"Oh, lighten up. It's not that cold."
It was a testament to ter Borcht's sheer incorrigibility that he had the temerity to say that when it was somewhere around holy hell below zero outside, and snowing like a Moscow winter, which, funnily enough, it was.
He changed his tune, however, when he saw that Jeb was shivering.
Ter Borcht sighed. "Here, take my coat."
After a moment's fiddling with buttons, he draped the garment in question - an ankle-length monstrosity consisting of large proportions wool, fur, and brass buttons in roughly equal amounts - about Jeb's shoulders. "Better?"
Ter Borcht turned to Angel next. "Are you all right? We might be here a while."
Unlike Jeb, Angel was well-prepared for the climate in a pink down parka with matching snow boots, mittens, and what seemed like every accessory known to man, as well as several more known to avian-human hybrids. She nodded. "Uh-huh. I'm fine."
His companions taken care of, he considered the street before them for a moment. The person they were supposed to be meeting had said he'd come get them soon after their flight got in, but the roads were bad tonight with the accumulating snow, and he suspected it might be some time yet.
Jeb sank down on a bench, still shivering and clutching the coat more tightly around himself. "How can you be so... blasé about the weather?"
"I have family here," ter Borcht replied, sitting down next to him. "We used to visit them outside Moscow quite a bit - until I was an undergraduate, I spent all my summers at their dacha. It's beautiful country. Really."
"Is it?" Jeb had grown up with a conception of Russia as a vague threat - somewhere where it was very cold, and where there were probably wolves.
"Yes." He smiled and took one of Jeb's hands in his, lacing their fingers together. "I think you'd like it - perhaps we should visit in the summer sometime, yes?"
"I might have to take you up on that." He sighed, his teeth chattering (which ruined the effect somewhat). "Do you speak Russian?"
Ter Borcht thought for a moment, then burst into a bright chatter of foreign syllables; he paused, then translated himself. "Yes and no - it's been a long time since I had someone to speak it with."
"That's a shame." Jeb settled his head against ter Borcht's shoulder, but before he could say anything further, two headlights appeared from the thick veils of snow.
"Ah, here we are." Ter Borcht tugged Jeb to his feet, then began collecting their luggage.
"Hello, Vanya," he called as the driver's door of the car swung open. "It's good to see you again."
"I don't think we ought to do this, Roland." Jeb crossed his arms. "We really shouldn't. Can't we just - get a hotel room somewhere or something?"
"Vanya invited us to stay in his home - it would be impolite of us to reject his courtesy like that," ter Borcht said, rather absently as he unfolded a clean shirt and hung it up. "And why can't we stay here? Is something the matter?"
"I mean, we shouldn't sleep in the same room-"
Ter Borcht cut him off. "Jeb, it's fine. Vanya is one of my oldest friends." He slipped his arm around Jeb's shoulders. "Everything will be fine."
"If you say so." He looked around the room, at anything that wasn't ter Borcht. "How long will we be here, do you think?"
"I don't know." He ran his free hand through his hair. "He'll want to talk to each of us individually, and he'll probably take an interest in Angel as well, but given that she's well under working age it won't be the same as his interest in us, hmm? After that..." He paused for a moment, considering. "He'll want us to take a tour of his facility, and after that - who knows? We may be here as much as a week," he concluded. "Think of it as a vacation."
"I could use one," Jeb muttered. "Helluva vacation with the waist-deep snow outside, though."
"Moscow is a beautiful city, even when it's covered in snow. Just wait, it'll be beautiful in the morning," he promised. Ter Borcht had visited Vanya in winter once before - this house in winter, wrapped in snow, looked like something straight from a fairy story; an enchanted mansion, cursed for a hundred years and trapped in everlasting winter.
It was awesome.
"If you say so." He yawned and pulled away from ter Borcht. "I don't know about you, but jet lag is kicking my ass. I'm going to turn in."
"Good night, Jeb."
In her own room just down the hall, Angel giggled. She was tired too (though she was lucky enough to be mostly immune to jet lag, it was well past her bedtime), but they were so fun to eavesdrop on.
Especially ter Borcht - by now she knew Jeb like the back of her hand, but the German scientist still presented a fascinating new problem.
At first he'd seemed to be exactly the same person she'd met at Lendeheim - kind of a control freak, cold, a scientist to the core. And he didn't like Max. He wasn't fond of any of the flock, but Max seemed to have a special gift for finding the big red button on his personal control panel - and not just pressing it, but hammering it.
When Jeb was around him, though, a whole different side of his personality came out. He was still kind of domineering, but he seemed more caring and kind all around.
That, and given the memory she'd just seen, he was a closet romantic too. Cute.
She had to kind of agree with him, though - in his memories this house did look like it was under some fairy-tale curse or something, with snow in drifts to the second story, frost etchings hazing the windows, and icicles suspended from seemingly every horizontal surface.
Overall... ter Borcht seemed like basically a good guy.
But - and it was just standard operating procedure - she was going to keep a further eye on him.
Just in case.
Ivan Fedorovich Volgin was not a physically prepossessing man, and his wife Sonia Nikolayevna was not among the most intimidating of women. The two of them - he with his green eyes and neat dark hair, she with her long brunette braids and kind eyes - made an altogether ordinary pair.
As a rule, the couple lived quiet lives - Sonia remained at home while Ivan was at work, and they rarely went out at night - and in modern Moscow this made them an exception to the rule. Russia as a whole was experiencing a minor economic boom, but while Ivan's business was flourishing, his home life remained much as it always had, and breakfast at his house was as calm as though the Soviet Union had never fallen. The food was considerably better, though.
Certainly, Sonia was a good hostess, even early in the morning - her coffee was good, and that was all that mattered to ter Borcht, who rose early and to whom coffee had an importance verging on a religious rite.
"Thank you," ter Borcht said once he'd finished his cup (black, always), but it was unnecessary for the most part. He had known Ivan since they were both in school, and Sonia ever since Ivan had begun dating her on a steady basis. That made for more than a quarter-century he'd been a friend of the Volgins, and he'd spent many happy hours either in their company or here in their home.
For most of his life, ter Borcht had been a happily confirmed bachelor, but watching (and to an extent, living with) the Volgins had made him wonder about the good in life as part of a couple. However mundane their life might be (well, as compared to his life as a jet-setting scientist, which were two words he'd never quite thought to put together in his life), he was still curious about it. They seemed happy - and boring domesticity was beginning to seem more attractive than adventure and excitement.
For the first time, he could picture himself living a quiet life like theirs with someone he loved.
Sonia smiled at him, the crows'-feet wrinkles at the corners of her eyes deepening. He wasn't getting any younger, certainly - none of them were. Perhaps that was part of the lure of... coupledom - you would still grow old, but at least you wouldn't have to be alone.
"It's no trouble," she said, her voice the echo of her husband's in quiet steadiness. "Tell me - is something wrong, Roland?"
He was tempted to tell her that no, he was fine - the words were on the tip of his tongue - but he held back. He had known this woman more than twenty-five years, which was more than half his life. If he couldn't speak with some degree of frankness to her, she might as well be a stranger.
"Did you notice the man I arrived with?" He folded his hands around his empty cup.
"No, not in particular," she said lightly. "You all came in so late last night."
"It's fine." He looked into the cup as if there were tea leaves there to be read, rather than the bitter dregs of cold coffee. "Sonia, he's the problem."
"How so?" She leaned forward towards him across the narrow kitchen table. "Has he set out a bounty on your head?"
Ter Borcht forced a smile. He had to collect himself, trying for words to communicate what he needed to say.
"Sonia," he said at last, "I think I'm falling in love with him."
"If that's all, what's got you so scared?"
Typical of her to be so flippant.
"I'm forty-four, Sonia - and I've never felt the way I do for him, not ever before." He stumbled over his words; he knew if he paused to regroup and rephrase he'd lose his nerve. "I think I have some excuse to be scared, yes?"
She sighed, then smiled and patted his hand. "Roland. If you have to ask whether you're falling in love, you are. Don't worry about it."
"I'll try," ter Borcht said, and for a moment he could almost have believed he wasn't there on business.
As mild as he normally was, Volgin's eyes this morning had the joyful predatory gleam of some hunting cat's eyes - something like an ocelot, fierce beyond its size.
They had gotten past the introductions, which brought them now to the business part of matters. And that was where Volgin's strength was - business.
"Doctor Batchelder, I understand you worked with this - Coalition to Stop the Madness that I've heard of?"
Jeb paused for a moment before nodding. "Yes. I no longer work with them, but yes, I did."
"Then you'll understand the mission I'm inviting you to be a part of." He cleared his throat. "For some time I've been working with a small organization called Philanthropy. We're working on the same problem that the Coalition is trying to combat - the same problem Itex was trying to solve."
Volgin sounded like a man giving a prepared speech - and yet, from his lips, it sounded almost original.
"Population control?" Jeb knew it couldn't be the right answer - and yet the words almost tumbled from his mouth, with hardly any conscious thought blocking or backing them.
Volgin smiled. "No. In a word, global warming."
"So how do you plan to do that?" There were lots of grand ideas in the world. Most fell short because there was no way to execute them.
He leaned back and crossed his arms. "Despite its size, Philanthropy has... many branches. We have a research division, for example, that could desperately use a scientist of your caliber."
"Why should I work with you?"
Volgin seemed to have anticipated this question. "The Coalition is raising awareness of the problem, no more. If I may make a metaphor, they are merely providing diagnosis. Itex was combating symptoms." He smiled. "We at Philanthropy are searching for a cure."
The whole offer sounded tempting to Jeb - tempting, and a little romantic. Work for me, save the world.
And yet, as romantic as he could sometimes be, Jeb Batchelder was primarily ruled by his practical nature - so he asked more questions, rather than follow his heart and sign up on the spot.
"How do you propose to do that?"
Volgin uncrossed his arms and shrugged. "We have many avenues of research to be pursued, as I've said."
"Like what?" He was still skeptical - it was an ingrained habit of his.
"Currently I've been investigating the potentials of a line of genetically engineered bacteria - they use carbon dioxide to fuel their respiration. The last time I was at the laboratory, we were working on a self-limiting mechanism that would cause the bacteria to fall dormant after carbon dioxide in the atmosphere drops to a certain level..." He coughed, seeming embarrassed. "Of course, that project is nowhere near finished."
"It seems like you know a lot about it," Jeb commented.
"Dr. Batchelder - I work on that project," Volgin said mildly.
"Ah. I see. What other kinds of projects is Philanthropy working on?"
He smiled. "We have, as I said, many projects currently in the pipeline. I'd be more than happy to show you a few during your tour of our facility."
"Sounds good to me." It seemed like quite an enticing offer, given this further examination. Further data was still required, of course, but from here it looked good.
"Excellent." Volgin's eyes had lost most of their predatory aspect - now they were approaching warmth. "I believe this concludes our interview."
When it comes to mad science, there are laboratories and then there are laboratories.
There are little fly-by-night operations, stashed away in a basement somewhere, surviving on minimal funding. Cleanliness isn't much of a concern when you're worried about paying the rent and keeping out prying eyes.
And then there are facilities that receive above-the-table funding from someone who's too rich to care about ethics. This removes the need to hide from the law, and enables more cash to go towards following basic principles of sterility.
Volgin's little lab was funded by Philanthropy, which apparently had incredible amounts of funding, given the white-and-steel decorating theme and the clean reek of preservatives and antiseptics in the air.
Given that it sat calmly near the city center of Moscow, he had to guess that the government also didn't mind the existence of the lab. Albeit this was Russia. Didn't gangs and other... shady people have a lot of influence? He thought he remembered that, but maybe things had changed since then.
Still, while he admired the architecture of the lab and its location near something that wasn't a whole fuckload of desert, the building gave him the heebie-jeebies.
Angel had had a more concise response to the whole shebang - she'd refused to enter the building. This was ridiculous given that she had the power to mind-control anyone into doing anything, but given she was also a six-year-old girl, it made a little more sense. It was easy to mistake Angel for older than she was. They'd left her in the lobby to wait.
"So where did you get the building?" ter Borcht asked, breaking the silence and giving Jeb time to shake himself out of his nerd-out.
Volgin shrugged, grinned. "It used to be a government building, but in 1991 they relocated. Philanthropy picked it up in the late nineties. We've been working here ever since."
So it had been Soviet. Not much of a surprise in Russia.
The building from the outside had a cool Brutalist air of solidity. It fit the interior.
Volgin smiled and clasped his hands together. "So, now you've seen the more public areas. Would you like to go further inside?"
That's what she said! Knowing Reilly was a curse.
"Of course," ter Borcht said, shooting Jeb a stop that shit glare.
Perhaps he was a mind-reader, Jeb thought gloomily as Volgin ushered them into another room that looked exactly the same. You never knew, with mad scientists.
"I can't take you any further," said Volgin. "We like to keep our labs clean, and I'm sure you understand that."
"Yep," Jeb said, scanning the room. Not much going on here. It had the look of a typical cubicle farm, as opposed to the Public-Relations-looking room they'd just been in. "What goes on here?"
"This is our programming department. Philanthropy started out with a strong emphasis on computer programming." Volgin rubbed the side of his nose with a knuckle. "Currently we're working on projects like more secure firewalls and intelligent virus protection."
"Interesting." Ter Borcht crossed his arms - he intended to get down to business. "So, what would we be doing here?"
"Not programming," Volgin said dryly. "You'd be in the same department I work in." He crossed back to the hallway and indicated a door further down the hall. "That's our biological department - we're in need of experienced genetic engineers like yourselves." He smiled. "In fact, you two are our top picks."
"Ooh, exciting." Ter Borcht shot Jeb another dirty look. Messing with his head was so enjoyable.
That's what she sai- shut up.
Volgin raised his eyebrows. "Oh, we have quite a few proposals we'd like you two to have a look at."
" 'You two' ?" He sounded skeptical. (Jeb smirked.)
"Yes." Volgin glanced between them. "Philanthropy invited both of you here for a reason, you know. And, uh, you are..." He coughed, made an awkward hand gesture.
Jeb grabbed Roland's hand (he breathed an air of I am going to kill you for this later, but whatever). "A package deal? Yeah, we are."
Volgin nodded. "Very good. Now, there are some other things I wanted to mention..."
Post 'interview', ter Borcht had stormed out of the building, hissing and muttering to himself in uncomplimentary-sounding German.
Jeb knew better than that - after letting him alone for a few hours, he was safe to interact with, and much less likely to throw things. (How ter Borcht gotten knives through customs and airport security, Jeb wasn't quite sure, and thought it was a bad idea to inquire.)
He knocked on the door. "Hey."
"Fuck off," a muffled voice muttered, but the door opened. "Yes?"
Shit, what was I going to ask? "Uh, you want to go for a walk?"
"It's twenty degrees outside." He looked suspicious.
"Sorry I was such a jerk earlier."
Ter Borcht sighed. "Apology accepted."
"And I need to get out of the house."
He grinned. "I can understand that."
They ended up at a little stand selling food (ter Borcht thought Jeb needed to eat more, and wasn't very subtle about it).
Given that ter Borcht spoke better Russian than Jeb did, he wound up acting as translator.
Jeb eyed the pictures on the menu, rubbing his arms for warmth. (He was wearing ter Borcht's coat again, but goddamn it was cold. Russia.) "Uh... one of those meat pies."
"You'll want two. They're small."
He was tempted to snap stop mothering me! but the proprietor of the stand was giving them the stinkeye. "Fine."
Ter Borcht turned to the proprietor and rattled off a string of Russian. The only thing that sounded familiar to Jeb was the numbers - 'dva' sounded kind of like 'two', but the rest was total Greek.
The proprietor nodded, and handed over aluminum-foil-wrapped packages after ter Borcht paid him.
"You got a potato?"
He shrugged. (He was probably some kind of crazy, only in his shirtsleeves despite the twenty-degree cold, but then again, mad scientist, hello.) "I'm not too keen on hepatitis."
Jeb grinned, mouth full of meat and pastry. "I have all my shots. Your call."
He couldn't sleep. And besides - it was a full moon, and the silver light on the snow outside made everything look a little more... well, something different from a rather smoggy city.
He heard soft footsteps behind him - bare feet on the rug - and a voice from the darkness.
A familiar voice, thankfully.
"Schätzchen, was ist los?" Then a yawn. "...is something the matter?"
Jeb sighed. "I'm fine." Just thinking about if I want to live in fucking Russia for the next few years.
"Come to bed, then." Arms looped around him from behind.
As long as you're here, I can handle life in Commieland.
I usually just invoke the disclaimer in my profile, but I would like to thoroughly apologize to all of the following.
Saint, I'm sorry for taking almost a year with this.
Hideo Kojima, I'm very sorry for borrowing things from the Metal Gear universe to include in a silly parody fic.
James Patterson, I'm sorry you have no writing talent. Please consider this a tribute to the gods, that they might bless you with some talent.
If anyone reading this is from Russia, I'm very, very sorry.
Anyway, thanks for putting up with all this nonsense. Hopefully it was amusing in some fashion. Cheers.