written for the Yuletide Treasure fic exchange in 2008.
Tests of Power
Kirill, we don't kill babies.
Kirill sat in the chair and stared straight ahead. Nikolai
wiped Kirill's face with a cool, damp cloth.
"Kirill," he whispered, "you are all right. The baby, she is
all right." He held the cloth against Kirill's broad forehead for a
moment. "We are all right. Da?"
Kirill looked up at him. "I would not have." He shook his
head. "If you had not come, I would not have." He swallowed too hard.
"You believe me." It was not a question—a question could be answered in
Nikolai tilted his head to the side in the way he often did
with Kirill, a way that was as much a communication between them as
anything he could say. He was aware that neither of them knew whether
Kirill lied. "Da, da Kirill. I believe you."
Kirill closed his eyes. "You know me," he said. "You know I
would not have."
Nikolai gently daubed Kirill's eyelids with the cool rag, not
surprised at the way the man leaned into his touch. He knew that Kirill
would not have killed the baby for a small reason, perhaps not even for
Nikolai. But it had been for his father, Semyon. Nikolai didn't believe
Kirill would kill an infant only to save his father. To gain his
approval, though, Kirill would do almost anything.
"The baby?" Kirill said, opening his eyes. "She will be all
right." Another not-question.
"Da, Kirill. She will have good life." He pushed hair away
from Kirill's face, his fingers combing it back. Like you have not,
That Kirill had been going to throw the baby in water both
convinced Nikolai he could have done it, and then convinced him that he
could not. The first time Kirill had voluntarily shown weakness had
been in telling Nikolai how his father taught him to swim when he was
afraid of the water. How he hated the water still. To drown a baby when
he'd had such fear . . . . Nikolai decided Kirill would not have done
it, because that's the belief that would be necessary in the months to
How much of what he saw in Kirill's eyes was his own
imagination? He couldn't help but imagine a small boy born into a
different family, with a mother like Anna. That boy would not grow up
to kidnap a baby and plan its death to earn his father's respect.
Nikolai found himself wondering, not for the first time, if
men like Kirill could be born with a mark inside them that would lead
them to become hard and cruel. At one time, before he was the man he
now saw in the mirror each morning, he might have believed that. But he
could not believe that cruelty and violence were predestined like sex
or hair color when he looked into Kirill's eyes. There, he only saw
Semyon's influence. Kirill's heart was marked just like his body; dark
spots marred his soul like bruises on the flesh of fruit.
"What do we do?" Finally, a question to answer.
"We be Kirill; we be Nikolai. What more is there?" Oh, so
much more, he thought. With Semyon soon to be removed from power,
Nikolai would step into his place. "We be who we are." Who that was,
Nikolai wasn't sure.
Kirill watched his father fuck the girl. He knew it was called
fucking. He'd heard the word spoken by his father and the men that were
frequently in their house, and the boys in school. Kirill was twelve,
and most of the other boys puffed out their chests and talking about
fucking like it was a sport, one that required competition.
The moment Kirill saw his father's back moving in the bed, his
stomach lurched. Like most things for which he was punished, he hadn't
meant it to happen. But he'd heard shouts, crying, and was curious. Now
he watched his father rutting against a crying girl, a girl young
enough that she might even go to his school. He might know her. By the
time Kirill realized his father was finished and was turning to look at
him, he was too terrified of discovery to move quickly. Semyon rose
from the girl, the girl who curled in on herself the moment she was
free of him, and closed the door. Kirill ran.
When Semyon came into his room later, Kirill felt the familiar
burn in his throat that came before he vomited.
"Come, Kirill." Semyon sat on the edge of the bed and motioned
his son to stand in front of him. To Kirill's surprise, Semyon pulled
him to sit on his lap. He could not remember the last time he'd been
invited to do so.
"Men like us, Kirill, we are different. Powerful men, we ask
no questions, no permission. We do what we want to do, da? We be what
we want, you and me. Do you understand, Kirill? Do you understand what
it means to have power?"
Kirill nodded and said yes. He swallowed acid.
"Perhaps," Semyon said. "But if you do not, you will, because
you are a son of Semyon. You will understand."
Nikolai was Kirill's protector. He was Kirill's father figure,
even more so now that Semyon would soon be gone and he would step into
that power. What else he was to Kirill, and Kirill to him, he didn't
When he looked in the mirror, he saw only who he was now:
Driver, undertaker, protector, confidant, and soon enough, prince among
these men. Did it matter that he could no longer imagine a life before
coming here? That he could no longer remember what he thought and felt
before? He imagined, most days, there was no before.
He would soon go from protecting Kirill to having power over
him. The transfer had begun long before Semyon's mistake with the girl.
When Kirill threatened him with a gun, forced him to fuck to prove he
was a man, Nikolai understood then just how much power he had. He did
not believe Kirill would have killed him. If Nikolai had refused or
been unable to fuck the girl, Kirill would have hit him, would have
beat him in front of the whores. And Nikolai would have let him. He
believed that's what Kirill had wanted.
Kirill had not watched him in a way that spoke of the
satisfaction of controlling Nikolai and making him do something he
demanded. His gaze said much more than that. And Nikolai waited every
day for him to say it with more than just his eyes. He tried to tell
himself that waiting was not the same as anticipating.
The Nikolai he was now told him it did not matter, they could
be the same. Whatever he thought now, whatever he wanted, that was all
that mattered, and it became all that ever was. He would do what was
necessary, and he would be what he needed to be. If he wanted
something, it was because the Nikolai he was now wanted it, and being
that Nikolai was necessary. It was simple.
Semyon had been too busy, but had arranged the swimming lesson
for Kirill who was 14 and nervous around water. Kirill liked guns, he
understood violence, but he feared the cold, dark beneath the water. He
feared what he couldn't see. Blood, he could see.
He didn't like being touched by Andrei. It wasn't intimate,
the way he held Kirill to him as they swam out into the deep part of
the pool, and perhaps that's why he didn't like it. It was a cold
touch, a stranger holding him too close, too awkwardly. But Kirill's
fear lead him to hang on tighter than he would have liked.
His father explained that Andrei would teach him to swim, and
Kirill would be glad to learn and overcome his fear. Because he knew it
Andrei dunked him beneath the water and pushed him away.
Kirill popped up and gasped, drew a burning breath. "What—I can't—" was
all he said, and then his shouts were wordless. He swallowed water, he
coughed, he choked on it. He flailed his arms and legs and still kept
dipping down. Kirill screamed underwater and sucked in a great gasp of
pool water that burned worse as it was coughed out once he bobbed above
the surface. He cried and shouted, facing the sun, watching it stretch
and shimmer as he sank.
And somehow he pushed himself up again, and found he was
closer to the edge and the impassive face of Andrei. Twice more he was
sure he would drown, but twice more he bounced up to draw air and moved
closer to the safety of the side of the pool.
When he finally reached Andrei, the man didn't apologize,
didn't comfort him. He lifted Kirill up to the edge of the pool, got
out and put a hand on the boy's shoulder to lead him away, though
Kirill coughed and gagged and swayed on unsteady legs. Kirill
eventually began walking, ashamed at the tears he couldn't stop.
"When it's sink or swim, you find out what you are, Kirill.
You learned to swim. Your father will be happy." He patted Kirill's
shoulder and walked ahead, as if the boy's tears shamed him, as well.
He said nothing else.
Kirill knew his father would be pleased. And that his father
had sent Andrei instead of coming himself, because he was not sure
Kirill would swim.
"You know I'm loyal." Kirill didn't look at Nikolai.
"You are loyal."
"You know what I am."
Nikolai put his fingers under Kirill's chin and lifted his
face. "Is that question, or confession?"
"Do it," Semyon said, gesturing toward the girl.
Kirill looked at his father and laughed. He raked his fingers
through his hair. "Here? Now? " He looked at the whore, who rose up to
her hands and knees, spreading her legs apart for Kirill.
"Kirill," he said, patting his son on the back. "Your birthday
present . . . enjoy it. Go." He nodded in the direction of the bed.
Kirill wanted to scream while you watch? but it was
unnecessary. Semyon was going to watch, and Kirill knew why. "But . . .
not in front of . . . anyone."
"I am not anyone; I am your father. Remained clothed if you
are modest, but fuck her."
"Father," Kirill said. He shook his head, smiled helplessly.
"I—I can't, not like this."
"Be a man, Kirill." He took Kirill's upper arm and pushed him
toward the girl. "Do it now." Semyon's voice never changed pitch or
Kirill's chest burned. Sink or swim. "I—not like . . .
." He turned back to his father. "Please . . . ." Please, he
thought, hit me, fucking hit me right now. Beat me fucking bloody,
just don't stand there and look at me that way. Don't stand there and
watch me sink, please . . . .
But Semyon beat him, destroyed him, without lifting his hand.
His hooded eyes grew smaller; silent, he turned and walked away.
"Who we are," Kirill repeated. Then he laughed, a low, harsh
bark that echoed in the room. "I can be who I am."
Nikolai pretended it had been a question. "You have power,
Kirill. Be what you are without fear, because of that power." His
fingers moved in Kirill's hair, pulling him forward.
"Power," Kirill whispered. Nikolai saw the boy Kirill had
been, then Kirill's lips pressed clumsily against his, and he wondered
when it had happened, when had he realized that he and Kirill were the
same? Both became what they needed to be.
Kirill's kiss was rough and desperate; Nikolai felt his lip
pinched, and tasted blood. He used fingers in Kirill's hair to urge him
Kirill looked up at him before brushing his cheek against
Nikolai's hardness. "We do what we want." Not a question, but a pact
offered. Begged for. If I kill the baby, if I fuck, if I swim . . .
He raked his fingers through Kirill's thick hair, the pleading
look in the man's eyes wounding something in him, something that came
long before this Nikolai. Something still there now.
"Da, da Kirill." We do what we must.