Commander Pettifer, head held down, pushed his way through the raging crowd outside the bakery. The streets of St. Petersburg – or Petrograd, he supposed, the name still not quite sitting right in his mind – were swarming with hungry, angry people, many of whom would attack anything vaguely representative of those who ruled over them, be it Tsar or Duma, in their desperation-addled minds. It did not matter that his uniform looked nothing like that of the Tsar's guard; he was in uniform, and that was enough. The only thing that stopped the miserable bastards from throwing their bricks at his head and their punches in his face, was the look on that face, underneath the brim of his well-worn hat. Commander Pettifer looked like he had already been stricken, and had enjoyed the experience.
It helped, he supposed, that he was going slightly mad. 1917 had not been a good year in general, and yet they were only barely through with February. There was nothing for him to do, and no work to be found, for him or anyone else. He didn't even have any clothes apart from his uniform and a few changes of underwear, and money was running out quickly. If his luck didn't change, he'd be out on the streets, freezing his threadbare ass off by the end of the month – always assuming there would be an end to this month. Judging by the cries of outrage around him, Commander Pettifer was not so sure.
There was no such rank as a 'Commander' in the Russian army, of course, but then again, Pettifer was no longer a member of that fine body of men. 'Commander' was a nice, neutral title to call oneself by, when certain parties needed to be impressed. The army had taken his actual rank – that of Corporal – as well as his pride, leaving him only with mounting insanity, and the severance pay he was owed by law. Not that it had been much; he'd been forced to supplement it by selling what little furnishings there had been in his rented room, which was yet another reason why he needed to get out of there as soon as possible. Getting out required renting another room, however, which required cash in advance. At least, he thought, elbowing his way to the front of the shop, there were the pies.
The shop was closed in a very final-looking way. Boards were nailed across the door and windows, so you'd think the crowd would take that little hint. They didn't, though, which hardly surprised Commander Pettifer. He knew crowds. They weren't the smartest things around, really. Ignoring both the storefront and the people surrounding him, he edged his way towards the nearest alley, where the back wall of the bakery met the back wall of the recently abandoned fishmonger. It wasn't an alley so much as it was a barely man-sized space, but Pettifer had been there before, and persevered. Having wedged himself in, he coughed, and waited.
When nothing happened, he coughed again.
Finally, a section of the brick wall fell away inwards, and a small, dark-haired man appeared. "All right, Howard?"
Pettifer flinched. "I told you not to use that name! Are we on familiar terms now?"
The man shrugged. Pettifer knew him only as Enigma. Everyone knew Enigma. He could get you anything, and he could get you out of anything too. No one seemed to know much about him, though. "Whatever. You still want the pie?"
"Of course I want the pie," Pettifer hissed. Enigma was the only person he'd met that he couldn't intimidate. The odd little man simply didn't seem to care. Nothing fazed him. "Why else would I be here?"
"Dunno. Wouldn't kill you to stop by for a chat now and then, would it? Get the pie, would you, Bollo?" He called over his shoulder. An assortment of grunts and huffs echoed from somewhere inside. No one had ever seen Enigma's assistant, though there were rumors he was the size of an ape, with the strength of two men. He certainly smelled like at least a couple of men hard at work, Pettifer thought, leaning away from the window, slightly.
"And you're sure this one will actually be edible?"
Enigma rolled his eyes. "The blackbirds were a fluke, all right? What do you want from me; there's a revolution going on, in case you hadn't noticed. Cheers, Bollo," he added, reaching into the darkness behind him, and bringing forth a piping hot potted pastry.
Pettifer watched it, hope rising despite everything. It did smell lovely. Then again, they had all smelled lovely. "You have my eternal gratitude," he mumbled, making a grab for it. Swiftly, Enigma held it out of his reach.
"I'd rather have the kopecks, thanks."
"I'll get it to you Tuesday week, all right?"
Enigma gave a sort of half-shrug that seemed to indicate that he had absolutely no faith in anything Pettifer said, but couldn't care less either way. "Yeah, all right." He pulled a small flask of something or other out of the folds of his dark blue coat, raising it as though in a toast. "Here's hoping you pull tonight, eh?"
Pettifer nearly jumped as Enigma took a hefty swig. He hated himself for flinching like that! He was a man of action, dammit, not some recruit fresh down from the village, who'd wet his britches at the mention of combat. Not that Pettifer had first-hand experience at that sort of thing, of course. "I'm not out to pull," he spluttered, nearly dropping the pie. Curse it all, he wasn't usually this clumsy! It was that damned Enigma and his stubborn refusal to react to Pettifer's carefully constructed persona.
"Never mind. Take care now, Howard."
"It's not…" Take a deep breath. Ignore it. You've got pies to deliver. "Yesallrightseeyoulater," he pressed out, through clenched teeth.
Pettifer had found the house almost by accident. Not a lot of people rented out rooms these days, so when he'd seen the sign in the window, Pettifer almost thought he was seeing things. It turned out to be genuine, however, though the woman who lived there denied it at first. Pettifer did not blame her. They lived in dangerous times, after all, and you couldn't be too careful. This woman though… he could have intimidated her easily, of course, but there was something about her. Pettifer admired her steadfastness, and her courage in the face of danger (he knew how frightening he could appear, when he set his mind to it, yet this lady did not so much as flinch, even when he set his hat askew), but it was more than that. When she had refused to take him in the first time, he'd sworn to return every day until she changed her mind, and so he had, and every time it became clearer to him; he was falling for this dark, mysterious woman.
This changed everything. If he could fall in love with a woman, woo her, perhaps even marry her… his life would be turned around. She had expressed a fondness for pies, so Pettifer, as you did when something impossible needed to be found, had turned to Enigma. Now, every day, he came to his woman's door, begging to be let in. He did not even know her name, this timeless, ageless beauty. He did not know what it was about her that attracted him so; there was a certain, unreadable quality in her face, some spark in her eye she could never quite conceal. One day, he would have her.
The door was closed as always, and there was no light in the windows. Few people had candles to spare, after all, so there was nothing odd about that. Pettifer pressed his face against the glass, hoping for a glipse of his dark, raven-haired angel, but as always, she was nowhere to be seen. Sighing, he moved over to the door, trying to summon the courage and strenght to knock once again. Slowly, he raised his strong fist against the aging wood.
There was no answer at first, as usual, but he persevered. It would be worth it in the end. Then - a voice; the voice of his dark angel! Pettifer could only barely make it out if he held his ear close to the door.
"This is fucking ridiculous"
Without warning, the door opened. Pettifer stumbled in, holding the pie in front of him as a combined peace-offering and balance-rod. The girl - woman - was there, watching him with her clear, searching blue eyes. The temperature in the flat was only barely above that of the freezing streets outside, and she had wrapped herself in a blanket for warmth. Coughing, Pettifer closed the door behind him; a bit of a feat, using only one hand. The pie was still hot enough to be steaming, and Pettifer could see the woman eyeing it when she thought he wasn't looking. "Would you like a pie?" Pettifer grumbled, not looking in her direction.
She stared at him, dumbly. "No."
Pettifer had to admit he hadn't really planned this far ahead. "But it is a good pie," he ventured, eventually.
Pettifer's nose twitched. "Why you..." This was all going wrong. "Why don't you like my pie?" He hissed.
The woman sighed. "Look, the last time you brought me pie, I cut into it with my tiny pie-cutter, and millions of tiny birds flew out!"
Sending a silent curse to Enigma, Pettifer searched for a suitable reply, but found none.
"They hit me in the eyes and the temple," the woman pulled the blanket aside, revealing several large, blue-black and purple bruises. When her fingertips touched them, lightly, Pettifer winced as though it were his own skin. But it wasn't; it was her perfect, unmblemished, soft, white skin; smooth like the finest silk, like white bread, like... "It was a trick pie!"
Blinking, Pettifer just stood there, holding the pie. He looked away for a moment, unable to meet the ire in those perfect eyes. It was a lost cause. Why had he not realized from the very beginning? She was too good for him. He would never have her. But, dammit, why?! "WHY DON'T YOU LIKE MY PIE?" Pettifer wailed, seeing nothing, not feeling his beloved falling to the floor in front of him, startled by his outburst.
"I JUST TOLD YOU!" He did hear her, though. It was hard not to.
"Pie!" Pettifer was sobbing now, the tears coming in great, half-repressed bursts. He choked, desperately, his hands clawing the air. He could not open his eyes; he could not see! He could not... there was a hand on his thigh. Startled, Pettifer looked down.
The woman - girl, she looked like, from this angle - was slumped at his feet, her legs tangled in the blanket that was wrapped around her. She was looking up at him, patting his leg in an awkward fashion. And she was smiling. "Every day, it's fucking pastry goods with you."
All Pettifer could think of, stupidly, was that the trouser legs of his uniform were worn enough that they were gleaming like satin, and from this angle she would surely notice. He swallowed, transfixed by the sight of her.
"What is it you really want, eh?"
Yelping, Pettifer grabbed her by the shoulders, hoisted her up, and promptly stopped thinking as he kissed her with all the passion that had built up in his soul. Oh, it was finally happening; finally! Pettifer was lost in ecstasy, hugging the slight woman tightly. He had fallen for a woman; she had accepted him, and they would live happily ever after. With tears in his eyes, he withdrew just enough to see her beautiful face once more. "You have not told me your name," he whispered.
"Yeah..." her voice sounded different; deeper, somehow. No doubt she was as moved by the moment as he. "About that..."
Pettifer put a finger to her lips. "Your name," he repeated, in just that tone he knew would assure compliance. She hesitated, her incredible, bright blue eyes seeming uncertain.
"Valery. Such a name. Such a fitting name for a lady like you."
"It is poetry. I will slay men in the honor of your name, gorgeous, enchanting Valery. Your soft skin, so pale, like the cream at the bottom of..."
"Yeah, it's a man's name."
Lost in visions of the cream he had not tasted for months, it took a moment for Pettifer to register the comment. "What?"
"It's a man's name. I'm a man. Honestly; how could you not know that? Are you even from Russia?"
"My family came from Leeds," Pettifer mumbled. Smiling weakly, his Valery, his dark, raven-haired angel pulled off the blankets, revealing a reed-thin body clad only in wollen underwear, covering long, skinny arms and legs, and an upper body... "You are still young," Pettifer tried, desperately. "You're still growning."
"I really doubt that."
"But... I..." Everything had gone slightly gray. Pettifer saw it all - his respectable future, his normalcy, all of it slipping away. He had shamed himself yet again - as if the army hadn't been enough! He didn't realize he had fallen to his knees in desperation, sobbing, until he felt Valery's arms around him. In his weakened state, he did not even think to fight them off.
"That's why they kicked you out of the army, isn't it? Look; it's OK. I know."
"Know?! Know what; how could you possibly know?" Pettifer yelled, fighting off the rising panic.
"I didn't always use to be like this, you know. Time was, no one cared what you did in the privacy of your own home." Valery shrugged. "They're changing, I suppose. Times, I mean."
Pettifer nodded, grimly. He felt a fool, now. Clearly, he was utterly transparent. "I didn't think anyone would ever know. We were very careful. But when they caught him trying to run away, he gave them all the dirt he had on anyone else to try to curry their favor."
Valery smiled, stroking a hand against his cheek. He still looked like a woman, Pettifer thought, feeling dizzy. "It's easier just to pretend you're a woman. Though," Valery's brow wrinkled, revealing more lines that should have been there for a... person the age he appeared to be, "I'm not entirely sure that would work for you."
Pettifer had to laugh at that. The little room seemed so much warmer now than it had minutes ago, and he was loath to leave it, and yet, he extracted himself from Valery's gentle grip. "Your secret is safe with me, Valia."
"You're not leaving?"
"What do you suggest I do?" Cream, he thought, warm, nourishing milk on a cold winter's day...
Valery grinned. He looked almost predatory, and again Pettifer found himself wondering how old he really was. "You were going to ask me to marry you, right? That was the general idea?"
As transparent as army soup, it would seem. "Yes."
"Well, do it, then! Marry me. There's room for more in the house, and my mother left me enough to get by on."
Pettifer wasn't entirely sure how it had happened, but somehow Valery had sidled closer again, taking the pie he had not realized was still in his hands, and placing it on a nearby table. "B...but..." he stuttered, "you're a..." His coat was unbuttoned. How had that happened? And there Valery's arms were, sneaking their way in, warming his body in ways Pettifer had forgotten was possible.
And then this impossibly warm, gentle, impish man was sucking at Pettifer's neck, and mumbling against it, "who's gonna know?"
The streets of Petrograd lay quiet in the early winter morning as a solitary figure ran clumsily along the cobbles. From time to time, he would stop and rest, panting and looking around nervously. By the time he reached the alley behind the bakery he was more sweat than man, despite only wearing a tin, light blue suit in the cold weather. Leaning against the wall gratefully, he nodded at the passing young couple watching him from across the street.
"Hey, Pettifer! Nice wife you've got there." He growled, making barking noises. "Do ya share, huh? Would ya?"
The woman rolled her eyes and Pettifer glared until his wife pulled him away. The figure grunted, making obscene gestures at them until they were out of sight. There was a slight click of a hatch opening, but the figure did not notice. "Don't even bother," Enigma said, leaning out, "she's way out of your league."
The figure - one could perhaps justify calling it a man - turned, all sweaty desperation. "I know she is, sugarface, but what d'ya want me to do, huh? She's out of Pettifer's league too, but that didn't stop him, did it?"
Enigma rolled his eyes. "What do you want, Boris?"
The man hesitated, looking confused. "Is that my name?"
"Whatever; just state your business and be on your way, yeah?"
Quite-possibly-Boris reached across and grabbed Enigma by the front of his coat, shaking the little man vigorously. "THEY CLOSED THE ZOO DOWN, SNOOKUMS!! BORIS LOST HIS ZOO!!"
From the darkness behind Engima, a large, dark hand reached out and shoved Boris away, violently.
"Thank you. I wasn't myself." He sniffled, rubbing his nose on the sleeve of his suit.
"They closed the zoo down eleven years ago," Enigma said, looking entirely unaffected. "What do you want me to do about it?"
Boris shrugged. "I don't have any money. I ate my shoes, but that made my feet cold. I've tried being a prostitute, but I don't have the right..." he gestured, eloquently, "bits."
"Yeah, tell me about it." Enigma sighed, then reached underneath his counter for a bright pink, shimmering bottle."
"That looks pretty. Can I touch it?" Boris reached for it with eager hands, but Enigma held it back.
"Twenty percent of your income, nightly."
Boris didn't even hesitate. "Done." Grabbing the bottle, he uncorked it, drinking eagerly. From the safetly of his hideaway, Enigma watched him with interest. There was a series of loud 'pop's, and his interest turned rapidly to confusion and disgust. A soft, pink light fell on Engima's face, and he shielded his eyes.
"Turn away, Bollo - you don't need to see this."
Eventually, the noise and the glow turned down, and Enigma opened his eyes, carefully. Then he smiled.
"It'll take some getting used to, but I trust you'll be satisfied. In more ways than one. Now run along, Boris."
On the other side of the counter, the fashionably dressed woman took a puff of her cigarette, and winked at him. "Call me Elena."