The Stone Yard’s air is still impregnated with the smell of the Plague, just as much as any other infected or burnt district. It follows Burakh like it has a personal vendetta against him but probably every inhabitant of the town shares the same thought.
He doesn’t know exactly what it is that brought him there, at the doorstep of the Stillwater, but he’s not so surprised with himself. He’s been wandering around the city for a while, lost in his thoughts – something really counterproductive for his work, if not outright dangerous – and now he’s on the opposite part of Town from his home, so tired he feels like he could faint at any moment. So, he goes up the stairs and knocks.
Nobody answers from inside – what was he expecting, exactly? – but a little nudge at the door’s handle confirms him the house is open, so he gets in.
On the inside it’s dark and smells musty, but the stink of the outside hasn’t gotten into it. Artemy takes a deep breath and goes up the narrow stairs to Dankovsky’s room. There is no sound coming from behind the door and he almost suspects the man might not even be at home. He opens the door and goes behind the folding screen, to find the Bachelor sitting on his chair, pointing his gun directly at him.
Artemy flinches, more surprised than he would like to admit, and when the Bachelor relaxes and puts the revolver on the table says:
- Those things are dangerous, oynon, you know?
- This is not the way to enter someone’s house – the Bachelor bitterly replies and Artemy frowns
- You left the door open, anyone could get in.
- The only people who enter this house right now are me, you and Clara. Everyone else avoids it like the Plague. Even the Plague wants nothing to do with it.
- So, you’re telling me you knew you were about to point the gun at either me or Clara?
He’s not being serious, but Dankovsky’s expression gets gloomier and he collapses back into his chair with a simple shrug and no snarky reply to offer.
He seems distraught. Artemy thinks the doctor has always been going around trying to look at his best, he often wonders if he takes his time, in the morning, to shave and fix his hair before going out in the hell that is currently the Town, just to look like the fine city dandy he’s supposed to be. He has never seen him in such a state. Unshaved face, sunken eyes, he’s sitting on his chair likes he’s trying to be absorbed by it. On his desk there are numerous pieces of paper scattered around and several letters that he can’t really read from a distance. The Bachelor stares at them but Artemy can’t really tell if he’s looking at the missive or if he’s just lost in thought.
He clears his throat and gets closer to him and Dankovsky takes all the letters and messily shoves them in the drawer of his desk.
- What are you doing here, anyway?
- I was just passing by – he wonders to himself if that is a lie – and decided to check on you. I didn’t see you all day and now that you’re living alone… - he freezes, seeing the man clenching his jaw – I was just checking on you.
- Is that so – Dankovsky stands up, takes a sip of water from a glass on his desk, fixes his hair with one hand and suddenly he looks like the everyday Bachelor, walking upright through the streets of Town-on-Gorkhon – It’s getting late – he then says, seemingly deciding he does not want to pry into Burakh’s concern for him – and you look like you’re about to faint at any seconds, are you sure you want to cross the entire town to get back to your home?
Artemy suddenly remembers how tired he is. Entering the Stillwater and seeing the doctor was almost like getting an ice cold shower, but now his head spins and he has to fight against himself to stay upright and not wobble or lean against the wall.
- I can offer you my bed, if you want. I doubt you’ll make it even to Lara’s house in these conditions. – he says this while unbuttoning his shirt and the Haruspex has to look away to hide the blush that’s creeping on his cheeks. If the Bachelor notices this, he doesn’t say a word – I need to sleep too, though, so you’ll have to share it with me, if it doesn’t bother you.
He tries to speak, but the words get stuck in his mouth. He clears his throat and says with a strained voice:
- I can’t, I’m busy, I… - he’s pretty sure he needs to do things, he needs to be somewhere that isn’t here. He really can’t think of anything, though, at the moment, his head lost in a foggy haze where the only things that matter are Dankovsky in his undershirt crawling into his bed and his legs which, he is pretty sure, will definitely not last till the House of the Living – there’s so much stuff I need to do…
- Rest for a couple hours. I promise I will wake you up before morning and then you can go back to avoid night smugglers out in the streets.
Burakh knows Eva’s bed downstairs is empty, but he doesn’t dare to ask to sleep in it instead. He knows the Bachelor would refuse him and the thought of sleeping inside a dead woman’s bed seems disrespectful to the memory of Eva, whose spirit he feels like is still impregnating the stones of the Stillwater’s walls – but maybe that’s just his imagination.
- Are you sure you will wake me up in two hours? – Artemy asks, a last obligated complaint, but he’s already taking off his boots.
- I will – the Bachelor replies, his face turned to the wall, but Artemy knows he’s smiling – I have an amazing internal clock. I never missed a single lesson or exam in my life.
Without any excuse left, he finally lies down next to Dankovsky, back to back, and he’s really so tired he drifts to sleep immediately after laying his head on the pillow.
He wakes up what feels like ages later, because of a dream he doesn’t remember but that clawed at his throat till it took his breath away. He finds himself in a dark room that he doesn’t recognize, on a bed that isn’t his or Lara’s and he panics for a moment, before a gentle hand touches his shoulder and Daniil Dankovsky tries to reassure him in a low tone.
- What time is it? – Artemy asks, once he’s regained his composure, but his voice is strained.
- It’s been barely ten minutes, Burakh, go back to sleep.
Artemy instead sits on his elbow, rubbing the bridge of his nose, his heartbeat still banging in his ears and still dead tired but so on edge he knows he just won’t get back to sleep, the shadow of the nightmare that awoke him still lingering on him, and he’s pretty sure he’s shaking.
And the Bachelor seems to notice that.
He puts his hand behind Artemy’s head and gently, but steadily, guides him to his chest. Artemy is too dumbfounded to resist and in the span of a second he finds himself in a very uncomfortable – not to mention embarrassing – position. The bed is too short for him now and he needs to bend his legs, which clash with Dankovsky’s despite his best efforts. His right arm, stuck under his torso, starts to hurt almost immediately. But Dankovsky is now his hair, lightly, slowly, playing with his curls, and he finds that his warm chest and his steady, slow heartbeat is more comforting that he could have imagined. It’s still not enough to drift him back to sleep, but he relaxes against the Bachelor’s body, purposefully ignoring the voice in his head who’s desperately trying to make him notice they are cuddling.
- Sometimes – Daniil says, after a moment of silence – we just have too much on our minds and despite how tired we are we just cannot sleep. Our bodies are at their limits but our brains refuse to collaborate – he’s gently tugging at a knot in his hair, while caressing them and Burakh can’t tell if it’s the lack of sleep but that simple gesture makes his heart ache – You have a lot going on in your mind, don’t you.
- You weren’t sleeping either, weren’t you?
- No, I wasn’t.
Burakh bites the inside of his mouth before asking:
- What is it that is going on in your mind, then, oynon?
Dankovsky’s hand halts for a second and Burakh can hear the heartbeat of the doctor speed up under his cheek. It’s just a moment, tho, and right after that he is back to stroke the menkhu’s hair.
- I’m still not completely sure you would like to know that.
Burakh’s lets out a sigh against the man’s chest. He knows. It’s obvious. And he knows that Daniil knows that he knows. It’s not like he’s trying to hide it either. But he also knows that it’s not as simple as that. That sometimes everything goes on so smoothly and yet you hit an invisible wall that ties your tongue in your mouth and what you thought was so easy just a second ago is now impossible to say. And he knows it because he’s doing it too. So he doesn’t pry, he doesn’t try to force those words out of his mouth. Instead he says:
- Tell me about your Thanatica.
He feels the Bachelor smiling.
- What do you wanna know?
- Tell me about the people, your colleagues from the laboratory.
- Well, let’s see – he starts, his hand always gently playing with Artemy’s hair – we were mostly classmates from college, a few students and neo bachelors who joined later and Professor Telman. He was the one supervising the studies and our experiments. – he doesn’t need to specify anything for the Haruspex to know this Telman was the one who worked as a spy for the Power that Be so that they could control Dankovsky and his laboratory from inside – We grew up as a group eventually, but never got many members. It was also a preference of ours, to only have trusted people in it… as much as we could. As for the original group, we were all friends, all from the same university.
He takes a deep breath, as he prepares to list them all:
- Anatoly Golovin, he was the one who helped me create everything. We graduated together and he’s the one to which I left all of my work, back at the Capital. – he seems nervous when he mentions his work, but Burakh decides not to pry and to let him go on – There is probably not a single person in this world I trust more than him. Then there’s Nataliya Barinova. She was a chemist, not a doctor, but we really couldn’t have achieved anything without her help. Yulia reminds me a lot of her
He looks like he was about to add something, but then he changes his mind and continue
- And Sasha Boucher. His father was the French ambassador for some years, and I don’t think we could’ve got any funds to begin with if it wasn’t for his help. He was a really shy man, always in the background, but he possessed a truly brilliant mind. He has gone back to France, now that everything has gone to hell, while Natalya is at the Capital with Anatoly.
He stops, for a few seconds, and Artemy thinks he’s done talking when he says:
- And then Kolya… - his voice seems to break and he clears his throat before continuing – Nikolay Yenin. He was… my best friend, to put it in a way. We have been together since we were teenagers, attended the same schools, and built Thanatica together. I really… I really couldn’t have done anything, none of this without him.
He stops, again, lost in memories.
- What happened to him? – Artemy asks and his voice is so low that he’s surprised Daniil can hear him.
- When the Power that Be started officially complaining about our work he… he told me something was wrong. He was scared, but I didn’t listen to him. One day I went back home and all his stuff was gone. He left me a letter, telling me he was going back to his parents, in the southern countryside.
- He left?
- Mhh – he mumbles – I wrote to his parents, a few days later when he gave no sign of coming back. They wrote me back telling me Kolya never came home, nor did he ever tell them he was leaving the Capital.
- Did he… did they…
- I wonder – he keeps his voice low and firm, as he always does, but Artemy has learnt by now how to read people and the tint of sorrow, the little cracks in the Bachelor’s voice don’t miss him – I didn’t hear from him ever again, and four months later they sent me here.
This time Burakh doesn’t ask for more, doesn’t pressure him to go on, instead letting Dankovsky speak when he wants. And he continues at some point, when Artemy thinks he’s about to fall asleep again, his cheek hot against the other man’s shoulder.
- You remind me a lot of him.
- Do I?
- Mh mh. He was tall, had nice brown hair and big hands. He always had this frowning, pensive expression, like he was trying to understand a joke everybody got except for him.
- But he was really nice – he continues, ignoring Artemy’s complaints – A good doctor, more adapt for practice than theory. And really good with children.
Artemy’s has been shifting into a more comforting position while listening to the Bachelor talking. His legs are now tangled with Dankovsky, rather than bent in an unnatural position so as to touch him as less as possible. His head is not leaning on the other’s chest anymore, but on his shoulder, his right arm freed from his torso’s weight and his left arm slung across Daniil’s stomach. He feels relaxed again, falling into a peaceful slumber.
His voice sounds like coming from a distance when he says:
- Sounds like you have a type, oynon.
The Bachelor stiffens, and Burakh holds his breath when the full implications of what he has just said hits him. He can hear the doctor’s heart under his cheek, beating so fast it sounds like it could leap out of the other man’s chest at any second.
They stay still in silence for what seems like an eternity to the menkhu, but it’s probably just a few seconds before the other man’s hand goes back to caress his hair and he says in the lightest voice possible:
- Maybe you’re right.
Burakh’s heart falls and his head spins so fast he thinks he might be drunk. At a loss of words, he just hides his face in the neck of the other man. The Bachelor giggles softly and turns his face towards Artemy’s, his lips brushing lightly against his forehead in what could very easily be a kiss.
- Sleep now. I’ll wake you up later. In two hours.