The Hunt

Oct. 9th, 2008 10:13 pm
taras_oleksei: (Default)
[personal profile] taras_oleksei
The handwriting was familiar.

That was the thing that seemed the strangest to him, the detail that felt out of place.

Taras knew it from numerous old case files he'd gone through back in Leningrad, neat, organized notes, all written in an elegant hand.

Liadov's writing was distinct, artfully slanted. Not quite regular, but easy enough to read.

It was out of context here, in the darkened office, as he looked through Liadov's notes by penlight. Papers with Liadov's writing belonged in the records room back in the MVD building in Leningrad, testaments to a bygone era.

Except they really did belong here, he supposed, in Liadov's makeshift field office, in the Soviet army base they all now called their temporary home.

The office had not been hard to find, nor to break into.

Taras left the desk and its contents untouched, preferring to study things like the arrangement of objects, how Liadov kept things organized. What the man had brought with him in terms of personal items. How he had decorated, if at all.

He didn't know what compelled him to find out more about Liadov. Maybe because he didn't understand the story Ilarion had told him. Maybe because he didn't understand Liadov at all.

Taras swept the penlight over the desk again, then caught a slight noise from the office door.

He froze.

The sound of a key in the lock.
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Date: 2008-10-10 09:10 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] nikanor-liadov.livejournal.com
Nika pushed open the door, admitting a slice of harsh light from the corridor outside. The shaft streaked a jag straight across the floor and onto his desk blotter.

He glanced to the left, finding the switchplate by rote and flipping it upward.

The room was flooded with the mellow glow of a single overhead light. It was enough in a general needs sense; he supplemented his spot-work with a magnifying desk lamp.

His needs tonight were but brief- he had stirred in his bed with a sudden impulse, a need to check something. Aryol had stirred as well, looking at him with dark, inquisitive eyes, and Nika had brushed the sniper's sleep-tousled hair back carefully, tipping his faintly stubbled jaw upward to catch his mouth in a lingering graze.

"I won't be long," he'd said, pulling on his greatcoat, and that was enough for his ex-stranger.

He hadn't bothered to put on a shirt- only drew on his boots and jodhpurs. It was the middle of the night, after all, and he was only walking down a few deserted halls.

The greatcoat covered enough to reasonably simulate decency.

His mind was occupied for the first few moments inside his office, as he switched on the light and pocketed his keys, but when he looked up, his eyes bloomed out wide, then narrowed all at once.

Someone was looming over his desk, frozen in the incautious act.

Ilarion's second, the thuggish Captain with the mismatched eyes and the menacing patina of mottled past, rifling over his effects; his broad punishing fist brandished a handy penlight.

Nika blinked, disbelieving, a sudden spike of unchecked anger blanching his lips.

"What's this?" he said, in a voice lowered by sleep. "Care to explain what you're doing, criminal?"

Date: 2008-10-10 05:29 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] taras-oleksei.livejournal.com
"Looking through your shit, Liadov."

Taras straightened to his full height. He turned off the penlight with a casual twist, and stuck it in the pocket of his uniform jacket.

"What does it look like?"

He'd had only seconds to react, and not enough time to hide, not that the small office had many suitable places. The only thing he'd really been able to do to prepare himself was to squeeze his eyes shut so the light hadn't immediately blinded him.

It had been a reasonable gamble. Someone who used a key usually had a legitimate reason for their presence, unlike his low-lit covert skulking, and would probably turn on the light.

He'd been right.

Taras hadn't expected it to be Liadov himself, but the discovery had sent a charge of adrenaline through him. He could feel his own quickened pulse.

He studied Liadov through narrowed eyes.

Liadov looked hastily dressed, as if he'd been roused from his bed. Taras wondered if he'd bugged his own office, and had been alerted to the break-in.

"What are you doing here? Do you always come to your office in the middle of the night?"

His lip curled.

"Just so I know for the future."

Date: 2008-10-10 07:22 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] nikanor-liadov.livejournal.com
Liadov shook his head, slowly, like a grammar school teacher.

"Even at his worst, the Isaev I know wouldn't debase himself to this."

His smile was bloodless and crisp.

"You've really brought him down to a new level, haven't you."

He eyed his desk circumspectly.

Nothing had really been tampered with, to his immediate eye. That or Oleksei was an accomplished cat burglar, who riffled through items like the wind and left things as he found them.

Oleksei didn't seem like a break-no-branches sort, but Nika allowed that it was possible.

Liadov's gaze centered on Oleksei once more, quietly sardonic. There was a deep grieving in his marrow that was beginning to seep in behind his eyes, like blood blooming and blighting the pristine surface of a carefully wrapped bandage.

"Find what you needed? If I had known you were here, I'd have stayed in bed and had my cock sucked."

He pulled out the keys to the room and flicked them at the Captain's head as he turned toward the door.

"Here," he snapped, "Do me a favor and lock up when you're done."

Date: 2008-10-10 08:58 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] taras-oleksei.livejournal.com
Taras sidestepped the arc of the thrown keys, letting them sail past his head without trying to grab them. They hit the tiled floor with a clatter of metal behind him.

"Don't need them," he said, to Liadov's back.

The set of Liadov's shoulders was stiff. He gave no sign of having heard.

After a moment, Taras' expression tightened.

"What the fuck is wrong with you?" he growled.

He stepped away from the desk, following Liadov toward the door.

"Are you looking for excuses to hate him? I didn't think there was a way you could think less of him."

Date: 2008-10-10 09:32 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] nikanor-liadov.livejournal.com
Nika turned, a wry smile twisting its way onto his mouth.

"You're asking what's wrong with me, Captain Oleksei?"

He paused, settling back in a casual stance, so that he could regard Oleksei fully.

"Do you think I need an excuse to think less of Ilarion, when you're here illegally on his behalf, confronting me at the wolf hour in all your ill-gotten, scrapyard glory?"

Liadov's brows lowered, and his regard grew more heated.

"I don't hate Ilarion Isaev. On the contrary, it pains me gravely to see him descend into clockwork villainy."

The brute stood near him. Every fiber of him spoke of worked-up aggression and short-fused violence. Nika could almost smell the violence on him, heavy, like coppery blood.

"His brand of malice was always an art. This is the province of a gutter-born hack."

Liadov stared into the hectic contradiction of Oleksei's mismatched eyes.

"Don't think that Aleksandr will find this whimsical. Betraying your brethren is a cardinal sin, one that indelibly marks the one who commits it."

He paused, raising an eyebrow.

"I expect you remember a similiar code from your house of thieves."

Date: 2008-10-10 10:57 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] taras-oleksei.livejournal.com
Taras leaned forward, pressing into Liadov's personal space, intruding through force of sheer muscular bulk and bristling presence. His gaze bored into Liadov's, searching it furiously for long moments.

"By your own words, you prove it," he finally said.

Taras shook his head, letting out a breath through clenched teeth.

"You assume I'm here on his behalf. That's the first thing you thought."

He glanced down, realizing suddenly that Liadov was bare-chested under his grey MVD coat.

Taras scowled.

"That he told me to come here in the middle of the night and fuck with your stuff even though you just said that it wouldn't be like him to do that."

Liadov stared back at him. It was almost surreal to stand this close, remembering Red Square. Liadov had been bare-chested then too, an arrow-pierced martyr who Taras had rubbed one out with.

His jaw went taut.

"You say you know him, but you don't even think twice. You just assume the worst."

He leaned as close to Liadov as he could without touching him.

"Does that make it easier, you prick?"

Date: 2008-10-10 11:32 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] nikanor-liadov.livejournal.com
Nika gazed at him for a long time.

"Tell me who you live with, and I will tell you who you are. That axiom is as apt today as it was when it was coined. You, comrade Oleksei, are the very reasonable litmus by which I judge my beloved old friend's intentions. And here you are, again, in my office, intruding on time-honored agency decorum and intending no good."

He did not lean forward to counter Oleksei's invasion of his territorial space, but merely looked at him with sleepless eyes.

"You ask how I come to my assumption? You are my basis for assumption. His choice of association is telling, especially when taken with all that I know of his ruthlessness, and how far that is capable of extending."

Liadov paused, tilting his head.

"All that can be as it may. Still, none of it beckons the questions that I think are most intriguing, Mr. Oleksei, and indulge me if you will-"

Nika drew a breath, crossing his arms and fixing Oleksei with a mildly piercing glance.

"First: why do you care about the particulars of my relationship with Ilarion Isaev, and, more to the point, if Isaev didn't send you to rummage through my possessions like an overgrown raccoon, what could your motive possibly be?"

Date: 2008-10-11 08:32 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] taras-oleksei.livejournal.com
"You don't know me."

Taras leaned back slightly, regarding Liadov narrowly, lip curling.

"You think you know me because you know one thing about me. You know that, and you think that's all there is to know. You see these - "

He tore open his jacket collar with a vicious yank, pulling down his shirt and exposing the blue inked lines of his tattoos. The top of the tiger's head was just visible, particularly intricate.

"And you see a zek, da? And you know everything about zeks. Except you don't really know me. I'm not like any zek you've ever met. So how can you judge him by the company he keeps? You have to ask me why I care, because you don't know."

Taras pressed forward again, crowding Liadov's space.

"I give a fuck, because Lasha is my comrade."

He paused.

"I know everything that happened, Liadov. And I just want to know why."

Taras' voice dropped, turning lower and harsher. His face contorted with a surge of violent emotion.

"Why are you fucking with him?"

Date: 2008-10-11 08:39 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] nikanor-liadov.livejournal.com
"You're wrong, Oleksei," said Liadov, quietly. "I actually know two things about you."

He paused to let that penetrate, then his eyes slowly cased the Captain's body.

"And if you took your uniform off, I'd know even more," he said, bringing his eyes back up to Oleksei's. "It's not hard to know a man who wants to be known."

Oleksei's face was close, and his anger was palpable; bizarre, for any hired gun to make a matter so personal.

"One can know a man by his deeds, not his words. You're telling me you're different. You insist that you're special. That you're not some average prison Ivan."

Liadov's lip hitched slightly.

"You can say anything you like, but I'm looking at a pictographic glossary that speaks louder. You broke in here, just like any other zek. You're marked like any other zek, with the same old tattoos, for the same old crimes."

Nika snorted.

"Show me something better, Oleksei, and I might change my mind. For the moment, your word is nothing worth."

But Oleksei's last words were surreal, and Liadov found himself shaking his head.

"Fucking with Lasha. I don't even know what you're talking about. I'm the one who left Leningrad because I couldn't make myself stay away from him any other way."

Liadov's eyes averted.

"Ilarion was my closest friend in the world. I lay beside him in the cradle. I would lay beside him in the grave."

His eyes narrowed and he looked up, tossing back his sleep-tousled hair.

"If you know everything, then what more can I tell you?"

Date: 2008-10-12 12:09 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] taras-oleksei.livejournal.com
Taras stared at Liadov, mismatched eyes wide and stricken.

He found himself utterly at a loss, overwhelmed, unable to formulate any response whatsoever, as if there were no words he knew that could express what he was feeling. He fought to school his expression, twist it into a sneer, but after a few seconds, he had to turn away abruptly.

I would lay beside him in the grave.

The words haunted him.

Taras stepped away several paces, swallowing hard.

It was far too late to pretend like everything was normal, but it would be worse to let Liadov continue to see his face, and read the play of naked emotion across his features.

"I do know everything," he said, finally, voice low and harsh. "I just don't understand it."

He stared furiously at Liadov's desk without seeing it, acutely aware of Liadov behind him. Liadov, whose calm, mild eyes hid the gaze of a predator as ruthless as any zek. Taras knew Liadov was smart, and knew how to look for weakness.

"I don't understand you."

Taras fell silent for a few moments, shoulders taut. Every breath he dragged in hurt, like his lungs were constricted.

"This is making me crazy," he bit out.

Taras shook his head, trying to clear it.

"How can you say things like that, like you still mean them? How can you say them, and then not be his comrade? Do you even know how he talks about you? He says shit like that too. All he wants is for you to forgive him. All he wants is to be your comrade."

He spun around violently then, fists curled at his sides, livid gaze fixed on Liadov.

"There is no one in the world who is more important to him than you are, and you don't give a shit. How does that work in your head, Liadov? How do you live with that? That's what you can tell me."

Date: 2008-10-12 11:41 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] nikanor-liadov.livejournal.com
As a policeman, Nika was willing and able to take a punch.

The problem was that Oleksei's words- whether he accounted them misguided or no- hit harder than a punch could have.

Unconsciously, he reached for the his breast pocket, pressing his hand over it. He could just feel the slim outline of his smart leather ID case beneath the blunted tips of his gloved fingers.

Will alone kept his hand from shaking.

He closed his eyes.

They felt hollow beneath their lids.

"Don't," he said, softly.

His chest ached like a cavern.

"You don't know everything."



Date: 2008-10-13 03:25 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] taras-oleksei.livejournal.com
Taras watched Liadov for a long moment, the fury in his eyes slowly waning.

Liadov's cat face had a look he recognized, an expression that he understood.

Taras could see it in the tightness at the corners of Liadov's eyes and the furrow that creased his brow, the tense press of his lips.

That was pain. It reminded him of Lasha.

"Fine," he snapped, finally. "Fine."

He looked away, rubbing his clenched jaw roughly.

Taras paced the room, feeling the call of violence still singing in his blood, wanting, at that moment, to smash something. Anything. He scowled at Liadov's desk.

"He told me not to hurt you."

Leather creaked as he clenched his gloved fists.

"He made me promise."

Taras let out a hard breath, and turned back toward Liadov.

"I don't think you know everything, either."

Date: 2008-10-13 03:47 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] nikanor-liadov.livejournal.com
Liadov opened his eyes, centering them on Oleksei.

Surprised, distracted from his own private injury.

Something ineffable fluttered to the surface of his mind at the thug's vigorous words, something significant that beckoned to be caught and held; the flirtatious ripple of a deep pond.

"You want to hurt me, zek?" he asked, softly, darkly. "Is that what you came to do?"

His eyes moved lower, seeking the spread neck of Oleksei's shirt, the dishevelled tie looped to one side.

"Looks like you could do it. Strong arms. That chest..."

Nika regarded him dispassionately.

"Honestly, you're more my type than Isaev's. Sometimes I appreciate a man who's a little rough around the edges. You should have met my driver."

Date: 2008-10-13 04:38 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] taras-oleksei.livejournal.com
Taras' lip twisted.

"Is that what you were doing in Red Square? Looking for someone like me?"

He eyed Liadov narrowly, holding his gaze. There was a consideration in Liadov's eyes, a measured challenge, the look of a predator who had its choice of prey.

"I shouldn't have done anything, but I was drunk. I was riled up and I wanted to - "

He broke off, shaking his head.

"It doesn't matter."

Taras stepped toward Liadov again, coming to a stop an arm's length away.

"I didn't come here to hurt you. I didn't even come here to fuck with your stuff. I didn't touch anything."

He scowled.

"I don't know why I came," he added, more quietly. "But that doesn't matter either. I just want you to stop fucking with Lasha."

Date: 2008-10-13 05:27 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] nikanor-liadov.livejournal.com
Nika frowned tautly, eyes casting downward, his expression petulant by nature and not intention.

"I wasn't looking for anything in Red Square," he said, in a low voice. "Especially not you."

He rubbed his wrist absently, finding no cuff, bemused for a moment until he remembered his state of half- dress.

"You were an impulse."

He glanced up at Oleksei.

"Not to disparage it. I enjoyed our little collision. You were very...game."

He raised an eyebrow.

"Or..riled up, if you prefer to call it that in hindsight."

Nika sighed, running his fingers back through his hair, rifling the masses of mellowed gold and letting them fall as he gathered his thoughts.

Pain lingered at the door, teasing the threshold, but he kept it at bay.

"Look. Oleksei. I don't know why you're here, but I assure you it doesn't matter what I do when it comes to 'your comrade' Lasha. I'll be hanged, Captain, for a sheep or a lamb, regardless. I'm not the one torturing Ilarion. He's torturing himself."

Liadov paused, exhaling deeply.

"And me," he added, quietly.

He leaned forward, dropping his voice, somnolent grey eyes rising to catch Oleksei's and hold them fast.

"Tell me, Taras Oleksei, what makes you so unseasonably angry with me? I thought it was Red Square, pure and simple- repressed desires, fear of exposure- but I don't think that now."

He reached out, slowly, almost imperceptibly, straightening the thug's necktie with careful, deliberate fingers. Easing the knot slowly up, but stopping shy of the final placement, leaving it casual and uncontrived.

"Tell me," he whispered, coolly. "Tell me something I don't know. I'm listening, comrade."

Date: 2008-10-13 07:08 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] taras-oleksei.livejournal.com
Taras drew in a sharp breath.

"Don't touch me," he whispered.

Taras reached up with a slow motion, as Liadov had, and closed his hand around Liadov's wrist. His grip was deliberately light, firm but nowhere near the strength it would take to bruise, or to keep him from pulling away.

"What do you want to know, Liadov? Something about Lasha?"

He did not let go of Liadov's wrist, but instead held it trapped, fingers resting across his pulse. It would only take a suitable application of force, a twist, and he could snap it.

"I've known him for a long time. Not as long as you, but since we were kids."

He paused, eyes narrowing.

"My father worked for his father. You know what that means."

He had no doubt Liadov did, and probably condemned it.

"He brought me into the Ministry when they promoted him to Major. And ever since we've been working together, I've heard about you. Before that, I never even knew you existed. It was strange, almost like you were still there, the way people talked about you. And it hurt him, every time your name came up. You should see his face, Liadov. You should see his eyes."

Taras' jaw tightened.

"But you know what? He told me he deserves everything you give him."

Liadov's wrist felt warm in his hand, solid.

His fingers tightened minutely, and he leaned forward.

"Did you know that?"

Date: 2008-10-13 07:48 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] nikanor-liadov.livejournal.com
Liadov's eyes flared into rare ire.

"I give him? Are you fucked in the skull, Goliath? There was no giving involved. I removed something priceless from his careless hands, before he could break it beyond repair."

He felt the manacled grasp of Oleksei's fist, but the lack of pressure identified it as more of an insinuation than an actual seizure.

The physical contact was raw and catalytic. He had a feeling they should not be touching.

"I am still in Leningrad, Oleksei. My ghost is in Leningrad. I left my soul there. But I had a reason."

His teeth clenched slightly.

"So the leg-breaker's son wants to lecture me on ethics. I never knew about you, either, but if your father worked for Aleksandr, he must have earned his reputation."

Liadov's eyes narrowed.

"I understand your loyalty, believe me. The bonds of comrades. But for Isaev and I, it isn't as simple as you paint it."



Date: 2008-10-13 09:44 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] taras-oleksei.livejournal.com
"As simple as what?"

Taras scowled.

"It's not simple. If it were simple, I would understand it. If it were simple, it would make sense."

He stared at Liadov for long moments, gaze brutal.

"If I'm that wrong, then tell me, comrade. Explain it to me."

Liadov's wrist was in no way fragile under his fingers, solid, but also refined. It reminded him of Lasha. Taras thought Liadov's hands were slightly larger than Ilarion's, though they both were about the same height.

He frowned.

It meant nothing.

"I'm not saying Lasha didn't fuck up. He did. But you say one thing, and you're doing another, and that's what I don't understand."

Date: 2008-10-13 10:04 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] nikanor-liadov.livejournal.com
Nika paused, brows canting slightly at the inner ends.

He shook his head, disbelieving, then pressed his lips together briefly, before returning his gaze to Oleksei, resolute.

There was nothing for it.

"There is one crucial truth, Captain, that you have somehow failed to apprehend."

Nika paused, regarding Oleksei's bi-colored eyes without flinching.

"Lasha and I weren't simply comrades. We were lovers."

Date: 2008-10-13 05:35 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] taras-oleksei.livejournal.com
Taras grimaced, face tightening into a scowl.

His hand convulsed on Liadov's wrist spasmodically, clenching too hard. He loosened his grip a second later, but did not let go.

He looked away, unable to meet Liadov's clear glass green eyes.

His jaw worked. Taras didn't know what he could say to that, how he could explain about Barshai had said to him. He was in love with that man. There were even things that Isaev had said that had made Taras wonder the unthinkable.

Taras drew in a harsh breath.

"Doesn't that - "

He closed his eyes, shaking himself, hard.

"Doesn't that make it worse?" he whispered.

Date: 2008-10-13 09:08 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] nikanor-liadov.livejournal.com
"Yes," said Liadov, intently, eyeing Oleksei like a serpent. "It actually does."

Oleksei seemed properly horrified, as he'd expected, rigid with disgust and disbelief.

"The betrayal goes deeper, the wound is harder to reconcile."

Nika's lip curled into a grimace.

"He had me, Oleksei, body and soul in the palm of his hand. He should have trusted that. I never gave him cause to doubt me, not once."

His hand shook.

"But in his impulsive jealousy, he victimized Nina, and he would have destroyed her without even hesitating. Had he but asked me, I could have told him- about the atonement, about my reasons. But he didn't ask."

Liadov forced Oleksei to meet his eyes.

"No one knew better than I how merciless he could be, but he was always a god to me. I'd watched him brutalize countless others- but never me or mine. I was never in his sights, until that day. That day, I got a taste of what he was capable of. It was too much. After years of companionship, his ruthless nature finally cost him."

Date: 2008-10-13 10:18 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] taras-oleksei.livejournal.com
"Okei. Okei."

Taras broke his grasp, pulling his hand away from Liadov's wrist. His fingers tingled, like they'd gone numb. He curled them into a fist.

"Fine."

He stepped away.

"Never mind, Liadov. Forget I said anything. It's not my business in the first place. There are some things I don't want to know."

Taras took in a rough breath, jaw tightening. After a moment, he looked back.

His mismatched eyes were restless, hooded by his heavy brow. He did not meet Liadov's gaze.

"If it matters, he said the same thing. About what happened."

He paused.

"I don't know if it matters."

Taras shrugged stiffly, and finally fixed his gaze on Liadov again.

"So is that it? Is that how it's going to end? It doesn't seem like it's over."

Date: 2008-10-13 11:45 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] nikanor-liadov.livejournal.com
Liadov laughed, but it was forced and hard.

He leaned back against the wall, crossing his arms over his chest.

"Was it ever over for Caesar?"

Then his eyes became softer, all at once.

"Do you read, Taras? The classics? I thought no men of the proletariat had the time, nor the inclination...but my friend Kasya proved me in error. He reads quite voraciously. The Roman record tells us that Caesar and Antony were several times at odds, Oleksei. Several times, and once the rift was great enough that they did not speak for two years. And yet, Antony remained ever devoted to Caesar."

Nika dismissed his own rhetoric in the next breath, which came to his chest on the edge of a blade.

"If you want to know...do I still love Ilarion...the answer is that I do, and I will, regardless. I can no more change that than I can change the color of my hair. I was born to it, Oleksei."

After a moment, he paused.

"And yes, it matters," he said, quietly. "Thank you."

Date: 2008-10-14 04:48 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] taras-oleksei.livejournal.com
Taras nodded, mutely.

He turned away, rubbing his neck. His chest ached, and his neck felt tense.

Taras flexed his shoulders, trying to loosen them, shaking himself, still restless.

"What happened then?"

Taras turned back to Liadov, frowning.

Liadov looked weary, his face and lips pale, his eyes low, half-lidded with strain. Like he'd taken a beating even though Taras hadn't delivered one.

Or maybe he had.

"What happened, after the two years? To Antony and Caesar."

Date: 2008-10-14 06:01 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] nikanor-liadov.livejournal.com
Nika's eyes dropped.

"That's not important," he demurred, rubbing his brow.

He paused, buckling under the understated weight of Oleksei's stare.

He shook his head.

"Antony...returned to Caesar. Eventually."

His voice was low, and reflected the echoes of inevitability.

Oleksei looked like a gangster, there was no mistaking it now. The pugilistic shoulders and stance, the pugnacious brow and jaw, the straight, hard mouth. Low brows, the slightest hint of a cleft in his chin, the tilt of his eyes.

"He picked well, I'll give him that. You're devoted."

Oleksei was pacing slightly, halting, glowering. No longer frenetic, he seemed uncertain, and restless in his conflict. Yet he lingered.

"Devoted, unlike any hired gun I've ever seen."

Liadov's eyes slatted, after a moment.

"Why is that?"
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