They’re running late.
The logical part of Daniil’s mind reminds him of the etiquette of dinner parties, drilled into him by his parents — arrive before the pre-dinner drinks run dry — and of the importance of finding mentors. Already his classmates are circling the university’s most well-connected professors like sharks. Graduation may be two years away, but relationships take time to foster, and for all his lofty confidence in himself and the prospects of his field of study, Daniil is not blind to the base necessity of securing funding. He’s lucky to have been invited to Professor Gurilyov’s function; he knows better than to let the opportunity slip by.
He has to leave soon, they both do, but Daniil feels rooted in place. Concerns about punctuality and reputation seem so inconsequential in the face of Andrey’s hands at his collar, fixing his ascot in place with an unexpected amount of care.
“Alright,” Andrey murmurs, before stepping away and turning to face the mirror himself. His reflection breaks into a grin. “Honestly Danko, we look good. Think you’d want to hit some bars after this? Would be a shame to keep this from the adoring public.”
“One thing at a time, Andrey,” Daniil says, though privately he agrees. “Let’s make it to Gurilyov’s first.”
Yevgeni Gurilyov’s apartment is a lavish one, even by Capital standards. The chandelier alone must be worth more than a year’s tuition. Presided over by matching marble busts of Caesar and Tiberius, Daniil’s classmates carry on with conversations that range from genuinely intriguing (from what Daniil can make out, the chronobiology department is recruiting for a new study involving reversible enzyme inhibitors) to depressingly banal (someone named Kirpichenko is two months behind on rent). This last one draws a snicker from Andrey.
“Does that involve you, somehow?” Daniil asks once they’re safely out of earshot.
“There may have been a Kirpichenko at the same dice table I was. But it’s hardly my fault the man’s luck was rotten.”
The denial is so wholly unconvincing Daniil doesn’t even deign to acknowledge it. He opts instead to lift a drink from the tray of a passing server, watching as Andrey does the same, and is about to say something when the other man starts off in the direction of Kirpichenko’s friends.
Absolutely not. Daniil turns away and insinuates himself into the nearest group. It’s not that Daniil is concerned Andrey would make a scene — even he knows better — it’s that Daniil refuses to stoke Andrey’s massively overinflated ego. Andrey can amuse himself by charming the friends of the man he’s made homeless if that’s what he wants; he just can’t expect Daniil to reward him for it.
“—a bit much, if you ask me. Oh, hello.”
“Hello. Daniil Dankovsky.”
A cursory round of introductions, and then the woman who was speaking continues. “I’m not sure if it really adds anything to the character of the city, is all.” She sighs. “Have you been to the Judicial District recently, Dankovsky?”
“No, I haven’t had cause to.”
“Lucky you. Meanwhile, I live right next to it, so I see the thing every day. They’ve tapped a Utopian to build the latest annex to the National Gallery. It looks as if a giant vase had gotten itself smashed to pieces and they built it that way on purpose… I’ll never understand it. Anyone who visits our city will think we’ve gone mental.”
Daniil makes a note to visit the gallery in question. “But I’m sure it’s an impressive sight. I’ve never seen a Utopian structure that hasn’t astounded me with its ingenuity.”
“It is. I can’t imagine how they’ve connected the upper floors together. They must’ve—” She searches for an explanation. “Cantilevered it, in some way. I’m not saying it shouldn’t have been built. But there must’ve been a better place for it.”
“Mm.” Daniil glances around. Andrey is talking animatedly to a blonde, slightly taller student in his own circle of classmates. “Such as?”
“The edges of the city, next to the whichever circus troupe is making the rounds this year. Not grafted onto something historic.”
“I disagree. Change ought to be bracing, shouldn’t it? The ice bath after the banya.” As if on cue, two of the waitstaff push open the doors connecting the foyer to the dining room. He lowers his voice. “Stagnation and death go hand in hand.”
“I suppose,” she says, though her lips are pursed in disagreement.
They file through, and a quick glance at the place settings informs him that they’ll be seated alphabetically around the table. Daniil finds his, noting with satisfaction that the gathering is just as intimate as he’d first presumed back in the foyer — Gurilyov had extended an invitation only to his most promising. He’s still basking in that particular glow when two things happen at once: the blonde Andrey was talking to takes a seat across from him, followed by Andrey himself, and Professor Gurilyov walks in.
The hush that falls over the room has Gurilyov smiling in approval. “I trust you are all enjoying yourselves?” Murmurs of assent, from those stupid enough to answer a rhetorical question. “Very good. I know you students have much better events with which to occupy your Friday nights than a dinner hosted by an old professor. With that in mind, I want you to take this as an opportunity to get to know your fellow luminaries. Learn from— focus on each other. As though I am not even here.”
A few of the students exchange glances around the table, though Gurilyov pays them no mind — he’s preoccupied with tapping opium into his pipe. Daniil turns his attention back to the man he’s seated across. There’s something off-putting about him, but there’s nothing for it — Gurilyov will notice if Daniil ignores his most natural conversation partner for the entire dinner — so he sticks a hand out for him to shake. “Daniil Dankovsky.”
“How do you do? Nikolai Savoyarov.”
Daniil’s dislike of Savoyarov increases tenfold. He’d leaned forward a little when he said his name, infused it with a pointed undercurrent. It takes him a second. “I wasn’t aware Acting Undersecretary Savoyarov had a son.”
Savoyarov sits back, pleased. “I’ve been abroad, mostly, so that’s probably why. My father insisted I have a well-rounded education.”
“I’m sure it was fine.”
“Nothing to complain about,” Savoyarov agrees, faux modestly. “Though I think my parents would’ve preferred I paid more attention to my studies than sports.”
“Were you any good?” That’s Andrey.
“Yes. My polo team was undefeated. Rowing — well, I wasn’t as accomplished there. But we were hardly shabby.”
“Well, now I’m interested. Ring us up the next time you’re out on the lawn. We’ll see how undefeated you really are.”
“We—” Savoyarov looks between them. “You two know each other?”
“Danko, you wound me,” Andrey says. He straightens up to let a server set a plate down in front of him. He continues, “We’re actually roommates. Found ourselves a cheaper flat than you’d expect in the Arcadian Quarter. Obviously, we took it.”
“What’s the catch?”
“We’re above a glassblower’s,” Daniil replies. “Which means it becomes unlivable in the summer.”
“Which means we won’t have to experience that again, since it’s a year-long lease and there’s only one summer a year. Come on, Danko. It’s behind us.”
Daniil very much doubts that. He knows he and Andrey both think moving is a hassle; more likely than not, they’ll renew. He picks up his knife and fork. “…The landlady is certainly permissive,” Daniil concedes.
“That’s the spirit, old boy!” Andrey beams. Daniil rolls his eyes and then slices into his coulibiac — really, it seems Gurilyov spared no expense, there’s vesiga in this — the flaky crust yielding to the pressure of his knife. “You should come by,” Andrey says, directing this second half to Savoyarov. “It’s perfectly fine in October.”
“Before or after our polo match?” Savoyarov asks, smiling.
Andrey laughs. “Whichever suits you. Either way, I’d be prepared for a thrashing at our hands.”
“Come off it.”
“No, I’m serious! The two of us together would be more than enough to handle the likes of you.” The grin Andrey shoots him from across the table is borderline indecent. “Isn’t that right, Danko?”
Savoyarov is tan, and well-built. He has large hands and the sort of ego that’s easily bruised. He’d feel good between them, Daniil is sure of it. “Yes. I’d say so.”
“I’ll—” The man in question clears his throat. “I’ll take that under consideration.”
“See that you do,” Daniil responds, and then is immediately forced to hide a wince. Judging by the kick Andrey had aimed at him beneath the table, that might’ve come out a little more dismissively than he’d intended. He attempts to soften the blow: “Anyways, Savoyarov, what do you study?”
“Public Health Policy,” Savoyarov answers. “I’m planning to follow my father into the Ministry.”
Must be nice. “Yes, how is the Ministry, by the way? Food safety and inspection… there must be no shortage of things to do.”
“You wouldn’t believe the sort of stories I hear, the things my father sees.” Savoyarov has to raise his voice to be heard over the clatter of the last bites of their entrées being swapped for the main course. Daniil glances around. From what he can tell, it looks like they’ll be having roast duck with apples next. The thought cheers him — that had always been one of his favorites.
“Well, don’t keep us in suspense.”
“It’s really not — I couldn’t possibly, not in polite company.”
“Nikolai,” says Andrey. “At least let us know if we’ll be dying of something excruciating later tonight.”
Savoyarov drops the coy act. “We haven’t announced this yet, but if you’re planning to pick up groceries later, I’d avoid the canned vegetables. In fact I’d toss any in your cabinets that you bought… let’s say, less than two weeks ago.”
Andrey whistles, lowly. “Damn. The issue this time?”
“Botulism,” Savoyarov says, trying for solemnity but not quite getting there. “We think at least four of the machines are contaminated.”
“I’ll have to pick up a few cans before your men issue their recall, then,” a new voice murmurs, almost to herself.
The three of them all turn to the woman sitting to Dankovsky’s right. Her hair is a soft auburn, highlighted unflatteringly by the gas lights, but clearly well-kept and cropped fashionably short. She’s not looking at them, more focused on trying to coax something out of a vial and into her wine.
Andrey speaks first. “Are you planning on poisoning someone?”
“Would I admit it to you if I was?” She asks, still fiddling with her drink. She sighs and sets the vial down. “Galina Ilovaiskaya.”
“Hopefully that’s you, and not your victim,” Daniil jokes, as she gives Andrey and Savoyarov two handshakes, quick but firm.
She laughs at that. “Yes, that’s me.” Her shoulders relax slightly after she takes a sip of her drink, and she picks up her uncorked vial and hovers it over Daniil’s glass in silent question. Laudanum, 10ml, Daniil reads. He nods his assent. Ilovaiskaya pours a considerable amount in — more than he would’ve preferred, if he were being honest — before making the same offer to the two across the table. Andrey slides his glass closer; Savoyarov declines.
“My department’s recently received a shipment of equatorial animals from a wealthy donor. A veritable menagerie of exotic species — ones the local populace claimed were known to be particularly resistant to both chemical toxification and bacterial infection,” Ilovaiskaya explains. “We’ll be looking to test that, interdepartmentally. I expect that our microbiology colleagues would appreciate a sample of C. botulinum.”
“So you’re in… toxicology, then?”
“And is that interesting?” Daniil asks, in between bites. The duck is good, but the blackcurrant sauce is better — the tartness helps cut through the bitter laudanum coating his tongue. Next to Andrey, Savoyarov looks completely lost.
“Well, I certainly think so.”
“Excuse me. I meant no offense—”
“And no offense was taken,” Ilovaiskaya says. “It’s boring to outsiders, I know… but maybe not for long. Have you read our latest paper?”
Daniil risks a look at Andrey, who gives him a minute shake of the head. “I’m afraid we haven’t,” he says, reluctantly.
“Mid-semester assignments,” Andrey adds. “We haven’t had the time. What was it?”
Ilovaiskaya doesn’t look put out by their lackluster responses; if anything, she brightens at the prospect of sharing her findings anew.
“We performed partial hepatectomies on rats — roughly two-thirds of each liver. Within 72 hours, they had restored themselves back to their original mass.”
Daniil is stunned speechless. “You— the livers regenerated?”
“Yes! Every single one of them. Try it yourself the next time you have laboratory access. You’ll see.”
“This is… incredible. If this is true, and replicable—” Daniil trails off. Already he’s making plans to speak to the registrar about adding another course to his schedule.
“It makes sense, doesn’t it? And Zeus set upon him a long-winged eagle, which ate at his immortal liver—”
“—but by night the liver grew as much again everyway,” Daniil and Andrey say at once.
“Exactly. Ludya — I’m sorry, my friend in Hellenic Studies — thinks the ancients must’ve observed the same thing we did, in their attempts to divine the future through entrails. But that’s just a theory.” Ilovaiskaya smiles. “And our study’s just the start. There’s so much more work to be done.”
Daniil turns in his seat to look at her, truly look. There is a prevailing notion of the University as a gathering place for each generation’s greatest visionaries — he hadn’t been quite naive enough to believe that, not really, but he’d been disappointed at the sheer prevalence of insipid gentility nonetheless. Meeting a mind like Ilovaiskaya’s feels like a promise fulfilled.
“…There is,” he says. He gives her their address, so that she can send copies of any of her future breakthroughs, and then the conversation moves on; at one point, Daniil thinks to look over to their host. The sight is disconcerting. A cloud of opium smoke obscures Gurilyov’s face and neck so completely he looks less a man than he does something omniscient. Unnerved, Daniil looks away, though not before Savoyarov catches the direction of his gaze.
“Strange, isn’t it,” Savoyarov muses. “He hasn’t said a word all night.”
“Mm,” Daniil says, noncommittally. He does not want to be part of this conversation. He watches the waitstaff hurry to and from the kitchen in preparation for their final course, and tries to shake the feeling that he’s being surveilled.
Dessert, it turns out, is a simple Bavarian cream, topped with almonds and port-poached figs. Ilovaiskaya seems delighted. She doesn’t hesitate to eat her fill, though she slows once she notices Andrey’s raised eyebrow.
“I’m fond of figs,” Ilovaiskaya says, a touch embarrassed. “Well, anyways. Do either of you have any plans after this?”
“We’re thinking of going to a pub or two. Why, are you interested?”
“Not tonight. I’ll be free next weekend, though. And you, Savoyarov?”
“I’m also heading in early — I have a breakfast commitment tomorrow with a family friend. Ah,” he says, to Daniil and Andrey, “we should pick a date for our polo match. My schedule fills up rather quickly, as I’m sure you can appreciate…”
Andrey turns to him; Daniil knows what he’s about to say a second before he says it. “What polo match?”
Savoyarov doesn’t react immediately. Instead, there’s a beat or two of silence as he processes the words, and then his tan skin flushes an ugly, mottled red. His handsome face twists into a snarl; his shoulders tense in a way that has the fabric of his dinner jacket riding up as if it were two sizes too small. Daniil watches fury overtake Savoyarov’s features, and thinks, a little uncharitably, that he doesn’t wear anger as well as Andrey does.
“Me,” Andrey says. For a second, Daniil thinks Savoyarov might actually strike him.
He doesn’t, of course. Something deeply ingrained stays his hand; Savoyarov remembers himself in time, though not without considerable effort. He ignores Andrey (“What are you getting so upset for, old chap, maybe you’ve had too much to drink?”) to swing his gaze to Daniil instead.
“How does the 16th sound? Let’s meet on the lawn, at noon.”
“Maybe some other time.”
“I don’t know what game the two of you are trying to play, but I will not be—”
“For God’s sake, man, look at yourself,” Andrey cuts in. His smirk is gone. “A little rejection and you’re ready to throw fists? I would’ve thought you were raised better than that.” A taunt creeps back into his words. “It’s not as if though we’ve rescinded every invitation. You’re still free to come by our apartment, if you’d like.”
“Who do you think you are?” Savoyarov bites back. “I wouldn’t be caught dead at your…” He trails off. Daniil holds his gaze; he knows how he looks, with his cheeks hollowed slightly around the dessert spoon. It clinks a little against his teeth as he drags it slowly out of his mouth.
Savoyarov breaks eye contact first. He looks away, maybe even more aggrieved than before, but at least silent. Daniil doesn’t bother to hide his smile. When he glances over to Andrey, however, he’s not met with the triumphant grin he was expecting in return; instead, he’s taken aback to find Andrey wide-eyed and slightly pink.
Ilovaiskaya coughs. “If we could—”
“Of course,” Daniil says. They pass the rest of dessert in uneasy silence.
Eventually, the servers clear their plates for the final time, and Gurilyov stands. “This has been lovely,” Gurilyov begins. Daniil tries to focus on him, but it’s difficult, as Andrey has decided not to look at their host at all in favor of boring holes into the side of Daniil’s head. “—would be remiss of me to cut your conversations short, or to rob you of the chance to speak with classmates you have so far been unable to. Let us take our coffee and tea in the foyer. And if you would like to find a quieter spot to break away to, do not hesitate to do so. The rest of my home is open to you.”
The answering chorus of thank you, Professor, echoes off the high walls. Daniil rises alongside everybody else, though the wine, opium, and laudanum must be taking their toll — he’s less steady than he would like. Time, too, seems slightly off. The people around him move as if though they were projections from a faulty cinematograph, ending up abruptly from one place to the next, with only flickers of their suggested movement in between.
Andrey meets him as they’re halfway to the door. They re-enter the foyer side by side, and then Andrey is steering him away from the crowd; with a hand at his back, Andrey leads him down a hallway and into the first room they pass.
Gurilyov’s personal study, Daniil realizes, and then Andrey has him shoved up against one of the grated shelves.
“Holy shit, Danya. Holy shit,” Andrey breathes, kissing urgently against the side of his jaw. His hands are scrambling to pull aside the ascot he’d arranged so carefully earlier. “Did you— a little warning next time, holy fuck. You have no idea… the longest fifteen minutes of my life, I swear to God—”
Daniil just laughs. He feels buoyant and featherweight, and only barely grounded by the feeling of his collar loosening around his neck. The levity doesn’t last for long — when Andrey bites down on his jugular, Daniil draws in a sharp breath, and feels his attention coalesce with almost painful clarity.
“Fuck. Stamatin, do that again—”
“Andrey,” Daniil corrects. “Do that again, A-ahh—”
The grin Daniil can feel against his skin should annoy him, and yet. Andrey is attentive, and he smells of chypre and the sweetness of opium, and most of all he knows Daniil’s particularly sensitive at the junction where his neck meets his shoulder. Heat is pooling in his gut, and Daniil presses closer, slotting a thigh between Andrey’s legs and leaning his weight into it.
It’s Andrey’s turn to gasp, now. He grinds against him, straightening up to kiss Daniil messily, hungrily, and then lines their hips so that they’re both shuddering the next time Andrey rocks forward. The friction is like sandpaper against his prefrontal cortex. Higher order thinking is slipping away from his grasp, though he still seems capable of making inane observations — he notices that Andrey’s own collar hasn’t been loosened at all. It looks uncomfortable. When he reaches out for it, though, his hands meet nothing. He’d been several seconds too slow; Andrey had already dropped to his knees in front of him.
He watches as Andrey draws him out the front of his trousers. There’s the slightest pause as Andrey stops just short of lowering his mouth onto Daniil; his gaze is level and steady, as if he were contemplating the best way to go about a particularly tricky problem, and then he’s leaning in to blow a soft stream of air across the head of his cock.
Daniil’s hips jerk. Air leaves his lungs in unsteady breaths as Andrey works the side of him, tongue swiping down the length in flat, broad strokes, before coming back up to lick the bead of pre-come from the tip. There’s a curl to the corners of his lips as he traces the path again and again, one that, if Daniil were in any other situation, he would find immensely infuriating. Andrey should consider himself lucky that Daniil is too preoccupied to scold him for it.
Still, though, he feels he should say something, if only to prove he still could. He swallows. “Today, Andrey. Or is there something you’re w—”
The rest of his sentence is swallowed by a ragged groan. Andrey had taken him into his mouth, cutting him off with the clean efficacy of a trap sprung, and Daniil only spares a second to acknowledge the implicit reproach before abandoning that train of thought entirely. Andrey’s mouth is blood-hot around him, and that’s all that matters.
Daniil lets his head tip backwards against the shelves with a sigh. He traces the intricacies of the coffered ceiling until the patterns seem to shift, and then lets his eyes fall closed. Andrey had closed his eyes too, he thinks. He’d looked serene, almost, eyelashes dark against the tops of his cheeks as he bobbed his head along Daniil’s length, lips meeting his fist at the base with each pull and stroke.
When he opens his eyes again and sees another person in the room, he very nearly goes into cardiac arrest. Fortunately for both he and Andrey, Daniil’s instinct was to draw back, not jump. Andrey might even have written it off as the lurch of someone overwhelmed.
It’s just him, he realizes, once the adrenaline recedes — another Daniil Dankovsky, looking back at him from the mirror on the mantelpiece.
He can’t tear his eyes away. The mirror is an ostentatious thing, large and gilded around the edges, and exceptionally clear. Due to its position, it only reflects the upper half of his body. It’s enough. High-color suffuses his reflection’s cheeks; the twin glows of the kerosene lamps clasp his shoulders in his father’s epaulettes. His mouth is invitingly wet. Despite the glass, the Daniil in the mirror looks touchable, manifestly approachable in a way Daniil — he, the real Daniil — has never been known for.
His shoulders are trembling, now. Without Andrey in the mirror, it’s impossible to locate the true source of the force acting upon him — he’s writhing as if someone were tugging at his strings from above, not below. He groans, head twisting to the side without his permission. Everything is so warm; he’s overheating. He should’ve taken off his jacket.
Andrey swallows around him for the first time since this started, and it’s enough to pull his attention away. He looks down, heart racing. He grips the back of Andrey’s head, fingers brushing down and through the tapering strands until they’re pressing into ridged bone.
Atlas, he thinks. Axis. Third vertebra cervicalis.
He imagines his nails splitting the vertebrae of Andrey’s spine open, notches parting sequentially like the Red Sea. He’d take Andrey’s quivering spinal cord in hand — no, both hands, lifting it carefully from its cage — and run his fingers across it. He moans. He moves his hands back up to Andrey’s skull and he holds him there and he’s so close. He’s so close.
Andrey’s entire body would jerk, he thinks. His head is swimming. Spasms disproportionate in intensity to the stimulus applied, and breaths turning shallow and shaky to match his own. Against the back of his knuckles Andrey’s branching nerves would feel as soft as the fluttering gills of a fish. He could twist his hand and grab onto them. He could, but he —
Orgasm takes him without warning; Daniil almost shouts from the force of it. It feels as if though several different layers of perceptual understanding are collapsing back into one. He jerks as Andrey’s hands tighten even further on his hips, holding him up as his tongue and jaw work him for all he has.
When it’s all over, Andrey lets him slip out of his mouth. He leans back on one hand and says, “Well, old boy? How was it?”
Daniil lets out an incredulous laugh. He lowers himself shakily to the rug, then looks over. “Do you even have to ask?”
Andrey’s eyes are bright and intent. He doesn’t answer. He wipes at his rosy mouth, and when he pulls it away, the glint on the back of his hand catches the light.
Daniil keeps his gaze on Andrey as he reaches across to pull his straining cock out of his trousers. He’s momentarily regretful that he can’t return the favor and suck Andrey off — Andrey’s too close for him to do it without straining his neck — but there’s always next time. Besides, he wants to see this.
Andrey tries valiantly to keep the imperious tilt of his head, breaths coming out as even as he can make them, but the rhythmic clench and release of his fingers at the rug beneath them give him away. Daniil twists his hand the way he knows Andrey likes, mind sorting through the little details that would send Andrey bucking into his hand. When he presses his thumb into Andrey’s slit, his composure cracks completely.
The room fills with Andrey’s panting little moans and the obscene wet sounds of skin on skin. He looks a mess. His hair has fallen out of its carefully slicked back style, his lips parted and swollen. Daniil knows he looks the same, and the thought has him working at Andrey’s shaft faster.
Andrey’s moans are rolling off his tongue, now, so Daniil leans forward to cover his mouth with his. His breath hitches even as he brings his hands up to Daniil’s face, and that’s the position they’re in when Andrey spills across his lap.
Andrey buries his face into the crook of Daniil’s neck as he rides out his orgasm. Daniil lets him stay there, catching his breath, and then Andrey wraps a hand around Daniil’s closed fist to extricate himself from his grip.
“Ah,” Daniil says. “Ah,” he repeats, when Andrey lifts Daniil’s hand to his lips and licks it clean.
Andrey grins at him, a little lazy — a post-coital version of his usual. “You’re welcome.”
Daniil scoffs. He wipes his spit-slick hand on Andrey’s jacquard waistcoat — better that than Gurilyov’s rug — and then pushes himself up so that he can look into the mirror.
Any attempt at righting himself would be purely cursory; he tries anyway. Vindication about dirtying Andrey’s waistcoat courses through him when he does up his collar and sees that it’s not quite tall enough to hide one of the bruises Andrey has left on his neck. His ascot pin, too, is a lost cause. There is no way he’ll be able to find it, either on Gurilyov’s rug or the herringboned floors. Still, he counts himself lucky. At least the collar’s buttons are still attached this time around.
He tilts his head to the side. To his dismay, pressing his face against the metal grates has left an imprint of quilted diamonds on the entirety of his left side. He rubs at them. It doesn’t help.
Andrey huffs a laugh from his position on the floor. “If it makes you feel better, Danko, I don’t think either of us can pass for decent right now.”
Daniil turns from the mirror. “Then I suppose we have no choice but to leave early,” he replies, extending a hand so that Andrey can pull himself to his feet. “Come on, Andrey. Let’s get out of here.”
Andrey takes his hand, though he doesn’t let go once he’s standing. His hand is warm in his as he drags them out of Gurilyov’s labyrinthine apartment and into the night.