She's known Arkady Balagan for a long time now. She still thinks of the first time he swung those long legs around a stool and leaned over her bar, asking in a confidential manner if he could have a shot of vodka and pickles, please and thank you, with a charming smile tossed in for good measure. Now it's been a year since that day, and all she can think when she looks at him is how shocked the old her would have felt at the idea that she could feel something for anyone. Because Mary (Danni now, she has to remind herself) does feel something for him, something in the cavern of her chest. Something has grown there for him, curled around organs and muscle, nestled in the bone cage of her ribs.
It's been a long time now since the old days of (black gloves and shining steel and bags filled with nameless offal) her...operation. She wonders sometimes what Arkady would think of her if he knew. If he had seen her, lying on her back on the floor and bleeding out as she shakily stitched herself back together, a dead man in the next room. She isn't even sure what she thinks of herself. Sometimes she's sure she must be crazy so she tries to be good. She tries to help people. Arkady is good, so she tries to help him.
Her world comes to a screeching halt when she walks into Arkady's room one day and there's a man, unconscious and rapidly losing blood on the floor. Sam is hovering over him and fluttering helplessly.
She stares, takes in the bloodstained knife lying on the floor, and the shattered window next to Arkady, who stares at her with the wild eyes of a man close to losing his shit. And she moves.
"Sam!" she snaps harshly. "Get me a towel!"
Sam's eyes are glazed with shock. Mary can't begin to guess what happened but she knows what's going on in front of her right now, and a man is dying.
She slaps him, quickly and without passion. "Towel, Sam. Now."
He runs to the bathroom and returns with a crisp white towel seconds later. She presses it to the wound, the fabric quickly becoming soaked with crimson.
"Arkady, I need a first aid kit," she says calmly. "It'll be in the cupboard under the sink."
He stares at her helplessly and she knows he's remembering that day again. "Danni—"
"Now," she shouts, rapidly losing patience. Her hands are covered in blood and she doesn't have time for this.
Arkady fetches her the kit and she tears it open, quickly laying out what she needs. Needle, check. Thread, check. Bandages, check. Scissors, check.
She bends her head over the wound and begins to work. The world fades out until all that exists is this. The stitching. The rhythmic duck of the needle through the skin and the gentle, efficient pull of the thread.
"Get me a bowl of water," she says aloud at one time, and after a minute one appears in front of her.
It isn't until after she's bandaged the flawlessly stitched wound that she comes back to the world. She's covered in blood up to her elbows, and she takes a moment to regret the lack of gloves inside the kit. She presses her index and middle fingers to the man's neck and counts, eyes distant and calculating.
"He'll live," she pronounces coldly. She comes back to herself enough to notice that both Sam and Arkady are staring at her.
"Danni, how did you know how to do that?" Arkady asks gently.
"I went to med school," she says flatly. It's not a lie. She just chooses to leave out the part where she became a freelance body mod surgeon and oh yeah, a murderer. She flinches ever so slightly, just in the eyes, and instantly regrets it, because Arkady notices. Of course he notices. He notices everything.
"Stop looking at me like that," she snaps, and realizes she's shaking. She struggles to her feet. Arkady's at her side in an instant, trying to help her up; she shakes him off and marches to the bathroom, locking herself in and scrubbing the blood from her skin until the water runs clear. She looks up, into the mirror, meeting her reflected eyes, and feels nothing. Shock, she thinks disconnectedly. Not from the surgery, no. This is the shock of dipping into the well of her past and coming up with that cold, dispassionate person. Mary Mason, who doesn't fuck up.
She throws up in the toilet and prays no one heard her. For the first time in a long while, the memory of that first surgery overwhelms her—that man, one eye missing, a gaping slash down the front of him. The overwhelming sensation of those men's eyes traveling over her barely clad body as she sewed him back together. How she felt afterwards, the adrenaline high mingled with pure revulsion. The long, ugly scar down the front of her body feels tight and itchy and she wants to claw it open again.
A voice brings her out of her horrified reverie. "Danni?" A knock, brisk and impatient as if it isn't the first time he's attempted to get her attention. "Danni, are you all right?" The cultured timbre of Arkady's voice wraps around her assumed name in a way that makes her shiver, even as she stares distantly at the door.
"I'm fine," she tries to say, but she only mouths the words soundlessly, voice stuck in her throat.
There's a long pause. "The police want to take your statement, Danni. May I tell them you will speak with them later?"
She swallows. Taking a deep breath, she stands, wobbling on her work heels and wincing at the pins and needles in her legs as the blood flows back to them. She opens the door to see Arkady's face only inches from her own; the latter clearly having been leaning against the door in an effort to hear her voice. He doesn't move, choosing instead to gaze into her eyes unflinchingly. Fucking Arkady.
"I'm fine," she lies out loud this time, staring back. If he expects her to cave he's wrong. She's got a bulletproof poker face.
"Are you?" he murmurs, eyes moving over her face. This is...intimate. Uncomfortably so. "I'm glad to hear it."
"I'll talk to the police now," she says, aware that he's staring at her mouth. Her insides feel like they're melting and she doesn't want this, doesn't need to deal with this right now.
His eyes snap back to her eyes. "Of course." He moves aside and gestures courteously for her to pass. She smiles weakly.
Sam is in the suite, looking almost as bad as Mary feels.
"Oh, hey, Danni," he says faintly. "Are you okay?"
"Fine," Mary says flatly, and she's really getting sick of the feeling of that word on her tongue.
"Danni?" An unfamiliar voice sounds from behind her and she turns. It's a cop.
"Yes," she says, throat rasping over the words.
"Can I get your full name, ma'am?" He's writing in a notebook.
She's unbelievably conscious of Arkady and Sam's proximity. The cop glances up when she doesn't speak.
"Mary Dannielle Mason," she says in a low voice. She knows Arkady hears her anyway.
"Mary Mason," the cop says, half to himself. "Hey, I heard about you. Weren't you the one—"
"I'm sure you must be mistaken," Mary says through numb lips. She can feel that her face has drained of color. Arkady is starting towards her, looking concerned, when the cop speaks again.
"Yeah, sure," he says slowly. He glances at his notepad again. "So can I get your account of what happened here today?"
"I came up here to talk to Mr. Balagan about a case he's working on," she says coolly. "I walked in, saw a man wounded on the floor, and that the window was broken. Then I saw to the man's injuries."
"You saved his life, Miss Mason," the cop says straightforwardly. "He would have died if you hadn't stopped the bleeding."
"I know," she says curtly.
He looks a little taken aback by the abruptness of her reply, but rallies and moves on.
"Are you a surgeon, Miss Mason?"
She hesitates, knowing that by answering she will be confirming his suspicions about who she is.
"Not technically," she says finally. "But I did go to med school. I dropped out a little while into the intern phase, though."
"I see," he says slowly. "Well, Mr. Edwards was lucky that you were here today."
"Is that everything, officer?" Mary asks coldly and impatiently. "I'd like to go home and shower."
He glances at her bloodstained dress. "Oh, yes, yes of course. We may require you to come into the station and give a statement, though."
"I'm sure that won't be necessary," Arkady says, butting in as usual. "Miss Mason—" he gives her a Look "—is undoubtedly exhausted from this...unexpected ordeal, and I can personally supply you with all of the information you could possibly require about this occurrence."
Mary walks away while Arkady is persuading the policeman to leave her alone. Just when she thinks she's escaped, he trots up beside her in the hallway.
"Mary, hmm?" He's smiling. "Why do you go by your middle name, darling?"
A chill goes down her spine. He's never called her that before. She likes it a lot more than she probably should.
"Because I want to," she says, not looking at him or pausing in her stride. "Danni is more modern. Better suited to a bartender."
"You know, Mary Mason," Arkady says, ignoring her unspoken request, "All of this reminds me how little I know about you."
"Oh yeah?" she says, attempting forced nonchalance. "How's that?"
"I've known you...what—a year?" Arkady says, long legs easily keeping up with her fast pace. "How is it that I did not even know your full name?"
"I don't like to talk about myself," she says slowly. "Why are you so interested?"
She can feel him smiling at her, that fond, arrogant expression that always gives her such mixed feelings. "I wish to know my friend better, is that so wrong?"
"No," she stops abruptly at the elevator and ignores how closely he chooses to stand next to her. She leans forward to press the down arrow, also ignoring the way he doesn't move to allow her more space to do so. She knows he uses his physical proximity to make people nervous. She tells herself that he isn't the reason her heart is beating so quickly. She's just been walking too fast.
The elevator dings and the doors slide open. Mary steps inside.
"Come over to my place sometime and I'll tell you all about myself," she says sweetly, and the last thing she sees before the doors close is Arkady's expression of surprise.
Victory is sweet.
At home Mary pours herself a demure half-glass of fragrant red wine, reconsiders, and fills the long-stemmed glass to the brim. There's no use pretending she won't finish the bottle before six o'clock.
She leans her hip against the doorway to the room where she almost bled to death, swirling her drink and staring sightlessly at the stain on the floor. Lately she's been contemplating if maybe she should reopen her practice. The long hours bartending at the hotel don't pay as well as they could, and as much as she enjoys helping Arkady on his cases, he sort of swallows up her days off to the extent that she doesn't have time for a second part-time job, let alone any personal life at all.
"Fucking Arkady," she mutters (at this point the phrase is like a mantra to her) and knocks back the rest of the wine. Bitterly, she remembers the days when she made ten thousand dollars off of a single surgery. These days she's lucky if she gets a five-dollar tip.
Mary pours herself another glass of wine and thinks about buying a turkey.
Later, she smokes a cigarette in the bath and leans her head back against the edge of the tub, closing her eyes and letting her mind sink into the crimson-tinged depths of her unconscious. She wonders what Arkady is doing and wishes that the thought of him didn't make her want to press her thighs together against the hot ache of it.
The phone rings and the sound of it jangles her nerves, making her jump and drop her mostly-ash cigarette in the tepid bath water. Cursing, she fumbles around on the floor for her cell, wrinkling her nose in disgust at the gray-brown smears of ash on her wet fingers.
She picks up on the final ring. "Hello," she says, too distracted by attempting to wipe her fingers clean to check the caller ID.
"Mary Mason," Arkady says in her ear, and she almost drops the phone.
"What do you want?" she asks, and instantly closes her eyes, wincing. "I mean...hi."
"You sound distracted, Mary," Arkady says smoothly, and she really wishes he had never learned her name so he couldn't keep saying it like that.
"It's fine, I'm just in the bath," Mary says without thinking, and instantly regrets it. The last thing she needs is Arkady knowing when she's naked.
There's a slight, almost unnoticeable pause. "Ah," Arkady says lightly. "Very well, I'll keep this short then. I want you to go and speak with Mr. Edwards at the hospital."
It's Mary's turn to pause. "The man in your room today?" Her nipples have peaked to hard pebbles, her wet skin rippling with goosebumps in the cold air outside of the lukewarm bath water. The wine has given her a pleasant buzz and she sinks lower into the water, knowing Arkady can hear the sloshing of the water over the phone. She rubs her thighs together lazily and arches her back, lolling her head against the edge of the tub.
"Yes, Mary, the man whose life you saved today," Arkady says softly, and she can picture him so clearly in her head, slumped on his couch staring at the ever-present chessboard, or leaning against the bar in his suite. "Will you do this for me?"
"What do you want to know?" Mary asks, voice raspy from the cigarette smoke. She closes her eyes, listening to the pleasant timbre of Arkady's voice.
"Ask him if he had an affair with a woman named Alison Beaumont, twelve years ago. It's important. I need you to pay attention very closely, Mary. If he lies, you must not believe him."
"Okay," she answers sleepily. "I'm gonna have to go tomorrow, though. I can't drive tonight, I've been drinking."
"That's perfectly fine, Mary. I will not ask you to leave your home now, not after you have been through such an ordeal."
Her hand has dropped between her thighs now, slowly kneading the hot flesh there.
"Thanks, Arkady," she says slowly, slurring her words a little and arching back, sloshing bath water. Her voice is little more than a sigh. The wine has granted her enough courage (or stupidity) not to care if he can hear her arousal.
There's a long, loaded pause.
"What are you doing, Mary?" Arkady asks in a low voice. His gravelly tone makes her shiver. Her hand plucks and teases, clenched between her legs.
"Nothing," she says breathlessly. "I have to go."
There's another long pause.
"Very well," Arkady answers eventually. He sounds distracted. "Goodnight, Mary."
"Goodnight," she says, unable to think anymore, hangs up the phone, and comes so hard her vision goes white.
Mary opens her eyes to a pale ceiling, squinting through her mascara-crusted eyelashes as she's assaulted by painfully bright sunlight. Groaning, she rolls over and is confronted by the sight of an empty wine bottle and a damp towel, lying side by side on the floor next to her bed.
The events of last night come rushing back like a hollow thud in the guts, and she abruptly feels unbelievably ill. What the hell was she thinking, talking to Arkady like that, doing...that—on the phone with him? Has she completely lost her fucking mind?
She drags herself out of bed, wincing at the creak and stretch of sore muscles. She lets out an gust of air, sinking her hands into her hair and attempting to bring her mind to some kind of order. Fuck. Okay. Hopefully, Arkady will have already forgotten about last night's...bath incident, and has moved on. He's got a case to focus on and he's absentminded enough even without work. Yeah. Sure. Totally plausible.
With these all-consuming thoughts on her mind, Mary dresses for work and it's not until she's out the door that she realizes she's dressed as she used to, tight black everything and sky-high stiletto heels, hair straight as a pin and a slash of dangerously red lipstick. It's amazing what habit can do even after years have gone by.
There's no time to change if she wants to interview Edwards before work like she promised Arkady, so she dismisses the possibility of changing and heads for the hospital. Besides—damn if she doesn't look good. There's a small, hateful voice in the back of her head that hopes Arkady notices.
At the hospital, she stares Edwards down while he stammers and avoids the question. Finally, she gets bored of his hedging and cuts to the chase.
"Look," Mary says coldly. "Either you can tell me what I want to know now, or I can inject you with a paralytic and carve you like a fucking Christmas turkey until you talk. Your choice."
She texts Sam on the way to the hotel.
M: tell arkady that edwards caved and admitted to the affair with beaumont
S: mr b says to ask you if you enjoyed your bath last night
S: whats that about?
S: y did u text me and not him? r u guys ok?
M: Ignore him.
By the time she gets to work she's worked herself into a terrible mood and has to expend an abnormal amount of effort to not stab a coworker in the jugular for wolf-whistling at her when she walks in. Judging from the way his face drains to an unhealthy pallor when she stalks past him, her glare gets the point across. She remembers Beatress (poor, helpless Bea) telling her that everyone was scared of her, even Billy, and Mary tries to tone it down. She doesn't need this to be a repeat of that fiasco.
Her scar twinges and she puts a hand to it, rubbing gingerly and wincing in discomfort.
"Something the matter, darling?"
Mary spins around to see Arkady perched nonchalantly behind her bar, leaning carelessly against the white-lit glass and smiling smugly at her. His smile widens when he sees her discomfited reaction.
"Don't you have anything better to do?" Mary asks crossly. She cocks her hip and arches an inquisitive brow at the Russian.
"No, no, in fact, at the moment the most interesting thing happening is you," Arkady says lightly, raising his own eyebrows at her until she looks away. "Vodka, if you please, dearest. And—"
"—pickles?" she finishes for him, trying to steady her racing heart. This new habit that Arkady has of calling Mary pet names is not good for her health.
He smiles slightly. "Of course."
"Coming right up," she says with forced casualness, turning away to mix a guest's gin-and-tonic. She delivers it with a professionally flirtatious grin that drops from her face as soon as they look away.
She pours Arkady a shot of her best Latvian vodka. "How's the case going? Any leads?"
"This is a new look for you," Arkady says thoughtfully, flat-out ignoring her question. He gestures to her skin-tight black dress. "Normally you're...shinier."
"I thought I'd try something different," Mary says, deadpan. "Always worth a try to see if I can make more tips."
She busies herself wiping down the bar (the server on shift before her is a fucking slob, not nearly up to Mary's surgically sterile standards) and when she looks up, Arkady is staring at her, tracing an index finger around the rim of his shotglass.
"What?" Mary asks uncomfortably.
"How are you doing, Mary?" He gestures awkwardly, eyes flickering to the side. "Financially?"
She stands speechless for a moment before she closes her mouth with a snap. "I'm..."
"Fine?" Arkady supplies sarcastically, raising his eyebrows over half-lidded eyes. "Yes, that is what I thought you would say." He spins, hopping down from the barstool with all of his usual theatrical grace. "We will speak of this more at another point, Mary. At the moment I have to go see a man about a window."
He disappears from her bar, dressing gown flapping dramatically behind him. Mary stares after him, stunned, until she realizes she's been wiping down the same bottle for the past two minutes and the G&T drinker needs a refill.
"Fucking Arkady," she sighs, and takes a shot of vodka for herself.
The next time Arkady comes to see her it's after eight o'clock, the bar is empty, and her feet are killing her.
"Oh, it's you again," Mary says disconsolately. "What do you want? Besides vodka."
Arkady pauses in his stride to place a hand on his heart, a wounded expression on his face. "Mary...darling, your words, they strike me through the heart—"
"Oh, shut up," Mary sighs, and fetches the vodka. Pouring him a shot, she asks, "So are you actually going to give me an update on the case or do I have to beat it out of you?"
"Keep the vodka coming and I will tell you anything you wish to know," Arkady says with his customary Russian extravagance. He lifts the shot to her in acknowledgement and tosses it back without fanfare.
Mary pauses in her lemon-slicing to arch a meaningful eyebrow. "Really."
"Well," he says after a moment's pause, chagrined, "perhaps not anything." He pops a stolen pickle round in his mouth and chews briskly.
"So?" Mary gesticulates impatiently with the knife.
He raises his eyebrows, feigning confusion; humor crinkles the edges of his eyes and mouth.
"Did you, or did you not get anywhere on the case," Mary growls, hacking up lemons with uncalled-for hostility.
"Ah yes, the case," Arkady says airily; Mary rolls her eyes and pours him another shot. Maybe if she stays on his good side with alcohol he'll neglect the topics of both her finances and the Bath Incident.
"Yes," he continues, "yes, I have been following up on some leads. But I don't wish to talk about the case right now."
There's a frisson of dread uncoiling in the pit of her stomach. She swallows. Her throat clicks dryly.
"No?" she croaks. Arkady's gaze is sharp and direct. She forces herself not to look away.
He pauses. "No," he says finally. "No, I wanted to ask you about this medical school business. Why did you leave, Mary? Clearly you were very good. Did something happen?"
Her gaze flickers, and she blinks against the miasma of panic. She can remember the weight of him, the feeling of his thick fingers in her mouth. The taste of him lingered for days, no matter how many times she brushed her teeth until she was spitting blood into the porcelain sink, gagging on toothpaste and the memory of his grunting and shoving between her legs.
"—Mary. Mary?" Arkady is snapping his fingers in front of her face, eyes razor-keen and focused. His face is set in lines of concern; it makes him look older than he is.
"I'm fine," she says weakly, and slaps his hand away. "Don't do that." She turns away to compose herself, reflexively gripping the edge of the back counter in a clutch for balance.
"Marishka," Arkady says gently, and now he's behind the bar, dismissing protocol with the usual lack of concern. He brushes her hair back from her face; she ducks away from his touch and walks quickly down the length of the bar and into the deserted back room. It's a holiday and the hotel is running on minimum staff. She's aware that Arkady is following her but she's so focused on not letting him see her cry that she won't turn around to tell him to go away.
"Mary," he calls after her; she's moving fast and he hurries to catch up. "Mary, talk to me, darling. What is the matter?"
He catches her by the arm, pulling her around to face him. She yanks out of his grip but he catches her again, this time gently grasping her wrist, and she ducks her head to hide her tear-stained face.
"Mary, dearest," he says again, softly. "Speak to me, please." She can feel his worried gaze but can't bring herself to face him. Her vision blurs as her eyes sting with salt.
"Something happened," Arkady says, cradling her wrist so gently in his hand. It's not a question.
She shakes her head; it's not a denial. She tries to speak and a deep, jagged sob wracks its way out of her chest. She's only ever spoken about Dr. Grant with Billy and Lance, and the terror is overwhelming. Her knees buckle and she stumbles. Arkady catches her under the elbows, supporting her.
"Easy, darling, easy," he says quietly. "Shh, shh, hush now, it's all right." He steers her to a chair and she collapses into it, attempting to gather herself.
"I can't—" she begins, and another sob rips out of her. She clutches her abdomen where the scar is, gasping for breath.
Arkady crouches in front of her, holding one of her hands in both of his. "Tell me, sweetheart. Please."
"I can't," she croaks again. "I can't talk about it, Arkady, I can't." She shakes her head, her hair veiling her face; he brushes it out of the way again.
"All right, all right," he says, resigned. "It's all right, котёнок, hush now." His hands are warm and she focuses on that, sucking in great gulps of air and feeling her heartbeat slow in her chest. Her head pulses sluggishly and she sighs, wincing and digging the heel of her palm into her forehead.
"Let me get you some water," Arkady says softly, and disappears from view. Mary attempts to compose herself, an intense wave of shame washing over her at the ridiculousness of her behavior.
"I'm sorry," she blurts out when Arkady returns with a tall glass of water.
He stops, taken aback. "Whatever for?"
Mary shakes her head. "For crying all over you. It's stupid and childish and I'm sorry."
He levels her with a stern look and for an instant she can imagine what he would have been like as a father. "Don't be ridiculous." His accent is somehow thicker than usual. He resumes his passage and crouches in front of her again, pressing the water into her hand and watching her drink.
"Thanks," she murmurs afterwards; he nods courteously. "Arkady..."
"Yes, Marishka?" He looks slightly bemused.
She licks her lips. His eyes hone in on it with all of the intensity of a predator catching movement in the grass. "What was that you called me earlier? That Russian word?"
Arkady smiles mysteriously and says nothing for a prolonged moment.
"I think you should leave work early today," he says at last. "Go home and rest." He stands up and she knows he's not going to answer her question.
His eyes light up with suppressed humor, and she only has time for an instant of dread before he says,
"Perhaps you should take another bath." He smiles gently, watching the color rise in her face, and makes his exit.