Alexey and Mikhail ~ Chapter 10: Mikhail goes to Moscow

After opening to splendid reviews, The Prodigal Son played to packed houses throughout its run in St Petersburg ensuring that Mikhail Galayev, who danced the leading role, was widely recognised as an exciting new talent. News of Mikhail’s triumph must have reached the President’s office because an invitation was issued for the Mariinsky Ballet to stage a performance of The Prodigal Son for visiting heads of state in the Kremlin.

Mikhail had always dreamed of travelling to faraway places. When he was first recruited to the corps de ballet of the world renowned Mariinsky Ballet he knew he was on the verge of fulfilling his dreams. So far he had not been on a foreign tour but the opportunity to visit Moscow was the next best thing. Despite the fact that his partner, Alexey Baranov, warned him that he would find Moscow a disappointment after the glories of St Petersburg, Mikhail could not wait to see for himself the views of Red Square and the Kremlin which he knew only from television broadcasts.

The logistics of putting on one performance in the Kremlin were considerable. The set, costumes and instruments for the orchestra went ahead in trucks; the dancers, musicians, technicians and administrators travelled on the overnight train to Moscow and were booked into a hotel adjoining Red Square. For Mikhail it was all a tremendous adventure and his excitement at packing his bags for the trip led him to listen with only half an ear to Alexey’s reminder about remaining calm and doing nothing thoughtless or inconsiderate of others.

In fact, Mikhail was always motivated by the best of intentions but his willingness to engage in juvenile pranks, especially when in the company of some of his mates from the technical crew, had got him into trouble in the past. Alexey could only hope that his brat would recall the painful consequences of previous mistakes if faced with the temptation to do anything which would not meet with the approval of the ballet director, Victor Nikolaevich Pavel.

On the day of departure, Alexey went to the station with Mikhail who was bouncing around with excitement at the forthcoming journey.

“I just wish you were coming too, Alesha. It won’t be such fun without you.”

“You’ll have a great time, Misha, my love, and I know you’ll give a wonderful performance in the Kremlin.”

“I’ll text you when we get to Moscow and I’ll ring you from the hotel. I love you and I’m going to miss you.”

“I love you too, Misha, and you won’t have time to miss me. Enjoy yourself, take care and come home safely.”

In the scramble to get berths in the sleeping compartments on the overnight train, Mikhail grabbed his friend Vladimir who was with a fellow technician. As a result the three of them finished up in a compartment with one spare bunk and were congratulating themselves on their good fortune at gaining extra space when Victor Pavel came down the corridor shepherding the newest recruit to the corps de ballet.

“Ah, here’s a space,” said Victor to the young man who was clutching his rucksack to his chest and looking nervous and bemused. “Mikhail will look after you.” And with a firm hand on his protégé’s shoulder Victor guided Filipp Martynov into the compartment, before departing for his own quarters further up the train.

Mikhail cast an exasperated glance towards Vladimir who responded with an exaggerated rolling of his eyes heavenward. Although Filipp had only recently joined the company, he had managed to irritate many of his colleagues with his endless chatter. The last thing Mikhail and his friends wanted was to listen to Filipp talk all evening. Mikhail was at a loss to understand why Filipp had been invited on the tour anyway as he had not danced in the original production and there were plenty of longer serving members of the corps de ballet who could have filled one small vacancy in the cast list. All Filipp’s attempts at initiating conversation were met with monosyllabic responses as the three older men made ready for bed and put out the light in order to stem any further observations from their unwelcome room mate.

In the morning, members of the touring company had time to check into their hotel rooms and freshen up before walking to the Kremlin for their first rehearsal on the unfamiliar stage. Mikhail was delighted to discover that the short journey required them to cross Red Square. Despite having seen the May Day parades on television, with the political and military leaders assembled on the top of Lenin’s tomb, nothing had prepared Mikhail for the vast expanse of Red Square, with St Basil’s Cathedral dominating one side, its colourful onion domes glinting in the sunlight.

The rehearsal was hard work for the whole company. Victor always aimed for perfection and he wanted the Mariinsky Ballet Company to perform at its very best for such a prestigious gathering. However, he did instruct Mikhail to take things easy until all the positions had been blocked on the stage which was not the same size as the one they were used to at the Mariinsky Theatre. As a result, Mikhail did not overexert himself in his dancing and finished the rehearsal with plenty of energy for some sight seeing. As soon as he was changed, Mikhail went in search of Vladimir so they could go off together and explore, as well as take pictures of the Kremlin and Red Square.

As the two friends stood in Cathedral Square, gazing in amazement at the glittering golden domes of the churches and cathedrals situated within the walls of the Kremlin, Filipp Martynov came running up to join them. It seemed that the young man had done a considerable amount of research on the buildings of the Kremlin in preparation for his visit and he proceeded to share his knowledge with Mikhail and Vladimir. There was a certain appeal to his wide eyed wonder at visiting the Russian capital but his two companions soon became bored by the endless stream of facts and figures he reeled off. Nonetheless, Mikhail posed good naturedly for photographs with Filipp, taken by Vladimir on Filipp’s camera.

When Mikhail and Vladimir felt they'd seen enough of the Kremlin for one day they suggested crossing Red Square to visit Gum, the enormous nineteenth century shopping mall occupying the eastern side of Red Square. They could only gaze in amazement at the exorbitant prices in the stores, although Filipp was familiar with the many designer labels represented there and was only too happy to regale his companions with information about the fashion collections.

Finally Filipp’s endless flow of conversation became too much for Mikhail and Vladimir. Whilst browsing through a rack of clothes they exchanged a glance and, without needing to say a word to one another, they dodged quickly behind a display and then ran out of the store and up a flight of stairs to the upper level where they stopped to recover their breath and give way to laughter. From their higher vantage point they were able to see Filipp emerge from the store and stand irresolute on the gallery, scanning the crowds for his colleagues. From a distance he looked every inch the lost little boy for, although he moved with the grace and agility of a dancer, he had yet to develop the stature and musculature of full maturity. Mikhail had to suppress a stab of compassion for the young man they had so thoughtlessly abandoned, but then Vladimir’s call to come and look at further retail attractions distracted him totally until it was time to return to the hotel for dinner.

It was only when everyone had taken their seats in the restaurant that Filipp’s absence was noticed and Victor Pavel began circulating round the tables to ask who had seen him last. Mikhail did not hesitate to tell the truth, but not the whole truth, as soon as he was asked.

“Filipp came sightseeing with us, Victor Nikolaevich, and then we went to look in Gum. We got separated in one of the stores and Vladimir and I presumed that he'd made his own way back to the hotel. Shall we go and look for him?”

“No, you stay here and get on with your dinner. I’ll go and look for Filipp. Where exactly was he when you last saw him?”

Without thinking of the damning implications of his response Mikhail described the last view he'd had of Filipp, standing on the lower gallery of Gum. Victor gave Mikhail a long, appraising stare but merely thanked him for the information before leaving to go in search of the youngest member of his company.

Mikhail had been hungry when he came into the restaurant but now his appetite deserted him completely. He turned troubled eyes towards Vladimir.

“Why did we do that, Volodya? What were we thinking of? It was so mean!”

“I know. He can be such a pain though. But we never meant him to get lost!”

“No. I thought he’d just assume that we’d got separated in the crowd. Why didn’t he make his own way back? He must know how to get back to the hotel… mustn’t he?”

Mikhail and Vladimir sat considering that question and becoming more and more agitated and upset until eventually Victor came back into the restaurant and word was quietly circulated that Filipp had been found and was having dinner in his room.

When Victor finished his meal he stopped at Mikhail’s table on the way out of the restaurant and issued a quietly worded instruction.

“I’ll see you two in my room, number 502, in half an hour.”

The response came in chorus as both young men answered promptly, “Yes, Victor Nikolaevich.”

There was no need for Mikhail and Vladimir to discuss what they were going to say. Too often partners in crime, they knew each other well enough to be sure that they were going to tell Victor Pavel the whole truth. When they knocked on the door of room 502 precisely thirty minutes later they received a curt summons to enter and found Victor seated in an upright chair behind a small writing desk which was covered with diagrams of stage layouts. Victor indicated with a slight gesture of his hand that Mikhail and Vladimir were to stand in front of the desk but he did not speak. Mikhail was grateful for the opportunity to unburden himself without having to face questions or accusations.

“I’m so sorry, Victor Nikolaevich. We ran away and left Filipp in Gum.”

“We never meant him to get lost,” Vladimir added quickly. “And we certainly didn’t want him to know that we’d run away. We just hoped he’d think we’d got separated in the crowd.”

Victor still said nothing and after an uncomfortable silence Mikhail asked in a small voice, “Where did you find him?”

In glacial tones Victor answered the question. “I found him wandering up and down the galleries still looking for you. He felt pretty stupid when he discovered that you'd gone back to the hotel without him. I couldn’t persuade him to join the rest of us for dinner. He was too upset and humiliated. I ordered him a meal from room service which I hope he's eaten.”

For the first time Mikhail faced up to the full implication of his thoughtless action and it hit him with such force that he gasped with shock and felt the prickle of tears beneath his eyelids. He blinked rapidly. He wasn’t going to cry in front of Victor and Vladimir. It would look like he was crying because he was in trouble with the director when his tears were for the lost and confused young man whose excitement at visiting Moscow for the first time had been marred by the mean spirited action of two careless colleagues.

“What can we do to make it up to him?” Mikhail managed to whisper.

“What would you suggest?” came the challenging response.

Mikhail gave it some thought and then made a suggestion. “Filipp must never know that we ran away from him.” He turned urgently towards Vladimir. “That was so unkind, Volodya. I can’t believe we did that. We weren’t thinking. Filipp would be so humiliated if he knew the truth. I know I would be if anyone ever did that to me. We must tell him, and tell everyone else, that it was an accident, that we thought he was back at the hotel.”

“That would be a very kind gesture,” agreed Victor. “Why did you run away from him anyway?”

“Because he never stops talking,” said Vladimir. “It gets on your nerves. He always tells you more than you want to know. You can’t shut him up.”

“Oh, yes, you can shut him up,” replied Victor firmly. “When he relaxes and feels at ease he is a very pleasant companion. He talks too much when he’s nervous, it’s true, but I hoped he was getting over that.”

Victor paused and looked very hard at the young men standing shamefaced before him.

“I’m so disappointed in you two,” he said. “I had hoped you would take Filipp under your wing. I asked you especially to look after him, Mikhail. He reminds me so much of you when you first joined the company. I thought you would be good for him and instead you’ve been unkind to him. I expected better from you.”

This time Mikhail was unable to blink back his tears and they ran unchecked down his cheeks. If Victor had spanked him it couldn’t hurt as much as having to listen to the ballet director express his disappointment over their misconduct. He briefly wondered if Victor might have spanked him if Vladimir had not been present but then he dismissed the notion. He knew that Victor Pavel would never consider such a penalty, despite the fact that he had twice had occasion to physically discipline his talented but wayward leading dancer. As a result of those spankings Mikhail felt a very close bond between himself and the director, a bond based on profound trust and respect. And it made it all the harder to take the reprimand which was being issued quietly and in tones of deep regret. When Victor stopped speaking Mikhail lifted his head and bravely met the director’s gaze.

“I’m so very sorry, Victor Nikolaevich. I will do my utmost to make it up to Filipp and to be a better friend to him in the future. And… and… I’ll take any punishment you want to impose.”

Vladimir could tell from the hitch in Mikhail’s voice that he was overcome with tears but he remained facing front to avoid embarrassing his friend. Instead he too spoke with great sincerity.

“Please accept my apologies, Victor Nikolaevich. I promise that no one will ever know that we ran away from Filipp and I’ll do my very best to help him in future. And, like Mikhail, I’ll take whatever I have coming for my part in this.”

Victor took a few moments to think about all that had been said and then came to a rapid decision.

“Well, we’re all agreed that what you’ve admitted within these four walls goes no further and is never spoken of again. In the circumstances, therefore, it’s not appropriate to impose any punishment beyond this reprimand. I want Mikhail to give the performance of his life on Saturday… and you won’t be able to do that, Mikhail, with the prospect of further punishment hanging over you. I accept the assurances you've both given me that you’ll do your best to put things right with Filipp and I will be happy when I see him smiling again. I want you to make every effort to look after him while we’re in Moscow and to be kind and helpful to him when we get back to St Petersburg. If you do a good job, it won’t be a punishment. You’ll be rewarded with the friendship of a very sensitive and very interesting young man. Now go to bed. Tomorrow is another day and you can both make a fresh start.”

In the morning most members of the company were already queuing at the breakfast buffet when Mikhail made a point of greeting Filipp very publicly. Vladimir came over to join them and a loud and laughing exchange took place over who got separated from whom in Gum. Soon Filipp was looking much more relaxed and comfortable. When Victor walked into the restaurant he was pleased to see Filipp sitting quietly between Mikhail and Vladimir and happily tucking into his breakfast.

At the morning rehearsal Victor pushed Mikhail to his limit leaving him soaked in sweat, aching and breathless at the end of the session. When he’d showered and changed Mikhail remarked casually to Filipp that he would have to postpone their sightseeing as he needed to go back to the hotel for a rest. Filipp had been packing his bag and keeping out of Mikhail’s way but he lifted his head in delighted acknowledgement of the implied invitation. Mikhail saw the flash of pleasure in Filipp’s eyes as he suggested they meet in the hotel lobby at 2.00pm by which time the Kremlin Armoury would be open for visiting.

As he lay on the bed in his hotel room resting his tired legs before going off to view the treasures housed in the Armoury, Mikhail reflected on the events of the last twenty four hours. He was a kind, good hearted young man and he felt shame wash over him as he considered how a moment’s thoughtlessness had contributed to the distress of another. He could no longer recall why it had seemed amusing to desert a fellow dancer who had turned to him for company. He resolved yet again to do his very best to make up for his unkind action and he put to the back of his mind the nagging question of how he was going to tell Alexey about his misconduct and Victor’s subsequent reprimand.

The question became more pressing, however, during the reception after Saturday night’s performance. Mikhail joined the director and the conductor for champagne and caviar in the foyer where he was introduced to some of the foreign guests with whom he was able to converse using his schoolboy English. As he accepted compliments on his dancing and answered questions about the ballet, he could only think how much he wanted to tell Alexey all he had seen and done in Moscow. And, as he calculated how many more hours it would be before he was home with his partner, he began to worry about his guilty secret and how he was going to tell Alexey what he'd done.

Mikhail knew that Alexey set great store by good manners and thoughtful conduct. Indeed, Mikhail shared Alexey’s values and aimed to live up to the high standards his lover always expected. Having failed to act in a kind and thoughtful manner, Mikhail was desperately disappointed in himself and he knew how deeply Alexey would share that sense of disappointment. Nevertheless, he had no intention of concealing from his top the behaviour which had got him into trouble with Victor Pavel. In fact, he was beginning to think it would be a relief to confess his transgression, hear Alexey’s opinion of the matter and take any punishment he saw fit to impose.

But in the event things did not pan out as Mikhail had been expecting. After a joyful reunion at the Moskovski Station, Alexey and Mikhail took a taxi back to their apartment. Mikhail talked non stop throughout the short journey home, telling his lover about meeting the President and being congratulated on his dancing and seeing the Kremlin and Red Square. He kept up his excited recitation whilst he unpacked his bag to locate the small gift he had bought for Alexey in Moscow and he scarcely slowed down throughout the meal which Alexey had prepared as a celebration to welcome him home. When the two men were finally relaxing on the sofa with a cup of coffee Mikhail’s animated conversation began to slow and the anxious glances he cast towards his partner alerted Alexey to the fact that something was wrong.

Alexey was content to wait in the confident expectation that Mikhail would confide in him when he felt ready. Eventually Mikhail put his coffee cup down and leant against his lover, resting his head on Alexey’s broad shoulder. In this comfortable position, and without having to make eye contact, Mikhail finally broached the subject which had been worrying him.

“I did get into trouble in Moscow, Alesha,” he admitted quietly.

“Oh, no, Misha,” responded Alexey with compassion, “I thought you had such a good time there.”

“I did. I had a fantastic time but Vladimir and I were reprimanded by Victor Pavel.”

Alexey waited for the details but they were not forthcoming. An uncomfortable silence ensued. Despite worrying about it throughout the journey from Moscow, Mikhail had not worked out how to tell his partner about his misconduct of which he was deeply ashamed. Instead he was relying on Alexey’s rigorous questioning to help him disclose the facts. Alexey always managed to drag the truth out of him, whether he wanted to confess his misdeeds or not.

On this occasion, however, Alexey decided not to press for further information if Mikhail was not going to volunteer it. He didn’t want to spoil his lover’s pleasure in describing the successful trip to Moscow and he assumed that if Vladimir was involved in the affair then the two men must have been engaged in some stupid prank. Victor Pavel would have made his displeasure felt in no uncertain terms. A reprimand from the ballet director left any wrong doer in no doubt whatsoever about the error of his ways. Although it was not the way they usually managed their relationship, Alexey decided that on this occasion he could afford to let the matter go. After all, Mikhail was taking responsibility for his own professional career and he most certainly did not deserve to be punished twice for the same offence.

“I’m sure Victor gave you the tongue lashing you deserved,” Alexey commented mildly.

Mikhail lifted his head from Alexey’s shoulder in surprise at such a neutral response which appeared to mark an end to the conversation. He could hardly believe that Alexey was not going to interrogate him further. He looked questioningly at his lover who correctly interpreted Mikhail’s confusion.

“If you’ve been punished, Misha, then the matter is closed. I’m not going to force you to disclose all the details to me. But if you just want to tell me, if you’re still feeling bad about it, if you want me to help you, then you know I’ll always listen. It’s up to you, my love.”

Alexey put his arms around Mikhail who gratefully lowered his head onto his lover’s chest and relaxed into the comforting warmth. He was still feeling very upset about what he had done to Filipp, he wanted to tell Alexey how badly he'd behaved and he wanted Alexey to help him feel better. But how? How could he find the words? And how could he bear to witness the disappointment that Alexey would experience once he knew the worst? Without taking the time to consider those questions any further, his answer was out of his mouth with a haste and a thoughtlessness which was typical of him.

“No, Alesha, it’s fine. Victor dealt with the matter and it’s over and done with.”

With his face hidden beneath Alexey’s chin, Mikhail closed his eyes despairingly, knowing that he had just thrown away his last hope of absolution and comfort. Unable to see the expression on his lover’s face, Alexey accepted Mikhail’s assurance at face value and calmly proposed an early night.

After rehearsals the next day, Mikhail was expecting to walk home with Alexey but he was not to be found when Mikhail finished in the practice studio. Needing the reassurance he always drew from physical proximity, Mikhail went in search of his lover and was pulled up short as he entered the canteen to see Alexey sitting beside Filipp Martynov, with a comforting arm around his shoulder. Filipp was cradling a mug of hot tea and, to judge from his red rimmed eyes and occasional shudder, he was recovering from a bout of tears.

For one heart stopping moment Mikhail feared that Filipp was telling Alexey how his partner had behaved in Moscow. He found himself hyperventilating and was only just able to back out of the canteen without drawing attention to himself. Leaning against the wall in the corridor he took a moment to consider the situation more objectively. He soon remembered that Filipp did not actually know that he and Vladimir had deliberately abandoned him in Gum. Even so, Mikhail had spent long enough in Filipp’s company in Moscow to begin to appreciate his finer qualities; intelligence and empathy figured highly amongst them. It wasn’t beyond the bounds of possibility that Filipp had worked out the truth behind the events of that terrible afternoon. But would he be so vindictive as to go behind Mikhail’s back and report to Alexey how unkindly he had been treated? Now that Mikhail had calmed down and his heart rate had returned to normal, he thought it highly unlikely that Filipp would do any such thing.

‘Not that I don’t deserve it,’ he thought to himself. ‘I should have told Alesha the whole truth last night. I meant to and I wasn’t brave enough. And I’d die if he found out what we did from anyone else. That would be far, far worse than telling him the truth myself.’

Having articulated that thought to himself clearly and unequivocally, Mikhail was no longer in any doubt about the right course of action. He collected his belongings and set off home with the intention of preparing the evening meal and then sitting down with Alexey to tell him the truth and accept his judgement without demur. When Alexey entered the apartment about an hour after Mikhail, he found the table laid and the meal nearly ready to be served. He sat down heavily at the table and ran a hand distractedly through his dark hair.

“Thank you for getting dinner ready, Misha. I’m shattered. I’ve just had a distressing hour or so with our newest recruit, Filipp. He went to Moscow with you, didn’t he? He’s very unhappy at the moment. Did you notice anything while you were away?”

“Yes, Alesha, I know he’s unhappy. And I need to speak to you about Filipp. I should have told you last night. I’m really upset and ashamed about what I did to him. I couldn’t find the words to tell you before but you need to know that Vladimir and I were in trouble with Victor for being unkind to Filipp. Did Filipp tell you about what happened in Moscow?”

“He did mention Moscow, yes. He said that you took him sightseeing in Moscow and that you’re the one person who's been kind to him.”

Mikhail gazed as Alexey in astonishment, feeling his eyes fill with tears which soon overflowed down his cheeks. He scrubbed them away with the cuff of his shirtsleeve and managed to mumble, “That makes me feel dreadful. I’m such a shit.”

“Hey, we don’t use language like that. Just tell me what you did to Filipp.”

“Can you give me a bit of time? I just want to get some things clear in my head, Alesha.”

“Yes, of course. We’re both tired and hungry and you’ve made a lovely dinner. Let’s eat that and I’ll tell you what Filipp said. After dinner you can tell me what’s on your conscience. How’s that?”

Mikhail rallied at the compassion in Alexey’s tone. He poured two glasses of vodka and placed them on the table before pulling the dish of lamb stew out of the oven and spooning generous helpings onto two plates. They toasted one another and downed their shots and, as they started to eat their dinner, Alexey told Mikhail about Filipp.

Apparently, Alexey had found him in tears in the dressing room and had taken him to the canteen to calm down. It had taken a while to coax the truth from him but finally Filipp had admitted how difficult he was finding it to fit in and make friends.

“He reminds me of you, Misha, when you first came to St Petersburg.”

“That’s what Victor said too,” replied Mikhail trying to stifle a resentful tone. He had a sudden jealous reaction at the thought of Alexey looking after Filipp just as he'd once taken Mikhail under his wing. Alexey did not miss the hint of annoyance in his lover’s voice and he interpreted the cause with unerring accuracy.

“There’s no need to be jealous, Misha. I’m not thinking of trading you in for the latest model!”

The humour immediately reassured Mikhail and his smiling acknowledgment signalled both his apology for doubting his lover and his recognition that Alexey could read him like a book.

Alexey continued in a more serious tone, “I haven’t forgotten that you too were unhappy, Misha, when you first joined the Mariinsky. And I know I didn’t do all I could have done to help you when you were struggling to cope with your first job in a strange new city.”

When Mikhail would have protested, Alexey silenced him with a restraining hand on his arm. “No, Misha, it will be an unending cause of regret to me that it took me so long to step in and help you. I’m not going to make the same mistake twice. If I can help Filipp settle down and enjoy working with us then I’m willing to spend a bit of time with him in the process.”

Alexey paused and then said with deliberate emphasis, “And I think I made another mistake with you yesterday, didn’t I? I should have made you tell me what you and Vladimir got up to in Moscow which landed you in so much trouble.”

“I wanted you to ask me about it, yes,” agreed Mikhail in a small voice.

“Well, I’m not a mind reader, Misha. When you tell me everything is okay and the incident has been dealt with, I believe you. Especially when you hide your face to cover up your lies.”

Mikhail ducked his head yet again to hide his embarrassment but Alexey reached out a long arm to cup his lover’s chin and lift his face so that the two could make eye contact.

“You only had to ask me. You know that don’t you, Misha? You only have to ask if you need my help.”

When Mikhail just shrugged and averted his eyes, Alexey continued, “I know you can’t always find the words, especially when you’re upset and ashamed.”

Mikhail glanced back at Alexey in surprise that his thought processes had once again been so transparent.

“But you don’t always have to ask in words, do you? You just have to look at me and I know you have a problem.”

Mikhail smiled in rueful acknowledgement of that fact.

“So when you hid your face from me last night you were deliberately electing to deceive me.”

Mikhail’s smile was rapidly replaced with an expression of concern.

“Don’t worry, love. It was my fault too. One of those occasions when we had crossed wires. I think I knew there was more going on than you were telling me but I didn’t want to spoil the evening. You were so excited about Moscow and I didn’t want to be the one to burst the bubble!”

“And you don’t always want to be the one cast in the role of inquisitor general either!” added Mikhail perceptively.

“That too,” agreed Alexey, rather touched that Mikhail understood that his lover’s role in their partnership wasn’t always easy either. “So do you think you can tell me now what it is that's left you feeling so distressed?”

Even now Alexey wasn’t subjecting him to an interrogation and Mikhail responded honestly, grateful for the opportunity to take his time with the tale.

“You know how irritating Filipp can be with his endless chatter. We got fed up of him on the trip and we weren’t very kind.”

“Well, Filipp is only too painfully aware that his colleagues have taken against him,” Alexey gently pointed out, “and he knows why. He told me that the more he tries to make himself liked, the more nervous he gets. And when he’s nervous he talks too much and can’t stop himself.”

Mikhail winced at this evidence of Filipp’s insight and understanding. “Victor asked me to look after him on the journey,” he confessed painfully, “but he was so chatty in the sleeping compartment that we didn’t reply to him and we eventually put the light out to shut him up.”

When Alexey didn’t comment Mikhail struggled on. “He never stopped talking when he came sightseeing with Vladimir and me, and we finally got fed up and ran away. We left him on his own in Gum. We didn’t plan it or anything. We just suddenly thought it would be a great idea to sneak off when his back was turned.”

Mikhail lifted brimming eyes to meet his lover’s gaze, “It was a horrible thing to do, Alesha, and I knew it the minute I glanced back at him in Gum and saw him looking so lost and alone. I don’t know why Vladimir and I thought it would be amusing to ditch him. I tried not to think about it too much until Victor had to go and find him. I certainly thought about it fully when Victor saw us both in his room later in the evening.”

“So why did Filipp tell me that you had been kind to him in Moscow and had taken him sightseeing?”

“I did my very best to make it up to him, Alesha, and Vladmir and I agreed we would try and cover up the fact that we had run away. Not to get ourselves out of trouble,” he added hastily, “just to save Filipp any embarrassment. I do hope he doesn’t suspect the truth!”

“I’m not sure. He may be young and inexperienced but he isn’t naïve. He seems to me to have a very good understanding of how he comes over to others and how they react to him. I wouldn’t be surprised if he had his suspicions. On the other hand, he seems to have a very high regard for you. He showed me photos of the two of you in the Kremlin. He was so pleased to be photographed with you. Did you know he’s had copies done to send to his family and friends back home? He was shy about showing me but he couldn’t hide his pride when he talked about being photographed with the star of the show.”

That was too much for Mikhail who began crying in earnest. His self reproach manifested itself in anger and he shouted, “I told you I’m a shit and now you know why.”

“If you’re trying to provoke me into spanking you it’s not going to work, Misha,” Alexey responded calmly. “It’s not going to be that easy. I’m not giving you a spanking just so you can feel better and imagine this has all gone away. Filipp looks up to you and other people take a lead from you. You did your very best to make up for your unkindness in Moscow and I’m very proud of you for doing that but you have to keep working at it. In fact, we can both of us make a bit of time for Filipp and include him more in our social activities.”

Mikhail calmed down a little as he digested that reasoned response. Finally he sniffed, rubbed the back of his hand across his eyes to dry his tears and looked anxiously at Alexey.

“What are you going to do about this then, Alesha?”

“Honestly, Misha, I don’t know just yet. I made a mistake with you yesterday and I’m not about to make another one now. I need a bit of time to think. Why don’t you go and take a shower and get ready for bed and then we’ll discuss this further.”

Mikhail had hoped for a speedy resolution once he'd gathered the courage to tell Alexey the worst. He hated having to wait for punishment. However, he knew better than to argue with his top’s firmly worded instruction and he headed off to the bathroom where he slowly undressed and stepped into the large roll top bath. He turned on the shiny chrome taps of the old fashioned shower unit mounted over the bath and as soon as the water was hot enough, he stepped under the powerful stream and allowed it to massage the tense muscles in his shoulders. He was still so focused on reviewing his conversation with Alexey that he made no move to pick up the shower gel or shampoo. Instead he rested his head on the tiled wall and was only jerked out of his reverie by Alexey’s arrival in the bathroom.

One glance was all it took to alert Alexey to the fact that his brat was not functioning well. Alexey said nothing but undressed swiftly and joined Mikhail in the shower. He picked up the shampoo and washed his lover’s hair before soaping him all over and rinsing him off. He then helped Mikhail out of the shower and after taking a moment to wrap a towel around his own waist, he picked up the large bath sheet which was warm from the towel rail and enveloped Mikhail in it. First of all he towelled Mikhail’s hair dry and then worked his way down Mikhail’s unresisting body. He then guided his naked lover into the bedroom and without releasing Mikhail’s hand he sat down on the edge of the bed.

Mikhail looked questioningly at his partner and then, in response to a barely perceptible nod, he lowered himself awkwardly across Alexey’s firm lap. Alexey had clearly taken the decision that a spanking was warranted and Mikhail felt a surge of apprehension alongside a sense of relief that he was finally about to atone for his act of unkindness. Resolved to cooperate fully, he deliberately lifted his body forward to place his bottom directly under Alexey’s hand, stifling a mew of embarrassment as his genitals brushed against his lover’s warm thigh. Lying across Alexey’s naked legs created a very intimate connection but Mikhail did not want to give the impression of making any sexual overture. He knew he deserved this spanking and he was determined not to make any appeal against his punishment, not even a mute appeal to Alexey’s sexual desire.

His body jumped in nervous anticipation as Alexey’s hand descended on his bottom but it was merely to caress the taut curves of his buttocks before administering the lightest slap which delivered no more than a tingle. Mikhail relaxed as the expected onslaught failed to materialise and he twisted round to direct a questioning glance at his partner. Alexey merely guided Mikhail’s upper body back into position with a lightly placed hand on his shoulder without once breaking the rhythm of the mild spanking. However, as all the slaps were delivered to the same spot, the tingle gradually grew into a sting and Mikhail found himself hoping and then praying that Alexey would shift his attentions to another part of his backside.

Eventually Mikhail lost the battle to remain immobile and he found himself squirming on Alexey’s lap in an attempt to protect the one spot which was becoming very sore. However, it seemed that Alexey was willing to take the hint as he turned his attention to the other side of partner’s bottom. Mikhail sighed with relief as the gentle slaps descended on a fresh spot without causing undue pain. He relaxed across Alexey’s knees and willed himself to remain still and take his punishment with dignity. But gradually the effects of the hand spanking grew in intensity and Mikhail found himself once more gasping for breath in an attempt to absorb the powerful smart without complaint.

After what seemed like an eternity Alexey stopped spanking and his hand came to rest on Mikhail’s burning buttocks. However, he made no move to release his lover from the prone position and instead began talking to him quietly but firmly. Alexey never lectured during a punishment. He invariably said nothing at all and just concentrated on getting the job done. This was such a departure from the usual procedure that Mikhail gave his full attention to his top.

“Just one little smack, Misha. You hardly notice it, do you? You couldn’t even say it hurts. But when it’s repeated, over and over again, on the same spot, then it gets painful. Then it gets serious… I expect that’s what it’s like for Filipp. One little unkindness is hardly noticeable. It hardly matters. But when it happens again and again, when everyone ignores him or tries to get away from him, then the pain begins to get unbearable. Do you see?”

Mikhail did see. He nodded miserably and then realised that Alexey would be unable to see his response and so he hastily replied, “Yes, sir. I’m so sorry for what I did to Filipp and I really will try to be kind to him in future.”

“I know you will, Misha. And I know your unkindness was a thoughtless lapse and you’ll set a better example for our colleagues in future. You’re a kind, sweet man and I want you to stop beating yourself up over this. If you’d come home and told me about it straightaway, as you should have done, you would be feeling very much better today. So now we just have to deal with the fact that you deceived me yesterday.”

Mikhail’s body stiffened in alarm as the full significance of the final comment dawned him. His fears were fully realised as Alexey issued his next instruction, “Get up and bend over the end of the bed.”

Mikhail slipped off Alexey’s lap onto his knees and took a moment to pull himself together. Then he stood up and walked to the bottom of their bed. He spread his legs slightly to bring his groin to the level of the mattress and then bent forward, clutching convulsively at the bedcover as he waited in trepidation for the remainder of his punishment to commence.

Meanwhile Alexey readjusted the towel around his waist, noting wryly that the exertion of spanking his lover had very quickly dried his wet body. He walked back into the bathroom and picked up the big, old tortoiseshell backed hairbrush which he had brought from home.

“I’m sure you remember the spoons which mama sometimes used on my backside,” he said as he re-entered the bedroom. “And if I really misbehaved she used this.”

Mikhail craned his head round to see what Alexey was holding in his hand and flinched as he saw the heavy hairbrush. Alexey had never before used it on him but he had just indicated that he knew what it could do. His next comment confirmed Mikhail’s worst fears.

“I seem to remember it stung like the very devil so I’ll just give you six. Are you ready?”

It took Mikhail a moment to summon up the courage to say yes and immediately the first powerful swat landed on his very sore bottom. A yell was torn out of him and he barely had time to draw breath before the companion blow was delivered to the other side of his buttocks. Alexey was moving fast and he repeated the initial manoeuvre with unerring accuracy, delivering strokes three and four precisely over the burning imprints of the first two. Then Alexey granted his lover the respite of a brief pause which proved a mixed blessing as the initial sting gave way to a deeper, intense ache which left Mikhail wondering how he would endure the remainder of his punishment. He didn’t have long to consider the question as Alexey lifted the brush and delivered the final two swats full force and dead centre on the two crimson ovals which had blossomed in the middle of his clenched buttocks. Mikhail’s yells turned to sobs as he allowed the tension to drain from his body and he buried his head in the duvet to cry out his shame and remorse.

Alexey watched his partner with compassion as he towelled his own hair dry and put on his pyjamas. Then he began moving quietly round the bedroom to put away clothing, knowing that his presence was helping to calm and reassure his lover. But he made no attempt to offer physical comfort, judging rightly that Mikhail needed, on this occasion, to be left undisturbed for a little while to recover his composure. When Alexey was finally ready for bed, he gently extricated Mikhail from the duvet which he then pulled over the two of them, gathering his lover into his arms. Mikhail’s torrent of tears had abated and only the hitch in his breathing gave evidence of the earlier sobbing. His distress was out of all proportion to the punishment but Alexey had no trouble understanding how ashamed Mikhail had felt and how the whole matter had preyed on his mind. The cathartic effect of the spanking was quite obvious as Mikhail immediately relaxed into Alexey’s comforting embrace and was soon deeply asleep.

When classes and rehearsals finished the following day, Mikhail sought out Filipp and invited him to go for a walk. He had been thinking about Alexey’s observation that a spanking didn’t just make unpleasantness go away. As a result, he resolved to take personal responsibility for making things better and, as he and Filipp strolled companionably along the embankment, Mikhail suggested a detour to sit beside the great equestrian statue of Peter the Great.

“I sometimes come and sit here when I need to sort things out in my head,” he explained. “I’ve always been fascinated by Peter the Great and I love this statue of him. I like the fact that he points the way forward. He always has me thinking positively!”

“Peter the Great is one of my favourite characters too. Did you know that the first residential house to be built in St Petersburg was for Peter the Great and you can still visit it? Sorry, of course, you know that. I get excited about things and I rattle on. I should shut up. I know that. I have been trying. I thought I was getting better. I’m not so nervous with you. I hope…”

Mikhail stopped the flow with a gentle hand on Filipp’s arm. “Don’t worry about it, Filipp. It’s okay to be enthusiastic. I remember how excited I was when I first came to St Petersburg… although I didn’t find it easy to settle in with the company.”

“I don’t believe that. Everyone likes you, Mikhail, and you’re so at ease with people. I know they don’t like me.”

“How do you think they felt about a scared young man who publicly accused Victor Pavel of bullying him in rehearsal and then shouted at the entire company for laughing at a boy from the provinces?”

It took Filipp a moment or two to realise that Mikhail was talking about himself. In fact, he would never have worked it out had it not been for the blush suffusing Mikhail’s cheeks as he described an incident which he still could not recall without toe curling embarrassment.

“You,” he gasped in amazement.

“Yes, me. I’m still desperately ashamed of that but members of the company are very forgiving. I just had to apologise and live it down. Nobody would dream of mentioning it now.”

Filipp thought about that. He sat quietly beside Mikhail without feeling any need to fill the silence. He was a sensitive and perceptive young man and he understood immediately that Mikhail had just shared something very personal with him. And he knew why. Mikhail was showing him that members of the company did not hold past mistakes against inexperienced young dancers. He recognised too that it had cost Mikhail something to make an admission about his own mistakes and he was doing it in atonement for what had happened in Moscow. Filipp wanted to show that there were no hard feelings and he turned impulsively towards his companion and shyly asked, “Would you like to see the photos Vladimir took of us in Moscow?”

When Mikhail readily accepted, Filipp opened his wallet and took the pictures out of a section which also contained photographs of his family back home. Pleasure overrode embarrassment as Mikhail responded to Filipp’s enthusiasm, remembering what Alexey had said about these photographs having been taken with ‘the star of the show’. It was humbling to see how proud Filipp was to be a member of the Mariinsky Ballet Company and to have danced on a stage in the Kremlin alongside the acclaimed Mikhail Galayev.

In bed that night, with Alexey’s strong arms around him, Mikhail shyly recounted his conversation with Filipp. When embarrassment caused him to falter, Alexey’s gentle caress encouraged him to repeat the shaming admission he had made to their young colleague. Knowing how mortified Mikhail still felt about his ill-mannered behaviour as a newcomer to the Mariinsky, Alexey pulled him close, buried his face in the thick blonde hair and kissed the top of his head, whispering, “I’m so proud of you, Misha.”

Mikhail lifted his face trustingly to look directly at Alexey. “It wasn’t that difficult to tell Filipp what a mess I made of things at first, Alesha. I could see that it made him feel better and once he relaxed he was a real pleasure to talk to. He showed me his photos too… and I must say I looked good. The star quality is unmistakable.” The grin and the wriggle which accompanied the final observation proved that Mikhail had regained his confidence and was feeling happy enough to tease his lover. But Alexey put paid to any further pert comments with a crushing kiss which left Mikhail breathless and eager for more.