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The Ties that Bind

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From the street, Michelle could see the apartment was dark. Which meant she was the first one home—strange for a Thursday afternoon, when William's classes usually finished at three.

He'd mentioned as he was leaving this morning that they'd run out of milk and beer, so maybe he'd come home long enough to put down his books, then turned and gone back out to the store.

Or maybe he was having a nap.

She grinned as she opened the building's outer door. If there was one thing her fiancé of three months knew how to do, it was nap. And it was nothing short of scandalous how well he could do it—any place, day or night, for almost any amount of time—a trick he'd apparently learned while serving in the Corps.

Enjoy your naps while you can, Sergeant Cooper. Six months from now, you won't remember what a good night's sleep is.

She climbed the stairs to the second floor, taking them two at a time. The effort left her slightly out of breath, but it was good for her legs, so she didn't mind. Based on what she'd seen with Jenny at work, before long, she'd be taking them sideways, one at a time.

She paused on the landing to catch her breath and switch to the key for their own door, then slid the key into the lock, turned, pushed and wandered in. She smiled as she saw mail on the shelf, and Will's coat and bag hanging up on a hook. So, he was home. Good. She had some very exciting news to share—the kind of news that couldn't wait.

She hung her own coat and bag on the other hook, kicked off her shoes, threw her keyring onto the shelf, then padded into the awkward space her landlord insisted on calling a master bed. But Will wasn't there—the bed was still as perfectly made as he'd left it this morning.

Frowning, she headed into the living room across the hall. And there he was, in the reading nook by the window, dressed in a shirt and smart pair of jeans, sitting in the battered, old wingback chair she'd insisted on bringing down from Greenwich with her, his shoulders slumped, his chin pointing into his chest, staring blankly at the floor. His right hand, hanging over the side of the chair, was barely holding some pieces of paper.

The sight made her stomach clench in alarm. She pushed her own announcement aside—something bad had obviously happened.

"Will, what's wrong?" she asked, reaching out to twist the switch on the standard lamp.

Caught unawares by her arrival, he squinted, sniffed and hastily wiped his eyes.

"You're crying," she murmured—something she'd never seen him do, not even back on nine eleven, when they'd sat on the couch and watched in horror as the twin towers collapsed. She sat down in front of him, using the wingback's footrest as a stool, and laid a comforting hand on his knee. "Honey, what happened? Is something wrong at school?" She doubted he would shed tears over that. "Did somebody in your family die?"

He barked out a laugh—a bitter and sarcastic sound. "You could say that, yeah."

She already knew his parents and grandparents were all long gone, and his only living relative was his aunt on his mother's side. But she and Will weren't really in touch—they'd fallen out after his mother's death over who had legal ownership of her paintings. She didn't doubt he would be upset to find out his aunt had died, but not to the point of crying about it in the dark. "It's not your aunt, is it?" she asked anyway.

He shook his head and wiped his eyes again. "It's not my Aunt Abigail, no."

"Tell me what's wrong," she murmured. "Please, let me help."

He cleared his throat, smiled wanly and took a deep breath. "Remember I told you about my twin brother?"

She certainly did. Kirill had been his name—younger than William by fourteen minutes, and gone from his life for almost twenty years. "You told me when your parents divorced, he went to Moscow with your dad while you came back to the States with your mom." In her not-so-humble opinion, a shockingly cruel and callous act. Bad enough to separate children, but to separate identical twins? It made her wonder what kind of people William's parents had been…

"And you wanted to know why I'd never gone looking for him or my dad."

She nodded and reached out to grasp his hand. There was a lot about Will she still didn't know, but she knew this was a very touchy subject indeed. She worded her next statement with care. "You said you weren't ready to try, because you were still too angry about what happened." And maybe too scared of what you might find, she silently added.

"Talking to you about what happened got me thinking about them again," William explained. "Made me realize it's been nineteen years since I last had any contact with Kirill, that it's time to stop being angry about it, do something more constructive instead."

Michelle's stomach jumped into her throat. "You got in touch with your father and brother," she said.

"Not exactly, no," William said. "I got in touch with a company in Moscow that opened back in ninety-two, after the Soviet Union collapsed. It specializes in helping people who live in the West find their long-lost Russian relations. I filled out the form, told them everything I remembered or had found out from going through my mom's belongings after she died, bought a money order to cover the fee and asked them to find Kirill for me."

She cocked a brow. "Just Kirill?" she cautiously asked. "Not your father as well?"

William shook his head. "I'm not ready to talk to my father yet. I figured it would make more sense to track down my brother first, then, if he was willing to talk, and told me our father was still alive, to deal with that as and how it developed."

That made sense. "When did you send the paperwork in?" she asked, thinking it must have been a few months ago.

"Back in November, five days after I put that diamond ring on your finger." He cracked a sad smile. "Figured it might be nice to have my twin brother at the wedding."

She tightened her grip on his hand, sensing what must be coming next. "I'm guessing from the fact you're sitting here crying in the dark, that the company didn't come back with good news."

He tried to snort, but it came out as a half-sob instead. He raised the letter in his right hand and turned it over to show it to her. She peered at the writing, but couldn't make anything out—hardly surprising, since the text was in Russian. He flipped it back over to read it aloud.

"Dear Mister Cooper," he started in a wavering voice, "with reference to your recent enquiry, dated November 15, 2001, we are writing to advise that we have successfully located your brother, Kirill Alexandrovich Orlov, born May 24, 1972 in St. Joseph's Catholic Hospital, West Berlin, Federal Republic of Germany." He paused, swallowed, took a deep breath, then resumed. "It is with great sadness that I must inform you that your brother is dead. The date and cause are listed in his death certificate, a copy of which is attached to this letter. On behalf of our partners and employees, allow me to offer our deepest condolences for your loss. Please do not hesitate to contact me again if I can be of any further assistance in this matter." Still holding the letter, his hand dropped back down to his side.

Michelle's heart sank into her feet. "Oh, honey, I'm so sorry," she whispered, struggling to fight back tears of her own. She'd never met Kirill, but she knew how important he'd been to Will, and how much harm the forced separation had done. To pluck up the guts to overcome two decades of anger and fear, to try to bring that division to an end, only to find out he and his twin were now separated for good, in a way that no living person could fix? It made her chest ache just thinking about it. "I can't even imagine how you must be feeling right now. Whatever you need, if there's anything I can do, you know I'm here."

William blew out a weary sigh. "Not even sure I know how I feel," he said. "I've been sitting here for almost an hour, turning it over and over in my head, and it still hasn't really sunk in. Right now, more than anything, I just have this sense of waste."

"The waste of a life?" she guessed, struggling to understand what he meant.

"That, yeah, but more about how for the last nineteen years, literally not a day has gone by when I haven't thought about Kirill one way or another. Not one. And now, I find out all of those moments, when I've stopped to wonder where he might be, what he does for a living, is he married with kids, has he grown his hair long, does he have tattoos, does he prefer beer or wine, is he healthy and happy and living a peaceful life, they've all been completely, totally, fucking pointless, because he's actually been dead. So yeah, the waste of a life, but the waste of all that anger as well. Because the thing that made me so goddamn angry, having my brother torn out of my life, and nobody ever telling me why, hasn't had any goddamn meaning for the last thirteen years."

"It was okay to feel angry," she said, sitting back on her stool. "Kirill was your identical twin. What happened to you, what your father and mother did, should never happen to any child. It was monstrously cruel."

"I know it was. And I know nothing I did was to blame. But the anger I felt about what happened made me a pain in the ass to live with, and eventually poisoned my relationship with my mom. We were barely speaking when she died. All that time the two of us spent fighting about it, picking at each other's emotional wounds, and what the hell was the goddamn point? The person we were fighting about was dead."

Michelle had no answer for that. The whole situation was an absolute mess. Unfortunately, given the contents of that letter, a mess that could no longer be fixed. She gestured at the piece of paper. "Does it say when and how he died?"

Sighing, William turned to the second sheet of the letter. "This is Kirill's death certificate. Says he died in a car accident in Moscow in August 1988." He shrugged. "Don't know what that means, if someone hit him, or if he was in a car that crashed."

"When he was sixteen, then."

William nodded. "That was the summer mom and I moved to the Wilmington house. And the summer Grandpa Cooper retired from the Navy." He fell silent again, no doubt lost in painful thoughts of a broken childhood he couldn't repair. "I did actually consider it, you know," he revealed.

"Consider what?"

"That Kirill might be dead."

Michelle sensed there was more. "And?"

"It just seemed like such a stupid idea. I know this sounds like some bullshit, twin telepathy thing, but I've always believed I would somehow know if he was. That's never happened. In my head, he's only ever been missing. He's never been totally gone."

No, that didn't sound like bullshit at all.

She took the sheaf of paperwork from him, glanced at the letter then flicked to the certificate on the second page. Her questioning lawyer mode kicked in. "Are you sure this is real? And it's definitely for your brother? You told me Orlov's a common name. How about Kirill? Is that common in Russia as well?"

"Why would that matter?" he asked.

"What I'm trying to get at is, is there a chance the company screwed up, and this certificate is for somebody else?"

William shook his head. "It lists the person's place of birth as West Berlin, and the receiver of the certificate as an A.B. Orlov. Our father's name was Alexander Borisovich. I can accept the idea there's more than one Kirill Orlov in the world who was born in 1972, but the other two facts are too much of a coincidence. I wish it wasn't, but it has to be him."

She handed the documents back. "I'm so sorry, honey," she repeated, not quite knowing what else to say. "I know this must have taken a lot of guts, and unfortunately, it came back with the worst possible ending. But at least now, you know what happened to Kirill. You don't have to wonder about him any longer. You can mourn for him, the same way you mourned for your mom, then gradually put it all behind you and focus on the future instead."

He sighed again. "I guess so, yeah."

Then she remembered it wasn't all done—there was one other issue still to consider. "Are you going to write back, ask them about your father as well?"

William vehemently shook his head. "Don't give a shit about him. The certificate lists Kirill's last known address, in a Moscow suburb called Novokosino, which I assume would've been our father's address at the time as well, so it probably wouldn't be too hard to find him, if he's even still alive." His expression turned cold. "But if he wanted me to have any contact with him, he wouldn't have walked out on me and my mom in the first place. He would have stayed in Berlin to be a proper husband and father instead. Kirill had no choice about what happened. My father did. As far as I'm concerned, he can rot in hell."

Michelle knew better than to push. Maybe one day, William would be able to forgive and forget.

But not today.

Her stomach roiled, reminding her she needed to eat. And also that she had news of her own.

She paused, trying to decide how best to approach the topic, or even if she should. William's day had been tumultuous enough. She could easily wait until the weekend instead, let him have a couple of days to come to terms with his upsetting news and quietly grieve for his long-dead twin.

As was so often the case, fate subtly intervened.

"You're home early," William noticed, checking his watch. "I thought Thursday was client paperwork catch-up night?" He looked alarmed. "Is everything okay with your job? You haven't been fired, have you?"

She gave him a reassuring smile. "Everything's fine. I got a call from my doctor's office asking me to come in for a visit as soon as I could to go over the results of some tests they ran at the end of last week, so I decided to take the afternoon off."

"Doctor's office?" he repeated. "Are you okay? Is something wrong?"

She couldn't ask for a better opening than that. "Nothing's wrong, and I'm mostly okay."

He sat up straight, looking concerned. "Mostly okay? The hell does that mean?"

"I have a… hormonal condition. But it's pretty common, especially for sexually active women my age. Nothing serious, should fix itself in oh, say, roughly nine months?" She waited for the penny to drop.

In the space of ten seconds, five different emotions flitted across his face. Confusion first, then comprehension as he realized what her reference meant, a fleeting moment of horror and fear, a flash of surprise, and finally, an ecstatic smile. "You're pregnant?" he said, laughing slightly, standing up to pull her off the stool.

After the tears and anger for Kirill, his laughter was a beautiful sound.

She held his hand against her stomach. "Almost twelve weeks," she revealed. "Doc says I'm due near the middle of August."

"That's fantastic," he whispered, leaning in to give her a passionate kiss.

She pulled away to look him straight in the eye. "You're not just saying that to be diplomatic, and quietly screaming in terror inside?" she asked. "I mean, I know we talked about kids when you proposed, and we agreed it was something we wanted to do sooner instead of later, but I'm not sure either of us meant this soon."

She squeaked as he lifted her into a crushing hug. "I'm not just saying that to be diplomatic," he said, burrowing his face in her neck. "I'm screaming inside, but in a really excited way." He frowned as he set her down. "But yeah, that's a good point about the timing. What the hell happened?"

Her response was to raise a surly brow.

He held up surrendering hands. "Okay, yeah, I mean, I know how it happened," he said, waving her silent derision away. "But, you know, how did it happen? I thought we'd been more careful than that."

"Apparently not," she tartly said. "I checked the calendar at the doc's, and you know what's precisely twelve weeks back from tomorrow?"

He did some quick math in his head, grunted and let out a quiet groan. "The weekend we spent up at your folks, when you introduced me to the rest of the clan."

"The weekend we spent up at my folks," she confirmed. "The weekend when you outright refused to bring a packet of condoms with you, in case they fell out of your bag in front of my mom."

"Hey, that was a really sensible plan! You told me your parents were really strict, and would probably put us in separate rooms, so there wouldn't be any chances for frisky business."

"Yeah, and look how well that all worked out," she retorted, thinking back on their frisky meeting at 3am, on the desk in her father's office, no less. When you were raised by parents as strict as hers, you rebelled in the smallest and boldest of ways.

William grinned and flashed his brows. "Not my fault you look so sexy in flannel pajamas." He took her face in his hands, stroked his thumbs along her jaw and pulled her into another lingering kiss.

He jerked away, eyes going wide.

"What's wrong?" she asked.

"Oh, God. Your parents."

"What about them?"

"We're having a baby, and we're not married."

Okay, yeah, that was a minor concern.

She laid calming hands on his chest. "We'll need to break the news to them gently, but this'll be their first grandchild, so I'm sure once they're over the shock, they'll be thrilled."

He grabbed her firmly by the shoulders and gave her an insistent shake. "We're having a baby, and we're not married," he loudly repeated. "I've only met your parents four times, and your dad's already pissed at me for proposing to you without asking him first. And now we have to tell him and your mom I got you in the family way before he's walked you down the aisle?" He turned away, groaning and pulling fistfuls of hair. "He's gonna hire a Moldovan assassin, have them murder me in my sleep."

Michelle rolled her eyes. It was true that William and her dad hadn't exactly hit it off the first time they'd met, and the business with the proposal had slightly widened that rift, but all this talk of Moldovan assassins was taking things just slightly too far. "Don't worry so much about my dad," she soothed. "He'll be angry at first, but he'll quickly come round." Another problem came to mind. "My mom, on the other hand, is gonna be pissed."

"Why?"

"Because she's already made it clear she wants me to have a fancy wedding, and you can't do my mom's kind of fancy in less than four months." Her mother, as well-intentioned and kind as she was, was very much a New England lady who lunched. And New England ladies who lunched had very high standards for weddings indeed.

William let out another groan. "Which means either we have the fancy wedding while you're seriously in the family way, or we wait until after the baby's arrived," he concluded.

"And I'm really not keen on the second option," she added. "Call me old-fashioned, but I'd rather not be Miss McNally when Cooper Junior pops into the world."

His face broke into a silly grin. "Cooper Junior," he repeated. The grin widened, and he bounced on his toes. "I'm going to be a daddy."

She felt like rolling her eyes again, but the cheesy smile was hard to resist. "And no doubt a great one at that," she said.

The grin disappeared. "The best I can," William solemnly said. "I mean it. This is one area of my life where I'm not gonna be my father's son. I'm not going anywhere. If you weren't stuck with me already, you're sure as hell stuck with me now."

"I am absolutely a-okay with that." She pulled back to wiggle her ring finger at him. "But we still need to figure this out."

"We could elope," he glibly proposed. "Head to Vegas or Niagara Falls. Spend our honeymoon night in a heated, vibrating, heart-shaped bed."

She poked him hard in the chest. "William Alexander Cooper, I am not getting married in Niagara or Vegas. I don't need three hundred guests and a Vera Wang dress, but I think we can manage something better than that."

"Okay, then how about we put on our nicest suit and dress, round up a couple of friends, then apply to be married down at the Courts by a judge? Or a priest, if you want a religious thing? Would you be happy with that instead?"

"So, you, me, two friends and a baby?"

The phrase made him smirk. "Something like that."

"That would be slightly nicer, yeah. And I could even wear a Vera Wang dress, the blue one I bought for my law school grad ball." She patted her stomach again. "But only if we do it soon. Two months from now, it's not gonna fit."

"Who would you want the friend to be?"

That was another thorny problem. Her sister, Kate, was a natural choice, but with her family, it was either all or none. Inviting Kate but not her parents or brother was asking for a world of grief. And Kate, God love her, tended to blab, usually to the worst possible people at the worst possible time. She never meant to, but that wasn't the point—if she let Kate in on the secret wedding plans, her mother would know by the end of the week. "Probably Aisha, my room-mate from school. She's the only reason I made it through Civil Procedure. I wouldn't be here if it wasn't for her. What about you? One of your buddies from the Corps?"

"Thought about that, but Mateo's all the way down in Peru, and Brendan's in France, his wife's just about to have their third kid, so I doubt he'd be free to come to the States. Chris is the only other guy from the Corps I would ask, and you know where he is."

She did indeed. He and William had gone through Parris Island together, taken the same MOS training at Quantico together, and served two MSG tours together, in Austria and then in Japan. In ninety-eight, when William had called time on the Corps, Chris had signed on for another four years, and had just been assigned to the embassy detail in Kabul.

"You gave them eight years of your life," she reminded her co-parent-to-be. "You served your country with diligence and honour. You've done your part. You don't owe them anything more."

"I know I don't. I just feel bad about being safe back here while he's out there putting his life on the line. I worry about him."

"He's one of your oldest and closest friends. I'd be disappointed if you didn't."

"Suppose I could give Nigel a call, see if he'd be able to make it out for a long weekend."

"That the English guy you met out in Yemen?"

"The one from their embassy station, yeah. Nice guy, bit of a bumbling Brit, but I think you'll like him. He's back working in London right now, so a flight out to Dulles shouldn't be too much of a problem."

"Email him or give him a call, find out when in March or April he's free. I'll do the same with Aisha. If it makes it easier, tell him I'll pay for his flight."

"That's extremely generous of you."     

"It's my money to be generous with."

"But once we're married, it'll be our money, right?"

She speared him with her dirtiest glare. "My father warned me about guys like you."

"Not well enough," he said, giving her stomach a meaningful pat.

"Not my fault you're such a ruthless seducer." Although, the way she remembered the fateful night, she'd done most of the seducing himself.

"So, a wedding in front of a judge it is?"

"A wedding in front of a judge it is," she confirmed.

"Nice and simple."

"And inexpensive," Michelle pointed out.

"Inexpensive is good. Especially since we don't know how your folks'll react. They might be so angry with our immoral behaviour they'll cut you out of the family trust." He grinned and rested his arms on her shoulders. "You might have to learn to be poor like the rest of us normal people."

She shrugged slightly. She knew more than him about how the trust worked, so she was pretty sure that wouldn't happen. "At least then I'll know you're not marrying me for my money."

Her innards emitted a horrible growl.

He pulled back to look down at her waist. "Was that you?" he asked in an astonished tone.

"I'm really hungry," she protested. "Didn't have the chance to grab lunch, so I've been running on fumes for the last couple of hours." She stood on her toes to give him a peck on the cheek, then strolled through to the kitchen to dig up some food. "I hope you bought milk," she warned, "cus I'm ready to kill for a good cup of tea."

"Stopped at the store on the way home," he said as he walked out to the hall. "Bought some milk, fruit, a bottle of red and a six pack of beer."

"I'm fine with the milk and the fruit, but you'll be drinking the booze all on your own." She heard him tear an envelope open—he was obviously checking the rest of the mail.

"Pretty sure I can manage that," he hollered back.

"Yeah, but what if I think you shouldn't drink when I'm pregnant, either?" she teasingly asked.

This time, silence was her only response.

She could almost hear him gnashing his teeth, trying to decide whether to tell her to take a hike, or do the decent, almost-husbandly thing and give up drinking until the baby was born. Grinning, she shouted, "It's okay, hon, I'm pulling your leg. I know how much you love your brews."

Silence again.

"Honey? You okay? Didn't you hear me? I said I was joking."

Footsteps approached; a few seconds later, Will appeared at the kitchen door. He was frowning and reading a very official looking letter.

Her stomach knotted up again. Oh, God. What the hell were they dealing with now? They'd had two massive surprises today already—she didn't have the nerves for a third. "What's that you've got?" she asked, not quite wanting to hear his response.

"It's a letter from the CIA," he revealed, holding up the piece of paper to show her the agency's seal. "They've provisionally accepted my application, want me to go to Langley next week for some aptitude tests and a face-to-face meeting."

Another interesting piece of news. She knew he'd applied, but also knew from talking to various friends in government roles how many applications the agency received every month, and how strict their acceptance policies were. She'd assumed a man who'd been born and partially raised abroad, who'd once held Russian citizenship, and who still had a missing Russian father wouldn't be given the time of day, no matter how well suited he otherwise was to the role.

Apparently, that assumption was wrong. Perhaps his eight years in the Marines, and the fact he could speak three languages in addition to English had counterbalanced other concerns. "That's really great," she honestly said, "but I thought you were leaning to more of a private sector role?"

He scanned the short letter again. "The private firm was my backup option, case the agency thing didn't pan out. I honestly didn't think they'd come through, given what kind of personal stuff I had to put on the forms." He looked up, brows creased in concern. "Does it bother you, the thought of me taking a job with the CIA, even if it's only a back office position?"

"A little bit, yeah. The CIA will have more interesting work, but the pay won't be great, and even for the back office guys, the hours are notoriously long." The last thing they needed with a little one on the way. The lower pay wasn't really a problem, given she would be topping it up with what she received from her family trust, but she wanted their child to spend time with their dad as much as their mom.

"If you're not happy about it, I'll turn them down," he offered. "What's best for you and the baby comes first."

She sighed and pulled out a loaf of bread. She wanted William to have a good job, and for him, that meant a job he loved more than a job that paid really well. "Don't do that," she eventually said, sticking two slices under the grill and going to the fridge to dig out the cheese. "Go ahead with the application, see what comes up. If it's what you want, and they make you a half-decent offer, don't turn them down."

"You sure?"

"One hundred percent. Just promise me no matter how tough it gets, or how many hours they make you work, you'll always make time for what's really important."

"What, hookers and blow?" he jokingly said.

She threw a plastic container at him. He ducked—the container sailed over his head to clatter across the living room floor. "Your family, dummy. Me and your kids."

"Hang on a minute, what do you mean, kids?" he complained. "I thought they usually came one at a time? Is there something you're not telling me about what your doctor's appointment found?"

She'd only meant a few years from now, when the budding Cooper-to-be was joined by a younger sister or brother. But now, as she thought about it some more, she saw a great chance to have some fun at William's expense. There had been tears and heartache already today, to grieve for a loved one now gone. Surely, there could be laughter as well, to celebrate a loved one to come?

She graced him with her sweetest smile. "So, your mom never told you identical twins sometimes run in family trees?"