The ceiling of the Broken Heart shifted like clouds moving across a blue sky. Artemy screwed up his face, trying to focus; he tugged down the collar of his sweater to scratch at the red splotches he always got on his chest when he drank too much. Somehow both sharp as a knife and completely out of it, Andrey’s eyes narrowed as he zeroed in on the glimpse of raised white tissue Artemy’s motion revealed. “Is that a scar?” he asked, his gaze as precise as pointing.
“Huh?” Artemy grunted, and pulled his head back to try to get a look at what Andrey was indicating. “Oh, yeah… it goes all the way down here.” Over his sweater, he drew his fingertips in a sharp line down his breastbone. He screwed his eyes shut and blinked them open again. “I just… woke up with it once. Is that fucked up?” he added, as if he hadn’t considered it before.
Andrey’s expression could only be described as a confused scowl, both of them over-emoting if only to make sure they actually had control of their muscles. “...No, my friend, it happens to the best of us,” he decided at last, and said with great confidence. In a broad motion Artemy almost had to dodge, Andrey twisted himself around and pulled the front panel of his coat back to reveal a jagged scar along the side of his midriff. Artemy’s eyes widened at the sight of it, and Andrey leaned in as if showing Artemy some illicit wares. “I woke up in an ice bath,” he recounted, shrugging for emphasis. Artemy fell back in his chair with a loud, incredulous laugh. Andrey looked down at his scar again, then back up at Artemy. “I think I’m missing something,” he managed to add before he himself dissolved into laughter.
“I could check,” Artemy joked, knocking his knee against the underside of the table.
Andrey raised his eyebrows and looked over his shoulder, then back at Artemy. “I have ice in the back.”
That drove Artemy into another fit of laughter, covering his face with one hand. “You know…” he struggled to say, “this is exactly why you have that scar.” Andrey snorted, slumping over the table as his shoulders shook.
Artemy’s chest moved easily when he laughed, as if not connected at all to his heavy, heavy arms. In fact, none of his body seemed connected to itself at all, but rather freely existing around him and moving vaguely in tandem. That wasn’t a good sign. Things were supposed to be connected. He frowned at his hands, then looked up at Andrey and said, “I think I should have more.” Andrey raised his eyebrows, but was in no position to question it as he reached into his pocket.
The carpet was scratchy against Artemy’s cheek, but soft at the same time. His fingertips dug with solemn precision between the tiny lumps of fiber until he could feel his nails against the tough backing, his eyes fixated on the motion of his knuckles. He was connected to everything now, himself and everything. The floor was hard under his chest, forcing him to keep adjusting until he found a comfortable angle and position. His legs bent at the knees, the soles of his boots leaning against each other in the air. They were connected like that. The earth breathed with him.
It was almost too much to open his eyes, honestly, but Artemy never cared much about seeing things. He had also just now learned how to feel things around him, because he and everything were connected, like a neuron carrying impulses of sensation, like a spider in a web of Lines. So he didn’t need to look; he could feel the table eight inches away from him as naturally as he could feel the chair leg pressing into his thigh. He could feel the empty glasses up on the table, and Andrey on the stage behind him doing some kind of waltz with a dancer. He could feel the heavy footsteps of people above them, as if he was the earth. He was inside it here, after all. He could grow roots and get swallowed in it, become part of its flesh. Not yet, though. His fingernail tugged on the hard backing of the carpet.
Was it just them in the Broken Heart? Maybe the bar had closed. No, there was the bartender, who Artemy thought was pretty handsome. There were others, too, whose weight Artemy could feel in the seats. He was pretty sure he could tell which of them were wearing hats without looking. Andrey laughed, and Artemy’s stomach turned. He rolled onto his side, running his hands over his body to try to establish some kind of boundary and kneading the skin of his face with his palm. For a moment, he thought he could see with his eyes closed, but then he realized one of his eyes was open. Andrey was crouching beside him now; Artemy could feel him balancing unsteadily on the balls of his feet.
“You look like hell,” Andrey said, then snickered, which was a weird sound to hear from Andrey. Artemy had some clever things to say about that, but he was really full of cotton fluff and talking was going to be a whole ordeal if he could even figure out how to do it, so he just reached up to touch Andrey’s face, pulling his thumb over the negligible fat of Andrey’s cheek. Andrey responded by shifting down into a sitting position with one knee against his chest, and brushed a few stray locks of dark hair away from Artemy’s forehead with his knuckles. His breaths were heavy. He laughed again. “Where’s your shirt?”
Artemy had taken it off to feel the scratchy texture of the carpet against his shoulders, though he’d kept his undershirt on. He understood now why Andrey was always shirtless. His hand fell back to rest on his front, on the square knit of his undershirt, and his other hand pointed at his discarded shirt. Andrey half-crawled over him to get it, and Artemy watched Andrey’s scars move over his tight muscles. Every part of Andrey’s body was wound with potential energy, like some big cat; he moved like a predator, like a storm in a glass bottle, textured with violence, and yet never really unkind.
“Come on,” Andrey continued. “Let’s get out of here, Ripper… We’re bad for business.” That made him laugh too. Together, they managed to pull each other to their feet; Goose the bartender shot Andrey a look, which he waved off. On their way up the stairs, they kept near the wall as much as they could. The cold night air felt like electricity arcing across Artemy’s skin, making him blink his eyes wide. They both knew the Lair was closer than… well, anything, so wordlessly they set out deeper into the Factory. Andrey hooked his fingers through Artemy’s belt loop to keep from getting lost as he trailed after him.
As they approached the river, Artemy turned to Andrey, his demeanor groggy as if just woken up from a deep sleep. “Aren’t you cold?” he asked, apropos of nothing.
“No,” Andrey replied quickly, but pulled the front panels of his coat closed with his free hand, shooting Artemy a distrustful look. Neither of them seemed to register that Artemy was still holding his own shirt in his hand.
“Shh,” Artemy reprimanded. He stopped walking, making Andrey lurch to a stop beside him. In the Earth quarter in the dead of night, the furtive look he cast around could hardly even be considered paranoia.
“What?” asked Andrey loudly, looking over each of his shoulders. “Are you afraid of getting robbed? You? Ha!” He tugged Artemy forward, trying to get moving again. “Come on, man. Me, I wish they’d try it!” Like a magic trick, he produced a wicked-looking blade from somewhere Artemy didn’t see.
“Hey!” Eyes wide, Artemy bumped into Andrey’s shoulder in the process of wrestling the knife from Andrey’s hands. “You can’t have that.”
Andrey let it go, looking forlorn. “So I’m not allowed to have it, but you are?” he asked, as if he was being clever.
“Exactly, idiot,” Artemy said, tucking the knife away somewhere secure.
“I’m not an idiot!” Andrey protested. The muscle in his jaw flexed, and he pulled away from Artemy. He slammed the side of his fist and his forearm into the concrete wall beside him.
Oh. Artemy’s eyebrows lifted as he watched Andrey’s reaction as if underwater. “You’re right,” he said. “You’re not… You aren’t an idiot. I’m sorry.”
“It’s okay,” Andrey replied after a moment, turning to Artemy. “I hate when people call me that.”
“You’re an architect,” Artemy said simply. It made sense in his head. He reached his open hand towards Andrey, palm backwards, and Andrey stepped closer to lace his fingers between Artemy’s. They continued on; as they passed the river, Andrey started listing under his breath all the towns he could think of that the Gorkhon would have to pass through on its way to the ocean.
Across the railroad, a stray Factory building stuck up out of the ground like a snaggletooth, and Artemy inhaled sharply at the sight of the bull grazing beside it. “Mendee!” He tugged Andrey down the embankment, then let go of Andrey’s hand to wrap both his arms around his bull’s neck.
Andrey laughed, interrupting his own litany. “Is this your bull? He’s big!”
“His name is Noukher,” Artemy said, wiping his face with the heel of his palm as he pulled away to respond. “He’s… Yeah, he’s big.” Noukher leaned his head against Artemy’s shoulder, and Artemy had to glare up at the sky and blink hard to keep from crying. This was a lot for him right now.
Stepping forward, Andrey offered his hand to Noukher as if meeting a cat, then patted his nose when he figured he wasn’t in danger. “Sweet eyes. He’s a free spirit, huh,” he remarked, in reference to the fact that he wasn’t on a lead or behind a fence. “Freer than a man!” That didn’t make any sense, but Artemy nodded.
“He’s a good bull,” Artemy agreed, running his hand over the muscles of Noukher’s shoulder with great focus. It was like an alien landscape, or like a breathing, rolling plain, under a coarse hide like steppe grass. “I wish I could bring him inside. Do you think if he gets cold, he’ll resent me?”
Andrey shook his head. “Why can’t you let him inside?”
“Uh.” Artemy thought about that, then laughed. “Cows can’t walk down stairs.” Andrey doubled over laughing at that, and Artemy rested his head against Noukher again. “What do you think, nookherni?” he asked, his voice a nice rumble in his chest. “Is this a good one? Look, he’s missing a kidney. Don’t you have something to say about that?”
“You don’t know that I am,” Andrey reminded him as he gathered his composure once again. “You won’t even have a look. Some doctor.”
“Shh,” Artemy said again. “I’m trying to get him to talk. Bohir, bohir…” he mumbled, addressing his bull again. “You do have sweet eyes. If you let him pet you, he must be all right.”
Andrey lounged on Artemy’s operating table, eyeing a bottle of rubbing alcohol he’d been specifically told not to try to drink. “But if all wage labor is theft anyways,” he asked slowly, “which I won’t dispute, what’s even the point of unionizing?”
“What’s the point in laying a foundation before building a… building?” Artemy responded, eating some unappetizing-looking vegetables out of a can. His eyes were fixed on Andrey’s arms. “The dancers at the Broken Heart get treated better than the Factory workers, right?”
Nodding slowly, Andrey picked up, “Right. Aspity sends them my way because it’s better work than for Vlad. So…” He made a revolving motion with his hand. “A progressive process.”
“Exactly.” Artemy almost dropped his fork. “Shit. Uh, yeah. But I’m suggesting that instead of having all the Bull Enterprise workers compete to dance at your bar--” Andrey laughed at that-- “we make organized efforts to ameliorate the conditions faced in their current position.” He set the can on the table and pulled himself up to sit next to Andrey’s legs. “Are you hungry?”
“Not for that,” Andrey joked. “How’s that supposed to turn out any differently than the Termitary riots?”
“Working in solidarity with the Factory and the rest of the Enterprise in town,” Artemy said, intentionally dripping some of his vegetable water onto Andrey’s exposed torso, making the architect nearly roll off the table in disgust. Artemy laughed and almost accidentally spilled on himself before continuing. “You know, race and station are both used to keep people from actually coming together as a united front. When the Kin organize, it’s too easy for Vlad to just lock up the Termitary and get most of the townsfolk on his side. Or, uh, Station workers worry about Station workers, tanners worry about tanners. But with his monopoly on the workforce in town, if we get even half of the white workers to side with the Kin, that’s most of the entire population here, and we’re so fucking-- we’re so secluded, he can’t get strike breakers anywhere. As soon as we organize in tandem, we’re in a position of power. Vlad knows that.”
Andrey covered his face with his hands, finding the lamp above him way too bright. “I’ll bet he’s scared shitless.” Neither of them are certain which Vlad they’re talking about, and ultimately it doesn’t matter. He sat up, bringing himself almost nose-to-nose with Artemy. “You’re striking when you talk like an insurrectionist, Burakh. Should I change my business model?”
Artemy nodded. “Yeah. The Broken Heart should be worker-owned. You’re more of an expense than an asset.”
“Hey,” Andrey protested. “I… you know, I help out.” Artemy laughed at that, and offered Andrey his can.
“You could be a bouncer,” Artemy offered.
“I’m already a bouncer,” Andrey boasted, poking unenthusiastically at a soggy green bean before setting the can aside.
“Well, you’re here fucking around with me, high, and you’re making money right now, so clearly you aren’t earning that except off Goose’s back.” Artemy gesticulated intensely as he spoke, and Andrey watched the energy with which his hands moved. It was funny how he’d turned such a sharp corner from being all but nonverbal earlier.
Andrey’s eyes were redder than usual, which Artemy noticed brought out the green in his irises. He wondered what color they used to be. He realized that they’d gone a few hours now without mentioning Peter once, which made him feel like he must be really interesting. He was finding that he liked Andrey a lot as an individual. If Andrey said something, he didn’t process it. When their eyes briefly met, Artemy leaned forward and kissed him. Andrey laughed, his arms sliding around Artemy.
Andrey was more than accustomed to waking up with a pounding headache, a fuzzy memory, and someone else’s head on his shoulder. Surprisingly enough, he didn’t have any fresh wounds. But before he opened his eyes, he recognized Artemy by his smell-- like autumn earth-- and the recognition sent a jolt down his spine. Fuck. (Artemy was a big man, which made the way he had unconsciously settled in against Andrey’s side all the more endearing.) This was not what Andrey had intended; he could barely even remember what happened last night, so when Artemy inevitably never wanted to see him again he wouldn’t even--
His catastrophizing was interrupted by the soft chime of a clock, presumably from the little sleeping area he had only stolen a glimpse into, followed by Artemy taking a sharp breath in and sitting up. “Fuck,” Artemy said, looking around as if he had never seen this place before, and Andrey watched him with a sinking feeling. “We fell asleep on the operating table.”
At the sheer ridiculousness of that statement, and moreover the fact that it was true, Andrey laughed in spite of himself. Artemy turned and cast a half-smile down at him. Maybe all wasn’t lost? Andrey looked around for his coat. “Hey,” he asked, as if it was a casual question, “did we…?”
Artemy gave a soft laugh. “No. How is it that I can remember, and you can’t?”
“You took more than me, but I drank more than you,” Andrey recounted.
“I didn’t drink much.” At that, Artemy turned and tilted Andrey’s head up with the side of his knuckle under Andrey’s chin, making Andrey feel like a rabbit in a snare. “You’re alright,” he diagnosed.
“That’s an oversimplification, friend. I need a drink.” He continued to watch Artemy carefully, as though expecting him to turn on him, and eventually pushed himself into a sitting position. Artemy let go of him, glancing away. “Hey, you were— you went somewhere last night,” Andrey continued metaphorically, attempting a roguish smile but mostly failing. It was hard to get Artemy to connect sometimes. There was a steady focus in Artemy’s dark-ringed eyes, which Andrey respected, but made things harder given that Andrey’s main way of making connections was as a distraction.
“I told you I don’t have a very high tolerance,” Artemy said. “At least you didn’t wake up in an ice bath again, right?” There was a joke in his eyes that made Andrey want to kiss him again, the thought of which instantly gave him vertigo, so he just stared at the cabinet nearby.
“I wouldn’t have minded, as long as it was your ice bath,” he shot back after a moment. “I’ve organs to spare.”
Artemy threw his head back and laughed at that, and Andrey felt a little lighter. “Uh,” he said, “don’t tell anyone about what we talked about last night, if you even remember.”
“Yeah. Seriously, if word gets out, bad things will happen, and I’ll have to… cut out your tongue or something.” Artemy rubbed his temples. “I think I always get like that.”
“You certainly could try.” Andrey frowned. “Always? You don’t seem like someone who has gotten into this stuff before. Not recreationally.”
“You forget that Bad Grief was my best friend growing up. That was most of what I did when I was seventeen. I used to help him find wild sativa out on the steppe. It’s just been a while.”
“So what did Bad Grief think when you got like that?” Andrey asked, sliding off the table. His coat was in a heap underneath it, next to an ominously bloody bucket, which he ignored.
“Bad Grief doesn’t give a shit about Marx. The bastard can’t even read.”
Andrey straightened up, confused. “Bad Grief can’t read?”
“Not at all.” Artemy swung his legs over the edge of the table to fix the laces of his boots. “Lara-- Lara Ravel-- she tried to teach him once, so he’s refused to ever learn. He just pretends he can to fuck with people.”
“Huh. Now that’s funny.” Andrey knocked his coat against the table, beating dust and grime from it as best he could. Both of them were dancing around the real topic. “I don’t have any reason to rat you out to Olgimsky, anyways. And I wouldn’t if I did. That bastard doesn’t need any more power. I’d like to-- well.”
Artemy shook his head with a hint of affection. “You’re not bad, Andrey Stamatin.”
“That’s another oversimplification... You should use the Broken Heart for union meetings,” Andrey added, rifling through Artemy’s cabinet for something to eat, and hopefully a bottle of something.
“You really want to be in bad standing with every one of the ruling families, huh?”
“I’d love it. I’ve been trying to turn Olgimsky against me for years now.”
Artemy laid back against the table and laughed. “Alright. I’ll tell Taya you offered.”
Finding no alcohol, Andrey returned to Artemy’s side with a piece of toast, and made the impulse decision to rest his hand on Artemy’s leg with a friendly weight. He still felt awful, but Artemy had the kind of gravity that kept making him think he’d feel better if they were just closer. As long as he didn’t lash out, he could make this work.
“Hey,” Artemy said slowly. “Do you remember…?” He trailed off, unsure if he should bring it up.
Andrey pulled his hand back. “Yeah. Sorry.”
Artemy sat up, his shoulder brushing Andrey’s. “Don’t be. I did it. I just don’t want to make you uncomfortable.”
Raising his eyebrows, Andrey was finally able to meet Artemy’s gaze. “Make me uncomfortable? You’re joking. I make everyone around me uncomfortable.”
In response, Artemy reached over and took Andrey’s hand in both of his. It was a comfortable silence, and Artemy moved slowly. Andrey’s knuckles were scarred from old fights and scraped up by recent ones, dusted with tight clusters of red dots. Artemy carefully formed Andrey’s hand into a fist, and cracked his knuckles with the heel of his own palm. “Last night I was thinking… I’m not sure if it makes sense now.” He tapped his thumb against Andrey's skin. “You have a dancer’s body.”
Andrey didn’t say anything, too focused on Artemy’s touch. Artemy didn’t know how to explain.