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.”
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.
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.