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Jack of Spades

by beili

(mirrors http://s2b2.livejournal.com/349388.html)

I opened my eyes in the backseat of a car, to the unmistakable dizziness that comes after being sedated. Someone had been thoughtful enough to tie my hands in front. The engine was idling, and the driver went down pretty easily, unconscious. I was dragging him out when everything went dark.

I came to, for the second time, in the boot. I would have liked to say this had never happened before, but that would’ve been a lie. My hands being tied behind my back wasn’t an unfamiliar sensation either. The blindfold was another nice touch.

I squirmed to dislodge the blindfold until it slipped. I don’t like being stuffed into cramped, dark, closed spaces. Besides, it was freezing, and there wasn’t enough room to free my hands. I wondered how long it would take for me to lose sensation in them, and decided it wouldn’t be very long. The car wasn’t moving; if i couldn’t open the door, I could at least make some noise.

Banging around the car boot is awkward even if you’re not tied up inside it. I was taking a short break and considering a different strategy when the lid abruptly opened.

I didn’t catch more than a glimpse of the man before he put a gun to my head and reached in to fix the blindfold. “Someone wants to talk to you,” a heavily accented voice said in English. “I was told not to hurt you, but if you keep making trouble, I’ll shoot you in the kneecap and say I found you like that. Understand?”

“Yes,” I said, and coughed.

The gun disappeared, the lid closed again, and soon we were moving. I wondered if “wants to talk” was an euphemism for a bullet to the head, but then, Accent could have done that himself. Unless he really liked this damn car.

It had been a fucking shitty week, as a friend of mine was fond of saying, except in my case it was more like fucking shitty two years. I had started the day in a basement, cuffed to a pipe and trying to keep my head above the rapidly rising water level.

Open the cuffs, dive to stop the water flow, stumble up the stairs, find the guards you had safely bypassed on the way inside shot in the head. All before breakfast, not that I was hungry at that point. I picked the guard closest to me in size and took his clothes and boots. He didn’t need them anymore, and I still had things to do and wasn’t keen on going outside soaking wet. That sort of thing can kill you in winter, especially if you’re not that far from the North Pole. After some deliberation, I took the gun and extra ammo as well: no use in wasting resources.

There was a strange gap in my memory between leaving the building with the dead guards and waking inside Accent’s car, which meant that he or someone working for him had been on to me almost right away. I could give one thing to him, though – he was a good driver. I didn’t get banged up too much in that boot. This particular man had not come up on my radar before, but he might have been an independent player or a local contractor. I had crossed the border four days ago following an active operation, and hadn’t had much time to familiarize myself with how things worked here. Apparently you could end up being treated like someone’s luggage.

I didn’t quite know which way was up when the car stopped and I was dragged outside. I was pushed to my knees – to prevent any bright ideas, as Accent put it. I was aware of him standing half a step behind me, my bound hands in his full view. And then we waited. And waited.

I was shivering and my knees were starting to get numb with cold when I heard another car pulling up: the door opening and closing, brisk footsteps in the snow. I know someone who could have determined the weight, height and gender of the person walking up to us, had he been in my place, but I was tired, cold and fighting a persistent cough. The only likely outcome of this meeting was me saying goodbye to various body parts, and eventually my life, so I didn’t particularly care who had come to fetch me.

“Here,” Accent said above me, dragging my head up by the hair. I grit my teeth. “That him?”

“Yes,” said the terribly familiar voice to my right. “I’ll take it from here, thank you.”

No. No, it couldn’t be.

“Whatever, man,” Accent said. “Just glad to be finally rid of him.” Then he let go, and I sagged to the ground.

He walked away, and there were the distant sounds of motors starting: Accent and his posse pulling out. Then there were quick footsteps and quicker hands on my face, my shoulders, checking for injuries. Then the blindfold was off my head.

It was half-dark already, and my eyes adjusted quickly. There he was, better than I last remembered him: his hair a little longer, his eyes a little more washed-out. The scar tissue high on his cheek was barely more than an afterthought. Then he moved to take care of the zip ties.

“Teddy,” I said, my voice hoarse and scratchy, “what the hell do you think you’re doing?” The small cough was becoming a constant itch in my throat, and there was a tight feeling in my upper chest.

Teddy had cut through the zip ties and was wrestling out of his sensible parka.

“Getting you out of this,” he said. “Here, put it on.” I started protesting, and he just draped the parka over my shoulders and zipped it up halfway. “There’s more where that came from. Now we really need to get moving. Can you stand?”

We got to his car with some difficulty, and Teddy opened the door for me. Then he jumped into the driver’s seat, cranked the heat up and started winding down the forest roads instead of turning onto the highway.

I struggled with the zip to put his parka on properly, one arm at a time. It was warm, I was tired; and he looked unfairly good, flushed from the cold, in his scarf and thick sweater and gloves, frowning at the road. I had gone to extraordinary lengths to avoid exactly this kind of situation.

“Do you have anything other than that Beretta?”

Teddy pulled it out of his pocket and put it into my lap, then indicated a bag at my feet. “Gifts,” he said. “Appropriately incendiary.”

“I think you should at least keep this,” I said, nodding at the gun.

“Better you than me,” Teddy said. “You know I prefer the camera.”

I put the gun away and felt around in the bag. There seemed to be enough firepower to last me through at least three missions, provided I kept losing weapons at the same rate. I really didn’t want to know what he’d done, to get all of it here.

“Teddy,” I said. “What are you doing?”

“Dad sends his regards,” he said, “and says that he, and I quote, called it that first time.”

I went a little cold at this. When we were first introduced, Teddy’s father Frank had made a joke about communist spies. I had laughed, because it was good-natured, and I had never fancied myself a communist. He always treated me like his own son.

“Relax,” Teddy said, “he was delighted to know you are alive. We spent the better part of two years looking for you. He also had some choice words about your command, which I’m not going to repeat: it was pot calling kettle black, and he knows it.”

We changed cars in a small clearing. I picked up the bag of weapons, and Teddy shrugged on a nondescript dark coat. He backed the car we came in between two young pine trees and covered it with the netting he pulled off of the other one. It started snowing, again; Teddy drove us down winding gravel roads in the thickening darkness. I noticed the car had no GPS.

We hit a better road in twenty minutes or so. I leaned against the window and tried to think about what to do next. Nothing came to mind; my head was swimming. I coughed once, twice, took deep breaths to make myself stop.

“You really should’ve left me there, Teddy.”

He looked at me askance and accelerated, like he expected me to open the door and jump out. (I’ve done it on the job, once. Not eager to repeat the experience.)

“To do what, exactly? Get yourself killed by some small fry?”

“Maybe I was getting close to the biggest one.”

“Nick,” he said, “you weren’t. Look at yourself. This isn’t your MO.”

“You know nothing about my MO.” I was trying for sarcastic, but it just came out exhausted. The cough was a constant itch in my chest, trying to get out.

Teddy gestured at the bruises on my face.

“It wasn’t this bad, before. Not all the time, anyway.”

“Maybe I waited for everything to heal.”

“Hah,” he said, “I don’t think so. I was there, after all.”

“Excuse you,” I said. It was like the last two years without him had been a dream.

“You are excused,” he said, and his eyes crinkled at the corners.

It was fully dark by then. Teddy consulted the map twice and drove down another forest road before pulling up to a smattering of small, single-story houses. They all looked empty; Teddy stopped by the third one on the south side of the tiny village. The car went inside a repurposed garden shed; Teddy fished in his pocket for the house keys. The inside was spartan at best, but it had walls and a roof, and the windows were unbroken. Teddy brought in two bags – one of them weapons – and started fiddling with the thermostat.

“Is this…?”

“Rented,” Teddy said, getting on his knees in front of a cupboard and shining a torchlight inside. “By a friend of a friend.”

I went around the room, checking the windows. There were three, a bit too large for comfort – this was a summer house – but the curtains were thick enough. I pulled them closed. Teddy had found the master switch, the thermostat had come to life, and the lamp in the kitchen area turned on.

As safe houses went, it wasn’t the worst I’d ever stayed in, but the jury was still out on how safe it would be. The comfort wasn’t high on the list of the owner’s priorities, either. There was an old, large sofa that, in theory, could have been turned into a bed. In reality, something inside it creaked painfully and refused to budge when I tried. The kitchen area had a table, a couple of chairs, two cabinets, a sink and a hot plate. The bathroom, when I poked my head in, was about the size of a closet. At least it wasn’t outside, and there was a small electric boiler. The wardrobe at the far end of the room was empty except for several blankets and an ancient kerosene lamp.

Teddy had tried the tap. it coughed a few times, but the water ran clear; he rinsed and filled the kettle and put it on the hot plate.

I came up to look at map Teddy had left on the table, but my head was fuzzy, and there was a tightness in my chest I didn’t like.

“Teddy,” I said, “this is going to get very unpleasant very fast, and I’m sorry.”

I could tell I finally managed to unsettle him: he stood with his arms at his sides and stared at me, eyes wide. I opened my mouth to reassure him; a cough came out instead. Teddy moved slowly towards me, hands where I could see them, and that hurt more than I wanted to admit.

“What did you do?” he asked.

“Got very wet and very cold, for starters,” I said. My knees wobbled; Teddy all but sprung forward, sat me down on the sofa and soon was feeling up my forehead and neck. His hands were freezing, which was weird – hadn’t he been wearing gloves, before?

“You’re burning up,” he said.

“Not a common cold,” I said, turned away from him, and started coughing. it took nearly a minute to stop. “Probably chest cold, bronchitis or the like. Hopefully not pneumonia, I’ll definitely need a hospital for that one, and then we’re screwed.”

“You still need medical attention,” he said, but I shook my head.

“No. No doctors here, either,” before he’d opened his mouth to argue. “We’ll be better off not showing our faces anywhere for a while.”

Teddy didn’t like that, but helped me out of the parka, mindful of the gun in its pocket, then out of my sweater. Turned out it was to check me for injuries again; I closed my eyes and did my best not to cough. It was good to feel his hands on me, even if they were too quick to move away. And, knowing my track record, he had reason to worry.

“Did you fall into a lake?” he said, turning my hands over. I knew he was looking at the scratches on my wrists.

“Wet basement,” I said. “Same difference, though I didn’t really fall.”

“I can see that,” he said. “Why do you think it’s an infection?”

“It’s going down,” I said, “too quickly. I had this before, you know.”

From there, it wasn’t difficult to pull off my (dead man’s) boots and tip sideways into the hard-edged embrace of the sofa. The blankets smelled of dust and disuse. I could hear Teddy moving about, settling in. I hoped he wasn’t going to do anything stupid – I was hardly in any shape to stop him. It felt like someone had stuffed an iron bar inside my chest; I started coughing again, but it didn’t ease. By the time I managed to stop, my lungs felt like they were on fire.

Hello, bronchitis, my old friend.

Something was making horrible rasping sounds. It took me a while to realize that something was me.

Everything was swirling around in my head – the fever, the job, Teddy and his father, impending death. Some images were more detailed: Teddy with blood on his face, lying motionless and unresponsive, half-off the steering wheel in his own car. Teddy, pale and gaunt, in the hospital bed, machines beeping around him. Teddy when I met him first, keen and interested and full of joy. Teddy as I saw him now, older, more tired, grey coming in on his right temple.

I drifted in and out of wakefulness, unmoored.

Somebody put a cool hand on my burning forehead, and I groaned. It was Teddy – of course it was. Even in the low light, he looked sad and worried. I fought weakly with the scratchy blanket until my own hand was free, the cold air hitting the skin like a flood of icy water.

I caught his wrist, clumsy with exhaustion, and turned it over to press his blessedly cool, dry fingers to my cheek. It felt heavenly.

“Why did you do it?” he said, voice flat and quiet, at odds with the gentle touch. “That whole business with the hospital and the disappearance – why did you do it?”

It had hurt to look at him at the hospital, but that had nothing on how it felt, now.

“I had a job to do,” I said, or, more accurately, croaked. “There was… a hostile takeover. Nearly half of my team got killed or injured. Did police ever finish investigating that crash we got into?”

“They ruled it an accident,” Teddy said.

“It wasn’t,” I said. “It was a small RC explosive, no accident at all. But it was aimed at me, and instead, it hurt you. My team had lost both analysts to what appeared to be household malfunctions. My boss got hospitalized and nearly died. Turned out he stood in the way of a particular initiative, along with others, some in Britain as well. They all got hit. My boss pulled through. Others didn’t.”

“So you had to leave,” Teddy said. “And you couldn’t tell me?”

“You were barely conscious,” I said. “There was still that operation on your leg. I got turned around halfway to the hospital, and after that, there was no going back. First, we had to find who was responsible, and then it turned out to be – bigger than any of us imagined.”

“And after that?” Teddy asked, not looking at me. There was a faint tremor in his hand.

“I’m still living the after,” I said. “It’s not over yet.” And then I had to stop and fight a coughing fit.

Teddy was pale as a sheet by that point, and his fingers slipped from mine. Just as well: the cough overtook me with a vengeance, until my lungs were burning and tears were running down my face. I curled into the dusty sofa back and tried to breathe in a way that wouldn’t trigger the coughing again. The horrible rasping sound was back. Even death by drowning started to look tempting.

I felt more than heard Teddy getting up, but soon he has back, one hand behind my head, a cup of warm water in the other one. I took it and managed to drink it all without spilling any on myself.

I expected Teddy to move away, to a chair, or maybe go outside and drive like hell, but he just sat there on the sagging old sofa, his back to my middle, with his face in his hands.

“Has it ever occurred to you,” he said, voice muffled, angry, “that you could’ve told me everything earlier?”

“Do you think,” I said, “that I’d ever want to put you through it? That I wouldn’t have changed it if I had the power? The surveillance system that was being built for the last two years – do you think I could even think to implicate you, with that thing in place? You’d be dead or worse within the week, Teddy, and your father with you.”

His hands fell away and he half-turned to look at me over his shoulder. “I always thought the timing was suspicious,” he said. “Your disappearance, and the cooperation deal they made, not a month after. Do you know if it was yours or mine?”

It took me a moment to realize he was talking about governments.

“No,” I said. But it didn’t matter: had I stayed, we’d soon have had our relationship used against us. The British secret service was in tatters, and if either of us made too much noise, their new bosses wouldn’t have hesitated to kick me out of the country with as big a scandal as possible. It would have completely ruined Teddy, every bit of his work questioned and deemed a lie. And it would have been all over for me: my high command’s stance on same-sex relationships hadn’t changed much since the 1980s. They were very old-school that way, even if their own country had moved on.

I didn’t really sleep that night. Between the hacking cough, the horrible rasping sound my throat made with every breath, and the lumpy sofa, I got maybe an hour of fitful dozing. I don’t think Teddy slept, either. I told him he should, and he gave me such a pained look that I didn’t argue.

He must’ve gone out, sometime in the morning. With anyone else, I’d have thought their common sense had prevailed; no such luck with Teddy. He wasn’t always someone to start things, but once you had him, you could trust him to follow through.

I met Teddy first on a winding mountain road in Scotland. It was barely wide enough for two cars to pass each other, and he parked as out of the way as possible and was studying a map. I memorized his face, out of habit; he might have been the contact my mark was supposed to meet. If so, he’d be a convenient person to find the body.

I saw him again on the way back, closer to the foot of the mountain: he’d stopped by the roadside, opened the bonnet and was frowning thoughtfully. I almost passed him by – this is a classic diversionary tactic – but he looked like he genuinely didn’t know what was wrong. The tip of his nose was pink with cold. He flashed me a surprised smile and shook my hand and dutifully tried the ignition a few times. The car remained stubbornly still. I didn’t want him loitering by the roadside when first responders got to the murder scene, so I offered him a lift to the closest village, where he could find someone to tow his car. He smiled a little wider, still surprised.

I drove him to the nearest motor services, and then the inn. He’d have had to stay for a day or two until his car was fixed. We had dinner, after; he told me he was a journalist. I told him I was a traveling circus man, of a sort, and he laughed. He didn’t seem to mind the obvious misdirection. I shouldn’t have been spending time with him, should’ve just left him halfway up the mountain; but he was good company, and I’d just killed a man.

It started snowing, by the evening. We watched it from a pub awning. I didn’t want to leave – it had been a good day, despite the murder. I guess he didn’t want me to go either. He made noises about snow and roads, with the kind of self-deprecating little smile that told me he’d placed my name and accent correctly. I told him the real danger of snow was the tragic lack of proper winter tires and the rowdy English public. He grinned and looked pointedly at my mouth, and I kissed him, there by the pub, for the first time.

We went back to his room and tested the sturdiness of his bed. I fell asleep that night to his arm around me and his nose pressed into my neck.

I left him out of my after action report: he was not related to the job, and therefore inconsequential.

The rest of it had been chance and curiosity. One of his larger investigations ended up in The Guardian; I knew it was him because I’d swiped one of his name cards, that morning after at the inn. He was remarkably easy to find, for someone who wasn’t home much. Edward Graham, journalist, spent most of his time abroad, often, but not always, under fire. I didn’t expect to like his stories, but his writing was well-informed and refreshingly intelligent. I’d spent an afternoon tracking his career through the publicly available sources. We had ended up at the same places at nearly the same time – it was a surprise we hadn’t met earlier. Then again, part my job was to keep certain things hidden from the reporter types.

I met Teddy for the second time in Ukraine, of all places. I had just finished a job and was hitching a ride with a mate of mine who used to work for the UN. Teddy and two of his camera people had been stranded when a strange bump in the dirt road in front of them spontaneously detonated. It turned out to be a piece of a small projectile, an odd remainder of the last conflict. They had been far enough to not be seriously hurt, except for the car, which was done for. There was blood and grime on Teddy’s face, but I recognized him and asked my mate to pick them up. She was not best pleased, but didn’t want to leave them to their own devices.

“We have to stop meeting like this,” I told Teddy as I helped them move their stuff, and he laughed, delighted, recognition obvious on his face.

One of the cameramen got the shotgun seat which had more space for their equipment. I squeezed into the back with Teddy, two smaller camera cases, and the other guy. Teddy’s cheek had been scraped with tiny bits of shrapnel, and there was a bruise coming in on the side of his head, presumably where he’d hit the steering wheel. I knew he had to be in some pain, but he laughed it off. Halfway through the ride, we crossed to another dirt road, this one more used and bumpier, and he winced and held onto my knee reflexively, before moving his hand to the back of the driver’s seat. I wanted to brush the gravel out of his hair, to wipe the blood and dirt off his face, to put my hands under his clothes and make sure he was alright. I got to do all of that, and more, later, when a village doctor pronounced him banged-up but generally fine, and his colleagues went out in search of alcohol and left him with me. We had to go our separate ways the next day, but in a fit of uncharacteristic optimism I asked for his number. He couldn’t stop smiling all morning.

The next time was in England, two and a half months later. I got caught up in some dodgy business in Montenegro, which sounds glamorous but was, in fact, nightmarish. By the time it was done, I’d been more than ready for some normalcy, so I crossed my fingers and called the number Teddy had left me with. He was in between gigs and bouncing off the walls. I’d never heard anyone sound so joyful at the call from an almost-stranger. I shaved and changed clothes to make myself look at least marginally more presentable; my exhausted face still got a double-take at passport control, but they let me through without too much trouble.

Teddy met me at Heathrow, a little tousled and gorgeous in jeans and a blue jumper that brought out his eyes. It was entirely unfair, and I’d told him so. He laughed and stole my bag to put it in the trunk.

He had a flat in a moderately upscale neighbourhood. We made out, like teenagers, just inside his front door, and then I fell into his bed and slept for nearly a full day straight. When I finally resurfaced, disoriented, he was lounging on the other side of the bed, fully dressed and above the covers, and reading a trashy spy novel.

I lay there and just watched him for a while. He looked comfortable and soft around the edges; the shrapnel scratches on his cheek had left thin pink scar lines. I traced them with my finger, and he smiled.

“I got worried sometime around the hour sixteen,” he said, eyes alight with humour. “I didn’t know humans were a hibernating species.”

“It’s an energy-saving tactic,” I mumbled into his pillow, and dragged him down into an easy embracing distance. He made a surprised, happy noise and kissed me, close-mouthed and sweet.

“I need a shower,” I told him, because it’s important to have some standards.

“Mmmm,” he said, “later.”

The novel went face-down over the side of the bed.

And so this thing of ours, whatever it was, continued. We didn’t limit our meetings to London, but I made sure not to bump into him in the field – neither of us could afford to be distracted. Whatever ideas he had about my work, he kept them to himself.

I let myself into Teddy’s flat at 2 a.m. on a Saturday night in October to the sound of insistent typing from the kitchen. He had a deadline on Monday, and I just got out of a particularly taxing job and didn’t want to go back to my place: it was impersonal and empty. There were no printouts, photographs or newspaper clippings spread like an avalanche on my kitchen table, the hamper was empty of his clothes, and the bed only had one pillow. My flat didn’t have him. He was a steady, comforting presence, even if he was in another room, muttering to himself, reading glasses perched on his nose and hair wild from frustrated finger-combing.

I could’ve gone to bed, but everything felt too raw, still. I sat on the sofa instead, in the dark, and listened to Teddy as he went through the timeline for what was probably the hundredth time, cursed at his stale coffee and put the kettle on. He hadn’t heard me come in, and that was both welcome and worrying on a level I didn’t want to examine.

I stayed unnoticed, or so I thought, until the typing and the muttering ceased, and Teddy came out of the kitchen in sweatpants, bare feet and one of my shirts, the one that had been washed soft and was just a little too tight for him in the shoulders. He took it all in: myself, the lack of light, an empty glass and an unopened bottle of whiskey on the table. I brought that one with me – Teddy doesn’t have any strong alcohol in his flat except for something terribly vintage his dad had given him after graduation. He’s not a fan of drinking. I hadn’t yet worked up to pouring myself a shot.

Teddy didn’t comment, just flopped down next to me.

“Hey,” he said, quietly, and leaned his head on my shoulder. I sighed and put an arm around him, and he curled into me, pressing his nose into my neck. Which was about the only place that didn’t hurt.

“You coming to bed?” Teddy asked, softly.

“No,” I said, because I couldn’t make myself, just yet.

“This is fine, then,” he said, put both his arms around me and, for the lack of a better word, snuggled in.

“Weren’t you working?” I asked.

“Mmm-hmm,” he said, muffled into my collarbone. It was a peculiar tickling sensation. “Editing. Done for now, though.”

I couldn’t help noticing Teddy had effectively stopped me from getting at the bottle. That was alright with me – I’m not a fan of drinking, either. I sat there for a while, ruffling his hair, breathing in his scent, as he dozed and I waited for the post-adrenaline screeching in my head to fade and be replaced by the white noise of exhaustion.

We must’ve fallen asleep; I jerked awake, some time later, to a sound I was sure hadn’t really been there, and Teddy shuddered and held onto me a little tighter.

“You shouldn’t sleep here,” I said into his hair. He’d wake up with a terrible crick in his neck, as it was. Even with him boneless like this, there were knots of tension in his shoulders. He groaned when I worked my fingers into one.

“Come with me?” he said.

I nodded, levered us both up and poured him into his unmade, rumpled bed, then went to take a shower. The scrapes on my arms and chest had scabbed over. I had taken the stitches out of my side two days ago. Everything was healing okay, as far as I could tell. With luck, Teddy wouldn’t notice until the next night at the least.

Teddy’s phone, which he’d left in the kitchen, started buzzing at 7 a.m. I’d known because I got up for a glass of water. It was his editor; I didn’t want Teddy to wake just yet, so I picked up.

“Graham?” she asked.

“No,” I said. Which only fazed her for about two seconds.

“Oh, is this the traveling boyfriend, then?”

That took me a long moment to process. We hadn’t discussed – he never said – but. I had the key to his flat. He’d been at mine, proclaimed it the depression danger zone and told me to just come over to his, whenever. We slept together if we were in the same place at the same time. I knew his emergency contacts. He’d lain half-sprawled over me on the couch last night, even though I’d smelled like airport and death. These weren’t things you’d do for a stranger, and to the best of my knowledge, he wasn’t seeing any other people. So that would make me the boyfriend. Alright then.

She took my stunned silence for assent. “I sincerely hope that last night he was banging out that report, and not your brains.”

I looked at Teddy’s laptop, which sat snoozing on the kitchen table. He’d tidied up the paper mess into two haphazard, but mostly upright piles. His cup was in the sink. I woke the laptop – Teddy had started the email and attached the draft. I looked quickly over the message – no horribly embarrassing typos – and clicked send.

“It’s in your inbox now,” I told her, “and if you have any problems with it, take it with him. But not in the next five hours. Let him sleep.”

“Aren’t you a lifesaver,” she said, and rang off.

I’d watched an interview with her, once. She was a tiny, terrifyingly competent old lady who eviscerated her opponents with the kind of poise and expertise more suited to the chief of an intelligence agency rather than the head of a major news outlet. (Then again, in some respects it’s hard to tell the difference). Teddy once said that if he ever failed to turn in the story on time, no one would be able to find his body.

I couldn’t tell if I was awake or asleep at first. Our safehouse in the woods wasn’t warming, despite Teddy’s best efforts. His face swam briefly into view as he checked up on me, then took off his coat and scarf, a hunched grey shadow in the receding darkness. He put the kettle on and sat by my side, just like before. I covered my mouth with the edge of the blanket, so as not to cough in his face.

“When did you last eat?”

I tried to gather my wits. “What day is it?”

“Tuesday,” Teddy said, then, seeing my confusion, ” the twenty-fourth.”

I had crawled out of the water-filled basement on Monday. “Yesterday,” I said, and he frowned.

“I brought you medication,” he said, “and food. Which first?”

I wasn’t sure I’d be able to keep down both. “Meds,” I said, “then we’ll see.”

Teddy frowned even more – if he kept it up, his face was going to stay that way – but brought me warm water and two pills.

“Take these,” he said. “Your cough sounds like your lungs are about to fall out. And don’t get me started on how wrong it is to do this without a doctor. You need an x-ray, at the very least.”

I smiled at him crookedly, tried not to cough, failed and took the pills. Even moving that much was exhausting. He hovered for some time, his hands smoothing out the edge of the blanket. The room was swaying gently around me, and I closed my eyes. Teddy’s hand rested on my cheek, again. I drifted off to the feeling of his fingers combing through my hair.

We’d even managed a work vacation during year three – well, I was on vacation, and Teddy was working, a gig on behalf of National Geographic which mostly involved large cats. It left him enough time to go places with me, provided we didn’t drive too far and were back for the scheduled filming time. I started helping the crew rig up the lights and do the many menial jobs around the set by day two – it was that, or be baked by the sun into mind-numbing complacency. But no one was shooting bullets at us, which was a definite plus where I was concerned.

We were at the bar one evening, after a full day of what Teddy had politely called “bollocks.” His co-host and programme producer Steph hadn’t been so charitable; by the end of the shoot Teddy’s ears were burning and I had learnt some new words. She came into the bar and ordered a whiskey. Teddy went to talk to her, and after a few minutes, when it became clear he wasn’t coming back anytime soon, I sidled closer, too.

“There’s a creepy guy hanging around the set,” she was saying. Teddy frowned at me over her head. “Oh no,” she said, “not Nick; everyone knows he’s your boyfriend. By the way, Nick, it’s not creepy at all that you’re standing silently right behind me.”

I raised my eyebrow at Teddy and took a seat on Steph’s other side.

“What kind of creepy?” Teddy asked, still frowning.

“Like his face had been bashed in one time too many,” Steph said. “That alone would’ve been alright, but he keeps trying to bother the interns. Female only, mind you. They’re afraid to walk around the set alone. Ari says he looks like a serial killer.”

It sounded disturbingly like a certain colleague of mine, not that I was going to tell Steph so.

“I’ll deal with it,” I said.

I caught up to the man the very next day. He was skulking around the edge of the set, watching Steph and Teddy go over the bits of script that required both of their faces on the screen, and it wasn’t too much trouble to circle around from the back. He twitched a little when I took him by the elbow.

“Looking’s usually free, but not in your case,” I told him.

“Well, isn’t this Kolya Matveev himself,” he said. “Demoted to bodyguard duty already?”

“And you? Kicked out because you have nothing left to explode? Quit loitering, you’re scaring the children.”

“Can’t I visit my old friend?” he said, leering.

“Don’t see any of your friends here,” I said. “For the best, really. This place doesn’t need any murder or mayhem. What do you want?”

Out of the corner of my eye, I could see one of Steph’s interns walk towards us, take one look at my face and do a neat about-turn. At least everyone with the camera was still busy, or so I hoped.

“What do you want?” I repeated.

He nodded at the set. “So which one is your bit of fluff? Her, or him?”

“Both, obviously,” I said. Steph would not be caught dead dating a white guy, though it was mostly the guy thing, but he didn’t need to know that. “Now that you’ve satisfied your curiosity, get the hell out. You want to talk business, call during working hours.”

“Ah, pity,” he said, eyeing Steph appreciatively as they went through the take again. “I do like the girl. But I suppose the guy wouldn’t be too bad, either. You know what they say, about pretty ones like him…”

I had him by the throat before he could finish. “Say what you came to say,” I told him, “or fuck off. I’m not fussed either way.”

“You should be more careful,” he said, rubbing at his neck. “The word is the chair is shaking under your boss, and whoever gets you in the raffle afterwards isn’t going to be so lenient.”

“Are you telling me you came all this way just to repeat some old gossip?” I drawled. “You really have too much free time.”

“Whatever helps you sleep at night,” he said, “although between the two of them, I don’t imagine you get any sleep at all. Not going to introduce me, are you?”

“Out,” I said. “And if I hear you came near any of the kids again, I’ll break your legs. That clear enough for you?”

“Crystal,” he said, and sauntered off.

I left a message for my direct superior, and he called me back in the evening.

“Do you need me to come in?” I asked.

“No,” my boss said, “stay where you are, enjoy your holiday. We’ll be fine. How is family?”

I had informed him about my relationship with Teddy early on. It was the sort of thing that could screw up your life rather spectacularly if you didn’t handle it right. (Don’t think I didn’t break my brain trying to phrase it all in Russian). He’d replied that he always considered certain views antiquated, and what folks higher up didn’t know wouldn’t give them indigestion. He’d also informed me about Teddy’s father; I think he got a good laugh out of that one.

“Teddy’s fine,” I said, “filming tigers tomorrow.”

“Tanya will be thrilled,” he said. His youngest had recently enrolled in a journalism course, and was something of a fan of Teddy’s work; it made her dad roll his eyes a lot, but in a good-natured way. “And the old man?”

“I have no idea,” I said. “Probably playing golf again.”

“That old crocodile,” my boss said, amused. “I’d send my regards, but it might put you in hot water. Get him to tell you about Budapest sometime, that one was terribly entertaining.”

“Are you sure you’ll be alright?” I asked.

“Don’t worry about it for now,” he said. “And thank you for the heads up. Your time off might be extended while this thing is being sorted out. If we need you in, you’ll be informed the usual way.”

I finally came awake sometime mid-morning. There was another blanket spread over me, and my shirt was sticky with cooling sweat. Teddy had, through some miracle or, more likely, judicious use of force, wrestled the back of the sofa into a reclining position to make the available space a little wider. It barely made a difference. He was curled around me, one arm heavy over my hips, his face pressed into my side. I breathed in too deeply and started coughing, and Teddy jerked awake with a small protesting sound, arms tightening around me, like he was afraid I’d disappear. I wondered how it had been for him, these past two years, and then wished I didn’t. At least I had been in enough immediate danger, most of the time, to distract myself from feeling like I had torn my own heart out.

I don’t remember much about the crash.

I’d had it reconstructed in detail, later, and there were eyewitnesses to tell the story. But in my mind there is the before, where it was December of our fourth year together, and we were going over to Frank’s, Teddy driving. And there is the after, with the car tilted unnaturally, a ringing silence in my ears and something wet and sticky on my face, and Teddy slumped over the steering wheel, unresponsive.

I fumbled for the phone in my pocket – it took an interminable moment to get it out – and dialed 999. I still couldn’t hear anything clearly, so I waited for three seconds and started speaking, repeating where we were and what had happened, over and over.

There were strange gaps after that. Someone had wrenched open the car door on Teddy’s side, and I told them not to do anything until the ambulance arrived. I couldn’t get out, myself – the door was twisted and the weight of the car was pressing it down. It was getting colder by the minute.

I don’t remember being pulled out of the wreckage. The ambulance came in flashes; the sound had returned by then, and the shivers had set in. I think I had been saying something about Teddy, but I can’t be sure. I can’t even be sure which language I had been speaking.

The needle in my arm felt very nearly a blessing.

I had a lot of time to think about it, after coming to in a hospital bed with several stitches on my forehead, a familiar pain in my ribs (probably not broken) and a raging headache. If it had been an attack, which it most certainly was – Teddy is an experienced driver and wasn’t ailed by anything that morning – it had been sloppy.Then it occurred to my pain-addled brain that I had no idea what Teddy’s state was, which brought back the panic chills.

I tried getting up, thought better of it for the moment, and went back to the idle, somewhat disjointed musings. I couldn’t remember much, but was pretty sure we’d been hit by something or someone, hard enough for Teddy to lose control of the car and send us careening off the road. The rest was speed and gravity. No explosions, no bullet to the head as a way of making sure the target was completely dead, no impersonating emergency services. I looked suspiciously at the walls, but they seemed typical for a regular hospital ward. I guessed I’d know soon enough if I was wrong. There wasn’t even a single threat. Who was this incompetent? I’d have to call in later and find out.

I was released fairly quickly, which was when I’d learned Teddy hadn’t been so lucky and had to have been operated on while I was out. He’d needed another operation for his broken leg as soon as they’d determined he was pulling through after the first one. The medical details were catching on something in my head, but the rest of it became white noise. Needless to say, any thought about work-related risks and terribly executed attempts on our lives were drowned out, for a while.

Frank had been there, too, grey in the face and looking ten years older. He didn’t give me a hug, for which my ribs were grateful, but he did his best to crush my hand and shoulder in his grip. His hands were shaking; it only hurt because I still ached all over.

There had been police, and I tried to be helpful. I soon realized they weren’t interested in making much of the case: the brakes malfunctioned, we went off the road, no one was dead, no big deal. I didn’t have to pretend to not care for that reasoning.

Teddy was holding on, though, and the cautious prognosis was that he was going to be alright. He woke up several times, always briefly, but the doctors said the progress was steady. They scheduled an operation on his leg, and Frank sent me home to change and “maybe get a few hours of sleep, Kolya, you look near dead yourself.”

I had been calling my teammates’ numbers for several days at that point, to no avail. The “switched off or out of the coverage” talk was getting old fast. It seemed for a moment like Marina, my boss’ second in command, might answer, but then it went to voicemail. I finally gave up and used the emergency protocol to leave a message with Ahmed, our resident computer whiz. If that didn’t work, I could reasonably assume the entirety of my team was dead.

I finally got a call from a blocked number halfway back to the hospital, and had to circle around a bit to find a parking spot and pick up. It turned out to be Sasha Katenin, or Katya, as he insisted he be called. I had no idea why he couldn’t just go by his own name like a normal person; you don’t argue with a two meter tall ex-para built like a brick wall if you know what’s good for you.

“Kolya,” Katya said, “where the bloody fuck have you been?”

“Hospital,” I said.

That gave him a pause. “You or yours?”

I had to swallow past a lump in my throat. “Bit of both,” I said, “but mostly not me.”

“Well fuck,” Katya said, sympathetic. “Good you’re not dead, though. Status?”

“Functional,” I said. “Katya, what the hell is going on?”

He slipped into profanity so dense, the only repeatable words in his speech were prepositions. I translated it as some punks (he didn’t use that word) ambushing him in an alley and getting their asses handed to them for that act of criminal stupidity. He’d been planning to read Saadi and get roaring drunk (he didn’t elaborate on the occasion), and now he was stuck sadly poetry-less and stone-cold sober for more than a week, and then for who knew how long until the whole thing was done with. The punk (again, he used a much more offensive word) who thought that was okay was going to regret the day he or she was born.

“The others?” I asked, already dreading the answer.

“Chernenko and Sukhov dead,” he said. Both of us were silent for a moment; Sasha Chernenko had been his namesake and personal friend. “Boss hospitalized. Appendicitis, but it looks suspicious. Ahmed had two guys on his tail, but managed to get rid of both.”

“He alright?” I asked. “Is his dad making ruckus yet?”

Ahmed was, besides being our computer specialist, the youngest on the team, and was treated like the squad’s son. He was also the only child of a high-profile diplomat; I wasn’t sure if I wanted his father to get involved or not.

“He’s shaken a bit,” Katya said, “but it was quick. His little electrical tricks. And are you kidding me? Of course his dad doesn’t know.”

Marina was the only one who had been left alone – she spent all her time in meetings. Dina, our other technical specialist, had apparently seen the threat coming and escaped before anyone could engage her.

“Smart girl,” Katya said, approving.

“We don’t have anyone to ask questions, though,” I said.

“Sorry, man,” Katya said. “Mine were barely more than kids, straight out of army or something. They didn’t know a single useful thing. And when I got to Ahmed’s, his were already toast.”

“So what happens now?” I asked. “Is Marina taking charge? Are we on lockdown?”

“And that, my friend, is the strangest thing,” Katya said. “Not only is this not being looked into – we as a team officially do not exist anymore.”

I sat, not quite able to process this.

“Are we being retired?” I asked, finally, just to say something.

“Nobody knows,” Katya said. “Marina is still tied up with that weird business with Riga, which should’ve been laid to rest a month ago but still drags on. And it’s not like we’re some band of misfits – well, between you and me and Chernenko we kind of are, but she’d been on the straight and narrow for years. I spend most of my time where I can’t punch any politicians in the face, and no one really cares about what you do as long as it’s not back home. At the very least there should have been an investigation. But everything’s being swept under the rug even as we speak. It was like Boss never had a team at all.”

“Where are you, at least?” I asked.

“Evacuating,” he said. “There’s no price on our heads yet, but it may be a matter of time. The meetup is being arranged. You need to get rid of this phone ASAP and get yourself across the Channel. Use the backup emergency protocol. Ahmed will update everyone when he has a place secured.”

I thought about Teddy, waking up after the second operation. I had to make difficult choices before, both professional and personal, but never like this.

“We need you here, Kolya,” Katya said, sensing my hesitation. “We’ve lost both of our lead analysts, Ahmed is busy with security stuff, and Dina is being temporarily promoted to second. And you know a lot of people who might know what the fuck this is.”

“Fine,” I said finally, and put the car into motion again.

Instead of going to the hospital, I made a U-turn of dubious legality and headed towards Dover.

I did drop by the apartment along the way – my own; otherwise the temptation to make contact would’ve been too strong. It was still almost entirely impersonal – most of my few civilian worldly possessions had migrated over to Teddy’s a long time ago, but the emergency stash of IDs and cash remained.

That, and a man does need clean underwear even if he is going to burn the entirety of his previous life.

I had showered between the hospital and Katya’s call, but dealing with the beard had seemed too much of a bother then. I decided to keep it, now – it hadn’t yet turned into the mess that made people cross the road when they saw me, and it was different enough from the way I usually looked that I’d hoped it might throw off a casual observer. I destroyed the SIM card and the phone, used a spare to send my new details to one of Ahmed’s aliases, replaced the fake floorboard in the bedroom and put the keys into the landlord’s mailbox.

The ache of separation had finally settled in when I passed Calais. I’d been planning exit strategies and routes with minimal surveillance before then, and in the back of my mind was a list of people I could claim were indebted to me one way or the other. But driving at a steady speed without distractions was more conducive to second thoughts. Teddy would be awake and asking for me by now, if things had gone well. There was no reason for things to not go well – unless the people who had tried to kill us decided he was an unnecessary witness and had gone after him, and I had abandoned him to certain death.

I told myself I couldn’t do anything about it now. (I could turn back; we could try to find another way.) He wouldn’t want anything to do with me, after – if there was an after – and he’d be right.

My new phone pinged with an encrypted message: the meetup had been arranged in Brussels. I picked up speed and did my best to think of nothing at all.

I managed to not arrive the first or the last, which was a minor miracle considering our dwindled numbers. The flat we were to meet in was tiny, and I could already feel how quickly we would start getting on each other’s nerves. I avoided Dina’s well-meaning hug, trimmed the barely manageable facial hair to some semblance of propriety so I wouldn’t get stopped in the street and went to pick Katya up at the airport. The only foreign language the man can reliably speak is Farsi, which still tends to cause problems when he starts explaining the purpose of his visit to people who can’t or won’t talk to him in Russian.

Katya looked grim and determined, his eyes red from the lack of restful sleep and his face rough with stubble. We must’ve looked quite a pair, by the stares we got.

I evaded his hand, too, when it reached for my shoulder. I’d skidded right past denial and well into anger somewhere between Dunkirk and Ghent, and it was simmering just under the surface, ready to boil over at the slightest provocation. Katya gave me a strange look, but said nothing, for which I was grateful.

Ahmed was the last to arrive, rumpled from the flight and yawning behind an elegant hand. There were deep dark circles under his eyes; he’d traded his metal-rimmed glasses for a pair with cheap plastic frames and his usual slacks, waistcoat and fancy dress shirt for jeans and a nondescript dark sweater. It made him look his actual age, for once. He didn’t try to shake anyone’s hand and actually flinched when Katya stepped too close to him by accident, so I wasn’t the only one who wasn’t keen on being touched.

“Simonov transferred Marina to his group. She will be telecommuting,” Ahmed said, yawned again and parked himself in a corner to set up his systems.

“I talked to Dad,” Ahmed said half an hour later. At our horrified looks, he added, “Not about the assassination attempts! I’m not an idiot. About what this whole thing looks like, politically. He agreed that it reeks.”

“He didn’t freak out?” Katya asked. He was unpacking one of the laptops Ahmed had brought with him, but his eyes were intent on Ahmed’s left wrist: there was a neat, businesslike bandage peeking out from under the sleeve, and Ahmed’s usual watch was absent.

Ahmed caught us both watching him and shrugged. “It’s not Dad’s intention to hold my hand,” he said. “And he’d help if I asked him, but that would put me in his debt. I’m sure no one wants that.”

He flexed his bandaged wrist. “Half an hour, and then we’re going to call Marina,” he said.

“Firstly,” Marina said, looking us over as we huddled in front of Ahmed’s laptop, “Boss’ life is currently out of danger. For the sake of his and his family’s personal safety, though, we’re putting it out that nothing is yet certain. Keep up that rumour for now. Secondly, this whole affair is bloody bizarre. Our unit was completely erased from all records. I trust that we have our own copies?” she asked Ahmed, and he nodded. “They’re going to come in handy later, because there sure isn’t anything on either of you in the official databases. The good part is that all recorded offences have gone away as well, so neither of you are likely to be court-martialed at the moment.

“The new head of what used to be our department is one Alexey Kuzin,” Marina said. “Exceptionally vile in personal interactions, but that might be just me.” Her unofficial designation, originating from Katya of course, was Ferz, The Chess Queen; she could do “exceptionally vile” herself without a problem, though she tended to go with “unimpressed.” It seemed to make her opponents believe she wouldn’t drive the knife into their weakest spot when opportunity presented itself. A completely erroneous assumption, if you asked me. “I have no idea why it was us he decided to stomp into ground – he didn’t have any personal animosity with Boss before. Matveev, Ahmed, you two get on finding that out.”

“I’ve made official inquiries,” Ahmed piped up. Which, in layman’s terms, meant, “I asked my hideously powerful and well-connected father.” “Nothing adds up. Kuzin is a cabinet critter; his purview before this was supply and logistics, it makes no sense for him to go poking into intelligence work now. Whatever game he is playing, he only started because he feels supported. He’s part of several committees, but none of them are doing any work besides keeping their members out of the way. His only notable contribution was a vote in favour of the pan-European crime prevention system – in other words, excessive surveillance and government overreach. It was shot down in the voting – the original idea was introduced by the British, and that’s not an alliance most of the Service is comfortable with. Besides, we’d still lack the required infrastructure, et cetera, et cetera.” He waved a hand, hid a yawn behind it, and said, “Unofficially, I’ve been warned to avoid him if at all possible.”

“Any reason?” Marina asked sharply.

“I wasn’t told,” Ahmed said, stifling another yawn. “But it’s not like I can’t crack it myself. If there is something to be found, I’ll find it.”

“Get some sleep first,” Marina said. “And get me a solid story and a set of papers: I hear that Kuzin is in need of household help, and I’m recalling Lena Soboleva so she can be our eyes and ears.”

“Wouldn’t it be suspicious?” I asked.

“I’d send you, Matveev,” Marina said, “except I know for a fact Kuzin likes them female and shorter than himself. This is our best bet.

“Report if you find anything useful on your end. For now, dismissed.”

Katya tried to corner me again, later that day, but I avoided him on the pretext of making a list of people we could call on for more information. Most of them owed me a favour of some kind, usually minor; some, I put aside because contacting them would put me in debt. It wasn’t real work, but it did the job: after an hour or so of me ignoring him, Katya got the hint that I wasn’t going to talk and left me alone.

Ahmed’s temporary hacker den, when I sidled up to him, was sporting not one, but three laptops, each running its own set of programs. He was hunkered down in front of the third one, flipping through spreadsheet after spreadsheet and muttering to himself. His watch was on the table, next to a toolkit, its casing blackened on one side and the glass cracked, but the mechanism appeared to be working just fine.

“I’ll fix it later,” Ahmed said when he saw me looking. “When I have some brainpower to spare.”

“Coffee?” I asked him.

“Thanks, but no,” Ahmed said. “At this rate, it’s going to put me to sleep.” He looked at me, assessing. “Oh no, it’s the terrible beard of doom. What’s got into you?”

“Don’t get me started,” I said, and he pushed a second chair towards me with his foot.

“Is it Edward?” Ahmed asked quietly when I sat. At my look of silent reproach, he said, “Come on, someone has to ask. So spill. Is he alright?”

“Compression injury to the neck, a minor inner bleeding, and his leg is broken in three places,” I said. Ahmed was staring at me, his eyes wide. “And I’m – here, instead of there with him. Connect the dots yourself.”

“Dude,” Ahmed said.

“Quite,” I said, absently sorting through a mess of cables on the corner of his table.

“What did you tell him?” Ahmed asked.

“Nothing,” I said. “Katya got me turned around halfway to the hospital.”

“And the old man?”

“I don’t know,” I said. “I honestly don’t know. He’s been nothing but kind, all this time, but I just walked out on his injured, barely conscious son. If I were him, I’d shoot me in the head and be done with it; he’d have no trouble making the body disappear, and no one would be the wiser.”

“I’m guessing you don’t want me to look into it,” Ahmed said after a pause.

“Absolutely not,” I said. “I do not have any feelings whatsoever, and I plug into the wall for the night.”

“And I’m not going to report this thing I’m not doing,” Ahmed said.

“I’d appreciate it,” I said, “and don’t–”

“Don’t tell Katya, yeah, yeah,” Ahmed said. “Why do you always say that? It’s not like he’s going to have a fit or anything.”

“I know,” I said. “For a person claiming to not understand the existence of gay people, he’s showing a remarkable amount of restraint.”

Ahmed was staring at me with an expression of somewhat disgusted fascination.

“He said that?” he demanded. “Katya said that?”

“It was ten years ago, he was drunk,” I said, shrugging. “We were both different people then, and I don’t hold it against him. The point is, we made an agreement: he doesn’t discuss his multitude of girlfriends, and I don’t tell him who I’ve slept with, in the force or otherwise. I’m just not sure if other people talking to him about it counts as discussing or not.”

We sat in silence for a bit, mulling that over.

“What’s with this Kuzin, anyway?” I asked, to change the subject.

“Paperwork and more paperwork,” Ahmed said. “Not that I mind exactly, but this much of a paper trail is almost as bad as no paper trail at all. You can spend years digging through this shit and not find anything of substance.”

“Unless you know what you’re looking for,” I said. “Give me those forms, go have some rest. If I find something, I’ll give you a shout.”

We’d traded back and forth like that for a few days before we finally hit on something useful.

Ahmed was trying to talk me into getting the word out to Teddy, but with less and less conviction every time.

“Wouldn’t Angela be able to pass a note to him, or something?”

“Yeah, pinned to the kitchen table with a bowie knife,” I said. “No thank you. And he doesn’t know her; it’ll be highly alarming.”

“He knows Fridman, though,” Ahmed said, at which point a light clicked on my head.

“Where does he keep the bodies?”

Ahmed looked at me like I’d lost it completely.

“Who, Fridman?”

“No, our cabinet critter,” I said. “There isn’t a single spot on his record. Not even a parking ticket – so he doesn’t drive his own car, whatever. You get the idea. Everyone has at least one black mark. He was born in 1970, for heaven’s sake. You can’t live for fifty-five years and still be that squeaky-clean.”

“Maybe it wasn’t on the record,” Ahmed said, but there was a light of combat in his eye.

“Except his parents were factory workers and not a diplomat of the first rank and an heiress,” I said. “So where is his wardrobe full of skeletons?”

“All gone to war,” Katya said, poking his head in from the kitchen. “Any of you losers planning to eat something in this century?”

“Later,” Ahmed said, waving me away from his workspace. “Katya, if you don’t have anything constructive to add, go away. Kolya, go on.”

“Kuzin used to work in supply,” I said. “It’s not possible to be that clean in his line of work. Something is always going to get lost, stolen or unaccounted for. There have to be records somewhere.”

“His committee votes,” Dina said, and we turned to her. “Ahmed, you said his most remarkable deed was the vote for crime prevention system. Why?”

“The groups he’s in aren’t doing any work,” Ahmed said. “This one is the only initiative he voted on that would’ve had real impact. And how! Big Brother would’ve wept. Total information control, made legal. You could ground your opponents to nothing. Hell, you could topple a few governments if you felt like it. And it all connects between various intelligence services: what one secret service knows and logs, the other can get in a fraction of a moment. No more politically unreliable oligarchs running away to England and Spain. A click of a button, and they have nothing, or have committed crimes, or a political suicide. You wouldn’t even need to bother with poison.”

“But it wasn’t approved,” Dina said, frowning.

“I think they knocked it back down for further discussion, actually,” Ahmed said, pulling the relevant information up.

“Wait, Boss is on that committee?” Katya said, squinting at the screen.

“Yeah. Seems to me it was quite dramatic – the whole initiative dropped with only two votes tipping the balance against it.”

“Boss and?” Dina asked.

“Someone named Ivanov,” Ahmed said, wrinkling his nose. “Another cabinet critter, and quite old, at that.” He clicked through to the relevant personnel file. “He… wait.”

We leaned forward.

“He had heart failure on Monday,” Ahmed said quietly.

“Two days before the attacks ,” Katya said.

“Enough time to determine that taking his place is useless,” I said.

“So next, he goes after Boss,” Ahmed said. “Clever.”

“I thought the appendicitis was real,” I said.

“It was,” Dina said. “And it was used as an opportunity to get rid of us all while Boss was not available.”

Ahmed’s phone pinged.

“Marina,” he said, skimming the message. “There was a shake-up – the new management is looking for us without saying they’re looking for us. Marina says no outside contact for now, and be ready to relocate on short notice.” He looked at his sprawling setup in despair. “I’ll also have to update our codes ahead of schedule.”

“Pack it up now,” Dina said. “Do the codes later. We’ll wait until it’s dark, then move. Kolya, can you find us something here on short notice?”

We ended up at one of the Company safehouses, available with a bit of breaking and entering and a quick hack into its surveillance system. It was empty of any furniture and a temporary solution at best, but together we tended to draw attention, and separating was not an option at the moment. We finally talked Ahmed into having some sleep, and he curled around his bag of laptops and other related hardware like a tech-hoarding dragon. A particularly skinny and exhausted dragon; Katya put his jacket over him for extra warmth, and Ahmed muttered something but didn’t wake. Katya himself sat against one of the bare walls, keeping watch. Dina and I took the opposite corners. Normally sitting in the chilly darkness inspires group huddling for comfort, but none of us felt like it.

“Do I need to confiscate your phone?” Dina asked, sometime around four in the morning. It was her turn to keep watch; Katya was asleep, still in the same position, and we decided not to wake Ahmed while it was quiet. I couldn’t even make myself close my eyes, and was instead staring at the screen.

I’d been contemplating a quick text to Frank, whether I had any right to get him involved and how far he’d tell me to shove it if I did. But the odds were not in my favour either way. It wouldn’t be too late to go back if we wrapped this up within the week – dishonest, sure, but not entirely unsalvageable with some revised explanations. That outcome seemed less and less likely by the minute. Calling Teddy might postpone the inevitable, but it would also compromise the operation and put him in more danger when he was vulnerable and couldn’t even fight back. In the end, it was like Teddy always said: you take a weapon, you have to pick a side. And my duty was, first and foremost, to my country.

Whatever I had with Teddy was effectively destroyed the minute I made the decision to come here instead of the hospital.

Dina was still looking expectantly at me, so I showed her the list of potentially useful contacts I’d made, and she nodded in approval.

“Who do you plan to start with?”

“That’s what I’m trying to decide,” I said. “Some of those people have a very big mouth.”

“Let’s run this by Ahmed when he wakes up, shall we?” she said, and I nodded.

Less brooding, more working, as a certain superior of mine liked to say.

The shuffle of fighting off (alleged) bronchitis goes as follows: you get yourself out of bed, out of your sweaty, disgusting clothes and into a tiny cabin bathroom. Then you sponge yourself off awkwardly with lukewarm water and catalogue the scabbing cuts and the lurid technicolor bruises, all while trying not to hack your lungs out. You put on a dry shirt and sweatpants your ex-boyfriend (the most wonderful person in the world) had left out for you, and spread out the blankets on the horrible lumpy sofa to air them out. You sit with him at a rickety table and eat some canned noodle soup he heated up for you, while crossing your fingers and hoping that your body can keep it down. You drink tea with him and take your medicine. You hold off as long as you possibly can on coughing. (It’s not very long). Cough syrup helps, a little. Then it’s to bed with you, because the room has started spinning again, and there’s two of him. You cocoon yourself in the scratchy blankets and can’t get warm until he puts his arms around you. (Did you say he’s the most wonderful person in the world? He is. You say it out loud, and he sighs). The sleep is a long time coming, heavy and unrestful.

Rinse, repeat.

I felt marginally more like myself by the end of the third day. Teddy was curled around me again – it was painful to watch, but a part of me revelled in the contact. I guess there wasn’t anything else for him to do – he hadn’t brought any electronics, except for a couple of burner phones he kept turned off. He did a perimeter check in the morning and evening, studied the maps he’d brought with him, and caught up on sleep. He looked like he needed it as desperately as I did.

On the evening of day three, I finally woke up not in a pool of my own sweat. The fever must’ve gone down. The cough persisted, but at least I had my wits about me.

Teddy lay awake, watching me. I traced my fingers over his nose, the side of his unscarred cheek, smoothed out the wrinkle between his eyebrows with my thumb.

“Are you done being an idiot about it?” he asked.

I didn’t think I was that much of an idiot for wanting to spare him at least some of this, and said so. The wrinkle between his eyebrows deepened.

“It already happened,” he said. “I can’t say I wanted to be cannon fodder, but if you’re waiting for a perfect moment to start talking about yourself, don’t. You can’t tell me much I don’t already know.”

I stared at him, comprehension dawning, and Teddy chuckled, the first real laugh since we’d met again.

“Oh, don’t make that face,” he said. “You told me. In Scotland, remember? Traveling circus man? Come on, Nick. You might as well have said your company’s name was Universal Exports.”

I looked away from his impossibly smug face and groaned.

“I didn’t know who with,” Teddy said, serious again, arm tightening around me, “but it was either some sort of shady government black ops business, or you having a family on the side. You never did strike me as a terrorist. And your usual injuries were more consistent with black ops than a wife and children.”

I wanted to ask him how on earth he was okay with that, but started coughing. I turned away from him, and waited for it to pass, his palm warm between my shoulder blades.

Do you have any family?” he asked.

“No,” I said. My father, a career military officer, died in the first Chechen campaign, and I didn’t remember him at all. My older brother, a police officer, got killed in Dagestan. Mom lost the battle with cancer while I was still in the army. I had a secondary cousin in Petersburg, but by the time I could contact her, she had married. It seemed better to stay away. I had friends in the service, I had affairs – always brief, with the underlying assumption that they had not happened, nothing to talk about – but Teddy had breezed right past that and made everything real, in a way it had never been before. He had become the closest thing I had to a family of my own.

I met Teddy’s father on the eve of year two (what with all of us having different traditions, being thoroughly unreligious, and me working a minor, but intense research job on Catholic Christmas). I went in expecting a complete disaster; Teddy laughed at me for about thirty seconds, until he twigged that I was nervous. He had semi-seriously offered to hold my hand, and that did, thankfully, snap me right out of it.

I’d read up on Frank Graham, mostly in the sources general public wouldn’t have had access to. He was a retired MI5 spook, as much as one could be retired from that kind of a job. The publicly available information made it seem like he’d never been anything but a minor Home Office functionary. Let’s just say that turned out to be a spectacular bit of misinformation. These days he doesn’t dabble in anything more strenuous than golf and gossip, which shouldn’t mislead you: golf has a time-honored tradition of being a dangerous and cutthroat sport. What I could find on Frank was all heavily redacted – one copy even looked like the original had nearly lost a fight with an incinerator. It said he used to work in intelligence and analysis. Then again, on paper my own job makes me look like a glorified PA.

I expected reserved stiltedness, characteristic of people uncomfortable with their children’s life choices but willing to roll with it. Instead, Frank shook my hand heartily and even greeted me in Russian. His accent was atrocious, but it felt unexpectedly good, someone making an effort. Teddy can read Russian if it’s non-fiction, and understands two words out of three if I don’t talk too quickly, but he doesn’t speak it much, at least not with me. I tried calling Frank “sir” at first, but he waved it off right away and asked if he could call me Kolya. I retaliated by asking what his father’s name was, and inventing him a silly and ridiculous, but grammatically correct patronymic. He was delighted. The conversation got completely derailed after that – twenty minutes later he was still grilling me on the appropriate use of suffixes. I told him my ambition to become a Lit teacher died when I was drafted, and we traded some of the funnier army stories.

I should’ve known he’d love bad puns; there’s a reason Teddy’s signature move around his family is a facepalm.

To save us from more language discussions, Teddy offered to show me around.

“And this one used to be mine,” he said finally, opening the door to a room filled top to bottom with bookshelves. The bed was long gone, in favour of extra book storage, but his old writing desk was still in place. There were his sports trophies, a world map circa 2010, some pictures of him and his parents.

“So where are the really embarrassing childhood photos?” I asked.

Teddy leaned against the closed door with a tiny smile that turned mischievous when I came up to him and put my hands on his waist.

“You’ll have to find them yourself,” he said. I leaned closer, and he reached back and locked the door.

“Wouldn’t your father mind?” I said. My hands slipped under the hem of his sweater, untucking his shirt; he retaliated by pulling me even closer by the hips.

“Don’t worry, he almost never comes up here these days,” Teddy said. “It’s not easy on his knees.”

“Mm-hmmm,” I said, and kissed the curve of his mouth, the teasing dimple in his cheek, the corner of his jaw. Pulling his sweater up and off was the work of a moment; he clung to me and pushed into my hands. I nipped at his neck, to hear him gasp and feel the involuntary jerk of his hips. And then I was sliding down, pressing him further into the door and opening his jeans.

I took my sweet time about it, pulling at his clothes until his half-hard cock was framed by the open fly; fitting my mouth to the heavy outline of him through the underwear and just breathing for a moment. Teddy looked down at me, his eyes dark; I licked at his belly, pushing the hem of his shirt up and his pants down, kissed his hipbones, his hardening cock. He was panting a little, and when I took him in my mouth, he moaned and cupped the back of my head in his palm.

His cock was a familiar and welcome weight on my tongue. I swallowed him down, my throat working, and he shut his eyes and pressed a fist to his lips to muffle the sounds that were threatening to spill out of him. I pulled back to mouth at the base of his cock until his eyes opened and he glared down at me. The effect was completely ruined by a blush high in his cheeks, his lips bitten-red, and his hips jerking under my hands. I licked up his length, teasing, took him in again, and his other hand spasmed in my hair.

There was a knock on the door.

We both startled. Teddy’s fingers tightened in my hair, and I nearly bit into his cock in surprise. I swallowed, reflexively, and Teddy groaned, the sound muffled by his hand. I was staring up at him, my eyes wide.

“Dinner’s in twenty, boys!” Frank’s voice said on the other side of the door, and then his slightly shuffling footsteps receded down the corridor.

Teddy’s death grip in my hair relaxed. I let him slip from my mouth and leaned my forehead into his stomach, my heart beating double-time. He petted the back of my head, a little awkwardly, breathing hard, and then he actually giggled.

I glared up at him.

“God,” he said, between fits of laughter, “your face.”

I bit him on the bare jut of his hip, just because, and he jerked and laughed harder, the little shit.

Don’t worry, he doesn’t come up here?” I said, sarcastic, but the whole thing was ridiculous, and I was laughing, too.

Teddy stuffed himself half-heartedly back into his pants – neither of us was hard anymore – and slid down to the floor next to me, wiping at his eyes.

“Honestly, Nick,” he said, a little breathless, “what did you think he’d do? The door is locked.”

He looked good like this – shirt riding up over his flat stomach, jeans still open, his cheeks pink from laughter and his hair in disarray. I leaned over and kissed him, and he put his arms around my shoulders and groaned into my mouth.

There was a bang from downstairs and a muffled, “Ten minutes!”

“No offense,” I said to Teddy, “but your father is a troll.”

Frank didn’t put us up for the night in Teddy’s childhood bedroom, not that there would have been space for it, what with all the books, so he couldn’t have been that much of a troll. What we got instead was a perfectly bland guest bedroom. Teddy said it used to be the study, until Frank’s knee got bad enough for him not to want to bother with the stairs. (I gave Teddy a dirty look at that, and he grinned, unrepentant.) It wasn’t larger than Teddy’s old room, but it had a proper bed, a wardrobe and not a single piece of paper in sight.

Teddy had sent me to the shower first. When I got back, the bed was turned down, the curtains pulled over the windows, and only the tiny bedside lamp was on. Teddy was sitting on the edge of the bed, in his underwear and nothing else, and was talking on the phone with his editor.

I had put on a pair of pyjama bottoms and a t-shirt; walking in nothing but a towel in your boyfriend’s childhood home felt too weird, especially after your boyfriend’s father had nearly got the drop on you. Teddy raised an eyebrow at me, and I grinned and slid to my knees in front of him, just like before. He ruffled my hair, playful and affectionate, and I leaned in and pressed my face into his bare stomach, not trying to start anything, just for the contact. His palm settled, warm, on the back of my neck, and he sighed.

“No, Marjorie,” he said, “I’m listening.” I put my head on his thigh and my arms around him and waited, as he made faces at whatever she was saying and ran his hand over my back and shoulders. By the time they were done, I was lulled by his touch and the scent of his skin into a kind of sleepy peacefulness; he poked me in the cheek, gently, and sighed again when I turned my head and caught his finger between my teeth.

“You call her M yet?” I asked. “Have you received your mission briefing?”

“Yes,” he said, “off to Turkey on the fifth. The fate of the world is at stake.”

I didn’t realize I was frowning – I didn’t want him in Turkey, it was too close to many potential sources of trouble – until his thumb smoothed the wrinkle between my eyebrows. “It’s fine,” Teddy said. “Just some preliminary stuff.” He leaned down and kissed the top of my head. “Wait for me? I’ll be quick.”

I undressed and flopped face down into the bed as soon as he was gone, tried not to think about what might wait for him in Turkey, and mostly succeeded. Teddy broke my doze when he slid under the covers next to me, already naked, and kissed the back of my neck. I groped behind me until my hand caught on his hip and pulled him closer, and he leaned in and bit me on the shoulder, the sting of it just sharp enough to penetrate the fog of not-quite-sleep in my mind.

“Like this?” Teddy asked, and I nodded into the pillow and made a vague sound of assent. “Lazy,” he said, easy and warm, and bit me again, lower but just as lightly, before rolling away to get the lube.

He wasted no time, slicked fingers circling, sliding in, until I was stuffed three fingers full and writhing, and his other hand was pressed low on my abdomen, almost but not quite where I needed it. He kept that up until I was pushing back against him, hissing for him to stop teasing and fuck me already, and then he slid his fingers out, rolled on a condom and nudged his cock in. It slid home in one long slow thrust, and then he stopped, again, panting.

“Teddy,” I was saying, “Teddy,” because finally, finally he was where I wanted him – all around and inside me – and he was not moving, the bastard.

“Shh,” he said, kissing the back of my neck, my shoulders, “Shh, I’ve got you.” And then he held onto my hips and started moving, and I was pushing back to meet his every thrust. His hand stroked my cock, and all too soon I was coming, biting down on a whine. He fucked me through it, short shallow thrusts, panting as he followed me over the edge. We collapsed into the hopelessly rumpled bed, catching our breath. After a moment, he slid out and nudged me onto my side, shifting closer to put his arm around me and his forehead against mine. I held on to him like he would slip through my fingers otherwise, kissing his cheek, his eyelids, his smiling mouth.

There are no good configurations for fitting two grown people on a single unfoldable sofa. Sitting side by side, you’ll be fine. But try lying down, and someone’s limbs are always hanging off, or your elbow ends up in places it was not supposed to go into, except in situations of mortal peril. Teddy and I discovered this early on in our relationship, but at least his sofa is comfortable. This one had missed its calling as a torture device.

We had managed well enough so far, between Teddy’s octopus tendencies and me being barely conscious. Now, I lay awake in the dark, staring at the ceiling. Something was digging into my back, Teddy was sprawled half over me, snoring softly, and I was contemplating different ways of setting the sofa on fire.

I took it as a sign of imminent recovery.

It was surprising no one had found us yet. I’d been sure that Accent and his associates would sell us out before the day was done, but either they had reason not to, or my opponents had suddenly become uninterested. It was possible they were just waiting me out.

Teddy stirred, and I put my hand on the back of his neck. He made a quiet, disgruntled sound.

“It’s fine,” I told him. “Go back to sleep.”

“Can’t,” he said. “You’re thinking too loud.”

We shuffled awkwardly, trying to find a more comfortable position without falling to the floor. Eventually I gave it up as a bad job, got up and put the kettle on. Teddy flicked on the nightlight in the bathroom and joined me at the table.

“Do you think the owner will mind if we burn the sofa?” I asked Teddy, pouring hot water over the tea bags.

He took a mug and nodded his thanks. “I was thinking you could rig it to explode, but that would be a bit too unsubtle.”

“I don’t think there is agricultural fertilizer in the house,” I said. “So no homemade MacGyver stuff. And we’re going to need the gas. Unless you’ve got some Semtex in that bag of wonders?”

Teddy looked suddenly shifty, and I stared at him, feeling a little cold. “Teddy? Do you?”

He glared at the offending sofa, then finally looked at me. The nightlight painted his silhouette in dull, faded gold, leaving his face in shadow. “Not Semtex, no.”

I drank the tea and watched him turn his mug in slow half-circles between his palms. Teddy is not normally given to fidgeting. He had also, apparently, brought explosives and firearms to a rescue mission in a foreign country.

I shifted closer to him and bumped his shoulder with mine. He sighed and leaned in.

“Nick?” he said, after a while. I was nearly ready to brave the lumpy sofa again; the cabin was chilly and he was so, so warm.

“Hmm?”

“Did you kill many people?”

“Not as many as you’d think,” I said, and then, “and they were all bad people.”

The sound that escaped him was something between a laugh and a groan; I had once made him sit down and watch that movie with me. In my defence, it’s a classic. He thought it was hilariously awful.

“So I’m the stay-at-home wife desperate for adventures, then?” Teddy said, with a hint of something in his tone that I couldn’t decipher.

“Obviously not,” I said, as haughtily as I knew how. “You go stir-crazy if you stay at home for longer than a week with nothing to distract you, and you have your own adventures. And a terrifying editor who should have been a super spy boss. You’re now working very hard to become the sidekick in the van, and I’m not sure why: the van is boring, and life expectancy of sidekicks is terrible.”

Teddy’s shoulders were shaking; I turned my head to look. He was laughing, nearly silently.

“God, I missed you,” he said, wiping at his eyes, and my heart skipped a beat. “You are a right prick for haring off on your own and doing your best to get yourself killed, and you have the most dreadful taste in action movies, but I missed you so much.”

We relocated back to the sofa after that. Not for anything interesting or racy – I was still coughing with every other word and weak and easily tired, and Teddy is too good a person to even think about taking advantage. I wasn’t sure anything racy was on the table, after the last two years. But he still curled around me and pressed his face into the back of my neck. I hoped he didn’t hate himself for this. I missed him terribly, too, and finally told him so, in the dark under the scratchy blankets with his arm slung across my chest and his leg pinning me down. He squeezed my hand in reply.

“In seriousness, though,” I said, “murder, that’s not what I do. I have done it, when it was required, but it’s not a necessary part of my job.”

There was nothing but Teddy’s even breathing, for a while. I was almost sure he’d fallen asleep.

“What do you do, then?” he asked, finally.

“I fix things,” I said.

Teddy snorted.

“Not like that,” I said. “Okay, sometimes like that. And most of it is still classified, by the way, so don’t expect the details. But, you know, if you need someone who knows someone, or a person to plan your approach, keep track of your personnel and supplies, work out your exit strategy and stick to it when shit goes down, you need someone like me.”

“How would you fix this, then?” he asked. “Our situation, on a purely hypothetical level.”

I’d been thinking of nothing else, as soon as I was able to think again, but my words suddenly dried up. He squeezed my hand again, gently, and I squeezed back; my mind was still stuck on the way he said “our.”

“Well, the lead operative needs a good bollocking,” I said, “for putting himself and others in danger. But we have to take into account that he’d been working with limited data and on a very tight schedule.”

I could nearly feel Teddy frowning, but I went on.

“We’ve had a good window of opportunity, and we should make the most of it while it lasts,” if it did last, “but best to move quickly. Our opponents must be getting tired of waiting, so we should hit them while they still think they have an upper hand.”

“That was incredibly vague,” Teddy said.

“You wanted hypothetical,” I said. “In a more applied way: we have one day of quiet left, two at the most. These people are not exactly known for their patience, and they will come looking if we leave them wondering too long.” I had tested this before; the results were not pleasant, to put it mildly. “We don’t want that fight here in another person’s house. It doesn’t have a good exit route, and it’s not equipped for defence, anyway. Running is not much of an option – they’ll just get us at the border. We have to set up the bait they would fall for, and hope our bear trap is big enough.”

Next morning, I unpacked the bag of incendiary delights. Some of them were a little bit on the antiquated side, but all in good condition.

“Doesn’t your father mind that I’m laying waste to your family armoury?”

Teddy snorted. “Officially, family armoury is just his service weapon and my training rifle. These don’t exist. I don’t care for them, and I think he finally got tired of constantly cleaning them.”

What most people don’t know about Teddy is how familiar he is with firearms. He used to do a lot of biathlon when he was young; there was talk about the national youth team. It remains a single throwaway line on his Wikipedia page. Professional sport didn’t work out for him, but Teddy kept up. Not at work – a journalist in the war zone is strictly non-combatant, under all circumstances. Perhaps it was also the image created with his stories, his colleagues’ pictures, or just his classically handsome face – you’d look at Teddy Graham and never think him anything other than harmless.

That was, of course, a lie and a half, but one I was counting on to help him get away when things inevitably went to shit.

The other thing about Teddy is that he, despite the often ugly nature of his job, somehow remains a person who is still enthusiastically hugged by children and small animals. (And once, memorably, a tiger; both he and the tiger were wary, but it was for charity, so no affable English journalists got eaten. He bumped a cigarette off the cameraman, afterwards, and made noises at me about how soft tiger fur is; I still think he was pulling my leg. The tiger forwent the cigarette and had gone for a swim.) The point is, Teddy has always been the kind of man who had seen a lot of people being shot at, had been shot at, but never actually shot at people himself, nor wanted to.

Which was why the contents of the bag were particularly surprising.

“You brought fragmentation grenades,” I said, staring. There was a special case and everything. “Why not C4? Dynamite? Some enriched uranium, just for the hell if it?”

Teddy gave me a dirty look from where he was sorting the ammunition on the kitchen table.

“Never mind,” I said. “How did you get all of this over the border? Do I want to know?”

“There’s nothing to know,” Teddy said. “This was entirely dad’s work. I tried asking, but he is just as bad as you. All I got was that somebody had owed him an enormous favour. No one even looked at me twice; it was surreal.”

I put the box of grenades aside.

“Doesn’t it drive you up the wall, not knowing?”

“You have no idea,” Teddy said. “I passed up on learning or willfully forgot so many things during these two years that I don’t think I qualify for being a journalist anymore. Your business is the end of any natural curiosity.”

“I think it’s called being discreet,” I said, and Teddy made a face.

“You say that now, but back in Scotland you told me your actual, real name,” he said. “Ironically, that made it harder to find you when I needed to, but that’s not the point. You even took me to your place! The real one!”

“Would you rather I had lied to you?” I said. “Hello, Edward, I am John Smith, how do you do?”

“Firstly, that accent is awful,” Teddy said. “And secondly: are you real? What kind of spy are you?”

“I don’t steal secrets or have dramatic one-on-one duels with terrible villains!” I said. “Someone else does that! I’m practically one step away from tech support. And let’s talk about you: you’d brought a complete stranger to your place after only meeting him twice, in exceptionally sketchy circumstances.”

“Not a complete stranger,” Teddy said. “Certain parts of you I was very familiar with.” There was a fetching blush high on his cheeks, and my face went hot, too. At least the light was low enough that we could both pretend to not have noticed. “And said stranger was so knackered he fell asleep almost straight away. Isn’t that a bit too trusting?”

“To be honest,” I said, “nothing you could have done to me was as scary as what I had escaped from, that one time.” Teddy’s face did some complicated, minute shift through several expressions, none of which I could decipher. “And I always felt safe with you. I still do. I couldn’t sleep on the flight, that time, or before, at the hotel, because I kept jumping awake at every little twitch. Then suddenly you were there, and bam, I’m out like a light.”

“Flatterer,” Teddy said. “Do you feel safe enough to tell me what exactly is going on?”

So I told him.

“Okay,” Teddy said when I was done, “let me get this straight. You’ve been more or less on your own, these past two years, wreaking havoc with the operations of this guy whose name I’m not allowed to know who had taken over from your commanding officer. Because what he does is even more unethical than whatever it is you usually do.” He raised an eyebrow at me. “Meanwhile, your team is – doing what, exactly?”

“Not entirely on my own,” I said. “But more or less. His last name is Kuzin, not that it’s going to tell you anything. He is not a public figure. He is the proponent of that surveillance system everyone is up in arms about, which would not have been exposed to the general public if not for the efforts of my team and our counterparts in several countries. However, Kuzin also has business endeavors on the side, which include some illegal and highly classified stuff, and to keep that going, he did his best to remove my boss and my team from the game, initially. We’re working on exposing him for his side business, not for wanting to know what ordinary people eat for breakfast, but if that ghastly initiative tanks with him, all the better.”

“You don’t mind that someone in the secret service knows every minute detail of someone’s life?”

“Teddy,” I said, “I grew up believing all phones were being tapped and all letters opened. I don’t think it was true – certainly not in the ’90s – but it doesn’t surprise me how easily everything we do can be heard or seen by somebody who has no business hearing or seeing it, and it doesn’t surprise me that nearly everyone in charge wants in on that information. Personally, of course I mind. There is a whole side part of this mission dedicated to making sure the centralized European surveillance system goes down before it can be finished. I’d say it’s going well so far, because we’re all still alive and kicking. However, the person with friends in high places who made sure my country agreed to participate in it is scum, and I want him stopped.”

Teddy was looking at me with something like quiet resignation.

“Yet you still work for the secret service,” he said.

“Secret service exists to protect the interests of country,” I said. “The methods may vary, but ‘interests of country’ don’t include ‘kill as many people as possible and profit off it’. Kuzin is the kind of man who thinks his position in the service allows him to do what he wants, with no repercussions. So yes, I want it known what he’s doing. And I want him to pay for it. And it’s very personal; don’t think I’m an idealist.”

“Yeah,” Teddy said, “yeah, you kind of are.”

“We’re moving out tomorrow,” I said when we repacked the weapons and sat down to eat. Noodle soup is truly the greatest invention of mankind. “Shut down everything we can do without, tonight, so we don’t waste time in the morning.” Now that I wasn’t so out of it from coughing and fever, I couldn’t shake the feeling that we were sitting ducks.

Teddy shrugged. “It’s just a couple of switches,” he said, “but fine. We’re sleeping mostly dressed anyway. What’s the plan?”

“Get to the nearest town,” I said, “get in touch with my team. I don’t want to use your phones yet; they’re clean for now, and we might still need them. It may be that hiding isn’t necessary anymore. In that case, we can just leave. If someone comes out of the woodwork, we’ll deal with them accordingly.”

“Like who?” Teddy asked, frowning.

“Like the guys who put me in the basement. Or your friend the Accent,” I said, and Teddy’s face darkened.

“Oswald is not my friend,” he said. “Do you think I’d let my friends do what he did to you? But we don’t need to be afraid of him coming to find us. He owed Marjorie, big time, and now that she’s asked for his help tracking you down, they’re even. He has a legitimate business he wouldn’t want to compromise. I had no idea he’d really find you; when he called, I thought he had information to share.”

“I wish I’d known that before,” I said. “He was somewhat more polite at first.”

Teddy stood up to rinse his mug. “Well, you didn’t leave a number,” he said, voice flat.

It finally hit me then. “Do you want me to apologize?”

Right, I’d been right – but also, wrong, wrong, wrong. Teddy didn’t turn around, but his shoulders stiffened.

“What I want,” he said, finally, “is to get us out of here, somewhere I can safely yell at you, for everything. Because not knowing where you were, if something had happened to you, if none of it was real – second-guessing every memory – what do you think that was?”

I sat, frozen, watching the tense line of his spine, his silhouette in the low light, more of a shadow than a man, and didn’t know how to come to him, how to touch him, what to say.

“And for the record,” Teddy said, “apologizing is tricky. It only works if you mean it.”

We still had to sleep in the same bed, after.

Teddy curled in on himself, back to my chest, but put himself between me and the door anyway. The sagging middle of the sofa pulled us together. My fingers brushed the back of his neck by accident, and he made a quiet, strangled noise and turned, burrowing into me. I held him close, tightly, not daring to say anything, and he clung to me, shivering.

“You can still yell at me,” I said into his temple. “You have every right.”

“I can’t,” Teddy said, pressing his face into my neck. “I keep thinking that it might work, if I put more distance between us, but then you are there, and I don’t want to let go.”

I kept my hand on the back of his neck, and his cold fingers snuck under the hem of my sweater and t-shirt.

“You didn’t even try to contact me,” Teddy said.

“I was too afraid to implicate you,” I said, “when I realized how deep the shit we were in really was.”

“Not even an anonymous tip-off at the office,” Teddy said, his voice a little lighter.

“You stopped writing,” I said quietly, and he sighed.

“Couldn’t,” Teddy said. “Marjorie eventually told me to come back when my head was on straight again. And then dad couldn’t take my moping face anymore and told me he was looking for you. He was convinced that you wouldn’t have left like that without a serious reason and that you were in trouble.”

“He would know,” I said softly, because it was the kind of late-night conversation in the dark when your filters no longer work, and because the bits of Frank Graham’s colourful biography that I was privy to left me in awe of him.

“You two are the worst,” Teddy said. “I think you know more about my father than I do. Anyway, I wanted to believe him; the thought of you just leaving was too unbearable. And even if I couldn’t write, I could still talk to people. We had our first breakthrough after ten months. A confirmed sighting of a man matching the description of one Nikolai Matveev, who should feel bad for making me lie to our mutual friends on his behalf,” he poked me in the ribs. At least his fingers were no longer icy.

“I’m sorry,” I said. “Was it Fridman?”

“You didn’t introduce me to any of your other friends,” Teddy said, “though I think I’ve talked to some of them on the phone, before. And yes, it was Fridman. After that, it was breadcrumbs of information for another ten months. I couldn’t follow you all over Europe, so we had to ask Marjorie for help. She has many useful contacts.”

“I knew she should have been running the British secret service,” I said. “Maybe then they wouldn’t have been so incompetent.”

“Pot, kettle,” Teddy said.

We were woken up around four in the morning by a distant sound of an engine.

“Teddy,” I said, and his eyes snapped open. “Go through the bathroom window, get the car started as quietly as possible, wait for me. If you see anyone, stay out of sight, do not engage. I’ll be right behind you. Now go.”

He nodded, and then we were pulling on our boots and coats, and he was off. I heard the engine come closer. Hopefully they wouldn’t hear Teddy over the ruckus they were making. There were about ten houses total in the village, all empty. Whoever it was would start with the closest and work their way down to where we were. There was no time or cover for a clean getaway. Time to improvise, then.

I left a couple of quick but nasty surprises at the front door, scooped up the bag and squeezed myself through the bathroom window. There were at least two jeeps, when I looked, and the doors were banging at the houses number three and four; not long now. I slipped into the shed and inside the car.

“They’re blocking the way on the north side,” I said, and Teddy nodded and put the car in reverse. The shed was not a permanent construction. We drove right through its wall and down to the far side of the village that curved towards a lake. There were shouts behind us, but no gunfire yet; Teddy accelerated and shot right by the lakeside as quickly as the frozen road would let him. I fished in the bag for a gun and a phone.

When it finally turned on and the call connected, we were almost on the highway.

“Ahmed,” I said, “it’s me.”

“He lives!” Ahmed crowed. “Finally! Where the hell have you been?”

“The usual,” I said. “But there was a change of plans. Teddy’s here, and we have approximately ten people on our tail.” There was a series of muffled bangs in the distance. So much for not blowing up the sofa. “Give or take one or two. We’re armed and on the move. Can you get us out?”

“Tracking you now,” he said. “Put me on speaker.”

“Okay,” Ahmed said in English when I put him on speaker and fixed the phone on the sideboard, “I want Edward to answer this one. How badly off is Kolya?”

“He did his best to cough his lungs out,” Teddy said, the traitor. “He’s somewhat better now.”

“Noted,” Ahmed said. “Okay, I’ve got you. Now, gentlemen, there is an abandoned farmhouse sixteen kilometers further up that highway, which, with your current speed, is reachable in about ten minutes. Your escort can be there in half an hour. Your pursuers are showing seven heat signatures. You have the option of reducing their number now or at the house. I can’t let you bring this party to an inhabited place, so this would have to do.” He fell silent for a moment. “ETA on your escort thirty-five minutes; with less than ten now for the road, that gives you about twenty-five to hold on.”

I didn’t like this one bit – too much could happen in twenty-five minutes.

I looked back. One of the jeeps was gaining; I opened the window and told Teddy to hold us as steady as possible. Shooting out the tires from a moving vehicle is not as easy as movies make it out to be, and my aim was not the best, but I managed to hit two out of four on the first car. Then, before they had a chance to return fire, I shot at the driver and the man beside him as well. The car swerved and skidded, crashing into the other one, and I barely had the time to dive back in before Teddy floored the gas.

“Think that would be enough?” Teddy said, with a quick look in the rearview mirror.

“No,” I said. “But it would buy us some time. Ahmed?”

“Still here,” he said.

“Any change in numbers?”

“They’re down to five,” he said, and Teddy’s mouth tightened.

“Hang on,” I said, and muted the phone.

“If something happens to me,” I said, and Teddy spared me a quick glance, simultaneously annoyed and terrified, “you need to hold on until backup arrives. Do whatever you have to. Then find a man named Katya. He knows what to do.”

Teddy’s mouth was a thin, unhappy line, but he said nothing.

“Tell him everything,” I said. “Your Russian is better than his English, so try to be clear. Do what he says.”

Teddy’s face was frozen, his hands tight on the wheel.

“Any way to know him if I see him?” he asked.

“Blond rugged Viking type,” I said. “Two meters tall, can’t string together two words in English to save his life, speech ninety percent profanity. Doesn’t respond to anything but a girl’s name, for some unfathomable reason.”

The corner of Teddy’s mouth quirked a little, and then the first bullet hit the car.

I’m not particularly proud of myself for taking out a chunk of a well-used and well-maintained public highway, but my school PE teacher had been right: a good grenade throw is always a good grenade throw. It took out the remaining car that had been gaining on us, and provided enough smoke and pulverized concrete to cover our mad dash towards the farmhouse. Or so I thought until I stumbled and gasped in pain.

“Teddy,” I said, and pulled us both down to the ground beside a small shed. The farmhouse was still a good twenty meters away, a long stretch of deepening snow with no cover; the shed’s stone walls had crumbled a bit, but it remained mostly upright. I leaned on the wall and pressed my hand to the side of my chest. It had come away stained with red. “Teddy, I’m hit.”

Teddy’s eyes were huge and frightened. He groped for the phone he’d had the presence of mind to snatch off the dashboard before we left the car, and said, “Ahmed, how many remaining?”

“It’s hard to say with that bonfire Kolya put on the road,” Ahmed’s tinny voice said over the line, “but I can clearly see two, coming your way.”

Teddy’s hand had found mine on the wound, and pressed down hard. I grit my teeth.

“ETA on escort twenty minutes,” Ahmed said, helpfully.

“That’s bad odds,” Teddy said, his eyes never leaving my face.

“Not if you take them out first,” I said. My breath was coming short, and I fought the urge to cough.

Teddy rifled in the bag, which I had grabbed at the last second. He found something that used to be a Tesco shopping bag in its previous life, pressed it to the wound and put his belt around me, tightening it. I hissed through the pain.

“On the roof,” I said, then, “and give me a gun.”

Teddy held my face in his bloody hands tightly. “Twenty minutes,” he said, a growl in his voice. “Don’t you fucking dare die, Nick, or I swear I’ll kill you myself.” Then he put a Beretta in my hand, grabbed for a semi-automatic and looked for the first chipped brick to put his foot on.

“Ahmed,” I said, quietly, putting the phone to my ear.

“Hold on, Kolya,” Ahmed said, his voice tight. “Fifteen minutes.”

It took Teddy less than twenty seconds to scale the low shed wall and plaster himself to the roof. It sloped gently towards the back, so he was not easily visible from the road. And then we waited, until our pursuers were sure we had nothing else to offer and came close enough for Teddy’s range to be effective.

They went down one after the other, or so Ahmed told me; I wiped my hand on my jeans so my grip on the pistol wouldn’t be as slippery, and waited.

The third one was limping a little, but it didn’t stop him from circling wide, hiding behind the wreck of the second car, and following our footsteps to the shed. He would’ve put a bullet in Teddy’s back, and finished me off, except I shot him square between the eyes.

Time was fragmented after that. I took a deeper breath, and coughed up blood; Teddy’s hands were tightening the makeshift bandage again; I could barely register Ahmed’s frantic voice coming from the phone that had slipped from my hand.

There was a sound of sirens in the distance, and through the black spots dancing in front of my eyes, I saw a familiar tall figure leaping through the snow towards us, others hot on his heels.

I woke up, briefly, to the sound and smell of hospital, and to more pain. Everything was hazy while it loomed over me, large and inescapable. Distantly, I registered Teddy’s pale, terrified face among the people I didn’t recognize. I tried to focus on him, to reassure him, but my tongue refused to obey. And then everything was slipping away again.

It was okay, though. Teddy was alive. I could rest a little. I let the darkness close over me like deep water.

I woke up in a hospital bed, blissfully painless and breathing on my own, some indeterminate time later. It must have been nighttime: everything was quiet, the noises of other people soft and far away. Teddy was asleep in a visitor’s chair in the corner, curled up into a ball as tiny as a grown man could manage. His back and leg would be killing him in the morning; I wanted to call out to him, to wake him up, but my voice was barely louder than a breathless whisper.

Then the doorknob turned, and a familiar face swam into view.

“Katya,” I wheezed, “what the actual fuck.”

“Don’t talk,” he said, looking quickly up and down the corridor and closing the door behind him soundlessly. “You just had to go and get shot, didn’t you?”

“Did it work?” I asked him, in a whisper, and it just about winded me completely. Katya spared a quick look at Teddy and, apparently satisfied that the potential audience was asleep, came to stand by my bedside. There wasn’t anywhere for him to sit, and he crouched down so our eyes were almost level.

“Hush,” Katya said. “You’ll hurt yourself worse. And yeah, it worked. It worked so fucking well that even Brits now have their knickers in a twist. Considering they were the ones to propose the whole fucking thing to begin with, I’d say they fucking deserved it.”

I didn’t feel like trying to talk anymore, so I pointed at him, circled my finger to indicate the room, then raised my eyebrows in question.

Katya grinned, which was an unnerving sight even on a good day. “You did well, out there,” he said. “Our mutual friend was so annoyed with you that he planned to kill you personally, or something just as daft. He got so irritated that he’d made enough mistakes to get himself out of the office and straight into a nice and comfy high-security prison cell.” His mouth quirked. “Boss had been reinstated, and us lucky bastards with him.”

I imagined Marina would have various committees eating out of her hand now. She and her people did uncover a dangerous international conspiracy, after all.

“Others?” I whispered.

“Fine,” he said. “Don’t you worry your pretty head about it. You need rest. I wouldn’t have sneaked in here in the middle of the night, but I can’t exactly come during visiting hours.”

There was a scratching sound at the door.

“Must be going,” Katya said, straightening up. His hand twitched like he wanted to pat me on the shoulder, but thought better of it. “Get well and all that, yeah? No more death-defying stunts. By the way, your journalist is not half bad. You didn’t say he was a crack shot. I’d hold on to that if I were you,” and he winked and slipped out as quietly as he came in, leaving me staring at the door in confusion.

“Is he gone?” Teddy asked, his voice quiet and rough. “I’d wait longer, but I think half my body is pins and needles.”

I made a sound of agreement. Teddy unfolded himself stiffly into a vertical position and dragged his chair to my bedside, where he sank into it again with a groan and leaned forward until his spine straightened and his forehead pressed into the duvet by my hip.

“I’m getting too old for this,” he muttered, and I ruffled his hair in silent apology. He turned into my touch. “Also, that was almost sweet of your friend,” he put his chin on his folded arm and looked up at me. “He’d turned all sorts of interesting colours before, when I said I was your boyfriend.”

I could just imagine how that had gone, and was shamefully grateful I hadn’t been awake to see it. “He’s trying,” I whispered, one word at a time. “Isn’t easy, for him.” For a man of Katya’s views and general upbringing, I thought he was doing a pretty good job, dealing with sexual identities he didn’t understand.

“I agree with him, though,” Teddy said. “No more death-defying stunts, for both of us. Please?”

I found the collar of his shirt and pulled until he got the hint and rose. I pulled again and he leaned in, and I brushed a kiss to the corner of his mouth. “I promise.”

Death-defying stunts or not, the nighttime visit had worn us both out. Teddy had fallen asleep half-leaning on the bed, one arm thrown across my middle. I woke up later to find it was almost ten in the morning; he was still in the same position, dead to the world, and his editor was standing right inside the door, glaring at both of us.

I poked Teddy in the shoulder and he stirred, then sat up, wincing. It took him a moment to get his bearings, and when he did he looked as alarmed as I felt, but not particularly surprised.

“Morning, Marjorie,” he said, with an attempt at levity that went unappreciated. “Do I have to be present for this conversation?”

For such a tiny woman, Marjorie Peck sure had a way of looking intimidating. “You can go for now, Graham,” she said, “we’ll talk later.”

Teddy squeezed my hand quickly and all but skipped out of the room, looking every bit a guilty schoolboy just dismissed by a strict headmistress. It would’ve been a lot more amusing, except he had abandoned me to the full power of Marjorie’s glare.

“You have the devil’s own luck,” she said, without preamble. “And you nearly got Edward killed. More than once, I suspect. And let’s not talk about how he was completely useless for about six months, and threw his very promising career out the window in his mad hunt for any trace of you. I hope you appreciate it, Mr. Matveev, and I hope you’re capable of showing that appreciation in a way that counts. The boy still has a Pulitzer or two to win, if he actually applies himself to what he’s exceptionally good at. Am I being clear?”

I didn’t trust my voice and just nodded. Her eyes narrowed, but she nodded back.

“I trust we won’t need to have this conversation again,” she said. “Welcome back to the world of living.” She turned on her heel and left.

I wondered which version of The Talk she was going to give to Teddy, and how a woman barely tall enough to reach the bottom of my chin in heels could have so much presence. Then the door clicked again. Katya’s visit must’ve opened the floodgates, or something.

My boss looked about the same as I last seen him, but the beard was new. “Nearly ran into Marj,” he said. “Thank god for utility closets; that would’ve been awkward.”

I’d known for a fact that he’d had a torrid and doomed affair with a much older woman sometime around 2005, because secret service is full of gossips, and anyone who tries to tell you otherwise is a liar, but I hadn’t the idea it was Marjorie bloody Peck until now. It certainly put many things in a very different perspective.

“Anyway, good to see you again,” he said, and I nodded to indicate the same. “I trust Katya had filled you in?” I waved my hand from side to side, and he grinned.

“I thought it best to tell you in person. Marina is stuck managing the latest developments, I’m afraid.” We both diplomatically ignored the fact that Marina could barely afford to spend time with her own family; flying out anywhere for a teammate was completely out of question. “Our mutual friend Kuzin is incarcerated, and his remaining associates are being inconvenienced by the Interpol. Which means that no one should bother you in the future.” He stepped forward and put an envelope on my chest. “And this should make it easier.”

Awkwardly, I opened it. Inside was a death certificate for my current alias and a complete set of papers for Nikolai Matveev, British national. The passport had been issued ten years ago.

I frowned at him. “Happy retirement, Kolya,” he said. “Normally there would be a ceremony, but we’re still mopping up this mess, and you’re unlikely to come back to Moscow anytime soon. You’ll bounce back from this; you’re young. But it’s going to be very difficult for you to keep doing your job, so it might be just the moment for some change. Make time for the family. One can’t be married to work forever.”

It had nearly killed him, so I conceded he might have a point.

“Thank you, boss,” I whispered, and he nodded.

“Now,” he said, “my regards to Frank Graham and his son, and don’t make us come get you.” And with that, he was gone.

epilogue

We filed the required paperwork for marriage when I was out of the hospital. It still made me a little dizzy that we could just do that. Teddy laughed at me when I told him, but he was glowing, happy, so I didn’t take it to heart. The ring situation took some adjusting, until Teddy said screw it and started wearing his on the right hand, like myself. It did fill me with a certain warm glow of my own.

The island thing was somewhat unexpected, though in retrospect maybe it shouldn’t have been. The doctors were adamant that I didn’t need any more respiratory diseases, in the near future or possibly ever; being shot in the chest while fighting off an infection is no joke. Teddy had taken their advice very seriously, and before I knew it, he was making plans to drag me somewhere warm, with an ocean. I didn’t dig my heels in too hard – there wasn’t anything for me to do in London, yet, and he said he could use some peace and quiet to write. I thought of Marjorie Peck glaring at me, and not having to cough every time the weather changed, and it outweighed my distaste for sand in unexpected places. And that was how we ended up on an island, remote enough that there were few tourists, but not so remote that we’d be completely alone.

Marjorie had saddled Teddy with writing a series of publications on the spy scandal debacle, mostly based on what he had found during the search for me, with some helpful additions that had come from Marjorie’s own contacts. It was taking its sweet time coming about – if a writing session wasn’t punctuated with Teddy’s frustrated growling about reliability of sources and the general lack of logic in everything, it meant he was reviewing what he’d already written. I told him once that by the time he was done, the whole thing would be completely declassified by everyone involved. He’d answered, sarcastically, that he sure hoped to be completely retired by then.

Teddy had also started writing a completely fictional version of events – it featured technologically savvy teenagers, a couple of adults whose romance would likely get him an online cult following, and the surveillance units called The Eyes. It was going to sell out within the week, provided he didn’t take years agonizing over it.

“I’ve never tried it quite like this,” he’d said, one night, after I finished reading the completed draft. “But it feels good to be able to just tweak a few things until they actually start making sense.”

“Don’t get me wrong,” I said, “I think it’s fantastic. But as the person married to you and someone who cares about your well-being, I’m warning you now: Marjorie is going to have kittens.”

“We’ll tell her I’m selling to HarperCollins, then,” Teddy said, with a glint in his eye that promised nothing good for those who’d slight his baby.

And that, as they say, was that.

The island wasn’t terribly large, so we did meet other tourists – mostly families with small children, a few couples. It got a bit rowdy sometimes, which suited us just fine – Teddy can write and sleep in any environment, and I can’t enjoy complete silence anymore after that time in Montenegro. The noise level tended to go down after the newcomers settled in.

Which explained why it took me two days to realize I might have to go over to our neighbours and ask them to tone the music down a little.

I told Teddy I was going out. The only reply I got was a thoughtful hum – he was stuck on some abuse-of-authority-related stunt SIS had pulled a year ago, publicly enough that it had made the papers. I kissed the top of his head and he swatted at me, not looking away from the screen.

The neighbours’ party had wound down around four in the morning. It was going on nine, so I suspected they were still sleeping, until I saw movement at the corner of my eye and turned just in time to catch someone running out of the ocean and barreling into me.

“There he is!” Dina said, loudly, and threw her arms around my neck. “Two days! Took you long enough!”

She let go of me and started wringing water from her braid. I stared. She picked a pink towel from the sand and wrapped herself in it.

“At least say hi, Kolya,” she said.

“Hi, Dina,” I replied, still staring. “What’s going on?”

“Everyone’s waiting for you,” she said. “Well, almost – Boss couldn’t make it. But we got Marina to come, this time, that has to count for something.”

I turned around so I could see the house better, and froze: there was my team, minus our fearless leader, sitting on the tiny porch. Ahmed was talking to Marina, who had a look of someone dragged to the party against her will but unexpectedly enjoying herself. Lena Soboleva, whom I had barely met before, waved at us. I waved back. Katya appeared out of the house with a book and a bottle of water. “Hey!” he said. “Look who’s finally here.”

“You owe me, Katya,” Dina said. “I told you he wouldn’t take longer than two days.”

“What’s this?” I asked, completely baffled.

“Somebody didn’t get to have a proper retirement party,” Dina said, patting me on the shoulder. “So we decided to bring it to you.”

“That was my team,” I told Teddy when I got back. He had unglued himself from the computer and was making coffee. “They are inviting us to my retirement party.”

“Sounds a little backwards,” he said, passing me a cup, “but why not. Do we need to bring anything?”

“Ourselves, apparently,” I said, still a little dazed. Marina had smiled at me, which was an event on par with a complete solar eclipse. Katya had asked where my better half was. It made me want to pinch myself.

“Hey,” Teddy said, as we sat down on the steps outside, “they are your friends. They care enough to drop everything and come here. So what’s bothering you?”

I drank my coffee, trying to put it into words. “It doesn’t feel quite real,” I said, finally. “I never thought these parts of my life could ever meet peacefully. Paranoia to Matveev: don’t get too comfortable, something bad is going to happen.”

“Nick,” Teddy said, seriously, “I’m sure if there was a risk of someone dropping a bomb on them, or something, they wouldn’t have come here. They have known you for years; you’ll be fine. And if you’re worried about me: I once woke up at the hospital to Marjorie bloody Peck giving me her infamous “what the hell do you think you’re doing” stare. I thought I was hallucinating. Not to mention a few other things. I don’t think anything your friends do or say is going to scar me for life.”

“Hey, you didn’t have to look at Katya’s tattoos,” I said, and Teddy shook his head.

“Still not scared,” he said, putting his cup down and taking my hand. “Besides, after what I just sent her, Marjorie is going to chain me to a rock and eat my liver.”

He must’ve meant the novel. “You didn’t,” I said, and Teddy grinned, bright and unconcerned.

“I absolutely did,” he said. “And I plan to forget my phone here when we go to the party. It might give us a head start.”

“A solid plan,” I said, with a grin of my own. “I think Marina’s and Katya’s flight back leaves the day after tomorrow. In a pinch we can hop on it and then leg it to the Canadian border.”

“Yeah?” Teddy said, leaning into me.

“Yes,” I said, and kissed him. It felt like the right thing to do.

fin.

Author’s notes

See this piece’s entry on the Shousetsu Bang*Bang wiki.

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