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The Nicest of the Damned

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"The monster screamed again, while you were with Grandfather," Vadik says.

"Did you hear it, Illya?" Alosha shakes his shoulder when he doesn't answer. "Illya?"

"No. Go away." Illya jerks his arm back, irritable. He doesn't feel well and just wants to sleep, but as usual the other boys won't leave him alone. He's only eight, far from the oldest—that's Vadik, who already turned eleven—but he's the biggest and strongest, which means everyone wants him to solve all their problems.

"It's not a monster," Pavel says with authority. "I keep telling you, it's the Domovoi. He's screaming because he's angry. No one's feeding him."

Illya wants to tell Pavel that the right word is Domowoj. He doesn't, though, because every time he uses Polish he gets sent back to Grandfather, and then he has to sit in a wooden chair and focus on everything Grandfather tells him like being at school. Grandfather gives him candy and says he's a good boy, but their conversations are exhausting. Illya always ends up tottering back to the boys' wing feeling like his head's full of cotton and he's watching himself from far away. He just returned from a visit and doesn't want to see Grandfather before it's his turn again.

"I keep telling you, Domovoi's live in houses," Stanislav says. "This isn't a house. Whatever's down there, it's a ghost, or a chort." He makes his fingers into claws and darts at Alosha. "There's a devil here and he's coming after you!"

Alosha shrieks in terrified glee and flees to the far side of the room.

Illya groans and yanks his pillow over his head, trying to shut out Alosha's screaming as the other boys join Stanislav in chasing him. "Be quiet," he says, but they're making too much noise to hear him. "Quiet! I said be quiet!" But Alosha keeps shrieking as he runs, and now Ruslan's joined in too….

"SHUT UP!"

All the boys freeze and turn to look at him, eyes big like frightened rabbits. Illya doesn't remember getting up but he's standing next to his cot with his fists clenched and his narrow shoulders shaking with anger. "I'm trying to sleep. Be quiet!"

"You're not Uncle Oleg. We don't have to listen to you." Vadik crosses his arms and glares, though he stays on the other side of the room. None of them want to get close to Illya when he's angry.

"Don't, Vadik." Ruslan puts his hand on Vadik's arm and tries to tug him back. Ruslan doesn't talk much, but when he does it's always about keeping everyone nice. He's only a few months younger than Vadik, but he's been here the least amount of time of anyone except Alosha, who's only seven and just got there a year ago. Ruslan talks with Grandfather three times a week, but still wakes up crying more often than anyone else.

Illya thinks he'll get sent away, like the other boys who cried too much or were bad at lessons or never learned how to listen. Sometimes Illya envies them, the ones who got led out of their wing and never came back. Maybe they were sent to new families, ones with mommies and daddies who actually wanted them. Uncle Oleg and Grandfather say that they're all family now, but sometimes Illya wishes he had a mommy too. Sometimes, when he wakes up crying from his own nightmares, he wishes his real family hadn't let Uncle Oleg take him away. Or that he at least knew what he did wrong to make them want to get rid of him.

(Sometimes he dreams that his parents didn't want to get rid of him at all. But those dreams are always full of terrible noises and Papa lying still on the ground and Mama screaming and calling him a different name. Grandfather says the dreams are what Illya wishes for, not what really happened. If his parents loved him, then why is he here?)

"Let's just be quiet. If we're too loud Uncle Oleg will get angry anyway." Pavel stalks back to his bunk and sits down with a huff. "It's almost lights' out—"

He's interrupted by another scream, a sound that has nothing to do with games or pretend devils. It's a howl of agony, a distant screech like the wail of a storm in winter.

All the boys go still as deer, listening until it finally fades.

"Domovoi!" Pavel's head swivels like a duck as he looks at the other boys. "I tell you, it's the Domovoi! He's angry! Or—or someone's going to die and he's giving a warning!" He leaps up, gaping at the rest of them. "Oleg! Uncle Oleg is going to die!"

"Don't be stupid," Stanislav snaps at him. "Oleg isn't as old as Grandfather. If anyone's going to die, it's him! If it's even a Domovoi anyway, which it's not."

"You think it's a devil, that's being stupid," Pavel says.

"It's a monster!" Vadik insists.

"Uncle's going to die?" Alosha puts his hands over his mouth, his eyes filling with tears. "If he's dead, who's going to look after us?"

Vadik puts his arm around Alosha's shoulders. "It's all right. I'm your big brother. I'll look after you."

"Uncle and Grandfather aren't going to die," Illya says, mostly to keep Alosha from blubbering. Somehow the men always know what's happening in the boys' wing, and if anyone starts crying they'll come for sure. Sometimes the boys only have to go talk to Grandfather if they do something bad, but they always get punished for crying. Illya doesn't want to watch Uncle's belt lashing Alosha's skinny, trembling back. He doesn't want Alosha to be sent away either, even if that's selfish of him. There aren't so many of them left now, and one of Illya's nightmares is being the last one left in the boys' wing, all alone.

"How do you know?" Ruslan says. "Everyone knows Domoviye always yowl when the head of the family is going to die."

"It's not a Domovoi!" Stanislav shouts.

"Shut up!" Illya says again. "It's not a Domovoi and it's not a chort and it's not a monster! It's just noise, it's not anything!"

"How can you say that?" Stanislav demands. "We all heard it. It's not nothing!"

"It's the Domovi," Pavel says.

"Fine!" Illya barks. "I'll prove it! Tonight after lights' out I'll go down there and find whatever it is and tell you, all right? Then you can all finally stop arguing about nothing."

"You can't do that! What if it eats you?" Ruslan looks horrified.

Aslan hugs Vadik. "What if it chases you back here and eats us?"

"It won't, because there isn't anything." Illya rolls his eyes. "You're all such a bunch of babies."

"What if you get caught?" Vadik says. "They'll send you away."

Illya shrugs, though that's the only possible outcome that truly makes him afraid. "Then maybe I'll be sent somewhere that I don't have to listen to all your stupid arguing."

Vadik opens his mouth like he wants to argue that, but he glances at Alosha and Ruslan and he doesn't. "Maybe one of us should go with you."

Illya likes that idea very much, but when he looks at the rest of them, they all avoid his eyes. Cowards. "I'll go by myself. And then when I come back you'll all feel ashamed."

No one says anything.


Illya regrets his decision even before he rolls and drops silently out of bed, crawling on his elbows and knees like they've been taught. He doesn't know if staying low like this will keep Oleg from knowing what he's doing—he seems to know everything, no matter what—but it makes him feel a bit safer anyway. The room is bathed in red light, the way it always is when they sleep, making everything look like blood. Sometimes Illya thinks that the red seeps into their dreams, that it's the reason they all have nightmares. It's nothing he's ever dared to ask.

He's worried the door to their wing will be locked, but it opens when he cautiously pushes it, squeaking like a nest of hungry mice. Illya goes still, waiting, but no one comes. Alosha, Ruslan and Pavel are asleep, but he can feel Vadik's and Stanislav's eyes on him in the dark. He wants to say something before he leaves—something brave—but he stays quiet, in case anyone's near enough to hear him.

They all know where the heavy, metal door to the vault is, but they've never been brought down there. Stanislav says it's a dungeon, but Stanislav thinks the howling noise is a devil so he's just stupid. Illya knows better than to listen to him. All the same, it takes a huge amount of will to pull the cold handle down and push the door open. This time there's no creak, just a small blast of cold air.

Illya shivers.

His heart is pounding in his throat as he starts down the stairs. The stone is damp and smooth under his bare feet, cold as ice as he slowly makes his way further and further into the ground. There are more red lights here, glowing feebly like they're pushing against more than just ordinary dark. Illya can see his breath misting like puffs of blood-colored steam. His pajamas are thin and he's skidding on ice less than halfway down, but the cold isn't why he's shivering.

Hell is hot, he knows that, and dungeons are just more stupid fairy tales, but it's cold and the darkness is red like blood and now he's sure he can hear chains rattling. He wants very badly to run, but if he goes back now the other boys will think he's a coward. He'd rather get eaten by a devil.

The stairs finally end at a wide, low-ceilinged room. It's dark in here, even with the red light. His feet leave wet, black footprints in the rime of ice on the floor, and the whole place smells damp and cold, like a forest. There are glass cases against one wall, with things that might be made of metal or bone, but Illya's too scared to look more closely at them. There's a bed that looks like the cot he sleeps in in the boys' wing, but it's higher off the floor and has lots of straps attached to it, like whomever would be sleeping on it might fall out. Illya can't see any blankets, but the dark canvas is stained black in places. It smells bad when he goes close.

The very back of the room is a cage. That's where the rattling noise comes from.

Illya goes still, barely daring to breathe. He could go back now, tell the other boys there's no devil or Domovoi and that would be the end of it. Except Vadik will insist that it's a monster then, and Illya won't be able to say it isn't because he ran.

He's still terrified, but Illya squares his little shoulders and creeps closer, until he's standing right in front of the bars. He sort of expects to see a bear, because he has a vague memory of a story with a bear in a cage, and whatever's in there smells really bad. He has no idea why Uncle Oleg or Grandfather would keep a bear, but most of what they do baffles him. And then the bear mutters, "Y're back f'r more, y'fuckers?" in slurred but passible Russian, and Illya shrieks and claps his hands over his mouth because that's not a bear in the cage; that's a man.

The man flips over and sits up with a loud rattle of chains. He gapes at Illya, who feels like he's turned to stone in shock. The man clutches his left arm to his chest with his right. There's something wrong with it, like part of it's missing, but Illya can't tell for sure. The man's hair is shaggy and matted and he has a beard. His sweater looks black and greasy in the red light, just like his tattered pants. He smells terrible.

He just looks at Illya for what feels like forever, then lets go of his left arm to wipe his mouth. Most of his left arm is missing. The sleeve of his sweater's been hacked off above a frayed, grey bandage. The rattle comes from a thick chain set in a ring on the wall. It leads to a manacle around his right ankle. Illya doesn't understand what the chain is for, it doesn't look like the man could go anywhere.

The man reaches out between the bars of his cage, but jerks his hand back before he actually touches Illya. "Are you real?"

Illya nods. He realizes his hands are still over his mouth so he drops them into tight, terrified fists at his sides. "Who are you?"

"I…" He looks away. It takes him a very long time to answer. "Bucky," he says at last. He lifts his chin like he's proud of it, even though it's the strangest name Illya's ever heard. "My name is Bucky." He tilts his head a little. "Who are you?"

"Illya," he says. "Why are you in a cage? Were you bad?"

Bucky shakes his head quickly. "No. No, I'm not bad. I'm American. I'm a soldier." He leans closer to the bars, gripping one with his right hand. His Russian accent is terrible, but he speaks slowly enough that Illya can understand. "I'm a soldier from America."

Illya blinks at him. "Then why are you here?"

Bucky makes an awful noise a little bit like a laugh. "I don't know. I don't know why I'm here. They want…" He says some words Illya can't understand, then winces. "Can you speak English?"

Illya nods. "I speak English little," he says.

"No, no, that's great," Bucky says in English. "Do you live here?" he asks, very slowly.

Illya nods again. "Papa Oleg bring me here."

"Oleg is your father?"

"No." Illya shakes his head. Maybe he got the word wrong. "Brother of papa?"

"Brother…Uncle," Bucky says. "He's your uncle." He looks like he doesn't believe that, so Illya nods a lot to show Bucky he got it right.

"Yes. He bring me."

"Okay." Illya doesn't know that word. "Where are your mama and papa?"

Illya shrugs. "They do not want me, so I am bring here." There's still the picture in his head of his mother screaming for him and running, his father unmoving on the ground. Illya forcibly shoves it away. It's not real. It never happened. He just wishes they cared about him. Only Uncle and Grandfather do. And the other boys.

"I'm sorry," Bucky says.

Illya shrugs again. "Oleg want me."

"I'll bet he does," Bucky says darkly. Illya doesn't know what that means. "Can you get out of here?"

"What get?"

"Can a person leave here?"

That Illya understands, but he shakes his head. "There is…." He taps the metal bars. "Like this. Big." It also gives painful shocks if they try to touch it, but he doesn't know how to say that.

"A fence," Bucky says softly. "There's a big fence." He turns his head away again, holding the remains of his left arm. His breathing goes ragged like he's trying not to cry. "All right," he says. "All right." He lifts his head. "Can you open this cage?"

Illya steps back, eyes wide. He shouldn't even be out of the sleeping room, let alone have come all the way down here. He eyes the lock anyway. It's large and heavy looking, with a hole for a key. Uncle probably has it.

He shakes his head.

"Yeah," Bucky says on a sigh. "Should've figured." Illya doesn't know those words either, but the despair in them is clear enough. "Fuck." Bucky hits a bar with his palm, then does it again. The metal clangs. "Fuck!" He stops, looks at Illya. "Wait. Maybe you can find something to pick the lock with. Um." He looks around, trying to peer through the bars. "A stick? Something long that—"

"Illya! What are you doing here?"

Bucky gasps and Illya jumps and spins around. Uncle Oleg is there, with Boris and Viktor, who teach Illya and the other boys how to shoot and fight. They're nice, sometimes. Boris tells funny stories and has a pleasant laugh, and Viktor brings cookies or bread for the boys when he comes back from visiting his family. But they also do whatever Uncle tells them. They're the ones who hit Illya and the others when they don't behave, and they're the ones who take the boys who get sent away.

Right now their rifles are up and they look angry, but Oleg looks furious. He stalks across the room, Boris and Viktor following. When he reaches Illya he cuffs him so hard he falls down.

"Hey!" Bucky shouts. Illya can hear the chain Bucky's attached to rattle, and the louder rattle of Bucky shaking the door of the cage. He shouts more words in English that Illya can barely hear through the ringing in his head.

Oleg ignores him. "Who gave you permission to leave your room?" he demands, then kicks Illya's side when he's too scared to answer. "Who? Tell me!"

"Stop it!" The cage door rattles. "He's just a little kid!"

"N-no one gave me permission, Uncle," Illya says. He'd gotten used to the cold, but now he's shivering again, from terror as much as the icy room. "We heard sc-screaming. I w-wanted to see wh-what it was."

Oleg grabs Illya's ear and hauls him to his feet, then yanks him around to face the cage. "Do you know who this is?"

Illya nods frantically. "B-Bucky."

Uncle takes the neck of Illya's pajama top and uses it to dash his face against the bars. Bucky cries out like that somehow hurts him too. "This is what happens if you don't listen, Illya. Do you want to end up like this? Locked in a cage like an animal? Do you?" He shakes Illya like a doll. "Answer me!"

Bucky thrusts his arm through the bars and shoves Oleg so hard he lets go of Illya and stumbles backwards. "Leave him alone, you fuck!" he shouts in English.

Uncle looks so angry now that Illya cringes, but Oleg just steps back and gestures sharply at Boris. Boris unclips a long, wide stick from his belt, then thumbs a switch. The stick flashes blue and Boris stabs it through the space between the bars.

Bucky grabs the stick, teeth clenched as blue sparks around his hand. He shoves the stick back into Boris, hard enough to knock him to the floor.

Illya is still staring at Bucky in astonishment when Viktor stabs his own stick through the bars and hits Bucky's side.

It flares blue and Bucky screams. He falls over, convulsing violently. His lips are stretched in a rictus of agony, but he can't move away. All he can do is scream.

"No! No! Stop, Viktor, please!" Illya grabs Viktor's arm, but Viktor just pushes him away. He only pulls the stick back when Oleg tells him to.

Bucky stays on his side, still trembling and gasping in pain.

"Stop crying," Oleg snaps at Illya. "This is your fault. If you hadn't disobeyed and come down here none of this would have happened."

"Yes, Uncle," Illya says. He dashes the tears out of his eyes, clenches his teeth to stop his lip from quivering. "I am very sorry, Uncle. I won't disobey again."

"No you will not. Boris." Oleg juts his chin at Illya. "Take him outside."

Illya's heart plummets in fear. "You're sending me away?" Will he have new parents? Where is he going? Will anyone take care of him?

Boris reattaches the long stick to his belt, and takes Illya by the upper arm. He's much gentler than Oleg. "Come, boy." He looks sad.

In the cage, Bucky's eyes snap open. He levers himself upright. "No," he gasps. "No. Please. Don't. Don't do that. He's just a kid…!"

Oleg tilts his head, watching Bucky as Boris takes Illya out of the room. He lifts his hand. "Wait."

Boris stops. He turns around, pulling Illya with him.

"What is the boy worth to you, Sergeant Barnes?" Uncle says to Bucky.

Bucky's eyes go wide. In the red light he looks grey, even worse than when Illya found him. Illya can hear the click of his swallowing in the sudden silence. Bucky's eyes fix on Illya's shivering body, but he doesn't speak.

"Very well," Oleg says. "Boris—"

"No! Stop!" Bucky looks sick and terrified, exactly like Illya feels. He's breathing so fast that Illya can see his chest heaving with it even in the red light. "I won't fight," Bucky says. "I won't…I'll stop fighting."

Oleg smiles. "Let him go."

Boris drops Illya's arm immediately. Illya rubs it as he stares at Bucky, even though Boris didn't hurt him. It's hard to tell but he's almost sure Bucky's crying. He doesn't understand what's going on, but he knows men only cry when the worst thing ever has happened. He and the other boys aren't allowed to cry at all.

Bucky didn't cry before. He didn't even cry when Viktor hurt him. What just happened that's so much worse?

"I need proof," Bucky says quickly. He swallows again, clears his eyes with the side of his one hand. "I need to see him. Every day, so I know he's alright. Or no deal."

Oleg chuckles like that's funny. It's an ugly sound. "You have no power to make demands, Sergeant."

Bucky's mouth twists into something just as ugly as Uncle Oleg's laugh. "Then I guess you'll have to decide if I'm worth more to you alive or dead. 'Cause if anything happens to him, dead's all you're gonna get."

Oleg puts his hands on his hips, glaring at Bucky for another long moment while Illya stands with his heart thudding against his ribs. "Very well," he says at last. "I will make this deal. We will bring you the boy every day, so you can see that he is still alive—"

"And unharmed," Bucky snaps. "If you hurt him again, the deal's off."

"And unharmed," Oleg continues easily. "And in return, you will no longer resist the procedure. But," he adds, stepping closer to the cage. "If you do not keep your part of our bargain, we will hurt him again. We will hurt him quite badly. Or take him outside. Do you understand?"

Bucky looks like he wants to throw up, but he nods. "Yeah. I get it."

Oleg nods. "Very good. We have our deal, then."

Illya didn't understand everything Uncle and Bucky said, but he got enough of it. Bucky told Oleg he won't fight whatever's happening to him. Otherwise Illya will be hurt.

"And you, Illya," Oleg says to him, "you are part of this deal now too. If you disobey again, we will hurt Sergeant Barnes. We will hurt him worse than you can possibly imagine. His life depends on your obeying just as much as yours does on his. Do you understand, boy?"

"That's not fair!" Bucky says.

Oleg backhands Illya. It's only hard enough to snap his head to the side, but Illya cries out anyway because he wasn't expecting it. And it still hurts.

"No!" Bucky yells.

"Are you backing out of our agreement already, Sergeant?" Oleg asks mildly.

Bucky looks between Oleg and Illya, breathing fast. Then he closes his eyes. "No. I'm not backing out."

"Good." Oleg's smile is sharp as a wolf's. "Take Illya back to his room, Boris." He pats the bars of Bucky's cage, making the metal ring. "Get some sleep, Sergeant. I believe we'll have a busy day tomorrow."

Bucky nods, but he's looking at Illya, not Oleg. "See you tomorrow, kid," he says.

"Bye." Illya raises his palm as Boris puts his big hand on Illya's back, guiding him away.

Illya doesn't really want to see Bucky again, because Bucky smells bad and Illya doesn't like how sick and dirty he looks and it's freezing down here and terrifying. But they made a deal, and Illya needs to keep his part of it so Bucky won't get hurt any more.

He can't imagine that Bucky will keep his part of the deal, because they're strangers and he's just a boy whose own parents didn't even want him. And Bucky looked so scared and he was even crying. But Illya will be brave and do everything he's told. He'll keep Bucky safe.

It's like Vadik told Alosha: They're all brothers now, and that means him and Bucky too. And brothers look after each other, so that's what Illya will do.

It doesn't make him any less afraid, but it helps, a little. At least it lets him sleep for the rest of the night.

 

END