His gaze is stony, set dead on Braginski and awaiting an answer, a slender eyebrow raised as a sneer twists his cherub-like face up. Just as Braginski opens his mouth to answer, a scream rings out from the back room, and Braginski looks at Mikhail. "Would you kindly tend to our comrade, Mikhail?" he asks, sugar sweet. "We have a guest." As Mikhail leaves, Braginski faces Natalis again. "I believe you were expecting an answer, Mr. Arlovsky?"

Natalis nods, narrowing his eyes slightly.

"Well then," his tone is chipper, smile innocent, "I would like to say that you will, for now, be on what you can consider the 'waiting list.' You aren't in, but you aren't necessarily out, either; just on the threshold. I assume that this arrangement is sufficient for the time being?"

"Do I have a choice?" he deadpans.

Braginski smiles wider, more catlike, as he snuggles into the scarf he always wears; I'm one of the few that knows when, where, and why Yekaterina gave it to him, and why he never takes it off unless in private. "Happy to see that we are on the same page, Mr. Arlovsky. Would you object if I requested that you and I speak in private?"

"Not at all, sir."

"Good." With that, he ushers all others, excluding me and Natalis, out of the vicinity with a simple flick of the wrist. After everyone leaves, he stands, beckoning Arlovsky to follow him as he heads toward the back room.

Chained to the wall and sniveling on the floor is a blond boy, somewhere around sixteen or seventeen if my memory serves, sickly pale and dangerously thin. Kneeling down, Braginski grabs the boy's face in his hand and forces him to lift his gaze from the stone floor, blue eyes that still held a slimmer of hope a week ago now looking submissive and depressed. Natalis looks on emotionlessly as I once again fight off nausea and the tugging pain clawing at my heart.

"Ah, comrade Alfred," Braginski addresses him, tilting his head and smiling cutely. "You are not looking too well right now. But you haven't learned your lesson yet, have you?"

The boy is silent for a moment, and in a split second Natalis draws his knife and points it at Alfred, just centimeters away from slicing ghost-white skin. "I believe he asked you a question, dog. Have you learned your lesson, or not?" he snarls, knife grip tightening gradually.

Alfred, shaking, draws a breath and says, "Go… go to hell, you vodka-sucking son of a bitch," receiving a kick in the gut from Natalis for his troubles. Coughing and spluttering, he chokes out, "My father… my father will find me… he will find me, and he'll take you down… down… He hasn't given up yet… he won't. So just… enjoy this while you can, damn it."

Natalis cocks his leg to kick Alfred again when Braginski puts a hand on his shoulder to stop him. "Mr. Arlovsky, I wouldn't want you to break my toy when it's still so new. He needs a little more playtime before I can… give him away. He is of no use to me if he is dead."

Under his breath, Alfred mumbles, "I'd rather be dead right now. Beats being locked up here," and closes his eyes in pain, pulling his knees to his chest and burying his face in them. I can't help but feel sorry for him and his predicament, but there's not really much I can do if I want to stay alive myself.

"Don't worry, comrade," Braginski replies cheerfully, childlike smile seeming even more intimidating and dangerous than ever. "Your time will come eventually. In fact, I will be sure to have your new friend Mr. Arlovsky take care of all of the 'paperwork' for me when it's needed. But we want to postpone that as much as possible because we are having a good time, right?"

"The best," he responds in a mutter, glancing up from his knees enough for me to notice the tears sliding down his cheeks. Through his sobs, he begins to quietly sing "America the Beautiful," curling in on himself more and more with each passing moment.

I'm so absorbed in fighting off the need to comfort Alfred that I don't realize when Braginski and Natalis leave the room until Braginski calls out, "Romulus, why are you still back there?"

"Ah, coming, sir," I reply, quickly fishing the keys to Alfred's cuffs out of my pocket and bending down to loosen them the slightest amount, running my fingers through his hair and dropping a kiss on the top of his head before I leave. When I am back with him and Natalis, he's smiling in the way that masks his other feelings, the way that makes it difficult for me to know what he's thinking. "I must have zoned out for a moment, sir."

He waves it off. "No problem, old friend," he starts, wrapping an arm around Arlovsky's shoulders and making him stiffen. "I was just speaking to Mr. Arlovsky here about the possible role he will be playing in the coming days. You know, in accordance with the rules for those who wish to become new members of our little organization?"

In understanding, I nod and clear my throat.

"Good, good," he says airily, glancing at the watch on his left wrist. "My, would you look at the time! It's getting rather late, and Katyusha will be worried if I am not home soon; she may take away my privileges again!" A laugh, then a smile. "I do not require your assistance in getting home this evening, Romulus, so you may head home yourself and you needn't worry about me. Do svidaniya!"

Braginski leaves, resulting in just Natalis and I left in the hideout. I turn to him, saying, "Do you need a ride home, or any assistance at all?"

With a cold glare, he snaps, "Niama! I need no help!" and storms off.

. . .

"Daddy, you're home!" Feliciano cries as I walk through the door, sprinting forward and attaching himself to my waist while nuzzling my stomach.

With a laugh, I pull him off and kneel down, brushing his bangs out of his face and saying, "Ah-ah-ah, Feliciano. Ditelo in italiano."

Pouting, he grunts in the back of his throat and replies, "Um… Papà, sei a casa?"

"Perfetto! Where is Lovino? I thought he would be here to greet me by now."

Feli smiles, taking my hand and leading me to the kitchen to get dinner for the both of us, and presumably for my darling eldest son if he ever decides to show up. "I made pasta, Daddy! I know how much you like pasta, so I stopped at the store on the way home to buy some! I made it all by myself, too!" he chirps, looking ecstatic. "Lovi's upstairs with his friend Antonio if you want to go get him."

I ruffle his hair and peck his forehead, heading up the stairs and toward my son's room. A sign on the outside of the closed door says "Vaffanculo, bastardi," and I wonder when he found the time to put it up. Not bothering to knock, I open the door to find Lovino, sitting on his bed and nose-to-nose with a boy with curly dark brown hair, and I clear my throat to alert them of my presence. Immediately, Lovi flushes and stands up, leaving the other boy to fall flat on his face with a groan. "Damn it, Dad!" Lovi nearly screeches, crossing his arms over his chest as he huffs. "You totally ruined it! That was supposed to be my first kiss!"

The other boy, who I assume to be Antonio, sits up and juts his bottom lip out in a pout rivaled only by those pulled off by Feliciano. "In that case," I say, pursing my lips, "I'll close the door. But you have ten seconds to do whatever it is you want to do before I open this door again and more or less throw Mr. Antonio out of the house. Capisce?"

True to my word, I open the door after the designated time period and usher Antonio out of the house, bidding him goodbye and a safe trip back home before closing the front door and turning to face Lovino. I raise an eyebrow, to which he mutters, "No comment, damn it," and trudges off to the kitchen for dinner.

Dinner, as usual, is a quiet affair, all of us busy milling over the events of our day and choosing not to talk about it. Once all three of us are done eating, Feliciano yawns and hugs me and Lovino goodnight, heading upstairs to retire to his room for the night. Sighing, I pack up the rest of the food into a plastic container and set it on the counter, slumping back down into my seat and hiding my face in my hands. "I don't think I can handle this for much longer."

Lovino scoffs, shifting in his seat. "Then quit," he offers, flicking his bangs out of his eyes and frowning at me. "You've always done what you wanted; what's so different about it now?"

His tone is sarcastic as always, but I can still hear the underlying worry and plea for attention. Sighing, I reply, "Why don't you ever talk to me anymore, Lovi? When did we start growing so far apart?"

"Oh, let's see…" he starts, rolling his eyes, "somewhere around March 17, 2001. A year after my darling little brother killed my fucking mother. And no matter how long it is, what happens, or whatever, I'll never get over it. I loved Mom, and that little bastard Feliciano took her away from me."

I tilt my head to the side and say, softly, "Lovino—"

"Shut up, I'm not done talking yet. If Feli hadn't been born, Mom would still be alive today and I wouldn't be the freak at school with a brother complex, no mother, and a dad that's barely even around a majority of the time. It's Feli's fault that she died in childbirth, no one else's. Not the doctor's, not God's, not yours, not mine—only Feli's."

"Look, I understand—"

He scowls. "Still not done, asshole. Ever since that little fuckwad was born, I've been nearly neglected by you. It's always, 'Feli, you're so smart!' or, 'Great job, Feliciano!' But do I ever get any recognition? Hell no. For the last eleven years, all I ever wanted was to feel like I was still a part of this family, like I was still worth something…" His eyes glisten with tears and he furrows his eyebrows. "…like I was still loved. But I can't even get that, can I?"

Pushing his chair back, he stands and heads toward the front door, grabbing his coat off the couch as he does so. "Lovino, wait!" I plead, following him to the door as he slips on his sneakers and laces them up. "You're too young to be out there alone!"

"Oh, now you care?" he shoots back, catching me off-guard and flinging the door open. "For your information, I'm fourteen. And I won't be alone; I'm going to Toni's house. At least his parents care about me…" With that said, he leaves, slamming the door behind him as I'm left standing there, leaning my head on the door and muttering to myself about where I went wrong.

The shuffle of feet alerts me of Feliciano's presence behind me and I turn to see him clutching his stuffed cat and looking up at me. "Daddy," he says in a small voice, tears welling up in the corners of his eyes, "does Lovino really hate me 'cause I was born and Mommy died because of it?"

I kneel down to his level, petting his head for a moment before pulling him into a hug. "Of course not. He's just… at that stage where he's blaming everything he can on other people. He's your brother, and he loves you very much, but he's just been a bit emotional lately. He'll get over it. Now back to bed with you."

"'Kay. I love you, Daddy."

"…I love you, too. So much."

Author's Note: Having Romulus be Feli and Lovi's grandfather would've made him too old, so I made him their dad instead, making him about 38-42 years old. I tried translating Romano's canon feelings of uselessness into my AU, so I hope I didn't fail too badly. ;)

Next chapter marks Natalis' first "official" day, along with some more Alfred, family dynamics with Romulus and the Vargas boys, and finally meeting Alfred's father. Yekaterina may or may not make her appearance, but I'm weighing more on the side of "may."

Hasta luego~!