Characters/Pairing(s): Alex, Yassen
Summary: When a mission goes wrong and Alex is critically wounded, the fifteen-year-old spy finds himself the unwilling captive (and patient) of a man he believed to be dead.
Warning(s): violence, language, adult situations
Word Count: ~31,000
Author’s Notes: When I set out to write this story, I never thought it would end up this long, but it simply wouldn’t have worked if it were one word less. It had a great time writing it, and I hope you enjoy it, capeofstorm
P.S. I didn’t know whether you preferred the looks of Book Yassen or Movie Yassen, so I let them duke it out. They both killed each other, so I went with the more visual of the two. My apologies if the redheaded Russian offends.
STITCHES, PART 1
Life with Yassen Gregorovich.
It felt chaotic at first, like the first day of school or leaving for a big holiday abroad. The excitement, the anxiety, trying to sort out a rhythm in a cacophony of noise. But, like all first days of school and holidays abroad, things eventually smoothed out and fell into place.
Alex was a little surprised at how quickly he adapted. It seemed that his outburst at dinner had been the final crash of thunder before the storm broke. Things were much easier now. There was still a slight tension between him and Yassen, but it wasn’t as unbearable as it had been before. Apologizing for his behavior had been a humiliating ordeal, and Alex really didn’t want to have to do it again. He made a conscious effort to be more patient and understanding in the future.
Not that he really needed to watch his temper anymore. Yassen was true to his word, allowing Alex free rein to go wherever he wanted. He even gave him a spare key, which Alex made regular use of. He spent much of his time at the beach, walking along the canal, or at the park just a few blocks away. Once, when he was feeling a little adventurous, he walked all the way down to the bay and even explored a few streets in downtown Palma. His thigh had hurt like hell that night. Yassen told him he should probably take it easy for the next day, otherwise he could risk damaging the new muscle tissue.
Alex didn’t know where Yassen went during the day, and he wasn’t comfortable asking. Mallorca was small, only about 200 square kilometers, and too far from the mainland for commuting. Whatever business Yassen was doing must be local. Alex envisioned shady deals taking place down at the piers, money passing from one hand to another, attaché cases, weapons, drugs. He didn’t know and didn’t care. That was Yassen’s business. No concern of his.
There was no pattern to the man’s daily disappearances and he was often out of the house; some evenings, too. But he was almost always there in the morning, sitting at the kitchen table with a cup of coffee and a book—Yassen liked to read, Alex had learned—and a bowl of muesli or fruit. He would look up and say hello or good morning, distantly casual. Alex would sit down with him, maybe exchanging a few words over breakfast, Yassen would leave, and that would be that.
Alex was well enough to fix his own meals by this point, but Yassen usually made dinner in the evenings, if he was around. Alex had even helped on one or two occasions, but he wasn’t as skilled with a knife and stirring sometimes posed a problem with his left arm. Yassen didn’t step in or take over, but gently urged Alex to keep at it. It didn’t occur to Alex until much later that this was for his own benefit—physical therapy that got his muscles moving and his tissue healing. He could almost walk without limping now, though his thigh still ached and his stitches were uncomfortable. Everything had pretty much scabbed over after the fourth or fifth day, and Alex had a hell of a time resisting the unconscious urge to pick at them.
In his time under Yassen’s roof, Alex quickly learned every inch of the house. One of the first things he noticed was its lack of a television, a device that Yassen quite frankly found to be as obnoxious as the people who watched it. Aside from the laptop he carried with him, there wasn’t a computer in the house, either. There was, however, a ridiculous amount of books in the study, most of which Yassen said had come with the house, as had most of the art pieces and furniture. That would explain why the majority of the books were in Spanish. Despite this, Alex managed to find an English copy of Lord of the Flies and spent one rainy afternoon lounging on Yassen’s bed, listening to the greatest hits of Johann Sebastian Bach and getting lost on an uninhabited island with a group of young British schoolboys. He had smirked at the situational irony and proceeded to devour the novel page by page. Yassen made him put the book down at dinner, though.
“Don’t worry,” he said. “You will have time to finish it.”
Time. Alex silently kept track of it, hoping that maybe tomorrow would be the day Yassen told him he was ready to go home. He didn’t have the nerve to ask him outright, fearing it might lead to an argument. Alex wanted to avoid any turbulence. Secretly, he might have been afraid of Yassen keeping him longer, tacking on a few more days for bad behavior. Alex knew it was ridiculous, but he couldn’t help wondering. Every adult he knew seemed out to either discipline him or coerce him into doing something he didn’t want. To interact with an adult and be treated as such by an adult was something completely new to Alex. In a way, he began to develop the smallest bit of respect for Yassen . . . and perhaps something that could have been fondness.
One evening, around sunset, Alex was bouncing a tennis ball against the wall in the back yard when Yassen pulled up in the BMW, climbed out, and sauntered over to observe Alex’s left-handed throws. Thinking he’d take Yassen by surprise, Alex had made it look like he was going to toss the ball as he usually, but turned to the side at the last second and hurled it at Yassen. The Russian didn’t even blink as he reached up and caught the ball, inches from his face. But he had smiled.
“Want to go out for dinner?” he asked.
Alex said sure, and in ten minutes’ time they were buzzing down Calle del Vicari Joaquim Fuster on the Kawasaki, the cool night air snapping at their clothes. The wind went straight through Alex’s cotton jacket, freezing him, and he huddled himself against Yassen’s back. They went to a dark, claustrophobic, old-world pizzeria off of Plaza Francesc Garcia i Orell, where the air smelled like beer and tomato sauce and freshly baked bread. Alex had the best slice of pizza he’d ever eaten in his life, dripping with cheese and black olives and at least six types of peppers. He would never be able to eat Domino’s ever again. Yassen ordered a Spanish calzone and a beer, and they had both looked so good that Alex asked if he could try them. He didn’t think twice about sipping from the same glass as Yassen, or eating off of the same fork. Alex had the man’s blood in his veins. A little saliva wasn’t going to kill him.
After dinner, Yassen had taken him on a short tour of Palma. There was something magical about cruising through a foreign city at night on a motorcycle, lights shining and music playing and the darkness wrapping everything in a blanket of mystery. They drove through Plaza de España and around La Seu, the colossal 13th century cathedral with its Gothic buttresses and soaring spires, dramatically lit by flood lights. They rode past fountains and restaurants and clubs and museums, through quiet parks and busy streets, around the silent bullfighting ring on Gaspar Bennazar Avenue. Alex shivered as he gazed at the shadowy structure, recalling his own experience as an unwilling matador almost two years ago. Yassen had been behind that idea, which, while frightening and horrible, had more or less saved Alex from a much worse fate at the hands of his enemies. Alex began to wonder just how many times his life had been saved by Yassen, if he was keeping count, if he too remembered being in the ring with Alex on that warm summer night in the South of France . . .
They returned home via back roads, and Alex was dropped off at the door. Yassen said that he had a few more things to do and that he should be back in a few hours. Alex found himself taking into account the lateness of the hour and Yassen’s lack of a helmet with a parent’s disapproval. Yassen may be a good driver, but he wouldn’t win a fight against a bus.
“Be careful,” Alex said before he could stop himself.
Yassen grinned sardonically. “I always am,” he said, then revved the engine a few times and sped off into the night.
Later, as Alex brushed his teeth and got ready for bed, he thought of something Jack had told him once when he was small.
“Telling someone to ‘be careful’ is like saying ‘I care about you’,” she said. “I tell you to be careful because I don’t want you to get hurt. That would make me sad.”
“Why?” eight-year-old Alex had asked.
Jack had smiled and tapped his nose. “Because I love you, silly, that’s why.”
Alex had thought about it for a minute, then smiled. “I ‘be careful’ you too, Jack.”
Now, as he turned off the lights and crawled into bed, Alex wondered if Jack’s words had been true or if they’d just been a cute perspective on an otherwise authoritative expression of concern. Maybe he could ask her about it when he got home.
Alex had been with Yassen for eight days. He was feeling much better now, his strength finally returning as his wounds closed and his scabs started to flake off. The fresh air and good food was doing him good, and he had even managed a few minutes’ jog on the beach that morning. His thigh didn’t like it too much, but the discomfort was hardly as bad as it had been last week. Alex was also pleased to notice that his giant bruise was beginning to fade. A few more days and there would be nothing left of it.
He went downstairs after his shower and made himself breakfast. Yassen hadn’t been home when Alex had woken and he wasn’t there now. It looked as if it was going to be another one of those long business days. No problem—Alex could keep himself occupied. He was going to have to remind Yassen to get milk, though. They were almost out.
They. We. Us. Our. Those pronouns hadn’t existed in Alex’s vocabulary a week ago, and now he used them constantly. He had been careful at first, trying to watch what he said around Yassen, but as time went on, he had gradually forgotten. Really, did it matter so much? They were just words. Yassen didn’t seem to care one way or another, so what the hell. Let’s go to the museum. Can we take the car? Why waste our time here when we can be out seeing the sights? I’m tired, let’s go home.
Home. That was something Alex actually did try to keep from slipping. His home was in London, with Jack. Not here. He would usually correct himself with “your home” or “the house”, but he knew he wasn’t fooling anybody. He wondered if Yassen had planned for him to get attached or if he found this development as disturbing as Alex.
After cleaning up his breakfast mess, Alex wondered what he should do with the rest of his day. He could probably stand to do some laundry, come to think of it. He was on his last clean pair of socks. Maybe he could hike up to Castell de Bellver this afternoon, go visit some of the parks and libraries. Yassen had given him a Swiss backpack the day before, “For the trip home,” he had said. It was perfect carry-on size, bright red, simple but useful, and Alex could pack everything he needed for a day out.
After dumping his dirty clothes in the washing machine, Alex threw together a small lunch and a couple bottles of water and prepared to head out. He decided to leave a note in case Yassen came back while he was gone, and spent a few minutes pawing through drawers looking for a pad of paper and a pencil. He scrounged up a napkin and managed to find a pen in one of the junk drawers, right beside the key to the Kawasaki. Alex was suddenly tempted to take the key and forget about walking, but he didn’t have a license or a helmet. If he got caught by the police, he’d be in trouble, especially without any identification. No—he would have to walk today.
He scribbled a note and left it on the kitchen table, locked the door behind him, and set out. It was a beautiful day; sunny, cool, relatively quiet, little traffic. Alex went to Bellver Castle first, one of the few circular castles in Europe. Because it was built on the highest point of the city, the view overlooking Palma was spectacular. Getting there was a long walk, at least seven kilometers, and it was well past noon by time he stopped to eat lunch at the bay. As he watched the boats glide through the bright green water, Alex marveled at how a place as beautiful as this could be anybody’s prison.
Traveling back through the city, Alex took the time to stop by as many points of interest as he could pick out on the tourist map he’d brought. He visited parks and monuments and peeked into the city library, followed a footpath through the Old City and got to see some of the Byzantine and Arabic architecture. Everywhere were colors and smells and sounds, almost too much for a person to absorb in a single day.
When the sun began to sink lower in the sky, Alex decided to start heading back. He took off his shoes and walked on the beach, letting the cold water rush up around his ankles. Mallorca wasn’t such a bad place to be marooned, he thought. He would have to bring Jack here sometime. She would like it.
He arrived back at the house, sweaty, tired, and a little sunburned. Yassen was still gone, the napkin-note on the kitchen table untouched. Alex went upstairs and took a hot shower, thankful that his cuts had scabbed over enough so that they no longer stung. He no longer had to wear bandages, either, another mercy. He had gotten tired of having to constantly unwrap and rewrap his thigh, and the butterfly bandages were equally as annoying. He pattered downstairs easily, dressed in the last clean t-shirt and boxers he had, his hair still wet. He put his clothes in the dryer and was just about to start raiding the refrigerator when he heard the BMW pull into the carport. Yassen was back.
Alex grabbed a cluster of grapes and was enthusiastically devouring them when Yassen strode into the kitchen. He was dressed a bit more formally: a button-down shirt, khaki trousers, loafers. He tossed the car keys into a bowl and hung his blazer on the back of a chair, greeting Alex with a tired smile.
“Busy day?” Alex asked as he watched Yassen take a bottle of water from the fridge.
“The usual,” he replied, snapping open the bottle and taking a drink. “You?”
Alex popped another grape in his mouth. “I spent the day in the city. Saw Bellver Castle, visited a few parks.”
“I can tell,” said Yassen, stepping forward and taking Alex by the chin. He turned Alex’s head left and right, studying his face. “You got sunburned. Your nose will be peeling tomorrow.”
“Guess I forgot to put on my sunscreen.”
“You should be more conscious of your health. People do die of skin cancer.”
“People die of a million other things,” Alex quipped. “Like traffic accidents. You start wearing a helmet and I’ll start wearing sunscreen.”
“I don’t have my whole life in front of me.”
“So? I could fall into the canal tomorrow and drown, and you could live to a hundred and two. Who knows?”
Yassen looked at Alex for a few moments, eyes narrowed and a suspicious smile on his face. “Yes. I suppose you are right about that.”
Alex grinned triumphantly and finished the last grape. “So, what are we having for dinner?”
They talked about the history of Mallorca over homemade lasagna and Caesar salad. Well, Yassen did most of the talking. Alex listened. The Russian knew a great deal about the island, and when Alex asked how he had come to learn so much, Yassen replied that it was standard procedure for a man of his profession. Before he settled at a certain location, he would learn all he could about it: geography, history, climate, demographics, the works. If he found the city or town to his liking, he would stay for a few weeks and learn more. Sometimes it would work out, sometimes not. Alex wondered how often Yassen moved. He didn’t imagine an assassin—especially one who was trying to stay under the radar—would stay in one place for very long.
After dinner, as he scrubbed the crusty tomato sauce from the lasagna pan, Alex thought about what Yassen had told him on his first day in Mallorca, about being pulled out of retirement by some private agency in Russia and assigned one last kill. Was it his last kill? Or had he changed his mind about retiring and gone back into business? How much had he been paid to kill Peter Reinhardt, and what had happened to the ruby? Was it back in the hands of its owners, or did Yassen’s friends—criminals, killers, corrupt businessmen—have it in their possession? Alex was dying to ask but he knew it would probably be better if he didn’t. Things were going smoothly lately and he didn’t want to press his luck by bringing up turbulent questions. Surely his time here was nearly spent and he would be able to go home soon . . .
Alex set the pan on the drain board and dried his hands, absently scratching at his stitches. His scabs were starting to come off and the whole length of his arm itched terribly. He was startled when Yassen suddenly appeared at his side and took him by the wrist, pulling his hand away from his stitches.
“Don’t scratch,” he admonished. “You will bleed and get infected.”
“I can’t help it. They’re driving me mad.”
Yassen lifted Alex’s arm and studied the scabby trail running down the underside. “I think they are ready to come out now.”
“Can you do that?”
“I have the tools, yes.” Yassen tugged gently at a stitch near Alex’s wrist. “Does that hurt?”
Alex shook his head.
“Then they are ready. Sit down. I will get the medical kit.”
Alex sat under the bright light at the kitchen table, fingering his stitches while he waited for Yassen. The man returned a few minutes later with the first aid kit, which he placed on the table. Then he went to the cupboard and took out two small glasses, along with a tall glass bottle from one of the lower cupboards. He returned to the table and set a glass in front of Alex, then pulled up a chair beside him.
Alex stared at the bottle. Stolichnaya Peachik, read the label. Peach Flavoured Russian Vodka.
“Don’t you think I’m too young to drink?” he asked warily.
Yassen broke the seal and filled Alex’s glass with the clear liquid. “If you are old enough to get a wound like that, you are old enough to drink,” he said, filling his own glass. “Small sips. Enjoy it.”
“Is it going to hurt? Getting the stitches out, I mean. Is that why we’re drinking?”
“No. I just like vodka.” Yassen raised his glass. “Budem zdorovi.”
Alex did the same. “Bood . . .”
Alex let Yassen take the first drink and then mimicked the motion. The vodka was sweet and fruity, surprisingly flavorful. The alcohol was strong and left a dry, lingering aftertaste, but it wasn’t awful. Better than champagne, at least. It wasn’t Alex’s drink of choice, but he could stand it.
Yassen put down his glass and picked up a small pair of surgical scissors while Alex laid his arm out on the table, palm up. Yassen had a small cotton pad on hand, wetted with antiseptic, just in case of bleeding. He started at Alex’s wrist, leaning over and carefully snipping through the wiry thread of the first stitch. There was a little bit of blood, but a few dabs with the pad staunched the bleeding.
Alex sat still and listened to the scissors go clip-clip in the silent kitchen. He nursed his drink as Yassen, stitch by stitch and thread by thread, slowly made his way up his arm. Alex spent a lot of time looking at Yassen, the way the light reflected off of his ginger hair, the nimbleness of his fingers, the tender way he handled Alex’s arm, as if causing anything more than the slightest discomfort was simply out of the question.
“It’s sort of incredible,” he murmured, watching Yassen work. “The stitches. The way they hold two things together, two pieces that have been ripped open and torn apart, and the stitches help them grow back together again.” He took another sip. “It’s like the body knows what it’s doing, fixing itself. It just needs the stitches to keep the pieces together for a little while. Then, when they’re strong again, you just take them out and everything’s better.”
“Interesting perspective. More vodka?”
“Say this: da, pozhaluysta.”
“Good. Very good.”
Yassen put down the scissors and poured another round for himself and Alex, then set to work on the threads above the elbow. Alex was quiet for a few minutes, the spark of interest fading from his eyes as he took in the ugly, scabby scar on his forearm.
“They’re going to think I’m suicidal,” he said solemnly.
“Everyone. Jack. Tom. My friends at school. A scar like this . . . Everyone will wonder.”
Yassen pursed his lips and snipped at another stitch. “To be honest, Alex, I am surprised you still give a damn about what people think of you. I thought you would have stopped caring a long time ago.”
Alex went quiet, thinking. “You’re right,” he admitted softly. “Maybe I should care less—”
“Here, turn your arm towards me.”
There was a second or two of awkward maneuvering as Alex bared the underside of his upper arm and Yassen scooted closer. Suddenly he found himself almost nose-to-nose with Yassen, staring at his long eyelashes and blue eyes, his freckles and his chiseled lips, smelling the warm, peachy vodka on his breath. Somehow, during the past eight days he had been trapped here, Alex had stopped feeling nervous under Yassen’s fixed gaze. Somehow he had learned to look him in the eyes without fear, without worry. Somehow he had come to enjoy the familiar sight of Yassen’s face, knowing that it didn’t just belong to an assassin, but a man who listened to piano concertos and read Hemingway. A man who drove a motorcycle without a helmet and made a bang-up lasagna. A man who could be caring and nurturing, strict but merciful, dangerous and protective. Alex liked this man. He was a good man, even despite . . .
Well, that was the past. Things had been different then. Yassen had been an assassin and Alex a spy. But here, in this house on a Spanish island, floating in a blue sea far away from the ravenous, relentless machines of reality, they were simply a man and a boy. No labels. No associations. No allegiances. Just two people trying to rebuild their lives in a world that was out to get them.
The last stitch was removed and Yassen patted away a drop of blood. “That should stop the itching. If you cannot resist the urge to scratch, wrap your arm in something. You don’t want to irritate the scar.”
“Do you think it’s going to be bad?”
“It will be noticeable, yes.”
Alex let his shoulders slump dejectedly.
“What about your leg? The stitches are probably ready to come out as well.”
Alex looked down at the crusty, circular wound on his thigh, still tinged with the sickly greenish-yellow hue of his faded bruise. The scab was beginning to grow around the stitches. It wasn’t going to be pretty when they came out, but . . .
“All right,” Alex agreed. “Take them out.”
Yassen grabbed a wad of cotton pads and kneeled on the floor. Alex was suddenly aware of how naked he felt, sitting here in just his boxers and t-shirt, with Yassen leaning over his lap like that. The first stitch was cut free and began to bleed. Yassen quickly applied the cotton and waited for the bleeding to stop before he continued to the next one.
It stung quite badly, mostly from the scabs ripping open as the threads were pulled out. Alex bit his lip and reached out to put his hand on Yassen’s shoulder, squeezing it hard. Yassen looked up at him concernedly. “Okay?” he asked.
“Almost done. Hang in there.”
The stitches on the back of his thigh were even worse. Not only had the exit wound been larger, requiring more stitches, but the area was also more sensitive. Alex leaned against the table, gritting his teeth, while Yassen worked as quickly as possible. It took only five minutes, but if felt like twenty to Alex.
“Done,” announced Yassen, pulling the last thread out of Alex’s flesh.
“Thank God.” Alex heaved a huge sigh and picked up his glass, emptying it in a single gulp.
“Looks like you will need a bandage for the night. Sit down and I will dress it for you.”
Alex gingerly lowered himself in the chair again, and Yassen propped his bare foot in his lap as he unwound a roll of gauze. In a few minutes’ time, Alex’s bleeding scabs were bound and he could finally relax. A few drops of blood had fallen on the floor and there was a pile of revolting, smelly stitches on the kitchen table, in addition to bloodstained cotton pads and a pair of scissors that would definitely need to be sanitized. What a night.
He started to stand to help Yassen clean up the mess, but a firm hand on his shoulder kept him where he was.
“Don’t worry,” said Yassen. “I will take care of it.”
Alex sat and poured himself another glass of vodka, sipping it while Yassen wiped up the blood, cleared the table, repacked the kit, and sprayed everything down with lemon-scented antibacterial cleaner. By the time he had finished, Alex’s glass was empty and he was feeling pleasantly warm and drowsy. He’d had a long day and all he wanted now was to go up to his room and fall into bed.
“Think I’ll call it a night,” he said, standing up with a slight wobble. Yassen immediately reached out and steadied him.
“Can you make it up the stairs?”
“I’m fine,” Alex said, smiling a little too brightly. “I’m all right. How do you say ‘all right’ in Russian?”
“I think I should help you.”
“No, no, really. You’ve done enough. I’m fine. I’m not drunk, I’m just okay. Really.”
Despite Alex’s protests, Yassen followed him out into the living room. Sure enough, he stumbled on the second stair and would have fallen if not for the rail. Yassen mounted the stairs and pulled Alex’s arm around his shoulders.
“Come on,” he said. “Up.”
Alex stumbled again. “Sorry. I’m sorry,” he apologized. “It’s dark. The rug. I’m really tired.”
Yassen muttered something in Russian and ducked down, scooping Alex into his arms. Alex latched his arms around Yassen’s neck and held on as he was carried up the stairs.
“I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have drunk so much. You’re really nice . . . to do this, helping me. How do you say ‘thank you’ in Russian?”
“Spa-seeba . . .”
The room was dark when they entered. Yassen didn’t bother to turn on the lights. He walked over to the bed and leaned over, laying Alex on top of the covers. When he tried to stand, however, Alex’s hands were still locked behind his neck. As he reached up to pry himself free, he caught a glimpse of Alex’s eyes in the darkness, staring up at him quietly. For a second they both froze, not blinking, not breathing. Then Alex leaned up, tilted his head, and pressed his lips against Yassen’s mouth.
It wasn’t a kiss. It was just a touch. Or at least it would have been if Yassen hadn’t closed his eyes and opened his mouth.
A brilliant flash of adrenaline surged through Alex’s body when he felt Yassen’s tongue touch his own. He tightened his grip around the man’s neck, hanging on, unwilling to let go of this incredible, heart-wrenching feeling that could be nothing else except—
Yassen broke the kiss and turned his head. “No,” he said firmly.
Alex blinked, his beautiful world cracking open and letting reality pour in like a muddy torrent. God, what had he just done? “I’m sorr—”
Fingertips pressed against his lips, silencing him. Yassen’s eyes, deep and shadowed, stared down at Alex. “Sh. It’s okay.” He pulled his hand away, but not before tracing his finger longingly across Alex’s soft lips. “Go to sleep. Forget.”
Then he rose to his feet and walked out, closing the door behind him.
Lying in bed, Alex kept his gaze fixed upon the door, his expression flat and empty despite the growing wetness of his eyes. When he finally shut them, something shiny rolled down his sunburned cheek and collected in the corner of his mouth. Then he rolled over onto his side and lay still, breathing softly as the darkness drew in around him.
In the morning there was a bottle of water and two aspirin on the bedside table. Alex partook of both, sitting blearily in bed with his temples throbbing and his mouth sticky and sour. He didn’t think he would ever want to eat or drink anything peach flavored for the rest of his life.
He dragged himself to the bathroom and then out to the hallway. Sunlight was streaming in through the front windows, painting light across the mosaic floor downstairs. He could hear birds singing outside, smell the fresh air wafting through open windows. It was just like the first day he had woken up here.
He slowly thumped down the stairs, wondering, with a sick, twisting feeling in his stomach, what he was going to say to Yassen. Maybe he would be gone this morning, like yesterday. But to his dismay, Yassen was sitting at the kitchen table with a newspaper and a cup of black coffee. He folded the paper and set it aside when Alex walked in.
“Good morning. How are you feeling?”
“I’ve felt better,” Alex answered honestly. He grabbed an orange and sat down at the table, beginning to pick apart the skin.
“How is your leg?”
Yassen watched Alex’s nail-bitten fingers clumsily scrape and scratch at the orange’s tough outer peel. “Here,” he said, reaching into his trouser pocket and pulling out a Beltram stiletto switchblade. He flicked it open and handed it to Alex handle-first. “Be careful. It’s sharp.”
Alex hesitated for a second or two before taking the knife from Yassen. He carefully began to cut away the peel while Yassen looked on. The tension was palpable, the kitchen silent but for the faint birdsong outside the windows.
“I have good news,” said Yassen suddenly.
The next thing Alex knew, an envelope slid across the table toward him. He raised his eyes to Yassen questioningly.
“Go on, open it.”
Alex set down the orange and picked up the envelope, pulling out a brand new passport—a real passport, with his real name and date of birth—and a British Airways ticket, Palma (PMI) 2.00 pm flight to London (LHR). The date stamped on the ticket was today.
Alex looked up at Yassen, his lips parted and his eyes shocked. It all fell into place now; the business trips, the laptop, the irregular hours. All this time, Yassen had been meticulously planning and arranging Alex’s departure, probably bribing government employees to get a legitimate passport and trying to book a flight to London at just the right time. Alex couldn’t believe it. All of his suspicions about Yassen had been utterly wrong. Nine days with this man, and only now did Alex realize he could fully, honestly trust him.
A knot rose in Alex’s throat and he tried to swallow it down. “Thanks,” he said numbly, staring at his crisp, virgin passport. “Thank you. I don’t . . . don’t really know what else to say.”
“You don’t have to say anything.”
The weight of last night suddenly settled on Alex’s shoulders. He felt sick to the very marrow of his bones. Here was Yassen, helping him out of the goodness of his heart—because he did have a good heart—while expecting nothing in return, and Alex had ruined it all because he was drunk and stupid and thought . . . Well, he didn’t know what he had been thinking. Probably not very much, which was why he was sitting here right now, feeling as if he had just tried to force himself on Yassen like some kind of depraved whore. God, this was so embarrassing. Alex wasn’t gay, he knew that for certain, but at the same time he couldn’t deny a very deep, primal interest in Yassen Gregorovich. It wasn’t sexual—at least, it hadn’t been—and Alex believed it would disappear as soon as he was safe at home again. But here and now, at this kitchen table in this house on Mallorca, Alex wasn’t so sure anymore. A veil of doubt had been cast over everything he knew about himself, and now he was stumbling around in a very dark place, trying to find the light again.
“I suppose I should start packing, then,” he said hollowly.
“Take your time. The taxi will be here at one to take you to the airport.”
“Right,” Alex muttered, dropping his passport on the table. He picked up the switchblade and went back to peeling the orange, the sharp steel slicing easily through the fruit’s thick skin and bleeding its sweet, sticky juice all over his hands.
The next few hours felt like something out of The Twilight Zone. Alex walked through the house like a zombie, folding his laundry, making his bed, packing his Swiss backpack with everything he needed for the trip home. It wasn’t much and he honestly didn’t need any of it at all, but he packed it just to have something to carry. At least something other than guilt.
He walked down to the beach one last time and stared across the blue water, letting the breeze ruffle his hair while the sun soaked through his jacket. He chewed his nails for the first time in six days, not caring that they stung and bled. He couldn’t stop blaming himself or denying how wrong it felt to leave now, to leave this way. But the pieces were already in motion and there was no way he could stop them. Besides, Yassen probably thought he was some kind of degenerate sicko and would be glad to send him home.
The taxi arrived at the house at precisely one o’clock. Alex stood silently in the foyer with Yassen, his backpack slung over one shoulder and a thousand words on the tip of his tongue, words he desperately wanted to say but never could. He tried to force a smile onto his face but his heart just wasn’t in it.
“Sure you won’t ride with me?” he asked.
Yassen stood with his hands in his pockets and his face as lifeless as a mask. “I have things to do here,” he said, and held out his hand. Folded between his fingers was a ten-Euro note. “Just in case.”
Alex shook his head. “No. I can’t. You’ve done too—”
Yassen stepped forward and tucked the bill into the front pocket of Alex’s jeans. Alex flushed. It was the first time they had touched since last night. Yassen took a step back, putting a safe distance between them again.
“I know it’s been difficult,” he said softly, “for me as well as you. I know there are scars between us that will never fully heal. Apologies that will never be accepted. But I want you to know, Alex, how fortunate I feel to have been able to spend these past few days with you. I would not trade them for anything.” He held out his hand. “Good luck.”
So that was it. Nine days of care and compassion, nine days of dedicated companionship and unwavering protection, and now it ended with a hollow, clumsy farewell. Alex felt that lump rise in his throat again as he reached out and shook Yassen’s hand.
“Thanks,” he murmured. “For everything.”
Yassen smiled, but his eyes didn’t show it. “You take care of yourself, Alex.”
“Yeah. You too.”
God, he felt like screaming. This was so wrong. There was still so much he had to say, to apologize for, to ask about. This could be the last time he ever saw Yassen Gregorovich. He couldn’t just walk out the door and spend the rest of his life wondering.
But that’s exactly what Alex did.
He got into the taxi and shut the door, and he watched Yassen fade out of his life forever through a smudgy back window. The lump in his throat sank to his stomach, and now he felt like throwing up. Maybe he should have eaten more than half a sandwich for lunch. No, this wasn’t indigestion. This was something more complex. He remembered feeling it before, that familiar sadness and longing. It was homesickness.
No, London is my home, not here, Alex reminded himself. He was going home today, to the house on Cheyne Walk, to the place where he had grown up with his uncle and Jack and all of his friends. He would sleep in his own bed again and wear his own clothes and eat his own meals . . . but every time he looked at his arm, he would remember sitting at a kitchen table in Palma, drinking peach vodka while Yassen removed the stitches and taught him how to say ‘cheers’ and ‘please’ in Russian.
Alex hunched in the seat and hugged his backpack to his chest. He hurt so badly inside, like some creature had reached inside him and torn out all his guts. Maybe he deserved to feel this way. He had ruined everything and driven a wedge between himself and the last person in the world who truly understood him, the only person who had never lied to him or hurt him. The only person Alex trusted enough to give his heart to.
How ironic that one little kiss had been enough to ruin it all.
The A319 Airbus parked at Gate 9, Terminal D, had the Union Jack emblazoned on its tail and British Airways on its fuselage. Regular boarding began at 1:35, and after getting his pass checked, Alex shuffled through the loading bridge with a hundred other tourists, university students, and businessmen. Some of them were just passing through, but most would be returning home, like Alex. He wondered if they were glad to be leaving or if they felt as miserable as he did.
He found his seat, A23, and slumped into it heavily. Passengers continued to squeeze down the narrow aisles, juggling bags or trying to settle their excited children or loading their carry-on luggage into the overhead compartments, effectively blocking the aisles. Kids squealed, spouses griped, baggage banged about—typical pre-flight chaos.
Finding the plane a little too warm for his liking, Alex pulled his backpack into his lap and took off his jacket. He could stow it in his pack until he got to London. He wondered if it would be cold and rainy when he arrived. Probably, he thought morosely. Anything to make his transition from the sunny Mediterranean to the gloomy north Atlantic as painful as possible.
He was stuffing his jacket into his pack when he felt something sharp scrape against his knuckles. Frowning, Alex reached in and pulled it out.
It was a CD case. The black and white image of a serious-looking man sitting at a piano was familiar to Alex, as was the title: Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in C Minor, Op. 18, Performed by the Vienna Philharmonic.
Alex’s eyes began to mist over, his mouth contorting as he fought to keep himself from losing it. Yassen must have slipped the CD into his backpack while he was down at the beach. A farewell gift? Or a cruel reminder? Alex could already hear the solo flute in the second movement, adagio sostenuto, the piano accompanying its slow, yearning melody, the strings humming in the background. He stared at the man on the cover, Sergei Rachmaninoff, and wondered if he would ever know how much his music meant to a fifteen-year-old boy from Chelsea . . .
Alex suddenly lunged from his seat. He had to get off this plane.
He shoved the CD back into his pack, zipped it, and began to elbow his way through the crowd, going against the flow of traffic like a salmon fighting its way upstream. A fat man in a football jersey blocked the aisle ahead, and Alex quickly chose his detour. Pulling his pack onto his back, he climbed over the back of a seat and landed in the next row. He heard stewardesses yelling at him. Somebody grabbed his sleeve, but he tore himself away. The whole plane devolved into pandemonium. Alex found himself grinning. Now he felt like he was going in the right direction.
He jumped into the aisle and raced past a surprised stewardess. As he thundered down the loading bridge and back into the terminal, he tried to think of his next course of action. The airport had a taxi service. He could take a taxi home—back to the house, he corrected—and finally say what he needed to say to Yassen, to apologize or argue or beg for mercy, it didn’t matter. Yassen would probably be angry with Alex for throwing away his ticket like this, but Alex wasn’t really thinking about consequences right now. He just needed to see Yassen again, to set things right, to leave Mallorca on better terms.
He ran through the airport at top speed, not even feeling the dull ache in his thigh. His sneakers squealed and chirped on the polished floor. He burst out of the front entrance and stopped, searching for a taxi. There were two—one was already pulling away and the other was waiting for a couple to load their luggage into the back. Alex threw himself at the taxi, ignoring the startled looks the couple gave him.
“Please, I have an emergency,” he said to the driver. “I have to get to Calle Lluis Ripoll. Can I ride with you?”
“We are going to Hotel Born,” said the woman, stepping in tactfully. She had a thick German accent. “Is that nearby?”
“Close enough.” Alex slid into the passenger seat and pulled the ten-Euro note from his pocket. He showed it to the driver. “I will give you all of this if you can get me there in five minutes.”
Seconds later, the taxi screeched away from the entrance and sped down Salida Vial Aeropuerto, heading toward Palma with its three anxious passengers.
Alex was opening the door before the taxi had come to a complete stop. He thrust the ten Euros into the driver’s hand and ran up the front walk. A quick glance into the carport revealed that Yassen wasn’t at home; the BMW was missing. No problem. Alex still had his house key. He could wait here until Yassen got back, perhaps giving him time to rehearse what he was going to say. It would be time well spent, at least. His head felt a mess right now.
He unlocked the front door, stepped inside, and immediately froze.
White sheets were draped over the furniture in the living room. There was no air moving at all, the windows shut and the curtains drawn. It was utterly silent, lifeless.
Bewildered, Alex trotted into the kitchen. The fruit bowl was gone. The refrigerator was quiet. Alex walked over and opened it up. Empty. The shelves were cleaned out. What was going on?
Alex felt himself beginning to panic. He ran from the kitchen and down the hall to Yassen’s room. He threw open the door, and that was when his last remaining shred of hope sank to the pit of his stomach like a rock.
The bedclothes were gone, leaving just the bare mattress sitting on the frame. The stereo in the corner was gone, and all the CDs with it. Alex tore through the room like a whirlwind, trying to find some trace of the man that had lived here. No clothes hung in the closet. The dresser drawers were empty. The towels in the bathroom were gone. Personal effects were gone. Whoever had lived here was gone.
And then, at the peak of his hysteria, it dawned on Alex—a vague, blurry memory of what Yassen had told him several nights ago:
“If you leave, you must not return. There are people who would be interested to know I am alive, such as your MI6 friends, so when you go, there is no coming back. That is how it must be . . .”
Numb with grief, Alex wandered out into the living room and sat down on the bottom stair, cradling his head in his arms. So that was why Yassen hadn’t come with him to the airport. He was busy covering his tracks, packing up and leaving town just in case word got out that the infamous Yassen Gregorovich was still alive. There would be no coming back to Palma de Mallorca for anyone tonight. No ending, no resolution, no closure. Just this empty house, this awful pain.
Alex lifted his head and wiped his eyes. Now he really was stuck here. He had ditched his ride home, he had no money, and he had probably missed Yassen by mere minutes. Alex’s gut clenched at the thought that the taxi might have passed Yassen’s BMW on the highway. It was a twist just cruel enough to be true. So close and yet so . . .
Alex’s eyes widened as the realization hit him: Yassen had to leave Mallorca quickly. The quickest way to get off the island was by air. Yassen was a pilot. He could be at the airport now, getting ready to take off! Alex sprang to his feet and grabbed his backpack. Maybe it wasn’t too late. Maybe he still had time. He needed to get to the airport and he needed to get there fast. He couldn’t drive a car and he had no time to run to the beach and hail a taxi. That left only one option.
Alex bolted to the kitchen and threw open the junk drawer, pawing through pens and batteries and paper clips and rubber bands. He found the key to the Kawasaki hiding under a travel brochure. He clenched it in his fist and ran out to the carport. Sure enough, the motorcycle was draped in an auto cover, waiting for its next owner. Alex wrenched off the cover, strapped on his backpack, and climbed on.
He took a deep breath and tried to find his composure. His time was short, but he couldn’t afford to be careless now. He had no helmet, no license, and aside from dirt bikes and mopeds, he had never driven anything this powerful before. He had ridden with Yassen enough to know how to start it up—after that, he was on pure luck.
Alex inserted the key, grasped the clutch, engaged the ignition, and hit the start button. The bike came to life with a guttering growl. Alex smiled as powerful machine hummed between his legs. He gave the throttle an experimental twist, causing the bike to rumble. He knocked back the kickstand and rolled out of the carport, his heart pounding furiously. He knew the way to the airport. He just had to point the motorcycle in that direction and go.
Taking another nervous breath, Alex released the clutch and started moving. He turned out of the driveway cautiously, cruising slowly, trying to get a feel for the machine. Then he gave it come gas and sped down the street, the cool wind rushing through his hair and the warm sun kissing his face. He grinned, enjoying the rush of adrenaline as he pulled out onto the highway and opened the throttle. The last time he checked, he was doing 100 kilometers per hour, a streak of black and red and gray. He would be at the airport in a matter of minutes.
He just hoped he wasn’t too late.
There are different areas of an airport designated for specific types of aircraft—aprons, as aviators termed them. These areas were used for maneuvering, refueling, parking, servicing, loading and unloading of cargo and passengers, all of the customary pre- and post-flight operations. Most of the aprons were dedicated to large commercial craft: Air Berlin, Spanair, Air Europa, and other airlines. Then there were the aprons set aside for small or private craft and medium-sized cargo planes. If Yassen was flying himself out of Mallorca, which Alex firmly believed, then he would be using the small craft apron.
Alex had already worked out where he needed to be. He just had to find it. Luckily for him, the Palma airport was relatively small and the tourist season wouldn’t start for another five months. That meant less air traffic and fewer cars getting in his way.
Following the exit signs, Alex took the ramp that crossed over the Ma-19 and brought him directly to the airport. He looked around, trying to catch sight of the hangars and airplanes that would identify the small craft apron. He didn’t have to look far; there it was, right in front of him. He could see the parking area, the fuel sheds, the small administration building sitting beside a few empty lots. No doubt the airport was planning for future expansion.
Alex followed the road and turned off when he saw an exit, shifting gears and slowing down. He turned right onto a roundabout and then took a road that led past the parking lot. Heat shimmered off of the cars in waves, though it couldn’t have been more than 18° Celsius. Between the light reflecting from the windshields and the bone-white pavement glowing below, Alex desperately wished for a pair of sunglasses.
He caught a glimpse of the hangar area and immediately broke away, cutting across a paved lot and speeding around the side of the admin building. He saw men in coveralls driving tractors across the apron, men guiding a Cessna onto the taxiway, a Piper here and a Jetstream there. What type of craft was he looking for? How would he recognize it? How would he know it was Yassen’s?
And then saw it. A dark blue Bell 206 helicopter, waiting in line for takeoff. Its pilot was just climbing into the cockpit, and if it hadn’t been for the unmistakable color of his hair, Alex would never have recognized him.
Alex let out the throttle and gunned it, screaming across the tarmac and causing a tractor to abruptly change directions. The driver swore at him and shook his fist. Alex ignored him, his vision tunneling down until only the helicopter remained. Yassen was reaching out to shut the door just as Alex came to a screeching halt in front of the aircraft.
“Wait!” he shouted, putting down the kickstand and jumping off the bike. “Wait!”
Yassen sprang from the helicopter, his facial expression neutral but his movements quick and short, revealing his alarm. He was wearing a black button-down shirt, a pair of khaki cargo pants, and black tactical boots. He narrowed his eyes at the boy jogging toward him.
“What are you doing here?” he demanded. “You are supposed—”
He was cut off by Alex throwing his arms around his waist and pressing against him tightly.
“I couldn’t leave,” he said, his face buried in Yassen’s collar. “I’m sorry. I couldn’t.”
For a minute Yassen simply stood there, Alex clinging to him, in the middle of an asphalt ocean. Then his serious expression gradually began to soften, fading to a look of helpless resignation. He slowly wrapped his arms around Alex, cupping the back of the boy’s head and sifting his fingers through windswept blond hair.
“It was not supposed to happen this way,” he murmured. “You were supposed to go home, go back to your life. You were supposed to forget about me.”
“Never,” Alex muttered, tightening his grip in Yassen’s shirt. “I love you.”
A moment passed. Then Yassen laid his cheek against Alex’s head and closed his eyes. He whispered something that was lost in the wind, and Alex smiled. After a few moments they slowly drew back to face each other, yet never really let go. Yassen ran his thumb over Alex’s sunburned cheek and sighed heavily.
“You have missed your flight,” he said. “I suppose you expect me to give you a ride home.”
Yassen let out a breathless laugh. It was the first time Alex had ever heard it, and he was suddenly determined that it wouldn’t be the last.
“All right,” said Yassen, jerking his head toward the helicopter. “Get in. I am curious to see if you pick up on flying as quickly as Russian.”
Grinning widely, Alex pulled himself into the co-pilot’s seat and strapped himself in. Beside him, Yassen adjusted the headphones over his ears and began making his final pre-flight communications with the control tower.
A few minutes later, the helicopter rose over the island of Mallorca and began heading due north, flying low over the glittering, jewel-blue Mediterranean Sea. But its occupants weren’t going home.
They were already there.