Gushchin learns the hard way that surviving a near-death experience together is not a solid foundation for a relationship. He and Sasha last two years before the divorce. Maybe they got off lucky – no kids, not much property to split up. Gushchin simply packs a suitcase one night and leaves.
He regrets it for a moment, when he signs the papers a month later, but it’s only a moment. Perhaps Sasha was right the first time they broke up – they’re attracted to each other, but not compatible.
It’s the same month that Andrei gets a job at Aeroflot and is assigned to Gushchin’s crew.
Working with each other again is surreal in a way. They deal with it by not talking much and nodding stiffly at each other before boarding.
Andrei is still never the one to bring him coffee anymore, and Gushchin misses something about that.
Gushchin had expected to not think much about Kanwoo after it was all over. They had done all they could. They had survived against all odds. There was nothing left to think about.
Yet he still finds himself waking up from occasional nightmares filled with fire, shrieks of the wounded, the frantic beeping of monitors and sensors in the cockpit, the terror of not knowing what was happening to Sasha—
The unacknowledged, sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach when Andrei was the last person left in that burning minivan and there was a good chance he wasn’t going to make it.
During his marriage he had made every effort to make sure Sasha never noticed a thing. She would not appreciate a man who could not deal with a little overexcitement. He even resents himself for the weakness.
He’s ex-military. These things should not bother him so much.
Somehow, not talking to her about it had only made the nightmares worse.
Mortifyingly, he has one of these nightmares in Toronto during a long layover. He falls asleep on a row of empty seats and wakes up muttering nonsense, shivering feverishly.
The first thing he sees is Andrei who is kneeling beside him on the cold, hard floor, a cup of what smells like an Americano forgotten to one side.
“You’re dead,” Gushchin blurts out, still half asleep, his brain catching up sluggishly to reality.
“No,” Andrei says calmly. “It’s a bad dream. You’re alright. Everything’s alright.”
Gushchin suddenly becomes aware of Andrei’s hand on his shoulder and the heat of it is unbearable. He shrugs it off and sits up so fast his head spins. He runs a hand through his hair and over his face, embarrassed and annoyed. More at himself, but also at Andrei for being in the wrong place at the right time.
Andrei picks up the coffee cup and takes a seat next to Gushchin. He hands him the coffee and smiles tentatively. “Black. No Sugar.”
They sit in silence for a while. Gushchin can’t decide if it would be more embarrassing to try to explain or to let Andrei assume whatever he wants and act like nothing happened. Finally, Andrei fishes a card out of his bag and stands. He hands the card to Gushchin and says quietly, clearly trying to be discrete, “You should see someone. It helps.”
Gushchin watches him walk away before glancing down at the card. He sneers and tosses it into the nearest trashcan. He doesn’t need a shrink. He certainly doesn’t need someone telling him to see a shrink.
It’s just the divorce and working with Andrei again that got him all mixed up. He would have gotten over it by now otherwise.
The coffee in his hand is still warm and he considers tossing it as well in irritation. Instead, he cradles the cut against him temple and pretends he doesn’t see Andrei’s face when he closes his eyes to gather his thoughts before the next flight.
Winters are harsh in Murmansk and getting snowed in over New Years was unfortunate, but not astonishing.
The airport is nearly empty. Most people have preferred to go home or find accommodations in the city, rather than welcome in the new year in an airport terminal. It’s mostly only some of the pilots, crew members and airport staff who are still standing by.
Gushchin watches from a polite distance as Andrei battles horrible reception in the middle of a deserted terminal to break the news to his girlfriend back home. He paces anxiously, his mouth turned down in a frustrated frown. He looks far more frazzled than Gushchin has ever seen him in the air. Almost ever.
“I know that I promised… I can’t control the weather, Vik.”
Apparently, she hangs up on him – or the reception finally cuts out completely – and Andrei is left to stare blankly at his phone. Outside, in the large windows behind Andrei, the blizzard throws about snow and hale in howling gusts.
Gushchin looks away quickly. He wouldn’t know what to say anyway.
Somehow, they both have the same insane idea: stealing a drink in a first class seat on board the plane they were meant to fly earlier.
“This is completely against regulation, Andrei Petrovich,” Gushchin says with a smirk, eyeing Andrei’s plastic cup and bottle of sparkling wine.
“Surprised you’re not the only one who breaks rules?”
Gushchin slides into the seat next to Andrei and gives him his most charming look. “Tell me you’ve got another one of those cups.”
Andrei holds one out to him and pours the wine for them both. “The weather’s no joke,” Gushchin says for lack of anything better. He’s never been good at small talk.
“Yes. Unfortunate.” They have two more drinks in a silence that becomes more and more companionable with every minute. Finally, Andrei says, “I promised Vika to be home for New Years. She made plans, made sure to take today and tomorrow off… Now she’s mad.”
“You can’t control the weather.”
Andrei gives a small, humorless laugh. “I could have tried harder to make sure I wasn’t running the risk of getting stranded somewhere. We see each other little enough as it is. Conflicting schedules and all.”
“So why didn’t you?”
Andrei sighs and tilts his head back against the headrest, eyes closed, the line of his mouth a little tight. “I don’t know.”
“Is it the same reason why you haven’t married her yet?” Andrei’s eyes snap open and Gushchin instantly realizes he has spoken before thinking again. “Sorry, I shouldn’t have—It’s not my business.”
“No, I just… I don’t know. She’s the most beautiful woman… I don’t know why we’re not happy.” He looks down into his drink with the sort of troubled expression Gushchin hasn’t seen before. It’s more open somehow, several layers of emotional armor pealed off. “Maybe I’m not good enough for her after all.”
“That’s crap.” Gushchin says it so vehemently he surprises himself. When Andrei gives him an odd look, he says more calmly, “I’m serious. You’re…”
Hard working, thoughtful, decent, brave, compassionate…attractive. Gushchin doesn’t know how to say any of this without sounding off. The alcohol has started going to his head. “You’re fine. It’s nonsense.”
Andrei shrugs and pours them both more wine. His tie is loose and his hair has gotten a little mussed in the front, loose strands falling into his eyes occasionally. Gushchin has the annoying desire to reach out and gently brush them out of Andrei’s face.
“What about you?” Andrei asks after a pause.
“What about me?”
“Have you been…sleeping better?”
The look Andrei gives him is a little disbelieving, even as he says, “Good.”
Something in Gushchin tightens and pushes against his ribcage, wanting to get out. He’s never talked to anyone about his Kanwoo dreams. It didn’t seem like there was anyone who would either understand or not think him weak for it. But Andrei had lived through that hell too and he already knew the truth. And what if… “Did you ever have dreams about it?”
“Sometimes. Talking about it helped.”
“Who did you talk to?”
“My sister, mostly. She referred me to a therapist. I did a few sessions there too.” Andrei shrugs, as though to lighten the weight of the confession.
Gushchin takes a long drink. He’s good at speaking his mind, he’s good at speaking out when there’s injustice. But emotional vulnerability has always been hard. It gets trained out of you in the military and growing up with his father meant only ever having a strong male influence. Maybe he’s wrong about some things. Maybe life would be easier if he wasn’t always automatically dividing everything into things that men do and that women do. That’s how he and Andrei had gotten off on the wrong foot to begin with.
“I haven’t really talked to anyone about it.”
“You could talk to me.” Andrei suddenly looks dead serious. His eyes are dark from the alcohol and terribly earnest.
“Thanks…I guess. I wouldn’t know what to say anyway. You’re in them.”
“Other people are too.”
Neither of them quite finds what else to say for a while and they finish off the bottle just as the new year rolls in. Andrei lifts the armrest between them and puts his head on Gushchin’s shoulder. It’s sudden and unexpected, but Gushchin is too drunk to care by this point.
“I bet I could fly through a storm like this.”
Andrei laughs. “But would you want to?”
“Not particularly. But I could if I was desperate to get home.”
“Are you desperate to get home to anyone?”
“No. I don’t have a wife anymore. Or a girlfriend.”
“I don’t either.”
“She broke up with me. When we argued earlier.”
“You said she was mad.”
“She was. She also said not to call her again if I don’t make it home by midnight. Three years and it’s just…gone. Like that.”
“She probably didn’t mean it.”
“She did. It was coming anyway.”
“I’m sorry.” Andrei’s hair is soft against Gushchin’s cheek and the weight of Andrei’s body is warm and comfortable against his side. They’re both drunk, they’re both alone, and Gushchin feels a vaguely familiar warmth spill over his chest. The sort he used to feel when he woke up next to Sasha while she was still asleep and watched the morning sun dance in her hair.
Andrei smells like wine and mint shampoo. It’s a pleasant combination. Gushchin doesn’t want to let it go just yet.
“Next week, when we fly to Irkutsk, I’m going to staff Boeing 737 instead of ours, just so you know,” Andrei says.
“They’re suddenly very understaffed. I already got permission. We’ll only be a few hours ahead of you.”
“Do you mind if I doze off?”
Gushchin takes out two standard-issue Aeroflot blankets from their plastic bags and drapes one over Andrei and the other around himself in leu of a response. “Happy New Year.”
“Happy New Year.”
The tension changes between them.
It’s subtle and soft but they smile now when they nod at each other. They exchange words and light teasing now and again before or after their flights.
It’s just a few days but Gushchin feels like it has been an entire lifetime.
It is almost like Gushchin allows himself to acknowledge everything he has noticed about Andrei before.
And that warm feeling that had spilled across his chest over New Years never goes away and only grows warmer and tighter with every distracted smile Andrei throws his way.
“Gushchin, have you seen the news?” Sofia’s eyes are wide and astonished when she corners him minutes before their flight to Irkutsk.
“No, what news?”
“One of our Boeings fell.”
“The one a few hours ahead of us – 737.”
“What do you mean fell?”
“There was a storm. They tried to wait it out, but they were short on fuel and they’re saying there was something wrong with one o the engines. They had to attempt the landing. I’m not sure what exactly went wrong…”
Gushchin is no longer listening to her. He closes his eyes against the sudden stab of pain and fights to keep his expression straight. He can only hear Andrei’s voice in his head, saying goodbye when they last saw each other the night before.
You can’t just leave me like that.
The Boeing hadn’t fallen. It had crash landed.
The casualties were estimated in the double digits in very early reports.
Gushchin spends several hours in the air with little news about the event in Irkutsk outside of their own flight. For some time he’s afraid they will be re-routed because of the storm or the crash. Gushchin thinks he’s desperate enough to have flown through any storm, just to land in Irkutsk and see everything for himself. But by the time they get there, the storm has abated and there’s a runway for them to land on.
The crash site of Boeing 737 is still active. First responders, airport personal all flock around the taped off zone. Gushchin heads there at a run as soon as is even remotely feasible.
He looks around at the strange faces, searching for someone who might give him news of the passengers and crew, someone who might tell him if Andrei is alright. The charred, warped carcass of the Boeing looms large and ominous in the dark. Hot flashes from Kanwoo make Gushchin dizzy and disoriented. He leans against the side of a vehicle, squeezing his eyes shut to steady himself, the cold metal biting through his uniform and shirt.
To survive one disaster only to die in another would surely be too ridiculous—
He opens his eyes.
Andrei is standing two feat away from him, wearing a coat that’s too large for him, his arm in a sling, and a gash across his check – but alive.
The relief makes Gushchin laugh – happy, nervous, a little unnatural. He closes the distance between them in two large bounds and sweeps Andrei up into an embrace. For several seconds they simply stand there, Gushchin’s face pressed into Andrei’s temple. When they draw back, they don’t quite let go of each other.
“You’re hurt,” Gushchin says.
Gushchin traces the cut on Andrei’s cheek, runs his fingers over the oversized coat and across the sling, stopping at Andrei’s wrist, covered with bandages, and resting his hand there gently. “You’re hurt.”
“It’s just some scrapes and a nasty burn. I’m fine. You’re going to freeze without a proper coat. Let’s go inside.”
By the time they make it to a terminal, Gushchin is freezing. He had completely forgotten about all of his things, including his coat, in the desperate need to find Andrei. The hallway they end up in is quiet and empty. Andrei takes his hands and breathes hot air on them.
“You’re insane going out there without a coat.”
“I needed to find out if you were alright.”
“That worried, huh?”
Gushchin rolls his eyes. “Yes, idiot. What are you still doing here?”
“Trying to help. We lost a lot of people.” Gushchin suddenly notices how shaken Andrei looks. He reaches out again to touch Andrei’s cheek.
“Awful. Really. But I’m…I’m just glad you’re alright. The entire time we were in the air…I was…I don’t know—on autopilot. I just kept thinking…”
“I thought of you too, when it looked like we were going down hard.”
“I thought, if you were the pilot, you’d know how to get us through the storm.”
Gushchin laughs, the sound coming out strangled. Andrei’s hair is in his face again and something about that is just too much. He tugs hard on the lapel of Andrei’s coat to pull him in closer and kisses him.
It’s frantic and tender at the same time. They pull away almost reluctantly. Andrei glances over his shoulder to insure they are still alone and when he turns back to Gushchin he’s smiling a kind of smile Gushchin hasn’t seen before.
“What?” Gushchin asks.
“I can’t believe that if I’d died I never would have seen you blush.”
Gushchin suddenly notices that his face feels hot and it isn’t from the cold outside or the sudden change in temperature. This only makes him blush more, but he’s too relieved to be embarrassed. “Oh, come here.”
The second time is fiercer, more possessive, and completely requited. When they pull back again, Gushchin rests his forehead against Andrei’s and murmurs breathlessly, “Do you know what the hell we’re doing right now?”
“Living,” Andrei says, and pulls him in for another kiss.