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:
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.
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?