As with many of the troublesome times over his life, Natalya turned out to be Seven’s savior.
“Emigration in itself should not be so difficult,” she explained as they sat together on a bench in the park, over carry-away coffees.
Sitting beside her with his elbows on his thighs, Seven rolled his emptied cup in his hands. He’d had to wait two days for the security lockdown at the hotel to be lifted, another two days for the athletes’ commute schedule to the gym complex to return to normal, and an additional three days after that before he felt safe enough to get away for a few hours into the city, under the guise of buying some gourmet chocolates. That excuse that might have been flimsy otherwise, except that Kirill was making an honest effort to be nice to Darya, and Darya did love chocolate.
“Even for who they are?” he asked, and Natalya made a noise of indifference.
“It is still a free country. You know, for the most part. I would think your superiors would have more anxiety over any bad press they might get for keeping them locked up.” She smirked. “Pretty faces generate more interest with any media.”
He marveled at her calm composure, when the little pieces of the puzzle of her life as he knew it snapped gently into place. “You have done this before,” he said, partly in awe.
She cast him a sly, sidelong glance. “I am sure I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
Seven swung his head, muttering to himself, “Why did I not see it before?”
“Because men often do not see what is right in front of their faces,” she said, primly but with a touch of annoyance. She paused, and added in a more serious tone, “Unfortunately, even a blind man would spot you running for the border.”
He had to silently admit agreement, but told her, “I am the lesser concern.”
“Not to me.”
He sat back, breathing a sigh through his nose. “Natalya…!”
Her chin puckered with a frown. “There was a time you would call me Tasha.”
He coughed. “When we were children!”
The bench creaked as she shifted her hips. “I was no child.”
“You were not built like a child,” he said. “But you were, what? Fifteen?”
“Sixteen,” she corrected, before drifting into a thoughtful, smooth-skinned daze. “And you were that shining young soldier. So proud in your uniform, so tall and strong and beautiful.” She smiled in her musing. “Everyone thought so.”
“They thought that about you,” he said, thinking of the way she glided with him in impossibly-high heels across a dance floor; “in that gold dress that caught the light whenever you moved.” He lingered in that far-off memory of simpler, more trusting times, when he’d believed so much in the world around him that he’d been willing to risk his life to preserve it. Now, he was risking his life to run from it.
Natalya lost some of her nostalgia, too. “That dress was hideous,” she said, and Seven laughed out loud to spite his melancholy.
“But you wore it like a princess,” he said.
One corner of her mouth twitched into a sardonic half-smile. Then, she became wholly serious once more. “The paperwork I can help arrange. And, it is safe behind embassy walls, relatively speaking. The only tricky part will be getting there.”
Seven hummed. “We will need a car. Preferably an untraceable one.”
“What about one with diplomatic plates?” she said, and when he widened his eyes at her, she raised her slender, unadorned fingers for a blasé waggle. “You are already going to the consulate. It will be easier to get you there in one of their cars.”
He didn’t quite want to believe it could be so simple. “You think that will work?”
“I have told you: my ambassador friend likes me owing him.”
“As much as I owe you?” he asked, half-jesting.
“You owe me nothing.” There seemed to be more words behind that sentiment, but she didn’t say them. Instead, she stood up, shaking her takeaway cup. “Give me a few days to make arrangements. And do not call, not on your phone. I will contact you at the hotel.”
“How?” he said, rising with her.
“You’ll know. Now, come.” She used her head to gesture toward the street. “I will buy you those chocolates you need.”
“I can buy my own chocolates,” he chided.
“I am sure you can.” Her lips glistened in another wide smile. “But then how would I excuse spending more time with you?”
“Perhaps I am your day-off man. The one you do not need to impress.”
She sniggered. “I expend much effort to impress you. You just don’t notice.”
“I notice.” He shifted so they faced each other head-on. She was close enough to take in his arms, but he kept his hands at his sides, instead only bowing his head for a hushed confession. “I will miss you.”
“No, you won’t.” Before he could protest, she told him, “I am going with you.”
His spine went shock-straight. “What? But, your life here—”
“Would not be much of a life,” she replied, “if I am going to spend most of it worrying about where you are and what you are up to.”
A mix of conflicting emotions rolled in his chest. Despite them, Seven pulled a tiny half-smile. “Are you sure?”
She put her hand on his sleeve, not gripping but with intent. “I am not going to let you simply walk out of my life again. I have learned my lesson from the last time.”
He touched her fingers and let a fuller smile come through. “What would I do without you?”
She matched his smile, though hers broke a bit at the corners. “Let us not find out,” she said, and threaded her hand under his elbow, to hold herself close to his side.
Two days later, Seven received a message that there was a package waiting for him at the main desk. He went to retrieve it, only to run into Number Ten on the way.
She didn’t look happy. Of course, happiness generally seemed to be out of her realm of personal possibility, but this was different. She strode toward him swiftly, on an unerring course, and stopped only when she had successfully barred his way.
“Your target,” she said without greeting, and Seven pushed his shoulders back.
“I have told you before—”
“Assignment, then,” she corrected, and spread her feet and clasped her hands behind her back, a soldier at ease even though she looked just as rigid as before.
Seven took her stance at face value. “What about him?”
“Tell him to stay away from Ms Vikhrova,” she said, and, inside his torso, Seven’s belly contracted. He’d warned both Kirill and Darya to keep a low profile. If Control decided to put them under extra surveillance – or, worse, under another lockdown – any plans they had made would be for shit. His brain raced for an excuse, when Ten caught him off his guard once again.
“She’s difficult enough to control without him arousing her,” she said, furrowing her tall brow.
The tension fluttered out from him with three quick blinks. “He arouses her?”
“He struts in front of her in his tight clothes or tiny swimsuit. It’s distracting.”
“Is it?” he said, clamping a smile behind his teeth.
Her nostrils flared ever so slightly. “These men and women are here to train,” she went on, raising her head in an attempt to regain her normally-perfect composure. “Not engage in extra-curricular hanky-panky.”
“Hanky-panky,” Seven repeated dubiously, and Ten responded with a tight-lipped frown.
“You may not take your duty seriously, but I do.”
Seven pulled himself straight. “I assure you—”
“I am the highest-ranking woman in this division,” Ten snapped. “Yet, I’m still only number Ten. This assignment is already a demotion. I won’t jeopardize it any more by letting your ward swing his dick around in front of mine.”
Seven raised an open palm and patted the air, in an effort to settle her ire. “I will make sure Kirill keeps the strutting to a minimum,” he said, and paused for a smirk. “For all of your sakes.”
Ten offered no reaction to his teasing, save for pulling her lips tight before walking away with her spine as straight as a rifle barrel.
Seven allowed himself a breath of relief at her back. In many ways, he preferred Ten to her predecessor, though she could still turn out to be a problem. Like every sniper Seven had ever known, she was a cold, consummate professional who did not question orders when they came down the line. This bodyguard assignment was new to her, but she was a fast learner. And, she had those eagle eyes. They would have to be cautious.
He got to the front desk and requested his parcel from the attendant, a dark man with a bouncy pompadour that Kirill would have envied. After a quick trip to the back, he laid a long, flat box on the counter. Seven signed for it, thanked him, and carried the box away in his arms, puzzling over its possible contents.
The return address was from a clothier in the city. Seven had passed the storefront many times but had never ventured inside; his salary didn’t cover that level of extravagance. Natalya’s must have done, though. He couldn’t think of anyone else from whom the package could have come.
He took the box to the lockers, where Kirill and the rest of the team were doing an afternoon speed session. They weren’t finished, yet, so Seven took the time to investigate the box. He snapped the courier security wrapping with a forceful but controlled pull of his fingers, unraveled a second layer of packaging and lifted the top of the box.
The white crepe paper crinkled as he slipped his hand beneath it and shifted it aside. Within, a black silk shirt shined up at him. He pulled set the box top beside him and lifted out the shirt. At first, he thought it must be for Kirill, but the shoulders were too wide, and the cut of the neck too thick. This was meant for him.
Cufflinks clattered to the bottom of the box as he shifted the shirt, as well as something lighter.
He picked up the fallen business card. On one side was embossed the word Escape, the name of a dance house in the club sector, while on the other was a handwritten message in a precise, flowing script.
Tomorrow, 9 o’clock. Bring your friends.
Despite Natalya’s sultry subterfuge, a nugget of nervousness jumped from the pit of Seven’s belly to the top of his chest. Tomorrow night. The end of his life as he’d known it. So far.
He put the card in his pocket and folded the shirt back into its box, looking up again just in time to see Kirill emerge from the showers in his usual fashion, naked and wet. Seven stood up, grabbed a towel from the pile, and handed it to Kirill. He held on to his end for an extra moment, to draw the younger man’s attention.
“You have been cooped up too long. We should get out.” He paused, and added in a deeper voice, “Tomorrow night.”
Panic flashed in Kirill’s eyes, but he recovered with a blink. He took the towel and forced a shaky smile. “Darya, too?”
Kirill swallowed, put on another nervous smile, and nodded back.
With no time for elaborate planning, they made none, just agreed to get to the club on time the following evening and be ready to run.
“We should invite the others,” Darya murmured to Seven at the dessert table that evening; meal-times were the least conspicuous way for them to talk.
He hovered beside her, making a show of trying to decide between pastry or fruit for his empty plate. “Ten will be there, too, then,” he warned.
Darya slathered chocolate sauce around a dainty biscuit. “She would be, anyway. It will be easier to slip away if she has more than me to look after, no?”
That made sense, but… “I still do not like it.”
Darya raised her gray eyes at him and brought her thumb, which was marked with a dab of spilled chocolate, to her lips. “What choice do we have?” she said, sucking the chocolate sauce from her finger as she moved away.
Seven had no good answer to that question.
The suggestion of getting out for some entertainment in the city spread through both teams like flames over drybrush. Nearly every training session, meal, and passing conversation to follow buzzed with plans and schemes to make the night one to remember. Seven was certain it would be so, one way or another.
That evening, while Number Four brought around the transport van and the rest of the men’s team horsed around near the valet stand outside, Seven stood by Kirill in the lobby. He played absently with his own cuffs, but Kirill fully fidgeted, biting his lip and rubbing at the back of his neck like a nervous groom. Seven was about to advise him to relax, because such conspicuous behavior was bound to get noticed by his teammates or – worse – Ten, but stopped himself when the elevator dinged, and from out the opening doors flowed a chorus of feminine laughter.
The cluster of women athletes moved past them with little notice, save for Darya, whose clicking gait paused ever so briefly as she spared them a furtive glance beneath her mascaraed lashes.
Seven met her fleeting gaze, and politely waved her on with the rest of the team. Kirill, though, pulled a breath and followed Darya’s form with his eyes. He took a step after her, but bumped into Ten’s side as he did so, causing a momentary break in the team’s smooth movement as a group.
Kirill muttered a swift apology and hurried to the door with his head down. Ten frowned, and followed him in a sure-footed march. In her wake, Seven sighed, swore to himself, and got ready to run some interference.
…How did we get here? This story was supposed to be simple.