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A Safe Place

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Once the plane reached cruising altitude and Havana was behind them, Zoya began to relax in the pilot seat. In the back of the plane, Tiger found a small first aid kit and set to work tending to his bullet wound as best he could. Zoya let her eyes take in the blue expanse of the sea below as she tried to focus on her breathing. They would be safe now. She had to believe that.

Neither of them spoke as they allowed the plane's droning hum to crowd out their thoughts. The only other sound was Tiger's sharp intake of breath as he cleaned his wound. When the wound was as good as it was going to be, he began to search the plane. He was grateful when he found a small case of water bottles in one of the compartments. Grabbing two of them, he moved up to the co pilot seat, twisted the cap off of the first one and handed it to Zoya. She took it and sipped slowly. Her adrenaline was wearing away quickly. Tiger gulped down his own bottle and then insisted that he take a turn flying so she could rest.

As they switched places Zoya touched his arm and placed her other hand over her stomach. "I'm worried." she said. He looked at her, his eyes intense but helpless. He couldn't stand her fear but there was nothing he could do. During the last day and a half, he had forbid himself from thinking about their unborn child. They had to get away, together. They could never grieve or rejoice together if they didn't. After everything she'd been through, all that she'd done to flee their former colleagues, Tiger knew Zoya's worry was founded. He gently pressed his forehead to hers and spoke only the truth.

"Whatever happens, we're together." He said.

Zoya took a deep breath and released a shuddering exhale. "Ok" She whispered.

"Hm?" he intoned, waiting for her eye contact.

She separated from him and nodded, trying to smile. Despite the strength with which she looked at him, his stomach churned at the fear in her eyes. He placed his hand on her cheek, offered her a weak smile and let her go.

. . . . . . . . . .

It had been six months since they disappeared to Cuba and gotten married. Six months since Zoya learned Tiger's real name, and six months since they both could breath free for the first time together.

The morning was peaceful and rainy when Zoya put on some shoes, a light rain coat, and slipped out of the apartment. She took a short walk to the first open store she could find and returned home with a pregnancy test. Tiger was still sleeping when she snuck back in and went straight to the bathroom. That week she had been suspecting that she might be pregnant and now felt sure that she was. Zoya wanted to be completely certain when she shared the good news with her husband.

It read positive.

Stepping from the bathroom she could not supress the smile on her face. She moved across the room quietly, careful not to disturb Tiger who continued snoring contentedly. With barely a sound she drew open the curtains. The windows were already open, letting the damp breeze brush lightly into the room. The night before, the two of them had fallen asleep listening to the pouring rain like a lullaby. It was still raining when Zoya had woken up, feeling a little ill. The sweet smell and damp air felt so good and now her stomach was finally settling down. She stood in the doorway to the balcony and just breathed it all in. She was so happy that her smile felt permanent. They really were free of their past, living this new life she had truly believed they couldn't have. But she let herself trust what little faith Tiger had, and with just that small hope, they plotted a course and escaped Istanbul together. On that cloudy, wet Havana morning it all became so real. She was a mother, he was a father and their tiny child was a little secret, sleeping safely, hidden within her.

Zoya laughed at the thought. Immediately she turned around to see if she'd woken Tiger. His large form shifted under the covers, briefly interrupting his snoring. She almost laughed again as it began once more with increased intensity.

.

Tiger was overjoyed when Zoya told him. The following month they spent together was perfect. They were so happy. He made Zoya laugh constantly with his over protectiveness and his excitement about her pregnancy. She loved to talk about names for the baby and he loved to listen. They decided on a name for a little girl long before they even discussed a boy's name. Zoya suggested Sonrisa (smile) one evening as they sat together watching the waves roll in one after another.

"Sonrisa?" Tiger asked her.

"It means smile."

"In spanish?"

She nodded. "Do you like it?"

"I love it. In fact," he said as he put his arm around her, "now I even hope it's a girl."

Zoya smiled and laid her head against his shoulder.

Among a thousand other things about her, Tiger loved that she spoke spanish. It wasn't just that it made life in Cuba that much simpler, but her intelligence was so attractive to him, and that knowledge that he didn't share added to her mystery. He was so in love with her. Coming to Havana had been her idea and she liked to joke that she could pass as a native speaker, and he the big silent bodyguard in tow. Once in a while he would play the part and she would just laugh. Her laugh was something he loved most. He had seen her grave expression for the first time in Dublin and too many times Istanbul. That was more than enough.

Everything was beautiful, until the night the they were attacked. Even after they disappeared again together, it took months for Zoya to stop wishing she had just let them take the purse. Had she just let go they would still be in Cuban. Had she just let go...

A man was dead, and Tiger knew he'd overreacted. When he saw the man's knife draw blood on Zoya's neck, he lost it. He'd waited too long for happiness, and too long for Zoya. She was too precious. Their child was too precious. He had snapped, broke the thief's neck, and they ran.

Tiger didn't know why he and Zoya didn't immediately leave Cuba. The thought of leaving must have been too painful to even consider. They finally had each other and finally had lives, lives that belonged to them. Havana was full of a happiness neither of them ever imagined was possible. So they somehow, with uncharacteristic foolishness, let themselves believe the incident would just go away. Both of them knew better, but what was done was done.

A few days later, it came back to haunt them.

The boxing match had been Tiger's choice that day. They were having such a good time, until his smile disappeared and he spoke to her in a low voice. All the ease and joy from the last seven months vanished in the space of one small sentence.

"We're being watched."

Those were the worst words she could have heard.

Their apartment, his paintings, her ballet class, the whole life they had made was left behind in an instant.

. . . . . . . .

Tiger landed the plane in a secluded place southwest of Cancun. He and Zoya abandoned it quickly and moved at a run toward the nearest highway they'd seen from the sky. They managed to hitch multiple rides, making their way down to the border with Belize. It wasn't until very late that night that they paid for a room at a small inn on the Mexican side. It was one of three rooms in the back of a smokey bar. An older woman led them and down a dim hall, opened a door and handed over the key. Once she left, the couple looked around. There was one small bed and a table with a lamp. It would do. There was a toilet down the hall, and a basin and simple shower outside behind the building. Tiger stayed close by while Zoya bathed under the cover of night. She was so exhausted and it took a surprising amount of effort simply to shower. He went with her back to the room and watched her get settled into bed. Then, he locked the door behind him and went back out to wash the dirt and blood off of himself.

Zoya was fast asleep when he returned to the room. Before switching off the light, he took a few moments just to look at his wife. Her face was so peaceful. If not for the few scratches across her cheeks and forehead, no one would ever know she'd spent the last two days running for her life. He leaned down to kiss her cheek before reaching to turn out the light. The bed was not big enough for both of them so Tiger made himself as comfortable as he could on the concrete floor. He was happy he brought the blanket he found stored in the plane. It made a serviceable pillow once he bunched it up. Despite the less than ideal sleeping conditions, he was asleep within a few moments.

Zoya started cramping early the next morning. Tiger woke up in the pre dawn to the sound of her labored breath.

"Zoya." He said, quickly getting to his knees to check on her.

"Abhi nahin, Tiger!" She said through gritted teeth. She was curled up on her side, her back to him.

He had never known such helplessness. He knew what was happening, knew how it was hurting her, but there was nothing he could do for her. Not one thing. Touching her wouldn't help, and speaking wouldn't help. So he lay back down, squeezed his eyes shut, and just listened to her breathe. Her silence was too loud. It overwhelmed him. He forced himself to make no sound but, as he lay there on the floor in the dark, tears brimmed and spilled freely down his cheeks.

.

It took them two weeks to make their way down to Buenos Aires. Thankfully they had managed to withdraw at least some of Tiger's retirement money before leaving Cuba. Upon their arrival they bought new clothes, a few other necessities, and got a comfortable hotel room on a beautiful little street. They looked the part of tourist couple. For the first few days they slept in, just trying to recover from everything. Zoya cried a lot in the evenings while her husband held her close. She drew on what little strength he had. There was too much to do and she knew she could not afford to fall into an all out depression. During the day, instead of sight seeing, they made underground contacts and had new passports prepared. They arranged for travel and found a doctor for Zoya. Although she knew better, she did not want to go. Tiger went with her and did not let go of her hand.

After a thorough examine, the doctor informed them that Zoya needed some time to recover before the couple continued on their "tour of South America". So they stayed a couple extra weeks, switching hotels and neighborhoods every few days. It was difficult, but they made an effort to enjoy the free time left to them. Zoya still needed a lot of rest, and her sadness hung like heavy dark clouds. Tiger fought hard to keep himself together for her sake. They stayed close to one another and tried to accept the emptiness. There were very few words worth saying. Each of them blamed themselves for everything that had happened.

He did eventually lose his composure in front of Zoya. He hadn't intended to and he tried to stop it, but failed. It was on a day they had gone out to the beach and sat together in the sand well into the evening. The beach was mostly empty and no one was around them when Avinash leaned down, placing his head against Zoya's abdomen. He closed his eyes as he felt her fingers weave into his hair.

"Maaf kijiye." She said quietly.

All at once a sob erupted out of him. "Nahin! You've done nothing wrong." Tears began streaming from his eyes as he stayed close to her, hiding his face. Avinash did not put his arms around her, but drew them in toward his chest. He wanted to beg her not to blame herself. He wanted her to scream at him, hit him. He wanted to comfort her and apologize for his tears, and for everything, but he could not.

One of her hands moved to rub gentle circles on his back. "Avinash," she said, using his given name. "It's alright to cry. You've let me cry for days."

He breathed in harshly, trying to stop the sobs. But they just kept coming and he let her comfort him.

It was very late when he finally got to his feet and wiped the remaining tears from his eyes. He brushed the sand from his pant legs and reached a hand out to Zoya. She took it, letting him pull her to her feet. Zoya kissed his cheek and led him by the hand from the beach. They held each other closely as they walked back to their hotel. In three days they would be across the ocean in Cape Town. They would leave Argentina ready to begin healing together.

.

It took almost an entire year for them to stop looking over their shoulder. Neither of them were ready to begin a new life again, so they remained constantly on the move, visiting many places. They really did become tourists. It was a wonderful experience, but what they hoped for was what they had left in Cuba; a home, a future. They saw so many cities together and tried so many new things, distracting themselves from their grief and their fear. They had each other, and tried to remind themselves that they had never asked for more than that. However, no matter how wonderful it was just to be together, it was impossible to forget that more had been in their grasp. Slowly, Zoya and Avinash did begin to reach out for it again, believing, if only tentatively, that it could be theirs.

They were staying in Greece, enjoying time on the Aegean sea, when Zoya discovered she was pregnant for the second time. That time, she told him her suspicion. That time he waited outside the bathroom door for her to find out. That time, Tiger did not lift her up into a joyous hug but instead embraced her gently, fearfully. Both of them were terrified, so afraid history would repeat itself, but they had not given up on a life together, a family, or happiness.

The next day Tiger purchased a sensible car. Settling in one place would be the best option for Zoya's pregnancy and they decided they really had to hide this time. By the end of the week the couple said goodbye to Greece and traveled up into Albania. At every place they explored, Tiger deferred to Zoya. It would be her choice. In the north part of the country, not far from the small city of Lezhe, they found themselves in a rocky little place called Troshan. It was a beautiful, nestled up against the mountains. Zoya liked how quiet it was and felt safe there. Together they decided to stay at least until their child was born. They drove back to Lezhe, found a simple hotel, and returned to Troshan the next day to find a place to live. Over the previous year, Avinash had managed to acquire the rest of his retirement money so that he and Zoya could afford to live comfortably.

The people they met were poor, but welcoming of the two strangers. Within two days they found small, simple home to rent from a local family. It was on a dusty lane where chickens wandered freely, and quiet conversation and cigarette smell would float across the street from the neighborhood bar.

As they settled into their new space, the couple took a couple of days to stay close to each other and just be still. They agreed to keep their native origin to themselves. If they were going to speak hindi, they would do it privately. The rest of the time they would have to speak english to each other. Otherwise, they planned start learning Albanian immediately, and represent themselves as Spanish and English english speakers. The silent bodyguard joke resurfaced and made them both smile.

They ventured out one morning and walked the quiet roads, commenting on the little turrets in the hillsides, holdovers from the communist days. It was a beautiful place, continuing to shake off the remnants of oppression. Pomegranates, figs, and grapes grew wild everywhere, even back at their home. The tops of the mountains were beginning to turn gold under the rising morning sun. Zoya pointed it out to Tiger. As she admired the sight, Tiger couldn't look away from the happiness in her expression. It was the only thing he wanted to see.

They came upon the simple grocery stores people operated out the backs of lorries. Older women shuffled past them, dressed in traditional clothes. Hazel-eyed kids ran by, clad in sweatshirts to keep out the cool morning air. Doors and windows were opening, makeshift shops being set up along the lanes. A cow wandered freely.

"Like in India?" Tiger joked when he saw it. Zoya smiled.

As they walked, they felt increasingly comforted that staying there was the right choice.

Eventually they sat down together on a curb and continued to watch the quiet morning unfold around them. Tiger wrapped his arm around Zoya as she leaned into his shoulder.

"We'll be ok." He whispered into her hair.

"I know." Zoya said as a faint smile appeared on her lips.