Alfred launched himself into the final minute of his routine. This was the most important part-he wanted to wow the judges with a strong finish and win the extra points for having jumps in the second part of his long program. Unfortunately, his earlier fight with Ivan and his Google search results were significantly cutting into the quality of his performance, and after the third run through, Ludwig called him over.
"Jones. That was the sloppiest performance I've seen from you in the last year. Explain."
Alfred grimaced. "Nerves, I guess. About the trials and everything, you know?"
"Jones, I've been training you personally since you were six-"
"Shouldn't it be time you start calling me Alfred, then?" he deadpanned.
"Don't interrupt. I've never known you to get cold feet, you're too damn talented and a little too cocky for your own good."
"Leon's coming for his week with us early."
"Ah." Ludwig looked like he'd accidentally stepped on a viper. He cleared his throat. "Anyway, you-"
"Ve! Alfred, Ludwig!" The shout came from the other end of the rink, where a small, brown haired figure stood waving excitedly. It was moving towards them at an frighteningly rapid pace, carrying in his arms an exorbitant amount of brightly coloured material, and for a moment Alfred feared a collision before he skidded to a stop.
"Ludwig, Ludwig! Alfred! Francis and I finished working on the artistic concept for your costume!" Here he shook out the multitude of fabric, and for a moment Alfred just stared.
"Ah, Feli, no offence to you or Francis-because God knows you can do more with fabric than I can-but what exactly is it?"
"A firebird, of course!" Feliciano beamed as he said it.
"Okay, but that really creates more questions than it answers."
"Well, the choreography that I did with the arms reminded me a lot of wings, so I thought we'd go all the way and make you a bird! What do you think? Will you try it on?" Alfred normally adored Feli, but sometimes he could be a bit….much. Like right now, for instance. Right now, Feli, among other things, was giving him a very large headache. But if he said no, Feli would cry. And if he cried, Ludwig would be angry. And if Ludwig was angry, then he would be put through a training session from hell, which he really wanted to avoid right now. So all he did was hold out his arms, waiting for his inevitable demise via fabric, and headed off into the locker rooms.
Actually, he had to admit, the costume didn't look that bad. He'd been expecting the worst-chicken that had been accidentally lit on fire, bright and garish and horrible. He wouldn't deny that the costume was still as bright as the sun, nor would he deny that it is spectacularly over the top, but it was bizarrely flattering for all that. He was swathed in layers and layers of gossamer silk. The petals of translucent fabric were all exactly one hue apart, layered lighter and lighter, fading from crimson and scarlet to sunset orange and finally to bright blazing gold. The combination of layered fabric and the colours gave him the illusion that he is made of feathers-and indeed, the huge half-cape that is truly made of feathers is what made the piece stand out. The wings were trimmed with rhinestones, just enough to make them sparkle under the performance lights. Alfred thought it was a little gaudy, but then again, all skating costumes were. And when he emerged from the locker room to show Ludwig and Feli, they both look at him with approval.
He pivoted this way and that as Feliciano touched the fabric here and there, making notes to adjust this or that, and murmured to Ludwig that they are going to paint his face and maybe his hair, too, to complete the illusion. He nodded in understanding, and his coaches gestured for him to take the ice again. Gritting his teeth, he tightened the laces on his skates for a final time and began. Perhaps it was the costume that made him feel as light as air, or perhaps it was just the rush of being able to skate again instead of being stuck with pins over and over. Either way, it was certainly the best run through he'd had all day.
Ludwig had no complaints about the technical performance of it, aside from a pointer on a turn or a transition here or there, but Feli is far from happy.
"You are a bird," he said in exasperation for what felt like the three hundred and forty-seventh time. In reality, it was only the twenty-first, but Alfred insists on counting the echoes of the little Italian's voice booming around in his head. "Perhaps you could try and act like one. A little lightness, if you will. Try holding that extension around the back corner again, I want you to extend your left arm…"
And so Alfred indulged him and ran the routine thrice more. It was a little after nine before they let him go home, and he was just heading out the door when he remembered the other thing he was supposed to do.
The coach looked up from his notes reluctantly, vastly irritated that Alfred has not even left the building before causing more disruption.
"My teacher, Mr. Edelstein, said he knows you, yeah?"
"Roderich? You know Roderich?"
"Mm-hm. Anyway, he has a message for you. Said he and Elizaveta pass on their love to Gilbert. You know, if I've gotta talk to your friends for you, that's pretty sad. Maybe you ought to invite them to dinner sometime soon or something."
And he made a hasty exit. Papa and Dad both offered to pick him up, but he reassured him he'd be fine walking home. It was late, which made them nervous, but the rink wasn't far from his house. He could handle it. There was already a thin layer of frost on the ground, and he grinned at the prospect of the cold weeks ahead. Maybe the pond would freeze over, and he and Mattie could skate there.
He turned off of Walnut onto Mill and stopped in his tracks upon spotting a lone figure at the end of the corner. He felt his heart pounding against his ribcage, the air too thick as he shrunk back into the shadows. Something hot and heavy in his mind screamed for him to go on, he's strong and fast, he can take this attacker. Something far more crystalline and logical told him to run, because that figure at the end of the street probably has a knife or a gun or maybe both, and he should leave now.
The figure turned, and for a split second Alfred thought he'd been seen-his heart stuttered like it had considered stopping, but then caught itself as the figure's eyes glaze right over him. It was definitely a man, and Alfred's throat muscles were trying to work in his sandpaper mouth. He felt his phone buzz in his back pocket and thanked God that he'd left it on silent today. A shaft of light from a parting in the clouds caught the wisp of ice blonde hair and a broad face with a prominent nose, and Alfred's heart did the strange little skipping thing again even as he let out a shaky breath he hadn't realized he'd been holding.
The solitary figure at the end of the street is Ivan, and although Alfred wouldn't be so crass as to pretend that he was fond of that particular schoolmate, for the moment he was relieved. Ivan, only Ivan. He felt his phone buzz again. This brought him back down to earth for good this time and his fire roared red once more, ready to lunge out, fist his hands in Ivan's shirt and demand explanations and answers and a fight. But Ivan tilted his head and then glided back into the shadows, unaware that he had been seen there in the moonlight for one vulnerable moment, and Alfred let the raging scarlet ebb out of his fingertips.
By the time he got home, there was already a small suitcase set resting in the entry hall to their house and the sound of scraping chairs and cutlery was emerging from the back room.
"I'm HOME!" he bellowed as a greeting to his family, and a small, dark-haired head immediately appeared from the doorway.
"Al!" the newcomer shouted, and rushed over to ruffle his younger sibling's hair. The effect was rather ruined by the fact that Alfred had to duck down in order for Leon to reach his head, even on tiptoe. Francis interrupted the moment by sticking his head out the door to the dining room and telling Alfred to please come in, the dinner's getting cold. Stomach growling, he concedes.
Leon followed him back through the double doors into the dining room, and Alfred froze in his tracks, wondering if it was too late to back out of the doors and run straight out into the street. Their dining room, seldom used because they hardly ever had time to have a formal sit down dinner, had been set with two extra places. There was Arthur at the head of the table, Francis on his left and Matthew on his right. An empty place had been left for Alfred next to his twin, and a half eaten plate of food indicated where Leon had been sitting. And at the other head of the table sat Mr. Wang. Alfred almost wished he'd taken his chances and picked another fight with Ivan. Left without a route of escape, he gingerly took his seat opposite Leon and tried to avoid eye contact. Great. The Dinner Party of Doom. When did the executions for the entertainment of the masses begin? And for you betting men and women, whose head would be rolling first?
The first few minutes were filled with nothing but the wet sounds of chewing and the chink of cutlery against porcelain. He bumps arms more than once or twice with someone reaching for a dish or cutting his chicken, and the apologies ar mumbled and elbows tucked in twice as tight in hope of avoiding the mistake again. The scents of Francis's kitchen might be wonderful, but the conversation was far from it, mostly because it was entirely non-existent. Alfred helped himself to a second portion of chicken and scalloped potatoes, and Mr. Wang snorted. Arthur's grip on his fork tightened enough to whiten the skin around his knuckles and Mr. Wang said nothing more, although he chewed the inside of his cheek when Alfred took a third portion. Leon attempted to diffuse the tension by drawing everyone's gaze away from-well, everyone else-by instead calling attention to something safely neutral and innocuous, like the frescos.
"Mr. Kirkland-Bonnefoy, I love what you've done with the dining room. It's spectacular."
"Please, Leon-" at Mr. Wang's outraged expression and little cry of disgust, he hurriedly self-corrected-"Lei Su, call me Francis. And I'm glad you like it, I decided I wanted something very Art Nouveau; you know, it's based off of the Wisteria dining room, which is extraordinary because…"
Alfred felt the atmosphere in the room fade away. Francis could talk about art for hours, and the decoration in the dining room is a safe, neutral topic. Matthew, even though Lord knew he'd heard the explanation of the Art Nouveau trend a thousand times, forced a smile on his face, and Arthur was making a valiant effort to look like he was paying attention.
All was peaceful for exactly three minutes and forty-seven seconds, when Alfred reached for another helping of food and Mr. Wang made the same little sound of contempt. Arthur had had enough, it seemed, and slammed his cutlery down on the table with an almighty bang.
"What exactly is your problem?" he hissed.
"My problem, as you have so eloquently put it, is that your son is a selfish glutton," Mr. Wang retorted as Alfred's cheeks were stained the colour of red wine with shame.
Francis consequently raised his voice, hoping to cut off the argument before it really started. "You know, it was a novel concept, designing the room as a whole set-"
"A glutton!" exclaimed Arthur, ignoring Francis while simultaneously raising his own voice. "He needs extra food for training!"
"Oh, yes, training this and training that. Did your son tell you he fell asleep in class today because of this training?"
"You fell asleep in CLASS?"
"-and really, the dining room should be the centre of an-"
"-for, like, TWO minutes, it's not even a big deal-"
"-oh, and that's not even COUNTING the disrespect he shows his teachers-"
"DISRESPECT? LIKE HELL ANY SON OF MINE SHOWS DISRESPECT, I TAUGHT THEM BETTER THAN THAT-"
"Dad, calm down-"
"AND REALLY, THE CARVINGS ON THE LAMPS-"
"PLEASE, YOUR SONS WERE BORN KNOWING DISRESPECT, BECAUSE THEY HAD A FAILURE LIKE YOU FOR A FATHER-"
"Arthur, perhaps now is NOT THE TIME-"
"THIS ISN'T HELPING-"
"A FAILURE? I'LL SHOW YOU FAILURE-"
"YES, A FAILURE WHO CAN'T DISCIPLINE HIS CHILDREN, WHO ABANDONED HIS FIRST FAMILY, AND WHO FORGETS ABOUT HIS OTHER SON BECAUSE ONE OF THEM HAS DELUSIONS OF GRANDEUR ABOUT BEING AN OLYMPIAN!"
"GET OUT, GET OUT OF MY HOUSE YOU FUCKING SLAG-" and the rest of Arthur's sentence was swallowed by what sounded like a dry, choking sob. "Like I would-like I would ever-"
Matthew stared at Mr. Wang with such reproach that the older man quaked a little bit. Francis looked from one member of the family to the next, as if unable to comprehend how dinner had devolved into such a disaster. Leon was resolutely staring at his plate, unable to look father or either half-brother in the eye. And Alfred-Alfred was very quietly trying not to die with the feeling that he had caused all of the trouble in the first place. Mr. Wang, at last, seemed to take the hint and stood. With as much dignity as he could muster, he threw his napkin down on the table with palpable disgust.
"Lei Su, have a good week," he said, and strode out of the room.
Leon sighed and looked over at Arthur, who currently had his head buried in his hands.
"Go," Arthur said, waving at him. "I can't stop you from saying goodbye."
Leon, too, hurried out of the dining room. Francis put his arm about Arthur, Matthew talking in nonsensical words in a hope to calm him. Alfred decided that now would be an excellent time to go to the bathroom, and excused himself. Funny how even muffled by carpet, his footsteps seemed to have an echo. An echo that was increasingly getting drowned out by human voices. Curious, he lingered in the doorframe to the sitting room, perhaps hoping to catch Mr. Wang making another snarky comment about his father so he could jump in and defend Arthur. Like Arthur had done for him.
Instead, the sight both surprised and touched him. Mr. Wang, for all that he is much taller than his son, is leaned forward so that all of his weight falls forward, head resting on Leon's shoulder for support. His eyes clenched tight shut, a man crying and pretending he is not. Alfred didn't understand the words that were being said, but he understood their meaning. I will miss you. I love you. I wish we didn't have to do this.
He backed away, all the fight gone out of him, replaced instead with a feeling that he had seen something that he had no right to. He slipped into the bathroom, letting the door click shut on his intrusion.