10. (july to june)
A year passes and nothing really happens. I go to work, I do some work, I go home. Lather, rinse, repeat. Even Kuma-something-or-other seems to pick up on my mood, because he's stopped bothering me for food so insistently, knowing I've got little patience for antics. Lisa has begun stopping by my cubicle to pat Kuma, since I never leave him with her anymore. I don't have anywhere important to go.
I think Colin thinks that Russia and I broke up, because he takes a very superior attitude to everything. But if he has figured out why I'm no longer badgering him for tickets to far-off places to visit a boyfriend, he doesn't comment on it.
I pretend I'm not checking my email every two seconds for something from Russia and, for the most part, after September I've really convinced myself of it.
I haven't forgotten him. But I don't know what there is I can do.
December this year is strained. I don't go to either Noel avec la Francophonie or Commonwealth Christmas. Neither France nor England are particularly happy about that but I haven't been great company these past few months. Not even when America comes up for the afternoon of the 26th, bringing me some leftover turkey sandwiches that his boss' mom made.
I work to rule. Christmas, then Russia's birthday, then New Year's passes, with not a peep from the East.
It seems my life is pretty boring without Russia in it.
My brother calls me in early February. I pick up the phone and it's "Yo, bro!" screamed in my ear.
"Uh, hey Al," I reply, "what's up?"
"Not your attitude, that's for sure! You been moping around for months, so I'm comin' to visit. How's a week? A week's good? It's good, right?"
It pisses me off when he does that, assume that I'm not busy! ...I mean, I'm not, but it's the principle of the thing! "Maybe I have stuff to do!" I complain.
"Dude, I had my people hack your agenda. You're walking the bear and pretending problems don't exist. You can still do that stuff with me!"
I sigh. My brother is a pushy sort of person by nature and he's not giving up. "That's a violation of privacy -"
"Yeah, well, I had help. A little birdie told me you were feeling down." I glare. A 'little birdie', yeah, I'll bet. Thanks, Prussia. I should've known better than to think America had read between the lines in my actions, or inactions.
So Al comes over. I pick him up from the airport. Kuma-thing-whatsit is excited to see him and Al's excited right back, treating him like a gigantic teddy bear. To be fair, I do that too, and I'm only sore at Kuma-thing's sheer delight. Traitor.
"Say, let's take the scenic route," Al says.
Without protest, I pull off onto the highway leading the long way around to my place in Ottawa. "Whatever you're gonna say," I tell him, "don't think I haven't heard it already from my boss."
"Or me," Kuma says, in Al's lap.
"You know," he says thoughtfully, twiddling Kuma's fur with one hand and scratching him behind the ear with the other, "don't get me wrong on this, but when you started, like ... dating him... First of all I could barely believe it! You two've never been that close."
That's true enough. I open my mouth to reply but he beats me to it. "Look, I don't care, alright? If you're dating him. I don't care, Mattie. This isn't some kinda ... Romano and Juliet thing here -"
"Romeo," I correct.
"Yeah, 's what I said! The point is, I am not gonna police you and tell you who to date. That is not what brothers do and so not what heroes do."
"Well... that's good," I suppose.
I sense a 'but' coming.
"That said," Alfred continues (ah, there's the 'but'), "I have to admit. It's not geopolitically advantageous. For me. Or for you."
"You think he'll -"
"Oh, I know he'll." Al looks out the window. "I don't trust him," he says to it, "I don't trust him, not even a little. I don't know what he's telling you but I think he's making up a lotta nonsense and complication so that it'll pull you in. And he got this star-crossed thing all cooked up to help him do it. Because you don't like simple things, do ya, Matt? Everything's gotta be complex with you. That's why you chew me out for every little thing you keep bottled up in there instead of, oh, I dunno, straight up telling me once in awhile what your beef is - that'd sure be nice! - and even here you want it difficult."
I feel cornered and accused. "Th-that's not true!" I stammer.
"It is true, 'cuz I know you!" my brother replies. "You're offered the choice between simple and tough and you pick tough. Who else does that?"
"And who's simple?" I ask in a hard voice. "You?"
Al blushes. "Uh, well, Gilbert, for one," he says.
Oh! It's Gilbert, is it?! Boils me up that he calls him by name. "Please. Prussia and I are just friends, he isn't interested in me." Al snorts. "And even if he were - which he isn't, you're just misreading the atmosphere between us -"
"He's a good guy!" Al blurts. "Y'know, like - he's nice, friendly, doing well, he's attractive - uh, b-but don't tell him I said so - and most importantly he is not going to manipulate you into working for him! And he isn't a shifty creepy commie! ...Anymore."
I'm ignoring everything he's saying about Russia, which is just the usual America diatribe that I've heard for the past fifty years. "If you like him so much, why don't you go date him?" I retort. I sound more like a child than I'd like.
"He isn't interested in me," Al replies distantly.
"And if you don't care that I'm dating Russia then what's with this preamble, eh?"
Al rolls his eyes in a manner that is so similar to the way England does it, that I'm tempted to call him on it. "I don't care that Matt is dating ... whatever that stupid bastard's name is. I care that Canada is dating Russia, 'cuz I have to, and I care a lot that my little bro is being played for a fool for shifty business. Because that's what I saw in Kazakhstan. Shifty business. Not two guys in love."
He said the L-word. I knew he was going to say the L-word. Dammit, Alfred, don't do that. My cheeks warm unpleasantly. "Al..."
"Just answer me this. Can you tell me what went on in Kazakhstan, or can't you?"
I stay silent.
I could lie.
But he's my brother.
Alfred purses his lips. "That's what I thought. Then this isn't Matt and - that Russian dude we both know and see around at work sometimes. This is Canada and Russia, and I have to pay attention to that."
No, he really doesn't! But I don't want him to keep harping on me like this. I'll have to tell him something. "It's ... he's having some trouble with his bosses." I try to keep it vague. "Two of them, one of him. Y'know."
"Russia's a big boy," Al decides. "Can't he handle himself against two lil' ol' humans?"
"I'm not so sure," I say. "They're acting pretty strange."
"Well... no matter how strange they act - this'll sound real harsh - they're only humans." Al shifts uncomfortably in his seat. "They don't last forever."
"Neither do we," I remind him.
Al nods, conceding the point, but counters, "We last a hell of a lot longer than they do."
"Unless they really fuck up. Then we don't."
"Sure, and when's the last time something like that happened?"
It's clear he isn't getting it. I'll have to put two and two together for him. "What if they fucked up on purpose? To make us not last?"
Alfred sobers. "Is - that what's happening?" he asks gently.
I shrug. "I dunno. Maybe. All I know is he said it helps me to be there with him."
We're quiet for a moment, nothing but the sound of the wind through the drafts in my car's windows, and the asphalt beneath the tires, a constant hum.
Finally Al asks, "Do you like him, Matthew?"
I shrug again. "Sure I like him," I figure. "I wouldn't spend so much time with him if I didn't." The sex helps. "I wouldn't help him if I didn't like him." Though...actually I probably would.
Then Al asks, more shyly, "Do you love him?"
I don't reply.
I know I don't love him. For all that I can find some enjoyment in his company, every time we've been together recently has been fraught with tension and espionage, and it's been stressful. Exciting, but stressful. You don't get to know a guy in those circumstances. Not to the extent that you can properly say you love them.
There's always love at first sight, as they say. Don't know that I believe in it. But Russia's ... well, I'm a bit biased - I've seen Ivan, I've seen how he looks when he comes, I've seen him with his lips wrapped around my cock, I've heard him whisper filthy things in a bedroom voice to me over the phone. That kind of stuff makes you notice a guy, and 'big nose weird smile crazy hair too tall for normal people' just becomes a facet of your observations.
He's attractive, now. He wasn't before. I don't think I'd ever have considered him conventionally attractive, before all this. Not really my type. I don't even know what my type is. I thought my type was his sister. I haven't thought of Katya in months.
And yet, the way he held me in the shower. The way he kissed me that last night on the boardwalk, in full view of his bosses. The desperation in his eyes when he looks at me - he needs me! I find it difficult to believe he feels nothing at all for me - and he's said on a number of occasions how grateful he is to me for my assistance, however paltry - and that certainly helps me feel something for him. Yes, I like it when people notice me. When people talk to me, interact with me, knowing full well I'm me, not mistaking me for my brother.
"I don't think so," I say at last.
No, I don't love him. But I might.
If Alfred picks up on how long it took me to say that, he doesn't comment on it. "Where's he been, anyway?" he asks. "Why's he never coming to see you?"
"Because he's under house arrest," I say. "Ten years. His bosses."
Al sucks in a breath and sits up more straight in his seat. "Whoa. They can do that?"
"Guess so," I reply.
"I can't help you," he says. "I would if I could - I'd ask if I can do anything. You know - if you really want - with him, then I support you. I always support you, you're my brother! I'd do anything for you, Mattie."
I take my eyes off the road very briefly to meet my brother's. He smiles sadly. "But America can't support Canada in this," he finishes.
"I know." Even I've done too much.
"So what're you gonna do?" he asks.
"I dunno," I say. "I really don't know."
"It's only ten years. You could wait."
What can they do to him in ten years' time? Could they do anything seriously wrong? How bad could they mess him up? Could they do permanent, irreparable damage?
And moreover, waiting ten years for him like a long lost lover? I don't like him enough for that.
"Anyway," says Al, leaning over to switch on the radio, "let's have some tunes."
The world meeting this year is held a few weeks before it usually is held, in late June. It's not atypical for the July meeting to be moved, and to be perfectly honest, I like not working on Canada Day, so I don't mind pushing it this far back. Means I don't work on my birthday.
Colombia is hosting this year, having swapped duties last year with Estonia. And Bogotá is a lovely place, ordinarily I'd be excited. But my mind is elsewhere. As, it seems, is Russia.
The meetings go off without a hitch, and there is nothing eventful to report, with one glaring exception.
Estonia bumps into me - literally - after the luncheon on the second day on his way out of the conference room. "Watch it!" I snap. I'm already angry with him. His walking into me like he doesn't even see me irks me even further.
Estonia stalks off without a word.
My first instinct is to snap back, knowing that it's futile because if I'm being walked into, the other person won't notice my reaction to it, they never do, I'm used to it...
Only I'm not.
Only, nobody's treated me like that for awhile. Like I don't exist, like I'm invisible.
And just as I realise that, off to the side I notice Egypt and Ethiopia, watching with wide open eyes. Watching me. I'm obviously not invisible to them!
They exchange looks, then they catch my eye. "Are you okay?" asks Ethiopia.
"Pretty rude," Egypt mutters.
"I'm fine," I reply, brushing myself off.
They saw me just fine. So why can't Estonia? I'm tempted to go track him down and tell him to watch where he's going, what's with him.
But no sooner have I turned to do just that when Kuma-something tugs my pant leg. "What?" I ask exasperatedly.
"Don't need to," says Kuma-thingamajig.
"You can't just plow into people like that," I explain. "That's impolite. He could at least apologise."
"He got what he came for. Doesn't need to talk to you." Kuma-whatever lets my pant leg go and starts pawing idly at the laces of my shoe. "Inside your jacket."
Inside my -
I slip my hand inside my blazer, the inside pocket -
- there's something there that wasn't before.
Mostly flat, a solid bump inside it, a about the size of my palm. Rough packing paper exterior. An envelope.
How did - !
Sleight of hand, much! My blazer's been buttoned up since this morning. He must've waited until I unbuttoned it, after the meeting. Estonia would make the world's best pickpocket. Almost a shame he's well off these days.
But I know the drill. So long as Russia's bosses are here - and they are, watching me, their interest piqued after my physical encounter with Estonia - I can't open it.
I remove a pen from my inside blazer pocket instead. Pretend I've been looking for it all this time.
"That's better," says Kuma-thing.
Later that week, once I've returned from Colombia, mid-day on the 2nd (once the drunken revelry of my birthday is over and my hangover has worn off), I reach into my laundry hamper and pull out the envelope again. I open it. There's a note, accompanying a small cardboard parcel, maybe one and a half times the size of a credit card, half an inch thick.
I am being watched, says the note, so I cannot be friendly. Nor can we meet - not yet.
If you want to help him - and if I know him then he has gotten so deep under your skin that you still do - follow my instructions to the letter. Tell no one.
If you're smart you won't open the parcel in your hotel room. Do not open it in your house, and not at work. Go to one of your parks - somewhere where there is no surveillance, because security staff are never paid much and are easily bribable - find a quiet place away from trees, and there you must open it.
I await your response.
I drive out as instructed. The package, when I finally open it, is a cellphone. Nokia - a Finnish company - an old model with a cracked screen. I turn it on to find one missed call from a number 050 239 55 03. That's a Finnish mobile line, I recognise. How did Estonia manage this?!
I text the number first. Who is this?
My answer comes back within thirty seconds. Give me an hour. We need to talk.
So I wait. Forty-five minutes later the phone rings. It's that number again. I pick up.
"Are you certain you're alone?" It's Estonia's voice, clipped syllables and all. It's a bit difficult to hear him, but if he's in his own land that's to be expected.
"I'm on the Central Experimental Farm," I tell him.
"And what is this?"
"It's a farm in the city," I say. "Hard to explain. I'm on a road outside the experimental oilseed fields. Can't get much more isolated than this without heading into suburbs."
"Ah," Estonia replies. "No, better remaining in the city. Easier for me to hack into satellites."
I hear some typing going on in the line behind him. "Is that how you're doing this?"
"Something like it." More keystrokes then a double-click of a mouse. "Only way I can be sure this is a secure line."
"Finland's security isn't enough?"
"Finland doesn't know about this." The keystrokes stop. "And he mustn't know."
I look around me. There's nobody near, the fields are deserted. It's ten in the morning, and people are working, but not right now, not here, except for a few workers here and there farther off in the distance. I'm leaned up on my car facing a tree. I guess it's time to get to business, anyway. "What do you want?"
"Don't sound so mad to me!" Estonia complains.
"You're working with Russia's bosses to imprison him, and you expect me not to be mad?"
"Not quite the whole story! They've got my hands tied also, and I need your help getting out of their service."
I glare. A sparrow perches on the nearest branch, catches my eye, and flits off again. "And why exactly should I help you?"
More keystrokes on the line. Estonia is typing something again. "Because I am the one cracking codes on your correspondences for them, and if I am out of their influence then I can get you messages to him, and he to you. But most importantly ..."
He trails off. The keystrokes stop again. "Yes?" I ask.
Estonia sighs. "I am in trouble myself," he says unhappily. "And I need the help. I don't promise what Russia has been giving you - my whore days are over, thanks - but, do you truly do nothing for those in need anymore? I got the impression, you were more altruistic -"
Whore days - ! "Ru- he's not - I-I'm not doing this to get sex out of it!" I stammer.
A few mouse clicks. "It's what it sounded like to me," Estonia says snottily. "You know, I hear these audio feeds."
"I - what kind of person do you think I am?! You have to understand, I-it just sort of - happened -"
"Oh yes, I know," he replies. "It always 'just happens'. Standard trick he uses."
I pause. Silence on the line on both our ends. "You're lying," I say.
"Hmmm. I wish."
I thought... he did like me, didn't he? Didn't he feel some sort of affection? Anything at all?
"We should meet," continues Estonia. "I need to get to him, and you can help me with that."
"And how can I do that?"
"Your little invisibility trick, I thought."
My eyes grow wide. "How did you -"
"I spoke with him directly before contacting you. That's why it took me a damned year! He is not easy to get to."
"And - is he -" I trail off. I can't make myself say it.
"He's fine," Estonia reassures me. "Bored out of his mind, what remains of that, but yes, is fine. They don't torture him, if that's what you're asking."
They couldn't anyway. What can they do to one of us that would be permanent? Except for what Petrova and Borovsky have been up to. From what Russia was telling me, that's a bit like torture, though perhaps sabotage is more the word for it. "I'm not sure that what his bosses are doing isn't exactly that," I say.
A few more keystrokes. "I am inclined to agree," Estonia decides, "I don't like it. I have bad feelings about this."
"Then we'll meet," I say. "What have you got in mind?"
"A week from now, I hold a working group for few of us on cybersecurity. Mostly European members, but China, your brother, and Russia will be in attendance. Not Russia himself, but his bosses coming. Of course, this is completely false but only we will know it's sham. We two leave early."
"How will we avoid suspicion?"
"Finland is good at picking fights. I've asked him to create some sort of distraction - he doesn't know why, he thinks I only want to leave early, which, well, he's not wrong - but before anyone knows, we are gone three hours. From there, we drive to Moscow. Drive is long, so bring reading. When we arrive, you, meet up with Russia and get him out - I have some plan for this. Meanwhile I wait elsewhere in the city. I trust him to lose the tracks on him, if there is one, and meet with me in isolated location. We two have something to discuss."
"Alright. Then what?"
"It depends on how that goes. I suspect the result he'll be angry, but more concerned. He knows what the next step is."
"And that is?"
Estonia sighs. "Probably, to break into his bosses' offices and retrieve what documents are blocking his permission to see legislative changes."
"He can't just tell?" I know instantly when Colin's doing something dumb. It's in the media, it's in the faces of my citizens, it's in my bones.
"He no longer knows what's being changed the way we're supposed to," Estonia says. "He needs these papers to catch up."
"I don't like the sound of this," I say.
"You think I want to break into Kremlin? Not my idea of fun! But remember, whatever his bosses have done to him, can be done to one of us. Canada, we must do something." There's some noise on other side of the line. "I have to go," says Estonia, in a panicked voice, "they've found me."
"If you accept, I'll see you at the working group. Don't contact this number again! Throw that phone out. Remove memory card and battery, keep those safe."
He hangs up. I'm left with a dead line in my hand and for a second I just look at it, in horror. This is unsettling.
Then I turn the phone around, break the back open and remove the battery and memory card, like he told me to.
The invite to the cybersecurity working group pops into my inbox that afternoon.
I take a few minutes to prepare myself to wheedle Colin into giving me time off to go all the way to Tartu, Estonia on last minute notice, but when I step into his office he's on the phone. He doesn't get off for me, and wordlessly spins his laptop around to show the email he's received from Estonia's boss, inviting me cordially to the meeting. Then he waves me away, all while berating someone named Desaulniers for their perceived shortsightedness.
I get online to book a ticket for one, but then Kuma-thingit climbs up onto my lap, and I switch the number of seats desired to two.
"I'll get in the way," Kuma-whatnot says.
"I might need you," I argue.
"I'm not the one who plays ghost," he replies. It's true. So far, my invisibility ruse works on me, my clothes and shoes, and anything I'm carrying which isn't alive. Unless I intend to ambush the Russians with a floating bear. Tempting.
So in the end, I book for one and leave him with Lisa - who loves Kuma but isn't happy about the last minute notice that cramps her plans to visit Sam's family in the States. I ply them both with food and squeaky toys and a firm promise that I'll stop ditching my bear with her at the eleventh hour.
The working group itself is boring. We're on the ninth floor of one of Estonia's hotels, where there's a conference hall big enough for all of us. We have a two-hour-long round-table discussion which America and Germany take turns dominating, with China jumping in the fray here and there, then Germany presents his findings on some exploited loopholes in audit trails for online voting.
I have no idea what he's talking about. I don't pay much attention. I'm sure it's all very interesting and important. I just have to stick it out until the end of the day.
Prussia seems surprised to see me here. I make myself scarce at lunch. I'm... starting to feel a bit guilty about avoiding him. He looks unhappy.
But I note that during the break, he and America speak closely for forty minutes, off to the side. And he doesn't come to seek me out. I don't know what to make of that.
Russia's bosses are the only humans in the meeting. This is brought up during the context of the roundtable discussion and re-visited after our midday break.
It seems a lot of us, by now, have realised that this is Strange with a capital S. After all, Russia himself hasn't been seen in over a year, and keeps sending his bosses in his stead. To every meeting. Germany is convinced that it's nothing more than Russia's laziness. Both Belgium and Sweden voice similar opinions. America and I exchange glances. I spotted two guards on our way inside - tall, broad men in suits and sunglasses stationed either side of the entrance. Somehow I don't think they're Estonia's men.
"Whatever," says China, "he smart not to come, this is boring."
"Nevertheless, he ought to be here," adds France. "If we have to, he has to. It is unfair!"
In the afternoon, Estonia leads us through an advisory session about DDoS attacks and then one about regulatory updates and cloud server abuse, and at 4pm sharp he proceeds to schedule the next meeting for the last week in September.
Finland raises objections. "Excuse me, Viro dear," he begins politely, "I can't make that week! I have meeting with Chile already."
"We could carry on without you," Germany offers.
Finland scoffs haughtily. "I don't think so!" he says. "Let's please make it first weekend in October."
"I cannot make that," Germany argues. "Surely you can compromise one small event, and if not, is this meeting truly as important as your bilateral relations?"
"My telecom companies outperforms any of yours! Why should I compromise something?" Finland erupts, and I don't know how true that is, but it gets both Germany and Prussia instantly on their feet. Finland doesn't back down, though, and continues to argue. "What about the third October?"
"That is unity day!" Prussia complains.
"We may yet reach compromise," suggests Germany, placatingly, "how is the first?"
Finland's doing a good job of not budging. "That's not giving me time enough, I will be jet-lagged. We'll have to make it after! Week of the 10th?"
"No, I am hosting the Organisation de coopération et de développement économiques," explains France. "Many of us cannot make that."
I watch Estonia as he tries to be heard over the growing din but he can't shout loudly enough to cover Finland and Germany, let alone all the other nations who begin voicing their opinions about when they can and can't meet. I have a sneaking suspicion they're all trying to push the next meeting to next year. Finally, exasperated and exhausted, Estonia throws up his hands and flops back down in his seat. "Fine," he shouts, "next meeting schedule is tabled for next meeting, we adjourn!"
Some of the nations begin to leave, though many of them remain to bicker. "But how are we going to address it next meeting if we don't know when next meeting is?" asks Latvia.
"We could set up an online poll," suggests France. "Then we can all go home now -"
"My earlier presentation explained why this is not secure!" Germany yells. "Verdammt, were you not paying attention?"
"Alright! We break for fifteen minutes, all return with your calendars!" If Estonia isn't in fact annoyed, he's doing a great job pretending.
I leave with the rest of the crowd when we file out, flanked by Spain and Iceland. "Ah, good," says a voice behind me. I don't have to turn to see who it is; I'm familiar enough with the voice. Estonia presses his hand into the small of my back, guiding me not-so-subtly towards the exit instead of the snacks outside the conference hall. "I was about to get fresh air. Perhaps pollute it with cigarette. Canada, won't you please join me," he asks firmly - not a request by any means.
I let him steer me around. We get to the elevator and take the busiest one. There must be twelve people in here - all of them Baltic, I can tell by the predominance of blue eyes and blond hair. Two women speak to each other in what must be Estonian but sounds like trilling gibberish to me.
A guard has followed us already this far, but he stays a distance away. He doesn't manage to make it in time. If it weren't for the fact that he's in a suit with sunglasses, and that Estonia keeps pushing the 'doors close' button repeatedly, as though pushing it more will make it work faster, I wouldn't've known he was a guard at all.
I can feel the anxiety coming off Estonia from steps away.
Smartly, he's picked the elevator with the most amount of stops. Practically every floor is lit up. We make all the stops, letting someone out each time. Estonia keeps his eyes on the crowd and one hand on the door closed button, but has yet to select a floor himself.
At ground, two men - dressed plainclothes, but tall and broad, with sunglasses and earpieces - get in. Estonia keeps his eyes down and slips out the side. I almost don't notice, and have to race after him to follow. The men, behind me, look angry that he's eluded them, but the doors are already closing.
"We'll take another," Estonia says, and jumps in the nearest down elevator, with a single occupant, a placid-looking lady of approximately sixty, who gets out at -1.
Now, he pushes -3, and slams the doors close button before the guards can figure out where we're going.
-3, if it's like -1, must be some sort of parking level. We're not going for a smoke, it seems.
"Come on, come on," Estonia whispers to himself. "Quickly, please."
"We'll get there," I try to reassure him. He ignores me.
The elevator dings and the doors open. The parking garage is filled with cars but nobody seems to be around - no guards, no other citizens. "Good. Follow me," he says. "Stay close."
He walks briskly across the garage - a left, another sharp left, a few metres after that, and he stops in front of a shiny silver car partially obscured by a cement pillar. It looks new, but the model is a few years old. He must take really good care of it. Or he doesn't salt his roads as much as I salt mine. Estonia removes a keyring from his pocket and the car beeps and the lights flash. "Unlocked. Let's go," he says.
I hop in the passenger's side, and Estonia gets in the front. "This might be bit..." Estonia begins. He swings an arm around my seat as he twists his head around to back out of the parking spot. "Hmm," he says. "How I should say this..."
He replaces his hands on the wheel and slams on the gas. I'm pinned against the seat. "Yes," he says, "that's good enough."
We make it to the highway uneventfully. By which I mean, we somehow manage not hitting anything, which surprises me because Estonia's not a very good driver. A few times I catch him wavering in and out of the lines on the road, and he overcorrects. He acts like he doesn't drive too often. Now the pristine state of his car makes sense.
"Where are we going?" I ask.
"Until we get out of Tartu, let us keep conversation to few words, okay?" advises Estonia. "I need concentration."
He's constantly checking the rearview mirror and both sides. I hear a whirring noise at my right and notice that he's using the controls on the driver's side to fiddle with the mirror on the passenger side - which, of course, takes his concentration off the road. "You're, uh - climbing up that guy's rear pretty fast, eh?" I tell him. He overcompensates by hitting the brakes harder than he needs, jerking me forward.
"Calm down," I say.
"Don't tell me to calm down," he snaps. His fingernails are white on the steering wheel. "If you're not going to be helpful then be quiet."
I sigh. "Okay, what can I do to be helpful?"
"You can tell me when they've stopped following us," he says darkly.
I can't see anything in the mirrors behind me - angled for Estonia's position - so I turn around to see. We're in the middle of a two-lane highway. Cars around us, aft and fore. I can't tell which of them are our trackers.
With a sudden twist of the wheel and a screech of the tires, Estonia yanks us into the fast lane and slams on the gas, knocking me so hard into the passenger side door that it puts my glasses askew. My seatbelt tightens automatically.
I am going to die. I am going to die and it is going to be because Estonia can't drive. "Jesus christ!" I yell. I'm flattened back on the seat, my hands scrambling their way to a firm grip on the door where it meets the window.
Estonia locks the doors. There go my barrel roll plans. "You watch for them," he says, "just let me drive."
"Must I?" I grumble.
He takes us a good ten car lengths before he switches lanes again, cutting someone off. They honk at us. "Dammit," Estonia says. "Can't do that. Will alert them."
I keep an eye on the mirrors, and it's now that I realise...
... there's two cars behind us which seem to be keeping pace. One black, one blue, both driven - I squint to be sure - by men in suits with sunglasses.
"They're still there," I say.
"Two. Blue and black."
"Good," Estonia says, "perhaps then I have lost the white one."
"But surely they'll have radio contact between them."
"Which is why I have to concentrate!" He jerks the steering wheel at the last minute to pull us onto an on-ramp to another highway.
The blue one follows us, the black one doesn't. "Got one," I say.
"Not yet, I haven't."
We keep on that highway for some time, switching lanes periodically - probably annoying everybody around us - and I'm impressed we haven't gotten pulled over by the police given how fast Estonia's going. "Shit," he says, finally breaking the silence. "Rush hour, ahead. How this is possible?"
"It is a city, what city doesn't have daily traffic around 4:30 in the afternoon -"
"It is student town in middle of summer!" As traffic slows, Estonia pulls onto the shoulder and drives the last remaining car lengths on it to the off-ramp, to the tune of many honks but (somehow) not yet sirens.
"I-I thought you didn't want to alert anybody!" I yell. We roll over something that I sincerely hope is a pothole. "At this rate, you'll attract the cops!"
"I hope not," mutters Estonia, "I don't actually possess licence."
He doesn't have a licence.
He doesn't have a fucking licence!
"You -" We veer dangerously close to the ditch by the side of the highway. "Why does this not surprise me," I groan.
Finally we turn off the shoulder to the off-ramp. "We take the city to lose them," Estonia says. "Let's hope they are not using other two to flank us, as they may find that easy to do."
"Yeah, let's also hope the cops don't catch us, Mister Joy-ride," I retort.
Estonia scoffs. "So we both claim diplomatic immunity! There is no problem. Stop complaining."
We continue on a straight route for some time, and the car behind us doesn't overtake or pass anybody to keep in position. The black one catches up. They might think that we think we've lost them, and for the moment that's probably better.
"Construction ahead," I warn. I'm pretty sure that's what the sign means. It's not in English but symbols are universal.
"Ah. Good news," Estonia says, "down to one lane. In good position."
We keep in line for the duration of the construction - forcing it down to one lane makes the blue car and black car file into queue, and our four car lengths separation now becomes twelve single file.
The second he's clear of the construction, Estonia swerves right and slams on the speed, then swerves left to hide us in the buildings.
"Can't be that simple," I murmur.
"It never is," he agrees, then swerves down a side street barely large enough for us.
The blue car is lost now, but the black car reappears behind us within seconds. "Quickly!" he says, and steps on the accelerator again as he takes a sharp left turn. The car bounces over the curb and up onto the sidewalk before he corrects the wheels and brings us back to the road.
"Jesus!" I yell, "would you watch it? There was a pedestrian there!" I twist around and see her angrily shouting something at us.
"Their fault, they see the lights, says not cross yet!" Estonia snaps - too busy yelling to drive straight and he's taken one hand off the steering wheel to gesture angrily as he speaks - "why they sit there waiting at edge of sidewalk anyway?"
There's a roundabout up ahead, which I know means bad news.
Worse - I'm still watching the action behind us - "The black car is gaining on us," I say.
"Good," says Estonia, and with a screech of tires has spun us around the roundabout so fast we nearly lose control. Again I find myself pinned to the door. He goes all the way around to reverse our direction and the second his tires are back aligned (mostly) he clamps on the speed. The black car behind us has to race to keep up, and has barely made the roundabout before we turn off a side street out of view.
The side street is small, hardly big enough for our car. Estonia takes a sharp left onto another alley and I notice something.
"Oh, what now?" he snaps.
"The fire escapes -" I say -
- are low-hanging, thick iron ladders that might just take off the roof of the car.
"Kuradi raisk!" Estonia growls, trilling the r's obscenely, and swerves to the right to avoid hitting one on our left. Then swerves left to avoid the one on the right. He swerves right - then left - then right - the fire escapes are either side, interspersed. Estonia jerks the car from side to side and overcorrects both ways until I am positive we're going to crash into something.
When we do, I'm relieved that it's only a garbage bin.
And the bin, after we hit it, falls neatly into the middle of the alley, blocking any driving through, just as the black car pulls in.
Estonia takes the next right onto a regular route and finds the highway.
Just to be sure, I keep looking over my shoulder, but none of the cars rejoin us.
Five minutes later, we're still clear. Safe!
"I think..." Estonia says cautiously, his eyes on the mirrors. "I think we can breathe easy now."
'Breathe easy', he says! 'I don't have a licence', he says!
I give him my very best glare.
"At least until Moscow!" he says. "Which is full of Petrova's people." His tone is trying for reassuring and failing miserably. We turn off onto another highway leading out of the city.
"Then maybe we should start talking," I say. I should clarify. "Maybe you should start talking."
Estonia reddens to the tips of his ears and his thin lips pinch shut.
"Are you in danger? You said, Petrova's people, and those guards following you, what are they doing?"
"They are blackmailing me," Estonia says. "They know what I've done - something I shouldn't have done, something they caught me doing. They say they tell Russia what I've done. That's why I need to see him. If I tell him first, then worst is over - assuming I survive - they have nothing over me anymore, and I can get on with life."
What could Estonia have possibly done? It would have to be international, to involve Russia's bosses... Something electronic? It's Estonia, it has to be electronic. "What did you do?"
Estonia shakes his head, his lips thin and pressed together. "Cannot say. If - if Russia does not explode when I tell him, then I shall tell you, because then it doesn't matter who knows."
"It was something big, wasn't it?" I guess.
Estonia is quiet for a few moments. Finally, he says, "He would be within his right to perceive it as act of war."
I suck in a shocked breath. If that's the w-word - if he can say it...
It must be big. He shouldn't be able to say it.
"If he did same to me," he continues, "it's what I would do. No hesitation."
"So then - that's why they're following you," I say, realising.
"They don't know what I'm doing, not yet. They know that I have to speak to Russia for other reasons, but all those other reasons have been chaperoned before now."
And there's more ... "That time in Kazakhstan -" I put it together - "we could've all gone out together, we could've all spoken without them there!" It could have been so easy!
Estonia smiles kindly. "It's nice idea, isn't it? But they are always there, always watching. They would make him wear wires. They would make me wear wires. They would make me record what we spoke and hand over all material."
I'm still frantically trying to put together what Estonia's done. "There could be workarounds," I say. We could have written on a pad of paper and passed it back and forth. We could have morse-code blinked messages around. We could have done any number of things to communicate silently. I should - I should have trusted Estonia. Dammit! "Where are we going now?"
"Now, we go to Moscow, where Russia is being held. He has two apartments there, one at the Kremlin, and one in Moscow's Chinatown."
"Why there, of all places?"
"Used to be large market in that location. One of Europe's largest. They closed it on allegations of illegal activities. Lot of counterfeiting, smuggling, illegal immigration ... if you wanted something done and nobody to find out about it, it was where to go. When that was shut down, there were projects needed badly to refill that sector, and luckily, China moved in with a goodly sum of development material - and money - that Russia literally could not refuse. Overall, it's beneficial to both ... but you can't eradicate corruption with money. There are still old ways people do business there."
"So that's why they're holding him in that location?" So that Petrova and Borovsky can bribe who they like to shut up about what they're doing to their own representative?
"Not quite," says Estonia. "If they wanted to keep closest watch on him, he would be in Kremlin. The fact that they have moved him tells me that they are, how to say, lightning upon him."
"Lightening up on him?"
"Yes. After year's good behaviour."
"Do you know Moscow well?"
"I know St Petersburg, better. Back before my independence, I did lots of education there - it was easy for us western borderlands, particularly easy for me - all in Russian language of course - and the city is beautiful. Lot of trade, lot of money, was well-connected to Europe - just upriver for me, quite easy to access. Lovely place, for Russian city. When ... we were occupied, however, all business must go through Moscow - naturally - so now, yes, now I know Moscow well enough. I like Moscow much less." He is silent for a bit. "There are spies everywhere," he says quietly, uncomfortably. "We go through Petseri, then through Pskov on the Russian side, follow M20 until Moscow."
My Estonian and Russian geography is severely lacking. "Where's Petseri?"
"South. On the border with Russia. Once we are in, we are harder to detect. We could take lot off our time by progressing more directly but Petseri is advantageous for this purpose."
Why would - oh. That's right, why go south if you could just head directly east? We're nations, there's borders all around us.
But - hang on... Why would one particular place on the border matter more?
And Russia had said, 'fuzzy borders'...
"His borders are especially fuzzy there, you mean."
Estonia reddens again. "Yes."
With a flash of insight I put it together. "That's your doing, isn't it."
His lips are tight, his knuckles clenched on the steering wheel.
"Estonia. What did you do?" I ask.
"I'm sorry, I can't say anything more," Estonia whispers, and his grip on the steering wheel begins to shake.
We drive in relative silence for the rest of the trip.
a/n: I'm so sorry about the hiatus and wait! Thanks all for your patience :D Estonia's accent is modelled after Tonu Kaljuste's. I love, love love love accents. Everyone in this fic has one. (Even America and Canada, tho their accents are more lexical/semantic than syntactic.) If you want to know about how I pieced together the accent syntactically, come find me at my tumblr! Same username, or also follow the link on my ffn profile.
Verdammt: Damn it
Kuradi raisk: :') guess~