Taras woke with a start.
He sat up, unaware of where he was. His pulse was thrumming, hard, in his throat. Disorientation always made him assume the Zone, as if his release by the Isaevs and all the subsequent years of freedom were only the fever dreams of a man who no longer had waking thoughts of hope.
But no, he realized, after a moment. No. He was not in his flat in Leningrad, which was part of the problem. Instead of his brass bed with its plush mattress and soft sheets, and the warm, familiar smells of home, he was in a smaller, firmer bed with sheets not quite as fine, in a room that was darker, and not as warm.
He fell back, closing his eyes.
Taras knew it now, remembered the assignment that had taken them away from Leningrad and brought them to the stark concrete military base, bare and bleak as bones, in the remote Urals, halfway to Magadan.
The rapid pace of his heart began to slow as he lay there, breathing deliberately.
No. He was far from the Zone.
A memory came back to him then, one he didn't recall often. Lasha. Lasha had been waiting for him in Leningrad after the long, long journey home. Ilarion had been standing on the train platform, hands tucked into the pockets of his grey MVD uniform, visor cap slanted down low over his brow, shading his eyes. The fog had been thick and low-lying, a backdrop of dusk and smoke.
To anyone else, Lasha's visage must have looked sinister, a spectre of death, surely there to arrest someone the moment they stepped off the train. The crowd had parted around Ilarion like a school of fish around a shark.
But there had been something about the icy, amused glint of cold eyes under the brim of the cap and the hint of a dry smile at the corner of Lasha's mouth that Taras had recognized immediately. His friend. His comrade. Isaev. Part of him had wanted to embrace Ilarion there and then, in spite of the fact that he had never done so, but he had only approached Lasha wordlessly, and it had been Lasha who had grabbed his arm first, clasping it in both hands.
"Welcome home, Taras," Lasha had murmured in his ear, and Taras, overcome, had only been able to nod.
That had been a long time ago. Six years, now.
Taras pushed himself up, and swung his legs out from under the covers, sitting on the edge of the bed. He thought he should get up, shower and dress and head to the mess hall. Taras had the feeling he was getting a late start, but as he glanced at the nightstand, he didn't see his watch.
His suitcase was not where he'd left it, either, on the floor next the bed. He tried to remember if he'd put it away at some point, perhaps shoved it under the bedframe or into a closet, but he could not recall any such thing. As he glanced around the room, he caught sight of his uniform, draped neatly over a chair. That was strange.
There were other, little things - the door to the bathroom was open, whereas he always kept doors closed, and a small collection of bottles sat on the bar, next to a black valise that looked like Lasha's.
The sense of disorientation hit him again, but only for a moment, and then Taras realized that no, this was not his room at all, but rather, Lasha's.
His eyes widened, brown, and blue, and huge.
He began to recall it all, but completely out of order, memories hitting like low blows, gut-punches. Kissing Ilarion. Fucking him. Talking, after sex, affirming his loyalty with the sort of words that should never cross a man's tongue. And then, letting something far worse cross his tongue, performing an act unspeakable and unthinkable, vulgar and....
Taras licked his lips and swallowed, uncertainly. There was a funny taste in his mouth.
"Lasha?" he breathed, hoarsely, his voice barely a whisper.
No sign. He listened above the pounding of his heart, but heard nothing. The bathroom was dark.
Ilarion must have woken, and left, then, and Taras had slept through the whole thing, apparently so secure in Lasha's company that survival instinct did not kick in. But Lasha had not seen fit to wake him, either, and had just left him to sleep.
Was that how it worked? It would be easier to act like nothing had happened, if so. Taras wondered if that was what Isaev expected. He had left, then Taras was supposed to, and it would be like it never was.
But it had seemed almost normal, then. Maybe even enjoyable. Maybe. He recalled feeling warm, and close to Lasha, but now he could barely reconcile that with this, waking up in Isaev's room, naked and alone. Taras had done that thing again, like in Red Square, where something that seemed all right in his head at the time became a profoundly bad idea later.
Taras pushed out of bed with a sudden, violent motion.
His watch was sitting on the bathroom counter, where he'd left it the night before. He had taken a shower after they'd argued, before they'd had sex. Taras felt like he needed another shower, right now, but he didn't know what would happen if Ilarion came back while he was showering.
A toothbrush sat in a cup on the counter. He felt the bristles. Wet. Lasha had obviously used it earlier that morning. Taras stared at it for a few moments, then grabbed the toothpaste.
It was not the worst thing of Lasha's that that been in Taras' mouth.
As he brushed his teeth, he went to the towel rack. One damp towel, and one wet washcloth. He grabbed a dry washcloth.
Taras scrubbed his tongue, avoiding his own gaze in the mirror.
He walked over to the bar to find some vodka so he could purge any lingering odd tastes in his mouth. After a few seconds, he remembered that the fucking Ukrainian had drank all of Ilarion's vodka. He scowled. Cognac would have to do, he supposed.
He washed his dick and between his legs, and under his arms and his face. Then he got dressed, swiftly. Taras put everything back the way he had found it, more or less, and slipped his watch over his wrist. It was time to go. Taras moved to the door, and paused to listen.
The door shuddered suddenly, with loud bang, an impact of fist or foot.
Taras jumped, recoiling.
"What did you do, you prick?" a male voice demanded from outside, loud, and angry.
I don't know, Taras thought, panicked, staring at the door in horror, wondering who it was and how they could know and why the person sounded strangely familiar.
"Isaev! Are you in there?" the voice said, and after another moment, Taras placed it.
Liadov, angry about something, expecting to find Lasha. Taras wondered if he would break down the door or pick the lock. From the sound of it, he was capable of either.
He would know, he would know everything, the moment he saw Taras standing there, in Isaev's room, the second he laid eyes on Taras' face.
Taras stood still, though his impulse was to scramble away, find a place to hide, under the bed or in the shower. The still-functioning rational part of his brain kept him frozen in place. No sound, no motion. No one inside. Taras glanced down. The door sat flush with the doorjam. There would be no telltale shadow.
There was silence, then after a few seconds, shifting. Muttering. Footsteps retreating.
Taras let out a breath.
He wanted to sink against the door with shaky relief, but Taras found himself wondering.
From what he knew of the man, what he had observed, Liadov had nearly the self-control of an Isaev, one of those elitist pricks who were too good for an emotion as coarse as the raw anger he heard in Liadov's voice. To have been pushed to the point of pounding on Isaev's door had to be the result of some extraordinary trespass on Isaev's part, as if everything he had already done wasn't enough.
"What did you do, you prick," Taras muttered. He listened at the door for another second, then opened it and slipped out. There was no one in the hall, but he could hear Liadov's retreating steps.
Taras closed the door behind him with a quiet click.