The train is old, and it rattles. He hasn’t been on a train in months, but here he is, now, in a seat by the window, watching the pale sky through the glass. The carriage smells of wax polish and metal.
He had been alone for the first chapter of his journey, solitary in his window seat, the silence unbroken except for the creaking and grinding of the axles and the clatter of glass as it shuddered in its frames. It is desolate, this part of the country, and flat as a table-top, stretching away into the endless horizon in shades of grey and green. It is a comfort, back home, that blasted breadth of land—to be able to see for miles from one point, to be at the very centre of the world—but here it feels unreal somehow, like a half-forgotten dream. The train is small, and it moves fast enough, but he feels exposed. Vulnerable.
He drops his gaze from the seamless horizon and looks instead at his hands, clenched in his lap.
The train is busier now, but the presence of others does not lessen the feeling of foreboding that has been steadily encroaching upon his mind like a coiled parasite. It has been building for months now, this unease, this tightly-knotted sense of something being wrong, scratching at the deepest parts of his brain so that his waking moments are distracted and fraught and his sleep is black and disturbed with dreams he cannot forget with the morning. He sees death in the dark behind his eyelids. Mothers, old men, children. They grasp at his clothes with curled hands and speak with cracked mouths, broken words, pleas that fade into the booming silence of the dead in the sickened air. Months, and he still checks his face every morning in the hand-mirror he keeps beside his bed, looking for signs of infection, the tell-tale yellowing of the sclera, the splits at the corners of the mouth he had observed with clinical attention in so many others and still waits, fruitlessly, to see in himself.
He dreams of others, too: people he knows in the Town, the Kin, the children, his father. They die over and over, choking at his feet, drowning through their own blood, and the next day he greets them with a nod as they pass by. That it is not real does not stop it hurting.
Dankovsky makes his appearances every now and then, at the corners of his eyes, watching from the shadows of the night. He doesn’t speak, but he has died more than once with a knife in his back or crumpled in the street, too late. In the end it is always his retreating back, far away across the steppe, his collar turned up and his black medical bag at his side, which he sees in the seconds before he wakes; and though he calls out to him, trying to run with legs heavy with the dead, Dankovsky never turns back. The unease is always sharper in the mornings after those dreams, and he finds himself staring out at the whispering grass as though Dankovsky will appear at any moment over the empty plains. He never does, of course. Dankovsky is long gone, and he has no doubt that he is not coming back.
The landscape is changing now, growing taller and greyer, creeping up to scrape the sky with buildings higher than the loftiest spire of Town-on-Gorkhon. He has made this journey before, but never has it felt so alien.
There is a hairline crack in the windowpane and he focuses on that instead, tracing the clean split with his eyes to avoid looking at the steadily thickening forest of concrete and brick behind the glass. He narrows his perception, training his attention on the crack in the window and the feeling of the uncomfortable bench beneath him, the warm roughness of his hands in his lap. Broken glass, wooden slats, thick callouses. The smell of the wax polish. Taste of metal at the back of his throat.
He doesn’t even know why he’s here, but he is, and every minute this rickety old train carries him further and further away from where he should be. It was an almost spur-of-the-moment decision, uncharacteristic in its impulsiveness, and he knows he should regret it. Somehow he can’t bring himself to feel anything but the faint disquiet he had hoped this journey would alleviate.
He wonders if the rest of the Town feels it too. He assumes they must, after the Plague, after the sickness and death—but if they do, nobody makes any mention of it. He feels very alone these days. Sticky and Murky are a comfort, but they are children; and, mature as they can be, he cannot talk to them about the things which weigh on his mind. He needs someone who understands, and he has nobody. He could talk to Clara, he supposes; but something about her—her smile which tells him she knows exactly what he’s going to say before he even thinks of saying it, her singsong voice, her ancient words coming from the mouth of a child—never allows him to feel fully comfortable in her company.
—stands before him on the thin grass, watching.
It’s the steppe, of course, the endless steppe, and he avoids looking at Dankovsky in favour of scanning the horizon for a landmark; but there is nothing. They must be deep in the plains, then.
“You’re coming,” Dankovsky says, when he finally meets his eye. “I knew you would.”
Something about the way he says it irritates him, even though the other man’s voice has almost no inflection. It reminds him of his first interactions with the Bachelor, when the man’s aura of arrogant self-assurance coloured almost every word he spoke, and his foppish clothes and hair were still neat and clean of dirt or sweat or blood. He had watched Dankovsky spiral through a lens of medical assessment, and he remembers the vague concern he felt at the time—though he knew, of course, that there was no time or energy he could spare for the Bachelor. It wasn’t as though he had any to spare for himself.
“Yes,” he says shortly. “Not here, though.” He gestures with an abstract hand to the grasslands around them.
“You are, in a way,” Dankovsky says.
“Don’t be cryptic.”
Dankovsky shrugs. The gesture does not suit him. For the first time he notices the pallor of the other man’s skin, the bruises around his eyes, darker than they had been even on the twelfth day. The heavy coat does little to hide the almost skeletal quality of his body.
“You look like shit, oynon,” he says, briefly forgetting his annoyance.
The ghost of a smile warms Dankovsky’s drawn face. “Maior e longinquo reverentia.”
Ah, there it is again. “You would think I would dream of you looking less like a walking corpse, but here you are.”
“I’m not actually here,” Dankovsky says. All of a sudden he looks weary beyond endurance. “I can’t stay long. And you should wake up as well—it’s your stop.”
“Wait,” he says, without any idea what he’s going to say. He knows Dankovsky is going to leave again, lost to the steppe, and he can’t help but cling to the first few minutes in months in which he hasn’t felt alone.
“Wake up, Burakh,” Dankovsky says. He’s already turned away, his dark head lowered, growing smaller and smaller as he walks into the distance, swallowed by the land and the darkness and the rushing sound which is flooding in all around, the clatter of metal and glass, cold wood, the smell of wax polish.
He opens his eyes.
The train has stopped. People are pushing along the aisle beside him, carrying bags and cases, hurrying out onto the thronging platform. Buildings loom on all sides, crowding the distant sky, hundreds of identical windows catching the watery light of the sun where it hangs tiny and pale in the city-smoke. The Capital smells like a long-lost memory, like fumes and machinery, and he breathes it in and tastes every colour.
“Wake up, Burakh,” he tells himself.
Artemy picks up his bag, steps off the train, and lets the city swallow him whole.
* * *
It took him days, last time, to acclimatise himself to the cacophony of noise and scent and sensation that was the Capital, and very little has changed since then.
He was born into warm earth, into murmuring grass and dry soil, low buildings squatting dark against the ground and the quiet solitude of a town nestled deep in the breast of the land. For years he knew nobody but the faces he already knew, saw nothing but the sights he had already seen, and all the while the smell of twyre and swevery floated on the air like a fine mist and filled his lungs as he breathed. The steppe was soothing. She nurtured and nourished, and she kept him safe until he was old enough to see horror and bloodshed and burned bodies riddled with pestilence strewn across the streets like dead leaves.
The Capital feels like a different world. It is cold as frozen iron, biting, built of harsh planes of stone and metal, towering above him in dizzying conformity as it carves its roots into the soft marrow of the earth. She is so far below him he can barely feel her, crushed beneath miles of steel and concrete, and he suddenly hates himself for coming here, for travelling so far for so little. He will find no relief in this place.
He stops on the corner of a quieter road and leans against the wall, watching the people and vehicles streaming past, hefting his bag more securely in his hand. He has a vague idea in his head of finding somewhere to stay for the night before catching the return train home in the morning, but for now he is content to wait awhile and observe. He is still getting used to having time again, after the two weeks in which it was his most precious resource.
It occurs to him abruptly, as he watches the Capital’s inhabitants hurry past in varying degrees of impatience, how very out of place he must look in his familiar clothes. He remembers how bizarre Dankovsky appeared to him at first—or rather how bizarre he always appeared—in his long snakeskin coat, his meticulously-tied cravat, his silk waistcoat; but looking around him, it is he who sticks out as an eyesore amongst this fashionable crowd and Dankovsky who would blend in like a bright bird in a flock. He wonders if the pin he always wore at his throat was in accordance with one of the Capital’s styles, or if he had another reason for wearing it. He never asked.
He misses him suddenly, unexpectedly, as he stands apart from these faceless, besuited people with their own lives and jobs and families, so very far from home in this cold and loveless city. He’s not even sure why he misses him: they only knew each other for a week, after all, and for at least half of those days he got nothing out of his interactions with the pompous little man other than a distinct feeling of dislike.
There were moments, though—especially later—when something different emerged from beneath the hard shell of distaste and distrust. The veneer of the haughty man from the Capital fell away in shards as they sat alone of an evening in Dankovsky’s dark room, Artemy sitting on the bed, the Bachelor at his paper-strewn desk, discussing the relationship of body and mind until the early hours of the morning when only exhaustion put a halt to their increasingly impassioned disputation. Dankovsky would inevitably start pacing before long, gesticulating with his thin white hands, sleeves rolled sloppily to the elbow as he argued the case for an eternal soul which only left the body at the point of death. Artemy often found himself countering Dankovsky’s points for no reason other than the enjoyment he got from watching the Bachelor work himself into a frenzy of enthusiasm, flitting around his room as though drawn by a thread, infectious in his keenness to discuss his work and his multifarious ambitions. It was on nights such as these that Artemy would drop off where he sat and awake hours later with his face pressed into Dankovsky’s pillow and a warm weight against his spine. The Bachelor did not usually touch him whilst he was awake—indeed, he avoided physical contact in all situations—but on these still, sleep-stifled mornings he would sit on the edge of the bed at Artemy’s side, his knee just brushing his leg as they both mentally prepared themselves for the day to come.
And then the lights would come up, the scene would roll, and Dankovsky would once more don his mask.
Even then, though, even as he watched from afar as Dankovsky became less and less the Bachelor and more a desperate, frightened and exhausted man with every day that passed, he did not avoid his company. Often he would actively seek him out, and Dankovsky would snipe and snarl and shoot glares from eyes ringed with shadows until he tired himself out and they sat in silence, sharing the weight across their shoulders.
He can’t even pretend, now, that after all this time he hasn’t come to this godforsaken city in the ridiculous hope that he might find Dankovsky here; that he might somehow stumble across him, bump into him walking down the street, catch a glimpse of his coat as he leaves his laboratory surrounded by admiring friends and colleagues. No doubt the life he’s built himself here is even more great and gilded than it was when he left. No doubt he’s already forgotten about the Town and the Plague, the man who, in his hurry to leave, didn’t even linger long enough to say goodbye before he took the first train back to civilisation and real culture and educated people who weren’t far enough below him that he could dust them aside with the toe of his shoe.
He can’t pretend he isn’t angry. He had hoped, foolishly, that Dankovsky had changed.
Perhaps it is not anger, then, but shame.
The sun is low in the sky now, milky yellow deepening to burnt orange, and the shadows are lengthening along the pavement. Artemy pushes himself off the wall and sets off down the street, keeping his head down to avoid looking at the faces he passes, glancing every now and then at the shop signs in hopes of finding a place to sleep. It’s colder now, and he regrets standing for so long: his hands are numb and stiff and his feet ache within his boots. Around him the city hums and roars. He listens without hearing.
The sun has reddened bloodily in the sky before he finds somewhere promising: a bar of sorts, rather shabby and a little ragged around the edges but welcoming enough and, according to a faded paper pasted to the door, offering rooms. He hesitates for a moment on the threshold, staring at a crack in one of the misted windows, his breath frosting the air. There’s a light on in one of the upper floors. Tinny notes of music drift down, muffled by the walls—some jaunty number with too much saxophone and not enough of anything else. A shadow flutters across the blinds.
The cold bites, and he steps inside.
The place is almost empty. The floor is carpeted and tacky, an unidentifiable colour, and the few tables scattered around are lit by low-hanging bulbs with green lampshades. There’s a strong smell of spirits and cigarette smoke, and the walls are plastered with peeling posters and old collectibles, names and slogans in almost illegible scripts climbing to the low ceiling. The bar dominates the far right corner. A few men are sitting on the stools, nursing drinks and talking in low voices.
Artemy takes a step forwards, and, very suddenly, there he is.
He’s sitting at one of the shadowy tables in the corner, slumped over in his seat, elbows splayed in front of him as he cradles his head in his hands. There’s a half-empty glass on the table and a packet of smokes lying open beside it.
It’s him. Of course it’s him. He would recognise him anywhere, and here he is, in this seedy bar, sitting in the dark as a saxophone plays through the ceiling and the light above his head flickers and buzzes.
Artemy approaches him slowly, not taking his eyes off the hunched figure, hardly daring to blink lest he vanish into the shadows. He’s even wearing the same coat, the same gloves. It’s as though he’s back in Town-on-Gorkhon, after everything happened, stepping into The Broken Heart and finding him half out of his mind with drink but sober in the haunted void of his eyes.
He stops beside the table and stares for a moment, trying to find words. He hasn’t moved since Artemy first saw him. He could almost be asleep.
At last, he says: “Dankovsky?”
The figure shifts. Gloved hands untangle themselves from the black hair, and the Bachelor lifts his head to look into Artemy’s face.
“Oh. Hello, Burakh.”
He drags a lethargic hand down his face, squinting in the dim light of the hanging bulb. The other hand threads back into his hair and he drops his head into it, staring with vacant eyes at the table-top.
Artemy isn’t sure what reaction he expected, but this certainly is not it.
“You don’t seem surprised to see me,” he says. From the corner of his eye he sees the men at the bar turn their heads to look over at them.
Dankovsky’s brow bunches beneath his hand, and his voice is slightly slurred as he says, “What an odd pronouncement, as I never am.”
Artemy’s feeling of bewildered confusion increases, but before he can speak again, Dankovsky mutters, “You may as well sit down. Stop hovering.”
He sits. The men at the bar have turned back to their drinks, but he sees their eyes occasionally flick back in their direction.
Dankovsky seems in no hurry to talk. He has picked up the half-empty glass and is swilling it slowly, staring down into the clear liquid with hooded eyes. He looks, Artemy notices, even thinner and whiter than he did in the dream: his hair is stringy and dishevelled, lips pale and cracked, and the strip of bare skin between glove and coat shows the knob of bone at his wrist bulging sharply through the translucent skin.
“What are you doing here?” he asks at length. It’s the only thing he can think to say.
Dankovsky lifts his head from his hand once more to level him with a disapproving frown. It’s familiar enough that Artemy feels his heart lighten a little with relief. “You are full of inane comments tonight, Burakh. I’m always here.”
“And how was I supposed to know that, given that I haven’t seen you in months?”
Dankovsky stares at him incredulously, then rolls his eyes and says, as he brings the glass to his lips, “And they call me the crazy one.”
“I don’t know what’s got into you,” Dankovsky says, irritation beginning to colour his voice, still a little slurred with the drink. “You’re never normally this pedantic.”
“Dankovsky,” Artemy says clearly, “I don’t know who you’ve got me confused with, but I haven’t seen you since the sand pest. I’m Artemy Burakh, you remember? From Town-on-Gorkhon?”
“Of course I know who you are,” Dankovsky says impatiently. “You won’t bloody leave me alone. I was perfectly happy sulking in bars by myself before you started showing up, making a nuisance of yourself. My friendly neighbourhood hallucination. Well, Burakh, you’ll have to haunt someone else tonight, because I’m afraid I am not at all in the mood.”
It takes Artemy a moment of staring at Dankovsky’s bent head, one hand still clasped around the sweating glass, before he can speak again. “I’m not a hallucination, oynon.”
“Really,” Dankovsky says drily. “You’ll have to try a little harder than that to convince me, Burakh.”
Artemy reaches over and plucks the glass from his hand, setting it at a neighbouring table out of Dankovsky’s reach. “I promise you I am not a hallucination.”
Dankovsky is staring at the place where the glass used to be, then at Artemy’s hands, folded on the table in front of him.
“That’s odd,” he says softly. “You’ve never been corporeal before.”
He reaches out a hand—shaking slightly, though whether from the alcohol or something else, it’s hard to tell—and lays it very carefully on one of Artemy’s. The leather is cracked and cold to the touch. He can feel Dankovsky’s fingers trembling against his knuckles.
“You’re really here,” Dankovsky says. “You’re really here.”
For a little while they sit in silence, Dankovsky’s hand still resting on Artemy’s folded ones, his eyes running over Artemy’s face, his body, his clothes, searching for changes, new lines and rips and tears. Artemy does the same; but there is nothing to find. Dankovsky looks exactly as he did during the Plague.
Eventually Dankovsky withdraws his hand and seems to compose himself, flexing his fingers in his gloves and running them shakily through his hair. He points at the glass over Artemy’s shoulder. “Can I have that back?”
“You’re already drunk.”
“I am not,” Dankovsky says, fixing him with a glare that is only slightly unfocused. “Not drunk enough, anyway.”
“I think you’re plenty drunk enough,” Artemy says. “Lightweight.”
“Oh, sorry, I forgot you told me to haunt someone else. I’ll leave you to sulk here, shall I?”
“I’ve sulked here on my own plenty of times,” Dankovsky says. His hand makes an aborted movement across the table. “I don’t mind sulking with company for a change. If you—if you have nowhere else to be, that is.”
“Not tonight,” Artemy says. He feels a smile pull at the corners of his mouth. “I’m not apologising for calling you a lightweight, though.”
Dankovsky’s lips curl up and he huffs out an amused breath. The smile makes his eyes crinkle, and Artemy is suddenly struck by how different he looks, how warm and soft, when his face is not taut with disgust or anger or fear; and then how very sad it is that this is the first real smile he has seen on Dankovsky’s face. That there were never any reasons to smile, before.
“So, Burakh,” Dankovsky says, interrupting Artemy’s rather dismal train of thought. “What have you been doing since—” He hesitates, and Artemy speaks quickly to fill the silence.
“What you would except, I suppose,” he says. “Organising things. It’s all different, now. I’m busy most of the time.”
“And it’s still contained? No further outbreaks?”
“Nothing. And if there are, we have a cure.”
Dankovsky nods abstractedly, his hand drumming a faint rhythm on the table. “That’s good. I’m glad to hear it.”
Artemy looks at him for a few moments, at the line of his jaw, the straight nose, the lines carved on either side of his mouth. He has seen that face in his dreams countless times in the past months, and now he is seeing it at last through waking eyes.
The tight knot of pain beneath his ribs, briefly forgotten, suddenly clenches.
“Why did you leave?”
He hadn’t meant to speak. The words came out of their own accord, as though a symptom of the pain in his chest.
Dankovsky has turned his head to look at him. His eyes are dark and searching, staring into Artemy’s from beneath crumpled brows, and there is something aching there that makes Artemy’s breath catch.
Dankovsky looks away, staring instead at the scratched table-top. “Let’s talk about that another time.”
“You didn’t say goodbye,” Artemy says. His heart is pounding painfully against his breastbone. “Murky saw you going to the train station. I understand if you wanted space, but—”
“Another time, Burakh,” Dankovsky interrupts. He meets Artemy’s eyes again, and the pain there has sharpened, his face wan with exhaustion and not nearly as drunk as Artemy had betted on. “Please.”
Artemy says nothing for a moment. He abruptly feels weary to his bones, a heavy, draining tiredness that makes his head swim and Dankovsky’s face blur in and out of focus in the dim yellow light.
“Alright,” he says at last. The word falls like a stone from his lips. “Alright. Another time.”
Dankovsky nods, evidently relieved, and they lapse again into silence. It’s not quite comfortable, but it’s better than anything else Artemy has experienced in a long time.
“Hey, you got a light?”
The voice catches them both by surprise; Artemy can tell by the way Dankovsky flinches in his seat, his languid hand drawing in sharply to his body.
There’s a man lingering beside their table, unshaven and unsteady where he stands. He has an unlit cigarette in his mouth.
Artemy has opened his mouth to answer before one of the men at the bar calls over, “No point asking there, mate. Fuckin’ crazy, I’m telling you.”
Dankovsky half-rises from his seat, glaring furiously across the bar at the man who spoke, bracing both hands on the table as though preparing himself for a fight. Artemy feels a little ashamed at calling him a lightweight: his rage is impressive in its sobriety.
“Leave it,” he says, before Dankovsky can launch himself across the table. “Let’s just go.”
The man beside their table shrugs and turns away, meandering back towards the bar. His drinking companion snorts and returns to his glass, shaking his head.
Artemy has to suppress the urge to punch him himself.
“I’m guessing that’s one of the people who’s been calling you crazy?” he says, once they’re out on the pavement. The wind is bitter and cruel, and he hunches his shoulders to keep the draft from his neck. The streets are still busy, but now with late-night wanderers and partygoers rather than businessmen, and he can hear music pulsing from the windows of several of the buildings along the road.
“Him and everyone else in the city,” Dankovsky says mordantly. “I’m a laughing stock, these days. My old colleagues won’t even look at me. They think I’m cracked.”
“Why do they think that?”
Dankovsky gives a noncommittal jerk of the head as they set off down the street, side by side in the intermittent light from the streetlamps. Now that they’re out in the open, standing abreast, he remembers just how small Dankovsky is. The man barely comes up to his shoulder.
“All they know is that I went away to some small town for research purposes,” he says now, “and when I came back I was different. I can hardly explain to them what happened. I never told them about the Plague.”
“They wouldn’t understand,” Dankovsky says flatly, “and I can’t be bothered to try to make them.”
Artemy nods. He understands the pain, but he can’t imagine the suffocation of living alongside people who not only do not understand, but don’t even know that anything happened in the first place. How Dankovsky can live in this harsh, hostile city is a mystery to him, as so many things about the man are. Even here, he is a curiosity.
“Are you still doing research?” he asks, as they turn a corner onto a quieter road. Here there are fewer shops and narrower buildings, and a few lights glimmer from behind curtains in the night.
Dankovsky scoffs. “Hardly. What is there to research? I lost everything. I’m lucky I haven’t been executed.”
Artemy has no idea what to say to that. Dankovsky seems to notice, because he says stiffly, “That was…hardly civil. I apologise.”
“No, do go on,” Artemy says, mirth at the Bachelor’s sudden proclivity for politeness lending him joviality. “I would love to hear more about your potential execution at the hands of the government.”
“Perhaps you would be taking this a little more seriously if it was your head on the chopping block,” Dankovsky retorts, though he sounds more amused than angry. “Although it would more likely be the rope, if we’re being precise.”
Artemy winces. “Maybe precision isn’t a boon in this situation.”
“Oh, come now, Burakh,”—Dankovsky is definitely amused now—“you’re not telling me you’re uncomfortable imagining me swinging from the scaffold? How very touching.”
Artemy laughs. He can’t quite believe this is happening—that Dankovsky is beside him, as good-humoured as he could have imagined, thin and drawn perhaps but at least whole, and healing, and here. Close enough that their arms are almost touching. The streetlamp bleaching his downturned face to grey. Alive, and waiting for him in the first place he looked.
“Don’t stare at me,” Dankovsky says. “I can hear you thinking.”
“Oh, so you’re an audiologist as well as a thanatologist now?”
“Shut up, you know what I meant.”
Artemy smiles. Perhaps, after all, it wasn’t the man himself he missed but the sheer pleasure of heckling him. “I was thinking about how this city has hundreds of thousands of residents, countless bars, countless streets I could have turned down, and yet I found you within an hour of arriving here. The one person I wanted to see in the whole Capital.”
Dankovsky frowns at him. His expression seems more confused than annoyed. “You wanted to see me?”
“What sort of question is that?”
“It’s the one I’m asking.”
Artemy slows, coming to a halt on the dark pavement. The streetlight above them creates a puddle of blanched colour on the concrete beneath their feet, a low electronic whine radiating from the cracked filament. “Of course I wanted to see you. Why would I not want to see you?”
Dankovsky stops too, a few paces ahead of Artemy. He looks uncharacteristically disconcerted. “I didn’t think you liked me particularly much.”
“What?” Dankovsky looks defensive now, narrow shoulders drawing up to his ears. “I know everyone and their mother thinks I’m a gormless prick who can’t read the signs unless they’re shoved in his face, but they were being shoved pretty forcefully in my face in your Town and I definitely got the message after the second day of being told to fuck off by every person I said hello to. Forgive me for not acknowledging the only exception to the rule.”
The rapidity with which the tone of the conversation has changed is making Artemy’s head swim. “They didn’t hate you; they just didn’t understand you. And it’s hardly as though you gave them a fair chance yourself, is it?”
“I was trying!” Dankovsky is clenching and unclenching his hands at his sides, wound up tight as a coiled spring. He seems bothered by the streetlight: his head keeps twitching to the side as though in an attempt to block the whine and there’s a wince building in the tightness of his brow. “It’s not my fault I couldn’t understand what they meant when they spoke in riddles half the time!”
Artemy suddenly becomes very aware of the fact that they are having this discussion in the middle of a populated street, and that there are several odd looks being cast in their direction. Dankovsky appears to notice too. His anger twists into something more like humiliation, and he abruptly turns on his heel and begins to walk again. Artemy hesitates a moment before following.
The silence between them hangs unbroken for a few moments, heavy and sharp and not unfamiliar. Artemy watches the gradual drop of Dankovsky’s shoulders from the corner of his eye; the subtle bow of his head.
“I like you,” Artemy says at last. “I enjoy your company. There were a few reasons I came to the Capital today, but one of them was hope that I would run into you here. I’m glad I found you.”
Dankovsky does not respond for a time. The weariness that seems to come and go in waves has settled upon him again, and his voice is quiet enough to be almost inaudible when he finally speaks.
“So am I.”
They pass the rest of the walk in silence, but it’s more comfortable this time. It crosses Artemy’s mind what an odd pair they must make: the big, hulking man in his clothes of earth and grass and the little one, dark of hair and attire, side by side in the city night. The thought is not a bad one.
It’s only when they’ve been walking for a half-dozen darkening streets that Dankovsky comes to a sudden halt. Artemy, his attention on an open window halfway up a passing building with a lace curtain fluttering in the cold air, almost walks straight into him; and then thinks very guiltily how terrible it would be if he had flattened Dankovsky within an hour of his being found.
Dankovsky, fortunately, doesn’t seem to notice his narrow escape from becoming temporarily two-dimensional. “I forgot to ask,” he says, “are you staying anywhere tonight?”
“Not as of yet,” Artemy replies. “I was going to stay in that bar I found you in, but…” He gestures vaguely at the street around them.
Dankovsky wrinkles his nose. “That would have been a mistake. Those rooms are not pretty. You’d better be thankful I got us kicked out, Burakh.”
“Let me guess,” Artemy says, half-serious, “that’s where they dump you when you end up on the floor of the bar?”
“No, they usually just leave me there,” Dankovsky says without inflection. “Anyway, I was going to offer—if you needed it—I have a sofa at my place. You can sleep there, if you like.”
The deliberate nonchalance of the proposition does not fully conceal the veiled apprehension in his voice; the way his eyes are firmly averted from Artemy’s to examine the glove with which he’s fiddling.
“Sure,” he says, not missing the way Dankovsky’s eyes relax perceptibly with relief. “As long as you don’t mind.”
“I wouldn’t offer if I minded,” Dankovsky says, falling back into step beside Artemy as they continue along the street. “My apartment’s just up here. I didn’t think to ask until I brought you right up to my front door.”
“You’ve lived here a long time?”
“A few years,” Dankovsky says. “I only rent it. I’m not exactly rolling in money, as you might have realised.”
Artemy glances at the silk waistcoat; the cravat pin; the elaborate coat. “You’re a damn sight richer than I’ve ever been, judging by your outfit.”
Dankovsky waves an impatient hand as they turn up a short flight of steps to an interior hallway, long and dimly-lit, the floor scuffed and the walls bare. “It’s all about appearances. In my profession I needed to look authentic, reliable; I could hardly preach about immortal life in a pair of workman’s overalls, could I? Nobody would take me seriously. I mean, they don’t take me seriously now,”—he meets Artemy’s eye—“but they used to. Before.”
Dankovsky has started up a staircase set into the wall, cold stone steps and metal railings, winding up into the dark heights of the apartment block. There’s an identical hallway on the next level, peeling doors set at intervals along the walls. Strips of light spill onto the floor from beneath a few of the doors. Snatches of conversation and laughter are audible, muffled by brick and plaster.
“You never invited your colleagues to your apartment?” Artemy asks, his eyes on Dankovsky’s back. He’ll never be able to understand that coat.
“I’m hardly one for dinner parties, Burakh. I didn’t ask.”
“You asked me.”
“You’re not a colleague,” says Dankovsky, as though this settles the matter.
“I was, for a while.”
“If you’re going to be pedantic, you can sleep on the floor.”
“Well, I haven’t seen the state of your sofa yet; perhaps it would be safer.”
They continue up the stairs for five more flights before Dankovsky turns down one of the hallways, passing by most of the doors until they stop at the one at the end of the corridor. There’s a piece of paper pinned to the door, the typeface bold and official. Artemy reads it as Dankovsky searches his pockets for his keys.
“A notice of repossession?” he says, leaning closer. “You’re being repossessed?”
“That was up before I even got back,” Dankovsky says, fitting a key into the lock. “Vultures. I’ve been meaning to take it down.”
He pushes the door open and leads the way inside, shrugging off his coat. Artemy follows, shutting the door behind him and then blinking into the abrupt and almost total darkness.
“I’ll get a light,” Dankovsky’s voice says from somewhere to his left. “Give me a moment.”
Artemy stands by the door, listening to the sounds of Dankovsky rummaging through drawers, the creak and hiss of pipes in the walls of the old building, the distant crying of a baby on one of the floors above. Dankovsky’s apartment is very cold. He sets his bag down carefully by his feet and waits, tucking his hands beneath his armpits.
At last there’s a sputtering sound, the bright flare of a flame, and Dankovsky’s face blooms in the dark. The light shudders and grows, and with it the apartment around them melts out of the blackness like developing film.
“I stopped paying my electricity bills,” Dankovsky says. He’s doing something with the gas lamp spilling its light across the room, adjusting dials, watching the flame. He glances up at Artemy’s hunched figure. “And my heating bills. Sorry.”
“As long as you have a lot of blankets, it’s not an issue,” Artemy says, stamping his feet to urge some blood back into them. “Although I might say that I’m glad you never invited your colleagues over if this is how you treat them. Such a gracious host.”
Dankovsky smiles. With the flickering light from below, it could look eerie, a pale grin etched into the air—he is, after all, white enough to be a spectre—but instead it just looks comforting.
“I would ask you to take your shoes off,” the Bachelor says now, “but I don’t trust you not to get frostbite, so you can keep them on if you want. There’s the sofa.”
It’s an old-looking thing, clean and threadbare, with an unlit lamp on the table beside it. Artemy sits down.
With the glow from the gas lamp, the rest of the apartment is thrown into relief. It’s small and spartan, the floor wooden, the walls papered but faded, almost every surface sparse and uncluttered. A tiny kitchen hovers in the shadows beyond the pool of light, and a door Artemy assumes must lead to the bedroom is set into the opposite wall. There are no rugs, no decorations, very few personal effects at all—with the exception being the large and swollen bookshelf behind the desk in the corner. Here he can see Dankovsky’s influence as clearly as if the man’s name were stamped on the wall: books on cosmology, psychology, philosophy, heavy tomes and paper-bound journals, all filed reverentially on the dusty shelves. The desk is bare, but heavily worn: smears of ink and the stains from coffee mugs litter its surface, and he can see the scrapes in the floorboards where the chair-legs must carve their customary path in and out.
“Is there anything you want?” Dankovsky asks. He’s standing in the kitchen, leaning a hip against the counter. “If you’re hungry I can check in the fridge. Don’t get your hopes up, though.”
“And here I was thinking my host was going to let me starve to death as well as giving me frostbite,” Artemy says. “How greedy of me.”
“Very funny,” Dankovsky says, rolling his eyes. “You’d better be thankful I’ve still got running water. I stopped paying that, too, but they haven’t shut it off yet for some reason. Perhaps they’ve taken pity on me.”
He crosses to the fridge and opens it, peers briefly inside, then quickly shuts it again with a mildly revolted expression. “I should mention I haven’t bought food in a long time. I don’t know how old some of this stuff is.”
Artemy reclines on the sofa, watching Dankovsky over the armrest. “You haven’t bought food? What do you eat?”
Dankovsky shrugs. He starts opening cupboards and poking around inside, stretching up on the balls of his feet to reach the higher shelves. Artemy’s eyes follow the protruding bones of his wrists; the sharp jut of his collarbone. A conversation for a different time.
“I’ve got soup,” Dankovsky says after a few moments, emerging from the cupboard with a battered tin in hand. “Sorrel, I think. Not quite what you’re used to, but options are limited.”
“That’s fine,” Artemy says, sitting up and rubbing his eyes. Tiredness has begun to weigh properly on his bones, and he has to resist the temptation to drop off where he rests. “Don’t you want anything?”
“I’m fine.” Dankovsky has already busied himself at the stove, cracking open the tin and pouring the soup into a saucepan. “You can sleep, if you want; I’ll wake you up when it’s done.”
“I’m alright for now. I slept on the train.” He stretches his arms above his head and feels his vertebrae pop. “Bad idea for my back.”
“That sofa might be a bad idea for your back, too,” Dankovsky says, casting an appraising eye over at Artemy where he’s perched on the edge of the cushions. “I forgot you were a giant.”
“There are advantages and disadvantages,” Artemy says, smiling. “I can reach high cupboards, but I can’t sleep on normal beds. If I were as little as you I’d sleep curled up in desk drawers and people’s pockets.”
Dankovsky gives a snort of what could be laughter or derision. “You wouldn’t want me in your pocket. I scare small children.”
“I think small children are the ones you scare least, wouldn’t you say, Uncle Bachelor? I reckon it’s because you’re the same height as them.”
Dankovsky points at him threateningly with a wooden spoon. “I am making you soup, Burakh.”
Artemy lifts his arms in surrender and drops back against the sofa cushions, smirking at the ceiling. There’s a cobweb like a foam of lace wrapped around the lampshade, long threads looping across the fixture and hanging down in loose tatters. He watches it for a while, the silken arcs catching the light from the gas lamp, burning gold and grey and gold again as the flame leaps and falls. He can’t see the spider. Perhaps she’s taken up residence in Dankovsky’s bookshelf.
The bowl of soup landing on the low table in front of him makes him startle. Dankovsky raises his eyebrows as he sets down a spoon beside it and takes a seat at the other end of the sofa, settling his still-gloved hands symmetrically on his knees.
“I was admiring your cobwebs,” Artemy says by way of explanation as he picks up the bowl.
“That is not a compliment.”
“I intended it as one,” Artemy says honestly. “They’re pretty.”
“Only you would find pleasure in dirt and decay, Burakh,” Dankovsky says, but there’s something that’s almost a smile on his face. “Reminds you of home, does it?”
Artemy looks at him over the rim of his bowl.
The smile vanishes from Dankovsky’s face. “I…apologise. That came out wrong.”
Artemy drinks his soup. Its taste is unfamiliar, but not unpleasant. “The soup is nice,” he says, to break the stiff silence.
“I didn’t make it,” Dankovsky says distractedly. “I bought it a long time ago.”
The silence resumes. Artemy eats slowly, feeling the agitation from the other end of the sofa, waiting for Dankovsky to speak; but he does not. Eventually, when his bowl is clean, he sets it down on the table and says, not lifting his eyes from his hands, “I know you’re trying.”
He feels Dankovsky stiffen, tensing where he sits.
“I wasn’t sure what you’d be like now, if I ever found you; but I can see the effort you’re making. You’re different from how you were when I first met you. It’s good.”
He meets Dankovsky’s eyes. The other man is staring at him, fingers clenching the knees of his trousers, the old ache pulsing in the light from the lamp.
“I wasn’t lying, before,” Artemy says quietly. “When I said I liked you. I do. I’ve missed you since you left, and I don’t know why you thought I wouldn’t, but I did. I want you to believe me,” he says, leaning forward and gripping Dankovsky’s shoulder. He feels the bones beneath his palm, the flinch, but Dankovsky does not draw away. “I know you’re trying, Daniil.”
Dankovsky draws a breath in and expels it again. The rattle of his lungs is clearly audible in the dust-thick quiet of the cold apartment.
“Alright,” he says at last. “Alright. I believe you.”
He stands up quickly, brushing off his trousers, and picks up Artemy’s empty dish. He walks briskly past the sofa and into the kitchen, and the sound of running water soon accompanies the clatter of dishes—a rather louder cacophony than could reasonably be expected for one bowl and one spoon. Artemy doesn’t question it.
He appears in the lamplight again a moment later, drying his hands on a tea towel. “If you’re going to sleep, you can have my bed. I don’t really use it anymore. That sofa’s too small for you.”
“The sofa is fine,” Artemy says firmly. “Sleep in your bed, erdem. At least for tonight.”
Dankovsky hesitates; then he seems to give up, and tosses the tea towel onto the counter. “If you insist. There are blankets in the cupboard there, but I don’t have extra pillows so you’ll have to use a cushion. Toilet through here. And take your shoes off if you’re putting your feet up.”
“Thank you for your kind accommodation, Bachelor Dankovsky. I’m much obliged.”
Dankovsky humours him with a small smile. “This is what my colleagues have been missing out on.”
Artemy unlaces his boots as Dankovsky moves around the kitchen, putting away the dry crockery and taking out blankets which he sets in a neat pile beside the sofa. It’s a pleasant sort of background noise, domestic, and for a sleep-addled moment Artemy prepares to shift himself against the back of the sofa to make room as Dankovsky crosses to his side again; but Dankovsky stops short, and he remembers himself.
“Do you want the light?” he hears him ask.
“No, it’s fine.” Artemy’s words are roughened with sleep.
“Very well. Goodnight, Burakh.”
The flame flutters, shivers, dies at last. Sleep comes before the Bachelor’s footsteps have faded into the dark.
* * *
The dawn is sharper than the last. He can feel it before he opens his eyes, the frigid air painful against his face and his bare hands where they lie atop the blanket.
It takes him a few moments to remember where he is; to recall the previous day, the rattling train, the sights and smells of the city. The building unease. Dankovsky, slumped in the corner of the bar. Dankovsky, bringing him to his apartment and making him soup.
He sits up quickly, and the blanket slips from his shoulders into his lap. The apartment is lit by a thin beam of winter sunlight. Dust motes drift in the strip of bright air, catching the sun, treading a soft stairway between window and floor.
Artemy stands up, drawing the blanket around his shoulders, and crosses to the glass. The street below is quiet, almost empty. A man and a dog are walking slowly along the pavement on the opposite side of the road, both thin and aged, judging by the grey of the dog’s coat and the man’s hair. He wonders who the man is, and the name of his dog. He remembers the bull.
“Did you sleep well?”
Artemy jumps and narrowly avoids bouncing his head off the windowpane. Dankovsky is standing behind him, dressed in the same clothes as the night before. He hadn’t heard him come in.
“Yes, fine,” he says, waiting for his heart rate to return to normal. “Thanks for the sofa. Try not to give me any more heart attacks, though.”
“It’s not my fault you weren’t paying attention,” Dankovsky says. “I could have stuck a knife in your back before you even had the chance to turn around.”
“Could I, ah, request that you don’t stick any knives in my back whilst I’m here? Especially not when I’ve just woken up?”
Dankovsky gives him a stern look. “You may request it.”
Artemy grins and turns back to the window, saying over his shoulder, “I’m not taking my chances, in that case. I’ve seen you with a scalpel. I’m surprised anyone lets you operate on them, the way you wave that thing around.”
“Yes, well,” Dankovsky says drily, “the patients on which I operate tend to be rather past the point of protest.”
Artemy raises his eyebrows at Dankovsky’s reflection in the glass. Dankovsky scowls. “Meaning they’re dead, idiot. I’m not usually inclined towards non-consensual dissection.”
Dankovsky’s face tightens slightly. “Extremis malis extrema remedia.”
There’s a silence. The windowpane shudders slightly in its frame. The man and his dog turn the corner at the end of the street and disappear from sight.
“This topic is a bit heavy for this time in the morning, I think,” Artemy says, turning back to Dankovsky. The man is staring at a point on the wall, but his gaze is unfocused and distant. “Do you have anything else to eat that isn’t soup?”
Dankovsky appears to drag himself back to reality. He blinks a few times and looks up at Artemy with slightly glazed eyes. “Soup? Oh—no, I don’t think so. We can go out and get something; there’s a place at the end of the road.”
The apartment block is quieter at this time of the morning. They walk side by side down the empty corridor, the winding staircase, listening to the sleepy silence of dawn broken only by their footsteps and the piping call of a bird from somewhere above. The city feels less hostile at this hour—gentler, in a way, as it curls tighter against the dropping temperatures.
Dankovsky is no less quiet. He hasn’t spoken much since their brief conversation, and is now walking with his hands clasped behind his back, brow slightly furrowed. He looks no better rested than he did the night before; if anything, he looks even wearier. Artemy wonders if he slept at all.
“Do you dream when you sleep?” Dankovsky asks unexpectedly. Apparently his mind has been following the same train of thought as Artemy’s.
“Most nights I do,” he responds. “I didn’t last night, though.”
“What do you dream about?”
Artemy watches the back of Dankovsky’s head. They’ve reached the bottom of the staircase now, stepping out onto the chilly street.
“The Plague, mostly,” he says honestly. “People I couldn’t save. People I could save dying anyway. My father, sometimes. You.”
Dankovsky looks over his shoulder to meet Artemy’s eye. His expression is inscrutably curious. “You dream about me? What am I doing, in your dreams?”
Artemy shrugs. “Standing.”
“Standing and talking.”
“Only in the more recent ones,” Artemy says, ignoring Dankovsky’s raised eyebrows. “You never used to talk. There’s one I’ve had quite a few times where you’re walking into the steppe, getting further into the distance.”
Dankovsky turns away again. He’s folded his collar up against the cold, and his voice is slightly muffled when he says, “Is that all I do?”
“For the most part,” Artemy says. He doesn’t want to mention how he calls out to Dankovsky, reaching across the empty plains, alone amongst the dead and the dying. “What about you? Do you dream?”
“I did,” Dankovsky says simply. “I don’t anymore.”
The shop Dankovsky had mentioned is a small place, as shabby as the surrounding buildings, with a scrawny little fellow behind the counter. Dankovsky waits outside as Artemy buys supplies, and is leaning against the wall when Artemy emerges a few minutes later with a laden bag. There’s a cigarette burning between his fingers, smoke curling lazily into the frosty air.
“Do you feel like a walk?” he asks, before Artemy can speak. “There’s a park nearby. I go there sometimes, when I have the time. I think you’d like it.”
“I didn’t take you for a nature lover,” Artemy says, watching the smoke unfurling from Dankovsky’s lips.
Dankovsky waves the remark away with a gloved hand. “You weren’t mistaken. However, I have been informed by numerous psychologists on numerous occasions that staying inside staring at dead bodies all day is not conducive to a good mental state, so I made a token effort.”
“Sensible,” Artemy says, following Dankovsky as they start down a new road. “Do thanatologists often hang out with psychologists? I can imagine the dinner parties.”
Dankovsky gives him an odd look. It’s almost pitying. “I didn’t see them for my work, Burakh.”
The sudden realisation makes blood climb to his cheeks, prickling hotly against the wind. Dankovsky doesn’t appear to notice; indeed, he doesn’t seem bothered at all by his own confession, too busy taking a long drag on his cigarette to notice Artemy’s embarrassment.
“I’m sorry to bring it up,” Artemy says after a moment. “It was…insensitive of me.”
Dankovsky looks at him in mild surprise. “Sorry? Don’t be stupid, I couldn’t care less. Half the people in this city are spilling their souls to a therapist every other day; I’m hardly an anomaly. Ask any man you see what prescription pills he’s taking and you’ll have enough names to fill a pharmaceutical encyclopaedia before you get to the end of the street. If you don’t get punched first, that is.”
Artemy laughs, more out of relief than anything else. “Perhaps I should start with you, as you’re hopefully less likely to punch me than a stranger.”
“Don’t count on it,” Dankovsky warns, but there’s warmth in his voice. “I’m not on anything right now. Ran out a while ago and never got a repeat prescription. Shame on me, as a doctor.”
“Shame on you as a doctor,” Artemy echoes fervently. “What did they teach you at medical school?”
Dankovsky winces. “More than I can remember. It all slips in and out of my brain these days. I shudder to imagine what my tutors would think of me.”
There’s something a little too raw there for his words to be entirely facetious. Artemy decides not to pursue the subject.
“And what about you?” Dankovsky asks, tapping ash from his cigarette. “What did they teach you?”
“At medical school?”
“Same sort of thing as you, I imagine,” Artemy says, shrugging. “Patient care, trauma, pathology. We did placements at local hospitals, working on the ground, all the usual stuff. As well an added dose of ‘Don’t Forget to Fill Up Your Prescriptions’, of course—you must have missed that bit.”
Dankovsky gives a startled laugh, his face breaking into a smile. It’s light and hoarse and all the more sweet for how unexpected it is, and Artemy finds himself staring at Dankovsky in the cold morning, his collar drawn up around his pale face, slightly flushed from the cold, his unkempt hair, the grooves around his mouth that deepen with his laughter, the way his eyes look bright and soft like honey in the sunlight. The city behind him fades, grey brick melting into the autumn serenity of the steppe, the smell of twyre, children dancing just out of sight. The earth beneath his feet.
Dankovsky is staring at him, his expression a mixture of wariness and concern.
“Sorry,” he says hastily, shaking his head as the city floods his senses once more. The soles of his feet are cold. “Got caught up in my head.”
“A dangerous game,” Dankovsky says, beginning to walk again, but still casting an appraising eye over his shoulder at Artemy as though expecting him to retreat into his thoughts when his back is turned. “Especially as your head is so vast and empty.”
His steps falter, and he says abruptly, “Shit. Was that unkind? I didn’t mean—Why are you laughing?”
Artemy claps him on the shoulder, still grinning broadly. “Perhaps it was unkind, erdem,” he says, “but it was also pretty funny. Bastard.”
Dankovsky smiles, apparently relieved. “I do try.”
The smile hasn’t faded from Artemy’s face by the time they reach the place where Dankovsky has been leading them. Judging by the high iron railings that stretch away down the long perpendicular streets, the park is a great sprawling thing, though it’s difficult to see much of it through the thick mass of trees around the perimeter. The smell of the grass, the leaves rotting quietly in the earth, wood and sap and pollen heavy upon the air, is so reminiscent of home that he falters where he walks, his hand clenching around the paper handle of the bag at his side.
The sounds of the early morning traffic fade once they pass beneath the elaborately-worked gate and begin a slow circuit through the oaks. It’s quiet here. Artemy finds himself drifting with the rustling of the leaves, the chirping call of a chaffinch, alone in the world with Dankovsky by his side. He breathes it in, all of it, sweet at the back of his throat and comforting as an embrace after the cold deadness of the city.
He remembers, very suddenly as they walk in the shadow of the canopy, an occasion when he was much younger—no older than eight or nine—and he had run out onto the open steppe, furious and near tears over some childish concern, something forgotten now, after all this time. He remembers throwing himself onto the grass, pressing his face into it, clawing his hands in the hard soil, the way the roots tore and split beneath his ragged fingernails. He remembers, too, how he lay there for hours. It had been hot and dry, no rain for days, and the sun warmed his back and his scalp as he held the earth in his small arms and wetted her with his tears. He doesn’t recall what happened after.
The memory had come like a flash of light, bright and brilliant, and it dwindles just as quickly to a faint glow—but he doesn’t forget.
“You’re thinking about something,” Dankovsky says. His voice seems to come from a long way away, and it takes an effort for Artemy to resurface, as though from deep water.
“I am,” he responds. Everything seems clearer, sharper—almost painfully technicolour after the faded decay of his memories. “I just remembered something from when I was a kid.”
“A good memory or a bad memory?”
Artemy thinks for a moment. His fingertips pulse with the deep heartbeat of the earth. The sun hot on his back.
“I’m not sure,” he says, after a time. “Just a memory.”
The trees begin to thin as they wend their way towards the centre of the park. After a while they clear completely into a wide stretch of grass, rolling gently into the opposite flank of woodland, with a lake nestled like a vast mirror at its heart. Dankovsky makes for it, and they stand abreast on the bank with their shoes shrouded in reed mace and mud sedge, gazing down into the glassy surface of the water.
“I told you before,” Dankovsky says, his eyes on their reflections rippling side by side amongst the weeds, “that I only came here because of medical advice. That wasn’t entirely true. I used to like walking here, alone. The city is infinitely valuable to my work, the people here, the connections—but it can be…a lot, sometimes. I know you’ve felt it.”
“It’s a bit overwhelming at times, yeah,” Artemy says, watching the water reeds drift lethargically with the flow of the water. “Not something I’m used to.”
Dankovsky lifts his head and stares out across the lake. He murmurs something that Artemy doesn’t catch.
“What did you say?”
“There used to be ducks,” Dankovsky repeats more clearly. “I used to see the ducks. Where have they gone?”
“Perhaps they’ve migrated.”
Dankovsky shakes his head. His eyes are still fixed on some faraway point on the other side of the lake.
“It’s winter, oynon,” Artemy says, watching Dankovsky’s profile. “Ducks migrate in autumn. They’ll have been gone for months now.”
Dankovsky does not reply. He looks very young all of a sudden, despite the furrows of his face and the blue bloom of stubble along his jaw. The costume of the self-confident Bachelor is still evident in the cut of his coat, the elegant clothes, the neatly-trimmed hair; but beneath it all, beneath the stage makeup that seals him off from the world outside, the young man that is Daniil Dankovsky blinks and flinches in the harsh glare of the spotlight.
“I didn’t want to see the psychologists,” Dankovsky says unexpectedly. He turns away from the lake, meeting Artemy’s gaze as though willing him to understand. “It was something we did at Thanatica—compulsory appointments with a therapist for all our researchers, to keep them in good mental health. We had incidents, at first, because of the work we were doing. We needed support. I had to set a good example.”
Artemy looks at him: at the strained face, the bruised eyes. His hands are flexing at his sides, a seemingly subconscious motion, fingers tapping out a nervous pattern against his thigh. One, two, one, two.
“I know you did,” he says. “It’s alright. I know.”
Dankovsky releases a breath. It shakes a little, smokes in the crisp air, steadies again. Then he smiles.
“Alright, then,” says Dankovsky. “Alright, then.”
* * *
They fall into a routine, of sorts.
Artemy rises early, awakening with the first of the sun, and inevitably finds Dankovsky already up and about. He makes coffee—they have coffee now, mercifully—and are out on the street before the sunlight has scraped the city’s spires. The corner shop is the first stop, and then the park. Dankovsky seems content to walk circuits of the lake for hours, and Artemy is hardly keen to protest. It feels, in a way, like being back in the Town all those months ago, Artemy on Dankovsky’s bed and the Bachelor at his desk, discussing and arguing and constructing hypotheses until the close of the night—except that now they are in the open, walking together in the season’s frost, and the air smells not of sickness and infection but decaying grass, and waterlogged soil, and the sharp bite of coal smoke where it rises above the city.
The evenings are quiet. Dankovsky tires easily once they’ve left the park, becoming withdrawn and irritable if they don’t return to the apartment in good time. Artemy doesn’t mind. He’s been Murky’s guardian long enough to recognise the same tightness of the eyes when they draw near crowds; the way Dankovsky’s shoulders draw up and his hands drum the same rhythm, one, two, one, two, at the roar of a car going past. Perhaps, if the situation were different, he would regret being confined to three locations after travelling such a long way to the Capital; but it’s these slow days, these lamplit nights, talking about anything and everything or else sitting in silence in each other’s company, that bring Artemy greater peace than he has felt for longer than he can remember. Just being here is enough.
“Do you want coffee?”
It’s evening, and Artemy is sitting with his legs propped up on Dankovsky’s sofa, reading a book about macrophytes. Dankovsky is in the kitchen, and Artemy looks up at the sound of his voice, dogearing his page and laying it flat in his lap.
“If you’re making some,” he says. “Please try not to give me a caffeine overdose this time, though. I don’t know how you’re still alive, drinking it that strong.”
“It’s nice,” Dankovsky says peevishly over the sound of the water running as he fills up the kettle. “It keeps me awake.”
“Given that you never seem to sleep, perhaps that’s a bad idea.”
“Do I need to remind you about the time I caught you chewing a handful of raw coffee beans behind the theatre?”
“You did that too!” Artemy protests, sitting up straighter out of indignation. “At least I ate them all in one go so I could get it over with rather than popping them one at a time like a maniac.”
“I never ate raw eggs, though. You definitely ate raw eggs.”
“You, Daniil Dankovsky, are a filthy liar and a hypocrite.”
The sound of Dankovsky’s laughter joins the hiss of the stove as he puts the kettle on to boil and crosses the room to stand at the foot of the sofa, knocking one of Artemy’s outstretched legs with his knee. “Move your feet.”
Artemy draws his legs up and Dankovsky sits, running a hand through his hair. He’s more dishevelled than usual today, with his shirt coming untucked and his cravat lopsided, though the ever-present gloves give at least some impression of self-control and discipline.
“What are you reading?” Dankovsky asks, nodding at the book lying on Artemy’s chest.
“Book about aquatic plants,” Artemy says, picking it up again and leafing through to one of the coloured plates which had caught his eye. “Look—here’s that one you asked me about. Flowering rush.”
“Oh, I remember,” Dankovsky says, taking the outstretched book and examining the watercolour drawing. “The one with the flowers?”
“No, flowering rush doesn’t have flowers.”
Dankovsky looks surprised, then confused. “It has flowers in the picture. Perhaps it wasn’t the right one after all.”
“I was kidding, oynon.”
Dankovsky’s expression of deep betrayal makes Artemy laugh. He catches the book as Dankovsky tosses it in the vague direction of his head and smooths the pages, running his fingers across the intricate drawings. It’s an old book, the spine sun-bleached and the gilt fading, but the pages are clean and bright, scuffed only by Artemy’s calloused hands. Clearly it wasn’t one of Dankovsky’s favourites.
“What was the one in the steppe?” Dankovsky asks now, recovering his composure. “The one that had the heady smell?”
“Twyre,” Artemy says. “It’s pretty strong. You don’t get it here.”
“No,” Dankovsky agrees. “I’d never smelled anything like it before. I thought I was having a stroke when I first got off the train.”
“That would have made for an impressive entrance.”
“More like an omen, I would imagine,” Dankovsky says, grimacing. “The doctor from the Capital arrives in town and dies before he’s even left the train station. Bit of a portent of doom, wouldn’t you say?”
“Ah, I don’t know,” Artemy says, shrugging. “Everything’s a portent of doom back home. What the weather’s doing, how the herbs are growing, where the dogs are shitting. Everything has the capacity to be a harbinger of death.”
“Even dog shit?”
“Even dog shit.”
Dankovsky laughs, seemingly despite himself, and glances sideways at Artemy’s face. There’s something in his eyes, something in the way his mouth curls up at the corners, that is so incomprehensibly fond it makes Artemy’s breath catch. It’s an entirely new expression, unexpected, unthought of—or perhaps he just didn’t know where to look. He never knew this softness, before.
He never expected it now.
“What are you staring at?”
Dankovsky has not looked away, but there’s a curious furrow between his brows now. The fondness is still warm in his eyes.
“I thought you’d be angry,” Artemy says. It comes out before he can stop it, another reminder of the past bleeding through his lips, things they both wish they can forget dragged once more into the light.
The lines between Dankovsky’s eyebrows deepen. He looks slightly wrongfooted. “Angry? Angry about what?”
“About the Polyhedron.”
Dankovsky’s face closes off. He turns away from Artemy and stares instead at his entwined hands, rubbing a thumb across the leather on his palm.
“I’m sorry to bring it up,” Artemy says. “I just thought…I don’t know. All the times I imagined miraculously finding you again, I thought you would be furious with me for what I did. I thought you would hate me.”
Dankovsky does not answer at once. He continues watching his hands, thumb still working the leather.
“I was angry, at first,” he says at length. “The Polyhedron was my last hope. Not just for my research, but for everything. Without it, I had nothing. I was nothing. Perhaps I hated you a little, back then. I can’t remember how I felt. It was a long time ago.”
“Is that why you left?” Artemy says softly. He has the sensation of taking a step on day-old ice. His heart flutters behind his ribs like a caged bird.
Dankovsky’s face tautens. “Let’s not discuss that right now.”
“Please, Burakh,” he says, meeting Artemy’s eyes at last. “Another time.”
Artemy does not break eye contact, holding the other man in his gaze, taking in the tight set of his body and the twisting hands. The exhaustion writ into every line of his face.
“Alright,” he says. “Alright, erdem.”
Dankovsky’s body loosens slightly. His hands unclench. He says, as though urging Artemy to understand, his eyes falling to the dusty floor, “I was angry. Past tense. I may have hated you, for a while, but—” His hands still. The sound of creaking leather quietens, only noticeable in its absence. “I’ve had a lot of time to think. I know why you did what you did, and I’ve…reassessed my own opinions. My own actions. I know it’s too little, too late, but…Well. I’m not angry anymore, and I don’t hate you. Quite the contrary, in fact—I would almost say I like you, a little.”
“A little?” Artemy says, trying for a smile. “I’ve been living in your house for three days and you only like me a little?”
Dankovsky’s smile is tentative, relieved. “Well. Maybe a little more than a little. I’m not giving you more than that, though—I don’t want it to go to your head. It’s big enough as it is.”
Artemy laughs and kicks him lightly in the side. Dankovsky’s subsequent squawk of protest is lost in the whistling of the forgotten kettle.
* * *
He wakes, a long time later, in the early hours of the morning.
They both turned in hours ago. The only form of illumination in the apartment is the shaft of sickly yellow light from the streetlamp outside which cuts through the curtains, painting a long strip of bleached colour along the floor and up the wall. Everything else is darkness.
Artemy sits up on the sofa, rubbing a sleep-slurred hand across his face as his eyes adjust to the gloom. The apartment is silent. The only sound comes from the faint creaking of the walls; the distant barking of a dog.
He gets to his feet and pads to the sink, feeling his way through the blackness. The floor is very cold. He fills a cup with water and drinks it slowly, leaning against the counter, his eyes on the crack of light at the window.
It must be deepest night. The clock on the wall hasn’t been wound so he can’t check the time, but the quality of the silence, the pall which hangs like a heavy fog over the empty streets, tells him as clearly as any timepiece could. It’s nice, in a way, being awake whilst the rest of the world sleeps. It puts him in mind of childhood, and the frightened thrill of disobedience. The sight of the moon at a point in the sky he had never seen it before. A constellation that usually squatted on the horizon spread across the stars above him, an endless eternity away but still looking down upon the lonely boy with its great white eye.
Artemy sets down his glass and listens.
Surely he should be able to hear Dankovsky’s breathing.
He crosses as quietly as he can to the door on the opposite wall, stretching out blindly until he catches the cold handle and turns it, very slowly. The door opens without protest.
He hasn’t yet seen Dankovsky’s bedroom. There had been no need: Artemy slept on the sofa and Dankovsky retired to his room when they both tired of talking, and he would already be out in the morning, preparing coffee at the stove before Artemy had opened his eyes. Now he looks upon it for the first time: upon the small window through which moonlight is spilling, the dresser, the neat stack of books on the bedside table, the bed with its carefully folded covers, edges tucked in, smoothed fastidiously flat.
Artemy stands for a moment, looking into the room. Then he pulls the door quietly shut behind him and returns to the sofa.
Sleep overtakes him before he hears Dankovsky return.
* * *
“Burr reed. Horsetail. Northern blue flag.”
Artemy points at a small cluster of white flowers and Dankovsky’s eyes follow, narrowed slightly in concentration. “Bog bean.”
“Bog bean,” Dankovsky repeats under his breath. “Water hyacinth, hydrilla, sigo pondweed.”
“Sago pondweed,” Artemy corrects. “That’s the one that looks like green hair.”
“Sago pondweed looks like green hair,” Dankovsky recites dutifully. “Right. And is that all of them?”
“Oh, no,” Artemy says, looking away from the tufty flowers and smiling at the Bachelor. “Just the ones I can see.”
They are, in customary fashion, in the park again. It’s been a slow day, and an odd one. The old unease, forgotten since that first day as it lay dormant in the depths of his mind, has pushed its way to the surface once more, and a feeling of unresolved tension has been building steadily since Artemy awoke that morning. Dankovsky was, unsurprisingly, already active when he roused himself from the sofa. He’s said nothing about the previous night. Neither has Artemy.
They’re here later than usual, several hours later, because Dankovsky was keen to show Artemy the sunset over the lake. Artemy was glad of the distraction. For the first time, the apartment feels too small, too dark; closed off from the world. Lonely. He’s even gladder now, standing in the frost-stiff grass, to be out in the open; to be watching the sky, the wisps of pink cloud growing more vibrant with colour with every minute that passes, waiting for the smouldering disc of the sun to break the treeline. They have time to wait.
“You know a lot about plants, Burakh,” Dankovsky says. If Artemy didn’t know better, he would almost say Dankovsky sounds impressed. “I’m impressed.”
Apparently he doesn’t know better after all. “I just sort of picked it up, really. I was surrounded by plant-life the whole time I was growing up. I couldn’t escape learning the names.”
“Even so,” Dankovsky says, pulling a packet of cigarettes from his pocket and extracting one, “you know more than anyone I’ve ever met. Admittedly I didn’t often share company with botanists, but it’s impressive nonetheless. Perhaps that head of yours isn’t so empty after all.”
“Is that supposed to be a compliment?”
“I don’t make compliments,” Dankovsky says in a very final tone of voice.
“What happened to I like you a little bit?”
“That wasn’t a compliment, that was an expression of opinion. For a supposedly educated man your grasp of semantics leaves much to be desired.”
“Ouch,” Artemy says softly.
Daniil winces. “Sorry. Too unkind?”
“A little too familiar,” Artemy says, and Daniil grimaces. “It’s alright. I’ll just tell you to piss off and we can move on.”
“That’s fair. Go ahead.”
“Piss off,” Artemy says kindly.
Dankovsky nods in satisfaction and they lapse into silence. The sun has sunk lower, burning yellow against the red sky, and the trees have entwined into one tangled silhouette which cradles the clouds.
“I keep forgetting to ask,” Dankovsky says after a moment, turning away from the blinding sight to look at Artemy, “How long are you staying in the Capital?”
“No longer than a week,” Artemy responds. “Murky and Sticky will be fine on their own, but I don’t want to leave them for too long. I made sure there was someone looking in on them so they’ll have everything they need, but…” He shrugs. “I have responsibilities. I shouldn’t have come at all, officially.”
“Why did you come?” Dankovsky’s gaze is very attentive.
Artemy frowns. “We haven’t talked about this?”
“Not that I can recall.”
Artemy hums and turns his eyes to the sky, watching the bloom of colour spread like an ink-stain across the firmament. “I don’t know why I came, really,” he says. “Call it an impulse. I felt…like I needed to, somehow. Like there was something I needed to find here. I don’t know.”
He doesn’t mention the bad feeling that even now slumbers black within his skull. He’s not sure why he doesn’t want Dankovsky to know, but the instinct to conceal and disguise is strong enough that he is grateful for the sun choosing that moment to break the horizon, flooding the sky with a wave of fiery colour which turns the lake into a burning, blazing eye, blind with flame and staring sightlessly at the blasted heavens.
“Look at that,” he says, voice soft with awe. Dankovsky makes a small sound of agreement, gaze fixed on the wash of light, red and yellow and flaming gold reflected in his eyes.
He’s seen fire mirrored in those eyes before. He’s seen flames climbing to the stars and that face shimmering through the heat-haze, white and rigid as a waxwork—except a waxwork would melt before a fire, and a stone man cannot burn. That was what the townsfolk said, anyway.
He remembers the charred bones of a bull and a skull lying amongst ashes, small, too small, so fragile he had to hold it in his cupped hands to lift it from the ruins. He remembers a sunset so red it was as though the sky was bleeding, staining the steppe scarlet and his hands, too, where he shielded his eyes against the light. He remembers a shuffling mass of rags which pleaded in the voice of a woman and screamed and screamed as it burned.
He remembers many things. Perhaps someday he will forget the taste of another man’s blood in his mouth, or the heavy shape of a knife inside him, or the way a child whimpers as it dies.
He has tried so hard not to remember.
“—akh? Burakh? Can you hear me?”
The sky is dark. The sun has dropped below the trees, and only a faint glow of red can still be seen above the rustling shadow of the leaves. The deep blue is cool against his burning eyes.
“Burakh, are you with me? Artemy?”
He blinks, draws in a deep breath, feels it shudder in his throat. There are hands on his arms, gripping tight. Leather gloves. Dankovsky.
“I’m here,” he says. His voice comes out hoarse. “Sorry. Got lost in my head again.”
Dankovsky is standing in front of him. He must have been there for a while, but he’s small enough that Artemy can see right over the top of his head. His face is rigid with alarm.
“God, Burakh,” he says. He sounds shaken, fear thrumming beneath his veneer of control. “I thought—”
He breaks off. His face is swathed in shadow against the darkening sky.
“It’s alright,” Artemy says. “I’m alright.”
They stand in the fading light for a long moment, Dankovsky still clutching Artemy’s shoulders, Artemy letting the cold air wash over him as he reminds himself that he is here, he is here, he is safe. Dankovksy’s hands are twin polestars, grounding him to the earth, holding tight lest he crumble like dust on the wind.
After a while, after the light has almost gone and the lake is a black mirror in the dusk, he shakes himself, stands up straight. Dankovsky gives him a searching look. The hands withdraw slowly from his shoulders, sliding down his arms until they stand apart once more. He misses the pressure immediately.
“I’d like to go back now, if it’s alright with you,” Artemy says.
Dankovsky nods. They begin to make their way back to the gate without another word, backs to the place where the sun was, heading into the darkness of the night.
Perhaps it was the incident in the park, or perhaps it was something else, or nothing at all, but the unease builds as they make their silent way through the streets in the deepening shadow. The glare of the streetlamps hurts his eyes, and Dankovsky’s obvious tension does nothing to soothe his trepidation. He can feel it growing like a tumour in his chest, a heavy, aching knot of anger with no obvious source, pressing solid and swollen on his heart. The thought of the cold apartment with its groaning walls and dust-muffled floorboards makes a sudden wave of homesickness crash over him, and he thrusts his chin deeper into his coat to avoid meeting Dankovsky’s eyes as they thread their path deeper into the city, trying to wash his mind clean so he can focus instead on the steady beat of his boots on the stone.
They climb the stairs in synchrony, Dankovsky’s pace matching his own. Their footsteps echo down the draughty corridors, one, two, one, two, like the bang of a drum.
The feeling in his chest sharpens, opening a dark wound in his breast.
They enter the apartment in silence. It’s as cold as Artemy expected, and as dark. Dankovsky busies himself with the lamp whilst Artemy hangs up his coat, listening to the mechanical rhythm of the building, the hiss of pipes and the stifled laughter of a woman down the hall.
“I don’t know what to do,” Dankovsky says.
Artemy turns. Dankovsky is standing by the table, his face lit from below by the glow of the lamp, staring at him.
“I don’t know what to do,” Dankovsky repeats. “I’m sorry. I’m not the right person for this.”
Another time, perhaps, this utterance would have surprised Artemy in its acceptance of fault or failure, until recently so uncharacteristic of the man silhouetted before him.
Now, he feels the sharpness in his chest twist, coiling hot and tight.
“No,” he says. “No, you’re not. Not exactly known for your bedside manner, are you, Dankovsky?”
Dankovsky draws back slightly. What can be seen of his face is seamed with tension.
“I work with the dead and the dying,” he says slowly. “If you were either of those things, I would know how to help you.”
“I’m sure you would.” He hears the contempt in his voice and hates it, but his heart is pounding in his ears now and his hands are clenched into fists at his sides.
“Did I do something wrong?” There’s a slightly desperate note in Dankovsky’s voice. “I am trying, I’m sorry if I upset you, but I—”
“Where were you last night?”
The question catches Dankovsky off guard. He’s still staring at Artemy, his expression wary now. “I beg your—”
“I said,” Artemy enunciates clearly, “where were you last night? I woke up and couldn’t hear you, and when I checked your room you were gone. Where were you?”
Dankovsky’s expression is tightening, his posture growing more defensive as the lamp flares. “Why are you asking me that?”
“Answer the fucking question, Dankovsky.”
“I didn’t go anywhere,” Dankovsky says, and there’s anger in his voice now. “You can’t have looked hard enough.”
“I looked plenty hard enough,” Artemy says roughly. “Your room was empty and your bed hadn’t been slept in. In fact, it looked as though it hadn’t been slept in for days. Why are you lying? What are you bothering to keep from me?”
“I can keep what I like from you,” Dankovsky snaps. “In case you’d forgotten, this is my apartment and it’s none of your business what I—”
“They called you a snake, you know,” Artemy says. The words horrify him but he can’t stop them coming, can’t control the rising tide that crashes against his teeth. “In the town. I’m starting to think they might have been right.”
Dankovsky recoils, staring at him with bitter shock and something that looks sickeningly like betrayal. Then his face slackens and he says, with a soft plea in his voice, “Burakh—”
“I want to know why you left,” Artemy says loudly. “I want to know why you keep leaving.”
“Please, let’s not discuss this n—”
“We are discussing it now,” Artemy cuts over him. “We’re going to fucking talk about it. You’re going to tell me why you went off without a backwards glance, without even thinking of anyone else, not giving a shit who was left wondering where you’d gone, afraid you might be bleeding out in some filthy alley because you didn’t bother to say goodbye—you’re going to tell me, Dankovsky, and you’re going to get the fuck out of my dreams while you’re at it.”
Dankovsky’s face is bleached pale in the sickly light of the lamp. He is still staring at Artemy, anger and consternation battling on his face, until at last he says, with a burst of vitriol, “You didn’t care anyway.”
“I didn’t care?”
“No,” Dankovsky spits, and the set of his shoulders is like a rearing viper, “you didn’t care. And you shouldn’t have cared either, so well done, good judgement there—it’s not like any of it matters, anyway.”
“What the hell are you talking about?”
“That was the point,” Dankovsky says loudly. “Don’t you get it? What am I saying, of course you don’t—your type have never had much in the way of brains.”
Rage pulses in Artemy’s fists. He takes a step forwards and so does Dankovsky, at least a head shorter than Artemy and thin as a rake but every muscle taut with venom, his sharp teeth bared.
“The goal was to leave without being noticed, you imbecile,” the Bachelor snarls. “I was trying to get away without anyone interfering, but of course it had to go wrong, because nothing can ever go right for me, because one of your lunatic kids—”
“Don’t you dare,” Artemy says, and he’s shouting now, towering over the little man, “don’t you dare—”
“Oh, but I do,” Dankovsky says, and that hated self-assurance is back in place, the old condescension that made him so off-putting, oh, so long ago, “I do and I always have, and it was only in your backwater town of savages where nothing could ever—”
Artemy’s body lurches, and it takes all his self-control to keep his hands at his sides, to hold back the blind urge to punch Dankovsky right in his smug, pretentious, exhausted face.
Dankovsky doesn’t miss the motion. Neither does he back off. “Go on,” he says, and his voice is very quiet. “Go on. Hit me. I know you want to, Ripper.”
Red floods Artemy’s brain. He’s taken a rushing step towards Dankovsky, knuckles tight and shoulders drawn, the muscles of his arm bunching with his fury, blood banging and beating in his throat and against his temples—
—before he stops.
Dankovsky’s eyes are very clear, and what he sees there makes the anger drain out of him like water into soil.
“No,” he says, and Dankovsky takes a step back, face twisting in confusion. “No, I won’t hit you.”
Dankovsky is recovering his composure, and his anger with it. “Why not? Because you’re a coward, is that it?”
“No,” Artemy says, “because you want me to.”
Dankovsky stops. He is framed by the lamplight, his shadow huge and black on the wall beside him, jerking and shuddering in the leaping flame.
“I can see it in your eyes,” Artemy says. In the absence of his rage, the apartment seems even colder, ice burrowing deep into his bones. “You want me to hurt you.”
Dankovsky clenches his hands at his sides, a grim reflection of Artemy’s earlier attack. As if in response to his opponent’s sudden calm, Dankovsky appears to be riling himself up further, his eyes blazing and freezing with the intermittent light of the lamp.
“Don’t be ridiculous,” he snaps now. “Of course I don’t want you to hurt me. If I did I would have gone to you straight away on the thirteenth day instead of—”
He stops abruptly. Panic flares briefly in his eyes, then fades.
“Instead of what?”
“Nothing,” Dankovsky responds at once. “I don’t have to tell you anything, Ripper.”
“Don’t try to provoke me,” Artemy says tiredly. “I just want to know—”
“You want to know what? Go on, ask me. I’m sure I can enlighten your mind, slow as it may be.”
Artemy grits his teeth. “I just want to know,” he repeats, keeping his voice level with a significant effort, “why you left without telling anyone.”
“Oh, I’m so sorry I hurt your feelings by not saying goodbye,” Dankovsky says acidly. “Next time I try to kill myself I’ll make sure to bear that in—”
Time stops. Silence swells like rising water, rushing over their heads.
Dankovsky has frozen. His face is bloodless, eyes locked with Artemy’s, slowly widening. Horror is dawning like a white shadow on his countenance.
The knock at the door makes them both jump, cutting through the air like a blunt knife.
Neither of them move at once, both still locked in a caricature of a fight, a melodrama in one act which keeps them fixed to the floorboards like mannequins in the timeless room.
The knock comes again, and Artemy tears himself away from the scene, from the yawning chasm of Dankovsky’s paralysed eyes, to cross to the door and open it.
A woman is standing in the hall, a sleeping baby slung at her hip. She frowns up at Artemy as he fills the doorway. He notices, as if through a thick fog, the tangled strands of her hair winding down her neck and the dark bags under her eyes.
“Could you please keep it down?” she says, without preamble. “I’m trying to put the kids to bed. It’s really too late to be shouting, you know, especially in a building full of people—and the walls are very thin.”
She cranes her head to look up at him, frown deepening, then peers around him to see into the dark apartment. “Are you the new tenant? Who were you shouting at?”
“Sorry,” Artemy says, managing to force his voice out at last, “we were—”
“Is Bachelor Dankovsky back?” the woman interrupts, suddenly brightening.
“Uh, yes, he is.”
“Ah!” The woman beams, jogging the baby on her hip. “That is good news. We thought he might never come back; how nice to be mistaken!”
“I’ll pass on your greetings,” Artemy says, beginning to close the door. “We’ll keep it down now.”
“Tell him his heating and electrical needs paying,” the woman calls as the gap narrows. “It ran out months ago, and he never—”
The door clicks shut, and her voice is cut off. After a second he hears her feet retreating down the hallway, and then the creak of another door. For a brief moment the sound of children’s voices floats down the corridor, light with laughter, muffled by the walls; but then the door slams, and there is silence.
Artemy stays for a heartbeat, staring at the door. His own shadow is shivering darkly on the painted wood. He watches it jump and flicker before turning back to the room.
Dankovsky has not moved. He’s standing motionless in the centre of the floor, staring blindly into the empty air, his face drained white. He could be a corpse, were it not for the rise and fall of his chest and the way he’s shaking, visible even from this distance, blurred slightly at the edges in the lamplight.
“Daniil,” Artemy says. His voice sounds hollow even to his own ears.
Dankovsky’s head twitches to the side, as though in an effort to veil his face in darkness.
“Don’t look at me,” Dankovsky says. His voice is so raw it makes Artemy’s chest ache.
He takes a step closer to the Bachelor, his footfall loud in the silent room, and Dankovsky flinches back as though anticipating a blow, his hands half rising to shield his face.
Artemy feels sick.
“I didn’t know,” he says, as softly as he can manage with his heart hurting as though it’s been rent from his chest. “I’m sorry, Daniil. I didn’t know.”
“It’s not your fault,” Dankovsky says. His lips are white, barely moving. “I didn’t want you to know. You weren’t supposed to find out.”
Artemy makes another careful step, and Dankovsky flinches again, though less violently than before. His eyes are firmly averted and rimmed with white, blown wide, like an animal looking down the barrel of a gun. Artemy suddenly hates the breadth of his own body, his height and power and the thick trunk of his torso, the clumsy enormity of his hands. He doesn’t know how to move; how to approach this small and infinitely vulnerable creature.
“Weren’t supposed to find out,” Dankovsky repeats in a voice that is almost lost in the dark.
Another step. “Will you tell me about it now?”
Dankovsky’s face crumples. His eyes dart around the room, fixing on the window and the bookshelf and the desk in turn, lingering on the sofa with a silent desperation as though searching fruitlessly for an escape.
“Daniil. Hey. Look at me.”
He’s stopped a few paces away, at the divide between light and dark which cuts the room in two. The Bachelor stands alone in the circle of lamplight. Artemy does not attempt to break the ring, and Dankovsky does not look up.
“Hey, now,” Artemy says quietly. “It’s me. It’s Artemy. You can look at me. It’s alright, oynon.”
Dankovsky takes a deep, rattling breath. His hands are trembling in their leather gloves.
At last, after several long moments, he meets Artemy’s eyes.
Dankovsky has never been good at concealing his emotions. Artemy remembers from the Plague, a thousand lifetimes ago, how looking at the Bachelor’s face was like seeing straight through his eyes and into his mind; as though every feeling was painted garishly in the set of his brow, the way he twined his hands together, the measure of his pacing. He has always been an open book, and now is no exception. The starkness of his fear is like a film over his eyes.
“There you are,” Artemy says, attempting an encouraging tone. “You’re alright. You’re fine.”
“I’m fine,” Dankovsky echoes. Now that he’s locked eyes with Artemy he seems afraid to look away.
“Do you want to sit down?”
Dankovsky shakes his head fractionally. The composure he was so close to losing completely is gradually returning to his face, and with it a new tide of fatigue that Artemy can see as clearly in his physiognomy as if a physical weight were crushing him before his eyes.
“I wasn’t trying to lie,” Dankovsky says unexpectedly. Something in the wall pops and hisses. “I wasn’t trying to keep things from you. I just…” He takes another breath. His chest shudders. “I knew it would change things. I just wanted this time when I didn’t have to think about it. I just wanted to rest.” His voice cracks on the last word.
“I know,” Artemy says. The pain in his chest sears. “I know. It’s alright. You don’t have to explain.”
“But I want to,” Dankovsky says. “I want to explain. I want you to know why I—why I left the way I did. I didn’t mean to hurt anyone. I didn’t mean to hurt you.”
He breaks eye contact at last, looking instead at his hands, examining the tremors with a doctor’s precision as if unaware of doing so. Artemy doesn’t speak, and after a moment Dankovsky fills the silence.
“I decided what I was going to do on the twelfth day,” he says. There’s an almost learned quality to his voice, as though he’s reading a script, uncoloured by emotion or inflection. “I had been thinking about it for a little while, but that was when I made up my mind. What happened on that day meant I had nothing left, in the Town or in the Capital. My research was void. There was no point.”
Dankovsky blinks several times. His hands flex. Artemy can almost see the pages turning in his averted eyes.
“Initially I thought I would jump off the Polyhedron. It would be quick and hopefully painless, but primarily it seemed fitting. You don’t have many high buildings in your Town; it would have been much easier to do it here, but I wanted it over and done with, and there was no point buying a train ticket just to kill myself in one place rather than another. In any case, it didn’t work out, for obvious reasons.”
He suddenly frowns and looks quickly at Artemy as though coming to an abrupt realisation. “I won’t permit you to feel guilty, by the way. This was my choice and I take full responsibility for it. Your involvement in what happened is irrelevant.”
Artemy feels the weight of it, the truth over which he has spent so long agonising, and he bows his head beneath it. The pain is hot and sharp, and he lingers at the edge of the circle of light, watching the little man read his lines with his hair a dark halo around his haggard face.
“With the Polyhedron gone, I went the old-fashioned route,” Dankovsky says evenly. “I still had my medical bag and scalpel, so I resolved to cut my wrists in the steppe. I could have more easily done it in Eva’s house, but…”
For the first time since he started his monologue, a ripple passes across the smooth mask. Dankovsky’s face tightens and his gloves creak as his hands clench. He continues, voice firm with resolve, “I made up my mind. I did not tell anyone where I was going. On the thirteenth day, I packed up my things and left in the direction of the train station, in order that anyone who saw me leaving would believe I had left the Town for good. I reached the railway line—”
He stops. The same ripple distorts his face. He looks suddenly lost, as though he has forgotten what he was saying.
“And then you changed your mind,” Artemy finishes.
Dankovsky looks at him searchingly, yearning, his eyes bright points in the dark.
“Yes,” he says. “I changed my mind.”
He stops again. Does not speak at once.
“And then?” Artemy prompts cautiously.
“And then,” Dankovsky says, “I caught the train. I came home.”
There’s a silence. They stare at each other across the cold room, Artemy shrouded in shadow, Dankovsky bathed in light, a thousand miles and a thousand years stretching on and on between them, lost in the dark of the night.
“That’s all,” Dankovsky says, and his voice breaks. “That’s everything.”
Artemy looks at him, looks past him, at the pain Dankovsky has been keeping buried beneath the layers of the Bachelor and which is now exposed to the light for the first time. It is tender and raw as an unhealed wound, and he steps towards it, crossing the boundary of light, approaching Dankovsky with the hands of a surgeon and a survivor and lays them on his shoulders, slowly and carefully, watching Dankovsky all the while. The Bachelor is cold beneath his hands, but his eyes are wide and trusting and he does not draw away.
“You did the right thing,” Artemy says. “I promise you. You made the right choice, Daniil.”
Dankovsky’s face tautens. He looks away, and his voice, when he speaks, is as brittle as dry bone.
“I wish I could say you were right.”
It takes a while for either of them to move. The gravity of the day seems to descend like fog from the hills, bone-deep weariness bleeding rationality from Artemy’s brain, sapping the life from his body so it’s all he can do to keep standing there with his hands on Dankovsky’s shoulders and his exhaustion beating alongside his heart. He can remember waking up just hours ago, and the bright sun in his eyes, and the smell of coffee. The sunset over the lake.
“Come on,” Artemy says at last. His voice is rough. “You need to sleep.”
“So do you,” Dankovsky responds.
Artemy musters the dregs of his good humour through the heavy pall of tiredness. “I know. Two personal crises in one day, huh? What a pair we make.”
Dankovsky’s smile is small and weak, but at least it’s there. He shifts beneath Artemy’s hands but makes no effort to remove them. His bones are sharp through the fabric of his waistcoat.
“Would you sleep in here tonight?” Artemy asks.
Dankovsky blinks. “I’m sorry?”
“I asked if you would sleep in here tonight. Like we used to.”
Dankovsky looks at him with his endless eyes, the great sea of emotion still laid out bare before Artemy. He’s thinking. Artemy doesn’t rush him.
“Alright,” he says at length. “Don’t squash me.”
Artemy manages a half-laugh and drops his hands from Dankovsky’s shoulders to pick up the lamp. Shards of light split the circle and cascade across the room, bright and gold, dancing off the clock face and the ragged cobwebs festooning the ceiling.
Dankovsky lies down first, pressing himself against the back of the sofa without bothering to remove his shoes or cravat, his eyes half-lidded in the twilight. Artemy sets the lamp down on the floor beside his feet and settles himself alongside Dankovsky, stretching his legs out with a sigh. He can feel Dankovsky’s knee pressing against his thigh; the steady movement of his ribcage at his back.
“How do I turn this lamp off?”
“Turn the dial.” Dankovsky’s voice is slurred with sleep.
Artemy’s hands find the catch and the apartment is plunged into blackness. After the bright lights of the day, the fire burning behind his eyes in the setting sun, the dark is comforting somehow.
He fumbles for the blanket at the foot of the sofa and tugs it over them, tucking it in behind Dankovsky’s back. The Bachelor makes a sleepy sound and presses his forehead between Artemy’s shoulder blades. It’s a nice pressure. He can feel Dankovsky’s faint breath on his back.
Sleep comes before he has the chance to think, and when he awakes, hours later in the black of the night, Dankovsky is gone.
* * *
“You really need a new outfit.”
“I beg your pardon?”
“That waistcoat,” Artemy says, pointing across the table with a threatening spoon, “is the same one you wore in Town-on-Gorkhon. I really hope you’ve washed it since then.”
Dankovsky plucks at the wine-coloured silk with an absent hand. “Perhaps I merely have a wardrobe which consists entirely of duplicates of this waistcoat. Anyway, you can hardly talk. Are you aware, Burakh, that there are more colours in the world than brown and green?”
“Don’t you ‘Burakh’ me,” Artemy warns. “I’m not being called my surname by a man who’s slept with me.”
“Next to you,” Dankovsky says hastily, and lifts his mug to hide his face. Artemy can still see the smile.
It’s morning. They’re sitting at the table in the sunlit apartment, drinking coffee as the city wakes up, listening to the bird singing outside the window and the rumble of traffic from the main road a few streets away. Last night could almost have been a dream, were it not for the feeling still nestling in Artemy’s chest and the faintly haunted look in Dankovsky’s eyes.
“What bird is that?” Dankovsky asks now. He’s looking at the window, mug cradled in his thin hands.
Artemy attunes his ear. “Uh, bullfinch, I think.”
Dankovsky hums. “Birds as well as plants. Not just a pretty face, are you?”
Artemy laughs to disguise the sudden jolt of his heart. “I thought you were supposed to be the pretty one.”
“No, I’m the dandy,” Dankovsky says, pushing his chair back and standing up. “There’s a difference.”
He wanders away from the table in the direction of the kitchen, calling over his shoulder, “Once you’ve finished, there’s something I want to show you. You’ll need a coat.”
Artemy pauses in the act of taking a sip, watching Dankovsky run his empty mug under the tap. “Aren’t you going to tell me what it is?”
“Certainly not. Nosy bastard.”
Dankovsky throws a tea towel at his head.
They’re out in the city before ten minutes have passed, both bundled up against the cold. The temperature is falling with every day that passes, and this morning a white bank of cloud is hanging swollen and imposing above the Capital’s towers, threatening colder weather to come. The pavement sparkles with frost beneath their feet as Dankovsky leads the way, hands thrust deep in his coat pockets.
“Is it far, this thing you want to show me?” Artemy asks, catching up to walk alongside Dankovsky. “I wouldn’t ask but my feet are already slightly frostbitten and I’d prefer to keep them attached to my legs.”
“No, it’s close by,” Dankovsky replies. “I’ve done this walk plenty of times. And your feet would be fine if you didn’t leave them sticking out of the end of the blanket.”
“I can’t help it,” Artemy protests. “Perhaps your blankets are just too short.”
“They’re perfectly normal blankets! You’re just too big.”
“That’s not what you said last night.”
Dankovsky makes an incoherent spluttering noise, a flush blooming on his cheekbones. Artemy laughs and knocks him with his elbow. “I’m just messing with you, erdem.”
He suddenly wishes, walking here at Dankovsky’s side in the watery sunlight, that this moment could carry on forever; that they could continue to believe, if only for a little while, that they were just two normal people out for a walk in the awakening city whose lives were intertwined through something other than suffering and pain. Dankovsky has not brought up the events of the previous night, and Artemy is following his lead in staying quiet. He has no desire to disturb the peaceful tranquillity.
The route Dankovsky takes is unfamiliar to Artemy, leading them through a part of the city into which he hasn’t yet ventured, the sky growing steadily lighter all the while as the sun makes her appearance over the skyline. Dankovsky is moving stiffly this morning, back slightly hunched. A few times he stops to catch his breath, his face grey against the dark collar of his coat. Artemy wonders how long he slept last night. If he slept at all.
It’s difficult, in the pale dawn, to truly feel the disquiet that beats against his ribs. It’s difficult to reconcile this morning’s Dankovsky, tired and drawn perhaps but good-humoured, with the man who shook and cowered before him as he described his brush with death at his own hands. Perhaps, looking at Artemy, Dankovsky feels the same.
They walk for a while in tandem, talking intermittently, now and then pointing out landmarks or details of the people they pass. It’s nice, and Artemy finds himself so distracted by the absurd normality of the situation that he almost doesn’t notice when Dankovsky comes to a sudden halt, looking through the lopsided bars of a construction fence which runs alongside the pavement.
“This is it,” he says.
It’s a building site. Artemy stares at it, uncomprehending.
“What is it?” he says after a moment, when it becomes clear Dankovsky has no intention of elaborating.
The Bachelor’s expression is carefully blank. “Thanatica.”
Artemy looks from Dankovsky, staring expressionlessly through the barrier at the barren stretch of ground, to the dark mass of rubble that is just visible through the churned-up earth. The faint ghost of a structure is still visible, walls and floor and foundations, imprinted on the terrain like an old tattoo.
“Oh,” he says. “Oh. I see.”
“She used to be impressive,” Dankovsky says, and he looks away from the wreckage at last to meet Artemy’s eyes with the same quiet desperation that is gradually becoming familiar. “Before. She was really a sight to behold. We were going to build an extension before too long, to accommodate the new equipment we needed. I wish you could have seen it.”
“Yeah,” Artemy says. “Yeah, so do I.”
They stand in silence, looking through the fence. Perhaps he’s imagining it, embellishing the scene with his own knowledge, but Artemy almost thinks he can see scorch marks licking the buildings on either side; a black halo of ash encircling the burnt-out husk, sinking deep into the earth.
“They must be building over it,” he says at length, pointing at a sign lying haphazardly against a pile of what looks like construction equipment.
Dankovsky nods. His gaze is far away.
“I’m sorry for dragging you all the way over here,” he says, in a very soft voice. “I just…wanted you to see. You never really knew me, in the Town. I wanted you to know who I am.”
“Thank you,” Artemy says honestly. There’s something so open in Dankovsky’s eyes, something yearning for him to understand, that Artemy does not even think to begrudge him. “I’m glad you showed me. Thank you.”
They begin the walk back to the apartment. It’s slower this time, and quieter. Dankovsky is walking with his gaze trained on the pavement, his shoulders square against the cold, breath rattling in his chest. Artemy feels as though he should speak, but doesn’t know what to say. The wind bites.
“I’m going to go home tomorrow,” he says abruptly.
Dankovsky’s back tightens slightly. He does not turn his head. “Yes, I thought you would.”
“I want you to come with me.”
Dankovsky stops in the middle of the pavement. He turns, and a patch of sunlight blooms on his face, lighting his eyes with gold.
“What did you say?”
“I want you to come home with me,” Artemy repeats. “To Town-on-Gorkhon.”
Dankovsky stares at him. The wind brushes the strands of black hair which hang over his forehead. “You’re messing with me again.”
“I’m not,” Artemy says, “I’m being serious.”
The Bachelor shakes his head slightly, not moving his gaze from Artemy’s face. “I don’t know if you’ve forgotten, but the good people of Town-on-Gorkhon are not exactly the biggest fans of mine. I can’t imagine they would be thrilled to see me.”
“They would be fine with you. They don’t hate you, Daniil; you were just there at an unfortunate time. It’s all different now, I promise.”
“Some of them hate me,” Dankovsky says immediately. “I know that for certain.”
Artemy huffs a laugh. “What, the ones you called pricks to their faces? If they deserved it, who gives a shit, and if they didn’t, it won’t take long for them to forgive you. You’re different now, oynon. Anyone can see it.”
Dankovsky’s eyes drift past Artemy and into the empty space behind him. The sunlight glancing off his eyelashes rims his half-lidded eyes with gold, casting feathery shadows on the pale skin. His voice is almost inaudible when he next speaks.
“Why would you want me?”
Artemy’s brow furrows. “Why would I—”
“What makes you want me there with you? What do you stand to gain from my presence?”
Artemy stares at him. Dankovsky refuses to meet his eyes. “To gain from your presence? What sort of question is that?”
“I’m—” Dankovsky appears to be struggling to find the words, clenching his jaw and his hands and still looking past Artemy into the rising sun. “I’m not a nice person.”
“I’m well aware of it,” Dankovsky says. “I’ve been told enough times. I’m rude, I’m off-putting, I can’t understand people, I have no heart—”
“—and I can cope with that myself, I can try to be better, but—” He stops, his face tightening. The sun passes behind a cloud. “But I don’t see why you would willingly ask for my company.”
Artemy takes a moment to respond. He stares at Dankovsky, at his bent head, the badly-concealed misery on his face, the defensive set of his shoulders. The Bachelor defeated.
“Daniil Dankovsky,” he says at last, “for someone so clever, you can be a fucking idiot sometimes.”
Dankovsky jerks back slightly, staring at him. The confusion on his face would be funny were Artemy not so preoccupied.
“I’ve spent almost a week living with you in your apartment. We go on walks in the park every day. You make me coffee, you make me laugh, we talk for hours—last night we slept on the same fucking sofa, and still you think that I don’t enjoy your company? That I don’t—”
He stops. Collects himself.
“Daniil,” he says, and he lays his hands on Dankovsky’s shoulders again, feeling the man beneath the coat, so small and frail, “I like you very much. I don’t want to leave you here. I want you to come with me. I don’t know what will happen next, but I…I want you to be there with me, whatever it is. Alright? Whatever it is.”
Dankovsky is still staring at him. His eyes are very clear and very bright, and as Artemy watches something flashes across his face—something raw, some deep agony, visible for a breathless heartbeat—before he smiles. It is a small and fragile thing, and it makes Artemy’s heart flutter in his chest.
“I’m sorry, Artemy,” says Dankovsky. His voice is as soft as the pale sunlight. “I’m sorry for everything.”
* * *
On the seventh day, it snows.
The park is still and bright. There is no sun, except that which lights the thick bank of white cloud, and there’s a strange quality to the air, some breathless stasis, like the feeling before a storm. It is bitterly cold. The lake is a great blank coin, and Dankovsky lifts his head from where he stands beside it and says, looking into the sky: “It’s going to snow.”
It feels almost like a heatwave, this tension; the waiting, watching the heavens, listening for the crack. Artemy has never liked anticipation.
The Bachelor is withdrawn and strained. Exhaustion has bleached his skin and thinned his face so his eyes are sunk in purpled sockets, his lips cracked, cheekbones dark slashes in his skull. He walks as though every step is an effort. Multiple times along their route he threads a hand through Artemy’s elbow, determinedly not making eye contact as though daring Artemy to mention it; but even with the support they only manage a few minutes of slow ambling beside the lake before Dankovsky has to stop, one hand pressed to his breastbone. When he leans against Artemy’s side to catch his breath, he can feel him shaking.
It doesn’t seem real, somehow, that he should be here, now, watching the clouds swell in the empty sky with Dankovsky beside him, knowing that in a few hours he will be on the train. Going home. He can feel its pull, the draw of the Town, his family, the dull ache of being apart from where he should be—but something still feels wrong. He hasn’t spoken any further to Dankovsky about the offer he made yesterday, but it hangs in the air like a fog, swathing the future in uncertainty. He can’t leave the Bachelor here. Dankovsky had said Artemy never really knew him, but he knows him well enough now to perceive what awaits him if he remains in the Capital. He doesn’t have to be clairvoyant to see it.
He doesn’t want to say goodbye. Not today.
“Bog bean,” Dankovsky says.
Artemy starts slightly, glancing down at the Bachelor. Dankovsky is pointing at a clump of flowers nestled in the weeds.
“Water hyacinth,” he continues, tracing his finger along the shoreline. “Hydrilla. Burr reed.”
Artemy feels the corner of his mouth pulling into a smile. He leans a little into Dankovsky’s shoulder and follows the line of his arm with his own. “And what about that one?”
“The blue one?”
“Northern blue flag, Professor Burakh,” Dankovsky says, dropping his arm. Artemy can feel his smile without seeing it; the soft rasp of his breath in the freezing air.
“Top marks, my esteemed student.” Artemy rests his elbow on Dankovsky’s shoulder. “What an excellent teacher you must have.”
“Oh, well,” Dankovsky says seriously, “you know how it is. One must put up with what one is given.”
Artemy laughs and rubs his fist gently on Dankovsky’s head, mussing his untidy hair. “Bastard.”
Dankovsky’s laugh becomes a cough, and he steps away from Artemy to cover his face, bending over slightly at the waist. The sound is deep and ragged. When he straightens up, the tight lines of pain around his mouth don’t go away.
“I wish you could have seen the ducks,” he says, before Artemy can speak. “I always liked seeing them. They used to be here.”
Artemy looks at him, at his white face, chest still heaving, hands trembling in his gloves as he straightens his cravat. So small beneath the heavy coat.
“Yeah,” he says. “Yeah, I wish I could have seen them too.”
“They used to fly…”—Dankovsky’s hand draws an absent path across the sky—“…a great flock of them, all at once. Did you know that one of the collective nouns for a group of ducks is a paddling?”
“Usually when they’re in water,” Dankovsky says. He’s still watching the clouds. His eyes reflect the endless white. “It’s a good word, I think.”
Artemy hums his agreement. He imagines Dankovsky here, much younger, perhaps, burning with enthusiasm and idealism—a student, or a young graduate, weighed down with papers and heavy books and the burden of his own ambition—stopping by the side of the lake to watch the ducks in flight. The mental image makes him smile.
“What are you smiling about?”
Dankovsky is looking at him curiously—a very different Bachelor from the one in his vacant fancies. Much paler, for one thing. Thinner. Wearier.
“I was imagining you here as a student, watching the ducks,” Artemy says candidly. “Billowing around the park in your ridiculous coat like a medicinally-trained bat.”
Dankovsky gives an amused huff of descent through his nose. “I’ll have you know I didn’t own this coat when I was a student. I was a little more toned-down. Although I still wore black, obviously—I had an aesthetic to maintain.”
“Your commitment is impressive,” Artemy says. “I can’t say I can relate.”
“You’re not seriously telling me the great Artemy Burakh doesn’t have an aesthetic?”
“Not one on your level. Anyway, I only found out yesterday that there were more colours in the world than brown and green, after all.”
Dankovsky gives a hoarse laugh. “You’re an idiot.”
“Brave words from the man wearing snakeskin.”
They lapse into silence. Across the park, far out over the lake, a dog barks. The sound of shivering ice echoes over the sharpening water.
“What are you going to do, when you get home?” Dankovsky asks. He’s shoved his hands in his coat pockets and is watching the skyline.
“Warm my feet up, hopefully,” Artemy says. “I’m not sure they’re ever going to be the right temperature again.”
Dankovsky rolls his eyes impatiently. “Be serious.”
Artemy smiles. “Alright. Seriously, I will say hello to Murky and Sticky. That’ll be the first thing. I’ve missed them, being away for so long.”
Dankovsky makes an assenting noise. “They’ll have missed you too, I’m sure. Your odd little family.”
“Not as odd as some.”
Dankovsky doesn’t respond, and Artemy glances over at him. He’s still watching the sky, his eyes bruised and impoverished against the light.
“Have you ever…” Artemy stops. It feels almost inappropriate to ask, and he’s half afraid of a scornful response. His curiosity spurs him on. “Have you ever thought about having a family?”
The question does not appear to provoke contempt. Dankovsky frowns, but it’s a thoughtful expression rather than a critical one. He seems to be chewing his answer carefully, eyes still trained on the distant and smog-shrouded horizon.
“I don’t know,” he says at last. “Yes, I suppose. I…I like children. I don’t have to pretend around children. But I…” His frown deepens, eyebrows drawing together. “I never really imagined having a family. I suppose I never believed it would happen.”
“And now?” He’s watching Dankovsky obliquely, not moving his eyes from the sharp profile.
Dankovsky’s gaze drops from the sky to land in the still and silent water before him. The lost expression is back on his face, bare and ill-concealed. “It couldn’t happen.”
“It just couldn’t.” Dankovsky scuffs the grass with his shoe. “Let’s not talk about it.”
“Have you thought any more about what I said yesterday?”
He doesn’t mean to bring it up. It has been buzzing at the back of his mind all day, and now he watches as Dankovsky looks up from the water, the weariness more pronounced than ever on his wan face. “Artemy—”
“I was serious about it. I’m seriously asking you.”
Dankovsky kicks half-heartedly at the dirt again, brow crumpled, pulling up his shoulders as though attempting to disappear inside his coat. His voice is strained as he says, “You don’t understand. I…I want to—I do want to come with you, but—”
“Then why not do it?”
“It’s not as simple as that.”
“It’s simple to me,” Artemy says. “I’ve seen your life here: you’re miserable, and you’re not well. I don’t want to go home knowing you’ll be going back to a freezing apartment, ending up on dirty bar floors if you don’t get chucked out on the street first. I couldn’t deal with it, Daniil.”
“I can cope with it,” Dankovsky says. He sounds aggravated, his breath coming in white clouds. “I’ve dealt with it fine on my own.”
“But you shouldn’t have to deal with it,” Artemy says, frustration rising in his chest. “There’s nothing tying you down here anymore, right? Thanatica is gone. You’re essentially a wanted man; what incentive do you have to stay in a city that thinks you’re crazy?”
Dankovsky flinches. Artemy feels a brief stab of regret.
“I’m sorry,” he says, more evenly. “That was harsh. But do you get what I’m saying? Can you understand why I want to persuade you to leave?”
“I understand,” Dankovsky says, “I do understand, but there are…there are things keeping me here. Even if I…” He swallows audibly. The curve of his throat bobs above the white collar. “No matter how much I want to come with you, I cannot make that decision. I cannot…I can’t say yes.”
Artemy looks at him. He feels, suddenly, as though he should memorise every line and angle of Dankovsky’s face: every hair fluttering in the cold wind, every eyelash, the smooth shell of his ear, the ridge of his nose, the precise colour of his eyes. He wants to remember the rest, as well—not just the shape of him but his behaviours, his idiosyncrasies: the way his hands knot as he talks, the expressiveness of his face, the distant look that steals upon him when his gaze is caught by something Artemy can’t see, his hoarse laugh. The feel of him beneath his hands.
The thought of leaving bears down upon him all at once, as though the train is rushing at him from his mind, loud and rattling and smelling of wax polish and metal. Perhaps it’s a good thing, he thinks distractedly, that Dankovsky isn’t coming with him: he would hate the sound.
The feeling in his chest tightens, tautens, burns bright. There’s something inside him tearing in two, as though his heart is made of old cloth, suspended in the balance between what he has left behind and what he has found. It hurts. He focuses on the pain.
“I’m sorry,” comes Dankovsky’s voice, hazy, as though he’s speaking through a sheet of gauze. “I’m sorry, Artemy.”
Artemy returns to himself with a deep breath, feeling the chill air crackle in his lungs. Dankovsky is looking at him, his face painted with something that looks like guilt.
“Hey,” Artemy says, and he manages a smile. “Hey, now. It’s alright.”
“You’re not angry with me?”
The expression on Dankovsky’s face makes the ache deepen, and he reaches out a hand and rests it beneath Dankovsky’s collar, cradling the arc of his neck and rubbing his thumb briefly along the line of his jaw. Dankovsky releases a shaky breath, leaning slightly into the touch. His face is cold in the frigid air.
“Come on,” Artemy says after a moment. “Let’s get back. You’re freezing.”
Dankovsky nods, but makes no effort to withdraw from Artemy’s hand. For a little while they stand together, a crude imitation of the way they had touched on the night of the sunset: the details slightly altered but the perspective unchanged, like two artists drawing the same scene.
In the sky, the clouds continue to build.
The walk home is slow and painful. A few times Dankovsky stumbles, gripping Artemy’s arm to remain upright, his face pale grey and his legs trembling with exertion as he rights himself. The temperature drops further. Artemy’s hands are numb and waxy with cold where they protrude from beneath his coat. By the time they reach the apartment, he’s supporting Dankovsky’s full weight.
The rooms are as frigid as ever. Dankovsky drags himself to the sofa and sinks onto it, his breath coming ragged and painful, whilst Artemy lingers by the door, hanging up his coat.
The notice of repossession is still pinned there. He tears it free with one hand as he moves to shut the door, glancing down at the authoritative black lettering; and something catches his eye which makes him pause, hand still resting on the open door.
“I thought you said this was up when you got back?”
Dankovsky lifts his head from where it’s been propped in his hand to glance at the paper. “It was. Thanks for taking it down; I kept forgetting.”
Artemy frowns, looking back down at the notice. “It’s dated from earlier this month.”
Dankovsky does not answer immediately. When he does speak, his voice is offhand. “They must have put a new one up.”
Artemy stares at the page, at the small black date neatly printed beneath the specifications of the legislation. Outside the window, a few flakes drift past, heavy and grey in the pale light.
“Didn’t you pay your rent in advance when you came to the Town?”
“Of course I did,” Dankovsky says. His voice is slightly muffled, head cushioned once again in his gloved hand. “But I ended up staying a lot longer than I intended, so it didn’t cover it.”
“Your landlord terminated your lease because you missed a week of rent?”
“Is that so unusual?” Dankovsky says, with a slight bite of impatience honing the tiredness in his voice now. “Landlords are supposed to be vultures, aren’t they?”
Artemy doesn’t respond. He’s still looking at the sheet in his hand. There’s something turning in his head, some feeling, heavy and vast enough that he can’t yet see it in its entirety. Something not right.
“Your neighbour was surprised you were back,” he says.
He ignores the irritation in Dankovsky’s tone. “Your neighbour. She said she thought you might never come back.”
Dankovsky stills. Artemy can’t see his face.
“I don’t go out much. She had no reason to know I was here.”
“You didn’t see the people who live on the same corridor as you once in all these months?”
“I told you, I don’t go out much,” Dankovsky says. There’s an edge to his voice, something that belies the forced nonchalance of his words. “I’ve gone out more this week than I have since I got back, and I’m paying the price for it.”
Artemy crumples the paper in his fist. Smooths it out again.
“Where do you go at night?”
“What is this, an interrogation?” Dankovsky has sat up, elbows braced on his knees, his hands twisting and untwisting, that same edge colouring his voice. “Why are you asking me all these questions?”
Artemy shakes his head, running his hand along the edge of the paper, the heavy thing in his head turning, turning. The flakes outside the window have thickened, coming faster and heavier.
“There’s something not adding up,” he says. “There’s something you’re not telling me.”
Dankovsky does not move. His hands keep winding and unwinding, fingers knotting together, the sound of creaking leather loud in the silent apartment.
“I don’t know what you want me to say,” he says, and Artemy suddenly recognises what it is that’s making Dankovsky’s voice so brittle. It’s fear.
“Your clock’s stopped,” Artemy says, gesturing towards it with the crushed paper. “You’ve got no electricity, no heating. Every surface has a clear inch of dust except the sofa and the table, which is the only furniture we’ve been using. You say I don’t know you, Daniil, but I know you well enough as a doctor to say that you would never live in a place as unsanitary as this.”
Dankovsky is frozen where he sits, staring at Artemy as though looking at a stranger. Once again Artemy has the impression of a creature pinned beneath the barrel of a gun.
“I saw your rooms in Town-on-Gorkhon,” Artemy continues. His heart is pounding now, beating one, two, one, two against his throat as the thing in his head continues to expand. “They might have been clean, but they were a fucking mess: books everywhere, papers all over the desk and on the floor, samples lying around with your notebooks and journals—but this place is spotless. Most of the books have barely been read. There’s nothing on your desk, no notes, no speculations—nothing. You go into your room every night, but you’re not there when I look and your bed hasn’t been slept in. What’s the truth, Daniil? Is this even really where you live?”
Dankovsky seems unable to speak. He remains braced on the sofa like a waxwork, hands clenched in a rictus of fear, eyes yawning huge and barren in the thin face.
The snow has begun to settle on the windowsill now. Nothing is visible outside except swirling, rushing white.
Artemy starts and twists around. The woman from the other night is standing in the doorway, one hand raised as if to knock on the open door, peering in at him with a curious expression.
“Sorry to disturb you,” she says, combing her hair behind her ears with the fingers of one hand. “I heard talking and I wanted to come and see if Mister Dankovsky was in—I’ve got a pirog for him.”
Artemy struggles to regain his composure, gesturing distractedly behind him towards the sofa as he says, “Uh, yes, of course, he’s just over there.”
He turns in time to see the blood drain from Dankovsky’s face. He is suddenly as white as a corpse.
The woman has followed his indication, looking past Artemy and into the apartment beyond, her face keen and expectant. He sees her eyes flit onto Dankovsky and just as quickly slide off, expression unchanging, as if she somehow doesn’t notice him.
As if she doesn’t see him at all.
It is as though all the air has gone from the room. Artemy feels it like a blow, like a knife in his heart, sliding in between his ribs. He feels the hot blood as it pours onto the floorboards, dark red, steaming in the cold air, soaking his hands as he raises them to his chest in an attempt to stem the flow.
The woman has turned back to him, her brow furrowed with confusion. He manages a word, some expression of apology, unheard to his own ears, before he closes the door in her face.
The silence booms. He is high, high above his own body, looking down at the great vast reality which formerly he could not see, and which is now spread before him like the endless ocean.
Beyond the window, all is white. There may as well be nothing outside at all.
Artemy turns, very slowly, to face the room. His hands are still pressed against his chest, slick with the blood which pumps sluggishly from the gaping wound.
It is a surprise to see Dankovsky still sitting there. He almost imagined that he would have disappeared in the time it took for him to turn around, leaving him alone in the cold, bare apartment with its dust and its shadows.
He supposes he’s been alone this whole time, in a way.
Dankovsky is sitting exactly as he was when Artemy turned away. He’s still staring at him, still clenching his hands in his lap, still wan and exhausted and pale as the snow outside. The only difference in his appearance is that the fear in his eyes has faded, to be replaced with a deep, devastating, interminable grief.
Artemy looks at him. Dankovsky looks back across the great white void.
“She didn’t see you,” Artemy says.
“No,” Dankovsky responds.
It occurs to Artemy how curious it is that, after so long fearing the moment when he would have to leave the Bachelor behind, it is now he who is clinging to every second of him still being here, terrified that the man on the sofa will fade into the darkness of his closed eyelids if he dares to blink.
“I’m sorry, Artemy,” Dankovsky says. “I’m so sorry.”
Artemy sways where he stands. Stretches out a hand to support himself against the wall. It is reassuringly cold and solid beneath his palm.
“Are you here?” he asks. His voice is distorted and torn, not like his voice at all. “Were you ever really here?”
“Not since the Town,” Dankovsky says. The extent of his grief surpasses the glassy boundaries of his eyes and spills out into the air, making Artemy gasp where he leans against the wall. “I never left.”
“What are you, then? A ghost? A hallucination?” Artemy’s mind begins a frenetic scramble through the symptoms of a hundred different ailments, desperately trying to make some sense of it all, this waking, breathing dream.
“I don’t know,” Dankovsky says. “I couldn’t tell you. I don’t sleep; I don’t eat. When you’re not here, I’m not either.”
Artemy presses his hands against his skull, threading his fingers into his hair and gripping tight, as if the pain will return him to reality. He can feel his pulse at his temples, beating as though to break through the thin skin.
“You told me you left,” he says. He hears the shake in his voice and doesn’t care. “You told me you left on the train.”
Dankovsky closes his eyes and buries his face in his hands. The odd light from the snow-shrouded window casts a grey wash over his lank hair. If Artemy forgets what has happened, wipes the memories of the past few minutes from his mind, he could go and sit beside Dankovsky on the sofa and offer comfort.
He can’t. He doesn’t.
“I told you,” Dankovsky says, his voice stifled in his hands, “that I went into the steppe to kill myself, and that I changed my mind.”
He lifts his head. The shadows around his eyes make them look like twin tunnels bored into his skull.
Artemy grips the wall very tightly with hands that shake like leaves on a dead tree. The pain in his chest is like a drum, banging a bass crescendo against his heart.
“That day—the thirteenth day—I packed my things into my medical bag, and I went out into the steppe and slit my wrists with my scalpel.”
The gloves knot in his lap. Artemy forgets to breathe.
“I bled out very quickly,” Dankovsky says. “I don’t remember much pain. All I remember is the sky, and how enormous it was above me, and the smell of the earth. Like falling asleep. I remember thinking what a shame it was that I couldn’t record the experience for my research.” He smiles, tremulously, before his face crumbles.
“But I didn’t go away,” he continues, gripping the knees of his trousers tightly with both hands as though in mastery of himself. “I thought there would be nothing, but instead, there was you.”
Dankovsky looks up at Artemy, and the expression on his face suddenly shifts into concern. “You’re white as a sheet. Come and sit down before you fall over.”
Artemy does as he is bidden without conscious thought. His legs are numb, and they carry him to the sofa and sit him down beside Dankovsky who watches from his pale, haunted eyes and does not disappear.
“I hoped that nobody would remember me,” the Bachelor says. He does not break eye contact, that same desperation back on his face, the yearning for Artemy to understand. “I hoped that when I left, all trace of me would be gone. There was nothing left of me in the Capital, and after the Plague, the Town could forget as well. It was supposed to work. I was supposed to disappear.”
“But I didn’t forget,” Artemy says. His voice comes from a great distance.
Dankovsky looks at Artemy, and there is pain and affection written in the lines of his face. “No. You didn’t.”
The wind rattles the windowpane. Snow beats against the glass.
“So I couldn’t leave,” Dankovsky continues, releasing a breath. “There had to be a resolution, but I thought—I thought that perhaps you didn’t have to know the truth. That if you came here and saw me, away from the Town, away from everything, you could leave never knowing it wasn’t real. And I could finally disappear.”
He smiles, wry and deeply sad at once. “But you ruined my plans. Again. You’re very good at that.”
“I try,” Artemy says. It feels like rebellion, to smile. The way Dankovsky’s eyes shine when he sees makes it worth it, a thousand times over.
“How much longer?” he asks, and the smile fades, leaving the apartment much colder than it was before.
“Not long,” Dankovsky says. He rubs a hand across his face, across the sunken cheeks, the waxen skin, the lines of incomprehensible fatigue beneath his eyes. “It’s…exhausting, being here. I don’t think I can manage to stay longer than a few more hours.”
Artemy feels a sudden fist of panic grip his heart tight. He can’t do it. Not yet. He’s not ready to be alone.
He sucks in a breath, feeling the chill of the air, the beat of his heart, the electric thrum of his skin.
“I have to ask,” he says. “I want you to tell me the truth. Is this really you, or are you just who I want you to be?”
Dankovsky looks at him steadily. The snow falls. “Just because I’m not here now doesn’t mean that I never was.”
The quiet hangs in the air, a weightless thing, hollow and light. Artemy stares at Dankovsky, and Dankovsky stares back, a dark, familiar shape in the alien world.
“Can I touch you?”
Artemy’s voice cracks as he speaks. The pain in his chest is building, a keening mass that fills his ribcage and reaches blindly up his throat. He tries to ignore it, focusing instead on Dankovsky’s face, the bright sheen of his eyes, the smile that is so tender in its pain.
The Bachelor nods, and Artemy reaches out, slowly, carefully, as though he’s comforting a sick child, the shaking of his hand gradually subsiding as he runs his fingers down Dankovsky’s cheek, brushing the hair from his forehead, tracing the curve of his lip with his thumb, pausing to cup his neck with his palm. He is so cold against his hand. The pale skin is smooth and still.
“No pulse,” he says quietly.
It hits him, all at once. He bows his head and his hand trembles against Dankovsky’s throat as the terrible rush of grief crashes over him, flooding his lungs, making him shudder and gasp and clench his fingers in his trouser leg to keep him above the water, holding on with every measure of strength he can muster as his spine curves and he finds himself looking down into darkness, a great pit opening up beneath him, as black as the deep of the sea.
Something touches his face. He rasps a breath, raises his head above the seething water, straining to see through the choking night.
Dankovsky is there. He is cradling Artemy’s face with his hand, cool leather against his burning skin, cold and bloodless but here, his touch as gentle as the warmth of the sun.
“Artemy,” he says. “Artemy.”
And Artemy leans into him and gathers him into his arms, not caring that the angle means their legs twine together and his hips strain, wrapping himself around the little Bachelor with his hands cradling the back of his head and clenching in his waistcoat, feeling the fragile body pressed against him and Dankovsky’s own hands, smaller than his own, running over his spine and his shoulders and holding tight as though afraid he will melt away if he lets go.
Artemy Burakh is not a man who cries. He has no specific opposition to doing so, but it does not come naturally to him as it does to some. He did not have the chance to weep when his father died. He did not have the chance to weep for the Town; for those who were lost.
He weeps now. The force of it tears his body apart, a pain so exquisite he forgets to breathe, cracking his ribs and making his breath come in gulps that shake his lungs. He weeps for Dankovsky: for a man never mourned nor missed who died alone and afraid with his own blood pooling around him; for a doctor who could not save himself; for a lonely, lost man. For a friend he never had the chance to love.
He comes apart in Dankovsky’s arms, and Dankovsky holds him tight and does not let go.
When he wakes, it is dark.
The streetlamp outside the window is alight, and in its glow the drifting snowflakes become bright points of white against the blackness. They have slowed in their descent, coming less thickly now, but still falling steadily through the dark and piling up against the glass. The room is bitterly cold. The square of light on the floorboards brings the cracks and whorls of the wood into sharp relief, scattered with the silent shadow of falling snow.
For a little while, Artemy lies motionless. He is on his side on the sofa, face pressed into the musty cushion, breathing in the smell of dust and old fabric. The building creaks and sighs.
It comes back to him in a rush and he sits up quickly, blinking as blackness flowers at the corners of his vision, his heart quickening with panic. He shouldn’t have fallen asleep, he shouldn’t have been so careless, and now the apartment is silent and empty and he twists where he sits—
—and sees Dankovsky, lying alongside him, his eyes open and pale in the dark.
Relief floods Artemy’s body like an antidote. He catches his breath, waiting for his heartrate to return to normal, watching as Dankovsky sits up. He moves as though his body is made of glass. There’s no attempt to disguise the pain now.
“What time is it?” Dankovsky mutters, rubbing a hand across his eyes.
“I don’t know,” Artemy says. “Your clock is broken.”
Dankovsky gives a weak laugh, a cough. “Not broken,” he says, “just not wound up.”
He manoeuvres his legs over the side of the sofa, taking shallow, pained breaths. Artemy rests a hand on his back to support him as he stands; feels every vertebra in his spine.
“There’s still time,” Dankovsky says, leaning a hand on the sofa to remain upright. His eyes catch the light from the window, luminous in the drifting snow. “If we go now, you can catch the last train.”
“I’m not leaving you,” Artemy says, standing too. He wonders if he’s really woken up at all; if this is nothing more than the product of his sleeping mind.
Dankovsky shakes his head. Even this small motion seems to drain him, and he sways a little where he stands. “I told you, I can’t stay much longer. I have enough strength to stay with you until you’re gone, but after that…”
“There has to be something,” Artemy says. He can’t think straight. “There has to be something we can do; some way to bring you back. There must be something, right?”
Dankovsky’s smile is ragged with pain. “We’re not God, Artemy. I’ve been here too long already. I need to sleep.”
Artemy packs up his meagre possessions as though in a dream. The broken light from the window, the floating snow, the deep breathing of the sleeping building fills his senses until he’s not sure what is real and what is his imagination. The cold settles in his bones, and he presses his hands together to feel the hard skin, the faint warmth of his blood. Dust brushes the back of his throat.
They leave the apartment in silence, as though participants of some sacred ritual. Artemy takes one last look at the room, empty and silent and lonely, the place where a Bachelor of Medicine once lived, a long time ago. The snow is still falling. If it weren’t for the single set of footsteps in the dust, one might never know the rooms had been occupied.
The night is freezing. Snow lies thickly on the pavements and roads, passages carved by pedestrians and cars cutting thick swathes through the blanket of white. The city is quiet and still. Above their heads, in the beams of the streetlamps, the snowflakes dance and drift against the black sky.
Dankovsky walks like a dying man. He leans against Artemy as they trudge through the snow, hands clutching Artemy’s elbow, head bent and breath jerky and uneven. Artemy does not let him fall.
It feels unreal, a curious dream, something to be thought up on an idle afternoon and forgotten before dusk. He’s still waiting for the reveal, for the rug to be pulled out and Dankovsky to laugh, to reveal the deception; but he watches the way Dankovsky staggers and gasps for breath, the way passing people brush through him without looking twice, noticing for the first time how his own feet are the only ones which leave prints in the snow, and he knows it will never come.
By the time they reach the train station, Dankovsky is barely standing. He clings to Artemy like a man drowning, eyelids fluttering as though just holding on to consciousness, gloved fingers tight in the crook of Artemy’s arm. Artemy focuses on the point of contact, concentrating his mind on the pressure to avoid thinking about anything else.
The station is quiet. It’s late enough that most of the trains have stopped running, and only a handful of people linger at the various platforms, faces dark and indistinguishable in the shadows. Artemy remembers being here, only a week before. What was he thinking, then? Where was he going?
The metal; the rush of the train. Grey buildings rising outside the window. The handle of the bag in his hand.
Perhaps none of it was real. Perhaps he’s still dreaming.
The train which will take him home is waiting at the platform. A conductor is standing at one of the doors, illuminated by the dim yellow light spilling from the windows, his face shadowed beneath the brim of his hat. The train is about to leave.
“Go on, quick,” Dankovsky says, releasing his elbow and leaning instead against the barrier. He’s breathing deep and ragged, clutching his chest with one hand. “Get on, it’s about to go.”
It’s a dream. He must be dreaming.
“I can’t,” Artemy says. “I won’t leave you.”
“You have to,” Dankovsky says, fierce urgency burning behind his exhausted eyes. “I can’t hold on much longer. You have to leave me, Artemy.”
Artemy drops his bag on the platform and steps towards Dankovsky, taking in his face, his eyes, urging himself to wake up. He remembers hating that face. He remembers seeing the black coat in the street and feeling a rush of dislike; the way the familiar sneer would make his stomach knot with anger.
He remembers standing by the lake. He remembers the gentle weight against his back; the soft breath on his neck. He remembers cradling that face in his hands and weeping in his arms.
“What do I do now?” he says. “What do I do now?”
Dankovsky drags himself away from the wall and steps closer to Artemy, reaching out and seizing his large hands in his small, gloved ones. “You live,” he says, the firmness of his tone overpowering the crushing fatigue. “You live with your family, and you’re happy. You don’t need me.”
“I want you,” Artemy says. “I want you to be there with me. My family.”
Dankovsky’s face crumples. He turns away from Artemy as if he can’t bear to meet his eyes any longer. “Don’t. Please don’t.”
A whistle blows down the platform, and Dankovsky suddenly looks back at Artemy, his words coming more quickly now. “I should have told you before. Don’t go looking for my body. I’m part of the steppe now; there’s nothing left of me to find.”
Artemy grips the gloved hands very tightly in his own, trying to memorise the feeling of the bones, the joints, the sharp line of his wrist.
“Take the gloves off,” he says. It’s a request. “Please. I want to feel your hands.”
Dankovsky only hesitates for a moment. The electrical light above their heads flickers, buzzing mechanically. Steam gasps from the waiting train.
He pulls the gloves off with stiff fingers, drawing away the black leather and revealing the skin beneath, passing the garments to Artemy as he flexes his bare hands. His fingers are very thin and white, and he has a scar running between two knuckles.
Artemy tucks the gloves in his pocket and takes Dankovsky’s hands in his own. They are soft, and very cold. Bleached white. It occurs to him that this is the first time he has ever touched Dankovsky’s hands without gloves.
He turns them gently over and sees the cuts, the thin dark lines running perpendicular down each wrist. They are clean and unscarred. Bloodless. The work of a doctor is obvious in the neatness of each incision.
Artemy looks up to meet Dankovsky’s eyes and sees that the Bachelor’s are downturned. His face is taut and shadowed. He looks up only when Artemy slides his hands down to Dankovsky’s wrists and covers the wounds with his hands, brown on bone-white, masking the open flesh with his callouses and scars.
The whistle blows again, and the conductor begins to move up and down the platform, slamming the train doors.
“You’ve got to go,” Dankovsky says hoarsely. He withdraws his hands from Artemy’s and pushes him in the direction of the train. “Go on, hurry.”
Artemy picks up his dropped bag without feeling it. Smoke is beginning to pour from the train, and he sees the conductor disappear inside further up the platform. Further along the tracks, out in the open air, snow is falling silently onto the railway line.
“I won’t forget you,” he says, and his voice comes from a long way off. “I’ll always remember. I promise. Always.”
They are standing just outside the train doors. The axles begin to grind. Before he can think about it, Artemy leans forward and cradles the back of Dankovsky’s head with his hand and presses his lips to his forehead, the cold skin, the rasp of dark hair. He memorises the feeling. Commits every part to memory and clutches it tight.
When he withdraws, the train has started to move. Artemy seizes the edge of the open door and pulls himself inside, staggering slightly as they pick up momentum. The platform is sliding away below him, fading into the cold darkness.
Artemy thrusts his head back out the window and stares back along the platform, his breath tight and shallow in his chest. Dankovsky is standing where he left him, so small and frail on the yawning platform, watching as the train picks up speed. Their eyes meet.
Artemy wants to call out to him, to say one last goodbye, but the train is moving too fast now. Dankovsky is growing smaller and smaller, receding into the distance, a dark silhouette through the falling snow.
And then—a rush of flakes, a sudden gust which makes Artemy flinch, the light glancing bright and pale onto the platform—he’s gone.
* * *
The train is old, and it rattles.
He’s been on several trains in his life. He’s travelled this very journey multiple times across the years, alone, usually, but occasionally accompanied by a friend or colleague. He doesn’t remember their faces very well; merely their presence at his side, those friends of his old self. He knows that he disliked being distracted from the land rushing past outside; that he was often alone. If he thinks hard enough, he can fill this carriage with the ghosts of himself. After all, it’s only been a week since he was last here, sitting in a seat by the window, watching the world through the glass. It was daylight, then. Now he can’t see anything at all.
The compartment is almost empty. He sits alone on the wooden bench, staring into the darkness, seeing nothing but the reflection of the brightly-lit carriage and his own face, dark and indistinguishable in the foreground. If it were light enough, he could see the great towers of the Capital looming above him, watching the progress of the little train with blind white eyes. Perhaps he could catch a glimpse of the first stretches of countryside, spread out green and stark against the wide sky—but the snow is too thick for that. He sees it in snatches as they pass by lighted windows, dark and speckled against the squares of illumination in the night. He wonders if it’s snowing back home.
Sticky and Murky will most likely be asleep by now, warm and safe against the blizzard. Sticky always sleeps with his arms over his face, his mouth hanging open. Murky prefers to be curled up small.
Tiredness hits him in a wave, and he bends forward to bury his face in his hands. The pain in his chest, forgotten in the haze of leaving, begins to bleed afresh; and he closes his eyes and presses his fingers into his brow to keep from making a sound, feeling the pump of blood with each beat of his heart and the pain in his head, in his whole body.
He realises that he is very cold. The metal divides between each bench are like smooth ice against his palms. He folds his hands together in his lap instead.
For a very long time, he doesn’t think. Sleep hovers just out of reach, so he stares out the window instead, watching sightlessly as the night deepens to abyssal black and then, by degrees, lightens very slowly to indigo. The countryside grows out of the darkness like a fungus, the great black mass of land sprouting trees and bushes which stand silhouetted against the fading sky, here and there obstructed by a house or a barn which crouches low and squat against the barren landscape.
He watches the fields bloom in the night and he thinks of nothing at all. He feels the uncomfortable bench beneath him, the warm roughness of his hands in his lap. Wax polish and metal at the back of his throat. The smell of soft leather.
The sky continues to lighten, pale blue seeping up from the horizon like spilled water. Before long there are streaks of pink and orange turning the firmament into a blaze of colour, the bright glow of the sun waiting just out of sight below the skyline, biding its time. The snow has stopped. It is almost dawn.
The sound of the train is not so loud now, and if he focuses on the distant light he can almost tune it out completely. The carriage is empty. He is alone.
It’s funny, he thinks, that in all the times he imagined going to the Capital, he never imagined coming home.
He shuts his eyes against the daybreak, blocking out the sky and the rattling glass and the feeling of the bench beneath his legs, the hard wooden slats, metal in his mouth, the sharp pain in his heart.
When he opens them again, he’s in the steppe.
He blinks. Breathes the heady scent of twyre, rich in his lungs. The sky is pale and clear, cloudless, a hundred miles from side to side, and he drinks it in and remembers it all. The grass is warm beneath his feet.
Something over his shoulder draws his eye, and he turns.
He’s there. Standing before him on the thin grass, watching.
He’s moving before he has the chance to think, crossing the dry earth with great strides, the name falling from his lips and filling the air as he breaks into a run, and Daniil’s face is healthy and his hair is shining in the sun and he’s smiling, he’s laughing, running forward to meet him, and they come together in a great burst as Artemy seizes him around the waist and spins him high, holding on tight, pressing his face into his shoulder and laughing even as tears spill from his eyes. He can feel him in his arms, feel his strength and the painless ease with which he holds onto Artemy, his hands buried in his coat, the joy reverberating from his chest, speaking without words, I’m here, I’m here.
The sun lights up the sky and warms the earth. When Artemy opens his eyes, he’s lying on his side in the grass and Daniil is in his arms. His eyes are closed, but when Artemy looks down at him, they flutter open in the shadow of Artemy’s shoulder. He glances around them with half-lidded eyes, brow furrowing slightly.
“How did we get on the ground?”
Artemy smiles. The sun warms his back. “No idea. Must have fallen over.”
“How clumsy of us,” Daniil says, rolling over onto his back and shielding his eyes with a languid arm. “Terribly maladroit.”
“Please don’t use words like ‘maladroit’ when we’re lying on the floor.”
Daniil laughs, unreservedly, and turns his head on the grass to look at Artemy. The sun has turned his skin golden, and Artemy sees, for the first time, the scattering of freckles across his nose. His hands are ungloved, wrists smooth and unblemished. Artemy reaches down and takes one in his own, threading his fingers through Daniil’s and squeezing gently.
“Ah, you’re going soft on me,” Daniil says, and the fondness in his voice makes something deep and soft bloom in Artemy’s chest. “How embarrassing.”
“Hush, kheerkhen,” Artemy says, smiling as he lets his eyes drift shut again. The smell of the warm earth fills his nostrils, and Daniil’s thumb traces absent circles on the back of his hand.
“It’s a shame you have to go back to the cold,” Daniil’s voice comes softly.
Artemy rouses himself slightly, but does not open his eyes. He’s not sure how long they’ve been lying here—a minute, perhaps, or an hour. A day. Time doesn’t seem to matter so much in the steppe.
“Mm,” he says sleepily. “I miss the sun.”
“Appreciate it while it’s here, then.”
Artemy opens his eyes. Daniil has not moved. He’s examining their entwined hands, still rubbing Artemy’s knuckles with his thumb, his face tranquil and whole. He looks healthier than Artemy has ever seen him. Happier. At peace with the world.
“I’m going to miss you,” he says.
Daniil looks up at Artemy, blinking against the golden sun, and for the first time something like sadness appears on his face. It is soft and painful, heavy in his open eyes; but the wound is clean, and unspoiled, bandaged in white linen.
“You needn’t,” he says, pressing Artemy’s hand in his own. “I’m always here. I never left.”
The grief in his chest tightens, and he leans forward and presses his forehead against Daniil’s, shutting his eyes against the sky. It feels lighter now, cleaner, no longer searing and burning around his heart, but that does not make it hurt less.
“You’ll have to tell me what it’s like,” he says softly.
Daniil’s laugh brushes his cheek like a breath of warm wind. “That would spoil the surprise. You’ll have to wait and see for yourself. When the time comes, I’ll be there, and we can debate it—and I’ll have had a head start to prepare my arguments.”
“Oh, the unfairness,” Artemy says. “I hope that between now and then you find it in your heart to go easy on me.”
Daniil squeezes his hand. The smile is audible in his voice. “Don’t get your hopes up.”
They lie there in the sun, side by side, and the steppe breathes around them. The sky is steadily darkening, blue deepening to pink as streaks of gold fan out from the western horizon, and the air grows a little cooler. The smell of twyre colours the dusk with peace.
“I think it’s time,” Daniil says.
Artemy opens his eyes. They sit up together in the mild evening, hands still linked, and get to their feet amidst the whispering grass, watching as the great bright eye slips steadily lower beneath the horizon. The sky is now a deep, fragile, endless blue.
For a while, neither of them speak. They stand in the steppe and look at each other, the great bull of a man and the little dark one, and around them the grass stretches endlessly on into the rising night.
“Will I see you again?”
Daniil smiles. His hand is warm and dry.
“Someday,” he says. “Somewhere. I promise.”
Artemy nods. He can feel the wound in his chest aching, a deep and profound pain, but he does not bleed. He will heal, in the end. With time.
They hold each other in the dying of the sun, hands wound together, the light still warm on their faces, and Artemy presses his face into Daniil’s neck and breathes. He breathes in his scent, soft leather and cigarette smoke and clean skin, and he maps him beneath his clutching hands, the way his chest rises and falls with his breath and the thickness of his hair, the smooth well of his throat, the elegant hands with their neatly-trimmed nails and the scar between the knuckles. He remembers it all. He holds him in his mind, alive and warm, and he remembers it all.
When at last they break apart, the sun has almost gone. Only a thin sliver remains above the horizon, burning bright against the darkness, sinking lower all the time.
Daniil smiles at him. His face is ablaze against the resplendent sky. “See you on the other side?”
Artemy smiles back. “See you on the other side.”
Daniil has started walking before Artemy can say another word, his back straight, heading into the sun. The horizon seems to expand, stretching out into the yawning sky, and Daniil is still at the centre, a dark shape growing smaller all the time, and he turns, far out across the steppe, and calls, “Wake up,” with a smile in his voice, “it’s your stop. Wake up, Artemy.”
And he raises a hand and waves, far in the distance, as the night rises around him and a rushing sound roars in Artemy’s ears, the clattering of glass, axles grinding and the feel of wood beneath his legs and the smell of wax polish and metal and twyre.
He opens his eyes.
The train has stopped. He is alone in the compartment, staring out at the steppe through the familiar station. For a heartbeat, a breath in the shimmering dawn, he almost thinks he sees a figure, far out across the steppe, a dark shape against the pale grass—but then he blinks, and it is gone.
He stands up, feeling the ache in his legs, running his hands across his coat. There is something in his pocket, and he brushes his hand against it as he waits for the blood to return to his feet. Soft leather. Slightly warm. He runs his fingers over it; gathers it into his hand and feels its touch against his skin.
“Wake up, Artemy,” he tells himself. It feels like rebellion, to smile. “Wake up.”
Artemy picks up his bag, steps off the train, and lets the Town welcome him home.