As a rule, Berwald Oxenstierna did not enjoy receiving emails from Director Andersson that were also cc’ed to their long-suffering liaison at Interpol. Whenever these directives crept silent and deadly into his inbox, Berwald wondered if today was the day to seek reassignment to a department within the Swedish National Bureau of Investigation that had far fewer cases that necessitated cross-border and international cooperation.
Ten years ago, when he had joined the Bureau after a four year stint with the police, cyber security had seemed like the ideal choice for doing solo analysis and pursuing justice without the need for a team of people constantly looking to him for instruction and coordination. But now, the internet had blossomed into a world of cyber-physical systems full of threats and sophisticated, border-less organizations of criminals and rogue governments with divergent and veiled interests, and there was no shortage of kindly worded requests from Mr. Williams at Interpol for Berwald’s cooperation on yet another international investigation.
It wasn’t that Berwald minded working with others to thwart criminals. It wasn’t in his nature to deny assistance or to hold back his expertise when safety and security were on the line, regardless of nation or creed. It just that for all that he commanded a room with his height and impressively stony glare, and managed to scare most cyber criminals into surrender just by knocking down their door and stepping across the threshold, Berwald found people in general found him disconcerting, generally wary of a man given to reticence with a desire to think first and speak second, and who, he had been told, had a glare that would give even Medusa pause.
His neighbor Eirik once told him that with his gravel voice and unnaturally stern expression it was a wonder than anyone beyond the smallest of children and animals ever dared to look at him twice. Eirik, it seemed, deigned to speak to him on occasion because he appreciated the silence Berwald brought to the Danish-inflicted chaos of his world.
While an exaggeration, it was true that Berwald struggled to get beyond his own shyness and the lingering sourness of first impressions, generally letting people think of him what they would as he went about his days and tried to live a quiet, successful life that he hoped helped his country in some small way.
And so he had picked a career that let him use his sharp mind and even allowed for the occasional indulgence of his not so secret enjoyment of a good political or judicial debate but also one that left communication largely to words on a screen. It would have been the ideal arrangement if not for the alarming amount of requests for his in-person and oh-so valuable input, experiences that both drove up his percentage of closed cases and reaffirmed his suspicion that he was almost certainly doomed to a long solo career.
With the exception of those too boisterous and arrogant to notice, each time Berwald reluctantly agreed to Interpol’s requests for inter-agency collaboration, he inevitably spent more than half the case trying and failing to make his temporary partner feel at ease, their thanks for his support overshadowed by their relief when the assignment was over. He had little expectation that this latest request for his expertise in working with the Finnish police in uncovered a splinter cell of sophisticated hackers with a penchant for infiltrating government and financial sector servers would be any different.
Tino Väinämöinen, Berwald noted absently as he hit “reply all” and sent off his reluctant agreement to meet with this Captain of the Finnish Police at 4pm on Wednesday afternoon in the Stockholm office, already feeling pessimistic about the chances of this Swedish-Finnish alliance being anything other than awkward.
Well, Berwald thought wryly while skimming through the admittedly very detailed dossier on the so called “APH Group” Väinämöinen had included with his request to Interpol, anything would be better than being stuck on another case with the loud but unfortunately skilled Dane.
Berwald pulled off his glasses and rubbed his tired eyes, wanting to give proper attention to the critical information in the document, impressed by the thoroughness of Väinämöinen’s research and his apparent dedication to bringing down the splinter cell, his notes spanning over six months of monitoring internet chatter and tracking leads that continually led him outside Finland’s borders and beyond the easy access of his jurisdiction. The latest and most damaging infiltration had apparently involved cells in Helsinki, Malmo, and even in St. Petersburg.
It was no wonder Väinämöinen had come to Interpol and to the Bureau for assistance in closing the loop on the net he’d been so carefully weaving, Berwald thought, impressed and engaged, for once even a little eager to have the chance to work on such a compelling case.
As long as this Captain Tino could be as composed and curt in person as he was in his paperwork, Berwald thought they just might have a chance of wrapping this up quickly, cleanly, and with a minimal amount of entanglement.
Perhaps this time it would be different…and cooperation wouldn’t be so bad.
At the clock ticked closer to 4pm and to the imminent departure from the safety and solitude of his office, Berwald packed up the APH case notes and grabbed Väinämöinen’s dossier and jotted down the contact number William’s had provided when he’d agreed to collaborate with the Finn, wondering not for the first time since he’d first read the file exactly what kind of temporary partner he’d been saddled with this go around.
Berwald straightened his tie and smoothed the wrinkles out of his severe, black suit—the one that the Dane insisted made him look like a funeral director with a poker up his ass—determined to look as much the part of Bureau agent as possible when meeting people from other agencies that were more frequent competitors than allies.
(Once at an Interpol group meeting in France, the attractive Belgian liaison told him sweetly that if he wanted to come off as less scary, he might want to consider not draping his considerable form in all black, that perhaps a pastel shirt here or there might do wonders to soften his image. Ludwig had promptly countered that suits were perfectly appropriate attire at all times and that neither Berwald’s fashion choices nor his demeanor were on the meeting’s agenda.)
With briefcase in hand and reluctant interest in mind, Berwald set-off for his meeting, imagining with each street he crossed the sort of battle-hardened and no-nonsense cop that could write such a scathing and impressive account of the successes and failures of his division in attempting to bring down the APH Group.
But when he finally made it to the drab and dreary conference room, expression already grave and serious as he prepared to encounter his latest and perhaps most intriguing new colleague, Berwald’s hypothesizing came to abrupt, screeching, and devastatingly adorable halt.
The person sitting at the table, wheeling idly and forth in the standard office chair, squeaked and dropped his pen at the sound of Berwald’s approach, turning his round and flush face to arrest Berwald’s thoughts of grizzled middle aged men with bright, happy eyes and lips that were just a little too tempting to be thinking about ten seconds into a first meeting.
“Väinämöinen?” Berwald grunted in surprise, wincing inwardly at the immediate disappearance of the man’s welcoming smile into something wary and tinged with annoyance, unable to keep his eyes from widening imperceptibly as he took in jeans topped by a white and blue polo shirt. His latest colleague looked far too good and far too kind to be sitting in this boring beige room, staring at him with open curiosity and a touch of hostility, while his fingers drummed anxiously over a stack of folders ten inches thick.
“Yes,” Väinämöinen said firmly, lips quirking in reluctant amusement when Berwald failed once more to disguise his disbelief, voice taunting as he continued, “Don’t worry, Oxenstierna, you aren’t exactly what I had in mind either.”
Berwald frowned, wondering what that was supposed to me, flushing a little under the collar as it crossed his mind that in other circumstances, Väinämöinen would be exactly what he had in mind.
He shook his head and set his briefcase down, determined to regain his professionalism and salvage this first impression before it became any worse, holding out a hand and offering quietly, “Call me Berwald.”
Väinämöinen caved quickly, smiling and sliding their palms together, “You can call me Tino. I save the last name for all the new recruits who need to learn their place and not think they can pull one over on their pretty blonde captain.”
Berwald grunted his assent, trying not to think about pulling one over on Tino and pulling out the dossier instead, “This is good work, Tino.”
Tino laughed prettily and winked at him, snarking, “Well, I’m so glad to have the approval of the Swedes.”
Berwald smirked, appreciative of the sarcasm and even more so of the curve of Tino’s smile and the thoroughness of his work, pushing ahead, “Very useful. Gave me a start on tracking down some loose ends.”
At once Tino transformed, body going rigid, gaze suddenly alert and mouth a taut line of tension, stilling Berwald with the ferocity of his words and the unexpected blood-lust in his eyes, “Tell me everything and anything I need to know to bring those men down.”
For the first time in his life Berwald had the strange experience of being the one intimidated, finding himself wary and not a little wanting of the hidden iron beneath Tino’s soft and lovely visage. Tino must have read the shock and apprehension in his expression, smiling brightly as he pulled the gun from his waist with a wink while he cocked the weapon, and promised him sweetly,
“Don’t worry, Berwald. You’re safe with me. Now, let’s get to work.”
Berwald flicked his eyes between the gun and Tino’s pretty smile, knowing that his frown must have deepened considerably when Tino’s smile wavered into hesitant consideration, his voice sweet and light once more when he said,
“You alright, Berwald?”
Berwald nodded his head and slid into the empty chair next to Tino, on the other side of the weapon, answering shortly, “Fine. Don’t like guns much.”
“What?!” Tino exclaimed, spinning in his chair to arrest Berwald with the fervency of his pitched outrage, “How can you not like guns? Weren’t you field trained?”
Berwald fought the urge to flush and squirm, remembering keenly why working with cops was the worst, “Course I was. Just prefer other means.”
He rolled his eyes when he saw Tino look longingly at his Glock, as though he was worried Berwald had hurt its feelings, before returning his bright eyes to Berwald’s grave face, expression considering as he shrugged and said, “Oh. You’re one of those agents. The cloak and dagger kind.”
“Uh,” Berwald stammered, thinking how terrible he would be at trying to play any role other than silent, scary villain or enforcer, and though it saddened him to ruin what he hoped was Tino’s burgeoning impression of him as a Scandinavian James Bond, he found honestly was generally the best policy when fighting crime, ”Not really.”
Tino smiled at him kindly, patting the files he had in front of him, warming Berwald’s cheeks when he teased, “No guns and no intrigue? So what do you do with that scary face of yours?”
“Catch cyber criminals. Using, you know, cyber technology,” Berwald retorted dryly, pleasantly surprised by the easy rapport between him an the adorable, gun-toting Finn, “Sorry to be dull.”
“Well, that’s fine! Leaves more opportunity for me to be the dashing hero,” Tino said laughingly, distracting Berwald from his desire to scowl with the flex of his arms as he stretched them over his head, before he sighed and snapped back into cheery professionalism, “So, what do you say, show me some of your crime fighting skills?”
Glaring at Tino’s unfortunately attractive smirk, Berwald pushed his glasses up his nose, and started to explain, “Did forensics on all the hacks you’ve been investigating. Seems like each time you get close to infiltrating the cell or finding their roving base of operations, they’re receiving a signal from an as yet untraced source that they need to move.”
Tino nodded, gaze considering and appreciative, tapping a finger to his chin as he sighed, “Its true. Every time I think I’ve nearly got them within the sight of my gun, they’re on the run again. Its uncanny, how they not only get better with each crime, but also seem to know just when I’m coming for them.”
Berwald frowned, hesitating as he started to tread on the dangerous ground of his suspicion as to why Tino was looking outside the Finnish police for support, murmuring lowly, “You think there’s a leak.”
For a moment, Tino looked even younger, confirming with the flash of disappointment in his eyes what Berwald’s investigation had already proven, his voice rife with bitterness, “I’d hoped not, against my better judgement, but I can tell from your expression that wish isn’t coming true.”
Even though he’d only known Tino for the span of 15 minutes and the two days he had spent with the daydream author of the dossier, Berwald felt the irrational desire to do anything to remove that sadness, regretting that all he had to offer at the moment was confirmation of Tino’s fears.
“Afraid so,” Berwald said lowly, casting his eyes down as he pulled his laptop from its case, continuing his deluge of bad news as he waited for it to boot up, “From my analysis, no one’s getting into your files. There’s been no breach of security.”
“Which means the files are being sent out, somehow,” Tino said hurriedly, sliding his chair over to stare over Berwald’s shoulder as he loaded his work from the night before.
“Right,” Berwald confirmed, trying not to focus on Tino’s breath against his neck, “Haven’t been able to find where the information is leaking from..”
“But you do know there is a leak,” Tino interrupted in a rush, hands clenching on the arms of his chair rest, alarming Berwald when he noticed that Tino was once more staring intently at his gun.
“Uh,” Berwald mumbled, risking his safety by brushing his fingers quickly over the rigid whiteness of Tino’s knuckles, breaking his silent commune with his weapon, “Yes. And its almost certainly someone close to your investigation. I think they have information that only the immediate team would possess.”
Berwald felt his ears burn from the unexpected sensation of hearing such filthy, furious Finnish come from such a pretty face, choking a bit with reluctant admiration when Tino threatened the nameless leak with fates that would have impressed a Viking.
When he’d finally calmed, Tino turned to Berwald, the intensity in his gaze arresting as he said, “I had suspected it was a case of a dirty cop, but I didn’t think for a second it was someone I trusted,” he paused, biting his lip and sighing as though forcing himself to ask the inevitable, damning question, “What did you find?”
Berwald scrolled through several pages of code, pointing to various lines as he warmed to the challenge of a good case and the sensation of Tino’s bright and unwavering attention focused on him like a laser, explaining, “Looked through the chatter that followed each of APH’s sudden relocations, tried to trace the flow of information over numerous protocols. Couldn’t find the source, but one word kept popping up in all the junk they layer over their encryption.”
Berwald turned his face just enough to observe the keen interest in Tino’s gaze, wondering how he could have doubted for even a moment that this was a man to be reckoned with, now almost entirely convinced no matter the softness of his face or the flashes of kindness in his smile, Tino was not someone to be underestimated.
He exhaled slowly, wary of the answer as he asked, “Any reason why the word salmiakki should be encoded in terrorist communications?”
Tino went very still, eyes wide and mouth parted around his surprise as he slumped in his chair and rubbed his face, voice muffled when he finally spoke, “Its my code name.”
“This is bad,” Berwald said unnecessarily, uncomfortable with Tino’s obvious distress, wishing they were actual partners, not just two guys thrown together on an increasingly unfortunate case, so he could offer some sort of reassurance.
Tino snorted and gave Berwald a baleful look, “Score another one for the Swede.”
Berwald ignored the taunt, mumbling, “How bad?”
Tino hummed and exhaled, seeming to take comfort in wrapping his fingers around the cold steel of his gun, “Depends on your perspective. Very bad, in that only the four other members of my team know that code name. Not so bad, in that there are only four possibilities for who’s been betraying me and the Finnish government to a terrorist organization.”
Berwald nodded, impressed by Tino’s clear, precise thinking, ready to commit as much time and effort as he needed to finding out who it was that was responsible for putting the lines of worry in Tino’s forehead and the sadness in his eyes.
“But,” Tino said, startling Berwald with the clap of his small hand around the wrist still poised over the keyboard, “Regardless, for today its the kind of bad that can only be helped by two things.”
“Those are?” Berwald asked warily, hoping that one of the answers was not lots and lots of guns and violence.
Tino smiled at him a little, hair falling over his eyes as he tilted his head and said, “We tell each other everything we know about APH and then we go get really, really drunk.”
A huff of laughter escaped from Berwald’s throat, low and rumbling in the quiet of the room.
“Ah,” Tino said with a wink, “You look much less scary when you laugh! So what do you say, Berwald, want to be my partner?”