Even before the war, Lev’s never been to a party like this.
Wine pours from every nook and cranny. The buffet is teeming with more food than he’s seen the past two winters combined. It takes him all he has not to stuff his pockets full of wedding cake and run, evading the Red Guards posted at the front of the building at every turn along the way, but he doesn’t, mostly because he knows they’d catch him, but also because Kolya would murder him for leaving the wedding without dancing with the colonel’s daughter first.
Lev watches her now, twirling across the marble floor with her new husband grinning before her, not daring to believe his own luck. She’s more beautiful than any girl Lev’s ever seen- more than the girls in the cabin, more than Vera, more than Vika herself-, and for a while he manages to forget the past twenty-four hours in lieu of an explicit daydream, featuring himself, the colonel’s daughter, and her strong thighs, which, as he garners from the flashes of skin as her wedding dress rides up her legs, are just as taut and creamy as he imagined them to be. He ruins it all by trying to imagine the lewd remarks that Kolya would make about her if he were here, and the daydream dissipates as his hard-on withers. Funnily enough, but seeing her up close, she’s not exactly his type. She’s all dark, glossy hair and delicate limbs, where Lev’s looking for- well, for something else, decisively.
As if hearing his thoughts from the other side of a room, a girl suddenly walks up to him. She’s no colonel’s daughter, of course, but she’s pretty in her own way, all blonde curls and pink cheeks. Lev knows that before the war, he would’ve daydreamed about this girl, if he saw her walking down the street, or sitting in the seat in front of him in school. He would’ve imagined tugging at one of those curls, caressing that rosy face, seeing what the smooth skin of her shoulder tasted like under his tongue. Now, he can’t even muster up a smile, something to show that he’s registered her existence.
“Would you like to dance?” She asks nervously, twisting a lock of hair between her thumb and index finger. Without even hearing his own response, Lev’s legs propel him forward as she leads him to the dance floor. Bodies move and sway on either side of him, and it’s mechanically that he places his hands on her waist, vaguely wondering why he isn’t more nervous around pretty girls like her anymore.
“My name’s Katryna,” she tells him, hands resting gently on both of his shoulders.
“Lev,” he tells her, and though he’s no more interested in her than he is in the colonel’s daughter, he allows her to pull him away from the crowd and lead him into an abandoned storeroom, where she takes a deep breath and kneels on the floor, putting her mouth where nobody’s ever put their mouth before.
“How was that?” She says, after a few minutes of mind-numbing blissfulness, and Lev blinks at her, feeling like the entire room’s been submerged in water.
“Hm? Oh. Good. It was good. Do you want me to, um-?” He gestures at her lower body. She smiles self-deprecatingly and shakes her head.
“No, I’m alright. Are you sure it was okay? That was my first time.” Katryna bites her lip and looks worried. Lev wants to tell her that she did okay, did better but okay, but the words stick inside his throat when a sudden, unbidden image of Kolya pops up in his mind, clapping him on the back like a proud teacher would a student who’s been failing his class all year long, only to pass the final exam with flying colors. So instead, Lev presses his lips to Katryna’s, pulls up her skirt, and allows actions to speak where words fail.
That’s how he loses his virginity, in an abandoned storeroom next to a vat of churning butter. When they stumble outside after a good, long while, Katryna scratches a number on a wad of paper in her pocket and presses it into his hands, a furious flush crawling up her neck as she gives him a chaste kiss goodbye and walks away. Lev watches her go, trying to imagine a future of awkward, blushy dates, a world in which he, Lev Beniov, is the sole proprietor of a pretty girl who actually likes him, and promptly crumples up the paper and throws it into the nearest trash can he sees.
When he finds his way back to the reception hall, the colonel is making a toast to his daughter and his son-in-law. He catches Lev’s eye as he walks in, winks at him, and downs the glass of champagne in one large, greedy gulp. Lev sits back down at his previous seat, still unoccupied, and marvels at how fast time seems to fly. Forty-five minutes ago, he was a virgin. Four days ago, Kolya was still alive. A week ago, the Kirov was still standing. Everything changes much too fast, much too soon, and before you know it you’re sitting in the reception hall of a man you would’ve never met in your past life before the war, eating his caviar and steak and drinking his liquor as the world outside starves to death.
It’s the last thought that makes Lev push his plate of food away, half-uneaten. He wonders idly what Kolya’s last meal was, before deciding that it had to have been the buttered potatoes back at the cabin. The food here dulls in comparison to those potatoes, salty and hot and with the slightest aftertaste of garlic. But thinking about the potatoes leads into thinking about the girls, and thinking about the girls makes him think about the bedroom upstairs, and thinking about the bedroom upstairs makes him think about Kolya’s face, hanging upside-down, looking concerned for Lev, though he can’t for the life of him remember what there was to be concerned about. The memories- the potatoes, the girls, Kolya, hanging upside-down- makes Lev feel sick to his stomach, as though he’s been eating sand this entire time.
“Why don’t you eat something, looter?” The colonel asks as he pulls up a seat beside Lev’s, startling him out of his thoughts. Even the formless suit that the colonel has donned can’t hide the muscles rippling beneath the fabric, almost bigger than Lev’s entire head as he drapes it across Lev’s shoulders. “It’s thanks to you that we have that cake on your plate, after all.”
“I’m not hungry.”
“That’s a lie if I’ve ever heard one,” the colonel says, taking a sip out of his wine glass, “and believe me, in my line of work, I’ve heard more than you could count. How do you like the wedding?”
Lev eyes the colonel’s face, searching for a deeper intent, but he seems to be genuinely curious about Lev’s response.
“There’s more people here than I thought still live in Pieter,” he says, deciding to be truthful. The colonel’s face splits into that strange, beautiful smile.
“There are, aren’t they? And that pretty blonde girl I saw you walk out of the reception hall with before- aren’t you glad she still lives in Pieter?”
“Is that her name? I wouldn’t know. I think she’s the daughter of some lieutenant, or maybe a general of some sort. Actually, come to think of it, I don’t know half the people here. Just you, my daughter, my good-for-nothing son-in-law, and the handful of soldiers that haven’t been posted outside.”
He takes another long, slow sip of his wine, and smacks his lips appreciatively. The action reminds Lev so much of Abendroth, drinking his plum schnapps, that he can’t resist a small shiver.
“Do you want to know my daughter’s name?” The colonel asks suddenly. Lev is suddenly struck with the knowledge that, after all he and Kolya went through to get her eggs, they didn’t even know her name the entire time. The thought settles in a knot in the pit of his stomach, another thing that Kolya never knew to think about at night.
“Sure. What’s her name?”
“Tatiana. Her mother named her, after some queen of the fairies in a Shakespeare play. Now, I don’t know much about fairies, but Tatiana’s certainly always been a little dictator in my household.” He looks at his daughter fondly from across the room, where she’s grinning at something her husband has said to her. “I would kill a man for her. What am I saying- I’d kill you for her, ten times over. She’s the light of my life. However, though I love her more than anyone in this entire world, and though she is the very reason I wake up in the morning, I know her faults. She’s prideful. She’s stubborn. She falls in love with the wrong men. She always has to be right. Do you understand what I’m saying, looter?”
Lev shakes his head wordlessly, though he does. The colonel gives him an enigmatic grin.
“I’m saying that, when we love someone unconditionally, we forget their faults. We forget that they are not gods or goddesses, but human as the day they were born. And when fate, or chance, or maybe just plain bad luck tears them away from us, all their faults and all their imperfections fade from our memories. Instead, we are left with nothing but the warm glow of their presence at the backs of our minds, telling each other things that we could tell nobody else in the whole world besides each other."
He reaches over for his wine glass, frowns into it when he realizes it’s empty, and reaches over for Lev’s own untouched glass. Lev nudges it over, watching the colonel’s Adam’s apple bob as he takes a large swig of the champagne.
“I don’t know what you or your friend went through together,” the colonel continues, setting the cup down with a large, satisfied ‘aah’, “but I have the strongest suspicion that the two of you became close in those five days you had together. I don’t know how he died, nor do I particularly want to know, but I do want to tell you this, boy. Idolizing the dead will hurt you more than it will heal you. Though I’m sure your friend had many qualities about him that you admired, you cannot forget that he was as human as the rest of us. He did not come into your life for you to make an icon out of him. He came into your life to find some eggs, and if you just so happened to become friends with him along your way, your life has become better for it. But that does not give you the right to desecrate his memory by placing him on a platform, which he undoubtedly never stood on when he was alive.”
With that, the colonel rises from the table and pats Lev on the back.
“Find Katryna. Go on dates with her. Hell, go on dates with any girl that will have you. Live your life the way you see fit. Just don’t waste your time on the dead, son. They don’t need it, nor do they want it.”
He turns to leave.
“Wait,” Lev says, his brain finally catching up with him through the haze it’s been immersed in for the past four hours and a half. “Do you know my name?”
The colonel offers him one last smile.
“Of course I do,” he says. “It’s Lev.”
When Lev ends up stumbling back home, tracking snow and mud all over the floor of the apartment, his roommates are gone. They’ve left a note for him, mentioning some bar they’ve gone to for the evening, and that if he feels up to it he could join them. Lev shrugs off his coat and drapes it across a nearby chair, letting the note flutter back onto the table. If it’s up to him, he’s not going to be going outside for the next week or so. His brain feels too big for his skull, like it’s trying to break free of the limitations of his own cranium, though that might just be a side effect of the copious amounts of alcohol he’s consumed less than half an hour ago.
He’s just collapsed onto the living room sofa when he hears the sharp rap at the door. Bleary-eyed, wishing whoever’s knocking at one in the morning very ill intent, he forces himself upwards and stumbles his way toward the foyer. He catches a glimpse of himself in the mirror hanging across the hall and nearly jumps out of his own skin. He looks like the victim of some bizarre and violent crime; dark purple circles hang beneath his eyes, hair skewered and messed up so obviously that a sign proclaiming “I JUST LOST MY VIRGINITY TO A GIRL I’VE KNOWN FOR FIVE MINUTES” hanging around his neck wouldn’t be as blatant.
The knocking at the door becomes more insistent, thoroughly unmoved by Lev’s sudden realization that he’s become the very men in his father’s parlor he had been both so afraid of and enthralled by, drunk and compelling if not a little repulsive. He smiles a little at the thought, a drunken quirk of the lips that instantly drops when he fumbles for the knob and pulls the door open.
Standing in front of him is Kolya.
He can’t speak. Can’t breathe. He blinks, and Kolya’s still there, tall and striking as ever. There’s always been something about him that demands to be seen, to be admired, the gravitational pull of him pulling Lev’s eyes from his face, to the breadth of his shoulders, to the long expanse of his legs.
He’s alive. He’s alive. Lev doesn’t know how, or why, but Kolya’s alive. The golden hair flopping into his eyes, the white smile nearly blinding Lev, the immaculate starched navy suit that seems almost as if it’s been molded onto Kolya’s body, emphasizing every last bit of muscle, every single curve- alive. Lev makes a sound like a wounded animal.
“Lev?” Kolya asks, and the sound of his name on Kolya’s lips makes Lev tremble. He throws himself at him, not knowing if he’s going to hug him or punch him until his arms are suddenly entwined around Kolya’s neck and he’s bawling against his chest, like he’s five once more and he’s just sprained his ankle, and nothing can comfort him from the pain until his father’s arms are wrapped around him.
Hesitantly, Kolya places his hands on the small of Lev’s back. Lev can feel his uncertainty and presses himself closer to Kolya, uncaring of the fact that he’s probably hallucinating this entire exchange. Kolya laughs in wonder, a puff of breath against Lev’s neck, and carefully walks them back into the apartment, gently kicking the door closed behind him.
“If I’d known you’d be this happy to see me, I would’ve come sooner,” Kolya says, almost murmurs, the effect suddenly pushing Lev out of Koyla’s grasp- still in his personal space, still clutching at his shoulders, but far enough that Lev can see Koyla’s face.
“Where were you? How are you even alive right now?” Lev breathes. Kolya rubs his neck uncomfortably.
“After we got to the hospital,” he says, slowly, “I was apparently in a coma for some time. I lost enough blood that the doctors figured I wouldn’t make it come morning, but I pulled through for a lengthy three weeks until I woke up. Medical miracle, they called me. Refused to let me contact home, tell you or the colonel I was alive, until they ran their tests on me. Picture this, Lev- me, cooped up in a room that constantly smells of chicken shit, nurses the size of small horses, not a single pair of tits in sight- it was a wonder I made it long enough for them to patch me up completely.”
Lev stays silent. Kolya takes this as a confirmation to continue and hurries on.
“When they finally let me out, I wandered to Sonya’s, figuring I could maybe find you there. But imagine my shock when she tells me that you left a day before I came back, signed up for the army and all. Well, I was proud, to be sure, but also completely and irrevocably fucked- I didn’t have any ration cards, and I couldn’t find my way back to the colonel’s headquarters; I made my way back home the month of that fucking blizzard, because of course I did.
“But, to my immense good fortune, one of the doctors Sonya’s been holed up with disappeared one day and never returned- probably got lost in the snowstorm, the poor bastard. And guess where his ration card was? Sonya had it locked up in her kitchen cabinet. Well, now that I wasn’t going to starve to death, I didn’t see a reason to make my fortunate survival known to the Red Army. I didn’t think they’d welcome me with open arms, not after that unpleasant little ‘deserter’ fiasco, and besides that, I thought I deserved a break after getting shot in the ass and surviving two German gunfights. It’s more than those motherless fucks ever did, at any rate. So I stayed low for the next several months or so, moved into the apartment building next door, learned some French to pass the time- it was all very cozy. And before I knew it, the war was over.
“I tried to find you right after I heard the news, but I didn’t know where you’d gone. Moscow, Stalingrad- I had no fucking idea, and nobody else knew, either. I went to the nearest hospitals to try and find people who lived in the Kiov, see if they might know where you went, but they’d all recovered by that point. I trudged back home, devoid of all hope, until I saw a newspaper on the ground nearby. I almost stepped on it- God forbid!- until I noticed something in large print on the front cover. It was a photo of a burning building, and below the headline, your name.
“Fuck me! I thought. You’d survived! I ran for a telephone and rang the newspaper, asking- begging, more like- to tell me your address. Well, they told me, all right- end of the war’s made people far less cynical from before-, and I rushed over to your place as fast as my legs could take me. And here I am.”
The words are meaningless to Lev. Nothing matters but the feeling of the cotton fabric against Lev’s hands as he unnecessarily smooths the front of Kolya’s jacket where he gripped him too hard, or the way that Kolya’s looking at him right now, face tilted low enough that, if Lev leans forward, their foreheads would be touched. He doesn’t dare lean forward, only grips Kolya’s jacket one last time before stepping backwards, drinking in the sight of him. He looks the same, and yet so much older than when Lev last saw him. There are bags under his eyes that were never there before.
Kolya watches Lev watch him, looking nervous. “Well? Aren’t you going to say something?”
Lev opens his mouth, but no words come out. He swallows and shakes his head, feeling dizzy from the residual alcohol left in his system. “I love you.”
Kolya’s face doesn’t move. Doesn’t twitch.
Then: “You’re drunk.”
“That doesn’t matter,” Lev says, slurring just the tiniest bit. Kolya’s lips twitch. He puts a hand on Lev’s shoulder, and the weight of his hand is something of a shock. Lev sways closer, but Kolya gently swats him away.
“Which one’s your room?” Kolya asks, steering him down the hallway. Wordlessly, Lev leads him to his bedroom, small and cramped. His sheets are still askew from this morning, clothes strewn all over the floor. It’s an embarrassment, but Lev can’t bring himself to care. He shucks off his shoes and crawls into the bed without bothering to change into his pajamas, groaning as the mattress dips under his weight.
He feels Kolya watching him, but when he twists his head to look at him, Kolya recedes back into the hallway. Lev feels panic rise up within him, like a small child watching their father go off to work for the first time.
“Stay with me,” he says. Kolya hesitates in the doorway, before stepping back into the room and closing the door. The silence is suddenly much more palpable as Kolya shrugs off his jacket and shoes and slips into the space beside Lev, radiating warmth.
He’s lying on his back, staring up at the ceiling. Lev wishes he knew what he was thinking, but even in his liquor-addled haze he can’t muster up the courage to ask. Instead, he inches a bit closer to Kolya’s body and breathes in the scent of cheap cologne and women’s shampoo, and something citrusy besides that. He’s never thought scents can smell like home, but that’s what Kolya smells like to him- something familiar and comforting, something that he’s known all his life.
Kolya’s head suddenly swivels, so abruptly that his nose nearly bashes with Lev’s.
“Are you smelling me?” He asks, sounding incredulous. In response, Lev scoots even closer. Now their noses are touching, close enough that he can smell the mint toothpaste on Kolya’s breath. Feeling a course of adrenaline run through him, Lev cranes his neck and presses his lips to Kolya’s.
It’s like kissing marble, his lips stiff and unyielding beneath Lev’s.
“What are you doing?”
“I don’t know,” Lev whispers, suddenly fearful. It strikes him that, even after all he’s been through, he’s still just as scared of rejection as he was before the war. He attempts to scoot backwards, try to come up with an excuse that’ll sound plausible by morning, but Kolya’s hands are suddenly on either side of his neck.
“Lev,” he says, and he sounds more serious than Lev’s ever heard him sound like. “Do you know what you’re doing?”
“No,” Lev says, and leans over to kiss Kolya again.
He doesn’t know how long they go at it for, but when they finally part, Lev is light-headed and dizzy enough that, if he’d been standing, he would’ve collapsed into the nearest chair. He clutches Kolya’s shoulders, breathing hard as though he’d just ran a few miles around the Red Cross. Lev can feel Kolya’s eyes boring into his own, two hard sapphires shining from the darkness.
They stay quiet for a few moments. Kolya’s hands make their way under Lev’s pajama top, fingers grazing the contour of his ribs. They’re cold as ice, but Lev can’t find it within himself to move away. Instead, he burrows closer, so that now there’s not an inch of him that isn’t pressed against Kolya. It’s only until Kolya’s hands come up from his torso to gently lift Lev’s face that he realizes he’s been crying.
“I missed you,” He says, and in the darkness it feels less of a reluctant admission of friendship than a confession of love. Oh, how the tides have turned. If someone asked Lev a year ago if he could imagine telling someone- anyone- about his love for them, he’d scoff in their face. To do such a grand feat would require the prerequisite of courage, a virtue that he’s never contained in his life. To think that this is the bravest thing he’s ever done is not such a stretch, but somehow it feels less like a stepping stone to overcoming his fears and more of a leap across a cliff.
“I know,” Kolya says quietly, thumbs gently tracing the outline of Lev’s cheekbones. “I missed you too.”
They say nothing after that.
Kolya is gone when Lev wakes. For a split, horrible second, he wonders if it was all a dream, some tragic hallucination wrought by months of mourning and grieving and coming to terms with his feelings for a man long dead- and then he hears the commotion in the kitchen and bolts out of bed.
Nikita stands in the doorway of the kitchen, pointing a butter knife at a bleary-eyed Kolya. Though Kolya might think that the end of the war’s made people less cynical, all it’s done to Lev’s roommates is made them more suspicious of strangers and inflexible to change of any sort.
“Lev,” Kolya says in a pleasant tone of voice, as if one of Lev’s roommates isn’t threatening him with a dining utensil, “would you like to make some introductions?”
“Nikita,” Lev says cautiously, “put the knife down.”
Nikita holds still, eyes darting from Kolya to Lev. Nikita’s brother Misha is snoring on the couch in the background, thoroughly untroubled by the potential catastrophe unfurling in front of Lev. In one motion he places himself between Kolya and Nikita, so that his back is turned to the former while he tries to placate the latter- something he’s never done successfully in the past.
“Who is he?” Nikita growls, gesturing to Kolya with the butter knife. Lev flinches away from the eating instrument as though it’s one of the Commander’s Lugers. Nikita’s well-versed enough with daggers and weapons of the sort for it to be just as effective, anyways.
“This is Kolya,” Lev tells him, in a slow, soothing tone of voice. “He’s a friend of mine from the war. He’s killed almost as many Germans as you have.”
“That’s a dirty lie,” Nikita grumbles, but places the knife on the countertop beside him anyway. Lev can feel Kolya’s muscles relaxing from behind. “Nobody in all of Russia’s killed more Germans than I have. What unit are you from?”
Kolya opens his mouth to respond, but Lev beats him to it.
“They were all slaughtered by Nazi troops in the Battle of Moscow,” he lies smoothly. “It’s a little bit of a sore spot for him.”
Kolya’s jaw unhinges from his face. Lev wants to tell him to shut his mouth, it’ll catch flies, but then his eyes land on the offending facial part in question and, with a rush, suddenly remembers that he’s spent almost the entirety of last night kissing those lips. He clamps his own mouth shut instead, feeling his cheeks begin to burn.
Nikita, thank God, mistakes Lev’s embarrassment for reluctance at disclosing such a traumatic experience of his friend’s. He gives Kolya a gruff pat on the shoulder as he moves past them both to get to the ice box, retrieving two small beers.
“That was a rough battle,” he acquiesces, tossing one of the beers to Kolya. “I’m sorry for your loss.”
“They will be missed,” Kolya intones solemnly, turning the beer cap open with his teeth. Lev doesn’t make eye contact with him, in fear that he’s going to start laughing hysterically at any given moment, and tarnish the newfound respect Nazi-killing Nikita’s just found for Red Army-deserting Kolya.
“Do you have any family left in Leningrad?” Nikita asks, leaning against the counter. Lev wishes that he’d leave so that he could talk to Kolya about what happened last night, but then realizes that might not be such a good idea and instead props himself against the ice box, trying to look casual.
“Parents were evacuated at the beginning of the war, and my older brothers died in some battle or other,” Kolya shrugs. Lev stares. This is the first time he’s ever heard of Kolya having any brothers.
Nikita nods curtly. “My mother and sisters were civilian casualties, so my father and I joined the partisans. It’s been hard for us all.”
“That’s for damn sure,” Koyla says with a wry smile, and lifts his beer up in a silent toast.
They spend a few more minutes chattering about their respective units before Nikita excuses himself to check on Misha, who’s almost completely sloshed from the night before. Lev and Kolya are left alone in the kitchen, and suddenly the air charges, turns a little bit electric.
“Your roommates seem interesting,” Kolya finally says, breaking the silence. Lev releases a little breath he doesn’t realize he’s been holding and releases his white-knuckled grip on the icebox behind him.
“Misha works with me at the newspaper. You’ll meet him later, though. He’s a little out of it right now.”
“Is that him passed out on the couch?” Kolya peers over Lev’s head. The proximity makes Lev’s hands shake. “Poor bastard. He’s in for a bad hangover, I can tell you that.”
“Can we talk?”
Kolya gives him an amused look. “We’re talking now.”
“About last night.”
Lev watches the wry smile disappear from Kolya’s face. He looks carefully over Lev’s shoulder, making sure Nikita and Misha are still on the couch, before taking hold of Lev’s elbow and gently tugging him away from the threshold of the kitchen.
“I didn’t think you remembered,” Kolya says quietly, his face impassive. “You were very drunk. And by very drunk, I mean that you tasted a little like bile when we kissed.”
“Kolya!” Lev all but shrieks, mortified. Kolya gives him a little shit-eating grin that doesn’t meet his eyes.
“Kidding. You tasted like beer, not bile. You went to a party?” His tone is casual, but Lev knows he’s fishing for something.
“The Colonel’s daughter’s wedding,” Lev says, muscles untensing. “Her name is Tatiana, by the way.”
“Tatiana,” Kolya repeats, slowly, as if he’s tasting her name on his tongue. The action sends a little spark of jealousy in Lev’s stomach, which he immediately shrugs off as ridiculous. It’s a name, it’s not as if he’s going to go straight to the Colonel’s house and elope with a girl he’s never even met. Still…
“I lost my virginity,” Lev blurts out, and now he’s the one who’s trying to seem casual and utterly failing. Kolya jumps a little, startled, and looks at him with an indiscernible emotion in his eyes- something like pride and regret and nostalgia, all at the same time.
“Who was the girl? Or boy- I suppose it’s appropriate to ask that now.”
“Her name,” Lev tells him, “was Katryna. She’s blonde. Pretty. You’d like her.”
“I’m sure I would,” Kolya says simply, frustrating Lev to no end. Why isn’t Koyla more upset by his admission?
“Can we talk about last night now?”
Kolya shrugs and leans against the doorway that leads to the only bathroom in the apartment, looking infuriatingly calm. Lev wants to shake his shoulders and command Kolya to tell him what he’s thinking, but he has a feeling that that probably wouldn’t go down very well. Instead, Lev presses his hands together steadfastly looks out the window, refusing to meet Koyla’s steady gaze.
“Why didn’t you stop me?” Lev says finally, and immediately cringes. He sounds accusatory and almost shrill, something that he hadn’t been aiming for at all. Kolya’s lips thin.
“Why did you kiss me?” He asks quietly, voice devoid of all emotion.
“I don’t know,” Lev admits, sounding almost as helpless as he feels. “I just- I wanted- you were- you were my friend, my only friend left in this world, and then I didn’t even have you anymore, and nothing seemed to matter at all. Not Vika, not surviving the war, not anything. But then I got saddled with two ration cards and a colonel that offered to pull some strings to get me a job at a newspaper he knew nearby, and before I knew it the war was over, and I was a journalist, and I had an apartment, and people who knew who I was-“ Lev’s voice cracks at that- “and still- even after all that-, still I couldn’t forget about you.”
As Lev spoke, Kolya’s inched closer and closer until he’s standing barely a foot away. He looks as solemn and serious as he’s looked last night, when Lev kissed him. Carefully, so there’s no way Lev could mistake his intent, he reaches out and grabs Lev’s hands, pulling him closer so there’s barely a breadth of space between them.
“Lev,” Kolya says, in such a warm voice that it feels more intimate than kissing him, “do you know why I told you about The Courtyard Hound in the first place?”
“Hm?” Lev says, distracted by the shadows that Kolya’s thick, long eyelashes cast on his face. “Why?”
“Because,” Kolya smiles, tilting Lev’s chin up, “in the span of five days, you, little lion, had become Radchenko, and I became that mangy old dog, and you were the only one I was ever going to allow to bury me. Does that make any sense?”
“No,” Lev murmurs, and kisses him right on the lips.
Lev moves out soon after that.
They get an apartment. They bicker over who’s supposed to fetch the morning newspaper, over what they should eat for breakfast, over whether or not they should get a dog, over how they’d manage to feed the dog when they barely remember to eat dinner sometimes, over how Lev’s always the one who forgets to eat dinner, while Kolya has to wait in agony for him to join him at the table, over how Kolya can just eat without Lev in the first place, over the fact that it’s unbecoming to eat before everyone’s seated at the table first, over Kolya’s sensitivity to dog fur after they bought the Labrador home, over Lev slamming the record player shut when Kolya’s listening to Eddie Rosner too loudly, over Lev not knowing how to crack an egg, over how Lev not knowing how to crack an egg is not ironic symbolism, over anything and everything, all at once.
And at night, when they’re lying in the same too-cramped twin bed, Lev curls up on his side and doesn’t hesitate to press himself against Kolya, head lifted towards him in sleep, like a flower raising its face to the sun.