Chapter one: Dried Roses
The tick of a silver desk clock, the soft shuffling of thick papers, and Viktor’s heavy heart beat. Those were the only sounds in the oh so quiet room.
Yakov was making him wait. Testing his patience. This was punishment, plain and simple. And they both knew it.
Finally, slowly and calmly, Yakov placed the papers back into the leather folder and laid them gently on the desk before him.
Gently. There was nothing gentle about the man. He was known all throughout the country for his temper. Hell, he was known in other countries for his temper.
His anger was not something that could be dodged. And trying to do so would only make things worse. But this. The calm. The gentle movements and quiet had Viktor physically flinching from where he stood just in front of Yakov’s desk.
“So,” Yakov said finally, meeting Viktor’s ice blue eyes for the first time since he had entered the general’s grand office, “Is this the part where you give me your week's notice and invite me to your one man show?”
“I thought surely you were going to tell me you were leaving the military to become a comedian. Because this had better be a JOKE!” His hand hit the desk with a piercing crack on the last word causing Viktor to jump involuntarily.
You’re an alpha too, get it together. “Sir I know it isn’t what you want to hear, but-”
“But? There is no but, Viktor, there’s only this.” He brandished the folder at Viktor’s face. “It’s been five years since you were given this assignment, and in five years you have never given me the news I want. The news I need. It’s always this. This, what was it?”
He slipped open the folder and scanned for a moment. “Oh yes, ‘Even though we arrived only in time to clean up the ashes we are one step closer to the Eros and her crew. We will rise above and succeed next time’.”
Yakov read Viktor’s words back to him, his voice almost sarcastic. But Yakov would never allow himself to be so unprofessional while on duty. He placed the folder back on the desk and met Viktor’s eyes once more. “But you never do succeed. Do you?”
Remaining calm, keeping his face from displaying his bare emotions was beyond difficult. Also as difficult as keeping his scent under tight control. But he couldn't afford to lose himself in front of Yakov…..not now.
Increasingly over the last few years life for Viktor Nikiforov had begun to change.
He had presented early at age thirteen and quickly took the tests to enter Russia’s Military Academy. He could have relied on the influence of his family. They had a high standing in the Russian packs. They were wealthy and had to the ability to throw the world at their son’s feet.
But he worked hard on his own. Soaring through the academy. Top marks and praise from every teacher and official he came in contact with.
When his time there was finished and he began his first term he was the most sought after cadet. The other alpha cadets challenged him at every turn.
And all lost.
His prowess with the blade had become something of legend. Graceful and deadly. No enemy stood a chance before him.
He had flourished under the praise. Under the awed approval of those around him, both peers and teachers, every time he managed to surprise then yet again.
At twenty three he was given his own ship to command. Viktor Nikiforov, captain of the Russian fleet’s fastest ship the Agape. He was a living legend and a prime alpha. His first few assignments were easy. So simple he couldn’t even remember them.
Then he got the call about Eros. A new group of pirates who were terrorizing military vessels and compounds in not just Russia, but Japan, China and most of the southern regions.
A little digging and it appeared that the nefarious crew of the infamous black ship was also trafficking omegas over the borders.
Here and there a missing person's report would crop up not too far from a heist that could be traced to the Eros. Frantic reports began pouring in from enraged alphas, all of whom told the same sad tale.
They left their home and mate for the day, and upon returning found their nests bare. A single red rose left in their place.
Less often it was the parents of the omega in question who would reach out. These were perhaps the worse to bear witness to. Children stolen from their homes in the middle of the night, a rose bud left on their pillow.
It was always a rose. All of them a deep crimson. Viktor had even kept a few in that first year. Dried and pressed into his log book to remind him what they were fighting for.
They had become harder to look at with each passing year.
That first year had been grueling, but he had loved every minute of it. He came at them with all the force of a young warrior bent on winning.
They pushed and he pushed them right back.
There had been a break in the mission nearly ten months in. A tip off on the location of the Eros’ hideout. The notorious, Ice Castle. It had turned out to be nothing more than a crater cut into an iceberg up north.
All reports had made it out to be the centre of their little pack. A veritable wonderland of all the stolen goods the pack had ferreted away. Rumor had it that the young omegas taken from their homes were the ones left to tend to the fortune when the ship was out at sea.
It had become something of a romantic dream around the ranks.
The crush when they had found nothing more than a frozen rose stuck to the bottom of a hole barely large enough for Viktor to stand in, was devastating. It had been the first real blow to his ego in all his twenty three years.
Things only got worse from there. Yakov was right. He was a joke. Nobles and high ranking officials stopped trying to set him up with their children.
Upstart alphas no longer bothered to push him for dominance. He was no longer worth the display. But at least he still had his ship. He still had his mission. And he was going to see it to the end.
Yakov’s gruff voice pulled him out of his musings. He had been too quiet for too long. Too closed up inside himself. He took a deep breath, trying to clear his head before looking back at Yakov, to the man who was as much a second father to him as his general.
“I know things are less than perfect with this mission. But we know more about them now than ever before. They are getting outside help from other ships and other pirate packs. All we have to do is figure out which ones and see how we can buy them.”
“Buy them? We’ve started trying to buy pirates to our side now.” Yakov said in exasperation, pinching the bridge of his nose.
“We’ve tried literally everything else,” Viktor sighed and looked away again, “The problem is, though, that very few of the other pirate packs are willing to give up what they know. No matter how we approach them, or what we offer, they all remain silent on the subject of the Eros and her crew.”
Yakov stared at him for several tense moments, “You said you’re close though? What else do you have to tell me?”
“I found one group led by a Jean Jacques Leroy, he styles himself as the smuggler king of the Americas. He has information he’s willing to share with us.”
“The price?” Yakov prompted darkly.
“Nothing too worrisome.” Viktor gave a shrug, unable to hold back a small smile. “He insists that if ever he shows up in our logs we must refer to him as King JJ,”
Yakov huffed in amusement, “I know, sir.” Viktor shared a grin with him. “Other than that there isn’t anything I feel we shouldn’t comply with. He doesn’t actually ask for much. I also have no objections to going back on my word after we get what we need. He is a pirate after all. We have a meeting set up a week from now on a small island just off Japan. After that we should have a clear heading.” Or they had better.
Yakov grunted, Viktor took it as a good sign. “You’re strong Viktor, I know you are. A lesser man would have jumped ship years ago. Your dedication to this mission has not gone unnoticed. Of that I can assure you. So you go out there, son. Don’t listen to what they may say behind your back, what they whisper in the corners.”
“You think you’ve lost face with them over the last few years. The truth is they fear you more than ever. No one wants to mess with the man behind those cold eyes of yours.” He leaned back raking a hand through his thinning grey hair, large leather chair creaking with his shifting weight. “I have faith in you. But if this new intel leads you to another dead end I’m pulling you off the case,” Viktor opened his mouth to respond but Yakov rose his voice and pushed on, “If only for a while. A holiday, Viktor. It’s time you took a break.”
Viktor nodded, running a hand through his own silver hair. He couldn’t refuse the orders of his general. But he didn’t like it. This time would be different.
It had to be.
“Is there something else you needed?” Yakov asked after Viktor made no move to leave.
“Permission to speak freely, sir.” This was it. The real reason Viktor was on edge in this meeting. Five years of failures meant he was prepared for Yakov's disappointment. But he had never directly questioned Yakov's orders before….at least not to his face.
He waited for Yakov’s reply and his rage.
“It’s about the boy.”
“Yitya!” Yakov groaned, switching to the diminutive now that their official business had concluded.
“Yakov he is too young and you know it. Even I wasn’t pushed through this quickly. I feel this is only because of who his grandfather is. I just don’t want the boy to get hurt.”
He said it in a rush so that Yakov couldn’t steamroll him this time. Certainly he could see reason. The boy was only sixteen for crying out loud.
“I know you think he’s too young to be of any use. But he has, on his own right, passed all the qualifiers for his position. Which is just that of a cadet.”
“I was given orders to find him a mission so he where could gain experience and there is nowhere he'll learn more and be safer than with you. You are to treat him as any other cadet in your care. Do you understand?”
“Yes, sir.” Viktor said, shoulders slumping slightly.
“Good. You’re dismissed.” Yakov turned his full attention to another folder on his desk. Effectively blocking Viktor from continuing the conversation.
Of course they had the same talk when Yakov first assigned the boy to the Agape. But Viktor still wanted to try his plea once more before he actually had to sail with the teen.
Even though he wasn’t looking, Viktor still bowed to his superior before turning on his heel and leaving the echoey office. Shutting the door with a little too much force as he left.
He growled as he paced down the corridor to his own, much smaller, office.
Five years of chasing a phantom. Five years of dead ends and disappointment. Of missing omegas he had no way of knowing were still even alive.
And now, on top of it all, he was expected to watch after a baby alpha. All because his grandfather was the head of the military.
Nikolai Plisetsky wasn’t an unfair man. But rumors said he indulged his grandson too much. Ignoring disciplinary infractions left and right and turning a blind eye on any behavior that would have had any other recruit kicked out on the spot.
And now, Yuri Plisetsky was Viktor’s problem.
The universe had it out for him.
People in the halls quickly moved from his path. Cowed by the angry pheromones Viktor was no longer able to control.
Yakov had not been far off when he said that people had begun to avoid Viktor out of fear rather than pity. His control was slipping. It was harder to find anything to be positive about.
Around him the world was fading. Color draining away leaving everything a ubiquitous grey.
Everyday things that had once brought him joy became duller, and lifeless. Food had no flavor, old hobbies brought him no joy. And the only thing he could smell now were those damned dried roses.
The full throated growl that escaped him sent a hapless page scurrying full force back the way she had come. He paid it no mind.
The door to his office was slightly ajar. Had he been in such a hurry to report to Yakov he forgot to close it? He glanced briefly at the plaque just outside his office. It listed his name, his rank, and an abbreviated list of his accomplishments. He slammed the door behind him with a grimace.
The office itself was fitting for his station. Spacious, but not large by any means. Bookcases lined one wall and portraits of his family hung from the other.
A large desk occupied the centre of the room, positioned in front of floor to ceiling windows that overlooked the compound's lavish courtyard. The office was yet another thing that had once brought him great joy and pride.
For one so early in his military stint having an office this size with such a breathtaking view was nearly unheard of. And for those who spent most of their time on their ships having an office at all was a great honor.
When he first received this simple room he had been so proud. He preened like the puffed up young alpha he was.
A wistful smirk curved his lips. In those first months he had called in those under his command for ‘important meetings’ almost daily
It had just been an excuse to bring his friends in for a drink during work hours.
Now it was just a symbol of how far he had fallen.
He crossed to the desk quickly. The plush rug muffling his footsteps. But it was still deafening to his frayed nerves.
He collapsed into the supple leather chair and reached for the bottom right drawer of his desk, pulling out a bottle and a glass. By the time he poured his second ample drink he had the courage to open the bottom left drawer.
It had been months since he even looked at it. The leather folder was thick. It was more of a book now if he was being honest. He had spent an entire weekend reinforcing the binding about a year ago. He should really update it soon. There were several more files that belonged in there now. But he made no move towards that stack.
Instead he opened the object of his obsession to the first file. The sweet scent of dead roses and dry paper drifted around him like a miasma.
The first twenty or so files were years older than the ones they knew belonged to the Eros and her crew. But once the word got out that a pirate pack was targeting omegas, desperate families had sent in their cases. Most just wanted closure. A target to place the blame. The same desperate, bone deep need Viktor had as well.
So any report that seemed to fit the profile ended up in the folder.
He swirled the clear liquor in the crystal glass, eyes raking over the file for what must have been the millionth time. Hopeful for new information he couldn't possibly find.
The boy had been seventeen when he had disappeared. Taken in the middle of the night from his home in Japan. No flower had been left in his place, but the circumstances resembled the others enough for Viktor to place his file in this folder.
Viktor stared at the faded sepia photograph. Large dark eyes looked at him from a young face with round cheeks and a mop of dark hair.
In the picture the boy looked happy. A small smile curved his lips and his eyes shone with gentle amusement.
Over the years it seemed to Viktor that the picture had changed. Now the boy looked at him, smile sad and knowing. His eyes now pleading for Viktor’s help.
It was his imagination. The product of too much stress. Too much disappointment. But he couldn’t stop the ever present certainty that they all knew. All these innocent souls knew that he was looking for them.
That he was failing them.
“I’ll find you.” He whispered to the boy. It was a ritual now after so many years.
“I promise. I’ll find you.”