© 2013 Cosmo

This Story is works of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are either the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously and any resemblance to actual persons living or dead, events or locales is entirely coincidental.

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Chapter 9: Breakthrough

Once we were inside the main entrance, our uniformed security guys surrounded us and barred the doors, leaving the press pack outside. I ushered the boys over to the elevator and we promptly jumped in. When the elevator doors slid shut and the elevator car was moving, we were able to breathe a sigh of relief. I looked at the boys. They appeared visibly shaken. Even Anton had a look on his face that said, "what just happened?"

"That was a close one huh?" I said, smiling, trying to lighten the mood a little.

In the confined space of the elevator, we stood close together. Looking down at Yura, I lifted his chin and asked if he was okay. He nodded bravely, swallowing hard. Vladik was fidgeting nervously, shuffling his feet and clenching his hands into little fists, a sure sign of discomfiture. Then I felt Yura reach up and take hold of my hand, seeking reassurance. I clasped his little hand tightly. Vladik saw that. He appeared almost envious of Yura. So he reached up and slipped his little hand into Anton's. Anton was clearly not expecting that, but he looked down and saw Vladik's worried face and he smiled, grasping Vladik's little hand tightly, and gave it a reassuring squeeze. Then he glanced over at me, seeing that I had observed what had just happened, and he smiled resignedly, looking surprised, but also vaguely delighted.

Elena met us by the elevator and escorted us to the conference room. On the way, I introduced her to Anton. I told her briefly that he had appeared in some of those videos, and before that he had been at the children's home with Yura. Without going into too much detail, I explained that he was now attending college here. I avoided trying to justify how we had come to meet, and fortunately Elena didn't deign to ask. Elena was overjoyed to meet Vladik finally, and apologized for not being able to accompany him on the flight from Moscow. Vladik said nothing. He was not as sociable as Yura. He remained surly, apparently unwilling to engage in small talk.

When we reached the conference room, there was a huddle of people sitting at one end of the long table, nearest the door. I immediately recognized the guy from the Russian embassy. There were others from Children's Services and Yura's psychotherapist was there too. Significantly, there was no one there from the Moscow City Police this time. I could see Vladik's hesitation as we neared the door, and he almost hid behind Anton as we went in, not at all comfortable with all these officious looking people in the room. Yura had of course seen it all before.

We all sat down, spreading ourselves evenly around the table, and chatted as we waited for Nikolayev. Elena served us drinks from the little cabinet at the far end of the room. Yura took a can of soda. Vladik said he didn't want anything. Elena frowned. Something told me that her experience of being a mother meant she was infinitely capable of reinterpreting these boys' behavior, and knew perfectly well that they didn't always mean what they said, so she thrust a can of soda into his hand anyway.

"It's going to be your birthday soon isn't it?" Elena said, turning to Yura, as she came to join us at the table.

Yura seemed completely unprepared for her question.

"Ah, yeh, pretty soon," he said, taking a swig of his soda.

Elena nodded encouragingly.

"You'll be eleven," she went on.

I turned to Yura.

"You're growing up," I said to him.

He tried to look pleased, but I sensed a little pained expression behind his forced smile, as though his inevitable growing older made him sad somehow. Perhaps he sensed his childhood slipping away.

"We'll have to do something for your birthday," Elena suggested.

"Yeah, a party," I enthused, "Would you like that?"

Yura shrugged, seemingly quite indifferent.

"Sure, why not?" he said, but his words were without depth.

I watched Vladik, who was sitting quite stiffly in his chair, defensively crossing his arms. It was almost as though he was trying to make himself inconspicuous. His soda was sitting there untouched. In contrast, Yura had slumped forward across the table, looking at his reflection in the polished veneer, and he had his arms stretched out, fiddling with a pad and pencil.

At that point Nikolayev came in and shut the door. He greeted everyone warmly, and I introduced Anton, whom he had obviously never met. For the moment he was content to accept Anton's presence, but stopped short of asking anything about his background. There seemed to be more pressing matters at hand.

Nikolayev stood at the end of the table in his neatly pressed shirt and pleated slacks, looking immaculate as always, and addressed us all with a pleased expression.

"For those of you who haven't heard, we arrested six men in Moscow last night."

There were smiles and murmurs of approval from around the table. No wonder the media were sniffing around, I thought, although I did question why I hadn't been told this before.

"Operation Ganymede is a success," Nikolayev went on, "And I'm pleased that Alex is here with us safe and sound."

There were nods of encouragement towards Vladik, but the unwarranted interest in him only seemed to cause him to shrink further into his seat.

Nikolayev then switched to Russian and said "Welcome Alex," to Vladik, who looked up briefly, then promptly looked back down again. He didn't enjoy the attention.

Nikolayev went on to give further details about the arrests that the Moscow City Police had made, and what was going to happen next. He gushed a little about Operation Ganymede coming to a close and about this being the culmination of months of intensive investigation, and the wonderful cooperation between my unit and the Moscow City Police in bringing about this satisfying conclusion. For my part I thought that Nikolayev's praise of Operation Ganymede was mostly hyperbole. The only reason we were sitting here was because the pornographers got sloppy. I remembered what Zhukov had told me. They were putting out new videos using Vladik, and that was what led us to them. All we had done was follow the careless trail they had left. It had very little to do with our painstaking efforts.

As Nikolayev was talking, one of the female PAs slipped silently into the room and leaned towards him discreetly as he stood there, talking quietly into his ear. As she did so, he looked over at me.

"Excuse me," he said, "there's a rather urgent call I must take."

He turned and followed the PA out of the door.

Fifteen minutes later, I was summoned to Nikolayev's office. He was standing over by the seating area. There was something in his demeanor that told me all was not well. He did not look pleased. My discomfort increased as he beckoned me over to the sofas. I sat down on one of the sofas and he stood in front of me. He looked very imposing. I looked up at him as though he was some kind of revered pedagogue, and his dark eyes looked directly at me.

"Congratulations Mark," he began, in a quiet, almost imperceptible tone.

It was always worrying when Nikolayev spoke quietly.

"You know where I've just come from?"

I said nothing, confident that he was about to give me the answer.

"I've just come off the phone to the Editor-in-Chief of Russia Today," he went on.

I continued staring blankly, half suspecting what was about to follow.

"Congratulations Mark, you're going to make primetime news!"

He stood in the middle of the seating area with his hands on his hips. I carried on sitting on the sofa in front of him feeling like an errant schoolboy in the principal's study.

"I've just had to apologize like I've never apologized to anyone in my life," he went on, "You've made this unit look like a laughing stock, like a bunch of amateurs. Did you really have to push her over?"

"She fell!" I put in.

"You pushed her!" Nikolayev exclaimed, "You lost your cool."

"She had the microphone right in his face!" I appealed, in my defense.

He looked disappointed. He hung his head down for a moment and took a deep breath.

"Don't you understand?" he said, raising his head in appeal, "We need the media on our side in this."

"Well, put out a statement then," I countered, "set up a proper press conference."

"Those boys aren't ready for that!" he said, dismissively.

"No, you'd rather they were left to the mercy of that pack of wolves," I said, critically.

Nikolayev stared at me for a long time. For the first time ever I thought I saw a trace of perspiration on his top lip. Was he feeling the pressure?

"It's not like you Mark. What is it? Is this assignment starting to get to you?" he asked.

"What are you implying?"

"I don't need to imply anything," he shot back, "the evidence is right there," and he pointed to the little plasma screen on the office wall.

"I'm sick and tired of always being the last to know!" I complained.

"Just do your job Mark," he said, lowering his tone.

"Funny," I said, "I thought that's what I was doing."

He looked around the room, then back at me, and saw how I was surveying him with a grave expression, and he seemed to mellow a little.

"Look, we all need time to reflect and decide what to do next. I think it would be a good idea for you and the boys to disappear for a couple of days. Get them away from the publicity. I want them out of the spotlight. I want the press to focus on the success of Operation Ganymede. We need time to let things calm down a bit. And you could also do with a break."

"What would you suggest?"

"Take the boys on a long weekend. Go spend some time in the forest. Go to the coast, the mountains, wherever. Just get away for a few days."

The next morning, the newspaper headline said it all: 'PORN BOYS: THE NET CLOSES', with a few paragraphs about the arrests in Moscow. There were several column inches on the front page about Operation Ganymede, but clearly it was all superficial stuff - nothing of substance and certainly nothing new. But underneath that was the smaller headline: 'Reporter Hurt in Melee'. So it was a melee now? Where did they get words like that from? There was a small photo of the scene on the steps outside HQ with Valentina Kuznetsova, the correspondent from Russia Today, unceremoniously flailing about on the ground. Luckily the picture was taken sideways on, with all our faces either obscured or looking away from the camera. Except Anton. He was clearly visible, but no one really knew who he was. I chuckled to myself as I sipped my coffee. Porn Boys indeed. The media were so predictable. Operation Ganymede was too much of a mouthful, too obscure a phrase with too many syllables. So it had been reduced to two simple words: Porn Boys. They had chosen to dumb it down, processing the story into a readily digestible format for mass consumption. They had managed to neatly pre-package the entire affair, summarizing the whole story with a single catch-all phrase. It was so typical of the way the media worked.

I had already called Nikolayev and asked him if it would be okay for me to send some flowers to Valentina, by way of apology. He agreed that was a nice gesture. He told me she was okay and not badly hurt. Apparently her only injury was a sore wrist.

Looking at the newspaper headlines, I knew Nikolayev was right. We needed to get away. I had thought about it and came up with an idea: I would take the boys to Crystal Lake. That wasn't its real name, but that's how it was known by the locals. It was a place of ultimate beauty and serenity, and a location which I had taken many boys to when I worked with Boyscape. It was the perfect place for solitude and reflection, being twenty five miles from the nearest town. It was so remote it was ideal for losing yourself for a few days and immersing yourself in nature. Boys always loved it.

Earlier that morning I invited Anton to join us for the trip to Crystal Lake. I had handed him a sheaf of hundred dollar bills and sent him to the optometrist to get his spectacles repaired. He was pleased to accept my invitation. So it was all settled. As soon as Anton got back, we would load up the SUV and disappear for the weekend.

Whilst Anton was at the optometrist, I waited for Yura and Vladik to come down for breakfast. I heard them approach, chatting animatedly as they came in from the drawing room. I folded up the newspaper and put it aside. They stunned me by coming into the kitchen with only towels wrapped around them. They were nudging each other and giggling, still wet from their shared shower. Each of them was clutching an oversized bath towel, which they were wearing like a cape, but didn't appear to have used them very effectively. Yura's thick black hair was ruffled into wet spikes which still had droplets of water on the ends. Vladik's golden hair was still completely saturated and was plastered flat onto his head. Their smooth little bodies were still shiny where they had failed to dry themselves, Vladik's slightly tanned skin tone contrasting with Yura's lighter creaminess. It was as if neither of them had stopped to dry off at all and had simply come down straight out of the shower. Doubtless they were too busy amusing themselves and were too caught up in their joshing and joking to care very much about the trail of little wet footprints they had left behind. They immediately fell silent as they came into the kitchen. They sat down next to each other on the high stools on the other side of the central island, still dripping wet, the towels still draped around their shoulders.

I had set out some things for breakfast, which Yura immediately delved into with some relish. There was a big serving plate piled high with assorted goodies. He picked up a filled bagel and instantly began chewing away on it, his cheeks bulging as his little jaw worked up and down. Without saying anything, Yura smiled at me as he masticated. I smiled back at him and got up to pour him a glass of milk. I took two glasses and poured one out. I left the other empty. Vladik probably wouldn't drink it if I poured it out for him, so I set the carton of milk down in front of him. It was safer to let him help himself. Vladik took a cursory look at the offerings piled up before him on the big plate, as usual looking unimpressed. But at least he made an attempt to try something. He selected a Danish pastry and took a little semicircular bite out of it, then put it back on the plate. Then he took a doughnut and nibbled on the rim, putting that back on the plate. Next he took a blueberry muffin and bit a chunk out of it, but put that back on the plate as well. Having sampled everything, he then leaned back on his stool, and dissociated himself from the breakfast things by feigning distraction. He leaned onto the counter with one elbow and half turned towards Yura. With his other hand, he reached over and stroked Yura's back. It was ever such an affectionate gesture, the maturity of which stunned me a little. Yura turned and smiled at him, obviously enjoying the attention. You could tell these two boys were really into each other. I caught Yura's gaze and, saying nothing, looked at the pile of things on the plate with Vladik's little teeth marks in them and smiled. Yura giggled. He took the initiative to pick something from the plate and offered it to Vladik. It was a chocolate croissant. Vladik looked at it, then accepted it gratefully, taking a bite out of it without hesitation. He seemed to like it, so he continued munching on it, at the same time smearing his little fingers with the chocolate filling. It was interesting that Vladik was willing to accept something from Yura when it was offered, but not if it was coming from me. No matter. He seemed to enjoy the chocolate croissant, even though he only ate half of it and discarded the rest.

Vladik's grudging surliness was set to continue. He disliked me a great deal, to the degree that he studiously avoided me as much as possible. He neither spoke to me, nor looked me in the eye. He appeared to be harboring a seething resentment which he reserved especially for me. It seemed as though all the things he was bitter and hateful about were being directed towards me, as though I somehow represented everything he loathed about his life and all the things that had happened to him. It was unwarranted, but not altogether unfamiliar. Vladik was not the first boy I had encountered like this. I knew from experience that the only thing to do was to ride it out. He would either mellow in his own time, or deliberately push things to a dramatic conclusion.

As it was, Vladik started to push things a lot sooner than I expected. The first significant outburst happened soon after breakfast. He was frosty and uncommunicative towards me as it was. He hardly needed an excuse to vent his anger. Just about anything I did would have given him cause to flare up at me. So it was all the more ironic that I incurred his wrath just when I least expected it.

All I had said was "Don't play on the games console for too long." I was mindful of the fact that we were supposed to be getting ready to leave fairly soon. It wasn't even a demand, simply a polite request. But it was enough. Enough to make Vladik rise up threateningly and throw the games controller clattering across the floor, and he screamed at me.

"You can't tell me what to do! You're not my dad!"

And with that, he stormed out of the room in a rage. He slammed the door hard as he went, making the whole room shudder.

The times young boys had thrown that odious phrase at me. It was the all-encompassing refrain, the universal get-out clause that was designed to renounce any authority you might lay claim to; a definitive rebuttal of any influence you might have. Worse than that, it was a denial of any good relations that might have previously existed. Not that there were good relations between me and Vladik. It would not have made much difference if I was his dad, I mused. I doubted whether our being father and son would have made him any more amenable.

Nevertheless, when it came, I was quite unprepared for his explosive tantrum. I was left standing in the middle of the room totally immobilized by his overreaction. Yura, who had been sitting on the sofa next to Vladik, sat there looking up at me with a worried expression, shocked by Vladik's sudden fit of rage, but also with some sympathy for me. I felt sorry for him. He was confused and didn't quite know how he should deal with Vladik's behavior. He didn't really understand it. Most probably he had never seen Vladik behave in such a way, and he was still trying to adjust their previous relationship to the new circumstances in which they now found themselves.

I took a deep breath and thought I had better go and see if he was okay. Vladik was still an unknown quantity and I had no clue as to what he might do in his heightened state of turmoil. I left Yura on the sofa and went upstairs. I found the door to Yura's room wide open. I peered inside. There was no sign of Vladik, but I noticed that the door to the ensuite bathroom was locked shut. I stepped into the room and listened at the bathroom door. There was a muted, barely audible sound. It was the sound of sobbing coming from within. It was Vladik. I listened for a moment to the deep, plaintive howls and the heavy sobs of a little soul obviously in distress. His high pitched voice was emitting little squeals of pain. How I grieved for that little boy at this moment. What a shame he felt he had to weep in secret. Despite his angry outburst, I wanted to take him in my arms and soothe his tears. Even in the aftermath of his unkind and accusatory words, I wanted to hold him, wrap him in a warm embrace and show him that there were people who genuinely loved him. But the locked door was a barrier, an immovable, estranging shield, preventing me from administering the comfort I knew he so badly craved. And as I listened to that poor little boy, at that moment consumed by his solitary grief, I couldn't help shedding a couple of silent tears for him and my heart nearly burst with compassion.

We had been driving for hours. It was a good thing I had Anton with me to share the driving. He was quite enamored by the prospect of driving the Constellation, so I was only too pleased to hand over the controls to him, while I relaxed in the passenger seat. He confessed he had never driven a car so big, but he soon adjusted to the dimensions of the heavy SUV. We had a long way to go. Crystal Lake was still some distance away and we would be on the road for hours yet. We drove for such a long time that we had long ago left behind the claustrophobia of the city streets for the open country roads where there was nothing but the winding asphalt of the road, flat, open ground on either side and telephone poles lining the route. The big engine purred softly up front as the road flashed by beneath us. I reclined in the passenger seat. Yura and Vladik were in the back, as usual slumped together affectionately. They had chatted for ages, and spent a good long while whispering in each other's ears and giggling manically. Then finally, they quieted down and fell asleep. There was a blanket thrown loosely over them which they had snuggled under and they were fast asleep in each other's arms. I saw Anton glance in the rearview mirror, and I knew he had noted their closeness.

"They're pretty close those two huh?" I observed.

"Yeah," he concurred, "They've always been good together. From the very first day I saw them, I knew there was something very special going on between those two."

I watched Anton as he was driving and admired his new glasses. They were pretty much the same as the old ones, but it was good that he had stuck to the round wire-rimmed style which had almost become part of his persona. I thought about this enigmatic young man and the unusual way I had come to know him, and I was struck by the way he had so comfortably eased himself into my life. I liked Anton. I liked Anton a lot. I perhaps stared at him for a little too long.

"What?" he said, with a quick sideways glance.

"How did you manage to find Yura?" I asked, suddenly overcome with curiosity as to how he had engineered our little liaison.

"What do you mean?"

"Well, I know you like to keep up with what people are saying on the internet," I said, "But how did you end up following us around?"

"I knew something was happening when there was talk of Yura being flown out of Moscow, so I asked around," he said.

I sat there looking over at him, waiting for him to elaborate.

"You want to know the truth?" he said, leaning over confidentially, still keeping his eyes on the road, "I had a little help."

"What sort of help?"

"Some of your colleagues at the police department are clients of mine," he said, with a self-satisfied smirk, "You'd be surprised what they will confide in you when they get to know you."

I looked at him, not sure if he was serious.

"You mean..." and I couldn't bring myself to finish the sentence.

His eyes were on the road ahead, but he looked over at me momentarily.

"What? You don't believe that police officers would use boys like me?"

"Oh, I know it goes on," I said, "I'm not na´ve enough to believe that police officers are all perfect."

"That's right," he said, with a cheeky grin, "And you should know."

To which we both laughed good-naturedly.

As we approached Crystal Lake, I drove the car down the dirt road that wound around the southern end of the lake and led out towards a flat open area. There was a clearing that was surrounded by trees on one side, and gradually fell away towards the edge of the lake on the other. The lake was about a half a mile across at its narrowest point, and on the far side was a thickly wooded area, and beyond that the hilly terrain that was perfect for nature trails and orienteering. Way over on the horizon, the mountains rose up in a dull, almost transparent haze. The view across the lake was stunning. The car lumbered shakily down the uneven dirt road, jiggling us about in our seats as it negotiated the potholes, and I brought it to a halt as close to the edge of the clearing as possible. As soon as Yura caught sight of the lake his eyes widened and he rose up stiffly in the back seat, staring in wonderment at the beauty of it. He said he had never seen anything like it. At this time of the early evening, when the water was calm and undisturbed, the surface of the lake was so smooth, it was like a sheet of glass. The lake was spring fed, so the water was clear. It was so clear that even down to a depth of twelve feet, you could easily see the sandy bottom. That was what gave Crystal Lake its name.

We set about unloading our equipment from the back of the car and Yura jumped out. He ran excitedly down towards the lake to get a better view. Conversely, Vladik refused to get out of the car at all. He hadn't been very cooperative when we were preparing to leave, and had chosen not to assist in any way with loading things into the car. Now that we had arrived, his truculence persisted. Anton and I proceeded to establish our little camp on the shores of the lake, and we worked hard, anxious to have everything set up by the time it got dark. Vladik, for the time being, remained steadfastly in the car, staring out of the rear window, thus unequivocally confirming his disengagement and registering his ongoing resentment to the entire expedition.

It was Anton that finally managed to coax Vladik from the car. I watched Anton poke his head into the back of the car, where Vladik was languishing in solitude on the back seat, and he spent a good long time with the door open just a few inches, and he was talking to Vladik through the opening. Eventually, their negotiations came to fruition and Anton succeeded in persuading Vladik to emerge, somewhat grudgingly, but nevertheless compliant. Anton and Vladik seemed to have established an unspoken understanding between them.

As we were pitching the tent, Yura tried to help, but truthfully only got in the way. I asked him to take Vladik down to the lake to see if they could find a good place for us to swim. They scampered off to explore, yammering away excitedly. Meanwhile, Anton and I worked well together. It was amazing to see how, when we were pitching the tent, he fetched and carried things for me and attentively held the tent pegs for me as I hammered them into the ground. He just seemed to know instinctively what needed doing, and he was always there with just the right tool or the exact piece of paraphernalia I needed, without having to be asked. Anton was indispensable. I could fully understand why the pornographers had used him as an 'older brother' in the making of those movies. He was able to render the boys utterly compliant, and had a gift for smoothing things over and keeping everything on an even keel. He was a natural facilitator, one of those rare people that are infinitely helpful and resourceful and seem to have a flair for minimizing conflicts and overcoming snags.

Anton impressed me a great deal. He offered to build a fire to cook dinner. We had enough food for an impromptu barbecue, and he told me just to leave it to him. So whilst I finished setting up the tent, and stowing away our gear, he went off to fetch some firewood. At one point, when I was inside the tent arranging the sleeping bags, I happened to glance out of the opened tent flap, and I watched the way he was building the fire, with the wood that he had collected. He had stripped off his shirt, and was carrying armfuls of wood that left dirty little smears all over his well-defined chest and abs. As he was preparing to split the wood with a little tomahawk, I observed how his lean, compact body folded up so gracefully as he knelt down, how his torso curved so lithely as he crouched there, and how the muscles of his back flexed as he worked. The lats in his sides tapered down to his narrow hips, and the deltoids in his shoulders bulged tangibly every time he raised the ax, and his smooth young skin was coated in a fine sheen of sweat that made his taut teen body glisten. What a handsome young man he was.

Anton did all the cooking. He grilled burgers and chicken and corn on the cob, and even potatoes which he wrapped in aluminum and baked in the fire. There was not a hint of protest from Vladik, who passively joined us for dinner around the campfire. Vladik happily ate whatever Anton gave him. We gathered around the fire, sat together in a little huddle with the fire as a focal point, and I watched how the boys tucked into their enormous burgers. Their little hands were barely able to keep the unwieldy assemblies of those oversized burgers together. But they ate everything Anton served up, thus confirming what I already knew to be true of boys their age - that they are all little eating machines and will consume vast quantities when allowed unfettered access to food.

Anton continued to prove amazingly resourceful and inventive. It was clear he had done all this before. After dinner, he went and fetched his guitar from the car. It was one of the very few things he had brought with him when he came back from the optometrist that morning. He said he had planned some entertainment for us and offered to sing some songs he'd written. So, after we had cleared up the dinner things, we sat around the campfire and Anton began a performance which completely enchanted and captivated us all. He proved to be extremely talented, with not only a little repertoire of songs he'd written himself, but an ability to play the guitar that was as good as any recorded music I had ever heard. That was complemented by a soft, but powerful voice that was so melodic, it could almost have been created for singing. He held the guitar close, like it was a valuable companion, in that comfortable, over-familiar way that all musicians have, and he strummed that guitar so gently, so lightly, and yet the music came belting out. Then when he got a catchy little rhythm going, he opened his mouth and started crooning lyrics to quite a complex musical arrangement, adjusting his voice to the tempo, throwing his head back and closing his eyes on the more emotional parts. There was so much passion in his songs, you could tell they were not merely contrived little ditties that he had fabricated to some prescribed formula. These songs were so powerful, so emotional, you knew they came from the heart. His lyrics were full of sadness and tribulation, with stories of heartbreak and regret and missed opportunities, but his ultimate message was one of hope and love. And when he closed his eyes and threw his head back as he sang, it was like he was venting his soul to the world. He was exceptionally talented. And as I sat there, watching and listening, I thought about the utter complexity of this boy, and the sheer depth of his character. I thought about how amazing he was. The mystique and wonder of this beautiful young man left me feeling breathless and awestruck. He was popular, talented, infinitely capable, extremely astute, and of course incredibly good-looking.

The boys too were completely enthralled by Anton. As he was singing, I watched the way the boys were looking on wondrously, the glow of the fire reflected in the perfect skin of their pretty young faces. Anton had cultivated an excellent rapport with the boys, especially Vladik. They genuinely liked him. Even though he was singing in English, they were tapping their little feet and even clapping along, having been transported right out of themselves and completely wrapped up in the magic of the music that enveloped them. At the end, in a rousing finale, Anton struck up a song in Russian, which had a cheerful, upbeat, folk-rock type feel to it, to which all three of them started singing away. They all seemed to know the song. I didn't know it, but when the chorus came around again I joined in, and when they heard me accompany them, they looked at me and smiled with delight, even as they were singing, and we finished up all singing together. And as I watched Yura and Vladik singing together, their little high-pitched treble voices contrasting nicely with Anton's seasoned baritone, I marvelled at how lucky we all were. We were lucky to have been brought together like this, lucky to be sharing these momentous hours. I was grateful for their companionship and realized what an incredible benevolence and love I felt towards them. It felt like we were a unit - a loving, tightly-knit little group with genuine affection for each other, like some kind of unique, monosexual family.

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