Sweat covered Kirill's forehead, the skin paler than usual. Nikolai's hand was damp where he'd just brushed hair back and touched him to see if the skin felt as clammy as it looked under the fluorescent lights. It did.
They wouldn't let him stay because they believed Kirill was in no danger, and he was not family. He'd told them that he was family, but they would not listen. Perhaps he would bribe the nurse to look the other direction while he slept in a chair next to the bed. As if he might sleep.
"Kirill, come. Come up from there." Nikolai shouted down the cellar stairs, frustrated that Kirill had headed down an hour ago and not returned. He'd been in a dark mood when he'd come in earlier, an unpredictable mood, and when Nikolai had asked him where he'd been he'd retreated to the cellar with its dark corners and dark bottles.
With a sigh he meant for Kirill to hear, he walked down the stairs. His back slammed into the wall as Kirill collided with him, laughing, an almost empty bottle in his hand.
"I hide and you seek, eh? I knew you'd come find me." Kirill laughed and emptied the bottle in one long drink. He fell against Nikolai, laughing harder, then pressed his cheek against Nikolai's. "Now you're it. You're it. But you can hide and see if I find you. See if I care." Kirill pushed off the wall, smirking, his laughter and happy mood gone.
"Kirill . . . ."
"Kirill, Kirill,Kirill." Kirill laughed, as if the smirk had been a joke, playacting. Nikolai knew it was, and it wasn't. "You've found me, no need to keep calling me." He tried to take a drink of the empty bottle, then tossed it aside.
Nikolai clasped his hands together in front of himself and took on a stance of patience and authority, though his patience was thin tonight. "Can you help me upstairs? Or will you sleep it off down here with the spiders? Hmm?" He smiled a little as he spoke, one of the only defenses he had against Kirill's anger when he was like this.
"Can I help? Am I capable of helping?"
"You." Kirill laughed and poked Nikolai in the chest every few words. "You think I'm drunk. Too drunk to do anything."
Kirill's eyes snapped open. He turned his head to the side, searching.
"You'll be all right," Nikolai said, the moment the man's eyes met his. His hand was on Kirill's chest where it had been for the last few hours. The machines monitored his heartbeat, but Nikolai trusted his own hand, his own senses, more.
"What did I do?" Kirill's lips twitched. His heartbeat quickened under Nikolai's hand.
"You were hit by car. But you'll be all right. Cannot say same for car," he tried to joke. His other hand combed through those unruly bangs, coming away less wet than before.
Kirill's hand reached up to cover Nikolai's, and he closed his eyes.
"I've been drinking," Kirill explained, "but you know I don't always get drunk." He stepped onto the bottom step as if he might leave, but turned to Nikolai again. "Come on, I want to help you." He grabbed Nikolai's lapel and tugged.
Nikolai smiled and cupped a hand around the back of Kirill's neck, kneading gently as Kirill closed his eyes and inhaled sharply through his nose. "You sure you don't just want to sleep? Let's get you to bed, Kirill. You look tired."
Kirill shrugged him off and stumbled off the step. "I said I want to help you, not sleep."
Nikolai couldn't have Kirill in the kitchen or the dining room. While he couldn't care less about the restaurant, it was an important cover for business, and it meant a great deal to Kirill's family. It had to be protected. Kirill and his interests had to be protected.
"You need sleep. You help tomorrow."
Kirill wagged a finger and smiled. "Ah, Nikolai, you going to tell me what to do?" He laughed, one of the most unhappy sounds Nikolai had heard in a long time. "You think I'm a drunk."
"Nyet. You're drunk now. There is difference."
Nikolai lifted his chin as Kirill approached him, not stopping until their bodies touched and their breath mingled. "What if I was sober now. Would you try to tell me what to do?"
"If I needed help, yes," Nikolai answered simply. "But right now, don't you want--"
"You don't know what I want!" Kirill was pressed against Nikolai now more than drunkenness required.
Nikolai wanted to answer but I do know. I do. Ask me how I know this. He cupped the back of Kirill's neck again, this time letting his other hand slide around the man's waist.
Kirill's forehead touched Nikolai's. "I know what I want, but you think I don't know because I'm drunk."
Hide and seek, read my mind, guess, gamble. Nikolai was tired of games. "I think you know what you want, Kirill . . . and that is why you drink."
Kirill's face crumpled. He sucked in air through his nose, shaking his head. He sobbed, a rasping almost painful sound. "Why, then?" he asked. "I drink because I want what? Do you even know?"
Nikolai showed him that he did.
"Nikolai, we have him." The Inspector's voice was tinny on the phone. "We know who tried to kill him, and we know the hit was because Kirill was involved in a dope shipment that lost the Jovanich family hundreds of thousands of dollars. We have them, we only have to bring him in and the pieces will fall into place."
So it hadn't been Kirill running drunk into the street. It had been planned, and his rushing headlong down the road alone had merely been an opportunity.
"Nikolai, did you hear me? As soon as the hospital releases him--"
"Give me one good reason."
"I need him." Nikolai heard the exhalation, could picture the Inspector's lined face considering.
"So he goes away for a while. Isn't there someone else who can take his place?"
"If he goes, the family's loyalties will scatter. They may not follow me, and may even suspect I had hand in it. People will not do business with me if they are not fully confident in my loyalties. All the years of work toward this would be waste."
The Inspector didn't speak for a moment, then said, "Are you sure that's the only reason you want to protect him?"
"What other reason would there be?" He'd had that line ready for at least a couple of years, because he knew the day would come when Kirill would be vulnerable. He'd practiced it in his head, making it sound off-the-cuff and casual, with just the right tone of defensiveness.
"You know that if Kirill found out about you, he wouldn't think twice before killing you."
"I know," Nikolai said, then cleared his throat. I know that you think so.
Nikolai pulled Kirill forward by the back of the neck and kissed him, more roughly than he might have had Kirill gone without drink for a few hours. The arm around Kirill's waist pulled him against Nikolai's body. Kirill was hard; Nikolai could feel it against him. He knew Kirill could feel him, and hoped he wasn't so drunk he wouldn't remember it later.
Kirill's tongue warred with his in an aggressive kiss meant to dominate more than anything. Nikolai let him, and his strategy worked. In moments, Kirill's kiss had softened while he waited for Nikolai to take charge. He cupped Kirill and rubbed. The cellar door squeaked as it was opened, and Kirill bounced away from him so fast he almost threw himself off his feet.
"Yeah, I got those bottles for you," he said, too loudly, wiping his damp cheeks with his palms. "Got those fucking bottles." When the door closed, Kirill shoved Nikolai and pushed past him to race up the stairs. Nikolai called after him, but Kirill didn't stop until he'd reached the street and the bumper of a speeding car.
The blood hadn't been what frightened Nikolai--it was the lack of blood. A pumping heart made you bleed. When he saw no blood, he thought Kirill was dead, and in a part of his mind that was still rational he wondered how guilty he would feel when he killed the driver. But when he rolled Kirill over to see his face, there had been a little blood there. Enough. Nikolai had dipped his finger in it and touched his own throat, the hollow at the base, just one spot, for reasons he didn't yet understand. Perhaps the same reason he sat with his hand over Kirill's heart for a few hours. To maintain a connection. To assure him it was real.
"How could they not see me?" Kirill asked, smiling. "Stupid driver." His smile let Nikolai know that he was half-serious. He laughed, a hitching sound that Nikolai recognized as something he did when he felt cornered. Kirill motioned at the flowers someone had sent. "These are nice. Expensive."
"I would have noticed you." Nikolai's fingers itched to comb through Kirill's thick hair, but it was not in his face.
"Of course you would." Kirill licked his lips. "You find me when I hide, you know what I want . . . you'd see me in the street." His nostrils flared, and he looked down at his lap. "You take care of me, when I do poor job of it, huh?" He laughed and looked up.
"No wonder I'm busy," Nikolai said with a smile. "While your shoulder heals, I take even better care of you."
Nikolai combed his fingers through the hair that hadn't quite fallen over Kirill's forehead, no longer caring how the gesture looked, but guessing it would be welcome. This man had betrayed his own father for Nikolai, a man hiding from him in plain sight. He wondered what Kirill would do if he found out that Nikolai had helped put his father away, while keeping Kirill out of prison. He longed for that day in so many ways, and felt ashamed for it.
"You combing my hair like a doll's now?" Kirill laughed, but Nikolai knew he didn't imagine the lean into his touch.
"Not good with dolls. Games."
"Games," Kirill repeated, nodding. "Like hide and seek." His face brightened. "You're still it. So you still have to look for me, da?"
Nikolai nodded, and leaned over so that their lips almost touched. Kirill didn't shrink back. He moved forward just enough for Nikolai to notice, but in a single second everything about his eyes and his posture told Nikolai he was pulling back, unable to keep up the contact in the broad light of day, away from a bottle and the dark cellar. They weren't finished playing games yet. "Da, Kirill. I will always look. But try to find hiding place not so far away."