Not long after the gauntlet was flung between them, Irinarhov had gone out for a cigarette and never come back.
Andrei stayed the remainder of the night, as a courtesy, in case he intended to reappear- drunk or otherwise impaired- but when evening rolled around again and there was no sign of Kassian, he cut his losses and gathered up his cigarettes and scarf.
He'd pretty much called it. Still, it was better that it happened now.
He'd blended back into the Lieutenants' barracks, no questions asked.
Imanov had been placed on mandatory psychiatric leave by Ocelot, he was told, and it frankly didn't surprise him, though it gave him a pinch of sadness on the underside of his soul.
Semeyonev and Kolyin were always on an opposite tour, so ultimately Andrei had the quarters to himself.
His post had been piling up.
They had taken to throwing it on his empty bunk. His bed was pristine, the corners still militarily matched and perfect.
Andrei had a strong desire to mess them up, and well.
He found one of Semeyonev's matchbooks, clipped from a Moscow hotel, and lit a cigarette. Then he fell indolently into his bunk and leaned back to read his mail, smoking.
His mind was quiet; almost unnaturally so. Unearthly stillness and a fine dusting of ice protected his shoulders.
Andrei had a pretty good idea of where Kassian had gone. He'd run to his treehouse, like a child.
He sighed, flicking ash and glancing out the window into the darkness beyond.
Perhaps it was for the best. There were no treehouses in Leningrad.
He slept hard, always had.
At home in Leningrad he had slept like a toppled statue, owning the expanse of the canopied bed in a classical sprawl.
Sometimes Lasha joined him on cold nights, wordlessly emerging from the dark, and then he slept hard in the stricture of his brother's fierce embrace, his sprawl hampered by a more insistent instinct.
Sometimes Lasha joined him on warm nights, and then he slept hard and held scarcely beneath the light weight of cool silk sheets and against his brother's smooth skin as Lasha's hand rested proprietarily on his hip.
Here, he slept hard between a hard-wrought sniper and a hard concrete wall, in a deep wall-mounted trough that the army called a bunk, and went to sleep with the scent of Kassian's hair and skin perfuming his linens, mingled with his own, fainter to his senses. Rustic and earthy, quiet with masculinity.
Isaev did not wake easily, but he did dream in vivid verisimilitude.
Tonight he dreamed a dream he had believed banished. He dreamed of battering, bludgeoning, beating.
He dreamed of boxing Tourangeau, and Lasha watched coolly from the sidelines near his corner. An associate kept his company. A sledge-jawed tough with idiosyncratic and impeccable grooming who drank in the violence like most men guzzled liquor.
When the final blow fell and Tourangeau was counted out, he lay still.
Andrei broke away from the referee, falling into a crouch, shaking the Frenchman's limp form.
But something was different.
Tourangeau- André- had fallen face down.
No, his conscious mind insisted faintly, that's not right. He fell flat on his back, looking up at dead heaven with eyes open but swollen so much as to be shut. Arms out like a starfish or Jesus Christ or like he wanted to hug you.
Isaev grasped a shoulder and yanked his prone form over, glaring down.
He'd killed Aryol.
Andrei's breath vaulted into a silent yell of horror and refusal, which ripped forth in his dream, but in the physical realm manifested as a shudder and an unwarned snarl, as his body shot forward at the waist, and then he was awake, shoulders taut and chest heaving unrestrained, bolt upright in the blue-dark.
Irinarhov was already awake by the time he came to himself. Awake and grasping his arm.
He slept like a hummingbird.
Andrei couldn't bring himself to lie back down and close his eyes just yet.
Dreams were persistent things.
Like Isaev himself.
It's fucking cold and damp.
Nights like this, I miss Leningrad. It would be nice, bratan, to have a long banya and a hot cocktail, and sit in the upstairs salon wrapped in white towels.
My fingers actually itch to touch an antimaccassar every now and then.
I actually miss looking up at a fucking baroque chandelier in the morning, or almost knocking over a Tsarist vase full of flowers.
I want to see a museum or a film or a play.
Instead I have coarse cotton and wool and iron, and books and white tile showers and a heatstove. It's rustic, but altogether not bad. It makes me realize man's needs are few- his comforts are easy, but his taste may be extravagant.
When I am next home, please take me to a tea house and a venik master. Tip thick and expensive liquor past my lips and then stagger me home to collapse in my canopied bed.
Love, Andrei Alexandrovich
He is drunk, but he is laughing.
He is drunk, but he has his wits about him. Enough, at least, to shepherd me.
He drags me from the ruined table where we sat drinking and singing, long after the others had found their beds. Drags me from the table to the washroom, with its scent of warm clean wood and soft bathing light, where he strips my clothes without ceremony, as I loll against the wall, feeling good- melted as a candle.
Into the banya, it is, to sober up in the heat. It does not sober us much.
I sprawl and watch him with eyes at half-mast.
My brother is naked. He is tall and his hair is as blond and sleek as ice. His body is all broad angles and trim, hard finishes. He has long, lean, ranging muscles, a pugilist utilitarianism- the kind that look good in uniform, and punishing without.
They say I look like him, that I am his mirror, reflect what he is, but I disagree. I am less a bullwhip and more a blackjack. I am broader-boned and modestly epic in proportion. My eyes do not show the same weather.
He is one of my favorite things to look at, drunk or not- but when I am drunk, my eyes can and do linger with all kinds of worshipful abandon, and there is no rational consequence.
The banya is almost too much for me, and I want to close my eyes.
He draws my head upright and shakes his own.
"Nyjiet, Angelochek," he admonishes, with good nature. "You bed isn't here."
He drags me up, off the bench, pulls me back against his chest. His skin is warmed and bare. Slightly slick.
I am drunk, but I can feel.
He molds me around him like clay, dragging me naked, out of the steam and into the anteroom.
He eases me onto a napping platform, and follows me down, losing his balance briefly. He's wiser than I. He does not fight with gravity, but settles beside me in the warmth of the room, murmuring something overly sentimental about our friendship.
"Brother," I drawl adoringly, fighting to caress his cheek with sprawling, slack arms. I incline my head, and it is sloppy, the way my eyes roll and attempt to find focus.
Comical, too, for I hear him laugh. The sound is quiet and it quiets me.
"You are a handful of trouble, Andrei," he says, softly, amused. "And your soul is a bowl of jokes."
I draw him close, skin against skin.
I wonder when a man becomes a lover.
The Codec buzz was low and casual in his ear, like a friend's murmur.
Andrei opened his eyes. He'd been dozing lightly, post-shower and weight regimen, relaxed and pleasurably fatigued.
"....Saev," he yawned, brushing his hair back with a lazy hand.
"Privet?" he asked, more cognizant now. "Eto Dmitrich?"
"Lieutenant," said a modulated voice, and he recognized Solofan Drashov, the GRU comm officer who dispatched all incoming communications. "Were you expecting a...personal call from the Leningrad Branch of the MVD?"
His voice sounded cheerfully dubious.
Isaev sat up, glancing at his watch.
"Da. On the dot. I'll come right down," he said, but Solofan made a dismissive noise.
"Don't bother. I can patch it through on your Codec transmission. That's what I do for the Major class. But surprise- works for you too, since Ocelots have nano." He paused. "What's your code and frequency?"
"ISA," Andrei said, impressed. "123.77."
"Transfer in ten," Drashov replied, briskly. "...Now you don't have to stop masturbating," he added, deadpan, and Andrei laughed, settling back.
The transmission went through a series of interesting sounds, all of which were mechanical, on Drashov's end, and nothing to do with internal Codec- and then he heard the inexplicably live sound of an open line, and silence.
"Ilarion?" he ventured, experimentally.
A laugh answered him, resonant and unrushed.
Andrei smiled, slowly, brightly.
"It's good to hear your voice, Anduriasha," said his brother, warmly. "I miss you."
"Ya skuchaju," replied Andrei, his voice softening. "You sound so close."
"I'm in Groznyj, actually," Ilarion told him. "So da, bratanka. A little closer than usual."
Andrei made a face.
"Groznyj? Why? What the hell is in Groznyj?"
"A conference of the Interior Ministry. Moscow branch was there as well. Best to do these things on neutral ground. Staves off infighting," Ilarion said, then Andrei heard a pause, as if he had gathered his breath. "Despite Moscow being here, I noted that Liadov was not attendance."
Andrei frowned, bemused at the sound of Nikanor's name issuing from his brother's lips in that sheared and formalized way.
"Staves off infighting indeed," he said quietly. "It seems like there's more than a little friction between Moscow and Leningrad these days."
Ilarion was silent for several moments.
"What has he told you?" he intoned, slowly at last. "That he loathes me? That we quarreled?" Lasha's dulcet voice dipped into ground glass. "...That we fought over a woman?"
The words were tipped in cynicism.
The bitterness in Lasha's tone took Andrei wholly aback.
"We haven't spoken much. He's been preoccupied."
"With...fucking murder, and god knows what else. He won't be returning to Moscow any time soon," Andrei said, obscurely. "It's not exactly simple, what they're looking into."
"He and his accompanying pathologist, Lieutenant Rakitin. He's on loan from KGB, I believe."
"Really. Nika has a traveling companion. Are they close?"
"Khui, I don't know, Lasha. They seem amicable enough. Polite."
Ilarion paused, and Andrei could taste the ice in his silence, knew exactly the expression he was wearing, all those miles away. No, not so many miles, he thought. Only in Groznyj, which was Chechnya, and far nearer to Tselinoyarsk than Leningrad.
The evening after the second body was found, Andrei was slugging the heavy bag again, alone in the gym. It was eight forty five. He was sweaty and adrenalized.
He wondered where Irinarhov was. He'd seen him only briefly, at a distance, as their duties crossed paths. The sniper's eyes had been pensive, and searching.
Andrei punched harder.
He wanted a shower. He wanted a bed. He wanted to keep pummeling something.
[ANDREI ALEXANDROVICH ISAEV]
YOUR LAST LETTER CONCERNS ME STOP I WILL CALL YOU AT 2100 STOP I THOUGHT NIKA WAS IN MOSCOW STOP TSELUYU LASHA STOP
Andrei lay in his bunk, unstirring, staring at the ceiling.
He was alone in the barrack; Kolyin and Semeyonev were out on night point, of course, as expected.
He was alone in his bed as well.
Imanov was on assignment.
Irinarhov was also on assignment.
They were together.
The idea was a strange one, but Andrei had to make peace with it- the sniper had assured him they’d worked out their antagonism, at least to a functional civility.
Ilya had said nothing to him about it as he suited up and kitted out, just offering him a tight smile and a firm touch on the shoulder that lingered a moment too long.
He seemed to go to great lengths to avoid acknowledging Irinarhov at all since he’d returned, Isaev had noted. He assumed that meant Ilya disapproved but couldn’t find a compelling reason to oppose their acquaintance.
Ilya was getting harder to read. Distance was mounting in his eyes.
Still, despite his carefully chosen words- (every one, Andrei felt somehow, was weighed against the feather of Ilya’s psychological judgement), one thing remained constant- the unflagging devotion in his pale eyes.
Pale like chrysoberyl, as if someone had mined them and slipped them beneath his sleeping lids as a final touch before baking him forever and a day, or however long it took to bake mankind.
Andrei supposed half of Ilya’s detachment was due to not wanting to voice his disgust over what was almost certainly too romantic of a comradeship. Unmanful. Or too manful. He understood him well enough, if that was what he thought. Sometimes the sniper casually crossed lines that even Andrei hadn’t imagined.
Such as the tattered, battered target he had been staring up at, unseeing all this time. Strange gesture. Too sweet to be manful, in contrast to a drunken mea culpa over a bottle of vodka. And yet too perfunctory to be unmanful- it wasn’t flowery in nature, or excessive.
Sometimes he would catch Kasya looking at him, at odd moments- usually when he was engaged in something nonchalant and unremarkable, like leaning against a wall or laughing, or lighting a cigarette for someone else.
In those moments, the smoldering look in Irinarhov’s eyes was too ancient for him to interpret, too primal and strange for him to reconcile.
So he didn’t try.
A man that quiet had thoughts that never saw the light of day, and never would with any amount of mining.
Only unpredictable natural rockslides would unearth those deepest notions, the subtle shifting of techtonic plates. Then something would grind and break free and fall from Kassian’s lips like coal.
The dark and rougher cousin of a diamond.
Andrei could persuade many things from those lips.
But persuasion was where he drew the line.
He knew he could force Irinarhov to spill his inner monologue by dogging and dredging him relentlessly, but he was content to tolerate his own uncertainty.
Isaev had no wish to drag the sniper’s raw thoughts out into the light for his personal satisfaction.
He rolled over onto his side, and his eye fell on the newspaper clipping Marijya had enclosed in her last letter.
A younger version of himself, looking upward like the Great Soviet Hope, eyes lucid and fore-gazing, hands bound in tape and held at his chin in a ready stance.
Andrei Isaev, before Spetsnaz, before killschool.
Before Siberia, and his tenure as a Lynx.
Before he’d shoved in his mouthpiece over a grin, hit gloves and gone to fight an amicable opponent to the death, unknowing.
Andrei’s jaw petrified into stoic contrition and he closed his eyes with a sigh.
I haven not written you letters in weeks now, and I am very sorry for that.
The reason for my lack of a letter was personal. I now am write in English, for Papa does not speak it enough to read. I do not think he is read my post, but is best be sure always now.
Things were going not so well with Papa. He had very much desided I was not to be trusted to choose my own sweetheart, and what they did to him I do not know.
I cry at first, before I realize there is no useful.
Lasha did take me away from Leningrad, and so to make me forget, but I did not. I only came quiet as days go on and I know he is gone for me.
No use to be grieving then. What ever they do is done.
When I come back from Moscow I am not Papa's little girl now. I have cut off my hair, and when he saw it, I though he turn white and die right there, Andrei!
But he say little to me of it, little at all actually.
He act as if he is afraid of me.
I do not understand, and when I ask Lasha, he only gives me smile like thorn and sayes "He sees Mother in you now."
I do not understand Lasha. He love you very much, though. Keeps all your photos and letters. He give me leave to go through them when I ask, and sometimes look with me, smoking and smiling.
I find this news clipping picture from Krasnaya Zvezda
, in it you are before boxing, no? It is make me laugh quite a little, for you are so young! How this boy could hit anything is mysterious me, but Ilarion says that you do, even then, and very hard! This is propaganda picture of best kind, surely!
But for writing, I may keep in English. I wish there were some other way to speak to you. I will try to device something, Andrasha.
I know that Lasha does write you always, but surely you missed my letters a little too? If not, you must lie!
I miss you, Andrasha.
I want you should come home, or I should come for visit. They will to let poor sisters come, yes?
If not, I disguise myself as stupid boy. Haha!
|Letter from the desk of Illarion Isaev, Captain of the Internal Service.
I took Marushka to the dacha this last week. I apologize for not writing. You know I was thinking of you night and day. Papa said it would be best if she were out of town when her unsuitable suitor was dealt with. I'm of a mind to agree, except that it might well have proved a valuable lesson in romantic selection for the girl. She should know by now that negotiating a good prospect at the outset is more far more painless than putting herself through the ramifications of choosing the son of a known dissident.
She knew, of course, and wept and carried on all the way there. I was silent, of course. She called me many terrible names, as I expected, and when she was done I asked her if she felt better, with just a bit of venom in my tone, bratan, because she can't think this is easy for me.
Sometimes I grit my teeth, Andrusha. She doesn't know how well she has it. All she has to do is follow a few simple rules, and she never need touch ugliness. Mariyja has utter freedom, within so very few caveats- and yet she rails with her cup against unseen bars as if she were a prisoner.
She sat on the rocks of the sea shore all day. I let her. When it was evening, my compassion got the best of me. I finally went out to bring her a shawl, and she took it with a bitter look in her eyes. She told me I would never know what it was like.
She called herself a prisoner of circumstance.
I said nothing. I was afraid, in that moment, that I might actually strike her, Andrei- and that thought scared me to death.
She doesn't know what it means to be a prisoner of circumstance.
She only knows what it is to want the few things she can't have in the whole world. Not to have a whole world what she doesn't want.
She came in sometime later. I was sitting by the fire, brooding, I admit.
"Lasha," she said, "don't be angry. I can't bear it when you're angry. You're all I have, now that Andrei is gone."
"You have Papa," I pointed out.
"No," she said. "Papa has me. I want no part of him."
"How fortunate you are," I told her, in a frozen tone, "to have the liberty to make and keep such pronouncements, dear sister."
Her eyes softened and she looked away.
"Lasha," she said, "I know you mean well."
She laid her head in my lap like a little girl, and I thawed fully once more.
"Then let me take care of you. I know what's best, Mashushka."
She slept, then, deep and untroubled as a fox kit before the fire.
But I felt no peace until hours later.
Andrei- is it so much to ask that she live between the strictures of society? Live up to her birth? When she was a child, she spoke of marrying Nikasha, you might remember- how she toddled after him declaring her love. We laughed, of course, but would that she had kept to those aspirations-
Well, not Nika, of course. She's entirely unsuitable and wrong for him, but you understand my meaning.
But again, we find ourselves locking horns, and she will always lose, because the State is me. Why does she do this, when she knows I suffer for it? I am the one who must draw the lines when she carelessly ignores them.
At any rate, Andrei, by week's end she had come round again, and become thoroughly disinterested in this young man. Fickle, our dear sister. Her capriciousness is amusing. And after such a display.
She was still angry at Father, however, so when we returned to Petrograd, so promptly took a train to Moscow and got all her hair hacked off in the newest "mod" fashion from the pages of the contraband London magazines you always send her.
Papa was dismayed, I was amused, and since you are indirectly the abetting progenitor of this style, I thought you might like to see for yourself. This is one of the pocket-sized portraits she had taken directly after it was done, and presented to Papa.
I thought he would have a heart attack.
What do you think?
...I think it's not half bad, actually.
It makes her look not unlike you.