Codename Ivan

Chapter Sixteen: The End

Elena looked awful. You could tell that she had been awakened from a much needed sleep, her well-earned rest having been prematurely curtailed. Now here she was, sitting resentfully in Nikolayev's office. Her eyes were red, her skin was greasy and her hair was disheveled and hastily tied back off her face. Her ruffled appearance was accentuated by the fact that she had no makeup on. Usually she was immaculately made up. I had never seen her looking so bare and raw.

Nikolayev was pacing up and down the room anxiously, grappling with his cell-phone, as though he was willing it to ring. Even he was not his usual well-groomed self. His shirt was crumpled. He had no tie and no belt. We had all been assembled rather hastily. I sat on the sofa in the seating area watching him pass back and forth before me. Next to me, Yura was propped against my shoulder. I had an arm around the sleepy boy, his head tilted into my armpit. Anton stood nearby, looking lost and confused, not quite knowing what to do with himself.

"I can't believe he's gone," said Yura, piping up with a tiny, almost inaudible voice, his head still propped against my shoulder.

There was a tone of incredulity and disappointment in Yura's voice.

Vladik had been missing for nearly three hours now. At any rate, it had been over three hours since the foster carers had called their link worker at Children's Services to report him missing. They had found his room empty and the back door ajar. His bed hadn't even been slept in. But it didn't surprise me that Vladik had fled. As I recalled, he had done that once before.

"Let's think carefully," said Nikolayev, trying to get a handle on the situation, "Where would he go?"

"He doesn't know anywhere," said Anton, "He doesn't even speak the language."

Nikolayev flashed him a look of annoyance, as though that particular piece of information, though true, wasn't particularly helpful.

"We should really be out there looking," I said, with a tone of frustration.

"Where are you going to look?" said Nikolayev, with an expansive gesture, and he jerked his head towards the windows, "It's a big city. Where are you going to start?"

"We can't just sit here," I replied.

"We're doing everything we can," said Nikolayev, as though that was the only possible option.

It was odd being in Nikolayev's office at this late hour. Through the windows the sky was a forbidding midnight blue. I had only ever been here during daytime. I thought of Vladik, just a tiny boy who was at this moment out there somewhere, lost and alone. Frightened and confused probably. Vulnerable and in danger certainly. I hugged Yura who, despite his sleepiness, had insisted on coming with me to HQ even though it was well past two in the morning. Not that he would have slept. He was concerned for his little buddy. I regretted having barred Yura from calling Vladik earlier. Perhaps if I had, Vladik would have been more positive about what was in store for him and wouldn't have taken flight like this.

Eventually the shrill chirruping tones of Nikolayev's cell-phone sounded off, startling us all. At that moment it sounded awfully loud, instantaneously heightening the tension in the room.

"Yes?" Nikolayev answered, discarding his usual well-mannered formalities, "When...? Are you sure...? Seal off the area."

I could hear the tiny voice on the other end querying that.

"Just do it!" Nikolayev barked, "We're on our way."

Nikolayev ended the call and surveyed the room.

"He's been spotted."

"Where?" I asked.

"Downtown," said Nikolayev.

"Where downtown?"

"The Midway Plaza Hotel," said Nikolayev.

Anton and I looked at each other. Of course. Vladik knew the hotel from our meeting with Roman. It was probably the only downtown venue he was familiar with. Though I did wonder how he got there. At that precise moment, I was sure the same thing was going through Anton's mind.

As we left the building it had started raining. Not a good night for anybody to be outside, and even more forbidding for a little boy lost in a big city on his own. We all climbed into the car. Nikolayev drove. Elena sat in the passenger seat and I sat in the back with Anton holding Yura between us. Yura was cold, so I put my jacket around him as Nikolayev threw the Constellation erratically around the darkened, rain-lashed streets. The roads were pretty quiet, so it didn't require the skills of a racing driver to speed through the empty streets to the Midway Plaza, which was only a few blocks away. On the short drive I did wonder how we all came to be on this miserable, unforeseen errand that we suddenly found ourselves engaged on at this ungodly hour of the night. I only hoped we were going to get there in time and that Vladik was alright.

When we arrived at the Midway Plaza, the scene that greeted us outside the hotel was far more alarming than I feared. There were police interceptors all over the road, LEDs flashing like strobe lights and uniformed officers standing around in clusters not really doing anything. Despite the lateness of the hour, there were lines of curious bystanders behind the police cordon standing there spectating, morbidly waiting for some unfortunate event to transpire.

Nikolayev braked sharply, not being used to the characteristics of the big SUV, and brought it to a halt with a short screech, jolting us all in our seats. He left the car skewed awkwardly across the centre of the road and jumped out, leaving the engine running and the door open. Yura rose up in the back seat, visibly disturbed by the gravity of the scene.

"What's going on Mark?"

"I don't know little buddy, let me find out."

The rest of us all followed Nikolayev out into the driving rain.

I turned to Anton and pushed Yura back towards him, squinting through the heavy raindrops.

"Stay with Anton," I said, and Anton took Yura into his arms, drawing my jacket up over Yura's head like a hood so that he was protected from the rain.

Anton stood behind Yura and wrapped his arms around the boy. Elena stood nearby, braving the rain.

Nikolayev and I ducked under the police cordon and went over to the little knot of officers that were standing on the forecourt of the hotel. Some had umbrellas, others had polythene shrouds on their caps. All of them had their coat collars turned up against the rain. We showed them our badges and they escorted us over to the main entrance of the hotel. At this point, one of the hotel staff approached us, just inside the lobby. He was the hotel's doorman.

"I tried to stop him," he was saying, "But the boy was too fast for me."

The doorman sounded Eastern European, but I couldn't quite trace his accent. He looked a little agitated, standing there in his long braided commissionaires coat, with double rows of buttons down the front. He was a big man, very tall and bull-chested. Nikolayev managed to elicit the whole story from him. It turned out that the doorman was Polish. Coincidentally, and conveniently, he understood a little Russian, and was the first one to spot Vladik when he came into the hotel. Of course, a little boy on his own at this time of night was very conspicuous. Vladik had come into the hotel lobby looking cold and tired and frightened and said he was lost. So the doorman had taken Vladik into a little side room just off the main lobby, where he had sat him down and given him a glass of milk.

At this point the doorman took us inside and showed us into the side room and pointed out where Vladik had sat. It was a type of mess room which was reserved for the bellhops and doormen. It was a small and windowless little space, more of a closet, and there was a fragile looking wooden table in the corner with two rickety chairs. Vladik's half finished glass of milk was still sitting on the table. The doorman said he had managed to elicit from the boy that he was looking for a police officer called Mark and didn't know where to find him. So, whilst Vladik sat there drinking his glass of milk, he had called the police, thinking that this was what the boy wanted. At the sight of uniformed police officers, Vladik had panicked and shouted "I'm not going back!" and fled the room, running out into the hotel lobby and disappearing up the main stairs. No one had seen where he went. But the window on the mezzanine floor was found open, and it was assumed that Vladik had climbed out and was hiding somewhere on the second floor roof.

My heart sank. I feared for Vladik. As if that little boy hadn't suffered enough. I couldn't imagine the turmoil he must have gone through just getting here, negotiating the city streets alone in the darkness. Now he was probably cowering somewhere, frightened and alone. I knew we had to find him. I wanted to get to him. Quickly.

I ran back outside into the driving rain. It wasn't until then that I realized that the assembled bystanders behind the police cordon were looking up at the building, but there was nothing apparent. Just the giant illuminated letters of the hotel's name, secured to the façade, at this moment looking redundant and garish. Along the front of the hotel, there was a decorative ledge which ran the entire length of the building. It was very narrow, probably only three feet wide, and was intermittently bisected by decorative cornices. Above the ledge was the window that had been swung wide open, so that the curtains were billowing out into the wind and rain, but there was no sign of Vladik.

The shower had intensified and it was coming down in bucketfuls now. The cold, hard pellets of rain drummed relentlessly against my face, disintegrating into large splashes as they hit. To my dismay, the fire department had now arrived with an enormous rescue tender. Quite what they were hoping to achieve at this stage was unclear, though of course I understood that their presence was routine at such incidents. There was also the unmistakable glare of media cameras, with their interrogatory arc lights and reporters yammering into microphones. I could see their OB trucks with those enormous dishes on their roofs, pointing skywards at some unseen orbiting satellite, already beaming back live pictures. I could even detect the mechanical whir of helicopter rotors somewhere up above. Trust the media to turn up when they were least welcome. Goddamn vultures.

The firefighters then switched on a powerful spotlight on the rescue tender, and they turned the beam up at the façade of the hotel. Just then, a little murmur went up amongst the assembled onlookers and they were all pointing up at the building. Turning back towards the hotel, I looked up, and saw what the commotion was all about. The powerful beam of the spotlight cast an illuminated disc onto the ledge just below the open window. Through its beam, the concentration of falling raindrops was clearly visible. And there, on the narrow ledge, the searchlight had lit up the spot where we could clearly see the tiny, forlorn figure of Vladik, precariously clinging to one of the ornate cornices on the narrow ledge. My heart jumped at the sight of that little boy crouching there, so high up. Vladik had somehow climbed out onto the ledge and had worked a little way along. He was turned towards the wall, huddled into his jacket. He was soaked through and looked very scared, clinging on in fear, afraid to loosen his grip, and unable to turn around to survey the commotion going on in the street below him.

"Jesus Christ!"

I realized that the refrain came from Nikolayev who was standing beside me, looking up. He was not usually given to even the mildest of expletives. But this was evidently a departure in the type of events he was accustomed to dealing with.

"I'm going up there," I said.

Nikolayev turned to me.

"No Mark! Let the fire department deal with it."

"I must," I said, "I can't leave that boy up there on his own."

I ran back inside the hotel. The doorman was still standing there and he instantly knew my purpose. He said something in Polish and pointed up the stairs to the mezzanine floor, so I ran up and quickly located the opened window. Leaning out, I could see there was a drop of a few feet down onto the narrow ledge. Beyond the ledge, I could see down into the street where all the vehicles and flashing lights were littering the road. And there, a few feet along, I could see Vladik. He was crouched down, clinging on, and crying softly.

I was aware that by this time Nikolayev was behind me.

"I've got to go to him," I said.

Nikolayev knew he wasn't able to stop me.

"Be careful Mark, I can't afford to lose you."

I looked at him slightly taken aback. Was that a compliment? Nikolayev had never before hinted at how much he valued me.

I climbed out onto the broad window sill and laid down flat. I swung my legs out over the edge, still clinging on with my fingers, then dropped down onto the ledge. It was extremely narrow, just wide enough to crawl along, but not much else. I worked my way along the precipice, assimilating just how high up it was. The sheer distance down onto the ground below was dizzying and scary and I remembered exactly why I had decided to become a police officer instead of a firefighter.

Looking along the narrow ledge, the tiny figure of Vladik was pressed against the wall just a few feet away, clinging on, afraid to move. I worked my way towards him slowly, inching along, little by little. As I neared, I could hear his quiet sobs more distinctly. His little body shuddered intermittently. He was sniffling and emitting tiny little keening sounds - a sure sign of distress.

The rain was coming down even harder now, making the ledge shiny and slippery. As I gradually crawled towards him, Vladik heard me. He seemed startled for a moment, and twisted his head half around. He was visibly tearful as he huddled there.

"It's okay little buddy," I reassured him.

On realizing it was me, he burst into a renewed fit of crying.

"Oh Mark! I thought you would never come!"

And he cried even louder, still clinging onto the ledge, afraid to let go.

"I'm coming little buddy. Hold on."

I edged closer and closer on my knees until I was within touching distance. Vladik was twisting his head, watching me and the fear was apparent in his tear-filled eyes. He waited for me to get close enough, then quickly, in one swift movement, let go of the ledge and turned to grab onto me. I threw myself across him and quickly swooped him into my embrace. He screamed into my shoulder in fear and relief. There was an audible gasp from the assembled onlookers down below, and I was aware that we were very much in the glare of the fire department's spotlight.

"I've got you little buddy. I'm here now. You're safe."

He cried for a few moments and I cried with him, barely able to distinguish my tears of relief from the incessant rain. Vladik felt sodden and bedraggled in my arms. His clothes were wet through. Beneath the saturated layers of fabric, his little body was cold and shivering with fear and hypothermia.

"What are you doing up here little buddy?"

"I didn't want them to take me back!" he sobbed, "I ran and ran and didn't know where to go! Oh Mark, I was afraid I wouldn't be able to find you!"

"It's okay little buddy," I said, stroking his blond head, "I'm here now."

I squeezed his little frame. The feel of his anxious, vulnerable, trembling little body against me was exquisite. It was good to have him in my arms again.

"Why did you do it, little buddy? Why did you run?"

"I missed you. I missed Yura. I couldn't stay in that place. Please don't make me go back!"

"You don't have to, little buddy," I murmured softly, rubbing his back, "You don't have to do anything you don't want to."

He looked up.

"You promise?"

"I promise."

Vladik threw himself back onto me and started sobbing again.

"Why do these things happen to me Mark? What did I do wrong?"

"You didn't do anything little buddy," I said, still rubbing his back, "Life is like that sometimes."

"Yura is going to go and live in Saint Petersburg and I'm going to be left all alone."

"You won't be all alone. Yura has some good news for you."

He was quieted for a moment. But was still clinging to me tightly.

"What news?"

"I'm going to let him tell you," I said, "But first we have to get down from here."

I went to pull away. He grabbed me even tighter.

"Don't leave me Mark!"

"I'm not going to leave you little buddy."

He cried some more, and I could feel him shuddering into me. He went on sobbing gently into my shoulder and I noticed, as his little hands were clutching at my sodden shirtsleeves that his knuckles were bleeding.

I took his little hand and looked closely at his injury. He had grazed his knuckles quite badly, and the skin on the back of his fingers was torn and bloody. Some of the blood had started to congeal in dark globs, and there were little curled flaps of skin where it was torn open on the loose folds of his knuckles. The rain had smeared little trickles of pink blood across the back of his tiny hand.

"You're bleeding little buddy."

He seemed to stop crying for a moment, and pulled away to look down at his hand, as though he wasn't even aware of it. He seemed confused for a moment, as though not sure how to react to his injury. He sniffled a bit and looked back at me, not knowing what to do.

I took his little hand and he watched me, strangely silent for a moment, as I stuck his four fingers into my mouth. I warmly massaged them with my tongue, sucking his little digits clean. When his hand was clean of the dried blood, I dug my hand into my pocket and whipped out my handkerchief. I wrapped it around his knuckles, securing it with an expert knot. His hand was so small and frail in my grip. Once it was safely bandaged, he admired the knot that stuck up like two little rabbits ears. He stared at me, even through the driving rain, with a look of relief and wonderment in his pretty green eyes, as though asking "Why do you care about me so much?"

For a moment my ministrations seemed to soothe and calm him, and he was quiet. But then he remembered where we were, and was suddenly shocked back into reality when he looked about him and realized we were sitting precariously on that ledge in the pouring rain, isolated and vulnerable and very wet.

He was very quiet and still for a few moments.

"Mark...? I'm scared."

"Don't be scared little buddy. Everything's going to be alright."

At this point we could hear the rescue tender power up and the fire department were deploying their hydraulic platform. They had one firefighter in the platform and it was slowly elevating towards us. It was noisy, but a welcome sight. I knew I could not carry Vladik back along the ledge. There wasn't enough room to turn around and I wasn't sure I could coax him back into the window backwards. It was safer for us to stay put and let the fire department bring us down.

I held onto Vladik as the hydraulic platform rose towards us like some giant mechanical arm, and we could clearly see the firefighter in his reflective overalls and his oversized helmet. The platform then began closing in towards us and when the firefighter reached in and grabbed Vladik, he seemed to lift the little boy with consummate ease, plucking him from the ledge and dropping him safely into the platform. I grabbed the rails of the platform and swung in after him. When we were both aboard, I held onto Vladik tightly for the brief minutes it took to lower us down to the ground.

As soon as we were back down on the ground, I slapped the firefighter on the back by way of thanks and we clambered out. Yura and Anton ran towards us. I could see Elena bringing up the rear. Beyond the police cordon the media cameras were rolling and there was a whole bank of flashguns firing from both sides. Overhead the helicopter was whining and fluttering its rotors. Although tired and wet, Vladik was still able to run to Yura and they crashed into each other in an emotional embrace, simultaneously bursting into tears. Two little friends, reunited in the most dramatic of circumstances, saturated with the rain and emotionally exhausted.

"It's going to be alright!" Yura was saying as they held each other, through tears of happiness and relief, "You're going to come and live with us!"

Vladik pulled back and looked at Yura, then looked up at me, blinking through the relentless rain.

"It's true little buddy," I said.

"Mark's right," said Yura, "You can come and live with me and my dad in Saint Petersburg. Everything's going to be alright!"

Vladik smiled, then his face transfigured into a look of confusion, as though he detected an unfamiliar sensation. He seemed to go blank for a moment. He was weakening. His eyes rolled into the back of his head and I knew he was about to faint. The emotion, the physical exhaustion and the lateness of the hour had all taken their toll on him. The incessant rain and the blinding lights of the media, with the helicopter still whirring overhead, added to the theatricality of the scene. It was all too much for this little boy. I quickly grabbed him, taking hold of him in a bear-hug as his knees buckled. He went completely limp. I picked him up and lifted him, cradling him with one arm under his back and one under his knees, and carried him over to the car, with his arms dangling lifelessly. Gently, I laid him down on the rear seat of the Constellation, out of the rain, and put him on his side in the recovery position. I brushed the raindrops from his pretty face. I huddled over him in the back of the car, shielding him from the rain that was lashing the leather upholstery through the open door.

Vladik came to a few seconds later. He opened his eyes and tried to smile. His exhaustion showed in the way he could barely keep his eyes open. The trauma of the night's events had finally overwhelmed him, and he looked up at me with a weak little smile. It was a smile that took all the energy he had left, but a smile of recognition nevertheless. His fears were all now assuaged. He knew that it was going to end well for him. All his problems were over. Everything WAS going to be alright.

* * * * * *

So the guy from the Russian Embassy had come through for us. I never did get to know his name. He had been there from the beginning, and I was never quite sure what his role had been, but I was grateful to him. Somewhere behind the scenes, he had managed to smooth over the awkward restrictions that might have threatened to scupper the happy ending that everyone was holding out for. Somehow he had worked his magic to facilitate the whole thing. Vladik was now officially eligible for adoption, and Yura's father was the only candidate. Of course, he still had to undergo the usual process of assessment and approval. Until then Vladik would be fostered by Roman and Natalya until the adoption was finalized. So Vladik was going to start a new life, to be welcomed as a member of Yura's new-found family. So it was a happy ending. Yura had found his rightful home with his father and with Vladik as an adopted brother. It was surely the perfect denouement to the tragedy of these boys' lives. It seemed everyone had found their rightful place and would be able to live the rest of their lives in a happy and loving environment. These little boys had suffered so much, had so much of their childhood stolen from them, and no doubt the mental scars would be with them for a very long time, but they were safe now. They were loved. They were wanted.

As for me, here I was, a police officer with nearly twenty years service, trained in close protection and unarmed combat, and yet the biggest challenge I had ever faced was looking after these two little boys. Who would have thought that the most difficult task I would ever have to contend with in my entire career was the profound love and affection those boys had induced in me, and that the hardest assignment I had ever undertaken was to endure the wrenching deprivation of having to say goodbye to them?

So I was to be left all alone. Except that I wasn't really alone. I still had Anton. I was thankful for Anton. I knew I was going to lean on him more than ever after these boys had gone from my life. Dear, sweet, handsome Anton. He had always been there for me. And he was here for me now. I needed him. Over the weeks and months since this beautiful boy had first insinuated himself into my life I had grown to love him. I think he loved me too. He was a very special person, and I knew that we were going to be friends for a very long time.

Inevitably, the day finally came. In the morning, I greeted the dawn with a defeated and resigned demeanor and with all the jaded enthusiasm of a condemned man. It was our last day. I woke up and found the boys sleeping soundly in the bed next to me. They must have come into my room at some point during the night, or very early in the morning, probably anxious to be with me for the short time we had left. For a long time I sat up in bed just watching them, appreciating the cuteness and innocence of little boys sleeping, listening to the hushed sighs of their unconscious breaths. I sat up just watching them, thinking about how much I was going to miss these little boys, and still almost as breathless with wonder as the very first day I set eyes on them. How could I ever forget the precocity of these boys? How could I ever forsake them? How could I ever live without their vitality, their prodigiousness, their beauty and their innocence? It was all now engraved forever on my heart.

It seemed like only yesterday that I first set eyes on Yura at the airport, when he had first arrived, emerging from the gate looking scared and disoriented. I could still remember the tears he shed that first night and how I had sat with him on the edge of the bed, comforting him and trying to stem his tears. It didn't seem so long ago that I found him crouched in the corner of his room in distress because he had wet the bed; or found him sleeping on the floor because he had had a nightmare and came into my room during the night because he didn't want to be alone. The magic of those first few heady days we had spent together was still fresh in my mind. I could clearly recall the little bonding activities I had engaged him in, making tiramisu and teaching him to play pool, and even that near-fateful trip to the mall where I had almost lost him. How would I ever forget that first night this sweet boy had come out onto the terrace and put his arm around me as we gazed up at the stars and asked if he could sleep in my room? So many of Yura's antics stuck in my mind, and so many of the things he had said still echoed in my ears - like the way he had first brought a tear to my eye by candidly telling me that he thought I was a really nice person. Or when I first told him the story of my life with John and he said he was sorry that John died. Or how he had wrapped himself around me as we were sitting by the pool and told me that he loved me and wanted to stay with me forever. God, it seemed like it was only yesterday.

Or how could I ever forget Vladik's initial refusal to bond with me, the curt and hurtful, "Fuck you," he had tossed back at me that first night, when he had gone to bed having surreptitiously scoffed a whole packet of Oreos? How could I forget the drama of his attempt to run away at Crystal Lake, and our subsequent reconciliation? He had been so profoundly affected by his experiences that he was compelled to ask me, "Mark, is there something wrong with me?" as though his misfortune was somehow his own fault. I regretted not having had more time to bond with Vladik. It seemed we had only just begun getting close to each other, and our rapport barely had the chance to flourish to its full potential. I really would have liked more time with Vladik. But it was not to be.

It was Yura who woke up first. He opened his eyes and looked up to see me sitting up in bed watching him. He smiled affectionately, then sluggishly wrapped himself across me without saying anything, and appeared to go back to sleep. I hugged his little body closely. When Vladik woke up and saw us, he too said nothing and just joined in on the embrace. So we stayed like that, me sat up in the middle of the bed with these two sleepy boys slumped affectionately across me, paternally clutching them to my breast in a protective hug. Sadly, and with a heavy heart, I eventually loosened my embrace, and got up. We finished our little three-way boymoment in silence, the type of pregnant silence that is characterized by the sadness of knowing that you are doing something for the very last time.

The rest of the day was strangely subdued. Emotions were high, but I kept our activities distinctly low-key. I helped the boys to pack. We were neatly folding their clothes and placing them all into one suitcase which was open on the bed. It was a new suitcase. Not the battered little suitcase Yura had brought with him when he first arrived from Moscow, with that miserable little accumulation of worn and faded clothes. He had lots of new things now, including all the stuff he had been given for his birthday. We packed up in silence and I knew that we were all thinking the same thing: this was the end of our time together.

At one point, when most of their gear had been packed into the case, I realized I could no longer hear them behind me. I turned, and they were both standing there. I smiled, but saw that their eyes were filled with tears. They both stepped towards me and hugged me tightly - almost desperately - laying their little heads against my chest. We stood like that for many minutes, enjoying what was probably the very last little boymoment we would ever share. My eyes filled with tears, and I felt hot tears spill from their eyes, and trail down onto my shirt. None of us spoke; our embrace was sufficient. I eased my head back to look at them and gazed in wonder at these perfect little boys. Yura's pretty azure eyes were overflowing with tears. Vladik's emerald eyes were glazed with moisture. My own tears trailed down my cheek. I was still as much in awe of these incredible boys as I was the first day I set eyes on them. I knew I would miss them. God, how I was going to miss these boys! And I knew they were going to miss me too. These had probably been the most momentous days of their lives. For Yura especially, I knew that, like me, he would think back on these days in the years to come with a sense of wonder and deep affection. The experience had no doubt changed him. Just as it had changed me. This assignment had been a privilege for me. I was grateful to have been a part of this special time and to have shared these momentous days with him.

At that moment, the doorbell chimed. It was Roman, arriving to take them away. He was going to drive them to the airport. They were leaving for Saint Petersburg that evening.

When Vladik heard it, a momentary flash of panic spread across his face. He looked scared. He wrapped his little body around me, urgently clutching at my shirt, grabbing handfuls of my clothing as though trying to hide himself in the folds.

"Let's run away!" he suddenly enthused, "Just the three of us. Let's go where we can all be together and get away from all this!"

It was a crazy, childish, panic-induced outburst. The desperation and fear was evident in his eyes. Poor little boy. Now that the reality was taking hold, his courage almost failed him. God, how I felt for him. I was almost tempted to give in to his crazy little whim. But I knew I had to be strong.

"No," I said firmly, "No more running away. This is for the best. It's what you both wanted."

Vladik's hopeful expression collapsed. The tears gathered even more copiously in his eyes. He hung his head down, perhaps realizing that reality was going to have to prevail, finally defeated by the logic and common sense which so steadfastly refused to be thwarted.

He let go of my shirt and threw himself down on the bed sobbing into the pillow. Yura saw that and threw his arms around me. I cradled Yura's head, combing my splayed fingers through his beautiful thick black hair.

"Just remember, I will always love you little buddy," I said.

"I'll always love you too," he said, muffled against me.

"And we'll still see each other," I reminded him, with a happier tone, "We'll call and chat online, and I'll try and visit you as often as I can."

He nodded into my chest, then pulled away and looked up at me through his tears.

"But it won't be like this, will it?" he said, downbeat.

"No," I replied truthfully, and I paused, adding: "It can never be like this."

The idyll was shattered by the voice of Roman calling us from downstairs.

"Boys?" Roman called finally, "I'm afraid it's time to go."

We all dried our eyes before we went down to greet him. I gently coaxed Vladik up off the pillow, which was still wet with his tears, and tenderly dabbed his pretty eyes with a tissue. Yura wiped his eyes with his little fists, and I gave them both an encouraging smile. When we were all composed, I took them downstairs.

Roman was in the drawing-room waiting with Anton. Yura ran up to him and they hugged. I watched the way Yura closed his eyes in his father's embrace and the way that Roman held his son's head, cupping his face in his hands and looking at him admiringly in a way that only a father can look upon a son. And I knew there was genuine love there. Roman was a good man.

Roman also hugged Vladik - his adopted son. Then Roman graciously came over and hugged me too, and I could feel the genuine affection and gratitude in his embrace. He let me go, and then held me out in front of him, his hands resting on my shoulders. And he looked me in the eye with an earnest stare, and spoke to me in perfect English.

"You're a very special man Mark. You will never know what you have done for all of us. Thank you."

Roman took the boys' suitcase and took it out to the car which was sitting in the driveway. The time had come. In no time, it seemed, we were outside standing by the car. Yura hugged Anton first, then Vladik hugged Anton. Even Anton was looking sad. I knew that he had had his moments with Vladik and they had grown quite fond of each other. They held each other tightly for a long few seconds, shutting their eyes and acknowledging the moment. Then it was my turn. I bent down, and kissed Yura lightly on his forehead. It was a sweet, short kiss, and then he smiled sadly. Yura hugged me and squeezed tightly. I responded. I squeezed his little frame as hard as I could, and he whispered into my ear:

"Thank you for looking after me."

I pressed him into me as hard as I could, as though I wanted to squeeze the very life out of him. I squeezed him so hard it was as though I would never let him go. But I knew I had to. Then I eased away from him and our last moments together came to an end.

We stepped apart, and then they glumly got into the car. They strapped themselves into the back seat and, with a heavy heart, I shut the car door. I stood back and gave them one last brave smile, flashing them my best 'cheer up' expression. Anton stood beside me. Roman started the engine and sat there for a few moments adjusting his seat. As he did so, Yura retracted the glass so that they could stare out, and he looked at me with a resigned, plaintive expression. And as the car sat there idling, Yura made one last remarkable gesture which I shall always remember for the rest of my life - a gesture that was entirely symptomatic of why this boy was so special: he held up his little hand next to his cheek and rotated it so that I could see what was in his palm. It was the little silver pocket-watch I had given him on his birthday, complete with the inscription which affirmed my eternal love for him. He held it up to his cheek, showing it to me as the car began to roll, and kept it there for as long as I held his gaze, proudly displaying it as a memento of our time together, a token of my enduring love for him, and the single treasured possession that he would forever remember me by. Anton waved. I held Yura's gaze for as long as I could and watched the car escaping down the drive. A quick flash of the brake lights, the car turned out of the gate out of sight, and the boys were gone.

As the car disappeared from view, carrying the boys away from me forever, I turned and saw Anton standing there. We looked at each other. I hesitated a moment and found I could not move. I was suddenly struck by a cold sensation of desolation and despair. I didn't know what it was at first. But then I felt an incredible sadness rise up within me. It was powerful and vast. It was such an overwhelming feeling that I suddenly felt very frightened. The sadness I had been holding back for the boys' sake, the inevitable grief that had been waiting in the wings to claim me, which I had steeled my heart against, suddenly pervaded and so overpowered me, I realized I had tears in my eyes; great, fat tears that were welling up so large that they stung my eyes and blurred my vision so that I could barely see where I was going. Anton saw that, and for the first time ever I knew I needed him at this moment more than I had needed anybody in my entire life. I finally broke down and wept. I cried openly, turning to him. He hugged me tightly, his loving embrace cushioning the deep, profound grief that I was suddenly stricken by. We stood there forlornly on the steps. I wept loudly and abundantly into his shoulder, shuddering violently from the profundity of my sorrow, almost collapsing onto him. He held me. I pulled him tightly into my chest, clutching at him as though trying to shield myself against this unwelcome agony, this excruciating anguish, this black, blinding grief... the unmistakable testimony of my heart finally breaking.

I knew that the loss of these boys would be with me for a long, long time. Yura's absence especially would be hard to bear. I knew then that I would never forget this beautiful, remarkable little Russian boy, whom at first I wasn't sure I wanted anything to do with. This complex, paradoxical little person that had wormed his way into the deepest recesses of my heart. This wonderful, gentle human being who had evoked such profound emotions in me. This precocious, vivacious little spirit who had shared so much with me. I knew that whatever his life had in store for him, no matter what twists and turns he would contend with in the future, as his beautiful character unfolded and matured in the years to come, he would go about his business with the memory of this special time etched indelibly on his soul. I knew there would be times, maybe many years into the future, when he would stop and recall the golden days we had spent together; moments where he would think of me and the special times we shared. I knew that wherever he was in the world, I would be forever in his heart. And no matter what the remainder of my life had in store, no matter what fate had determined for me, he would forever be in mine.

I had promised Yura on his eleventh birthday that one day I would tell their story. I promised that one day I would write about just how unique and remarkable these boys were. I would write about their beauty and vitality and tell the whole world about these two very special little boys. And I was determined to fulfill that promise. Some days afterwards, quite spontaneously, and with no clear plan in mind, I sat down at my desk and switched on the computer, and just started writing. And this is the story I wrote.