Burakh always had the same scent.
People’s smell tended to shift and evolve depending on how things went, it followed their life conditions, the time of the day, the direction that whole wretched town went in. It never changed to the point of being unrecognizable but it got buried under other things, plain soap, built up sweat, sickness, decay, death. Daniil had an exceptional sense of smell, so he always caught it all, dissecting the added nuances while it worsened and worsened as the times grew direr, almost as if each and every person slowly began to rot with the town, intertwined with the stone and the earth and the diseased blood pooling deep under the surface.
It spared no one, not the dirty children running around, the incomprehensible members of the kin, the dull and unreasonable commoners. Even the poised and calculating aristocrats weren’t spared from that mortifying process, as their flowery and sharp singular scents grew faint, forgotten, plainer and plainer until they almost resembled the common people Daniil so dearly hoped he could detach himself from by putting his trust in the higher powers.
This mortification never seemed to touch Burakh. As food and resources grew scarce and the dead and the rats started piling up in houses and streets, he remained untouched, consistent in a way that not even Daniil himself was. He could sense his presence as soon as he approached the door, unmistakable and strong, and it always unsettled him the same way. He smelled like blood. It always lingered on him, sharp and intense over anything else. And there was a lot to overpower, permeating his clothes and soaked up in his flesh: sweat and musk and herbs, old wood, city streets, dirt, death.
Sometimes, if he really concentrated over it - and that, Daniil was almost sure, had to do with his brain overworking information and piecing it together with his perceptions to stitch a picture that made sense - he even caught a hint of the steppe. Not the grass and dust that already lingered on Burakh anyway but something deeper, something that had struck him the first time he had found himself wandering there: the scent of time, of magic and mystery that the old and wise carried with them.
It smelled like fear, his fear, for if things like those really existed and made any sense there, all his research and sleepless nights of study and worry were useless. If those really were the laws of that town, they were all doomed.
It made sense for Burakh to smell that way from the beginning. The man had really been through it all even before the disease had started to properly spread, with three deaths on his hands, a dead to bury and no house to return to as soon as he had gotten off a freight car - and what a mean to travel, as if he had already started to accustom himself for how awful his stay was going to be.
That day, when he entered his room, uninvited and unexpected, blood wasn’t just a smell but a physical presence stuck over Artemy: dark spurts on the sleeves of his coat and the tips of his boots, rusty colored lines under and around his fingernails, red, warm liquid trapped in a bottle in his long and slender fingers.
“It’s not human.” he said, as if it mattered.
Burakh had confessed him to the murders on the first day, blood on his hands wouldn’t have been anything new. Aside from that, he was the only practicing surgeon in town, so it was really more reassuring than anything else.
Now, the fact that it wasn’t human blood was concerning, for Daniil at least. Animal blood in a place like that could have meant anything, as far as he was concerned. Both the steppe people and the commoners were tied down to dangerous superstitions and Burakh belonged to both of these groups: in a sense - and that was something that shamefully had to do with his own gut, more than practical facts - Burakh was that town at its worst, old and new, knowing of the modern science but still rooted in folktales and outdated but somehow functioning mystical remedies. He was a useful tool in the field of research, but also a convicted killer who went around picking weeds and messing around with guts and organs.
And while, regardless of those details, he felt like he could trust him, Daniil couldn’t help but fear that one day the yargachin would lose all sense of reason and come to him with a paste of flowers and infected intestines to “cure” - which probably meant “poison” - the sick with.
Luckily, that day wasn’t the case.
“There’s the voice going around that bulls don’t get the disease. I figured you had already thought of the possibility.” he explained, quickly, without greeting or even simply addressing him.
Daniil had made peace with the rough and graceless behavior of the townfolks quickly, growing to expect less and less from them as the situation grew direr and tense, but Burakh was another deal entirely.
In the beginning, he had simply thought it was about how deep the town’s grit ran into his blood or how much he generally despised him as an individual, but he had been wrong.
Burakh, simply, never had time to feign courtesy. He had too many things to do, to stop, to think about. Daniil, right at that moment, could see it perfectly in his eyes, red, circled by dark and tight skin, lashes fluttering in an irregular pattern to fight off the need to close, in the quick rhythm of his breath filling up with chest, the twitching of fingers and tapping of heels.
Dankovsky was also busy, burdened by responsibilities and important tasks, as many of the people they knew and worked with, but it was different for Artemy. It was as if the might of the entire town weighted on his shoulders, as the last menkhu, the last Burakh, the last learned person to care about that place for more than personal gain. He carried everything with him, the things he had to do and the things others were doing and the way it all connected, the consequences it brought over every human soul.
It didn’t make sense to Daniil, why someone would choose to care like that. He could only marvel in confusion and worry at how visible its aftermaths were on the other man’s skin.
“Burakh. You were correct, I made the same hypothesis. But I can’t start making assumptions without proof and there was no data to build a proper case.” he replied, staring at the ice of his eyes as his expression twisted into something slightly more relaxed.
For a moment, Daniil even caught a hint of smugness. Or relief, it was very hard to tell, with the even harder bred surgeon.
He placed the warm vial of blood between his hands and pointed at it with his chin.
“There it is. Bull blood. A pretty useful base, if you ask me.”
“It absolutely is. ” he whispered, marveling at the bottle between his hands, already running through the process of analysis in his mind “I’ll start right away.”
Burakh didn’t sound smug. Just tired, the way he looked, the way he always looked, though on that evening something about him was even worse than normal.
Daniil let his gaze linger over him for a couple of seconds, taking in how truly awful he looked, before pointing at his bed.
“This will take a couple of hours. You can rest there, if you want. I’ve seen corpses prettier than you.” he pointed out, half-hiding his concern, half-dismissing it to himself.
He had no reason to care about that man. He didn’t , in fact. But a tired Burakh was less useful than a rested one. And a dead Burakh wasn’t useful at all.
Artemy simply shook his head, already moving towards the door.
“I’ll come back later. I have to take care of some things.”
Daniil looked at the window, noting the darkness already veiling the town completely. He didn’t tell him that whatever had waited up until that moment could probably wait until morning. He knew it wasn’t true, he knew time didn’t work like that anymore while they lived and breathed through tragedy.
He wouldn’t have been able to do so anyway: Burakh was already gone, when he turned around.
When he did eventually come back, Daniil himself was exhausted and Artemy had somehow managed to look even worse than he had before.
His eyes were not only darkened by the lack of sleep but properly bruised, with a split lip and bloody knuckles. His clothes were dirtier and rattled, more blood staining his coat in a messier, concerning manner.
When he spoke, he noticed there was some in his mouth too.
Burakh didn’t say anything about it, that time, but there was no need. He had heard rumors about him and troublesome Rubin being childhood friends. He didn’t need to ask to picture the lengths a man like that would go to protect the people he loved. Such a peculiar, sentimental creature, the butcher was.
No acknowledgment, once again. Burakh, straight out of hell, went straight to the point.
“We were correct. The virus doesn’t evolve in bulls the way it does in men. But this doesn’t change anything, we can’t start injecting people with bull’s antibodies as for now.”
Artemy nodded, his eyes focused even as the struggled to remain open. It was probably a miracle he was still standing.
“I guess we can’t.”
“We’re too different from bulls. We would need a middle ground, but we don’t have time to wait for myths to become reality.” he concluded, unable to conceal his disappointment.
It wasn’t like he thought that could be a viable solution to their problem. At that point, they were just trying anything, waiting for something to work.
Burakh, however, didn’t look disappointed or defeated. To be honest, he didn’t even look like he had processed the last bit information, too busy looking outside the window, like he could physically feel everything happening outside, without his help.
“Is the offer from earlier still valid?”
It came all of a sudden, he was mesmerized by the way his eyes had suddenly planted themselves back into his own before he could hear him.
Daniil took a couple of seconds to understand, before glancing at the bed, then at Burakh again. There had been a time, not very far, where he would have been bothered to the point of disgust at the thought of sleeping next to a man in those conditions.
Not only was Artemy wounded and tired, his clothes were also stained with dirt and blood and guts of various nature, not to talk about the filth and disease he had been surrounded by all day.
The Daniil that had gotten off the train would have found the thought of sharing his bed with that individual repulsive. But he was long gone, and the current one wasn’t nearly squeamish or even clean enough to complain anymore. And Artemy stood unsure on his long legs, a fearsome giant made weak and frail by stress and fatigue. Dankovsky had denied his support to a lot of helpless and tragic situations without an ounce of guilt. Yet, refusing to gift Burakh with some rest felt like a crime.
He was growing worryingly soft.
“It is.” Daniil replied, trying not to sound as surprised as he was.
He turned towards his desk to put aside what remained of his work for, then stood up to finally surrender himself to sleep.
It had to take less than a minute, yet, when he finally reached the bed, Artemy was already fast asleep. He had completely ignored the covers, instead choosing to lay tucked under his own coat, his boots neatly folded near the bed.
Daniil found himself staring at him without a reason, studying the way his tight eyelids trembled, suggesting erratic movements under them, full lips curled in what felt like horror. It was a strange sight, but not strange enough to stop him from laying down next to him and embracing unconsciousness himself.
That night, they just slept.
He didn't know when or how it had started. All of his brain capacity was directed towards the sand pest, the cure, the vaccine, the study, choices to juggle and pick apart in order to keep everything standing, to stop death from slapping him in the face and taking whatever was left. So Daniil didn't have time to pinpoint when, exactly, he had started to use Artemy's body as his lair. Nor it mattered, to be honest, there was a war to be won, talks and names were a thing for quiet times.
What mattered were the facts, plain and simple as they were: Artemy had kept coming back at ungodly hours to use his bed. The second or third time, someone had turned towards the wrong side and decided that the need for warmth was greater than confusion and disgust. Someone else didn't protest or maybe complied and their bodies merged at the seams, and everything became hot and silent and good, for an hour or two. No one had felt the need to talk, for words were knives and pins and thorns and the town had stripped them too raw to handle scratches. They both needed it to keep warm, to stay sane, to remember they were men and not just meat to feed, not just bones to treat.
They both needed it and had kept needing it, not too much, not to the point of stealing time, just enough to put the demons to rest.
A couple of times, Artemy had come to his door breathing heavily with white skin and sweat dripping from his forehead to press his body against the wall, delicate butcher fingers fighting with every button of this clothing to disappear into his skin before collapsing from exhaustion at his feet right after. A couple of times he hadn't been awake long enough to see him come back because sleep liked to keep him from all of his necessities and Daniil had been forced, a starving, horrifying animal, to shake him awake in the light of dawn, in need of his gentle eyes and his pretty mouth and the perfect sting of his body. Sometimes they met halfway and their flesh merged together as if they were meant to be one, but both were too tired to continue and just slid back into their own separate skins, sleeping in a knot of hair and limbs, because maybe flesh was an excuse to hide their need for warmth, for touch, for life.
Daniil had never stopped to think about it but thinking was all he could do, now that everything was over, that the shots had been called and he had realized how bad the hand he had been dealt was. Though he wasn’t exactly sure it could really be called thinking, when his mind had been made watery and clumsy by alcohol. Perhaps that was the only reason why he could afford the luxury to recall Artemy in his mind and linger on the thought, on the scent of his sweat, and the feel of his mouth, the blood on his fingers and how he didn’t really mind as long as they kept touching him. Artemy and his eyes, light as they were clear, grey in the moonlight and beautiful in the morning, before the weight of the world could settle in. When, for a couple of minutes, he looked young and kind and they could be both just men, be reckless and forget everything else was going to catch up to them soon. Artemy and the way he stroked his hair and laid his head on his chest and watched him smoke, waiting for him to be done before letting himself surrender to sleep. Artemy and his burden, his legacy, his love for a place he had left so long ago it barely recognize him as his own anymore, yet he had fought to protect at the cost of Daniil’s own spectacular dream.
In a way, he was sure they were destined to meet. Creatures like the two of them were made in pairs for fate to play dice, to enjoy making bets on either they were going to destroy each other or walk hand in hand. Truth be told, he wasn’t sure anymore whether the two were mutually exclusive. All Daniil knew was that Artemy had fit right next to him and ridiculed his beliefs on life and people and ancient tales, not with words but with gestures, with work and sweat and blood, making him look like the nightmarish paper cutout of a learned man, pointing at a knowledge that couldn’t save him from being thrown into the fire. That by being right, Artemy had made him wrong and he couldn’t take it, but he also couldn't stop looking at him and thinking he was absolutely majestic, the most beautiful creature he had ever laid his eyes on, the brightest, softest hand that had brushed the surface of his skin, no matter how dirty it had been stained by the world and the cruelty it had asked of him.
It was infuriating, how many things were all stored up into him, good and bad and his , and Daniil couldn’t process it, he couldn't even stop looking at him when he entered the bar, tired from the fight, heavy with burden and loss, but still bright in his victory. He should have known Artemy was going to win. He didn’t look like someone who could be defeated.
And Daniil had lost too many times not to be able to take it.
“ Emshen .” he greeted him, even though the word felt wrong on his tongue, crooked, like the letters just weren’t meant for him to speak.
And maybe it was right. Maybe none of that was ever meant to be touched by him. Maybe the game had already been rigged against him, arming him with the wrong tools for the world he had been sent into.
Artemy smiled in a way he had never seen, something that felt like a small, discreet kind of flattery. To be honest, Daniil hadn’t seen him smile a lot in general, but it still stung, in the way all beautiful things did.
“Is it? Did I say it right?”
“You did, erdem. I’m impressed.”
He definitely looked impressed. Positively surprised, too, and he wasn’t exactly wrong.
“I’m a fast learner. I used to be an excellent student.”
“That’s hardly surprising.”
Daniil didn’t need to be acknowledged by him. He didn’t need praise or flattery by anyone, he knew what he was, he had worked hard for it and held his own judgment higher than everyone else’s. But it had been a long and hard day and had drunk plenty to make it easier to swallow, so he accepted the warmth of Artemy’s words, together with the shame it brought.
He had grown older, in those few days, and tired of fighting and trying to be bigger than himself.
“It still didn’t help me when I needed it the most. I suppose knowledge is not enough when your enemy is death itself. But I should have known that, by now.”
He didn’t even know why he was saying that out loud, like it mattered, like anyone wanted or needed to hear it.
But it was out, now, and it was true. He had already lost his fight against death. He had already seen his beliefs and hope smothered into nothing. He should have been used to defeat.
Artemy didn’t say anything to disagree, but something dark dawned upon his eyes. How infuriating, that he could be sorry for him. How fitting and bittersweet. How impossibly charming. Daniil threw back his glass to put out the fire he felt growing in his chest.
It did not work. When he looked at Artemy again, he was still looking back.
“You did all you could.”
His voice was so warm, he could feel it slide over his skin, down his back, making his spine loose form. He looked at him again, the shape of his lips, the now softer curve of his brow, less concerned, less terrified.
The worst thing about Artemy was that Daniil couldn't hate him. There was just too much about him to love.
And he was too tired, too defeated to fight how much he needed him, and his light, and the way he made him feel.
So he didn’t. He just took his hand and dragged him out of the pub, without asking, without saying goodbye, letting his desire eat away his care and politeness and everything outside Artemy, and his rough hand, and the intoxicating understanding in his eyes.
In his insufferable but unstoppable self-awareness, Daniil knew that wasn’t how things were meant to go. That one could forget the bond between flesh and soul, from time to time, but it could never be cut. And one could try and lose and forget himself on someone else’s skin only so much, before he would start to miss it when it was gone.
It didn’t matter, now. What mattered was the wonderful might of Artemy’s body pressed against his own, his lips warm and inviting, surrendering easily to his tongue. Daniil hadn’t realized how much he had missed kissing him until he did it again, grabbing at his hair to pull him closer, almost hoping that it could be enough, that he could merge into his body and wear him into his skin. Maybe it would have made things easier. Maybe then he would have understood.
Artemy broke the kiss, to breathe, to let go of a soundless laugh.
“You could have just asked.” he whispered, like it was nothing, like he wasn’t breaking the rules.
They weren’t supposed to talk about it. They weren’t supposed to talk, even if it sounded natural on Artemy’s lips, even if felt good down his back.
Daniil sighed, brushing a gloved hand against his cheek, taking in the marvel that was his face, the miracle of his short breath, the heaven of his fingers drawing circles over his hips.
It felt almost easy, now that they had time, now that it didn’t matter anymore.
“No. I couldn’t.”
It was the truth. That was not the time for words.
Artemy leaned closer, to land right back on his lips, but Daniil didn’t let him, lightly grabbing him by his hair. He knew that was not how things were supposed to be done. He knew there was something warmer struggling to come out, but heat meant danger. It meant fire and love and risk, and he had already had his heart broken that day. So it was better, to keep it dirty and safe.
He pushed him lower, feeling sparks under his skin at the mere sight of Artemy like that, pliant on his knees, hands already working his belt open, then his trousers. He didn’t look sad or disappointed, as Daniil would have expected, he had that look from earlier, that botched pity, the sinful, intoxicating understanding that looked as if it was made to pick at his sanity.
It didn’t feel as bad, now, not with Artemy’s tongue tracing his erection, his soft lips taking him in, his outrageously pretty eyes staring, making something hidden inside his flesh burn.
But he figured nothing could feel bad, like that. Nothing could feel bad, when Burakh was so keen on making him feel good, making wonders along his shaft with the wet hold of his mouth.
Daniil leaned against the wall and closed his eyes, taking in the sensation, the raw, uncomplicated pleasure that a moment like that could offer, quick and dirty and strong enough to make the rest of the world disappear. Easy, until he opened his eyes again and Artemy’s gaze made everything hard. He wanted so much from him. His eyes just like that and the curve of his lips and every fiber of his body. Daniil wanted him to wreck everything again and he wanted to wreck him , to burn that moment in his mind and leave it to haunt him forever, long after the memory of that day would vanish, long enough to survive Daniil himself. He had lost everything. His mission and his pride and the work of a lifetime, the ability to sleep at night, the soundness of a clean conscience. The ability to look at his reflection in the mirror and feel at ease. He needed something back.
Once again, he did not ask. He couldn’t, words meant thoughts and thoughts meant making everything real, giving a name to that need and that warmth and how much he felt all of it. He just drew Artemy close, leaving him just enough space to breathe and get rid of his clothes, shedding his self-control as he saw his skin unveil, and then some more as he pushed him down on the bed, as he got rid of his own coat and shirt and everything that could get in the way, everything that still felt real and human and stained with death.
Daniil looked down at that spectacle of a man lying on his bed, the same way he had for the past week, and realized he had never looked at him. Not the way a wonder like Artemy deserved to be looked at. There was never enough time, enough light, enough strength to just marvel at him, a giant of golden skin and slender legs and powerful arms, a spectacle worthy of being carved into marble.
Want , right then, felt less like a feeling and more like a physical presence, running through his vein and taking ahold of his limbs. He felt himself climb in his lap before he could think about it, shivering at the familiarity of his body fitting with Artemy’s, skin against skin, rough hands wrapping around his waist and pulling him closer, a mouth made for kissing, hungry for his lips and tongue and neck.
It was weird how familiar it was, everything, from the hot breaths against his skin to the spark running through him right where their bodies met, the warm haven of his mouth and the familiarity of the movement, of the desire growing and growing until none of them could stand it. Familiar was how beautiful Artemy looked spitting on his hand and the shivers down his spine as Daniil felt careful surgeon fingers working him open, slow and steady and so wonderfully urgent. It was so good he almost thought he could be just that, something sweet on the tongue and easy to forget, a nice moment he could fold into his pocket and leave behind forever.
It wasn’t. He knew as soon as he lowered himself on his lap, Artemy’s body sliding into his with a sting and his eyes glowing with something strong and warm and different, because of course they did. Artemy was made for things that were warm and soft, built to fall in love and be held tight in the middle of the night, to want more.
He took a deep breath, letting his body relax to the sensation and his soul get acquainted with the possibility. He stroked his cheek, slowly, letting his thumb run over his lips before following the path with his mouth, soaking everything in, because that might have been the last time. Because every time could have been the last but now he knew too well it was something he would miss.
Daniil let himself look at Artemy, and his handsome face, and the gentleness that now didn’t need to be hidden under fear and fatigue. He was perfect, in the way possible things had to be perfect, which meant he wasn’t. Daniil only wanted him harder for it.
“Are you okay?” he had the audacity to ask, with his low and ragged voice, and concern in his beautiful eyes, and a hand already wrapped around Daniil like his life depended on it.
He didn’t answer, but showed him instead, by pointing his knees and carefully moving on top of him, picking up his pace, angling himself over his shaft just right, familiar with his body and his skin and the way they fit with his own.
The moan he stole out of Artemy’s lips was something so delicious he never wanted to hear another sound.
“You could have just said yes.” he added, half laughing, half panting, like it was nothing, like they were just men chasing pleasure and not beasts eaten alive by need.
Like they were young, and human, and alive.
Daniil felt something wicked and satisfying running up his back, so he smiled, and kept moving, and looked straight into his eyes as he slowly became more pleasure than man.
Artemy smiles too, and shook his head, and leaned forward for a kiss, something hot and messy, something that tasted like hunger but felt like the exact opposite, a puzzle piece sliding back into place, everything he needed handed right to him to make everything work .
So he kissed him more, and ran his hands through his hair, and kept chasing after his body, harder and faster and never stopping, over pleasure and pain and something stronger and bigger than he could have never named. He kept going after he came over Artemy’s hand and his beautiful body, until Daniil found himself held tight between strong arms, soft lips whispering his name and legs almost shaking under him.
Burakh didn’t let go. He expected him to do so, those were the rules, what worked between men with bigger things to worry about than courtesies and gestures they probably weren’t supposed to exchange anyway, but it didn’t happen. They stayed still, completely entangled, hot and slick with sweat and Daniil was forced, once again, to think.
About Artemy and the curve of his smile, and the ice of his eyes, and how mad all of it drove him. About the way he was gentle, and worried about things he couldn’t afford to worry about, and stayed himself when others would have gotten lost. About the way he went after children and hopeless souls and good things. About how tight he was holding him.
“You don’t have to leave,” he whispered, head still hidden against Daniil’s shoulder, like a shameful child.
About Artemy that wanted him to stay.
The twist was, Daniil wanted too. More than skin and flesh, more than an hour or a night or a week. More than what he could forget in ten or twenty years.
And so he looked Artemy in the eyes, and it felt impossible to answer him now.
Words came easy to him, he was used to them, he had spent his existence bathing in words, studying and talking and trying to understand, to make them a weapon and a bridge and the solution when everything else wasn’t enough. He knew how to overuse them just enough to shield himself, to cover his point and feelings in flowery prose until nothing made sense anymore.
Now it was different.
“Perhaps you could use another doctor, here.” he said, and he didn’t know if it was the right thing.
All he knew, was that for another night he could sleep next to him, and feel his warmth, and forget defeat. That he could try and make it work, for his love towards impossible things, for his neverending hope that impossible could be just a temporary term.