It was the middle of the summer, and the house was freezing.

He woke up with a shiver, and looked around the tiny room he shared with his sister. The shadows were quiet and still. Marina was curled up in the crib in the corner, making soft wuffling noises as she sleep-sucked her thumb.

Somewhere outside, a night animal called. He’d heard that same call more nights than he could count, but tonight, the sound was different. Off.

He climbed out of bed and padded out of his room, down the short hallway to the big bedroom door. There, he hesitated. He remembered the last time he’d gone into the big bedroom without permission. Papa and Mama had been moving under the blankets in the bed, making noises he didn’t understand.

He could still remember Papa’s red face, his bright, angry eyes. He could still feel the sting against his cheek where his large, heavy hand had landed.

Carefully, he backed away from the door and headed back up the hallway. Mama always brought him a glass of milk when he couldn’t sleep. He would get one for himself this time, then go back to bed. She would be so proud of him. Already, he could imagine what she would say in the morning: “My sweet Mishkaya, so grown up…”

The temperature dropped steadily the closer he drew to the kitchen. He rubbed his arms and huffed a breath, frowned at the vapor cloud in front of him. It was the part of summer when he slept only in his underwear and shirt, and kicked the blankets off halfway through the night. Even the bugs were made sluggish by the heat.

Why was it so cold?

His heart beat faster and faster. Driven by pure instinct, he rose up on his tip-toes and crept the rest of the way. At last, he reached the end of the hall. Darkness yawned in front of him where the living room should have been. His pulse hammered a frantic beat in his throat. The shadows shifted, and his heart stopped altogether.

A figure moved into a slat of dim light from outside, and a familiar silhouette took shape. He relaxed. His heart started beating again. “Mama?” he whispered.

His mother turned. Her face was grotesque, her body twisted and bent like an old woman’s. Gnarled claws reached for him where her hands should have been. She snarled at him with iron teeth.

Horror turned his legs to wood. Unable to move, unable to run, he did the only thing he could.

He screamed.

Someone was shaking him.

Misha surged upright, blind with panic. A feral sound tore up his throat. Reflex kicked in. He snatched the hand on his shoulder, wrenched. Something solid and warm tumbled into his lap.

His muscles were primed for the coming struggle, but then a familiar scent hit him. Soap. Fresh grass. Misha froze. “Emil?”

“I’m sorry.” Emil’s voice was strangely hoarse, and Misha was suddenly aware his hand was clamped around the Minister’s throat. He released him with a curse. Emil rubbed his neck. “You were having a nightmare.”

“I know.” Misha’s muscles twitched. He tried to be silent as he hauled breath after breath through his nose. Every sense felt sharper, more aware.

Emil shifted, and a different awareness took hold. Bozhe, his Minister was in his lap, closer than anyone else had been in a long time. Closer than any man had been, ever. In the dim half-light of the room, Misha could make out the stubble that grazed his jaw, the sinful curve of his lip. His djellaba was splayed open, and heat radiated from his body. His scent was stronger, headier, more male.

Misha wanted to wrap himself in it like a blanket.

A hot, needy ache bloomed in his core. He needed to hit something… or fuck something. He clenched his teeth, prayed his djellaba and the blankets were enough that Emil couldn’t feel his rapidly hardening cock.

With superhuman effort, he shoved his partner off him, ignored the double-edged spear of guilt and longing as the other man stumbled back onto his cot.

“I’m sorry,” Emil said again. His voice sounded thick.

Misha didn’t answer.

Emil lay down, promptly rolled onto his side with his back to Misha. Long minutes dragged by. At last, his breathing evened out. His body relaxed into the cot. Stillness settled back over the room.

Misha allowed his chest to unlock. Unused adrenaline flooded his bloodstream.

He lay back and trembled himself to sleep.

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