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fbi: don't move

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fbi: don't move

Ivan laughed, which was to say he snorted very, very lightly. Even snorting was an overstatement; a silent wisp of breath escaped him as he swiped away at his screen, liking the photo and commenting: LOLOKOLKOLOLOL1!1! He switched gears to search up the hashtag under the meme, something he almost never did, and found a semi-sorted collection of posts following the same theme. He wasted no time screenshotting a few of his favorites to pirate for himself later.

Soon. Soon he would break 999K followers. And then, and then. Then he would have a million followers. A million was a lot, depending on who you asked. Beyoncé only had fifteen million—at least on Twitter. (On Instagram she had eleven hundred million.) He wanted to rule the Internet.

Ivan turned his phone off and threw it across the bed, forcing himself to get up and move if he wanted to retrieve it. Stretching languidly, he rolled out of the warmth of the covers and faced the day.

He dressed in comfortable, durable clothes; Ivan had recently secured a position as a horticulturist for the Smithsonian Gardens along the National Mall, which was a fancy way of saying he cut grass and trimmed hedges all day, except it was really nice grass and they were really nice hedges. Obviously, wearing his favorite scarf was less than ideal for the sweaty work, but Ivan would never and could never take it off. He slipped into his boots and thrust a spare pair of gloves into his pocket. Sadly, he couldn't use his phone on the job, but he could use headphones. He began to hum to himself, imagining the songs he would listen to on his first shift.

Before shoving his phone into his bag, Ivan took a glance at the blank screen. A strange feeling overcame him as his eyes drifted upwards, making contact with the minuscule blue dots of light inside his camera lens. He held its gaze for a brief, piqued interest that lasted about two seconds, then giggled. "Goodbye, Mr. FBI," he sang to himself.

It was silly. He dropped the phone into his bag and left his apartment with haste.


Alfred grabbed street food on the way to work, washing it down with a hefty Starbucks to go. Whipping the shades off from overtop his regular glasses, he strode into headquarters. Immediately, he had to give up his meal so it could be scanned for toxins while he himself was stripped and searched. Elizabeta Héderváry, chief of the gray division, took an eternity to scrutinize Alfred's badge. Alfred tapped his toes and fidgeted to himself. Predictably, Ivan would be online in seven minutes. "Alright, Jones." She handed back Alfred's ID. "You're clear. But don't let me catch you in here again, or it's straight to the slammer." She drew a line across her throat.

Alfred gratefully collected his food and his badge. "Wait, what the? Dude, I work here!"

She stared him down.

Alfred, without hesitation, steadied himself and stared back.

After a few seconds of silence, Chief Héderváry burst into hearty laughter. "I'm only testing you, kid! I guess it's very Gilbert of me. But gosh, you would have thought I had just admitted to you that the tooth fairy isn't real, or that Santa is Illuminati propaganda, or that JFK is still alive up on a secret moon base in space...oops." She covered her mouth. "I've said too much."

Alfred blinked slowly. "Okay. I'll just...get to work then, um, before you zap me and wipe my memory."

The agent nodded. "Better bolt. Gotta keep you on your feet." She then began drawing her stun gun, but Alfred had already disappeared down the hall. He frantically dove into an arriving elevator and jammed a finger down on the button to close the doors as the clunky boots of the Héderváry's footsteps came closer. Alfred hugged his food to his chest and pressed into the corner of the tiny metal box. He had had his memory wiped before, he was certain, and had even had to do it to others once or twice—it was a ghastly, abominable experience. The chief's image appeared between the elevator's two closing doors and Alfred screamed, but when the shot was fired the elevator had already begun its descent.

Alfred shivered, cradling himself. He was safe for now. He dug into his food and snuck out a bite of greasy fry. It would be two hundred more dings of the elevator before he arrived at the secret underground black zone where all the FBI agents monitored their respecting, (un)suspecting citizens.

Alfred had finished half of his coffee before he made it to the negative two hundredth floor. It was pretty swampy down there, due to the thick consistency of cubicles, the heat coming off of so much compressed technology, and also due to the government having concealed the fact that, yes, Washington D.C. had really been built atop a swamp. He had his semi-greasy fingerprints scanned a second time and then navigated the maze toward his cubicle. He only had two minutes at best before Ivan came home.

Ivan was Alfred's monitor man, Alfred's subject of spy. Alfred had Ivan's schedule practically burned into his brain: he woke up at six-thirty, dabbled on his phone for fifteen minutes, then put it in his pocket and didn't use it again until four, when he got off work. Ivan did not have a computer, making Alfred's hacking tasks both easier and harder by reserving everything to Ivan's cell phone. Alfred would transfer Ivan's morning visuals to Alfred's own laptop to monitor in the morning, and Alfred usually came to headquarters to watch Ivan during the rest of his day. Sometimes he took shifts with another agent, but lately Alfred had been finding himself at headquarters more and more. After all, it was important to develop a deep understanding of your subject, even if your subject had no idea you even existed.

Alfred fired up his special, government-issued laptop, opening the monitor. Just in time, too; Ivan's face soon filled the screen. Alfred sighed. It was on.

Alfred knew almost everything about Ivan. His names (Ivan "Vanya" Braginsky), his family (one older sister and one younger sister), and even the songs he sang in the shower (surprisingly a lot of Taylor Swift). Alfred knew Ivan was the head of a semi-famous online meme domain. Alfred knew Ivan watered the sunflowers in his window every day as soon as he came home. Alfred knew Ivan didn't have many friends. Alfred knew Ivan had long, red scars circling around his neck, hidden under that huge off-white scarf he always wore. Alfred knew Ivan liked soft things and had five blankets on his bed. Alfred also knew that Ivan was at the top of the FBI's list of suspected dangerous Russian intelligence agents, and it was Alfred's duty to report any fishy activity. So far, Alfred had observed none.

Other than the fact that Alfred had to be constantly alert in his job, monitoring Ivan was pretty easy. Ivan had a cute face, and often made little childish noises and expressions whenever he saw something that grabbed his attention. Alfred had trained in the Russian language for years and still couldn't capture the melodiousness of Ivan's murmurs to himself. Sometimes Ivan would be scrolling through social media at night and fall asleep on his phone, which was annoying but undeniably adorable. And he was an immigrant; Alfred could damn well appreciate the hard work it must have taken Ivan to leave his homeland and adjust to life here.

However, this morning, Ivan had addressed Alfred personally, saying "Goodbye, Mr. FBI" before he put his phone away, and that had been hella creepy.

Ivan wasn't saying anything now, just staring at the screen, his eyelids half-shut, eyes moving in line formation over whatever he was reading. Alfred took a sip of his Starbucks and tapped into Ivan's phone display, bringing up a rectangle of white with a thick block of Helvetica text. Alfred's eyes scanned it himself, knowing it was another online post, and Alfred had read thousands of Ivan's. They were quality. When he finished laughing, he switched focus back to Ivan's camera visual; the ceiling behind Ivan was moving as Ivan sat down at his kitchen table. Ivan picked at his lip, snorting a little. The sound of his bags hitting the floor echoed to Alfred, and soon Ivan began humming a sweet song.

Alfred kicked back in his ultra-comfort wheely chair and popped in another fry, enjoying the music. He had no reason to feel so comfortable in the artificial presence of a creepy Russian, yet his wariness was drowned out by tribute for the memes. And Ivan's face. Thank god Ivan at least had a nice face that Alfred got to stare at all evening.

There was a knock on the wall of Alfred's cubicle. He spun around too quickly in the wheely chair and had to overcorrect, graciously spilling a couple of fries into his lap. "Whaddya want?"

It was Toris. A fellow FBI monitor, the long-haired Lithuanian stood stiff in the doorway to Alfred's workspace, making more eye contact with Alfred's inspirational NASA star map poster than with Alfred. "Hi. Um, Felicks went to the bathroom, so I was going to be taking break, and if I remember correctly, you told me to 'mosey on over when you get a chance, because I got the goods?'"

"Aw yeah!" Alfred pushed down his laptop screen so it was at a forty-five degree angle. Toris knew who Ivan was, and sometimes covered Alfred's shifts when Alfred stayed up too late playing video games or reading Marvel fanfiction, but Alfred still didn't want to be interrupted on the job. After all, both Ivan's screen and his camera were blank and black; he must have gone to take his daily shower. "Right here, man. Check it out. They were handin' them out all down the Mall, and I managed to snag a few extras!"

Toris took the item in his hand and inspected it cautiously. "This is a…a SAVE THE WHALES sticker?"

"No, a SAVE THE WHALES magnet!" Alfred corrected, spinning it over. "I thought you might want one, since your space is so plain and boring and all. It'd give you something to look at other than Felicks's fancy skirt collection, or whatever."

The tips of Toris's ears turned red. "They're designer." Yet he didn't refuse the magnet.

Not every FBI monitor happened to be stationed in the vicinity of their subject; Felicks lived halfway across the world from Toris, and was an alleged underground market weapons dealer, with emphasis on alleged. Mostly he just took selfies in the bathtub and embarrassed Toris to no end. Alfred considered himself lucky that Ivan was only half a city away, though they had yet to cross paths in public.

Toris drifted out with the magnet in hand and Alfred was left to finish dinner in peace. He flipped his screen back up and found that Ivan was at the stove, cooking his own meal while watching a Vine compilation. Alfred grinned, keeping up both the front camera and screen views as he dug in so he could laugh along with Ivan. "I smell like beef." A long time passed. They finished eating their dinners at the same time; Alfred imagined the noodle casserole thing Ivan had cooked tasted better than Alfred's weak Starbucks.

Now Ivan had set his phone against the wall to rest while he washed the dishes. He was mumbling peacefully to himself again, but Alfred couldn't tell if he was singing or talking over the sound of swishing water and clinking silverware. After a couple more plates, Ivan's movements slowed, and his gaze slowly climbed back up to the phone screen. The phone camera. "Are you there, Mr. FBI?" he whispered.

Alfred jolted in his seat. It was just like this morning! No warning, no nothing. In English! There was no way Ivan could ever know, of course, that he was being monitored, so the sudden unprompted conversations with a seemingly inanimate object had to stem from Ivan's latest meme obsession. Alfred knew about it.

He was onto them.

"How was your day?" Ivan asked, redirecting his gaze towards the skillet he was scrubbing. "Mine was well. I planted flowers today, and I had a nice conversation with a policeman. Do you talk to police often, Mr. FBI?"

Alfred let his shoulders relax, his mind wandering unintentionally, following Ivan's statements. Coincidentally, his brother Matthew was a DC police officer and friend of the division, but sadly, they didn't have many chances to talk. "What are you doing, man?" Alfred blurted out. "You know this is weird, right?"

Alas, Ivan would never be able to hear Alfred. He had already begun saying something else by the time Alfred was done speaking: "...and work around the people, because it is so fun inside, and there's AC! People are scared to talk to me when I am working outside. But at least I don't have to stand all day." Ivan's voice had gotten quieter, forcing Alfred to pay closer attention. "Do you stand all day when you work, Mr. FBI?"

"Hell no." Alfred kicked the wheels of his chair. "But don't get excited—it's a curse, dude. I would choose a nice garden with fresh air over this stuffy old garage any day."

Ivan was silent and complacent, as if he was really listening, Dora the Explorer-like, and Alfred still couldn't discern if it was endearing or eerie. Ivan's eyelids were halfway shut, a tiny smile gracing his lips. He waited a second more, then nodded. "Is your work boring, Mr. FBI?"

He considered. "Yeah. Not that you're that boring, but…" Alfred let the sentence hang. It wasn't as if it mattered if he finished it, anyway. And the fact was that Ivan was pretty boring. He was the only one ever in his apartment, and went to bed early on Friday nights. On Saturdays he did laundry and cleaned, and every Sunday he napped and called his sisters! "I'm just glad you work so much so I don't have to. Wow, I did not mean for that to sound mean. Um, it's true, though. If you had a computer, things would be differen—"

"Agent Jones?" a recognizable accented voice peeped around the doorway. "Whom are you talking to?"

For the second time that day, Alfred jumped and pushed down his screen, muting Ivan. "No one, good golly, don't scare me like that!"

Chief Arthur Kirkland, Alfred's boss and the head of the black division, didn't appear to notice or care. He stood stiffer than Toris had, clipboard and pencil in hand. "Okay, so, listen. You're mates with Agent Beilschmidt, right? He never checked in with Chief Héderváry and she wanted me to ask—"

Alfred adjusted his glasses, scrunching up his nose. "Which Beilschmidt?"

"The elder." Arthur steeled himself, putting a perplexed finger to his temple. "Apparently, Gilbert's gone MIA."

Alfred crossed his arms. "I haven't seen him since office bowling on Friday. He got his arm stuck in the ball return. Today Héderváry tried to stun me when I checked in! What is up with the gray division?"

Kirkland shook his head to himself, beginning to pace in place. His eyes were as wide as quarters, staring unforgivably at his clipboard as if it held all the answers. "With Carriedo missing already, I'm sure there's foul play to suspect, or even worse—the Mafia. They're on the same team; it's too much of a coincidence. It also means—" He gasped suddenly, raising his crazy blond head in epiphany. Then his voice lowered to a whisper. "It means someone else will be next."

Alfred sat up straighter, suddenly excited. "Whoa, really? Can I help? What case were they working on before they disappeared? Who saw them last? Where—"

"No." Arthur Kirkland was cross. "Not your division. Just let them handle it. Who are you monitoring, again?"

He hesitated. "Ivan. I mean, Braginsky. The...the guy—"

"The Russian spy, right." Arthur stuck his pen behind his ear. "Well. I'll be off, then. Remember to record any—"

"I know, I know." Alfred waved his hand. He felt more and more antsy the longer the Chief was in his space. "Just get on with it. It's fine."

"Right." Arthur frowned and touched his headpiece, half-turned away. "Good day, then. Do your work."

Alfred swiveled back to Ivan, groaning loudly as Arthur departed. Sometimes he felt like he was never taken seriously, but then again, he did sit at a desk and watch a famous memer's life all day. He wasn't sure if such a job should be taken seriously or not.

"I wish I was in a different division," Alfred blurted out. While he had been distracted by Arthur, Ivan had finished washing dishes and was now wiping down his stove and countertops. "I want to do more field agent stuff. My job would be a lot less boring if, instead of hacking all your gadgets and watching you from behind this screen, I could actually go out and spy on you. You know, like, shadow you from around street corners, hiding in the bushes with binoculars, open up the refrigerator door and BAM I'm there!" Alfred slapped his hands on his knees, grinning. "Eat all your food. Make you drop your croissant."

Ivan was still smiling to himself in that charming, unnerving way as he strangled the last drops of water from his rag and hung it over the faucet to dry. "What do you like to do when you're not working, Mr. FBI? Or do you work all the time? I imagine you taking shifts with someone else. Which FBI do I speak to now?"

"Nope, just me. I mean, other black division monitors like Toris sometimes, or Ludwig Beilschmidt if I can convince him, but mostly just me. They all have other guys to watch; y'all suspected criminals are weird. If I wasn't here I would be at NASA." Alfred glanced wistfully at the star chart above his head. "But they wanted me to work on computers, and I wanted to go to space. Diddly darn dang, I love space."

Ivan waited five more seconds before responding. "That's nice."

Alfred nodded fervently. "Damn right it is. Arthur—what a mom—says I waste my talents—"

"I hope you are having an good day, wherever you are," Ivan mused. "I assume you work at FBI headquarters. I walked by that place today. Tomorrow I work in the butterfly garden. It is very close, and my favorite place to work."

"That's rad. I've been there. It's right next to the Museum of Natural—"

"It is next to the Museum of Natural History." Ivan was staring directly at the camera. For the many months Alfred had been Ivan's monitor, he hadn't noticed the purple hue his eyes took on in this dim kitchen glow. "Very beautiful, da? Convenient that most of the Smithsonian buildings are close to each other, all in the same place. I can look at prize artifacts and arrange flowers at the same time."

Alfred was silent. A vision of Ivan with a butterfly perched atop his big nose entered Alfred's mind. He wished Ivan used his phone on the job, wondering what Ivan actually looked like while working. The phone was harder to hack when it was turned completely off; Ivan normally kept it like that during the day while Alfred was away.

"Oh. That reminds me. One moment, Mr. FBI." Ivan walked off out of view.

An idea began to take shape in Alfred's mind, replacing the image of Ivan and the butterfly. Really, allowing Ivan to go that whole slot of time without documentation was a bad strategy, especially if Ivan really was a dangerous Russian intelligence agent. Who knew what he could be up to? And with all the gray division field agents being abducted by the Mafia, apparently, there would be less people to go out and make sure Ivan wasn't, like, putting poison into the plants or something. Alfred could step up and ask. Alfred wanted to see Ivan irl.

And speaking of Ivan, where the heck was he?

Alfred instinctively leaned forward before forgetting it was impossible to see around the kitchen through Ivan's phone. He was positioned so he was staring at Ivan's undecorated refrigerator. He couldn't even hear Ivan, though he remembered Ivan had excused himself.

Ivan never did this. After dishes he would always make himself a lunch for the next day, spend another thirty minutes online, read a little of the book he was slowly working through, check his phone again, and then get ready for bed. Alfred stared frustratedly at the screen, willing it to shift. "Hey, get back over here!" he protested. "You can't just leave me hanging like this!"

From the other room came a thump and a crinkle of plastic that sounded like an empty Doritos bag.

"Ivan!" Alfred huffed. "Don't make me do it!" He brought up a tab of the phone's controls. His finger hovered over the mouse. "Alright, you asked for it. Hear that? I'm doing it, Braginsky!" He pressed a button, making the phone burst into a frantic buzzing.

A few seconds later Ivan reentered the kitchen, his soft boi face appearing innocent and concerned through the screen. Alfred shut the phone's buzzing off, crossing his arms smugly. "Explain yourself."

Ivan, however, didn't say anything. He picked up the phone, opened it, and went straight to his meme account. Alfred felt betrayed when Ivan didn't speak any more, just swiped through his feeds. "So close," he mumbled to himself, having switched back to Russian. Alfred was a bit startled by this, as well; if Ivan knew (or thought he knew) that no one was going to hear and respond to him, why had he been using English when he spoke to "Mr. FBI?" Alfred accepted it was just another of his quirks that made Alfred's job easier. But it signified that their conversation was now over.

"Okay, whatever, it's chill, then." Alfred glanced at the time. He still had a few long hours to go before Ivan clocked in for the night. He had been caught off-guard by the unprompted half-conversation, and now was embarrassed at how he had whined about being ignored. Deep down, Alfred didn't really believe Ivan was a criminal or a spy. Criminals didn't get drunk on vodka home alone and laugh so pleasantly. Spies didn't jump on their beds in excitement whenever it snowed and knit their own oven mitts. Ivan was as ordinary and unassuming and simple as one could be, and immigrant or otherwise he had absolutely no reason to be on the FBI black list.

So Alfred sighed and settled into his cubicle for another evening of memes, same as always. He waited, watched and waited, stole food from Toris and waited, but it turned out that Mr. FBI didn't even get a "Goodnight."


Ivan had no intention of telling his phone goodnight. In fact, he had been reading (and posting) so many FBI memes lately that he left his phone on his bed under the covers in paranoia while he went to the bathroom. But not because it was gross to have someone watching him do his business, which it was. It was because under his sink, squeezed behind the water pipe, was a laptop computer no one knew about but himself and an invisible faction of Russian hackers. Stored on that computer was vital information he had been slowly leeching from the Smithsonian Institute. He didn't know what the circle would do with the info when he sent it, wrapped up with ribbons and bows over a deep web email provider, but he knew if he didn't do his job there would be consequences. He made sure to flush the toilet and run the water on his way out.

Ivan hopped into bed and picked his phone back up, humming as if nothing had happened. He refused to look at the camera lens again, but chided himself. If someone really was watching him, he would know. He distracted himself by checking his meme account once more.

Ivan buried his body under the massive pile of blankets, turning off the lamp and letting his phone screen be the only source of light in the room. He had read that blue light before bed destroyed the eyes, but figured he was already too far gone in that direction to fix anything now. Someone had commented "Congratulations! Heart emoji, fireworks emoji, clapping hands emoji," on his most recent post. Ivan's breaths picked up as he doubled back to check his follower count, gasping when he saw it.

He had broken one million.

Chapter Text

Chief Arthur Kirkland of the black division roared through the cubicles, a stormcloud of papers following in his wake. “Francis Bonnefoy is gone !”

 

“We don’t know that yet,” Chief Elizabeta Héderváry of the gray division mumbled, holding her index finger over her earpiece. The phone call rang and rang, and they grew more impatient the longer it went unanswered. “Damn it, you loon, pick up .”

 

Ludwig Beilschmidt rose suddenly to his feet from the cubicle across from Alfred, scaring the scheiße out of Alfred and making him choke on his Starbucks—his second Starbucks in less than twenty-four hours. It was six in the morning. “Vargas’s camera is down!”

 

Héderváry grumbled to herself. “We should wait. To make sure we haven’t made a mistake. After all, Bonnefoy could just be—”

 

“We can’t wait!” Ludwig protested. “They already have my brother, and Antonio! The gray division is defunct! Bad things could be happening as we speak. Someone needs to go in now. I volunteer myself.”

 

Alfred snorted, throwing off his headphones at last and rising to his feet as well to join the discussion. “Wait just a blessed second. You’re not going in. I’m going in.” Alfred felt assaulted; Ludwig had only started his position as monitor a few weeks ago, probably due to his brother Gilbert’s influence! Also he was gay for his subject. (Like, really gay. Alfred considered himself to be a bit gay, but Ludwig’s gayness put that bit of him to shame. And, yeah, sure, the attachment also jeopardized his trustworthiness, but whatever.)

 

Arthur Kirkland shook his head immediately. “No. Agent Beilschmidt the Younger is correct. With the monitor down, Ludwig will at least have Vargas’s last location, while you still have someone to watch.”

 

Toris awkwardly stood, bending his back over the cubicle as if he wasn’t sure he was welcome in the conversation. “Um, have you considered… Well, one time, Felicks got mad and threw his phone against the wall and broke it. I had to monitor him through only his laptop for a week. How long has—”

 

“He’s been down since twelve thirty-six this morning,” Ludwig supplied with a glance at his screen, grabbing his jacket. “Last location: somewhere north, downtown.”

 

“Francis isn’t picking up,” Héderváry growled, ripping out the earpiece. “Maybe the gray division really is defunct. Alrighty. What do you say, Chief?”

 

“I say I’ll let him go, Chief,” replied Kirkland. “After all, we have nothing on Vargas yet.” He turned to Beilschmidt. “But you must keep your personal cam on at all times. If there’s even the slightest whisper of trouble, radio in at once.”

 

“Affirmative.” Ludwig was already halfway into the elevator.

 

Alfred huffed loudly, facing his bosses. “Fine! But I’m taking an extra long lunch break!”

 

---

 

Ivan liked to walk around town during his lunch breaks. He and his paper bag full of last night’s stroganoff took a stroll down the National Mall, enjoying the summer sunshine. His neck was sweating like crazy—he had never really adjusted to the sweltering DC climate—but he enjoyed watching his scarf billow around him in the occasional gusts of wind. Up on the hill where the Washington Monument stood, it was windier.

 

Ivan sat against the roots of a tree a respectable distance from the giant obelisk. Its long shadow stretched languidly across the empty earth, bordering The Ellipse northward. He enjoyed the surreal feeling of being here; the closer you got to the Monument, the quieter the city was, and the more menacing seemed the parade circle of American flags surrounding the spire. People seemed afraid to stray onto the wide green, clinging instead to the concrete walking paths as they approached. Ivan had a wide berth between bicyclists on the street and tourists on the hill; he relaxed and dug into his meal.

 

People-watching was one of Ivan’s favorite hobbies, aside from memeing and cooking and knitting and drinking, in that order. Gardening was a dandy profession, but alas, it was lonely. Sometimes he worked alongside volunteers, but often he ended up talking to the plants. He wondered what his FBI agent made of that and blushed at the thought. Then he realized that, in talking to his phone and pretending it was an FBI agent, he was doing the same exact thing.

 

Food trucks, maintenance crews and tourists passed by down on the street. Ivan occasionally waved to some, who gave him confused smiles and half-waves back. Americans were friendly; at least the ones that didn’t look like politicians. Squirrels and ladies in pantsuits were also friendly, but crowds of families all wearing the same color shirt and pigeons were not. Ivan’s eyes latched onto one man who was making his way downtown, walking fast. He held one hand up to an earpiece and the other around a bag of Wang Yao’s Wok & Roll food truck takeout. Politician or businessman? Ivan couldn’t tell just yet. He squinted and leaned in for a closer analysis.

 

He was somewhat white-looking, but much tanner than Ivan. His blond hair was dirtier blond than Ivan’s, and he was tall—but not as tall as Ivan. He wore a dark casual suit and dark sunglasses. Ivan smiled. He was a sucker for guys in shades. Just as the man neared his spot, Ivan lifted a hand to wave.

 

Their eyes met across a crowded street—or, at least, Ivan presumed they made eye contact, because he couldn’t see any eyes behind the sunglasses. However, the guy stopped abruptly in his tracks. When he opened his mouth his voice was loud and befuddled. “Holy guacamole!”

 

“Oh,” said Ivan, unmoving. “Hello.”

 

The man glanced up and down and around the scene. Then, after a few more seconds of staring at Ivan, his expression unreadable, he took a step closer. “Uh, hi.”

 

“Hi,” Ivan echoed. “I am wondering. Are you politician or businessperson?”

 

Another step closer. He was clenching the bag of Chinese food awkwardly tight. “Businessperson,” he answered, quickly, tensely.

 

“Oh, good. I don’t like politicians. What kind of business?” Ivan wondered, sitting up straighter.

 

“Politicians sure do suck ass,” the man replied straightforwardly. Instead of answering the second question, he introduced one of his own. “Um, say, what are you eating? It looks good.”

 

Ivan lifted his Tupperware for the man to see, and smiled brightly. “I will let you try if you tell me your name!” (He left the man’s question unanswered in turn; Ivan could be stubborn and mysterious, too, if he wanted.)

 

Maybe it was his imagination, but the man flinched. He shifted his weight, but obviously the culinary appeal was winning him over, as he took a step in even closer. “My name. Right. I’m...My name is...um. You can call me…”

 

Ivan waited, leaning back on his hands in the grass. “Do not think too hard,” he teased. “You can write it down and I can read it if you want.”

 

This made the man break into a sudden grin. “Read. Yes. Well, I’ll have you know my name’s Alfred, I’m nineteen, and I never fucking learned how to read.”

 

A beat.

 

Then, Ivan felt his heart swell with pure joy, and a sharp peal of laughter burst out of him from somewhere buried deep inside. He recognized the reference easily. “The Vine!”

 

“Alfred” looked away. Quietly and quickly, he wheezed out, “Ahhh, I’m sorry, sorry if it’s cringey…”

 

Ivan gave a grin of his own. “It is not cringe. It is dank.”

 

“...Right.” Alfred turned back and stared at him for a second, before whipping off his shades and falling to a crouch in front of Ivan’s picnic. Ivan was delighted; he wore actual glasses under the sunglasses, and under those , his eyes were as blue as the sky! “Okay. But now you gotta gimme the food, pal. You promised.”

 

“Oh!” Ivan realized he was still holding the plate of beef stroganoff. “I do not have another fork…”

 

“Oh, hang on a hot second—I got it.” Alfred dug around in his takeout bag and victoriously extracted a pair of chopsticks. “Yao has yelled at me before, but I swear this’ll work. I mean, as long as it’s not poisoned or anything.” He made perplexing eye contact with Ivan.

 

Ivan giggled. He watched as the “businessman” misused the chopsticks struggling to pick up a cluster of cold noodles, and, surprisingly, after a few tries, succeeded. “You know Wang Yao?”

 

Alfred shrugged and made a vague grunt, his mouth full, sauce covering his face. Adorable?!1!? “We are acquainted, I guess.”

 

Ivan leaned closer. “In business?” Wang Yao’s Wok & Roll food truck was a common sight all around town. Ivan would see it on one end of the Mall in the morning, and on the complete other end by the afternoon. He had a theory there were more than one truck, but hadn’t been able to prove it yet.

 

“Sure, if you really wanna call it ‘business.’ I always buy his food cuz it’s damn s’well, and, as a compliment for being a regular customer, he always rips me off and charges me extra.” Alfred grinned again, as if he found this hilarious. Ivan laughed a little. “Oh! Hey, wanna read the fortune cookie?”

 

Ivan was a bit concerned Alfred hadn’t said anything about Ivan’s own food yet, but was forced to let it pass, since Alfred was already digging in the bag for the cookie. “Okay.” He wondered if Alfred was superstitious, as well as hyperactive.

 

“It says Secret lives destroy lives, aru. ” Alfred glanced quickly up at Ivan. “Hah. Wow, if that ain’t sinister. Um, okay. Our lucky numbers are three and twelve, nine and eleven, and ten thousand thirty-two.”

 

It was getting cold under this shade, Ivan thought. He wanted the sun to come back and burn his face. He would be able to read Alfred’s expressions better in the light, too; he decided liked how expressive Alfred was. Ivan was a fan of emojis, but you just didn’t get the same kind of interaction online, where no one showed their faces. Not that having online friends was bad. Since Alfred seemed to be somewhat woke in memeculture, Ivan wondered if Alfred was one of his million followers. “Ten thousand thirty-two is very specific.”

 

“No, but I’m like, what’s with the nine eleven thing?” Alfred threw the little paper to the ground, crunching off his end of the cookie. With his mouth full, he went on. “If you ask me, it wasn’t even Bush. Oh, no , honey. Clearly the attacks were orchestrated by the aliens.” Crunch, crunch. “Actually, you’d be surprised by just how much history the aliens were involved in.” He said this as if it was pure fact.

 

Ivan stared at him for a second. Then, slowly, he began to hum the X-Files theme.

 

Alfred started to guffaw. It was a little obnoxious, and a lot loud, and Ivan never wanted it to end. By thinking this, he cursed himself, because just then Alfred’s laughing spiel halted and he sighed out, “Dude, I have to go. I’ll be late and my boss is already mad at me. Thanks for letting me eat your food and all.”

 

Ivan inhaled. “Did you like it?”

 

“Oh, totally.” A draft of wind made Alfred’s hair stick up, and he brushed it out of the way while he put his shades back on. “It was, as you said, ‘dank.’”

 

Even Ivan cringed finally at that one. He had finally reached approximate fluency in English—or at least Memglish—and wasn’t sure “dank” was a good adjective to use to describe food. But it was too late to coach Alfred on his technique, because Alfred was standing up, and he was gathering his food bag, and he was leaving

 

“I am glad you talked to me,” Ivan said hastily. “If your boss is mad at you just fire them and come talk to me more!”

 

Alfred stretched out his arms over his head. “Hah. Wish that was how that worked, but...nah. He’s a respectable, good guy, but he like, blows a gasket every time I take a coffee break. I really better go.”

 

“...Oh.” Ivan was running out of things to say. He had hoped Alfred would explain where his job was and what else he liked to eat and what his phone number was and where he lived and who else he knew in DC, and was just about to begin asking him these questions when Alfred interrupted yet again.

 

“See you ‘round, then, Ivan!” Alfred waved. A “See you ‘round,” then. So it wasn’t over.

 

Ivan picked up the dropped fortune slip from the ground and stretched out on his back below the tree. Out of the corner of his eye he watched Alfred stroll off eastwardly, in the direction Ivan himself would have to be making his way soon. “Do I look very silly, Mr. FBI?” he asked to the heavens. “I just want a friend, and you are my only friend, but I cannot be seeing you, so it doesn’t count.”

 

A lifetime ago, he had thought he had found friends. When everyone on the surface web would only use him for memes, Ivan had directed himself to the deep web, and in turn the dark web, and months later had somehow ended up owing thousands to some nameless corporation interface. Moving to America with what he had left, Ivan had become a grunt worker for the hacker circle. He would hack the government sites whenever he could sneak into the computers. Ivan was never able to read the content he stole, but it obviously had to be of some importance, because he didn’t even know the names of his “employers.” It was funny Alfred talked about his boss getting mad at him; if Ivan screwed up, the circle would stop shielding him, probably leading Ivan to be locked up by order of more than one country.

 

Ivan had dreams of a life back in Russia, playing in the forest with his sisters, then sitting before the fire while Katya knitted him scarfs and Natalya read fairy tales aloud. He missed home.

 

Beep, beep ! Ivan sat up, but it was only the sound of the Wok & Roll food truck honking at someone in the street as it migrated after the lunch rush. Ivan smiled to himself. He had caught it on the move, so maybe there was only one. Secret lives destroy lives, aru. It was a message from wise old Wang Yao to him, and he just knew it.

 

Ivan pictured Alfred again, and his last words. “See you ‘round, Ivan!” Something seemed off.

 

No one ever talked to Ivan, really. Ivan had had to initiate their conversation, and to practically bribe Alfred to keep him talking.

 

There it was. Ivan had asked for Alfred’s name, but Ivan had never given his own name. Ivan had a near-perfect memory; he wouldn’t have just forgotten that detail of the conversation, and he knew he would remember having talked to Alfred before. Ivan did not wear a nametag, nor was his name emblazoned anywhere else. “Alfred” had known his name.

 

Now that he thought about it, “Alfred” kept a pretty secretive life, too.

 

---

 

“Nothing!” Ludwig had returned, throwing his jacket over the cubicle wall and collapsing at his desk in defeat. “Vargas is...he must be innocent. I found absolutely nothing! It was just like Toris said; he dropped his phone in a pot of boiling water. It’s useless now. I do not understand!”

 

Chief Héderváry patted him on the shoulder. “You’re doing fine. He’s just a tricky one. You’ll have to monitor him live. We’ll figure it out soon, and your brother and the rest of the gray division will be back here drinking and flirting and sleeping on the job and causing shenanigans like normal in no time!”

 

Alfred, normally the first to get the popcorn, wasn’t even paying attention to the drama anymore. His desk smelled like soy sauce. It was four-fifteen. His laptop was up. Ivan would be on within the hour. Tonight, he was understandably more eager to see what would happen once the face filled the screen.

 

Gosh darn—Alfred would have to rethink the whole visual now! Ivan had turned out to be much taller irl, and his eyes were most definitely closer to the purple side of blue. He had also acted much friendlier than Alfred had expected, although the creepy undertone wasn’t mistaken. Part of the anxiety had been hiding himself; Alfred had tried to think up a fake name and excuse, but found himself impossibly unable to lie when Ivan stared at him so intensely.

 

“Hello, Mr. FBI!” Right on cue, the man’s happy face appeared on the laptop. Alfred sighed. “Wow, have I got some news for you!”

 

Alfred wondered if Ivan would make a good monitoring agent.

 

Chapter Text

The phone screen’s light was blinding throughout the total darkness of Ivan’s bedroom, and he had to shield his eyes for a few seconds before they adjusted. Rolling over, he checked the time on his clock. 3:49 in the morning. He mumbled in annoyance to himself and faced his ringing phone once more. Clearing his throat, he pressed the answer button without even reading who was calling. He felt like that one sleepy gal in that one Vine waking up with the pouring water when he said, “Hello?”

 

Privet, Ivan.

 

The adrenaline that had filled Ivan when the ringtone (“Take On Me” by a-ha) had gone off subsided when the familiar voice hit him. “Natalya!”

 

“I have missed you, brother,” she admitted, in lilting Russian Ivan hadn’t heard in forever. He sighed happily. “How are you?”

 

“It’s three in the morning,” he replied, shifting in his sweaty covers, “but in fact I’m doing very well! How are you?”

 

“Oh, no! Oops!” Another recognizable, yet strained voice echoed from thousands of miles away over the line. “Natalya, we forgot! Ivan, I am so sorry. You must be exhausted!”

 

“Katya!” Ivan laughed. He put a finger briefly over his phone’s speaker, as if he could touch their voices themselves. Natalya and Yekaterina hadn’t spoken to him in ages. Natalya was a businesswoman; Yekaterina was a humble farmer gal. “You are both here! But how?”

 

Natalya cut in. “I am visiting Katya in Ukraine. We were thinking of visiting you.”

 

Ivan sat straight up in bed, staring in awe at the shadowed wall and dresser in front of him. “So we can all be together!”

 

Yekaterina’s giggle made the phone vibrate. Another sound Ivan missed. “Well, it has been a while, don’t you think?”

 

It had been so long. “I miss you very much.” He slumped over. As siblings, they had always been close, but Ivan had been wary their relationship strained farther apart the more they grew. They didn’t talk and play as much as they used to, living back in Russia. “I started to think you would never call.”

 

“That’s not true,” Natalya immediately responded, with a small degree of ferocity. Ivan snorted lightly to himself, imagining them standing in Katya’s tiny kitchen, passing her cord phone back and forth.

 

“I have just saved up enough for something special,” Katya informed them. “Oh, this will be so fun! How about sometime next week?”

 

“Plane tickets are expensive,” added Natalya.

 

“Of course.” Ivan picked his lip. He had a couple of bitcoins saved up on his secret laptop; maybe he could help them with the ticket problem. Anything to finally see a familiar face. “Next week is good! I will start making space!”

 

“We will see you soon.”


.

 

Alfred and his brother Matthew shared some differences. One was the way they greeted the day; Alfred’s way included Starbucks and stretches at six AM, while Matthew’s included multiple trips of the snooze button and desperate attempts to become one with the beavers by building himself a blanket fort and burrowing inside of it. In this way, Alfred was a better candidate for an early monitoring schedule. So, surprised was he to find out from the log he kept on his laptop that Ivan had already been on his phone for twelve whole minutes—at three AM.

 

Alfred rubbed his eyes, making sure he wasn’t just hallucinating. Took another sip of coffee. There it was, right there on the screen. Alfred couldn’t rewind the log program like a TV show, but could only see at what times and places Ivan had used his phone. The location pointed to Ivan’s apartment, but what would the guy be doing with his phone there at three in the morning? Ivan slept like a bear, judging by the way he grumbled to himself upon waking up. He would have had to schedule the wake up time. This was the “suspicious activity” Arthur wanted.

 

Instead of first reporting the activity, however, Alfred decided to wait. After all, he was only a few minutes away from Ivan’s normal wake-up time. He pulled his laptop into bed with him and closed his eyes, only opening them again when Ivan’s face filled the screen.

 

“Good morning, Mr. FBI!”

 

Oh god, this again. Alfred was amused Ivan was still keeping it up, and even smiled a little to himself in his sleep-weakened state. Last night Ivan’s “news” had been a twenty-minute-long rant detailing their lunch meeting by the Washington Monument. Alfred had been embarrassed in about twenty different ways, especially at hearing how Ivan described him. But the situation was also too ironic not to laugh at; Ivan would have a rude awakening when he discovered “Mr. FBI” and Alfred were actually the same person.

 

If he discovered. Alfred violently rubbed his eyes. No. Not “when.” Not even “if.” No, Ivan would never find out, of course. There was no reason why he would ever find out. It would be funny, but no. No way.

 

“I hope you had a good sleep,” the Russian drawled, yawning, which in turn made Alfred yawn. “Today I want to meet Alfred again, so I am going to picnic in the same place. Maybe if he is a businessman, he will have the same schedule and he will be walking there again.”

 

“Dude, don’t get your hopes up,” Alfred mumbled. “Alfred’s got like a bajillion things to do this morning.”

 

“I like Alfred.” Ivan sighed and rolled over.

 

Alfred slapped his pillow. “ Ahhgggg. Shut it. Stop being cute.”

 

A giggle from the other end of the link. “I can only wonder if Alfred thinks I am cute too.”

 

Oh, you little —”

 

Ivan sat up. “If that is his real name. I am still not sure if he is lying to me.” He unconsciously rubbed his neck as he stretched, and Alfred was reminded of the scars there. He looked away. Yesterday Ivan had been wearing his scarf, even in the eighty-degree weather. Alfred had always wondered why Ivan left for work with his scarf on and came home still wearing it. This small, cruel detail restored Alfred’s worries; if Ivan truly believed he was being watched right now, he would be wearing his scarf.

 

“He wasn’t lying. I mean, I tried, but, like, giving any other name would have sounded bad. All I could think of at the time was ‘Bob’ or something and I didn’t want to call myself ‘Bob.’” Alfred sat up as well, snatching his glasses from his nightstand and propping the laptop on his thighs.

 

The conversation seemed to be over as Ivan finished stretching and slunk off to the bathroom. Bored, Alfred pulled up a visual of Ivan’s phone screen, which he had left glowing on his bed. It showed Ivan’s meme account. Alfred was just about to begin reading it when the screen turned off on its own. He groaned. He could still hack into it, of course, but at this point did anything matter?

 

Two dudes chillin’ in their own bedrooms, ” Alfred hummed to himself, beginning to roll out of the covers and start getting ready, himself. “ One city and two screens apart ‘cuz they’re not gay!

 

He heard Ivan come out of the bathroom and begin to change into his work clothes. Luckily the camera was pointed at the ceiling. (There was an unofficial term for these intimate times that the monitors of the black division referred to as “awkward moments.” Usually they meant anxious coffee breaks.)

 

“Bye, then,” Alfred mumbled as Ivan plopped his phone into his work bag and the camera went black. “Go ahead. Don’t tell me what you were doing at three early this morning. It’s fine. Not like it could finally clear your name off the stupid list or anything. You’re right.”

 

“Goodbye, Mr. FBI,” Ivan whistled, without a care in the world. He was so damn innocent. Alfred was about to give some half-snarky, half-genuine response, when something across his room burst into song. “Africa” by Toto, in fact. Alfred was confused for a second before he remembered it meant his phone was ringing and he was receiving a call.

 

“Aw, shit.” Alfred threw off his covers and dove to answer it. The display showed the name of none other than Arthur Kirkland. “Howdy.”

 

“Bloody hell, Jones! Where are you?”

 

“At home! Fiddlesticks, I forgot to tell you. I worked my first shift from home. Ivan just left. Er, Braginsky.”

 

A heaving exhale. “Good God, man! We thought you had been abducted by the Mafia!”

 

“Oh. Well, nah.” Alfred felt bad. He could just see the Chief doing the smh. “Don’t you worry! I’ll, I’ll be—”

 

“Yes, you better be here soon! It’s only Toris and Elizabeta and I and Ludwig hasn’t left yet and boy is it stuffy. What is it with staff these days?” Kirkland gave an impatient huff.

 

“I’m on my way right now. In fact, I’m just getting into the car,” Alfred said as he rose to his feet and did a toe-touch, stifling another yawn. “Have to hang up. No texting while driving, you know.”

 

“Yes. Right. Be safe. Wait. This isn’t texting, it’s a phone call—”

 

Alfred hung up. “Still a cause for distraction.”

 

He took a shower and relaxed on the couch with a bowl of cereal and a robe, too lazy to get dressed just yet. Ivan didn’t use his phone again until the late afternoon, so Alfred technically had plenty of time before he had to go to work. He glanced over at his TV table. On top of it lay a stack of video games he hadn’t yet completed. Bored, Alfred started sifting through them.

 

One disc toppled off the pile to the floor, and when Alfred picked it up, he was surprised to see his name, along with another, both written in felt marker under a semicircle of letters spelling out STARSCRAPERZ!

 

Back in college, Alfred and this quiet Japanese kid named Kiku Honda had gotten endlessly bored in their computer class and teamed up to create a video game, becoming best friends along the way. The game was successful, too; with Alfred on programming and Kiku on art, they had churned out a basic RPG with a short plot by the end of the semester. Alfred hadn’t played it in ages, though he and Kiku still kept in touch. Kiku was an employee of the Smithsonian.

 

Jeez, Ivan worked at the Smithsonian, kinda. Alfred hadn’t thought of that. What if they even knew each other.

 

Suddenly, he felt very cold. He glanced quickly over his shoulder and around the apartment’s small living room, but of course no one was there. He released the disc and replaced it by clutching a pillow to his chest. Alfred needed to get out, to be with people. He needed to see Kiku, because Kiku would be ecstatic Alfred had found their old game, and Kiku might have more information on Ivan that Alfred didn’t yet have access to. He needed to see Matthew, because Matthew always had wise words of advice, and he knew that Matthew tended to get lonely and would want to see him as well. He needed to forget that he had only just been bowling with Gilbert on Friday, and now Gilbert was gone, and what did that mean?

 

“Aaaaand, that’s enough thinking for today,” Alfred declared, standing up. “I’ve reached my max. No more.”

 

He dressed in his usual dark casual suit, sliding the token sunglasses on over his normal glasses. (He thought glasses that tinted automatically were a hassle, and if he was ever given a promotion, he would get the really cool FBI glasses that had x-ray, night-vision, and lazer-eye features anyway.) He even tried to wrestle with a tie but gave up. Alfred stuffed his computer in his bag and took transit to headquarters.

 

This time, Chief Héderváry wasn’t the one to sign him in. An anonymous man in black scanned Alfred’s credentials without uttering a word. Regrettably, Alfred found this sad and boring. “What, is there some kind of secret Eye of Providence in there you’re lookin’ for?”

 

Slowly, the man tilted his head up. “You know that only the Illuminati agents are required to carry those.”

 

“Obviously.” Alfred rolled his eyes. He made it to the elevator without a hitch.

 

When the doors slid open on the negative two-hundredth floor, Alfred expected Chief Arthur Kirkland to be there waiting with his arms crossed. He wasn’t. Kirkland, Héderváry, and Ludwig all stood around the lounge’s dry erase board, talking rapidly. Alfred shrugged and made his way over to Toris’s cubicle.

 

“Ah!” The Lithuanian shut his laptop screen and swiveled around so quickly Alfred almost blushed himself.

 

“Um, what’s going on?” he asked.

 

“Nothing!” Toris retorted. “I mean, er, I’m just admiring my new SAVE THE WHALES poster!”

 

“...You mean magnet?

 

“Yes! It is quite nice. I am starting to liking it very much.” They both gazed at the magnet, taped to the carpet-covered cubicle wall.

 

Alfred let it go. Whatever horrific action he assumed Felicks was undertaking couldn’t compete with the rising ferocity of whatever was happening in the lounge. “Cool. Knew you would. But seriously, what’s up.” He jammed a thumb over his shoulder.

 

“...Oh.” Toris stood, tripping on his chair a little, peering to see closer. “They have been doing that all morning. Writing and drawing and printing out articles and pinning them up. I think they think they are close to solving the mystery.”

 

It got quiet as the two watched. Ludwig Beilschmidt, in near-hysterics judging by the two strands of hair that escaped his gel swoop, stabbed a finger at a picture of his suspect, which was the center of a network of intersecting red lines connected to related circled words, photos, and newspaper cutouts. “And if you direct your attention to Exhibit F , you’ll realize just how much of a mastermind Feliciano Vargas truly is!”

 

Kirkland was skeptical. “But that’s just a flattering picture of him using a broom. It doesn’t prove anything.”

 

Héderváry was sympathetic. “Ludwig, we know Antonio Fernandez-Carriedo disappeared on-duty up on Embassy Row last Wednesday. Gilbert went MIA walking home from bowling on Friday, and Francis’s last connection with us was on his way to work yesterday morning. In all these pictures, collected around the same times judging from the stamps, Vargas is at home in his kitchen.”

 

“Exactly!” Ludwig declared. “Vargas has positioned himself in just the right place at just the right time in every single instance!”

 

Kirkland scratched his chin. “So there are two solutions. Either we’ve got the wrong guy, or he’s strategically fooling us with these images somehow, which would explain why his camera went down briefly early last morning.”

 

“Yesterday he was working at a market,” Ludwig informed. “I observed him from afar, and nothing seemed amiss. The strangest thing was the way he talked to people, always smiling and laughing and keeping up a conversation for twenty minutes about things as meaningless as gelato cramps! Then he went home, of course, and slept. He sleeps a lot.”

 

“Which would explain why he’s home so often,” Kirkland countered, turning away. “Whatever. If you think you’ve got a lead, take it. Not like we have anyone else here to do it— oi! Alfred F. Jones!”

 

Alfred leaned to Toris. “I’ve never known how to respond when he says the Oi!’ at me. Like, what does it even mean? Chief! Hey, amigo!”

 

“Don’t you ‘amigo’ me!” Arthur pointed a finger in Alfred’s face. “You’re an hour late!”

 

Toris wisely swiveled his chair back around. The black division chief was a force when he was angry, and it was a fact he was often angry around Alfred (admittedly for good reason).

 

“My car broke down due to distracted driving,” Alfred explained, trying to sidestep Arthur. “It was tragic. I waited in the sweltering heat, wishing for the good ol’ days when I could just stick a saddle on any four-legged animal, or mount a big rock like the pioneers—”

 

“Boy, you don’t even own a car!”

 

Alfred paused, his train of lie derailing. “What?” This was saddening to hear. Even if his explanation had been a lie, he still did own a car. Or at least he shared one. With Matt...who was using it at the moment. “I’ve got a Ford F-150!”

 

Arthur turned his nose up. “That’s no car.”

 

A slight to Alfred’s honor! He prepared to defend himself. “Hey! You wanna argue about cars, old man? You drive on the left!”

 

Kirkland put his hands to his temples. “Stop this at once. Now you’re distracting me. The point is we need you here, Alfred. We’re understaffed and low on morale—just look at poor Toris! He’s barely hanging on!”

 

Indeed, Toris looked ready to run a letter-opener through himself. “Please get out of my cubicle.”

 

They left.

 

Arthur lowered his voice. “What I mean is I feel better with you here, doing work where I can see you. Protected. You understand. To finish this investigation we all need to work where we can see each other, and it’s now of even more utmost importance we all are working. Chief Héderváry and Ludwig are both going out on separate missions today, and—”

 

“Agh, dude.” Alfred scratched his head. “This makes it so bad. I was actually just going to ask for some time off.”

 

They froze outside of Alfred’s cubicle. Kirkland looked almost sad. “That I cannot give you.”

 

Alfred clenched his teeth. Were his working hours being extended, then? Did the Chief expect him to check in every morning, now? What happened to only hacking phones when phones were being used? “I only wanna see my brother.”

 

“Ludwig wants to see his brother, too,” Arthur sighed. “Until we get a lead on the Mafia situation, I’d like you to check in every morning. Maybe in your spare time, you can even help us!”

 

Alfred crossed his arms, unsatisfied, but willing to take the bait. “I still get lunch breaks.”

 

“So be it. A single hour, only . And not today.”

 

Alfred’s shoulders fell. That morning he had even mocked at Ivan that he might not be able to see him at lunch since he had “like a bajillion things to do,” but now that he actually knew he was restrained, everything felt worse. Itchy.

 

“Alfred?” Alfred looked up. The Chief had taken on a softer tone. “We really do care. Say, how is your work going? Anything noticeable or suspicious happening with Braginsky?”

 

Alfred met his eyes, steady and sure. “Nope; nada. Nothing at all.”

 

.

 

Ivan was blaring Spotify. “Do you like my cleaning playlist, Mr. FBI? I am sorry you have listen to it so many times.” He made sure to leave his phone in his bedroom while tidying up the bathroom; more specifically, the cabinet under the sink. He ran the water while logging into the computer, checking his inbox quickly for any messages from the circle. He didn’t get a “thanks for the highly confidential intel,” and only a curt email dictating his next order. Ivan shut the laptop with a grimace and flushed the blue cleaning fluid down the toilet.

 

“I want everything to look good when my sisters come over!” he proclaimed, picking the phone back up. “Do not be afeared. You will like my sisters, Mr. FBI. I hope so. A family visit will make me seem less boring.”

 

Ivan didn’t have a particular image for “Mr. FBI,” but the longer he kept up the joke, the more his mind worked to develop a sort of persona for the character that fit the needs of whatever state Ivan was in. He imagined Mr. FBI cast in shadow at a desk, eating popcorn and saying, “ Of course I will love your sisters, Ivan! Just as much as I love watching you! uwu!

 

The dream was entertaining. Ivan stared directly at his camera, found those purple dots inside, and laughed.

 

He let his phone be with a final smile and plugged it into the charger while he cleaned out the Tupperware he had used for lunch. Today he had sat in the same spot as yesterday, and kept a close eye on the street. But it was a true bust.

 

“Alfred” hadn’t shown.

Chapter Text

“I’ll have you know that I’m highkey not hyped about this,” Alfred muttered to the Chief as he checked in. Not even a Parks and Rec Paunch Burger “child size” coffee could fix his mood, or his messy hair and the dark circles under his eyes. He had been awake since three that morning looking out for another of Ivan’s phone calls, but with no avail. It was almost like Ivan knew he was watching and had taken preventative measures. Or like Alfred was beginning to get paranoid.

 

“What was that?” asked Kirkland, looking up from his ever-present clipboard. The office was sleepy and slow-moving in its early hours, and there were no new missing members.

 

“I said good mornin’, sir.” Alfred coughed and collapsed at his desk with so much dedication the wheels on his wheely chair shrieked in surprise.

 

Also—apparently Ivan’s sisters were now visiting? What was up with that? Alfred would have to search his files of notes, for in this state at least he only remembered Ivan vaguely having a family back in Russia. It was whack. The way Ivan had talked to him last night gave Alfred worries, too. Was their relationship ready for a “meet the family” visit? No. No it was not. Alfred had some work to do.

 

He didn’t reach for the file cabinets, however. He didn’t report the news to Arthur. He didn’t even get out his computer. He shed his glasses, rested his head in his folded arms, and fell asleep.

 

Alfred dreamed he was playing STARSCRAPERZ! with Matthew, but all of the attacking aliens had Ivan’s face. They lost on the first wave.


.

 

It was afternoon, and Ivan had a new assignment. The hacker circle’s orders were short and sweet: obtain a select handful of confidential files from the US government-protected Federal Bureau of Investigation.

 

For once he was excited. Not because the files would be near-impossible to get ahold of, not because he would add a couple more life sentences to his record if he was caught, and not even because if he performed the operation successfully and wasn’t caught, his debt to the circle would decrease marginally. He was excited because he was hacking the FBI, and he had never done anything near that caliber before, and the FBI obsession deep down in his starved brain was lighting up like a beacon. He had even been given an insider’s hinting of traps to avoid in the email. How courteous.

 

“I’m coming for you, Mr. FBI!” he whispered to himself as he pruned a shrub. Dead leaves were swept away into a bag. His obsession was to the point where Ivan could only allow himself to think about his dark web misdeeds when his phone wasn’t in his sight. (He still didn’t believe the meme, of course, and was sure to remind himself of this every day.) “I won’t hesitate, bitch.”

 

Another thing Ivan forced out of his mind was Alfred, who hadn’t showed up for lunch in two days now. A few hours ago Ivan had waited patiently under that darned giant obelisk and hadn’t seen either Alfred or the Wok & Roll truck. Their Tuesday meeting must have been a chance fluke, so Ivan told himself to get over it for the time being; Alfred was only a guilty distraction. Ivan could remember him when he was done with this next task. The “businessman’s” image had already become blurred in his head. Ivan even forgot that Alfred knew Ivan’s name.

 

He snapped another dead stalk out of his way, now up to his elbows in milkweed and tithonia. Just like his worn overalls and boots, Ivan’s hands would be covered in dead plant matter and beetle juice if not for his trusty rubber gloves. They were a bright cheery yellow, the exact shade of the sunflower in Ivan’s windowsill. He noticed that more people smiled and waved back at him when he wore them, which made him very happy. Across the garden was another groundskeeper, whom Ivan directed a wave now. The teenager was too wrapped up in her earbuds to take notice. Ivan frowned sadly.

 

He was stationed in the butterfly pollinator gardens again, which was a two-way upside to his day. First, he loved working around the butterflies and the bugs. Second, he was near the National Museum of Natural History, in a position that would be helpful later on. One couldn’t simply hack the FBI. Ivan needed a special gateway to their database, a gateway that could only be found using other US government software, if he knew his tech. If he didn’t and this didn’t work, he was screwed.

 

Usually, Ivan could hack the Smithsonian by hooking up to maintenance with a special cable he had acquired from an anonymous delivery source on the street a couple weeks after he had arrived in DC. Conveniently, Ivan also had full range and access to maintenance. But sometimes things were harder, and he had to actually go in and do it the manual way. Luckily, no one suspected the gardener. Museum staff just thought it was weird that the gardener was in the computer room. And since it was easier to get caught than it was to get intel, today would be a “hack in and get the hell out” kind of endeavor. And his shift was almost up.

 

Ivan’s knees protested when he stretched up out of his squat to move his bucket and tools down the line. He froze when a squadron of flying insects zipped past him, recognizing them instantly as Russian honey bees (or Apis mellifera , not to be confused with the other popular Italian bee species Apis mellifera ligustica ; you could quickly differentiate species from their informational placards when you were the one polishing the placards and working around enthusiastic pollinator people all year). Ivan wasn’t skittish around the monarch butterflies or even the hyperactive hummingbirds that frequented the garden because he saw all the creatures as his friends. But, according to all known laws of aviation, any bee that could survive the harsh Russian winters should be left alone. He knew firsthand.

 

Ivan tightened his scarf as he crouched back down. He had begun to sweat even more—not all the bees’ fault or the excessive heat and humidity. He didn’t have to retrieve his phone from his bag in the maintenance shed to know that it was almost four o’clock, almost the end of his shift. The teenager with the earbuds was already dusting off her jeans and heading out. Ivan kept a close eye on who else approached down the pathway. These next few minutes would be difficult.

 

After a moment’s hesitation, Ivan too gathered his things. He waved farewell to the butterflies and the flowers and slowly strolled away, whistling to himself and sweating harder. He stored the bucket and tools, and as he reached for his work bag, he finally allowed further distraction to break the floodgates in his mind. He checked his phone before crossing the street, just glancing quickly at his meme page for the follower and like count. They had both gone stagnant; Ivan hadn’t posted anything in a day, which was unlike him. He wiped the hair out of his eyes and powered his phone all the way down, wrapping it in a spare T-shirt and tossing it back into his bag. This way, if Mr. FBI could still hack into Ivan’s phone if it was all the way off, he would only see dark fabric.

 

I am not a criminal about to throw himself into a very compromising position, Ivan thought to himself. I am a simple plant man, so smol, so pure.

 

He started up the steps to the Museum of Natural History. Just a mere block north were actual FBI headquarters. It was ninety degrees, yet Ivan felt like shivering.

 

He smiled at security as he approached. The entrance line was short, and Ivan was not apprehensive about being caught here. He hadn’t needed to bring his cable or computer, and there were a lot of smelly clothes in his bag to conceal what he had brought, anyway. A cop prodded the clothes with a stick, ushered him through a metal detector, and just like that he was in.

 

The afternoon was growing late, so the crowds weren’t thick, the staff was lax, and Ivan could navigate around easily. He pretended to oogle the giant elephant display for a minute or two, trying not to think about the people at the information desk some feet away. When Ivan moved in deeper, he felt eyes on his back. He slowly and innocently moved away, finding the button for an elevator.

 

He breathed in; he breathed out. Pictured Alfred’s smile.

 

Ding! Ivan stepped into the elevator and pressed the “close doors” button.

 

“Excuse me!” Ivan’s eyes zipped to find the source of the distress call. Someone was power-walking toward him, extending an arm. At this sight, Ivan reflexively stuck a hand in the path of the closing doors to keep them open, and immediately cursed himself.

 

An Asian-looking man wearing a museum worker’s uniform and badge gratefully stepped into the elevator. “Thank you!” said he. “It takes forever to get one to come back.”

 

Ivan smiled. “It is no problem!” He moved aside so the man could choose his floor.

 

“Ah, my apologies.” Just before hitting the button, the man lurched back. “You were here first; you choose first.”

 

“No, it is fine.” Ivan took another step to the side and bumped into the wall. “Where you were going is just fine.”

 

The man stared for a second, then recovered. “Oh. Um, thank you. Okay.” He gently pushed the button, and the elevator responded. The man then moved to stand on the other side of the elevator, as far away from Ivan as possible.

 

Ivan’s fingers clenched his bag tighter and tighter. If Mr. FBI was watching, he would most definitely be laughing at the awkwardness. Ivan had planned on taking a random floor to scope the place out, but now that an actual worker had arrived, maybe Ivan could just follow him and pretend to be a worker, too. Radical.

 

The man cleared his throat; Ivan looked over. The man was staring straight up ahead, watching the numbers change. His hands were folded professionally behind his back, allowing the nametag on his chest to be visible. Ivan squinted. H-O-N—

 

—Ding! The doors opened, and the man marched quickly out. Like a disoriented cat, Ivan followed.

 

Sure enough, the man swung straight into a door marked STAFF ACCESS ONLY . Ivan caught a glimpse of the interior and sighed internally. Success. Now he just had to pretend to look at exhibits until the man left.

 

The words on the wall were drowned out by the pounding in his ears. Ivan had only done this a few times before. H*ck, I have only been to the Museum of Natural History few times before. He knew that there were others, however, who did this kind of stuff much more regularly. Once, Ivan had caught glimpses of someone shadowing him in disguise, and had been so sure it was security, but had later caught them typing away at the same computer he had just hacked. Ivan therefore suspected that he wasn’t the only member of the circle here in Washington. Maybe right now some spy was lurking around, waiting for Ivan to move so they could sail in, cover him, and fix any mistakes he had made. The notion gave him a false sense of security—minding the pun, of course.

 

Ivan caught his reflection in the glass. With his contemplative, hollow expression, he looked pretty ominous. He wondered if Mr. FBI thought that. He wondered what Mr. FBI thought at all about him, before Ivan remembered that Mr. FBI wasn’t real, and Ivan only developed the character as a sad way to cope with being alone, and that the museum worker from the elevator had just walked out the staff access door and around the corner out of sight and the door was now swinging shut…

 

His chance! Ivan swiveled and put a hand up to stop the door from closing, like stopping doors was his job. He didn’t even check the hall to see if anyone had seen him. Ivan meant to leave no record except for his image on the cameras, which either would be passed over by security or edited by Ivan if he had the time and skill. But he had little of either as far as hacking security systems went, so he made a beeline for the closest computer and went straight to work.

 

The mouse was warm—good. This had to be the one the elevator man had just used. Ivan took a minute to brute-force the login, and then accessed the system. He let his mind ramble and his fingers fly. If the elevator man had already logged out then he probably wasn’t planning on coming back here any time soon, but Ivan couldn’t be sure. He typed faster.

 

Ivan broke through the network in short time. Knowing he was inside of the US government was terrifying, and it was an even stronger leap to get to the FBI. Their codes were lazer-tripped, but due to the info from the email, he knew the pathway. Ivan sweated harder than he had in the garden. I’ve got you now, Mr. FBI.

 

And there they were. Plain as day. A handful of personnel files, wrapped in code. Ivan didn’t have time to inspect them, or—god forbid— translate them. He took his eyes off the screen for the first time he had since entering the room to reach into his work bag. Buried beneath his yellow gloves and extra clothes was a tiny USB flash drive-like device. When Ivan stole information, he put it onto this and transferred it back to his laptop at home, then cleared all data so the drive could be used again. Wasting no time, he plugged the sucker into the computer and ran a loop to copy the files.

 

Now Ivan just had to wait. He stretched out his hands and popped the pains in his neck. He had kept the lights off in the room, and now it was hurting his eyes. He couldn’t tell if he was being watched by camera, since there were many red lights amongst all the machinery in the small room. Cables bound in zip-ties traversed the ceiling, and the blinking black boxes that lined the walls looked alien. If he listened over the hum of hardware, he could hear distant sounds coming from the museum. Any of them could be a SWAT team on their way to take him out.

 

When all the files had been copied and transferred onto the drive, Ivan closed out. He hastily unplugged the USB and chucked it into his bag, then spent time making sure he left no trace of himself before logging out. The computer was just shutting down when the staff access door to the room swung open and light flooded in.

 

It was the elevator man. He looked surprised to see Ivan sitting at the computer, like anyone would have looked. It was extremely hard for Ivan to hold back from screaming, “Please! Don’t tell MOoOoOoOM!”

 

Instead, he rose from the chair, shouldered his bag, and offered the short man a friendly smile. “Hello again!” He walked fast toward him, and this intimidation tactic worked, for the man backed up confusedly, allowing Ivan to shoulder past him and out the hall. “Have a good afternoon!”

 

“Uh…” Ivan felt the man’s eyes on him as he retreated briskly down the hall. “Good-Goodbye…”

 

He walked. And walked. And only when he had reached the elevator did he allow himself to glance back. Must look casual. The man had to believe Ivan was just a part of the museum. The man wasn’t anywhere to be seen.

 

Ivan exhaled carefully through his nose and pressed the button. The elevator ride was the loneliest and longest of his life. He made sure not to look at the camera, just in case the museum employee was watching him through it and recording his appearance. Once he had reached the first floor, Ivan stepped out of the elevator doors as soon as they had opened broad enough to fit his broad body. He became cautious of his fast walking pace and the red blush that was most likely creeping across his cheeks and told himself to calm down. Just think of Alfred. Alfred would be horrified by him. Pretend to be wearing Alfred’s sunglasses, and that no one can see. Secret lives destroy lives.

 

Ivan was outside, standing on the steps underneath the giant banners stretched between the massive columns. He could hear his heartbeat over the wind tunnel, but he had done it.

 

The subway ride home allowed Ivan some time to calm down, as it was easy to lose himself among the hordes of busy travelers. He sat in a slightly sticky seat by the doors and breathed slowly into his scarf. He almost reached into his bag for his phone and earbuds, but decided to wait until home to open his phone. After all, it was possible that the data he had stolen contained Mr. FBI’s own information. Ivan allowed himself a delirious giggle. He had really done it.

 

And now came the fun part—he couldn’t say anything to anyone. He unlocked his apartment and went straight to the bathroom, transferring the intel to his secret computer and sending it to the circle. Then Ivan took a shower, pushed everything out of his mind, and turned on his phone to play music while he made dinner.

 

“Good evening,” was the first thing he said to Mr. FBI. “I am sorry I am late.”


.

 

Alfred adjusted his glasses and squinted his eyes at the screen to hear better. “ Late , my donkey! Where were you?”

 

Ivan was right there, at the stove, frying meat or something. He was wearing a different scarf than the one he had left with that morning, but Ivan changed his scarves regularly after showers. He looked clean and happy and wasn’t covered in someone’s blood or lugging giant bags of money like Alfred had begun to suspect. “I had to work late, and then I took the wrong train home. I hope you did not miss me.”

 

Alfred slapped his desk. “Of course I missed you! You’ve been down for an hour! Location empty! No warning! Visuals gone...you could have dropped your phone in boiling pasta! You could have been murdering someone! Wait till the Chief hears about this…”

 

Ivan smiled that classic innocent smile directly at the camera. A water droplet slid off of one of his still-wet bangs. “I hope you will not report me over such a silly mistake.”

 

Alfred froze. Lowered his voice. “You—You can’t hear me, can you?”

 

“Soon my sisters will be here, and they will be very sad if I am not here to say hello with them.” Ivan went back to prodding the meat with a fork.

 

“Well, come on. I wasn’t actually going to report you, you walnut,” Alfred jeered. “Duh.”

 

Ivan didn’t look back or respond. He was staring into his supper like it held all the secrets of the universe. Alfred fancied Ivan was troubled, which made him feel uneasy as well. Then Ivan slowly shook his head, and didn’t speak to his phone again for the rest of the night.

 

So Alfred just watched. Late into the night he hovered over the laptop screen, occasionally readjusting himself or taking a bite of the donuts someone had brought. The mood in Ivan’s house grew more and more somber by the hour. Alfred didn’t like the somber. It made him feel antsy and want to actually say something to Ivan, but he couldn’t right now, so he had to resign once more to boredom. Alfred texted his brother, played Fortnite mobile on his own phone, and right around the time when Ivan was in the bathroom getting ready for bed was when Alfred received a call.

 

He was dragged out of the game when his screen was replaced with the incoming contact. Alfred was confused at first, then delighted. He pressed answer. “Hey! What’s up?”

 

“Hello, Alfred,” said Kiku Honda. “It has been a while. Something strange happened to me today. Would you like to talk?”

 

Chapter Text

Ivan breathed in through his nose. He breathed back out quickly, because boy it was hot and he had been walking through the city for what seemed like an eternity now and he was barely running on fumes of adrenaline left over from yesterday. He only had a day to do what he was about to do, clearing himself for the weekend. Also it was almost lunch and he was famished. Which led him to this idea.

 

“Bowl, please. Lo mein and orange chicken. No chopsticks.”

 

“Oops, sorry,” mused the man in the truck as he bustled about, securing his long, dark ponytail through the hole in the company-labeled baseball hat. He did not sound sorry. Then again, he was barely audible over the blasting of foreign rap music. “I already put in the chopsticks.”

 

Ivan offered up a friendly smile. “Oh. That is okay!”

 

The man paused to stare Ivan down. Ivan stilled and returned the look. Yao Wang was menacing, he decided, but only because he moved so fast and talked so loud and, due to the height granted by the truck, was a few inches taller than Ivan. Yao squinted through the tinge of soy sauce hanging in the air. Ivan smiled wider. Yes, this was a man who didn’t mess around. Just what he needed.

 

“What you smiling at me for,” Yao sneered finally. “Throw them away if you don’t want them. I don’t give no crap. You owe seventeen thirty-five.”

 

Ivan nodded. He slapped a few bills on the counter. “Keep the change.”

 

Yao squinted at Ivan, squinted at the money, then did a double take. His eyes went as wide as the fake lanterns strung from the Wok & Roll ceiling. Then, in a flash, he scraped up the bills and lowered both his brow and his voice. “This is way too much, you stupid. Even for tips. I never get tips.”

 

“Consider it a bonus for a favor,” Ivan said, carefully. Before Yao could move, he pulled a slender black case from out of his work bag and set it atop the counter. “You will keep this for the weekend, and you will meet me here next Monday and I will pick it up. You will not look at it, you will not let anyone see it, and you will forget who gave it to you. If I am not here next Monday, you will break it into small pieces and throw them into the river.” He smiled again, taking his bag of food. “Okay? I hope there is a fortune cookie in this.”

 

For a few drawn-out seconds, Yao looked absolutely disgusted as he stared at the case holding Ivan’s secret laptop. Then, he shut his mouth, and without blinking, stuffed the money in the register and swiped the laptop out of sight. He swallowed and met Ivan’s eyes evenly. “Of course there is a fortune cookie.”

 

Ivan smiled for real. “Great!”


.

 

This time, Alfred had come somewhat prepared.

 

Ivan’s last phone usage: texting his sister at 7:03. Ivan’s morning shift end time: 11:30. Ivan’s current location: Constitution Gardens. Ivan was sitting in picnic fashion in the shade of a tree next to the pond, eating...what was that...Chinese? Eating Chinese, and wearing boots, overalls, and the scarf—what a fashion statement. He was alone, like normal, and blissfully unaware.

 

Alfred began his approach. He did this slowly, for he didn’t want to alarm Ivan, of course. He had moved fast across the city in order to keep this excursion within the allotted time of his lunch break, so he was sweaty, and also it was like a bajillion degrees Fahrenheit, which made the sweatiness extra Satanic, and Alfred was lil’ nervous, and he sweated when he was nervous. (Alfred did his best to deny the nerves on both the physical and mental scales. Nerves made people unsteady and uncomfortable, and when you were unsteady and uncomfortable you couldn’t function at the highest degrees of lyfe, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Much akin to, say, the government.)

 

How to introduce himself? Alfred considered a “Howdy, partner,” then a “Yo wassup,” then a “Greetings, Earthling,” and finally decided on “Oh, hey, it’s you again!” He cleared his throat to begin, and Ivan turned around at hearing the sound.

 

For a second neither of them spoke. Ivan perked up in surprise. Alfred turned his clearing-of-throat into a hacking cough. And then Ivan was saying “How did you find me?” at the same time Alfred started in with a weak “So, hi!” and it was basically a trainwreck.

 

They winced in unison, and then Ivan started doing his polite giggle laugh thing. Alfred rolled his eyes, not so glad anymore that he had decided to take off his sunglasses before approaching. They concealed an important part of his face that was bright red at the moment. “I meant to say ‘Oh, hey, it’s you again!’” he clarified flatly.

 

Ivan set his jaw. “And—how did you find me?”

 

Alfred put his hands into the pockets of his stupid FBI code-mandated pants and clenched them into fists. “Is ‘pleasantly stumbled upon you’ not a good answer or something?”

 

Apparently it was a decent enough answer, for it made Ivan smile brightly. “Maybe I found you! You didn’t walk by the Washington Monument again. I missed you. I decided to eat here instead.”

 

Alfred felt like a guilty bastard for knowing just how much Ivan had missed him, but was still a lil nervous. His eyes darted around and found the familiar food bag logo next to Ivan. “Hey, that’s Yao’s!”

 

Ivan looked down at his lo mein noodles as if noticing them for the first time. “Oh. Yes, I went by just a few minutes ago.” He smiled wider. “He was very nice. I gave him a tip.”

 

Alfred whistled. “Shoot, I never give him tips.” He cleared his throat again and gestured to the ground next to Ivan. “Um. Can I, uh, sit with you?”

 

Ivan paused and blinked, expression unchanging. Alfred was initially alarmed by this, and began to doubt if he had misjudged Ivan, until he realized that it was the face of a man about to make a sick reference. “Actually, Meghan , you can’t sit anywhere . You have—”

 

They were both on the ground laughing well before he even said “hemorrhoids.”

 

“I do like to eat in this place a lot,” Ivan admitted, waving at a cluster of birds who had ventured from the pond to check out the picnic food. “The ducks here can be nicer than the people. Not that you are not nice. I think you are...nice. You work near this place?”

 

Alfred leaned back on his hands and deftly dodged the bait. “It sure is beautiful here. One of my favorite places in DC, too. I mean, the monuments are cool and all, but I think a lot of people here can be not nice because they’re not really from here, cuz it’s tiny. Like, they just work here. Like politicians. Tourists.” He sat up. “Actually, in fact, where I work I’m like the only real American. Isn’t that weird? You know what, now that I think about it, that’s heckin’ weird.”

 

“I am from Russia.”

 

“Oh.” Alfred tried to react as if he didn’t already know this. “Um, interesting.”

 

“Is it weird to have Russians in Washington?” Ivan continued, gazing directly at Alfred, the clouds reflecting on his purple eyes.

 

It was another test. Alfred ignored a chill, the back of his mind wishing that the sun would come back and that they weren’t under a tree. “Well. Not really, I guess. Diplomats and stuff, right? I don’t—I don’t know.” He tried for a light laugh. “You’re not a spy or anything…are you?”

 

“No.”

 

“Oh,” Alfred deadpanned once more. “Interesting.”

 

Ivan scooted suddenly forward, breaking back into a grin. “You said that two times. That is suspicious. Maybe you are the spy.”

 

Alfred felt the chill crawl down his spine, and he put on a crazy grin of his own. He laughed. “I’m not a spy. I told you, Ivan . I’m a businessman!”

 

Ivan smirked, narrowing his eyes. “It is a lie and I do not believe you, Alfred . What if you’re not a businessman? What if you’re not even American? What are you?”

 

Alfred, in a semi-desperate attempt to make sure they were still both playfully joking, grabbed Ivan’s arm and wailed, “What are we?

 

They held each other’s gazes for a very tense second, until finally, the Russian leaned back. His grin fell lopsided into a small, disapproving frown. “That was not dank.”

 

Alfred threw his hands up, effectively letting go of Ivan and expressing himself at the same time. “Okay, fine. But no one says ‘dank’ out loud, you know.”

 

Ivan shook his head. “You have much to learn.” Then he turned around and began digging around in his work bag.

 

Alfred tried to look at anything but Ivan. The ducks, the scenery, the clouds. But he couldn’t believe his eyes. Ivan was pulling out his cell phone and turning it on. Alfred had never seen Ivan’s cell phone irl, and was instantly drawn to it. This was how he watched Ivan. He knew that back at headquarters, his empty cubicle was lighting up with the notification from his computer logging Ivan’s use of his phone.

 

“Here,” Ivan said. “This is my meme page. Follow me.”

 

“Whoa.” Now Alfred had it—a reason to follow Ivan other than the fact that he was paid to. But he couldn’t follow Ivan either way, because then Ivan would be alerted to Alfred’s profile, which was hidden, and a big no-no. So he said, “Um, I don’t have that media.”

 

He subsequently felt bad, for Ivan’s face fell. “But I want to have some way of contacting you other than your lunch break times. My sisters are visiting for the weekend, so I will not see you.”

 

And speaking of lunch break, Alfred’s was near finished. Damn, I have to actually get lunch , too! “Uh...okay. Um. Why don’t we open up your fortune cookie, first, and see what it says.”

 

Ivan was justly perplexed as he turned to look back at his food bag. “Okay…”

 

Just like before, they broke open the waxy wafer together. “ You will soon receive unexpected help from an unexpected source, aru, ” Alfred read aloud. “And our numbers are...wait. This looks wrong.”

 

“What?” Ivan peered in to see.

 

Alfred whisked the tiny slip of paper away. “No. I’ve got this.” He opened his jacket and pulled out an FBI code-mandated pen. “Let’s fix this.”

 

Ivan continued to watch on in confusion as Alfred hunched over to scribble on the paper. “What are you doing?” He leaned closer. “What are the words on that pen?”

 

“Nothing,” Alfred muttered. He clicked the pen away and folded the paper back up. “Hold out your hand.”

 

Ivan hesitantly did so. His hand was soft and cold; Alfred plopped the paper on his palm, then curled Ivan’s fingers around it. Then he stood up. “Open when you’re ready.”

 

Ivan was already tearing into the slip. His eyes crossed over the “magic numbers” twice and flashed back up to Alfred. “This is a phone number.”

 

Alfred shrugged, putting his sunglasses back on. It was a feat to keep his grin subdued.

 

“Who is this phone number?” Ivan questioned, growing impatient.

 

“Idk. Guess you’ll have to text it and find out.”

 

“No.” Ivan was frowning. “Tell me who this is.”

 

Alfred fell into a squat, laughing. “Take a chill pill, dude. It’s mine , okay? But—I’m not supposed to use my phone for this, so keep it on the down-low.” He winked. Then he remembered Ivan couldn’t see him winking behind the shades, so he awkwardly reached out and patted Ivan on the shoulder, his hand just barely grazing Ivan’s scarf. It was impossibly smooth and cottony.

 

And Ivan’s frown done did turn upside down. “Oh! Okay!”

 

“Okay?” Alfred stood up again. “Okay. Cool. That’s…that’s cool, then? Uh. I gotta go.”

 

“Thank you,” Ivan said with so much sincerity it made Alfred pause. “I hope we can talk more very soon.”

 

“Yeah, man. I mean—uh—yeah. Definitely.” Alfred nodded. “See ya.”

 

He wasn’t wearing a huge navy windbreaker emblazoned with a huge yellow “FBI” on the back, but he still felt Ivan’s eyes on him when he turned. Something about that guy… Alfred liked him. What was wrong with them sharing phone numbers anyway? It wasn’t like Ivan was actually a threat. Of course not. Definitely. Well, he was a tad creepy and all, but Alfred still liked him. Alfred just had to keep his cover in check, because pretending he didn’t already know the guy was turning out to be difficult. Ivan was already catching on. But this was just research. Yes. That’s what it was. Now Alfred could get to know Ivan better , on a different level.

 

Kiku had warned him of this.

 

Alfred and Kiku had had a nice conversation the night before, in which Kiku described his day at work and Alfred described his. Kiku was one of Alfred’s best friends, so he knew Alfred worked in the FBI; he just didn’t know about the black division. Kiku had told Alfred about how strange people at the museums were, and described an awkward incident in the elevator and computer room. Alfred had said he would be glad to check it out, if only he weren’t so busy already with an “ongoing assignment” (Alfred had been having “ongoing assignments” for years now). Kiku had sighed and said he understood, but that Alfred bargained too much. Alfred had said I don’t know what you’re talking about. Kiku had said to forget about it, and yes, we should get together sometime and play games, and it would be a good distraction. Alfred had said from what? Kiku had said, well, from our busy work lives, I suppose; I could be wrong and I mean this in the lightest of ways, but I have noticed you seem slightly...absorbed. Alfred had said uhhhhhhhh yeah, okay, right , yeah, duh , that sounds awesome, my dude, we should totally hang out. Kiku had said good. Great. Alfred had said goodbye.

 

And now, walking down the street on a hot summer day, looking for a train to take, Alfred realized he didn’t know how far he would go with the Ivan thing. Nor did he know what he would do if he discovered Ivan actually was a spy. If Ivan was found out, Alfred would have to do...his job

 

He strolled into headquarters fifteen minutes late with Starbucks. What he saw out front, however, made him decide to quicken his pace. “Is that…?” A tall Ford F-150 with a set of lights stuck on top. Alfred gulped and dashed through security.

 

“C’mon, c’mon, c’mon,” he mumbled to himself, jamming the button in the elevator. He could have done his laundry in the time it took to reach the negative two-hundredth floor. He wished someone would install a fire pole already—or even better—a slide. Just as expected, when Alfred finally arrived at the bottom, the gray division was in chaos.

 

A lead! ” Elizabeta Héderváry and Ludwig Beilschmidt were practically jumping up and down, waving a paper around. Arthur Kirkland stood to the side, looking like he wanted to join in, but finding it too inelegant to do so. And standing next to him was none other than renowned District of Columbia police chief Matthew Williams. Alfred’s bro.

 

“Matt!” Alfred exclaimed, setting his Starbucks down on the nearest table and jogging over.

 

“Al!” Matthew called, lifting a hand in greeting. Matt had lived his early life in Canada when their parents had divorced, but went to college in the States and decided to work there, too. Their parents had remained partners in business, so Alfred and Matthew had stayed close.

 

“You,” Arthur grumbled as he watched Alfred approach.

 

“What’s cooking?” Alfred asked, glancing around after giving Matthew a classic bro-hug.

 

“You’ll never guess,” Matthew informed excitedly in the familiar slight accent Alfred loved to make fun of. His voice was quieter than everyone else’s. “Last night someone called in as a witness to the disappearance of Francis Bonnefoy, the most recent disappearance from Chief Héderváry’s gray division.” When Arthur nodded, he continued. “We have a sketch of what we think could be a suspect, and a brief description. And thanks to the investigative work done here”—he gestured to Ludwig’s and Héderváry’s party—“we’ll be interviewing the very man tomorrow.”

 

“Oh.” Alfred had long since lost interest in the drama going down in the gray division, and had to admit he wasn’t caught up. “That’s great, man. You really know how to do your job. You go, Glen Coco. You go and you catch that Mafia.”

 

Matthew adjusted his glasses. “Well, it isn’t proven there’s a connection with the Mafia just yet. So far it’s only speculation—”

 

“Gilbert’s coming home!” Chief Héderváry sang, punching the air. “Finally. What a weak.”

 

Arthur picked up again. “It’s just like Francis to let a bunch of Italians distract him, too. When he gets back, I’m going to kick his arse. But first, I need to speak with you .” He pointed at Alfred, and it wasn’t a happy, I’m-proud-of-you sort of point.

 

Me? ” On instinct Alfred feigned stupidity and pointed at himself.

 

Matthew sighed, sensed their short conversation was coming to a close, and said quieter, “Yes, you . Anyway, good to see ya! I hope your work is going well. Sorry to—”

 

“Oh, it’s great!” informed Alfred. “It’s just—”

 

“He’ll have a lot to say about his work indeed.” Arthur began to march, probably with the suggestion that Alfred should follow. “Very glad you could be with us, Matthew. I’m looking forward to—”

 

“It’s just fine ,” Alfred finished with a big smile. “In fact, it’s more than fine. It’s dank.”

 

Matthew was left looking confused and a little put-out as Alfred was dragged away. Alfred was about to complain to Arthur about this, about ruining the reunion, until he saw where they were headed: Alfred’s cubicle. Inside of it, Alfred’s laptop was already up and running.

 

“How’d you…” Alfred trailed off. “The log.”

 

Arthur about near exploded. “Yes, the log, you idiot! Do you have any idea what a position you’ve put us in? Two unreported suspicious instances, two days in a row!”

 

Oh, great. Nothing filled Alfred’s stomach better than dread. He rushed to defend himself. “Hey, Ivan told me he was working late! And his sisters are coming over soon, so I assumed he could have been, like, calling them or something!”

 

The Chief crossed his arms, trying to maintain a deadly calm. “He ‘told you?’”

 

Alfred put a hand over his eyes in a subtle attempt to conceal the blush. “He— god —he does this thing—”

 

“And his sisters are coming over? Alfred F. Jones! While that may not be directly suspicious, it’s still a potentially major event and needs to be reported!”

 

“Why? It’s just a family visit! Do I have to write down every time he takes a piss, too?”

 

But Kirkland was cross. “You can discern what’s important and what’s not, Agent. Or at least I hope you can. Do we have to have Toris cover for you again?”

 

They both glanced over to Toris. “Please no,” he muttered.

 

“When will you learn?” Arthur went on. “When will you learn—”

 

“That my actions have consequences, I know, I know.” Alfred crossed his own arms. For a fleeting second, he considered telling Arthur about the luncheons and the phone number exchange. He really did. He opened his mouth, ready for the information to just fall out like it normally did, but then nothing happened. He tried again. Maybe Arthur would be proud he was taking an initiative. Nothing. It would be so easy. I’ve talked to Ivan, and he’s not as scary as he seems. Zilch. Kirkland was still staring at him.

 

“You best be on your guard, boy,” Kirkland dictated. “Tonight. I want you to report everything that happens, no matter how minuscule, or I’m going to sit here and watch over your shoulder. It’s almost treason.”

 

“Alright, fine ,” Alfred grumbled, the dread balling up his throat and spilling out. “But just so you know, he calls me ‘Mr. FBI.’”


.

 

The house was clean. The laptop was gone. The sunflower was watered. The meme account was bustling. But Ivan needed to do one more thing before his sisters arrived.

 

He climbed into bed, opened up his cell phone, and plugged in the number. He prepared to type.

 

Good evening, Alfred. ( ͡° ͜ʖ ͡°)

 

Sent. He stared at the screen and waited one minute. Two. Three.

 

Read at 10:44 PM.

Chapter Text

the gray division

 

So far, escape plans A through E had failed.

 

“And I do tell you—F will be our best performance yet!” Francis declared, posing in a look he thought was confident, desperately trying to ignore the chainlinks wrapped tightly around his waist and arms, holding him to the chair—for if he acknowledged the chains, he also acknowledged that they hindered his confidence. It wasn’t a kink.

 

“As long as Antonio can keep his thicc ass awake enough to go through with it,” Gilbert grumbled, hunching forward in his own set of chains like a disgruntled gargoyle. There was an itch on his nose that he would have killed to scratch. His wrists were already rubbed red.

 

“Wh...what?” Antonio yawned. He had been caught in the act, and immediately straightened up as much as he could in the chains when he saw the dead gaze Francis and Gilbert were giving him. “Oh. Heh. What can I say? It is siesta time!” He paused. “I think.”

 

Francis nodded towards Gilbert, his unwashed blond coiffure plopping sadly onto his shoulder. “What day is it, again?”

 

Gilbert scrunched up his brow in intense concentration. “Well, judging from the angle of the lightbulb light onto the linoleum and the smell of your breath, I would estimate roughly that I have absolutely no idea.”

 

After a beat of silence (silence didn’t survive for long when these three were together) Antonio perked up. “We can just wait until he comes back with food and maybe he will tell us! Or maybe he will not, probably not, but we can judge from the course of meal!”

 

Non , you forget; that is when we must escape!” Francis tilted his gorgeous head back at Antonio in pity. “It is obvious you think he has the—how you say—the sexy , my friend.”

 

“Whatever it is,” Gilbert jeered to both of them, “he sure has a lot of it. But let’s focus on getting out of this dump first. Ya think they have cameras by those old refrigerators? Nein , more important: ya think they have beer ?”

 

Before any of them could offer up an answer, logic-based or not, the door slammed open. A dark shadow appeared in the threshold. The three prisoners immediately flinched back. Antonio whimpered.

 

“You shithead assbutt failures of FBI better shut up the fuckeroni ,” the figure warned, “ or I will gag you with a zucchini!

 

.

 

Agent Ludwig Beilschmidt was an FBI officer for all the right reasons: his university grades were top-notch, he was self-confident, he had three dogs, and he had never been in love. He just knew he was the one that would defeat the Mafia and save Gilbert and Francis and Antonio but most importantly Gilbert—he had to be. However, the journey to do as such would put all of Ludwig and all of his reasonings to the test.

 

The day Feliciano Vargas was brought into the local police station was a real scorcher. Hotter than the last, even, and it bothered Ludwig’s German climate-tempered body, but not Feliciano’s. The man wore a cute polo shirt, bright red shorts, and a carefree smile that he occasionally turned at Ludwig in a villainous attempt to make Ludwig feel hotter. Feliciano didn’t seem to be anxious that he was one warrant away from handcuffs, but then again, he didn’t know the extent of the information Ludwig and Chief Elizabeta Héderváry had piled on him. He had met Ludwig before, when Ludwig had eventually approached him at his little produce market corner store, but was seemingly oblivious about just how long Ludwig had been watching him. “Wow, the weather feels just like home!” he was saying, spinning around before they opened the doors. “I do not want to go inside!” Ludwig’s eye twitched. However on-edge he was now, though, was nothing compared to how perturbed he would become.

 

Chief Héderváry held open the door for them and began sly casual small talk—the foreplay of the interview. “You come from Italy, right?”

 

Feliciano nodded vehemently, that one little sienna curl of his bouncing. “Yes! I moved in college, and—wait, do I need a lawyer to talk?”

 

They entered the interview room and took their seats, Ludwig and Feliciano on one side of the small table and Héderváry on the other. “Not if you don’t want one,” she informed him. “You are not under arrest.” Not yet , Ludwig thought.

 

“Oh, good,” the Italian sighed. “I can’t afford one.”

 

Ludwig and Héderváry made awkward eye contact at that statement. Are you gonna tell him or…

 

“Do I also have the, ‘the right to remain silent?’” Feliciano inquired.

 

Ludwig turned to him. “You can always choose to remain—”

 

“Because I will probably not use it,” he continued with a simper. “I am not very good at staying quiet. I get told this a lot.”

 

Héderváry cleared her throat. “Well, glad that’s established. Easier for us, I suppose. So, Feliciano, will you tell us more about yourself? Specifically”—she leaned forward suddenly—“ exactly where you were last Tuesday morning?”

 

Feliciano blinked. “Um.” He glanced at Ludwig for help. “Ludwig, was Tuesday the day you came?”

 

“Yes,” Ludwig answered on instinct. Then he shook his head wildly. Feliciano wasn’t supposed to know Ludwig had been spying on him on Tuesday. Communicating with him had been so much easier when Ludwig would just watch and didn’t have to talk. “ Nein —I mean, No —I mean—”

 

Feliciano raised his eyebrows somewhat... playfully . “Oh, really? Wow, I thought it was Wednesday!”

 

Ludwig blinked this time. “Um. It was Wednesday. That is what I meant to say. Not Tuesday.”

 

“Hm. Well, then, I think that on Tuesday morning I was at home at my apartment,” Feliciano clarified. “I work in the afternoon, you know? So I like to sleep late. I like to sleep. I love to sleep.” He was grinning at Ludwig, all handsome and proud of himself, and Ludwig finally looked away in shame.

 

Héderváry nodded. She already knew all about Feliciano’s whereabouts due to Ludwig’s ‘expert’ reporting skills. “I understand you sell local produce at your market.”

 

“Yes! Blueberries and tomatoes and watermelons sometimes and zucchini and strawberries and cucumber and peaches—I like peaches—and corn—there is so much corn in America!—and potatoes and tomatoes and onion and—”

 

“That’s great, honey, that is quite a lot.” Héderváry was writing quickly on a clipboard held out of view. This could have been a fake distraction and intimidation tactic, but for all they knew she was drafting a grocery list based on Feliciano’s speech. “Please continue to describe your morning.”

 

Ludwig knew this: once you got over the annoying part, Feliciano’s voice was quite mesmerizing. The pleasantness of his lips could have been a trap, but whatever the case, Ludwig found himself watching and listening contently as he often did, as Feliciano described how he had had brunch that Tuesday. The letting-down of Ludwig’s guard would soon become a major mistake.

 

“...And I had the tomatoes in a bag but then I found out one got squashed so we had to divide up the recipe and I could not figure out the math—”

 

“‘We?’” Héderváry interrupted without missing a beat. “Who is ‘we?’”

 

Feliciano stared blankly. “What? Oh, I mean just me. I live alone. So far. Anyway , I am pretty good at math if I try hard but I do not like to try hard for most things so I looked around for a calculator and when I was looking under the desk I hit my head on the chair and it hurt so very bad, very bad, and I ran to the freezer to get something cold to put on it and then I saw that in the freezer there was meat! And I forgot I had meat and so I said to myself maybe I should put meat in the recipe too so I can grow strong like you, Ludwig!” This was when Feliciano turned to Ludwig, and when Ludwig felt something touch his leg under the table. Confused, Ludwig looked at Feliciano. He was waving his left hand around in the air, gesticulating to nothing in particular, but Ludwig could not see his right hand. Which meant…

 

He gulped. This was it. Feliciano blabbered on, but his hand was still resting there. On Ludwig’s thigh.

 

The effect was instantaneous. Ludwig sat up like his spine had been replaced with a wooden board. He cleared his throat but didn’t move or speak or look anywhere except directly at the wall over the Chief’s head. No one noticed his ears grow a humiliating shade of pink. Feliciano’s hand was warm. And it was still there. Touching him. Over his dress pants, but touching him. Just resting there like it was nothing; like it belonged there. What if Ludwig had to cough or itch? Or say something? How was he supposed to move?

 

“...so I took out the meat and put it on my head, and soon I felt better and I could do math! And I did the math and then the meat started getting very warm and…”

 

How dare the stupid Italian just continue on completely unfazed? What if he had simply mistaken Ludwig’s leg for his chair armrest? Did these chairs have armrests? Ludwig had forgotten and at this point was too afraid to check. What if Feliciano moved ? What would Ludwig do then? He tried to ignore it, tried to keep listening and be professional and not think about the twisting in his stomach.

 

“...it was benissimo!

 

Héderváry had abandoned note-taking. She looked incredibly bored. “So. You are saying you could not have been at the scene of the crime because you were busy making lunch.”

 

“Yes!”

 

Then she began to smile as sweet and sly as Feliciano, almost as if she pitied him. “Cute story, bro, but you realize that this is not sufficient evidence for an alibi.”

 

Feliciano’s lips fell to a frown. “What? No, I said I gave up and just borrowed a tomato from my neighbor! She saw me!” He turned to Ludwig again, and the pressure on Ludwig’s thigh grew just small enough for it to not matter but just large enough for Ludwig to notice. “The pretty lady was not listening?”

 

“I. I thought I remember you said y-you were short a tomato.” Ludwig made sure not to look at him.

 

“Yes, so I borrowed one when I realized my math was wrong!” Feliciano finally, finally, let Ludwig go by throwing both his hands in the air in the most distress he had shown yet. He pouted. “Did anyone listen?”

 

The Chief rubbed her eyes. “Well, luckily, we don’t have to.” She gave a firm pat to the recording box on the table. “So now, let’s get to the real evidence. I will repeat to you the story.”

 

As Feliciano recovered, Ludwig glanced quickly at their seats. There were no armrests. He silenced his mind and tried to refocus.

 

“It was discovered that early Tuesday morning, sometime between twelve and six—or five and seven if we want to be realistic about Francis’s schedule—an individual was possibly abducted in the Downtown area on his way to work. We have no evidence but the individual’s failure to arrive at work, his subsequent failure to arrive anywhere , a possible connection with other disappearances around town related to the individual, and now, one witness testimony.” Héderváry reached into her bag and extracted a file folder. She and Ludwig had poured their hearts into this. It looked so thin and stupid now when Feliciano was here staring at it with his wide, beautiful eyes. She opened it, and a few informative sheets of paper slid out, along with the police sketch. “The witness describes hearing sounds of a struggle from an alleyway, and a minute later seeing a darkly-dressed young man dash around the corner holding a weapon of some sort in his right hand. This man is confirmed by description to not be the victim. The witness remained unseen but heard a squeal of nearby tires on pavement, prompting them to move away from the scene for fear of their own safety. They describe all of this happening at around just before six o’clock in the morning, at a time when you claim you were asleep. We do not know what happened after. The—”

 

But Feliciano was still staring at the file. More specifically, the sketch. He tilted his head and asked abruptly, “That drawing is supposed to be me ?”

 

Ludwig, frustrated, snatched up the portrait. “Er, yes. It was done by witness description by an artist at the police station.”

 

Feliciano let loose a peal of laughter. “It looks nothing like me!”

 

Ludwig grumbled to himself in indignation. With Feliciano right here, sure, it was easier to point out the mistakes in the likeness. Although the sketch was good and did resemble him, there were differences, namely the shading of the hair, the eyes, and the tightness in the jaw. Not to mention the absolutely murderous expression that Ludwig doubted would flatter Feliciano Vargas. The man in the sketch looked older, and more like a relative of Feliciano than Feliciano. Perhaps...a brother.

 

“And I would never wear black, especially in the morning,” the Italian commented with a dismissive wave. “Black is out. Do you have a pencil and paper I could borrow? I can prove this is not me.”

 

Héderváry and Ludwig glanced at each other. Ludwig wasn’t sure what to do until something passed over the Chief’s expression and she smoothed it over with calm decisiveness. “Of course,” she mused, offering Feliciano items from her bag to use. “Here, sweetie.”

 

“Thank you!” Feliciano smiled at her and swiped the paper across the table to rest in front of him, next to the police sketch. He stared at it for a second before picking up the pencil. Ludwig understood as Feliciano began to trace an outline—he was using his left hand. The police report and witness testimony specifically stated that the criminal had held the weapon with his right.

 

Slowly, Ludwig’s stomach began to settle. He became more and more assured with every stoke of the pencil Feliciano made on the paper. He knew Feliciano was a phenomenal artist; back during the few weeks he had watched Feliciano through his phone, he had seen some of the pictures Feliciano had taken of his art. Now, watching live as Feliciano highlighted every difference between his self-portrait and the police sketch—Ludwig hadn’t even noticed that the curly parts of their hair were on opposite sides—it became more and more obvious that Feliciano wasn’t the culprit. Or he was just doing a good job of making them look like fools. Ludwig wasn’t sure what to believe anymore.

 

“Do you like?” Feliciano said when done, holding up his paper. It was just as quick and rough as the police sketch, but was as accurate to Feliciano as a real photograph.

 

“Wow. How much time do you spend looking in mirrors?” Héderváry giggled, taking the two papers to study them closely. “You know, police sketches are never perfect …”

 

“And what do you think, Ludwig?” Feliciano asked, bumping his head against Ludwig’s shoulder like a cat begging for affection.

 

Ludwig would have been lying to himself if he said he didn’t have some affection for Feliciano at this point, but that was supposed to mean nothing. Feliciano was a suspected criminal who had Ludwig squirming in his seat. Ludwig wanted to move this along faster and be done. He felt like Feliciano was humiliating all their work and research. “I agree with Chief Héderváry,” he stated, cold and calculated. “Police sketches are not perfect, but the one we have looks close enough to you to remain relevant. So, now, tell me.” He met Feliciano’s eyes without blushing and shirking away this time. “What do you know about the Italian Mafia?”

 

“Agent Beilschmidt, let’s leave the questions to me,” Héderváry chided, but Ludwig was fired up. Feliciano’s face had gone white.

 

“Have you any connection with the organization?” Ludwig pressed, leaning forward. “Why did you really come to Washington?”

 

“Beilschmidt, this isn’t—”

 

“I told you already,” Feliciano responded. He was looking down, refusing to meet Ludwig’s gaze. “I came for college. I would never be in the—the Mafia, even back in Italy. I would never want to hurt anyone.”

 

“And what about your family, hm?” Ludwig narrowed his eyes. “Your grandfather and brother? Back in Italy? Are they in the Mafia?”

 

Feliciano’s head shot back up, his eyes meeting Ludwig’s in a flash. “How do you know I have a grandpa and brother? I did not tell you this!”

 

“Enough.” Héderváry slammed a hand on the table. The conversation halted instantly. “This has gone from amusing sexual tension to blatant and ridiculous prejudice. We’re not getting anywhere. I want to research more before we waste the rest of this man’s day.” She gestured at Feliciano. “See if his alibi stands. After all, Officer Williams did remind us that the Mafia thing was all speculation.”

 

“But Gilbert…” Ludwig mumbled, at a sudden loss.

 

Feliciano scooted back in his chair, creating a loud squeak noise across the floor. “Does this mean we are done?”

 

Héderváry crossed her arms. “No. You’re not off the hook. Of course you’re aware by now that monitoring you was and is Ludwig’s purpose; I’d like to have Ludwig keep visiting you, Feliciano.” She didn’t mention anything about the broken phone.

 

Feliciano strangely didn’t acknowledge what he had thought Ludwig’s “purpose” was. He didn’t say anything. His expression was, for once, unreadable, and it made Ludwig highly concerned. Until Feliciano replaced it with his usual bright smile and chirped out an “Okay!” This made Ludwig even more concerned.

 

“Okay?” Héderváry smiled back, standing to gather her things. “This investigation is far from over, but for now, yes, we are done.” She gave Feliciano’s self-portrait one last bewildered glance. “And by the way, thanks for this.”

 

Everyone stood. The two shook hands in a quite chummy fashion for an interrogation, and then Feliciano and Ludwig shook hands. Feliciano had a limp fish sort of handshake, but Ludwig didn’t want to let go out of awkward determination. “We will get to the bottom of this,” he said, trying to keep up a menacing, yet professional tone.

 

Feliciano snatched his hand back and had the audacity to do his cute little giggle-grin thing. “Don’t worry! I am sure everything will come out on top!”

 

Ludwig closed down his embarrassment and opened the room’s door. “You are free to go, for now.”

 

Inside Agent Ludwig Beilschmidt’s head there was chaos. The stupid Italian wouldn’t stop sending out mixed signals—why? Why did Feliciano do this? Why did he sit here looking so good and sweet and touch people’s legs under tables and talk for fifteen minutes about the excruciating process of last week’s lunch while being interviewed for a possible connection with one of the most infamous criminal organizations in the world? And why did Ludwig deep down want so badly for him to be innocent?

 

Gray division Chief Elizabeta Héderváry knew why. She shook her head to herself and walked out of the room, following the others, but beginning to question her own place. She and Ludwig couldn’t run the gray division themselves for forever, and the more Gilbert, Francis and Antonio were gone, the more she felt herself doubtful that they would come back. She didn’t even want to think about whatever shit was going down in the black division.

 

Feliciano Vargas, as often, tried to stay happy and positive. Just before leaving, he turned to Ludwig and gave his complete absolute most sincerest of winks. “I can’t wait to see you again!”


.

 

“I can’t wait to get rid of you!” Lovino Vargas screamed, halfway across the city in a rotting cellar to three chained-up idiots. He had had enough of this, but was in too deep to quit now. They were FBI, though they didn’t act like it.

 

“I just wanted to know what time it is,” Antonio whimpered. “So we could escape.”

 

“You weren’t supposed to tell him that!” Gilbert whispered, as if Lovino couldn’t hear him. “Remember the plan!”

 

“Ah, yes, the plan!” Antonio sat up and put on a fake smile. “Mr. Vargas, it is really dirty in here, and we were wondering if you could let Gilbert loose to clean up a little, and we promise he won’t do anythin—”

 

“Oh, save it.” Vargas held up a hand that couldn’t be bothered.

 

Non, non, non! ” Francis hissed, leaning forward to reach Antonio’s ear. “You were supposed to seduce him first, Toni!”

 

Lovino glared, his hands on his hips. “As if. There will be no seducing here, you perverts. At least not while it’s so dirty.”

 

Antonio was stressed. “And, and that is why you should let Gilbert clean!

 

Lovino stared at him. “Guess what? No!

 

The three FBI agents sat back in their chairs, defeated. Francis sighed dramatically. “At least give me a shower, then. Douche .”

 

Lovino wheeled on him, insulted. “Not with that attitude! Watch your mouth, you fucking bastard child of a baguette.”

 

“Can we just have our food, then?” Gilbert whined. “The food is the only good thing about being locked up with no memory or reason why I got here. Still the last thing I remember is getting my arm stuck in the bowling ball return, and frankly, that is not a very manly memory.”

 

“No it is not,” Francis ruminated.

 

“Shut up, you douche .”

 

Lovino’s frown turned into a snarl. “Oh yeah? It is just as bad for you as it is for me, assholes! Having to deal with you . Ugh . I am starting to wonder why I go along with this whole scheme.”

 

Antonio, in a moment of divine realization, tried to pry more information out of that distracted philosophical statement. “And...why is that?”

 

Their eyes met. “Because life is stupid, dipcunt!” Vargas sassed. “Now close your dumb mouth and eat your dumb spaghetti!”

 

Antonio looked sad. “But I cannot eat with a closed mouth.”

 

Lovino looked into the camera like he was on The Office .

 

Chapter Text

It was eight AM Saturday morn and Alfred was alive. His phone battery, however, was close to death.

 

Alfred: ok i’ve got another one for u Ivan ok here it is

 

Alfred: are u there

 

Alfred: plz this is urgent

 

Alfred: Ivann

 

Alfred: raviolis are pop tarts. change my mind.

 

Ivan: Alfred that is been done before, also NO

 

Alfred: YES

 

Ivan: NO

 

Alfred: ACCEPT IT

 

Ivan: I ACCEPT IT ONLY IF YOU ACCEPT THAT MY SIDEBLOG FOR KNITTING IS GOOD AND HAS REVOLUTIONARY CONTENT

 

Alfred: i’ll accept it but i still won’t read it

 

Ivan: ;)(;

 

Alfred: hah get it cuz i can’t read

 

Ivan: lollolkolkololol)

 

Ivan: i have question though are u really 19

 

Oh, shit.

 

Alfred: um i’m 23

 

Bad idea telling him? Maybe. But of course it didn’t matter if Ivan knew the truth or not. Maybe.

 

Ivan: oh ok

 

Alfred: oh¿

 

Alfred: well how old r u

 

(Ivan was 25.)

 

Ivan: 25

 

Alfred: wow so u really are a grandpa

 

Ivan: ┻━┻︵ヽ(`Д´)ノ︵ ┻━┻

 

Ivan: i should have never shown u the knitting blog

 

Alfred: no really i swear i think its cute

 

Alfred: i don’t have a fancy emoji tho so here ;)

 

Ivan: ;)

 

Ivan: oops i have to go my sisters flight is landing

 

Ivan: but thx i think u are cute too (^▽^)

 

Alfred knew that, at least. He snorted to himself and typed out a last response before rolling over on the couch and shutting his phone off.

 

Alfred: hasta la vista

 

For a few minutes, he just stared at the ceiling, reliving their conversation. He could have been working, watching Ivan, but he was finding he liked talking to Ivan more.

 

Alfred had not told Arthur about his meetings with Ivan in the parks. Alfred had not told Arthur about the texting. Alfred had told Arthur about Ivan’s recent “suspicious activity,” washing over the “Mr. FBI” thing by explaining Ivan’s meme obsession. Arthur had crossed his arms, went on a brief spiel about how the Internet was corrupting everyone and everything, told Alfred to log it on the file, and walked away. Alfred had logged it on the file. Then Alfred had opened up his phone, read the text, and began talking to Ivan. They hadn’t stopped.

 

The TV continued to play Black Panther , but it was the twenty-ninth time Alfred had seen it already. He redirected his attention to the ceiling, sighed for a second, and then opened his phone back up, ignoring the low battery warning. He dialed a number.

 

“Hey, yo, what’s up, Matt! So how’s that gray division interview coming?”

 

.

 

Washington, D.C., even on a Saturday morning— especially on a Saturday morning—was bustling. Ivan’s sisters had wanted to look around, though; it was still four in the afternoon to them, so look around they did, after dropping their stuff off at Ivan’s apartment. He could never say no to his sisters.

 

It was charmingly evident Yekaterina and Natalya had gone all out. They both wore sunglasses, held disposable cameras, and carried fanny packs. Natalya, standing on Ivan’s left, kept itching at the jacket she had forgotten to take off and unconsciously stepping closer to him whenever someone passed them by. Yekaterina, doused in sunscreen on Ivan’s right, had her nose in some brochure and kept walking into things as she struggled to understand the English. They were sandwiched together in a neoclassic wind tunnel of people and voices and cameras; they were hot, tired, hungry, and waiting for the jet lag to kick in. Ivan could not be happier.

 

“He’s smaller than I thought he would be,” remarked Natalya after some silence and staring.

 

“He looks bored. You could almost climb up and sit on his lap!” exclaimed Katya, snapping a picture.

 

“If you did that they might lock you up and enshrine you in a temple forever,” Ivan teased. “I have also heard that there’s a secret cave basement below.”

 

They all looked down at the marble beneath their feet.

 

“Wow,” mused Natalya. “I thought the secret was that he came alive at night.”

 

Ivan nodded solemnly. “That too.”

 

“Let’s all take a picture with him!” Yekaterina declared, pulling her siblings in. She turned the camera backwards, adjusting it in multiple ways to get the angle correct. The flash blinded them. Ivan laughed.

 

“Oh, oh!” Katya lowered the camera and gazed out past it, along the aquamarine reflecting pool stretching endlessly before them, and up the ever-present Washington Monument pointing up in the distance. “We need a picture in front of all that, too!”

 

They stepped back out into the open, the sun hitting them with a blast. “I can’t imagine what it must feel like under that scarf, Ivan,” commented Natalya. “Katya said she was surprised you still wear it. Are you hot? I think saw a cold water vendor somewhere around here.”

 

“I’m very well,” Ivan responded. “I feel the best I’ve felt in a long time.”

 

She looked up at him, her expression pleased. She silently linked their arms together.

 

“Everyone come over here and smile!” Their older sister stood ahead on the gray concrete plain between the Memorial and the Reflecting Pool. She had somehow found and communicated with another tourist to take their picture, and was waving her arms around.

 

Ivan had taken pictures of himself near most of DC’s attractions before, but he felt more comfortable now when his sisters were standing in the photos with him instead of looking at his own lonely photos through a screen halfway across the world. More complete. He had the sudden urge to latch onto his sisters and never let them fly back home.

 

“Let me breathe! You’re sweaty!” Yekaterina laughed, squirming in the hug Ivan had wrapped his sisters in.

 

I’m not sweaty; you’re sweaty, sweaty! ” Ivan responded, kissing her on the cheek.

 

The tourist’s English interrupted them. He held up the camera. “Um. Do you want this back?”

 

“Yes! Thank you!” Katya grabbed it from him, and then they all crowded around to inspect the photo.

 

“We look silly,” Natalya declared. “I blinked. Let’s do it again.”

 

“Well, there are plenty of other things to take pictures of,” Ivan put in. “Perhaps we should keep walking.”

 

And so they strolled in fashion down the National Mall. It was like the weight was lifted off his shoulders—getting this free staycation. The computer was gone, he had even taken off work, and he didn’t have to think about Alfred all the damn time because now he could just text him! Ivan blasted a thought to Mr. FBI: I hope you’re just as happy as I am right now, wherever you are.

 

Then, some deep, dark thought crawled its way up from the shady corners of Ivan’s brain. If something... did happen between he and Alfred...what would his sisters say? Ivan glanced the tiniest glance at them. Yekaterina was using the brochure to shield her eyes from the sun. Natalya was squinting into the long reflecting pool. As children the three had been raised in a plethora of different Eastern European countries, but they loved each other, so maybe it was okay Ivan thought Alfred was hella funny and hot and so American and—and—oh no! It was almost lunchtime and they were right on the lip of the Constitution Gardens! What if ALfred was there ?

 

Natalya interrupted his thoughts. “Do you think anyone has ever drowned in this?”

 

Ivan took her hand. “Um, probably not. It’s not deep, but you aren’t supposed to go in it. Come; let’s take a picture up there.”

 

“I want to just touch the water, then,”  she decided, letting go of him. “Just to touch it.”

 

Yekaterina laughed. “Ooh, I want to, too!” They both sat down on the edge of the pool.

 

Ivan tensed up, looking around. Alfred could be any one of the men in suits. Or—maybe he didn’t work on Saturdays. Maybe he was wearing casual clothes. He put a hand over his forehead and scrutinized the closest pedestrians. Then Ivan checked the time again on his phone, and then again. Please, Mr. FBI. If you can hear me, please don’t let Alfred see us yet.

 

Aw, frickin’ frick. Now Ivan was praying to Mr. FBI. You’ve officially made me LoSE MY MARBLES!

 

“Ivan?” Yekaterina looked up. Half her arm was submerged in the water. “It’s okay! No one’s going to arrest us!”

 

“Be careful or you’ll fall in and drown,” Natalya warned Katya, climbing back to her feet.

 

Ivan shook his head at them, feigning embarrassment. “You are two grown women.”

 

Yekaterina linked her wet arm with him and sang, “Two grown women on vacation!

 

There he laughed for real, and some of the anxiety faded away. They continued walking down the length of the pool. Ivan didn’t let himself give one more glance towards the gardens until they had reached the end and taken another few selfies with the pond and skyline in the background.

 

Katya consulted her brochure when Natalya had deemed the pictures worthy enough and had stopped telling her to Delete it! “So in front of us now is the World War II Memorial, right? It’s pretty!”

 

“And we have to walk all the way around to get to it,” confirmed Ivan.

 

“My feet hurt already,” groaned Natalya.

 

And yet, they spent a good hour circling the memorial. It was one of Ivan’s favorite monuments in Washington, mainly for the architecture and unique layout. On a sunny, happy day like this, it was easier to live in the present and feel the weight of the distance between now and bygone eras. He imagined the memorial oval was a sports arena and the world was okay.

 

From World War II, they made their way back to 1776 by ascending the hill near the Washington Monument—DC’s ever-distinctive yet ever-disrepaired obelisk. It was closed, but they walked the circle of American flags anyway.

 

“It’s almost dinnertime,” Natalya mused with a calm yawn. A few small clouds had moved in, giving them blissful seconds of shade.

 

Lunchtime ,” Ivan corrected. “Do you want to go home and come back, or eat out? There are lots of food trucks.” He thought briefly of Wang Yao and tried to keep from shuddering.

 

“Let’s finish walking the Mall first, then decide,” Yekaterina suggested over her shoulder, snapping a few photos of the city. “Or at least look through one museum. Soon we will be too tired!”

 

So they strolled down the hill and crossed over to the street. The SAVE THE WHALES people were out again, spread over the grass with their signs and stickers. “So that’s why the blocks in between are so empty,” commented Natalya.

 

Ivan shrugged. “It’s free real estate.”

 

Katya was smiling. “Should we go donate? I like the whales!”

 

“Last time they were here they talked at me for twenty minutes and almost made me late for work,” Ivan responded, tucking his chin into his scarf.

 

“So no,” Natalya clarified. “What about the Smithsonian, Ivan? I have heard of that. Should we go in?” She was pointing at a building up ahead to their left, past the crowds.

 

Ivan was about to correct her by asking “Which Smithsonian? There are more than one…” before he understood the particular Smithsonian she was pointing at. The National Museum of Natural History. The one he had hacked into just a week before.

 

“That’s the wrong one,” Ivan blurted out. He surprised himself. He wasn’t used to spitting lies so quickly to his sisters. The police hadn’t showed up on his doorstep yet, but Ivan still wanted to allow more time to pass since his infiltration. He wanted that man in the elevator to forget he existed. To pass everything off as a regular maintenance check. Nothing was wrong. So Ivan thought fast. “You must mean the Smithsonian Castle , Natalya. It’s this way.” He pointed south in the exact opposite direction of the Museum of Natural History. “And there are also gardens there that I help maintain!”

 

Yekaterina shaded her eyes again. “We’ll have to pass the whale people, then.”

 

“They aren’t so bad, actually.” Ivan led the way, suppressing a shiver.

 

Many hours, flowers, and promotional stickers that turned out to be magnets later, the three made it back to Ivan’s apartment. Natalya and Yekaterina were beginning to tire, so they worked on unpacking their things and blowing up the air mattress while Ivan cooked. He turned music on, but every time he glanced at his phone he thought of texting Alfred. He posted to his meme account instead. His follower count had stayed at one million.

 

After dinner he and his sisters broke out the vodka and watched some old movies Yekaterina had brought over, all cuddled up on the air mattress together in front of the TV—which was just Natalya’s laptop propped up on a chair. It was a strange feeling to be completely relaxed and lowkey anxious at the same time. Ivan wanted to tell his sisters about Alfred because they were the closest friends he had, but he also didn’t, because they had just gotten here, and they were falling asleep all over the place, and what would they say anyway? Ivan wanted to drown in a sea of memories with them and talk about their childhood back home, and ask them questions about their lives now, but he didn’t want to bombard them on their first day. He wanted to say so much; he said nothing.

 

Thirty minutes into the second movie, Yekaterina rolled over and touched his arm. Natalya was sleeping like the dead. “Hey, Ivan?”

 

“Yes?”

 

“Do you think it would be okay...well...Natalya and I were talking on the plane. I—I know we told you we’d be here for the weekend, but neither of us has to work, and…” —she giggled softly— “we were wondering if maybe we could stay a bit longer? Today was very fun.”

 

Ivan breathed in and out. “Of course you can stay,” he assured her. “As long as you want, please. Two days is not a lot of time.”

 

Her smile was illuminated by the light of the movie. “Mm, thank you. We have missed you very much, Ivan. It seems like you have a wonderful home here. Goodnight!”

 

As she rolled over, Ivan leaned back. Hacker circle aside, Ivan did like his home here. He took another sip of vodka. Then he rose and tucked his sisters in, just like Katya used to do, and like they both used to do for Natalya. The house was filled with the sounds of their snoring. It felt good. He watered the sunflower before preparing himself for bed as well.

 

.

 

Alfred had just slid into his Deadpool pajamas when his phone went off. He hopped across his bedroom, dodging the empty tub of Ben & Jerry’s he had just consumed, to see the text. Ivan had been quiet all afternoon.

 

Ivan: long day ;) how are you?

 

Alfred: gr9. readin fanfic (i can really read i swear) u?

 

Ivan: sisters and i walked around washington dc today. Why does names of everything have “freedom” in it?

 

Alfred: ‘MERICA

 

Alfred: well, see, we like freedom!!!

 

Ivan: adorable (*´꒳`*)

 

Ivan: question what else do you like

 

Alfred: ...is this a trap dude i like many things

 

Ivan: do u like me

 

Oh, shit. Jeez, Ivan was direct! Yet Alfred couldn’t stop himself from typing back immediately.

 

Alfred: ok confession time i do like you

 

Ivan: i like u too (◡‿◡✿)

 

Alfred was blushing over text. Shit shit shit shit shit. But it was, like, good shit. Shit in a good way. Shiiiiit.

 

Ivan: want to facetime?

 

Alfred: i’m in bed rn

 

Ivan: so want to facetime?

 

Alfred: heck, sure ;)

 

Shit.

 

Chapter Text

Ivan: it’s difficult

 

Alfred: just blow air idk use your teeth

 

Ivan: my tongue hurts

 

Alfred: my tongue would hurt too if i deep-throated it every time i say the letter L. russian is weird

 

Ivan: ;( english is weird

 

Alfred: i mean yeah lol

 

Alfred: maybe u should ask my boss he’s ACTUALLY english and he says his TH sound all proper. I just know that in spanish it’s weirder

 

Ivan: send another video plz (:´Д`)

 

Alfred: ok one sec

 

Alfred: i can’t actually picture u saying this to someone though i just

 

Alfred: sent

 

Ivan grinned, turned the volume down just in case his sisters had woken up already, and pressed play. It was 2:30 AM and he was trying to learn how to pronounce the word “thot” correctly. In the video, Alfred was slumped over in his bed with a double chin, comic character pajamas, messy hair, and no glasses.

 

Ivan: has anyone ever told you that you are beautiful ♡

 

Alfred: …

 

Alfred: …

 

Alfred: nah they usually tell me i look like shalissa ♡

 

Ivan: ALFRED!!!!!!!!

 

.

 

Alfred was not that familiar with flirting, or dating, or anything romantic, really. He had visions sometimes of a happy life with someone he loved, but his past relationships hadn’t lasted more than a couple months, and he moved through fads and obsessions faster than what was probably necessary for his emotional health. Interacting with Ivan—albeit over text—instilled both fear and excitement into him, which had taken some getting used to. Therefore, Alfred had decided to call in a wingman to help advise him, distract him from his stress, and save him from a weekend of boredom, which was how it came to pass that Kiku Honda was sitting on Alfred’s couch in a robe on a Sunday morning, holding a game controller in one hand and a thermos of tea he had brought over in the other.

 

(Interestingly enough, Alfred and Kiku had dated for a while when they had attended college together. Also interesting was the fact that it was probably, like, against the law for Alfred to date Ivan. Alfred knew the whole situation was a major mess, but in the morning decided that, oops! It was too late to do anything about it now.)

 

“They’re behind you,” warned Kiku, dancing his spaceship out of the way on the TV screen.

 

“Shit. I thought we lost them.” Alfred’s ship narrowly dodged an alien blast-ray. “The little buggers came back for more.”

 

“Do we take the north or east wormhole?” Kiku questioned, tapping his thumb over the control buttons like he did when he was frustrated. “I have forgot. It has been too long.”

 

“Try the north. I’ll hold them off your back.”

 

“You have taken too much damage already!”

 

“Then, man, I will die a hero’s death.”

 

They were playing STARSCRAPERZ! , the video game they had designed in college. It was their second attempt. They had both perished in the first wave of their first attempt.

 

Kiku blew a short breath out of his nose which Alfred recognized as laughter. Then he inhaled sharply. “Alfred, the north wormhole leads right back to the green nebula! We have already collected the stars there!”

 

Alfred cursed again. “Oh, worm!”

 

“What?”

 

“Quick! Go back and try the right one— ah! Whelp. I’m dead.”

 

Alfred’s half of the screen went blank, and the wacky electronic beats they had installed as a musical backdrop intensified. Kiku frowned in determination and set his tea down on the coffee table, clutching the controller with both hands. “Do you remember where the aliens spawn next?”

 

The object of STARSCRAPERZ! was to teleport yourself via wormhole throughout different-colored nebulas in space to “collect stars.” The more stars you collected, the more firepower you had to defeat the evil aliens that would spawn in waves and hunt you down. Winning a level would boost your popularity as a starfighter back at the Academy base, and thus allow you to purchase better ships and weapons. It was basically interstellar Pacman with an Ender’s Game -esque twist.

 

“They’ll come out of the blue nebula and attack from the right.” Alfred wiped at a smudge on his glasses. “Just hang in there. I’ll help. You’ve got this. You’re going to save the world. You’re going to save all of us.”

 

“Or I will die trying.” Kiku soared into the purple nebula and started gathering more stars. Alfred watched on in intense concentration. There were probably thirty seconds left before the buggers found him.

 

Sure enough, a squadron of attackers entered from the east wormhole. Luckily, Kiku had already finished gathering enough stars. “Here is where fate will be decided,” he whispered, trundling forward to meet the aliens head-on.

 

“GO!” Alfred yelled, pumping his fist.

 

Kiku dodged the first blast, but took a hit point on the second. He returned fire of his own and knocked out the offender while Alfred screamed on and threw pillows in the background. “How close am I to death?”

 

Alfred checked Kiku’s health bar. It was...despairingly low. “Oh. Yolo, dude.”

 

Kiku exhaled. He was really frustrated, now. He didn’t say anything, just kept blasting. He managed to take out four more of the aliens before misplacing his movements and getting eliminated by a rogue blast. Alfred shrieked and collapsed in agony.

 

Kiku set the controller down with grace. “At least we are getting back used to it.”

 

Alfred lifted his head out of a pillow. “Wanna try again?”

 

“Maybe later. I admit I am surprised at the ingenuity we had.” Kiku took another sip of tea and then hugged a pillow of his own.

 

“Wish I had that motivation now,” Alfred agreed, staring at the ceiling.

 

There was a quiet pause. Then, sensing the mood, Kiku asked, “Does your work not motivate you?”

 

Alfred heaved a huge sigh. “I mean, yeah, it does. Yeah. But I still feel...restless. Especially lately.”

 

“...You still want to go to NASA? I remember you used to want—”

 

“I guess. And I also like the thought of being a cop like Matt, or doing more field agent work, or travel, or acting, or gardening, or making more video games, or even selling shady junk in a truck on the road like Yao Wang. At my job now all I do is sit and listen and—well, I can’t really tell you.”

 

Kiku pondered for a second, then, in a perfect therapist’s voice said, “Tell me more about Ivan, please.” Alfred’s heart skipped a beat. “You said he’s Russian and you met him through work, correct?”

 

“Oh. Yeah. Yeah, he’s...yeah.” Alfred was at a sudden loss for words, which didn’t happen often, especially not when he wanted to use them. “We’ve been talkin’.”

 

Kiku looked slightly uncomfortable, as if he didn’t want to press for more, but felt the need to in order to help Alfred. “And you do like him?”

 

“Yeah. And he likes me too, so that’s good.” He laughed lightly. “We’re going to go out for lunch tomorrow. It’s, like, a date.”

 

“The FBI allows you to do this?”

 

Alfred laughed again. Nervously, this time. Let’s play a game called How Much I Can Give Away Without Committing Treason . “Well, actually, he’s not FBI. Um. It’s complicated.”

 

“I agree,” stated Kiku. “But if you do like him and you know he likes you, why are you so worried?”

 

Alfred didn’t answer. He buried his face in a pillow and waited for Kiku to connect the dots, which was probably selfish, but whatever. It was screwed anyway.

 

With polite caution, Kiku asked, “What is Ivan’s job? FBI-related, I assume?” No answer. “Is he a police officer or forensic scientist or politician or…”

 

“He’s an immigrant gardener.”

 

“I am confused. You said you met him through work?”

 

Alfred nodded. He couldn’t tear his eyes away from the TV screen. It said GAME OVER .

 

Kiku took another sip of tea. He was processing, Alfred knew. The room went quiet for a second, the rumble of the AC and the video music fading behind the clamor of thought exchange within their heads. Finally, Alfred blurted out, “I’m just worried about what will happen if I start to like him more and more. Because eventually I’m going to have to tell my team and explain the time we’ve been spending together and it won’t be good.”

 

Kiku nodded slowly. Was he understanding? His composed expression didn’t give anything away. “How long do you have to tell them?”

 

Alfred fell back against the couch. “I’ve already failed to report some of our meetings. They don’t know we text. And Ivan—oh hell.” He dug his hands into his hair. “Ivan has no idea. I’ll never be able to tell Ivan. God, this is such a huge trainwreck and I know it’s a huge trainwreck and I still have no idea what to do!”

 

Kiku lightly touched his arm. Finally, Alfred looked over. “Do you know for certain that if you continue seeing him you will like him more and more?”

 

Alfred gulped. He hadn’t thought that far into the future yet. His present-time mentality was probably what had gotten him into this sticky situation in the first place. “Maybe.”

 

Kiku put his tea down and put his hands together like a detective. Dust captured in the morning light glimmered off the sleeves of his robe. “So. You really like Ivan, but you cannot tell the FBI. You are in the FBI, but you cannot tell Ivan. Ivan is part of your FBI work, and you cannot tell anyone. You are closing yourself off on all sides of your life and have thus become restless and anxious.”

 

Alfred nodded decisively. “‘Bout right, doc. And all that’s before even mentioning the memes or the mafia.”

 

Kiku seemed vexed for a second, but shook his head and pressed on. “Have you told this to anyone else yet? Your brother, perhaps?”

 

“Um.” When they had talked yesterday, Alfred had kind of ignored Matthew’s concerned questions by pretending to be distracted by his movie. “No.”

 

“Then this is what I suggest. You should either end your engagement with Ivan now, or tell someone what has been happening. I suggest the latter. I know I would be fired instantly if I withheld information from my superiors.”

 

That was not a very happy dichotomy. Alfred didn’t like it. There had to be a third option better than doing nothing and letting the whole situation descend into chaos. “What if I just kidnap Ivan, fake our deaths, and move to Alaska?”

 

The corner of Kiku’s mouth perked up just the slightest, and then straightened itself out again. “I do not think that sounds like a good plan.”

 

Alfred chucked his pillow to the floor. “You’re right. I could never live as a humble fisherman in an igloo. It would be cold and we would need electricity and WiFi. Hmm. What about Puerto Rico? Oh, wait.”

 

Kiku finished off his tea peacefully. “Do you need more time to think?”

 

Sassy. “Thanks for listening, man.” Alfred fidgeted again, once more at a loss for what to say. The AC had gone off. He was hungry. He probably needed to check his phone for another text from Ivan. “I’ll…I’ll come up with of something. Just...promise you won’t tell anyone.” Alfred still couldn’t detect if Kiku had understood the implications that Ivan was Alfred’s subject, and was unsure if he needed to say something else to assure the man that everything would be okay.

 

Kiku nodded sagely. “I am glad you trust me.”

 

“Right now, you’re about the only person I can trust,” he retorted. Alfred still had no idea what to do. He didn’t want to end what he had with Ivan premature, and he didn’t want to tell Arthur, for then he knew it would be over. Alfred was past the point of pretending to be scoping out Ivan for research purposes only. Besides—Ivan was innocent! So really, there was nothing wrong with seeing him. He could just tell.

 

“You have lots of people you can trust,” Kiku assured him. “You are good enough to be in a federal intelligence agency. Trust yourself.”

 

Alfred was touched. If only Kiku knew. He wished so badly that he could tell Kiku. That he could tell Kirkland, that he could tell Ivan, that he could get Ivan’s name off that darned list somehow. He had long since forgotten why Ivan was on the list anyway. It was all prejudice and speculation, he assumed. Mr. FBI would know better. It had only been a week but everything was moving too fast and Alfred was sick of secrets.

 

He remembered the fortune cookie from a lifetime ago. Instead of acting as a foreboding reminder, however, the thing only distracted him by making him think of food and want to eat. Alfred was, like, perpetually hungry. His breakfast of champions had been a bowl of soggy Fruit Loops and bad coffee. “Wanna have lunch?” he interjected. “I can grill us some cheese.”

 

Kiku stared at him for a second, then nodded once more. He was so cute when he was agreeing to food. “Well, if you don’t mind. And...would you happen to have any tea?”

 

“That was about it, I think. I’ll listen to any tea you want to spill now, though.”

 

“What?”

 

“Oh. You meant—oh, no, I hate tea. Sorry. That shit goes in the harbor.”

 

“Of course.”

 

They ate lunch on the couch over a classic Mario Kart tournament, having decided that they would master STARSCRAPERS! again later. (Alfred won narrowly due to a cleverly-used blue shell in Coconut Mall.) Kiku wanted revenge, so they moved on to other games, digging deep into Alfred’s stockpile and developing headaches by the time the afternoon sun began to press at the windows. But Alfred was feeling pretty good. He had successfully avoided checking his phone and thinking about work for at least four hours. By the time they finally got around to STARSCRAPERZ! , he was relaxed and optimistic once more.

 

He and Kiku started off on a good note, staying in the same nebula to gather stars instead of splitting up like they had done before. That way, they could survive the first wave without batting an eye.

 

“And if the second wave comes from the blue nebula, then we must get the stars there first and move on to the others one by one,” suggested Kiku.

 

Alfred shook his controller determinedly. “Good plan. Then when we’re done we can come to them .”

 

“But we have to move fast.” They finished up in the blue nebula and soared into the purple. Collecting stars went much faster when they worked together, but it did mean less firepower for each of them. The second wave of aliens caught up with them in the red nebula.

 

“I’ll take ‘em on bottom, you get the top,” Alfred commanded, driving his ship forward.

 

“...Let’s finish this,” agreed Kiku. He fired the first shot.

 

Alfred took some heavy hits at first, but was able to clear off five attackers in less than a minute. Kiku had to backtrack to avoid blasts, but managed to kill off the aliens before he was cornered. They whooped loudly as the LEVEL COMPLETE! screen flashed before them.

 

“Man, we’re geniuses,” Alfred declared, high-fiving his friend just a little too excitedly. “Third wave, who? Let’s do this.”

 

They lost to the the third wave within two minutes.

 

“Maybe we should practice more,” Kiku said, carefully setting his controller down. “I am getting used to it. May I take the game home?”

 

Alfred stood up and stretched. “Yeah, yeah, dude. That was a blast. I’m pumped. Bet you’ll have it mastered by tomorrow. Might be easier on singleplayer?”

 

“I don’t know,” Kiku admitted. “I will have a lot of work when Monday comes. A bug was discovered on one of our computers on Friday, and some strange security footage, as well. One of the indoor cameras was broken. They want me to fix it.”

 

Alfred touched his toes. “Oh, crap. That does sound weird. Bet it was that creepy elevator guy you were talking about.” He laughed.

 

Kiku shook his head as he popped the game disc from the console. “No, I am sure he was a maintenance worker. Cameras malfunction all the time. It will just be difficult to fix the bug.”

 

“Well, good luck. I’ll swing by if I can.” Alfred did a single jumping jack. “Are you leaving?”

 

“Yes, I have to feed my cat. Thank you for today, Alfred, and for lunch.” Kiku gathered his things, which were only his empty thermos and car keys. He still wore his robe and his polite, passive, yet calculated expression. “I also wish you the best of luck. I know I am not in your position, but whoever Ivan is, I hope he is kind and understanding, and things will turn out okay.”

 

“Me too,” Alfred sighed. “Thanks, man.” He paused. “Wanna hug?”

 

“I suppose.” Kiku carefully clasped his hands behind Alfred’s back and leaned in. Alfred wasn’t too much of a touchy-feely guy, and had once yelled out of surprise when Francis, the MIA Frenchman on the gray division, had tried to give him the double cheek kisses in greeting, but hugs and snuggles from people he cared about felt very good. Absently, he wondered what a hug from Ivan would feel like. Probably great, considering how soft his hair and skin looked and how tall he was and maybe he was cold but they could be warm together as long as Ivan kept those bright yellow dirty garden gloves out of the picture...Alfred felt stupid.

 

He waved Kiku goodbye from the apartment building’s elevators. And so his friend disappeared into the city.

 

For a second, Alfred stood alone in the hall, all the energy suddenly sucked out of him now that Kiku was gone. He leaned against the wall, thinking for a second. Then he walked back to his number, walked back into his bedroom, picked up his phone, and texted Ivan.

 

 

.

 

Yekaterina and Natalya had just begun making dinner when Ivan’s phone buzzed with a message. He set down his sunflower’s watering can to read it.

 

Alfred: what’s cookin good lookin?

 

A yell from the kitchen. “Ivan! Get off your phone and come chop the carrots!”

 

Ivan: katya’s beet soup special (°-°) are we still on for tomorrow?

 

Alfred’s texting bubble popped up a few times and then went away. Ivan got scared for a second, wondering what was taking him so long to respond. He clicked his phone off and entered the kitche to be quickly assaulted by old, familiar smells. He set his phone in front of him while chopping the carrots. Alfred finally texted back within three minutes.

 

Alfred: where did u wanna go?

 

Ivan breathed a sigh of relief. He could have just said ‘yes.’

 

Ivan: anywhere u want ;)

 

“Who are you texting?” Natalya rounded the counter and tried to peer over the knife to see Ivan’s phone. He quickly turned it off.

 

“My boss. I am making sure I am off work this week.” A smooth reply. Ivan turned away to toss the carrots in the pot.

 

Alfred: no u choose something cuz i would suggest mcdank’s

 

Ivan: what

 

Alfred: u know...

 

Alfred: mickey d’s

 

Alfred: mcdick’s

 

Ivan: we are not eating there

 

Alfred: maccas

 

Alfred: mcdo

 

Alfred: golden arches

 

Ivan: (>_<) stop this

 

“Are you done with the knife, Ivan? I need it.”

 

Alfred: then wherrr

 

Ivan: what about a picnic? in the same place as friday?

 

Alfred: oh i like that. and takeout? Like yao’s?

 

“Ivan! Can you wash off the cutting board?”

 

Ivan: how about we each bring food for us to eat instead

 

Ivan: i can bring you some of katya’s soup

 

Alfred: interesting

 

“Where do you keep the large spoons, Ivan? I can’t find them.”

 

Alfred: no clue what i’ll make but i like this idea

 

Ivan: XD

 

Ivan: it is a date

 

“IVAN!”

 

Chapter Text

Chief Arthur Kirkland’s shadow loomed over Alfred and his tiny cubicle. “Anywhere else?”

 

Alfred flipped through the log he had been instructed to keep. He had done all the weekend from memory at one o’clock that Monday morning, so his notes were appropriately vague and sloppy. “Yeah, just a sec. Wait, no. No; on Sunday they stayed at Braginsky’s apartment. They were still there this morning when I logged on, and are still there now.”

 

Kirkland jotted something down. “Good. What are his sisters like? You did watch them, I presume?”

 

Alfred had not watched Ivan’s sisters, but it was good he and Ivan had talked anyway, for he had gleaned enough about them to pretend he had. “The older one—Yekaterina, but they call her Katya for short—is silly, nice, and kinda simple. The younger one, Natalya, is a lot more serious and high-maintenance. From what I observed, none of them really seemed suspicious, and none of their interactions with Ivan were suspicious.” The more he dealt in half-truths and white lies, the easier it became. Like fibbing to a teacher.

 

“Brilliant. Just one more question, then.” Arthur tucked the clipboard under his arms and crossed them. “Does Braginsky still... talk to his phone like you described? ‘Mr. FBI?’”

 

Alfred was barely able to mask the blush behind his glasses. “Not—not that much anymore.” His first truth of the day. The more Ivan was talking to Alfred, the less Ivan was talking to Mr. FBI. “I think the meme is dead.”

 

Kirkland nodded slowly, as if he understood perfectly. Alfred almost laughed. “Right. Okay. Well, then. It seems you’re being competent.”

 

“I try.” Alfred grinned loudly.

 

But Arthur appeared too weary to take any of it from anyone at the moment. He looked away and sighed, his shoulders slumping. “I’m just glad someone around here other than me is sticking to a solid plan.” He leaned away. “No, I didn’t mean you, Toris, sorry, Toris.” He leaned back. “It’s been a rough weekend. The gray division seems to think that throwing Beilschmidt—Ludwig—into the belly of the beast is a good idea. Of course, because monitoring someone in person will be so much easier and definitely doesn’t hold the potential to compromise the whole mission.” He was ranting sarcasm to himself at this point, not even looking at Alfred but at some shape seemingly hovering over his left shoulder, which was how Alfred understood just how bad it was. “No disrespect to Ms. Chief Héderváry, of course.”

 

Alfred kicked back and propped his hands over his head. His and Ludwig’s situations were similar. “So, he’s, like, living with the Mafia now? Is that even, like, legal if y’all don’t know if the Mafia is really the Mafia?”

 

Kirkland straightened up. “It’s legal.”

 

Alfred squinted. “ I took AP Gov. Amendment...three.”

 

Kirkland slouched again. “Okay, well, technically this entire division force operates under...special terms.”

 

“Huh.” Alfred rolled his eyes and turned around in his chair. “Can’t argue with that.” Something had reminded him of something, and now he wanted this interrogation to be over so he could focus on it.

 

“Sometimes I question why I’m even here,” Arthur admitted darkly to unlistening ears after the passing of a few silent seconds. “Could you imagine...if the public actually knew...but no mind. It is all for necessary protection. Or so they tell us. Good day, Alfred. Keep...doing what you’re doing.”

 

“K,” Alfred mumbled, already pulling out his computer. Ivan was online. The second the Chief left, he pulled up a visual. But he didn’t intend to watch for long.

 

Ivan’s thumbs were flying as he typed, and Alfred didn’t need to access the screen visual to know Ivan was texting him . In the background, the Russian’s apartment swam in a lukewarm light; the kitchen window curtains were pulled taut over the insistent morning sun, and the stovelight gleamed onto the sunflower on the sill. Ivan’s sisters were probably still asleep, so he was sneaking out of the house to prepare for their date. Noon wasn’t for another hour and a half, though. So why…

 

Ivan’s screen went blank. He had turned his phone off. And then, right on cue, Alfred’s own phone buzzed. Ivan’s text flashed over the lock screen.

 

Good morning!! ;) i can not wait to see u ❤︎

 

Alfred didn’t open it, but covered his mouth with his hand so his goofy grin wasn’t visible. Ivan had used a fucking heart emoji.

 

He set his phone face-down on his desk and wheeled over in his wheely chair to the stack of file cabinets below a photo of Times Square he had taken eons ago. The cabinets weren’t overflowing. Ivan’s file was the only one Alfred ever used, and he even had to blow cobwebs from it.

 

Under MISDEMEANORS there was just a single sentence. Just one line of text keeping Ivan condemned and Alfred employed. The words came back to Alfred as he scanned them again: “Purchased black market laptop and malware-loaded access cable from known illegal circle of tech distributors, transaction confirmed by their records when exposed.” Dated approximately ago.

 

And for all the time Ivan spent alone, for all the time Alfred had watched him spend alone, Alfred had never seen this laptop once. He laughed to himself. What did the FBI think they were doing?

.

 

Ivan had realized, to some dismay, that so far Alfred had only seen him in his gardener uniform. He stared down at his legs and arms, pitifully pale, a little chubby, and tinged pink from spending most of Saturday under the sun. An anticlimactic glo-up from the overalls and gloves, perhaps, but nonetheless, the dress shirt and khakis were much cooler, even under the shade of the tree in the Constitutional Gardens. His scarf was freshly washed.

 

Natalya and Yekaterina had taken a day for themselves to recuperate. Ivan had left them a post-it note with a list of all the public pools and spas he knew of (or could find on Google Maps). They planned to meet up to go out for dinner later, but for now, Ivan had the day to himself. They...didn’t know about the date. He had told them he was going to get groceries and gifts, which wasn’t really a lie; next to him on the picnic blanket was a recycled tote bag full of fruits and vegetables he had picked from a local market that morning. It also contained the soup from last night he meant to give to Alfred. After this, Ivan only had one last errand to run. He was really developing his skills at multitasking and keeping secrets!

 

All grievances were blurred over by his mind when he saw Alfred making his way across the park toward him, however. The man was wearing his typical black uniform pants paired with a light blue button-up short-sleeved shirt. As always, he looked professional, but walked and talked casual. In his hands was a large square Tupperware, the contents of which were undeterminable. Ivan perked up and waved.

 

“Alrighty, so. Minor issue,” began Alfred as he plopped down on the blanket, kicking his feet out to the side and dumping his workbag behind him. He whipped off his shades, placed the Tupperware between he and Ivan, and stared at it with disdain.

 

Ivan scooted closer and smiled. “How are you?”

 

Alfred looked up, and a sliver of sun glinting off his glasses flashed Ivan in the eyes. “Me? Mighty fine. Dandy. But my nachos... no son buenos .”

 

But this was Ivan’s first authentic American date and he wasn’t going to let it be sullied by pessimism. He blinked slowly. He couldn’t discern the state of the nachos through the Tupperware lid. “Um. I am sure your food is very good! Can I see?”

 

“At first I didn’t know what to make for you, since I’m not really that huge of a cook except for holidays and the Super Bowl and stuff,” Alfred explained, popping the lid off. “So I went with something kinda fast. I put chicken and olives and pico in it and stuff, but then I realized I’d have to keep it all. So I tried to heat it back up this morning, but the office microwave made the cheese all wonky and probably gave me cancer. For some reason I thought that maybe the sun out here would help it stay hot, and that obviously didn’t happen. So here.” He gestured to the contents of the messy plastic tub. “Have some gross cold nachos.”

 

Ivan examined the dish. It didn’t look too horrible. It was colorful and smelled pleasant. The most obvious problem was that the presentation was all over the place, and Alfred had visibly not brought along a fork. This was another food Americans ate with their hands. “More like Hurricane tortilla.”

 

Alfred snorted loud enough to cause a few of the nearby ducks to flee, but— was that —he was blushing! Ivan held back the urge to point it out for fear Alfred would stop. Instead, he turned and extracted his own food from the grocery bag.

 

“Well, I have also brought something cold, so you are not alone,” he said, digging around for a spoon. “This is Katya’s borscht. Last night it was very good. Very good. Very...great.” Ivan nodded to stress the point.

 

Alfred took the spoon tentatively, his gaze leaving Ivan to examine the meal. “It’s supposed to be cold? Huh. I can’t remember if I’ve had borscht before. I only eat beets at Thanksgiving.”

 

“You have not had Katya’s before,” Ivan teased. “I will get her recipe and make it for you again if you like it.”

 

“In that case, let’s dig in,” Alfred grinned, dripping liquid from the spoon as he toasted, though it looked more like a salute. He truly was adorable.

 

Ivan tested the waters with one nacho, scooping up a heap of cheese and tomato. He was pleasantly surprised at the taste, having expecting it to be soggy and sad. The toppings were still lukewarm, and the parts of the chip that weren’t so saturated were salty and crisp. And spicy. The spiciness was unexpected. Ivan crunched, swallowed, and reached for his water bottle.

 

“Hey, this is good!” Alfred blurted out, quickly grabbing another spoonful.

 

“I told you.” Ivan shifted, carefully matching his sitting posture with Alfred’s. It was magical how being with Alfred made the rest of the world fade away. On this blanket, under this tree, in this heat, surrounded by a bustling world capital, Ivan felt completely at ease.

 

“The way to my heart is through food, and you, sir, have the map.” Alfred was waxing poetic. “That may have made no sense, but whatever. Hey—how are the gross cold nachos?”

 

Ivan had just been about to eat another one. “Oh, yes. They are not bad as you said. I would enjoy you making more warm ones.” Would a wink be a good addition to the statement? Ivan winked.

 

Alfred laughed and threw a hand into the air. “Oh, thank goodness. You better not be lying. I need to prove I’m not as bad of a cook as my boss. He once—”

 

“The ‘fire you’ boss? The English one?” Ivan tried not to look too eager to be hearing this fresh news about Alfred’s elusive job.

 

“Yeah. One time a couple months ago he brought scones or something—maybe it was muffins—into work for some special occasion, and this French guy had to leave sick. It was hilarious. He pretended to barf in this lady’s recycling bin and this other guy got, like, offended. They were all shouting at each other and then I tried to start a Nerf gun war. That didn’t go well.”

 

Ivan put his hand over his mouth to stifle his giggles. “That is wild—with a Y. If that happened at my old job in Russia, they would start a true war.”

 

“Haha, damn. Where did you work?”

 

“A florist.” He crunched his nacho. “It was a...critical business.”

 

To Ivan’s glee (and confusion), Alfred laughed again. He rolled over onto his back and stared up at the leaf-threaded sky. “Oh my God, of course. That makes so much sense. I can see how it would fit you.”

 

Ivan could never tell him how much he missed it. Since they were on the topic, and Alfred was quite reposed, he decided to return the question. “And what about you? If we are on a date to know each other I have to know what ‘business’ you work.” After a millisecond he added, “So you can take more lunch breaks.”

 

“Right.” Ivan studied Alfred’s face closely. It wasn’t grinning anymore, just smiling. He wanted Alfred to look him in the eyes. Alfred kept staring the sky. “Well, I work at NASA.”

 

“What?” Ivan was taken very off-guard by that. He had expected Alfred to say he was a prized, secret artifact collector in a museum, or the head of some wealthy private corporation, or a gambling casino boss, or even, admittedly, a politician. He couldn’t stop his mouth from spitting out, “You work at NASA? Then—why don’t you have a cool Facebook, or Snapchat? Everyone who works at NASA puts cool stuff on social media.”

 

“Facebook is dead, Ivan.”

 

Ivan shook his head and waved his hand swiftly. “Ah, I know, I know. It was a test. But you work at NASA? So do you get to see rockets? Do you do math and build computers?” He gasped and covered his mouth again. “Alfred. Are you...are you...are you an astronaut? Do you getting to go into space ?”

 

Alfred flopped over onto his stomach and propped his head up with his hands, his cheeks smushing the smile in his eyes. “You’re literally the cutest thing ever. But no. I’m just...tech support, I guess. So far.”

 

Ivan felt a warmth grow in his chest and had the urge to touch his scarf. He had finally said it out loud in the real. Cute. “When you go to space will you take me?”

 

“Well, heck yeah.” He pounded a dedicated fist against the picnic blanket. “Have to have at least one witness present when we find out if the Earth is really flat or not. It ain’t true until you see it for yourself.”

 

Ivan nodded. “And the stars cannot be seen in the city. I would love that.” He didn’t realize he was whispering.

 

And then, Alfred didn’t say anything in return. He just smiled.

 

They stayed like that for a few glorious moments, just staring at each other and smiling. Ivan looked back at the nachos when the pounding of his heart became unbearable. He wondered if Alfred felt the same; he heard the spoon click against the borscht container. Ivan knew that if he truly wanted to be intimate with Alfred, he would have to make some major life changes. Namely, the fact that he was a poor immigrant gardner, and also, of course, a Russian spy. And he wasn’t sure if he could do that yet. He knew he was still in debt. But he also knew that right here, right now, he was beginning to want Alfred more than he had when texting him that morning.

 

Ivan ate another nacho. A small breeze blew threw the park, toying with the leaves and ruffling the ducks’ feathers. He wondered if it was possible to hate himself and love someone else at the same time.

 

“Do you like movies?” Alfred asked out of the blue. Ivan looked up and was flattered to find he had finished the soup and was now sitting up. There was red juice on the side of his mouth.

 

“I do like movies,” Ivan replied eagerly. Was Alfred going to propose something? “My sisters and I watched a lot of movies last weekend.”

 

“I was sorta thinking, um, if we wanted to do this again. I may be too busy to actually go somewhere this week, but if you have a computer or laptop, we could, like, FaceTime and watch together.”

 

Ivan told the tensed muscles inside him to calm down. “I do not have a computer,” he stressed. “Would it not be much easier to see a movie together? But you would need to come to my house because I can’t leave my sisters.”

 

Alfred’s eyes flickered to his shoes. “Ah, right; I’m stupid. I wouldn’t want to, er, intrude on you and your sisters. You’re probably very busy too right now anyways.”

 

Ivan despised that ambiguous statement, but let it slide. Alfred had shown an interest in another date, which was the important part. He squeezed his scarf. There was still red juice on the side of Alfred’s mouth. “When does your lunch break end today, Alfred?”

 

He snorted. “About seven minutes ago.”

 

“Oh.”

 

“It’s chill.” Alfred tucked his legs beneath him, as if in preparation to stand up again. “I have the car today from my brother, so I can zoom. And as of this morning I think I’m back on my boss’s good side. I know I’m his favorite.”

 

“You would be my favorite, too,” Ivan commented. “I bet you have a very fun job. Do you like it?”

 

Alfred straightened his glasses and said without any hesitation, “I love it.”

 

“I must let you go back to it, then,” Ivan declared. “Also, there is—”

 

“It’s chill, really,” Alfred promised, standing up anyway and dusting off his pants. He combed a hand through his hair. “Listen, the date was awesome. You can keep the nachos if you want, but you’re definitely getting that soup recipe for me, please.”

 

There was still red juice on the side of Alfred’s mouth. “There is red juice on the side of your mouth,” Ivan notified.

 

“Oh, oops. Thanks.” Alfred swiped the stain away with the back of his hand. It was silent for a second. The wind picked up again. Ivan stared. Then Alfred blurted out, “Please tell me you weren’t inclining to, like, kiss and suck it off of me.”

 

Ivan covered his face to keep from laughing out loud. “ No , I...I don’t know, I do not know, I did not mean...” He was getting used to getting flustered.

 

Alfred grinned and crossed his arms. “Yeah, no offense, but that’s pretty sketch.”

 

Ivan sighed and folded his hands. “I don’t want to kiss your food, but maybe I just want to kiss you.”

 

Alfred’s eyebrows shot up. “Oh.”

 

Was that a positive reaction? Ivan stepped forward anyway, and was rewarded by Alfred not backing away in terror. He cautiously set his hands on Alfred’s shoulders. Alfred straightened up, accentuating their height difference. “Can I kiss you?” Ivan asked softly.

 

Alfre blinked once. His blue eyes had stars in them. For a fleeting second Ivan worried Alfred would unintentionally ruin the feeble mood by responding with some pop culture reference, or even be turned-off by the question and shake his head with a dumb utterance of no homo. But he only nodded, with a steady voice said, “You can,” and closed his eyes.

 

So Ivan kissed him on the cheek. The alternate cheek from the food spill. He had determined he wasn’t ready for a lips-kiss—not yet, at least. A cheek kiss felt sweeter and more reminiscent of their young relationship, or whatever it was. And besides, he still got to be close to Alfred, and that felt really good. Alfred smelled like Old Spice. Alfred kissed Ivan back on his opposite cheek, and the temples of his glasses brushed against Ivan’s hair.

 

They pulled away and Alfred was beaming, which made Ivan feel beautiful things inside. “I like the date too,” Ivan admitted.

 

When Alfred was gone, disappearing back into life and D.C., Ivan cleaned up the picnic. He was in a haze of happiness. How could he have doubted what they were doing? Being with Alfred was obviously the right solution, the only solution, no matter what illicit activity Ivan practiced in his own time. Whatever happened, Ivan would let happen. There was no way he could neglect Alfred. Alfred was funny and charismatic and hot and loud and smart and dumb and amazing and Ivan was falling in…

 

Ivan was in…

 

Ivan was in a crowded metro car, traveling north a few blocks. He bounced his leg to the beat coming from the teenager’s earbuds next to him and held his groceries and picnic basket tightly to himself. He would eventually have a third piece of luggage before making it back home.

 

The street above looked no different than it had last Friday, which was to say, Wang Yao’s food truck was there, waiting, like a faithful servant. Ivan waited for a few moments for the lunch line to die down, and then approached.

 

You ,” the man hissed at first sight. Maybe he was hissing. Maybe that was just the fryers in the background, or the Chinese rap coming from the speakers. “Here to pick up an order?”

 

“I am.” Ivan tilted his head in delight. Yao was so boisterous it was almost terrifying. “No chopsticks.”

 

Yao rolled his eyes and spat something completely cheerful and optimistic about the kind, hardworking, taxpaying citizens of Washington. He disappeared into the bowels of the truck for a few seconds and emerged with a familiar black bag. Ivan’s computer.

 

“Thank you,” said Ivan, taking it gratefully. “Is it...fresh...and, um healthy?”

 

“You keep using food metaphor and I will stab you with your damn chopsticks.” Yao smiled brightly.

 

“You keep up the good business and I will tip you even more.” Ivan smiled brighter. He put both his hands on the counter and pushed himself up. “Tell me: is it good?”

 

Yao backed away, outwardly disgusted, but Ivan could tell there was just the smallest tinge of fear in his eyes. He wondered if the man had ever taken a bribe before. “It is good.”

 

“Good.” Ivan set down. “If it is not, I will know, and I will come back. But for now, I would like one fortune cookie, please!”

 

.



Matthew hauled himself up into the cabin and inspected the fuel. “Oh! It’s almost on empty.”

 

“Sorry,” Alfred sighed. “I, uh, kinda sat in front of NASA headquarters for thirty minutes with full air conditioning and radio just to make sure I wasn’t being followed, and traffic, as always, is hell. The whale-savers were out again.”

 

Matt bumped him in the shoulder. “Wait a second—making sure you weren’t being followed? Your job is real strange. You okay?”

 

Alfred fidgeted in the Ford’s leather seating like a little kid. “How do you know if you like-like someone, like, too much to be, like, like-like?” he rushed out.

 

Matthew turned the engine off and got quiet—quieter than usual. “Eh...do you mean, like...love?”

 

“No. Yes. Maybe. I don’t know. Sure.”

 

“Okay, whoa. Al, really.” Matt leaned forward, forcing Alfred to look at him with his trained police cop charm skills. “Are you okay?”

 

Alfred flashed a double thumbs-up. “Oh, I’m fine.” They ask you how you are and you just have to say that you’re fine when you’re not really fine…

 

His brother let the statement sit just long enough for it to be awkward. Then he inquired, “Who do you...like?”

 

“Me? No one. I’m asking for a friend.”

 

Matthew nodded very slowly. “I understand.”

 

“You do? Thanks, I knew you would.”

 

They waited for the passage of another seconds.

 

When it became clear Alfred wasn’t going to start spouting another nonsense, Matt cleared his throat and offered, “I say, if your friend suspects they’re in love, they probably are, or are at least becoming. And there’s nothing wrong with being wrong, either, if they realize later. Love is a powerful, essential trait to have these days, so it’s good to accept it when it happens, so the sooner they can let it grow.”

 

Alfred kicked himself beneath the seat. “Okay. Okay, um, that totally sounded like something from a children’s novel, but thanks. I’ll tell my friend a less cheesy version. I am asking for a friend. Thanks a lot.”

 

“You good?”

 

“Yeah. I think. Yeah.” Alfred opened the door and stepped out into the cool night.

 

Matt started the engine back up. “If you ever want to talk more, I’m here, you know. Drop by the station whenever you need.”

 

“Yeah, we’ll get donuts sometime!” Alfred promised. “ Adios!

 

Au revoir !” Matthew called. He and the truck roared away.

Chapter Text

<3129111032>

 

<Files from Thursday’s mission were received. However, a security breach on the line was detected Sunday. Our backup was sent in but unable to cover it up in time. This mistake has the potential to be detrimental. An appropriate amount for compensation will be extracted from your account.>

 

<Protect the computer and cable at all costs!!!>

 

<Keep safe.>

 

Ivan wasn’t sure he had read the email correctly, so he read it again, and again, and once more. Messages from the circle were always concise and vague; Ivan didn’t care that he was to assume compensation money had been supposedly “extracted” from his account. He was more concerned about being discovered. He had never made a “potentially detrimental” mistake before, and if he had, the shadow “backup” had always corrected it. Then again, Ivan had never hacked the FBI before, nor did he wish to be reprimanded for doing so to such a ruthless organization.

 

Most haunting were the last two words, which alluded to the true gravity of the situation. It had never seemed like the circle cared about his well-being before. Were they even in DC? Was “backup?” He stared silently into the bathroom mirror over the computer and had that same creepy sensation that someone else was watching him—the very feeling he used to sometimes get when talking to Mr. FBI, except his phone was still charging in his bedroom. The faucet spilled a single drip into the sink. A dog barked two floors up. The hair on Ivan’s arms bristled.

 

Through the mirror, he watched the doorknob behind him turn .

 

Natalya walked in. They both caught themselves and exclaimed “Oh!” in perfect unison.

 

“Ivan. I apologize,” she said, retreating so only her face was visible through the crack between the trim.

 

It took a second longer this time for Ivan’s composure to wash over him, and the delay was scary. “Natalya!” he eventually breezed out. “ I apologize; I wish I had more than one bathroom.”

 

“We’ll be ready to go soon,” she informed with a dismissing nod. “Katya is washing breakfast dishes now. I plan to shower.”

 

“Yes. I am just finishing,” he declared, calmly stepping forward to place his hand on the knob. She got the hint and backed out.

 

And then Ivan remembered the computer. Behind him. Easily visible from the door through the mirror. His heartbeat began to pick up pace again.

 

.

 

Alfred was feeling really good for once, a kind of good that carried over from his date with Ivan, stayed when he went to bed last night, stayed when he slept in and woke up late the next morning, and even remained as he was on his way into work now. He hadn’t checked in on Ivan through the spycam either last night or the next morning, but they had texted a little, making Alfred feel even better. He had no qualms about being late to work, and walked down the street with a spring in his step. Of course, though, he knew the feeling wouldn’t last. Being happy and enjoying himself came with a price these days.

 

It turned out Alfred wasn’t the only tardy attendee of the day. Someone called his name down the street, he turned around, and there was Toris, stepping out of his car and hustling towards him.

 

“Hey, dude!” Alfred offered. He couldn’t tell if Toris looked worried or if that was just Toris’s normal expression.

 

“Did you get the message?” Toris wheezed out as he caught up. So, worried, then.

 

“Uh, what message?” Alfred slowed his steps.

 

“From the Chief.” Toris gestured to his phone. “There has been a security breach. That’s all he said.”

 

Alfred froze in his tracks, and the temperature around them seemed to plummet accordingly. Had he heard Toris correctly? His movements were sluggish as he reached for his phone. Sure enough, right as he picked it out of his pocket, it burst into a frantic ringing. Arthur Kirkland’s name was at the top. “A security breach?”

 

Toris scratched his head. He, too, looked sick in the stomach. “I can’t believe it. It is the FBI. No one is supposed to be able to steal information from the FBI.”

 

“Wait a second, is it us ?” Alfred shoved his phone back into his pocket and hastened his pace again. “Someone hacked our divisions and stole data?”

 

Toris nodded. “I can’t believe it.”

 

When they checked into headquarters, Chief Héderváry was there. She was statuesque in her sharp pencil skirt, her hands crossed over her chest, wearing sunglasses. The dreaded memory-zapping stun gun rested at her hip.

 

“We—We heard there was bad news,” Alfred began tentatively, holding up his badge.

 

“So did I,” she confirmed, scanning their IDs and prints. “But I am smart enough to not to talk about it right here. You never know who could be listening.” She lowered her sunglasses and gave them each a stern look and an indecipherable wink. “No stolen government secrets in my lobby.”

 

Alfred and Toris gulped in harmony.

 

Héderváry finished confirming their identities, sighed, and reached for the gun. “Time to run, now, boys. Today I’ll give you a five second head start.”

 

They both knew better than to stand around chatting. Alfred and Toris bolted for the elevators, the nightmarish sound of the gun charging up behind them.

 

“Go, go, go!” He pushed Toris into the elevator just as a bolt of energy glanced off the wall ahead of them. Alfred screamed and charged in himself, slamming the close button while Héderváry neared. Another bolt stung the interior of the box, and Toris fell to the floor. The doors shut on the Chief’s maniacal grin.

 

“That was too close,” Toris shivered. Alfred nodded.

 

“Gilbert once said she was the only person he truly feared,” He restated, gazing at the mirrored ceiling. They didn’t say much more after that.

 

Upon reaching the negative two hundredth floor, they found it was startlingly vacant. An aria of suspense hung in the humidity, and there was no sound but the coffee machine and frantic typing coming from deep within the cubicles.

 

When the elevators dinged, the typing halted, and Chief Arthur Kirkland rose out of the mist above the walls. His expression was furious and panicked, his thick eyebrows condensed into one angry unibrow. “You.”

 

Alfred gulped. “Sorry we’re late—”

 

Kirkland marched through the maze. “Yes, you’d better be sorry, boy. The past few hours have been hell. We’ve been hacked , Alfred. Files from our combined database—both the black and gray divisions—have been copied and stolen . Luckily, the rest of the FBI wasn’t affected, but they may as well have been. The hacker or hackers targeted us specifically through a government network .”

 

“Fuck,” Alfred breathed. That was huge. “Do we...do we know what was stolen? What network?”

 

“That,” alerted Arthur, “is what I’m working on. Today it’s all hands on deck. And what that means , Alfred F. Jones, is no lunch break.” Alfred gulped again. Did he…no. There was no way he knew. “If we all work together—well, all of us minus Francis and Antonio and Gilbert and Elizabeta and Ludwig, because three of them are practically presumed dead and two of them are with the enemy may we never show suspicion in absence—maybe we can solve this bloody mess faster.”

 

Toris spoke up nervously. “Um, and, what about monitoring? Our, erm, people?”

 

“If you can multitask, then by all means do so. After all” —another withering look cast at Alfred— “if anyone were to hack the FBI, it’s one of those buggers.”

 

Alfred’s heart was racing, and he suddenly felt sweatier. He didn’t know what to think, but he knew there was no way what Kirkland was insinuating was true. He had kept a particularly close eye on Ivan in the past few days. Wait. “Do we know when the breach occurred?”

 

The Chief nodded, slower and less sure of himself this time. “I did find bugs in the network on Friday, but only noticed the stolen data and connected the two occurrences yesterday. I say, while you’re at it, check your own computer. You wouldn’t want anyone…listening in.”

 

Déjà vu disguised as a freezing chill tiptoed down Alfred’s spine.

 

Toris immediately made a beeline for his computer. Arthur continued staring at Alfred. “What’s the matter. Have you noticed something? Have something to report? Any odd behavior from Ivan as of late?”

 

Alfred quickly shook his head no. Arthur had called Ivan Ivan this time, not just Braginsky like he normally did. “I just—”

 

Kirkland took a step forward and leaned in closer so Toris wouldn’t hear. He raised one bushy eyebrow in deadly speculation. “Any odd behavior from anyone as of late?”

 

There was no way. No. Way.

 

“I haven’t noticed anything,” Alfred stated, meeting the Chief eye-to-eye. It wasn’t a lie.

 

They held an impromptu staring contest for a couple of seconds, and then Alfred dropped his gaze. The Chief tsk ed. Softer, he stated, “It might be time to get you those upgraded glasses, then. The ones with the x-ray and the night-vision and the lasers and the recording you want. Ludwig has them now, and they seem to be working exceptionally.” And with that, he stalked off.

 

Alfred let out a long breath of air he hadn’t realized he had been holding in. He was no longer feeling really good.

 

He slowly crossed over to his cubicle and plunked down into the wheely chair. Sluggishly, he dug his laptop from his workbag, swept an arm across his desk to clear space, and opened up the computer in the middle. In one window he pulled up a visual of Ivan. In the other, he pulled up the shared database of the black and gray divisions.

 

Alfred was smart. Not intelligent like Arthur Kirkland perhaps, but smart enough to do well in school, and smart enough to get into the FBI at the youngest age allowed. Alfred could handle this. Hack into his own database to track down a previous database hacker? Easy-beaver eager-peasy difficult-squeezy lemon. He cracked his knuckles and went to work.

 

In the other window, Alfred could hear Ivan and his sisters talking. They seemed to be complaining about the heat and their feet. He flashed over to their screen for a hot sec. Ivan had the camera open and was taking pictures of his sisters in some park in DC, and they kept trying to block out the lens. Alfred smiled to himself. Ivan’s sisters did look a lot like him. It was cute. Alfred should text him.

 

Alfred should not text him. Alfred should work on tracking down the security breach. He scanned lines of code, his brain already throbbing from absorbing the computer language and the Slavic language at the same time. He lowered Ivan’s volume and minimized the window. The database, the database, what had been stolen from the database?

 

Encoded files filled his field of vision. There would be clues left behind, if Alfred could only think to look for them. He rolled for a perception check.

 

“How much longer?” Yekaterina moaned. “Please tell me the water’s just up ahead. Otherwise you’re carrying this backpack the rest of the way.”

 

“Only ten minutes,” answered Ivan. “And if you stand up really tall, you can see the dome!”

 

Natalya scoffed. “You’d have to lift me.”

 

Nothing about their data seemed to have been...altered, as far as Alfred could tell. Any malware was either expertly hidden or nonexistent. For the time being, Alfred decided to assume it was nonexistent. “Got anything?” he mumble-called out to the others openly.

 

“No,” Toris responded meekly next to him behind the cubicle wall. Even more distant was the Chief’s voice.

 

“Not yet, but I’m working on the IP address.”

 

Alfred considered. The whole situation was ironic, really. The hackers became the hacked, and suddenly their whole pattern was thrown off. He was at least glad they had discovered the breach right away. For many organizations, a data breach could take months, or even years to detect. But those organizations were name-brand; open source; top-page. The general public was supposed to never know Alfred’s division of the FBI existed, memes or no. He didn’t even want to imagine what would happen if their secrets got out; there would be global outrage.

 

So how had the hacker(s) know to come after them? Had they been targeting the black and gray specifically, or stumbled across their existence whilst scanning the rest of the government network? In either case, the government could be in serious trouble. Alfred wasn’t aware of how often the government got hacked, exactly, but he knew at least that. The government was shit sometimes, but damn Alfred if he didn’t depend on it.

 

A few hours later, in the middle of running a loop, Alfred felt his phone buzz in his pocket. He heaved a grateful sigh, let the computer run, and opened it up. Ivan had texted him a photo of one of those cats from Russian tumblr. It was a Sphynx wearing little red underwear, the caption underneath spelling out “shaved and ready for solarium.” Alfred didn’t wait for the translation—he answered Yassss. look at those legs gurl. get that summer body glow. what a queen.

 

Ivan: i made this one on myself. (*≧∀≦*) do u think i should post?

 

Ivan: wow how do you know what it says?

 

Crap. Alfred had been listening to Ivan and his sisters talking in Russian and had forgotten that he wasn’t supposed to know Russian.

 

Alfred: google translate

 

Ivan: very fast.

 

Alfred: ...don’t use that period at me of course i’m fast

 

Ivan: ;)(;

 

Alfred: yes u should post

 

Ivan: you know spanish too?

 

Alfred: …

 

Alfred: buenos días muchacha latas

 

Ivan: O_O

 

Ivan: okay i have to go see things in the city now goodbye

 

Alfred: well goodbye

 

He tabbed over to the window where Ivan’s phone was on. It appeared Ivan and his sisters were just leaving the Jefferson Memorial, his camera pointed at the bordering Tidal Basin as he texted. He was smiling that soft little smile.

 

Alfred: ♡

 

Ivan’s smile grew.

 

Ivan: ♡

 

Ivan turned off his phone.

 

Faint typing sounds came from Toris’s cubicle next to Alfred’s. He pushed himself away from his desk and stretched, spinning around in his chair a couple of times. It was amazing how just two minutes of Alfred texting Alfred’s... boyfriend ...could fix a whole morning of nausea and anxiety. He was still scared of the hackers, and god was he starved (stale deli lunch sandwiches from the break room mini-fridge didn’t last anyone), but at least he still had Ivan.

 

Alfred reluctantly scooted back towards his desk to check the tests he had been running on the database. He didn’t expect anything to pop out at him, and sure enough, all the data seemed fine.

 

Alfred blew air out of his nostrils. Whoever had done this seemed to know exactly what they were doing. He or she or they hadn’t even tripped the protection alarms. It was almost as if they had been handed an easy map of the whole database that listed all the hidden lasers and boobie-traps. The numbers and letters were beginning to confuse even Alfred.

 

“Um, has anyone found anything?” came Toris’s voice beyond the wall.

 

“Working on it,” grumbled Alfred. Chief Kirkland across the room offered up no response but a jumble of furious typing.

 

What would Alfred do if he were trying to steal information from the FBI? What information would he want to steal? Well, for one, he could go into their division outlines and use all their confidential information to sue the place, exposing them for operating as such under their special terms. But maybe he wasn’t that ambitious yet. He could use the files they had on Ivan or Vargas or Felicks. He could use the files they had on—

 

The elevator dinged. Everyone paused and turned, but it was only Elizabeta Héderváry. She passed through them on her way to the break room, giving each a nod. “I was hungry for a snack, and then I remembered Antonio always keeps extra tomatoes for desperate times!” Her voice thinned as she entered the kitchen. “Too bad they will not be fresh.”

 

Alfred almost called out a “About as fresh as their keeper by this point,” but bit his tongue at the last second. He had thought of something.

 

If he were a hacker, maybe he did know what he was doing by specifically targeting the division database. Maybe he needed to know what he was doing because he needed the information the division had stored. Maybe he wasn’t just a random hacker, and this wasn’t just a one-time, random scheme. Maybe his reason for hacking specifically had something to do with a very specific scheme, such as, say, a recent string of disappearances.

 

Alfred rolled for a wisdom check and went straight to the the FBI’s working personnel files. After a few more specific tests, he found just what he had been looking for. Files for Antonio Fernandez Carriedo, Francis Bonnefoy, and Gilbert Beilschmidt had all been copied, along with their statements of service.

 

Ivan’s voice echoed faintly from the monitor. “You two, stop dipping your hands in every reservoir in Washington!” Giggling followed. Alfred’s heart throbbed. He wanted to be out there with Ivan in the bright summer day, exploring the city and dipping his hands in reservoirs, not slaving away in the dank swamp bunker underground.

 

“Agent Jones! Are you working?”

 

In a flash, Alfred silenced Ivan’s visual, though he really had no reason to. Kirkland had appeared out of nowhere behind him. Alfred wheeled around slowly, but before he could explain that he had indeed been working, Arthur interrupted.

 

“I was able to trace the IP address.”

 

Alfred sat up hurriedly. “That’s great! Bitch, where?”

 

Kirkland was staring at his clipboard as if he didn’t believe whatever was written on it. “The...Museum of Natural History.”

 

Toris’s chair creaked in the next cubicle over. “What?”

 

“You’re kidding.” Alfred brushed his hands through his hair, giving the gears in his head fresh air. “That rings a bell. Holy guacamole.” He thought back before his date on Monday, to the Sunday afternoon before, to something small and insignificant his best friend had uttered in passing. “That’s—That’s what Kiku said!” He was surprised he even remembered.

 

The Chief, Alfred recalled, did know Kiku. “Kiku...Kiku Honda? Your friend who works at the museum? Well, tell me, man, what did he say?”

 

“We were chillin’ on Sunday, right, and he said they found a virus or something on one of their computers and he was being called in to fix it. I wonder if...if that was the hacked computer.”

 

Arthur took another step forward. “And you? Did you find anything?”

 

“Heck yeah I did.” Alfred swiveled around and blew up his findings. “Get a load of this. Nothing was altered, but all the MIA guys—their files were copied.”

 

Arthur got up real close to the screen, his nose almost touching at. All at once he pulled back. “As if the hackers knew what they were looking for. The bastards. We’ve got to tell Chief Héderváry.”

 

Toris peeked over the short wall, folding his arms across it. His voice was small and distant. “You are not thinking…?”

 

Kirkland massaged his forehead. “Whoever is doing this knows what they’re doing, that’s for certain. I don’t want to make any assumptions anymore, but it looks like we are being specifically targeted, perhaps for a greater purpose. It can’t be a coincidence that the same files copied coincide to our missing personnel. I just wonder...did the hackers secure the files before or after the three were kidnapped?”

 

“I haven’t gotten there yet,” Alfred supplied.

 

“Me neither,” said Toris gloomily. “This puzzle is very tedious; almost too difficult for me to unlock.”

 

Arthur tucked his clipboard under his arms and crossed them. He inspected his employees for a couple of seconds, and Alfred felt another ghostly hand tap his back. In that moment he deduced there was definitely something Arthur knew—or suspected—that he wasn’t letting on. The trust Alfred had thought he had earned from him had evaporated.

 

There was another thing Kiku had told Alfred on Sunday, too. You should either end your engagement with Ivan now, or tell someone what has been happening. I suggest the latter. I know I would be fired instantly if I withheld information from my superiors.

 

Alfred glanced at the minimized tab on his laptop screen. If he opened it up, he would see Ivan and his sisters, walking home after a long day, peaceful in his city, his country. Then fire me.

 

“Let’s work on it, then,” Kirkland declared. “After what we’ve already accomplished, simply finding the time shan’t be too hard. And Alfred, if what Mr. Honda said is true, I’d like to speak with him, please.”

 

“Oh, I can call him later tonight when he gets off work,” Alfred offered.

 

“That won’t be necessary,” Arthur stated, straightening his tie. “You can give me his contact information and I can do it myself. Or—you could just give me your phone.”

 

Toris quickly ducked back down into his cubicle.

 

Now Alfred was really scared. He would have to delete all of Ivan’s texts, clear his history… “Fine,” he muttered. “I’ll write down Kiku’s number.”

 

The Chief nodded fiercely. “Good. Glad we can come to an agreement.”

.

 

Ivan had gotten used to staying up late. It was the only free time he had to talk to Alfred, were he felt especially assured his sisters couldn’t find them out. “...just got home,” Alfred was saying, sounding exhausted over FaceTime. It was past two in the morning.

 

“Oh no,” Ivan whispered. “Why?”

 

“Long day at work. Really long. Felt too tired to text.”

 

“I’m sorry.” Ivan reached out to touch the screen, and then chided himself and pulled back. “If you were here I would give you a big hug.”

 

“I wish. I mean, I wish you were here or I was there.” He sounded uncharacteristically broken. “I could use a hug real bad right now.”

 

Ivan sat up. “I could sneak out and come to give you a hug.”

 

Alfred laughed quietly and turned off his lamp so his visual was plunged into darkness.

 

“Where do you live, Alfred?” Ivan listened for his sisters’ snores. They were there, loud and deep and steady. He would do it.

 

“Sorry. I’m gonna go to sleep now.” Ivan heard the shuffling of blankets.

 

“Oh.”

 

“Thanks.”

 

Ivan held the phone closer. “Спокойной ночи,” he whispered, then inhaled and waited.

 

“‘Night to you too,” Alfred mumbled.

 

Ivan exhaled. The call went dead.

Chapter Text

Alfred picked up his phone Wednesday morning for a different purpose than talking to Ivan for once. He dialed Kiku and crossed his fingers that his friend would pick up. After the fourth ring, the museum worker was there with a cordial “Hello?”

 

“Yo.” Alfred rubbed at his eyes. “Did...Did Arthur Kirkland happen to...call you, last night?”

 

The other side of the line was a clear sort of fuzzy. After a pause, Kiku answered. “He did.”

 

Shit. “Um, okay, cool. And what did he say?”

 

Another pause. God, this was as awkward as their college breakup. “He told me about your problem. Not your problem as in—well, I mean the problem you and the FBI are having with...security.”

 

The shivers were tickling Alfred again. “Right. Yes. Totally. I just wanted to know if you remembered the guy you were telling me about last week or whenever. I was doing some thinking last night and...the guy in the elevator. Him. You said he was weird…?”

 

“Yes, Mr. Kirkland and I have considered him as our main suspect. We are working on identifying him now through security footage. The timing fits, though it is difficult to imagine he was able to... do so much in such little time.”

 

So they had already talked about everything and were considering suspects. Alfred was relieved that they were able to come to a conclusion and solve the hacking case so quickly, but worried about how Arthur had left Alfred completely out of the picture in doing so. It was a sketch move. “Did he say anything else about any other sort of problems?”

 

Kiku responded without hesitation this time. “No.”

 

Alfred sighed grimly. “I understand.”

 

.


The SAVE THE WHALES people were back. And today, they were blocking traffic.

 

“In Washington, D.C.!” Ivan complained, mostly to himself. This was much an annoyance. He and his sisters had rented a car with intentions to drive out to Chesapeake Bay and spend the day at the beach. But they couldn’t do that if they couldn’t get out of the city, could they. “Traffic is already bad enough here.”

 

“Should we call an Uber?” Yekaterina wondered peacefully from the backseat. The sight of Ivan’s sisters in their swimsuits and sunscreen, all ready to go if they only had a way, made him frustrated.

 

“How would it get here?” Natalya pointed out. “Let’s just roll down the windows and tell them to move. Politely, of course.”

 

Ivan sighed, watching the police motorcycles and pedestrians weave in and out of each other up ahead. Behind him there were horns. He rolled the windows down and let in some warm air, the same warm air that blew against the giant signs and banners. He inched the car forward.

 

A teenager wearing an oversized blue T-shirt that read “MARINE FISHING IS MEAN FISHING” was parading down the line of cars, peeping into windows and handing out flyers. Ivan almost rolled the rental’s windows back up.

 

“Hello!” the kid said, somewhat meekly, when he reached them. He fumbled with the enormous stack of flyers in his hands, his eyes wide and frantic and on everything but Ivan. “Would you like—”

 

“I am sorry, but we are not interested,” Ivan deadpanned. “Can you move?” he prodded, allowing his irritation to seep into his voice.

 

The teenager’s gaze finally met Ivan’s, and he gave a startled little hiccup. “O-Oh, okay.” He put a hand in his messy light brown hair. “You are. Um. I will…” He turned and began power-walking back down the strip toward the rest of his nature-loving posse.

 

“Well,” laughed Yekaterina. “That worked. I think you scared him, Vanya.”

 

“Vanya hopes he scared them all as well,” Ivan said back, only half-teasing. “I don’t want stupid politics to ruin our beach day.”

 

“We have an hour drive anyway,” Natalya pointed out, propping her sunglasses on the top of her head and propping open a book. “May as well leave it up to fate.”

 

Fate, as it turned out, was feeling generous. Within the span of five minutes, the road was clear. Whether this was due to Ivan’s “polite request” or the police’s further actions to control the situation could not be determined. What he knew was that once he hit the open interstate, nothing stood between them and the sea.

 

While on the freeway, Ivan turned up the radio and let his thoughts wonder. The overplayed pop anthems allowed him the perfect environment to muster over the morning’s messages. He had received exactly one from the spy ring and none from Alfred. This was uncanny in the sense that the spy ring didn’t often send him simple one-liner messages that just said < Due to recent events, the security of your identity and position have been threatened!!! Take preventative measures immediately!!! > and Alfred often sent him simple one-liner messages that just said mornin’ or i didn get no sleep cuz of y’allll! It was an understatement to say Ivan was scared. So he roared out of DC with his sisters, intending to get away from life’s complications for a little while.

 

Ivan gripped the steering wheel. In the backseat, Natalya was still immersed in her book while Yekaterina rested her head against the window, staring at the scenery outside. Maybe when he returned to the city, everything would be magically fixed.

 

Maybe he wouldn’t even return to the city. Maybe he would snag Alfred and stowaway with his sisters back home. Self-care.

 

An hour later, Ivan brought the rental car to a stop near the rock wall separating a small Maryland beach town from the wide blue of the Chesapeake Bay. The world was quiet here, but Katya and Natalya certainly were not. The second he parked, they were hopping out and digging beach balls and more sunscreen from the trunk. Ivan helped them, carrying the picnic basket that held their towels. Taking a breath of fresh, salty air, they trucked down to the beach.

 

It was a sparsely-crowded and narrow strip of sand, but after a couple minutes of walking down through the tide with bare feet, giggling at the seaweed tickling their ankles, they found an open spot and set up camp. Natalya attempted blowing up the beach ball, her face turning a frustrated shade of red. Yekaterina bashfully slipped out of her cover-up sundress. “It’s been a while since I’ve been to the beach; I fear my swimsuit body isn’t ready.”

 

Ivan smiled at her. “I think you’re beautiful. You both are. And if anyone thinks anything different, I will kill them.”

 

Yekaterina giggled and pushed sand at him. “Let’s just see if I remember how to swim first.”

 

The three made a break for the waves. Surprisingly, Natalya was the one to shy away at first, complaining that the water was too cold. The bow holding up her hair tossed in the wind. She danced along the edge of the water, hugging herself and only venturing in up to her knees until Ivan took her hand and showed her that, far out, there was a net keeping them from washing off to Virginia. And then Yekaterina splashed her.

 

“Hey!” Natalya shrieked. “Fine!” She let go of Ivan and waded in further. “I’m coming in. And I’m coming for you!

 

They chased each other all the way to the pier. Ivan was a weak swimmer at best, but he was the tallest and strongest, so he could swing his sisters around on his arms, carry them through the water bridal style, shrieking all the way, and attempt to balance them on his shoulders. This did not always work out. “Water went up my nose!” Yekaterina cried, and they toppled into the sea. Somewhere along the line Ivan started to imagine Alfred was with them, wearing his sunglasses, holding the rainbow beach ball, dark tan and shirtless… Ivan wondered if Alfred would care about how Ivan’s rash guard didn’t fully conceal his layer of stomach fat or the waterproof bandages around his neck. Katya tried to tickle him and he splashed backwards, warding her off by pulling Natalya in front of him, who yelped, laughed and spun in a circle, dragging her arm to create a water spiral. Ivan stepped back again, his foot touching a rock underwater. When he tested the floor once more, the floor suddenly wasn’t there, and he plummeted downwards.

 

Ivan flailed out his arms and opened his eyes in surprise. The brackish water stung, but he did catch a murky glimpse of something small and white floating in a ray of sun five feet to his left. He resurfaced and sputtered, swimming closer to his sisters, who had continued the splash fight without him.

 

“There’s something in the water,” Ivan informed dutifully.

 

“A shark!” Yekaterina sang.

 

Natalya just folded her arms and looked pointedly at him. “Have something to confess, Vanya?”

 

Ivan splashed them both. “No! I’m being serious!” Yet he couldn’t help but giggle at their responses. “I’m not sure, but...I think it’s a—”

 

A few meters away from them, a little girl in a purple princess floatable began to wail, pointing to the space in front of her. “JELLYFISH!”

 

Yekaterina’s body went still. “Not a shark.”

 

Natalya was the only one in the vicinity who immediately didn’t begin to make her way to the shore. “Really?” she asked, trying to peek around Ivan for a better look. “Where?”

 

Ivan laughed, tugging her inland. “It could sting you! Come on!” They seemed to be having a lot to do with ocean wildlife in one day.

 

And so the three siblings washed back up to the beach. Ivan collapsed on his towel, trying to gasp and sigh at the same time. Yekaterina fell down next to him, dusting wet and dry sand off her legs. Natalya strayed, remaining at the edge of the water, watching curiously for more gelatinous bay creatures.

 

Once Ivan had caught his breath, he rolled over and dug his phone out of the picnic basket. He snapped a quick picture of the beach scenery and sent it to Alfred.

 

Ivan: happy birthday raven!!!

 

He responded back so promptly it made Ivan’s heart rate speed up again.

 

Alfred: when we finally drive the british away Lafayette is there waiting

 

Ivan: what ( ・ั﹏・ั)

 

Alfred: what

 

Ivan: i came out to have a good time and i was almost attacked by a jellyfish. ;) how is your day

 

Alfred: a jellyfish omg that’s rad tho do u have any pics

 

Ivan: no i look bad

 

Alfred: no no u look good

 

Yekaterina had lain down and put her sun hat on. Ivan readjusted to make sure she wasn’t reading his messages or seeing his facial expressions.

 

Ivan: well, I did not come to america to be model

 

Alfred: ;)(;

 

Ivan: hey that’s my thing ;)(;

 

Alfred: wait lol

 

Alfred: so why did you come to america

 

“Ivan,” Katya chided abruptly, turning over. “When are you finally going to tell us who you’re always texting so much?”

 

Ivan froze. How...how could she know? He hadn’t...she hadn’t seen anything, had she? In a nanosecond, his mind flashed back through every instance where he’d had his phone out in front of his sisters. His memory couldn’t recall a particular instance where she’d gotten ahold of it. Like a broken faucet, he sputtered out, “What?”

 

Alfred: yo dude where’d u go

 

She grinned playfully. “Your older sister sees everything. Don’t think that just because I’ve been gone, I’ve gone blind. You have a special someone on the other end of that thing, don’t you!”

 

Okay, so she was more clever than he had presumed. Maybe it was the water in his ears, but the atmosphere was taking on more pressure. “I’m not texting anyone,” he lamely said.

 

“You are!” In a horrifying moment, Yekaterina lunged for the phone and snatched it out of Ivan’s hand before Ivan could un-freeze. She turned away and started scrolling through the text conversation.

 

Fire raced through his veins, and all of a sudden Ivan was furious. He pawed roughly at her shoulder, wrestling to seize back the phone. It fell out of both their grasps and plopped neatly on the sand a foot away, face-up. And the second it did, the screen lit up again with another message: Alfred’s contact name, Alfred❤️, over a line of text that read hey are you there i asked a question . Yekaterina squealed.

 

Her English isn’t good , Ivan told himself as he managed to secure hold of his phone. Maybe she hadn’t really seen or understood it. He should have left the dumb device at home.

 

“It’s for work,” Ivan grumbled, the lie finally coming to him.

 

“Are you sure? ” she teased.

 

Yes! ” Ivan glared at her. “And you’re going to forget about it.”

 

Katya shut up all at once, her face falling. Ivan had seen her be a crybaby many times before, but this time she looked less hurt and more pitiful towards him. He hated it worse.

 

Alfred: okay then lol that wasn’t suspicious at all well i’ll just go then byee

 

Ivan briefly glanced down at the messages. There was no way he could answer the “Why did you come to America?” question anyway, so he just didn’t say anything. Maybe he could make up an excuse later for leaving him on read. He silenced Alfred, turned his phone all the way off, and threw it back into the picnic basket. “Don’t touch,” he warned Yekaterina. “I’m going to go build a sandcastle with Natalya now.” So much for hoping his sisters would accept him.

 

“Okay,” Katya whimpered, clutching her sun hat to her chest.

 

The rest of the afternoon proceeded relatively normally. After a while the mood lightened, as did the sun, and the three eventually came together to work on the castle. The sand always dried too fast to stick, causing a frustrated Natalya to punch a hole in the mock onion dome. The tide wasn’t strong enough to flow in and make a moat, so they made due with a 15-centimeter-wide trench.  The end structure reached up to Ivan’s mid-calves, though, which was impressive. They took a selfie in front of it.

 

After packing up their gear and showering off, the trio walked the beachfront. Stretching all the way to the horizon were rows of cute restaurants and bars; they stopped for ice cream, and then stopped for lemonade, and then sandwiches. They ate supper at the end of a long wooden fisherman’s pier, their bare, aching feet dangling off the edge, past the point marked DANGER ZONE.

 

“I want to sleep here,” Ivan decided, curling his towel further around himself as a cool breeze drifted by.

 

“I wonder if the jellyfish glow in the dark,” Natalya mused. Her bow had dried out with wrinkles and had slipped to the side of her head.

 

“I think I need another panini,” Yekaterina voiced, burping, and then laughing.

 

The closer they got back to the rental car, the more unsettled Ivan’s stomach became. He even considered booking a hotel out here for them to stay the night, but didn’t think he had enough. He asked Yekaterina to drive. For some reason, he just did not want to go back home.

 

Natalya sensed something was wrong as she leaned her head against Ivan’s shoulder in the back seat. The sunset tapped against the windows. “Why are you tense and scared, Ivan?” she whispered, taking his hand.

 

He pondered over the possibility of her knowing about his texting, too. “I’m not,” he assured her.

 

“I don’t want to go back home, either,” she told him, drawing a circle on his palm. Ivan had the distant urge to pull away.

 

Instead, he just averted his eyes, watching the cars slip and slide alongside theirs on the road. “I think I would like to see Russia again.”

 

Soon after, Yekaterina found a smooth jazz station on the radio, and they sank down into sleep.

 

Ivan had a dream. He was standing in his kitchen—not the kitchen in his DC apartment, but the kitchen that belonged to his childhood home, a cozy cabin on the outskirts of Moscow. It appeared he was making some sort of cake, but was following directions through comments on his meme account. Every time he tried to scroll up to find the next step, the page refreshed and he was brought all the way to the bottom. If this wasn’t freaky enough already, Ivan was sure the cake smelled like Alfred’s taco mess from their date. The sense was so clear. He turned off the WiFi on his phone so he wouldn’t get any more messages, and then finally was he able to reach the next step in his recipe. But the final direction, in the form of a comment, just said “visit my profile.” With nothing else to do, Ivan hit the link to visit the profile. The entire account was empty, except for the profile picture. It was a blurry photo of a black-haired man in an elevator. Ivan was gently shaken awake by his sister before he could do any more research.

 

“The whale people are gone,” Katya commented with a yawn. They were back in Washington, the sun barely clinging to the horizon.

 

Ivan yawned and found he had a splitting headache. He closed his eyes on the streets outside. They were more tranquil than before, and substantially less crowded. Yekaterina was correct. There wasn’t a terrified kid with informative flyers to be seen. How strange.

 

Ivan moved like a cloud, in a lazy haze to return the car, guide his siblings through the subway home, and unlock his apartment. He felt sun-dried and weary, too tired to stress over the present ambiance of wrongness that had attached itself to him the second he had woken up. Natalya mixed them all vodka cocktails, and Ivan downed his in record time. He moved to the shower.

 

The bathroom fan was loud and blocked out the sound of Ivan typing as he logged onto his illegal laptop computer. With gnawing dread, he opened just the last new email sent to him from his superiors. Like its predecessor, it was a simple one-liner, and it chilled Ivan to the bone.

 

<You’ve been discovered. The shadow is unsuccessful. We’re in jeopardy.>

 

<Don’t come back to Washington, D.C.>

 

.


Chief Matthew Williams of the metropolitan police also picked up on the fourth ring. Alfred was fed up. “What—do I have to go yodel in Wal-Mart to get any attention around here?”

 

“Hey, Al,” his brother sighed. “Um, I’m sorry. I’m very busy at the moment.”

 

He did sound like he had been working all day, which, Alfred could almost certainly tell, he had. “What’s the latest on the situation?”

 

Matt’s voice got quieter. “Uh...which situation, exactly?”

 

“Good golly, any of them at this point.” Alfred tossed his spoon into the sink. He had just finished off the last of Ivan’s sister’s soup for a late dinner, and soon it would be back to the grind. “Today at work it was silent . Kirkland didn’t say anything to us but ‘Let me handle the rest of the hacking stuff.’ It makes no sense, man. Please tell me you know something. Did he talk to you? Like he talked to Kiku and everyone else but me?”

 

There was a long pause. Alfred saw it coming. “You told me to talk to you whenever,” he said, softer.

 

Matthew’s voice was pained as he sighed out, “Alfred…”

 

“What. What is it. I’m listening.”

 

More pauses, more uncertainty. “I’m sorry. I—I can’t.”

 

“What do you mean, you can’t?”

 

“I need to go. Goodnight, Alfred. Maybe we can talk again tomorrow morning at the station.”

 

He definitely knew something. They all definitely knew something. Maybe there wasn’t just a hacker probe happening here. Alfred was going to launch his own investigation into the mess.

 

“Goodnight,” he told his brother, but the line was already dead.

Chapter Text

the gray division

 

They were now on escape plan K, and things were still not looking up.

 

“Here he comes!” hissed Francis as the sound of feet on concrete neared. “Everyone act natural!”

 

Francis immediately slumped over in his chains, miming a peaceful sleep. Gilbert sneezed, and then coughed, and them sneezed again. Antonio sat up straight. When Lovino entered, Antonio grinned and chirped out a “Hi.”

 

“Stop looking at me like that with your dirty wet whore face,” Lovino advised, folding his arms and coming to a stop in front of him.

 

Francis “woke up” and fluttered his eyelashes. He had spotted the key that bounced against Lovino’s hip. “Oh, what is happening?”

 

“We’re going on a frickin’ road trip,” he supplied, not taking his eyes off of Antonio. “Which means I will have to take off the chains. Try anything and I’ll cut you.”

 

Antonio gulped. “I’m—I’m not scared.”

 

Lovino asserted his dominance by T-posing, Chris Pratt-style. “I think you are.”

 

“My God, I am, ” Antonio breathed.

 

It happened in a flash. Lovino lunged forward, pulling some sort of cloth out of nowhere and covering Antonio’s nose and mouth with it. Antonio struggled, eyes widening, chest lifting up—but it only took a few seconds before he was out cold. A siesta: hardcore version.

 

Gilbert and Francis squeaked in perfect harmony. Lovino assessed his work, nodding in satisfaction. Then he advanced toward them.

 

“This is how you got us the first time!” Gilbert shrieked. “Oh, I can still feel the bowling ball return around my poor, poor arm…”

 

“Ah, and I had such a mal de tête when I woke up!” Francis was panicking. “What if I do not breathe?”

 

Lovino closed in. “Trust me—you would be doing us all a favor.”

 

.



Signore Feliciano Vargas was a mafioso for all the wrong reasons: his university grades were dismal, he was insecure, he owned no cats, and he had been in love far too many times. He just knew he was the one that would defeat the FBI and save Grandpa and Lovino but most importantly Lovino—he had to be. However, the journey to do as such would put all of Feliciano and all of his reasonings to the test.

 

The morning Agent Ludwig Beilschmidt was brought in to monitor his life was slightly chilly. There were definite hopes of it heating up, however. It was Sunday, the day after the interview at the police station, and Feliciano was taking himself to church. Ludwig met him there, wearing a dress shirt—no FBI jacket—and slacks and...were those glasses? Those were glasses! Feliciano grinned. Ludwig looked good in glasses. Why hadn’t he worn them before? Feliciano wondered if Ludwig went to church, and how ironic it was that the government was getting involved in religion for this, and if Ludwig would ask him weird questions about it, and if Ludwig planned on holding his hand during the ceremony, and if the priest would scorn them if he knew the real reason Ludwig was there. Feliciano had to catch himself before voicing any of these concerns, remembering how he had been strictly warned by a certain someone not to talk too much and say something condemning.

 

In the end, Feliciano spent most of mass thinking about that certain someone and their empty seat next to him—the empty seat Ludwig filled. Ludwig didn’t sing, but he did hold Feliciano’s hand and say peace . That was something.

 

Afterwards, they took the metro to Feliciano’s apartment. While Ludwig had visited Feliciano at his produce market, Ludwig had never been here, at least in person . Ludwig’s FBI partner, however, had. Feliciano had watched the pretty lady interviewing Feliciano’s neighbor through the peephole in his door shortly after Feliciano’s interrogation at the police station. The scene in the hallway had not lasted long, and Elizabeta Héderváry hadn’t returned, so Feliciano assumed he was safe and that his “alibi checked out.” Feliciano had been told not to interact with too many outsiders for fear of creating a memorable impression, but it was just against Feliciano’s nature not to be friendly with the neighbors! And now it had paid off, so ha .

 

“We’re here!” he announced, beckoning Ludwig inside his small home with a dramatic flourish. “I know it is not much, but it is ours. Mine , I mean . It is mine.”

 

Ludwig seemed lost in thought as he surveyed. “It is much, though.” His voice was flat. “It’s a mess.”

 

Feliciano laughed nervously as he shut the door behind them and dead-bolted it. (Rent was cheaper on the seedier side of town.) “I was moving things around last night; sorry. Would you like lunch, Ludwig? I’m going to make lunch.”

 

“Why were you moving things around?” Ludwig asked in the most careful of tones, stepping over a pile of old magazines to follow Feliciano into the kitchen. His blue eyes behind those glasses kept darting around, not missing a single detail. Feliciano’s stomach rolled.

 

“To get ready for you , of course!” He dragged the attention back to himself. At least he could do that. “As you see, I didn’t finish putting things back, because I got tired and hungry, but I figured that if we are going to be all domestic and everything” —he winked at Ludwig, and there it was again, that blush— “we may as well have a clean space for it.”

 

“This is your attempt at cleaning,” Ludwig stated, his voice remaining devoid of emotion, to his credit.

 

Feliciano had already turned away and was inspecting the equally-unclean contents of his cabinets. “So, for lunch, do you like better: spaghetti or linguine?”

 

In the beginning, Feliciano had just liked the way Ludwig looked at him. First Ludwig’s ears would turn pink, then his cheeks, and by the time he glanced away his whole face would be endearingly rosy. Embarrassing him made Feliciano feel bad, but it was so easy he would do it even when he tried not to! And then, Ludwig was tall and smart and a good listener and...swole and everything. In the end, Feliciano decided he just liked Ludwig, no matter what terrifying game of cops-and-robbers and pretend they were being forced to play.

 

“Are you...going to eat?” Ludwig asked, breaking the silence. They were sitting at the tiny, tiny kitchen table in front of a heaping plate of pasta. (Spaghetti.)

 

Feliciano had been staring. “Oh. Yes, yes!” He shoveled a piping hot forkful into his mouth, then hissed at the burn. He gave Ludwig two thumbs-up and said over a full mouth, “Is not poisoned, I swear!”

 

Ludwig sighed. “I’ll take your word for it.” He dug in.

 

And the best part was that the food really wasn’t poisoned, either! Ludwig’s reaction was just that great as Feliciano waited for it. “This is good,” the FBI agent marveled quietly. His eyes flickered quickly up to Feliciano’s grin, then back down. “Um. Thank you.”

 

“Your new glasses make you look even more cute,” Feliciano told him, grinning wider.

 

Ludwig didn’t look up from the food. His shoulders squeezed together a little. “They are...not new,” he said, quieter.

 

“Oh, well, new to me.” Feliciano now studied them more. Next to the lens on Ludwig’s right side, the thickness of the frame reflected double the light from the weak kitchen incandescents, almost as if there was...another lens there. A different type of lens. One would easily miss it. The most miniscule chord of fear struck Feliciano’s heart, and he leaned in further to see better—

 

Ludwig sat up abruptly and put his fork down. “Let’s talk about you now. I noticed you have no landline phone at this house. Do you carry a cell?”

 

The fear in Feliciano’s heart curdled. “No,” he responded promptly. “I dropped it in a pot of boiling water and the rice trick did not work. Every part is broken, hah. Oops. Did I not tell you?”

 

For a second, Ludwig looked startled by the fact that he might already have known something Feliciano was just now telling him, but masked it with another calm face and carried on. “Isn’t it unsafe to not have a phone? What if you get hurt?”

 

Feliciano wished he had broken out the wine for this. “If the FBI is with me, why would I be getting hurt?” He gave a small, sharp smile. “Also I have my friends and neighbors.”

 

Ludwig simply nodded. “That is fair. You must be good at making friends and neighbors. Do you keep weapons?”

 

Feliciano folded his arms evenly, but under the table, he swung his feet back and forth. “We can protect each other without weapons.”

 

Ludwig gave him a level stare in return. “I am sure you do.”

 

The conversation continued until Monday, when Agent Beilschmidt returned. He carried with him a box of latex gloves and a trash bag. “Do you have a broom?” He asked by way of greeting, standing in the dirty doorway. “I would like to help you clean.”

 

Feliciano was slightly taken aback, as he wore only a house T-shirt and boxer shorts. He munched a cookie. “Oh, hello, Ludwig, ciao! I was just getting ready for naptime…”

 

“Then I can clean by myself while you sleep,” Ludwig decided, meeting him in the eyes. “May I enter?”

 

“Yes, please, you sexy blond vampire,” Feliciano yawned, tossing the door carelessly into its stop. Get his house cleaned for him and get a nap? It sounded glorious. He ate two more cookies, trotted off to his bedroom, tossed his shirt to the floor where he kept most of his clothing, put on a sleeping mask left behind by a certain someone that said in pink stitching The Diva Is Out , and slid under the covers.

 

He only realized his mistake after he rose from heavenly slumber two hours later.

 

Ludwig was sitting on the old sofa, sorting through the mess of Feliciano’s coffee table. Half the living room had been organized already, and the kitchen was spotless. Feliciano stalked over, sat down on the coffee table, crossed his legs, and put his hands on his hips. “Don’t you need a warrant for this?”

 

Ludwig looked up at him all innocent-like. “No, I don’t see why I would need one to clean.” Emphasis on clean.

 

But Feliciano only rolled his eyes. Tilted his head. “Okay, then.” He looked closer at the items Ludwig was examining. “Did you find anything, um, interesting, while you were cleaning?”

 

Ludwig leaned back slowly, setting down a colorfully covered DVD. “Just some...bad...films.”

 

He grinned. “Bad as in you do not like them or bad as in they are just not good films?”

 

“I will decline to answer that question,” the agent said, smartly.

 

Feliciano laughed. “You should see my sketchbook.” He moved to the couch, bouncing.

 

Ludwig let out the faintest of snorts. (Feliciano’s heart beat with glee at having made him almost laugh!) “Oh, I have already looked through that.” He ruffled through old copies of Vogue with his bright blue latex gloves, then moved on to the stack of travel guides and sun-faded notebooks. Studious and dangerous.

 

Feliciano couldn’t stop himself. He reached down and set his own hands on top of Ludwig’s, stopping the action. Ludwig didn’t say anything at first, just looked at him quizzically, those special glasses capturing everything in the room.

 

“Who is Gilbert?” Feliciano blurted out.

 

Ludwig tensed. “Where did you hear that name?” He carefully began to pull his hands away, but Feliciano held on.

 

“Is he your brother?” he insisted, venturing into the dark cloud of secrets.

 

“No. I’ve never heard that name in my life.”

 

“Oh, surely, it is not that uncommon a name!” Feliciano scooted closer. “Many people have brothers.”

 

Ludwig yanked himself away, hands and all. “You have a brother. In—In Italy.”

 

“In Italy,” he echoed, fiercely nodding. “Like you made me say in the interview. You also said a name Gilbert in the interview! That is why I was just wondering —”

 

“What does your brother do in Italy, exactly?” Ludwig asked. His voice was lower, though he didn’t sound angry like he had that day at the police station, just startled.

 

After a beat, Feliciano responded, “He is a farmer. He sells produce in Italy. Like me here.”

 

Ludwig shifted a little on the sofa, his gaze distant and stormy. He looked hot when he was thinking. Too bad Feliciano was too terrified to touch him again. “The family business,” Ludwig concluded.

 

“Yes,” Feliciano breathed out. No! “Wait, no , not like tha—”

 

“You know,” Ludwig thought aloud, reaching forward and taking Feliciano’s hand, “I think I would like to visit this produce farmer’s market you work at, again. Tomorrow.”

 

And so, on Tuesday, that was where Feliciano found them. Under the sweltering heat of the afternoon sun, dressed in aprons and more latex blue gloves, surrounded by fruit, vegetables, and customers alike.

 

Ludwig was a good worker—maybe even better than Feliciano. He got the hang of things quickly, and could lift more boxes of produce at a time. He worked alongside Feliciano like a shadow, and even took orders of his own, but Feliciano felt his eyes on his back whenever he made small talk with the visitors. They were mostly old ladies that called Feliciano “sweetheart” and euphorically described how these blueberries would taste in their famous, generations-old cobbler recipe, which Feliciano didn’t think sounded like suspicious Mafia talk to anyone, but he could never guess how Ludwig read it.

 

He was like a big, soft pretzel—lightly salted.

 

“We are running low on boxes,” he informed quietly, brushing past Feliciano to hand someone their change.

 

“There are probably more in the cellar,” Feliciano answered, absentmindedly checking his hair in the reflection of the windows.

 

“...Shall I get them?” Ludwig asked, nodding towards the big metal doors that marked the darkest corner of the inside part of the small building.

 

Feliciano perked to attention. “No, no, no!” He took a breath and stretched out his hands. “No, it’s okay! I will get boxes. You stay here.” He added in a smile to smooth things over.

 

Ludwig gave him a quizzical look, but offered up no further comments. At least he seemed more relaxed today. Feliciano had almost messed up big time. At least they had prepared for today.

 

So he left the FBI agent to his duties and carefully descended into the musk of the basement. Feliciano hadn’t been down in weeks, even though he worked here. No one used it—not even the real owner of the place. The cellar had been forgotten. Years ago someone had had the bright idea to put up tacky linoleum that clashed with the rows of old, broken refrigerators, and it smelled like someone was aging cheese in the rows of antique, spider web-covered jars that lined one wall. Feliciano didn’t venture off the stone steps down until he had secured a hand on the string that turned on the singular overhead light bulb. It coughed, sputtered, and with a whine, finally flickered on.

 

Lovino had forgotten to move the three chairs.

 

Feliciano wasted no time doing it himself, stacking the chairs and shoving them into the back of the room so it looked like they had been there a long time. Then he grabbed an armful of unused cardboard produce boxes, turned off the light, and dashed back up into the heat of the day.

 

“Here you go, Ludwig!” Feliciano gracefully tipped them into his hands.

 

“Ah, thank you.” Ludwig took the stack easily. “Another delivery of tomatoes just came in.” As if they were actual colleagues, actual partners. “Can you help me unload?” He looked so professional in those glasses.

 

“Of course.” Feliciano smiled a real smile this time. It felt good to forget they were part of an ongoing investigation and to do normal things that weren’t hacking or kidnapping or chasing false leads and suspicious speculations across the city. He and Ludwig created an assembly line from the back of the delivery truck, passing boxes of fruits down a line to the market. He made sure their hands touched every time.

 

“What is it like to work for the FBI?” Feliciano asked Ludwig on Wednesday. They sat in a booth at a somewhat high-end restaurant, empty plates and half-full glasses in front of them. Feliciano had used his entire Tuesday paycheck to pay for this, though Ludwig still insisted on picking up his own portion. It was getting late, and some local music act was setting up in the courtyard outside.

 

Agent Beilschmidt had retained his tranquil demeanor from yesterday. The drinks helped, undoubtedly; he was more open to talk than to interrogate. “It can be...a lot, sometimes. There is a lot of stress. Especially now. I—I haven’t been sleeping good.” He said this down at his silverware.

 

Feliciano had to remember to stop biting his tongue. Careful, careful. “I’m sorry. That must be so terrible. Is it my fault? I hope it is not my fault.”

 

Ludwig sighed. “No, it’s just… Ever since we moved, I have been working towards this. But lately I have been wondering…” He glanced around them, as if fearful a wild Elizabeta Héderváry was going to pop up from behind the bar. “I have been wondering if what I am doing is really right.”

 

Feliciano stared. “Me too.”

 

“Of course, it doesn’t matter. It is not my position to question… Well, it doesn’t matter. What is done is done.” He reached for his jacket, pulling it into his lap. “Are you ready to go?”

 

He nodded fiercely. “Thank you for the date tonight!”

 

Ludwig, as expected, was appalled. “Date? This is not a—a date.”

 

Feliciano held the door open, simpering. “Then what is it?”

 

Ludwig stepped carefully into the night. “A semi-formal business dinner.”

 

“You sound like you had that answer prepared,” teased Feliciano, following him down the street. “And that tie looks pretty formal to me!”

 

Ludwig was red, red, red. “You are under investigation!” he laughed out incredulously.

 

“So?” Feliciano snuck an arm around his waist. (A real laugh this time!)

 

So, ” Ludwig warned, gently brushing his arm away, “there would be trouble. I could get… You would…” He thought for a second. “Actually, I do not know what would happen.” He focused on something ahead, the street lights reflecting off of those damned glasses. “But I don’t want to wait to find out.” He straightened his posture and started to walk faster.

 

Feliciano jogged forward to keep up. “Hey, has it ever happened before? ‘Cuz if you guys really do all this to follow a case…”

 

Ludwig picked up the pace even more. The street was empty ahead of them; the metro station was near. “The consequences would be grave, I am sure.”

 

Feliciano ran ahead, throwing a grin over his shoulder. “I could really get us into trouble?”

 

“You’re already in trouble!” Ludwig shouted up as Feliciano gained ground. “Hey, what are you doing? Come back!”

 

“Catch me!” He burst into a sprint.

 

If Ludwig said anything next, it was lost to the wind, to the pounding of Feliciano’s heart. He already knew Ludwig couldn’t catch him. He wondered what would happen if he just kept running, forever, away from all his problems and duties, away from his brother, away from the men with the jackets, away from the man with the guns, away from the men with the computers. For the first time since he had stepped onto American soil, he felt truly free.

 

He sped into the metro station, inane giggles spilling over. Ludwig was sputtering somewhere behind him. Feliciano slowed to swipe his card, allowing Ludwig to catch up a little. The few locals that were out gave them confused glares as they tramped down the escalators. Feliciano spotted no trains in the station yet. Good .

 

He skipped right along the edge of the platform, slower, slower, allowing Ludwig to gain ground. He heard him puffing directly behind him. “Feliciano, what are you—”

 

Feliciano came to a dead halt and turned around. They smacked into each other. Due to a completely random, errant fling of Feliciano’s arm, the glasses on Ludwig’s face went flying, off the platform, magnificently through the air, and down, down, down onto the train tracks below.

 

Feliciano grabbed hold of Ludwig to keep his balance. “Oh!” He laughed loudly. “You caught me, wow!”

 

Ludwig completely ignored him, staring into the black abyss of the tracks. “My...glasses.”

 

“What?” Feliciano confusedly leaned over the side, past the yellow tape. He spotted them, cracked into two pieces, but resting neatly in the middle of the concrete floor. In two minutes they would be crushed to oblivion. “Oh my gosh! Your glasses! Oh my gosh, Ludwig, I am so sorry!”

 

Ludwig’s eyes were so wide. He looked to his glasses, looked to Feliciano, looked to the arrival and departure boards, the witnesses, and the sign that said in bold, commanding authority DO NOT VENTURE ONTO TRACKS along with a helpful image that described his fate if he should do so. Helpless. “I needed those,” he stated simply.

 

“I am so sorry!” Feliciano repeated. “I should not have run. It is all my fault! Please forgive me, Ludwig! You can still see, right?”

 

He nodded slowly, still in a sort of shock. Feliciano was truly worried if he would be angry. “I can still see.”

 

Feliciano touched his arm softly. “I’m sorry.”

 

Ludwig kept nodding. “It’s okay.”

 

Feliciano curled his toes down in his shoes, shifting his weight back and forth. A rumble sounded from deep within the tunnels. “Do you still like me?”

 

Ludwig clenched his hand into a white-knuckled fist, but didn’t look mad. In fact, he didn’t look anything. He didn’t say anything, either. He just turned and faced the tunnel as the train rushed in, shattering his discarded glasses to smithereens.

 

“This is me,” Feliciano announced, quieter. “Goodbye, Ludwig. See you soon.” His heart was beginning to hurt, and he had sudden-onset regrets as he waited to step into the car.

 

“Goodbye, Feliciano,” Ludwig responded, just as quiet. Thoughtful.

 

And that was what gave it away. Feliciano plopped into an empty, smelly, hard-plastic seat. Had he messed up, somehow? Did Ludwig know something? They had been having so much fun! What a way to ruin the moment.

 

He could already hear himself being scolded. After all, he wasn’t supposed to be clever. Ludwig had watched him work, listened to his story, searched his house . It was a given that countless mistakes had been made, by both parties. So maybe this was a different type of mistake.

 

Feliciano pulled his legs up and hugged his knees to his chest. His heart ached . He put his legs down and spread out his hands. He could not get comfortable. His heart throbbed . He turned around and watched Ludwig through the window as the doors closed and they began to move. His heart cried .

 

The consequences would be grave, indeed.

 


.

 

 

The new room wasn’t dark, smelly, or covered in spiders. It was carpeted, drywalled, trimmed, and completely empty except for them, their chains, and the new plastic folding chairs they sat in. It seemed like they had been shoved into the tiny closet of somebody’s new house. And it was bright. Much brighter than the cellar.

 

¡Ay! My eyes !” was the first thing Antonio said upon achieving consciousness. Francis had been right; he had a killer migraine.

 

“It is like the hangover without the pleasure of being drunk first,” Francis was describing. “The friends without the benefits.”

 

Antonio blinked twice. “I can’t decide if I should take that as an insult or not, considering the quality of your benefits.

 

Aaaaand, I’m going to stop you right there,” interjected an even paler-looking Gilbert. His chair was tilted so his face pressed against the wall, as if Lovino hadn’t even bothered with keeping him upright. “Because I think I finally figured something out. I know what day it is.”

 

“But, Gilbert, we just woke up!” Francis pointed out. “Any amount of time could have passed!”

 

Antonio didn’t care. Any information, at this point, would be useful to their sad, sorry situation. “What is it?”

 

Gilbert paused for dramatic effect, his scrunched-up face forming a smirk. “It is Wednesday, my dudes.”

 

“How do you know?” Francis questioned.

 

“Because I just heard that loud Italian complain through the wall that crappy hackers ruin everything and the three of us are shitting stupid and this is the worst Wednesday of his life.”

 

“You can hear him!” Antonio declared. “Anything else? Is he talking with someone else? What are they saying?”

 

Gilbert listened more, and it was quiet for a moment. “No, but I do hear police sirens somewhere.”

 

“Coming for us?” gasped Francis. “Is that bastard Arthur Kirkland finally going to stage a rescue attempt?”

 

They waited.

 

“No, they must be for someone else…”

Chapter Text

When they found him, he was knitting.

It was a little past midnight when the knock on the door came. He was sitting in the tiny kitchen, Yekaterina fast asleep on the sofa, Natalya using his bed. His hands shook the needles when he heard a rough, Spanish-accented voice say through the wood, "Open up. This is the police."

With all the remaining calm he could muster, he set down his yarn and rose. He stared at the door, frozen, feeling a wave of cold sweat wash over him. "Open up now, please." He took one step forward, his legs feeling like jelly, his heart not quite sure if it was supposed to be beating or not at this moment. "We will use force to enter if you do not comply." He moved.

Four officers were standing on his doorstep. The dreadlocked one in the middle was smoking a fat cigar, like something out of a movie. When he took it out to speak, he sounded friendly, despite the gravity his words held. "Ivan Braginsky, you are under arrest for the probable cause of hacking the United States government. Step on back inside, please, and get your hands where I can see them. We don't wanna make this difficult, okay?"

He took a step back as the officers entered. "No," he muttered, more to himself than to anyone else. His hands were forced into cuffs behind his back, and then he was being instructed to stand against the wall so he could be patted down. In his panicked state he struggled a little and got pushed and yelled at. When he heard an officer shout, "There's a woman in here!" from the living room, and then a yelp from Katya, he began to hyperventilate.

He didn't want to get caught. He didn't want to wear handcuffs or go to court or to prison. But most of all, he didn't want it to happen to his sisters. He tried to turn around and see what was going on.

Yekaterina was helpless, frightened, and confused. She shouted in her best broken English as the officer slowly led her into the kitchen, still in her pajamas, her hands in the air and her face streaked with grief as she saw Ivan. "What the hell is going on?" she whispered to him in Russian.

He didn't answer—only tried to swallow his stiffening tongue. Where was Natalya?

"Search the rest of the apartment," the cigar-smoking cop advised his friends. "The FBI guys will sweep by later, but if we find that computer…"

An officer flung open the bedroom door, and there stood his youngest sister, already posed with her hands in the air and her face giving away no fear. "He's innocent," she declared boldly. She was led out, as well.

Then they waited a few moments for the bedroom and bathroom to be searched. He knew he was done for. He hadn't hidden the laptop safely at all last night, and it could be easily seen if one only opened the cabinet under the sink. But low and behold, the officer emerged with a grim expression and a shake of his head, empty-handed. What did it mean?

The cigar-smoking cop finally faced him, scanning him up and down, and then nodding once. "All right. Listen up, Mr. Braginsky. The name's Carlos Machado. We're gonna take you down to the station now, and these ladies will come, too. Are they related to you?"

He didn't move. "They're innocent," he stated in Russian.

Carlos let out a little laugh. "Okay, okay, you're playing this game with me. I get it. Been there many times before. And don't worry; I hate Americans anyway. But there are some guys there that wanna see ya. Big guys. Important; you've caused quite a stir. So don't give us no trouble, okay, man? Okay. You have the right to remain silent, and anything you say can be used against you…"

 

.

 

Toris picked Alfred up at six, and they drove through early morning traffic to the police station in a semi-awkward semi-silence.

"How's Felicks?" Alfred coughed out when it grew too unbearable. He was restless; he could never stand the silence. He knew Arthur Kirkland would be at the station, and Kiku, and that they had found the hacker(s) responsible for the breach. But after getting four hours of sleep the night before, he had worked himself up into a frenzy about why they hadn't yet told him anything. And what Matthew had to do with it. His own brother—turned against him.

Toris's face went red and his hands on the steering wheel went white. "Um. Felicks is fine, I guess."

Alfred fiddled with his belt buckle. It got jammed and he cursed, leaning back and running his hands through his hair. Finally: "You've been working here for a long time. Longer than me. Does he ever, like, talk to you?"

He caught Toris's glance in the mirror as he gulped. "No. Um. Do you mean that he...talks to himself?"

"Sure. Sure I mean that." Alfred stared ahead, willing the cars to go faster. His stomach was acting up again—that was how he knew it was bad. He knew that whatever lay ahead at the station wasn't gonna boost his rep. "Good golly. This is just hell, dude."

Toris nodded solemnly. "This job is very problematic. That is the reasoning it is top secret, I think. I think...I think that if Felicks really is a dealer on the—on the black market, at this point, there is nothing the US government or any other coalition of governments could do to defend ourselves if we tried to prosecute him. For one, he would probably be too powerful. And we would be having trouble to explain ourselves—explain how we know. There would be outrage all around everywhere, and a fight. He is unethical; we are unethical. It is a circle with no end."

Alfred hadn't thought that deeply into it—their job situation—and felt a little stunned at the sudden revelation from a quiet coworker and a quiet friend he had known for so long. "Uh. You're not wrong, I guess, but, uh. I was actually talking about the road work ahead of us." He coughed. Now he looked dumb. "You know, like, 'I sure hope it does?'" Alfred almost gave him a friendly nudge to diffuse the tension but held off at the last second. "Like, 'I sure hope the road works? Ahead of us? Road...work?' Get it?"

Toris bit his lip. "The road is seeming fine to me."

"Yeah. Yeah, you know, it really is." He closed his eyes and let out a long, shuddering sigh through his nose. "Probably just the whale people. Your magnet, y'know." Alfred opened his eyes just in time to make more awkward eye contact with Toris in the mirror again, and at hearing about SAVE THE WHALES, he cringed away.

"Are you okay, Alfred?"

Alfred fidgeted again. All his words came out in the next breath: "Yeah, sorry, I'm just kind of fearing for my life? I have this gnawing, horrible dread that Arthur Kirkland is going to actually murder me and I hardly know why—I mean I kinda do know why, or at least suspect why—and all I wanted to do was help catch this hacker, but no, so now I'm here."

"But...Arthur likes you. You are his favorite," Toris claimed. And then he looked curious. "What exactly have you...done?"

The unnerving feeling that had been growing on Alfred perked to attention. He decided to not answer the question. "I'm just...anxious."

Toris nodded once. "I understand. It will pass; don't worry. It will be okay."

But, alas, it would not be okay.

They made it to the station. Alfred spotted the shared Ford in the parking lot and knew Matthew must indeed be here, carrying through with his promise from yesterday that maybe we can talk again tomorrow morning at the station. He swallowed the lump in his throat. He pretended to be here for only that reason. "I'm just here to see my brother," he breathed to himself as he and Toris slid into their FBI jackets. "Just here for Matt."

Toris tried to give him an encouraging smile as he held open the door and Alfred was hit with the AC and a cold sweat rush at the same time.

He tried to visit on a normal schedule, so he knew his way to Matt's office, but it turned out he didn't have to follow it. He spotted Matthew right there in the hallway, talking to another familiar-looking cop, and waved himself over.

"Hey! How's it goin'?" Alfred rushed out, putting on a smile. "I forgot the donuts."

Matthew perked up, and then laughed nervously. "Oh, hah. Hi. You—You did, eh?"

The other officer, the big Cuban named Carlos, let out an exasperated groan and slapped his hands over his face. "Oh, come on! You again? Could ya at least not stand next to him? It gets even harder to tell you two apart that way."

Alfred laughed good-naturedly, but not without injecting nerves into it, as well. Why was Matthew looking at Alfred like Alfred had just brought an olden-day pioneer curse upon the family name? "I'm wearing this huge-ass jacket, man! It says FBI in, like, neon yellow size one thousand font!"

Carlos shook his dreadlocks. "Well, don't go shovin' it in our faces now, big shot."

"Hey, if anyone, he's the big shot!" Alfred pointed at Matthew, who flinched. "Mr. Sheriff Supreme of DC and all, right?"

"He is police. Not sheriff," Carlos argued back.

"Oh yeah? Is there really a difference?"

Before it could escalate into a larger disaster, Matthew put his foot down. (He exhaled with slightly more force than normal and the conversation ground to a halt.) Slowly, he gave Carlos a polite nod, and Toris one as well. Then, cautiously, he turned to Alfred. In the smallest voice manageable he said, "I think that you are needed elsewhere at the moment."

Alfred's stomach dropped at the same time Carlos turned away and scoffed, "That's about right. Tell him."

"Tell him what, Matt?" Alfred questioned, laughing nervously again. "I thought I came to…"

He trailed off as Matthew gave him a tense smile and pointed behind him, down the hall. Therein lay Chief Arthur Kirkland of the black division.

"Top of the morning, Alfred!" he exclaimed, in a more jovial tone than normal, but Alfred could spot the murder in his eyes from a mile away. "How are you? And good day, Toris."

Toris looked unsure if nodding back was the correct option. "Hello."

"Hello indeed." Kirkland's smile was razor sharp. "Have you done any work so far this morning?"

"Just a few minutes," Toris answered obediently. "Everything looks normal."

"Oh, but let's be reasonable. I was referring to him." Arthur extended a palm to Alfred. "Our trusted young Agent Jones here. Alfred, have you done any work?"

Normally Alfred had no problems with being the sudden center of attention. But here, right now, today, in this economy? He was faltering. "I. Have not yet."

"Right." Arthur Kirkland kept nodding and nodding. "Right. And I'm going to correctly assume you hadn't done any work late last night, either."

"But you caught the hacker, didn't you," Alfred interrupted. "I figured that out at least. And they're...here?"

"Yes, we caught our bloody hacker." The chief turned to Carlos and Matthew. "And, by the way, he's still not talking. Hasn't even mentioned about wanting lawyer. The women are still unstable; they won't leave the side of the cell and tell me they don't speak English."

Carlos tsked. "Can't blame 'em."

Alfred shifted. "Who is it? The hacker? Is Kiku here?"

Arthur turned back to face Alfred fully. "Yes, Mr. Honda is here. He's already identified the subject in question, so now it's your turn. Maybe you can help him find his words for us."

"Wait, what? How can I…" He let the sentence hang, staring at everyone and coming to the full realization that he was right. Everyone knew what was going on except for him. "Fine. I wanna see."

Kirkland nodded cheerily. "Oh, you don't have a choice. You're going to see. Come."

Alfred considered whether he should disobey and make a run for it. Obviously he was in trouble, but Arthur insinuating Alfred could somehow help the hacker "find his words for us?" Something didn't add up, and whatever that something was scared him. He squeezed his hands and followed his boss down the corridor, Toris and Matt behind him.

"Right this way," Arthur said, holding open a door when they arrived in the holding cell area. He was no longer wearing a pretend smile or speaking mirthfully. "Go in and see for yourself."

And so Alfred went in, and he saw.

He had watched years of movies where the slow-motion effect was used, but hadn't felt it himself quite like this. Everything was sluggish. First he saw the floor, and the metal bars stretching between it and the ceiling, and then he saw the two ladies whispering in the corner, and then he saw what he was meant to see, standing in the cell. The man looked utterly defeated: his broad shoulders slumped, his downy blond hair falling into his face, his eyes—those beautiful purple-blue eyes—downcast. Until they were rising, and rising, and meeting Alfred's own.

For just one moment things didn't quite connect and Alfred excitedly blurted out, "Ivan!"

For just one moment—"Alfred!"

And then time stood still.

Those eyes of Ivan's eyes went wide, and he slapped a hand over his mouth at the same time Alfred took a step back. The tide of realization swept over them and washed them out. Alfred forgot to breathe. This was the reason Matthew looked afraid of him, and the reason Kiku hadn't said a word to him, and the reason Arthur was going to actually murder him. Ivan was the Russian spy. And Alfred—Alfred in his suit and jacket and glasses—Alfred was the FBI spy.

He could see the dots connecting in Ivan's own mind as well, as the man seemed to begin to shudder as he pointed a single accusatory finger through the cell bars. Alfred hadn't realized he had been pointing, himself. He turned quickly back to Arthur, looking for an explanation, or assurance that this was just a dream, but the chief was silent and frowning. Alfred met Ivan's eyes again and whispered, "How?"

Ivan's features twisted into an expression Alfred had not once seen him wear before. Nothing like the soft smiles in the park or even the complacent face he wore when scrolling through his phone in the late afternoon or early morning. "Ty solgal mne."

But Alfred had to be defensive. "You lied to me, too! What...what is this?"

Ivan surged forward, clutching the bars between his fists. "Ty govorish' po-russki! Ya znal eto!"

"What's he saying," uttered Kirkland.

Alfred ignored him. He felt hot all over, and not the good kind of hot he used to feel in Ivan's presence. It was a frustrated, embarrassed, confused and angry kind of hot. A hot that made part of him want to forget this was happening, grab Ivan, move to Alaska, and become humble fishermen...and the other part of him want to walk away now, leave Ivan behind bars, and see him later in court. It was what a hacker deserved. A Russian spy. An enemy of the FBI, of the United States. A criminal. A liar. Alfred shook his head, trying to clear it.

"Why did you do it?" he interrogated, stepping forward. His voice was trembling and rising in volume, but he had no control. "Why in hell did you think you could… How did you do it?"

"How did you learn Russian?" Ivan countered, in Russian. "All this time you were behind my back? Against me?" He snarled. "Why did you do it?"

Alfred shook out his shoulders. "Cut it out, man! You're a traitor!"

Ivan squeezed the bars. "No! You're the traitor! You did this to me! I trusted you!"

"Bullshit! You're a—you're a crook! A felon! And you went into this knowing that!" Why, oh, why did this have to happen to them? Why couldn't they just be normal people?

Arthur stepped forward. "Jones, will you—"

Alfred hadn't known what he had been about to say, but cut him off anyway, moving closer to the cell. The rest of the world had faded away. "Hell yeah I will! Ivan, what the fuck? You should be sent back home! Back to Russia for this! Holy— That's the reason you came, isn't it? Isn't it!"

"You don't know anything about me." Ivan's eyes narrowed. "You never knew anything, did you? Is that why you approached me? I just thought you were cute and wanted to talk to you, but you wanted to destroy me! I never wanted to target you! I didn't know! You took advantage of that!"

Alfred couldn't process this all at once. He fell back, waving his hands. The things he had felt about Ivan, all of the wonderful emotions, were frozen in place like a deer in headlights, unsure of what to do now. "I can't believe you on this! You realize that, right? You realize what you've done? I can't believe anything you say, or ever said! You're sick and manipulative! For all I know, this was your plan the whole time!"

"Shut up, you stupid American! You never shut up! You're wrong and corrupt and you keep secrets and you hurt! These things you are saying hurt!" Ivan shook the bars, his face growing crimson. God, it hurt just looking at him.

Alfred was almost at a loss for words. He winced. "You're the one who's wrong. I never tried to hurt you or take advantage of you, Ivan."

Ivan let go of the bars, but his fists stayed clenched. "I was prepared to leave my house in the middle of the night to come hug you. I was so scared, but I was prepared to take you to meet my sisters just so we could watch the movie together. I was prepared to do all these things for you. I was even going to tell you that I lo—"

He closed his eyes, knowing he had to interrupt. "None of that means anything anymore. You have to realize that." This was hard, so hard to say. Alfred wished he was in Alaska. "You did something bad, Ivan, so now you're going to have to—"

His world turned on a dime. Alfred had forgotten that he was in a room surrounded by people and witnesses who had been listening to the entire half-Russian, half-English conversation, and now his glasses were on the floor and a bright red pain was flaring across his cheek. Alfred looked up. Ivan's youngest sister stood there—Natalya was her name? And she had slapped him.

There was a second of silence just like before, and then everyone was shouting and moving. Alfred felt someone drag him backwards, and then Matthew had a hand on his chest and was stepping in front of him, barking out, "Everybody please be calm!" Natalya was screaming at Arthur in no discernable language, Yekaterina was pressing her arms through the prison cell bars in an attempt to hold her brother, and Carlos had one hand on where his gun rested.

"Stop this," Alfred muttered dizzily. He was only watching Ivan. Ivan had begun to cry. Alfred's heart fractured.

Toris, surprisingly but not surprisingly, was the first to raise his voice and come to a clear conclusion. "I think it would be best if we separate."

Arthur Kirkland turned and threw Alfred a look. "Do you see now, Jones?"

Alfred cursed at him.

The Chief didn't like that. "That's it. Toris is right. We're leaving. If you have any more words to say to your conniving 'gardener' boyfriend, well, they might be your last."

"Get you a man who can do both, I guess," Alfred scoffed pathetically. Albeit...he couldn't bring himself to want to leave Ivan. There was still so much they hadn't covered. Alfred was confused and lightheaded, and he wanted more of an explanation before Ivan was sent off to who knew where. Seeing Ivan sniffling made Alfred feel terrible shame, but he didn't think he was the one to blame. Ivan had betrayed him, and could have been using him all along. Though it didn't seem that way and was never supposed to seem that way, Ivan was...dangerous.

Matthew led him carefully out of the room, and Alfred felt his heart break.

Carlos stayed to calm the sisters, but the moment the rest of the party made it to Matt's office, Alfred's interrogation began. Arthur had even snagged a recording device, and positioned it on the desk as he directed Alfred to a chair.

"I ain't sayin' nothing," Alfred stubbornly relayed at first, hunkering down into a little ball of sadness.

Kirkland opened his mouth. "Agent Alfred F. Jones, I will fire you if—" And he was halted by a knock on the door. He slammed his fist against the table. "Damn these repeating intrusions!"

"My sincerest apologies," Kiku said, lightly pushing the door open. "I was looking for Alfred, and I saw...hello, Alfred."

A wheeze. "Hey, man."

Arthur ushered Kiku in with some hand waving, and then locked the door behind them. "He's about to have the shit questioned out of him, so we're glad you could join us."

Kiku looked from one man to the other, nodded a bit shakily, and sat down next to Toris with his hands folded.

Matthew was murmuring to himself. "Chief, I don't know if we can do this now according to the law."

But Arthur Kirkland was a force unstoppable. "We are the law! Even if, I don't really care. I want to hear the truth, and I want it from him." He directed his piercing gaze toward Alfred. If Alfred had thought he looked menacing before, that was nothing compared to this. "Start from the beginning."

Alfred readjusted his position, sighing once, and then again, his throat dry and his brain running wild. His stomach felt like it was bouncing, but he was sitting still. It was too hot in this room. Ivan was locked in a cell crying somewhere down the hall. "I can't. It's too much."

"You can and you will," Arthur stated, but less bold this time.

Alfred's glasses had been picked up and given to him before leaving the holding room, but he hadn't yet put them on because his head hurt too much. He set them on the desk and leaned back, staring at the ground. "We've met before, okay? Is that what you want? Saw him at the park a couple of times. We've texted and stuff. That's it."

Matthew's voice was soft. "You were talking about him when I picked up the truck that one time, weren't you."

Alfred nodded, but said nothing more about the romantic side of his and Ivan's relationship. It seemed like a happy, faraway dream he couldn't bear to think of yet.

Kiku leaned forward and gave him a gentle look. "And were you going to tell someone about it?"

Alfred let his shrug fall all the way down to the armrests. "Maybe."

"What kinds of things did you tell Ivan?" Arthur asked.

He felt his face burning pink. It seemed like he couldn't get enough air to breathe to speak with, but having his friends there being nice did help. He tapped his fingers against his thighs, staring at the nature photos of beavers and polar bears tacked to the wall. "I don't know. Memes and stuff. He—he thought I worked at NASA."

Arthur raised his eyebrows at that. "So that's what that was in there? He didn't know who you really were?"

Alfred nodded, rubbing his eyes. "I did lie to him. God, I'm horrible."

Toris asked in a meeker voice, "So you didn't give away any government secrets to him."

"No," Alfred answered. "Never, not that I'm aware of." He felt his legs going weak and looked at Matt pleadingly. He needed out of here now or he was going to fall apart.

Chief Kirkland set his jaw and came to a more level tone. "That's better to hear. And you're sure of this? But you don't know if he ever took advantage of you. We could still be compromised. What else happened...between...you and him?"

Matthew came to the rescue. "Let's save the rest of the questions for later, okay?" He sent a knowing look at Arthur. "We'll have plenty of time once we figure out Mr. Braginsky's charges and organize some lawyers, and his apartment needs to be searched. The laptop computer and cable he's alleged to own weren't found."

So there was a computer. Alfred, in the midst of an anxiety overflow, now wondered how he had never seen it during all those times he watched Ivan. Was it dumb luck, or had Ivan known Alfred was watching him and had purposefully not used his laptop in the presence of his phone? Would that explain the "Mr. FBI" dilemma? He fumbled around for his glasses and sent a grateful glance to his brother.

"So be it." Arthur didn't set his eyes in Alfred's direction again. He pressed STOP on the recording device. "I'm going to work now and will investigate further into the situation. Thank you for your time, gentlemen." He gave each of them a handshake, skipping Agent Jones, and left the room.

Toris soon reluctantly followed, but Kiku and Matthew stayed. Matthew gave a long exhale, and folded over some papers before meeting Alfred's gaze. "Let's get you home, then. We'll take the truck."

"We will help you through this," Kiku put in, leaning forward. "I know you are not the type to betray your country. Mr. Braginsky will be put to justice."

Alfred gulped down a sob. "Thanks, you guys." But he didn't feel as grateful as he should have been. If someone as close and kind and thoughtful as Ivan could be a liar and a traitor, anyone could be.

 

.

 

"It was an accident," Ivan managed over the tears. "I fell in a hole, and now I owe so much to them. I would never have done it myself. I promise. I love the both of you so much, and...and…"

"Shhh," Yekaterina was saying, combing through his hair from behind the bars. "It will be okay." But there was fear in her eyes, just like there had been fear in Alfred's eyes and in Ivan's own eyes. Trust didn't exist anymore.

"I believe you," Natalya stated, holding his hand. "It is not your fault."

"It is my fault," Ivan whispered, then choked on another gasp.

"No! It's that FBI man's fault, isn't it?" she continued, determined. "Whoever he is, he's to blame. Not you. I just know it. Don't worry at all, Ivan. We'll get you out of here, right Katya?"

"Yes," said Katya, distantly. "You'll come home safe and sound." She placed a kiss on Ivan's forehead.

The door opened, and the police officer from before placed his hands on his hips. "I need the two women for questioning now."

"He says they need to speak to you," Ivan relayed.

Natalya and Yekaterina dragged themselves to their feet. "We're going to fight this," Natalya stated. "When we're done, we'll make sure the FBI will pay for it."

Ivan gulped, and then they were gone.

It was easier to cry with no one watching, so Ivan compressed himself onto the tiny holding cell cot and bawled into the pillow. He was ashamed of himself, angry at the police, furious at Alfred, scared for his sisters, and terrified for the future. He had no backup now, and barely a clue how this justice system worked. He was completely alone once more. Home, safe and sound, was now both literally and metaphorically hundreds of miles away.

Chapter Text

Alfred: hey, um. i know you won’t see this. but if you ever do i just want you to know that i’m sorry i lied to you. i had to to protect my job. all my feelings were real though. i didn’t lie to u about that.

 

Traitor .

 

Alfred sniffled and deleted everything he had typed. Talking to Ivan would have been easier than messing with all this writing mumbo-jumbo, but talking wasn’t exactly an option at the moment. Ivan was probably asleep in a police cell across the city right now. And Alfred was huddled in a blanket fort in his living room, alone at two in the morning, and trying not to cry.

 

Manipulator .

 

Matthew had taken him home after the incident at the station, and they had talked for a long while about what to do. Matt had repeatedly apologized, even at Alfred’s behest that he should be the one apologizing, and then they had talked some more about other things related to Alfred and Ivan. Alfred had almost cried then. Later, Matthew had informed that a search crew had found Ivan’s phone, but still not the laptop.

 

Hacker .

 

The women—Ivan’s sisters—had been released after they had found a translator and represented themselves innocently in their interview. The last Alfred had heard, they were getting a hotel and a lawyer. Alfred didn’t want to have to testify in court. Like Toris had said—there would be outrage everywhere.

 

Spy .

 

It suddenly hit Alfred that, now that Ivan’s phone was in custody, it would be searched. If Ivan hadn’t deleted the texts between them, then anyone who looked would see just how close he and Ivan had been. All the heart emojis, the late-night FaceTiming sessions, the good morning s and goodnight s. So it didn’t matter now if Alfred texted Ivan anything. In frustration, he groaned and chucked his phone against the wall outside the blanket fort.

 

Criminal.

 

A snap, crackling and popping noise.

 

“Shit!” Alfred exploded out of the fort, running over to where his phone now sat on the ground. The screen was shattered. He tried to turn it on and only got a blank jumble of light. “ Shit!

 

Felon .

 

Angry tears rushed down his face. He hadn’t meant to do it. He hadn’t meant to do any of it.

 


.

 

 

Ivan cried and he cried and he cried and he cried, and when he got done crying, he squeezed the damned holding cell pillow for seven minutes. He had never felt this stressed and helpless in his life. Someone had given him meals—turkey and cheese sandwiches and chocolate milk—and tried to interrogate him again, but he ate nothing and said nothing the entire day. They had given him a soft T-shirt and pants to change into from his pajamas; Ivan had looked to the camera in the corner and became shy. Alfred hadn’t come back. His sisters hadn’t come back. Now the cell was dark, and Ivan had no idea what time it was.

 

If Alfred had lied about his job, what else had he lied about? Ivan shivered just imagining it. Surely their whole relationship hadn’t been fake…? Alfred had shared a lot with him in just a couple of weeks. But FBI officers were known to be ruthless, and to do anything to catch their prey—or at least that’s what Ivan had gleaned from movies and the criminal-half of his life. Maybe “Alfred” didn’t even exist. Maybe he was just an actor and had simply molded out the perfect character for Ivan to like.

 

But Ivan was not to be discredited. He had kept his identity as a hacker locked away tight. While Alfred had slipped up a couple of times now that Ivan thought back on it, Ivan was sure he hadn’t. Maybe he had shown a weakness or two, but there was no way Alfred had known about his secret equipment. Obviously, if the emails from the circle hadn’t been enough to lead him on, the FBI had found Ivan out through his little escapade at the Natural History museum. But he had seen Alfred before that, and Alfred had lied to him before that.

 

The only conclusion was that the FBI had somehow been tracking Ivan for a long time, probably just sitting on their asses waiting for him to make a mistake. And a mistake, he had made, indeed. He shivered again, wishing the blanket was thicker or the bed was softer. Or—maybe it would be better to die of hypothermia right now than to face what lay ahead. Ivan had a feeling he was going to have to start getting used to jail cells.

 

It had seemed so real between Alfred and he. It had just seemed so real. Ivan had never been with anyone like Alfred before. He should have just found a way to defect from the hacker group, somehow, and let the dream never end.

 

Ivan began to tear up again. He felt annoyed with himself now more than anything that he was being such a baby. He had known it would be tough going into this whole thing, and Alfred hadn’t been wrong about that, so he should have just sucked it up and been strong while he still could.

 

Ivan cried himself to sleep.

 

He didn’t have much of a nightmare as he had had the night before—just visions of his sisters and Alfred flashing through his mind. They were good visions, too: Alfred in sunglasses under the Washington Monument the first day they had met, Natalya ogling a jellyfish, Yekaterina sticking her arm into the basin next to the Jefferson Memorial. Alfred, kissing his cheek. His sisters snuggled close to him, fast asleep on the couch after watching hours of their favorite childhood movies. In his dream, Ivan subconsciously thanked his subconscious for letting him have these memories when he needed them the most.

 

Ivan Braginsky!

 

He stirred awake, moaning into his pillow. For a second he forgot where he was, and when the realization dawned he moaned again. The room was pitch-black save for a thin rectangle of light coming from the open door on the other side of the bars. A small frame stood there in contre-jour. “ Ivan Braginsky!” it whispered again. Ivan could guess the unidentified young man had been calling his name for a while.

 

“Who are you?” Ivan responded first in Russian, and then repeated himself in English, but the person was already waving his hands.

 

“No time to explain!” he hissed, moving forward. He extracted something from behind his back and began fiddling with the lock on the cell. Ivan perked up. “We need to move quickly!”

 

“What’s going on?” Ivan didn’t move, his hand clutching the bedsheet. “It’s nighttime! Are you a police officer? What is this?”

 

The lock sprang and the young man threw open the door. “No, I’m from SAVE THE WHALES. And this is a jailbreak.”

 

Ivan’s stomach dropped. “ What .”

 

“Come, quickly!” The small intruder didn’t touch Ivan, but got close enough to beckon him. Then he began backing out. Ivan tensed.

 

“What happens if I come with you?” Do I want to do this? He wanted answers before he broke the law again , but the guy was already walking out the door.

 

“I can promise you safety, security, and an explanation,” he called back to Ivan. His face became visible in the light of the hall as he checked both ways, and Ivan realized he recognized him vaguely. He wasn’t wearing a promotional T-shirt and carrying an armload of fliers, but the apprehension in his eyes and the curl of his light brown hair was enough to give away that their paths had crossed before, only days ago. He whispered, “I—I know who you really are, and what you’ve done.”

 

He had known Ivan’s name. Ivan gulped. “Tell me your name first.”

 

“You can call me Raivis,” he said. “Now, come on. Let’s hurry!”

 

Ivan shook the stars from his head, prayed a little, stood up, and went with him.

 

They power-walked down the hall. The station seemed empty, the lights dimmed and not a cop in sight. Ivan only looked at the cameras through his periphery; if this was a real jailbreak they would have to have already been taken care of, but he was still frightened. He tried to walk as silently and as swiftly as Raivis, hoping to everything that he hadn’t made the wrong decision.

 

They emerged into the night, and Raivis closed the back door behind them. A van was waiting outside, the SAVE THE WHALES logo painted across its flank. The dusk lights, the cool breeze and the insect noises were, admittedly, a delight to Ivan. He was ushered into the back of the vehicle, and Raivis soon followed suit, motioning to the driver. Just like that, they were off.

 

“How is this happening?” Ivan whispered, fumbling with his seatbelt. “I thought SAVE THE WHALES was a peaceful group.”

 

Raivis’s face was lit in strobe as they passed streetlights outside. He nodded, then shook his head, jittery. He kept the conversation in Russian. “They—They are. But...certain members agree to favors when I ask. I guess I’m respected with them, you see? Well...they don’t know who you are. They think you’re just my friend.” He nodded subtly towards the driver, who glanced back at them.

 

“Just droppin’ off at your place, right?” the woman asked in regular American English.

 

“Yes,” Raivis responded. “Thanks so much.”

 

Ivan was starting to feel panicked. He didn’t know this person. He didn’t know what he wanted, or who he was really affiliated with—yet Raivis seemed to know all about him. Why had he agreed to this? If he were caught now...he didn’t even want to think about the repercussions. “Then who are you really?” He forced himself to look brave. “Tell me now or I will stop this car.”

 

Raivis’s eyes went wide. “No, wait, please! When we get there it will all make sense. I swear I’m on your side, Mr. Braginsky!”

 

Ivan considered if squeezing the kid would make him spit it all out in a clearer fashion, but then decided better of it. “How do you know who I am?”

 

The rescuer gulped. “From...online. I know about your...skills. Please don’t hurt me or try to stop the car, sir! We rescued you because we need you!”

 

Ivan was about to ask who was “we,” but then he gasped. “‘Online’...you mean you are a hacker, too. You are from the circle.”

 

One, two seconds of fear passed. And then Raivis tentatively nodded.

 

Ivan’s blood ran cold. That didn’t make him feel any safer. “Where are you taking me?”

 

“To the others,” Raivis all but whimpered. “Like I said, we can explain everything.”

 

Ivan sat back, blowing out a breath containing all his misgivings. He wished for his scarf; it had been taken from him when he had changed. He wasn’t sure how to feel about these sudden proclamations. So many secrets. The hacker circle was here now, and had taken matters into their own hands by busting Ivan out of jail and driving him via SAVE THE WHALES cover to their headquarters? There was definitely a grand scheme behind this. What did they really want? This was spoopy.

 

Several minutes later, the party made it to their destination: an apartment complex on the seedy side of town. Ivan looked up at it with disdain as Ravis led him inside. Maybe Raivis was lying, and had ulterior motives bringing him here. Ivan clenched his hands into fists and prepared himself for what was to come.

 

They ended up on the fifth floor, in front of a locked door which Raivis amended with a key, and then they were in. Ivan braced himself, ready to see heavily-armed soldiers in suits, panels of futuristic-looking computers and machines, or maybe even an FBI agent. He was confused when he saw what appeared to be a normal kitchen/living room space, complete with a TV playing a late-night soap opera and pizza cooling on the counter.

 

“You’re back.” Someone popped their head up over the couch. “Oh, shit . You brought the big boy.”

 

“Hi,” squeaked out Raivis, locking the door behind them. “Meet Ivan.”

 

Ivan subconsciously shifted his shoulders, trying to cover the scars on his neck and get a good look at the new people at the same time. The previous speaker who had dubbed him “big boy” swung their legs over the side of the couch and plodded over cautiously, glaring at Ivan with suspicious green eyes. They wore a sort of light pink robe and had a messy bob of short blond hair. They paused a few paces in front of Ivan and gave him the up-and-down.

 

Ivan stiffened and asked Raivis, “Who is she?”

 

The robe-wearing person looked assaulted. “Uh, do I look like…?”

 

Raivis gulped and tried for a smile. “Ivan, this is Felicks. He helps supply us with equipment. Ask him for anything, and he has connections all over that can get it. He is the ruler of the market, and the reason you own your laptop and cable.”

 

Illegal equipment, then . He narrowed his eyes back at Felicks as Felicks continued glaring, already not vibing with his general energy. But instead of breaking out into a fight, Felicks eventually began to go red in the face and looked away, retreating into himself. “Well, it is easy to let the weapons and the money do the talking.”

 

Felicks then eyed the pizza, whipped out a knife from a hidden pocket, and sliced himself another piece. Instead of being impressed or scared, Ivan looked at the pizza and was only reminded of how he had skipped eating yesterday and was therefore absolutely famished.

 

“Could I have some?” he asked meekly. It smelled so good, and it didn’t look like the kind of pizza that came from a box...

 

“Sure!” Raivis perked back up, taking Felicks’s knife and going to work. “Lovino just made this! He is another person you need to meet. Lovino Vargas. Is he here now?”

 

Felicks dripped tomato on his robe. “Yeah, but he is asleep. I don’t want to wake the bitch. Angry when tired, but I guess he is angry at something, like, all the time.” He pointed to a cozy chair in front of the TV.

 

Ivan then noticed the other figure sitting hidden in the shadows. “Lovino” was a dark-haired, short and good-looking young man, wearing only underwear as he dozed.

 

“He looks familiar,” Ivan mumbled. “I think maybe I have bought vegetables from him a couple of times.”

 

“No, that was probably his younger brother,” explained Raivis, handing over the pizza slice. “Feliciano is...well...I do not think you will meet him any time soon. He is kind of undercover right now; it’s a sort of complicated situation but I can explain later if you really want to know or maybe Lovino can but I wouldn’t ask him now because he might stab you. Basically, they are both hired from the Italian Mafia to work with us.”

 

Ivan bit into the pizza. It was the most heavenly thing he had tasted in a long time, mafia or no. “Oh,” was all he uttered.

 

Raivis smiled a little, calming down just a smidge. “Good, right? Amazing. I mean—if you don’t like it it’s fine, that’s your opinion, but I know I for one am glad we all live together. That’s my opinion!”

 

“And you mix a mother-ass good drink for a teenager!” Felicks called.

 

Raivis blushed. He...did look no older than eighteen. They all looked pretty young—Ivan’s age, give or take a few years. In the midst of a sensational pizza daze, he wondered how in the world these people came to be who they were. So far they seemed like a mixed bunch. “Is this all of you?” Ivan inquired.

 

“You have not met our true tech mastermind yet,” Raivis answered, but after him and Feliciano, I guess this is pretty much us! We are not all hackers, but this is our little circle.”

 

Ivan almost dropped the pizza. “ Five people?” Less than that if they weren’t all hackers? Less than five people had been controlling his life ever since he had plunged into the dark web and accumulated endless debt, a time that seemed like centuries ago?

 

“Well, really six, if you, like, want to count…” Felicks trailed off at Ivan’s gaping mouth. “Never mind. Creepy Russian.”

 

“How about we let you meet Eduard?” Raivis suggested before Ivan could be dragged out of the slightly-less-stressed-than-before mood the delicious pizza had put him in. “Everything with tech and computers...that is all him. Eduard Von Bock. He’s great at it, if you consider hacking great, but I guess we have to. His room is down the hall.”

 

The hall was tiny and only had three rooms branching off of it, plus a bathroom. The entire apartment, it seemed, was undecorated, and in many places Ivan spotted cardboard boxes filled with random items, like the group had bought this place on a whim and had wanted to save completely moving in for another day. In fact, after seeing enough evidence Ivan decided it was safe to assume the exact thing had occurred. He paused when he heard some noises coming from behind one of the closed doors that sounded like human snoring.

 

“Who is here?” he asked, stopping. The door had five different bolts on it.

 

“...More of Lovino’s business,” Raivis said. “Come on, Eduard is right this way.”

 

They came to the end of the hall and Raivis knocked in a swift pattern before opening the door.

 

Inside, the only light came from the three computer screens at the desk and numerous glowing bulbs on accompanying electronic boxes. A slim, blond man in a dress shirt and pajama pants spun around in a wheely chair when they entered, his hands folded. His expression was complacent, but Ivan couldn’t see beyond the glare of his glasses. He nodded once. “We’ve been waiting for you, Mr. Braginsky. I am so glad you could make it.”

 

Ivan frowned. He was growing tired of this. “Please just tell me what you want already or I will smash all your silly little computers and leave.”

 

Eduard’s shoulders jumped and he gave a shaky nervous laugh. “Cutting right to the chase, I see! Okay. Um, sit down please. Unfortunately I have some bad news… Er, Raivis, does he already know who I am?”

 

Raivis nodded.

 

“Does he know we are the circle? And the others?”

 

Raivis nodded.

 

“And about Mr. Jones…?”

 

Ivan cut in. “You know Alfred? I knew it! You are just like him!”

 

Eduard laughed again. His voice got higher every time Ivan spoke, and he fidgeted more. “Oh, boy. You are not wrong...but. See...how do I break it to you? Um. We are spies. You are a spy with us. Mr. Jones is not with us, but…he is also a spy.”

 

Ivan crossed his arms, growling. “Explain.”

 

Eduard crossed his legs, uncrossed them, and then looked at Raivis. His glasses brighted Ivan again. He began. “Mr. Braginsky, I am not from here, just like you. None of the people in this apartment are from Washington, but we all came to Washington for a very specific reason. We might be hackers and dealers and criminals, but we found out not long ago that there are bad people here doing worse than us...in higher places.”

 

“The US government, per se,” Raivis squeaked out.

 

Ivan breathed slowly. “Continue.”

 

Eduard did. “We formed this task force because we—and who knows how many others—were and are being targeted through illegal, immoral means. Here is what we have learned. A few years ago, the FBI added two new top secret divisions, nicknamed the gray and black divisions. They work closely together, spying on suspected criminals like us. While the gray division is made up of field agents who go undercover and hunt down targets, the black division is made up of hackers just like you, except the way they spy is different.”

 

Raivis’s eyes were lit up in a passion. “Personal technology.”

 

“Everyone has a cell phone. What a better database to reach billions?” Eduard’s voice had dropped to a grim low.

 

“The black division of the FBI spies on their targets through their cell phones?” Ivan questioned. Then, in surprise, he let out a laugh. “But that meme is dead!”

 

Silence in the control room.

 

Slowly, the gravity of the situation dawned on Ivan as the excitement died down and the hackers blinked away from his gaze. They were right. It was a horrible breach of privacy, and made even worse that a government organization was doing it. But even when it had been a meme, Ivan had never really felt bothered or disgusted. With so many people in the world and so much technology, a part of Ivan had laughed it off along with his account followers, assuming that there would just always be some mystery out there he would never understand. (He wondered faintly what his account would come to in his absence.) And even when Ivan had started talking to his phone, when things had gotten too real—

 

Ivan swallowed a lump. He had forgotten, hadn’t he. He had let the meme get the best of him. He never forgot.

 

“Mr. Jones is also a spy, you said,” he stated bluntly at the sorrowful faces of two international criminals he had known for less than two hours, but, now that shit had hit the fan, he felt he should at least listen to, because there wasn’t really anyone else he could trust anymore in his life. “So Alfred is FBI. And if I am right and the FBI has been tracking me for a long time, they have been tracking me this way. So, Alfred…”

 

The words died on his lips as he heaved out a shudder. He finally leaned against the wall and curled into himself, not wanting to  finish his sentence or believe it, but Eduard and Raivis looked too solemn for them to deny what they all knew. Goosebumps washed over him, and after a few seconds, he let out a little sob. So Alfred really was just as horrible as the back of Ivan’s mind had wanted to believe he wasn’t. Alfred had known his name. Alfred had spoken Russian to him. Alfred had watched him through his phone, probably texting him nice things at the same exact time. Alfred, Alfred, Alfred.

 

Ivan barked out another laugh. Mr. Jones was Mr. FBI.

 

“I will destroy him,” he uttered.

 

“Bring him to justice,” Eduard cautiously corrected, beginning to do his annoying little jittering thing again, “with, um, our help. Your backup already has a foothold on the FBI, and so does the Mafia. We know that in two days the FBI will tear your apartment from top to bottom, so we need to be sure that laptop you have is long gone. And then we plan to infiltrate the Bureau itself, just like what you did before but on a much larger scale, and find their outlines so we have more evidence to take them down. No one deserves to have this done to them.”

 

Ivan was hardly listening above the roar in his ears. He had been bashful to change clothes in prison, but Alfred had been watching and listening to him do everything for months? He had talked to himself about how much he liked Alfred, and Alfred had shown up to their date—wait, would Alfred have even shown up if he hadn’t known first how Ivan felt about him? Was their relationship that screwed that Ivan now had to doubt if his fake boyfriend had been a faking himself?

 

In his head Ivan was flipping tables, angry and confused in three dimensions. He tried to tell himself that it didn’t matter if Alfred had been his boyfriend or not, because in reality Alfred had been just as much of a criminal as Ivan.

 

And Alfred, to talk about “doing something bad.” Alfred was the one who deserved to be locked up in prison right now, not Ivan.

 

But Ivan wasn’t in prison anymore, was he.

 

Worries about his future faded away, and he looked back up to Eduard and Raivis, who had been waiting for his response. His thoughts condensed down into a singularity, and he knew what he had to do. “I want to help you.”

 

“We were hoping you’d say that,” Eduard nodded slowly, putting his hands back together. “And we want to help you, too. Consider your debt absolved. You can live here with us, and soon we’ll get you a fresh new laptop. If things go right, your name will be cleared.”

 

“We will work together to make sure the FBI is exposed for doing this,” chipped in Raivis, looking confident. “And then it’ll be all over for them.”

 

Ivan felt no joy at hearing his debts were gone and he had a place to stay, however. He felt no safer than he had when the cops had been persuading him to speak in the interview room. He barely processed Raivis eventually leading him out, showing him the bathroom and the spare bedroom and wishing him a good night’s rest because he would need it. Ivan was too concentrated on trying to erase Alfred’s beautiful, peaceful, happy face from his mind.

 


.

 

 

Alfred had kept his head down at work and spoken to no one, just answered when Arthur called. Arthur made no snide comments about what he saw when he searched Ivan’s old phone; just kept raising and lowering his eyebrows, jotting things down, posing another question. Alfred kept waiting for the Chief to say “You can leave your badge on my desk,” but it never came. Maybe that said something, or maybe Alfred was just paranoid again, as well as crushed inside.

 

He was allowed to leave to get his phone fixed so the Chief could search it next. Alfred popped by Starbucks first, since it was still that horrible hour of Friday morning where people disposed of bodies in crime shows, and he had probably gotten less than four hours of sleep the night before.

 

The feeling of wanting to talk to Ivan got worse and worse as Alfred walked along the sidewalk, sipping his 32-ounce, passing maintenance workers and politicians and diplomats and regular people who were all oblivious to what was going on around them and inside Alfred’s head. The more he thought about Ivan, the more frustrated he became. He walked into to the phone store with another headache.

 

There had to be some way to just drop Ivan a note. One he didn’t have to see, but one he might see someday in the future. Now that they were over, Alfred knew he shouldn’t have to say anything, and didn’t even know what to say, but completely breaking all connection between them and shipping Ivan to jail or Russia didn’t feel like good closure. And he couldn’t explain his feelings for Ivan in front of a court.

 

Not that he had feelings for Ivan anymore. No, he certainly didn’t. He couldn’t. Just like before—he couldn’t.

 

“So it’s stopped? Just like that?” the phone store employee woman scoffed. “Easily fixed. Are your apps or accounts in order—like, have you tried logging in from a different source yet?”

 

The meme account . Alfred could message Ivan through the meme account.

 

He perked up. “Uh, no, yeah, I mean, sorry.” The meme account! He downed his Starbucks.

 

His phone was fixed in less than thirty minutes. On his walk back to headquarters, the first text he received was from Matthew.

 

Good morning. I don’t really know how to convey this properly, but I just got to the station, and we don’t know where Ivan Braginsky is. Please come quickly, I’ve already alerted the FBI. We think he broke out sometime early this morning. He could be anywhere now.

Chapter Text

Ivan didn’t wake up inside a jail cell on Friday, no matter how much last night (early morning?) had felt like a dream. A terrible, terrible bad dream. But. At least he wasn’t inside a jail cell.

 

That thought made him feel slightly better, as did the wonderful smells coming from the kitchen. He blinked the sleep out of his eyes, reached for his scarf, remembered he didn’t have his scarf, groaned, and got up.

 

He met Lovino in the hall, who still wore only underpants, but now held three emptied breakfast plates and was backing out of the door with all the bolts, a snarl marking up his face. Ivan heard noises from the inside of the room— definite human noises—before Lovino slammed and locked the door.

 

Dobroye utro ,” said Ivan.

 

Lovino jumped and almost dropped his plates. “Shit! Fuck! Ay! Who the hell are you? Too early for this!”

 

Dobroye utro, Ivan!” someone called cheerfully from down the hall.

 

In the shared vigilantes’ apartment kitchen, the three others were haggling over the last of the meal: “Can I get a sausage? Can I please get a sausage?” Ivan bid them hello and was delighted to see they had already set a plate for him, but he was more astounded by what sat next to it.

 

“What is this?” He ran a finger delicately across the smooth surface. He knew what it was.

 

Felicks, in a sweater, skirt and slippers, plopped down in a seat at the other end of the tiny table and chewed on the sausage he had won. Chin raised, he didn’t look Ivan in the eyes. “You’re welcome. One of the most expensive orders I ever got.”

 

“We thought it would be best to get you a new one,” offered Eduard, in pinstriped pajamas. “You will need it for working with us. Tonight we will find the old one and get rid of it before the police do.”

 

You will not look at it, you will not let anyone see it, and you will forget who gave it to you. If I am not here, you will break it into small pieces and throw them into the river. “I don’t know where the old computer is,” Ivan admitted, staring down at the shiny new slab of metal. He wondered how the “circle” knew so much about the FBI and the police’s movements—surely they hadn’t hacked them again? The FBI guys will sweep by later, but if we find that computer… “The cops could not find it the first time, and it was in an obvious place.”

 

“Maybe you just forgot it,” tried Raivis. He wore another SAVE THE WHALES shirt, a baseball cap, and a duffel bag, looking like he was just about to walk out the door and into another traffic-blocking protest.

 

“I never forget,” Ivan said, his voice going quieter and quieter as he thought. He’s innocent .

 

 

.



 

Time: just before noon. Location: the back parking lot outside the police department. People present: three FBI agents from two separate divisions, two FBI division chiefs, two cops, one History Museum employee, and two distressed familial absolute units.

 

“We have a lawyer!” hollered Ivan’s sister Natalya. “Where is he!”

 

“I don’t understand how he could just be...gone,” muttered Yekaterina to herself in her own language. “It’s like when he moved, all over again.”

 

“Ma’am, I promise you that we are doing everything we can to find him,” Matthew Williams began.

 

Natalya stepped up to him. “You are doing everything ?” In short, she looked extremely skeptical. “Do not call me your ‘ma’am.’ Everything ?”

 

Carlos Machado flicked his cigar around. He didn’t look too skeptical. “Everything except arresting those most close to him.”

 

Arthur sent a pointed look at Alfred, who looked away.

 

“This is injustice,” hissed Natalya. Yekaterina just kept shaking her head, shaking her head. The high midday sun beat down on Alfred’s back, and when Natalya scanned the crowd and stopped on him, squinting out a glare, he felt sweat. He wondered for the first time un-absentmindedly what exactly she knew. She had seen the display in the holding cell room. She had heard the words he and Ivan had shared. But Alfred also knew Ivan hadn’t told his sisters about him, out of shame, maybe? Fear; alienation? Or was it for the same reason he hadn’t told his sisters he was a spy? “You—all of you—are wrong .”

 

“We’re doing what we can do,” put in Arthur. His face was hard, but his tone had softened up considerably since how cold he had seemed the day before. “And I’m sorry I have to tell you this, but your brother might not be the person you believe him to be.”

 

“No,” said Yekaterina. “Not right.” She took her sister’s hand and stepped back one step.

 

Natalya said something to her, and then they both began walking swiftly back to their rental car, throwing angry glances over their shoudlers. The rest of the company subsequently let out a collective long sigh.

 

“Should we go inside, at least?” Matthew suggested, his hands resting tiredly at his belt.

 

They followed him to an air-conditioned meeting room deep within the police station, and the door was locked as everyone took their seats. Kiku sat next to Alfred and gave him an encouraging look, though Alfred wasn’t exactly sure what he should feel encouraged for until someone started talking.

 

“To begin,” said Elizabeta Héderváry, “I think that we should catch up with each other. We all know we’re both busy, and it’s obvious lots of things have been happening since we all got an update. Would it be easier if what’s left of the gray division goes first? I think it would be easier if the gray division goes first.”

 

Nods all around. “A-Are we taking notes?” meekly asked Toris.

 

“Depends on if there’s a test later,” whispered back Alfred, the first words he had spoken in ten minutes, which was uncanny. “And boy do I think there will be.”

 

Héderváry didn’t wait for them and jumped in immediately. “I’ve spent a lot of my time covering some of the work started by Bonnefoy, Beilschmidt the Elder, and Fernandez-Carriedo. I go around town undercover looking for leads on their cases, but it seems the trail is running cold. No more witnesses have come forward, and when I searched the homes of the agents I did not find anything, either, except for their junk. Records—public and private—give me nothing about their whereabouts. I even went to the bowling alley to ask questions.” She brushed through her long chestnut hair, her veil of strength lifting for just a moment. “The most unnerving part is that when I checked security cameras in the areas and on routes they were last heard from, all of the cameras were turned off, broken, or just fakes anyway. Nothing from the streets or the subways. Their cell phones are missing and untraceable, too. And since the agents have no known strong connections besides us in Washington…”

 

Ludwig raised his head out of a bow. “Would you like to say something?” she asked him quietly.

 

He swallowed. “If you are done, yes.”

 

Aside from the general despair in the room, Alfred found that renewing his interest in the FBI sideplot relaxed him from thinking about Ivan. Toris had been scribbling away on a spare sheet in his logbook; Alfred being separated personally from the conflict made it easier to see the conflict as more of an actual conflict than just some problem he was being paid to occupy his time with solving. He remembered how a few weeks ago he had been vying to be involved. Would his life had turned out better or worse, he couldn’t tell.

 

Ludwig had brought along notes, too. He cleared his throat after getting them out. He looked different than when Alfred had last paid attention to him, somehow. He still gave off the emotionally constipated “closet gay, maybe also a closet furry” vibe, and although his eyes seemed sharper today, there were circles under them. Was he...nervous?

 

Alfred propped his chin up with his hand. Aaaand that’s enough of trying to read the mood for today. I’ve reached my max.

 

“I have been visiting Feliciano Vargas a lot recently,” Ludwig began. After a short pause, he cleared his throat once more. “I’ve seen his house, his job, and a few other places he likes to spend his time. Here are some of the things I found uncanny.” He put on his glasses and read from his list. “Does not own a telephone or any other Internet-accessing device, including his old destroyed cell phone. Won’t talk in detail about his family in Italy. Doesn’t have enough income from his job to pay for all his bills and transportation and all the junk he keeps in his apartment—I calculated—yet always seems to conjure up enough. Did not finish the college he was registered to attend here. He is apparently left-handed, but I’ve seen him...do many things...um…” He paused, picked up a pen, and crossed something out on the paper. Clearing his throat for the third time, he finished: “He asked me about Gilbert. And he—one time we were going home from dinner, and he just took off running. I have never seen someone run so fast. I couldn’t catch up, but by the time I did, he...we bumped into each other and broke the special recording glasses.”

 

Alfred assumed he meant the special glasses he himself was supposed to get, or had been supposed to. “Those were expensive,” mumbled Kirkland wistfully.

 

“Anything else?” prompted Chief Elizabeta, and Ludwig’s ears began to turn color.

 

“I have heard nothing from my brother. I have to feed his bird now and it’s abominable.” He stacked his papers promptly and neatly, the sound coming out harsh over the quiet tones everyone had been using. “That is all.”

 

“I’m sorry,” said Elizabeta. For a moment she looked as if she were about to ask something else, but then thought better of it and let her face settle. She slowly glanced at Alfred. The chummy inclinations that had existed between them had faded into a sort of uncertainty, as it had now with everyone Alfred knew. He sniffed and examined the grain in the table. “Would you like to go?”

 

“We’ve been through most of it already,” sighed Arthur, “I examined Braginsky’s phone, and everything matches up so far with the story he’s given.”

 

“What story?” Ludwig questioned.

 

“Well.” Arthur straightened his tie, his eyes on the ceiling. “You see, for a few weeks, unbeknownst to me—”

 

Alfred looked up. He could talk for himself, dammit, he could talk. “Ivan and I were dating,” he blurted out.

 

Héderváry’s eyes went wide, and she let out a little snort of polite laughter, covering it with her hand. “Oh. Oh, excuse me, please. Oh.

 

Alfred found himself to be not offended. He just tried to keep his breathing steady.

 

Ludwig leaned forward. “Really? But— how ?”

 

He would. “We just kept meeting,” he explained, shrugging. “It was an accident at first, but then it just...I don’t know... happened . I mean, nothing happened! We just...I don’t know. We went on one official date. And then he turned out to be a hacker. Sad. Alexa went and played ‘Despacito.’ I’m fine now if anyone was wondering.” Liar.

 

Ludwig was shaking his head. “I don’t understand. How could you stay with him if you knew the repercussions?”

 

Alfred blew out a puff of air. He opened his mouth to respond, but just like when he had tried to tell Kirkland about Ivan that one time long ago, nothing came out. He realized that it wasn’t something he could answer. Matthew met his eyes.

 

“Sometimes we don’t know why we do things,” Matthew said softly.

 

“That’s for certain,” remarked Arthur Kirkland.

 

Ludwig slowly sat back in his seat.

 

“But you understand now that it’s against the rules, correct?” Elizabeta Héderváry inspected the faces of all three agents sitting in the room, concerned. “I am all for love, but there is so much at stake.”

 

Toris, Alfred, and Ludwig nodded in unison.

 

“Maybe after all this is over,” she resumed, “we can put protections in place so no one gets hurt again. Your procedure is quite...intense.”

 

Arthur exhaled. “If this all is over and there’s anything left to reform.”

 

Kiku raised his head and spoke for the first time. “What do you mean?”

 

He ran a hand through his messy hair. “Nothing. Just a slip of the tongue. Perhaps we should get to managing the situation. Braginsky’s escaped.”

 

Carlos shook out his dreads. “I was on that night shift! Telling ya, I saw nothin’! It was quiet. Most boring I’ve ever done. The only thing that happened was a couple of those whale people came and tried to pitch their sale to me. Wasn’t havin’ it.”

 

“I checked the security footage right when I came in and it was running loops of blank hallways and full cells,” added Matt. “But the time points us to somewhere between two and three in the morning when he escaped. We found that the alarm in the nearest emergency exit door to the cell had been disabled, and there are tire marks on the pavement. If he escaped by vehicle, he could truly be anywhere by now.”

 

“Wait, hold up, amigo.” Alfred raised a hand. “Whale people. At two in the morning?”

 

“We get all kinds of crap at two in the morning. It’s not surprising, kid.” Carlos stuck in his cigar.

 

Alfred faked a cough.

 

“Were the outdoor cameras disabled as well?” asked Arthur.

 

When Matthew nodded, Elizabeta put down her pen. “This sounds exactly like the kidnappings. Is it possible Braginsky was taken unwillingly?”

 

“There were other guards on duty,” Carlos answered. “They said they heard no scuffle. And whoever messed with the cameras...had to have done it soon before.”

 

The table’s occupants glanced around dumbfoundedly. Everyone was thinking the same thing: to escape from a high-security prison in Washington DC, the nation’s capital, was no small feat. It was near impossible Ivan had done it himself, however great of a spy he was.

 

After a silence, Arthur turned to Alfred. “Did he have any connections around here? You said he didn’t have many friends.”

 

Alfred nodded carefully. “He never mentioned he was close to anyone but me and his sisters. Maybe...Yao Wang? You know, the Wok & Roll guy? He ate there a lot. Or maybe someone from work?”

 

“It might have been smart to keep his sisters here,” Elizabeta mumbled.

 

“It did seem suspicious that Braginsky was suddenly caught only when others close to him entered the picture,” Arthur mused, scratching his chin.

 

“Which may have been my fault again,” answered Alfred in a quiet tone for his normal voice. Somehow he couldn’t picture the sisters being in on it. Natalya had slapped the tic tac out of him, sure. Would she have if she was a hacker, trying to play it cool but not too cool? Hard to say. Also, their emotional displays just seemed too genuine, combined with the fact that they hadn’t known about Alfred. Either that or they were tremendous actresses, but Alfred had spied on them himself, and when Ivan had ripped his phone away from Yekaterina on that beach… When Ivan had said “I was prepared to take you to meet my sisters…” They were just a normal family; dysfunctional, distant, caring. Not that Alfred was prepared to believe anything they said from here on out. Ivan had sucked all of them, Alfred included, into his black hole.

 

Matthew straightened his tie. “I think...we should stick with what we know, first. And we know for certain that Ivan’s out and about. If we can catch him again, he’ll lead us right to the others, if there are others.”

 

“Smart move,” said Kirkland. “So, the only problem is...where is the bloke?”

 

Silence fell again. And again, everyone’s eyes drifted to Alfred.

 

He cleared his throat, pawing at the table. “I have no clue. Like, really.”

 

“If he is in a vehicle and has not stopped driving since two in the morning, he could be in another state at this point,” thought Ludwig.

 

Toris looked up from his notes. “He could not have gone back to his apartment because we are searching it tomorrow, right?”

 

“No, he’s too smart for that.” Alfred kicked at the wheels on his chair. (The back of his mind took delight to realize his chair had wheels.) “I think he would stay here. But...it doesn’t really matter, does it, if he was taken by someone else? Like, think about it. There’s no way he could have broken out himself.”

 

“Just like Feliciano,” Ludwig murmured to himself. “One step ahead.”

 

“So the only potential connections we have right now are his sisters, who can barely speak English, Yao Wang, a street food vendor, and SAVE THE WHALES, a wildlife preservation organization.” Arthur Kirkland snapped his folders shut. “Now, I don’t mean to sound silly, but I think the only thing we can do now is split up and look for clues.”

 

And it was at that moment Alfred’s neck snapped forward as he remembered what he had meant to mention. He prepared to speak, but didn’t. On purpose this time. It would sound even sillier to mention the meme account, and Alfred wanted to keep as much of his and Ivan’s relationship out of public eye (private eye, really) as possible. So as everyone began to clear, he trailed his boss. He had learned his lesson in not telling people things.

 

“Oh, yes,” said Arthur in the parking lot. “I still need to go through your phone.”

 

Alfred grunted through the nausea that sentence gave him. He countered with, “I think I know a way to reach Ivan.”

 

Arthur let out a tired puff of air and studied him for a second. “Okay, you know what? Sit down, boy. Let’s...talk.”

 

Alfred didn’t really want to “talk” again, but he followed the Chief to his car and fell into the passenger seat anyway. Losing Ivan had really taken the gusto out of him.

 

“Did you know,” he blurted out, “that Washington, DC is one of the gayest places in America? Like, the nation’s capital?”

 

Kirkland put a hand to his forehead. “And why did you feel it necessary to begin the conversation that way?” A pause. “Is that some kind of...excuse?”

 

“No. I don’t know. It just...came to me.”

 

Arthur put his hands together. “How nice. And, as much as I’d enjoy continuing this interesting conversation about the wonders of your love life, I still have to ask.” He finally met Alfred’s eyes. “What were you thinking?”

 

Sometimes we don’t know why we do things . “I wasn’t thinking.” That’s what it was—a mistake. The whole thing had been a mistake, and he was over it.

 

“Do you want to know what I was thinking?” Arthur questioned.

 

Alfred frowned. “Wait, what? So you did know? The whole time? Oh my God. Oh my. I had a feeling, but I wasn’t sure—”

 

“I knew from the beginning that there were things you weren’t telling me,” he explained. “But not for this reason.” Then he laughed a little. It was strange to hear him laugh, but somehow not a bad sort of strange. “By George, not for this reason. I couldn’t say anything to the rest of the group or to anyone because of this, but I thought you were a mole, Alfred Jones. For the longest time I was completely convinced there was a spy in our division. I thought you were telling Braginsky things, feeding him info. And you were, just not the info I was looking for. That’s why I told Mr. Williams and Mr. Honda not to say anything to you when we caught him. I was ready to arrest you at the station that day until I saw your reaction. I mean, Chief Elizabeta did say our routine was intense; it’s unbelievable.”

 

Alfred tried to breathe slowly. “Wow,” he uttered. “But no, I’m not a spy, I’m just really dumb.”

 

Arthur’s faint smile slipped away. “Truly, I don’t think you’re really dumb, either. I became a little crazy and obsessive myself. It is correct that we all need better communication.”

 

This was the first time in a long time Alfred felt reassured when talking to his boss. “Gee, thanks.”

 

“So, speaking of communication, what did you have to tell me? You know a way to contact Ivan?”

 

Alfred nodded, smoothing his hands down his pants. Here goes nothing. “So you know that he’s into memes and stuff?”

 

An eyebrow arched. “Er...”

 

“I was thinking maybe I could message him. Through his meme account. If there’s some way he’s gotten ahold of some new device and can access it, all we need is for him to respond and maybe we can trace it to find out where he is.”

 

Both eyebrows were arched now, and Kirkland’s arms were crossed. “I’m usually one to agree with the philosophy that the Internet ruins everything, but I think that’s actually a good plan. This isn’t because you want to talk to him about any lasting feelings you might have, though, is it?”

 

At first it had been, but now Alfred had to be sure it wasn’t. “I don’t feel anything for him anymore.” There was a time Alfred had been so devoted to Ivan that he was willing to risk his job, but he had decided that time was over. No matter how much he still thought about Ivan. No matter how he wondered if, right now, wherever he was, Ivan was thinking about him, too.



.

 

 

Ivan wasn’t thinking about him. Ivan really wasn’t. He wasn’t thinking about how the inside of his now-vacant apartment might have looked to Alfred through the camera of his phone, or what Alfred might have thought about Ivan’s meager belongings. He wasn’t thinking about how they might have sat on the couch together here or made dinner together here or watched Vines together here. He wasn’t thinking about Alfred at all.

 

He saw the sunflower on the sill and gasped. “It is dying!”

 

Raivis, his lock-picking kit in tow, glanced over. “Best not to water it, or they will know someone was here.”

 

But Ivan didn’t care. He wouldn’t be staying anyway. He filled a tall glass with his gloved hands and emptied the entire thing into the pot, hoping it was enough to keep the flower alive for however long he would be gone.

 

“Um, where did you say the computer was?” Raivis asked, a few rooms away. Ivan followed the teenager to the bathroom and they checked under the sink together.

 

Nothing. Gone.

 

“She moved it,” he whispered to himself. Somehow, Natalya had known. She had seen Ivan using it that day when she had accidentally come into the bathroom. Maybe she hadn’t known what its purpose really was, but she had known that it was an object of great importance to him, and had hidden it from the police in the spare seconds she had had upon being woken up in the middle of the night. “But where?”

 

He searched the rest of his bedroom, Raivis keeping watch outside. Wedged under all the scarves in his knitting/scarf drawer, wrapped in the scarf he had taken off before he had been taken, he found it, along with a note in Katya’s handwriting. “ We love you.

Chapter Text

The next day, even though it wasn’t a workday, Alfred found himself stepping out of the Ford on a sunny midtown street where the Wok & Roll truck sat. Matt and Kiku backed him up as he approached.

 

“What’s cookin’, good—uh—good day to you.” Alfred cleared his throat. Yao was frowning.

 

“What do you want, bitch?” He looked like he was in the middle of cleaning out the fryers, because everything smelled like the apocalypse was upon them.

 

Matt and Kiku respectfully let Alfred do the talking. “Um. Hi. Not food this time. I’m actually lookin’ for a guy. Do you know an Ivan Braginsky?”

 

Yao threw down his rag and squinted. “Sounds Russian. Is he about this tall, blond, big nose, wears yellow gloves and scarf, got like purple eyes, really overbearing?”

 

Alfred blinked. He hadn’t been expecting it would be this easy. “Uh, yeah, that’s...that’s him.”

 

Yao nodded once, turned, and went back to working. “I do not know him.”

 

“Oh, come on!” Alfred whined as Matthew stepped forward and put a hand on his shoulder.

 

“Please don’t withhold information from us, sir,” Matt began. “This is extremely important. I’m with the police at—”

 

“I said I do not know him,” stressed Wang. “Maybe I have seen him before. Maybe he got lunch here a few times.” He clanked some metal bins together loudly, whipping his long, dark ponytail through the air.

 

Alfred crossed his arms, but a shot of hope spiraled through his veins. “When did you last see him.”

 

“Dunno.”

 

“What was he doing? What did he say when he talked to you?”

 

“Dunno.”

 

“Did he ever talk about...me?”

 

Yao’s frown intensified. “You sound like jealous lover. Go away, stupid American.”

 

While Alfred pouted, Kiku tried. He approached the counter, folded his hands, and said only, “Please.”

 

Yao Wang sniffed, then put his hand on the window. “I do not want to be part of this, okay? Understand? I run business. Business. So if you don’t want my food, I leave me alone .”

 

Alfred patted his pockets. “Wait, fine, fine, hit me up with some of those rangoons.”

 

 

.

 



Across town—no less than three streets away from Alfred, to be precise, but none of them knew it—the target of the FBI, one of the most-wanted criminals of the era, Ivan “Vanya” Braginsky, sat in the back of a SAVE THE WHALES van. He was squished in amongst various paraphernalia: slogan T-shirts, protester signs, boxes, buttons, Raivis, and Eduard. They were on a mission to destroy the FBI. Out of context it sounded hilarious.

 

While Raivis made light chatter with the driver—who had no idea what was really going on, obviously—Ivan toyed around with his new laptop. Eduard had a matching one, and using it, had already gotten their clearance to get inside the building. In a lit display of irony, Ivan was going to pretend to be a custodian again. He was dressed in some old work clothes and caked in makeup Felicks had claimed looked “natural,” but Ivan had seen his collection of Kylie CosmeticsSM. Nevertheless, Ivan’s skin was no longer standout pale, his eyes wore brown contacts, and his hair was dyed brown and swept up into a baseball cap. He looked indistinguishable, and not just virtually.

 

The things he could do with a less-than-inch-thick sheet of metal. It was so much better than his old computer, which was currently sitting safely under his mattress in the group apartment, with indirect thanks to his sisters. He had moved all his intel over to the new computer and planned to destroy the old one soon so it would never end up in the hands of an agent. Ivan was filled to the brim with childish giddiness. This was the only day they had to do this; both the black and gray divisions of the FBI would be gone today, searching his apartment (finding nothing) and looking for him (also finding nothing). Alfred had no idea Ivan was right under his nose the whole time. The feeling was...unexpectedly thrilling.

 

“How did you get the FBI information, anyway?” Ivan adjusted his uncomfortable seating, accidentally knocking a small cascade of supplies into Raivis’s lap. He jumped. “Ah, I apologize.”

 

“Wow, look at all those...stickers,” Raivis blurted out.

 

Eduard picked one up. “I think they are actually magnets.” He tried to stick one on the back of the computer and it fell off. “Oof.”

 

“Oof,” Ivan repeated to himself quietly. They hadn’t answered his question. He frowned and was about to voice it again when the driver interrupted him.

 

“Y’all asked for the J. Edgar Hoover Building? Well, we’re here!” she cheered, parking right on the street in a once-in-a-blue-moon free spot.

 

Ivan stretched over his companions to gaze out at FBI Headquarters. The concrete complex wasn’t tall, but the endless rows of black, black windows gave him vertigo. Was one of them Alfred’s? It was strange to consider the sheer amount of information the US government had been processing and continued to process, and to think that it happened right there, in a squat building on Pennsylvania Avenue; worlds of secrets just behind walls. And today he was about to infiltrate, to discover those secrets. The giddy feeling swept over him again.

 

“Are we ready?” Eduard asked in Russian. “Know the plan?” Ivan and Raivis nodded. They had been working on it all morning.

 

“I’m gonna steal it,” Ivan said to himself over a small smile, adrenaline building up inside of him. “I’m gonna steal the Declaration of Independence.”

 

Raivis glanced rapidly between them. “Uh. Was that...um. On...the plan?”

 

Eduard laughed nervously. “M-Maybe we should go over it one more time.”

 

The plan was this: Ivan and Raivis, in their disguises, would step out of the truck. All the cameras watching them would blip for this, and for the fifteen seconds it took for them to reach the front doors. (Ivan only looked up once he was inside.) A security guard would scan their faked IDs. (Raivis was asked, perhaps in jest, whether he was a little young to be cleaning the trash bins of some of the most informed people in the world, and he responded with a “Yes, yes I am.”) Ivan would then make to itch his ear, which turned on the headset that connected him to Eduard, who remained in the back of the van. After suggesting the driver take a coffee break, Eduard would boot up his systems and map their route to the spy division headquarters.

 

“You’re going to get into the elevator and turn the key for the negative two-hundredth floor,” he said.

 

Ivan was confused. “Negative two-hundred? All I am seeing is ground and lobby levels…”

 

Raivis ducked around him, standing so his back blocked the elevator camera, and inserted something metal into the key slot that wasn’t a key. Then he pressed a button. “Oh,” remarked Ivan as, after a second, the numbers changed and they began to fall.

 

“It’s secret,” Eduard explained into their headsets. “The agents take different elevators, I think, but they have their own security to get through. You’re just maintenance.”

 

Raivis was taking deep breaths. “My ears are popping,” he whispered, then coughed.

 

Ivan had been caught once in an elevator, and didn’t want to be caught again, but right now he just felt hot. Swampy.

 

When the doors opened, Eduard instructed them to leave immediately if they saw anyone, but the negative two-hundredth floor was empty as predicted. Ivan inhaled. He didn’t want to say it looked exactly as he imagined it to look, but it was close. Dim lighting, clusters of cubicles, dark chairs. The occasional beep from some machine deep within. This was where it all happened.

 

Eduard’s voice came to them. “One second... now . The cameras will run loops, but you should still be fast and look inconspicuous. Anything and everything you can find. Record it.”

 

Ivan knew what he wanted to find first. Heart pounding, he ignored Raivis and walked along the cubicles. Which one was Alfred’s?

 

There was one with two recycling bins and a desk that was spotless save for three separate photos of three separate dogs. Not Alfred’s. Too neat. Another one, equally neat, decorated with nothing but another SAVE THE WHALES magnet taped to the wall carpeting. Suspicious, but not Alfred’s. And another one, with—

 

It had to be Alfred’s. Ivan stopped and gawked. The superhero posters, the faint food dust on the chair, the labels on the file cabinets marked out in the same handwriting as the fortune cookie phone number...the NASA star chart. Ivan’s lips curled at that. He was well aware of Alfred’s space passions. Unmistakeable.

 

He could almost picture his ex-boyfriend here, spinning around, laughing to his work friends over the walls, annoying his British boss and fabricating fun stories to translate and tell Ivan. Ivan felt suddenly lonely. He knew Alfred had used this place to watch him. Did he laugh at Ivan’s antics and pull in his secret agent pals to make fun of him? Did he fall asleep due to the not-so-exciting excitements of Ivan’s friendless life? Did he—did he once text Ivan from this seat and watch his reactions, studying them to practice how to act in front of him later? Had he once maybe smiled to himself because of Ivan?

 

Ivan felt a wave of shivers trace through his limbs. He didn’t want to know any of the answers. Alfred had breached both his life and his trust, and no matter how wonderful their little time together had been, Alfred had spent it knowing that all Ivan’s information was just a screen away.

 

There was a monitor on the desk. Ivan hooked up his new computer to it, sat right down in Alfred’s chair, and hacked into it.

 

There wasn’t hacking software on the monitor itself, so Ivan guessed Alfred had used a laptop or some other device to watch him. A laptop was portable, and probably easier that way. What Ivan did find, however, with almost zero effort, were the FBI black and gray division statements and codes of conduct.

 

Sickened, he skimmed through them. They outlined the purpose of each division and highlighted the details of phone-hacking, as well as other types of hacking the FBI used to watch people. Ivan was disgusted, but he copied and transferred the data to his computer for future use as evidence. All those privacy laws...completely bypassed. Eduard breathed out a “Wow,” into his ear. Then, Ivan searched up personnel files. He found many names, including the one of Agent Alfred F. Jones. Copying those as well, he tried not to stare too long at Alfred’s bright and charming ID picture.

 

There were three personnel files that piqued Ivan’s attention, however, and none of them were Alfred’s. An “Antonio Fernandez-Carriedo,” a “Gilbert Beilschmidt,” and a “Francis Bonnefoy” were all declared “MIA,” and all three were field agents in the gray division. Ivan chewed his lip. Searched some more. “Gilbert” had a younger brother who was also in the FBI, and this “Ludwig” was marked as working “presently” for the gray division, but that statistic had only been updated recently—a few days after Gilbert’s MIA status had been updated. When Ivan checked, he found that the gray division only had two members, while the black division had three. So they were short-staffed. Scrambling.

 

A thought occurred to Ivan, dropping into his mind like a stone. He went back to the personnel catalogue and traced it for disturbances. It took awhile, but sure enough, he found a mistake. His own mistake, in fact. All three of the MIA files had been copied and transferred previously—by Ivan himself, on a Thursday afternoon, on the National Museum of Natural History’s server. The data he had stolen; the data that had ended him up in jail.

 

“Who are these three people?” he breathed to Eduard.

 

There was a little wince from the other side of the line. “...Lovino can explain b-better than I can.”

 

“You’re holding them in that room, right?” Ivan questioned, and immediately knew he was correct. “Kidnapped.”

 

“A-A bargaining chip for when we need to use it,” Eduard answered.

 

Ivan thought. His wig had been snatched. The circle had abducted three FBI agents and had been holding them for weeks. That was kind of scary, combined with the fact that if the circle really wanted true justice for a privacy breach, they wouldn’t have done something so risky to further condemn themselves, and they were already doing pretty risky things. Perhaps they suspected that they wouldn’t win in court against the US government, and were preparing to use other means to ensure they gained their freedom, such as trading hostages. “Does the FBI know?” he asked.

 

“Hard to say,” answered Eduard. “We don’t think they’ve realized we’re connected yet. But again, crimes that are...physical...are not my area of expertise.”

 

And besides, those three agents were criminals, too. Who knew how many people they had hunted, spied on? Maybe even Ivan himself. Maybe Ivan’s sisters as well. He was overtaken by another bout of the shivers.

 

He disconnected the computers and wiped all traces of himself from the monitor, then closed it back down. As he searched through the files Alfred had on him in the cabinets, he felt unbearable anger. He wished people could just love one another and get along and not feel the need to poke their noses in places they didn’t belong. He wished the world would just be friendlier.

 

He pulled out a thick folder of jumbled notes and flipped through them, sighing to himself. At the top of each page were the words IVAN BRAGINSKY written in Alfred’s drawl, and a date and time. It was a log. Ivan’s already sick stomach began to clench up even further. Alfred had been keeping an actual log of what Ivan did. As he flicked through, he read some of the entries. “Woke up, looked at memes, posted memes, went to work, came home, made dinner, watched Vines, did laundry, looked at memes, went to bed.” It could have been any day in the life. He looked through more and more log pages, and a lot of them were verbatim identical. Ivan really was that boring. He wanted to cry.

 

When he flicked through more recent logs, however, it became clearer to him. On the day they had first met in the park, a Tuesday? Nothing was marked except for the usual. That Thursday Ivan had been “late?” The usual. Ivan started to grow confused. The logs said zilch about “FaceTimed Alfred for three hours in the middle of the night” or “went on date with Alfred in the park” or “texted Alfred,” all of which were highly questionable actions to report. The more recent Ivan got in the log, the more censored Ivan’s “life” became. Sometimes Alfred would throw in an exotic detail here or there like “took out the trash” or “went grocery shopping” or “played board games with sisters,” but other than that, Alfred’s made-up life for Ivan had become a lie.

 

Ivan sat back down and fingered his scarf, staring at the misprints. “ Why you always lying? ” he hummed to himself in a quiet, distorted, far-off tone. It didn’t make any sense.

 

Raivis’s voice brought him out of the reverie. “I found something!” the teen alerted from a little ways across the room.

 

Ivan arranged the log back into the condition it had been in and shoved it back into the cabinet. He brought himself and his computer over to a desk in a cubicle that was set slightly apart from the others. Embroidery patterns and stacks of old Christie novels decorated this one.

 

Raivis and his lock-picking kit sat on the floor; all the desk drawers were unlocked and open. In his right glove was a slip of stationary with some words written on it, and in his left was a cell phone. “I think this is the desk that belongs to the Chief of the black division,” he explained. “And look at what I just found.”

 

Ivan marveled. The cell phone was his . The one they had confiscated from him and had probably searched through by now. He reached out to touch it, and then pulled back, stopping himself.

 

Raivis gulped. “What’s even more interesting is this.” He offered Ivan the slip of paper. Ivan squinted. It was information about a cell phone, but one that wasn’t his.

 

It listed Alfred’s phone number and password, along with a few notes of things the Chief had found inside. So the Chief had searched Alfred’s phone, as well, but Alfred had gotten it back. It wasn’t here. Alfred probably had it right now.

 

Another thought occurred to Ivan.

 

A not-so-good thought, but a curious thought indeed.

 

And after reading Alfred’s fib-filled log, he was curious.

 

“Put my phone back. I won’t need it,” he ordered Raivis, who obliged with a nod. “But record what’s on that piece of paper.”

 

Eduard chimed in through the headset. “What’s going on?”

 

“How are we on time?” interrogated Ivan.

 

“Er—you’ve got at least an hour, but I wouldn’t stress. The driver hasn’t even returned from lunch yet. The FBI are still occupied with other things right now. I think they’re interviewing the heads of SAVE THE WHALES right now.” A tiny laugh. “Like that’ll get them anywhere.”

 

“We’ve found all we need,” he declared. He was itchy anyway, and perspiration had been coagulating under his armpits and across his back. “It’s time to go.”

 

Raivis, when he was done copying down Alfred’s phone information, raised his curly head. “What?”

 

Ivan just stared at him, forcing him to listen with his eyes. Or pleading, rather. Raivis eventually popped up.

 

“Let’s make sure everything is how we found it,” Ivan suggested, making one last sweep of the premises. He passed a refrigerator full of tomatoes and a conspiracy corkboard that held pretty pictures of Feliciano Vargas connected by strings. Although it was tempting to examine the rest, Ivan didn’t feel a wanting to anymore. He truly felt they needed no more. The enigma of the FBI and the hackers was beginning to untangle. It wasn’t all the way there yet, but it was close.

 

He and Raivis stood in the elevator, listening to smooth jazz. The ride up was long. “Do you miss being a gardener?” Raivis squeezed out.

 

“Yes,” Ivan admitted. It felt like years since he had been pruning bushes. The nostalgia weighed on his shoulders and made him tired. “What did all of you do before you were felons?”

 

“Felicks and the Italians joined later on, but, well, when we were younger, some of us wrote fanfiction online,” he replied shyly. “We became friends on the Internet.”

 

“And then?” Ivan prompted.

 

A drawn-out pause. “A-And then we discovered what else the Internet could do for us.”

 

Typical. The elevator took them back up, up, and up into the life of the city above.

 

 

.

 



The sunflower had been watered. Recently. Alfred, feeling like a detective, pressed into the wet dirt with his glove-covered fingers. Wetness.

 

“What are you doing?” asked Arthur Kirkland from Ivan’s living room, also wearing gloves and holding an empty trash bag.

 

“Still looking for clues,” Alfred mumbled back. Maybe one of the cops had watered it when Ivan was gone, wanting to be nice. Matthew’s group was pretty nice. Alfred, not really thinking, decided to continue the streak for the heck of it. He filled one of the glasses by the sink and tipped it into the soil. The flower would probably be dead soon anyway. Probably.

 

Kirkland walked in. He looked frustrated and defeated, his tie undone, his messy hair even messier than usual. “Well, this is brilliant. What a complete waste of a day. Wang Yao is noncompliant and SAVE THE WHALES are a bunch of clueless buffoons. Three hours and I’ve found absolutely nothing, and the apartment is completely torn apart. You?”

 

“Same.” Alfred felt weird standing in Ivan’s hollow kitchen, especially when everything was covered in sheets and CRIME SCENE DO NOT CROSS tape. He hadn’t been able to stand the bedroom worse. “I don’t know where else he would hide it. I’ll bet he moved it somehow before.”

 

Arthur sat down on one of the wooden chairs and just groaned.

 

Alfred turned around and leaned against the cabinets. This was where Ivan used to set his phone where he cooked, and this was a version of the view Alfred had gotten. Only Ivan wasn’t anywhere in sight. “Is it time to message him yet?”

 

Arthur lifted his head out of his hands, pulling them down his face. He groaned again. “...Yes. Then if he turns the tables and tracks us , then your phone will only lead him back here.”

 

Alfred pulled out his cell phone and opened up the meme account. It hadn’t been updated since before the arrest, the last meme a classic “tag yourself.” “I’m the one that looks dead,” Alfred mumbled. Then he had a sudden bout of insecurity. “Um. What should I...what should I say?” Talking to Ivan had always been so easy before. He...kind of wished to go back.

 

Kirkland crossed his legs and put his arms behind his head, closing his eyes. In a calmer, nonchalant voice, he responded, “Anything that warrants a response.”

 

Alfred shifted his weight, contemplated for a second, and then began to type.