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Crime and Punishment II

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Jul. 15th, 2007 | 01:45 am

nikanor_liadov: Nika's brows vaulted abruptly.

"What?" he said, almost tripping over the word. He hadn't been expecting anyone to ever say it aloud, least of all a stranger"What makes you- well, in what sense-?"

He hesitated, and let his head fall back, closing his eyes to stop the world from turning at the sniper's command.

"Well," he said softly, after a moment. "You've unsettled me."

His hands, always steady and unassuming, began to tremble slightly.

He cleared his throat, softly.

"It's not...something that invites an easy explanation. What we are, to each other, as men."

Liadov's hands ceased shaking when his eye fell on them, like a bolt from the blue.

"What we were."

He amended his words with the precision and torque of a garrotier.

He looked up, shaking his head.

"I don't know what to tell you. How to make it...sound..."

Nika paused, taking the vodka bottle, out of pure proximity, tipping it to his glass, and downing the dram until a nuclear blooming began in his belly.

"...it's a deep and intimate affection," he said, finally. "One that I've always known, one that knows no inhibition...apart from one."

He smiled obscurely, lowering his eyes.

"Even now I- " he faltered, smirking slightly. "There, in the valley- one last tiny farmhouse of feeling," he quoted. "Can you see it?"

capt_kasya: Kassian watched the emotion flit across Liadov's face like a sudden flurry of snow, unexpected and shifting, but he averted his gaze when he noticed the flutter in Liadov's hand.

He had a keen sense for when he zeroed his mark, but little desire to revel in it.

He frowned at the quote, another one he didn't know. What Liadov was telling him would make more sense if he knew it, but he also knew there were some things that were easier to concede in metaphor.

But he thought about what Liadov had said, and considered it, and then thought about what he knew of Ilarion.

It took him a while, but the space between them was quiet.

"That's what's killing you by inches," he said, finally. "You love him, but..."

Kassian trailed off, frowning at his cognac.

"But...what happened, exactly? Why did you break with him?"

He frowned a little more, and tipped back his glass.

"Or did he break with you?"

nikanor_liadov: "Love him," repeated Nika, almost contemptuously, his Russian soul never more in season.

He stared into his cognac, before dispatching it, white knuckled and swift.

"Of course I love him," he said, quietly.

It was a declaration, though subdued, and he let his gaze wander, not wanting to meet the obsidian flatness of the sniper's gaze.


He broke off, rubbing his jaw. Shaking his head.

"I wish that he had broken with me, comrade. I really do."

Silence, and his wristwatch ticked stolidly.

"I left him," he said, "when he seduced my wife."

capt_kasya: Kassian had to think about that one for a while.

He didn't know Ilarion, but he felt like he was starting to, learning the whole of the man from the lean sketches Liadov and Isaev had drawn for him.

He didn't know Liadov, either, but now he understood a little more about how the MENT's mind worked, though Liadov was still largely inscrutable to Kassian.

Kassian imagined that an MVD officer had to be guarded by second nature.

But he still didn't understand the specific dynamic. Liadov, his wife, Lasha. Kassian examined the problem for some time, then finally had to shake his head.

Without more to go on, he couldn't bring it into focus. He didn't even know what questions to ask.

Maybe it was the alcohol, affecting his processes.

Kassian wet his tongue on the cognac, but did not drink it. This might take a while, he thought, and he didn't want to let his faculties drift even further, like a rifle out of adjustment.

"Tell me about it, comrade," he said after a while, gently.

nikanor_liadov: Nika eyed him calmly.

He could feel the drink, suffusing him, lowering his guard, and he didn't care.

His fingers unbuttoned his shirt halfway. Easing the restrictions of his uniform.

"It may not come to my lips easily," he said, after a moment. "You see, I find it easier to let secrets slip between sheets than outright. If instead of offering you a drink, I had lashed you to my bed with my belt and handcuffs- ravished you well and thoroughly, and assuaged our shared misery-"

Liadov's mouth spoke artlessly, helped by the smooth cognac in that endeavor.

"If you and I were naked, Captain, and you were lying back in my embrace as I wound your black locks around my fingers...then I would be able to tell you everything, like the breaking of a lock- it would all flood from me."

He smiled, wryly.

"Most of my confessions are whispered and absolved against anonymous flesh in the warm and deceptive dawn of a spent aftermath."

He sighed.

"But here I am, cloven by your insight. Open, in a forest of frost. As it is, I find myself at somewhat of a hermetic impasse, comrade. There's nothing tender and nameless between us, not even the slick and transient binding of a sordid tryst."

He smiled bloodlessly.

"Perhaps it's enough that you saved my life."

Liadov thought of Andrei, how for a moment that day, arriving at the Grad, he had seen a ghost of Lasha, ten years before. He wondered how he looked to Irinarhov, who had no preconceptions.

He looked like Andrei, of course, was the answer to that, for the sniper knew no other.

"I am married," he began, sighing, as it seemed as good a place to start as any, "to a beautiful young woman. Very young."

He closed his eyes, feeling the old, dull agony throb within his chest, like a living bird had somehow become trapped in the cage of his ribs.

"Beautiful, and young, and utterly in love with me. The man who brought death to the door of her father."

The words sounded darker out loud, even, than they had been confined to the bottom of his soul.

"I am married," he said carefully, "not because of love, or commerce, but because I once helped to commit a terrible injustice against an innocent man."

Nika's eyes remained steady, but inside he felt the clutch of remorse that had never faded.

"Ivor Tivorosky was his name. It was in the waning black days of the early MVD, and I was just a coiffed young MENT with an immovable heart, and fingers tipped black from the ink of men's deportation orders. I should have known that Tivorosky was not guilty. I should have known that they salted the shaft, but I was idealistic and naïve."

Liadov's lips tightened.

"I wanted to believe."

He reached for the vodka bottle, slipping it from Irinarhov's fingers, raising it straight to his lips.

"A moment, if you please," he said, haltingly, and took another swig, handing the bottle back to Kassian.

capt_kasya: Kassian took the bottle back, mutely.

He nodded, for good measure, but kept his gaze firmly locked on the window. Surrpetitiously, he reached out to touch his rifle, which lay protectively still and silent at his side.

It comforted him, somehow.

Kassian was still taken aback by the shockingly candid, visceral way Liadov had spoken about him.

It almost seemed like something Liadov had been actually considering, and not an illustration voiced spontaneously.

But Liadov was like that, he reminded himself. Clever, and pointed. He thought quickly, and asked questions and made comments specifically designed to discomfort.

Though Liadov had no real reason to disarm him at the moment, Kassian thought, frowning.

...but it was probably just second nature.

Incited by strong drink.

Still, Kassian found himself very glad that Liadov had given in, and begun to spin his story.

It was much better to focus on that than the abstract prickling Kassian had felt stitch between his thighs.

Incited by strong drink, he thought, again.

He concentrated on the details. He wanted to say something about this Tivorosky, but remained silent.

This was not a dialog. It was a stinging, raw confession. The words of a man who had never truly absolved himself from anything, regardless of how many times he had tried.

If he really had tried. Kassian got the feeling that Liadov actually preferred to carry the guilt, as if somehow that made it easier.

He didn't understand that, but maybe he would, with time.

Kassian reminded himself that he'd asked for this, and settled to listen quietly.

He felt no need to sip at his drink yet. He had the feeling he'd need it, for later.

nikanor_liadov: Liadov didn't want to go on, not like this. There was none of the soothing pleasure that preceded the pain, none of the cauterizing, clean-burning sexual expression that cleared his mind and left his lips trembling, eager to speak his sins, to fall on his knees before the universe and repent his life's work.

"This is like fucking dry," he remarked, and attempted to smile.

He fell silent for a moment.

"Tivorosky was informed upon by a neighbor, and a number of his fellows at the ironworks," Nika sighed. "Although, equally persuasive- I might have noted at the time, had I been inclined to- a large number of them defended him, at risk to their own reputations and possible freedom."

He shrugged out of his uniform jacket and let it fall listlessly over the headboard, watching it with solemn resignation.

"His accusations were myriad- so myriad as to be laughable. He was a dissident, he was a chicken-thief. He was a blackmarket procurer, he was a double agent. That smacked of corruption, contrivance, and yet all I could think during his arrest was that there must be something to it." Nika paused, with a cynical lilt to his lips. "There's no smoke without some fire, Evstrat Isaev liked to say."

He glanced at the sloe-eyed sniper.

"That would be your lover's grandfather," he said evenly. "His name is scrived in blood all over Siberia. The snow melts but the stain remains."

Liadov didn't elaborate, but waited a moment to let that sink in before pouring another dram of cognac.

"I don't like to drink alone," he remarked, idly, studying the Captain slowly, eyes tracing a deliberate circuit of the man's features. "Thank you for staying," he said at last. "Despite the fact that I would rather be tasting the salt from the hollow of your back, I appreciate the company."
He sipped his liquor with a lofted brow.

"You have no idea, Irinarhov," he added vaguely, then regathered his focus.

"I had a cat, and the cat pleased me, I fed my cat by yonder tree. Cat goes fiddle-i-fee," he murmured whimsically, singing lightly under his breath.

"It was my first troika," he said, softly, tapping his nails lightly on the sides of the glass. "I sat with Evstrat and a black-haired Georgian named Strivokin. They had a cat, and the cat pleased them. They wanted to give it a mouse."

He paused.

"We heard his testimony. We heard the testimony of the others." Nika kept his eyes straight ahead now, distant. "It was hardly compelling. With what I know now, I would dismiss it in a moment. But I had no history among these men, and I had come to their predatory fold as a hungry, ice-eyed cub. I preceded even Lasha at the work, for I have a few years on him- and Evstrat always said I was to him as a grandson, and to his son Alexandr a son..."

Liadov's brow creased.

"The troika was almost a celebration of camaraderie to them. A rite of passage." He shrugged. "When the time game to compare notes and make the decision, Evstrat turned to me, smiling deeply and warmly, the way that older men will, and said ' Let Nikanor Grigorivich have the final say. It's his first time.' "

He fell silent for a moment.

"And Strivokin said, 'All right, Liadov, it's your call. We'll go with whatever you decide.' "

Liadov's words trailed off, slightly, as he rubbed his temples, eyes growing distant.

The pause was longer than it should have been, but he somehow couldn't pull himself from watching the fate of that moment over and over in his minds eye.

capt_kasya: Kassian felt badly for the young man Liadov had been, raw and green, but uncertain, though only wanting to please.

But then again, weren't all young men that way, the first time they were given responsibility?

He remembered the way it had felt to clutch a rifle in his sweating palms and slowly, tentatively, raise it.

Kassian didn't want to break the spell, but he looked over at Liadov and gave the slightest of nods, but the MENT's gaze was many years removed.

"It's all right," he murmured, voice low and kind and patient.

The words could have been nonsense for all they mattered in context.

He didn't mean Liadov's decision, but rather that it was all right for him to continue with his confession.

Maybe it was the sort of thing that an anonymous lover would say. He didn't know, but Kassian figured he could give Liadov that much.

nikanor_liadov: Nika turned and met his eyes.

"Well, there's nothing worse than stopping before the climax," he drawled, on the edge of his breath.

The sniper's expression was incredulous, bewildered, but not affronted.

Liadov laughed, slowly, pulling his gaze away.

His eyes lowered, and he looked at the glass in his hands, studied it.

Studied his hands.

"They had tacked a good many accusations on to Tivorosky's file. It was literally papered with crimes, lined, like the bottom of a birdcage. He had certainly made an enemy of someone. All of it was hearsay, it seemed- except for one thing, one thing that had been witnessed, proven, and confirmed-"

He paused, rubbing the bridge of his nose.

"One thing," he said quietly, "that was so documented and confessed to. Tivorosky...had a male lover. Another iron worker, a hard-edged, bronzed tough from Prague. His name was Janek Ferenc. It was his passionate defense of Ivor Tivorosky that had so conflicted me in the inquest. His eyes nailed into mine like railroad spikes, as if he knew, as if he could sense I had not yet made up my mind. As if he knew how green and jejeune I was, and sought to appeal to that."

Nika was feeling a kind of unburdening, though not the release and absolution that he'd wanted. His hands longed to touch, to caress, to bind. His mouth to lose its words to moans.

But he pressed on, grimly. His lips felt black, his heart like ash, inconstant and apt to blow away with a mild breeze.

"But that day in the troika, there would be no one who could appeal to me- I knew one thing. Tivorovsky was irredeemably guilty of muzhelostvo- and muzhelostvo was an intolerable crime. The men beside me were in good spirits, making dry jests, waiting for me to reply. And yet, I knew there could only be one reply- anything else would make them question me. In the best case, perhaps they would question my fitness for the MVD. In the worst...they would question whether I was another one like Tivorosky."

"...Strivokin had asked me once before, but now he asked me again. 'What shall we do with our friend Tivo?' "

"...and I set my mouth, feeling vaguely surreal.

'Let him rot," I declared coldly. Send him to the mines."

capt_kasya: Kassian nodded, grimly.

It bothered him on general principle, of course - a young man, privileged and indulged, being given the authority by his more experienced comrades to determine an honest working man's fate, as if truth and fairness meant nothing.

The lesson that Liadov's superiors had wanted to teach him that day had nothing to do with justice, but everything to do with power.

But at the same time, it was in the past, and Kassian couldn't condemn Liadov - not for being young. Not for a choice that he so clearly rued to this day.

He shifted on the bed, then winced.

His tailbone ached from the hard outline of the holstered Makarov drawing pressure to the small of his back, and the rest of his gear poked into his waist and hips at odd angles as well - suture kit, field kit, clips, tactical knife, rounds for his Mosin-Nagant.

Kassian pushed himself up to a sitting position again, feeling briefly dizzy. He blinked and shook his head, then reached down to undo his gunbelt.

Liadov stilled, then looked at him sharply.

"Sorry," Kassian said, apologetically. "Gear."

He pulled the belt from around his hips then set it down it next to his rifle.

Kassian laid back on the bed, stretching briefly, then relaxing. That was better.

The weight of the past seemed to press down, weighing the air between them. The story was tragic, and yet so distant, though clearly personal to Liadov. Kassian was sure Tivorosky was dead now, and Liadov was the only one who remembered.

"So what happened to his lover?" he asked, quietly.

nikanor_liadov: "Funny you should ask," Nika said, very softly. "I was actually hoping you wouldn't."

He raised his gaze, knowing that he would not look away when he said this, of all things.

"He was arrested immediately after Tivorovsky. They were sent to the gulag together. I was able to do that much."

Liadov fingered the raised gold leaves on his MVD ring slowly, as if he could buff the underlying honor enough that it could once again shine through.

"I won't belabor it. Almost at once, Tivorovsky was brutalized by another convict. A real criminal. He survived, but he was weakened. So that when tuberculosis swept through..."

Nika's eyes softened, pained.

"He died in Ferenc's arms."

A silence, and his lips shuddered.

"God, Captain, you don't know how much I'd rather be drowning these words in your skin."

He looked away, briefly, then faced Irinarhov once more, steeling himself, taking a sip of cognac.

"As for Janek Ferenc, he was released within six months. I think someone bought his freedom at a very dear price."

Nika's eyes were utterly neutral, fixed to the sniper's dark gaze.

It seemed right, somehow, that he would be drawing his own knife, opening this old heart wound in front of a man not unlike the ironworker, a suffering, bloodstrong, son of the urban proletariat.

The penance felt weighty and raw, and maybe it shouldn't have come with the absolution of pleasure.

"He came for me, not long after. Followed me one evening, as I went to meet Ilarion, who was still only a junior militsioner. Ferenc called my name as I walked under the arboreal arch on the way to the cemetery, which is where we usually rendezvoused, by the large mausoleum of a well-known novelist. I turned, and knew him at once. His eyes were red with weeping, as if he had begun and never stopped, taking only Sundays off to rest again for six days' grieving."

"He told me his life meant nothing. Told me that but for me, Tivorovsky would still be alive, and so would he. And then he drew a knife."

Nika's lips parted for breath.

"And the next thing I knew, there was a crack, a gunshot, ricocheting off the tombs of the marble orchard. Ferenc fell to his knees, choking on blood and curses- a proud statue of the worker, crippled, hobbled, humbled."

His mouth went taut briefly, twisting into a slight grimace of pain.

"And Ilarion walked out of the shadows of the lane behind him, his gun drawn, his eyes like glacial lakes. 'Nikasha,' he murmured, hastening to me, 'are you all right?' And before I could answer, he had pressed his mouth to mine, my cheeks, my brow, my jaw...none of them lingering, and perhaps each on its own would have been brotherly- but..taken together...."

Nika shook gently, running his hands through his golden mane.

"God, and the look in Ferenc's eyes as he was dying....he knew, Kasya. He knew- not that I had loved a man for as long as I could recall, but he knew that I loved one then. And when our eyes met, he knew my hypocrisy."

capt_kasya: Kassian felt Liadov's anguish like a blow to the gut, and he pushed himself up again, sitting on the edge of the bed.

He felt abruptly sobered, but knew he wasn't sober, really, just buffeted by emotion.

He rubbed at his face, vigorously, and ran his hands through his hair.

"I...I'm sorry," he said, quietly. "I didn't mean to make you..."

It was one of the most brutally personal stories Kassian had ever heard someone tell, the sort of thing a man told his close comrade, or his lover.

Not a stranger. He didn't understand that.

Kassian had the keen sense that it should have been someone else here to listen. Someone who would be able to give Liadov what he wanted, even if it was just a stranger.

There was no bright side to the story, no positive lesson. It was just a tragedy, but at least one Liadov had learned from.

Small consolation, though, for a lifetime of guilt. Kassian knew he would feel the same way, if it had been him who had made that terrible decision.

Finally, he just shook his head. "If it matters...I don't condemn you, for what you did."

nikanor_liadov: Liadov raised his chin.

"If it mattered...neither did he."

He paused.

"And I'm not done yet. Do you want me to finish?"

There was no reason not to. To leave it like this would serve no purpose, a half-baked catharsis, opening a wound and rubbing dirt into it, hoping it would scar.

At the same time, he realized it had not been what Irinarhov expected, his confession.

"Captain," he said, slowly, "I've never told anyone this. Not in anything but half-broken whispers, where I admit to taking men's lives. The generalities. Not the anatomy."

His lips felt white and bloodless, like Snow White, unkissed and cold, lying on a funeral bier.

"When you asked, you asked about Ilarion. You asked why we're no longer...enmeshed." He rubbed his eyes, sighing. "You couldn't have known what a complicated question that was. And yet, I find I can't make it any easier, no matter how hard I try."

Nika regathered himself, once more composed, tipping the bottle against his lips.

Then he put it back into Kassian's hand, and leaned forward, his eyes downcast demure, lips close to Irinarhov's ear.

"I can stop now," he offered, duskily. "We don't have to do this."

capt_kasya: Kassian took in the rich, balmy scent of cognac on Liadov's breath and went still, but carefully, he didn't flinch.

Liadov's breath was warm, and made his skin tingle. He swallowed.

Kassian realized he could feel his own heartbeat.

He draw away slightly, carefully, inadvertently planting a hand on the stock of his rifle as he leaned back so he could turn his head to look at Liadov without being too close.

"We don't have to do what?" he asked, slowly.

He eyed Liadov.

"I want to hear the story, Major, but I..."

He dropped his gaze, feeling his cheeks darken. "I...can't give you what you want. I'm sorry."

Kassian hesitated, but forced himself to look up at Liadov again and meet that drowsily hedonistic gaze.

"But I just want you to know, if things were different...I don't think I'd mind."

nikanor_liadov: Liadov laughed.

"You're too wary, Irinarhov," he remarked, abandoning his proximity to the sniper, blackly amused despite the raw anguish of the circumstances. "But you're probably right. It isn't wise."

He leaned back against the headboard, head tipped back, one booted knee drawn up, and his arm resting languidly on it.

"How much fortitude do you have, Irinarhov? I'm curious." He leveled his gaze at the sniper, and gave him measured look, artless and unstudied.

"I'm not sure you would be able to hold out for long, if I really went after what I wanted," he said, quietly.

Nika looked at the man for a moment, his lip curling as he noted Irinarhov's hand reflexively gripping his rifle.

"I'm not underestimating you. It's just that...I know myself."

He sighed, running his hand back through his hair and blinking absently.

"Where was I?"

He paused, then sobered.

"Oh, of course. Ferenc."

Liadov fell into quietude, contemplation seizing him, slackening his muscles.

"...Ferenc. Yes."

capt_kasya: "Right," Kassian said.

Slowly, he released his grip on his rifle.

"Ferenc." The ironworker's lover, Liadov's would-be assassin, shot dead by Ilarion Isaev in order to save his friend's life.

The story that Liadov had told no one but Kassian, if the MENT was to be believed. Kassian supposed he did.

It seemed like Liadov had been honest about everything else.

Kassian reached up to pull off his scarf. It was far too warm in the room.

nikanor_liadov: Nika watched him take the scarf off, giving him a dry and pointed glance.

Then he removed his gaze, steepling his fingers.

"Ferenc was hit badly, squarely. 'He won't make it' Lasha said, and I still remember the pragmatic, arctic calm in his voice. Crisis averted, and threat vanquished. He was ready for a brandy and a game of billiards."

He frowned.

"But the man's eyes were trained on me, and his words, though labored and uneven, came from a forced throat. 'Come here,' he rasped, in Czech, as if in his final moments he had reverted to his mother tongue, like an infant regression.

"I went to him. Ilarion was bemused, lingering in the periphery like a bored ghost. I caught his shrug out of the corner of my eye. Dismissive, indulgent. I knelt down beside the man I'd inadvertantly killed, who was lying on the ground, eyes wide and fierce with the will to live.

"He reached up, and grasped my lapel in a iron deathgrip, dragged my ear down to his mouth, with a strength that must have been mortgaged against his next life.

He uttered several words in Czech, and they were imbued with meaning- saturated, but none that I could understand. He coughed violently, spasmed, shuddered, and I thought he was gone, but somehow he managed to stave off what should have been his death throes, and regrip with a slightly weakened hand.

"Ilarion was tolerantly leaning against the mausoleum, sipping from his flask. 'Nikasha...' he said, his tone infinitely sound and reasonable, 'get away from him. That piece of Czechoslovak trash tried to kill you.' When I didn't respond, I heard him sigh. 'Fine,' he said. 'Watch him die, if it makes you happy.'

"What is it?" I asked him, in a voice pitched low, low, so low that only Ferenc and I could have heard it."

Liadov paused, and his eyes sought the ceiling. He wasn't sure if the sniper caught the saltwater that welled briefly in the corners, a liquid glimmer beside pale green, and he didn't care.

It was good, to be drunk enough to flirt with tears, even if they never materialized beyond a sad, slight shine.

His voice was utterly steady, betraying them, making them seem crocodilian.

"And he said, in softly accented Russian, 'Ivor has a wife, a daughter. What is to become of them?'

"I was silent, stricken. I hadn't known that, or perhaps I had seen it in the file but not noticed in the morass of paper and blacking and tape.

'Will they starve? Or go to a camp as well, for the families of traitors to the state? How are they living? How will they live?'

"He gave me a sudden shake, and I realized the question was not rheotorical, or intended to shame me- Ferenc wanted to know my reply before he died."

Nika paused, glass suspended in his hand.

" 'I'll see to them,' I told him. 'This was a mistake, and they will nt suffer for it.' And I meant it, and I willed him to believe that I meant it, meeting his gaze, letting him see my naked remorse, letting my regret own me for that instant, utterly effacing myself. 'Only me.'

"And then his eyes narrowed as he shook, as his hard, strong body failed him- and he whispered 'You. I forgive you. I know. I know.'

'No,' I said at once.

'Yes,' he choked out, and a smile spread over his stoic face. Weak, but triumphant. 'I go to Vorya,' he gritted out, and...

...I swear to you, he died right then, his head falling back like they do in the films, losing his life right there on the ground like so much spilt milk."

Nika took a deep breath and exhaled, slowly.

"And Ilarion yawned."

capt_kasya: Kassian looked down at the bottle in his hand, then raised it, taking a swift drink before offering it to the MENT again.

"You did the right thing, Liadov."

For some reason the story resonated with him - maybe it was the fact the men were ironworkers, or that they were sent to the camps, or that Ferenc had died for love.

It made him think about his father, and what he must have gone through. Kassian wondered why, after years of imprisonment, he had finally decided to die.

It made him think of Vitya, who was dead too. He wondered if Vitya had thought of him as he lay dying, or if the end had been too quick, or if he'd thought of something else entirely. Kassian didn't know.

Mostly, though, he felt for Liadov.

When Liadov had told him how he'd argued for leniency at Kassian's hearing, Kassian had known he was a good man. Not just because he'd helped Kassian in particular, but because he'd stood for what was right.

Now Kassian understood the genesis of Liadov's self-imposed crusade, though he also thought that Liadov had always been a good man.

He turned his head to study the MENT, who looked drawn and haunted. Liadov seemed less intimidating now, somehow, merely human, pale eyes large and glassy, but clear enough to offer small glimpses into a tortured soul. Liadov looked vulnerable in the half-open shirt without the full trappings of his office to protect him, though he didn't seem to notice.

"And it was a long time ago," Kassian added.

He rubbed the back of his neck, which felt warm and damp, then pushed a hand through night-dark hair.

The memory had sounded so fresh, it could have been months instead of years, Kassian thought. He wondered if it still felt that way to Liadov.

Ilarion, though, was a different matter entirely.

"He didn't understand. Was he...angry with your decision?"

nikanor_liadov: "He didn't know," Nika said evenly, glancing down, considering his hand on the glass, as if it were a set-piece.

"I never told him about the troika, the first one, until many years later. Until it became relevant."

He set his lip, dreading the telling of the relevant details. Pushing them aside.

"To him, Ferenc was just an angry Czech barbarian who had a bone to pick with the man who booked his passage North. I didn't disavow him of the notion. I was too stricken over it. Too ashamed to voice it to anyone."

And he had been. With one exception.

"I went to his widow," Liadov said. "I went in my uniform, and she gave me tea and I broke down. I told her what happened and how I was to blame, and she embraced me like a small boy. And like a small boy, I clutched her dress and crushed my face among the folds of her skirt, and cried."

Nika looked up, and met Kassian's eyes.

"Sometimes it's horrible to be forgiven," he said, softly.

capt_kasya: Kassian nodded, solemnly.

He did understand that. There were things that a man should not be forgiven for, at least not easily, without much time and suffering. Somehow it would make it easier.

If it had been under different circumstances - any other man, or any other place - Kassian would have reached out to put a hand on Liadov's arm, or on his head, in quiet comfort.

Touch meant a lot. It meant a man wasn't alone, and that someone else cared, and understood.

But with with man, in this place...touch would be incindiary, he felt. An invitation to follow up with more than he intended.

Kassian kept his hands at his sides, but he held Liadov's eyes with a gaze shaded dark by sorrow.

"Maybe it's actually part of the punishment," he offered, quietly. "That, and never forgetting."

nikanor_liadov: Liadov regarded him wearily.

"I am absolutely convinced of it," he acceded, his voice like the steady brush of leaf litter. "You only speak what I've thought many times since then."

His fingers found his MVD ring, and twisted it gently around his finger. He wore it wear his wedding ring should have been.

It reminded him of his identity, and he calcified then, slightly, feeling the inevitable numbness of time and displacement, viewing the past as a kinescope.

"For a moment there, just now," he said, evenly, "I felt that night again. And yet I don't. I'm not that young man, but I do bear his burden. Now I feel only the hovering, pedantic sadness of genuine remorse. Peripheral. Casual anguish for everyday use. Not the fine china anguish of those early days."

He paused.

"But that day, with his widow, I could not be consoled. Then she spoke the most terrible words I have ever heard. They sobered me, and redoubled my guilt for many years to come.

"She said- 'I may have lost a husband, and my daughter a father, but the Soviet Union has lost two degenerates, and good riddance.' I could hardly speak, Captain, I was so backhanded by her vitriol, this woman with a kerchief and apron, whose face could have inspired a Madonna of Mtsensk.

And yet, how could I judge her? It may have been betrayal speaking, as she had tacitly known of her husband's suggestive friendship with this man, and perhaps bitterness drove her tongue to expressions of hatred. Or perhaps it was simple indoctrination, widespread and rabid."

Liadov's eyes traced the sleek, battered lines of the sniper's rifle, absently, then found his face, contemplative and somber.

"Despite her words I took care of Tivorovskaya like my own mother, for the next eight years, as my career climbed along its twisted path. I did not visit, but I sent money every week. I kept the household and the little girl in good stead. The mother fared as you might expect of a worker's wife. She was never well- a childhood case of rubella had done irreparable damage to her immunity, and she was lying on her deathbed at 40, despite all the doctors I sent to cure her."

He laughed, softly, shaking his head.

"I came, in secret, to the hospital, and sat by her to hold her hand. And the daughter was there. Her eyes never left me. She looked at me with the kind of bizarrely reverent and instantaneous infatuation young girls have for white Lipizzan stallions. I had just turned 30, and thought nothing of her."

He paused, wryly.

"I suppose, to be truthful, I rarely thought of women. Or anyone, for that matter."

He poured himself another cognac, easing back against the bed.

"At some point that night, they sent the girl from the room to rest. I asked if she knew about her father, which I confess was bloodless semaphore for what I was too afraid to ask. But somehow the widow knew, for she looked me in the eyes and said 'Nina Ivorovna knows everything. She's known from the beginning. She knows who you are, Nikanor Grigoriivich.'

"She said she was dying, that she worried for Nina, who was now 18 and would be alone in the world. I told her there was no need to worry- I would be here, I was a man of the state, young and in my prime- and that anything she desired for the child, I would make possible.

'I want her to marry well,' she said. 'I want her husband to be a man of means and influence.'

'I will find for her such a husband,' I said, at once. 'It won't be hard. She's beautiful. You may count on it, Mother.'

And she looked at me, with hard, long-suffering eyes, like a mare who had plowed the same furrow every day of her life with nothing more to show for it.

'I have already found such a husband,' she told me. 'And he is sitting with me now, as I lay dying.' "

Liadov shook his head, slowly. After a moment he took a cautionary sip of his drink, then tossed it back whole.

"I was incredulous, disbelieving. I tried to dissuade her, argued my unfitness- I was the killer of her husband, however indirectly- but she was inexorable. She didn't want her little dove to marry a low brute with callused hands and a vicious temper. She didn't want her to marry a 'degenerate sodomite', words that made me shudder, as I had long ago realized and made a necessary peace with the fact that my feelings toward Lasha Isaev were intimate and ardent in nature, despite the fact that we both pretended otherwise.

"I said, 'You know that I will do anything for you and your daughter. I am your slave. But please, think about what you ask of me, before you ask it. I am unable to refuse, as I can never efface what I've done to your family. I'm not a good man, I'm not a husband-'

And she said, 'I will die here in this room, Nikasha. I will never leave it. My only earthly comfort is to know that you will marry my Ninochka.'

"And what can one say to that?" he said, softly, laughing without humor. "Tell me, what can be said?"

capt_kasya: "Nothing," Kassian said. "Nothing, comrade."

He shook his head, frowning.

At some point his head had begun to throb, like he'd moved right past drunkeness and already had a hangover, hours early.

"You did the only thing you could have done."

He drew in a long breath, and let it out, as if he could release Liadov's pain as well.

Kassian didn't believe it was the right thing. The right thing would have been for the woman not to have asked such a terrible price, when Liadov had worked so hard to pay his debt, regardless if it could ever have been paid or not.

Surely Liadov knew young men of his caliber but with a will to marry a woman. It did not have to be him who married the daughter, but for the woman's insistence.

"And so you married her daughter," he said.

nikanor_liadov: "Yes," said Nika, quietly. "I married Nina."

He paused.

"But she was not a vapid and innocent girl. She was clear-eyed and well-reasoned, much like her father had been. I saw him, when I looked at her. I saw him at his hearing, watching me steadily, when I took her aside after the funeral.

"I told her in plain words what her mother had asked, that I take her to Petrograd and keep her in my house, that I be her husband. And then I told her that I was duty-bound to it, unless she, herself, Nina, wished otherwise- for she was the one still living, the one the choice truly rested with.

" 'Yes, please take me-" she exclaimed, grasping my arm, and I stopped her with a finger across her lips, a gentle and bittersweet smile that actually stung me, comrade, to wear.

" 'I am the man who sent your father to the Zone,' I said. 'I caused his death. You must remember that.'

"She gave me a smile and said was that a proposal?

"I redoubled my MVD authority, putting on the gravest face I could manage. Even now, I am not so old. Five years ago...well, it was all I could do to keep adequately solemn.

" 'If I do this,' I told her, 'you must understand me first. I will not make this a prison for either of us.'

I did not gild any lilies. I told her that I was married to my work, that she would be alone often and long. I told her that I could not love her as another man might have been able to- that I wanted to be her benefactor, her brother, her young uncle- but her husband only in name.

And I told her, very carefully, that she was free to pursue anything she wanted outside of our marriage. That I wanted her to be happy. 'You will want someone,' I said. 'Perhaps not now, but someday you will want something more.'

She told me that she would want for nothing. She was so happy that for a moment, comrade, it assuaged my pain entirely, like an eclipse.

I kissed her forehead, feeling absolved at last.

The only peace I ever felt over Tivorosky, to this day, has come from Nina."

capt_kasya: "You tell a story well, comrade," Kassian said, "even a story like this."

Strangely, it made him think of his father, whom he knew could speak in a way that evoked both emotion and imagery, though Kassian could no longer remember the words, and would never master them himself.

He leaned over to fill Liadov's glass, tipping the bottle with unthinking reliance on his faculty, but his aim was slightly off, and he spilled a stream of vodka over the wide rim.

"Sorry," he muttered. With his other hand, he grasped Liadov's glass to steady it as he poured. His fingers wrapped over the MENT's, and he held them, even after the glass brimmed.

Brow lightly furrowed, he looked up to meet Liadov's gaze. Kassian's eyes were no longer raptor-sharp, but rather shrouded, dulled by the alcohol and the ache of sorrows shared between comrades, between men. It felt safe to touch Liadov now, or at least safer, at the moment when he spoke of peace and absolution, however fleeting.

Kassian did not know how else to express himself, so he nodded once, with respect, then withdrew his hands.

nikanor_liadov: "You're a good man, Kassian Dmitrivich," observed Liadov, after a moment. "I don't mind you knowing me like this."

He took a drink from his glass, which had held cognac before, but now held something more harsh to cauterize an aching breast, watching the remnant strands of amber liquid bloom in faint and narrow threads like blood in the clear liquor.

"I may have said too much," he murmured, softly. "But you won't speak of it, will you? You have no tongue for anyone."

The back of his hand was wet with vodka. It had splashed down like tears when Kassian made his inept acquitted but heartfelt gesture with the bottle.

He pressed his lips to his skin, sucking the liquid gently away.

"Except perhaps Andrei Alexandrovich."

He let his head fall back, closing his eyes, feeling the bloom and swoon of inebriation, finally letting it take him.

"...you haven't thought of he and Imanov once since I began confessing, have you?" Liadov laughed, softly. "I am scherzerade," he announced, raising his glass.

capt_kasya: "You're right. I haven't."

He poured a drink for himself, frowning, having to watch what he was doing carefully, so as not to spill again.

"My problem is very small, compared to yours, comrade. It's not the same. I don't have your burdens."

His hand swayed nonetheless. He'd be shit for shooting now, if he tried it, he knew. Wouldn't even be able to hit the target, much the less zero it.

"But no, I won't speak a word of it, even to Alexandrich."

He paused, looking up again.

"You honor me with the telling of it, though. Like a king confessing his life's story to the legionnaire he means to send home before the sun rises on a blooded pass."

nikanor_liadov: Liadov snorted.

"Am I poor doomed Arthur, then?" he asked, with cynical amusement. "And you Mallory?"

Then he considered.

"It impresses me, Irinarhov. Impresses and pleases me both, that you're a man of literary acumen."

He let his golden head loll to the side, spilling tousled length across his broad cheek.

"Strange and extraordinary in one of your..." he broke off, thinking better of the words. "Mien," he said, decisively, after a moment.

He raised his eyes, slowly, after a moment. They glowed, sullen, like an echo of the cognac, the hollow bottom of a glass that had just warmed the body.

"I'm not sending you home before the sun rises, Kassian. You're welcome to stay. Sleep in company. Better than an empty barrack."

He smiled whimsically.

"You and I," he said dreamily, "who never had brothers. We didn't know until our first lover how wonderful it is to sleep in a fraternal embrace."

capt_kasya: Kassian's mouth tugged to the side slowly, still caught by melancholy, but now ruminative.

Liadov was right.

It had been Vitya who'd taught him not just the pleasures of men, but also the warmth that came upon waking to a solid body pressed against his side, the slow ebb and flow of breath heating his skin, and the knowledge that he was not alone.

Kassian felt like something had been bridged between he and Liadov in these last few minutes, some fundamental understanding of trust.

Slowly, he nodded. "All right," he said.

He rose, a little unsteadily, and set the bottle on the table, then turned to fetch from the bed his rifle, and his gunbelt, and his scarf, scooping them into his arms and setting them aside as well, though after a moment, he thought better of it, and took his gunbelt back.

Kassian pulled Makarov from its holster, tossing the belt back to the chair, then checked the safety carefully, holding it at his side, pointed away.

Because he was tired, and drunk, he double-checked it, forcing himself to hyperfocus until he felt certain the gun was safe.

He walked back to the bed and sat down next to Liadov, setting the gun on the coverlet while he took off his boots and field jacket.

"If you don't mind the gun as our third," he said, glancing back at Liadov briefly. "Can't be too careful."

nikanor_liadov: Nika laughed.

"I wouldn't have it any other way," he said, amused.

He made room for the soldier, giving him space.

As Irinarhov dispatched his boots and coat, Liadov opened his eyes and took him in, lazily, from where he lay.

He was drunk. Nika might have even said very drunk. And yet be retained a certain coordination above his peers.

Though only in a relative sense.

"You should have taken me up on more than the, Captain," Liadov said contemplatively, tilting his head. "My hair is close enough to his color, and I speak the same kind of Russian. Had you noticed?"

His lips curved.

"Alas, now honor dictates I must behave."

He was teasing, but not entirely.

"It certainly would have been...arresting. Making love to a man who once stood before you accused of a killing in cold blood. Perhaps you would have found it equally interesting to touch your persecutor as a man, and not a prisoner."
He closed his eyes, listening to the heavy snowfall as it brought down the limbs of trees.

Crippled, humbled by the weight.

The drink had made him weightless- or perhaps it was the confession.

capt_kasya: Kassian turned to look over his shoulder for a moment, studying Liadov.

The MENT's eyes were closed, his face relaxed and brow smooth He looked almost tranquil, or as tranquil as a man with the burdens Liadov carried ever got.

"You're right," Kassian said, after a moment.

He scooted into the bed, under the covers. He still wore his black uniform jodhpurs and tel'nik, but without the burden of his gear, they were comfortable enough for sleeping.

Kassian stretched, and yawned, and finally settled before looking over at Liadov again.

"Honor does dictate that you must behave," he said, and a slow smirk pulled at the side of his mouth, though he felt too comfortable in Liadov's company to fight it.

Belatedly, he retrieved his Makarov, and tucked it under his pillow.

nikanor_liadov: Nika smiled.

"They were probably sour anyway," he said, but he rose up on his arm and leaned over Irinarhov briefly, keeping their mouths a careful inch apart.

"Sleep well," he murmured, in a low voice.

Then he rolled over and settled in, not caring overmuch about his boots.

"I'll try not to take it personally."

capt_kasya: "It's not personal," Kassian said, quietly. "Or it is, depending on how you see it."

He shifted slightly in the bed so he could stare at the back of the MENT's head, eyeing the thick waves of pale hair, which were fairly close to Isaev's color, it was true.

But Liadov's hair was more light fawn-colored, though not quite tan, while Isaev's was a purer glimmering shade of dark cream, almost metallic. The texture looked entirely different, too.

"I'm a simple man, Major. I don't undertake anything lightly. I told you that at my interview, and I meant it. I've only had sex with two men my entire life. Not counting a few hand jobs in the dark."

He shrugged at that.

"But...I don't make friends lightly, either, and I'd rather have you be my friend, rather than someone that I did something with when I was too drunk to think straight, and I felt like I had to avoid afterward because I regretted what happened."

His gaze went up to the ceiling. "I know myself, too."

nikanor_liadov: "It might not have been like that," remarked Nika, thoughtfully, turning his face on the pillow. "It might have been a healthy, normal physical exercise, no different than a training drill."

He smiled wryly.

"You might have surprised yourself, old man. But you'll never know, will you?"

Irinarhov was clearly a self-moderated old world sentimentalist, governed by external strictures, not his senses. Someone with that kind of inflexible, carefully constructed moral code would believe the same thing on Wednesday as he did on Monday, regardless of what Tuesday showed him.

"Regret is for things that hurt," he added, drowsily. "Don't waste your time looking for shame in joy."

capt_kasya: Kassian let out a single laugh, gruffly amused.

"You're too smart for me," he said, shaking his head. "I can't make an argument against that, but it doesn't change how I feel."

He reached out, though, and tousled Liadov's hair affectionately, the way he imagined a brother would. His hair felt thicker and slightly coarser than Isaev's, not as fine and soft.

Kassian settled back again.

"There's more to the story, isn't there? You'll have to tell me someday."

nikanor_liadov: Nika was quiet for a long moment.

"No," he said, "That's all there is."

The inhibition came suddenly, and came down hard.

Regret was for things that hurt.

Yes, he was very smart- Irinarhov had pegged him there, sure enough. He was so smart he'd deluded himself.

It had hurt, pulling all of that out, piece by piece, like filament. Like fine gold wires that had been sewn through his heart and knotted, never meant to be removed. They took a little of him with them with each one he'd plucked.

He laughed, trying to keep his tone light.

"I'd rather have you be my friend, than someone that I shared something with when I was too drunk to think straight, and I felt had to avoid afterward..."

Nika pressed his lips together.

"Because I regretted what happened," he gritted out softly.

capt_kasya: Kassian frowned slowly, and reached to rest his hand on Liadov's head again, gently.

"Shh," he said, and stroked his hair. "It's all right."

He continued the gentle, repetitive motion for a few moments.

"What are you saying, Major? That you regret telling me...everything? That I should have acted more honorably, and not asked?"

Kassian kept his voice low, quietly serious, but not accusatory.

"You think I hold what you did against you?"

nikanor_liadov: "Your morality is as convenient as everyone's," Nika replied. "I know you don't blame me. No one's ever blamed me."

He paused, letting his eyes close, separating the touch from the topic, allowing himself to be physically soothed, even as the topography of his mind remained in tumult.

"Why shouldn't I regret my reckless and drunken disclosure tomorrow? You have such an easy time understanding your own distaste for casual physical intimacy- and yet, you fail to grasp that I have the same reaction to emotional intimacy?"

He turned, gazing at the sniper dispassionately.

"Against my better judgement, I let you penetrate me. I spread my mind for you, comrade. And that's something I don't do lightly. It's no different- I was stupid and drunk."

He smiled slightly.

"But you know, there's a very uncomplicated fix to that little quandary- one you suggested yourself, in the event that you would have consented to let me know you biblically- it should work equally well for ill-placed intimacies of trust and mind."

Liadov raised his eyes to Irinarhov's.

"It never happened," he said, succinctly.

capt_kasya: Kassian's hand stilled.

"All right," he said, quietly, and with regret. "Then I'm sorry for nothing, comrade. I really am."

He held Liadov's gaze for a few long moments. The MENT's eyes were clear acid green, harboring nothing hidden save their own reflective toxicity.

Kassian hesitated, almost moving closer, but then quelled the motion, and instead pulled his hand away.

Slowly, he pushed himself up and swung his legs over the end of the bed. He sat there, rubbing his face, trying to chafe vigilance back into his skin.

He was too drunk for this, he thought. Too drunk to have a conversation that could affect the course of a friendship that hung on a particularly narrow fulcrum at the moment. He felt like he needed to either wake up or pass out, but he could do neither, instead stuck halfway inbetween.

"I don't want to make this any harder than it already is."

He swept the room with a blurred, wavering gaze. His Mosin-Nagant sat on the table where he'd left it, along with most of his gear, save for his boots, which sat nearby.

He'd been quick enough to abandon the trappings of his profession and become just a man, but it felt as if his articles waited for him patiently anyway, knowing he would claim them and take them away once more.

They didn't belong here.

Kassian sighed.

"But I hear you, comrade. I do. You don't have to worry about me in that regard."

nikanor_liadov: Liadov paused, sitting up slowly, and pushing a sheaf of tumbled gold out of his eyes.

"Kasya," he said, reluctantly.

capt_kasya: Kassian paused, and cocked his head, turning partway back toward the bed, just far enough to catch Liadov in his peripheral vision.

Lack of eye contact would make it easier, he thought.

"Yes?" he asked, quietly.

nikanor_liadov: "Come back to bed, comrade. I would regret it more if you left tonight."

The words were unfamiliar and strange to him, as a man who iced out any complications from his life with an inexorable chill.

But something in Irinarhov's eyes wracked him with unaccustomed guilt.

Confusion? Betrayal? Or was it simply sadness, at a sudden ocean between them, where for a moment there had been a gently swaying dock?

"It's too easy," Nika said, bitterly, "to push you away. Don't let me."

He knew he had filled that divisive ocean drop by drop, and with intent.

"It's been a difficult night. We both deserve to have a friend."

capt_kasya: Kassian let out a short, soft sigh.

He sat there for a few moments, but his thoughts were repetitive and churning, like turning over an engine again and again, but never being able to start it.

He'd been up long and late the night before, and this night had grown long, too, and with the drink, he had no fitness for thinking.

Everything seemed reasonable, save for the things he definitely knew to avoid, the ones that were clearly marked in bold letters as dangerous.

But things like this were inbetween, and required the kind of analysis he couldn't summon right now.

Kassian leaned forward, arms draped over his knees, but craned his head back to meet Liadov's gaze.

"I almost feel like I owe you more than that," he said. "But there's no reason for both of us to feel like shit tomorrow."

nikanor_liadov: "You don't owe me anything," Nika said, shaking his head. "It's the curse of my upbringing, comrade, this sense of bastard entitlement. I'm not like him, though- breaking all my toys for spite."

He paused.

"And I don't want anything from you, comrade. Not anymore. It would be ugly now, like brackish water instead of sweet- like a rape, instead of a seduction. I could never want that from you again."

Liadov reached out, taking hold of the sniper's shoulder with a tentative hand.

"What I do want, is to lie down with you right here, just men drunk and exhausted and different and the same, all at once."

He drew back the blankets.

"Let me keep you warm tonight."

He said it artlessly, sincere. It was all he wanted at the moment. A little sense in all this emotion and tragedy.

"We're just men, comrade. Nothing separates us here."

capt_kasya: After a moment, Kassian nodded, and mutely shifted himself back into bed next to Liadov.

This was why it was easier to stay distant, he thought. He remembered why now, even though he didn't find it so easy anymore.

He didn't hate himself for that, but he wondered how it had happened. Why.

Somewhere in between the point when he'd stared down the sights of his rifle at a comrade who violated his convenient sense of morality, and now, he'd lost the will for hermitage.

Probably Isaev's fault, he thought, mouth twitching, but he settled carefully under the covers again, then looked up at Liadov, eyes barely kept open.

"Like brothers," he murmured.

nikanor_liadov: Nika smiled, wistfully unsober.

"Yes, no more. And no less."

He pulled the covers up around them, and it was nice to feel a presence beside him, warm and breathing and solid and male.

He reached an arm around the sniper, and drew him slightly inward, but keep the contact casual, his embrace scarcely a resting of weight.

"None of this will matter to a new day," he breathed, letting his head incline. "And we'll be fine."

capt_kasya: "I'd like it to matter," Kassian said.

He closed his eyes anyway, and settled.

Liadov's touch felt good, different than the way it felt with Isaev, but not unwelcome, just a light reminder he was there.

Kassian supposed that was the way it should be.

He felt no guilt over the arm that encircled him, and he thought that was the way it should be, too.

"Good night, Liadov," he said.

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