Highs, Lows, and In-Between Interest

HLIB, Take 1

Back in 2014, I joined the National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) excitement with a sequel of sorts to an earlier tale, From Hell (A Love Story). FH(ALS) was a raunchy space opera in which I tried to build a bigger backstory for Axton, the running-and-gunning bounty hunter from the 2012 video game Borderlands 2. Part of that backstory was the creation of an original character, Hal, an early (pre-game) partner of Axton’s. I wrote FH(ALS) between late 2012 and early 2014, but I had such fun building that world and the characters in it, I decided to return to that timeline with a host of new adventurers in November of 2014, for NaNoWriMo. The new story was called “The Highs, the Lows, and the In-Betweens”, and I pounded out that sucker free-form over those wild 30 days, plus an additional six months to bring it to a satisfying conclusion.

I posted my day-to-day progression of HLIB on a separate side blog. If nothing else, this process kept me accountable to my projected NaNoWriMo wordcount. Only one person read it…that I knew of. Several days ago, I received an email – more than three years after I’d finished the story – from another apparent HLIB reader:

Email of interest from a reader.

Who knew?

 

HLIB, Take 2

Over the course of the next few years, I wrote a lot more stories following the timeline and characters of “The Highs, the Lows, and the In-Betweens”. When I looked at the original story, though, I found it suffered from the high-octane intensity of being a product of NaNoWriMo. The bones of the story I wanted to tell were there, but it needed work. A lot of work.

I sequestered the original story and put it in my archives, and started on a new and – hopefully – improved version. That version is Highs, Lows, and In-Betweens. It has become a significantly different story since I started the rewrite, with more characters, more conflicts, and more complications. It’s also become a lot more fun to be in that world, for those reasons.

Highs Lows character heights comparison - doodle by Mayumi Hirtzel/bonusparts

HLIB principal characters – height comparison chart – doodle by Mayumi Hirtzel/bonusparts

Regarding that one interested reader’s original question – if I have plans to bring this story out again – the answer is, yes. Will it be the same story? No. Will it be better than it was before? Possibly. Have I enjoyed being in that universe again? Definitely.

I don’t know if readers will like the new HLIB, especially those who are familiar with the original version. I can only try to tell the most interesting story that I’m able to do. It will be a rollercoaster, though. I’ll be sharing more of this story – and my journey writing, or, rather, rewriting it – over the coming months. In the meantime…

Have you ever returned to a story for a rewrite, after a hiatus? Did that story change just a little, or a lot? Did you like the final product more, or less, than the original? Let me know in the comments below!

What Number Seven Taught Me

In the last days of December 2017, a friend pointed me toward a writing competition. The theme for the competition was “Awakenings”. The group that posted the competition welcomed all genres, with a great desire for romance and speculative fiction, among others. I’ve written romance in many forms over the years, from the simple to the unapologetically raunchy. I had only a few days before the deadline, but I’d come up with – what I thought at the time – a straightforward love story set in a pseudo-familiar setting, and one I could finish pretty quickly.

Then I actually started to write it.

What poured from my brain was a twisty-turny, upside-down-reality tale of love, duty, patriotism, relationships, even politics(!) that took nearly a full five months to finish. It wasn’t what I had first planned, and it veered a lot from my original plot. But one lesson I’ve learned through writing fiction is that, when I allow the characters to speak freely, they will forge their own path. More often than not, that path is more satisfying than any I may have planned at the start.

Number Seven

Seven, like so many of my original characters, embraced his being-ness with so much quiet strength and determination, it overwhelmed me. I could think of no other story or character for those five months I wrote. In fact, writing became almost like transcribing. Many times, it felt like he was standing at my shoulder, telling me who should do what and what should happen next. That letting-go is one of the most joyful feelings I’ve experienced as a writer.

Number Seven doodle

Dour Number Seven, a doodle by me.

I said I wouldn’t apologize for Seven’s story, and I won’t. He took me on a new journey into personhood, one I hadn’t considered before. I grew with him, and because of him. He made me open my eyes a little bit wider to the world around me. He’s a bit suspicious, as I am, and he’s quite the serious individual, as I can be. But he also has to trust himself, a lesson I took to heart along the way, too.

If any of this has piqued your interest, you can read “Number Seven and the Life Left Behind”, part 1, here.

What’s Next

I’ve posted this story for free because it’s a project I want to share with people. I am working on a hardcopy version, and when that’s available, I’ll be sure to share that news. In the meantime, if my story moved you at all, I’d encourage you to take a moment to consider where you are in the world today, and what struggles you see, nearby or faraway, hidden or in plain sight. Everywhere, there are people fighting the good fights: for freedom, equality, and love. This story is for them. And for me, and for you, because we’re all in this together.

Now,Thanks

A writer rarely creates a story in a vacuum. People influence us in their own ways. Sometimes, that influence makes it onto the page. Sometimes, it helps us just get to the page in the first place.
Thank you to Sue for giving me the impetus to write this story.
Thank you to Chase for joining me for the ride.
Your thoughtfulness and support means a lot to this lonely writer. 🙂

 

“Number Seven…” part the last [original fiction]

"Number Seven and the Life Left Behind" original fiction by bonusparts, the last part

part the last

 

A gull cried, sharp but far away. The faint smell of salt tickled the hairs in his nose. He drew a long, chest-filling breath, dragging that air into his lungs.

This wasn’t death.

The world felt cool. The gull cried again. A few more long-drawn breaths, and he heard Natalya say:

“Hello, again, stranger.”

He tilted his head to the sound of her voice and opened his eyes, the lids parting with a sticky click. Slowly, Natalya’s face swam into focus. Her hair was pulled back to her crown, with little flyaway wisps at her temples flowing free, and touched with smoky-brown highlights that brought out her natural complexion. She had very little makeup on, just a touch of darkness and shine at her eyes and lips. He could make out gentle crow’s feet wrinkles around the former, and worry-lines around the latter, but as she came close to him, those all seemed to disappear.

His voice came out a croak: “…hoo-ehrr?” He tried to loosen the phlegm, and a dry discomfort like the run of sandpaper along the membranes inside his throat made him grimace.

She lifted a cup and pushed a spoon to his lips. “Don’t try to speak, yet. The tubes have not been out for long.”

The stuff in the spoon was cold – ice – and, as he sucked on its soothing wetness, she told him:

“You are in hospital. Almost four months, now.”

He drew a breath full of ice that made him cough. He tried to lift himself up but couldn’t do it, instead falling back against the bed beneath him.

A motor whirred as she raised the bed higher, until he was mostly sitting up.

The lines around her mouth deepened into a frown once more. “You were shot,” she muttered, and he closed his eyes, recalling the sound of the gun, followed by a jumble of images and sensations that had nothing to do with being shot: flashing lights, droning beeps, the wheeze of pumping air.

A stroke of her fingers through his hair made him open his eyes again.

“We thought you were going to die,” she went on, when he saw her smile, faintly. “But you proved all of us wrong.” She resumed her slow spooning of ice chips. “There were so many operations, so many tests, so many hours waiting for you to wake up. But through it all, your heart stayed strong. The first time you opened your eyes, you grabbed the nurse by the arm and said, ‘beach’. Do you remember that?”

He shook his head.

She pressed her lips together and passed him another spoonful of chipped ice. “That’s all right. They said memory could be difficult. Anyway.” She nodded across him and chuckled. “We could not bring your hospital room to the beach, so we brought the beach to you.”

He turned his head. On a table next to the bed sat a tiny portable speaker attached to an audio pod, from which the sounds of gulls came. Beside that was a shallow plastic dish filled with seashells, sand, and a few stalks of purplish flowers.

“Kirill refreshes it every day before he goes to work,” Natalya said. “Do you remember him? Our Kiryushenka?”

This time, he nodded.

She snickered. “How could you forget, eh?” She spooned him some more chips. “He and Darya are attached at the hip, these days. Philip suggested they apply for the national athletics program, but, in the meantime, they work in one of those flashy bars you have always hated. She sells liquor to leering businessmen,” she told him in a telling-tales voice, “and he brings drinks to slow-thinking party girls. But, they are happy.” She pulled a quick face. “They also screw like rabbits. I have envied you this quiet room these last few months.”

He managed a weak smile.

She chuckled again as she offered him another spoonful of ice. “Don’t worry. We will find you a place with nice, thick walls before you are released.”

He swallowed the chips before they’d finished melting. The ice scratched, but he didn’t care; he needed to speak. He grasped her hand with the cup – God, he could barely manage it – and rasped, “Thank you.”

Her face went blank for just a moment, before her full smile returned. “Hush,” she said, and tipped another spoon of ice to his lips. “And rest. You need to get better.”

It took time to regain his weight, to say nothing of his balance, speech, and strength. But, just like the last time he’d teetered on the brink, he pushed himself through recovery and rehabilitation with the help and encouragement of his friends, until he was free.

After his discharge from the hospital, he made time for them all.

For Kirill and Darya, that meant listening to the stories they brought back from the bar and the beach, and watching them grow closer. They’d become a more serious couple in his time asleep, though they still teased and lusted after each other, like Natalya had said. They were also keen to make their own way in their new lives. The prospect was frightening but freeing, and they were determined to save up enough to finance a flat together closer to the sea, which both of them loved and took time out of every week to swim in, both singly and as a pair. It seemed as though they were living at least part of their dreams. Maybe they even made love under the stars, sometimes, too….

The main apartment was close to Victoria’s city centre while also being within fair walking distance to the beach. He liked stretching his legs there every day. Without a real job, he needed something to fill his time. And, he enjoyed being just a man, taking time to find his next calling.

Natalya joined him for lots of these walks but not all, especially during the day. She’d discovered a lucrative new lifestyle as a fashion consultant for the city’s population of wealthy retirees. It wasn’t escorting prominent Manhattan businessmen and politicians, but it more than paid the bills for their three-bedroom apartment. And, she seemed happy. So much that Seven felt uncomfortable not being able to contribute beyond some cooking and basic housekeeping.

“Don’t be silly!” Natalya told him on one of their twilight walks along the beach. She’d bought them some coffees to sip against the salty breeze, though she left hers mostly forgotten as she held to his arm like a chatty private tour guide. “You are still recuperating.”

“You heard the doctor,” he reminded. “I am one hundred percent!” He shook his foot out of a tangle of weed that had either washed or been dragged up to the sidewalk. Likely the latter; he’d seen more than one laughing child trailing the vines after them like waterlogged kites. “Or, at least, what counted for one hundred percent before.”

Natalya sucked a click. “You have always put others ahead of yourself. It is time to collect on that. Besides,” she added after a pause. “I like having a house-husband.”

She chuckled, but he drew them to a slow stop. A light silence floated around them on the breeze. They were alone, here, separate from the waning cavorting of amusement-seekers on the sand and the burgeoning bustle of restaurant-goers on the street.

He drew a slow breath, and said, “Natalya.”

“Semyon,” she replied cheekily, though that made him pause again. He didn’t like that old name. It didn’t feel like him, anymore. Neither did Seven, of course; Seven was another life left behind. He’d have to get around to putting in a change-of-name request. Simon, maybe. It didn’t matter, at the moment. He’d left his old life behind, though there was a part of that old life that he still wanted. A part he’d never admitted, until now.

He faced her, and said, “I love you.”

She stopped, too, and her irreverence fell away as she blinked at him.

He kept going. “You are my friend, but also so much more. I would like to be there for you, as you have been there for me. I cannot tell you what that means beyond what I feel in my heart, but, perhaps, I can change who I am—”

“I would not want you to,” she said, shaking her head. A shiny film had bloomed across her gaze, which cleared at a blink that set free a spill of tears down her cheeks. She reached up and laid her palm to his face. “I love the man you are,” she said, her thumb stroking the scarred skin beneath his dead eye. “I have always loved the man you are.”

Something inside him fluttered, and made his breath falter: it went in and came out as a stutter of air. No words could match hers, so he said, simply, “Tasha…!”

She put her arms around his neck and hugged his body close to hers. He did, too, fiercely and briefly. Before they eased out of their clutch, he pressed a kiss to her forehead. Anything more would have felt forced, anything less, not enough.

When they parted, she smiled up at him with a look of deep feeling, her green eyes shining with happiness. She broke into a gentle little laugh. “What do we do, now?”

He took her hand, grasping her fingers loosely but with love, and smiled. “We live.”

 

~~~

And that, as they say, is that.

I hope you enjoyed my foray into speculative fiction. It was a different journey for me to take, one I learned from and loved traveling. If you liked it or you didn’t, feel free to let me know in the comments.

Now, go out and live your life. You only get one.

“Number Seven…” part 11 [original fiction]

"Number Seven and the Life Left Behind" original fiction by bonusparts, part 11

part 11

 

A tickling in his nose nudged him awake. Seven opened his eyes to find himself curled against Natalya, with one arm draped over her. Any alarm he might have felt was quickly negated by the practicality of their position: it was chilly, she was warm, and her blanket was still bunched between them, anyway. His body ignored these pragmatic explanations, however, rewarding him with a sizable morning erection.

As he eased his arm up, she stirred, pulling a sleepy sniff. She half-turned her head toward him, and that bunched her hair between their faces. It still smelled like lilacs.

“Where are you going?” she asked.

“To the toilet,” he whispered. “Go back to sleep.”

“Come back? It’s cold.”

“All right.”

She turned onto her side again, and snuggled into the blanket with a satisfied sigh.

The early morning chill prickled the soles of his feet as he crept down the wood floor to the communal bathroom at the end of the hall. He didn’t pause at Kirill’s open door; he could see the bed beyond lay empty and made. Farther down, though, Darya’s door stood cracked, and there Seven did lean for a glance. The room was still and quiet. Darya was, too, her naked shoulders and blonde head peeking above the covers. He didn’t see Kirill, only a rumpled ruffle of blanket on the other side of the narrow bed.

The sharp clatter of the coffee grinder disturbed the peace, and Seven guessed to where Kirill must have gone.

After relieving himself, he made his way downstairs to the kitchen, where he found Kirill pouring some rather thin-looking coffee into two mugs. Seven took care to wait until he’d finished pouring before he announced himself.

“Lessons learned, I see.”

Kirill beamed from the counter. “Good morning! Would you like some coffee?”

Seven walked over, taking particular note of the plate of toast sandwiches that smelled of both sweet jam and peanuts. “Thank you.”

Kirill followed the flow of his attention. “I did not want to use all the eggs,” he explained. “But, there is plenty of bread, so….” He trailed off with a shrug.

“Breakfast in bed,” Seven said.

Kirill’s look of happy pride fell suddenly flat. “Francine won’t mind, will she?”

“Not if you are careful.” Seven watched as Kirill placed the plate of sandwiches onto a larger platter, and muttered, “Speaking of careful.” He fixed the younger man with a pointed look. “You were. Yes?”

“Oh! You mean…! Yes.” Kirill’s grin renewed itself. “All four times.”

Seven dipped his head away and held up his hand. “Please…!”

“Sorry.” Kirill bowed his head. After a moment, he asked, “Were you?”

“Was I what?” Seven asked, his hand still in mid-air.

“Careful,” Kirill prompted.

Seven shook his head. “What are you talking about?”

“You and Natalya,” Kirill said, as an itch started at the top of Seven’s neck. “You wore a condom, yes? I mean, I saw you in bed together this morning—”

Seven rocked backward. “We did not do anything!”

Kirill froze for a brief stare, then returned to breakfast prep. “If you say so,” he muttered, but his tone betrayed mighty skepticism.

“Do not start with me,” Seven told him.

“I did not say anything,” Kirill said, keeping his head down.

Seven leaned close. “You know it cannot be that way between me and Natalya,” he said, his voice straining in an effort to stay hushed.

Now, Kirill looked up again, his face innocent. “Why not?”

“Because,” Seven said, though he halted there for a string of anxious heartbeats. “I have told you about what happened to me,” he managed at last, “during the war. About Erik.”

“Your nurse?” Kirill asked. “The one who did not come with you? Who you did not tell how you felt? Who you said would probably not even remember you?” He sounded neither accusatory nor confused. Nevertheless, Seven felt a clutch of shame in his belly.

“A man does not have those feelings for another man for no reason.”

“But you did have a reason,” Kirill said calmly. “You had been hurt, and he helped you. Just because you felt something for him then does not mean you cannot feel something for someone else, now. You said yourself: you love Natalya—”

“Not-!” Seven shut his eyes and shook his head. “Not that kind of love.”

“Are you sure?”

Seven continued to shake his head, but the memory of Natalya’s warm and gentle touch, and the sound of her snicker, and the sweetly-comforting smell of her hair jumbled like loose marbles in his brain, making it hard to think. The shame became pain, but he managed to get out:

“She deserves a man more than me. One who can provide for her needs.”

Kirill said nothing for a moment. Then: “A man is more than the sum of his measurements.”

Seven looked up, to see Kirill smiling softly at him. He opened his mouth for more rebutting, but no words were ready.

“We cannot help whom we love,” Kirill said. “Or, how.”

Seven coughed up a little smile of his own. “You are starting to sound like her.”

“She taught me many things.” Kirill lifted his chin and touched his chest, affecting an air of wisdom. “But the most important, she said, is to listen to what your heart tells you.” He smiled wider, as he put the mugs and toast onto a large serving dish that functioned as a platter. “Right now, mine tells me to bring this to Darya while I still have the element of surprise,” he said, and was out the kitchen door before Seven could say anything more. Not that he wanted to; stopping Kirill would have been just an excuse not to examine his bouncing, conflicting thoughts.

He picked up his coffee and walked to the windows, peering out at an angle to the yard below, where a street cat rummaged in the rubbish as the light came up over the rooftops. His focus blurred as he sipped absently at his coffee and considered what could come next. Not for Kirill, nor for Natalya, either. But for himself, and the life he could make from here.

For a long time, he’d defined his life by one thing: his job. But it was more than that. It was feelings and experiences, memories and relationships, dreams and desires. And love. What did he love?

He loved Kirill, though not in the way he’d first thought. He loved Natalya, too…though, again – possibly, apparently, if he were honest with himself, very likely – not in the way he’d first thought. She was his friend, perhaps the best friend he’d ever had. She trusted him, accepted him, let him be his own man, whomever that was: Number Seven or Semyon, soldier or bodyguard, friend or…what? Which did she want? And, what did he want?

He wanted to go back to bed, back to Natalya. Maybe she’d be awake, and they could talk. Of course, what was the rush? They had plenty of time, now—

A sharp clang of metal against metal resounded through the house, as rapid and loud as machinegun fire rattling against a tank hull. Seven nearly dropped his cup. The clatter came again, and his more rational mind recognized it as the knocker on the main door.

He set his cup in the sink and padded to the main hall. Francine was coming down the stairs, tying a dressing gown closed around her waist; Alex peered after her from the middle of the staircase. Both of them gave him silent motions to stay back, but he couldn’t help angling himself to see around Francine’s arm when she opened the door.

Number Two showed off his oily smile. “We are sorry to disturb you so early, madam,” he said. Beside him, Twelve removed her sunglasses and scowled.

The coffee in Seven’s belly felt like it curdled at sight of them. He shifted back with a broken breath, at the same time that Francine attempted some cooler civility.

“May I help you?”

“We have found what we are looking for,” Two said, still unctuous. He raised his chin at Seven. “Did you really think you could hide from us? Our surveillance can pinpoint a beetle on a sand dune at eight hundred yards. How long did you think it would take us to find a fool as big as you, even in a city this size?” He took a step to the threshold, but Francine put out her arm, barring his way.

“I’m sorry,” she said. “Do you have a warrant?”

Two held up, but Twelve narrowed her eyes and spat, “You are harboring fugitives.”

“They’re refugees,” Francine corrected, and Twelve scoffed.

“They are enemies of the state! They betrayed their country!”

“We did nothing of the sort!” Seven shouted, lunging up to Francine’s side. She turned to him but he brushed away her concern, keeping his full attention on the pair of black-suited agents.

“The state betrayed us.” Seven snarled down at them. “They swore to us liberty, opportunity—”

“And you swore an oath,” Two hissed.

“To protect,” Seven said. “To serve—”

“You serve us!” Two’s eyes went red and his lips peeled back from his gums. “Now, you bring me those athletes, or I will get them myself.”

“You step one foot into this house,” Seven growled, “and I will throw you back out again.”

Francine stepped between them. “This is a diplomatic residence,” she said pointedly. “We have immunity.”

“You have nothing!” Twelve spat, even angrier than Two. “Hand over the athletes. Now!”

Francine put her hand up again. “I suggest you leave, before you start an international incident.”

“And I suggest you get out of the way,” Two said, and pulled her sidearm. It snapped up toward Francine, the metal flashing furiously against the light.

“Fran!” Alex shouted. He trundled down the stairs, but Seven was nearer.

He shoved Francine to the side, behind cover of the wall, and snatched for Two’s gun. The muzzle barked, and for a second, Seven didn’t know where the bullet went. Then a burning pain raced up his arm, and he staggered, clutching his bloodied hand in the other.

Semyon!” Natalya screamed from behind him, just as Two hollered an alarm.

“You idiot! Stop shooting!”

But Twelve’s gun snapped again, and this time, a flood of deafening silence took the place of Seven’s pain and terror.

He lurched in a turn. Natalya came running toward him, but without sound, her voice dissipating upwards as he fell to the floor.

The world dimmed.

She pulled him into her arms.

He wished for more time, but there was none.

0

 

My goal with stories is always that their characters – and their lives – resonate beyond the page. I hope I’ve managed that with Seven and his journey of self-discovery. It has been a strange and wild ride of plot twists, unexpected divergences, and character wrangling these last six months, but I like it. Not perfect, but what in life is?

Speaking of imperfect, I goofed when I planned the calendar for these updates. There is still one more left to go. Since I wanted to get this story done in the month of June, I’ll let you click through to the next part right now, if you so choose. Just follow the link below to read, and let me know what you think, if you like. I’m grateful to hear it all.

“Number Seven…” part 10 [original fiction]

Number Seven and the Life Left Behind, titlecard2, part 10

part 10

 

He woke from a lovely dream of bobbing on gently-rolling waves, to a less-lovely crick in his neck and the prod of insistent knocking, and Kirill’s whispered voice growing raspier:

“Seven? Seven! Are you awake?”

Seven smacked his eyes open, half-sat up, and groaned, first Kirill’s name, then, “What is it?”

The swimmer’s tall silhouette broke the light from the corridor. “I’m hungry.”

Seven searched for the clock. It sat on the table on the far side of Natalya’s bed, where she still slept soundly. The numbers five and twenty-six glowed back at him, and he groaned again. “It is early!”

“I have not had anything to eat since dinner,” Kirill pressed. “Yesterday.

“So, go downstairs.”

“What if there is no food?”

“This is the staff house,” Seven grumbled at him. “I am sure they have toast and coffee, if nothing else.”

Kirill paused. “I don’t want to get in trouble.”

“You won’t get in trouble. Francine said to help ourselves. Just try to be quiet.” Seven once more drove home the most important bit: “It is still very early.”

“Okay,” Kirill mumbled, and the light from the corridor flowed full again. Even so, Seven drifted back into a lightly-uncomfortable doze. He didn’t know for how long, when he heard Kirill call for him again:

“Seven?”

Jesus, Seven thought, and said, “What?”

“How do I make coffee?”

Seven bolted up, hissing, “You know how to make coffee!”

“There is no machine,” Kirill hissed back.

Seven blew a minor blasphemy, tossed off his blanket, and reached for his clothes from the night before. “Fine. Just let me put on some pants.”

The kitchen at the end of the first floor hall was not large, but it had a wide sink, a six-burner stove top, and plentiful counter space stretched around the edges. Dark wood cabinets lined the walls, and enclosed a tall refrigerator unit. A round table stood in the middle, with a centerpiece of recently-cut flowers.

Seven found the coffee press next to the stove, and a bag of beans. He directed Kirill to measure and grind while he set a kettle to boil. A search through three cabinets yielded mugs, plates, and some pans, which inspired Seven to scramble some eggs.

Kirill watched with interest. When Seven was about to crack the first egg, Kirill asked, “Can I try?”

His calmer mood having returned, Seven stepped to one side. “Of course.”

Kirill bent his head to slowly crack one egg, then two, being careful not to crush or drip any shell into the bowl. “I need to learn how to take care of myself.”

Seven watched him with dutiful interest. “You are more capable than you think.”

“What do you think will happen to us?” Kirill asked.

“I don’t know. This is new for me, too.”

“Do you know where we will go?”

Seven smiled as he recalled the bobbing waves of his dream. “Someplace nice, I hope.”

Kirill looked up. “Do you think I will still be able to swim?”

“Maybe.” His ward’s face fell into a frown, so Seven corrected himself, “I mean, I am sure you will still be able to swim. Though, competition will likely be out of the question, at least for this round of games.”

Kirill pressed his lips together and returned to breaking eggs, then started to whisk, when he spoke anew. “Maybe I can teach other people how to swim. Or help them not to be afraid of the water. Did you know there are actually people like that? Too scared even to dip their toes.” He glanced up again. “Do you think I could do that?”

“I think you could do many things,” Seven told him.

Kirill resumed whisking. “Not smart things.”

Seven held his tongue a moment. “It is not only about being clever.”

“Darya is clever,” Kirill mumbled.

“Yes. She is also impatient, imprudent, and pig-headed.”

Kirill stared at the bowl of frothy eggs in his hand. “That does not make her a bad person.”

Seven pinched back the smirk that threatened. “Of course not. Everyone is a mix of faults and strengths. Just as you may not be very wily,” he said, allowing an affectionate smile to show. “But you are cautious, compassionate, and willing to learn.” He gestured to the bowl. “Like this.”

Kirill smiled, too, and lifted the bowl. “Can you show me what to do next?”

With a chuckle, Seven started a brief explanation of the combination of butter, burner, and pan. Kirill followed the steps, but paused over the sizzling butter to ask:

“Does Natalya have any bad qualities?”

“I am sure she would be the first to admit that she is presumptuous, flighty, and domineering. Just as she would likely say that I am dour, judgmental, and too proud to ask for help, even when I need it.”

Kirill snickered. “That does sound like you.”

Seven accepted the gibe in stride. “I am old enough to know my own weaknesses. You are still learning.”

“I want to be a good man,” Kirill declared. “Maybe a husband, or even a father, someday.”

Seven tapped the pan. “Knowing how to cook helps.”

Kirill chuckled and returned to work. He’d just poured the eggs into the pan when Darya’s voice came from the doorway.

“Good morning,” she murmured, and Seven looked up. Kirill did, too, and let out a little gasp. Like Kirill, she was dressed in plain track pants and a tee shirt. She’d also chopped off her ponytail, leaving her with a shaggy blonde mop of hair that made her look not unlike a child’s doll left out in the rain.

“Good morning.” Seven left the obvious unsaid, and asked, “Did you sleep well?”

Darya padded to the center table – again like Kirill, she walked barefoot – and slumped into a chair. “I kept thinking someone was going to barge in and drag me back home by my hair,” she said, and tugged at the edges of her new mussed mop with her fist.

“Is that why you cut it?” Kirill asked.

Darya just blinked back at him. The look in her eyes resembled the paranoia possessed by young soldiers who’d just come through their first sortie. Seven was about to offer her some words of assurance, when Kirill went on speaking.

“I like it,” he said. “I mean, I liked your long hair, too, but…this is very pretty.”

Darya’s mouth twitched, giving them a glimpse of the dimples Natalya so envied. “Thank you.” The dimples dug deeper. “I like yours, too.”

Kirill straightened up in surprise. “My hair? I thought you said I spend too much time on it?”

“You do spend too much time on it,” Darya said, still smiling. “It looks better a little bit messy.”

A grin started creeping across Kirill’s face. “Like now?”

Darya shook her head. “No. Right now, it looks like a hedgehog,” she said, and Kirill immediately let go of the pan of eggs, to flatten both hands against his head. Darya laughed, a high-pitched sound full of mischief and amusement that Seven hadn’t heard from her before.

Kirill lowered his hands and harrumphed. “You can make your own breakfast.”

“Oh, I am sorry, Kirill,” Darya crooned, as she approached them at the stove. “Please, let me try some?”

Kirill sidled a step to the left without making her wait. He repeated the instructions Seven had given him, to which Darya replied that she already knew how to scramble eggs. That started a new round of playful baiting and ripostes, and as he watched them, Seven decided he should add resilient to the list of good qualities for them both.

They took their breakfasts to the table, where they ate in silence for a few short minutes, until Darya asked:

“When will we get our papers, do you think?”

“The ambassador still has to approve our request,” Seven said. “I am guessing that requires some amount of protocol.”

Kirill looked between Darya and Seven. “What does that mean?”

“Interviews, most likely. Paperwork, too, I’m sure.” Seven bumped his shoulders. “Let us just hope they can expedite.” He didn’t say so, but the longer they stayed in one place, the better Control’s chances of finding them.

“I hope we go someplace with water,” Darya said. “I would like to be close to the water.”

“Me, too,” Kirill said, and shared a commiserating smile with his fellow athlete.

Seven gave them an assuring look. “It is a big country. With lots of opportunities.”

“That is what we thought about this one, too,” Darya mumbled. Before Seven – or Kirill – could massage that line of thinking, though, Darya blew a sigh and said, “I will probably have to work in a shop. Or wait tables.”

Seven brought his coffee cup to his lips, considering for a moment the novelty of a job that was just a job, the concerns of which he could leave behind once the work day was over. “There is nothing wrong with either of those options.”

Darya shot him a sharp look. “I bet your friend makes lots of money.” She swung her glare toward Kirill and sneered, “Of course, we all know how.”

Kirill straightened up in abrupt offense. “What are you mad at me for?”

“Nothing,” Darya grumbled. Any greater argument was interrupted by Francine, who arrived to the kitchen just then. The majordomo admitted to surprise at finding so many of them up and about so early, but also grateful that they didn’t wait for her to serve. She even complimented Kirill on his eggs.

“The ambassador will be here soon,” she told them over coffee. “I woke Natalya, too, because he’ll want to speak with all of you.”

“Then we should not dawdle,” Seven said, and rose from the table. He offered to clean up the breakfast dishes, but Francine told them she would take care of that, and urged them instead to get ready.

The duffel supplied by Natalya had only packable casual wear, so just like the athletes, Seven would spend the day in workout clothes. It was a good choice: once the ambassador got there, the day’s schedule was one of meetings filled with paperwork and questions. So many questions, from vitals data and genealogical background, to political standing and military history. They each had to submit to a solo interview, probably to compare their stories independently. Seven had his last, but he also had the most to report, being the only one of them who had more than a one-word answer for the military questions. That led into deeper inquiries, about training, sorties, and intelligence. He adhered to the timeless soldierly adage that military intelligence was an oxymoron, which elicited a chuckle from the ambassador, Philip, a handsome, finely-built man dressed in the trappings of a suit, and whom Seven placed in his fifties for the proliferation of white in his close-cropped hair, and the deep lines carved into his long cheeks.

“Why do you want to emigrate?” Philip asked him, leaning forward on his elbows across the table. The question came with a desire for truth, so Seven responded with honesty.

“I took an oath, as a young man, to defend and uphold the principles of this country. I followed orders, fought in wars, and carried out assignments to the best of my ability, because I believed in the nation I thought we were.” He felt a scowl forming. “But I was blind to the one we had become. A country led by despots and demagogues, men who rose to power for the power, not for the principle. Who call us dogs from behind their locked doors and bulletproof windows, and who would punish us as such should we fall out of line.” He shook his head and would have spat, if they were outside and not in a pleasant, well-dressed room. “I am done with it.”

Philip met his stare. “I see.” He drew an audible breath and sat back. “These are very serious accusations you’ve brought up. If what you’re saying is true—”

“It is true. I cannot speak for anyone else in the division, but I know what I saw. And what was told to me about the athletes, I have told to you, word for word.”

To his credit, Philip didn’t squirm. “There’s no official stance on neo-eugenics.”

“But there is on human trafficking.” Seven leant forward, this time. “If you will not help us escape, I need to find someone who will. Kirill and Darya cannot go back. Not now. And I will put my life between them and anyone who dares to take them away!”

Philip raised a calming hand. “No one is sending anyone back. I just want to understand the facts of your situation.” He lowered his hand and waited.

Seven eased back, and inhaled and exhaled a concerted lungful of cool, dry air. After a minute of centering himself, he said, “I understand you are only doing your job. But I am only doing mine. I pledged to protect Kirill, and, by association, the people with him. I am sworn to keep them safe.” He shook his head and swallowed back the cracking of his voice. “They are not safe here, any longer. So I am begging you—”

Philip’s hand came up again, this time for a stop. “That’s not necessary.” He shook his head, too. “We don’t leave anyone in the cold. Now, the official process takes time, but I think we have enough grounds to move forward.”

Seven sat staring at him, when Philip rose, smiled, and extended his hand.

“Welcome,” the ambassador said, “to the land from sea to sea.”

To spite the weight of their conversation, Seven felt a grin split. He jumped up and took Philip’s hand, grasping it with grateful force. “Thank you!”

He went right away to share the news with the others, whom he’d left waiting in the front room on the second floor. When he arrived, though, he found only Natalya sitting on the windowsill in her track trousers and a sweater, with a cup of coffee resting beside her knee, and the glow of the late afternoon sun hitting her face as she gazed out onto the world outside, like a bored catalog model waiting for her photographer. He considered telling her not to sit in such clear line of sight from the street, but quickly decided it wouldn’t make much difference.

She seemed to know he was there even without his announcing himself, because she said aloud, “Will you miss New York?”

He moved closer to her, peering from a distance over her shoulder at the streets below. “Not really. I have never cared much for clubs or crowds.”

She hummed. “You have never been much of a Manhattan man; that’s true. But, what about the old neighborhood?”

“Brooklyn hasn’t been home for me since before the war.” He shook his head. “No. Home is where my heart is.”

Now, she turned to him, her expression curious, almost hopeful. “And, where is that?”

“At the moment,” he said, spreading his hands, “on the second floor of a Canadian consulate building.”

“So pragmatic,” she said, with the pull of a tiny scowl. She followed with a sigh. “I will miss this city. The lights, the art, the shops…!”

Seven smiled, a little bit sadly for her sentimentality. “You could always start your own shop. You will have plenty of opportunity.”

Her face opened up again, once more lively and bright. “I knew Philip would help us.”

“I never should have doubted you,” he said.

Natalya didn’t scold him. Nor did she shout with joy or jump into his arms. She only smiled, and put her arms around his neck for a long, strong, quiet hug of him.

Into her hair he whispered, “If the others were here, I would make a triumphant announcement. But, since it is just you, all I need to say is, thank you.”

“Pah!” She drew away, but he saw the brief shimmer in her eyes before she blinked them clear. “We did this together.”

That felt right, and he nodded again. “Where are Kirill and Darya?” he asked, glancing about. “I want them to know everything will be all right.”

“They played nice there for a while,” she said, indicating the sofa with a nod. “But, when I asked if they wanted a coffee, and our young prince said yes, the little minx apparently took that as me trying to seduce him. In this outfit, if you can imagine.” She waved her hand over herself with a snort.

Seven could see it but kept that to himself. “What happened then?”

“She stormed off. I told him to go after her. That is the last I know.”

“Any idea where they may have gone?”

“If he remembers his lessons, they could be in bed, by now.”

The tightness in Seven’s back and neck, which had dissipated with Philip’s assurances, abruptly returned. “You are not serious,” he said, but Natalya returned a stony face.

“I never joke about romance.”

“This morning, they were making fun of each other’s hair…!”

“Wildfires can start from an unexpected spark,” she said. “It is the nature of passion in the young.”

Seven grunted. “I suppose.”

“If she is determined to stay angry at him, she will have closed her door in his face.” Natalya pressed her lips into a tiny smirk. “And if he is determined to win her back, he will be standing outside of it.”

He sighed and thanked her, and made his way up to the third floor. He didn’t find Kirill standing outside Darya’s door, but that was because she hadn’t closed it on him. Rather, he heard both their voices coming from inside her room. Their tones were heated but hushed; apparently, he’d come upon them with their argument still rolling.

“You do not understand anything,” Darya was saying, her voice like viper’s venom.

“Then explain it to me,” Kirill hissed in return. “I cannot read your mind! I do not know why you are so angry with me.”

“I thought we were doing this together!”

“We are—”

“So why is she here?”

“Natalya is helping us.”

“Helping you,” Darya seethed, and even though Seven held himself back so as not to be seen, he could imagine the defiant jut of her chin. “Not me. She could not care less about me.”

“She just does not know you.”

“Like she knows you? All of her intimate knowledge about you, like the size of your clothes? The size of your cock, maybe!”

“I don’t know what you want me to say,” Kirill mumbled, and a heavy silence fell between them. Then, Darya’s voice, once again hushed.

“Are you in love with her?”

“No,” Kirill said without hesitation.

“But you think she is beautiful!”

“So? I think you are beautiful, too.”

Darya’s mutter cracked with a tremble. “…You do?”

Kirill was quiet, too; Seven had to turn his ear to hear. “Yes,” he whispered. “And strong, and brave, and clever. So much cleverer than—” He didn’t finish for a gasp. It was followed by a silence which pushed Seven toward the doorway, though he stopped short the step that would have brought him fully into sight, when he saw Kirill sitting on the edge of the bed with Darya straddling his lap. She was arched over him, holding his face for a powerful kiss that occupied them both.

Seven stepped back behind the doorway, nearly flat against the wall, and let out a breath through his lips. Another weight he hadn’t known he’d been carrying in his chest seemed to lift itself away.

He retreated to the stairs with a muted, shuffling step, easing himself down one stair, a second, and a third. There, he paused, cleared his throat, and called as though for the first time approaching, “Kirill? Are you up here?”

“Uh! Just- Just a moment,” Kirill called back. He appeared in the corridor, straightening his shirt, and glanced into the room. As Darya came to his side, he stammered, “We were- we were just—”

“What did the ambassador say?” Darya asked, and Seven smiled for her quicker composure.

“They will help us,” he told them.

Their young faces went blank. Darya murmured:

“We are free?”

“Yes,” Seven said.

“All of us?” Kirill asked, and Seven nodded.

“Yes.”

For a moment, neither athlete moved or made a sound. Then, Kirill broke into a grin spreading wide with joyous relief, and Darya’s eyes shone with liberated triumph, and they threw themselves into the other’s arms. They started to laugh together, when Kirill let go of Darya and put his arms around Seven.

“Thank you!” Kirill cried, half into Seven’s neck.

A warning that this was only the first step came to Seven’s tongue, but he didn’t say it. Instead, he hugged Kirill back as he swallowed down the sappy feeling that rushed to the top of his throat.

“My friend,” Kirill said with a great squeeze of his arms. When he drew back, his eyes were clear, the gold flecks gleaming. “We could not have done this without you.”

Seven stepped back, too, letting him go. “I could not have taken this step without you, either,” he said.

Kirill’s grin flashed again. “We should celebrate! With food, yes?”

“I am starving,” Darya put in.

“Maybe we can make something,” Kirill said, and grabbed her hand for a hurried dash down the stairs, leaving Seven to follow after.

Down in the kitchen, Francine was already preparing: platefuls of baked Brussels sprouts beside pierogi stuffed with mushrooms and spinach salad dressed with apple slices. The worries expressed just that morning faded from their awareness, replaced by a zesty anticipation to begin their new lives of freedom and choice. For Kirill and Darya, that apparently included an open desire for each other, at least the way Seven understood their not-so-subtle sways and touches beneath the table. When it was time for coffee, they stayed with the group, but it was obvious their interest lay elsewhere.

After supper, Philip left, and Francine and Alex said goodnight. The rest of them retired to the third floor, where Seven hung by Natalya’s door, watching as Kirill did the same by Darya’s. The young diver came out, briefly, in a tee shirt and maybe panties, and drew Kirill to her with a whisper and a clutch of his hand. They kissed, oblivious to their location. Then Kirill pushed them with his feet, and they disappeared into Darya’s room. The door closed behind them, and Seven heard Natalya mutter:

“He is too young for you, anyway.”

He knew that as he faced her gentle frown, but asked, “Do you have any whisky left?”

“Sadly, no.” Her expression alighted with a tiny smile. “But, how about gin?”

She meant the card game, not the alcohol, but that was all right. The changing hands provided them with a comfortable cover to talk about less serious subjects while they sat together on the bed. When the cards began to blur in front of his eyes, though, Seven yawned, dropped them to the covers, and grumbled a curse.

Natalya sniffed a chuckle for his vulgarity, and said, “Sleep here, tonight.”

“That chair is not as comfortable as it looks,” he muttered.

She clucked. “I meant here, you big bear. In the bed.”

He sighed for a protest. “No….”

“Yes,” she said, laying her hand on his arm.

He was about to try again, but the mattress was wide and long, the downy blanket soft, and the sheets sweet-smelling. And, he was so very tired.

“Are you sure?” he asked.

“Yes,” she said again, and showed him her wily smile. “Besides, these walls are not very thick. You don’t want to be next door to the stallion and his mare all night.”

“You are right,” he said with a playful scowl. “I don’t.”

They shared a lonesome laugh, and he settled next to her, on top of the blanket so that a layer separated them; his blanket from the night before, brought from the chair, would serve him well enough. She clicked her tongue at his antiquated propriety but didn’t protest more than that, taking the opportunity of their divider to snuggle close on her side. Her head lay nearly on his shoulder, and he noticed it wasn’t the sheets that smelled of sweet lilacs, but her.

“See?” she whispered. “Not so bad, is it?”

The weight of his eyelids brought them down, but Seven managed to reply, “You are a good friend.”

“Thank you, and you’re welcome. Now, hush, and go to sleep.”

He relaxed his back and let the restless lesser concerns of the day rise out of him. Lying on the bed, he felt as though he were being carried away on gently lapping waves, into a great but peaceful new unknown. Natalya slipped her hand into his, and that was how he fell to sleep.

 

7777777

 

You ever have one of those stories whose major plot points comes to you in the middle of writing the first draft, and you think, “Hey, that’s a great twist!” But then when you actually click the “post” button, you think, “Oh, no, what have I done?” because you’re scared for how readers will react? That’s this, right now. I didn’t plan this from the beginning, but I also won’t apologize for getting here, or for how it all ends.

“Number Seven…” part 9 [original fiction]

Number Seven and the Life Left Behind, titlecard2, part 9

part 9

 

The big passenger van that set out from the hotel rocked all the way to the city, with Ullman passing a little flask around and Adamski leading a foot-stomping chorus from the back row that rattled the vehicle’s chassis. Seven ignored their misconduct; the more anyone not-Kirill or not-Darya attracted attention, the better the chances of them being able to slip away unnoticed when the time was right.

As for Kirill, the swimmer sat next to Seven, running his lip between his teeth as he watched Darya in the front. Every bump of the van made her ponytail bounce, as did every laugh she shared with her seatmate, and every glance she shot back to Kirill. Whenever their eyes met, they shared a tiny smile. Seven chose not to notice it. Unfortunately, Ten wasn’t so lenient.

When the van pulled up in front of the club, and the teams rolled off of it like a small tidal wave of raucous voices, flashing jewelry, and clashing outfits, Ten grabbed Seven’s sleeve at the bottom of the van stairs.

“I thought you were going to control him.”

Seven pushed at her hand. “What are you talking about?”

“Your charge.” Ten jerked her head toward the athletes making their way into the club. “He keeps looking at Vikhrova.”

“She looks at him, too.” Seven shrugged. “I think they like looking at each other.”

Ten’s brows came together. “I am not amused.”

“No,” Seven agreed. “You are paranoid.” He affected as disinterested a stance as he could muster. “They are young, and have been trapped inside for over a week. Who does it hurt if they slip away for some hanky-panky, hm?” He didn’t wait for an answer, but followed the athletes into the club, hoping that would be the last he’d have to deal with Ten.

He found Kirill inside, waiting at the edge of the dance floor. He was still focused on Darya. In her tight purple dress, and swinging her arms and ponytail to the boisterous beat, she naturally pulled a man’s attention. But where other men in the club cast her lascivious glances, Kirill watched her in quiet bewilderment.

Seven bent his head close. “You are supposed to be having fun,” he reminded, only barely keeping himself from shouting. The music offered them some loudness cover, but he still strained to hear his own voice.

“She is better at this than me,” Kirill replied, his eyes never leaving Darya.

A pang of sorrow tinged with envy dragged at Seven’s heart for that look. But he knew Kirill couldn’t help the draw of his affection any more than Seven could his own. He nudged Kirill with his elbow.

“So, let her lead,” he said. “I will keep watch for Cleopatra.”

Kirill nodded, tried to smile, and eased his way down to the crowded dance floor, where he maneuvered his way toward the cluster of familiar female figures. One of the other divers drew him into a doubles gyration, and Darya joined them a moment later, shifting him into the middle of a handsome, bumping line.

The pounding beat changed rhythm to a manic squawk that sent the colored lights overhead swinging. Seven peered out over the crowd left and right, but the flashing white and colors made it hard to see anything. The dancehall beat made hearing equally tricky. All the better to get lost in, but he wondered how to find Natalya in all of this when her smooth voice blew up at him:

“Hello there, soldier.”

He turned, catching his breath at the top of his throat. She looked like a starlet from the last century, in a flowing, fawn-colored cocktail dress with a plunging V neckline and a wide, cinching belt, and twists of her dark hair coiled around each other into a serpentine crown.

He prepped a snicker, even though his heart was thumping. “You look like Eve ready to tempt Adam all over again.”

She chuckled with easy sureness. “How fitting. Free will being the original sin, and all.” Her eyes took on a meaningful gleam, and she rose up to his ear. “Are they ready?”

He craned his head down to repeat the whisper process. “Anxious, but ready.”

They swapped angles again. “Do you still have your phone?”

He managed a half-smile. “Not after I piss.”

“Do it now. I will meet you at the coat-check in ten minutes.” Then she moved away, leaving no moment for dissent.

He had none, anyway.

He stepped down into the undulating dance crowd, squeezing his way between jumping, bumping men and women engaged in sweaty, joyous obliviousness. Kirill jerked at his tap, and Darya stopped, too. Seven leaned to Kirill’s ear.

“Coat-check table. Five minutes,” he said, and resumed his press toward the restrooms across the floor.

There were three others in the men’s, but none of them were from the team. Seven maneuvered to the urinal at the end. A water pipe ran along the wall behind it; a good place to stash his phone. There wasn’t much in his bladder but he emptied it even so, putting out his free hand to the pipe, as though to steady himself. He left his phone there, flushed, and walked to the sink, ignoring the other men around him. When the last one filtered out, he washed his hands and ripped off a paper towel from the dispenser. Then he yanked the comm from his ear and dropped it into the bin with the rest of the garbage.

Out in the club proper, the dancers still undulated. Seven sidled around the edge of them this time, to the coat-check area inside the entrance. He came to it just behind Kirill and Darya, as Natalya greeted them with a guarded smile.

“No second thoughts, I hope?” Natalya asked, when Seven felt a sudden itch at the back of his neck. He turned on instinct, finding Ten shifting their way.

“No second thoughts about what?” the other agent said, her gaze moving in quick, controlled darts between Seven and the rest of them. “What’s going on here?”

Natalya chuckled. “We were just stepping out for a little drive—“

“I did not ask you.” Ten’s focus snapped to Seven. She didn’t speak, but waited for him. Her gaze was sharp, fixated; it demanded the truth.

Seven gave it, as much as he could do. “Just look away,” he said, nearly pleading. “Just for a moment, and forget you saw us.”

Ten narrowed her eyes until the whites nearly disappeared. She rotated her stance sideways, and her hand went to the small of her back. Her voice, when it came, hissed in accusation. “You are asking me to neglect my duty?”

“I am only asking you to turn around,” Seven said, his own throat tight for the words. “Not seeing is not knowing.”

“And not telling is treason.” Now, Ten pulled on him, a snub-nosed, standard-issue pistol that matched the one still tucked in his own holster.

The girl at the coat-check table, who’d been silent and unobtrusive until now, let out a yelp of fear.

“Call the police,” Ten ordered her. She held her pistol down but in a firm, confident grip and glared at the rest of them. “Don’t move.”

The coat-check girl scurried away, to run for it or to phone the police. Either way, it cut their time short.

Seven turned to Ten full-on, puffing his chest and spreading his shoulders to widen his target frame. He looked at her but told the others:

“Go.”

Ten’s pistol came up, straight at him. “I said, no one move!”

“Don’t shoot!” Kirill cried, close enough to Seven’s ear to tell him he hadn’t retreated and hadn’t escaped. “We don’t want trouble. We just want to be free!”

Hesitation and confusion flickered across Ten’s gaze, and Seven snatched their chance.

He slammed his palm hard against her gun wrist, forcing it to the side, and snapped his head against her brow. She staggered with a broken shout, and released her grip. He pulled the pistol from her fingers and clapped it to the side of her head, making her go down.

“I’m sorry,” he said, before spinning to the others with the same order as before. “Go!

They rushed out, and he followed, unlocking the magazine from Ten’s pistol and yanking it free on the way. He popped the round in the chamber, too, and sent everything clattering into a street drain near an idling sedan.

Natalya skittered to a stop beside the car and pulled open the rear curbside door.

“In, in, in!” Seven said, pushing Darya, Kirill, and Natalya inside. He spared a glance over his shoulder, but he didn’t see Ten, Four, or any security. Yet.

He ducked into the car, cramming next to Natalya, and hauled the door closed after him with a heavy slam.

“Alex!” Natalya called. “Time to go!”

A familiar voice – the driver who’d returned them to the hotel a few weeks ago – came from the front. “Yes, ma’am!” he said, and the car accelerated at a ready pace, merging them into the stuffier city traffic.

Seven kept his gaze out the rear windshield for the first six blocks. No lights or sirens followed, though, and no obvious tails. He faced front with a puff of breath at Natalya, who was still smooshed next to him; Darya sat mostly on Kirill’s lap, the pair of them crowded against the other door. Seven apologized and tried scooting against his own door, but his size prevented him from giving them much extra space. He settled for stretching an arm behind Natalya, so at least his shoulder was out of the way.

“Is that it?” Darya asked, leaning across Kirill’s chest. “Are we free?”

“Almost,” Natalya said, and Darya eased back, frowning. Natalya offered her a placating smile. “It will take a few days for the paperwork—”

“A few days?” Darya leaned in again, this time at Seven, and hissed, “You said she could help us!”

“We cannot cross the border without papers or permission,” Natalya said, before Seven could make reply.

“Can’t you just forge us papers?” Darya said, and Natalya laughed.

“What a little felon you are!” She waved her hand. “Do not worry. My friend at the consulate will help us.”

Darya’s brow stayed crumpled, when Natalya shifted, and said in a hushed, almost maternal voice:

“We need this to be official. Or they will send us straight back again. You do not want that, do you?”

Kirill gave Darya a gentle bump with his arms that made her look at him, and whispered, “It will be all right. Natalya has always done as she has said. You can trust her.”

Darya sat back once more. Kirill pulled her closer, too, Seven noticed, though he couldn’t tell if it was to comfort her or to simply keep her from snapping at Natalya again. The athletes were quiet for the rest of the drive, Darya watching Natalya and Kirill watching Darya, while Natalya sat back against Seven’s supporting arm in a way that felt surprisingly natural.

After several minutes, they pulled up to a three-story brick building that stood dim in the middle of the block, save for the bright light shining down over the front stoop. There, a woman came down the steps to meet them. She moved with the smooth and confident grace of a soft-skill professional, and while her dark skin had few wrinkles, her bouncy coif was streaked with white that gleamed in the lamplight.

“Francine!” Natalya called.

Seven opened the door and got out. Natalya spilled out after him, from the car to the other woman’s arms, where they greeted each other with a quick embrace.

The woman – Francine – smiled for Natalya before stepping back. “This way,” she urged, with a step and a gesture toward the building’s open door. “Quickly.”

Still standing at the car, Seven beckoned for the athletes. Darya scooted across the seat to him, bending her head low as she poked it out. Kirill came behind her, and she took his hand and hurried them up the short steps to the door. Seven followed, and joined Natalya past the threshold. Once they were all inside, Francine locked the door behind them with the solid thunk of a deadbolt.

She turned to regard them all in one swoop of her dark, intelligent gaze, and smiled more easily. “Welcome,” she said, and Seven didn’t realize he’d had a knot at the base of his neck until that moment, when it suddenly unraveled.

“Is this the embassy?” Kirill swung his gaze around at the high walls adorned with framed black-and-white photographs, several of them of well-known government officials of the past, but he didn’t let go of Darya’s hand.

“This is the staff residence,” Francine informed them, her smile still warm. “But you’re safe here. For our purposes, this is sovereign land; your government has no power here.”

Darya pushed ahead. “When will we get our papers?”

“The ambassador will meet with you tomorrow,” Francine said, and looked at Natalya again. “Philip is at a function, tonight, or he would have met you himself.”

Natalya gave a noise of agreement. “That is all right. We can rest, and be fresh in the morning.”

Darya’s frown betrayed some apprehension, but Kirill nodded and gave his thanks.

Alex returned then, with four bundled duffels, each identified by a tag bearing the first letter of their names.

Seven picked up the bag assigned to him and peered inside. Folded there were fresh clothes, enough for three or four days, and a package of toiletry items. He looked up at Alex and asked, “How did you…?”

“Not me,” Alex said. “Thank Natalya.”

Seven turned to her, but she immediately dismissed him with a wave.

“A simple bit of shopping.” She lowered her chin at Darya. “I am afraid I had to guess at your size, kitten. Hopefully, nothing is too tight for you.” She passed a wink to Kirill then, and said, “Your size, I already knew.”

Darya looked at Kirill, too, and yanked her hand from his. Kirill froze dumbly, leaving Seven to save him with an obtrusive chuckle.

“Luckily,” Seven said, while plucking at the buttons of his dress shirt, “you know mine, too.”

“Big and tall.” Natalya pulled one of her Cheshire Cat smiles. “The way I like.”

Francine blew a tiny “heh” under her breath before gesturing them further into the house. “This way,” she said.

The vestibule, built beside an octagonal parlor with far too many windows to be secure, opened onto another room with a wide, curving staircase that rose to the upper floors. A swinging door next to it led to what Seven assumed was a kitchen, but they didn’t go there, instead climbing the stairs to the second floor. Francine escorted them down a corridor with branching rooms – a smaller, second-floor parlor built above the one below, a closed door that looked like it belonged to a study or bedroom, a similar door down half the length of the corridor, and an open door to a shower bath – to the next staircase. They climbed that one, as well, to the third floor, where all the doors stood open to the eye: another full bath, and three bedrooms made up for guests. Natalya walked into the largest of these, tossing her duffel onto a wide-cushioned chair set near the queen-sized bed.

“Well,” she said, looking around the room. “It looks like two of us are sharing. Is that all right with you, Dashenka?”

Still standing in the corridor, Darya pulled her chin to her chest and declared, “I am not sharing anything with you!” She turned and stomped away. A moment after, they heard the swing of a door followed by the loud latch of a lock.

Kirill faced the others in the abrupt silence. “I am sorry,” he said in a hushed voice. “She does not mean to be rude.”

Francine offered him a look of sympathy. “It’s a lot to deal with.”

“She is frightened.” Kirill swallowed and glanced at the floor. “So am I.”

Natalya smiled fondly. “The worst is behind you,” she said, and Francine nodded.

“Things should be clearer for everyone after a good night’s sleep.”

A solid rest seemed like a lot to expect under the circumstances, but Seven agreed.

“Thank you,” he said to Francine, though the words felt insufficient and trite. Nevertheless, their hosts told them to help themselves to whatever they needed, said goodnight, and went down the steps to leave them to their peace.

Natalya let out a halfhearted chuckle. “Well,” she said, exhaling the word around an uneven smile. “I don’t suppose either of you gentlemen would care for a nightcap?”

“I think I have had enough excitement for one evening,” Kirill muttered.

“You boys want to share the big bed?” Natalya said, but Seven shook his head.

“No,” Kirill agreed.

“Are you sure?” she asked, and Seven smiled.

“A gentleman does not make a lady move.” He gestured to the corridor. “Kirill, you take the other room. I will take the chair.”

“I couldn’t—” Kirill began.

“Yes, you can,” Seven said. “You need your rest. And, I do not sleep well in a strange place.”

Kirill gripped his bag by the handle, and paused at the door. “Thank you,” he said, and repeated the same to Natalya.

She bobbed her head. “Sleep well, sweet prince.”

As soon as he heard the click of Kirill’s door, Seven sighed and turned to Natalya. “Were you serious about that nightcap?”

She dipped her hand into her deep cleavage, pulled a tiny bottle from beneath the belt of her dress, and smiled. “Only if you are willing to share.”

She passed him the bottle, and he lowered himself onto the edge of the bed for a sip of burning whisky while Natalya toed off her heels and peeled off her stockings. He watched her, soothed by the graceful flow of her hands. The flutter of her stockings joined the dance, and then the slippery flap of her dress’s belt.

Seven cleared his throat, unaware he’d been staring. He turned to the wall. “Sorry.”

Natalya clicked her tongue. “You know I’m not modest.”

He focused on the joint of ceiling and wall, where one could tell the paint colors were slightly different, and kept talking; talking helped him not to think too deeply. “But what about your mystery?”

“I would have that even naked, with you.”

“True.” He took another delightfully warming sip, and kept his eyes on the wall. “I guess I am the modest one.”

“As I have long suspected,” she said, as her weight made the mattress shift, and he finally looked at her again.

She’d pulled her dark hair free of its twisted wrap, but spirals of it still clung to their molded shape, creating a riot of glossy whorls around her face. She’d replaced her provocative cocktail dress with a more conservative sleeping shift, which covered her shoulders, chest, and hips. Her legs were bare, though, and long and strong as she crossed them one over the other.

Seven blinked, feeling warm and a bit woozy of a sudden.

Natalya brushed close to him. “Let me have a little,” she said, when he realized she was asking for the tiny bottle still in his hand. She tipped it to her lips and tilted her head back, as calmly and smoothly as if it were water. When she brought it down, she graced him with a gentler smile, and said, “You were magnificent, tonight.”

He shrugged, grateful for the change of subject. “I was doing my job. You are the one who has gone above and beyond.” He frowned. “You did not have to come with us.”

She snorted. “I am sure that blonde bombshell would have liked that.”

“She is frightened,” Seven said, repeating Kirill.

“She is jealous,” Natalya corrected, before shooting him a look of warning. “But do not tell her I said so! She will realize the feeling is mutual.”

Seven felt the tickling of a snicker. “You, jealous of Darya?”

Natalya grunted a distinctly un-feminine harrumph that nevertheless caused Seven to smile. “What I wouldn’t give for those dimples! To say nothing of the rest of her,” she grumbled, and drank again with a shake of her head.

Seven let his gaze wander to her face. “She will never be you,” he said, partly to stroke her ego but also because it was true.

Natalya sniggered. “And you wonder why I came with you.”

As she tipped back another sip, probably the last of it, Seven found himself staring at her again. Her cheek tempted his touch, but he bowed his head and reached instead for her hand resting on the bed, and whispered, “I will do my best to protect you.”

Her lips entered his field of vision; they glistened with a shine of whisky. “I know you will.” She pressed a kiss to the back of his cheek, near his ear, and said, “Now, get some rest, soldier.”

He rose away and moved to the chair. Thankfully, she didn’t protest; he might not have turned down an offer to sleep in the bed.

He turned the chair to face the door, and made himself a cozy space with the blanket and pillow she forced upon him. Once she was finished with the bathroom, he washed up and stripped down, and padded back to the now-dark room in his bare feet, where he settled himself into the chair and promptly drifted into a deep, weary sleep.

 

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There were some details related to the refugees’ ditching of phones and whatnot, that I decided to just drop because they bogged down the pace; I figured it’s already slow enough. As for nice-guy Seven, it’s been a lot of fun following his journey, as up and down as it’s been. Not much left to tell here, but I’ll see it through to the end. Will you join me?

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