By the time she announced to her roommates that dinner was ready, it was later than they typically started dinner if they even ate together, which did not happen on a weeknight with any regularity amounting to an expectation. She could have done the cabbage rolls the lazy way, or used magic, but Ksenia liked the mechanical precision of manually wrapping each stuffing with a single fresh leaf. The repeated motion was satisfying. “Either it’s time to get a new lucky quill or you just need to go back to elementary and relearn how to use one.” The cook slapped away her brother’s ink-stained fingers that were reaching into the baking dish, chiding in their mother tongue, “Use a fork! And where is Wylder?” Suddenly remembering one more thing, she wandlessly summoned a ramekin from the counter that she had filled with a horseradish paste.
Anatoly’s answer stilled her.
For a fleeting second that the air seemed to freeze in her lungs, the ramekin set down on the table in a clatter with just enough force to deviate itself from just another everyday dinner in the student household. “I am sorry, what?” was all she demanded in the constricted moment of disbelief. Anatoly did not look up from his focused task of transferring spearfuls of golubtsy onto his own plate.
“I said, he’s on a date. I matchmade him with one of the girls at the tutoring center.” Nyet. Nyet, nyet, nyet. He cannot possibly mean what he said, neither the part about what he did, nor the part of what their housemate was presently doing. This could not be true, but he was still speaking.
“She’s sweet. Pretty, too. Huge fan of broom racing, they’ll have plenty to talk about. With any luck, by now they might have gotten through a quarter of Gilly’s Golden Toast,” Tolusya chortled, referencing the lavishly syrupy and just the perfect degree of burnt-sided french toast served in a monstrous heap at the trio’s favourite magical diner near the Academy. “Your cooking is better, of course.” Her twin unceremoniously plopped a fat, dripping roll in her plate and grinned his bright, beautiful smile. The one which was to anyone as charismatic as the top-winner of Teen Witch US’s annual feature of ‘Heartthrobs Who Made Our Hearts Swoon’ and to her in the moment as charming as a shapeshifting leshy’s. “Shame for Wylder, more for us, eh? Why aren’t you eating?”
His sister woodenly cut herself a bite and placed it in her mouth. She might as well be chewing on tasteless, rotten gillyweed. Swallowing, Ksenia cut herself another piece, pretending that her gaze was not, in fact, pinned across from her on the empty plate and place typically filled by their American roommate, or that she was hearing at all Tolusya’s enthusiastic chatter about his latest discovery in some project or the other that he was having. There was always some project with him; she lost track long ago, even though she usually pretended to know precisely what he was talking about whenever he spoke of them to her.
“I like Wylder,” she announced, sudden and with little preemption. His best friend barely paused in swallowing what was practically a whole cabbage roll with how untouched it was by his knife. “I like Wylder, too. But as I was saying, the environment also matters in conjuration—” She interrupted him with intent heavy on her words, “I mean that I like him.” Ksenia was done pretending. It seemed, so was Anatoly.
“Yes, I know,” he replied.
The simple, three-worded answer was as brusque as the blow of a balled fist to her gut, taking the wind from her in one fell swoop. “Izvinite, chto?” she managed, for the second time within mere minutes.
“I said, I mean, I know.”
The balled fist had a serrated blade hidden in between the knuckles. For one tenuous moment, Anatoly’s sister stared at him as the implication of his words crept in through the void. Something simmered underneath the surface of her skin, whether it was blood boiling or slowing to a cold sludge, she did not yet know. To the other side of their dingy kitchen-and-dining-room, a ripening droplet broke free from the copper tap and splattered its pregnant hoarding against the bottom of the sink. “Why did you set him up with your coworker?” Eventually, she broke the silence, refusing—or perhaps unable—to move her gaze away from her brother, as if demanding for him to look at her in return.
He did not. “It’s for the best.” Ksenia felt the fisted knife shift to her chest, cleaving her in a blind, searing pain. Or was that just rage? “And so you see,” Anatoly went on, “I was saying before, the subject matter draws from the atmosphere, which lends a corresponding degree of success to its final form—”
His sister slammed her own knife and fork down on the table, hard enough that the table’s contents jumped just the tiniest half-inch off its surface.
“I don't care.” Her voice was raised; he might have thought it because of a deafening blare of siren that sounded from a distant street, but in truth, she would not have noticed the siren anyway. In some ways, the large, bustling American city that had been home for the girl’s entire teenagehood was not so incomparably different from the faraway mountains she had grown up in. High-rise buildings were towering birch trees with pale, lithe trunks. The rumbling of engines and spinning tyres from ordinary automobiles were songbirds trilling to the stars and clouds.
She was used to the thrumming din in the background. And they were all the same to skyscrapers and trees—an ant crawling over the spine of a browning leaf, a pedestrian hurrying across the gravel street. In the black inkiness of Chicago’s night, there was a comforting insulation and the hundreds and thousands of amber light glowing from hundreds and thousands of windows made all of its residents’ lives at once illuminated yet indistinguishable. Some call it the freedom of anonymity; Ksenia thought of it less freedom and more in terms of permissiveness. It was not freedom if one’s choices were underpinned by their inherent consequence, but leniency was different—it was room for self-determination, the opportunity to ride out one’s own comet in its blaze of glory or catastrophe.
But what if that blazing path had been astray from the start by design of some machinated pull of gravity?
The younger of the pair seemed startled. His cutlery lowered, wrists poised against the edge of the table as he appeared to examine the remaining rolls of golubtsy on his plate. Anatoly sounded almost uncertain of what he should do. “I see,” he said, but she did not. “Who is it best for, Tolyan?” Her question spliced through the quiet like a swinging scythe. If he was going to admit to his deeds, he may as well admit to the intent behind them. She deserved and demanded that much from him.
“For us. The three of us.” Her twin’s answer was firm, even though he still would not look up from his plate. “He is both of ours, sister. Not more yours, nor more mine, but ours. Equally.” The girl felt her blood rise, just a little higher. “Are you shitting me? He’s your best friend. I am the frill of the baking,” she snapped, bitterness lacing the idiom that was a Russian equivalent of the English ‘fifth hoof’. “There was never any equally, not for me. And he isn’t anyone’s. He’s his own. You have no right to do what you did.” The machinations, the ploys. He had them dancing like puppets on his strings for Marzanna knew how long.
Anatoly’s expression was uncharacteristically resigned as he finally looked at her. “So why is he not here then, if he didn’t want to go out with Hayley?”
The knife nudged deeper yet another inch. Ksenia opened her mouth to retort. The words swallowed up into a flurry of recollected images—Wylder watching her in the Academy’s library as she pretended not to watch him in turn through the corner of her eye, Wylder’s hand close enough to hers before she moved it away when they cleaned up lunch together after Tolya had to rush out to his tutor session, Wylder’s shoulder brushing against hers before she let herself fall behind away from her position between the two boys as they walked home from an evening class. Why wouldn’t he want to go out with Hayley?
She closed her mouth, lips flattening as her stony expression threatened to crack. Her brother seemed eager to make what peace he could. “I am sorry, I shouldn’t have gone behind your back,” he said, setting down his own cutlery with less announcement than she had hers. His sister could hear sincerity in his tone.
“I really think this is for the best, Ksyushenka. We are family. This way, he will be in our lives for much longer. The three of us have such a good thing going, and Wylder and I are doing so well on our research….” Anatoly’s words petered off as he watched her stand, pick up his and her plates from the table, and walked over to the sink.
Ksenia tilted the contents of both plates into the trash can next to it. Setting both plates down in the sink, she stood, back against her only sibling, hands and shoulders shaking imperceptibly from her emotion. For one long, pregnant pause, there was only silence between them who never in seventeen years ran out of things to say to one another; but when her words came, they emerged as if from some dark cesspool within her that her mind had stepped over time and time again, each time with its gaze decidedly forward.
“I don’t care about your research,” the older of the pair said.
“It’s always about your research. It’s always about your opinion on something. Your opinion on why, your opinion on how it should be done. Anatoly thinks it’s for the best. Therefore, it must be for the best, because you can never be wrong. You are never fucking wrong.” Perhaps she was afraid that he would not be wrong this time either. “You are so selfish and self-centered, Anatoly Dimitrievich, that you can’t see anything two steps outside the walls of your own brain.”
Ksenia had started in a rigid, deliberate speech, but somehow it had swelled beyond her grasp into a shouting tirade. “Have you considered that maybe for once your opinion isn’t the authority? That it doesn’t matter? Or that you can share and that you don’t have to be every person’s number one for a fucking change?” She had only just barely reached even a passing shadow of her brother’s bond with the boy she introduced them to seven years ago. She had relented the fruit of that effort to Anatoly, even if neither of the two boys knew or remembered it. Tolusya took so much, from the moment of their births, that she wondered at times if her existence had itself come into being as an afterthought, a second after his first. The look on his face now was like nothing she had ever seen on her brother’s face, and it tilted the knife just a few degrees, but Ksenia would not take her words back.
She couldn’t, anyway. A spoken word was not a sparrow—it cannot be caught after it’d flown, and these were flocks in the air with wisps of feather floating to the ground in debris.
Anatoly had turned on his stool. Eyes which practically mirrored Ksenia’s met her dark, glittering glare with his own troubled, injured one. “You think I am everyone’s number one?” he asked. “Aren’t you?” his overshadowed twin replied, less inquiry and more statement. The remarkable, exceptionally clever barely-younger teenager who had never seemed to struggle with any question of any sort appeared, for once, to struggle at something in his own head. She could see the cogs of his matchless mind shifting, perhaps a touch more rheumatic than typical, but Anatoly’s face had shuttered by the time he stood.
“I’m sorry for how difficult it must've been for you, Ksyunya. There are things I would not want you to know.” The flame leapt up in her chest like a spurt of molten core underneath an erupting soil. Ksenia growled in frustrated wrath, throwing her hands in midair. “Oh, what fucking news!” But her twin only shook his head, turning away from their fight. “I’m going to go,” Anatoly said. “I’ll be back tomorrow morning”.
“Don't!” his sister yelled after his retreating back. She summoned the baking dish of mostly uneaten golubtsy to her, setting it down on the counter before jabbing her wand at the soiled dishes to magically wash and dry themselves. Ksenia was stacking plate on plate on Wylder’s untouched plate when she heard the boys' room door open and close, followed by the front door opening and closing. She heard her brother's key turn in the knob and his footsteps retreating down the hallway. She sat down on Anatoly’s still-warm stool. The heat still bubbled livid underneath her surface. Ksenia swept her hand forward.
Like old, dead trees collapsing in the wild, the plates fell off the table in a thunderous crash.