Sometimes Nikolai looked down at himself and wondered if he'd been born with tattoos. They were as much a part of who he was as the cleft in his chin, the scar on his lip, the color of his eyes. He could imagine sometimes that he did emerge from the womb this way, marked and ready for what would become his life.
The first tattoo had been on his hand, his fingers, and he remembered the incredible burn of it. Yet that had been nothing compared to the crucifix on his chest. The center of the cross, Christ's head, was right over his breastbone, turning the familiar sting and burn of the needle into an ache that fanned across his chest and cramped his muscles. The tattoos on his arms had been the least painful, and the back, but even the ones on his stomach had flared pain across his front when on the skin above a rib.
The stars, though, on his chest and knees, Nikolai barely felt. He'd expected the knees to be some of the worst, only skin and a tiny bit of flesh stretched over the patella. In truth, he'd been alarmed at how little of it he'd felt. Should have hurt, he was thinking as he looked at himself, shirtless, in the mirror, when someone knocked. He didn't answer for a moment, as he was caught up in trying to remember the pain of the tattoos, but there was no memory there. Only the whisper of movement over the skin, the buzz of the needle, the ink sinking into his flesh as a stain that made him more of who he was. When had it happened? When had he gone so numb?
"Nikolai!" Kirill said as he was let in. "What took you so long?" He peered around the room, a much larger one than Nikolai had when he'd been a mere driver, as if looking for someone Nikolai might have hidden.
"Was preoccupied," he said, before plopping down in a chair and pointing at a bottle on the small table in invitation.
Kirill didn't bother with a glass. "I see, I know, you were having a private moment . . . with your hand, eh?" He laughed too loudly and took a long drink, standing in front of Nikolai's chair.
Nikolai laughed. "Da, if you say so." He held his fist in the air and shook it, which should have made Kirill laugh harder. Instead, his smile faded.
"Kirill, something has been troubling you. Are you going to tell me what it is, or you make me guess?" He stretched out his leg and kicked Kirill lightly.
"Hey, put on a shirt, let's go out."
"Out there, let's go enjoy ourselves. You're the boss now, we should be able to go when and where we please . . . come on!"
Nikolai shook his head. It wasn't so much that he didn't want to go out, he just didn't want another night of trying to cheer Kirill from something he didn't understand. He should be glad to be out from under his father's shadow, and Nikolai knew that he was. He also had no doubt Kirill was conflicted about it, but if he didn't do something about it now it was only going to get worse. He was free; he should be happy.
"Kirill," he whispered, "I'd rather we stay here. Talk."
"Ah, talk, talk, talk. What good is talk? It is all very simple, da? You are the boss, you said we were partners. I'm with you, or I'm with him. Well, here I am with you. It's fucking simple." He took a long drink, and wiped the corner of his mouth with the back of his hand.
"You don't believe me."
Kirill answered him then without saying anything. That smile of his appeared, the one that made him look like a vulnerable young boy who wants approval. The one that first made Nikolai feel protective, and now stirred other things. He wished he could hate that smile, he should have learned to, but he'd given up trying long ago.
"When I said we were partners, Kirill, I meant it. It wasn't just so you'd give me baby."
"I know. I believed you."
Nikolai stood then, stepping forward enough so that they were only a few inches apart. He took the bottle from Kirill's hand and drank. "Somewhere in there," he said, touching Kirill's temple and then his chest, "I do not believe you're sure. So tell me, Kirill. Tell me how I can convince you." He took another drink, and smiled just a little when Kirill's smile returned.
Was it really the fact that he was in the organization so deeply now, that he was doing what he was born to, that kept him from letting them pull him out of his cover after Semyon had set him up? He'd almost been killed in that bathhouse, reason enough for most to give up even more years of work than Nikolai had put in. Was his work all the reason he stayed now?
Or was it the feeling he got like the one when he saw this smile, not long ago, at the edge of the water. His chest had ached when he saw Kirill holding that baby, a pain worse than any tattoo or beating could give him. It ached both in fear for the child and something else. That smile when Kirill saw him, there had been too many things in that smile. Kirill should have been upset at being found, but he was relieved. He was overjoyed to see Nikolai, who had come to save the baby. To save him.
"Come on," he said, when Kirill was mute. "How shall we make this pact, you and me, eh?"
Kirill licked his lips, and ran nervous fingers through the hair that always threatened to fall in his face. "What, you want to be blood brothers or something?" He laughed.
Nikolai thought of the bodies he'd helped dispose of, the operations that he'd been a part of that had cost people's lives. They were already blood brothers. He moved Kirill in front of the chair and gently pushed. "Sit." Then he put the bottle on the table next to them, and carefully straddled Kirill's lap, smiling at the nervousness he saw on the man's face, the hesitation and hope. He stretched over and grabbed his cigarettes from the table and lit one. He held it between Kirill's lips for a moment, watched him breathe it in, then Nikolai inhaled deeply and slowly exhaled smoke through his nose.
Why was he doing this? He knew why. He didn't want to think the words, but he could feel the answer under his skin, under the cross on his chest and the stars on his knees. He'd broken one of the most important rules men like him had to follow. He let too much of himself into this Nikolai.
He pressed his and Kirill's forearms together tightly, then took off his watch and handed it to Kirill. "This pact will go deeper than ink, or blood. Thirty seconds, more if you wish." He held the cigarette above their arms, to make it clear what he was going to do, to give Kirill time to laugh and push him away if he chose. Kirill looked at it, licked his lips again, and gave a quick nod. Nikolai dropped the cigarette so that it rested in the groove between their arms.
Both men inhaled sharply, but Nikolai smiled at Kirill. "The captain decides when time is up," he said, not even straining as he spoke. Kirill wouldn't stop them too soon even though Nikolai couldn't see the face of the watch, or it would be clear it hadn't been thirty seconds. He could stop it a few seconds early if he chose. Nikolai guessed it would be more than half a minute. It would be as long as Kirill could stand. Years.
He flexed his fist, moving the muscles in his forearm, shifting the cigarette and hoping it would burn him deeper. He watched their skin burn, could smell it, and wanted to feel the pain. That would help. He stared at it, and realized that there was pain, not just where the cherry was blistering them both, but a hot ache that radiated up and down his forearm.
Kirill looked at him then, clenching his teeth, sweat on his upper lip, and Nikolai covered the hand with the watch in it, pushing it down out of sight. He leaned forward until their foreheads pressed together, and his groin was pressed firmly against Kirill's. "What does my captain say?"
Kirill smiled again, only the shakiness of it giving away that he was in pain. "Five more."
Nikolai closed his eyes and inhaled deeply, the light scent of sweat mixed with the alcohol and smoke on Kirill's breath soothing him, when it should not.
"Three, two," Kirill whispered. Their arms came apart at the same time Nikolai pressed his mouth against Kirill's. He'd expected no resistance, and there was none. He grabbed the back of the chair on both sides of Kirill's head and bucked forward, pressing them together as much as he could. Kirill leaned forward, matching his movements, until finally their mouths came apart in their need to rub together, slam together, hard enough to bruise thighs and hips.
Nikolai looked down at Kirill's face, put a hand on his cheek, thumb under the edge of his chin, not a tender touch but a forceful one, as he shoved himself against Kirill again and again. When Kirill's mouth fell open and he shouted, Nikolai tossed his head back and let go, quietly, his body's shaking all that gave him away.
When they stopped, both men panting, Kirill traced one of the stars on Nikolai's chest with his fingers, then he leaned forward and kissed him above the breastbone. He pressed his cheek there, and Nikolai could feel the muscles of Kirill's face move, knew that he smiled. He looked down at the burn in his arm. It was deep and dark, the skin black and then dark red all around it.
He knew now he had felt the pain of the tattoos, the cigarette . . . he could feel them both now. He put his hand on Kirill's hair, smoothed it down, pictured the smile he could feel against his chest. He knew exactly how it looked, knew the way Kirill's eyes stayed a little fearful even when his face lit up.
"It is fucking simple," Nikolai said, and knew he'd been wrong to think he was numb. He could still feel the pain that warned him to stop, that damage was being done and would leave a scar. He just no longer cared.