[community profile] daily_prompt: I'm A Necessary Evil

Aug. 12th, 2012 11:56 pm
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Title: I Can Go Anywhere, And Do Anything
Author: Wang Xi-feng ([personal profile] xifeng)
Challenge: [community profile] daily_prompt. Original.
Warnings: Offstage violence.
Summary: 1927. Alisja is innocent, and Anna corrupt.



1.

The Harlovs – the younger Harlovs, that is, the children of the British wife and not of the Princess – were let loose almost as soon as they pulled up to the Tsar-Imperator's country estate. They'll be spending the weekend here, along with the rest of the family; the car has barely come to a stop before Alisja launches herself out at a run, deaf to her mother's admonitions about proper behavior. Almost as if she's Marja's age again, she runs up the stairs, peeks into all the bedrooms, runs down the stairs again, and checks all the staterooms, looking for a well-loved presence.

She doesn't find it, but she does find Goldshtein the Magnificent reading in the parlor, and he's almost as good even if he is a pale imitation. Stepka and the boys must have been in here recently; coats and hats and gloves and magazines are scattered over the carpet. Alisja stops, composes herself, and smooths her skirt; she is a little afraid of her brother-in-law, who is as old as her father, and always feels as if she's imposing on him by speaking to him, even though he's never unkind or impatient with her. She's overheard the things her parents say about Jews, but Goldshtein at least must be all right, because otherwise, why would Anna have married him?

"Lev Moiseyevich?" Alisja says, poking her head in the doorway and stepping tentatively in.

He sets his book aside and looks up, pushing his glasses up his nose. "Yes, Alisja."

"Is Anna Stepanovna here?" Alisja approaches, still skittish, ready to spring back, and stands at attention at the end of the couch, just as she might if she were addressing her father.

"No, she's away at Karakorum. I don't expect her back before Monday."

"Oh," Alisja says, though she tries not to let her face fall. Anna is, after all, often away on missions, as Alisja privately calls the mysterious, adult things her half-sister does in other cities, and sometimes in other countries. "Well, thank you very much."

Dinner seems to drag; every time the door opens, Alisja's heart beats faster, and every time, it's just another relative, nobody special. Once in a great while, it's a Communist Party functionary; the Party enjoys an uneasy truce with the Tsar-Imperator, due to Anna's membership in both palace and Party. None of them are Anna, and Alisja feels her heart sink every time she sees who it is, as if they're letting her personally down. Her mother gives her a sharp tap on the elbow and says, "Don't sigh like that, Alice. And for heaven's sake sit up straight." Alisja obeys immediately; when her mother uses her English name, she knows she's in trouble.

After dinner, when the adults are on their way to sit in the parlors and studies and talk about dull, grown-up things, Alisja passes the Tsar-Imperator in the hallway. Her long face must be evident. He smiles down at her – even his enemies will concede that he is a kind man – and says, "I know, Alisja. I wish she were here, too."

At bedtime, after she has said good night to the myriad of people to whom she is more or less related, Alisja climbs into bed and hugs her knees, and when the lights in the hallway go out and the footsteps fade, she whispers to Kip, "Do you suppose Anna will be here before we all leave on Sunday?" She knows she's far too old to be talking to Kip, but he's been with her for such a long time, and she can't give up this habit so easily.

I'm sure of it, Kip says. Alisja isn't so convinced, but she feels a little better. The room is dark and still and very quiet, and before long, she is asleep.


2.

Anna Stepanovna has driven all night from Karakorum, and by the time she has identified herself to the guards at the gate and one of the valets has shown her where to park the car, she is exhausted and aching, and when she touches her face, she knows the rash must be back, for she feels heat. Her back and hips and legs scream in agony when she hauls herself out of the car, and she has to stand for a moment in improbable, impractically high heels, leaning against the car for a minute, until she forces herself to walk into the manor.

Back straight. Head high. No one must know the secret agony that shoots brilliant pain up her back, down her thighs; no one must know the terrible secret hidden beneath her jacket. One is fit discussion for Lev, when they are alone. The other will never be mentioned to anyone, except perhaps Comrade Verenov, who will need to know that the task has been done. Anna does not especially like taking out the garbage, but she can think of no one else in the Party organization who is suitable to do it, and if her husband and their comrades aren't bothered with it, all the better.

Some of them are still up. Anna smiles brilliantly, though she knows the rash is bright on her face now, and lets Tasja and Stanika rush to hug her. "We thought you'd have to miss this weekend!" Stanika cries. "Oh, look at you, you're not well. Did the drive do this to you?"

Anna gives a guilty half-laugh. "Yes, I know, I know. But really, was I supposed to just rot there? I finished early." She finished...almost twelve hours ago, by her count. Enough time for the message to be sent. Tasja, beautiful, sweet Tasja, is smiling at her, as if Anna is the only thing she wants, and Anna wants only to say, Don't look at me like that. I can't bear it. I don't deserve it.

"You're not well, my dear," Tasja says, touching Anna's hand. Her voice is soft and gentle. "You should go upstairs. I think Vaika put Lev in – "

"I couldn't disturb him," Anna says. "He hasn't been well either. Some kind of stomach bug last week."

"Oh!" Stanika says. "Tass, we could – we could put her in Alisja's room."

"Oh, wouldn't that be nice for Alisja to wake up to? She just thinks you're wonderful." Tasja puts an arm around Anna's shoulders as they head towards the stairs. "We do, too!"

You shouldn't. You'd be horrified if you knew what I really am. You'd want nothing to do with me if you knew what I do. "Well, it's mutual," Anna says, ruffling Tasja's hair, just for the pleasure of the long, soft curls against her fingers. Her vertebrae sing pain to the rest of her body; she feels as if she'll never be whole again. Is it true that a piece of you dies every time?


3.

Tasja opens the door, very quietly, and whispers, "Here we are. I think she's asleep." Alisja's back is to them; she is curled up in the bed, which seems awfully big for a girl of thirteen, and for a moment, Anna's heart breaks. She has never been so fervently loved by anyone as she has been by Alisja, the sheltered, spoiled half-sister whom she should hate. "I'll get the screen for you, shall I?"

"Thanks much," Anna whispers. Tasja moves with an economy of noise, easing the screen over to the corner by the window, but still, Anna wonders how she hasn't awakened Alisja. Poor kid must be awfully tired, if she's sleeping like the dead. She and Tasja whisper good night, and when the door is closed, Anna takes off her shoes with infinite care. Here, without an audience, she can shuffle and limp, and she eases behind the screen, back to the corner. The pale moon shines into the room, illuminating Alisja's face; there is little of their father there, but Anna feels a pang. Behind the screen, she takes off her jacket.

Underneath, her formerly white blouse and her corset are soaked with Comrade Karashtov's blood. Until she started enforcing Party discipline, Anna never knew how much blood was in a human body. She was careful to stand back when she pulled the trigger, and there is no blood on the jacket's lapels or on her collar. Maybe it's from before; maybe it's from when she heaved him into the water. She doesn't remember. "Shit!" Anna whispers, and the hiss seems incredibly loud; when she peers over the screen again, Alisja is still asleep, the even, soft sound of her breath the only noise in the room.

Anna peels off her blouse and manages to fumble at her corset-strings; she loosens it enough to wriggle out. Crumpling up the ruined garments, she wraps them in her jacket and stuffs them inside her suitcase; she'll dispose of it somehow. No doubt one of the servants will be burning trash. She'll wrap it in an old sheet and tell him they're just some rags. She shimmies out of her skirt and stockings and changes into the less restrictive, less formal clothes she's brought with her. Undoing her hair from its usual bun, she shakes the pins loose, and they clatter to the floor; Alisja stirs, but does not wake. Anna checks again to make sure everything is still in the suitcase, locks it, and shuffles over to the large, cushioned chair next to Alisja's bed. Her long hair is loose around her, just as her trousers and one of Lev's old shirts are; she clambers into it, takes her glasses off, and closes her eyes.

Why is it so hard to do what must be done, sometimes?

The room swims and lurches before her eyes. Coherent thought is impossible. Anna shuts her eyes, and lets slumber take her.

It seems that only a few minutes have elapsed when she opens them again; she still feels exhausted, but several hours must have passed. The sun is out, and the light pours through the window. Alisja is awake in bed, and the rapt, adoring look on her face breaks Anna's heart. "Anna! I thought you weren't going to be home before Monday! That's what Lev Moiseyevich told me."

Anna smiles, her wide, political smile that almost looks genuine. "I can go anywhere and do anything, you know." She reaches out to ruffle Alisja's hair, and the girl moves closer, still delighted.

I must.
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