

Bug holds up his hands. “No worries, angel. Go, go. We’re glad you came.”

Kala squeezes Bug’s shoulder, then reaches for Wolfgang’s hand.

“Is it okay if we walk?” asks Kala as they approach the door.

“You sure? It’s cold.”

Kala nods. “I could use the cold for a few minutes. I think I had a little too much and...” She smiles at him. “Well, when I’m with you... I don’t want to be confused by that. I don’t want music or lights. I just want you. I want to know how it feels to be with you like that.”

He nods, hoping she doesn’t notice that his breath has entirely stopped. They find their jackets on the hook near the door, say goodbye to everyone nearby, and step outside. It’s the first night since they’ve met that the sky is clear. The clouds have moved south for now, and despite the light of the city, they can make out a few faint stars. Wolfgang takes Kala’s hand, rubbing his thumb on her knuckles, and they go down the stairs.

Chapter Text

Crossing campus is the fastest way to get to Wolfgang’s apartment (Kala insists on his, claiming his bed is more comfortable than hers) so they turn down a short alley towards the back of the soccer fields. They walk quietly for a while, and then Kala tilts her head back, watching the sky.

“I wonder what the stars look like outside of the city,” she says softly. “Isn’t it strange to know that they’re all there, trillions of them, and we can only see...” She counts in her head. "Ten?”

“It’s the smog,” says Wolfgang.

“But isn’t it strange?” she says. “Even on a perfect night, in the middle of nowhere...we still would be looking at a fraction of what we know exists.”

He glances at her. “There’s a lot we’ll never understand.”

“But we could,” she says, more softly. “If we all stopped fighting and realized each of us needs everyone else to survive...”

“It’ll never happen,” says Wolfgang.

“But it could,” says Kala, glancing at him. “That’s what’s sad. It’s easy to find things that divide us, even though we all have so much more in common than we have otherwise. Why is that so hard for everyone to understand?”

Wolfgang glances at her, then back at the sidewalk. “I think you have something that very few people have.”

She perks her eyebrows. “What?”

“You see the best in people,” he replies, “before you ever see the worst. I’ve never met someone who’s as good at that as you.”

“But it’s easy,” she whispers. “Everyone has something good inside of them.”

“Not everyone,” he says. “And for most of us, it’s not easy to see the good that’s there.”

“I can’t imagine living like that,” she whispers.

“I can’t imagine living any other way,” he replies.

She looks at him intently. “But you saw the good in me. You didn’t think about it, you didn’t question it...”

“But there’s only good to see in you, Kala.”

“I’m sure that's not true,” she replies quietly.

He thinks for a moment. “It is to me.”

“But I feel the same about you,” she says. “And I know you wouldn’t agree if I said you only have good tendencies.”

He looks back at her. “Maybe that’s why we’re together.”

She frowns softly. “Because we see the good in each other?”

“Because we see the good other people can’t see,” he says, adding, "what we can’t see in ourselves.”

Kala smiles, nodding. “I think that’s true.”

They walk for a few moments in comfortable silence, and then Kala presses closer. We shouldn’t have walked.”

Wolfgang laughs. “I told you.”

“I have an idea,” she says, glancing around. “Let’s just hop from building to building.”

He nods and they pick up their pace towards the English Department. Warm air gushes over them as soon as they open the door and Kala moans thankfully.

They walk through the first floor, going slow. Kala stretches her arms, the effect of the champagne fading, replaced by a warm, heavy sleepiness. She leans her head on Wolfgang’s arm and glances at the time.

“Hmm, we must have danced longer than I realized,” she says softly. “You might have to make me coffee.”

He slows their pace and puts his arms around her. “I can think of a better way to wake you up.”

She flushes and tucks her hair behind her ear. “Is that so?”

He starts to laugh and so does she. Then she shakes her head, giggling weakly, and snuggles against him.

“We’re never going to make it back at this rate,” she says.

He tucks his face into her hair and they stay still for a moment. Then Kala glances up and touches her nose to his. He smiles, eyes closed, and knits his brows slightly. He holds her a little closer.

“One more minute,” he says.

She laughs, finding his hands and squeezing them. He pulls away slightly, meeting her eyes; his brows are still wrinkled thoughtfully, perhaps hesitantly, and Kala thumbs over his lips.

“You were going to say something,” she guesses, watching him.

He shrugs. “I can't put it in words.”

“Then don’t,” she says, touching her lips to his. “Take me home, tell me that way.”

He feels his heart jump in his throat and he pulls his fingers down the front of her, watching her hair stand on end, noticing how she catches her breath when he reaches her hips.

“See,” she says. “It's not so hard.”

Her voice is soft, breathy, slightly rough. He's fairly sure he'd give his life to hear the sound. She moves her fingers from his lips to his chin, traces his jaw, pulls gently on his collar. He breathes in, studying her expression... it's gentle, curious, somehow hungry.

“I'd like to put it in words...” he murmurs.

Her heartbeat increases and she whispers, barely audible, “I think I know how...”

“Then you try,” he says.

She tilts her head, letting a tiny, joyful smile overtake her. “I don’t want to be wrong...”

He runs his hand through her hair. “You won’t be.”

She hums. “It’s too early.”

He looks at her. “Is it?”

She breathes in hard, chest rising “It’s funny. We both know how we feel, so, why say it?”

“Because I’ve never said it,” says Wolfgang.

Kala sniffles. “No. Neither have I.”

He looks down, spending another moment stroking her waist. “Words don’t feel like enough.”

Kala shakes her head vehemently. “Words are more than enough.”

He meets her eyes, breath failing. She’s trembling with hope and anticipation and he can’t remember feeling so sure of anything in his life, or so nervous.

“I love you,” he says quietly.

A couple big tears tumble over Kala’s cheek and she grins. “I love you, too.”

She puts her arms around his neck and tilts her face up to kiss him. At first, it’s soft, symbolic. Then she tangles her hands in his hair and kisses him hard, open-mouthed, smiling, and he pulls her legs around his wait to lift her off her feet. She throws her head back and laughs, and when he sets her down, she dances backwards, smiling jubilantly. She pulls him at a run down the hallway, out into the snow, back into another building, out, in, out, in, until they reach the final building before his street -- the science building -- and go in.

Kala is focused on the feeling of his hand in hers, he’s distracted by the idea that he has a future here, with her, and neither of them notice the noise upstairs until they’re at the other end of the hall.

It’s loud, sharp. Wolfgang knows it's a gunshot. Kala isn’t sure, and she looks at him, frightened.

“We need to leave--”

Crack, crack.

“--right now.”

“What is it--”

“Kala, now--”

“That’s coming from the third floor, that’s the lab--”

“It doesn’t matter.”

“Yes, it does!”

Kala pulls away from him, running for the staircase. He swears quietly and goes after her.

“Kala!” he shouts, but she’s already going up the stairs.

He runs up after her, catching slivers of her as she rounds the corners, and they come even on the third floor, both panting. Gunfire sounds again, much closer, and Wolfgang instinctively pushes Kala to the floor. She gets up, dodging him, and finds a place to hide outside of one of the offices. He collapses next to her, out of breath.

“What the fuck are you doing--”

“Shh!”

There are two competing voices -- one soft, one loud -- and they recognize both.

“It doesn’t have to be this way,” says Kolovi, his footsteps echoing closer.

“Yes it does,” says Lila, unconcerned. “You’re compromised, we can’t let this go on.”

Another gunshot, a squeal of fear. Kala presses closer to Wolfgang and he grips her hand.

“Lila, be reasonable--”

“Reasonable?” she asks softly. “If I was relying on reason alone, you would have been dead months ago. And yet, here you are.”

“Lila--”

Kala and Wolfgang peek their heads around the wall. Lila and Kolovi are standing face to face. He has his hands extended and she has a single, silver glock. Behind them, several figures dressed in white plastic suits, faces obscured by masks, rush a gurney towards the elevators. A hand, clearly lifeless, hangs off of it.

“Reasonable,” she whispers with a harsh, delayed laugh. “Reasonable.” She gestures. “Does any of this seem reasonable to you? Is any of this what you intended?”

Another gunshot. This time, it’s clear the bullet hit its mark. They hear Koloi grunt and fall. Wolfgang expects another shot, but it doesn’t come. They listen to Kolovi pant, and then, notice the pounding of boots down the hallway, getting closer.

It’s a security guard, sprinting, gun extended. Kala has just gotten to her feet to speak to him, but Wolfgang beats her to it, knocks the gun out of the guard’s hand, catches it, then cracks it neatly across the guard’s forehead, prompting a swift, noiseless collapse.

“What did you do that for?” Kala whispers desperately.

Wolfgang checks the gun, gently touching Kala’s waist to tell her to be quiet, and glances around the corner. Lila is standing over Kolovi, who’s still alive, watching him.

“We’re not alone, are we?” she asks him as he rolls to his side, clutching at his stomach. “I heard someone come in. Did you? What would you like me to do with them?”

Kolovi can’t answer. Lila starts to walk their way.

Wolfgang looks around, and on instinct, kicks out the handle of the nearest door and opens it. He and Kala rush into an unfamiliar laboratory, and he overturns a large freezer in front of the door. They take refuge under the counter and listen breathlessly for footsteps.

“Come out, come out,” whispers Lila as she advances down the hall. “Do you think I couldn’t hear you?”

Kala looks at Wolfgang, her features illuminated by the soft blue light from the window. He cocks the gun, listening.

“You can’t,” says Kala, gently pressing the gun down. “We can’t let her see us.”

“I know that, I’m not going to let her leave,” says Wolfgang.

“Oh, yes, kill her right here in the science building. That’s ideal.”

Wolfgang rubs his face. “What do you have in mind?”

Lila knocks menacingly on the door. “Don’t be foolish. I heard you.” She tries to open the door and notices that it’s blocked. “Hm. You know what you’re doing, don’t you? But I have friends...”

“What is she talking about?” asks Kala.

“I don’t know--”

There’s a deafening crash. The freezer shudders, tilting.

“The fuck?” mumbles Wolfgang.

Kala glances around as the freezer shudders a second time, threatening to tip. Without explanation, she gets to her feet and starts throwing open cabinets. Wolfgang pinches the bridge of his nose, refusing to accept the current mess they’re in, and watches her.

“What are you doing?”

“I can’t fight like you,” she replies, pulling down several bottles, “but that doesn’t mean I can’t fight.” She opens the safety kit under one of the eyewash stations, and throws him a mask. “Put this on, fasten it tightly.”

He listens to her, and she puts on a mask as well. Then she goes back to the counter and starts unscrewing, uncapping, pouring, hastily measuring. The freezer has suffered significant damage, and can only take so many more hits. Kala glances at it, assessing how much time she has, and quickens her pace. Wolfgang gets to his feet, pointing his gun at the door, watching the freezer totter back and forth.

“Whatever you’re going to do,” he says over his shoulder. “You need to do it.”

“One moment,” says Kala, tightening her mask and holding a flask up to eye-level.

Wolfgang ducks behind the nearest counter as the freezer falls. The entire laboratory vibrates, and then the door swings open, revealing Lila. Livid, she extends her gun, searching the laboratory. Kala waits a beat. Then two. From her place under the counter, she adds a final chemical to her flask, and finally, she throws it towards Lila.

Smoke and gas engulf the room. The visibility is so poor that Wolfgang’s unsure he’ll be able to find the door again, but suddenly, he feels Kala’s hand in his. She pulls him to his feet, past Lila’s unconscious form on the floor, and out the door. Then she darts back inside the laboratory, and pulls Lila unceremoniously into the hall.

“She would die if I left her there,” explains Kala when she sees Wolfgang is going to protest.

They glance at Lila, who is twitching feebly. Kala shuts the door to the lab, and watches the air, waiting for it to take on its typical, transparent characteristic. When it does, she slowly removes her mask and drops it, suddenly too weak to keep her grip. Wolfgang takes his mask off too and looks at her. Neither of them speak, but Wolfgang takes her hand and persuades her to take a few steps away from Lila and towards the exit.

But she slows her pace, wincing, and looks down at her right ankle.

“I must have tripped on something...” she says, testing her weight on her foot. She sucks a breath in through her teeth, eyes watering. “Ow. Oh no.”

Wolfgang’s about to respond, but they hear Kolovi groan down the hallway, and Kala gasps.

“We forgot about him...”

“Kala--”

“We can’t leave him there,” she replies softly. “He may not be responsible for any of this.”

“It doesn’t matter if he’s responsible,” says Wolfgang. “We need to leave.”

“It matters a great deal,” says Kala.

Her voice is still soft, but behind her words, there’s unspoken power and conviction that Wolfgang doesn’t dare argue against. He throws a glance at the exit, but when she turns down the hallway, he follows her. She limps past Lila and turns a corner. Kolovi is in the center of the hall, motionless except for shallow, uneven gasps. Kala takes a breath, pressing her thumbnail hard into her palm, and then she closes the distance and kneels next to him. She puts her hair up. Wolfgang glances at the nearest cameras, unsurprised to find them already disabled, and then turns his attention back to Kala.

She motions at him, asking for his jacket, and he hands it to her. She balls it up and puts it under Kolovi’s head. Wolfgang kneels next to her and hands her the knife he keeps in his pocket, and she cuts through Kolovi’s shirt, folding the fabric aside to see the damage, but there is too much blood. She hums softly, taking off her shawl, and gently starts to soak it up. Kolovi grunts in pain, but she doesn’t hesitate, and she presses harder, waiting for the blood to disappear.

“Alcohol,” she says to Wolfgang. “Find me some rubbing alcohol.”

He glances around, and sees that the door to a lab, the one he broke into Kala for, is open. He gets to his feet and goes inside, knocking bottles over, searching for the right label, simultaneously astonished by how quickly Kala found the right chemical earlier, and instinctively panicked that he won’t find what she needs -- but he does, a large bottle of it, and returns. By this time, Kala has isolated the gunshot wound.

Wolfgang wrinkles his nose. “Not worth it.”

Kala looks up at him, resentful. “What do you mean?”

Wolfgang gestures at the wound. “He’s going to bleed out, that’s his liver.”

Kala takes the rubbing alcohol from him wordlessly.

“Not if I have anything to say about it,” she says, unscrewing the cap.

Wolfgang bites his tongue and kneels by her again.

“Doctor?” she murmurs, shaking Kolovi slightly. She sighs when he doesn’t show a response. “Doctor, this is going to be quite painful, I’m sorry. But you have to understand. We can’t risk an infection.”

“He’s feeling no pain where he’s at, Kala,” mumbles Wolfgang.

She nods and pours a steady stream on the wound. Kolovi grunts quietly but doesn’t struggle, and Kala bites her lips, concerned that Wolfgang is right.

She’s just reached for her shawl again, intending to use it as a bandage, but they hear footsteps down the hall and she stops. They exchange a glance, and then gather their things and rush into a nearby stairwell. Kala doubles over as soon as they stop, whimpering from the pain in her ankle. Wolfgang puts his hand on her back to steady her, and then they look out the tiny, crosshatched window on the door. It’s not long before the figures in Hazmat suits return, gathering around Kolovi like hyenas. Behind them, aloof and dressed in white, is an elderly, bespectacled man. They see him look down at Kolovi, tilting his head in cold curiosity. Then he flicks his hand at the suited figures, and they get to work, lifting Kolovi onto a stretcher. Nearby, several more lackeys are bearing Lila on a stretcher.

The old man glances around, sighs deeply, and snugs up his scarf. He walks over to Lila’s stretcher, observing her for a moment.

“I expected you, of all my students, to show more care,” he says softly. “However, since this is your first mistake, I’ll be kind.” He smiles. “Besides, you seem to have paid for this already.”

Lila coughs weakly and nods. The man turns his attention back to Kolovi.

“Unfortunately, we need him now,” he mentions to Lila. He looks at one of the suited figures. “Ensure that he is admitted to the hospital. Offer no explanation.”

Without further direction, the man sweeps away down the hallway. The figures follow him closely, bearing the two stretchers, and after a moment, their collective footsteps fade into silence. Kala turns and wordlessly puts her arms around Wolfgang’s neck. He hugs her tightly and she nestles her face against his chest, sniffling. She shuts her eyes, focusing on his presence, convincing herself that she’s not somehow alone here, that she didn’t somehow lose him.

He looks down at her. Her lavender dress, pristine moments ago, is drenched with blood.

“Are you okay?” he asks her.

She nods softly. “I think so. Are you?”

He nods too, tucking her hair behind her ear.

“Let’s go home,” she says faintly

He takes her hand, and they turn down the stairs. It takes Kala a very long time with her ankle. Questions Wolfgang wants answered -- how she knew how to make what he’s fairly sure is nerve gas, why Kolovi matters to her, whether she noticed the small insignia on the Hazmat suits bearing the letters BPO -- can wait until morning. It’s nearly four a.m., and he’s too tired to express anything except relief that they’re both alive, and even this he’s too tired to express verbally.

She glances down at her heels as they reach the bottom of the staircase and go through the door that opens outside. She runs a hand through her hair, frustrated.

“I’m sorry, I don’t think I can walk like this...”

“Do you think you broke it?” he asks.

“No, it’s a sprain. But...” She tests her weight again, and has to swallow the urge to be sick. “I can’t put weight on it.”

He glances around, seeing how far they are from home, then puts one of his arms behind her knees and scoops her up. Any other night, she would laugh, but tonight this gesture nearly makes her sob.

“You can’t carry me all the way...”

“We’re almost there, I don’t mind.”

She nods. Then she sniffles and bursts out, “I’m sorry, I should have listened when you said we should leave, I--”

He shakes his head. “No, Kala, it’s fine. It’s fine. I understand.”

She perks an eyebrow. “Do you?”

“More than you could know,” he replies, and she smiles slightly and nods.

He walks across one of the snowy soccer fields, a shortcut, and she leans her head back, watching the sky to take her mind off the pain in her ankle.

“I think I see eleven now,” she murmurs.

“Eleven what?” he asks.

“Stars,” she says softly, smiling at him.

He laughs and gives her an affectionate squeeze. She tucks her face against his shoulder for the next few minutes, and they finally reach his apartment. He sets her down gingerly and she keeps her right foot off the ground.

“I look like a flamingo,” she says sadly, gesturing at her posture.

“You’re a beautiful flamingo,” he replies.

She laughs and waits for him to unlock the door. He helps her through it, helps her up the stairs, and she sits on his bed. She flops backwards, exhausted, lips twitching in thought.

“Did you notice--”

“The insignia?” he asks, sitting next to her.

She nods, glancing up. “BPO. I’ve never heard of it.”

He shakes his head. “No, me neither.”

She hums in thought, and then he pulls a chair across the room and sits on it in front of her. He touches her leg lightly. “Can I see?”

She lifts up slightly, frowning.

“I’ll be careful,” he promises her.

She nods and extends her leg, showing him her ankle. He examines it, frowning.

“You have very small bones...”

“Yes, I’m a woman, if you hadn’t noticed. We tend to have small bones.”

“I did notice, actually,” he says.

She laughs and shakes her head. “So, what’s the prognosis?”

“Oh, you have a year at most,” he says.

She keeps laughing, covering her face. “You’re good at this, you should consider this for a career. Excellent bedside manner.”

He grins, getting up, and shifts her foot to rest on the chair. “Stay there.”

“I’m not going anywhere,” she says, gesturing at herself.

She lays there for a moment, studying his ceiling, wondering how many times he has been here, doing the same. When he comes back, he hands her two pills and a glass of water. He also has a bandage in his hand, but he sets that on the bed. She sits up and takes the medicine, then glances at the bandage.

“I think you should take a shower first,” he says, before she can ask.

“Yes, I probably should.” She looks at him. “So should you.”

He glances at himself and sees a large V of sweat down the front of his body. He tilts his head. “Hm. Yeah.”

She rubs her calves together, watching him, and then sits up on the edge of his bed. She extends her hand, and he pulls her to her feet. She hops, leaning on him, to the bathroom across the room. He turns on the water and goes for the door, but she stops him, pulling at the bottom of his shirt with her index finger. She takes his shirt off, watching his expression change in understanding, and then she turns around, exposing the zipper of her dress. He unzips it, looking at her in the mirror. She smiles delicately, encouraging him to continue, but he hugs her instead, kissing the side of her neck and pressing his face into her hair.

She glances up at him, turning her face over her shoulder.

“It’s okay, I’m okay,” she whispers.

He nods, reluctant to let go of her, and places a last kiss above her ear. Then he steps back, continuing to unzip, and her dress falls and pools around her feet. She smiles and steps out of it, still being ginger with her right foot, and then she puts her hands on his belt. By this time, the bathroom has grown cloudy with steam from the shower, and she can feel the warmth stick on her skin. It’s soothing, and the pain in her ankle begins to diminish. She deftly unbuckles his belt and tosses it on the floor. He watches her like he would watch a downpour - a slight smile, a tiny wrinkle on his brow, stunned by what he’s seeing, thankful.

She smiles again, stretching up to kiss him, and unbuttons his pants. He shakes his head, laughing, and steps out of them. Then she looks up at him, and he trails his fingers over her ribs before reaching back and unclasping her bra. She keeps her eyes fixed on him as it falls away, and smiles gently. He kisses her and she presses against him. She notices his smile at the moment of contact, and she smiles too, exhilarated by the sensation of his skin on hers.

He slips a few fingers under the band of her panties and slides them down, and she kicks them aside with a bit of attitude. He laughs and she grins against his lips. Then she does the same to his boxers and they pull back. The bathroom is thick with steam, and Kala is happy for the bit of privacy this provides. She can still see, and she knows he can too, but the view is softer, less overt.

“You’re so beautiful,” he murmurs.

She struggles against the desire to cry. She smiles, wetting her lips, finding his hands in the dark. He pulls her slowly into the shower, and holds her close as the water pours over her head, sticking in big droplets in her curls. She tilts her head back, and he watches the water course over her shoulders, her collarbone and her breasts. He’s never felt so satisfied to feel off-balance.

He picks up a bar of soap on the side of the tub and rubs it between his hands for a moment. She watches him, a smirk playing softly on her lips. He runs his hands down her arms, taking his time, lathering over her shoulders. She beams at him, stepping closer, and lets him slick his hands over her breasts. He catches his breath, squeezing slightly, thumbing over her nipples, sweeping his fingers in a circle around them, noticing the change in the pace of her pulse. Her breasts are warmer than the rest of her body, and they fit his hands.

She kisses him, and when she pulls back, stays close enough to whisper. She glances down, watching while he touches her, and moans quietly when he gives one of her nipples a gentle pinch. Then she lets her head rest on his chest, his hands moving to her shoulder blades and down her back. She nudges his collarbone with her nose, breathing in, sheltered. They stay like this, both under the water, and after a moment, Kala lets her hands soften against his chest, lets them explore. She trails her touch over his arms, on his ribs, matching her fingers to the bones, down his waist until they rest on his hips. She tilts her head, toying with the hair around his bellybutton, and then she takes his length gently in her hand. Her expression is curious, her touch feels almost experimental, but he only notices these things in retrospect; in the moment, he’s focused on the sudden, electric feeling in his blood, and he tries not to be too rough when he pulls her against him.

She moans at the contact, finding a rhythm that feels natural to her, and he presses her against the shower wall to kiss her. She runs the fingers of her free hand through his hair, and then hums, interested, when she notices his cock swell in size under her touch. She glances up at him and sees clearly from his expression that anything she says will go unheard. He resists the urge to pull her legs around his waist and fuck her here, under the water, for the sake of her ankle; though, based on the way she’s kissing him, he’s not sure if she’s aware of the pain anymore.

She presses closer, in love with the feeling of her breasts on his chest, the gentle rub this creates, and she moans into his mouth when he takes her ass in her hands and squeezes it. He pulls her hips hard against his, and then slips two fingers inside her from behind. She breathes in, breaking the kiss, eyelashes fluttering against his cheek. She thought she was used to his touch at this point, but she realizes rather abruptly, with a surge of excitement, that this kind of touch is different. She also realizes that if two fingers feel like this, then she might fall apart with his cock inside of her; however, her need for this is suddenly so urgent that she reaches for the faucet and stops the water.

He glances down at her, brow knitted slightly, and she tries to convey what she wants without saying the words; as always, he understands, and he helps her step out of the tub. She walks backwards, very gingerly, but he spares her the effort by picking her up, fitting her legs around his waist, and carrying her to his bed. She laughs, her hair falling around his face as she tips her face down to kiss him.

He sets her on his bed, and she leans back on her elbows, glancing up at him. The light from the street outside pools over her, exposing details that the steam in the bathroom hid. She glances down at herself, turning slightly pink, and he suddenly knows exactly what he wants to do to her, and he hangs back at the edge of the bed for a moment, eyes flicking over her body, starting to smirk -- that specific smirk that she loves and simultaneously has deep misgivings about. She crosses her legs lightly, watching him. He raises an eyebrow, then turns to shut his bedroom door -- she looks him up and down, finding God in his back muscles -- and shivers involuntarily when he turns around again. He notices her gaze dip downward, sees her tilt her head and puff her lips out in thought -- not a thought she intends to share, since it’s something along the lines of how is that going to fit and oh my God. Her expression makes him want to burst out laughing, but he resists the urge, and he slaps the light-switch off.

He kneels on the bed, hovering over her, and she pushes up into a kiss. But he pulls back, looking at her. Then he pulls a pillow down and tucks it under her head.

“Tell me if you don’t like something,” he says, tipping her head back to kiss her neck.

She nods, closing her eyes while he kisses over her collarbone. She’s slightly distracted by the new environment, by the light coming in from outside. Then he kisses one of her nipples and she’s shocked by sensation, back to the world they were in when they were in the shower -- the two of them, alone in the world, together. He glances up at her and sucks gently on the same nipple, then moves to the other. She breathes out, her hips instinctively pressing up, wanting friction. He nips her lightly, then he moves down. He kisses each new inch of skin like like he won’t have the chance again, and Kala lets her head fall to one side, overwhelmed by the attention. He spends a moment on her bellybutton, which tickles and prompts her to rub her knees together, laughing. He spends another moment on each hipbone, and then she looks at him.

The image of him between her legs is far too much to handle, and she has to let her head fall back again. He grins to himself, then nudges her legs apart. He notices her hold her breath, but he can’t help teasing her some more, so he kisses down each of her thighs. She moans in her throat, curling her toes, but he can tell she’s still slightly shy about this, so he wraps his hands around her thighs and gives a gentle squeeze. He glances up, notices a smile, and feels sure in pushing her legs open. Once again, she holds her breath, but this time he doesn’t make her wait.

She gasps at the first touch of his tongue, eyes dancing under her eyelids. Then she moans, full-throated, gripping the sheets, as he pulls her closer to suck her clit into his mouth.

“Oh-oh my God, oh my God...”

She tangles a few fingers in his hair, breath unsteady and loud. He alternates his rhythm, sometimes fast, sometimes slow, until she starts to visibly fall apart, until her moans almost sound like sobs. She’s never been less aware of her thoughts. He leaves no room for them. She wraps her legs around his head, chest heaving. He grips her slightly closer, eyes flickering up to look at her. He thinks about giving her a moment of respite, but he wants to see her come so badly that instead, he continues and slips two fingers inside of her. She arches her back hard, whimpering, twisting her fingers in his hair. She’s not sure if she should warn him, but she doesn’t find the time or the presence of mind, and she comes, letting out all of her breath, pressing her head hard into the pillows, a string of soft prayers and his name on her lips.

He kisses her thighs again, then her breastbone, and finally looks at her. She’s out of breath, brow stitched, but she gently touches his lips and meets his eyes.

“Good?” he asks.

She laughs and pushes him softly. “I think you know the answer.”

He laughs too and they kiss for a moment, changing positions so she’s on top. She moves her hair over her shoulder, looking down at him, asking. He sits up and smiles slightly.

“C’mere,” he says, pulling her closer, and they shift so she’s on his lap.

She smiles, nudging her nose on his cheek. He adjusts her legs around him, and pushes on her hip to ask her to lift up a little. She takes a breath and listens, and she’s so wet that her body doesn’t resist as he presses in. She notices a brief twinge of pain, but then he thrusts gently into her, and it’s all she can do to keep breathing. She entwines her fingers in his hair while he fucks her, his hands on her thighs, his mouth on her neck. She groans, pressing down as he presses up, grinding her body as close to his as she can. They continue this rhythm. He moves his hands to her breasts for a few minutes, then gently cups her face, pulling her down so he can kiss her. She feels heat settle low in her stomach, asking for release, and she swallows and presses closer.

He notices her nipples grow dark and pronounced, sees the soft hair on her arms stand up. He wants to continue for a few more minutes, to make her desperate, but then she tips her head back and moans loudly; this image, exactly what he was picturing earlier in the night, is enough to make him increase his pace with only one thought in mind. He’s big, and this pace is a bit uncomfortable, but the stretch, the slight pain...they only increase how good he feels inside of her. She drags her nails down his arms and cries out softly when he grips her closer. He could slow down, prolong this for another moment, but he doesn’t; he kisses her through the last few seconds, groaning as he comes, feeling her body tighten and pound around him. They fall into the pillows, still together, still kissing. He pulls out gently, and she knits her brow, out of breath, out of words. She rests her head on his chest, and he hugs her against him, both of them breathing hard, drenched, exhausted.

After a while, she nudges her nose against his chin, smiling weakly, and meets his eyes. He smiles back, kissing her forehead, and she closes her eyes again. They stay like this for a long time, coming down, touching each other softly. Finally, she rolls to her side, and he pulls the blankets over them. She presses close to him, noticing the chill for the first time in hours, and he puts his arms around her. They’re too tired to speak, but they share a quick, soft kiss before falling asleep.

Chapter Text

Wolfgang wakes up before Kala and blinks in the light, which is bright and clear, indicating late morning. He stretches, feeling unusually awake, and breathes in deeply.  Then he glances at Kala, who’s curled into the shape of a C, hogging all the blankets -- the only thing visible is a wild tangle of black hair. He gets stuck on her for a moment, chest heavy with an undefinable need. It’s strange to want someone he already has, strange to miss someone who’s next to him in bed.

He realizes he’ll never get enough of her, that he’ll want her the rest of his life even if she doesn’t want him, that there’s nothing he can do to change how he feels about her. He’s used to his emotions being flexible, being able to bend them to reason. This feeling isn’t going to bend, and he wonders if she knows, as new as all of this must feel to her, that it’s just as new to him.

He moves closer to her, shaping his body to fit around hers, and pulls her against him. She smiles but doesn't open her eyes.

“Morning,” he says, moving her hair out of her face and kissing her behind her ear.

She grins sleepily, snuggling into him.

“You stole all the blankets,” he mentions.

She turns over slightly and opens her eyes a sliver. “I'll probably always do that. Do you mind?”

“You mean I have to put up with this the rest of my life?” he asks, gesturing at her cocooned, warm figure and back at himself, exposed to the chilly air.

“Yes, that's very likely,” she replies.

He kisses her and they both laugh.

Then she frowns. “I'm starving.”

“Me too,” he agrees.

“No, I'm serious, I've never been this hungry.”

“Mhm, sex does that.”

She blushes and laughs. “Does it?”

“If it’s good,” he says. “So, yeah, hungrier than ever sounds about right.”

Kala shakes her head, grinning and shutting her eyes. He grins too, pulling her closer, and sneaking a hand over her waist to tickle her. She giggles and pushes him away. Then she gasps in pain and looks down at her ankle. Wolfgang follows her gaze and frowns.

“Oh my,” sighs Kala.

Her ankle is bright purple, blotchy yellow, swollen to the size of a softball.

“Here, I'll get you something, hold on...”

She pulls him in for another kiss before letting him get up. He searches for his boxers (“bathroom,” says Kala) and then goes downstairs to find some pain killers. He glances out the kitchen window to see a new layer of thick, pristine snow, and is surprised by the angle of the sun. He glances at the clock and sees it's nearly noon. He laughs a little to himself -- a girl has never made him sleep in this late -- and then he returns upstairs with water, medicine, and an ice pack. Kala must have been cold, because in the time he’s been gone, she’s found one of his flannel shirts and wrapped it around herself. She’s waiting with her knees pulled up to her chest, browsing her phone, one of her eyebrows perked

“There’s another blizzard coming in...” she says.

“Good thing we were planning on staying in bed all weekend,” he says.

“Oh, we were?”

“Weren’t we?”

She dips her head down, shooting him a soft, playful glance. “Why do I put up with you?”

He sits next to her, studying her expression, smiling. “I don’t know. I’m glad you do.”

She smiles back, kisses him quickly, then extends her hand for the medicine. She takes it with the water he gives her, then looks once again at her ankle, and then at the bandage from last night, which is on the floor.

“We forgot about that,” she mentions, pointing to it.

He follows the direction of her finger and nods.

“I’m sure what we did instead helped my ankle.”

“No doubt,” he agrees.

She laughs. “Well, better late than never.”

He nods, picking up the bandage and scooting down to the end of the bed. He unrolls it, then wraps it around her ankle. She bites her bottom lip, trying not to wince, and lets out a big breath when he tapes the bandage closed.

“You did that perfectly,” she mentions.

“I’m used to taking care of injuries,” he replies.

She touches her brows together in understanding. She wants to respond, but she doesn’t know the right words, so instead she calls him closer with a twitch of her finger and kisses him deeply. He looks at her as she pulls away.

“Thank you,” she murmurs.

He nods and kisses her again. Then he raises an eyebrow. “What do you want to eat?”

She immediately smiles. “Greasy American food. Eggs and hashbrowns and pancakes.”

He grins. “Did I mention I love you?”

“You did,” she says, beaming.

He takes his phone off the bedside table. She nestles close to him, intending to go through menus together, and he unlocks it. There are -- miraculously -- no texts from Felix, so he opens up the internet.

“Know any places?” he asks.

She shakes her head. “Find me somewhere that makes stuffed French toast.”

He frowns. “What’s that?”

“French toast, except two slices, with cream cheese in between, fried twice and topped with whipped cream and fruit and chocolate. It’s my favorite.”

“That sounds amazing.”

“It’s too good,” she replies.

He scrolls through a few menus, remarking on the bizarre way Americans describe food (“what the fuck does sunny side up mean?”), and Kala laughs and shakes her head. After a while, they find a restaurant specializing in french toast and pancakes, and order more than they should. When he sets the phone down, he glances at her, pulling her close. She turns pink at the contact and stretches to kiss him. Then she smiles, sliding her fingers down his arm, and meets his eyes.

“I know last night wasn’t what either of us pictured, but...I couldn’t have imagined anything better.”

He combs his fingers through her hair, watching the worry on her lips as she waits for a response.

“I’ve wanted you since the moment I saw you,” he replies quietly. “It’s never mattered to me how it happened. And that was exactly what we needed last night.”

She nods, pressing her lips together, troubled. “What will happen now? With Kolovi gone, if he’s even alive...”

“I have no idea,” he admits.

She frowns, eyes distant. “Do you think she knew it was us?”

Wolfgang hesitates. “Hard to say.”

Kala nods. Then she sits up, gasping. “Oh my God, the cameras outside the lab--”

But he’s shaking his head. “They were all disabled.”

She leans back in the pillows. “I thought I was starting to understand all of this, but I’m more confused than ever.” She sighs and presses closer to him. “But maybe this should wait.”

He nods. “I think so.”

She smiles in agreement and kisses him again.

“So...” she says after a moment, exaggerating how puzzled she looks, “what should we do while we wait for the food?”

He smirks, going along. “I can’t think of anything...”

“Me neither,” she goes on, putting one of her legs around his waist.

“Nothing's coming to mind,” he says, running his hand down her leg, pausing to squeeze her thigh.

She starts to laugh, and he pulls her close suddenly, kissing her. She murmurs against his lips, her body instantly shaping to fit his, and runs her fingers weakly through his hair. It’s too easy to give into this, and far too difficult to stop, and as important as breakfast seemed a moment ago, it’s now clearly in second place. She grins when he pushes her onto her back and follows her body with his; she gently puts her legs around his waist and looks up at him, chest fluttering.

“You look good like this,” he mentions, pulling at the collar of the overlarge, unbuttoned shirt she’s wearing.

She blushes. “I like being naked in your clothes.”

He kisses her again and she closes her eyes, sinking into the bed, already addicted to his weight on her. He moves down to kiss her neck and she holds her breath, studying the feeling. Then she laughs suddenly, reminded of something.

“This is why I didn’t want you to shave,” she says. He glances at her, blushing slightly, and she rubs her thumb over his cheek. “Pink is a very good color on you--”

He cuts her off by digging his thumbs into her sides. She giggles wildly, pushing him away.

“What?” he says innocently, tweaking her again.

She can barely talk through her laughter. “You know I’m ticklish you ass--

He raises his eyebrows. “I didn’t realize that...”

Kala tries to catch her breath, but she’s still laughing too hard. Wolfgang brushes her hair out of her face and kisses her gently, moving his hands up to her ribs. She covers her face, giggling weakly, and finally recovers enough to talk.

“That,” she says, “was a sneak attack.”

He grins. “Couldn’t help myself.”

“Oh, you liar,” she says. Then she smiles and drags her fingers over his lips. “I’m so comfortable with you. I’m never comfortable with anyone.

He shakes his head, smiling. “Felix thinks I’ve lost my mind because of you. Says he’s never seen me like this.”

Kala’s smile widens. “Well, I like you like this.” Then she stretches up, brushing her lips on his. “Breakfast isn’t here yet...”

He presses back into a kiss, putting his arms around her and turning again so she’s on top of him. She settles her hips a little closer to his, watching him. He tugs on the bottom of the shirt she borrowed and she flushes all over, realizing what he wants. She slowly takes it off and drops it on the floor -- they look at each other and share a stupid grin -- and then she leans down to kiss him. They turn again, tangling more closely together, and finally settle so he’s holding her from behind. She’s just let the kiss deepen, he’s just slid his hand down the front of her body, teasing the skin under her bellybutton, when there’s a knock on the door downstairs.

“That was quite fast,” she mumbles.

Wolfgang sighs. “What do you want to bet that Felix lost his keys, is still drunk, and can’t get in?”

The knocking continues, followed by a muffled shout.

Kala sighs too, kisses Wolfgang quickly, and says, “Go let him in.”

He raises an eyebrow. “Or we could ignore him for a few minutes.”

Kala laughs. “Fine, two minutes...”

He kisses her again, more heatedly. He lets his hand continue its path down her body and she moans softly when he curls a few fingers in between her legs. She’s startled all over again when there’s another knock (she instantly forgot about Felix) and she grumbles. Wolfgang rests his chin on her shoulder.

“We should make him wait, shouldn’t we?”

Kala smirks softly. “Yes, he deserves it for interrupting us.”

Wolfgang laughs. He tucks his face into her hair, then kisses down her neck, and slides his hand back up to cup one of her breasts. She grins and tilts her head over her shoulder, finding his lips.

The knocking gets louder. “Wolfgang!” Knock. “Alexander!” Knock . “Bogdanow!” Knock, knock, knock . “Let me in!”

Kala giggles. “Ooh, I know your middle name now.”

Wolfgang shoves her lightly.

“Wolfie! C’mon, I’m going to break the window!”

Kala frowns. “You better go...”

Wolfgang groans and gets to his feet. He jogs downstairs, and sure enough, Felix is at the door, under-dressed and shivering. Wolfgang opens it.

“Really?” he asks Felix. “You’re a goddamn locksmith.”

Felix glowers at him. “I have been out there forever. ” He holds out his hands, which are bright white. “Do you see this shit? Probably have frostbite.”

“We were in the middle of something,” says Wolfgang.

Felix glances at him. “Uh huh, looks like it.”

Wolfgang looks down at himself and frowns at his rather prominent erection. “Oh. Oops.”

Oops ?” demands Felix.

“At least I’m not naked,” says Wolfgang, shrugging.

Felix rubs his eyes and makes his way towards the couch. “I’m too hungover to deal with your shit this morning, Wolfie.”

“Fuck man, lighten up,” says Wolfgang.

Felix is about to respond, but there’s another knock on the door. This time it’s the food.

“You probably shouldn’t answer the door like that,” mentions Felix.

Wolfgang ignores this piece of advice and goes to collect the food. It’s extremely cold outside, and he catches a chill just by standing in the doorway long enough to pay. He rushes back inside, past Felix who has curled up in the fetal position on the couch, and up the stairs.

He finds Kala sitting on the windowseat in his room, bundled up in his shirt again, watching the snow. She glances up and smiles at him.

“I would have waited but then I noticed the food came,” she says softly, holding her hand out.

He takes it, and she pulls him onto the windowseat with her. They tangle their legs together, facing each other, and smile briefly. Then he sets the bag in between them and they both hastily untie it.

“Oh my God, this smells amazing, I’m starving ,” she whispers, opening up one of the containers and pulling out a piece of French toast that’s dripping with syrup and butter. She dangles it into her mouth and takes a huge bite. She moans loudly. “Mmgod, honey, c’mere, try this.”

He laughs, leans forward, and takes a bite of the toast she’s extended towards him. He grins. “That’s amazing--”

“I know ,” she says excitedly.

Then he says, “Honey?”

She turns pink, looking caught. “That slipped out.”

He shrugs. “I like it.”

“You do?” she asks.

“From you? Yeah.”

She smiles, leans forward, and presses a sticky kiss on his mouth. "I like it too.” Then she tilts her head. “What’s the German word for that?”

“A lot of people say schnucki,” he says.

She wrinkles her nose. “Oh, that’s terrible.”

“Well, German’s known for it’s beautiful pronunciation,” he says through another bite of toast.

Kala laughs. “In Hindi most people say jaanii ...” Then she hums in thought. “I miss my language. I miss everything about home, actually.” She smiles. “Maybe tonight...I’ll cook a whole authentic dinner. That always helps.”

He grins. “I’d love that.”

She grins back. “You can come over. I think I owe you a night in my bed, anyway, considering I’ve spent almost this whole week in yours...”

He laughs and kisses her quickly, then opens up a second container, which holds a mountain of fluffy eggs and crunchy potatoes. Kala steals one of the potatoes and pops it in her mouth, and then reaches for her phone.

“I want to see what Dani and Lito are doing tonight, maybe we can have the house to ourselves...”

Kala, 12:04 p.m. -- What are you guys up to tonight?

Dani, 12:05 p.m. -- You have to tell me everything first!!!!!!!!!

Kala groans and shows Wolfgang her phone.

Kala, 12:06 p.m. -- You know me too well to ask that.

Dani, 12:06 p.m. -- GIRL I AM YOUR BEST FRIEND

Dani, 12:06 p.m. -- At least give me dick deets.

Kala shows Wolfgang her phone again.

“Want me to send her a picture?” he asks, and she giggles and kicks him.

Kala, 12:07 p.m. -- I’ll tell you later ;)

Dani, 12:07 p.m -- Ugh. FINE.

Dani, 12:08 p.m. -- We’re decorating the tree tonight. I know you don’t celebrate (you grinch) but you and Wolfgang should come over. We have egggnoogggg.

“Want to decorate our Christmas tree later?” asks Kala, touching her toes lightly against Wolfgang’s waist.

“Sure.” He pauses, sucking some syrup off his thumb. “I haven’t celebrated Christmas since my mom died.”

Kala glances up. “How would you celebrate when she was alive?”

“She would make cookies and wrap them up and we’d go to the zoo.”

“The zoo?” asks Kala.

He nods. “She loved the zoo. I think it made her feel better to know she wasn’t the only one who couldn’t go back home.”

“She related to the animals?”

“We both did,” admits Wolfgang. “We’d sit in front of the cages and talk about what the animals must have been thinking.” He looks down, smiling. “She loved the tigers. She’d stand right up against the window and press her hands to the glass.”

Kala watches his expression. “You miss her.”

“Yeah. But sometimes I think it’s better she died so young. She was never going to be happy.”

“I like to think a longer life is always better,” Kala says softly.

“Why? It’s just more pain, same result at the end.”

Kala hums. “But isn’t it worth living for happy moments? Even if you don’t have very many?”

“How many is enough?” he replies.

She nods slowly, dragging her finger through some berry preserves in one of the containers. “You both deserved so much better.”

Wolfgang shrugs. “She did maybe. She never did anything wrong.”

“You never wanted to do anything wrong,” says Kala gently. “That matters more than what you actually did.”

He looks at her. “You have a strange way of looking at things.”

She smiles slightly. “So do you.”

He laughs a little, wiping his mouth and reaching behind him for his cigarettes. “My life back there always made sense to me. It was shit, but it made sense, it was always predictable.” He puts a cigarette in his mouth and lights it. “I know exactly where I’d be right now if I hadn’t left.” Then he frowns. “Actually, where I’d be if I didn’t meet you.”

Kala lifts one of her eyebrows. “What do you mean?”

“I would have gone back there by now if I hadn’t met you,” he says.

“Why would you go back if it’s so dangerous?” she asks, tugging his shirt closer around her.

“Because I always thought I’d die there,” he says, inhaling hard and shrugging. “I wanted to die there.”

Kala swallows and says very quietly, “But now you don’t.”

He meets her eyes and smiles slightly. “No, now I don’t.”

She looks at him for a long time. Then she tucks her hair over one shoulder and extends her hand. He takes it, and she plays with his fingers, studying them. Her lips start to form a slow, steady smile, though she tries to keep it in.

“I don’t think you’ve ever been in love before,” she says, watching their fingers catch.

He slides his fingers in between hers and squeezes her hand. “No, I haven’t.”

She tilts her head, still studying. “I didn’t think it would be like this at all.”

“Me neither,” he says.

“I feel so helpless, and at the same time...” She wrinkles her brow gently. “...like I have the entire world in my hands.”

He breathes out softly and nods. “Exactly.”

She glances up at him. “Growing up, I thought loving someone meant tolerating them. Can you imagine?”

“I don’t know what I thought it meant growing up,” he replies. “Wasn’t exactly told to treat women with respect, so without that...” He shrugs and taps the ash off his cigarette. “Women were things to all the men I grew up with, but I couldn’t think that way after my mom. Felix wasn’t like that, either, but that’s Felix.”

Kala has to smile. “He’s sweet.”

“Yeah, he’s a fucking softie,” says Wolfgang, tipping his head back and letting the smoke swirl around.

Kala rolls her eyes. “You adore him.”

Wolfgang laughs. “Yeah, I do.” He shoots her a look. “He’s into Dani, by the way.”

“Oh,” laughs Kala. “Who isn’t?” She bites her lip, flashing her eyes at him. “When you were flirting with me at first, I thought you were trying to get to her.”

Wolfgang makes an incredulous face. “You what? ”

She continues to laugh. “I did! It’s happened to me before!”

He shakes his head. “Any guy stupid enough to try that didn’t deserve either of you.”

“Yes, thank you!” says Kala.

Then they glance at each other and both laugh. Kala leans close and kisses his nose, and he laughs harder. Then he gestures at himself.

“See this? I don’t know who I am anymore.”

She beams. “I bring out the best in you, obviously.”

His lips fade into a firm smile. “Yeah. You do.”

She smiles too and kisses him again. Then she nudges him. “Coffee. We need coffee.”

Chapter Text

Kala makes it to the kitchen after a tenuous two minutes on the stairs, hopping and gasping in pain. Wolfgang suddenly remembers Felix has a pair of crutches in the coat closet, so he retrieves those and gives them to Kala, who has just collapsed into a chair at the kitchen table. She rubs her ankle.

“Next time we see Lila,” she says, “remind me not to wear heels.”

“Next time?” asks Wolfgang, opening up a container of coffee.

“Considering our inability to avoid danger, I assume we’ll see her again.”

“Says the girl who ran willingly into danger despite her boyfriend's concerns even though he's someone who has a bit more experience with that kind of thing.”

Kala sticks her tongue out. Wolfgang laughs and shakes his head.

“Next time...” he repeats, putting water on the stove.

“You know I'm right,” says Kala.

He steps over to her, lifts her chin up, and kisses her quickly. “I know.”

She smiles, satisfied, and rests her feet on one of the chairs. She leans her head on her hand, watching him make coffee. He’s only a few feet away, but she wants him closer, and she wonders if she’ll ever be comfortable without him nearby. She didn’t expect to be so attached. In fact, she thought after sleeping with him that she would want a bit of distance. She thought she would need a few days to handle the inevitable crisis of doubt, self-loathing, moral quandaries; she thought she would want to replay everything and microanalyze it. But she woke up with an overwhelming sense of certainty about herself, about him, about them together. It may have been the first moment she felt truly sure about anything; at least, it was the first time she wasn’t overpowered by the urge to find fault where none exists, to create complications, to rethink her feelings.

Wolfgang sits down across from her, noticing her expression.

“What are you thinking about?” he asks, sliding a cup of coffee towards her.

“I thought having sex with you would make me question everything,” she replies, cradling the coffee cup close to her body for warmth. “But it did the opposite. So. I’m surprised.” Then she glances at him. “Is it strange for me to tell you that?”

Wolfgang shrugs. “I don't mind.” He stirs his coffee. “I was thinking about that, actually.”

“About me questioning everything?” she asks.

He nods, taking a long drink. “You believe different things than I do.”

“Mm,” says Kala, noncommittal. “You should know I wasn’t waiting because I thought it was moral to wait.”

“Why?” he asks.

“It's important to me that I listen to myself,” she says, eyes warm and bright. “Listening to myself has just...never expressed itself like this before.”

“That’s still a lot of self-control,” he replies.

She laughs, taking a sip of coffee. “Self-control is one of my strongest qualities. Well, it was. Meeting you has proven to be quite problematic.”

He grins. “I’m not complaining.”

“Oh, I wonder why,” says Kala, kicking him lightly under the table.

They both laugh. Then she looks back at him.

“It was never difficult,” she admits softly. “I knew I should think men were attractive, but...it felt empty without actually being attracted to them.”

“Most of us learn to ignore that and are happy to do stupid, destructive things in exchange for an orgasm.”

Kala covers her face, laughing. “Oh my God. I am well aware what some of those things are after living with Dani and Lito.”

He laughs too. “I can imagine.”

“I'm not sure you can,” she replies. Then she taps the side of her cup. “You know what?”

“What?” he asks.

“Whenever I miss you, I can just drink very strong coffee, and it will feel a bit like I'm with you.”

He looks at her for a long time, and she gently cups his face.

“You're not used to hearing anything like that, are you?”

“I'm not used to being missed,” he says.

Kala looks down. “I miss you when you’re out of the room, just for a moment.”

He leans foward and kisses her. She smiles and nuzzles her nose against his. Then she tousles her hair and settles her legs happily on his lap.

“Chemicals are so powerful,” she says. “Did you know sex alters the levels of the hormones that are responsible for feelings of commitment and devotion?”

“So you're saying as soon as those wear off we'll hate each other,” he jokes.

She giggles. “Yes, that's exactly what I'm saying.”

He shakes his head. Then he glances at her and says, “So let's make sure it doesn't wear off.”

Kala’s heart jumps. She wets her lips with her coffee and glances at him, eyes dark and lit with energy. The air seems to buzz around her; the playful tone has been replaced by something heavier, needier.

“Okay,” she says softly. “But promise me something.”

“What?”

“That we take all afternoon...”

He looks at her for a long time, noticing her hands fidget impatiently around her cup. He likes to make her wait, so instead of answering he takes a moment to drag his thumb along the bump of her knee, a few inches down her calf.

“All afternoon?” he asks.

She blushes, glancing down and tucking her hair behind her ears. “I know. I’m greedy...”

He shakes his head to reassure her that she’s not, and leans in to kiss her softly. She smiles against his lips, closing her eyes, breathing in.

“There’s a lot I want to try...” she murmurs.

“Like what?” he asks.

“Oh, I have quite a list,” she replies seriously.

He holds her gaze. She turns steadily pinker and he finally laughs.

“I think you might be too much for me,” he tells her.

Her smile turns into an indulgent grin. “Want to find out?”

“Fuck, yes,” he agrees, kissing her again and pulling her to her feet.

Once upstairs, Kala sits lightly on the edge of Wolfgang’s bed, looking up at him. She’s still wearing his shirt, which is falling loosely off her shoulders, and her eyes are wide and bright. When she’s alone with him, she swears the air surrounds her differently; it’s heavy, hot, harder to breathe; she swears she could drag her hand through it as if it’s water. Time moves more slowly here. It’s excruciating waiting for him to touch her, and she tries to communicate how much she wants him to with each subtle movement of her body. He looks at her for a moment before finally running his fingers down her arm, stopping at her wrist to squeeze it. She pulls him closer, never breaking eye contact. Then she smirks softly and yanks him onto the bed. He’s caught off guard and he lands awkwardly, laughing.

“That was graceful,” says Kala, turning onto her side and propping her head up on her hand.

“That was rude,” he replies, sitting up, collecting himself.

She grins and laughs and reaches to comb her fingers in his hair. Then she drags her fingers down the side of his face, tilting her head, curious. Her smile fades, replaced by a soft, inquisitive expression; her eyes are dark and wild again, and her touch grows more determined. It would be impossible to be brave if she didn’t feel so comfortable with him, but as comfortable as she is, she still has to coax herself, repeating soothing mantras in her mind to remind herself of what she wants. It’s difficult to feel sure. In every other part of her life, she relies on practice, but she can’t rely on that for this.

“You can’t laugh at me if I do something wrong...” she murmurs, glancing at him, half-smiling.

“There’s no wrong way,” he says, though now he can’t help but wonder -- intensely, urgently -- what she has in mind.

Kala raises an eyebrow. “That’s not what women are told.”

He shakes his head. “I’ve been with a lot of girls who think there’s a right way, and it’s always boring.” He smiles at her. “And you can’t do anything wrong in my mind.”

She looks down, then smiles back at him. “Okay.” She shifts so she’s straddling him, sitting lightly on him, spreading her fingers out on his chest. She bites her bottom lip playfully. “Tell me if I do something you don’t like...” she says, echoing his words from last night.

“Copycat,” he says against her lips as she leans down to kiss him.

“Be quiet,” she murmurs, tilting her face to kiss him more intensely.

He laughs and wraps his arms around her. Her hair falls around his face -- it smells like almonds, and he wonders for a moment if she’s magic -- and he moves his hands down her back so he can put them under her shirt. She pulls away, sitting up again, and takes her shirt off.

“Better?” she asks, kissing him again.

He nods, hugging her closer, turning so they’re both on their sides. He presses one of his legs in between hers, and she moans a little but then breaks the kiss.

“I wanted you on your back,” she tells him.

He makes grumpy face, overdoing it to make her laugh, and she shoves him.

“I have a list,” she goes on, laughing too much for her stern tone to be believable.

“Oh, the list,” he says, like he’s just remembering it.

She shakes her head. “You’re making this harder than it needs to be.”

“Well, something’s getting harder.”

“Wolfgang!”

He kisses her apologetically. “I’m sorry, I’ll behave.”

She eyes him, doubtful.

“I promise,” he goes on. “I just like making you laugh.”

She can’t help but smile. “What am I going to do with you?”

“I don’t know, refer to your list,” he replies.

She gives him a warning glance and pushes him onto his back. She straddles him again and kisses him. He puts his arms around her.

“I like it when you’re on top of me,” he murmurs after a moment.

She stops kissing him, just for a moment, just long enough to nuzzle her nose against his. “Me too.”

They kiss for a few more minutes. Wolfgang falls into the feeling of her hair tickling his neck, the scent of her skin. He could kiss her like this for hours, and if he hasn’t accepted how in love he is with her yet, he has to now. He’s never been so good at noticing indistinct details. He’s never been so happy to go this slow.

He squeezes her and mumbles, “I love you” before catching himself, before evaluating the traps those words might set for him.

“Oh,” she says, voice heavy and warm. “I love you, too.”

They smile against each other’s lips. She kisses him once more, then sits back on her hips, watching him watch her. Blood rushes to her cheeks, but her hands are steady as she tucks her hair neatly over one shoulder. He suddenly has an idea what she’s planning, and his hands tighten automatically on her waist.

“Is this okay?” she asks quietly, noticing the look of comprehension in his eyes.

He can’t speak, so he nods, clearly too eagerly, because she smiles to herself and turns a deeper shade of pink. She shifts her knees to the bed between his legs, moving down a few inches, taking her fingers gently over his abs. He’s already quite hard, and up close, she feels slightly intimidated; normally, this feeling would make her freeze in place and reevaluate, but a stronger, more urgent feeling overwhelms her, and he reassures her by winding his fingers in her hair. She takes his length in her hand, finding a slow rhythm, and presses her lips curiously to the head of his cock. His fingers twitch in her hair and he shuts his eyes hard. She wrinkles her eyebrows, surprised at how velvety he feels under her tongue, surprised by the soft tangy taste, surprised she likes it.

She hums softly, opening her mouth wider, sucking him in slightly; she would smile if she could; something about this is exhilarating. She adjusts her position so she can move more freely, bending deeper, pressing her tongue down to let him in; he’s hot in her mouth, she can feel his pulse, and in a way, this feels more intimate than when he was inside of her. It’s certainly less ambiguous; she can feel details with the tip of her tongue, and he can feel the details of her mouth around him. He takes a big, steadying breath, pressing his head back into the pillows. He’s normally good at distracting himself and delaying the inevitable, but Kala makes this impossible; she may not have done this before, and there’s something in her approach that is simple and unpracticed, but that doesn’t mean the feeling isn’t staggering.

He clenches his teeth after a few minutes, slightly embarrassed that she’s made him fall apart so quickly, and knots his fingers more tightly in her hair.

“Kala,” he mumbles, too dizzy and drunk on her to think about the fact that she might not recognize her name as a warning.

She pulls up, initially intending to glance at him, but she can’t resist sinking over him again. He groans loudly, surprising himself, and she increases her pace slightly. He glances at her and pushes her head down. She ignores the discomfort of this, focusing on the way his cock twitches slightly against her tongue.

He swears quietly, one hand over his face. She sucks her cheeks in, forcing herself briefly farther, and he clenches his fingers in her hair, pulling it hard as he comes in her mouth. She draws a big breath in through her nose, startled; it’s only instinct that tells her to swallow, and she has to take a moment to regain her breath. He runs his hand through her hair in an apologetic way, and then she nuzzles his hip gently with her nose and rests her head on his stomach. He runs his hand through her hair again, chest rising and falling, breath shallow.

She looks up after a moment. He looks back at her. Her lips are shiny, swollen, dark red, and he breathes out, devastated by how beautiful she looks like this. She sits up and leans over him, brushing her lips on his. He kisses her more deeply in response and she smiles. Then she puts her leg around his waist, and after kissing him for a moment, rests her head on his chest, listening to his heartbeat. They stay like this for a while, until Wolfgang tilts his head down to speak into her ear.

“So what else is on your list?”

She lifts her head up, smiling. “I’ll show you.”

They spend the rest of the afternoon in bed, checking off ideas. Wolfgang is a little surprised she had time to think about all of this and mentally compile it, until she admits she thought about these things before ever even kissing him, and confided that she touched herself thinking about them, and then asked if he’d like to see how she would touch herself...he could barely tell her yes fast enough. They try and taste different things. She falls in love with him fucking her from behind so her breasts are within his reach; he can’t get enough of her on his lap, arching her back. They both fall apart at small things, and after two hours, end up in a gentle embrace, her legs crossed behind his back, kissing each other without consideration for air or time; she moans quietly, again and again, until she’s nearly humming, and he tells her he loves her so often that her cheeks ache from smiling.

When they finally collapse on each other, they are soaked with sweat, muscles tired. They stay like this for nearly ten minutes, filling the space with touches and quick, reassuring kisses. Kala would have been happy to fall asleep like this -- perhaps even sleep all night like this, they could use the extra hours -- but her phone rings.

She ignores it the first time, and the second, but on the third attempt, Wolfgang nudges her sleepily.

“Love, go get that...”

She yawns, snuggling into him. “Can you reach it?”

He stretches, knocks a few unknown items off his bedside table, and gives it to her. She sees that the missed calls are from Dani. There’s also a huge text.

Dani, 5:03 p.m. -- You’re SO bad about your phone. Anyway, we found the prettiest fucking tree. It’s gorgeous and Hernando figured out how to put it up, bless him. Put your panties on and get over here. We’re decorating and we’re watching the game later and we have eggnog and cookies but we need more food so if you and Wolfgang could stop at the store and get enough for maybe...ten people? And some more alcohol. Xoxoxoxo, love you, thanks.

“Does she do that a lot?” asks Wolfgang.

“Sign people up for things against their will? Yes, quite often.”

Wolfgang shakes his head. “I don’t mind. I’m watching the game anyway.”

Kala glances at him. “What game?”

“World Cup qualifier. Germany against Mexico.”

“Oh no,” sighs Kala. “You’ll all hate each other after tonight...”

Wolfgang nods. “Probably.”

Kala laughs, texts Dani back. Then she swings her legs off the side of the bed, searching for clothes. “Oh.”

“Want to borrow something?” he asks.

She glances over her shoulder at him. “I would, but we have to go the store...”

“You don’t think you’ll look good in a leather jacket and jeans twice your size?”

She laughs again. He sits up and glances around.

“I’ll drop you off, I can go to the store,” he says.

“You don’t mind?” she asks.

He shakes his head. “Make me a list, you’re good at those.”

She blushes. He puts his arms around her and pulls her back into bed. She tilts her face up and kisses him for a moment, and then she gets up and goes about finding a flannel shirt that might be long enough to cover up with. Wolfgang heads for the door. Kala stops him and hands him a pair of sweats, saying, “I don’t mind seeing you naked, but Felix, and your neighbors, might feel differently.” He replies that he doubts that, but puts on the pants. He jogs down the stairs and into the kitchen, intending on bringing her the crutches she left there and making her a cup of tea. He finds Felix at the table, looking much more alive than he did this morning, drinking a cup of coffee and watching the small TV they have propped up in the corner.

“Hi Felix,” Wolfgang says warmly.

Felix turns his head and frowns, then shuts the TV off. “Hi Felix?”

Wolfgang reaches over to squeeze Felix’s shoulder. “How’re you?” He grabs the crutches from beside the table and sets them against the cabinets, then looks around for a cup. “We’re going over to Kala’s in a bit if you want to come with us. Game’s on and they’re setting up their tree.”

“You’re in a good mood,” remarks Felix.

“Should be, I’ve come five times today,” says Wolfgang, stretching to reach a cup on the top shelf, then pulling down a box of tea and a can of sugar cubes.

“Five times. Five times? How are you even walking right now?” Felix makes a face. “I’m glad I slept through all that.”

“She’s pretty quiet,” says Wolfgang.

“Well, that’s a first,” says Felix. Then he grins. “So she’s good?”

Wolfgang pops a sugar cube into his mouth. “I’m not telling you.”

“What?” asks Felix in disbelief. “You always tell me.”

“Not this time,” replies Wolfgang, shrugging and flicking the stove on. “It’s private.”

“It’s private?” repeats Felix. “Oh my God, you’re in love with her. Fuck, Wolfie. Tell me you haven’t blurted that out yet. You’re not gonna know when to stop.”

“I don’t want to stop,” he says. “I want her, I’m happy with her.”

Felix stares. “This is not normal, Wolfie, you’ve known her like a week--”

“Who cares?” says Wolfgang. “We both knew the minute we met each other.”

Felix is still staring. “Fuck, man, you’re gonna get your heart broken...”

Wolfgang shrugs. “Then I get my heart broken. Pass me that mug.”

Felix hands him a nearby mug. Then he frowns at the crutches.

“Why are my crutches out?” he asks slowly.

“They’re for Kala,” says Wolfgang, pouring hot water into two mugs.

“No wonder you’re in love with her if she let you fuck her that hard--”

“Fuck off, she tripped last night.”

“I know you better than that, Wolfie.”

Wolfgang sighs and drops two teabags into the mugs. He turns around and leans on the counter. “We were on our way back and we stopped to warm up in the science building and Lila was there.” He rubs his lips, looking down. “She shot Kolovi, and we had to hide, and while we were running to hide, Kala twisted her ankle.”

“What? Kolovi’s dead? What the fuck, why? I thought they were working together!”

“Lila probably got bored,” Wolfgang says. “Kolovi might be alive, I don’t know.”

Felix shakes his head. “Fuck. How did you get out of there?”

“Kala,” says Wolfgang. “I underestimated her.”

“Kala got you out?”

Wolfgang nods. “She’s...a talented chemist.”

Felix frowns. “What do you mean?”

Wolfgang shakes his head. “Not now.” He checks the tea. “I’ll tell you everything later, I have to go the store...”

Felix hesitates. “Are we okay? Where’s Lila, what about your aunt?”

Wolfgang shrugs. “I think Lila’s out of the picture for a while. No idea about my aunt, don’t care.”

Felix nods. “Okay, tell me if I need to keep an eye out. When are you leaving?”

“Right now, I just need to get dressed--”

They’re interrupted by Kala, who’s standing in the doorway to the kitchen, wearing a long flannel shirt, the scarf she left here a few days ago, and socks. She smiles shyly, rather pink in the face.

“Uh, hi, Felix.”

Felix smirks. “Hi, Mrs. Bogdanow...”

Wolfgang whips Felix with the kitchen towel he has in his hand.

“The fuck is wrong with you?” he asks in German.

“You asked for it!” replies Felix, rubbing his arm where the towel stung him.

“Oh dear, I’m going to have to learn German, aren’t I?” asks Kala. She steps over to Wolfgang, kisses his cheek and takes the towel out of his hand. “Be nice to Felix.”

“Yeah, be nice to Felix!” says Felix.

Wolfgang shakes his head and hands her the tea. “Nice shirt.”

She beams. “Thanks.”

“I’m gonna go get dressed, I’ll be right back,” says Wolfgang.

She nods and sits at the table -- she winces a little when she hits the chair, hoping that Felix assumes this is due to her ankle, which it’s not -- and takes a grateful gulp of tea.

“I can adjust those for you,” says Felix, pointing at the crutches.

Kala nods eagerly. “Yes, that would be wonderful, they’re too big.”

He pulls them into his lap and starts to fiddle with the screws at the top. “These are pieces of shit, maybe he should pick you up better ones...”

She shakes her head. “They’re okay, I’ll only need them for a few days.”

“I heard you’re a talented chemist,” says Felix, grunting a little to get a rusty screw to come loose.

Kala hesitates. “I had a moment of inspiration, which may well have been a violation of international law, but I can honestly say that it was self-defense. And really, she should be glad, Wolfgang was going to shoot her.”

Felix pauses, watching her. Then he says, “Don’t get me wrong, but when I told him he needed a girlfriend, I wasn’t picturing someone who’s just like him.”

Kala sips her tea. “I think some similarities are important.”

He hands her the crutches and she sets them aside.

“Yeah, similarities like loving the same movies, or being morning people, or hating sushi...” says Felix.

“Well, we don’t have those similarities. We just share an undying commitment to getting in trouble.”

Wolfgang is back, wearing a black hoodie with the Germany National Football Team emblem on the front.

“This woman is going to get you killed,” Felix tells him, pointing at Kala.

Kala smiles adoringly. “Do I look like someone who would get you killed?”

“Yes, you do, because I can’t say no to you,” says Wolfgang.

Kala frowns. “Wrong answer. I’m trying to convince Felix that I’m not a bad influence.”

Wolfgang shakes his head. “You’re a bad influence, babe. Ready to go?”

Felix sits in the background, mumbling, “Babe? Did you just say babe?”

“Yes...” says Kala. “How am I going to get to your car, though? I don’t have shoes.”

“I’ll carry you, c’mon,” says Wolfgang, nodding at the door.

“Wait for me,” interrupts Felix, getting to his feet. “I’ll be right back.”

He leaves. Wolfgang sits by Kala while they wait. They take hands and press a little closer for warmth.

She points at his hoodie. “Are you going to ignore me all night?”

Wolfgang laughs. “I might."

Kala grins. “It’s okay. I could use a break from you, actually.”

Wolfgang scoffs. “Why? We’ve barely seen each other lately.”

Kala shakes her head, tucking her hair behind her ears, and glances at him. He squeezes her hands.

“Thanks for the tea,” she says.

“Figured you could use something to perk up,” says Wolfgang.

She nods, and they wait in comfortable silence until Felix returns. Then they all head for the door. Felix volunteers to carry the crutches, and Kala puts the bag of articles from last night over her shoulder. Wolfgang grabs a glock out of the dresser in the entryway and checks it’s loaded, and they make their way down the stairs.

The streets have been cleared, but they’re still thick with ice, and more snow has started to fall. The drive takes a long time and involves a lot of inventive vulgarity on Wolfgang’s part. When they make it to Kala’s apartment, Felix goes in ahead of them. Kala waits in the car a moment to tell Wolfgang goodbye and slips him a store list she wrote while still upstairs in his room.

“Thanks for going alone,” she says. “I’ll make it worth your while."

He kisses her. “I don’t mind.”

She smiles. “Okay.”

“Which store do you want me to go to?” he asks.

“Whole Foods?” she suggests. “I’m not sure if other places have all of that...”

He has no idea what Whole Foods is, but he nods. They kiss one more time, and then she gets out of the car, pulling the crutches with her.

“You okay on the stairs?” asks Wolfgang.

She nods and waves goodbye.

Chapter Text

Kala manages to get up the stairs fairly quickly, and hobbles inside. She feels like it’s been days since she’s been back at her own place, and the scent of vanilla from Dani’s excessive candle use hits her in a new way.

“Hello?” she calls.

Everyone is in the living room. Nomi, Amanita, Lito and Hernando, and even Sun and Mun. There’s a giant tree in the center of the activity, half-done with lights, and a small table, folding under the weight of eggnog, cookies and punch.

Kala glances down at herself.

“Um, hi, sorry about my attire,” she says, turning the color of a cranberry.

Sun grins and shouts, “You look beautiful!”

Kala grins back, waves at them all, and heads for her room to change her clothes. She takes off Wolfgang’s overlarge shirt -- she’s rather reluctant to do this, so she presses her face into it for a moment -- and then takes a very hot shower to warm up from the car ride. After this, she puts on her softest pair of sweats and a tee-shirt from her undergraduate chemistry club. She’s about to go back downstairs, but she sits on her bed for a moment, glancing at the bag filled with Kolovi’s records that Nomi gave her the previous night. She knows she has to face it eventually, and now is as good a time as any, especially with Wolfgang gone.

She settles back into her pillows, grabbing her glasses off her bedside table, and takes the first stack of records out of the bag. She props the papers up on her bent knees, and begins to read.

***

Meanwhile, Wolfgang pulls up to the grocery store. He sits in his car for a moment, wrinkling his brow, thinking back to the last time he actually shopped for groceries. He was probably a boy. He was probably with his mother. He was probably paying more attention to whichever action figure he was toting along with him than to where anything is kept in the store.

Kala would be in and out of the store in minutes, and it’s going to take him quite a while. Ordinarily, a difference this small wouldn’t bother him, but it reminds him of other differences. She has living parents who she loves, who taught her the tiny functions of daily life like grocery shopping. He doesn’t. She likes to stay home and cook. She’s able to relax. He isn’t. She has plans. She knows what her life will look like a year from now. He has no idea.

He gets out of the car and locks it. He walks carefully through the icy parking lot and goes into the store. It’s very brightly lit, huge, and filled with busy holiday shoppers. There are massive paper cutouts of turkeys hanging from the ceiling, along with promotional ads for Black Friday. They’re all written in bubbly pink and blue lettering. They all have exclamation points. He experiences a brief, intense pang for Germany, which is quieter in every sense, and glances around for a cart.

He pulls one out of a long stack of them. He’s uncomfortable pushing a cart. He’s not sure he’s ever pushed a cart. He glances down at the blue plastic label on the baby seat, which features an image of a child falling out of the cart, overlaid with the words Death or serious injury can result! Do not leave your child unattended! Who the fuck would leave an infant unattended in a cart? He squints at the smaller font underneath. Whole Foods is not responsible for damage to cars caused by unattended carts. Yes, obviously, who thought they were?

He puts the cart back, annoyed, and takes a basket instead. He can do this. He can handle one domestic chore, especially for this girl. He opens up her list.

***

Kala grips the records with both her hands, shaking slightly.

Names. It’s all names.

Names followed by commas, followed by birth dates, followed by death dates. Numbered, organized, emotionless. Participants in a study, all university students, all chemistry or biology grads. The study, the one he introduced to Kala as new, has been ongoing for decades, taking place worldwide, and it has a deathtoll. A large one.

Not one of the students lived past 30, and they all died the same way -- at least, according to the records.

Cause of Death: Post-Op Complications.

Those words repeat again and again, page after page. Kala rubs her fingertips over the names. She wishes she could stop reading, but she can’t help herself. She nearly calls Wolfgang, nearly asks him to cut shopping short and come back so they can talk through this; but something stops her, and she continues to read.

***

Wolfgang finds that Kala has written an entire, detailed note. Her handwriting is small and neat, with tiny flourishes, just what he would have guessed.

Potatoes (the tiny kind)

Buttermilk

Ginger (it’s in the produce section)

Cilantro (not parsley, they look identical)

Sesame seeds

ICE CREAM (chocolate, obviously)

Eggnog (we’ll run out knowing Dani)

Rum

Bailey’s

A puppy?

Cups/silverware/napkins

Coffee for tomorrow, we’re out.

Call me if you can’t find anything!

Thank you! <3

After reading through this, Wolfgang has to hide a smile. Potatoes are first. He’s not at all sure what “the tiny kind” means, he thought potatoes came in one size, but he wanders into the produce section, past a juice bar, and locates potatoes. As it happens, there are quite a few varieties, and more than one of them is tiny. He frowns and refers back to the list. The tiny kind. That’s helpful, Kala. He goes with the smallest ones.

He goes onto the next item, buttermilk, and realizing he has no idea what that is, moves onto ginger. He finds that near the mushrooms (some of which frankly look like organs, or genitalia, or amoebas) and bags that. Then he looks for cilantro, not parsley, and gets that. He puts it all in the basket he’s carrying. It feels deeply unnatural to have a basket on his arm. Get over it, don’t be sexist, men can carry baskets.

He returns his attention to buttermilk. He knows Kala said to call if he couldn’t find something, but he’s too proud to do that, but he’s also too proud to ask anyone in the store. He figures his best bet is next to the normal milk. Unfortunately, this store has a broad definition of “normal” milk. Nut milk? Really? No one has made a joke about that? What the fuck is hemp milk? He eventually spots the buttermilk. He frowns at it, and then glances around at the other shoppers, mostly women with children. This store is as much his world as a daycare is, and he’s uncomfortable in his own skin here.

***

Kala reaches the end of the document, sniffling into her hand, emptied out by what she’s read. She understands why Nomi suggested she should wait to read it until after the party. Again, her hand jumps towards her phone to call Wolfgang, and again, she stops herself. If she tells him this, considering she is a student of Kolovi’s, just like every name in the records...what would he say? What would he do? Would he ever let her leave his sight again? Would he try to solve the problem, risking his own safety?

She doesn’t want to lie to him. She never wants to lie to him. But she doubts his ability to handle this information, as much as she would like to confide and cry in his arms. It’s for his own good that he doesn’t know about this. She can handle it quietly with Nomi. She can live with the fear that Kolovi has already, somehow, done something to her. But she can’t allow him to do what he will inevitably do -- seek out everyone involved in an attempt to fix what, clearly, can’t be fixed.

She sets the records aside, wiping her eyes, and takes a moment to recover.

***

As Wolfgang walks through the aisles, searching for sesame seeds, he realizes he’s spent his entire time in America in his apartment. He spent most of his time in Germany in his apartment too. He’s never felt particularly comfortable in a crowd, in any brightly lit space, because he can’t stop himself from comparing normal life with his own life. The difference is always startling to him, and again, he thinks of Kala, of what she’s used to.

If he hadn’t met her, he would have been content to live the rest of his life in his dusky bedroom, reading, drinking himself to death like the rest of the men in his family, ordering his food, walking around the city only after dark. Once when he was reading, he came across a passage describing how some soldiers cope after returning home. He had to shut the book, scared by the parallels.

He suddenly has to remember to breathe. The idea of adjusting to this life is almost too frightening to think about. If Kala expects him to adjust quickly, he’s going to let her down. He wanted her from the moment he saw her, but he never expected to have her, especially not so soon after meeting her. He thought he would have time to adapt. He thought he would have time to work through his faults and present himself to her, somewhat whole, somewhat healthy, when he finally broke her walls down. But she didn’t have a long timeline in mind, and now he’s faced with fixing himself fast, so that a grocery store of all places doesn’t make him want to cry.

Beyond this, even if he could somehow recover, somehow make up for what he lost, for what he did...he’s unsure that can stay recovered, stay happy. He has a history of reckless choices, some that he made for the sake of recklessness itself. His sleep is always troubled by the urge to take risks, and sometimes he can barely resist it. What will he tell himself when Kala wakes up one morning to find him gone? Is he selfish enough to lie to her? And how long would he be willing to lie to her? Until the end of the year? Until they’re married? Until she’s overburdened with work and children and doesn’t have the energy to keep him in check?

He doubts his ability to keep a normal job. He doubts he can keep a normal schedule. He doubts he’ll stop smoking or drinking or getting in fights for fun. He doubts he’ll ever be comfortable in a suit. He doubts he’ll ever want to buy a house or open a bank account. He believes Kala when she says she’s loves him, but that doesn’t mean she won’t want to change him. Why wouldn’t she? She has other people to think about. Her parents, for one. Her bosses, her professional friends. Her own sense of worth. He’s not exactly someone to be proud of.

If he’s ever able to live a life that would be compatible with hers, it would be because he wants to. And right now, he may love her, but he doesn’t want what he thinks she wants.

He looks at the list again, crumpling the paper slightly under his fingers, panicked by how much he loves her. He reassures himself by remembering that he can get blind drunk as soon as he’s back to her apartment and forget everything he just realized.

***

Kala intended to have been back downstairs by now, but she’s still lying on her bed, staring at the wall and hugging a pillow. It seems impossible that it was just this morning when she was so happy, so sure, so exhilarated, so untroubled. She has a suspicion that Wolfgang, too, is struggling with something right now. It’s a little twinge in her heart, a tiny voice in her ear. Maybe he knows she’s planning on hiding this from him. Maybe she should reconsider. She’s just reached for her phone -- maybe hearing his voice will help -- when her door opens and Nomi and Amanita peek their heads in.

Nomi looks at her understandingly. “I...thought you maybe disappeared up here to catch up on the records. How are you doing?”

Kala shrugs and sits up. “Not so good. He experiments on his students.”

Nomi and Amanita share a look.

“That’s what we came up with,” agrees Nomi. “It’s pretty dark, right?”

Kala wipes her eyes. “Maybe you were aware that this is something that goes on, but I’ve never heard of anything like this. I’m shocked.”

Nomi nods. “I understand.”

“I’m one of his students,” says Kala more softly. “Just like all of them.”

Amanita sits down next to her, eyes bright with concern, and squeezes her arms. “It’s going to be okay. We can protect you if we need to.”

Kala nods, sniffling, and then quietly confides, “Kolovi... well, he was shot last night. It’s how I hurt my ankle. Wolfgang and I ended up in the science building, and Kolovi was there with Lila...she shot him. I have no idea why, but she shot him.”

“He’s dead?” whispers Nomi, also sitting down.

“I don’t know,” admits Kala. “He was taken to the hospital, there were all these men in Hazmat suits and...well, there was another man there, and I think he’s the one who’s in charge. He was British...”

“He’s the one the camera feeds go to,” says Nomi, fascinated. “Did you get a name?”

Kala shakes her head. “No, but there were letters on the suits...BPO.”

“BPO...” Nomi frowns. “That doesn’t ring a bell. I’ll look into it.”

“Wait,” says Amanita. “With Kolovi in the hospital, you’re safe for now, aren’t you?”

“What about Lila?” asks Nomi.

“She’s in the hospital, too, actually...”

“Then you’re okay,” says Amanita, brightening.

“I wouldn’t be so sure,” says Nomi carefully, glancing at them both. “I don’t know what any of this is about, but...it runs deep, whatever it is. It’s international, probably government sponsored. I think you need to read more about it, Kala, read everything he gave you.”

“I don’t think I want anything more to do with this,” says Kala.

“I’m not sure you’ll have a choice,” Nomi says bracingly. “You should at least be prepared.”

Kala shakes her head. “I don’t know what to say to Wolfgang. He’s already told me not to get involved.”

“That boy does have a good nose for this stuff...” remarks Amanita.

“And he knows Lila, which...complicates things,” adds Kala.

“He knows Lila? From Berlin?”

Kala nods. “She’s one of his competitor’s girlfriends.”

“That’s fucking bizarre,” says Amanita. “What kind of coincidence is that?”

“It’s probably not one,” says Nomi. “That is bizarre.”

Amanita sighs. “You were one of Kolovi’s students before you even met Wolfgang. He has to take the good with the bad.”

Kala shakes her head, clenching her fingers together. “He’s trying to leave all of that behind, I can’t ask him to go along with this. It’s not right.”

“But you’re already involved,” says Nomi.

Kala nods, swallowing hard. “I’ll...just keep this from him.”

“Honey, you can’t do that,” says Amanita. “A, he’ll find out and B, you might need him. He seems pretty on top of his shit with all this.”

“Yeah, he was very on top of his shit in Berlin, everyone was terrified of him,” says Nomi, adding, “I may have found out a bit about him while I was snooping about Lila.”

Kala smiles weakly. “It’s okay. I know about all of it.” She glances at both of them. “I’m afraid if I tell him, he’ll do something to Kolovi and Lila and...anyone else involved.”

“Would that be the worst thing?” asks Amanita.

“He can’t go up against this alone,” says Nomi flatly. “It’s too big.”

“Exactly,” says Kala. “But he will go up against it alone and I...” Her voice rises suddenly and she has to wipe her eyes. “I d-don’t want to l-lose him.”

Amanita rubs her shoulder, frowning at Nomi.

“You have a much better chance if you stick together,” says Nomi. “I think you need to tell him the truth about this. He loves you, he’s protective, I get that. But he’ll listen to you. He won’t do something stupid if you tell him not to.”

Kala nods, still unsure. “That may be true...”

“I agree,” Amanita says softly. “Besides, honesty’s the best policy in relationships. You’ve got to get all the scary honest shit over with.”

Kala coughs and wipes her eyes again. “Yes, that will be easy. Hi Wolfgang, did I tell you I’ve never fully dealt with my involvement in the attack on Rajan’s father? Have I mentioned that you are an absolutely unacceptable choice in my parents’ eyes and I’ll never be able to explain you to them? Oh, by the way, I’m harboring doubts about leaving Mumbai, and on top of that, I never under any circumstances want children?” She laughs at herself and wipes her eyes again. “He’ll love all of that.”

Nomi smiles and shakes her head. “Kala, he has baggage too...probably quite a bit more than you do. If he could tell you about that, you can be honest with him.”

Amanita nods and squeezes her. “It’ll be okay. Just don’t tell him all those things at once. And come up with fun ways to reveal some of that. Like...cupcakes! Cupcakes with condoms on the top and witty phrases, like, better get used to these, pal! Or, guess who’s getting a vasectomy? It’s you!

Kala covers her face and laughs, and suddenly she has trouble stopping. “Oh my God, Amanita, no! No. Oh my God!”

Nomi shakes her head, laughing too. “Maybe don’t do that.”

“What are you talking about?” says Neets. “That is a brilliant idea.”

Kala has to smile. She squeezes Amanita’s waist, and then takes Nomi’s hand.

“Are you sure about this?” she asks quietly.

“Definitely, just find the right time,” says Amanita. “Now, c’mere, I want to do your hair...”

***

Wolfgang finds sesame seeds in an aisle of spices, picks out large bottles of eggnog, rum and Baileys. It takes him a long time to find cups, silverware and napkins, but he manages. He only has to get coffee and ice cream. He finds the coffee aisle, but stands still for a moment, overwhelmed by the choices. He’s about to reach carelessly for the closest bag, but then he notices movement down the aisle. There’s a little boy, about three or four years old, standing unaccompanied.

The boy looks more confused than afraid. He has a tiny bear in his hand, and he’s looking around. Wolfgang goes back to studying the coffee. Someone will find the boy eventually. He spends a few more minutes, distracting himself with the descriptions on the bags, but no one else has come down the aisle. He glances cautiously at the little boy. He’d like to think he’s imagining it, but it’s simply a fact that the boy resembles him -- wide gray-blue eyes, messy blonde hair, a combative and mischievous posture.

Wolfgang doesn’t think he deserves this dilemma, but he knows what the right choice is, and if he has any hope of staying with Kala, he at least has to try to follow those instincts.

“Damn it,” he mumbles to himself, then puts on a friendly smile and walks over to the boy.

***

Neets styles Kala’s hair into two thick braids and then pins them up while the three of them talk. Their conversation has shifted to pasta recipes, where to find the best beer, when the next brunch is. Nomi picks out a sweater for Kala to wear since she’s still cold, and then turns around from the dresser, smirking.

“So, who are you going for?” she asks.

“What do you mean?” asks Kala.

“The game. Germany, AKA your boyfriend, or Mexico, AKA your best friends.”

Kala laughs. “Oh, easy.”

Neets glances at her. “Wow, you are into him.”

Kala pretends to be modest. “I’m just smart. I know who’s going to win, so why not pick the winning team?”

“Fucking Germany,” says Neets. “When’s the last time they lost?”

“No clue,” admits Nomi. “Not my scene.”

Neets frowns at Kala. “It’s not your scene, either.”

“What are you talking about? I love soccer!” Then she laughs and shakes her head. “I googled the statistics on the way over here.”

Neets shoves her. “You crafty lady!”

Kala grins. Nomi shakes her head affectionately.

“So, Germany? Hang on, I’ll be right back.” She goes down the stairs, and returns a moment later with face paint. She holds it up, grinning. “Ready for this?”

***

Wolfgang isn’t sure he’s ever communicated with a child this young. He’s not sure whether he’ll frighten the kid -- probably, given his general demeanor -- so he kneels down to appear less intimidating; the boy still seems fairly intimidated, and toddles backwards a few steps.

“Hey, it’s okay. Is your mom around?”

The boy glances around and shakes his head.

“Did you lose her? Here, c’mere, we’ll find her.”

The boy nods unsurely and hugs his toy bear to his chest. Wolfgang gets to his feet, and starts to head down the aisle, but the boy doesn’t follow him, so he kneels down again.

“You have to follow me if we’re gonna find her,” he says.

The boy looks at him guardedly, and Wolfgang is sure he’s wearing the exact same expression.

“I wouldn’t trust me, either,” he goes on.

The boy is still hesitating.

“What’s your name?” asks Wolfgang.

“Lucas,” he says.

“Okay, Lucas, did you come in here with your mom?”

He nods.

“Where was the last place you saw her?”

Lucas takes a moment, and then points over to the dairy case.

“Okay, let’s go that way,” says Wolfgang.

Lucas nods, and this time when Wolfgang turns down the aisle, he follows him. The trouble with this is that, being two feet tall, the boy can’t walk quite as fast. Wolfgang hesitates, then bends down and scoops the boy up. He picks up his pace, glancing around.

“Alright, tell me if you see her,” says Wolfgang.

Lucas nods, also looking around. It doesn’t take long before a young woman, eyes wild and frantic, rushes up to them.

“Oh my God! Oh my God, Lucas, thank you -- thank you so much! He wandered off, you know how kids are! I’ve been looking for him forever!”

“Yeah, of course,” says Wolfgang, handing him to her.

She wipes her eyes. “God, he scared me to death.” She looks at her son. “Don’t do that again! Mama thought she lost you!” Then she looks back at Wolfgang. “Where did you find him?”

“Coffee aisle,” says Wolfgang, off-balance.

The woman sniffles. “God, thank you. You hear such terrible stories.”

Wolfgang nods. “Yeah.”

“No, really, I’m sure fifty people passed him by and figured he’d find me. I didn’t even realize he ran off! I was waiting for a pizza, God, I’m an idiot. Anyway, thank you.”

Wolfgang shakes his head. “Of course.”

The woman squeezes her son and walks towards the exit. “Let’s get you home...”

Wolfgang stares after her. Then he dips his head down, hiding a small smile, and finishes shopping. He gets Kala the largest tub of chocolate ice cream he can find, and in the checkout, notices an ornament of a puppy in a santa hat. It’s terrible, and worthless, but he can tell Kala honestly that it was on her list.

The checkout girl holds it up before scanning it. “Really?”

“Girlfriend,” says Wolfgang.

She laughs and smiles at him. “Ah, gotcha.”

He actually smiles back, then pays and returns to his car.

***

Kala looks in the mirror, studying the work Nomi did. Her cheeks are striped with black, red and gold. She beams.

“These are my colors,” she says happily.

“C’mere, red lipstick, and then you’re perfect,” says Neets, beckoning Kala to sit next to her.

“He’s going to faint,” says Nomi, folding her arms and looking at Kala. “You’re gorgeous.”

“I’m not sure Wolfgang’s ever fainted at anything,” laughs Kala.

“This might do it,” says Neets, putting a finishing touch on Kala’s lipstick.

The door opens to reveal Dani, who loses her mind for a moment, a drink spilling in her hand. “Oh my God, oh my God, okay, you’re a traitor and I’ll never forgive you, but you look amazing oh my God! Who’s idea was this? I love it.”

The three of them exchange a warm, long-suffering smile.

“What’s up, Dani?” asks Nomi.

“Oh, I came up to mention that the game is starting in twenty. Also we’re almost out of eggnog.”

“Wolfgang is getting more,” Kala says patiently.

“Marry that boy,” says Dani, going back downstairs.

Kala frowns at Nomi and Neets after she’s gone.

“I think she and Felix are conspiring...”

“Why’s that?” asks Nomi.

“He called me Mrs. Bogdanow this morning...”

“Wow, that’s way too intense,” says Neets.

“Well, Dani and Felix are intense,” says Nomi.

“Hardcore,” whispers Amanita. “Don’t get on a flight to Vegas, okay Kala?”

“Not planning on it,” says Kala, laughing. “Paris, though, that might be a different story...”

Nomi and Neets both crack up.

“Look at her,” says Amanita. “She’s having a Disney moment.”

Such a Disney moment,” agrees Nomi. “I can see the birds flying around her head...”

Kala shoves both of them, continuing to laugh, and then puts her arms around their waists and hugs them.

Chapter Text

Wolfgang gets back to Kala’s apartment quite quickly, since few people are out in the bad weather. He knocks on the door and Dani opens it.

“You don’t have to knock, silly!” She takes a couple bags out of his hands and waves him in. “Kala’s in the kitchen.”

He walks into the apartment and sees a crowd of people, some he recognizes, some he doesn’t. He frowns at Sun, who’s arm in arm with Mun, sipping some punch. She waves from across the room.

“I invited them yesterday,” explains Dani, leading Wolfgang into the kitchen.

Kala’s alone in the kitchen, cracking an egg into a bowl, and Wolfgang surprises her when he touches her waist. She turns around and smiles at the sight of him. She’s about to pull him close to warm him up, but he holds her at arm's length and points at the flag on her cheek.

“That’s hot,” he tells her.

She smiles, thrilled. “I thought you might think so...”

He kisses her hello and lets her pull him into her arms. Dani, displaying a rare moment of sensitivity, leaves them alone.

“I had a weird experience,” mentions Wolfgang.

Kala squints. “What?”

“I’ll tell you later, too many people around. Do you need help?”

Kala sighs at the appetizers around her. “Yes, I would love that.”

He sets the grocery bags down on the counter and she goes through them, smiling as she pulls out each item.

“Did I do okay?” he asks.

She smiles wider and nods. Then she finds the dog ornament and bursts out laughing. She shakes her head, trembling with laughter, and throws her arms around his neck.

“I love you, oh my God,” she says, kissing him gently. She holds up the ornament and looks at it, then kisses him again and sets it aside. “We’ll put that on the tree later...”

He smiles to himself, feeling more steady. After this, he helps her unpack the groceries. She finds the rum and eggnog and makes them each a drink, and they silently toast each other. Then they turn their attention to the appetizers. It goes faster with two sets of hands, though after finishing their drinks, their hands are more interested in each other than in fixing the food.

Nomi points at them through the door to the kitchen, nudging Amanita. Kala and Wolfgang have forgotten the food, and are kissing passionately.

“Maybe we should take one for the team,” says Neets.

Nomi nods. “Definitely.”

They’re about to interrupt and offer to finish the food, but Dani (who has found a megaphone) shouts, “Ladies and gentlemen! The game is starting! There is limited space in front of the TV, so please, be kind!” Then she laughs. “Who am I kidding? This is futbol! First come, first serve!”

Wolfgang breaks away from Kala, and he’s about to speak, but she beats him to it.

“Go,” she says warmly. “I know you want to watch.”

He kisses her quickly a last time, squeezes her hands, and goes into the living room for a place in front of the television. Kala continues cooking, listening to the sounds of the game in the background (mostly harsh yelling in Spanish and German.) She smiles to herself, sipping a second and then a third eggnog, and stirs the ingredients of khandvi and samosas. The spices rise in the warm air, the scent pervading the kitchen, and she tears up for a moment. It smells like home.

She wipes her eyes with the back of her hand, thinking briefly that the future might be like this... surrounded by everyone she loves, feeling safe, cooking while Wolfgang watches soccer (though, he’ll have to cook sometimes, and he’ll be entirely responsible for laundry, which she hates); she glances out of the kitchen at him, and has to hide a wide smile. Maybe one day they’ll have a home together. Maybe one day she won’t have to look for his eyes in a crowd. Maybe it will be just the two of them, and she won’t have to think, or worry, or wait.

 

She opens the oven and puts several trays of of appetizers in, then sets a timer and returns to the living room. Everyone is standing up, close to the television. Dani is shouting in Spanish, and Wolfgang is hanging back, arms folded, swearing bitterly in German while Felix gesticulates at the screen. Hernando is frozen in place, looking hopeful, and Lito joins Dani’s chorus of encouraging yells. The noise pitches -- Dani jumps up and down and Lito and Hernando kiss hard -- and Felix and Wolfgang shake their heads, analyzing what the next play will be.

Dani pouts at them. “Oh, maybe Germany isn’t as good as everyone thinks.”

A wave of oohs echoes through the room.

Wolfgang points at the screen. “Watch your man. He’s going to turn it over.”

“Oh, as if!” says Dani. “Our guys are hotter, by the way.”

“Congratulations, our guys can play,” retorts Wolfgang.

“Our guys can play,” says Dani, “and look good doing it.”

“Who won the World Cup last time? Who has four World Cup titles? Remind me.”

Kala gently puts her hand on Wolfgang’s shoulder. “Are you going to start a soccer brawl?”

He nods at her. “Yes, definitely.”

“I can take you down!” shouts Dani. “Sun’ll back me up!”

“Nope,” says Sun from the couch, happily eating a cookie.

Kala shakes her head, smiling, and moves her hand down Wolfgang’s back. “You have to pay attention to me on the ad breaks.”

He smirks. “I do?”

“Yes, you do,” she says, biting her bottom lip and twisting two of her fingers in his shirt. “I’m your good luck charm.”

He shakes his head and kisses her, then pushes her towards the couch. She takes a place between Nomi and Amanita, who are sharing a cookie, and Sun and Mun, who are remarking quietly in Korean about the futility of soccer.

“So who’s winning?” asks Kala.

“Germany, but Mexico is catching up,” says Amanita. It’s 3-2.”

The room erupts again. This time, Dani, Lito and Hernando are shouting in frustration, and Wolfgang and Felix are cheering, laughing, hugging each other. Felix kisses the side of Wolfgang’s head and yells “Suck it, Mexico!” at Dani, who gasps in offense and throws a cheese puff at him. He leaves to get shots for him and Wolfgang. The game goes to an ad, and Wolfgang sits down next to Kala and kisses her.

“You’re winning,” she says softly.

He grins. “We always win.”

“Ooh, someone’s confident,” she says.

“No, just drunk,” he admits.

She laughs. “Me too.”

He smiles and kisses her again quickly before taking a spot in front of the TV once more. Amanita looks at the other occupants on the couch.

“Who wants to help me with the tree?” she asks.

They all agree and go to pour drinks, pull the appetizers out of the oven, find lights, and drudge up boxes of ornaments. Between the five of them, it doesn’t take long to finish stringing lights on the tree (although Lito has to do the finishing touch at the top, since the rest of them are comparatively short.) They stand around for a moment, admiring their work and eating shameful amounts of appetizers, and then start opening up the boxes of ornaments.

The game rages on in the background, and it’s good that Dani, Lito and Hernando don’t speak German and that Wolfgang and Felix don’t speak Spanish, because Dani has just suggested that Wolfgang’s favorite player is only as good as he is due to steroids, and Wolfgang has just called Dani’s favorite midfielder a limp-dick idiot.

The tree crew continues to put up ornaments and Amanita squeals when she realizes they’ve forgotten the star at the top. They’re all quite drunk, and they can’t stop laughing when Sun climbs on Mun’s shoulders to reach the top of the tree and affix the star. Amanita puts on Christmas music and brings out the ice cream, which they all eat right out of the container.

Wolfgang catches Kala at this, and she blushes deeply and wrinkles her nose before wiping off her chocolate mustache. He can’t take his eyes off of her as she stretches to place ornaments on the tree, as Nomi pulls her into a dance by the stereo, as she laughs until she cries with Sun over the lyrics of Santa Baby.He knows he should be able to look at her and only see her light; he knows he should be able to watch her without thinking about anything other than how lucky he is. But he’s had a few too many drinks, and even the game isn’t enough to distract him from his thoughts. He felt better for a few hours after he got back from the store, and he thought he would be okay the rest of the night, but watching her now, he can’t help but feel fundamentally undeserving of someone so kind, so trusting, so optimistic. He know he’ll dull her brightness. It’s what he does.

Felix punches his arm lightly. “Wolfie? Eh? You okay, game’s on.”

He nods slowly, still looking at Kala. Then he turns his attention back to the screen and takes a large sip of his drink. The game is winding down -- Germany’s going to win, and Dani, Lito and Hernando have consoled themselves with ice cream -- and Wolfgang’s sure Kala is going to find him the moment it’s over and take him upstairs. He’s sure she’s going to flirt with him while she goes around her room, lighting candles and putting on music; sure she’ll lock the door and give him an inviting smile. She’s in a good mood and she’ll want to spoil him, and he’s going to have to tell her that he can’t, that they shouldn’t, that she should leave while she still can.

She smiles at him from across the room, completely unaware of his thoughts. He smiles back feebly and finishes his drink.

“What’s going on?” asks Felix.

Wolfgang shrugs and says, “Look at her.”

“What about her?” asks Felix.

Wolfgang shakes his head. “I don’t want to take that away from her.”

“What?” asks Felix.

“She’s happy,” says Wolfgang.

“Yeah, she’s happy because of you,” Felix says.

Wolfgang shakes his head again. “She won’t be for long.”

“Fuck, Wolfie, you can’t do this tonight. You’re too drunk. You are not going to tell her that tonight.”

“I have to, I can’t lead her on--”

“Goddamn night and day with you,” says Felix. “Two seconds ago you were in love with her.”

“I am, I’m trying to do the right thing--”

Felix looks at him with an unusually serious expression. “Wolfgang, you will regret this the rest of your life. Keep your mouth shut. Deal with your shit. Talk to someone. But don’t take this out on her.”

“I’m not taking it out on her,” argues Wolfgang. 

“Yeah, I’m sure she’ll see it that way when you break up with her at a party after having sex with her all day. I’m sure she’ll be really pleased.”

Wolfgang shakes his head and walks away to get another drink. Felix swears quietly.

The game is over in fifteen more minutes, and as predicted, Kala seeks Wolfgang out. She’s nearly as drunk as he is, and she’s giggling at nothing, pulling him close to her.

“Let’s go upstairs,” she says softly. “I can’t be on my feet any longer.”

He nods. In one way, it will be harder to have the conversation when they’re in her room, but in another way, Felix is right that it’s unforgivable to have that kind of conversation in front of friends.

“I might fall asleep on you,” she says as they go towards the stairs.

“I don’t mind,” he says.

She sighs. “I had plans for you.”

“I figured,” he says.

She smiles at him over her shoulder as they go upstairs. She lets go of his hand to open the door to her room, which Wolfgang realizes he’s never seen, a realization he can’t focus on right now. Kala shuts the door and locks it, and points at her bed so he sits down.

“Music?” she asks.

“Kala--”

“Music...” she murmurs, going through her phone and plugging it into a speaker on her dresser.

He breathes out, latching his fingers together and looking at the floor. “Kala--”

“Yes, be patient,” she says, selecting a playlist, then reaching for the lights.

He looks at the floor again. She steps over to him, standing in front of him for a moment, and drags her fingers lightly over his jaw. He looks up at her, chest aching; if there’s any moment he wants her to look into him, to figure it out for herself, it’s this moment. And finally, she seems to notice that something has changed.

“Stop looking at me like you don’t deserve this,” she says gently.

He meets her eyes. She puts her hands on either side of his face.

“I know it’s hard for you to believe anyone feels this way about you, but I do.”

He shakes his head. “I know you do.”

“Then what is it?”

“I don’t want you to get hurt. I can’t let you get hurt."

“What made you think about this?”

He pauses, holding his breath, and shakes his head again. “I don’t know.”

“Yes, you do,” she says softly.

He breathes out harshly, and says in a rush, “You deserve better than me. I ruin everything.”

“Why would you say that?” she whispers.

“You know it’s true,” he says dully.

“No, it’s not. This has been the best week of my life.”

“I can’t do this, Kala. I’ve never known how to do the right thing. This won't be any different.”

She looks into his eyes, feeling over his lips with her fingertips.

“It’s okay to be afraid,” she murmurs, voice trembling slightly. “I’m afraid too.”

He looks down and shakes his head. “I need to do the right thing, I need to get away from you before this gets worse.”

Kala takes a slow, deep breath, and suddenly she’s no longer panicked.

“Wolfgang... being with me is one of the first right things you’ve done. And maybe that scares you, and maybe it should. But just because it scares you and it goes against your instincts...it doesn’t mean it’s wrong. Doing the right thing isn’t always easy. Staying isn’t always easy. But how can you question if this is right?”

He presses his forehead against hers, squeezing her hand hard. Then, after a minute that feels more like an hour, says very quietly, “Just be patient with me, please be patient with me.”

She nods fervently. He breathes in very slowly, fighting a spontaneous urge to break down, and presses his face into her hair.

“I’m so sorry,” he mumbles.

She hugs him close, throat aching, and digs her fingers into his shoulders. She shakes her head.

“No, I understand. I understand...” She sniffles. “I’m sorry.”

“You don’t have anything to be sorry for,” he says.

“I’m sorry no one ever saw the good in you,” she replies softly.

He lifts his face up and looks at her. He can’t speak, and he holds very still as she touches his lips, as she looks back at him. It’s the first time in his life that he believes someone wants to be with him, the first time he believes he won’t be left alone, and he wants more than anything to trust her, but he’s never trusted anyone. He’s existed within his own mind since he can remember.

“You think too much,” Kala says gently.

Wolfgang nods. “I know. I’ve always had to.”

“You don’t have to with me,” she replies.

The frustration and fear overwhelms him again. “You could have anyone, someone normal--”

“I want you--”

“Kala--”

“I want you!” Her voice has changed. It’s gritty and insistent. “I want you.”

He looks at her, and the blue in his eyes seems to have gone, leaving only gray.

“I want you too,” he says, overcome.

“Then what else matters?” she asks.

He shakes his head, agreeing that nothing else does, and kisses her. It’s gentle and slow at first, but quickly becomes consuming. He feels a few of her tears on his cheeks, so he holds her closer.

She breaks away after a moment and says quietly, “Besides...I'm not sure you're the one that's going to put us in danger...”

“What do you mean?” he asks.

She shakes her head and gestures at the papers stacked on her bedside table. “I should have saved them until tomorrow, but I was too curious.”

“It’s okay,” he says softly. “What did they say?”

She keeps shaking her head, and finally replies, voice timid and cold, “He’s been experimenting on his students.”

“What do you mean? What kind of experiments?”

She shrugs miserably. “I don’t know. But, Wolfgang...” He voice rises with emotion. “Wolfgang, they’re all dead.”

His hands tighten around her. “What?”

She nods. “His students, the ones he asked to help with his study, just like he asked me.” She sniffles hard. “What if he’s already done something to me?”

He shakes his head seriously. “No, he can’t have, you’ve barely spent any time with him.”

She nods, trying to stop crying, and takes a steadying breath.

“How did they die?” he asks.

"Surgical complications," she explains quietly.

He takes the papers off the nightstand. A cold tingle runs down his back as he reads the names and the dates. It’s darkly familiar. There are many memorials with a similar style, though there are more names, though they’re written in stone.

“Kala, you have to get out of this,” he says softly. “This is wrong.”

She nods. “Yes, I know. I know that. But I don’t know how.”

“Do anything, tell them anything,” he whispers forcefully.

She nods again. “I’m sure I can come up with something.” Then she looks at him, eyes wide and wet, collecting light. “But what if they decide I know too much?”

This possibility is very plausible, and he looks at her bleakly. “We’ll come up with something.”

She squeezes his hands. “What?”

He pauses, then says, “We’ll leave. We’ll go somewhere else.”

She nods one more time, and then says, “I think I want to go to bed...”

He nods too. “Everything’s going to fine, okay? Kolovi is in the hospital, so is Lila... we have time to fix this.”

“Okay,” she agrees softly. “I wasn't going to tell you...I didn't want to worry you. But I think we should be honest, even when it's hard, especially when it's hard.” She sniffles. “If you're honest about what you're scared of, I can be honest about that too and at least...” She sniffles again and laughs slightly. “At least we won't be alone in this.”

He nods and hugs her closer.

She nestles into him and bursts out, “I'm so glad you're here, I never would have been able to sleep after reading that...”

He rubs her back and kisses the side of her head. “It's going to be okay, we'll figure it out.”

She sniffles into his chest, draws a breath, and then gets to her feet. She pulls a pair of pajamas out of her dresser. He gets up to turn down the bed and strips down to his boxers. She shuts off the lamp on her desk and gets in bed next to him after putting on the pajamas, pressing close, letting the darkness, his warmth, the sound of their breathing calm her down.

After a moment, she glances at him. “What was the strange experience you had?”

He smiles softly. “Oh. When I was at the store, I was thinking about how different our lives are, worrying I couldn't make up for that, thinking about how I never do the right thing...” He pauses, running his hand up and down her back and pulling her closer. “I didn't know what to do. But then I saw this kid that ran off from his mom in the store...he was lost so I picked him up and found his mom for him and...” He frowns. “Well, she couldn't stop thanking me. I've never had someone thank me like that.”

Kala looks at him for long time. “Of course she couldn't stop thanking you...what if she had never seen him again?”

Wolfgang nods. “It's weird to see people care about their kids.”

Kala sighs sadly, patting her hand on his chest. “Oh, hon.”

He looks at her again. “I love literature, love writing about it... but it's useless.”

Kala wrinkles her eyebrows. “Okay...”

“And it doesn't pay,” he goes on.

“No,” she agrees.

“And I don't want to be a teacher, which is about the only job you can get...”

Kala starts to smile.

“So I was thinking I should do something I care about. I see how you talk about chemistry... maybe I should...” He shrugs and trails off.

“What?” she coaxes.

He's shy. He hesitates for a minute. “What if I did something to help kids? Kids who are growing up like I grew up, who don't have anything?”

Kala swallows the urge to cry and merely presses her lips against his cheek. She nods hard, squeezing his hand under the covers.

“I think you would be perfect for that,” she says seriously.

He meets her eyes, hopeful and unsure. “Really?”

She nods. “Really.”

He kisses her gratefully and laces their fingers together. “I love you.”

She smiles and sniffles. “I love you too.”

“What degree do I get for that?” he asks.

She laughs. “I have no idea. We'll find out.”

He nods and kisses her again. “Okay.”

She smiles and snuggles against him again, pulling the covers higher. They're quiet for a moment, their breathing slowing as they fall asleep. Then Kala nudges him.

“Wolfgang?” she mumbles.

“Huh?” he murmurs back.

“You do the right thing more than you realize.”

He tucks his face into her hair and kisses the side of her head. “Maybe.”

She smiles. “Maybe” might not seem like much, but she knows how hard it is for him to see what she sees. She knows it may take years, but she'll be patient, because she doesn't want to be anywhere else.

Chapter Text

Kala kisses Wolfgang goodbye at 6:30 the next morning in order to get to her first class. She’s determined to go to every class, do every assignment, participate obnoxiously, and get back in good standing with her professors, though she would rather stay in bed, especially after checking the weather on her phone and discovering the forecast is for “icy rain.” But she bundles up, makes a cup of tea, and forces herself to get ready.

Her apartment is in a state of total destruction. She walks past the sleeping people in the living room -- Lito, Dani and Hernando all cuddled up like cats in front of the tree, Nomi and Amanita and Sun in a pile on the couch, and Mun at the kitchen table, slumped over. Felix must have left. She eventually makes it out the door, popping in headphones and doubling up on gloves. She has a slight headache from the amount of eggnog she had last night (she wonders how Wolfgang, who seemed to have consumed an entire bottle of rum, is doing.) She hopes he at least remembers their conversation, and she feels a twinge, wanting to go back and make sure he’s not feeling so broken this morning. But she has to trust him to be okay by himself, so she keeps walking. Her ankle is still questionable, but the crutches help, and she manages to make it to campus quite efficiently. The weather, as promised, is freezing and wet and she’s thankful, despite the events of the weekend, to make it back into the science building. She’s just gotten in the elevator when her phone buzzes. She pulls it out of her pocket and braces herself.

It’s an email from Kolovi. She presses her teeth together and opens it, glancing around to see if she’s alone. She tries to remember what Wolfgang told her last night as she waits for the email to load. She tries to tell herself, no matter what, they’ll find a solution.

But then she sees that they won’t have to.

Dear Kala,

Unfortunately, I was in an accident over the weekend. I will be unable to continue my study as of now. I will update you at a later date if the study is to be resumed. For now, please continue with your studies as usual, and good luck with your dissertation.

Best,

Dr. Kolovi

She stares at the message and rereads it to make sure she doesn’t grow hopeful for nothing. Then she bursts out crying, and spends the rest of the elevator ride collecting herself. She takes a screenshot to send to Wolfgang, and then she hobbles into her first class. She intends to pay attention, but she can’t stop smiling, wondering if it’s all over.

***

Wolfgang wakes up with a start, breathing in sharply and looking around his unfamiliar surroundings. He’s embarrassed by how long it takes him to remember where he is. Your girlfriend’s bedroom, you moron. He sits up, rubbing his face, and groans softly at the pounding in his head. Not your best night, Wolfgang , he tells himself. Maybe you should listen to Felix more often . He glances around for Kala, who’s gone. He vaguely remembers her mentioning a morning class, so he figures that’s where she’s gone, and then he looks around for his phone. It’s on the floor, a couple feet under the bed. He unlocks it, intending to text her and apologize for last night, but he sees she’s already texted him.

Kala, 7:04 a.m. -- Some good news finally :)

He reads over the email, starting to slowly smile, and then he flops back against the pillows and laughs. He texts her back.

Wolfgang, 9:16 a.m. -- I think we deserve some.

Kala, 9:18 a.m. -- Yes, we do. How are you feeling?

Wolfgang, 9:19 a.m. -- Embarrassed. You?

Kala, 9:20 a.m. -- Forgiving and kind ;)

Wolfgang, 9:21 a.m. -- Dinner later?

Kala, 9:22 a.m -- I have a late class. You can meet me afterwards at my apartment.

Wolfgang, 9:22 a.m -- Sure. I am sorry babe.

Kala, 9:23 a.m. -- Please don’t apologize. I know it’s been difficult after leaving Berlin. Let’s focus on this good news, okay?

Wolfgang, 9:24 a.m. -- Yes. I have soccer practice so that’s where I’ll be if you need me. If I haven’t been kicked off the team.

Kala, 9:25 a.m. -- I’m sure you haven’t been.

Wolfgang, 9:26 a.m. -- Well, I did miss three consecutive practices.

Kala, 9:27 a.m. -- Three??

Wolfgang, 9:28 a.m. -- You were more important.

Kala, 9:28 a.m. -- My God, what am I going to do with you?

Kala, 9:29 a.m. I have class in a moment. I’ll see you tonight.

Wolfgang, 9:29 a.m. -- See you.

Wolfgang smiles and sets his phone aside. He pulls the covers over his head for a few more minutes, sinking into Kala’s bed (which is at least as comfortable as his, despite what she says) and smells like almonds, vanilla and something indefinably Kala. It feels like home to him. He feels safe, and he never feels safe. It’s hard for him to understand, but he’s determined not to think so much, so he gives into the feeling and smiles lightly against her pillow.

He eventually gets up and makes his way to the shower. The shampoos available are "chocolate almond dream" and "pomegranate rhapsody." In his mind he can see Kala hiding a quiet giggle about the fact that he’s stuck with these two options. He shakes his head, smiling, and decides that "chocolate almond dream" is slightly more masculine than pomegranate.

He feels less hungover after showering, and makes his way downstairs in search of coffee. The house is a wreck (the lingering smell of alcohol has him grimacing) and Dani, Lito and Hernando are still asleep on the floor. He walks gingerly around them and finally makes it to the kitchen, where he discovers a coffee machine, which is blasphemous (what happened to just making coffee?) It beeps angrily at him until he discovers the correct setting, and he glares at it the whole time it’s brewing a cup. But the coffee isn’t bad, and he takes a few greedy gulps of it before returning upstairs. He notices that Kala has set out some extra clothes for him on her bedside table. They consist of a navy cashmere sweater and jeans. She’s even included a belt and matching shoes. He figures they’re Hernando’s (he’s going to have to pay Hernando back at this point) based on the size and the hint of cologne.

It’s strange to him to have so many people in his life, and even stranger to soak up bits of them from his environment -- a bit of Kala’s shampoo, a bit of coffee, a bit of clothing. It’s what it must feel like to be loved, to have a family. For as long as he can remember, his only reference was himself, and he had been close with Felix for so long that Felix stopped feeling separate from him. But this is different, and though it’s uncomfortable, he can’t say he dislikes it. He has to wonder if he was wrong about being a loner by nature. It’s possible that everything that defines his life exists due to necessity, not due to choice. To be able to choose this... to choose Kala, these people, this place...it’s completely new.

Once he’s dressed, he sips his coffee and walks slowly around Kala’s room without considering why, without watching the time. Her room is very colorful. The walls are covered in posters and art and corkboards. She has an entire caddy of scarves, jewelry and shoes, a plant stand with several flourishing plants in the corner near the window, a desk that’s painted turquoise and is covered in color-coded folders, two dressers, one with a small shrine to Ganesha on the top, the other acting as a makeshift bookshelf (her bookends are elephants), a television stand opposite her bed, and underneath, a shelf with several dozen Bollywood films. In the corner near the door she has a calendar, covered in reminders written in Hindi; the image for this month is a huge slice of chocolate cake, and Wolfgang steps closer to examine the calendar and discovers each month features a different dessert.

He grins softly, and then looks closer at the corkboard nearby, which has many photographs fixed to it. There’s Kala as a baby (looking utterly polite) and Kala as a child, standing with her mother and sister in front of a restaurant (Dandekar Restaurant, her father’s) and then there’s Kala graduating from high school, in between both her parents, all crying; and Kala at university with a large group of friends, all in lab coats, each holding up lab equipment of some sort (she had chosen to hold a small torch); the next photo is the same group of friends, standing outside a library -- he notices she’s arm in arm with a young man in this one, and wonders if it’s Rajan; after this there’s a photo of a family dinner (her family is quite extended); then there’s one of her graduating college, again with her parents, again crying. The rest of the photos are of family members and places in India, of Dani and Lito and Hernando, of Chicago. Besides this, there are ticket stubs to favorite movies, magazine cutouts of favorite dancers and actresses, a few annotated recipes, and several magnets on the metal frame, which are in the shape of various chemicals.

Wolfgang looks more closely at the photo of the family dinner. He realizes he hasn’t talked with her about her family or about India much at all. In fact, he doesn’t know some basic things about her. He commits himself to making an effort to learn all these things, and then studies the photos of her and her parents. He can tell, even from the faded images, that she is the center of their lives, and he wonders briefly what that must be like for her. He wonders if he’ll ever meet them, what they’ll say, if they’ll accept such a radical departure on Kala’s part. Her life in India, at least in these pictures, seemed ideal. He’s unsure if her parents understand why she left, and he has a hunch that she’s never fully explained this to them or dealt with their expectations of her. Still, he can see how much she matters to them and leaves the thought at that -- if she insists on being with him, they’ll understand eventually.

He moves on to her desk. It’s mostly covered in studies with long titles, scratch paper with complex algebra and notes in Hindi, but there’s also several sketches of chemical structures, and next to these, maybe because she grew bored, sketches of trees, animals and people. He smiles and drags his fingers briefly over the sketch of a dog, and then goes on to her makeshift bookshelf. It’s all academic -- anatomy, physiology, functional chemistry, linear algebra, statistics -- except for Wuthering Heights, which he has to ask her about. Lying flat next to the books are several fashion magazines, and piled neatly on the floor since her bookshelf is too small, a large stack of cookbooks. He can see hundreds of small post-its sticking out of these, and he picks one up and opens it to a recipe. She’s made lots of notes in the margins, with lots of exclamation points. He sets it back down, finishes the last sip of his coffee, and then folds his arms and smiles softly.

He’d be happy to stand there for a while, soaking everything up, but he doesn’t want to overthink, so instead he decides to make Kala’s bed. He’s not sure if it’s simply a German trait to like things in order or if it’s him, but he’s always been good at things like making beds. He fluffs up Kala’s pillows, then heads downstairs.

By this time, Dani is milling around the living room, feebly collecting dishes.

She holds up her hand and says something tiredly in Spanish (he’s assuming she’s warning him not to speak, because she’s too hungover to tolerate a human voice) so he takes the cup she’s just picked up out of her hand.

“Go to bed, I don’t mind,” he says.

She replies, again in Spanish, and then nudges Hernando and Lito and the three of them trudge upstairs.

Wolfgang glances around at the living room and begins to clean up. It’s good to keep busy so he doesn’t replay his doubts from last night, and he hopes Kala will be appreciative of the extra effort. Making the living room presentable takes an hour, and the kitchen takes another hour. By the time he’s done with this, it’s nearly noon, and it’s time to go to soccer practice.

He’s just stepped out the door, just put in his headphones and began to walk towards campus, when his phone rings. He answers it without looking at the display, which he never does but he figures it’s just Kala, but instead hears his aunt’s voice.

“Well, I’ve taken your advice, I’m going back to Berlin,” she says shortly. “I hope you’re pleased with yourself.”

He doesn’t know how to respond.

“I’m leaving tonight. Please think things through again. Goodbye.”

She hangs up without giving him an opportunity to answer, and he pulls his phone slowly away from his ear, brow wrinkled as he stares at the display. Without Kolovi and Lila or his aunt, nothing is standing in his and Kala’s way. Still puzzled, he calls Kala and leaves her a quick message. My aunt’s going back to Berlin, I think she’s going to leave me alone. Call me back.

Then he shoves his phone in his pocket and takes off towards the soccer fields.

***

Kala listens to Wolfgang’s message after class, and comes away just as confused, wondering what could account for his aunt’s sudden change of heart. It’s good news to be sure, but she would like to understand why. She’s about to call Wolfgang back, but her phone rings. It’s her parents, and she realizes with a start that she forgot to call them yesterday. She usually calls on Sunday, but she didn’t this week.

“Oh dear,” she murmurs, stepping outside of the science building to talk to them. She answers hesitantly. “Mom, Dad? I’m so sorry, I lost track of the days...”

“Oh, Kala, thank goodness,” says her mother. “We figured it was something like that, but we were still worried.”

“Your mother exaggerates, you’re a very busy young woman, we understand,” says Sanyam. “How are you doing? What did you do this weekend?”

Kala turns slightly green. She’s not sure she’s ever directly lied to her parents, so she opts for a lie of omission.  “Oh, this weekend...I caught up on sleep, and did a lot of cooking...”

“That sounds lovely,” says Priya. “Are your friends doing well?”

“Mm, yes,” says Kala. “Lito is excited because Hernando came back for a few days, and Dani is her usual self...”

“Oh, lovely,” says Sanyam. “How are your studies?”

Kala brightens. “Good. I can’t believe I’m almost done.”

“No, neither can we!” laughs Priya. “It seems like only last year you were graduating from university -- oh, hold on, your auntie wants to talk to you.”

“Hi auntie,” says Kala patiently.

“Kala, dearest, I haven’t heard your voice in so long! You sound very well! So, have you met anyone?”

“Don’t be so aggressive,” says Sanyam, sighing.

“Oh, you have to be aggressive with this one,” says her aunt. “She’s so secretive!”

Kala shifts back and forth on her feet, suddenly desperate for a coffee.

“My daughter is one of the least secretive individuals I know,” says Sanyam

“Well, Kala?” asks her aunt.

“Uh...” Then it all comes out in a burst. “I did meet someone actually, he’s very sweet, he’s from Berlin and he’s a soccer player here at the school.”

“From where?” asks her aunt.

“Berlin,” squeaks Kala.

“Where’s that?”

“Germany,” replies Kala.

She hears her aunt take a breath. “My word, well, that’s unexpected. Of course, we have no right to be surprised, America is...different.”

Kala rubs her face. “Yes, it’s very multicultural.”

“Are you dating this boy?” asks Priya.

“Uh, yes, Mom,” says Kala.

“Oh Kala,” she murmurs, adding, “I suppose this is good. You do study too hard.”

“Dad?” asks Kala.

“We just want you to be happy, Kala,” says Sanyam easily, sounding much less distressed than his wife and sister-in-law.

“I am happy,” replies Kala. “You’ll meet him in December when you visit...”

“What is he studying?” asks Sanyam.

“Uh, literature,” says Kala.

“Oh my, like that gay friend of yours?” asks her aunt.

“Yes, auntie,” says Kala.

“What does he think of children?” her aunt goes on.

Kala hears her father sigh and she smiles to herself. “We haven’t talked about that yet, auntie.”

“Alright Kala, you be careful now.”

“I’ve heard that’s a very interesting degree,” says Sanyam. “We’ll give you a break now, dear, your aunt doesn’t realize what she sounds like.”

Her aunt huffs. “Oh, excuse me, Sanyam--”

“Speaking of December,” says Sanyam firmly.

“Yes, December,” agrees Priya. “Will you be able to meet us at the airport?”

“Yes, I should be able to,” says Kala.

“Oh, excellent, we’ve never been to Chicago, obviously, so...”

“I understand, Mom. And you’re staying with me. Don’t think about getting a hotel.”

“Oh, but won’t your friends mind?”

“My friends are dying to meet you,” says Kala honestly.

“Oh, lovely,” says Priya. Then she adds, “Berlin?”

“Mom!”

Sanyam laughs. “It’s okay, Kala. She just needs some time.”

Kala sighs. “Is it?”

“Well, it is a surprise,” admits her father. “But like I said. Your happiness is what matters.”

“Yes, your father is right,” agrees Priya. “Though I can’t help but wonder if you could be happy with someone so different.”

“He’s not so different,” says Kala.

“Well, I guess we’ll see in December!” Priya says cheerfully.

“Tell her the good news, Priya dear,” says Sanyam.

“Oh!” exclaims Priya. “Yes, oh my goodness -- we’ve decided to open a second restaurant, we finally have enough!”

“Another restaurant?” asks Kala. “Oh my God, congratulations! But who will cook?”

“Oh, your father has found some very good people,” says Priya, unworried.

Kala laughs. “Oh, congratulations! This is so exciting!”

“You’ll have to see it when you come back this summer,” says Priya softly. “We think we picked a very good location.”

“Yes, in fact, it’s right next to that park you liked when you were little...” says Sanyam.

“Oh,” sighs Kala. “Oh my God, that part of Mumbai is beautiful. Oh. You must send me pictures, okay?”

“We’ll send you some as soon as we pick up a camera,” agrees Priya.

Kala’s about to tease her parents for not having cell phones when she notices Wolfgang walking across the field towards her. She smiles at him automatically, pausing for too long on the phone.

“Kala?”asks Sanyam.

“Oh, yes, I uh -- I should probably go now, I have class.”

“By all means,” says her father.

“We love you,” adds Priya.

“Yes, love you too,” Kala says hurriedly as Wolfgang approaches.

She ends the call, and Wolfgang points at her phone. “Parents?”

She smiles softly, looking down, and nods. “I may have told them about you. Don’t be mad.”

He frowns. “Why would I be?”

She glances up at him. “I thought you might want to discuss how I tell them.”

He shakes his head. “Your judgement’s better than mine.”

“That’s certainly true,” she agrees with a smile, and kisses him softly. “What are you doing here?”

“On my way to soccer practice...”

Kala gestures at his attire. “In that?”

He laughs. “No, I’ll change when I get there. Thanks for this, by the way.”

Kala grins. “You look very nice in Hernando’s clothes.”

“I’m not crazy about the color--”

“Wolfgang, you can’t wear black all of the time.”

“You’re wrong about that--”

Kala shakes her head, laughing again, and puts her arms around his neck.

“It’s nice,” she says softly. “You look very handsome.”

He gives in and smiles at her. “How are your parents?”

“They just bought another restaurant, they sound very pleased...”

“What did you tell them about me?”

“I told them you’re wonderful,” she says seriously.

He glances down as if unsure. Kala, who’s decided that she’s going to be exceptionally warm and loving for a few days, smiles and nudges him.

“You are,” she goes on softly.

He hums in response, cautious, and says, “I was looking at the pictures of you and your parents this morning, I hope you don’t mind.” Kala shakes her head to show she doesn’t, so he goes on. “They love you so much, I don’t want to disrupt that."

“Love is a bridge if we let it be,” replies Kala. 

He looks up at her, eyes bright and grateful, and nods. “Thank you.”

“For?” she asks.

He looks down again. “Being patient.”

She lifts up his chin and kisses him, lingering a little longer than she intended, and then squeezes his hands. “You should go. I don’t want to be responsible for you missing a fourth practice.”

He nods, but says, “What do you think about my aunt leaving?”

She presses her lips together and shakes her head. “I was going to ask you.”

“I’m surprised,” he admits.

“Me too,” agrees Kala. “But this is good news, isn’t it?”

“It’s hard to say,” he replies carefully. “Leaving’s unlike her."

“But we can relax now, can’t we?” asks Kala, voice charged with desperation and hope.

Wolfgang takes a moment, and finally says, “Yeah, for now.”

Kala presses close, resting her nose against his, smiling. “Good.”

He laughs quietly and pulls her close for a moment. They kiss once more, and then Kala pushes him the direction of the athletic complex.

Chapter Text

Wolfgang’s teammates don’t have kind words for him, but he can tell they’re happy to see him, or at least relieved that he’s not dead, considering he’s their best midfielder.

“Did your boyfriend pick out that sweater?” asks one of his teammates, Diego, as they head towards the locker rooms.

“Yeah, it’s nice, isn’t it?” says Wolfgang, glancing down at himself.

“You know you’re impossible, right?” says another teammate, Will.

“And why,” asks Diego, “do you smell like goddamn Willy Wonka?”

“I’ve been doing a lot of baking,” says Wolfgang. “It’s soothing.”

“We never know if you’re being sarcastic," says Will.

“Sarcastic?” asks Wolfgang. “What’s sarcastic? My English isn’t so good.”

“Bullshit,” says Diego, adding, “Coach says he’s going to taxidermy your balls and hang 'em up in here to warn us not to miss a whole week like you did. Where were you?”

“Met a girl,” says Wolfgang.

“So you skipped three practices?” asks Will.

“Yeah,” says Wolfgang, adding, “still got plenty of exercise.”

“Fuck, man,” says Diego. “Now that I believe.”

“Will we actually get to meet this one?” asks Will.

“Yeah, definitely,” says Wolfgang.

“Definitely, like, you’re going to keep saying that and we never meet her?” asks Diego.

“No, you’ll actually meet this one, she’s not a hookup.”

“Wow,” says Will. “Bog’s finally settling down.”

“You’ve got to stop calling me that.”

“She have any hot friends?” asks Diego.

“Dani Velasquez, look her up,” says Wolfgang.

“Single?” asks Diego, pulling out his phone.

“Since when did you care about that?” asks Will.

“Oh, okay,  Gorski, that’s rich coming from you.”

“I didn’t know he had a boyfriend, okay?” says Will. 

“What happened?” asks Wolfgang.

“Some guy,” sighs Diego.

“Riley’s all about him,” says Will, shrugging. “So he can’t be all bad.”

“His boyfriend might kill you,” says Diego.

“I think they’re on again, off again,” says Will.

“Still might kill you,” says Diego. “Watch your back.”

“Saw Riley DJ at a party this weekend,” Wolfgang mentions. “She’s good.”

Will grins. “That’s my girl. What party?”

“You know Nomi and Amanita Caplan?” asks Wolfgang.

“Yeah, how do you know them?” says Will.

“Kala -- uh, girlfriend -- she knows them.”

“Sweet,” says Will. “I was bummed to miss their party, but I had one of my night classes.”

“Fuckin’ police academy man,” says Diego. “The worst hours.”

“So how’d you and your girl meet?” asks Will.

“Long story,” says Wolfgang.

“Ooh,” Diego says suddenly, holding up Dani’s Facebook profile on his phone for them to see. “She is hot. And look at that bio.”

Guys, girls, both, neither! Love is love and I need a lot of it!

“Wow,” says Will. “Now that’s poetry.”

“Wonder if she and your girl have gotten it on,” mentions Diego. “If so, you should ask for a repeat performance.”

“Hey now, female sexuality isn’t about the male gaze,” says Will.

“Only if they’re into it!” says Diego. “Sheesh!” Then he raises his eyebrows. “She already accepted my friend request. Huh. I owe you one, Bog.”

“My name’s Wolfgang.”

“Uh, yeah, and in America, that name makes us think of soup and violins, so Bog it is.”

Wolfgang shakes his head and shoves Diego, who laughs and wraps an arm around him. They all enter the locker room, where the coach, a burly man from Germany, is waiting.

Will and Diego exchange a look. Wolfgang holds his breath.

But the coach just shakes his head and pushes Wolfgang towards the lockers, adding quietly, “Geh mir aus den Augen.”

Wolfgang frowns, eyes widening, and picks up his pace.

“What does that mean?” asks Diego as they pass the showers and reach the lockers.

“That was terrifying,” says Will.

“It means get out of my sight,” says Wolfgang.

“Wow,” says Diego. “That’s some gangster shit. I think he might kill you.”

“I think so too,” says Wolfgang.

***

Kala spends most of the afternoon in the library, smiling inexplicably into her books. She expected to be upset with Wolfgang after last night, she expected to say the right things, to tell him she understood when she didn’t. But she did understand, and today, she feels even closer to him. She’s unsure why she understands him. Nothing in her life indicates that she should. But the fact remains that she understands, so she starts to work on why. Are they simply cut from the same core? Meant to be together despite what the world might say? Or is it something more subtle, something more complicated? Does she see the darkness in herself, and understand it in him? Or does she see the light in him, and understand it in herself? She isn’t sure -- and she questions whether she will ever truly know -- but by mid-afternoon, she finds herself writing him a note on the back of a chemistry print-out.

Wolfgang,

I could say this to you, but I want it on paper so you can keep it with you and remember it. I know I may seem certain of myself, of my future...I know you feel that you might be wrong for me, for what I am meant to do...but you have to understand that I haven’t felt certain of much of anything until I met you. So if you feel like you’re wrong for me because of your idea of who I am, and what I want, and who I want... remember that who I am, and what I want, and who I want changed when I met you. I want to build something, with you, together. I don’t want comparisons to what might have been, because I’m not sure anything else could have been. I’m not asking you to let go of doubts or hide any fear. I have doubt and fear too. But however doubtful or afraid I might be, I am sure that you’re who I’m meant to be with.

Kala

***

Wolfgang gets through practice alive, but barely, because each time the team is done with an exercise, the coach makes him do it again. He feels like his muscles are hanging on by a thread by the time he gets back to the locker rooms, and he collapses on a bench for ten minutes while the rest of the team packs up to leave.

“You good?” asks Will.

“Fuck,” Wolfgang says weakly in response, leaning his head back and shutting his eyes.

“You deserve it,” says Diego. “Three fucking practices. Should have dropped your ass.”

Wolfgang throws a shoe at him, which luckily the coach doesn’t notice. He takes a much longer time in the shower than everyone else, and can barely get dressed without wincing. Will and Diego wait outside for him, and the three of them head in the direction of pizza and beer. But they only make it a few paces before Kala turns a corner and appears in the sidewalk.

“Oh, hello! I was coming to meet you.”

“Is this the girlfriend?” asks Diego.

Wolfgang hesitates. “Don’t embarrass her.”

Diego raises his eyebrows. “Wow, you like this girl.”

Wolfgang picks up his pace as best he can, and kisses Kala hello. She smiles, then glances back at Will and Diego. Diego is smacking the air with his hand, and Will is rolling his hips in a raunchy manner.

“That’s nice,” says Kala.

Wolfgang looks over his shoulder and gives Diego and Will a look that makes them stop instantly.

Diego holds up his hands. “Okay, chill out. We were kidding.”

“Sorry,” adds Will.

Wolfgang looks back at Kala, who’s biting the tip of her tongue.

“My goodness,” she says.

Wolfgang laughs, then winces.

Kala wrinkles her brow, running her hands over his arms. “Are you okay?”

He nods. “Practice was hard.”

Kala smiles softly and says, quietly enough so only he can hear, “Well, I’ll take care of you later.”

Wolfgang makes a noise in the back of his throat. “You can’t say things like that when we’re in public.”

Kala raises an eyebrow and murmurs, “Yes I can. You just have to learn to suffer silently.”

Wolfgang starts to grin. “You’re as bad as me.”

She shakes her head, murmurs that’s impossible, and kisses him again.

“Are you free right now?” asks Wolfgang.

She shakes her head. “I was just saying hello. I have another class.” Then she smiles, glancing down, and presses a note into his hand. “Read this when you’re alone, okay?”

He knits his brow together but doesn’t question her. He nods.

She glances once more at Will and Diego. “Should I say hi?”

Will and Diego both wave politely. Wolfgang rolls his eyes at them. Kala introduces herself quickly and then continues on her way to class.

“Why’s she got crutches?” asks Diego once she’s out of sight.

“She twisted her ankle,” says Wolfgang.

“Poor thing,” says Will. “Hope you played doctor.”

Wolfgang shakes his head and turns down the street. “I need a drink.”

“You always need a drink,” says Will.

“Yeah, it’s because I’m friends with you two.”

They select a bar with dark wood and plenty of neon signs and order a pizza to split. They talk about stats in soccer, this week’s matches, politics, and after a while, he excuses himself to go to the bathroom.

The music is louder in the hallway as he walks towards the men’s door. And I try, oh my God do I try, I try all the time, in this institution. He’s had a few beers, and he remembers suddenly that Kala handed him a note. And so I cry sometimes when I’m lying in bed, just to get it all out, what’s in my head... He leans against the sinks and opens the note up, expecting something unsubstantial and flirty. Then he starts to read. The music fades. His hand slowly migrates upward, until it’s pressed over his mouth, keeping back his breath. It’s quite clear to him that she is something he’s never had, and more than that, something he never expected to have. It was mostly in fun...suggesting to Felix he’s going to marry her, explaining he could be with her the rest of his life, struggling to find words to describe her to his friends. But in this moment, he realizes he said all of this with honesty; it makes sense to him now, falling apart last night; it makes sense to him now, telling her he loves her. Each line hits him like a bullet and he could almost sink to his knees.

It’s unrealistic to believe in words like this. It’s unrealistic to give into the idea that she’s the one he was waiting for, without ever realizing he was waiting.

But it’s also unrealistic to ignore these things.

He breathes in needily, holding the note tighter, and suddenly hopes he’ll never have to read this note without her in reach, without knowing when he’ll see her; he hopes he’ll never have to revisit this note as a memory. He’s sure, despite losing his mother, despite losing his home, that he could not endure losing her.

He takes another deep breath and finally pockets the note. He rinses his face off, and spends a moment looking at the water pool in the sink. Then he returns to Diego and Will, pays for his share, and explains he has to go. He wants to get home to Kala.

The day has passed quickly, perhaps he spent more hours with Diego and Will than he realized, but by the time he confronts the snowy streets and reaches her apartment, it’s eight at night. He says hello quietly to Dani, and makes his way slowly up the stairs, body aching, needing bed. He knocks gently on Kala’s door and opens it, and she glances up from her bed, a magazine in her hands. She gets out of bed quickly and greets him with a kiss, and before he can speak, points at the bathroom.

“I ran you a bath, and added epsom salts and some peppermint, that should help with your--”

“Kala,” he interrupts softly, and she looks up at him.

His jaw hardens and he glances down. Then he pulls her against him, hugging her tightly and tucking his face into her hair. She breathes in, understanding, and hugs him back. It might seem odd to an observer. Kala, shivering in floral boyshorts, a mass of unkempt black hair obscuring both their faces; and Wolfgang, holding her like he won’t have the chance again, like he hasn’t seen her in years. But they both understand it.

“I know I told you I love you,” mumbles Wolfgang, “and I meant it, but...I think I understand it now.”

Kala nods fervently against his chest. “I understand it too.” She lifts her face up to look at him. “You’re staying here, right?”

He nods. “If you want me to.”

“I’m not sure when I won’t want you to,” she admits gently.

He smiles, and she can see he’s still in pain, but that he’s being honest. “I don’t think I want to sleep alone anymore.”

“You don’t have to,” says Kala.

He nods and pulls her closer. Then he kisses her forehead and lets her go.

“You drew me a bath?”

She grins lightly. “Yes. And I made you some of Dani’s famous hot chocolate.”

He nods, not really hearing her. He intended to leave it at this, to take the conversation somewhere else, but as he looks at her, her hair incandescent in the light from the candles she’s lit, her eyes bright, soft, the way they only look for him...he breaks for a moment, breaks in a way he hasn’t since he was young. He grits his teeth and looks down, shaking slightly.

“Oh,” says Kala in surprise, pulling him back into her arms. “Wolfgang, it’s okay. It’s okay. I’m sorry.”

He grips her close again and she rubs his back. 

“No one’s ever...” he trails off, unable to go on.

“Shh, you don’t have to explain it,” she murmurs.

“No one’s ever understood why I’m like this,” he manages.

Kala nods, continuing to rub his back. Then she squeezes him softly.

“Honey, go take your bath, it’s getting cold,” she says quietly. “I’ll still be here when you get out.”

He nods, pulling back. Then he kisses her mouth gently, lets her go, and walks into the bathroom. Kala watches him, tense with worry, and then gets back into bed. She keeps reading her magazine, taking in half the words, gripping the pages far too tightly. But after a half hour, Wolfgang gets in bed next to her, pulls her closer, and nestles his face against her neck. She smiles, because she can tell he’s smiling.

“Better?” she asks.

“Mm,” he agrees.

“I’d offer you a massage, but I think it’s quite likely you’d end up worse off.”

He laughs and kisses her cheek. “It’s okay, the bath helped.”

“Want to watch something?” she asks, glancing at the television. “That always helps me fall asleep when I’m...”

He nods. She reaches for the remote on her bedside table and turns on the TV. She goes to her recordings, and Wolfgang actually sits up to look at her.

“You like singing shows.”

“They’re my guilty pleasure,” she says defensively.

He shakes his head. “No, I love them.”

She pops an eyebrow. “You love them?”

“Love them, they’re my favorite,” he emphasizes.

Kala starts to laugh. “No, you can’t possibly like these shows...”

“No, really -- quiz me.”

Kala continues to laugh, and then she realizes he’s telling the truth. “You...do like these shows.”

He shrugs. “When I was kid, I froze at a concert, my dad laughed at me. So I understand what these people go through.”

Kala’s breath hitches. “It’s not hard to watch for you?”

He shakes his head. Kala swallows, watching him. Then she nods and selects a title.

“I like this one,” she murmurs. “This one girl, she’s amazing...”

“Oh, that girl?” he responds. “She is amazing.”

They look at each other and laugh. Kala snuggles close to him while he sips his hot chocolate, the tightness in his body slowly abating. After a moment, she glances up at him.

“I never realized I wanted this so badly,” she says.

“What?” he asks.

“This,” she says, squeezing him.

He smiles slightly and kisses the side of her head. “Yeah, me neither.”

She smiles back and presses closer. She points at one of the contestants.

“Isn’t she good? I think I want her to win...”

Wolfgang nods, shutting his eyes, focusing on Kala, finding solace in the idea that she’s all he’ll ever need.

He finishes his hot chocolate after a while, holding Kala close, thumbing over her elbow. She’s asleep against him, the remote still in her hand, and he takes it gently from her to shut off the TV. Then he curls around her, and she tucks her back against him in her sleep, smiling. He holds her closer, one hand lightly on her tummy, his face soft against the back of her neck. They sleep through the night, the streetlights outside reflecting off of the snow as it drifts against the window.

Chapter Text

One Month Later

Kala, for the second time that night, has fallen asleep with her head on her keyboard. Wolfgang walks past her, crunching an apple, and taps her shoulder to wake her up.

“No...” she mumbles. “I can’t do it...”

“Just a few more pages...”

Kala pulls her head up and rubs her eyes. She glances at the clock and sees it’s two in the morning, and then glances at Wolfgang, who’s dressed neatly, walking around her room like he’s never had so much energy. Having known him a few more weeks, Kala has realized that he’s rarely tired. He has ridiculous stamina.

“You’re making me feel like an old lady,” she says, tying her hair back.

“I’ve had too much coffee,” he explains.

Kala gestures at herself -- she’s wearing pajamas and her glasses are hanging off one ear. “Yes, so have I.”

“But I’m not writing a dissertation on Signal Processing and Biomedical Applications of TRF1, TRF2, POT1, and TIN1.”

She's said the title so many times to him that he's memorized it.

Kala groans. “I cannot believe I signed up for this.”

This is how every night of the last week has gone. Kala, after getting home from other commitments, faced a steep page number requirement. She should have started earlier, that’s true, but she figured ten pages a night would be manageable. She was wrong about this, considering how exhausting her other responsibilities were. None of it would have been possible without Wolfgang, who made her dinner and coffee, rubbed her shoulders and teased her gently about her bad academic judgement, and typed while she dictated if her fingers got too tired.

“Tell me this is going to be over soon,” she says softly.

“One more week,” he replies.

“And then what are we going to do...”

He wraps his arms around her from behind. “Drive to the coast, just us...”

“Mm, and then what,” says Kala.

“Rent a cabin on the beach...”

“What else?” she asks, leaning her head back on her shoulders, eyes slipping shut.

“I know you have a detailed itinerary, but you know we aren’t leaving that cabin for at least a week.”

Kala laughs and opens her eyes a sliver. “That’s probably true.”

He laughs too and smiles at her. She leans her head back on him for a moment.

When she started the big push towards her dissertation, they started planning how to celebrate. Despite being together quite often, they were both too busy to dedicate any true energy towards each other. Kala’s dissertation gave Wolfgang an excuse to actually study, which felt unnatural at first, but he grew to like it. Felix told him matter-of-factly that the world was ending when he came home with highlighters one day, but privately mentioned to Kala, “I think he’s getting better.” Kala agreed.

Felix, meanwhile, gave up on Dani after Dani discovered Diego. Similarly, Kala gave up on restful sleep after Dani discovered Diego, and had to purchase soundproof headphones. Wolfgang suggested simple retaliation, and Kala made the mistake of saying, “You couldn’t get me to be as loud as her no matter what you tried.” Wolfgang took this as a challenge, and they woke up the next day to a note on the fridge that read: It warms my heart that we’re all in such fulfilling sexual relationships, but this is not a church, and the repeated iterations of “oh my God!” are out of place here. Much love -- Hernando.

Hernando had returned from Spain permanently, and he and Lito were in the process of picking out an apartment in Los Angeles after Lito clinched a big audition. Kala, with graduation approaching, struggled initially with the idea of her friends leaving, but it struck her that she too would leave Chicago at some point. They had never spoken about it, but she and Wolfgang were both planning on moving in together after she graduated. They didn’t know where, but they knew it wouldn’t be Chicago.

As each day passed without hearing from his aunt or anyone else in Berlin, Wolfgang began to believe he could go back. Kala, meanwhile, was occupied with the idea of applying for a fellowship at a research hospital, and she had looked up the well-respected ones in Berlin. Wolfgang noticed her doing this one morning when she had her computer on her lap in bed, assuming he was asleep; the fact that he wouldn’t have to talk her into living there gave him a burst of hope about returning one day.

Neither of them have heard from Kolovi or Lila since the incident after the party last month, and though they don’t trust the silence, they’re beginning to give into the idea that perhaps, with some more luck, they’re safe.

Kala yawns, typing a final thought, and glances back at Wolfgang.

“Thank you for putting up with me this month,” she says.

Wolfgang shakes his head. “You know I don’t mind.”

Kala smiles and kisses him. Then she yawns again, looks at her laptop, and sighs deeply. It’s two days before the end of the semester. The initial draft of her dissertation is due tomorrow, and she’s unsure she’s capable of finishing it.

“Another coffee?” asks Wolfgang.

Kala nods, torn between crying and laughing. “I cannot believe this is due tomorrow. I cannot believe how stupid I am.”

He squeezes her shoulder. “You’re not. Cream and sugar?”

She nods. “Extra sugar.”

He laughs. “Okay.”

Wolfgang brings her three more coffees between two a.m. and five a.m., when she types the final word and bursts into hysterical giggles.

“Signal Processing and Biomedical Applications of TRF1, TRF2, POT1, and TIN1 my ass!”

Wolfgang laughs at her abrupt bad language.

She shuts her laptop hard. “Bring it, faculty committee! This dissertation is flawless!”

“Kala?” says Wolfgang gently.

“Yes?” she asks.

He points at her bed.

“Yes, yes, good idea,” she agrees. “How long do I have?”

“When is it due?” he asks.

“Seven!” she says cheerfully.

“Okay, new plan,” he says, pointing at the bathroom. “Shower.”

“Do I stink?” she asks, giddy with accomplishment.

“Would you get in the shower if I said yes?”

Kala sticks her tongue out, and begins getting undressed. “It’s done. Oh my God, it’s done. I know it has to go through the review process, but the worst is over.” She throws her bra at him and he raises his eyebrows. “Can you believe how long that took!? God!” Then she throws her panties. He raises his eyebrows even higher. “Could you put my clothes in the laundry, please? Thank you! I’m going to dedicate this dissertation to you." She goes into the bathroom and turns on the water. "To my supportive, handsome, long-suffering boyfriend who put up with endless writing sessions, and made me dinner, and motivated me to keep working by promising to have sex with me! Thank you, thank you for all the encouragement, and all the orgasms, and most of all, the coffee. God, the coffee. I think I’m going to have a caffeine-induced heart attack. Could you please turn on the printer?”

“Kala, are you okay?”

“I’m done!” she yells, laughing.

Wolfgang cracks up and presses the on button on her printer. She showers for a long time, and then returns to her room, searching for clothes.

“You’re getting as bad as me,” says Wolfgang from his place in her bed, glancing up from a book.

Kala puts a hand on her hip and fixes him with a stare. “I’ve had a change of heart about nudity.”

Wolfgang shakes his head, laughing, and looks back at his book. Kala blushes, smiling to herself, and starts to get dressed. The weather is dismal as usual, and she picks out a long sweater and some cozy boots.

“Are you coming?” she asks Wolfgang.

“Hmm,” says Wolfgang. “Stay in bed after being up for seventy two consecutive hours, or walk through a blizzard to drop off my girlfriend’s dissertation...”

Kala rolls her eyes softly. “Fine. Get some rest.”

He holds his hand out sleepily, and she pauses to kiss him goodbye. The combination of relief, exhaustion, and euphoria has her throwing her head back while she walks to campus, laughing, dragging her fingertips on snowy fences and kicking icicles along the sidewalk. She nearly breaks into a run as she reaches the science building. She rubs her hands up and down her arms as she rides the elevator up to the administration offices on the top floor, and then walks at a brisk clip to the mailbox room, and deposits her dissertation in the appropriate slot. She spends a moment staring around the mail room, her hands over her face, grinning. And then she heads back to the elevator. She decides to stop by her lab to see if any of her professors are around -- she’s in a thankful mood, and she would like to extend her gratitude to them and inform them she’s completed the first draft -- but it seems no one is around.

She continues down the hall, and slows her pace when she notices a bubble of activity around Kolovi’s old office. She frowns, eyes darting around, and approaches slowly. She realizes that the people standing there are all reporters. They’ve surrounded Kolovi’s shut door, and some are knocking on it. Kala stands still, and then, like a pack of dogs, they turn and look at her.

She’s never experienced what happens next. The reporters crowd around her, microphones extended, all clamoring.

“Are you a student here? Do you know about the allegations regarding Dr. Andrei Kolovi? Have you ever worked with the doctor? Are you aware of who his sponsors are?”

Kala backs up, eyes wide and frightened. “I--”

“Ma’am! We asked you a question! Have you ever worked with the doctor? What can you tell us about BPO?”

“I -- I’m sorry -- I--”

“Leave her alone,” says a bored female voice, followed by the click of heels.

Kala turns, and her heart drops out of her chest. It’s Lila, swaggering towards the reporters like a self-possessed lion. She walks through them, parting them, and opens the door to Kolovi’s office. She gestures at Kala.

“In you go,” she says in a raspy tone.

Kala swallows hard, shivering, and forces one foot after the other until she’s in the office. Lila smiles coldly at the reporters, then follows Kala in and shuts the door. Her expression immediately sours, her nostrils flaring slightly, her eyes bright with anger.

“What did you say to them?”

Kala is too confused and frightened to articulate well. “I -- I don’t...”

Lila slaps her hard across the face. “Wrong answer. Next time, tell them you know nothing. Understood?”

But Kala can’t answer. She is holding her face, stunned, buckling slightly in pain.

Lila clicks her tongue, and pulls Kala’s hand down. “I couldn’t hear you.”

Kala just shakes her head, and Lila raises her hand again.

“No, stop, please!  I’ll tell them that! I understand!”

Lila’s lips curve into a small, sharp smile. “Mm, what a good girl. You know what I want to hear. I’m sure you know what your boyfriend likes to hear, too. How is he?”

Kala continues to shake her head, chest heaving, taking everything she has and willing herself not to cry.

“Oh, you don’t feel like talking,” says Lila gently. “You’re not used to this, are you?” She presses two fingers to Kala’s cheek. “Interesting. I thought he would be like his father, but he must not be...”

Kala’s breath accelerates and she tries to keep her eyes open. Lila puffs her cheeks up a little.

“It’s almost too easy,” she murmurs. “Almost boring.” Then she shoves Kala away from her, and says sharply, “Andrei!”

Kolovi appears from a neighboring office, disheveled. He looks at Kala, eyes widening distinctly in fear. Kala stares at him, breathing hard.

“The reporters found her,” explains Lila. “I know you were meaning to speak with her anyway.”

Kolovi shakes his head slightly, mouth quivering. “M-ms. Dandekar.”

“Aw,” says Lila. “Dr. Kolovi had a minor accident last month. He’s had some...difficulty speaking since them.”

Kala looks back and forth between them, and finally forces out, “Why did you want to speak with me?”

“I m-meant to t-tell you...we are resu-su...” He grits his teeth bitterly and gestures at Lila. “Could you?”

Lila smiles. “Of course. I’m afraid the doctors told him he may never speak clearly again. It’s funny how fragile humans are.” She picks up a stack of papers on a nearby desk and hands them to Kala. “We would like you to continue your...invaluable...participation in this project.”

Kala smooths her hair with her hands, breathing in hard. “I’m afraid that I am far too busy.”

“I’m afraid,” Lila says sweetly, “that you will have nothing to be busy with if you leave without telling me how dedicated you are to this project.”

“You are not the only one with friends,” says Kala severely.

“Are you referring to Wolfgang?” asks Lila, and Kala hates hearing his name in Lila’s mouth so much that she nearly growls. “That’s sweet, but you should know that the moment his little pinkie toe hit the hot water in Berlin, he ran away. And he’ll run away again.”

“I know him better than you do,” replies Kala.

“No,” says Lila coolly. “You’ve just given him more than I ever did, and now you have to justify that.” Lila clicks her tongue. “What would you tell yourself if you found out he doesn’t really care about you?”

Kala doesn’t answer.

“Don’t feel bad,” says Lila, tilting one of her shoulders. “He would care if he could. But like me, he can’t quite manage that.”

“I will not work with you,” Kala says softly. “I will not give you that.”

“Ms. D-Dandekar, don’t b-be silly--”

“Save your breath, Andrei,” says Lila, throwing a hand in his face. “She knows what she’s doing.”

“You’re right, I do,” says Kala.

“What a waste,” replies Lila. She gestures at the door. “I’ll give you until tonight.”

“I won’t change my mind,” says Kala.

“You could learn a thing or two from your boyfriend...he knows when to lie.”

“Are we done here?” asks Kala, shaking with anger.

Lila sits down and crosses her legs. “Yes. I think we are. But Kala, remember...we could have picked many students, many of them less intelligent, less troublesome than you...but we did choose you. And we chose Wolfgang. And you chose each other.” Lila pauses. “You must have realized by now that you share a birthday?”

Kala squints. “What does that have to do with anything?”

“Yes, what does it have to do with anything?" She smiles slowly. "I thought you were leaving.”

Kala turns around, legs stiff, and walks slowly out of Kolovi’s office. Her eyes remain fixed, her breathing quick and quiet...her expression doesn’t change once on her way back home, though tears stream silently down her cheeks, catching on her collar and freezing.

She walks up her stairs, careful to be silent so she doesn’t attract Dani or Lito’s attention, and then goes up to her room. She presses the door open, chin trembling. Wolfgang is still asleep, so she sits next to him. She wipes her eyes and then gently shakes him awake.

He wrinkles his brow, eyes still closed. Kala breathes out, chin trembling harder, and shakes him again.

“Wolfgang, please, I need to talk to you.”

He opens his eyes, blinking, and then he freezes; his hands tighten automatically on her arms and he searches her face.

“Kala,” he says softly. “What happened?”

She starts to shake her head, tears falling freely. He sits up, looking at her more intently. He’s holding her very gently, but she can see a quiet rage in his eyes.

“Lila...she...she’s back, she...”

“She hit you,” Wolfgang says.

Kala nods, wiping her eyes.

“She hit you hard,” he goes on, even quieter.

Kala nods again. “I know.”

“Why?” he asks.

“There were reporters, they...they asked me what happened to Dr. Kolovi and...I must have said something I shouldn’t have.”

“Kala...” he mumbles, taking his thumb very gently over her cheek.

She meets his eyes. “She told me if I didn’t...come back to the study that...”

She shrugs softly, and tucks her face into Wolfgang’s hand, wanting to be closer. He wrinkles his brow, chest aching, and pulls her into his arms.

“I know what she told you,” he says quietly. “What did you say?”

“I told her I wouldn’t come back,” says Kala.

Wolfgang nods. “Good.”

Kala glances up, unsure. “I know how badly you want to go find her right now...”

But Wolfgang surprises her by shaking his head. “I’m going to be patient.”

“Why?” whispers Kala.

"Because if I only get one chance,” he says softly, “I want to make it count.”

Kala sniffles and nods. Then she breathes out and looks down.

“Wolfgang...Kolovi, he’s...he’s not the same as he used to be,” she says. “Lila must be the one in charge now...or someone else, someone we don’t know about...and...she mentioned you, she mentioned that we share a birthday...”

He looks at her. “Why?”

Kala shakes her head. “I have no idea.”

Wolfgang leans back, eyes searching the ceiling. “I know...I know I told you we shouldn’t...get involved. But...”

“We have to,” she says aggressively. “We have to find out everything we possibly can.”

He nods. “We do if we’re going to stay alive.”

“Let’s go,” she says.

He frowns. “Where?”

“Nomi’s,” says Kala. “We need more information.”

He nods slowly, then thumbs once more over her cheek.

“I’m so sorry,” he mutters.

“You have nothing to apologize for,” she says fiercely.

He looks down. “I wish some people made it through life without getting...” He trails off and gestures at her. "It’s not right. Especially when it happens to someone like you.”

Kala breathes out. “It was no less wrong when it happened to you.”

He shakes his head. “I don’t mean that, it’s just hard to see you like that.”

She nods. “I know.” Then she lifts her chin up. “But I have to admit...there’s a certain power in this.”

He wrinkles his brow. “What do you mean?”

She frowns softly. “I’m angry.” She looks around her room. “I’m angry. I’m not used to this feeling.”

Wolfgang watches her closely. “Useful, isn’t it?”

She looks back at him. “It is.” Then she pulls him out of bed. “I want to go see Nomi right now.”

He nods, and takes some clothes out of Kala’s dresser (he’s been keeping a few extras here.) She spends a moment in the bathroom, trying to cover the mark on her face. Wolfgang silently walks up to her, watches a moment, and then takes her concealer gently out of her hand. She frowns, looking up at him as he reaches into her makeup bag and takes out a compact of eyeshadow. He pops it open, looking over it, and then swipes a finger through a matte green color.

“Here,” he says. “Counteracts the red.”

Kala looks at him with new appreciation. He shrugs.

“My mom,” he explains. “She’d always do this before going out.”

He mixes the green with the concealer on the back of his hand, then applies it on her cheek.

“There,” he says

Kala checks in the mirror and smiles. “Thank you.”

He nods, pulling his jacket off the back of the bathroom door. He hands her the scarf she always wears, and then they take hands and head down the stairs.

Chapter Text

Kala and Wolfgang make the trip to Nomi and Amanita’s house in silence, both privately worrying how to protect each other, and Nomi is able to discern the fear in their expressions when she opens the door. Her face falls.

“Let me guess,” she says softly. “Kolovi’s back.”

Kala’s mouth twitches and she nods.

“I’m sorry,” Nomi murmurs, opening the door wider. “What do you need?”

“Not sure,” says Wolfgang.

Nomi nods as they follow her in. “Neets! Hey, it’s Kala and Wolfgang!”

Amanita appears from the kitchen door, wrestling with an armful of streamers. She grins widely at them. “Hey, you two! Come in here!”

“Professor Creep is back,” says Nomi.

Neets sighs, expression darkening. “Seriously? It’s Christmas.”

Nomi shrugs. Neets sighs again, then holds up a hand.

“I’ll make snacks, snacks always help,” she says. “Coffee?”

“Yes,” Kala and Wolfgang say together.

Amanita smiles. “Long night?”

“I had to finish the first draft of my dissertation,” explains Kala wearily.

“I had to keep her awake,” adds Wolfgang.

“Poor kittens,” says Amanita. “Cream and sugar?”

Wolfgang shakes his head. “Black.”

Kala smiles. “Lots of both, thank you.”

“That’s your personalities in a nutshell right there,” jokes Amanita. “Follow me, take a load off for a minute, warm up in here. I’ll get your coffee.”

Kala and Wolfgang hesitate.

“Go,” says Nomi. “It’ll take me a moment to get everything set up downstairs.

So they go into the kitchen, where Amanita is preparing a large meal. At the kitchen table, there’s a vaguely familiar face -- Riley. She’s hugging a cup of tea close to her chest, watching Amanita cook. She smiles gently and waves at them. Next to her is a young black man in a suit. Kala recognizes him as one of Nomi’s friends, but she’s never spoken to him.

“Hello...I’ve seen you before,” Riley says to Kala, “but we haven’t really talked, have we?”

Kala smiles back. “No. You’re the DJ right?”

Riley laughs and nods. “That’s one of the things I am.”  Then she glances at Wolfgang with a more familiar expression. “Will says hi.”

“Will’s girlfriend,” Wolfgang explains to Kala, adding with a smirk, “one of them.”

Riley beams and takes a sip of tea. “Love should be multiplied, not divided.”

“Preach,” says Amanita.

Riley gestures at the man beside her. “Have you met Capheus?”

Capheus waves too, and Amanita says over her shoulder, “We’re helping him with his campaign right now, he’s running for a spot on the city council, it’s all so exciting I could scream .”

Capheus laughs a deep laugh. “She’s exaggerating. It’s nice to meet you.”

“I’m not exaggerating,” says Amanita, swinging her dreadlocks over her shoulder and placing two cups of coffee on the table. “Say hello to Obama 2.0.”

“Oh, now she’s really exaggerating,” says Capheus, adding to Kala, “You’re Kala, right? I’ve caught a few glimpses of you, but I’ve never said hello.”

Kala smiles at him. “Yes.”

“I’ve always thought you’re very beautiful,” says Capheus.

Kala presses her lips together. “Oh, thank you.”

“Oh, I don’t mean to be impolite,” says Capheus. “I mean that you have a beautiful ah... I’m sorry.” He pauses. “Aura, that’s the word!”

Kala laughs, completely charmed.

“Oh, don’t apologize!” she says. “I still can’t find the right word sometimes. So you’re running for office?”

“Well, a seat on city council,” says Capheus.

Riley pats the table. “Sit down you two, there’s coffee...”

Kala and Wolfgang take their seats, followed by Amanita, who’s slicing strawberries. “How have you guys been?”

They glance at each other.

“A bit stressed,” admits Kala.

Wolfgang nods in agreement and takes a long drink of coffee. “We could use a few days off.”

Amanita smiles in understanding and nods.

“What’s the trouble?” asks Riley with a small wrinkle in her brow.

Kala hesitates, then says softly, “I think I may have gotten involved in some research I shouldn’t have.”

“At the university?” asks Riley. “What kind of research?”

“Genetic manipulation and experimentation,” says Kala.

“Oh my,” says Riley, frowning. “Well, I’m sure you’ll think of what to do.”

Kala smiles, hiding her uncertainty. “Thank you.”

“And if you don’t, we’ll just move to Paris,” says Wolfgang.

To everyone but Kala, this seems like an offhand comment, but she notices a gentle, reassuring look in his eyes. She smiles at him and combs her fingers through his hair, then leans and kisses his cheek quickly.

Riley grins. “I know a lot of people in Paris, I’m sure I could find you a beautiful place to stay.”

Amanita nods. “We have a place in Normandy, you could go there, too.”

“And my wife, she has family there,” adds Capheus. “They have plenty of extra room.”

Kala looks at each of them, slightly overwhelmed. All she can do is nod thankfully.

“Besides, you won’t be traveling there anytime soon,” Amanita says, smiling at Capheus.

“Why’s that?” asks Kala.

“My wife’s pregnant,” he says.

“Twins,” adds Amanita in a whisper.

“Oh Ganesha help her,” murmurs Kala.

Capheus laughs. “When we found out last week, she looked me straight in the eye and said, you poor man, I’m going to have to kill you.”

“Yes, I entirely sympathize with her,” says Kala.

“Noted,” says Wolfgang.

“If anyone can handle that, it’s Zakia, she’ll be fine,” says Amanita, and then she squeals and shakes her head. “Twins! I can’t wait to meet them. We call babysitting duty.”

“No!” sighs Riley. “I wanted babysitting duty.”

“Oh what the hell, let’s all babysit. Those kids are going to get so much freaking attention.”

“How far along is she?” asks Kala.

“Four months,” says Capheus. “We would have found out about the twin part earlier, but the doctor said we just had an unusually fat fetus.”

Kala wrinkles her nose and giggles. “Oh no.”

“That’s doctors for ya,” says Amanita.

“Yes, Zakia was not impressed,” agrees Capheus, chuckling. “And neither was my mother. Oh, my goodness, ever since that she’s been insisting she be put in charge.”

“I would trust your mother to deliver any baby of mine,” says Amanita, adding, “not that we’ve decided on that, but we’re thinking about it. Did you know they can turn eggs into sperm now?”

“Oh, that’s amazing,” murmurs Riley.

“Isn’t it?” agrees Kala, smiling as she takes a sip of coffee. “I don’t think I’ll ever get tired of genetics, despite everything. It’s all quite incredible.” She smiles again. “You know, that wouldn’t be a bad job... helping couples have babies.”

“That’s what you can tell your mother,” jokes Amanita. “You didn’t have any babies yourself, but indirectly, you made thousands of babies possible.”

Kala laughs. “Yes, I’m sure she’ll be pleased with that.” Then she smirks and gestures at Wolfgang. “He’s quite persuasive, though.”

He glances at her and squeezes her knee under the table. She smiles at him, silently communicating a shared joke.

Capheus grins at them. “You’ve been together a long time, eh?”

Kala and Wolfgang look at each other again and both laugh.

“No, actually,” says Kala, turning pink.

Wolfgang contemplates her. “I took one look at her and there was nothing I could do.”

Kala returns a glowing smile and nods. “I felt the same.”

“That’s how it was with me and Zakia,” agrees Capheus, shaking his head in awe. “Life’s breathtaking, isn’t it?” He laughs and takes a sip of his coffee. “I just try to remind myself, you know? I try to look at every day that way.”

Amanita pats Capheus’s shoulder affectionately. Riley smiles at him.

“You know, you’re very calming,” she says, “I would vote for you.”

Capheus laughs. “Thank you.”

Kala is about to agree, but Nomi yells into the kitchen. “We’re ready! Computers running, space heaters on!”

Kala and Wolfgang get to their feet and thank Amanita for the coffee. They find Nomi at the top of the stairs.

“Here, follow me, watch your heads...”

She leads them downstairs into a pleasant, warm basement. The wood floor is covered with several braided rugs, and a space heater buzzes gently in the corner. There are several large maps on the walls, and a dozen computers, servers, and cell receptors set up on a network of desks. Bug looks up from the corner, taking a drag on a joint, and waves them over.

“So...” says Nomi, surveying Bug’s three computers. “Can you take a break from the virts?”

“Virts?” asks Kala.

“Virtual community,” drawls Bug. “For you three? Of course. What can I do?”

Nomi pulls over two extra chairs for Kala and Wolfgang, and they all sit next to Bug, who pulls up an online apparatus reminiscent of Interpol.

Wolfgang wrinkles his brow. “Is this--?”

“Totally safe, we bounce all the signals,” says Nomi.

“What do you mean?” asks Wolfgang, not convinced. “How does that work?”

Nomi looks at him with patient understanding. “I know this may make you nervous, but if I would trust you to steal a car, you’ve got to trust me to do some simple hacking.”

Wolfgang nods slowly, calming himself down by putting an arm around Kala.

“So,” says Nomi. “What’s new?”

“Kolovi is back, you were right,” says Kala immediately, eyes bright. “But it’s not him I’m worried about, in fact, I think he may have been trying to do the right thing... it’s Lila.”

“Facchini?” asks Nomi.

Kala nods.

“Italian,” says Bug. “Figures. Spelling? F-A-...?”

“C-C-H-I-N-I,” finishes Kala, and he types it in.

“We’ve looked her up before, what do you want to know?” asks Nomi, fixing a headset over her ears and sliding her chair in.

“Oh,” says Bug as a profile of her pulls up. “Neapolitan, actually.”

“Who the fuck cares?” mumbles Wolfgang.

“You know her,” says Nomi, “so, let’s play the name game for a bit here...Sebastian Fuchs?”

“Know him,” says Wolfgang.

“What about him?” asks Nomi, scrolling.

“Rich,” says Wolfgang. “Not that smart, though, surprised Lila went for him.”

“I’m not sure she did,” says Kala gently. “At least, not for him .”

Wolfgang nods in agreement. “She was with him for leverage. She doesn’t care what happens to him.”

“How do you know that?” asks Nomi.

“Ordered a hit on his life and tried to fuck me,” says Wolfgang.

“Sweet lady,” says Nomi. “Okay...Volker...uh..not sure of a first name.”

Wolfgang shakes his head. “Not important. None of these people are important. I know who matters in Berlin, that’s not what’s going on right now. Can you see if she has a connection with London?”

“From the camera feed...” remembers Nomi, taking out a file of notes. “Yeah, let’s see...it’s odd, that feed went to some sort of military complex.”

“Odd?” asks Wolfgang. “I’d say that’s pretty typical.”

Nomi shrugs. “Military involvement, yes. Blatantly directing a camera feed to a base in London...? Questionable.”

“Could be a false flag,” says Wolfgang.

Nomi nods. Kala watches the two of them with a peak on her brow, her lips soft and curious.

“Those three letter agencies are stupider than you’d think,” puts in Bug. “You might be surprised.”

“Yes, I agree,” says Kala firmly. “Governments are rarely subtle.”

Nomi frowns. “Neets mentioned this when we were reading his records last month...”

“What?” asks Wolfgang.

She shrugs again. “There’s got to be substantial government involvement. Kolovi’s project cost millions.”

“Of course there’s government involvement,” says Wolfgang. “Always is.”

Nomi points at him, looking at Kala. “Have I mentioned I like him?”

Kala has to smile. “That makes two of us.”

“Three,” says Bug, and Wolfgang glances at him. Bug shrugs. “You’re a cool dude. Secret agent man. German James Bond.”

“The name of our intelligence agency isn’t sexy enough for that,” jokes Wolfgang.

“What is it?” asks Kala.

He tilts his head. “Bundesnachrichtendienst.”

She stares, then giggles weakly and presses against him. “What are you talking about? That’s so sexy.”

He chuckles and gives her a squeeze. “Right?”

“Okay, this complex is huge... figuring out exactly who the camera feed goes to might be a challenge,” admits Nomi, scanning a map she’s pulled up on her screen.

“Records,” says Bug. “We can just go through person by person, old style.”

“That’ll take forever,” sighs Nomi, adding, “And there’s some serious encryption.”

“If you hacked the FBI, I’m pretty sure you can hack these fools,” says Bug.

“Even if I do, it would just be a guessing game determining who the camera feed goes to...”

“Well, not a guessing game,” says Wolfgang. “We can see who they’re connected with, whether they’re with BPO.”

“If that information is available,” says Nomi skeptically. “It’s worth a shot, but going at this through Kolovi might be better.” Then she frowns. “What is BPO?”

Bug types it in. “It comes up on Google, that’s a surprise.”

“Biological Preservation Organization,” reads Wolfgang. “Huh. That sounds like some eugenics shit.”

“Eugenics has been widely discredited,” says Kala. “Modern governments don’t engage in that.”

Wolfgang glances at her. “That’s what everyone said in the ‘40’s, too.”

“It wasn’t just Germany,” adds Nomi.

“Nope,” says Bug. “Forced sterilizations, all that shit. We did the Nazi thing before the Nazis thought it was cool. Not that we ever took it that far...but...we started it.”

Nomi nods. “There was a pretty deep belief in the West about whose lives were worth sustaining, and even if the government lost its taste for that after the war...not everyone wanted to let it go.” As she reads, her expression grows more confused. “This organization doesn’t seem too bad though. Are you sure those were the letters?"

Kala and Wolfgang both nod. Nomi pauses.

“Okay, I’ll cross-reference it, see where their funding comes from...”

Amanita appears just then with a plate of grilled cheese. “I ran out of the good cheese, so this is shitty Kraft, but I made it with love.”

Nomi grins and pats her lap so Amanita sits down. “Perfect, comfort food. Thanks.”

Amanita beams. Everyone takes a grilled cheese off the plate. Kala glances at Wolfgang.

“Do you remember--”

“That this is what we ate the first night we talked?” he asks with a small smile. “Of course.”

Kala smiles back. It’s hard to understand how he can make her smile with the darkness seeming to close in moment by moment, but he can, and she’s sure she’ll continue to smile until they’re thrown into the pitch black together. Even then, for him, she might smile.

She brushes a crumb off his lips. “We’re going to be okay.”

He frowns around a bite and mumbles, “Why’s that?”

Kala meets his eyes. “Because it’s us.”

“That’s a nice thought,” he says quietly.

“I’m not being optimistic,” she says. “I’m telling you what I know.”

“You can’t know that,” he replies firmly. “And you’ll make mistakes if you think you know that.”

“Then I’ll make mistakes,” she says, just as resolute. “I’m not going into this thinking I might lose you, or that you might lose me.”

She notices his body tighten at the words. He’s asked her not to bring that possibility up, as it’s too painful. He nods and looks back into her eyes.

“Okay, give me a moment,” says Nomi. “I want to look into this, I need some time to check a few things...”

Kala glances across the room at her backpack. “I think I’ll get a head start on those studies while you do that.”

“I’ll help, give me a few,” says Wolfgang.

Kala stretches to reach her bag. “Oh, I can’t believe I haven’t read these yet...”

“Babe you barely slept this month,” says Wolfgang.

“Mm, I still feel irresponsible,” she replies, dividing the stack of papers and handing him some.

“Feel free to take the couch,” says Nomi, pointing at a large leather couch in the corner, adding, “it could be a while.”

Kala gets to her feet and pulls Wolfgang with her. He looks at her for a while after they sit down,  articles balanced on his lap, unmoving. She notices him watching and looks at him with a question in her eyes, but he shakes his head softly. She forces a quick, encouraging smile and squeezes his wrist. Then she reaches into her bag for glasses, slips them on, and starts to read. He rests his head in her lap and begins to read as well.

Kala wrinkles her brow after about twenty minutes, and Wolfgang notices her breathing increase.

“Preemptive identification and cleansing,” she explains when he looks at her. “This researcher, out of Iceland, he discovered that homo sensorium shares some identifiable characteristics prior to what he calls their birth ...for instance, if they are in the same geographical location, they often gravitate towards each other inexplicably. It’s why the study is set here. Diverse universities are an ideal location to study these...hominids. ” She presses her lips together, worried. “They’re quite a national security threat according to Kolovi and to this doctor as well...”

Wolfgang takes a moment to answer. “Be careful with that. Governments use that as an excuse all the time.”

Kala nods softly.

“Cleansing?” adds Wolfgang. “What are they doing with these people?”

She breathes out angrily. “They arrest them.”

“And...”

“It doesn’t specify.” She shakes her head, eyes wide and dark. “But there’s a note here...” She begins to read aloud. “ While it is true that our study has encountered false positives -- that is, we have apprehended individuals who display signs of sensorium genes but upon examination are found to be homo sapiens -- we believe that we are justified in our cause. These few homo sapiens should be willing to make a lesser sacrifice for the greater good of eradicating the homo sensorium presence from society.”

Wolfgang waits to answer and pulls a cigarette from his jacket. As he lights it, he says, “They’ve actually based all this on them being a different kind of human?”

Kala nods. “They have pages of characteristics....phenotypic, genotypic...and some that are simply normative like disposition. If any of this is true, it’s...well, it’s actually quite extraordinary. Sensates can communicate without language, across the world, they can see each other and touch each other when they’re not physically proximate... they can adapt each other’s strengths and use them for their own...each sensate is like several humans, each one present in and dependent on the other.” She pauses. “It’s not impossible. Aspen trees do this. So do some fungi. And twin humans have shown remarkable telepathic capabilities...”

“Sensates?” asks Wolfgang.

“Homo sensorium...sensates, they call them...” Her eyes scan the pages again. “They supposedly have a greater capacity for empathy.”

“How do you measure empathy?”

“I don’t know,” sighs Kala. “And they’re all born on the same day. I don’t know if they mean worldwide or within a select group.”

“What day?” asks Wolfgang.

“Well, that’s the issue...they don’t specify, so it must be within a smaller group. They do mention that sensates tend to form small groups, they have a strange term for it, uh...” She pauses, flipping back several pages. “Clusters.” She runs her hand through her hair and tosses the study to the side. “I can’t understand why he would trust me with any of this information.”

Wolfgang shrugs. “They need normal people to participate if they’re going to avoid suspicion.”

She pauses, unconvinced. “What are you reading about?”

“Frontal cortex fusion,” he replies, handing the papers to her.

“Oh, mine talked about that!” She flips through the new pages hurriedly. “It’s one of the characteristics. It supposedly fuses logic and creativity, rationality and humanity...it’s all quite bizarre. I wasn’t aware hominids could function properly with a brain deformity of that extent.” She suddenly knits her brow. “Oh my God. They’ve lobotomized some of these people, even here, in America, in the UK...”

“Not surprising,” says Wolfgang, tapping the ash off his cigarette.

“It is surprising,” Kala replies gently. “These things aren’t supposed to happen anymore.”

He shakes his head. “Germany didn’t give a shit about rights until twelve million people died. BPO has a lot of people to kill before anyone thinks to do anything about them.” He takes a long drag and leans his head back on the couch, talking slow. “And even then, who cares if the only people dying are terrorists and insurgents.”

“But they’re not!” says Kala frustratedly. “Do you remember his records? They were all students, none of them had criminal records of any kind--”

“It doesn’t matter as long as the public doesn’t know that. Even if they do, how many people would care?”

“I would do!” says Kala, leaning forward. “I would care, you would care! Everyone in this house would care! My parents would care! Who wouldn’t care that the government is massacring students under the guise of national security? It’s immoral!”

Wolfgang watches her for a long time. He finally puts out his cigarette and takes both of her hands. She looks at him as he looks down, studying his expression, eyes frantic, wanting a response.

“Don’t tell me that this would just go unnoticed,” she whispers. “Don’t tell me this wouldn’t matter to the world if it came out. I don’t want to live in a world like that.”

“I think you have to live with the world, not in it,” he finally mumbles.

She shakes her head. “This is wrong,” she whispers bitterly. “It’s wrong.”

He nods and squeezes her hands. “I know, Kala.”

She sniffles hard and squeezes back. Then, in a burst, she admits what’s been on her mind since she first heard the term homo sensorium . “Wolfgang, I don’t think they want me there because they want someone normal.”

He looks up, brow wrinkling. “Why do you think they want you there?”

She hesitates. “I don’t want you to laugh.”

“I’ve never laughed at you, what is it?”

“I think I’m one of them. One of the sensates.”

He shakes his head just slightly. “But you... you don’t have any of those things, anything they mentioned...”

“But they said they can recognize it prior to it fully developing,” she says desperately.

“They would have just had you arrested--”

“But they may need an inside perspective. Like Lila.”

“Like Lila?”

Kala hesitates again. “I think she may be one too. What did she mean by her friends that night? How did she get the lab door open? None of it makes any sense unless I put it into this context.”

“Kala, they’re trying to kill these people, they wouldn’t have given Lila a position of authority like that if she is one.”

“Of course they would. How else would they find others?”

Wolfgang doesn’t have a good answer to this, and it’s suddenly occurred to him that Kala might be correct in her suspicions, and if she is, he can already think of someone that shares a birthday with her. He’d prefer to leave that possibility alone.

“Fine,” he says patiently. “If they have her, why would they need you?”

“Because she’s difficult, she asks for too much,” says Kala.

He doesn’t speak for a while, but when he does, his voice has changed. Kala can tell that the gravity of the situation has settled on him.

“Maybe,” he says quietly, “you are one of them.”

“Why do you say that?” asks Kala, and suddenly the space between them is so silent that she can hear her blood rush in her ears.

He shakes his head. “Not just you. Us. We do have the same birthday, and I felt so connected to you, immediately, the second I met you. It’s like I realized something bigger than me existed, I didn’t sleep for days after that.”

“You fell in love with me,” Kala suggests softly.

“Yeah, I did, but not that day,” he says. He tucks her hair behind her ear, then spends a moment thumbing over her cheek.

She swallows. “I didn’t fall in love with you that day either. But I felt exactly what you described.”

He nods. Then he says, “Maybe none of this real, it’s all an excuse to target certain people...”

But she’s not persuaded. “To persecute people who are that varied?

“A cover of some kind, then,” he goes on, but he doesn’t sound convinced either.

Kala shakes her head, eyes full of fierce belief. “There’s so much we don’t understand. This may be one of those things.”

“You’re more comfortable with that than me,” he says.

But she keeps shaking her head. “No. I see it in you when we’re alone. You feel what I feel...that there’s something beyond what any of us have ever understood, beyond what we’re capable of understanding.”

He gives her a small smile. “I like to think that’s just from being alone with you.”

She laughs quickly and glances down to hide a blush. “I’m not saying you haven’t made me feel that way, you have, especially when we’re in bed” -- he smiles briefly and squeezes the shell of her ear between his fingers --  “but...I’ve always felt there’s something that explains all of this, something we’ll never fully understand.” She glances at the studies. “I’m not sure there’s such a thing as impossibility.”

Wolfgang nods slowly, following her gaze. Then he says, “How do we find out if you’re right?”

She shakes her head. “I have no idea.” Then she looks up at him. “There’s something I haven’t told you.”

He frowns. “What’s that?”

“It could be a coincidence that you and I are exactly the same age...but Hernando reminded me the other day that Lito’s birthday is also the 8th, I had forgotten because he’s nearly always abroad during the summers. And so is Nomi’s.”

Wolfgang’s frown deepens. “Are you serious?”

Kala nods, wetting her lips nervously. “Think. Who do you know who has that birthday?”

But Nomi interrupts, knocking lightly on the filing cabinet near the couch.

“Okay, BPO is...not so friendly as their search results might indicate,” she says. “They have research facilities all over the world and...well, a lot of their medical admissions coincide with missing persons.”

“Great,” says Wolfgang, getting up. “How’s Kolovi involved?”

“He had a student...” mumbles Nomi. “I don’t have a name, just bare bones, an alma mater and a few extracurriculars. Whoever he is, he’s kept himself off the books.”

“Student?” asks Wolfgang. “What about him?”

“He joined BPO when he was young,” says Nomi.

“That’s all?” asks Kala, following them over to the computers.

Nomi nods, disappointed. “We’ll have to dig more...” She glances at Kala. “You’re close with Kolovi, aren’t you?”

Kala shakes her head softly. “I don’t think so...”

“But he likes you,” says Wolfgang. “He talks to you like a daughter.”

“He does?” asks Kala.

“I think so,” says Wolfgang.

Nomi hesitates. “Would you be willing to ask him?”

“No,” says Wolfgang, before Kala can respond. “No, they’re on guard to see if we know anything we shouldn’t.”

It’s Kala’s turn to hesitate. She meets Nomi’s eyes. “I could be wrong...but I don’t know if he’s the one who’s truly responsible.”

“Kala, his records, all his students--”

“Yes, I know. But there are plenty of researchers whose names end up on papers when they aren’t the one who had the idea or who did the work...”

“It would be smart to have a puppet at the front of all of this,” Nomi agrees cautiously.

“Lila shot him,” Kala goes on. “At the very least, he wasn’t indispensable.”

“Or he was, and that was just internal bickering,” says Wolfgang. “I know plenty of men who’ve killed the one person they needed, the one person that mattered.”

“But Lila’s smart, you said so,” Kala says softly. “Would she really kill someone the organization depended on?”

“She was willing to kill Fuchs, even though he could have protected her for her whole life,” says Wolfgang flatly. “She might be smart, but she’s reckless and ambitious. I know the type, okay?”

“I hope you don’t mean yourself,” Kala says quietly.

Wolfgang doesn’t respond. Kala watches him in the light of the computers.

“I think you should talk to him,” says Nomi.

“Kala--”

“Wolfgang, this isn’t just your decision!”

If they were alone, he would say the right things. I don’t want you to get hurt, I can’t let you get hurt. But since they’re with others, and he’s afraid of vulnerability unless she’s the only one who can hear him, he says, “You aren’t like me, you won’t be able to handle this if something goes wrong.”

Kala’s expression becomes chilly and she looks away. Wolfgang immediately regrets his words, but he doesn’t have the opportunity to apologize.

“I’ll talk to him,” Kala tells Nomi. “We just have to be sure no one is listening.”

“You can’t talk to him,” says Wolfgang.

“Someone has to talk to him,” Kala replies, voice clipped.

“No, no one has to talk to him,” says Wolfgang. “If they realize you know more than you’ve let on--”

“She told me she would kill me simply because I refused to participate in the study. What more could she say?”

“It’s an empty threat if you don’t know anything,” says Wolfgang.

Kala breathes out, annoyed, and then her phone buzzes. It’s Dani, reminding her of the Secret Santa plans they had for tonight. “Oh honestly .” She clicks her phone off and tosses it aside, then addresses Wolfgang again. “Why would she keep me alive?”

“Do you know how hard it is to cover something up like that?”

“No, do you?” snaps Kala.

Wolfgang breathes out sharply. “Okay, Kala, talk to him.”

“I’m going to,” she says, smarting, instantly wanting to apologize.

Okay ,” Nomi says, slightly louder than usual. “We can talk more about that later. For now... why don’t we look into these facilities? Let’s start with the one in Iceland.”

“Ooh, Iceland...Iceland is beautiful,” says Neets.

Kala tries to listen to Nomi describe the facility in Iceland, but her attention is split. She keeps glancing at Wolfgang, who she knows is simply worried, and he keeps glancing at her, but their eyes always miss each other. Kala is on the verge of tears. She’s never argued with him, and the feeling rips at her.

Amanita’s eyes drift to the screen as Nomi finishes speaking.

“Anybody else have a bad feeling about this?” she asks.

Wolfgang laughs humorlessly. “Yeah.”

She glances at him. “Is it too late to go the other direction?”

He shrugs. “Not sure. Probably.”

“I'm going to finish reading those,” says Kala, gesturing at the studies.

Wolfgang notices that she's moving slower, that her voice is deeper, flatter. He watches her return to the couch.

“I don't want her to get hurt,” Wolfgang says to Amanita softly. “I didn't mean to say that, but...”

Amanita nods, looking at Nomi. “I worry about her constantly, she's always doing something dangerous.”

“How do you live like that?” asks Wolfgang.

Amanita shrugs, eyes still fixed on her wife. “I know who I married. I  love the good and the bad.”

“But how do you stop yourself from going crazy?”

“Oh, I let myself go crazy a long time ago,” says Amanita, looking back at him. She takes a big bite of grilled cheese. “The way I see it, Nomi and I are just a snapshot of something bigger, something incomprehensible. We collided in this life and all we can do is love each other while we have each other. Nothing's guaranteed here.”

Wolfgang has been staring at Kala the whole time Amanita spoke.

“But she's all I have,” he admits, without meaning to.

Amanita takes a moment before answering. “If you feel that way, you'll always have her, no matter what happens.”

Wolfgang meets her eyes. “Yeah, that's why I'm worried. I won’t be able to forget her.”

Amanita frowns, looking back at Nomi. “I know what you mean.” She pauses. “Before we moved here, I thought I lost her once. We were at Pride and she fell off my motorcycle...” Amanita pauses to laugh. “She passed out, she was in the hospital for weeks, because the doctors thought there was something wrong with her when there wasn't...” She shakes her head. “I had to smuggle her out, thank God I knew some of the nurses... we had to hide for months and we moved here because of it all, and fuck... I can't tell you how much we miss San Francisco. But she's home, more than any place ever will be, and...I know I would follow her anywhere. I’d be lost without her.”

Wolfgang nods. “Kala’s the only thing keeping me here.”

“You miss Berlin?” guesses Amanita.

He nods. “Constantly. But I'd rather be with her.” He pauses. “I never know how much to tell her.”

“What do you mean?” asks Amanita.

Wolfgang smiles slightly at himself. “I'm always getting ahead of myself with her.”

Amanita gives him an open-mouthed grin. “Planning your whole life with her, huh? Oh, I’ve been there. I think Nom and I had been on two dates and I was already planning what I’d do for our twentieth anniversary.”

He nods. “I’m not used to that. I never used to see girls more than once.”

Amanita nods too. “I grew up in a commune, actually, so...the idea of being committed to one person was always really foreign to me. I mean, I respected that choice, but it never occurred to me I would want that. Then I met her.”

“I just hope I’m doing things right, I didn’t exactly have good examples growing up...”

Amanita shrugs. “That doesn’t have to define you. Nomi’s mother is a hateful, obnoxious asshole, but Nomi’s the opposite.”

Wolfgang hesitates. “It might be more complicated than that for me.”

Amanita glances at Kala, then replies, “Even if it is, I’ve never seen her like this. I think you might actually be overcompensating.”

Wolfgang laughs. “What?”

Amanita grins. “Listen, you two are gonna give me diabetes, you’re too sweet.” She squeezes his shoulder and gets up, collecting the tray of grilled cheese crusts. “And look, you’ll never stop worrying about her. It’s part of being in love. But we’re all here for her, you know. Nothing’s going to happen while we’re all here.”

He nods slowly. “Thanks.”

She smiles and leaves for the stairs. He pulls his chair closer to the computers again, and Nomi glances at him.

“You good?” she asks.

He nods. “Finding anything?”

She shakes her head. “Still working. Why don’t you keep reading?”

He hesitates, looking at Kala. Then he forces himself up and sits next to her. She sets her reading aside and looks at him, about to speak.

But he’s faster. “Kala--”

It would be easy to keep arguing, but she softens. “Please don’t say you’re sorry, I should have understood how much this would scare you--”

“I don’t have an excuse to talk to you like I know better,” he interrupts quietly. “I’m sorry.”

She sniffles and nods. “Okay.”

“I just can’t think about losing you,” he goes on.

She continues to nod. “I won’t talk to him if you don’t want me to.”

He shakes his head, glancing down. “No, I think you have to.” He pulls her closer and says again, “I’m sorry. I...I don’t realize what I’m saying when I think you might get hurt. I don’t know what I would do if anything...”

Kala shakes her head gently. “I’m sorry for yelling.”

He cracks a small smile. “I deserved it.”

“No, you didn’t,” she says. She pauses, running her hands down his arms. Then she meets his eyes. “We’re both scared. We shouldn’t take it out on each other.”

He nods. “No.”

Kala sniffles again, then touches her nose to his. “Want to help me get through these?”

“Not really,” he admits.

She smiles and runs her fingers through his hair. “I know, I want to go home and sleep.”

He pulls a few papers onto his lap, and Kala pulls a pair of his glasses from her bag.

“Here, I forgot I brought these,” she says, putting them on for him. She smiles. “You look handsome in glasses.”

“Really? I’ve always thought they looked kind of douchy--”

Kala laughs and shuts him up with a kiss. “Read.”

He smiles quickly at her, then starts to read. She finds her place again and continues down the page. They’re quiet for a long time, absorbing information, listening to the soft electronic chirping of the many computers. A few hours pass. They change positions, Kala falls asleep for twenty minutes, Wolfgang smokes so many cigarettes his fingers start to twitch slightly, Amanita brings them tea and coffee and cookies, which they eat dozens of. By five o’ clock, Kala is upside down on the couch, legs balanced on the backrest, head falling off, hair grazing the floor, and Wolfgang is in a concentrated daze, surrounded by papers.

Suddenly, Nomi and Bug yell and get to their feet. Wolfgang looks up in time to see Bug smash a heavy hammer into one of the computer screens.

“Huh?” says Kala, disoriented, lifting her head off the floor. “What was that...”

“Shit. Shit!” Bug’s dancing around like his shoes are on fire. “Fuck!”

“What’s going on?” asks Wolfgang.

“Shit,” murmurs Nomi, stepping away from the computers. “Did they tag you?”

Bug shakes his head, breathing hard. “These people are good.”

“What happened?” asks Wolfgang.

But Bug and Nomi ignore him, in their own intense conversation. Kala glances around, still in her upside-down position, and then looks at Wolfgang.

“Did I miss something?”

He’s still looking at Nomi and Bug. He takes off his glasses and chews on one of the stems. Then he looks at Kala. “Babe, what are you doing?”

Kala looks at herself. “This is how I’m staying awake.” She presses herself up off the floor, groaning, and settles on the couch again, disheveled. “Oh, my back is going to pay for that...”

Wolfgang chuckles. Kala directs her gaze at Nomi and Bug.

“We’ve got it under control!” yells Bug.

Nomi sighs deeply and runs her hand through her hair. “This is going to be more difficult than I thought...you guys might as well go home, get some sleep. We can meet for breakfast tomorrow, Bug and I’ll keep working on this.”

Kala squints. “Did you just destroy one of your computers?”

“It’s for the greater good,” Bug says, wide-eyed.

Kala frowns, getting up and walking stiffly over to their desk. She surveys the damage, and then glances at Nomi.

“Nomi, I don’t want you to get hurt for us...”

Nomi bites her lip, and quietly confides, “If you read the same studies I did...then you know why I think it may not just be about you.”

Kala holds her gaze. “You read the studies?”

Nomi nods. “Neets and I both did, we were too curious. We have a few more to get through, but...we got the idea.”

“There’s nothing new in the ones I just read, it was mostly procedural,” says Kala. “But...but the first one...”

Nomi nods again. “I know. I can’t stop thinking about it.”

Kala looks down and runs a hand through her hair, exhausted. “I’ll talk to Dr. Kolovi as soon as possible.”

“Be careful,” Nomi says seriously.

Kala smiles tiredly. “I will. And Nomi? Thank you.”

“Of course,” says Nomi.

Kala stretches and looks over her shoulder at Wolfgang. “Honey, ready?”

He nods fervently and begins to pack up. Kala squeezes Nomi’s hands, pats Bug’s shoulder and then goes upstairs with Wolfgang. They glance at each other as they reach the landing, then Wolfgang looks at his watch.

“Mind stopping at my place?” he asks. “I need to let Felix know what’s going on.”

“Would you mind if I go home?” replies Kala. She attempts a smile. “I’ll wait up for you.”

He shakes his head. “Don’t, you need sleep.”

This time her smile is genuine. “You know I can’t sleep without you, anyway...”

He takes her hand. “I’ll try to be quick.”

She nods -- they say goodbye to Amanita -- and then they step outside into the snow.

Chapter Text

It’s dusk, and the streetlights have just come on. Nomi and Amanita live in the university district, and the low-slung brick townhomes look inviting and romantic in the light coating of snow. The weather reminds Kala of the first day she and Wolfgang walked around the city together, and despite her exhaustion, she almost invites him to take a detour to the park with her. It’s unclear to her why he feels so important tonight, unclear why her mind isn’t clouded by the studies, the worries, the threats. Her mind is dominated by him.

She glances at him as they start down the sidewalk. Lately, she’s noticed that she wants him more out of need than out of superficial desire or longing. She wants him because she needs to feel close, to be reassured of his presence. She knows she’s greedy. She knows she asks for too much, too often. But she can’t help but affirm and reaffirm that she has him. She’s not insecure. She knows he’s not leaving. But she is afraid, in the back of her mind, that he’ll be taken away from her. Maybe this fear is just an unintended consequence of being so in love, so quickly. But in moments like these, she worries it’s an omen.

He looks at her, noticing her unease in the slight crease on her brow, in her lips, which are pressed together tightly.

“Kala?” he asks.

“Make sure you come back tonight.”

“I’m going to...”

"I don’t want to be alone.”

“I know, I don’t either.”

“Okay,” she says, lacing their gloved fingers together and squeezing hard.

He watches her, unsure where her heart and her head are tonight; he can normally read her, but right now, she’s agitated, stormy, impatient. Her grip on him is desperate, almost possessive. He tries to comfort her by putting his arm around her waist, but he notices how stiff she is. Her eyes dart around the streets, suspicious of the many movements of the city, frightened when a leaf falls.

“Kala,” he murmurs as they approach her street. “I’ve taken care of myself for a long time, I’ll be okay.”

She looks at him, eyes wide and bright.

“I promise,” he goes on before she can speak.

She eventually nods, and they reach her apartment. They stop at the bottom of the stairs.

“Be quick, okay?” says Kala softly.

He’s barely nodded before she stretches to kiss him. It’s the kind of kiss he would expect in the middle of sex -- messy, wild with need -- and he instinctively crushes her against him and kisses her back. She moans into his mouth, nails biting into his arms, and then pulls away as quickly as she first kissed him and forces herself up the stairs. He stands in the snow for a moment, slightly dazed, but now he understands what’s playing out in her mind -- she’s torn between the urge to distance herself from him so she doesn’t end up in pieces if something happens, and the need to keep him impractically close so nothing happens in the first place.

He continues the walk to his apartment, brow knitted, sucking needily on yet another cigarette. Meanwhile, she evades Dani and Lito’s concerned questions and invents a headache so she can escape to her room. She moves from task to task like a hummingbird. She draws a bath, sets out a nightgown, lights several candles, makes her bed, puts on the string of lights above her desk, and soaks in the bath for as long as her racing heart will let her. She walks back into her room, toweling off her hair, and stops when she notices a glass of white wine on her bedside table.

It’s sitting on a note, accompanied by two chocolates.

This is proven to cure stress! It’s my mama’s favorite, she sent us a few bottles to celebrate Hernando’s return. We love you. Let us know if we can help. -- Lito

Kala smiles. She breathes out, and for the first time in a while, takes a genuine breath in. She repeats this several times and then picks the glass up. She takes a sip, moans happily, and sinks naked into bed. She holds the glass close, sipping out of it until it’s empty. After this, she feels calm enough to massage lotion into every inch of skin and put on her nightgown. She pulls the covers over herself, contentedly rubbing her feet together, and takes a journal off her nightstand.

Meanwhile, Wolfgang unlocks the door to his apartment. Felix is in the kitchen, stirring a pot of pasta, looking tired.

“You’ve been gone for days,” he remarks.

Wolfgang shakes his head.“Remind me to never write a dissertation.”

Felix laughs. “Yeah, how’s wifey doing?”

“She’s...” Wolfgang pauses. He uses up time by taking off his jacket and crossing the kitchen to the liquor cabinet. “There’s a lot going on.”

Felix glances up at him. “What do you mean?”

“Shit with Kolovi, Lila,” he mumbles, pouring a shot and taking it. “I wanted to make sure you were okay.”

Felix frowns. “Why wouldn’t I be?”

“That’s a stupid question,” says Wolfgang, pouring another shot.

“Tell me none of this is about Berlin, or--”

“No. I don’t think so.” He takes the shot. “I don’t know.”

“Fuck,” sighs Felix. “Is Kala okay?”

“For now,” says Wolfgang. “I can’t explain all of it tonight, just make sure you’re watching out for yourself, okay?”

Felix nods. “Do you need anything?”

“I don’t think there’s anything you can do,” admits Wolfgang. He glances at his watch. “I’m gonna go change, I have to go back to her place.” He pauses. “What do I say to her?”

“What do you mean?”

“She’s worried something’s going to happen to me.”

Felix shakes his head. “Lie. Tell her everything’s fine.”

“She won’t believe that,” says Wolfgang.

“Keep saying it until she does,” replies Felix.

Wolfgang hesitates in the doorway to the stares. “It’s what my father did, he never told mom any of the shit he was involved with...”

“He wasn't doing that to protect her, he was just a dishonest creep. This is different."

“I hate lying to her,” says Wolfgang.

“So you are worried, you think something is going to happen to you?" asks Felix. "Like Hell it will.”

Wolfgang smiles weakly. “What would I do without you, huh?”

“You’d be fucking dead,” says Felix flatly, adding, “if you tell the girl that’s in love with you that there’s a chance you’ll be, you know, viciously murdered by a deranged nympho...she’ll probably never let you leave the house again.”

“That hadn’t occurred to me.”

Felix rolls his eyes and pushes Wolfgang out of the kitchen. He walks upstairs, yawning, running a hand through his hair. He’s so tired he can feel it in his bones. He opens the door to his room, intending to grab the nearest pair of pajamas, but he stops because Lila is in his bed, her body popping out of black lace while she reads a magazine. Wolfgang blinks several times. He’s so exhausted that appropriate emotions like surprise, anger, and fear are dulled by a simple desire to see her leave.

She tilts her head around the magazine and uncrosses her legs. “Oh. I didn’t notice you come in...”

She gets to her feet and walks slowly towards him. Her breasts are barely covered, and she walks with a strut so that they bounce slightly with each step. Her smile is full of prideful venom, as usual, but tonight it has a touch of untrustworthy innocence.

“How did you get in here?” asks Wolfgang quietly.

She pouts. “Front door. How else?”

“You need to leave--”

But by this time she’s reached him, and she puts a hand on his chest.

“I wouldn’t be so quick to tell me that,” she says, even softer. “I’m here to make a deal.”

“I’m not interested,” he says.

“How do you know you’re not interested before I tell you what it is?”

He gestures at her. “I think I can guess.”

“Oh this?” asks Lila, pulling at her panties and letting them snap back so the band makes a sound. “No...this is just a game.”

“I’m not playing,” says Wolfgang.

She clicks her teeth. “What a good boy.” She tilts her face up and breathes out on his mouth. “I know you’re getting bored.”

He pushes her away.

“C’mon,” she whispers. “Make a little mistake. She’ll never find out.”

“I don’t want anything to do with you,” he tells her.

She pouts again. “Well...don’t think of it as me...think of it as these...” She squeezes her breasts. “And this.” And slips her hand in between her legs. “And this...” Her voice trails to a whisper, and she slides one hand up the inside of his leg.

He steps back and pushes her away again. She stumbles slightly and sits on the edge of his bed to recover herself.

“Pity,” she says, voice dripping with honey and fury. “For any other man, this would have been the simplest decision of his life.”

“It’s not that simple,” he says, holding his body tight and guarded.

“It is that simple,” she replies. “It’s just not easy.”

“The right choices usually aren’t,” he snaps.

Lila smiles coldly. “Where do you think this ends? Do you think you’re going to finish school, and get a job, and buy a house in Berlin and put a ring on that girl’s finger? Do you think you’ll ever be left alone?” She reaches for her dress nearby and pulls it over her head. “You knew what would become of you the moment you realized you were a Bogdanow.”

This strikes him as the truth because it’s what he’s always heard. She can tell she’s gotten through, and she gets up, slipping on her heels and pulling her coat off a nearby chair. She walks up to him again.

“For Kala's sake, I suggest you at least listen to what I have to say. You don’t want her to end up like your mother, do you?”

“What do you want?” he bites out.

“I have a little problem in Berlin,” she replies. “Sebastian Fuchs and Volker are both inconveniently alive. I want to shape the city into my own, and they’re the only ones left in my way. I would take care of them myself, but for now, the Germans aren’t willing to allow me back in the country." Lila gives him a thin smile and narrows her eyes. “You don’t face the same complication.”

“So I kill them and BPO leaves Kala and me alone?” he guesses.

“Exactly,” she replies.

“Why me? There’s a hundred recruits who’d do that for you.”

Lila shrugs. “I want someone old-fashioned.”

“How do I know you’ll keep your word?” he asks, hating himself for considering the idea at all.

“You don’t,” she says simply. “But I will. This is as much for me as you.”

“What do you mean?” he asks.

“I’m protecting myself,” she says, fastening her coat. “I would rather keep you both alive if it means I stay alive, too.” She lowers her voice. “I know you may not understand the value of your own life, but I know the value of mine.”

“Maybe I don’t think the value of my life is as simple as staying alive,” he replies.

“Fine,” says Lila. “Be a martyr. But why should Kala have to be?”

He doesn’t have an answer, and he wrinkles his brow. She glances over her shoulder as she walks out of his bedroom.

“Think about it. You have until tomorrow.”

Wolfgang forces himself to wait five minutes before going downstairs. He knows he’ll spill incriminating details to Felix unless he calms down first. But as soon as he feels in control of his breath again, he races down the stairs and into the kitchen. Based on Felix’s expression, he noticed nothing amiss.

“Grab some clothes, I want you to stay over at Kala’s,” says Wolfgang briskly, opening up the backpack he brought downstairs, shoving several guns from hidden places in the kitchen into it.

Felix stares. “What’s going on?”

“Hurry,” says Wolfgang in response.

“Wolfgang--”

“Just pack up, okay? I’ll explain later.”

Felix nods hesitantly, going upstairs. When he’s out of the room, Wolfgang pulls an empty cereal box off the top of the fridge and dumps his passport out of it. He looks at it for a long time, but when he hears Felix on the stairs, he makes his decision and stuffs it in his backpack. Felix appears, wearing a jacket and holding a small rucksack.

“Why do I have the feeling I’m never going to see this place again?”

“Stop talking shit, everything’s fine--”

Felix gestures at Wolfgang’s overpacked bag. “Yes, clearly.”

Wolfgang doesn’t respond. He takes his keys off the kitchen table and waves Felix towards the door. As they step out of it, he squeezes Felix’s shoulder. Felix glances at him, but he shakes his head. They walk in silence to Kala’s apartment in bone-chilling sleet. When they go inside, Dani glances up at them from her place on the couch. She frowns.

“Is it okay if Felix stays here tonight?” asks Wolfgang.

Dani looks them over. “Is everything okay?”

Wolfgang nods. “It’s fine, we just need a little time...”

Dani swallows, her grip tightening on her book. “Wolfgang, listen, I’m sure you didn’t, but I can’t help but ask...how did Kala get that bruise on her face?”

“Lila,” says Wolfgang shortly.

“Lila hit her?” asks Felix quietly.

“Yes,” says Wolfgang, adding to Dani, “How is she?”

“A little spooked,” admits Dani. “Lito gave her some wine, I think that helped...”

Wolfgang nods and looks at Felix. “Are you okay? I need to--”

“Go,” says Felix immediately, “and...” He trails off and shrugs. “Tell Kala I hope she’s okay.”

Wolfgang nods and goes upstairs, resisting the conversation he knows he has to have with Kala. He knocks on her door, and she calls out to come in. She’s in bed, reading a chemistry journal. Her hair is tousled and piled over one shoulder and she has her knees pulled up her chest. She’s glowing from taking a bath, and under the covers, he can guess she’s wearing something he’ll like. He can’t count how many times he’s found her like this now, how many times he’s pulled her reading out of her hands and given her something better to do with them; how many times she’s sunk into his arms, sticky with sweat from her bath, skin sweet and soft; how generous she always is on nights like this, how much she shows him she wants him. He would give anything for tonight to be like that.

She smiles at him, setting her reading aside and getting out of bed. She’s wearing a translucent pink nighty, and the neckline is so loose it drapes between her breasts and shows a hint of her belly button. She’s calmer than she was earlier, though based on what she chose to wear to bed, it’s clear she’s still determined to have him all night, to drown in the certainty that he’s alive and alone with her. She puts her arms around his neck and presses close to kiss him hello. He wishes he could compartmentalize better, that he could give into this; nothing would help him more than having slow sex with her right now, letting the conversation wait. But he can’t.

“I’m sorry,” she murmurs against his lips. “I know I’ve been acting odd. I’m not used to feeling so afraid...”

He squeezes her ass gently and pulls her closer, but leaves it at that.

“I have to talk to you,” he says apologetically.

She frowns, hands tightening on his arms. “Why?”

It would be easier not to tell her, easier to leave tomorrow while she’s still asleep. But he knows he’ll never trust himself again if he does that.

“Lila was waiting at my apartment...”

“What?” hisses Kala.

Wolfgang shakes his head to tell her not to react.

“Why?” Kala goes on, more softly.

“She wants a deal, I think she’s being honest,” he replies. “She promised to leave us both alone if I kill Fuchs and one of his rivals.”

Kala grips his arms even tighter. “I don’t understand.”

“No, I’m not sure I do either,” he says. “But if she’s telling the truth, all of this will go away.”

Kala starts to shake her head. “We can’t play her games.”

“We already are,” says Wolfgang.

“She’s lying,” insists Kala. “You can't do this.”

“I don’t think she’s lying,” Wolfgang replies.

Kala sniffles, still shaking her head. “You can’t do this, that isn’t your life anymore...”

“There’s no before and after, it’s just my life,” he says softly.

Kala watches him, eyes wet. “You’re considering this?”

He nods. She breathes out, dropping her hands so that they find his, twining their fingers together. She pulls him gently to her bed and extinguishes the lamp on her desk. Then she sits next to him, running her fingers lightly over his temples, down his jaw.

“You’re cold,” she whispers. “Was it raining?”

He nods, watching her. She slips his jacket off his shoulders and gets up to hang it on the coat rack. Then she reaches into his bag, gently sets the guns aside, and pulls out a thermal shirt and some boxers. She sets them on the bed, and then she pulls him to his feet and pushes him into the bathroom. With each second his fear weakens, and by the time he’s standing with her under the hot water of the shower, he’s unsure why he felt so afraid in the first place. She washes his hair and lathers soap over his arms and his back. He can’t help groaning a little, and after a moment he’s simply hugging her while the water pounds over them. She tucks her nose against his chest, smiling tiredly, letting her eyes slip shut.

“Do you remember how this felt the first night?” she murmurs.

He nods, kissing her hair, hugging her more tightly.

“I know you still feel that way,” she goes on, pulling her hands over his shoulder blades and looking up at him. “I know you know there is a before and an after.”

“I know,” he replies. “But this may be the only way to fix things.”

“What she asked you to do isn’t a solution,” says Kala desperately. “It will only escalate, she’ll ask for more and more until you don’t have anything to give her.”

He pauses, watching water collect on Kala’s nose, noticing her eyes shine fiercely in the light coming in from outside. He thumbs over her temples and tucks her sopping hair behind her ears.

“Kala, I left a lot of things unfinished in Berlin, I was scared and I left and I’ll never regret that because I met you, but I need to go back.”

“At least let me come with you,” she whispers after a moment.

He shakes his head. “You know I can’t.”

She puts her hands on either side of his face. “We can fight this here. Together.”

But he shakes his head again. “It’s more complicated than that.”

Kala finally nods, holding him close. The water has turned cool, and the city is quiet beyond the open window. She shivers.

“How long will you be gone?” she asks quietly, giving in.

“Just a few days,” he replies.

She nods again. Then she shuts off the water and they step out of the tub. They each dry off, and after a moment, Wolfgang pulls Kala slightly closer.

“Kala, I’m sorry,” he says.

She shakes her head. “Don’t be.”

“I won’t go if you don’t think I should,” he goes on.

She takes a deep breath, holding back tears. “I don’t want you to. But I think you have to.”

He nods. “I think so too.”

“At least say goodbye to me properly,” she says.

He nods again, understanding what she wants, and kisses her. They go into her room and get in bed together. She lays on her back, hair falling in wet spirals on her pillow, and he shifts onto his side so he can touch her. It’s slow at first. He kisses her neck and gently squeezes each of her breasts, rubs and pulls each of her nipples until they’re pink, until her breasts are peaked and sensitive. She turns towards him, pressing against him, giving him a chance to slide a hand over her ass, to pull her momentarily closer, to curl his fingers into her and put his hand deep between her legs to tease her clit. She moans with each brush of his fingers, feeling her breasts harden against his chest, feeling herself grow slick under his touch. She tips her face up, searching for a kiss, and he meets her lips gently. He moves his hand over her ass once more while he kisses her, then pulls her closer by the small of her back. Her body loosens against his, and she drinks in the sudden presence of his cock against her thigh. She smiles weakly against his lips, trying not to wonder how long it will be before she’s with him like this again. He can sense her fear, so he holds her closer for a moment before pushing her onto her back once more and coaxing her legs apart. She looks up at him, face rosy, eyes flooded with need.

“Tell me this isn’t the last time,” she mumbles, sliding her toes against his ankle, tilting her hips up so she can feel his length against her.

He meets her eyes. “It’s not.”

She nods, wrapping her arms around him, shutting her eyes. Lights dance on her eyelids when he puts his hand in between her legs again, fingers firmly swirling, occasionally pressing into her. Her breath begins to catch. It occurs to her how lost she’ll feel without this reassurance, without his touch to remind her of what she knows.

He moves his mouth to hers again and they kiss deeply. Kala urges him on top of her. Her shoulders hang loosely and she gasps quietly when he changes her angle so that her hips drop, so her body is wide and wet and generous. She presses against him as he presses into her, kissing her everywhere he can reach. He lets her set a pace, waiting for her to rock her hips up, which she does immediately and willingly, taking him in all at once.

She can’t remember where they started. She shuts her eyes tightly, wrapping her arms around him, falling deeper each time she feels the muscles of his back contract, each time he breathes out, needy and close. She opens her hips a little wider and gasps softly when he pushes her into the pillows. She expects him to fuck her more quickly, to grip her thighs and pull her closer, kiss her roughly and make her melt underneath him; but he’s gentle with her instead, and she crosses her legs lightly around him, sinking deeper into her bed, nearly in tears. He slows his pace, finding her mouth, smiling against it. The tension leaves her arms and legs, and she smiles back.

“I love you,” he mumbles.

“I love you,” she says, equally quiet.

“I love you,” he says again.

“I love you,” she replies, crying in earnest now.

She breathes in, tangling her hands in his hair as he presses deeper; he kisses her neck, her ear, her collarbone. She slides her hands down his back and over his ass, pulling him closer, overwhelmed by the movement of his hips under her hands as he fucks her. She tips her head back, her throat collecting sweat, and shuts her eyes hard. She gasps quickly, fingers tight on his shoulders.

“Are you going to come?” he asks, voice obscured against her neck.

She knows he’s asking genuinely, but the question makes her wild.

“Say that again...” she mumbles.

He raises his eyebrows, pulling her closer, feeling her legs tighten around his waist. He changes the phrase.

“Do you want me to make you come?”

She can barely breathe. “Yes.”

“Say it,” he says, copying her.

“I want you to make me come...”

“Say it again.”

“Make me come...”

He breathes out, a slight smile on his lips, and he kisses her again. He pushes her hands over her head, entwining their fingers, and she grins against his lips. He rolls his hips on hers, so deep inside of her that her stomach aches and her head falls back on the pillows. She moans loudly, voice pitched and desperate, and he increases his pace until she’s trembling and incoherent. She finally gasps, nails stinging his skin; he lets himself come when he notices her tighten around him, taking him deeper, her body suddenly hot and slippery and indistinguishable from his own.

It’s never taken her so long to come down. She pants against him, sweat beading on her collarbone and collecting in the indent of her tummy. He wipes each of her eyes, watching her, just as overwhelmed. He pulls her into his arms as soon as his muscles relax enough to do so, and she wraps the sheets around herself, touching her nose to his.

She can’t help but pray that he changes his mind, but she doubts he will. She breathes in his scent, fingers twitching needily against his skin, and tells herself that she has him for the moment, for the hour, at least until morning. So she begins to pray morning doesn’t come, and when she realizes the futility of this, she starts to sob openly. She doesn’t mean to, especially after having sex with him; she wanted that to be a simple goodbye, a memory to hold onto. But she can’t help herself, and he holds her closer, chest aching, hollowed out with guilt.

“Kala...”

She shakes her head, refusing any justification or apology. So he strokes her hair and nudges his nose against her forehead. She seems to calm down the closer he is, the more he touches her, and he eventually gets her to stop crying by rubbing her back, up and down, over and over, like a lullaby. She sniffles against his chest, her breathing finally even, and looks up at him.

“You’ll call me every day,” she murmurs.

He nods. “As much as you want me to.”

“And if it’s too dangerous, you’ll come home and we’ll run away if we have to.”

He nods again, and she nods in response. Then she puts her hand on each side of his face.

“I’m sorry,” she says softly. “I didn’t mean to start crying. I never expected this would turn into this.”

He shakes his head in agreement. 

She says in a small voice, “Don’t let go of me tonight.”

He wraps his arms more firmly around her. “I won’t.”

“Good,” she whispers, kissing him once more before closing her eyes.

Her exhaustion finally overtakes her, and she falls into a restful sleep. His sleep is more tenuous and he wakes up often, doubting his decision to go back to Berlin, even if it’s only for a few days. He’s just sat up in bed, one arm around Kala, the other reaching for his phone, when there’s a sharp knock on the door downstairs. He tenses, waiting, and then he hears someone yell.

“We know it’s late!” shouts Amanita. “But you two have to see this!”

Chapter Text

Kala sits up, blinking feebly, instinctively reaching for Wolfgang.

“What is that?” she asks.

“Amanita,” he replies, sounding confused.

“What?” whispers Kala. “At the door? What time is it?”

Wolfgang glances at his watch. “About three.”

Kala sighs, shutting her eyes for a moment, and finally forces herself out of bed. She reaches for a robe on the back of the door and ties it tightly around her waist. Then she starts to go downstairs. It occurs to Wolfgang that Amanita may not be alone, so he rushes to find a pair of pants and hurries after Kala. He gets to her just as she’s opening the front door, but nothing is amiss -- it’s just Amanita and Nomi, weighed down with backpacks.

“We know it’s late,” says Amanita apologetically. “But we have to show you something.” She notices Wolfgang. “Oh good, you’re here too.” Then she wrinkles her brow. “Do you live together now? That was fast. Okay, wake up Lito. The rest are on their way.”

“What do you mean?” asks Kala. “Who?”

“Um, Riley, Will, Capheus, Sun...” says Nomi, counting on her fingers.

“How do you know Sun?” asks Wolfgang.

“Well, we don’t until now,” says Nomi. “She’s your friend, right?”

He nods.

“Okay, great, that’s what we thought,” says Nomi, pushing into the entryway. She glances at Kala. “Do you have a lightbox?”

“For medical imaging?” asks Kala, frowning.

Nomi nods. “Long shot, I know--”

“No, I do,” says Kala, leading them towards the stairs.

“Of course you do,” murmurs Wolfgang. “Why not?”

They all go up the stairs and into Kala’s room -- Nomi and Amanita exchange a lighthearted glance when they notice the messy bed and the clothes on the floor -- and Kala opens up her closet. She pulls out a skeleton, several boxes of chemistry equipment, and finally a lightbox. Wolfgang glances at the skeleton.

“Is that a model?” he asks.

“Oh, Henry?” replies Kala, looking affectionately at the skeleton. “No, he’s real.”

“You named it?” asks Wolfgang.

Kala nods, not understanding his concern. “I’ve had him since undergrad.”

Wolfgang narrows his eyes. “I’ve been sleeping in the same room as a real human skeleton?”

“Yes,” says Kala simply, plugging in the lightbox.

He runs a hand through his hair and looks at Amanita for support.

“We’ve chosen some strange people to spend our lives with,” says Amanita, shrugging as they watch Nomi and Kala struggle with the unwieldy lightbox.

“I’ve lost a year off my life since meeting her,” admits Wolfgang.

Amanita laughs appreciatively. “Tell me about it.”

“There!” says Kala, as the lightbox turns on. “Okay, what did you have to show us?”

Nomi swings her backpack off her shoulder and starts to dig through it. After a moment, she hands Kala an MRI scan of a brain. Kala’s brow wrinkles in interest and she expertly attaches the scan onto the lightbox. She gasps softly.

“Oh my God, that’s just like the brains in the study...”

“Exactly,” says Nomi.

Wolfgang steps closer for a better look. “What’s wrong with it?”

“There’s no separation,” says Kala, pointing to the fused frontal cortex. “Where on earth did you find this?”

Amanita smiles distantly. “That’s the thing.”

“It’s mine,” explains Nomi.

Kala breathes out, shocked. “No wonder the hospital didn’t want to release you...”

“Your brain looks like the brains in the studies?” clarifies Wolfgang.

Nomi nods. “So I’d guess yours does too.”

“Mine?” asks Wolfgang.

Kala and Nomi meet eyes, both hesitating. Finally Kala murmurs, “Remember what we talked about earlier?”

“If they can figure it out, so can we,” adds Nomi. “Luckily we beat them to it.”

Wolfgang glances back at the lightbox, frowning, and then looks at Kala, “Do you really think this is possible?”

Kala hugs herself, biting her bottom lip. Then she nods. “I do.”

“So all the others you invited...” Wolfgang trails off.

Nomi nods. “I think there’s eight of us.”

“Isn’t that...” Wolfgang sighs and reaches for his cigarettes. “I don’t know, improbable?”

“Statistically?” asks Kala. “Not considering we all come from different places. It might be surprising if we were all born here, but that isn’t the case.”

He’s about to respond, but he notices Felix in the doorway.

“Uh, not to interrupt your spooky club,” says Felix, “but there’s like five people downstairs.”

Wolfgang swears quietly and lights his cigarette. “I’ll take care of it...”

He goes downstairs with Felix, and Nomi, Kala and Amanita glance at each other.

“You let him smoke in your room?” asks Amanita, wrinkling her nose.

“Oh, it’s hopeless,” says Kala, smiling sadly. “I don’t like to take things away from him that are comforting, he...he has a lot of bad days.”

Amanita nods, and quickly confides, “I think he’s working on that.”

Kala looks up, eyes wide and unsure. “I just wish he wouldn’t worry so much.”

Wolfgang reappears, followed by Felix, Will, Riley, Sun, Capheus and Lito.

“What’s going on?” Sun asks cautiously.

“Ask them,” says Wolfgang, gesturing at Nomi, Kala, and Amanita.

Nomi looks around at the group, takes a breath, and says, “Okay, this is going to seem completely crazy to all of you, but Kala and Wolfgang and I got a little too involved in a project at the University this semester and found out some scary shit we’d all prefer not to have found about, but now that we know, we all have to protect ourselves...”

She hesitates, looking at Kala for guidance, and Kala clears her throat.

“It appears the University thinks there is something wrong with all of us,” she says, “what exactly that is, we’re not entirely sure, and it’s too complicated to explain fully right now...but we think it’s quite likely the university will target each of us individually.”

“Have any of you been invited to participate in a study?” adds Nomi.

Sun is the first one to respond. She frowns, pulling out her phone. “Yes, a while ago, I declined because I didn’t have time...”

“May I see?” asks Nomi, and Sun hands over her phone. Nomi holds it up to the room. “Has anyone gotten emails like this?”

“We have,” murmurs Riley, looking at Will. “Remember?”

He nods slowly. “A few months ago, yeah.”

Then Hernando speaks up. “Lito did, I remember. We thought it was spam...”

Lito nods in agreement, suddenly remembering. “That’s right.”

“Capheus?” asks Nomi.

Capheus hums, unsure, and pulls out his phone. “Oh, look at that. Yes.”

“What kind of study was this?” asks Riley, looking more concerned and more convinced than the rest. “Was this the study you mentioned this morning?”

Kala nods. “Yes, it’s...”

“No one who participated in it before is still alive,” says Wolfgang.

“Oh,” says Riley. “Well, good thing none of us responded.”

“It’s not that simple,” says Nomi kindly. “That was only their first line of attack. I think their new plan is to isolate one of us and reach the rest through that person...”

Kala smiles humorlessly. “Me, most likely.”

“Or me,” says Wolfgang, adding, “I know one of the women involved in this.”

“Told you she was a creep,” says Felix unhelpfully.

Will frowns at Wolfgang. “By know , please tell me you don’t mean you dated her.”

“Well, he didn’t date her,” says Felix.

Will nods. “Called it.”

Wolfgang holds up his hands. “Shut up, both of you.” He glances at Nomi. “Go on.”

“We all have something in common,” says Nomi. “We were all born on August 8th, weren’t we?”

She looks around the room, checking with their expressions.

“Really?” murmurs Sun, glancing around.

Will looks at Wolfgang. “You never mentioned that to me.”

“Birthdays aren’t important,” he says with a shrug.

“Well, not usually,” says Nomi slowly. “In this case, they’re very important. I don’t expect any of this to make sense, but we believe all of us in this room...not you Felix...but the rest of us...we think we have a particular kind of connection. We think we all...share a mind, so to speak. It hasn’t become apparent yet, but it will. And when it does, the government will find us.”

Sun looks at Wolfgang. “Do you believe this?”

He nods reluctantly. “As far as I can tell, yeah, it makes sense.”

“You know this is, like, totally insane, right?” says Will, looking around for support. “So we all have the same birthday, that’s weird. But this is a different level.”

But Riley looks at him, and murmurs so no one else can hear, “Will, this sounds like what happened with you and Sarah.”

Will holds her gaze for a long time and finally nods.

Lito sits down on Kala’s bed and looks at her. “This is about Kolovi, yes?”

Kala nods. “It is.”

He wrinkles his brow. “A connection, what kind of connection?”

“It’s...complex,” says Kala softly.

“It’s like telepathy,” adds Nomi.

Lito laughs warmly. “You know I would love a window into all your lovely brains, but...”

Nomi smiles. “I know. I know it sounds crazy. And maybe we’ll live the rest of our lives and none of this will bear out...but we want to make sure nothing happens to any of you."

Wolfgang looks at her suddenly. “I think I can convince them to leave us alone.”

“How?” asks Nomi, frowning.

“I have a deal with Lila,” he explains. “If I was able to get her to agree to leave Kala and me alone, I’ll be able to do the same for all of you.”

Amanita stiffens. “How did you convince her of that?”

Wolfgang shrugs. “We speak the same language.”

Amanita frowns. “German?”

“No, they’re both criminals,” says Nomi shortly, adding to Wolfgang, “Do you think she’ll hold up her end?”

“Not sure,” he admits. “But she has a stake in all of this which makes it more likely.”

“Loose ends in Berlin?” guesses Nomi.

Wolfgang nods. “She wants to go back but it’s too dangerous for her. I told her I’d fix that.”

“That’s not a solution,” says Amanita. Her tone is soft, but there’s power and certainty behind it, and everyone looks at her. “Even if she’s being honest, even if you fix this for all of you, what does that do for everyone else like you?”

“What does it matter?” asks Wolfgang.

She shakes her head. “It matters because none of you would ever be truly safe. It’s a temporary fix.”

“We’re not going to take on an international organization like BPO,” says Wolfgang flatly.

“Why not?” asks Nomi. “I agree with Amanita.”

“So do I,” says Kala softly. “And she’s right. Why not?”

“What are you planning on?” asks Wolfgang. “BPO has support all over the world, the government is in on it--”

“We take them down from within,” Nomi interrupts. “It’s not impossible.”

“We’re just eight people,” says Wolfgang, unconvinced.

“No,” says Kala softly. “We’re a brilliant computer scientist, a skilled police officer, a clever and kindhearted DJ, a community leader, an excellent fighter, a marvelous actor, an experienced chemist and a man who needs to stop underestimating how much he’s worth.” She meets Wolfgang’s eyes. “Because he is worth so much.”

He hesitates, moved by her words, and finally nods. She nods too, smiling softly. The rest of the room is quiet, giving them space.

“This might be crazy,” says Will after a while. “But I’ll do what I can.”

“Me too,” says Riley immediately.

“Of course,” agrees Lito.

“Yes,” says Capheus.

“I’m in,” says Sun.

Kala looks around at them all with a gentle, determined smile. Nomi grins, and Amanita murmurs fuck yeah!

“What do I tell Lila?” Wolfgang asks Nomi.

“Nothing,” she says. “Your deal buys us some time, so as long as she’s not asking for too much, you should run with it.”

Wolfgang shakes his head slightly. “She’s not.”

“Are you sure about this?” whispers Kala.

Nomi nods reluctantly. “I am. We can have eyes on him all the time, okay?”

Kala nods. “Okay.”

“What did you get yourself into now?” asks Felix, who’s been uncharacteristically quiet.

“Told her I’d kill Fuchs and Volker,” says Wolfgang in German.

Felix nods. “Oh, perfect, you’re going to get yourself killed.”

“Probably,” agrees Wolfgang.

“At least you’ll have me to watch your back,” says Felix, and Wolfgang doesn’t dare argue.

“Like old times,” replies Wolfgang.

Felix grins. “Fuck yeah, like old times.”

Kala looks between them, deeply unsure but helpless to change their minds, and says, “When are you leaving?”

“Tomorrow,” says Wolfgang.

“Need a plane ticket?” asks Amanita. “We can make that happen.”

“Nah,” says Felix. “I’ve got it.”

Kala squints.

“Didn’t Wolfie tell you I’m a secret millionaire?”

“How could I forget,” says Kala, unable to keep in a laugh.

“Oh, I’m not kidding,” says Felix, unembarrassed. “He didn’t want to keep the money, said it was bad luck. But I’m not so superstitious.”

Kala’s brow twitches in surprise, but she’ll address the fact that Wolfgang didn’t mention this to her on another day, when she’s not so close to saying goodbye to him.

“So,” Nomi says pointedly. “First order of business is talking to Kolovi.” She looks at Kala. “Tomorrow morning?”

Kala nods sleepily.

“Okay,” says Nomi, glancing around. “Sorry for interrupting your sleep. Coffee on me tomorrow.”

The five of them disperse, still looking slightly confused. Wolfgang excuses himself and catches Sun before she reaches the front door.

“Make sure nothing happens to Kala,” he says softly.

Sun meets his eyes. “Are you expecting something to?”

“I don’t know,” he says. “But I won’t be able to live with myself if I’m not here to protect her, and...”

“You know, she’s more capable than she looks.”

“I know,” Wolfgang says honestly. “But she’s not like us.”

“Maybe not,” agrees Sun. “But you worry too much.”

“Sun, c’mon--”

“I’ll protect her with my life, satisfied?”

“Yeah,” says Wolfgang.

Sun snorts, smiles, and pats his shoulder. “Get some sleep.” She heads for the door, adding over her shoulder, “Oh, and Wolfgang? I think it’s you that needs protecting.”

“Maybe,” he admits. “Good night.”

“Night,” she replies, disappearing down the front steps.

Wolfgang turns around, intending on going back upstairs, but Felix catches him in the entryway.

“You sure about this, Wolfie?” he asks.

“When am I ever sure about these things, Felix?”

Felix shrugs in agreement. “True.” Then he glances up the stairs to check that they’re alone. “I don’t want you to be wrong this time.”

“I know, me neither.”

“You actually have something to lose, now.”

“I know.”

Felix hesitates. “Maybe you should just run away with her, forget about fixing anything...”

Wolfgang looks down and shakes his head. “I’m tired of running.”

“Yeah,” agrees Felix softly. “You’re also tired of fighting.”

Wolfgang nods hard. “I know.”

“I’ve never seen you want someone this much,” Felix goes on. “I know you want a whole life with her.”

“That’s why I’m doing this,” says Wolfgang tersely.

“Just...sleep on it, okay?” says Felix. “Running away isn’t always a bad decision.”

“It’s more than just her now,” says Wolfgang. “And Amanita’s right, they’ll never leave us alone, there’s nowhere we could run to.”

Felix nods slowly. Then he chuckles. “Leave it to you to get involved in a dangerous international conspiracy two seconds after getting out of a dangerous international crime syndicate.”

Wolfgang grins. “It’s just who I am.”

“Well, you’ll have great stories for your kids,” says Felix.

“Yeah, if I get the chance to have any,” Wolfgang replies.

“As if there aren’t several little Wolfgangs running around Berlin with single mothers...” says Felix wistfully.

Wolfgang shoves him on his way up the stairs. “Goodnight, Felix.”

“If only they made condoms for other bad decisions!” shouts Felix. “We wouldn’t be in this mess if they made condoms for glocks and cocks!”

Kala, Nomi, and Amanita all look directly at Wolfgang when he reenters Kala’s room again. He turns slightly pink and looks down.

Kala grins. “When can I meet your illegitimate children?

Wolfgang covers his face and laughs. “Fucking Felix...”

Kala laughs too and pulls him gently towards her bed. “You should get some sleep.” She glances at Nomi and Amanita. “We’ll see you tomorrow, right?”

Nomi nods and squeezes Kala’s arm. “Definitely.”

“We love you,” adds Amanita as they leave.

“You know he was kidding, right?” Wolfgang murmurs to Kala.

She smiles playfully. “I wouldn’t be shocked.”

“Oh my God,” he says. “Kala.”

“You are the man who had so much female attention that you forget you met Lila...”

Wolfgang folds his arms. “Are you seriously slut-shaming me right now?”

Kala giggles helplessly. “Just a little.” She pushes him into bed. “Enough, we need sleep.”

“I promise I don’t have any children,” he tells her earnestly as she turns out the lights.

“Not yet,” she yawns, snuggling against him.

“What does that mean?” he asks, rubbing her back and settling into her.

She yawns again. “It means you aren’t allowed to die in Berlin.”

“I wasn’t planning on it,” he jokes.

She smiles and tucks her nose against his chest. “Don’t you dare.”

He kisses her hair. “I won’t.”

Chapter Text

Finding a flight to Berlin with so little notice proves to be nearly impossible, but Felix eventually finds two seats on a redeye from O’Hare that evening. Kala sits apart from him and Wolfgang at the kitchen table, sipping her coffee quietly, straining to understand German. She catches a few words she recognizes now and then, but she misses most of the important information. So, explaining she merely wants to track the flight, she asks for the flight number.

She isn’t sure when she made her mind up. It was during some lonely moment in the endless pre-dawn when Wolfgang was asleep and she wasn’t. She isn’t sure how she found the courage. She isn’t sure she’s ready for how he’ll react when he finds out.

But somehow, despite these fears, she opened up her phone and texted Nomi. Can you get me on a flight to Berlin? Nomi promised she would.

Now, this morning, equipped with the flight number, she texts Nomi again. The timing is not ideal with her parents planning a trip to Chicago next week, but she’ll solve that problem later. For now, she’s working through what she’ll tell Wolfgang. She doesn’t trust him to keep himself safe, and while she’s aware how intelligent he is, she worries that it’s a very narrow, destructive kind of intelligence. She makes him better. He makes her better. It’s pointless and dangerous for either of them to be alone right now. She just hopes she’ll be able to explain this.

“We can’t find a flight until tonight,” Wolfgang tells her, reaching for the pot of coffee in the center of the table.

“What time?” she asks.

“Eight,” he replies, refilling his cup.

She nods, calculating. A late flight gives her time to visit Kolovi.

“We should go pack,” says Felix.

“You go, just grab some stuff for me,” says Wolfgang.

Felix makes an exasperated sound, but he pats Wolfgang’s shoulder as he leaves. Wolfgang meets Kala’s eyes, but her phone buzzes before he can speak. She looks at it, expecting it to be Nomi, but it’s a number she doesn’t recognize.

“Who is it?” asks Wolfgang.

She shakes her head. “I don’t know.”

It continues to buzz. She looks at Wolfgang, who hesitates before finally nodding, so she lifts the phone to her ear.

“Hello?”

The voice on the other end is shaky, but she recognizes it. “Ms. Dandekar?”

“Dr. Kolovi?” she murmurs.

“Yes. I would have written, but I wanted this to be a private conversation. Can you meet me today?”

“Where?” she asks.

“Unfortunately, I am housebound for the moment. I haven’t completely recovered. Do you have paper to write down my address?”

“I, uh...”

“There’s nothing improper,” Kolovi assures her. “I’m simply an ill old man.”

Kala meets Wolfgang’s eyes for guidance. He shakes his head slightly, unsure.

“Uh, yes, here...” Kala pulls a magazine towards her and digs a pen out of a nearby catch-all drawer. “Okay, yes, go on...” She writes out the address. “What time?” He tells her noon, and she agrees. “Yes, see you then."

“Kolovi,” says Wolfgang softly when she hangs up.

She nods. “I don’t understand. I was going to ask for a meeting, I didn’t expect him to...”

“Could he have known you were going to?”

“We only talked about that in private.” She hums in thought and sets her phone aside. “I was going to meet with him anyway...”

But Wolfgang shakes his head. “Something else is going on. He wouldn’t ask you to meet at his home.”

“He is ill,” argues Kala.

Wolfgang leans back, looking at her suddenly. “Why do you trust him?”

Kala pauses, startled, then quietly admits, "I don't.”

He nods and takes a drink of coffee.

“Can Nomi have eyes on you?” he asks.

Kala nods, picking up her phone. She texts Nomi the plan, and Nomi agrees to supply her with a wire, as well as research Kolovi’s floorplan so she knows how to make a quick exit. It’s strange to Kala how natural all of this is becoming.

She and Wolfgang bundle up to make the walk to Nomi’s, where they’ll stop before she goes to Kolovi’s. She takes a moment to text Nomi before they get there.

Kala, 11:10 a.m. -- Wolfgang doesn’t know I’m going to Berlin too.

Nomi, 11:11 a.m. -- I figured. Your secret is safe with me :)

She pockets her phone, glances at Wolfgang, and reaches for his hand. He smiles at her and gently tangles their fingers together, and she experiences a nauseating wave of guilt. She tells herself, for what must be the hundredth time, that she can’t risk telling him the truth until it’s too late for him to stop her. This time, she knows she has to put logic first.

They get to Nomi and Amanita’s house and quickly go into the basement, where they find Bug and Will.

Wolfgang squints. “What--”

“--am I doing here?” Will interrupts. “Protecting your ass, getting myself into trouble, the usual.” He holds up a small recording device. “Police grade, and yes, this is my first year on the job, and yes, I’d get fired and probably arrested if this came out.”

Nomi grins. “Police grade. Nice.”

“Shit,” agrees Bug, examining the device.

“So,” says Nomi, glancing at Kala. “Which do you prefer...tummy or back?”

“Hm?” asks Kala. “I don’t understand.”

“We can put it here,” explains Nomi, tapping Kala’s ribcage, “or here,” she says, touching her back lightly. “We have to be sure it stays hidden and picks up everything.”

“Uh, tummy,” says Kala unsurely. They all look at her. She blushes in realization and looks down at her heavy, layered clothing. “Oh, um...could I have some privacy?”

Will nods in agreement and heads out of the basement. All eyes turn to Bug, who jumps up and follows him.

“Okay,” murmurs Nomi, fiddling with the device. “These itch a little...”

“That’s okay,” says Kala, pulling off her sweater.

Nomi pushes her glasses up on her nose, then applies some glue to the back of the device. She gently presses it under the band of Kala’s bra -- Kala fidgets slightly and jumps at the chill -- and then she screws a small wire into the underside of it.

“There,” says Nomi softly. “Should be more discrete than the earbuds like before...”

“You don’t think he’ll check?” asks Wolfgang.

“Do I think an ailing old professor is going to ask Kala to take her shirt off?”

“No, but Lila would,” says Wolfgang.

“If she’s there, leave,” Nomi says seriously. “We’re only prepared for Kolovi today.”

Kala nods, putting on her sweater again, and checks the time. “Oh, I need to go. Um...”

“Will’s got you covered,” says Nomi. “He’ll listen from the street and send the signal back to us. That way, you’ve got some backup if things go wrong.”

Kala nods again and then looks at Wolfgang. “Coming?”

He checks with Nomi, who nods. “Bug and I are on it here. Go. But stay in the car, okay?”

Wolfgang nods in agreement and follows Kala back upstairs and outside, where a cop car awaits them. They get in the back, both frowning at the bars they’re behind, and then look up at Will, who’s driving, and Diego in the passenger seat.

“Hey, Chicago Men’s soccer represent,” Diego says with a laugh. “How are you, man?”

“Could be better,” says Wolfgang.

Diego nods. “Yeah, you look like shit.” Then he looks at Will. “This ain’t official business, is it?”

Will shakes his head.

"Damn it, Gorski,” sighs Diego. He glances at Kala. “Tell Daniela she hasn’t returned my calls.”

Kala frowns. “Did you two break up?”

“Well, break up is a pretty strong word,” says Diego.

“That’s a yes,” says Will.

Wolfgang laughs. “Felix’ll be thrilled.”

“Felix?” asks Diego as they pull away from the curb. “Oh, you’ve gotta be kidding, that’s my competition?”

“C’mon D, a little competition is healthy,” says Will. “Okay, where to?”

Kala gives him the address and he turns northward. The weather slows their progress on the roads, but Kala doesn’t mind the extra time.

“This is cozy,” she murmurs to Wolfgang, glancing around the back of the cop car.

He presses closer to her, resting his hand on her thigh. “Yeah, not bad.”

She laughs, snuggling her head on his arm. After a moment, she perches her chin on his shoulder and glances at him worriedly.

“What do you think he wants to talk to me about?”

Wolfgang shakes his head. “Don’t know. There’s usually one reason a guy invites a girl to his place and that doesn’t apply here.”

“Mm, you don’t think that applies?” she jokes. “Maybe he’s in love with me.”

“Should I be worried?” he asks.

She nods, playing along. “I do have a thing for sick possibly sociopathic old men.”

“Yeah, that’s hot,” he agrees, laughing.

Kala hums softly and tucks her face against his neck. “I thought you would argue with me.”

“About talking to him?” he asks.

She nods.

He shrugs. “I trust you.”

She swallows back another wave of guilt. She has to do something with her apologetic energy, so she smiles and kisses him softly.

“Hey,” barks Diego. “We’re not a limo service, no making out.”

Wolfgang flips him off in the rearview and takes a moment to kiss Kala properly. Diego rolls his eyes. When they break apart, Kala nudges Wolfgang with her nose.

“You really trust me?” she murmurs.

He nods, frowning slightly, and she nods too.

“Okay,” she goes on, kissing him once more.

He recognizes now that something is wrong -- that is, that she’s hiding something -- but it’s not the time or place to address it. They pull up to Kolovi’s building a moment later. It’s in an old part of town, all brick and vines. There’s an ancient Volkswagen in the street in front of his mailbox.

Kala takes a deep breath. “Okay.”

“We’ll be parked on the next street,” says Will. “We’ll be there if anything goes wrong, okay?”

Kala nods, pulling on her gloves.

“What could go wrong?” asks Diego, frowning. “Who’s she meeting?”

“Some doctor who performs biological experiments on innocent students,” says Will cheerfully.

“What the fuck?” asks Diego, glancing at Kala. “Is she secretly Catwoman or something? Why’s she going in there alone?”

“She has backup, it’s fine,” says Will. He looks at Kala. “You good?”

She nods and gets out of the car, patting the window affectionately to say goodbye to Wolfgang. They watch her slender form disappear up the steps and see her knock on the door.

Diego looks at Wolfgang. “You’re cool with this?”

“It’s not up to me,” he says, shrugging.

“Yeah, cool, no big deal, let your skinny-ass girlfriend with no self-defense skills go in there alone. Great idea.”

“She’s more capable than she looks,” says Wolfgang.

They pull away from the curb just in time because Kolovi has just opened the door and looked out at the street. He smiles warmly at Kala.

“I’m so glad you were able to come,” he tells her, opening the door wider.

She manages a smile.

“Your stutter is better,” she says unthinkingly, and then blushes. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to--”

But he shakes his head. “It is getting better. It’s worse when I’m around Ms. Facchini.” He shrugs and smiles tiredly. “As you might expect.”

He leads her into his kitchen, which is nicely outfitted and very warm. There’s a pot of tea on the center of his kitchen table, and he invites her to sit down here.

“I can tell you’re nervous,” he says quietly as he sits across from her. “There’s no need. I understand how stressful these last few weeks have been -- and I deeply regret Ms. Facchini’s behavior towards you yesterday. As you know, she is rather volatile.”

“Yes, that’s one word for it,” agrees Kala cautiously.

Kolovi chuckles. “Yes.” He gestures at the tea. “Would you like some?”

Kala nods, and he pours her a mug, then tops off his own.

“I hope you like peppermint,” he says. “I think peppermint is delightful.”

Kala wrinkles her brow. If he isn’t the sweet old man he says he is, then he’s the best liar she’s ever met in her life.

“Thank you, I do like peppermint,” she says, reminded of the slow, bland conversations she used to have with her grandmothers.

Kolovi folds his hands one over the other. “I imagine you’re curious why I would invite you here.”

Kala stiffens, her mug halfway between her mouth and the table. She nods.

“You’re a clever woman,” begins Kolovi. “I can’t imagine you’ve accepted everything about my studies without reservations.”

“Ah, no,” agrees Kala.

“I also can’t imagine you failed to recognize the bigger picture.”

Kala breathes out. Then she says gently, “Professor, could we avoid speaking in code?”

Kolovi laughs and nods. “Yes, Ms. Dandekar, I think we could do that. Let me rephrase. I’m sure by now you’ve become aware that we picked you for a specific reason, and it was not because of your academic prowess.”

“You’re referring to the homo sensorium aspect of this,” replies Kala.

Kolovi nods. “Yes.”

He pauses for a long time and Kala can hear her pulse in her ears. She shifts her feet uncomfortably under the table.

“I’m sure it was easy to paint me as the villain,” Kolovi finally says, “and I’ll be the first to admit I have done things of which I...am not proud.” He pauses again, drinking his tea. “However -- and it is up to you, of course, whether you believe me -- I never intended anything of this scope. You’re a scientist, you understand how difficult it is to receive grant money and BPO...BPO was a dream come true. I didn’t fully understand the implications, though I do now.” He sighs. “Yes, I do now. I’m afraid I’ve put men and women like you in grave danger.”

He stops once more, and she realizes that he’s shaking. She’s unsure if this is a lingering symptom of his injuries, or if it’s simple fear.

“I am not supposed to be telling you any of this, of course,” he goes on. “But I worry my days with the organization are over. I may have outlived my usefulness, but...Ms. Facchini may have as well. I believe the organization recognizes that you may prove useful, in a more enduring way than you might expect. Of course, initially, the organization planned to do with you what we regretfully did to so many others. But...you are worth more than the eight names they would have coerced out of you. Eight less sensates, a worthy goal for one faction in BPO. A new face of the organization, however, is what the other faction wants. We are divided right now, and I like to think of myself as on the side of justice, though it’s true, I may not have always been.”

Kala grips her mug tighter, and replies very softly, “How dare you excuse yourself? There were hundreds of students, hundreds of lives--”

Kolovi holds up his hands. “Forgive me, but I have not excused myself. I sincerely doubt anything good waits for me in the life after this. But while I am still alive, I wish to make amends as much as I can. And to do that, I need you.”

Kala begins to shake her head. “I appreciate that, but I want less and less to do with this the more I learn. You have to understand.”

“Oh, I do,” says Kolovi earnestly. “I sympathize entirely. However, if you wish to keep your friends alive, I would consider my offer. The alternative, I’m afraid, will be rather distressing for you all. And before you tell me about Ms. Facchini’s little deal, that was simple greed, and she has no intention of holding up her end.”

Kala looks down, suddenly tense with anger, clenching her teeth. She breathes in slowly through her nose.

“It may not seem fair,” says Kolovi. “I know that. But the alternative would have been inevitable without me interceding. BPO has been watching you all for months and well, let’s just say your relationship with Mr. Bogdanow virtually assured us we were correct. Without me, you would have remained blissfully unaware of all of this until one day, when you would be made aware in a distinctly unpleasant way...” Kolovi sits back. “I’ve seen the procedures many times. Let me assure you, you cannot imagine the pain you would experience, and before you tell me that doesn’t scare you, I would like to remind you that we also have access to your friends, and to Mr. Bogdanow, who you care a great deal for, don’t you?”

Kala slowly lifts her eyes to meet Kolovi’s. She shakes her head slightly.

“This isn’t a choice at all,” she murmurs.

“Everything is a choice,” he replies. “In this case, it’s just clear which choice is correct.”

Back in the police car, Diego is looking slackjawed at Will and Wolfgang, who are both stiff and silent, the conversation echoing relentlessly in their minds.

“What does he want from her?” mumbles Will.

Wolfgang shakes his head bleakly. “Nothing good.” He sits up straighter. “There’s no way out, is there?”

Will hesitates, then meets his eyes. “There’s always a way out. We’ll find it.”

“I don’t think so,” says Wolfgang quietly. “She has to give him what he asks for.”

Will breathes out harshly. “What if she can’t?”

Wolfgang doesn’t have an answer. They quiet down as the conversation resumes.

Kala has taken a moment to finish her tea. “What would you have me do?”  

Kolovi shrugs. “It’s simple, really. I believe I can manage to displace Ms. Facchini. You would take her place and you would...ah...nudge things in a more humane direction. You persuade people differently than she does. You make people want what you want. She merely forces hands and makes threats. I think you would be more effective.” Then Kolovi chuckles. “Besides, you have experience in taking her place, don’t you?”

Kala sets her cup down hard. “Please don’t insult me.”

Kolovi shrugs. “I apologize. I thought you might find it funny. After all, he picked you, not her.”

“He was never choosing between us,” Kala says coldly. “He wanted me.”

“That may be true,” says Kolovi, adding, “be careful how often you show your care for him, though. You’ll be much easier to manipulate if you show that weakness.”

“Love isn’t a weakness,” she retorts.

“Oh dear,” says Kolovi. “How different you are from Ms. Facchini. This is why you should agree. You must realize this gives you the opportunity to change the organization, to protect not only yourself, and who you love, but everyone like you.”

“And you must realize that I have good reason not to trust what you’ve told me.”

He shrugs. “True. But as I’ve tried to explain, this is your only option. And let me remind you that I was not obliged to tell you any of this, but chose to, at my own risk. I wouldn’t have done that only to lie to you.”

Kala doesn’t respond. Kolovi pours more tea for himself.

“You’ve read the studies, my dear,” he says with a tone of finality. “You know what awaits you, and your boyfriend, and your friends, if you don’t agree to this.”

“Yes, I understand,” she says quietly.

He nods. “Excellent. I’ll expect to see you soon.”

She gets to her feet and tightens her jacket. “Thank you for the tea.”

“Yes, of course,” says Kolovi, adding as she walks away, “Oh, and Kala? Despite Ms. Facchini’s deal being a simple favor meant to benefit only herself...I insist Mr. Bogdanow keep his word. You don’t want to provoke her at this critical moment.”

“He never gave his word,” says Kala.

“He gave her his word the moment he considered it in the first place,” says Kolovi, voice full of humor, adding, “It’s really too bad he cares so much for you, or he could have given her what she actually wanted, which was...much simpler.”

“Goodbye Professor,” she says sharply, turning away and hurrying out of the house.

By the time she’s reached the street, the car has pulled up. She gets in quickly, reaching under her shirt and ripping the wire off her body.

“Are you okay?” Wolfgang asks gently.

“Please just drive,” she replies.

“Where to?” asks Will.

“I want to go home,” she says.

“Roger that,” says Will.

They drive away from Kolovi’s charming townhouse, all silent until Wolfgang clears his throat.

“This could be good,” he says very quietly.

“I didn’t ask for this,” says Kala, just as quiet, voice tight with emotion.

“I know,” says Wolfgang. “But if he’s telling the truth, you could fix things.”

Kala wipes her eyes, shaking her head, expressing she can’t talk about it. Wolfgang nods and puts an arm tightly around her.

“So...” Diego murmurs. “We’re not going to talk about, you know, reporting this guy?”

“We’ll all end up dead if we do that,” Wolfgang says confidently.

“How do you know that?” asks Diego.

“Because the police already know,” says Will before Wolfgang can answer. “The Feds are all over this. You know how it goes. Organizations like that are always in bed with the government."

Diego shakes his head. “What the fuck is an organization like that for?”

“What did their website say?” responds Will.

“A multinational research group studying the human genome in the search for positive and consequential mutations,” Kala recites emotionlessly.

“That,” agrees Will.

“Shit, man,” says Diego. “Why can’t the world just be what it seems like?”

“Politics,” says Wolfgang.

“Human nature,” adds Will.

“A malevolent God?” suggests Kala.

Wolfgang snorts. “All three.”

Diego looks around at them. “Wow. You three are a bunch of roses today, aren’t you?”

They ride the rest of the way to Kala’s apartment in silence. Wolfgang stays behind, insisting he has to go pack and that they’ll talk more later, so Kala kisses him goodbye at the curb. He assures her he’ll come over before he leaves and she nods, and then she rushes inside to pack. Meeting with Kolovi has, if anything, strengthened her resolve not to leave Wolfgang alone.

She flies around the house, picking up essentials and obsessively checking her watch. It’s two, and she expects Wolfgang, despite his propensity to ignore suggestions such as showing up early, to be at the airport by six at the latest, which means she only has a couple of hours before she can expect him here. She’s just put a final pair of socks in her suitcase and stuffed it into her closet when she sees his car pull up outside. She notices him and Felix both get out and her heart sinks slightly. If Felix came with, it means Wolfgang is only coming in for a moment. Perhaps that’s for the best. She’s not sure she could keep up the dishonesty if he insisted on a long goodbye.

She jogs down the stairs to meet him in the kitchen. Dani and Lito, who are splitting a piece of cake at the kitchen table, graciously leave. Kala hangs back cautiously, looking Wolfgang over. He’s dressed more sharply than usual in a black sweater and a blazer -- she wonders if he thinks he’ll fare better in customs looking like this -- and under other circumstances, she would want a chance to kiss his breath away and tease him. But the moment feels solemn and oddly formal, and she has to will herself to even step up to him.

She says what she imagines she would say if she was being honest.

“Are you sure you have to do this?”

He nods, looking down. She nods in response and takes both of his hands.

“You promised you would call me every day, remember?”

He smiles slightly and nods again. “I will.”

“Okay,” she whispers. She takes a breath and presses closer. “Kiss me like you won’t have the chance again.”

He glances at her, startled how direct these words are. Then he takes her face in his hands and kisses her like she asked him too, and despite the circumstances, she melts against him and tightens her grip on his shoulders. The kiss is short, almost as if he can’t bear to give into the feeling, and she feels adrift and empty when he releases her.

“Please be careful,” she murmurs.

He nods, kisses her once more because he can’t help himself, and then he’s gone. She watches his car pull away, chest aching, and then she runs upstairs to retrieve her suitcase. The taxi she called pulls up only a moment later, and she kisses Dani and Lito goodbye without any explanation beyond “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I love you!”

She goes out the door without any further words, and they stare in shocked silence as her taxi rumbles down the snowy road and out of sight.

Chapter Text

Kala has never experienced such a lonely flight. Lost in the black nothing, miles above earth, she can barely draw a deep enough breath to supply herself with air. She feels like the only woman alive in the world, and worse, like a rotten liar who should have given Wolfgang a chance to understand. She should have tried harder to break through his overprotective shell. She should have insisted. Instead, she’s facing finding him in a city of nearly four million people, a city where she doesn’t speak the language or know the streets. But the thought of finding him is far scarier. She prays for a simple, honest argument, but she doubts that’s what she’ll get. Most likely, he’ll turn inward and refuse to speak to her, and she’s not sure she can endure that.

She leans her head back, pulling her knees up so they don’t hit the seat in front of her. She tried reading. She tried music. But her heart kept pulling her away from distractions, forcing her to confront what she did. The most she can muster is looking out the window at the empty air above the Atlantic.

She asks for some coffee as one of the stewardesses comes by, and then presses closer to the tiny window. She tries to close her eyes. She can tell she’s in the process of developing a fiery, long-lasting migraine, which is bad timing. She’s already popped several tylenol, but this headache has teeth. It doesn’t seem to be letting up.

***

“Fuck,” murmurs Wolfgang, rubbing his forehead.

“What’s up?” asks Felix, who’s half-asleep with his head on Wolfgang’s shoulder.

“Headache,” says Wolfgang.

“Mm,” says Felix. “Want some medicine?”

“You have medicine?” asks Wolfgang in disbelief.

Felix grumbles, sits up, and reaches into his bag. He pulls out a small container, complete with a label. Wolfgang stares at him, so Felix grabs his hand, turns it over, and pours a few pills into it.

“Since when do you carry medicine?”

“I also have chapstick, earplugs, and a jacket,” says Felix.

Wolfgang throws the pills back.

“Why’d you have a headache?” asks Felix.

Wolfgang shrugs. “Stressed out.”

“You never get headaches,” says Felix.

Wolfgang frowns and glances out the small window. “Yeah...”

***

Kala groans and rubs her head. She tries burying her face in her lap. She tries water. She eventually orders a glass of wine. She walks up and down the aisle several times. Nothing seems to be working to get rid of her headache, and finally, she gives into distraction. She pays for one of her favorite childhood movies, asks for a blanket, and curls up in her seat. She realizes with a start that she hasn’t heard her own language in too long. The lyrical flow of Hindi soothes the pain slightly, and after another glass of wine, she feels decidedly better. Whether this is from the nostalgic song and dance or the alcohol is up for debate, but either way, she’s more confident by the time the pilot announces the initial descent.

***

Wolfgang is quiet as he and Felix walk through the airport. When they left Berlin six months ago, Wolfgang could barely force himself to get on the plane. Felix remembers the moment clearly, because it’s one of the few times he saw his friend in genuine anguish -- true, he was quiet about it; he didn’t complain; he didn’t mention his hesitation. But Felix could tell that Wolfgang was leaving Berlin the way someone might leave behind a cherished dog. Now, back in the city, he’s just as quiet and just as anguished. Felix glances at him.

“It’s going to be okay,” he says.

“I hate not feeling free here,” Wolfgang says shortly.

Felix nods. Then Wolfgang’s eye twitches and he shakes his head.

“What?” asks Felix.

“What’s that music?”

Felix takes a while to answer. “What music?”

“Don’t you hear that?” asks Wolfgang, patting down his jacket until he finds his phone, wondering if his headphones are blaring. They’re not. He looks around the airport. “What is that?”

“I -- I don’t hear anything,” says Felix, perplexed.

“It sounds like what Kala listens to,” mutters Wolfgang, checking his phone again.

“Oh, the awful Bollywood shit?” asks Felix.

Wolfgang glances at him, a warning in his eyes. Felix ignores him. Wolfgang goes back to checking for a source of music.

“What the fuck...” he murmurs finally.

“You need some sleep,” says Felix.

Wolfgang hesitates, but finally agrees, “Yeah.”

***

Kala gathers her things as the plane breaks through the clouds and kisses the Berlin skyline. Then she presses her nose to the glass. Berlin. She feels profound affection towards the city and can’t hold back a smile. No, she’s never been here, but somehow it feels like home. She’s suddenly overwhelmed with curiosity. The plane touches down, and she can’t help but feel as if she’s discovered a hidden part of her past. It’s as if she lived here in another life.

The pilot announces the arrival. Kala is distracted, tying on her scarf and shouldering her bag, and she fails to notice that she understands the announcement perfectly, despite it being in German. She puts in her headphones, tapping the playlist she plays when she needs courage -- all songs from home, songs she used to dance to.

She’s just adjusted her shoes, freshened her lipstick and stepped out into the aisle to deboard when she stops still. A woman is standing at the front of the plane. Her dress flaps around her thin legs, despite the still air of the plane. Sallow yellow hair frames her face, dripping slightly, wet from something. She stares at Kala, and Kala stares back, sure this woman is not real, and somehow, sure that she must be. Fear rises up her legs and down her arms like a shot of liquor, and she holds back the bizarre desire to run towards this woman and embrace her like a mother. She stands still until a man behind her barks at her to keep walking. By the time she’s taken a step, the woman is gone.

Kala looks around, bewildered, desperate to catch another glimpse. But she’s disappeared as quickly as she came.

***

Wolfgang yawns, then takes a long, needy gulp of the coffee Felix got for him.

“When’s the train?” he asks.

“Few minutes,” says Felix. Then he chuckles and pulls out a ring of keys. “Can you believe I kept these?”

“Probably be a bunch of vagrants living at the shop...”

“I don’t think so,” says Felix. “I bet it looks just like we left it.”

Wolfgang smiles distantly and nudges Felix’s knee. “Good to be back.”

“I was worried you didn’t want to be here,” admits Felix.

“Yeah, I don’t,” says Wolfgang lightly, “but it’s still good. It’s our city.”

“Fucking bizarre,” murmurs Felix, glancing around the train platform.

“What is?” asks Wolfgang.

“How the city can just carry on without us,” says Felix. “Kind of disrespectful, actually.”

Wolfgang laughs for the first time since leaving Chicago. Felix chuckles too, then reaches for the coffee.

“Why didn’t you get two?” asks Wolfgang.

“I didn’t think I wanted any,” says Felix.

Wolfgang passes him the coffee. “This is why people think we’re dating.”

Felix shrugs. “Eh, let them have the wrong impression. You’re way out of my league.”

Wolfgang snorts and gets to his feet. “I need food. Wait here.”

He walks in the direction of several small food stands, buys two Bauernwurst and two pints of beer and starts back towards the platform. However, as he crests the stairs, he stops. At the top of them, blocking his way, is a woman about twenty years older than him. She is silhouetted by the light on the platform, so he can’t make out her features; the glow of the lights surrounds her like a peculiar halo. Wolfgang waits for her to move, but somehow, he knows she isn’t going to until she’s satisfied that her point has been made. What her point is he’s not sure, but he knows she’s communicating to him and him alone. He glances around, seeing that the other commuters have taken no notice of her. They’re walking up the stairs as if they don’t see her, and Wolfgang takes a frantic step backwards when she disappears as suddenly as a soap bubble popping. He blinks several times, wishing fervently he could blame this on uppers or vodka, but he’s unfortunately cold sober.

He breathes out, then forces himself up the stairs to the platform. He avoids stepping where she was standing, and plasters what he hopes is a natural expression on his face. 

Felix frowns as he arrives. “What happened?”

“What? Nothing. I’m tired.” He hands Felix his food. “Here, you’re welcome.”

“Public drinking,” sighs Felix with satisfaction.

“Actual sausage,” adds Wolfgang.

“Fuck America.”

Fuck America.”

They both laugh, tap their glasses together, and take a drink. Then Wolfgang shakes his head, looking at the grimy platform.

“Fuck, you still don’t hear it?” he asks softly.

“The music? Nah brother, I think you just miss her.”

Wolfgang nods slowly, tipping a gulp of beer back. “Yeah. I do.” Then he looks at Felix again. “I think she’s lying to me about something though.”

“Why do you say that?” asks Felix through a huge, animal-like bite of Bauernwurst

“She asked me if I trust her,” says Wolfgang, frowning. “Twice.”

“Yikes,” says Felix.

“I know,” agrees Wolfgang.

“Maybe it’s about something good,” says Felix halfheartedly.

“When is that ever good?”

Felix shrugs in agreement and they eat in silence for a moment. Then Wolfgang, after finishing his beer, glances once more at his friend.

“She wouldn’t follow us here, would she?” he asks.

Felix thinks for a moment. Then he shakes his head. “No, she’d be crazy to do that...”

“Mm,” replies Wolfgang, noncommittal. “It’s what I would do.”

“She’s not you,” says Felix confidently.

“We’re more alike than I thought at first,” replies Wolfgang.

***

Kala’s flight is about an hour behind Wolfgang’s, and by the time she winds through an unfamiliar airport, it’s nearly evening. She thinks briefly about Dani and Lito, who are probably rising to have their first cups of coffee, talking quietly about where she disappeared to. Then she focuses on getting into the city. According to a travel guide she downloaded, a train is the easiest way, so she hurries to the platform, unwilling to linger as the sun goes down. She hauls her bag onto the seat next to her, and stares out the window as the train lurches forward. The sun casts long, lonely shadows on the landscape expanding around her, and she curls her fingers nervously into her dress and fiddles with her headphones. Then she rests her head on her hand, eyes fixed outside as the train speeds on. Then her phone buzzes several times, catching up after being in airplane mode. She sighs softly.

Wolfgang, 4:07 p.m.: Landed. How are you?

Nomi, 4:41 p.m.: Did you land? Attached a map of the address btw. Good luck xoxo

Dani, 5:01 p.m.: This is not funny. Where are you?

Dani, 5:01 p.m: Seriously. Lito mentioned shit’s going down with your psycho professor.

Dani, 5:01 p.m: If you’re dead in that guy’s basement I’ll kill you.

Dani, 5:05 p.m: Okay okay I’m sorry I’m being mean just please text me!!

Lito, 5:07 p.m.: You’re in Berlin, aren’t you? I won’t say anything if you don’t want me to, but please tell me. Hernando says he’s going to report you missing.

Wolfgang, 5:10 p.m.: You there?

Kala quickly texts Nomi, then shoves her phone into her bag. She folds her arms over her chest and turns up her music. Berlin emerges, dusky and glowing, after several more minutes, but Kala struggles to take in the beauty of the city. Now that she’s so close, she can only think of what her first words will be. She swallows the panic, steps off the train, and looks around. Then she notices a taxi, and without hesitation, gets in the back. She hands the driver a slip of paper she’s written the address on, then sits back. 

***

Wolfgang gently presses the door to the shop open, glancing around, his breath stopped up. He squeezes the doorframe, then takes a decisive step over the threshold. Felix slaps the lightswitch and breathes out heavily.

“Huh. Home sweet home.”

Wolfgang glances over at the corner of the shop. There are still fragments of glass. He walks slowly around the floor, touching everything, and finally pauses at the fridge.

“Think we left beer here?”

Felix grins. “Course we did.”

Wolfgang opens the fridge, and a moment later, tosses a bottle to Felix. Then he fishes in his pocket and lights a cigarette. He leans against a nearby table and takes a deep drag.

“We’ll be okay,” he tells Felix.

Felix smiles.  “Like you said. It’s our city.”

Wolfgang nods, passing the cigarettes to him. Then he gestures at the door.

“Lock up, though,” he says, throwing open the cabinet next to him and pulling out two glocks and several magazines.

He tosses one of the guns to Felix as he returns from locking the door.

“These still work?” asks Felix, examining the gun.

Wolfgang shrugs, slams a magazine into his gun, then aims at an armchair across the room.

“Wolfie, don’t--”

Crack. Felix sighs deeply.

“Yep, still works. Your turn.”

“Drama queen,” murmurs Felix. He gestures with the gun, then pockets it. “I’ll take my chances. Don’t want the neighbors to call the cops.”

Wolfgang nods, pocketing his own gun. He takes another drag off his cigarette, flicking the ash off lightly, then crosses the room to turn on the heat. The old coil heater grumbles and crackles as it starts up, filling the room with the smell of burning dust. He and Felix smoke in silence, waiting to warm up, and then take off their jackets, set their luggage upstairs where Felix’s room and a spare, unfurnished room are waiting, and head into the back of the shop where the kitchen is.

“Still hungry,” murmurs Wolfgang. “Have to learn how to feed myself again...”

He opens one of the cabinets and a mouse scuttles out of sight. He nods in total acceptance of this, shuts the cabinet, and reaches for his phone.

“Burgers,” Felix says as Wolfgang looks up.

Wolfgang chuckles and dials out for delivery. Twenty minutes later, he’s sitting in the front of the shop on a ragged old couch, fitting as many fries into his mouth as he can while Felix lies in front of the TV, fiddling with the dials and adjusting screws, a bottle of beer balanced in the crook of his elbow.

“This piece of shit,” mumbles Felix, sitting up to take a bite of burger. “Don’t have the heart to throw it out. We watched everything on this when we were kids.” He looks up suddenly. “Do you miss it?”

Wolfgang frowns. “What?”

“Being a kid.”

“No,” Wolfgang responds flatly.

“I do,” admits Felix. “Because we were dumb as shit back then, didn’t understand what was going on, didn’t have any responsibility for anything...” He frowns. “You really don’t ever feel like you, I don’t know, know too much?”

“I’d pick this over not knowing what was going to happen to me when I got home every night.”

Felix shrugs in agreement. “You know what I mean though.”

“Sure there’s an ideal, of course I’d pick that,” says Wolfgang. “But it doesn’t exist.”

Felix pauses, dragging a fry through some burger sauce. He eventually nods.

“At least you’ve got Kala,” he says softly.

“I still don’t understand how that happened,” replies Wolfgang.

Felix smiles distantly. “If you can get a girl like her to fall in love with you, maybe I still have a chance with Dani.”

Wolfgang grins and tips his beer back. “She broke up with Diego.”

Felix sits up straighter. “Really?”

Wolfgang nods. Felix hums in thought and flops back down under the TV.

“Felix,” says Wolfgang after a while.

“What’s up?” replies Felix.

Wolfgang gestures at the TV. “Lost cause.”

Felix nods sadly, then gets to his feet, grabs Wolfgang’s empty beer and goes into the kitchen.

“Another?” he calls.

“Yeah,” agrees Wolfgang.

Felix has just reached into the fridge when he notices a noise at the door behind him. He straightens up and glances around, and notices a slender figure just outside the shop. It’s small enough that it’s almost certainly a woman, and there’s something vaguely familiar about the frizzy halo of hair around her head, backlit by the street lights.

“Uh, Wolfie?” says Felix unsurely. “I think there’s someone outside.”

Wolfgang is on his feet, gun cradled against his chest, in a fraction of a second. He presses closer to Felix, motioning at him to be quiet, and they both back into an unseen corner of the kitchen.

“Why is she just standing there?” murmurs Wolfgang.

“Deja vu,” sighs Felix, adding, “it’s your turn to answer the door and get shot.”

Wolfgang pushes Felix behind him. “Hold on.” He cocks his gun, peering intently into the sliver of street that is still visible. He notices the woman come slowly up to the door, pause, and knock.

“Oh, fuck no,” says Felix. “Not doing this again. Fuck. Why is it always a woman?”

Wolfgang breathes out, thinking. Then he crosses the kitchen in two quick strides, and in one fluid movement, throws the door open, pulls the woman inside and nests the barrel of his gun to the side of her head. She meets his eyes furiously, terrified. He throws the gun on the floor, stunned, and takes a step back.

“What the fuck are you doing here? Fuck!”

Kala covers her face and simply sinks to the floor in the entryway, shaking.

Wolfgang stares at her, momentarily failing to comprehend what he’s looking at, and then, as if jolted, scrambles to kneel by her.

“I didn’t know that was you, are you okay? Fuck, I’m sorry. I thought--”

Kala just shakes her head, heart pounding against her ribcage.

“I’m sorry,” he repeats, more slowly. “I thought you were someone else.”

She nods hard, trying to regain her breath. He tucks her hair gently behind her ear and sits next to her, shaking his head softly.

“I’m sorry,” he says once more. “Did I hurt your arm?”

She shakes her head, just once, and looks down. Felix emerges from the back of the kitchen, wide-eyed. Then he wordlessly sets an old metal kettle on the stove, remembering Wolfgang mention Kala likes tea.

Kala finally looks up, fists tangled hard in her skirt. She glances at Wolfgang.

“That was very stupid of me,” she says quietly. “I should have realized.”

He shakes his head. “I should have recognized you.”

She shrugs. “It’s dark.”

“Are you sure I didn’t hurt you?”

She shrugs again. “No, no, it’s fine.”

Wolfgang knows how hard he grabbed her and is sure she’s lying, but he leaves it for the moment. He nods and cautiously reaches for her hand, and she lets him take it and manages a feeble, exhausted smile.

“I had a whole speech,” she murmurs.

“It can wait,” he replies.

She nods and squeezes his hand.

“Hungry?” he asks.

She shakes her head. “I could use a drink.”

“On it,” says Felix. “If it helps, Wolfie’s done that to me, too.”

Kala smiles again, more distantly, and then glances at Wolfgang.

“Are you upset with me?”

“Yes, but I understand.”

“You do?” asks Kala.

He shrugs. “It’s what I would have done.”

She nods. Then she takes a deep breath and gets to her feet. The adrenaline rush has made her somewhat unsteady, and she braces her hand on the wall. Wolfgang looks at her again, asking, and her expression softens. He pulls her into his arms and she nuzzles her nose thankfully against his chest, then all of sudden, twists her fingers in his shirt and clings to him like glue.

“I hate being away from you,” she says softly.

He nods into her hair. “Yeah.”

She breathes out, relaxing her grip, but he wraps his arms more tightly around her. She shuts her eyes hard and grits her teeth against a cold wave of fear. He wrinkles his brow at a new, undefined sensation. She feels strangely indistinguishable from him; before tonight, he only noticed this when they were sharing the same, strong emotion or experience.

Before he can think more about it, however, Felix touches his shoulder. He’s standing there with a plate of fries, half of a burger, and a mug of mint tea which he added a healthy splash of vodka to.

Wolfgang nudges Kala, who looks up and smiles warmly at Felix.

“Now there’s two of us to make sure he doesn’t do something reckless and insane,” says Felix brightly.

Kala cracks a tiny smile and takes the food. Felix gestures at the kitchen table.

“This is your apartment?” Kala asks him.

“My shop, yeah,” says Felix. “I sleep upstairs.”

“Oh, where did you live?” she asks Wolfgang.

“Pretty close by, spent more of my time here though.”

“Will I get to see your place?” asks Kala.

Wolfgang lights a cigarette and leans against the counter. “It’s not a vacation.”

Kala looks away and takes a hasty bite of food.

“Ignore him,” says Felix.

Wolfgang shakes his head angrily and taps the ash off his cigarette. Then he heads for the stairs.

“Gotta piss,” he mumbles, letting the door shut hard behind him.

Kala and Felix meet eyes.

“He’s worried about you,” Felix says with a small shrug. “Doesn’t know how to trust anyone but himself, always thinks other people need to be protected, assumes it’s his fault if something goes to hell...also he’s stubborn as shit, so, don’t expect him to change his mind about any of this.”

Kala nods, poking her fork around a few sliced pickles. She finally lifts her eyes up from her plate and surveys the shop. It’s lined with cabinets, cork boards painted white and dotted with tacks, keys, tools, and take-out menus; several posters of busty, dusky-eyed women; storage containers and filing cabinets; a wall of dusty fobs and keychains; an ancient sofa off to the side, and a TV that looks even older. The lockshop feels lived-in, despite being empty for months now, and Kala experience a brief, intense urge to stay here, to settle in. She knows, without understanding how she knows, that this is where Wolfgang feels the most comfortable.

“Felix?” she murmurs cautiously. “I didn’t come here because I don’t trust him. He knows that, right?”

“Why d’you come here then?”

Kala narrows her eyes, reconsidering. “I don’t entirely trust him.”

Felix laughs, getting himself another beer. “Yeah, you probably shouldn’t. I love him but he has the worst judgment of anybody I’ve ever met.”

“He rarely thinks things through,” adds Kala.

“Not a big planner, no,” agrees Felix.

Kala nods, leaning forward. “Exactly, whereas I am  over-prepared.” She sighs. “I kept picturing him bursting into some lavish Berlin apartment with nothing but a gun and far too much confidence.”

“Yeah, that sounds about right,” says Felix.

“I couldn’t let him do that,” explains Kala. “There’s a way to accomplish this without collateral damage. There must be.”

“If there is, you’ll find it,” Felix replies kindly.

She smiles. “Thank you.” Then she takes a sip of her tea and puckers her cheeks. “Oh.”

“I thought you could use something to...um...calm you down.”

Kala nods, and replies, “I still don’t understand how you two drink so much of this.”

“Ghosts of our past,” suggests Felix.

Kala laughs and takes another sip, puckering again.

“Want a beer instead?” asks Felix.

“Ah, no, no thanks,” says Kala. “I do need this to calm down.” Then she says, “He’s sulking, isn’t he?”

“Yeah, he’s locked himself in the bathroom and propped open the window and he’s in there smoking,” says Felix confidently. “It’s what he’d always do as a kid when he didn’t want me to see. He’d stay up there until I picked the lock and forced him to eat something.”

Kala watches Felix with soft, appraising eyes. “It’s hard for him to be back, isn’t it?”

Felix shrugs. “Yes and no. He misses it here, he wanted to come back here again, but...”

“What happened?” whispers Kala. “I thought with his cousin gone, with his uncle gone...”

“I think he got tired of the game,” says Felix. “He was set up to win big, and I mean everything -- the whole fucking city could have been his if he wanted it. I guess he never wanted it. Never wanted to make the kinds of choices his father had to make, was probably terrified he’d make them the same way his father did...he wanted out.”

Kala breathes out, thinking and sipping more tea. “He told me it was too dangerous to come back.”

“Yeah, too dangerous to come back if he wasn’t going to make a deal with Volker or Fuchs, and he wasn’t,” explains Felix.

Kala nods and then, deciding it will be easier to face him now rather than later, gets to her feet. She cradles her drink close to her for warmth.

“I’m going to talk to him,” she says. She squeezes Felix’s shoulder. “Thank you for the food.”

He nods, watching her leave. Then he calls, “Kala? Just let him talk. He’s scared.”

Kala turns and nods, smiling in thanks, and then opens the door Wolfgang disappeared through. She takes a slow, calming breath, tucking her mass of messy, travel-worn hair over her shoulder. She glances around as she mounts the stairs, and as she comes even on the second floor, notices one door that’s shut. She steps up to, hesitates, and then knocks gently.

“Wolfgang,” she murmurs. “It’s just me, I want to talk to you.”

No answer. She leans against the door, pressing her head to it in an expression of closeness and solidarity.

“We don’t have to talk,” she goes on after a moment. “Just let me in.”

No answer. She sighs, and after another moment, sits at the base of the door. She takes a long, warming drink of her tea.

“I know I lied to you,” she tries out. “I’m sorry.”

“I don’t want to talk to you right now,” he replies, voice muffled.

“Okay,” she says softly. “At least come out of the bathroom.”

“You’ll try to talk to me.”

“I’m trying to talk to you now.”

“Stop trying.”

Kala rubs her face. Then, taking a final swig of tea and discarding the mug next to the baseboard, she gets energetically to her feet and pounds on the door.

“Wolfgang, I want to talk to you! I know what I did was wrong, I know you’re hurt, but the worst thing we can do is--”

The door swings open. “You told me you agreed with this.”

“I know,” she says in a small voice, stung by his expression as well as by the wave of smoke.

He laughs humorlessly and discards what must be his third cigarette in the sink. “You -- you said goodbye -- you--”

“I know,” she repeats.

“How long?” he demands. “Were you planning this the whole time--”

She shakes her head and says quickly, “No, no. It was a spontaneous decision.”

“Because you thought I have some...unconscious suicidal tendency and was going to go into this without thinking? Because you thought I’d get back to Berlin and forget about you? Because you wanted to prove to me you’re just as capable as me--”

“Don’t put words in my mouth--”

“What the fuck were you thinking?”

“I’m trying to tell you!”

He shakes his head and lights another cigarette. He opens the door wider, and she steps inside the small bathroom. The air is thick with smoke and it’s freezing due to the open window. Wolfgang retreats to the window, folding his arms, eyes dark and accusing. Kala reluctantly shuts the door, also crossing her arms. She looks at him.

“It’s nothing you said,” she says slowly. “I just thought I could help.”

“You can’t help,” he replies flatly. “You don’t know what you’re doing.”

“Yes I do,” she retorts. “I just do things differently.”

“You wouldn’t make it past Volker’s gate without getting shot or worse.”

“Worse?”

He takes a sharp drag. “You’re Volker’s type.”

“I never said anything about going alone,” she replies patiently.

“I can’t protect you!” he says, struggling not to shout. “What would you have done if that hadn’t been me who held a gun to your head? You aren’t prepared for this, you don’t know what to do!”

“I know,” she admits, finding herself without an answer. “But don’t tell me I can’t help. I think of things you don’t think of.”

He breathes out and rubs the back of his head, frustrated. “I know.” He pauses. “Kala, I’m not going to be the one who explains to your parents and everyone else who loves you why you aren’t coming back. I won’t let that happen. I can’t let that happen. But I can’t protect you.”

She looks down, and for the first time, feels slightly silly. She doesn’t hate any feeling more.

“I couldn’t let you do this alone,” she murmurs.

“Why?” he says sharply. “I’ve been fine on my own before.”

Kala folds her arms tighter and shakes her head in disbelief at the dishonesty of this.

“I know you came here thinking you were protecting me, or keeping me from doing something stupid, but all you did was put us in more danger,” he says, flicking the ash off his cigarette. “You need to go home.”

She shakes her head. “It doesn’t feel like it without you.”

“You need to get out of here before you get killed, or you get me killed.”

She lifts her chin up. “I’m not leaving.”

He wrinkles his brow. “Huh, I thought you were smart.”

“Please don’t insult me,” she says quietly, looking away.

He looks away too, ashamed, but this doesn’t prevent him from adding, “You are smart. You knew this was stupid, and you did it anyway because you don’t trust me.”

“I do trust you!” she insists. “I trust you in every way but...”

He laughs, shaking his head. “Yeah. I get it.”

“Let me explain myself!”

“You already have--”

“No, I haven’t!”

“Kala! Just -- get out of here, please, okay?”

She looks down, grinding her back teeth, and then she bursts out, hair bouncing on her shoulder, hands flying up in emotion, “You never should have asked me to stay there! You knew how unfair that was!"

“Unfair?” he asks. “Unfair. Okay. You showing up here, without telling me...that’s not unfair?”

“I didn’t have a choice! You told me I couldn’t come with you! What was I supposed to do?”

“You were supposed to have this argument with me in Chicago!”

She breathes out heavily, playing with the fibers of her sweater, and finally meets his eyes again.

“I know,” she agrees. “But I thought you would stop me.”

He looks back at her and eventually nods. “Yeah, I would have tried to.” He suddenly remembers how fiercely she held onto him the night before he left, and he relents. “I'm sorry, I never know what to say to you when I think you could get hurt.”

She nods slowly. Then she holds out her hands and he takes them.

“Can I stay?” she asks, almost joking.

He smiles. “I can’t stop you.”

She sniffles and laughs.

Then he says, very quietly, almost shy, “If I’m being honest I’ve never been so glad to see someone.”

She smiles brightly and nods. “I missed you.”

“We’re pathetic,” he concedes.

She laughs weakly. She presses a bit closer and squeezes his hands. Then her brow folds in exhaustion. “Can we go to bed?”

“Well,” he says, “yeah, as soon as we drag Felix’s old mattress out of the closet and find sheets.”

Kala hangs her head. “Oh my.”

He laughs and squeezes her side. Then he shakes his head. “Fuck. I can’t quit you.”

She looks up, smiling warily, touching her nose to his. “That’s not a bad thing.”

He nods, looking down. Then he kisses her forehead, so carefully it almost feels like a promise.

“Sorry I yelled,” he murmurs.

“Sorry I lied,” she agrees.

She searches his eyes, then presses into a gentle kiss. He smiles against her lips and grips her close. Then she grins softly.

“Felix’s old mattress,” she says.

“Don’t think about it,” he replies, laughing.

She shakes her head. “I’ll try not to.”

“I can take your mind off that,” he says.

She meets his eyes. “Wolfgang Alexander.”

He shrugs. “Am I wrong?”

She shoves him and turns around, pulling him after her out of the bathroom. They go to a nearby linen closet and wheel out an old mattress. Kala takes care of finding pillow cases and sheets while Wolfgang sets up the mattress in the spare room.

It’s a small space, never repainted after initial construction, soft white. Some bricks are showing through. The only personal touch is a small string of lights and a stack of books in the corner.

Kala joins Wolfgang after a moment, sheets bundled in her arms. They meet eyes in a tender, conciliatory way, and Kala nudges him as she sets the sheets down. He helps her make the bed, and resists the urge to push her onto it when it’s done. She seems to sense what he wanted, and she shoots him a playful look. She curls her fingers in the air, asking him to come back downstairs with her. He follows, and she pours them each a drink. Felix watches them from the kitchen table.

“Done yelling?” he asks.

“Fuck off, Felix,” says Wolfgang.

Felix shakes his head, sipping a beer. Then he smiles softly. “I’m glad she’s here.”

Wolfgang glances at him. “Yeah. Me too.”

Kala laughs quietly and kisses his cheek. “C’mon,” she murmurs softly. “I want to sleep.”

He nods, patting Felix’s shoulder, and they both retreat upstairs with glasses in their hands. Wolfgang puts his arm around Kala’s waist as they walk and kisses the back of her head, closing his eyes.

“I am glad you’re here,” he mumbles.

She turns her face towards his. “I know I wouldn’t have slept well without you.”

He nods. “I can’t sleep without you anymore.”

They go into the spare room. Kala shuts the lights off and sets her drink on the windowsill. She excuses herself for a quick shower, and while she’s gone, Wolfgang remembers they left her luggage downstairs. He retrieves it and sets out her favorite pajamas, smiling to himself when he realizes he knows what her favorite pajamas are. She comes back after a few minutes, wrapped in a towel, and she smiles when she sees what he set out. She kneels over him briefly to kiss him, then dresses in front of him, slowly on purpose. He smiles when she presses into his arms as she gets into bed next to him.

“Wish it would never be morning,” he says sleepily.

She smiles too, nuzzling against his neck. Then she looks up, catching his eyes.

“We’ll find a place like this,” she murmurs.

“What do you mean?” he asks.

“A place we don’t have to be afraid,” she replies. “A place that’s ours.”

He nods softly. “We will.”

She nods too, and for a moment, any impending fear halts, retreats, dies.

“I like Berlin,” she adds.

He smiles. “Yeah.”

“Don’t give up on it,” she goes on.

He watches her for a moment. Then he nods, pulls her closer, and the settle into their usual position -- Kala half on Wolfgang, his arm around her waist, her face tucked gently against his neck.

“Night, babe,” he says softly.

She smiles sleepily. “Good night.”

Chapter Text

Kala wakes up to rapid pounding on the bedroom door. She jolts up, putting her hand through her hair, blinking blearily. It takes her a moment to remember she’s in Berlin.

“I know it’s early,” says Felix, still pounding. “I know you didn’t get much sleep but you’ve got to come out here. Something happened.”

Kala shakes Wolfgang, who turns over stubbornly like always. She sighs and gets to her feet. And then, rubbing her face and stifling a yawn, opens the door to Felix.

“What’s going on?” she asks.

He looks over her shoulder at Wolfgang, sighs sharply, and then says, “I just got off the phone with Dani.”

“Dani?” asks Kala.

Felix nods, hesitates once more, and looks at Wolfgang. “He needs to hear this too.”

“Wolfgang,” Kala calls. “Sweetheart, c’mon.”

He turns over, squinting at his watch, and then glances up at her. “It’s five in the morning.”

She looks at Felix in explanation. Wolfgang grumbles and gets out of bed, then goes to stand next to her in the doorway. Felix gestures halfheartedly with his phone and runs a hand through his messy hair.

“Okay, first of all, you can’t be angry with me,” he says.

Wolfgang breathes out. “Great.”

“Dani called me, she was crying, she didn’t know where Kala was...she said Lito kept mentioning something was going on and she got scared, so I told her. No details, just, you know, that Kala is here.”

“You don't consider that a detail?" asks Wolfgang with a bite of sarcasm.

“No, it’s okay,” whispers Kala. “They had to find out eventually, Nomi knows, Lito knows...it’s better if no one is unnecessarily worried.”

Felix nods unsurely. Then he takes a breath. “But then...she was watching the news while we were on the phone...”

Wolfgang squints and interrupts. “Do you two talk a lot?”

Kala puts her hand on Wolfgang’s shoulder and softly prompts Felix. “Then what?”

“Well,” says Felix, voice growing louder with nerves, “Kolovi is dead.”

Kala and Wolfgang exchange a glance, eyes flashing in fearful apprehension.

“Dead?” asks Kala softly.

“Dead, yeah, it was on the news,” says Felix. “Heart attack. Big emotional piece, guy was a famous doctor, a local legend.”

“I don’t understand,” says Wolfgang.

“It’s because of what he told me,” whispers Kala, putting her fingers lightly over her mouth. “Oh my God, he mentioned...he told me his time was limited...I didn’t know he meant...”

“Who’s his replacement?” asks Wolfgang sharply.

“Some old dude,” says Felix, scrolling back in his phone for texts. “Here.”

He holds his phone up for them to see. In between texts, there is a grainy picture of a television -- Kala recognizes it as the one in their den -- and on the screen, there’s an image of the dead-eyed old man they first encountered in the hallway of the science department the night Lila shot Kolovi. Kala grips Wolfgang’s arm.

“What’s his name?” asks Wolfgang.

Felix looks back at his phone. “Dr. Milton Bailey Brandt. Oxford alum, blah de blah. Looks like a stick in the mud, huh?”

Wolfgang asks for Felix’s phone back. He notices that Felix has saved the contact as Daniela ratherhan Dani, which he smiles slightly at but doesn’t comment on. He studies the picture more closely, as does Kala. Then she gasps quietly.

“Oxford.”

Wolfgang looks at her. “What about it?”

“It’s in London. He’s who the video feed went to.”

Wolfgang shakes his head slightly, not disagreeing, but cautious. “London’s a big city, it could be a coincidence.”

Kala bites her bottom lip. Then she murmurs, “We need information on this man and as much of it as possible. Nomi. We need Nomi.” She retreats into the bedroom, looking around for her phone, muttering theories and connections out loud before she loses them. “Nomi, Nomi...where’s my phone?” She swears softly in Hindi and sighs. Then she straightens up, intending to go downstairs to search there, but she stops and stands still. She clenches her fingers into her palm, staring. Nomi is in the doorway, looking around, fascinated, as if she’s in a butterfly pavilion. Then she sees Kala, and they lock eyes.

“What’s going on?” whispers Kala, more to herself than anyone. “What is happening?”

“You can see me?” says Nomi, adjusting her glasses.

Kala nods, then looks frantically at Wolfgang. Based on his expression, he hasn’t ascertained the fact that Nomi is in the room.

“How did you get here?”

“Kala, who are you talking to?”

“Great, she’s crazy like your mother.”

Wolfgang and Felix’s voices sound strangely distant to Kala. She can see only Nomi.

“I heard you say my name,” says Nomi softly. “I just...followed.”

“This must be what they mean,” breathes Kala, holding her hand to her heart. “Oh my God.”

Kala?”

Nomi gives into a cautious, curious smile. Then she crosses the room, looking around at her new surroundings, and finally reaches Kala. Kala holds her breath, and then, like a young child discovering her reflection, reaches her fingertips out. Nomi mirrors her, and they touch.

Kala jumps as though shocked. Her eyes fly into Nomi’s.

“What are you doing? Kala? Can you hear me?”

Kala, without breaking eye contact, murmurs softly to Wolfgang, “It’s Nomi.”

Wolfgang looks at Felix for support. Felix shrugs, shaking his head. Then Wolfgang, suddenly visited by yesterday’s experience of the woman in the staircase, looks more intently at Kala. Nomi? As soon as he thinks of her name - or perhaps simultaneously - she appears for him as well. His expression goes unchanged except for his eyes, which widen in fear.

“Can you see him too?” Kala asks Nomi.

Nomi nods, glancing over. “Can you see me?”

Wolfgang forces himself to nod. “What the fuck is going on?”

Nomi grins. “Took the words out of my mouth. What the fuck is going on?”

“How can we see you, you’re --”

“In Chicago, yeah,” says Nomi. “And you’re in Berlin.”

“This is what the studies were talking about,” murmurs Kala. “It’s the connection.”

Wolfgang looks at the two of them and rubs his hand over his mouth, overwhelmed. He remembers reading once that the world is upside-down, in reality, visually opposite of what is perceived as normal, and humans only see it the way they do because the human eye takes the image, flips it, and reassembles it. This moment is as if he’s suddenly lost the instinct and ability to perceive the world as he’s used to perceiving it, and is now forced to see the bare reality of it.

Felix touches his arm. “You okay?”

Wolfgang nods, unhearing, still fixed on Kala and Nomi. Then Nomi holds her hand out toward him, and instead of giving into the urge to run down the street until his lungs give out and his legs collapse, he takes it.

“Wolfie? Wolfie, what are you doing?”

“I...can feel you,” he murmurs.

Nomi nods. “Yeah. Bizarre, right?” She glances over her shoulder. “Pretty sure Amanita thinks I’m losing my mind right now.”

“Yeah,” agrees Wolfgang. “Felix too.”

Kala looks at both of them, brow wrinkled. After a moment of hesitation, she says, “Did you two see that woman yesterday?”

Nomi nods, and for the first time, appears afraid. “I thought it was a hallucination.”

Wolfgang nods too. Kala presses her lips together, thinking, troubled by something. Then, suddenly overwrought, Wolfgang lets go of Kala and Nomi and walks out of the room. He goes downstairs and finds his boots near the door, then sits down hard in the closest chair and begins to tie them up.

He reaches for a cigarette, but he stops. He’s suddenly drenched in sweat, out of breath, feeling cornered. Inexplicably, the one-two-three pattern of a foot colliding with a kickboxing bag rings in his ears. He lifts his eyes up from tying his boots, expecting to see the familiar kitchen, but it’s gone. He’s in the University gym instead, by the window where he and Sun like to take water breaks. And Sun is there too, but she doesn’t seem nearly as surprised as he is. She looks him up and down, pours a sloppy stream of water into her mouth, and goes back to attacking the bag.

“I’m sick of this,” she says, matching her words to each blow. “All day. I keep seeing all of you. I keep hearing all of you.” The bag thuds against the wall. “I don’t understand. I hate not understanding.”

Wolfgang nods. “Me too.”

Sun wipes her brow. “Is this what they meant?” she murmurs. “Nomi and Kala?”

He nods again. “Apparently.”

She shakes her head, sweat softly flying, and steadies the bag. Then she goes at it again.

“I wonder if this is easier for Kala,” Wolfgang says quietly. “She’s always believed in things that we haven’t.”

Sun pauses, flipping her hair out of her face. She nods. “I suppose so.” Then she says. “I wonder if we...connect...when we’re feeling the same things.”

He nods. “Pissed off?”

“Trapped?” she suggests in response.

He fixes his eyes on the floor, thinking. Then he looks up, shocked back to Berlin with a touch. Kala is next to him, searching his eyes.

“Who were you talking to?” she murmurs.

“Sun,” he says.

Kala’s eyebrows pop in interest, and then she looks back at Nomi. Felix is lingering in the door to the kitchen, eyes dancing furtively back and forth, betraying deep misgivings.

“We should see if we can get everyone here,” says Kala softly.

Nomi nods. “We need to know what we’re capable of.”

“No,” mumbles Wolfgang, avoiding their gazes.

“She’s right,” says Kala. “We won’t know without the others.”

Wolfgang breathes out heavily, fingers twitching in anxiety against the rough fiber of his shirt. Then, picking up a pack of cigarettes from the counter, he nods.

“Fine, how do we do that?”

Kala shakes her head. “I don’t know. I don’t even know that we can control this.”

“I think we can,” replies Nomi, glancing around. “But let’s coordinate...all of us, we need to focus on the others.”

Wolfgang sets his jaw and shakes his head, unwilling, relying on normality to flood back in like a sweet, warm breeze. Nomi squeezes Kala’s arm before she can speak to Wolfgang. She looks at Nomi, brow wrinkled, a slight pout on her lips.

“We’ll all work through this differently,” says Nomi.

Kala looks down and eventually nods. Then she whispers, “How do we...?”

“Do what you did before?” suggests Nomi. “Just...ask.”

Kala nods again. Nomi holds out her hands and Kala takes them. Then they both close their eyes, and after a moment, are surprised when Wolfgang puts a hand on each of their wrists.

“I don’t like this,” he says quietly.

“We know,” Nomi says gently.

Then, a new voice hits the air. “This is where you live?”

They break apart, looking in the direction of the voice. It’s Capheus, grinning, looking around the lock shop. As Capheus steps towards them, another figure springs up in his place, then another, until the eight of them are standing in a half-crescent in the small shop.

“Why do you need so many keys?” asks Riley, tinkling her fingers along a row of them.

“Checkered past,” explains Will, staying close to her, unsure of his surroundings.

“Don’t you have heat?” says Lito, hugging himself.

“I like it here,” Riley goes on, walking along the rows of keys, smiling her small, bright smile.

“So do I,” says Sun, unwrapping the boxing tape from her wrists as she surveys the shop.

Nomi huffs out a tiny, victorious laugh. Kala looks at her, hiding a smile, frustrated with herself for giving into excitement when she knows she should be alarmed.

“I’m going to make tea,” she says to them all, turning around and beginning to browse for a mug in the cupboards.

“Okay,” says Nomi, addressing everyone, “I understand how strange this is, but I don’t think we have time to wallow in that. I assume you all know by now that Kolovi is dead...a man named Milton Bailey Brandt takes over for him starting Monday. Now, I can’t be sure, but I suspect he is high up at BPO and much harder to manipulate. So... we need a plan.”

“Really?” murmurs Wolfgang. “You’re already thinking about a plan?”

Nomi smirks. “It’s what I do.”

“You could learn a thing or two from her,” says Will.

Wolfgang sighs harshly and finds a seat. The rest follow his lead. Riley sits on the counter, swinging her feet. Will leans next to her. Sun and Capheus both perch on the back of the couch, and Lito sits next to Wolfgang.

He leans forward and says in a conspiratory whisper, “I can’t believe she didn’t tell us she was going to Berlin. Do you know how worried we were?”

“She didn’t tell me either,” replies Wolfgang.

“What?” hisses Lito.

Wolfgang shrugs, not caring to explain his feelings on that, and Nomi holds her hands up.

“Okay, everyone comfy?”

“Wait,” says Kala, sitting next to Wolfgang and clinging to a large mug of tea. “Yes, ready.”

Nomi takes a breath. “I see this as two fronts,” she begins. “Chicago and Berlin. I’ll start with Chicago. Our first priority is investigating Dr. Brandt, which is problematic because he may recognize all of us. At the very least, he would recognize Kala.”

Kala nods. “Yes, and probably Wolfgang as well.”

“Right,” agrees Nomi, pressing on, “I think we should ask Daniela to talk to him.”

“No,” says Wolfgang incredulously, thinking of Felix.

“Why?” asks Nomi. “No one will suspect her. And she’s an excellent actress. It’s ideal.”

Wolfgang wrinkles his brow, angry. “This isn’t her fight, we can’t ask someone without a stake in this to get hurt--”

“She does have a stake,” Lito puts in softly. “She loves many of us here.”

After a moment, Capheus says, “I agree with Wolfgang. She has nothing to do with this.”

Riley hesitates, playing with a key she stole off the wall to soothe her hyperactive fingers.

“But Nomi’s right,” she murmurs. “Dani would do a wonderful job, and I doubt anyone would suspect her...”

“We need more information than what I can get by hacking,” adds Nomi. “We need to know who he is .”

“That’s subjective,” argues Wolfgang.

“Not if she records what he says,” says Sun.

“I still don’t think we should put her in that position,” says Capheus.

Kala clears her throat. “Shouldn’t she decide for herself? We’ll respect what she decides.”

Nomi nods. “I agree.”

Then Capheus lets out an unexpected laugh. He looks at Kala. “Mint?”

She wrinkles her brow. “The tea? Yes...”

“I can taste it,” he says, thrilled. “Man, this is incredible!”

Riley smiles widely at this, nudging Will. Even Sun relents, loosening the grip she’s been exerting on her balled-up wad of boxing tape.

“That’s decided,” says Nomi, adding, “of course, I’ll keep investigating BPO in the meantime. Will can help me with clearance issues.”

“Oh, sure, yeah,” says Will. “That’s not a serious violation of police conduct or anything.”

“Now, Berlin.” Nomi turns towards Wolfgang. “What are you planning?

He shrugs, straightening up. “Probably ambush Fuchs at his apartment, not sure about Volker.”

Nomi pauses respectfully before responding.

“Okay,” she says, starting to smirk, “instead of that, here’s what you’re going to do..."

Chapter Text

Wolfgang, Nomi, Will and Sun spend the early hours of the next day hidden away in the small kitchen, discussing details, fallbacks, and worst case scenarios.

“You’ll have to be convincing,” Nomi says as they conclude their conversation over large cups of coffee. “He has to get the genuine impression you’ve reconsidered.”

Wolfgang nods, sucking on a cigarette.

Meanwhile, upstairs, Kala turns back and forth in front of a mirror.

“Lito,” she says in a deep, worried voice. “I don’t like this.”

“You look stunning,” he reassures her.

She glances down at the tight-fitting black dress, which opens up around the shoulders and scoops low over her breasts, which are otherwise covered with a multi-strand silver necklace. She doesn’t mind wearing revealing clothes occasionally, especially if she’s only around friends, but she knows the intent is different this time, because now, she’s wearing something revealing specifically to distract and tease. She doesn’t like strange men’s eyes on her, and the idea that she’s supposed to encourage this behavior is distressing to her. She understands Nomi’s logic. You can’t go with Wolfgang looking like a good girl. They’ll know something’s up. She understands why the right image is important, but she wonders how convincing she’ll be if she’s noticeably uncomfortable, which right now, she is.

“I’m going to fall,” she says, gesturing at her heels.

Lito shakes his head kindly. “You have excellent balance.”

Kala eventually nods and follows him downstairs to meet with the others. Everyone glances up at the new arrivals. Nomi grins.

“Nailed it,” she says appreciatively to Lito.

Wolfgang puts his cigarette out dispassionately on the counter. “That’s effective.”

Kala looks down at herself again, automatically smoothing the fabric of the dress. “I look like Lila.”

Wolfgang shrugs. “Just on the outside.”

Kala sends him a soft, thankful smile. Still, she sighs and runs her hand through her hair.

“I may look the part, but I certainly don’t feel it,” she admits quietly.

“Here,” says Lito, squeezing her shoulders and guiding her towards Wolfgang. “Watch me.”

Wolfgang eyes him, but Lito pays no attention. He falls instantly into a convincing, flirtatious laugh, putting an arm around Wolfgang’s shoulders. “That is so funny! I’ve never heard of such a thing!” He puts his hand on Wolfgang’s heart. “Why, yes, I will have another drink! This champagne is excellent...is it French?”

Wolfgang shakes his head. “No, Fuchs needs to take her seriously.”

“Okay, okay,” says Lito. “More femme fatale, less ditzy, I’ve got it.”

He takes a breath, about to act out a new character, but Wolfgang interrupts.

“She’ll figure it out,” he says, checking his watch. “We should go.”

Lito looks back and forth between them, unsure. Then he touches Kala’s shoulder.

“Have fun with it,” he murmurs. “It’s one day of your life, you can be anyone you want.”

Kala replies with a half-smile, a hesitant nod, and has to look away hastily to hide panicked, embarrassed tears. Wolfgang glances at her but she shakes her head hard, so he doesn’t speak.

“I know this is strange,” says Nomi gently. “But I think it’s going to work.”

Kala nods again. Then she reaches for Wolfgang’s hand and presses close.

“Okay,” Nomi goes on. “Any last questions? Comments? Concerns?”

“Yes, several,” says Kala.

Nomi smiles, and for the first time that morning, so does Kala. She sniffles, and then stands straight, bolstering herself.

“Alright,” says Nomi. “Stick to the plan and nothing should go wrong. Of course, if something does, you can count on me for the emergency exits.”

Kala and Wolfgang nod, and then they’re alone in the kitchen. They glance at Felix, who’s been waiting. His eyes are sunken with exhaustion and confusion.

“I’m not going to get used to that,” he mutters.

Wolfgang smiles slightly. “Sorry.”

Felix shrugs. Then he yawns and sits up in his chair. “Time?

Wolfgang nods. Felix gets to his feet, looking at Kala, then catches Wolfgang’s eye.

“Weird,” he says in German. “She looks just like all the girls you used to fuck.”

Unfortunately for him, Kala understands these words, and though under other circumstances she might settle for a mild scowl, today her nerves are frayed. She spins, fingers curling in anger, and responds with a biting, sarcastic, “Entschuldigen du?*”

Felix’s eyes widen. He looks quickly at Wolfgang, who’s staring.

“Kala,” Wolfgang murmurs unsurely.

Kala wrinkles her brow, looking at them both. “Was?*”

Felix and Wolfgang exchange a glance.

Then Wolfgang pulls her closer so he can watch her expression.

“Verstehen Sie mich?*”

She nods,  “Warum fragst Du?*”

Wolfgang starts to laugh, stunned. “You’re speaking German.”

Kala’s eyes flash in curiosity and she reverts for a moment to English, “I am?”

He nods, stuck on her. “It’s kind of hot.”

She’s too fascinated to laugh. She grips his arms. “Aap mujhe kya samjhte ho?*”

He nods. “Haan...*”

“Oh my God,” murmurs Kala. “You’re speaking Hindi.”

They hold each other’s gaze for a moment, overwhelmed. Felix watches them, spooked. Finally, Kala breathes out, shaking her head.

“I had no idea this was part of it...” she whispers.

“Me neither,” agrees Wolfgang, adding, “it’s good, we won’t have to explain it to Fuchs. Do you think you can speak German the rest of the day?”

Kala nods. “Yes, I think so.”

He nods too, more slowly, more unwilling to accept this new development. Then Felix clears his throat.

“Hey, Kala, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean what that sounded like.”

She smiles at the floor. “No, I know. I’m a little tense.”

“No, don’t make excuses for me, that was a stupid thing to say,” says Felix.

So she smiles at him directly. “It’s okay.”

He smiles back. Then he adds, “So are we going?”

They both nod. Wolfgang conceals two guns deep in his jacket, and Felix does the same. Kala takes a moment to slow her breathing down, and then the three of them exchange a soft, determined glance.

“Crush your enemies,” murmurs Felix.

Wolfgang smiles to himself and squeezes Felix’s arm. Then he looks at Kala, and she turns towards him and presses a gentle, encouraging kiss to his mouth.

Twenty minutes later, they are crouched outside a posh apartment complex in central Berlin. Wolfgang, sandwiched between Felix and Kala, wonders if he should have stuck to his instincts. He looks back and forth between them, then hammers a new magazine into his gun with the palm of his hand and pockets it.

“I don’t like this,” he says.

Kala’s eyes flicker over the scene. “No, me neither.”

“Lighten up, it’s going to work,” says Felix.

“So we just...ring the doorbell?” queries Kala.

Wolfgang nods. The three of them straighten up alongside the apartment and then walk slowly towards the entrance. Wolfgang checks over his shoulders for lookouts, blue-grey eyes fiery with distrust and apprehension, but they reach the doors without trouble. He sighs, then punches his index finger against the buzzer labeled Fuchs.

“Good morning, how can I help you?” answers a cool voice.

“It’s Wolfgang Bogdanow, I want to talk to Fuchs,” says Wolfgang, and then he looks down, waiting for an answer.

There’s an unusually long pause. Then the voice says, “Yes, he’ll see you. Come right up.”

The doors open. Wolfgang and Felix have been here once before, but then as now, were too distracted by worry to take in their surroundings. They step into the elevators, all silent until the doors swoosh shut.

“Surprised he said yes,” says Wolfgang quietly.

Felix nods. “Yeah, thought he’d play hard to get.”

“He’s not like Volker though, right?” Kala checks. “He doesn’t dislike you?”

Wolfgang shakes his head. “No, not sure he trusts me though, and that can be harder to respond to than dislike...and Volker’s a simple guy, simple interests.”

“Not Fuchs?” guesses Kala.

“Not Fuchs,” agrees Wolfgang.

The elevator dings and they step out of it. The twenty-fourth floor is dazzling white marble, with a view at the end of the hall that expands to the top of the sky. Based on the placement of the door -- and the fact that there is only one -- Fuchs owns the whole floor. They walk up to it. Wolfgang extracts one of his guns, which he’ll pass off as a precaution if Fuchs doesn’t meet him in kind, and knocks. Fuchs opens the door, looking much as he used to, though his hair has grown.

“I had thought you left Berlin forever,” he says with a withdrawn smile. He looks at Felix, then at Kala. “One of you is new.”

“Kala,” says Kala softly, extending her hand.

He raises an eyebrow in interest and shakes it. “Call me Sebastian.”

He glances at Wolfgang, who smiles and hopes Kala will forgive him for his next words. “Needed some time off, a vacation, a girl.”

Fuchs laughs. “Understandable. Come in, but please, I don’t like guns.”

Wolfgang gestures with his gun apologetically. “I don’t expect you blame me.”

“After last year?” responds Fuchs. “No.”

Wolfgang pockets the gun and then the three of them follow Fuchs inside the apartment. As Kala expected, once inside, without a clear exit, her heart goes wild against her ribs. Her eyes seek Wolfgang’s, and he presses her hand reassuringly. She decides to focus on details of the apartment -- the art, all real, the leather couches that must have required several dozen cows to make, the TV the size of a dinner table. She’s seldom seen such wealth.

“What are you drinking?” asks Fuchs.

Wolfgang doesn’t answer. Instead, he says, “You’ve changed the place.”

Fuchs smiles and drops several small ice cubes into a glass. “Yes, a new fireplace.”

He turns around, towards his bar. It would be simple, effortless really, to shoot him neatly in the back and be done with it. Nomi and Kala argued for a more nuanced approach.

“Like the new rug?” he adds, glancing over his shoulder and gesturing with the ice tongs at a tiger fur in front of the couches.

“Subtle,” says Wolfgang, but Kala notices a burst of anger.

Fuchs laughs. Then he says, “I insist.” He looks at Felix. “I remember you have a fondness for scotch.”

Felix shrugs. “Sometimes.”

“Here,” says Fuchs, pouring something. “This is an excellent choice.” He hands the glass to Felix, then looks at Kala, “And you?”

“The same,” she says.

“Expensive taste,” jokes Fuchs, looking at Wolfgang.

Wolfgang smirks. “Are you surprised? Look at her.”

Kala blinks, and then, noticing a shift in Wolfgang’s energy that she would almost call playful, she manages an undaunted smile.

“Have you ever questioned that I’m worth it?” she asks Wolfgang.

He pauses, just briefly, just long enough to register surprise at the change in her tone and demeanor, and then his smirk widens. “No, never.”

Fuchs presses a glass into Wolfgang’s hand. “You took too long. Enjoy.” He walks towards his seating area, waving them forward. “Come, come. Sit.”

They follow him. Kala sits close to Wolfgang, and he puts his hand on her thigh. Felix takes a nearby chair.

“I have to say,” confides Fuchs after a large sip of scotch, “you’re actually a sight for sore eyes. Berlin is changed.”

Wolfgang frowns, leaning forward. “How so?”

“End of an era,” admits Fuchs. “Five years ago if you told me the Bogdanows would be gone by now, I would have said you were mad.”

Wolfgang shrugs and takes a drink. “Life’s unpredictable here.”

“Agreed,” Fuchs says cautiously. “Though not quite as unpredictable as it has been lately.”

“It must be good for you,” says Wolfgang, also careful. “You only have one competitor.”

Fuchs sighs and smiles without it reaching his eyes. “Yes. Volker is the only trouble.”

Wolfgang sits back and finishes his drink. Then he nudges Kala, hands her his glass, and pushes her to her feet. “One more.”

He lets his hand slide over her ass as she leaves, and Felix barely contains his incredulous expression. He’s never seen Wolfgang treat any woman, let alone Kala, with such assumptive dominance. He frowns slightly, surprised at how well they’re lying.

In the bar, Kala glances at Wolfgang, who looks back at his own figure on the couch.  Then he touches her arm.

“I’m sorry, you know I was only--”

Kala nods, pouring the scotch. “I know. Please, don’t get distracted.”

He nods too, gives her arm an apologetic squeeze, and returns in his head to the couch.

“I don’t want her to worry too much,” explains Wolfgang, adding, “Let me take care of Volker.”

Fuchs raises an eyebrow. Eventually, after he takes another drink, he says with a touch of sarcasm, “How did you choose between us?”

“I’m not choosing,” says Wolfgang. “Volker being gone helps us both.”

Fuchs shrugs. “Of course, but it must have occurred to you..then it’s just us..”

Kala returns to her seat. She hands Wolfgang his drink and he squeezes her knee in thanks. Then he shrugs, mirroring Fuchs.

“I’m sure you’ll catch me in a good mood with Volker gone,” says Wolfgang softly.

Fuchs raises an eyebrow, understanding. Then he looks at Kala. “It doesn’t frighten you to sleep with someone who’s killed more men than anyone in Plötzensee Prison?”

Kala glances at Wolfgang and combs her fingers through his hair. Then she looks back and Fuchs and offers a soft, serious, “No, why would it?”

Fuchs holds up a hand. “I joke.” Then he says, “You speak excellent German, where did you learn? Forgive me, I assume you weren’t born here.”

“No,” she agrees, and miraculously, her mind latches onto a simple lie. “I learned at University in London.”

“Why German?” asks Fuchs.

Kala smiles with half her mouth. “Perhaps I always knew I’d fall in love with a German man.”

Wolfgang glances at her and smiles genuinely. Her lips quiver, wanting to give into a reciprocal smile, but she stays withdrawn.

“How did you meet?” asks Fuchs.

“London,” she says.

“London,” murmurs Fuchs. “Of all places for a vacation.”

Wolfgang smirks. “I don’t like the sun.”

“I’ve always said he’s a vampire,” puts in Felix.

Fuchs shakes his head. “Next time,” he says, getting up with a grunt to refill his glass, “go to a beach.”

He leaves for a moment, and Kala, Felix, and Wolfgang meet eyes.

“So far so good,” murmurs Felix.

Kala nods in agreement. Wolfgang doesn’t speak, eyes fixed out of the window, lips pressed thoughtfully to the rim of his glass.

Fuchs returns with a sigh, setting the bottle of scotch on the center table.

“Women are important,” he muses, rubbing his bottom lip before leaning forward to refill everyone’s glasses. “I miss my Lila.”

The three of them freeze, intent on catching every word.

Fuchs laughs, capping the bottle. “I thought she may have been leaving me for you,” he confides to Wolfgang. “But apparently not.”

Wolfgang shakes his head. “No. Though we did meet her once.”

“Did you?” Fuchs says interestedly.

Wolfgang nods, taking a sip of scotch. “We didn’t say much.”

Fuchs sighs. “She told me she was leaving to work with an organization of some kind. Ah, B...B something, I don’t remember. I figured it was international security or something similar. I also thought she may have been making it up as an excuse.” He shakes the ice around in his glass. “I was surprised,” he goes on, in a deeper, softer voice. “She wanted Berlin for herself, but...without your cooperation...” Then he perks up. “Perhaps if I told her you’ve reconsidered--”

But Wolfgang shakes his head. “I’d prefer to keep this between us.”

Fuchs nods, troubled. Then he continues to nod, seeing it’s irrational to disagree, and sets down his glass.

“So, we’ll meet again, yes?” he asks.

“Name the place,” says Wolfgang.

Fuchs pats the table in agreement, then shakes Wolfgang’s hand. “You know where to find me.”

Wolfgang nods, getting up and reaching for Kala’s hand. Then he, Kala and Felix walk out of the apartment, get into the elevator, and let out a collective breath.

“Told you,” says Felix weakly. “Worked like a charm.”

Chapter Text

It starts to rain as Wolfgang, Kala and Felix walk towards the metro. Kala suggests waiting it out in a cafe, but Wolfgang wants to keep moving. They all press closer together, eyes fixed on the darkening pavement.

“What an awful man,” Kala eventually says, crossing her arms tightly for warmth.

“Wait till you meet Volker,” mutters Wolfgang.

“He has a party tonight,” says Felix, looking up from his phone, which he’s been engrossed in since leaving Fuchs’s apartment.

“How do you know that?” asks Wolfgang, glancing at him.

Felix shrugs. “Twitter.”

“Volker is on Twitter?” asks Wolfgang.

Felix nods. “Yeah. He’s @feelthebohm .”

“The fuck is wrong with him?” asks Wolfgang, reaching for a cigarette.

“I didn’t know mobsters use Twitter,” Kala says lightly. She glances at Wolfgang with a soft half-smile. “What’s your username?”

“I’d rather put a gun in my mouth,” he says, lighting his cigarette. “You warm enough?”

She nods, but is betrayed by a violent shiver. Wolfgang takes off his jacket and drapes it around her shoulders, then puts an arm around her. She glances at him unsurely.

“Are you okay?” she murmurs.

He nods. “Just want to get home.”

Her eyes linger on his expression for a moment, sure something is wrong, but she finds herself unable to identify it. Before, when she wasn’t so acutely aware of his feelings, it was easier; she could make guesses; she could reassure herself. Now, there’s an irrepressible sense of fear that she cannot shake, because it is not her own fear. It’s his, bleeding over.  

She purses her lips slightly, frustrated, but looks away.

They walk the rest of the way in silence -- Wolfgang thumbing over the outline of his pistol, Kala chewing softly on her bottom lip, Felix texting rapidly -- and reach the locksmith ten minutes later. When they get inside, Wolfgang quietly excuses himself for a shower, leaving Kala in the kitchen with Felix.

“This is how he always is here,” says Felix. “Things changed when we went to Chicago, they really changed when he met you.”

Kala nods slowly. Then she perks up and says, “I’m going to make lunch. Where’s a grocery store?”

“Uh, there’s a shop around the corner to the left, but you probably shouldn’t--”

“Thank you, be back in a few minutes,” says Kala, taking her purse off the back of the couch and returning to the rainy street.

She stays close to the storefronts, walking quickly, and then slips inside a small grocery. She balances a shopping basket on her hip and wanders through the shop in search of bread, cheese, tomatoes, and chai tea. She tries to focus on small things -- the unfamiliar packages, the charming sale signs -- but her heart is still tight with fear. She takes a few breaths, sliding her fingers over the bread packages, trying to choose, but her mind is blank.

“You okay?”

She looks up at the voice. It’s Will, standing across the aisle in his police uniform, smiling in a soft, calm way that reminds her of her father.

She tries to smile back. “Wolfgang is so worried right now.”

Will nods. “I know.”

Kala selects a loaf of bread, using the time to think. Then she says, very softly, “What if everything goes wrong? What if we don’t understand enough, and we miss something, and...?” She sniffles and shakes her head. “And perhaps I was just naive, that may explain it, but it used to be so easy to have faith in things.” She looks at him. “I’m sorry, I don’t mean to complain to you--”

“No, please,” he says, gesturing at her to continue.

She smiles softly and nods. She walks towards the refrigerated section and Will follows her.

“My life used to be so certain,” she says quietly, eyes brightening at memories. “In a way, even when I was little, I knew what I would do, and what type of man I would marry, and where I would live, and...” She pauses as she reaches a selection of cheeses. She picks a small block of cheddar and moves down to the butter. “And now, I recognize that the best things in my life are the unexpected ones. However...” She worries her bottom lip with her teeth, hesitating. “Is it terrible of me to want it back?”

“The certainty?” clarifies Will.

She nods.

He shakes his head. “No. We all want that. Basic human desire.”

She looks down, studying her metallic shoes against the floor. “I don’t recognize my life,” she admits quietly. “It seems impossible that it was only a week ago that I was writing my dissertation, and, and falling asleep with Wolfgang watching a movie, and painting Dani’s nails and...thinking about where I’ll take my parents when they visit...”

“Don’t give up hope, okay?” says Will. “Like you said, it was just a week ago. Could be your life again in another week.”

Kala looks up, eyes wide and overbright. “I don’t know.”

Will squeezes her forearm. “Listen, when I feel like this, I have a ritual.”

She holds his gaze and her brow twitches in interest. “A ritual?”

Will grins and nods. “Yeah. I call up my dad, and pick up brats and beer -- always Gene’s brats, he won’t eat anything else -- and we go down to the river. He’s got a boat, it’s not huge, but it’s the one thing he really cares about...he was never a car guy, you know? And we light up the barbeque and grill the brats and stay out there on the river.”

Kala smiles. “What do you talk about?”

Will shrugs, also smiling. “Simple stuff. Sports, food. It’s good just to talk.”

She nods. “I miss talking to my father.”

“Can you call him?” asks Will.

Kala looks down, pressing her lips together hard, shaking her head. “And tell him what?” she whispers after a moment. “I barely understand this yet.”

Will nods. “Well, what else do you do to calm down?”

She glances up and says, even softer, “Well, I pray.”

“There you go,” says Will.

She nods, then reaches out and squeezes his arm affectionately. “Thanks for listening.”

Will smiles and nods back, and as she turns to go to the counter, she sees that he’s disappeared. She pays for the food, then wraps a paper bag neatly around everything and tucks it in her purse. Then she heads back to the street.

Meanwhile, Wolfgang steps out of the shower. The hot water did nothing to relieve the crushing fear he’s had since meeting with Fuchs, and now, he can’t find a towel. He swears softly, about to dry off his hair with his old shirt, when a voice startles him.

“Under the sink,” says Sun, who’s leaning against the counter, browsing her phone.

Wolfgang gestures incredulously. “What are you doing here?”

“I don’t know, Wolfgang, do you think I want to be here?” she asks, not looking up.

Wolfgang breathes out, reaches under the counter and puts a towel around his waist. Then he glances at her.

“Where are you right now?” he asks.

“Home,” she says, shaking her hair out of her eyes. “Making breakfast.” She pauses. “You’re too tense if you’re going to fight tonight.”

Wolfgang shrugs. “I know. I’m trying to get rid of it.”

Sun sets her phone on the counter, searching the floor with soft, questioning eyes. Then she murmurs, “You can’t always protect who you love. You have to accept that.”

He shakes his head. “You know I can’t accept that.”

“I know where it comes from,” she goes on, “we’ve talked about this before.”

He nods, adjusting his towel so it’s tighter and searching around for a razor.

“When you feel like your own life isn’t worth as much as the lives of the ones you love...you think it’s your duty to protect them, even if it means not protecting yourself,” she says. “But you’ll never win a fight like that, and they need you to win the fight. It has to come from you.”

Wolfgang runs the water in the sink and pops the cap off a razor. “I don’t think I can let myself...reconnect with what happened here. I need to keep it separate.”

“It’s not separate,” says Sun flatly. “The moment you got off the plane yesterday, you realized what you were coming back to.” She pauses and slides a bar of soap over to him when she sees him reach for it. “I know it as well as you. Coming home is never simple, even if everyone from before is dead. Perhaps especially if everyone from before is dead.”

He looks at the swirling water in the sink. Then he nods slowly, lathers the soap in his hands, and spreads it up from his jaw.

“There is a difference,” she murmurs, “between leaving things behind and moving on.” She pauses, slipping her fingers into her pocket to extract a cigarette. She lights it, tilts her head back, and goes on, “If I were you...I would use this time to end it, to make sure I could come home without being so afraid.”

“There’s no such thing as retirement here,” he replies, sucking in his cheeks as he starts to shave. “You either run away, die, or live your whole life like this. I can’t live here again, I knew that when I left. No point in fixing anything now.”

“Don’t be so sure,”  says Sun quietly. “Cities change. In ten years, who would even recognize you?”

He splashes his face and shrugs. “I just want to make it back to Chicago with Kala.”

“You can only try,” says Sun gently. “But remember, that’s where your power is. It’s all in the struggle. Winning the fight...” She shrugs. “That’s just a moment in time.”

He dries his face, then looks intently at her. He nods.

“And don’t fight with your head,” she says lovingly.

He huffs out a laugh. “You anticipating a fight?”

She raises her eyebrows. “Promising two warring mobsters the same thing, hoping word doesn’t get around?” She puffs on her cigarette, smirking. “Yes. I think a fight is the best case scenario.”

***

Ten minutes later, Wolfgang goes downstairs and perks up at the smell of food. Kala glances over her shoulder at him from the stove and smiles.

“Hungry?” she asks.

He squints. “Did you go to the store?”

She nods, then reaches her hand out behind her to pull him close. He hugs her and kisses the back of her head. Then she tilts her face up to look at him.

“You shaved,” she says, a slow smile starting in the corner of her mouth.

“Don’t be too upset,” he replies.

She laughs and kisses him. “No. You look nice.”

He slides his hands down her waist and squeezes her hips gently.

Then he says, “Coffee?”

She nods. “Yes please.”

He shifts the kettle from the back burner to the front, and reaches above the stove for some coffee. She steps affectionately on his foot and he laughs. They cook together quietly for a few more minutes, Kala turning over the sandwiches, Wolfgang sloppily measuring coffee grounds. Then she plates up the sandwiches and tugs playfully on Wolfgang’s waistband.

“C’mon,” she murmurs.

He smiles and follows her up the stairs, into the small spare room, and she shuts the door. She sits down on the bed on the floor and pats the space next to her. He sits close and puts an arm around her.

“You’re feeling better,” she says.

He shrugs and nods, stealing one of the sandwiches off the plate.

“Are you still mad at me?” she adds, also taking a sandwich.

“Yeah, you’ll be hearing about this when we’re seventy,” he replies through a bite.

She smiles and leans against him, then stretches to pick up her coffee. After taking a long drink, she says, “Why a party?”

Wolfgang shakes his head. “It’s not really a party. It looks like one, but it’s for something else. Meetings, deals.”

“So it’s a cover?” she asks.

He nods. “Yeah.”

“But it’s fancy,” she guesses, patting his clean-shaven cheek.

He laughs, then glances at her. “Well, I had to clean up if I’m going with you.”

She blushes and looks down so her hair falls around her face.  He trails his hand down her back, catching his fingers under the strap of her dress and letting it snap against her skin.

He smirks lightly. “I know you hate this dress, but...good choice.”

Kala looks back at him, mouth twitching with humor. “What do you like about it?

He grins thoughtfully. Then his eyes drop from her face to her breasts and he tilts his head in appreciation. Kala laughs and lifts his chin up.

“Oh my God, behave yourself!”

“You asked me what I liked about it,” he replies, sliding his hand up her leg, adding, “Why haven’t I seen you in it before?”

“I borrowed it from Dani.”

“Borrowed?” he asks softly, his mouth nearly on hers.

Kala begins to defend herself. Then she says, “Okay, stole.”

Wolfgang nods, smirking again, and kisses her.

“Maybe you are a mobster’s girlfriend,” he says.

She takes a soft, thoughtful breath, overwhelmed by a sudden urge to have rough, messy sex with him, right here, right now, while wearing this dress, so that her hair ends up in knots and her lipstick smears all over her mouth. She sips her coffee, processing this idea, and realizes it feels strangely far away, dreamy, as if she stole it from someone else. So, she looks to the only someone else who might have that idea, and he runs his tongue over his bottom lip, still smirking. She holds his gaze for a moment, considering. Then she reaches up her dress, works her panties down her legs, and kicks them lightly aside.

“I could use some practice being a mobster's girlfriend,” she says breathily.

He watches her for a moment, drunk on the undisguised desire in her eyes. She moves slowly, deliberately, at first cupping him through his sweats, then impatiently untangling his drawstring and slipping her hand around him.

“Good?” she asks.

“Fuck, babe,” he mumbles in approval.

She presses her lips softly to his -- it could barely be called a kiss -- and then straddles his lap. “I’m just getting in character...”

He laughs. She sinks over him with a quiet moan, his fingers tighten instinctively on her waist, and he responds with a forceful, heated kiss that instantly robs them both of any remaining restraint.

“Oh my God,” she murmurs, riding him, all breath, barely enunciating. “God, I want you so much...”

He licks a wide stripe up her throat, then presses his face into her neck, lapping at the sensitive skin, gently biting her. He digs his nails deeper into her skin and she moans loudly, nodding her approval, then he changes his angle so his cock is gliding against the spot that makes her wild; she gives a soft, open-mouthed gasp, brow slightly wrinkled, basking in the sensation, but he only gives it to her for a few brief seconds.

She whines against his mouth, needing more. He slips her sleeves off her shoulders to expose her breasts, then squeezes them hard; she increases her pace, tilting her head back, crying out. He glances at her, lost in her expression, then throws her onto the bed, pushing into her harder.

“Oh, yes,like that!”

She bucks her hips up, moving with him, and surges into a hard, electric kiss. He groans into her mouth, continuing to fuck her,  and she runs her hands down his back. They kiss throughout -- messy, imprecise kisses that fall on lips, chins, throats -- and finally her hands jump to his hair and she lets out a quiet, scratchy moan, nodding hard; she’s suddenly sticky with sweat and her eyes are overbright, awestruck.

He’s never seen her so in need, and he’s never needed her so much either; it’s as if every sensation is doubled, as if he can feel what she feels in addition to what he does; and as she tips her head back, her moans coming nearly as sobs, it occurs to him that this is exactly what’s happening; he realizes he can feel what she’s feeling, and she can feel what he is; and knowing she feels like this, that he’s made her feel like this, nearly overpowers him.

He presses her harder into the bed, driving into her more forcefully -- she gasps out a short, breathy scream and digs her nails into his back -- and they come together a moment later, Kala loudly moaning yes, her name a repeated whisper on his lips, their open mouths pressed together, lost in the same white noise.

Finally, they look at each other, astonished, out of breath, exhausted. He presses a gentle, grateful kiss to her collarbone. Then he rests his head on her tummy, staring at the ceiling.

“Do you feel more in character?” he asks, glancing at her.

She laughs, covering her face. “Yes. I do.”

“I’ve never come that hard in my life,” he continues, dumbstruck.

“I’ve never come so quickly in my life,” she replies, in the same tone she usually uses to explain something miraculous and metaphysical.

They both laugh again when they meet eyes. He reaches for the cigarettes on the floor next to them. He lights one and smokes for awhile while she plays with his hair.

Then he says, “I hope you brought another dress.”

She bites her bottom lip, full of mischief. “Of course I did.”

***

Twenty minutes later, having collected themselves and had more coffee, they go downstairs to shower for the party. Felix is at the kitchen table wearing large headphones. Kala blushes.

Felix removes the headphones without comment, and says, “So, we might have a problem.”

Wolfgang stops, looking at him. “What?”

“Well, I figured the party was at Volker’s place, right?” explains Felix.

Wolfgang nods.

“It’s not -- it’s at the old Bogdanow place,” says Felix. “He bought it.”

“What?” whispers Wolfgang, sitting down next to Felix. “What about my aunt, what--?”

Felix shakes his head. “No idea. I’m fucking confused. And why the fuck didn’t Fuchs mention that?”

Wolfgang stares at Felix, and then he says, “I’m not going.”

“You have to go,” says Felix.

“I’m not, I can’t go back there,” says Wolfgang flatly. “I’m not going.”

“Wolfgang,” says Kala gently.

He shakes his head. “No.”

Kala and Felix exchange a glance. Then Kala touches Wolfgang’s shoulder, and he glances up at her. Felix gives a short, perfunctory smile and leaves the room.

“Wolfgang,” Kala says again.

He’s still shaking his head. His eyes have glazed over, and she notices how tightly he’s gripping the back of the chair next to him. She kneels in front of him and takes his hands.

“Honey, it’s okay,” she says.

“You don’t --” He stops himself when he notices a bite in his voice. “You don’t understand. I grew up in that house -- it’s where -- it’s where I...my uncle, and cousin and...Kala, I can’t.”

Kala bites her lip. She squeezes his hands and nods.

“I understand,” she murmurs. “At least come shower with me. Let me talk you through it.”

“There’s nothing to talk through,” he says. “I’m not going.”

Kala breathes out. “Wolfgang, give me five minutes.”

“No--”

“Five minutes,” she repeats. “Please.”

He looks down to meet her eyes, and then he nods. She pulls him to his feet, and they continue through the kitchen to the bathroom. She turns on the water, then steps in front of Wolfgang so he can undo the zipper of her dress. They get into the shower together a moment later, and Kala picks up a bar of soap.

“I just showered,” he says.

“But you got dirty again,” she replies.

He smiles halfheartedly. She rubs her hands down his arms, lathering the soap on his skin, and meets his eyes.

“I know what that house is to you,” she says. “I know what happened there. But I also know...that I will be with you the whole time tonight.”

He looks down. “I’m afraid I won’t...” He stops, shaking his head.

“What?” she asks. “It’s just me.”

“I’m afraid I won’t be able to control myself,” he goes on quietly. “I haven’t been back there since...” He stops and clears his throat. “Sometimes when I’m...if I remember something from home...I...” He shrugs. “It’s like I can’t recognize myself. I don’t want to hurt you or Felix or...”

She nods. “I wouldn’t expect anything else, after what you went through...”

“But what’s wrong with me?” he says before he can stop himself. “It was years ago, I--”

“Oh my love,” sighs Kala, hoping frustration doesn’t creep into her voice. “It doesn’t matter, trauma doesn’t...it doesn’t have a timestamp. It just exists, for as long as we exist.”

He looks at her. “What do you mean?”

She thinks for a moment, rubbing her fingers in circles along his hairline. Then she whispers, “A day doesn’t go by that I don’t think about...what happened to Rajan’s father in front of me. I see it every day. I’ve never been back to that temple. So...I understand. I do understand. And if you don’t want to go, you don’t have to go. But...if you can ...perhaps it would be good for you.”

He nods slowly. “I’ve...I’ve always wanted to, I’ve never gotten any closure.”

She nods too, then guides him under the water. “And I’ll know what you’re feeling, so...if you start to feel that way...well, you won’t be alone.”

“Mm, c’mere,” he says, pulling her closer.

She smiles and tucks her nose against his chest. “I like showering with you.”

He smiles softly. “Yeah, me too.”

She lifts her face up and smirks gently. “For the record...that may have been the most intense sex we’ve ever had.”

He thumbs lightly over her hipbones and laughs. She laughs too and presses closer.

“So you'll go?” she asks.

He nods. She nods in response. Then she takes her turn under the water and he washes her hair for her. They get out a few minutes later. She remains in the bathroom to do her makeup, and he returns upstairs to get dressed. She joins him after a while, and he looks over his shoulder at her.

“I didn't bring anything nice,” he says, going through his backpack.

Kala steps up next to him. She searches his backpack for a moment, then pulls out a white shirt. “This will do. With black pants.”

He nods, then she retrieves her back-up dress from her suitcase and puts it on. It’s jade green, similarly revealing, with an open back. She swirls in front of Wolfgang.

“Good?” she asks.

He glances up from hiding a gun away on his body. His eyes brighten.

“Still can't believe you're mine.”

“Well, unless I meet a richer, more powerful mobster tonight.”

He nods. “Right, of course.”

She laughs. Then he gestures with another gun.

“Were you planning on carrying?”

“Oh, no. No. Where would I even put that?”

“Well,” he says, stepping up to her. “I've seen some women strap them here.” He slides his hand up her inner thigh and taps it.

She lets out an unsteady breath at the touch and shakes her head.

I do think you should have a gun,” says Nomi, surprising them both when she walks across the room towards them. She pushes her glasses up on her nose. “But, if you’re uncomfortable with that, no worries. Sun’s going to stick by you, so you should be okay. Are you about ready? It’s nearly time.”

“I’m never getting used to that,” mutters Wolfgang.

Kala recovers her breath, which stopped abruptly at Nomi’s arrival. “Yes, we’re ready. We just have to find Felix...”

“He’s out getting cigarettes,” says Nomi.

“How do you know that?” asks Wolfgang.

She shrugs. “He’s Facetiming Dani. We’re all at my place right now.”

Kala presses her lips together, amused. “When will he be back?”

Nomi turns over her shoulder, looking at someone they can’t see. “Where’s Felix at?” She turns back to Kala and Wolfgang. “He’s right around the corner.”

“Great,” says Wolfgang, adjusting a gun in his left boot.

“Need any clarifications on the plan?” asks Nomi.

Wolfgang shakes his head. “Where’s Will and Sun?”

“Present,” says Will, showing up and leaning against the windowsill.

“Me too,” agrees Sun, standing next to him.

The others -- Riley, Capheus, and Lito -- also appear, listening in.

“Okay,” says Wolfgang. “You’ll know if we need any of you, otherwise stay in Chicago. You’ll distract us if you don’t.”

“You don’t really mince words, do you?” asks Will.

“Fine with me,” says Sun.

“I’ve got eyes on Volker’s party,” says Nomi. “He’s got an insane number of cameras, I picked out a few to watch through. We can keep up that way.”

Wolfgang nods. Then he notices Felix in the doorway, pocketing his phone.

“Felix is back,” says Wolfgang.

Felix makes a face. “You referring to me in the third person now? Okay...”

“He’s talking to Nomi,” explains Kala softly.

Felix nods uncertainly.

“Great,” says Nomi. “Everything should go as smoothly as this morning did, but if not...”

“We’ve got you,” says Will.

Sun nods in agreement. “We do.”

Then Riley says, “Good luck.”

“Good luck,” echoes Capheus.

“Please, don’t die,” says Lito.

Wolfgang snorts, reaching for his jacket. Kala squeezes Nomi’s hands and Nomi gives her a small but reassuring smile. They all meet eyes, and then, Kala and Wolfgang are left alone with Felix.

“Ready?” asks Felix.

They nod.

“I’ve got a bad fucking feeling about this,” says Felix, chewing on his lip.

Wolfgang looks at him incredulously.

“Just saying.”

“Great, thanks Felix.”

Kala takes a scarf out of her bag and wraps it around her shoulders. Then she puts her hand on Wolfgang’s back and looks at him inquiringly. He nods.

“Let’s go,” he says.

Chapter Text

It begins to sleet shortly after Kala, Wolfgang, and Felix leave the locksmith. The three of them press together as they walk down the street. Then Wolfgang perks up at the sight of a black Porsche, suddenly caught by an idea.

Felix notices him staring. “Wolfgang, no--”

Wolfgang pulls out a thin metal rod from his jacket and approaches the car. He glances around, then works the rod in between the car body and the window. Kala looks around in panic -- it’s not yet dark, there are people everywhere-- but he’s jimmied the window open before anyone bothers to look. He throws the passenger door ajar, opens the glove box, and pulls out a spare key.

Felix shakes his head. “How  stupid do you have to be to put a spare there?”

“Lots of people put spares there,” whispers Kala, adding, “perhaps they’re assuming, as anyone would, that they aren’t going to be needlessly robbed.”

“Needlessly?” asks Wolfgang. “What, we were going to show up to Volker’s in a taxi? “ He gets in the driver’s side, adding sharply, “Get in, hurry up.”

Felix clambers into the back, then Kala settles into the passenger seat. Wolfgang slams his door shut and sticks the key in the ignition, then lights a cigarette. Kala grips her seat, then glances at him, eyes wide and apprehensive.

“What if we’re caught?”

Wolfgang shrugs and punches the gas. “Bribes usually work.”

“Police don’t give a shit,” adds Felix. 

Kala squints. “I thought the German government was fairly free of corruption?”

“No government’s free of corruption, that’s what government is,” says Wolfgang, making a hard left.

Kala sits in silence for the rest of the drive, distracted by the ease and familiarity Wolfgang has when it comes to stealing cars, shaken by his disregard for the consequences. In an emergency, she can understand stealing a car, but this hardly counts. Wolfgang is silent too, driving erratically and smoking hard, and his expression is transformed into one that Kala does not recognize. His eyes are devoid of all light and his jaw is tight, angry, determined. She stares gently at him for the rest of the drive, trying to find the man she loves under this unfamiliar layer.

Her thoughts are interrupted when he turns down a hedge-lined lane.

The headlights blur against the sleet. Kala leans forward for a better view. Each home they pass -- mansion is a more appropriate term -- is ancient, stately and massive. The homes, yards, and cars in the drives reflect a level of wealth that Kala was not anticipating. Her eyes dance from house to house, bright with confusion.

As they progress down the road, cars begin to accumulate on the side of it. The party promises to be huge.

Kala looks at Felix. “What is the party for exactly?”

“Christmas?” suggests Felix. “I don’t really know.”

Kala nods, going back to looking out the window. One house in the distance is illuminated by light, and she can hear faint music. Wolfgang slows the car, and she takes in one of the largest homes on the street. It’s majestic: all brick, covered in ivy, hidden behind a large iron fence.

“Here?” she murmurs faintly. “You grew up here?”

Wolfgang nods. “After my father died, yeah.”

Her brow twitches and she continues to stare at the house. Wolfgang pulls off on the side of the road, then gets out of the car, waiting for Kala and Felix to exit.

Kala grips his hand when she gets out, still transfixed.

“Fucking hate this place,” murmurs Felix.

Kala notices Wolfgang’s pulse jump. She swallows back a wave of nausea, then shivers hard.

“Let’s go,” says Wolfgang grimly.

They walk up to the open gate, which tonight is decorated with lights.

“What is this, a wedding?” asks Felix, flicking one of the bulbs.

They go along the neatly-kept drive, walking apart from other guests who are arriving. Wolfgang, on instinct, forces his mind into the narrow, numb box which he used to find useful for disconnecting actions from feelings. They go up three shallow steps. The door to the house is open but guarded. A bulky, tattooed man stands in the way.

“Name?” he asks.

Wolfgang raises an eyebrow. “Are you kidding?”

“No,” says the bouncer. “Name.”

“This is bullshit--”

“Fuck off--”

Wolfgang and Felix’s voices overlap, and the bouncer stands more firmly in front of the door.

“Bogdanow,” Wolfgang finally spits out. “Move.”

The bouncer’s eyes flash briefly to Wolfgang’s face, then he steps aside.

“My apologies,” he says seriously.

Kala looks unsurely at Felix, who shakes his head, signifying he’ll explain later. The three of them step into a warm, crowded entryway. To Wolfgang’s shock, the house remains virtually unchanged. The art, the artifacts, even some of the furniture is identical. He grips Kala’s hand more tightly and they step further inside, searching for signs of Volker.  As they continue into the entryway, however, Kala notices that Wolfgang’s eyes are fixed on an old mirror near the door. And suddenly, a memory of his plays out in her mind.

The massive oak door swings open, letting in a swirl of brown leaves around his feet. He looks up to greet the house where he’s been sent to live. He drops his backpack by his feet and flinches at the approach of his uncle. His uncle’s face is gray and lined with grief, and he sets a heavy hand on Wolfgang’s shoulder.

“It is a sad day, my child,” he says. “It is a sad day in any man’s life when his brother dies. But I believe mine is an even deeper grief, because your father was the best man I ever knew.” He pats Wolfgang’s arm, then embraces him. “We must not be discouraged. Whoever is responsible...” His face contorts abruptly in rage, and he mimics slowly squeezing something with his fist. “...will gasp and plead until I crush his pathetic skull.” Spit flies. “I promise you at least that.”

Wolfgang nods, sure of his ability to deceive. “Yes, Uncle.”

Then he looks at his reflection in the mirror, and the urge to vomit ripples through him.

Kala squeezes Wolfgang’s arm, eyes ablaze as they search his expression.

He frowns. “What?”

“I...I...” She pauses, simply staring. “I can see...what you’re thinking about.”

He stares back. Then he laughs humorlessly, shakes his head, and walks more quickly. Kala’s brow wrinkles in concern, but she doesn’t ask him to explain.

It’s not difficult getting through the crowd, despite it being so dense, because everyone moves out of their way. The guests all glance at Wolfgang with expressions of shock and fear, and Felix looks around, surprised.

“What did I tell you about murdering gangsters?” he says, impressed. “You’re like fucking royalty, here, man, fuck!”

Wolfgang pushes Felix’s side to tell him to be quiet, and they reach the dining room where everyone is congregated around a table laden with luscious appetizers and drinks. There’s an open bar, backlit with blue light, surrounded by women. Wolfgang lets go of Kala’s hand, steps over to the bar and asks for two vodkas and a white wine. Kala watches the women’s heads turn, sees them grip each other’s hands and whisper; she knows their words carry more significance than simple interest; they clearly know Wolfgang, and didn’t expect to see him here.

He returns with the drinks, passing a vodka to Felix and handing Kala the wine.

“Should we be drinking?” she asks.

“We’ll draw attention if we’re not,” he says.

She nods unsurely and takes a sip. Then, as before, she notices Wolfgang is stuck, staring, this time at the dining table.

Dinner is late, and Steiner is frustrated by hunger as usual. He spears a piece of potato, talking with food in his mouth at his father.

“This shit’s cold, why the fuck haven’t you fired the cook? She’s useless--”

“It’s food, fucking eat it,” says Wolfgang.

Steiner puts on a high, mimicking voice. “Fucking eat it!” He spits out an olive seed. “Fuck! You eat it!”

“Fuck off--”

“Wolfgang,” says Sergei boredly.

“Yeah, show some fucking respect,” says Steiner. “We took you in.”

“Well, he’s family,” says Sergei, topping off his drink.

Steiner snorts and looks Wolfgang over. “Doesn’t look like it. Fucking skinny. Sure your mom didn’t fuck some stranger?” He starts to laugh. “Sounds like her, wessi whore.”

Wolfgang clenches his fists under the table. Steiner is older and bigger and he knows Sergei won’t intervene on his behalf. He also knows his mind is already made up.

“Give me that,” Steiner goes on, gesturing at the salt.

Wolfgang shrugs, salts his own food, and sets the shaker back in its place.

“Very funny,” says Steiner. “Give me the fucking salt.”

“Figured you didn’t want some wessi bastard kid touching your things,” says Wolfgang. “Get it yourself.”

“Wolfgang, pass him the salt,” says Sergei.

Wolfgang nods. Then he opens up the salt shaker, and with a flick of his wrist, neatly whips the salt into Steiner’s eyes.

“Fuck!” Steiner roars, clawing at himself, eyes stinging. “You’re fucking dead!”

Wolfgang tries to get out of his seat in time, but Steiner pushes him to the floor and punches him hard in the face. His eyes water in pain, and Steiner hits him again.

“What, you’re crying now?” he taunts. “Told you, you aren’t one of us! Fucking weakling faggot!”

Wolfgang tries to hit back, but Steiner has him effectively pinned. At 16, Steiner is two years older and much stronger than he is. His vision begins to blur and he tastes blood in his mouth; he needs to cough, but Steiner’s weight on him is preventing that, so he chokes instead.

Distantly, he hears his uncle mutter, “Let him up, Steiner.”

Steiner hits him with the back of his hand, and his bulky ring catches his brow, splitting it open. Wolfgang feels blood drain, slow and warm, from the gash.

“Had enough?” screams Steiner.

Wolfgang coughs weakly, throat tight and distended, struggling to breathe.

“Let him up now, son,” says his uncle in the same unconcerned tone.

Steiner lands a final blow, then spits in Wolfgang’s face. “Pussy!” he shouts, kicking him as he steps away. “Fuck you!”

Wolfgang rolls onto his side and wretches up blood onto the carpet. He coughs hard, then wipes his mouth on his sleeve. He looks around, head swimming, and hears his uncle chuckle.

“I see we’ll need new carpet,” Sergei jokes to himself, taking a drink.

Kala’s eyes are wide and wet as she stares at Wolfgang. He meets her gaze, looking hollowed out, and squeezes her hands softly.

“I’m so sorry,” he murmurs.

She shakes her head rapidly. “No,you do not get to be sorry.”

“I’m sorry you’re seeing this,” he explains.

“I don’t understand,” she whispers desperately. “Why -- why didn’t anyone do anything?”

“Who?” he asks patiently.

She sniffles and gestures imploringly. “The, the police, your teachers, anyone!”

He shakes his head and tucks her hair gently behind her ear. “I’m so sorry.”

“Stop saying that--”

“No, you don’t deserve to go through any of this--”

“Uh, not to interrupt,” says Felix unsurely, “but I see Volker. He just went upstairs.”

Wolfgang glances up, grip tightening on Kala’s wrists. He nods at Felix, newly focused.

“I’m staying here,” says Felix. “Volker hates me.”

Wolfgang nods reluctantly, then takes Kala’s hand. The two of them go up the staircase, and once at the top, Volker notices them. His eyes narrow behind his circular lenses, and then, his lips carve out a toothy, interested smile. He pats the shoulders of the men he’s speaking with and approaches them.

“Wolfgang Bogdanow,” murmurs Volker, extending his hand.

Wolfgang smiles tightly and shakes his hand. Then he touches Kala’s back and pushes her forward.

“This is my girlfriend, Kala,” he says to Volker.

Kala shakes Volker’s hand. “Lovely to meet you.”

Volker smiles warmly, looking her up and down. “My.” He glances at Wolfgang. “It certainly took you long enough to find someone equal to you.”

“Yes, it certainly did,” jokes Kala.

Volker laughs, charmed, and squeezes her hand. “I admit, I’m a bit disappointed that you know who you’re going home with tonight...”

Kala’s eyes flash but she keeps a civil expression. Wolfgang smiles, looking directly at Volker.

“To be clear, if you touch her, I’ll kill you,” he says lightly.

Volker roars with laughter. He points at Wolfgang. “Now, there’s the man who could rule Berlin!” He holds his hands up. “Apologies.”

Wolfgang shakes his head to show he's past it.

“So,” Volker goes on, “guest of honor, in your old home!”

“Would you fill me in?” asks Wolfgang. “My aunt didn’t mention this.”

“That’s Elke,” laughs Volker. “Well, you did kill her husband. It’s understandable she soured a bit on you.”

Wolfgang smiles coolly. “Allegedly.”

“Allegedly? Allegedly! Bullshit! Anyway, it’s a boring story. Elke put it up for sale almost immediately after you left. She’s been living quietly in Gendarmenmarkt for the last few months.”

Wolfgang raises an eyebrow. “That’s a step down from Dahlem.”

Volker shrugs again. “New rich, old rich.” He picks at a tooth. “She’s a fool if she cares. Anyway, it seemed a shame to let a house of this stature go uninhabited. We did have to, ah, redo the kitchen. And the den.”

Wolfgang nods. “Yes, sorry about that.”

Volker laughs, patting Wolfgang’s arm. “Here, come along, we kept the...spirit...of the house much the same. It is a piece of history, after all.” 

They follow Volker along a hallway, where there’s a prominent display of photographs.

“Your aunt explained these were too painful to keep,” says Volker. “So I kept them. Who knows, one day, they’ll probably end up in a museum. Or in a court record!” He snorts. “Here, look...”

The photographs include several that are black and white, and several more that are yellowed with age. They are mostly of men Kala doesn’t recognize, but as she looks closer, she sees a familiar boy. It’s Wolfgang, perhaps nine or ten, with his father, grandfather, uncle and cousin in front of the manor. Each is leaning on an AK-47. To the side is a young woman she assumes is his mother, and a younger version of Aunt Elke.

“1998,” says Volker fondly.

Kala presses closer, studying Wolfgang’s expression. Even at that young age, he appears haunted by rage, agitation, and grief.

“Haven’t you ever seen a picture of him as a child?” asks Volker.

Kala shakes her head, still absorbed. “He’s not very sentimental.”

Volker barks a laugh. “True. Cute kid, right?”

Kala smiles thinly, still studying. She notices an insignia on his grandfather’s jacket and squints.

“Stasi,” explains Volker, watching her. “East German secret police. It was handy to have inroads with organized crime.” He points to Hassan, Anton, and Sergei. “All Russian immigrants, a natural fit in East Berlin, friendly with the KGB.” He points to Elke. “Also Russian, rich, gorgeous in her time.” Then he points to Wolfgang’s mother. “Now, this is interesting. She had West German parents, but was working a job in the East when she met Anton -- never quite fell in with the family for that reason.” He sighs. “Beautiful girl. Shame. It’s just a shame.” Then his fingertips drift over Sergei. “Anyway, this was taken the year Sergei secured his position in the East...the Bogdanows at their most powerful.”

Wolfgang clears his throat. “Who has it now?”

“The East?” asks Volker. He sighs. “Well, Sebastian Fuchs and I have been...ah...sparring for it since you left.”

Wolfgang nods. “It’s yours.”

Volker turns, surprised. “What do you mean?”

“Let me take care of Fuchs,” says Wolfgang.

Volker squints. “That’s generous, but I’m afraid I don’t understand.”

“What competition would you have with Fuchs gone?”

“Are you saying you’re reconsidering the deal I proposed last year?”

“Essentially,” says Wolfgang

Volker hesitates. Then he pats Wolfgang’s shoulder and guides him further down the hall.

“Let’s find a quiet spot, shall we?” he asks.

Wolfgang nods, reaching for Kala’s hand. Volker glances at them.

“I’m sure you don’t want to talk business, sweetheart, women don't like this kind of talk,” he says to Kala.

Wolfgang pushes Kala away. "Get a drink." In their mind, he assures her he'll be back soon.

“Don't get lost,” jokes Volker.

They retreat down the hallway, the music and light fading the farther they go. Kala stands still for a moment and initially decides to rejoin Felix. But as she walks towards the stairs, she's drawn instead down another hallway. She pauses at a doorway, somehow aware that it leads to Wolfgang’s old room. She hesitates, looking around, and then presses the door open. She drags her hand along the wall for the lightswitch, and after a moment, a bare room is illuminated. There are only some boxes and a rolled up carpet.

But in Kala’s mind, the room is how it used to be -- a twin bed, film posters, a desk stacked with books and beer cans, clothes strewn on the floor. Images play out in Kala’s mind as if she’s seeing a rapid-fire movie reel.

Wolfgang, age 12, throwing the window open, pocketing a gun and glancing around. Felix appearing in the window, messy hair tied back with a bandana.

“Ready?”

“Ready.”

...

Wolfgang, age 14, sitting on his bed, cradling his arm against his chest, gritting his teeth while he cries. Felix sitting next to him, eyes wide with horror, loosely holding a sling.

“You’ve got to get out of here, brother...”

“They’ll kill me if I leave.”

“This is as bad as your dad, Wolfie!”

“No, it’s not!”

“Yes, it is! Steiner broke your fucking arm!”

...

Wolfgang, 16, making out with a girl, the daughter of a rival, grinning against her lips, toying with her corkscrew black hair. His uncle bursting in, red in the face.

“In this house? In this house! What would your father say?”

“What the fuck are you doing?”

“Have you lost your fucking mind? Get her out of here!”

...

Steiner pinning Wolfgang to the bedroom wall, his arm locked against his throat.

“Where'd you put it? Where's my fucking gun? You know grandpa gave that to me! He gave it to me, not you!”

“I don't have it!”

“I know it was you! You think I'm an idiot?” He digs his arm in harder. “Answer me!”

“I don't fucking have it!”

Steiner scoffs and takes his cigarette out of his mouth.

“Now, you're gonna answer real carefully here, Wolfie. Think real hard, okay? Where's my gun?”

“Do you have a fucking brain? I told you I don't have it!”

Steiner presses his cigarette into Wolfgang’s neck.

“Fuck, get off!”

“Now do you have it?”

“No!”

Wolfgang struggles against the pain, then shoves Steiner off of him and throws his fist out. Steiner hits the floor, and Wolfgang picks up the discarded cigarette and takes a drag.

...

Wolfgang, 17, lying in bed by the open window, one hand wrapped from boxing practice. His hair is long, messy, sticking up in the back. He’s reading, lazily stirring a cup of coffee with his index finger, letting the coffee drip on the book, too absorbed to notice.

Kala breaks out of her reverie, surprised. She finds herself, despite the other things she saw, smiling gently at this memory. She thinks about how hard she would have fallen for him at that age -- she can picture herself running home to Daya and burying her head under a pillow, giggling madly.

She continues to walk around the room, pausing at the window. She looks out at the sleet, which has turned to wet snow, and leans on the windowsill, happy for the moment of quiet. As troublesome as her connection with Wolfgang has been so far, she hopes it means that he finally understands that she doesn’t blame him for what he’s done. She hopes, through her, that he stops blaming himself.

It’s strange to her that he can’t see what she can. That he sees a broken man where she sees a resilient one. That he sees a monster where she sees a boy, trapped by circumstance.

She turns around, intending to return downstairs, but gasps when she finds Wolfgang there with her at the window. She reaches out, knuckles brushing his chest, instinctively touching her nose to his.

“Are you really here?”

He looks down and smiles. “No, Volker’s droning on.”

She nods, pressing closer.

“You’re in my old room,” he goes on, carding his hand through her hair, moving it to one side.

She nods again. Then her brow wrinkles, caught between a smile and an expression of pure grief, and she shakes her head gently.

“I’m so sorry,” she whispers.

He nods. “I know. I can feel it.”

She squeezes his arms, then says fiercely, “We’re going to fix things with BPO.”

He squints, surprised. “What made you think of that?”

“We’re going to fix things,” she repeats, holding him closer, “because you deserve a life with the people who love you, without the fear, and the worry, and these evil memories.”

He holds her face in his hands and kisses her gently, nodding. Then he pulls away and murmurs, “Do you know how much I love you?”

She laughs, nose wrinkling in delight, and says, “No, tell me.”

“I was hoping you’d think that’s rhetorical, because I can’t describe it--”

She shoves him affectionately. “Wolfgang!”

He smiles to himself, kisses her again, and shrugs. “I love you more than anything.”

She smiles, nodding. “I love you too.”

Then he looks over his shoulder. “I should go...”

She nods, pushing him away. Then, smiling quickly, shocked at the sudden burst of confidence and satisfaction, she finally leaves the room, heading downstairs to rejoin Felix.

He’s in a group of several women, animated, gesturing, clearly telling a story that is only half-true. Kala waves from the outskirts, and he frowns and excuses himself.

“What’s up, where’s Wolfie?”

“Still with Volker,” explains Kala.

He nods, looking concerned. “Why’d he send you away?”

“Volker wanted to talk alone,” she murmurs.

“Fucker,” says Felix savagely.

“Yes, I don’t like him,” agrees Kala.

“Want another drink? Might as well kill the time...”

Kala smiles. “Okay. How are you holding up?”

“Holding up?” he asks as they walk over to the bar. “Have you seen the girls here? Fuck...”

Kala raises an eyebrow. “I thought you were waiting for Dani...”

“Oh, I am,” he says seriously. “But...well...” He gestures at the line of women sitting on barstools. “I can’t say it’s not a nice fucking view.”

Kala rolls her eyes and puts a sisterly arm around Felix’s shoulders. Then she glances at him.

“Why are there so many women here?”

“10 to 1 rule,” he explains. “10 girls for every guy. That’s what all the mob parties are like.”

She narrows her eyes. “Why?”

He raises an eyebrow. “Have you met these men?”

She considers. “Yes. They do seem to be...”

“Sexist assholes,” fills in Felix, gesturing for bar service, adding, “how was Volker?"

Kala takes a breath, then tilts her head. “A sexist asshole.”

Felix grins. “I love it when you swear.”

Kala glances sideways at him, receiving her drink. He smirks.

“You pull this off really well, by the way,” he says.

“What?” she asks, taking a sip.

“The whole mobster hussy thing!” he says excitedly.

“Hussy?” she giggles.

Felix squints, takes his shot of vodka, and tries to find a better word. “Femme fatale..?”

Kala covers her face, bright pink, and laughs. “Oh my God.”

“Wish Wolfie would’ve met you here, would have been fucking badass,” he goes on. “Fuck, he needed a right-hand woman so bad, he was such a fucking disaster before you met him.”

Kala’s expression softens and she smiles. “I think he’s getting better.”

Felix nods. “Yeah, he is. Even though he’s been a total dick since getting here.”

“Not for the whole time,” murmurs Kala.

Felix shakes his head. “Easy to say when you’re getting some.”

Kala raises a single eyebrow, unflinching. “Jealous?”

Felix nods, pretending to be sincerely hurt. “Yeah, I’ve been secretly in love with him since we were kids...”

Kala takes another sip of wine. “Well, I can’t say I blame you.”

They laugh, noticing the effect of the second drink. Then Kala gasps, gripping her glass, eyes fixed on a familiar figure in the entryway. It’s Fuchs, and he has several other men with him.

“Felix,” she whispers, pointing. “Oh my God.”

“Shit,” Felix says, hastily downing the rest of his drink. He grabs Kala’s wrist and tugs her away from the bar. “Shit, shit. What the fuck is he doing here?”

“Where are going?” hisses Kala.

“He can’t see us!” says Felix desperately, looking around. “He must have figured out we’re here to play him. Fuck! Where’s Wolfgang?”

“I don’t know!” says Kala, eyes flashing. “Hold on!”

She’s about to visit him, terrified she won’t be quick enough or won’t be able to find him in her mind, but she doesn’t have to. She spots him in the crowd, standing near the fireplace in the den, having a drink with Volker and several of Volker’s men.

“Oh no,” whispers Kala, eyes on Fuchs, who is rapidly approaching.

“What do we do?” asks Felix.

She shakes her head, and suddenly Nomi is gripping her arm, pulling her towards Wolfgang.

“You can’t let Fuchs see you,” says Nomi seriously. “Do anything. Hide. Go out the back. But don’t let him see you. If he’s here, it means he knows you’re promising Volker the same things.”

Kala nods, walking fast with Nomi and Felix, and Wolfgang catches the sight of them, and then, behind them, of Fuchs. Kala sees Wolfgang’s eyes darken in understanding, and he tries to disengage, tries to excuse himself. But then, as if watching a bomb drop relentlessly from the sky, Kala sees the bouncer step up to Volker, quickly whisper in his ear, and leave.

There’s a moment of silence before the explosion. Then the room erupts. Volker screaming at Wolfgang, shoving him; Volkers men descending upon him; Fuchs, seeing the commotion, running towards them. In a single moment, the entire party is in a violent uproar.

“New plan!” says Nomi. “Run!”

“Run?” asks Kala. “I can’t leave him--”

“Go, go!” says Felix. “I’ll make sure he gets out--”

“RUN!” insists Nomi, pulling her out of the den, back into the kitchen.

Gunfire explodes in the den, and in Kala’s mind. Suddenly, she can feel a gun in her hands; she can feel sweat beading up on her face; she can feel her hands twitch in anticipation; she can feel a building sense of urgency and dread. Kala feels the gun jump in her hands, again and again, too many times; she can feel blood splatter her face.

Then she gasps a breath, seeing through Wolfgang’s eyes.

Volker is still alive, protected behind two of his men. Wolfgang is crouched behind an ornate desk, panting.

“Filthy liar!” screeches Volker, shooting several rounds into the desk.

Wolfgang was hidden behind this very desk, nearly a year ago, and his uncle’s voice sounded similarly distraught. He closes his eyes against the memory, then straightens up and shoots one of Volker’s men neatly in the chest.

“Show your face!” Volker goes on. “Stop hiding like a girl!”

Wolfgang leans against the desk, breathing hard, shoving a new magazine into his gun. He looks to his left and sees Will.

“This was not part of the plan.”

“Where’s Kala?”

“Nomi’s got her.”

Wolfgang nods, ducking lower at renewed gunfire.

“Fuchs went out the back,” adds Will. “He’s circling around.”

Wolfgang nods again, thinking. Then he notices one of Volker’s men opposite the desk who’s carrying an MP5. He glances once more at Will, and Will grins.

“You seeing what I am?” asks Will.

Wolfgang cocks an eyebrow. Then, in one swift action, he gets to his feet, rolls over the desk, takes refuge behind a chair, gunfire exploding, and aims at Volker’s man. Two quick shots and the man collapses on the carpet. Wolfgang lunges for his MP5, then straightens up and sprays bullets across Volker’s group.

Volker dives. “Son of a bitch!”

Wolfgang goes around the desk, still shooting, but then he realizes he’s taking fire from behind.

“Wolfgang!” roars Will.

Meanwhile, outside, Kala is struggling in Felix’s arms, crying loudly, trying to break free.

“I have to go back inside!” she shouts. “I have to help him!”

“You’re safer out here--”

“I don’t care! I don’t care--”

“He’s right,” murmurs Nomi, but she seems torn.

“I can’t let you get hurt! He’ll never talk to me again!”

She sobs. “Wolfgang--

Felix sighs. “Kala, you can’t--”

“He needs me!”

Then she feels Sun by her side. Sun folds her arms, calculating, and says softly, “I’ll fight for you.”

Kala looks at her, wide-eyed, overwhelmed. Then she nods. Sun doesn’t hesitate, and she deals Felix a quick, efficient blow to the ribs.

“Fuck! Where did that come from?”

“I’m sorry!” yells Kala, sprinting towards the manor.

“Fuck! Kala!”

Felix shakes his head in disbelief and sprints after her. She can hear Sun in her head.

“Gun, you need a gun--”

“I don’t know how to use one!”

“I do,” says Sun confidently.

Kala nods hard, facing the fear, surveying the driveway. She sees one of Fuchs’ men, standing guard, and suddenly senses an insuppressible internal power. Sun is no longer speaking to her. Sun is acting through her.

She squares her shoulders, marching silently up to the man. He’s too slow noticing her, and she is able to slip his gun out of its holster; then, with a deafening crack, she brings the barrel of the gun down on the man’s head. He falls, unconscious. Kala, eyes huge, looks at Felix.

“What the fuck,” murmurs Felix, covering his face. “What the fuck, what the fuck...”

“Inside!” shouts Kala, pulling him with her.

They run into the house, looking around. The guests are still evacuating, screaming, tripping over each other to get outside. Gunfire continues to shatter the air in the den.

“Why the fuck am I listening to you?” yells Felix as Kala runs towards the den.

“Hurry!” she shrieks, gun outstretched.

Felix shakes his head, picking up his pace. “Are you the fucking Black Widow? What the fuck is going on?”

They make it to the den, where Volker and his remaining men (only two) are camped out behind a huge desk, and Fuchs’s crew, numbering twelve, are shooting from the balcony. Wolfgang is in the center of the room, shooting at both groups with a large submachine gun, hidden behind a measly chair. Kala’s eyes dart from Volker to Fuchs, and then she raises her arms and fires several shots into Fuchs’s group.

Wolfgang whips his head around, staring at her. She and Felix leap behind the doorway before Fuchs’s men can retaliate. Wolfgang, seeing Fuchs is down to eight men, risks standing up, confident Kala will cover Volker.

He looks through the sights, but Fuchs is well-protected by the men in front, so he begins to shoot them one by one. Kala and Felix both aim at Volker, but he scrambles into a nearby hallway; one of his men escapes with him, the other falls in front of the fire at Kala’s neatly executed shot.

Fuchs and Wolfgang, now evenly matched, look at each other.

Then Fuchs yells, “Get them!”

Wolfgang sprints towards Kala and Felix, pushing them in front of him, back into the dining room, back into the entryway.

“Get to the car!’ he shouts. He presses the keys into Felix’s hand. “Be ready to leave, okay?”

Felix nods, pocketing the keys. Bullets ricochet off of the walls and they all run faster. Once outside, they are confronted by Fuchs’s backup -- ten more men, arriving in black BMWs.

“Fuck!” yells Felix.

“Shit,” snarls Wolfgang, handing Kala two magazines.

“Shit,” murmurs Nomi in agreement.

“What now?” asks Will.

Wolfgang glances at his gun, shrugs, and says, “It’s a fucking MP5.” Then opens fire on the incoming men.

Kala watches with a hand over her mouth as they fall, one after the other, each without any resistance, as if their brains were simply and instantaneously disconnected from their bodies. Then shots ring out behind them. Fuchs has caught up. His eyes are bright, maniacal at the sight of his new men, slaughtered on the driveway.

Kala and Felix face him and his men, who have lowered their guns at Fuchs’s direction.

“Bogdanow,” mutters Fuchs. Then he tilts his head to one side. “But if I can’t kill him, I can kill you...”

Wolfgang turns around, throwing his arm in front of Felix and Kala, aiming again at Fuchs. But before any of them can shoot, Volker returns at the top of the driveway. Wolfgang stares at the new gun mounted on Volker’s shoulder, gray-blue eyes flashing for the first time in genuine fear. The next few seconds happen in slow motion. He raises his own gun, throws Kala and Felix behind the nearest BMW; bullets spray the pavement of the driveway; Fuchs sinks to the ground, and so do his men. Kala, crouched behind the wheel, feels a hot, sharp pain in her ribcage and she cries out. Seconds later, Wolfgang falls behind the BMW, and there’s a moment of unnatural silence.

Then Wolfgang grunts and pushes himself up with his hands, looking down at himself. In the dim winter light, he can see blood spreading over his white shirt. Kala and Felix’s voices grow quickly distant and distorted, and their faces begin to slip away from him.

“Wolfgang! Wolfie, c’mon, c’mon now!”

“Oh my God! Help! Help! Someone help us, please!”

Kala and Felix look at each other, their eyes wet, despairing, lost. Kala presses her hands all over Wolfgang’s chest. Felix shakes him. He doesn’t move, and his breath is shallow.

“Wolfgang!” Kala sobs, voice scratchy with grief. “Wolfgang!”

She looks again at Felix, but this time, her eyes are wild with revenge.

“Call an ambulance,” she says quickly, and then she takes Wolfgang’s gun, throws herself away from the protection of the car, and walks directly towards Volker, finger pressed continuously to the trigger. The gun shakes against her shoulder, becoming difficult to hold onto, but as she approaches him, she grips tighter, yelling from the back of her throat.

She sees Volker’s eyes widen suddenly, understanding that she won’t back down, and he takes refuge behind the garage with his last remaining man. But Kala has noticed a propane tank, and deftly replacing her magazine, she fires a continuous stream of bullets at it. It bursts open, and after a silent fraction of a second, explodes.

The entire garage is instantly consumed in flames. Kala drops the gun, suddenly frightened of it, and sprints back to the car where Felix and Wolfgang are.

She wipes her eyes, kneeling next to them. Nomi, Sun, Will, Riley, Capheus and Lito are there, in a circle around Wolfgang, staring blankly, stunned.

“Did you call?” Kala asks.

Felix nods numbly, staring at Wolfgang’s unmoving figure. Then he murmurs, “Kala, I called, but...”

“No,” she says fiercely, voice thick with tears. “No, don’t you dare!”

“Kala, he’s...”

“No! No....”

“He’s still alive,” says Nomi very quietly. “But...”

“Clear the way for the ambulances!” shouts Kala, taking Wolfgang’s knife out of his pocket and cutting a strip off of her dress. “Do something!”

“I don’t know that we can take him to the hospital--”

“He has to go to the hospital! He’ll die if we don't!”

Nomi nods, disappearing. Kala slides the knife along Wolfgang’s shirt, ripping it open, and kneels over him.

“God, God...” she murmurs, shaking too hard to move.

But suddenly Riley’s hands are her own. “Here, let me...”

Kala nods, watching Riley quietly dress the wound.

“I wonder, did it exit his body?” she asks Kala.

Kala nods. “It must have, he’s lost so much blood, but we... we can’t move him, it may have hit his spine, we just can’t tell...”

Riley nods in response. They wait in the frigid snow for what feels like days. Kala rests her head on Wolfgang’s shoulder, crying silently, watching Riley work; Felix holds both of Wolfgang’s hands, shaking with sobs. The cluster all lays hands on him, on Kala, lending them strength and warmth and hope. The Bogdanow mansion, in its entirety, is now in flames behind them.

Kala’s thoughts are like birds frightened out of a tree, all taking flight at once.

I’m going to lose him.

This wasn’t his idea, we pushed him...

I’m never going to see him again.

I shouldn’t have come here...

I’m never going to see him again.

I’m never going to see him again...

Then, like a ship approaching in the night, red and blue lights begin to flash on the leaves of nearby trees and reflect on the snow.

Chapter Text

Kala sits up, eyes searching the road, and then an ambulance careens up the drive and three paramedics rush out of it. They pause briefly at the sight of the manor, in flames, and scan over the bodies on the driveway. One of the paramedics turns his face towards the radio strapped to his chest, calling for fire and police support.

Kala runs up to him. “Thank God, thank God...my boyfriend -- he’s been shot, he’s not moving--” She notices his gaze, fixed on the bodies. “He’s the only one that’s alive, please!”

The paramedic nods, running over. Two of the others bring a gurney, and the three of them surround Wolfgang. They shift him onto the gurney as quickly as possible, then bear him over to the ambulance, Kala, and Felix following.

“Only one of you, that’s the policy,” says one of the paramedics as they go to get in the back.

“You will allow both of us into this ambulance,” snarls Kala.

The paramedic sighs and shakes his head, then gestures at her and Felix to enter the ambulance. Felix squeezes Kala’s hands gratefully, and they take two seats near Wolfgang, who’s already hooked up to various monitors.

“I’m going, to be honest with you,” says one of the paramedics, whose voice reminds Kala comfortingly of Diego’s. “This is a pretty serious injury, okay? But we’re going to do our best, I promise you that.”

Kala nods, tears streaming down her face. She looks at Felix, then puts her arms around him, holding him tightly. He rests his head on hers, and they both watch as the two paramedics work on Wolfgang, applying bandages and compresses. The ambulance speeds away, and Kala can hear Nomi’s voice in her mind.

I’ve got it. I’m in. I’ll give them all the greens, okay?

“Nomi’s taking care of the lights,” Kala murmurs to Felix.

He nods, eyes fixed on his friend.

“I didn’t expect this,” he says weakly. “Wolfie’s never...he’s been in so many fights, he’s never been shot...”

Kala stares at Wolfgang. His skin is far too pale, his face utterly without expression. She folds slowly over her lap, crying into her hands. Felix hesitates, then rubs her back up and down. She cries harder.

“He’s -- listen, Kala -- he’s a fighter, okay?”

She nods into her hands.

“I’ve -- I’ve seen him come back from so much fucking shit, okay? It’s not over yet.”

She keeps nodding. Then she lifts her head up and forces herself to watch the paramedics work as if watching is bestowing a blessing. The paramedics are speaking softly, but she can pick up some phrases over the squeal of the tires and the blare of the sirens.

“Yeah, yeah, he’s not breathing, hold on...”

“Pneumothorax?”

“Yeah, pneumothorax...”

She watches them insert a syringe into his chest, slowly depressing the plunger.

“What are they doing?” asks Felix.

“Reinflating his lung,” says Will, who’s suddenly present.

Kala looks around, seeing six other faces. They’ve all joined her in the ambulance. They all stare at Wolfgang as the paramedics work. Kala holds her breath as one of the paramedics extracts the syringe, and Wolfgang coughs weakly. Kala sees his eyes move under his eyelids, and then his fists tighten at his side. Pain hits Kala like a wave of acid and she gasps and digs her nails into Felix’s shoulder.

“What, what?” he asks.

“I -- I think he’s conscious,” she replies, body tightening instinctively against the pain.

Wolfgang opens his eyes -- just a sliver, disguised by a grimace -- and Kala leans forward, eyes flashing in hope.

“Wolfgang? Wolfgang?”

He shuts his eyes again, but murmurs, “Can’t believe I’ve never been shot before.”

A laugh bursts helplessly from Kala’s lips and she squeezes his hands.

“This is worse than I thought...” he goes on.

“Honey, shh, shh, you shouldn’t talk right now--”

The paramedics crowd over him, flashing a light in his eyes and reassessing vital statistics.

“How you feeling?” one of them asks.

“Staying with us?” adds the other.

Wolfgang nods.

“Doesn’t look like there’s any spinal injury--”

“No, no spinal injury. Significant blood loss, though -- okay, Mr.--?”

“Baumann!” fills in Felix.

“Excellent. Mr. Baumann, you still awake?”

Wolfgang raises an eyebrow, eyes shut, reactions slow. Then he nods.

The paramedic looks at Felix. “You look familiar.”

“Nah, no. One of those faces.”

“Uh huh. Okay, hang in there Mr. Baumann...”

Kala meets Felix’s eyes and nods her approval of the name-change. Then the monitors beep wildly.

“Shit,” murmurs one of the paramedics, “he needs a transfusion--”

“Clearly a major artery hit,” agrees the other medic.

“Hang in there, Mr. Baumann, stay with us, okay?” says the first paramedic, adding to her colleague, “How close are we?”

“About three minutes,” he says.

She nods. “Okay.”

“Wolfgang?” asks Kala, leaning forward again. “Wolfgang!”

“He’s lost a lot of blood, he’s going in and out,” says the first paramedic.

Kala begins to cry again, fingers biting into Wolfgang’s wrists. “Wolfgang!”

“Ma’am, excuse us,” says the second paramedic. “Please, sit back.”

“C’mere,” says Felix, who’s drained of all color. “Kala, c’mon.”

Kala wipes her face and takes a loud, shaky breath. She forces herself back into her seat and Felix puts his arms around her again, eyes fixed on Wolfgang. The next three minutes pass extremely slowly. She can feel the strength leave Wolfgang’s body, replaced by a relentless sense of cold.

She can barely control her shaking by the time they reach the hospital, but the paramedics assure her it’s a good sign that he survived the drive. The emergency room is a new, overbright world, and Kala and Felix stand still, hand in hand, staring, as the paramedics wheel Wolfgang into an exam room. His breathing, rather than staying shallow, is suddenly rough, gasping, loud. They listen to the doctors say a string of things they do not understand, but at the end, Kala catches one doctor demand that an operating room is prepped.

She tries to engage with him. “Does that mean surgery? Is he going to be okay?”

He smiles perfunctorily at her. “Mrs. -- ?”

“Miss. Dandekar.”

“Miss Dandekar, we don’t know yet, please, there’s a waiting room.”

Just then, several police officers enter the emergency room. Felix, to Kala’s shock, bodily grabs the doctor, digging his fingers into his white coat.

“No police.”

The doctor’s face is suddenly ashen. He glances over Felix’s shoulder at the cops.

“How much?” he asks.

Felix pushes him away. “Five thousand--”

“Bullshit. Ten.”

“Ten,” agrees Felix hastily. “Get them the fuck out of here.”

The doctor nods, rushing towards the police. Kala turns her eyes to Felix.

“Ten thousand dollars?”

“It’s what he did for me.”

“But--”

“ I’ll tell you later.”

Kala nods, dazed, and then they run after the crowd of doctors and nurses that are pushing Wolfgang out of the emergency room. A nurse breaks away to speak to them as they pile into a massive elevator.

“He’s got a punctured lung and the bullet appears to have hit a significant artery, he’s lost about a fifth of his blood. We’re going to inflate his lung and stop the bleeding, okay?”

Kala and Felix nod.

“His brain’s been without oxygen for a long time. It’s a bit of a waiting game at this point, alright? We’ll reevaluate if he wakes up.”

They nod again. The elevator doors open, and the nurse gestures across the hall at a waiting room.

“You can wait there, okay? There’s a cafeteria to the left.”

They keep nodding. The group wheels the gurney out of the elevator, turning away from them, and Kala sprints momentarily after it.

“Let-- let me say goodbye, please!”

Felix joins her, and they side-step along the rolling gurney. Wolfgang has a large plastic tube in his mouth; his skin is dull blue-white.

Kala presses a frantic kiss to his forehead, and her voice echoes and blends with Felix’s as the gurney rolls out of their reach.

“I love you!”...“I love you!”...“It’s going to be okay!”...“You’ll be alright!”...

Then Kala’s arms fall at her side helplessly. She stares down the now-empty hall, and after a moment, Felix’s voice breaks the silence.

“I should never have let him come back,” he says.

“I should never have come here,” says Kala feebly.

They both stand there for a moment, unmoving. Finally, Kala takes Felix’s arm and guides him into the waiting room.

“I hate hospitals,” she murmurs as they sit down.

He nods. “Me too.”

Her eyes find the clock, which she’s certain she’ll stare at for the rest of the night. Then she looks around, seeing that the cluster has joined her. She meets each of their eyes and then shakes her head softly. She and Felix sit in silence for a long time, minds too cluttered to speak.

Then Kala murmurs, “I’m getting coffee. Would you like coffee?”

He nods. She smiles weakly, getting to her feet. She wraps her scarf around herself more tightly as she exits the waiting room and walks down the hall to the cafeteria. She can feel her heart in her throat like the beat of an executioner’s drum, matched to her footsteps; she keeps her eyes fixed on the alternating colors of the tiles, avoiding them, almost a dance.

When she reaches the cafeteria, she wordlessly collects two cups of coffee. She goes to put cream in hers, but stops.

Whenever I miss you, I can just drink really strong coffee, and it will feel a bit like I'm with you.

She grips the counter for support. Then, coffee spilling on her hands, her eyes flash up to meet Riley’s.

“You’ve never lost anyone, have you?” asks Riley gently.

Kala shakes her head. Riley nods, moving closer to her. She takes the coffees out of Kala’s hands, affixing them with lids and stoppers, and slides them back.

“I lost my husband and my daughter,” murmurs Riley. “For a long time, I wanted to be with them, and sometimes, I still do.” She looks intently at Kala. “It does no good to worry about that now. Right now, he’s alive.”

Kala nods, pressing her lips together hard. “Okay.” Then she sniffles into her hand, shaking her head in stunned sorrow. “I can’t feel him anywhere.”

“No,” agrees Riley.

“What does that mean?” asks Kala.

“I think it just means that he’s unconscious, love,” says Riley.

Kala nods again. Riley pulls her close and presses a gentle kiss to her forehead, then holds her at arm’s length.

“The best thing to do is focus on others... it hurts less when you’re helping.”

Kala nods once more, gesturing with her coffee. “Poor Felix.”

“Wolfgang’s all he’s got, isn’t he?” guesses Riley.

“They’re like brothers,” Kala murmurs in agreement.

Riley smiles, eyes wet. “Well. Go keep him company.”

Kala sniffs hard, nods, then picks up the coffees and returns to the waiting room. She finds Felix hunched over his lap, shoulders shaking slightly. She places her hand on his back, and he jumps, glancing up at her with wet eyes. He hastily wipes his face, sniffling.

“Sorry, I, uh--” He shakes his head, realizing an excuse is no good. “I needed a minute.”

Kala nods, sitting next to him and handing him his coffee.

“No cream?” he asks, running his hand through his hair.

She smiles and shrugs. “It’s how he drinks it.”

“Great, we’re already doing the fucking memorial thing--”

Kala shakes her head, interrupting. “It’s so I can feel close to him.”

Felix looks at her for a moment, then takes a drink of coffee. Then he says, very quietly, “Just, you know, in case he...” He clears his throat. “He loves you more than he’s ever loved anybody, okay?”

Kala shuts her eyes against the urge to sob. A few tears leak out under her lashes. She nods.

“He loves you, too,” she replies.

He laughs, wipes his eyes, and nods. “Sat by me in this same goddamn hospital for three weeks. Still not convinced he ever left the room. I think he slept there.”

Kala smiles. Felix drinks more coffee.

“I was way worse off than him and I pulled through,” he says. Then he squints. “What were the doctors saying about oxygen?”

She shrugs. “Going without oxygen for too long results in cognitive impairment, memory loss...”

“Well, he could use some of that.”

Kala laughs and cries at once. She squeezes Felix’s shoulder. “True.”

Felix looks at his watch after a moment. “Fuck, it’s three a.m....”

“Do you want to sleep?”

Felix snorts. “No.”

She nods, blowing on her coffee. She sets it aside, then glances at her hands, which are scraped, bruised, dusky with gunpowder. They remind her of Wolfgang’s hands. She stretches them out in front of her, staring.

Felix looks at her. “Where’d you learn all that?”

“What?” asks Kala.

He gestures vaguely. “The guns, the--”

She shakes her head. “It’s part of the connection.”

“What....what is that exactly?”

She hesitates. “I’m not sure yet.” She wrinkles her brow. “I can feel what he can, what all of them can. I felt when he was shot. And I...I can’t feel anything now.”

“They’d tell us if something’s wrong,” says Felix unsurely.

She nods. Then she whispers, “They’ll treat him well, right? They won’t neglect him because he’s...”

“A mobster?” asks Felix. “Fuck no. He’s getting the royal treatment, the doctors don’t want any retaliation.”

“Why did you change his name, then? In the ambulance?”

“Buying time with the police,” he explains.

She nods tiredly. Then she murmurs, “I just wish I could feel something.”

Felix hesitates, then reaches for her hand. She smiles weakly, accepting the gesture, then leans her head on his shoulder.

“I’m glad I’m not alone here,” he mumbles.

She nods. “Me too.”

“Thanks for the coffee,” he adds.

She smiles. “Of course.”

They don’t talk anymore. The night passes in waves and fits. Kala changes chairs. She paces. Felix sits still, staring. Her exhaustion becomes dizzying, and Riley makes her lie down on three of the chairs. She wakes up on and off, sometimes in Riley’s arms, sometimes in Nomi’s. Felix has stayed awake the whole time, holding a silent vigil. Around six in the morning, the sun beginning to peek through the window, Kala sits next to him again. The bags under her eyes are deep and bluish, and her fingers twitch against her palm in anxiety. With so little sleep and so little food, she feels like a shadow, going through the motions, thinking of very little and feeling even less. She’s aware, only vaguely, of a deadening, sickening sense of worry.

Felix looks at her but doesn’t speak. He knows she won’t hear him.

Finally, she slides off her chair, settles on her knees, puts her hands together, and bows her head. Felix watches her pray, expression soft and curious, for nearly an hour. Then he sees her head dip against her chest, and she slumps against the side of the chair, asleep. He takes off his jacket, covers her with it, and then goes in search of breakfast to bring her.

The breakfast line is long in the cafeteria, and he spends a few extra minutes looking out a window, needing the space. By the time he goes back to the waiting room, it’s nearly eight. He breathes out heavily, then nudges Kala. She jumps slightly, then rubs her eyes and looks up at him, disoriented.

He gestures with a plate of eggs, hashbrowns and fruit. “I don’t know if you’re hungry, but--”

Kala scrambles to take the food out of his hands. “Thank you!”

He laughs and gives her a fork. She sits in one of the chairs again, and he sits next to her, yawning hugely. They both eat in silence, and just as Kala is setting her plate aside, the doctor enters the waiting room. She and Felix freeze in place, looking at him imploringly. 

"He's awake," he says quietly. "We stopped the bleeding. He's going to be alright."

Kala and Felix fly out of their seats and rush the doctor.

“Where is he?”

“Can we see him?”

The doctor holds up his hands. “If you don’t see him, I’m afraid he’ll break out of his room. He was very insistent that he sees you both immediately.”

“He’s talking?”

“There was no brain damage?”

“Is--?”

“Please, be quiet,” snaps the doctor. “Follow me.”

Kala and Felix exchange a glance, silently communicating a shared desire to smack the doctor in the back of the head, but they politely walk down the hall after him. He leads them to a recovery ward near the operating plaza, along a row of curtained-off beds to the very last bed, near a window and a potted tree, where Wolfgang is sitting in a chair, studying the IV in his arm, frowning. He looks up as they approach, eyes brightening in relief, and gets slowly to his feet.

Kala darts forward, initially hesitant, nervous she’ll hurt him. Then he pulls her close and hugs her tightly, and she spontaneously begins to cry, lightly pounding her fists on his chest.

“You s-scared me s-so much,” she sobs, pressing her face hard into his shoulder.

Felix joins them, throwing his arms around Wolfgang and Kala both, pressing an aggressive, slightly accusing kiss to the side of Wolfgang’s head.

“You just had to get fucking shot, didn’t you?” he mutters.

Wolfgang laughs weakly, kissing Kala’s temple, then nudging the side of Felix’s head with his nose.

“Fucker,” Felix goes on. “Fuck, man. You almost died.”

“I feel great,” replies Wolfgang.

“You say that now,” says Felix. “You’re on the high-grade hospital shit.”

“Thanks, Felix,” says Wolfgang.

Kala is still crying, though more quietly. She hasn’t let go of Wolfgang yet, so he pushes her gently away to look at her.

“Hey, love, hey. It’s okay.”

Kala shakes her head, tears streaming, and presses a simple kiss to his mouth.

The doctor sighs in the background, claps his file on his leg to signify his departure, and exits the room.

“You were unconscious for so long,” murmurs Kala.

“I don’t remember any of it. I don’t even know who shot me.”

“Volker,” says Felix, mouth twitching in anger.

“Is he dead?” asks Wolfgang.

Felix laughs darkly. “Yeah. So’s Fuchs. Volker killed Fuchs, Kala killed Volker. And burned down your house, by the way.”

Wolfgang snaps his head towards Kala. “You what?”

“I...” she stutters.

“She took your fucking MP5,  shot a motherfucking propane tank, blew Volker up, started the fire,” explains Felix.

Wolfgang stares at her for a moment, then cocks his eyebrow. “That’s hot.”

Kala stares back, nonplussed. Then she bursts out laughing, hugging him again, holding his face in her hands and kissing him everywhere.

“I can’t believe you’re okay,” she murmurs.

“I’m okay,” he affirms, pulling her hands down from his head and squeezing them hard.

“Gonna have a sexy scar,” says Felix. “Where’d it hit you?”

Wolfgang taps lightly on his ribcage. “Right through my lung.”

“As if you haven’t damaged those enough,” teases Kala.

He makes an outraged face. “I was just shot, you could at least try to be nice.”

“Great,” drawls Felix. “He gets to use that excuse now.”

Wolfgang raises an eyebrow. “I’m totally gonna abuse that.”

Felix glowers, but a laugh is threatening to burst through. Wolfgang grins and gives Felix an affectionate push. Kala beams at them, then nudges her nose against Wolfgang’s.

“Felix gave the doctors a lot of money to keep the police away.”

“How much is a lot?”

“Ten thousand, you asshole,” says Felix.

“Only ten? I think I’m worth at least fifteen--”

Kala giggles. “I see getting shot hasn’t taught you any humility.”

He shakes his head, pulling her closer. She kisses the side of his mouth, and he gives her hips a gentle squeeze.

“You know I’m never letting you out of my sight now,” she murmurs.

“Oh, I know,” he says, and she laughs gently.

“You hungry?” asks Felix.

“Yeah, but I’m not eating hospital shit,” says Wolfgang, neatly removing his IV. “We’re getting the fuck out of here.”

“Wolfgang, no, honey--”

“Yeah, Wolfie, bad idea--”

Wolfgang gives them both a charming, obstinate smile, then reaches for his clothes on a nearby chair. His shirt, which was bloodied, was thrown out. However, his slacks and leather jacket are intact. He reaches behind him to untie his hospital gown.

“You were just shot!”

“You can’t leave the hospital yet!”

Wolfgang raises his eyebrows. “You can’t make me stay.”

He drops his hospital gown. Felix groans and turns around.

“You’ve seen me naked before,” says Wolfgang, putting on his slacks.

Felix sighs, exasperated. “I’m not trying to make a habit of it!”

Kala rolls her eyes, helping Wolfgang into his leather jacket. Then she squeezes his arms gently.

“Are you sure about this?”

“Do you want to wait for the police to show up? Or worse?”

She nods reluctantly as he zips up his coat. Then she looks over her shoulder.

“How do we get out? They have to dismiss you, they won’t let you leave--”

“Got it,” says Felix. “Give me a minute.”

Kala and Wolfgang exchange a glance, waiting. Felix leaves the room, and then Kala’s phone rings. She frowns sharply at the display -- Nomi.

“Hello?” she answers, surprised.

“Kala?” Nomi’s voice is panicked and urgent. “We haven’t heard anything all night, are you alright, is he alright? What’s going on? None of us can pick up on him--”

Kala wrinkles her brow. “I -- I expected you to feel it when--”

“Oh my God, please, please say he’s not dead,” says a new voice -- Dani’s. “Felix isn’t picking up his damn phone--”

“I’m fine!” says Wolfgang loudly.

There’s an explosion of relieved sighs and cheers on the other line.

“But why can’t we reach you?” murmurs Nomi.

Kala and Wolfgang look at each other, puzzled. Then Kala’s eyebrows pop in sudden, delicious comprehension.

“Oh my God,” she whispers. “Oh my God!”

“What?” asks Wolfgang.

Kala doesn’t answer, and instead rushes over to the discarded IV bag. She reads the label on it.

“It’s an opioid,” she says softly. “I think...I think it’s blocking you from us.”

Wolfgang frowns. “You mean it stops the connection?”

She nods. “Yes!”

“Why are you excited?”

“Don’t you see? We can use this--”

“If we ever need to hide!” Nomi interrupts on the phone, gasping. “Kala, oh my God!”

“Exactly!” says Kala, eyes wide and bright.

“I don’t think I understand,” says Wolfgang.

“Remember in the studies? It’s how BPO identifies our kind...but...if they couldn’t feel us, they wouldn’t know we exist. We could just...exist invisibly.”

Wolfgang’s eyes widen quickly in comprehension, but he doesn’t have time to respond, because Felix reenters the room, dressed as a nurse, pushing an empty wheelchair.

“Ta motherfucking da,” he says proudly.

“Is that Felix?” yells Dani on the phone. “Pick up your phone once in awhile, Felix! It’s not that hard! I’ve been calling all night!”

Felix stares at the phone in Kala’s hand. Then, in a scratchy, uncertain voice, yells back, “I was too worried about Wolfie to talk!”

“I was worried about him too!”

“Yeah, but not as worried as me!”

Dani sighs. “Okay. Fine. But you owe me!”

“Anything!”

“Anything? Wow, easy sell--”

“Sorry, but can we get back on topic?” asks Nomi.

“No, we should go,” says Wolfgang.

“Aren’t you at the hospital?”

“Yeah, we’ll explain later,” says Wolfgang shortly.

“But--”

“Later.”

He takes Kala’s phone and ends the call, then pulls a blanket off the bed nearby, wraps it around himself, and sits in the wheelchair. He grits his teeth slightly from sitting at this angle.

“Good thing you can’t feel any of this,” he says to Kala.

She smiles weakly, then checks around the room for anyone who might stop them. Then she glances at Felix and nods softly. He wheels Wolfgang out of the room, Kala following close behind.

Chapter Text

Kala, Felix and Wolfgang huddle on a small couch in the back of the shop, heat on full blast, blankets pulled down from forgotten caches. Wolfgang is in a state of drug-induced half-sleep, his head on Kala’s lap, smiling softly whenever she runs her fingers through his hair. She's nearly asleep too, exhausted from the hospital, and sometimes her head falls forward and she's startled awake again. A grainy movie plays on the TV, which Felix fixed, and several orange-stained oily plates surround them, the aftermath of ordering pizza.

It's still snowing, and the growing drifts quiet the noise from the street outside.

Felix leans against the couch, tipping back a beer, as tired as Kala but unable to sleep. He's found himself unexpectedly responsible for relaying any news to everyone in Chicago, because Kala is too worn out, and Wolfie can’t reach them because of the drugs.

He lets out a heavy breath, glancing back at his friend, who's lifted up his head, rested his chin on Kala’s shoulder and said something to make her laugh. Felix looks away, tempted by his phone and the thought of calling Dani when the display lights up.

Dani.

He picks up. “Hey, ESP!”

Dani pauses on the other line. “ESP?”

“Extrasensory perception! I was just about to call you!”

“Oh,” she laughs. “We must be on the same wavelength.” Her voice changes. “Hey, Felix?”

“Hey what?” he asks.

He can sense a worried smile on the other end. “Can I talk to you about something?”

“Yeah, yeah of course,” he agrees, getting to his feet with a grunt. “Let me find somewhere to talk...”

“How's Wolfgang?”

“Feeling no pain,” says Felix, making his way into the kitchen. “We got him the good stuff.”

“And Kala?”

“Worn the fuck out, we all are,” he replies, settling near the window that overlooks the street. “Okay, what's going on?”

“Um, a couple of things,” she says softly, voice tight. “First things first... Nomi has been watching Lila, but she... Felix, she just disappeared, we're so sorry.”

Felix squints. “Disappeared?”

“She was good at hiding anyway, but this time... it's like she doesn't exist. There's no trace of her.”

“Maybe that's a good sign?”

“Nomi and Nando don't think so and I trust them.”

“Is Nomi there?” asks Felix.

“Yeah, she’s downstairs,” sighs Dani.

“Where are you?”

Dani laughs sadly. “Um, hiding on the porch next to one of the fireplaces? I just...I had to get away from everyone for a few minutes. I’m sure Berlin hasn’t been fun, but...count yourself lucky that you’re not a basement with eight other people, waiting for everything to fall apart. God, Felix, I feel so trapped.”

“Haven’t you been able to leave?”

“Nomi told us not to until you all got back,” she explains. “We’ve all been sleeping here. Well, trying to. I don’t even know what time it is. What time is it there?”

“Um, bout midnight,” replies Felix.

“Oh, I’m sorry!” sighs Dani. “Were you asleep?”

He smiles. “'Course not.”

She laughs. They pause, Dani toying with one of her toe rings while she stretches by the fire in Chicago, Felix staving off a shiver and punching up the heat a few notches in Berlin.

Then she says, “When are you coming back?”

“Don’t know,” he admits. “Not sure how soon Wolfie can travel.”

“Oh, okay,” says Dani in a small voice. “Well, we miss you.”

“Yeah, we miss you, too,” agrees Felix. Then he says, “Well, I miss you.”

“Are you saying Kala and Wolfgang have forgotten me?” she teases.

He laughs. “No, just -- I’m just saying I miss you.”

She pauses, then murmurs,  “It’s nice to hear your voice. It’s nice to talk to someone who isn’t...”

“Yeah,” he agrees. “I know what you mean.”

“Lito is different,” she goes on. “I feel like we don’t speak the same language anymore. There’s this...wall.”

“Same with Wolfie,” replies Felix.

She sighs. “Maybe they’re just scared. I’m scared.”

“I think we’re all scared,” says Felix.

“This all happened so quickly,” she whispers.”Before, growing up, I could always tell when something was coming...but this? I feel so out of control. Don’t you?”

Felix laughs. “Yeah, but I’m used to that. Things just fucking happen to me, I don’t make things happen, you know? Wolfie’s bad decisions just happen to me...”

Dani giggles.”We’re just along for the ride, huh?”

“Fucking right,” agrees Felix.

Dani keeps laughing. Then she sighs and says, “Well, I should let you sleep.”

“Yeah,” he says reluctantly. “Yeah, yeah. Night, Dani.”

“Night,” she returns softly, adding, “hey Felix?”

“Huh?”

“Be careful.”

He agrees then hangs up, leaving the chilly seat by the window and returning to the den in the back, where Kala and Wolfgang have both fallen asleep. Felix shuts off the TV, throws a blanket over his sleeping friends, and turns off the light. He’s just gone for the stairs, determined to sleep, when he hears something outside of the kitchen. He turns. Wolfgang sits up sleepily, and even in his opioid haze, reaches automatically for his gun.

“What was that?” he asks drowsily.

Felix shakes his head. “Don’t know, I was just out there--”

Three sharp knocks.

“Fuck, are you kidding?” sighs Felix.

Wolfgang gets unsteadily to his feet and struggles for a moment with Felix, who’s trying to push him back onto the couch.

“I’m fine, get off,” Wolfgang says tersely.

The knocking continues, growing more desperate. Felix is about to warn him of what Dani said, but he’s already out of the den, into the kitchen, approaching the door with a gun.

The figure outside is small, hunched over.

“Goddamn it,” murmurs Felix. “I’m getting really fucking tired of women showing up at this door...”

Wolfgang opens the door, gun outstretched. On the steps, shaking with cold, face obscured under a gray wool coat, is Lila. Her eyes are huge with fear, her face scratched and bruised, and she appears injured.

“Put it down,” says Lila instantly, holding out her hands.

Wolfgang barely recognizes her voice because it's laced with fear. It's clear she ran away, from someone, something. He lowers his gun, just slightly. Behind him, Felix groans quietly. Lila’s eyes dart back and forth, then she looks over her shoulder.

“Let me in. Please. Let me in.”

Wolfgang lets out a long breath, then opens the door wider. She steps inside cautiously, he shuts the door and locks it, then shoves her hard against it.

“I have a glock, that’s all,” she says as he pats her down, gun pressed against her ribcage. “It’s in my left pocket.”

He motions at Felix, who takes the gun out of her pocket and sets it aside. Wolfgang continues to check her, until he’s satisfied she was being honest. Then he glances outside, and seeing the street is empty, pushes her towards the kitchen. She stumbles over her hurt ankle and looks over her shoulder at him with heavy-lidded, resentful eyes.

“Talk fast,” he says shortly.

She doesn’t respond, steadying herself on a chair and slowly sinking into it. She breathes out, gritting her teeth, and begins to slowly unwrap her scarf.

“I need a drink,” she says quietly.

Wolfgang hesitates, still holding his gun tightly, watching her from the foyer. Then he nods, pockets his gun, and goes into the kitchen.

Felix squints, watching him pull down two glasses, one for wine, one for beer, but he doesn't comment. Wolfgang has just poured himself a beer and Lila a glass of wine when there's a soft noise in the doorway -- Kala, brow stitched with confusion and shock.

“So far two women I didn't want to see have shown up here in the middle of the night,” says Wolfgang acidly. “New record.”

Kala looks quickly at Lila, then back at Wolfgang.

“You're letting her stay here?” she murmurs.

“She doesn't have anywhere else to go,” replies Wolfgang, turning to Lila and adding, “do you?”

Lila shifts uncomfortably, eyes downcast.

“Wait,” breaks in Felix. “Wait, hold on, did you leave because BPO figured some shit out?”

She shrugs, accepting the glass of wine Wolfgang hands her. She takes a long drink, then winces, breathing out to steady herself.

“Our friends are there,” Felix goes on, more loudly. “What's going on--”

Lila points coldly out of the kitchen.

“Why don’t you let the adults talk?” she asks, adding to Kala, “that goes for you as well.”

“She’s not going to talk in front of you,” says Wolfgang quietly before Kala can respond.

Kala looks at them, their body language betraying how badly they want her to leave. She lets out a small breath, anger electrifying her fingertips, wanting to crush something in them, and doesn’t move. Wolfgang takes her arm, pushing her towards the stairs, and murmurs that she should listen outside the door. She nods softly, finding a place where she can’t be seen. Felix nods at her as he passes to show he understands, then motions that he’s going to make a phone call.

“What a good girl,” says Lila once she’s alone with Wolfgang.

Wolfgang pulls his chair out and sits heavily. “Talk. I want to go to bed.”

Lila contemplates her glass of wine. She tilts her head, thinking, then lifts her eyes to meet Wolfgang’s gaze.

“I’m not here to stare into your eyes,” he says after a moment.

She blinks slowly. “Are you sure?”

“Why are you here?” he asks, agitated, pulling his beer towards him so some sloshes on the table.

“I wanted to check on you,” she explains. “I didn’t expect you to do what I asked.”

“You said you weren’t allowed back in Germany.”

She shrugs softly. “I lied.”

“Right,” says Wolfgang. “We did what you asked.”

She nods in agreement, taking a moment to sip her wine. “Clever, actually, turning them against each other, avoiding implications...”

Wolfgang laughs humorlessly. “Yeah, that worked so well.”

She leans forward and pulls her fingers lightly over the bandage on his stomach.

“Did it hurt? I’ve always wondered what that’s like...”

“Don’t touch me.”

She leans back, sipping more wine. Then she lets down her damp hair, runs her slim fingers once through it, and extends her hand.

“Light?” she asks.

He extracts a lighter from his pocket and slides it across the table to her, to avoid touching her. She smirks slightly at the careful gesture, lights her cigarette, then lights his, then leans slightly forward.

“I can’t protect you from BPO,” she says quietly after a moment.

Wolfgang nods. “No, I didn’t expect this to do much besides buy time.”

She pauses, resting her chin on her hand, letting her cigarette smolder. Then she breathes out, eyes carefully fixed on the table.

“They only know about Kala and you,” she murmurs. “But I don’t imagine either of you will outlast their interrogation. They’ll know about all of you before long.”

“Why are you telling me this?”

“Because they know about me too,” she goes on. She smiles softly, but it doesn’t reach her eyes. “And I’m out of things to sell them.”

“You knew that would happen when you joined them.”

“I thought I would come up with something before time ran out.”

“Big assumption,” says Wolfgang, tipping his beer back.

“I’ve never run out of time before,” she replies, voice breaking slightly.

He glances at her, and for a moment, slouched exhaustedly at the table, one hand in her hair, the other holding an untouched cigarette, she looks almost young, almost gentle. She purses her lips and closes her eyes tiredly, then recovers with a deep breath, and lifts her cigarette to her mouth.

“I’m not here to check on you,” she whispers, flicking the ash off. “I’m here to explain why I can’t keep my promise.”

Regret it ascertainable in her voice, distantly, like a sign slightly too far away to read.

“Should we stay here?” Wolfgang asks quietly, serious.

She shakes her head. “Go somewhere they won’t expect you.”

“Why are you helping us?”

“Because it occurred to me that if we all cooperated, we would be...invincible.” She says the last word almost angrily, like she remembers a missed opportunity. She pauses, going at her cigarette again, agitated. “I’ve always been more comfortable on the inside. But I hate hiding.” Her voice shakes suddenly. “I hate hiding.”

He holds still, cigarette suspended halfway between his mouth and the table, careful.

“So do I,” he says after a moment.

She nods, gaze fixed on the table. Then she murmurs, “I promised myself I would never hide after...” She shrugs, straightening up, taking a drag. “It’s not important.”

“I don’t mind,” he says.

She briefly meets his eyes, then lifts her wine to her lips. She takes a long drink.

“I spent enough time with Sebastian to learn about you,” she says, catching him off guard. “It was no mystery why you killed your father.” She smiles -- a cold, removed smile -- and takes another sip of wine. “I didn’t kill my father, but I wanted to.”

“Why didn’t you?” asks Wolfgang.

“Because he deserved to live with what he did,” she murmurs. “Unlike your father, my father felt remorse, and the pain destroyed him.”

“What did he do?” asks Wolfgang.

“It’s what he didn’t do,” she says. “He knew, every time he knew, and he did nothing.” She raises her eyebrows. “Have you ever considered what life would have been like for you here if you were a girl instead of a boy?”

He looks down, disturbed by the implications of this.

“If you were a girl, you would have found that you had...less to sell, and more to lose, and very little choice over whether and when you sold and lost things,” she says quietly, silver nails clicking on the side of her glass. “The system doesn't protect women, so we hide in it. We become all the moving parts you never see. And men like my father, and your father, and Sebastian... well... they never ask too many questions, because the world is theirs, and they don’t see us hiding in it until it’s too late." She takes a breath and her eyes flash. "But I'm tired of hiding."

"Seems to have worked for you."

"It isn't a life."

"People like us survive. We don't live."

"You want a life," she murmurs, voice suddenly harsh. "I see how you look at her. You want to be with her. You want a home with her. You want children with her." She breathes out sharply. "Survive? You would never settle for survive."

“I may have to,” he responds quietly.

“Bullshit,” she replies. “We make our own cages. We never have to.”

“If you believe that, why are you with BPO?”

"Because I thought I could leave,” she says. “And I’m not with them anymore.”

“What changed?”

“Brandt wants a new face.”

“I'm surprised you got away.”

Lila tilts her head, lips puffed out in thought, setting aside her cigarette on an ashtray. “Yes. I barely did.” She pauses. “They all told me not to come here.”

“Your cluster?”

Lila nods, reaching for her wine. “But I had to do something. I've outlived my usefulness. The final useful thing BPO expected of me was to deliver Ms. Dandekar to them.”

“That’s not true,” says Wolfgang slowly.

Lila squints. “What do you mean?”

“Kolovi meant to displace you. You were supposed to deliver Kala to BPO because she’s your replacement.”

“That’s ridiculous.”

Wolfgang shrugs and takes a sip of beer. “Do you have a better explanation for why any of us are still alive?”

Lila holds still for a moment, then whispers, “Kolovi. He told you this?”

“Yes,” says Wolfgang. “Only a few hours before he died.”

Lila looks down. Wolfgang can't decide if she is confused or surprised.

“There’s a split at BPO,” Lila says quietly.

“We know,” says Wolfgang.

“There’s the new BPO, the BPO that I worked for, and there’s the old BPO, the one that was founded as an educational lobbying organization for sensate rights,” says Lila, voice full of irony. “Tell me, which BPO will win? The West is panicked like it has never been about terrorism and illegal immigration.” She lists off her fingers as she continues. “All the global powers are flirting with isolationism, nationalism, fascism, authoritarianism, militarism--”

“We have to work within the system or we’ll die--”

“Pussy. What happened to you?”

Wolfgang glances down, jaw tense with anger. “I don’t want her to die.”

“Grow up. If we don’t find something better than a temporary fix, we will all die.”

Wolfgang is suddenly aware, regardless of complex motivations, that Lila is here to solve more than her own problem. And in the shifting haze of sleeplessness and pain, he momentarily sees a new light in her eyes -- the same light that reflects ghosts, echoed memories, and mistakes in his own eyes.

“That's what life is,” he says quietly. “Series of temporary fixes.”

“I would rather die than live like that,” she says, sniffing, draining her last sip of wine. “And so would you. You're exhausted by a life of temporary fixes.” She picks up her cigarette and breathes in, smoke swirling softly out of her nostrils as she exhales. “This is the trick with every revolution...if you're not willing to die, that means you would rather live under the old system. I’m willing to die.”

Wolfgang pauses. “Fucking Ulrike Meinhof sitting across from me.”

Lila laughs, startled by the joke.

“I'd never be as careless as she was,” she says after a moment.

“No, you wouldn’t,” agrees Wolfgang.

They sit in silence for a moment, both smoking. Wolfgang looks out the small kitchen window, veiled with ice and snow, and Lila studies a discarded cup of tea on the counter, crimson lipstick on the rim.

“If you want to keep her alive,” says Lila very quietly, gaze still stuck on the cup, “you will consider working with me.”

"Why would I trust you?"

“BPO is looking for me too now,” she replies.

He shakes his head, showing he doesn’t understand.

"It’s mutually assured destruction,” she whispers. "We can destroy each other if we want. Do we want to?"

Wolfgang doesn’t respond to this, and instead says, “So, you wouldn’t have Kala replace you?”

“No,” she agrees.

“What would you do?”

Lila sits back, eyes downcast, cigarette loose in the side of her mouth. “As individuals, we aren’t powerful enough...but all of us, together?”

“How many of us are there?”

Lila shrugs. “No one knows for sure, but conservatively, thousands. Tens of thousands.”

Wolfgang hesitates, exhausted. Then he nods slowly.

“How do we reach them?” he asks.

Lila looks at him with dark eyes over her wine glass. “Simple. In a world of billions, it’s only six degrees of separation. And our population is much smaller than that.“

He finishes his beer. “You’re suggesting we go up against BPO in its entirety?”

“Yes,” says Lila.

“A war?” Wolfgang goes on.

“A war,” she agrees.

Outside of the kitchen, hidden away behind the door, is Kala. In the dark, chilly doorway, she feels very small, almost invisible. She’s been taking on water since the beginning of their conversation, sinking slowly, but now she catches her breath.

She can hear Wolfgang as he used to be. The careful, code-wording negotiator.

She holds still for another moment, then presses the door gently open. Lila looks up at once, eyes locking with hers.

Lila purses her lips, then says, “Afraid I was going to hurt him?”

“Yes,” admits Kala.

“How much did you hear?”

“Everything,” says Wolfgang in a clipped tone. “I told her to listen.”

Lila nods. “Stupid of me.”

Wolfgang puts an arm around Kala’s waist and pulls her into the chair next to him. She reaches for his hand and squeezes hard.

“We don’t know enough,” she says before Lila can speak. “We don’t know where BPO has bases, we don’t know how many people they employ--”

“I do,” says Lila. “I’ve worked with them for five years.”

“And you plan to simply...tell us?”

“I have nothing to gain from withholding information,” says Lila flatly.

Kala sits still, eyes wide and soft, gathering light from the passing cars on the street outside. Lila’s lips curve into a thin smile.

“You’re afraid,” she says. “You don’t like so much uncertainty.”

Kala opens her mouth to argue.

“And before you tell me I’m wrong,” Lila trails off, and suddenly, though Kala can see her plainly across the table, she can also feel her behind her, arms wrapped around her shoulders, her lips on the shell of her ear, “...let me remind you that we can...play outside our clusters. So, whatever you’re feeling, I can feel if I want to...and vice versa. It’s a good...” She trails off, breathing out on the back of Kala’s neck, “...trust builder.”

Wolfgang, who can’t see what Lila has just done, feels Kala stiffen beside him, notices her pulse pick up speed. He glances back and forth between her and Lila, brows knitted with confusion.

Lila lets go of Kala, reaching behind her for the bottle of wine on the counter and topping up her glass. She looks at Wolfgang.

“You’ll understand as soon as your drugs wear off.”

Wolfgang glances at Kala.

“She can visit,” murmurs Kala. “Just like you and I can visit.”

Wolfgang looks at Lila, who smiles serenely.

“What?” she murmurs. “I enjoy touching things that aren’t mine.”

Wolfgang shakes his head slightly. “You’re not part of--”

“No, I’m not. I have to be physically proximate to visit outside of my cluster,” she explains.

Kala and Wolfgang look at each other again, interested expressions mirrored on one another’s faces.

Lila takes a long drink of wine, swishing it briefly in her mouth, then sets the glass down hard. “Kala?”

Kala’s eyes jump into hers, startled.

“Do you think he can travel?” Lila asks. “We shouldn’t be in Berlin very long.”

Kala looks unsurely at Wolfgang, gaze lingering on the bandages around his torso.

“Well,” she murmurs, “it was the blood loss that was dangerous, and now that he’s recovered from that...his pneumothorax could be a problem, although, a study was recently done to simulate the conditions of cruising altitude and the effect on that condition, and most patients were just fine... although, if something does go wrong, flight crews wouldn’t be equipped to handle it.” She hesitates. “He shouldn’t fly for at least a week unless it’s an emergency.”

“It’s an emergency. We should fly tomorrow morning.”

“To Chicago?” asks Wolfgang.

Lila nods. “It’s the obvious place to start.”

Kala slowly shakes her head. “We have to discuss this with everyone.”

“Of course,” agrees Lila softly. “But I’m coming with you. I want to make my case for myself.”

Kala breathes out, fingers twitching, unsure how to respond. She feels like her mind is a spool of string which is being slowly and steadily unwound. It’s becoming far too difficult to determine the truth, so difficult, in fact, that she’s not sure she would recognize it.

“Fine,” says Kala. “But you cannot contact your cluster and you can have no communication with anyone besides us and you aren’t allowed to leave our sight, even for a moment.”

Lila’s eyes grow stormy, but she sets her jaw and nods. Wolfgang shakes his head tiredly, getting up and reaching for a second beer in the fridge. He winces and momentarily braces himself on the counter.

“Is there anything else tonight?” he asks, voice tight.

Lila and Kala glance at each other, then both shake their heads.

“I don’t have anything either, I’m going to bed, this shit’s wearing off,” says Wolfgang. He nods in the direction of the stairs. “Kala.”

Kala gets up to follow him, but they stop and look at Lila.

Wolfgang gestures out of the kitchen. “There’s a couch--”

“What if she leaves?” whispers Kala.

Lila rolls her eyes, sipping her wine and staring straight ahead until they decide where to put her. Eventually, they make her come with them up the stairs, and Wolfgang knocks apologetically on Felix’s door.

Felix opens it, phone crooked against his shoulder, expression nonplussed.

“Can Lila sleep in your room while you keep watch?” asks Wolfgang.

“Keep watch?”

Wolfgang nods. “She can’t be allowed to leave.”

Lila sighs sharply. “I’m not going to leave--”

“Fuck off,” Wolfgang says, out of patience.

Lila’s nostrils flare but she stops speaking.

“Keep watch?” repeats Felix. “Like, all night? Wolfie, I’m exhausted--”

“I know -- just -- I don’t know, Felix, ask Dani to keep you awake or something. Just stay awake, okay? You can sleep on the plane tomorrow.”

“Plane? Are we going back to Chicago?”

“Yes, we’ll tell you everything soon,” Kala says warmly.

Felix sighs and runs his hand through his hair. Then he nods and presses the phone closer to his ear. “Hear that? Think you can talk for another...” He glances at his watch. “Seven hours or so?”

“You know I can talk all night,” says Dani on the other line.

Felix smiles tiredly and addresses Wolfgang again. “Okay. Gonna need some coffee, though, so give me a minute...”

He goes downstairs, and Lila steps into the small room, examining it.

“Can I shower?” she asks.

Wolfgang points out the bathroom. Lila makes her way into it, limping worse than she was when she arrived, and Kala and Wolfgang glance at each other.

“Are we really working with her?” whispers Kala.

Wolfgang breathes out heavily, rubbing the back of his head. “I don’t think we have much choice.”

Kala nods unsurely, then presses her hands to his arm, telling him to hold on, and dashes into their shared spare room. She pulls a long sleeve shirt and some soft boxers out of her bag, folds them, and then goes around to Felix’s room to put them neatly on the bed.

Wolfgang watches her, a smile starting in the corner of his mouth. “Really?”

Kala hesitates, looking up at him. Then she murmurs, “If we have to work with her, we might as well be civil.”

“You’re a much better person than me,” he mumbles, pulling her in for a kiss.

She smiles for the first time all night. “Forgiveness is important.”

“I’d rather die,” he replies and she laughs before he kisses her.

They sway against each other for a moment, holding on tightly. Then they pull away, noses touching, and Kala slides her hands up his chest.

“Do you want some more medicine before you sleep?” she asks. “You weren’t supposed to have any alcohol, by the way, so perhaps you should hold off, and honestly,smoking while you have a punctured lung...” She shakes her head. “What am I going to do with you?”

He nuzzles into her hair, gently squeezing her ass. “You can’t be surprised by my bad judgment at this point.”

“No, not surprised,” she agrees, nestling closer to him. “Just disappointed.”

He laughs -- then winces from laughing -- and Kala pulls him into their room.

“You need to rest, it’s essential to recovering,” she says firmly.

“No doubt I’ll get the best sleep of my life with Lila in the house,” he replies, kneeling carefully on the bed, gritting his teeth against the pain as he lays down.

Kala places a pillow under his head and puts several blankets over him, then quickly undresses, puts on a nightgown, and slides into bed next to him. She shivers so he pulls her closer, letting his hand rest lightly on her ribs. She stares out into the hallway, physically exhausted but mentally awake, almost hyper. She takes a few slow breaths, trying to calm down. Then she turns over, putting her arms around Wolfgang, searching his face.

“What if she’s lying, just to convince us to go back to Chicago where they can...find us?”

“Shh, c’mere babe,” he says, pulling her closer, rubbing her back for a moment until he feels her body soften. “If she’s lying...then Kolovi was too...and I don’t think he was.”

Kala nods against his chest, but still whispers, “We need to know how to respond if she is lying. We need a plan.”

He nods in agreement. “Okay, but tomorrow.”

“Okay,” she says in a small voice, adding, “keep rubbing my back.”

He chuckles and continues to rub her back. He kisses her forehead.

“Just go to sleep,” he murmurs.

“I’m not sleepy.”

“You don’t have to think about any of this if you’re asleep...”

She hums. “Mm, what if I dream about it?”

“Then you’re shit out of luck, babe,” he replies, patting her ass.

She laughs quietly and snuggles her chilly nose into his chest. “Maybe I’ll dream about something nice...like goldfish...or shahi tukda...or Moulin Rouge ...”

“Isn’t that movie a bit sad for you?”

“Mmhm, but it’s so romantic...and there’s dancing...and a room that looks like an elephant...”

Wolfgang laughs. “Not sleepy?”

She just mumbles incoherently in response. He adjusts the blankets around her, waiting for her breathing to slow down. He’s nearly asleep too by the time Lila comes out of the bathroom, wrapped in a towel, walking slow. Even in the dark of the hallway, he can see her bow her head, shoulders shaking, and stiffly wipe her eyes. Then she continues out of sight, and he’s left questioning.

***

Lila, Kala, Felix, and Wolfgang arrive at Nomi and Amanita’s apartment, all disordered and short-tempered, weighed down with luggage. Felix walks up the stairs ahead of the rest - Kala and Wolfgang in the middle, leaning on each other tiredly - and Lila hangs back, arms tightly crossed. Kala visited the others before their flight, explaining why Lila would be coming back with them. She’s unsure whether any of them fully grasped it or approved.

It snowed again in the time they were gone, and the stairs are caked with ice. They all grip the handrail as they wait for the door.

Bug opens up - a safety measure, since the others are hiding in the basement - and grins warily. His eyes dance over Lila.

“Wow, hey, you’re hotter than your profile on Interpol led me to believe,” he says, then looks at Wolfgang. “You’ve looked better. Is being shot more of a burning sensation? Or like...a punch? A tiny metal punch? Or, is it--”

“Bug, let the man breathe,” says a new voice.

Dani appears in the doorway in a long robe. She pushes the door open wider, then glances at Felix, who’s standing at the top of the stairs, waiting for a signal. They both stand still, then Dani looks at her feet, hiding a smile that threatens to be inappropriately exuberant for the circumstances. Felix breathes in hopefully, watching her. Then he clears his throat.

“So, uh--”

“Oh, come in,” she says quickly. “I have hot chocolate...”

“Is it that kind of hot chocolate you made Kala and Wolfie when they first started dating? Because that sounded fucking delicious, I’ve always wanted to try it...”

Dani glances over her shoulder and nods. “Yeah, that’s the one. Chocolate caliente con schnapps...o...con más precisión... schnapps con chocolate caliente...”

“I don’t know what you just said and I don’t care,” Felix says steadfastly and she laughs.

She nods towards the kitchen. “Follow me...”

The four of them step inside -- Lila still lingering behind -- and go to follow Dani, but she holds up a hand.

“Private party,” she says.

Felix looks at her in surprise. She smiles, dropping her gaze. Wolfgang shakes his head and chuckles, then gently pushes Kala towards the basement stairs.

“Viel Spaß*!” he calls at Felix, who grins and disappears into the kitchen after Dani.

“Where are we going?” Lila asks Kala softly as she catches up.

“The basement, it’s safer,” replies Kala.

She nods unsurely, eyes glassy and wide as she looks around. She takes in the pictures of Nomi, Amanita, and friends that line the walls of the staircase. Wolfgang notices her looking, and recognizes an envious, desolate expression. He wonders briefly if she’s ever loved anyone, but can’t linger on the thought for too long because they reach the bottom of the stairs. The door swings open, revealing Lito in an overlarge blue bathrobe and underwear. He pulls Kala into his arms and hugs her tightly. She can’t hold in a loud laugh.

“Lito - Lito, stop, it’s okay -- I’m okay!”

Lito lets go of her, eyes sparkling with tears. He forces himself to breathe and nods hard. Then he looks at Wolfgang and pulls him into a slightly gentler hug.

“Uh, okay.”

“You scared us to death,” says Lito, aggressively kissing the side of his head.

“Sorry about that,” mumbles Wolfgang.

“Fucker,” adds Will, pulling Wolfgang away from Lito and holding his arms. “Why didn’t you wear Kevlar? Why didn’t we think of that?”

Wolfgang makes a face. “No one wears Kevlar in real life.”

Will gestures at himself. “I do. Every day.”

“You’re a cop.”

“Yeah, and you’re a reckless idiot, seriously, we should just like...roll you up in bubble wrap.”

Wolfgang looks down and laughs quietly. Then he says, “Good to see you.”

“You too,” agrees Will.

Kala steps even with Wolfgang, leaning forward to kiss Will’s cheek.

“I like that idea,” she says. “Bubble wrap.”

Will grins. “It’s pretty good, right?”

By this time, the others have joined them, surrounded them with touches. Kala expected seeing everyone again to be strange - instead, it’s like returning home, greeting family, joy so overwhelming she cries, and for a moment she is briefly unaware that the world is collapsing brick by brick around them. She rests her head on Riley’s shoulder. She hugs Sun for more than a minute. She presses her forehead against Nomi’s and squeezes her hands. She lets Capheus pick her up and spin her. She feels newly present, like her feet are truly on the ground for the first time, and when she’s circled through everyone and comes back to Wolfgang, she hugs him and sobs softly, just twice, into his chest. He wrinkles his brow in concern, glancing down at her, but she smiles radiantly and laughs at herself.

“I don’t think I’ve felt so safe in...months,” she admits.

He smiles and moves her hair out of her face. “Me neither, babe.”

She breathes in, steadying herself, then turns around to look at the others. Wolfgang holds her from behind, arms protectively around her waist, chin resting on the top of her head. It’s only now, after greeting everyone, that she remembers Lila.

She looks over her shoulder to see Lila still in the doorway, hesitating. Then, surprising herself, she detaches herself from Wolfgang’s grip and holds her hand out.

Lila stares at her and doesn’t move.

“It’s okay,” Kala says softly, motioning with her hand.

Lila holds back for another moment, then steps into the basement, gaze downcast, arms rigid at her sides.

“Yes, so, this is Lila,” says Kala softly.

“I am very confused,” murmurs Sun, crossing her arms.

“I am also confused,” says Lito.

“We’ll -- we’ll explain everything,” says Kala with a soft, tired sigh.

Nomi nods. “Yes, that would be good. Are you hungry? Mun and Neets and Hernando went to go pick up our food, they’ve been our link to the outside world...”

Kala smiles. “That’s sweet of them.”

“Dani would have helped,” adds Lito. “But she spent the last three days on the phone.”

“Yeah, can someone explain to me what’s going on with that?” asks Will.

“No fucking idea,” says Wolfgang. “Where’s some coffee?”

“Say please,” says Will, patting Wolfgang’s shoulder and going over to a table where an electric kettle, a coffee pot, several bottles of wine, an array of cups, and a box of crackers are sitting.

“We’ve been living like fugitives,” says Nomi with a shrug. “It’s been kind of fun. Except for sharing a bathroom with six people.” She glances unsurely at Lila. “Would you like some coffee?”

Lila shakes her head, looking down. Nomi and Kala exchange a glance, and then Kala goes to the table where Will is, reaches for two cups, and pours some coffee in each. She hands one to Wolfgang and gives the other to Lila.

“I said I--”

“You’re clearly very cold and tired,” says Kala warmly.

Lila grudgingly takes the cup. “Thank you.”

“You’re welcome,” says Kala politely, returning to the table to make her own cup of coffee.

Soon, everyone is armed with a hot beverage and a place on one of the many couches. Kala curls up under a blanket in between Sun and Riley, and notices everyone’s eyes turn on Lila, who stares back, frightened, and doesn’t speak.

Kala clears her throat. “So, as I explained this morning... Lila is no longer welcome at BPO...and she’s going to share what she knows with us.”

“Okay, I’m sorry,” says Will, leaning forward and setting his cup on the coffee table, “but how the fuck does she expect us to trust her?”

“I’m just as vulnerable as you are,” snaps Lila. “They were going to do the same to me that they did to Kolovi...”

“Why?” asks Sun.

“I know too much,” replies Lila.

“Okay,” murmurs Nomi. “You have a cluster of your own, right? Aren’t you worried more about them than, well, us?”

“Of course,” says Lila. “But I can only protect them if I stay alive, and I think you are my best chance at that...”

“So, this is just a practical thing,” says Will. “Just to be clear.”

“We don’t have to like each other,” says Lila, crossing her legs. “This is quid pro quo.”

“I can work with that,” he says.

Riley glances at Lila, then nods. “So can I.”

“How do we know you won’t betray us?” asks Sun softly.

“BPO won’t take any information from me,” replies Lila. “They won’t trust me.”

“But, they don’t know you’re working with us,” says Nomi cautiously. “It’s only safe for us if they know you’ve betrayed them.”

Lila considers this, then nods. “We can give them a hint.”

Nomi nods too. “Just a glimpse of you with Kala.”

“Why me?” asks Kala.

“Because, if they see her with Wolfgang, it might be unclear...they already know each other. They could think they’re just...”

“A couple,” Lila fills in, adding, “not that I wouldn't try you out, Kala....but BPO is reliably heterosexist.”

“All this time, I thought you hated me,” says Kala in a flat, sardonic tone.

“Oh, I do,” agrees Lila. “But I’m sure you would make the cutest noises for me...”

Wolfgang glances at her. “Could you fuck off for once in your life?”

Lila shrugs. “I thought you wanted absolute honesty...”

“In the interest of absolute honesty, we’re all regretting I didn’t shoot you two months ago.”

“Oh, me too,” says Lila, getting to her feet to refresh her coffee.

Wolfgang briefly rubs his face, then glances around at the others.

“Is she always so...?” Capheus trails off.

“You haven’t seen the half of it,” murmurs Kala seriously.

Capheus frowns and takes a long drink of coffee. They others resettle in their seats, taken off guard. Then Riley clears her throat.

“Hasn’t BPO seen Kala and Lila together, though?”

“Yes, but that was before they drove her out,” says Nomi. “They won’t expect to see them together now. They’ll assume we’re working together now.”

Riley nods slowly. “But, shouldn’t we keep them in the dark? I understand that we don’t want Lila to leave but...I think there are other ways to accomplish that.”

Will glances at her in interest. “What are you thinking of, Riles?”

“Well,” says Riley, leaning forward. “She should give us the names of all her cluster mates...”

Nomi’s eyebrows perk. “That’s...better. But how do we verify that?”

“We could do what BPO does,” jokes Wolfgang.

“Yes, I’m sure she’ll want to help us after we electrocute her,” Kala replies tersely.

Lila returns to her seat and they all go quiet. Her eyes flash over the rim of her cup as she takes a sip of coffee.

“We need the names of your cluster mates,” says Wolfgang sharply.

She raises an eyebrow. “Oh, I can’t do that.”

“You know all of us,” he says. “This only works if we can destroy each other, like you said.”

Lila’s lips form a small smile. “I won’t put them at risk.”

Wolfgang, disregarding the others, out of patience due to exhaustion, gets to his feet and pulls Lila out of her seat. He locks her in one of his arms and gestures at Will with the other.

“Handcuffs.”

“I’m...not sure I want to help with whatever you’re doing.”

Sun sighs sharply, taking Will’s handcuffs off his belt and tossing them to Wolfgang.

“Thank you,” he says.

Lila struggles to break free, so he takes a fistful of her hair and pulls hard. She winces and snarls, but he ignores her and pulls her towards the sliding glass door which opens to a patio outside.

“What are you doing?” yells Kala. “Wolfgang!”

He doesn’t respond, and instead opens the door, pushes Lila out of it, and neatly handcuffs her to the patio railing. Then he shuts the door.

“It’s freezing outside!” protests Kala.

“Exactly,” says Wolfgang, pulling a cigarette out of his jacket and lighting it.

“Wolfgang, we need her to trust us,” Nomi says in a low voice.

“If she doesn’t have other options, she has no choice but to trust us,” he says. “Let her prove it.”

“This isn’t right,” whispers Kala.

Wolfgang turns to look at her. “Why are you protecting her?”

“I’m not protecting her! I don’t want to be complicit in -- in -- that!” She gestures at Lila, who’s outside, shaking. “We can’t pretend to be above BPO if we use the same tactics--”

“Yes we can,” he says. “Fighting fire with fire is fine as long as we have better intentions.” He looks outside at Lila. “Think of any names yet?”

She doesn't respond. He shrugs and inhales on his cigarette, then turns away.

“You know that this doesn’t work!” Kala goes on. “She’ll just make up a name to get you to let her back in! Information obtained under duress is rarely accurate--”

“Interesting how successful BPO was, considering that.”

Kala struggles to find a response to this. Nomi sighs and leans against her.

“This could work,” she says gently. “I know you’re uncomfortable with it. But...”

Kala breathes out angrily but nods. No one speaks for a long time, and everyone jumps when Amanita, Hernando, and Mun appear in the doorway, unwrapping scarves and coats and setting down several bags of food on the coffee table.

Amanita is about to speak, but she notices Lila on the patio.

“Um, what’s going on there?” she asks.

Hernando follows her gaze and frowns deeply. “You know it’s ten degrees below zero outside...”

Nomi hesitates, then says, “We needed information.”

“Oh, goodie,” says Amanita. “Now we’re complicit in torturing someone.”

Mun sighs and shakes his head. “We leave for an hour and this happens...well, I take no responsibility. Here’s the food.”

“Hope pho is okay!” says Amanita brightly.

No one moves towards the food, too uncomfortable to eat. Amanita, Hernando, and Mun exchange a glance, then return upstairs, taking one of the bags for Dani and Felix. Then, upon hearing a loud metallic tap, the cluster all looks at the sliding door. Lila, having unlocked her handcuffs with a spare nail she found on the patio, slides the door open and steps back inside. She smiles coldly at Wolfgang, who watches her, cautious. She reaches into his jacket pocket, extracts a cigarette, and lights up. She takes a moment to inhale, then breathes the smoke out on his face and tilts her head.

“I already as good as offered all of you to BPO...they still didn’t want to give me immunity. There’s nothing more I can offer them. They don’t want me. Trusting me is only logical.”

“We want assurance,” he replies quietly.

“Assurance doesn’t exist here,” she whispers. “All you can do...is let me help. If things go according to plan, you know you can trust me.”

Wolfgang breathes out heavily, somewhat embarrassed by his attempt to coerce her, and nods.

“Good try though,” she simpers, kissing his cheek and patting his shoulder.

He pulls away. She laughs gently and returns to her place on the couch, setting her feet on the table. Wolfgang glances down, then heads for the stairs.

Lila leans back comfortably. “The food smells wonderful. What’s keeping you?”

The group exchanges a wary glance, then leans forward collectively to open several styrofoam containers of noodles. Kala makes two plates, then quietly excuses herself and goes upstairs. She finds Wolfgang in the living room, curled up in a chair near the fireplace, looking like a lost boy.

Kala hesitates, then crosses the room, sits next to him and passes him a plate. He takes it wordlessly, watching her for a sign to speak.

“Before I met you,” she says quietly, “I was very uncomfortable with uncertainty. I liked to be sure of things. But if I hadn’t taught myself to live with some uncertainty, well, I never would have trusted you enough to get to know you and fall in love with you.” She pauses, pushing his plate towards him, urging him to eat. “We have to take this risk. You know we do. I know you’re just trying to protect us...but, as much as I may dislike her, I can’t deny how intelligent she is. She knows better than to play games.”

He looks down, setting his food aside.

“I am just trying to protect you,” he agrees. “I know I’m not always...rational about that.”

Kala smiles slightly. Then she breathes in and puts her hand on his wrist.

“Wolfgang?” she says gently. “As much as you may want to protect us...as much as we want to keep you safe...” She pauses, voice suddenly thick. “I don’t...I don’t want to give in too soon...of course not... but last night, when Lila said we’ll all most likely die...I know you agreed with her. I agreed with her, too. We need to act accordingly with the fact that none of us are very safe anymore.”

“I’m sorry I argued with you,” he mumbles.

She smiles. “That’s okay.”

He shakes his head, signaling that it’s not. Then he looks at her earnestly. “Kala?”

She holds his gaze to show she’s listening.

“Do you think this is the right thing to do?” he asks very quietly.

She hesitates, fingers tightening on his wrist. Then she nods. “I do.”

“Okay,” he replies, voice heavy and gruff with stress. He reaches for his plate. “Thanks for bringing me food.”

“Of course,” she says. “You deserve to eat even if you’re being rather difficult.”

He shrugs noncommittally, then glances at her, leans over, and kisses the side of her mouth.

“I love you,” he mumbles.

“I love you too,” she says.

They hold each other’s gaze for a moment, then smile weakly and go back to eating.

“The fireplace is nice,” murmurs Kala. “We should get a fireplace...”

“Your apartment has a fireplace,” he says.

“I mean when we get an apartment. We should get a fireplace.”

“For someone who just told me our days on earth are numbered, that’s optimistic.”

She giggles. “Maybe the afterlife has fireplaces...”

“Well, it has fire...”

She keeps laughing, giving him a soft shove. Then she sets her chin on his shoulder.

“What does it say that I’m not afraid?” she asks.

He shrugs. “It says you’re smart. Fear’s useless.”

“Maybe so,” she says. “But we don’t have much choice whether we’re afraid or not, and we should be afraid. So why aren’t we?”

He thinks about this, gently sucking one of his fingers free of chili oil. “Because there’s no room for it. We’re too determined to be afraid right now.”

She nods softly. Then she nuzzles against his jaw, setting her plate aside and closing her eyes. He rests his head against hers, finishing his food, relieved to be beside her. When he’s done eating, he puts his arms around her, and they stay side by side for a while, recuperating. She keeps her eyes closed, but he watches the house. It’s a quiet evening upstairs. The only notable activity is Bug creeping into the kitchen and creeping back out of it with a bag of Cheetos, and Dani and Felix sneaking out of the front door.

He’s almost asleep by the time Nomi finds them and shakes them gently.

“Listen, we know it’s been a bit overwhelming but...if we could chat about strategy?” she asks.

He nods, nudging Kala. They get to their feet, following Nomi, yawning. In the hour that has passed, the basement has been tidied up, and the cluster has rearranged on the couches. Riley is sitting on Will’s lap, sipping some wine. Sun and Mun are sharing an armchair and a pint of ice cream. Lito is half-asleep with his head in Hernando’s lap. Capheus is facetiming his wife Zakia, nose wrinkling in delight about something. And Lila is sitting on the floor, head leaned back on the couch, smoking.

Nomi takes her place next to Amanita at the computers, then shouts for Bug.

“We could use Felix and Dani too,” she murmurs, also shouting for them.

“They left,” says Wolfgang.

“To go where?” asks Nomi. “No one is supposed to leave. We have security measures.”

“They probably just went for a walk,” says Kala soothingly.

Nomi frowns. “Okay. Text them to make sure, okay?”

Wolfgang nods, pulling out his phone. Then Nomi bellows over her shoulder for Bug again.

“Where is he?” she asks after a moment.

Amanita gets up. “I’ll go look for him. He’s probably on the pot.”

“Thanks for that visual, babe,” says Nomi.

“Of course!” Neets says cheerfully. She’s just reached the staircase when she stops, brow twitching in confusion as she looks up it. “Uh, Bug?”

Everyone in the basement goes quiet, looking at her.

“Um, yeah, we have a visitor,” Bug calls from the top of the stairs.

Kala pulls Wolfgang closer instinctively. Sun, Mun, and Lila all stand up. Lito and Hernando frown, glancing around, and Capheus quietly says goodbye to Zakia and pockets his phone.

A moment later, Bug comes down the stairs, accompanied by a wild-haired Indian man, dressed in a brown hoodie and loose jeans.

“I’m sorry to startle you,” he says a rich, deep voice. “I didn’t intend to make it to Chicago tonight. I was hoping for a morning meeting, actually. I know you’re all quite tired.” He pauses and takes a long breath, then looks at Lila. “Ms. Facchini."

“Mr. Maliki,” she replies softly.

“Jonas,” he says to the others. “Please, don’t be as formal as Ms. Facchini here...” He looks down, collecting himself. “Surely, you feel as if you have things under control. I’m here to explain to you how deeply in error you are."

“Who are you?” asks Sun softly from across the room.

“Like Ms. Facchini, I am an operative for whom BPO lost its taste for. More importantly, however...I knew your mother.”

“My mother?” asks Sun.

“No, your sensate mother. You all have the same mother. Her name was Angelica...and she would have loved to meet you all...but it was not meant to be. So I am here instead.” He looks down briefly. “You’ve done surprisingly well considering how little you understand. But, it’s time that you do understand. I know you are reluctant to listen to a stranger. If you would...for these next few hours, consider me your father, and if not your father, a friend.”

No one responds immediately. Lila uses the silence to walk slowly up to Jonas. For a moment, they stand a foot apart, reading each other. Then she holds her hand out and he shakes it. The others watch in confusion.

“I thought you were dead,” she murmurs.

“Likewise,” he replies.

She nods, then turns to the others. “Mr. Maliki was my partner at BPO for many years. You can trust him.”

“Did you ask him to come here?” asks Wolfgang quietly.

Lila hesitates, chewing on the inside of her cheek. Then she nods.

“Why didn’t you tell us?” asks Kala.

“Would you have let me?” replies Lila.

They glance at each other, both stiff with nerves.

“Please,” says Jonas, starting towards the table with beverages on it. “Why don’t we go upstairs, gather around your lovely fireplace, and work through this over a few drinks? I don’t bite. Ms. Facchini can attest to that.”

Kala is the first one to agree. Then Lito, then Capheus and Riley, then Will. Finally, exchanging an expression which reflects a vow to protect their friends, Sun and Wolfgang nod. Then the eight of them, followed by Amanita, Hernando, and Mun, follow Jonas and Lila upstairs.

Chapter Text

Midnight in Chicago feels inky, impenetrably dark in a way that Berlin doesn't, even though it’s objectively brighter and louder. Felix regrets leaving the others at the apartment, but Wolfgang’s demand that they stay put didn’t hold up against Dani’s demand that they leave to get late-night pancakes, and considering how many inopportune shenanigans he’s been through due to Wolfgang, he figures his friend can’t be too upset with him, and besides, if anyone could understand making a bad decision because of a girl, it’s Wolfgang. He glances at Dani, who’s walking next to him, swinging her hands slightly, looking up at the skyscrapers which form walls around them. She notices him looking and glances back, lips quirking into a careful smile.

“Do you feel bad for leaving?” she guesses.

Felix holds his breath, then huffs out a sigh. “Yeah. I don’t like leaving him alone, you know? I think he trusts Lila and that’s...”

“Dumb?” suggests Dani, adding, “What’s her deal?”

Felix shakes his head. “I think she and Wolfie have some shit going on that I don’t know about.”

“Oh,” says Dani, wrinkling her nose. “Shit like...?” She trails off, shaping two of her fingers into a circle and inserting two other fingers into it.

Felix cracks up and shakes his head.

“No, not shit like that, shit like...they both had hard lives, so they excuse each other’s bad behavior...and he’s got some faulty game theory shit going on too. Like, he thinks he knows what she’ll do because he knows what he’d do, but he’s not her.”

“No, he’s not,” agrees Dani solemnly.

“Well, Kala will keep him from doing anything stupid,” says Felix with a shrug, then glancing up at the neon sign of a small all-night diner, adds, “This okay?”

Dani nods as they step out of the oncoming foot traffic, huddling under an icy awning. “Anywhere warm.”

Felix looks at her, then lets out a soft chuckle. “Lightweight--”

“Hey! You know I’m not used to this. I’d like to see you survive a summer in Chilpancingo--”

“I’m kidding,” he says quickly.

She smiles softly. “Felix.”

“Huh?” he asks, eyes wide and slightly alarmed.

“Relax,” she replies commandingly, squeezing his shoulder.

He breathes out and eventually nods. “Okay.”

“Now, pancakes,” says Dani. “I want pancakes.”

He laughs, then pushes the door open. “After you.”

She smiles quickly over her shoulder as she passes him and he grins to himself, running a hand through his snow-flecked hair, then follows her in. He’s alone at midnight with a girl who is too gorgeous to spare him a second thought, about to buy her pancakes. He has to admit, Wolfgang being mysteriously connected to seven other people is strange, but this is stranger.

“Hurry up,” says Dani, laughing, trailing her hand behind her for him to take, which he’s too nervous to do.

He quickens his pace, following her, and they find a booth near the heater. She whips one of the laminated menus in front of her, eyes flashing until she finds pancakes.

“Fuck, yes,” she says, grinning softly. “Split them with me?”

“Uh, yeah--”

“You seem distracted,” she interrupts, tone still warm.

He sighs, linking his fingers in front of him on the plastic table. “Yeah. Do you think they’re okay?”

She bites her bottom lip, glancing around the diner, where several late-night workers stir feebly, sipping coffee. Then she looks down and tucks a stray curl behind her ear.

“If I’m honest?” she says. “I don’t know. But...we’re just two more people to protect, right? We’re doing them a favor, not being there...”

She looks momentarily hurt, and he leans slightly forward. “Hey, Dani...I’m sure they want you there.”

She shrugs, still looking down. “I don’t know. I feel so...separate now.” Then she takes a breath and looks up. “But I don’t want to talk about that.”

“Oh-okay,” he agrees. “Yeah, no, okay. What do you want to talk about?”

But the waitress has appeared, asking for their order.

“The stack of six please...with whipped cream, thank you,” says Dani.

The waitress looks at Felix, and he holds up his hands. “We’re splitting.”

“Extra plate?” asks the waitress.

“No, we’re good,” says Dani, turning back to Felix and adding, “Bailey Brandt or whoever. Him. I want to talk about him.”

Felix nods, wondering if she only pays attention to him for information. He couldn’t blame her, if so. He glances up at her again.

“You’re supposed to meet with him?” he asks.

She sighs, leaning back and letting her hair down, taking off her coat. She shrugs.

“I guess?” she replies. “I think I should have ordered a drink, too.”

“I’ll get you one,” he says instantly, getting up and walking to the bar.

She rolls her eyes fondly, watching him, then looks at the table, eyes widening, questioning her irrefutable attachment to this...silly, optimistic, fierce man. She doesn’t understand. She looks back up, sees him receive a double tequila and a double vodka, and smiles helplessly.

“Well, I didn’t mean we should get drunk,” she says when he returns.

“Drunk on a double tequila?” he murmurs. “See, you are a lightweight...”

“Want to go, Berner?” she asks, raising her glass.

He grins and raises his glass too. “Okay, Miss Velasquez.”

“Ooh, Miss,” she says. “That’s hot.”

Felix chokes on his drink and Dani giggles, quickly clamping a hand over her mouth.

“So,” says Felix, overserious, clinking his glass on hers. “Bailey Brandt or whoever the fuck.”

“Sounds like a cocktail,” observes Dani, sipping her tequila.

Felix laughs. “Yeah.”

She sighs, then shakes her head and sets her glass down. “I don’t know if I’ll be able to ask him very much without tipping him off...and who would I even pretend to be? Nomi thinks I should be an assistant, but what if he asks me something I don’t know?”

Felix nods, leaning his head on his hand. Then he squints. “What if you just owned it? Go in there like you belong, don’t let him stop you, act like you’re in a hurry...”

Dani pops an eyebrow. “That’s not bad.”

Felix hesitates, then replies, “I wish you weren’t doing this at all.”

“I want to help,” says Dani. “Lito and Kala are my best friends...and, well, they care too much about the others for me not to care.”

Felix shrugs in agreement, then takes a sip of his vodka and says cheerfully, “Well, I always knew I’d die helping Wolfie get out of some shit that would have been fucking easy for him not to be involved with in the first place, so it’s not like I didn’t see this coming.”

Dani giggles, eyes crinkling, and then sighs and runs her hands through her hair to tie it back in a ponytail.

“He’s put you through a lot, huh?” she asks.

“Well, to be fair, I’ve put him through a lot too,” says Felix. “But yeah, he has, sulky motherfucker...”

Dani smirks. “Kala tells me stories, so, I like to think I have a bit of an idea.”

The pancakes arrive and Dani squeals happily and grabs the syrup.

“Stop me if I put too much syrup on...” she says.

“Impossible,” says Felix and she laughs.

She sets the bottle aside after drowning the pancakes in syrup, then grips her fork like she’s going into battle with it. Felix looks down to hide a smile, then picks up his own fork.

“We should have gotten two,” she murmurs through a bite.

“Right?” he agrees.

She laughs suddenly. “My mother always told me if I ate pancakes I would get fat and I would fail as an actress, so pancakes are extra delicious. The spite is the secret ingredient.”

Felix laughs, cutting a careful piece of pancake and eating it. “She sounds sweet.”

Dani bubbles over, still laughing. “Oh, yeah. So sweet. So caring. Not at all manipulative.”

“My mama, complete opposite, she was always fattening me up. She fed Wolfie too since he couldn’t always find food at home. She would have adopted him, I think, but you know Wolfgang...had to be a fucking self-sufficient twelve-year-old."

“Aw,” says Dani, beaming.

“Pretty sure she thought I had a crush on him because one time she sat me down and put her hands on my shoulders and just said, FeFe --”

“Hold up. FeFe? Like Fifi? Like, a little old lady’s dog that she sneaks in a purse on a plane and then gets in a fight with the flight attendant about? Fifi?”

“I don’t have a name that lends itself to great fucking nicknames, okay?”

Dani covers her face, laughing. “FeFe. You know I have to call you that, right?”

He nods solemnly. “I know.”

“FeFe, Jesus,” murmurs Dani, reaching to take his free hand.

He pauses, glancing down as she interlocks their fingers, then clears his throat and goes on. “Anyway, she sat me down and said FeFe, I just want you to know it’s perfectly normal to get butterflies about girls and boys--

Dani is laughing again. “Butterflies? Did she call feelings butterflies?

Felix laughs too. “Yeah, which is not the prettiest word in German by the way. It’s schmetterling. But she couldn’t exactly say feelings! I was like ten.”

Dani nods sagely. “She had to keep it PG.”

“Which was ironic, because by ten I had looked up all the dirty shit I could think of and Wolfie wasn’t exactly a great influence.”

“So,” Dani says importantly. “Did you have a crush?”

Felix pauses, sipping his drink. “Okay, you can tell this to no one, got it? Nobody.”

“Oh no, you did!” moans Dani. “Oh Felix, oh my God...”

“I may have had like...a teeny -- I mean, fucking nothing, just a passing thought, right -- teeny tiny crush when we were kids.”

Dani beams. “Of course you did.”

“Right, of course I did!” agrees Felix, relieved, throwing back the rest of his drink.

Dani shakes her head, grinning, then squeezes his hand. He notices her lips soften into a thoughtful smile.

“Hey...Felix?” she murmurs. “Thanks for talking to me so much when you were in Berlin.”

“Thanks for talking to me,” says Felix, laughing. “I was so fucking lonely, you know how Kala and Wolfie are when it's just them...”

“No, I mean it,” says Dani. “I've never felt so helpless.”

Felix pauses, then takes a deep breath and reaches for her other hand. She grins.

“You know, I thought you were the prettiest fucking girl I'd ever seen in my life the second I saw you and I've been wanting to ask you out since then...”

“Why didn't you?”

Felix's eyes widen. “Because I figured you didn't want anything to do with me!” He stops and his eyes go even wider. “Wait. Would you have said yes?”

Dani smiles distantly. “I didn't realize how sweet you were then.”

“Guess I should be glad all this shit happened then,” he replies.

Dani laughs. “Well, I like to think we'd have figured this out without the shit.”

“I'm too dumb, I need the shit.”

Dani rolls her eyes. “I would have gotten pushy after a while. You would have gotten the hint.”

“I don't know...”

Dani leans forward and breathes, “I can be pretty pushy.”

Felix grins. “Yeah, I'm picking that up...”

She laughs and he tucks her hair behind her ear. She smirks lightly.

“Want to get out of here?”

Holy shit. “Uh--"

“Say yes. I know you have a nightcap at your place."

“Yeah, okay,” he agrees.

“Told you, I'm pushy,” says Dani proudly, finishing her drink and getting up.

She sticks her hand out to pull him up and they walk up to the counter to pay after putting on coats and scarves. They emerge into the chilly city and Felix, steeling himself, realizing he has no practice to refer to, takes Dani’s hand.

“My place?” he asks, knowing they are supposed to stick with the others.

Dani nods, surprising him when she turns slightly pink. Felix resists the urge to text Wolfgang “holy fuck you are not going to believe this" and puts his arm around Dani’s waist, feeling more confident.

“How far?” she asks.

“It's right around the corner,” he tells her.

She nods and they walk in comfortable silence for a while, and then Dani rests her head on Felix's shoulder.

“Hey,” she murmurs. “Will you go meet Brandt with me? He doesn't know you either...”

He nods. “Yeah, yeah, of course.”

She smiles. “Thanks.”

They round the corner and Felix takes his keys out of his pocket, hardly daring to believe tonight is real. But they stop, noticing movement around the apartment. Then, suddenly, figures erupt down the stairs. Dani pushes Felix behind a dumpster nearby, kneeling next to him, looking around frantically.

“Is that--?”

“BPO?” he pants. “Yeah, gotta be.”

“Shit,” she hisses. “Why are they at your apartment?”

He shakes his head, unsure. “Stay still."

She nods, gripping his hand. They listen intently to the footsteps that pass them by. As they fade, Dani looks around the side of the dumpster and catches a glimpse of the gargoyle-faced Brandt, walking at a fast clip. She gasps softly and presses against the dumpster.

“That's him,” she says excitedly. “That's Brandt!”

Felix glances around the dumpster too, then pulls back. “Shit, you’re right!”

“Are they gone?” asks Dani.

“I don't know...” mumbles Felix.

They wait quietly for a moment, and then Felix nods. Dani nods in response and they get to their feet, still holding hands.

“We have to go in, right?” asks Dani.

“Definitely,” says Felix with feigned bravado.

“Okay,” she says, working up her nerves.

They glance around, then walk quickly up the stairs and into the apartment.

“Oh, Felix,” murmurs Dani immediately, looking around at the damage.

The apartment has been searched. Couches and chairs are overturned. Books and papers have been scattered.

“Shit...” whispers Felix.

“Shit,” agrees Dani softly.

“We should get out of here,” Felix says seriously. “Tell the others.”

Dani nods. They turn swiftly out of the apartment.

***

While Felix and Dani were gone, Jonas and Lila had taken seats in two large armchairs by the fire, sitting up straight and still as if holding court. They sent Amanita, Mun, and Hernando into the kitchen, who protested, and left only after their friends reassured them they would be kept in the loop later. The other eight took various positions in the living room --  Kala and Wolfgang sharing a space on the couch, holding each other tightly and communicating through touch, Will next to them, leaning forward with his elbows on his knees, his hands gripped tightly in front of him, Riley, perched on the chair of the couch next to him, brow knitted in concern, Sun stationed by the door to the kitchen, unwilling to leave their non-sensate friends without the protection of her gaze, Capheus cross-legged on the floor next to her, occasionally checking in with her by glancing up, Nomi also on the floor, in front of Kala, leaning her head back on Kala’s knees, and Lito, standing, holding himself stiffly, brows fixed in a steely, untrusting expression.

The silence before Jonas speaks reminds Wolfgang of the silence before an explosion, so quiet it’s not merely the absence of sound, but the negation of it.

“Forgive me, I am sure you’re rather tired of surprises...” Jonas begins softly. “But, I like to think that a better understanding of what you are going through will bring you some peace. We’ve known about some of you for about a year now...BPO has developed an algorithm which is designed to identify Sensates before they are born so that they can be apprehended or exterminated before they are dangerous. It is not foolproof, as you, Ms. Dandekar, likely learned when you read Dr. Kolovi’s papers...”

Kala nods hesitantly. “So, you knew about me? Which is why Kolovi picked me?”

“Precisely,” says Jonas. “We also knew about Mr. Bogdanow, but he proved rather more tricky to get rid of than anticipated, even with one of our best working to accomplish that...”

Jonas glances at Lila, who looks down. Wolfgang smirks, but it isn’t out of humor -- it’s harsh and cold, a confirmation of what he had already guessed. Lila averts her gaze further, seeming to sink back into her chair. Wolfgang is unsure whether she is ashamed that she failed, or ashamed that she lied to him. He hopes it is the former because the latter implies attachment, even care. He doesn’t want that, not from her.

“How does the algorithm work?” demands Kala.

“Well, it is based at first on probability...Sensates appear to be evenly distributed throughout the world, and with a database as detailed as BPO’s...well, it is possible to deduce with a fair amount of certainty where the next Cluster will emerge from. But of course that is imperfect, so we also rely on the expertise of the Headhunters. When a Sensate meets another Sensate who has not yet been born...there is a certain kind of energy. We can feel something, not a complete connection. A tingle. And then we search for connections. Other possible Sensates who share birthdays. With all of you in Chicago, deducing what you were was...not difficult for me. However, I did not share this information with BPO...Lila convinced me to wait.”

“The birth of a Cluster leaves a trace,” adds Lila. “Like a new star, an explosion...the birth of a Cluster leaves energy in the air that other Sensates can feel. That energy is a confirmation that we deduced correctly...”

Jonas chuckles suddenly, looking at Kala. “I see you are not impressed with our method, but understand...science is one strand of discovery, sense is another. For our kind, one without the other is useless. Perhaps for humankind as well...science without sense has not enriched the earth as humans thought it would.”

“How many of us are there?” Nomi cuts in. “And how many does BPO know about?”

“A hundred thousand, conservatively,” replies Lila. “BPO doesn’t know about most Sensates individually -- if they did, they would kill them -- but their perception of the population size is accurate.”

“Why do they want to kill us?” asks Sun softly, eyes guarded.

Jonas breathes out, leaning back in his chair. A faint smile touches his lips. “Can you imagine, before you knew what you were, finding out an entire, separate species of hominid has coexisted with Homo sapiens? Would you believe it? Now, imagine learning this species can communicate without speech, that each individual is as powerful as the full strength of their Cluster...does it surprise you that the world powers have deemed homo sensorium to be a threat to national security?”

Sun doesn’t reply, but Jonas sees that the light in her eyes has changed.

“But what have they based that on?” asks Kala, frustrated. “Have Sensates...betrayed their governments or interfered in military operations or...?”

She trails off, seeing that Jonas is smiling. She’s already grown tired of his smug expressions.

“Since when does any government base their policies on evidence? BPO and every organization and government which supports them does what all institutions do... preemptive policy with unfortunate collateral damage is preferred to reactive policy which targets what is actually dangerous.”

“That’s rather stupid,” Kala says hotly, crossing her arms.

She feels Nomi chuckle appreciatively. Wolfgang shifts next to her, smirking.

Jonas looks up cautiously. “BPO may be based on unfounded fears, but Mr. Brandt is not stupid. And they are certainly not to be trusted.”

Lila also lifts her eyes. “The fact that Mr. Brandt is willing to act based on unfounded fears makes them all the more dangerous. It shows they act only for themselves, not on principles. The faction that they represent doesn’t care about truth. It cares only for results.”

“What do they get?” asks Will. “What do they stand to gain out of all this?”

“Safety,” says Jonas immediately. “Immunity. They believe that the more militant side of BPO is the more effective one. So did Lila and I until we learned what that meant.” He pauses, looking down and soothing himself by rubbing his knuckles against his palm. “They took everything from me. Everyone.”

“It is not enough to be on the winning side if you are alone,” Lila says quietly.

Riley takes a breath, then asks quickly, “What can we do? Can we hide?”

“That is always an option,” Jonas says slowly, “and there are various ways to hide that we have discovered. The first...” He takes a small glass bottle out of the pocket of his shirt. “...is this. Blockers.”

Kala scans the bottle, eyes narrowing in interest. “A type of opioid?”

Lila and Jonas look at her in surprise. She reaches her hand out, holding Jonas’s gaze, and after a moment, he gives the bottle to her.

“Yes, an opioid,” admits Jonas, “though an advanced one. Some Sensates make due with heroin, but, that is less than ideal for obvious reasons.”

Kala carefully tips the bottle so a single white capsule falls into her upturned palm. Then she quirks the two sides of the capsule in opposite directions so it bursts open, and she collects the white powder in her hand.

“Does it dissolve the connection completely?” she asks.

“Yes, though it has unpleasant side-effects. Some of us choose to isolate ourselves rather than use Blockers.”

“What are the side effects?”

“You feel half-alive,” he says with a shrug. “Like you’re looking through foggy glasses.”

Kala nods, wrinkling her nose in interest, playing with the powder between her thumb and her index finger. “I imagine being fully unconscious is more reliable.”

Jonas nods. “Yes, although...none of you have encountered Dr. Brandt. Not yet. So you are relatively safe. Still, he is aware of what you are and he has means of finding you, even if he cannot visit you.”

“Visit?” asks Capheus. “But he is not one of us.” He gestures at the group. “How could he visit?”

“Once a Sensate has made physical contact with another...a connection is formed, even outside of a Cluster,” explains Lila.

“It is of paramount importance that you do not give Brandt that opportunity,” says Jonas grimly. “My Angelica called him Whispers, because once inside of your head...it is impossible to escape. She was never frightened by his threats or his boasts...only when he whispered to her, things she had tried to forget. He kept her demons alive. And he will keep yours alive.”

The air is suddenly cold and oppressive around them.

“Angelica?” murmurs Riley.

“Your mother,” says Jonas with a distant smile. “Your Cluster mother. I imagine that you all saw her, a few days ago...you likely rationalized that what you saw was due to exhaustion, drugs, optical illusions...”

The eight of them look uncomfortably around at one another, and like a film reel, each can see the other’s experience of Angelica.

“She’s dead,” Riley goes on in a soft, warm tone. “Isn’t she?”

“Yes, what you saw is a memory, an echo,” says Jonas shortly. “So is her Cluster, and so you will be, unless you are very careful.”

“We will be,” says Kala, her voice authoritative and clear. She gestures with the capsule, which she has put back together. “I can replicate these for us.”

“And we can isolate ourselves if we have to,” agrees Nomi. “There are plenty of places I know of.”

“So do I,” says Riley. “There is an entire network of flats I used to stay in...”

“Isolation is only effective to a point,” warns Jonas. “You must be sure to find a location which is unidentifiable...and to a trained Headhunter...the only unidentifiable location is one that you would find more like a prison than a home..."

“Why are you telling us this?” asks Sun sharply. “What do you want?”

“The same thing as you,” says Jonas. “There is strength in numbers. As Sensates, we have to trust each other. You should find as many of your kind as you can, and soon.” He pauses. “Of course, we could be lying. But that is the risk you must take, because alone, you will die.”

“We aren’t alone,” Sun says slowly, gesturing at everyone.

Wolfgang notices Lila’s mouth tilt into a sharp, knowing smile. She looks at her lap, blinking slowly, holding her thought.

“Being a Sensate means you have absorbed the strengths of your Cluster-mates,” replies Jonas, “and you are stronger together. But...you are also one entity now, one organism. One of you is all of you. If BPO finds one of you, they will find all of you.”

Sun breathes out harshly, frustrated. “Not if we stay quiet.”

Lila’s smile grows more pronounced. “I know some of you here pride yourself on your ability to withstand pain. Some of you have withstood a great deal of it. You won’t withstand BPO.” She lifts up her gaze to meet Sun’s, then Wolfgang’s. Then she tilts her head, and her memory floods Wolfgang’s mind like boiling water; the living room disappears, replaced by a glaring white ceiling, chrome fixtures, the steady blink and beep of an examining room; suddenly, Wolfgang feels his wrists and ankles restrained; suddenly, his chest is filled with acidic, white-hot blood; his vision blurs, and distantly, he hears Kala cry out next to him. And then, as abruptly as the memory appeared, it vanishes and he is left on the couch, gripping Kala’s hand, shaking in pain. Kala presses closer to him, eyes frantically scanning his expression.

“Unpleasant, isn’t it?” asks Lila when Wolfgang finally looks at her. “I endured that for nearly a week before they gave me immunity for agreeing to help them find others like me.”

Wolfgang doesn’t respond but he holds her gaze. Kala watches him watch her, and in her exhaustion and fear, is suddenly consumed with rage that Lila shares a background with Wolfgang, one that she can scarcely imagine, let alone relate to.

“What are our other options besides trusting you?” Will asks heavily.

“By allowing me to converse with you here, in your home, you have already made your decision,” says Jonas with a slight bite to his voice.

No one speaks for a moment. Wolfgang looks at Kala, who studies her hands in her lap. Sun and Capheus meet eyes, both considering. Riley leans against Will, full of grief at her new situation, and Lito stares out of the living room, watching Hernando share a drink with Amanita and Mun in the kitchen, the light from the street catching his mussed hair and bouncing off the rim of his glasses. He’s just about to speak up and ask how Jonas intends to protect their friends, but the apartment door bursts open. Lila, Will, and Wolfgang get to their feet, staring, hands on the guns at their sides. Then Felix and Dani emerge from the dark doorway, panting and frantic.

“BPO,” gasps Dani. “BPO was at your apartment.”

“Whose apartment?” asks Wolfgang.

“Our apartment,” says Felix.

Wolfgang bites his bottom lip, looking down, unable to suppress a smirk despite the circumstances. He shakes his head fondly, vowing to tease Felix later. Lito meets Dani’s eyes, and she looks down to hide a grin, but gives her feelings away by shifting back and forth on her feet and blushing. Lito laughs quietly to himself.

“What?” Kala says sharply. “Your apartment? Did they see you?”

Felix shakes his head, still catching his breath. “Nah, I don’t think so. They wrecked the place. Shit’s everywhere.”

“Lucky we didn’t have anything important there,” Wolfgang says.

“What were they there for, then?” asks Nomi, confused, looking between Lila and Jonas.

“They’re getting impatient,” says Lila in a clipped tone, discarding her jacket on the chair she was sitting in, going around the living room and methodically drawing the blinds. “They want one of you.”

“Why me?” asks Wolfgang, brow wrinkled.

“Because they like a challenge,” says Lila, and though her back is turned towards him, he can hear the smirk in her voice.

Jonas holds up his hands to ask for silence, then turns towards Felix and Dani. “Forgive me, but who are you?”

“His friend,” Felix says defensively, gesturing at Wolfgang.

“Their friend,” adds Dani, looking at Kala and Lito.

Jonas pinches the bridge of his nose, turning towards Wolfgang and Kala. “Do they know about all of you?”

“Yes,” replies Kala coldly. “They’re our friends.”

Jonas looks at her for a moment, expression undecipherable, and then gestures over his shoulder at the kitchen. “And those three? Do they know?”

Everyone nods in confirmation, and Jonas sighs. “Then they must be protected as well. Bring them here.”

“Hernando!” calls Lito, waving him in.

Hernando exchanges a look with Amanita and Mun, and then the three of them walk single-file into the living room, eyes wide and bright with apprehension.

“Consider yourself all under house arrest,” says Jonas seriously. “I am sure your friends will explain the circumstances to you.”

Dani nudges Felix with her hip. “Seems we snuck out just in time.”

He grins in response, but there’s worry in his eyes. She squeezes his arm softly, furtively, her own smile fading.

“You said we should find as many of us as we can,” Wolfgang says to Jonas. “How do we reach everyone if we have to stay here?”

“Leave that to me,” replies Jonas.

Lila turns around from drawing the last curtain. “He’s right, Jonas.”

Wolfgang glances at her. Jonas stands still, eyes flicking between Lila and Wolfgang, and eventually nods.

“For tonight, stay put,” he says with a tone of finality. “Whispers is in Chicago, he just searched your home. Tonight is not safe.”

Wolfgang looks down, pretending to consider this, but in his mind, he visits Lila by the window. He leans against the window frame, arms folded, and glances at her.

“You said we could trust him,” he remarks.

Lila blinks, lips softening, about to speak, but she gets stuck on the words.

“I don’t want to sit here like an animal in a trap,” Wolfgang goes on.

Lila sighs. “You can trust him. This is the right decision, at least for tonight. We should stay here. All of us.”

“What’s keeping Brandt from searching here, too?” he asks.

“He doesn’t know this place,” explains Lila. “He only knows you, and Kala.”

Wolfgang looks at her, jaw tight, undecided.

“Where else would you go tonight?” Lila goes on. “What place is safer than this, with all of us to protect each other?”

Wolfgang finally nods, returning in his mind to where he was previously conversing with Jonas.

“Fine, we stay here tonight,” he says.

“Hold on,” says Amanita, stepping forward and gesturing at Wolfgang, Lila, and Jonas. “Who put you three in charge? This is my house, and this house is a democracy. We’re voting on whether we stay here.”

“Who put you in charge?” retorts Wolfgang.

“Wolfie, c’mon, you know you make terrible decisions,” says Felix, adding to Lila, “So do you.”

Lila’s eyes darken. “Example?”

Felix gestures at Wolfgang. “You willingly got involved in his mess in Berlin. Idiotic. And Wolfie, I love you, but you got involved in her mess. You two can’t be fucking trusted. Period.” He looks at Jonas. “And you, who the fuck are you?”

Dani coughs to disguise a laugh.

“While all of this has been highly entertaining,” interrupts Lito. “I agree. We stay.”

“So do I,” says Kala immediately.

“I do too,” says Nomi. “This is as safe a place as I can imagine.”

“My wife,” Capheus says worriedly, addressing Jonas. “She doesn’t know about this, but is she safe where she is?”

“If she truly doesn’t know, she’s safer than all of us,” replies Jonas reassuringly.

Capheus nods, crossing his arms, nervous. “Then we stay.”

The others agree, Sun and Mun somewhat reluctantly, and then Amanita speaks up.

“I have a feeling everyone could use a drink,” she says, picking up a pad of paper off a nearby bookshelf. “Lito, help me out?”

He nods and they take everyone’s drink requests, and then they go into the kitchen. Everyone begins to disperse, finding places to wait, but Dani clears her throat.
“What about me meeting Brandt tomorrow?”

“What’s this?” asks Jonas, looking around at them all.

Nomi hesitates, then pushes her glasses up her nose and shrugs. “We had an idea that Dani would pretend to be Dr. Brandt’s new assistant. She could take pictures, steal some files. We wanted more information on him. So, unless you have that...”

“I have limited knowledge of Brandt,” replies Jonas.

Wolfgang notices Lila frown across the room, but doesn’t engage with her for now.

“What is your plan?” Jonas goes on, glancing at Dani.

“We never discussed anything in detail,” says Dani nervously.

Jonas nods, and to Lila’s surprise, says, “I don’t see why not, but we should discuss exactly who you will be, and what you will say.”

“I’m an actress,” says Dani with a weak laugh. “That shouldn’t be a problem.”

“I’m going with her,” adds Felix. “I can’t act for shit, but I want to go, I’m going.”

Jonas looks at the two of them appraisingly and is about to respond, but Amanita and Lito return with two drink trays.

“The martini?” asks Lito.

Sun gestures for it.

“The ‘at least five fucking shots’ of vodka,” says Amanita, smirking.

Felix raises his hand.

“The tequila sunrise...?”

By the time everyone has a drink in their hand and has found a place to sit, it is nearly three a.m. and snow has started to softly fall. The neighbor’s dogs bark and the chimes on the front porch provide a metallic soundtrack to their conversation. With the help of alcohol, most everyone grows groggy. Amanita leans her head against Nomi’s shoulder, playing absentmindedly with the lip of her wine glass. Sun and Mun repeatedly nudge each other to stay awake. Riley, sipping slowly on a chocolate porter, rests her chin on the top of Will’s head while he slouches against her on the couch.

Kala, Wolfgang, Nomi, and Lito are alert, however, hanging on each other’s words as they discuss how Dani and Felix should approach Brandt tomorrow. Lila hangs back from the group, silently drinking scotch. Jonas, as far as she is aware, knows intimate details of Brandt’s life, but if the ones being put at risk are Dani and Felix - expendable extras - then she won’t interrupt to question why he’s letting them implement an unnecessary and dangerous plan.

“Assistant...” murmurs Jonas. “He has always had an assistant...but he doesn’t have one for his new job at the University. He starts tomorrow, it could make sense to introduce yourself as his new assistant...but be assumptive and extremely confident.”

Dani nods, taking notes.

“Get as many pictures as possible,” says Nomi. “I have a camera you can wear, it’s barely detectable. Take pictures of details, even ones that seem unimportant... they could help us piece together who he is.”

Dani nods again.

“I also have earpieces, so we can communicate with you,” Nomi adds. “You’ll never be alone.”

“Felix, you keep watch,” says Lito seriously.

“We fully expect you to sacrifice yourself for her,” adds Hernando jokingly, but there’s a solemn darkness in his eyes which frightens Felix and makes him wonder exactly how humorous this statement was intended to be.

Felix nods. “I’m an excellent fucking sentry. That’s kind of been my job my whole life.”

“He’s never wrong about timing,” agrees Wolfgang. “She’ll be fine.”

Lito nods unsurely, exchanging a glance with Hernando, and then reaches out to squeeze Dani’s arm.

“Love, if you don’t want to do this--”

“I want to, Lito!” she says, smiling genuinely, but her voice shakes. “I want to help.”

Lito nods, sighing, and Hernando nudges her.

“Only if you are sure,” he says.

“I am, I want to help,” repeats Dani, looking at Felix. I need to help. “I’ll be fine.”

Lila shifts on her feet by the fireplace, guilty and torn. In the back of Wolfgang’s mind, Lila’s thoughts roll like tiny black marbles, an annoyance, a source of confusion. He can perceive what she’s feeling, but he mistakes it for worry. Felix meets his eyes from across the room, looking for assurance, and he nods slightly. Felix nods in response, then puts a hand lightly on Dani’s back. She glances at him and smiles, frightened, and Lito and Hernando scrutinize them.

“We can go over any details in the morning,” says Nomi with a yawn. “For now, I think we all deserve some sleep.” She pauses, then looks at Jonas. “Is it necessary to stay in the basement? It was pretty cramped as is, and now we have you two...we have plenty of guest bedrooms.”

“As long as the curtains are closed,” answers Jonas.

“Great,” Nomi says. “Okay... Lito and Hernando, you take the one on this floor next to the kitchen, Riley and Will, the one upstairs next to me and Neets, Sun and Mun, basement, by the woodstove, um...Kala and Wolfgang, loft, it’s tiny, sorry, and the rest of you, are you okay hanging out on air mattresses downstairs?”

Everyone murmurs in agreement.

“Not thrilled about sleeping in the same room with Ms. Fuck-ini,” murmurs Dani to Felix, who hastily covers a laugh.

“Or the new guy, seems like a murderer, right?” he replies, furtively pointing at Jonas.

“Well, we’re both used to living with murderers,” says Dani brightly, taking his hand and starting towards the basement stairs.

Felix shakes his head tiredly. “What the fuck is going on...”

“We’ll figure it out, okay?” Dani replies bracingly.

He’s about to respond, but is interrupted by a gasp -- it’s Kala, standing in the middle of the room, a hand over her mouth.

“Oh no,” she wails. “Oh, I can’t believe I forgot. My parents. I -- I completely forgot -- they were supposed to visit me, they’re flying here on Tuesday.”

Nomi presses her lips together, watching Kala, then gently puts her arms around her. “Hey, listen, I’ll cancel their flight, okay? We’ll make it look like the weather, or a technical glitch, alright? We’ll make sure they stay there, that they’re safe.”

Kala nods, eyes brimming, suddenly overwhelmed by the implications of her new reality, suddenly terrified that her family won’t see her again, that she’ll be forced to disappear without explanation.

“Okay,” Nomi says soothingly, rubbing her hands up and down Kala’s arms. “Okay, let’s get you upstairs, I think a nice long sleep is in order...”

Kala keeps nodding, holding back the tears which threaten to burst over her cheeks. She swallows hard, steadying herself, then looks at Wolfgang, who was planning on staying in the living room to discuss something with Lila and Nomi. The lightning in Kala’s eyes, however, unspokenly compels him to go upstairs with her, at least at first. He puts an arm around her waist and they start slowly up the stairs, with Neets calling after them, saying she’ll bring up their bags. Kala has never been up to the loft in Nomi’s apartment, but through Nomi, she knows precisely where the ladder comes down from the ceiling in the hall. She pulls the trap-door open, releasing the ladder, then looks up into the black opening above.

“Not ideal for a quick escape,” remarks Wolfgang, smacking the ladder lightly.

Kala smiles weakly. “No.”

She climbs up the ladder, followed by Wolfgang, and searches for a light switch. When she finds one, soft yellow light illuminates a small loft, outfitted with two skylights, shelves of books, extra blankets, baskets filled with yarn, and several crystal salt candles. Wolfgang hits his head on the ceiling and swears quietly - Kala has to smile - and then Amanita pops her head up through the trapped door.

“Cozy, right?" she asks, climbing up and dropping their bags. "This is where my mom usually stays when she’s here...twin bed, but you guys can snuggle, right?”

Kala glances at the bed, then at Wolfgang, and despite her sense of fear and estrangement from the world, smiles and nods.

Wolfgang smiles too, then says gruffly, “Thanks for this -- for, uh, taking all of us in.”

“Wow, a thank you!” jokes Amanita. “That’s unusual for you, I gather.”

Kala smirks. “A bit, yes.”

Wolfgang laughs and shoves her lightly, and Amanita beams at them.

“Anything else? Your wish is my command.”

Kala smiles and shakes her head. “No, thank you.”

Amanita nods, pulls them both into a brief hug and kisses the side of Kala’s mouth, then neatly descends the ladder and disappears.

“She always smells like oranges,” says Kala with an affectionate sigh. She glances at Wolfgang, then drops her arms to her sides, tears springing in her eyes again. “Oh, Wolfgang...” She shakes her head, touching her fingertips to her cheeks to collect the wetness and wipe it away. “I don’t know what to feel right now.” She laughs at herself. “I can’t tell what I’m feeling. But whatever it is, it’s too much.” She sniffles, letting her tears fall openly now, and fixes her gaze out of one of the tiny windows. “It’s too much...”

He watches her, sensing that she wants a moment to process things. There is something agonizing about seeing her stand apart from him, a slender silhouette backlit by warm light, a slight heaviness to her head, her wrists and hands stiff with nerves. He wants to reach for her, but in this moment, she seems separate, somehow removed.

He knows he should let Kala reach for him, he knows he should let her process the last few days in her own way. Still, it’s nearly impossible not to pull her into his arms.

“Kala?” he says gently.

But she just shakes her head, gaze still fixed out of the window. Wolfgang nods, chest tight with pain that isn’t his own, yet is, and simply touches her side.

“I’m going to talk to Nomi about something, okay?” he checks.

She nods distantly, tears falling, and he forces himself down the ladder, downstairs, and into the living room. The group has dispersed, save for Lila, Nomi, Amanita, Sun, and Mun. They all look at him, but he shakes his head, avoiding explanation. Sun sighs and runs a hand through her hair, and they all stand in silence for a moment.

Then Nomi says what Wolfgang is thinking.

“We have to talk about finding other Sensates. If we’re stuck here, how are we going to manage that?”

Lila nods. “You’re right. We need a plan.”

“A plan without Jonas,” says Wolfgang. “You trust him, fine, but he doesn’t want us to leave. He can’t be part of this.”

Lila nods again, more slowly, her dark eyes reflecting the light from the kitchen doorway.

“In here,” suggests Nomi, putting a hand on Wolfgang’s shoulder and nudging Sun as she steps towards the kitchen. “It’s late, does anyone want coffee?”

The group goes into the kitchen, each taking a seat at the table, except for Nomi, who bustles with a coffee pot. Wolfgang rubs his eyes, exhausted, and grimaces against a late-night wave of pain where he was shot. Lila glances at him with heavy, agitated eyes. Mun and Amanita look at each other briefly, glad for each other’s company in a room full of Sensates, and Sun waits for the coffee to be done, cracking her knuckles one by one.

Nomi sets the pot of coffee on a large coaster, then sets down several mugs. She opens up a bottle of rum and pops the lid on some cream, then pours a hearty amount of both into the pot of coffee. Everyone fills their mugs, and then they look at each other.

Wolfgang can still feel Kala’s agony and bewilderment, but he shuts his mind to it.

“How do we find others like us?” he asks, gripping his mug, jaw tight due to pain.

“There are ways,” mumbles Lila. “All of them stupidly risky.”

“That’s getting ahead of ourselves, isn’t it?” asks Mun. “Even if Jonas isn’t involved, we have to convince him to let us be, right? Won’t he interfere?”

“Convincing Jonas?” purrs Lila. “I don’t think so...”

“Then how?” demands Sun. “He’ll notice any of us being gone.”

Nomi rests her head in one hand, staring at the table. “We have to do it in secret. At least at first. If we’re successful...maybe that would convince him.”

“Why did he tell us to find others anyway, if he expects us to stay here?” asks Sun.

“He wants that job,” says Wolfgang with a shrug. “Wants us to wait. He’s still deciding if he can trust us.”

Amanita hums in thought. “Crazy idea, but, should we let him find others? If that’s what he wants”

“And sit here and do what?” asks Wolfgang. “BPO is everywhere in this city. Even if they do only know about me and Kala, how long will it take them to make the connection?”

Mun nods. “They’ll question family and friends. It won’t be hard for them to find out you’re friends with Nomi, and they’ll come here, just like they went to your apartment.”

“Doesn’t Jonas understand that?” Wolfgang asks Lila, frustrated.

“Of course,” she replies in a clipped tone. “But he’s not wrong that, for tonight, this is as safe a place as any. They believe you’re still in Berlin, especially now that they’ve searched your apartment and found nothing.”

“How long do we have?” says Wolfgang, looking at Mun.

Mun shrugs. “Day? Day and a half?” He glances at Nomi. “Do we have eyes on them? Any surveillance?”

Nomi nods. “On Brandt, yes, but it’s not like BPO is mobilizing out of his office...”

“So how will we know?” asks Mun.

Everyone is silent, contemplating the reality that they don’t know. Then Amanita clears her throat.

“Not to be too, uh, homo sapien here...but, if they come here, they can’t exactly appear out of thin air,” she says. “There are only two ways to get to this place, turning off of Maple onto our street, or turning off of Franklin...so, surveillance on those intersections. It would give us at least five minutes.”

Nomi nods, smiling slightly. “That would help.”

“How do we know it’s BPO?” asks Sun.

Amanita huffs. “True, I don’t expect that they roll up in a van with the insignia on the side.”

Lila’s mouth twitches in amusement. “Actually, they’re rarely subtle. I would expect exactly that.”

Nomi nods slowly, looking at everyone around the table individually. “I’ll get Bug to help with the surveillance. One of us is going to have to monitor that at all times. Any takers?”

“I will,” says Lila, refilling her coffee. “I would rather keep watch than spend the night with five strangers in a chilly basement...”

Nomi nods, getting to her feet. “Stay put, I’ll be back in a moment with a laptop...Neets, where’s Bug?”

“In the den, avoiding the weirdness,” replies Amanita.

Nomi smiles softly, squeezing Amanita’s shoulder as she leaves the kitchen. The others sit quietly for a moment. The only sound is the gentle click of the kitchen clock and the occasional clink of glasses on the table. Then Sun clears her throat.

“So. How do we find others like us?”

Amanita holds up two sets of crossed fingers. “Homo sensorium online dating...?”

Sun laughs. “If only.”

Wolfgang smiles slightly, refilling his coffee. “Want-ads?”

Amanita points at him. “Yes. Calling all Sensates to form an unstoppable army and dismantle the fascist organization known as BPO...”

“Really subtle,” says Mun with a grin.

Lila looks at each of them with an expression that communicates a complete lack of confidence, then sets her mug down.

“The safest way to seek out others is through the Sensates we already know,” she says tersely. “We can begin with my cluster. They know others, and those others know others. Six degrees of separation.”

“Are they here?” queries Sun. “Your cluster?”

“No,” says Lila.

“Where are they?” Sun goes on.

But Lila shakes her head. “Not yet.”

Before the group can question her more, Nomi reappears, hauling two laptops, Bug trailing behind her. He sticks his hand out towards Lila.

“Ms. Facchini in the flesh,” he says. “I’m Bug. I will be your...technological guru during our time together. A pleasure to meet you.”

Lila purses her lips and shakes his hand. Nomi clears a space on the kitchen table for the laptops, and then she and Bug sit down in front of them.

“Are you comfortable in here?” asks Nomi.

Lila shrugs, so Nomi and Bug continue to assemble the surveillance station. They explain how to toggle the map and the zoom, and then Bug returns to the den. Nomi glances at Wolfgang and Sun, then stifles a yawn.

“Strategize tomorrow?” she suggests, looking at the clock.

They shrug in agreement. Amanita, Mun, and Sun all get to their feet and go out of the kitchen, Amanita trailing her fingertips along Nomi’s hip and inviting her to come with. Nomi glances over her shoulder at Wolfgang, who’s watching Lila with a distinctly skeptical expression. Nomi nearly speaks up, asking if he’s heading to bed, but she presses her lips together and departs from the kitchen with Amanita.

“Don’t you have a girlfriend to attend to?” murmurs Lila after a moment, eyes flicking over the two computer screens as she drums her fingers on her mug.

“Where’s your Cluster?” he asks, ignoring her question.

She looks at him. “They don’t want me involved with you, so I can’t tell you.”

“They’re not alone,” he replies quietly, taking a drink of his coffee.

Lila leans back, then fishes in her neckline for a box of cigarettes. She hands him a cigarette and lights it for him after lighting her own.

“She doesn’t trust me, does she?” murmurs Lila with a satisfied smirk.

Wolfgang raises an eyebrow. “Kala? No. I don’t trust you, either.”

Lila shrugs, letting a slow stream of smoke out of her mouth. “Well, I trust you.”

“Do you?” he mumbles, clamping his cigarette in his molars while he reaches down to unlace his boots.

She takes a long drag. “Yes. You went to Berlin for me. But Akihiro and Galenia think I’m foolish.”

“Your cluster-mates?” he guesses, toeing off his boots and taking off his jacket.

Lila nods, eyes downcast as she flicks the ash off her cigarette. She looks up at the computer screens, then shifts so her legs are tucked under her bum.

“Maybe I’ve had too much of this,” she starts, flicking a bright red nail against her mug of spiked coffee. Jonas knows everything about Dr. Brandt. Your friends don’t need to go tomorrow. “But I wanted to say that I know what you think of me. I know you think it was an unforgivable choice to help BPO...but Wolfgang...” She chuckles and shakes her head. “Would you have been above it, if you didn’t have Kala?”

He meets her gaze, gently popping his eyebrows. “No,” he says immediately, honestly. “But that doesn’t make it right.”

“No,” she agrees, but her voice tilts upward, suggesting she doesn’t entirely agree. “But where you stand depends on where you sit.” She taps her cigarette on her now-empty coffee cup. “If you had been born as a Sensate while you were still in Berlin, before you met her? If BPO had offered you immunity?”

“What the fuck are you doing? Do you want forgiveness? What?”

“I know you won’t,” she replies. “But I want you to trust me.”

“Maybe you have had too much of that.”

Lila tilts her head. “I can hold my liquor. Another thing we have in common.” She lifts her cigarette to her mouth, pauses, then breathes out the smoke in one full breath. She enunciates her next words slowly. “I made a mistake thinking that saving myself was all I needed to do. There is no me. There’s us. All of us. I know how that sounds to someone like you. I know that it is antithetical to everything you believe. To everything you base your decisions on. But it’s true. And you need to understand that.”

Wolfgang looks at her, his brow knitted slightly.

“If you try to save yourself, Kala, Felix...if you don’t accept that we are all fundamentally responsible for each other...you will lose.” She puts out her cigarette, and he feels a surge of cold rage radiate from her. “You will lose. And we will lose."

***

Wolfgang takes a shower, changes his bandaging, and throws back four Advil before making his way into the loft once again. He half expects Kala to be standing still and staring the way she was before, but he finds her curled into a small C-shape under a mountain of blankets. He takes a slow breath, then gets into bed next to her. He expects the same distance as before, but now, she presses against him, arms tight and needy around him, her face nestled into his neck. He feels her lips curve into a small smile, and then she pulls back and kisses him.

“Mm, you’re minty,” she murmurs sleepily.

He chuckles, moving her hair out of her face. He looks at her for a moment, thumbing over one of her cheekbones, then settling closer against her.

“You’re warm,” he mumbles in response.

She smiles, melting into him, her body relaxed from sleep. He’s come to discover that for Kala, close often isn’t close enough, and tonight is one of those times -- she tucks one of her legs in between his, presses her face into his shoulder, tightens her grip on him. He smiles into her hair. He never used to be able to sleep with a girl taking up all of his space, but he likes it when she does. He kisses the side of her head, then runs a hand down her back.

“Were you asleep?” he asks.

She nods, yawning, then tilts her face up and kisses him once more.

“Better?” he asks.

She nods, gaze drifting up to meet his. “A bit. I just feel so lost. A month ago I was excited for you to meet my parents, and finish my dissertation, and go traveling with you and now?” She smiles feebly. “What do we do now?”

He breathes out, shrugging slightly. “We get up in the morning. And have coffee. And we keep talking and working through this.”

“Mm, who’d have thought,” she says, touching her nose to his. “You’re the optimistic one now.”

He laughs, then looks down and shakes his head. “What else can we do?”

Kala contemplates this, then turns so her back is nestled against him. He pulls her closer, thumbing over her hip.

“That’s true,” she murmurs tiredly. “What else can we do?”

Chapter Text

Wolfgang hits his head on the low ceiling in Nomi and Amanita’s loft, swears quietly, then checks to see if Kala saw -- which she did, based on her smile.

“If you were as tall as me," he says, "that would have happened to you, too.”

“No, never, I would have remembered I’m in a loft,” says Kala, stretching her toes out and sitting up. She yawns and runs her fingers through her hair. “Did you sleep?”

He shrugs. “Some. I think Jonas is wrong. Or lying.”

“Or both,” suggests Kala. She sighs and rubs her eyes, sitting up more fully, blinking in the early light. “Did Nomi agree with you? When you talked to her last night?”

Wolfgang shrugs again. “Talked to Mun and Amanita and Lila too. Hard to tell.”

Kala hesitates, then sits forward. “What does Lila think?”

“Why?” he asks, reaching to pick up a long-sleeve black shirt.

“Wolfgang,” says Kala. “Tell me.”

“She pretends to trust him,” he responds. “But there’s something wrong.”

“Is she lying?” murmurs Kala.

“No, she’s withholding.”

“So, lying,” says Kala.

He glances at her with a small smirk. “You’re tough.”

Kala beams, getting out of bed and yanking the shirt he’s holding out of his hands. “You’ve worn this for three days, I’m washing it.”

He raises an eyebrow. “I know why you’d think that. But I have three of these.”

“You should diversify,” mumbles Kala, kissing him and walking away with the shirt.

He looks down, smiling to himself and shaking his head. He’s not sure he’ll ever understand how this woman erases darkness as if she radiates pure, invincible light. He remembers his mother telling him, when he was too young to understand, that if something is real, nothing can truly jeopardize it. He understands that now, though it seems too dangerously optimistic to believe in, as much as he wants to, as much as his experience with Kala tells him he should.

“What are you thinking about?” asks Kala as she returns from their suitcases with some clothing.

He shakes his head.

“You’ve been talking even less lately than when I met you...”

“That’s how I get when I’m worried.”

“What are you worried about?” she asks.

He frowns. “All of it.”

“No, right now,” she says. “What are you worried about right in this moment? You have to take it in small bits, you know, to really understand what you’re worried about.”

He gently takes her waist. “You.” He leaves out the concern that his aunt hasn’t contacted him, though she must have heard what happened in Berlin. “Wish we could just leave.”

“We can’t--”

“I know.”

She flinches and he breathes out harshly.

“I’m sorry,” he mumbles. “I want to leave, I know we can’t. Hate being dependent on other people.”

“Then think about it as us being dependent on you...” suggests Kala, wrapping her arms around his neck and smiling gently. “I think you’ve always had a bit of a protector in you.”

He smiles. “To a fault, actually.”

“Mm,” agrees Kala. She nudges him. “Get dressed, I’m going to see that Dani is okay.”

He nods, letting his fingers trail down her arm as she slips away, and then he’s left in the dusty sunlight, alone.

“I can see why you like her,” interrupts a sharp voice -- Lila, visiting.

Wolfgang reaches automatically for a cigarette on the bedside table.

“You’re like a trained dog,” murmurs Lila, dragging her fingertips along a shelf of knick-knacks. “I appear, and you need a smoke.”

“We’ve talked enough,” says Wolfgang, lighting up.

“Be grateful I’ve told you so much,” snaps Lila. “I have a question.”

Wolfgang turns around and gestures at her to continue. She hesitates, hand still balanced on the shelf, strangely frozen.

Then she says, her tone a direct echo from his life in Berlin, “How did he die?”

He frowns. “Who?”

“Sebastian,” she says.

He doesn’t answer, confused.

“Did he suffer? I asked you to do it because you never miss.”

Then he murmurs, “It got out of hand. I don’t know.”

Lila nods, swallowing. “Okay, well, thank you.”

“You cared about him,” mumbles Wolfgang, stunned.

“Thank you,” Lila mutters again, and disappears.

Downstairs, Kala is sitting around the breakfast table with Dani, Lito, Hernando, and Felix. Nomi is nearby in the kitchen with Amanita, prepping some toast with butter and jam, and calling back and forth to Bug in the den as they test their earpieces. Kala looks up at Wolfgang’s arrival and smiles cautiously, but her expression darkens when she sees how consumed he is. She can hear echoes in his mind, not as clearly as he can; muted, somehow tainted with age.

Never would have approved...

Always odd, your mother, never knew what she was thinking about...

Her concentration is broken when Lila and Jonas arrive in the kitchen. Lila gestures at the breakfast table.

“We have things to do,” she says shortly.

Dani turns around, alight with indignance. “It’s my ass in danger this morning, and I’m going to eat some marmalade and toast before I cozy up with some evil scientist, understand?”

“Yeah, you don’t want us getting all faint from hunger,” adds Felix, taking a huge bite of toast.

Lila crosses her arms and takes a reluctant seat at the table. Nomi comes out of the kitchen with a fresh plate of toast and jam and offers it to Jonas, who has just sat down.

“Thank you, is this boysenberry?” he asks politely.

Lila’s mouth twitches in impatience and she holds up a hand when Jonas offers the plate to her, so he gives it to Felix.

“I don’t eat when I’m working,” she says.

Felix shakes his head, munching on a third piece of toast. “That’s like Wolfie. That’s why I was always in a better mood than him when we’d go out.” Felix pushes the plate back in Lila’s direction. “I’m still pretty confident that you’re a piece of shit, but relax, have some toast.”

“And I’m still confident that you’re a second-rate sidekick who’s more trouble than he’s worth,” says Lila, drawing smoothly on her cigarette. “So, pass.”

“I have to admit, listening to European mobsters trade insults is appealing,” says Hernando. “But could we please talk about the plan?”

“I’m no mobster,” says Felix. He points at himself. “Sidekick.” At Wolfgang. “Reluctant mobster.” At Lila. “Actual mobster.”

“Thank you for that handy description,” says Hernando patiently while Lila rolls her eyes. “Now, the earpieces, if they fail?”

Nomi sits down. “I have a plan for that. It’s not an excellent one, but it will do. If they fail, we abort. Just leave, and get on the phone with one of us as soon as you can.”

“And the camera?” asks Felix, more seriously. “If they see that?”

Nomi examines the camera fashioned to look like an earring. “I doubt they will...”

“No flash?” checks Felix.

“No, Felix,” says Nomi warmly. “No flash.”

He nods and goes back to his toast.

“Let’s discuss the script,” says Dani, pulling out a small notepad. She clears her throat. “I am Jimena López, assistant extraordinaire who won’t let Milfred or whatever his name is get a word in edgewise. The University wanted to give him the best assistant, which is me, and I will not let him down! While he’s staring at my tits, as gross old men do, I’ll be snapping photos--”

Nomi interrupts. “Okay, but remember, you want him out of the room while you do that if possible."

Lila shrugs and takes a sip of coffee. “Tits work.”

“Tits can be the backup,” says Dani in compromise. “I’ll get as many photos as possible, steal as many documents as possible, and then commit some fireable offense so I can’t return tomorrow, so he won’t be suspicious when I just vanish. I’m thinking...that I break something important and expensive...and, if everything goes to hell, we have backup.”

Will, Sun, and Mun all nod. Wolfgang stands near the kitchen door, arms folded, thinking.

“You should have a plan if they don’t reach you in time,” he says.

He leaves the room and everyone waits in perplexed silence. He comes back with two guns and hands them to Felix, and Dani immediately takes one.

“Hm, USW, nine mil,” she says appreciatively. “Nice. These are expensive.”

Wolfgang stares at her, then shrugs. “Keep it.”

Dani brightens. “Thank you!” Then she playfully points at herself and says, “Mobster’s estranged daughter.”

He raises an eyebrow in response, then sits down next to Kala, who looks at him, eyes wide and full of worry.

“Will she be safe?” she whispers.

He nods. “Will and Mun and Sun will be right behind them.”

Kala nods, tangling her fingers with Wolfgang’s under the table.

“I will get the car,” announces Capheus, patting the table. “Are you two ready?” he asks Felix and Dani, who nod. “And you?” He looks at Will, Mun, and Sun, who also nod. He claps his hands together. “Alright! I will be right back...”

Everyone gets to their feet. Nomi checks that the earpieces are fully functional and fitted properly in Dani and Felix’s ears. She assures them that these are smaller and less noticeable than the kind that got Kala and Wolfgang in trouble so many weeks ago. Then she places the earrings, one of which is a camera, activated by a button on a corresponding wristwatch.

Felix and Dani look unsurely at each other.

“We need a code word,” Dani murmurs. “If we need to communicate that something’s wrong.”

Felix glances around, nodding. Then he says, “Marmalade.”

“Doubles as a fun safe word,” says Wolfgang in German, and Felix fixes him with a threatening stare.

“Marmalade, good,” says Dani, taking a deep breath.

Lito and Hernando look at each other, both green with worry, and Dani steps over to them.

“I will be just fine,” she murmurs, putting her hands on each of their arms. “You know me. And besides...” She gestures at the gun in her jacket. “I’m packing.”

Lito covers his face and lets out a small laugh. Hernando rolls his eyes and kisses her forehead.

“Don’t take any unnecessary risks,” he says.

Dani nods. “I won’t.”

“Why don’t you treat me like that?” Felix jokes to Wolfgang. “I’m your best friend, about to risk his life--”

Wolfgang pulls Felix towards him roughly and kisses the side of his head.

“There,” says Felix. “How fucking hard was that?”

Wolfgang pushes him towards the door. Dani follows, as does Sun and Will. They go through the door, and the others wait in the silence they left behind.

Then Nomi clears her throat. “Basement. We should track them.”

Everyone nods, some of them pouring fresh coffee to take downstairs, and they all follow Nomi. Kala can feel Wolfgang’s eyes on her as she descends the stairs, and again, the echoes sound in her mind.

Lose everything because of her, just like your worthless father...

Then a new voice enters, a woman’s, a colder one even than his aunt’s.

Still thinking about this, are we?

And Kala looks in shock at Lila, who responds with a chilly, evasive smile.

***

Dani has chosen a magenta dress and a tight-fitting black cardigan for the occasion, paired with pink glasses. Her heels click on the cold tile of the science hall as she and Felix walk down it towards Brandt’s new office. Sun, Mun, and Will walk behind them, spread out and dressed as students.

“Are you sure I’m not just dead weight?” asks Felix in a harsh whisper. “You’re the actress! Not me!”

“I want you here,” says Dani, gripping his arm.

And you’re the one who knows her way around a gun, I’ve never been great at that, I’m worried I’ll slow you down!”

“Felix, shut up,” she says.

“But--”

“I want you here. I’m freaking out, okay? I want you here.”

“You’re freaking out?” replies Felix, alarmed. “You seemed so calm!”

“I’ve never had anyone’s lives depend on my acting, Felix!”

He sighs and runs a hand through his hair as they approach the office. “You’ll be fine. Lito says you’re the best actress he’s ever met.”

“But that’s Lito, he’s my friend,” sighs Dani.

Felix stops, hands lightly on her arms. She looks up at him with a stubborn stare.

“You can do this,” he says softly. “Just look Brandt in the eye. And lie. It’s easy.”

She starts to nod. “It’s easy.”

“Fucking easy,” he repeats.

She swallows and nods in earnest. Then she pulls out her phone, holds it in front of her face as a mirror, and applies a fresh coat of lipstick.

She puckers at him. “Good?”

A faint blush touches his cheeks. “Uh -- yeah. Yeah. Fine.”

“Okay,” she whispers. “Wait for me out here.”

He nods, making sure his earpiece is secure, and watches her disappear into the office.

Back at the apartment, Lito paces.

“I hate this,” he tells them all, hands behind his head. “I don’t like this.”

“They’re fine,” says Wolfgang, nursing a cigarette, leaning to observe the visuals on Nomi’s computer.

“We shouldn’t have let her do this,” Lito goes on in a high-pitched voice.

“Lito, it’s early,” murmurs Nomi. “Don’t panic yet.”

Everyone listens more intently to the audio feedback as Dani makes her first remarks.

“Ah, you must be Dr. Brandt, pleasure, I’m sure they’ve told you that I’ll be your assistant during your time at our lovely university, my name is Jimena--”

Milton Bailey Brandt fixes Daniela with a piercing, electric gaze. He is sitting at his desk, notes scattered over it, wearing a dark suit. His shoulders are damp from the sleet, suggesting he left his hotel in a rush to get to the University, too quickly to remember a coat. His gaze interrupts Dani’s speech, and she stands still. Then she clears her throat.

“--Jimena López,” she finishes in a murmur, holding her hand out for him to shake. “Have you found everything in place so far?”

“I was not aware,” says Brandt, adjusting his glasses, “that I would have an assistant.”

Dani withdraws her hand, but goes on, “That’s odd, Dr. Kolovi always had one.”

“Well, I do not require one,” he says shortly, going back to his reading.

Shit , says Felix over the earpiece.

“I’m not picky,” says Dani. “I’ll be happy to get your coffee and answer your calls--”

“Miss Lopez, who sent you?”

“The science admin,” says Dani, trying a playful eye-roll. She throws her purse into a nearby chair. “Dr. Brandt, with all due respect, I was just given this job and I insist that I am given a chance at a first day.”

Brandt sighs and sets his glasses aside. “Miss Lopez--” His cellphone rings, and he looks at the display. Croome. “Excuse me, I have to--” Then his office phone rings and he sighs.

“Look at that,” says Dani. “This is why you need me.”

She darts over to pick up the office phone before Brandt can stop her. “Thank you for calling Dr. Brandt, director of genetic research at the University of Chicago! Dr. Brandt is busy right now but I would be happy to assist you until he returns.”

She meets Brandt’s eyes with steely determination and Brandt sighs, nods at her, then picks up his cellphone and walks out of the office.

Dani directs the caller on the office phone to an endless menu and then squeals quietly in victory. Felix whoops in the hallway (Dani hears it echo) and the basement erupts in cheers.

“Four minutes, twenty-six seconds,” says Dani. “New record. Now...what are you hiding, Dr. Dead Eyes...”

She opens up her purse, quickly sorting through paperwork, selecting anything with an official seal and slipping it into the bag. She checks over her shoulder, then tiptoes behind the desk and clicks the button on her watch several times, turning her head so the camera in her earring will capture the framed photos Brandt has on his desk.

“His computer,” says Nomi in the earpiece. “Use the flash drive I gave you.”

Dani looks around again and then sticks the drive into the laptop. “Got it. Is he still on the phone?”

“Yes,” replies Nomi, checking his cell connectivity.

“Okay,” whispers Dani, turning now to the bookshelf.

She snaps several photos, then opens the closet in the back of the office. Her eyes widen behind her glasses and her fingers slip on the knob.

Shit ,” she murmurs.

“What?” ask several voices on the earpiece.

“He’s got this...medical device,” says Dani, frightened. “It looks like a...hair dryer, you know, the kind at salons? But it’s got these electrodes...”

“Dani, he’s off his phone,” says Nomi. “Take a picture, get the flash drive.”

Dani nods, shutting the closet door, and hastily pulls the flash drive out of the computer.

Then Nomi murmurs shit in a tone that exactly matches Dani’s from a moment ago.

“He’s calling the science admin,” says Nomi defeatedly. “I’m trying to redirect the call. Bug!”

“What do we do?” asks Will into the earpiece.

“Stand by,” says Nomi. “This may get messy. Dani, hang on.”

“Messy?” asks Felix.

“Shit,” repeats Nomi. “I can’t redirect. Bug!” A pause. “Dani, get out of there. Right now.”

In the basement, the group tracks Brandt’s movement through the halls on the cameras which Bug has infiltrated, holding their breath as he gets closer to Dani with each step.

“East Hall,” says Nomi. “Sun, hold him up--”

“Look, there,” murmurs Wolfgang, pointing at one of the camera feeds where several men are walking briskly down a hall. “They’re armed.”

“Oh, shit,” breathes Nomi. “Will, Mun, West Hall...”

Dani scrambles to steal more paperwork, and at the last second, notices a small bottle of white pills on the bookshelf. It’s across the office, precious wasted seconds...

“Dani, where the fuck are you?” asks Felix.

“Dani, leave!” says Kala frantically.

“Sun won’t get there in time,” says Wolfgang, pointing at the screen. “Will and Mun won’t either. They’re too close, she needs to get out of there.”

Dani lunges for the bottle, then turns to leave the office, but is intercepted by Brandt, who smiles unpleasantly.

“Miss López.”

The blood drains from Dani’s face and she murmurs feebly into the Bluetooth. “ Help .” Then she lifts her chin and tries to smile. “Dr. Brandt.”

He tilts his head. “It pains me to say this, but the administration does not have your name on file, nor do they recall Dr. Kolovi ever having an assistant.”

“I can explain.”

“Please do--”

“Hey, asshole!” shouts Felix from the hallway. “You’re the guy that turned down my application!”

“Felix, the fuck are you doing?” murmurs Wolfgang,

Dani breathes out in relief, eyes watering as she watches.

Brandt turns around slowly, then smiles. “Oh, hello Mr. Berner.”

Felix plays off the surprise. “So you remember me, yeah? Fucking 4.0 from Columbia undergrad, and you waitlisted me?”

“Don’t be foolish, Mr. Berner. We know you, and who you are connected with.”

Felix smirks and Wolfgang holds his breath in the basement. When Felix is afraid, he’s overtaken by a surge of adrenaline and recklessness which Wolfgang has never been able to contain or minimize.

“Yeah,” huffs Felix, meeting Dani’s eyes, trying to communicate. “You like comics, Mr. Brandt?”

Dani looks around for something heavy, then seizes a large marble sculpture of the London Parliament and walks quietly forward.

Brandt sighs. “Not particularly.”

“That’s a shame,” says Felix as Dani creeps closer. “Because you know who you remind me of?”

“Mr. Berner--”

“Billy Russo. That dude betrayed his own kind for his personal fucking comfort. His own brothers. What the fuck’s wrong with psychos like that, hm?”

Mr. Berner--”

Crack ! Dani brings the sculpture down hard on Brandt’s head, and he crumbles to the ground. Dani and Felix meet eyes over his unconscious form.

“What the fuck is going on?” asks Wolfgang heatedly. “Felix, are you there?”

“We’re...we’re okay,” says Dani.

“That was fucking dope , man!” shouts Felix. “Shit!”

Will, Sun, and Mun appear around the door just then, panting. They all look in surprise at Brandt, and then at Felix and Dani, who are still staring at each other.

“Update please?” sighs Nomi.

“Brandt’s unconscious,” says Will.

“Dani knocked him out,” adds Felix.

“What the fuck,” murmurs Wolfgang, exchanging a glance with Kala, who gestures in surprise and confusion.

“Knocked him out?” asks Jonas slowly. “Did he see you? Will? Sun?”

“No,” pants Will.

“No,” agrees Sun, wiping her brow. “Where are the men? From the hall?”

“Getting closer,” says Nomi.

“Get out of that office,” says Wolfgang. “They’re in the North Hall, you need to leave.”

“Did you get everything?” asks Nomi.

“I think so,” says Dani as she, Felix, and the rest step around Brandt’s form and back into the hall. “I have the flash drive, some pills--”

“Pills?” asks Kala in a whisper. “What do they look like?”

“No time,” says Mun. “We only have a moment to get out of sight.”

“He’s right,” says Lila, watching the movement of the men on the bright screens in the basement. “Try the stairs.”

The five of them rush towards the stairs, Dani clutching her purse to her chest with one arm, her other hand extended to take Felix’s. They all run across the tile, but as they approach the stairs, a gunshot rings off one of the hallway walls.

“Oh my God,” gasps Riley.

“Fuck,” says Wolfgang, seeing through Will’s eyes.

Five guards have entered the hall. One of them breaks off to attend to Brandt, but the other three have guns extended on the retreating group. Wolfgang feels a gun jump in his hands, making Will the first to return fire; one of the guards falls, and Wolfgang aims again.

“Stairs!” screams Kala. “There’s more!”

Felix turns, scrambling to reach his gun. Sun and Mun exchange a glance, and both run at the new guards, attempting to knock them over the rails.

“This is what happens,” murmurs Jonas from his seat in the basement. “This happens when you don’t have a plan.”

Then an alarm rings out and flashing red lights flood the hallway.

“Building SB2256 is on lockdown!” says a mechanical voice. “This is not a drill! Building SB2256 is on lockdown!”

“Shit!” roars Felix, shooting at the nearest guard, who falls.

A chain-link gate lowers from the ceiling on either end of the hall, blocking Will, Sun, and Mun from Felix and Dani, who are caught inside.

“Shit, shit!” yells Dani, spinning around.

“I can’t hear anything!” shouts Hernando. “What’s that sound?”

“Alarm,” says Lito, running to the computers to watch Dani and Felix circle each other in the hall, searching for a non-existent exit.

“We’ll override the system!” says Nomi. “Hold on!”

“Stay there!” adds Will, backing down the stairs, pistol in his outstretched arms.

“Can’t really go anywhere!” yells Felix.

Mun, Will, and Sun sprint down the stairs. In the basement, Lito grips the back of an office chair while Hernando stands behind him, a hand over his mouth.

“They’re trapped,” says Lito breathlessly. “What do we do--?”

He stops suddenly as the camera feed is lost.

Nomi leads forward, typing rapidly. “No, no...Bug! Are you getting anything?”

“Nothing, sweetheart!” yells Bug from the room over.

Everyone in the basement exchanges a lost expression, then turn in unison back to the blank screens, as if the attention will revive the camera feeds. Meanwhile, in the hall, Dani flings open a supply closet, pulls Felix into it, and shuts it tightly. She flips the lock, then leans against the wall, panting. They stare at each other in the near-blackness as the alarm whines in the halls.

“Where are you?” asks Nomi into the earpiece. “We lost our feed.”

“Hiding,” pants Dani, dropping her purse, seeking Felix’s hands.

“Okay,” says Nomi cautiously. “We’ll come back for you, as soon as we override the system, okay?”

“How long will that take?” asks Felix.

Nomi looks at Amanita, frowning. Amanita nods encouragingly.

“Could be at least a few minutes. Hold tight.”

“You’ve got to be kidding,” mumbles Felix. He shakes his head, then gestures at Dani’s purse. “At least you got the stuff.”

“I hope it’s enough,” she says.

“It will be,” he assures her.

She slowly shakes her head, then looks down, hiding tears. Her shoulders drop softly and she brings her hands to her face.

“Hey, hey, it’s -- it’s just a hiccup, we’ll get out of this.”

“No, I know, I just...what if you hadn’t have been here?”

“Me? You knocked him out!”

She shakes her head again, sniffling, and reaches out to turn off her earpiece, then his.

“Is -- is that the best idea?”

“I don’t want them to hear me cry.”

“Why are you crying?” sighs Felix, taking her hands. “It was just a close call.”

Dani forces herself to nod and looks at him. She smiles faintly. “I’m not...used to people protecting me. You could have just run away.”

In the basement, Wolfgang is tapping his earpiece. “Fuck, these aren’t working either.”

“Ours are,” says Sun as she and the two men walk out of the science building basement, Mun having pried open the door with a nearby crowbar.

“Dani! Dani!” yells Lito. “Dani, are you there?”

“What does this mean?” asks Hernando. “Were they caught? Why aren’t they working?”

Back in the supply closet, Dani has taken a tentative step closer to Felix.

“I wouldn’t have just run away,” he’s saying while he tucks her hair behind her ear.

“Why?” she asks.

He shrugs. “Nobody gets left behind, those are the rules.”

Dani sighs, then leans down to take off her heels. “I guess if we’re here for a while we should get comfortable...”

Felix chuckles when she throws the heels in the corner.

“So...you would have done that for anyone?” she asks, glancing up at him.

“Anyone I care about,” he says with another shrug.

In the basement, Wolfgang has taken to smoking a third cigarette, while Lito and Hernando frantically crowd around Nomi, who’s typing at lightspeed.

“Didn’t they say they were hiding?” asks Wolfgang.

“Yes,” says Lito tersely.

“I’m assuming that means a small space...” Wolfgang goes on, and Kala glances at him with a frown for what he’s implying.

“So?” asks Hernando.

“They’re both adults,” says Wolfgang, flicking the ash off his cigarette.

“No, no,” says Hernando, full of confidence. “They were nearly gunned down. They wouldn’t be...”

“If they shut off their earpieces on purpose,” says Lito, “I am never speaking to her again.”

In the closet, Dani’s lips have settled on a curious smile.

“So you care about me,” she says.

Felix’s eyes widen in a mixture of excitement and alarm. “Thought I’d made that...somewhat obvious.”

“Want to make it...more obvious?” she murmurs, tangling her hands in his shirt and closing the distance between them.

Felix sees the sparkle of Dani’s earring, caught in the thin stream of light from the side of the door, and then her lips are on his, and he stops caring about the alarms in the hall, the flashing red lights, the fact that they are captive in a broom closet.

In the basement, everyone watches as Bug and Nomi type, eyes flicking from the blank screens to the keyboards. Will, Mun, and Sun check in over the earpieces and announce they have made it clear of the science building and that police have arrived. After five minutes, Bug crows in victory, and the screens light up. The hallway where Dani and Felix were last seen is still lit with red light, and now, is crawling with campus security.

“Wait it out,” Wolfgang says.

“Roger,” agrees Will.

“What if they aren’t there?” asks Kala, pulling on one of her curls to soothe her nervous fingers. “What if they were taken somewhere?”

The other stiffen at the suggestion, but then their earpieces crackle, a signal that the connection has been restored.

Felix clears his throat. “So, uh, hallway. How does the hallway look?”

“Asshole,” murmurs Wolfgang, voice full of relief despite his earlier confidence.

“Um, we -- we lost the connection for a moment there!’ says Dani nervously.

“Right,” says Wolfgang. “Hall’s not clear so you can keep doing whatever you were doing.”

“Not funny, Daniela!” says Lito.

“What?” tries Dani. “Innocent technical error...”

Hernando looks at Lito with a smile and shrugs. Lito huffs, but his expression softens.

“Never again,” says Lito.

“Never again,” agrees Dani in Spanish.

Then Kala says, “I know how to clear the hall.”

“Tear gas?” murmurs Wolfgang. “Again?”

Kala gently shoves him. “ No. ” She looks at Nomi. “Can you access the fire response system?”

Nomi nods. “What are you thinking of?”

“The fire sprinklers,” says Kala. “If you activate those, the cops will leave. They’ve moved Brandt, and they won’t want their equipment to get wet. Then Dani and Felix can get out.”

“What about the gate?” asks Riley.

Wolfgang shrugs. “They have guns. Take out the control box and the receiver. That should disable the gate.”

Nomi nods. “Did you two hear that?”

Felix and Dani murmur their assent, then Nomi and Bug go to work on the fire sprinklers. After two minutes, everyone sees water rain from ceiling sprinklers on the screen, and as expected, the cops scatter. Dani and Felix burst from the supply closet, Dani carrying her shoes and her purse, and they sprint towards the gate. Felix aims at the control box and the receiver, the gate rolls up with a clang, and the two of them escape down the stairs, out of sight on the computer monitors.

The basement breathes a collective sigh of relief, and moments later, Will says, “We’ve got them, they’re out. Headed back.”

“On it,” says Capheus. “Meet on the west side of the building.”

The five of them run toward the west side, staying close to the building to stay out of sight, Felix and Dani both drenched and shaking in the snow.

In the basement, Nomi sets aside her glasses and rubs her eyes. Amanita hugs her from the side, looking around at the others.

“Hot chocolate? Yeah, hot chocolate...” She goes towards the stairs. “And I’ll bring down some logs to put on the fire, yeah?”

The rest of them look around at each other, and then Jonas chuckles to himself.

“That went well,” says Lila acidly, crossing the room to the wet bar and pouring herself a glass of scotch.

“Seamlessly,” agrees Jonas.

Wolfgang shakes his head tersely, lighting a cigarette, and Kala seeks his gaze, worried. He motions at Lila at the bar and she pouts and drops the ice tongs back into the freezer.

“Get your own,” she says, brushing past him and Kala.

“It’s ten in the morning,” murmurs Kala. Then she sighs as Wolfgang goes towards the bar. “Get me one, please.”

By the time the group has returned to Nomi and Amanita’s apartment, everyone is sitting around the fire, unspeaking, unsettled. Dani and Felix collapse by the fire, shivering, holding their hands out towards the flames. Wolfgang meets Felix’s gaze, and Felix communicates with a blink of his stormy eyes that Wolfgang is not to say anything, and Wolfgang smirks and holds up his glass.

Felix laughs, accepting some hot chocolate from Amanita, and then Dani opens her purse, carefully spreading the top documents on the hearth so they dry out.

Kala asks to examine the bottle of pills, and retires to a table in the corner, pushing glasses up her slim nose and holding a pill up close. Wolfgang sits on the table, watching her, occasionally touching her calf with his socked toes and making her smile. The rest of them stay by the fire, still not talking. Then Nomi, passing by Daniela with a glass of white wine, stops with a gasp.

Everyone looks at her as she gazes down at one of the papers on the hearth.

“That’s the UN seal...” she murmurs.

“Yeah,” agrees Dani with a sigh. “It’s not the only one.” She glances unsurely at Nomi. “I think they’re monitoring BPO.”

“I think you’re right,” whispers Nomi.

Sun hums in thought, then throws back the dregs of her beer. “Finally. Someone on our side.”

Chapter Text

By five, Kala has examined every document that Dani collected from Dr. Brandt and she finds her temples throbbing from wearing magnifying glasses and pressing her nose to the bright white paperwork. All of them, except Jonas and Lila, gathered around the fire to pour over the papers after Nomi noticed the UN symbol. They murmured amongst themselves, sometimes only in each other’s minds, for hours; and for hours, like strange statues, Jonas and Lila hung back, listening, watching, as if unsurprised by the discovery.

“This changes nothing,” observes Lila as the light shifts in the room, afternoon to evening.

“I disagree,” says Jonas, “but perhaps it does not change things in the way you were hoping for.”

Will, kneeling by the fire and reading over one of the many documents, frowns slightly and murmurs, “Could you elaborate? Just once, could you elaborate?”

Riley puts her hand softly on his shoulder, and then the eight of them exchange a glance and collectively decide to ignore Jonas. Nomi leans back against the couch, setting aside a document and looking at them all, exhausted and perplexed. She and Kala meet eyes for a moment, and then Riley clears her throat.

“So what do we know?” she asks gently.

“London,” says Kala, voice rough from disuse. “He’s going to London. He has a meeting there with...” She flips through some papers, looking for a name.

“Croome,” fills in Wolfgang.

She nods. “Croome.”

“And it mentions a Gibbons,” says Sun.

Nomi shakes her head and throws some papers to the side. “We need a whiteboard,” she says dully. “Too many names. Gibbons, Croom, Matheson, Friedman, Brandt...”

Amanita quietly snorts. “A whiteboard, Noms?”

Nomi laughs and she nods. “A whiteboard. Kala probably has one in her science closet. You know, the one with the skeleton.”

Kala grins reluctantly. “Yes. I do have one.”

Then it’s Wolfgang’s turn to laugh, and soon everyone is chuckling, a result of sleep-deprivation, desperation, confusion, and hunger. Lila scoffs and looks at Jonas, who waves off her annoyance, deep in thought as he watches the young Cluster. She sits in a nearby chair, crosses her legs tightly, and lights a cigarette. After a moment, Capheus suggests ordering dinner and taking a break, and everyone agrees, for once too tired to be motivated by urgency and fear.

After half an hour, the Cluster and their sapien counterparts are sitting at the table in the basement, dipping falafels and kebabs into tzatziki sauce, chatting quietly and looking over the small number of documents they determined to be crucial. Lila, having grown frustrated by the slow progress, went upstairs, alone at last and able to visit with her Cluster. Jonas followed to listen in.

Wolfgang, Sun, and Will took note of this, but no one felt up to following her.

“These maps,” murmurs Kala, dragging her soft pink nails over the glossy paper. “Population density. I don’t understand why so many Sensates are in Berlin and Chicago and London. I would expect a higher density in all cities, and the population to be fairly uniform elsewhere.”

“And look,” says Sun, pointing at the symbols on the maps which signify BPO locations. “Wouldn’t you expect the population around these areas to be smaller?”

“Nonexistent, I’d think,” says Will.

Capheus hums in thought, then taps London. “But think about a war. Soldiers don’t spread out in a war. There are fronts.”

Lito looks up in interest, licking a bit of tzatziki sauce off of his index finger. He points at Capheus. “He’s right. The others, they must be doing what we plan to do. Joining together.”

“Strongholds,” murmurs Riley.

“So there’s, like, an army ,” says Bug, chewing on a used kebab stick. “An army of interconnected telepaths. Dope.”

“So that makes us...” says Felix, looking around the room with narrowed eyes. “The -- the special ops! I mean, look at us! We’re alone, we’ve figured out way fucking more than any other groups -- Clusters, I mean -- we’re the fucking recon team, man!”

Sun frowns in thought. “I like to be alone,” she says slowly. “I think Felix is right about who we are in this, and I think we should keep it that way.”

Mun looks at her. “You don’t think you should seek out others like you?”

Sun shakes her head softly. “I don’t...I don’t know.”

“We don’t know enough to decide,” Kala says carefully, moving her fingers around the city of Berlin on the map. “London, I understand, if we are correct that Brandt, if that’s his name, is based there. And I understand Chicago, with the university. But Berlin?”

Wolfgang shakes his head, perplexed. Then he says, “We should go to London, be waiting there for him.”

“To do what?” asks Kala softly. “Even if we...kill him...”

Wolfgang shakes his head again. “No. Question him.”

“Impossible,” says Lila, coming out of the stairwell with a dying cigarette in her fingers. “But two members of my Cluster live in London. We could stay with them while you investigate Brandt.”

Everyone looks at her, silent for a moment as they contemplate this unusual friendliness.

“And as for the population question,” she murmurs, putting the cigarette out on the banister, earning a grumble from Amanita, “we surround not just BPO, but their important donors and supporters.”

Wolfgang’s brow twitches in concern.

“Be careful with your thoughts,” she murmurs. “I know what you think about, and you were all thinking about this population question. Don’t ask what you don’t want to be answered.”

Wolfgang watches Lila cross the room, a nagging fear in his chest, the same fear that plagued him before his mother died, the same fear that convinced him to take preventative action against his uncle and his cousin, the same fear that throughout his life has been a reliable hint of trouble to come, and he has to suppress the sudden urge silence Lila now.

She already knows too much.

“The donors, particularly,” Lila goes on, “are what explain Berlin...” She continues across the room. “Are you surprised?” she breathes as she passes Wolfgang, and the lingering question of his aunt resurfaces in his mind.

Lila’s words echo in his mind like a flock of cawing crows. Surprised? Surprised? Are you surprised? Surprise!

Kala takes Wolfgang’s hand under the table, her soft eyes now glittery black, insistent that he answers her unvoiced questions. He nods slightly, squeezing her hand, but doesn’t speak yet. Kala breathes out, realizing he wants privacy, and she nods in response, telling him she can wait. The others watch this exchange, and then Jonas comes down the stairs, running a hand through his chin-length curls and shaking his head slightly.

“London would risk disaster,” he says quietly.

“How difficult do you think it will be, exactly, for the informants in this city to ascertain that there are ten Sensates hidden in a basement?” asks Lila waspishly. “The longer we sit still, the faster we will be caught.”

“And how difficult do you, Lila, think it will be for them to realize that ten Sensates are on a transatlantic flight?”

Lila smirks and puts a hand on her hip. “A private plane. I know you can supply us with one, Jonas.”

Jonas pauses in his pacing, and there is suddenly a dangerous energy strung between the two of them. Kala can feel electric dislike and distrust pass unspoken between them like the string of a live taser. She can also sense that Jonas is attempting to look into Lila’s private thoughts and, somehow, she is hiding from him.

“Why so abrupt?” asks Jonas tersely.

“Bored,” Lila explains with a pout, reaching for a new cigarette. Her eyes pass over the group at the table. “I’m sure some of you can sympathize.” She turns to Jonas, and gently simpers, “Well? Jonas?”

His nostrils flare in anger, but when he speaks, his tone is measured. “I will be joining you.”

Lila shrugs, playful. “Okay.” Then she looks at the others. “I hope you all have suitcases.”

***

Jonas, in a surprisingly short time, procures a large white van for some of the Cluster and their friends to travel in to the airfield. Nomi and Amanita chose to stay behind, monitoring from their basement network with Bug. Lito, Hernando, and Capheus stayed back as well, preferring to be a supportive force for the others. The other eight -- Kala, Wolfgang, Sun, Detective Mun, Riley, Will, Felix, and Dani -- join Jonas and Lila on the trip to London.

They speak very little on the drive in the van, which is too warm and smells unpleasantly like carpet cleaner. The sun goes down over the city, casting vermillion light on the low clouds as cold air begins to settle in the valleys and creek beds.

“This is...remote,” remarks Dani as the van passes a field of cows.

“Smells like shit,” agrees Felix.

“Literally,” she adds with a quiet snort.

Forty minutes out from Chicago, the city has given way to small townships with single stoplights, rusted trucks, unkempt grass growing in chunks around fence posts and old billboards advertising farm-fresh fruit, milk, and meat. Wolfgang leans closer to the window, though not too far so he can keep his arms around Kala, who is staring outside as if the farmland is Mars. He frowns slightly -- the view reminds him of the landscape on the drive to Wuppertal, which he and Felix would make when his mother was sick; but this land is eerily flat and dotted with ominous signs.

“Comforting,” he mumbles to Kala, gesturing at a sign which reads HELL IS REAL.

“Welcome to the Midwest,” jokes Will, following their gaze.

Kala and Wolfgang glance at each other and frown gently. Then Kala presses closer, snuggling her arms against herself for comfort, and they go back to looking out the window. After a few more minutes, they notice small planes low in the air and all perk up, searching for signs of the airfield. The van slows, makes a left, and stops abruptly outside a locked gate.

“We’re not stealing a plane, are we?” asks Mun as Jonas gets out of the driver’s seat and walks up to the gate, his breath clouding in the freezing air.

“We can’t steal a plane,” says Will. “As soon as the owner notices, we’ll have Homeland on us, and Military Command will shoot us down.”

“Isn’t the point to stay hidden?” asks Riley. “If we steal the plane, we won’t even make it out of the country--”

They all breathe out in relief when Jonas pulls out a ring of keys and simply unlocks the gate.

“We aren’t that stupid,” snarls Lila from the front.

“Whose plane is it?” asks Sun slowly.

“One of my Cluster-mate’s,” replies Lila, tone so cold and short that none of them are tempted to ply her with more questions.

Jonas returns to the van, then drives through the gate and parks on the side of the road. He locks the gate while the rest of the passengers leave the van. They all huddle close as they pull suitcases out of the back, bare hands smarting in the cold, noses and ears rapidly turning numb. Felix makes a point of pulling Dani’s bag out for her, and she rolls her eyes and yanks it out of his hands. He looks at her, slightly hurt, so she gives his shoulder a squeeze but makes a point of rolling her eyes one more time.

Meanwhile, Will and Riley stand slightly apart from the van. Riley puts her hands over Will’s ears to keep them warm. He grins at her, smitten, and Kala catches a glimpse of them and smiles. If the last few weeks have taught her anything, it’s that love only grows stronger in the face of danger, and this alone has made their experience, despite everything, one that she’ll never come to regret. She sniffles in the cold, looking at Wolfgang with the same delicate smile she gave Riley and Will, and he reaches out and grips her hand.

They all wait in the cold, listening to the whine of the aircrafts, the distant mooing of the cows, a siren in a town nearby. Then Jonas joins them and guides them down the road to the aircraft hangers, glancing around for unwanted company.

Will and Wolfgang exchange a suspicious glance.

“Expecting someone?” asks Will.

“I am nothing if not cautious,” replies Jonas.

Sun steps even with Will and Wolfgang and murmurs, “Is it me, or is he intentionally vague?”

“Half-truths,” says Wolfgang with a shrug. “He doesn’t want to be a caught in a lie, so he says just enough.”

Will shakes his head. “Guys like him make the worst perps. You can question them for hours and end up more confused than you were when you started.”

They approach the nearest aircraft hanger, and Jonas unlocks one of the massive sliding doors and lets them all inside. It stinks of exhaust, oil, and sawdust and the planes exist as huge gray ghosts under protective sheets. Kala notices a larger plane in the back and sees Lila walk towards it with a prideful stride. Jonas is the first to follow, and then the rest of them go, though more reluctantly. Lila promptly unlatches a set of stairs which descend from the small jet. She walks up them without a word and goes into the cockpit, and Jonas follows; but the Cluster and their friends stand in a group at the bottom of the stairs, calculating.

“Lila is the pilot?” murmurs Riley, uncomfortable.

Mun frowns slightly, surprised. “She could kill all of us if she wanted. Take the plane down.”

“And kill herself in the process?” asks Wolfgang, shaking his head dismissively.

“But she could fly us somewhere we don’t want to go, somewhere that isn’t safe…” says Kala softly.

Will rubs the back of his head, thinking. “She would know better than that. She knows it’s eight against two. And Nomi’s tracking us, she’ll know if the plane is headed somewhere other than London.”

Everyone nods unsurely. Then Felix shrugs and takes the first step onto the plane.

“If I have to die, at least it’ll happen on a private jet,” he explains, shouldering his backpack higher and jogging up.

Dani tilts her head, somewhat convinced by this, and follows. The others all reluctantly walk up the steps and stop to look at Jonas and Lila in the cockpit.

“You really know how to fly a jet?” asks Will.

“One of my Cluster is a pilot,” Lila says, not looking at him. She hangs a hand with a lit cigarette over the side of her seat. “Do you want credentials, Officer? She was a Group Captain in the Air Force, and when they pushed her out, she went to commercial flight. Not in the United States, of course, too many medical tests and security protocols.”

Detective Mun and Sun share an uneasy glance, and Kala can feel from Wolfgang’s pulse that he is unsure as well, but the group finally moves from the entrance into the body of the plane, which is unlike anything most of them have ever seen -- lavish white leather, an open floor, and a huge bar in the back.

“Is your pilot friend any relation of the Trumps?” calls Felix into the cockpit.

Dani picks up a small pillow covered entirely with golden rhinestones and wrinkles her nose at it. “Classy.”

“Very classy,” says Felix, flicking a finger against a chunky crystal tumbler filled with caramel-colored liquor.

They both crack up, and then Felix sinks back in one of the seats and crosses his legs. “Shit, man, this is overkill.”

Wolfgang shakes his head and goes to sit next to his friend. “Reminds me of Sergei’s place.”

“Yeah, all it needs is a stuffed alligator on the wall and some tiger skins,” replies Felix.

The others settle around the luxurious plane, holding themselves tightly due to the cold. The plane taxis out of the hangar, stops so that Jonas can let the stairs down and lock the hangar doors, and once he’s back inside, continues to taxi down a long, bleak runway.

“Not loving this,” says Felix with a frown, echoing what’s on everyone’s minds as the countryside slips away, faster and faster.

No one else speaks, all transfixed on the landscape outside the small windows, fence posts and distant barns blurred by speed. The plane lifts off the ground smoothly and everyone looks around at each other with a new sense of commitment -- after all, there is no turning back now.

They take off their coats and scarves after a moment and pull blankets down from the cabinets. Despite the relative privacy the plane provides, none of them feel like talking; it’s so silent that Nomi texts them all to check that everything is in order.

They confirm that it is, then each turn to a time-killing activity -- Riley puts on her headphones, Will opens up an automotive magazine, Wolfgang pulls out an old copy of 1984 which Hernando gave him, Sun and Mun play chess together on their phones, Felix browses a nearby shelf for a DVD and Dani makes recommendations. Only Kala resists any distractions, choosing instead to sit with her legs crossed and her eyes fixed on the gaudy cabinets across from her.

Her thoughts travel a nauseating loop, frantic worry about her parents which blends into misgivings about Wolfgang’s family and BPO, a disturbing connection which Lila alluded to, which in turn transforms into a sick conviction that they’ll never leave London alive, which leaves her at last trembling and numb, mind blank. Wolfgang tries to read, but he quickly realizes that he’s reading the words without taking in the meaning, so he throws the book aside and puts an arm around Kala, who simply shakes her head and nestles against him.

The others, after a while, realize that their distractions are no good either -- Riley slips her headphones off, Will turns to look out of the window, Sun and Mun have gone to quietly speaking rather than playing chess, and even Felix groans, finding no entertainment in the old action movie he and Dani selected.

“You know what we need?” asks Dani, her cheerful voice a surprise to everyone on the plane. “We should do as the Velázquez family has always done in the face of danger -- ignore it, have a drink, and play a game.”

“Is your family really the best inspiration...?” asks Felix, frowning.

“Oh, no, they’re assholes,” she says brightly. “But they know how to party.”

Felix shrugs and gets to his feet. “I’ve never turned down a drink from a beautiful woman.”

Dani sighs at this but gets up as well and they work together to pour drinks for everyone. They pass them around after a few minutes, and everyone accepts the glasses thankfully, except for Kala. She shakes her head, focused on playing with Wolfgang’s rough fingers, comforting herself through the connection. Dani smiles worriedly and squeezes her shoulder, then sets the drink aside and sits down.

Then, to everyone’s surprise, Kala sits up and softly clears her throat.

“I don’t think I like flying.” She sniffles and tucks her hair behind her ear. “The very first time I was on a plane was when I came to Chicago for the first time. I...I was alone, I was so scared, so I just…” She laughs at herself. “Well, I talked myself through the physics of flight to keep myself calm and then I was fascinated by being up in the air, and when I saw the city appear I…” She pauses and looks at Wolfgang, dark eyes bright with affection. “Somehow I knew everything would change for me there.”

He squeezes her hands and everyone smiles encouragingly at her. She seems calmer now that she’s talking.

“I never traveled as a child, of course,” she goes on in a murmur. “I spent all of my time in Mumbai, all of my time in the neighborhood around my father’s restaurant, actually.” She smiles distantly. “I still feel like I’m missing a part of myself when I’m away, just a little piece, but I’m not sure that I would feel any differently if I went back now because...well, everything changed when I stepped off that plane. Mumbai was very sheltered, my world was so small and so neat…” She trails off, shaking her head fondly. “I miss it, but my life is so much fuller now, I feel like I…” Her voice breaks slightly. “I feel like I have so much more to lose.”

Dani, who’s sitting near Kala, scoots closer and puts an arm around her. “We met her at the airport, Lito, Nando, and I...we knew she was assigned to our dorm and we wanted to make a good impression.”

Kala grins suddenly. “They got me so drunk that night! I was nervous meeting new people so I agreed to have a glass of wine, but…”

Dani grins and takes a sip of her margarita. “But Hernando had just picked up a case from Spain…”

Kala shakes her head, smiling warmly, and squeezes Dani’s hand. “I fell in love with all of you that night, you know that, right?

Dani beams. “We do. And we fell in love with you.” She laughs at herself. “Even if we weren’t always the best influence.”

Kala laughs gently. “Well. I’m not sure that I attract people who are the best influences.”

Wolfgang holds Kala slightly closer, chuckling. “No.”

Then Kala smiles at Dani, bites her bottom lip, and shyly gestures at the drink Dani made her. Dani grins and hands it to her.

“What about you?” she asks after taking a sip, setting her chin on Wolfgang’s shoulder. “Do you like flying?”

He smiles slightly. “Uh, no. But mostly because of the security.”

Felix points at Wolfgang. “He put a bunch of guns through customs one time because he’s a self-destructive dumbass.”

Wolfgang sips his vodka, unfazed. “Told you I had a connection, Felix.”

“Doesn’t make you less of a dumbass,” says his friend confidently, then after gulping his drink, he looks at Kala and says, “It’s funny, we never traveled as kids either, stayed in the same two neighborhoods in Berlin all our lives.”

“The rich one and the shitty one,” agrees Wolfgang with a laugh.

“You wouldn’t know he comes from old money, would you?” asks Felix, grabbing the top of Wolfgang’s head and lifting it so everyone looks at him.

Wolfgang snorts and pushes him away.

“Traveling wasn’t worth it, we were always protecting something.” He shrugs and sips his drink, then glances at Kala. “I don’t like flying, actually. My mother was superstitious about it, heights too. She liked being on the ground. Or in the water.” His mouth twitches, almost a smile. “I think I’m the same. Sergei traveled to Moscow all the time, but he always invited Steiner, not me, so I never got used to flying.”

“Which you were fucking grateful for,” says Felix. “You got the whole fucking manor to yourself when they were in Moscow.”

Kala’s lips form a sly smile and she swishes her drink around her glass. “I imagine you behaved very responsibly with a whole manor to yourself…”

Felix snorts. “No, Wolfie fucked a lot of girls his uncle would have disapproved of.”

Sun and Will both roll their eyes and Riley shakes her head and hides a laugh.

“And the parties ,” Felix goes on, undeterred.

Wolfgang can’t hold back a laugh. “Fuck. The parties.”

Felix leans forward excitedly and holds his hands up. “So, there’s a lake behind the manor, right? Well, listen to this…” He gets up to refill his drink and carries the vodka with him back to his seat. “So a lake,” he goes on after taking a huge shot. “And some, like, dingy, tiny shit boats, you know...so at one of these parties, we were drunk…”

“Extremely drunk,” says Wolfgang.

Felix nods. “Right, extremely drunk, total lattenstramm , okay? And we got this idea to take a couple of girls out to the island in the lake.”

The whole group grins in appreciation, sensing a good story. Dani and Kala exchange an amused glance, waiting, and Felix tops up the glasses of everyone he can reach.

“So we made it out there,” says Wolfgang. “But the wind picked up…”

“And like I said we were fucking zonked but for some reason we brought even more shit with us, smoked some pot with the girls, finished the booze…”

Wolfgang chuckles and shakes his head. “Poor fucking girls…”

Felix widens his eyes dramatically and gestures with his drink. “Poor girls? They were on an island with the neighborhood hottie, they loved every fucking second--”

Wolfgang squints. “Neighborhood hottie?”

Felix frowns playfully, then points at himself. “Correction. Hotties .”

Wolfgang rolls his eyes and puts an arm roughly around Felix. “Anyway, on the way back in the boats we were even drunker, so..that...plus the wind...we lost our way, couldn’t find the dock, so we just had to jump out and wade the rest of the way and the boats floated away.”

“And we had to drive one of the girls to the hospital, hypothermia,” adds Felix with a hearty laugh, quickly going on, “She was fine. And she had the best fucking story at school for months, imagine -- made out with Wolfgang Bogdanow on a private island, then nearly drowned. Practically made headlines she talked about it so much. Can’t blame her.”

Will frowns. “Wait, you drove her to the hospital?”

Wolfgang laughs. “We were dumb back then, okay?”

Felix shakes his head. “And Wolfie’s a terrible driver as is.”

“My uncle beat the living shit out of me for losing the boats,” says Wolfgang, shrugging and finishing his drink, “but it was worth it.”

Everyone is quiet for a moment, shaking their heads or giggling softly, listening to the clink of ice in crystal glasses. Then Dani squeals.

“Oh my God , wait, do you know what this reminds me of?” She grins and opens up her phone. “I have to call Lito for this. We’ll tell the story together, hold on…”

Kala snuggles against Wolfgang while they wait, settling her legs lightly in his lap so he’ll pull her closer. She smiles at him, then brushes her lips against his in a brief kiss. He squints, surprised, and searches her eyes when she pulls away.

“We’re in the middle of nothingness,” she says in explanation, gesturing out at the inky, star-speckled sky. “If we aren’t safe here, where are we safe?”

He nods, understanding.

“We should enjoy it,” she goes on gently.

And he nods once more, kissing her brow and giving her a squeeze. Then she grins, tracing his lips with her fingertips.

“Your teenage years sound far more exciting than mine,” she tells him.

He grins. “When this is over, we can take a treacherous boat trip and get piss drunk so you can relieve that excitement.”

She nods, playing along. “I don’t expect anything less."

He chuckles and thumbs over her brow, expression settling into a softer smile. He’s about to speak, but Dani reaches Lito and breaks the quiet with another shrill sound of delight.

“Ay, Lito, okay we’re telling childhood stories,” she explains quickly. “So help me tell the one about poor Hernando on the island.”

Lito’s rich laugh fills the cabin. “Oh no , no, we cannot embarrass Hernando like this.”

“Embarrass Hernando ?” demands Dani. “We’re the ones who should be embarrassed! Okay, so this was...sophomore year, yes?”

“Yes,” agrees Lito, adding with a pained laugh, “oh, the Coast Guard had to rescue him, oh God. In our defense, we were also drunk.”

Dani grins. “Keep in mind, Hernando was Lito’s brand new boyfriend .”

The group laughs and groans in response.

Then, on the phone, Nomi murmurs, “Was this the Channel Islands? Is this the story I’m thinking of?”

Dani laughs. “Yes indeed. We were there, on one of the remote islands, we had taken my father’s boat. So, we were relaxing on a Saturday, and Hernando was examining all the sea stacks and taking photographs and we were all loving it.”

“We needed a vacation,” says Lito, “because I had just missed my chance at an audition in Santa Barbara, and I was very distressed. But then…”

“Lito got a callback,” says Dani. “One of the men who was given an audition missed his slot, so we had to race back to the campus because now Lito had a chance...”

Kala gasps in understanding. “You left without Hernando?”

There’s a pause, silence except for Nomi’s knowing chuckle.

Then Lito laughs loudly, and they can all picture him rubbing his face, overwhelmed. And Hernando’s voice comes over the phone.

“I forgave them,” he says.

“He did,” agrees Lito. “That’s how we knew it was real.”

The group lets out a collective, amused sigh, and then Sun gets to her feet to refill her wine. She crosses slowly to the bar, a smirk building on her face, and then she looks playfully at Mun as she sits down again.

“You forgave me after I broke your nose, that’s how I knew it was real,” she says.

Wolfgang narrows his eyes. “You broke his nose?”

“He surprised me!” says Sun defensively, crossing her legs and gesturing at Mun. “He was home earlier than me, we had just begun...living together…”

But Mun grins defiantly. “No, it was the morning after our first night together.”

Felix snorts and raises his glass. “ Great morning after.”

“It was dark!” replies Sun. “He made a noise, defending myself was automatic!”

Mun looks at all of them, deadpan. “I was making her coffee. The noise...was me making her coffee.”

Sun sighs in concession. “Yes. But you forgave me.”

Mun nods. “Yes. Well, after going to the hospital, yes.”

Sun smiles. “And that’s when I knew.”

They chuckle at each other, eyes bright. Riley and Will look at each other with a smile, and then Capheus hums in thought over the phone.

“It’s funny when you know,” he murmurs. “Especially when you are like me, and you aren’t used to trusting your own feelings.”

“Being with Neets…” adds Nomi, “that’s what it was like for me. That was the first time I felt truly sure about anything.”

Kala looks instinctively at Wolfgang, and she finds him already watching her with a slight smile on his face. She finds his hands in the darkness, thumbing gently over his palms and looking into his eyes; then he looks away, and she studies his profile, backlit by the dim cabin lights and the orange and red flashers on the plane’s wings. By now, she’s so used to his expressions that she recognizes this one as contentment -- she’s sure that she is the only one who knows what the subtle smile and relaxed jaw means, expect perhaps Felix. She smiles, touched that she makes him this happy, and leans closer to gently kiss his cheek.

He shakes his head in disbelief and says, so only she can hear, “When you pick a lock, the kind with transitions where you have to listen close to each one as you work through it, it can take hours before you hear the final one click into place, and you spend the whole time sweating and praying, closest thing I know to praying, that you’ll finally hear that last one click, or all the work through the transitions, all the pins you already got into the right positions, it meant nothing.” He pauses and finishes his drink. “Very first time I saw you was like hearing that final pin click.”

Kala’s brow trembles and she sniffles. He shakes his head again.

“I love you,” he goes on, kissing the side of her head and nuzzling into her.

“I love you, too,” she murmurs.

They look at each other for a moment, tears collecting in Kala’s bottom lashes which Wolfgang gently brushes away. Then she remembers herself and sits up, sniffling.

“Oh, I’m sorry,” she says to the others. “It’s late, I’ve had too much--”

But Dani shakes her head firmly. “It’s an emotional night, it doesn’t do any good to keep it in.”

Riley nods in agreement, but Kala laughs at herself and wipes her eyes.

“No, no,” she insists.

“Would you like some cheering up?” asks Riley.

“Ooh, we could play a game!” says Dani, getting to her feet. “I have the perfect one, because Kala is sure to win and we’ll all forget our troubles. Never Have I Ever.”

“No,” says Wolfgang, too quickly.

Felix responds with a big, toothy grin. “Yeah, because you’re a big-time whore.”

“Fine,” says Wolfgang. “We’ll play, I’ll black out, you can all continue without me.”

“Oh this sounds terrible,” says Kala, but she’s laughing.

“Better yet,” says Dani, turning to the speakers that have been installed in the cabinets. “We should dance.

“Yes,” Kala agrees with an excited gasp, getting to her feet and helping Dani select a playlist on her phone.

They pick one featuring samba and jazz and then connect the Bluetooth and the speakers blast the first lines of Mas Que Nada . Kala can only imagine Lila’s expression in the cockpit.

Dani pulls Kala into her arms and dances with her for a moment, and Kala tilts her head back, laughing in surprise, then spins Dani effortlessly.

“Oh, didn’t we tell you?” asks Dani. “We are both excellent dancers.”

Kala laughs some more, and then Dani spins her towards Wolfgang, so she pulls him to his feet. He puts his arms around her and touches his nose to hers.

“I don’t think I can keep up with you,” he tells her quietly.

She beams and shakes her head. “You can’t. But I don’t mind.”

Soon, everyone has paired off, dancing in their own way to the music. Dani is teaching Felix, with plenty of repeated instructions, how to samba; Felix is hanging on every word as if she’s describing how to disable a bomb. Kala is also showing Wolfgang how to dance, but he plays dumb on purpose and suggests he would be a faster learner if only she danced closer. Riley and Will are swaying, Riley’s arms soft around Will’s neck, continuing a quiet conversation from earlier about what to get Gunnar for his birthday. And Sun and Mun, who have never danced, move back and forth in a distinctly uncool yet confident manner.

Kala, having given up dancing properly and settled for swaying, lifts her eyes up to look at Wolfgang. She smiles gently.

“I’m not sure that I recognize my life anymore,” she says.

He runs his hands down her back. “Is that a bad thing?”

“We are being hunted by an evil multinational organization,” she murmurs.

“We’re also dancing on a private plane in the middle of the Atlantic,” he jokes.

She laughs, then her lips quirk into a smirk. “Yes, true. That clearly makes the terror and anxiety worthwhile.”

He chuckles and kisses her softly, and because the cabin of the plane is so dark, because the drink she had took the edge off her inhibitions, she presses closer and kisses him back in earnest. She likes kissing him like this, no expectations of something more, just a moment alone together, expressing what she cannot put into words. He runs his hands down her sides and she puts her arms around his neck so their bodies can be closer together; then she smiles against his lips and tilts her head, inviting him to kiss her neck. He smiles at the gesture, then presses several light kisses to her neck and behind her ear, immersed in her warmth -- he’s never been with one woman for so long, but every time he holds her like this, she feels electric against him. She grins in approval when he presses a last kiss to her jaw, and then she finds his lips again and kisses him more deeply.

After a moment, she pulls back and murmurs, “Wolfgang?”

“Kala,” he replies, dizzy.

“We should go to an island,” she says gently. “Just us, a cabin, like we talked about.”

He nods. “As soon as we can.”

She nods too, then kisses him once more, rests her head against his chest, and sways silently with him until the music runs out.

***

Two hours later, as the plane advances silently over the island of Newfoundland, Wolfgang gives up on sleep. He and Kala tried to sleep, curled up together on the uncomfortable white leather, under a few too-small blankets. Kala, who he suspects has been processing more of the uncertainty than he has, was exhausted enough to sleep. But he had compartmentalized the incongruencies and denied the real danger that they are all in until now.

He sits up, Kala’s head in his lap, and drinks a cup of coffee which Jonas silently handed to him before returning to the cockpit. Wolfgang frowned at this gesture, but thanked the other man and took a tentative sip. He plays back the memories which have been lingering -- his aunt’s strange voyage to Chicago, her even stranger silence after Fuchs’s and Volker’s deaths -- and explores the possibility that Lila sought him out in Berlin not because she knew he was a future Sensate ( preemptive identification , Nomi’s voice reminds him in his mind) but because she knew his family gave money to BPO.

It wouldn’t surprise him. Anton in particular managed his fortune in dishonest ways, and Wolfgang, as perceptive as he was, knows he wouldn’t have been able to decipher the specifics -- he assumed most of the money went to the mob, to foreign operations in Russia and Russia’s pet states like Syria -- but he was never involved enough in the specifics to gain much insight. Do what you know , his uncle had said when he was sixteen and asking too many questions. Then Sergei had handed him a pistol, implying all he knew was enforcement, not strategy. His uncle was correct in that respect, at least in terms of money.

He wonders, briefly because the idea is too painful, if his mother was like him. If the voices she heard and the way she would sometimes stare as if struck were not, as his father said, because Sie hat einen Vogel -- a bird in her head, a euphemism for mental illness.

He then wonders if, somehow, his grandfather knew.

He pushes the ideas away and takes a long drink of coffee, glancing down at Kala, who’s wild black hair is falling over her face and trembling with each breath she takes. His jaw grows tight with guilt for letting her walk so willingly into danger, but he knows nothing he said would have convinced her to stay in Chicago, and in any case, he’s unsure if Chicago is safer than London.

He gently moves her hair out of her face, then sets his hand on her hip and leans his head back. He visualizes the population maps. He recalls the chilling list of Kolovi’s victims. And he thinks about Berlin, Lila’s odd question about Fuchs -- he can’t imagine she asked out of love or a misguided sense of loyalty, but lately, he isn’t sure of anyone’s motivations. If he had to guess, he would say that Fuchs was unwanted collateral -- no hero of hers, but still no man she truly wanted dead. But the Lila he remembered from Berlin never seemed to hold much sympathy for unwanted collateral -- she always killed with more impunity than he did, which shocked him, and he thinks of himself as a hard man to shock.

Another thought occurs to him, the possibility that Fuchs was her lifeline, her last sapien connection to safety. This seems more likely. And yet, with the large Sensate population in Berlin and Lila’s tendency to want an empire, he wonders if she had to kill Fuchs to form a city of her own, a city that is safe from sapiens and BPO.

He feels Kala shift in her sleep so he rubs her arm to coax her back to sleep, but she sits up despite this, blinking. She sees that Wolfgang is awake and has been for awhile, and as she looks into his eyes, his latest thoughts float through her mind. She purses her lips slightly as she considers them, and then she takes his empty cup out of his hands and sets it aside. She runs a hand through her hair, blinking bleakly, then sighs.

“It all seems so fragile,” she says in a small voice.

“Like if we poked the right place it would all fall down,” he agrees, just as quiet.

They look at each other in thought, then take hands with a grim and determined expression.

***

At the front of the plane, Lila reaches for her coffee as Newfoundland disappears from view. Jonas, asleep in one of the seats immediately behind the cockpit, is deaf to her conversation with a new visitor.

“Lovely view,” says Whispers pleasantly. “I didn’t realize you could fly.” He glances at his watch. “When do you arrive?”

Lila swallows. “Seven fifty-three.”

“Good,” says Whispers. “I will be waiting.”

***

Chapter Text

Kala and Wolfgang walk behind the others as everyone shoulders their belongings, hurrying across the airport parking lot and turning collars up against the rainy breeze.

It is eight in the morning and a heavy fog is lingering on the rural land outside of London. Kala presses close to Wolfgang as they walk, squeezing his hand and glancing at him, gauging his expression. He’s watching Lila, who is walking stiffly in front of them, head twitching in every direction at every slight noise, one hand wrapped around something in her bag -- presumably a gun.

Wolfgang is reticent as ever, but Kala notices an unusual, dark worry in his eyes. She also notices that Will and Sun have directed their gazes at Lila, looking similarly apprehensive.

When she flew to Berlin on impulse, she felt far more fearless. She felt that she was the protector. Now, in such a large group, surrounded by skilled fighters, she struggles not to feel useless and resists the building dread that one of them will be hurt trying to protect her. She glances again at Wolfgang, who she knows is prone to self-sacrifice, and takes a deep, steadying breath.

“Maitake and Galenia will meet us in Ealing, there is a safe house there,” Lila says brusquely as the group approaches a large SUV in the center of the parking lot.

Wolfgang glances at the SUV. “Too flashy.”

Lila’s nostrils flare in annoyance, but she nods. Everyone looks over the parking lot, and then Capheus points at an unremarkable van two aisles away.

“Better,” says Jonas quietly.

The group walks over to the van, and Lila begins to scour the outside of the van, looking for some loose siding or scrap metal to use as a pin. Wolfgang sets his bag on the pavement and pulls out a sturdy wire, glances around for onlookers, and then jimmies the wire through the side of the window.

“I had it,” says Lila tersely.

Wolfgang doesn’t respond. The group exchanges a wary glance and they file into the bus. Will, who got a better sleep than most of them, offers to drive. Those who are still in Chicago visit and take empty seats in the van. Will punches the gas and the van hurdles out of the small airport parking lot and onto the highway.

“Other side, babe!” Riley calls quickly, and Will hastily shifts the van from the right side of the road to the left.

Will grins over his shoulder at her. “Luckily one of us used to live in London.”

She winks in response and the others relax after this exchange, all settling into their seats. Kala and Wolfgang, in the back near the window, press closer to each other as the van whips past rain-drenched trees and evergreen shrubs. She rests her head on his shoulder, closing her eyes, and he gently rubs her back. Then he closes his eyes, and they exist together in their shared mind, communicating a sense of unease. Since their conversation last night, neither of them have been able to shake their suspicion, and Lila’s agitation this morning has only increased their concern.

Kala extends a thought: Why do I feel like something is going to go wrong?

And Wolfgang breathes out and shakes his head slightly in response.

They spend the rest of the drive holding each other, communicating silently through thoughts and quick glances, trying to comfort each other. After nearly an hour, the van slows through an industrial section outside of the city center; steam and smoke puff out of tall chimneys and glass crunches under the tires.

Will leans closer to the windshield, squinting, and Lila points out an abandoned brick warehouse with small, symmetrical windows, all broken. Will parks alongside it and everyone sits in the van for a moment, staring at the old warehouse.

“This is pre-war,” Riley says in surprise, wrinkling her nose. “Amazing, look at the bricks…”

“It’s a safe house, not a boutique apartment,” says Lila irritably, getting out of the car.

Riley raises her eyebrows. Then Dani laughs, puts on a high voice, and mocks, “It’s a safe house, not an apartment!” Will cracks up, shaking his head, and so do Lito and Felix. Then Jonas sighs at the young Cluster’s behavior, and everyone puts on a serious face before departing the van with their belongings.

They follow Lila through the crumbled bricks and strewn chemical canisters.

Felix frowns. “Why do I feel like we should have gas masks…?”

Wolfgang smiles halfheartedly, then points out a prominent stencil on the side of the warehouse wall -- a large, black “S” signifying access to a bomb shelter.

“Shit, man, I didn’t know our safe house was London’s version of the Kaiser Wilhelm*…”

Kala steps even with them, frowning at their surroundings. “There couldn’t be any unexploded bombs, could there be?

Felix shrugs. “Could be, probably not though.” He grins. “Fuck, it would be sweet, sweet irony if I got blown up by a bomb my great grandfathers dropped all those years ago.”

Wolfgang looks at his friend. “The fuck is wrong with you, Felix?”

“I like dark humor,” says Felix defensively, stepping ahead of them to walk with Dani.

Wolfgang shakes his head and puts an arm around Kala’s waist.  They continue around the side of the warehouse, all tense with anticipation. Then Jonas slides open a large door, which rumbles as the wheels move along the track. A slender Japanese man stops out and takes both of Lila’s hands, and then a tall, tawny woman with prominent earrings steps out to hug her.

Lila breaks away after a moment and says shortly, “This is Maitake and Galenia.”

Neither of them smiles in greeting. The newcomers don’t smile either, except for Jonas, who pats Maitake’s arm and nods at Galenia.

“Where is Akihiro?” he questions Maitake.

“My brother wisely refused to be any part of this,” says Maitake tersely. “We are only here because we are not compromised.”

“Well, his skills will be missed,” says Jonas kindly, adding, “although, this Cluster also has a talented chemist, who I’m sure can replicate Blockers for you all.”

“Akihiro already replicated the amount we need,” says Lila waspishly, adding, “Have you taken yours, Jonas?”

Jonas nods in confirmation, then says, “Everyone get inside, it’s safer.”

The Cluster follows him in, watching Maitake and Galenia who are staring at each of them as they go by, impassive and cold. Inside, the warehouse is furnished and warm despite the broken windows -- several large, brightly-colored rugs, three couches, a small kitchen, and in the back, a sizeable lab. There is also a wall with numerous guns, ammunition, and explosives.

“Cool, cool, cool,” whispers Felix nervously. “We’re at a fucking Cold War weapons expo.”

“Those look a little newer than that…” murmurs Will, looking at the wall of weapons.

“Of course they’re new,” says Lila.

“We don’t scavenge for our weapons,” says Galenia in a heavy Brazilian accent.

“We...steal them,” adds Maitake with the hint of a smile.

Jonas clears his throat. “I suggest that everyone eat something, catch up on sleep, and plan for tomorrow. Your raid takes place tomorrow morning.” He pauses, eyes flickering slowly over each of them. “You have time to reconsider.”

“It’s a little late for that,” says Will, patting Jonas’s shoulder.

***

They spend the afternoon plotting details for their attack tomorrow on Brandt’s house, anticipating flaws and constructing exit strategies and backups. Maitake and Galenia contribute useful intel about the entrances to the home and distribute the Blockers Akihiro made. Jonas reluctantly listens and guides the conversation. Lila, silent for hours, smokes several cigarettes in succession as Brandt whispers instructions in her mind, unseen by the others.

By evening, everyone has settled -- if uncomfortably -- into the safehouse

Kala and Wolfgang, sitting on the sleeping bags their hosts gave them, pass a cup of chai back and forth, still unspeaking, still silently pursuing the source of their anxiety. Felix sits nearby, smoking and examining a machine gun with six rotating barrels, swearing every few moments at the ingenuity of it. Riley and Dani play a game of go-fish. Sun and Mun, exhausted from the conversation, nap on a shared sleeping bag.

Lila and her Cluster-mates converse in their minds with Brandt. Kala and Wolfgang watch them, but all they see is three friends sitting on a couch and drinking coffee.

“I can’t feel what she’s feeling,” Kala finally murmurs. “Unless this is what she is feeling. Nervous. Scared.”

“She probably is,” says Wolfgang cautiously, but he shakes his head. “But it feels different. There’s a wall, she’s unreachable.”

Kala nods, then says, “We should speak in Hindi so she can’t understand.”

He nods in agreement, going on, “What did Maitake mean by not compromised?”

“I think he was suggesting that the others are known by BPO,” says Kala.

Wolfgang frowns, taking a cigarette from his pocket and lighting it. “Thought Jonas said once BPO gets one, they get them all.”

Kala nods, sighing. “I’m not sure.”

Wolfgang draws on his cigarette. “If BPO does know them, and they’re still alive?” He shrugs and thumbs the filter of his cigarette so the ash falls. “Means they’re collaborators and we’re all going to die.”

“Don’t say things like that,” says Kala, sitting up straighter and sipping her chai. She runs a hand through her hair and glances at him. “Why would Akihiro have already provided Blockers?”

“They don’t trust you,” guesses Wolfgang.

“I don’t trust them. I don’t want to use their Blockers.”

Wolfgang glances at the lab in the back of the warehouse. “Do you think you could replicate the ones Dani stole?”

“We could just use the ones she stole...though those make me nervous as well...but yes, I imagine I could, depending on what supplies Akihiro has in that lab.”

He nods.

“At the very least,” she murmurs darkly, “I am going to compare the Blockers he made with the ones Dani stole.”

“And if they don’t match?” asks Wolfgang.

“Then something is wrong,” she replies.

He shakes his head. “I know that. What do we do if they don’t match?”

Kala sighs and he looks at her, studying the bluish circles under her eyes. She reaches her hand out and he takes it, and then she fixes a stare out the warehouse windows, watching the wind pick up trash on the crumbling concrete outside.

“I hope I’m wrong,” she says in a soft voice. “I hope they are identical.” She looks back at Wolfgang and shakes her head feebly. “I don’t know what to do if they don’t match.”

He nods and they return to silence, watching their friends around them, going over the details of tomorrow’s plan in their minds once more.

Brandt, as Nomi discovered, has an intricate security system with useful cameras; several hours of hacking ended successfully when she gained access to the system, providing her Cluster-mates with an intimate blueprint of the mansion, although she mentioned that the basement was not surveilled and could mean danger. She also recorded footage of Brandt’s empty house, so she could play it back on the feed while they were inside to make him believe nothing was amiss in his home if he happened to be monitoring remotely. She discovered where Brandt’s office -- and safe, hopefully -- is located.

Will and Sun, insisting on a clean operation, drew the initial plan, and Lila assured them security would be minimal and that Brandt himself would be away in Italy. Nomi seemingly confirmed this through flight and customs records.

Kala repeats these comforting facts to herself, but her stomach twists every time she envisions breaking into Brandt’s fortified mansion. Despite their extensive study of Kolovi’s work, despite the intel that Dani stole from Brandt, despite their apparent understanding of the mechanics of the Biological Preservation Organization...she worries that they don’t grasp the true size of the problem.

It all seems so fragile

Like if we poked the right place it would all fall down.

She gets up to refresh her chai, feeling Lila’s eyes on her as she goes into the kitchen. By the time she has mixed milk into her tea, she jumps, seeing Lila’s reflection in the chrome of the refrigerator. Lila reaches for a mug on the counter.

“Do you have extra?” she asks quietly.

Kala gestures at the pan with chai in it. “Help yourself…”

Lila smiles, lips trembling, and reaches for the pan. Kala frowns softly, realizing that Lila’s smile is not one of warmth, but one of regret.

We’re all going to die.

Kala leaves the kitchen quickly, adrenaline bubbling down her legs. She sits by Wolfgang, and before Lila can reappear from the kitchen, insistently hisses, “Something is wrong.”

Wolfgang leans closer, checking the entrance to the kitchen. “What happened?”

Kala shakes her head, shivering. “She did something. She told someone. She must have.”

“Why?” asks Wolfgang, tightening his fingers around his cigarette.

“Because she looks...remorseful,” murmurs Kala.

Wolfgang doesn't speak for a moment. “I’ve seen her shoot bystanders at point-blank and not blink. I don’t think she--”

“Trust me,” says Kala seriously.

Wolfgang takes a drag, then finally nods. He leans his head against the wall. “Too late to question her now.”

“We cannot do the raid,” says Kala. “We need to find an excuse, this is clearly a trap.”

“If you’re right, and we back out now, she’ll know we suspect her and she’ll do what she’s planning anyway,” argues Wolfgang. “It’s inevitable now.” He pauses, continuing to smoke; then he murmurs, “If she looked at you like that, she did it intentionally. She may have been warning us.”

“Why would she do that?” asks Kala, shifting to sit against the wall.

“Give us a better chance tomorrow,” he suggests.

She stares at the opposite wall, eyes wide and bright with fear. Then she sets her jaw and takes Wolfgang’s hand.

“You are not allowed to die protecting me,” she whispers, not looking at him. “I can fight for myself.”

He glances at her, and to her surprise, smiles slightly. “Yeah, I think you can.”

She nods and squeezes his hand. They sit in silence for the rest of the evening. By ten, anticipating an early morning, everyone has gotten into their sleeping bags. Wolfgang pretends to be asleep with his head on Kala’s stomach, she resists the urge to fidget, and they wait. They reach silently into the shared consciousness of Lila, Maitake, and Galenia, and find the three Cluster-mates asleep.

Wolfgang nods and he and Kala get to their feet. Kala puts her bag over her shoulder and Wolfgang takes a nine mil off the wall. They pad quietly to the back of the warehouse; a wall separates the laboratory from the rest of the warehouse, allowing them to turn on the lights. Kala takes the bottle of Blockers which Dani stole out of her bag and sets it on the counter of the lab, which is pristine and well-stocked. Then she takes the two Blockers given to her by Maitake and sets them next to the bottle. Wolfgang stands by the door, cradling his gun against his chest and glancing intermittently at Kala.

She carefully twists the capsule of one of the Blockers from Brandt’s office so that white powder pours out of it into a petri dish; then she does the same to one of Akihiro’s Blockers in a new dish. She puts the first dish under a microscope, then the second. When that is uninformative, she looks for a reactant on the shelf and drops equal amounts of it into the dishes.

The dish containing the Blocker powder from Brandt’s office sizzles aggressively; the other remains unchanged. Kala raises an eyebrow, then glances at Wolfgang and nods, a confirmation that the Blockers are different.

He nods in response, jaw tight. She throws away the faulty Blockers, then takes a new Blocker from the good stash and repeats herself -- opening the capsule, this time pouring the powder into a flask. Over two hours, she explores the chemical compounds, going through half the Blockers. When she finally lets her hands fall to her sides and sighs, it is nearly two in the morning. She looks at Wolfgang, who is still vigilant at the door.

“They’re safe,” she says quietly. “At least, as safe as a pharmaceutical-grade opioid. The experience of taking them may not be particularly pleasant, but they appear to be safe. And I understand why they work now, why this particular chemical combination would restrict activity in the limbic and paralimbic areas of the brain.”

Wolfgang nods seriously and she screws the cap back onto the bottle of Blockers. Then she meets his eyes.

“We should raid the house tonight,” she says. “With the safe Blockers. Without Lila.”

Wolfgang looks at his girlfriend in surprise, then murmurs, “How?”

Kala takes a breath, then grimly opens a cabinet and retrieves three syringes and a bottle of clear fluid. “Ketamine. We can put the three of them to sleep.”

Wolfgang takes a breath, considering. Then he nods. Kala quickly pockets the syringes and the ketamine, then checks the lab for evidence she may have left, wipes the counter free of fingerprints, and exits with Wolfgang. They shut off the lights and return to the main part of the warehouse, where Sun and Will are awake, awaiting an explanation.

Kala tells them to wake up the others, and the eight of them -- joined by their Cluster in Chicago -- discuss the revelation that Akihiro’s Blockers are faulty and what that implies. They come to consensus quickly. While Kala draws three syringes of ketamine, Will, Wolfgang, and Mun examine the wall of weapons and select some. Kala, Riley, and Sun, each equipped with a syringe, cross the warehouse and kneel silently next to Lila, Maitake, and Galenia. Kala holds up three fingers, then two, then one, and in one rapid motion, the women plunge the syringes into their victim’s necks.

Lila, Maitake, and Galenia all thrash awake, and in the brief moment they are still conscious, Lila lunges blindly at Kala. Kala feels a blade connect with her arm and she gasps in pain, stepping backward and staring at the blood flowing over her wrist; she looks up in time to see Lila black out, and notices a small knife fall by Lila’s side.

Riley and Sun surround Kala, examining the gash on her arm. Wolfgang runs over, pressing close, eyes shining with fear.

“Are you--?”

“I’m okay, I’m okay,” Kala gasps out, holding back tears. “It’s just a cut, someone please, I need a bandage…”

Riley dashes to get one.

Wolfgang holds Kala’s hands, searching her expression. “Are you sure?”

She nods, shutting her eyes against the pain. “I d-didn’t expect her to be s-so fast. I should have stood back.”

He nods and Riley returns with a wet cloth, hydrogen peroxide, and a bandage. She hands the cloth to Wolfgang and he gently wipes the blood off of Kala’s arm. She winces and lets out a small cry of pain as he passes the cloth over the cut. Riley hastily applies the hydrogen peroxide and Kala’s shoulders shake slightly as she cries. Wolfgang, who hasn’t taken a breath since hearing Kala gasp, wraps the bandage around her arm and ties it with steady fingers.

Kala nods in thanks, wiping her face, and Wolfgang finally breathes in. The others join them. Will puts a hand on Wolfgang’s shoulder and Nomi looks worriedly at Kala.

“Everything okay?” asks Will.

Kala nods and everyone gives her a comforting touch.

“Probably not the last injury of the night,” says Felix.

“That’s the spirit,” says Sun dully, and everyone manages a smile.

Then Nomi, looking over multiple computers in Chicago, says, “The house is clear. His maids just left for the night. If you’re going, go now.”

The Sensates in London look at each other and nod, determined. Then Riley gasps and whispers, “Jonas. Where is Jonas?”

In the commotion of last-second decisions and ketamine injections, they forgot about Jonas.

“I am here,” says Jonas, emerging from an unlit corner of the warehouse. “Although I am not here.” He pulls a vial of Blockers from his pocket and shakes it to show them. “You wouldn’t want Brandt seeing through my eyes right now, would you?”

“Jonas,” Kala says, stepping forward. “Do not try to stop us.”

“I have no intention to stop you, Miss Dandekar,” he says mildly. “On the contrary, I prefer a nighttime raid. It lends an air of mystery, no?” He smiles to himself. “I joke. I prefer a nighttime raid because I believe it will be more unexpected.”

“Did you know?” Will asks abruptly. “About the Blockers?”

Jonas shrugs. “Akihiro must not be the chemist he claims to be.”

“You think this was an innocent mistake,” says Sun softly.

Jonas looks at each of them, neither confirming nor denying. Then he says, “I do not believe Miss Facchini intended to betray you if that is what you are asking.” He gestures at the door and raises an eyebrow at them all. “On you go. Godspeed.”

“You aren’t coming with us?” queries Kala.

“Oh, setting foot in Dr. Brandt’s house is far more than my stomach can handle,” says Jonas, still placid. “You will be in my thoughts…”

The group exchanges an uneasy look, but they nod at Jonas. Then they gather weapons and jackets, and with a final glance at the unconscious figures of Lila, Maitake, and Galenia, set off at a run out of the warehouse.

They jump into the van and wire the ignition so the engine turns over. Wolfgang drives, with Kala in the passenger’s seat, going over the plan with the others. Will distributes weapons in the back -- nine mils for everyone except Felix, who insisted on the six-barrel machine gun. Will carefully sets aside a belt of grenades for Kala, then hands Mun the police baton he requested. Finally, he hands out bulletproof vests. Nomi, Capheus, and Lito look around at their Cluster-mates, visiting from Chicago, and nod solemnly in approval.

“How far is the house?” asks Wolfgang.

“Not far,” says Nomi, typing. “It was clever of Lila’s Cluster to have a secure location so close to his house…”

“Or reckless,” remarks Will.

Nomi shrugs. “True. Although sometimes, the best place to hide is in plain sight.” She checks her map. “Alright, take the next road.”

The van shifts onto a gravel road, which winds through a forest. It begins to rain and several deer scatter across the headlights. In the dark distance, a manor emerges in a clearing. The group presses closer together in the van, watching the high beams and huge windows come into focus.

“Stop!” instructs Nomi. “Guards at the door. You need to park here.”

Wolfgang nods, pressing the break hard. Everyone jostles in the back, meeting eyes. Felix ties a bandana around his forehead and gives two thumbs up. Kala adjusts her jacket, glancing at Wolfgang with undaunted eyes. He meets her gaze, just as committed, then leans to kiss her for the last time before they ambush Brandt’s mansion.

“Okay, on three, we go through those bushes, we get as close to the side entrance as possible,” says Will. “Does everyone have Blockers?”

The group nods, and without another word, Will opens the back of the van. Everyone hurries out. Kala and Wolfgang get out of the front and run to meet the others as they sneak into a line of shrubs. As Kala walks over the knobby ground a list plays back in her mind: the names of Kolovi’s victims. She grips her gun more tightly, reassured of her choices to be here, reminded that no other Cluster has been this bold. She glances at Wolfgang, who nods in agreement, and they walk more quickly.

“Guards are doing a lap,” says Nomi. “You’ll have a window, wait for my signal.” Her nails clatter on her keyboard and she adds, “Okay, East Entrance is clear and disarmed.”

Will nods at the group, and as one, they run across the clearing in between the shrubs and the manor. Wolfgang knocks in the window of the door with the base of his gun, then reaches inside to unlock it. He holds it open as the other seven runs through.

“We should branch out,” says Kala, panting. “Felix, Wolfgang, do you want to find the safe?”

They nod, guided by Nomi to the center of the manor.

“Will, Mun, explore the East wing,” she goes on. “Riley and Dani, will you take the West?”

The four of them nod, separating down two hallways.

Sun and Kala, the only ones remaining, meet eyes and nod.

“Basement,” says Sun resolutely.

“Basement,” agrees Kala.

The two women set off towards a set of nearby stairs, holding their guns close to their chests and checking each corner they pass. Sun goes down the stairs first, glancing occasionally over her shoulder for Kala.

“Remember, I don’t have eyes on you in the basement,” Nomi tells them as they descend out of view of the security cameras.

Kala and Sun nod, pressing closer together as they turn a corner on the stairs; they drop another flight, then another, and come at last to a thick metal door, which is locked. Sun glances at the belt of grenades Kala is sporting on her hip, and Kala raises her delicate eyebrows before nodding. They walk up the stairs to the landing, and then Kala takes a breath and takes one of the grenades from her belt.

“I...I don’t know…”

But when she looks at the grenade in her hands, suddenly her hands are much larger -- Lito’s.

“It is very easy,” says Lito. “Although I admit, I have only ever used props. Tell me when you are ready.”

Kala and Sun look at each other, Sun nods, and Kala murmurs, “Now.”

Lito pulls the pin and throws the grenade hard down the stairs, where it clatters next to the door.

“Now run!” he shouts.

Sun and Kala sprint up the stairs, hands over their ears; six seconds later, as they reach the second flight, the grenade explodes. There is a screech of metal on metal, the sound of shrapnel settling on the floor, and a hiss of smoke. Kala takes her hands off of her ears, and she and Sun lift their jackets over their mouths as makeshift masks. They jog down the stairs, guns outstretched.

Meanwhile, Wolfgang and Felix approach Brandt’s office, cautiously meeting eyes before pushing the door open. They enter guns first and check that the room is secure. Then they turn their attention to a cabinet, opening each drawer and every cupboard. Felix moves onto a small closet and whoops in victory, then sighs.

“The good news is, I found the safe,” he says. “The bad news…”

Wolfgang steps over and looks in the closet. His heart jumps with excitement.

“Like I’ve told you before, there’s no shame in drilling,” says Felix, well aware that Wolfgang will refuse.

“I’ve done it before,” says Wolfgang, pulling the S and D out of the closet and straining slightly under the weight. He places it on the floor and sits down. “Set your watch, Felix.”

In the basement, Sun and Kala press close together as they seek a light switch. At last, Kala’s fingers find it on the chilly wall, and they blink, eyes adjusting to the light. The room they entered is unfurnished, bright white. They stare at another closed door, opposite the one they blew apart, then silently walk up to it. Kala tries the knob and is surprised to find it unlocked.

“Some security,” remarks Sun.

They pass through this door, into a sparse office, containing a simple desk and a bookshelf filled entirely with medical texts, except for one novel -- The Painted Bird**. Kala recognizes it through Wolfgang’s eyes, and a scene from the text plays in her mind -- a boy watches as a bird-catcher paints the feathers of a captive bird red, yellow, and blue; the bird-catcher releases the bird so it can rejoin its flock, but as soon as it approaches the other birds, they attack it, ripping feather from wing and wing from body, and the lifeless painted bird falls out of the sky.

Why would he read this ? she asks in her mind, but instead of a response, hears only the gentle click of lock pins turning into place.

She turns away from the bookshelf and follows Sun through yet another door. The cut on her arm throbs and she notices a frightening heaviness in her head as if she's about to fall asleep. She shakes her head hard and breathes in, forcing herself to stay alert. The door leads to a small lavatory, with a shower and a coat rack, on which scrubs, a white coat, goggles, and a Hazmat suit are hung. She and Sun look at each other, apprehensive to open the final door.

Upstairs, Wolfgang closes his eyes in concentration, thumb turning the lock tumbler slightly to the left. He’s just felt a pin click into place when his heart floods with adrenaline and he sits back, panting, sweat bursting over his brow. He looks around in alarm, and then glances up at a visitor -- Lila, unsteady, snarling. Felix follows Wolfgang’s gaze, but sees nothing.

“Ey, Wolfie? Hey! Who is it, what’s going on?”

Wolfgang shakes his head. “What the fuck are you doing here?”

“Akihiro found us,” she hisses, eyes cold. “He gave us the recovery agent.”

Wolfgang looks down, breathing out harshly. Fuck. When he meets Lila’s gaze, it isn’t her own -- Milton Bailey Brandt stares down at him with a cruel smirk, before his image is replaced again by Lila.

“You’re working with him,” says Wolfgang, unsurprised.

“You are as stupid as your father,” she says softly. “You have killed us all.”

“You told him we were coming here,” Wolfgang goes on, taking his Blocker out of his pocket. “But he expected us in the morning. And you replaced the Blockers so he could reach us."

“He’s coming now,” purrs Lila. “And so am I.” 

“How long do we have?” asks Wolfgang.

She doesn’t speak, but he perceives the answer in her mind. Ten minutes.

Downstairs, Kala and Sun explore a lab. The door from the lavatory led to a sizeable lab, equipped with multiple medical stretchers, surgery lamps, and neurology caps, the same kind Dani found in the closet of Brandt’s office. The lab reeks of blood and bleach. On the counter, next to several scalpels, Kala spots a lab record -- she hastily pockets it, then turns towards the back of the lab.

Her skin prickles, cold and damp, and she claps a hand over her mouth to keep from screaming. Sun looks at her, confused; then, the glass case that Kala is looking at comes into focus, and Sun feels her heart slow down in dread.

Behind the glass, standing upright like eerie mannequins, are eight human beings --- human bodies, lifeless except for their eyes, which are bulging, staring.

“Are they alive?” murmurs Sun.

Each of the bodies bears an identical, crescent shaped-scar on their foreheads.

“Oh Sun,” says Kala, voice shaking. “Sun, Kolovi’s students...they weren’t...I don’t think they were killed. It was a cover, it was simpler to report their deaths.” She sniffles. “They were lobotomized. They’re...”

Sun breathes out in understanding. “The helmets,” she mutters, gesturing at one of the neurology caps. “They are to…”

“To operate these...these men and women,” says Kala, although zombie feels like a more appropriate word. “To make them do...anything the operator desires.”

“Because of the connection,” breathes Sun.

A chill intuition creeps up Kala’s spine and she finds herself suddenly desperate to leave the lab. She takes Sun’s arm and runs towards the exit, but stops abruptly when she sees Wolfgang in front of her, drenched in sweat. He grips her arms.

“They’re coming. Lila and Brandt. Take a Blocker, get upstairs, get out.”

She nods, but before she can take another step, the glass case shatters behind her. A lobotomized figure lunges out of the case, reaching under the nearest lab table for a gun.

“Run!” screeches Kala. “Run!”

She and Sun sprint towards the exit, dropping low as the mindless gunman shoots round after round after them. They reach the lavatory and shut the door, bullets catching in the thick wood, and continue to run through the basement complex; they’ve nearly reached the stairs when the figure catches up with them, now out of ammo, but not alone -- the other figures from the case have joined them.

Kala’s heart beats in her throat as she stares into the unfeeling eyes of the figures as they advance. Then, swallowing a sob of fear and remorse, she lifts her gun and pulls the trigger. One of the figures collapses. Sun follows her lead, but soon, the figures are too close and they run again, up the stairs. The lobotomy victims, helpless against the instructions of their distant commanders, reach for Kala and Sun's legs as they sprint, and one catches Sun, but she kicks it hard in the face and scampers away.

They reach the main floor of the house and nearly run into Will, Riley, Dani, and Mun. Sun, panting, squeezes Mun’s arms thankfully. Will ushers Kala down the halls towards the office.

“We’ll hold them off!” he shouts at her. “Find Wolfgang! We need to leave!”

Wolfgang, unaware of the events which transpired in the basement, presses closer to the safe, turning the dial, listening. Felix, an eye on his watch, paces.

Kala, legs weak, stumbles through the halls, guided distantly by Nomi’s voice. She feels unsteady and strangely fatigued, and with a gasp of realization, she thinks back to the knife which Lila used to slice open her arm. She grips her nails into her palms, breathing hard, panicked. What if...? Then she stops, listening as a wave of wind and wings surrounds the manor. Helicopters. Her eyes widen and she tries to reach Wolfgang, but his concentration refuses to be broken. No, no. not like this. The roar of the helicopters intensifies and she forces herself to run, but stops again in the sudden silence. The helicopters have landed. She begins to breathe too quickly, overwhelmed with dread, and as she turns down the final hallway, she sees a figure in front of her -- a white-haired man in a peacoat, his back turned towards her.

It’s Brandt.

She spins around, fishing desperately in her pockets for a Blocker as Brandt turns and slowly approaches her.

“Miss Dandekar,” he says, voice low with satisfaction.

Kala frantically searches her pockets, but just as her fingers find the tiny capsule, Brandt wraps his arms around her from behind and breathes out on the back of her neck. Kala’s breath spirals and she tries to fight him, but his grip is too strong.

“Hm,” he says, then licks a stripe up the back of her neck. “Is that...almond oil I detect?”

Kala shudders and desperately throws an elbow into him.

“Open your eyes, dear,” says Whispers. “It’s over now…”

In the office, only paces away, Wolfgang opens the safe. Then he blinks, and despite the fact that he took a Blocker, he knows something is wrong. Without an explanation to Felix, he grabs his gun and bursts into the hall. He sees Kala struggling in Brandt’s arms and he raises his gun, then lowers it -- any slight movement and his bullet could find Kala by accident. In his moment of hesitation, sliding in between him, Kala, and Brandt like a panther, is Lila. She lifts her gun towards Wolfgang.

“Too late,” she simpers, glancing over her shoulder at Kala and Brandt. “Don’t shoot,” she adds with a pout. “You wouldn’t want to be responsible for her death.”

Wolfgang shoots at Lila’s legs, so as to miss Kala behind them; but she anticipates the move and dodges to the side, gun steadily aimed at Wolfgang’s head.

“Why?” he asks her quietly.

A shrug. “They will kill me otherwise. I’m sure you can understand a little healthy self-preservation.”

He scoffs and aims again. She smiles and steps aside; his bullet ricochets. Behind them, Whispers slams Kala into the nearest wall and puts his hands on either side of her face. He leans close to breathe on her.

“Open your eyes,” he grows, fingers digging at her eyelids.

She refuses. Her eyelids are growing heavy with sleep despite the commotion around her.

"Milton," calls Lila softly. "Don't bother. She will be asleep soon."

Wolfgang looks at Lila, panic rising in his chest.

"Aw," she says. "Don't make me reveal all my secrets."

"Ms. Facchini, what did you do?" roars Brandt.

"I gave her a little cut earlier, the knife is embedded with something to make the victim fall asleep. I thought she would be...easier for you to obtain like this."

Easier to obtain. Wolfgang's stomach turns. He knows he can't reach Kala with Lila's gun on him, so he rushes Lila and pushes her against the wall, bracing his gun against her throat, a knee against her stomach, struggling to take her gun from her. He nearly manages, but all around them, entering from multiple hallways, are the guards and several BPO accomplices in Hazmat suits, bearing guns. Will, Riley, and Sun arrive too, having lost contact with Mun and Dani in the fight against the undead avatars, and Felix flies out of the office, gun outstretched.

Kala coils her arm around her body, gun tight in her grip; then she throws her arm back with as much force as she can find within herself, and the gun connects with Brandt’s face. He groans in pain and releases her. She puts the Blocker into her mouth and swallows it, and then she feels new arms around her -- a faceless man in a Hazmat suit, dragging her backward. Unable to access any of her Cluster and rapidly succumbing to the soporific drugs, her ability to fight physically fails her. She struggles and the man drags her around a corner; she loses sight of Wolfgang, locked in a firefight along Will, Riley, Felix, and Sun.

Wolfgang desperately meets her eyes as she disappears. He squeezes Felix’s arm with his free hand, then breaks free of the firefight, sprinting after Kala -- but before he can exit the hallway, one of the animated figures from the lab in the basement intercepts him. This one is Frankenstein-like, nearly seven feet tall, and the crescent-shaped cut on his forehead is fresh, steadily oozing blood.

“Felix!” roars Wolfgang, throwing himself to the side in time for his friend to turn and open fire with his machine gun.

The figure crumples, and Wolfgang sprints down the hallways, catching sight of Kala, Brandt, and the Hazmat-suited accomplice. Lila, seeing Felix and Will occupied with the BPO workers, chases after Wolfgang. As he runs to reach Kala, Mun, and Dani, bloodied but alive, join him from a nearby hallway. They meet eyes, unspokenly aware of what must be done, and hurry their pace.

Kala, nearly unconscious in the Hazmat man’s grip, struggles to keep her head upright. She claws at the man’s hands feebly, choking on her breath, digging her heels into the soft earth as she is dragged outside and towards a waiting helicopter.

Please, help me! Please!

Wolfgang, Mun, and Dani reach the field between the manor and the helicopter and a series of bullets whiz past their heads from behind -- Lila, aim poor as she runs to catch up. Wolfgang turns and shoots two rounds, but Lila drops to the ground; when she stands up again and shoots, her gun clicks -- empty. Wolfgang raises his gun again, and his mind echoes when he finds that he too is out of bullets. He looks at Mun and Dani, who both shake their heads, out as well, bent over, panting.

Kala, feeling the rush of the helicopter blades in her hair, reaches her fingers despairingly towards one of the grenades at her side, but her fingertips merely brush it. If only she could reach it, if she was the only one who had to die, if she took Whispers with her…

Wolfgang backs away from Lila, intent on reaching Kala. Mun steps into his place, fists raised as Lila approaches him. Dani, desperate for a gun, breathes in relief when she sees Sun, Will, and Felix emerge victorious from their fight across the field. She rushes towards them, and they sprint across the field towards the helicopter. Unable to shoot with Kala so nearby, Sun takes the lead, intending to fight the Hazmat man with her fists.

But Wolfgang reaches Kala first. The Hazmat man, noticing the look in Wolfgang’s eyes, relinquishes his grasp on Kala to reach for his gun, but Wolfgang punches him in the face, neatly steals his gun, and as he falls backward, shoots a single bullet through his head.

Kala whimpers in terror and falls into Wolfgang’s arms. Wolfgang turns his gun on Brandt, shaking from exertion. Behind Brandt, Will and Sun throw themselves into the helicopter, casting an unconscious pilot out onto the field a moment later.

Brandt smiles coldly at Wolfgang. “I have underestimated your Cluster.” He looks over Wolfgang’s shoulder at Lila, who is walking away from her fight with Mun, who lies unconscious in the grass. “Just as she...has underestimated hers. Pity, she told them not to come, insisted it was too dangerous. And they were only too willing to protect themselves. Not all Clusters are as close as yours, Wolfgang.” Brandt pauses, wetting his lips. Then he reaches into his pocket for a gun. Wolfgang stiffens, but before he can pull the trigger of his own gun, Brandt aims at Lila and smiles again.

Wolfgang watches in slow-motion as Brandt’s finger twitches; he hears the bullet find its target behind them; then, like a plunge into cold water, Kala cries out in horror.

Wolfgang feels as if he’s falling. He stares at Brandt in disbelief.

“She worked for you,” he says.

“Yes, worked is the operative word,” says Whispers. “She is worthless to me now. She failed me. This mission was supposed to be clean, but it is more than that, of course. In her attempt to make you trust her, she revealed far too much. Pity.”

Will and Sun, flinging another unconscious pilot out of the helicopter, jump down on the lawn. Sun sprints to Mun’s side across the lawn. Will puts a gun to the side of Whisper’s head and wraps an arm around him, vice-like.

“Ah,” says Brandt. “Nicely executed. All of you took your Blockers, though Miss Dandekar scarcely managed it. And now I am alone.”

Will and Wolfgang meet eyes. Wolfgang nods, and Will silently brings his gun down on the side of Brandt’s head. He collapses at their feet. Soon, the others have joined them, even Mun, though he is groggy. Exhausted, sickened and staggered, the group stares at each other, except for Kala, who is sobbing quietly against Wolfgang’s chest and doesn't have the energy to look up.

Their Cluster-mates in Chicago clamor for information.

“What the fuck is happening?” asks Nomi.

“Dani, is Dani alright?” gasps Lito. “Someone ask her for me, please!”

“We heard many gunshots, who is dead?” asks Capheus. “I did not see all of it! Is anyone dead?

“The men inside?” asks Wolfgang. “The guards?”

“Dead,” says Felix.

“Those...things?” asks Sun.

“Dead,” confirms Dani.

“Where is Lila?” asks Felix, glancing around.

Wolfgang gestures at her lifeless figure across the lawn.

“Brandt shot her,” he explains when everyone looks at him, stunned.

“Fuck,” murmurs Nomi, typing. “The safehouse is out. Get to the van, I’ll find you somewhere to go tonight. Is anyone hurt?”

“Mun is not in great shape,” says Sun as Mun shows two thumbs-ups and grins, mouth full of blood.

“No, neither is Kala,” says Wolfgang quietly, adding, “we need a hospital."

“Too dangerous,” says Nomi, calling, "Neets! Neets, do you still have that nurse friend in London? Shit, no, okay, be patient with me, I’m finding something as quickly as possible. The good news is there is no police response yet.”

Everyone nods wearily.

Then Riley murmurs, "I know a place. One of the women who took care of my mother when she was ill...she moved to London recently. She's a doctor, she would take us in, I'm sure of it."

"Oh, bless you," groans Nomi. "Address?"

Riley directs Nomi towards a neighborhood in central London while they begin to walk towards the van.

“The files from the safe?” Wolfgang asks Felix.

Felix grins and points at a square lump under his shirt. “Of fucking course, Wolfie. That's what took me so long. I got them.”

Wolfgang nods, rubbing his eyes tiredly. Kala, unable to walk properly due to the drug embedded in Lila's knife, stumbles on the lawn and Wolfgang catches her. He lifts her in his arms and carries her the rest of the way to the van, then sits in the back with her head on his lap. He strokes her hair while she drifts out of reach.

As the van pulls away, tears leak from the corner of her eyes.

“We’re alive,” Wolfgang mumbles. “That’s all that matters."

Chapter Text

“She’s going to be fine, y’should get some rest,” says a lilting voice -- Ailene is her name, Wolfgang reminds himself. Riley’s doctor friend.

He shakes his head slightly, looking down at Kala’s cocooned form under a bright white comforter. Her expression is untroubled, but somehow unreachable, likely due to the narcotics Ailene administered to keep Kala from waking up in pain. She has a new bandage around her arm for the cut, which Ailene mentioned would form a permanent scar. The light from the rainy streets touches the bridge of her nose and her brows, and she grumbles slightly and shifts in her sleep. Ailene watches her for a moment before depressing a syringe into the bag of fluids above her head.

“She needs rest more than anything,” says Ailene with a sad sigh.

Wolfgang nods, and now that he’s confident Kala won’t wake, takes her hand and thumbs over her palm.

“Call if yeh need,” says Ailene, taking off medical gloves and tossing them into a nearby wastebasket as she leaves.

The rest of the Cluster is in the next room, drinking coffee and greedily eating soup, crusty bread spread with butter, and baked potatoes. Brandt -- Milton, Will insists on calling him, a technique meant to demystify the man -- is in a closet with his hands and feet tied. Jonas hasn’t come back from the warehouse, though he must know what happened at Brandt’s manor by now, and the collective feeling of dread grows with each moment that passes without him. It’s plausible, likely even, that he escaped to alert BPO.

Wolfgang listens to the clink of soup bowls and the light chatter that fades every time Milton struggles in his restraints in the closet. Then he turns back to Kala, stroking her forehead. He expected to feel infuriated - at Lila, at Milton, at Jonas. But sitting with Kala now, he feels empty, exhausted, in disbelief that his life is in more danger than it used to be, something he considered an impossibility after moving from Berlin. He feels, more than anything, an intense hunger to be free of it all.

Nomi and Will insist that freedom is closer than it seems.

He moves Kala’s hair out of her eyes and shifts his chair closer, eventually resting his head on her shoulder. The images of the raid begin to fade, washed out by exhaustion, leaving only faint reminders - screams, distant gunfire, glass breaking. He sits up with a start when he feels Nomi’s hand on his shoulder.

“How is she?” Nomi asks, pulling another chair across the room.

He shrugs. “She’s okay.”

“Thank God,” says Nomi, breathing out. She puts on a brave smile when she looks back at Wolfgang. “You can