The Hargreeves family arrive in Moscow on a gray January afternoon with the usual fanfare. The children file silently after their father into the luxury hotel in numerical order, with the exception of Vanya, who is quietly herded through the rear entrance and into the elevator by Pogo. Ever the drab little black sheep, she is separated from the rest of her flock, who are shooed out in front of a line of paparazzo to be photographed in preparation for their appearance at a prominent oligarch’s Old New Year gala.
She barely has time to take in the pristine gleam of the upscale hotel’s marble floors, the red velvet couches, a glimpse of the two-story-high Christmas tree that reminds her of the one Dad would put up in December whenever he knew reporters would be coming to the mansion, but maybe it’s better that way. If she’d had time to process it, then she’d certainly spend an hour standing slack-jawed in the center of the lobby. She’s never been in a place this nice before, is afraid she might break something, that someone might realize that such a mousy little thing does not belong where anyone important could see her and will haul her out to drop her onto the curb like a stray cat.
For once, Vanya is truly grateful to be forgotten about and shuttered away, as Pogo settles the both of them quickly in their shared room. She hops up onto her bed, which, she notes, is twice the size of the flat mattress she has back in her room at the mansion, and several times as fluffy, and listens to him as he putters about the attractive room, unpacking, laying out his evening suit and arranging her medication on the bedside table. Being eight hours ahead in Moscow is making all of them a bit strange, and Vanya can’t quite remember if Pogo advised her to take one more, or one less than usual. She decides on one less, and turns the bottle away.
He spends only a few minutes with her, reviewing the parameters of acceptable behavior for this outing: She may order room service, but not use the phone for any other reason. She’s to watch the television, softly, or read the copy of The Idiot that she packed into her suitcase. She may not leave the room after the family has left for the gala. She may not attend the pool, or the spa, or the restaurant or the gym, even if she does not let on who she is. She most certainly may not leave the hotel.
Once Pogo is satisfied that she knows the rules, which she has no trouble in convincing him, as he has always trusted her, he hobbles out to greet the rest of her family as they come crashing down the hallway to see their rooms.
The bright shine of the Academy has faded in the years since her brothers and sister debuted, nights without sleep and days of monotonous training and makeup artists and press events will do that to you. She watched the spark of excitement fade from everyone’s eyes: Five first, then Ben, then Klaus, then Diego and Allison. Even Luther has been starting to drag his feet just a bit since he’d returned from his historic trip to space.
But for a moment, the magic is back. This mission they’re on is not one in which they will dodge bullets or diffuse hostage situations, but one of, as her father put it at dinner last week, ‘diplomacy.’ Her brothers and sister will be tasked with smiling, nodding, shaking hands, maintaining their table manners, and parroting a series of preapproved phrases they had been drilled on for the past week at the gala. In return, they get to eat whatever they want at the celebration, and are each being supplied with their own room at the best hotel in the city. A fair trade, even the most disagreeable of her siblings had decided.
She listens to the sound of her family filling the hall: her siblings squabbling over whose room is whose, the squeaking of Klaus and Diego jumping on their beds, the clacking of Allison’s personal makeup kit as she digs furiously for the right shade of red lipstick for a holiday party where she will be asked to flirt with men several times her age, her father’s voice booming down the hall from his suite as he directs Pogo on what he’s to wear when he greets the oligarch he intends to rub shoulders with, the bright chatter of Ben and Luther clinging to a window and pointing at the multicolored onion domes of St. Basil’s Cathedral, and wondering if they behave themselves tonight, they’ll be able to visit it tomorrow. The familiar squawk of her favorite’s voice, “What do you mean they all have a coffee machine!?”
She watches her siblings scurry from one room to the next, and nods dispassionately as Allison pokes her head into Vanya’s room, scrutinizes it with disdain, and smugly tuts “Oh, you’re sharing with Pogo, huh?” before promptly vanishing to inform their brothers.
Five finds her soon after that, popping in not through a rift in space-time, but from around the doorframe. His head pokes through, curious as a cat’s, the smooth brown sweep of his hair flopping aside. She feels her chest warm at the sight of him, immediately leans forward on the bed. He looks at her strangely, like he can’t quite believe she’s here with them and not hidden away in some remote corner of the mansion where all the windows face the courtyard. Five moves to step over the threshold as he moves to speak, ready to begin a verbal fencing match, the sort of sparring that he reserves for her alone.
She can even guess at what he’ll say, watches his gaze flit to the copy of The Idiot poking out of her suitcase, drawing his invisible sword as his mouth begins to shape the words: That about Luther?
And she has her parry ready: It’s about me, actually.
Then, from down the hall: their father, calling his dogs to heel.
Five grimaces, and Vanya brings her hand up to her mouth, catching a laugh before it can leave. He shrugs in exaggerated apology at her, then lopes off the way he came. Before he goes, she calls after him, asking that he shut the door so she won’t be bothered by the noise of the others, and he obliges.
Another day, she might have seethed at the thought that her brother’s attention could be swayed from her so quickly, might have wanted to leap to her feet and race after him, sinking her nails into his arms and demanding that he stay, as she had years ago when he’d raced out of the house determined to prove a useless point to their father.
However, today is special. Today, she swallows the guilt gnawing at her gut with freezing cold teeth, at not saying goodbye to him. Today, she wills herself to be once again grateful to be forgotten, because that is what her plan is contingent on.
See, Vanya, unlike the rest of her siblings, is ordinary. And ordinary people are from somewhere.
She’d determined this long ago, one warm summer afternoon when they’d been ten. This was before Five had taken any interest in her, before she’d taken up the violin, before the Academy had gone public, when she’d had little to do but wander the house like an unwanted ghost, sit in the shadowed corner of a room or hover in the doorway and wait to be invited in.
On this day, she’d been seated on the floor of the second floor walkway above the parlor, her thin pale legs small enough to fit between the bars of the banister and swing in empty space, but too short to properly kick at the portrait of their father, looming over the room. Luther and Ben had been below her, quietly discussing their birth mothers as they constructed a model plane for Luther’s room under the portrait’s watchful eye. The conversation had been short and stifled, as Luther had insisted that it would be disloyal to continue it, imagine if he heard us talking about them , but it had changed everything for Vanya.
She had truly realized for the first time, that there had been a life before her father, before her siblings, before the mansion and its maze of dim, mahogany-lined halls full of vacant bedrooms intended for more brothers and sisters who had never come. That another place remembered her, and might miss her.
Suddenly, it seemed, a great velvet curtain that had been covering a window she’d never seen before had been torn down, and a shaft of brilliant sunlight had shown the way to an entire new family that might want her.
She became obsessed.
In those days, before she’d occupied her time with sawing away at Bach and Beethoven, before she’d had anyone to speak to, she’d wander the dozens of halls and imagine a family that was unlike her own. One where everyone was bound together by bloodline rather than the common experience of having been sold, where they had the same hair and eyes and face, where they do imaginable things like speaking at mealtimes and going on trips together. Vanya has not dreamed since she was four or five, and doesn’t remember any of them from that time, only a vague awareness that she could , and that many of them had been awful . Her medicine takes care of that now for her, dropping her into a deep, dreamless sleep. If she could dream though, she’s certain they would’ve all been about her mother, and the family she would most certainly have.
Vanya would help Mom finish polishing Dad’s trophy case, and then stand with her hands folded behind her back, so as not to smudge it by mistake, and then stared deeply into her reflection, trying to imagine it at thirty or forty or fifty, as someone else’s face looking back at her.
Years had passed, and her interest settled and quieted, as children’s fixations often do as newer, shinier ones arrive. She felt less inclined to babble to her disinterested brothers about the secret family she had waiting for her in Russia, and became more protective of them-- they were a secret after all, and once she’d become a teenager and learned the value of secrets, she begun hiding the secret of her other family, and privately devoted herself to keeping its flame from blinking out.
When she’d been a few days from turning fifteen, and she’d learned from Five, who had learned from Ben, who had learned from Klaus, who had learned from Diego, how to trick the cameras in the hall, she’d known immediately what she wanted to use it for. It’d been the secret of how the seven of them had been able to steal away together, to eat doughnuts at midnight a block away, and once Five had learned it, he dutifully shared it with Vanya, as was one of the unspoken terms of their arrangement. He quite liked showing her interesting things, was always bringing them to her like a housecat presents its kills to its master: a discarded earring he’d plucked off the ground during a mission in Paris, a spider that had taken up residence in the corner of his wardrobe, a cookie he’d had the foresight to steal for her from the kitchen before the rest had been taken by her brothers.
Tricks were no exception, and Five, caught in a tie with Klaus for the honor of being the house’s most prolific prankster, an infamous duel that had ended when both parties mutually lost interest in teepeeing the foyer in favor of other pursuits, was full of them. And she, as his favorite student, was a quick learner.
She watched him show her which tapes corresponded to which hallway, how to swap them out so an hour of secrecy could be gained in whichever part of the house one pleased, and that night, she had replicated it with great success. She had gone about the complicated process of switching the tapes in her bedroom, the halls she had navigated, the surveillance room, and most importantly, her father’s study.
Another trick Five had taught her, the lockpick, also came in handy, and though she was not particularly skilled at it, as she is not particularly skilled at anything, she was an observant student, and she is a patient worker. It was not long before she had found her way inside, and had pried open each drawer of his desk, rifling through it quickly, hurriedly browsing its contents by the dull silver glow of the moon until, at last, she had discovered the folders containing the information about their birth mothers.
She’d skipped the first six, didn’t feel right reading them. Let the others put themselves at risk if they want their truths; only hers mattered that night. Vanya had found hers at the bottom, ringed with tea mug stains, and hurriedly copied the information down on the back of one of her music sheets, before replacing it, plucking the locks back into place, and returning to bed.
Just to be safe, Vanya memorized the information, of which there was hardly any. There was no birth certificate, only a single document, written in English, that had been, for all intents and purposes, a document displaying proof of sale. She is certain that none of it is legal, and knows now as she knew then that it did not matter.
My mother was sixteen at my birth, Vanya would recite in her head, over and over as she balanced on the banister above the dining hall, or plucked at her violin strings, or pretended to read her French book. Her name is Tatiana Mikhailovna Belinskaya, which means that my grandfather is named Mikhail Belinsky, which means that I have a grandfather and a last name that isn’t Hargreeves. She had me at exactly noon, on the floor of a public swimming pool in Moscow, where she lives with her family in an apartment at...
She’d recite it again and again, write it over and over until her hand seized, as though she were being punished for daring to imagine herself outside of her family’s shadow. And she always kept the little piece of paper with her, folded up beneath her uniform, tucked into her shoe or her skirt or her bra. She dreamed up plans, of someday, when she was free of her father, hopping onto a plane and making a pilgrimage to Moscow, to meet her.
As it turned out, she didn’t have to wait much longer.
When her father had first broken the news that he, her siblings and Pogo were to travel to Moscow for a weekend mission, she’d decided at once that she simply had to come along. This was her chance .
She thought, quite seriously, about the merits of dropping to her knees before him, perhaps prostrating, possibly at mealtime, possibly in the doorway of his study, and begging for the honor of coming along. Had her father not hated weakness more than he loved being worshipped, she was sure it would have worked. Instead, she settled for begging Pogo, who she had always suspected had a soft spot for her, and it had worked.
I’m from here, she thinks now, staring out the window at the snow-streaked Moscow skyline, and the thought is so bright, so magical, so wondrous, that she might burst into tears here and now. She, Vanya Hargreeves, least favorite child of Sir Reginald Hargreeves, is from somewhere. And not only is she from somewhere, but she is in that very place, at this very moment. Stretched out below her, bright and sparkling despite the gray of the sky, is the city of her birth, of her mother and a family she doesn’t know at all.
A family who will know me soon, she thinks, carefully folding her hand over her side. There, tucked beneath her shirt and into the waistband of her skirt, is that paper, with that path all sketched out and waiting. All that remains is to go and find them.
She can’t wait.
Five fucking hates it here.
Even the novelty of getting access to a television, or a mini-fridge packed with soft drinks, or his own bathroom, even an attempt to curry good favor as shameless as having a room containing his own coffee machine , isn’t enough.
… Well, he enjoyed a few cups of coffee, it is right there after all, and may as well be used.
He hates it here. He hates why they’re here, that a night of total privacy is so invigorating to them, and not a given. That it's being used to trick the six of them into being on their best behavior tonight. He hates that he’s going to be primped and prodded by Allison, until all the scars and dark circles and bruises that haven't healed up yet are disappeared, because God forbid the cameras see. He hates that they'll all then taken somewhere to be gawked at like a zoo animal by the closest thing Dad has to a friend, some toadish creature richer than God with pockets lined with blood money.
He sighs, leaning in the doorway of Allison’s room, crowded with everyone but Vanya, all gathered to watch her torture Diego.
If Diego is to be believed-- which, of course, he isn't-- she is drilling a hole through his molars. He’s gripping the arms of the chair so tightly that, even though he doesn't possess Luther's strength, Five is certain he will splinter them, and the look in his eyes is one of pure burning fury. He despises having his makeup done, would definitely be more belligerent had Allison not rumored him to stay perfectly still and silent until she’s done with him.
If he’s going to think of it like a surgical procedure, then he’d probably do better with Klaus holding his hand, Five thinks wryly. Not that Diego would let him, not where the rest of the family can see them. Not that he does a good job of hiding it.
And besides, Diego’s favorite has turned traitor, and is holding Allison’s makeup brushes, commenting on where she should layer more foundation to cover an unfortunate breakout: “--No, more over here, by the bridge of his-- yes, yes, you’ve got it.”
Beyond him, lounging on Allison’s bed, is Luther, the only one of his brothers to be suited and masked already. Five won’t put that damn thing on until the last second, hates how it rides up his ass, but Luther doesn't seem to mind; he’s already groomed and waiting for a pat from Dad, like the good dog he is.
Five keeps glancing out the doorway, down towards Vanya's room. He keeps expecting to see her head peeking out uncertainly, hoping to be invited in, or at least to catch his eye and trade a grimace at what Allison's doing. Oddly, the door stays closed. Maybe she's just upset that she doesn't get to come to the gala, Five supposes, staring at it. Of course, Dad lets her come along, only to leave her behind again.
Eventually, he returns his attention to Allison's impromptu makeup station, feeling like he's still missing something obvious.
They’re going in mostly-numerical order, as they always do: Luther’s done, Diego’s in progress, then will come Klaus, then him, then Ben, who's dozing on a nearby couch. Allison, as the only true expert on makeup in the group, was permitted to finish herself off first, so she could attend to the rest of them. Her lips are a deep purple, she’d gone to the trouble of having Grace do her hair in tree braids hours before stepping onto the plane, and her suit’s zipped uncomfortably low, in his opinion, for a fifteen-year-old, but he isn’t surprised. She’s taking as much as she can from this opportunity, trying to look more adult for the adults. Posturing, or something like it.
Somewhere deep in the foggiest of his memories, when they’d been hardly more than toddlers, and their training had only just begun and had mostly centered around the subject of How Not To Kill Yourself With Your Powers, he recalls having once been quite fond of Allison. The two had been the chattiest of the young siblings, and preferred sitting and babbling at each other to smashing block towers, as Ben and Luther and Klaus had once done. She might’ve even been his first kiss, which strikes him as incredibly strange, almost laughable to imagine trying now.
He’d had no interest in Vanya at that age, hardly spoke to her at all. She’d been with Diego, back then.
Funny, that, looking at him now. He can’t picture the two of them together at all . Now, Diego only interacts with Vanya to hiss insults at her, or, if he’s having an especially bad day, to knock her into the nearest wall. Right, because Dad’s going to suddenly love you, if you keep kicking the lowest end of the totem pole, huh?
Diego doesn’t spar, doesn’t fence. He boxes, or he throws his knives. A different principle, a blunt one, one about hitting and hitting and hitting , or cutting and cutting and cutting , not pushing and pulling, thrust and parry, attack and defend. There’s no patience to it, no delicacy, no respect for the game of it. He and Vanya wouldn’t last a day now , Five thinks confidently, a little smug.
Five had first taught Vanya about fencing when they were twelve, determined to make Reginald’s exhausting seminar on his time as an Olympic fencer worth the pain and suffering of being whacked by a whippy metal stick until his ass turned purple by his elderly father, in an especially scarring white onesie that revealed nothing and somehow everything at the same time.
She’d taken to the principle immediately, repurposing his lessons as a way of keeping their conversations lasting and lasting and lasting . He remembers the early days of their friendship, the warm surprise he’d felt at how rewarding it was, to throw an idea into the air, and watch her catch it, and then return another that compliments it. And that’s why he likes her: unlike everyone else, with the occasional exception of Ben, she’s interesting. He and Vanya can talk for hours on end, and he won’t be bored of her; he even feels a horrible cold pit in his stomach, thinking about how in the early days of their closeness he’d once been so determined to make her prove he’d never tire of her, now that it’s so clear he never will. They can even not speak aloud to one another for a week, spend ten minutes alone together in ten days, and they’ll understand each other perfectly. This sets them apart from the others: they are comfortable letting the uncertainty of their arrangement work itself out, growing as they do.
Ben and Klaus, or Klaus and Diego, or perhaps all three, I’ll have to ask Vanya about that… well. Vanya has told him that she doesn’t think they even know it yet, haven’t drifted close enough yet to even tell. Give it time, he supposes. They’ll figure it out. It’ll just take something dramatic, a death, perhaps.
Allison and Luther, however, are much simpler. Less interesting, certainly, and far more obvious. They know exactly what they are to each other, stepped out of the shadow of ambiguity that he and Vanya are still lost in, into an arrangement that is very different from his and Vanya’s: They dance.
A part of him seethes with jealousy at the simplicity of their connection. There's no question as to what they are to each other; they've decided long ago, and are simply biding their time. However, a part of him bristles at the complete lack of subtlety, the constant bashing heads with Dad over being caught holding hands or sneaking kisses, the knowledge that the penalties would be much steeper had they not been Dad's golden children. As long as he and Vanya keep their game up, they'll keep their understanding protected from outside attack. It's something he can't risk losing, let alone--
“Will you hurry up, girl," Dad snaps, ripping Five out of his daze.
“Well, I’m sorry , but I can’t help it that Diego got pizzaface right before we had to go to a photocall,” she chirps back, and because she’s Allison, he lets her get away with it. “Eyebrow tweezer,” she commands, holding a manicured hand up and snapping her fingers irritably at Klaus. Diego’s pupils shrink, and there's a choked sound rumbling in the back of his throat.
Five groans, and plants his forehead in the doorframe.
Even if he didn’t have to endure a vicious bout of grooming, he still finds the nature of the event they’re attending to be disgusting. Time has tarnished the Academy; now its mission statement is laughable, and Five had long ago concluded that either their father has no idea what he intends for his children to do, or he does know, and is openly deceiving them.
If he were a few years younger, he’d probably take the opportunity to ask his father, in as public a space as possible, how exactly fluffing the ego of a man whose business is necessary in order to expand Hargreeves business interests into the Russian market, could possibly contribute to saving the world from a vaguely-defined apocalypse whose date always seems to be pushed back.
Now, he knows better. He’ll hold his tongue. That half hour on Saturdays he has to himself is too valuable to gamble these days. They’re all getting older, and Dad’s tightening his leash. And Five is learning, reluctantly, to pick which fights he wants to lose.
And besides, Vanya’s here. He’s glad she’s here, on a mission that won’t end in any of them getting maimed. The novelty of her presence has made this mess bearable to him. She hasn’t been allowed to tag along on a mission since they were thirteen, and he almost forgets what it was like to have her traveling with them, to be able to steal glances at her in the back of the car and pull faces at each other.
He’d been angry at first, that their father would deny him her and throw him into the company of these idiots -- well, Ben and these idiots, but, gun to his head, as much as he loves him, Ben’s simply not worth the agony of enduring the rest of them-- but slowly, once he’d realized what the Academy really was, and what would be expected of them on their missions, he came to think of it as a relief.
He can perfectly recall the first time it had really clicked for him: Three days after they’d turned fourteen, the six of them had been sent after a mad bomber, who’d rigged an entire building to explode. They’d walked right into his trap, an entire floor coming crashing down on top of them, with only Luther’s extraordinary strength saving them from being crushed to a pulp. Five had been worked to his limit, jumping each of his siblings out one by one, and he’d stumbled back into the mansion covered in dust, sticky with sweat, hollow-eyed and with dark spots flashing in his vision. While everyone else swarmed Grace in the infirmary, he’d gone and found Vanya, dozing on a chaise in the library. He remembers her mouth dropping open at the sight of him, the way her arms had opened and he’d crawled weakly into her lap, letting her pick rubble out of his hair. He’d listened to Vanya's distressed voice-- she could have helped, she’s small, she could have crawled through the debris to them, she should’ve been there-- and he had thought, thank God you weren’t.
He stopped pushing for Vanya to come along after that. He’s glad that there’s one less of them who’s being fed to the danger. She won’t be shot or stabbed or thrown from the top of a skyscraper. She won’t have to worry about facing murderers or traffickers, or the different, subtler kind of danger they’ll probably be facing tonight. They’ve mostly had to deal with it from grabby, overzealous fans, but this situation will be different. They’ll be at a fancy party, packed with adults who definitely don’t have their best intentions at heart. If nothing else, he’s heard Luther telling Ben he will be keeping Allison as close as he can and that he should do the same for Klaus, and for once, he doesn’t find that affection sappy. It’s a show of rare wisdom on Luther’s part, and he respects him for it.
Five will simply ask “how high” when told to jump, and then endure the event until he’s finally liberated. There are no cameras in these rooms, after all. He can whisper a plan in Vanya's ear, to wait in her bathroom for him, where Pogo won’t see her. And at midnight, when they’re finally free and turned loose to their respective rooms, he can jump himself there. The two of them can sit in the empty bathtub, with their legs hanging over the porcelain rim, whispering about how awful it was, how she’d have loved to go, how he’d have killed to stay. Maybe there’ll be some kind of fancy Russian candy he can shove in his pockets to offer her. Maybe they'll gently kick at each others' socked feet and pretend it doesn't mean anything.
“Done,” announces Allison, and Diego, free at last, launches out of the chair like a bat out of hell, striding over to skulk behind the bed, and try to protect what little dignity he has left, which, being Diego, is none.
Great, Five thinks, That’s me up after Klaus.
He decides to slip out of the room, pace a bit, maybe tell Vanya what he’s planning for them.
He strides down the hallway, dragging his feet in the expensive carpet, so plush he could probably sleep comfortably on it, swings Vanya’s door open and--
And she’s not here.
Her room is empty. Vanya’s room is empty. She is not on her bed, or behind it. The bathroom door is ajar, and she is not in it. Her book is here, and her bag. And she is not.
Five exhales sharply through his nose, makes an effort to remain casual as he checks each of the six other rooms their father had reserved, and she is in none of them.
He returns to her room, starts pacing like a tiger. His mind is running away from him-- Kidnappers? Mafia? Ransom note? Traffickers? Dr. Terminal? Dad?-- but he knows her. He remembers how she’d sat back and watched him go, asked him to close the door, when she always insists to leave hers open, so she might hear the conversation of the family, might imagine that they might someday invite her to join them. And he suddenly knows exactly what she’s doing, feeling his gut turn at the thought.
He’s thought about leaving before. Almost did it twice: once, at ten, when he’d first begun obsessing over jumping into the future, but lost his nerve. The second time, at thirteen, when he’d been even more sure that he could do it, and hadn’t cowered at all.
Vanya had stopped him then, springing up and chasing him out of the dining room. She’d screamed his name, snatching him by the wrist in the foyer and digging her nails into his skin until he started to bleed. He’d been livid with her at the time, nearly whipped around and slapped her, wouldn’t speak to her for a month.
But she’d been right in the end. The words she’d said to him that day, that she would not last in their house without him, that he couldn't leave her alone, that he has an obligation to her, and she to him, burrowed into his brain and uprooted his obsession with time travel, leaving him adrift. It had been then that the understanding between them, long gestating, had at last been born. Now that he was as listless as she, they could truly begin circling one another.
Funnily enough, Vanya had tried to run away before, if one could define sitting at a bus stop for a few hours before slinking home with your tail between your legs running away . Just a few months ago, she’d done it, but her nerves had won her over. He’d been waiting in the foyer when she’d returned, hadn’t bothered snarling at her. He’d known that she’d be back. She can't last in the house alone, what makes her think she'd be able to find her way outside of it on her own?
This time is different. He knows it because he knows her . And if there’s one thing he’s very good at, it’s putting two and two together. So, he takes the memory of being ten and listening to Vanya babble about her fairy tale birth family, and the oddness of her sudden inclusion on this mission, and he puts them together.
How dare you, he thinks, feeling the earth shift beneath his feet. The world is warping around him, like he's trapped in the inside of a funhouse mirror, and a freezing static burst of nervous energy erupts in his chest, filling him with restless, scattered energy, the need to run, to grab onto her as tight as he can.
The decision he makes is instant, the flexing of a well-conditioned muscle: He rushes to his room to snatch his coat off the bed, before gathering cosmic energy into his fists and willing himself out of the hotel, into the street below, where a group of businessmen exclaim at his sudden appearance.
When a blast of winter wind hits him, he finds himself laughing.
Now, he realizes, it’s his turn to chase after her.
I am... never going to be happy with how this chapter looks. Oh well?
Tourists stare at everything with buggy eyes, and Vanya is not a tourist, so she bites the tip of her tongue and refuses to let her eyes drift across the Red Square to the resplendent sights of the Kremlin, or the Cathedral, or the Bolshoi or, or, or...
Or, this page I am holding in my hands, that is telling me where I need to go.
She is native-born, from this city-- though, she thinks, maybe not this country exactly, since it was the Soviet Union when I came into it-- and she will not gawk at it, no matter how overwhelming it is. It is hers by birthright, it is carved into her bones and she knows it, she does , she just doesn’t remember it, just needs her mother to take her into her arms and awaken it all, like some repressed memory that will rise up into her mind and possess her and make her full.
Then, she will know everything about Moscow, not just the kitschy things on the brochure in the hotel room, which she definitely only browsed because she was waiting for everyone to file into Dad’s suite so she could leave, and not at all because she thought it looked neat. She will know the streets like she knows the halls of her house, able to walk them blindfolded and find any room. She will know its secret places as well as she knows all the blind spots the cameras can’t reach. She will be able to navigate it without clinging to a cheap piece of sheet music with an address chicken-scratched on the back in ballpoint pen, without her heart hammering in her chest, threatening to beat a hole through it and fly out and away.
She isn’t a stranger, even though she feels like one. She is Tatiana’s daughter, she is Vanya… Well. She and the rest of her litter were conceived by act of God’s twisted sense of humor and have no biological father, so she can't have a patronym, does she? She’ll have to ask about how to make a middle name out of her mother’s, if such a thing is done. Or, if she has a stepfather, she'll take his name. Reginald’s name will not be added to hers.
Vanya leaves the square, following the amateur map she’d scratched onto her sheet. She avoids talking to anyone, insecure about the woodenness of her language skills more than she is afraid that someone will alert her father that she is missing; he won’t notice, he hadn’t before. She had thought it important, to learn the route on her own. It would make Tatiana especially proud of her, she thought. So, Vanya had poured over atlases and map books shortly after their father had announced the Moscow trip and she had secured her place on it, determined the location of the most extravagant hotel in the city, where they would certainly be staying, as their father’s ego would allow for nothing less than the absolute best, and which would definitely be near the most famous tourist attraction in the city, the Red Square. Once that had been decided upon, she found the street her mother’s apartment was on, and, after tricking the cameras, she had the route traced as perfectly as she was able, the list of streets memorized.
It’s going to be a long walk to the eastern districts of the city, and Vanya, who isn’t used to exercise at all, is already feeling her thighs start to burn. But she resolves to get past it. Walking will keep her warm, even if it isn’t particularly cold out, for a Russian January, and she doesn’t have any money for a taxi or the metro. She’d left with only the paper to guide her, was too worried that daring to snatch money from Dad’s suite would result in the loss of her window of opportunity to leave unnoticed.
So. She’s walking. Great.
At least there’s a lot to look at. This is the part of the city that everyone goes to, with the shiny buildings and the horse statues and the kiosks. If anything, there’s too much to take in. Vanya was raised in a house where one could hear a pin drop a floor away, where light is dim and where she’d only had to cross a street a handful of times in her entire life. She hadn’t left the house with her entire family since she was eleven, hadn’t stepped outside in months before this trip.
In the past fifteen minutes, she’s doubled that number, and finds it miserable. She doesn’t trust that she’ll be able to navigate them without being ground to paste by one of the hundreds of boxy little cars packed bumper to bumper, so she clings to passers-by, stepping into their shadows and following their cues.
Often, she has worried that it is too late for her to learn how to function outside of the house, that she’d been hidden inside for too long, and the window of time in which she was able to learn how to hail taxis and drive cars and ask for job applications and do things that functional people do had closed. She'd feared that the world had been waiting for her for only a moment, and she had missed it, and so it had gone on without her, leaving her trapped inside the mansion forever.
Everything is massive, and she is as alert and fearful as a rabbit, unsure of how to behave in a sea of people, adrift and swimming frantically along the currents she’s mapped out in ink on a page. It’s confusing, everything feeling so close, and yet so beyond her reach.
A line of Orthodox nuns in black flap by like a flock of strange birds, making Vanya nearly leap out of her skin, and she’s laughing for no reason at all at how odd they look, before she catches a vicious glare from a stern-looking woman that makes her shut up immediately.
Will my mother be stern, or my grandfather, she wonders for a moment, and then shakes her head immediately, to dislodge the thought. No. She will be wonderful. And if he is stern, she will stand up for me.
In the years since her discovery of her family, she’d dreamt up thousands of different versions of them. There was her mother, of course, and before she’d known her name, and that of her grandfather, the images would be wispier, more delicate, prone to vanishing as quickly as she’d dream them up. Then, they grew brighter, more colorful and substantive. She has a mother, named Tatiana and a grandfather named Mikhail, and the rest sprung forth from that, a kaleidoscope of potential families that whirled in her imagination. Sometimes she would have a kind, chubby grandmother, or aunts, or uncles, or aunts and uncles. Sometimes, she had cousins: one or two or twelve, boys or girls or both or neither, older or younger or her age exactly. Perhaps her mother would be married, and she would have little half-brothers and half-sisters, and a maybe even a generous and handsome stepfather with good bone structure and a sleek haircut who gives good hugs and doesn't care at all that she isn't his.
And sometimes, it was just her mother, as alone as Vanya is now, in a beautiful empty apartment, long after the rest of her family has left. She had stayed, in Vanya’s mind, because she was waiting patiently for her daughter to return to her. (She likes this idea the least. Her fantasies aren’t supposed to make her cry.)
Through a window, she can see an enormous tree. In Russia, her father had lectured them on the flight over, they celebrate Christmas all month, only tossing their trees well after New Year’s. Today, Old New Year, is the last of the festivities, a traditional celebration kept by the family.
And oh, wouldn’t it be perfect for this to be the night on which to return?
She pictures it now, shining and jewel-bright, just out of her reach: She arrives, pink-faced, with a swirl of snow at her back, Tatiana’s long-lost daughter, the one she’d given up in tears. There will be a moment of hesitation, then recognition , and Tatiana will open her arms to her baby. Vanya will throw herself into them, and find herself smothered by a dozen excitable family members, who all know her and cannot wait to love her. She isn’t exactly sure how Christmas or New Years works, having never celebrated them or any holiday before, but she will announce herself as a late present, and be swept into the resplendent home, where there will be an enormous bedroom all made up for her, kept cozy in the hopes that someday she would return to them. She will not be a princess, because ordinary girls are not princesses, but she will be loved like one, and by the night’s end they will be so enamored by her that they will beg her to stay forever, and she will agree and never, ever ...
Vanya pauses. Feels guilty.
No, she would come back. Not to stay, no, never to stay. Just to visit, to retrieve her violin and to invite her brothers, sister, Mom, Pogo and not Dad over to a party which will be thrown in her honor, so they may see her in her element, where she belongs, and see how she’s flourished. And they’ll have such a wonderful time that they’ll all look around and suddenly discover how well they’re getting on, and decide to never go back to the mansion at all.
Luther will give my baby cousins rides on his shoulders, she daydreams, Diego will be as sweet as he is with Mom, but with all of us, Allison will gasp at how beautiful I’ve become, Klaus will suddenly turn up his nose at all the alcohol he sees, Ben will smile brighter than he has in years, and Five---
Is following her.
Vanya almost trips over her own feet, but catches herself, turns it into a skip and hurries for a few strides. She casts her eyes to her sheet music, holds it up, peers out of the corner of her eye, and--
Yep. That’s him. That’s fucking Five.
Five is following her, has been following her, possibly for blocks. She simply has no idea when he’d started, and hates herself for not paying closer attention. Now that she sees him, she can’t ignore him. She spots him, across the street, watching her in the reflection of a department store, then his heel vanishing around the corner, then his sleek head popping out of the crowd, then a flash of blue near a street lamp. Even when she goes an entire block without catching a glimpse of him, she knows he’s nearby, probably on a roof somewhere. She’d been included in those first lessons on how to track an enemy, and remembers everything, including the stories he’s told her about his missions and what he’d do on them. What’s more, she knows him , that he is somewhere, circling her, like a bird of prey.
She isn’t displeased. Quite the opposite: she feels a strange, visceral sense of pleasure at his presence, warmly washing over her from her head to the tips of her toes. She is sincerely surprised to have attracted his attention, to have been deemed more important than her father’s gala and worth enduring punishment to pursue. She’d always been one to chase after him, had never considered he’d do the same for her. She feels no need to cry out to him, deciding instead to let him approach her when he’s ready, and pauses to gape at a gorgeous display of expensive books, wanting to draw it out a little longer.
When she was eleven, Vanya had consumed all the books in the family library about Russia. She’d been determined to learn as much about her country of origin as was possible, and there had been much that she had found. Her readings had conjured in her visions of bloody revolutions, Catherines and Ivans and Romanovs, Dostoevsky, vicious winters, enormous bejeweled palaces filled with resplendent parties, bears that fought in armies, witch huts that stood on stilts, every building in the cities having an onion dome... which, glancing around her now, she admits to herself might have been a bit of a flight of fancy. But that’s okay. Ordinary people have dreams, they just don’t come true.
Tatiana Mikhailovna Belinskaya is not a dream, she tells herself when a flicker of doubt begins gnawing at the back of her mind. Tatiana is real. Tatiana doesn’t have to come true, because she already is. She is real, and she was sixteen when she had me, and she is thirty-one now, and I have a grandfather named Mikhail Belinsky.
She distracts herself with thoughts of the things she’s read, and clings to them as she walks, uses them to prevent herself from glancing around for Five.
There are more billionaires in the city of Moscow than any other city in the world, which is why it does not shock me at all that this is one of the first places Dad chose to look for spontaneous children. He was multitasking.
She crosses a bridge, steps closer to the road, prefers the fear of being swept into traffic to that of being knocked over the railing and into the frigid polluted water.
Catherine the Great deposed her idiot husband, became Empress, and at first considered freeing the serfs from their enslavement, but eventually decided it wouldn’t be worth the trouble, and that she’d rather keep her crown, which is exactly what would happen to the Academy if Allison had any ambition at all.
She passes out of the Garden Ring. Her feet are blistering, she’s sure of it. She imagines she is leaving a trail of bloody footprints that Five is tracking her by.
Grigori Rasputin was fed cyanide, three glasses of poisoned wine, shot many times, including in the head, and ultimately drowned after he was dumped in a river. Diego likes to imagine that this is what it would take to kill him, but he’d drop the second the cyanide touched his mouth. Conversely, I imagine that Klaus would crawl out of the river, cough the bullet in his head out through his mouth, and then smile and say, “More, please, good sirs.”
She notices that there are far fewer tracksuits among the people than she thought there would be, and resolves not to listen to Klaus as much as she had on the plane ride over.
The Trans-Siberian railroad is over five thousand miles long, and is the longest in the world. Luther and Ben would love to recreate it in model form.
She avoids a pothole full of snow, the only snow she’s seen so far. The sky is flat and gray though, it should be on its way soon enough.
The most popular name for boys in Russia is Ivan, so if I have a half-brother, he is most likely to be named Ivan. She wonders if Ivan, if he exists, is anything like Five, and then dismisses the notion. No one is like Five.
Her name, now that she thinks about it, is technically Ivan as well. She remembers the oddness of this fact especially well: Vanya, she’d read, is the pet name version of Ivan, as Alli is what Luther calls Allison when he thinks no one can hear him. Tatiana will find that so funny, that I’m named Vanya , she thinks, and realizes suddenly that she might have a different one, one she’d been born with, a secret one, one that’d existed before she’d been Seven.
(I’ll hyphenate, she decides now.)
When asked by Mom about her sudden fixation with the country, she had simply replied, with an excuse she’d rehearsed days in advance, knowing her new interest would be noticed, “Why, my name’s Russian, isn’t it? You gave it to me for a reason, didn’t you? I would like to learn more about the country from which I came. Is that alright, Mom?”
Mom, who Vanya knows had in reality chosen the children’s names with a randomly-generated algorithm, smiled her empty porcelain smile, pinched Vanya’s cheeks, and replied flatly, “Why yes, dear.”
And Reginald, who had been observing the exchange through the cameras he’d installed inside of Mom’s glass eyes, had been angry enough at Vanya’s realization to send Luther to drag her from the dinner table and lock her in her room for a full day.
When his temper had cooled, he summoned her to his study, and proclaimed that he had decided she would add Russian to her coursework. Vanya had thanked him for his generosity and his excellence in understanding her interests.
Not long after that, he’d let her have the violin. Now, she recognizes it for what it truly was: a veiled encouragement to put aside her past.
Well, she’d certainly been oblivious as a preteen. Now, she’s fifteen, and much wiser.
Vanya had learned far more Russian than any of her brothers, who had learned basic conversational phrases like “Hello, it is a pleasure to speak with you, my name is...” and “Surrender at once before I am forced to use lethal force against you” and even Allison, who’d been drilled on a series of rumor commands in twenty languages.
The result had been mixed. Vanya isn’t good at much, though, so it was to be expected. She can read much better than she can write, and she stumbles over her words and speaks too formally, though she supposes that may just be down to the way she talks in general, so unaccustomed to it. The only thing that came to her easily was understanding the Russian that Mom spoke, fluent thanks to the programming.
Though, she realizes now, she hadn’t been taught anything colloquial.
For example, Vanya learns from a group of catcallers gathered at the edge of a park she passes through that popka means ass , and is so surprised that someone thinks she has one that she never registers the insult until she’s already half a block away.
Of course, that is when Five comes to her, ever the hero. He bursts out of the blue, catching her gently around the wrist. She leaps a foot into the air and groans in annoyance at her own flightiness, and he snorts, folding a possessive arm around her shoulders and glaring back at the men, who are paying them no attention.
“You idiot ,” he snarls in her ear, marching them away, and Vanya jerks back, as though she’s been slapped, digs her heels into the earth.
“How did you see me?” she asks, too dumbfounded by his bluntness, so odd, so unlike him, to do anything other than absorb his verbal blow. “How did you know-- ”
“Does it matter? I knew you’d try and run off. And I’m right.”
She almost asks how, but catches herself. She knows Five, and he knows her. Of course he’d catch on. She is an idiot.
He’s livid. She can sense the anger rolling off of him in waves, and she practically jogs to keep pace with him, two of her own steps needed to match one of his own. He’d shot up in the past year, and left her far behind him in height. Now she has to stand on her tiptoes to reach his shoulder. Normally, she quite likes how tall he is, but right now, it's really annoying her.
“You know what could’ve happened? You being alone out here? You know Russia’s full of mafiosos like them?”
Vanya rolls her eyes. “They were not mafiosos, Five,” she jabs, “They were a bunch of old men sitting on a bench. You’re talking like Luther.”
Five laughs. “Now that’s low.”
“And it’s true.”
“Alright, I’ll grant you that one,” he says, the corner of his mouth turning up, and for a while, they’re silent, content to walk together.
“You didn’t tell Dad I was gone?” she eventually asks, voice low, as if Dad’s hovering over their shoulders, listening.
“‘Course not.” Five replies, “I mean, I doubt he’ll even check to see if you’re still in the room when he leaves. If he knows you’re gone, trust me, it’s because he’s noticed I’m not there either, and he went to you looking for me.”
Vanya feels herself beginning to sag, feels stupid for letting herself be surprised at the idea that Dad would only ever look to her if Five were attached to her hip. She swallows the bitter taste in her mouth . That’s why I’m doing this. I have something that’s all my own, I just have to go find it.
“That’ll be real fun,” Five says caustically. He hasn’t noticed her deflation in mood at all, is too busy preening himself. “Imagine what color his face is going to turn when he sees I’m gone. Imagine the steam coming out of his ears. Imagine what he’ll have to say about it when we get back.”
Vanya smiles wanly at his last four words, not sure what to say. She feels a terrible sting of guilt, knowing she’s going to be the cause of a lot of grief for him when he returns.
But selfishly, she is glad that he’s here, that without a word, he's shown he'll be accompanying her on her journey. She finds herself wanting to thank him, for not telling anyone about what she’s doing, for being her shadow. For deciding to bear what will certainly be a terrible punishment, to be here with her, to guard her and help her find her way. The world's a big place, and a strange one, and she's always worried about being left behind by it, but Five won't allow it, so she'll be just fine.
I could even introduce him to them, she realizes, and something warms in her at the vision of all her favorite people, old and new, together.
She turns the words of gratitude over in her mouth, but swallows them. They aren’t necessary. They’ve surpassed the need to spell things out for each other a long time ago. This understanding they have is stronger than that. He already knows how she feels.
Instead she shows him, hopping up onto her toes to give him a quick kiss on the cheek.
She disentangles from him, jumping a few steps ahead, and pulls at the collar of her coat, buries her nose in it. If his face is that pink, she can only imagine what hers must look like.
They’re already out, already breaking the rules, already doomed to a horrific punishment, so Five figures, fuck it, they may as well enjoy the day. Make it worth their while, before they return. And they will have to return, much as the thought annoys him. He's found Vanya, retrieved her before she could fall into a gutter, or be swept away by kidnappers, and now she won't have to worry about becoming lost on her way back; he can bring her back unharmed, and, seeing as the damage has been done, they should at least make a day of it. After all, he's never gone anywhere alone with her before.
So they stop at a kiosk that’s still open at the edge of the park, and while they wait in line, he glances again at the ragged sheet of music she has clutched in her hands, wondering what's so interesting about it that has her constantly staring at it.
He’s distracted quickly. Her fingers are pink and raw, peeking out from her coat, and it’s been a strange day, full of reckless, dangerous choices that’ll get them hurt, so when the urge hits him to make another, he leaps headfirst into it.
Five reaches out, taking one of Vanya’s hands into his gloved ones, warming it slowly between them, before bringing it up to his mouth. He almost kisses it, as his lips brush against her knuckles for a moment, but he draws back, grins like a jackal; too far, too soon. That’s not the game they play. He keeps his eyes on her face as he breathes onto them, and tries not to smile too much at the sight of her, with her cheeks bright pink and her mouth parting.
Cute, he thinks dumbly, and because Five is a teenage boy, that look on her face alone is enough to send a shot of blood to his groin. He lets go of her hand quickly, finds an interesting tree to analyze for potential threats.
They avoid looking at each other for a while after that. If that space between them collapses too fast, they could end up doing something they both regret. And in the house they live in, Five can’t afford to lose his best ally yet, especially not now that he’s just retrieved her.
When their turn in line comes, he buys them a paper cone filled with something Vanya translates for him, called ponchiki. He deduces, with all the wide culinary experience of having been fed the same monthly rotation of meals by a robot mother for his entire life, that they are something like small, cheese-filled sugar-dusted doughnut holes. Vanya isn’t exactly enthused by his description, but it’s what he’ll go with, so he’s sure she’ll follow suit soon enough. They’re not Griddy’s, but they’re fine, he supposes. They get the job done, of shutting his whining stomach up.
Then, he sees the dusting of white sugar on Vanya’s lower lip, and… yeah. No. These are better than Griddy’s. These are great.
She’s puzzled by where he got the rubles from, when he pays the vendor, and he shrugs. “Dad’s room.”
“You stole it?”
“Oh,” she takes a bite, and chews it mechanically. “Well, that was smart of you.”
“It was,” he agrees pompously, and waits for her to glare at him. Instead, she keeps staring somewhere in the middle distance, and his tease goes ignored.
Silence settles over them as they walk, but it’s not the warm, comfortable silence that he recognizes from their moments together during free time, when their verbal duels would run their courses, and without any new things to talk about, with the need to let that distance between them breathe, they would simply sit in one another’s company. There, they would flip through books or scribble down notes, pausing to steal coy glances at each other, play a strange nameless game where they don’t let the other catch them looking. This silence is different. It fills him with a strange sense of anxiety that he can’t pin down.
“I can jump us, you know,” he says, to fill that space between them. “Just tell me where we’re going.”
“No you couldn’t. I won’t risk you getting us impaled in some wall, or caught in some sewer, because you’ve never been here before. And besides, I want to walk. It’s good for me.”
“Your legs will fall off before we get to where you’re going.”
“Well, then I’ll crawl. I’ll have arms bigger than Luther’s by the time I get there. Or, now that you’re here, you can carry me.”
Five snorts, watches the wind play with her hair. He gets the stupid urge to reach out and wind it around his fingers, but manages to stop himself before he extends a hand.
He can count on one hand the number of times she’d left the house after that night they’d all slipped out to Griddy’s together, the last night all seven of them had really been together, and liked each other. Being alone in the mansion too long can lead to the stirring of strange thoughts, and one of the recurring ones that kept following him was the idea that she might just disappear into the woodwork one day, vanishing into the belly of the house.
So seeing her this morning, curled up and reading her book on the private plane, squished in the back of the limousine that had taken them to the hotel, sitting on the hotel bed, removed from the house and still here had been deeply reassuring, in a way he’s not sure he’ll understand for a long time. It’d been a reminder that she can exist outside of it, that she isn’t a ghost bound to its foundation, that she might be able to leave it someday.
He gets that feeling again, now, watching her stare at that creased piece of paper in her hands, with what he’s determined is a map scratched onto it. Vanya is squinting studiously at it, and then at a road sign they’ve come to.
She nods to herself, rushing across the street so quickly that one of her shoes comes flying off in a clean arc that ends in its expensive leather toe whacking him in the abdomen before it drops into his hands. Vanya is so absorbed in her quest that she doesn’t even notice until she’s stepped onto the sidewalk. He snorts at the look of confusion on her face, at the funny way she wobbles like a flamingo on one foot as he jogs after her and returns it.
He isn’t used to Vanya being bold , or the way it stirs a warm feeling in his chest, like someone's opened an invisible door in his ribcage and let the sunlight flood into him. He finds that he likes it a lot.
They pass by what looks to be a high school, where a pack of teenage boys that Vanya refers to as gopniks, whatever that means, are gathered in the parking lot, passing a bag of sunflower seeds and laughing.
“Do you think,” Vanya asks him as they pass by, “That if I had stayed here, I would’ve gone to school there? Maybe those boys might’ve been my friends.”
Five glances back at them, watches them squatting ridiculously in a circle, laughing at a joke that’s probably stupid, something even Klaus and Diego would find tasteless. He doesn’t hide his disdain, throwing an arm around her shoulders, and whisks her away.
“Thank God you didn’t. Can’t have you falling in with the wrong crowd.”
Thank God he’d thought to come find her, before she’d gone off breaking off pieces of her heart and handing it to strangers who’ll never understand her, who’ll never have her best interests at heart. Not like her family does. Not like he does.
She elbows him. Hard.
Then, Vanya snatches him by the arm and hurries him along. He doesn’t know what it is, if it’s the cold or the city or the fact that with every step they’re further and further from their father, that has her so energetic, but whatever it is, it delights him.
“Did the rest of you ever think about your mothers? You and Diego and Klaus and Allison, I mean. I know Luther and Ben have. ”
“I’m not sure about the others, but I know that Diego wouldn’t. He’s got Mom after all. Fantasizing about another would be a betrayal. To him, I mean.”
Vanya hums in agreement. “Well, what about you? What do you think your mother’s like?”
“Never thought about it.”
“No,” he lies, trying not to ball his hands into fists.
“Well, can you think about it now?”
“Why would I?”
“What do you mean?”
“Why would I care about that? I mean, I have no memories of her, or her family. Of where I was born, or where she’s from. All mine are of him, and them. And you.”
Vanya purses her lip. “Don’t you want to feel like you come from somewhere? That you belong somewhere?”
“But I do belong somewhere.” He frowns. “And so do you.”
Vanya chokes out a quick laugh. It sounds like it’s paining her.
“If this woman’s your mother--”
“She is my mother,” Vanya says confidently, “You know Dad would never mess up paperwork this important.”
“Fair enough,” Five snorts. “So, this woman’s your mother. Great. She’s Russian. You were born in Russia. You’re Russian. Great. Doesn’t mean that mine, wherever she is, had me in her native country. And that just complicates things further, you know, so I’d rather not bother.”
Well, it's one reason among many, but it's the only one that doesn't sting to think about, so it's the one he'll share.
“How do you figure that?”
“Well, I think of it like this: You know the story about our mothers, yes? On the twelfth hour of the first day of October, forty-three--”
“Five, how could I possibly not know it?”
“You never know. You’re not in lessons with the rest of us after all.”
Vanya’s face goes blank. He’s hit a nerve.
“At any rate,” he hurries to change the subject, “Think about it: If you know you’re going to have a baby, would you go traveling? Or would you stay where you are, where you can go to the hospital? Our mothers had no idea they’d be having us, so they were off living their lives. That means going to work and running errands, sure, but also vacations, and traveling too. How many of our mothers do you think had us on the train, or on a hike in the mountains, or in the aisle of an airplane, or on safari? Therefore, your technical country of origin wouldn’t match your mother’s.”
Vanya contemplates this, biting her lip quietly.
Then, she looks up and says, completely seriously: “You could be from Antarctica.”
He bursts out laughing.
“It would explain everything .”
“What do you mean by that ?”
Vanya doesn’t answer, just gives him a wry little grin, and skips ahead of him.
They walk ten blocks together without stopping, well past the massive, historic buildings Five had seen in the tourism brochures. Out here, the buildings are smaller, flatter, and the sidewalks are crumbling just a bit. There are telephone wires crisscrossed overhead, swooping low over the street, and he’s surprised by how ordinary it looks, just like any neighborhood he'd see back in the States, the few times missions took him outside of downtown. And then, staring at the reflection of the two of them in the glass of a storefront, closed for the New Year, he blinks at how they don’t look remarkable at all.
Five begins staring around at the people passing them by, imagining the two of them through their eyes. Here, the Academy is known, but not a household name as it is in the States; his face isn’t plastered to posters and lunch boxes and action figures, and the people that see it do not recognize whose it is. Even their uniforms, with the Academy patch on it, are unremarkable. They look like two students enjoying an afternoon together. They look normal, he understands, and grins stupidly at the novelty of it.
Then Vanya stops abruptly, and he comes crashing into her.
She’s looking at what he guesses is a community center, with a large, glass-domed ceiling that he assumes is indicating a pool within its walls. There’s an odd look on her face, and for the first time in a while, he can’t read it at all.
“Can I tell you something?” she asks, and something in her tone suddenly makes him worry. It sounds like she’s a thousand miles away from him, and about to slip away from him completely.
“Sure,” he says, careful to keep his voice measured, to prevent her from seeing any reason to hide from him.
“I’m going to meet my mother.”
He’s deduced as much. She hasn't been subtle.
“Yes, and see this?” Vanya unfolds the paper again, showing it to him. “I copied it from Dad’s files in his study; it’s the information about my birth mother, as much of it as he had. And a map to the apartment listed in the documentation. I made it myself.”
Five stares at the page, and figures it out: “You broke into Dad’s study.”
He feels a puggish smile crawling onto his face. “And I don’t remember you getting caught.”
“Because I didn’t .”
“I had a great teacher,” she says, sweeping her hair behind her ear. “Now, my mother had me...” She pauses, staring back at the center.
Five puts it together: “In there. In a public swimming pool.”
“No, on the floor next to a public swimming pool.”
“I’m being honest. Think about all the germs on those floors. It’s a miracle you didn’t catch something nasty and die right then.”
“Thank you,” she says flatly. “Now, I’m not sure if this is the one…”
It’s pretty clear from the way she’s staring at it, that she at least hopes it is.
Personally, he doubts it. There are a lot of public swimming pools in Moscow, he guesses, just as there would be in any city. Just because this one's on their way doesn't mean that it's the one she's thinking of. Hell, it might've been demolished by now, and paved over into a parking lot.
“ But ,” he urges.
“But," she interjects, "It’s possible! And see, here, this address? That’s the apartment Dad bought me from, where her family lives.”
And that’s where we’re going, he determines.
“Well, do they still live there--”
“--I’m going to meet them,” she says, reaching to squeeze his arm, and her voice is trembling. The words seem to knock the breath from her, and she pauses, drawing a deep, wobbly breath.
He starts to feel a tenseness in his chest, like a fist is squeezing on his heart, at the sight of her, so excited over a stranger. There’s someone between them now, and he can feel her being tugged away. He doesn’t like it. He doesn’t like it at all.
“Her name is Tatiana, see here? That’s my mother’s name!”
There’s a bad taste in his mouth.
“And that’s her last name, and it was mine too, when I was born. My last name was Belinskaya, doesn’t it sound pretty?”
They keep walking, Vanya practically skipping, as he begins dragging his feet.
“I have a grandfather too, named Mikhail. Can you imagine what it’d be like, having a grandfather?”
The watery outline of the sun has fallen fast in the sky. They should turn around, if they want to make it back before sunset.
“My mother was sixteen when she had me, can you imagine that, Five? If I had a baby that young I’d have no idea what to do at all.”
The words start rising in him, and he catches them before they escape, lets them fester and turn to sour phlegm at the back of his throat: Oh, I’m sure she had some ideas about what to do with you. She sold you, after all, didn’t she?
He follows her, sickened by the stew of emotions turning in his gut. These are the people that handed her off to a stranger for a stack of money. And, he thinks bitterly, if they’re as wonderful as she’s convinced they are, then they simply couldn’t be bothered to raise her.
He doesn’t know how to feel exactly. If they hadn’t done it, she might have died, or been handed off to an overcrowded orphanage, or ended up on one of these streets they’re headed down, or grown up with another family that resented her. If they hadn’t done it, he’d have never met her.
What if they’re terrible, and she’s devastated?
She keeps rushing ahead of him, and there’s another strong blast of wind, funneled their way from an alleyway. He watches Vanya rock in it. Whatever she’s saying is so distant that he can’t understand a word. The wind’s bending her voice away from him, and he suddenly worries that it’ll take her too.
What if they’re not? What if they’re wonderful, even, and she decides she’d rather...
Five doesn’t finish the thought. He jumps, for the first time in hours, to catch up to her, full of the pressing worry that he’ll lose sight of her for even a second.
It dawns on him, then, what exactly he’s afraid of.
“How were you going to get back?” he asks her, and watches her slow, to listen to him, “You can’t have expected to make it back before the sun sets. And Vanya, you’re not like the rest of us. You can’t be out wandering the streets at night. Did you really not think this through at all?”
Vanya’s jaw sets.
“You were going to come back, right?”
“I… Yes,” she says, unsteadily, “I was.”
She doesn’t answer. But her steps falter a bit.
“What about us?” he pushes, “What about me? And Ben? And Pogo, and everyone? Huh?”
“You were… You were going to be fine, and I was going to visit--”
“What about your music? You were gonna leave your violin?”
Even he can feel the weakness of what he’s saying. Even he knows that Vanya would stomp her beloved violin into splinters without a second thought if it meant someone would love her.
“Dad would let me go, you know,” she says, her voice wobbling, “He just doesn’t know it yet. And when they meet me--”
“--What, Vanya? What do you think is going to happen, when you turn up at their door out of nowhere?”
He can see the corner of her jaw working, as if she’s trying to come up with something to say.
“Do you think they’re going to like you?”
She stops. He needs to as well.
Instead, he digs his fists into his pockets, and says this: “Do you really think they’re going to want you now?”
Her head twists back to stare at him, and her face is suddenly colorless, eyes wide and dark.
He draws in a deep breath through his nose, feels the words rising in him, and leans in, letting them burst out of him in a low growl: “How selfish are you?”
It’s a mistake. He’s overstepped, cut too deep.
Five watches Vanya close up on him all at once. She’s looking at him now the way she looks at Dad, wearing her own face like a blank, stiff mask. Behind it, her eyes are burning.
“You get everything.” Her voice is tense as a bowstring, and she speaks to him so quietly, he has to lean forward to hear her. Somehow, he hears it all perfectly. “You and the rest of them. You get everything you want, anytime you want it. You ask and there it is, and it’s so easy for you, isn’t it? Because you’re all so special.”
“Vanya,” He shakes his head, “Do you have any idea what we had to do to get those things? Do you--”
“You don’t need me. And you don’t want me. None of you do. You never have. I’ve never fit, and I know that. And it's been nice of you, pretending that I do. But now you don’t have to worry about me anymore, Five. Because I won’t be your problem soon. I don’t have to weigh you down. I can be with ordinary people, who are like me.”
“Vanya, we’re like you!”
“This is one of the only things I’ve ever had that gets to be mine. If you don’t like it, Five, you can go home.”
He’s staring at her lower lip. That smudge of sugar is still there. He starts laughing.
It’s the wrong thing to do.
She doesn’t run from him, doesn’t whip around and punch him in the nose, the way he wants her to, the way she should.
What Vanya does instead is worse, turning slowly and keeping her back to him, as they walk the rest of the way in absolute silence. There’s only the wind, and the cold it brings.
They get there. Finally.
The apartment Vanya was bought from, as it turns out, is not a palace. It is one of dozens of sagging concrete apartments in a single neighborhood. All are identical in height and shape, but for the peeling faded paint jobs. She feels as though she’s caught in a maze, and her steps shorten. They seem to echo off the sides of the buildings, and tap back at her, the footsteps of a dozen ghosts, walking home like her.
She hears his footfalls behind her, and won’t turn around.
Vanya looks at the page in her hand one more time, as if she’s misread the address somehow. But no, it’s there, plain as day. Alright.
There’s a pack of young boys, maybe between ten and twelve years old, gathered around a park bench, and they’re staring at her. She stares back for a moment, searching, until she discerns that none looks like he might be her cousin, or half-brother.
She looks up, at a set of balconies that look ready to collapse at any moment, at the windows, which are mostly lit, with people passing back and forth inside, gesturing and carrying pots and steaming dishes, talking at someone. It’s far from lonely here, but the building doesn’t seem particularly safe.
It isn’t any better on the inside. Seedy , is a word that someone less polite than Vanya would use.
For one, it’s cold , hardly a change from the outside. The linoleum is peeling, and there seem to be spots where the floor’s been torn up, where work was intended to be done and simply hasn’t been completed yet. The walls are dingy and waterstained, with mold blossoming at the corners. She feels nervous in here, like the whole building is about to collapse down onto her, or the floor will give way and swallow her up.
Vanya isn’t sure how she might fit in here. She feels too polished, too used to being raised in a house that’s more a museum than a home. She’d be gawked at, or say something insensitive to her birth mother that she hadn’t meant as a slight, but will be taken as such. She’ll--
No, it’s fine, she thinks. It’s fine. Her place will be revealed to her soon enough, so she doesn’t let herself think of it as disappointing. No, it is simply different.
And if anything, it is reassuring; her mother surrendered her because she’d had no choice, you see, she was in desperate need of money. She wanted to care for me, but couldn’t. But now I am here, and I can take care of myself, and I can even get a job and help her, and she will be overwhelmed with joy at the sight of me.
There is no elevator, so Vanya climbs to the fifth story, her thighs tingling and numb. She’s clinging to the sticky banister by the end, huffing.
Five is still behind her, keeping to her shadow. He hasn’t said anything at all yet, isn’t looking at her with that smug, shit-eating grin of his, isn’t sneering “I told you so.”
He just stands a few steps down from her, looking up at her, waiting to follow.
She lets him, stepping into the fifth floor hallway.
It’s also dingy, poorly-lit, and uncomfortably cold. The floor is in better shape up here, and she can hear the rumbling of conversation behind the doors, the pleasant commotion of families that actually enjoy each other, a sound that’s so alien to her it takes her a full minute to understand what it even is. It feels like the apartment’s full of it, ready to explode in a burst of noise and cheap concrete dust.
And there , the door at the end of the hall, is her mother’s apartment, according to the crumpled copy of her father’s document.
She’s... here. How strange.
Vanya is suddenly overcome with a wave of self-consciousness, hurriedly runs her fingers through her hair, dragging them through the tangles. She straightens her skirt, reaches down to pluck at the fabric of her tights, pulls at her tie.
She turns, asking Five reflexively, before she even stops to hate herself for caving so quickly, when she’s still angry with him: “Do I look good?”
He blinks, then his eyes sweep over her, head to toes and back up again. “Yeah,” he says, sliding his hands into his pockets, “You… Wait, one moment.” He draws a glove off, licks his thumb, bringing it up to the corner of her mouth.
Vanya jumps at his touch, as if he’s shocked her, and he frowns, muttering, “Sorry,” and rubbing along the edge of her lower lip for a moment. She tries to stay still, to keep the heat from rising to her cheeks. She isn’t very successful.
“What are you--”
“Bit of sugar there. From the… the ponchiki, right? Am I pronouncing that right?”
“Yes, the ponchiki.”
“Those. It’s gone now. I got it.”
“Oh. Thank you.”
Five steps back, avoids looking her in the eye. “Yeah, no problem. Go ahead.”
Her hands are trembling, so she starts wringing them as she walks the last few steps to the door. She doesn’t feel excited, only a sudden, overwhelming sense of dread, an urge to turn and sprint out of the building as fast as she can, and she doesn’t understand where the impulse is coming from.
Vanya reaches up, and knocks firmly on the door.
Then, she takes a step back, and waits.
A moment goes by. Then another, and another.
So she knocks again. And then again. And again.
And no one comes.
There’s a knot in her throat, and she’s trying to swallow it, but she can’t.
I just need to try it louder , she thinks. It’s a holiday, people are loud, they just don’t hear me… She’s listening again, for the noise. None of it’s coming from the apartment in front of her.
Vanya drops to the floor, peering at the crack in the door, where no light is shining. That’s it! They’re asleep.
She feels terrible about waking them, but surely they’ll forgive her, after all she’s their family, coming home at last. They’ll wake, and stare at her groggy-eyed, and then blink in recognition, and open their arms to her and--
A door swings open behind her, and she turns quickly.
Behind her, Five is pushing off from where he’d been leaning against the wall, arms crossed, staring warily at the elderly man who’s peeking out at them from a doorway to her left.
“Ilya, did you forget your key--” he barks in Russian, then frowns, squinting at them through his glasses. “Who are you? What do you want?”
“Hello,” Five says in stilted Russian, drawing the man’s eye, “It is a pleasure to speak with you, my name is Five.” He then frowns, and glances at Vanya, hissing in English, “That’s all I have.”
Vanya nods weakly, drawing in a deep breath, and walking over to him slowly.
“Good evening, um. My name is… I’m…” She feels the paper, balled in her fist, tries again. “My name is Vanya.”
She sees his enormous, wispy eyebrow rise at her name.
“I’m not joking, I promise. I’m the daughter of your neighbor, Tatiana Mikhailovna Belinskaya. The one she had when she was around my age. And... And I’m here to see her. Or my grandfather, Mikhail. They live there, right?” Vanya points. “That’s my family’s apartment? It’s what I was told. I’m here to meet them for the holiday. Are they in?”
The old man takes a few steps towards her, squints at her in the dull light. Something in his eyes gleams with recognition, and he cocks his head curiously.
“Yes,” he says, after a moment. “You look about right. It’d be a strange coincidence, anyway. And if you’re running a scam, it’d be a useless one.”
“So you remember me?”
“I remember that baby. I don’t remember your mother being pregnant. But I remember when she came home with you. And I remember when you left too.”
“And… when was that? Was it in 1989?”
“Alright,” Vanya says, exhaling. “That was me.”
“I know that.” He shuffles back into his apartment. “I don’t want to discuss this in the hallway, if you’re who you say you are. Come here. Inside, please. This needs to be done sitting down.”
“Will it take long?”
“No. Not at all.”
Vanya stares at him, then shuffles after him, when Five slinks up to her quickly, leans in questioningly.
“What’s going on?” he asks, casting a warning glare at the man, who stares at him unperturbed.
“He knows who I am,” Vanya said, “He knew my mother, and he wants to tell me about her. I’m going into his apartment for a moment, to talk.”
“Vanya. Do you understand how idiotic that sounds?”
“Yes. And I’m doing it. And you’re going to wait here.”
“He could kill you.”
“He’s old , Five.”
“Old people can be very deadly.”
“I’ll be fine.”
He stares at her, works something in his throat. “Fine. But I’m right here. If you need anything , if anything happens--”
“I will grab a knife from the block and stab him fifty times in the torso.”
“Good instinct.” He smiles in approval, which Vanya finds unnecessary, and frowns at. “Then call for me. I’ll help you with the body.”
She passes him, and follows the man inside.
The door closes behind her, and the man doesn’t lock it, instead shuffles through the cramped apartment to a small kitchen table a few feet away from it. It’s warmer and brighter inside his apartment. The table isn’t set yet, but she can smell something cooking in the kitchen. There’s a steady tap, tap, tap, tap, coming from somewhere in the kitchen, and Vanya notices a coffee mug, absorbing the spills of a roof leak. In the walls, she can hear the slight hum of the pipes, full of water.
Beyond the table, the apartment opens into a larger, still-cramped room. There’s a little plastic tree sitting on a table in the corner.
“I won’t offer you anything to drink, Ivan,” he says, “I doubt you’d appreciate that. And I’d like to keep things quick, so that boy out there doesn’t get too upset.”
“Thank you,” Vanya says, deciding to let the name slide. “What’s your name?”
“I’m not saying.”
“Because if you’re a scammer, I’m giving you nothing. And if you’re not, you don’t need my name for me to tell you this. I’m being safe.”
“You just brought a stranger into your home.”
He takes the seat facing the door, and gestures for her to take one of the two remaining chairs. She chooses the one opposite him.
“Speaking of, my son,” the man says, nodding at the empty chair to her left, “Is visiting to celebrate. He’s out, getting something I’d forgotten. He’ll be back soon. Just so you know. And he’s twice your size.”
“Was he here too, in 1989?”
“No. He’s twice your age. Was off living with a girlfriend then. I never liked her. Good riddance.”
There’s quiet for a moment. Outside, she can hear Five’s feet tapping nervously.
“Alright,” Vanya clears her throat, “So, my mother. Tatiana, lived in this building then. Was there anyone else there with her?”
“There’d been her,” the man pauses to think, “Her parents. Mother’s a real bitch. I don’t miss her. A few other children. Brothers and sisters, probably. Around her age.”
“And… How many brothers and sisters did she have?”
“I don’t know, two of each, I think. I wasn’t friends with the family, only really saw them in the hall now and again. Maybe they were cousins. Maybe there were a few I didn’t see. Can’t imagine how they’d fit that many people into a three-room apartment, but I’ve seen much stranger.”
Vanya blinks, processing the news: Tatiana, her grandparents, uncles and aunts, actually real . She might even have cousins after all, if they’re all adults now. The world feels like it’s shrinking. All her fantasies have danced away, and they’re leaving her with the truth.
“She was taller than you,” the man says, staring at her curiously. “Her face was a little different. More round. And your hair’s a bit smoother. I think hers was black.”
There’s a mirror, hanging to the wall on her left, and Vanya turns, to peer at herself, starts to make the picture of Tatiana clearer in her mind. Her hands are shaking too much.
“You know, her parents were convinced she’d been sneaking around with some boy.”
“Yes, a boy. That’s what they thought happened with the baby. That she’d gotten herself pregnant, and hid it all that time.”
“Do you believe that?”
“Well, I can’t speak as to the boy, but I remember seeing her come and go, and if she was hiding it, she did a fantastic job.”
“She wasn’t,” Vanya says, feeling the strange need to defend her birth mother, “Do you remember that story, about those women all around the world, who had full-term pregnancies appear in an instant, all at once on the same day? There were forty-three of them.”
The man shrugs. “Vaguely.”
“Well. She was one of them.”
“Explains the wheelchair, I guess.”
“Yes. I remember. All of a sudden, the whole family was dragging this wheelchair up five flights of stairs, and she was in it. Couldn’t walk at all. Looked like death. Something’d really messed her up. Guess that was you.”
“I remember when that man came, too,” The man says, “The one with the long leather coat, and the hat and the funny glasses. He was rich, wasn’t he? Foreign.”
“Yes. He was. Is, I mean.”
“And he bought you, yes?”
“Yes. That’s what I was told happened.”
“Was he from an orphanage?”
“Of a sort.”
“Your grandmother wanted to send you to one, you know, probably called that man to come get you. And you should consider yourself lucky, that he came along. The orphanages in Russia… Well. They’re not ideal. You’d have a better chance at life if your grandmother had left you to a pack of stray dogs, in my opinion. Ah, see, I’m losing myself, where was I… Oh, you know, your grandmother kept the whole damn floor up yelling at Tatiana Mikhailovna about it. She agreed, eventually, I assume, because the fighting stopped. By the way, you never kept us up. You were a quiet baby. Thank you for that.”
Vanya doesn’t know quite how to respond to that, let alone how to process it, so she keeps going. “The… orphanage I was in was an American one. I don’t know if you can tell from my accent.”
“I knew there was something strange about it. No girl your age talks like that . Aside from that, your name . You said it was, what was it…”
“And it really is Vanya? You’re not just using your nickname?”
“No, it really is Vanya.”
He snorts. “It all makes sense now. Americans have no clue how our names work, huh? You have no patronym either, I’m assuming.”
“And, Vanya, you came back here from America?”
“Yes. I wanted to find my birth family.”
“Well, good on you, for making the journey. Welcome home.” He reaches across the table and pats her hand quickly, smiling. It’s genuine, she thinks . She still slides her hand down, off of the table, and rests it in her lap. She doesn't feel welcome.
“I’m here,” Vanya says, “Because I came to meet my family, but I haven’t yet. Have they gone somewhere else, to celebrate? Will they be back soon?”
The old man blinks slowly, his enormous eyebrows twitching one, two, three times.
Then he frowns. “You have come too late,” he says, and Vanya blinks.
“Oh,” she says, stumbling over the word, “So, they’re asleep now, and--”
“They’re not asleep,” the man says. “They left.”
“That’s not their apartment anymore. It hasn’t been for more than ten years.”
It feels like he’s whipped a freezing cold knife out from under the table, and has stabbed her in the chest with it.
“But…” The paper’s balled in her fist, and she hurriedly smooths it out, shows it to him, “But it says right here, that this is where they live. I copied it exactly from a document from my sale that confirmed it.”
“Well, you’re how old?”
“There you go. They moved out a few months after their daughter died. You have an old document. Outdated information. They moved, and I don’t know where. To Tmutarakan, as far as I’m concerned. You know, I thought that if you were a scammer, you were pretty terrible. Who shows up fourteen years too late for their mark?”
“Tmutarakan,” she repeats, leaning forward, “Where is that? Would you be able to show me on a map, please?”
“Nowhere. It’s not a real place. It’s a term of speech, meaning nowhere . I have no idea where they went. Like I said, I wasn’t very close to them.”
Vanya glances at him.
“You should know, the daughter that died was Tatiana Mikhailovna.”
There’s a roaring in Vanya’s ears. She feels like she’s going to be sick.
It was a dream after all, she realizes. Of course it didn’t come true.
“See, that’s why I wanted to do this sitting down. Easier this way. And I’m sorry that you had to hear it from a stranger, on a night like this. But it’s the truth. Tatiana Mikhailovna died a few weeks after she’d given the baby up. I’m not sure of what, but she was sick, from what I’d heard. Some kind of awful fever she couldn’t fight after the labor. I’m sorry, my dear.”
The humming of the pipes in the wall grows louder, louder, louder, starts pulsing in her ears. Her head starts to pound, and her chest is shivering. She has to leave. She has to leave now, before she does something terrible to herself.
Vanya thanks him weakly, gets up slowly from the table and wishes him a good night. She stands still, doesn’t shake at all, as he rises slowly from the table, putters back to the front door, and opens it for her. She even accepts a stiff hug from the man, who wishes her a good night and a happy New Year, and apologizes again. She hears him as though he’s underwater, leagues above her while she’s sinking, only nods and steps out into the hall.
Then, the second he closes the door on her, she turns and runs out of the building.
So... Yeah. Not the happy reunion many of you may have been expecting. Sorry.
Five hears her soft, shuddering sobs clearly, long before he sees her. He thinks it’s the wind, carrying them to him in a strange vacuum of sound, as he jumps to the front steps of the apartment, showing him where to go.
He spends a moment twisting his head wildly, scanning the dark space for her. It’s hard to see now; the watery winter sun has rolled beneath the horizon, and the odd pinkish light of dusk is fading fast with it, being fast replaced by the gold-edged purple of twilight. What’s worse, the streetlamps don’t seem to be working right; most of them are broken, recently, because he can see the glass glittering on the street. The rest are flickering like strobe lights. Cheap fucking things.
After walking into the direction of the wind for a few minutes, straining his vision as he goes, he finds her, huddled on the crumbling sidewalk a ways away from the apartment building. Her tie’s lying nearby, and she’s clawed her blouse collar open. She’s twisted into a ball on the ground with her arms wrapped tightly around her, rocking unsteadily back and forth.
Five drops down to sit beside her, kicking a few shreds of what he assumes had once been her map scattered on the ground around him out of the way, wincing at the cold of the concrete beneath him. He slowly leans towards her, wrapping his arms around her. She stiffens at first, her shoulder blades digging into his chest, but after a moment she settles, recognizing the shape of him, accepting it and leaning her weight against it.
Five isn’t good with emotions, never has been. He’d been taught long ago that he’d had to push them all down, all of them except for pride and anger, and lock them away in a box in the back of his head if he wanted to keep them safe. But he does what he can, rocking her gently as she slowly begins hyperventilating, and waits for her to finish.
He listens to the bare branches of the trees above them creak and moan in the wind, the distant rumble of traffic, the sound of their breathing, his steady and hers ragged and wet and heaving. Looks up at the shrinking golden stain at the edge of the sky, watches it crawl down, down, down, and pretends that he and Vanya are the only people in the world.
The wind stops, finally, but not before it shakes the clouds loose of rain. Cold water pounds down on them from above, beating into his back, soaking through his hair and clothes. Five shivers, but stays put, watching the shreds of paper near his feet flatten to the pavement, the ink running away forever. So much for that, he thinks about Vanya’s grand plan, and decides that he’s also been fucked by the universe tonight. She’d slipped and slipped out of his reach, and now that she’s here, now that her mask’s back off and he’s seeing more of her than he ever has before, he feels ill at what it took to get her to stay, to fold into him. He almost wishes for something different.
Finally, her hiccuping cries go quiet. She goes still for a minute, then twists to bury her face in his chest. Five’s pretty sure he feels her wiggling her sleeve into his grip, so she can wipe snot off of her nose and mouth. He decides to ignore it. He’s been covered in substances that are a lot more disgusting.
“Did that man do something?” He keeps his voice as calm as he can, “Did he hurt you?” Should I kill him?
“No,” she says, and he trusts her. “No, he didn’t do anything. He just told me something.”
“What is it?”
Vanya sniffles, rubbing her nose into his coat. He gives her a moment to find the words, rubs circles into her back, glances up and around to make sure there’s no one nearby who might interrupt them.
“She’s dead,” Vanya says quietly, into his shoulder. “And I… And I think it was my fault.”
“What are you talking about? That’s bullshit, Vanya.”
“No, I…” Vanya pauses, has to gather herself again, “He said that my mother got sick, right after. And that she had this wheelchair, because she couldn’t walk after she had me, and she couldn’t handle getting sick so she died.”
Five mulls it over.
It makes sense. Well, it does. Pregnancies take nine months for a reason. The human body just isn’t built to survive suddenly manifesting a watermelon-sized baby inside it, and then pushing it out.
Now that he thinks about it, maybe his mother died in labor, or of some kind of complication soon after, or was so weakened by it that something otherwise benign or survivable came along and did the rest. Maybe Luther’s and Allison’s and Ben’s and Klaus’s and Diego’s all died too. Maybe Dad was only able to get seven kids because all the rest didn’t make it.
“Well, was he lying?”
“Why would he?”
“Why wouldn’t he?”
He puts it to rest. She believes it, so he will too.
“And the rest of them?” he asks, feeling his breath catch in fearful anticipation.
“They’re all gone,” Vanya says quietly. “They don’t live here anymore, and I don’t know where they went. And I can't find them. I don’t have anybody.”
Five likes being right, but not about things like this.
He’d come to accept a while ago that he isn’t a particularly good person, so when he hears her confirm what he’d suspected she’d spoken about with her mother’s former neighbor, he isn’t surprised to realize that he isn’t sad at all, learning that Vanya’s mother is dead, that her family is out of her reach.
However, he doesn’t like to think that he’s a bad person either, wants to believe he has a ways to go before he gets there. So he feels his gut turn in repulsion at the knowledge that he is relieved at the news, that he won’t have to lose her, that he won’t have to share. He knows better than to say most of it out loud. She probably knows what he’s thinking already. Probably hates him for it.
You don’t need her. You don’t need any of them. You have me. You’re mine, don’t you see?
“You’re not alone,” he says. You’ll never be alone, don’t you see?
Vanya leans deeper into him, and he takes that as acknowledgement.
“Here,” he says, gently sliding himself out from under her, helping her to her feet, “Let me show you.”
Once she’s standing, he guides the soaked tangles of hair away from her face, and watches her eyes widen, as she understands what he’s doing, where he’s going with this.
Before the universe sends a disaster their way to stop him, Five dips down and quickly kisses her.
It’s clumsy, unpracticed. He’s never done this before, doesn’t really know how it’s meant to work.
But she doesn’t pull away, so he brings his hands up to rest on her forearms, leans in deeper. For a moment, he thinks he feels her lips working back against her own, that he can taste a trace of the sugar he’d failed to get earlier, somewhere beneath the salt. But it’s gone so fast, he doubts it was anything more than his imagination getting ahead of him.
Then, there’s an electrical popping from somewhere just behind them, jerking him back and away from her. Five glares over his shoulder, at the fucking defective street lamp, flickering out behind them, cheap fucking thing.
Five then looks down to Vanya, panting, his heart battering against his ribcage. She’s staring up at him, her lips parted, eyes big and wide and full of tears.
Fuck. I fucked up. Fuck.
This thing between them is so delicate, so slippery, and he’s stomped on it, twice in one day. It’ll live, sure, but it’s dented out of shape and probably very reluctant to trust him for a very long time.
And the fucking rain’s still coming, the cold of it hitting him all at once, washing down into his bones and making him suddenly aware of the thick cloud of steam rising from their mouths, of how miserable he must look. He wants to storm over there and kick the fucking lamp until it falls over, but he beats back the urge. His id’s done enough damage in the past hour, thanks.
Instead, he moves to grab Vanya, tightens his fists together and prepares to jump them.
“Where are we going?” she asks quietly.
“I don’t know. Back, I guess,” he says. He doesn’t know where else to go, what else there’s to be done.
So he jumps them back as far as he can get them.
Which, as it turns out, is to about a block away from the hotel. He grimaces, goes to jump them again, but she backs away, says that she wants to walk for a minute.
What? He thinks crossly, Afraid we’ll get impaled in some wall?
But she’s already off, and he heads after her.
Even though they only have maybe fifteen minutes before they make it back, the walk seems to stretch for hours. It’s long, and quiet, and cold, and wet, and he can feel his socks squelching in his shoes. There’s a thick layer of mist gathered around their feet, so at least he doesn’t have to see his shoes squeezing water out with every step. He thinks he catches Vanya’s gaze, scouring him in the corner of his eye, but when he looks, it’s gone, and she’s staring straight ahead.
“I was going to come back,” she says suddenly, and he winces at the memory of the argument, the wound opening. “I was never going to just disappear for good. I was going to meet them, and they were going to love me, and adopt me. And I was going to come back, to see you. All of you. And I was going to ask you to come and stay with me.”
It’s a beautiful dream, he thinks.
The sun is gone entirely now, and everything has sunk into a sapphire darkness that does strange things to his mind, or maybe it’s just the exhaustion. The shadows are moving more, he thinks, and when they pass in the dark space between two buildings, when the most Five can make out of Vanya is a spark of light reflecting in her eyes, the whites of them seem strangely bright. She starts to turn, to catch him looking, so he retreats, glancing ahead. He won’t be the first to be caught.
As they cross into the Square, and can see the distant imitation marble monstrosity that is their father’s choice of accommodations, he dares to place a steady hand on her back, and she counters by pressing her sodden shoulder into his.
He jumps them back to the hotel, to her room. This time, they make it, and no one is there when they arrive. They have hours to go, before Dad and Pogo and their siblings come back.
The two of them, now in the warm embrace of decent heating, are abruptly hit with the realization of how cold they truly are. They’re peeling their dripping wool coats off, then socks and gloves and sweaters, tossing them unceremoniously onto the floor.
Vanya immediately makes for her bathroom, closing the door behind her, and he hears the shower start. Once he’s sure he’s heard her climb in and pull the curtain shut behind her, he jumps to his own room, switches his clothes out, and jumps back.
He’s done in ten minutes, and Vanya remains in the shower for over an hour.
Every few minutes, he thinks about knocking, but decides not to push it.
Five occupies himself by peering out the window, figuring out how to draw the curtains, taking a nap, hanging his clothes over the heaters in everyone else’s rooms, poking through Pogo’s suitcase, paging through Vanya’s book, and making himself some hot coffee. He sits on the edge of her bed, drinks it black, as usual. Stares at the stripe of light lancing out from beneath the bathroom door, imagining what he might see if he were to open it.
The thought is a mistake; it takes his body somewhere all too familiar, and Five contemplates unzipping his fly and indulging, but then he hears the water turn off, and sighs. He’d rather not risk her walking in on that .
Instead, he thinks about that white, skintight fencing jumpsuit of Dad’s, and all the horrifying things it outlined, and his problem is fixed in record time.
Vanya eventually steps out in a swirl of humidity, wearing a fluffy hotel-branded robe that is several sizes too big for her. Behind her, her clothes are in a sodden heap on the floor, but she has no interest in retrieving them.
He looks at her, decides to try his luck with returning to something more familiar, hoping that his indiscretions will be forgotten. They can bury them, and turn away from the memory of them, and he won’t have to lose his closest friend.
“Good swim?” he asks, lamely, and hates himself as soon as he opens his mouth.
She hops onto the bed with him, sitting on her heels with her hands folded in her lap, running her fingers in small circles over the bathrobe. She’s thinking deeply, and he frowns.
“Dad’s the best we’ll ever get, isn’t he?” she says, and he leans towards her.
“Absolutely not. We can definitely do better. I for one, think that Pogo’s lint brush would be a far superior father.”
“No, Five,” Vanya sighs, “I mean that without him, I would’ve died. I’d have been left in some overcrowded orphanage, without anyone to take care of me. I’d have gotten sick, or hurt, or been left out on the streets, and I wouldn’t have made it.” She says it calmly, and he has no doubt that she’s been mulling over it in the shower. “I would have never, ever grown up with her. Something was always going to get in the way. And it’s probably the same with you and the others, isn’t it?”
Five sets his mug down, thinking for a moment.
“I don’t know,” he finally offers. “I don’t know who I came from. I’ve thought about it some, and I’m sure I could find out if I wanted to, but I don’t think I should.”
As far as Five wants to be concerned, he and she and the rest of their pack were squeezed out by the void, parentless and immaculate. They should be beholden to no one, not even Dad, least of all Dad. “We should belong to no one but each other. Be allowed to make our kind of family, on our terms.” He reaches over, and gently squeezes her knee. “Whatever we decide it’ll end up being.”
Five leans back against the bed, sinking into the plush comforter. He closes his eyes, listening to the rain spitting against the window. He isn’t touching Vanya, but he can feel her weight on the mattress, sitting beside him, and a strange sort of calm comes over him, washing over him like the drag of a tide. She’s near him, and he’s fine. They’re fine.
“How long do we have,” Vanya asks, “until they come back.”
Five opens his eyes, pulling himself up and glancing over at the clock. “It's almost nine now,” he says, once he determines which hand is which in the dim golden glow, “Dad said the party’s over at eleven, but we probably wouldn’t have been back until midnight. Lots of hands to shake, or some other excuse.”
“Alright,” Vanya says softly, and there’s a catch in her voice, an unfamiliar huskiness to the tone that makes him turn to look at her. “There’s time.”
She reaches down, and opens her robe, showing him everything.
The mediocre porn is in the next chapter, btw. If you're not into that, you can go ahead and stop reading here.
It's tagged, so you knew it was coming, but on the off chance: this is porn. It's a consensual sex scene between two teenage pseudo-siblings who don't use protection, because they're teenage idiots who were so caught up in achieving the nut that they didn't stop to consider the consequences of it.
if you still want to read the resolution, but not smut, go ahead and CTRL+F to "In the aftermath..." Past that point, there's nothing explicit.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Something has changed in her, she realizes, something visceral and bone-deep.
The best she can imagine, it’s as though her brain’s been clouded by a dense fog all her life, and suddenly, the wind’s swept it all away, and everything is clear and loud and immediate .
It started, she thinks, with her weeping, when all of a sudden she could hear the wet clapping of her lungs together as she sobbed, the keening rumbling in her throat long before it left her mouth, the cracking of the branches overhead loud as gunshots, the pumping of her blood in her ears, of his blood, the drumming of their hearts beating in tune.
And then, the sandpaper roughness of his dry, cracked lips against her own, the itching of her wool skirt scratching at her legs, the tightness of her collar clinging to her throat like a vice grip, the thick mist clinging to their ankles, swirling with their steps and hurrying after them like a pack of strange, fluffy dogs. The near-scalding heat of her shower, beating the heat back into her and burning the aches out of her body.
Vanya feels everything now, with such a sharp, burning clarity. And it isn’t complicated at all, really. The world has pressed in on her, and she’s caught up in a wash of sound and color and sensation, with Five at the middle of it all, bracing her against him, and because he had been there, she had realized she was not alone or lost at all, and never would be. She had been caught in an explosion, and now that the fire has all burned away, she has been left with a thought that is very simple: She wants him. She wants to be close to him. She wants to show him that.
So she unwound the belt on her robe and let it hang open, baring herself to him. And she waited.
This elusive, crooked thing hovering between them won’t work if she does all the pushing. It’s been raised in secrecy, in the shadow of their father, and is therefore a skittish creature by nature. She isn’t sure exactly what it looks like, but she’s thought a lot about it, and has always thought of it as something like a deep sea creature, not that she would ever tell Five that. Theirs must only be glimpsed brushing the surface, the slice of a dorsal fin through dark water, a shadow-in-the-shadows, when they are not certain they are alone. Only in the dark, in solitude, may it be drawn out, where the darkness will make it comfortable enough to glow, and only with at least two routes of escape present.
Five had violated that understanding today, snatched it and drawn it into the light, so if they’re to preserve it, and not just slide back into an old pattern they’ve already trod to death, she must take it further. All things in balance.
She should be afraid, or ashamed at what she’s doing; useless, mousy little Seven, exposing herself to him like this. But she sobbed out everything she had an hour ago, and she needs to replace it with something. And the way his throat bobs, the way his pupils dilate and the corner of his mouth twitches and his gaze rakes over her… Well. He’ll give it to her.
She leans forward, and sure enough, his hands reach for her slowly, tentatively, as if he were afraid that a sudden movement might make her shy away, send her running off to hide in someone else’s room. She slides closer on the edge of the bed, letting him touch her, the small, soft shapes of her breasts, which he reaches for immediately. She gasps a bit when Five touches them, runs his thumbs over her hardening nipples. His hands skim up her shoulders, linger at the edge of her robe, and she shrugs it from her shoulders, revealing everything.
His dry mouth pops open, and she feels a rush of emotion; like anticipation, triumph, relief and something fluttering, that she can’t name, all balled up into one.
One hand slides up to the back of her neck, and he pulls her flush against him, dipping down to kiss her.
Vanya quickly throws her arms around his shoulders, pushes forward until she’s straddled him, until he’s leaning back on the bed. This kiss isn’t like the one from before; it’s wet and hungry and not chaste at all, and she eagerly opens her mouth when she feels his tongue pressing against her lips. He tastes bitter, like coffee.
She can feel his erection through his pants, pressing into her hip, and she begins rocking into it clumsily. Her blood is singing in her ears, and it feels like she can hear his too.
Then, there’s a hand tugging on her damp hair, gently pulling her back. Vanya follows his instruction, breaking away and panting. There’s a thread of saliva, and she quickly moves to wipe it off of her mouth, looks at him nervously. She’s never done this before, isn’t sure if--
He’s pulling on his shirt, and suddenly it doesn’t matter at all anymore, whether she’s good at this or not. She slides off his lap, and grabs at his belt.
There’s a moment of fumbling, of his shirt flying somewhere beyond them, his legs kicking frantically to get rid of his pants, and then his underwear.
And then he’s as naked as she is, pushing her into the soft, fluffy mattress and crawling on top of her as she’s parting her knees. His hands are on her face, tracing her cheekbones with his thumbs, brushing her overgrown bangs over her ears.
Vanya stares down, where their bodies are meeting, where she’s soaked between her thighs, and trembling, where his cock, red and hard, is resting on her belly.
“Vanya,” Five says, and he gives her an urgent look.
She gets it: They cross this line, and that’s it. This is her chance to tell him to stop.
Instead, she reaches down, taking his cock into her hand. She listens to him grunt as she strokes it once, twice as she rolls her hips against him. She’s made her choice clear.
He snatches her wrist, pinning it to the bed. She squeaks, and he smirks down at her, leaning down until he’s an inch from her ear, nuzzling greedily at the spot where her shoulders meet her neck.
“You’re mine,” he says quietly, matter-of-factly, just for her, and she can hear the smile in his voice. Her heart flutters, and she pulls him tighter to her with her free arm.
He releases her wrist, gives a quick kiss to her neck, and his fingers begin digging into her hips, hard enough to make her hiss through her teeth. They’ll bruise, and she wants them to.
The weight of him presses down on her, wiry and strong, and she feels his cock rubbing up against her, catching against her folds. It takes him longer than she wants to figure out where to place it, and she smirks a little, watching his cheeks flush in annoyance. He’s just as clueless as she is, and she feels herself swelling at the thought. She’s the first he’ll ever have. As she should be.
She parries, sliding further back onto the bed until there’s a pillow beneath her head. She grinds her cunt into him, taking a sharp breath as she feels the head of his cock catch right where it needs to be.
Then he thrusts.
There’s a stinging, stretching pain that she doesn’t expect, and Vanya winces. There are tears gathering in her eyes, and she whimpers a bit.
He pauses, waits for her to get used to him, coos that she’s doing fine, she’s doing great, she’s so, so good, and presses forward when she jerks her hips.
He bottoms out in her, and she sighs at the feeling of fullness. She’s close to him. No one’s ever been this close to him, no one will ever be as close to him as she is now.
Vanya adjusts her legs, digging her heels into his ass, hissing “harder ” and pulling him down to her. And he obeys, fucking deeper into her.
Everything in her is sensitive, overly sensitive. Outside, the wind whips past them, lashing rain against the window, and somehow she feels so much at once: the smoothness of the sheets beneath her, the heat of his body above her, the burning of her cunt as he grinds into her, the stillness of the air, her nails scraping against his sweaty back and shoulders, the slight rattle of the bed frame, his mouth on her breast, the sting of his fingers digging into her hip bones, the rumble of a moan starting in the back of her throat, Five growling above her, the dampness in her hair soaking through her pillow...
It’s no time at all before she feels her walls pulsing, clamping down on him. A soft keening noise starts low in her chest, and her mouth hangs open as she feels herself falling, falling, falling. Vaguely, she hears something made of glass breaks nearby, and there’s a flicker of warm light; Five must have knocked the lamp on the bedside table off, and shattered the bulb. There’s a flash of white, behind her eyes, and Vanya’s legs start twitching, as if possessed, as the aftershocks roll in.
She goes limp, her legs loosening from their grip on him, but she plants her feet on the bed, and rolls her hips into him, helping him along.
Five ruts into her a few more times, harder, rougher, and then he’s done, collapsing onto her, his eyes screwed shut and his arms tight around her. Like this, she can feel his heart, hammering, hear his heaving, uneven breaths. She’s pleased by the weight, by the proximity of it, and pulls him back down when he goes to move off of her.
There’s a pleasant ache between her legs, warm and tingling, as she starts to leak. Five must have noticed it too, because he slides his hand down her hip, between her legs, and uses two of his fingers to push his cum back into her cunt. Draws his sticky fingers up, and presents them to her. She takes his wrist gently, guiding his fingers into her mouth, and sucks them clean, feeling the corners of her lips perk up at the wild look on his face as he watches her. She has him now, he belongs to her completely. The thought makes the muggy heat at the bottom of her belly return, so she slides her fingers down to join his, and shows him where to touch. She almost wants their father to come bursting in, just to see the look on his face, and the thought guides her to her second climax much faster than she thought it would.
In the aftermath, when they are wrapped up in each other, dozing in a nest of desecrated sheets with his chin on her head and her hair being wound slowly around his hand, Vanya twists in his grasp, slowly realizing that the room is somehow brighter than it ought to be. The lights are all off, and the yellowish gauzy glow of the city lights is seeping through the curtains, but more than that… It is soft, a subtle blue-white shine that, if she had not noticed it was there, she may have not determined where it was coming from at all. It washes over Five’s face and shoulders, casting some of him in inky shadow, and the rest in scintillating icy light that Vanya imagines they’d see if they were underwater. If it had been coming from above them, she’d take it for moonlight, but.
But, she realizes. It isn’t coming from above them, is it?
Slowly, Vanya lifts a hand, registers its luminousness, and understands. It is coming from her.
She gasps, clapping that bright hand to her mouth, and looks to Five, who is staring at her in what she thinks might have been awe, had he not been looking at her .
There is no need to say it; they both are thinking the same thing.
His eyes flit to her bedside table urgently, and her gaze follows. There, the lamp is intact, but the bulb has shattered, and glass is everywhere on the table, scintillating like jagged stars in the light that Vanya’s struggling to call her own.
And the pills.
Vanya stares at the little orange bottle, at the prescription she’d always been told she was too stupid to understand and realizes she hasn’t taken any since she’d gotten on the plane, nearly a day ago. She hasn’t… oh. Oh.
Five’s heart is loud in her ears, pounding like a drum, and his blood is roaring. He has come to the same conclusion that she has, and she can feel his grip tighten on her, as if someone will rip her away from him.
Vanya glances at the clock: over an hour to go until their father’s carriage turns to a pumpkin, and she is filling with a vicious, feral sort of anger at the thought that after all of this, after what she’s just realized about herself, they’ll have to hide what they are to each other again, or else she might have to share him, they might be separated, they might be punished.
“Vanya,” Five says. He has taken the bottle into his hand, is turning it, reading the caption with a furrowed brow and a tightness in his jaw.
She snatches it from his hand, its contents rattling nervously as she untangles herself from Five, walks over to the window, works it open, and drops it unceremoniously.
Vanya stares down at the street below her, trembling in the cold of the air as it blasts in. She can’t see where it landed, couldn’t hear the fragile plastic shatter, but she knows no one will be able to find it all. Good, she decides, staring down at her bare arm, which has faded back to its normal paleness, at once fully aware of what must come next.
She turns, too short to climb onto the bed normally, so she hops onto the mattress, folds her legs under her, takes his hand into hers, and tells him that she wants to leave. Now.
Five regards her for a moment, staring with a gaze sharp as knives. He gets it, and nods.
They dress quickly, in clothes they steal from their siblings’ rooms, Five in Klaus’s uniform, Vanya swapping her skirt out for a pair of Ben’s pants, rolled at the ankle to account for her lack of height. She’ll never wear a skirt again, she tells him, and he smirks at the confidence in her tone.
He takes her into his arms, and then through a burning blue tear in space-time, across the world, back to the mansion for the last time. It's still yesterday here, being eight hours behind Moscow, and they land in early afternoon light, blinking suspiciously at it. They find the house as empty as they’d left it, as their mother is switched off in front of her views, a strange Stepford husk.
There, they fill their suitcases with dog-eared books and notebooks and sheet music, fill their arms with valuables that have been gathering dust in the mansion that they can pawn. While they hurry, they toss ideas at each other, which echo through the empty halls, and will keep bouncing into the furthest corners of the house long after their brothers and sister return: they’ll get a shitty motel room, sell the Fabergé eggs and the smaller paintings-- the ones they can carry-- and the taxidermied thylacine and whatever’s in the gilded box in their father’s desk. They’ll buy clothes that real teenagers wear, and Vanya will cut all her hair off so she can finally get rid of her bangs. They’ll get a car and sleep in it and drive it across the continent, whichever one they decide upon, until they find where they want to live. They’ll find a palace in the woods where they shall live with a pack of handsome dogs and a fat old cat for company, where their siblings might visit someday, where she will play her music and he will devote himself to training her in this strange power she’s only just discovered... The dreams flow freely, and, no longer ordinary, Vanya may have them all.
They leave the cameras running through it all, wanting their father to see everything when he gets back, including the moment where Five, laughing, picks Vanya up by the hips and swings her around, and crushes her into the wall of their father’s room, kissing her deeply. Especially that.
When they’re finally ready to leave, they’re laden down with suitcases and enormous bags full of knick knacks, and are hardly able to fold their arms around one another, but, with some shuffling, they manage.
“Where are we going?” he asks, and it occurs to her that he is suddenly without a plan for the first time in his life.
Vanya leans into him tighter, to make certain he won’t slip away from her. She is home already, and the location is just a technicality. “Anywhere else, I guess.”
By the time their father realizes what they’ve done, they’re gone for good.
Wow. Wrote this whole fic in a day, and I'm... really happy with it? It's not perfect, but I am sincerely proud, and honestly, I haven't been this jazzed about a thing I've written in a long while. That's the power of fiveya, folks.
Thanks again to nightcoast, pacoca and spikeymarshmallows for looking over this with me; your comments were absolutely invaluable in helping me determine how to write and post this fic, and honestly you've saved my ass from embarrassment by catching my errors before I posted them.
Thanks once more to the fiveya discord, for being filled with fun people who birthed this concept with me months ago; the fic wouldn't exist at all had we not all been meme-ing about Five and Vanya hopping on a jet and booking it to Russia as fast as possible specifically so they can get nasty.
And thanks to everyone who hopped onto reading it in the seven-day frenzy of my posting it; it's wonderful to know that someone cares about something you've written, and so to the people who commented, thank you so much for the wonderful feedback. To the people who didn't, to be honest, I'm just happy you read it, so: cool by me, thanks for stopping by.
(Also, to everyone who reads it after its completion, hi, and thanks! Hopefully, you liked it too.)