Actions

Work Header

fbi: don't move

Chapter Text

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.