A/N: Wow…Just wow. I am so thankful for all the lovely and wonderful reviews everyone gave me! I just…I'm a total sucker and I get excited over simple things. So your review replies will probably reflect that. NOW I'M TOTALLY FREAKING OUT THOUGH. The pressure is killing me. Seriously. No joke.
Summery: Once Ivan was close, Alfred reached up for him, and Ivan remembered never seeing him look more like one of his beautiful sunflowers, a spunky little spitfire that now rivaled the sun—if only for a moment.
Warnings: Slim Jims, blizzards, hopefully more sadness, and Mrs. Jones. And scene-jumps on crack.
Disclaimer: I, Trans-Siberian Railway, do not own Hetalia: Axis Powers, Russia/Ivan, America/Alfred, Canada/Matthew, or Lithuania/Toris. However, I do own Mrs. Jones. Sort of.
It was bright and cloudy the next morning, and Ivan had dreamed.
Good dreams, too; those were rare. Too bad he couldn't remember them when he woke up. He was feeling warm all over, especially when Alfred molded every bone and joint into his front through the night. That was nice…very nice. So when Ivan's eyes opened, still puffy with sleep, he ignored the smell of Matthew cooking breakfast downstairs and settled for nuzzling the back of Alfred's neck, which Ivan decided was much, much better than getting up or wracking his brain for dreams he knew he had when there was someone ten times better than the world in his arms. He couldn't tell what the weather was like, what with the angle of Alfred's window, and that just made him smile even more; he could plead ignorance to his host family as to why he was missing all night. Oh, I thought the roads had iced over. Silly me, I was just being cautious. I wouldn't want my mother and sisters getting any late night calls about me being dead in a ditch. That would be upsetting.
When the sleep-fuzzy feeling began to lift, he was aware of a distant buzzing, like the whir of a muted television, or a heater. Ivan tilted his head away to investigate, but out of the corner of his eye he saw something white and angular rise and fall against the window-light streaming into the room, and at its descent, the noise stopped.
"Oh, sorry. Didn't know you were awake."
It was Alfred's arm. Turning off his iHome radio. Oh.
Ivan sat up, rubbing Alfred's arm up and down, up and down, feeling the chill over Alfred's skin but painfully aware of the bruising that hadn't gone away yet. Ivan wanted to believe it was because he felt Alfred's pain like it was his own—which was partly true—but he always found that phrase odd, almost selfish, like someone was only sympathetic because he himself was in agony. Odd, selfish; besides, Ivan was very pain-tolerant. What he felt when he ran his rough hands over Alfred's skin was like—was like—was like doing a lot of despicable things he couldn't describe in English, because he knew it firsthand in Russian. Despicable things. But Alfred always told him it didn't hurt, that he liked the way Ivan's hands felt, that he always liked the way they felt, and God strike him dead if Ivan stopped touching him Alfred was going to release all kinds of unresolved sexual tension with Arthur—and that always shut Ivan up.
Today was the same, almost. Alfred leaned into Ivan's warmth. Alfred's body sighed with Ivan's tender motions. When Alfred turned his head and smiled like no other teenager could smile first thing in the morning, there was a comical sort of threat in his eyes, saying if you stop, so help me—even while he asked, "Did I wake you?" This was familiar. This Alfred—Ivan's Alfred—was familiar
Alfred was much better than his forgotten good dreams.
Ivan pressed Alfred close under the covers, hip to hip, a hand on Alfred's lower back. "Hmm…no. I don't think so. Maybe. I forgot. What were you listening to?"
Alfred shrugged. "Eh, nothing really. Music. The weather, mostly."
"What did they say?"
Ivan growled softly against Alfred's neck and was rewarded with a sleep-heavy giggle that had Alfred's fingers—bony but getting better—weaving through Ivan's pale, ashen-blond hair and massaging his scalp. "If you don't tell me the truth, I might have to…attack you."
Alfred full-out laughed and pulled Ivan's head completely against his neck. "Aw, what's wrong? My big bad tiger got his feelings hurt? Poor little cub. But fear not! Your hero will find your mommy for you."
"I'm warning you."
Alfred pressed his lips to Ivan's hair, smelling snow and wood, and peppered open-mouthed kisses to anything he touched. "Bring it on, babe."
And under the jovial jump in Alfred's reply was something that toned down Ivan's teasing from vicious tickling to something sensual, slow, surprising, but Ivan knew Alfred's surprises, because Alfred didn't joke with that voice of his. So attuned was Ivan to Alfred, Alfred to him, that their taunt muscles ready for play-fighting relaxed together under the strange gray glow of the morning light. Alfred didn't grab. Ivan didn't bite. They touched. Alfred hugged Ivan to his body while Ivan held Alfred's side, gently, and pressed a soft, lingering, warm kiss to the juncture of Alfred's collarbone. Loving. Reverent. He felt Alfred's heart quicken on his lips.
Ivan didn't know what brought this on. He wasn't complaining. But he would ask Alfred later. Not now. Alfred was getting better, and Ivan wanted to enjoy it, especially when he felt his radiant sunflower smiling into his temple.
"I love you, Vanya. With all my heart."
"And I you, солнышко. More than you know."
"Shit, that was so much manlier than mine."
Ivan chuckled. "I thought yours was beautiful."
"I meant it."
"I believe you."
"But I don't believe you. I know exactly how much you love me."
"Oh yes. Because I want Slim Jims, badly. Christ, I feel like some pregnant chick…I swear, it's a craving."
Ivan's lip curled. "That beef jerky stuff? Isn't that mechanically-separated meat?"
"You bet your sweet ass it is!"
"Don't distract me! No, I mean it! I, um…" Alfred blushed. "Would you mind getting me some? Please? We're out…and I already asked Mattie yesterday morning to pick some up in town, but they're all out, too."
Ivan, confused, sat up and stretched. "None of the stores in town carry them?"
Alfred looked apologetic—and that usually entailed Bambi eyes and blushing, so before Ivan could figure out the probability of every store in town being out of what Ivan knew to be a fairly popular American snack—ugh, he gagged at the smell—he was already slipping on his coat.
"Where should I check?"
Alfred brightened. "The supermarket right off the highway always carries them. Promise."
Then his scarf. "How many?"
"I think they carry the one-hundred packs…"
Ivan stopped and raised an eyebrow. "Really?"
Ivan just shook his head and made his way for the door.
"Hey!" Alfred called. Ivan looked over his shoulder to see Alfred's blond head poking out of the covers, pouting. "No goodbye kiss? This ain't some church group, bud! No one's looking."
"I will be right back."
Then Alfred did something Ivan should have seen coming—or, better yet, what it actually meant. Pouting a little more, Alfred threw the covers off. Pressing his lips and eyelids together in abject determination, he used what muscle he had left to support his body under his arms to push himself up and against the headboard. Ivan trembled under his coat as his violet eyes scanned Alfred's decaying body; his skin, too white and too thin, was sickly and bruised, like watered-down milk over pale purple and yellow paint splatters. They'd grown since the last time Ivan was brave enough to let his hands roam Alfred's body, and he could hardly imagine what his scalp looked like. Alfred refused to go through chemotherapy again, but if his shadowed eyes were anything to go by, Ivan imagined a battlefield. How he managed to keep all this pain from his parents, Ivan could only fantasize, and he was doing that a lot recently.
Feat accomplished, slightly worse for wear in the war zone—his breathing labored—Alfred stared at Ivan with an intensity not found in the eyes of dying, cancer-stricken boys with years ahead of him, but that of a dying, cancer-stricken boy named Alfred Jones, who just wanted to be touched. The pout returned, hindered by the beginnings of a smile, and he rose outstretched, shaking arms.
"Please?" he breathed. "Pretty please with cherries and hamburgers and Coke and steak on top—oh, and that Russian chicken stuff you made for me. That was delish—pretty, pretty please?"
Ivan sighed. "You're just like my nephew." But he said it with a solemn glow in his eyes and in his voice, tinged with adoration, the kind of voice he knew Alfred loved and made them both smile in a more serious kind of way. And Ivan didn't disappoint; once he'd made it to Alfred's bedside, his darling American boy's eyes were shining. Once Ivan was close, Alfred reached up for him, and Ivan remembered never seeing him look more like one of his beautiful sunflowers, a spunky little spitfire that now rivaled the sun—if only for a moment.
Ivan held his cold Alfred to his body, squeezing him, wanting so suddenly to remember how he always had an arm around his waist and the other behind his head, how Alfred's sharp bones would mold into Ivan's softer bulk, how Alfred, no matter how frail, would always warm their intertwined bodies more quickly than Ivan ever could, how Alfred's lips would graze his ear and he would shudder and sigh into him. Then Alfred turned and kissed him, slow, passionate, and sparked with an array of things Ivan didn't want to understand, and it was just too perfect. Too beautiful. Too Alfred.
Ivan hummed when they broke apart. "I thought you wanted me to leave."
Alfred closed his eyes, pressing his forehead to Ivan's and keeping them there while he chuckled under his breath. "Yeah…get outta here, big guy. Go get me some mechanically-separated meat sticks."
Ivan kissed him again, cupping Alfred's cheek. "I will be back."
"I know you will…"
"Just tired, that's all. Hey, when you go downstairs, can you tell Mattie I'm gonna sleep a little bit longer? Give me a few hours. Beauty rest and stuff."
Alfred's eyes were glistening. Maybe he yawned when Ivan wasn't looking; Alfred would always tear up when he yawned.
Ivan smiled and kissed Alfred's forehead as he pulled away. "Of course. Sleep well. I will be back soon. And good morning."
There it was again. That look. Alfred's eyes were half-lidded, his hands curled in his lap, a half-smile still on his face, but he was looking past Ivan this time. It must have been slow-moving, though; Alfred's blue eyes, bright and big and blooming, never moved from their spot near Ivan's heart. Ivan shook it off. He was just tired. He needed rest. Ivan would get his Slim Jims. And he'd get better.
Alfred's half-smile completed its cycle, and Ivan was graced once more with an energy that burst forth even in the dawn-gray room. "Later, babe."
American winters were strange, Ivan decided. So bright when it was gray.
Matthew feared for his stairs. One minute he was finishing up the pancakes and the ungodly number of sausages Alfred would no doubt vacuum off his plate, and then some sort of indoor blizzard—no, an earthquake—was trying to rip the staircase in two. Matthew jumped; he had to grip the sloshing milk carton in one hand and use his other arm to keep the glasses from teetering off the edge of the counter. If Alfred wanted food, he could've just called…Then it stopped, and there were heavy steps behind him.
Matthew turned. Alfred was tall, but not that tall, and in his condition he didn't fill the doorway like he used to. Matthew smiled; so Ivan was his avalanche. And that avalanche looked like a happy one, happier than usual. Ivan's violet eyes were smiling and cheerful, and his body lit up in the winter-washed glow coming in from the window. No doubt the entire ruckus was just Ivan dancing down the stairs, so Matthew let him off. If Ivan was happy this early, dressed and ready to go who knew where, then Alfred must have looked better this morning. Matthew could deal with the noise for that.
And it certainly was a treat to have Ivan smiling at him.
"Good morning, Matvey."
Matthew blushed. "M-Morning, Ivan."
Ivan chuckled. "Interesting apron."
"Huh?" Matthew looked down at his—now very embarrassing—Canadian flag apron. "Oh, that. Um…Yeah, our dad is Canadian. He moved here after he met Mom during college in Massachusetts. She snuck it into the States just to piss him off."
"Did it work?"
"I'm not sure. Dad is sort of…quiet, you know? He doesn't take offense easily."
"Yeah, like me." Matthew swallowed, awkwardly smoothing out his hair and holding a plate out to Ivan. "Do you want something to eat? I made breakfast."
Ivan shook his head. "I was just heading out to pick up something for Alfred."
Matthew tensed. "Is he okay? Does he need anything?"
"Do not worry. I'll be back soon. But he wanted me to tell you that he's going to sleep a little longer, so don't bother him."
Matthew rolled his eyes. "Fine. I'll put some water by his bed just in case. But he's going to eat my food one way or the other. He's not going to eat packaged meat all day while I'm still around."
"You sound like his mother…When will your parents be home?"
Matthew turned away. "This afternoon. I just called them. I would hurry back here, if you want to see him before he goes to the hospital."
"I plan to. See you later, Matvey."
But when Matthew turned back to say goodbye, the front door had already closed—and Matthew pretended he didn't see the dent in the kitchen doorframe, like someone closed a fist around it and squeezed until the wood splintered beneath his palms.
Walking outside, Ivan saw for himself that, indeed, it was bright and cloudy. The sun shined down through the clouds without any bearing, icicles gleaming below their oak tree branches, and a little red squirrel—Ivan thought they were only gray around here—poked his head out of a snow bank near Ivan's car. A late coming acorn in its mouth, the squirrel fixed Ivan with a black-eyed, taunting stare before turning tail and flying up the nearby oak tree, dislodging an icicle that Ivan had to sidestep to avoid. Ivan smirked. Rodents.
But it didn't matter, because Ivan would gladly sidestep ten hundred icicles that morning as long as he got back in time to see Alfred off. He glanced up at the house where he knew Alfred's window was. The blinds were down. That would be normal. Alfred liked his room dark when he slept.
Ivan's drive to the store was long and full of snowbound traffic, but it wasn't deathly, he wasn't concerned, and the clock only read nine-forty-five. The supermarket was fairly close, and if it was too much to handle on the way back, he could always cut through some backstreets and make it home—to Alfred's house before his parents arrived. Ivan had everything planned out, right down to where he would park, where he knew the Slim Jims were, how much money he would have ready on command plus tax, and then he'd be back in his car, humming along with whatever American song he found on the radio. He didn't care what it said. It was just nice to have an upbeat rhythm to his surprisingly good mood to guide him along the highway, through last night's fears that Ivan threw away to the wind, and that rhythm would carry him back to Alfred's house. His sisters would barely recognize him if they could see him now.
He lost thirty minutes because of the traffic—it started snowing all of a sudden—but other than that, Ivan was feeling confident once he made it to the supermarket. Everything was going as planned. A little snow might add on a few more minutes, but he still had more than an hour left. He garnered some looks from the locals, though, as he was almost skipping, beaming, down the store's aisles like a child who knew a surprise was waiting for him at home: It was sweet prolonging the inevitable good, but excitement gets even the best of us, and Ivan wasn't on a mission to be the best person in the world, so when the receipt and grocery bag were in his hands and the cashier wished him a good day, Ivan was ready to squeal like the child people knew he was.
And just like a child, his hopes were crushed and reduced to ashes when he found himself wedged in a crowd of people who were staring outside, many of them grumbling and cursing into their cell phones. A furious wind drowned out most of their voices, but Ivan wasn't listening.
A blizzard had brewed.
Ivan's face fell.
He could just see five feet in front of him outside the window. In less than ten minutes the snow flurries Ivan encountered on the highway had turned into a wind-whipped, silver sandstorm. He could barely see his car through the storm, and above him the sun was no more, no more Heaven's gates, just an endless expanse of white sky. No one could drive in this, even with lights, and the only lights in the distance Ivan could make out were a few pairs of blurry, yellow emergency lights near where he thought the entrance to the highway was. One of the shoppers told him that because of the record-breaking wind speeds, a previous snowdrift was completely knocked off the overpass and onto the highway. Three cars were in an accident. Shoppers, for now, were stuck in the parking lot until the police and ambulances could clear the accident. And then there was the blizzard to worry about.
Ivan gritted his teeth and reached into his pocket for his cell phone…and cursed loudly in Russian that garnered him a few looks. He left his phone in the car.
"Gosh, guys, I'm so sorry!" Ivan turned to see a group of teenagers huffing near a poinsettia flower display.
"You should be. You said we would miss the storm."
"That's what the radio said! This storm wasn't supposed to come until eleven!"
Ivan narrowed his eyes. Walking over, he tapped one of the girls' shoulders, the one who had mentioned the radio. She glanced over, eyes widening at Ivan's height.
"Excuse me," Ivan said sweetly, "what did the radio say?"
The group looked uncomfortable (Ivan was used to it; Americans were terrified of his accent sometimes) but the girl replied, "It said all of New Jersey was under a winter storm warning. Very high winds, maybe twenty or thirty inches of snow."
Ivan bit the inside of his cheek and tasted blood. Something was stirring in his stomach, a churning that bloomed in his chest and down his legs. "When did you hear this?" he asked.
"Uh…like, nine this morning? Maybe nine-fifteen?"
Ivan fell back against the wall.
"What were you listening to?"
Alfred shrugged. "Eh, nothing really. Music. The weather, mostly."
"What did they say?"
Ivan had to pay for six scattered poinsettia plants and a broken door within the hour. Meanwhile, power lines were going down, oak branches fell, and a distant Matthew pursed his lips at his snow-battered window, wondering when Ivan or his parents would ever get home.
It took thirty minutes to clear the traffic for the accident, fifteen to dig one of the cars out of the snow, another thirty for the police and more emergency vehicles and roadblocks to arrive, and then hours. It took hours. The wind was too strong. There was too much snow. Ivan and a few other men volunteered with shovels the supermarket provided to help clear away some of the drift, but after thirty minutes Ivan, used to biting below-zero winds in Moscow, was the only one left in the storm. All but the police were taking refuge in the supermarket. But Ivan stayed outside, back hunched, raising the shovel over his head like an ax, slashing into the snow's belly, grunting, digging through wind—it didn't make a dent. Ivan was out there for hours until he had calluses on his hands and he couldn't feel his face. But he had to keep going, or he would lose Alfred's face as well.
It wasn't until five-thirty that the accident was cleared. The storm hadn't settled, though, and now that it was getting dark, several shoppers decided to remain in the supermarket until things calmed down. Ivan was not one of them. He ran for his car and sped out of the parking lot for the highway, not caring about snow or wind or traction or visibility, because Alfred's parents were supposed to be there at noon and Alfred didn't tell him or his parents about the blizzard. If he even knew—
He caught the glint of his cell phone's blue-lit screen on the passenger seat, ringing. Ivan reached for it, lost control of the wheel on the slippery road, tried again. One missed call. Arthur. But it wasn't just Arthur. Seven missed calls in the past hour were Arthur's. Two were Yao's. One from Gilbert, Francis, and two numbers he didn't recognize. Three text messages from Kiku. One from Ludwig and Feliciano.
Eighteen missed calls from Matthew. Eight text messages from Matthew.
None from Alfred.
He didn't read any of them.
Ivan was off the highway soon after, so he stepped on the gas. (He almost killed someone speeding on the main road, he thought.) When he veered onto Alfred's street, the snow hadn't stopped, but the wind was winding down, and it made driving—and seeing—so much easier.
Ivan slammed on the brakes. His phone rang again. Ivan crushed it.
Alfred's street was blocked off. Not because of the snow, or down power lines, or a broken oak branch. Cars had piled up, parked on every curb and then some; cars Ivan recognized and wished he didn't. People filled the avenue, huddled in coats and blankets, others leaning on each other, whispering and wailing voices trying to understand why there was an ambulance, why is there a police plow, what's going on? There was Arthur and Francis on the sidewalk, and Arthur's face was red and puffy and his green eyes shone in the spinning ambulance lights. Ivan couldn't hear him. But Arthur was screaming, his lip curled, pushing Francis away from him whenever he tried to hold him, but the wounded can only fight for so long. Arthur was not a knight, and Francis was not weak, and in the end Francis had Arthur in his arms, and they both sank into the snow while Arthur clutched and cried into Francis's chest, shaking under the storm.
Ivan got out of his car and threw his shattered cell phone on the street, his eyes fixed on Alfred's covered window through the snow.
It's just a relapse. Ivan ran, hopping over cars and pushing crying people out of his way. He's alive. He was alive this morning. He was fine. He is fine. In the dusk-dark storm, Ivan forged a path through other people's tragedies; a tragedy he knew should not exist, a tragedy he was forced to endure through cruelty of word. There was nothing wrong. Alfred was sick. But he was getting better.
He had to be.
Ivan managed to push through two policemen before he saw them and froze; a tiger under circular headlights, Ivan stared. She was there, hunched over in the backseat of her car, curls upon curls of sunshine-colored hair obscuring her face—perhaps for the best. Under the slow-moving snowfall her screams tore through the neighborhood, a sound Ivan had never heard before, a sound that stripped innocence from children and ripped away the stitches that held even one small human being to an Earth that was just too big, and Ivan's blood ran cold under the tremors her voice bred in his veins. He was kneeling at her knees, grasping and rubbing her clenched, frozen fingers, his knee cracking her fallen glasses, and Ivan was glad too that he only saw his dry-heaving back.
The front door opened. Two grim-faced paramedics came out with a stretcher. She sobbed. Ivan closed his eyes.
Nothing is there.
He walked forward, eyes closed, past the paramedics and their empty stretcher, past her gasps and calls—"Ivan? God, Ivan, where are you going?"—and into Alfred's house. Where Alfred was. He wondered where Matthew had gone. But then he heard the house shudder from the wind and something mumbled in his ear, and he thought of Alfred's ghost stories and ran, ran, ran up the stairs to tell him about it before they caught him. Something was breaking; Ivan felt it. He wanted to tell Alfred quickly lest it shatter to pieces like Mrs. Jones's glasses under her husband's knees. The hallway was tracked with snow, and Ivan made his way for the glow of Alfred's lamp under the door. He knocked softly.
Maybe he was sleeping.
"Alfred, open the door."
Maybe the paramedics gave him new medication.
Ivan was horrified when his voice cracked the third time. "Alfred…солнышко…I'm coming in…"
Ivan reared back and kicked the door down.
"I learned something today," Alfred said, snuggling into Ivan's arms.
Ivan chuckled. "That's a surprise."
Ivan wrapped Alfred up in covers and quilts and they relaxed into the warmth of Ivan's bed. "Tell me."
"Most of the stars you see at night are already dead. Depressing, huh."
Ivan hummed. "That is beyond our control."
"Yet we still like watching 'em." Alfred sighed, dejected, and pulled Ivan's arm over his shoulder.
Ivan lifted Alfred's chin and kissed his brow. "Sometimes beauty is too precious to be wasted, солнышко. Dead or alive."
Alfred smiled at that.
And Ivan fell to his knees under the tragedy of Alfred's dead-lit room.
It can take up to seven hours for a person to die, and that meant dying; as in, the body begins to shut down one organ at a time until there's nothing left for the brain to work with. While not consciously so, several people in several years after Alfred died on that beautiful December night wondered when he started to go. Matthew thought it was when Ivan left that morning. His friends thought it started with his collapse at the park near the pine forest. His parents thought it was a few days before that, when Alfred's smiles became soft and sweet and he wanted to go outside.
But Ivan knew better. Alfred was dying when those cancer cells breathed life in his eyes. Why Alfred chose to hang on so long, Ivan didn't and never wanted to know, because he knew the answer would lead him to one of those beautiful ponds that froze over in the winter where he and Alfred often skated together, and Ivan would throw himself under the ice and never come back up.
Ivan didn't remember walking out of Alfred's house. He didn't remember how he got to his car. He didn't remember people calling his name or grabbing his arm or crying into his sleeve. He didn't remember starting the car or driving back to his house. He didn't remember Mr. and Mrs. Lorinaitis holding his face, whispering sorry's and what can we do for you's. He didn't remember how he got to his room.
Ivan didn't remember a lot of things that night. But when he found himself sitting on the edge of his bed, staring out his window at the storm still raging outside, he realized that maybe in that span of thirty minutes his universe disappeared: Ivan's world didn't come crashing down because Ivan's world was gone. There was a darkness he couldn't recall, something that gnawed a hole through his heart's remains, a code lost under sidestepped icicles and broken tree branches that Ivan would never find again. And it ripped him apart, like he was holding a beautiful, yellow little bird in the warmth of his palms, delighted to breathe in the scent of life—only to find that his beautiful little bird was as dead as the hole in his heart, and he didn't know what went wrong when there was nothing wrong in the first place. Yet there he was, unmoving, staring at the storm, holding his dead little bird to his heart to try and warm it up.
There was no life to breath. There was no warmth to hold. There was no yellow-haired sunflower laughing in his ear. Ivan wondered where he went.
No one could move him. His host family tried and gave up the next day, deciding that the best thing to do would be to call school and beg them to give Ivan a sick week, he was mourning, the poor dear. Even Toris, their son, his sympathy overpowering his fear—foolish boy—walked into Ivan's room one day with a letter from the Jones', approaching the pale statue staring out the window with nothing but pity in his heart. Yet when he whispered, gently, that a letter had come for him from Mr. and Mrs. Jones, a letter regarding the time and date for the funer— Ivan's arm shot out and grabbed his neck. Toris gasped, the letter falling to Ivan's thigh. Ivan's fingers, still gloved, pressed just enough to immobilize but not enough to choke, though Toris found it hard to swallow. He grabbed Ivan's arm with both hands, but he didn't cry out or struggle; he recognized a rabid animal when he saw one, and Toris dared not move for fear that Ivan might get a kick out of killing someone else's loved one while he had him by the throat.
Ivan stared at the letter. Picked it up with his other hand. Pulled Toris's throat down until they were eye to eye and Ivan smiled like the day was bright and glorious.
"You know, Toris," Ivan said. "This letter has been haunting my thoughts. Has something ever haunted you, Toris?"
Toris whimpered. "N-No, I don't think so."
Ivan's eyes widened. "You don't think so? Then you never have. Everyone knows when they're being haunted. Mine feels like a parasite. Something is working its way through me. I can feel it. I think it is winning, Toris, and it actually scares me. This letter…" Ivan held it up in front of his face, grinning. "I knew it would come. The parasite told me it would. It says my Alfred is dead. Is that right, Toris?"
Toris didn't answer.
"Arthur was here while you were at school. In my room. He had a letter like this one. He slapped me. I don't remember what he said. But I think he wanted me to go where this letter is asking me to. I know it will take me to Alfred. But I don't want to see Alfred like this, Toris. The parasite will eat him alive."
Ivan released him. Toris stumbled back, coughing and clutching his throat. Ivan ripped the letter apart until it rained down to the floor in pieces.
"Toris," Ivan continued, staring at the window once again. "When do you think the storm will stop?"
Toris looked outside. It was the first sunny day since the blizzard.
That night, with Toris's throat still burning and the letter still shredded, the moon was full and shining into Ivan's eyes when Mrs. Lorinaitis knocked on his door.
"Ivan," she called, "someone is here to see you."
There was always someone to see him. Arthur, Toris, others. The parasite. Never Alfred. Alfred never came. Ivan knew he wouldn't. But Ivan wished for him anyway.
He heard heels clicking on his floor. Mrs. Lorinaitis didn't wear heels. The door closed, and Ivan felt the heat of another crossing his floor, a radiant heat that burned his side.
No. Not her.
"Ivan, look at me."
Go away go away go away go away go away—
"Don't you dare ignore me, Ivan Braginsky. Not now."
The parasite coiled in Ivan's throat and he had to grit his teeth to keep it from escaping. Turning to face his visitor was a mistake, too, because the parasite jumped to his eyes and he felt something wet gathering in the back of his head when he met a pair of bright, big, glistening blue eyes that struck his statue down as quickly as it came. Mrs. Jones was tall and thin and pretty, her face dusted with freckles, a tumbling mass of blonde curls framing a face that frowned when it should have smiled and shoulders that tensed in anger when they should have been shaking in laughter. There was none of that Mrs. Jones in Ivan's room that night. That Mrs. Jones would probably never come back.
"I've been calling you. I've left messages."
Ivan gripped his sheets. Mrs. Jones glanced down at the floor and she stumbled back a step, covering her mouth, tears escaping.
Ivan shook his head and didn't stop. There is no invitation.
"There is no invitation."
Ivan was only ever invited to Alfred's house. Anything else was just wrong.
But Mrs. Jones did not back down. A family trait, it seemed. Ivan loved that about—where is he? Instead she pressed her lips together and stared down at him, hard.
"Someone told me something awful this morning, Ivan. Someone told me that when one twin dies, sometimes the other twin dies soon after." Mrs. Jones choked out a sob and, with as much determination as Alfred had several mornings ago, she dropped to her knees in front of him, staring at him, her eyes huge and red-rimmed and knowing. "If you don't think I understand you—Ivan, I gave birth to him. Alfred and Matthew and their father are the reasons I wake up in the morning. Then I come home from a trip that Alfred told me to go on only to find ambulances and cars blocking my street and Matthew pulling his hair out in the yard. My boy is dead, Ivan. My boy is gone, and my Matthew is falling apart. He won't eat. He doesn't sleep. He just sits in Alfred's room and cries. I've never—I've never seen a boy cry so much."
Mrs. Jones bent over. She cupped her hands under the shredded letter and held them close like they were Alfred's remains and not the body lying cold in a funeral home.
"You and I have watched him waste away for a year now. I don't think he would have held out for so long if it wasn't for you, Ivan, and I'm grateful. That must sound like a horrible thing to say, but I truly am. I know how much Alfred meant to me. I can't even begin to imagine what he was to you, or even to Matthew. But Ivan, if you don't come to Alfred's funeral…"
Mrs. Jones was in his room, on her knees, on her knees for him, and took his big hands in hers—Ivan couldn't look, Alfred had her eyes—and begged him, "Please, Ivan. Please come. Please come for my boys."
But where is my boy?
"I can't save Matthew, Ivan. Alfred was his hero, not me, not his father. Goddammit, Ivan, please, please look at me."
Ivan heard ringing. Maybe a vessel popped.
Ivan turned to her slowly, his eyes half-lidded and pleading. "Mrs. Jones?"
She gripped his hands.
"Why didn't he wait?"
Why didn't he wait…?
"I said I would be right back. But I was not right back. There was a blizzard, and he did not tell me."
He did not tell me.
"He did not wait."
"Alfred didn't want you to see."
There was a time when Ivan could breathe. There was a time when he woke up in the morning and jumped out of bed. There was a time when Alfred held his hand and pulled him outside, smiling, C'mon, Ivan, it's boring staying inside all the time! There was a time when Ivan could smile, really smile, without malice or hate or pity underneath. There was a time when a yellow-haired boy who smiled at Ivan became his life.
There was a time when Ivan's sunflowers did not die. He wondered when those times disappeared.
Mrs. Jones slipped a small paper bag with his name on it into Ivan's hands, Alfred's handwriting scrawled across the top. His horrible, horrible handwriting: Ivan. He turned it upside down and Alfred's glasses plopped into his waiting palm. A note was attached to the lens. Mrs. Jones cried quietly at his side.
Ivan peeled the note back, caressing it between his fingers: I'd still like to see those birch forests one day, Vanya.
The parasite in his body burst in victory.
My Alfred is dead.
Mrs. Jones stayed for another hour, but no more. They stayed on the floor, she sitting upright against the bed, Ivan leaning against her, sobbing into her chest like a child, wishing she was his mother and not Alfred's. But there was only so much she could do, and in the end she kissed the top of Ivan's head like she would if he was Alfred or Matthew crying from a nightmare. Please come, Ivan. Please. We need you to come. And she left, taking the shredded letter and replacing it with a fresh one. A fresh wound. Ivan slept on the floor that night, an open invitation skittering off into the corner.
The funeral was tomorrow morning. It would be sunny. Alfred was always going on about how he wanted to be buried in the sunlight because cloudy days were too damn emotional, and Ivan had to cover his tombstone in American flags and sunflowers. "You've turned me, babe," he had said with a goofy grin. But that was two years ago—when Alfred was healthy and alive and he made Ivan want to stay alive, too. He wondered how much of that rant Alfred meant and how serious Ivan was being when he laughed along and agreed. Ivan had outgrown his only suit, and that was a shame. Alfred said he looked sexy in suits.
Mrs. Lorinaitis came in some time after Mrs. Jones left; there was a call from Moscow, your sisters are very worried about you. Ivan didn't take it. He didn't know why. Hearing from his family was probably the best thing for him right now. But he still didn't take it, and he didn't call them back.
He woke up at two in the morning, his body feeling hot from a nightmare he couldn't recall. In a fit of something, he kicked out and broke his bedside table, the lamp cracking glass over his thigh. Ivan clawed at the floor, crying silently, knowing that Alfred's death was sinking in but he didn't want it to because then Alfred would be gone. His thigh was bleeding. Blood pulsed in his legs and Ivan could still remember Alfred saying later, babe and not another word. But his thigh was still bleeding, and Ivan still didn't know what to do.
That is, until he heard the ghost. No parasite this time—there was a ghost in his room, and Ivan's nightmare came rushing back.
Ivan splintered one of the floorboards.
His face felt warm. Ivan threw his arm out and growled.
The house shivered in the wind. It sounded like a name; Ivan's mind was clouded in pain and anger and dead sunflowers, but he still heard the name. Ivan shook.
"Солнышко," he sighed.
It was hopeful thinking, and Ivan wasn't one for hopeful thinking. He coughed wetly into his hands because the ghost wouldn't go away, nope, not unless Ivan did what it wanted, because Ivan promised. There was probably nothing there; Ivan knew he was losing his mind. It could have just been his nightmare creeping up on him again. But he grit his teeth anyway and let it whisper purple eyes and an a broken heart.
There wasn't much else left driving Ivan now. Alfred knew that about him, which was why he made Ivan promise that, one day, one day that wasn't supposed to happen, he would be limping out of his room and outside into the frozen air, trudging through unplowed snow with a ghost in his ear, whispering, humming, encouraging, all the way across town to a house with an oak tree and a covered window. One day Ivan would be standing in front of that house again, staring at the covered window again, but no longer for the ghost touching his shoulders. Alfred knew that about him.
And he was right.
Once upon a year ago Ivan had stolen Alfred's keys when his cancer struck and made his own; Ivan kept having nightmares in his own room and he already broke Mrs. Jones's rose trellis so he was through with climbing to Alfred's window. He remembered those nights fondly. Ivan had adrenaline rushes then, bursts of excitement when the door clicked open and everything was still, like the house was holding its breath, waiting, watching, until Ivan was in Alfred's room and everything sighed. Ivan sighed now.
But Alfred wasn't here anymore. There would be no warm body smelling like sunflowers and skin waiting for him at the end of the hallway. Alfred would not be there to beam, beckon, and sweet-talk Ivan into his arms just for the sake of being there, where Ivan could hold and love and protect without ghosts looking over his shoulder. It was Alfred's light that ward them off, a beacon; Ivan was sure of it. But Alfred's light was dead now.
Ivan was on his own, and he knew it. So he took a deep, shuddering breath that chilled him to the bone and let his ghosts guide him upstairs through Alfred's dead house.
He almost ran back downstairs when he saw light underneath Alfred's door. But that weed-bloom of tragic hope died in his heart as quickly as it came. Ivan was not meant for storybook endings with forest palaces and Siberian tigers and blue-eyed princes who dazzled the world. That was becoming incisively clear in the span of a week. Ivan patched up the hole in his chest and forced back tears when he heard Alfred's whispers amidst the crying, a soft, despairing little wail that came from Alfred's lit room.
There wasn't much else he could do but open the door and hope he didn't shatter. (Ivan was not a "pick up the pieces" sort of guy, but fate finds ways to kick you in the ass, so Ivan picked up others.)
He expected to find Matthew in Alfred's bed, and it was Matthew Ivan got. In the orange glow of Alfred's lamp, light played over Matthew's body in the worst of ways. His hair, just as blond as his brother's, was greasy and unkempt, knotted, but even though Matthew's waves covered his face, Ivan could still see the damage that lurked underneath. Mrs. Jones's words came back to him, and Ivan frowned—Matthew wasn't eating. Coupled with anguish and sleeplessness, Matthew's face thinned in days what usually took weeks to start. Bags hung heavy under his eyes, now wide open and bloodshot, as he stared at Ivan beneath a cocoon of quilts and comforters and Alfred's old varsity jacket. Yet he still trembled.
"I-Ivan…?" he rasped. Ivan pressed his lips together.
Tears swelled in Matthew's eyes, and even in the dim light Ivan could see the purple-tint wash over.
"Where were you? I called. I called you. During the blizzard, I—" cough, retch "—I couldn't find you. I tried everything. I called Arthur and Kiku and…"
Matthew whined and curled his pale fingers into his hair. Ivan thought he could see patches when he crossed over, towards a boy that reeked no joy, and took his wrists. Held them, pulled, the way he used to hold Alfred when they were together, and tugged Matthew's hands from his scalp. Matthew's hair would grow back. Matthew's hair would shine again and he would claim hearts just like his brother could. But he would still be alive. Alfred wanted that.
I need you to take care of my brother.
But it didn't make Ivan feel any better, and neither did Matthew.
"I've yelled at him, complained about him, hit him, hated him, but…He let me teach him how to ice skate in front of all his friends, and he'd beat up kids who picked on me or mistook me for him, and he always bought me Devils' tickets when he had the money and replaced my hockey gear he broke, and—he never let you replace me. He always found time for me, even if I didn't ask or I didn't want it, he just did it anyway, the bastard, and—" Matthew's voice cracked, then choked, and he buried his face in his arms and just screamed. "God…oh God…My brother is dead…"
Ivan didn't want this. He didn't want to share his pain, not with a boy who looked just like his dead lover. He wanted to go home—and that meant home, back in Russia with his sisters—and flesh out Alfred's face into his mind until all that was left was Alfred. Like a mad dog, he wanted to keep moving, curling up under a birch tree and covered in sunflowers, damned and determined to find a place to die where he'd be back in his country with Alfred's voice beckoning him to sleep.
Fantasies. Beautiful, dreadful fantasies. All for naught. Naught under the snow. A promise was hovering over those birch trees and sunflower beds. Promises were not fantasies. Ivan had to grow up for that.
So before General Winter's perpetual hush could draw him away, Ivan snaked an arm—platonic or displaced romantic, who knew at that point—around shaking Matthew's shoulders and whispered his own incantations, where love grew in dead pine forests and Alfred F. Jones smiled at the sun.
This story has possessed me for about a week. And Christ Almighty, Ivan is hard to write, but he's fascinating, so I resigned myself. I hope I made people cry...if not, well, such is life.
-The "Russian chicken thing" is Chicken Kiev. I've never had it, but it sounds (and looks) delicious; I've vowed to either make it or enlist one of my many Russian friends to make it for me.
Thank you for sticking with me through the story! Reviews are a nice New Year's resolution. Even if they are one-word reviews, I appreciate them all!