A/N: Happy Holidays, readers! Thank you very much for taking the time to check out my story. This isn't my first time on FanFiction, but this is definitely my first Hetalia fic. Feedback would be greatly appreciated!
Summery: AU Two-shot: Long after Alfred fell asleep, Ivan's huge hands wrapped around his own, Ivan wished he had said no, but sunflowers find ways to baffle you. Russia/America.
Warnings: Sadness (at least, I hope it's sad), probably unnecessary scene-jumps, and...Russia. Yeah...
Disclaimer: I, Trans-Siberian Railway, do not own Hetalia: Axis Powers, Russia/Ivan, or America/Alfred. Or anything else. Ain't that a downer.
Ivan Braginsky could have made one of two choices that December first day, and in hindsight, there was nothing particularly cryptic or life-changing regarding the consequences one or the other might have evoked in the long run. Broken down and fleshed out, it came down to whether or not he should take his dying boyfriend outside into the crisp and cooling New Jersey air (as was said boyfriend's wish) or remain indoors, where Matthew—Alfred's brother—would make hot chocolate and strawberry pancakes, turn on a Devils game, and let Ivan and his pale and paling twin wrap themselves up and whisper under the blankets, because Alfred was always falling asleep and he hated missing games almost as much as Matthew.
And though Alfred always asked him for things, like an extra blanket or his meds, he never truly wanted something that Ivan wasn't prepared to give him. Wanting attention, hugs, kisses, or more—Ivan never denied him. One look at Alfred's face, at those sparkle-blue eyes heavy with exhaustion, bursting from the inside-out with pent up energy stuck in a vacuum, saying no was like holding a bowl of dog food next to a starved puppy and throwing it in the trash, or slapping a sleeping child. Alfred was a soul to be cherished, and Ivan figured that out the hard way when he suddenly collapsed a year ago.
Cancer, they told him. Ivan almost laughed. What cancer was strong enough, persistent enough, crazy enough, to try and put Alfred Jones in the ground? He learned soon enough, maybe a week or so after he first met Alfred, that pushing up daisies was one thing, but cutting down sunflowers was quite another. Alfred didn't think it was possible, whatever it was, and it was that sort of unflagging optimism that spun the threads of desire between a foolhardy, bright American boy and a Russian international student.
A love story, indeed. But no amount of love could keep Alfred's cancer at bay. It was like watching a sunflower wither, Ivan decided, because he knew what that looked like, and watching it happen to Alfred was a thousand-and-one times worse than the millions of sunflowers he grew beneath his hands. Touching Alfred frightened him now, scared that Alfred's petals would crinkle and fall between his fingers, and Ivan would be left with another dying body cradled in his arms and no one else to hold his heart for him.
So on December first, because he knew Alfred would be happy, Ivan called up a motley crew of friends garnered over the years and said Alfred wanted them all to hang out later at the local park. There was a pine forest nearby cutting counties in two, and Alfred said it reminded him of Christmas. He wanted to see it.
"Pretty sentimental shit and all, but I wanna go. It'll be Christmas soon…"
Ivan pretended he didn't see that faraway look in Alfred's eyes, or that his voice seemed to crack at "Christmas," like he wasn't expecting to be there—
He called everyone. And, either because they were afraid to say no or that they could hear the urgency in his voice that Ivan didn't know existed, everyone came.
The first to show was Francis—Ivan knew him as "The Blood on My Knuckles Eight Months Ago," when, for a brief moment during study hall, Ivan had left the room to get Alfred's jacket and returned to find the so-called "filthy French fucker" just seconds away from sodomizing his weakening Alfred in a janitor's closet. Yet there he was, sauntering over and smiling, bereft of all fear. There were roses tucked in the collar of his imported blazer, little red-ruby beauties with russet trim and baby-sharp thorns. Ivan's mouth quirked in a smile when Francis twirled one between his fingers; it was a cavalier-courter act, in Ivan's eyes, of the utmost absurdity.
But Ivan's smiles always spelled danger. Everyone learned soon enough. Alfred elbowed his arm.
"Be nice," he warned.
Ivan beamed in response. "That was the plan, солнышко! Of course, the nice thing to do would be to let people know when something's wrong, да? You wouldn't let a friend go out if they looked inappropriate, right?" He leaned down to Alfred's level to whisper. "I don't know how things work in America, but in Russia, you kill rats on sight."
Alfred lolled his head until he was resting against Ivan's arm. With his Russian trooper hat on—Ivan brought one back from Russia a few months ago when he went to visit his sisters for the summer—Ivan couldn't see Alfred's face when he said, "You still have problems with him?"
"Well, if that's what you want to call them…"
Alfred sighed. "Whatever. Just don't—"
"Ah, mon cher! How nice it is to see you out and about this lovely afternoon!" Francis sang. He was in hearing range now, and he took Alfred's face in his leather gloved-hands. For a complete pervert, Ivan could objectively note that Francis had a lady-killer's smile—subjectively, he was contemplating what would hurt more: Death by drowning or suffocation, especially if Francis kept ignoring him.
But Alfred's irritation melted into the snow as quickly as it came. He laughed and shook his head like a playful puppy-dog, dislodging Francis's hands. "C'mon, man, you think a little cold is gonna keep me inside? Dream on! I wouldn't miss this for the world."
Francis tsked, wagging his index finger. "Ah, ah, ah, you wouldn't want to get sick out here, would you?"
Ivan's fist curled in his glove, and he wrapped the same arm around Alfred's shoulders. Francis's eyes flashed and Ivan saw him swallow under his turtleneck.
Alfred smiled, though he managed to give Ivan a covert, comforting pat on the back. "Forget that, dude! Give me snow, and I'll kick the flu's ass day and night."
Which was actually pretty accurate, now that Ivan thought about it. He recalled last year's November, a particularly wet and biting-cold month, when Alfred's cancer was getting nasty. Alfred's once-exceptional immune system was breaking down faster than winter's arrival, and at the most bitter time: Alfred was just starting winter training for baseball the following spring. The doctor said it was time to get serious: He wouldn't have the energy or the defenses to keep him healthy until March. Rest. Two days later Alfred was toting his baseball duffel towards Ivan's car, grinning, asking Ivan if he would like to go ice-skating after practice was over. So Ivan drove him every day to practice, and Alfred made it through to February without getting sick. Kicking the flu's ass indeed.
Alfred never did play in the spring. He knew that. But all he wanted was to finish training season, and his team rewarded him by retiring his number fifty jersey. Ivan smiled at the memory.
A car door slammed in the distance. Ivan brought his mind back as far as it could stretch, and Francis jumped at the opportunity to escape his violet-eyed rattlesnake attention. Lucky for him, too. Yao and Kiku had shown up, which meant more people, which, in Francis's world, equaled distractions, and distractions meant he was free to flirt and pervert the atmosphere, knowing that Ivan wouldn't be able to kill him unless he took out the Asians as well. (Ivan had no problem killing witnesses, but he had an idea that Alfred would be angry.)
"Konnichiwa, Alfred, Ivan. Hello, Francis," Kiku greeted, snapping a picture with his digital camera. Unlike Francis, he was wearing a huge water-proof coat, complete with matching earmuffs and snow boots. Kiku reminded Ivan of a little mouse sometimes, and he felt his death-mood…settle, so to speak.
Alfred, too, seemed to be in a better mood. He jumped up and down under the weight of Ivan's arm, a toothy smile splitting his face. "Hey, guys! Where's Ludwig and pasta boy?"
"They'll be here soon," Yao said, smacking Francis's wandering hands. "Gilbert passed out drunk last night at Roderich's—don't ask, please. But he's bringing Gilbert along, just in case."
"What?" Alfred groaned. "Oh, c'mon!"
Kiku's head tipped to the side. "I thought you two were friends, Alfred-kun."
"Yeah, I did, too." Alfred tugged on Ivan's scarf, wrapping part of it around his neck. "That d-bag totally creamed me three hours straight at Super Smash Bros. I mean, like, destroyed me. He's always bringing up some crap that I owe him years of servitude for his awesomeness or some shit."
"Speaking of debts…" Yao interrupted, perking up a bit more. "Where's that fifty dollars you owe me?"
Alfred fell still.
"Uh…" he sputtered. "W-What about it?"
Yao narrowed his eyes. "You do have it, don't you? Ivan said you would if I came today and…socialized."
Now, it was a known fact that Alfred was, essentially, the biggest money-hoarder on the face of the earth. While Ivan considered Alfred's skills in English class and history pathetic, Alfred was prodigy-worthy when it came to economics and business, and yet he was considered the poorest of their tight-knit friend circle. He never asked his family, whom were comfortably middle-class, for cash, and he rarely tried to squeeze more than five dollars worth of lunch money from Matthew when his stomach demanded it. Since he used to be busy with sports all year round, Alfred never had time or the energy to sustain a job. So, he turned to his friends, specifically Mr. Rich-Chinese-Diplomat Yao, because in Alfred's world friends were in a separate commitment sphere of dues and debts than his family. Ivan laughed at him.
He wasn't laughing now, though, because Alfred was using his scarf to pull him down to eye-level, and Ivan wasn't big on asphyxiation—for himself, that is.
"What. Did. You. Tell. Him?"
Ivan choked, weaving his fingers between his scarf and his neck to relieve some pressure.
Alfred tugged again. "Well?"
Ivan chanced a glance at a pine sapling to his left. "Hmm…"
"Hmm? That's it?"
Francis laughed. "Oh my, Alfred. It appears your Russian Romeo threw you to the Montague's dogs."
"So Alfred doesn't have my money…"
"I-I'm sorry, okay? I didn't know…Ivan shouldn't have…Ugh, I'm sorry, it's just…"
Yao rolled his eyes and sighed. "Forget about it. It's tiring trying to keep up with all the money you borrow. Besides, my parents' allowance is worth more than what you take, so consider your debts null and void. Never, ever mention it. Ever."
Alfred's eyes widened and he released Ivan's scarf—whom of which quickly tucked any loose ends under his coat. "Really? Seriously? Like, totally really seriously?"
"Just as long as you making me come out into subzero temperatures to hang out worth it."
Ivan, after knowing Yao pretty well after they shared international residence for a few months until his parents arrived in the States, knew that under the practical dryness of his words Yao was being as generous and warm-hearted as he could be in the face of his dying friend. Alfred almost cried then, but whether it was from the atmosphere or that his debt was lifted, Ivan didn't know, nor did he care.
He looked happy. And that was enough.
"Oh my God, thank you!" Alfred used Ivan's body to propel himself forward into Yao's arms. Yao jumped, looking wildly at Francis and Kiku for help, but the two of them stayed as far away as possible without looking rude with Ivan in striking distance.
Yao braved glancing at Ivan, and was surprised to see that his old Russian acquaintance met him with an expressionless stare. No smiles, no giggles, no auras of doom. Yao swallowed. He brought up one arm and, with a small, genuine smile, awkwardly patted Alfred on the back.
Alfred gave Yao another squeeze before pulling away. Smiling, he fell back into Ivan's chest, who on impulse wrapped his large arms over Alfred's chest.
"So! Kiku! Show us your pictures from Japan."
"They are not that interesting, really…"
"Bullshit! C'mon, let us see! You said you'd take a picture of Fujki for me."
"Pardon me, Alfred-kun, but it is called Fuji."
"So you have pictures?"
"Then cough 'em up, Honda!"
The next few minutes revolved around a shy Kiku Honda sharing with the five of them his pictures from Japan from when he went over Thanksgiving break with his family to visit. Alfred had bothered him non-stop the week before about taking as many pictures as possible, buying as many souvenirs as possible, getting as many Pocky boxes as possible, because "They need to be authentic!"
At one point Kiku was wrapped up in a red-faced argument with Francis to show him more pictures of his "lovely" cousins, and Alfred used the distraction to touch Ivan's arm. He tilted his head up, and Ivan was given a full view of his blue eyes underneath his furry hat. Ivan buried his chin in the front flap, nuzzling.
"Hey…" Alfred began, suddenly solemn. "Why did you tell Yao I had the money?"
Ivan turned away, frowning and breathing, so he could bury his nose in Alfred's neck. Breathing. Crisp pine trees and distant chimney smoke. He could call Alfred fixated if his words had been chastising. He could call himself thoughtless if he wasn't thinking. But Alfred was just curious. Curious and concerned. Breathing in crisp pine trees and distant chimney smoke under a Siberian overcast.
Ivan breathed and he said, "You wanted them to come. I'm sorry."
Even when there was nothing to be sorry about—but Alfred knew that, and he smiled in return. A knowing smile. A grateful one. "Thank you."
Endearments and public pity parties aside, the stragglers were arriving. The German brothers Ludwig and Gilbert came prepared with beer and coffee thermoses (the beer was Gilbert's "awesome" idea, with Ludwig's grudging consent) and trailing behind them was Ludwig's personal cling-on, Feliciano Vargas, who squealed as soon as he saw the snow hill behind their picnic benches and gave a quick but meaningful Ciao i miei amici! to Alfred and his bear of a boyfriend. Ivan watched the little Italian, wrapped in a huge blue parka that Ludwig no doubt wrestled him into, dive for the hill and proceeded to make marshmallow-puffed snow angels.
Alfred thought it was hilarious. He was on his second cup of coffee by the time Feliciano finished one snow angel, so when he slipped his mug-warm hand into Ivan's giant gloves, Ivan squeezed his palm and put their entwined fingers inside his military-styled overcoat's pocket.
"Snow angels rock," Alfred said. "Man, if I'd brought a sled…these hills wouldn't stand a chance!"
"You idiot. You shouldn't even be out here, much less sledding in thirty-degree weather."
Francis choked on his coffee.
Alfred's brow was drawn together in a wire-thin wrinkle, but he perked up nonetheless and smiled at the newcomer. "Artie! You came!"
If Ivan could strike Man dead—well, he would have done it ages ago, but he saved a special place in his heart for a certain Arthur Kirkland, Brit Extraordinaire, Wielder of the Perpetual Scowl (Alfred's words). Why, then, would Ivan ever muster up the strength to dial his number and ask him, tersely, if he wasn't busy flogging children for grammar errors or historical inaccuracies, would he be so kind as to join his disease-ridden friend and company for a night on the town—afternoon in the park? Why didn't Ivan just break every bone in his own hand until he bled in the snow and then sawed his limb off raw?
Easy: Arthur Kirkland was his Alfred's best friend. Distant ex-boyfriend. And Ivan had an inkling that Alfred wouldn't want blood in the bed. Or a one-handed man-pillow.
Oh, Ivan could write encyclopedias of mindless, blood-lusty thoughts that would make James Joyce turn in his grave. Maybe it was the way Arthur carried himself, short as he was, back straight and nose high. Maybe because Arthur bemoaned his self-entitled Tutor of the Masses position, dryly devastated that Americans (Alfred) were on a downward academic cycle. Or possibly, just maybe, just maybe possibly, Ivan hated him now more than ever because Arthur was standing there. No hello, no smile. Just stood there with his arms folded over his coat. Huge eyebrows fused. Glaring at Alfred, glaring at them all, standing like a parent.
Ivan didn't give a damn if he was concerned.
"A good thing, too," Arthur said, eyes glittering. "Have you gone mad? Have you absolutely lost your damned mind?" He scoffed. "You should be home, you should be resting."
Alfred's jaw clenched.
Everyone had gone still, the tension freezing them as much as Arthur's words froze in the air. Feliciano was inching towards Ludwig, tugging his sleeve worriedly, while Gilbert gawked with Yao on the bench. Kiku and Francis glanced at each other, both taking a hesitant step forward in opposite directions: The former towards a hunching Alfred, the latter towards Arthur.
"A-Aha, Arthur," Francis said, pitching his voice three notes higher, "that's no way to treat a host! Alfred and Ivan have graciously invited us all here for a wonderful winter get-together. Now—"
"Shut your trap, frog."
Arthur shook his head, looking exasperated, but the fire was ever-shining in those green—mean, thought Ivan—eyes. He shoved away Francis's outstretched, peace-friendly arm, and he was staring at Alfred once again.
"I don't know what's gotten into you," he continued. "Everyone else here may be willing to hide under a rock, Alfred, like your dog here—" he glared once at Ivan "but I'll be damned if I let you throw away what little time you have left dying out here."
Ivan felt Alfred swallow. Shaking. "Cut it out, man…" he mumbled.
"No. You cut it out, you stop trying to fool us."
Alfred shook his head. "I'm not trying—"
"Oh, I should have known. Of course you're not trying. You're just careless."
"Enough, Arthur," Ludwig boomed.
"Arthur-san…" Kiku echoed.
Arthur barked a quick, humorless laugh. "What, you think I'm being cruel? Look at him, all of you!"
"B-B-But, Arthur, w-we…we were just having f-fun…" Feliciano said.
"Fun?" Arthur snapped, and the Italian whimpered behind Ludwig once again. "You think this is fun, watching Alfred die out here?"
Alfred's head kept shaking, back and forth, back and forth. "Arthur, please—"
But Arthur would have none of it. Now he was raging, his face red, a color Ivan was beginning to think looked good on him. He growled in frustration, pointing his finger at Alfred. That damning, accusing finger of a figure. Alfred glanced at him once and Ivan saw something prick his eyes close and away, hiding under his Russian trooper hat. Ivan smiled, again and again, wider and wider as Alfred burrowed into his shoulder, but Arthur didn't see. He wouldn't see.
"I don't care if it hurts your feelings, Alfred, because I'm trying to keep you alive! You are dying. You don't have the strength to be out here. You can't be Captain America anymore, you idiot, and the sooner you learn that, the better."
"Ivan…" Yao warned behind the Russian's back.
"Grow up, Alfred, because you don't have enough time to fuck around being a kid anymore."
"I don't even know how to get through to you anymore. I just—damn it all, Alfred, has that cancer reached your brain? I have half a mind to—what the bloody Hell do you think you're doing, Russki?"
A "russki" attacks when provoked.
Ivan was never lost in his rage. Blindness, red hazes, the shaking wildness people in books and crime shows described in bouts of lost tempers…those were symptoms of people accustomed to having—or believing they had—some sense of control. Ivan never deluded himself. His life and its consequences never let him. When he punched Arthur in the face, it was the most control he had in years. It felt natural. And when Arthur yelled and there was blood on Ivan's hand, he laughed and loomed.
He heard Alfred. "Ivan, stop it!"
Ivan grabbed Arthur's scarf and yanked him up to his chest. Gasping, Arthur kneed his thigh. Ivan threw him to the ground, through the snow, until something popped under Arthur's body. Ivan lunged.
"Agh! Bloody—get off me!"
Laughing. Punching and shouting and blood and laughing. Three more punches to the face until someone—Francis, probably—grabbed his arm, so he switched to his left and yanked at pale, rough yellow hair. At the scalp. He shoved Francis aside.
He straddled Arthur's bleeding body and pulled his hair back, all the way into the snow. Arthur was wheezing—he was tired from fighting back, the angle only making it worse—and blindly reached out, trying to find anything of Ivan's that he could latch onto and hit or hold. But Ivan kept smiling, because the bruises and scratches on his face wouldn't compare to the pain he could inflict on this man—boy—just by pressing two fingers to a spot on his neck, and the all-knowing Arthur Kirkland wouldn't know what hit him. Ivan did. He knew it would hurt, and the experience would be frightening and near-death, but Ivan also knew he would enjoy it all the same, watching Arthur suffocate while his dislocated wrist looked for skin to scratch and blood froze in his throat—Ivan wouldn't stand for it. None of the pushing or shoving would move him, or the screaming—
Feliciano was screaming.
Not yelling, or shouting. Screaming.
Screaming bloody murder.
Ludwig had moved first. In his deep, thundering roar, that teenager could command millions, so a few shell-shocked teenagers and a now-animalistic Russian flocked to him like sheep. Francis, take Arthur home, now. Gilbert, call Matthew, tell him we're bringing Alfred home and that he's—I don't know if this has happened before, I don't want to call the hospital just in case. He's breathing—call Matthew, Gilbert! Okay…Kiku, come here. I need you to take Feliciano home…never mind, Gilbert will drive you both to our house instead when he's done. What? Matthew's not…Does Alfred have a key—all right. Ivan, Yao, over here, I need to get Alfred to Ivan's car—wait, we can help…Ivan, I said we could help. Ivan.
The gathering was over, scattered, with Ludwig a calming hand over what could have been mass hysteria. Cars revved, plumes of black smoke in a wintery backdrop, while Ivan cradled Alfred—passed out—in his arms, Ludwig driving. Yao wanted to check for a fever, but it was a rule of nature that if you valued four limbs, you left a wounded pup to his mother's care.
And behind them, all that remained was Arthur's blood in the snow. There was no secret meaning behind it. Just blood in the snow.
At Alfred's insistence, Mr. and Mrs. Jones left that afternoon for a day trip to visit some friends a few counties over, and Matthew was at hockey practice. When the boys arrived, Ivan took Alfred's key in one hand, Alfred's body in another, and unlocked the door to the Jones' residence. He made no sound, no assurances, no pleads or rejections for Yao and Ludwig to stay or call the hospital. But they dared not leave him alone, so they waited in the living room, neither brave enough to venture upstairs and into whatever room Ivan had closed behind him.
They didn't wait long. Ten minutes later, the door flew open. The door jam cracked under the force, and a panting Matthew still in hockey gear was staring at them, eyes wide.
"Where is he?"
Ludwig jerked his head towards the stairs. "Upstairs with Ivan. He may be awake. I'm not sure."
But Ivan was sure. After he had Alfred in bed, wrapped up in blankets and quilts and whatever covering Ivan could throw over him, he paced. He paced because it was cold. Not because Alfred had collapsed. Not because Alfred was paler than ever. Not because bruises shined dark under his slow-moving eyelids. Not because Ivan could feel his lungs cracking or his palms pricked with his own nails. Not because he was shaking. Not at all. Those feelings had no reason to exist. They had no parasites to feed off, because Alfred was fine. He was just tired. Yes, just tired. He was getting better. Maybe taking him out during the winter was too much. He would be fine. Ivan shouldn't be worrying.
Yet he worried a dry knuckle between his teeth and bit down, hard, until blood was on his tongue and Alfred's eyes fluttered open five minutes later. Ivan grabbed a stool by Alfred's desk, sitting right by his drooping head.
Alfred blinked. His glazed blue eyes stared at nothing, past a point near Ivan's bent knee. Ivan gripped his own thigh. That look was familiar—but it lasted only a second. Alfred blinked again, his eyes wider this time, and the energy was back; a little shaken, but sparking as strongly as ever. When those eyes lolled up, Ivan smiled at the electric shock that blazed through him.
Alfred hummed a laugh. "Shit. My head feels like…shit. What happened?"
Ivan leaned over, pressing the back of his clean hand against Alfred's cheek. "You fainted, солнышко. You have been unconscious for about ten minutes."
Alfred groaned. "Wow. Didn't see that coming…hey, is Arthur okay?"
"He'll live. Unfortunately."
"C'mon, man, you can't keep doing this every time—"
Alfred's door slammed against the opposite wall. Both Alfred and Ivan jumped, and then relaxed when they saw Matthew, breathing heavily with swollen eyes that were definitely not from running into below-zero winds at record speed with a few pounds of hockey pads still hooked on. Alfred smiled.
"Alfred! You're awake? You're awake! Oh my God, Al, are you okay?" Matthew hurried over to Alfred's other side, dropping down on the floor, looking nothing like the intimidating hockey forward Ivan knew him to be. Matthew's hands shook, he bit his lip often, and he was going to get wrinkles quickly with all that worry in his eyes. (Ivan noticed eyes more than anything, whether it was Alfred's bright and beautiful blue sparks, or Matthew's stranger purple-tinted eyes. Purple in blue, sort of like a bruise, Ivan mused. But they were different. They were shadowed. Just like they were now, staring at Alfred's face.)
The sicker brother was still smiling as he mock-punched Matthew's head. "All's fine and dandy, bro. I just got tired."
Matthew shook his head. "You should have stayed here. Are you sure you're okay?"
"I've been getting that lately. And I'm fine."
"I called Mom and Dad."
"Dammit. What did they say?"
"They'll be home tomorrow morning. They want to take you to the hospital for a check-up."
Ivan narrowed his eyes.
"Ugh," Alfred moaned, throwing an arm over his eyes. "Please, God, don't make me go! I'll do anything, anything! Ivan, please, save me from these imposters! You're my only hope!"
Both Ivan and Matthew managed a chuckle, and the room felt renewed, like a new morning—Alfred's morning—Alfred's mourning—
"Al," Matthew said, trying to look serious and failing. Matthew's little grin was infectious, like Alfred's energy, and Ivan smiled along with him. "Stop being melodramatic, you sound like a girl."
Alfred grabbed Ivan's elbow with a nostalgic strength, mock-pleading. "Ivan, don't let them take me! Please! Someone here must be sane!"
There was a darkness in Ivan's smile when he patted Alfred's hand. "Maybe it's for the best, Alfred. And it's just a checkup, да?"
"No! Not you, too!"
For a while the three of them remained like that: bickering, laughing, just being boys. It was all very normal, all very bittersweet, just the way this little trio had always been together. Alfred would crack some joke or comment, Matthew would either laugh or throw it back in his face with some pocket-wit—he was sharp for a wallflower—and Ivan would blend in. Not with the furniture, of course, but with Alfred. Ivan would neutralize himself, smiling, rumbling deep laughs now and then, but always as a shadow under the sun. He was happy there. He was happy being Alfred's shadow. And when Matthew swerved into hockey practice news, Ivan knew that this happiness belonged, in this room with bright-and-shadow-eyed twins, and Ivan wished, wished, and wished that happiness wouldn't go stale. (But he knew better, so he never hoped.)
Then Alfred squeezed his arm, kneading his thumb into Ivan's skin. "Hey, um…could I talk with Mattie for a bit? Brother to brother."
Ivan glanced over at Matthew, looking just as confused as he. But Ivan took Alfred's hand in his own and stroked his fingers once before leaving, closing the door behind him. He walked down the hall, loudly, before gliding backwards and pressing his ear against Alfred's door. He had perfected this trick ages ago when his mother and step-father would discuss his wellbeing—walk (stomp, even) long enough until you were sure the other party was satisfied, and Ivan had the count down to the second. He just chopped off a few more when Alfred was involved.
But this time he wished he had really gone downstairs. Alfred's voice came clear and strong through the door, Matthew's softer, but Ivan only needed to hear Alfred's.
"Mattie, you can totally have my room when I kick the bucket."
"Don't try to talk me out of it. You've been up my ass about it for years because it's a hell of a lot bigger than yours. But please, please, don't paint it gray. Ugh. I hate gray on walls. It looks nice on everything else, but not on walls. And you can't throw away my Yankee stuff. Cover everything in Devils shit, I don't care, just don't throw my jerseys or my balls away—ha, that's what she said."
"Al…s-stop talking like that. You'll…you'll be okay. Mom and Dad will be home tomorrow."
"Nuh uh uh! Can't weasel your way outta this one, dude. You gotta promise me, okay? Here, I'll help. Repeat after me."
"—brother of the sick and sexy Alfred—"
"Nope, you have to say it with me first! I hereby solemnly swear never to—"
"Alfred fucking Jones, you're not going to fucking die."
Ivan tensed, his hand clasped on the doorknob in case he needed to intervene—or, quite simply, to kick Matthew's ass out of Alfred's room. After a few moments, though, he heard Alfred's voice again, still unwavering, but now it was…heavier.
"I'm sorry, Mattie."
"You should be. You…you don't say things like that, Al! If you do…then you're giving up, and that's selfish. Get it? Selfish. You know I can't stand it when everyone tries to feel sympathy for people who commit suicide. You know that. And what the Hell are you doing now? Giving up, right? And for what, so we'll feel sorry for you and you can be the center of attention like you always are? You're getting better, God dammit! Stop doing this! Think about Mom for once, huh? Do you know what'll happen to her if you speak like this—Wait, you've never actually said this to her, have you?"
"Of course not."
"Then why tell me?"
"Because you're the only one strong enough to handle it."
Ivan went downstairs after that.
He thought about trying to look normal when Matthew came down, teary-eyed and weighed down by his hockey gear, to tell him that Alfred was tired and wanted him upstairs so they could talk or sleep or whatever he was feeling up to. But Ivan didn't know what normal really was. Maybe that meant looking happy here in America. Maybe it didn't, but that didn't matter. Ivan felt out of place in his own skin. He derived no comfort from his favorite coat (his step-father bought it for him on a whim) or his cherished scarf (his oldest sister made it for him). Ivan couldn't feel the enveloping ease that came with being in the Jones' home, a haven he was long given free access to by the man and lady of the household for being such a polite, smiling, foreign gentleman of academic integrity. A far-cry from the typical boyfriends their sons brought home. Ivan felt bad sometimes that he was trying so hard. But Alfred appreciated his efforts, and even if he went back to his host family's house tired, it was always a satisfied exhaustion. Sort of like the adventure stories he knew as a child. He couldn't wait for another one.
That was why he had to leave. When he left Alfred and Matthew to their "private" conversation, Ludwig and Yao had already left, leaving a note letting them know that Gilbert came to pick them up and to call immediately if something happened. Ivan pocketed the note and headed for his car. All he could hear was Mrs. Jones's cheerful chirping from the kitchen, Mr. Jones's deep, tumbling laughs, Matthew's shouts from the living room during a hockey game, and Alfred's voice in his ear, his arms around his waist, wondering what Ivan got him for Christmas.
He needed something back at his host family's house, at the Lorinaitis'. They were a quiet family. Lithuanian. None of them would dare go into his room. But finding the envelope, feeling it safely tucked into his pocket while he drove back to Alfred's, sitting in the living room while the brothers still talked—it didn't help. And when Matthew came downstairs, told him to go back up, it was dark outside. The envelope off-balanced him. Ivan needed to put his fingers against the wall in the hallway to steady himself as he made his way for the glow of Alfred's lamp under the door.
"I can hear you," Alfred called. "Stop lurking and get your ass in here."
Ivan put his hand in his pocket and obeyed.
Alfred had wrestled more pillows from Matthew's room. He had them piled high behind him, but he was sitting up without trying, and in the lamplight he didn't look as pale as he did that afternoon. When Ivan closed the door behind him, Alfred eye's shined and he beckoned Ivan over. Ivan didn't budge.
Alfred pouted, but it was forced. Ivan saw him biting his cheeks to keep from grinning. "Don't tell me I need to take my pants off to get you over here."
Ivan stared at him—but the longer he stared, the longer his thoughts were left to their musings. He needed to focus. He couldn't do this now. Alfred was fine. Alfred was going to be fine. He pulled out the envelope and Alfred tipped his head.
"What's that?" he asked.
"Your Christmas present."
"I know it's early, but I couldn't wait. I bought tickets the other day. Plane tickets. They're for you and me."
"Really? Where were we going?"
Ivan twisted the sheet in his hands, tightly, nooses made for fingers and no, where are we going and he had to swallow down something. "Moscow. You're meeting my parents. I've told them about you. They want to—we're going in the spring."
Alfred smiled softly. "You know that's not gonna happen, big guy."
"My sisters will like you. Well…maybe not Natalia just yet. She is very protective of me and the rest of us, but—I'll protect you, don't worry."
"Katsyusha, she's the oldest, and married with children. My nephew, Vanya…Hmm, my sister named him after me, but he's so much like her. She's very sensitive, you see, and affectionate, so Vanya is always sad because it's cold. Her Sofiya is more like us. She's very…quiet."
"My mother will love you, even if it doesn't look like she does. Don't worry, she will. And my father—actually, my stepfather. My real father…never mind. My stepfather will be polite. Just try and be a little quiet and—wait until you see them. I won't spoil it. But my house—Oh, we'll get to sleep together. I'll make sure of it. And if my stepfather gives us any trouble…well, I'll sneak into your room, hmm? Like always. It will work."
Alfred stared at him for a few moments, his arms falling to his sides. His eyes weren't bright; they were filmy, like he just woke up from a pleasant dream and was still wracked with its aftereffects. Then he took a deep breath, blinked very slowly, and patted the covers next to him with a small smile. A sleepy smile.
"Tell me more, babe. Come here and tell me more."
Ivan was almost giddy. He peeled off his coat and threw it over the stool, and Alfred turned on his side so Ivan could hug Alfred's shivering back to his chest. Alfred covered his hands with his own. They were smaller now, Ivan noted. More bony. But not too much.
Then Ivan launched into his story, his voice filled with a nostalgic comfort that came with anyone separated by oceans from their country. But it was a beautiful story nonetheless. It was not so much a story about Moscow—anyone could find a story about Moscow on the Internet—but about Ivan's family. There was Ivan's mother, a short, petite woman with dark hair and eyes that had the most severe way of loving her children Alfred ever heard of. She was impassive, no-nonsense, the kind of woman that would have been labeled a bitch in the States but considered strong and resilient by both Russians and her children, and said children loved her for it. It was an intimate sort of love, Ivan explained. His mother made you dig deep for her affection, and if you managed, she had nothing but adoration for you for the rest of her life. She made you a fixture. She would go out of her way to help you without letting you know or asking for a thank you. His little sister Natalia was much the same…except for the affection. Natalia was a scary young woman, insanely beautiful (she'd been proposed to God-knows how many times), and her love for Ivan was just skirting an inappropriate boundary. But she was devoted. She took hardships against her mother or siblings personally, and when Katsyusha married and had children, Natalia was the most excited she'd ever been in her entire life. She forged a bond with Katsyusha she didn't have before, but why anyone could dislike his eldest sister was beyond him. Katsyusha Braginsky was a tall, sensitive beauty who married a decent businessman, and Ivan had nothing but kind words for her: His sister, the oldest of the three, who made him his scarf and took care of him when he was younger and helped pay for his tuition to go to an American school for a few years. And she gave their family two beautiful children, little Ivan and Sofiya, whom Ivan doted on like the last graces of the world.
Then Ivan told him about the birch forests, and Alfred felt his heart swell at the subtle, but unmistakable joy in Ivan's voice. When they were younger, his mother would take them north of Moscow to see some of the beautiful birch forests that gave Russia more beauty than foreigners were privy to. In the summer the forests were green and lush, like an oil painting Ivan once saw in a book. With the sun shining through the canopy, pale yellow walls of incandescent strength, a younger Ivan thought he was in another world, a magical world, where the leaves could make light and the trees were gray-white soldiers against an otherwise verdant and winding palace. He laughed when he said he swore he heard a Siberian tiger, and his mother had to remind him that, Vanya, we're not in Siberia, but Ivan didn't care. There were Siberian tigers in his birch kingdom, vicious and proud, protectors of the land. Somewhere in the middle Alfred whispered, "I'd love to see that," and Ivan promised him he would. He would take Alfred to one of his forests during the spring. Ivan, excited by his own plans, murmured Russian endearments into Alfred's hair without meaning to.
"Are you sleeping?" Ivan whispered.
"Sleep, then. Get some rest. We'll talk more in the morning."
"I'm sorry…but I need another favor."
"Really, I know I shouldn't—"
"What is it?"
"I need you to take care of my brother."
Ivan froze, watching his birch forests and the sunshine and his Siberian tigers flee into the cold New Jersey night outside.
"I said no. I have sisters to take care of. I have you to take care of. And when you get better, you can take care of your own brother."
"You're not listening."
"You will be fine."
"Ivan, I need you to do this for me."
"I haven't done enough?"
"Of course you have, but that's not the point—"
"You can't make me do this."
"That's why I'm asking you."
"Because, Vanya, I can't take care of him anymore."
Long after Alfred fell asleep, Ivan's huge hands wrapped around his own, Ivan wished he had said no, but sunflowers find ways to baffle you. Ivan went to sleep feeling cheated out of something, but of what, he didn't know.
A/N: This puppy was supposed to be a one-shot...but it's damn near thirty pages, so I decided to break it up while I had the chance. If I get enough reviews, I'll post the second part soon!
-The oil painting Ivan refers to is based off the "Birch Forest" painting by Isaac Levitan, who was a Russian painter in the nineteenth century. (It's a beautiful painting, I suggest looking it up.)
Reviews, critiques, or any kind of feedback would be a fantastic Christmas present.