"I think you have one too many cats," were the words that started it all. They were innocent enough in their existence, expressed upon a single post-it note that was applied to the coffee maker in the break room. The note's blindingly yellow hue had called out to Ivan from the moment he first entered the room like a silent beacon.
He had ignored the message as he set to pouring refrigerated grounds into the filter, deciding that the boyishly scrawled script was from an irritated boyfriend to a woman that so intrigued his affections, a man lacking the ability to communicate his dislike for multiple cats in a forward manner and had instead resorted to a passive aggressive approach.
Ivan was used to people being passive aggressive. It was the national pastime of offices everywhere, the reason team-building exercises had been invented, and kept up a steady and inexhaustibly abundant amount of aspirin in every desk drawer and purse. He hoped the cat lady had some aspirin in her handbag for the day to come.
A meeting had followed the next day, one that outlined the importance of respecting others' choices. A comment was made that how many pets one might own was not appropriate office-talk, and that if animal hoarding was suspected it was best to call the county's animal services.
Ivan spent the entire time surreptitiously studying those around him, moving from face to face, searching for signs of guilt. Everyone looked similarly interested, a volley of suspicious glances flying through the air every few minutes. There was no interest in the topic itself, and those who weren't so much as interested in the owner of the note resigned themselves to the speeches with vacant expressions. One man had managed to fall asleep, but it was rumored he had some kind of low-grade narcolepsy, so no one intervened.
Ivan found himself growing bored as a PowerPoint presentation on how to contact animal authorities was projected on a screen. He settled for watching a coworker who sat at the corner of his vision, focused on the steady blond bobbing of his neighbor's head as he pretended to jot down notes throughout the process. He always proved amusing to watch.
When the meeting ended and everyone rose to leave, Ivan couldn't help but glance over at the blond's notepad. It was covered in nothing but drawings of stick figure cats─ or maybe they were dogs─ along with a good deal of writing, all of it bizarre and illegible, almost appearing as if several different people had written on the pad. Ivan wondered if maybe he had a little too much personality, or personalities. Not that he minded; that boy could be mad as a belfry bat and Ivan still wouldn't be able to draw himself away.
After a few days the hushed whispers faded away. The momentary liveliness that the note had brought to the dull, monotonous environment of the office had all but faded. In its place had come a second note, this time posted to the fridge and written in curly pink letters.
It read: You leave Weebie out of this.
Who was Weebie? Could it be a pet name for a lover, or an actual pet in itself? The immediate agreement was that Weebie had to be the cat referred to in the previous note. The one that tipped the scales. Ivan had been the one to find it again, and repeated his previous reaction of ignoring the message, retreating to his cubicle and listening with mild amusement as people filtered through the doors, their groggy voices becoming lively and childlike with excitement.
A stern voice was soon shooing everyone to their own cubicles, strong and uncaring as to who or what Weebie was. People scurried away, spewing empty apologies and false promises that they'd get to work right away. Ivan's pen hovered above the sheaf of paper before him as two sets of footsteps passed him, their faces unseen but voices heard.
"Weebie, I can't help but feel like I've heard that name before." Ivan's ears perked up, recognizing the voice as belonging to the man who worked to the right of him, an Englishman named Arthur who always complained about the lack of an electric kettle in the break room. Ivan didn't know much about him, but he seemed rather intelligent.
"Really? Can't say I've heard anything like it before. Pretty snazzy name though, might have to tuck it away for future use." Ivan knew the second voice well, another neighbor and the man who he had been watching throughout the meeting from the previous day. If Arthur was the epitome of all things English (and Ivan was quite sure he was), then the epitome of all things American was Alfred, who worked to Ivan's left.
The two men constantly spoke throughout the day, sometimes peeking over Ivan's cubicle walls to exchange jokes and jabs in equal amounts, the odd paper airplane sometimes running out of fuel in midair and crash landing on Ivan's desk. Sheepish apologies courtesy of Alfred would follow, always topped with Alfred's best attempts to pull Ivan into the little back and forth the two men had going on.
Ivan would politely refuse and go back to his work, inwardly appreciating the friendliness of at least one of his coworkers. One of these days Ivan was sure he'd throw aside his work ethic and join their fun, but he found no way to map out a plan in his mind without finding himself to be a third wheel. So he never did.
Returning to his papers, Ivan again engrossed himself in penning contracts and signing on the dotted line. He didn't even know what his job was, really. When anyone asked, he gave convoluted answers containing an excess of corporate jive. He spoke of 'enabling the community' and 'opening new pathways for business', but none of it was true. Corporate jive wasn't true either, it was just words strung together for people like him who had no idea of what they did or what it contributed.
Ivan wondered if his neighbors had the same job, or really, lack of one.
The occasional note picked up into a steady stream after that. The daily barrage of complaints, accusations, and even once, a movie review in five words, had done something no one had expected. It had made people look forward to coming to work. Even Ivan. It was now a struggle to arrive first, and to stay last. The identity of the perpetrator, or as it was beginning to look, perpetrators, remained a mystery.
Ivan hid his curiosity from others, though he took the time when first arriving to observe the handwriting, the words used, and the pens which perpetrated the act. Similarities abounded in the writer's script, leading Ivan to theorize many of the notes originated from the same person, if not all of them. On occasion it even seemed as though the author was trying so hard to disguise their hand that they went overboard. Notes now sported the bubbling writing of young girls, the illegible scrawls of doctors, and the half-print, half-cursive of the masses.
When he was sure he wouldn't be caught, Ivan even took a few.
He began to linger around the water cooler when it was possible, silently eavesdropping on those around him as they exchanged suspects. A man who Ivan suspected of being an albino (and also of letting birds into the office), was bragging that he knew the person behind it all. He got a few scoffs before being ignored. It was a mystery in and of itself as to why he even worked there, his only apparent asset being that he could fix the photo copier when it jammed. It was rumored he was a relative of one of the higher ups, and Ivan wouldn't be surprised if it was the truth.
A soft weight bumped against his shoulder as Ivan mused on the albino, and he looked down to find Alfred grinning up at him. Ivan blinked with poorly-concealed confusion before sputtering a soft: "Hello."
"Hey big guy,"Alfred chirped, clutching in his hands a styrofoam cup brimming with water. He held it out to Ivan, like a child proffering a flower. "Thought you were lookin' a bit thirsty."
Ivan clumsily took the cup from Alfred, sloshing a fair bit of the water on himself. He raised it to his lips and took a gulp, half-choking in his haste to show his appreciation of the gesture. "That is very kind of you, Alfred. Thank you."
Alfred nodded absently, scanning the room around them before leaning in close, gaze still averted. "Hear about that whole team-building exercise meet-up?"
Ivan shook his head. "No, I cannot say I have."
"Well then," Alfred nearly sing-songed, "let me be the one to let you in. I won't lie, it's a bit of a secret. Real close-knit thing, invite only, all that jazz."
Ivan nodded in understanding, though he only heard half of the words. His attention had wandered to Alfred's face, settling on his butterfly-blue eyes that never stopped, always fluttering about curiously. When they settled on him, if only for the briefest of moments, Ivan's heart gave a surprised lurch.
"Want to come with?" Alfred asked, drawing away as Arthur strode by, muttering about digestive biscuits and casting a wary glance at the two of them.
Ivan graciously accepted, hardly able to get the words out of his mouth before Alfred had waved a hand and gone padding after Arthur, giving no particular time for their team-building excursion before scurrying off. Ivan didn't worry, he was sure Alfred would remember sooner or later, take the time to tell him over the shared wall of their cubicle. His mind was much more preoccupied with Alfred himself. And Arthur.
Mainly, their relationship.
Since Ivan had begun working at the office, the bond between his neighbors had been a curious one. At first he had thought it a mere friendship. The smattering of friendly conversations throughout the day that had soon turned to popping into each other's cubicles and whispering like school children trading gossip in class.
Then Ivan had started to catch Arthur fussing over Alfred. Brushing out the wrinkles that would crease his jacket, smoothing down the flyaway hair that remained wild despite his best attempts. After that he began bringing Alfred cups of tea with a bashful smile on his lips, not unlike how Alfred had brought Ivan water without provocation. Good friends, that's what they had to be. Nothing more, nothing less.
Ivan tossed his cup in the trash bin and retreated to his desk, batting away his troublesome thoughts. He slowed his pace for a few steps as he passed Alfred's cubicle, hoping to be able to step in and ask for the details of their little get-together. It was empty, but waiting to confront Ivan on his return to his desk was a yellow post-it note emblazoned with "I'll pop in at lunch to get you." in an almost frantic script. The gold ink that had penned the words was difficult to make out against the note, and Ivan found himself studying for several minutes before a snippet of bickering broke his concentration.
"C'mon, don't get all worked up about it. We can have dinner together, I promise." It was Alfred, but his voice came from Arthur's cubicle.
"And what if I don't want to go out to dinner, hm?" There was Arthur, his voice growling in the back of his throat like a feisty tomcat.
"Well, uh, I don't know. We can figure something out. Heck, d'you wanna cook dinner tonight?" There was a fleeting silence, the break in an argument in which the reins can be stolen by the losing side. Alfred snatched them up. "I mean, you know how much I love your cooking, and with work being so busy we haven't really been able to just relax and eat some homemade grub."
Arthur paused to consider before speaking, his voice faltering when he did. "I don't know, I─ I'll think about it."
"Great, that'd be awesome. We could even turn it into a big night, y'know? You go grocery shopping, I'll rent some movies and we can spend the night stuffing our stomachs and watching things blow up. While we're at it, you may as well just spend the night."
Ivan tuned out after that, the edge of the note crumpling between his fingers as he gripped it. Good friends made dinner for each other on occasion, yes. They watched movies, sure. But two grown men doing such things and topping it off with spending the night tipped the scales from friendship to something more. The fact that the conversation was bordering on a lover's quarrel didn't help much either.
Not that Ivan cared what Alfred was to Arthur. Whatever they did in their private time was their own business, and Ivan had no right to judge it. He instead slipped the note into his drawer and sighed, willing away the biting ache of jealousy that lounged in his chest.
He'd always suspected that Alfred was taken, he had to be. He knew it from the first time he saw Alfred, the first time his heart skipped a beat. Which was stupid, and Ivan had tried to ignore it. Heart skipping was something for sappy movies and romance novels. But he could ignore it no more than the pleasant chill that ran down his spine.
People that made you feel that way were always taken before you so much as laid eyes on them. That was how life was, laying before you the most alluring things only to make them off-limits. Ivan shook his head and sighed. He was here to work, not to pine away like a schoolchild. He reorganized his pens to distract his mind.
Reorganizing pens led to reorganizing pencils. And then Ivan noticed his coffee mug had left a nasty ring on the desk, which just wouldn't do. The desk would have to be cleaned. After that, he realised that if he were going to clean his desk, why not the rest of his workspace as well? Soon his office was clean as a whistle, the only remaining area he needed to confront being his inbox, having grown precariously fat with paperwork he had no desire to review. It could wait, at least until after lunch.
Ivan leaned back in his chair, his back popping as he stretched his hands above his head and took in a deep breath, eyelids fluttering shut. Now that he had cleaned, his cubicle smelled unusually nice, almost comfortable, like the warm patch of floor a cat is prone to curl up in, an inviting bed with the sheets pulled back. Ivan melted back into his chair and enjoyed the sensation.
A quick pat on the head interrupted him all too soon.
"Ready for a nap, buddy?"
Ivan's eyes snapped open as he sat bolt upright. The gentle chime of Alfred's laughter brushed against his ear, and the sharp jolt of adrenaline the slid through his veins dissipated, though the rapid thud of his heart refused to ease. "Is it lunch already?" Ivan inquired lightly, acting as though he had not been caught practically sleeping on the job.
"You bet your sweet scarf it is," Alfred assured him warmly, spinning the chair around and offering Ivan a hand, a gesture that was gladly accepted. "Where'd you get that puppy, anyway?"
Ivan fingered his scarf with one hand, his other snatching up a sleek black briefcase. "A gift from one of my sisters."
"Really?" Alfred asked, his enthusiasm almost ridiculous, as though Ivan had divulged it was a gift from visiting royalty. "Arthur's always giving me stuff, too. Lots of cufflinks and ties, though, nothing I really use."
Ivan quirked an eyebrow inclining his head at the tie Alfred was wearing. In turn, Alfred laughed again, hasty and a little bit embarrassed, picking up on the silent question.
"It's a clip-on." He demonstrated by taking it on and off, fingers dancing like the legs of an excited animal. "Real nifty thing, these clip-ons are. Can't tie a tie to save my life."
Ivan loosened his own tie and smiled politely. He'd mastered the maneuver long ago, able to do it without the smallest inkling of thought. Had Alfred ever asked, Ivan would gladly have taught him how it was done. If the seemingly absent-minded mimicry Alfred performed of the action was anything to go by, he might very well be willing to learn.
Ten minutes of talking and walking later, Ivan was very much unsure as to whether or not the fabled team-building exercise actually existed. He hadn't voiced the suspicion yet, more than satisfied to listen to Alfred blather cheerily on about what he had read in the newspaper that morning ("Did you hear? They've had tons of UFO sightings in Oregon lately.") and the overheard conversations of children ("She said she wanted to be a superhero!") and generally expounding on his love of pretty much everything. It was a welcome relief from the usual disparaging moaning Ivan was used to. He was so lost in the warmth and kindness of Alfred's voice that he hardly noticed when he guided them into a restaurant.
But he did perk up once Alfred told the host that he had reservations for two.
"Only two?" Ivan asked after their waiter had gone to fetch their drinks.
Alfred played with his napkin, tearing at its edges instead of settling it in his lap. "Yup, just us." He moved on to looking at his reflection in a soup spoon.
"So there is no exercise?"
"Well, I wouldn't say that." Alfred's words were mumbled, having taken to trying to stick the spoon to his nose. "It is team-building after all. Consider it a 'getting to know you' lunch, which─" The spoon dropped to the table, and Alfred took a moment to re-balance it again. "─is my favorite kind of lunch."
The waiter returned with their drinks, having no reaction to Alfred's eccentric table manners as he placed their glasses on the table. Alfred requested they be allowed a few more minutes to pick their meals. Ivan hid his face behind the menu as he scrounged for small-talk topics.
Alfred knit their forks together to form a small hut.
Ivan snuck glances around the restaurant as he perused the menu, noting with a certain dread that none of the prices were listed. The floors were covered with a dark, spotless carpet. Lamps lined the papered walls, exuding a sleepy kind of light that provided a comfortable ambiance among the white-noise of clinking silverware and soft, conversational tones.
After biding his time as long as he could and coming up with nothing to speak of, Ivan folded his menu and laid clasped hands over it. Alfred was holding his own menu sideways, his head turned to the angle of an owl's when he set it back down.
"I don't know what half this stuff is," Alfred admitted, scratching the bridge of his nose as he righted his head.
Ivan had found himself fighting the same problem, the menu seeming to be an extravagant mix of Italian, French, and a child's made up language. He had ended up singling out the word 'salad' and deciding on it. While he had no clue as to how the name of the salad was pronounced, he planned only to point at the item and let the waiter draw his conclusions.
The waiter returned before Ivan could counsel Alfred with his options, but when asked for his order, Alfred seemed more than able to decide for himself, requesting in a no-nonsense voice that he would have steak, and dodging the waiter's questions to which steak with a simple "Whatever you think is best," again and again until the waiter turned to tend to Ivan.
"So what did you get?" Alfred asked after they were alone again.
"A salad, I believe."
Alfred frowned, nudging his napkin around the table idly. "You didn't have to get salad just 'cause I'm paying."
Ivan smoothed his own napkin out in his lap. "Are we not splitting the check?" He had a feeling Alfred might try to pick up the tab, and prepared himself to argue against it.
"Uh, no." Alfred seemed truly befuddled, bundling his napkin in his palm as he mouthed a few silent words, not quite sure of how to explain himself. "I asked you out to lunch and all, so I'm paying, okay?" He didn't sound all that sure of himself, as though he had never taken anyone out to eat before.
Ivan didn't want to push it, as Alfred looked to be getting more flustered with every word he spoke, so he offered a compromise. "I'll treat you next time, then."
Alfred's eyes lit up, bright and blue and oh so happy. Ivan would have to treat Alfred every day if it earned him that look.
"Great, I absolutely love it. Awesome game plan."
Ivan opened his mouth to agree instantaneously before the words registered with him. He felt suddenly like a teenager when he heard the phrase 'go out'. Like on a date. Like what they were having right now. But Arthur, that was who Alfred always spent lunch with, who he'd argued with regarding canceling their assumed lunch plans. Unable to contain his curiosity and unease with the situation, Ivan couldn't help but ask, "But what about Arthur?"
Alfred ducked his head guiltily."You heard that?"
It was Ivan's turn to be embarrassed. "Only for a few seconds."
"I, well... Yeah. Arthur can get kinda fussy at times, he's a real creature of habit." Alfred enunciated the term very clearly, the tendons in his neck showing as he spoke. It reminded Ivan of a child who is testing out new, foreign words that feel strange in their mouth. It was rather charming in a boyish way, and suddenly he couldn't stop himself from speaking, shakily voicing his assumptions.
"Are you and Arthur a─" Ivan paused, struggling in vain for a romantic term so politically correct it would be impossible to find offense in. Alfred butted in with an answer.
No. "Ah, yes."
"Yeah, that's us. Arthur's real quiet about the whole thing, guess he thinks people will assume I only got the job because of him, but it's not like that at all." Alfred squirmed in his seat and he fished his wallet from his back pocket. He opened it and slid a photo out, flashing it at Ivan.
The picture was faded, yellowed by age. There was a child wearing a well-fitted vest, knee-length trousers (tweed, Ivan knew without dwelling) and socks pulled up to his knees. Very prim, very proper. A man in miniature. Despite the child's attempt to draw the eye to his smart clothes, the focal point remained his eyebrows. Such unfortunate eyebrows he had.
They nearly shrouded his eyes and wrinkled his forehead with their weight as they furrowed. Beneath them, murky green eyes stared viciously, warding away the camera as his body turned away, shielding the bundle of blankets in his arms, as though the camera might try to take them away from him. Even through the years of wear and tear the photo suffered, Ivan could still glimpse vivid blue eyes peeking back at him, a rosy, pudgy cheek pressed against Arthur's vest. A childhood photo of the two brothers.
Ivan smiled gently, his nerves softened by both the picture and the revelation. Alfred was possibly single, and Arthur was nothing but a brother. A rather protective and possessive one, but Ivan had dealt with that kind of sibling all his life. It was not a new experience, nor was it frightening. He quietly contemplated ways to steer the conversation towards finding out whether or not Alfred was taken at the moment. The waiter interrupted him by bringing their dishes then.
He presented them as though the plates were gilded with gold, inlaid with jewels. As though eating from them would provide eternal life and happiness. As though the portion sizes weren't the size of a baby's fist. Neither Alfred nor Ivan were fooled by the facade, though they waited until the waiter was out of earshot to comment.
"I've eaten cocktail wieners bigger than this steak," Alfred proclaimed, lifting his steak with a fork as though more meat might be hiding beneath.
Ivan made a soft noise of agreement, though he kept himself from voicing a concern that the waiter may have forgotten the rest of his salad. He could count the strips of lettuce on one hand, and there were a few vegetables (fruits?) that he could not identify, let alone deem edible. The mystery bits may very well have been garnish, for all Ivan knew.
Alfred set to work on his steak immediately, flagging down the waiter for the check in between bites. Ivan watched him eat, transfixed by how soft and plump Alfred's lips appeared. How his tongue peeked out to slip along his lower lip, leaving a tantalizing wetness behind. Ivan imaged pressing his lips to Alfred's, sharing warm, caring kisses that would leave the both of them dizzy. He tried not to think about what Alfred's reaction would probably be.
In the end, Ivan ate the garnish without ever noticing.
The next day, Ivan popped into Alfred's cubicle with a card to sign. It was the birthday of a man in accounting, one who always pulled his hair back in a ponytail and had a basket of Chinese sweets on his desk. Everyone liked him well enough, as he proved to be a person of seemingly infinite wisdom, far more than anyone working in an office should have.
When Alfred found out who it was for, he seemed more than eager to add his name to the list of well-wishers. Ivan busied himself by casting about Alfred's office, doing his best to put on an unhurried air so that he could linger for as long as possible. His attention snagged on a row of photos, most of them containing Arthur and Alfred, though two had Alfred twice. Somehow. Some kind of photo trickery, Ivan assumed as he continued down the line.
He picked up one of the frames near the end, unable to make out its contents from its perch. There was a black puff of fur, eyes closed in slumber. He couldn't quite make it out, even up close. All he could see was fur, whiskers, and a funny kind of nose that he couldn't equate with any animal he'd ever seen, but he tried his best to identify it.
"Is this your dog?"
Alfred gave him half a glance. "Dog? I don't have a dog."
Ivan held the photo out for him to see. Alfred threw his head back and laughed, the noise full and lovely. "That's my cat. He's just huge; some kind of Russian breed, according to the shelter."
Ivan's cheeks flushed hotly.
Now that he looked closer, he could more clearly see the triangular shape of the feline's ears, the dead giveaway of its loaf-like sleeping position. Ivan stroked the photo with his index finger, as though he could pet the cat by doing so. People always were fond of their animals, perhaps if Ivan were to buy some catnip or a scratching post Alfred would like him more. Would find him a kind of kindred spirit, even if he had no pets of his own.
Alfred delicately fished the frame from Ivan's fingers, the brief touch sending a smooth wave of warmth down Ivan's back. Alfred mused over the photo for a moment before looking to Ivan, a dazzling twinkle in his eyes.
"You think with all that fur of his he'd be boiling up, but you'd never know. Every night he curls up right here─" Alfred motioned to the crook of his neck. "─And it's like an inferno. Not the disco kind either, but that's okay. Also, never try to give him a haircut, that's not so good. Not so good at all." Alfred's expression turned grim and haunted, revealing a man of experience.
Ivan attempted to imagine the mammoth cat with a freshly shorn coat. It was a terrible image, composed of a fluffy mane and tail and an embarrassingly wiry body where the fur had been stripped away. He felt a tinge of sympathy for the creature as Alfred handed the frame back, a spark of electricity jumping from his fingers to Ivan's as he did so. Ivan set the photo back in its place, scanning for pictures of potential love interests while Alfred babbled on.
"Don't get me wrong, though," Alfred murmured as he pulled his desk drawer open, rummaging through pens, papers, and post-it notes. "Real sweet cat, wouldn't trade him for the world. You should see his eyes too, it's hard to tell in that photo, but they're nearly purple." He raised his head and looked to Ivan. "A lot like yours, really."
Ivan looked away, but he could feel Alfred's eyes on him, scrutinizing the shade of his irises, comparing them to his cat's. Ivan was used to the looks and the comments he received, even come to enjoy the attention to a degree, but he almost wanted to avoid drawing Alfred's attention, despite seeking it out to begin with. In the way that people just seemed to sense things, Ivan feared that Alfred would sense his interest.
If Alfred did pick up on anything, he had no reaction, instead opening the card and grabbing a pen. The pale pink tip of his tongue peeked from between his lips, emerging like a shy zoo animal as he scribbled away, slowly mumbling what he wrote as he went.
He handed the card back when he was done, leaving it open so Ivan could see what he had written. There a few short lines complimenting the recipient's cooking and thanking him for teaching Alfred the uses of tiger balm. Beneath that was his signature. But it wasn't a signature as much as it was a spasm of gold ink, shooting off in several directions at once, every flick of the pen trying and failing to cooperate with the one previous. A scripted rebellion of letters corralled together to form a name.
It was curled up next to his own signature, which was stiff and blue as a corpse. Ivan hoped that the gold liveliness of Alfred's words would distract from how impersonal and forced his own were. Alfred did seem to like writing with gold, as impractical as it may be. That was Alfred after all, impractical, but endearingly so. Ivan wondered if there was a reason behind it.
"Do you always write with that pen?" Ivan asked casually, knowing full well Alfred wouldn't use it for work.
"Oh, um, no. No, I can't say I do. I have different pens for different things."
"Do you, now?" Ivan found himself prompting, unsure why he was so interested himself.
Alfred paused for a moment, his eyes going blank as he retreated into his mind to concoct the best way to explain what was shaping up to be a strange habit. "Right off the bat, I just want to say I know this will sound lame."
"I do not mind," Ivan assured him honestly.
"Okay, good." Alfred rooted through his desk for a few moments before producing three pens of various colors, first gesturing to a blue one. "I like to tailor my pen colors to what I'm doing," he restated before looking up at Ivan from behind his glasses, waiting for confirmation that he was not moving too quickly.
"Go on," Ivan prompted, nodding his head.
"Blue and black are for serious business." He tossed the pen back in his drawer, moving to the next. "Gold I use for my buddies." He dropped it with a clatter, leaving only one left. "And silver, let me tell you, silver is for people I like. Like, like-like. I mean─" Alfred paused for a moment, visibly fighting with his tongue to stop his convoluted explanation from continuing, but it was too late. "─Like as in more than a friend, you get me?"
"I understand, Alfred."
Alfred smiled coyly, rubbing the back of his neck with his free hand. "Right, right. Anyway, I've never used the silver pen. Maybe someday." The pen joined its brothers in the drawer.
Ivan suppressed the relieved smile that pulled at his lips. "I am sure there is someone out there for you, Alfred." You just don't know how close he is.
"I, yeah─" Alfred tucked a flyaway lock of hair behind his ear, a dusty pink tipping them. "I think there's someone for me, too." And then he grinned, all childish glee and happiness.
Before he knew what he was doing, Ivan asked, "May I treat you to lunch today?" He hadn't been meaning to ask, not so soon after dining together the day previous, but when he saw that smile and how those eyes blue eyes widened oh so prettily at the request, he made a mental note to ask more often.
Alfred's stomach growled its agreement as he gladly accepted.
Lunch was a basic affair that day. Alfred had snuck up on Ivan yet again, his only warning the once again comforting smell that overtook Ivan's cubicle when his neighbor entered. A warm and enticing scent that Ivan wanted to bottle and keep with him wherever he went, a scent that always lifted his mood. It was something he knew he could never tire of. It was lost to the wind as they left the office.
The clouds had stretched across the sky as Alfred and Ivan had worked, a gray blanket that strained sunlight through its fleece. Alfred paid it no mind as he bumbled along, walking with the toddling steps of a child who feels the need to investigate every crack in the pavement, every shop window. Everything seemed to be a new and fascinating experience to him, and Ivan even found himself inspecting the world around him a little more closely, admiring a stray ladybug that found a home in an overturned coffee cup, watching a fire-red leaf as it tumbled to the ground.
The two men allowed themselves to be led along the streets by whim alone, their conversation regarding where to eat devolving into an endless repetition of, "Wherever you want to go," until a woman passing by them had giggled at their antics. After that they had settled on eating 'whatever looked good'.
Whatever looked good ended up being a hot dog stand, roping them both in with its alluring scent of cooked meat. Alfred nearly skipped up to the vendor, inquiring as to the man's mood, health, and family in one breath, as though the two of them were old friends. The vendor was disarmed quickly by the words, his bristly mustache seeming to unwind as the tensed muscles of his face relaxed, spurred into a friendlier mood by Alfred's good cheer.
Ivan knew exactly what the man was going through, having been subjected to it since the day he met Alfred, completely unable to resist his torrent of charm. Not that he minded being overtaken by it, and by the looks of it, neither did the vendor as he happily handed over two hotdogs. Ivan stepped in and paid before Alfred even had the chance to protest.
Conversation was made nearly impossible as they ate, the wind snatching up Ivan's words every time he tried to speak, and Alfred's ability to keep crumbs from getting all over the place when he spoke nonexistent. Instead they huddled together against the blustering wind, Alfred's shoulders slightly hunched from the cold as his hair whipped about his face. Ivan's scarf fluttered easily, taking the wind as its dance partner.
It started out as the slightest of shakes, an occasional unrestrained quiver Ivan noticed out of the corner of his eye. Then there was the soft tapping, the steady click of fingertips over a keyboard, but rhythmic and organic. He chanced a glance at Alfred, whose lips had lost their soft pink hue, replaced instead by a shade bordering on blue. His teeth chattered as he tried to eat, making the continuous mistake of accidently nipping his own tongue. Ivan's heart beat out a message, a thumping Morse code inquiry as to whether he was alright or not. Ivan's lips refused to follow suit.
While his heart frantically repeated its question again and again, Ivan quietly insinuated himself between Alfred and the wind, creating a discreet barricade that would shelter his lunch mate without drawing much attention to them. Unbidden, Alfred seemed to shimmy closer, his shoulder bumping against Ivan's chest on occasion as though the wind were pushing him.
Despite the weather, Ivan found himself uncomfortably warm.
The next day was even drearier. The light gray of the clouds had darkened, taking on a dark hue that threatened rain at any moment. Alfred seemed to take the lack of sunlight badly, his appearance becoming almost wilted as the morning wore on. Ivan made all sorts of excuses to pop into his cubicle every so often, from dropping off a cup of coffee laden with sugar and cream, to pretending he needed help deciphering some legal babble.
Each time Alfred received him with a warm smile that didn't quite have its usual brightness, but was genuine nonetheless. On one occasion Ivan even interrupted Alfred's amateur attempt at tying a tie, his neighbor so intent on learning from a video playing on his screen he completely failed to notice Ivan's presence until he spoke. Alfred's chair scooted sideways like a skittish horse, but his expression softened when he found it was only Ivan who had come upon him.
"One of these days I'll get it down pat," Alfred insisted, fingers fiddling with a bit of tie.
"I do not doubt it," Ivan agreed.
Alfred's eyes flickered, darted to Ivan's face before moving down to his tie. Alfred tugged his own sheepishly. "Would you mind...?"
Ivan wasn't too sure what was being asked of him. He figured he was intruding on Alfred's private moment with his computer and promptly excused himself. But as he made to leave, Alfred stood from his seat, fingers encircling Ivan's wrist and pulling him back.
"Hey now, you can't exactly help me if you're out there."
Ivan stared for a moment, then another, and then one more. The last tipped Alfred's mood, changed his dim but chipper smile into something confused, almost worried. Like he thought Ivan might shake his hand away, brush him off like an insect.
"My tie," he finally supplied, releasing Ivan to gesture at the strip of cloth around his own neck, half-formed and loosely knotted, a child's attempt at copying his father. Understanding registered in Ivan's mind.
In a flutter of fingers his hands were at Alfred's collar, expertly looping the tie. It was over before he even had the time to think about how close he was to Alfred, how easy it would be to reach out a skin a fingertip along his throat and feel the warmth of Alfred's skin.
Ivan couldn't let the opportunity escape him.
"I did that wrong," he lied, quite calmly despite the rapid drum of his heart.
"Better than I could do it," Alfred said kindly, but he was already pulling it apart as though he were unwrapping a present.
Ivan went to tie it again, taking his time the second go-round. He allowed his thumb to skin along Alfred's neck, taking in the bob of his Adam's apple as it dipped reflexively beneath his touch. Ivan was careful as he went, savoring every step, taking in every puff of breath that brushed against him as he worked. The sweet, comfortable scent he had come to associate with Alfred filled his head, almost dizzying in its strength. He yearned to lean forward, rest his forehead against Alfred's and steal a simple kiss.
Only when Alfred began to fidget did Ivan step back, running a palm down the length of the tie a few times to straighten it out, secretly repeating the action one too many times so he could pet Alfred.
A gruff voice grumbled behind him, low and cross, "Braginski." Arthur.
Ivan glanced over his shoulder, an irate Arthur pretending to shuffle a stack of papers in his hand, unhappy as a mother bear being kept from her cub. Ivan stepped aside just in case Arthur felt the need to charge him. Arthur brushed past him, all but ignoring Ivan now as he inspected Alfred's appearance.
"You look nice," was all Arthur said, but from the way Alfred perked up, Ivan was sure that that was the best Arthur's compliments ever got. "Anyway, enough faffing about. Are you ready for lunch?"
"Oh, about that." Alfred chanced a glance at Ivan. "I was kind of thinking Ivan and I would hit up the diner around the corner."
Ivan had not been privy to this plan, but he found no reason to refute it. Especially when Alfred's eyes were so round and puppyish. "I do recall making plans regarding that," he added quickly, hoping not to sound eager as he was.
"What a shame, truly it is." Arthur's tone said he clearly did not find it a shame. "But Alfred promised to have lunch with me today." He held up a brown paper bag as though it explained everything.
Alfred's expression crumbled, his shoulders slumped in defeat. "I forgot all about that..."
"That's why you have me," Arthur said, the proud edge leading Ivan to think that Arthur was expecting some kind of thanks. He didn't get any, even when he cleared his throat lightly and frowned a bit. Finding himself unwanted, Arthur sniffed and rested a protective arm over Alfred's shoulder so he could guide his brother away.
Alfred dallied as best he could, shambling awkwardly and nearly tripping Arthur up as he did so. "I'll catch you later, okay, Ivan?" he questioned, looking for all the world like he'd shrug Arthur off if only Ivan would give the word.
Knowing to never come between family, Ivan nodded in agreement and gave a half-hearted wave as he saw them off. He didn't eat lunch that day.
His appetite went out the door with Alfred and showed no sign of returning. Ivan spent the rest of the afternoon lost in paperwork, eyes hardly registering the words he had once struggled to understand. The dull numbness of his mind was occasionally broken by a cough or a sneeze, but such things were commonplace in the office. Only when the light that filtered from the window deemed that he had to turn on a light did Ivan look up from his work. It was already seven 'o clock.
He rose from his seat, joints cracking and popping as he stretched. At least he'd gotten his inbox down to a manageable level that wouldn't keep him awake at night. The past few days hadn't been particularly productive for him, all thoughts of business replaced by Alfred's goofy smile and bubbly warmth. By the way his lips curved ever so slightly when he solved a problem, soft and satisfied-looking.
Ivan had found himself preoccupied by the thought of how they might feel against his own lips too many times to ignore. That didn't stop him from trying though. He distracted himself by thinking of the new wave of post-it notes that had been waiting this morning, on the coming barrage that would surely welcome tomorrow.
There had been one that complimented a certain hot dog vendor and his wares. It had been buried among bizarre, nonsensical political commentary (everyone should be the president) and a review of a movie poster (praising the typography and colors), but it had been there. At least until Ivan had taken it.
He opened his drawer to check on the note, assure himself it hadn't been taken. It sat silently with its brethren, untouched. Ivan smiled to himself and grabbed his coat, shrugging it on as he left. He was the last one left in the office as far as he could tell, second only to the author of the notes who would be hiding, waiting for him to leave. To satisfy his own curiosity, Ivan decided he'd wait the culprit out. Not confront or apprehend him, just watch from the safety of his car and bask in his secret knowledge.
He shouldered open the office's front door to be kissed by a light drizzle, clouds the color of oyster shells blotting out the sky. Ivan hurried to his car and slid into the driver's seat, cranking the heater as soon as he was settled in. He waited.
It wasn't for long, only a few minutes. He was just debating reclining in his seat or not, maybe resting his eyes for a second, when Alfred emerged. He was seemingly surprised by the rain, the drizzle having strengthened into steady droplets. He shied away from it at first, ducking back inside.
Then his hand popped out, emerging slowly like a timid snail, apparently baffled by the wetness and needing to validate it. Then the rest of him left the safety of the office. He had his suit jacket covering his head like a shroud, shielding himself from the worsening weather. Dangling in one hand was a helmet, and he was soon scurrying for the bike rack, a single bicycle waiting for him like a faithful dog.
Ivan watched him struggle with the combination lock of his bike for a moment before it dawned on him. There were no other cars in the lot, only Ivan's. Alfred was planning to bike home, in the dark and the rain and that just wasn't safe. Ivan was out of his car and jogging towards Alfred in a second, waving his hand to grab the other's attention. Alfred looked up from his endeavor and gave a confused wave back.
"Alfred," Ivan called once he was within earshot. "Do you need a ride?"
"No, no, I'm fine." Alfred returned to struggling with his lock. "Just about ready to head on home."
"Would you like a ride?" It really wasn't an offer anymore.
"Uh, well, I don't see why not, I guess," Alfred said, almost shyly, as though he were supposed to feign indecision until Ivan insisted.
Ivan offered his arm to Alfred, the picture of kindness and decorum as the rain began to matt his hair. Alfred happily took it, and they went arm in arm to Ivan's car, Ivan going so far as to open the passenger side door for Alfred, who giggled in a quaint little way that made the rain, and the water getting into Ivan's car, wholly unimportant.
Ivan didn't take Alfred straight home, didn't ask where he lived. Instead he found himself pulling into a drive-thru, sneaking a glance at Alfred, whose face was bathed in a sickly red that flowed from the tail lights of the car in front of them. He was using his soggy jacket as a blanket of sorts, tucked all the way up under his nose. It muffled his sneeze.
Ivan drummed his fingers in turn to the rumbling purr of the motor as he frowned. He wondered if the tremble of Alfred's coat was from the steady shake of the car's frame, or from cold. Or a cold. That sneeze, he'd been hearing it all day.
As if on cue, Alfred tried to suppress a cough, managing only to choke in the process. Ivan urged the car forward, inching towards the speaker and doing his best to pretend he hadn't heard Alfred cough.
"What would you like?" he asked softly, once Alfred had finished with his fit.
"Number four, extra pickles."
"And to drink?"
Alfred mulled it over, tipping his head to the side as his jacket slid down. "Something orange."
Ivan nodded and picked out his own meal, repeating what Alfred had told him, right down to the 'something orange' bit when the speaker set to questioning him. After getting their orders, Ivan drove down the road to an empty lot that had a view of an airstrip, the various landing lights flickering like lightning bugs. Alfred pawed at his bag when Ivan handed it over.
"It smells good," Ivan said conversationally.
"Sure does," Alfred agreed, trying to take a deep whiff of the food. His nose sounded a bit runny, and Ivan wasn't sure he could really smell his meal.
The two of them ate in relative silence, the comings and goings of the occasional private plane landing or taking off from the runway their dinner entertainment. Ivan looked over on occasion, or fiddled with his heater as though it could go higher, work harder, if only he tried one more time. A few times, they caught each other's eyes in the rear-view mirror, and once, Alfred lowered his gaze bashfully and smiled so coyly that Ivan found himself chewing on his straw and trying to drink his food for a couple of minutes after that. When he next checked on Alfred (under the guise of turning his head as a police cruiser roved by), Ivan found Alfred setting aside his pickles.
"Did you not want those?" Ivan was mortified that he'd heard Alfred ask for extra pickles when he wanted none at all.
Alfred looked up at him, his eyes happy but glazed. A tad sickly. "No, I like 'em just fine, but these aren't for me."
"Oh, are they for Arthur?"
Alfred laughed once. "He and pickles don't get along, long story. These are for the cat."
"Your cat likes pickles?"
"You bet your boots he does."
Ivan looked to his lap, where his food sat. Pickleless, pickle-free, without pickles. He found himself suddenly wishing very badly he had gotten them.
After they were finished and had spent a considerable amount of time using their straws to shift the layer of ice cubes that sat of the bottom of their drinks, Ivan offered to take Alfred home. Alfred agreed, though he seemed a bit reluctant. Ivan attributed it to Alfred not wanting Ivan to know where he lived, though in the back of his mind a small voice insisted that Alfred simply didn't want to leave his side.
What followed was a game of finger-pointing and too-late exclamations of, "Oh wait, you're supposed to turn there!"
Alfred had no memory for street names, and apparently found his way about town by using landmarks as guidance. A church steeple here, a particularly large flagpole there, was all Alfred needed to get himself back home. At night, when those things proved much more difficult to see, he had the directional sense of a quarter. With anyone else, Ivan would have found himself frustrated, but with Alfred, being lost was more of a light-hearted adventure.
Alfred eventually found a street he recognized, his voice raising in pitch and speed as he got more excited, pleased with himself for directing them successfully. In the end, he was waving his arms in imitation of a runway traffic director, sans the neon yellow batons.
"Okay. Okay, now go left here." Alfred gestured enthusiastically, nearly clipping Ivan in the process.
Ivan obeyed the order, pulling onto a prim looking road lined with apartments on either side, all of them nearly identical and surprisingly picturesque.
"Home, sweet home," Alfred chirped, laughing to hide a cough that rose in his throat.
"Will Arthur let you in?"
Alfred frowned quizzically. "Uh, not unless he snuck in or something. Well, I guess he could be in there, he has a key an' all, but I don't think he was planning to come over tonight." Alfred paused to stare at his apartment, his shoulders shrugged. "Did you think we lived together?"
Ivan hemmed and hawed a bit, not wanting to admit that had been his exact assumption. Alfred nodded sagely at the reaction.
"I guess it makes sense, being brothers and all, but I moved out awhile ago. Sheesh, what a year that was." Alfred's overdone and exasperated sigh would have been humorous if he hadn't hung his head a bit. "I mean, sure, I wanted to move out kind of early. Heck, you know what he thought I meant when I said I wanted more freedom?"
Ivan shook his head no, afraid the sound of his voice might bring Alfred back to the present, act the part of smelling salt to one who has fainted, cause him to realise the personal bit of his life he was giving away to a mere coworker.
"He figured it meant I wanted my own room. Anyway, it was a nightmare, you'd have thought I declared war on him, I swear."
"Did you move far from him?" Ivan thought maybe it was the distance that had so irked Arthur.
"Oh, uh, no, not really." Alfred squinted as he peered out the window to his right, cupping a hand against the glass as he pointed into the darkness. "See that pond over there?"
Ivan leaned in, placing a hand on Alfred's leg, pretending to steady himself by giving a quick squeeze. He stared past the window, seeing nothing beyond the darkness but a large puddle of water rather haphazardly placed by the road. It wasn't much of a pond, but Alfred could have called it an ocean and Ivan would have agreed.
"Anyway," Alfred continued as Ivan drew back, "there's another apartment complex over there, too hard to see right now, but that's what Arthur lives."
Ivan blinked. "He lives across the pond?"
"Yeah, so I don't know why he had such a big fit about me moving, but we're cool now. Usually." Alfred scratched at his temple. "Well, mostly." By the way he uncrossed and recrossed his legs─ quite the feat with the legroom he was allotted─ Ivan got the feeling family life with Alfred was a constant balancing act. "I do get along pretty darn swimmingly with my other brother, though."
Ivan's mind immediately jumped back to the photos Alfred had that seemed to show him twice in one shot. A brother would certainly explain that. "Your twin?" he ventured.
Alfred's excited nod assured him he was on the money. "Yessirre, Bob! Good ol' Mattie, he works out of the Canadian branch. Don't see him as often as I'd like, but what can I do?" Alfred stretched as best he could, humming thoughtfully. "Wanna come up for a cup of coffee?"
Alfred asked the question so casually, so fluently, as though they had been talking about coffee the entire time, that Ivan could nothing but accept in the same airy tone. Which was how he found himself in Alfred's cluttered but cozy apartment.
As they picked their way through the living room, dodging around chairs and newspapers, a dark blur darted forward, cannonballing into Alfred's legs. He seemed to expect this, and was soon kneeling on the ground and stroking the blur, murmuring soft, fond words to the creature.
"Who's my big boy, hmm? You are, you are!" Alfred proclaimed. "And what do big boys get? Well I'll tell you, they get pickles."
Ivan looked away, feeling both awkward and baffled by the scene. Alfred got back on his feet and flicked a few light switches on, showing the walls to be a placid, pale cream color and that beat-up, mismatched furniture was the flavor of the month. The dark blur, however, remained dark, though it did take an interest in Ivan after Alfred had scurried off with a quick, "Be right back!"
The animal, which if Ivan judged correctly, was the cat from the photo, approached Ivan with slow, intrigued steps. It long dark tail curled at the end, fashioning a living question mark as it drew near. It halted at Ivan's feet and gave a quick sniff, a light headbutt, and proceeded to look up at him with sleepy purple eyes. Ivan tipped his head in acknowledgment to it and crouched. It did have the same eyes as him.
"Hello─" What had Alfred called him? "─big boy." He scratched carefully behind its ear for a few minutes, smiling to himself as it leaned into his touch. A rumbling, throaty cough caused the two of them to look up.
Alfred stood in a doorway that presumably led to the kitchen, a coffee pot in his upraised hand, his head turned to cough against his shoulder. "I'm ready when you are," he said when he got his breath back.
Both Ivan and the cat followed hot on his heels, the cat unabashedly eager, Ivan at least trying to pretend as though he wouldn't walk through Hell if it meant spending time with Alfred. The kitchen was as cramped as the living room, but still held a certain inviting warmth.
A ceramic cookie jar in the shape of a cow was nudged up against a battered old toaster. A tea cosy knit with questionable quality doted on a kettle that sat on a back burner. The mugs Alfred had set out were spotted and cracked with age, a clean white cup sitting between them.
"For him," Alfred said when he caught Ivan looking at the table settings. "Always like to have a cup with my big boy when I can."
Ivan took his seat, startled for a moment when the cat used his lap as a jumping pad to get to the tabletop. Next to its cup, which Alfred was diligently filling, it looked mammoth. All black long fur and lengthy whiskers that rippled as it yawned. Its nose was strangely broad for a cat, but Ivan found it oddly endearing. Alfred appeared to agree, because he was quick to give the cat a love-tap in its nose, which it took in stride before tucking its paws beneath itself, forming an inviting looking blob.
Alfred poured Ivan a cup before taking care of himself, hurrying back to the coffee maker to replace the pot before settling down. He folded his hands and gave Ivan an expectant look. Ivan lifted his cup to his lips and tasted. The coffee was on par with rocket fuel, and Ivan decided then and there he liked the taste of rocket fuel.
Alfred smiled, shy but pleased, like a grade school child who had offered cookies to a crush. "You like it?"
"It is wonderful," Ivan said, keeping his voice kind and gentle.
The cat, possibly spurred by their talk, sniffed at its own coffee, but made no move to drink it. Alfred laughed at the scene. "I know what you want." He looked to the counter, where his fast food bag sat, and then turned his eyes on Ivan's. "Wanna give him a few pickles?"
"I would be honored," Ivan said, knowing that food was the best bribe for any animal.
Alfred tipped back in his chair and grabbed the bag, tossing it to Ivan as though he were shooting a basketball. "Go for the gold."
Ivan picked a few pickles from the bag, holding them up one at a time to the cat. It was a peace offering of sorts, not that he thought the cat didn't like him. But he knew the way to another's heart was definitely by going through their pet first, and if he could get 'big guy' to like him, Alfred couldn't be far behind.
The cat took them from his hand, nibbling them in a way that could be described as nothing but prim and dainty. Alfred enjoyed the exchange, clapping his hands together several times with delight and encouraging the both of them. The experience for Ivan was nothing less than enjoyable, a small get together with just him and Alfred and the cat, who he was rather coming to like quite quickly.
As they drank cup after cup of coffee, except for the cat who was content to curl up and conk out, Alfred appeared to grow wearier, though his topics of choice were all chipper and cheery, and he never did stop smiling. But Ivan could hear the hoarseness in his throat, see how a few wispy bangs clung to his skin as a light sheen of sweat appeared on his forehead, though Ivan was sure the room wasn't particularly warm. Worst of all was the way Alfred's eyes seemed to dim and glaze, making them look as lifeless as a doll's.
Combined with all the sneezing and coughing, Ivan surmised Alfred might be coming down with something, and had no intention of keeping him from a well earned rest. A thick layer of guilt settled in his stomach as he checked the coffee machine's clock and saw it was a quarter past eleven. He gulped down the rest of his coffee and set it aside; it was time to wrap things up.
"I must admit that as fond as I am of your company, I should leave soon."
Alfred's easy expression slipped from his face, craning his neck to check the time as well. "Oh, yeah. It's getting kinda late, isn't it?" He wrinkled his noise a bit, like a child nearing their set bedtime.
"I am afraid it is," Ivan said solemnly, reaching out to give Alfred's hand a quick, comforting pat. "Ah, but seeing as how you had to leave your bike behind, would you like a ride to work tomorrow?"
Alfred blinked in surprise, apparently having forgotten all about how he'd get to work without his bicycle. "Could you do that? I mean, I don't want to impose or anything, but it'd be rad if you could swing by," he set his mug next to Ivan's, "like, way rad."
"I will be sure to pick you up tomorrow then. What time should I come?"
"Eight forty-five sound good to you?"
Ivan arrived at work earlier than that, earliest of anyone, but he didn't mind taking a break if it meant seeing Alfred. "I will see you then, Alfred." Ivan stood to leave, but Alfred had other plans.
"Wait, you can't go just yet. Man, I've been a terrible host, haven't I? You don't even know what my pad looks like, you gotta let me give you the grand tour."
Ivan hesitated, torn between spending more time with Alfred and leaving him be. Alfred took his hesitation for acceptance of the tour he had been offered, and was soon pulling Ivan out of the kitchen with him, flicking on every light as he went.
The apartment itself was nothing unusual or exciting. The cream-colored walls remained a constant throughout the house. There was a continuing theme of old and overstuffed furniture clogging the single hallway, and an assortment of various movie posters and kitschy paintings hung up on the walls. All of it Ivan admired as he was pulled by, but Alfred appeared to want to show off his room most of all.
A mattress with no frame was tucked into the corner, nothing fancy or big, a basic twin bed with rumpled sheets. Unmade, yes, but not necessarily messy. Half a dozen pillows adorned the head of the bed, all of them with different cases. Ivan was sure he saw a stuffed dinosaur lurking beneath one of them.
A lava lamp blazed away on a nightstand, topped by a UFO as cows floated and bobbed about in glowing liquid of the lamp. Congregating around it was a multitude of magazines which ranged from rodeos and rockets, to gardening and gadgetry. An unattended ivy plant sat in a window, faded and boney.
"Pretty nice digs, eh?" Alfred kicked off his shoes and flopped on the bed, the cat joining him an instant later. "What's your place like?"
Ivan shied away from the question. "Adequate, I suppose." In truth he'd never found anything wrong with his home until he stopped to compare it to Alfred's apartment. Where Alfred's was warm and inviting, Ivan's was stark, sparsely furnished, and not a single wall bore any kind of art.
"Adequate?" Alfred echoed with a laugh. "I bet you got something nice and ritzy in the city." Which wasn't true at all, but Ivan wasn't against impressing Alfred.
"You will have to come visit me there soon," Ivan prompted.
"Sure thing, buddy." Alfred lazily crawled beneath the sheets, not even bothering to change out of his work clothes. He set his glasses on the nightstand next to him. "Not to be the worst host ever, but you can just let yourself out whenever. This bed's too darn comfy to get out of now, I swear."
"Alfred, you were a wonderful host this evening," Ivan said in a placating tone. "I will see you tomorrow, okay?"
"I'll be looking forward to it," Alfred said before yawning and pulling the blankets up to his chin. "Now go get yourself a good night's sleep."
Ivan took his leave, remembering only when he returned to his own apartment that Alfred had been the last out of the building, the last person who could be writing the notes. But at least he was able to think about it all through the night as he fought with his sheets and his feelings.
Though the quality of his sleep was nearly nonexistent, Ivan woke fully alert and then some. His body ached, but his mind was sharp, even if the sheer multitude of thoughts he had made it difficult to pick out any single one to concentrate on. He decided to switch to autopilot, hardly thinking as he showered, dressed, and ate half a piece of toast before hurrying to work.
He spent the beginning of the day stuck in a mindless haze, snapping out of it every few minutes only to check the clock on the wall, then the clock of his computer, and finally the watch on his wrist. All three of them were in sync, but he silently wished one of them would speed along a bit quicker. When the time to pick Alfred up finally rolled around, Ivan paused for the briefest moment to scan the notes (all of them new, but none relating to him) and was out the door and in his car.
Alfred didn't answer his door. Not one the first knock, not on the second, and not even on the third, which was slightly more of a thundering pound than a knock.
Instead, Ivan was greeted with a strange scratching sound near the bottom of the door. A single sweet meow followed the noise, which was then topped off by even more scratching. Ivan knew it was the cat, and wondered if it had a lassie complex. Deciding against propriety, Ivan tested the doorknob, and finding it to be unlocked, let himself in.
The cat was either waiting for his arrival or startled by it, as its single reaction was to bolt away like a black streak of lightning. A husky one, at that. Ivan shut the door behind himself and trailed after the cat, following it straight to Alfred's room, the door still ajar from last night.
Ivan poked his head in. Alfred was still in bed, the only change in the scene that the cat was kneading his chest and circling as it prepared to lay back down. His crisp collared shirt had wrinkled in the night, but his tie had held up just fine, though he hadn't bothered to loosen it in the least. It shivered slightly as his chest rose and fell, while his cheeks glowed a dull red.
"Alfred?" Ivan crept closer, placing a tentative hand on Alfred's forehead. It burned warm under his touch.
Alfred stirred and groaned a bit. "'M busy dying right now. Already called in." The cat purred like an idling engine, pleased by his master's voice, as was Ivan, even if it was gravelly and breathy.
Fluids. Sick people needed them, and Alfred certainly didn't look like he was in a position to get them on his own. Ivan fetched him a glass of water instead, nipping in and out of the kitchen as quickly as he could. He found Alfred sitting up upon his return, playing the drums on his cat's stomach.
"You know," Alfred informed as he reached for the glass, "if I knew getting sick would lead to me hangin' out with my two favorite big boys, I'd do it more often." He finished off the water in one go, and Ivan doubled back for more. Alfred received him with a grin this time. "Ever think about becoming a doctor? Bet you'd be real good at it."
Ivan's cheeks heated at the flattery. "It is only water."
"Nuh-uh, it's not just that. Talk about bedside manner, you've got it in spades." Alfred scooted to the side and patted his bed. Ivan obligingly sat. "Also, I need your number. I was going to call you this morning so you wouldn't have to show, but I kind of had no clue."
Ivan leaned back against the headboard. He didn't mind that Alfred hadn't called him. If he had, Ivan wouldn't have been able to see him at all that day. "Do not worry, I enjoy coming to see you."
"Right back at you, bud." Alfred yawned and rested his head on Ivan's shoulder. "Nice to have someone to hang out with."
Ivan reached up a hand to give Alfred's hair a tentative stroke, friendly and amiable. "Do you not have your brother?"
"I guess, but he doesn't count. He's family and all, they pretty much have to stick with you no matter what."
"That is true," Ivan said thoughtfully, knowing full well that family was family. "But I think he would like you very much even if you were not related."
Alfred tried to respond in kind, but his voice tapered off into something hoarse and whispered. Instead, he settled for a noise of possible agreement. Ivan sighed and let his eyelids flutter shut, enjoy the stillness of the moment, how comfortable the silence was between them. The cat purred away like a miniature fan, stretching out to lay half on Ivan's legs, and half on Alfred's. They both stroked it, their hands occasionally brushing against one another's, neither of them pulling away when they came into contact.
After a few minutes, Alfred spoke up. "You have to get to work soon, huh?"
Ivan made a soft noise of agreement in the back of his throat, not wanting to put the truth into words. He really should have headed back several minutes before.
"Will you come back?" Alfred asked in a wondering tone, nuzzling against Ivan's shoulder. Ivan really couldn't say no to that, even if he had wanted to.
"Of course, Alfred." And the name felt honey-smooth and sweet in his mouth, unlike the few times he had said it before. He wanted to say it again and again, a calm lilting mantra that would conquer his thoughts throughout the rest of the day.
"Want to have pizza for dinner?"
"Of course, Alfred," Ivan repeated, again enjoying how the name simmered deliciously on his tongue.
"Come on down once you're off work then, okay? I'll still be here, layin' around and hackin' up some sick stuff."
"I will take your word on that." Ivan turned into Alfred's nuzzling head, leaving the most imperceptible of kisses. "Shall I pick it up on my way here?"
"Nah, I want to order it. The delivery guys are totally my homeboys these days, they hook me up like no one's business."
Ivan snorted when Alfred said 'homeboys'. The word was ridiculous coming out of his mouth, friendly and loving, like they might be brothers of his instead of mere delivery boys. Ivan imagined everyone must be Alfred's friend though, as he was always reaching out to others with his brilliant grin and excited conversations.
"Okay, I will leave the pizza up to you." Ivan reluctantly stood from the bed, Alfred catching his hand for a second to give it the most caring of squeezes. "Do not over-exert yourself while I am away, though."
"Wouldn't dream of it, Doc," Alfred teased. "You just take care of your work and come running back when you can."
And that was what Ivan did. He engrossed himself in his work, numbers and names filing through his mind in quick succession as the day wore on, not stopping even when others were trickling through the door for their lunch breaks, his own completely lost to his papers.
Any and all noise he blocked out, Arthur's low grumbling melting with the whir of the air conditioning, the occasional shouts of goodbye from various coworkers to their friends nothing but muted, momentary sounds. Ivan worked until his pen bled dry, worked until his inbox was as empty as stomach, worked until he had nothing to do but leave.
He passed the break room on his way out, passed the wall of post-it notes from that morning, took a moment to look them over. There was no new squadron for the next day. Ivan found himself worrying that others might connect Alfred to them if there was no change when they arrived at work. Of course there were other people out sick, there were always a few, but the fear remained.
Before he knew it, Ivan had run back to his desk and grabbed a packet of post-it notes and a pen. He was soon scribbling out short, quick messages. They couldn't compare to Alfred's daily witticisms and lighthearted taunts, but they would have to do for now. He wrote frantically, taking care only with the very last note, the one he left in the middle of his written sea. The one written in silver ink.
"I like people who like cats who like pickles."
It was silly, bizarre, and the perfect thing to snag Alfred's attention. All others would cock their heads and frown. Cats had started the whole thing after all, and Alfred was sure to know his cat was a rarity in its fondness for cucumbers of pickled persuasion. Though Ivan wished he could conjure up a more emotional line, he knew better than to try. Romance was best left to poets, and not infatuated businessmen.
Feeling himself to have done the world, or at least Alfred, a favor, Ivan was much calmer as he reached his car. At least until he was buckling his seat belt and realising just who he was going to visit. As he drove, he wondered if the uncomfortably fast beat of his heart and the dampness that manifested on his palms would ever leave when he thought of Alfred. It only seemed to worsen the more Ivan got to know Alfred, and Ivan was sure that it probably wasn't going to get better for a long, long time. If ever.
But that was okay, because Alfred had to know what he did to people, had to know how he sent people's hearts stammering and shuddering with only a smile. And now, he would have to know what he did to Ivan. Ivan hoped he did something to Alfred, too.
He pulled into the parking lot just in time to see the delivery boy getting out of his own car. Ivan followed him up the stairwell, silently shadowing his footsteps. The delivery man only noticed him once they had reached Alfred's door, which had swung open immediately, spilling both Alfred and his cat into the corridor.
The delivery boy startled as he turned to see Ivan, whom Alfred had greeted first. Alfred laughed the scene off.
"He's like a ninja, isn't he? Always sneaking up on people like that, all stealthy silent. But he's cool, way cool," Alfred assured, slapping a few bills into the boy's hand. "Keep the change."
The delivery boy thanked him profusely before scurrying off, glancing over his shoulder once to smile at Ivan in apology for the scene he made. Ivan smiled back and waved. Alfred swayed and bumped against his shoulder and the cat performed figure eights between their legs.
"Glad you could make it," Alfred said warmly, though his voice remained raspy. "Just in time for the grub, too." His arms laden with two pizza boxes, he led the way into his apartment, the cat prancing along after him in an almost doggish manner. Ivan brought up the rear, closing the door in their wake.
Alfred had done a bit of tidying since that morning it seemed, the chairs tucked into tables where once they had been strewn about, a feather duster sitting idly in a corner of the room. The couch was gone, or rather, transformed. The cushions had been removed, the frame that had been previous folded within pulled out and spruced up with a hefty helping of pillows and blankets. A TV had been rolled out to sit in front of it, a good-sized stack of movies resting atop it.
"Thought we could have a movie night," Alfred told Ivan. "Arthur hasn't been up for them lately, and I don't like watching flicks alone." He set the pizza boxes on the table and flipped the lid open and exclaimed, "Pickles!"
Ivan went to his side, but found no pickles on the pizza, though there was a great deal of pepperoni and sausages. "Pickles?" he echoed.
The cat elegantly jumped onto the tabletop and strode to the pizza with fluid steps. He lowered his head to steal a bit of sausage, rearing back with his prize and darting off to eat it in peace, Alfred calling after him, "Pickles, you gotta wait your turn like the rest of us!"
Ivan shrugged off his coat and set it aside. "I take it your cat's name is Pickles?" he concluded.
"Kinda. I guess." Alfred pulled a piece of pizza from the box, long strands of cheese snapping as he did so. He set it on a paper plate. "Cats are hard to name. Not like dogs. You give a dog a name and it is good to go. With cats, well, they're too hard to give names." He opened the second box, which held a plain cheese pizza. "Or at least that's been the case with Pickles. You could say that's his name, but he's also plain ol' 'cat' and 'big guy'."
Ivan got himself a slice of the cheese pizza and took a thoughtful bite, his tongue burning for an instant before he quickly swallowed. It was too hot to eat. "I like 'big guy' best," he remarked seriously.
"Same here, but you're my big guy too, and it'd be all confusing if I called you both that." Alfred blew on his slice for a moment before saying, "Not that I don't already." He looked up at Ivan, blue eyes curiously inquisitive. "Does that bug you?"
"Absolutely not," Ivan said, which was the truth.
"Good, because I don't think I can stop now that I've started, big guy." And then he winked, so quick and unexpected Ivan was sure he might have imagined it. "Anyway, let's get this show on the road."
They watched movies until their eyes were ready to fall out of their sockets, until the plots and characters and dialogue all blurred together. Until the only remnant of the pizza was the cloying scent of melted cheese still hanging in the air and the cardboard boxes they had come in.
Pickles had finished off what they couldn't before deciding he wanted to get in on the marathon as well. He insinuated himself between Ivan and Alfred, keeping them from getting too close, lest they crushed him. Ivan knew it had to be on purpose, though the cat had no objections when it became comfortably sandwiched between them. When Alfred got up to put another movie on, Ivan couldn't help but notice he took the cat with him, subtlety placing it on the floor and leaping back on the bed before Pickles could return to his post. He cozied himself up against Ivan's chest as the opening credits rolled.
Ivan never did figure out what the movie was about. He was too busy memorizing the feel of Alfred's breath as it flicked against his chest. The golden-blonde of Alfred's hair kept is attention the entire time, Ivan's eyes tracing every individual strand he could, at least until Alfred had tucked his head under Ivan's chin, at which point Ivan was sure Alfred had no intention of watching the movie either. His assumption was solidified when Alfred started speaking over the film when things started exploding on screen.
"Thanks for coming over, even with me bein' all sick and stuff."
Ivan smiled against Alfred's hair. "Anything for a friend." And in truth, Ivan had nearly forgotten about Alfred's illness, noticing now that Alfred was no longer burning against his skin, his fever seeming to have broken.
"You don't mind hangin' out so much, do you? Like, it's cool if you're all 'Whoa, Alfie, we don't have to get together every five minutes', I totally get that."
"Alfie," Ivan said, and if 'Alfred' was honey, then 'Alfie' was like nectar, intoxicating in its sweetness. "Do not worry." He ran a hand through Alfred's hair and gave a playful scratch behind his ear, as though he were a cat.
"But I do," Alfred mumbled into Ivan's chest, the words hot against Ivan's skin. "Because I don't want to be super overbearing and chase you away."
To which Ivan responded with a hushed, reassuring noise. "You could do no such thing."
"You sure?" Alfred questioned.
Once Ivan had convinced Alfred everything was fine, and that he truly enjoyed spending as much time with him as was possible, Alfred quieted like a tired babe, slipping into slumber even as the movie carried on with gunshots, squealing tires, and shouts. Ivan found himself dozing on and off, jerking awake every few minutes. Once he woke confused as to where he was, another to find the cat trying to squirm its way between him and Alfred, settling instead to sprawl over Alfred's body as best it could after finding no openings.
When the movie ended, and the opening menu did nothing but play again and again, the television's clock showing an hour of the early morning instead of a late hour of the night, Ivan took his leave. He was careful not to wake Alfred, carefully dislodging himself from the sleepy embrace that tried to keep him there. The cat raised its head to watch Ivan leave, as though expecting him to come back and lay down.
Ivan pulled his coat back on and tossed the pizza boxes in a bin, checking back on Alfred every few minutes to make sure he hadn't woken. The TV was turned off, the DVD player stopped. He shut the open windows to keep out the drafty chill that came with morning and drew the curtains to keep out the sun that would soon be trying to shine past them.
He grabbed a piece of scrap paper and a pen, carefully printing a message that assured Alfred he had a wonderful evening and was only too happy to have another, perhaps at his own home this time, and of course promising to drive Alfred to work that morning. He remembered to write his number down as well, his home, his work, and his cell phone. Ivan wanted to make sure he covered every base.
As he made to leave, the cat rose arched its yawned, deciding it would see Ivan off and escorting him to the door. At first Ivan thought it wanted to stretch its legs, but when he opened the door it was content to plop down and watch him leave, purple eyes shining bright in the moonlight. Ivan whispered goodbye to it, and imagined that it might have nodded at him in return. He figured his mind was playing tricks on him and shut the door.
When Ivan arrived at work the next day, he was surprised to find another car in the lot, the hood still warm and the engine winding down with a steady succession of hisses and pops.
The lights of the office were on, a pot of coffee already brewing, and both Alfred and Arthur staring at the new wall of post-it notes. He double-checked his watch to make sure he wasn't late. It was a minute past seven-thirty in the morning, a good deal earlier before either Arthur or Alfred worked, which added to the mystery of their presence.
"Hello," he said as his coworkers noticed him.
Alfred's eyes were clear and bright when he turned them on Ivan, wearing a crisp new shirt in place of the wrinkled one he had been lounging in yesterday. He didn't have a tie, not even a clip-on, but he had one in hand, ready to offer it to Ivan. "Well if it isn't my favorite big boy," he sang cheerily.
Arthur cringed at the early morning music, straightening his own bow tie as he faced Ivan. "Morning," was all he had to say.
"Good morning," Ivan returned to the both of them, though more to Alfred than Arthur, who had already turned back to the notes.
"Had some, uh, extra work I need to take care of so I figured I'd come in early with Arthur, hope you don't mind."
"Not at all," Ivan said gently, knowing exactly what 'extra work' Alfred had come in to do.
"This drivel isn't as bad as it usually is," Arthur interrupted in a brusque tone, and Ivan knew it to be a compliment.
"I'm with you on that," Alfred added, a look of relief apparent on his features. "I like this one best." He plucked the note in silver ink from the wall.
"I like people who like cats who like pickles?" Arthur scoffed. "Why would a cat like pickles? If that's some kind of riddle, it's a bloody daft one."
"I think it's like a special message. Like a spy code or something."
"You would, Alfred," Arthur said dryly before throwing a hand up in the air and stalking off.
Alfred kept the note in his hand, grabbing a bag from the counter top and giving it to Ivan. "Figured you might like some breakfast, early bird."
Ivan found a poppy seed bagel inside, already coated with liberal amounts and butter and cream cheese. Just how he liked it. "Thank you, Alfred," he said softly, appreciatively. Alfred beamed before going back to his note.
He didn't say anything about it, showed no sign of recognition in the topic or ink. But when Ivan looked up from a bite of his bagel, Alfred winked at him, and this time it wasn't imagined.
-Gosh. This story is kind of long. It was written for the APH fluffathon over at livejournal, and I think the necessary word count was 800 words. Yeah. This ended up being so much longer, didn't it? And it was late, too!
-If you point out typos and grammatical problems I will take you to my bosom and hug you forevermore. I would not be surprised if there were some lurking in here because I had to stitch it together from different documents and what have you. So yeah, feel free to mention them and I will adore you.
-I kind of plan on writing more for this particular 'universe'. I want to do a short story where Ivan and Alfred go to the pet shelter and Ivan gets a count. I'm sure you all know just what cat he'd find himself enamored with.