She never stopped to explain, never turned to look at him, didn’t even hesitate to quit her job – just left Russia in a state of complete disarray, his office messy and unmanageable without her, and not even a word of warning beforehand.
So that was it.
His secretary had just walked out on him… again.
The twentieth one.
He brought a hand up to his forehead and massaged it roughly as a sudden headache overtook his skull. There was no way he would ever get another secretary. Most women were too scared to work for him and the others were just too smart to even try. Hate letters and complaints, politics, economics, laws… No person in their right mind would ever take a job like that.
Air whooshed passed his lips as he let out a deep breathe. He would never be able to handle all that work alone. No lunch breaks, no vodka breaks, no nap breaks, no staring-out-the-window-doing-nothing breaks…
He groaned. Vodka…
The walk back to his office felt like he was on Death Row. Mopey and hunched, he slunk passed people – most of them steering very clear of his way – and grumbled about anything and everything he saw.
That women needed to pull up her shirt, that man needed to get slacks not stained with coffee, that guy looked like he just woke up, that office was a disaster (not that he could talk), that women was wearing way too much make-up, that door needed to be closed before some ran into it–
That was his.
He rounded the corner and didn’t even bother to close the door behind him. Maybe someone running into it would make him feel better. And maybe they’d get a bloody nose.
He stared dejectedly at the mess of both his and his ex-admin’s desks. Papers… papers everywhere. Notary stamps, pens, sticky notes, those little “Sign Here” tabs, paperclips… He dug through the muddle and pulled out a pile of complaints that had yet to be read, answered, signed, and sent. Still more came in every moment, and he knew that he wasn’t going home till late… If ever.
He supposed he should get started…
Nah, he would start later. He needed a nice long break after that messy morning… Besides, work always came after vodka.
He grabbed his coat from the back of his chair and pulled it on. He left his office and strode towards the long hall he had chased Irina down just minutes prior, but instead of the stairs he took a sharp left and out an emergency exit door. It was colder going that way but by far faster. And who was he to care about the cold?
By the time he reached his car his tie had been pulled loose by frantic tugging and the very top button of his dress shirt had come undone. He needed something to drink. It was the only thing that stopped the nervous pounding of his heart and eased the tension in his shoulders.
He pulled open the door of his vehicle (which he found most of co-workers gawking at, but really, what did you expect the personification of Russia to drive?) and slid into the driver’s seat. He had just snapped his door shut, started the engine, and rolled down his window – which was foggy – when the very last thing he wanted to hear rang over the purring of the car.
No, no, no.
“Hey man!” the voice yelled again, this time much closer. “Wait up for a sec!”
Contemplating his options of escape, he realized that he had a very slim chance to none. The idiot would probably just follow him or wait at his office until he came back, not reading the atmosphere and taking a hint that he wasn’t welcome. In his vicinity. In his town. In his country.
In the world.
Gritting his teeth, Russia very slowly turned his head and flashed the man a fake smile.
“America...” he greeted with false enthusiasm. “Wonderful to see you…”
“Like heck it is!” America snapped, grabbing his arms and hugging himself. “Why is it so freaking cold here all the time? And snowy! I hate coming here, ya know.”
“Then why are you here?” Russia asked dully, smile fading into an icy stare.
“Oh, I dunno. My boss wanted to meet up with yours for something official or whatever – I didn’t really pay attention – so I just decided to go out and try and get some Russian girls.”
“Yeah dude, you got some seriously hot chics here.”
Russia continued to look at him apathetically.
“Oh, but that’s not what I’m here to talk to you about!” America exclaimed, snapping his fingers and then pointing at Russia. “I overheard this babe complaining about you in one of the local bars!”
“Dude!” America looked abashed. He gripped the open window with his hands so tightly Russia was worried his car might scratch. And then he’d have to kill him. “She said she just quit being your secretary! How the heck do you lose a secretary in your position? I have girls begging to work for me!”
Russia lifted his shoulder. “Who cares. Now if you’ll excuse me…”
“I bet its ‘cause you’re so scary,” America continued, tapping his chin and ignoring the fact Russia was putting his car into reverse. “Like, you glare all the time. Or smile creepily. You just, like, need to stop that. Oh, oh, oh! Maybe you should make your office more welcoming? Then maybe you’d actually have people who wanted to work for you…”
The car stopped. Russia snapped his gaze to America, purple eyes blazing, and he very nearly broke the man’s neck as he grabbed his collar and pulled him down and eye-level with him.
“What did you just say?!” he barked.
America stuttered around for a moment, beads of sweat starting to run down his face despite the cold. “U-uh dude, c-calm down…”
“No! Tell me what you just said about making people want to work for me!”
This made the blond pause. “…Huh?”
Russia cringed at his desperation, but he had already sunk so low as to lose his twentieth secretary… in a month. If asking America – goodness knows there were smarter people to consult – would help him even a little, then darn it, he would just have to swallow his pride. He needed help.
Yes, he knew he was scary. Yes, he knew his office was cold and forlorn. Yes, he knew he was friendless. He just didn’t know how to go about fixing all of that. Perhaps if he made himself appear nicer, he could actually keep a secretary!
America was still staring at him in disbelief with Russia still holding his head down to the window. He could really care less if the obnoxious blond was in pain; he just needed advice ASAP. If he didn’t look nicer in 24 hours and didn’t get a new secretary, Winter knows what would happen to him.
No vodka because of work…
“Well?!” Russia snapped, giving a good shake of his fists so America’s glasses went askew. “How do I go about looking nicer?!”
“Well, letting me go would be a pretty good start…”
Ah, yes, he was right. It probably wouldn’t make him look like a very nice guy if he was assaulting someone through his car. It was best to do those kinds of things in private as blood was often prevalent.
The bomber jacket’s leather slipped through Russia’s fingers as he released his grip. America straightened and rubbed his neck, facing twinging with pain.
“Right, then…” he murmured, eyes flickering down to Russia and then back to the parking lot around them. “If you’re really serious about this, then you need to cool your head and not try and snap people’s necks in half. Not cool, bro.”
“Sorry,” Russia mumbled, even though he didn’t entirely mean it. “So what should I do?”
American groaned and rolled his head around on his shoulders. “Well – mmph – you should start by making your personal space seem more inviting. Enough with the dreary décor – open your shades for once.”
Russia frowned. “But I don’t like to look at the snow.”
“Yeah, but others might. And it looks like your blocking out the sun if you keep them closed all the time,” America pointed out. “Besides, what kind of girl is gonna keep working for a man who doesn’t even like to look out the window? You gotta be less dark, dude!”
Pursing his lips, Russia nodded his head.
There was a pregnant pause as America rubbed his chin in thought. A cold breeze rippled past him and into the car, making Russia’s back go rigid. Was there really a way to help his office look less like a cavern of death and more like a livable working space, thereby giving him a better chance at getting a secretary?
“Well, you could always try flowers…?” American finally offered.
“I can’t believe I’m listening to that doorak!” Russia barked angrily at himself, taking a sharp left turn.
He hadn’t the slightest clue where he was going. Never had he gone shopping for flowers. Heck, he didn’t even know what a flower shop looked like. And where the heck was he supposed to find one in a freezing tundra like Moscow, anyway?
Grumbling, he scanned the many shops lining the street he had turned on in hopes of finding something. People were crowded around cafes and bookstores, clothing shops, gaming centers… Where would a flower shop be?
He spotted an older lady carrying an arm full of red flowers (he’d seen them before but couldn’t remember what they were called… didn’t they start with an “R”?) and pulled over. She stopped walking and eyed him warily, but he rolled his window down nonetheless and smiled as best as he could.
“Excuse me, old la–!”
He sputtered as something wet and burning shot into his face. Scrambling frantically – and definitely not acting like how he should as a big-bad country – he groped at his eyes which felt as if they were fire.
“W-what did you do to me?!” he yelled, still scraping. “Is that p-pepper spray?!”
Another bout of intense fire engulfed his eyeballs, and he moaned in agony and hit his forehead against his steering wheel repeatedly. Water was streaming down his face in absolute torrents, and the pain that he was experiencing (was his throat on fire too?) was beyond description.
Why, oh why him?!
“WHAT KIND OF DAY IS THIS?!” he screamed. “FIRST MY SECRETARY QUITS AND NOW I’VE BEEN ASSULTED BY SOME CRAZY OLD LADY WITH A BOTTLE OF PEPPER SPRAY!”
He removed one of his hands and slammed it against his dashboard, probably resembling some kind of psycho as he continued to bash his face into his wheel at the same time. Why wasn’t the burning going away?! And now his throat was starting to swell! What the crap did the lady spray him with?!
He could just barely make out her snapping words about “pedophiles” and “creeps” being everywhere nowadays, and the distinct sound of gasping people as they watched him writhe in agony as the old hag meandered off with her bouquet.
The burning still didn’t stop nor did it ease even as he let rip a long torrent of curses, both Russian and English, and continued to beat himself to death to make the pain in his eyes and throat cease. And he was too busy yelling, smashing, and being in pain to notice his car door open, someone heaving him out – probably the police – , and an arm wrapping around his torso to help support his lumbering frame.
Oh no, he was going to have a hard time explaining this one to his boss… And go figure it had nothing to do with vodka.
He was one hundred percent sure he was being taken to jail when, instead of a loud male voice yelling at him to put his hands behind his back – which he would not be able to do thanks to his eyeballs about to fall out of his head – he caught the very gentle voice of a woman.
“Hey, are you okay?”
He was so surprised he nearly dropped his hands to stare. Which, obviously, he couldn’t do in his current situation anyway, so there wasn’t a point. His eyes were watering so bad that even if he could open them, he still wouldn’t be able to see.
“Oh goodness,” you murmured, and Russia felt you brush against his side and the arm that was around him tighten as you took a step forward with him leaning against you. “Miss Pavlov got you with her pepper spray, I see.”
He attempted to walk as well, but his legs didn’t seem to want to cooperate.
“Obviously!” he snapped, perhaps a little harsher than he had meant.
You fell silent and for one stifling moment, he half-expected you to leave him. But then your grip turned vice-like and if his throat wasn’t swollen, he might have gasped out for hair. You tugged him forward and he could feel you walking again.
“Yeah, she tends to overreact when strangers talk to her,” you carried on, and it was as if he hadn’t said anything at all. “She did the same thing to a poor tourist last year… C’mere,” you steered him in the other direction before walking again, a grunt echoing in the air as you struggled beneath his large body. “We’ll go to my shop and get you washed up.”
He nearly denied your help – almost told you that he was fine (even though he clearly was anything but) and to mind your own business, but there was something inside him that stopped the words from forming. Perhaps his tongue had swollen too?
“Thanks…” he murmured awkwardly, the word tasting strange in his mouth. He wasn’t used to thanking people.
His eyes, throat and nose still burned, but not terribly so and not half as much as when he had first encountered the pepper spray. He supposed that in such a situation, a word of gratitude was necessary whether or not he wanted to say it, but you didn’t seem to mind even if the word had been quiet and rather half-hearted. You simply nodded silently, a little smile playing on your lips, and you cleaned up the mess you had made with wiping the spray off his – now slightly swollen, thanks to the old hag – face.
But he supposed he owed thanks to the crazy old bat; after all, if it hadn’t been for her vicious antics he would have never found the flower shop he had been looking for. She’d lead him right to it by making the shop owner herself come to his aid (however humiliating that might have been).
“It’s no problem,” you said, putting away your First-Aid kit and turning to give him a look of sympathy. “I just feel bad you had to go through that…”
Russia scratched his head and shrugged. Sure, it had been one of the most humiliating moments of his life and now half the people of Moscow would think he was crazy, but he was used to the mistreatment otherwise, and the pain – however excruciating – was nothing new.
“Just a Baba Yaga,” he replied casually, eyes roaming around the small room.
It was painted with a bright yellow that reflected the afternoon sun. Flowers were stacked high and low in every nook and cranny possible, some cascading down their pots in vivid colors and others tall and dull. He had no idea where to start looking; not the slightest clue as to what he should pick. He had never liked flowers. They always reminded him of what he couldn’t have... But he was willing to grit his teeth as long as it earned him a new secretary.
You picked up a watering can made your way to a tall, purple plant. He watched as the liquid gurgled its way into the pot, the way you smiled contentedly, and how the whole room seemed to sparkle with that one short moment.
When you straightened he snapped his gaze away. How stupid of him to stare. It wasn’t like you were anything special – not a “knockout Russian babe” that America would have groveled over. You weren’t beautiful or much to look at, really, just a Plain Jane in a dirt-covered frock who worked in a flower shop.
He had secretly hoped you would be a stunner when he was finally able to peel his eyes open, but what a downer when he realized you were just another girl. Average and petite, [h/l] [h/c] hair, dull [e/c] eyes… nothing special, nothing new.
Yeah, nothing special.
He sighed and heaved himself from the stool he had been sitting on. There was no point in hanging around anymore; he just needed to get some stupid flowers and leave. He was wasting his precious time staring at a girl that didn’t deserve his attention.
“Are you looking for something in particular?” you asked, lowering the can.
He lifted a shoulder nonchalantly as he paced around from plant to plant. “Not exactly… I’m just not good with flowers.”
“What’s the occasion?”
He eyed a bright red flower, the petals a velvety crimson, like freshly spilt blood, and the stem thorn-laden and harsh. It reminded him of someone… “Nothing fancy, just something to brighten up my office a bit.”
You hummed thoughtfully and continued to water. “I see… But I don’t think roses would be a good idea.” Ah, that’s what the red flowers were called… France always had them on hand. Yeah, definitely no roses. “They’re romantic but dark,” you explained, although he was too busy staring at the plant in disgust to listen.
They look like France, he thought bitterly, not caring if they were dark or rainbow or tie-dye. He would not own something that Frenchie had.
He walked down another aisle and paused. A deep brown, nearly black, caught his attention and he moved towards it.
“How about this?” he asked, lifting the pot for you to see.
You wrinkled your nose. “I don’t think Black Dahlias are a good idea for ‘brightening up’ a room.”
He moved onto another a dark flower. “This?”
You shook your head. “Calla Lilies aren’t too happy, either.”
“Uh… definitely not a Bat Orchid…”
He pointed to another and a huff of annoyance escaped your lips. You shook your head in exasperation.
“What?” he demanded, narrowing his eyes.
“You’re choosing all the depressing flowers! Are you decorating an office or a funeral home?” Moving to another part of the room, you stopped at something and pointed down. “If you want to brighten up a room, how about a Sunflower? You can’t get any brighter than that.”
Russia picked his way over, sliding and evading plants as he did, and paused when he reached where you were pointing. He folded his arms, gave you a dull look, and grumbled,
He shook his head. “Nope.”
“What? Why not?!”
“Because it’s too…” He searched for a word to describe the horrifically bright thing before him. “Yellow…”
You gave him a “are you kidding me?” look.
He lifted his shoulders in reply and pointed to the Bat Lilies. “I think those will do fine.”
But you were obstinate. Folding your arms and giving him a stern glower, you replied, “You’re not leaving this building without a sunflower.”
Russia threw his hands up into the air. He was not used to people talking back to him, and for a mere stranger to pull it off without even the slightest inkling of fear… Yet he, strangely enough, did not have the urge to beat you to a bloody pulp. Even when your eyes flashed savagely and even when you refused to move so he could pass you, he still felt no twitch to reach for his pipe. Rather, he found your attitude… amusing?
“I’m sorry, but this is a shop that appreciates all flowers, and above that, sunflowers are the highest of all here. I will not let you leave until you at least can appreciate them.”
A hand passed through his wavy hair in frustration. He dropped it and exhaled loudly, finding the pout on your face strangely adorable, and he was unable to fire a nasty comment in return. For one inexplicable moment, he felt an overwhelming urge to pinch your rosy cheeks. That passed, of course, but he couldn’t help but notice the odd lub lub in his chest as his heart picked up speed.
What the heck?
“See, sunflowers aren’t just the Plain Jane of the floral group,” you began, and Russia inwardly smirked as he realized that Miss Plain Jane was a fan of the Plain Jain flower. What a funny little coincidence. “They have so much meaning to them… For instance, they will always reach towards the sun, so even on the dreariest of days when it seems as if the sun has run away, the sunflower will still face it. Like a constant reminder that no matter what, there is always hope.
“Their petals are so bright yet their middles so dark – a frightening reminder of reality. Or like the emotions within; the kind that are always at war with one another, light trying to battle dark but never quite winning yet never quite losing. Sometimes it feels like the dark wins, just like the sunflower’s middle, and the world feels vast and empty. But there is always that bright hope that lingers, and when you allow it to blossom, it faces the sun with such tenacity that it reflects through you.”
Something about you had changed halfway through your quirky speech. A glow had come about you, a beauty that would have put all the Russian models to shame and retirement. You just looked so… real. It made his heart flutter. And it only ever did that when vodka got to his head.
“It’s like a portable sun, and it always reminds me of warmth and better days,” you continued, a little smile gracing its way on your face, and Russia bit his lip. Why wouldn’t his heart stop that incessant flipping? “When I look at it, I think, ‘Even somewhere like freezing Russia can have something so full of life’. It gives me what I long for… Warmth… light…” You smiled sadly. “It makes me feel something other than cold. I like that. I need that.”
It was as if you were speaking his thoughts… voicing the things that he would never dare even think about. The things he had tried to so hard to bury. They floated from your lips carelessly as if you spent every day explaining to customers why sunflowers were so beautiful. But had those raw words ever shattered someone as they had Russia in that very moment?
Soft, smooth skin brushed across his fingertips as he gently reached for your cheeks. His hands were moving on their own accord, but he didn’t bother to stop them. He liked the way you felt. Warm, solid… A yearning that vodka could never cure within him no matter how much he drank. All he had ever wanted was for someone to care… to understand. Was that person you?
At first he had expected you to pull away. What kind of girl would just let a strange man touch her? But you didn’t. You leaned into his hands and gazed up at him, his eyes betraying his conflicted feelings and his apathetic mask no longer holding back his emotions. He had never felt so familiar with someone. It was like he had known you his whole life without really ever noticing. And something about your expression told him that his identity was no secret to you – did you care so much that you were willing to let Russia hold you?
He was lonely, oh so lonely. Lost, scared, hurt, betrayed… So many dark things swirled inside him, and the only way he knew how to keep them in check was to try and not feel. But you had broken him down with nothing but a stupid speech about a stupid flower. The wall he had spent so long building was now just a pile of rubble. And as his fingers moved from your face to your hair, and as he drew your head very carefully to his large chest, it was like the impenetrable dam that had blocked his tears for so long had finally broken.
How the heck did some strange girl – no stunning looks nor a killer body, no charm at all, really – turn him into a pile of mush?
But you weren’t the Plain Jane anymore. The way your face had lit up as you spoke, so bright, so real – so something that he had irrefutably longed for his entire existence. You were the most beautiful thing he had ever laid eyes on.
Fingers dug into the back of his coat as you grasped him. He pulled you closer, reveling in the warmth of your body and the scent of your hair as he buried his nose into it. He didn’t care that you were a stranger. He didn’t care that you had just met.
He clung to you as if you were his lifeline. You clung to him as if he were yours.
Whenever someone would ask him why he loved sunflowers so much, Russia would merely smile gently, his purple eyes faraway in another time and place, and he would chuckle as if he knew a fanciful secret.
And then he would remember the girl from the flower shop.
He would remember her smile, her melodious laughter, her warmth, her smell… His face would soften and his cheeks would grow rosy, and the nostalgia would flood his senses with such vividness that the world around him would disappear completely. The taste of her lips would dance upon his tongue; the glow of her eyes would reflect within his; the feel of her hands would burn upon his skin; the scent of her hair would prickle his nose. Her name would slip from his lips as he murmured it, purred it, whimpered it – a mantra of simply her that would make his heart race in his chest and his palms go sweaty.
But the sound of his voice would reawaken him to reality, and his eyes would slide open, the smile would vanish, and the deepest sorrow would settle into his chest, his eyes, his posture. He would slump down, suddenly looking a hundred years older, and his face would lose its luster.
He would remember the question, that simple little thing that crushed him every time it was spoken, and he would mutter his usual reply, the one that no one seemed to ever care much for.
“Because someone once taught me the true meaning of beauty.”
And he would remember the girl from the flower shop.
His heart, his breath, his joy, his life… his wife.
The one that took all of those things with her when she passed.
Then he would smile sadly, because just like the sunflower, there was always a spot of light.
But just like the sunflower, there was always a spot of dark right along with it.