Daniil Dankovsky was fascinating and frustrating. He held himself as if he knew how handsome was, loved to speak at length and in Latin for no one’s benefit but his own, boasted of ambitions that defied common sense and dismissed all his doubters as commoners. And he’d laugh, sometimes, at his own wit, then look at Artemy through lashes to invite him to laugh along. Then Artemy could understand why followers once flocked to him at the Capital.
Yet sometimes he seemed to want to forget himself. He’d throw himself at Artemy as though into a fight, try to make it a fight, try to get Artemy to push him and use him carelessly.
"Damn you, what are you even attracted to?” Artemy asked. “Because clearly you just think I'm some uncivilized brute who wants to throw you down and rut you like an animal."
"Plenty of perfectly civilized men have wanted to throw me down and rut me like an animal." Even Daniil winced at that. He held up a hand to forestall further comment, and then started to count down on his fingers. "You're dedicated. You're intelligent — and yes, I do think you're intelligent, don't tell me I don't. I've seen how deeply you think, how you'll mull over a problem and then, all at once, seize upon some brilliant syncretic solution before rushing out to act upon it. You have a way of speaking which is low and rhythmic and, if you like, comforting. You make clever, biting jokes without ever betraying in your tone or manner that they're jokes, and it's a pleasure to catch them. You have the hands of a surgeon and when they're at work it's like watching a dance. You can be hard and unyielding, yet you soften around children.” He’d run out of fingers to count, but persisted. “You have ... piercing eyes. You're very big and barrel-chested."
Artemy unfolded his arms and cocked his head. "You like them big and barrel-chested, do you?"
"So what if I do? I'm complimenting you, be gracious."
He let out a rumbling laugh — all right, so Daniil was charming.
"Moreover," he continued, "you've been kind to me when I haven't deserved it."
"I'm not kind to you when you don't deserve it. I've no reservations about calling you an ass when you're being an ass, oynon , so just ..." He had to roll his eyes. He reached out, and took Daniil's hands in his own. "Be gracious and take a compliment.”
“By all means, you can praise my accomplishments. Bachelor of Medicine, youngest in his class to attain a degree, founder of the hated and revolutionary Thanatica …”
“Your accomplishments aren’t you.” Artemy wanted to ask, too, whether Daniil was as proud to be hated as he pretended to be.
But Daniil replied, “Aren’t they? Do you know … when I was getting letters from the Powers That Be, they were always too happy to tell me what I hadn’t accomplished. Yes, yes, I established a hospital and an isolation ward, yes, yes, I observed the Sand Pest as a microbe, yes, I discovered its nature and its weakness, yes, I contributed to the work of the vaccine. But I didn’t eradicate it from the earth, did I? What will be my biography, if not all I’ve done and failed to do?”
One day, they might be able to talk without turning to the twelve days of the plague. But they always came back to it. Daniil carried it inside him like an abcess.
Artemy shook his head. “That isn’t you, either. You’re … the glint you get in your eye. The way your hands move through the air when you’re thinking, like there’s something you’re seeing I’m not, you just have to grasp it for yourself and show me. You’re how hard you work, how much you care, no matter what gets done out of it.”
“I suppose,” Daniil said airily, as if it didn’t matter to him, “I don’t see it.”
“Then let me show you.”
Daniil let Artemy pull him — so biddable now — and place him on the settee. “Do you intend to make a mirror of yourself?” he asked, and the look in his eyes, low-lidded and intimate, made Artemy’s heart catch.
For a moment, Artemy doubted himself. For all Daniil’s praise for the sound of his voice, he wondered whether he could form the words, whether he could say them right. There was a ritual to it, something he was never taught but that swelled inside him like the call to worship when the stars shone on the steppe and the wind carried the scent of twyre.
No person stirred him like Daniil did. He’d always been slow to attraction, and when it pulled on him, it pulled on him like a revelation, like a rising Line.
And so, he set his doubt aside. He framed Daniil’s face in his workmanlike hands. “Let’s start with that head of yours, since you’re already so proud of it,” he said. “You aren’t your accomplishments, you aren’t your failures. You’re the lines that tell the life you lived. The lines that wrinkle your forehead when you’re thinking, bent over a microscope or a manuscript. The lines that edge your eyes when you smile a true smile. The line of your lips, when you wait for me to kiss you … Khodo khara, tiimel da .” Leaning in, he took a tender kiss from Daniil’s lips. “Now you answer tiimel da .”
Soft, bespelled, Daniil whispered, “ Tiimel da. ”
Artemy smoothed his hand from cheek to jaw to the front of Daniil’s throat, already arching into his touch. He slipped his fingers through the ascot between him and sheer skin, loosened its knot and pulled it away. “You aren’t your accomplishments, you aren’t your failures. You’re the line of your neck, the living emptiness between breaths. The way you bare it for me, even though I could crush you … “ From the deep shudder Daniil gave him, Daniil was well aware. It made Artemy lose his speech, and forget to describe the slender beauty of Daniil’s neck, emerging from his collar like the curve of a crescent moon. All he could do was kiss it, reverent and gentle, then with the harsh scrape of teeth Daniil loved so well. “You’re your willing vulnerability,” he murmured into the hollow, the suprasternal notch. “Don’t be afraid to share it. Khodo khara, tiimel da.”
Daniil gasped, and in his gasping stumbled once again into stuttered steppe consonants. “ T-Tiimel da .”
As much as Daniil liked it, it would strain Artemy too much to loom over him. Instead he sat at Daniil’s side, and lifted one of his hands. He thumbed loose the buttons of a shirt-cuff, freed his wrist, and circled his pulse. “You aren’t your accomplishments, you aren’t your failures. You’re your hands.” With nothing further than a low growl, he said, “I love your hands.”
“I’d gotten the impression,” laughed Daniil, light and breathy. He turned and twined his long, slim fingers through Artemy’s broad, enveloping ones. “I’m fond of yours, as well. Well-formed, well-worn ... Quite handsome. How do you say it, hodo ...”
“ Khodo khara .” He brought up their linked hands and kissed Daniil’s, savoring the intimacy of it. “ Tiimel da .”
“ Tiimel da .”
Next, he undid the buttons of Daniil’s waistcoat and shirt, cut down the center of him like the center of a bull and unfolded him, so that he could come to rest his head on Daniil’s chest. He could feel Daniil startle back, unexpecting, then felt his limbs relax, his arms drape around Artemy’s shoulders. Those hands of his curled in Artemy’s hair.
“You’re your heartbeat, nookherni, ” he said. “Just that. You’re alive, I can hear it. No matter what you’ve accomplished, no matter how you’ve failed. You’re here with me now. You didn’t have to be.”
“Is that enough?” Daniil’s voice was smooth and fragile as porcelain.
“More than enough. Khodo khara .”
“And what,” asked Daniil at last, “does that mean?”
“It is clear to see.” Lifting his head, Artemy kissed down Daniil’s sternum, the line he knew lay at the last layer of the body. “ Tiimel da . Let it be so.”
Slowly, with arms still wrapped about Artemy, Daniil laid himself down and took Artemy with him. “ Videre licet. Very well ... Let me see what you see.”
It was if the exchange of words unlocked something in him, as he surged up to kiss Daniil’s mouth once more, as he tangled together their hands and held them over Daniil’s head. Daniil moaned aloud and he arched into Artemy; he tightened his legs around Artemy’s waist so that he could embrace him with all his limbs, all his body.
Wherever there was a breath of space between them, Artemy spoke praise — to the corner of Daniil’s lips, to the shell of his ear, to his jawline and the swell of his neck, still so beautiful. Daniil was perfect, complete, whole in himself, every part of him sung in unison, couldn’t he see it?
His pulse still pounded at his wrists, at his throat, wherever Artemy touched him with rough fingers, with mouth and rasping tongue. One hand still braced above their heads, he slid the other between Daniil’s thighs, and found his pulse pounded there, too.
“Don’t …” In a sudden panic, Daniil seized his wrist. He tried, even from his haze, to laugh it off, to laugh off the concern Artemy showed him. “Don’t let me come before you.”
“Because I’m not about to disappoint.”
“Why,” asked Artemy, laying a kiss to his forehead, “would I be disappointed?”
“Because …” In that frustrated whine was the whole of the argument. “Because I’m good at this. I can make you feel good, I know how ...”
“You aren’t what you know, or how you make me feel,” Artemy said, in that old, lulling tone of ritual, “however much you make me feel. You’re how gorgeous you are when you let go. I want to bring you there. Will you let me?”
Daniil’s eyes on his were distant, wondering, like the eyes of a dreamer trying to place some half-remembered part of his dream. Whatever he discovered there, it made him release Artemy’s wrist and gather his breath. “ Fiat mihit. Tiimel da .”
Then Artemy raised himself and finished undressing Daniil, so awed by the fresh expanse of skin that he could only touch it, from the sharp bone of Daniil’s hip to his ankle. Below him Daniil huffed out a breath, as if to tell Artemy to get on with it … but Artemy took his time. For everything there was a Line — Daniil’s chest lifted and fell and ligaments flexed and his toes curled in the sweetness of anticipation, everything intricate and interconnected. What could Artemy feel but complete devotion?
His hand found again the join of Daniil’s legs, and Daniil let out a sound — nothing Russian nor Latin nor in the language of the steppe but an ah-ah-ah of keenly climbing pleasure. Artemy spread Daniil’s legs and stroked him, watched his eyes flutter and roll back, watched him bite down his lip to keep down a cry until Artemy leant in and kissed his lips open. Daniil stretched up to meet him, and it mesmerized Artemy, the way that Daniil moved. The way Artemy would twist his hand, and Daniil would twist in turn, body bent in one long arc like the arc of a bow. The way his tongue rolled against Artemy’s tongue, and his hips rolled into Artemy’s touch, always drawing him in, dragging him deeper. The way he threw both arms around Artemy, and pressed down hard with both his hands, as if to shape the man anew from the flesh of his back. It made Artemy groan, made him quicken his pace, made him chase the quickening rhythm of Daniil’s pulse until the sound of a heartbeat filled his ears, and he couldn’t say whose it was.
And when Daniil tensed suddenly, gloriously against him, Artemy could feel it in his own skin, his own nerves. He held Daniil as he shuddered, sweat-slick and panting.
“ Bayarlaa, nookherni. ” Artemy spoke into his ear.
The fervor passed, Daniil answered in a daze. “Those damn hands of yours …”
Artemy chuckled. “You like them, you said so. Swore on it in the words of the steppe.”
“I like them too much. You’ll be the undoing of me. But don’t,” Daniil was swift to add, “let go of me just yet.”
The undoing of Bos-Turokh was the creation of the world. Artemy looked at his lover, listless and undone, and felt nothing but worship for the world inside of him. “These hands of mine,” he promised, “will hold you together for as long as I live.” Gathering Daniil up beside him, he made his word his bond. Let it be so.