Aryol had heard the story of Leshovik’s first kill more than once.
It was a pretty fucked up story, as stories went, but Aryol decided he wasn’t really in the position to judge anyone when it came to moral turpitude.
Leshovik told the story like the way he smoked a cigarette, head tilted back, eyes closed, lips parted as if to savor every word. The hard set of mouth and jaw eased, features cut like Hellenistic bronze recast to soft marble. It was obvious from the way Leshovik told it that the memory was vivid and real for him, that he was feeling it, reliving it.
So much so that Aryol usually could see Leshovik’s erection swelling under his fatigues.
Leshovik’s first kill had been in the rain.
Traditionally, snipers hated rain. Damp cartridges misfired, wood stocks warped, metal parts rusted. Scopes blurred and hands cramped from the cold.
But Leshovik had scored his first kill in the rain, earned the first notch on the stock of his rifle. And it hadn’t been any ordinary kill, either.
Leshovik’s first kill had been a sniper kill.
He’d hunted an enemy sniper while the sniper hunted him, and had won the battle with good eyes and good reflexes and good aim, as well as maybe a little bit of luck, though not to hear Leshovik tell it.
It was an auspicious start to any sniper’s career. Maybe too auspicious. First shot, first kill, first sniper kill. Enough to go to anyone’s head.
Still, Aryol liked the story the way Leshovik told it, his voice low and sonorous with the cadence of truth and the reverence of legend. Leshovik never left out the part about how he’d been aroused the entire time, and had a spontaneous orgasm when he’d pulled the trigger.
That was the part that was kind of fucked up, when he really thought about it, but Aryol supposed if you were going to be a pervert, you might as well wear it on your sleeve.
That morning, Aryol had woken up to the sound of rain tapping chill fingers on the window.
He’d rolled a condom over the barrel of his rifle and pulled on his parka, flipping the hood down. It had settled low on his forehead, shuttering the edges of his vision.
By the time he left the major’s room, the rain was coming down thick and sloppy, splattering sideways, soaking through his fatigues, numbing his skin. It was near-slush, denied the crispness of snow by a matter of degrees.
He double-timed the route between the main wing and artillery range, trotting through puddles and skirting the leeward sides of buildings, stealing under shelter wherever he could find it. The range itself was covered, the head of each lane shielded by its own covered cage, but even so, it was near-deserted, save for a lone shooter silhouetted in the next-to-last lane.
Aryol smiled, to himself.
He recognized the shooter even before he recognized the rifle, the particular intent set of the man’s shoulders and the cant of his neck as distinctive as the profile of a Dragunov. Leshovik’s stance always seemed a little too tense to Aryol, but then again, Leshovik also stuck his tongue out the side of his mouth when he was lining up a shot, and that didn’t seem to hamper him, either.
Aryol sidled into the lane next to Leshovik’s.
“Nice day for shooting, isn’t it, comrade.”
He flipped back his hood with a fine spray of water.
Leshovik held his pose a beat longer, then turned his head.
“It is,” he said, slowly, “comrade.”
Leshovik looked at him a moment.
“You’re up early.”
The words felt weighted somehow, like an accusation.
Aryol looked down, pulling a fresh magazine from his ammo pouch.
“Yeah, well. The rain. You know.”
He could feel the pressure of Leshovik’s gaze remain on him.
“Right. Hey, have you talked to that MVD major lately?”
Not that there was more than one.
Aryol slapped the clip in place and glanced at Leshovik. “The one we ate with the other day, you mean? Yeah, he was at mess last night.”
He kept his expression fairly neutral, mildly interested.
Leshovik pressed his lips together.
“I heard something at mess this morning, about Niotkuda.”
That stirred the embers of memory, and Aryol recalled what the major and his partner had been talking about at mess the previous night, before the supply captain had arrived and unceremoniously invited himself to what had become the joint MVD and Black Ops table. Aryol had nearly forgotten.
“Oh. I heard that too. They were talking about it last night. They said there was an inquest. That someone was killed, it sounded like they thought Niotkuda did it.”
Leshovik was frowning.
“When did that happen?”
“The killing? Not yesterday…the day before, it sounded like.”
“He didn’t do it,” Leshovik said, his voice edged with a low vehemence.
Aryol looked at Leshovik, who glanced away, turning back toward the target.
“Well…that’s good,” Aryol said, slowly. “It didn’t sound like they really thought he did. The pathologist had to analyze more evidence, though. He said they might find something else.”
Aryol watched Leshovik raise his rifle and start to adjust the scope. It always took Leshovik forever to commit to the shot, fine tuning minutely until the margin for error narrowed to the statistically insignificant.
He looked down the lane at the target that huddled in the distance. Nine hundred meters. Well within the Dragunov’s range, but wind and rain were the unpredictable factors. No amount of adjusting could truly make a shot a sure thing.
“That’s a long shot, for this kind of weather.”
“Shooting in weather is my specialty.”
“One of my specialties.”
Aryol rolled his eyes.
Leshovik continued to tune the rifle, each motion of his hand precise, and steady. The tip of his tongue stuck out of the corner of his mouth. Aryol looked at that for a while.
“I met someone,” he said, finally.
Leshovik’s hand stilled on the scope, but he didn’t raise his head.
“What do you mean, you met someone?”
Leshovik was quiet for a few seconds.
“Someone,” Aryol repeated, pointedly.
“The other day.”
“So? What are you trying to tell me? Are you fucking him?”
“Yeah. I’m fucking him.”
The muscles in Leshovik’s jaw tightened, re-edged the smooth sculpt of his profile to the hardness of metal.
“I don’t care,” he said.
Leshovik pulled the trigger.
The report of the Dragunov cracked loud, but the rumble of afterechoes were swallowed by the rain.
Leshovik took four more shots in rapid succession, empty cartridges ejecting violently, bouncing off concrete with the clear ring of brass.
“You hit three times, missed twice.”
Leshovik scowled, raising his head to squint down the lane.
“Even you can’t see that.”
“Send it up, and we’ll see.”
Leshovik began to reload, instead.
“I’m not using steel-jacketed ammo.”
Aryol raised his rifle. The target in his lane wasn’t set for sniper practice, but instead stood only a third of the distance as Leshovik’s, maybe three hundred meters, maximum effective range for the Kalashnikovs most soldiers used. He eyeballed the distance and guessed at the wind, careless.
“Neither am I.”
The steel-jacketed ammo was too precious to use for target practice, too hard to come by out here, newly-minted ammunition for a brand-new firearm. Aryol had gone back to using the standard 7.62 rounds, even though they meant decreased accuracy and range.
He took five shots, emptying the magazine.
A curl of smoke issued from the tip of Aryol’s rifle as he lowered it. He glanced across the partition at Leshovik.
Leshovik was looking at him, lip curled, faintly.
“Anyone could make those shots, from that distance.”
He tipped his chin in the direction of the target.
“I could do it with my eyes closed.”
“I’m just getting warmed up,” Aryol said.
Leshovik’s eyes were steely, the color of gunmetal.
“Yeah,” he said, quietly. “I guess you are.”
Aryol’s chest tightened into a cramp.
“Have I hurt you?” he asked, impulsively, the words stinging his tongue like liquor.
Leshovik tensed suddenly, the muscles in his neck turning corded and hard.
“Don’t be fucking ridiculous,” he said.
“I mean it.”
“Why the hell would you ask me something like that?”
“I just…I want to know.”
Leshovik was silent, staring.
Aryol’s gaze went to the concrete.
“I’ve been…thinking, lately, about me. About the things I do. Wondering if there’s something wrong with me. If there are things I never learned, or if I just can’t understand. I mean…”
He trailed off, and looked up.
“You and I haven’t…talked much, lately. I don’t see you around. I’m not sure if you’re busy with other things, or if you’re…”
Aryol’s brow furrowed.
“…or if I did something, if I hurt you in some way.”
Leshovik was staring at him, jaw working, gaze flashing, eyes flicking back and forth, watching Aryol with an intensity he’d rarely seen. The struggle was raw and plain to Aryol’s eyes, and it made his gut clench.
“If I did something wrong,” Aryol added.
Something shifted in Leshovik’s eyes then, turned thin and keen, and his gaze whetted to a vicious edge.
“You wouldn’t know the difference between right and wrong if it bit you in the ass.”
Breath left Aryol forcefully, and he exhaled with a gasp.
You don't know that you're wrong. You don't think you're wrong. You don't know right from wrong.
“All right,” he heard himself whisper.
The words were an echo of the major’s, the same sentiment but filtered through a narrow rifled barrel, propelled by combustion far more incendiary than the observations that flowed like liquor off a MENT’s cool tongue.
It was not so much the medium as the message, Aryol thought, faintly, and the message was the same.
The back of his throat felt dry.
“I’m sorry,” Aryol said. “I didn’t – ”
“Don’t bother,” Leshovik snapped.
Aryol flinched, drawing in an unsteady breath, shivering under his parka, his throat and chest constricted. He felt vaguely sick, queasy.
Leshovik held his gaze for a few seconds longer, finally shaking his head. He slung his rifle over his shoulder.
“You can have my lane if you want. I’m done here.”
After a moment, Aryol nodded.
“Yeah,” he said, quietly, “I can tell.”
Leshovik walked straight down the row of cages, then stopped at the end.
Leshovik could have stepped out into the deluge, but he didn’t, hesitating instead, lingering as if he were hoping something would happen first, that the rain would stop or the sky would clear, or Aryol would call out and beg for Leshovik’s forgiveness.
After a few moments, Leshovik glanced over his shoulder.
“Hey, Aryol,” he called, and Aryol could hear the hesitation in his tone, the words softened by the lilt of uncertainty.
Aryol looked up, jaw tightening.
“Don’t bother,” he called back.
Leshovik stiffened, then.
Aryol watched silently as Leshovik turned away.
Overhead, the sky was dark and veiled by clouds, and it continued to rain.