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Sweet Prince

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The dressing-room Inspector Podbereyozovikov shared with his chief suspect in a case of multiple car-theft resembled nothing so much as a floral bower. Leaving two militiamen guarding the door at all times (the suspect seemed more captivated by the profusion of blooms than the possibility of escape, but it was wise to take no chances), it had taken the remaining six men of the deputation three trips to retrieve all of their bouquets from the stage, and they had returned with their arms full each time. The concentrated scent was almost stupefying, though not so much that the Inspector could not detect the faint aroma of rosemary from one corner of the room. Probably that specific bouquet was a coded compliment from their acting-coach on their line-learning skills: rosemary, as Shakespeare said, was for remembrance.

Audiences of modern detective thrillers will be familiar with the standard forbidden-romance subplot between crimefighter and criminal. As in such stories, Maxim had fallen for Yura before he had even known his beloved friend to be enmeshed in a life of crime. He dropped into his chair with a mixture of elation and misery. The Inspector had reached his moment of victory in the most significant case in his career to date; Maxim only wanted to hold onto Yura for a little longer, as long as ever he could, before they were separated by the justice system, perhaps for ever. “I love you,” he had said drunkenly in the bar on Festival Street, a few beers into the evening, his soul full of fireworks, and Detochkin’s arrest-warrant in his hand; and he had meant – and still meant – every booze-soaked word of that, through every relapse and double-cross since then.

“Suspect?” he asked, fighting to keep his yearning out of his voice, and coming up with weariness instead. It had been a long day.

“Yes, Inspector?” Detochkin said, eagerly as a puppy, striding over as he undid his shirt-cuffs.

“Would you help with my ribbon again?”

“Of course,” chirped Yura. He pushed up his sleeves and leaned in close to undo the fastenings of Laertes’ neck-cloth. Close enough for Maxim to hear the man breathe, to inhale his stink of sweat and jail soap and greasepaint even through the welter of flowers. Still not close enough that they could talk without being overheard, however, not with two colleagues standing right by the door. Maxim slung an arm over Yura’s neck, drew him close, and whispered into his ear.

“Suspect,” he began.

“Yes, Inspector?” Yura was still fiddling with the knot.

“I have a request to make.” Maxim swallowed: what he said next would destroy him. Either way. “You may consider it unjust – even abusive. You must feel free to refuse.” He caught his breath, and mouthed: I feel I absolutely must kiss you.

“Oh, that’s not a problem,” Detochkin said. Out loud, quite conversationally. Really, the man had no sense of discretion, in matters of love or of crime. Maxim hissed at him for silence, mouthing Keep your voice down!

Yura grinned like an idiot, gently unhooked himself from Maxim’s grasp, unlaced the cravat the rest of the way and tossed it aside. Then, with the same dancer-like deftness he had brought to his driving, he came to the front of Maxim’s chair, put a hand on the Inspector’s shoulder, and, with characteristic cheek, slung his leg around both of Maxim’s to sit in his lap. The chair creaked minutely under their combined weight, but held.

Maxim could only stare slack-mouthed at Yura. He had not, in his most fevered imaginings, envisaged this degree of intimacy.

Yura stared back, still grinning. His fingers were delicately at Maxim’s temples, Maxim could not have said since when.It’s not a problem, really it’s not, he mouthed soundlessly, because I absolutely must kiss you too, and proceeded to do so, fully and passionately.

Between the onslaught on his senses, the exhaustion, the stuffy warmth of the theatre, and the necessity not to make any kind of noise that might be overheard, Maxim felt close to fainting; it occurred to him that, if he were to fall over, Yura would bring him round, as he had done once before in that fateful rehearsal, a hand to his face. Though the way they were seated one on top of another, perhaps he would just collapse where he sat. He clutched vainly at lithe shoulders, at a lean, twitching back, grasping handfuls of the flowing shirt intermittently, desperate for purchase, for touch.

Yura’s hands, meanwhile, were everywhere, as though uncertain where to settle: his back, from waist to shoulder-blades; his chest; over his shoulders; along his upper arms and flanks; his neck (oh, his neck, the coolness of those slender fingers over his heated skin); the line of his jaw; finally coming to rest entwined in his hair.

Except not his hair, because they were both still wearing those ridiculous wigs. They broke off, panting, nose-to-nose. Maxim felt as though he’d run a five-kilometre chase on foot. Even his feet were going numb. He scooped Prince Hamlet’s chestnut-gold mane from Yura’s head, and threw it aside with some force. The limp platinum-blonde thing they’d given Maxim soon followed it to the floor. That was better. His fingers were in Yura’s sandy boyish locks, loosening the crimp the wig had placed in them. Yura’s were in his hair in turn, and more than that, rubbing little circles in his scalp, relieving goodness only knew how many days’ or weeks’ worth of tension. It was worth the inevitable disorder of his haircut. He’d have to take a comb to it before leaving in any case.

Incongruously, Yura’s smile still wasn’t that of a seducer, just of a simple man taking simple joy in giving and receiving pleasure. If it were nothing more than the illusion of an artiste—? Maxim dismissed the thought. No actor could be quite that thorough, not even the greatest of his generation. They were not Podbereyozovikov and Detochkin, they were not Laertes and Hamlet, they were Maxim and Yura, and they loved, now, right this minute, whatever their pasts or futures held. When Yura looked a question – again? – Maxim’s Yes was immediate.

They moved at the same moment this time. It would have been hard to say who kissed who first, or who was taking the lead in the kiss. All that could be said was that they were no longer in a hurry. They did not kiss like two infatuated lovebirds, intent on occupying the same space at the same time, but as two old souls who had known and loved each other for years. ‘Now’ could be as long as it needed to be, as long as it was quiet. A hand through the hair, another to the small of the back. There was tenderness in it, peace. Maxim, lightheaded, wondered if Yura were trying to transfuse some of his wild justice-loving spirit into Maxim’s own, more staid, soul. Perhaps he had been doing that the whole time.

They were both smiling helplessly when they broke the kiss a second time. “I suppose we’re both criminals now,” Maxim whispered into Yura’s ear.

“Really?” whispered Yura. “I hadn’t noticed. It’s a silly thing to charge someone with. You’re not bothering anyone.”

“No,” Maxim admitted, but his smile fell. He ought to feel a lot more worried about this little exchange than he did. Perhaps Yura’s naïvety was infectious. There could no longer be any question of his taking further part in Detochkin’s investigation, for sure: his judgement had been impaired.

“That was fun,” said Yura, chuckling aloud. “We should do that again someday.”

“Yes,” said Maxim a little weakly, blushing hotly despite himself. Whether Detochkin had meant the play or the mind-bending kisses that had followed seemed hardly to matter, though it was fortunate that such ambiguity existed.

But his suspect had already bounced out of the chair and sprung into action, all dark thoughts banished. “Your face’s a right mess, the greasepaint’s gone all smeary. Let me grab a rag and clean you up, and you can get mine afterwards.”

It was a debauched-looking Inspector Podbereyozovikov who submitted to Detochkin’s overenthusiastic attentions with a washcloth, sprawled in his chair starry-eyed and a little breathless; but he gathered enough of his wits to return the favour, and under a similar system they each plied a comb to get the other’s hair somewhat presentable to the public.

When Yuri Detochkin was escorted back to lockup after the performance, it was with a selection of the best bouquets in his hands and those of his guards, the roar of the audience still echoing in his ears, and a childish glee that left him wriggling between the shoulders of two militiamen, somewhat to their irritation. Every so often, he would lick his lips as though about to say something, but did not. The militiamen saw it as one more eccentricity to ignore: Inspector Podbereyozovikov might have attached more importance to the gesture, even had he not been the cause of it.

Did they, as Detochkin suggest, renew their acquaintance later, around the time of the trial, or after Detochkin’s prison sentence, finding clandestine opportunities to embrace as lovers? On these matters the legends are silent.

What is beyond doubt is that neither of them ever forgot that one glorious night in the principals’ dressing-room in the Palace of Culture, surrounded by the sweet-smelling accolades of their audience and by each other’s arms. Maxim Podbereyozovikov would recollect it involuntarily whenever he smelt rosemary.