He was having trouble sleeping. For several nights now, he had lain awake in bed, staring up at the ceiling for hours on end or turning from one side to the other, trying to get comfortable. He had tried every breathing exercise he knew, every meditation technique, but his mind simply refused to quiet down enough for him to fall asleep. Then when he did sleep, he would wake up in the early hours of the morning, his body humming with a weird kind of energy he usually only experienced in the early stages when a new idea was forming in his brain. He had no idea what was causing it now. The only reason he could think of was the heist – even though it was still months away, he must be getting nervous for it already and it was keeping him awake.
Today, however, the week’s lack of sleep had caught up with him and he had slept right through the alarm on his phone. When he woke up and sleepily squinted at his watch, he was alarmed to see that it was already breakfast time. He hastily got out of bed, his mind still fuzzy with tiredness, and started to dress. He didn’t like being late for breakfast – he was the leader of the group, he should set the example. Without looking in the mirror, he hurried to the door and walked out, only to bump straight into Raquel, who was standing in front of his door with her hand raised, about to knock. Startled, he took several paces back, but she just smiled.
“Ah, there you are. I was just coming to get you.”
“So I figured. It’s not like you to be late for breakfast.”
“I didn’t hear my alarm.”
She gave him a funny look, and he frowned.
“You dressed a bit too hastily, I think. Here, let me fix you up.”
Before he knew what was happening, she had reached out her hands and was undoing his tie, and the last fuzziness of sleep left his brain as he was suddenly wide awake. He knew he should push her hands away – he could knot his own tie – but for some reason he couldn’t bring himself to do it. His tie was undone now and she was fixing his collar. For a fleeting instant, her fingers brushed against the skin of his neck, and he felt a shiver go down his spine.
She nodded. “It’s a bit chilly this morning.”
Yes, he thought. That must be it. She was knotting his tie now, and he looked down at her face as she focused on her task. He wondered how he’d never really noticed before how beautiful she was.
“There”, she said. “That’s better.”
She looked up at him and caught him staring at her. He knew he should look away but he couldn’t, and for a moment their eyes locked. Then her face broke into a big smile.
“What?” she asked him.
He quickly looked at the ground. “Nothing.”
“Why were you looking at me like that?”
“You were standing right in front of me”, he murmured. “Where was I supposed to look?”
“Well, now that you’re presentable, let’s go have breakfast before it’s all gone. I’ve never seen anyone eat as much as those Serbians.”
As he followed her down the stairs, he felt a little dizzy – undoubtedly his blood sugar was low because he hadn’t breakfasted yet. But when they entered the dining room and he sat down behind a steaming plate of eggs and bacon, he could only stare at it, and he realized that he didn’t really want to eat. He worriedly wondered if he was getting sick.
After breakfast, they all trooped up to the classroom. He got up in front of them and took a deep breath as he felt himself slip back into the confident, focused state he always experienced when teaching.
“Good morning”, he said. “Today we’ll have an anatomy lesson.”
There were a few grins and giggles.
“Well, Professor”, Tokyo said, leaning forward in her chair. “Maybe you need an anatomy lesson, but I know where everything is.”
“I don’t know”, Denver laughed. “It’s been so long for me I think I’ve forgotten a few things.”
“If anyone needs to learn, it’s the kid here”, Nairobi teased, nodding her head at Rio. “I think he’s old enough for someone to have ‘the talk’ with him. You want to do it, Professor?”
He ignored their jokes. “We’re going to learn about the major blood vessels in the body. Please gather around the desk.”
They all got up.
“Too bad, Rio”, Nairobi said. “Blood vessels. You’ll have to learn about the birds and the bees another day.”
Rio merely grinned. “Maybe you can teach me someday in a private session.”
Everybody laughed, but Sergio remained serious.
“Alright”, he said. “I need a model.”
They all looked at him.
“Can’t we learn from a picture or something?” Moscow asked.
Sergio shook his head. “It’s much better to learn directly on the body.” He held up a marker. “I need a model.”
They all looked at each other. There was still an early morning chill in the room, and none of them were particularly eager to take off their clothes.
“Come on”, Sergio urged them impatiently. “Everybody will need to practice, so you will all need to take a turn. Who will go first?”
There was an awkward silence, then Raquel sighed and stepped forward.
“Fine, I’ll do it.”
He immediately felt his calm desert him.
“Oh”, he blurted out. “I didn’t mean…”
She looked at him. “You didn’t mean what?”
He couldn’t see a way out of this. “Nothing. Uhm…” He could feel himself going red. “You’ll… you’ll need to take off your top.”
“So I assumed”, she said, shrugging out of her shirt, then grabbing hold of the hem of the top she was wearing underneath. He quickly averted his eyes as she pulled it over her head, but as she hopped onto the desk and lay down, he had no other choice than to look at her. He wasn’t entirely sure why this made him feel so deeply uncomfortable – he had the vague sense that it wouldn’t have been nearly so bad with any of the others, but he couldn’t imagine why. He only knew that he felt like he was invading her privacy, and he didn’t like that at all.
She looked up at him and quirked an eyebrow. “Are you okay?”
He took a breath and focused. “Alright”, he said briskly. “Please pay close attention.”
Carefully avoiding her eyes, he looked down at her bare stomach and put the tip of the marker against her skin right above the waistband of her pants. He noticed that she had slight stretch marks on her lower abdomen, and it distracted him for a moment to the point where he couldn’t remember what vein he was supposed to be showing them. Several long, awkward seconds passed before he suddenly recalled the right name and he began drawing a thick, purple line up her stomach.
“Iliac artery”, he said. He drew two lines left and right. “Renal arteries, left and right.”
He let his marker move further upwards, and he couldn’t help but notice that the black bra she was wearing had a little lace around the edges. His voice was a bit strained as he struggled to keep his focus.
He had to lift the marker for a moment to move over her bra, then put it down again between her breasts and continued drawing, his hand shaking ever so slightly.
“Pulmonary arteries, left and right.”
For the next part, he had to move his marker over the slight curve of her left breast.
“The heart”, he whispered, drawing a circle. He cleared his throat and found his voice again as he drew two lines under her collar bones.
“Left subclavian. Right subclavian.”
He drew a long line over her shoulder down her arm, and he wondered for a moment how soft she would be to touch.
He moved his marker back up to the delicate skin of her throat.
“Internal jugular”, he said, then more softly: “Please turn your head.”
She did so, and he drew another line up her neck. “External jugular.”
He was starting to feel a little dizzy again as he took up the red marker now. “In red, the most important arteries.”
“Wait a minute”, Denver said, and he was abruptly aware of the presence of the others again. “You want us to learn medicine like this, with some stupid markers?”
He looked up and needed a moment to gather his thoughts. “Yes. If one of you gets hit, you can’t go to the hospital. You’ll have to take care of it yourselves.”
He looked down again and started tracing her arteries in red. Her skin was so thin underneath her collar bones that he could actually see the faintest blue outline of her veins. It felt strangely intimate. To his annoyance, though, Denver wasn’t done complaining.
“This is suicide.”
Moscow tried to shut him up, but he continued: “Being trapped is one thing, but dying is another.”
To Sergio’s relief, his brother intervened.
“Denver. You only need to know how to remove a bullet.”
“Yeah”, Nairobi supplied. “It’s not difficult. Just grab the tweezers, pull out the bullet and don’t fuck it up.”
“Oh, just like that?” Denver said. “No way. If I get shot, take me to the hospital.”
Sergio didn’t look up from where he was tracing a line down Raquel’s other arm. “The answer is no.”
To his surprise, Tokyo agreed with him. “I’d rather lose a leg and be free, than be healthy in jail.”
With difficulty, he tore his eyes away from her skin, annoyed that he had to interrupt his task, but knowing that he needed to intervene. “Nobody leaves. You are a team. If anyone wants to get out, now would be the time to say so. Otherwise, you’ll stay for as long as the heist lasts.”
He looked at Denver, who shook his head and looked away.
“Alright”, Raquel said, looking up at him. “Are you done? I’m getting cold.”
He looked down at her and noticed that she was covered in goosebumps.
“Of course”, he said quickly, taking a step back as she sat up. He handed her her clothes without looking, and she got off the desk. “Next. Come on. Rio?”
Rio stepped forward. “Sure.”
He handed the marker to Tokyo. “Show me what you’ve learned.”
As Tokyo drew lines down Rio’s body, he felt himself relax again, but he still avoided looking at Raquel. One by one, they took a turn with the marker and a turn on the table. After the class was over, there was a discussion over whose turn it was to prepare lunch, then Denver and Rio reluctantly left for the kitchen. As the rest of them went outside to wait for the food, Sergio noticed that Nairobi went up to Raquel and started talking to her. A few minutes later, the two women left together to take a walk. He smiled. If Nairobi warmed towards Raquel, the others wouldn’t be far behind.
That evening, Raquel went up to her room right after dinner. She felt like she needed some time to think. The conversation she had had with Nairobi that afternoon kept playing through her head, and she could use some peace and quiet to really process it.
“So you have a kid?” Nairobi asked, once they were out of earshot of the others.
Raquel looked up, startled. “What?”
“Stretch marks”, Nairobi clarified. “On your stomach.”
“Oh. Yes, fine, I have a kid. So what?”
“Calm down, you don’t have to get so defensive. Look, I understand why you haven’t told anyone.”
“How could you possibly understand?”
“Because I have a kid too.”
Raquel had to admit she’d been surprised by that admission. Nairobi – fun-loving, badass Nairobi, quick with a joke and quick to anger, hadn’t struck her as particularly maternal. But as they walked along together in the bright sunshine, a shadow had fallen over Nairobi’s face that Raquel only recognized too well. It was the same darkness she felt when she thought about Paula. Nairobi didn’t just have a kid – she’d lost one, too.
Seeing her own pain mirrored in the face of the other woman had loosened something inside Raquel. She’d talked about Paula to Sergio, and he’d been sympathetic and kind, but he couldn’t really understand what it was like. Nairobi could. So Raquel told her everything.
“Bastard”, Nairobi spat out once Raquel was done talking. “If someone did that to me, they wouldn’t just have to convict me for drug possession, it would have been a fucking murder charge.”
Raquel smiled. It was nice to feel like someone from the team was on her side for once.
“I get why you’re here now”, Nairobi said. “You want to take the money we’ll earn, grab your girl and get out of this shitty country.”
“Yes”, Raquel nodded.
“Well, good for you.” There was a short pause, then Nairobi said: “I’m sorry for not trusting you before.”
“It’s alright. Why should you?”
“But if you’re here to get your kid back, I know you won’t screw us over. So I’d like to start over.”
She stopped and held out her hand. Raquel hesitated for a moment, then shook it.
Nairobi smiled. “Welcome to the team.”
“Thank you. Please don’t tell the others though.”
“I won’t tell them about your daughter, but I will tell them to lay off you. I’ll tell them you’re okay. You’re one of us now.”
Raquel still felt a confusing mix of emotions about those words. You’re one of us now. Was that a good thing? That she belonged to a group like them, a group of criminals – people she’d been fighting her entire adult life, that she’d been fighting only a few months ago? Logically speaking, she couldn’t deny that she was a criminal too, now. Even if she’d done nothing illegal yet, just being here and not reporting these people to the police made her complicit. Yet when it came to her feelings, she hadn’t made that shift yet, of thinking of herself as anything other than a cop.
And yet… “You’re one of us now” had also made her feel good. She’d never felt so lonely in her life as she had over the past few weeks. If Sergio hadn’t been so kind to her, she wasn’t sure if she could have born it. Criminals or cops – at the end of the day, they were all people, and watching the others talk and laugh and form friendships while she watched from the outside had been difficult for her. Like any other person, she just wanted to belong – especially now that she was so completely unmoored from everything she had held dear before, adrift in a life where she no longer belonged anywhere or to anyone, acceptance into a tight-knit group like this one seemed very attractive. A new place of belonging. A new home – at least for a little while. She hated herself for it, but she wanted it desperately.
Moreover, while the others hadn’t gotten to know her over the past few weeks, she had gotten to know them. She’d listened to them talk, she’d watched them joke and grow closer. They were no longer nameless criminals to her, but people. Rio wasn’t just a hacker, but a gentle kid with a sweet temper. Moscow was kind and thoughtful. Denver had a good heart, she was sure of it. And Sergio… Well, Sergio was… She shook her head. She couldn’t think about him right now.
And then there was Nairobi, opening up to her, telling her the story of how she’d lost her son. Raquel had wisely held her tongue, but that afternoon, she’d privately thought that it was only right that Nairobi should have lost custody over her child. What mother would leave a toddler alone like that, even for five minutes? But now that she’d had some time to think about it, she felt guilty about her initial reaction. Who was she to judge Nairobi? When she’d been a respectable middle class mother with a steady job, it had been easy to look down on people who sold drugs on the street – why didn’t they just get a job, like the rest of them? Crime was a choice, wasn’t it? An easy way out? And yet here she was, a fugitive, about to become a thief, a robber, a hostage-taker. She rubbed her hands over her face. She wasn’t in a position to judge anyone anymore – not now she’d experienced first-hand how life could knock you down in ways you just couldn’t recover from. What did she know about what Nairobi had been through?
She took a deep breath and considered her situation. They were all here for the same reason: because, somehow, the system had screwed them over. And each and every person in that group was prepared to risk everything to defy that system. She nodded to herself. Yes. She was proud to be one of them.
That night, Sergio again couldn’t sleep. He kept revisiting the morning’s lesson in his mind, over and over again, and he tossed and turned for an hour and a half before he decided that it’s wasn’t going to happen, sat up, and turned on the light. He propped a pillow behind his back and leaned against the headboard as he took up the book he was reading and tried to focus on it. About half an hour later, a soft knock sounded at his bedroom door. He looked up in surprise. Who could be knocking on his door at one in the morning?
He got out of bed and opened the door, and there stood Raquel, dressed in loose pants and a white top.
“Is everything alright?” he asked her.
“Yes”, she said quietly. “I’m sorry to disturb you. It’s just that I woke up and then I couldn’t sleep anymore and when I went to the bathroom, I saw that your light was still on.”
“What woke you up? Are Tokyo and Nairobi making noise again?”
“No, no”, she said, “nothing like that. I… I just had a rather vivid dream.”
She clearly didn’t want to make a big deal of it, but he understood that she’d had another nightmare, and his heart went out to her.
“Can I come in?” she asked tentatively.
His eyes widened in alarm. “Why?”
“I’d just… like to talk for a bit.”
He realized that she wanted to distract herself from bad thoughts, but he still hesitated. Tokyo had been in his room only yesterday and it had not been a pleasant experience. He didn’t think he could bear it if Raquel would make fun of him, too. She noticed his hesitation.
“Of course”, she said, taking a step back, “you don’t have to. It’s late, I’ll just go back to bed.”
“No”, he said. “It’s okay, you can come in.”
He opened the door wider and she slipped past him. He observed her nervously as she looked around the room, watching her take in the neatly folded and stacked clothes on his spare bed. She didn’t say anything, however. Then she noticed his origami, and she went over to look.
“What’s this?” she said, and he detected nothing of Tokyo’s mockery in her voice, only genuine interest.
“Origami”, he said.
“Can I touch it?”
He hesitated, and she quickly said: “I’ll be very careful.”
She picked up a delicately folded bird and examined it closely.
“This is beautiful.”
He gave her a shy smile. “Thank you.”
She put down the bird again and her eyes roamed over the other figures. “You’re really good at this.”
“I’ve been practicing for a long time.”
He thought about it. “Oh, ever since I was… ten or eleven, I think.”
“Why do you do it?”
“It’s a kind of meditation technique, for me. It calms me down and helps me focus at the same time. It’s great for when I need to empty my mind, or to keep my hands busy.”
She turned away from the origami and sat down cross-legged on his bed.
“Who taught you?”
“My father gave me a book”, he said, “and I kind of taught myself.”
He stood awkwardly next to the bed, feeling like he should sit down, too, but not knowing where. He glanced towards the spare bed, but he didn’t like the thought of having to move his clothes. She followed his gaze and seemed to understand.
“Sit down”, she said, patting the mattress beside her. When he still hesitated, she moved all the way to the end of the bed to make room for him. He carefully sat down at the other end. There was an awkward silence, and he cast around for something to say.
“I saw you talk to Nairobi today?”
She nodded. “Yes. During your anatomy lesson this morning, she noticed the stretch marks on my stomach and she came to ask me if I had a child.”
“Did you tell her?”
“I did. She told me she’s a mother, too.”
That surprised him. “Really?”
“Yes. Though I don’t think she wants anyone to know, so don’t mention it to her.”
“Thank you. We talked about our children for a while. I told her how I’m doing this to get Paula back, and she seemed sympathetic. She said she trusts me more now that she knows why I’m here, and she promised me she’d vouch for me with the others.”
He smiled. “That’s great.”
“Yes”, she said. “I’m glad I told her. It makes me feel a little less lonely, somehow.”
He felt happy for her, but he didn’t know how to express that. Having her in his room, on his bed, was such a weird experience. She glanced towards his origami again.
“Were you a lonely child?”
He hesitated. “Look, that’s… a personal question.”
“Right”, she said quickly. “And I’m not supposed to ask those.”
She was quiet for a moment, then gave him a careful look and asked: “Aren’t we past that, though?”
“The point where we can’t ask each other personal questions.”
“We need to keep things professional.”
“We’re going to be stuck with each other in one room for ten days, though. Don’t you think it would be good if we were… friends?”
He stared at her. “I don’t… really have any friends.”
She shot him a look he couldn’t interpret. “That’s rather sad.”
He shook his head. “No, it’s alright. I prefer to be alone. I don’t need anybody.”
“That’s absurd”, she said gently. “We all need other people.”
“Of course you do.”
“I… I used to get lonely”, he said. “But I grew out of that.”
“Okay…” she said slowly, and he could see that she didn’t believe him.
“Really”, he said. “I see my brother a few times a year and that’s enough.”
“Then this must be rather a shock to your system, having to live with nine other people in the house, day after day.”
“It’s challenging”, he admitted. “I miss my privacy.”
She grimaced. “And here I am, barging into your room in the middle of the night. I’m sorry.”
She started getting off the bed, but he held up a hand to stop her. “No, please, it’s okay. I don’t really mind it when it’s you.” The moment he said it, he knew it was true. He didn’t mind having her in his personal space. For a moment, he felt surprise – he’d never been comfortable with anyone in his personal space. Then she spoke again and he pushed the thought away.
“So what do you think?”
“About us becoming friends.”
“What would that involve?”
“Well… it would mean that we sometimes talk to each other and that we care about each other’s happiness and wellbeing.”
“Oh”, he said, then he fell silent.
She gave him a few seconds, then she asked: “Oh?”
“Well…”, he said. “We already talk to each other sometimes.”
She nodded. “We do.”
“And… I don’t know about you, but…” He felt himself go slightly red, but he said it anyway. “I already care about your wellbeing. I mean…” he clarified quickly, “I’m the leader of the team, I care about everyone’s wellbeing.”
She gave him an amused look. “Of course. For what it’s worth, I care about your wellbeing too.”
“Well…”, he said carefully. “Are we already friends, then?”
“I don’t know”, she said, a corner of her mouth quirking up. “Are we?”
“Yes”, he said decidedly. “I think we are.”
The smile she gave him went straight through him. He had to look away – it was like trying to look into the sun.
“I’m glad you think so”, she said, then she laughed. “Looks like you accidentally made a friend.”
He felt a strange surge of happiness. “Looks like I did.”
“Alright”, she said, still smiling. “I think I’ll be able to sleep now.”
She got off the bed and crossed to the door.
She softly closed the door behind herself and he let himself fall back onto the mattress, staring up at the ceiling. The happiness inside his chest was overwhelming, and he felt like he would never sleep again.