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:
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!”
“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.
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.
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.