Lalli rapped sharply on the door, tap-tap-tapped against the metal. No sound on the inside, not yet. Just silence.
He yawned. Waited. Stood outside of the tank door, wrapped his arms around himself, and waited.
It was cold. That wasn't a problem.
It was raining. That was a problem. It had started halfway through the night, and hadn't stopped, and in the end he'd come back to the tank a little earlier than usual. Just a little.
Not early enough for anyone to think about questioning it. He'd made sure of that.
The door opened, and a strong hand gripped him by the collar, and tugged him inside.
Lalli blinked up at Sigrun. She usually wasn't the one who greeted him in the morning. At least, she usually wasn't alone. Usually one of the others would be there - Emil, or the big one. Mikkel. And Tuuri would be around, peering at him from behind her mask, just in case she’d have to translate anything.
Not this time.
Sigrun nodded in the direction of the sleeping quarters. Said something - it was too fast, too swishy, too slippery, and Lalli couldn't grab hold of it. She repeated herself, and he caught the word "sleep".
Yes, he was earlier than usual. And yesterday had been long and busy and tiring. And now it was raining, and the steady tap-tap-tap of the droplets on the top of the tank was enough to lull anyone to sleep.
Fine, then. They could stay that way for a while. It didn't matter. "Okay," Lalli said, and that must have been good enough, because Sigrun gave him a pat on the shoulder, and then they set to work.
Sigrun normally wasn't the one to help him with decontamination. As she manhandled him through the process, Lalli decided there was a very good reason for this, and it was absolutely to be avoided in the future.
It didn't take long, at least. Eventually, she got him scrubbed. Then she nudged him toward the front of the tank. Sat him down in the passenger seat with a pat to the shoulder, then a finger to her lips as she gestured toward the sleeping quarters. Quiet. Fine.
Then she handed him a cup of lukewarm something-or-other that had probably been warming all the night in a kettle over the woodstove.
Lalli looked into the mug. Sniffed it. Mint. Okay. He drank it, and didn't care that it wasn't what it could have been. It was hot. That was the important part.
Sigrun was staring at him.
He watched her over the edge of his mug. There was an expectant look on her face.
She didn't expect him to give his report now, did she? Without a translator? He glanced in the direction of the sleeping quarters, where the only sign of life was the sound of someone - Emil? - snoring.
Sigrun sat back in her chair. That expectant look didn't go away. It stayed there, and she smiled, and Lalli didn't know how to interpret it. Then she spoke, and Lalli didn't understand that either.
If I tell you everything now, Lalli thought, then I'll have to give my report again later, to Tuuri, because otherwise you won't understand anything at all. This is stupid. He huffed into his mug, and didn't even bother to pretend not to look annoyed.
Sigrun said something again. Then she reached for the map.
Lalli watched as she spread it out over the dashboard with an unusual amount of care. They had found it only yesterday, upon reaching this town that nobody alive knew the name of. They had sought out a store that had once carried books and papers and odds and ends and so many things that nobody could even guess the purpose of. It showed the entire town and the area around it. Big. Detailed. Useful, even though they would only be here a day or two. It took up the entire dashboard.
Sigrun looked at Lalli.
Lalli looked at Sigrun.
Sigrun raised an eyebrow. Gestured to the map. Said something. Something-something-report.
Lalli set his mug down. Looked at the map. Stared at it for a moment, at the thin lines of streets, then pictured in his mind's eye where he had gone in the night.
He traced the route with his fingers, starting from the place their tank had rested overnight. Here and there, he stopped. Tapped certain locations. Delivered a verdict.
Safe. Not safe. Bad road. Clear road. Trolls. Many trolls. Lots. No go. Here is okay.
The Swedish words were thick in his mouth, not flowing freely like they would if they were in his own tongue, and he started to despise the fact that Tuuri was still sleeping. Even if she actually hadn't slept in. Even if he'd come back earlier than usual.
Without her, this took so much longer than it should have.
He could feel Sigrun's eyes on him, sweeping from the paper to him and then back again. She spoke. A little. Kept her questions short and simple. "Is it safe here? Are there books here?" A tap to the paper to emphasize her questions, and an answer that he could give - brief, and short, but coherent.
She seemed to understand him.
That was good enough.
It wasn't the closeness that he felt with Emil, the way that Emil always seemed to understand what he meant even when he hardly said anything at all. But, Lalli thought as he circled a building on the map with his fingertip and gave his brief judgment, this was business.
This was work.
Sigrun was easier to be around when they were working.
Sigrun seemed happy, at least. Satisfied. Not that Lalli could read her. Not that he could read anyone, really. Except Emil, maybe. People were confusing. But he had come to know that, at least with work, he could trust that Sigrun would be honest about it. That she didn't play weird games. That she wouldn't pretend to accept an answer and then act like it hadn't been good enough.
That he was glad for, even if it meant that they circled around the same thing a few times. More than a few times. Too many times. Lalli grit his teeth and huffed as Sigrun asked the questions again, again, again....
How could he put it? The explanation would have come so easily in Finnish. Now, he was left scrambling for words.
"Many. But... small." His voice was sharp, impatient, and he knew it, and he knew she noticed it by the way her eyes narrowed. He gestured with his hands, tried to indicate size, grasping in a child-like manner for a way to indicate something that might in fact have once been a child. "Small," he repeated again, feeling exasperated.
That seemed to get through. She nodded, the frown on her face transforming into a smile. "Okay," she said. Then another thing, light words, something he didn't catch, but it sounded positive enough.
As he watched her trace out the route he'd taken, Lalli sat back. Thought. Listened. Let his eyes droop, because they wanted to droop, and she didn't seem to care. He ached to go to the sleeping quarters, to roll under the bed and doze off, but he didn't.
He'd come back early.
He was still working. Technically. Sort of. A little.
A pat on his shoulder. Heavy, too much, but it was better than the punches she'd given him when they first met. Lalli lifted his head.
"Good job!" Sigrun lifted her hand, like she was going to ruffle his hair, then thought better of it and just gave him another pat instead. "Thanks!"
Lalli pinched his eyes shut. Tried to remember the Swedish words, the ones that he was supposed to say in response to that, the ones that were supposed to be a reply when someone said 'Thanks'. It was a formula, a script, it was set lines, and he liked that. He liked when things were put down clearly.
But he couldn't remember it. And Sigrun, at least, didn't seem to care. She gave him another pat, then rose from her seat.
Lalli stayed where he was. Sighed and drooped into his seat. Didn't move until he heard her footsteps returning to him, the sound of her sliding into her place beside him again.
He opened one eye.
She held out a biscuit to him, the hard, dry ones they had been eating lately. Flavoured with seeds. The sweet bits he had never been able to identify were long gone, and the dried berries had run out a long time ago.
She smiled. Said something, too-fast, the words swishing out. It was hard to understand, but it sounded like she said, "There ya go. Breakfast!"
He took it. Nibbled at it. It was good, better than usual, or maybe he was just that hungry. Then he paused, hesitated, and spoke. "Thanks."
Another smile for that. Good.
Lalli sat back in his chair, nursing his cold tea and biscuit. Listened to the snoring in the other room. He watched as Sigrun lifted the window shields to reveal the grey, drizzly morning. The sky lightened, grew brighter, the damp slowly giving way to sun.
Sigrun settled down beside him. Then she took up the map again, her bright, too-awake eyes sliding eagerly over the images of old roads.
They said little else. There was nothing to say.
Maybe it only took a few words to do well enough.