The office is oddly quiet that day, as if the air is making space, making its own preparation. Irina does not call in either of the men for briefing. She has given them low-stakes work, organization, to keep their hands from idleness, although it does not do much for the mind. They sit beside each other in uneasy silence, not breaking their thoughts.
They do not have to, of course; Yuri being what he is, they are not obliged to think out loud very often, but today, rather out of courtesy, there is a sense of walls being put up and kept. They are comfortable, side by side, but the silence is prickly and tenuous.
Ivan is stamping papers, one after another, into a sort of frenzied symmetry, each stamp falling into the same place on each new page. Yuri hands him folders without thinking, skimming through the cases absently. Nothing calls to his attention. There is nothing new here—nothing but the telegram, folded in the corner of the desk.
17: 55 MSK — FIREBIRD
Yuri breaks the silence with a muttered curse, tossing a folder into Ivan’s way.
Ivan puts the stamp down. “What?”
Yuri waves a hand in the air, a barely visible line of blood crossing the pad of one of his fingers. “First battle wound of the day.”
A spark of a smile twitches through the line of Ivan’s mouth. “Well, don’t make yourself completely useless. It’s early.”
It is early, and there are hours stretching ahead of them in an unbroken line of waiting—seven of them. “I’ll need to recoup, comrade.” Yuri eases himself out of his chair, pulling his scarf and coat from off the back of it. The room is thick with heat, the radiator working with a determined fizz and thump to ward off the Moscow frost. It fogs the window, white with heat on one side and ice on the other. The glass in some of the lower offices is already cracking round the edges, but not theirs—Irina affords certain courtesies to her operatives, and if nothing else, they have earned rights to the best office allotted.
“I can spare half an hour.”
“More than that.” Yuri gives him a pointed look. “This factory work isn’t doing anyone any favors. I think you’ve hit quota.”
He is rewarded with another faint grin. “So the ink is tempered?”
“Just so. Up you get, Ivan Konstantinovich.”
With a tilt of his head, Ivan pushes himself out of the chair and moves to the coatrack in the corner. “On your head, then, Yura.”
Yuri feels himself grin rather sharply. “Isn’t it always?”
His head is, after all, their best weapon, if not the one that today calls for. Today calls for no weapons at all, and it is the peace incoming that makes Ivan uneasy, that makes them both uneasy. They have been six months incomplete.
1:43 moscow time/9:43 gmt
The shop is small and blank on the surface, blinds drawn and dirty, but inside it is warm, if still just as small. The little Georgian behind the counter glares at them perfunctorily, but he does not bid them leave, and the cups of Turkish coffee he makes are thick and tar-black and served hot enough to burn their tongues. Yuri drains his third with satisfaction.
“So,” he says, and Ivan shakes his head.
“So nothing. We’re only marking time today, no?”
Yuri nods, and Ivan’s fingers drum against the saucer. He has been drinking the same tiny cup for nearly an hour in parsimonious sips; it is no longer even warm.
“Did you read the Times?” Yuri asked.
“Glanced. Yesterday’s story about the rogue agent, you mean?”
Yuri nods again and grins. “There’s our girl.”
Ivan raises his cup with a hitch of wrist and eyebrow, not needing to articulate the look of tribute he gives, and tips it back, draining it, finally, down to the dregs.
Ivan is uncommonly good at keeping his mind silent, barred—Yuri suspects he’d learned as much long before they’d met; it remains one of the reasons that they continue to work well side by side. Today, though, Yuri doesn’t have to brush by his thoughts to read him; the silence lays him bare. He considers asking Ivan if he’d been worried, knowing the answer both in truth and in the look and verbal drubbing it would get him. It would irritate him tremendously, and the thought, the familiar knowledge of it, makes Yuri grin.
Ivan glances over at him and looks instantly cross. “She’s coming in at seven, we’ll be at the train station, now be quiet.”
“Did I say anything?”
“Save that mind of yours for assignations.”
“Believe me,” Yuri says, wounded, “I’m not putting any work into it.”
You, my friend, are transparent, he thinks, and Ivan frowns back at him all the harder, but the expression—they both know perfectly well—is for himself.
The door creaks open, and a gust of wind blows in a few flakes of snow and a slight blonde in a white fur coat. “I’m sorry, dyedushka,” she says, tripping up to the counter, “I know I’m tracking in mud, and I haven’t more than a few minutes, but just a cup of tea, please, I’m half-frozen.” Her voice is bright and breathless and nervous, and as Yuri watches, Ivan’s face freezes, wintertight and winterflushed. Yuri thinks of their proximity to the Bolshoi Theater and he nearly laughs out loud.
“Is this how you found the place to begin with?” he leans in and murmurs. Is this why the old man keeps glaring at us? he refrains from asking. And I’d thought it was just everyday business practice.
“Not a word,” Ivan mutters back, but the blonde, the ballerina in torn stockings, has turned toward them. Her cheeks are flushed hectic red and white with the cold and the imperfect removal of old stage makeup, and her eyes are tremendous, widening even further when she sees them. Don’t peer too close, Yuri thinks to himself, but he can still feel her thoughts encroaching, hot and fractured with surprise and embarrassment.
“Ivan Konstantinovich?” she says.
“Alyona.” Ivan turns around to face her, shoulders set absurdly straight. “I didn’t know—when did you get back?”
“I took a train from Kiev last week. I haven’t been here for so long.” She gives him a tenuous smile, teeth worrying at her lower lip. “I don’t suppose I’ll see you throughout the season.”
“I don’t suppose you’ll see me,” he replies, “you’ll be onstage. Kiev was—”
“Oh, well, well enough, well.” Her laugh skitters around them. She has not moved one inch toward them, yet Yuri can feel the distance between her and the table fill itself solid with her thoughts, half cries to run away and half pleas to run forward. Lovers, he thinks, bloody exhausting, every one of them. Set between any other pair in the world, he’d have given in to a violent headache by now; he gives thanks that it’s Ivan, who is perfectly, stiffly silent, and whose stiff miseries make him bite back laughter, rather than pain. He is buying their next round, he resolves to himself.
“I’m glad to see you,” she says.
“And I,” Ivan manages to return. “You’re looking well.”
That isn’t true: she is lovely, but she is pale under the makeup and her eyes are dark and fatigued, and her movements are as fluttering-quick as ever. Yuri remembers coming with Ivan last season to see her dance; she dances, he recalls, as though each move might see her break when she comes down, frightening and fragile and fascinating. She is not, he suspects, meant for permanency.
The Georgian comes back from the kitchen with a cup of steaming black tea, and she takes it without looking at him. In one fluid motion, she drains it in one long gulp, barely flinching afterward. Yuri winces in spite of himself. “Thank you,” she says, “thank you, dyedushka, I ought to run—”
“Here,” the Georgian says, offering her a paper napkin with something flaky and golden inside, “take this with you, you’ll want to eat something, devushka—”
She takes it without looking, fingers instantly fraying at the thin edges of the paper. “Thank you,” she says again. “And Ivan Konstantinovich—”
She does not finish the thought, only throws him a last fleeting smile and pulls her hat over her ears, hunching into the cold as she walks back to the door.
When it has swung shut behind her, Yuri finally lets himself exhale out a laugh, shaking the last sharp edges of her thoughts out of his head. “So that’s your ballerina,” he says. “Have I ever met her offstage before?”
“Why would you have?”
“I think I’d remember, anyway.”
“Not another word.”
He grins, Ivan glares, and he throws up his hand for another round of coffees. When the man disappears back into the kitchen, Ivan grimaces. “He hates everyone, but he loves the corps. I should have remembered.”
“Ah, well—” Yuri shrugs. “It’s worth it, isn’t it?”
“In what way?”
It’s a distraction, and you were driving yourself madder than you’d admit to yourself all day, he thinks. Sveta can’t get here fast enough. Instead, he says, “It’s very good coffee.”
5:41 moscow time /13:41 gmt
As the car pulls along Lubyanka Street toward the train station, it begins to snow. By the time they arrive in the parking lot, pulling into the front, the flakes are falling in pale, lazy eddies through the sky. It will fall in blankets tonight; it will cover the ground fresh and impossible tomorrow, but now it merely falls soft and slow as the sky begins to darken.
The sun goes down in that slow tick of minutes, the light turning the grey slush underfoot almost violet and the last musterings of weak sun tinting the edges of the world with gold. The train pulls in on time, and they step out of the car the moment they see it, stepping into the layers of snow underfoot, crisp surface down to wet sludge on the bottom. The air is clear and bitingly cold. Yuri pulls his scarf up over his mouth, but he can feel his breath freezing against the wool, sticking it to his lips. Ivan is almost invisible between his collar and his hat, pulled high on his cheeks and low on his ears. They do not look at each other, they do not speak, they do not have to.
She comes out of the station in the thick of the crowd, but she stops at the top of the steps down and lets the mass mill forward around her. At once, she is unmistakable, the shining nap of her furred hat and the thick dark weight of her coat, the tilt up of her chin—she is so conspicuous to them that it seems almost unseemly, unlike their line of work. Yet it is pure work that makes her what she is: polished even after days on the train. They know she has rushed here, that she has made a frantic trip across the full great sweep of the West, but she steps out of the train as if it had only taken just that—a step.
The image is not perfect, though; she is wearing two pairs of stockings, one over the other, and her shoes, when she steps forward, are delicate and high at the heel. When she sees them, she moves forward, stepping down the stairs and over the snow-thickened concrete with a swift mincing lope that might have resembled grace had she not been walking with shoes full of snow. Yet when she stills, she is there before them, real and smiling with cold-peaked cheeks.
“Comrades,” she says.
“Svetlana Mikhailovna,” Ivan starts, and she laughs, pressing a gloved hand to her mouth.
“Oh, Ivan Konstantinovich, no hello?”
He shrugs, looking almost helpless, and she puts down her small suitcase and reaches out. Her gloved hand tucks into the side of his neck and he enfolds her into his arms, hands resting carefully on the small of her back. Yuri watches them and grins.
“Yura,” she says, separating, and hugs him tightly.
“Think it’s been long enough?”
“Oh, only just.”
“Now—what is on your feet?”
She pulls back and shoots him a wry glare. “The only boots I had were Wellingtons,” she says, picking her feet up like an anxious horse and knocking one ankle against the other, scuffing off the worst of the snow, “and I left those back in England.”
“You take England for six months and then see how much of it you want to take with you,” she replies shortly.
He nods. He does not have to ask further. The rest is detail—to come later, to turn into briefing and encryption.
“Six months completed,” Ivan says. “Congratulations, Comrade Lebedyevna.”
“Vanya.” She tuts. “Have six months done so much?”
Ivan’s mouth quirks to the side, ghosted with a smile. “Sveta,” he says, and she smiles, blinking away the ice that is already forming her lashes into points. Keeping a gloved hand on Yuri’s shoulder, she reaches her free hand back toward Ivan, resting it hard on his arm. Leaning into the space between them, her voice lowers.
“But we must get into the car. My ankles are soaked through, and I'm freezing.”