Nathaniel is the first thing that Andrew sees when he enters the ballroom.
The chandelier sparkles above them like a cluster of diamonds. Around the room, men in finely tailored suits and women in designer evening gowns titter and make pleasantries in plummy voices, hiding their fangs behind thin smiles and even thinner promises. Servers flit between the gaps of gilded bodies, bearing flutes of champagne on silver trays. The interfusing scent of cologne and perfume permeates the air in the room, but what has Andrew’s head swimming is the smell of blood.
Assassins, politicians, corporate executives - they are all killers here.
Wearing a backless grey dress and 5-inch stilettos, Nathaniel draws eyes to him like he winds up a thread. The cut of the neckline and the glittering long sleeves have hidden the worst of his scars, but the high slit at the side of his dress throws any pretense of modesty out the window.
Andrew is surprised he hasn’t cracked his teeth with how hard he is clenching his jaw. He hadn’t expected to see Nathaniel tonight, especially not when he is on a covert operation in Novosibirsk.
Nathaniel Wesninski. Alias: Neil Josten. Status: Active; extremely dangerous.
Andrew has run into him on a few missions in the past - Bucharest, Hanoi, and, most notably, Reykjavik - and the warnings had been the same: Do not engage. Avoid at all costs.
As if that had ever been possible.
Kevin’s disgruntled voice crackles through the earpiece. “Don’t you dare, Andrew,” he warns. “You are not here for him tonight. Focus.”
Kevin is right, of course. Andrew is here to case the building and collect intelligence.
He's done the hard part - swapping out a rich man's phone with a fake - and all that's left to do is to make a quiet exit. If he wants this mission to succeed, he should turn on his heels and steer clear of Nathaniel.
But he still hasn’t managed to slice off his self-destructive tendencies, and he has never really been good at listening to Kevin.
Like a moth drawn to a flame, Andrew drifts towards Nathaniel.
"Andrew," Kevin hisses, "what are you doing?"
"Getting myself a drink," Andrew intones, snatching up a flute when he passes a server.
His fingers choke the stem of the glass when Nathaniel's gaze swerves a little to the side and catches his. The only reaction it elicits out of Nathaniel is a miniscule quirk of his manicured eyebrow, as if it hasn’t been ten weeks since they last saw each other.
Andrew’s shirt is starchy and stiff, and he feels it chafing his neck as he draws closer to Nathaniel. Nathaniel’s raven black hair cascades past his shoulders, a silver filigree hairpin tucked against one side of his head. His eyes are as cold and blue as the ice outside.
"Izvinite menya," he says to the starry-eyed men surrounding him, holding Andrew's gaze all the while. He struts outside of the circle, each stride exposing the tanned skin of his sinewy legs. Andrew drains his champagne in one swig.
They converge on a server with a platter of hors d’oeuvres, Andrew plucking one off the tray and popping it into his mouth and Nathaniel asking the server in a fluting, honeyed voice if he could have a glass of water since he's feeling rather faint. The poor man stumbles away with mumbled yeses and of courses, almost tripping over his feet.
Tossing his hair over his shoulder, Nathaniel sweeps a critical gaze over the room, his veneer of sweetness gone. The stench of blood floods Andrew’s nostrils.
“Recon mission?” Nathaniel asks conversationally.
Andrew dumps his empty flute on a passing tray and picks up a fresh one.
“Is that a new dress?” he returns, swirling his drink around. Like Nathaniel, he keeps his eyes trained in front of them.
“Do you like it?”
“I despise it.”
He slants Nathaniel a glance and detects an amused smile sneaking into the corner of his lips. It vanishes when he says, “They didn’t tell me you’d be here.”
Andrew’s eyes linger on him for a while. Then he looks at the guests again, scanning the faces to try sussing out who Nathaniel’s mark might be. “Likewise.”
Nathaniel hums. “Just stay out of the way.”
“That should be my line.”
“Then you should’ve said it before I did.”
Nathaniel turns to leave. Andrew catches him by the arm, surprising both of them. Kevin’s irritated voice pours through the earpiece.
Andrew takes a good, long look at Nathaniel's face, studying the tint of glossy pink on his lips and the seam of black lining his eyelids. The scar running from his temple to his cheekbone is new and fine as a thread, not quite concealed by the thin layer of foundation. Andrew’s blunt nails dig into the flesh of Nathaniel’s elbow.
“Let go of me," Nathaniel says, voice glacial.
Despite the knot of anger raking its way up his throat, Andrew lets go of him.
"Ah, there you are!" someone says in Russian. A man approaches them, everything about his appearance - from his leather shoes to his gold watch - advertising his wealth.
Furtively, Andrew casts an appraising glance around them. Aside from the security already stationed at the exits, there aren’t any straggling near them. A good sign.
"I was beginning to think you had abandoned me," the man continues, snaking an arm around Nathaniel's trim waist.
"Then you think very little of me," Nathaniel replies, batting his eyelashes. He has tuned his voice into something velvety and saccharine, a coy smile painted over his lips.
"Oh no," Kevin breathes. "It's Prostakov."
Andrew angles his body away but keeps an eye on Nathaniel.
He knows that name. It is no wonder now, why Nathaniel is here.
"Put as much distance as you can between yourself and him before you get compromised," Kevin says stringently.
Twisting a strand of hair around his finger, Nathaniel leans in closer to whisper into Prostakov's ear. It earns him a lecherous grin and a squeeze to his hips, and Andrew's stomach roils like an unsettled sea.
"Leave them be," Kevin says, his voice serrated by a desperate edge.
But Nathaniel's eye subtly twitches in a way that Andrew recognizes, and he inches closer instead of away.
“Shall we go somewhere more private?” he hears Prostakov suggest.
“That would be delightful,” Nathaniel answers in a near purr, peering up at Prostakov through his thick eyelashes.
Andrew would have let them go if not for the near-imperceptible flinch that convulses through Nathaniel’s shoulder when Prostakov’s hand wanders down past the bare skin of his back.
Andrew doesn’t realize he’s moved until he has his fingers coiled around Prostakov’s wrist, yanking his hand away from Nathaniel.
Prostakov hisses in pain, teeth gnashed together. “What is this?” he demands, eyes flashing and vein bulging on his forehead. “How dare you touch me?”
Oh, the irony.
A ripple of inquisitive whispers thrums around them. Nathaniel sighs, resigned, closing his eyes for a brief moment. When he opens them, his face is as pristine and deathly still as a frost-etched winter morning.
He slinks closer to the both of them and murmurs, “And I was so close to having some time alone with him.”
Prostakov’s face cracks in bewilderment; Nathaniel had said the words in German.
Nathaniel shrugs, a picture of nonchalance. “Oh well.”
He grabs the gun on Andrew’s hip and shoots Prostakov between the eyes.
The deafening sound reverberates off the walls. Shocked cries break out as the guests scramble towards the doors and dive behind tables. Nathaniel uses the moment of pandemonium to toss Andrew the gun he excavates from Prostakov’s body.
Then, he opens fire.
Andrew sticks his back against Nathaniel’s, aiming his stolen gun at the personnel on the other side of the room.
"This reminds me of Reykjavik,” Nathaniel says over the steady pulse of gunfire.
The last time they tried to kill each other and the first time they saved each other's lives. Eidetic memory or no, Andrew will remember that evening with vivid clarity for a long time to come.
"I don't believe I recall what happened there."
"Sure," Nathaniel says. Andrew doesn't think he imagined the note of amusement in his voice. "We need to leave."
“You don’t say,” Andrew deadpans.
He pulls the trigger and gets a pathetic click in return. This is why he hates guns.
“Jammed,” he says, chucking the gun to the polished marble floor.
Nathaniel whirls around, hooking a leg around Andrew’s hips as they stand nearly cheek to cheek. As he continues shooting, Andrew slides out the three knives strapped to his thigh and throws one of them straight into the heart of the man running towards them.
He spins Nathaniel around and herds him towards one of the exits. A bullet ricochets off the wall near their heads and Nathaniel curses. Shielding Nathaniel’s head from the spray of plaster with one hand, Andrew launches another knife and watches it pierce through their adversary’s jugular.
Annoyed, Nathaniel opens fire again and takes out the few remaining personnel.
When the last body thumps onto the floor, Nathaniel exhales through his mouth like it’s been a job well done. Andrew retrieves the knives he threw and wipes the stain off with the silk handkerchief he found among the broken glass and overturned trays.
The blades, he notes with satisfaction, are as sleek and sharp as when he gave them to Nathaniel ten weeks ago.
They weave their way through the blood-soaked floor, Andrew tucking the knives back into his armbands, hidden under the sleeves of his rumpled suit.
Out in the atrium, Nathaniel goes to a utility closet, motioning for Andrew to wait for him. Andrew keeps watch as he unscrews a ventilation panel on the wall and extracts a duffel bag from it. From the bag, he takes out a holster and straps it to his thigh.
With practised ease, he locks his gun and slides it into the holster. The relaxed lines of his shoulder probably mirror Andrew’s own; there is nothing as reassuring as having their own weapons back within arm’s reach.
Nathaniel hefts the bag over his shoulder as they steal into the brisk October night, the clack of his heels echoing across the stone pavement. It feels like winter, the air frigid and unforgiving, with drifts of snow clinging to the sidewalk. It’s among the reasons Andrew dislikes Siberia.
Kevin bursts out of the van that's parked across the road, a thunderous expression marring his face.
“Would it kill you to listen to me for once in your life?”
“It might,” Andrew says, uncaring.
“Good to see you out of Andrew’s earpiece, Kevin,” Nathaniel says.
Kevin seems to remember that there is an additional presence amidst them, mouth gaping open before he gulps and nods in stiff greeting. “Nathaniel.”
“You know better than to call me that outside of a mission.”
Neil peels the black hair off his head, removing the wig cap and hairpins afterwards. He shakes his head, red hair tumbling softly into his eyes.
Nathaniel Wesninski. Preferred name: Neil Josten. Status: In a relationship; extremely committed.
“Neil,” Kevin says, albeit a little reluctantly. “I thought you were still in Poland.”
“Well, I’m not. I don't know if you noticed, but my mark was here at the party tonight.” Neil stuffs the wig into his duffel bag and runs a hand through his hair, huffing in irritation. "Chased the elusive bastard all over Europe and finally caught up with him here.”
“Took you long enough,” Andrew remarks, wrenching his tie loose.
Neil's smile is sly and close-lipped, but mostly genuine. “Did you miss me?”
“With every bullet so far.”
"Your marksmanship has always left something to be desired."
"The use of guns is barbaric."
"Don't you know that you're not supposed to bring a knife to a gunfight?" Neil says, an eyebrow raised.
"I didn't bring any knives," Andrew points out. "You did."
"Can you two stop flirting for one second?" Kevin interjects, exasperated.
"Only for one second," Neil says seriously. "Longer than that and I think we might forget who we are to each other."
That is impossible on all planes of reality, Andrew thinks, but he doesn't say anything. It's always fun to watch Neil push Kevin’s buttons.
“Anyway,” Kevin says haughtily, “is it even acceptable for you to have caused so much collateral damage?”
“What matters is that I got the job done,” Neil replies, flippant. “Besides, they all probably deserved it.”
Kevin begins to look queasy. “How do you sleep at night?”
“With a blanket and pillow.”
Beleaguered, Kevin stomps back inside the van.
“Who did that?” Andrew asks, eyes focused on the side of Neil’s face, hands clenched into fists.
“Oh, this?” Neil brushes his hair back, tucking it behind an ear, fingers tracing the scar on his temple. His diamond earring winks at Andrew, temporarily distracts him from his simmering anger.
“I killed him,” Neil says easily. “You don’t have to worry about it.”
Andrew studies his face, then slowly nods. He unclenches his hands, tension dripping out of his muscles.
In the silent cloak of the night, Neil sneezes. Andrew shucks his suit jacket off and drapes it over Neil’s shoulders, taking his bag from him.
“A backless dress,” Andrew says tonelessly, as if he is regarding the weather.
Neil lifts a wry eyebrow. “Is that supposed to be a criticism?”
Andrew answers by moving closer to him, their noses almost bumping. It's a cold night, after all.
“Ten weeks to track one man down,” Andrew muses. “You have lost your touch.”
“And thanks to you, I blew my cover tonight.”
Andrew gives the ghost of a shrug. “You said it yourself. What matters is that you got the task done.”
Neil's hand slips into his, their fingers woven together. Andrew’s numb fingers immediately feel warm.
"Ten weeks is a long time," Neil says quietly, resting his forehead against Andrew’s.
"You know what I've missed the most?" Neil asks, breath ghosting over Andrew's cheek. His other hand is curled over Andrew's waist, right where it belongs. "My favorite gun."
He lets a beat pass before he snickers. He drops his head onto Andrew's shoulder, shaking with soundless laughter.
"Get it?" he gasps out. "Because you had one of my guns, and also because I missed your -"
"Yes, Neil,” Andrew cuts in, “I got it perfectly." He squeezes Neil’s hand in warning, even though he knows it is futile.
Around them, snow begins to fall. White crystals swirl down and land on Neil's hair. Neil bites his bottom lip, laughter corked but eyes spilling with happiness. Andrew's mouth feels like a desert.
He slides a hand down to Neil's thigh, fingers kneading the smooth, supple skin. There’s a gleam in Neil’s eyes that indicates he knows exactly what Andrew is thinking about.
"How about we ditch Kevin tonight and go somewhere else?" he says, voice gravelly. He unlaces their hands so he can circle his arms around Andrew's neck, his mouth millimeters away from Andrew’s. "Since you despise the dress so much, maybe you should do something about it."
As he leans in to kiss Neil, Andrew agrees that he probably should.