Daniil hadn’t seen his fellow healer since their last conversation in the Broken Heart. From what he had heard from his acquaintances - not friends, never friends - Artemy had become wrapped up in his children since the fall of the Polyhedron, fawning over them. Whenever the man was brought up, Daniil would scoff, immediately searching out someone else to drink with. He had no interest in such a wretched man. Someone who could destroy such a beauty, something so much more important than any one soul was monstrous in Daniil’s books.
And yet, he couldn’t explain why his eyes seemed to dart around the street more eagerly as he made the journey across town from the now empty Stillwater to the Lonely Heart. He knew Artemy had a hideout near the Warehouses, though not where, and that he would venture out into the Steppe late in the evening. He could not understand what may be comforting about the heady scent of twyre blooming, but had quickly come to appreciate its overall worth as he discovered the numbing effect of twyrine. Daniil could not decide whether he was looking for Artemy or to avoid him. How does he talk to the one man who could possibly come close to understanding, and yet who took his last chance at success away?
Daniil was still pondering that thought when he found his glass empty and the bar almost vacant. He could have sworn it was full only a few moments ago with Andrey’s arm slung across his shoulder, promising that he’d be welcome as long as he liked. Welcome. What a concept, he thought darkly. Looking up from the stained counter, he gestured for the barman to refill his glass. Andrey would cover him for one more drink, he was sure. What were old connections good for otherwise?
“We’re closing up, Bachelor. You should head home.” There was a hesitant edge to his voice. Everyone had been more reserved with him since the collapse of the Polyhedron and the destruction of Thanatica, not that they knew of that. There was no point explaining his loss to the townsfolk, not now. He supposed that now the plague was cured, there was no need to be friendly to him. He was no longer of use.
“I’m sorry.” Desperation was seeping into Daniil’s skin now. The thought of being alone with his thoughts for the rest of the evening was unbearable. Sleep would not come easy, not in the Observatory, too full of the ghost of a kind woman and her sweet words.
He couldn’t face the walk back there. He didn’t want to catch sight of the Theatre, or worse, the Cathedral. He didn’t want to see the ash from pyres that clung to the benches and swings which had now been abandoned, parents too hesitant to let their children wander freely once again. Perhaps that was why he ended up outside of the late Isidor Burakh’s house. Or perhaps he just wanted to see Artemy. Or kill him. He was too tired to decide.
“Artemy!” He hollered. And again. Silence. Daniil would have thought he’d grown accustomed to the dark with the amount of time he spent traversing it while running other people’s errands, but even now he felt it pressing down on him. He was prepared to yell the man’s name again, wake the whole street up if need be, when the front door swung open.
The first thing Daniil noticed was that Artemy looked tired. He knew the signs to recognise for it, after all. A long shawl was wrapped around his shoulders, protecting him against the piercing wind that sent his hair askew. The house was shrouded in darkness behind him which made it difficult to make many shapes out, but he could see that Artemy was frowning.
“Dankovsky? What are you doing here so late?” He didn’t have a response for that.
“You - the Polyhedron.” The other man sighed, pinching the bridge of his nose, but Daniil didn’t let that discourage him. “You didn’t have to.”
“You know I did, oynon. The town - “
“Is that the only thing that matters to you? Do you hate me so much?”
“Please, oynon. You’ll wake the kids up.” Daniil hadn’t even realised he was yelling again. “You’re not in any state for a proper conversation right now. Come in, sleep. We’ll talk in the morning.”
Daniil bristled at the thought. He didn’t need pity from this man. He may have lost everything, but he wouldn’t give up his pride. If he hadn’t already.
“I don’t want to talk.”
“You wouldn’t have come here if you didn’t. If you wake up and you still feel like yelling, then I’ll take you out into the Steppe and you can scream. But now, we both need our rest.” With that, Artemy turned and went back inside, the door left open. Daniil didn’t know what to do.
He followed. What else was there?
“Here.” Daniil followed the voice, watching as Artemy collected a blanket from a wooden drawer and placed it in his hand. It was softer than he expected, warm. At the same time, he lit a candle to light their way. “There hasn’t been a chance to work on a spare bedroom yet. Sorry.” He was led to a bare bed, set up with a wooden chair in the corner of the room and a pile of boxes separating the two. He felt exhausted just looking at it.
“I - you don’t have to.”
“Dankovsky. It’s not a debate. Sleep.” The scholar took a seat on the corner of the boat, still gripping the blanket between his fingers. “Are you planning on sleeping in that coat?”
“Maybe.” Artemy huffed out a laugh at the immediacy of his answer.
“Does everything have to be a fight, oynon? I’ve had enough of those for one lifetime.” Artemy made his way over to the doorway, leaving the candle and its holder on one of the boxes. Daniil pressed down the panic that threatened to spill out audibly at the thought of being left alone again. “I’ll be upstairs. There’ll be food when you wake, rest in the meantime.”
Before Daniil could consider thanking Artemy for his kindness or cursing him for not kicking him to the curb and giving him another reason to hate the man, he was gone. Daniil was glad for that. He wasn’t sure what he would do if the surgeon had stayed. Ignoring Artemy’s comment, he removed his coat, bunching it up to use as a pillow. It wasn’t necessarily comfortable, but he didn’t need it to be. The blanket, on the other hand, weighed down on him, giving him a sense of security even with the dim light of the candle now blown out. Despite the memory of the night terrors he was sure would follow him, it wasn’t long before sleep claimed him.
It claimed him for far too long. The blinding morning light had given way to an early afternoon glow as he slept, slipping through the window to nudge him awake. It took him a moment longer to open his eyes again after making that realisation. He should be up by now. There was a vaccine to make, he was sure the Kains would need to see him, Eva would be worried if he didn’t wake soon. Oh. It wasn’t until then that he realised he wasn’t at the Stillwater and that the plague was gone. The body count had been high, but it was no longer claiming lives.
Daniil sighed, brushing a hand through his hair. His muscles weren’t exactly pleased with him for where he’d chosen to sleep, but they’d been through worse. He noticed a glass bottle filled with water on one of the boxes near him. Artemy must have slipped in when he was sleeping.
A creek from the chair across from him had him sitting up in an instant, only narrowly stopping himself from reaching for a revolver that was no longer there. A young girl sat in the chair across from him, her legs tucked under her, looking at him inquisitively. Her dark hair seemed faintly familiar, but it wasn’t until he caught sight of the green-and-brown clad doll clutched in her arms that he could place her.
“Oh,” he sighed out in relief. “You’re Artemy’s daughter, aren’t you?” He searched for the name, sure that Artemy would have mentioned her. “Murky! Yes. You’re Murky.” She didn’t agree, but seemed pleased enough with his conclusion. “You have a nice home.”
“Aba said I needed a bed.”
“I, well, I’m sure he was right.” He wanted to ask where her aba was, but that seemed to be the end of the conversation as Murky slipped out from her place on the chair and through the doorway without a second word. What is it with Burakhs and walking off like that, Daniil thought.
Daniil was thankful for the water that had been left for him, whether that was by Murky’s hand or Artemy’s; his throat was dry and his head was already telling him to avoid the potential for loud voices and go back to sleep. That option also seemed more appealing than talking to Artemy. He was being forced to deal with the headache and the memories of his actions last night, which the Bachelor decided wasn’t fair. Nevertheless, he forced himself to throw back the last of the blanket covering his legs and follow the faint sound of voices through the house.
“Yamar berkhe!” A warm voice. Definitely Artemy’s. “And Ashen Swish?”
Murky hummed appreciatively at the name. “Sounds like rattling.”
“A more potent Zurkh tincture!”
“Unless you use…” There was a silence for a few seconds as Sticky thought, “Swevery!”
“You see! We’ll make a menkhu of you yet.” Without even looking, Daniil knew that Artemy was proud. The fondness in his voice was clear even without the sight of him smiling down at Sticky, a hand squeezing his shoulder. He couldn’t help but think how that would feel, a strong hand grounding him to the earth he stood on. Daniil hummed absently at the thought, drawing Artemy’s attention.
“Emshen. I didn’t hear you wake.” He turned to Murky, “Someone didn’t tell me.” She looked away from him, but didn’t seem particularly apologetic.
“I apologise for using your room for so long. Time must have gotten away from me.” All of last night’s bravado had left him in the face of Artemy’s children and the afternoon light. The other man waved him off, turning to his children.
“Can we have the room?” They seemed reluctant to leave, exchanging glances. “I’ll call you back in soon to set the table.” With that, Sticky took the lead, mumbled a ‘morning, Mr. Bachelor’ and reached out to take Murky’s hand in his own, guiding them out of the room.
“They seem sweet.”
“Hm? They are.” For the first time since hearing of Artemy’s children, he seemed less than eager to sing their praises. Daniil didn’t like that thought, it meant the conversation would quickly turn to a topic he’d rather avoid.
“Well. Thank you, once again, for last night.” Daniil remained vague about what actual part he was thanking the man for.
“Does that mean you’re no longer planning to yell at me?”
“I don’t think I have the energy,” or desire, “to do that, Burakh.”
“Artemy, please.” Something stirred in him at the invitation. He began to protest, but was quickly cut short. “You spent the night in my bed, the least I can offer is my name.” Artemy didn’t seem to blink twice at the phrasing, but Daniil felt his cheeks darken, eyes trained on the flooring.
“I’ve been thinking about something you said.” Daniil looked up. “You asked if I hate you.”
“I feel like I should get some sort of award for making you stop talking, Dankov - Daniil.” It was a clear attempt to lighten the mood, but neither laughed.
“I told you about my Thanatica. And that the Polyhedron was my last reason. There’s - what’s left now?”
Saying the words out loud made Daniil want to recoil, to retreat back into the Broken Heart and forget he’d ever arrived at the Town-on-Gorkhon. He couldn’t return to the Capital now - there was nothing there but the remnants of a naive dream and an execution.
“I hope you understand that my decision was never made to spite you.”
“Why are you doing this?” Artemy didn’t answer. He didn’t move from his seat at the table, tapping his fingers against the back of his palm as he waited for Daniil to elaborate. “We’re not friends. We’re barely acquaintances. Circumstances forced us together, but now it’s over. So why?”
“You are the one who decided we’re not friends, oynon.”
Daniil was silent once again. If only Artemy had listened to his frustrations last night when his doubts were shrouded by alcohol and darkness. Now, while of a clearer mind, he had lost the desire to blame Artemy for his decision, to find a villain. In some miserable way, he could almost understand it. The realisation twisted inside of him, like something demanding to escape. If he had no Thanatica, no Polyhedron and no tangible enemy to blame for either, then what did he have?
“You are not the only one who has lost, Daniil.” In another time Daniil may have looked sheepish at the accusation. He’s mourning the loss of a building in front of a man still reeling from his father’s death. “I have lost people. My children, my friends, my Kin, we’ve all lost. Don’t hide yourself away from the people who can understand.” Daniil wanted to leave, to escape Artemy’s earnest stare. He sounded sincere, which only made Daniil feel worse. He wished he still had that blanket which had been handed to him, something to occupy his hands with. “And certainly not in the Broken Heart. You’ll come to no good there.”
“You dislike the place?” Artemy nodded. “Andrey is not so bad. And your Herb Brides are there dancing, are they not?”
“They are not mine. They belong to the earth and to themselves.” Daniil wanted to press the matter, to defend the man who had ensured he would not drink alone each night, but saw no point in descending into a fight. “Will you stay?”
There was nowhere else for him. He could not return the Capital, - the Powers That Be made that abundantly clear. Even if he could without facing retribution, there was nothing for him there. But he was not wanted in the Town either. Eva was gone. He failed in his creation of a vaccine and was not the one who had created the panacea. The townsfolk had not appreciated his efforts to set up a hospital or an isolation ward where that was once but a single doctor. While Andrey was pleasant enough, he had few other acquaintances and vastly more enemies.
But Artemy had suggested they could be friends. He had not told Daniil to go home or left him to sleep on his doorstep. Despite Daniil’s anger he brought him in and gave him a room and water. And he had still not kicked him out. Could that be enough reason to stay?
“Hm. Yes. I think I will, for now.” Artemy’s lips turned up, amused.
“I meant to eat, oynon. But that is good information to have nonetheless.”
Murky and Sticky were called back into the dining room. Somehow, in the brief time they had spent alone, they managed to mark their clothes and faces with dirt, amused by Artemy’s sigh. They were sent off to clean up while Artemy set the table and, from the pair’s eager exit, Daniil couldn’t help but think that was their goal. He moved from his position in the doorway, offering to help Artemy. Four places were set. Daniil took in the sight for a moment. A place at a table set out purposefully for him, not as an afterthought or an intrusion, but as a welcome member.
By the time the children returned their plates were filled with servings of bread and fish. The meal was not extravagant as, even with the arrival of the train, food prices were still high. Despite the panacea’s creation and the departure of the army, life was yet to return to some semblance of normalcy.
“Are you going to be living here now?” The doctor’s head shot up at the thought, unused to Sticky’s blunt questions.
“Oh! Ah, I don’t think that will be the case.”
“I heard from Needles that you had left with the army, but I said you wouldn’t do that. Aba didn’t like the army, thinks they’re bad. And then one of the Dogheads said you were in the Broken Heart but Khan called him a liar because kids aren’t allowed in there anymore.” Daniil wasn’t sure which rumour to address first, or if he was expected to at all. “If you’re staying, does that mean you can teach me medicine?”
“Ime beshe, Spichka! I’ll shut the door behind me, shall I?”
“You said there was more than just surgery. Mr. Bachelor knows all about - “
“Thanatology.” Daniil provided as the boy trailed off. Murky’s nose wrinkled at the long word, but she didn’t comment. Sticky tried repeating it and got caught on the consonants.
“See! Do you know about thana-tono-logy, aba?” Artemy held his hands up in surrender. “Does that mean you’ll do it?”
“I - yes. I suppose I can teach you some things.” Sticky looked overjoyed at the prospect and Daniil couldn’t ignore the warmth that swept through him at his excitement.
“Daniil is very knowledgeable on the topic, or so I’ve heard. Mostly from him.” Daniil rolled his eyes, but smiled at the compliment.
While Daniil rejoiced in having something hot in front of him, Murky had left a small pile in the corner of her plate untouched. Following the scarcity during the outbreak and the euphoria that came over the town as the trains arrived with food earlier in the week, he had imagined waste would not have been on anyone's mind. When he asked, Murky simply gestured to her doll, sat precariously in her lap, as if that answered all of his questions.
“Can I see you tomorrow morning?” Daniil looked to Artemy as if for permission, but he did not move to say anything and so the man nodded, inviting Sticky over to the Stillwater.
Once the plates were cleared, barring Murky’s pile, Sticky called out that he was heading to the Warehouses. Unlike her brother, Murky hovered around her father for a while longer as he cleared away the dishes with one hand, the other engulfing Murky’s smaller one.
“Thank you for that, he’ll enjoy it. Even if you are going to put a load of big-city ideas in his head.”
“It’s no bother.”
“You can stay a while longer, if you like.” Artemy turned back to where Daniil was sitting at the table. “Mishka and I don’t have any plans, do we?” She shook her head.
“I think I should probably get back. I’ve taken up enough of your time for one day.” The invitation made him desperately want to stay, but he did not want to overstay his welcome in Artemy’s family. Better to ration it than be left with nothing again.
“It’s no bother, Danii -”
“Thank you for the meal. I’ll see you tomorrow, perhaps.”
Later that evening Daniil wondered whether Sticky asked to see him in the morning to deter him from ending up in the Broken Heart again that evening. He’d made a promise he had every intention of fulfilling, which meant he couldn’t condemn himself to the usual pain and drowsiness that followed a night of heavy drinking. In any other town he would have brushed the idea aside. Sticky was a child, he shouldn’t have to account for the unhealthy tendencies of the adults around him, but he knew how the kids here grew up. It wouldn’t surprise him if Sticky had first hand experiences with the morning he was trying to avoid.
But that meant he was left to deal with the horrors of the evening alone, without any twyrine for strength. Daniil had grown used to Eva’s melodic voice haunting him around the Stillwater, but that did not make him crave her presence any less. She had been the first friendly face he encountered upon arriving in the town and had never faltered in her belief in him, despite Daniil’s own doubts. Each time he passed the piano Eva had lounged over countless times before or tripped over one of the books she had left strewn across the room, he cursed himself for not spending more time with her. He should have been more attentive to her mentions of the Cathedral. And now she was - the word wouldn’t come to him.
He couldn’t stay in that room any longer, but his own offered little comfort. He was still a guest in the observatory, even with its owner gone.
"How did aba cure the Sand Pest?"
That certainly wasn’t one of the questions Daniil had prepared to answer. He’d assumed that Artemy wasn’t giving Sticky the most conventional education and had prepared to go over the basics, namely the workings of the heart and the nature of its chambers. He’d even drawn diagrams for the younger boy.
"He made the panacea, everyone knows that. He even used it on me once. But he won't tell me how."
"Oh, well, I'm sure there's a reason for that. It was very complicated."
"But it's been done before, hasn't it?" Daniil asked what he meant. "When aba was trying to make the panacea he made notes on all sorts of other illnesses and I was listening because he asked me to keep watch over the tinctures. Did you know there were other plagues like this?"
Daniil hummed. "He was referring to yersinia pestis, I’d imagine."
"How did that end then?"
"Well, people set up quarantine zones - "
"Like what you tried to do with the theatre. And when aba put chalk on the doors in the Bridge Square.”
"You're an observant one, aren't you? You definitely should have been at home then." At least Sticky had the good grace to look embarrassed at that.
"So who made the panacea for that then?"
"There wasn't one."
"What do you mean? I don't have it, so someone must have fixed it."
“There are some things even science can’t fix, Sticky.” Daniil had been ready to accept that in the final days of the outbreak when things seemed most hopeless. There was no way to create a vaccine with the town’s resources and even with Aglaya’s help, Artemy hadn’t produced a panacea. “We just don’t know how to.”
Sticky huffed at the answer, clearly not satisfied. “Aba would have been able to.” Daniil couldn’t find it in himself to argue otherwise.
As soon as Sticky left, a pile of textbooks in hand and an energised smile on his face, Daniil was alone in the Stillwater again. The same sense of dread crept back into him until even heading back to bed felt like too much effort. His limbs shouldn’t be this heavy, he knew that, and yet he could not will them to move. Perhaps he should cry, but even that felt impossible. His father had long since trained him out of that habit.
The doctor didn’t know when it got dark out, only vaguely recognising that he should light a lamp before the room got harder to navigate. It wasn’t the first time he had time unaccounted for since the end of the outbreak, but he felt this had been the longest stretch of time.
He didn’t know when he gathered his coat in his arms either, fleeing from the Observatory that was haunting him. He only knew that he found himself outside of the Broken Heart once again, ready to dull the pain of those fateful twelve days. He hadn’t made any obligations to see Sticky the next morning which meant he had no reason not to enter. Daniil was tired. He’d made up his mind, ready to push the door open, when he heard a familiar voice from behind him.
“Artemy… what are you - the kids?”
“Asleep. Or frightening each other half to death with their stories, but I’d like to think they’re asleep.” Daniil couldn’t comprehend how Artemy could leave them alone with all he’d seen of the town. It was dark out, that meant looters and thugs with knives. “Were you heading in?”
“No. Maybe. I hadn’t made my mind up yet.” Daniil hoped he’d become a better liar suddenly in the past five minutes.
“Do you want to do something else instead?” Artemy was certainly dressed for a late night walk; his brown gloves had been replaced and he’d traded his usual garb for a green jumper which seemed too big even for a man of his size. Daniil couldn’t help but wonder what it would feel like on him.
He looked towards the Broken Heart, imagined all that he could forget there, and then back at Artemy again, before nodding.
It was cold in the Steppe, which wouldn’t have been a problem if Daniil had planned for a late evening walk during September. Unfortunately, he had not. His coat was certainly not the warmest thing in the world, yet he still found himself gripping it closer to his body. At least he could blame the wind for the blood that had rushed to his cheeks, not Atermy’s gloved fingers that swung between them as they walked brushing over his every so often.
“Sticky’s been reading those textbooks you gave him ever since he got home. Practically had to drag him away for dinner.”
“Oh? I’m glad.” The ground shifted under his foot. Daniil decided he liked that feeling, being able to look back and see where he’d come from. “He really is a smart kid.”
“They all are. It’s just a shame there’s nowhere for them to show that here.” Artemy chuckled. “You know, I had a dream about a school being set up here once. You weren’t the best suited for it.” So he was dreaming about me, Daniil thought before he could block out such self-indulgent thoughts. It was probably a nightmare.
“Well, if you’re planning to test theory, I’d be happy to give a few classes here and there.”
"What about your Capital? I would not want to tether you to such a backwater land." Daniil flinched at the descriptor, knowing that he would not have hesitated to use it even a few days ago.
"Damnant quod non intellegunt. I would often curse the Powers That Be for that fact, it always felt like they did not even attempt to see the value in my plans. It seems I was not exempt from the concept myself."
"Medeneghshe. I do not want you to leave." Daniil let the confession wash over him.
"Will you teach me?" He couldn't help but remember Sticky's request for him to do the same thing. Artemy was now wearing the same puzzled expression he imagined he initially was. "That night at the Broken Heart, you told me I was saying it wrong. Emshen." He hoped he was closer now. "Will you teach me?"
It would be a lie to say that Daniil had not noticed the surgeon’s eyes before. Beyond the blood he was usually covered in, they were the most striking thing about him. However, he had never seen them reflecting the Steppe’s light before. The usual green-grey hue shone in the faint glow that surrounded them, trapping him in his gaze. Daniil had never been one to hold the poets in high regard. They spoke so much of how one’s beauty can be captured in their lover’s eye and he brushed them off; it was an absurd idea, the eye was simply a collection of receptors designed to refract light and an optic nerve carrying impulses. They finally made sense now, looking at Artemy - drink to me only with thine eyes.
“Yes.” Artemy sounded as though he needed to collect his breath. Daniil was glad, he wanted him to know how it felt to be left flustered so often. They were silent for a few moments more, drinking in the newfound Line established between them. “You shouldn’t remain at the Stillwater alone.”
“My things are there.” Even to Daniil’s own ear, he was aware of how the excuse sounded. “I don’t have anywhere else.”
“I’m afraid I can’t offer a proper bedroom just yet, but I can’t imagine anyone’s going to be using the bed cot any time soon. Khatange drop by every so often, but there’s plenty of space.” Daniil stared blankly as he comprehended what was being offered to him. “And the kids like you well enough.”
“You’re inviting me to… join you.”
“To live there. Yes.”
“Right.” The other man was looking away from him now and Daniil wished he could reach out and turn his gaze back to him. “I don’t think I’d be the easiest person to live with.”
“And I am?” They were passing the cemetery now. Bulbous rocks seemed to grow out of the ground, illuminated by the faint glow coming from Grace’s now empty lodge. While Daniil’s eyes had been drawn to it ever since they entered the Steppe, Artemy had not glanced over once. Whether it was the memory of townsfolk he knew that had been buried there or his father’s grave that deterred him, Daniil wasn’t sure. “All I know is that if I was alone right now, I don’t know if I’d make it through.”
“I don’t know if I - “ deserve that. “I owe it to Eva to at least make sure her home doesn’t fall to dust.”
“I’ll admit, I did not know Eva Yan well. She was not here before I left and we had few interactions when I arrived, but I imagine she would not want you to wallow in that place’s misery. It isn’t good for one’s soul.” The sincerity in Artemy’s voice cut through him.
“Well. I suppose, perhaps, I could spend a few nights away.” Artemy smiled at him. Daniil couldn’t understand how so anyone had been afraid of him with a smile so warm that it sent the tips of his fingers alight.
Artemy suggested that they walk through the Steppe in the direction of the Stillwater to pack a few of his belongings. The surgeon had been planning to walk much further out than this, though he would not say why, and so he assured Daniil that it would not be a nuisance. The earth twisted and reformed under him, molding itself to his touch. As he stumbled on a particularly slippery piece of earth, Artemy caught him with a swift hand around his wrist and a teasing smile. He unclasped his hand a few beats after Daniil had expected, but did not pull away. Daniil was still processing that fact when he heard a sharp gasp beside him.
“He’s here!” The Warehouses had just come into view, but Daniil could see no one standing there.
“My bull! Noukher.” Now that Artemy had pointed it out, Daniil saw the faint outline of a bull lounging in front of a towering factory building. “Yamar berkhe booha bai! You said you wanted to learn, didn’t you? Fancy a song?”
“Oh. No, no. No songs.” Not without a lot of twyrine in him. “You’ll retract your offer straight away.” But Artemy was having none of it and broke into a loud chorus before he had even finished his sentence.
“Bohir, bohir, let us dance, a couple merry fellows… Booha, shalzha, let us sing, hear a booha bellow…” Artemy’s voice was deep and he weaved in and out of keys, but Daniil knew he’d never heard something more filled with love. He tilted his head back and, for the first time since arriving at the Town-on-Gorkhon, he laughed, loud and carefree. The laughter only encouraged Artemy, further inspired by Daniil’s accompanying humming. “Ay-ya, booha, ay-ya! Khatar naada hoog-zhoya... Ay-ya, ay-ya! Khatar naada hoog-zhonya!”
Perhaps things would be okay.
They fell into a rhythm after that day. Mornings were typically spent at the table with Artemy, Sticky and Murky until Daniil relented to clearing the table off and continuing their last lesson with Sticky. Occasionally Artemy and Murky would remain, watching in (and often commenting, if your name was Artemy Burakh), but more often than not they would disappear for a few hours, returning with a basket full of herbs and Murky reporting that her doll was no longer hungry. Daniil was quickly coming to learn each of the kid’s quirks; he knew not to run his fingers through Murky’s hair and her ever-changing dietary preferences.
(“Remember Murky doesn’t like the eggs from this store. We should head to the one by Lara’s.”
“Then why did you choose it?”
“You say it had your favourite coffee beans.”)
In the afternoons, Daniil and Artemy would work on redecorating the house. With the number of children he had knocking on his door so often, Artemy was insistent on refurnishing the spare rooms into guest bedrooms. He had shown Daniil the Lair in the Warehouses after meeting Noukher and Artemy preferred to deal with any potentially bloody business there, far away from the kids. Daniil had insisted they work on where he had been sleeping last, claiming that he liked the room and his bed as it was. For some reason, Artemy had not pressed the situation.
On occasion, they would take trips out into the Steppe to collect twyre, but Daniil was still unable to hear the faint buzzing the surgeon insisted was still audible if he concentrated. This was much to the frustration of Murky, who prided herself on being able to differentiate between the different herbs.
One particularly warm afternoon, Murky had pulled Daniil away from her brother and father, further towards the Cemetery to chase the whispering sound of Swevery. He had to lean down for Murky to fit her hand comfortably in his, but the difference was not as extreme as the one between her and Artemy.
“Swevery’s my favourite.” Murky commented as they finally reached a stop in front of the entrance. She dropped close to the floor, peeling the grass back to reveal the herb’s branching leaves. The bright flowers at its tips were stark against the surrounding grass now that Daniil knew where to look and he could see the appeal.
“It’s very pretty.”
Murky was sitting crossed legged now, bouncing her leg as she spoke, drawing Daniil's eye to it. He knew that people had done the same to him plenty of times, choosing to be distracted by the noises he could not control rather than pay attention to his theories.
"Aba says I'm allowed to. That I'm not hurting anyone."
He nodded. "Your aba's right."
She huffed. “Kaya,” a Soul-and-a-Half who had joined them for lunch on more than one occasion, “used to say it was dumb.”
“He was wrong.” Daniil said firmly. “Could he have been able to hear this Swevery?” Murky shook her head, her lips curling up in pride. “There’s nothing dumb about you, Mishka.”
One morning Artemy walked into the kitchen announcing that they would be visiting Shekhen that day. Murky immediately broke into a passionate defence of why she shouldn’t have to wear shoes if that’s where they were going, but Artemy made her compromise by wearing them while they were walking through the town. They both knew Murky would make the trip on Artemy’s shoulders, shoes long-since forgotten.
When the pair left to get ready, Daniil asked where exactly Shekhen was. Upon the discovery that it was now a thriving Steppe village, Daniil had expected to be chased out of it. However, Taya Tycheek took one look at him before breaking into a smile.
“Ontokho khelekhe, bagsha! Do you know any good stories?” She reached out to take his hand, pulling him down to a yurt decorated in excess with strings of beads and patterned fabrics.
“Well… I don’t know, Mother Supreme.” Taya beamed at the recognition of her position, but her expectations did not wane. Artemy seemed more amused by the situation than anything and gestured for him to tell a story. Now Daniil was nervous for a whole new reason.
“I suppose I might know a story or two.” Taya squealed in excitement, letting go of Daniil’s hand and taking Murky’s so that they could both sit and listen to the story. “Has anyone ever told you the story of the man looking for a new home? It all started with a letter from a man he didn’t know inviting him to a strange town...”
Some evenings, Artemy’s friends would join them and crowd around the too-small table, bumping elbows with ease as they ate. It wasn’t long before Sticky had also enlisted Rubin to teach him everything the older man knew and Daniil shared a knowing glance with Artemy.
The first time Daniil had joined, Lara offered him a glass of sparkling wine with his meal and he almost recoiled at the temptation. He had only visited the Broken Heart once since the night Artemy invited him into his home and could not rid himself of the guilt of disappointing his newfound friends the entire time he was there. He was already making his excuses when a hand fell onto his knee, squeezing reassuringly. Artemy asked for Lara to pass two bottles of tan for them instead.
“Pity there’s no thunder. It’s best then.” Daniil appreciated the swift subject change as Lara began retelling the story of them walking the train tracks as children, with nothing but a fraying sack filled with bottles of tan in their hands and the clap of thunder overhead. His own hand came to rest upon Artemy’s, which was yet to move. It would be a long while before it did.
“Dankovsky! My friend. Long time no see.” Daniil thought ‘friend’ was an exaggeration of their relationship considering it was based on murdering men for him and still having to pay for his own bullets, but did not comment. Bad Grief was Artemy’s friend and, in his defence, had mostly stayed out of trouble since the end of the outbreak. “I thought Cub was going to keep you locked up in there forever.”
He hadn’t realised the townsfolk were paying so much attention to his whereabouts. “We’re refurbishing Isidor’s old house.”
“Oh yeah?” Grief winked conspicuously. “Is that all you’re doing?”
Daniil stared blankly. “We eat too.”
“You’re killing me here, buddy.”
“Artemy asked me to give this to you.” He passed an envelope over to the ex-criminal, who was preoccupied with a dramatic show of bringing his palm to his forehead in mock-annoyance. “He’s upset you haven’t been around.”
“You know me, just trying to find my place in the world. You’ve certainly found yours in his.” Daniil knew he should leave. He’d handed the envelope over, anything else Grief said was simply to get some entertainment out of him. “Is he planning on putting a ring on it anytime soon then? I wasn’t sure if his precious Kin would allow it.”
Now, Daniil was not stupid. He was aware of the glances the two of them got whenever they left the house, sharing their private jokes and walking closer than one would have expected. Initially he had assumed the townsfolk were confused by the sight of Artemy, their beloved healer, with Daniil Dankovsky, who had assumed he was now public enemy number one. Perhaps it was partially that, but that didn’t account for the same whispering by their friends who had assured Daniil there was no bad blood between them.
Daniil was far from unaware of what the common person thought of his own proclivities. He’d done his best to ensure that his academic circles in the Capital would not become aware of his preferences, but it was inevitable that rumours would start, what with his refusal to settle down and marry despite his colleagues’ suggestions. His public investigations into defeating death were not the only reason the Powers That Be had it out for him, after all.
“Ha!” Grief laughed, his voice high and incredulous. “And I’ve got a wife named Adelina with two little sprogs on the way.”
Daniil stiffened. “Artemy is not like that.”
“I’ve known him a lot longer than you have, my dear Bachelor. We weren’t exactly spoiled for choice as teenagers.” Daniil’s eyes widened comically at the suggestion, his hands immediately reaching for the sleeve of his coat, squeezing down and then releasing periodically. Of course he had considered the possibility, but it was not something he allowed himself to dwell on. It made sense for a man like himself, one already so enthralled with the perverse, to have matching desires, but Artemy? He was kind, gentle, and everything that Daniil was not. He would settle down one day with a kind-hearted Steppe girl and Daniil would be left on the sidelines once again. “Christ. You really haven’t done anything, have you?”
Daniil did not answer.
“Are you going to?”
“As I said, we’re friends.” He turned to leave, deciding that he’d had more than enough of Grief’s company for one day. The concept was absurd. Artemy wasn’t like him.
Grief called his name, but Daniil spun around gesturing to the empty Warehouse. “Quit it! If I really wanted relationship advice, I’d hardly be coming to you, would I?”
Daniil did not see the other man’s face fall, but he felt the air turn tense. He didn't waste another minute before leaving, turning his coat collar up against the heavy air of the Warehouses and trying to banish the interaction from his mind.
He couldn’t. Daniil knew he had been weird the rest of the day. Murky refused to hold his hand when he got home, which only made him feel worse. Artemy had asked how Grief was, but he’d shrugged the question off and it seemed the surgeon didn’t see the value in pushing the conversation. The casual affection he’d grown used to had been tainted by Grief’s comments. The hand that usually warmed his back as he helped Artemy prepare the children’s meals felt too intimate, like he was forcing his own perversions onto Artemy.
The idea made it hard to sleep. Artemy’s presence had not made his night terrors go away, but he was able to manage them more easily now that he knew that he wouldn’t be waking up to a disturbingly empty Observatory. But now he was trapped in a spiral of his own doubts, only drawn out of them by the sound of a loud crash upstairs. Daniil assumed that one of the kids were sneaking around when they should have been asleep or that Artemy had dropped something, but a second thump followed soon after.
He got out of bed, pulling the oversized shirt Artemy had gifted him down around his bare thighs. Daniil had not exactly packed to be living in the Town-Upon-Gorkhon and eventually Artemy realised he was going to need some more clothes to sleep in. Daniil had considered turning down the offer until he realised just how comforting the fabric’s presence was.
The noise was now coming from across the hall and before he could talk himself out of it, Daniil knocked on Artemy’s door softly.
“Is everything alright?” He whispered through the gap between the two rooms, not wanting to wake Sticky and Murky up if they were sleeping. There was no response, but Daniil could hear a sharp intake of breath from within the room. “I’m, uh - I’m going to come in, okay?”
He waited a moment before pushing the door open, giving the other man time to stop him if necessary. Artemy was in bed, the thin covers pushed away and caught around his ankles. Despite being asleep, he was far from resting. Every so often his hand would shoot out as if trying to push something away, colliding sharply with the unyielding wall. Daniil quickly went to cover the hand in his own, shielding it from any further injuries. He took a seat near Artemy’s large frame, careful to ensure the only point they were touching were their hands.
“Nara - please. I - I can’t.” His voice was raspy and dry, but it broke on the woman’s name.
“Artemy, Artemy. Shh, Tyoma. It’s just a bad dream. You’re okay.” Daniil’s spare hand rested on the man’s shoulder, gently trying to nudge him awake. When he finally did, it was with a shudder. Artemy’s hands immediately broke free from Daniil’s grasp and gripped his upper arm tight, looking wildly at his surroundings. Even with only the dim light streaming in through the windows, Daniil could see the glistening wetness around his eyes. “It’s me. Just me. Dankovsky.”
Artemy seemed to calm at that, loosening his grip. “You were having a bad dream.”
“Would you like to talk about it?”
“No.” A beat. “I don’t know.”
“Okay.” Artemy’s breathing seemed less frenzied now, but he was still unsettled. “I’m going to get you some water.” The surgeon caught his wrist as he twisted.
“Don’t go. Please.” Daniil wasn’t capable of turning down a request from Artemy at the best of times and certainly not now. He made room for Daniil in the bed, patting the spot next to him and, as was customary when it came to Artemy Burakh, Daniil obeyed. There was still hair’s breadth of space between the two men, but Daniil’s skin was tingling at the thought of being able to reach out and touch him. Even in the faint light, Daniil could see more than feel Artemy’s hand shivering in the space between them and, without thinking, he reached out to take the hand in his own, running his thumb along the length.
“You’re okay now.” Artemy nodded, but Daniil did not let go of his hand. Silence filled the room, only broken by the man’s rugged breaths. “Who’s Nara?”
“She’s… she was - I thought we were…” He trailed off. “I killed her.”
“Oh.” Daniil did not recognise the name, but he assumed it had to be someone here. Despite what had happened during the outbreak, Artemy did not strike him as the sort of person who would be wielding a revolver around the Capital. “I’m sorry. Were you close?”
“It’s complicated. She acted as though she knew me, like we were supposed to be in love perhaps. I couldn’t understand how that would be possible, though.” Daniil furrowed his brow. “Then… I realised she meant something different. The Polyhedron, well, it wasn’t the only price I had to pay for the panacea.”
“It wasn’t your fault, Tyoma.” Artemy didn’t comment on the name, but his breath hitched. “You saved thousands that day.”
“I thought you hated me for it.” Artemy had never really commented on how Daniil’s initial accusations had made him feel, but he got the impression that he wasn’t as unaffected as Daniil had assumed.
“You know that isn’t true. I was … I needed someone to be angry at. I’m sorry that it fell to you. That wasn’t right.”
“I hurt so many people during the outbreak, but she’s the one who won’t leave my dreams.” He understood; Eva was yet to do the same.
“You said you couldn't understand how you could be in love with her.” Artemy hummed, not offering a response. “Why not?”
“I can’t imagine we would have been exactly compatible.”
“I thought you were expected to be with someone from the Kin.” Attitudes may have been changing among the younger townsfolk, but even so, Daniil had seen limited intermingling between them and the Kin.
“Hm. Not so much anymore, I suppose. My father wasn’t, after all.” That was the first time Artemy had brought him up since they had begun living together. He squeezed the man’s hand. “Though that wasn’t what I meant. While they are extraordinary people, my preferences do not involve women.”
Daniil’s thumb stilled on the man’s hand, pulling back slightly. He didn’t mean it in the way Daniil had assumed, did he? Even if he did, his brain helpfully supplied, that doesn’t mean he’s interested.
“Danya?” Artemy asked, following his lead with the name. “I hadn’t imagined you would have a problem with it.”
He realised how his reaction must have looked. “Oh. I don’t.” Now his own hand was trembling slightly. “I - me too.”
“Okay. That’s nice to know.” It is? “Will you stay the night?”
“Yes. Of course.”
Safe to say, Daniil did not get much sleep that night.
Or the next few nights after that, since it became routine for Daniil to follow Artemy up to his room once the kids were in bed. The morning after the first night they’d shared a bed, Daniil woke to a solid warmth behind him. Rather than a sense of panic filling him as he tried to decipher where he was and what was slung over his waist, he settled back into the weight, letting his eyes flicker shut. It wasn’t until Artemy stirred behind him that he realised who he was in bed with and, instead of being kicked out, the surgeon pulled his smaller frame closer.
Neither commented on it the next evening or the one after that, but each night Daniil took the wordless invitation back into the man’s arms.
On the few mornings Daniil woke alone, he would usually find Artemy in the kitchen either preparing something for his children or trying to stop them from picking at the counter before he was ready to serve breakfast. This time, however, Daniil had descended into a room of barely-hushed whispers. He could not hear what they were discussing, but he thought he could vaguely hear his own name, followed by an aggravated curse. He just woke up. Who had he pissed off already?
“Dankovsky.” Ah, he thought, that makes sense.
“Aspity.” His voice was terse, clipped. “How can we help?”
Artemy sighed. “Could we have a minute, Danya? Wake Mishka and Spichka up for me, please.” As much as Daniil wanted to stay and hear what they were discussing, he relented, nodding.
“Pleasure seeing you, as always, Aspity.”
The strained conversation seemed to have ended by the time he finally dragged Sticky out of bed and downstairs and Aspity seemed eager to leave. Not without glaring at him first though, of course. As Aspity made her way to the front door, Daniil offered to walk her out, closing the kitchen door behind him.
“Can I ask you a question?”
“You’re going to regardless of what I say.”
“What does khөөrkhen mean?” She let out an, in Daniil’s opinion, highly dramatic sigh, pinching the bridge of her nose. Was there where Artemy got it from?
“Why are you asking me this? I thought your boy was teaching you our language.” Her voice was dripping with contempt as she spoke, clearly disapproving.
“He’s not my - it doesn’t matter. I didn't want to ask.”
“And yet you’ll pain me with your questions.” She regarded him for a moment, glare softening slightly. Or maybe Daniil was seeing things. “It’s a term for loved ones. My darling, my sweet. Whichever you prefer.”
"Why would he..."
“I’m Sahba-ötün. The Queen of Worms. A souvilag'sh. And you’re trying to use me as a relationship counsellor.”
Daniil opened his mouth to defend himself, but Aspity was not willing to listen anymore. Apparently, answering a single question was as close to friendly as they’d be. She fled through the front door without a look back.
“Oh, perfect. Thanks for all the help!”
“What are we?”
“Tyoma, it is rather late for a discussion about the nature of humanity, is it not?” Daniil had been on the cusp of sleep when Artemy’s voice rang around the room. It was enough to stop him from falling over that brink, but not enough to rid him of the sleepy haze that crept into his voice.
“I meant us - you and me - what are we?”
“We’re friends, are we not?”
“Artemy… if I’ve done something wrong. I’d appreciate you just coming out with it.”
Daniil couldn’t recall anything he’d done that would upset Artemy. Grief had been over for dinner last night and he’d behaved himself. He’d even pulled the man aside to apologise for his conduct the last time they’d met. The kids seemed happy enough, if a little quiet.
“You haven’t. This isn’t coming out right.” He felt Artemy shift next to him, retracting the arm slung over his waist as the sheets rustled. “Is that all we are then, friends?”
Daniil regarded him for a moment.
“Because I don’t usually share a bed like this with my friends. My friends don’t grab my hand when we’re walking through the town or look after my kids after if they’re their own. They don’t - “
“I wasn’t aware you had an issue with those things.” Daniil was glad Artemy had been the one to pull away first, shrinking in on himself. Here was the moment he’d been waiting to happen all along. “I can stop, Tyom - Artemy. Burakh, even.”
“I don’t want that either. I don’t want you to stop. Be oylgono ugyb.”
“Why you’re doing it.”
“You know why.”
“Yes. What I don’t know is why we’re ignoring it.” He wasn’t ignoring anything, he was merely trying to stop their friendship from collapsing. God, feelings made everything so much more complicated.
“I’m trying not to make you uncomfortable.”
“Uncomfortable? Daniil, what are you on about?”
Daniil inhaled sharply. “Look, I appreciate everything you’ve done for me. I don’t want my feelings to get in the way of that. I can - they’ll go away eventually.”
“I most certainly hope they don’t.” What? “It would be difficult to navigate a relationship otherwise.”
“A… relationship.” Daniil’s voice was tentative, unsure. He couldn’t understand why Artemy had chosen now to bring this up.
“If you’re amenable, of course. Though, I can't imagine it would be particularly different from these past months.”
“Amenable?” He sounded incredulous. “I’ve - you like me.”
“Yes.” One word. So simple. As though Daniil had not lost countless nights of sleep over the matter.
“You did not say anything.” Artemy shifted, reaching out to cover Daniil’s hand with his own.
“Neither did you.” He squeezed. “I am... not the most talented with words. Especially not when it comes to my feelings. I am changing that now.”
“I was tired of waiting. You were seemingly never going to bring the conversation up.” Daniil huffed, ready to protest, but was cut short. “It is behind us now, Danya. I have more important things on my mind.”
Artemy leaned in. When had they been so close? His breath was hot on Daniil’s skin and it sent a visible shudder through him.
“Can I kiss you?”
Daniil nodded. And he did. Again, and again, and again.
When Daniil came down for breakfast that morning he relished in the heavy footsteps from across the hall. Sticky climbing into Murky’s room, he thought confidently, he’s probably dreamt up a new story. As he travelled further through the house, new sounds welcomed him. Artemy’s humming, the few words he interrupted himself with to sing under his breath. Floorboards creaking under his step.
He smiled, ready for his own steps to join them.