Challenge: Candy Bar Crunch [2 // saving face]
Extras: Malt [st. patrick's day prompt // both your friend and your enemy think you will never die]
Word Count: 3.020
Story: Post-Like Blood from the Beloved //The Directory
A/N: Malt for the summer challenge! I'm finding it hard to pin down the exact numerical year where this takes place, but basically it's a year or so after the Christmas story. I really should come up with different names for all these stories, but I dunno whether this generation of characters is going to get their own "book" or not. Maybe? Anyway. Sorry if my giant timeline confuses anyone.
K’aekniv studied the slight man who’d been placed carefully on the stone slab that’d soon be rolled back into the honeycombed north wall of the infirmary basement, the wall where the First kept their dead. True, he was no Russian, and not an infantryman either—a highborn mage, darkness, he thought, with an officer’s slender frame and smooth, unmarred face—but Rada had married him. Once you married a Russian, you were stuck with them, even past death.
“He died the best way a man can,” he said, glancing down at the sub-commander. Her face was cold, set in a slight frown. But her eyes were glistening, burning.
“I told him he was stupid to go to the front. Look at him,” she sighed, flicking a dismissive hand at his fragile body, “one bullet would be enough to kill such a man.”
It had taken only one bullet. One to just the right spot on his leg, bleeding him dead before the medics could get to him. At least it was a magicked bullet, K’aekniv supposed. That was a little less embarrassing. He heaved a tired shrug with both wings and shoulders. “A man will do what he wants.”
“Men are worthless.”
“More or less.”
The boy at her side shifted a bit on his feet, awkwardly, looking at everything but the body. He was at that age where everything he did was awkward, no matter how he felt about it. Thirteen? Fourteen? K’aekniv couldn’t remember. All that stood out in his mind about him was how he’d inherited Rada’s temper, though his wasn’t visible, not then. Apparently he was still young enough that sadness came before thoughts of revenge. Though K’aekniv tried to keep himself focused on Rada’s impassive face, the way she was clutching her prominent stomach distracted him. She was gripping it like if she didn’t hold on tight someone would rip the life out of it. It was a reasonable fear. He’d lost count of how many miscarriages she’d had between the boy beside her and the one not yet born, but it was enough to make the healers concerned. They’d been using every one of their tricks to keep her away from the front that time. K’aekniv had a feeling that they would have to put her in restraints in the lunatic ward to keep her from barging out through the transporter once they were done in the basement.
He had to make the offer. She would refuse, of course, but it was the right thing to do. “Your position is yours for life. Why not take some time, Rada? Look after yourself?”
“Look after myself?” she spat, façade finally cracking, her frown morphing into a vicious, humorless grin. “I can do that just fine without lying around useless for weeks.”
“You know you will get the widow’s pay, yes?”
That was too much. Hissing, she lunged across the slab, punching him hard up under his ribs. K’aekniv stumbled back a step, coughing. It was a good thing the slab made it too hard for her to punch him in the face. Otherwise he would have been stuck waiting for the teeth-healer to get to him for hours again.
“I don’t want your money!”
“It could be…a present for the children…” he wheezed, as he prodded his midsection in search of broken ribs.
“I can take care of my own children.” She grabbed hold of the boy’s hand, pulling him close to her side. He was too shell-shocked to protest.
“I know! I know not to pity a Volkov woman. I still have the scars from your grandmother!”
“Then you should know to mind your own business.” Looking as if she’d like to spit on him (she would have, most likely, had her husband not been between them), she stalked off, the boy stumbling along in her wake.
Miserably, K’aekniv went about shutting the dead man back in his hollow in the wall, wishing, as he did on many occasions, that the women of the First didn’t have to be so stubborn.
- - -
It was odd seeing Rada like that: motionless, rigid, in a dress uniform done up tight against her neck. K’aekniv felt like they should have left her in her body armor. But tradition was tradition, and it was impossible to get all of her medals pinned to her armor anyway.
“She was a fighter, though,” he sighed, moving to clap the boy beside him on the shoulder. He ducked out of the way, eyes never leaving his mother’s face.
K’aekniv had known from the first time he’d seen Gennady holding his younger brother, watching from a distance as his mother herded her troops out through the transporter, that he wouldn’t be following his family into the First. He had too much focus, too much energy to be content with an infantryman’s life. From the markings on his sleep-rumpled uniform, K’aekniv could tell that he’d been accepted into the 21st already, a three star assassin, not bad for seventeen. The half-angel waited for Gennady to say something. Instead, he continued to glare down at Rada, hands possessively clasped around his brother’s shoulders. What was his name? Stanislav, that was it. Stanislav. Like his grandfather.
He struggled to find something comforting to say that wouldn’t set the boy off. “The war orphans, they are treated the best—”
“I won’t live with them,” Gennady said, finally turning to look at him. Unlike his mother, his eyes were cold, hard, but the rage was still the same. “I can pay the rent.”
“At least let us give you the widow’s pay, your mother—”
“She didn’t want it. I don’t want it.”
“Let the First help you. What can it hurt?” K’aekniv asked, with a hopeful smile. Gennady returned it with a snarl, clenching his brother’s shoulders hard enough to make him yelp.
“Fuck you and fuck the First,” he hissed. “Killing Papa wasn’t enough for you? You had to kill her too?”
He knew there was nothing he could say that would calm him. Still, he tried, bending down to Gennady’s level. Short, like his father. Maybe it had worsened his temper. “Listen. You think I could stop Rada from fighting? God Himself couldn’t stop her when she wanted something. She died how she wanted to.”
“But she’s still dead.” One hand dropping to Stanislav’s upper arm, gripping him so tightly his knuckles turned white, Gennady hurried out, pulling his brother close alongside. The younger boy looked back. Gennady didn’t. Though K’aekniv continued to stare blankly off at the hall Gennady had disappeared down, he still could hear the commotion further on out by the stairwell that led out of the basement and back to the infirmary—Stanislav crying, Gennady cursing at him, Stanislav wailing, Gennady frantically apologizing.
Some things just didn’t change.
- - -
“I don’t want to go downstairs, Comrade.”
The boy wasn’t afraid. But he was tired, bone-weary, that he could see in his half-lidded eyes and his sad attempts at keeping his massive rucksack held off the ground. It had been Gennady’s bag, probably. The boy was still too young to be getting his first pack of gear. K’aekniv continued on down a few steps, then turned around—he wasn’t about to drag the child kicking and screaming down among the dead, but it made him feel better to be able to talk to him face to face, even if it was at more of a distance.
“I know what Gennady looks like,” he mumbled, giving up on the bag and hugging himself instead.
The child was too young for all of this, K’aekniv thought—first his mother, then his brother, and now he was all alone, the other branches of his family long since snuffed out by wars decades ago. How old was he now? Seven? Six? It was hard for him to tell. Sometimes K’aekniv felt like Stanislav was a grandfather trapped in a boy’s body, stuck trying to keep control of Gennady’s stubborn moods. K’aekniv would go to the run-down apartment where the boys lived every week with the widow’s pay, and every week Gennady would yell at him and threaten him away at sword point. And when he got to the sidewalk in front of the building, Stanislav would be there, still in his pajamas with flecks of rust clinging to them where he’d used them to protect his hands from the sharp ladders of the fire escape. He would take the money, whisper an apology for Gennady, and disappear back into the alley that led to the rear of the building.
It was like that with everything. Gennady would throw the Shade’s Holiday basket the healers sent them out into the street; Stanislav would sneak out later that night and pick it up. Gennady would refuse the housing stipend all the young enlisted men got; Stanislav would quietly find K’aekniv and ask him to go take it and pay their rent forward with it. Gennady wouldn’t even take food from the canteen. Stanislav made sure to eat there as often as possible, to save more of the little food they had for Gennady.
Unable to come up with something reassuring to say, K’aekniv patted Stanislav’s shoulder, careful not to do it so hard that it’d send the boy tumbling down the basement steps. “So! Where do we go now, eh?”
He bit his lip, hugging himself tighter. “No one will take me,” he whispered. K’aekniv couldn’t tell whether he was supposed to hear him or not.
“What do you mean? A good, smart boy like you? Impossible.”
Stanislav shook his head. “I’m cursed.”
Sighing, K’aekniv went down another step, stooping a bit more so he could look him in the eyes. The worst thing about it all, he thought, was that he was right—K’aekniv had already tried to find a family that would take Stanislav in, but had been politely refused again and again. What do you expect us to do? they’d complain, leaning out their front doorways. Put us all at risk? Everyone knows a child who’s lost one family will just lose another. Some things are not meant to be.
It was a stupid argument. But he knew better than to try to argue against tradition, and if he’d beaten each man who’d said no like he’d wanted to, he wouldn’t have had much of a division left to work with. He considered the other options, scratching his head as he thought. “Well, it is not so bad, living with the war orphans. Little brother, he is a good friend of mine. He takes good care of them.”
“I guess,” he shrugged.
“What? Do you not like them?”
“I…it’s just…” As Stanislav tried to force himself to speak, his eyes began to water. He turned away, faking a cough as an excuse to swipe at them.
There were the other divisions. But none of them lived like the First, the whole family, everyone from great-grandmother to infant child in the same quarters, surrounded by dozens of other families living just the same way. Any family would be better than none, true, but most of the Russians who worked outside the First were assassins, or in the Seventh or Thirteenth, not the kind of people who could make a good home for a child. Good men, but not fathers.
If Genesis hadn’t decided to take in the strange orphan girl who spoke his click language and did everything backwards like he did, he could have sent Stanislav to Mirk. True, Genesis wouldn’t have liked it at all, but he knew well enough that Mirk would be happy to have a child around. And Mirk always got what he wanted in the end, no matter what Genesis thought about it. But two children, that was too much for Genesis, K’aekniv thought. He wouldn’t say no to Mirk, but he would certainly make his life hell for the next twenty years instead. Which would make Stanislav feel guilty, as he was too smart and careful not to notice the beatings, and so on, and so on…
“I just don’t want to be alone,” Stanislav blurted out in a rush, knocking him out of his thoughts. He’d turned away again, no longer able to hide that he was crying.
K’aekniv reached out to him, instinctively, taking him by both shoulders. “No! No, Stas, you won’t be alone.”
Sniffling, the boy glanced back at him, expression confused. “Um…everyone calls me Slava, Comrade.”
K’aekniv laughed. “Slava? No, Slava was your grandfather. A good man, Slava, I was with him in Akatuy katorga. We dug our way out. Me, I was just there because I was good friends with the wrong officer’s wife. Slava, he actually did something patriotic. Exploded one of the tsar’s dachas, I think.”
Stanislav’s eyes were clearing. “Really?”
“Yes! Slava was a great patriot. He hated that name, though. His sister was Vladislava, so, of course, everyone called her Slava and him Stas, but then she beat him sparring and we all decided he should be Slava too.”
Much to his relief, the boy started to snicker. “That’s mean.”
“Ah, but only people we love get names like that. It is a gift. Like the ugly sweater your babushka always gives you on Shade’s Holiday. It’s terrible, but you still wear it.” K’aekniv paused, grinning at Stanislav. “Not your babushka, though, I think. She wouldn’t know what to do with a knitting needle. She would have probably stabbed someone with it. But, still, she was a good woman, and Slava was a good man. You, though, are not a Slava. Slava was as big as a house and could drink everyone under the table. You’re one of those people who are good at tricks and books-learning. A Stas. At least to me, anyway.”
Slowly, Stanislav nodded. Then he glanced off down the infirmary hallway, toward the long-term ward, at the end of which was the cramped, drafty room the war orphans all lived in. “Are they waiting for me?” Stanislav didn’t have to elaborate for K’aekniv to know who he meant. There were only two other orphans left; all the rest had been taken in. Twins. They seemed happy enough, though he thought that was mostly because they still had each other. But there was also Mirk, Mirk who he still hadn’t told about Stanislav.
It was a nagging thing in the back of his mind, a voice he didn’t like to listen to. Still, it made him put off telling Mirk again and again. It was a voice with an idea that even he was willing to admit was stupid. But that didn’t make it go away. Instead it only got louder, making him feel like it would be some sort of crime to send the poor boy off alone after everything that had happened. It said things about duty. About time, about how Anastasia was gone and reminding him of what she had said as she left, that she would die while he would live forever.
He wouldn’t live forever. He had died before, after all, and he didn’t think God, even in His infinite mercy, would let him come back again. But that was hard to explain to someone who hadn’t already lived three hundred years. To full humans, it seemed like he would never die. He watched boys turn to men, fathers to grandfathers, generations unfolding in rapid succession like the flowers in spring. They were ephemeral. They rushed past and disappeared as he continued to trudge on, unchanging in a world that morphed continually into strange and confusing shapes all around him.
And the boy was human, wasn’t he?
“No. They don’t know you are coming.”
Stanislav looked confused again. “Why not?”
To hell with it, he thought. What can it hurt? “This curse, it is stupid. I am sure there’s a family for you here, I just need to find them. But until then, it is my duty to give you a place to stay. A commander doesn’t abandon his people.”
“You?” Stanislav asked, tilting his head to one side. K’aekniv couldn’t tell whether he was surprised or disbelieving.
“True, I do not have much, and I have no mother to give you. But it would be better than the orphans, yes? For now?”
After a long minute spent staring down at his boots and fidgeting, Stanislav finally looked up at him again and nodded, a weak smile coming onto his face, making him look more like a child instead of an old man. “Okay, Comrade.”
“Good!” As K’aekniv ascended the stairs, he let Stanislav go in favor of picking up his bag. “But you don’t have to call me Comrade. Too cold, I think.”
“What am I supposed to call you instead?”
K’aekniv considered this, as he tried to find a pace that would be slow enough for the boy to keep up with him. He decided it wasn’t worth the trouble and picked Stanislav up after slinging his bag over one shoulder, setting him down on the one opposite. Stanislav yelped in surprise, clinging to one of his wings to steady himself. “You can decide. Just not Comrade.”
“I can walk, C—uh, Mister K’aekniv?”
“Not that either. Mister is the kind of man who owns a bank and never gets his hands dirty. And I know you can walk, but this, I think, is more fun.”
Stanislav had gotten his bearings, but still didn’t let go of his wing. “Maybe Uncle K’aekniv?”
“Ah! Yes, Uncle Niv. It has a good sound to it.”
Stanislav laughed. “I didn’t say Niv.”
“Bah, why not? Who do you think I am? Some kind of noble? No, Niv is good enough.”
“Okay. If you say so.”
As he ambled through the infirmary back toward the main doors, ignoring the people who had to shove themselves up against the walls to avoid walking into him, K’aekniv found himself whistling.
Uncle Niv. He could get used to that.