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“Strejdo?”

Radek, who’d answered his phone because Chuck said it was urgent, frowned. “Katja, why are you calling me at work? You know I am very busy -”

“Strejdo, it’s Maminka.” Katja was only six and very soft-spoken on the phone. Between her English and her Czech and the fact that she was crying, she was hard to understand.

Radek deliberately lifted his hands away from the keyboard and turned away from his computer, pressed a hand to his ear to drown out the noise of Hewston and Ambrose arguing yet again. “What about your mother?”

“I am at the police station. The police officers say you must come get me.”

“Police officers?” Radek echoed. He shed his lab coat, rose up, crossed the room as far as the phone cord would allow, and grabbed his jacket off the coat rack that stood just inside the lab door. “All right. I will be right there. Which police station are you at?”

“I don’t know, let me ask.” Katja’s voice went muffled for a moment.

And then Radek saw, through the window in the lab door, two uniformed police officers approaching, expressions grim.

“Never mind, Katja. I will be there soon.” Radek turned and hung up the phone, felt numbness creeping through his limbs. Hewston and Ambrose’s argument faded into the background beneath his heart pounding in his ears. He crossed the lab again, pulled the door open before the officers could knock. “Yes?”

“Dr. Radek Zelenka?”

“I am he.”

“Have a seat, Doctor. It’s about your sister.”

*

Radek’s head was still pounding. He was sitting in an interrogation room at the police station, because he didn’t want to leave Katja there alone any longer than necessary. A female police officer had brought Katja a little styrofoam cup of hot cocoa and was kneeling down, smiling at her and talking to her. Katja had her backpack on one of the chairs beside her and was kicking her legs desultorily. Jitka had failed to pick Katja up from school, and Jitka had failed to update the school with Radek’s new contact information, so the school had called the police, and the police had gone to Jitka’s house and found her dead. Burglary gone wrong.

“I don’t understand,” Radek said blankly, to the sympathetic detective, an impossibly young-looking man who’d introduced himself as Detective Barton. “Jitka had nothing of value. Her television still had cathode ray tubes, and she listened to cassette tapes.”

Detective Barton had a swoop of red-brown hair, like those musician boys who had eyeliner and cried about their love lives, and from Radek’s angle on the other side of the table the young man looked like he only had one eye, vivid green. “Did Jitka have any enemies?”

“No, she was a good person, a kind person, a good mother to Katja. She was on the PTA and baked kolaches for the bake sales. Very popular.”

“Did she have a regular routine? Thieves would have cased her house before breaking in.”

Radek shook his head. “No, Jitka was a reporter. She wrote about - art and literature and music and dance. Sometimes she went out in the evenings, to watch shows and write reviews, sometimes she stayed in all day and read. She worked for an online blog. Flexible hours. For Katja.”

“For an online blog? We didn’t find a laptop at the house,” Detective Barton said.

And like that, Radek knew. Jitka had always wanted to be taken more seriously as a journalist. Her editor, a fat, smelly old man named Henry, always gave her fluff pieces to write. She enjoyed attending cultural events, and she loved art and music, but she had gone to school to become an investigative journalist, to write stories that changed the world. She said she’d been given a lead on a story about one of the companies that was partnered with Radek’s on a government contract for clean, portable energy solutions for the military. She had consulted with him a few times about what she’d learned. She had been convinced that Athena Energy was looking to turn the portable energy technology into a bomb to sell to terrorists.

Radek didn’t know how Jitka had acquired the technical data that she had, but he’d reviewed it for her, explained that if it was true, someone had figured out not only how to draw energy from subspace, but how to weaponize it. At least, in a theoretical sense. According to Jitka’s data they were still in the testing stage, hadn’t even built a working prototype.

Jitka had hoped to go undercover at the company as a janitor or something else innocuous that would give her access all over the building.

She had been working as a janitor for over a month, still writing art pieces on the side, when she started becoming nervous, afraid. She thought someone in security was onto her. She told Radek she thought she’d seen a black van parked outside her house. When Katja reported that a black van was parked outside her school during recess, Radek became worried as well.

But then - nothing. For a whole month. Radek had thought everything was all right.

Detective Barton listened carefully to Radek’s explanation, taking notes.

“Did your sister keep her research notes on her laptop?”

“I don’t know. I told her not to. If she was interested in a company like Athena Energy, they have excellent computer scientists. A laptop can be hacked.”

“Were her notes stolen?”

“I don’t know. I don’t know how she kept them.”

Detective Barton pushed a tablet across the table. “These are the crime scene photos. Take a look and see if you know what’s missing.”

Radek swiped through them. The house was a mess, shelves broken off the walls, their contents scattered across the floor, furniture knocked over, clothes strewn about. Jitka’s office was the worst - it looked like a hurricane had hit it.

Radek’s throat closed when he saw bloodstains on the carpet. He pushed the tablet away. “I do not know. Katja would know better. I live on my own, in West Valley. I only came into the city proper to help with Katja when Jitka was working late. I never went into Jitka’s study.”

Detective Barton nodded sympathetically. “All right. We’ll give it a couple of days before we interview Katja. Can she stay with you?”

Radek thought of his tiny studio apartment, with its roof access so he could reach his pigeon coops. They needed to be let out for their training flight.

“Of course,” he said, because he was the only family Katja had in this country. “I will take care of her.”

*

Radek Zelenka wasn’t a stupid man. He was a world-renowned physicist and engineer, had taught at Masaryk for years before Jitka convinced him to move to America. He’d only done so because Jitka’s husband Andrej was dying of cancer, and Jitka needed help with Katja.

Helping with Katja - babysitting once in a while, cooking for her, taking her to the park or the zoo - was easy. Actually caring for her was much, much harder. It was exhausting. He had to get up earlier, to make sure she was awake and dressed and ate breakfast and also had lunch to take with her to school. He had to leave work early to pick her up from school, take her to her dance lessons, take her home, cook her dinner, help her with homework, put her to bed, and then boot up his laptop and keep on working.

Not just on his work project, but on Jitka’s investigation. Three weeks after Jitka’s funeral, Detective Barton called with news - they had caught a burglar breaking into another home in Jitka’s neighborhood, and he had confessed to breaking into Jitka’s house and accidentally killing her when she caught him and tried to fend him off. He admitted to taking her laptop and pawning it. The laptop was never recovered, but the case was open and shut. The thief pled guilty and was sent to prison.

Radek didn’t like it, knew that was too simple. In her interview with the police, Katja had looked at the photos of her mother’s study and couldn’t tell what was missing.

Once the police declared the home was no longer a crime scene, Radek moved in. He was nervous, about living in the home where Jitka had died, how that would make Katja afraid, but Miko had suggested, over one of their many collegial sushi lunches, that letting Katja have as much familiarity as possible was better for her. Maybe it was Radek’s imagination, but Katja seemed to sleep better in her own bed.

So Radek notified his landlord that he was moving out, and then he bribed Miko and Katie at the office to take Katja shopping for a girls’ day. Hewston, Lee, and Ambrose helped him pack up his apartment and pigeon coops, move everything to the house, and unpack it.

Radek made the guest bedroom his room, packed up Jitka’s clothes and jewelry and some of her personal items for storage, but left the master bedroom mostly intact, so Katja could go in there if she wanted, remember her mother.

Being a full-time parent was exhausting. Katja helped Radek with the pigeons now, which was good - though Radek had to retrain them to recognize their new home - but Radek felt like he was always on the go, never had a chance to stop and catch his breath.

He didn’t dare stop, because as he’d cleaned out Jitka’s office, he’d found them, her notes. Tucked into a My Little Pony coloring book that Katja had finished years ago, if the wild scribbling outside the lines was any indication. Jitka had been onto something. Not only did she have the technical specs for a terrifying bomb, but she had the names of people involved, notes about phone calls, pieces of half-redacted memos that Radek un-redacted with some high school-level chemistry.

Athena Energy was close to a prototype. And they’d planned on selling it for a modest fee to someone simply known as Ba’al for a test, and if it proved viable, marketing it to other individuals with mythological codenames - Cronus, Heru’ur, Nirrti - for a much higher price, casualties be damned.

Not only was Radek responsible for meeting Katja’s basic needs, he was responsible for her continued safety, because he was pretty sure Athena Energy was looking at him and Katja now, in case they knew something they shouldn’t. Katja knew nothing, but Radek knew he knew too much.

“You should get a nanny,” Miko said. Once again, she and Radek were sharing lunch at the sushi bistro down the street from the office. It served a delicious roll with paper-thin slices of lemon across the top.

Radek, who was trying to decide between the dragon roll and the crystal crunch roll, paused. “A nanny?”

“To help with your niece.” Miko nodded earnestly. “A nanny isn’t just like a babysitter - a nanny can cook and clean, make sure Kat gets to her after-school activities and appointments, help with homework. The house is big enough that you could even get a live-in nanny. What’s the fancy French term for it?” She gesticulated with her chopsticks. “An au pair.”

They were sharing a bowl of edamame between them. Miko was dexterous enough with chopsticks that she could eat edamame with them; she didn’t mind that Radek had to use a fork.

“An au pair - like a governess? Or a - a nurse?” Radek had a vision of a woman in a black-and-white Victorian uniform, all long skirts and a severe bun.

“No, nothing so old-fashioned,” Miko said. “These days au pairs are nice Mormon girls who are training to be mothers. They’re college educated and sew their own clothes and make all organic food. It’d be great for Katja! Like a big sister mentor.”

Radek could imagine such a young woman, modestly dressed, bright-eyed and rosy-cheeked and eager to help - and absolutely no use against the forces that had killed Katja’s mother.

“Just think about it,” Miko said, after Radek’s long silence. “You’re burning the candle at both ends. Keep it up and you’ll blow up the lab.”

Radek managed a chuckle. “Ah. I see this is all self-interest.”

Enlightened self-interest,” Miko said. Then she added, slyly, “Or you could get a manny. Seeing how you bat for the other team.”

“A what?” Wasn’t that the slang term for a manicure?

“A male nanny,” Miko said. “Nice pretty gay boy. They’re all the rage on The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills.”

Radek had never seen that show and refused to, even though Miko and Katie and Lindsay all seemed to love it. They talked about that show the way Abrams and Hewston talked about hockey.

“It’d be so Beverly Hills,” Miko said, “you macking on the nanny.”

Radek spluttered. “What? No! That is a terrible idea - and an awful stereotype. I would never stoop to such a thing.”

But he did research the concept of a manny. Not because he wanted to have a live-in boytoy, but because apparently very wealthy families hired male nannies who were also bodyguards for their children. Katja didn’t just need an additional caregiver - she needed a protector, and Radek would be the first to admit he was no warrior. He would do his damnedest to protect her, but if Athena Energy came after her directly -

What about a female equivalent of a manny? Who was part bodyguard, part nanny? Perhaps Athena Enterprises would underestimate a female caregiver. Only how much did Radek dare disclose to such a caregiver? Well, if he was hiring one who was part bodyguard, had those qualifications, surely the extra protective factor would be built into the nanny’s offer on wages. On paper, neither Radek nor Katja looked liked the type of people who would need a bodyguard.

But Katja had to have one.

Maybe he could split the difference, find a nanny who had a martial arts background, who could perhaps teach Katja some self-defense skills of her own, but wasn’t an actual bodyguard-nanny.

So Radek drafted up a wanted ad for a nanny for Katja and hoped and prayed he would find one who could protect her.

*

“I am a big girl,” Katja protested. “I do not need a nanny.”

On Miko’s advice, Radek had broached the subject well in advance of interviewing applicants.

“Maybe you do not need a nanny,” Radek said, “but I am only one person.”

“Maminka was only one person.” Katja crossed her arms over her chest and actually stamped her foot.

She and Radek were standing in the kitchen, staring each other down.

Radek sighed. “I am not Maminka. I am - not as good at this as she was. Sometimes she needed help from me. I will need help from -”

“Miko or Katie.” Katja raised her eyebrows, hopeful.

“Miko and Katie are very busy.”

“Not more busy than you.”

“Too busy,” Radek said. “I do not have the flexible schedule your mother had.”

“You mean you are not smart enough to take care of one child by yourself?” Katja’s raised eyebrows highlighted the skepticism which had invaded her hopeful expression.

Radek was not going to rise to the baiting of a six-year-old. “It’s not about being smart, it’s about having time and being in so many different places. You are smart. You know I cannot be in two places at once.”

“Then be with me,” Katja said, and Radek’s heart broke.

He pulled her into his arms. “Katja, I love you. If I could I would be with you every minute of every day, but I cannot.”

She shoved him away. “I hate you!” She ran for the stairs, leaving Radek standing in the kitchen, feeling hollow.

He reviewed the applications by himself - dozens of women and only a handful of men had applied - and selected some to interview, and then he went upstairs. Katja had fallen asleep on her mother’s bed, her face wet with tears.

Radek took off her shoes, covered her with a blanket, and retreated to his own room to try to sleep.

*

Ten interviews and three days later, Radek was sure that he would never find someone who could help him take care of Katja. Some of the women who applied were wholesome and kind, but they were so young, and Katja didn’t respond well to them at all. Granted, Katja was in a bad mood the entire time Radek did interviews, but he wasn’t going to leave Katja to someone she hated and who might quickly come to hate her and be cruel to her when Radek wasn’t around. Some of the applicants weren’t so good at cooking or cleaning, or wanted too much for their services, or couldn’t handle the additional responsibilities of helping Katja with Radek’s pigeons.

At the end of the third day, there was but one candidate left. Radek was dubious of him most of all. He was ex-military, according to his resume, had resigned his commission after serving for twenty years, attained the rank of major for his troubles. He was looking to pursue a career as an artist, and he was looking for a way to keep himself in paint and art supplies in the meantime.

Radek didn’t know how much about the American military system - or military systems in general - but he didn’t think officers were nearly as tough as regular foot soldiers. And this Evan Lorne character had been in the Air Force. Weren’t the Marines the toughest ones? At least he was educated - undergraduate degree in geology, minor in physics, masters in geophysics. He’d been a surveyor for the Air Force. He didn’t sound tough at all. But on the telephone, he’d sounded friendly, said he was willing to cook and clean and transport Kat and even help with the pigeons. Also, he had basic field medic training, which was much better than the first aid and CPR training the other applicants had.

What could a career soldier possibly know about children? Evan Lorne sounded too good to be true. Radek knew people engaged in some level of puffery for a job interview, but none of the other applicants had seemed right.

Radek would follow through, though, have an in-person interview with the last applicant, and then maybe he’d give in and shell out a small fortune for a bodyguard-manny.

Katja was sulking in the den, coloring one of her homework assignments, when the doorbell rang.

“Katja, could you please answer the door?” Radek was fixing up more lemonade in the kitchen, so as to be hospitable to the applicants.

There was no response.

“Katja, please?”

There was a loud, irritated sigh, some foot stomping, the sound of the front door opening, and then a very rude, “What?”

A man said, “Hello, you must be Miss Katja.”

“Who are you?”

“My name’s Evan Lorne. I’m here to see if you want me to be your new nanny.”

“But you’re a boy.”

Radek’s eyes went wide. Katja knew she was being very rude. He set aside the pitcher of lemonade and scrambled for a dishtowel to dry his hands so he could intervene.

Evan said, very calmly, “Boys can be nannies.”

“No they can’t.”  Katja’s tone was mutinous.

“Why not?” Evan, however, still sounded perfectly calm and pleasant.

“Because nannies are like mothers, and boys can’t be mothers.” Katja’s voice wobbled on the word mothers , and Radek missed Jitka fiercely.

Evan asked, “Well, Katja, what did your mother do for you, before?”

“She made me breakfast, lunch, and dinner.”

“I can do that.”

“And...she did my hair pretty for school. Strejda Radek never does my hair as pretty.”

Radek was indignant. He was very coordinated, and Katja’s hair was always neat for school. He couldn’t do anything ornate, but Katja always looked good enough for school, just like Jitka had when she was a schoolgirl.

“I can do your hair pretty, if you want. See this picture? This is my niece. I did her hair for this picture.”

There was a pause, and then Katja said, “That is pretty. Will you make me cookies?”

Relief flooded Radek’s limbs. Katja liked this nanny.

“What’s your favorite type of cookie?”

“I don’t like cookies - I like kolaches.”

Oh dear. Katja was being contrary again. Radek had to put a stop to that immediately.

“What kind? The sweet ones, with the fruit jam on top, or the savory kind, with the cheese and meat in the middle?”

That brought Radek up short. Most people didn’t even know what kolaches were. The nearest bakery that sold kolaches was almost an hour south.

“Both,” Katja said, which was true, but was she still being contrary? There was a pause, and then Katja said, “Will you sing me lullabies and tuck me in at night?”

“Only if you want me to.”

“And you’ll help me with my homework?”

“Of course.”

“Will you help with the pigeons?”

“Definitely.”

“Fine. You can come inside.” And then Katja hollered for Radek in Czech, even though Jitka had been very firm - not speaking English in front of guests was very rude.

Radek stepped out of the kitchen and saw Katja holding the door open wide so a man could step into the foyer. Evan Lorne wasn’t at all what Radek had expected. Most soldiers were tall, with short, severe haircuts, muscular arms, very square jaws and thick necks, weren’t they?

Evan was probably about Radek’s height, and he had soft-looking dark hair that was neat and short but definitely not a crew cut. He had high cheekbones, bright blue eyes, and a dimpled grin. He wore a polo shirt, sports jacket, and khakis - obviously he’d dressed up for the interview. He had broad shoulders, looked solid and strong, but definitely not like any soldiers Radek ever saw on television. The Air Force were the softest ones after all.

But Katja liked him, liked him better than anyone else so far. And he’d been patient with her, talked to her like she was a person and not a stupid little girl, even though he had spoken to her on her level. And he had experience with children, a niece of his own.

“Dr. Zelenka? I’m Evan Lorne.” He offered a hand.

Radek shook it, smiled. “Pleased to meet you. Apologies for the delay in coming to the door. I was fixing us some lemonade. Please, come into the -”

“Kitchen,” Katja said, even though all of the other interviews had happened in the den.

“Pleasure to meet you as well.” Evan’s grin didn’t dim an iota, but he directed it at Katja and said, “Lead the way.”

She grabbed his hand and practically dragged him into the kitchen. She pushed him toward the center island and ran to fetch him a glass. She struggled to pour him the lemonade, and he helped her without interfering too much, accepted the glass with a soft, Thanks.

“So, Dr. Zelenka, I understand from Miss Katja that my duties will involve cooking meals, doing her hair, helping her with her homework, helping with the pigeons,  helping you put her to bed, and baking her kolaches. Is there anything else I need to know?”

“Some help with the cleaning and laundry,” Radek said. “Making sure she gets to ballet class, and also to any medical appointments.”

Evan nodded. “All right. How many days a week do you need me?”

Radek wasn’t sure these negotiations should take place in front of Katja, but she said,

“Every day!”

Evan chuckled at her enthusiasm. “As much as I would like that, I don’t know if that’s what you and your uncle need, and what you want isn’t the same as what you need, right? Why don’t you go find some pictures of pretty ways you want me to do your hair while I talk to your uncle.”

Katja nodded and practically bounced out of the kitchen.

Radek heaved a sigh of relief. He really wanted some vodka in his lemonade right about now. “Thank you. You have a way with children.”

“Helped my sister with her kids a lot.” Evan shrugged. “So, I know what Katja wants. What is it that you need?”

“Could you live here? We could clear a room for you. The office is no longer an office. You would have all of the weekend to yourself. I would pay for all your food, you would not need to pay rent. I just - I am not enough for Katja.”

“I’m sorry about your sister,” Evan said quietly. “I can move in, if that’s what you and Katja need. Cooking, cleaning, pigeons - none of it’s a problem.”

“Thank you,” Radek said. “Shall we discuss your salary?”

Evan nodded. “Sure.”

*

Radek didn’t know if Evan had asked for a reasonable salary or not, but it was one Radek could afford, and that was what mattered. Based on the research Radek had done into hiring a bodyguard-manny versus an au pair , Radek thought he’d offered reasonable wages, but he didn’t know for sure. Evan didn’t object, didn’t attempt to bargain too hard. All he asked for in concessions was a space to paint, with good light, which Radek was more than willing to grant him.

When Radek asked when Evan could start, Evan said as soon as Radek needed him. Radek needed him right away.

So Evan went out to his car and returned with a military-issue duffel bag and a large old-fashioned steamer trunk full of art supplies.

Radek explained, apologetically, that the office wasn’t completely cleared out. Yes, he’d boxed up all of his sister’s personal effects, but it was still full of her office furniture. Her couch folded out into a futon, which Evan said would be just fine for a bed - he’d bunked in all kinds of places, and a good airman could sleep anytime, anywhere.

Evan settled his gear in the corner of the room and shed his jacket, and together he and Radek rearranged the furniture so the desk was against the wall and there was room for the couch to unfold into a bed.

“This works,” Evan said. “I can use the desk as a nightstand. I don’t have a lot, and I don’t mind living out of my bag - did it all the time, when I was in.” He stepped back, hands on his hips, and surveyed the room. “This space has really great lighting.”

Radek found himself surveying Evan, the breadth of his shoulders, the narrowness of his hips, the curve of his behind in his well-fitting khakis -

No. No dating the nanny. And certainly no dating a former soldier. Not that Radek did much dating anyway. Although - would Evan object if Radek did go on a date or brought a date over?

“This is perfect.” Evan grinned at Radek, and Radek’s heart skipped a beat.

No. This couldn’t be happening.

Then Evan frowned. “There is one more thing.”

“I have one more thing as well,” Radek said.

“You go first,” Evan said.

Radek wasn’t sure how to tell Evan he was gay. “No, you.”

“I still carry my service pistol.” Evan untucked the back of his shirt and drew out an honest-to-goodness handgun. “It’s military-issue, so it doesn’t have a safety, but it does have a double action, so Katja isn’t strong enough to fire it, and it won’t accidentally discharge if it’s dropped. Do you and Katja know gun safety?”

Radek was wracked by indecision. On the one hand, he was terrified of guns. On the other hand, if Evan was armed, they would be safer, wouldn’t they?

“Katja knows guns are very dangerous and to stay far away from them,” Radek offered.

“What about you?” Evan asked. “Do you know how to clear a gun?”

Radek shook his head.

“Dr. Zelenka -”

“Please, call me Radek.”

“Radek.” Evan’s expression was solemn. “You’re a scientist, right?”

Radek nodded.

“Well, studies show that children who are familiar with firearms and are taught weapon safety are much less inclined to fool around with a gun they come across than children who are taught to fear guns. The best way to keep Katja safe is for me to teach her very basic gun safety. Not how to fire it, but how to handle it - always like it’s loaded - and to call for an adult if she comes across one.” Evan caught Radek’s gaze, held it. “Is that all right with you?”

“Of course. Anything to keep Katja safe.” Radek swallowed hard.

“I’ll teach you the rest - how to check if it’s loaded, how to clear it, that kind of thing,” Evan said. “If you like, I can teach you how to shoot it.”

“Ah - no. I will learn safety, but I have no desire to be a marksman,” Radek said.

“Fair enough.” Evan tucked the gun away, out of sight. How had Radek not seen it? He’d studied Evan pretty thoroughly. Which he should not be doing.

Well, Evan was attractive. Radek would be a fool to deny that. But Radek could be a gentleman and not blatantly ogle someone he found pleasing to the eye.

“Now,” Evan said, “what was your thing?”

“I - I am gay,” Radek said. “Will that bother you? If I bring a date over, perhaps.”

Evan smiled gently. “No, not at all. I understand your apprehension, me being former military and all, but your life isn’t over just because you’re taking care of Katja now. I’m here full-time. If you want to go out on dates, please do.”

Relief flooded Radek’s limbs. “Of course, you are also welcome to go out on dates,” he said. “Just - do not bring any strangers back here. If things become serious -”

Evan laughed and shook his head. “No, no dating for me. But I appreciate your willingness to accommodate me ever having an actual love life.”

“I know you will not be with me and Katja forever,” Radek said. “But I am hoping this arrangement will be stable, for Katja.”

“Stability and continuity of services is critical for kids,” Evan said. “I understand. Now, what’s for dinner? You’ll need to teach me all of Katja’s favorite foods.”

As Radek was a limited cook himself, Katja had resigned herself to eating whatever he could make that was palatable and contained sufficient quantities of cheese. “You can bake kolaches, yes?”

“Yes. My Nan was a pastry chef, trained in Paris.”

“Jitka left her cookbooks behind. I think she marked their favorite recipes.” Radek led Evan down the stairs and to the kitchen.

They paused and peeked into the den, where Katja was watching cartoons while she colored her homework some more.

“I can follow a recipe,” Evan said.

“Then you are a better man than me.”

Evan washed his hands at the sink. “More practice, I suspect. Where did your sister keep her aprons?”

Radek blinked. He never cooked with them. “I do not know. Perhaps Katja knows.”

Katja, who was happy Evan was staying, and who had proudly showed off all the hairstyles she wanted for school, came into the kitchen readily enough, but Radek suspected she was testing Evan when she handed him a pink apron.

He tied it on without even making a face, thanked her for showing him where the aprons were, and then he crouched down so they were eye-to-eye, asked her what her favorite meal was and if she could show it to him in her mother’s cookbook.

Radek had learned, from watching Jitka with Katja, that the best thing to do with Katja was offer her options - toast or cereal for breakfast? - but make her stick to the available options, so he wasn’t sure about Evan constantly asking Katja what it was she wanted. But Katja actually pushed a chair over to one of the cupboards, climbed up, poked in the cupboard, and then descended with a cookbook in hand, one that was old and worn and filled with sticky tabs and handwritten notes.

She flipped through it with much dexterity and pointed to a recipe.

“I don’t read Czech,” Evan said apologetically, and Radek moved to help him. “How long does it take?”

Radek peered over his shoulder. “An hour.”

“That’ll make dinner really late.” Evan looked at Katja. “Tell you what - I’ll make this tomorrow night. How about you pick your favorite recipes from this book so I can learn them, but tonight we’ll make something fast? How about grilled cheese sandwiches and tomato soup?”

Katja pursed her lips in a moue of distaste - she didn’t like tomatoes - but Radek said, “Yes, that would be fine. Katja, please set the table, then go finish your homework.”

After salary negotiations, Radek had fetched Jitka’s family calendar and showed him the weekly schedule - ballet on Wednesday evenings after school - and explained the daily routine as best as he could.

“I did my best to maintain what Jitka had, but with my work schedule…” He shrugged apologetically.

Evan had nodded sympathetically. “You’ve been doing great, Radek. Don’t sell yourself short. Being a single parent is hard. I can help Katja get back to the routine she had with her mother. Just let me know if I overstep my bounds or anything, okay?”

Then Evan had asked a series of questions that Radek hadn’t been expecting - what chores was Katja expected to do, what household tasks, what discipline system was in place? Radek knew some of it - making her bed, cleaning her room, setting the table and clearing the table, time-out, loss of TV or tablet privileges - but he didn’t know nearly as much as he thought he did.

“We can ask Katja,” Evan had assured him. “She’s going to push boundaries with me at first, but for the most part if we ask her what she thinks a fair consequence is, she’ll stick to what she knows.”

Radek watched Evan as he moved around the kitchen, calm and competent, though he constantly had to ask where Jitka kept what utensils. Evan asked questions as he cooked. Where did Jitka usually shop? What was her food budget like? When did she usually go shopping? Did she take Katja with her? Did Katja or Radek have any food allergies he should know about? Were there any particular brands that Jitka and Katja had preferred? Had Radek arranged with the school so Evan could drop Katja off, pick her up, and check her out of school if needs be, be contacted in case of emergency? Did Radek have information about Katja’s pediatrician? When were her next well child and dental checks?

Radek’s head spun. Mostly he’d been following along with whatever was on Jitka’s master family calendar as best as he could, but clearly Evan was fully qualified to be a nanny, because Radek, who could make the laws of gravity stand on their head, hadn’t thought about any of those details.

Evan had the sandwiches sizzling on the stove and was just heating up some soup - which he’d made from scratch, with the tomatoes in the refrigerator - when he turned to Radek.

“Hey, I’m sorry, I’m probably overwhelming you with my questions.”

Radek shook his head. “No, I am just overwhelmed by everything else. I don’t know how I ever thought I could care for Katja alone. I did not think of any of those things.”

Evan set down his spatula, put his hands on Radek’s shoulders, and looked him square in the eye. “Don’t punish yourself. This isn’t your fault. You lost a sister just like Katja lost a mother. Have you given yourself time to grieve?”

“No, I must protect Katja.” From so much more than his own neglectful parenting.

“Give yourself time,” Evan said. “I’m here to help the both of you, all right? After dinner, we’ll do the dishes, Katja can have a bath, we’ll tuck her in, and then maybe you should have a glass of wine.”

Radek made a face. “Becherovka, not wine. I know where Jitka hid hers.”

“Then have a shot of Becherovka and take some time to yourself.”

Radek eyed him. “Why are you so nice? Aren’t soldiers supposed to be tough? I’m sorry. That was offensive.”

But again, Evan laughed. “No, I understand. There’s a stereotype about those who serve in the military, and there are stereotypes within the military. I’ve heard all the Chair Force jokes and then some, and people do think airmen are less tough than soldiers and Marines, but the truth of it is - I was an officer. I spent most of my time in the service as a company officer - a captain. And as a company officer, my responsibility was for my men and women, for their welfare, their happiness and wellbeing, because if they were safe and happy, they performed better at their jobs, and their jobs kept all of us alive. As a field officer - a major - my focus shifted from my men and women to my superior officers and the Air Force at large, logistics and administration so a particular theater was running smoothly. Two different skill sets, but some crossover. If my superiors were safe and happy, then things were better for all of us.”

“You like making people happy.”

“It’s better for everyone on a team or group or in a family if we’re all happy,” Evan said. “We take care of each other.”

“Adults must take care of themselves,” Radek said.

“Yes, we should be capable of the basics, but we have our ups and downs, and we should be willing to help each other.”

Radek eyed him. “That is something I’ve never heard from a soldier before.”

“How many soldiers and airmen do you know?”

“Well, none, before you.”

“I will admit, my mom was a bit of a hippie. She taught me a lot about being in tune with myself and those around me.”

“A hippie?” Radek echoed.

“Free love commune and everything.” Evan crossed back to the stove and stirred the soup.

“How did the son of a hippie join the military?”

“There’s a black sheep in every family.”

That there was. Radek had been the black sheep in his, the scientist where previous generations were farmers, pigeon trainers and traders, or writers and activists like Jitka. Radek nodded. “It smells good.”

“I hope so. Should be ready soon - you can call Katja.”

Radek went to the den to fetch Katja, who had finished her coloring and set it aside and was watching cartoons. She perked up when she entered the kitchen, sniffing the air.

“It smells good! What did you add to it?”

“Add to it?” Evan echoed. “This didn’t come from a can.”

“Strejda always makes food from cans.” Katja plopped down at the table and cast Radek a challenging look.

Evan said, “Your uncle made sure you never went hungry. Cooking may not be his skill, but he is a very talented scientist.”

Domestic kitchen at dusk, warmly lit room with Evan on the left putting pot of tomato soup back on cooktop after dishing it up. On the right, Radek and his 6 year old niece sit at a round table, with bowls of soup and toasted cheese sandwiches etc. on table. Niece is saying something to Radek who's staring longingly up at Evan who is facing the stove, wearing a pink apron.

Katja pouted, that Evan didn’t take her side, but she must not have been holding a real grudge about Radek’s cooking, because once Evan served up the sandwiches and soup, he divested himself of his apron and joined them at the table, and Katja happily answered Evan’s questions about her school, her friends, and her dance lessons.

Radek was sure Evan was asking to gather information, to learn, but he also sounded genuinely interested in Katja’s My Little Pony games on the playground during recess, and how she wanted to dance in The Nutcracker when she grew up. How did he do it?

Radek hoped it was because he cared, and not just because he wanted money and a place to stay. Where had he been staying before, that he had his life’s possessions all in his car? (It was a sensible dark green sedan, insured and registered and safe to transport Katja in.) Radek would have to ask later. For now, he would enjoy this delicious meal and be glad that his niece had found a nanny she liked and that she could be safe and happy.

*

Sleeping in a strange house for the first time was always a bit of a tense experience. Evan didn’t know the sounds of the house, the way it creaked and settled, the pitter-patter of little feet as Katja went to get a drink of water in the middle of the night. Despite being two years out of the Air Force, Evan still slept with his pistol in reach, loaded and with one bullet chambered.

He was the first to wake, because twenty years in the military made some habits die hard, like being an early riser. He rolled out of bed - it wasn’t as uncomfortable as he’d been afraid it would be - and tugged on a pair of basketball shorts and a tank top. He pulled on socks and toed on his sneakers, and went for a run.

Not a long one - he didn’t dare leave the house unguarded for too long - but enough to get a sense of the neighborhood on foot. He ran about three miles, from the house to the park Katja regularly played at, and got back in time to do some basic PT. While he was in the shower - there was one full bathroom upstairs, one half-bathroom downstairs - he mulled over the schedule for the day. Wake Katja, get her breakfast, make lunch for her and Radek, accompany her and Radek to school so Radek could introduce him to the school officials and add Evan to Katja’s emergency contact list.

Then cleaning and organizing the house - and his own room some more - and running some errands. Pick Katja up from school, bring her home, start dinner.

He knew he’d have to work on the basics of pigeon care, which was actually helping Katja with her designated share of the pigeon chores. Radek was in charge of making sure his pigeons got their exercise in.

Evan shaved - he still preferred being clean-shaven, even though the style these days was for men to cultivate a beard - and brushed and flossed his teeth. He realized he’d forgotten to bring a change of clean clothes - so used was he to living alone - so he knotted his towel at his waist and pulled open the bathroom door.

And nearly ran over Radek, who stared at him.

Not at Evan, but at the scars on his chest, from that nasty encounter with the Unas.

Radek lifted a hand like he was going to touch one of the scars, then snatched his hand back.

Evan winced at the revulsion in Radek’s gaze but resisted the urge to clutch his workout clothes to his chest like an offended Victorian maiden.

“Sorry,” Evan said. “Forgot to bring clean clothes with me. I’ll remember next time.”

“No, don’t apologize. It’s fine. We’re adults.” Radek smiled nervously. “I have let the pigeons out for their morning flight, and I woke Katja, but I think she is still in bed.”

Evan nodded. “I’ll go get dressed and nudge her along. She has to make her bed, right?”

“Yes.”

“Great. And I’ll get started on breakfast. What do you want for lunch?”

Radek blinked. “Lunch?”

“If I’m making lunch for Katja, it’s easy to make some for you too. I was going to make her some peanut butter and honey sandwiches, but I can make something a bit more grown-up for you.” Evan smiled and added, “It’s more economical to take lunch than to buy it every day.”

“Thank you,” Radek said, “but you really don’t have to.”

“I promise,” Evan said, “I’m here to help. It’s no trouble.” He ducked around Radek and headed for his room.

It really was no trouble. Evan couldn’t imagine how he’d cope, if his sister died and he was suddenly responsible for her children. By all accounts, Radek and Jitka had been very close, Radek moving to America to help Jitka after her husband died. Because Evan had always been posted so far away, it had been difficult to maintain a very close relationship with his family, though he’d frequently sent letters, postcards, and emails home. He’d called whenever he could and spent all his leave with them, helping out on the commune or in Natalia’s tattoo parlor. However, his decision to join the military, against all of his mother’s and sister’s and his childhood community’s values, had always been a point of contention between them, and not even his retirement from the military had healed that rift.

When Evan knocked on Katja’s bedroom door, she bade him inside with a word. She’d made her bed and dressed herself and was checking the contents of her backpack to make sure she had all her completed homework to turn in. By all accounts, Katja did well in school, but her mother had just died and her life had been turned upside down, so Evan knew he had to be alert for behavioral and academic regressions.

“Ready for breakfast?” he asked.

“And will you do my hair?”

“Food first,” Evan said. “Does your bed pass inspection? Can you bounce a quarter off of it?”

Katja looked at him blankly.

Evan said, “When I was in the Air Force, my drill sergeant would check my bed every morning, to see if I made it right, and to test, he would bounce a quarter off of it.”

Katja’s eyes went wide. “I don’t know. I don’t have any quarters.”

“That’s all right. You have a few years before you’ll have any bouncing quarters. Come on. Uncle Radek is in the shower.” Evan guided Katja downstairs and started on breakfast - Belgian waffles, using his special snowflake-shaped waffle iron.

Radek arrived just as Evan was serving Katja her first waffle.

“Those look too pretty to eat.” Radek sat down at the kitchen table, wide-eyed. “You aren’t our servant. I can help.” He started to rise again.

“Katja set the table like a big girl, even fetched the butter and syrup. But if you want to get the orange juice, that would help,” Evan said. He really didn’t mind doing a lot of domestic chores that some of the men he’d served with had dismissed as women’s work. There was a strange dichotomy, when they were out on extended campaigns, roughing it in tents or under the stars, about being both the commanding officer and the camp cook. Everyone loved a good camp cook, but cooking was still women’s work to so many of those men.

Radek fetched the orange juice, poured some for himself and Katja. Evan had eaten the first waffle, which had come out misshapen and a little burnt, because he was loathe to throw food out (Waste not, want not - the mantra in his mother’s voice was always with him), so he served up the next waffle to Radek. He chugged a glass of orange juice and set about making lunches.

Katja had a My Little Pony lunchbox, which Evan filled with a peanut butter and honey sandwich, some apple slices and a little container of caramel sauce, and a juicebox. Radek didn’t have a lunch box of his own - Evan added that to his mental shopping list - so Evan made him a sandwich out of the deli meat and fixings he found in the fridge and gave him a bottle of water and a whole apple. Thankfully, Jitka had had a supply of brown paper bags, so Evan bagged up Radek’s lunch and wrote his name on it with a Sharpie he found in the junk drawer and, as an afterthought, drew a quick little portrait of Radek on the other side in case someone didn’t see his name.

As soon as breakfast was done, Katja helped clear the table, scrape off the plates, and put the dishes in the dishwasher, and then she sat on a kitchen chair and showed Evan the picture of the hairstyle she wanted for the day. It was a simple fishtail braid, not that complicated, but her hair was tangled.

Evan added hair detangler spray to his mental shopping list and set about combing her hair.

Radek went to the roof to make sure the pigeons were back from their morning flight, and when he stepped back into the kitchen, he looked sleek and professional, in slacks and a button-down shirt, laptop bag in hand. Radek wasn’t a conventionally handsome man, but he had bright blue eyes and dimples, was lean, and stood straight, as compared to a lot of scientists Evan had known in his time. The sorrow in his eyes made Evan’s heart ache for him.

Radek set his laptop bag on the kitchen table beside Katja’s backpack and lunchbox and came to stand beside Evan. “How do you do that? Without dropping half of the hair.”

“Like I said, I have a niece,” Evan said. “Also, I’m an artist. Steady hands are a bit of a prerequisite.” He didn’t add that he’d once been an airman, and steady hands were also a prerequisite for both piloting and marksmanship. He finished the braid, securing the end with an elastic band. He wondered if Katja had some of the cute hair bands that little girls had, with ornaments on the elastic. He added those to his shopping list as well. Radek had given him a generous weekly shopping budget, probably because his sense of what food cost was inflated because he ate out often.

Evan handed Katja the little hand-mirror that had been in the bag she’d brought him of hair supplies - brushes, combs, elastic bands.

“What do you think?”

“Much better than Strejda,” she declared. She added, grinning impishly up at Radek, “Love you, Strejdo.” She hopped off the chair. “Can I ride to school with Evan?”

“Yes,” Radek said, “but just like with me, you must ride in the back.”

Evan glanced at his watch. “Is it time to go?”

Katja noddded. She scooped up her lunchbox and backpack, and out to the car they went. Katja buckled herself in without issue, and Evan let her pick the radio station they listened to. He wasn’t paying attention to the music anyway, focused on following Radek and noting the route he took to get to the school. At the school, Radek introduced Evan to Katja’s teacher, a pleasant-faced, curly-haired woman named Megan (Miss Swann, to Katja), and Radek took Evan to the front office to get him added to Katja’s file, and then Radek had to get to work, and Evan had work of his own to do.

To Radek, Katja, and Jitka’s credit, the house was fairly clean. Evan did an inventory of the cleaning and laundry supplies, noting brand names and also deciding to institute a more efficient laundry system - four baskets for everyone: whites, lights, darks, and hand-wash items. He flipped through the cookbook Katja had given him and jotted down the page numbers of recipes that Jitka had marked.

Evan did the breakfast dishes and wiped down the kitchen, wiped down the bathroom from the morning’s showers. He decided to institute some recycling bins as well, for Katja’s benefit, and also because rumor had it that the city was going to institute recycling soon anyway. As much as Evan had to do his best to maintain stability for Katja, some level of change would be expected with him being added to the household, and he might as well make positive changes as well - positive changes that Radek could sustain, once he found his feet with Katja.

The biggest chore, hands down, would be organizing his own room, rearranging the furniture how he liked, and setting up his painting space. He hadn’t been kidding - the office had the best light, what with the French doors that led out to the balcony. But he had to shove the desk away from the doors to make way for his easel, a stool, and the dropcloth to at least attempt to preserve the lovely hardwood floor. He’d have to keep his turpentine and pallet knife locked up so Katja didn’t get into them and accidentally hurt herself. She wasn’t a toddler, but Evan had studied up on the dangers kids could get into, and he figured better safe than sorry.

Because he was a bit of a perfectionist, he scrubbed the desk thoroughly - took all the drawers out, scrubbed them inside and out, scrubbed the desk inside and out, and even the places underneath where no one looked. He found a few scraps of paper that had probably gotten jammed into places and forgotten, cleaned them out and smoothed them out and pieced the torn ones back together to see if they were important. He scrubbed the walls, the ceiling, the blades of the ceiling fan and even the light fixture, and he got on his hands and knees and scrubbed the baseboard. He also cleaned the entirety of the foldout couch, used the vacuum and hose to get into the nooks and crannies.

If he deep-cleaned every room in this first week - one room a day - then he wouldn’t have to try to do all the deep-cleaning on the weekend, and as long as he kept up with the regular cleaning, a seasonal deep-clean ought to be sufficient.

Once the desk was clean and put back together and out of the way and the bed was in a place where the dawn sunlight wouldn’t be shining straight into his eyes, Evan set up his painting corner. The men in his old unit had also despised cleaning as women’s work, but Evan found it sort of soothing, the repetitive motions of scrubbing, and the end result was so satisfying: a clean living space.

When it was all done, he checked his watch. Time for lunch. He rinsed off in the shower, because the exertion of it all plus the cleaning chemicals on his skin and in his hair had made him a little gross, and then he fixed himself a quick sandwich. He ate it on his way to the car, because he wanted to get the shopping done and dinner prepped as much as possible before he had to pick up Katja.

So far, so good. There would be a lot of work this week, but if he played his cards right, he’d be able to get plenty of artwork done in his spare time. He’d show his mother and sister that being a soldier hadn’t killed the art in his soul.

Evan buckled himself in, pulled out of the driveway - Radek had sold his sister’s old car and put the money in a CD for Katja to one day get a car because that was cheaper than putting the car in storage for a decade - and headed for the grocery store where Radek said Jitka had done her grocery shopping.

As soon as he was a block from the house, he tapped his smartwatch, called a number on his favorites list.

“Hello?” The woman who answered had a warm, friendly voice.

“Hey, it’s me.” Evan smiled. It was good to hear Laura.

“Hey, you. How are you doing? Settling into your new job all right?”

“Yeah, Radek asked me to move into the house with them, so now the office is my room. First day is going smooth so far - no tears, Katja isn’t pushing boundaries with me too much. Pretty sure my cooking skills have sealed the deal at this point. Figured I’d check in with you while I head to the grocery store to pick up a few things for dinner.”

“That’s good. You feel like you’re building good rapport with the family?”

“So far so good.”

“And have you found anything?”

“Radek cleaned out the office pretty thoroughly before I got there. I examined the room top to bottom - no false ceiling panels, no hollow floorboards, no pockets of hollow wall or loose baseboards. Checked the desk, too - practically took it apart. No sign of her notes.”

Laura hummed thoughtfully. “Well, we know they weren’t on the laptop, so you’ll have to keep looking.”

“I’ll check all the other rooms in the house, to be safe. And if I don’t find them, I’m sure I can pretext a way into the storage unit where the rest of Jitka’s belongings are being stored. It’ll be another story if Radek found the notes and took them to his office, but at this point there’s no knowing what, if anything, he knows about his sister’s investigation and death.”

“All right. Be careful, Evan,” Laura said. “This is a long game.”

“I know. That’s half of why you picked me.”

“I picked you because you’re the best.”

“You picked me because my family won’t miss me if I’m gone for months at a time.”

“You could have a family if you wanted,” Laura said softly, and that was dangerous territory.

“As you so often remind me, it’s not what I want that matters - it’s the greater cause. Anyway, I’m at the grocery store, I better get this done fast so I can pick Katja up from school on time.”

“All right. Check in in seventy-two hours.”

“Yes, ma’am.” Evan tapped his watch, ended the call. Laura Cadman was an excellent handler and an even better friend, but she’d been a dangerous lover. Granted, intra-office romance was dangerous in their line of work altogether. Evan parked the car, gathered up his reuseable shopping bags, and headed into the store with his shopping list. He was a man on a mission.

First order of business: supplies for dinner for the next couple of nights, till they could build a weekly menu and the necessary recipes were translated, and also a lunchbox for Radek.

Second order of business: deep cleaning supplies.

Third order of business: laundry and recycling supplies.

Last order of business: hair supplies.

Evan had to hunt along the shelves till he found a bottle of detangler spray, and he shelled out for the good stuff, because he wasn’t going to skimp and have a crying Katja on his hands every morning when the brush snagged in her tangled hair. He picked some My Little Pony-themed scrunchies, some multicolored elastic bands, some bobby pins and black elastic bands for ballet purposes, and some octopus clips so Katja could keep her hair out of her face without Evan having to pull her hair up in ornate braids and other configurations.

The hard part was deciding which decorative clips and headbands to pick up. Some plain elastic headbands would be useful for some up-dos, but what kinds of sparkly clips would Katja even like? Before this mission, Evan had been competent at the three basic braids, a ponytail, and a bun. Then Laura had handed him the mission dossier, and he’d spent hours on Pinterest looking at hairdos for girls and practicing them all on his delighted niece, hence his hairdo portfolio on his phone. (Evan had lied to his sister and said he was dating a woman who had a daughter, and he wanted to make a good impression. His sister was still waiting to hear how that had gone.)

Maybe Evan could buy several styles of sparkly clips all with white rhinestones, so Katja could decide what style she liked. White rhinestones would go with basically anything in a pinch, and if Katja liked a particular style, Evan could pick up some of the other color options in a few weeks.

Although now that he thought about, flowers were coming back in style. Should he try to find a craft store and pick up some silk flowers? With a hot glue gun and some plain clips, Evan could make flower hair clips easily (he’d also seen how on Pinterest). In fact, that would be a fun activity for him and Katja to do together.

“That’s a whole lot of hair clips,” a woman said.

Evan glanced over his shoulder. “That it is. I’m not sure what she likes, so I’m giving her choices.”

“She?” the woman echoed. She had curly red hair, was slender and tall, had a spray of freckles across her nose. She looked - cute, friendly, and harmless. But for the way she carried herself like Laura and Carter and Teldy and so many female combat specialists Evan had known.

“Yes, a little girl. Six.”

“Single father?” The woman leaned on her cart and eyed him speculatively. Trying the flirting angle, was she? Evan knew his agency wasn’t the only one looking at the Zelenka-Nemec family.

“Ah, no. I’m a nanny. Just started with a new family,” Evan said.

The woman raised her eyebrows. “Aren’t you called mannies?

“I think it’s silly,” Evan said, “to give us gender-specific titles, like somehow we’re different or lesser at the job because we’re men. We perform the same functions as a female nanny, lending a helping hand with childcare and some basic housekeeping. So we should have the same name. After all, you’re not lawyerettes or doctorettes, are you?”

“How progressive of you.” The woman smiled at him, offered a hand. “I’m Kerry.”

“Evan.” He shook her hand.

“So I guess I’ll be seeing you around here in future?”

“Perhaps,” Evan said. “I don’t think this is going to be my regular shopping day.”

Kerry smiled and peered into his cart. “I see you didn’t skimp on the detangler. Good man.”

“I try.”

“Well, it was nice to meet you. Hope I see you around.” Kerry fluttered her fingers at him in a flirty wave and pushed her cart around the corner to the next aisle.

She was attractive, no doubt about that, but Evan wasn’t out to find a girlfriend or make new friends or fall into an enemy agency’s honey trap. He had a job and a mission.

And forty-five minutes till it was time to get Katja. He swore under his breath and scrambled for the cashier lanes.

Evan got back to the house and got the groceries and supplies unloaded, hopped back into the car, and drove to Katja’s school with barely a minute to spare. He guided his car onto the roundabout, keeping an eye out for running children. When he pulled up to the front doors of the school, Katja was standing by herself near the doors, away from a group of other little girls with brightly-colored backpacks and My Little Pony lunchboxes. She was staring at her shoes and looked miserable.

Oh no. Evan left the engine idling and hopped out of the car, hurried over to her, knelt so they were eye-level.

“Hey, Katja, how was your day? You ready to go home?” He kept his tone soft, gentle, tried to catch her gaze, but she wouldn’t meet his eye.

She grumbled under her breath in Czech - today was horrible - but just shrugged her little shoulders.

Evan sighed, stood up. “Do you want to hold my hand, or are you too big for that?”

Katja started to reach for his hand, and then the cluster of little girls giggled, and Katja snatched her hand back.

Evan eyed them, memorized their faces, and stood up. He guided Katja toward the car, careful not to touch her, and made sure she was buckled into the back seat safely. She didn’t respond to any of his attempts at small talk, so he turned on the radio to the station she liked, hummed along vaguely. If things went sideways with those girls and Katja, Evan would talk to Miss Swann about things.

According to all the child development research Evan had done - more than he’d ever expected to do in his entire life, especially with him having no hope of ever having kids - kids needed to run around and play before they settled in for homework, get their wriggles out. Also, traumatized children like Katja needed to be able to reassert control in their lives, so if Evan wanted to make changes around the house, he needed to make sure they weren’t oppressive to Katja. The best way, he figured, was to make her feel empowered. And sometimes that meant playing a little dumb.

“Hey, Katja? I don’t know how your homework works. School is different in California, where my niece lives. Can you show me the system you and your mom had for homework?”

Katja, who’d hung up her jacket and backpack, nodded and lifted her backpack back down and brought it into the kitchen. She opened it up and laid out her little My Little Pony binder.

“Two folders, one for homework to do, one for finished homework.” One was empty, one was full.

Evan nodded. “Okay. Which worksheets are due which day?”

“This one is for tomorrow, this one for Thursday, this one for Friday. Miss Swann gives us new ones on Monday.”

“Wait, I’m confused.” Evan went and fetched a weekly calendar and some clips. “Which one is for Thursday?”

Katja handed him a worksheet with simple math problems and, bafflingly, apples and ladybugs. “This one.”

Evan clipped it to the Thursday square.

“And this one for Friday?”

Katja shook her head. “No, this one.”

Evan accepted it and clipped it to the Friday square. “Okay. Thank you. That’ll help me remember. Now, why don’t you show me again how to help the pigeons, and then you can play for a little bit, and then do your homework while I make dinner?”

Katja nodded and turned, heading up the stairs. She said little to Evan, and he got the sense that she’d caught onto him playing dumb, was losing patience with that, but he slowed down, took direction from her about the pigeons. The cages had to be cleaned every day, as did the food and water bowls, and the pigeons had to be given fresh food and water. As Katja was short, she handled the lower cages, and Evan handled the upper cages.

Radek was an impressive engineer, to have wrangled a pigeon coop configuration on the tiny flat space on the roof next to the central air conditioning system that was half the size of the original space he’d had for the pigeons back at his own apartment.

Once Evan was pretty sure the cages had been cleaned up to Radek’s standards and the pigeons had fresh food and water, he urged Katja to go play, but she just followed him back to the kitchen to work on her homework while he started on dinner.

He did have to ask Katja for help translating the recipe. If asked, he’d tell Radek and Katja that he’d used Google Translate to figure out the ingredient list. Katja was a little sullen as she stood at his elbow, reading off things like slice and mix and boil , and Evan made sure to be grateful for her assistance.

Bramboracky was a simple enough recipe, which was probably one of the reasons it was Katja’s favorite, because it was easy for Jitka to cook. Once it was sizzling away, Evan checked on Katja’s homework. She really was a very bright girl, though her handwriting was a little shaky.

Radek arrived home at half past five, looking harried and tired. He greeted Katja softly, but she didn’t respond, kept coloring away at her worksheet. Radek tried again, in Czech, and her response was a surly I’m fine. Radek knelt down, spoke to her softly but firmly about being polite and speaking in English.

As much as Evan was now acting as one of Katja’s caregivers, he was still a stranger, he wasn’t part of the family, and this was a family issue. So he pretended not to listen, kept on cooking, though he paid attention to the conversation.

Laura had picked Evan for this mission for a number of reasons: he’d been a seasoned officer on Atlantis, skilled in combat and also diplomacy and the occasional bout of espionage; he had no real family ties to make going undercover longterm difficult; and he was fluent in Czech, because his grandmother had been a first-generation Czech immigrant.

Radek was warning Katja that she was being rude, that it wasn’t nice to talk so Evan couldn’t understand. It was okay for Katja to be upset, but she shouldn’t be mean to other people just because she was upset. Radek asked what was wrong, said he wanted to help, but he couldn’t if Katja didn’t tell him. Katja didn’t even answer the question, just insisted she was hungry.

So Evan broke in before things could get too tense, cleared his throat loudly and said dinner was ready. He put the dishes on the table so everyone could serve themselves. Katja only needed a bit of help, and Evan let Radek help her.

“Hey, Katja, did you get your homework done?”

She nodded.

“Did you put your finished homework in your finished folder?”

She nodded again.

Radek caught Evan’s eye and shrugged apologetically.

Evan smiled gently. He understood. “So, Radek, how was your day?” He needed to build rapport with Radek just as much as he did with Katja, if not more so. Ford and Bates had done lots of recon on Radek, but all the recon in the world wouldn’t tell Evan what he could learn from interacting with the man himself.

“It was all right,” Radek said. “We are making some progress on our project.”

“Can you tell me about it?” Evan asked. “Or is it too proprietary?”

Radek paused, considered. “Well, some of it is proprietary, and some of it is - complicated.”

“I did get my masters in geophysics,” Evan said. “Pretend you’re a TA and I’m a freshman.”

“Fair enough.” Radek pushed his glasses up his nose, and began to explain in broad and basic terms - helpful terms, for anyone who hadn’t spent half of his career in the company of Dr. Rodney McKay - the project he was working on, which was looking for a way to capture and store zero-point energy. (The answer was simple, for those in the know: find a ZPM.)

Evan nodded in all the right places, sneaked glances at Katja now and again, but she was resting her chin in her hand and forking up her food with desultory stabs.

Evan answered questions about his day, told Radek his plans to deep clean every room in the house, going grocery shopping. Evan nudged Katja gently.

“Hey, I picked up some pretty things for your hair, if you want to look at them after dinner. If there’s a special style you like, I can get some more like that, in different colors.”

She nodded minutely.

Radek sighed and set down his fork. “Katja, you are being very rude. Evan has been very kind to you, and you won’t even look at him. You should apologize.”

“It’s fine,” Evan said, because as the nanny he was supposed to pamper Katja a little bit, and besides, he was a stranger. He was going to misstep in their familiar family rhythms.

“No, it is not.” Radek reached out, tapped Katja on the shoulder. “Look at me, Katja.”

She shook her head.

Radek took a deep breath. “Pardon me, Evan. Perhaps this is best addressed in the mother tongue.”

“I understand. I’ll go get dessert.” Evan stood up and carried his empty plate over to the sink. He’d made simple rice pudding.

Radek leaned over to Katja. “Katja, this is embarrassing. You said you were a big girl, and you are acting like a little girl. Evan is kind to you. Why are you rude to him?

She just shrugged, still not looking at him.

If you continue to be like this, you will go to bed without dessert.”

She shrugged again.

Radek sighed. “This is your last chance to apologize to Evan.”

Evan fetched three dessert bowls. He served himself one helping, then glanced over his shoulder. “How much for you, Radek?”

“Only a little.”

“And for Katja?”

“Katja?” Radek asked.

She was very small and still.

Radek sighed and sat back, shook his head. “None, unfortunately. Katja will be going to bed without dessert.”

Evan nodded. “All right. That’s your decision and I respect it. Sorry, Katja. It’s pretty tasty.” He covered the remainder and put it in the fridge.

Radek said to Katja, “If you are finished with your food, go upstairs and brush your teeth. I will fix a bath for you, and then you will go to bed.”

Katja set her fork down, slid out of the chair, and headed upstairs in miserable silence.

Radek watched her go. Evan handed him the bowl of dessert.

“I’m very sorry. I don’t know what’s wrong with her.”

“When I went to pick her up at school, she was standing by herself, and some of the other girls laughed at her when I offered to let her hold my hand,” Evan said. “She wouldn’t tell me what happened either. I remember what the girls looked like. We can speak to Miss Swann, if you want. Find out what happened. Of course, it could be totally unrelated to school.”

Evan left the it could be related to her mother unspoken.

Radek sighed again. “I don’t know what to do.”

“Have you thought about a counselor?” Evan asked.

“I made arrangements for her to speak to the school counselor,” Radek said.

Evan nodded. “Of course.”

“This pudding is delicious.” Pleasure flickered across Radek’s face briefly. “You think something happened at school with the other girls?”

“Couldn’t hurt to ask.”

Radek nodded. “Dinner was wonderful. Thank you.” He peered up at Evan. “How are you a real person?”

Evan laughed. “I’m a bit of a perfectionist, is all.”

“I feel like I barely do anything around the house for Katja anymore. What can I do to help?”

“So glad you asked,” Evan said. “I need your help translating Jitka’s cookbook. I managed to fumble along tonight with the magic of Google Translate and also Katja’s patience, but that won’t work every time, especially not for more complex recipes.”

“Of course. Let me find a notebook and a pen.”

“Notecards, if you don’t mind. It’s how I learned to keep recipes.” Evan held up his battered old recipe tin, the one he’d been given when he was ten and first allowed to really help Nan in the kitchen.

“My mother kept recipes the same way.” Radek’s expression turned distant, fond. “Of course.”

While Radek worked, Evan did the dishes, even though it was usually Katja’s chore, and Evan expounded on his plans to deep clean every room in the house that week.

“Let me know if there’s anything specific you don’t want me to do disturb, otherwise I’m turning this place upside down and inside out,” Evan said.

“You really don’t have to.”

“I really do,” Evan said. He added hastily, “No offense about your cleaning. Just - I’m a little particular. And it’ll be easier to maintain down the road.”

“At least let me help you.”

“It’s my job,” Evan assured him.

“If you’re sure -”

“I am.”

Radek set down his pen and cracked his knuckles. “This should be enough to get you through a couple of weeks of cooking, but don’t think you must only cook what’s in the cookbook. It will be good for Katja, to learn to like more foods. And she likes Japanese food, because of my friend Miko.”

“Duly noted,” Evan said. “We should sit down and make a weekly menu and shopping list together as well sometime.”

Radek nodded. “I will finish translating all these recipes for you, but it will take time.”

“I appreciate it,” Evan said.

“No, I appreciate all you do.” Radek gathered up the notecards and straightened them absently, tucked them into Evan’s recipe box. He had quick, dexterous hands. “I will try to speak to Katja one more time.”

“Good luck. Let me know if there’s anything else I can do to help.”

“You do so much as it is.” Radek stood up, stretched. “Miko was impressed by your drawing on my lunch bag, by the way.”

“Couldn’t have anyone stealing your food.” Evan grinned. “Good night, Radek. And good luck with Katja.”

“Thank you. Dobrou noc.”

Evan blinked, faking confusion. “Um, thanks, I think.”

“It means ‘good night’.”

“Oh. Okay.” Evan cleared his throat, repeated it back slowly, butchered the pronunciation.

Radek looked amused. “Not bad. Don’t quit your day job, as they say.”

Evan laughed good-naturedly. Radek squared his shoulders and headed up the stairs. Evan watched him go, then finished wiping down and closing up the kitchen. He turned off the lights, made sure the downstairs doors and windows were locked, and then headed up to his room. He’d need to buy more bedding for the fold-out.

When he went to brush his teeth, he paused outside Katja’s door, heard Radek talking softly and Katja not answering. Evan had just finished brushing his teeth when he ran into Radek - almost a repeat of their encounter from that morning.

“How did it go?” Evan asked.

Radek shook his head. “She’ll tell me nothing.”

Evan sighed. “I know I’m basically a stranger, but why don’t I try? If not me, then maybe your friend Miko? Perhaps she’d respond better to a woman.”

Radek dug the heels of his hands into his eyes. He looked strangely vulnerable without his glasses. “Perhaps. Jitka would have known what to say.”

“Hey, don’t beat yourself up,” Evan said. “You’re doing great. Go, get some sleep. If nothing else, I’ll tell Katja good night.”

Radek nodded. “Really. Thank you. I know it has only been one day, but - you have done so much.”

“My dad died before I was born,” Evan said. “Luckily for my mom, my grandmother was there to help, but I know how hard it is to be a single parent. Katja’s a great kid. I do want to help, and not just because it’s my job.”

“Again, thank you.” Radek ducked his head, and Evan stepped around him, left him to his evening ablutions.

Evan went and knocked on Katja’s door. “Can I come in?”

There was a very soft uh-huh.

“Hey, Katja. I just wanted to say good night.”

*

Radek shut off the water and set his toothbrush in the cup on the edge of the sink. It was so strange, to see a third toothbrush there, one that wasn’t Katja’s little pink and purple one or Jitka’s sensible red one or Radek’s blue one. Radek hadn’t shared a toothbrush cup with anyone since he’d broken up with Anton, back in Brno.

He pushed the memory aside and splashed water on his face, patted his skin dry. Then he headed back for his bedroom. But he couldn’t help but pause outside of Katja’s room.

Evan was singing softly.

And when they return from their merry, merry flight
They close their eyes and say Good Night.

Katja joined in on the wordless chorus softly, and Radek recognized the lullaby, My Pigeon House. It was one his mother had sung to him and Jitka, that Jitka had sung to Katja. How did Evan know it? Perhaps Katja had asked for it.

Radek couldn’t help the hurt that lanced through him, that Katja would speak to Evan and not to him. That didn’t matter. Radek’s ego didn’t matter. What mattered was helping Katja, keeping her safe and happy. Radek had hired Evan to help with just that, and so far Evan had gone above and beyond what Radek could have possibly hoped for.

For the first time since Jitka’s death, Radek felt like he was standing on steady ground.

He still fretted about Katja’s unhappiness till he fell asleep.

When Radek woke the next morning, he could hear someone moving around. He pulled on his glasses and poked his head out of his bedroom, but he didn’t see anyone. He prowled over to Katja’s room, but she was still tucked in bed, fast asleep. Radek glanced at his watch. Katja had another half hour yet before she had to be awake for school. Radek followed the sound, confused, and came to Evan’s room.

The door was wide open, and Radek could see across the room to where Evan had flung the balcony doors open. He’d definitely scrubbed the place, and there was an easel and drop cloth in one corner near the balcony.

And Evan was in the middle of the floor, shirtless, skin golden and gleaming with perspiration, while he cranked out push-ups like a Marine.

Yesterday, Radek had run into a nearly-naked Evan as he was coming out of the bathroom and been overwhelmed by his miles of sleek skin and firm muscles.

Evan glanced up, caught Radek’s eye, and Radek forced himself to stop staring at the slide of muscles beneath skin.

“Oh, hey, sorry, did I wake you? My room faces east and warms up fast, so I opened the doors to get a breeze through while I work out.”

“No, it is fine, fitness is important.” Radek swallowed hard. Evan was very fine indeed. And his fitness was very important. He needed to be fit, to protect Katja.

“Years of habit,” Evan said. He shrugged one shoulder and then placed one hand in the small of his back and kept on doing push-ups with just the other hand.

“Of course. I will leave you to it.” Radek fled for his room and the steps up to the roof where the pigeons were. Miko had only been joking when she suggested that Radek hire a male nanny for his own aesthetic benefit.

Radek released the pigeons for their morning flight and closed his eyes, listened to the susurration of their wings as they took to the sky. It would take them a while to understand that this house was their new home, and he would have to keep an eye on them. He opened his eyes and watched them soar through the air, and something in him calmed. He could handle this, all of this. Katja’s moods. Evan’s unfair attractiveness. Katja’s safety.

And finding out what had really happened to Jitka.

Radek headed back inside to start rousing Katja from bed. Evan was doing sit-ups, counting aloud to himself. Radek headed downstairs to start the coffee machine for himself. When he came back upstairs, the shower was occupied, and Katja was making her bed. Radek went back up to the roof to check on the pigeons. He’d make sure they were back in their coop before he left for the office. When he went back inside, Katja was fully dressed and in the bathroom brushing her teeth, and he could hear noises in the kitchen. The balcony doors in Evan’s room were closed.

Radek selected his clean clothes for the day, and he took over the bathroom once Katja was finished. When he was showered and shaved and dressed, he gathered up his laptop bag and headed for the kitchen.

This morning Evan had warm raspberry kolaches for breakfast, which seemed to have cheered Katja immensely, because she was chattering away to Evan about what she wanted done with her hair that day, and what fun things she wanted to do with Radek on the weekend.

Evan handed Radek a mug full of coffee and said quietly, “She apologized to me.”

“I am glad.” When Radek sat down at the table and helped himself to some kolaches, Katja apologized to him softly in English, and he pressed a kiss to her hair.

Evan ate standing at the kitchen counter, just like Jitka always had. He was fixing lunches for Katja and Radek again.

He said, “Sometime tonight or tomorrow we need to talk about the new laundry and recycling systems I’d like to implement.”

Katja said, “Recycling is good. It helps the planet.”

“That it does.” Radek patted her hand fondly. “New laundry system?”

“So the whites don’t accidentally get turned into pinks,” Evan said. “And so handwash things don’t get machine-washed, and the like.”

Radek nodded. “That makes sense. We can talk about that tonight. And maybe make the weekly menu?”

“Good idea.” Evan smiled. “Do you want the leftover rice pudding, or should I give it to Katja?”

“Let Katja have it, as she didn’t get any last night.”

“All right.” Evan packed up their lunches with quick, efficient hands.

How early had he woken up, to work out and make dough for kolaches and bake them in time for breakfast? Because surely it took more than just push-ups and sit-ups for him to maintain his physique. Not that his physique was any of Radek’s business.

Once the lunches were finished - Radek now had a sensible blue and black lunchbox, and he was sad he didn’t get another sketch - Katja had cleared the breakfast dishes off the table, and then Evan and Katja set about the ritual of doing Katja’s hair. Evan knelt down next to Katja’s chair and showed her an array of shiny and colorful hair clips and hair ties, let Katja pick the one she wanted for that day.

“I have to get to the lab a little early today,” Radek said. “I will see you tonight for dinner.” He kissed Katja on the cheek, nodded to Evan, and left the house.

If he got to the lab early enough, he could look over Jitka’s research notes.

The lab was thankfully empty when he got there. Miko tended to be in at eight-thirty on the dot. Hewston and Ambrose came in at odd hours because they worked till odd hours. As long as everyone did their fifty hours a week, the powers that be had no complaints. Radek could use half an hour to himself, and not just for the quiet.

Jitka’s notes were garbled, to say the least. She’d written most of them in crayon and then doodled all over them, so at first glance they were indistinguishable from Katja’s scribblings. Radek kept them shuffled into a stack of pictures Katja had given him over the years. Everyone was granted only one space on the wall to place personal items - pictures from children, baby announcements, wedding announcements, graduation announcements and the like - and so Radek had a sizeable collection of evolving child art as he’s replaced old pictures with newer ones. No one would think to look there.

Jitka didn’t understand enough about how zero-point energy worked to have a coherent description of the bomb that Athena Energy was trying to create. Pockets of subspace, crystal, a sketch of what looked like stained glass with labels indicating different panels of the glass were yellow and red and orange and green. Notes upon notes upon notes about exotic particles, with a whole lot of terrible explanations probably gleaned from Wikipedia.

What was more interesting was the notes about potential buyers. Each of them had some kind of codename that sprang from mythology. Beside each name was a description of the mythology the codename came from, the deity’s role within a given pantheon, and then a curious string of numbers and letters, like P3X-888, P2X-416, P3X-797, P9G-844, KS7-535.

Jitka had written a big question mark next to them, had listed and crossed off possibilities: foreign postal codes, license plate numbers, antiquated phone numbers, encoded coordinates, birthdates, foreign equivalents of social security numbers, file numbers, library references. Radek had no idea what they were either. They could be anything. Without a starting point, he had no hope of deciphering them.

He sighed. Jitka had been murdered over these nonsensical scribblings? Obviously they meant something to someone, and something important at that, because Jitka’s life was precious. Although if a zero-point energy weapon was possible, perhaps the creators of it cared nothing for human life, because such a weapon would be capable of destroying so many lives in no time at all.

Radek glanced at his watch. Miko would be in soon. He shuffled the notes back into the stack of Katja’s artwork and put them back in their usual spot in his drawer, shrugged off his jacket, made sure to put his lunch in the refrigerator, and set about answering emails.

Miko called out a cheerful Ohayo gozaimasu! as she bounced into the lab. She went to pop her lunch into the lab refrigerator (the food refrigerator, not the sample refrigerator) and made a face.

“No more cute drawings on your brown bag?”

“I have a proper lunch box. Less of a waste,” Radek said absently.

“Your new nanny is very environmentally conscious, then?”

“Yes. He is from California. His mother is a hippie, he says.” Radek tugged his glasses off, rubbed his eyes, then read his email again. No way. The powers that be were competing for a chance to collaborate with Athena Energy on a new renewable energy project. Not only was Vulcan Labs competing against other labs and research companies to collaborate with Athena Energy, but the multiple scientists within the lab would be competing for the two spots on the collaboration team.

So many scientists. So many renewable energy theories. Only two spots. Radek had been working on interdimensional matter bridges and exotic particle energy for a long time. Miko’s research into quantum computing had never really intersected with his research before, but Radek had been toying with the notion of using mirror particles to create quantum turbines that would generate nearly endless energy with no carbon footprint.

“So things are going well with the new nanny, then?”

“Evan is very good at his job.” Radek’s mind spun with the possibilities.

Miko plopped down into the chair beside him, rested her chin on her hands. “Evan, is it? What does he look like?”

This was perfect. Not only could Radek get into Athena Energy’s headquarters, he’d have access to their research. Of course, he would have to keep Miko out of it, but she would be able to help him without actually getting involved in his investigation. “He’s beautiful.”

“Really? How beautiful?” Miko grinned gleefully.

Radek noticed her expression. “What? Why are you looking at me like that?”

“You just said Evan is beautiful.”

Radek blinked, replayed their last few lines of conversation. “What? No. I was distracted. Slip of the tongue.”

“Freudian slip,” Miko said, nodding sagely.

Radek hoped he wasn’t blushing, knew his hope was futile. “Have you seen the email? About the collaboration with Athena Energy?”

“No.” But Miko went back to her workstation - which was opposite Radek’s instead of beside him, because if they were beside each other they’d never get anything done. “Ah. Sounds complicated. Interesting. Not for me.”

Radek peered between his tower and monitor at her. “It could be.”

“How?”

“If we work together.”

Miko frowned. “But I’m working on a quantum computer, and you’re working on exotic particles.”

Radek leaned in. “Hear me out.”

And he explained his theory. Miko’s eyes went wide behind her glasses, and halfway through his explanation she scooped up a notebook and a pen and sketched a diagram, pushed it toward him.

He made adjustments as he kept talking, pushed it back toward her, and then they were sliding the notebook back and forth across the desk like a pair of middle schoolers passing notes.

Ambrose and Hewston ambled into the lab around ten o’clock. Ambrose put up with the rustle of the notebook sliding back and forth across the desk for a good twenty minutes before he finally said,

“For heaven’s sake, sit next to each other like grown-ups. Miko, switch with me.”

And then Miko and Radek were huddled over the notebook together, Miko nibbling on her favorite Hello Kitty pen while Radek sketched a possible quantum turbine made of mirror matter.

Miko took the notebook from him, drew him a diagram of one of her quantum binary switches so he could see how she’d planned on it functioning.

“Let me guess,” Hewston drawled, leaning against the end of the desk. He was the very vision of the stereotypical scientist - thinning gray hair, soft middle, glasses, and rumpled sweater-vest. “You two are collaborating for the Athena bid.”

“We are,” Radek said, curling an arm protectively around his notes.

Hewston threw his hands up. “Don’t worry about me and Ambrose. We’re going to make these hoverboards work one day - just watch us. They’ll change the face of high-rise construction. Just you wait and see.”

“I will,” Radek said, still wary.

Hewston rolled his eyes and went back to his work station.

Miko and Radek forced themselves to take a break for lunch, close the notebook and put it aside. They went into the break room, Miko with one of her distressingly cute bento lunches, Radek with the new lunchbox Evan had bought him, and talked about not-work. Miko was an avid MMA fan. Even though Radek wasn’t, her enthusiasm in recounting her favorite moments of fights she’d watched recently was infectious, and he liked to listen to her.

Unfortunately, Miko had a long and sharp memory. She flipped open her lunch box - her lunch looked like rabbits made of rice and nori, plus flowers made of fruit and vegetables - and picked up her chopsticks.

“So, tell me more about beautiful Evan, besides that he makes you lunch and is good at drawing and Katja likes him and he cooks very well and also his mother is a hippie,” she said.

Radek sighed. “Yes, okay, Evan is very attractive, but I am not going to - to sleep with him like some sort of philandering celebrity.”

Miko smirked at him before popping a rice rabbit ear into her mouth. “You should sleep with him like a scientist instead. Experiment with a chemist.”

Radek huffed. “I’m a physicist.”

Physicists do it with force.”

Radek choked on a bite of sandwich. “Miko!”

“Too much? Physicists do it in waves.”

Radek scooped up his water bottle and took a long pull. “Miko, where do you learn such things?”

“I have more. Physicists do it energetically.”

“Miko! I am not going to sleep with him. His job is to help me take care of Katja and the house. Sleeping with him would complicate things, and Katja needs safety, stability, and simplicity.”

“You just made up the simplicity thing.” Miko waggled her chopsticks at him warningly, ate a slice of carrot that looked like a flower.

“I did not.”

“Did too!”

Radek rolled his eyes.

Miko said, “You should take a picture of him, send it to me, so I can see how beautiful he is.”

“Sneaking a picture of Evan would be very inappropriate.” Radek tried to rustle up some more moral indignation, but it wasn’t working. He sighed again. “Evan is very attractive.”

“Oh?” Miko blinked at him earnestly, ate another carrot flower.

“Yes. In the morning, he exercises. He opens his bedroom door and the doors out to the balcony so the breeze can come through, and he takes off his shirt and - I am in much trouble, aren’t I?”

“Yeah, you probably are. Anyway, you missed some excellent fights last week. Let me tell you about Ronon Dex and his incredible left hook.” Miko cleared her throat to declaim about her favorite fighter, and Radek settled in to listen.

After lunch, they would go back to finagling the concept of a quantum turbine, then run the calculations. How many quantum switches would they need to make a turbine? How much energy could they harness from a single turbine, from a mass of turbines that together were like a thousand angels dancing on the head of a pin?

The universe was an amazing place.

And a frightening place. The crayon-drawn pages hidden in Radek’s desk attested to that. With the right knowledge, he could create a renewable energy source to help save mankind and planet Earth, or he could create a weapon to destroy it.

At the end of the day, though, he had to go home to his family, whom he had to protect.

When Radek opened the front door after a very fruitful day in the lab, the house smelled delicious. He was feeling energetic, so he sang out,

“Honey, I’m home!”

Evan called back, “Did you have a good day?”

“A very good day.” Radek toed off his shoes, nudged them into place in the foyer, shrugged off his jacket. “I will go upstairs and change, and then I will be right there.”

He stowed his briefcase in the corner of his bedroom, changed into comfortable khakis and a shirt, and padded back down the stairs. Katja was sitting at the kitchen table, working on her homework. She barely glanced up when Radek entered the kitchen, mumbled a greeting in Czech. Not this again. He sighed, went to sit next to her and see what she was working on.

Evan was standing at the stove, wearing an apron - not the pink one - and stirring what smelled like beef goulash.

“She had a bad day again,” he said quietly. “She won’t tell me why.”

Radek took a deep breath. “Pardon me, Evan. I think I should do this in the mother tongue.”

“Of course.” Evan turned away, cracked open the oven to peer into it.

Radek recognized the smell immediately. Mmmm. Stuffed green peppers. Evan had been using Jitka’s cookbook.

Radek leaned down, tapped Katja on the shoulder. “Katja, look at me,” he said in Czech.

She glanced at him for a second, then returned to her math homework.

“It’s okay to have bad days,” Radek said, keeping his voice low and gentle. “Evan cares about you, and I love you, and we want to help you, but we cannot help you if you do not tell us what is wrong.”

Katja bit her lip but kept writing.

“I know sometimes it hurts to talk about what is wrong, so I won’t make you talk about it,” Radek continued. “But sometimes not talking about it hurts more.”

Katja’s shoulders tensed.

“Even though it is okay to have bad days, because everybody has them, it is not okay to be bad to other people because you are having a bad day.”

Katja said softly, in English, “I haven’t been bad.”

“It’s true,” Evan said, just as softly. “She’s been quiet and a little withdrawn, but she’s spoken English to me, and done her homework, and helped with her chores.”

“Thank you, Katja, for being good to Evan even though you are having a bad day.” Radek spoke in English, smoothed a hand up and down her back. “I am sorry you are having a bad day.” He pressed a kiss to her hair. “I will set the table for dinner while you finish your homework, all right?”

“All right. Thank you, Strejdo.” Katja kept her head down, kept on working.

Radek rose up, set about gathering dishes to set the table.

Evan cast him a brief but bright smile as he passed, and Radek remembered that conversation with Miko. As unintentional as his comment had been, it was true - Evan was beautiful, with those bright blue eyes and that dimpled smile, his soft dark hair and his smooth golden skin, how gentle and good he was with Katja, how kind he was to Radek. It was also true, however, that pursuing a romantic relationship with Evan would be bad for Katja.

Over supper, Evan asked Radek about his day, and Radek told him in simple and slightly elliptical terms about his new project with Miko, leaving out any talk of Athena Energy, especially in case Katja recognized the name for whatever reason. Evan discussed how he’d deep-cleaned another room - the den - and also had a chance to do some painting that afternoon before picking Katja up from school. Katja was very quiet, but she was polite, saying please and thank you and not reaching across people to get what she wanted.

Radek and Katja did the dishes because Evan had cooked, and then the three of them went into the den, Radek to help Katja with the last of her homework.

Evan curled himself into one of the armchairs, a sketchbook on his knees, and drew. More than once, Radek sneaked a glance at him, but he was lost in his own world, focused on his drawing.

At bedtime, everyone trooped upstairs to brush their teeth, and then Evan and Radek tucked Katja into bed. Evan sang her the Pigeon House lullaby, and then it was lights out.

Evan and Radek lingered in the hallway outside her room.

“Do you know what is upsetting her?” Radek asked.

“No, but I have an idea.”

“You think those girls at her school?”

Evan nodded. “Yeah.”

“Should we speak to Miss Megan?”

“Give me another day to try to get to the bottom of the issue, and if I can’t, then yes, let’s talk to the teacher.” Evan smiled sweetly at Radek, and Radek wanted to kiss him. “I’m glad your research is going well.”

“Thank you, Evan. For everything.”

“It’s my pleasure, not just my job. Dobrou noc , Radek.” Evan turned and headed into his room.

His pronunciation was much improved. He’d probably practiced. Radek called a Dobrou noc after Evan, then went to his own room. He hoped Katja would be all right. He had to do more than keep her safe - he had to help her be happy.

*

The next day started well. As well as it could, given that Radek stumbled out of his room and toward the bathroom and came up short at the sight of Evan, shirtless and gleaming in the early morning light, while he did sit-ups.

Katja was in a better mood, was bright and chatty at breakfast, very helpful around the kitchen as Evan made breakfast and lunch for everyone. She kissed Radek goodbye, and Evan smiled at him before he headed out the door to go to work.

Miko was in the lab when Radek arrived. She’d pushed two whiteboards together and had a handful of colored markers, was starting on the calculations. Radek stowed his lunch, shrugged off his jacket, and moved to stand beside her. Miko handed him a couple of the markers, and he dove in.

For the last few months, Radek had forgotten what this felt like, the wonder of discovery, of science, because he and Miko were actually onto something. The beauty of this system was that if they could build a mirror matter turbine, getting it to turn would be the question of application of tiny bits of energy resulting in motion on a large scale, which would lead to exponential amounts of electricity. Only a tiny bit of energy in. Lots of energy out. No carbon footprint.

The fact that this breakthrough would help Radek solve Jitka’s mystery and protect his family was something akin to a miracle, and that wasn’t lost on Radek. But he couldn’t lose sight of his goal. Yes, clean renewable energy was amazing. Protecting Katja came first.

Once Miko and Radek had preliminary calculations done, they had to build a model, see if they’d missed anything in the physical modeling that was difficult to conceptualize in the mathematical model. Miko was a better artist and also the better programmer, so after this point they would divide and conquer. Miko would make the model, Radek would write the proposal, and then they would swap their work to check it.

The calculations were preliminary. Building and programming the model would take about a week. Writing the proposal would be faster work, but Radek would have to update it as the calculations and model were adjusted.

In order to stay sane from their hyperfocus on the project, Radek and Miko took frequent breaks, even left the lab and took their lunches to a nearby park to get some sun and talk.

On their breaks, Miko teased Radek about Evan, and he asked her questions about zero point energy, how she’d capture it, how she’d store it, how she might deploy it or even weaponize it. As far as she was concerned, the questions were idle chatter, because then Radek would ask her about MMA fights and suggestions for how to avoid doing something stupid with Evan without making things in the house difficult (no, I can’t just avoid him all the time).

“You need to go out,” Miko said. “To a club.” Her eyes lit up. “We should go to a gay club! I can be your straight girl BFF. I am your straight girl BFF. I would get to dance with cute gay guys and you’d find a boyfriend or at least get laid and then stop panting after Evan.”

“I do not pant after Evan,” Radek said with as much dignity as he could muster.

Miko flicked a piece of rice at him and laughed at him.

“I don’t,” he insisted, but if he were a less restrained man, he might.

Miko had said some thought-provoking things, perhaps filled in the gaps in Jitka’s fractured notes. Radek headed home after another successful day at the lab - doubly successful day - and Evan met him at the door.

“Hey, Radek.” He stepped onto the porch, closed the door behind him.

“Is everything all right?” Radek asked.

“Yeah, everything’s okay. I swung by Katja’s school during her lunch break, and I caught those three girls - the ones I suspected - cornering her on a blind spot on the playground and saying some pretty horrible stuff, mostly about her mom being dead, but also about you and me. Once I caught them at it, they were quick to own up. I had a talk with Miss Megan and the other girls’ parents. They were very apologetic, had no idea what was going on, and I think the situation has been resolved. Katja was reluctant to speak up about what they’d been saying to her, because they’re usually her best friends, so she’s still feeling a little subdued, but the situation has been handled. I just wanted you to know ahead of time.” Evan’s expression was cautiously hopeful.

Worry churned in Radek’s gut. “What were they saying about Jitka?”

“Well, they didn’t know that Jitka had died, so Jitka disappeared and I showed up and the girls assumed Jitka had left you because you’d cheated on her with me,” Evan said. “Once I explained everything to their parents - Jitka passed away, you’re Katja’s uncle, I’m helping out around the house and with Katja - things calmed down.”

“And Katja - was she upset, that the girls thought you and I were together?” Radek didn’t know if Katja knew he was gay. He hadn’t really dated anyone since he’d moved to America. He’d never tried to hide it with her, but he’d never talked to her about it either.

“She was more upset that the girls were saying things like her mother didn’t love her and that was why she was left behind with you.”

Radek’s hands curled into fists. “They said that to her?”

“Yeah.”

“Dammit!” Radek let loose with a string of expletives in Czech and Japanese - thank you, Miko. He dropped his briefcase and threw his hands up, stormed down the steps to his car, stormed back up the steps to the door.

“And that’s why I caught you outside,” Evan said.

Radek eyed him. “You know me so well?”

“I know how I felt when I heard those girls saying that to Katja. I know you love Katja a thousand times more than I do, and I suspect you don’t have years of military training to help you tamp down on your anger. A guy who carries a gun twenty-four-seven has to be pretty damn good at keeping his cool under pressure.”

Radek sighed, picked up his briefcase. “And Katja - she really is all right?”

“The other girls’ parents made the girls apologize, and things have been patched up, but she’s been pretty quiet. Not mad or moody, just quiet.” Evan dragged a hand through his hair. “I told her - I told her my dad died, before I was born. So I know what it’s like - to feel like one of your parents left you alone.”

“Is that true?” Radek asked, studying Evan.

“Yeah. My dad killed himself before I was born. Growing up, it was hard not to blame myself for that. He stuck around for my sister, but not me.” Evan’s gaze went distant and dark with memory. Then he shook himself out. “But don’t worry - I didn’t tell Katja that. Just that he died, and I missed him like she misses her parents, and it’s okay to miss them.”

Radek wondered how many other people knew that about Evan. “You really are very good with Katja.”

Evan shrugged. “I care about her - and you, too. Now, you feeling calm?”

“Yes.”

“Great. Go on, get changed. Dinner is almost ready. Katja finished her homework and set the table, so I let her watch some Disney cartoons.” Evan opened the front door, gestured for Radek to precede him.

“Thank you. I’ll be down shortly.” Radek headed into the house, almost forgot to take off his shoes, headed up the stairs.

Evan cared about him. Obviously not in the way Radek would want, but -

But Evan had done very well handling things for Katja today. He was good for her. Radek didn’t dare mess that up.

*

Damn, but he’d messed that up. What had possessed Evan to tell Radek he cared about him? Other than the fact that he did, and he cared about Katja too. Standing on the edge of the playground and hearing those little girls say such horrible things, the horrible things he’d imagined of himself all growing up once he learned that his father had killed himself around the time he learned Evan’s mother was pregnant, had ripped open an old wound he hadn’t even realized wasn’t fully healed.

A man who walked through a Stargate into intergalactic battles and walked back out again with all his limbs and mental faculties intact tended to think of himself as healthy and whole. Evan had dealt with combat and the unreality of the Stargate program a lot better than some of the men and women he’d served with.

He lay awake, staring at the ceiling and telling himself to re-focus. Yes, he was putting most of his efforts toward making sure Katja was safe and happy, making sure Radek was calm and not stressed out, but that wasn’t his mission. His ultimate goal was to find out who was behind Jitka’s murder, because whoever was behind her murder was also behind the security breach at the SGC and the stolen ZPM that was going to be turned into a bomb.

Radek and Katja were good people, were innocent victims in all this. Their lives had been torn apart, and Evan could see how they were fraying at the seams. Katja was such a sweet girl, friendly and helpful, and Evan knew she was attaching to him because he was filling the role her mother had played, doing her hair and making her food and waking her up and tucking her in, giving her hugs and just caring about her unconditionally. Evan knew Radek’s kindness toward him was nothing more than gratitude and that Radek had a naturally kind heart. Relatives weren’t obligated to take in orphaned children, as Dr. Jackson had so frequently reminded him. Once Katja and Radek recovered from Jitka’s death, reached a stable equilibrium, they wouldn’t need Evan as much, and they would begin to strengthen their own bonds to each other, within their family.

He wasn’t part of their family, and he shouldn’t try to be. Laura had picked him for this mission for a reason, and it was because he was good at his job. He was good at his job because he could maintain the right balance of empathy and professionalism. It was pretty damn unprofessional to look at Radek, sleepy and mussed first thing in the morning, and wonder if his hair was as soft as it looked.

The next morning, Evan worked out, showered, and made sure Katja was awake and making her bed before he headed downstairs to the kitchen. Evan had eggs mostly scrambled and bacon mostly cooked when Katja bounced down the stairs. She greeted Evan with a brief, tight side-hug, then set the table. He studied her out of the corner of his eye. She looked happy, energetic, and he was glad.

Once the table was set, Katja emptied the dishwasher, and she set her and Radek’s lunchboxes on the counter.

“What do you want for lunch today?” Evan asked.

“Can you make pretty lunches like Miko makes?” Katja rested her elbows on the counter and peered up at him.

“Pretty how?” Evan suspected she was talking about the Japanese tradition of bento boxes, but he wasn’t sure.

“With the rice that looks like rabbits and stuff.”

“I don’t know how,” Evan said, and Katja’s smile dimmed, so he added, “but I bet I can learn. I’ll ask Radek, and maybe Miko can teach me sometime.” He could also look on the internet - one could learn just about anything on the internet - but he had a job to do. So far he’d deep-cleaned Jitka’s old office, the den, the kitchen, and the bathroom, and he still hadn’t found any sign of her notes. Today he would start on the bedrooms.

“Thank you,” Katja said.

Evan nudged her gently with his elbow. “Go sit down, the food is ready.”

Radek came downstairs just as Evan was serving him up a plate of bacon. Evan paused and nearly dropped the pan of bacon, because damn, but Radek cleaned up nice. His hair was combed and he wasn’t wearing his glasses - he had contacts sometimes, didn’t he? - and he was wearing a black shirt beneath a dark gray suit, and it was open at the collar, and Evan could see just a hint of hair on his chest and -

Evan pasted on a polite smile. “Good morning. Breakfast?”

“Please, and thank you.” Radek slid into the chair beside Katja. “Good morning, Katja. Did you sleep well?”

“Yes, Strejdo.”

“How are you feeling today?”

Katja regarded him solemnly for a moment. Then she said, “I’m all right, Strejdo. School will be fine.”

She was a perceptive girl.

Evan ate as he always did, standing up at the counter, snatching bites of eggs and bacon while he assembled lunches. “Radek,” he said.

Radek flicked a glance at him. “Yes?”

“I’m starting on deep-cleaning the bedrooms. If there’s anything in your room you don’t want me to touch, let me know. Katja already set the boundaries for her room.”

Radek eyed him. “Are you sure? I can clean my own room.”

“I know you can, but like I said, deep cleaning is just once.”

“There is nothing in there that is work-confidential. Let me just apologize in advance for the dust,” Radek said finally.

“No need to apologize. You forget - I once spent months at a time stationed with Marines.” Evan smiled. “Also, Katja is interested in having Japanese-style bento lunches. I don’t know much about making them. Could you get me in contact with your friend Miko?”

Radek nodded. “Of course. Miko makes very cute lunches. I will send you her phone number - text it to you.” He fished his phone out of his pocket.

Katja cheered.

Evan felt his phone buzz in his pocket a moment later. “Thanks, Radek. And hey, after supper, I was thinking, we should have a team meeting.”

Radek blinked. “Team meeting?”

“Yeah, so we can plan weekend activities and the week’s menu so I can make a shopping list,” Evan said. He added, ruefully, “I guess it’s kind of left over from my days as a field officer. To make sure we’re always on the same page and always have supplies.”

“Of course,” Radek said.

“There’s three of us, so if each of us picks two meals, that’s six meals covered, and for the seventh we can go out or whatever.” Too late, Evan realized he was presuming that Radek wanted him around on the weekends. “Or if you’re planning on going on a date or something, let me know, so I know to cook a little less for me and Katja.” Evan was fishing for information, and he hoped Radek didn’t notice.

Radek huffed. “In the rare chance that I do go on a date, I will let you know.” He cleared his throat. “Of course, you do not have to spend every night with us. The weekends are your own.”

Evan wanted to spend every night with them. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d spent time with anyone who didn’t drive him to the brink of desperately needing a break after a few days. “Of course,” he said faintly. He turned away and finished fixing up the lunches - leftovers plus sliced apples for Katja and carrot sticks for Radek, who preferred savory things.

Once breakfast was done, Katja cleared the table and piled the dishes in the sink. Radek headed out the door - he was going to work earlier these days, what with the big project he was working on with Miko - and Evan bundled Katja into the car. On the way to school, Evan dutifully sang along to Ariana Grande and Justin Bieber on the radio. Instead of pulling into the roundabout, Evan parked on the street and walked Katja up to the school doors. He straightened her backpack, made sure she had her lunch box, and hugged her before he opened the door for her and pushed her gently in the direction of her classroom. Miss Megan met her at the door. Evan caught her eye, and she nodded at him, smiled, and guided Katja into the classroom.

And now it was back to the house to deep-clean Radek’s room.

That Radek had been so calm about Evan cleaning his room meant that Jitka’s notes, if Radek knew about them, weren’t in his room. Or he was very confident about their hiding place.

As someone well-versed in espionage and concealing important information, Evan knew to look in all kinds of obscure places, like the legs of the dresser in case they’d been hollowed out, or hollow spots on the door, or sewn into the linings of the curtains or bed covers. Evan scrubbed, and he searched, and he dusted, and he poked and prodded, but there was nothing hidden in Radek’s room. Radek was actually a very neat person - likely a result of his needing to keep a neat workspace in his lab, or perhaps as a result of growing up poor and learning to take care of what few possessions he had - and apart from the dust, the room was nothing to be ashamed of. Granted, Radek hadn’t been living in the room for very long. It had been the guest room, before.

It didn’t take long to get Radek’s room straightened up and back to how Radek had had it (but not exactly like, because that was bordering on spycraft, and Evan was supposed to be a nanny, not, well, what he was). By the time Evan was done cleaning - and sending another brief report to Laura - it was time to pick up Katja.

He parked and walked to the door again, because he had to be sure she was safe, and he had better control over her safety if he was by her side. Katja burst out of Miss Swann’s classroom at high speed. Evan studied her on her approach, wary for unhappiness, but she was smiling. When she reached his side, she slipped her hand into his without hesitation, and she even looked back and waved at another little girl.

“Today was better, then?” Evan walked her back to the car.

She nodded. “Better.”

“Better is good.” Evan smiled at her. He made sure she was buckled securely into her seat before he pulled away from the curb and headed for home. The car was silent for a moment. Evan reached for the radio, because Katja always asked for the radio.

“Do you miss your papa?”

Evan snatched his hand from the radio control knob. He glanced in the rearview mirror. Katka was looking right at him. “Do I miss my father? Yes.”

“How often?”

“Every day.” It was the truth. Even though Evan had never known the man, had had a good and happy childhood, he still felt a gap where his father should have been. Felt it acutely every time a CO had called him son.

“I miss Mama every day,” Katja said quietly.

“That’s all right,” Evan said.

“Do you think Strejda Radek knows? That I miss Maminka so.”

“He probably misses her too.”

“I love him, but I miss her too.”

“You can do both.”

“I wish I only had to do one.”

Evan wished the same for her too. Back at the house, Katja emptied her lunchbox so Evan could wash her utensils and tupperware. She hung her new homework assignments on the assignment calendar, and then she sat down in the kitchen to do homework while Evan checked on the laundry and started prepping dinner. While Katja worked, Evan mulled over their brief conversation in the car. What would Evan’s life had been like, if he’d had a father? What did having a father mean, besides having a second parent to shoulder the burden of childrearing? Mom had had Nan, after all. Evan had always had two parent-figures no matter what.

When Katja needed help, Evan paused what he was doing, wiped his hands on his apron, and sat down beside her to see what the problem was. Together they worked through some basic addition, with Evan lending some of his fingers to the problem, and then Katja was pretty sure she could do it on her own and Evan was back to chopping vegetables.

And mulling. Had Jitka sat with Katja like this, helped her with her homework so? Was Evan breaking Katja’s heart every time he did something like this with her? Evan remembered the first time he’d done well with a pistol and the sergeant had clapped him on the soldier and said, Nice shooting, son. You’ll make your mama proud. His mother wouldn’t have been proud. But would his father? Alexander Lorne had been a soldier, had come from a long line of military service.

Radek came home on time, hung up his jacket and came straight into the kitchen to say hello to Katja, check on dinner before he headed upstairs to stow his briefcase and change into regular clothes.

“How was work today?” Evan asked.

“Very productive.” Radek smiled, pleased. He sat down beside Katja, asked her about her day. She told him the same stories she’d told Evan, about how it was better, and she and her friends had played My Little Ponies during recess.

While Evan cooked, Radek helped Katja with her homework. Evan glanced at them, and he couldn’t help but feel a twinge of jealousy. Radek was angled toward Katja, his attention solely on her, curled around her protectively whether he intended that or not. He was patient, kind. Really the only father Katja had ever known. Radek was a wonderful father. Good thing, because Katja would need him more than ever after Evan was gone.

Katja finished her homework about half an hour before dinner was ready, so she set the table, and then she and Radek went into the other room to watch some cartoons together.

Dinner was a cheery affair. Radek was happy, Katja was happy. They discussed the menu for the upcoming week, Radek and Katja each contributing two meals to the list and Evan contributing one, plus discussing staples to have around the house so people could fend for themselves on the weekend. There was some shuffling - couldn’t have chicken two nights in a row, and they’d need a quick meal for the night Katja had dance class - but then they had a menu and from that Evan could make a shopping list.

“So, one thing we haven’t had a chance to talk about yet,” Evan said.

Radek raised his eyebrows. “Are you doing something else to the laundry?”

“Ah, no.”

Katja giggled at Radek’s gentle teasing.

“My room is very clean, by the way. I appreciate it.”

“I’m glad.” Evan managed to smile, but he felt awful, because he had cleaned Radek’s room to search it. “Gun safety. Katja needs to learn the very basics, should she ever encounter any firearm, including mine. And Radek, you should learn the same.”

Katja looked startled but not afraid. “Why do you keep a gun?”

“You remember I used to be a soldier, yes? I keep a gun so I can keep myself safe - and keep you safe, too.”

Katja pondered this for a moment, then nodded. “Where do you keep your gun? Are you wearing it now?” She leaned over the side of the table to peer at his legs.

Evan stood up, spread his arms, turned. “I am wearing it now. Do you see it?”

“No,” Katja said, and she giggled.

“Well,” Evan said, “that’s the point. No one is supposed to see it.”

“Where do you think he’s hiding his gun, Strejdo?”

Evan turned back to face them and - was it his imagination, or was Radek checking him out?

Definitely his imagination.

But not his imagination that Radek was blushing.

“I do not know, Katja,” Radek said gently. “But that is the point, yes, Evan? That no one knows where you keep your gun, so no one can take it from you.”

“That’s right,” Evan said. “But if you ever need my gun, you come give me a hug, all right?” He flipped up the hem of his shirt and twisted slightly so Katja could see the very tip of the grip of his gun where it was tucked into the small of his back.

Katja’s eyes went wide.

“But my job is to make sure you never need my gun, okay?” Evan smiled at her.

“Okay.”

“So, not this week, but next week, I’ll teach you how to be safe with a gun.”

“Is it hard?” Katja asked.

“You know how to be safe with a knife, with scissors, don’t you?”

Katja nodded.

“You can learn how to be safe with a gun, too.” Evan slid back into his seat. “Now, how about some dessert?”

“Dessert would be lovely, thank you, but I am full.” Radek cast Katja a look. “How about we do the dishes, go grocery shopping, and then have dessert?”

“Okay!” Katja bounced up out of her seat, swept up her plate and dishes, and toted them over to the sink.

Between the three of them, they managed to get the dishes done pretty quickly. There was something comfortably domestic about standing elbow-to-elbow with Radek at the sink, rinsing dishes and taking turns handing them to Katja to stack in the dishwasher. Evan had imagined a lot of things in his life - the first time he’d fly a plane, what stepping through a wormhole to the other side of the galaxy would feel like, what an alien planet would look like, how he’d die - but never that he’d have a family like this.

Only this wasn’t his family.

Radek drove them to the grocery store. Katja selected the cart and asked to be allowed to push it. Evan unfolded his shopping list - he made a written shopping list for the family in the event that he was unable to go shopping himself - and they started down the first aisle.

“Do we have to go down every aisle?” Katja asked.

“It’s the most organized way,” Evan explained. “We won’t ever have to back-track, and if we see something we forgot to put on the list, we can get it.” He hesitated, then asked, “How did your mother do it?”

“Well,” Katja said, “Maminka gave me a copy of the list, and we raced to see who could find everything first.”

Evan could see why Jitka had used that as a strategy - it made it fun for Katja, and also theoretically made things go faster. Given the threat to both Katja and Radek, though, that wasn’t a good idea now.

“I see how that would be fun,” Evan offered. “But perhaps until I know this store better, we should stay together, hm? Radek, can you keep a running tally for me? So we stay under budget.”

“Of course,” Radek said.

“Round up,” Evan said. “That way there’s a buffer for treats at the end if Katja’s been good.”

She lit up at the mention of treats and straightened up, smoothed down her hair.

They walked the aisles, Evan helping Katja read off the list, checking her favorite brands with her. She took great delight in reading off the price, and then Evan would round it up and Radek would add it to the tally.

They made it to the check-out stand, and Evan asked Radek for the running total.

“About how much do you think we have in our buffer?” Evan asked, watching Katja out of the corner of his eye.

She had been very good through the entire process, never begging for snacks that weren’t in the budget or kicking up a fuss when she was told no. She did really well at pushing the cart, and Evan was pretty sure he and Radek agreed: she could have a treat.

“Enough for one treat for one very good girl,” Radek said.

Katja tried not to look too excited.

Evan started loading groceries onto the conveyor belt. “All right, Miss Katja, because you have been a very good helper tonight, you can have one treat. Which one do you want?”

She stretched up on her toes, expression thoughtful. Radek furrowed his brow the same way when he was deep in thought. She ended up selecting a KitKat.

“Kat,” she said, “for Katja.”

Evan smiled. “Of course.” He hoisted her up so she could pick one herself, and then she put it on the conveyer belt with the rest of the food.

The cashier was a pretty teenage girl with a nose ring and neon pink hair the likes Evan had never seen on a real person before. She scanned the items through, and Evan bagged them in his recyclable bags.

She scanned the candy bar, then held it up. “You want this in the bag or out of the bag?” She’d overheard the conversation about the reward, then.

“Out of the bag, please,” Katja said. She stretched up on her toes to accept the candy bar, thanked the cashier, and immediately tore into it. She broke it in half, then broke one half in half again.

She held up two of the individual sticks, one to Radek, one to Evan. “To share,” she said.

Evan leaned down and hugged her. “Thank you, Katja. That was very sweet.”

She kissed him on the cheek. “You’re welcome, Strejdo Ivan.”

Radek thanked her as well, was also graced with a kiss on the cheek.

Evan straightened up, swallowed down the lump that had risen in his throat. She’d called him Uncle Evan. He was part of her family now.

The cashier finished scanning everything, and Radek reached for his wallet to pay while Evan and Katja loaded the rest of the bags into the cart.

“Your daughter is very well-behaved,” the cashier said. “I should know - I see hundreds of kids come through here. She’s very sweet, too. You should be proud. You’re raising her right.”

Radek looked discomfited, managed a mumbled, Thanks.

“Oh, I can’t take any credit for how wonderful Katja is,” Evan said.

The cashier leaned over and smiled at Katja. “You’re a very good girl, and I’m sure your daddies appreciate it very much.”

Alarm sparked in Evan. Katja had just barely disabused the kids at school of the notion that he and Radek were her dads. He opened his mouth to correct the cashier, but then Katja grabbed both Evan and Radek’s hands and said,

“They take very good care of me.”

The cashier straightened up and winked at Evan, and then Radek was hustling them all out to the car. He was blushing.

“I am terribly sorry,” he said to Evan in a low voice while Katja fastened herself into the back seat. “I don’t know why people assume that you are my boyfriend or husband. I know you care about Katja very much, but I realize we have a professional relationship -”

“Radek, it’s fine,” Evan said gently, and it should have been. Radek was right; their relationship was strictly professional. It wasn’t his fault that Evan’s feelings for him were less than professional. “As long as Katja is comfortable when people make that assumption, that’s all that matters.”

“Of course.” Radek sighed, relieved.

They drove home, and they unloaded the groceries, and they shared some dessert before bed. Radek made sure Katja brushed her teeth, and together they sang her the Pigeon House lullaby.

Evan lay in the dark, staring up at the ceiling, and ached for the family he didn’t have. This family was one he couldn’t have.

Finally, finally, he closed his eyes.

*

Hewston and Ambrose were genuinely disinterested in Radek and Miko’s work. The deadline for the proposal submission was fast approaching, so Radek and Miko were both coming into the lab earlier and earlier to run their simulations, crunch their numbers, and get all their ducks in a row, because Radek had to win this competition. For Jitka and Katja.

Miko was impressed with Radek’s drive and enthusiasm. Hewston and Ambrose thought they were crazy, had taken to asking Radek what time he arrived. Miko started arriving earlier, so Radek had to get in before her so he could continue to do his best to sort through Jitka’s research notes, and Radek almost wondered if Miko was trying to outdo him, but eventually she settled on eight as her standard arrival time, so Radek had to get in at seven thirty, which resulted in Evan always making his breakfast to go.

Radek did his best to leave work at the same time every day so he could spend time with Katja in the evenings. He was walking a fine line, pursuing this contract to work with Athena Energy. He wanted Katja to be safe, but he wanted her to know that he was there for her no matter what.

The best thing about working on the project for Athena Energy was that Radek could research some of the things in Jitka’s notes under cover of doing research on his own project.

He still had no idea what those number-letter combinations were. He was pretty sure he had figured out the thrust of the energy source Jitka was looking into, energy drawn from either sub-space or an alternate dimension. The risk, of course, was dangerous effects from exotic particles.

He wondered what a ZPM was. He saw those letters repeated over and over again in the notes.

A quick Google search turned up nothing useful. It might have been an abbreviation for a Mexican language (who knew Mexico had languages other than Spanish?) or a company that sold shower caps and reusable bags.

The Mexican language might be useful, actually. One of the potential buyers a for the weapon had a Mayan name - Telchak. Mayan god of rain. But the term had no specific relation to any kind of clean or renewable energy or exotic particles, so Radek abandoned it and moved on.

It didn’t occur to Radek, until much later, that ZPM was likely a reference to the zero-point method of energy. Zero Point Method? That made good sense.

Miko arrived, and she plopped down into the chair beside Radek - Hewston had given in and just switched places with her on a permanent basis, now that they were both being grown-ups and could be trusted to get work done even if they sat next to each other.

“So, when do I get to meet Evan?” Miko asked.

“Why would you ever get to meet Evan? When Katja spends time with you, it is girl time,” Radek said. He always made sure Jitka’s notes were safely hidden away before anyone else came into the lab.

Miko waggled her pink Hello Kitty lunchbox at him meaningfully. “To teach him how to make cute bento lunches.”

Oh. Right. Radek had given Evan Miko’s phone number because Katja wanted cute bento lunches. Of course Evan had followed through with Katja’s request, because Evan was thoughtful and thorough and kind and genuinely wanted to make Katja happy.

Miko smirked at him and went to put her lunch away, then bounced back into her seat.

Between the two of them, they were pretty sure they were almost done, could put the finishing touches on their computer model and also their written proposal. Once both were finished, they would likely hole up at Miko’s house, which was quiet but for her cat, and practice delivering their presentation so it was as smooth as possible. Miko frequently complained that scientists spent far too much time building the slides for their presentations and not enough time practicing the actual presenting part so that science presentations were just universally boring. Given that English was a second language for both of them, a little extra practice would be worth it.

Radek and Miko swapped places, Miko reading over his written proposal, one of her many Hello Kitty pens (a red one) at hand, Radek running the computer model. Miko was making sure his references were correct, that the diagrams accurately reflected what preliminary data both of them had from their separate projects. Radek was watching the computer model, looking for inaccuracies or just ways to make it look better. If it weren’t proprietary work, he could have asked Evan to look it over. Evan would know how to make it more visually appealing, wouldn’t he?

They broke for lunch, the two of them sharing a bench out in the sun, and then Miko was struck with an idea for a presentation, but it required fancy presentation software (that, okay, she had wanted to buy for a while anyway), and so instead of going back to the lab they took a trip downtown together, to the mall, to buy the fancy software - and also buy some cute bento boxes for Evan to work with for Katja.

“When do you think would be a good time for me to come teach Evan?” Miko asked.

“Not on the weekends - he’s off-duty on the weekends,” Radek said. They had bought her fancy software and then spent an embarrassing amount of time at the Sanrio store, picking out various bento implements, not just Hello Kitty, but also My Melody (a rabbit in a pink hat), Chocokitty (a black cat - more masculine for Evan) and Tuxedo Sam (a blue penguin, also masculine for Radek). Given that Miko and Radek both put in long hours, they didn’t feel bad taking a long lunch this once.

“Off-duty?” Miko echoed.

“Yes. He used to be an Air Force officer. It’s the term he uses.” Radek shrugged. “Katja has dance class on Wednesday night. Perhaps a Tuesday? It would be better if you call Evan directly. He has his own calendar. We go grocery shopping on Thursday nights.”

They had a routine. It was a good routine, a comfortable routine, close enough to Jitka’s that Katja was comfortable with it, but also their own, so it felt like - well, it felt like they were a real family.

After three months, summer was on its way, and Radek knew he shouldn’t be imagining years down the road, Evan helping Katja when she became a teenager, when she went on her first date, when she went to prom or got her driver’s license, but…

Three months was like a lifetime to a child. It felt like a lifetime to Radek, because his world was consumed with Katja, Jitka’s notes, and getting into Athena Energy. He could barely remember what life had been like before Evan, who would stand with him in the mornings after his workout and watch the pigeons fly, who would leave fond little notes in Radek’s lunchbox to cheer him up, and who was so, so good with Katja.

Katja loved him, Radek was sure of that. He didn’t know what he would do once Evan moved on. He didn’t know what Katja would do either.

“I’ll text Evan,” Miko said, dragging Radek out of his musing. “Although with how all of us work, maybe a weekend would be best. Surely Evan wouldn’t begrudge you a few hours on a Saturday, no?”

“You would have to ask him,” Radek said.

On the weekends, Radek did his best to fend for himself and Katja, but Evan was still there in the house. He still worked out, he played with Katja, he baked treats and always happened to bake too many, so he had to share or else they’d go to waste. He did spend a lot of his free time on the weekends painting, but he always flung open his bedroom door and the balcony doors to get the best natural light possible, and Katja felt free to wander in and out and observe his progress.

Sometimes in the evenings he went out, but he never stayed out very late. Radek tried not to lie awake and listen for him to come home, but the house felt - strange, without Evan in it.

On Sundays, Radek took Katja to church, because Jitka would have wished it, and Evan would help make sure Katja was dressed up to her very best, her hair done very fancy and neat, before they left the house. Sometimes, after church, Katja would ask to visit Maminka, and they would go to the cemetery, visit her grave.

“What does he do on the weekends?” Miko asked.

Radek shrugged. “I do not know. He has his own life.”

Miko arched an eyebrow, skeptical, but then it was their turn to check out, and as she was willing to pay for all of the bento implements, Radek wasn’t going to get after her for being nosy. She didn’t mean to be nosy in an unkind way; she just wanted Radek to be happy, and she was very kind.

Once they completed their purchases, Radek helped Miko carry everything out to her car.

They’d just settled in and buckled their seatbelts when Miko’s phone rang.

She started the engine, pressed a button on her steering wheel so her car would answer the call.

“Moshi-moshi! Miko desu!”

“Miko, is Radek with you?” It was Ambrose, and he sounded angry.

“Why?” Miko asked, tone wary. She sat back in her seat, not willing to drive till Ambrose made his point.

“Someone broke into the lab. Trashed everything. We were at lunch. You’re at lunch. Is Radek with you? Or - or was he kidnapped?” Ambrose’s words tumbled out onto each other in almost a slur, he was talking to fast.

He was worried, not angry.

“Radek is with me,” Miko said. “We were out buying some supplies for our project.”

“The police are here. I’ll tell them to let you up. They’ll need to interview you,” Ambrose said. “I’m glad you’re both safe.”

Radek leaned toward Miko’s phone - he had no clue where the microphone was for the car to pick up his voice. “Was it vandalism? Or - or corporate espionage?”

“We don’t know,” Ambrose said. “We need to go through and see what’s missing.”

“We’ll be back as soon as we can,” Miko said. And then she drove like a bat out of hell.

When Radek and Miko got back to the lab, Miko was able to park in her usual parking spot. Everything seemed normal - people were going about their business, the elevators were working. But when they got back up to the floor where their specific lab was, it was cordoned off with yellow police tape. Two uniformed police officers were standing guard at the door. Ambrose and Hewston were standing just inside the doorway with a couple of detectives - Radek recognized Detective Barton’s red-brown hair and bright green eyes - and Elizabeth, the lab COO.

“Dr. Zelenka, Dr. Kusanagi,” Elizabeth said, turning to them. To the officers, she said, “They work here, let them through.”

One of the uniformed officers raised the yellow tape so Radek and Miko could duck under.

Ambrose hadn’t been kidding. The lab had been trashed. Hundreds of thousands of dollars of damage to lab instruments. The computers were broken. Even both of the refrigerators had been damaged, not just the one that held samples. All four desks had been turned inside out. Pencils and pens had been snapped and shattered. There were ink stains all over the linoleum. Drawers had been yanked out of the desks and upended.

“How could this have happened?” Radek asked.

His heart was pounding. He could see, in the paper debris, bright splashes of color. The pictures from Katja. And Jitka’s crayon notes.

“This building has security,” Radek continued.

Detective Barton’s expression was grim. “This was done by professionals.”

“Professional thieves, maybe, but professional thieves who are also scientists?” Miko asked. “What was stolen?”

“We’ll need your help to figure that out,” Detective Barton said. “Our techs will document the crime scene, and then -”

“Then we can clean this place up and catalog what’s broken and missing,” Elizabeth said with a sigh.

Radek inhaled shakily, nodded. Detective Barton cast him a look.

“Can you tell me what you were working on in here?” Detective Barton asked Elizabeth.

Hewston, Ambrose, and Miko immediately began bowling him over with techno-babble. Detective Barton sighed.

“Never mind. Am I correct in surmising that what you are working on is proprietary and worth a lot of money?” he asked.

“Yes, it’s all proprietary,” Elizabeth said. “It costs a lot of money to research it. Whether or not it will be worth a lot of money - only time will tell.”

“And a good scientist,” Radek said. “These people may have been professional thieves, but unless they were professional scientists as well, they won’t understand what they have taken - if they have taken anything of scientific import.”

“Can you help me figure out if anything of scientific import was taken?” Detective Barton asked.

Radek, Miko, Hewston, and Ambrose nodded.

The four of them rolled up their sleeves and waded into the mess. Ambrose fetched a broom and dustpan. Miko and Hewston crouched down to pick through the debris of broken things. Miko made a little pained noise when she discovered that her favorite Hello Kitty pens had all been smashed. Radek went straight for anything bright with crayon colors and child handwriting, his heart pounding.

It looked like none of Katja’s pictures were missing, but some of Jitka’s notes were missing. No, only one page.

The page with the ZPM reference on it.

Radek felt sick with guilt. He’d done this. He’d brought this down on the lab, by researching ZPMs from a work computer. If any of them had been present, would they have been hurt or killed? Because the level of destruction was frightening, cruel, clinical.

Detective Barton tucked his notepad into his jacket, tucked his pen behind his ear, and went to help.

“Dr. Zelenka,” he said in a low voice, “what’s going on?”

“I don’t know,” Radek said, because he didn’t, other than that Jitka really hadn’t just been killed in a burglary gone wrong. “Miko and I are working on a project together, Hewston and Ambrose are working on a project together, but -”

“But that’s your sister’s handwriting.” Detective Barton nodded at the page of crayon drawings Radek was holding.

Radek looked at him sharply.

“Those are her missing notes, aren’t they? From the last story she was working on. We never found her laptop, but the important information wasn’t on her laptop, was it?” Detective Barton kept his voice low. He was even wearing a soft, sad smile, like he was admiring Katja’s artwork. Neither Elizabeth nor the other scientists was paying any attention to them.

“Some of them,” Radek admitted quietly.

“Some of them?” Detective Barton raised his eyebrows.

“They were mixed in with some pictures and drawings by Katja,” Radek said. He thought quickly. “I wanted to keep them because - because they are Jitka’s handwriting. And I miss her. And I do not have much, with her handwriting.” As soon as he said it, he realized it was true.

“Do you have more of them?”

Radek shook his head.

“Would you tell me if you did?”

“They’re Jitka’s handwriting, random scribblings, and also drawings she and Katja did together.” Radek hoped he didn’t sound too defensive.

“Are they about Athena Energy?”

Radek weighed his options. If he told Detective Barton, potentially the police could help protect him and Katja. But if they couldn’t make a case against Athena Energy, then the people behind Jitka’s death would know Radek was involved. They were already coming after him aggressively. Katja would be in even more danger. As would Evan. Yes, Evan had soldier training, but if he did not know the danger, he would not be ready for an attack.

“No,” Radek said. “They don’t make any sense. Jitka told me much about her story, but these notes are about a novel she was reviewing, I think. Mythology?” He showed Detective Barton the page of notes about various mythological deities.

Detective Barton cast Radek several looks askance as he examined the page, but as it turned out, everyone else was missing personal items too - Miko’s Hello Kitty stapler, Hewston’s rubber band ball, Ambrose’s hand-carved wooden back-scratcher.

“Best as we can tell,” Elizabeth said, “no data was stolen. The computers were destroyed, but nothing was saved on their internal hard drives other than software for applications. All of the important research is on the company servers, perfectly preserved.”

“Could the destruction be a distraction?” Detective Barton asked.

“I have IT running the server logs, but so far it doesn’t look like there have been any breaches,” Elizabeth said.

Hewston scrubbed a hand through his hair. “This sets us back, though. It’s a fortune in damaged equipment, and no, none of our data is missing, but without those instruments, we can’t get more data to push our projects forward.”

“Could be corporate espionage.” Detective Barton was scribbling on his notepad.

“Could be.” Ambrose nodded.

“Can you give me a list of competitors?”

The scientists and Elizabeth all looked at each other.

“It’s a pretty big list,” Elizabeth said. “In addition to our regular corporate competitors, Dr. Kusanagi and Dr. Zelenka are competing for a collaboration opportunity with another company, and thousands of scientists from companies all around the globe are competing for the same opportunity.”

Miko frowned. “But not even we know who all of those competitors are.”

“Who would know?”

“The people hosting the competition, as it were. Athena Energy,” Radek said.

Detective Barton raised his eyebrows. “Athena Energy?” He caught Radek’s gaze, held it.

Miko nodded. “Yes.”

“Do you have a contact at the company who could help me out?” Detective Barton asked.

Elizabeth nodded. “In my office. If you’ll come with me? The rest of you, go home. I’ll have the cleaning staff take care of the rest. They won’t throw anything away, just sort it into piles. We can tackle the rest tomorrow.”

Radek glanced at his watch. It was almost time for Katja to be done with school. Evan had probably finished his cleaning and preparations for dinner, was probably on his way to pick her up.

He bade farewell to Miko, avoiding Detective Barton’s gaze, and headed for his car, all of Jitka’s notes - and Katja’s drawings - in hand.

He got home at almost the same time as Evan and Katja. They were inside, sorting out Katja’s homework assignments on the homework calendar, when Radek came in the front door.

“Strejdo!” Katja abandoned the calendar and ran to him, hugged him.

“Katja.” Radek knelt and scooped her into his arms, hugged her tightly.

“You’re home early!”

“My boss gave me part of the day off,” Radek said.

Katja twisted around to look at Evan. “Can I have part of the day off?”

Evan smiled, but then he met Radek’s gaze, and whatever he saw there made his smile dim for a moment. He recovered quickly. “Of course. Play with Uncle Radek while I finish preparing dinner, and after dinner you can do your homework, all right?”

Katja beamed and dragged Radek up the stairs so he could set down his briefcase and change out of his work clothes, and then they could pick a puzzle from the puzzle closet and work on it together. Radek agreed to this plan but said he needed to go let the pigeons out so they could get some extra exercise today.

Katja nodded, hugged him again, and bounded back down the stairs, calling for Evan.

Radek changed into cargo pants and a t-shirt and then went up to the roof. He checked the pigeons’ food and water levels - Evan really was doing a good job taking care of the coops - and then he opened all of the doors, set the pigeons free to fly their racecourse for the evening.

Then he sank down on the little bench he kept beside the coops, tipped his head back, and watched them fly into the golden afternoon sunlight.

He closed his eyes and took a deep, shuddering breath. He was so, so lucky the lab had been empty. For those thieves or thugs to strike in the middle of the day was bold. Was terrifying. They were so confident in their supreme skills that they’d break into a secured lab in broad daylight.

But then they’d taken Jitka’s life without a second thought.

“Hey, is everything all right?”

Radek’s eyes flew open.

Evan stood in the doorway, expression hesitant. “It’s just - you’re home early, and you looked worried. Downstairs.”

“There was a break-in at the lab. Lots of damage. Elizabeth sent us home so the janitorial staff can get the worst of the cleaning out of the way.”

Evan’s eyes went wide. “Are you all right? Was anyone hurt?”

“The lab was not occupied at the time of the break-in. Many expensive instruments were damaged.”

“Will this affect your and Miko’s project?”

“Only a little,” Radek said. He sighed, pinched the bridge of his nose.

Evan moved closer to him. “What’s wrong?”

“Headache.”

Evan made a sympathetic noise. “After everything that’s happened today, you probably have a tension headache. Here, let me.”

Radek started to ask, Let you what? But then Evan’s hands were on his shoulders, his thumbs digging into the knots of muscles at the junction of neck and shoulders, and Radek let his head tip forward so Evan could have better access. Evan’s hands were big, strong, warm, and the pressure was exquisite.

Evan slowly worked his way up Radek’s neck to the base of his skull, and then his clever fingers were carding through the hair at the nape of Radek’s neck, and his scalp was tingling, and too late Radek realized he was aroused.

Evan rubbed the tense spots just at the base of Radek’s skull, and Radek couldn’t help it - he moaned.

Evan snatched his hands back. “I’m sorry, did I hurt you?”

“No,” Radek said, turning to look at Evan.

Evan was bright red, embarrassed. Had Evan noticed the truth of Radek’s reaction to his skilful hands?

“Are you sure?” Evan wet his lips, and Radek thought of Evan’s lips on his skin where his hands had been, and -

No. This was precisely the kind of thing Radek didn’t want to have happen. An affair with Katja’s nanny was untenable.

“I am sure,” Radek said. “Thank you. You are very helpful. The headache - subsides.”

“I’m glad.” Evan backed toward the door. “I’d better finish dinner, and you - you’d better help Katja pick the puzzle. She’s waiting for you.”

Katja. Puzzle. Dinner. “Of course.”

They stared at each other for a long moment, both aware some line had been crossed but neither of them sure which line or what to say about it. After a long, drawn-out meeting of gazes, Evan ducked back into the house.

After another long, drawn-out moment, Radek went into the house, too.

As it turned out, it was surprisingly easy to avoid direct interaction with Evan while Katja was present as a buffer. Evan stuck to the kitchen while Radek and Katja stayed in the den, working on a puzzle (a picture of a unicorn in front of a castle). Evan was on the phone with a friend while he cooked. Radek caught brief snatches of Evan’s conversation every time he crossed the kitchen doorway. Once or twice Evan caught him looking, and another awkward, drawn-out pause occurred, but then Evan went back to cooking and Katja called for Radek to focus on the puzzle some more.

Over supper, Evan and Radek both quizzed Katja about her day, and for that they never had to actually speak to each other. Radek told Katja that he and Miko had bought bento supplies so all three of them could have cute lunches, and Evan asked Katja what kinds of pretty things she’d want in her lunch. Every time Radek looked at Evan too long, he remembered the sensation of the man’s on him, and he felt bad for feeling better after Evan’s careful ministrations.

After supper, Katja helped with dishes, and then she retreated to the den to do her homework.

As soon as she was suitably distracted by drawings of apples for math purposes, Evan said,

“I’m sorry.”

“What for?” Radek asked.

“Up on the roof. I crossed a line. I didn’t mean to. I grew up in a really touchy-feely family, and I suspect I crossed a personal boundary.” Evan’s words came tumbling out, and he looked like he felt terribly guilty.

Radek held up a hand to forestall further confession. “No, it is just -” He took a deep breath. “About the break-in at the lab today. There is something I must tell you.”

“Okay,” Evan said warily.

And it all came tumbling out. Everything. Jitka’s death a possible murder. Radek’s suspicions that Athena Energy was behind it. His plan to infiltrate Athena Energy under cover of his and Miko’s project to find evidence that someone from Athena Energy was responsible for Jitka’s death. His desire to protect Katja.

Radek kept his voice low, he and Evan hand-washing and drying the dishes that didn’t go into the dishwasher, so that if Katja was trying to listen in, she wouldn’t hear a thing.

Evan, to his credit, kept a calm expression, nodding in all the right places.

“So that’s why you chose me and not someone else,” Evan said. “For my military training. You want me to also be a bodyguard for Katja.”

“Yes. I cannot pay you more, but -”

“It’s okay, Radek,” Evan said, and his tone was terribly gentle.

“I must do everything I can to keep Katja safe.”

“I understand, and I’m here to help.”

“Do you? Understand?”

“I understand people wanting me dead.”

Dead. Athena Energy had wanted Jitka dead for what she knew. They would want the same for Radek. Would they want the same for Katja? Did they know that Jitka had disguised her notes to look like a child’s scribbles? Or would they think Katja somehow knew about ZPMs?

“I’m sorry,” Evan said quickly. “That was an insensitive thing to say. I mean, it’s true, but -”

Radek shook his head. “But you do not need to sugarcoat the direness of the situation with me. I have been living with this concern for a while now.”

“Right. Just - let me know what I can do to help.”

“Please, protect Katja.”

“Not just Katja.” Evan cast Radek a pointed look.

“But Katja first,” Radek said firmly.

“Of course.” Evan smiled tentatively. “It’s - not okay, but better. Now you’re not in this alone.”

“I should be in it alone,” Radek muttered. “The more people who know -”

Evan caught Radek by the shoulders, pulled Radek around to face him, looked him in the eye. “I’m here to help you. Remember that.”

Something in Evan’s tone struck a chord in Radek. He was utterly sincere.

Radek said, “I’ll remember that.”

Katja poked her head into the kitchen. “I’m finished with my homework. Come check it?”

*

Evan was a professional. He was supposed to remain calm under pressure and maintain an objective distance from any situation he was required to analyze and act on. He knew he’d crossed out of the realm of objective as soon as he’d put his hands on Radek and given him a neck rub, but no, that really wasn’t the height of his unprofessionalism.

No, the height of his unprofessionalism was how furious he was that Laura had authorized an incursion into Radek’s office in the middle of the day, and she hadn’t told him.

When Radek came home and informed Evan about the break-in at the lab, of course Evan jumped to the worst conclusion, that Athena’s operatives were on to him and knew he knew some of what Jitka had been supposed to carry to the grave with her. That meant Athena was ahead of Evan and his team, and also that Radek and Katja were both in more danger (which would mean heightened security and more team members in play, which would make Evan’s cover more difficult to maintain, not to mention the exponential increase in paperwork) .

After the encounter on the roof that left Evan breathless and shaken and cursing himself for giving in to the urge to touch Radek, he went down to the kitchen to finish dinner - and to phone in an emergency report to Laura.

“There was a break-in at Radek’s lab.”

“I know,” Laura said.

Evan, who had his phone tucked against his ear and pretended he was talking to his mother whenever he had to phone in a report, lest Radek or Katja overhear him talking about them - of course he’d tell his family how his job was going - nearly dropped his phone.

“What? How?”

“Ford and Bates did it.”

Evan took a deep breath, set down his kitchen knife. “They did what? And you didn’t tell me? Radek came home freaked out -”

“Relax.” Laura laughed. “It was easy as pie, in and out, no one the wiser -”

“They smashed the entire lab.”

The laughter vanished from Laura’s voice. “They what?”

“That’s my line,” Evan snapped.

“Lorne,” Laura said warningly, but he hissed at her. She was his control officer, not his boss.

“Everything was destroyed, expensive equipment, Miko’s damn Hello Kitty pens -”

“Evan, Ford and Bates didn’t do that. All they did was find some of Jitka’s notes and get out.”

That brought Evan up short. “They found them?”

“Disguised as children’s scribbles. There was a reference to a ZPM on one of the pages, so they grabbed it. And then they got out.”

Evan sighed, picked up his knife, continued chopping. “Then the lab being trashed - that was her goons.”

“Probably some Jaffa,” Laura said, grim.

“So we’re - elevated.”

“We are.”

Evan squeezed his eyes shut. Finally, he said, “Why didn’t you tell me?”

“Needed your reaction to be genuine.”

“Genuine? Radek’s scared out of his mind, and for a moment there, so was I.”

“Yes, well, if Athena’s onto him, you should be on condition red,” Laura said. Her tone was sharp, a warning. Get it together, Lorne.

“Duly noted.”

“I sent Bates and Ford back in as part of the janitorial team to do clean-up, and all of the children’s drawings are gone.”

Not just children’s drawings - probably the rest of Jitka’s notes disguised as children’s drawings.

“What information did you get about the car?”

Evan’s team had implanted GPS into Radek’s car to track his movements. “No detours on the way home.” Laura’s voice was light and playful again.

So Radek had brought Jitka’s notes home. It was up to Evan to find them. “I understand.” On top of reining in his emotions - he’d been captured by Jaffa, knew what they were willing to do to helpless humans - he had to maintain situational awareness and choose his words carefully, should anyone overhear. His conversation had to sound completely innocuous.

“Good. Send them on. We’ll have our analysts check them.”

Thank the stars for camera phones. “Of course. Anyway, dinner’s almost ready. Gotta go. Give my best to Mikey and Gabby.”

“Maybe one day you’ll take me home to meet them.”

Evan gritted his teeth, but he kept his tone light and fond. “’Bye now. You too. Talk to you later.” And he hung up.

He made it through dinner on sheer professionalism - and shamelessly using Katja as a buffer. He knew he’d crossed a line up on the roof, and it wouldn’t be out of character to apologize to Radek - and then Radek told him everything. About his suspicions of Jitka’s death. Evan already knew Jitka had been murdered, but the grief and fury in Radek’s voice made him want to take Radek far away, somewhere secret and safe, and hold him, protect him always. (It was already Evan’s job to protect Radek.) And then Radek told him more - about how he had plans to infiltrate Athena Energy, hence his project with Miko, and find evidence of their involvement in Jitka’s death.

Evan’s team knew Athena was behind Jitka’s death. They didn’t know specifically which operatives or agents had done the deed. Evan’s team knew Athena was working on developing a ZPM bomb, which she planned on selling to the highest bidder - and not necessarily on Earth. What Evan’s team needed to know was who the bidders were and how far along the bomb research was.

But Evan was a professional, held it together, managed to be kind and sympathetic without crossing any more lines, and then it was time to check Katja’s homework and after that, bed.

When Evan cleaned all the bedrooms the next day, he didn’t find Jitka’s notes. Radek was keeping them on his person, then. But he couldn’t do that all the time, could he? Was he sleeping with them? Radek had to get back in the saddle on his project with Miko if he wanted to infiltrate Athena Energy. Evan had to tell Laura about that little wrinkle in the plan, and that kind of conversation had to be held in person.

So far Evan had always stayed in on his weekends, painting and doing his best to appear normal and harmless and exactly what he said he was - a man working as a nanny to earn enough money to be an artist. It was hard to be an artist without doing art, so Evan painted. Mostly still lifes and landscapes. If his sketchbooks were full of studies of Radek’s eyes and hands and smile and hair, well, no one needed to know but him. But this weekend he would go out, rendezvous with Laura, give her a more full report.

In order to allay some of Katja’s disappointment, Evan would spend some extra time with her on Saturday, and then Saturday night, he’d go out. To go out, he’d need supplies. Mostly in the way of clothes. If he went out to a club, wandered around the dance floor, and then slipped away with a woman, no one would suspect a thing, especially since Laura was a very attractive woman. He would also need more art supplies for his project with Katja. Before he spent a fortune on a club outfit, he’d be best served using clothes he already owned.

If only he had a friend to call, about what to wear to a club.

He called Laura.

“Hey.”

“Hey.” She sounded friendly but wary.

“So I was thinking, we should go clubbing. Haven’t done that in a while.” We need to meet.

“Okay. Where?” How urgent is it?

“Pick a place and a time, I’ll meet you there.”

“All right. I’ll send you details.” Not too urgent, but I understand this needs to be in person.

“Thanks. Although, since it’s been a while, I kinda need help. With an outfit.”

It took Laura a moment to switch gears, realize that was a genuine and literal request. “Oh. Uh - that olive v-neck t-shirt. Kinda shows off your tattoos. That one’s nice. And - that dark fedora. Your black leather jacket, and - those jeans. The ones I always said you should throw out or, in the event you won’t because you’re terribly sentimental, at least never leave the house in them.”

Evan pawed through his duffel bag. That Laura had the contents of his entire wardrobe memorized spoke to her skill as an operative and analyst - and also how pathetically small his wardrobe was.

“Okay. I’ll take your word for it.”

“See you. Tomorrow night?”

“Tomorrow night.” Evan hung up. He set his duffel bag down, pocketed his cell phone, and knelt to really dig through it.

And then he saw, taped to the underside of Jitka’s old desk, an envelope.

It hadn’t been there before.

In an instant, he saw the wisdom in Radek choosing that place to hide Jitka’s old notes. It was in Evan’s room, and no one would suspect that he’d leave his notes potentially to Evan’s discovery. Evan knew he was innocuous and a stranger to anyone watching the family, as a male nanny. Katja’s room was dangerous. Radek couldn’t risk someone snooping around there and possibly endangering Katja. His own room was obvious.

Evan’s was not.

Evan rose up, ran a counter-surveillance sweep, made sure there were no bugs and cameras (he swept the entire house every day under the guise of cleaning, but an operative could never be too careful), and then he closed his curtains.

He studied the envelope for a long time, noting its exact position, where the tape was that held it in place. Only once he was sure he could replicate the envelope’s placement did he tug it free. Then he inspected the envelope itself for additional security features - there was red thread at the clasp of the manilla envelope. He unwound the thread carefully, set it aside, and finally opened the envelope.

Laura hadn’t been quite accurate - Jitka hadn’t disguised her notes as children’s drawings. She’d used some of Katja’s old drawings. Evan recognized some of Katja’s favorite color schemes and abstract shapes. Jitka had cleverly interspersed her notes with the drawings and scribbles.

Evan was no physicist. No point in him trying to understand them. But as he flipped through them, he recognized the names of mythological deities, some of whom were known Goa’uld System Lords. And he recognized SGC-style planet designations. Potential buyers and their throne worlds? Throne worlds was probably too much to hope for. Maybe rendezvous points. Or locations of known ZPMs?

He photographed both sides of every piece of paper, shuffled them back into the right order, and then replaced the envelope, carefully recreating the security features and placement. Then he booted up his laptop. He could send the images from his phone to Laura and her analysts via a subspace signal, one that wouldn’t register on regular counter-surveillance scanners. Athena’s Jaffa wouldn’t think to check for any alien tech coming from Radek’s house. If they did think to check for that, then Evan and his team were in big trouble.

Once the pictures were sent, some measure of relief filled Evan, but he was also still on edge. The entire operation had reached a new level of intensity - and danger.

Laura replied with a smiley emoticon and coordinates and a meeting time for a club downtown, one that her recommended outfit would permit. Evan shut down his laptop and stowed it, and then it was time to get Katja from school.

On the way home from school, he pitched his Saturday plan to her, and she agreed. Radek looked marginally less frazzled when he got home than he’d been the day before. Over supper, Katja told him excitedly about her and Evan’s Saturday plans. Then Evan went with the buried lead, mentioned that he planned on going out Saturday night, meeting a friend for drinks. Evan was pretty sure it was his imagination, that Radek looked jealous, but Radek said of course, Evan had his own life and friends, it was high time he go out, get some air. But Radek looked a little anxious all the same, too.

Ford and Bates would watch the house while Evan was out. No way would he leave the family unguarded. Both of them watched out for Radek while he was at work, and Vega watched Katja while she was at school. That Ford and Bates had left Radek unguarded while they raided his lab was still kind of stuck in Evan’s craw, but Laura was running this op, not him, so he’d keep his mouth shut.

Bright and early Saturday morning, Evan, Katja and Radek tended to the pigeons together. While Katja and Radek sat on the roof and watched the pigeons circle in the sky, Evan made breakfast, and then he carried it up to the roof. The three of them sat together and watched the pigeons fly. Then Radek shut himself in his office to do some extra work (no doubt trying to decode Jitka’s notes, or perhaps repair what damage was done to his and Miko’s project by Athena’s Jaffa), and Evan and Katja went shopping.

Instead of the grocery store, they went to the local arts and crafts store. Evan had scoped the place out more than once under cover of buying painting supplies, so he knew its layout well, the entrances and exits. He and Katja spent time picking out silk flowers, a variety of hair pins, hair clips, barrettes, and headbands, ribbons, sequins, feathers, and a hot glue gun and a pack of glue sticks.

They were at the checkout stand when a woman said,

“Hello again.”

Evan recognized her immediately, the woman from the grocery store. “Kerry, right? Hello.”

Kerry smiled, pleased that he’d remembered her. Of course he remembered her. He was a trained agent. As was she. But they both had roles to play in front of Katja.

“You two having a party?” Kerry had just a shopping basket over one arm, laden mostly with knitting supplies.

Knitting needles. Damn. Those were pretty nasty as improvised weapons.

“No, just an art project,” Evan said.

Katja nudged Evan none-too-subtly and said, “Is she your girlfriend?”

Kerry laughed, bright and startled. “No, sweetie. We just shop at some of the same places.”

Katja pressed herself to Evan’s side, shy.

Kerry leaned down so she was eye-level with Katja. “Is Evan a good nanny?”

Katja nodded.

“Does he take good care of you?”

Katja nodded again, still wary.

“Does he make you eat your vegetables?”

“I like vegetables,” Katja said in a small voice.

The cashier, a teenage girl, looked very amused at the entire scene. Evan finished paying for his and Katja’s supplies.

“It was nice seeing you again, Kerry, but we have a big day ahead of us, and we’d better get started.”

Katja nodded her agreement, and she carried one of the shopping bags out to the car.

“I don’t like her,” Katja said, as Evan pulled away from the store.

“Why not?”

Katja shrugged. “I don’t know. She shouldn’t be your girlfriend.”

Evan laughed softly. “Don’t worry. I don’t want her to be my girlfriend.”

“Good.” Then Katja said, “Are you like Uncle Radek?”

“What do you mean?” Evan asked, though he had a strong suspicion he knew exactly what she meant.

“Do you like boys instead of girls?”

“I like both,” Evan said, which wasn’t a lie.

Katja said nothing for a long moment, and Evan wondered if he’d crossed a line. Given that she was aware of Radek’s sexuality, he didn’t think he had.

Then Katja said, “You should date Miko. Miko’s nice.”

“I don’t know if Miko wants to date me. She might have a boyfriend or girlfriend already,” Evan said.

Katja shook her head. “No. Scientists are too busy to have boyfriends and girlfriends.”

Tell that to McKay, Evan thought. Instead he agreed, “Scientists are very busy,” and that was the end of that.

Back at the house, they spread their supplies on their kitchen table, and then Evan fired up his phone so they could look at Pinterest together. Katja snuggled in close, pressed against his side, small and warm, and together they selected some hair accessories they could make with their supplies - enough for a different piece every day of the week, plus some extra for the weekend.

“This is your project,” Evan said, “so you’re the boss.”

The way Katja lit up at that made something in Evan’s chest tighten. She was such a sweet girl. And a smart one. She took charge without hesitation. She selected three barrettes, three hair clips, and a headband, and laid them out in a row. Then she took her time, contemplating her supplies. Evan stood back respectfully and let her choose. She laid out a selection of flowers, sequins, feathers, and ribbons beside each hair accessory, and then she set Evan to warming up the hot glue gun. His first job was to cover each item in the appropriate-colored ribbon. From there, Katja would affix the necessary flowers and decorations to the ribbon.

Evan saluted her briefly, then set to work wrapping a headband in ribbon. As soon as he was done with the headband, he would move on to the first barrette. While they worked, they talked softly. Evan asked for vocabulary lessons in Czech - the words for flower, sequin (they settled on jewel, as Katja had never had cause to use that word in Czech), feather, ribbon, hair. Hand. Glue. Katja’s eyes were bright and delighted as she taught Evan. She giggled when he (deliberately) fumbled his pronunciation, but she was never unkind when she corrected him.

Her little hands were confident, and even though some of her fashion choices weren’t ones Evan would have made, they were her own, and inside two hours they had seven brand new hair accessories, plus supplies to make more down the road.

Now came the really fun part - the photo shoot. Katja looked through Evan’s hairstyle portfolio on his phone, selected seven hairstyles, and then she ran to the bathroom to fetch her bag of hair supplies. She sat obediently on a kitchen chair, and Evan combed her hair.

“Before you were a nanny, you were a soldier, yes?” Katja spoke perfect unaccented English compared to her uncle, but some of her syntax made it sound like English was her second language.

“I was technically an airman,” Evan explained, carding his fingers through her child-fine hair, working it into a french braid. “Soldiers are in the Army. Sailors are in the Navy. Marines are, well, Marines. And airmen are in the Air Force.”

“Air Force? Did you fly planes?”

“Sometimes,” Evan said. He’d been trained to fly cargo planes, but he could also fly alien-earth hybrid space-capable fighter interceptors. He could fly puddle jumpers.

“Was it scary, being an airman?”

“Sometimes.”

“Why are you a nanny now?”

“I’m retired from the Air Force, and I need a job, and a nanny is a good job to have. Like being a parent,” Evan said. He’d never felt bad for lying to someone for the sake of a mission before. He felt especially bad for lying to a child, one who trusted him.

“You could be a parent if you wanted,” Katja said reasonably.

“Becoming a parent takes two people,” Evan said, “and there’s only one of me.”

“But you are very handsome and very nice. Surely someone wants you.”

Evan wished Radek wanted him. “That’s very nice of you, Katja, but it’s not that simple.”

“Why not?”

“I don’t know, but it’s not.”

“When you have children, can I play with them?” Katja asked.

After this job was done, Evan would never get to see Katja and Radek again. He swallowed hard. “Sure.”

Once the braid was finished, Evan held up a couple of mirrors for her to see, and there was some discussion as to where to place the hair barrette, and once it was in place, Evan used Katja’s little iPod to take pictures of her. They would email the pictures to Miko for her approval once everything was done.

By the time Evan had done Katja’s hair seven times, had seven photo shoots, and they’d cleaned up the kitchen, it was time for Evan to get ready to go. Radek had wandered in briefly, fixed a snack for the three of them, offered some vague approval of Katja’s art project, and then wandered out.

“Time for you to go?” Katja asked. “But it’s not yet time for dinner.”

“It will be soon,” Evan said. “Besides, I have to go get ready.”

“Get ready?”

Evan nodded. “I have to shower.”

“You shower fast.”

“That I do. I also have to shave. And comb my hair.”

“Your hair always looks nice.”

Evan recognized the stall tactic for what it was. “I appreciate that. I promise, Uncle Radek will make supper for you, and then the two of you will have fun while I’m gone, all right? I’ve hogged you all day, and now Uncle Radek deserves time with you.”

Katja pouted, but she relented, went into the den to watch cartoons.

Evan showered quickly, ran a comb through his hair, shaved. He tugged on the outfit Laura had recommended, and then he headed down the stairs. He paused in the kitchen doorway.

“Hey, I’m headed out. Don’t wait up.”

Radek, who was standing at the stove, turned, and his eyes went wide.

“Is everything all right?” Evan asked.

“Ah - no, I mean, yes,” Radek said. “I mean, you look - very nice. Have fun.”

“Thanks.” Evan leaned into the kitchen, snagged Katja with one arm for a quick hug, and then he was out the door. It was mission time. Evan had to be in Agent Lorne mode. He couldn’t be distracted by the way Radek had looked at him.

It was the same way several men and women looked at him when he stepped into the club Laura had chosen as their rendezvous point. Evan ordered a shot of something cheap, pretended to drink it, and then wandered out onto the dancefloor. He danced with whoever danced with him, pressing his body against strangers, trading heated glances and sly smiles. He was getting pretty friendly with a very good-looking blond man when Laura arrived, cut in.

She molded herself to him, moving to the beat, and for one second Evan was back on Atlantis, jittery from another near brush with death, letting Laura tumble him into her bed.

She pressed close, her lips brushing his ear, and said, “Give it a few more songs, then let’s go out back.”

Evan nodded and replied, just as softly, so only she could hear, “Roger that. There’s been a wrinkle in our plan.”

*

Katja was quiet and sullen all through supper. Radek hadn’t realized just how Evan’s constant presence in the house was a bedrock, an anchor. Even though Evan technically had the weekends off, he was always around, making noise in the background. This was the first time he’d gone out for more than an art supply shopping trip, and Radek felt a little unsteady, uncertain. He asked Katja about her project with Evan, offered to be the audience of one for a presentation of her photo shoot, but she just shrugged.

Radek wasn’t above resorting to bribery, so finally he offered to take her out for dessert. There was the little Italian Ice parlor they hadn’t been to in a long time. At that, Katja lit up, so they did dishes, and then they piled into the car and headed into town.

At the parlor, one of the teenage girls behind the counter greeted them cheerfully. She remembered both of them and their favorites. Katja accepted her cone of pistachio gelato and went to sit in her favorite booth while Radek paid.

The girl smiled at Radek. “Uncle-Niece date, is it?”

“Ah, not exactly. I mean, yes, it is just the two of us, but - Katja’s mother passed away recently. I am Katja’s guardian now.”

The girl’s eyes went wide, and she fumbled to apologize. Radek waved away her apologies, said they were doing all right, but apparently sympathy netted him a free scoop of French Vanilla. He thanked the girl, and then he went to sit with Katja. While they ate, Katja chatted away about her fun day with Evan. She promised to show Radek her pictures on her iPod as soon as they got home, and maybe next time Radek could help make more hair things, yes?

They finished their ice creams in good time, and Radek suggested maybe they could go for a walk, look at the shop windows and let the ice cream settle before they went home.

Katja nodded, and once her ice cream was finished and she’d washed her hands and wiped her face, she slipped her hand into Radek’s, and down the street they headed. They peered into the store fronts of a jeweler, a boutique - Katja cooed over the pretty dresses, a thrift shop with a display of antique dolls, a toy shop with some radio control airplanes and cars.

“Evan used to fly airplanes with the Air Force,” Katja said.

“Those planes were much bigger and more complicated,” Radek said.

Katja said, “There’s Evan, over there.”

“What?” Radek asked, startled by the sudden turn in conversation.

“Evan. He’s over there.” Katja pointed.

Radek turned and saw Evan. He was trotting down the steps of a club with a woman in tow. She was beautiful, slender, with red-gold hair, wearing a short black dress that barely came to mid-thigh and had a plunging neckline. When Evan had appeared in the doorway, wearing that thin, worn shirt and those indecent jeans, Radek had nearly swallowed his own tongue, overcome with a wave of lust.

The woman laughed at something Evan said, reached out and plucked off his fedora, placed it on her own head. Evan laughed in reply, reeled her in and kissed her. They were long-time lovers, comfortable in each other’s space. The woman slid a hand into one of Evan’s back pockets and squeezed, and Radek reflexively clapped a hand over Katja’s eyes.

Evan laughed again, breaking from the kiss, and then the woman took the lead, towing Evan down the alley beside the club.

Katja batted Radek’s hand away, but it didn’t matter, because Evan and the beautiful woman had vanished into the shadows.

“That wasn’t Kerry,” Katja said.

“Who?”

“The lady we saw at the store.”

“Good. I think.” Radek wanted to curse himself. Of course Evan wasn’t interested in him. He was just a genuinely kind man. That neck rub on the roof didn’t mean anything.

The sooner Radek dealt with the issue of Athena Energy, the sooner he and Katja could go on with their lives, wouldn’t need Evan anymore.

“Let us go home, Katja,” Radek said. “We must be in bed in good time for church tomorrow.”

He expected Katja to protest, but she nodded and yawned. “Tomorrow, Strejdo. I will show you my pictures after church.”

“All right.” Radek bundled her into the car, but he didn’t drive home. Instead, while Katja slept, he drove to the nearest Walmart, because those were open all night, and he bought a laptop. (He made sure to cover Katja with his jacket so anyone who looked in the back seat would not see her.) He drove around till he found an empty parking lot near a church, and he used an external power outlet to get the laptop set up. He didn’t dare connect it to his home wifi. As soon as it was set up, he drove around the neighborhood some more till he found someone else’s unsecured wifi.

He parked, brought the laptop out of hibernation, and went to work. Scientists were, of a necessity, programmers to some degree, because they had to be able to program their instruments to take the measurements they wanted. Not every scientist learned to be a hacker. But Radek - he knew the importance of cyber security. If he wanted to know how to keep himself safe - well, he had to know how to launch an attack.

So launch an attack he did. The purpose of the attack was two-fold: find out just what he and Miko had to do to win the Athena bid, and find any information on Jitka’s death.

Maybe the attack was three-fold.

But Radek didn’t care. He and Katja had been in danger, in limbo long enough. The police wouldn’t be any help. Evan wouldn’t be any help either. Yes, he was kind and concerned, he had promised to help keep Radek and Katja safe, but he had his own life, his own - wants and desires. The only person Radek could really trust to solve this problem was himself. He kept glancing into the back seat

Finding the specs for the Athena Energy bid was easy. Radek looked up some of the project proposals already received, so he knew what he and Miko were up against. Just a couple of small tweaks, a couple of angles to cover, and they would win, Radek was sure of it.

That was the easy part.

Penetrating beyond that level of security, to see what, if anything, existed on the Athena servers about Jitka, was impossible. It didn’t take Radek long to find the subserver, the underground space where the company’s true secrets were being kept. But whoever had done the main corporate security was different from whoever had designed the deeper security. Because whoever it was had created a whole knew language to write the code in. At first Radek had thought it was another level of encryption, using Egyptian hieroglyphs, but when Radek ran the section of code he’d isolated through a translation program, it came up unknown. Gibberish.

Radek thought of what he’d seen in Jitka’s notes, the names of ancient mythological deities, and he was even more sure that Athena Energy was behind Jitka’s death. He’d have to do some mythology research. It would take time, but he could crack their database, he was sure of it.

When he glanced at his watch, he was horrified at how late he’d stayed out. He shut down the laptop and drove back to the house. When he got there, Evan’s car was parked out front. Radek glanced up, toward the balcony, but Evan’s lights were out.

Radek carried Katja inside, removed her shoes and jacket, and tucked her into bed. Then he fetched the laptop, stowed it in his briefcase, and crawled into bed. He strained to listen, but no sound came from Evan’s room.

After a long time, Radek closed his eyes and fell into a troubled sleep.

The next morning, Radek slept through his alarm. He scrambled into the shower, shaved badly, pulled on the first clean church clothes he could find. He scrambled down to the kitchen. Katja had already eaten her breakfast and was sitting on a kitchen chair in a nice church dress while Evan did her hair.

“Radek,” Evan said, “is everything all right?”

Radek didn’t look too closely at Evan, didn’t want to see the getting-laid afterglow he’d seen too often in other people and not often enough in the mirror, didn’t want to see kiss-shaped bruises at his throat or -

“I made you some breakfast,” Evan said.

Radek held out a hand to Katja. “We must go, or we will be late for church.”

Katja cast a glance at the clock. “But Strejdo -”

“We must go,” Radek said again.

Evan did something complicated with his hands and Katja’s hair was done. She hopped off the chair and went to put on her nice shoes. Radek caught her hand and headed for the door. Evan called out after him, but Radek didn’t hear what he said.

Radek and Katja weren’t quite late to church, but they were late enough that people were already singing a hymn, and they had to sit on one of the very back pews instead of their normal one. Katja held the hymnal and sat very still and didn’t look at Radek at all. Radek closed his eyes and thought back over all he had read the night before, the things he and Miko would have to do to win the Athena Energy bid. They could do it. They were so close. The difficult part would be convincing Miko that the new changes they had to make would make sense, given the work they’d already done. While Radek was no spy, was not especially well-versed in espionage, he was an intelligent man. He could figure it out.

After the service, Radek avoided most of the well-meaning matrons who liked to ask after how he and Katja were doing, now that Jitka had passed. He hustled Katja back to the car, and then it was back home. He changed out of his church clothes into regular clothes and told Katja he had to work quietly in his study, but he would make her lunch and also supper. She looked disappointed, reminded him he’d promised to look at the pictures from her photoshoot yesterday, and he promised they could look through the photos after supper.

Katja nodded meekly. Radek sat down at his desk, opened his regular laptop, and looked through the specs for his and Miko’s project. He only half-registered the sound of Katja’s footsteps as she padded across the landing, knocked on Evan’s door. She spoke to Evan, her voice an indistinct murmur, and Evan replied.

Evan had been awake bright and early, for someone who’d gone on such energetic escapades the night before.

His personal life was no business of Radek’s. Radek had work to do.

Radek surfaced hours later, drawn by hunger pangs. He realized he’d missed lunch and had to get dinner started soon. When he checked Katja’s room, it was empty, and so was Evan’s room. He hurried down the stairs, Katja’s name on his lips, but the kitchen was empty. Panic rose in Radek’s chest. He’d run a Google search on ZPMs and his lab had been raided the same day. He’d hacked Athena Energy last night. If they’d traced it back to him -

But Katja and Evan were in the den. Evan was tucked up on one side of the couch, sketching. Katja was next to him, her back pressed to his side, her knees drawn up to her chest so she could balance a coloring book on them. They were both silent, lost in their own little worlds - but they were also each other’s world. They were each other’s family. They were Radek’s family.

No. They were the family he could never have. Katja was his, always would be his, but Evan belonged to some beautiful woman with red-gold hair and musical laughter, and -

Evan looked up, saw him, smiled.

“Hey, you’ve been working hard all weekend.” He kept his voice low, gentle. “Dinner’s in the oven. It’ll be ready soon. You’re probably hungry.”

At first, dinner was stilted, with no conversation. Evan asked Katja about church, but as he hadn’t grown up church-going himself, the conversation withered quickly. Radek didn’t know what to say either, because he wanted to ask how Evan’s night out was, but that was none of his business, and he wanted to reassure Katja that he had everything under control, but Katja didn’t know what was going on with Athena Energy anyway -

“We shall show the photo shoot after dinner, yes?” Katja asked.

Evan nodded cautiously. “Sure, if you like.” He glanced at Radek. “What do you think?”

Radek had promised, and Katja looked so anxious to please, so he managed a smile and said, “Of course. After dishes. Perhaps - perhaps we can use my projector and laptop.”

Katja lit up.

“I’m pretty sure I know where there’s a clean sheet we can use as a screen,” Evan offered, and Katja’s expression brightened even more.

They did the dishes quickly, and then Radek and Evan worked to set up the laptop, projector, and a sheet while Katja picked her favorite pictures on her iPod for display. She even selected some cute, cheerful music, and once Radek showed her how to control the slideshow, it was time. For the big presentation.

Katja insisted that Evan and Radek sit on the couch together, and then - it was time.

Katja started the music, some bouncy pop song about not knowing you’re beautiful, and the first picture queued up.

A lump rose in Radek’s throat. She looked beautiful, bright and happy. When Radek glanced at Evan, Evan looked so proud of her. Evan loved Katja at least as much as Radek did, cheering and applauding. Katja narrated the creation of each hair accessory, described the hairstyle, and pointed out which parts she made and which parts Evan had made. Radek was glad Katja had Evan in her life, because he was able to do things with her, think of things to do with her that were beyond Radek’s wildest imagination. He knew some of it was because Evan was an artist and had a niece himself, but Radek had helped Jitka with Katja for a long time, and it would never have occurred to him to help her make her own hair things.

When it was finished, Katja took her bows, and Evan was off the couch, scooping her into a hug and telling her he was so proud of her. Radek went to join in, make it a group hug, but then he remembered that he had to keep a professional distance from Evan even though Evan fit perfectly into their family, better than Radek could ever have hoped -

After Evan stepped back, Radek swooped in and hugged Katja very tightly, told her how proud he was of her. Katja scurried upstairs to pick out her outfit - and matching hair accessory - for tomorrow at school, leaving Evan and Radek to clear away the laptop and projector.

“She’s a wonderful girl,” Evan said. Was it Radek’s imagination, or did Evan sound wistful? “You must be so proud of her.”

“I am,” Radek said. He hesitated, then added, “You are very good with her. Thank you.”

“I wish I could be better - for both of you,” Evan said, softly, almost as if to himself. Then the shadows in his eyes dissipated, and he smiled. “So, where do you want this to go?” He hefted Radek’s laptop.

Radek took it from him, and Evan took over dismantling the sheet screen. Once the den was straightened up, both men headed upstairs, and they supervised Katja brushing her teeth, tucked her into bed.

That night, Radek fell asleep much more easily.

But he didn’t sleep well. He tossed and turned with nightmares of thugs from Athena Energy attacking the house, hurting Katja and killing Evan.

He overslept his alarm again the next day, showered and dressed and dashed down the stairs with just enough time to kiss Katja goodbye and run out the door. Evan hollered after him, but he didn’t have time to stop and answer.

At the lab, Miko was waiting for him. The lab was finally clean and organized, the computers had been replaced, but most of the instruments were still being triaged. Some would be replaced. Other instruments likely would not be replaced, which would necessitate collaborating with other companies who had the instruments they needed.

“What’s the plan?” she asked. “How much of a setback has this been?”

“I think we can still prevail,” Radek said, laying out his notes. “If we cover a couple of these angles, I believe we can surpass our competitors, even without going for the pity vote.”

Miko pawed through his notes. “You want to cover subspace possibilities of quantum turbines?”

Radek nodded. “Yes. To eliminate concerns of exotic particles.”

“But mirror particles -”

“Are predictable,” Radek said.

Miko conceded the point, kept looking. “These are - strange things. But you think they will help?”

“I do.” Radek gazed at her earnestly.

Miko took a deep breath. “Okay.” Then she smiled and added, “I trust you.”

Guilt twisted in Radek’s gut. “Thank you.”

The two of them rolled up their sleeves and got to work. Radek knew he was deceiving Miko, but this was for her own good - and Katja’s and Evan’s (and his own, if only because he and his family would be safe and he wouldn’t have to fret over the complication of Evan in his life anymore). Miko ran calculations, Radek prepped the data to add to their project proposal presentation, and this was how science was supposed to be, energy and discovery and teamwork.

Miko and Radek stood in front of the whiteboard, erasable markers in hand, contemplating how best to diagram a mirror particle quantum turbine, when the phone at Radek’s desk rang.

It took him a moment to answer it, because the replacement phones had a different ringtone from the old ones. Hewston and Ambrose checked their phones first, then Ambrose said, “It’s one of yours.”

Miko checked hers, so naturally the phone ringing was Radek’s. He scooped up the receiver.

“Dr. Zelenka.” It was Amelia, the nice lady who worked security down at the front desk. “You have a visitor waiting for you in the lobby.”

Visitor? Radek wasn’t expecting anyone. What if it was someone from Athena Energy? Were they onto him? He’d done well to cover his hacking trail. “Thank you,” he said, pleased when his voice didn’t waver. “I’ll be right down.”

“Is everything all right?” Miko asked.

“I have a visitor downstairs,” Radek said. “If I’m not back in ten minutes, send a search party.” He smiled like it was a joke, and Miko smiled back, nodded. Radek still made sure to grab his cell phone before he went. If he was kidnapped, the police could trace his phone.

As the elevator traveled downward, Radek’s mind spun with the possibilities. At the worst, it was goons from Athena. At best, it was Detective Barton, with news that they’d caught Jitka’s actual killer. When the elevator doors slid open, Radek took a deep breath, drew himself up to his full height, and strode into the lobby, ready for anything.

Except Evan, holding his lunch box.

“Hey,” Evan said, smiling sheepishly. “You ran out the door so fast this morning you forgot your lunch. I tried to chase you down, but you drive fast. I figured I could swing this by for you after dropping Katja at school, but then I got caught up with the cleaning at home and I almost forgot but then I saw the time and I know you’d be hungry -”

“It is all right. Thank you.” Radek accepted the lunch box. He’d never heard Evan babble like this before, and he realized - Evan was nervous.

Evan jammed his hands into his pockets. “Listen, can we talk? You’re on your lunch break, right?”

“I am,” Radek said. “What would you like to talk about?”

Evan scratched the back of his neck. “Well, I - I get the feeling I made things weird. On Saturday. And I’m sorry. And I had this conversation with Katja, and -”

Evan was blushing. He blushed very prettily.

Radek quashed that thought immediately. “Yes, we can talk. It is my lunch break. We could - there is a food cart, down the street. Gyros. Quite good. Did you bring lunch for yourself? We could eat together. I know a place where we could sit. Private.”

“Gyros are great. Love gyros.” Evan’s expression was both relieved and hopeful. “Do you need to clock out or something? No, what am I saying - you’re on salary.”

“Yes, but I should text Miko, let her know I am taking my lunch.” Radek tapped out a quick message, Going on lunch break, back in an hour at most, and then he pocketed his phone. “Let’s go. I’ll show you the gyro cart.”

On the way to the gyro cart, they had stilted conversation. Evan had made French toast for breakfast that day. Katja had made it to school just fine. She was wearing one of her new hair clips and was very excited to show off for her friends.

“Be careful,” Radek said.

Evan’s eyes went wide. “Why?”

“Because you may find yourself in a house full of little girls who want to make their own hair clips,” Radek said.

“Oh. Well. Little girls can’t be nearly as bad as a group of hyper Marines.” Evan looked relieved.

Radek frowned. “I thought you were in the Air Force.”

“I was. It was an unusual post. Interservice command. All field grade officers and above were Air Force. All NCOs and down were Marines. Company grade officers were a bit of a mixed bag.”

At the gyro cart, Evan ordered a gyro with all of the fixings, and Radek led him toward a side street that was a shortcut to a park with some nice shaded benches where they could have a quiet conversation.

“What did you want to talk about?” Radek asked.

Evan walked beside him. The tips of his ears turned pink. “Listen, I know that my going out on a sort-of date made things weird. In the house.”

It was Radek’s turn to blush. Did Evan know he was jealous of the beautiful woman Evan had been with?

“No,” Radek began to protest.

Evan shook his head. “I know, it was weird, because I wasn’t there, and for Katja I’m a sort of - monastic caregiver. And I know now she has questions about me, and I want you to know, I handled the conversation as best as I could -”

“Conversation?” Radek echoed. Had Evan had the talk with Katja? She was only six.

“When we were out shopping on Saturday, I ran into a woman I’d met previously at the supermarket, and Katja asked if she was my girlfriend, and when I said I didn’t want the woman as my girlfriend, Katja asked if I was like you, and I told her I’m bi.” The words spilled out of Evan.

At first Radek was relieved, because Evan hadn’t had the talk with Katja. And then he realized what Evan had said. He was bi. As in bisexual. As in he could possibly be interested in Radek. Just because he’d gone out with a woman didn’t mean he couldn’t ever like Radek. Not that Radek could compete with a woman who looked like Evan’s date.

Apparently Radek had been lost in his own thoughts too long, because Evan said, in a small voice, “You’re not mad, are you? I mean, I didn’t use the word bisexual, I just told her that I…like both.”

Radek hastened to reassure him. “That is fine. I am not angry. I am glad Katja understands more about diversity.”

Evan heaved a sigh of relief. “Okay. I don’t know what, if anything, Katja told you, but I wanted to be upfront with you anyway. Not that I’ll really ever be dating.”

Radek wanted to ask about the beautiful woman from Saturday night, but they were halfway along the alley, which seemed to stretch on forever today, red brick walls rising high on other side of them, an old factory and an old apartment complex.

Too late, Radek realized he’d turned down the wrong side street. “Wait a moment.” He paused.

Evan paused beside him. “What’s wrong?”

Before Radek could tell him he’d made a wrong turn, he was slammed to the ground. His ears rang and he saw stars, felt something heavy on his back. Not something. Some one.

Huge figures, dressed in black, wearing black ski masks. One of them was pinning him down. Two others attacked Evan.

Radek shouted his name.

A hand closed over his mouth.

Radek bit.

His attacker struck him hard.

Stars danced in his vision. His glasses clattered to the ground.

Radek shouted Evan’s name again. He couldn’t see. What was going on?

He heard grunting, shouting, scuffling. The weight on his back vanished abruptly.

“Radek? Are you all right?”

Radek blinked, dazed. His head throbbed where he’d been struck. He blinked, but his vision was blurry. Fingers tangled with his.

“Here’s your glasses.”

Evan. Evan was with him.

Radek put on his glasses with shaking hands. He was sitting on the floor of the alley. Food was scattered around them. Evan knelt beside him. The collar of his shirt was torn, and he was missing a couple of buttons. His hair was mussed and a bruise was forming on one cheekbone.

“Radek,” Evan said, hands on Radek’s shoulders. “Are you with me?”

“What happened?”

“We were attacked. They didn’t ask for our wallets or food - they just came out of nowhere.” Evan leaned in, peered into Radek’s eyes. “Hey, can you look at me? Focus on me? Do you have a concussion? We should call an ambulance. And they police.”

Attacked. Not by thieves.

Athena Energy.

Radek shook his head; that made it hurt worse. “No, no ambulance or police.”

“But Radek -”

“They must have been from Athena Energy,” Radek said. “We cannot tell the police, or the police will interfere and Athena Energy will make everything I need disappear. I am close. Miko and I are close. Please -”

Evan’s hands on Radek tightened. “You’re not safe. We’re not safe. We have to tell someone.”

Radek reached up, covered one of Evan’s hands with his. “I trust you to keep me safe.”

Evan’s blue eyes were wide. “You shouldn’t.”

“You kept me safe today,” Radek whispered.

“But if I can’t -”

Radek squeezed Evan’s hand. “I trust you.”

Evan looked stricken. Then he closed his eyes and shook his head. “No, Radek -”

Radek kissed him.

For one moment, Evan was utterly still, and Radek went to pull back, horrified, because he’d crossed a line, but then Evan fisted a hand in Radek’s shirt and curled his other hand at the nape of Radek’s neck and parted his lips, and Radek could taste him.

Evan kissed him back, trembling against him, and then they had to part for air. Evan’s eyes were wide.

“Radek - no - we can’t -”

“We can,” Radek whispered, “and we did.”

Evan’s eyes slid shut, and he still looked stricken.

Radek swallowed hard. “You do not feel for me as I feel for you?”

Evan opened his eyes, smiled, though something in his expression was terribly sad. “I do feel for you, at least as much as you feel for me, and that’s the problem.”

“No, not a problem,” Radek insisted. He held Evan’s hand tightly and prayed Evan wouldn’t say the kiss was a mistake, that he had to quit now.

Evan studied him for a long moment, then said, “I suppose in for a penny, in for a pound. But we can’t tell Katja. At least - not yet.”

“Of course.” Radek nodded fervently.

“Are you sure you’re all right?”

“Nothing a little aspirin won’t fix.” Radek rose to his feet, and Evan rose with him.

They dusted each other off, and neither of them were seriously injured.

“I’m sorry about lunch,” Radek said.

“I can get something at home.”

“What now?”

“Go back to the lab. Do your best to win that Athena Energy bid. I’ll do my best to protect Katja - and get some extra security on the house. And we should finally talk about my gun.”

Radek nodded. He darted in and kissed Evan on the mouth, brief but firm.

“I’ll walk you back,” Evan said. He curled his fingers through Radek’s, and together they walked.

They let go of each other’s hands once they stepped out of the alley, but they walked closed, arms and shoulders brushing. Evan saw Radek all the way to the security checkpoint. They gazed at each other until the elevator doors slid shut, and then it was back to work.

Radek had to prevail against Athena Energy. Once he did, he, Evan, and Katja could really be a family together, safe and undisturbed, have a happy life.

The elevator doors opened on Radek’s floor, and he stepped out, his mind already churning.

*

Evan climbed into his car, took several deep breaths, stilled his shaking hands. He was in so much trouble. Just being near Radek was intoxicating, and he’d let down his damn guard. He was going to get Radek and Katja killed. His ability to complete this mission was severely compromised. He had to confess to Laura, had to turn himself in. But - no. He was the best one for this mission. Him leaving now would disrupt things even further, and he had language skills no one else on the team had. Ford and Bates were damn good Marines and fine agents, but it was Evan’s job to protect Radek and Katja. He’d screwed up. It was his job to make it right. And then he realized.

On the way back to the house, he called Laura.

“Were Ford and Bates on Radek today at work?”

“I pulled them to run a couple of leads on those notes you sent us,” Laura said. “Why?”

“Radek and I were attacked just now.”

“What?”

“They were human. Fought them off. Sent them running. They balked at the first sign of resistance. Not a mugging - they were masked, prepared, had been following us, didn’t even try to make it look like a robbery.” Evan guided the car away from Radek’s building and back toward the house. “I think they were testing me. Or at least our security on Radek.”

“Are you all right?”

“Uninjured, fully mobile,” Evan said. He’d put the details in his damn AAR.

“And Radek?”

“Also fine. Also unaware of my actual status. He assumes my military training prevailed over the would-be attackers.”

“How hard did they fight?”

“Tackled Radek pretty good. They were definitely professionals, judging by their hand-to-hand. Ex-mil for sure. Definitely not Jaffa. Not strong enough. But they didn’t pull weapons, so I didn’t either. Didn’t want to call local LEOs down on our heads.”

“Good call. What’s the plan?”

“Ford and Bates need to keep running those leads. I have to leave Vega on Katja. I’ll put Kennedy and Elliot on Radek and the house.”

That was both good and bad. Good, because Radek and Katja would be extra safe. Bad, because it would be nigh unto impossible for Radek and Evan to actually have any time alone. Because of the surveillance on the house.

Oh, hell. The surveillance. The entire house was filled with cameras and mics. Thankfully not the bedrooms or bathrooms, though the entrances and exits of all of those were under surveillance as well. But if Radek and Evan spent too long in one of those places, that would be suspicious, wouldn’t it? Radek wouldn’t understand the need for discretion, he’d think Evan was ashamed of him, and Evan couldn’t explain that he was an undercover agent.

Unless Evan came clean.

No. Radek would freak out and Evan needed Radek to trust him, because Evan needed to stay close to protect him and Katja.

“Fine,” Evan said tightly.

“Naoe made it into Athena’s outer layers of security, and it looks like Radek and Miko are shoo-ins for the energy bid.”

Evan sucked in a deep breath. “What’s the play?”

“Let Radek ride it out.”

“Use him as bait?” Evan’s chest tightened.

“Naoe says Radek hacked into Athena Energy himself to look up the specs for the bid so he and Miko would hit all the right notes.”

“But he has no self-defense training or - or anything,” Evan protested.

“They’ll be focused on him and not on us.”

“Are you sure?”

“You watch his back, I’ve got your back.”

Again, Evan bit out, “Fine.”

“Glad you approve,” Laura said brightly, though Evan heard the sharp edge to her tone.

He reined his temper back in. “Sorry. Just - a little rattled. You’ll have my AAR before I pick Katja up from school.”

“Be careful, Evan.” Laura’s tone softened.

“Always am.” That was a damn lie, and he swallowed it down like glass. “I’ll check back in later.”

“Later.”

Evan disconnected, parked in front of the house.

He prepped dinner as fast as he could, stashed the prepped food in the fridge, typed up his AAR, smoothed some concealer over the bruise on his face, changed into clean undamaged clothes, and then dashed out the door to fetch Katja from school.

She was an unstoppable ball of energy, running to and fro, talking at a mile a minute about the fun things she did and her upcoming dance recital, her homework assignments and her hopes to have fun with her friends. Evan seriously wondered if someone had given her coffee, and suddenly he understood why some mothers refused to give their children processed sugar.

Evan gave up on trying to corral her to do her homework and sent her up to the roof to release the pigeons, check their cages, and when that wasn’t enough, issued her a skipping rope challenge. It wasn’t healthy for her to have no friends in the neighborhood, was it? Evan remembered playing with a bunch of neighborhood kids after school all the time. Surely Katja had some friends who could wear her out and get her wiggles out before she did homework.

Only she was still very energetic when Radek got home, and she tripped over her English and Czech to tell him all about her day. Someone at school had had a birthday party, and Miss Megan had made them wait till the end of the day to share in the celebratory cupcakes, and because some of Katja’s friends hadn’t wanted their cupcakes, Katja had had extra.

Evan and Radek barely managed to exchange glances before Radek wrangled Katja into a chair to work on her homework while Evan cooked. Katja continued to babble and chatter away, bouncing happily in her chair. It was good to see her so cheerful, but she had Evan and Radek running ragged. She chattered all through dinner and then dishes and then insisted on going to the park to play tag once she was finished with her homework.

At the end of the day, Katja came home, brushed her teeth, and fell asleep as soon as she sat down on her bed. Evan and Radek had to wrangle her shoes and socks off. Radek tucked her into bed, and then both of them retreated to the doorway, watched her sleep. Finally, Evan turned off the light, and they closed the door.

And it was just the two of them.

Just like in the alley.

Only there was no danger, and there was state-of-the-art surveillance equipment all over the house that Evan couldn’t tell Radek about.

Radek looked at Evan, and Evan looked at him.

Radek stepped toward him, and Evan stepped back instinctively.

He kept his voice low. “No, we can’t, Katja -”

“She is asleep.”

“But she -”

“We can be discreet,” Radek whispered. “How do you think parents have more than one child?” He stepped forward again.

Evan thought quickly, retreated, headed for his room. Radek followed, looking slightly puzzled.

Evan cleared his throat and said, louder, “This is the best chance we have for me and you to cover some basic gun safety. It’ll be best if you and I are on the same page when we teach it to Katja.”

Radek continued to look puzzled, but he said, “Yes, of course, that’s an excellent idea.”

Evan unholstered his pistol. “This is an M9 9mm. Close the door?”

Radek obeyed, came closer when Evan beckoned.

“Rule number one: assume every firearm is loaded and treat it as such,” Evan said.

Radek nodded.

“Quick rundown - parts of a gun: slide, hammer, rear sight, front sight, barrel, muzzle, trigger, trigger guard, grip, safety, magazine release button, magazine. This is how you check to see if the gun is loaded.” Evan demonstrated how to move the slide. “See here? That glint of brass? Means a bullet is in the chamber. See how the hammer is down? Means the pistol is cocked. All you have to do is pull the trigger and you can shoot. Here’s the safety.”

Radek nodded, his gaze turning intent, contemplative. He reached for the pistol when Evan offered it, curled his fingers tentatively around the barrel. Tangled his fingers with Evan’s, caught his gaze and held it.

“I will learn,” Radek promised, and he set the pistol aside, on the desk Evan used as a nightstand. His fingers were still tangled with Evan’s, and once the pistol was safely out of the way, he traced one fingertip across Evan’s palm, over and over again.

Evan’s heart sped up. “Radek?”

Radek reached up, tugged his glasses away, tucked them into his collar like he’d done a thousand times before, and then closed his eyes. Leaned in.

Evan couldn’t help but close his eyes and lean in as well. Radek’s lips were warm and soft. The rasp of his stubble against Evan’s jaw made his pulse flutter. That edge of roughness, of pain never failed to get Evan’s motor running, and he nipped at Radek’s lower lip, seeking entrance. Radek parted his lips, letting Evan in for a taste, and Evan partook eagerly. Radek slid a hand beneath Evan’s untucked shirt, fingertips dancing up Evan’s spine, drawing Evan closer, and then they were pressed together. They were almost perfectly of a height, in perfect contact from shoulders to thighs.

Radek nudged his knee between Evan’s thighs, and Evan parted his legs so they could slide even closer.

Evan buried one hand in Radek’s soft, soft hair, tugged at the hem of Radek’s shirt with his other hand, working it free of Radek’s pants so he could get to Radek’s skin.

Radek stroked up and down Evan’s back in broad sweeps, all warmth and gentleness, and Evan hummed happily into the kiss. It had been so long since Evan had kissed anyone for the sake of kissing, so long since he’d been allowed to take his time and just enjoy another person.

Radek moved, and Evan stumbled. They were headed for the bed, but then Radek stumbled, and Evan opened his eyes in time to realize they were headed for the floor. Evan rolled mid-fall so he could take the brunt of it, but Radek reached out to catch himself. What he caught was the cloth Evan had thrown over his newest painting to protect it while some of the oils dried, and the entire easel came crashing down on top of both of them.

Evan winced at the noise, winded.

“You all right?” Radek asked.

“Bruised. Mostly my pride,” Evan said, heaving himself up.

From outside Evan’s room, there was a muffled, Strejdo?

Katja. Oh no.

Evan and Radek scrambled to their feet, trying to smooth down their clothes and hair. There were soft footsteps padding across the landing, a muffled knocking sound, another, Strejdo? Then Katja was knocking at Evan’s door.

“Go, answer it,” Evan said. He started to clean up his art space.

Radek pulled open the door. “Katja? Is everything all right?”

She stood in the doorway, looking sleepy and tousled. “I heard a loud sound.”

“Evan was showing me his painting and we accidentally knocked things over,” Radek said, which was only half true.

“Are you okay?”

“Everything’s fine,” Evan said. “Nothing’s damaged. We were just - being clumsy. Sorry we woke you.”

Katja nodded, and both men had to give her hugs before she consented to taking herself back to bed.

After her door closed, Evan and Radek looked at each other, but their moment had been shattered.

“We can talk more about gun safety another night. Maybe next time we won’t get distracted by my painting,” Evan said, just loud enough for the microphones to pick up.

Radek looked puzzled again, but he nodded and said good night and headed to the bathroom to brush his teeth.

Evan waited his turn to brush his teeth, then made sure his pistol was in arm’s reach before he crawled into bed, still jittery with interrupted lust and nerves. He shouldn’t do this. He couldn’t do this. When he was lost in Radek, Katja was vulnerable. Everyone in the house was vulnerable.

Evan fell asleep reliving Radek’s kiss and wondering if he’d be able to break the man’s heart to keep him alive.

*

Radek and Miko were gearing up for the presentation intensely, which meant they spent more time at the house than they did at the lab. While Evan cooked and cleaned, they were down in the den rehearsing their presentation, poring over the slides, tweaking the tiniest details, timing themselves, practising handing off the remote control used to advance the slides in the presentation.

This meant Evan and Radek never really had time alone, because Miko was there, and when Katja came home she was excited to see her Teta Miko, so she and Miko played together before Miko sat down to help her with her homework while Evan and Radek made dinner, and then Miko stayed for dinner, and then she and Radek worked long after Katja went to bed, and if Radek and Evan were lucky, they managed to snatch a kiss or two in Evan’s room before Radek went back downstairs to work.

Laura reported in on the team’s analysis of Jitka’s notes. Names of potential Goa’uld buyers, if not actual System Lords (some had been killed or defeated) then their successors or allies. Most of the planets were defunct throne worlds, which meant Athena’s intel on current System Lord politics was out of date, but the info had given the SGC some viable throne worlds to do recon on.

Naoe, the team’s hacker, had discovered that Radek was using a brand new laptop and unsecured wifi in nearby neighborhoods to hack into Athena Energy and make sure that he and Miko had the edge in the competition. He’d researched all the right notes to hit in their proposal and presentation. Naoe had helped him along, by corrupting some of the files and data submitted by competitors and also by hacking into Radek’s work servers and subtly sabotaging any in-house competition.

“Naoe says Radek and Miko’s proposal is brilliant in its own right,” Laura told Evan during one of his check-ins, “but we need to make sure he gets in.”

Evan hated the notion of using Radek and Miko as bait, but Laura was right. Athena Energy would be hyperfocused on Radek, which would give Evan and the team better cover. There were two ways to tail someone after all: never get noticed, or be the only one noticed.

The day before the presentation to the powers that be was to take place, Miko and Radek took a break.

“There’s practising and then there’s practising too much,” Miko said when she showed up on the doorstep while Radek was dropping Katja off at school.

“I understand,” Evan said. Miko was laden down by several recyclable grocery bags stuffed to bursting. “Do you need any help?”

Miko beamed at him. “No, but thank you. This is everything.” She headed into the kitchen, and Evan followed her.

“So - what’s the plan for today? Are we making mochi or something to bribe the audience?”

“No, but close! Today, I am going to teach you how to make bento.”

“Today?” Evan echoed.

Miko started to frown. “Do you have other plans?”

“No, just - we texted and never really settled on a date. Today is perfect.” Evan smiled. “All right, Kusanagi -senpai, teach me your bento wisdom.”

Miko affected a mock-serious expression. “Prepare, Lorne -kohai, to accept much wisdom.”

Miko was just showing Evan her weekly menu, with text boxes divided to reflect the make-up of a bento box (half vegetable, one quarter carbs, one quarter proteins, plus fruit or a snack tucked in the middle) when Radek returned from dropping Katja at school.

“Miko? I thought we weren’t rehearsing today.”

“We’re not. I’m teaching Evan how to make bento. Come - you should learn as well.”

Radek flicked a glance at Evan. Today would have been their one chance to spend some time together, alone. Pistol practice, they were going to call it. Maybe locked in Evan’s room. Evan shrugged apologetically.

Radek managed a smile. “Yes. All right. I shall learn. I cannot expect Evan to do everything in this house.”

“You should help him where you can,” Miko said decisively.

“He does help me,” Evan protested, but cut himself off at Miko’s knowing look.

Radek’s expression was a mix of indignation and chagrin, but he went and washed his hands, and everyone pulled on aprons, and it was time to learn.

Miko Kusanagi, Evan decided, was one woman he never wanted to upset, because she was a genius with a knife. Granted, she used her skill with a knife to cut fruits and vegetables into cute shapes or into neat geometric shapes that, when assembled, resembled animals or flowers or suns or other interesting things.

“The key to a good bento lunch,” Miko explained, “is maintaining the appropriate ratios of food groups, but also keeping it bright and interesting. Children will eat healthy if we teach them young. Young children will try new food that looks good. So make it pretty. And use lots of different colors, to make it interesting.”

Evan and Radek stood elbow-to-elbow at the kitchen counter, assembling some sample bento lunches. Radek would deliver one to Katja at school - the prettiest one, likely from Miko’s hand - and they could eat the rest. Radek was making little sandwiches with cute animal faces on them while Evan made a ham flower.

“It’s not all pretty cut shapes,” Miko explained. “Accessories can be important.”

She had little toothpicks with cute animals on top, including Hello Kitty and all of her cute animal friends. She also had little silicone cups that were brightly-colored and came in cute shapes. She had cute dividers. And she even had cute little sauce bottles, shaped like fish or with animal-shaped stoppers.

“Also, visually appealing arrangements are important.” She showed them how she used pieces of lettuce as compartment dividers to separate different foods and laid out a neat line of peas to demarcate between the rice and the beans.

If there was one thing Evan could manage, it was visually appealing arrangements. Fancy cutout shapes would take him a while, but he could take pre-prepared food and arrange it all pretty.

“The most important thing, of course, is to pack the food very tightly,” Miko said. “Otherwise all your neat arrangements will come undone in the box.”

“Right.” Evan could field assemble half a dozen firearms with his eyes closed. He could field strip, clean, and reassemble a dozen more. He could fly fighter jets and spaceships. He could recreate Miko’s face from memory with a good set of pencils and nice paper. He wasn’t sure he could remember how to make a bento lunch from scratch.

Because he also had to worry about Radek and Katja, and security on the house, and his team’s progress into infiltrating Athena Energy, and catching Jitka’s killer, and finding the ZPM bomb, and the SGC defeating the Goa’uld, and the fact that every time he and Radek looked at each other Evan felt an electric thrum under his skin.

Between the three of them, they managed to assemble four bento lunches that passed Miko’s inspection. Radek was dispatched to deliver Katja’s, which would be a special treat for her, while Evan and Miko cleaned up the kitchen.

“So, Evan, I saw you checking Radek out,” Miko said, just as she was handing Evan a sharp knife to wash.

Evan froze for one second. Had she noticed? Evan had been so careful - no. He had to play this off. His team was recording, if not monitoring the live feed. He shrugged. “I’d be blind to not notice how attractive Radek is. But I’m an artist. I appreciate beauty wherever I find it. You’re very lovely yourself.”

Miko smiled but was not distracted by the mild flattery. “Do you like Radek?”

Evan huffed. “What is this, middle school?”

Miko rolled her eyes. “Do I need to give you a note with two options and checkboxes?”

“Radek and I are friends, and I do like him. But Katja is both our priority, and she comes first,” Evan said.

“Radek said the same thing.” Miko hummed thoughtfully. “You are very good with Katja, though. She likes you. You seem like a good man. I think you are good for Radek, too.”

“Thank you,” Evan said, feeling both pleased and terribly guilty, because he wasn’t, and getting involved with Radek would make things so much worse when this op was done.

“Plus, you and Radek would be super hot together,” Miko said. “I’d buy a ticket for that.”

Evan almost dropped the knife he was washing, and Miko laughed, nudged him.

“For a former soldier, you are very much a prude.”

Anyone who spent extended time with Marines lost a whole lot of prudishness, but Evan still wasn’t used to being open about being bi with, well, anyone. Sure, his team knew, but his bisexuality was theoretical to basically all of them, especially the former Stargate personnel he was still serving with.

“About some things, yes, I still am,” Evan admitted, and Miko looked sympathetic for a moment.

Radek returned, and the three of them sat down to eat the fruits of their labors. They’d agreed to swap the lunches they made, so Radek was eating Miko’s, Evan was eating Radek’s, and Miko was eating Evan’s. Miko’s was the cutest, but Evan was pretty sure Radek’s tasted the best.

After lunch, the three of them cleaned up, and Miko sat down with Radek and Evan to give them a bunch of recipes, some for full bento lunches, others for bento components that could be mixed and matched. She had them printed and bound and organized into a cookbook just for them, and Evan was touched by the effort she’d gone to. She was truly a good friend. Hopefully she’d be able to pick up the pieces after Evan left.

No, he was overestimating his value in Radek’s life. Radek wouldn’t be that hurt, would he? Not by Evan, who’d only been part of his life for a relatively short time. The one who would be hurt was Evan, but Evan had a job to do, and the mission came first, his own feelings second.

Radek and Evan started to work on the weekly menu, planning for any leftovers that could be used in lunches the next day. They left two spots for Katja to pick suppers as well, and then, with the help of Miko and her recipe book, they wrote up another shopping list.

“You’re so organized,” Miko said, peering at Evan’s shopping list, which was divided by categories.

“Hazards of my old job, I guess,” Evan said.

“Your old job?”

“Air Force. Was a logistics officer for an overseas base.” It wasn’t entirely a lie. He had run logistics on Atlantis. But that had been a pretty small aspect of his duties.

“You work out a lot as a logistics officer?”

“I had to pass regular physical examinations, was required to be combat-ready because we were posted in a war zone.”

“Ah. You still work out?”

“Old habits die hard. Don’t go to the gym, though. Easier just to do body weight resistance exercises at home. I miss running. Should get a treadmill.” Evan had to make photocopies of Miko’s bento menu calendar to use in future, so he drew up a copy of one on a piece of notebook paper, to post so Katja could look at it (and thus forestall inquiries about what would be had for a certain meal).

Once the menu and shopping list were planned, Miko dragged Radek upstairs to go through his wardrobe and select his outfit for the presentation. She wanted them to be coordinated but perhaps not perfectly matched, so they looked like an effective team in addition to sounding like one.

By the time that process was done - Miko had pre-selected her outfit and photographed it extensively and was referencing her photos while she examined the contents of Radek’s closet - it was time to get Katja from school, so Evan went to pick her up. She had rave reviews for her very cute lunch, and had been the envy of her classmates, partially for the cuteness of her lunch, but also for her uncle delivering it specially for her right in time for lunch break. She was thrilled that Miko would be staying for supper, and they could play games after.

Evan smiled gamely, glad she was happy. Miko was good company, but he was despairing of ever getting time alone with Radek - or to check in with Laura. Thankfully, both Radek and Miko helped Katja with her homework, so Evan could attend to cooking dinner himself. And check in.

“We’re good to go for tomorrow,” Laura said. “They’re shoo-ins to win, and if someone else wins, well - the other winners will find themselves with all-expense-paid vacations to Hawaii.”

“Can I get one of those?”

“After this mission is complete, Agent Lorne.”

“Duly noted.”

Evan didn’t let himself sit anywhere near Radek, not close enough to touch, and during dinner all three adults kept their focus on Katja, and how her day was at school, and how her homework went, and what she wanted to play after supper.

After supper Katja wanted to play children’s Pictionary. It was decided that as Miko and Evan were both the best artists, they shouldn’t play on the same team, and Katja decided they should play boys against girls. That was how Evan found himself sitting beside Radek at the kitchen table, their knees and elbows pressed together, racing against the little egg-timer to draw something good enough for Radek to guess what it was. The entire time he was hyperaware of Radek’s warmth, the way he breathed, and the fact that Miko and Katja were right there and the house was full of security cameras -

Katja cheered when the timer ran out and Radek hadn’t figured out that Evan was trying to draw a hard-boiled egg.

“See, this diamond is hard, this pot of water is boiling, and this is an egg,” Evan said, pointing to each drawing.

“The diamond was what confused me,” Radek protested, while Katja and Miko giggled and exchanged high fives.

Miko was a talented artist as well, and she had the advantage of a long friendship with Katja, knowing how her mind made associations, so Team Girls thoroughly wiped the floor with Team Boys.

“I thought we knew each other better,” Radek said, shaking his head.

He caught Evan’s eye, and heat flashed in his gaze before he moved to thank Miko for her company and help that day and show her to her car. I want to get to know you better, he meant.

Evan knew he hadn’t been at his best because he’d been so distracted by Radek’s presence. If just being next to Radek was enough to distract him like this, how was Evan supposed to function as an agent, protect Radek and Katja in stressful situations?

But Evan helped Katja pack up the game and put it away, and he was supervising the brushing of her teeth by the time Radek returned. Katja fell asleep to the Pigeon House lullaby - it was her favorite - and then Radek and Evan stood side-by-side at the bathroom sink, brushing their teeth and saying nothing, listening to make sure Katja stayed asleep.

Evan rinsed his toothbrush, washed his face, carefully not looking at Radek, who said,

“We should continue our gun safety lessons.”

“Yes.”

They went into Evan’s room and shut the door, and Evan started to unholster his pistol, but Radek stepped forward, settled his hand at Evan’s hip.

“Let me.”

Evan swallowed hard, nodded. Radek stroked Evan’s hip, gazed into his eyes, and Evan felt his breath start to come faster. Then Radek eased his hand under the hem of Evan’s shirt, and the first skin-to-skin contact sparked an electric current all along Evan’s nerves. His heart sped up, and Radek brushed his fingertips up Evan’s ribs, around to his shoulderblades, down his spine, and to Evan’s gun.

Radek drew it out of the holster and set it aside. Then he unclipped the holster from Evan’s belt and set it aside as well.

In for a penny, in for a pound, Evan had said. He wasn’t sure he still believed it, but then Radek stepped even closer, pressing himself against the length of Evan’s body, and Evan sucked in a shaky breath. It was Evan’s turn to reach out, and he plucked Radek’s glasses away, set them beside the pistol and holster.

“I really should be showing you more gun safety,” Evan whispered. “It’s important.”

“You’re more important,” Radek insisted, just as softly.

Evan started to say, “Your safety is what matters most,” but Radek leaned in and kissed him. It wasn’t as sweet and hesitant as some of their earlier kisses - it was hungry and aggressive, and Evan felt himself falling. Into submission. Into sensation. He let Radek take charge, arched into Radek’s touch when his hands wandered up under Evan’s shirt.

“The bed,” Radek said, tugging at Evan’s waist.

“We have to be quiet,” Evan insisted. “Katja -” And the cameras and the microphones and everything else that could go wrong if they were found out.

Radek nodded frantically, and Evan let Radek push him back onto the bed. He kicked off his shoes and scrambled backward, toed off his socks. Radek kicked off his shoes and socks and crawled onto the bed, on top of him, pressing him down, and Evan closed his eyes, let his head fall back, and lost himself.

Radek draped himself on top of Evan, and they kissed, slow and leisurely and wantonly, all open mouths and twining tongues. Radek slid one hand up Evan’s shirt, exploring the planes of his chest, his skin, and used his other hand to unfasten Evan’s belt and jeans.

Evan gasped when Radek hooked a thumb in the elastic of his boxer briefs, canted his hips upward so Radek could slide his underwear down. Evan was already half-hard just from the kissing and touching. Radek’s hand around his cock brought him to full arousal, and he moaned into Radek’s mouth when Radek stroked him.

Radek’s touch was gentle, tentative, exploring. Evan bit his lip so he wouldn’t make a sound, and Radek nuzzled at his lip, soothing the bite. Then Radek firmed his grip, stroking faster, and Evan’s heartbeat stuttered.

“Wait, wait, not yet, I - I want to come with you.” Evan caught Radek’s wrist, stilled him.

Radek raised his eyebrows, and Evan hooked a leg over his, thrust up, and rolled. He winced at the way the bedsprings creaked, but then he was on top of Radek, kissing him, pawing his clothes aside. Evan pressed a line of kisses from Radek’s jaw down to the junction of neck and shoulder, below his collar line, and suckled a bruise into his soft, warm skin.

Remember me, Evan thought. Remember this. Remember us.

He shoved Radek’s shirt up and kissed his way down Radek’s chest, trailing his fingers through the soft hair there. Radek was panting happily, doing his best to stay quiet, and Evan - he was feeling reckless. He was already being reckless. So he fluttered his tongue against one of Radek’s nipples and thrust a hand into Radek’s boxers, grasped him firmly, and stroked.

“Wait - but you said -”

Evan swung his leg across Radek’s thighs, pressed himself down to Radek, and aligned his cock with Radek’s. He curled his hand around the both of them as best as he could, and he thrust.

He fused his mouth with Radek’s and swallowed his cry of pleasure, and then he began to stroke. Radek moved with him, and Evan closed his eyes, awash in sensation. They kissed, and they rocked together, driving each other higher and higher, toward completion, toward orgasm. Radek clung to him tightly, thrusting, and Evan felt slickness build between them. Radek fumbled his hand into the mix, cupping his palm so they could thrust into it. The multiple sensations were dizzying, lightning was building at the base of Evan’s spine -

Orgasm hit like a roaring freight train.

Warmth and wetness spurted between them, and they thrust on, slipping and sliding in the stickiness until they had nothing left to give. Evan rolled onto his side before he collapsed fully onto Radek, and he opened his eyes. They gazed at each other, breathless, wordless.

Then Radek leaned in and kissed him softly, gently.

“Thank you,” he whispered.

No, don’t thank me, Evan thought. I may have just killed you.

But he kissed Radek back and whispered, “Thank you.”

*

Evan didn’t sleep a wink, even though he was sure to chivvy Radek off to his own room so he’d be there if Katja woke up in the middle of the night. Instead he cleaned and checked all of his guns, sharpened all of his knives, and worked out. He showered, shaved, dressed, and armed himself to the teeth.

Then he headed down into the kitchen and started mixing dough for kolaches, because it was a couple of hours till Katja and Radek had to wake up. Evan made up cute bento lunches for everyone - even himself - and then headed upstairs to let the pigeons out for an extra-long morning flight.

He was about to go wake Katja when Radek’s door swung open, and he looked rumpled, in a t-shirt and boxers.

“Good morning,” Evan said softly.

Radek smiled at him, and Evan’s heart broke just a little bit. “Good morning to you, too.” He started forward, but there were cameras on the landing.

Evan stepped back. “I was about to wake Katja.”

Radek looked puzzled and a little hurt, but before an awkward conversation could ensue, Katja came bouncing out of her room.

“Today’s the big day, isn’t it?” She flung herself at Radek for a hug. “You’re going to do awesome. You and Miko are totally going to win, right?”

“Right,” Radek said, and he smiled down at her, ruffled her hair.

Katja opened one eye and peeked at Evan. “We should do something extra special for breakfast, so Strejdo Radek has a lucky day, yes?”

“I already have kolaches in the oven,” Evan said, and Katja beamed.

Radek looked startled, pleased, all his hurt fading, and Evan felt sick with guilt. But he managed a smile, encouraged Katja to go get washed up and ready for the day.

For the first time, Evan sat down with Katja and Radek to have breakfast, because he wasn’t bustling around the kitchen making breakfast and lunch. Katja chattered away about how smart Miko and Radek were, how they were going to blow the competition away, and they’d have to do something extra special for dinner after Radek and Miko won.

Radek explained that he and Miko would present today but might not know right away whether or not they’d won.

Katja glossed over that fact and started proposing fancy restaurants and planning her fancy outfit, her fancy hairdo for the big celebration.

And Evan realized, it was today. Today was the day Radek and Miko were going into the lion’s den. They were going into Athena Energy itself, without backup, surrounded by the enemy, and Evan couldn’t go with them.

He’d lain awake all night fretting about having sex with Radek, and he’d forgotten about the mission. The objective. The operation. Find Athena, disrupt the ZPM bomb sale, maybe take out some Goa’uld as a bonus. Keep Radek and Katja safe. Uncover the truth of who killed Jitka - and more importantly, find out how she’d learned what she learned.

Radek and Katja exclaimed over how delicious the kolaches were, and between the three of them there were no leftovers. Then it was time to go. Evan made sure Radek had his lunch, and then he bundled Katja out the door to school.

For the rest of the day, Evan had - nothing to do. He was buzzing with energy and anxiety, so he sped through the pigeon care and housecleaning and dinner prep and - he couldn’t take it anymore.

He called Laura.

“Slow down, Agent Lorne,” she drawled. “I’m getting tired just watching you.”

“He’s in there alone and without backup,” Evan said. “He’s not a trained agent. I get he’s our bait, but -”

“But Naoe’s in the security feed and we’ve got eyes on him and Kusanagi, and Ford, Bates, Kennedy, and Toriel are onsite to handle any emergencies. It’s a very public event. They won’t just - snatch him.”

“But if he wanders away from the group to get a drink or go to the bathroom or -”

“Lorne! Fer cryin’ out loud, you’re worse than my mother. We’re professionals. You’re  a professional. You’ve got a job to do. So do it.”

“Yes, ma’am.” Evan sucked in a deep breath. There was a certain irony to calling her ma’am, she having mustered out as a captain and he having mustered out as a major, but she’d been with the organization longer than him, had earned her seniority over him fair and square. “I’m going to go - clean something.”

“And while you clean, let’s discuss the game plan for after Miko and Radek win. Because they’re going to win.”

They’d win - and also lose, and lose big.

*

Radek went to pick Katja up from school early. Checked her out - family incident, he said, which wasn’t quite an emergency, but it was close enough. Urgent all the same. He held her hand and led her to the car, and she bounced after him, talking about class and recess and the pretty bento Evan had made her.

They were in the car and halfway home before Katja finally burst out. “Did you win?”

Radek glanced up, met Katja’s gaze in the rearview mirror.

“Well?”

He said nothing.

“Strejdo, did you win?”

He still said nothing.

Katja bounced in her seat. “Strejdo!”

He burst into a grin. “Yes. We won!”

Katja cheered. “What now, what now?”

“Now,” Radek said, “we go home, we get Evan, we go out and buy you a pretty new dress and us some pretty new suits, and we come home and get all dressed up, and we meet Miko for a fancy dinner.”

Katja cheered again.

Radek had barely parked the car when the front door flew open and Evan was there, wearing rubber gloves and with a sponge in hand, his hair mussed, barefoot and wearing threadbare jeans.

“Radek, what’s going on? Is Katja all right?”

Katja hopped out of the car. “Strejda Radek set me free from school early. We’re celebrating!”

Evan’s eyes went wide. “You - you won?”

“Yes,” Radek said, and couldn’t help but grin.

Evan pulled him into a hug, and was it Radek’s imagination, or did he look shocked - and afraid? But he hugged Radek tightly, and when Radek pulled back, he was beaming, all bright eyes and cute dimples.

Katja tugged on Evan’s arm. “We’re going to dress up fancy. And we have to go shopping. Come on!”

“Shopping?” Evan echoed.

“We can afford to splurge,” Radek said. “Come on. Go - stop your cleaning. I promised Miko we would meet her at six.”

Evan’s eyes went wide. “Six? it’s after one. We have to hurry.”

“Yes, hurry,” Katja said, but Radek laughed.

“Relax. No pressure. The pressure is done. The worst part is over.” Radek clapped Evan on the arm and wished, desperately, that they could have a moment alone, but then Evan was peeling off his gloves and heading into the house, urging Katja to hang up her backpack and sort out her homework while he packed up his cleaning supplies.

Ten minutes later, Evan was wearing khakis and a neat polo shirt, and the three of them headed to the mall downtown.

First stop was a dress for Katja. Thankfully she wasn’t the kind of girl who wanted to try on everything. She knew what she wanted and she made a beeline for it. Evan was drafted to help her pick out accessories - shoes and little gloves and socks and even a tiny handbag. And then Katja took charge when it came time to buy suits. The salesclerk at the men’s department looked amused at the way Katja ordered them around, telling them to try on this suit and that, this shirt and that tie, change this color for the other one. But in fairly short order she had Evan in a dark blue three-piece suit with a light blue shirt and bright blue tie, neat brown shoes and a matching brown belt, and he looked - good. So, so good.

Radek was nervous in the suit Katja had chosen for him, charcoal gray with a black shirt and a red tie with accents that matched Evan’s. Once she was satisfied that both of them looked handsome, it was time to head home and get ready.

Radek took his time, showering again, shaving neatly, combing his hair. He spent forever in front of the mirror, adjusting his tie, and finally he gave up and headed downstairs to ask Evan for help.

Katja was sitting in a chair, all done up in her dress, while Evan curled her hair elegantly. She kicked her legs, admiring her new shoes, and chatted to Evan about how excited she was. She talked about all of the fancy desserts she wanted to order (life is short, eat dessert first was Evan’s only response) and how excited she was, because her uncle and Teta Miko were super geniuses. They were going to change the world.

Radek stood in the doorway and watched how gentle Evan was, combing Katja’s hair and pinning it up. She deliberated carefully before selecting a hair accessory, and then Evan let her experiment with where she wanted it clipped before fastening it. He was always so careful with her, so kind and considerate, listening to her and letting her grow and learn and express herself.

He even knelt down and helped her put on some cheap lipstick that, thankfully, looked good with her dress. He held up a mirror so she could see, and she beamed, preening.

“You are pretty as a picture,” Radek said, and Katja jumped to her feet, spun around.

“See? Like a princess.”

“My princess.” Radek knelt and hugged her.

“Before we go,” Evan said, “I should take some pictures.” He held up Katja’s iPod.

Katja crossed the kitchen and plucked it from his hands. “We. We should take pictures. Go put on the rest of your suit.”

Evan blinked. “Me? But -”

But he also looked as pretty as a picture.

“Yes, you,” Radek said. “You as well. You were just as much a part of this as any of us.”

Evan shook his head, blushing. “No, it was all you and Miko -”

“But you look so handsome,” Katja said, waggling the iPod pointedly. “Please?”

Evan smiled down at her, patted her hair gently. “All right. Let me finish getting dressed.” He rolled his sleeves down, buttoned the cuffs. He put on his tie and tied it perfectly the first time, then tugged on his jacket, and -

Radek swallowed hard. Life was short. Eating dessert first was a great idea.

“Perfect!” Katja clapped her hands.

Once again she was boss, having Radek and Evan each pose solo for several shots, then together. Radek photographed her with Evan, and Evan photographed her with Radek, and it took some quick engineering out of a couple of cereal boxes for them to figure out how to take a picture together, all three of them.

Katja inspected the pictures, lingering over the one of the three of them for a long time.

“We look perfect,” she said. “Now come on! Let’s go meet Miko.”

Miko met them at the restaurant, resplendent in a blue and pink kimono. Katja exclaimed over how pretty she was, and Miko declared they were both princesses. She’d reserved a table, so the hostess showed them straight to a private table in the back. Radek noticed how heads turned as they passed, people looking at Miko and her kimono - and Evan, who looked like a movie star, with his bright grin and the sweet way he held Katja’s hand.

Katja was the queen of her own little world, walking with her head held high and chatting cheerily with the hostess, explaining that all of them were celebrating a very important success at work.

“Teta Miko and Strejda Radek are going to change the world,” Katja confided in the hostess in a stage whisper.

The hostess raised her eyebrows, looked Evan up and down appraisingly. “Really? How so?”

“Ah, no, not me,” Evan said, blushing. He gestured to Radek. “Dr. Zelenka is half of the brainpower behind this major scientific development. I’m just the nanny.”

“Nanny?” the hostess echoed. “You clean up nice.”

“It’s an important family event, and they were kind enough to invite me along.”

But then the hostess turned to Radek, her gaze still appraising. “Doctor, is it?”

“Yes. I have a doctorate in physics. And a masters in engineering.”

The hostess actually winked at him. “I like a smart man. This way, please.”

Katja was very flattered when Evan pulled out her chair for her, treating her like a grown-up. Of course Radek had to follow the example, pulling Miko’s chair out for her as well. Then it was time to look at the menus.

Radek didn’t even care about the prices. Tonight was about celebration. Tonight was something of a last supper. This was the only hurdle that mattered. Athena Energy had adored their proposal, from start to finish, and they’d actually received a standing ovation once their presentation was done. Radek had been so nervous going in, his stomach in knots. But his and Miko’s practice had paid off, the slides advancing smoothly, their transitions natural and easy.

Now that they had won the bid, Radek would have unparalleled access to Athena Energy’s premises and, if he played his cards right, their computer servers. He’d be able to get much further into their security system than ever before. He could find out what had happened to Jitka.

But his stomach turned, and he was heavy with guilt, because Miko wouldn’t have the help and support she needed, and their proposal had won for a reason - because it was brilliant. Miko really could change the world with her genius. Radek had to protect his family first.

“Both of you clean up so well,” Miko said. “Especially you, Radek. Don’t you think, Evan?”

“Yes,” Evan said. “Radek looks very handsome tonight.”

“And Evan,” Katja said. “Doesn’t he look so pretty? I picked out his suit.”

Miko giggled, and Radek shot her a pointed look, but she said, “Yes, Evan is very pretty indeed. Right, Radek?”

Radek swallowed hard. “Yes. Of course.”

And Evan was blushing again. “Thanks. Katja did a really great job picking out our clothes. She’s very fashionable.”

The meal was delicious, the service was impeccable, and Katja and Evan listened raptly as Miko recounted the tale of the presentation and the critical acclaim from the review board. Radek stayed quiet, let Miko be her bright and animated self, and basked quietly in the way Evan and Katja smiled.

Of course dessert was amazing. Each of them ordered a different dessert, and they shared.

After, they walked down the street, window shopping and talking, laughing. Katja was cheery and energetic, and also very high on sugar. She started to crash while they’d paused to watch a street musician play his guitar and sing, and Evan ended up carrying her back to the car.

She slept all the way home, woke long enough to change into her pajamas and let Evan unfasten her hair. Once that was done, she submitted to Evan combing her hair so it wouldn’t tangle, and she fell asleep on her feet, nodding off beneath the comb, so Evan and Radek put her in bed, tucked the covers around her, and closed her door.

Once again, it was the two of them, on the landing. Radek knew if he tried to make a move, right here outside Katja’s door, Evan would be skittish, so he gestured to Evan’s door.

“Shall we talk about gun safety?”

“We should talk about Athena Energy,” Evan said softly.

He looked stunning in his suit, his eyes even bluer, his shoulders broader. But his expression in the dim light was - grim. Worried.

“All right,” Radek said, and they went into Evan’s room, closed the door.

Evan shrugged off his jacket, hung it up, unfastened his tie.

“You’re not happy that I won.” Radek watched Evan in the dimness, the deliberateness of his hands as he hung up his tie, unbuttoned his cuffs.

“You deserved to win,” Evan said quietly. “You and Miko have a brilliant proposal. If it works, it’ll change the world. But no, I’m not happy about you going into Athena Energy alone.”

“I can’t tell the police.”

“Those people killed your sister. They won’t hesitate to kill you if you get too close.” Evan’s gaze was bleak. He sighed, shook his head. “I’m sorry. Today you did something amazing, and you deserve to celebrate that.”

“You are worried about me,” Radek said.

Evan sat on the edge of his bed, took off his shoes and socks. “Of course I am. If something happens to you, what’ll happen to Katja? Miko and I aren’t her family. The courts wouldn’t let us take her.”

Radek searched Evan’s expression, but Evan wasn’t meeting his gaze. “It is good that you care about Katja so.”

Evan lifted his head. “And you. I care about you, Radek.”

“Perhaps you should teach me to shoot after all. For my own protection.”

“I can do that.” Evan drew his pistol. No matter what he was wearing, no matter where they were or what they were doing, he had it. At first Radek had tried to search for it, but after a while he gave up - didn’t want to be caught staring at Evan’s behind, after all. He stood up. “Come here.”

Radek obeyed.

“You remember the parts of a gun?”

Radek nodded.

“Show me.”

Radek showed him what he remembered - slide, trigger, guard, grip, magazine release.

“Very good. Clear it.”

It took Radek a moment to remember what that meant, but then he ejected the magazine, tugged on the slide to eject the bullet in the chamber, peered into the chamber-barrel space to make sure the gun wasn’t loaded.

“You’re not going to master long-distance marksmanship of any kind with a pistol in a short time,” Evan said. “Unless someone’s within, say, fifteen feet of you, don’t bother drawing and shooting. Duck and run.”

“Okay.”

“You right-handed or left-handed?”

“Right.”

“This is how you hold it, then.” Evan’s hands were warm, a little rough as he showed Radek how to grip the gun. “Your goal is to stabilize it as much as possible so you get back on target after each shot, because the recoil can be rough at first. No, make sure your left hand is a little lower. You don’t want to lose a chunk of skin if the slide catches you.”

Holding a gun was very awkward and not very comfortable, and Radek had to keep adjusting his grip, make sure it was high and firm so he could control the gun as much as possible.

“Now, show me your shooting stance.”

Radek moved his feet so they were shoulder-width apart and raised the gun.

“That’s a good self-defense stance, but it makes you a big target. You ever do karate?”

Radek shook his head.

“Right, well, what you want is basically a karate stance, one foot forward, one foot back, knees slightly bent, balance distribution even.” Evan put his hands on Radek’s hips and thighs and shoulders, positioning him. His tone was clinical, instructional, impersonal, but he was pressed against Radek’s back and Radek could feel his heat and -

“No, don’t close one eye. Keep both eyes open. You need both eyes for depth perception. Get your sights on the target. Line them up so the post closest to you is directly between the two posts at the end of the barrel and the tops of them are all level. There you go. You’ll have to learn to position your body like that instinctively, because in a firefight you won’t have time to take careful aim.”

Radek nodded. Evan’s arms were around him, angling his hands and the gun so he was aiming properly.

“Now, squeeze the trigger.”

Radek was surprised at how heavy it was.

“It’s a single action, so the trigger isn’t as heavy as it is for some other guns,” Evan said. “But did you feel the click?”

“Yes.” Radek swallowed hard. Evan was speaking right in his ear, his breath whispering against Radek’s skin.

“Now look where you are. Are you still on target?”

Radek realized his gun was tilted up slightly so the sights were no longer aligned.

“You need to get to a point where you pulling the trigger doesn’t move the gun from the target,” Evan explained. “That’s how you know you’re holding steady. Old trick is to put a tack or paperclip on the end of the barrel and dry-fire, and if the tack or clip holds steady, you’re good. It’s a nice way to practice your marksmanship without burning through a lot of ammo.”

Radek nodded.

“Think you can remember that?”

Radek nodded again.

“Good.” Evan pulled away.

Radek turned, caught his wrist. He set the gun aside and tugged Evan to him. Something shadowed flared in Evan’s gaze for a moment, but then Evan nodded, stepped in, and pulled Radek into a kiss.

Evan’s kiss was deep, relentless, insistent, and the stroke of his tongue matched the slide of his hips, and Radek rocked back against him.

“For the record,” Evan murmured, skimming Radek out of his jacket and tie, peeling away his belt and untucking his shirt, “I do expect you to practice your marksmanship. We can go gun shopping, you and I.”

“Of course,” Radek said.

“Good. Remember that.” And then Evan was sliding to his knees and unfastening Radek’s trousers and tugging his trousers and boxers down and -

Radek was lost after that. All he knew was heat wet suction, Evan’s mouth and tongue and lips, the soft moans he made, the obscene wet sounds of licking and sucking and slurping. Evan’s hands were curled tightly at his thighs, and Radek’s eyes fell closed, and he began to thrust.

Evan hummed, spurred him on, and he thrust a little more, a little faster, a little harder, and Evan hummed again.

The vibration sent ecstasy fluttering up and down Radek’s spine, gathering in the pit of his belly, and finally he clung to Evan’s shoulder and began to thrust into Evan’s mouth, over and over again.

Evan took it, took Radek deeper, his tongue doing wild things to Radek’s flesh, and when Evan curled a hand around the base of Radek’s cock and stroked, Radek lost it. Came. Over and over again, thrusting wildly and panting so as not to make a sound. Evan swallowed it down, clutching Radek’s hips and keeping him upright.

As soon as Radek’s vision cleared, he hauled Evan to his feet and kissed him, tasting himself in Evan’s mouth. He eased a hand between Evan’s legs, stroking, playing, teasing, and Evan muttered a curse, a plea, so Radek stripped Evan out of his clothes and pushed him back onto the bed, climbed on top of him, straddled his thighs, and stroked him to completion, fondling his nipples with his other hand while Evan threw his head back and bit back a scream.

Evan in orgasm was beautiful, eyes closed, mouth open in a perfect o, the line of his neck long and graceful, his golden skin sheened with sweat.

Radek stroked Evan till the sensation was too much and Evan winced, squirmed, and then they collapsed on the bed together. Evan fumbled around beside the bed, came up with a box of tissue, and they cleaned themselves off.

Radek tucked himself against Evan’s side, head on his chest, listening to the beat of his heart, feeling the rise and fall of every breath.

He dozed, drifting in and out of sleep, lulled by the gentle sensation of Evan petting his hair.

One time, he thought he heard Evan whisper I’m so sorry.

But then Evan was waking him ruefully, reminding him to dress and go to his own room.

Radek promised himself, as he tiptoed back across the landing, that once everything with Athena Energy was finished, they would tell Katja what was going on, and no one would need to sneak anymore.

*

Whatever trepidation Evan had about Radek going to work in the Athena Energy labs with Miko, he buried away, most likely for Katja’s sake. The next morning, Evan was bright and cheerful, as enthusiastic and excited for Radek as Katja was. They had blueberry pancakes for breakfast, Evan made sure everyone had lunches, and then he took Katja to school.

Radek met Miko in the parking lot of the Athena Energy labs. She was wearing her new Lucky Hello Kitty Pen in the breast pocket of her suit jacket, and her eyes were bright.

“Ready?” She hugged her laptop to her chest.

“Ready,” he said, even though he wasn’t.

A pretty woman named Asarluhi met them at the reception desk. She walked them through their orientation paperwork, got them security access badges, and showed them to the lab.

Their assistants were Belus and Jadin. Belus was tall, thin, and pale, with dark hair and circles around his eyes and didn’t look like he slept a lot. Jadin, by contrast, had smooth dark skin, wide dark eyes, and thick dark curls. They were both new hires, fresh out of graduate school, and didn’t yet answer to Doctor. In fact, Radek didn’t even know what their last names were, and they didn’t offer them up. Both of them spoke unaccented English, clear and clean, though the way they didn’t use contractions made Radek wonder if English wasn’t their first language.

Belus and Jadin were quiet, obedient, efficient - and omnipresent. Not matter where Radek or Miko went, one of them was always with them. Even when they went to the bathroom. Radek counted himself lucky that Belus didn’t follow him into the stall.

Best as Radek could tell, Belus and Jadin had the same security clearance as Miko and Radek, couldn’t go anywhere in the building or lab that Miko and Radek couldn’t go.

It took a few days, but Radek finally came up with a plan. He’d wanted, desperately, to talk it over with Evan, but the less Evan knew about his plans, the better. Ignorance, in this rare instance, was bliss. After some innocent inquiry, Radek figured out that the computers assigned to his and Miko’s labs were connected to the Athena Energy private server through a proxy server, and hacking in would be impossible. He also learned where the servers were physically located on the premises, and after a brief inspection of the building’s schematics and the server room’s security, physical access would be impossible for him. He was a scientist, not James Bond.

The best way to get access to the information he needed was to find someone who already had that access and borrow it.

Radek did some more research and learned that the person overseeing his and Miko’s project liaison (another single-named beautiful woman whose scientific acumen was unknown) was a physicist by the name of Carl Hendricks, who had been promoted two grades up as a matter of politics and not been allowed near an actual lab since. Radek read every single paper Hendricks had ever written. The man wasn’t a bad scientist, but he was a terrible administrator.

So one day Radek swung by his office.

Hendricks was a portly man with a ruddy face, thinning blond hair, and nearly invisible eyebrows. His desk was neat and spartan, likely left over from his days keeping a pristine lab. He had no pictures of his family, just a picture of his dog, a black-and-white bulldog looking thing, and his diplomas and awards hung on his wall.

He did have a half-empty glass bowl of candy beside his keyboard, and a tupperware container of empty candy wrappers beside it.

Radek knocked on the open door, cleared his throat.

Hendricks looked up from what he was reading, brow furrowed. “Yes?”

Radek glanced over his shoulder at Belus, who was holding a tablet and watching intently, like he planned on taking detailed notes of their interaction.

“Dr. Hendricks, I am Radek Zelenka, on the mirror turbine project.”

Interest flared in Hendricks’s eyes. Good. “Ah, yes, Dr. Zelenka. What can I do for you? Is Asarluhi not being responsive enough?” He started to reach for his phone.

“Ah, no Asarluhi is fine. She takes good care of me and Miko and our team,” Radek said quickly. “I just wanted to talk to you about the project. I read some of the papers you wrote, about quantum entanglement and the practical applications of mirror particles in nanodevices, and I was wondering if we could talk.”

Hendricks straightened up, gestured to the chair opposite his desk. “Yes, please, have a seat. Belus, you may go.”

“But Doctor -”

“Go. I will call you when Dr. Zelenka is ready to return to his lab.”

“Please, call me Radek.” He smiled.

“Radek. Call me Carl. I looked over your project proposal, and it’s fascinating. What’s your question?”

Radek tapped his tablet awake. “These are the calculations Miko and I ran preliminarily, but we’ve encountered some unusual interactions when the turbine has an odd number of propellers. You wrote a paper on the effects of prime numbers on mirror particle interactions, and I was wondering if you had any advice.”

Hendricks had lots of advice. Hours of advice. The way his face lit up, the way his hands flew as he described concepts in the air, told Radek that he was a passionate scientist. The way he told anecdotes about his dog Frank told Radek that he was lonely. And the way he put a dent in another third of his candy jar told Radek that he had a sweet tooth.

And so a plan was born.

Radek needed patience, needed time. So long as he and Miko were making progress on their project, they could remain at Athena Energy. Once a week they had a phone conference with Elizabeth and the other powers that be at Vulcan Labs to assure them that they were making progress and that relations were good between both companies. Once a month they had actual visits back to Vulcan Labs with updates as well. When Radek explained to Miko that he was paying visits to Dr. Hendricks to get advice, she nodded knowingly. Asarluhi was good about making sure Miko had an endless supply of green tea and Hello Kitty-themed office supplies, strong Turkish coffee for Radek and also an adolescent array of junk food for Belus and Jadin. She wasn’t much use for help with scientific questions or bigger issues, just stared at them distantly until they stopped talking. Hendricks was the person they needed to impress to make sure they stayed safe, and as long as he was happy, they were happy, so Miko didn’t mind that Radek would duck out once or twice a week for a quick chat with Hendricks, to give him either an update or bounce more ideas off of him.

Radek told Evan that things were going well at the lab, he was all right, but he did ask Evan for a regular supply of baked treats to share at the office, which Evan was more than happy to provide. The first time Radek presented Hendricks with a chocolate mousse dome, the man looked suspicious.

“Bribery, Radek?”

“Ah, no. My nanny is an excellent confectioner and baker but makes too much for just me and my niece, so I bring the leftovers to work to share. They are delicious, yes, Belus?”

Belus still had chocolate residue around his mouth but looked deadly serious, nodded.

Hendricks waved him away, and Belus nodded, disappeared back toward the elevators. These days Belus barely escorted Radek all the way up to Hendricks’s floor before ducking away again. Good.

Radek waggled the little paper plate obligingly, and Hendricks accepted it, picked up the plastic fork, took a bite. Moaned happily.

“You say your nanny made this?”

“Yes.”

“Where do I sign up for a nanny like that?” It was a joke; Hendricks had neither spouse nor children.

“Craigslist,” Radek said wisely, and Hendricks laughed.

“Of course. So, what can I do for you today?”

“Just wanted to say hello and share. Jadin and Miko are watching their figures,” Radek said, and Hendricks rolled his eyes.

“Well, thank you, Radek. And tell your nanny I approve.”

“I will.”

*

If winning the bid to work with Athena had been tough, juggling the project and the plan and home life was even tougher. Radek was tight and tense and wary and on alert all day, for any sign that someone was onto him, or another clue he could use to bypass Athena’s state-of-the-art security. At the end of the day, he was able to talk to Katja and play with her, help her with her homework.

And he got to spend time with Evan.

Evan made him practice his dry firing every night. Made him practice disassembling and reassembling the pistol over and over again. And after practice, if things went well, Evan rewarded him.

Radek and Evan spent time with each other every night. Most nights, between work and running around after Katja, they managed to make out on Evan’s bed and maybe fumble their way to mutual orgasms before exhaustion overtook them. But the first time Radek managed to fire an entire magazine of snap caps without dislodging the thumbtack on top, Evan stripped both of them out of their clothes, pushed Radek back onto the bed, climbed on top of him, and rode him hard.

They were always careful to be quiet with each other, but their couplings were rarely soft and gentle, frantic as they were to shed the stress of the day. Radek hated that he never got to wake up beside Evan, but he understood the caution, for Katja’s sake. Sometimes he had the sense that there was a different undercurrent to Evan’s urgency, something that felt like fear and desperation, the way Evan clung to him so tightly.

Radek was afraid someone would realize what was going on between them - Miko, who’d be happy for him but also unbearably smug; Katja, who’d be confused and possibly upset; someone at Athena Energy, who’d think Evan was leverage against Radek too. But he was also so stupidly happy that he wanted to tell the world what was going on between them.

When Katja finally had her gun safety lesson, Radek was nervous, but Evan taught her to teach every firearm like it was loaded, and how to clear any of his weapons that she came across. Radek always trained with Evan’s .45, but Evan also had a 9mm and a .50 caliber that he kept with him. Katja was trembling and wide-eyed during her first lesson, but after several subsequent lessons she was calm, solemn as she handled the firearms under Evan’s careful supervision. To Radek’s relief, Evan never used live ammunition in his pistols when Katja handled them, instead loading the magazines with snap caps so Katja could learn to clear the bullet in the chamber.

The first time Evan took Radek to a local shooting range (while Katja had girl time with Miko) to practice with live ammo, Radek was terrified. Even with earmuffs, he was unprepared for how loud the shots were, and he ended up flinching and squeezing his eyes shut every time. Evan stood close behind him, hands on his shoulders, murmuring reassurances, but Radek wasn’t sure he’d ever be able to use a gun in an emergency.

“Jsem s tebou,” Evan said.

It was what Radek whispered to him sometimes, as they lay curled together in the afterglow of their lovemaking.

I’m with you.

Evan’s pronunciation was very good. How many times had Radek said that to him?

How many times had Evan said it back, when he thought Radek couldn’t hear?

Now that Radek and Evan were ostensibly together, Evan pretty much stopped going out on the weekends. He stayed in with Katja and Radek, played with Katja during the day, had supper with them in the evenings. There was no mention of going out for drinks or to clubs, and Radek assumed that the pretty red-haired woman who’d seemed like Evan’s longtime lover was perhaps just a regular hook-up, nothing serious, and now that Evan had something serious (with Radek) he didn’t need the woman anymore.

Radek wouldn’t have been opposed to seeing Evan in that outfit again, though. Radek had had plenty of opportunity to explore Evan’s skin, examine the details of his tattoos, trace their lines with his lips and tongue and fingers, and that one t-shirt that showed off the faintest hints of Evan’s ink drove Radek just a little bit wild. And those jeans - Evan should never be allowed out of the house in those jeans.

As much as Radek and Evan were having fun in Evan’s bedroom (under cover of night and shadows, when the rest of the world was asleep and no one would know), things were still tense between them as time wore on at Athena Energy. Evan started to ask how things were going, had Radek found out anything about Jitka’s murder, but Radek had to deflect, brush him off, tell him things were fine.

Things weren’t fine. Evan knew it, saw it in Radek and tried to bring him out of it at the end of the day. Radek had never considered himself a particularly aggressive or domineering man in the bedroom, but Evan was so perfectly submissive and wanton once Radek got him aroused that Radek couldn’t help but take control, take Evan any way he could have him, and when it was done, Radek would see Evan’s desire for what it was, a desire to please - and a desire to comfort, and Radek loved him fiercely for it.

He didn’t dare say the words, terrified that Evan wouldn’t say them back - or worse, that Evan would.

Radek was doing his best to push things forward with Hendricks, but low-tech hacks like shoulder-surfing were more a game of finesse than a game of speed. It took Radek lots and lots of time, multiple visits and treats, before Hendricks let his guard down, accessing secure portions of the Athena Energy network when Radek was present, taking important phone calls while Radek lingered, typing PINs into his accounts. Radek learned to pretend he wasn’t paying attention by playing with his phone - and silently activating the camera and zooming in so he could see what Hendricks was typing. Radek plied Hendricks with baked goods and compliments and company so Hendricks told him information that made for useful passwords, like the town and street where he grew up, the names of his childhood pets, his birthday and the years he’d graduated from various levels of school, the year he’d started with Athena Energy. He even told Radek his lucky lotto numbers, though those were pointless in a state where gambling was illegal.

“Used to play the Powerball every week,” Hendricks said one day, munching his way through a small plate of Rice Krispie treats. “I know, I’m a scientist, I know the odds are against me, playing the Powerball is irrational, but hey, I’m human, I have hope.”

“And some of the greatest scientific discoveries were happy accidents or leaps of intuition,” Radek said.

Hendricks saluted him with a half-eaten Rice Krispie treat. “Amen to that. So, how are things going with Miko in the lab?”

And Radek told him, and paused politely when Asarluhi came with a question about accessing the lab logs and Hendricks rolled his eyes and spelled his password for her carefully and deliberately.

She nodded and left, and Hendricks rolled his eyes at Radek. “Kids these days. I’m not sure where the Boss finds them, I tell you.”

“Certainly not where she found us,” Radek said, and got another Amen to that, brother.

It was perhaps cruel, perhaps unusual, but Radek decided to strike on Hendricks’s birthday. Hendricks had no family nearby and, best as Radek could tell, no friends outside of work. He likely had no celebration plans, so Radek had Evan bake up some special birthday cupcakes, enough for everyone in the labs that Hendricks supervised, including Radek’s lab, Asarluhi, and Hendricks himself.

Evan decorated them beautifully, put little candles in each of them, and packaged them up on a fancy platter.

Radek arrived early because he knew it’d be difficult to juggle his laptop bag, his lunch box, his coffee thermos, and the platter of cupcakes, and he didn’t want any of them damaged before he got them to Hendricks. During their many visits and conversations, Hendricks had dropped comments about the boring admin meetings he had to attend, how he’d rather be in the lab with Radek and Miko, on the cutting edge of new energy developments, and Radek knew Hendricks would be away from his office this morning.

So Radek climbed out of the car, carefully arranged his belongings so he’d have a free hand - that involved stuffing his thermos into his laptop bag and hooking his lunch box to the strap of his laptop bag - and then he picked up the platter of cupcakes.

And stopped short.

There, standing on the sidewalk, was none other than the lovely red-haired woman Radek had seen outside the club with Evan.

Today she was wearing neat dark slacks, a deep purple blouse, and a dark gray jacket, and she was chatting casually with Belus, of all people. While both of them smoked cigarettes next to a garbage can that was a respectful twenty-five feet from the doors of the building.

Radek roused himself, started for the doors, but he moved slowly, glancing at the woman repeatedly out of the corner of his eye. It was definitely the woman he’d seen Evan with. Did she work at Athena Energy?

And then Radek realized. She must have been some kind of spy, some kind of enemy agent who was targeting Evan. Had she been ordered to seduce him to gain access to Radek and Katja?

The woman looked up and spotted him, and Radek realized he’d been made. He hurried toward the doors, but the woman called out,

“Those cupcakes look delicious.”

Belus turned, spotted Radek. Narrowed his eyes. “You’re here early.”

Radek hefted the cupcake platter. “These are for Carl. It is his birthday. I wanted to give these to him. I may be late to the lab.”

Belus nodded, waved him on, turned back to the woman.

The woman fluttered her fingers at Radek. “Tell him happy birthday.”

“Right,” Belus added, a beat too late. “Happy birthday.”

“Of course.” Radek wanted to ask the woman’s name, but - no. He had a mission and a limited time to do it. So he headed inside, greeted the security guards, protected the cupcakes from their hopeful hands, and took the elevator up to Hendricks’s floor.

Radek wasn’t stupid. He knew there were security cameras in Hendricks’s office. But he’d memorized their positions, done a lot of calculations to figure out a blind spot or how to hide things from them, and he was prepared.

He went into the office and used the cupcake platter to hide one of his hands under cover of installing a keystroke logger onto Hendricks’s keyboard, one that transmitted a wireless signal to a burner smartphone Radek had purchased with cash at a convenience store halfway across the city.

And like that, he was done.

All day, he was distracted, could barely focus. When Hendricks summoned Radek to his office, Radek was terrified, his burner phone practically thrumming in his pocket as data streamed to it - he needed to turn off the vibrate - but Hendricks had found the cupcakes and wanted to thank Radek. As an additional distraction, Radek poked his head out of the office, called out to Asarluhi, asked her to round up everyone from Hendricks’s section to celebrate his birthday, share the cupcakes. Once everyone was in there, Radek led them in singing the birthday song, and Miko lit the candle on Hendricks’s cupcake, and then there was awkward socializing before it was just Hendricks and Radek again, and finally Radek begged off back to his lab.

He fled for the bathroom, locked himself in a stall, and fumbled the burner phone out of his pocket, shut off the vibrate.

And scrolled through the data. Passwords. PINs. Emails. Memos. Research proposals. None of it any use. Radek would have to find a lab with someone else’s computer that was unoccupied, use their terminal so as not to get caught. That would mean casing out another lab, making another friend, but he had patience. Katja was worth it. Evan was worth it. Radek now had free access to everything Hendricks had access to, and he could use it to find the truth.

Radek took a deep breath, scanned a few more emails, and saw -

ZPM. Amaterasu. That incomprehensible string of letters and numbers. Another string of letters and numbers that at first were bizarre, then made perfect sense. A lab designation.

There was a ZPM in the building. Radek scanned the email. It hadn’t been converted into a bomb yet, but -

Radek had the building schematics. He could find that lab.

He was excited.

He was terrified.

Should he tell Evan?

No. He had to do this himself.

The lab wasn’t just any lab - it was a clean environment, which would work to Radek’s benefit. If he could bypass the security cameras - he was pretty sure he could program in a loop, VPN into his computer from his burner phone - then he could get in. He was clean room certified, and in one of the white bunny suits, anyone who walked past wouldn’t think twice about him being in there.

The trick would be to obtain the right clean room gear so he looked indistinguishable from the regular clean room employees. Finding images of clean room uniforms was easy. Rather than filch pieces of a uniform one at a time from the Athena Energy supplies, Radek could buy his own, using a cash card purchased at a Walmart and delivered to a PO box.

He assembled the outfit one piece at a time, all the while monitoring the data from Hendricks’s computer. With access to Hendricks’s clearance, Radek could make a pass card that would grant him access to the clean room. With every piece of clean room gear that arrived, Radek was that much closer to finding out who had killed Jitka.

*

The final piece of gear arrived. Radek had it all - bunny suit, gloves, face mask, hood, shoe covers, hair cover - and now he had to hack into the security feed, isolate some footage that he could loop back into the feed. He had to program a virus that would infiltrate the cameras and install the specific loop when he wanted it, for how long he wanted it, and then set up the VPN capabilities on both his phone and his computer. So much to do, so much to prepare.

Radek hopped out of his car and headed for the front doors - he had some white chocolate raspberry cookies to share with his labmates and Hendricks - and he saw her again. The redheaded woman. Again she was standing with Belus, both of them smoking cigarettes and talking. She lifted her chin at Radek when she saw him, smiled.

Belus barely glanced at him. Radek waved back briefly and hurried on into the lab. Dare he ask Evan about the woman? Or perhaps Belus.

Radek had barely set down his laptop bag when Miko pounced on him, eyes bright and babbling a hundred miles an hour. She had an idea for controlling the turbines with a quantum computer of the most rudimentary order. She tugged Radek across the room to the whiteboard, half of which was filled with diagrams, the other half of which was filled with equations.

“See - this will cut down on energy consumption by forty-two percent.” Miko thrust a whiteboard marker at him. “Right?”

Radek scanned her calculations. “Let me see.” He scanned the equation, mind spinning and tumbling. “No - forty-eight percent.” He circled a section of the equation. “See here? You did not carry your own six.”

Everything else fell by the wayside until Belus interrupted them, asked if they wanted to go out to lunch.

And Radek remembered the redhaired woman. At Miko’s suggestion, they went out to a Persian grill, all four of them. Jadin came with them, though she only ordered a salad.

“So Belus,” Radek said, once they all had their food and were sitting at their table, “you have a girlfriend?”

Miko waggled her eyebrows. “Oooh, really? Is she pretty?”

Jadin’s expression was contemptuous. “Belus would never find a girlfriend here.”

“Why not?” Radek swallowed hard. Was Belus suspicious of the woman too?

Belus shrugged. “She is not my girlfriend. We simply share a vice.”

Jadin’s contemptuous expression remained. “Filthy habit.”

Perhaps her default expression was contemptuous.

“At least you have a friend,” Miko said, wary of the tension between Belus and Jadin.

“She is very pretty,” Radek offered.

“Have you met her?” Miko asked.

He shrugged. “She is nice. She waves to me.”

“She works at the office next door,” Belus said, and Radek felt some of the tension in his shoulders ease.

Perhaps the woman’s presence was a coincidence after all. As far as Radek knew, Evan wasn’t aware that Radek and Katja had seen him when he was out on his date. Chances were the woman wasn’t aware either. Of course, if Radek was able to recognize the woman after seeing her so briefly from a distance, it was possible she would be able to recognize him. But why would she bother to remember him? Even if she had seen him and Katja that night, she would not have known that they knew Evan.

Clearly his pursuit of justice for Jitka had made him paranoid.

Except he kept seeing the woman in the mornings, smiling and talking and smoking with Belus. If she noticed him and greeted him, he was polite to her, but he never dared to stop and converse with her. He was pretty sure he could feel her watching him as he walked into the Athena Energy building, but he didn’t look back.

“Strejdo Radek,” Katja said one evening, “are you all right?”

Radek blinked, lifted his head, realized Katja and Evan were looking at him. He’d missed something. “Yes, I am fine. Sorry.”

“Leave your work at work,” Katja said firmly.

Radek reached out, ruffled her hair. “Of course. What did I miss?”

“Can I have some friends over this weekend?”

“What for?”

“To make pretty hair things with Evan.”

Radek raised his eyebrows at Evan, but Evan just shrugged, smiled ruefully.

“If Evan is all right with it.”

“I’ve had questions from some of the other mothers when I’ve gone to pick Katja up from school,” Evan said. “They say they’re willing to chip in for supplies and help with crowd control.”

Katja was gazing up at Radek, expression utterly guileless. “Please, Strejdo?”

“If you are very, very good, and if you clean your room,” Radek said.

Katja leaned in and kissed him on the cheek. “Děkuji, Strejdo.”

She kept to her word, and over the next couple of days, she spent her play time making sure her room was spotless, just like Evan does it. Evan kept Radek appraised of Katja’s progress and also his own progress, coordinating with the Katja’s friends’ mothers, and when Radek came down from checking on the pigeons Saturday morning, his peaceful kitchen was filled with little first-graders, their mothers, and seemingly an entire craft store’s supply of silk flowers, feathers, beads, and rhinestones.

A series of glue guns were lined up on one of the counters, ready to heat up. Evan had organized stations for each type of decoration, each type of hair clip, and little spaces for each child to work at. Radek hovered in the doorway, watched Evan marshall the children into neat ranks and issue simple instructions. No running. Ask adults for help with scissors and hot glue guns. Be careful. Be polite.

And then - chaos. Children everywhere. Piping voices. Evan and a couple of the other mothers moved smoothly through the crowd, wielding scissors here, lending a hand there. A couple of mothers were supervising the hot glue guns. And yet a few more mothers were there for the sole purpose of acting as mediators when children squabbled over decorating supplies.

It took a moment for anyone to notice Radek was there. Evan noticed him first. He turned and smiled.

“Hey, Radek. You want to make hair clips?”

Heads turned.

Radek smiled. “If my hair were longer, perhaps. Do think flowers or feathers?”

“Rhinestones,” Evan said decisively.

Katja crossed the kitchen, hugged him. “Good morning, Strejdo.”

He kissed her hair. “And to you, Katja. How is everything going?”

“It’s going well,” Evan said. “Do you know everyone?”

Radek recognized faces, but he didn’t know names, not the way Jitka had, and he missed her keenly. “Not as well as I’d like.”

Evan made introductions. Gina and Nadine were in charge of the hot glue guns; Alina, Claire, and Sandy were in charge of general production; Beth and Tasha were helping Evan manage scissors. Evan rattled off the names of the children. Radek recognized Mara, Sophie, and Lexi as frequent players in Katja’s My Little Pony games. Micah was the only boy and apparently twin to Kira. While he didn’t plan on wearing any of today’s creations himself, he went everywhere with his twin, and he was glad to be assisting his sister. He was terribly solemn-faced child, half-hiding behind his sister.

“Well, welcome to our home,” Radek said, “and let me know if you need anything.”

“Another pair of hands would be much appreciated,” Gina said.

Radek caught Evan’s eye, raised an eyebrow. You sure?

Evan shrugged. Up to you.

Radek rolled up his sleeves. “All right. What shall I do?”

As it turned out, Radek was good at making fancy hair clips. He had steady hands from years of soldering his own electrical components, was good at using tweezers to carefully place delicate rhinestones. Once he figured out the consistency of the glue gun and how fast the glue came out of the gun, he was very good at applying the glue neatly, so extra bits of glue weren’t showing.

Katja stayed close to him, directing his efforts, pleased and thrilled by how good he was. Radek had never been jealous of how close Katja was to Jitka, because Jitka was her mother, but sometimes he was jealous of how much Katja adored Evan. Having her stay close to him like this was very gratifying.

Radek had never considered himself a jealous person. He’d revised that opinion the first time he saw Evan with that redheaded person, and again the first time Katja chose to snuggle up beside Evan instead of Radek during evening movie time. But Radek was generally a rational and levelheaded person, and so he did his best to analyze the situation, recognize that his emotional response was irrational, and move on.

He noticed immediately when Tasha started sliding farther into Evan’s personal space than any of the other mothers, putting a hand on his arm, smiling up at him. She frequently sought him out with questions and requests for advice, and one time she actually twirled a lock of hair around her finger. Evan smiled at her, was polite, but best as Radek could tell, he was no more polite to her than he was to any of the other mothers.

Then Tasha asked Evan to help her fetch something heavy from her car, and Radek couldn’t help it. He quietly excused himself from Katja, who was distracted anyway, and followed Evan and Tasha into the hallway.

“ - Seeing anyone?” Tasha asked. She was standing very close to Evan, close enough to kiss.

“I am,” Evan said.

“Is it serious?”

“As a heart attack.”

Tasha took a big step back. “Oh. She’s a very lucky woman.”

Evan said, gently, “The lucky one is me.”

“She must be special.”

“He is.”

“Oh. Oh.” Tasha looked relieved.

Evan started for the door. “So you needed help with -?”

“I baked some treats for everyone. I have a couple of trays.” Tasha followed him.

Radek slipped back into the kitchen, his heart pounding. Evan had said it was serious. As a heart attack. He couldn’t help the smile on his face. Katja had barely noticed his absence when he slid back into his chair, prepared to wield a glue gun for all comers.

After everyone went home, Radek and Evan were too tired to cook, so as a treat they ordered a pizza and settled into the den to watch a Harry Potter movie.

Katja fell asleep before Harry made it back to Hogwarts.

Evan and Radek turned off the movie and woke her, chivvied her off to bed.

They stood in the doorway, watching her sleep.

Radek said, “Today, I heard you, speaking to Tasha.”

Evan turned to him, eyes wide.

“I am not angry,” Radek said. “Did you mean it?”

“Which part?”

“All of it.”

“And I meant all of it.”

Radek studied Evan for a long moment. For all that Evan’s voice had been sure and steady, there was fear in his eyes, his jaw tense.

“If you mean it, why are you so afraid?”

Evan answered by catching Radek’s wrist, tugging him across the landing and into the bedroom. Evan closed the door and leaned in for a kiss.

What followed was slow and sensual, like they were taking each other for the first time. Radek enjoyed himself, exploring every inch of Evan’s skin, kissing and caressing, learning what made him sigh and gasp and moan and laugh. Evan mapped Radek’s flesh with his hands and mouth and tongue, his gaze fever-bright and intense, like he was memorizing every inch of Radek’s body.

They made love softly and gently, ensuring each other’s pleasure and comfort. Evan lay back on the bed and drew Radek down on top of him, wound his arms around Radek’s neck and kissed him, slow and leisurely, while they rocked their hips together. Radek eased a hand between them, stroking them both to full hardness before he fumbled in the nightstand for the lube and condoms.

Evan’s submission was solemn and sweet, his gazed locked with Radek’s, their fingers intertwined as Radek eased himself into Evan’s body. When Radek started to thrust, Evan’s eyes slipped closed.

Radek buried his face against Evan’s neck, sensation and emotion thrumming beneath his skin. He felt his pleasure building, rising, burning along his nerves. Evan’s body was warm and firm and strong, and Radek wanted to move in him like this forever. But he wasn’t going to last long, couldn’t last long when Evan was moving like that beneath him, needy and frantic.

Radek sensed his orgasm right before it hit. He gripped Evan’s hip tighter, thrust faster.

“Miluji tĕ,” he whispered into Evan’s skin, and came.

Evan came seconds later, soundless and breathless. Radek collapsed against him, exhausted. Evan slung an arm around his waist, held him close.

Right before Radek fell asleep, he heard Evan whisper, “I love you too.”

*

Radek only dozed for a couple of hours before he dressed and stumbled into his own room. He was too happy to be angry about not being able to spend the night with Evan, to wake beside him. When he woke the next morning, he was still dazed and happy. He almost ran into Evan on his way across the landing to go let the pigeons out, and Evan looked just as dazed, just as happy.

Radek spent the entire day in a happy haze, floating through breakfast and church and lunch and playing at the park with Katja. It wasn’t until Radek was standing side-by-side with Evan in the kitchen fixing supper that he realized - tomorrow was it. The day that he was going to break into the clean room and gather intel on the ZPM bomb, dismantle it as best as he could, set off the fire alarm, and while everyone was getting shuffled out of the building, break into Hendricks’s computer and get the information he needed about his sister’s murder.

Tomorrow.

That night, he and Evan coupled frantically, sharp teeth and brutal kisses, Radek terrified this would be the last time, Evan sensing his fear and running with it.

Monday morning dawned sweet and clear. Radek rose early, stood in Evan’s doorway and watched him work out for a minute before he went up to the roof, loosed the pigeons. Watched them fly. He helped Evan make breakfast and also lunch, and he kissed Katja goodbye, told her he loved her, and sent her off to school with Evan. He texted Miko, said he had to run an errand, would be a bit late to the lab. Then he swung by the local rec center, got the clean room gear out of the locker he’d rented.

He took his time, packed it down small so it would all fit into his laptop bag, and then headed to the lab. He parked in his usual spot and turned off the engine. For a moment he sat staring at the steering wheel, took a deep breath. It was show time. Radek climbed out of the car, prepared to wave and smile at Belus and his lady friend.

Only Belus wasn’t at his usual spot, and his lady friend was nowhere to be seen.

Radek started for the front entrance when something caught his attention out of the corner of his eye, an unusual flash of white. He turned and saw, down the side of the building, Belus’s lady friend. She was holding open a side door, and three figures in white clean room suits were ducking into the building.

Dread curled in the pit of Radek’s stomach. He’d been right. Belus’s lady friend was trouble. He had to get to the clean room before she did. Heart pounding, Radek bolted into the building. He took the stairs because it was faster. Once he reached the floor where the clean rooms were, he ducked into the bathroom, went into the handicapped stall. Pulled on his clean room gear save the gloves. Activated the security camera loop from his burner smartphone. And headed for the clean room.

Radek stepped into the decontamination chamber, tried not to flinch at the cold, compressed air fired at him, turned obediently, and then into the clean room itself. Which was empty. No sign of anyone else in clean room suits. Of course, there were rows and rows of lab tables, high shelves, tall pieces of equipment. Plenty of places for people to hide. Radek cast a hunted look around him, wary of any attackers. But then he saw, on one of the side workbenches, a familiar object. Radek had assumed that the yellow-green-red-orange jagged tubular thing in Jitka’s notes was theoretical or fanciful or just a scribble, but there, in a glass case, was a crystalline object, geometrically regular at the base but strange and jagged at the top.

Heart pounding, he started toward it.

And saw, out the window, suit-clad men pass by.

He froze. No. Wrong move. They’d be suspicious. Keep working. Act natural. Radek reached for the screwdriver next to the case, and the device beside it, pretended he was using the one to work on the other.

Out of the corner of his eye, the dark suits vanished.

Crisis averted.

Radek set the device aside. He had to figure out how to get the case open. Screwdriver in hand, he peered at the edges and vertices of the case, looking for a seam or opening or weakness.

Out of the corner of his eye, dark fabric flashed.

Radek turned.

Security officers in sleek dark suits were spilling into the anteroom.

Radek swore and scooped the case off the workbench and ducked down the nearest aisle. There had to be another way out.

The doors hissed open, and footsteps thundered across the linoleum floor.

“We know you’re in here,” one of the men said, and Radek’s heart crawled into his throat. Someone must have noticed the hack into Hendricks’s computer or the security feed looped footage or -

“Come out, come out, wherever you are,” another man said, voice sing-song, taunting.

Radek held his breath, listened. The footsteps came closer.

“You can’t hide forever,” said yet a third man.

Did Radek dare to peek, see how many of them were there?

The footsteps came closer, closer.

Radek shuffled backward.

“Come out, come out, Major Lorne.”

Radek froze.

“All right, you got me.” Evan’s voice.

What was Evan doing here? He was in trouble. Radek had to help him, to save him. He scanned the shelves closest to him for something, anything that could be used as a weapon.

And then Evan laughed. “But I got pretty damn far, didn’t I?”

“Farther than I like,” the other man said. “But hey, now we can plug the security leaks and move along. You’re too damn good for your own good.”

“Well, that’s why you picked him for the mission,” a woman said.

Radek knew her voice, too. Belus’s lady friend. The one Evan had been kissing.

Radek dared to scoot forward, peek past the shelves he was hiding behind.

“For the record,” Evan said, “Hendricks is going to lose his mind when he finds out that you violated the cleanliness of the clean room.” He’d taken off his hood and pulled down his mask.

“Says the guy who just took off half his clean gear,” one of the suit-clad men said, clapping Evan on the shoulder. “Let’s get out of here. Bring your infiltration team.”

“Told you we’d make it this far,” Evan said, grinning at Belus’s beautiful lady friend.

She rolled her eyes. “Yes, yes, I owe you drinks.”

“You owe all of us drinks,” Evan corrected. He ushered the rest of his team toward the door.

Radek watched him go, confused and afraid and angry.

Evan glanced over his shoulder and saw Radek. Locked gazes with him. Recognized him.

Radek’s heartbeat stuttered.

Evan turned and walked away.

*

Radek spent the next half hour in a daze. He hadn’t planned on grabbing the case and had no clue how he was supposed to get it out of the building. Evan had broken into the building with Belus’s lady friend and other operatives. Evan had been familiar with the Athena Energy security team. Radek didn’t know who he could trust.

Katja. He had to protect Katja. Radek wrapped the case in the white clean room suit, stuffed it all into a bag, and told Miko he had an emergency. He dashed for his car and over to the school. When he got there, the ladies at the front office told him Katja had already been checked out of school by Evan.

Radek was back out the door before the woman finished saying Evan’s name.

When he got home, Evan’s car was parked out front like normal. Radek cut the engine and burst into the house, screaming Katja’s name.

Her reply was immediate. “Upstairs, Strejdo! We are packing. I’m so excited!”

“Excited?” Radek echoed. He thundered up the stairs and came to a halt on the landing.

Katja was kneeling on her bedroom floor, her little sleepover My Little Pony suitcase open beside her while she folded clothes very carefully. She looked up at him, beamed. “We are going on vacation, yes?”

“Vacation?” Radek stared at her, baffled.

“You didn’t tell me where you were going,” Evan said, and Radek spun around. “But it’s perfect timing, isn’t it? You two going on a special Uncle-Niece trip while the house gets fumigated.” He had one of Radek’s shirts in his hands, folding it absently. He met Radek’s gaze and held it.

“Perfect timing,” Radek said slowly. He started toward Evan. They needed to speak privately. His first thought was to go into Evan’s room, because it was where they always talked privately - but that was Evan’s turf.

Radek flashed Katja a smile. “Close the door. We do not want to ruin the surprise.”

“Okay!” Katja hopped up to obey quickly.

Radek yanked Evan into his bedroom and closed the door firmly. “What the hell is going on?”

“I can explain -”

“You were at the lab. You were in the clean room. The Athena Energy security team knew you.”

Evan set the folded shirt into Radek’s suitcase, which was open on his bed and half full. “Look, I’m not really a nanny.”

“Obviously.”

Evan reached into his back pocket, and Radek said, “Don’t you dare!”

Evan froze. “Hey. Easy. Not going for my gun.” He raised one hand in surrender. “Just going for my wallet.”

Radek fumbled for the nearest item that could possibly be used as a weapon - a curtain rod. “Slowly.”

“Slowly,” Evan agreed.

Radek’s heart was racing. Evan reached into his back pocket and drew out one of those little leather wallet things that Radek saw all the time on crime procedural TV shows. Evan flipped it open. Radek didn’t recognize the gold shield on the one side, nor did he recognize the acronym NID on the other, but he did recognize Evan’s picture on the ID.

“You’re a - a cop?”

“Agent Evan Lorne, National Intelligence Division,” he said.

“Never heard of it.”

“You’re not supposed to.”

“What are you doing here?”

“Investigating your sister’s death. And protecting you and Katja in the process.”

Radek sucked in a shaky breath. “But - what if I had not hired you? If I had hired one of the girls?”

“You wouldn’t have,” Evan said quietly. “None of them were what you wanted. We made sure of that.”

We. Evan wasn’t working alone. “What have you found out about Jitka’s death?”

“As you suspected, Athena Energy is responsible. Not sure which of the employees, or how. But you were right - she was close to uncovering the truth of the ZPM bomb.”

Radek’s head spun. “If you know all this, why has Jitka’s murderer not been arrested? Why is the ZPM bomb still being made?”

Evan looked away for a moment, then back at him. “Like I said, we don’t know who specifically killed your sister. And the ZPM bomb won’t be completed. You stole the ZPM, and we sabotaged the rest of the components.”

The colored crystal item in the case. It was called a ZPM.

Evan took a deep breath. “And - we needed you. Athena Energy was on to you, and they were watching you, and while they were watching you, they weren’t watching us.”

Bait. Evan and his team had used Radek as bait. Radek narrowed his eyes. “If Athena Energy was watching me, then surely they knew about you.”

Evan glanced away again. “A lot of people who work for Athena Energy are people I used to know - served with them, worked with them in one way or another. I convinced them I was freelancing and offered to spy on you for them.”

“Then you’re some kind of double agent?”

“Yes. It’s complicated.” Evan scrubbed a hand over his face.

“Why should I trust you?”

“Because I’ve always protected both of you,” Evan said.

Radek crossed his arms over his chest. “Then you seduced me as part of your mission?” Radek wasn’t averse to the occasional fun hook-up, but he’d never have slept with Evan if he hadn’t trusted him.

“No!” Evan shook his head vehemently. “No, my team doesn’t know about us. That’s why I always waited till we were in my room. No cameras there.”

“Cameras?” Radek demanded.

“Not in any of the bedrooms or bathroom, but everywhere else in the house, yes, security cameras and microphones,” Evan said. “So we could maintain security on the house.”

Radek’s world was tilting off its axis, and it was starting to spin again - in the wrong direction, at the wrong speed. “Was any of it true?”

“Any of what?”

“Anything you said about - about yourself and what you used to do and caring about Katja and -”

“All of it,” Evan said. “All of it is true. I really did grow up in California, my mom really is an art teacher, and I really was a surveyor for the Air Force. There’s - more, but it’s classified. And I do care about Katja. And you.”

“I don’t trust you.”

“I didn’t tell the security team about you for a reason,” Evan said. “I’m trying to protect you. Thanks to you, my team had the opening it needed to get into Athena Energy and do some damage, but now you’re in danger. You and Katja need to go somewhere for a few days, lay low.”

“Where?”

“I don’t know - and I don’t want to know. Leave your cell phones behind. Buy a cheap burner phone. Check in with me once a day, then get a new phone.”

“What are you going to do?”

“Make sure they don’t come after you.”

Radek still didn’t trust him. He studied Evan, for any hint of insincerity, but he didn’t see any. Of course, he’d thought Evan was sincere about being a nanny and wanting to help Katja. Whatever Evan said, Radek knew nothing about him at all, could not trust him.

But he could run. He just wouldn’t check in with Evan. While he was on the run, he could make a plan. He still had some contacts at Masaryk, had been offered fellowships at prestigious universities around the world. And he still had friends in Prague and Brno, people unrelated to the scientific community who remembered Radek from his childhood days, camping on the streets and sleeping in tents and teaching pigeons how to do tricks for money.

“All right,” Radek said. “We’ll go.”

“Thank you.”

“I’m not doing this for you,” Radek said.

Evan flinched, but then he nodded. “Do it for yourself - and Katja.” He went to pull open the door, then paused. “I’m sorry, Radek.”

“For what? Lying to me? Seducing me? Using me as bait? Saying you love me?”

“Not for saying I love you, because it’s true. But for everything else.” Evan pulled open the door and headed for his own room.

Katja stood on the landing, her suitcase all packed, her favorite stuffed My Little Pony tucked under one arm. “Hurry, Strejdo!”

“Come help me pack, and we will be faster,” Radek said. He didn’t want Katja to leave his side.

She nodded and hurried into his room. He resumed folding clothes, and he instructed Katja to fetch and carry things from the bathroom and the bedroom. He didn’t know what Evan was doing, and he didn’t care.

And then there was a sound of glass breaking.

Evan shouted, “Get down!”

Radek ducked.

Katja screamed.

There was an explosion - light, noise, smoke.

A bomb?

A flashbang grenade. Radek staggered to his feet, blinking, ears ringing, blinded. He could hear Katja’s screams, though they were faint. Evan was shouting. And then there was gunfire.

Hands closed around Radek’s shoulders. He wheeled around and lashed out.

Evan emerged from the smoke. “Go, go!” He thrust Radek’s suitcase at him, pushed him toward the stairs.

Katja was screaming and crying. Evan scooped her up with one arm, grabbed her little suitcase with the other, and ran down the stairs. Radek scrambled after him, didn’t dare leave Katja alone. Evan set Katja and her suitcase down in the kitchen, ordered Radek to go to the garage. He’d lay down cover fire so they could get into their car and go.

Radek stared at him, not comprehending.

“Go!” Evan shouted, pushing him.

Then he spun around and fired.

A black-clad figure collapsed in the kitchen doorway.

Katja screamed again.

Front hallway of Radek's house, front door open to a suburban street and Radek in the doorway with Katja under his right arm and her pink My Little Pony suitcase in his left hand. In foreground, Evan is crouched in front of the stairs facing to our right, both arms raised firing his gun, and we see a muzzle flash as he shoots at intruders.

Radek grabbed her and ran. He made straight for the car, never looking right or left. There was chaos and gunshots, black-clad figures all around. He tossed Katja and the suitcases into the back seat, climbed into the driver’s seat, and pulled away from the sidewalk.

He dared to glance in the rearview mirror just once and saw Evan crouching in the front doorway, pistol drawn, blood dripping down his face.

Radek drove.

He stopped at a gas station, cashed out as much of his account as he could at the ATM, filled the car, and drove. Drove and drove and drove. California was a good bet, a safe bet. Parts of LA had large Czech communities. People would help them. They could be safe.

Plus he still had the ZPM. He had a bargaining chip.

It would take time, but he could regroup, take another run at Athena Energy. He’d accessed a lot through Hendricks’s computer. He could access some more before they realized what he’d done. Everything would be fine.

Everything.

He didn’t let himself think of Evan, wonder how he was or if he’d survived.

There were other, more important things to focus on. Like surviving.

*

Disneyland. Radek could take Katja to Disneyland. She’d buy that as a road trip. California was a fairly long drive. They could lay low, stay at random motels. Katja would be distracted by the fun and excitement and not realize how things had gone so terribly wrong. She would be exhausted from all the activity, and Radek would have time to get in touch with his contacts, see about getting back to the Czech Republic.

But first he had to explain what had happened back at the house. Only Katja didn’t ask about it. She’d fallen asleep crying, but whenever Radek had spoken to her, she’d insisted she was fine. When she woke a few hours later, asked where they were going, what the plan was, when would they go home to Evan and Miko? And Radek - he lied. Disneyland, he said. Uncle-niece vacation. Katja nodded and smiled at him, though something in her gaze was distant, a little blank. Radek was terrified that she was permanently broken, but he was also grateful that she was being so calm.

Radek had never gone on a road trip in a car. Back home, it had all been buses and trains and hiking to get where he wanted to go with his friends. That the movie stereotypes about children on long car rides were accurate was a surprise to him. For Katja, the excitement wore off quickly. She repeatedly asked, Are we there yet? She had to stop to go to the bathroom all the time. She wanted junk food, but then she got car sick and threw up.

After four hours on the road, Radek pulled off at the cheapest motel he could find for the night. All Katja could manage was some crackers for supper. Radek had cheap fast-food tacos. He bought some dramamine for poor Katja, gave her some so she could sleep. She curled up on the couch, exhausted. Radek settled onto the lumpy, hard bed but was unable to sleep. He’d bought a burner phone just in case, but he wasn’t going to call Evan.

Radek still couldn’t sleep, so he poked around online using the burner phone and the motel wifi to plot a course to Disneyland, see how much tickets cost. And then he realized. He would have to check Katja out of school for an extended period of time. And - work. What would Miko think? He knew what he had to do. He’d call in to the school, have Katja excused for the rest of the week. He’d call Miko and tell her he was sick. Then he’d have to get a different burner phone.

Finally, after Radek had made a new email account and reached out to some old friends, he curled up and fell asleep.

Katja awakened him the next morning by bouncing on the bed and asking for breakfast. She hadn’t bathed the night before, so Radek made her take a quick shower before he took one himself, and then they checked out. Breakfast was some cheap pastries from a nearby convenience store before they were on the road once more.

Radek, in a fit of parental genius, purchased a portable DVD player and a collection of Disney films on DVD and made a comfortable nest of blankets and pillows in the back seat for Katja, so she could watch and entertain herself while Radek drove.

He kept his phone turned off while he drove, watched carefully all around him and in his mirrors to make sure no one was following him. Three lefts turns was the rule, wasn’t it? Someone who stuck with him through three left turns was most likely following him. Every time a car changed lanes with Radek, his heart started to pound, and he’d watch the car in the rearview mirror, palms sweating. Only the cars would inevitably change lanes again or exit or something, and Radek’s heartbeat would start to calm.

They had lunch at another convenience store, sat on the grass beside the building and enjoyed some sun. Afterward Radek drove down the street to a park and let Katja run around the playground. He kept an eye on her while she played on the swings. He used his old burner phone to call the school and get Katja excused for the rest of the week.

And then he called Miko.

“Radek! Where are you? Why are you not here?”

“Family emergency,” Radek said.

“Are you all right? What happened?”

“I am very sorry.”

“When will you be back?”

“I am not sure.”

“Do you need me to come over to help, or is Evan enough?”

Radek’s throat closed at the sound of Evan’s name. He swallowed hard. “I am fine.”

“If you’re sure -”

“I am. Thank you, Miko.

“All right. Give Katja my love.”

“I will. Thank you, Miko.” Radek almost said good-bye. Then he rose up and called to Katja; it was time to go. He headed for the nearest trash can and tossed the burner phone into it.

“Strejdo, why are you throwing it away?” Katja asked.

Radek looked an arm around her shoulders and squeezed her tightly for a moment. “It is what must be done.”

“How will we call Evan and Miko?”

“I will buy another. Now, let’s go - it is time.”

Katja gazed up at him with wide, solemn eyes, but she nodded and followed him to the car, and they continued driving. She didn’t ask if Evan was all right, didn’t ask if the house was all right, and Radek - he didn’t mention any of what had happened.

Dinner was at a diner, nicer food, and they shared a dessert. The pie wasn’t as good as the pie Evan made, but it was good, or so Katja said. That night, she was pliant and obedient, took a bath and curled up on the couch to sleep while Radek slept on the bed once more.

The next morning, he instructed her to stay in the room while he went to fetch breakfast, donuts and coffee for himself, hot cocoa for her. When he returned, she was obediently dressed and packed, and they set off. She watched more Disney cartoons, though she insisted he sing along with her to the songs he knew. Radek hadn’t realized he knew as many songs as he did, but he sang along anyway. Whenever he glanced in the mirror at her, she smiled back at him.

When she tired of movies, she poked her head up between the front seats, and Radek asked her what she would want to see in Disneyland, which princes and princesses, which lands and rides and adventures she’d want to experience, and she expounded at length all the things she wanted to do. Spin in the tea cups. Fly in the elephants. See Sleeping Beauty and Cinderella and Mulan. Her eyes were bright, fever-bright, and Radek didn’t know if she believed they were really going to Disneyland or if she was pretending everything was all right the way Radek was pretending he had any semblance of control over what was going on.

More than once, she asked about her school and his work, about Evan and Miko. Radek lied, said he’d called Evan while she was in the bathroom one time, and Evan said the house was fine, would be fine when they got back. He studied her carefully, waiting for any crack in her composure, for her to start speaking the madness that was the truth of their lives - grenades exploding in their home, bullets flying all around them.

Radek hadn’t cried. Hadn’t screamed. He was numb, he realized. Just like Katja.

And so they drove.

It all started to fall apart when they made it to the motel. Radek had bought a carry-out pizza for the two of them to share, and he’d agreed to watch a Disney DVD with Katja, so they sat next to each other on the bed and started watching Tarzan, and partway through, Katja burst into tears.

She launched herself into Radek’s lap and clung to him, sobbing, whimpering Evan’s name over and over again. Radek held her tightly and did his best to fight back his own tears, but their world had fallen down around them, and he didn’t know how to get it back.

They fell asleep curled around each other, the two of them against the world.

*

A hand closed over Radek’s mouth. His eyes flew open, and he thrashed. From across the room, he heard a muffled scream. Katja.

“She’s a feisty one,” a man muttered.

“Hurry it up,” another man said.

Radek tried to sit up, up dozens of hands pushed him down. He opened his mouth to cry out, and he gagged when a rag was jammed down his throat. Someone yanked a black bag over his head, and then he felt tightness at his wrists and ankles. He’d been bound. His head spun when he was heaved off the bed, and all the air was driven out of his lungs when a shoulder jammed into his diaphragm. He was being carried. He struggled, but the hands on him were firm, unrelenting, and then his world spun some more and he landed painfully on his side. He heard the rumble of a sliding door, heard it shut, and then an engine purred to life.

“Let’s go, let’s go!”

Radek heard muffled sobs. Katja.

“I hate it when kids cry,” one of their captors said.

There was a huff, the scuffle of a boot. “Leave her be. She’ll cry herself out, fall back to sleep.”

“Good thing she was homesick,” one of the men said. They were speaking too softly for Radek to really hear their voices. He wasn’t sure he’d be able to recognize them later. “Wouldn’t have found her if she hadn’t called that lady scientist.”

“Landlines. So much easier to trace than cellular signals.”

No. Katja. She’d called Miko. When? How?

When Radek had left her alone, when he’d gone to get breakfast. He’d been too trusting of Katja’s unnatural calm and cheer. She was terrified. She wanted to go home.

“As soon as we unload these two, we can get our money and go on our way.”

The toe of a boot dug itself into Radek’s ribs.

“As long as they behave, they won’t get hurt.”

Radek didn’t make a sound. He hung his head, too tired and defeated to even cry. He’d failed his sister and her daughter. They would be tortured and most likely killed. If only he’d trusted Evan. Evan would have rescued them if he’d known where they were. Surely he would have.

Eventually Radek fell back to sleep, heavy and sick with guilt.

When he woke, he was handcuffed to a pipe against a wall in a wide cement room. Some kind of warehouse, perhaps? The handcuffs were fastened such that he could stand if he needed, and the chair was padded, comfortable. He cast about and saw Katja on the other side of the room, handcuffed to a different pipe and asleep on a giant bean bag.

The room had no windows, and suit-clad guards stood at either door.

Radek rattled his handcuffs. “Where are we? What’s going on?”

Neither guard responded; it was like Radek wasn’t even there.

He rattled his handcuffs louder. “Hey! What is going on?”

One of the doors swung open, and the guard stepped aside.

Radek’s heart seized up when he saw it was Evan striding into the room. He was also wearing a dark suit, but unlike the guards, who looked like cheap thugs, Evan looked elegant, better than he had the night of their celebration dinner. He polished and poised - and dangerous.

Katja had woken at Radek’s commotion, and her eyes went wide.

“Evan!”

Then she saw that she was handcuffed to the pipe and she started to struggle and cry.

“Evan, Evan help me!”

Evan crossed the room slowly, knelt beside her. He reached out and stroked her hair, shushed her gently.

Radek’s skin crawled. “Don’t you touch her, you traitor!”

“It’s all right, Katja,” Evan said. “Everything will be fine. As long as Uncle Radek does what he’s supposed to, no one will get hurt.”

“Evan, what’s going on? Let me go!”

“Not yet.” Evan’s voice was maddeningly gentle.

Radek’s heart thundered in his ears. “I said don’t touch her!”

Katja kept crying.

Evan straightened up and turned to him, frowning. “Come now, Radek, you’re scaring her. And she has no reason to be afraid.”

Radek spat an epithet at him in Czech.

Evan clicked his tongue disapprovingly. “I don’t think you should be using that kind of language in front of your sweet little niece. But please, do keep talking. We have a lot to talk about.” He lifted his chin at one of the guards. “Bring him up to the office. I have to prepare.” He straightened up, spun on his heel, and walked away.

One of the guards peeled away from the door and came toward Radek. Katja began to scream. The other guard was completely unmoved by the noise. Radek slid to his feet, readying himself to run, but the guard locked a hand around his wrist, uncuffed him from the pipe, and dragged him out of the room.

Radek and Katja were indeed being held in a warehouse. The guard hauled Radek up some steel steps without risers to an office with a large window. He could see Evan standing at the desk, one hand in his pocket, sipping from a glass of water or possibly a tumbler of vodka, his expression brooding.

The guard deposited Radek in a chair opposite the desk, cuffed him to it, then secured his feet to it with a couple of flex cuffs.

Radek stared at Evan, fury and betrayal and terror clawing their way up his throat.

The door opened again, and Radek turned, craned his neck. He recognized the man in the dark suit only vaguely as one of the Athena Energy security officers who’d almost caught him in the clean room a few days ago. Had it really been only a few days ago?

“Honestly, Lorne, the kid’s still screaming.”

Evan shrugged, sipped from his glass some more. His gaze was cold and indifferent, unlike Radek had ever known it. “She’ll wear herself out. Or lose her voice. Whichever comes first. We’ll deal with her later.”

The security officer slouched against the door, hands in his pockets. “That’s cold, bro. Kidnapping 101. Keep the kids quiet and happy.”

Evan chuckled. “I keep forgetting you never served on an actual gate team.”

“I’ve been through the gate -”

“On tech raids,” Evan said mildly. “But I don’t think you appreciate that I spent most of military career engaged in systematic genocide - of more than one race, too. One little girl isn’t much in the grand scheme of things.”

Rage and horror curled in Radek’s stomach. He’d loved Evan, trusted him, trusted him with Katja.

“You monster -” Radek snarled.

“Shut up,” Evan said mildly. “Not your turn to talk. Not yet.” He drained his drink and set the glass aside. “So, do you want to do the honors? Or do you get a little squeamish?”

The other man snorted. “Me? Squeamish? Please. I killed this guy’s sister. If I need to take a little longer with him, I can. Don’t let all that time on a gate team go to your head, Lorne.”

I killed this guy’s sister. The words rattled in Radek’s skull, his entire body going numb.

“That was you?” Evan asked, his tone utterly casual, but his voice was distant, faded. “Do tell.”

“Pretty simple. Cased the house. Waited till she was alone. Broke her neck. Basic Marine hand-to-hand skill. Messed up the house so it looked like a robbery.”

“Keeping it simple is good,” Evan said.

Radek wanted to hate him, but this was it. The truth. He’d found Jitka’s killer. Even had a confession. And now he was going to die.

“So, what do you think? Knives, fire, pliers?” The security officer shrugged off his jacket and tossed it over a nearby chair.

Evan clicked his tongue disapprovingly. “You know you attract more flies with honey than with vinegar.” He stepped around the desk and knelt down in front of Radek, gazed up into his eyes, expression solemn and almost - longing. He reached into his jacket, and Radek flinched back, his heart thumping.

“Hey,” Evan said gently, “not going to hurt you.” He drew what looked like a military-issue knife and used it to cut the flex cuffs binding Radek’s ankles to the chair.

“I don’t believe you,” Radek spat.

Evan pocketed the knife and unlocked Radek’s cuffs with a small, shining key. He curled a hand around Radek’s elbow and helped him to his feet. “Come on now, Radek. This doesn’t have to be hard, and it doesn’t have to be painful. I can make it nice. You remember how nice I can be?”

Radek shuddered in revulsion. “Don’t touch me.”

Evan glanced over Radek’s shoulder at the security officer. “You afraid of a little honey, Marine?”

The security officer laughed. “Damn, but you’re cold.”

Before Radek could protest, Evan yanked him into a brutal kiss. Radek struggled, but Evan was strong, stronger than Radek had ever realized. Radek tried to break away, but Evan’s arms around him were immovable. Radek grabbed at him, tried to get enough leverage to push him away, but Evan locked an arm around his waist and stole his breath.

In the background, the security officer was laughing.

Radek scrabbled for purchase on Evan’s clothes, and then he felt it. In the small of Evan’s back. His pistol.

But Evan didn’t react, kept on kissing him. Then he pulled back and whispered, ever so softly in Czech, “I’m with you.”

Evan leaned in and kissed him again, and Radek took the chance to carefully, carefully slide the gun out of its holster. He hid it between their bodies, and then Evan drew back again.

“Now, Dr. Zelenka,” Evan said, his voice cool and dispassionate again, “are you going to tell us what we want to know?”

Radek swallowed and said, “Yes.”

“Good.” Evan put a hand on Radek’s shoulder and pushed him back down into the chair, knelt in front of him.

Radek felt a hand on his ankle and tensed. Was Evan going to cuff him again? But then he saw Evan was reaching for a gun at his ankle.

Evan said, “First question: how did your sister find out about the bomb?”

“I don’t know.” Radek took a deep breath, still shaking.

“Am I going to have to honey it out of you some more?” Evan asked.

“No,” Radek said. “Jitka never told me how she found out about the bomb, and I couldn’t figure it out from her notes.”

Evan sighed. “Dr. Zelenka, I’m trying to be nice, but if you’re not going to cooperate, we’re going to have to try some vinegar instead. And vinegar stings.” He lifted his chin.

Radek heard the other man start toward him, and he tensed.

Evan rose to his feet smoothly, raised his gun, and fired.

Radek’s ears rang, but he still heard the thump of a body falling to the ground.

“Come on.” Evan yanked Radek to his feet, tugged Radek behind him, and headed for the door. “We have to go.”

“Go where?”

“Get Katja and get out of here,” Evan said.

“But -” Radek glanced back and saw the security officer on the floor, unmoving.

“No time. People heard that shot. We don’t have a lot of time. You remember how to shoot?”

“Front sight, trigger press, follow through,” Radek recited dutifully.

“Good. Stay close to me, stay behind me, don’t shoot unless I tell you.” Evan squeezed Radek’s wrist gently. “Do you trust me?”

“I - I don’t know.”

“I’m sorry,” Evan said softly. He cracked the door open, peered. “Let’s go.”

What followed was a blur. They ran down the stairs, ducking and weaving behind piles of pallets and boxes. For some reason they made a strange circuit around to a door, and then Evan told Radek to wait, pressed him against the wall beside the door.

And he pushed it open.

Radek heard Katja crying.

Evan stepped into the room. “Katja, close your eyes and cover your ears.”

“Why?” she sobbed.

“Just do it!”

There were more sobs and hiccups.

“Lorne?” a man asked.

Radek heard two shots. Gunshots were so loud, much louder than on television. His ears rang even more, but then Evan was tugging on his wrist, heading into the room, gun raised. He handed Radek the same silver key he’d used to uncuff him.

“Go, get Katja. I’ll watch the door.”

Katja was curled up against the wall, her hands over her ears, eyes squeezed shut, rocking back and forth. Radek knelt, uncuffed her, scooped her up into his arms. She struggled for a moment, but when she opened her eyes and saw him, she clung to him and buried her face in his neck, sobbing still.

“Let’s go.” Evan beckoned, and he led Radek through the building, ducking and weaving, keeping to the shadows and walls. They were getting closer and closer to the back of the warehouse, some kind of alternate entrance.

Evan paused, cracked the door open, looked around. “Clear. Take Katja and run across the parking lot. There’s a car there. It’s filled and ready to go. Keys are in the tailpipe. Take it.”

“What about you?” Radek asked.

“Indeed,” a woman said, “what about you, Agent Lorne?”

Radek spun, saw a blonde woman in a stylish gray dress suit standing with one hand outstretched. She wore some kind of strange gold gauntlet.

Evan wrenched open the door and shoved Radek through it. He stumbled. Katja cried out. Radek righted himself and saw Evan collapse like a marionette with its strings cut. The woman stepped closer to him, and he arched his back. Screamed.

Katja screamed.

Radek was jolted back to his senses. He ran. Gunfire exploded behind him, but he didn’t dare look back. He dashed across the parking lot holding Katja so tightly she squeaked. A dark, ordinary-looking sedan was the only vehicle on the far side of the parking lot. Radek fumbled at the tailpipe, found the keys, unlocked the car. He shoved Katja into the back seat, threw himself into the driver’s seat. He had done this before. This was nightmarishly familiar.

He drove. To the only place he could think of. The police station. He’d recognized where he was in the city as soon as he was a few blocks away from the warehouse. He parked illegally on the street out front of the police station, scooped up Katja, and barreled through the front doors.

He marched up to the desk.

The sergeant on duty was a young woman. “How can I help you?”

“I need to speak to Detective Barton. Immediately.”

“Regarding?”

“Regarding my sister’s murder and the fact that I have just escaped from some kidnappers.”

The woman blinked at him. “Come again?”

“Also,” Radek said, “I believe I need to speak to someone from the NID.”

Another woman cleared her throat. Radek turned, and there she was, Belus’s lady friend, the woman he had seen with Evan.

She held up a black leather wallet just like the one Evan had showed him. “Agent Laura Cadman, NID. We need to talk, Dr. Zelenka.”

Radek nodded. “Yes. Immediately.”

Katja lifted her head. “Can I have some hot chocolate?”

*

Two months later.

“That’s so insane,” Miko said. She and Radek were walking through downtown Colorado Springs after a long day of depositions in front of a series of federal prosecutors and high-priced defense lawyers. “All this time, you were being your own James Bond, and Evan was some kind of super-spy. That explains why he was in such good shape.”

Radek shrugged and lapped at his ice cream. Katja was staying with a friend while he and Miko were out of town. Miko had been hanging out a lot more now that the mystery of Jitka’s murder was solved. She’d been a godsend in helping out with Katja, teaching Radek to do all the things Evan had learned how to do to keep the household running.

“I still don’t understand why they want me to testify about anything. All I did was my job.” Miko shrugged delicately and nibbled at her ice cream cone.

Radek sighed. “I am so sorry. I did not tell you because I wished to protect you.”

“I know. I mean, because I’m totally your BFF they might have targeted me anyway, no matter what I know, and I was a national judo champion at the university level before I came to America, but -”

Radek slung an arm around her shoulders and reeled her in for a hug, careful not to smash her ice cream cone. “I am sorry, Miko. And I am grateful for all you have done and still do for me and Katja.”

“I know, Radek.” Miko kissed him on the cheek and stepped back. “I must say, though, your idea for mirror particle turbines was genius. Clearly you should be in mortal peril more often, if that’s the kind of science you come up with to save your life.”

Athena Energy was officially out of business, and somehow Elizabeth and her army of lawyers had arranged it so that Miko and Radek’s research could be brought back to Vulcan Labs and they could continue it undisturbed. Radek didn’t know how deep the corruption at Athena Energy had been, but he had seen both Belus and Jadin being led away in handcuffs when he and Miko had gone to the lab to pack up their work gear.

Hendricks had been blissfully unaware of what was going on at the company and picked up a post at another lab, where he was back in the trenches doing research and what he loved. He sent Radek emails sometimes, reminiscing about their conversations and the treats Radek had shared.

“The next time I’m in mortal peril,” Radek said, “I will let you know, and you can think up something brilliant.”

“I will.” Miko finished off her ice cream cone and dusted the crumbs off her fingers. They were walking back to the hotel after dinner out. She paused, and Radek paused beside her.

“What is it?”

“That mural.” She pointed. “It’s beautiful.”

On the side of a red brick building that housed some kind of gourmet sandwich deli was indeed a mural. Radek studied it. He didn’t appreciate art the way Miko did, wasn’t much a fan of modern abstract art.

But then he realized it wasn’t abstract, not really. What at first looked like a riot of colors and shapes was, instead, a flock of birds, some standing, some spreading their wings, some taking off, some soaring through the air. Interspersed with feathers and wings were flowers. Hundreds of different flowers, all colors and shapes and sizes.

The image reminded him of Evan. Of standing beside him on the roof and watching the pigeons fly. Of the bright flowers he’d fasten into Katja’s hair.

Somehow, some way, just about everything in Radek’s life circled back to Evan. When he made breakfast in the morning, or when he did Katja’s hair, or when he pinned her homework to the homework calendar, or made supper at night. For all that Evan had lied to him and betrayed him, he’d been good for Katja, and she missed him, didn’t understand why Radek never talked about him. Radek hadn’t had the heart to change most of Evan’s routines in the home for Katja, because they worked, and why reinvent the wheel?

Every time Radek had asked about Evan, no one would tell him a thing. The last he’d seen of Evan was at the warehouse, when the woman had Evan down on the ground and he was helpless. At the time, all Radek could focus on was getting away and protecting Katja. And now he wondered. Was Evan all right? Had he survived the woman and her strange weapon?

“Yes,” he said, “it’s beautiful.”

And then Miko said, “Oh,” soft and shocked.

Radek frowned. “What’s wrong?”

Miko pointed.

And Radek saw. The mural was unfinished, and there was a folded-down metal scaffold at one corner of it. Standing beside the scaffold in paint-stained gray overalls was a familiar figure. Radek would know those shoulders, that soft dark hair anywhere.

Evan had a paintbrush tucked behind one ear and his arms full of cans of spray paint.

“Is it really him?” Miko asked.

“Yes.”

“Are you going to go talk to him?”

“I don’t know. What would I say?”

“Glad you’re not dead?”

Radek squinted at the painter, but there was no denying it, it really was Evan.

Miko said, “Do you want me to hold your ice cream?”

Radek shot her look. But then he sighed, wolfed down the last of his ice cream cone, wiped his hands on his thighs, and started across the street. He cleared his throat and called out. “Agent Lorne!”

Evan spun around, eyes wide. His hand twitched and he was holding a knife, but then he recognized Radek, relaxed fractionally. Radek checked both ways before he trotted across the street. He hovered beside the wall Evan was painting.

“Dr. Zelenka,” Evan said cautiously. “It’s not Agent, not anymore. I’m just Evan, these days. Uncle Evan, on the days I’m lucky.”

Katja still asked about Evan. She’d taken Agent Cadman’s surprisingly patient and adept explanation that Evan was a super spy whose job had been to take care of her and protect her Strejda, and he cared about her very much but there were other people he had to protect.

“Not an agent anymore?” Radek asked. Agent Cadman hadn’t said anything about that.

“As it turns out, falling in love with a civilian who’s an integral part of a mission is the kind of thing that’ll get an agent fired.” Evan flicked his wrist, and the knife vanished up his sleeve.

Radek swallowed hard. “Falling in love?”

“Well, not falling in love per se. But the kissing and sleeping with the person you’ve fallen in love with - that’ll get you fired right quick.” Shadows descended in Evan’s gaze for a moment, but then he shook himself out. “That’s neither here nor there, though. What brings you to the Springs?”

“Miko and I are being deposed by prosecutors.” Radek pointed over his shoulder to where Miko was waiting.

She waved.

Evan waved back tentatively. “I see.”

“What about you?” Radek asked. “Will you testify?”

“They’ve debriefed me six ways from Sunday,” Evan said. “If they need me on the stand, I’ll go, but - I messed up pretty bad. I’m sorry.”

“Sorry for what?”

“For lying to you, for breaking your trust, for royally screwing up this case, for being too weak to protect you like you deserved.” Evan shrugged. “Take your pick.”

“It will take time,” Radek said, “before I can forgive you. But - I am glad you’re all right.”

“All right?” Evan echoed, puzzled.

“The last time I saw you, you were on the ground while that woman attacked you. With her golden gauntlet.”

Evan flinched at the mention of the golden gauntlet, and Radek winced as well. After his initial debriefing with Agent Cadman, he’d had to sign a massive nondisclosure agreement. He wasn’t allowed to speak about what had happened at the warehouse or what he’d observed and overheard there. His neighbors were told that the commotion at his house had been a gas leak. Elizabeth, Ambrose, Hewston, and the rest of the staff and personnel at Vulcan Labs had been told that Miko and Radek had been unfortunate victims of some kind of corporate scheme perpetrated by Athena Energy, and their research was being protected.

“I’m fine.” Evan shrugged. “Not my first rodeo with her kind or that type of weapon. Been through worse.” He cleared his throat. “How is Katja?”

“She’s good. She is well. She misses you. Miko helps out a lot, though.”

“I’m glad. I miss her too.” Evan jammed his hands into his pockets, glanced away.

Radek tipped his head back. Up close, he appreciated better the scale of Evan’s work, his ability to see outside his own immediate perspective to make the image coherent on the large scale even if it seemed utterly nonsensical up close. “Your work is beautiful.”

“Thanks. I always wanted to be an artist. Now I have the chance, starvation and all.”

Radek looked at him sharply.

“Just kidding,” Evan said quickly. “How’s the mirror turbine project coming along?”

“We have a long way to go to make the technology viable on a large scale,” Radek said, “but Miko and I have found much success.”

“I’m glad.” Evan glanced down at his watch. “I’d better get back to it. Won’t have the light I need much longer. It was good to see you, Radek. Give Katja my best.” He started to turn away.

Something in Radek’s chest wrenched. “Wait.”

Evan paused.

“Did you mean it?”

“Mean what?”

“Are you really in love with me?”

“Yeah, I am.”

Radek took a deep breath. “Why?”

Evan huffed. “Why not? You’re smart and handsome and caring. So good with Katja. And - you’ve always been nice to me. Not that most people aren’t nice to me, but -” He shrugged.

“How do you know you really love me because of all that and not because of how - tense things were? Like in action movies, when the spy kisses the girl. We all know in real life they never would have been together.” Radek crossed his arms over his chest, feeling defensive and not sure why.

Evan considered for a moment. “Well, what we had together was closer to real life than I’ve ever had it. I hitched up with the Air Force when I was eighteen. For a few years it was school and training, but then it was - well. I don’t know if you have clearance for that.”

“I signed a non-disclosure agreement.”

“It was war,” Evan said. “I was on the frontlines of an endless war. Every time we defeated our enemy, a new one rose in their place, and old ones came back, and the fighting never stopped. With you and Katja - I had a family. I could stop fighting. I could stand still.”

“But you were still fighting that war, just not as a soldier.”

Evan’s eyes closed for a moment. Then he caught Radek’s gaze and held it. “I was, but - not all the time. Not when Katja and I were coloring together in the den, or you and I were together in my room. Those moments - they were real. And they were the best.”

“Were they real?”

“They sure as hell weren’t for the job. As you can see.” Evan gestured to himself, his paint-spattered overalls. His hair was longer, softer, didn’t look quite so military.

“You were under orders to be Katja’s nanny.”

“Yes, I was. To make sure she was fed and clothed and taken to and from school on time. I also had standing orders to keep it professional. You met some of my teammates, I’m sure - Laura and Ford, Bates and Kennedy. Do you think any of them would have braided Katja’s hair or done her makeup or anything else?”

Radek considered. “True. But perhaps they picked you to be the nanny because you could do what no one else could.”

“No. Laura picked me because I’m not close with my own family - I wouldn’t be missed for months on end. The others - they could go home after their surveillance shifts. But me - no matter.”

“But - you said for your niece -”

“I learned how to braid her hair, yes, and these days I’m lucky, they’ll call me, my family being glad now that I’m finally done working for The Man altogether, but it’s not like what I had with Katja.”

“Is that the only reason she picked you?” Radek couldn’t imagine being picked for a job not because he was skilled but because he was alone.

Evan shrugged. “No. I mean, it’s not that uncommon to be picked for a job or mission due to family circumstances. Guys with no families are more likely to get picked for a suicide mission than the guy with seven kids to leave behind.”

“That sounds miserable.”

“That’s the way it works. I don’t mind it. I understand the rationale behind it. But Laura also picked me because -” He cleared his throat and said in fluent Czech, “ Because of this.”

Radek stared at him. “You speak Czech.”

“Yeah, my grandma - she’s a first-generation immigrant. From Brno. She made sure my mother, sister, and I all spoke the language. Taught me how to make kolaches. The whole nine yards.” Evan ducked his head.

“Then this whole time - you could understand me and Katja - you could read Jitka’s recipe books -”

“And I could read her notes, once I found them.”

Radek burst out in a flurry of curses.

Evan looked torn between amusement and embarrassment.

Radek dragged a hand through his hair. “Of course, but you understood every word of that.”

“I did.”

Radek prowled closer to him. “Is this the truth? How much do you really understand? Do you know how much I missed you, how much you hurt me when you lied and lied again? When I didn’t know if you were all right and I never saw you again?”

Evan reached out, curled a hand around his wrist. “It is the truth, and I’m sorry. I will spend the rest of my life doing whatever you wish to make it up to you.”

“And if I wish for you to come back to me and Katja, be part of our family again?”

Evan kissed him.

Radek kissed him back.

Across the street, Miko cheered.

Radek pulled back, murmured against Evan’s lips, “Come home.”

“Always.”

“Be with me forever.”

“I’m with you.”