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Skin Against Skin

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Dinner was light, to account for the sweltering heat, and afterwards Andrei retired with Serafima, Minka, and Senka to the living room in the apartment they shared, where they sat with the windows open and sipped various cold drinks as the sun set. They didn’t say much to each other—again due to the heat—but read and, in Serafima’s case, sat at the table writing a letter. How much reading was actually accomplished remains open for debate: while Senka sat completely engrossed in his book, Andrei’s eyes wandered every few lines to look at Serafima. She didn’t seem to notice.

Out of all of them, Serafima seemed most vibrant. They were all alive, and all incredibly relieved to be, but it was only Serafima who now sat in the sat in the sun and glowed; only Serafima who retained some of her natural sense of belonging that Andrei had once recognised on all of them. She had a certain grace to her, an elegance about her that shined even when she was doing something as simple as sitting at the table or looking out the window. He couldn’t shake the feeling that she was seeing something that he couldn’t—either something that was already there, or an opportunity that would open like a flower in front of her radiant hand—and perhaps that had always been the case.

Every time he saw this in Serafima, relief flooded through him. It was as strong as what he’d felt when he saw his mother again, or when they returned to their small apartment—neither of them sure what to say to each other, Inessa holding him close against her like he was a child again and Andrei letting her, so relieved to have the opportunity to give her this moment even though it felt like he was being burnt, or like a second pair of hands was holding him in a bruising grip underneath hers.

Because Andrei didn’t know what he’d do with himself if Serafima lost the clarity in her eyes, the intent in everything she did. He didn’t know how he’d cope with this new restlessness that made his muscles tremble even as he lay perfectly still, if he knew that Serafima felt the same way. How could he fight back the teariness that lived with him now—so like how he’d felt for the first few months in exile, after the shock wore off—if he knew that Serafima had come through the ordeal a shell of what he remembered, only a faint outline? If she’d come away as afraid of the world as he?

He watched as she finished re-reading her letter, then delicately folded it over and tucked it under her hand. For the first time that evening she seemed to notice the rest of the room: Minka, brooding on the sofa with a book in her hand and her shoulders hunched, staring out the window; and Senka, who hadn’t looked from his book for most of the afternoon, but who looked up now, perhaps feeling Serafima’s gaze on him.

“Are you tired, Senka?” Serafima asked.

“Not yet.” He looked alert, except for where he sagged into the sofa, or the heavy sigh when he spoke.

Serafima stood up, pushing in her chair before crossing the room to sit next to Senka. Minka’s gaze followed her, neutral, as she sat next to her brother.

“Have you finished writing?” Senka asked.

“For today, yes.”

“Are you going to write more tomorrow?” he asked. “You haven’t even sent them yet. How could he answer?”

“I’ll send those letters tomorrow,” she said, gently. “There are other people I want to write to.”

“Your parents.”

“Yes.”

Senka shifted on the sofa, adjusting easily to Serafima’s warm presence. “Do you have something to read?”

“Not with me,” she said. “Maybe in my room.”

“Here,” Andrei said, and held out his own book. Both Serafima and Senka looked at him, although Minka didn’t look away from her best friend; she held her own book more tightly in her hand.

“Thank you,” Serafima said, and he realised awkwardly that she was sitting too far away to simply reach out and take it. He stood up, feeling all too clumsy just then, and all too out of place in their apartment, and walked over to where Serafima sat. He set the book next to her on the sofa.

“You can borrow it,” he said, then added, “I should start leaving. It’s getting dark.”

“Are you sure?” Serafima asked.

“Yes,” he said. “It’s late. I should have probably left hours ago.”

“Don’t you want to bring this back with you?” Her hand rested on the cover of the book, and Andrei shook his head.

“No. Really, it’s fine. I’m tired, anyway.” Whether he was tired or not, he didn’t think that he would be getting much sleep; he found it even less likely that he’d be able to focus on what he was reading, anyway, especially if he stayed in this house with the three of them. They’d let him stay if he asked; they invited him to keep company easily enough, or to stay next door with the Satinovs, and he’d done so often enough. But tonight, it felt different. Andrei was more aware than usual how out of place he was, like something unsettling this house.

Serafima looked hesitant. “If you’re sure.”

Andrei nodded, unsure what to say to that.

“Goodnight.” Senka.

“We’ll see you tomorrow, I hope,” Serafima said.

“Yes,” he said. “I’ll come back here in the morning.”

Minka stood up, uncurling out of the small ball she’d made for herself on the couch and stretching out. She held her arms out to her side, flexing her wrists, and took a deep breath to help straighten some of the muscles in her back and ribs. “Let me walk you home, Andruysha.”

“No, no. It’s fine.”

“No, I insist,” Minka said.

“But who will walk you back?”

“I don’t need anyone to walk me back,” Minka said. She walked over, took him by the wrist. “Come on. I’ll be back soon, Senka—I’ll be back so that I can put you to bed, if Serafima doesn’t.”

“He seems quite busy; I don’t think that I could make him go to bed, even if I wanted to.”

“No, you probably couldn’t,” Senka agreed.

Minka tugged Andrei by the wrist, towards the door. “Come on.”

The sun had not yet set completely, and the streets were not completely empty. Minka took a deep breath of the cool, evening air and walked a few steps ahead of Andrei, then stopped and waited as he caught up to her.

“Do you feel good, being here?”

“I feel… warm. It’s comfortable. So yes, good.”

“Do you miss Moscow?” Minka asked. “It was so good to see my family again. I thought that this would all be over once I was home, only to be told that it wasn’t… There was still another month to wait. My mother was so worried that morning, but so relieved that it would only be one more month.”

Andrei nodded, understanding.

“It’s only for one more month,” Minka repeated. “Then we can go home, and finish with school, and then….” She took a deep breath. Stopped walking. Looked to Andrei. She looked at him very critically, perhaps as though she were seeing him for the first time. Did she wonder what would happen to him when he returned to Moscow—whether he would be allowed to continue in school with the others, or if it would be for the best for his name to be dashed out of the whole affair? Whether this was the last month that they had together, as friends?

Because Minka had to know that this wasn’t over—a month wouldn’t be long enough to wash this away, especially not from Andrei; seven years hadn’t been long enough to wash away his association with his father.

The way she looked at him, though, confirmed that she was thinking something along those lines. Very critically, almost hesitantly.

“And then Serafima will be leaving,” Minka finally said. She shrugged. Andrei doubted that that was what she meant to say, but whether that was the truth or not he didn’t think that he’d ever no. So instead he just nodded.

“I’m happy for her,” Minka said. “And I suppose that you’re as happy as you can be.”

“Yes.”

“Yes, you’re happy for her?”

“I am,” he insisted. “I want her to be happy.”

“You love her,” Minka stated simply. “Like George loves her—and like I do, too. I do! And I love George, too…” She reached her hand out. Andrei thought about pulling his own hand closer against himself, to continue walking as though he hadn’t noticed or didn’t understand the gesture. To pretend he hadn’t seen. But Minka had seen him looking at her, catching her eye. He opened his palm, hating the way her skin felt against his. She closed her fingers around his and squeezed.

He looked down at her while they walked, unable to believe that he was touching her—that she had reached out to touch him. It felt wrong, forbidden. The touch of skin against skin made him feel too warm, and her hold on his fingers felt like a vice-grip; it was a moment before he realised that she was holding to him that tightly, not his imagination and the aversion to touch that he’d worn like some stolen garment the Lubyanka. Neither said a word to the other until they reached the apartment where Andrei was staying, and he pulled his hand back from hers.

Minka looked at him very seriously. “Isn’t it strange, how even after that nothing has really changed between us? I think we all got very lucky.”

Then Minka did something that Andrei couldn’t have expected—reaching forward and grabbing the front of his shirt, pulling him down to kiss her. He froze, absolutely shocked and scarcely able to believe that that had happened. His heart beat so quickly, that by the time he pulled away he felt lightheaded.

“I shouldn’t have done that,” she said with a short laugh, humourless, and then looking away.

“No, it’s—I don’t think that you did anything wrong.”

“I spent so much time worrying about all of you—and about Senka…” she paused. “I was so worried about my family.”

Andrei thought back to his time in his cell—somehow more difficult now that he tried, than during the day or at night when his thoughts were no bigger than the dimensions of his room, entirely without his consent. And how at the time he’d thought about his mother, worried about her like he was sure his father had about them both. The whole time he thought about how strong she had been before, how brave, and at what cost—he couldn’t stand to think that he was putting her through that again.

“I know,” he said.

“We shouldn’t talk about this here.”

“Do you want to… my apartment is right here…” Andrei felt himself stumble over his words, but didn’t know how to speak any more clearly. But Minka only nodded and let him lead her inside.

Compared to the house that she, Senka, and Serafima shared, Andrei’s apartment was small and dark, seemingly unlived in—although he spent a lot of time here, even discounting how much time he spent with the others. It was just in his nature to be as unobtrusive as possible and to take up very little space. When Minka sat down on his bed—the only place to sit—the whole room seemed to fold itself around her, like a blanket.

“Sit next to me.”

Andrei obeyed, and she touched his arm. Her other hand moved to the button of his shirt, then up to his shoulder. He expected her to go further, and he braced himself for that, but then all she did was pull him closer, to hug him. He sat stiff and unmoving against her, then surprised himself by relaxing, and wrapping one of his arms around her back. Minka relaxed her head on his shoulder.

“Do you think that all of this brought us closer together?” she asked.

“Maybe for now,” Andrei said. “But I don’t know many other people nearby.”

“We were all so worried about each other,” Minka said. “I know that you worried about us, too… I often asked myself what I thought was happening to you all. What were you being asked, and what were they doing to you? Did they hurt you, Andrei?”

A question that he didn’t know how to answer: neither how he should answer, nor how he wanted to answer. Because he knew that his situation was so different to Minka’s—so different to all of theirs. There was no silk-glove treatment for him, and he knew that there were things done to him that they would not have dared to do to the others. But he also didn’t know what other unpleasantries his friends had been subjected to. He didn’t want to think about Serafima being put through any of that, a beautiful young woman with so much to live for and so many people who loved her, or Senka and Mariko: just children, who had hardly lived. Sometimes he looked at the new skittishness that followed Vlad everywhere, and wanted to ask him what had happened; he didn’t dare. And on days when George or Minka wore such long expressions, he was reluctant to look at them, for fear that something might pass between them.

Minka spoke first, though. “They weren’t kind. That was enough to make me worry so much about all of you.” And then, like she was confessing something: “I worried about what you all would say.”

Andrei felt his chest tighten; not for the first time a pang of guilt came over him. He was suddenly all the more aware of how he lay against her body, wrapped in her arms.

“It doesn’t matter,” Minka said, pulling back. “I’m sure that we all know that nothing will be the same anymore. You and I both do, and I’m sure that the others must sense it in some way.”

Andrei nodded.

She touched his arm, repeating, “It doesn’t matter. But sometimes it’s easier to say things like this to you, because I didn’t know you before—not like I knew them, at least. And it was different for you, wasn’t it?”

It was only a casual remark, one that passed so lightly between them that it didn’t have time to hang in the air. He almost didn’t catch the full weight of its meaning, and the way she spoke made him wonder if Minka even understood what she was talking about when she said that. Something about him from before had already underwent the transformation that she and her close friends went through together, and like that there had been something unshakable that ran through Andrei during this whole process. There was a certain consistency that followed him.

He didn’t know what she’d make of that if he felt that the complete opposite was true; that something had changed irrevocably in him; that come to understand something that he’d never again have the courtesy of not knowing, and in that way was in the same position as the rest of them.