The quality that Boris Shcherbina admired most in his interns was the willingness to learn and to carry out their apprenticeship to the fullest.
At least until the zeal of one of them put his relationship with Valera in danger.
No, to be honest it wasn’t the intern's fault, but it’s better to start from the beginning.
Boris had left Stepan, his last intern, to sort out the correspondence, saying him that, in case of problems, he could call him: Boris would go to the Kurchatov Institute for unspecified institutional commitments before returning home.
Stepan had some questions, in fact, and called his boss, but he heard the phone ring in the other room: Shcherbina had forgotten it there.
Although it wasn’t part of the job, Stepan was convinced that bringing the phone back to his boss would make an excellent impression.
And then it was almost Christmas: it would have been his good deed.
He picked up Shcherbina's phone, jumped on his bike and headed to the Kurchatov Institute, where they told him that the deputy minister was in the office of Professor Valery Legasov for sure.
In his three months of internship, Stepan had never heard about this Legasov, and when he knocked on the door of his office, he found himself in front of a man with a chubby face full of freckles and reddish hair that could be only described as disheveled. This, combined with the absence of a jacket and tie, and the ruffled shirt, made him frown, but Stepan knew that scientists could be very eccentric. And anyway, it wasn't his business.
"Can I do anything for you?" Legasov asked the boy.
"I'm looking for Deputy Minister Shcherbina."
"You missed him by a hair's breadth, he just left," the professor replied with a strange smile, trying to arrange his hair.
"I wanted to give him his phone back, he forgot it in the office."
"Oh, then you must be Stepan, Borja talks often about you."
This professor and his boss had to be very close friends, given the use of the affectionate nickname. Stepan was about to ask him something about the nature of their relationship, when he was distracted by the radio speaker.
"What a coincidence: this radio station is also the favourite of the deputy minister."
"I know it well, I made him discover it. Leave me the phone," Valery said, holding out a hand with a smile, "I'll give it back to him tonight. It's a golden opportunity to tease him a bit: usually I'm the one who forgets everything around."
Did those two even have dinner together?
Stepan looked at the bookcase behind the professor's desk, and a framed photo made him start and gape.
They were Shcherbina and Legasov, elegant in their suits, in an unmistakable pose. The deputy minister was behind the professor and held him possessively, while Legasov sported such a happy smile that could light up the world. Two gold bands were clearly visible on their ring finger.
Stepan was stunned: of course, he had noticed the ring on his boss' finger, but out of discretion, he had never asked about his private life.
Certainly he hadn’t imagined... this.
Legasov followed his gaze to the photograph and back to the boy's shocked face, and his smile faded.
"Well, judging from your reaction, I imagine Boris doesn't have the same photo in his office, right?" he whispered.
Stepan nervously rubbed his hands over his jeans.
"The boss is a very discreet man, I don't know much about his private life: he only talks about work," he smiled, trying to fix the gaffe, "In short, you know him better than me, you know how he is."
"I thought I knew."
"Professor Legasov, I..."
"Leave me phone, Stepan, and thank you."
Legasov’s words had a farewell inflection, and the boy left, but he had the impression that he had made a big mess, instead of helping his boss.
When Boris heard the key turn in the hole, he was in the kitchen, slicing some vegetables, and looked at the clock: Valery had left work early.
"What is it, can't you stay away from me?" He asked cheerfully, not lifting his eyes from the chopping board.
Valery didn't answer, but something was leaned heavily on the table, and this made Boris turn around.
Valery hadn't taken his coat off, and had thrown his phone on the table.
"Where did you find it? I thought I left it in my office."
"Indeed. Stepan, your new intern, brought it to me. He was very surprised when he saw the photo of our wedding on my bookcase and found out that we were married, which is curious, you know, because I was sure that I had made two copies of that photo, and that I gave you yours to put in your office."
Boris swallowed, looked away, but didn’t try to deny it, it was useless.
"Valera, I can explain."
"First you should ask me if I want to listen to you."
Boris had never seen him so angry: his eyes and his voice were dead cold, his pallor more evident than usual.
"No, don't do this. Let's sit down and talk calmly, okay?” He begged, but Valery didn't move.
"Are you ashamed of me, Boris? Of us? Of what we are?"
"No, of course not."
"Then tell me, how many people in your department know about us?"
"I don’t shout about my private life from the rooftops," he replied defensively, but Valery didn't want to hear his lame excuses.
"I'm not talking about telling what we do in bed during the coffee break, but just keeping the picture of our wedding on the desk, like I do. I don't think I’m asking too much."
"Valera, I'm sorry, but let me explain, please." Boris held out a hand to him, but Valery didn’t take it: discovering that Boris kept their marriage secret had hurt him tremendously, and now he felt a petty satisfaction in inflicting him the same suffering with his coldness.
“At the Kurchatov Institute everyone knows about us, and if someone comes into my office and asks who is the man in the picture with me, I have no problem telling him he's my husband."
Boris ran a hand through his hair.
"You can't compare our workplaces."
"What? And why?"
"Scientists are more open, progressive. My office is frequented by different people, they wouldn't understand. And I don't want any of my political opponents to target you to attack me."
"Do you believe that all my colleagues understand or are supportive? It’s not like that, many are openly hostile to me, but I don't care about their judgment, as I wouldn't mind the insults of your opponents," Valery paused and clenched his fists, "and I don't care if what I am can hinder my career. Can you say the same?"
Boris looked down: whatever he said now, it wouldn’t calm Valery's anger. And, after all, he had no right to seek excuses and justifications.
Valery was partly right: he wasn't ashamed of the two of them, but he feared the judgment of the people and the consequences that that judgment could have. Also on his career.
When Valery went into the bedroom, Boris thought he wanted to change and that the storm had subsided, but soon he came out with a small suitcase, and Boris' heart skipped a beat in fear.
"V-Valera, where are you going? Please, try to..."
"No, Boris." Valery's voice was harsh and left no room for negotiations. "I just ask you not to take it out on the poor Stepan tomorrow. He just wanted to be kind: what happened is in no way his fault."
"I know, it's my fault alone. But can't we talk about it?"
"Now I have nothing to say to you."
Boris didn’t try to physically stop him, didn’t touch him, but begged and followed him to the door.
"I'm sorry. You're right, I was an idiot, I hurt you, but you know I love you, don't you?"
Valery nodded sadly: he knew, he didn't doubt Boris' feelings, and that made the situation even more difficult, but he couldn't stay.
As he closed the door behind him, Boris repeated again "I love you," and Valery pursed his lips angrily.
"Fuck, then prove it to me!"
Valery took a train and went to his hometown Tula, where he still had his parents' old apartment. He rarely came back, but he never decided to put it up for sale, because he had some good memories there.
The train was full of people returning home for the holidays, mostly students returning to their parents, and the carriage was full of their cheerful voices.
Valery's phone rang three times. It was Boris, but Valery really didn't want to talk to him, he couldn't. The satisfaction of scaring and hurting him in turn had been short-lived, now he was just incredibly sad because her husband considered the judgment of faceless strangers so important that he wanted to hide that he was married to a man.
However, when he set foot in the old, dusty and cold apartment, with a empty fridge and the bed that had to be done, he slowly slid to the floor and looked around.
"What the hell am I doing here?" He snapped, lighting a cigarette. Perhaps it would have been better to stay in Moscow, and try to talk with Boris.
His husband had sent him three messages.
"Where are you?"
"It’s okay if you don't want to tell me where you are, just let me know you're fine."
"Please Valera, I'm worried."
"Well, you had to think about it before," Valery hissed, but as angry as he was, he didn't want Boris to die of a broken heart because of his radio silence, so he simply replied, "I'm fine."
Even if no, he wasn't fine at all.
The next day, Stepan barely looked up at his boss when he arrived on the workplace.
Shcherbina was late, a very rare event, and he hadn't shaved that morning, an even rarer event.
He didn’t greet anyone and shut himself up in his office, but soon the boy could no longer bear the tension, so he got up and walked into his room.
"Deputy Minister, I'm sorry: I just wanted to be nice to you, instead I think I embarrassed you with Professor Legasov. Can I do something to fix it?"
Shcherbina shook his head wearily: he didn't seem to have slept that night.
"You did nothing wrong, Stepan, I am the only one liable for this disaster. Go back to work."
Stepan walked to the door, but then turned back to Boris.
"You are a great boss!" He exclaimed, "My opinion hasn't changed since yesterday and it won't change."
Boris couldn't really smile, the pain weighing on his heart was too much, but he bent his head in a nod of thanks.
Stepan became more audacious: "And I'll tell you another thing: if someone judges you for your relationship with Professor Legasov, well... then they’re just a bunch of idiots!"
Yeah, they were, and yet Boris worried more about some nameless cretin than his husband's feelings.
"You're a good lad, Stepan. But I guess you don't have any advice on how to make a very, very angry husband forgive me."
"What about a striking gesture?"
"When I was fifteen I wrote a giant ‘I love you’ with spray paint on the parking lot in front of my girlfriend's house. Her father almost shot me, and then I had to erase the writing with a mop, but it was worth it."
Finally Boris smiled: "I'll think about it."
He tried to get to work, but he really couldn't concentrate, so he turned on the radio on his and Valery’s favourite station.
It was the moment when the audience could ask to dedicate a song to someone, and so he had an idea: a striking gesture, yes, because Valery was the most important thing in his life, much more important than his career, and it was time to shout it to the whole world.
Valery was chewing listlessly some tuna. He didn't like to cook when he was in a good mood, when he was depressed he barely had the will to use the can opener.
He had also run out of cigarettes, but it was raining heavily, and he didn't want to go out and buy them.
To break the heavy silence and dispel the melancholy, he turned on the radio while the final notes of a song went on the air.
"And now a really, really special message," the speaker said, and it was clear that he was very excited, "We do our best and choose wonderful songs for you, but we are a small radio station. Therefore, we are very excited to have Deputy Minister Boris Shcherbina among our listeners, and he wants to dedicate a song to his husband, Professor Valery Legasov, to say he loves him."
The fork fell from Valery's fingers: WHAT?
"Valery, we hope you’re listening, because Baby please come home is all for you."
A moment later the ringing of the bells and the shrill voice of Mariah Carey filled the room:
The snow's comin 'down
(Christmas) I'm watchin 'it fall
(Christmas) lots of people around
(Christmas) baby, please come home
Valery covered his mouth with his hands: Boris had announced live on a radio that they were married!
Pretty lights on the tree
(Christmas) I'm watching them shine
(Christmas) you should be here with me
(Christmas) baby, please come home
Valery's phone vibrated.
"Come home, my love."
It was almost time for dinner, and Boris was beginning to fear that Valery wasn't listening to the radio when his message went on air.
Or maybe it wasn't enough.
Then he heard the key and the front door swung open.
Valery barely had time to put down the suitcase, then Boris lifted him from the ground and kissed him.
"Valery, you're here."
"I'm here," he whispered, leaning his forehead against his.
"I was a fool, can you forgive me?"
"I forgive you," Valery assured him, kissing his nose, cheeks and lips again, "I heard the song and your message, thank you." It was all that Valery wanted: to know that he was important to his husband, more important of his fears.
"I love you Valera!"
"Wait till you see the bill of the taxi I took to get back here from Tula," he laughed.
"It doesn't matter, all that matters is that you came home to me."
The next day, the framed picture of their wedding day sat proudly on the desk of the deputy minister Shcherbina.