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Do Everything Right

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November, 1985

It was all Blelok's fault, really.

Had the old doctor been on duty, and not bed-ridden with the flu, Zinchenko would not have made the trip to Chernobyl on that chilly autumn morning, and maybe none of this would have happened.

But the word of the beautiful young doctor's presence in the infirmary gets around rather quickly. The intake area soon becomes crowded with engineers who had remembered that it was time for their monthly physical, or had taken ill just as their shifts have ended.

Young Leonid Toptunov, the nuclear power plant's newest engineer, happens to be one of the first ones in line.

Still in his street clothes, he wears his prized leather jacket (though it cost him his entire savings at the time, he had gotten it in celebration of successfully defending his engineering thesis), as he waits to begin his very first day at the plant. Glancing around, he holds onto the strap of his well-worn satchel just a little too tight, his knuckles turning as white as the uniforms of the men milling about.

— Toptunov, Leonid F.

He springs up from his seat as his name is called, following the voice through the crowd. Half a dozen names are called after his, but it is too late. They have noticed him.

— Lost, aren't you?

— The high school is just down the road there, kid. In Pripyat.

— Give him a break, will you? — someone chides. — He clearly hasn't finished preschool.

Toptunov keeps his head low and makes his way to the examination room, ignoring the jabs made by his soon-to-be colleagues.

He stops dead in his tracks once inside the exam room.

— Doctor Blelok —

— is getting much needed rest, at home. — Zinchenko finishes smoothly. She is about his age, hair cropped short under her doctor’s cap, with kind hazel eyes and a face that has retained a small amount of childhood roundness.

— On the table, please.

The other engineers who had been called in for physicals have entered the room by then, forming a line along the wall, and a captive audience.

— O-on the table?

— Yes. And take off your shirt.

Toptunov freezes. He has to do what?

— Is there a problem, — she glances at his paperwork — Leonid Fedorovich?

A chorus of chuckles and suppresed snorts erupts from the audience.

— Allow me to translate for comrade Lenya, — one of the engineers interjects. — What he is trying to say is that you have the most beautiful —

— Silence from the gallery, please. — Zinchenko's tone is quiet, but commanding. — Comrade Toptunov, on the table. Shirt off.

Resigned, Toptunov marches to the other side of the room and sets his satchel on the ground. He hops up to the table and began to untangle himself from his jacket, his sweater, and finally, hesitating a moment, his undershirt.

— Oy, Toptunov. Do you think that sunken chest of yours really supposed to impress her? 

— He should take up boxing, build a bit of muscle, I tell you.

Zinchenko puts on a stethoscope. When the bell makes contact with his skin, Toptunov shudders. More laughter.

— I'd keep my distance from him, doctor. He looks like he might, well, explode.

— C-cold. — He looks down as he mumbles the excuse. Throughout the exam he does not dare to meet her eyes, or theirs. When Zinchenko touches his wrist to take the pulse, Toptunov flinches again, almost wrestling his hand away.

— Almost done, — she reassures him. It does not matter, color has already risen to his cheeks until they burn crimson. 

Whatever pulse reading she had take has to be completely wrong, because he has by then already died of embarrassment.

— Your exposure monitor, — she hands him a small flat device. — Wear it over the uniform, like this. It will be checked daily. That will be all. Thank you, comrade.

In less than three seconds Toptunov slides off the table, with his undershirt and sweater back on, jacket and satchel both in hand, ready to flee.

— Comrade Toptunov! — One of the engineers yells after him. He pauses, but immediately regrets it. — You're not a virgin... or are you? Toptunov!?

Laughter chases him out of the exam room, out of the infirmary, the corridor, the lobby, and out into the refreshing cold of the outside.

Toptunov rests his head against a nearby tree trunk and breathes heavily.

You can study and study and study. 

You can sit through exams, pass them, practice, train, write a thesis, defend it. You can dissect theories, analyze designs, and memorize schematics. But what good is all of that, when you can't defend yourself against the crudest of insults?  

* * *

Walking out the infirmary building later that afternoon, Zinchenko runs into Sasha Akimov.

— Need an escort to the bus? — he offers after they greet one another. 

Faced with the prospect of more unrefined flirting from a few of the lingering engineers, she makes the decision quickly.

— I would be glad of your company, Sasha.

Akimov had always impressed her, with that quiet and steady demeanor of his. As an occasional patient, he has always exhibited curiosity, in a way that showed him to be capable and interested in areas other than the field of his work.

— Sasha, I must tell you something, — she says as they board the bus. Akimov take a seat next to Zinchenko.

— There's a new engineer that came in for a physical this morning. Toptunov, I think his name was. I was hoping you could keep an eye on him.

* * *

Toptunov's life does not get easier in the week that follows his discomfiting physical exam.

As a new engineer, he is assigned the most menial of tasks. Whether he is mopping up spills or greasing bearings, he spends most of his day traversing the maze-like corridors of the plant, tracking kilometers of serpentine pipes and cabling. No matter which of the four reactors he has been scheduled in, he always seems to find himself in the company of an engineer who had been present in the exam room. The tale of his mortification is told and retold numerous times. 

If that wasn't bad enough, he is often assigned to shifts at which Dyatlov is present. The deputy chief engineer makes no references of what transpired in the exam room, he doesn't need to. Dyatlov can sow his own special brand of terror. 

Exacting and relentless in the demand that his subordinates know both the theory and practice of their fields, he is quick as lightning to point out every error, embellish each mistake, and make the recipient of his examination feel unduly incompetent. 

Teased by colleagues who hesitate to see him as a fellow engineer, and berated by Dyatlov who does not think him capable of coming anywhere close to the controls of the reactor, at the end of his first week at work Toptunov wishes for nothing more than to crawl into his bed at the dormitory and forget all about Chernobyl.

Have I made a mistake, coming here? he wonders, swirling his spoon around a bowl of thin soup, seated alone in the cafeteria in the early afternoon. It is in that state of mind that Akimov finds him.

— Akimov, Aleksandr Fyodorovich. — He introduces himself, sitting down across from Toptunov.

He has a mustache Toptunov cannot not help but envy. Behind the rimmed glasses, a set of dark blue eyes peers at him. — As of recent, I am the foreman of the fifth shift, in Unit Four.

Toptunov's eyes widen. A supervisor. What could he want?

— I know of course, that as a... freshly baked engineer you are charged with learning as much about this plant, — he gestures to the mess hall around them and the buildings beyond, —as you can.

Akimov's voice starts off quiet and a bit stilted. He is now looking toward the window, as if recalling something from the past. — It is for this reason, that I would like to ask you to join the fifth shift tonight.

Stunned, Toptunov lets go of the spoon and it bounces off the bowl's edge and clatters on the table.

— I have already discussed the matter with Dyatlov. Get some rest, come back here by midnight. — Akimov moves to get up.

— Thank you, comrade Akimov. — Toptunov has the presence of mind to say, as he attempts to wipe the spilled soup with his sleeve. — F-for the opportunity.

Akimov nods and turns halfway, then stops.

— I read your thesis, Toptunov. I know that you are more than capable. Try to keep that in mind.

* * *

Locker room taunts and jabs are just as bad, if not worse, at the start of the night shift. Toptunov does his best to ignore them.

He pulls on the white cotton undershirt and buttons up his smock. With Zinchenko's radiation meter swaying lightly, he exits the locker room with a bit more spring in his step than usual.

* * *

Akimov turns out to be as exacting as Dyatlov, but where Dyatlov fixates on the negatives, Akimov takes the time to commend the positives.

It is something to behold, really. Toptunov becomes a lightning rod for praise. A question from Akimov, an answer from Toptunov, a correction, an understanding, a confirmation. 

The morning after that first night, Toptunov follows him to the bus. He's all chatter and noise, waving his arms in excitement. Akimov is a polite listener. When time comes for him to disembark, he touches Toptunov's shoulder to let him know he needs to alight.

Toptunov's animated arms drop right then, realizing that he had missed his own stop. Embarrassed, he follows Akimov to the exit. Outside of the bus, he tightens the scarf around his neck and clears his throat.

— Comrade Akimov, I want to thank you for —

— Sasha. You can call me Sasha.

Toptunov looks at him, a little awe-struck.

— Sasha. — He repeats, tasting the name with his lips for the first time.

They part ways a short time later, and Toptunov makes the long trek back to the dormitories. He does not know it then, but it is the first of many times that he will take that morning walk after seeing Sasha off to his block.

* * *

Akimov's shadow is what they start to call him not long afterward. 

Where Sasha goes, he goes also. What Sasha does, he does too. Even if it means trying to grow his own mustache into a pale imitation of Akimov's.

* * *

— Maybe you're not as incompetent as I originally feared. — Dyatlov tells him one day in early December. It is the highest form of praise he can possibly earn from the mercurial deputy chief engineer.

Chapter Text

January 1, 1986
Pripyat

Snow crunches under his feet.

It's a half-moon night, but the sky is clear. The wide field of snow-covered grass they are crossing is bathed in starlight, giving off a bluish kind of glow. The snow here is undisturbed, smooth to the point of shining, almost like a metal, forming a wide boundary between housing districts.

Entranced, Toptunov turns about himself, but immediately steps into a small ditch and loses his footing. He braces himself in the frozen snowbank with bare hands.

— Careful, Lenya. — Proskuryakov, a few steps behind, calls to him. — Watch where you're going, or you're bound to twist an ankle.

A giggle escapes from Kudryatvtsev, who is leaning over Victor's shoulder. — Easy now, Sasha. — Proskuryakov tells him. — Let's go, then.

They stumble by Toptunov, as he is shaking off the snow from his knees and out of the cuffs of his jacket.

Sasha.

Toptunov looks up toward one of the towers to his right. That's Sasha's building, isn't it. The tall grid of windows is nearly dark, with only a few lit up at this hour. Toptunov counts the windows from the bottom. He thinks he's got it right on the third try, his vision a bit addled by several glasses of Soviet Champagne he'd downed earlier that night.

— Leonid, you all right?

Proskuryakov and Kudryavtsev have made headway across the snow field, they're almost to the row of poplars.

There's light in Sasha's window.

He hasn't seen Akimov since before the previous weekend. And the last two days he's trained with the fifth shift, Balaev was the foreman in Four, covering for Akimov. Something about an unexpected trip.

Toptunov trudges toward his friends.

— I left my gloves, back at the cafe. — He waves behind him, in the direction they have come from.

— Well, he's in no condition to walk back, — Proskuryakov looks sideways. — That's right! — Kudryavtsev slurs in agreement, and lets out a giggle that turns into a cough.

— I'll run back myself.

— Alright then. — Proskuryakov frowns, not exactly delighted at the idea of hauling Kudryavtsev back to the dormitories all by himself. — Don't forget, Lenya, we've got a shift in the morning.

Toptunov nods, and turns around, snow crunching beneath his feet.

— Vitya.

— What, now?

— Was Lenya wearing gloves?

Toptunov glances back every now and then, until the two of them are obscured by the poplars. He circles wide toward Sasha's building. Why the lie? He doesn't know. Instead, he's already rehearsing what to say to Sasha, to explain his late visit.

New Year's Eve... went to see Pulsar play at the Dish... with Proskuryakov and Kudryavtsev. Saw the light in your window... Wanted to tell you... wanted to tell you...

Tell him what?

The elevator jolts as it comes to a stop on Akimov's floor. Toptunov pushes the door open. Oh, but there is something. Something important.

Not long after he knocks (a timid one-two tap), a shadow flickers behind the peep hole. The door opens only as far as the chain allows, and Zinaida's eyes peer at him from the dimmed anteroom. Akimov's sister looks tired.

— Is, uh, is Sasha in? I saw a light. In his window, I mean.

Toptunov rubs his forehead, embarrassment starting creep up his neck. Now he feels foolish to have come here. Maybe she will tell him that Sasha is already asleep, and that will be the end of it.

— Wait here — she whispers. — I'll go get him.

Akimov emerges from the doorway a few minutes later, coat in hand.

— Leonid?

— Sasha, I'm really —

But Akimov brings a finger to his lips. He turns and closes the door. — Sonia has been ill. We went to a specialist, in Kiev. She's only just gone to sleep.

Toptunov nods. Akimov pulls his coat on.

— We can go to the roof.

They take the elevator to the top floor. Akimov leads them along a corridor and up a ladder to a small, enclosed landing and a doorway that opens to the rooftop.

The view stretches up before him and Toptunov's breath is taken away in the windless cold. Before him lies all of Pripyat, nestled in a wide belt of snow-dusted pine forests. Far in the distance, he can see Chernobyl. The plant is bathed in light against the backdrop of dark skies.

— You know, I have never seen it from above. — Toptunov motions to him, pointing at various town landmarks he can recognize. — This is incredible.

That is when Akimov notices his hands. Even in the waning half-moonlight he can see they are red and rigid from the cold. — Your hands — he begins.

And then it all happens very very fast.

Sasha reaches for those frozen fingers with his own, enveloping them. Toptunov falls silent, surprised, as much by the gesture, as his own reaction. Warmth, such wonderful warmth radiating through his numbed knuckles like a current. And it feels so right.

Mesmerised in the moment, Toptunov lets out a small, almost audible exhale, his breath floating away from him like a puff of smoke.

— Your hands are your tools, you know. You've got to take care of them.

Toptunov's eyes shoot around them both like a pinball, down to their hands, sideways to the concrete ledge, up the sleeve and collar of Akimov's coat, a bit of sky above their heads, until their eyes finally meet.

Toptunov's softer blue, like the sky at first light of sunrise, and Akimov's deep sea-green, like that of Pripyat's prized azure swimming pool, or a lake. Baikal. He'd seen photographs.

— Right. — Toptunov says, slowly, like he's still catching up. The whirring machinery of his thoughts trying to desperately wind itself forward to the present. — Right, of course.

— I misplaced my gloves somewhere — he offers as a way of explanation.

Akimov nods, and looks away. He slides his warm, protective hands off of Toptunov's and turns to the ledge, crossing his arms over his chest.

Disconnected from Sasha, Toptunov hides his own in the pockets of his jacket. He can still feel that tingling, warm sensation, like an echo embedded in his fingertips.

They stay silent. Akimov, unsure if he has, perhaps, crossed a boundary he should not have. The gears in Toptunov's mind are spinning too fast to form a coherent thought. Sasha. Warmth. Hands. Sasha.

— You came to tell me something? — Akimov prompts him after a while.

Toptunov shakes off the cold. — I am going to try to qualify for the senior reactor control position, — he tells him. — Put the papers in for it this morning.

— Good, good. — Akimov continues to look off into the distance. — You've got the theory down, and the practice. You have drive and the tenacity. If you put it all together, you will qualify, no doubt.

He is his usual reassuring self so much that Toptunov begins to unwind (what happened, exactly, that got his nerves wound up in the first place?).

— I have you to thank, you know.

— There's nothing to —

— But there is. — Toptunov turns to him. His cheeks are dusted red by the cold, and his eyes are shining. Akimov thinks he can see the stars reflected in them. — You are a true friend, Sasha.

Does he know what he's doing, Akimov wonders, keeping his own face inscrutable.

With that emphatic declaration of friendship made at last, Toptunov begins to feel the lateness of the hour. The champagne has long done coursing through his veins. He looks back toward Chernobyl, then stifles a yawn. — I better get going, I'm on in a few hours.

When the elevator comes to a halt on Akimov's floor, Sasha pushes open the door and turns back to him.

— Leonid.

— Hm?

— Happy new year. You'll qualify, I'm sure of it.

* * *

Back in the dormitory, Toptunov drops down onto the mattress of his bunk. Exhausted from all the walking that night, he contemplates foregoing the changing into pyjamas.

In the semi-darkness of the room, he raises his hands above his face, turning them over with curiosity.

That warmth.

Suddenly Proskuryakov shines a flashlight from above.

— Vitya, damn it! — He tries to shield his eyes from the blinding brightness.

— You didn't find your gloves, then?

— What?

— Gloves.

— No, I didn't. — Toptunov whisper-shouts back.

The flashlight clicks off.

Still blinded, Toptunov reaches about to grab his tooth brush and paste from the nightstand, and his night clothes from under the pillow. When he returns to the room ten minutes later, Proskuryakov is snoring softly in his bunk.

He pulls the thin blanket over his shoulder, and lets his head sink into the pillow. Fuck. These next few weeks are going to be hell, for sure, he thinks. Qualifications for senior reactor control engineer are notoriously difficult. He fully expects Dyatlov, and whoever else (Fomin?) on the qualifying commission to pull no punches in their scrutiny.

But Sasha thinks I can manage it, and he finds solace in that.

Just before he falls asleep, he catches himself indulging in the wishful thinking that Sasha Akimov would hold his hands in his own, again.

Chapter Text

— Leonid Fedorovich.

There's no response.

Toptunov's head is propped with his right arm, palm to cheek. His other arm rests on a loose heap of manuals, the fingers of his hand moving like a sluggish spider across a page in an open folder.

With his mouth open, he is sounding out words. Only they aren't words, they're acronyms. MOVTO. ZGIS. BShchU. SIUR.

They may as well be magic incantations.

Lenya. — Kirschenbaum leans down to whisper.

Toptunov looks up, startled.

This close to his face, Kirschenbaum takes in the blood-shot eyes and the shadows under them. He hesitates for a moment.

— Akimov bested Stolyarchuk. He's up against Sitnikov. 

Toptunov stares at him in confusion.

— They're about to have a go at each other now — Kirschenbaum points back behind him. — Come watch with me.

—  Kirschenbaum, I can't.

His gaze falls back down, that spider-like hand of his twitching, fingers leaving damp marks on the paper.

Kirschenbaum straightens up and walks away, toward the livelier end of Chernobyl nuclear power plant's cafeteria. A small crowd has gathered around one of the tables, where Sitnikov and Akimov are seated facing one another.

Stolyarchuk, recently unseated from that very table, turns to Kirschenbaum.

— Well?

— He won't budge.

Stolyarchuk looks over his shoulder at Toptunov, who is now hunched even lower over the stack of papers and books on his table.

— Maybe Akimov can talk some sense into him. 

Kirschenbaum rolls his eyes. Doesn't hide what he's thinking, that one, Stolyarchuk muses.

But Akimov is busy. 

His eyes are locked with Sitnikov's over the black and white squares of the battlefield. Soon enough, the first pawn is taken out of play, then another. The onlookers cheer, offering encouragement and assortment of strategies. 

Toptunov looks up, his vision distorted from having stared at his magical incantations a bit too long. He blinks his eyes into focus, watching the gathering huddled around the table. Chess, right. Sasha did mention something about a tournament.

That was one week ago, when they had last spoken. Outside of work, that is. Because whenever the two of them now share the bus ride back to Pripyat, Toptunov's head almost instantly falls forward, or slumps against the window. There's no riding all the way to Sasha's stop these days, Akimov kindly wakes him up when they arrive at the dormitory.

— Nice one, Sasha. — The men still gathered around the table cheer.

Toptunov's eyes drop down to the pages before him. His lips start moving again.



* * *
 

— Engineer Toptunov.

Toptunov's head leaps up instantly, though he can't hide that stunned where-am-I look that's betraying his face. 

— After me. — Akimov motions to the door. Toptunov's chair clatters away as he rises up to follow him. On the way out, Akimov signals to Tregub to take back his post.

Once they are in the corridor and the door has closed with a clang! Akimov turns to him.

— You're dismissed. 

— Sasha, you can't —

— I can and I'm doing it. Because I'm the foreman in that control room — he points toward the door — and you're nodding off at your console.

Toptunov's face looks like it's about to crumple.

— Leonid. You have logged more hours than anyone I know ahead of their qualifications. Go home. Get some sleep.

Toptunov still looks mutinous, now that he's fully awake, but he backs down quickly. — Alright, alright.

— You'll have to mark me as not completing my shift. — He adds, as Akimov turns toward the door.

— I won't. Because you weren't here at all. — With that, Akimov pulls the door handle and disappears into the control room.



* * *

— Where are we going?

Toptunov struggles to keep up as he's adjusting his satchel, filled with notebooks and procedure manuals, his scarf fluttering in the wind and getting in the way. 

The waning light of late January sun is still bright, but each gust of wind makes him shudder. When Sasha calls on him that afternoon, he thinks that maybe he wants help him review for his qualifications examination, and packs all of his study materials, just in case. 

He is still a little chafed from having been dismissed from the control room two days ago.

— Are we going to the city library? Because the dormitory has a perfectly —

— Not the library.

Where then? Toptunov pauses for a second, then rushes to catch up to him.

Twenty minutes later they arrive at a wide lawn in front of a tan-colored two-story building. Toptunov spots the statue of Prometheus and realizes their heading. — The cinema? 

But Akimov is already pressing up the stairs, toward the walkway underneath the pillars. Toptunov's gaze sweeps over the row of film posters.

Lolo the Penguin? You're not going to make me see Lolo the Penguin, are you?

— No. Although, it suits you.

Toptunov scoffs, then spots another poster and stops.

Dolphin's Cry. Isn't that the one based on The Mystery of Archelon

Akimov, who has also read Cherkashin's book and thinks that the tale of a doomed undersea expedition is hardly the film they should watch ahead of Toptunov's qualifications exam, answers — It is. But, they're not playing it yet. 

— Let's get going, then. — He urges him to follow inside the cinema.



* * *

— I liked it alright. But did they have to sing so much? — Toptunov grouses in between bites of buttered bread, shoveling spoon after spoon of cabbage soup in his mouth, ravenous. 

Like he hasn't eaten for days.

Akimov raises an eyebrow. — Well, it is a musical.

— If you were Alik, — He proposes after a while, referring to the protagonist of Higher Than Rainbow — What special ability would you ask for?

Toptunov considers the question, leaving his spoon raised dramatically for a few seconds, — The ability to instantly dazzle Dyatlov, for sure. That's the ability I need.

And he returns to shoveling his soup. Akimov takes another sip of his black coffee, watching him, amused.



* * *

— Is that Lenya, sleeping?  

— Quiet, shh — Proskuryakov, stretched out in his top bunk, reading, looks up at Kudryavtsev who had just entered the room. — Don't wake him. He's going on in a few. Been out for half the day.

— Out? Isn't he qualifying tomorrow?

— Said he's been to the cinema, then dinner.

— What, on a rendezvous?

They share a chuckle, until a loud sigh from Toptunov, still asleep, prompts them to stop abruptly. His body twisted and tied up in the blankets, Toptunov’s head swivels to his left side, facing away from the wall. 

At least he doesn’t look like a fucking ghost anymore, Pruskuryakov notes that the dark circles under Lenya’s face have faded somewhat. He and Kudryavtsev file quietly out of the room.



* * *

There are three members on the examination board, and three members on the qualifications commission, but only five people are seated at the table, across from which and five paces away sits engineer Leonid Toptunov, fingers twitching, adjusting and readjusting the cuffs of his crisply starched white shirt.

Only five, because Dyatlov sits on both committees. Flanked by Fomin and Bryukhanov on his left, and Sitnikov and Babichev to the right, Dyatlov is conveniently dead-center, his steel blue eyes boring into Toptunov’s.

Babichev begins the line of questioning. He and Sitnikov team up together, bouncing Toptunov’s replies between them like a ping pong ball. That is, until Fomin feels the need to chime in and disrupt the flow, lest anyone forget that he is the plant's chief engineer. With a question he has assembled haphazardly just now from the pages of the binder in front of him, he confuses Toptunov, who starts stuttering.

Bryukhanov stays silent, smoking his cigarette. His presence here is perfunctory, superfluous almost, but he has always taken keen interest in the engineers who work in his plant, especially those who have the ability to make him look bad in the eyes of anyone above.

Dyatlov starts his questions innocently enough, with a minor nit to pick in one of Toptunov’s answers. That is always his baseline, pointing out a small error or omission, to keep the examinee on the defensive and off balance from the very start.

Toptunov shifts in his chair, again and again, a trickle of sweat beading down his lower back.

When he answers Dyatlov, he tries very hard not to make it seem like he is reciting the manuals back at him. He absolutely fucking resents that. But as Dyatlov lobs a scenario after scenario at him, it is becoming increasingly difficult to do so, because it’s one thing to have experienced those situations first hand, and another to have only studied them.

Toptunov doesn’t know how long he has been sitting there, being interrogated on theories and practices, and procedures. He is cooking in cold sweat in that less than fresh now shirt of his, simmering in the stew of his own fears and insecurities.

The commission dismisses him eventually (has it been hours?) — You will be informed of our findings within the week.

He feels like Alik, having lost his magical ability and unable to jump over even a straw, much less get up from that chair. But he does. Weak-kneed, he steps ungracefully toward the door, though still remembering to turn and thank the commission for their consideration.



* * *

When the commission finally adjourns, Dyatlov is first to leave the room, Sitnikov and Babichev soon follow. Bryukhanov looks at the door that shuts behind them for a moment, then lights up another cigarette.

— That Toptunov — he inhales, and turns to Fomin, who is duly filling out the paperwork. — Assign him to Akimov, on fifth shift.

— But, comrade director — Fomin begins to protest. — Dyatlov wants all new —

— Are you in charge of personnel, Fomin?

— No? Then stick to your job. 



* * *

— My congratulations, comrade. 

The housing bureau administrator, who summoned Toptunov on this bright February morning, spares him no glance up from the paperwork scattered about her desk.

— Unfortunately — she presses on each syllable of the word, while furiously scribbling in the margins — I can't give you the keys just yet. 

She looks up at him then, and pauses to braid her fingers for a moment. — Seeing as the work on the building is not yet completed. Two more weeks, I am told. I'm sure you can understand.

— I understand. Of course. — Toptunov cranes his neck across the desk, to the papers she is now signing. He sees his own name, and reads the address. Number Four, Alternativy Street. Apartment eighty-seven. 

He gets an idea.



* * *

— Sasha, you have got to come with me. 

The bus they are on is already past the dormitories, but still a few stops ahead of Sasha's block. Akimov looks at him, confused. Somewhat curious, he allows himself to be led off the bus. 

As it departs, Toptunov points in an unknown direction, and is off, walking briskly. There, past the neat row of thujas, stands the high-rise number four, along Alternativy Street. 

— Looks like they're still working on it — Akimov remarks when they slip into the building lobby, their steps echoing in the empty building. — Even the elevator isn't all here, either. — He peers up and down the gaping mouth of the elevator shaft.

— We can take the stairs — Toptunov all but pulls him toward the stairwell. 

To eighth floor? Akimov wants to protest, but Toptunov is already at the mid-landing on the way to first floor.



* * *

— There are no doors — Akimov observes, panting slightly from their trek up the stairs.

— It's this one. — Toptunov confirms the unit number from a dusty checklist posted by the entrance.

He enters, and immediately begins to call out his discoveries. Bedroom, dayroom, kitchenette. The bedroom is off the corridor, as is the toilet and bathroom. The corridor widens into a dayroom, combined with the kitchenette, both leading up to the balcony. 

The kitchenette has some cabinetry installed already, all of it covered with a film of paint dust and debris. A strong smell of lacquer still emanates from the parquet.

Akimov follows him to the kitchenette, where Toptunov is already making arrangements.

— This being the sink, or rather, the washing station, the drying rack should go here. — He mimes. — Towels, here. And, seeing that the stove is here, this will be the chopping station. Now — 

— What about this, here? — On a whim, Akimov points to a slim section of the counter, between the sink and the space for a refrigerator.

— That will be the SIUR station.

— You're going to control the reactor from your own kitchen?

— Yes, as I'm chopping carrots.

Toptunov begins to laugh at his own joke, then. Akimov catches himself thinking how much he loves the way Leonid's mind works.

And that is when it hits him.

Soon, this small apartment will be furnished. A settee, a coffee table,  a television stand, and of course, a television on top of it. Then will come Leonid's friends, to fill this place with endless talk of science and technology, and at night, laughter that's a little too loud maybe, earning a series of well-placed knocks on the wall from a neighbor. 

And small that the place may be, the title of senior reactor control engineer will no doubt impress more than one local young woman. So, a girlfriend, then.

Suddenly, he feels a tightness around his chest. I need air, he unlatches the balcony door and pulls it open.

The balcony is enclosed on all sides, protected from wind and prying eyes of neighbors. Akimov leans over the railing and breathes deeply. Why am I like this? I should be happy for him. I am happy for him.

Toptunov follows him outside.

— Alright, Sasha? — He touches him lightly on the shoulder.

— Fresh paint. The odour was getting to me.

— It is rather raw in there, isn't it. But, — he continues after a while — when it's ready, I want you to be the first. 

First?

— My first guest. When it is all set up properly. You know, with a settee, and coffee table, and a televi — 

Akimov straightens up a little too sharply and turns toward him. 

— sion...

Toptunov's words fade on his lips. Now they are standing close, too close, face to face, so much that when Toptunov opens his mouth to speak, he makes it a whisper.

— Sasha?

— Leonid — he begins and lifts his hands to trail the sides of Toptunov's arms, landing softly on his shoulders.

Toptunov's eyes open wide. It's the weight, and warmth of those hands again.

— Sasha — He breathes out again, the name a spell, the only spell he knows to say right now. 

— Leonid, if you don't — 

There is something very wrong with gravity, because Toptunov feels like he is weightless and yet falling, forward.

He leans his head in, only slightly. Now they are only centimeters apart, and Sasha's warm hands depart from his shoulders and travel upward to his face, to brush along his cold cheeks and wrap fingers gently around his neck. When Akimov speaks, it is one breath to another.

— If you don't want this, then —

But then their lips meet, and oh, oh is Sasha’s mouth warm and inviting. The kiss ebbs and flows, coming in waves, finishing slow almost languid, but then Sasha's lips wrap his own again and it all begins anew.

They pause to take a longer breath and Toptunov brings his own hands up, fingers curling around the collar of Sasha’s coat, then wandering up, at once hesitant and eager, to touch, to caress. What relief, Akimov thinks, that he would want this, too.

— Was that — and his breath hitches, throat hot and dry — Was it to your liking?

— Very. — Toptunov, who for all this time kept his eyes half-closed, exhales and finally dares to look up again. Gravity has been restored, somewhat, and yet he is firmly in Akimov’s orbit, not wanting to move, not wanting for their embrace, their connectedness to end.

— Would you like to — why is it this difficult to find the words — We could have some tea, at my place. — Akimov offers.

Toptunov nods. With this promise of doing something together, he begins to ease his hands down. 

Sasha's right hand lingers on his left shoulder, giving it a quick squeeze. — Let’s do that then. 



* * *

Akimov puts the kettle on.

They had walked to his place (not a very long walk, it turns out) in companionable silence, each of them buried in thought about what happened on the balcony, and more importantly, what happens now. 

He sets two glasses, already in their holders, on the oilcloth covered table. Toptunov picks up the teapot and pours tea essence into each glass. 

— Brewed it last night. Sugar? — Akimov asks him.

— No, thanks. Have you got any milk? 

He checks the refrigerator, then glances at the stove where two milk bottles are standing on the counter.

— Looks like Zina's set it out to sour.

The kettle begins to sputter and whistle. Akimov turns off the gas, and pours hot water into the glasses.

Toptunov picks up the sugar spoon and begins to balance it with the tips of his fingers, swinging it up and down like a seesaw. He stares at it as if it was the most fascinating spoon in the world.

Does he regret it? Akimov props his chin on his palm, staring into the steam rising and twisting above his glass. The question hangs from the tip of his tongue, but he dare not ask.

— How long — He begins, — How long have you felt... — and leaves the rest of the words unsaid, again unable to find the right ones.

— The night of New Year's Eve — Toptunov speaks after a while. — That's when I realized, I mean, started to hope, that maybe, that we-I — He speaks haltingly, and Akimov knows that he is working it all out, in real-time, with that brilliant mind of his. — Your hands were... and it all felt so right



* * *

Later, when he walks Toptunov to the anteroom, they stop by the door. Akimov once again reaches up, with both hands and Toptunov leans in, almost instinctively, their foreheads resting gently against one another. 

— And this — Akimov lifts up his chin, pulling him in for a kiss. — Does it feel right?

Because I want to do everything right.

Chapter Text

He is the very last one to leave the locker room.

Shuffling his feet across the linoleum floor, Toptunov makes his way along the corridor. His colleagues stride ahead, exchanging jokes, profanities, and half-heartedly goading one another, much like they do in the locker room.

The midnight dark is only exacerbated by the ghastly tube lighting overhead. When he catches his own reflection, it startles him. I look like a fucking ghost, don't I? Bone white smock with sleeves that are just a bit too long, white trousers that don't quite fit either, and a white cap to top it off. Like some kind of cook.

Toptunov-in-the-corridor considers Toptunov-in-the-dark. Or is it the other way around?

A sharp thud of the door, like that of a butcher's cleaver landing on the chopping block, interrupts his reverie just in time for him to realize that he had fallen too far behind the others. The last of his colleagues have already entered the control room.

There will be no slipping in now, buffered in the safety of a crowd, for senior reactor control engineer Toptunov. He will have to enter alone.

Standing in front of the door, Toptunov feels like he's overheating. There's sweat pooling in the palms of his hand, as he thumbs the overly long cuffs of his jacket. Soon it will be trickling down his back.

Toptunov reaches for the door handle, but stops short, hesitating.

Sasha.

Sasha is in there. Sasha Akimov is boss, his mentor, his friend. His... well, his everything. He can't let him down. Not today.

His fingers almost touch the cool metal. Can't let Sasha down, he repeats to himself, not today, not after we

The door swings open. Toptunov retracts his hand, but he is not quick enough. His outstretched fingers collide with the handle. He hisses in pain, then sucks his breath in when Dyatlov's stern face materializes in front of him. Oh, those piercing pale eyes, always watchful, forever judging, never missing a stumble, an error, or too long a pause before an answer.

He cannot see himself, but Toptunov thinks he is turning as white as his smock, his rubber-clad feet start to take root in the floor underneath him.

Comrade, you are in my way.

— I apologize! — He bursts out, shifting aside as Dyatlov storms past, without giving him a second look.

But now the door is open wide, and everyone in the control room has been watching.

Stolyarchuk cannot hide his smirk. Kudryavtsev turns to Proskuryakov and whispers something quickly, the other nodding. Right, they're both here to watch him, SIUR trainees just like he was, only a year ago.

Not knowing what else to do, Toptunov ducks inside before the door can swing closed.

He has been here before, of course. Studied each and every panel, every button. Inside and out. Reactor control, turbine control, pumps. But now the room stretches into infinity. Panels whirl around him, their blinking lights blending into a carousel of light.

I am going to faint, he thinks with horror. Or worse yet, vomit.

— Engineer Toptunov — Akimov’s steady voice reaches him, just as Toptunov's meager dinner does another somersault in his stomach.

Akimov is ten paces in front of him, but it may as well be ten kilometers.

With those ever-reliable glasses, and kind eyes behind them, sporting a mustache to envy, Akimov stands calm, poised, and ready to step in.

Sasha. He addressed me by title, Toptunov realizes, and takes a step forward, wobbly at first, but quickly he steadies himself. With one final glance, Stolyarchuk turns his attention back to the panel beside him.

Don’t make this a disaster, Akimov pleads with his eyes. A fleeting look of worry crosses his brow before he wills his expression to become inscrutable again.

He can’t, as much as he would want to, take a step toward Leonid. To steady him by elbow, reassure him, tell him that everything will be fine, it will be all right.

He can’t. Not when the room is still watching.

Toptunov arrives in front of him at last.

— Comrade Akimov. — he croaks out loud, throat dry.

— Welcome to fifth shift, engineer Toptunov. Will you assume your station.

He adds a small gesture, a flick of the palm really, toward the SIUR panel. Tregub, already unseated, hovers (like spider) to the right of the chair.

Toptunov gives Tregub a quick nod before sitting down. He takes great care to not do it too quickly, as if he were falling into that vast sea of cold metal and blinking lights before him.

Seated, he finally exhales. How long have I been holding my breath? One by one the control panel buttons slowly come into focus.

Tregub waits one more beat before handing him a clipboard. — Shift report, comrade Toptunov — he says, then leans down to add quietly — Off to the loo I go — he confides. — I will come back to answer any of your questions.

He gives him a hearty one-two clap on the shoulder and strolls out of the control room, after exchanging a glance with Akimov.

With Tregub gone, Toptunov senses a shadow move behind him. Sasha.

And then those gentle fingers move across the top of his shoulder, a thumb circling over the pinpricks still lingering from Tregub’s heavy handed clap.

— It’ll be fine.

Akimov’s whisper echoes above him, even as he steps away, now summoned by Yuvchenko who has just arrived in the control room.

Toptunov takes a deep breath, and drops his gaze to the clipboard in front of him. Power level readings, control rod configuration, fuel levels. He starts reading, and word by word, acronym by acronym, everything comes back. He can do this.

When Tregub does return in fifteen, maybe twenty minutes, Toptunov asks for clarification on one of the items. They confer quietly for another ten, reviewing the nighttime power output requirements. Tregub’s patient, almost phlegmatic manner puts Toptunov slightly more at ease, even if he does not yet dare turn away from his console.

When Akimov glances in his direction, Toptunov is already sitting a little straighter. He makes a small adjustment on his panel, watches and waits to confirm the readings. Then, slowly he turns to survey the room.

Still early in the shift, Kirschenabaum, Proskuryakov, Kudryavtsev are all engrossed in their panels. His eyes rest briefly on Akimov, now talking to Stolyarchuk.

At least Tregub didn’t balk too much at his questions, he now remembers. And Stolyarchuk may chuckle here in the control room, but on the outside, he has volunteered his breakfast to go over schematics.

And Sasha.

Sasha always has his back. It’ll be fine.

* * *

They ride the bus together in the morning. Toptunov, as usual, going further than he has to, his dormitory is located much closer along the route than Akimov's block.

But he never complains. The bus has emptied by then, and in the rising mist of early morning light they steal a quick squeeze of their palms before springing up toward the rear exit.

In front of the block entrance, Akimov pauses, looking up to the apartment he is generously sharing with his sister and niece. He then gives a quick glance sideways before pulling Toptunov under the deep awning.

Fresh off his first shift as senior reactor control engineer, Toptunov is a live wire, crackling and pliant, and it is hard not to

Akimov's gentle fingers bring them close, oh so close, and it is all he has to do before Toptunov surges forward, lips upon lips, all that kinetic energy.

— You did good — Akimov manages to breathe out to him (ever the one to reassure him), as they both came up for air. — Wonderful.

— Couldn't have done it without you. — Toptunov returns, eyes shining, unable to contain

The stairway entrance door opens, and they both jump apart.

— I will see you again, comrade.

— Until then.

Toptunov watches Sasha enter the building and head to the elevator. Then he spins around on his heel and marches right back toward his dormitory.

His arms dig deep in the threadbare pockets of his jacket (oh, he will replace it soon enough, once his senior engineer's salary kicks in). Meanwhile, he takes his time sauntering down the uneven sidewalk in the early morning light, all at once relieved, elated, and victorious, and so full of feeling that he worries he might soon explode.

Chapter Text

Books. They're the first thing he sees when he opens his eyes.

Column after column, neatly stacked on top of each other. Towers of thick scientific tomes interspersed with thin unassuming booklets. Poetry. He knows, because one of those odd-colored samizdat pamphlets lay open on Sasha’s desk once, and he had peeked inside, curious.

Except, this all an illusion. The books are vertical. It is he, Leonid Toptunov, with his face pressed into a worn pillow, who is horizontal. And there's a feather quill poking at his cheek.

Toptunov moves his wrist into his field of vision. Both hands on the watch face point toward the door. Noon.

I should get going.

He moves to slide off the bed, but the arm that has until now been loosely draped around his waist flexes and grabs hold of him.

— Stay.

Toptunov rotates back toward the wall, and his companion. Without his glasses, Sasha looks so much younger.

Akimov keeps his eyes closed.

Toptunov leans toward him, close, so close that he can see the twin marks where his glasses rest, each on a side of his nose. He reaches out to touch one of them, gently. Akimov's eyelashes flutter against the top of his hand. Toptunov bites his lip, then whispers. — I really should get going.

That's when Sasha opens his eyes.

— Yes, go. Go to sleep already.

— Sasha — Toptunov chides him.

— What must I do to convince you. Hm?

Akimov lifts his right arm above them, ostensibly to lower it and rub the back of Leonid's neck. But then his thumb wanders back toward his jaw and across his cheek, down to the corner of his mouth. Toptunov's eyelids fall down halfway and he parts his lips. He can't stop a sigh from escaping, and —

— That's not making me sleepy at all — he complains.

— Oh? My apologies. — Sasha promptly withdraws the finger.

They stare at each other for a few moments, before Akimov props himself on his elbow. He dips down to kiss Leonid's temples, the top of his head, his forehead.

— If you must, then go — he whispers in his ear, then lays back down, looking at the ceiling. — But I would rather you stay.

— You know I want to... — Toptunov grumbles.

He then turns away from him, and for a moment, Akimov thinks he might leave. But instead Leonid slides back into him, nestling himself against his body.

— You are like a furnace, you know that?

Akimov moves his arm back into place, low across Leonid's hips and belly. He kisses the back of his head, and neck, then rests his head close, but not so close that he can't breathe.

The room once again falls silent, except for the murmur of their breaths, and after a long while, Akimov's soft snores.



* * *

Bang. Toptunov's eyes fly open.

— That damn draft again. — The words reach him, muffled, from beyond the door to Sasha's room.

There's a rustling noise, like someone is lifting and moving packages, or bags, back and forth between the anteroom and the kitchen.

— Must be Zina. — Akimov whispers.

Toptunov turns to look at Akimov in alarm. The bed squeaks as he does, clearly refusing to keep their secrets. Toptunov sits up, then quickly springs from the bed and walks toward the desk on the far end of the room, by the window. All the while fixing shirt, nervously. Akimov swings his legs over the edge, just as a quick knock precedes the door swinging open.

— Are you up, Sasha?

Toptunov looks down at the floor. Before Sasha can reply, Zinaida withdraws. — My apologies, I did not know you were with a guest.

The door closes gently, but Toptunov is visibly mortified. His face grows hot, then cold. — I-I should really go now.

Akimov pinches the bridge of his nose, then picks up his glasses.

— It's all right, Leonid. — He tells him in that quiet, deliberate tone of his. — Come with me. It's high time you were introduced.



* * *

She is unloading groceries into the cupboards when they enter the kitchen.

— Zina, I would like you to meet Leonid Fedorovich. A close friend of mine.

She wipes her hands with a towel, and extends her palm.

— Zinaida Fyodorovna.

— My older and wiser sister. — Akimov notes.

— Sasha and I, we work together. — Toptunov manages to say as they shake hands. — At the power plant, in Chernobyl. — He adds, quite unnecessarily.

— So I gather. — Zinaida gives him a small smile. — I work at the city library.

— Up until recently, Leonid spent all his time holed up in libraries. — Akimov interjects, folding his arms across his chest.

— Is that so?

— Ekhm. I was studying for my qualifications, as senior engineer. — Toptunov explains.

— Aha. — Zinaida raises her eyebrows and nods politely.

— And qualify, he did. — Akimov finishes.

— My congratulations. Will you stay for dinner?

The question blindsides him completely.

— I-I was just, well, we... — He looks at Sasha for an out, an excuse, but Sasha's face is inscrutable. He is no help at all.

— I hope you can join us. — She turns back to the kitchen table.

— I wouldn't want to impose.

— Then maybe you can help.

— Quite right, too. — Akimov chimes in. — As I recall, one of your hobbies is chopping carrots.

Traitor, Toptunov mouths at him.

— Well then, excellent. — Zinaida picks out a bunch of carrots and hands it to him. — Cutting board is on the counter over there, and knives are in the top drawer, here.

That is the scene that Sonia takes in, as she arrives home from school.

Her uncle Sasha grinding meat on the kitchen counter. Her mother, watching over pots of millet and cabbages. And someone she had never met before, a thin young man with a wispy mustache, arched over the kitchen table, completely absorbed in the task of chopping carrots.



* * *

— He's a nice one, that Leonid Fedorovich.

Akimov arches an eyebrow. Late at night, they sit across from each other, drinking tea. Their daily ritual, as Zinaida prepares for bed, and he readies for his shift at the plant.

— Sonia drew this, look. — She hands him a piece of paper.

It is a childish drawing of Toptunov, seated at the table during dinner, with very animated hands in the air. He did get unbearably excited when describing the cosmodrome, Akimov recalls.

But then he looks over to where Sonia depicted him. It's the same old mustachioed uncle Sasha, except... There's a wide smile arching from underneath that mustache, and his eyes are clearly trained on Toptunov.

— May I keep it?



* * *

Every week they tell him two more weeks, comrade. And so Toptunov leaves the housing bureau building with his head down and empty-handed.

But not today.

Today he is handed two small silver keys. He dutifully signs the paperwork, but as soon as it's done, he sprints out of the building and heads to the furniture store.

Two things, he needs just two things. A futon and window drapes. A futon being the more functional piece of furniture. But window drapes are a signal. They will tell the world that number eighty-seven at Four, Alternativy Street is occupied and lived in.



* * *

— Something the matter? — Akimov adds a flat spoon of sugar to his tea, watching the frown on his sister's face deepen, then dissipate.

— Great aunt Olga has passed away. In Moscow.

Akimov recalls a woman with a hard face, made even more frightening by the eye patch she wore covering up her left eye, blind from cataracts.

Zinaida turns the letter over. — They're asking us to check in on her place. You remember her dacha?

Though he had not been there since childhood, he remembers it rather well.

Located on the far end of the village whose name escapes him at the moment, it was ensconced in a grove of weeping willows, whose branches provided great hiding places for the games he and Zina, their cousins, as well as local children played in the summer.

— A neighbor has been looking after the place from time to time, but they are asking us to make the trip.

— Why us?

— We're the closest.

— That's still a good half a day's drive from here.

Zinaida nods. Akimov takes a deep breath. — Alright then. When can you take the time off?

— Not for another three weeks, at least — she sighs. — I've burned through too many days, staying in Kiev with Sonia.

— Well, I won't be going there alone.

— Of course, you won't. — She fishes a long antique key out of the envelope. — Take Leonid with you.

She slides it toward him, across the kitchen table. When the key comes to a stop in front of him, Akimov looks up, stunned. But Zinaida is already getting up, wishing him a pleasant night at work.



* * *

— Where did you get this rocket?

Toptunov, refreshed from the two hour nap after finishing his shift, plonks down on the faux leather seat of the maroon Zaporozhets that Akimov had just pulled up in.

— This is the 968M? — He looks around the interior, making a note of the large wicker basket in the backseat.

— 968A. It's Sitnikov's. — Akimov glances at the rearview mirror as he pulls out of the spot he had parked in.

— Grand. And the basket?

— That's all Zina. She's prepared us a feast.

Minutes later they leave Pripyat behind, cruising down the forested road toward Ivankiv. Akimov keeps his eyes trained on the road.

— Pedal to the metal, Sasha! — Toptunov laughs as Akimov applies more gas, and the four cylinder engine begins to rumble in the rear. He lowers the window just slightly, to get a bit of breeze in, watching the roadside pass them by.



* * *

When they step inside the dacha, Toptunov lets out a long whistle. Outside, the willows are swaying in the breeze, making a play of light and shadow at the windows. And the windows...

Within each window there are tiny shelves, suspended from the window frame with ropes. Oddly shaped glass pieces sit on the shelves, streaming colorful light into the main room.

— Ah, yes. — Akimov says when they step inside. — She was a glass maker, old Olga. For a time, at least. Until rheumatism stole her hands away from her.

Suddenly he is thirteen again, caught by his great aunt, having looked through an orange glass piece. He swallows, expecting a rebuke for removing it from the window shelf.

— What did you see? — Aunt Olga asks instead.

He looks up at her, but she's not looking at him. Rather, she's gazing at her creations lined up in the window, glowing in the late morning light.

— A happier world. — He tells her, simply and truthfully, before he can regret his honesty and bluster. Olga doesn't say anything, but it was about the only time he would see her smile.

— Shall I fetch the basket from the car? — Toptunov's question brings him back to the present. They leave the front door open, letting fresh air circulate throughout the interior.

Akimov is taking the jars of food out of the basket when Toptunov stumbles into the bathroom.

— What is this?

And it is a bath room, in the truest sense of the word. A large bone-white clawfoot tub stands in the center, flanked by a wide window behind it. Orange, pink and red glassware sits on its shelves, intensifying the afternoon light.

Akimov steps in to stand next to him.

— Shall we take a bath? — He proposes in a light tone. But the more he stares into the glow of the glass pieces, shining like precious stones, the more serious he is about the idea.



* * *

— This boiler has never worked quite right, from what I can remember. — Akimov finally admits, when their hopes for hot water are dashed. Toptunov taps the empty tank with a wrench one more time, eyeing the line of rust all the way to the wall.

But they are engineers, aren't they? Surely, they can come up with an alternative. It takes four large metal pots, as big as drums, warped from age and quite dented, to boil water for the bath. They wolf down golubtsi for dinner, in the mean time.

Carrying each pot together, they tip it over to pour the steaming hot water into the tub. Toptunov finds bath salts in the cupboard above the sink, while Akimov connects the water hose to add cold water.



* * *

The late afternoon sun peeks in from in between the willows, and the bath room is now flooded by light. Maybe it's the light, or the steam coming from the tub, or the dusting of pink on Toptunov's cheeks after their exertions, but Akimov thinks he has seen enough.

He sets his glasses down on the edge of the sink, then lifts off his short sleeve shirt. As if taking cue, Toptunov unbuttons his own shirt, fingers flying about nervously. The moment it is off his shoulders, Sasha pulls him in for a kiss, and Toptunov drops his shirt in surprise. But oh, oh, this is new, this expansive skin to skin contact. Toptunov shudders. Sasha slides his left arm up, from the small of Leonid's back, holding him steady, his right hand cradling the back of his neck.

Toptunov's right arm twitches, first grasping at empty air, then finally coming to rest, palm, then fingers, on Sasha's bicep.

Their kiss deepens. Sasha shifts ever so slightly, moving his left foot forward and what were all those hours he had spent in physics lectures and seminars for, really, when it is now, just now that Toptunov discovers the true meaning of friction.

— Sa-a-sh — is all that escapes from him before he is smothered in another kiss, and another. But Sasha, the devil, knows exactly what he is doing, keeping that pressure up from every angle, so much that all Toptunov can do is let go, unravel, and watch himself become undone.

Suddenly it's too much and — Aghh-uhh. — He seizes, and gasps into Sasha's mouth, then slowly crumples against him. Sasha's arms hold him up, as Toptunov's knees seem to give out, his fingers seeking — and failing — to find purchase on Sasha's back. When did it get so steamy in here?

— Leonid.

But Toptunov's left cheek is melted into Sasha's clavicle. Akimov can feel his eyelashes flutter against his neck.

— I'm sorry — Toptunov breathes out. — I — breath — This is — breath — I'm sorry...

— Leonid.

Toptunov is unraveled and undone, alright.

— It's okay, Lenya. — Akimov whispers into the damp strands of his hair. — There's nothing to be sorry for. We do have a bath drawn, after all.

He motions toward the bathtub, then tenderly disentangles himself from Leonid's limbs.

— Can you stand?

Toptunov nods, eyes drawn downward.

Akimov reaches for a hand towel and dips it in the bath water, making sure it's not too hot before he hands it to him. — Here.

He moves aside to take off his trousers. Toptunov follows, cleaning up as best he can. He bites his lips in embarrassment, still unable to look up. When he does, Sasha is already seated in the tub, strategically facing the window, and taking his time to marvel at the glass sculptures closest to him.

Toptunov steps into the bath, gingerly, and it is hot, hot, hot. He sits down, opposite of Akimov, drawing his knees up. His eyes scatter, chasing the rare bits of foam until Sasha reaches out to grasp his hand and he is caught in his soft gaze.

— I can't see you very clearly without my glasses — Akimov confesses. — I rather think we'd be more comfortable if you would — he draws a circle in the air.

Toptunov catches his meaning, and after a second of hesitation, spins around, and moves back until he comes to rest in his arms. Right hand to right hand, left hand to left, they intertwine their fingers and Toptunov draws Sasha's arms around him like a cloak.

Akimov buries his face in the crook of his neck and at first, Toptunov can't make out what he's saying. But then Sasha lifts his lips to his ear and — You are so, so beautiful. — Kiss. — And I want you to know this, Lenya, that I won't do anything you aren't ready for.

And that's when he feels Leonid's body relax, finally, and sink deep, deep down against his own.



* * *

— Leonid.

— Yeah?

— Do you trust me?

— I trust you, Sasha.



* * *

When he awakens, it is night time. Sasha's side of the bed is empty. He slides off the bed and limps through the French doors into the main room, and through the kitchen to the back yard.

He finds Akimov sitting outside, on a small wooden bench facing the willow grove.

— Sasha?

— Did I wake you?

Toptunov shakes his head, moving around the bench.

— Here. — Akimov takes the chair cushion he had been sitting on, and places it next to him. — Sit.

Toptunov sits down, picking up the heavy woolen blanket handed to him, draping it over himself and back around his shoulders.

Underneath the blanket there is an air gap between them, a few centimeters. Both of them are aware of it, but neither ones dares to close it, yet.

— I was just — Sasha begins to explain, in a whisper. — The stars are very clear tonight.

They both look up. Here, far away from the glow of city lights, the stars seem to hang low, within the reach of an outstretched hand.

Listening to the occasional warbling of spring crickets, Akimov steals a glance at Leonid, who is wholly engrossed in the goings on above him.

— Do you ever think about what it would be like, — Akimov speaks after a while — if you had followed your childhood dream? — He makes an upward motion with his hand. — And gone up there?

Toptunov brings his knees to his chest and adjusts the blanket, clasping his hands on top. — You mean, do I regret choosing the path of atomshchiki instead of that of the cosmonauts?

His eyes turn back to the sky. When he speaks, it's like he's speaking from far away, across the expanse of space-time.

— It's true. Growing up, in Star City, it was all I could think about. But when they're up there, the cosmonauts... they're mostly alone. Dozens of engineers supporting them from the ground, sure. And maybe some day, there will be tens, hundreds of people going up. Someday soon, even. But for now... up there... it is a lonely endeavor.

His gaze returns to earth.

— And down here... You and I. All of us, in that control room, in Chernobyl. What we do, what I do — he unclasps his fingers, stretching them, turning his palms back and forth — with these hands, I control the power that brings energy, that brings light to millions. In villages and towns hundreds of kilometers away. So that kids can have the same dream I had, and study and follow on that path.

— And you know, what else? Down here, it isn't lonely at all.

It's good that Toptunov's eyes are still staring somewhere in the middle distance, and not at him, because Akimov feels his breath knocked out of him. He inhales, sharply, trying to keep his breathing steady, even as his heart feels full to the brim.

You damned idealist. It's what made me fall in love with you.

The confession weighs heavy, suspended at the very tip of his tongue. He's going to tell him. He has to. He opens his mouth and —

— Quite the sap, aren't I? — Toptunov turns to him, with a small smile. — None of that made any sense, I suppose.

And all Akimov can manage to say is — No, it did. It did.

It made all the sense. And if I can't say it with words, then...

He shifts to close the gap between them, and puts his arm around Toptunov, gently moving his thumb back and forth along his shoulder.



* * *

Zinaida's final gift, hidden at the very bottom of her endless basket, is a small metal box. Inside it, a somewhat cryptic note exhorting them to check all the drawers, it was turquoise. Beneath the note, a handful of coffee beans. Plenty enough for two coffees.

— Turquoise?

Akimov snaps his fingers. — Of course. — He rummages through the drawers, finally producing a well-worn turquoise hand crank coffee grinder.

He leaves the grinder in Toptunov's care, while he goes to fetch water, for the coffee, and the washing they have to do.

It's nearly midday by the time all their chores are done, and the sheets are happily flapping in the sun. Toptunov carries a tray with two coffees outside, to the wooden bench where Akimov is sitting. He sets the empty tray down by his feet.

— Close your eyes, Sasha.

— Can I keep drinking my coffee?

— Yes, but close your eyes. I want to take you somewhere.

— With my eyes closed?

— Mhm.

— And where are you taking me?

— To my dacha.

— You have a dacha now? Well done, senior engineer Toptunov.

— I don't, but I will. One day. And if you stop talking for a second, I'll even describe it to you.

Akimov chuckles, raising his left hand up, as if to defend himself. Toptunov gives him a quick glance. Sasha's eyes are closed. Good.

— Alright, let's begin. — He closes his own eyes.

Akimov sips his coffee, listening to Leonid describe the sun-soaked dirt road that will lead to the dacha. Perched at the edge of a forest, there will be a cordon of young birch trees guarding it. And up close underneath the window sills, gooseberry bushes.

— Will there be running water?

— Sasha...

He continues to describe the interior layout. The day room will be the central place, with a fireplace, surrounded by book cases filled books. Books of all kinds.

— Is that not a fire hazard?

Sasha.

— Sorry.

— ... a good solid table, with a thick tablecloth, where we can sit and read, or play cards, or —

With the cup almost at his lips, Akimov pauses. When did it become we?



* * *

A few kilometers before Chernobyl, Akimov turns the Zaporozhets onto a dirt road. It quickly widens into a small beach, with a short wooden jetty that extends into the river.

The wooden planks of the jetty creak and heave under their weight. Akimov leans down to untie his shoelaces.

— What are you doing?

— Going to dip my feet in the water.

— Isn't it cold?

— Oh, you'll see.

He sits down on the edge, reaching to fold up the bottoms of his trousers. Toptunov moves to follow.

Out of his shoes and socks, Toptunov swings his feet over the jetty's edge and lowers them, apprehensive. The water is cold, but every once in a while he feels a warm current pass by. He looks at him, surprised.

— We're downstream from the plant — Akimov explains. — Coolant water.

— Is it not contaminated?

— Miniscule amount, yes. Don't spend all night soaking in it, and you'll be fine.

Akimov leans back, taking in the orange and pink reflections of the sunset behind them. Toptunov sits forward. He's pulled his arms out of his jacket, now draped crookedly over his shoulders. Down in the water, he traces a figure eight with his foot, deep in thought, and worst of all, frowning.

— What's on your mind? — Akimov sits back up, rubbing the sand off his left hand on his knee.

— Is there... a place — Toptunov begins, then turns to look directly at him. — Somewhere where we could go — he halts.

He doesn't mean right now, Akimov knows that. Somewhere where we could be together is unspoken, Akimov knows that also.

— If not today, then — Toptunov purses his lips briefly, then looks down at the water at his feet.

But there isn't such a place, is there.

— With our skill set? — Akimov finally settles for a lighter tone. — Well, we do have our pick of Kursk, and Ignalina, and Leningrad... If you're willing to re-train for VVER reactors, Novovoronezh also.

— Oh, and Smolensk. — He adds after a while, when Toptunov doesn't reply. — So what do you say, Lenya, to a tour of all those places? And every few years we pick up everything, and go to the next.

— I would follow you anywhere, Sasha. — Toptunov replies finally, thoughtful and serious. — But you know that. Your shadow, remember? — He gives him a faint hint of a smile.

Akimov squeezes his hand lightly.

— More than that, Leonid. So much more than that.

And maybe someday... Maybe someday the day will come.



* * *

When they pull into Alternativy street, it is evening. Toptunov picks up his satchel from where it rested on the floor, by his feet.

— Will you come up? Only for a bit.

— Can't. — Akimov shakes his head. — I'm well overdue to return this car to Sitnikov. Not that I regret the detour we made.

— Alright. — Toptunov shifts in his seat, putting his hand on the door handle.

— Let's... — Akimov starts. — You and I, let's do something this Saturday. Go fishing, perhaps.

— Saturday, then.

Chapter Text

Sasha isn't on the bus.

It isn't that unusual, really. As the foreman of the fifth shift at the control room of Reactor Four, more often than not, Akimov needs to arrive earlier than most. And yet, for some time now, he's made it a point to be on the same bus as Toptunov. Or maybe it's Toptunov who's made it a point to catch the earlier bus that Sasha would be on.

Once aboard, he walks toward the back, scanning the seats. More than half the time the interior lights are off or dimmed. He had once made the mistake of sitting down and joking — What, did you forget your glasses? — next to Sitnikov.

Digging himself out of that one took almost the entirety of the bus ride. And even then, he had a feeling that Sitnikov knew exactly who it was that Toptunov mistakenly thought he was addressing. For a long time afterward, he can't shake off the feeling that Sitnikov knows and—

But there is no Sasha or Sitnikov this time. Toptunov slides into an empty seat, only to have Perevozchenko, seated in the row before him, turn and start chatting about that motorcycle of his.

Toptunov listens with one ear, staring at the inky darkness outside of the window. A motorcycle would be something. Sasha can afford to have a car, but he chooses not to, instead preferring the inconvenience of borrowing one when he needs it, or being dependent on public transit.

He's even broached the subject with him once.

— When you have a car, everyone expects you to show up. And then you have to show up for everybody. — Sasha had told him then.

He's very picky about who he shows up for, it seems. He's certainly shown up for him. And, of course, his own sister and niece. But there are definitely people, whom Toptunov doesn't know much about, that Sasha is adamant about not being worth showing up for.

But a motorcycle would be nice, he thinks to himself again. He can imagine himself riding, with Sasha hugging his midsection and yelling in his ear — Slow down, Lenya!

— What is so amusing, Leonid Fedorovych?

Toptunov is grateful for the semi-darkness of the bus as it hides his blush. He wipes the smile off his face. — The thought of riding your motorcycle — he answers somewhat honestly. — Maybe I'll think about it.

— Don't think too long. — Perevozchenko wags his eyebrows. — Khodemchuk is very interested.

The rest of the ride passes by in amicable silence.


* * *


Toptunov is one of the last ones to leave the bus.

As he joins the throngs of workers headed to the main administration building, he lifts his head to look at the large letters adorning the facade of the building. It never ceases to amaze him, that he works here.

V. I. Lenin Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant. Where he's spent long months as trainee, then engineer, and now twelve, thirteen? weeks in his current post.

Main Administration Building sits squat at the eastern edge of the entire complex. Unassuming by day, but at night the floodlights give it a looming, ethereal look. Like some kind of spaceship. And the whole process for getting inside, with the clean and dirty sides, seems very space-like.

Toptunov smiles to himself, briefly, remembering his conversation with Sasha. About the path he didn't choose, and the one he did. And whether it was the right decision.

— Who's the smile for?

Stolyarchuk sidles up next to him, already undoing his trousers. Toptunov purses his lips. It's the second time he's been caught smiling, there better not be a third.

— What, not who. The weekend. — He recovers easily enough, looking down as he unbuttons his shirt.

— Got plans?

— Sleep, of course. Maybe a little fishing.

— Taking up Akimov's hobbies, too, I see. — Stolyarchuk notes as he stows his trousers in his locker. — I suppose that's worth a smile or two — he quips and heads toward the door to the "dirty" side before Toptunov can react.

Leonid takes a deep breath. It's alright, it's fine. They all probably think he's got a bad case of hero-worship. That whole shadow thing.

He finishes undressing and lays out the clothes neatly in his locker, underneath the jacket he had hung up earlier. With a soft metal bang Toptunov closes the metal door and heads to the other changing room.

It's much more crowded in here. He slips into an open space next to Yuvchenko and picks up a pair of freshly laundered white trousers.

— Khodemchuk! — Perevozchenko, on the far end, calls out to the man who just entered. — Want to buy my motorcycle?

— Forget it — Khodemchuk spares him no glance as he walks by. — Find another fool.

Khodemchuk's interest has been greatly misrepresented then, Toptunov thinks.

— Toptunov — Perevozchenko calls to him, cheerful. — Now's your second ch—

— Toptunov? — Brazhnik interrupts him from the opposite end. — He's just a little boy. He's got more hair on his face than on his balls.

Brazhnik's not even looking at him as he lobs the insults, busy unfolding the shirt he's about to put on. Toptunov rolls his eyes. Here we go again.

— Hair? — Yuvchenko leans in to get a closer look at his moustache. — Is that what's on his lip?

The question elicits a few laughs. Khodemchuk claps him heartily on the shoulder. Toptunov's good mood is evaporating quickly, as the door to the deaerator corridor opens.

— Leonid Fedorovych — Proskuryakov appears in the doorway.

Toptunov flinches as he hears his name. What is it now...

— Akimov says to come to the control room as soon as you're ready.

— He's already here?

— Came in a little early. Something about a test.

He nods to Proskuryakov, who promptly exits the room to wait out in the corridor. Turning back to the shelf, he reaches for an undershirt when Yuvchenko leans in to tease his moustache with his finger.

That guy... Toptunov's hand goes up, quick as lightning, to intercept the intrusion into his personal space, and well, his face. More laughter ensues.

— You see? Desperate. — Brazhnik concludes and shakes his head. Khodemchuk is likewise amused.

Toptunov dives into his undershirt, and hurries to button up his smock, eager to get out of there. He grabs his hat and slips out of the changing room while the others have their final cigarette before starting the shift.

Here in the long deaerator corridor, it is quiet. He nods again to Proskuryakov, then shoots a glance to his right at Toptunov-in-the-dark walking alongside him, keeping him company in every window he passes by.

Test. What test could it be? he wonders.

He pushes open the door to the control room and heads directly to where Akimov is standing, hunched slightly over a binder laid out on the console.

— Sasha?

Toptunov throws a quick sideways glance at the power output readout. 1600. That's way lower than he would expect to see. The reactor is supposed to be shut down for refueling soon, but that won't be happening on their shift. Night shift is mostly baby-sitting, all the interesting stuff always happens during the day.

Akimov looks up from the binder. — Ah, you know the test they were supposed to run? — He doesn't quite wait for an answer. — The turbine rundown, they tried last year. They couldn't do it on the day shift so... they've given it to us.

— To us? — Totunov echoes, incredulous. — But we don't even know what it—

— Shh. — Sasha raises his hand and gives an almost imperceptible glance at Proskuryakov and Kudryavtsev, the pair of them standing a few steps away.

Toptunov lowers his voice to a whisper. — We don't know what it is.

— It's fine. — Akimov reassures him. — We take it down to 700, hold it there, and the rest is Stolyarchuk and Kirschenbaum.

That doesn't sound too bad. He hasn't worked at such a low power level yet, but if that's all he's responsible for then—

— But — Sasha pauses. — Dyatlov is going to be supervising.

Dyatlov. Here, in the relative safety of the fifth shift he's almost forgotten his existence. Almost. For a brief moment, he's transported back in time, to his qualifications exam and his palms begin to sweat.

— I have to do something I've never done before with Dyatlov looking over my shoulder?

He's toeing the line, running his mouth like that. But Akimov has grown used to weathering Leonid's tiny outbursts of youthful impudence. He can absorb them, anyhow.

— Yeah, well, don't worry — he tells him. — We'll do it together. I'm looking at the instructions now.

Toptunov follows his line of sight down to the open binder. He zeroes in on the lines of instructions that have been crossed out and points to them.

— Are we supposed to do those or not?

Sasha sets the binder aside. He moves to the left to pick up the phone.

— Yes, this is Akimov, in Four. I have the manual for the rundown test, you did it last year...

So he's calling one of the other control rooms, presumably someone who had been present when they performed the test. That's the whole Sasha. He may not have all the answers, but he knows where to find them.

— Yes, in the program there are instructions of what to do, and then, well, there's a lot of things are crossed out. Should I—

Meanwhile Toptunov has gotten his hands on the binder. He flips the pages back and forth, shaking his head. Well, if this isn't some eleventh hour bullshit from above, he thinks unhappily.

— Are you sure? Right. Thank you. — Sasha hangs up. — He says to follow the crossed out instructions.

Toptunov slides the binder back to him, and does little to hide the eye roll.

— So then why are they crossed out?

Before Akimov can address (or absorb) yet another tiny outburst, the door to the control room swings open and Dyatlov strides in. Temperature drops at least one degree.

— We've been cleared to run the test. — He announces cooly to the room and walks toward the SIUR station, throwing a quick glance at the power output. — Sixteen hundred. Good.

He turns back to address everyone.

— Now, is it too much to ask that you all know what you're doing?

— Well, we... — Toptunov starts, but Sasha cuts him off.

— Yes, absolutely.

— Stolyarchuk? — The brunt of Dyatlov's attention is directed elsewhere for a precious few moments.

Toptunov is still processing the mild slight of Sasha cutting him off, when Dyatlov throws a binder in Kirschenbaum's direction.

Tonight is off to a great start, Toptunov thinks. He understands, of course. Sasha is only trying to protect him, spare him from—

— Shut the fuck up and do your job.

That.

— Toptunov. — Finished with berating Kirschenbaum, Dyatlov's attention turns to him. — Reduce power to seven hundred.

Toptunov moves back to to his console and pulls up a chair to sit down in. Turning to Sasha, he admits in a whisper — I've never done it with the power so low.

— It's okay — Sasha whispers back to him. — I'm with you.

— Reducing power to seven hundred — Toptunov calls out loud to the room, and to Dyatlov. And himself, too.

Focus. He selects the first set of rods to bring down, and begins to move the joystick.


* * *


Leaning heavily on the console, Akimov's eyes switch back and forth between the power output numbers dropping, and Leonid, who looks even more nervous than he did on his first night here.

But he can talk him through this. — Easy now. Slow it down.

He positions his body in a way that serves as buffer between his reactor control operator, and the irate deputy chief engineer who has taken over the foreman's desk.

Toptunov nods, eyes glued to his console. He selects fewer rods this time, and from another section of the core.

— Good. — Akimov tells him. — Like that.

— You should have been finished by now. — Dyatlov interrupts, looking up from his paperwork.

— We're following protocol for reduction rate. — Akimov answers him, keeping his voice even.

— You're procrastinating. There are ten other men in this plant who would have done it already.

A threat. Middling one, at best. But still, it shouldn't be ignored. Leonid looks up at him, concerned, but Akimov keeps watching the power readout as he whispers. — Keep working. You're doing fine.

Toptunov reaches to rub his forehead, finding beads of sweat under his hat.

Annoyed with the slow pace of power reduction, Dyatlov closes his paperwork and moves to get up. — Kirchenbaum. Come get me when these old women are ready.

— Yes, Comrade Dyatlov. — Kirchenbaum responds, mechanically almost. If he's still smarting from the dressing down he received earlier, he doesn't show it.

Dyatlov grabs a pack of cigarettes off the desk and leaves the room, slamming the door behind him.

The whole room breathes easier.


* * *


When the power readout finally drops to upper 700s, Toptunov lets out a long sigh. He waits for the reading to settle.

— Okay. Very slow now. — Sasha echoes his thoughts. — Let's coast down to seven hundred.

But power keeps falling, showing no sign of stabilizing.

— Whoa whoa whoa... slow! — Sasha calls out, sharply, as the reading falls below 700.

— I-I didn't move any rods there.

— What is this? — Akimov watches, frozen, as the power reading continues to drop.

Leaning away from the console, Toptunov puts his hands up, tapping Sasha's arm lightly. —I'm not even touching it.

It is that gesture that unfreezes Akimov, and propels him to action. He straightens up and quickly steps out of the room.

The reading fluctuates around 512 megawatts, briefly jumping back to 514 before it continues on its downward trajectory.

Toptunov stands up from his chair as if wondering Is it me? Am I doing it? Proskuryakov and Kudryavtsev hover just a few meters away, looking at each other, then together at him. Kirschenbaum is standing up as well, curious and concerned.

Everyone in the control room is watching him, but only he feels the panic that is rapidly pooling in his gut.


* * *


When the door of the golden corridor opens, it's Akimov standing there, not Kirschenbaum.

Not a good sign.

The apprehensive look on Akimov's face confirms it. Something's definitely wrong. Dyatlov takes one final drag and stubs out his cigarette.

Without a word, he storms back into the control room, followed by Akimov and his string of excuses masquerading as explanations — ... did everything right, but we think that maybe the core is poisoned.

He marches over toward where Toptunov is hovering over his console, visibly spooked.

— If you thought the core was poisoned then you didn't do everything right — he takes one look at the power reading. For fuck's sake. — Because you're choking my reactor. Get it back up!

Akimov thinks for a moment. — If we switch off LAC, it's possible we could get more control—

— Do it. Go! — Dyatlov snaps, impatient.

— Disable local automatic control, go to global. — Akimov begins to issue the command, but Toptunov seems rooted to the spot, unable to move. — Leonid.

Right. Okay. His eyes spin around the console. This is LAC. I know this. He leans down and presses a series of switches, calling out — LAC disabled. Global control activated.

They all turn to the power readout. Still falling, even more rapidly than before. Toptunov's stomach drops even further.

— What did you do? — Dyatlov turns to him, incensed, ignoring his feeble protests about following instructions. — Look at it!

Meanwhile, Akimov stares at the reading, mouth agape, as it falls below one hundred. None of this makes any sense. — I don't understand.

When the reading finally stops falling, it settles at a meager thirty megawatts.

— You fucking amateurs. — Dyatlov considers the pair of them. — You stalled the reactor. — He states the charge, then turns to Toptunov. — How the fuck did you get this job?

And there it is. He's finished. His career is done. Dyatlov will make sure of that.

Sasha moves to intercept. — Comrade—

— You're going to tell me you did everything right again, you incompetent arsehole?

Toptunov flinches at the insult, but Sasha takes it in stride. — I apologize for this unsatisfactory result.

Unsatisfactory result. Dyatlov looks at him for a moment, then finally realizes what Akimov is doing. He's absorbing, diffusing his ire. Deflecting it from that quivering idiot, Toptunov. But it only drives to fuel his fury even more. He looks away for a moment, disgusted by Akimov's deference more than Toptunov's incompetence.

Eye contact broken between them, Akimov turns immediately back to the console.

— What are you doing? — Dyatlov asks a second later.

— We have to shut it all the way down.

— No.

— We could be in a xenon pit. We have to shut down, wait twenty-four hours—

— No. We're doing the test tonight. Raise the power to seven hundred.

What? Akimov can't believe what he's just heard.

— We can't increase power from here. The rules— he starts, but Dyatlov cuts him off. Nobody is going to throw the rule book at him.

Toptunov's eyes jump between the two of them as they talk over each other, increasingly agitated. Sasha hedges his opinion of raising the power at this stage as nonsensical with yet another apology, but Dyatlov shuts him down. — Raise the power.

— No.

There's no apology attached, no substantiation. Just a plain no.

— I won't do it, it isn't safe.

A flicker of admiration, but it's gone as soon as it appears. Dyatlov shifts his gaze, now brimming with contempt, to Toptunov, who can't bring himself to look into those cold eyes. So he looks back on Akimov.

Safe. Clever, Akimov. Very clever of him to bring up safety. The whole control room is watching, so Dyatlov spins around to address the captive audience.

The core might be in a xenon pit, but this room is in a pit of fear. Fear that needs to be dealt with, and swiftly.

— Safety first. Always. I've been saying that for twenty-five years. That's how long I've done this job. Twenty-five years. Is that longer than you, Akimov?

He casts the line. Akimov's the fish.

— Yes — he answers.

— Is it much longer?

— Yes — Akimov repeats, throat a little dry. He knows where this is headed.

— And you? — Dyatlov sets his sights on Toptunov, who tries not to recoil, again, from under the hard, scornful gaze. He doesn't wait for an answer.

— So if I say it's safe, it's safe. And if the two of you disagree... — He looks between them. — Then you don't have to work here and you won't. But not just here. You won't work at Kursk. Or Ignalina. Or Leningrad, or Novo-Voronezh.

Toptunov didn't think his stomach could sink any further, but it does. It somehow does.

The conversation he had with Sasha on the jetty that one day flashes in his mind. Him, wondering if there is a place the two of them might... and Sasha, humoring him, listing out the places they might go to, given their skill set. And now Dyatlov is crossing each of those places out, one by one.

— You won't work anywhere ever again. I'll see to it. I think you know — he looks directly in Akimov's eyes, — I will see to it. Raise the power.

The room is silent, save for the ever-present hum of the consoles and ticking of the meters. Akimov sinks deep into the recesses of his mind, falling back on the one thing he's lived by when it came to his work. Always play by the rules. He turns and picks up the control room log book and holds it before Dyatlov.

— I would like you to record your command—

But Dyatlov slaps it out of his hands. The log book scatters to the floor.

— Raise the power.

And that's final. Dyatlov turns his back to him and heads toward the desk. He picks up the pack of cigarettes, and lights one, as Akimov bends down to pick up the log book, defeated.

They've lost then.

He turns to Toptunov, who regards him with a mixture of concern, fear, awe, sadness, and something else. Is it disappointment? Whatever it is, Akimov doesn't feel humiliated. Only resigned. He's absorbed what there was to absorb. Deflected what there was to deflect. He expressed his doubts, his suspicions, all of that which is the product of his expertise and experience.

And he has been overruled.

He takes in a long breath. — Together, then.


* * *


They've pulled almost all of the control rods out. The power level is holding at two hundred and four. Akimov's eyes fly between the power readout and the console. He changes a few more settings, before admitting that it's useless. They aren't going to get above that number. Not tonight.

He wipes the sweat off his brow. Time to face the music. And it won't be pleasant. He turns and marches toward Dyatlov's desk.

— I'm sorry, but this is all we can get. Two hundred megawatts.

Toptunov crumples in his chair as he listens. The dread that's been eating him since he learned about the test, the panic at the unexplained power drop, the frustration, he's wearing it all plain on his face. It's over. He's done for.

Stolyarchuk gives him a sympathetic look. Kirschenbaum rubs the bridge of his nose, wanting all of this to be over. When Dyatlov begins to speak, he seems oddly calm.

— Well, if that's what we have, that's what we have.

Akimov can't believe what he's hearing. Doing the test in these conditions is entirely pointless. — But the test requires 700—

— Stolyarchuk, let's get ready. Switch on pump four.

It's like Akimov's not even there.

— Wait a second — he interjects, only to be ignored again, as Dyatlov barks at Stolyarchuk, who's hesitating.

— We barely have any steam as it is. — Akimov presses on. — The turbine is going too slow for the test to deliver any valid—

— It's enough. — Dyatlov dismisses him.

— ...results. And if we add more water, there will be even less steam—

— I said it's enough! — Dyatlov erupts. — I know what I'm doing. Stolyarchuk.

— Main Pump 4 is connected. — Stolyarchuk reports after a moment, reticence evident in his voice. — We should warn Khodemchuk, the pipes are going to be jumping.

— Never mind him. Kirschenbaum—

An alarm starts blaring, interrupting Dyatlov. Stolyarchuk calls out the problem with steam pressure, but it seems that nothing will dissuade Dyatlov from proceeding with the test. He directs the other engineers to aid Stolyarchuk.

When Akimov joins him at his console, Stolyarchuk gives him an almost pleading look. — We should stop.

Before Akimov can respond, Dyatlov barks another order, to turn off the alarm. — You have fifteen minutes.


* * *


Suddenly, the SKALA computer printer comes alive and starts its chatter as it produces a new report. Toptunov reaches to pick up the printout. He scans it, before handing it to Akimov. Absence of sufficient control rods... recommend reactor to be shut down.

Akimov turns and immediately presents the report to Dyatlov, who rolls his eyes after glancing at it.

— Of course it's saying that. It doesn't know we're running a test.

— All right, comrades. — He steps out from behind the desk and to the center of the control room. — Another few minutes, and it will all be over.

Toptunov looks up at the clock. Twenty-three after one in the morning. Strange that they would be only this far along in the shift, when he feels he's been here for hours, maybe days. But soon, it will be over. He remembers, and tries to hold on to Sasha's promise. That they would do something, together, later today. What was it? But his mind is refusing to cooperate, drawing a blank.

— Kirschenbaum, when you're ready.

Toptunov looks at Akimov, desperately, trying to remember, what it was that they had planned to do. But Sasha's eyes look oddly vacant. He's not looking at him.

— We did everything right— he says. More to himself than anyone else.


* * *


The test begins. Looking away from Stolyarchuk and Kirschenbaum, Toptunov's eyes fall to the power readout. It's climbing, rapidly.

Wait, what.

— W-we have a power surge. —He calls out. — Sasha!

— What did you do?— Dyatlov bellows, but Akimov ignores him.

He takes one look at the readings, then rushes forward, as if driven by instinct. Enough. Shut it down. Shut it all down. He pulls the cover off the AZ-5 switch and presses it, all the while he is watching the display.

But instead of falling, the numbers keep rising.

Seven hundred.

One thousand.

Eighteen hundred.

His hand is still on the button. The button that's supposed to shut it all down.

He and Toptunov watch in horror as the numbers rise above anything they've seen before.

Forty-eight hundred.

Twelve thousand.

Twenty-four thousand.

How is this even possible?

An inhuman whine begins to make its way through the control room, followed by a thud. The floor shudders. Everyone dives for something to hold onto. Akimov and Toptunov share a look as they fall to their consoles.

Then, the second explosion rocks the room. Lights go out. Dust rains on them from the ceiling. It falls and swirls in the air, chalky and semi-transparent, settling into every crevice. Eventually, the backup lighting engages, bathing the room in an eerie greenish light.

— Comrade Dyatlov! — Akimov calls out, or at least he thinks he does. There's an intense buzzing in his ears, and a metallic taste in his mouth. his vision is still wobbly. — Comrade Dyatlov?

— What just happened? — Dyatlov's voice is flat, oddly subdued.

The sound of the alarms blaring around them begins to reach Akimov's ears.

— I don't know. — He answers, his breath shaky, leaning on the console. His fingers still touching AZ-5.

The door to the control room opens, yanking everybody's attention all at once.

— There's a fire in the turbine hall — Brazhnik announces, breathless.

— The turbine hall. The control system tank. Hydrogen. — Dyatlov pieces it all together and comes to a conclusion. — You and Toptunov, you morons blew the tank.

Toptunov begins to protest, but Dyatlov won't have it. — This is an emergency — he turns to look around the room. — Everyone stay calm. Our first priority—

Just then Perevozchenko runs into the control room. Even in the dim light Toptunov sees that there's something strange about his face, like he's been in the sun for too long, way too long.

— It's exploded!

— We know — Dyatlov puts up a hand to stop him from talking, and instead turns to where he and Sasha are standing. — Akimov, are we cooling the reactor core?

— We shut it down, — Sasha answers rapidly —but the control rods are still at... — His voice falters when he sees Perevozchenko's darkened face. —They're not all the way in, I disengaged the clutch—

— Alright. — Dyatlov has heard enough. — I'll disconnect the servos from the standby console. You two! — He orders Kirchenbaum to get the backup pumps running.

— We need water moving through the core. That is all that matters.

Perevozchenko stares at him, dumbfounded. — There is no core. It exploded, the core exploded.

An aftershock runs through the room, visible on everybody's faces. They are all staring at Perevozchenko now, trying to comprehend his words. Only Dyatlov seems unaffected.

— He's in shock. Get him out of here.

And with that, he turns to walk behind the desk.

— The lid is off — Perevozchenko's words chase after him, begging to be believed. — The stack is burning. I saw it.

— You're confused. RBMK reactor cores don't explode. — Duyatlov dispatches him a swift dismissal. He moves to pick up the receiver. — Akimov.

Meanwhile Toptunov holds a hand up to his mouth. — Sasha...

— Don't worry — Akimov reassures him. — We did everything right. Something... something strange has happened.

— ... do you taste metal?

— Akimov! — With the phone by his ear, Dyatlov points to Perevozchenko. You deal with him.

Akimov swallows. He turns to Perevozchenko.

— Comrade Perevozchenko, what you're saying is impossible. The core can't explode. — He turns back to the console, and he very much wants to believe that it can't. — It has to be the tank.

Has to.

Perevozchenko stares at him in mute disbelief. Why aren't they accepting what he's seen with his very own eyes?

— We're wasting time — Dyatlov drops the receiver, no one's answering. — Let's go. — He repeats his instruction to pump water into the core.

— What about the fire? — Brazhnik asks, stunned.

— Call the fire brigade.


* * *


On the way back from his sortie, Dyatlov listens through the blown out windows as the fire engines approach the plant, sirens blaring.

— I dropped the control rods from the other panel — he informs them as soon as he re-enters the control room.

— They're still up.

What?

— They're only a third of the way in, I don't know why. I already sent the trainees to the reactor hall to lower them by hand. — Akimov reports.

— What about the pumps?

— I can't get through to Khodemchuk. — Toptunov reports, slamming the receiver down. — The lines are down. — He sounds agitated, but Dyatlov can easily see through to the fear and panic that fuel the frustration in his voice.

I'll show you frustration.

— Fuck the phones and fuck Khodemchuk. Are the pumps on or not. Stolyarchuk?

— My panel's not working. — Stolyarchuk falters. — I tried calling for the electricians but—

Look at them. Grasping at their phones, their panels. Anything, but what needs to be done.

— I don't give a shit about the panel! — Dyatlov explodes. — I need water in my reactor core. Get down there and make sure those pumps are on.

Stolyarchuk looks about the room, like a man drowning.

— Now.

Akimov picks this moment to take his glasses off and wipe them on the corner of his uniform. He doesn't see him.

— What does the dosimeter say? — Dyatlov asks, once Stolyarchuk is out of the room.

— Three point six roentgen, but that's as high—

— Three point six. Not great, not terrible. — He flips open a logbook, presumably to log the reading.

Toptunov turns to Sasha, looking for... he's not sure what exactly, at this point. An explanation? Reassurance? Hope that there is some way they can fix this?

— We did everything right. — Akimov mutters again, not looking at him at all. Because he can't reconcile the present with what he had done.


* * *




At nearly two o'clock in the morning, Dyatlov continues to spin theories about what happened.

— The tank. It's big enough. This kind of explosion. The control tank on 71, it's one hundred cubic meters.

— One hundred and ten. — Akimov corrects, softly. Because he wants to believe it, very desperately.

— One hundred and ten. — Dyatlov repeats, then nods to himself, as if he's listening to someone else formulate the hypothesis. — It could do this. Definitely.

The door opens and Proskuryakov returns to the room. Toptunov covers his mouth, feeling sick. Victor's face is the color of dark leather.

— It's gone. I looked right into it. — He's slurring the words. — I looked into the core.

Dyatlov looks at him, cold. — Did you lower the control rods or not?

Like he is querying a monitor display on one of the consoles, interacting with a tool rather than addressing a subordinate, a human being in distress. Proskuryakov doesn't answer, only looks at him through those swollen eyes, utterly confused. Suddently he seizes and begins to retch on the floor.

— Take him to the infirmary. — Dyatlov barks the order. — Toptunov. Take him!

Yet another tool at his disposal, commanded to remove this faulty and useless one from his sight.

Toptunov runs up to Proskuryakov, stepping over the mess. He gingerly holds up his colleague as he helps him out of the control room. — Where's Kudryavtsev?

— He fell — Proskuryakov manages to stammer out before he seizes again, only dry-heaving this time.

They make their way down the long corridor, toward the medical unit located between Reactors Two and Three. The awful metallic taste is stronger here. Toptunov takes a deep breath and a mechanical smell hits his lungs, acrid and even worse that the taste in his mouth. They step through broken glass, blown out from windows in the explosion.

The explosion.

Toptunov's mind feels hazy. There was a power surge, but Sasha shut it down. Then, something exploded. And twice.

He turns into the medical bay corridor, when a medical technician rushes out and intercepts them. — Another one! — he yells back, then takes over aiding Proskuryakov, and leads him toward the infirmary, but not before he stops, just now remembering his name.

— Toptunov. You're in Four. What the hell happened?

— I-I don't know — Toptunov sputters out, already turned on his heel, hands raised, helpless.


* * *




Meanwhile in the nearly empty control room, Dyatlov strolls up to Akimov, his gait almost nonchalant.

— I'm going to the Administration Building now — he tells him. His words are slow, deliberate. — To call Bryukhanov and Fomin.

Kirschenbaum, within an earshot of the conversation turns his head, unsure where to hang his eyes.

— Now, I don't know if I can make things better for you — Dyatlov shakes his head. — But I can certainly make them worse. — He's nodding his head now, like is talking to a child. A child that's too stupid to comprehend, that instead needs to shut up and follow his lead.

It's not a middling threat anymore.

— Call in the day shift, Comrade Akimov.

Akimov swallows and nods back. — Yes, Comrade Dyatlov.

Dyatlov gives him a long look, and turns back to his desk. He picks up a pack of cigarettes on his way out.

Akimov lets out the breath he's been holding. All around him in the dim dark, tiny yellow indicator lights on the dozens of gauges adorning the control room walls shine like eyes of blood-thirsty creatures, watching him. Waiting.

He knows what he has to do. He picks up the receiver just as the door shuts behind Dyatlov.

There is something else. A threat and a directive that Dyatlov did not have to put in words. It simply stood behind them, hidden in plain sight.

One way or another, he is going to take the fall.

Now that he has named the threat, along with its implicit directive, he seems to have gained a new resolve. He clears his throat and begins to dial.


* * *




By three in the morning, both Toptunov and Stolyarchuk have returned the control room. Stolyarchuk lights a cigarette as he half-sits, half-leans against his console. They've been listening to the alarms blaring for so long, they hardly discern them from any background noise.

Stolyarchuk takes a slow drag of his cigarette. His clothing soaked, water drips from all edges of his uniform and onto the floor.

— What about the auxiliary?

Stolyarchuk shakes his head, looking into middle distance.

— Pumps are gone. Electrical is gone.

— The core? — Toptunov asks.

— I didn't go i there, and I won't. — Stolyarchuk declares. — I think it's time we faced—

— No. — Akimov cuts him off. — We need water in the core or there'll be a meltdown. We have to open the valves.

— Sasha... — Stolyarchuk begins, but apparently Sasha won't let him get a word in edgewise.

— What is it you want, Boris? If it's true, then we're all dead. A million people are dead. Is that what you need to hear?

Stolyarchuk looks away, but Sasha's eyes are still trained on him.

— We have to open the valves. — He turns to look at Leonid. — By hand.

— By hand? — echoes Stolyarchuk. — The number of valves, the amount of time to turn them, you're talking about hours in there.

Akimov's answer is simple. — Then help us.

Us? Toptunov feels a tiny revolt rising, but just as soon as it flares up, it is extinguished.

You know you're going to follow him. You know you're going with him, no matter what. Whether it's because he's his foreman, his friend, his...

His everything right.

— Help you do what? — Stolyarchuk asks, incredulous. — Pump water into a ditch? There's nothing there.

Just then he notices the flash on Toptunov's face. Oh, no. Not him, too. No, no, no.

— Leonid, I'm begging you.

Toptunov looks at him. Terrified. Determined. And everything in between. Does he have a choice? He does. But it's a mind that had been made up long before tonight.

— Watch the panel while we're gone. — Akimov tells Kirschenbaum as they turn to leave.

— It's not working. — Kirschenbaum reports, flatly.

— Just watch it. — Akimov orders, desperately seeking a normalcy that just isn't there anymore. He follows Leonid out of the control room.

— They're not coming back, are they. — Kirschenbaum half-states half-asks, in that soft, robotic tone of his, when he's retreated so far into himself that he can only speak words but can no longer feel them.

Stolyarchuk tries to stifle the sob, but can't.

Chapter Text

May, 1986
Hospital No. 6, Moscow

He has never dreamt this much.

Late for school one day, twelve year old Sasha Akimov grabbed his older sister's journal by mistake, instead of his own notebook. When he arrived home that afternoon, Zina was furious.

— Forgive me! I only read a few pages. — Ever the defuser of arguments between them, he rushed out an apology before she could berate him. — I-I didn't know!

— That you shouldn't steal my journal? What is it that you didn't know, Sasha?

— That you could have this many dreams. — He stammered, looking down at his feet. — I never have any.

But now he can scarcely close his eyes before the nightmares begin.

* * *

He is standing in Lenin Square, in Pripyat, amidst a crowd of May Day parade goers. Everyone's eyes are glued to the podium perched atop a stage. Someone there is giving a speech. He can't quite catch the view of the speaker, or the make out the meaning of the words, but it is a rousing speech. The timbre of the speaker's voice reverberates around him, so much so that the ground is vibrating.

He turns to a man next to him, one he does not recognize. In fact, not one person around him looks familiar. The man carries a child foisted on his shoulders for a better view.

— Comrade, could you tell me who is speaking?

— You don't know?

Akimov shakes his head. Bryukhanov was supposed to deliver the May Day speech.

— Why, it's Comrade Atom. Surely, you have heard of him.

— Comrade Atom?

— Yes, he's a worker! — Someone next to him interjects, impatient. — Not a soldier.

Akimov pushes through the crowd, intent on seeing this Comrade Atom for himself, but the view of the podium eludes him. When he finally reaches the stage, he can feel each word of the speech like a fire in his bones, but still cannot make out the meaning.

The podium is empty.

There is no one behind the microphone, but the speech continues to thunder around him.

— I don’t understand, — he whispers to himself. — Where is Comrade Atom?

— He is everywhere!

The crowd erupts in a resounding cheer.

There's a commotion on the far side of the stage. A group of soldiers pull a slender hooded figure up to the top of the platform. In a prison smock hanging in tatters, and with wrists bound in rope in front of him, the figure makes pitiful noises, pushed and pulled toward the empty podium.

One of the soldiers tears off the black hood.

Lenya.

Leonid Toptunov stands before the jeering crowd, his eyes red-rimmed, cheeks caked with tears, looking confused and bewildered.

— Traitor!

— Saboteur!

— No, that's not true! — Akimov realizes it is he who is now yelling. A hush falls over the crowd, but only for a moment.

— Traitor's accomplice!

— An enemy of the people!

Toptunov turns in his direction. His eyes lock with Akimov's and he opens his trembling lips.

— You and me, Sasha. — Toptunov says in a small, sad voice, but he hears him clearly as if he were whispering in his ear. — We did everything right.

— Execute him!

— Down with the enemy!

The crowd roars and swells, and stomps its feet. Comrade Atom resumes the speech.

The vibrations of the loudspeaker get stronger and stronger. Akimov feels weak in the knees now, and he blindly reaches forward to steady himself. Instead, he falls to the ground, hopelessly trying to protect himself from being trampled. The crowd closes in around him, like a heavy molten mass of concrete, and the last thing he sees is a bit of the blue sky, overhead.

* * *

Akimov dreams. But he does not sleep.

* * *

He is in Control Room Number Four.

— Good job, lads! — Dyatlov's voice booms so close that it startles him. — Well done, well done. Today, we have proven that our turbine wind-down can indeed power the pumps long enough to give our generators time to come online.

Proskuryakov and Kudryavtsev begin clapping. Soon others join in. Akimov looks to Toptunov's station, but Leonid sits stiffly, indifferent to the current of jubilation crackling through the control room.

— Right then, I am off to write the report on our findings. Comrade Akimov, will you see to the complete shut down of the reactor?

— Certainly, comrade Dyatlov.

As he passes him on the way out of the control room, Dyatlov leans in and whispers. — Day shift is yours, Akimov. I can make it happen.

He turns at the door and gives him a kind of smirk and a wink. Akimov shakes off his surprise and turns back to the SIUR station.

— Comrade Toptunov, begin the power reduction.

There is no acknowledgement from his senior reactor control engineer.

— Comrade Toptunov, did you hear

Suddenly Toptunov doubles over, as if punched in the stomach. With a sharp cry he leans low, low in his chair, then sideways until he slips to the floor.

Akimov lunges toward him. Now lying on his back, Toptunov's face is pale and sweaty. He trembles in pain as Akimov moves to hover above him, kneeling by his side.

— What is wrong, Leonid?

Toptunov's eyes fly open, first looking directly at Akimov, and then wildly about. He seems delirious.

— Lenya, tell me what is happening.

Tears start pooling in the corners of Toptunov's eyes.

— Take him to the infirmary! — Dyatlov (when did he come back into the room?) commands. — He is delusional.

— No, Sasha, no. — Toptunov pleads.

Proskuryakov and Kudryavtsev begin clapping again.

— Well done, Lenya! — They shout in unison.

— Help me, Sasha. — Toptunov pulls at Akimov's smock. — Won't you help me, please.

He begins clawing at his own smock then, proceeding to rip it open, buttons flying in every direction. He tears at his thin undershirt to reveal his ribcage, then pulls down Sasha's hand and presses it over his heart.

— It's going to explode.

— What are you talking about?

But then, Akimov feels it, too. Something strange, something that should not be there. And yet, familiar. With the seal already broken, it is just a round red button.

The AZ-5 button. In Toptunov's chest, where his heart is. Akimov's right hand directly over it. And Toptunov's own hand over his.

— You must press it, Sasha. Must stop it from going critical.

No. No. He makes an attempt to wrestle his hand free, but Toptunov's grip is vice-like, relentless.

— We'll do it together.

— Lenya, no.

— It's okay. It's okay, it's okay, — Toptunov whispers feverishly. — I'm with you.

— I am with you, — he repeats, and looks up at Akimov. Before Sasha can react, Toptunov brings his other hand to his chest and presses down on both of their palms, and the AZ-5.

* * *

11 May, 1986

Akimov awakes in the dark.

He thinks he knows when Toptunov has died, because the nightmares have subsided. But after a long while, he dreams again.

* * *

It is a fine spring morning, the air is crisp. He is walking down a road hugging the edge of a pine forest and the country, its fields of wheat bathed in the sunshine.

He arrives at a small house in a birch clearing, surrounded by teeming gooseberry bushes. Just as he is about to knock on the door, it swings open, revealing Lenya in his undershirt, with bits of shaving cream on his face.

— I've been waiting for you, — Toptunov greets him, wiping the shaving cream with the towel resting on his shoulder. — You brought a carton of eggs? Fantastic.

Just then Akimov realizes that he is holding a linen bag in his hand.

— We shall have a massive egg scramble then. — Toptunov looks delighted at the prospect. He motions for them to go inside.

Akimov pauses to take in the interior of the dacha. It is just as Lenya had described it to him that one time. Even the round wooden table with a narrow dark-green tablecloth, covered in a pile of science and technical journals, and books about nuclear energy, and hydroelectric power.

— Just some light reading, — Toptunov laughs, following Akimov's line of sight. — Did you know, Sasha —

If only he had a ruble for every did-you-know-Sasha that Toptunov inflicted upon him, he'd be a wealthy man.

— Did you know, Sasha, that they were planning to build a nuclear power station here? Right where our Chernobyl hydroelectric power plant sits now. Imagine this, they discovered a fatal flaw in the reactor design.

— Interesting. — Akimov remarks thoughtfully. — Who knows, maybe they will build it, one day.

He can see that Toptunov wants to talk more about this nuclear power plant, but his own stomach is rumbling. He had skipped breakfast in favor of arriving sooner at the dacha.

— In any case, — he resumes quickly, — Help me fetch some herbs from the garden. And then you can tell me more about this fatal design flaw.

The way Toptunov looks at him then, he thinks he doesn't deserve it, that smile with a potent mixture of awe and quiet admiration, and the way it all bubbles up and out of him in fits and bursts.

As he trails behind Toptunov to the garden, he suddenly remembers that Protsenko's crew had nearly finished planting Bryukhanov's blasted rose bushes, and that he had half a mind to cut a few (maybe a dozen) to bring to him.

He will tell him over breakfast. Lenya will surely get a laugh out of it.

* * *

12 May, 1986

Toptunov awakens to the sound of angry whispers just outside the plastic sheath separating him from the world.

A door closes, rather sharply, then a shadow behind the sheath shimmers into view and he recognizes his mother. She sits down, and after a long while, speaks in a quiet, halting voice.

— Your father thinks I should not be upsetting you.

What could upset me now? Toptunov wonders. His whole body is one big upset. It is as if he had been turned inside out. He doesn't say it though, it’s very difficult to speak. He saves speaking for when it is absolutely necessary.

— Lenya, listen to me. I must tell you, — she says it quickly, then pauses, considering the next words. — Sasha Akimov, he passed away last night.

Toptunov lies in silence, eyes turned to the ceiling but not seeing much of anything. He concentrates his breathing in order to speak.

— Thank you. — he whispers finally. — For telling me.

He stays still for a long time. Only the uneven cadence of his raspy breathing is a sign he is still there.

Then a soft whine escapes his lips and builds up until he cannot hold it in anymore. Gasping for breath as his lungs struggle for air he starts sobbing, his body rocked by grief, by guilt, by that longing to be free from this wretched existence.

— My Lenya... — his mother cries with him, and for him. For all of them.

* * *

13 May, 1986

— What time is it?

— It’s evening now, Lenya.

— Will you, — he braces himself to form the words, his lips hurt so much to make even the smallest plea. — Will you close my eyes for me? I will get some sleep now.

— Of course, dear. — Silent tears start streaming freely down her cheeks. She reaches over to lower her hand over his face, and gently touch his swollen eyelids to close them. — Sleep in peace, my child.

* * *

When Toptunov awakes again, he is feeling much better. At first the room is too bright and he closes his eyes quickly. Morning then, he thinks. He has made it through another night.

He opens his eyes slowly, letting the light seep in. It is easier to focus now, perhaps thanks to the longer rest he had gotten. He is surprised to find the plastic sheath gone. Was it taken down? He looks around the room. His mother is not there. The chair on which she had been sitting is different.

He moves to sit up, noticing that his arms aren't swollen and discolored anymore. In fact, he feels completely healed.

Outside the open window there are tall stalks of mallow swaying in the gentle breeze, and a shimmer of birch leaves reflecting the morning sunshine. He swings his feet down onto the cool wooden floor and takes a few steps forward, before pausing in the door frame.

In front of him is a large, sunny room, just like the dacha of his dreams he had described to Akimov that one time. He walks up to the table littered with books and magazines, and one unfolded letter.

Sasha's handwriting. Delegation... Kiev... returning Friday evening. But that was yesterday, so this means... Sasha is on the way, he will be here soon.

Examining the stubble on his chin, he decides he should shave. He picks up a small towel laid out on the cabinet and swings it over his shoulder. On the way to the sink, he passes a daily calendar on the wall, pauses, then tears off yesterday's date.

Because today is Saturday, 26 April, 1986. And it looks like it's going to be a beautiful day.