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pictures at an exhibition

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i. first promenade

Unfettered by the social niceties of the older passengers, the little girl had been staring openly since she and her family had taken their seats across the aisle. She whispered to her brother, who, being a few years older, knew that this kind of behaviour wasn’t polite. And, while he didn’t encourage her chatter, he didn’t go so far as to reprimand her, either, because he was interested too.

The open curiosity was a nice change of pace from quiet terror and indignant ignorance.

Casually, Nikolai took out his phone and started navigating through it, resting his bare elbows on the plastic table. Of Russian trains, he missed the elderly men and women roaming the halls selling tomatoes and sunflower seeds, the bubbling samovar in its dedicated cupboard at the end of the carriage, the steady chugging of Soviet-engineered machinery. Aged, eccentric, but always reliable. Eclectic polaroids of a nation in a perpetual identity crisis.

He even missed the cold penetrating even the most stubborn private compartments. Trains here were always too hot. But in Britain, he could shed his jacket, roll up his sleeves, undo the top button of his shirt, and not have to worry about retribution from some opposing gang. The ink was fading, courtesy of a couple of sessions with the NHS’s finest. Soon, the only imprints remaining would be beneath the skin.

Until then, though, little girls and boys would continue to stare. Tip-tapping his device, Nikolai angled his arm to better expose the snake and dagger on his forearm, the intricate sunbeams on the back of his hand. He heard the girl breathe in sharply, her renewed chirping.

Christine would be about her age, now.

The screen in his hand displayed the address. He’d memorised it long ago, knew which buses to take, which streets to seek out.

Still, the sight of it made his throat just that little bit drier.

 

ii. gnomus

It was Kirill who first suggested going to the gym together together. Nikolai understood. What he lacked in mental agility and fortitude, he could make up for in physical intimidation. A youth of macho posturing and good food had gifted him a tall, lean, deceptively powerful frame. A couple of months of coaching and it’d be like he’d never taken a break from exercise at all.

For Nikolai, these sessions were a means to an end. Semyon had only been in custody a few weeks, and was spending a considerable amount of his fortune on a small but dedicated troupe of lawyers. It would be a while before he was well and truly out of the picture. Working out was a welcome distraction, gave Kirill something to focus on. And, of course, there were the showers.

Nikolai joined Kirill at the lockers, where the Vor prince stood in his gym shorts, pretending to check missed calls. The routine was established early on. Eyes studiously forward, careful not to catch Kirill’s glance, Nikolai efficiently stripped down until every tattoo was on show, grabbed his towel, held it loosely over his front in a way that left nothing to the imagination, and set off for the showers.

There weren’t many others there, as usual – their schedule allowed them to come at a slower time, when they wouldn’t have to wait for the machines. The few men milling around couldn’t help sneaking a glance at the intricate tapestry of ink that covered Nikolai’s body. This was an expensive establishment, frequented by City desk jockeys and foreign diplomats, and the most daring body modifications were limited to single, small tattoos or piercings acquired in the heat of teenage rebellion. He and Kirill were sure to turn a few heads, plant the seeds of panic in those who knew the emblems of Soviet criminality.

But that was part of the plan, too. It made Kirill feel fearsome. Strong.

Leaving his towel on a hook, Nikolai stepped under the jet of the collective showers and felt the warm water pitter-patter on his aching shoulders, run down the hard cuts of his musculature, drip down his arms and legs. Only a couple of seconds left. With practised nonchalance, he squeezed a handful of soap from the wall-mounted dispenser, ran it roughly over his chest and stomach, and took himself in hand, pumping his soft cock until it was just a little harder, just a little bigger, a barely aroused state that could be ascribed to anything from the pleasant warmth of the shower to the simple consequence of thorough cleaning.

He knew Kirill anticipated this.

Like clockwork, Nikolai heard the wet slap of heavy footfalls, felt a presence beside him. Eyes shut, he angled his body just so, thought he heard Kirill’s intake of breath over the pouring water. In another second, Nikolai would open his eyes, and the unspoken bargain between them would once again come to a close. Four minutes of exhibitionism per week, one at the end of each gym visit. That’s all Kirill would allow himself.

Did it make Nikolai feel cheap? Sometimes. But it was far from the worst part of the job.

‘The fuck you want?’

Nikolai blinked. He saw Kirill glaring at a flustered middle-aged man a few shower heads away, very deliberately looking at his feet. Kirill elbowed his partner.

‘That queer was staring.’ At the man, now: ‘Huh? Pedik!’

‘Maybe he likes tattoos,’ Nikolai said, neutrally.

The man quickly finished his shower and went straight to his locker, where he started layering his clothes over his still sopping body. With a sneer, Kirill took a step toward him – but stopped dead when his stomach hit Nikolai’s outstretched arm. Knowing the effect it would have, Nikolai brushed his fingertips over Kirill’s ribs, as if by accident. Like he’d bitten the apple, Kirill’s eyes shot to his bodyguard with visible panic, suddenly aware of their shared nakedness.

Let it go,’ Nikolai murmured in Russian. ‘You know what London’s like. No point getting locked up over a faggot.’

Kirill didn’t react straight away, but he let Nikolai gently push him back under the water. The embarrassed Englishman hurried out, and it was only when the door to the locker room banged shut that Kirill sighed and started scrubbing himself.

He kept his body angled away until Nikolai left to get dressed.

---

The cold nipped at Nikolai’s skin, made his breath fog up even before he lit his cigarette. An English winter being this uncomfortable was a definite sign that he’d been living away from home for too long.

‘Can you believe that guy?’ Kirill exclaimed, bundled up in cashmere and leather. ‘Just watching like we’re in a zoo? Shit.’

‘Not first time.’ Nikolai unlocked the doors of the BMW and rounded the car to get to the driver’s door. ‘People like free artwork.’

Kirill climbed in beside him, too sober and keen on conversation for the back seat. ‘People used to look at Papa, too. Before he got old and changed his style. You know, friendly dedushka.’ He sniffed and glanced out the window. Talking about Semyon was risky, but Kirill didn’t seem upset. So-far. ‘And he said he didn’t have to show them no more, ‘cause everyone who matters knows his record already.’

‘He’s right,’ said Nikolai.

‘You never got to see a lot of his marks, huh?’

Nikolai shook his head. ‘Only forearms.’

Of course, before he slipped into this current skin, the Yard had given him pictures of Semyon’s every tatoo. The old man had more than earned his fearsome reputation.

‘He looks fucking cool, Kolya,’ Kirill said, clearly proud. ‘He had the, ah, the pogoni –‘ he patted his shoulders to indicate epaulettes. Nikolai nodded. ‘He got those in gulag, yeah, ‘cause he beat everybody else and became the general. Even out there. And he has a big one of Mama on his thigh, upside down so he can see her with his knees bent.’

‘Good portrait?’

‘Yeah. Looks just like her.’

‘Expensive, da? Worth some favours.’

‘I guess so, man.’ He was smiling, gazing at the streets outside. ‘He’s got one on his arm, near his shoulder, one of those cats smoking a pipe. In the summer, he used to let the kids colour it with pens. Maria loved it.’ A small shrug. ‘But they’re too old now anyway.’

Nikolai inched the car through London traffic. Semyon had done his time in jail, let the shadows of those iron bars imprint themselves on his body. It was in equal parts impressive and repulsive that a long-sleeved shirt could turn him at once into a kindly old man. Nikolai had carefully studied his tattoos while he prepared for his mission, remembering the meaning of each minute detail – though he didn’t need to be a genius to understand some of them. The devil sodomising Leonid Brezhnev, portraits of Al Capone and Adolf Hitler.

A black-hooded figure tightening a noose around a naked woman’s neck, gleefully proclaiming ‘the world’s dangerous for whores and bitches.’

How would Kirill’s niece feel about colouring that one in, Nikolai wondered.

 ‘Hey, Kolya.’ Kirill looked at him now. ‘Hey. What’s, uh, what’s it like, back home? The prisons?’

‘You never been to prison?’

‘Ah, c’mon,’ Kirill said, rolling his eyes. ‘Sure, yeah, here. When I was a kid. Stupid enough to get caught.’

‘ASBO?’

Kirill nodded. ‘Juvie and shit. It was okay. Papa got some guys my age get caught too so I had a crew.’

Nikolai quirked his lip in a small smile, only half forced. This lined up with what he knew to be true, and he was impressed by Kirill’s forthrightness.

‘In old days, in Russian prison, you don’t have a crew. Not like that, like bodyguards. You wanna be a Vor, you start at the bottom like anyone else.’ He shot Kirill a sideways glance. ‘Like me. Like your father. He will be fine. He’s had a lot worse.’

Kirill chuckled, a little nervous. ‘I know. That’s not what I’m asking.’

He kept fidgeting in his seat. Was he paranoid about being arrested, too?

‘Then what you asking?’

‘I just want to know more. I’ve been thinking.’

‘Don’t hurt your head.’

With a snort, Kirill punched Nikolai’s shoulder. ‘Suka.’

‘When I left, I hear prison is okay. For us. If you’re Vor and you got a brain, you don’t go no more. If you go, it’s like hotel. We got right friends now.’

‘Uh-huh… and like… before?’

Nikolai raised an eyebrow. ‘You wanna know about me?’

‘What, you got something to hide?’

He forced a joking tone into the question, but Nikolai saw through it. It made sense. He’d deliberately been blurring the lines between professionalism and friendship, hoping to transfer the respect and affection Semyon commanded onto himself. He encouraged Kirill’s crush. The way things were going, an aura of total mystery wasn’t tenable.

Though not all his tattoos were legitimate, enough were for his stories to be genuine, even if he hadn’t experienced some of them personally. He kept a hand on the wheel, rested the other on the windowsill. By chance, he hadn’t worn his gloves today. His tattoos were on full display, black against sinewy, creamy skin.

The worst thing about prison,’ Nikolai started, switching to Russian, not wanting to stumble over his words, ‘be it White Swan, Black Dolphin, or out in the labour colonies – the worst thing is disease. Tuberculosis. You’re piled six to a cell and when one of you starts to cough, you all start coughing. First there’s blood, then you get pills for a couple of weeks, and then it comes back stronger until you’ve got chunks of your lungs coming out your throat.’

‘Fuck,’ Kirill muttered.

‘When I was young, it was like that,’ said Nikolai, back to English. ‘Then new problems come from the West. Now when you catch cough, maybe you already got AIDS and you die a lot faster. But maybe that’s being lucky. You get out sooner.’

‘Christ, Kolya!’ Kirill’s laugh was a little shocked, a little delighted, the same way every time Nikolai said something irreverent. ‘Gets rid of the junkies and queers, huh?’

‘It’s not like that. Behind bars, it’s different.’

‘Huh?’

Nikolai tapped his left forefinger, drawing attention to the checker-pattern diamond printed there.

‘Anti-social,’ Kirill replied. ‘Didn’t lick prison guard boots. I know that.’

‘Okay. You know what you go through to earn it?’

No response, but an uptick in tension. Good.

‘They put you in isolation cell, with few other men. Pigs of the guards. They get more food and they don’t got to work. They got one job. Break you. You stay until they win, or until it’s time to bring in new guy, so you win. Sometimes, to win, you get sick. But you get respect for standing strong. Respect from your brothers.’

It was cold outside. Condensation gathered on the windows, dripped slowly down the glass.

‘And they couldn’t break you.’ This wasn’t a question. A husky confirmation.

‘And I didn’t get sick,’ Nikolai said, neutrally. ‘God wanted me Vor.’

Kirill was quiet for the rest of the journey.

 

iii. second promenade

Arthur’s Seat loomed over Edinburgh in a stark reminder of the immaculate beauty of Scottish highlands. The layered, cramped streets made the city something of a maze, its mystery betrayed only by the tourist traps and cheap souvenir shops littering every corner.

It was a radical shift from the intensity and grime of England’s capital.

Standing in a quiet residential street in Leith, Nikolai couldn’t picture Kirill blustering his way through this noble city, putting the bins out every week, carrying his shopping down from the local Scotmid and up the stairs to a modest little flat.

He raised a hand to the doorbell, pressed three times in quick succession.

And he waited.

 

iv. il vecchio castello

When Kirill asked him to stay for dinner, Nikolai didn’t think he’d fit in so easily.

It was a smaller affair, that much was true. Far less extravagant than Christmas, but still far beyond what he was used to. The only guests who weren’t relatives were a group of Semyon’s closest associates, grizzled old men with fearful scars and black lines peeking out from shirtsleeves and collars. Men the children called uncles.

They buzzed around Kirill, dispensing advice, keeping his glass topped up with vodka. Nikolai watched them, three seats down from the head of the table, where Kirill sat, flush with drink and pleasure. He’d usually be on his feet most of the meal, cooking or talking with guests, but it being Defender of the Fatherland Day meant he, as the only man in the family, was allowed to put his feet up. For once, his sisters took care of the food.

Kirill’s sisters. Olga and Irina, two older, Valentina and Alexandra, two younger, with Kirill sitting pretty in the middle.

Only Alexandra remained at the Trans-Siberian full time, taking up the top floor with her daughter Maria and a weedy husband, some sort of English accountant who knew to keep a low profile. She sat near the other end of the table, giggling with Irina, while their children swapped schoolyard stories. Irina wasn’t too different from her sister, another outgoing socialite who’d married outside the clan. They were entitled, but harmless.

Olga and Valentina were much harder to read.

Olga sat across Kirill, at the other end of the long dinner table. The oldest, she had more than a touch of Semyon about her, a stout woman in her fifties masking a sharp temper behind a perfect manicure, an expensive hairstyle, and an even more expensive smile. Nikolai knew, from his briefing, that she’d married one of her father’s associates, a real estate tycoon, and the usual trappings of the Russian nouveau riche were present in her loud jewellery and tattooed makeup. Those were likely her only tattoos. Semyon didn’t strike him as an equal-opportunity crime lord, at least not when it came to his own daughters. Olga usually stayed in the old country, but she’d been flying over a few times per month to supervise the proper running of the empire, though she’d never admit it outright.

Valentina, seated to Olga’s right, was a mystery. Early thirties, she remained single, focused entirely on her career in Europe. As far as anyone knew, she was keeping her nose clean. But she was intelligent, probably the smartest in the family. Either she was innocent, or she was particularly good at evading discovery. Like Olga, she came over from time to time to check on her brother – at least, that’s what Nikolai assumed. Her motives were opaque.

She caught Nikolai’s eye, smiled tightly. He responded in kind.

Another obstacle he didn’t need.

‘Mr Luzhin.’

Nikolai turned to the small voice. Maria stood beside him, clutching a package wrapped in pretty flowery paper and shiny pink ribbon. He smiled at her.

Da, Maria?’

She smiled back, blushing. Greater involvement in Kirill’s affairs meant Nikolai had seen more of her, picked her up from school, helped her with Russian homework when Alexandra was busy and Kirill gave up in frustration. She was a good kid. He hoped she’d make it out.

‘Um…’ Maria fiddled with the parcel in her hands, then thrust it out. ‘It’s for you, to say thanks for looking after me, and… and because it’s Men’s Day!’

Nikolai took the gift and tore the paper away, revealing a dark red silk tie. Either she got a better allowance than he thought, or Alexandra had chipped in. Nikolai unfurled the tie, running his thumb over the slick surface with a fond grin.

Spasiba. I only got black ones. Wanted to get other colours.’

The little girl’s face positively glowed. Her mother giggled.

‘Wait a few years before the marriage proposal, okay?’ she said. Her voice had no trace of an accent, though Nikolai knew she spoke passable Russian.

Maria swivelled round, mortified. ‘Mum! Don’t!’

‘I go put it on,’ said Nikolai, standing up. It earned him a grateful look from Maria, which he acknowledged with a small nod.

On his way to the mirror in the hallway, he put a hand on Kirill’s shoulder, distracting him from the incessant chatter of the older men. ‘You need something?’

‘Nah, Kolya,’ he replied, waving his empty glass dismissively. ‘It’s our day! Sit down! The girls take care of everything.’

Da, da. I come back.’ With a pat on his boss’s back, Nikolai headed out, leaving behind a guffawing and posturing Kirill.

Out in the corridor, Nikolai stopped before a long mirror that ran the length of the wall. He loosened the tie he was wearing, undoing it and rolling it up so it fit in his pocket, and draped the red tie around his neck.

Before he could make another move, he saw two reflections coming up behind him, every muscle in his body tensing up in expectation of a fight – and relaxing when he recognised the figures as Olga and Valentina.

Still, he couldn’t drop his guard.

Without turning around, Nikolai set about tying his new tie. ‘Ladies.’

We need to talk,’ Olga said in rapid Russian, vowels clipped by her St Petersburg accent. Valentina hovered near the door, leaning against the frame.

Nikolai raised an eyebrow, pausing his movements for a second before resuming them. He responded in his native tongue: ‘If there’s something I can help you with, Olga Semyonovna…’

Yeah, there is.’ She pointed an exquisitely manicured finger at him. ‘I don’t know what the fuck you’re playing at, but keep out of our business. Okay?’

Calmly tucking his finished tie back into his suit jacket, Nikolai turned around to face her. ‘I don’t know what you mean.’

Please,’ she sneered. ‘My brother’s an idiot, but you can’t fool me. I’ve seen a thousand guys just like you.

Beneath layers of careful, calculated neutrality, Nikolai’s heart felt pierced by a needle, long and thin and ever-moving. ‘And what kind of guy would that be?’

The kind of guy who has to run away from home to make it big. The kind of guy who grafts onto a sap and milks him for all he’s worth.’ Olga crossed her arms. Her carmine nails shone against her dark dress. ‘You’re damaged goods, Luzhin. I don’t know why yet, but I intend to find out.’

Relieved at being taken for a simple status seeker, Nikolai shrugged. ‘Semyon trusted me enough to grant me stars.’

The old man should’ve retired long ago.’

Nikolai nodded curtly. ‘Well. Now he has, in a manner of speaking.

Don’t be insolent. You’re a foot soldier. A butler.’ She looked him up and down with a sneer. ‘A driver.’

I don’t pretend otherwise.’

God!’ Olga stepped toward him, tall heels clacking on the wooden floor. ‘React! Do something! Never trust a man who sponges up abuse like a battered wife.

‘Olya.’ Valentina spoke for the first time. ‘Let it go. You can’t get blood from a stone.’

Whose side are you on?’ Olga snapped.

‘The family’s. Nikolai is Kirill’s man.’

Ah, Valechka, you know Kirill’s…’ the older sister raised a hand, as if grasping for the right words, ‘… funny.

‘He’s the patriarch now. Like it or not. You know he won’t listen to either of us.’ She directed her gaze at Nikolai now, and it felt like tripping head-first into a snowdrift. ‘We have to trust that he’ll do the right thing.’

Then we might as well pack up and go now,’ fumed Olga, briskly click-clacking to the open doorway. She cast a final look back, and her anger was just like her brother’s. ‘You’re on thin ice. Don’t get comfortable.

When she left, Nikolai sighed, clasped his hands together in his usual position. Olga had connections. She could very well act on her threat, figure out what happened in the years between his final release from jail and his arrival at Semyon’s doorstep. He’d have to find a way to contact Yuri and arrange for a cover story back in Russia. Another fucking headache.

Valentina hadn’t moved. He smiled at her, sardonically, and switched back to English. ‘Thanks. Not good with… angry women.’

‘I’m not your friend.’

Nikolai met her eyes again, and was greeted with the same cold steel.

‘Olga thinks Kirill’s stupid. She always has, and he knows it. Her and Papa, maybe they’ve got him believing it too.’ She spoke carefully, with only the slightest hint of an accent peppering her words. ‘I’m not going to guess why you’re here, where you’ve come from, any of that. But you know his weaknesses. And you know his strengths. And if you’re just going to fuck him over too, I’ll find out.’

‘Yeah? And then what you do?’

‘That’s for me to know.’

They stood still, each unwilling to relent to the other.

‘You have strong sense of justice,’ Nikolai said, finally. ‘That’s good. But in this house, it’s worthless.’

Valentina’s hands twitched.

Without sparing her another glance, Nikolai decisively walked back into the heart of the festivities, in time to see one of Semyon’s men filling Kirill’s glass to the brim. A couple of tired kitchen staff pushed open the doors to the kitchen and, to great general applause, wheeled in the dessert tray, whose crown jewel was a vast medovik piled high with sour cream and strawberries.

‘Just like Papa makes!’ Kirill crowed, gesturing to the honey cake. ‘It’s like he’s with us, same as always!’

In his frantic movements, he caught a glimpse of Nikolai and paused to smile broadly at his friend.

Nikolai smiled back.

---

When Nikolai peered past the swing door into the kitchen, Kirill yelped a cheerful greeting into his half-empty bottle of vodka. He sat on a nearby stainless steel countertop, legs swinging like a little kid’s. Without its usual swarm of activity, the room seemed cavernous and as sterile as a morgue.

‘Kolya! Privyet, brat, you looking for this?’ Kirill held up the bottle, clear liquid sloshing inside. ‘They used it for cooking today, there’s not much left. Don’t want it to turn, da?’ Snorting at his joke, he took another generous swig before gesturing for Nikolai to join him.

Nikolai put his hands in his pockets and took a few leisurely steps forward. Plied with alcohol throughout the evening, he was too drunk to drive, sober enough to know it. Guests had dropped off gradually, to return home or adjourn to their rooms. Maria had said goodbye with a little wave, pleased as punch to see her gift being worn. Olga had glared daggers. Valentina hadn’t said another word.

‘Here to take you upstairs,’ Nikolai said, leaning against the edge of the counter beside Kirill. ‘Your sisters ask me to.’

 ‘What, Olya? Irka? They think I’m still a baby.’ He handed Nikolai the bottle, watched as he took a healthy sip. ‘I’m in my own fucking house, man. Why they want me there? What they think’s gonna happen? Huh?’

Of course, nobody had asked him to do anything. It was Nikolai who wanted to avoid a repeat of prior disasters. He wasn’t in the mood to pull bits of broken glass out of Kirill’s arm with tweezers.

He shrugged. ‘You know girls. They think you had too much fun already.’

‘No fucking fear of that with them around,’ Kirill laughed, snatching the bottle back to drain the final drops.

His leg pressed against Nikolai’s arm, warmth on warmth, and Nikolai moved his hand to squeeze Kirill’s thigh, fingertips pressing down near his crotch through the thin fabric of his formalwear. He heard Kirill’s breath hitch, spun easily around to face him, standing between his legs.

‘Come on. It’s late.’

Nikolai held out an arm to help Kirill down. Through a vodka haze, it took a second for the gesture to sink in. Perhaps his attention was more focused on the position the two found themselves in. After a moment, Kirill put the bottle down and slid off the counter until his soles touched the ground, where he instantly tripped on his own feet and collapsed in a giggling heap in Nikolai’s arms.

‘Whoops,’ he said, burrowing his face into Nikolai’s chest, clutching his arms tight. It was pathetic, but somehow, Nikolai couldn’t begrudge it.

‘Watch out for tie, it’s present from Maria,’ he grunted, heaving Kirill up higher until he was almost back to his full height, chin now resting on Nikolai’s shoulder. Kirill adjusted his grip, moved his hands to Nikolai’s back. The motion shifted them into a hug, the first real one since that awful night near the river. Nikolai slung an arm around Kirill’s shoulders, pulled him closer.

‘Did they bother you?’ Kirill murmured, breath hot against Nikolai’s ear. He smelled of cologne and hairgel and alcohol. It shouldn’t have been a pleasant combination. Maybe Nikolai had grown too accustomed to it. ‘Olya and Valya. They talked to you, yeah?’

‘They just wanna know you’re okay. I say I do my best.’

‘Uh-huh…’

‘They worry about you.’

‘They worry about Papa’s money. Our reputation.’ He sniffed. Nikolai felt him sway a little. ‘That’s what my family worries about.’

‘Maybe.’

‘But I got you, so… it’s okay.’

Da, Kiryusha.’

They stood, silent, holding each other. Kirill’s grip loosened. Chest to chest, Nikolai almost believed he could feel his heartbeat.

‘Hey, Kolya…’

‘Hm?’

With the slightest shift, Kirill allowed his hips to sway forward, to brush his half-hard cock against the bottom of Nikolai’s stomach. Nikolai tensed, but didn’t recoil. It wasn’t the first time he’d felt this. Kirill stood to attention after most of their nights out, when Nikolai had to carry him and undress him and even wash him sometimes. He was either shockingly resistant to whiskey dick, or preferred to exaggerate his inebriation to justify that level of intimacy.

He’s funny, Olga said.

You know his weaknesses, Valentina said.

Nikolai walked forward until Kirill’s ass hit the lip of the counter, turning his complaint into a surprised gasp with a slow roll of his hips. Pinned between Nikolai and the table, Kirill tried to lean away, to make eye contact, but Nikolai’s firm hold around his shoulders kept him in place.

‘Wha – what the fuck –‘ Kirill stuttered, silenced by Nikolai cupping his erection through his clothes.

‘It’s okay,’ Nikolai mumbled, low and thick. ‘You have need, yeah?’

‘I don’t –‘

‘You have need, and you can’t trust them,’ Nikolai continued. He ran his thumb down Kirill’s growing length, was only a little surprised by the twinge between his own legs. ‘Whores, girls – civilians. It’s okay.’

As he undid Kirill’s belt one-handed, he could almost smell the fear radiating off him, the confusion. He’d sobered up plenty fast.

‘We’re brothers. You with me, I’m with you.’

‘Did…’ Nikolai heard him lick his lips. ‘Did you do this stuff in prison?’

‘Brothers help brothers.’

Kirill didn’t say anything else. He stayed quiet while Nikolai unzipped him, pulled out his white-hot, aching cock, and pumped his fist around it until Kirill held him tight again and choked out a moan that sounded like a sob and came in short, hard bursts over Nikolai’s fingers.

When he stepped out of the embrace, leaving Kirill clutching the counter’s edge to stand on jelly legs, he acted with deliberate nonchalance, stepping a few feet to one side to wash his hands in a sink. It would have been faster to turn around and use the nearest one, but he wouldn’t have his back to Kirill before making sure he was processing this new step the right way – that is, a way that didn’t involve hurting either of them in a self-loathing panic.

He looked dazed more than anything, shaky on his feet, tucking himself back in with an absent look in his eyes. It was almost three in the morning. If they’d done this a few months back, Semyon would soon have been standing two counters over, starting up a bubbling pot of purple-red borscht, bringing the metal ladle to his mouth to make sure it tasted like home.

Nikolai dried his hands with a dishcloth. He smiled, patiently.

‘Better?’

‘What?’

Kirill’s voice sounded small, like a child’s.

‘You feel better?’

‘Oh, uh…’ Kirill blinked, eyes big and wet, cheeks and nose and ears tinted red. He laughed, nervous. ‘Yeah. Pretty good. Yeah.’

He was staring down at Nikolai’s lap, eyeing the curve of his erection. It happened, was bound to happen with this part of the job. Taking care of it now would make it too sexual, too queer.

‘Okay.’ Nikolai clasped his hands together, indicated the door with his chin. ‘Now get the fuck to sleep so I can go home.’

Kirill’s shrill laughter all but echoed in the deserted kitchen.

 

v. third promenade

The kettle pinged. Steam flumed out, forming droplets on the bottom of the kitchen cabinet. Kirill stood up, avoiding Nikolai’s eyes.

‘I only got mint and the, dark one, the builder’s tea,’ he said.

‘Mint is okay. Thank you.’

Kirill nodded and set about preparing two cups. Nikolai watched his back, watched his large frame lumber around the too-small apartment. His thick sweater helped mask his musculature, but he kept up their old exercise regimen. Because he never knew when he’d need that strength.

‘Toilet?’

‘First door down the hall.’

His eyes were wide when he opened the front door, irises like the colour of the sky and almost as big. It was all Nikolai could do not to return the shocked look. Kirill was clean-shaven, his hair back to its original mousey colour and natural curls, cut in a short, respectable style, grey streaks scattered here and there. His skin looked healthier, less weathered by drink. As he let Nikolai in, led him up the stairs to the third floor, his movements were more restrained, swagger gone from his step.

The changes were small, but the effect was tremendous.

In the bathroom, Nikolai found boxes of pills, a couple of SNRIs tossed in with the herbal powders found in any Russian home. He recognised the brand of medication as one almost impossible to overdose on, wondered if that had been a factor in the prescription.

Judging by the supplies, no one else lived here.

In the kitchen, Kirill sat at the small formica table, sipping his tea. It was almost beige with too much milk. Some things remained the same, at least.

‘Nice place,’ said Nikolai, taking a seat. It wasn’t a lie. For a small, city apartment, it was decorated tastefully, if unpersonally. Save for one or two discreet touches, it would be impossible to tell the inhabitant was even Russian, let alone someone used to extravagance and pomp.

Kirill nodded. ‘Thanks. I do okay.’

‘You cook?’

‘Sometimes. There’s this, uh, catering company, that I work for. I plan the parties, that sort of thing.’

‘You’re good at that.’

‘It’s not – it’s like, just finger food, you know, but there’s a lotta Polish here so I get to make stuff for them, and that’s a little like old times.’

‘How you making any money working for Polish?’ Nikolai said, smiling.

Kirill snorted. It wasn’t like the big, open-throated laughs of back then, but it was the first sign of mirth he’d shown so-far. ‘Nah, they’re not that bad. It’s fun doing their weddings and shit like that. Sometimes they even speak Russian.’

‘We can speak Russian, if you like.’

‘No,’ Kirill said, quickly. ‘I don’t, uh. It’s not a good idea.’

The fridge clicked, started humming loudly. Nikolai brought his mug up and sipped his tea, warmth pouring down into his body. Kirill pointed at the faded tattoo on his hand.

‘You getting laser?’

Nikolai nodded.

‘On everything?’

On your stars? was the subtext.

‘Not everything. Just most obvious. Leaving job. Maybe do something else.’

‘You going back home?’

The fridge abruptly stopped its hum. Nikola looked out of the window, down at the cobbled sidestreet below. If he squinted, if the weather was greyer, he could almost pretend to be in his home town.

‘No,’ he said. ‘Never.’

 

vi. tuileries

‘She’ll have a better life here.’

Kirill had been drinking when the latest shipment of Eastern women arrived.

He held the child closer, unsteady. She didn’t look good. Nikolai didn’t know much about infants, but she was too pale, too quiet. If he couldn’t see her chest rising and falling, he’d fear she was dead.

‘You know you can’t keep her,’ Nikolai said. Kirill walked away from him, past the booths. ‘Kirill –‘

‘You don’t tell me what to do!’ Kirill rumbled, keeping his voice down for the baby’s sake. ‘I’m the boss now. I’ll need a – an heir, yeah? I can teach her.’

‘Teach her what?’

‘The business.’ Another few steps, almost stumbling over the carpet.

‘Teach her about selling girls? Like we sell her mother? Blyat, Kirill –‘

‘If you don’t – don’t fuckin’ like how we do things, you can fuck off!’ He was backed in a corner now, hissing like a trapped cat. ‘You want her to go to the stables too? Huh? Mudak! She’ll die! You said it before – we don’t kill babies.’

Ah. That’s what this reminded him of. Kirill, eyes red, arms shaking, clutching this little girl like she was everything good in the world, hovering over a cold, wet, turbulent precipice. How often did he think of his youngest sister? Nikolai relaxed his stance, clearly pained.

‘We don’t kill babies,’ he agreed softly. ‘And if you keep her, she could die.’

‘I can take care –‘

‘Kirill. She’s not okay. Look at her.’

‘That’s because –‘

‘She’s days old and she’s addicted. Like her mama. She needs help. You don’t know about that, yeah?’ As if approaching a wild animal, Nikolai tentatively got closer, arms outstretched. ‘This won’t make up for what Semyon did.’

‘You don’t talk about Papa!’

‘Without him, she wouldn’t be here!’

Kirill didn’t respond, angling the child in his arms to better look at her. She hadn’t opened her eyes yet, dark eyelashes long over sallow cheeks. Nikolai gently touched Kirill’s arm, watching for a reaction that didn’t come.

‘You’re tired, yeah?’ Nikolai murmured, stepping closer. ‘You work hard. Rest now. I’ll take care of it.’

‘You… you know you’re…’ Kirill’s voice was a whisper, gaze still on the baby. ‘You can’t talk like that, ‘cause I’ll…’

… do what you want.

Nikolai placed his hand on the girl’s chest. She was colder than she should be, but she was breathing well, and she was plump. Thank God.

‘I’m – I dunno what to think,’ Kirill mumbled.

Nikolai gently lifted the baby out of Kirill’s arms, not moving away from him. Despite the warm colours and comforting heat of the restaurant, Nikolai felt his scars throb, the bite of the wind and the smell of the Thames. He swallowed the lump in his throat. Kirill’s eyes, unfocused and shiny with tears, were kept squarely on the bundle between them.

Perhaps on instinct, perhaps out of pity or muscle memory, Nikolai leaned forward and pressed his forehead against Kirill’s, cool flesh on hot skin. Kirill made a little noise, a whine at the back of his throat, and Nikolai tilted his face to softly brush his lips against Kirill’s cheek as he spoke.

‘Let me do thinking, okay?’

The smallest nod, barely more than a tremor.

Nikolai took a step back, and the baby came away with him.

---

‘Man, I can’t even remember last night!’ Kirill cackled, wiping his hands on his apron. Kitchen staff milled around, preparing ingredients for the day ahead. ‘I wanted to keep her?’

Nikolai nodded, a small smile on his lips.

Kirill shook his head, eyebrows high. ‘Wow. I mean – shit. I gotta cut down.’

‘Maybe is best.’

Kirill grinned, a flash of white teeth. He looked around with deliberate casualness, hands on his hips. ‘So… what did you do with her?’

Nikolai shrugged. He moved his sunglasses from one hand to the other, started unfolding them. ‘I drove her to hospital and gave her to nurse.’

Kirill’s expression froze. ‘Not –‘

‘No. Other… hospital. Other nurse. Stranger.’

‘Oh. Yeah. Of course.’ He laughed again, more naturally, but he didn’t quite face his lieutenant anymore. ‘Of course. You did good. Otlichno!

A new kitchen hand called out to him, and Kirill pointed at him with his thumb, speaking to Nikolai: ‘I gotta get ready here. We still having that meeting tonight?’

Da.’

Otlichno. Otlichno...

And Kirill went to help his recruit. Nikolai put his sunglasses on and headed out through the back doors, to the delivery bay. The chained Dobermann barked, as it always did, and Nikolai ignored it, as he always did. For the most part, the status quo was restored.

But when he picked Kirill up, he saw the news site open on his phone, detailing the foundling left at the clinic’s doors in the middle of the night. And later, after brokering a deal with the Georgians, it was Kirill who suggested they cut back on the human imports. Because they were getting harder to hide, were making smaller profit margins than they would on the continent. It was purely economical.

Da, Nikolai agreed. Purely economical.

 

vii. bydlo

The room had more smoke than air, streaming out of the cigarettes that hung from every man’s lips. The Poles sat on one side of the table. Kirill, Nikolai, and two footsoldiers on the other. They were in neutral territory, a private room at a Platinum Lace club operated by an Englishman with friends in both camps.

‘You’re crazy, man,’ Kirill sneered, leaning back in the black leather sofa. Nikolai sat with his elbows on his knees, fingers laced before his mouth, watching the opposing faction.

‘What? Who’s crazy?’ Pavel, a young upstart with an accent thicker than his moustache, gestured wildly with ring-laden hands. He was missing a tooth, Nikolai noticed. His right canine. ‘You make deal with the Gruzini, tak? So now you make deal with us.’

‘The Georgians been here as long as we have. Who are you? I don’t even know who the fuck you are!’

‘If you think you have claim,’ Nikolai said calmly, ‘why you wait until Semyon is arrested? Why you don’t talk to him?’

‘Maybe they didn’t even have a business then,’ Kirill scoffed.

Co, you sayin’ we cowards?’ growled Pavel, practically biting his cigarette in half. It slotted perfectly in the empty space between his teeth. Maybe that’s why he hadn’t had it fixed. ‘You think we scared of some soft old man?’

Nikolai threw a hand up to block Kirill from jumping up at the provocation.

‘I’m asking,’ Nikolai continued, ‘because Kirill is right. We don’t know who the fuck you are. So if you have claim on the area, you prove it. Show us your marks. Tell us some names.’

Now you wanna be oldschool,’ Pavel jeered, ‘after breaking all the rules in the book?’

‘What fuckin’ rules we breaking, suka?’

It was the men on Pavel’s side who had to restrain him this time. Nikolai sighed.

Taking a deep drag of his fag, Pavel held up a finger for each point: ‘Buying houses, buying restaurants, cooperating with police? Keeping the money for yourself instead of doing obshchak –‘

Chto, you think you’re some movie gangster or something? Nobody in the old country does obshchak anymore. We’re business now.’

Nikolai nodded. The tradition of pooling together money and dividing it equally had weakened with the death of the Soviet Union and the growth of institutionalised crime syndicates, vanished once Putin brought the mob bosses into the government’s fold.

‘If you’re just gonna waste our time being polskiy cowboys, we’re gonna leave.’

‘And how you got that authority? Ah?’ Pavel shouted. ‘You don’t even earn the stars, you got ‘em ‘cause of your fuckin’ Papa –‘

Kirill moved too swiftly for Nikolai to stop him now, too powerfully, bracing a foot on the edge of the glass table to throw himself full-force on the skinny Pole. The soldiers on both sides instantly rushed onto their leaders, aiming to separate them, but reaching for their knives in case their opponents decided to attack. Kirill and Pavel tussled on the couch, wrestling for control – Kirill was stronger, but Pavel had more direct combat experience, and this was obvious in the way each man moved.

Thinking fast, Nikolai muscled past the Russian underlings, took the champagne bottle out of its bucket, and hurled the half-melted ice onto the fighting duo. Instantly, their attention was on him, two sets of confused, angry eyes boring into his.

‘Kolya, what the fuck –‘

‘You say you wanna do things right, da?’ Nikolai spoke to Pavel. ‘Like the old Vory? Then you show the owner here respect. And you show us respect. We only asking for – security. Verification. That you are who you say you are.’

Dupek, I got stars right here!’ He tore open his shirt, revealing the tattoos under his clavicles. He didn’t have a lot of other ink, just two satirical likenesses of past Soviet leaders. The classic haloed Lenin, a horned Brezhnev.

‘Okay. Okay. It’s a start.’

‘Why didn’t you just fuckin’ answer in the first place?’ Kirill spat, standing up to dust himself off.

‘Don’t gotta prove myself to you,’ muttered Pavel, shifting back onto the seat. ‘Not with the rumours I hear…’

‘What rumours?’ Kirill said, sharply. ‘Huh? What? Now you shut up?’

‘If anyone leaves room now, it’s war,’ said Nikolai. ‘You don’t got resources for war with us. Yeah?’

The Poles shifted. Pavel didn’t answer.

‘You don’t have claim. So we do like this. You keep up what you’re good at. If you don’t touch our shops, you stay out of our dealers’ way, we don’t mess with you. And you don’t cross us. Okay?’

‘That’s where we started off.’ Pavel crushed his cigarette into the golden ashtray on the table. ‘Waste of time meeting.’

Da. And you lucky we don’t make example of you for wasting the time of a Vor.’ Nikolai crouched, bringing himself level with Pavel. He kept his eyes trained on the Pole’s, unwavering, noticing the bead of sweat down the side of Pavel’s face. ‘And if you keep talking about rumours, I cut out your tongue and shove it up your Mama’s ass. Okay?’

---

‘He’s trying to be big man,’ Nikolai said mildly, hands on the wheel. He and Kirill split from their colleagues when they were out of the club, and headed back to the restaurant alone. ‘We don’t have to worry about him.’

‘I still think we should’ve wasted him, you know?’ Kirill popped a sunflower seed into his mouth, sucking off the salt. The bag sat in the cupholder between them, spilling seeds out of the tear down its side. ‘Talking shit like that.’

‘I think it’s good to be… velikodushniy.

‘What, fair? I’m fair. They were asking for a boot in the dick.’

Da, da. But you trying to have your own style, yeah? Semyon is ruthless. You have that reputation. But if you want to avoid police and make more money, you get modern. Harsh but fair. We give those kids warning. If they don’t listen…’ Nikolai shrugged, significantly. Kirill considered his words.

‘Like building my own brand? I like that.’

They drove in companionable silence, snaking around the streets of London through shortcuts discovered over months of chauffeuring. It was only when the restaurant was in view that Kirill spoke again:

‘Hey, you know what that guy said? How I didn’t earn my stars?’ Nikolai kept driving, pulling into the space in front of the Trans-Siberian that was always kept empty. ‘Do people think that? About me?’

‘Why do you care?’ Nikolai said simply, killing the engine. He made no move to leave the car, sensing that the conversation was better finished in private.

Kirill moved his head uncertainly, a half-shake, half-bob. ‘Well, it matters, no? If people think I don’t deserve the stars, they won’t respect me. If they think I’m just some –‘

queer.

‘Not everything Pavel said is wrong,’ said Nikolai. ‘Your father didn’t follow rules, and some people don’t like that. In Russia, stars are medals. You earn them in jail. Sometimes you do… things you would not do in the outside.’

The words lingered in the air. Since that first handjob in the kitchen, a few more drunken nights had ended the same way, always with both of them fully clothed, always with Nikolai servicing Kirill, always without Nikolai touching himself, all – as far as possible – executed like any other duty of the tsarevich’s vizier. And that was fine.

It gave them a secret.

‘But times change. You said it, now we are business. What matters is proving that you deserve stars. You could not when Semyon was here. It is your time. You can have what you want. Anything.’ He smiled, that lazy, opaque smile. ‘You are tsar.’

Kirill’s reaction was hard to gauge, his face unmoving save for the small spasms of his chewing. He moved the empty sunflower shells in his hands, like scrying bones.

‘I’m the tsar. And I can have what I want.’ He nodded, confident, and opened the door.

 

viii. fourth promenade

‘Why did you come?’

Nikolai kept facing the kettle, listening to the water start to boil. It was their third round, the rest sipped mostly in silence while they waited for the other to speak. He sensed Kirill standing behind him, an arm’s length away.

‘We’re just – talking in circles.’ Each of Kirill’s words sounded painful, forced out like a kidney stone. ‘Like we worked in the same company or something. I’ve got a new life now. I’m. I didn’t think I’d see you again, ever.’

‘Did you want to? See me.’

‘Nikolai…’

‘That’s not my name.’

Over the bubbling water, Nikolai thought he could hear a soft, swallowed sob.

‘Why did you come.’

Silence.

‘I don’t know.’

 

ix. ballet of the unhatched chicks

It happened suddenly.

Kirill and Maria were at the cherry wood table in the corner of the living room, poring over open maths books. Where Nikolai often helped her with Russian homework, he left the maths to Kirill, not wanting to foster too strong a bond with the girl. She’d be upset enough as it was when he blew the whole house of cards down. Might as well spare the worst of the personal trauma.

Besides, Kirill was good with numbers. Surprisingly good. They weren’t open to interpretation, they made sense. They were constant.

There was an interview scheduled for later, a driver. Between serving as Kirill’s ambassador to various groups and needing to check up on the colonels responsible for the businesses in the city’s different boroughs, he’d significantly outgrown his old position. It was more than time for a new, discreet chauffeur.

Which is why Nikolai sat in the Eames chair near the window, wiling away the time with one of the many pulp novels lining Alexandra’s shelves. He could have waited downstairs. He could have waited in the car. But in Kirill’s eyes, he’d outgrown that kind of expectation, too.

Every so often, Nikolai glanced over at the uncle patiently guiding his niece through the chapter on fractions. Kirill’s voice was soft, the lilt upbeat, careful not to discourage her when he corrected mistakes. Suddenly, his eyes creased with delight, his grin grew wide – a particularly stubborn exercise had finally clicked and Maria solved it with a confident flourish. Kirill’s smile was lopsided, his face always a little too weathered from a hectic lifestyle and a hot kitchen, his patchy stubble always a little too thick. But that smile lit up all of his features, shone bright throughout the whole house. 

That true, unfettered, unpretentious smile was as rare as a pearl.

Nikolai didn’t know what it was about that smile in particular. He’d seen that same genuine mirth a few times before, had found it repulsive at first, then pathetic, amusing, endearing.

But now.

Now, he felt something else.

Something far more dangerous.

It happened suddenly.

But it had been long in the making.

 

x. samuel goldenberg and schmuyle

‘Those guys are okay!’ Kirill said, the second their guests were out the door. ‘Papa said they were some real evreiyskiy sons of bitches, but they’re not!’

‘I thought they help your father when he came?’ Nikolai asked, following a gesticulating Kirill up the stairs.

‘Ah, you know what Papa’s like. If Revmir and Marlen Moiseyevich hadn’t sold him this place cheap, he couldn’t’ve stayed in London, no way. But he’s not gonna admit he got help from Jews.’

The mention of the word, in Kirill’s imitation of his father’s tone, made the solar crosses on Nikolai’s skin tingle down to his bones, little hotspots of hatred pulsing on his thigh and forearm. White supremacy was a way of life in Russia, but in the Soviet Union, it was a statement, a fuck-you to authorities that counted racial harmony among their core founding principles – regardless of how unevenly those principles were applied. To a Vor, Jewish people and Communism were synonymous, hatred a subversive badge of honour.

It must have been awkward, then, for a hardened thief like Semyon to come cap in hand to the door of the two very Russian, very Jewish, very well-established Shapozhniks.

The Yard had had its eye on Revmir and Marlen Shapozhnik for a while, struggled to find anything to pin on them. Smuggled out of the USSR by the Jewish Colonization Association in the last year of Khrushchev’s reign, they’d worked hard to earn their keep in Britain’s capital and had climbed to the top of the city’s real estate market, helping compatriots up as they went along. Now in their eighties, the brothers clung stubbornly to their throne, using a keen instinct and a drive to innovate.

Despite an apparently spotless record, they had too many friendships among the ex-Soviet underbelly for it to be mere coincidence. Nikolai had aimed to check them out in the course of his investigation. If he could do that while steering Kirill’s operation away from human trafficking, all the better. Far less blood on white collars.

‘You know, when those two dedushki came in, I really thought you’d fucked up,’ Kirill continued, pulling off his sweater. They were in his apartment now, Nikolai waiting in the living room while Kirill got dressed to go out. ‘Like, what the hell are guys like that gonna say about new businesses? You know?’

‘Need to be sharp to keep winning,’ Nikolai answered.

‘Right, yeah, but it’s crazy. The computer stuff? Credit cards and secret internet markets and shit? I don’t even know how to do that, but these old fucks throw it out like it’s nothing!’ He sprayed a healthy dose of cologne over his torso, too excited to be self-conscious about his semi-nudity.

Because that was a new development. A shyness, ever since their physical relationship had evolved. He didn’t cling to Nikolai as much, avoided drinking himself comatose – but sought out his touch when they came back from the gym, when they were saying goodbye for the night. They’d floated the idea of Nikolai moving into one of the spare rooms before, but that ship seemed to have sailed. Maybe Kirill was scared of what he’d do now, if he kept temptation close.

It was nice to see him with a smile on his face and a swagger in his step.

‘I guess Papa was wrong about them.’ Kirill held up two similar, dark shirts. ‘Which one?’

Nikolai pointed at the one on the left. ‘You can add Jews to list of things Semyon don’t know about.’

‘Hey, I didn’t say anything about all Jews.’ Kirill tossed the shirt on and did it up, leaving his gold chain necklace on display. ‘I’ve heard stories.’

‘From who? You father?’ Nikolai smiled to mitigate his mocking tone. Kirill raised an eyebrow.

‘From lots of places, suka. Why you defending them? You evrei or something?’

Nikolai shrugged, sighing through his nose. He looked over again when he didn’t hear any more comments. Kirill was watching him out of the corner of his eye as he put on his boots, uncertain. Nikolai held up his hands in the universal “really?” gesture.

‘No. I’m not evrei.’

‘Well, you’re a good worker, you know, uh, even if you were I wouldn’t –‘

Bozhe moi... what, I gotta prove you now?’

‘No, man, I was just –‘

Eyes on Kirill’s, Nikolai moved a hand over to his lap and pointedly cupped himself through his trousers. ‘Show my cock?’

The flat went quiet. Even the busy London street outside seemed to go mum. The men stayed frozen in place, Nikolai touching himself, Kirill’s hands in mid-air. Since their odd arrangement began, Nikolai hadn’t so much as made reference to his own sexuality, his own needs. He saw Kirill’s gaze follow the line of his arm down to his hand, dick bulging between his thumb and forefinger. Clad in black, against the pallor of Nikolai’s skin, it looked even more obscene. More enticing.

With a final, daring squeeze that sent a shiver up his spine, Nikolai let go and draped his arm over the back of Kirill’s couch. Kirill blinked, the spell broken, and he strode out of his room to fix his hair in the sitting room mirror. Nikolai could see himself in the corner, watching his boss.

‘Maybe I do have Jewish blood,’ he said, standing up. ‘You know I hate police.’

Kirill looked at Nikolai in the mirror, quizzical.

Nikolai smiled. ‘Pigs.’

Kirill snorted, pulled on his black leather jacket, and motioned for Nikolai to follow.

 

xi. fifth promenade

‘Papa died.’

Nikolai’s cup was cold by now, but neither of them bothered getting up to make a fresh brew. Bursts of conversation were interspersed with long, tense silences, and he was mostly just glad there was a new thread starting up.

‘Three years back already,’ Kirill bit his thumbnail, looking down. He was tapping his foot fast, the movement of his leg making the table shake ever so slightly. ‘Cancer. They let him go home for the last days.’

Nikolai nodded. ‘Da.’

No big loss.

‘Not that –‘ a bitter laugh, ‘not like I know where the fuck that is now. Home. Maybe they’re still in the same fucking place. Maybe the restaurant’s doing fucking great.’

‘You don’t talk to your family?’

Kirill shook his head. Bit his thumb again. His smile was cynical. ‘They don’t wanna fucking talk to me. Come on.’

‘Maybe they do. Maria.’

Kirill stopped moving his leg. He opened his mouth to say something – and Nikolai braced himself, anticipated one of the old flights of anger or sorrow or any other type of extreme, anything but the dead passivity he’d seen today. He’d noticed the framed photographs of Kirill’s nieces and nephews in the living room, prominent enough to be seen at a glance from a distance.

But no.

‘Masha’s in university. Graduated, maybe. What does she wanna hear from someone like me for, huh?’

‘She love you.’

Kirill didn’t respond. He moved his hands around his cup, pushed the tea aside.

‘Valentina found me. Valya.’ Nikolai’s ears pricked up at this. Kirill continued: ‘I dunno how. She’s smart. She knows where to look, I guess.’

‘You talk to her?’

He shook his head.

‘I said no. I hung up. I pushed her off. I’m here now and I’m alone. That’s all.’

‘I know –‘

‘You don’t know. You don’t have a family. Da?’

Kirill’s features were hard, clear eyes empty of feeling. Nikolai wanted to say that he did know. Because they were family.

Instead, he pressed his lips together.

Da. Da.

 

xii. limoges, the market

Sosi moy khuuuuy!’

Cackling madly, Kirill almost fell out of the open car window, would have toppled over if Nikolai hadn’t grabbed the back of his shirt like a mother holding a toddler in a crowded shop. The tight, dark streets shone neon rainbow with all the delights Soho had on offer, from late-night frozen yoghurt and indie clothes shops to fetishwear and girls, girls, girls.

The new driver navigated the packed streets smoothly, passing no comment. He wasn’t a “driver,” but an actual chauffeur, hired for one job he’d so-far proved damn good at it. Unambitious, discreet, quiet. Perfect.

Kirill emptied his Stoli and tossed the bottle against a brick wall, so close to the car he almost cut himself on the shrapnel, which struck him as one of the funniest things on the planet. Nikolai held on tighter, pulling him in only when he started whistling down a group of English girls on teetering high heels.

‘Ah, Kolya, mudak! What, huh?’ Kirill slurred, falling back on the padded leather car seat in a giggling heap.

‘You wanna smash your brain out on the street?’

‘I have you to catch me,’ he said lightly, waving a hand. ‘Let me celebrate! We’re fucking rich!’

‘You already rich,’ Nikolai replied tiredly, pressing a hand to Kirill’s chest to stop him from lunging at the window again.

‘You know what I mean!’ Distracted by the bottles of hard liquor he’d left on the floor, Kirill abandoned his attempts at defenestration and leaned forward to open a new drink. ‘More in a day than Papa made in a month, Kolya! Mesyats!’

‘Thank Revmir and Marlen Moiseyevich,’ Nikolai said, taking the freshly uncorked bottle of Russian Standard to take a deep swig. The instant fire in his belly was nice, comfortable, matched the glow he felt all over. It was an accomplishment, this new criminal path, odd as it felt to admit it.

Kirill whacked the bottom of the bottle, forcing a glug into Nikolai’s mouth, half of which ended up soaking his white shirt.

Suka!’ Nikolai coughed, elbowing Kirill hard in the ribs – though if it had any effect, it didn’t show, as he simply continued laughing so hard tears shone in his eyes. ‘You building empire, act like a Tsar!’

‘I’m Tsar, I make the rules!’ Kirill said gleefully, sinking deeper into the seat with a grin that seemed stuck on for life. ‘I make the rules. I give the orders. And my next order is –‘

He leaned forward, prodding the driver in the shoulder.

‘Strip club, now, on the double!’

---

By the time the two men stumbled into the Trans-Siberian, the light of dawn had already started washing away the iniquities of the fading night. The weight of Kirill’s larger body draped over Nikolai’s was as familiar as his overcoat. Tipsily walking Kirill to the door leading upstairs, Nikolai wondered how they hadn’t yet carved a trench into the floorboards with this oft-repeated journey. Still, maybe he shouldn’t be so flippant – a few months had passed since the last excess on this scale, a few months since their push into intimacy, his face red and smelling of booze and smushed against Nikolai’s shoulder.

Even a king could allow himself a few indiscretions.

‘Kolya…’ Kirill mumbled. ‘Gde my?’

‘Home,’ Nikolai answered, propping Kirill up on the Kazakh cushions in the corner. This was their usual pit stop before the long trek to Kirill’s room. ‘I get water, okay?’

Ignoring Kirill’s hands weakly grabbing the edge of his suit jacket, Nikolai walked purposefully, if not with a slight wobble, to the kitchen doors.

Nikolai turned on one of the taps and waited for the glass to fill up. Swaying, he held on to the metal countertop for support and remembered the first night he touched Kirill. The hard, pliable heat of his erection, the sticky mess covering the artwork on Nikolai’s hands – sensations he’d become well-acquainted with, that ghosted on his skin when he took care of his own arousal in the safety of his apartment. Even now, he knew he hadn’t run the risks properly, had taken a potentially disastrous, impulsive decision. He’d hoped to escalate the relationship, capitalise on Kirill’s feelings, but it had served more to muddy the waters than anything actually useful. And why? To spite his sisters?

The water was flowing freely out the top of the glass now. Nikolai pulled it out of the sink and took a much-needed sip on his way back.

Olga hadn’t followed up on her threat to look into him, so-far, but that didn’t mean she wasn’t trying. The Yard had been made aware, planted stories and contacts where need be, but it was hard to control the situation from abroad. No news was good news. Valentina came over from Europe from time to time, always courteous, but always suspicious. Their actions made sense, but Nikolai couldn’t help feeling a little offended. Perhaps the character he played was getting to him.

Seeing their brother cut back on the alcohol and thrive in his new role, Irina and Alexandra were happy to have Nikolai around, and they were the members of Kirill’s family who actually resided in London, so they mattered most. The plan was still on track.

He was surprised to see Kirill still awake and bright-eyed when he got back, sitting up under his own power. Nikolai started to crouch beside him, to feed him the water, but Kirill took the glass instead and gestured to the armchair nearby.

Nikolai regarded him sceptically, but seeing Kirill drink without any issues, he dropped into the plush chair with a deep, guttural sigh, legs outstretched and back halfway down the seat. His muscles felt like putty, and he closed his eyes to bask in the warmth and comfort of the room.

‘Hey, Kolya,’ he heard Kirill say, speaking into his glass.

Da?’

‘It was your idea, calling the Shapozhniks. Trying this new stuff.’

‘It’s my job.’ Nikolai rubbed his eyes, bursts of colour popping behind the lids. He heard the glass clink on the ground.

Kirill cleared his throat. ‘Yeah, but, I was thinking about what the Polyak asshole said, you know, and how we’re brothers, and I wanna, uh… I’ll do obshchak with you, and –‘

‘It’s my job,’ Nikolai repeated.

‘It’s your job.’

Kirill’s tone was mocking. Nikolai kept his hand over his eyes, not wanting to start something when he was this tired, when he had a good buzz going.

‘You know what I mean, Kiryusha. I take care of you. Don’t need favours.’

‘What if a favour to you is a favour to me?’

That made Nikolai blink, confused. Kirill knelt on the floor in front of the big tribal cushion, looking remarkably assured but for the slightest trembling of his hands. Nikolai watched, unmoving, as Kirill leaned forward and walked on all fours towards him, dropped his face low, and pressed a close-mouthed kiss to Nikolai’s shoe. One hand gingerly clasped Nikolai’s calf, urging his leg into a better position, easier access for another quick peck.

Through the haze of alcohol, it took a second to sink in. When Nikolai made a weak attempt to pull his foot away, Kirill held on.

‘What the fuck you doing?’ Nikolai murmured.

Kirill glanced up at him, with reverence and love and pleading, mutely asking him to be quiet, not to make it scarier. Did he plan this? Is it why he’d knocked back so much vodka? Were their hearts beating as hard as the other’s?

Swallowing dry, Nikolai said nothing. Kirill wet his lips and licked a long strip from the toe of Nikolai’s black leather derby shoe, up the arched top, the tip of his pink tongue following the bumps and divots of waxy laces. Nikolai could feel the pressure of those successively harder laps to the sides of his foot, the kisses that dared to go over and onto his ankles, the space between the shoe and the hem of his trousers covered in stretched black silk.

He shifted in his seat, making room for the erection growing between his legs. Kirill was letting out little noises now, contented moans like purrs in the back of his throat, each quiet sound making Nikolai’s cock twitch. The world was fuzzy at the edges, almost dream-like. What he saw felt far away, but his touch was raw and hyper-real.

One shoe worshipped to a shine, Kirill lavished equal attention on the other, slipping his fingers past the bottom of Nikolai’s trousers to fleetingly touch the bare skin of his leg. Nikolai watched him work, let him set the pace. Kirill lurched up, met the other’s eyes, plump lips red and wet from his work, inviting abuse. Nikolai remained carefully neutral, save for harder breaths.

Kirill’s gaze travelled down, settled on the lap before him, hungrily took in the clear definition of Nikolai’s hard cock straining against his clothes. He laughed, a short, high note.

‘Will I still be the Tsar, Kolya?’

He watched Nikolai for a reaction. There was sweat on his brow, on his chest, exposed as it so often was.

‘Everyone sees you as Tsar. So that’s what you are.’

‘Sometimes, I don’t – I want to be – somewhere else.’

Nikolai put his one hand either side of Kirill’s face. His skin was rough with stubble, so different from a woman’s. Tenderly, Nikolai stroked his cheekbones with his thumbs.

‘You can be anywhere, with me. Remember that. Okay? I take care of you. You know.’

Another chuckle. ‘Papa would kill me.’

The restaurant, so welcoming and warm, took on an oppressive air, as though at high altitude, a mounting pressure in the inner ears, the gut. Semyon probably wouldn’t have killed him, he’d shown too much grudging compassion for his failure of a son so-far, but the memory of the hundreds, thousands of beatings administered over the years couldn’t be easily dismissed. There was the threat of discovery, too, slim as it was – but Nikolai suspected it served as further titillation, a surreptitious fuck you to the home he grew up in. And it was a welcome reprieve from the usual, constant fear of professional exposure. At this hour, at worst, they might get glimpsed by a family member, and if they didn’t know about Kirill by now, they were likely to do further mental gymnastics to justify the situation.

So silence was the best option. Silence and the strong, anchoring feeling of skin on skin.

Kirill’s Adam’s apple bobbed, that familiar hunger reigniting in his features. Slowly, like moving a planchette, Nikolai directed him down, closer to the object of his desire, until Kirill’s face burrowed against that hot, rigid cock. He kissed it through layers of cotton, rubbed his cheek against it with a shuddering gasp, Nikolai groaning at the stimulation his body had been longing for.

Things happened fast after that, faster still in the mind of two drunken men.

Kirill scrambled for Nikolai’s flies and paused only briefly to regard his freed hard-on with something like awe. He closed his fist around the length, teased the foreskin back over the glans, mouth all but watering when a droplet of pre-come beaded at the slit.

‘Told you I’m no evrei,’ Nikolai murmured, lip quirked.

Kirill laughed, surprised, but shook his head. ‘Zatknis.’

So Nikolai shut up, and Kirill took him in his mouth.

The rest was a blur of wet heat. Kirill wasn’t very good at sucking cock, but he made up for a lack of skill with enthusiasm, knowledge of what made a man feel good, and years of repression. When Nikolai lifted his hips, Kirill grabbed them and encouraged him to thrust, to fuck his face, paying no mind to his choking when he took more than he could handle. And Nikolai did, carded fingers through messy bleached hair, humped as best he could from his seated position. It was like each blood cell flowing into his cock carried a pleasure particle, mounting more and more until he knew he was about to blow. From Kirill’s ragged breaths, the quick, steady motion of his right arm – he had to be close, too.

‘Move,’ grunted Nikolai, grasping Kirill’s shoulder and shoving him away.

Kirill knelt on the ground, hand on his own slick, swollen cock, which he kept stroking even as he watched his partner stand up. Nikolai took himself in hand, pumped his fist only a few times, and splattered Kirill with ropes of thick, pearlescent come – across his face, landing in his hair, even a few spurts hitting his neck and chest.

Eyes unfocused, high on the taste and smell of Nikolai and drunk in more ways than one, Kirill gripped Nikolai’s trouser leg, pulled, and whined out a ‘please!’

Nikolai would never be sure if his next move was calculated, influenced by considerations of Kirill’s particular demons, or if it was entirely fuelled by lust and residual rage. He tucked himself back into his clothes, lifted a spit-shined shoe, placed his sole squarely on Kirill’s chest, and shoved him onto the carpeted ground hard enough to knock the wind out of him.

‘Kolya - !’ Kirill gasped, jerking himself faster, gazing up with an adoration that bordered on the religious and that Nikolai had seen before, with Anna behind him and Christine moments from death. Kirill’s breath stuttered as Nikolai pressed down harder, smearing his cooling come all over Kirill’s chest, dangerously close to those dark, many-armed stars.

‘You can be anywhere,’ Nikolai said. ‘You can be anyone. And this is what you choose, Kiryusha.’

And with a silent cry, Kirill stiffened and came harder than he’d ever come before.

He lay on the carpet, trembling, shirt ruined with semen and sweat and dirt. Nikolai stepped off him, knelt down and tenderly ran a hand over Kirill’s forehead to push his hair away from his face. Those big blue eyes blinked open, gazed half-lidded.

‘I take you up, now,’ Nikolai murmured.

Kirill’s eyes creased, a grin split his face, and laughter wracked his body until tears were streaming down his face.

 

xiii. sepulchrum romanum

Nikolai sat at a central restaurant table, leafing through the latest Ogonyok, when the siblings came back. Right off the bat, he knew there’d been trouble.

Alexandra came in first, looking glamorous in a beige skirt and white blouse ensemble. She shot him an uncomfortable look, acknowledged him with a nod, and hurried upstairs without saying a word.

Kirill followed. It was funny seeing him properly shaved, his dirty blonde hair respectably combed. The Italian-cut grey suit and black turtleneck made him more suited for the Royal Opera House or the Barbican than a day visit to one of Her Majesty’s Prisons, never mind a hole like Pentonville. He smiled at Nikolai, tired, but there was something in the way he moved that didn’t seem right.

Nikolai tossed the magazine aside and stood to meet him. ‘You okay?’

‘Yeah,’ Kirill said lightly, nodding. He shrugged off his jacket, handed it to Nikolai, and rolled up his sleeves, heading for the kitchen. ‘Papa was happy to see us. He liked Maria’s card.’

‘She still think he’s on holiday?’

‘It’s what he wants her to think.’

‘He love his grandchildren. Even if he is ublyudok.

Kirill shrugged. Nikolai calling the old man a bastard always got some sort of response – a furious confrontation the first time, a wry smile for the past couple of months. Never nothing.

They walked past the swinging doors, into a room gearing up for the evening rush. The kitchen staff – those who spoke English – knew better than to risk overhearing the conversation, stuck to simmering broths and prepping ingredients.  Kirill unfastened his Bvlgari wristwatch and handed it to Nikolai before grabbing an apron off the hangers.

He hadn’t made eye contact once.

‘How old he’s now?’

‘Seventy-eight.’

‘Spent half his birthdays in prison, da? Maybe it will make him feel young.’

Kirill nodded, not quite smiling..

‘He get money okay?’

‘Uh-huh.’

‘And phone?’

‘Yeah. I think he has someone holding it for him. He doesn’t want to get caught.’

A couple of lackeys had been sent to toss a package over the prison wall, with a cheap but sturdy mobile and a couple of baggies of blow for favours. Semyon was in for rape, and the guards were aware of his reputation among the Russian community, so he’d be watched closely. A man like him knew better than to stupidly risk a longer sentence.

‘If he loses phone, we send another one.’ Nikolai smiled. ‘I hear they use drones now, to drop contraband. Maybe we get one too, yeah? Or two. Something new to play with.’

Kirill shrugged.

This was getting tiresome.

‘Kirill.’ Nikolai stepped nearer, putting a hand on his shoulder and kneading softly. His voice was low. ‘V chem dela?’

‘Nothing’s wrong, I said,’ Kirill spoke a tensely, but didn’t shrug him off. He was washing his hands, ready to start cooking. ‘I just – you know how he speaks to me. What he thinks of me. Talking shit.’

‘You are making your own choices, and business is booming. He is jealous.’

‘Papa isn’t jealous of me.’ There was a smile now, but a wry one, whose humour was directed only at himself. ‘No way.’

‘You be surprised.’

Saying nothing, Kirill grabbed a knife from the magnetic rack and started slicing cherry tomatoes. Three careful cuts to the blossom end allowed the fruit to be pulled open in a flower shape, with the seedy guts as the pollen. Watching him be gentle with children, expertly create minute flourishes for the meals, soften when they were alone – these moments of tenderness made something clench in Nikolai’s stomach.

It was never meant to be this hard.

‘You wanna party tonight?’ Nikolai’s hand ran down Kirill’s shoulder, settling in the small of his back. ‘I take you where you like.’

‘The girls are over for dinner. Remember?’

Of course. The monthly conclave. He tapped Kirill’s back and let go.

‘So we stay in. That’s okay too. Is Olga Semyonovna here, or you want me to drive to airport?’

‘Olga’s not coming.’ His clipped tone gave Nikolai pause. ‘We had a talk, this morning. She’s not coming until she treats me like she treats Papa. With respect.’

Nikolai nodded. He fished his sunglasses out of his inside pocket and put them on. ‘Ya znayu, boss. I let you work. Got some errands I can do.’

He started towards the doors leading to the back of the restaurant, but before he could get very far, he heard Kirill call:

‘Kolya.’

Looking over his shoulder, Nikolai lowered his sunglasses enough to acknowledge him. Kirill was facing him, knife in hand, looking lost.

Da?’

‘I…’ he turned the knife’s handle over and over, idly, mouth slightly parted. ‘Come back after, okay? I need backup. To deal with the witches.’

Nikolai smiled.

Ya znayu.

I understand.

---

The tour went as smoothly as always. Shopkeepers, restaurateurs, club owners – everyone greeted him with wide smiles and worried eyes, discreetly handing over envelopes of cash hidden amongst bottles of spirits, parcels of freshly cooked food, imported treats from back home. They asked after Kirill, made conversation about the weather and the traffic, and bid him goodbye as they would an old family friend.

It was exhausting.

With a boot full of miscellaneous ex-Soviet goodies, Nikolai drove to his final destination and wondered how many of their “clients” would slit his throat if given the chance. He hoped they’d be compensated, in the future, but he wasn’t holding his breath. They had too many skeletons to cooperate with the police, if they even wanted to.

Maybe they’d be even happier to slit his throat if they found out he was a snitch.

The polished storefronts and pretty Edwardian-style homes quickly gave way to decrepit brick buildings and neglected roads, as he crossed the invisible divide between an affluent pocket of town and a modern-day rotten borough. Things back home weren’t better, but the disparity in wealth in such close quarters was jarring, especially in a country touted as first-world. It was something Nikolai was still getting used to, years on.

Though he hadn’t been back for a few weeks, there was an empty parking spot right in front of the building, as there always was. He left the BMW and went inside, locking it only out of habit. Even in this slummy part of London, the locals knew better than to mess with his car. He could have left the door wide open and been fine.

Perks of the job.

The curtains were open, and the fading daylight let him sweep his small flat in seconds. He was skilled enough to know if he’d been followed, and so-far, he never had been, but he could never be too careful. This talk about Olga had him uneasy, unhappier than usual about being back here. The place was a haven, early on, somewhere he could let the mask drop and relax for five, six hours (eight if he was lucky), before going back to being Nikolai.

But now…

Now, stepping inside was like firewalking, and long after he’d left, he knew he’d feel the niggling itch of his lies scabbing over.

Now, he was Nikolai so often, for such long stretches of time. For weeks, he’d slept at the Trans-Siberian, dressing in suits and shirts that mysteriously materialized in the wardrobe. Some nights, sharing a drink or two with Kirill, he’d get a signal from his partner. A look, a lingering touch, the awkward beginning of an invitation. So he’d find an excuse to get closer to Kirill, to help him up if he’d had too many, to carry accounts folders up to his father’s old office. And behind closed doors, he made Kirill let go of the reins, strip body and soul and give in to desires carried across continents and fermented over the better part of thirty years.

Now, if he didn’t make a conscious effort, sometimes he didn’t know where the mask ended and his skin began.

In his bedroom, Nikolai opened the drawer full of mobiles and picked out the one he needed. He had three phones on standby, for underworld contacts, Trans-Siberian staff, and Kirill and his family – everyone in the business worked this way. But this one was special.

He plugged it into the wall, waited until it was charged up enough to be used, dismissed the dozens of missed call notifications, and found the number.

‘Yeah?’ said a gruff voice on the other end.

Privyet. It’s Nikolai.’

‘Oh, hi, mate! How you getting on with the books?’

‘Good. I just finish Silmarillion.’

‘Alright, great. I’ll put you through.’

He’d come up with the code at the start of the mission.

After a few seconds, another man came on the phone, the familiar tones of his handler, Yuri.

‘You’ve taken your time getting back to us, haven’t you?’

Nikolai shrugged, picked at his nails. ‘It’s been busy time.’

Eight calls. Didn’t you notice?’

‘I notice. When I turn on phone five minutes ago. Izvinite.’

‘I know it’s hard to get away. But we need you contactable. It’s happening soon.’

A pause.

‘I’m still working, Yuri.’

‘Yes –‘

‘We agree, I get to top. Then we hit. It has been less than one year.’

‘I know what we said. But the clock’s ticking. It’s not just the Yard demanding answers, Russia –‘

‘Look. Few months ago, I get evidence on Shapozhniks. I lead business out of human trafficking, into crime you can trace in secret, easier, online. I do not have all of Semyon’s contacts yet –‘

‘But you’ve got dirt on the son, don’t you? He’ll have his father’s address book.’

‘I don’t know if he’ll cooperate. Not yet.’

There was silence between them. Nikolai could hear Yuri sigh.

‘I, of all people, don’t need to tell you that every day that passes is another rape, another death –‘

‘Of course,’ Nikolai said, pained. Sitting on the edge of his bed, which he hadn’t slept in for close to a month, he rubbed the coarse material of the blanket between his fingers as he spoke. ‘I know that. I don’t need a lot more time. Just little. Then I deliver best results.’

‘We’ve got people on the other end of the supply line, and they’re making noises about closing the deal. If the Vor in London finds out their partners have been cut down –‘

‘They get scared. Suspicious. I know. Just little time, Yuri. Pozhalusta.’

He could picture Yuri, in his Westminster office, reading over the expanding file on Kirill with a hard look on his face. He knew it was the right attitude. But he couldn’t bring himself to go back to his old perception, fed by a youth of misery and violence and being ground under the heel of one dictator, then another, where crime ran rampant and tenderness was for the weak. He’d always known that life was rotten, from the core outwards. He’d chosen a different path, eventually.

He’d had that option. Not everyone did – or knew they did.

‘Three weeks. That’s all I can do.’

Nikolai nodded.

Ya znayu.’

They exchanged some more words on administrative issues before Nikolai hung up. The cellphone’s screen was bright in the gloomy room, glowing blue on inked skin. He turned the device around in his hand, unplugged it, and slid it back into the drawer with the others. Walking to the door, he looked around the sparsely decorated flat. The decorating was coherent with his identity, gave the place a lived-in appearance, but everything was impersonal, carefully selected and placed by a team of experts on loan from MI5. With that kind of staff, he mused, per cubic metre, this ratty apartment probably had the most expensive interior design in the city.

He put a hand on the doorknob, and paused.

There were unspoken rules to their encounters.

Since Kirill’s first blowjob, he’d been eager to repeat the experience, gradually dispensing with total inebriation until he only needed a couple of glasses as pretence to engage. He’d taken to sucking cock like a pro, taking Nikolai further and further down his throat until he could kiss the base of his shaft without choking. He looked more drunk than ever, intoxicated on Nikolai, any concerns melting away while his whole world focused on the organ under his tongue.

Nikolai was forbidden from reciprocating.

He’d tried, once, halfway through a clandestine handjob, and Kirill pushed him away hard, horrified. And Nikolai knew why. The way he’d framed it, jerking Kirill off was a service, something born of necessity and carried out dispassionately. The blowjobs were a lapse on Kirill’s part, something brought about by drink and loneliness and inflicted on a long-suffering assistant, like any of his other excesses. Allowing Nikolai to debase himself by responding would shred the thin veneer they’d constructed.

That was why gentleness was strictly segregated from sexuality, reserved only for moments when both were clothed.

A kiss would be Kirill’s undoing.

Nikolai left his apartment and made his way back to the car. The motor purred in the expensive machine, barely noticeable, so different from the motorcycle he rode to terrorize the countryside back home. Like anything Soviet, it shouldn’t even have worked, held together with spit and a prayer – and still, it thrived in the harshest conditions.

He tapped his fingers on the steering wheel, from his left pinkie to his right.

There was a good chance Kirill had figured out his identity. That was the subtext of their odd interaction earlier. Olga had threatened to investigate him, after all, and Semyon was sure to have his own suspicions. You didn’t have to be an intellectual giant to put two and two together, and Kirill wasn’t stupid, no matter how much he pretended to be.

So why hadn’t he said anything? Obviously, he liked Nikolai, but he’d liked Soyka, too. And in the grand scheme of things, spreading rumours about the tsarevich’s proclivities didn’t hold a candle to being a double agent. And this family dinner tonight… would Nikolai be walking straight into a trap? He scratched his cheek with his thumb, grazing the bump of his bathhouse scar. Fool me once, shame on you.

But that look in Kirill’s eyes, right before he left. That confusion. The way he spoke about his older sister. Maybe he’d chosen a different side. Maybe he wanted to cross over.

Nikolai breathed in deep, and pulled out of his parking space.

If he’d wanted to live long, he would’ve chosen another line of work.

---

Dinner was in the main dining room of the apartments, one of the communal areas before the home split into smaller flats for each branch of the family. At the head of the table was Kirill, Nikolai and Valentina to his right, Irina, Alexandra and Maria to his left. Irina’s children were away on a field trip. The lack of Olga’s formidable presence weighed on the room, and the silence was starting to become oppressive.

Even the food was lacking. Instead of a specially prepared hearty dish of hand-folded pelmeni or zharkoye stewed to succulent, crumbling perfection, Kirill had simply thrown together some leftovers from the restaurant’s evening rush and called it a day. The golubtsi were lukewarm, their cabbage casings disintegrating into a soggy mess around fluffy minced meat. The kasha was downright cold. Every so often, a little lump of groats tumbled down the side of the dish, a mini buckwheat avalanche.

Nikolai spooned a lump of beef into his mouth, fruitlessly trying to make eye contact with Kirill. He hadn’t been knifed the second he stepped into the Trans-Siberian, but any attempt to start a conversation was waylaid. Kirill was needed in the kitchen, or he had to talk to someone on the phone, or Nikolai suddenly had to go deal with some delivery mix-up. By the time he was ushered into the dining room, he’d hardly said two words to the man whose fate he knew he had to seal. And soon.

As he chewed, he noticed Maria watching him, then looking away with colour on her cheeks. How would she remember him? Her side of the family would be fine, he imagined. After a thorough sweep, they’d be allowed back into the building, and as co-proprietor, Irina would decide whether to keep the place running or pack it in and move out with her husband.

He smiled at the girl, sipped his wine to help the food down.

‘How was school?’ he asked, elbows on the table, hands laced together. The question seemed to surprise everyone, as if snapping them out of a trance. They blinked at Maria, expecting an answer. ‘Your homework okay?’

‘I think so,’ she said, shy of all the attention. ‘We worked on pronunciation today. I think I got a bit better. Look.’ She grabbed her glass of kompot and raised it up. ‘Mama, dyadya Kirill, tetya Valechka, tetya Irisha, Nikolai! Za zdorovie!

Her accent was, in fact, impeccable. Alexandra giggled, beaming proudly at her daughter. Even Kirill was grinning.

‘Hey, Masha, we’ll have to teach you some real toasts, huh?’ He glanced at Nikolai, elbowing him, and the warmth between them was real. ‘When you’re older.’

‘Valechka makes beautiful toasts,’ Irina said. ‘Always she talked really well.’

‘And she learned all by herself!’ Alexandra piped up. ‘Papa didn’t bother sending her to Russian school.’

‘I didn’t learn by myself.’ Valentina spoke calmly, with a magnanimous smile, cutting her cabbage roll into little bite-sized pieces. ‘Papa taught me. Because I asked him.’

‘He was happy someone cared about, uh, literature and sh– stuff like that.’ Kirill nodded to the sisters on his left. ‘No chance for Sasha, Irka, or me. Valechka’s the smart one.’

‘What about Olya,’ Valentina said.

There was immediate tension in the room, something Maria evidently picked up on, because she quickly asked:

‘How was my accent, Nikolai?’

Nikolai pretended to think it over, resting his lips against his knuckle, then nodded and gave her a thumbs up. Seeing her blush made the lump of food in his throat stick, expand, drop like a stone in a well when he forced it down.

‘By the way… I noticed a couple of new men lurking around,’ said Valentina, looking at Kirill. ‘Nerdy boys. For the internet venture, Kirya?’

‘Yeah. I don’t get that stuff. They come with good references.’

‘Recommended,’ Nikolai added, though she promptly ignored him.

‘You know I’ve been in that game for a while. I could’ve loaned you some of my people.’

‘I’m taking chances. You always say I gotta go my own way.’

‘Yes, if you chart that way out, first.’ Valentina put her cutlery down. Her hair was almost white, already pale blonde peroxided several shades lighter. It made her look somewhat ethereal. ‘Hiring a caravan of newcomers all at once is risky–‘

‘Ey, Valechka, chto – you think I dunno?’ Kirill frowned at her. Maria seemed to have switched off when the business talk started, but they had to be careful to avoid suspicious phrases she could repeat at school. Best to keep her out of the loop for a long as possible. ‘Business is growing. I need guys to talk to Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, so I hire them. But I’m careful. I get good advice.’

‘From who, though?’

The siblings stared at each other, with Nikolai on the periphery of their eyesight. Irina, Alexandra, and Maria ate quietly.

‘That isn’t for outsiders to know,’ Kirill said. His tone was level, but the rage behind it was palpable. ‘You walked out of here. So you don’t get to wait for Papa to be – gone to show up and try to take over. You do what I say.’

He hit the table with the side of his fist to emphasise the final word, rattling the cutlery. Throughout, neither he nor she had wavered in their gaze, unwilling to back down. Eventually, with a short sigh, Valentina turned to her plate again.

Kirill nodded, leaning back in his chair. He took the napkin out of his lap, bunched it up on the table, and stood up, snapping his fingers for Nikolai to follow.

‘I gotta check on dessert. Kolya.’

Nikolai obediently obliged, but not before noting the daggers Valentina was staring at him.

‘Can you believe her?’ Kirill grunted, as soon as they were out of hearing range. He headed for the dumbwaiter connecting the living quarters’ kitchen to the industrial one below, opened it, and pulled out the cake scraps he’d had staff send up. ‘Papa was always easy on her. She’s the baby. The favourite.’

As he spoke, he shoved the off cuts into a blender and slapped on the top, pulverising the lot. It was a process Nikolai had witnessed many times before. Not here, not in London, but in his mother’s kitchen, where he’d watch her quickly turn a bag of crushed cookies and day-old pastries into a glorious batch of kartoshka just by adding a lick of condensed milk and a few spoonfuls of sugar. Sometimes, she’d let him add the finishing touch of a layer of cocoa powder over the balls of sweetened cake mixture, covering them up until they looked just like tiny brown potatoes. It was something they ate as a family, when his father came home from the factory or a Party meeting.

Until Nikolai grew too old for that sort of thing.

With a sense of surreality, he watched Kirill repeat the steps he knew so well, tossing in the ingredients as he complained.

‘She doesn’t want outsiders in our business, but she’s the one who thought she was –‘ he kneaded the ingredients together aggressively, treating them like a stress ball, ‘ – like, too good for us or something! And now she’s pissed off I’m doing things my way? Na khuy, blyat! Are women like this where you’re from?’

Abruptly, Kirill turned to him, too annoyed to remember his previous distance. Nikolai opened his mouth, closed it and smiled with a shrug, clasping his hands together at his hips.

‘Russian women are all same. Can’t be tamed.’

‘Yeah, well, I think a couple smacks would solve the problem,’ Kirill grumbled, scooping out portions of the dessert onto baking paper. Using the tine of a fork, he pressed divots into the dough to make lumps and eyes on the potatoes, enhancing the realism. He gestured for Nikolai to come over. ‘Davai, you put the chocolate on them.’

Taking a step forward, Nikolai hesitated, overtaken with a feeling of unease. What were they doing, messing around like this, when the cloud of his real identity hung low, pregnant, about to burst and soak through his cloak? Kirill looked over at him.

Chto? Come on.’

‘I got question.’

‘You can talk and help at the same time.’

Nikolai tentatively walked over and took up his position beside Kirill. They stood shoulder to shoulder, parallel, manipulating the delicate sweets with killer’s fingers. Nikolai washed his hands and rolled the first dumpling in the bowl of cocoa powder.

‘Why Olga isn’t here?’ he asked, coating a second kartoshka.

‘I told you. She don’t respect me.’

‘What she say?’

‘That I dunno what I’m doing, and I need to ask what she thinks, and Papa wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing – what does it matter?’ His voice strained on the last sentence. ‘She don’t respect me, so I tell her to fuck off, that’s all.’

‘Did she talk about me?’

Kirill paused, then. Nikolai placed his completed kartoshka on the paper, supported his weight on his knuckles, and leaned forward a little to see Kirill’s face properly. His lips were pressed together. He was deliberately avoiding eye contact.

‘Kirill.’

‘She said – she –‘ he huffed, and ran a hand over his forehead. ‘She talked to Papa on the phone before I showed up, and they said some – bullshit. Shit that’s not worth telling you. So don’t… ask. Okay?’

‘Okay.’ A pause. ‘And you? Is there something you want to ask me?’

Kirill’s head whipped towards him, and his eyes held that same mixture of loss and confusion and even, somehow, of hope.

And Nikolai had hope, too, that Kirill would do the right thing.

They stared at each other, bodies aligned, arms touching. Kirill opened his mouth.

BANG BANG BANG.

They jumped, ripped out of a tense moment. A succession of booming noises came from outside the kitchen. Someone hitting the door, desperately, a muffled cry. And then one of the women screamed, followed by a thundering clattering.

Nikolai and Kirill dashed into the dining room, stopping dead at the sight.

The tablecloth was shoved to the side, spilling the bowl of kasha and staining the geometric Tajik carpet with the contents of plates and glasses. Osip, one of their latest recruits, stood bent over the table. His blue t-shirt was dyed dark purple with blood, streaming branching red rivulets down his thin arms. But he wasn’t the one who was hurt.

Laid out on top of the table was Ippolit, a fellow newbie, though unlike Osip, he wasn’t fresh to the Vor, just the British side of it. Usually hard to read, his features displayed naked fear, crimson mouth hanging open like the gaping, ragged wound on his stomach. A knife strike had sliced through leather, cotton, skin and muscle to liberate ropes of bulging, shiny intestines. Ippolit’s twitching and spluttering showed that he wasn’t dead, not yet, but the growing black pool dripping down the sides of the table meant he wouldn’t last much longer in this state. Osip pressed his balled-up jacket to the wound, trying hard to stem the flow with shaky, unpracticed hands.

Wordlessly, Nikolai rushed over to inspect the damage, just as Valentina ran back into the dining room with a towel and an armful of first aid supplies. Alexandra had Maria hugged to her front, shielding her eyes from the scene, and Irina watched from the doorway to the hall, hand over her mouth.

‘You call ambulance?’ Nikolai asked. He elbowed Osip, repeated the question when he didn’t get a reply.

Osip shook his head. ‘He don’t have papers.’

‘Get off,’ Valentina pushed Osip’s hands away and mopped up the blood with the towel, concentrating on clearing up the sides of the wound. ‘You’re making it worse. Hold his legs down. Nikolai, hold his shoulders.’

‘Like you know what to do?’ Kirill barked.

I do.’

The self-assuredness of her tone made Kirill back off, and Nikolai moved to press Ippolit onto the table. He wasn’t moving much, but Valentina’s actions might have him squirming soon. They watched as she deftly cleared the area of blood, disinfected a needle, and poked it through one side of his split skin. The wound was straight and clean, and miraculously, it didn’t seem to have cut into the bowels. Nikolai kept his grip on the man’s shoulders firm, wondering where Kirill’s youngest sister had learned this.

‘Kirill!’

Everyone except Valentina turned to Alexandra. Her face was red, scrunched up in a grimace, and her eyes shone with tears. She clutched her daughter tightly to her body. Kirill went to her.

‘Hey, let’s get Maria out of here –‘

Alexandra recoiled from his touch and spat at his feet. Kirill stopped, shocked, arm still outstretched in her direction.

This shit never comes in here,’ she said in frigid Russian. ‘Papa promised. You promised.’

This shit?’ Kirill spoke without feeling, closing his fist. ‘What do you think pays for your fucking dresses?

Without another word, Alexandra stepped away from Maria just enough to walk her out of the room, one hand clasped tightly on the back of her head to keep her facing forward.

But Nikolai saw.

As they rounded the door, passing Irina, Alexandra loosened her grip, and Maria’s eyes swept the scene from the destroyed carpet, up the central twisting pillar supporting the table, the soles of Ippolit’s shoes, the little pile of guts that Auntie Valechka was slowly tucking back in with cold precision and bare hands, the exposed, tattooed flesh of Nikolai’s forearms, up the red line of the tie she’d gifted him just shy of five months ago, to meet his grey eyes. She didn’t look scared, or sad. She looked hurt.

And then she disappeared around the door.

 

xiv. com mortuis in lingua mortua

They got the story from Osip. He and Ippolit hadn’t even been doing anything, really. Just checking out pubs when they’d been spotted by Pavel’s crew out near Charing Cross. Osip only knew it was them by the Polish curses that swept past his ears like a stiff wind, because they acted fast. Five Poles pulled Ippolit into an alleyway, cut his stomach with near-surgical precision, and ran back out before Osip could even process what had happened, knocking him on his ass as they escaped. After failing to stem the haemorrhage, he’d driven back to the Trans-Siberian, at a loss for anything better to do.

He cried as he spoke, dressed in his friend’s drying blood, and Kirill listened with a hard look on his face and a throbbing vein in his temple. This was war.

Nikolai tried to mitigate things – Osip hadn’t actually seen Pavel there. Maybe it was a rogue band from his gang acting without his knowledge? No, Kirill said. It was a provocation. Just like the Shapozhniks fucking him over by recommending undocumented enforcers like Ippolit, guys who could get arrested and deported and lead the cops back to the restaurant. Nobody respected him. If he had to prove himself in a trial by fire, he’d damn well fucking do it. He’d summon his father’s old crew, the men Nikolai had seen on that Men’s Day night, and they’d hash out a plan. Some of them were on the continent, so it’d take a few days, but that only gave him more time to come up with a strategy himself. For now, he had to sleep.

Sleep.

Ippolit slept forever now. Despite Valentina’s best efforts and, frankly, incredible work, he’d lost too much blood.

In the restaurant’s basement, Nikolai observed the naked cadaver before him. A large piece of plastic sheeting was spread out under the fold-out table supporting it. In Vor fashion, Ippolit’s body was riddled with all the tattoos Nikolai was well-acquainted with. The stitched-up wound that would never heal bisected an enormous tattoo of Jesus Christ’s face that took up all of the corpse’s torso. Sunken cheeks, larger than life eyes, in the Orthodox style, a halo that span both pectorals, a crown of thorns across his sternum. The raw scar made it look like Jesus’ head had been cut off and poorly reattached. At another time, Kirill might have found it funny.

Nikolai touched Ippolit’s cheek. He felt like cold clay, his skin pliable and doughy. Kirill had phoned around and arranged for a disposal method, unwilling to resort to the Thames again. Too many bad memories, perhaps. Instead, one of the butcher shops in their protection area agreed to drive the body out to their suppliers’ farm and toss it to the pigs. It was an old trick, a cliché at this point, but it worked. Ravenous, lactating sows would strip the flesh in less than ten minutes, and consume the bones in the ensuing hour.

They just had to provide the body in easy, portable pieces.

Wearily, Nikolai shuffled the corpse up so its head hung off the end of the table, over the metal pail. Ippolit hadn’t been dead long, so he hoped he’d be able to get most of the blood out through the neck. That could be washed down the drain. Everything else would be consumed on the farm.

He went to the selection of tools laid out on the workbench, took the knife placed between the hacksaw and the hammer. He was good at this. He’d be done with plenty of time to spare before pick-up.

Yuri was right.

It was over.

 

xv. baba-yaga (the hut on chicken legs)

Yuri knew about the corpse disposal. The van would be intercepted at the farm. Semyon’s old friends would be stopped as they arrived in the country or in London, depending on where they were travelling from. In the former Soviet states where the West held some sway, the police was getting ready to make a move on the mobsters they’d been tailing and infiltrating just like Nikolai had. If they pulled it off, this would cripple the Russian mob like nothing before. Everything was in place.

There was only one last hurdle.

Nikolai found Kirill outside, sitting on the raised cement section of the delivery area around the back of the restaurant. Kirill raised the bottle in greeting. Whiskey was more of a mellow downer, less likely to provoke outbursts of feeling.

‘All sorted?’ Kirill asked.

Nikolai nodded, stopping before him. ‘Da.’

‘Good. Otlichno.’ He gestured with his chin at the space beside him.

Nikolai sat down on the cold concrete, and took the proffered bottle. He took a swig, winced, and glanced over to the corner, noting the absence of the guard dog. ‘Gdye Boris?’

‘At the vet. Stupid asshole broke his tooth on something and wouldn’t stop whining.’ Kirill grabbed the bottle, but didn’t drink from it straight away. ‘You okay?’

‘Why wouldn’t I be?’

‘It’s rough man. Cuttin’ a guy up. Blya.’

‘Did not seem so bad when I cut Soyka.’

‘Yeah, that’s different. Ippolit didn’t do anything wrong. Poor bastard.’ He bit his lip, chewing thoughtfully. ‘We’ll fuck those guys up. You and me.’

Nikolai didn’t say anything. He looked up. Back home, they were far enough from everything to have stars, true glimmering reminders of interstellar death and rebirth dotting the inky Russian sky. Here, he could see the moon. Nothing else. Kirill followed his gaze and tipped his head back – enough that he lost his precarious balance and smacked back on the ground with a chortle, feet still firmly planted on the ground.

‘Ah, suka…’ he mumbled between chuckles, slinging an arm back over his eyes. With how much he drank, his world spun more often than it stood still. Maybe that would make things easier.

‘How is… Maria?’ Nikolai asked.

It had taken three hours for Ippolit to die. Nikolai went straight to the basement to dismember the body, then juggled the butchers’ pick-up and communication with Yuri, all the while managing the underlings to avoid premature violence against the Poles. He hadn’t seen any member of Kirill’s family since last night.

‘Sasha asked if she wanted to stay home from school, but she said nah. Later, she came back and acted like nothing happened. But she’s not smiling. She don’t look at me.’ He swallowed thickly. ‘I dunno if we’ve fucked her up, Kolya.’

‘Probably she already know more than you think,’ Nikolai said, gentle but neutral. Kirill didn’t move from his supine position. The rise and fall of his chest was deep. One would almost guess he was dreaming.

‘I can’t remember when I figured it out. Papa never told me, I always kinda knew. Maybe it’s like that for her.’

‘Do you wish it wasn’t?’

Silence, again.

Nikolai knotted his fingers together. He was a professional, he’d done infiltration before – shorter, granted. Shallower. There was a video camera pointed at them, part of the Trans-Siberian’s extravagant security system, but no microphones. They could speak freely. And if things went south, well, there’d be evidence on tape to exonerate him or inculpate Kirill.

But the thought made him sick.

He started when something brushed the outside of his thigh. Kirill’s hand had crept down from his face to run the back of his middle and index fingers on Nikolai’s leg. It could almost be accidental, if it weren’t for their history. The small signals between them.

Kirill wanted to be comforted.

His eyes were still closed, his cheeks flushed. Giving silent permission for Nikolai to undo his trousers and give him cold, clinical release. Maybe he’d want to get on his knees, too, scuff them on the hard ground and walk around with bruises and a sore throat for days to remember –

Remember what?

Nikolai felt his heartbeat in his throat, drumming down his stomach, making his itch in every nook and cranny. He took Kirill’s wrist, squeezing hard at first and releasing just as fast, to drop the hand on the concrete step.

‘There is way to change things,’ Nikolai heard himself say, as if underwater. ‘A way to break cycle.’

He didn’t look back, hoping Kirill would react somehow, give him something to work off of. Eventually, he heard a very quiet:

‘Yeah?’

He nodded.

‘Yeah.’

A pause.

‘I’m with police.’

He said it quietly, in his naturally low, soft tone, and he worried for a moment whether he’d been audible at all. This was dispelled when Kirill sat up like a shot, staring with unbridled shock. The men watched each other for just a second before he scuttled backwards and stumbled to his feet, taking a few steps back from Nikolai with a hand over his mouth. He shook his head, only a little, then brought both hands to his face and pressed his fingernails hard into the skin of his forehead and cheeks, leaning forwards and losing his footing so Nikolai stood up on instinct to prevent his fall –

But Kirill caught himself, swung around to face the back of the restaurant, threw his head back and his arms aside, and let out a howl that rose up from the depth of his guts, passed his red-hot heart, boiled up his throat, and rocketed out in an ear-splitting scream that spoke of the most crushing grief and made all of Nikolai’s tattoos and bathhouse scars throb in unison.

The cry released, Kirill sunk into a squat, then sat down with a thump, breathing hard and keening with each exhale. Watching his trembling back, Nikolai’s urge was to put a hand around his shoulders, squeeze him tightly and whisper reassurance. He knew he’d feel this way. Where was the line between duty and desire? It was almost non-existent, at this point, and that made it all the harder to stay rooted in place, a safe distance from his shivering charge.

‘You didn’t know?’ Nikolai asked.

Kirill didn’t reply. His breathing was still laboured, but silent now, and that was almost more worrying. His fingers were intertwined over the back of his head, placing him in a natural recovery position. Nikolai took a step towards him.

‘Kirill –‘

‘Of course I know!’ Kirill shouted, voice cracking. He shot an agonised look over his shoulder, then scrambled to stand and backed up against one of the concrete pillars supporting the unloading dock’s roof. Nikolai knew this put him out of range of the security cameras. Kirill held on to the pillar with one hand, steadying himself. His face was red and shiny with twin trails of tears, his lips wet with saliva. ‘Fuck you. You think I’m fucking stupid. Fuck – fucking of course I know.’

‘Did Semyon tell you?’

Hurt scrunched up Kirill’s face, and he tried to dismiss it with a firm shake of the head. ‘No. You really think I’m stupid as shit.’

Nikolai frowned. ‘You were upset when you visited him. I thought that’s when –‘

‘He said something, yeah. He said don’t trust you, that he didn’t have proof but his gut says you fucked him and his gut’s always right.’ He sniffed hard, aggressively wiped his eyes with the heel of his palm. ‘And Olga said it too. Couldn’t pin nothing on you, but that’s worse than finding something, ‘cause nobody’s got a record that clean. And me – I got that feeling. ‘Cause I know what hiding feels like. That kinda – ‘ he gestured near his head, grasping for the right idea. ‘Like there’s something wrong. Like it’s too good. Like you came from a dream. Like nobody’s gonna take an ambush for me, go to the hospital for me, and stick with me after all that shit. But we’re brothers. You’re with me. I’m with you. Even if you started one way, I thought you’ve changed to my side ‘cause you – I –‘

He stopped, eyes brimming with fat, hot tears.

‘Everybody told me to be careful, and I told them to fuck off. Because,’ Kirill sobbed, ‘I didn’t want it to be true.’

Every heartbeat hurt, but Nikolai couldn’t say anything. An apology wouldn’t be right, and more importantly, it wouldn’t be true. He hated what Kirill symbolized. He had done for decades. But Kirill himself –

‘I should kill you,’ Kirill said, quietly, croakily. ‘I should cut your fucking throat. I should cut your balls off. Piece of shit. Pidrazt.’ He pressed his lips together hard and hit the pillar with the side of his fist. Once, twice, then he collapsed against it, smacking his forehead hard on the concrete surface. ‘Fuck. Fuck!’

‘You know why I tell you now?’ asked Nikolai, walking slowly to Kirill, voice level and dispassionate.

‘I don’t fucking care! What the fuck!’ Kirill spat, rearing back and hitting his forehead against the wall with a sickening, dull whack.

‘Stop,’ Nikolai said. ‘Won’t help.’

Kirill kept his face where it had landed, but didn’t try again. Instead, Nikolai observed, he was working his bottom lip between his teeth, fast and hard, chewing it like a tough piece of meat.

‘Kirill. You can do right thing.’ He was only a few paces away, and could see the red patch on Kirill’s forehead where a bruise was sure to form. ‘That’s why I tell you. Think of Christine. Your sister. Semyon would kill her. And baby few months back – from one of the stable girls.’

‘So what? Huh? They’re our women! I do what I like with them!’ This was rote stuff, memorised and regurgitated with a venomous undertone. He sniffed again. ‘We’re doing other things now anyway. You helped.’

‘We are not moving on completely. Still whorehouses open.’ Nikolai sighed through his nose, conscious of every breath and every bead of sweat rolling down his body. He was still in the cameras’ line of sight, but Kirill stubbornly remained hidden behind the pillar. That made the situation unpredictable.

‘Well, what, we just – throw them out on the street so they can go to the fucking poli-‘ Kirill cut himself off, stifling a hard sob. ‘There’s people on top of the world and people on the bottom. That’s how it is!’

‘You really think that? You think you earned it? Your father bought your stars. You think you wouldn’t be at bottom of pile if he don’t lift you?’

Kirill looked disarmed by his words. Nikolai pressed on:

‘I tell you now because it’s best time. You call Semyon’s partners. Agents in East are ready to act, too. If we make hit, we cut off European Vor’s legs and they crash down.’ His next words were harder to say, but he forced a dispassionate tone. ‘I’m giving you chance to be on right side. To make deal.’

‘What if I say no?’

‘Then we cut anyway, and you fall with the others.’

Kirill seemed to physically shrink. He shook his head. Nikolai stepped closer, knowing he was getting out of surveillance range, but spurred on by feelings he never asked for.

Kirill. Blyat.’ He only hesitated a second before reaching out and gripping Kirill’s shoulder, hard – so hard that, in his boneless state, Nikolai shoved him against the pillar, forcing Kirill to face him. He blinked, jaw trembling, but he was paying attention. Nikolai grabbed his other shoulder for emphasis. ‘You don’t work with us, you get no protection. Understand? Ponimayu? I’m giving you choice.’

‘Do I still go to jail?’

Nikolai thought it over. Nodded. ‘Cooperation reduces sentence. You go to a better jail, less security, less danger. More like juvie. After, you build new life, new identity. If you don’t help, you get ten years, minimum.’ Pause. ‘Maybe you go to jail with your father.’

The panic in Kirill’s eyes was instant, the tension flooding back into his body, muscles tightening under Nikolai’s hands. His thumbs were where he knew Kirill’s stars were, and he pressed in, to make sure he understood that this was real. Nikolai watched the fear slowly morph into sorrow, betrayal. It was a hand around his heart, squeezing tight.

‘I don’t know what to do,’ Kirill admitted, in a small, small voice, gaze down.

‘Then do what I say.’

They stayed in that position for a while – seconds, minutes – Kirill trembling under Nikolai’s fingers. He saw Kirill swallow hard, take in a deep breath. And then.

His heart skipped a beat when Kirill lunged at him, every instinct getting ready to block him, to fight back, to override any compassion and soft emotion in favour of survival, and he grabbed hold of Kirill’s arms to start a defence, trying to push him away, until Kirill’s mouth collided with his.

It was painful at first, when their teeth clashed, but Kirill pressed on, moving his lips against Nikolai’s with single-minded determination. Nikolai dropped his hold to blindly clasp Kirill’s hips instead, so Kirill cupped his face to bring him closer into the kiss, moaning needily when Nikolai let their tongues meet.

Nikolai walked them back against the pillar, where he could press his body all along Kirill’s as their mouths worked with each other, and the fire spread from Kirill down Nikolai’s every vein and artery until he felt like he was crawling with red ants all over. It hurt, inside and out, and his heart, his heart felt like it was going to give out any second, throbbing in his fingertips and his throat in time with Kirill’s.

For so long, he knew Kirill had longed to kiss him just like this, to let it slow down and melt into loving, soft embraces after a burst of initial insatiable lust. He’d wanted it too, of course, felt it would add a new dimension to their illicit encounters, a new intimacy he could use in his dealings with Kirill. And he liked kissing. Even in those filthy houses filled with trapped women, he found an intrinsic comfort in exchanging lazy kisses with whoever Kirill had picked out for him that evening. A tenderness absent from every aspect of his life in the Vor.

He hadn’t realised that this desire extended beyond professional considerations and common contentment. It was deeper. Primal.

Long in the making.

Kirill’s hands wandered under his suit jacket, and Nikolai impatiently threw it off without unlocking their lips. The evenings were mild this time of year, but his body was overheating and the air felt cold in shirtsleeves. Kirill wasted no time, sliding his arms around Nikolai’s muscular frame, roughly kneading his sides, his shoulders, raking nails over his back. Nikolai responded in kind, slipping scarred hands under the hem of his sweater to feel cords of muscle and soft hair and the hard nubs of his nipples. Nikolai wished they could touch chest to chest, bare skin on bare skin, but there was no time.

This wasn’t lovemaking. He knew that.

Nikolai sucked Kirill’s bottom lip, enjoying the electrifying groan it elicited, pulled back and released it with a pop. Both men breathed hard, the distance between them crackling with want.

‘I’m going to fuck you,’ he grunted, unbuckling his belt.

Kirill let out a tiny whine, nodded weakly, and started to turn to brace himself against the pillar – but Nikolai grabbed his arm and whirled him back around.

‘I want you to see,’ Nikolai said, gesturing for Kirill to get on the ground.

And he did.

In seconds, Kirill lay on the cold, dirty floor of the delivery bay, bottom of his sweater bunched up over his chest, trousers pulled down just enough to give Nikolai access. His cheeks were flushed, his eyes bright and shining, his cock red and painfully hard. Nikolai knelt between his spread legs, pumping his fist around his length, not because he needed fluffing, but to spread leaking pre-come over his shaft. They didn’t have lube. But the same was true back in prison. And they made it work.

He spat in his hand, spread it over his dick. His knees hurt on the floor. A Vor never kneels, he’d often heard.

Kirill wasn’t kneeling.

Nikolai shuffled closer, leaned in, and slung Kirill’s calves over his shoulders. He held on to Kirill’s bare chest with one hand, for leverage, used the other to guide his cock until the sensitive head met Kirill’s hole. His cock twitched obscenely, his heart was beating ra-tatat-tat against Nikolai’s palm. Like on the night of that first blowjob, the world felt fuzzy around the edges, ethereal – but he wasn’t drunk this time, not by a long shot. With a thrust of his hips, he pushed himself halfway in.

Kirill gasped and reflexively gripped Nikolai’s shirt, eyes tightly closed. He was tight, which Nikolai expected, much tighter than could ever be comfortable. Nikolai murmured ‘relax’ in Russian, shifted his weight, and pushed deeper until he was fully inside. Kirill was bent almost double, legs trembling either side of Nikolai’s neck, and all Nikolai could think is that it didn’t have to be like this.

‘Move,’ Kirill gritted out. ‘Eta moi prikaz.

Nikolai put a hand under the small of Kirill’s back, lifted his hips higher for easier thrusting, nodded. ‘Da.’

Thinking about it too much would make him go soft. So he wouldn’t.

Instead, he pulled back and slammed into Kirill, then again, slower and first, then building up speed as he loosened until he had a good, steady rhythm going. Each time he hilted himself inside, Kirill made a noise at the back of his throat, a close-mouthed gasp, but his jaw unclenched and his eyes fluttered open and soon, he was watching Nikolai fuck him, flitting from where their bodies were connected to Nikolai’s panting face above.

‘Kolya,’ he murmured, with a slight chuckle that made him tighten around Nikolai. ‘Hey. This is – where you stopped Papa from – ha, hitting me. You remember? The bottles.’

Nikolai didn’t respond, angling himself differently to hit Kirill deeper. Don’t think about that. Don’t think about the future or the past. Just think about this. Kirill’s back rubbed against the poured cement floor, up and down, scraping skin and the wool of his sweater. He arched his back, threw a hand over his head to cushion his skull before it could hit the pillar.

‘What if he saw this?’ he whispered.

In lieu of an answer, Nikolai took Kirill’s cock in hand and jerked him off, noting with satisfaction that his words were reduced to whimpers and quiet yelps. He sped up, feeling that familiar pressure mounting inside, until he buried himself as far as he could to come hard and hot deep inside the man he was meant to hate. Kirill’s mouth opened in an O, then the corners perked up in a smile that shouldn’t have been as warm as it was.

‘I feel it,’ he mumbled, with another shaky, tangible laugh. ‘Kolya, I feel it.’

Still hard, still wrapped in Kirill’s warmth, Nikolai pressed an open-mouthed kiss to Kirill’s lips, licked his tongue. He increased the tempo of his movements, putting in the flick of the wrist and the pressure on the underside of the glans that always made Kirill writhe under his touch, and seconds later, he was spilling his load all over his bare stomach. The lights above the garage door reflected off the sweat on Kirill’s brow, the white streaks and droplets clinging to the hair dusting his torso. The bitter smell of gasoline, alcohol and sex made Nikolai light-headed, as he leaned away from Kirill’s mouth and carefully slipped his cock out. If he breathed in deep, he could still smell Ippolit’s death on himself.

He’d remember this.

Kirill didn’t move, so Nikolai gingerly lifted his legs off his shoulders and put them on the ground, stretched out, wary of cramps. He saw a glimmer near Kirill’s eyes that might have been sweat or might have been tears, and it filled him with an immediate shame that had him look away and stand up to make himself presentable, keeping Kirill only in his peripheral vision out of some misplaced sense of privacy.

‘Semyon’s men come in a few days,’ Nikolai said, hoarsely, pulling his trousers up. ‘They get stopped in airport, train station, wherever. Same day, we get raided here. Act surprised. Then I take care of everything. Okay?’

Nothing.

‘Kirill? Okay?’

‘Yeah,’ he said.

‘Clean up.’

Slowly, Kirill raised his hips to slip his underwear and trousers back on in one movement, and shakily sat up. His hair was more messed-up than usual, clumping together with congealed product and sweat and dirt. Nikolai picked up his jacket, dusted it off, and pulled a cigarette out of the pack in his inside pocket.

‘Give me one.’

‘You don’t like this brand.’

A crooked smile. ‘It’s a special occasion.’

Nikolai took out a second cigarette and tossed it into Kirill’s lap.

‘So,’ he said, lighting up. ‘We have deal?’

Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Kirill stagger to his feet. His sweater was still bunched up, all loose threads and small rocks pulled up so high his chest tattoos would be plain to see. But as he faced away, all Nikolai could see was the raw, red, scratched surface of Kirill’s back, blood beading in shallow, wide patches were the ground had worn away at his skin.

‘Okay,’ Kirill said, rolling the sweater down, covering his shagged-out back in a black shroud. ‘Okay.’

 

xvi. bogatyr (the great gate of kiev)

The sky was a dark Oxford blue, the sun just a slip radiating amber on the horizon. They still hadn’t moved the conversation past surface level, hadn’t moved themselves to a more comfortable place to keep talking. The kitchen seemed like neutral ground, and neither had been brave enough to press the issue.

Kirill’s chair squealed on the kitchen tiles as he stood up, with a mumbled ‘can’t see shit.’ He walked over to the light switch, turned around, and flipped it. The bulb flickered on, alternating dusk and artificial brightness over Kirill’s awkward, tall frame. In his black sweater, back to Nikolai, he looked, for all his changes in style and countenance, exactly like the roughed up, fucked up fallen gangster the night they’d known each other fully, totally.

Nikolai got to his feet, clearing his throat.

‘Maybe I should go. It’s late.’

For a second, neither moved, waiting for the other to speak. Eventually, Nikolai saw Kirill lift a hand to his face, duck his head like he was rubbing his forehead.

‘Why…’

Savagely, he banged his fist against the popcorn wall, throwing the dangling kitchen light into a sudden, jerking dance. He turned around, face scrunched up in confusion and bitter sadness, and shook his head in incomprehension.

‘Why the fuck did you come here?! I’ve been – I’m trying to make a new life! And you think you can just come here and – you –‘

He huffed, angry at the way his words failed him, and pleaded with his eyes for a response, desperation in every crease and wrinkle and vein. And Nikolai…

If life had been bizarre during the course of the mission, the months after the bust were positively surreal. Pulled from his routine of collecting protection money, supervising deliveries, and managing his boisterous charge, he was thrown into the deep end of police paperwork and courtroom drama, trading slicked-back hair and boxy clothes that could hide a weapon for modern-cut blue suits and a floppy, approachable hairstyle. It was like emigrating from the Soviet Union for the second time.

The hardest part was getting used to the sound of his real name again.

There was a big media circus, at first. The police put a gag order on naming the accused, for the safety of their families and the sake of the investigation, but it didn’t take long for leaks to spread from foreign newspapers. Semyon knew. He had to have found out. He hadn’t made it this far without dealing with his fair share of rats. And though he might be willing to spare his useless son, he’d be far less generous towards a turncoat.

Nikolai had to lobby hard to save Kirill from Pentonville, where he was sure to be done in by his father’s cronies, if not the man himself – harder still to save him from extradition when Russia sent a request. 

‘It’ll help international relations,’ the Foreign Office representative argued. A little man who looked like he’d be proud of not speaking any language but English. ‘We need to take saving graces when they come. Your President’s not making diplomacy easy, you know.’

‘I promise him,’ Nikolai said. In a nearby chair, Yuri listened to the proceedings, silently supportive. ‘If he help us, he is safe.’

‘You can’t always meet every target…’

‘Russia does not want to prosecute the Vor. The government is Vor. They want to punish those who stray. Make country look bad to the West. If you send him there, he is killed. “Suicide,” maybe, or “shot trying to escape.”’

‘I’m sure it’s not that bad,’ the man grumbled. ‘Besides, we can’t send the father. Still connecting those dots. Much more evidence on the son.’

‘Would not be surprised if Semyon asked his friends to arrange this.’ Nikolai met the man’s gaze, held it sternly. ‘You do what you want. You send him. Then next time we do sting operation, everyone knows they cannot trust us, and you get no collaborators because they know you send them to their home country to die.’

‘There’s no need for dramatics,’ the representative muttered, shifting uncomfortably. He looked to Yuri for back-up, but was met only with raised eyebrows and tight lips.

Nikolai didn’t know how much his intervention had mattered, but in the end, the prisoner transfer never panned out, and he was glad.

The months surrounding the trials were a blur of Yard-ordered therapy, meeting with lawyers, and being bussed around with security like he was his own little mob king. He gave his testimony over and over, sometimes fiddling with the worry beads he’d brought with him from Russia, a little bracelet made of molten plastic lighters. He never faced the accused directly, but he pored over the court paintings reprinted online, trying to interpret any visible tattoos. Once, he spotted Semyon, looking the worse for wear, doing the perp walk on the front cover of the Metro.

He wondered if Maria saw these pictures. He was glad Kirill never showed up.

Kirill.

He could have visited Kirill. He was only in Norwich. The same prison gangland legend Reggie Kray did his time in – though Kirill was more like Ronnie, unpredictable and violently desperate for approval from anyone.

Even someone who’d betrayed him.

Nikolai only saw him once, the day he was released from prison. Across the street, fag in hand, he leaned against the wall in civilian attire and sunglasses and watched Kirill stumble out the gates, confused, clinging to a duffel bag of belongings he’d checked in three years earlier.

Nobody had come to meet him.

He nodded his goodbye to the guard, wiped his nose with the back of his hand, and stared straight at the figure across the way.

Their eyes met. Kirill couldn’t know for sure, but behind his glasses, Nikolai did. He stubbed his cigarette out on the bricks behind him and flicked the end onto the pavement before slowly loping off.

Kirill didn’t follow him.

And Nikolai walked away, and went through the motions. It took a couple more years to wrap up the Vor case, which he supplemented with private security contracts and consulting work for criminal psychologists, prison rehabilitators, and even the occasional film crew. He knew he’d never see his homeland again, not while Putin was in power, but he’d made peace with that long ago, had learned to find a masochistic sort of pleasure in drab English weather and their naïve faith in liberal democracy. He’d seen the underbelly of their capital, and he couldn’t reproach them their wilful ignorance, not when they let him walk among them. Women came and went, never sticking around for too long, and sometimes, from a distance, he though he spotted Anna Ivanovna, holding hands with a girl bearing a striking resemblance to Semyon.

Life, like history, rolled on, one damn thing after another. Easily. Smoothly. Slowly.

But when he hit a good age for retirement from active duty, when the government offered to pay for his tattoos to be erased, for his past to be as if it were a dream, he hesitated.

It was almost Christmas. He had the contacts, the funds, the time. He could give in to an impulse.

And now, standing before Kirill, almost a decade after they’d last spoken, Nikolai had to summarise every thought and suppressed memory in a tidy little soundbite. And in all fairness, he owed it to him.

But…

Nikolai parted his lips, closed them again, clenched his fists.

‘Don’t say you don’t know,’ Kirill moaned. His voice was full of tears, his eyes red, but he was holding firm. For now. ‘Khuy. You can’t bust me open like this and say you dunno why.’

A myriad reasons flashed through his mind, like records on a jukebox, all playing a different tune. Wanting closure on a connection brusquely severed. A feeling of responsibility, after months of giving advice and intricate courtship. Guilt for the fallout Kirill’s family suffered. Maybe, deep down, even a little remorse for the way things turned out, looking back on family dinners and bar crawls and fleeting tenderness.

But the truth was harder to spit out.

‘I miss you,’ Nikolai said. He spoke softly, his expression as opaque as always – but his eyes were narrower, with a hint of a frown.

Kirill bit back a sob, looking to the side. Acting on autopilot, movements running the well-worn grooves of muscle memory, Nikolai went to him, lifting a hand to ghost over Kirill’s cheek, fingers settling under the square of his jaw. His skin felt familiar, rough and hot to the touch, and in the absence of the stench of alcohol, his natural scent reminded Nikolai of the consummation of their partnership, a bombastic end to an empire of lies.

He shifted his wrist, easing Kirill’s face towards his. Each could feel the other’s breath, now, steaming the air between them. Even as he tried to shake his head, Kirill’s hands scrambled for purchase on the back of Nikolai’s sweater as their mouths collided in a ravenous kiss.

The dam broke.

It was as if no time had elapsed, like the shadow of discovery and prison hung over them all over again. They found their way to Kirill’s bedroom, pausing for just a few seconds to discard a piece of clothing and reuniting to make up for the lost time with deep, hot kisses and the yielding firmness of flesh on flesh.

There was lube in the bedside cabinet, and Nikolai wasn’t jealous – it wasn’t like him, but more importantly, he knew with a grim, cynical certainty that they’d both cycle through partners without ever reaching anything like what they had in each other. A bond forged by fire, cooled in snow, planted long before either of them were born, germinating in the squalid camps of Soviet Siberia. It was in their blood, in their tongue, in the patterns inked on their skin – and there was no laser strong enough to rub out what was printed on the soul.

Where Nikolai’s body was built for fighting, beginning to soften around the edges, Kirill’s was sculpted now more by vanity, by escapism, and he was wiry and strong at the same time. He touched Nikolai’s tattoos, some already badly faded from therapy, kneading the flesh over each one, as if rubbing it in further. When his thumbs rested on Nikolai’s stars, he looked as if he might break again.

So Nikolai dove on him, kissed his tongue, pressed his cock against Kirill’s own and thrust shallowly until their bodies grew slick and incandescent with desire. For the first time, they could touch each other anywhere unimpeded by even a scrap of clothing, and it was almost too much to bear.

A short prep with one, two, three fingers, and Nikolai groaned as he slid inside Kirill with ease, basking in the instant familiarity enveloping him. Kirill locked his legs around Nikolai’s hips, and moaned quietly with each rolling thrust. This was different. Nikolai wanted it to be different. Gentle, like it could rewrite history. And it felt good. Where their first time was raw and rough and like stepping barefoot on broken glass, this was all-encompassing, thickly sensual. They kissed as they fucked, not separating for a second, until Kirill tossed his head back and took in a deep breath.

‘Go harder,’ he breathed. Nikolai complied, angling himself to hit him deep, tingling all over from the toe-curling pleasure.

But Kirill dug his nails into his back, urging him on.

Harder,’ he implored, in their native tongue. ‘Don’t be gentle, Kolya.’

‘Kirill –‘

I can’t stand it! Fuck me up!

The words penetrated the lustful haze, stung like hornets. It didn’t have to be like this. Not anymore.

Eta moi prikaz,’ Kirill said, through clenched teeth.

Nikolai closed a fist in his Kirill’s hair, pulling back hard, making sure he heard a gasp, braced himself with his other hand, and started slamming in and out of Kirill as hard as he could. Those moans weren’t quiet now, belted out in earnest with each vigorous thrust. He gripped Kirill’s hair until any more pressure would be pulling it out in clumps, then let go and clamped his hand around Kirill’s jaw instead, forcing him to meet his eyes. He was biting his lip, perhaps trying to keep it down for the neighbours, perhaps trying not to be too wanton. He lifted his head off the pillow, showing Nikolai his cheek, silently begging.

So Nikolai pulled back his arm, and backhanded Kirill hard across the face. Thrown to the side from the impact, Kirill’s head remained where it landed as his breathing became erratic, getting closer.

Pidrazt,’ growled Nikolai, disgusted and aroused when he felt Kirill tighten at the word. ‘Suka pidrazt.’

He upped the tempo, grunting with exertion, building up saliva in his mouth. When he spat in Kirill’s face, Kirill held on desperately as his body was wracked by a shuddering, blinding orgasm, spilling his seed thick between their stomachs. That was enough to tip Nikolai over the edge, and he hilted himself to come deep inside Kirill’s guts, another invisible mark to join the others left by the Vor and Russia and Semyon.

They rode out the pleasure until the glow began to fade and they were just two shivering men holding onto each other. Nikolai untangled himself to pull out and sit back on his haunches. Before him, Kirill was laid out, disarmingly fragile, hiding his face in the crook of one elbow. Nikolai followed the lines of his body, up the headboard, to the framed poster of Battleship Potemkin hanging over the bed. It looked just like the one in the Trans-Siberian, though he knew it had to be a different copy.

He glanced out the sliver of window visible between the heavy curtains. Nikolai knew he couldn’t spend the night. Couldn’t indulge in fanciful tenderness. He’d get dressed, say a curt goodbye, scribble a number on a piece of paper, and walk to his hotel. In the morning, he’d get on a train back to England, and watch the city turn to endless rolling fields that he could pretend were those surrounding his hometown. Kirill would take a shower and head to work. He’d stuff the phone number in a drawer, where it would lay until his loneliness became too much to bear, and then they’d meet again. Maybe in a year, maybe another ten. Maybe just a few months.

Staring out into the obsidian sky, Nikolai controlled his breathing until it was almost back to normal. Under him, Kirill made a noise, like he was about to speak, and Nikolai thought it sounded like the first syllable of his real name.

But neither of them said anything.