One vehicle flew into the air; another flipped over its side like a twisting diver launching from a board. Seven wrenched their car away from the ballooning fire, narrowly missing a truck in the outer lane that screeched sidelong in a panic. A compact slammed into their rear bumper, sending their sedan spinning.
They smashed into a line of already-crashed, crunched vehicles. Seven heard his head crack against the steering wheel. He jolted up again and looked at Kirill, who was rising slowly from a bracing position with his hands thrust out to the dash. His hair had been shocked out of place and his skin was pale, but otherwise he seemed all right.
Seven still had to check. “Are you hurt?”
Kirill shook his head. “I don’t think so…?” His pupils loomed large in his eyes, and it took him a moment to focus. “You’re bleeding.”
Seven touched his forehead; his fingers came back with a smear of blood. He felt his dead eye squinting and blinking from the liquid, and he wiped what he hoped was a clearer path across his skin.
Shouts and screaming filtered through the cracks in the chassis and the waning tinnitus in his ears. He could feel a wafting heat, too, from the exploded car and one that had begun to burn beside it.
He slapped the catch of his safety belt. “We have to go.”
Kirill sat dazed, and Seven shouted his name. The swimmer blinked in rapid succession but didn’t move.
Seven reached over and wrestled with the passenger safety belt lock, his fingers fumbling against the awkward angle.
“We have to get out of here,” he repeated, as the latch came free and retracted across Kirill’s chest. “It’s not safe. Does your door work?”
Kirill had started to come around. He jerked at the handle but the door didn’t budge. A shove with his shoulder yielded the same lacking result. “No…!”
Seven tried his own door. It creaked with give. He twisted around in the car, got his leg out from under the dash, and kicked the door hard with his heel. The door swung in a squeal.
“This way,” he said, shimmying out legs-first.
Kirill’s agility proved itself well as he clambered over the gearshift and driver’s seat. As soon as he was out, Seven hauled him nearly under his arm, throwing his gaze in all directions to assess the situation.
“Code Red,” he barked for sake of his comm, and followed with their location.
The voice of Control came back in his ear. “Are you compromised?”
Seven grimaced at their vehicle. “Our car is.”
“Emergency crews have been alerted. Secure your target and await instructions.”
The comm clicked off in his ear, and Seven swore to himself. On their own, then. He didn’t dare pull his gun in this chaos, but he touched its butt to make sure it was still secure under his arm.
He pushed Kirill ahead of him and pointed up the block. “Go.”
Kirill looked round at him. “What?”
Seven gave him another forward push. “It’s secure, and I trust her.” He hurried three steps, but Kirill didn’t keep pace. “What are you waiting for? Let’s go!”
Kirill waved an arm toward the pile of wrecked traffic. “What about those people? And Darya? She was coming this way, too, with the others. We have to make sure they’re okay!”
Seven hustled back and grabbed his arm. “If we come across any of them before we get to Natalya’s, we’ll take them with us. But you are my first priority,” he said, and gave Kirill the mightiest shove yet. The younger man came along at half-again pace, this time without protest. That was good, because the blood dripping from Seven’s head was getting worse – he tasted its sharp, salty flow on his lips – and the streets were getting madder.
They ducked into an alley between a grocer and a coffee shop, behind a dumpster, so Seven could clean his face a bit. His hands stayed smeared, though, even after he wiped them on his trousers.
“Here,” Kirill muttered, pulling off his tie. It was a pretty silk make, and Seven hated to mess it. At least it was a dark color.
He wadded the tie into a compact ball that he pressed to his head, once and again. A more conscious look into the street to get his bearings told him, “It is only two, maybe three kilometers from here. Can you run it?”
Kirill nodded. “What about you?”
Seven tucked the tie into his jacket pocket. “I will be right behind you.”
“Promise?” Kirill said.
“Yes. Now, go!” Seven said, and pushed him into the street with the gut-clenching feeling that he was back on a battlefield.
They got to Natalya’s apartment complex without trouble, and without seeing anyone else they knew. Seven was glad they didn’t have to stop. Alarms had been raised, and even at this distance away, he could hear the faint wail of emergency sirens echoing between the city blocks.
He jabbed the intercom button for her apartment. There was a telltale hiss of air indicating an open connection, followed by a gasp. Natalya’s cultured façade was broken by a sailor’s curse that actually made Seven break into a smile.
“What happened?” she demanded.
“I’ll explain after you let us up,” he said, and the door buzzed in quick reply. He maneuvered Kirill inside and went in behind him, closing the outer door firmly after them.
Natalya was waiting outside her door, in a shapely crème dress with a deep arcing cut in the top and a high arcing cut in the bottom, a glamourous sight that clashed with the look of worry on her face. She crossed to Seven, wheezing, “Semyon!” Her slender fingers grazed his temple, and he cringed.
She stood straight with a humph. “What in God’s name have you gotten yourself into, this time?”
“There was an explosion,” Kirill said, “on the side of the road. It took out our car. This was the closest, safest place we could come…!”
“All right, all right.” Natalya drew them inside and tsked at Seven. “Let’s clean you up.”
The apartment was warm and quiet and dim. Seven made his way to the sofa, where Kirill helped him sit. Natalya swept down next to him, a little red bag in one hand and a bottle in the other. Unfortunately, the bottle was peroxide, not whisky, and Seven hissed when she pressed a cotton ball full of the stuff to his face.
“I thought you said it was fine,” she said.
“It still burns!” He could also hear it fizzing.
“You’re being a baby,” Natalya scolded softly, as she made several more liberal dabs.
Standing to the side, Kirill rubbed his hands. “Can I do something?”
“You can get me a whisky,” Seven said.
Kirill went to the bar, and Natalya continued to clean the wound. Seven leant back against the cushions with a tight-lipped groan. He tried to relax, and let his gaze wander. It was drawn to Natalya’s chest, the most defined thing in his vision, and the delicate silver-and-diamond necklace nestled there.
“That is very pretty,” he muttered. “Your necklace.”
She hummed. “It was a gift from an ambassador friend. He has a fondness for fine ballet.” As she reached for a bandage, he caught her quick smirk. “And wicked women to watch it with.”
Seven chuckled, and over her shoulder caught sight of Kirill. Hovering at the side of the sofa, he looked very disheveled, very worried, and very sweet.
“Does it hurt?” he asked.
“It won’t after that,” Seven said, nodding at the glass. He took a cautious sip and sucked some air between his teeth as chaser. “Now, that is a good burn.”
Natalya got up, and Kirill took her place. He peered at Seven’s face and offered a little smile. “It doesn’t look so bad.”
“One more scar won’t matter,” Seven said, and snickered. “I am already ugly.”
Kirill’s smile fell. “No, you’re not,” he said, in a hushed and gentle voice.
“You boys are darling.” Natalya’s breezy interruption relieved Seven’s sudden wave of emotion, as she sat beside him on the sofa’s arm. “But have you figured out, yet, how you will return home without a car?”
Seven frowned to himself. “I will think of something.”
She swept up again with a swirl of white satin and a harrumph. “While you think, I will do.”
“Natalya,” he began, but she had already plucked her phone from the table and was navigating the menus deftly with her thumb.
“My ambassador friend will be happy to help.” She put the phone to her ear with a naughty smile. “He enjoys me being indebted to him.”
“Natalya!” Seven protested again.
She shushed him. “Do not argue. You know better than that.” A moment later, she put on a wide smile to be heard in her voice.
Kirill watched her in mystified amazement. “Can she really do that? Get us a car from a foreign embassy?”
“I have never known her to not be able to do what she says she will do,” Seven said, and sighed a little bit as she laughed, cajoled, and made her deals over the phone, all with her innately feminine charm.
Kirill’s voice wafted next to his ear, softer than the cotton Natalya had pressed to his skin just a few minutes ago. “Do you love her?”
Seven turned to look into his face, smooth with youth and naivety, and caught his breath. But before he could answer, Natalya once again insinuated herself into the moment with a dramatic swoop of skirt as she sat down beside Seven.
“Your car is on the way,” she said.
Seven replied in the only appropriate fashion. “Thank you.”
She nodded. “You’re welcome,” she said, and shrugged. “Of course, it means you cannot stay.”
He hummed. “It was not the evening any of us was expecting.”
“No.” She extended a hand across Seven’s chest, to Kirill. “My brave prince,” she said, gripping his fingers. “I am sorry to have disappointed you.”
Kirill held her hand, but loosely. “You could never be a disappointment.”
Natalya cooed, while Seven tried to make himself smaller between them. She noticed his fidgeting, and narrowed her eyes for another shrewd smile. “You will take care of this big one, yes? Until we meet again?”
“I would be proud to do so half as well as you,” Kirill said, which caused Natalya to stretch her shoulders in flattered delight.
“Oh, you sweet thing!” She rose and drew him to standing, too, so she could move up against him with the promise of feminine fulfilment. “Be safe; be strong; and come back to me sometime.” And, putting her arms around him, she kissed him with the practiced sensuality of her occupation.
When they parted, Seven stood with them. “I am sorry,” he began, when Natalya clucked another scold at him.
“Don’t you dare. I am proud you came to me.” She stroked the scarred side of his face, tingling the nerves under his skin. “And, I enjoyed being your Florence Nightingale,” she said, and kissed him, lightly on his good cheek.
She saw them to the lift. Once the doors had closed, Seven told Control that they had secured safe transport and were headed back to the hotel. The voice on the other end confirmed, and when Seven asked about the others, he was informed that Twelve and her athletes were on their way back, and Four already had the rest of the men’s team in lockdown in their rooms, which was precisely where Seven and Kirill were expected to go as soon as they arrived, as well.
Seven didn’t mention his injury; lockdown was going to be annoying enough.
In the lobby, a thin, dark man in a solid black suit greeted them. “Are you Natalya’s friends?” he asked, and Seven nodded. The driver introduced himself as Alex, and extended his arm toward the doors. “This way, please.”
Alex took them to a dark blue, roomy sedan parked out front. He opened the rear door, and Seven urged Kirill inside before following. Alex took the driver’s seat and, once they were on the road, asked them to confirm the address for his GPS. Seven did so, and the driver made a noise of clarification.
“We’ll have to take a detour from the main roads, though. There was an explosion earlier.”
“We heard,” Seven said, avoiding any more detail. “Was anyone hurt?”
“Nothing reported. But it’s caused a right mess of traffic.” Alex smiled over his shoulder. “Feel free to relax back there.”
Seven thanked him, and sat back against the leather interior. The back seat was a novelty for him, and he took the time to enjoy the feeling of distraction that belonged to a passenger. He was about to comment on this to Kirill, when he noticed the younger man staring morosely out his window.
Seven leant toward him, whispering, “Control says the others are safe. And we will be with them soon.”
“Okay,” Kirill said, and turned back to his window.
Seven returned to his own side, deciding not to press. Kirill was silent for the rest of the drive.
When they arrived at the hotel, Alex opened the car door for them, looked up at the complex, and whistled.
“Impressive! I didn’t know this was even out here.”
“It is for the athletes,” Seven said. “Kirill is a swimmer, training for the games.”
“Really?” Alex smiled. “Can I say I met you, if you win?”
Kirill didn’t react beyond a blink, so Seven said, “There is little doubt of that. This one is a champion.”
Alex was polite enough not to poke. “You must be very proud,” he said to Seven, who agreed. “Well, good luck with your training. And, if you ever need another friend in the city, let me know.”
“Thank you,” Seven said again, and shook his hand. Then he bade the driver farewell, and turned Kirill toward the hotel.
As soon as they were inside the main doors, Number Two strode up, pointing a finger at both of them. “You!” he cried.
Seven held up his hand before Two could say anything more. “Tomorrow.”
The older agent kept yammering. “There has been a breach of security. He needs to be debriefed—”
“Tomorrow,” Seven repeated with a menacing lean. “He has been through enough tonight.” He pushed Kirill in front of him, directing him toward the lifts.
Two sputtered after them. “I will inform Number One about this!”
“Go ahead,” Seven mumbled, as he and Kirill walked into a waiting lift. The doors closed, and, thankfully, Two did not follow them. In the hush, Seven muttered, “I am sorry tonight did not go as planned.”
Kirill slumped against the wall. “It is not your fault.”
Seven watched him a moment before trying again. “Are you all right?”
“Fine,” Kirill said, though he stayed slouched, shuffling down the corridor when they came to their floor.
Seven let them into the suite and locked the door after them, with two sharp clicks and a swing of the deadbolt.
“The lockdown is only a precaution,” he explained. “Until things settle down.”
“I understand,” Kirill said dully.
Seven sighed. In the safety of the suite, he could assert himself better than he could in the car or the lift. “Tell me what is wrong.”
Kirill turned and looked up from between his slumping shoulders. “Do you think I am terrible?”
“No.” Seven squinted at him. “Why would you think that?”
“You have taken care of me for almost two years,” Kirill said, his voice cracking with guilt. “Yet, I have never asked your name.”
Seven blew a sigh and shook his head. “You know my name.”
“Natalya called you Semyon—”
“That name is not who I am, anymore.”
“Then who was he?” Kirill planted himself on the sofa. “I want to know,” he said, the gold in his eyes flashing with determination.
Seven sighed again and sat down on the opposite side of the sofa. This story was common record in the military files, and known to the few friends he still had from before the war, like Natalya, but he’d never actually told it to anyone. He pulled out his earpiece, looked at it a moment, then tucked it into his pocket, out of reception range of his voice.
“I was a young soldier,” he said to begin, “sent to fight a war. My squad was on recon one day, not far from the border. There were lots of abandoned vehicles, and trash everywhere. We’d gotten used to it. But one of the cars had been rigged with a bomb.” An abrupt sense-memory of explosive heat burning his face made him blink. “Our sergeant was closest. Somehow, he was still alive.” Another blink, as he recalled the man’s ear-splitting howling. “Another soldier and I pulled him to cover. The rest of them were panicking, shouting and firing in all directions.” He shrugged to himself. “Most of us were just boys. Then, another car exploded.”
For a heartbeat, he was there again: smoke burning his eyes, fire singeing his nostrils, and the panicked, Babel-esque shouts of his comrades filling his ears. And Leon: skinny, eighteen-year-old Leon, wide-eyed and white-faced in frozen shock, with the line of cars burning behind him.
Seven had never remembered exactly what had come next, but he’d been told, by the medical team and the discharge officer after the fact. How he’d bolted from his sergeant and screamed for Leon, when another explosion eradicated almost a third of that young soldier’s body. The shrapnel shard that pierced his own face hadn’t stopped him from dragging Leon to safety, though, an act for which they’d called him a hero, when all Seven had really tried to do was keep him from dying out there, alone and so far from home.
He relayed the details of the story in the same matter-of-fact manner used by the army officer, and Kirill asked:
“Were you afraid?”
Seven felt a little bit of his breath go. “There is no way I could have survived that without being afraid. I think it is why I don’t remember it very clearly.”
“What happened then?”
“I woke up in a field hospital.” Seven smiled suddenly, for the memory of the kind, clear, green-blue eyes watching over him in his convalescent bed. “To the most beautiful nurse, with the most soothing voice I’d ever heard, and the most caring touch I’ve ever felt.”
Kirill smiled, too. “Natalya?” he guessed, but Seven laughed.
“No! No, Natalya’s bedside manner has always been better suited to more…private situations.”
Kirill’s smile fractured at Seven’s laughter, but the curious interest in his gaze remained intact. “So, who was your beautiful nurse, then?”
That brought a pause, and an anxious cramping in his underbelly. Even fewer knew this story. But the golden shine in Kirill’s eyes was too bright, too attentive, too splendid to ignore.
“His name was Erik.” The name sounded almost mystical to Seven’s ears; he’d never said it aloud before. “The first night after I woke, he stayed by my side and held my hand, and listened to me cry. He let me be sad for my comrades, and angry over my eye. Then, he told me that, while I could not go back to the way I was, and that it would take time to heal, I would become strong again.” Those remembered words prompted a melancholy smile. “And, I did.”
He looked over at Kirill, not knowing what to expect. Surprise, perhaps, or revulsion. But the swimmer’s gaze gleamed only with curiosity.
“What happened to him?” Kirill asked, and Seven opened his hands.
“I do not know.”
Kirill sat forward. “He did not go with you?”
Seven laughed again, softly. “I was a soldier. When I was healed enough, they sent me home. His job was at the hospital, to help other soldiers in the field.”
“So, you never told him how you felt?” Kirill asked, in a quiet but confident way that sounded like he already knew the answer.
“I was never that brave,” Seven confirmed, and bumped one shoulder. “To him, I was just another wounded trooper. I doubt, if you asked him now, he could even remember my name. But, I will always remember his.” He sat back, that sad part of the story over. “After I came home, the Security Division was recruiting. Even with my eye, I had a good record, so, I applied, and they accepted me.”
“And you became Seven,” Kirill finished.
Seven nodded. “Number Seven.”
Kirill’s expression stayed miserable. “I’m sorry.”
“Don’t be,” Seven told him. “I could have been assigned some stuffy businessman or self-important politician. Instead, I was given a thoughtful and charming young man, who keeps me on my toes, and makes me laugh.”
That brought a tiny smile to Kirill’s face before he asked, “Does Natalya know? About…?”
“Yes. It has never changed anything between us, though. I will always love her for that.”
“So, you do? Love her.”
“She is one of my oldest, dearest friends. I could not imagine my life without her.” He sat back with a chuckle. “But, that should not keep you from being with her!”
Kirill answered with more melancholy. “She does not love me. Not that I ever thought that was a possibility – I know what she does – but, tonight, it was obvious.” His gaze became clear and full of resigned awareness. “She loves you.”
Seven drew a breath to contradict, but Kirill shook his head.
“It is all right. I do not blame her!” The younger man shrugged, without anger or sorrow. “Sometimes, we cannot help whom we love, yes?” He paused and glanced away for a thought. “But,” he resumed after a moment, “I want to make love to someone who loves me the way I love them.”
The ingenuousness in those gold-flecked eyes made Seven smile, and nod. “That is very mature.”
Kirill smiled, too, and dropped his gaze for a sudden blooming blush. It flashed up again a second later, and the color in his cheeks fell away, at the wail of an echoing siren. The sound was distant, though, and became more so after a moment.
“You are safe, here,” Seven assured.
“I know.” Kirill sat back and pulled his knees up, a tall, lean-muscled young man suddenly become a boy.
Seven got up and reached for the television remote control. “Why don’t you find us something to watch, while I make us some food. All right?”
Kirill took the remote and nodded, haltingly. He clicked past the news reports, to a slow-moving film about provincial village life from the last century. Seven had seen it years before, on base during his army training, so he went to the kitchenette to pull together a mishmash of edibles from the available leftovers. When he returned to the sofa, Kirill lay on his side staring at the screen. He stayed that way until he dozed off a half-hour later, the movie still running and his supper mostly uneaten.
Seven turned off the television and cleaned up the dishes. He pulled out an extra blanket from the closet and laid it over Kirill. The swimmer could wake on his own or spend the night on the sofa; it didn’t make a difference which.
With Kirill safe and asleep, Seven retired to his own room. He walked into the en suite and stopped at the mirror over the sink, where he peeled off the protective gauze on his forehead, to peer at the two delicate butterfly bandages closing the cut above his dead eye. The flesh felt tender under his touch but didn’t hurt.
He splashed some cool water on his face and gazed at his reflection – with its square-set jaw and broad brow, and the pale scar cutting over his left eye and cheek – and sighed. Sometimes, a man could not help whom he loved, indeed.
Seven’s journey is a sensitive one, which I hope readers will accept as his story progresses. The way that one identifies oneself is very personal, and not always what we expect. Seven “spoke” to me many times over the course of this story, changing even my perceptions of who he should be. I allowed myself to be open to that. I hope you will, too.