Episode Forty-Three: The Early Gift Affair
Nikolai curled up around a pillow on his bed and listened to Beethoven’s ‘Moonlight Sonata’ on repeat. He heard the door to his bedroom open, and he didn’t even feel a flutter of hope that Guy was the silhouette in the doorway. He simply hugged his pillow tighter as he felt a weight on the bed and long fingers stroking his hair.
“I saw all the broken dishes in the kitchen,” Jackie said.
“When did it happen?” she asked.
“Morning after you left.”
“And you didn’t call?”
Nikolai turned his head to look at Jackie’s gentle face. A small smile sat on her face as her fingers continued to run through his blond hair. “I did not want to intrude in your time with your parents,” he mumbled.
“I would have just come back and brought you with me,” she said. “Have you been eating?”
“When I grow hungry,” Nikolai replied, “though we do not have any dishes left.”
Jackie said, “Do you want to go out to eat?”
“Do you want me to make you something?” she asked.
“No,” Nikolai replied. He turned back onto his pillow.
Jackie exhaled. She stretched out beside him, hugging his body towards hers. Nikolai’s body relaxed against her. She said, “What do you want to do, Niko?”
Nikolai’s mind tried to whirl, but his head throbbed. He pressed back against Jackie and breathed in the smell of her hairspray. He turned over to look at her, and she outlined his face with her fingers. “I feel better already,” he replied with a half-smile.
The corner of Jackie’s lip turned upwards, but she replied, “Niko, I can’t be here for you all the time. We’re not married.”
Nikolai nodded. “I know that.”
“So tell me,” she said. “Do you want me to go to bars with you to find someone else? Do you want to sit in your bed for longer and lick your wounds? We can’t go back home for another few weeks, and I don’t know if you just want to sulk.”
Nikolai sighed. He watched Jackie’s brown eyes follow his movements. The Russian’s eyes avoided hers as he said, “I just want to go home.”
“We can see if we can come home early but-“
“No,” Nikolai said. “I meant, I want to go see my mom. I called her when we were at the mall, and she wanted me to come home for Christmas. And I do not want to be alone here.”
Jackie smiled. “All right, let’s get you home then.”
Nikolai paused and heat rose to his cheeks. “Will you come with me?”
“Nikolai, I mean, we’re buddies and everything, but,” Jackie paused and sucked her teeth. “I just want to make sure this isn’t a come-on.”
The Russian almost laughed. “No,” he replied. “My brother will be there, and my mom would probably like to meet my work partner. And I think she would like to have a girl around.”
“Even though I am not particularly feminine and burn everything I try to cook,” Jackie said.
Nikolai shrugged. “Maybe she just wants another pair of boobs around the house,” he said. He took Jackie’s hands into his own. “Please come with me.” He placed one kiss on the back of each of her hands.
This time the other agent laughed. Pulling her hands away, Jackie replied, “All right. I’ll go with you. Call her up, and let’s get you in a disguise and get out of here.”
As the two agents packed up Jackie’s car, a car pulled up to the curb at the end of the driveway. The pile of snow hardly hid the flash of red hair when a woman stepped out of the car. Nikolai pulled down his baseball cap to cover his face, rubbing the scruff on his chin. Jackie tensed beside him, and the two waited as the woman approached them.
“Hello,” she said. “I’m sorry to interrupt, but I’ve been watching the house for a while and this is the first time I’ve seen Nikolai.”
Nikolai felt his body tense. His eyes searched her curvy body for any bulges that could contain weapons, but aside from two comically large and circular bombs hiding in her top, she didn’t look like she had anything hidden on her, which meant it wouldn’t be easy for her to pull it out to shoot him.
“Do I know you?” Nikolai asked.
She held out her hand. “I’m Red,” she said. “I’m a friend of Guy Solo’s.”
Nikolai sighed and stared at her boobs. “Of course you are,” he replied.
“Red?” Jackie asked, her eyes narrowing. “As in, the assassin, Red?”
“Uh huh,” Red said, pulling her jacket tighter around her chest. “But don’t worry, Guy told me not to kill Nikolai so that’s not on my list of things to do today.” Jackie grinned at Red, and Red stared blankly at her for a moment. The assassin continued, “I’m sorry, but do I know you-“
“I used to work in the New York division of A.B.E.L.,” Jackie said. She stuck out her hand and said, “Agent Jaclyn Grier. I was told you were very dead and very male.”
Red shook Jackie’s hand and replied, “I would not protest if you kept up those rumours. It’s been a pleasure avoiding you all these years.”
Nikolai, keeping his voice as stiff as ice, said, “And what can we do for you, Red?”
“If you haven’t burned Guy Solo’s belongings, which would be totally understandable, I would appreciate taking them back to him. He doesn’t know I’m here and my understanding is that he was happy leaving his stuff here, but he’s broke and I’m tired of him leeching off of me,” Red explained. “Would you mind if I grabbed his things?”
Jackie looked to Nikolai, and Nikolai exhaled again. “All right,” he said. “Go right ahead. The house is bugged, so I would not recommend much speaking.”
“Do I need an escort?” Red asked.
“We’ll all go in,” Jackie said. “Nikolai and I will talk and hopefully cover up the extra footsteps. I’m perfectly happy keeping up the rumour that you’re dead considering I was the only one that thought you were a girl and said so when we pulled the male corpse out of the building.”
Jackie put her arm around Red and began to talk to Nikolai about his forgetting something. Nikolai grumpily replied as Red rifled through their belongings to pick Guy’s out of them. Nikolai was particularly frustrated by how easily Red differentiated between their belongings, and jealously knotted within him as he wondered if Guy was now sleeping with this new woman.
He watched as she went through Guy’s satchel, pulling out the bullet necklace Nikolai made him. Nikolai smiled at it. He had almost forgotten the gift, and the fact that Guy kept it close was a compliment. As much as he wanted his assassin to wear it all the time, he could hardly expect someone as restless as Guy to consistently remember to or want to wear the jewellery.
Red put the necklace away, a small smile on her pale face. Nikolai suddenly realized that Red recognized the necklace as she put it back. Despite his jealousy, he was curious about how well she knew him and how long she knew him. Mainly he wanted to know what kept Guy with her.
Red took a wrapped package out of Guy’s satchel and noticed a name tag on it. She made eye contact with Nikolai and tossed it to him with a smile. Nikolai offered a weak smile back and stared at the gift. He saw his name on it.
Jackie pried a conversation out of Nikolai as Red finished packing Guy’s thing into his satchel. They then left the house once more with Jackie locking up behind them. Nikolai tried to hand the wrapped parcel back to Red, but she held her hand out to stop him. “It’s for you,” she said. “Guy would want you to keep it.”
Nikolai stared at the solid red wrapping paper. Guy had tied a green ribbon around it, even curling the ribbon to look like a bow in the center of the package. He stared blankly at it.
Red squeezed Nikolai’s bicep, and Nikolai looked at her purple nail polish. “If it makes you feel any better,” she said. “He’s pretty torn up about the whole thing.”
Jackie approached them, and Nikolai looked to Jackie for help. Jackie said, “So are you screwing him now or what?”
Red laughed. “No way,” she said. “In our line of work, sometimes it helps to have a friend you can count on to watch your back. So we help each other out.”
Nikolai looked at her again with curiosity. “How long?” he asked.
Red shrugged. “A decade at least,” she said. “Don’t worry, Guy’ll come around again, and when he does, he’ll be someone you can count on for life.”
Nikolai scowled. “Somehow I doubt that.”
Red’s eyes darted towards Jackie, and Jackie said, “We better go. Tell Guy to go screw himself or whatever.” The agent rubbed Nikolai’s arm, leading him into the passenger side of the car.
Nikolai dropped into the car, staring at the present in his lap. He heard muffled voices of Red and Jackie talking, but his ears didn’t focus on the dialogue. He just stared at the twisted green ribbon. He could almost smell Guy’s musky scent radiating from the package. Nikolai’s emotions rushed back into him like a title wave. His face burned with anger and sorrow.
For a second, he wanted Guy. He turned his head to tell Red to bring Guy back to him, but he saw her walking away and Jackie slid into the driver’s side seat. He saw Jackie’s sharp face looking back at him with sympathy, and, while the pain stayed, he knew he couldn’t take the assassin back. He knew Jackie would always be there for him, despite the fact that their relationship wasn’t anything sexual or romantic. And with Guy, he wasn’t even sure he would wake up next to him in the morning.
Jackie cupped his cheeks in her hands. “Sweetie, open up that present now so that I can hug you. I don’t want you opening it and getting upset on the road when I can’t hug you right away.”
“I will not get upset,” Nikolai said, though he sniffed.
Jackie released the blond and said, “Of course. Sorry.” She gave Nikolai a smile and got a little one in return.
Nikolai undid the knot at the center of the present and put the ribbon away in the bag by his legs. He ran his fingers along the edges of the wrapping paper, lifting up the tape when it occurred. As the paper unfolded itself, the gift was revealed to Nikolai. A sweater sat on his lap with a folded note on top.
“He wrote me a note,” Nikolai said.
“Well, you better read it,” Jackie replied.
“Will you read it?” Nikolai said.
“Niko, he didn’t have time to write you a letter. Unless he snuck back into the house to stash a Christmas gift, I highly doubt it’s something that’s going to make you uncomfortable.”
Nikolai raised his eyes to stare into Jackie’s. Her face stiffened. Nikolai said, “Do you think he snuck into the house and dropped off a Christmas gift?”
Jackie snatched the note from Nikolai’s lap. She said, “I’ll read it just in case.” Nikolai tensed as Jackie unfolded the note, her dark eyes running along the yellow paper. She began, “‘Since you are a spy, I assume you will snoop through this gift early and manage to wrap it back up without my noticing. I don’t want you to be disappointed in your gift, so I want you to know I bought you a sweater that isn’t ugly for you to wear whenever you are cold, which is always. And I wanted to give you something you could wear always.’” She folded the note back up and said, “He just signed his name.”
Nikolai chuckled and lifted the sweater out of its wrapping paper. It was a surprisingly thoughtful gift from the assassin, but he supposed he deserved a thoughtful gift after saving Guy’s life. He brought it to his nose and breathed in the faint smell of Guy’s musk. “I do not approve of the stripes,” Nikolai muttered.
“It’s trendy,” Jackie said. “He probably just wanted you to look nice.” Nikolai set it back down on his lap. Jackie continued, “I’ll pump the heat in the car if you want to wear it now.”
“Yes, please,” Nikolai said.
“All right,” Jackie said. She started the car, and she turned up the heat. “Let’s hit the road.”
Jackie and Nikolai both peeled off their jackets and tossed them in the back seat. As Jackie backed out of the driveway, Nikolai slipped on his sweater, zipped up, and then buckled up. He breathed in and smelt Guy all around him. His stomach turned, but he told himself the smell would go away even if he didn’t want it to.
“Hey, Niko,” Jackie said, her eyes on the road. “Can I ask you something?”
“Always,” Nikolai replied with a smile.
Jackie sucked her teeth before asking, “If Guy came back to you, would you want him?”
The blond exhaled and hugged himself. “No.”
She glanced at him before turning her eyes back to the road. She didn’t press further.
Nikolai continued, “I think I would worry too much about him leaving me again. Do you think people can change?”
“You’ve changed,” Jackie said. “Haven’t you?”
“I try to control my temper,” Nikolai replied, “but it does not always work. I punched Guy before he left. And he told me he could break.” He sighed and snuggled into his sweater. “I do not want to break him, Jackie.”
“Maybe that’s the difference.”
“Or maybe we just deserve each other,” Nikolai said.
“Don’t think like that,” Jackie replied, her voice terse. “If you don’t want Guy, we’ll find someone for you – someone that makes you happy.”
Nikolai smiled at Jackie. With a playful tone, he replied, “I think we should shift the focus to you for a while.”
Jackie snorted. “Yeah, right,” she said. “How about you just tell me what I need to know to survive this visit to your family?”
“Be yourself,” Nikolai said. “I feel like my family will like you. Just do not let my brother get away with being an asshole. He will respect that.”
Jackie laughed, and Nikolai continued to fill her in throughout the drive. Jackie heard the argument that ended Nikolai and Guy’s relationship, but Nikolai kept it short and to the point. He didn’t notice that Jackie kept her lips tight through most of the story. The conversation shifted, as it tended to do when they were together, and there were even lapses of comfortable silence. Nikolai found himself snuggling deeper into his sweater. He thought about Guy reading in the back seat of the car while he and Jackie talked.
He wanted to apologize to Guy, and while he missed being in the assassin’s arms, he wasn’t sure he wanted to be back in them. He watched Jackie’s eyes scan the road before turning away from her. He rested his head against the window and watched the snow-covered trees whip by them. And he wondered if some things were better left as memories than kept as reality.