The next morning, Yao was harshly woken by what sounded like a buzzsaw drilling into his head. The first thing he realised, with a small wave of relief, was that he was in his own bed. The next was that he was very, very hungover. The third thing Yao realised was that the buzzsaw was, in fact, his cell phone, and it had been ringing insistently for around five minutes now. Groaning huffily, he emerged from under a pile of pillows, reached for the offending phone, and squinted at it through bleary eyes. The words leapt off the screen: Incoming Call… IVAN. Yao was suddenly very wide awake. His chest fluttered, his stomach flipped, and he answered hurriedly. "Uh… hello?"

"Good morning, little Dragon!" That accent and cheery tone were unmistakable. After only one night, Yao was surprised by how intensely the mere sound of Ivan's voice affected him. His heart pounded and his breath stuttered… but he still felt his eyebrows draw together in confusion.

"Um… I don't remember adding your number to my phone."

"I took liberty of doing this last night when you were sleeping." Ivan sounded like he was about to laugh.

"You… oh." Yao dragged himself upright against the pillows. The room immediately spun around him. "Well, as long as that's the only liberty you took."

"I am sorry?"

Yao put his hand over the receiver, swore softly, then placed the phone back to his ear. "Nothing!"

"Silly Yao! I will be taking you out tomorrow afternoon."

Yao nearly fell out of bed. "Taking… wha… you will?" He felt something around his neck and pulled at it in confusion. The warm scent of leather and spice surrounded him - he'd fallen asleep in Ivan's scarf.

"Da, I will."

"Why? I mean… I have to work."

"No, you do not." Ivan's accent sounded even stronger on the phone. It sent strange, tingling shivers down Yao's spine. "I will pick you up at three."

"I… um… okay." The words were out before Yao was sure he meant to say them.

"I will see you then, Dragon!"

The line went dead. Yao sat still for a moment, holding the silent phone against his ear, unsure what he had just agreed to. Had he just been asked on a… a date? Not that 'asked' was really the right word for it. He'd basically just been ordered on a date. Yao wasn't quite sure how he felt about that. He drummed his fingers against the phone for a second, finally hung up, then realised that he hadn't given Ivan his address. He was just debating whether or not to ring the Russian back when his phone rang again. Incoming Call… ALFRED. Yao groaned. "Hello?"

"Yao!" Alfred shouted down the phone. "You gotta come downstairs now and cook me pancakes! Arthur tried but he's a shitty cook and he burnt them and…"

"You wanker!" Arthur yelled in the background. "Just see if I ever cook for you again!"

"Oh Lord, I pray for the day!" Alfred cried, followed by a loud bang and an incoherent scream.

Yao paused briefly. He was quite used to Alfred's demands for food, but he was a little concerned about seeing his friends this morning. He hadn't really known what to say to them last night. Alfred seemed to think Ivan was some sort of Russian spy, Francis was fixated on Yao's future chances of sleeping with the man, and Arthur had been too drunk to really participate in the conversation. But judging by the shrieks on the other end of the phone, Yao wasn't going to get any peace until he cooked his demanding friends their blasted breakfast. He sighed wearily. "I'm coming down now. Please stop shouting." He hung up again, noticing as he did that the time on his phone read nearly midday. Yao had to blink at the clock display a few times. He really must have drunk more than he thought… he never slept that long.

The night before was like a blur in his memory. Of course, certain things stood out more than others. Things like Ivan grasping his hand; touching his fingers with his tongue; kissing him on a balcony… Yao felt very warm as he kicked his clothes aside on his messy floor and headed for his small dresser. Its surface was covered in socks and comic books and cooking magazine clippings, while a Hello Kitty picture and a horoscope chart were taped to the little mirror. Yao inspected his reflection carefully. He wasn't too bad-looking, he supposed, apart from the dark circles - he had good skin, unusually changeable brown eyes, and he'd always been quite proud of his hair. But he still couldn't quite see what had made a man like Ivan call him beautiful. He certainly couldn't see anything extraordinary about himself. He felt confused about it all, a little embarrassed - and secretly, quietly, a bit thrilled.

Yao breathed out heavily, tried to ignore his pounding headache, and headed for the bathroom to get ready. His little apartment only really consisted of three rooms. It was on the second floor of a narrow three story converted townhouse, while the larger apartment on the ground floor belonged to Arthur and Alfred. Francis lived in the apartment on the top floor, and was not the easiest neighbour to deal with, what with him bringing home a steady stream of one nighters at ungodly hours and constantly having his two very loud, possibly insane best friends over. But he was also fun, loyal, and had secured Yao a great apprenticeship at the restaurant where he worked. Besides, the noise from Francis' place wasn't much worse than the alternating screaming arguments and screaming sex sounds that often drifted up from the apartment below.

Yao knocked on Arthur and Alfred's door, received no answer, and opened it hesitantly. He wasn't surprised by the scene he walked into. The kitchen walls were splattered with batter, the benches covered with dirty dishes. Arthur stood in the archway to the living room, throwing pancakes and verbal abuse at Alfred, who hid behind the kitchen island defending himself with a frying pan. Yao rolled his eyes. Just a regular day in the Kirkland-Jones residence.

"Morning, Yao!" Alfred grinned from behind his pan. He didn't seem too troubled by Arthur's tirade.

"Afternoon, more like." Yao fumbled to catch a flying pancake and inspected it closely. It had the consistency of a slightly soggy piece of wood. For politeness sake, he bit the corner cautiously. It tasted about the same. "I don't know what you're talking about, these pancakes are fine," he lied.

"Of course they're bloody fine!" Arthur shouted, his face twisted with rage. "You ungrateful little tosser!" He narrowly missed Alfred's head with the last pancake, then dropped the empty plate onto the bench. "Good morning, Yao." Yao just waved as Arthur turned and flopped onto the living room couch, his back to the kitchen and his face in a book. Yao snatched the frying pan from Alfred's hand, placed it on the stove, and got to work making pancake batter with the ingredients left on the bench.

Alfred immediately raced to Arthur and leant over the back of the couch. "Arthur, sweetheart, don't be mad. You know I love you, even if you can't cook."

"Sod off, I'm studying." But Arthur's voice didn't sound as angry as before.

Alfred laughed, ruffled Arthur's hair, then fell into a stool by the kitchen counter. He leant his chin on his hand and studied Yao for a moment as he worked. "You look like hell," he said finally.

Yao looked up and glared. "Thank you. I feel like hell. Now I remember why I don't drink."

Alfred scoffed loudly. "You need reminding? Between you passing out, Francis stripping off, and Arthur trying to fight anyone in a five mile radius, drinking with you guys is like an extreme sport."

Arthur flipped him off over the back of the couch. Yao just continued stirring the batter in silence. Silence would be best. Surely it wasn't a good idea to mention this date to Alfred. But after only a few seconds, Yao couldn't hold it in anymore. "Ivan called me this morning."

Alfred straightened up incredulously. "You gave that Russian your number?"

"No…" Yao paused his stirring. "No, I didn't." That was a little odd. But then, he'd probably just taken the number from Yao's phone… except that Yao didn't keep his number in his phone… "Huh." Yao shrugged. "Pass me the milk, will you?"

"I told you! He's a spy!" Alfred hurled the milk bottle across the counter. Yao barely managed to catch it. "You need to cut all contact immediately or before you know it you'll be defecting to the Soviet Union!"

Yao gritted his teeth. Yep – silence would have been best. "Ivan is not a spy. And there is no Soviet Union. This isn't the nineteen-fifties, Alfred."

Alfred did not look convinced. "What did he call you for, then?"

Yao looked back into the bowl of batter and tried to keep a stupid grin from his face. "To ask me out tomorrow."

Alfred's eyebrows shot up and Arthur twisted on the couch. They both spoke as one, their voices astonished. "You've got a date?"

Yao's grin fell immediately. Instead, he frowned huffily. "Don't sound so surprised. He's picking me up at three."

"I'd be very suspicious if I were you," said Arthur. "As Jean-Paul Sartre said, 'Three o'clock is either too late or too early for anything you want to do.'"

Yao ignored him and opened the cupboard to get the sugar. Why was he even cooking breakfast for these people?

Alfred snorted. "Yeah, well I think Jean-Paul must've been a pretty boring guy, because I can think of plenty of things to do at three o'clock. None of which involve going on a date with a Russian spy."

"He is not a spy!" Yao slammed the cupboard door loudly. Was it too much to ask for a bit of support? Yao had enough reasons to be nervous without his friends making it worse. Thankfully Arthur discreetly turned back to his book. Alfred, however, did not take the hint.

"Please tell me you didn't say yes." Alfred clenched his fists anxiously, his eyes wide.

Yao just shrugged. He added a little sugar to the bowl and stirred it in with more force than necessary.

Alfred closed his eyes, let out an exaggerated sigh, and flopped forward onto the counter. "You said yes," he groaned.

Yao took the opportunity to flick a bit of the batter into Alfred's hair. "Yes, Alfred, I said yes. Look, I like this guy. He's... nice. Besides, when was the last time someone asked me out?" Yao paused. "Wait, don't answer that."

Alfred lifted himself up and rested his chin on his hand. "Yao, be careful. Spy or not, this guy's gotta be a bit dodgy. I mean, he's a huge Russian who wears a trench coat!"

Yao tried to look insulted. There was a tiny part of himself which agreed that yes, Ivan did seem dangerous. But Yao's struggling sense of pride was doing a really good job of ignoring that part. "So your only problem here is Ivan's nationality, his size, and his dress sense? That is incredibly judgmental, Alfred. You are completely overreacting. Ivan is just a businessman."

Alfred looked horrified. "A middle-aged businessman, Yao? Next thing you know he'll be getting you to dress like a Japanese schoolgirl!"

Yao stared blankly for a few moments. "Alfred, I… don't even know if you're being racist anymore."

Alfred ignored him. "Did he say what business he was in?"

"I didn't ask," Yao lied. "But I suppose I can find out tomorrow, can't I?" Yao poured the batter into the hot frying pan. He'd given up asking himself why he was still cooking Alfred's breakfast.

"Fine," Alfred sighed resignedly. Then he leant forward and continued earnestly, "But if anything feels weird, you call me immediately, okay?"

Yao paused briefly. He supposed that, for all Alfred's ignorant offensiveness, he really was just trying to look out for Yao. It was slightly insulting, yet kind of sweet… in a sick sort of way.

"And I really can get you that can of mace, you know."

Yao clenched his fist around the frypan handle. But still insulting. "Okay, sure, and if that doesn't work I'll just hit him with my handbag," he replied sarcastically.

"Men carry mace!" Alfred cried indignantly. "It's totally manly! Arthur carried it all the time until he got banned after spraying his literature professor!"

Arthur snorted, turning a page of his book and muttering, "That'll teach him for calling a speech on embroidery in the time of Jane Austen 'tedious and uninspired.'"

Alfred put his hand to his forehead. "You're not exactly proving my point, sweetheart."

Yao shook his head in frustration. "Look, Alfred, you're the one who told me I should be less predictable and boring. Now you're getting all insane and irritating when I do just that. Ivan has been nothing but a perfect gentleman." Well, that was true, after all… "And may I also remind you that I am perfectly capable of looking after myself."

Alfred looked infuriatingly doubtful. "But…"

"Alfred!" Arthur snapped. "That's enough. Let Yao be happy about his date before he fucks it up."

Yao just sighed. In the end, he hadn't really expected his friends to react any other way.

.

That afternoon, like always, Yao managed to drag himself into work despite the hangover. Sure, he loved cooking, but sometimes Yao felt like he lived his entire life in the restaurant where he worked. Fusion was a few streets away from his apartment, in the busiest part of town; it was only small, but very popular, and incredibly busy. Yao knew that was because it served the best modern cuisine around, and had the best international chefs in the city. Yao hurried through the quiet front dining area, past deep red walls and stark black tables, waving half-heartedly at the wait staff as he went. Most barely acknowledged him, but Yao was used to that by now.

"Yao!" Francis cried cheerfully as Yao entered the small, sparkling-steel kitchen. He was the only other chef working at this time of day, and appeared to be dealing with about six meals at once. He placed a tray in the oven, tossed his hair from his forehead, and twisted his face distastefully. "Mon Dieu, you look like hell."

"So everyone keeps telling me," muttered Yao, throwing his bag in the corner and pulling on an apron. "It's called a hangover. I'll survive."

"What are you doing here anyway? I thought you had the day off."

A day off… what's that? "I'm filling in for Feliciano for a few hours. He's going to be late."

Francis scoffed and slammed the oven door shut. "You need to stop covering that lazy Italian's arse. Tell him to shove it next time."

Yao shrugged as he turned on the tap to wash his hands. "I don't mind." That wasn't entirely true. Although their first year apprentice spent most of his time slacking off, turning up late, and asking Yao to cover for him, Feliciano was also best friends with Yao's brother Kiku and almost like a brother himself. No one could stay mad at Feli for long.

Francis shook his head. "If that little slacker didn't make the best pasta in the city he would have been fired months ago." Yao scoffed at that. Francis doted on Feliciano worse than anyone. And besides, as long as Yao had known Feliciano there had been the implicit and unspoken knowledge that his Italian family were involved in dealings that were… less than legal. It guaranteed great protection for the restaurant, as well as the understanding that Feliciano was pretty much able to get away with anything he wanted.

"Actually, Francis, speaking of filling in…" Yao turned, leant back against the bench, and shot Francis his best pleading look. If anyone was going to be happy for him, it would be the perverted Frenchman.

"Hmm?" Francis barely noticed, absently reaching up to take a heavy mixing bowl from the cupboard.

Yao continued determinedly. He'd gotten this far, and he was going on this date with Ivan, no matter what it took. "I need you to cover my shift tomorrow."

That got Francis' attention. He swiftly spun around and stared at Yao warily. "Cover? Why?" Yao didn't blame Francis for being suspicious. Yao had never asked anyone to cover for him.

"Okay, don't make a big deal or anything, but…" Yao took a deep breath and braced himself for Francis' reaction. "I'm going somewhere with Ivan."

"The Russian?" Francis practically shrieked in excitement and immediately dropped the bowl on his foot. "Ah la vache!" he cried, hopping in pain. "I mean, Yao! That's fantastic! Good for you! Merde that hurt…"

Yao narrowed his eyes. Why is everyone so surprised by a simple date… Still, it was a better reaction than Alfred's. "I said don't make a big deal of it." He bent down to pick up the bowl.

"This is a big deal!" Francis was almost breathless, whether from excitement or pain Yao could not tell. He rubbed his foot as he continued. "The lucky Buddha I bought you must be working… this must be the first time you've ever made it to a second date!"

Yao promptly dropped the bowl again. This time Francis hopped out of the way.

"Oh mon cher, I didn't mean it like that..."

"So, you can work my shift?" Yao felt odd asking for the day off for no reason other than that he had a date. Maybe the little Buddha was working… he was certainly being more unpredictable than ever before.

Francis just seemed delighted. "Are you serious? This is the biggest occasion of the year! I will drag Feliciano in here by his ridiculous hair curl and make him work your shift. Oh Yao! A Russian! You are one lucky boy, non?" Francis winked. Yao just smiled politely and turned away. Francis really worried him sometimes.

The afternoon passed quickly enough, until before Yao knew it Feliciano was bouncing into the kitchen, grinning madly and carrying an enormous bunch of yellow sunflowers. "Buona sera!" he cried. "Yao you are soooo awesome! Thank you a million times for being the best big brother in the whole world! Don't tell Lovino I said that though, but it's true, because he's always cranky and nasty to Ludwig and he doesn't help me out at work like you do and hello Francis! Your hair is looking fabulous today! Did you try that new shampoo I told you about? Not that you need it your hair always looks fabulous and oh, Yao, these are for you." Feliciano thrust the bright flowers at Yao.

"Don't think you can get out of trouble with flattery, Feli," Francis muttered, even as he flicked his hair vainly.

"Oh, um, thanks Feliciano." Yao took the flowers bewilderedly. "A thank you present?" The little Italian's greetings always left him a little dazed.

"No, someone was dropping them off for you out front so I said I'd take them." Feliciano bounced to the cupboard to fetch his apron.

"Someone was dropping them off?" Yao's heart leapt to his throat. Could Ivan have delivered them? Could he still be here? "What did they look like?"

"Some little kid." Feliciano wrinkled his nose and giggled. "He looked far too young for you, Yao."

Ah. Yao felt a little disappointed – it must have been Raivis who delivered the flowers. He tried to appear indifferent. "Don't be absurd." Yao searched the flowers for a note, eventually finding one lost somewhere in the middle of the huge bunch. He practically tore it open, devouring the words as Francis and Feliciano both hung over his shoulders.

Dear Little Dragon,
I hope you are not too unwell feeling today. Russian wine is very strong! I enjoyed talking with you last night and I look forward to see you tomorrow afternoon.
Yours, Ivan. :)

Yao laughed at the little smiley face. How appropriate. He read the words over and over… look forward to see you tomorrow afternoon… Yao could not keep from smiling himself. That short sentence alone was enough to flood Yao's mind with images from last night - Ivan's unfathomable smile; his consuming presence. Yao's chest ached to see the strange Russian again, to experience that vivid intensity he had felt while with him.

"Ooh, Yao, what's going on? Do you have a date?" asked Feliciano in a singsong voice. "Is he cute?"

Francis placed a hand to his chest and sighed dramatically. "So cute, Feli. Your type, actually - big, tall, blonde..."

Feliciano clapped his hands together and actually squealed. Yao's chest felt like it was filling with air. This reaction he preferred. But suddenly his grin faded. He looked at the flowers, glanced towards the front door, then looked up at Francis with furrowed eyebrows. "But... how did Ivan find out where I work?"

Francis raised an eyebrow, but he didn't seem too concerned. "You didn't tell him?"

Yao tried to remember. The end of his conversation with Ivan was something of a blur. "I don't think so…" Okay, slightly weird... Yao shrugged off the uneasy feeling. He probably had mentioned it somewhere along the way. "Look, do me a favour. Please don't mention the flowers to Alfred."

Francis winced sympathetically. "Playing the hero again, is he?"

Yao rolled his eyes. "You have no idea."

Francis placed a finger to his lips. "Not a word." Then he snatched the note from Yao's hand and read it over again. "Little Dragon, hmm?"

Yao could feel his cheeks burning. "Uh… yeah. He seems to call me that."

Francis looked impressed. "This Russian may be quite serious about you, mon cher."

Feliciano nodded in agreement. "That's true, you know, because you only give flowers to someone you like, so he must like you, and he wrote you a note too, and yay, Yao!" Feliciano threw an arm around Yao's shoulder and squeezed far too tightly. "I can't believe you actually have a date!"

Yao's stomach turned in fluttering knots. He ignored the tiny worry in the back of his mind. Everyone he knew seemed amazed that he had a date. And yeah, okay, that was kind of amazing – but what was more amazing was that Yao was actually really, really excited about it. Yao just smiled superiorly at Feliciano and placed the sunflowers in a glass by the sink. "Believe it, Feli," he said simply. "I have a date."


To be continued…