fuck this, everybody is constellations now (vega_ofthe_lyre) wrote in athermal,
fuck this, everybody is constellations now

moscow, november 20.

The queue for housing placement creeps forward an infinitesimal degree. Vivian folds over the front page of the newspaper to hide the headlines—about a Soviet military officer defecting to America, and isn't that just something she needs her linemates to have in mind—and flicks her gaze across the street and back again as she rocks her booted feet from ball to heel in last night's already packed-down snow, trying to relieve her cold cramped toes. She buries her chin in the upturned collar of her coat; the broad-shouldered soldier in line ahead keeps her shielded from the worst of the wind, but Moscow in late November is unforgiving, and it has been a long day.

She is not, however, standing in this line for the good of her health, or indeed to be placed in some bleak and crowded apartment. She is standing in this line for its proximity to the offices of their KGB targets—more specifically, the agent called Koschei, who has proved damnably elusive despite Vivian's best efforts over the past handful of days. She is flanked by one of her CIA handlers just at her back; the two of them have been waiting for the office building on the street opposite to empty for the evening, which it does at precisely the stroke of five. Vivian checks her watch: right on time.

As dark-coated bureaucrats spill from between the doors Vivian looks down at the snow and closes her eyes, trying to pick up his (his) thread of thought from the tangle of humanity. It takes a moment for her to pull him out, but she finds him at last crossing the foyer, shrugging on his coat and talking to the man and woman who always flank him.

When he has disappeared down the street, Vivian opens her eyes, tucks her newspaper under her arm, and drops her shoulder against the building wall, leaning her head against the cold bricks tiredly.

"Nyet," she murmurs.

The handler standing behind her makes a noise of disappointment. "Really? Damn," he says quietly in Russian. "I thought they'd be moving out tonight."

"He was talking about dinner plans with the woman," Vivian says. "Sveta. That's all."

"No names," her handler reminds her sharply.

Vivian shakes her head. "Right," she says. "No names."

They both peel themselves out of line and head down the street in opposite directions.

Vivian strips off her gloves and drops them on the smooth polished wood of the bar as a glass of whiskey is slid across to her. "Cheers," she says absently in English, taking it up with still-chilly fingers; the bartender gives her a dark look and wanders off to the other end of the bar, and Vivian curses herself for her carelessness.

She drinks, swallows, and puts the glass down, pressing the pads of her fingers to her temples. Her head is pounding, getting steadily worse since her latest attempt. She wonders what it is about his mind that slides from under her grasp so easily. Superficially, there is nothing about him that seems out of the ordinary; he is mild in his own head, organised, straightforward. No villainous intentions to speak of, only mundane concerns—paperwork to be filed, windows to be sealed from draughts when he gets home. Nothing that calls attention to itself, nothing to suggest that he should even be a person of concern for the CIA. But the moment she digs for anything deeper something in him shutters closed and she finds herself kicked out into the cold, and even if nothing else were to send up red flags the cut-off and entirely unremarkable quality of his mind makes it abominably clear to her that there are things to hide and he knows how to hide them. If she were better trained—if she knew anyone she could turn to for advice—

But there, that's a futile wish, and she knows it.

Vivian takes another drink, teeth closing hard on the rim of her glass like she might bite away her inadequacies. She wipes the corner of her mouth and looks at the remaining line of whiskey in the glass. She thinks of her childhood, Christmas day, peering over the lip of the sideboard in the formal dining room at the bottles lined up there for the family dinner, amber and scarlet and mellow gold all clear and bright against the pale sky and the brilliant Pacific-blue of the water past the beach beyond the window. She thinks of her wedding and her husband at her side, his newly ringed hand twined tight in hers, her eyes on his throat as he swallows, and then she thinks no and pushes that memory away as though with both hands.

"Good," a man's voice says from behind her, "good. You're getting better, you know that? Not on my level—but then again, I don't think that anyone is."

Vivian's blood freezes. She pauses, fingers clenching white-knuckled at her glass, and then lifts her head to see him. Though she doesn't have to; she knows who he is.

"It's like any other talent, I suppose, in that it needs constant exercise, and I think I get rather more than most of our inclination—given my line of work," he continues, sitting down at the bar beside her. He props his hand up on his cheek, watching her lazily. "Our line of work. Anyway, that's my theory. One professional to another."

Vivian straightens on her stool, setting her glass down and folding her hands in her lap. "Koschei," she says, and he smiles, and offers her his free hand.

"Yuri Pavlovich Volvakov," he says, enunciating each syllable carefully, as if to mock her; his English is as good as hers, flatly American in accent. "It's truly a pleasure to meet you, Mrs Hughes."

"Oh, please," Vivian says, matching his sarcastic tone bite for bite as she deliberately does not take up his offer of a handshake. "Call me Vivian. One professional to another, I mean."

"Yuri, then," he says. His smile widens. He seems delighted by her, and it makes her obscurely cranky. "Have you been enjoying your time in our fair city?"

"Rather less than I might hope," Vivian says. "You haven't made things easy for me, Mr Volvakov."

"No, I haven't," he murmurs, and he bites his lower lip in a show of false modesty. Then his face lightens. "You've done an admirable job, though; I mean that. Washington will surely be pleased to know that you've done a bit of damage, in your own way. You've accidentally inflicted all sorts of migraines on my office-mates."

"Oh, good," Vivian says. There doesn't seem any point in being less than frank with him. No one is listening in; the barman looks like he has fallen asleep, and the two older men at the far end of the bar are deep in their own argument about the relative merits of Khlebnikov and Mayakovsky. They are for all intents and purposes quite alone. Her heart thrums weirdly at the realisation, and she leans her chin on the heel of her hand, mirroring his pose, trying to clamp down on her giddiness. "Ones to match my own."

He suddenly lifts his fingers to her temple, hovering but not touching. Vivian fights her first instinct to flinch back, lifts her chin and meets his level gaze. She wonders what will happen if he touches her. She wonders how badly she wants to know. Their currently proximity does no more for her ability to see her way into him than before, but with his skin on hers—

She wonders how easily he is thumbing through her thoughts even now.

"I can help with your headache," he says, still politely not touching her. "If you'd like."

Vivian ignores the dance of his fingertips at the periphery of her gaze and keeps her eyes fixed on his. "Thank you for the offer," she says, keenly aware of the heat of his palm over her cheek. "But I think I'd rather not."

He lowers his hand and curls it into his lap. "Fair," he says, and he clears his throat.

Vivian picks up her abandoned glass and swallows the last of the whiskey. She is feeling unsteady, and would rather he does not see.

"The headaches should improve, with application," he says to fill the silence. "See, you've got a tremendous amount of power, you just—aren't sure how to channel it yet, I think." His voice drops soft when he adds, "There's something of a beacon about you, Vivian Hughes."

Vivian touches her bright hair self-consciously; she remembers, distantly, what her nanny told her as a child, that saints never had red hair, and she wonders how conspicuous she has let herself be. Should she have dyed it? They should have told her something, she thinks, disgruntled; they're the spies, not her. Shouldn't they have thought of that?

"To me, I mean," Yuri clarifies. Her eyes sharpen on him: has he listened in? "Given—you know. What we are. You stand out to me, you see."

A flush prickles at Vivian's cheeks. His dark eyes lower to the surface of the bar as he picks at a score in the wood with his thumbnail, an absent gesture that belies his breezy self-assurance. She tilts her face to his, watching the black sweep of his lashes, the sharp cut of his nose against the dim lights that line the bar.

She opens her mouth to speak.

"I should go," Yuri says abruptly. He stands and makes a show of settling his scarf, pulling his coat closed, and smiles down at her apologetically. "I really do have to meet Sveta for dinner—that part wasn't theatre."

"Oh," Vivian says.

"But listen: I'm glad to have met you," he says. "This was an edifying conversation."

"If strange," she says. A smile rises to her lips unbidden, and she shakes her head, biting it back. "You know, I have questions."

"Of course you do," Yuri says. He picks up his gloves and adds honestly, "I'm afraid I don't have too many answers, but we will talk. I'm pleased we'll be colleagues. Of a sort. It gets—"

"Lonely," she finishes.

"Yes," he says. There's a strange look on his face, but he nods. "Yes."

She considers him for a moment and then offers him her hand, bracing herself. Yuri hesitates, shifts his gloves to his pocket, and grasps it.

Vivian shudders, closes her eyes, and sees from what must be the perspective of a younger Yuri as he struggles down the street panting to keep up with someone's much longer stride, his little hand enveloped in a much bigger one. He looks up and there is a hazy impression of his father's sad face and beyond it a forest of buildings, steel and brick stretching up into an iron-grey sky; New York, she thinks, in the autumn, feeling a cool wind on Yuri's face and wondering at the fear in his little heart—

Yuri pulls his hand from hers. He inhales sharply, eyes wide; she looks back at him, blood singing, and then he whistles.

"Well," he says, sounding short of breath. "I did say you had power, didn't I?"

"I'm sorry," Vivian says. Her mind is still thrumming with what she's seen; too much to take it in now, a glut of images, sensations she will sort through later when she is alone. He waves her apology off:

"Don't be," he says. "I expected it. Well, not that, but—you know." His eyes are shining. "It's been a pleasure, Viv."

"Vivian," she corrects, stressing the last syllable.

"Hmm," he says thoughtfully, fishing out his gloves and pulling them on. "Nope. We're friends now, you see. I can call you what I like."

"Is that how it works?" she says drily.

"Oh, you'll see," Yuri says. He drops his hat on his head and winks as he turns to leave.

Vivian takes a deep breath. "Wait," she says, touching the wrist of his coatsleeve to stall him. Yuri turns back, startled, and the two old men look up briefly from their fight over the Futurists. "I don't think I was supposed to have heard about this. But do you know who the Baines brothers are?"

Yuri goes still. He looks down at her, face half-shadowed beneath the brim of his hat.

"Look," Vivian says, keeping her voice low, "I overhear things. From my handlers. I'm not supposed to, but they keep me so far in the dark I don't feel too bad about it—anyway. I don't know who they're supposed to be but my side is getting antsy about them—there was something to do with MI-6, but I know their work is connected with something that's happened Siberia. Does that sound right to you?"

There is a worried crease between his brows. "Yes," he says. "But why are you telling me?"

Vivian tucks a curling lock of hair behind her ear. "One professional to another," she says demurely, and Yuri's mouth twitches.

He takes his hat off and takes his seat beside her again. "You know, I think I have time for one drink before dinner," he says.
Tags: cia, kgb, vivian hughes, yuri pavlovich volvakov
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