He heard it just as he was about to round the corner back to his office after lunch break. A couple of the new interns were loitering in the halls, gossiping in hushed tones about their superiors. Ivan heard a sigh about how hellish it was to be asked to bring a document from the Minister of Interior's desk. Apparently, it was "a disaster".
He was halfway to a chuckle when he caught his name and paused, half a step frozen in mid-air.
A female intern tittered, "Oh, everybody has a crush on Mr. Braginski!"
Her friends laughed. "I heard from the Prime Minister's secretary that his girlfriend is frightening!"
"His aides say he's sweet on her."
"Mr. Braginski is sweet to everybody."
"Except the politicians."
That was followed by a louder, free-er laugh. Then a smaller voice said, "I think he has favourites."
"The old ones?"
Ivan imagined a shrug. "Maybe? He's seems old-fashioned, don't you think?"
The forthcoming murmur of agreement was interrupted by the chiming of the hour from the old waterclock at the foyer down the hall. The interns hastily said their goodbyes and scattered back to their posts in a clatter of feet.
Ivan put down his suspended mid-step and sighed as he trudged back to his office. His children thought he was old.
The thought remained with him for the rest of the day, casting a cloud of gloom over his head. He shuffled his feet as he pondered his file cabinet. When his aide came in with the Quarterly Report from the Minister of Interior, Ivan studied the young man as flatly asked,
"Am I old?"
The poor boy's eyes widened into saucers and he stammered, clearly thrown off, "S-S-Sir?"
"Never mind," Ivan said at last, the word "mid-life crisis" suddenly flashing through his mind. He stuck the report at the bottom of his to-do pile.
Five-thirty on the dot, he was retrieving his coat and wondering whether he should trade in the beige trench for a black leather jacket when you swirled into his office, all smiles and ruddy cheeks and a ruffled pink coat.
"I'm taking you out tonight~" you sang, throwing your arms around him in greeting.
"You are?" he repeated, spirits slightly lifting.
"Yup. But technically, it's 'us'. I mean, it's really 'we're' taking you out tonight."
"Po-Po's dropped by and wants a walk around town before he jets over to Bali. So we're all taking him out."
"Po-Po?" Ivan echoed, feeling very lost.
"Poland, Polska, Feliks, Po-Po!"
His face crumpled into the beginnings of a pout. He had one arm in his coat, but had stopped, as if suddenly drained of all will to go on. "Why can't Liet do it himself?"
"Because poor guy!" you laughed, helping Ivan into his trench. "Feliks will talk, talk, talk his ears off! Besides, it's nice to be neighbourly. Hospitable. Whatever." As the last button slid into place, you prodded him out the door.
"Let's go. Aren't you excited to see the night life?"
Ivan suppressed his umpteenth sigh of the day. He felt old. He felt it in his bones.
"So, like, duh, the boss-man doesn't know!" Poland rolled his eyes, laughing devilishly. "No way in hell am I going to sit in a stuffy meeting room while the shores of Bali beckon outside the window!"
"You can't lie to your boss like that!" Lithuania gasped.
He got a dismissive wave in return. "I'm not using state funds, anyway. Just flying off for a well-deserved break. What the-boss man doesn't know won't kill him. Maybe just give him an anger-stroke!" He cackled.
Lithuania drained his glass of wine.
"You should totally come" Poland went on, addressing you. "It isn't too late to book tickets yet. And I've got room to spare in my hotel suite."
"Sounds lovely," you said, "but Vanya's in his busy season. I hate to leave without him." A cursory sideways glance showed that said Vanya was in a stupor, staring across the room at a group of friends busy taking selfies while they waited for their food to arrive.
Poland only shrugged. As he waxed poetic about his upcoming trip, you took the chance to nudge Russia's untouched glass of vodka towards him. He blinked, looked down long enough to wrap his fingers around it, and then returned to studying the group of friends at the back of the dining hall. After a moment of two, he leaned towards you and quietly asked,
"What are they doing?"
"Oh. Just taking selfies."
His brow furrowed. "I'm sorry, I don't quite..."
"They're taking pictures of themselves," you tried again, beaming as understanding dawned across his face. He straightened, and then,
You shrugged. "To share it on Instagram?"
He shook his head.
"Social media? Like Facebook? Or vKontakte?"
"Ah." He knew that much.
Silence again passed between you. Ivan was still immensely interested in the group, but this time, between sips of vodka. You were beginning to tune back to Feliks' chatter when Ivan gave a little gasp. A couple among the friends had posed together, the man pecking his girlfriend on the mouth as she snapped a photo.
"They share that online, too?" Ivan mused.
"Some couples do."
"To...I don't know. Stake their claim?" you laughed. "Show the world they're together?"
It didn't take long for Ivan to ponder this. His "Ah" of understanding was almost sagely.
The morning after Poland was a scramble. Everyone had stumbled home at three in the morning, some more drunk than the others. A tipsy Poland had crashed onto the living room couch. At seven in the morning, you were dashing hither thither while a hysterical Lithuania pleaded with Poland to get up and get sober. His boss had found out about his plans to jump ship at Bali and was yelling threats audible from the receiver in Lithuania's hand.
Russia was remarkably calm. He went about his business like he had all the time in the world, and even stopped you on the way to work for a long, lingering morning kiss. For luck, he said, and got an extra kiss for being so sweet. Both of you were all smiles as you went your separate ways, but Ivan was extra-pleased.
It wasn't until noon that you learned why, or why your boss gave you raised eyebrows and your staff their knowing smiles.
Ivan had instagrammed your morning kiss and captioned it, "Staking my claim".
In a moment of blind panic, you logged on to Facebook to assess the damage. The photo was at the top of the newsfeeds, with a dizzying number of likes, and way too many congratulatory messages from the rest of the world. Even Norway had taken the time to leave a winking smiley!
You scrolled down to leave a complaint when you spotted China's blazing red display photo. He had written a scathing comment half in Mandarin and half in English, all caps. You surmised that the words in Mandarin were none too diplomatic. To say China was raging mad over Russia's "improper" display and in his failing "his obligation to preserve your purity" was saying the least. He demanded that the photo be taken down and that Russia issue an official apology.
In response, "Don't be jealous," Russia wrote back, "that I am more hip than you are."
Ivan mused that despite the negative reactions (from China, South Korea, Japan, and Vietnam), the response was overwhelmingly positive.
PLUS he had shown the world that you were his and most definitely his.
AND it was clear, that he had owned social media completely.
He closed his laptop, wriggled the Quarterly Report from underneath his to-do pile, and began to read, a big smile on his face.
He was SO not old-fashioned.