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There Isn't Anything Comparable to This

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He tried to pull away from his own arm; by now the pain no longer came from the knife but from the limb itself, the meat, the broken bone. The severed muscle that was being torn away from the bone. Pavel tried to turn away but the hand on his chest kept him on his back. He tried to move his arm, to struggle, but the woman’s hand on his elbow kept him still, and then he couldn’t feel his arm. He only felt as far as the knife, and nothing after that.

 

Pavel woke with a gasp, and froze. He couldn’t make a sound. His teeth found his lip and bit down to keep him silent. He felt Andrei’s hand in his and squeezed his brother’s fingers as a reminder that he was there, because it was all that he could offer.

“Pavel?”

The sound of Leo’s voice made Pavel still. He hadn’t realised that he’d been shaking. Andrei’s hand disappeared, along with his own. Another hand rested on the side of his chest, avoiding what remained of his shoulder. He felt impossibly cold where Leo’s skin touched his. Pavel pulled away, turning his back towards this other boy.

“You were dreaming.”

It hadn’t been a dream, though. Leo had to know that, but Pavel didn’t dare look at him to confirm this.

His mouth was dry but he forced some words to come. Just doing that took on a tremendous importance. He ran the risk of betraying his entire life if he didn’t. The only place he could hide was in everyone’s forgetfulness that something was wrong.

“I’m fine,” he said to Leo, then added, hesitantly, “I didn’t wake you?”

“You did.”

“Sorry.”

“Who’s Andrei?”

Before Pavel spoke again he made sure that his breathing was steady. It was, and he found himself shaking again. Leos’ hand touched his back. It felt like he was being burned, but he couldn’t pull away from it.

“Just breathe. It’s all right, okay?”

Pavel nodded. “It’s all right.”

“It was just a dream.”

“Yeah.”

Leo squeezed the elbow on his remaining arm. Something in Pavel left him, like an animal that was having the life squeezed out of it. He fell limp in front of his brother. Leo continued to rub his back, running his palm over the top of his shoulder, then stroked his hair. Finally, Pavel sighed.

“What did you dream about?”

“I don’t remember.” But he still felt a smaller hand in his own.

 

Raisa could be gentle, like she was used to holding damage, but if not for her humour Pavel didn’t think that he would find any comfort in the way that she held him. She could make the most grievous situation seem light. From the intensity in her eyes Pavel always felt that she was looking through him, seen everything, and that there was nothing to apologise for. For that, he thought her stronger than he could have ever been.

So to see her come to him this time, dire, grim, was obscene.

“He asked me to marry him,” Raisa finally said.

“What will you say?”

“What can I say?” Pavel realised she had tears in her eyes. “I can’t refuse. He’s a doctor working with the MGB. I can’t say no.” Her lip was quivering, but then it stilled. Pavel wished he had two arms – one to wrap around her, and one to protect her.

“Marry me first,” he said. “What can he do?”

“Have you killed?” Raisa shook her head. “No. There’s nothing that can be done. I have to say yes.”

He kissed her neck, and pushed her hair over her shoulder to reach her jawline. Raisa turned on him and wrapped both her arms around his neck, pressing her cheek against his.

“I should have married you sooner,” he murmured.

“Yes,” Raisa agreed. “You should have.”

 

“There isn’t anything you can do.” Pavel meant it to be a question, but when he saw his brother’s expression he couldn’t even pretend that there was a chance that Leo could help him.

“What could I do?” Leo asked. Sitting at his desk, he didn’t bother looking up from the open notebook in front of him. He sounded annoyed. His shoulders were hunched forward, barricading himself against Pavel.

“Arrest him.” The words sounded silly as Pavel said them. “Have a word with him – anything Leo. You’re senior to him.”

“He’s a doctor,” Leo said. “It isn’t the same thing. Even if I tried… no, there’s no point even thinking of it. Forget it. And I’ll forget that you asked.”

Then Leo did look at him. He looked as annoyed as he’d sounded, like the mere presence of Pavel in the room was a waste of his time. The two brothers, one who had succeeded, and one who could never succeed, stared at each other, and for a moment, although Pavel tried to forget, he remembered that they were not brothers.

Something must have shown on his face, for Leo looked away.

“There’s nothing I can do,” he repeated.

“You’re alive because of me.”

Leo nodded. “Yes. I am. But what could I do, Pasha? Tell me that. And fuck you for bringing this to me. If you have any sense left, you won’t do it again.”

 

Six months after Raisa was married, her new husband was arrested. True to his word Pavel never asked Leo if it was his doing. It could have easily been something else.

 

Pavel brought Raisa with him, at Leo’s suggestion. A woman would be more likely to listen to another woman, after all. She wrapped her arms around Fyodor’s wife while Fyodor, tired and hunched forward, led Pavel away. He seemed to have aged ten years since Pavel had last seen him. After everything that this man must have seen, it was strange to think that there was anything left that could deliver such a devastating blow.

“Your brother wouldn’t listen to me,” Fyodor said. “I hope that you will, although I don’t put it past him to send you to say the same.”

He shook his head, and looked through the doorway towards his wife. Pavel looked to Raisa. Her tender attention was wholly focused on the other woman; the men may as well have not been there. Pavel wondered if that wouldn’t have been kinder; he believed Raisa at least capable of offering some comfort. Nothing he had to say to Fyodor would be well-received.

“Leo told me you were grieving.”

“Of course we are. Our son has been murdered.” He pointed Pavel with an accusing glare, and Pavel focused on keeping his face steady, to not betray his brother and the favour Leo asked of him. It must have worked, for Fyodor’s face softened.

“Arkady was murdered,” Fyodor repeated.

“He is dead,” Pavel said, carefully. “It’s tragic, but there was nothing else to it. It was an accident.”

“It was a murder. We have a witness.” And he told Pavel about his witness. When he finished, he looked to him. “You believe your brother, though. Don’t you?”

“It was an accident.”

“I know that you’ll believe your brother without considering anything else. Why wouldn’t you? He’s done so much for you.”

“It isn’t anything personal,” Pavel murmured. “You aren’t thinking straight.”

“Will you at least look at our witness?”

Pavel considered his friend for a long time. The kindest thing to do would be to gently turn him down – but all he could see was a desperate man who had lost his child, who feared losing even more of him. Such men were liable to do anything if they thought it would help their situation. Reluctantly, Pavel found himself saying, “I can, but what good will it do? I’m your friend, but that’s all I am.”

“Talk to our witness. Then talk to your brother. Leo will listen to you.”

Despite the hard tension pooling in his stomach, Pavel nodded. The action alone only made his dread worsen.

 

Raisa lay with her head on Pavel’s shoulder, and he kept his arm wrapped firmly around her. He stroked her hair, and felt her breathing. Apart from her fingers tracing the skin over his chest, she didn’t move at all.

“Do you think Fyodor and his wife will see reason?” he asked.

“I don’t know. It’s more important that they keep quiet about what they think, though.”

“You think so?”

“Yes. Drawing attention go themselves and to their neighbour is… dangerous. Even if they are grieving.”

Pavel chose his words carefully, aware of the warning in Raisa’s words. She was always the more careful of the two. Although she never said anything, he knew that she was uncomfortable by his associations with his brother, and with how his brother’s friends were his friends by association. But at night, in the dark, it felt intimate, like everything that passed between them was safe to say in whispers and benefited from an increased understanding.

“What did you think of her?”

“Their witness?” Raisa shrugged. “She’s causing trouble for herself. You don’t believe her, do you?”

“I might.”

“We wouldn’t be doing Fyodor and his family any favours by believing them.”

He pulled her closer, burying his face against the top of her forehead so he felt her soft skin against his lips when he spoke. “But you do believe them, don’t you?”

 

With Leo in the other room Pavel had only a few moments to search through his brother’s belongings. He didn’t know what he might find, although he thought his brother smart enough to secure anything that shouldn’t be see. But it was a risk, and there was a lot that Pavel did not want to know about his brother.

Finally, he found what he was searching for. He pocketed the small container of amphetamines. His arm ached more now that he had the means to stop his pain within his grasp, literally, but he didn’t dare take anything now. He thought of the maddening intensity in his brother’s face that reminded him so much of their father (although he wished to not think of that), and he knew that he would not be able to hide the emotional effects that would come him once he took this medicine.

Discretion was necessary, if he wanted to continue to get away with this.

Pavel didn’t know if Leo was aware that he stole from him and chose to look the other way, out of courtesy to him because he knew that he needed it, or if he’d truly gotten away with it. It made his skin crawl to think that he might not have, like somehow this tainted him. He hated the thought that Leo knew that he needed this sort of help. He didn’t want there to be any reason for Leo to think about why it was that he was in this much pain, anyway.

 

“A moment, brother?” Leo didn’t look at Pavel for long, turning back to hang his jacket on the hook of their parents’ house. There was a sharpness in Leo’s eyes that Pavel felt he had no right to be surprised at, because it had probably always been there.

“Is there a problem?” Pavel asked.

“You should tell your wife to stop asking questions about things she has no business asking.”

“What has she been asking?”

Leo sighed, pinching the bridge of his nose for a moment as he stood in contemplation. “I understand,” he finally said, “that as a woman, she must be incredibly moved by Fyodor’s recent loss. But other people – Vasili for instance – will be less understanding of this.”

“What does Vasili have to do with anything? Neither of us have any reason to speak to him.”

“Word travels.” Leo paused. Pavel almost thought that Leo would leave that warning as it was, but Leo didn’t let him go. Instead he drew nearer to Pavel. “Don’t you think it’s cruel to even be entertaining these ideas that Fyodor is having? How can you expect him to move on, if you keep encouraging him to obsess over these thoughts?”

“If there is nothing to be found, then nothing will be,” Pavel said with a shrug.

“There is nothing.”

“So then let him look. Let him discover for himself that there’s nothing. The truth will reveal itself.”

He shook his head and stepped away from Pavel, turning to face the wall as though he couldn’t stand to look at him. If Pavel didn’t know better he would have called the look that shot through Leo’s eyes fear. It was such a foreign emotion to Leo that Pavel quickly discarded it. His brother had all the drive of a desperate man, but none of the helplessness necessary to really be afraid. Pavel could only guess what it was that fed that drive instead.

“But who would you be hurting in the meantime?” Leo finally snapped. “Do you know how it will look when you – any of you – could even consider this? This, this lie?” He shook his head again, like he could dislodge these thoughts from his head entirely. “No. No, Pavel. I brought Raisa back, didn’t I? What more do you want from me?”

At first Pavel couldn’t speak, but even this revelation didn’t actually surprise him. Hadn’t he always known this? The only shock came from hearing it confirmed under these circumstances. “Is that it? You saved her so you could hold that over me?”

“Maybe it’s my turn to finally have something,” Leo said. “You can’t keep using the truth as a threat—”

“What do you think I’m talking about?”

Leo took a deep breath. Then he looked at Pavel, who was not his brother. Pavel thought felt a smaller hand in his own, but the feeling was so faint that the memory of the sensation vanished almost as quickly as he noticed it. He was staring down Leo alone.

“There is nothing for Fyodor to find,” Leo said plainly. “The only thing that will happen if you look is that you will prove you have some doubt, and that is unforgivable. It’s been to just live this truth and move on.”

 

Pavel watched how Raisa frowned as she listened to him. He had wanted to know what she would say, but as she considered this he wondered if he shouldn’t have kept his conversation with Leo private. No – that simply wasn’t an option. He couldn’t let her carry on with her conversations to Ivan. And yet…

“You haven’t said anything to anyone,” she said slowly, as though it were a question. Perhaps she wanted it to be. He could at least understand why she might want to believe that it was something Pavel said, and not her, that brought them to his brother’s attention.

“I haven’t. And you’ve only spoken to Ivan.”

She nodded. “That’s true.”

“You must understand what this means,” Pavel said. “We took a risk.”

Raisa laughed. She stood up and walked away from Pavel, showing him her back. As he watched, she pushed her hair over her shoulder and wrapped her arms around herself. “We should have known. They have people everywhere – why not in our lives?”

“How could we have known?” Pavel said. “You had every reason to trust Ivan.”

“You don’t have to patronise me – I’m sure you see where I went wrong. It was too convenient.”

Pavel did, now that he thought about it. How could anyone with Ivan’s doubts and traitorous thoughts be left unbothered like Ivan was? He could have laughed at his own stupidity, if it wasn’t liable to get them both arrested. The whole thing made him wonder what Raisa had seen in him, that compelled her to seek him out and to look past the suspicions she must have had – it didn’t occur to him that she might have actually simply overlooked this.

What did Ivan have that Pavel lacked, or that he lacked the ability to see?

“What did we expect?” she said. “Look at Leo. There is nothing that he wouldn’t do to get what he wanted.”

Pavel thought of Leo, as a child. He’d never been normal. There was always something wrong with him, as though he were perpetually uncertain of himself. And he thought of how he’d begged for Raisa’s life – but he couldn’t say this to her; she didn’t understand what had gone on between them. There were dynamics at work that made him weak to think about, that he didn’t want her to think about. He would only prove her point, anyway, if he brought this up to her now. It was just another example of how Leo had power that he could exert as well.

 

“I have another favour to ask you,” Leo murmured. It was early in the morning, before Leo or Raisa had left to work for the day. “May I come in?”

Although he was dressed in his uniform and alert, Leo looked more tired than Pavel had ever seen him, with bags under his eyes and a slouch in his shoulders that was so uncharacteristic of him. Pavel was unsure if he should offer his brother a place to sleep or a drink. He lets simply him inside his apartment instead, then closed the door behind him.

“What do you need?”

“I need you to speak to Fyodor again,” Leo said. “Make sure that he isn’t having any terrible ideas that might cause trouble for us.”

“Why would he?” Pavel asked. “He’s been normal, the last few times that I’ve seen him.”

“Yes,” Leo said. “I know. But something else has happened. And if I’m honest, I’m not even sure if I should be telling this to you any of this, because I have reason to believe that you have doubts of your own about the truth. You or your wife do.” He lowered his voice at the mention of Raisa, and said nothing else. Pavel waited for Leo to continue, but he didn’t.

“I’ll speak to Fyodor.”

“I don’t know who else I should speak to about this.”

“Okay.”

“Don’t bring Raisa this time. Go by yourself.”

“Why?”

“There’s no need to make this more complicated.”

“What will Fyodor tell me, Leo?”

“It’s nothing,” Leo said. “It would be best if you spoke to him yourself, though.”

Pavel frowned, then shook his head. “If you don’t tell me what you want me to do, then how can I do this?” He could only think of Raisa’s accusation, and how he had defended his brother to her. It was so recently, too… “I can’t go without Raisa, anyway. Think about it.”

He wasn’t going to tell Leo that she was better equipped for this than he was, but standing in front of Leo he thought that it was true. She was tender. She was gentle. She was probably the only person in the world that could protect him from Leo, which was silly. She couldn't.

“Listen,” Leo said, his voice hushed as though he feared being heard. “One of Vasili’s daughters is dead. He has disowned her death as an accident, as expected. But the last thing that I want right now is for Fyodor to question this. Could you imagine what would happen then?”

“And you want me to talk to Fyodor.”

“I trust you.”

“No, you don’t,” Pavel murmured. It was hard to know what his brother was thinking as he stood in front of him. Since they were young he had always found this to be true, but had learned to recognise, broadly, when Leo was apprehensive, such as now. “You just told me you don’t. So why are you telling me this?”

Leo sneered at him and pushed away. It was reminiscent of a wounded animal. He reached for the door. “Well, I suppose that settles it. I shouldn’t have brought this to you, should I?” He was raising his voice with every word, and speaking faster as though he could get this over with as quickly as possible. “You know that I should report you just for what you were asking about, right? Or I should report Raisa.”

Pavel threw his weight against the door to stop Leo from leaving. Leo was stronger than Pavel, but he had have never assumed that his brother would do something so bold and so was caught off guard. He only turned to stare at Pavel.

Usually Pavel wouldn’t. He’d never been so openly aggressive towards Leo before. But Pavel was so sick of how Leo spat Raisa’s name; she was so much more than something for his brother to use as a threat, even if it was only through Leo’s doing that Raisa was safe. As safe as she could be, at least.

Then Leo was glaring at him, not with malice but with indignation. The look was enough to make Pavel hesitate, for many of the same reason that he’d never allowed himself the chance to openly resent Leo.

“If you want me to speak to Fyodor, I will,” Pavel said at last. “I will remind him of the truth and tell him not to say anything else about this. He should let the matter go. What happened to Vasili’s daughter is…”

Something on Leo’s face was changing, and Pavel hesitated.

“What do you think of this, Pasha?” Leo asked. “Truthfully.”

“I think that I should speak to Fyodor,” Pavel finally answered, after a pause. “It will be on your half. And if you prefer, then he doesn’t have to know that it is.”

 

Pavel looked out the window of the train as they left Moscow, watching as the city turned to country and the scenery blurred together from minute to minute. If he let his eyes glaze over he could look back again and see hardly anything having changed, including the expression on Raisa’s face.

“It would be easier if we were doing this as official business. We are taking such a risk. People won’t think fondly of us if we’re asking so many questions.”

“I know. But how could this be done officially?”

“Ask Leo,” she said, her tone invariably bitter. She fixed him with a stern look, then turned to look out the window again. Pavel watched as her gaze softened, although it looked no less intense. It fascinated him to thin about how she might see the world on a day-to-day basis, and how that world differed from his. Despite the risk he was glad that she was there with him.

“You don’t trust him.”

“Why should I?” she asked. “He’s sent you out here to do his dirty work—”

“—because it’s too much of a risk for him. You should know that, Raisa. It’s a risk for him to even acknowledge this,” he said, leaving a pause as he tried to think of something to fill in the space between them. This string of murders. The dead children that he’d found a track of. He forced himself to continue. “That this is even something that’s happening.”

Pavel hated to think that the look she gave him was pity. “He hasn’t acknowledged it, though. Not in any way that commits him to protecting us, should anyone ask why we’re looking in the places that they don’t want us to be looking.”

Pavel had nothing to say to that, but at last managed to say one thing.

“He’s my brother.”

“I’ve seen how you two are together.”

“And?”

“You know that you can’t trust him. Even if you do want to do everything you can for him.”

“Of course I trust him.” When Raisa didn’t reply, or give Pavel a point from which he could argue against this absurd idea that his brother was something to fear, he added, “Don’t you think that the lives of children are worth doing this for, anyway?”

 

After a moment’s wait at the door Fyodor finally answered. When he saw that it was Pavel and Raisa he quickly ushered them inside, then shut the door. The apprehension on his face was palpable and the tension in the room made the otherwise comfortable apartment claustrophobic.

“You shouldn’t have come here,” he said at last.

“Why?” Raisa asked. “What’s happened?”

“Where’s Leo?” Pavel asked.

  “Well, that’s just the problem, actually,” Fyodor said. “No one’s heard from him in days. Vasili – he’s been looking for your brother, but he’s found nothing.”

“How hard has Vasili been looking, though?”

Fyodor snorted. “No, you don’t understand. He is looking, but… there really isn’t anything.”

Raisa was frowning, and looking to Pavel. Pavel could not tell if he was reacting visibly, if the way that his heart plummeted into his stomach and lodged there was visible to the other two. Somehow the fact that this conversation was taking place in the stark daylight cast in through the window made it worse. He wanted to say something, but his mouth was dry. For lack of any other coherent thought, he focused on Vasili. Where did he hope to be by the end of this? Was he simply hoping that this would be another means to do away with his brother and to secure another promotion, or had he had a change of heart about his daughter and decided that he would be willing to investigate the matter if he could do it under Leo’s name – something which he would need Leo alive for?

For the first time in many years, Pavel felt a small hand gripping his own, grounding him.

 

* * *

 

There was no pain comparable to the agony Leo felt in his shoulder. It took all his combined strength not to scream. Somehow he managed it. When the blade eased off his shoulder, Leo reluctantly turned his head so he could look into the blue eyes of the man leaning over him. Leo had never shaken so violently in his life, but despite that he did not think he was going into shock. He felt the pain too clearly for that.

The man reached for his glasses and was looking towards the door, now opened. Despite the strain it put on his savaged arm, Leo turned to look as well, wanting to see Fyodor, or even Vasili. Someone with a gun, who he could trust to use it. His stomach dropped when he saw Pavel.

At first Leo couldn’t make out what was being said, but gradually some clarity was coming to him. It was a rough understanding that still made no sense.

“Let him go,” Pavel was saying. “We can talk, but you have to let him go.”

“He can go after we talk.”

“No, Andrei. He needs a doctor. Please listen to me, Andrei…”

“Why do you care more about him than me?” Andrei was shouting, waving the knife. Leo flinched; the movement made him feel ill. He couldn’t look away from the knife anymore. He couldn’t look at Pavel, and seeing his brother’s face was the only chance he had of reading the situation now, because nothing that anyone was saying made sense anymore.

“That isn’t true – Andrei, I’ll explain everything to you, but you have to let him go first. My wife is upstairs. She’ll look after him. You have to let him go.” There was desperation in Pavel’s voice like Leo had never heard it before – like he might truly lose something. Somehow, though, he was staying calm. His voice was steady.

“Why do you care so much about him when he did this to you?”

“He didn’t.” Leo almost could have been fooled into believing that Pavel knew what he was doing, and he clung to that. Pavel had always been the more certain between the two of them, even when they were younger, when Leo couldn’t understand what it was Pavel was so sure of.

He still couldn’t understand.

Then Andrei was shouting something in Ukranian. Once Leo understood the language perfectly, and if he weren’t in so dizzy from the pain he might have been able to follow along. It was so sudden, and so jarring, that Leo flinched as though he had been hit. Now it wasn’t just he who was shaking anymore. Andrei was trembling where he held the front of Leo’s shirt; only the hand holding the knife seemed steady.

Leo was so sure that this man would stab him.

 

* * *

 

“It wouldn’t have happened if not for him! I know this! He told me! He told me everything, Pavel. It’s his fault this happened to you, I know it is! You know that, too.”

Pavel looked away from Andrei to meet his other brother’s face. He didn’t think that Leo would look at him, but to his surprise Leo did.

He looked wrecked. His expression carried not only the certainty that he would not make it past this moment but pain and exhaustion that looked wretched on Leo. Pavel thought he saw guilt, and what he realised was a familiar uncertainty that he’d seen on Leo’s face before but not recognised until just this moment. But that might have been only his own feelings reflected on Leo’s expression.

Pavel willed himself to look at Andrei again, aware as he did that if he might never see Leo’s face alive again. (And what would happen to him then? What would be done to him, if he couldn’t save Leo’s life twice?) He wanted a chance to explain himself to Andrei, to apologise to him in a way that mattered but didn’t come at the cost of Leo. He wanted to apologise to both of his brothers.

But such things weren’t possible anymore. Behind his glasses he recognised Andrei’s blue eyes, but besides that nothing about him looked the same anymore. He could think of nothing to say that he could guarantee would reach Andrei.

“Andrei,” Pavel said. The Ukranian felt clumsy on his tongue, after years of not daring to speak it. “It wasn’t his fault at all.”