Disclaimer: I own nothing you recognize.
A/N: Title from 'A King and A Queen' by Okkervil River.
Natalia usually loves it when her brother comes down from his college to visit for a weekend. They watch old cartoon movies together and talk about what neither one was willing to put into an email. And if she asks him very nicely, Natalia can sometimes convince Ivan to bring out his photos of their mother and tell her the stories behind them.
But when he strolls into her bedroom without knocking, only to find Natalia and Alfred perched on the little section of roof outside of her window, she wishes that Ivan was back at his university. This wish only grows more intense when Ivan, spotting the arm Alfred has tucked around her, starts muttering in Russian under his breath.
The events that follow take Natalia a few days to piece together, but are as follows. Alfred began to freak out immediately, because he'd never seen someone as large as Ivan move so quickly. Ivan apparently saw this as a threat to his sister's safety and proceeded to move even faster and go from muttering to shouting. At this point, Natalia tried to step back into her room, but slipped on the window ledge and proceeded to tumble off the roof, falling about ten feet to the ground below.
As soon as this happened, Ivan's yelling got worse. This was lost on Alfred, who decided the best plan of action was to jump off the roof after her. He, being a lucky idiot, landed in her bushes and was relatively unharmed. Natalia did not notice this right away, because her (then undiagnosed) broken wrist had put her into shock and she really couldn't do anything.
Natalia doesn't remember any of this or the ride to the emergency room, but both Alfred and Katya assure her it was very uncomfortable for everyone. Still, after the bone is set, drugs are being pumped into her system, and she's semi-capable of thought, the first thing she says to Ivan is, "He's not very good at first impressions."
When he sees her the following Monday morning, Alfred insists on being the first one to sign her cast. He draws a little heart next to his signature and Natalia will flush whenever she sees it for the eight weeks that she has to wear the cast. Alfred also insists on carrying her lunch tray and books, asking if her arm hurts every few minutes.
"You don't have to do all this," Natalia finally says after Alfred offers to turn the pages of a textbook for her.
"I'd be a bad boyfriend if I didn't! Besides, it's kinda my fault that we can't see each other after school for a while..."
He's staring at her cast with sad puppy eyes. All the attention is flattering, really, but Natalia hates that he thinks something like a broken wrist will stop her. She tells him so with furrowed brows. Their English teacher threatens with calls home if they don't stop talking.
Natalia adjusts herself then, pulling her book away from Alfred. A minute later, she glances over and sees that he's wilted completely: chin resting in his palm and shoulders hunched, his sad puppy look gets worse by the second. She bumps her knee gently into his. They stay like this and Alfred returns to his normal, glowing self.
After class, Alfred helps to pack her bag and walks her down to the back of the building. Shyly, he kisses Natalia as he leans against a brick wall. She's not entirely used to the feeling yet. When he pulls back, they're both the same shade of building. Alfred runs a hand nervously through his hair, making it look like tousled hay.
"Can I hug you? Or would that, uhm, mess up your arm and stuff?"
"You're stupid," Natalia says, wrapping her good arm around his neck.
Alfred is tall enough to rest his chin on her shoulder, so he does. They like this for a while and Natalia wonders if Alfred's heart is beating like hers, quick as a rabbit's. She imagines hugging him throughout the rest of her life, at their wedding or as old people. A bell rings above them then and they spring apart.
"Shoot! I'm going to be late for practice," Alfred says, picking up his all but forgotten duffle bag from the grass. "Text me tonight if you can?"
Natalia nods mutely, body warm with the phantom touch of his arms and mind still filled with visions of herself in a white dress. When Alfred grins broadly at her, it's as dazzling as a meteor shower. Unexpectedly, he leans in and kisses her on the forehead.
"Awesome. Make sure to have a safe walk home. I don't know what I'd do if anything happened to you."
Something in the way Alfred says it makes it so Natalia believes him completely. Never mind that the walk from the school to her house is only ten minutes. Never mind that she's smart enough not to talk to random creeps on the street. Never mind the fact that he's seen her do all kinds of body checks at hockey. Never mind all of that, because he doesn't know what he'd do if anything happened to her.
Natalia just has to stare at Alfred for a little bit, if only to convince herself that this golden boy hero is real. For reasons she can't even begin to fathom, he stares right back at her. If she was more of a poet, Natalia might have written in her journal that Alfred's eyes were like oceans that she was more than willing to drown in. Instead, all she could do was think with dazed happiness, 'he likes me'.
Another bell rings and Alfred swears, and then apologizes for it. "I'm really late now. I'm sorry to ditch, but I'll talk to you later."
She leans up to kiss him before murmuring 'bye' and hurrying away. Natalia wants to turn back to see his reaction, but is unwillingly to make him any later for practice. As she walks home, Natalia thinks in Russian.
It's something that she does less and less the more years she spends speaking in English and these thoughts are fragile things. She remembers the kiss, thinking about how she will describe it in her journal, and then imagines how the word 'love' would sound tumbling form Alfred's mouth.
Natalia whispers the word, as if it's a secret. She says it to the sidewalk and the birds chirping in the trees. She switches between Russian and English, любовьand love, in an endless loop in time with her steps.
A warm sensation fills her chest, because the word is light and sweet in her mouth, like a dessert. When she gets home, Katya asks what she's smiling about. Natalia flushes and says, "School was wonderful today."
Natalia's family used to move around a lot. Katya dealt with it by making tons of friends, Ivan made next to none, and Natalia herself was only old enough to remember two of the moves. The worst was the last one, which happened when she was six and meant she had to leave her best friend in the world behind.
His name is Toris and he asked her to marry him one day in first grade, sealing their friendship in an instant. It is nearly midnight when she sends him a text to get online, but when she logs onto her instant messenger, the light next to his screen name is shining brightly. Immediately, Toris wants to know what's wrong and Natalia can picture the worried look on his face, some 100 miles away.
With anyone else in the world, Natalia is sure she'd be embarrassingly shy, but the combination that this is Toris (who understands and forgives anything) and the late time allows her to be blunt. She asks him what it's like to be in love.
There is a painful three minute stretch of time in which the instant messenger informs Natalia that Toris is typing and she suddenly begins to panic, because what is she doing asking him (or anyone!) about this, because she's still in high school and falling in love in high school is something that happens to other girls, but never her and-
And Toris' reply is short for all the time it took him: 'It's something unique to only you, but you'll know it when it happens'.
This piece of advice is completely useless, but Natalia doesn't have the heart to tell him that. Instead, she carefully steers the conversation away from herself and stays up much too late talking to Toris. By one-thirty, Natalia is back in bed, but that doesn't mean she gets any sleep.
Time goes by.
Ivan goes back to college, her arm itches like crazy under the cast, and Alfred continues to be a bouncing, bright constant in her life. Natalia writes about it all in her journal, just like she has ever since Katya got her one two summers ago. Once a week or so, Alfred will ask to read it and she'll clam up before claiming that her wrist hurts in order to distract him. (She's suspects Matt has caught onto this routine, but thankfully he doesn't say anything).
The idea of love isn't always on her mind anymore, but instead it pops up at random times, like when she's sitting bored in math class or right after she witnesses Alfred down a burger in two bites. Each time, the thought startles her out of whatever she's doing and makes her face get warm. If possible, she excuses herself then and goes somewhere quiet until she can concentrate on something else.
Other than Toris, she's only talked to one other person about this: her high school mentor. Feliciano can be annoying sometimes with the amount of squealing he does over her, but Natalia has found that he's quiet and mature when it comes to what he calls amore.
He also never offers any advice about being in love, which is nice, because that's not what she's looking for. Instead, Feliciano tells her about how wonderful it is that she's maybe found amore, even if Natalia isn't ready to tell Alfred yet. Then, he also mentions that she doesn't even need to tell Alfred now or even ever, if she doesn't feel like it.
"Have you ever been in love?" She asks, knees pulled up to her chest as they sit in outside corridor as part of their required monthly meetings.
Feliciano is smiling, just like he always is, and touches the chain of the necklace that he always wears. It's something he does a lot when they talk about dating and stuff, but Natalia has never bothered to ask him about it. It seems too private and suddenly the question does too, before he can answer she mumbles for him to forget it and buries her face in her arms.
Natalia can hear Feliciano giggle in a way that used to infuriate her, and then he pats one of her burning cheeks softly. His voice is kind, but still a little quiet when he says. "I have and am. I'm waiting for the other person to figure it out though."
She can't handle the lovesick look on his face then, because it makes her worry that maybe she looks like that sometimes. Natalia changes the subject to what Feliciano plans to do after he graduates in the spring and he may raise his eyebrows, but doesn't comment on it.
After a few days, she forgets most of the conversation as per usual of most of their mentor-mentee chats. Except whenever the idea of love shocks Natalia's brain the same way lightening might strike a high rise tower, so do the words 'I'm waiting for the other person to figure it out though'.
Natalia is at the public library, studying with Alfred and Matt for the history exam coming up. Or rather, she and Matt are studying separately while Alfred flips through the latest comics at an anxious pace. Every so often, Matt will tell him to get to work and Alfred will offer up a grin, but go back to the comics anyway. She has a feeling that this is a well-known routine for the pair, so she keeps her head down until Matt slams his book shut and stands.
With half the library staring at him now, Matt goes the same color as his sweatshirt (bright red) and ducks his head. "Sorry, about that. I need to head home now."
Natalia nods as a way of goodbye, but Alfred leaps to his feet and envelops Matt in a bear hug. She watches with an odd fascination as Alfred's supposed best friend punches him in the shoulder in order to be released before shaking his head.
"Remember to man up and do what we talked about." Matt orders.
Alfred throws up a salute and Matt mimics the gesture using only his middle finger. Natalia pretends that she doesn't see him, focusing on her book again. More sounds of rough housing are made, and then Matt actually leaves. Alfred slides into the seat next to her, grabs her hand, and asks, "So what are you doing on the twentieth?"
"Nothing. It's two weeks away."
Alfred squeezes her hand and suddenly seems to be bouncing with excitement. It makes her more than a little wary, because the last time Alfred tried to plan something so far in advance, it was the rooftop picnic that lead to her breaking her wrist. Spontaneity suited him much better, Natalia decided a while ago, but she's still listening to Alfred babble on about the school dance coming up.
While Katya always delighted in dressing up from dances in high school, Natalia has never been to one. Toris has asked her before, just as friends, but she always worried about what she would do during a slow song. But as Alfred looks at her with his best puppy dog eyes and begs her to come with him to something he keeps calling the 'Spring Fling', the girl smiles shyly and nods.
Alfred lets out a loud whoop and nearly gets them thrown out, but later says that it would have been worth it. As they pause outside her house, he presses a kiss to the top of her head and confides, "Anything will be worth it to dance even once with you."
And Natalia doesn't have the heart to tell him that she's a terrible dancer, so all she says is bye before heading back into her house. Once again, Katya asks why she's got such a big smile on today, knowing perfectly well who her younger sister was just with. Natalia shrugs and asks. "Can you take me shopping? Alfred asked me to a dance."
The overjoyed, squealing sobbing that Katya does after that could be heard in Kiev. (At least, that's what it seems like to Natalia).
Toris comes for a surprise visit the next weekend. When Natalia opens the door, expecting it to be Alfred and Matt for movies, she can't help but pull him into a bone-crushing hug. Naturally, Toris hugs back even as he makes weak protests about not being able to breathe, but by then she's laughing to hard to care.
"What in the world happened to your arm?" Toris asks upon being released, "You never told me about this?"
"That's my bad, man," says a guilty voice from the porch, "Alfred Jones, boyfriend, wrist breaker-"
"And idiot extraordinaire." Matt finishes, but Natalia barely hears him.
She's too busy feeling weird, because her boyfriend and her best friend had never even seen each other before. Now, Alfred is just doing his confused puppy look and Toris is smiling as if to say ah, this is why you talked about love. It's a very tempting thought to kick all of them out so she can hide in her room.
Except then Katya swoops in with snacks and insists that "all of her kiska's little friends are welcome" and Natalia finds herself crammed between Toris and Alfred on the sofa. She's reduced to glaring daggers at Matt, who is sniggering from the safety of an arm chair.
The movie is a scary one and therefore predictable, but at every bump, both Toris and Alfred jump and grab one of her hands. By the time the heroine runs to the safety of dawn, Natalia is pretty sure that she'll have bruises. As the credits roll, Alfred awkwardly wraps an arm around her and asks about the dance again.
This gets Toris all excited, because he's always wanted to go to a school dance, but was always too shy to go by himself. Alfred nods and says how this will be his first too and how he's set on making it "super duper awesome". Then the two are babbling back in forth, going on about what songs should be played and decorations and what color dress Natalia should wear. Pink is the consensus and the color of the girl's face when the two show no sign of stopping.
Katya returns with more snacks and invites the boys to stay for dinner. And Natalia can't even bury her face in her arms, because her cast gets in the way.
It's the last song of the dance and it's a slow one, making Alfred smile nervously before he asks her to dance. Natalia nods, wraps her arms around his neck, and presses her cheek to Alfred's collar bone. As always, he is warm to the touch and causes her heart to beat wildly as he puts his hands at her waist.
"I really like your dress," Alfred says, voice softer than she had ever heard it. "And I'm not sure why I just whispered that. Or why I'm whispering this."
"It's okay if you talk. I don't know the song."
And then, to Natalia's bewilderment, Alfred begins to sing along under his breath. He knows every word and hums along with the instrumental sections as they spin around the floor. She pulls back in order to watch him. His blue eyes shine bright, just like his smile, and Alfred even winks at her. It doesn't keep her from noticing how his face has gone more than a little pink below the dimmed lights. The idea that something she does has the ability to blush makes Natalia's own face red.
As the song reaches its final strains, Alfred dips her down low. It's a little scary because she wasn't expecting it and when Natalia is pulled back up, she feels a little breathless. Alfred just beams at her and a sudden warmth rushes over her, so Natalia can't help herself when she says, "Alfred, I love you."
For one terrifying moment, everything seems to freeze around them. Natalia feels suddenly foolish and tries to bolt, but the moment she's about to make her escape; Alfred pulls her into a tight hug. He's laughing and she's not sure what at, but Natalia is pretty sure it's at her and she feels the slow burn of shame in her stomach and tears at her eyes.
Yanking herself out of the hug, she snarls at him. "Shut up, Alfred."
It works, because he stops laughing immediately, but his eyes are filled with hurt. Natalia tries not to look at him, because the idea of him hurting makes her ache too, which is stupid but something she can't deny. Alfred reaches out and wraps a hand around her wrist.
"Hey, why are you mad?"
"Because I'm stupid and you think it's funny."
There's no doubt that she's crying now. Twin streaks run down her cheeks and Natalia is infuriated by them, because the last thing she wants to do right now is cry in front of Alfred. His eyebrows are knitting together and he tips his head to one side like a confused puppy.
"You're the smartest girl I know. Honest."
Natalia steels herself, not to be swayed by the sweetness in his voice. She stares dutifully at her shoes, because if she concentrates hard enough, maybe Alfred will take the hint and leave. It doesn't work though, because Alfred just stays put until halfway into the next song before sighing.
"I really wish you'd stop crying, because I don't know what I did, but I hate seeing you cry. Because you were crying the night I broke your wrist and that was the worst feeling in the world. Uhm, but I'm not trying to say that breaking your wrist doesn't hurt, except I really wouldn't know, but it sure seems like it does and-"
"Alfred!" Natalia snaps, "Shut up."
Obediently, he stops babbling and even lets go of her wrist. Natalia is considering running again, but this time there's Alfred's hand on her chin, gently forcing her to look him in the eye. Under his gaze, she goes pink and it only gets worse when Alfred bends down and kisses her on the nose.
"Do you know what I thought when you destroyed my foot at the beginning of the year?"
Natalia shakes her head and Alfred smiles broadly, a grin that takes over his mouth and goes all the way up to his eyes. It's so contagious that the girl can't help but let her own mouth turn up at the corners. She also realizes that she's stopped crying, but Alfred still brushes a stray tear away with his thumb.
"The first thing I thought was ow, I won't lie. But what I thought right after that was, oh my goodness, I think I'm in love with that girl. And you can ask Matt or Arthur or anyone in the world and they'll vouch for me."
And for the second time in five minutes, Natalia feels more than a little foolish. This time, however, the feeling is overwhelmed by a sense of relief and absolute giddiness, because he said it back. And Alfred is still grinning down at her and the whole thing is completely unreal. So, she goes for the movie finish and throws both arms around him, pulling Alfred in for a kiss.