Daven cleaned Kian’s wound, concentrating on removing dirt from the raw skin to prevent infection. He used warm cotton balls, at times forced to scrub at stubborn bits. Kian made no sound through the process: no groan, no wince, and no sense of discomfort. Daven stared at the pile of dirty cotton balls on the napkin on the sink. By now, any patient would have cursed him out, or cried out for him to end the torture.
That level of control should have disturbed him. Instead, it reminded him of Musimbi. The young man he met in Dadaab. Musimbi was fearless, immune to pain, his heart hardened by a lifetime of hardship and political wars. Daven first met Musimbi on a field trip on the outskirts of the camp. The first vehicle in his security convoy went up in a bomb explosion and despite protests from the security officers in his vehicle, Daven jumped out and rushed to help survivors.
Musimbi appeared out of nowhere, clutching a young woman with blood trailing down her face. ‘Help her’, Musimbi told him, his voice bereft of emotion. Daven remembered wondering who the woman was to Musimbi. He should have seen through Musimbi in that moment. Seen the cruelty behind those eyes, instead Daven only saw the wounded woman.
Daven sighed and applied ointment on Kian’s bruised skin. Placing clean pads over the wound, he taped them in place with care.
“We’ll need to keep checking on it,” Daven said. “Taking a shower will sting, but you don’t have to worry about that for the next few hours.”
Daven smoothed his palm over Kian’s shoulder.
“Thank you,” Kian said, bending to pick up his t-shirt. He wore it in one swift shrug and remained seated on the toilet seat.
Daven washed his hands and disposed the dirty cotton balls: wrapping them with napkins and throwing them in the trash. He closed the first aid box, and stared at Kian’s bent head. Kian’s straight black hair smooth and calling to his fingers.
“I want to trust you.”
Kian remained silent.
“You confuse me,” Daven continued, leaning on the little sink. “One minute you’re pointing guns at me, pulling the trigger, the next you save me. You get hurt in the name of protecting my profession. I can’t read you, Kian.”
“You’re not meant to.” Kian lifted his head and met Daven’s gaze. “I’m well trained, that’s all you should care about. Keeping you functional is a plus for me. Any minute wasted worrying about your health, be they your hands or other injuries, delays us. It makes handling you difficult.”
“Handling me?” Daven frowned at the sting growing in his heart. “I’m not a sack of potatoes—”
“You are a target. One I need to keep moving.”
Kian got up from the toilet seat.
The space between them disappeared, and Daven met startling brown eyes.
“Trust is not easy,” Kian said. “Still, I only tell you the truth. There is nothing to read with me, Daven. It will benefit you to think of me as walking armor to get you to your destination.”
Kian opened the bathroom door.
“Try and sleep,” Kian advised. “Who knows what we’ll meet in Europe.”
Daven stared at the open door, Kian’s little tirade stinging more than he dared confess. Here he was trying to connect.
What the hell?
Handling, Daven scoffed. As if!
Kian ate and drank with relish. When he was full, he reclined his seat and fell asleep, covering his face with his airline issue blanket. He loved commercial flights. He always got the best sleep in the chunk of time spent flying over oceans. The people he dealt with rarely sanctioned assassinations and attacks mid-flight. Too much red tape and surveillance, hence the skies felt like neutral ground. He could sleep and eat in peace
Kian woke up again when they were half-way to Paris. He peeked at the adjoining seat and was glad to see Daven reclined back in his seat. His blanket pulled over his shoulders, eyes closed.
Kian shifted so that he could watch Daven sleep.
Daven asleep looked younger than his years. Dark stubble on his jaw gave him that rugged and dashing charm. Kian’s gaze settled on slightly parted lips, and he exhaled remembering the taste of Daven’s kiss. Electric and hot, Kian clutched his blanket.
He had nothing to compare it to, not even Taewon.
Kian closed his eyes, his head filling with the memory of Kim Taewon.
Taewon was his savior, his compass, Kian sighed, the cause of his downfall. Without Taewon, Daven would be dead. What would Taewon think of him, right now? What would he think of a Kian who dared save a man marked for death by Raja Securities?
’Insanity,’ Taewon would say. ’Kian, you’ve gone insane.’
Kian’s chuckle was quiet, but Daven shifted, turning toward him. Kian froze afraid Daven was awake. Then Daven took in a deep breath and continued sleeping. Kian closed his eyes in relief.
He wanted time to think before they landed. He needed time to figure out why he was in this plane, even when his logical side warned him against continuing this quest.
Kian’s tactics to get them on a flight to Paris weren’t original. The seventh operative would enlist Yui’s help. Yui would stop tracking flights and instead send the seventh operative to The Netherlands. There, she would monitor the grid: keeping a tight pulse on every street camera around the International Courts.
A buzz filled the quiet, and Kian rubbed his eyes with a sigh. He frowned when the buzz persisted and wondered why the owner was not answering his phone. The buzzing continued, and Kian sat up, pushing off his blanket to listen. He frowned when he realized the phone was buzzing in Daven’s duffel bag.
Kian glanced at Daven.
Daven slept on undisturbed.
Kian reached for the bag on the empty seat beside Daven and found the source of the buzzing. The small black gadget was basic. Number buttons, small screen to see the number calling, and no other functionality possible. It was a burner. The phone kept ringing and Kian pressed the answer button. He brought it to his ear but didn’t speak.
“Thank God, you’re alive.” The caller’s relief was tangible. “Stories of a deadly car accident along a California Highway had me worried. You were supposed to call me.”
Kian kept his silence.
“I have news. As you suspected, Musimbi is working for or with Raja Securities. Rumor has it that Raja Securities is more than the mercenaries we’ve seen. They clean out problems in higher circles for an impressive price. The outfit is highly classified. I can’t find any information on them. Could the assassin next door know more? Do you think he’s one of them?”
“Daven is asleep,” Kian said. “I assume you are the reason he is determined to keep up this madness.”
Silence greeted his comment. A minute passed, then the caller cleared his throat.
“Is he safe?” the question was asked in a skeptical tone.
Kian glanced at Daven who still slept.
“I promised to keep him alive.”
Kian shrugged as though the caller could see him.
“Why do you need him alive?” Kian countered.
“Are you Raja Securities?”
“I am many things.”
“You know who they are?”
Kian kept his silence.
“Daven’s life guards an entire community,” the caller said, his tone urgent. “He is protecting women, children, the old and the sick. Without his testimony, one terrible man will walk free, and continue his tyranny. Daven must make it to Den Haag.”
“Is the culprit this Musimbi?” Kian asked.
“What are your plans?”
Kian stared at the phone. The caller had coached Daven into hiding the truth. No matter how much he twisted the conversation, answers would not be forthcoming. He ended the call, and switched off the phone. Kian placed the phone back in Daven’s bag, and tossed the bag onto the empty chair beside Daven.
At last, a starting point.
The name Musimbi sounded familiar, though Kian couldn’t pinpoint where he heard it.
Kian sat up and looked around the quiet cabin. On his walk back from the bathroom, he saw a young man in the seats behind theirs working on a laptop. Kian checked on Daven, making sure he was still asleep, then left his seat. It was easy to get the laptop. The young man was asleep when Kian found him. He slipped into the empty seat behind the young man and got to work.
First, he needed to know more about Musimbi.
Second, once they arrived in Paris, they were going to need to move fast. Only one man could help with that, Kian thought with a wince.
He needed to send a message.
When they landed in Paris, Kian led Daven through customs, working to keep their visibility to a minimum. A difficult task as Daven was a fish out of water. Directing him out of surveillance camera angles turned into a complicated dance. Kian conned his way through customs, navigating red tape with bad French to keep up a façade of lovers on a honeymoon. Daven followed his lead and Kian was glad for it. One word from Daven would obliterate the fantastic scenarios he painted of their undying love for each other, and their dream of doing it under the Eiffel Tower.
Kian pushed Daven into a bench when they came out into the arrivals hall. The young man whose laptop he borrowed walked by them, his gaze on Daven.
Kian sighed when the guy smiled at Daven and got a wink in return.
Reaching for the hood on Daven’s sweatshirt, he pulled it over Daven’s head in irritation. Looked like his so-called lover had a straying eye.
“Kian?” a soft familiar voice called and he turned in time to see a young woman standing a few feet away.
Lady luck was sure on his side this time. He didn’t get time to study their rescue, as she came running at him. She wrapped him in softness and the scent of jasmine. His fingers tangled in black silk hair when he wrapped his arms around her to steady them.
“It’s really you. I can’t believe it,” she said in his ear. “It’s really you.”
“Lina,” he said, hugging her back.
She had grown up, filled out, gotten more curves. She kissed his jaw, and his forehead. Bolder too, Paris was good for her.
“He won’t believe it,” Lina said, stepping out of his embrace, though she held on to his right hand. “We have missed you so much. I couldn’t believe it when I saw the message.”
Kian looked beyond her checking the crowd in arrivals.
“We were worried it was unreal,” Lina said, her tone apologetic. “I forced him to stay. No one would notice if I came, but if he showed up—”
“I understand,” Kian squeezed her hand. “We should leave. It’s not safe.”
“It never is,” Lina said, giving him a small smile. “I brought a car. No taxi driver, I remember the rules.”
Before Kian could say anything, Daven stood, filling the space between Kian and Lina.
“And who is this lovely creature?” Daven asked, extending his hand to Lina with a smile.
Lina stepped back, a frown gracing her forehead. She ignored Daven’s hand.
“My cargo,” Kian said. “He’s gentle.”
“Still,” Lina squeezed Kian’s hand and stepped away. “Why would you do this?”
“The faster we get out of this hall, the better,” Kian said, growing nervous. Lina was protective. “I need your help.”
“What you’re doing to us,” Lina said, her gaze horrified. “What this will do to him—”
Kian stepped up to her and whispered into her ear.
“I would never come to him if I had another choice, Lina.” Stepping back, he met her gaze, holding it, willing her to accept his request. Any longer in this arrivals hall and Yui would catch up.
Lina’s gaze shifted to Daven who stood behind Kian in a confused state. She gave an exasperated sigh, and turned to Kian.
“If something happens, I won’t forgive you.”
Kian gave her a nod, and she turned and headed for the exit. He adjusted his duffel bag and looked at Daven.
“What’s with her?” Daven asked. “She doesn’t look pleased.”
“It’s complicated,” Kian answered, following Lina out of the airport.
Lina drove an old Renault. Her driving had Daven hanging on to the door handle in the back, and Kian smiling as he’d taught her how to drive. She was good, crazy but good.
“What kind of trouble have you landed here?” Lina demanded, whizzing through the streets like a mad woman.
“Yui is stalking me,” Kian said, thinking it was better to be honest from the start. “She’s followed me across three continents. She caught up with me in Kuala Lampur.”
“Damn it, Kian.”
Lina beeped at a man on a bicycle making a sharp turn as she headed out of the main city.
“What the hell did that bloodhound bitch want?”
Kian glanced at Daven through the rear view mirror.
Lina hissed, dropped her foot on the brake and pulled over to the curb. She turned on Kian, her gaze glaring.
“Are you fucking with a Raja Contract?” Lina demanded. She reached under her seat.
Kian moved fast, taking the gun from her before she could aim it at Daven.
“I’ll kill him for you, if you’re unable to do your grandfather’s bidding. Did you forget what happened the last time you did this?”
Lina shook her head, and unclipped her seat belt. She got up on her seat, turning to the backseat. She grabbed Daven’s sweatshirt, and Kian gripped her around her waist, keeping her from wrapping her fingers around Daven’s neck.
“Fucking calm down,” Kian ordered. “Shouldn’t you wonder why it is I’m protecting him? Do you think I’m crazy?”
“Who knows?” Lina asked, fighting him. “You’ve been traipsing all over the world alone. You might have caught crazy. You promised to stay alive. Do you think this will help keep you above ground? I’m not going to help add firewood to your pyre.”
“Well, I haven’t tied myself to the stake yet, so chill out.”
Kian used considerable strength to pull her back and into the driver’s seat. He used her seat belt, clipping it in, to tie her down. Lina sat in her seat blowing hair out of her face, her breath coming in gasps.
“Are you going to calm down?” Kian asked, meeting her gaze. “I’d hate for you to ruin this chummy car with murder in the backseat.”
“This chummy car is your fault,” Lina accused. “You preached not driving ultra-modern cars with posh navigation, and so he took you serious. We bought this from an old granny, who bought it in nineteen eighty-four. I hate you, Kian.”
Daven chuckled from the backseat, and Kian glared at him. Laughs were not going to help the situation. Lina pushed Kian’s hands away and gripped the steering wheel.
“Okay,” she said.
Lina took in a deep breath, and Kian nodded in approval. Calm was good. She took another deep breath, and rolled her shoulders.
“Okay, fine, you’re screwing a contract. Not too bad, if he’s worth a few coins, there will be no trouble. We’ll help and move on, you can keep running, no funerals ahead.”
Kian met Daven’s gaze in the rearview mirror. Daven shook his head in the negative. Kian sighed and watched Daven push himself into the corner of the backseat.
“How much is he worth, Kian?” Lina was asking.
Kian closed his eyes as she eased her foot off the brake and started to ease back into traffic. Kian looked out the window, at the Eiffel Tower, so majestic in the morning, and wished he could lie to Lina.
“Kian?” she prodded, joining traffic.
Kian removed the bullets from the gun he’d taken from her, and put it into the glove compartment. Folding his hands against his chest, he cleared his throat.
“2.5,” he said.
“2.5?” Lina glanced at him with a grin. “Yui hunted you down for two hundred and fifty thousand. She’s really going mad.”
Kian winced and corrected.
“2. 5 million pounds.”
Daven shifted in the front passenger seat, his gaze on Lina. She was in the backseat, her arms tied behind her back, her feet wrapped with duct tape. There was a piece of tape across her mouth too, though one couldn’t see that as Kian had expertly wrapped her neck and mouth with a scarf he found in the trunk. She was well and truly trussed up.
Lina glared at him and Daven looked at Kian.
“Normal people would call this cruelty against women,” Daven said.
Kian glanced at him and Daven winced at the red bruise on Kian’s left eye. Lina’s gift before she attempted to murder them all by driving off the road on a bridge.
Why was he in the middle of a dark comedy?
Daven looked forward, biting his lip to keep from laughing.
He chuckled under his breath, and Kian growled.
“I’ll leave you on the curb if you laugh.”
Daven bit his lip, pressing his right fist to his mouth. He glanced up to the rear view mirror and the glaring woman tied in the backseat did it. He couldn’t stop the laugh, it took over and all he could do was hold on to his stomach.
Kian kept driving, thankfully.
An hour later, Kian drove into a lush green compound on the outskirts of Paris. It took thirty minutes of that time for Lina to calm down so that Kian could get directions from her. Kian had removed the tape over her mouth, but she was still tied up in the backseat. Lina led them to a property surrounded with a lush green live fence. A tall black gate kept intruders out. Kian stopped the car and got out to open them.
“What makes you so special?” Lina asked Daven, when Kian was outside. “Why would he bring you here?”
Daven frowned. Her anger seemed justified, but he didn’t understand it. He watched Kian hurry back to the car. Kian drove in, and once again got out to close the gates.
“I hope you’re worth it,” Lina said. “Otherwise, I’ll put you down myself.”
Her gaze left no doubt on what she meant. She looked capable of murder in that moment, reminding him once again that he was in the company of the extraordinary.
Before Daven could respond, Kian got into the car, and drove up a tarmac drive, that stopped before a handsome two-story white-washed house. Its walls heavy with climbing ivy. Daven started to open his door and paused when he saw sheep grazing in the open green yard to his right. The property was no farm, but the two sheep in the green lawn looked at home.
The front door opened and a Korean man came running down the short steps to the car. He didn’t spare Daven a glance instead, racing to Kian. Daven got out of the car and stared as the tall man lifted Kian in a bear hug, holding him tight. Surprising was Kian who wrapped his arms around the man and held on.
The moment felt intimate so Daven looked away.
Daven closed his door and adjusted his t-shirt. He lifted the front of his t-shirt and sniffed. He needed a shower. The last one he’d had was at Naomi’s house. Some eighteen hours ago.
“What is this?” the Korean man said, letting go of Kian, finally.
Daven winced at the tinge of jealousy in his chest. Kian seemed like a different individual with this people. He was open, none of the closed off man he met in Oakland. Daven wondered what gave these people the right to get such a friendly Kian.
“What did she do?” the Korean man asked, opening the back passenger door.
He smiled and reached in to get Lina.
“My love, did you annoy the Serpent’s Heir? I told you to treat him well.”
“Don’t ’my love’ me,” Lina complained her tone disgruntled. “He is impossible.”
“You tried to drive us off the road,” Kian pointed out. “You want my cargo dead.”
“The cargo has a name,” Daven said, coming around the car to where Kian stood.
The Korean man paused in the act of removing duct tape from Lina’s legs and straightened up.
Daven realized then that the man’s feet were bare. Dressed in grey sweat pants and a t-shirt, he was taller than Kian, and almost Daven’s height.
“Kian, explain yourself,” the man said. “You said cargo, not handsome-as-sin, can-I-take-a-bite-of-it, cargo. Look at those eyes, so gorgeously green. Pretty, like the grass She and He eat.”
“Please don’t freak him out,” Kian said, moving to finish removing the duct tape from Lina’s legs.
She growled at Kian for his efforts. Kian untied her hands and shook her into submission when she tried to head butt him.
“Can you control your woman, Taewon?”
Kian stepped away from Lina and went to the car’s trunk.
Taewon waved his hand, dismissing Kian’s complaints, his dark gaze on Daven, a smile tagging his lips. He walked up to Daven, holding out his right hand.
“I’m sorry. Kian has no concept of social niceties. He grew up among animals on a mountain. We forgive him. I’m Taewon. What’s yours?”
“Daven.” He took Taewon’s hand. “Daven N—”
“First names only,” Taewon cut in. “It’s safer for you. I assume safety is the only reason my Kian would bring you here.”
“Taewon,” Kian said, carrying his duffel bag and Daven’s. “Can we go inside?”
Taewon let go of Daven’s hand and turned to Kian.
“Do you want to meet She and He?” Taewon asked Kian, pointing to the sheep grazing in the lawn. “I bet their gentleness might rub off on you.”
“I’m worried for your state of mind,” Kian answered, leading the way into the house. “Have you been going out? Or, are you stuck playing money markets in your study?”
“You know me so well,” Taewon said, urging Daven to follow into the house. “My Love, can we get refreshments? The coffee maker is not working. I’ve been surviving on juice since you left.”
Lina ran into the house, heading down the corridor, her heels rapping a steady beat on the tiled floor.
Taewon chuckled as he closed the front door.
“She’s worried I broke the coffee maker. The last time I touched it, I put the coffee grinds where the water is supposed to be.”
“You’re a fucking mess.”
Kian shook his head and placed their duffel bags on the table in the foyer.
Taewon took Daven’s arm and led him to the staircase.
“If you go up these stairs and turn right, the first door you meet is my bedroom. I think we’re about the same height. You can shower, and choose any clothes from my closet that fit you. I’ve been on one of Kian’s rescue missions. A shower does wonders.”
Daven wanted to hug Taewon right then. Giving Kian a short nod, he took his duffel bag from the table and hurried up the stairs.
Kian leaned on the wall by the staircase, and waited for the door to close upstairs. The moment Daven was inside, Taewon turned on him.
“You are screwing with a Raja Contract.” Taewon pointed up the stairs. “That’s what he is, isn’t he? Do you want me to smack sense into you? Let me, Kian. You know I’m not afraid to do it. I don’t give a fuck what you are. Do you ever think of yourself?”
Taewon walked up to Kian and pushed him against the wall.
“Insanity, that’s what you caught out there on your own. I knew we shouldn’t have let you roam alone. You should have stayed here, with me, with us.”
“You’d be dead if I stayed,” Kian said, staring at the collar of Taewon’s t-shirt. “Full disclosure, Yui is stalking me. You’ll need to move after I leave. She will find you and I can’t have that. I know it’s unfair, and I shouldn’t have come, but my resources are limited.”
“Says the heir to the serpent,” Taewon scoffed. He stepped away from Kian and dug fingers into his hair. His dark eyes full of sadness. “You fool. Does he know?”
Kian lifted a brow in question.
“Daven,” Taewon said. “Does he know he is a game your grandfather has planned?”
“He doesn’t need to know.”
“You always carry the burden alone. Are you hoping you’ll win like you did with me in Seoul?”
Kian dropped his gaze to the floor. Taewon’s take on the Seoul Incident was warped. His heart squeezed tight, a stab of old pain reminding him of the sacrifice he made. The first heart wrenching lesson of his life—he shook his head.
“Taewon,” Kian said in a low tone. “What I gained in Seoul can’t compare to what I lost.”
Taewon inhaled sharply and turned away from him.
Kian stared at Taewon’s back unable to stop the old longing. There was a time he would have walked up behind Taewon and laid his head on those capable shoulders. His arms wrapped around Taewon, absorbing heat and love he had owned, free and clear. That was gone now. Taken away by a choice Kian made to keep Taewon alive. To keep his life a secret from the many people who preferred Taewon dead.
Taewon took in another deep breath and spoke without looking at him.
“You’re right. What do you need?”
“A car, supplies, cash,” Kian listed. “We have to leave as soon as possible. Will you help me?”
“I’m insulted you would dare ask,” Taewon said, dropping his arms to his sides. “What I have is yours, Kian. That won’t ever change.”
Kian pushed off the wall, and took two steps to Taewon. He lifted his hand, wanting to squeeze Taewon’s shoulder, but he couldn’t do it. He shut that door tight, with heavy duty locks. Sure, they trembled when Taewon hugged him, but he could never break them.
Kian dropped his hand and let out a soft sigh.
“The house has a basement,” Taewon continued. “Everything you need is there, including money. Take what you need. As for a car, the garage should have one that fits your preferences.”
“Thank you,” Kian said.
It was all he could say.