The low buzzing starts up in my gut even before I reach the door of the apartment block. I meant to come here earlier. Should've come. I have information that should put her at ease, and if anyone deserves that, she does. But things aren't so straightforward.
Because you want her. You--the gimp with the missing arm--want this krasavitsa. Fat chance, buddy. But then you already knew that.
Fact is, my plane flies out in the morning, and I owe this woman. It's now or never. I make my way through the dingy hallway and pause outside her door to collect myself. Arm in place; a little tweak to the hand to make it sit more naturally. Damn piece of plastic. Swallowing against the knot inside me, I take a deep breath and knock.
Nice stance: tall and straight, very official-looking. Convincing. You should've gone into acting, Aleksei.
Muffled footsteps approach from inside and I can hear a voice, Nika turning around, saying something to--
So she's not alone.
Something drops like lead inside me.
Kind of kills the image that's been running a loop in your head lately: the memory of the two of you in that little pump shed, shaking like leaves against each other while a couple of alien craft dip and swoop overhead.
Whatever. This is official business. I'm the head of the investigating team; she's a witness.
'Official business'. Right. So holding her when she fell apart in that field, after she'd found the melted mess of her sister's wedding ring--that was just part of your job description.
Hey, door's open, kid. Go for it.
Nika freezes for a split second when she sees me, her mouth half open.
I shrug; a smile starts to pull at one corner of my mouth. "Dobriy vecher."
So much for keeping up the stern, official front.
She's tired, worn down from the stress of the last six weeks, since her sister went missing, and it shows. Still, she's beautiful. "Dobriy vecher," she says, opening the door wider. And now there's a glow on her face that wasn't there before.
From somewhere inside, a baby's cry splits the silence. Nika turns and hurries toward it, long dark hair spinning behind, a sort of slow motion thing. At least as I see it. Come, she calls back to me. So I do.
Just like one of Pavlov's dogs.
The fussing's coming from somewhere on the floor beyond the couch, but I can't see over it from where I am. I clear my throat. "Yzvinite--"
No need to apologize.
Except that I should have come yesterday rather than leaving her to worry for another day.
"I talked to your brother-in-law," I start, conscious of the dry rasp in my voice. I clear my throat. "Made it clear that cooperation with the investigating team is required. He's been assured that you never mentioned him." Or the way he beat his wife.
"He asked about me?"
"As soon as he found out who we were, yeah."
She can only shake her head.
Son of a bitch had better not come knocking on her door.
Nika's crouched down, her back to me, gathering the baby up from a nest of blankets on the floor. "Please, have a seat, captain," she says, and I settle myself on the couch. When she turns around again she's got the kid in her arms.
Not at all what I expected. Boy's maybe two, not much older. Cross-eyed, with little stumps of arms waving in the air as he fusses. When the blanket shifts, it's obvious that he doesn't have much more in the way of legs.
"Semey," she says, her frustration focused into a single word, the name of a city to the east. After forty years of nuclear testing, the place is a toxic hell and kids born there pay the price.
But she doesn't seem to think of him as a statistic; she introduces us as if he were as normal as anybody else. His name is Pasha, she says, bringing him close. A cousin's kid. For a second I'm lost but I've got to do something. After a beat--what the hell--I stick a finger out toward the reaching kid. He taps it with the end of a stump, flashes a crooked smile and burrows his head into the soft black curls beside Nika's neck.
Then the two of them settle into the faded red chair across from me, the kid in her lap, wiggling every once in a while, trying to squirm his way off, and we trade small talk.
She's got the hots for you, you know. Cute. If it weren't for the kid, you might have a chance tonight. But think about it, Aleksei: if you got lucky and everything fell into place, would she be ready for that plastic excuse for an arm you're wearing?
Didn't think so.
Nika handles the boy instinctively, without looking, careful and easy. Kisses the side of his neck just to hear him giggle. Soon I'm lost in the easy, flowing movement of her hands, the stray hairs that cling to the side of her neck, the color in her cheeks when she smiles at the kid.
Yeah, keep your expectations low. Saves you from being disappointed.
I pull myself back to the moment.
I manage to nod. "Thanks." And before I know what's happening, she's plopped the kid in my lap. For a few seconds her hand is over mine, pressing carefully against the kid's middle to make sure he's secure.
Good thing she got the live hand. Could've been a bad scene there.
The kid wiggles, settling against my leg. I frown and lean back a little to make sure he doesn't fall, afraid he might squirm away.
A kid. What the hell do I--?
Now he throws himself back against me, raises one of his little stumps, tries to poke at my nose. It doesn't seem to bother her, the shape he's in. Like she sees past it.
Tea arrives in a fancy little gold-rimmed cup, a family heirloom she's used to serve me before. She hovers above me a second, leaving warmth and the vague spice of perfume in her wake. Five weeks ago it was the two of us on this couch, two matching cups filled with tea, polite conversation: a thank you for making the effort to look into her sister's disappearance as if it were more than just a bureaucratic assignment to be stamped and submitted to a supervisor. As if her sister actually mattered.
I'd done the right thing then, kept everything neat and clean.
You chickened out, plain and simple. You could have had her. Easily. Except that it would have exposed your ugly little secret.
Nika takes the boy, and our fingers pass each other. I swallow before the cup reaches my lips.
In the chair across from me Pasha settles into Nika's lap. She sips from the teacup with one hand, leans the boy out of grabbing range with the other, an easy, practiced movement. Rocks him side to side, just a little at first, then gradually more as she begins to hum something. Something familiar, an old Russian nursery rhyme I probably haven't heard since I was a scrawny kid in diapers.
When I find the words rumbling in my throat, off-key and gravelly, I clam up in a hurry. But Nika glances up and smiles, a sudden flash of sunlight from between gray clouds, and I start in again, for as awkward as it feels, and the two of us finish the verse together. Anything for a glimpse of that smile.
Then she's up, whisking the kid off to bed. I stand, stretch my shoulders against the pinch of the harness, check the dead hand for position. Glance around the room: patterned wallpaper, neat stacks of belongings on an old buffet, two dining chairs wedged beside a tiny table, a sweater laid over the back of one. I go closer, hesitate, finally reach out and run two fingers over the soft surface.
A door closes. Quickly I slip my hand into my pocket, take a couple of steps back and she's in front of me, apologizing for the distraction, brushing stray hairs from that soft face of hers. But she falls quiet soon enough. Fatigue--grief--creeps back over her like a cloud, and as for me, words don't seem to come. I've already told her what I came here to say--all I have to offer, which is barely anything. There's no hope of her sister being returned, judging from the abduction patterns I've been seeing. To say nothing of the future: the last thing she needs is to know about that.
Life can be such a bitch.
"No news?" she asks.
All I can do is shake my head.
"Sorry. I didn't mean to push, Captain."
"Not captain." Formality's never fit me. "Mikhail."
"Mikhail." The word is soft around her tongue.
Good thing she doesn't know who you really are. Or what you do. She wouldn't be standing here next to you for long.
"No more abductions." I clear my throat. "We just finished checking everywhere within 50 kilometers for sightings, or any evidence we might have missed. Nothing."
"So you'll return to Moscow now?"
All this time we've been moving toward the door, and now we're nearly there.
"Thanks," I say. "For the tea." She's been like glowing coals, a warmth that's reached all the way to the permanent chill fixed deep inside my bones.
"And to you. For coming back. For helping." She sighs and her head goes down. "To have someone actually look, when usually any problem means they will deny everything..."
She's so close now.
Half a dozen trite phrases I wish I could offer and mean them: you have your whole life ahead of you; things will get better; we'll figure out who's behind this. We'll find your sister.
I'll be back.
But I won't, and she already knows it. The investigation that brought me here is taking me back to Moscow tomorrow, and unless there are more abductions here, I'm not likely to ever see this place again.
Nika's head is still down. I close my eyes. The room is silent except for the sounds of shaky breathing.
Then warmth touches my cheek. Soft lips, soft breath, and pretty soon our mouths find each other, careful at first, then deep and slow. The heat that comes with it wakes every cell in my body.
Here's your big chance, Romeo.
Nika buries her face against the side of my neck, shakes her head as if she needs to apologize for what just happened. I work to cover my ragged breathing, swallow away the raw stab of need.
Last chance. Wouldn't take more than a nudge, now, to sway things.
"I wish-- " she says into my shirt. "But I've already lost my sister. I couldn't stand to lose someone else, too."
It's all I can manage to murmur something into her hair, tip her chin, offer a hint of a smile. "Do vstrechi, Nikochka." I run the back of a finger over the softness of her cheek.
Then it's over. The door's open and the echo of her 'do vstrechi' follows me out into the hallway. My face burns against the sudden chill. The taste of her fills me as I make my way to the stairs.
krasavitsa - beautiful woman