He likes Kirill's cowardice. Some men are uninspired; most are so full of shit that the stink of it binds to their skin, trailing the smoke signals for rat and asshole a hundred feet into the putrid English sky wherever they go, and everyone knows: there's a real motherfucker.
Kirill isn't really his own man, so it's hard for him to have any failings on such a grand scale. He is a stained glass window in the family monument; inflexible, coloured by all the history and presumed prestige that came before his time. He'll be the first thing to break if the climate turns hostile. And, in a long, slinking, stinking dynasty of monsters and creeps, he is one of the more valuable things to come along in generations.
"Got some fucking junk on your face," he mutters as they huddle in the threshold. There's a delicate hesitation, and then he swipes at Nikolai's cheek, the uncultured hand like a heavy paw - but Kirill is no feline. "You come in here like that, it makes the business look bad. Freaks with makeup walk around the tables too much, and then." He squints, an ice-washed menace, utterly unimposing. "Nobody wants to come back no more. How do you think Papa likes that?"
"I think," Nikolai says, "he doesn't like it at all. If you want, I can stand outside and make sure all the ladies in makeup stay out and don't bother him with their money."
"Prick," Kirill says fondly, and they scurry inside, away from the clever chill breathing through little cracks in the doorjamb.
Inside, the light is slow and liquid, rolling over all the hard edges, pooling in the decanters and ashtrays like something half-living and easily worked between the fingers. Cigarette smoke marbles the ambiance, stabbed open by gestures and adamant voices. Kirill leads him upstairs. They lean discreetly on the dark balustrade and look down, drab, damp overseers of a radiant kingdom.
"Hungry?" Kirill asks.
"Papa's the best, you know. And even if you don't want spicy horsefish with goddamn marachino cherries or whatever, I can make you something normal."
"I don't like food much."
"No one likes a skinny bitch."
"Maybe later, okay?"
Looking a little disappointed, Kirill nods. "Smoke?"
Nikolai reaches over and plucks the whole pack out of Kirill's pocket; he's slow to react, even to notice. "Yeah. Good idea."
They linger there for the better part of an hour. Kirill tries to teach him to blow smoke rings, but he's never had much of a talent for things like that. He does, however, manage a wide, jagged net that lifts and expands and then seems to descend on the room with the grace of a great gray spider.
Kirill shrugs. "Pretty cool."
On his say-so, they stay up there until all the best patrons have paid and left, their scraps left behind for the vulture-quick cleaning staff to scavenge. Women in bird-of-paradise gowns and coats cut from the soft flanks of foxes and minks disappear in a rush of expensive perfume. The men follow, uninspired and full of shit.
The smoke clears, and Kirill says, "I'm going to find Papa. We've got to talk about some stuff."
"Yeah. After that, I'll make you something."
"Forget it," Nikolai says. He's grown restless, but doesn't like to show it. "I told you, I don't need that. What did you want to talk about?"
"Nothing." Kirill is reaching consciously for the sharp edge in his voice; it doesn't lend him as much authority as he seems to think. "Not until I see Papa anyway. I talk to him, then we talk."
"But maybe I don't trust you alone in here. Maybe you should come downstairs."
Kirill's laughter is startled and shrill. "Yeah? You like it if I don't trust you?"
"It doesn't matter to me."
There's a strange lull. The slow, sliding light reveals itself as jewelry for the sinister shadows lurking beyond the tables, behind the bar.
"Fine," Kirill remarks tonelessly. "Maybe you should help clean up some, too. Get all the cups, take them to the kitchen."
The great gray spider has woven a spiteful web behind Kirill's back. It would be terribly easy to push him back, bind him up completely and feed on him at leisure; but that would be quite cruel and perhaps a little counter-productive. Nikolai restrains himself for the most part. Thinks it best only to test the waters. "Anything else you want?"
Try, you poor little cunt. Ask for a fight. Ask to be friends.
He asks nothing, only vomits up an atrocious smile from some place lonely and black; it's one of the most heartbreaking things Nikolai has ever seen. He smiles back and tries not to laugh.
When the lights have been banked and all the amber dredges left in scattered goblets across the room have been drained into the sink like molten gold swirling away with a poisoned river, Kirill emerges from the back room and tells him to go and then takes the stairs one at a time, dragging the silken weight of wings and pride behind him in a tatter.
The coward. The lost little lamb.
In some ways, Nikolai considers himself a shepherd; he takes all the long-lashed ewes and arrogant, willful rams out to pasture and then he brings them home again. They never really feel as if they're being led, but he is the one who picks the safe paths and knows the dangers. He is the one who will fend off wolves and skin them for a bristling, savage pelt to wear.
In other, far more tangible ways, he is only a driver who certainly isn't only a driver; and most of all, he is never one to overstay his welcome. With a bright image of the Trans-Siberian's ground floor layout in mind, Nikolai steps out to face the perpetual gloom of the city at night, closing the door behind him with careful courtesy.