Helene can smell danger from a mile away. So when Anatole first introduces her to hotshot Captain – Staff Captain back then – Fyodor Dolokhov she begins to mentally catalogue the ways this could go wrong. Between Dolokhov’s bright eyes and sharp tongue, his and Anatole’s shared interests and acquaintances, and Dolokhov’s propensity to look at Anatole in scandalous ways – the list is rather long.
For a while she manages to not get involved.
Then, on a mild September night in 1811, Anatole goes out to celebrate Dolokhov’s promotion and comes home falling-down drunk. He has one arm around Dolokhov’s shoulders and leans heavily against him, talking utter nonsense about some girls they were with and not paying much attention to anything else. Helene, who is roused by the ruckus they make in the unlit front hall, comes down and offers to wake the servants. Dolokhov tells her that he can manage and proceeds to take Anatole upstairs. She tracks after them, mildly curious but with a budding suspicion. She watches silently at the door while Dolokhov manages to get Anatole half-undressed and into bed, noticing the way his hands linger on Anatole’s shoulders and waist, brushing fleetingly over his temple and cheek.
She gives him a look once he comes out into the hallway. “That was kind of you. Taking care of my brother.”
Dolokhov runs a hand through his hair and grins at her. “I could be kind to you too.”
He isn’t terribly drunk, Helene notices. She rolls her eyes dramatically. “I hope you don’t use that on all the ladies.”
He steps in toward her, still smiling. Helene puts the candle she is holding between them to slow his advances. “There are no other ladies,” Dolokhov says with surprising earnestness.
Gentlemen then, she thinks, but does not say it. She is surprised when he takes her wrist and moves it out of the way. “You like me.”
She laughs and tosses her head. “Perhaps I do.”
Another step forward and they are face to face, Helene’s back against the wall, her chest nearly touching Dolokhov’s. She does like him – the way his eyes sparkle and the way he smiles, the sure way he holds her wrist and how his eyes roam appreciatively over her. The candle flickers and she lets her eyes drop.
“Captain Dolokhov, if my husband—“
He laughs quietly and closes the distance between them completely. Helene can feel the extent of his excitement through the several layers of clothing between them and it sparks her sensual imagination.
“Your husband isn’t here.” He tangles a hand in her loose curls.
“No,” she agrees. Then looks up and meets his eyes.
She kisses him first.
“You can’t love her,” Dolokhov says, somewhere between a taunt and genuine fervor. Pierre flushes with anger and confusion in response.
Helene wants to shake all three of them. Pierre for being an idiot as usual, Anatole for his carelessness and Dolokhov for dragging her into this mess by projecting his unresolved issues with Anatole onto her. She had seen the way his eyes had followed Anatole as he obliged Pierre with wine and muttered some dirty, scandalous things at him just to see him blush. She knows, as Dolokhov accepts Pierre’s challenge with a grin, that this isn’t even about jealousy. Dolokhov has simply been looking for something to fight lately. It’s probably the only way he knows how to channel frustration.
“Oh this is horribly stupid,” Anatole informs them petulantly. He throws an accusing look at Dolokhov and proceeds to coach Pierre in dueling basics. Dolokhov’s smirk goes predatory and Helene pours herself another drink.
It’s a good thing, she thinks, that she does not particularly care if Dolokhov is in love with her, just as she does not care if Pierre is. Someone has to stay practical and sane around here.
“It’s only a flesh wound, lots of blood but he’ll be fine,” Anatole informs her as he gets into the troika.
Helene breathes out a sigh of relief and gets a vague urge to cross herself. She hasn’t been to church in years – the gesture has become almost foreign. It is probably better that way – God would likely turn from a sinner like her and since Helene has no plans to change her wicked ways it is all the better that she not ask for help from the Heavenly Father at all.
Anatole gives a low whistle and the troika takes off in a flurry of kicked-up snow. “Do you think we should have stayed? I know Denisov will see Fedya home safe but…” He chooses to look at the floor instead of her.
“I couldn’t have. It will be a large enough scandal as it is without me blatantly disregarding any more social norms. I suppose you could have though.”
Anatole looks up at her. Helene can feel him studying the side of her face He’s probably gnawing at his lower lip too, though she doesn’t turn to look.
“Do you love him?”
She can’t quite tell if that’s a question of an accusation “Do you?”
For a while Anatole does not say anything, merely stares out into the snowy darkness, counting the streetlights that flash by. “I love Natasha,” he says quietly at last.
“Just like you loved Boguslawa?”
“This is nothing like that.”
Helene sighs and looks at her folded hands. She reaches out and takes Anatole’s hand like she used to do when they were children and he was frightened of something. “You mean the world to him, you know? He might not tell you directly but it’s true. You don’t need to be afraid of this. Don’t hurt him by pretending you don’t care.”
“I never pretend,” Anatole says. “Life is too short to pretend.” But he takes his hand away from her and Helene knows she’s lost this battle. Perhaps even the entire war.
Anatole has a type with girls: long dark hair, beautiful dark eyes, smooth skin with a soft glow to it, slim arms and shoulders, dainty little feet. Helene approves.
She runs her hands over Natasha’s shoulders, taking in the soft olive glow of her skin. The taunt fabric of her corset is such a sharp contrast that it sets Helene’s imagination aglow. She finishes lacing up the top of the corset which had been left unfinished by the attending girl whom Helene had dismissed casually and filled her arms with rich scarlet fabric. Natasha flushes as Helene helps her into the dress. “You are no child when draped in scarlet and lace. Ah. Charming.” Helene smiles widely, longing to free Natasha’s hair from its prison of hairpins, and Natasha drops her eyes, the color deepening in her cheeks. Yes, Anatole has chosen very well once again.
He always does, in a sense.
“Oh but that locket must go, it does not match this dress at all.”
“But—“ Natasha reaches up to put a hand on the small ornament, which obviously carries some sentimental value. But that would never do. It is a good thing Helene always comes prepared. She takes out a delicate necklace of gold and pearls. Natasha’s eyes light up when she sees it. She reaches for it but Helene gestures for her to turn around and waits as the girl takes off her locket, now willingly. Carefully, Helene puts the new necklace around her neck. She slides in close behind Natasha so that their bodies are almost touching but not quite. She makes sure her hands slide over Natasha’s collarbones as she straightens the necklace and pulls her hands back to fasten the clasp.
Helene looks up to see that Natasha is watching her movements intently in the mirror. Their faces are close together and if Helene was to tip her head just so her lips would land in the dip between Natasha’s neck and shoulder. She imagines doing just that – tasting the warmth of Natasha’s skin, feeling her breathing hasten, finding the girl’s pulse and sucking on that spot until she throws her head back and moans in pleasure.
But she will not.
Helene sees the change in the quality of Natasha’s blush and the alarm in her eyes. The girl is scared – more of herself, her own body, than of Helene. It would be so easy to subdue her but just as easy to scare her away. Even if Helene were to succeed she would hardly be happy with herself. She would only throw the girl into terrible confusion and fits of fear if not self-loathing. She sees too much of this struggle in Anatole to be able to quite so easily subject someone else to it. Better that Natasha gets swept away in a scandal she can recover from, that she can understand and explain to herself.
“My brother dined with me last night but he hardly ate a thing. He kept sighing about you,” Helene says, stepping away but keeping eye contact with Natasha in the mirror. “You must wear this dress out. I am hosting a soiree at the end of the week and I do so hope you will come.”
“From her!” Anatole fumbles frantically for the letter opener, recognizing the writing on the letter just brought in for him.
Dolokhov eyes him curiously from the other side of the room. “The Rostov girl?”
“Yes!” Anatole unfolds the letter and begins to read, freezing in an odd pose in the middle of the room, his attention fixed on the page in his hand.
Dolokhov smirks, gets up and goes to stand at his side. With a smooth, quick motion he snatches the letter out of Anatole hand and retreats to the opposite side of the room, disregarding Anatole’s squawk of protest. Dolokhov scans the opening lines and his smirk becomes a grin. “My darling Anatole,” he reads, in a mockingly high-pitched tone. “I hardly slept for thinking of you last night—“
“Give it back! Fedya!” Anatole crosses the room, meaning to take the letter back, but Dolokhov ducks under his arm and puts distance between them again. “I kept thinking of your last letter and the things you said, about how in love you are – we are – and how it was meant to be.”
“Dolokhov, for god’s sake!—“
“My heart fluttered with trepidation at first but now I think you must be right.” Dolokhov glances up at Anatole, eyes full of amusement. Anatole’s arms drop limply to his sides in resignation as Dolokhov continues. “I lay awake thinking of your smile and your eyes. Of how it feels when you smile at me…” Dolokhov falters, the mocking edge slipping out of his voice. “The room seems to brighten when you walk in and my breath catches. Everything in the world disappears except for you.” He looks up and his eyes catch Anatole’s.
Anatole makes a small step forward, then another, but his eyes are still fixed on Dolokhov’s face.
Stubbornly, Dolokhov continues reading, angling the letter so that he can read it and still steal glances at Anatole’s expression. His tone is completely serious now. “I thought of your hand on my waist and my hand in yours, of how I trembled out of fear and excitement… But how silly of me…”
Anatole has come to stand directly before him, eyes wide and lips slightly parted. Dolokhov feels the bubbling nervousness in his chest begin to condense and tighten. “How very silly of me to be frightened…” He meets Anatole’s eyes again and recites the next line without looking back down. “If this is not what love feels like, then I do not know what does.”
Anatole reaches out, closes his fingers over Dolokhov’s wrist and pulls him in. The letter falls out of Dolokhov’s hand as Anatole’s kisses him, suddenly, on impulse, an urgent greed emanating from every part of him. Dolokhov closes his eyes and gives into the kiss, one hand finding the side of Anatole’s neck, feeling the sudden jump in the boy’s pulse.
Suddenly, Anatole pulls back. For a heartbeat, they stare at each other – Dolokhov with serious calm, Anatole with some mixture of awe and horror.
Then Anatole turns and runs from the room before Dolokhov has a chance to call him back.
“He’s running away.”
Dolokhov stares at her as though she’s gone mad. “Me.”
“From his feelings, scandal, the truth, rejection…” Helene sighs and pours herself another glass of wine. This will be a long night.
Dolokhov scoffs and finishes off the brandy. (Never was one for wine, that one.) “That’s ridiculous. Anatole doesn’t care what anyone says. Surely, he doesn’t think that I of all people—”
“It’s my fault he’s married.”
The sudden silence rings in Helene’s ears. Outside, the snowstorm has picked up, the wind howling mournfully and covering everything in sight with fresh snow.
“Your fault? Anatole said the girl’s father—“
“Forced him to marry her?” She laughs bitterly and shakes her head. “How do you imagine that would even work? Though, I suppose, it’s comforting for Anatole to tell it that way.”
Dolokhov crosses his arms and sits back in the armchair, looking up to meet her eyes. Instead, she looks away toward the smoldering coals in the fireplace. “Tell me,” he says.
So she tells him.
She tells him how Anatole had just turned eighteen and how inexperienced he had been, their father keeping his children on a short leash for as long as he could. Of how Anatole projected his curiosity onto her and she half satisfied it, half practiced avoidance on him.
She told him of Boguslawa, her shining dark hair and beautiful eyes, how Anatole had singled her out, how they both had flirted with her and she had flirted back. Of how they decided to share, like they had always shared everything, and asked her to come over one evening, intending for something like a ménage à trois. Of how nervous Anatole had been and how she had hoped to sooth his nerves by coaching him in some fundamentals of seduction.
She tells him how the girl had come early and walked in on them as Helene was demonstrating the most effective way to kiss a girl. Of how stunned the little creature had been and the horror in her eyes. Of how Helene had tried to sooth her and almost succeeded until she made an advance far too forward – one which had obviously not been expected. Of how she had miscalculated the ripeness of the girl’s desires. Of how the girl had run.
She tells him of her own fear, how she had thought she – they – would most certainly be ruined if Boguslawa said a word to her father or anyone else – the rumors would be unstoppable once they started. Of how she begged Anatole to think with her of a way to explain everything away, to practice a united front in denial. Of how Anatole had looked at her and suddenly said, “I do not care what people think, Lena. Why should we hide how close we are? Why should you hide who you are?” Of how she had tried to reason with him, explain that she could never get away with the same things he could; her entire life was on the line. Of how he did not understand.
She tells him of her stupor when Anatole had asked her if she would choose her reputation over him. Of how she had frozen and he had misunderstood. Of how she had tried to get him to come back when he said it didn’t matter and come morning they would both be happy, and left the room without answering any of her questions.
She tells him of waking up the next morning to news that Anatole had gone to Boguslawa’s father and asked for her hand in marriage.
“So you see,” she finishes, by this point fighting tears. “When he’s scared, he runs. Straight into the arms of whatever seems most normal and expected. I had been the closest thing to him back then. I don’t know what exactly he thought his feelings were for me – perhaps nothing scandalous at all – but I as good as told him that it was inappropriate and that I would not risk scandal for him.”
“So his answer was to…get married?” Dolokhov is shaking his head in disbelief.
“A pretty girl, the daughter of a nobleman. Marriage. It was the most conformist thing he could do. When Anatole is unsure of his feelings or how they will be received, he projects onto safer targets. He does it earnestly, without realizing it…but it never ends well. It never ends happy.”
Dolokhov gets up and goes to sit beside her. He puts his arms around her shoulders and Helene leans into him, hiding her face against his neck. “It’s not your fault he’s married,” he says quietly.
“It might not be my fault, but I am the reason. And you’re the reason he wants to elope with Natasha.”
Dolokhov sighs and looks up at the celling despondently. “What can I do to stop it? To make him see…”
“You can’t.” Helene smiles sadly. “It has to self-destruct.”
On the way back from the Rostovs, Anatole won’t stop talking. It’s a nervous habit – face down any disaster with as cheerful a front as possible and if not possible provide a distraction in the form of words or any other means possible. Helene does something similar, but with more grace. He’s angry and terrified and upset in turns and finally, Dolokhov cannot stand it anymore. He grabs Anatole by the shoulders and forces him to stay still, turning him sideways so they are facing each other.
“Are you quite done?”
Anatole stares at him through the dark. “This was a mistake, Fedya. I know that’s what you said but I… Please, please don’t be angry with me.”
Dolokhov makes a sound between a scoff and a sigh before leaning forward and kissing him. He does not linger, pulling back after a moment and waiting for Anatole to finish blinking in bewilderment. “In case you haven’t gotten the message yet, some stupid little girl won’t make you happy. She won’t help you, she won’t protect you, and she will abandon you the moment things get out of hand. The people who really love you won’t. I won’t.”
Anatole swallows and looks down but does not bother to free himself from Dolokhov’s hold. Their foreheads are almost touching.
“If you don’t want this, just say so. But running away won’t solve anything.”
“No, I want to…I—“
Dolokhov kisses him again, this time longer. Anatole responds cautiously, uncertainly, as though exploring something new. When they draw back for breath, he whispers, “People could see.”
“Let them. They won’t be able to tell much in this light.”
“They’ll still talk.”
Dolokhov laughs quietly. “You will already be the talk of all of Moscow, mon cher. What does another half-scandal matter? It’s well known you’re a rogue and a rascal as it is.”
“And I am still a crazy good shot.”