Trubino, Russia – Thursday, the 7th of June, 2012. 06:54 PM.
Andrey walked up the narrow path to his family home as a returning son rather than as a hero. He’d had a few hours to grab a regular civilian suit from his secondary apartment in Moscow, relieved to find that it still fit over his skintight costume. His body shape had changed considerably since the last time he’d worn civilian attire in his home country; the version of himself who’d left for New York eighteen months ago hadn’t been nearly as fit.
Inwardly, he wasn’t feeling prepared for his return home, despite having invested a couple of hours in making himself presentable. He’d showered, made a few phone calls, and shopped for flowers. He’d even managed to get a few hours of sleep, though not nearly enough for the deep lines of exhaustion to fade from his face. He hoped his mother wouldn’t notice.
Andrey couldn’t be sure of what kind of reception he’d receive. His life had been complicated for the past year and a half, and family obligations hadn’t really fit into a Covenant hero’s schedule. As the months had passed, the small town he’d grown up in had become more and more distant in his mind.
Maybe he’d grown so used to being Radiant that Andrey Luvkov had faded.
Now that he’d left the Covenant behind, however, he was returning home empty. He was a blank slate. Neglected family ties weren’t the only thing drawing him home.
He had to remember who he was.
Remembering something, Andrey stopped midway up the narrow path that wound its way across the front yard of the dwelling his mother now used as a summer cottage. He reached into his jacket pocket and retrieved a silver chain with a small cross attached. The slight object stirred no emotions in his heart. After a moment of consideration, he fastened the chain around his neck.
Although he’d lost his faith years ago, he knew that the sight of the cross would placate his mother.
The small two-story dacha looked just the way he remembered it: dark brown wooden siding with a cheery blue door and matching window frames. Surrounding the modest dwelling was an expansive cottage garden. Next to the back shed was some construction debris that had been there since before his father had died.
His brother Stepan’s car was parked on the grassy field beside the path. Its steely paint served as camouflage for his mother’s old gray cat, which he only spotted when she leapt down from the hood to slink towards the visitor.
“Hello, Mila,” Andrey said, speaking in his native language for only the second time in many months. The first had been when he’d called his brother earlier that day. He crouched down and extended a hand to give the sleek feline a chance to remember him. As if anything about him was the same.
Mila glared at him, then sniffed the bouquet of daffodils he was holding and stalked off.
Not the best start.
Just as he was wondering whether the costume had changed his scent too much for him to be recognizable anymore, a boy’s voice called from the doorway in cheerful Russian.
Andrey straightened, and a smile came to his lips as he spotted his nephew on the doorstep. Denis had grown several inches since the last time he’d seen him. He had to be eight or nine years old by now — a gangly, brown-haired kid whose long limbs gave him the look of a baby giraffe. The boy waved before slipping back inside to loudly announce his uncle’s arrival to the rest of the family.
Andrey felt a touch of melancholy as he followed the path the rest of the way to the house. He remembered the day he and Natalya had attended Denis’s baptism together, their fingers entwined in a silent promise. Their life together had been too short to grant her wish for children.
He still had his ring.
Stepan stepped into the doorway just as Andrey approached the doorstep. Stepan was a slightly younger, skinnier version of his brother — or so people always said. His hair was in a crew cut as opposed to Andrey’s disheveled dark blonde curls. The complete lack of a welcoming smile served to harden Stepan’s sharper facial features.
But as Stepan offered a hand to his brother, Andrey could recognize the relief in his eyes.
Andrey took his brother’s outstretched hand and pulled him into a hug. They stood on their mother’s doorstep for a silent moment, arms wrapped about one another.
Skinny little brother, Andrey thought as a familiar warmth settled inside him. I told you to marry a woman who could cook without a microwave.
As they stepped away from each other, Stepan clapped Andrey on the back.
At least that’s settled, he thought. But he still had to face his mother.
Andrey glanced into the living room as the sound of female laughter drifted through the open doorway. His mother and sister-in-law weren’t in sight; they were probably in the kitchen.
“Does Mama know?” he whispered.
“No. They still haven’t made it public,” his brother told him solemnly.
Andrey nodded, feeling relieved.
“You know I don’t keep secrets from Alena, but she won’t mention it. I told her you’re just taking a break for a few days.” Stepan gave Andrey an assessing look. “You are just taking a break for a few days, aren’t you, Andrey?”
“No,” he sighed. “It’s final.”
Stepan only nodded, his gaze drifting off into the distance.
My stoic baby brother, Andrey thought. You’ve always been the strong one.
Stepan would know full well what Andrey’s decision meant: no UNEOA protection for the Luvkov family. No shelter from the potential retaliation that villains might take against the families of the heroes who’d thwarted their plans. And, now, no protection against the thousands of angry people worldwide who might be moved to vigilante violence in the aftermath of Shanti’s death. That would require more resources than the UNEOA could spare.
Andrey glanced at his brother’s face. He could see from the wrinkles around Stepan’s eyes that he was worried.
As far as Andrey could tell, his brother’s worry might very well be justified, considering the Oracle’s prophecies regarding the possible end of the world — prophecies that Andrey hadn’t mentioned during their earlier phone conversation. He just wished he’d returned sooner, and not like this. Not with all this baggage.
“You look like shit, man,” Stepan noted. “Get any sleep lately?”
“I’m not sure. Not enough.” Andrey didn’t elaborate.
“Better come in. Mama’s anxious to see you,” Stepan said.
Andrey followed his brother into the house. True to custom, he removed his shoes, placed them beside all the other shoes in the corridor, and put on the pair of knit indoor slippers that waited for him.
Scanning the living room, Andrey noted that it hadn’t changed any more than the house had. The ancient tube television sat on the same old occasional table in one corner, most likely still not seeing any use. An assortment of framed family photos lined the walls. The wooden floor creaked with every step, its dents and scratches visible wherever the huge Turkish rug didn’t cover. Next to the kitchen door, the dinner table had been drawn out to its full size.
Denis raced into the living room from the kitchen with a squeal of glee. “He’s here, he’s here!” he called over his shoulder. “Uncle Andrey, can I interview you for my school project?”
“Relax,” Stepan said, ruffling the boy’s hair. “Let him say hello to Grandmama first.”
Denis darted over anyway to hug his uncle’s waist. “I couldn’t come out before because they were making me help with dinner,” he said, making a face.
“It’s alright,” Andrey replied with a smile. “Mila would have been jealous.”
Mama appeared in the kitchen door. She looked smaller than Andrey remembered, but not a day older. Her long gray hair was done up in a complex wreath of braids, a few loose curls framing her dignified features. Her lips curled into a smile the moment she saw him.
Andrey was relieved to see that there wasn’t a trace of accusation in her clear blue eyes, even though she must have known about Shanti; the whole world did. If there was an unspoken agreement not to bring Shanti up during the family reunion, Andrey would be grateful for it.
Stepan’s petite wife, Alena, appeared in the doorway next, her blonde hair woven into a long braid that hung over one shoulder. She was in an elegant blue dress with a modern cut — most likely the latest trend from Moscow’s fashion boutiques.
“Andrey,” his mother said, gingerly stepping forward in her unadorned gray dress and patched apron. Her eyes flicked over her son’s form, and her expression darkened as she took in the details of his face.
He knew there was no way to hide his sleepless nights from her. But he also knew she wouldn’t pry, not with other family present.
Andrey stepped forward to take her hand, which felt a little rougher and more worn than he remembered. Then he planted three light kisses alternately upon her cheeks, inhaling the faint scent of limes that surrounded her.
“I’m sorry I didn’t come sooner,” he said truthfully.
As he stepped back, his mother took notice of the silver cross around his neck. Her fingers squeezed his hand with motherly pride.
“Andrey, you are His chosen. Every compromise you had to make to fulfill your duties is forgiven.”
The words should have been reassuring, but he couldn’t relate to them. He just wanted to be the son for once. He’d been the hero for long enough.
If God does exist, He has nothing to do with the Covenant.
Andrey looked over at his brother, who seemed withdrawn. One of Stepan’s hands rested heavily upon his son’s shoulder. Denis was oblivious to the weight of the moment as he watched his uncle with childish admiration.
“You remembered the daffodils,” his mother said, reaching for the bouquet that Andrey had forgotten he was clenching in his hand. “I’ll go find a vase and put them next to your father’s picture.”
While she returned into the adjoining kitchen, Andrey used the opportunity to visualize his father’s face from one of the framed family photos on the wall.
Ivan Luvkov had been a hero of a different kind. A simple railway worker, but an honest, hardworking man who inspired others with his ideals. He’d never believed in the idea of communism, but like many Russians, he’d taken the underlying idea of community welfare to heart and had worked it into his everyday life. After nearly two years of living in New York, Andrey could appreciate his father’s daily sacrifices now more than ever.
Andrey’s father had drowned fifteen years ago while trying to rescue a boat full of tourists after their overloaded vessel had capsized on the Moskva River. Ivan Luvkov had never been featured in international newscasts, but the locals still remembered him fondly. And none of his actions had ever inspired worldwide protests.
He was so much more of a hero than I could ever hope to be, Andrey thought, a wistful smile on his face.
After everyone had warmed their bellies with vodka and filled the house with chatter about recent happenings and local gossip, the Luvkov family sat down to dinner. Alena helped her mother-in-law serve the solyanka soup, rye bread, pelmeni meat wraps, syrniki pancakes, and mashed potatoes they’d prepared for dinner.
Denis fidgeted around on his chair, brimming with questions about superhero life. Andrey would have preferred more mundane table conversation, but the boy’s enthusiasm was refreshing.
“What’s it like to fly? My teacher said that if you fly too fast, you can’t breathe,” Denis said.
“I fly so fast that I don’t need to breathe,” Andrey answered. That wasn’t the whole truth of it, but he didn’t know how else to explain it. Not to a nine-year-old boy, at least.
“Really? Faster than Samael?”
“Faster than anyone,” Andrey said pointedly. “Did your teacher tell you about the speed of light yet?”
“No! What’s it like? Different from an airplane?” Denis’s eyes gleamed with curiosity.
Andrey picked up his fork and drew a line across the tablecloth, from his plate to the boy’s. “An airplane takes over nine hours to fly from New York to Moscow.”
He met the kid’s eyes, and Denis nodded.
“But for me,” he continued, making the fork jump from one plate to the other, “it takes less than a second.”
“Wooooooow,” Denis replied, his eyes growing wide. He looked over at his father. “We should take Uncle Andrey on vacation next time, so we don’t have to take an airplane!”
“If you did,” Andrey’s mother said, reaching over to touch Andrey’s arm, “I wouldn’t need to worry so much about plane crashes. There is always one happening somewhere. This is a terrible, terrible century. Your father predicted it, you know.”
I hope you’ll never learn just how terrible it is turning out to be, Andrey prayed. He had a tight feeling in his throat. Strangely, he felt more vulnerable surrounded by his kin than he’d felt during the previous year and a half.
Family is often a hero’s weakness, he mused, remembering the second-hand comic books he’d collected as a boy. His mother probably still had them stashed away in a box beneath his bed.
Stepan broke the silence, voicing Andrey’s train of thought. “Don’t watch the news, Mama. You have so many books, and your garden is flourishing so nicely. In fact, you should stay here for the whole summer. If you need anything from your apartment in Moscow, just give me a call.”
“Stiopka is right,” Andrey chimed in, referring to his brother with the familiar form of address. “The city is chaos this year. Political unrest, exorbitant prices. Anyone with a dacha is spending the summer out in the country.”
It wasn’t just a movie cliché that disasters tended to hit large population centers first. In the past few months, Andrey knew, villages all over the world had begun to repopulate as people fled from the cities.
“Actually, we’ve been talking about letting Denis spend his summer vacation out here with his Grandmama,” Stepan said. “He was sick for a week in the spring, and the doctor suggested a change of air.”
Andrey caught Stepan’s eye pointedly. Good thinking, little brother.
“I would love to have him, of course,” their mother enthused. “It wouldn’t take long to get Andrey’s old room ready.”
“Yeah! My friends will be so jealous!” the boy cheered.
If only you knew the truth of it all, Andrey mused. He didn’t voice his thoughts.
“Well, I think it’s a great idea,” he said instead. He didn’t want to burst the boy’s bubble. Still, the conversation reminded him of the main reason why he’d come. To make a fresh start. To rebuild his reputation — in his own eyes at least, even if the rest of the world no longer recognized him as a hero.
“Mama,” Andrey began, reaching over to rub his mother’s wrist with his thumb, “do you remember the day I left for New York?”
Her blue eyes became distant. “As if it were yesterday,” she said quietly. “I felt sad and proud at the same time. I didn’t know if I should laugh or cry.” She squeezed his fingers in turn.
“So you did both,” Andrey teased. He smiled a little, remembering. “You tried to hide it since the entire town was watching, and you didn’t want to seem ungrateful after the UNEOA made that huge donation to the community.”
“Your father always said that tears are an expression of doubt.”
“You doubted me?” he asked, tilting his head as he watched her face.
She shook her head. “I always knew you were a very special boy. Stepan may have come off as the fierce one, but you never cried; you were always so strong inside. The other children looked up to you. Even the older ones.”
“He cried when we buried his dog,” Stepan interjected. There was a pause. “But when he cried, it was always for others. Never for himself.”
Andrey was grateful that his brother didn’t elaborate on the event that had most likely crossed his mind. He was quite sure that all of the adults present remembered those few weeks that had nearly broken him.
“Uncle Andrey doesn’t need to cry because he isn’t scared of anything!” Denis asserted enthusiastically.
That’s not true. I’m scared for you all.
He’d spent hours mulling over the options he had at his disposal for watching over his family, but he still hadn’t been able to think up a watertight plan. Much as he wanted — no, needed — to ensure his family’s safety, he still hadn’t doubted his decision to leave the Covenant. Not even for a second.
“All little boys are scared sometimes,” Alena said, strangely in tune with Andrey’s unspoken thoughts.
Stepan nodded as he swallowed his last bite of pelmeni. “That’s right. So study hard and don’t make your poor mother worry.”
Andrey sensed a change of mood around the table. “Why don’t you go upstairs and have a look at my old room?” he suggested to Denis. “There should be a box with old comics below the bed.”
His mother nodded. “And I still have your old motorcycle in the shed,” she told Andrey. “I don’t know if it still works, but if you’d like to stay for a few days before you head back to work, I’m sure your cousin Ruslan could get it working.”
Fortunately, while Andrey was considering how to tell his mother that he couldn’t stay, Denis broke in. “Can I really hang out in your old room? Maybe if I sleep in your bed, I’ll be able to shoot sunbeams too!”
Andrey fought back a smile as he pushed his finished plate of food away. “Sure, go on up. Just be careful with those comic books, okay? They’re pretty valuable now, and I’m passing them on to you.”
Denis’s mouth fell open. “Really?”
“Dad, come up with me and look!” the boy cajoled, unable to contain his excitement.
Stepan shook his head. “I’m going to talk with Uncle Andrey some more, but maybe your Mama will go with you,” he suggested.
“But what about the dishes?” Alena protested.
“Go on,” Andrey’s mother urged her. “I’ll get the boys to help me clear the table.”
Andrey smiled. He and Stepan would always be boys to her.
Alena drained the last of her tea before rising from her chair. “Alright, then. It’s not every day I get to play with comic books and get out of doing the dishes,” she joked, then turned to Denis. “Come on, little hero, before your uncle changes his mind.”
Andrey’s mother, her face unreadable, watched as Denis and Alena climbed the stairs. When her grandson was safely out of earshot, her eyes settled on Andrey.
“You never introduced this Alexandra to me,” she said with a hint of rebuke. “The TV and the neighbors knew before your own poor mother did.”
“Alexa and I are just friends, Mama.” Andrey wasn’t lying to his mother, exactly. But he wasn’t entirely sure of his feelings at the moment, either. His sense of romance had been buried along with wife.
“Does she know that?” his mother asked.
Alexandra’s last words to him echoed through his mind. Is that all I am to you now? A former teammate?
“Yes,” he answered, trying to sound more convinced than he felt.
His mother’s eyelids lowered. “Is that what they call it in America? Being friends?” She sighed. “I always worried that the Western culture would spoil you. Over there, everything is so . . . disposable.”
Stepan was watching from across the table, sipping his tea. He was considerate enough not to complicate things by commenting.
“It didn’t change me, Mama. But I’ve already married once, and that’s enough.”
“You still miss her,” she remarked, her tone gentle.
Andrey didn’t deny it. But he didn’t want to be having this conversation, either. He let his mother spill her thoughts, knowing that she’d change the subject eventually.
“We all miss Natalya,” she said. “She was an angel, and perfect for you. You two would have made beautiful children, but perhaps the good Lord had more important plans for you.”
Andrey’s fists clenched beneath the table. The idea that his wife’s death was some part of a grander scheme infuriated him. He had to believe that it was some random, horrible event. If he came to think otherwise, he could never wear the cross again. Not for any reason.
“We’ll take care of the dishes, Mama,” Andrey offered in order to change the subject, shooting Stepan a glance across the table. The dishes weren’t the only unresolved issue they still had to address.
“Yes, go have a seat in your armchair,” Stepan added, starting to stack the dirty plates. “Put your feet up. Relax.”
As Andrey entered the kitchen with a dirty casserole dish in each hand, his attention was immediately drawn to the fridge — namely, to the various drawings that had been pinned on it. All were colorful and simple, clearly scrawled by a child’s hand. All but one of them.
Andrey set down the dishes and walked over to the fridge. He released the magnet holding up a black sheet of construction paper with white lines drawn on it and held it in his hands for closer inspection. The lack of color made it appear too gloomy to have been drawn by an elementary school kid.
The foreground showed a human figure with wings and a halo of white crayon rays that extended outwards. Both of the figure’s arms were outstretched, with one hand pointing forward at something beyond the edge of the black paper. The other arm was stretched backwards, towards a procession of stick-figured men, women, and children behind him.
The sketch didn’t reflect a great amount of artistic skill, but it had a lot more detail than the scrawled drawings that surrounded it. What really caught his eye, however, was that something about the scene seemed almost familiar to him.
Andrey traced the white crayon lines with the fingers of his right hand. Yes, the black-and-white vignette stirred something in his subconscious. It wasn’t quite a déjà vu, and it certainly wasn’t a full-on memory, but something was there.
When he tried to make a connection, however, a painful pulse shot through his head. He had to stop looking at the drawing.
“Denis drew this,” Stepan said.
The sound of his voice instantly cleared Andrey’s mind. The fleeting almost-connection was gone.
“Is that so? It doesn’t look like the rest of his drawings,” Andrey said, squeezing his eyes shut for a moment. Unlike any of the other headaches he’d experienced, the dull throb was passing already.
“No, it doesn’t,” Stepan agreed. He leaned against the fridge and crossed his arms over his chest. “He drew it when we visited last weekend. He wasn’t feeling well, so Alena told him to take a nap on the couch. When he woke up, he said something about a bad dream. Then he went straight to Mama’s craft drawer and drew this.”
Andrey returned the paper to its magnet on the fridge without comment.
“He insisted that Mama hang it on the fridge. He said something about wanting you to see it someday so that you could protect him, too.” Stepan gave his brother a long, hard look.
“Strange,” Andrey said. “I wonder what he meant.” Now that the ache had passed, he looked over the drawing one more time. “Maybe you should have him checked, just to be sure. He didn’t complain of any headaches or anything, did he?” he asked, hoping that his nephew wasn’t on the verge of transitioning.
Stepan shook his head as he stepped past his brother to place an empty teacup on the counter. “No, thank the Lord. You have no idea how glad I am that this stuff doesn’t run in families.”
“You’re wrong about that. I do have an idea,” Andrey replied. He turned away from the fridge, briefly considering telling Stepan about the headache he’d just experienced himself. But his brother already had enough to worry about.
“Fresh air?” he suggested instead.
Stepan nodded. “We can do the dishes after dessert. I hear Mama made her famous baba romovaya.”
As the brothers made their way towards the front door, Andrey stopped beside his mother’s chair, where she was resting with closed eyes. “We are going outside for a moment, Mama. We won’t be long,” he said quietly, bending low.
Her soft snores were the only reply.
Andrey smiled down at her, then followed Stepan through the front door and into the small, fenced-in yard beside the cottage.
Outside, the sun was slowly setting, painting the wooden fence with reddish-gold hues. The vegetable patch and the small outdoor oven were already flooded by shadows.
“How bad is it?” Stepan asked. He perched himself against the fence, his expression as dark as the yard.
“I don’t know. I can’t figure out the Oracle’s latest prophecy yet,” Andrey confessed. “But I’d be lying if I told you the Covenant has things under control.”
“But doesn’t your leaving only make things worse?” Stepan tried, and failed, to keep the accusation out of his voice.
“Maybe.” Andrey didn’t enjoy admitting it, but he wasn’t about to sugar-coat things to his brother. He wasn’t going to make excuses for himself, either. “All I can say is that I couldn’t stay a minute longer. I tried, but I couldn’t go on living that lie. I’m sorry.”
Stepan’s only response was to cross his arms over his chest. He was a good man, and he’d always been a great brother. More than anything, Andrey wanted to make him understand.
“The UNEOA tied my hands, Stiopka,” he tried to explain. “I’m going to be able to make more of a difference on my own.”
He could see the worry in Stepan’s eyes. Even as a small child, his younger brother had always been on the lookout to keep him out of trouble. He’d always fiercely protected him. And now he couldn’t.
Andrey knew he had a difficult road ahead of him, but he couldn’t back down now. If he did, he was as good as dead to himself.
“What happens now?” Stepan finally asked.
“Hopefully the political chaos will die down soon, but the surges are going to continue; they might even get worse. It’s a good idea to have Denis stay with Mama this summer. You and Alena should take the summer off work and come out here, too.”
Stepan snorted. “I’m not sure how well the country life would suit my wife.”
“If it’s money you need—”
“I’ve never asked you for money, and I’m not starting now,” Stepan cut in. There was a pause. “But I will call you if there’s trouble,” he added in a kinder tone. “If I can track you down, that is.”
Andrey didn’t waste any time on arguments; he was grateful for the compromise. “Good. I’m going to give you a number. Memorize it — don’t write it down. And don’t save it on your phone, either. It’s an emergency line that Athena relays directly to my earbud.” Andrey pointed to the small silver device that was barely noticeable in his right ear canal.
“Athena’s still working with you?” Stepan asked, clearly surprised. “But won’t the UNEOA—”
“The UNEOA can’t control what they don’t know about. Besides, they’d never discipline Athena. She controls all the communications tech, and they can’t replace her.” With that, Andrey started to recite the number. After a few tries, Stepan could repeat it without prompting.
Once that was accomplished, Stepan leaned forward and grasped Andrey’s shoulder. “You know I love you, brother, even if I’m not sure I understand you right now.”
Andrey diverted his eyes to the shadows near the shed. “Trust me, I’ve never felt like less of a hero.”
Stepan squeezed his brother’s shoulder. When Andrey met his gaze again, he found steely eyes staring back at him. “But if anything happens to my son because of you, I’ll kill you myself.”
“I promise you this, brother. Nothing will happen to your son. You have my word.” This time, Andrey’s stare didn’t waver.
Stepan gave a small nod, then let go of Andrey’s shoulder. He leaned back against the fence, gazing up at the darkening sky. “Do you know what you’re going to do now?”
If somebody had asked him that an hour ago, Andrey wouldn’t have had a clue what to say. But now, the outline of an idea was starting to take shape. His return home had inspired him, after all, and he was beginning to feel less like a blank slate.
“I’ve got an idea,” Andrey said.
White lines on black paper.