On a Sunday, the top floor of a suburban parking garage is the ideal location for a meet: it’s in public, but there’s no one around. The few stray cars that ventured out for the day are parked on the ground floor four levels below them, and the street sounds are a faint rumble in the distance, so there's no busybody neighbor to wonder what that pretty young pregnant girl might be doing talking to the scary-looking black man. Elizabeth leans against the concrete wall, taking the pressure off her swollen ankles. Overhead, the afternoon sky is draining into the horizon, a glow of orange and red.
“They’re in for sure, all eight of em,” Gregory says, taking a long drag on his cigarette. “We can use em again if it works out, but that’s up to the two of you. Just signal me again and we can talk about it after.” His eyes graze the bulge on her stomach, then bounce back up.
Suddenly self-conscious, she turns a little, and is rewarded with a twinge in her lower back and a flutter of a kick against her ribs. She winces—that’s not going to work—and shifts again. “And you think they’ll never know what it’s about."
Gregory shrugs. “They’d never ask. They’re kinda rough, but none of em are stupid.” He inhales another puff, his gaze flickering back down to her stomach, lingering just a little bit longer this time. “Of course they think it’s probably guns, but they don’t really care what it is, so long’s they get paid. That’s the beauty in it.”
His answering grin is playful. “Damn straight I am,” he says, pointing a finger at her.
Elizabeth takes a puff on her own cigarette and blows the smoke in his direction. “Getting a little full of ourselves, are we?” If this works out to be a permanent arrangement, Gregory’s people could be trained for all kinds of jobs: supervising handoffs that have to be done in person, helping spot any issues they might run into from a distance. Gaining a whole team at once could be the solution to all of their countersurveillance problems.
“Hey, have I ever let you down?”
He never has. She cocks an eyebrow at him. “There’s a first time for everything.” She extinguishes her cigarette on the concrete wall and flicks it off the edge.
A smile plays on his lips. “I’m tellin you, you name it, I’ll make it happen.”
“Well.” She forces her mouth into a grim line, giving him her best Gregory-I-am-totally-serious face. “Now that you mention it—”
‘There is one other thing.” She lets her gaze slide away, then back again.
“What?” Deep creases spread across his forehead.
She gives him a little smile. She crooks a finger at him.
Relief is the first thing to rise to his face, and then there’s that light in his eyes, the one that always makes her pulse leap. He smiles, grinds out his cigarette and lets the butt fall to the ground. Three steps and he’s right there, his hands cupping her face. Her stomach’s really in the way now, and he hesitates for just a moment, but then he leans in and their lips meet, soft and gentle.
She kisses him back, and then all at once it’s no longer gentle: one strong hand on her arm through her thin cardigan sweater and another at her waist. He pulls her closer, leaning in toward her around her stomach. An eager hand travels up to her breast—they're fuller now than they've ever been, and he lets out a guttural ‘mm’ of appreciation. But her own need is a faint echo of his, and it’s not budging.
She pulls away. “I’m sorry.”
He takes two steps back. He shoves his hands in his pockets.
“It’s just—” She waves a hand in front of her stomach.
“It’s all right.” He shrugs.
Elizabeth makes a face, a twist of disgust. “I’m so huge.”
“You’re beautiful,” he counters, but he’s not pushing. He doesn’t reach for her.
Since the beginning, Gregory has always waited for her signal to respond. Their initial connection was a meeting of ideas rather than bodies, but he still noticed how she looked in an American mini-skirt. He’d always look away whenever she caught him staring, but he couldn’t hide the fact that he was practically vibrating with want by the time she got around to kissing him. All through that, he never once tried to touch her.
“So it’s pretty soon now, huh?” He tilts his head down toward her stomach.
“Another few weeks.”
“Wow.” Gregory shakes his head. “You’re really gonna be a mother.”
Elizabeth frowns. She can feel it moving inside her every day now, but she still can’t fathom how this intruder inside her body could actually be a tiny human being.
“It’s a funny thought.” He takes his hands out of his pockets and leans in toward her. “Don’t you think? You with some little kid.”
“We won’t arouse suspicion if we look like a regular family.” Her voice is a monotone.
“I know. It’s—just funny.”
Elizabeth sucks in her cheeks. What’s actually funny is how well it’s already working. Neighbors who used to keep their distance now dose out friendliness in proportion to the size of the bump on her stomach. Almost daily, she finds herself answering personal questions asked by women she barely knows, their hands fluttering around her abdomen like moths around a light bulb. Elizabeth knows how to paste on a smile and make small talk about the Bradley Method, but she hasn’t figured out how to blot out the buzz of contempt at the back of her mind.
She steps toward him again, her palm against his face. He closes his eyes, but not before she sees the shine that could be tears, and there's a little sting in her throat. She slides her hand across his mouth, and he grazes it with his lips.
“God, Elizabeth.” He softens the final consonant in her cover name, and it only makes him sound sadder. He grabs hold of her hand, pressing it between his own. “Explain to me why you want to stay.”
She stiffens. “What do you mean?” she says, stalling. She’s been feeling him wanting to ask this for months, the strain of the subject mounting like a rope pulled taut.
“With him.” He opens his eyes again. “Philip.” He pronounces the name like there are quotation marks around it, like it’s some bad joke. It’s not how he says hers.
She steps back, withdrawing from his touch. “You know why.”
Gregory shakes his head. “I do and I don’t.”
“Because leaving him would mean leaving the service.”
There’s another twinge in her back, and she reaches a hand around to rub it. “You don’t just do that, Gregory. They make such an investment in us. And the trust—that’s not something you just throw away.”
“I know,” he says, but she can see that he doesn’t. How could he? His heart is one hundred percent in this, but he’ll never be anything but an American.
“This isn’t just a job.” At home, the illegals are on postage stamps, songs are sung about them. “It’s the highest honor and the greatest privilege.”
“You don’t love him, though.” It’s a little nudge, like he wants to hear her say it herself.
She gives her head a vehement shake. “There are things that are bigger than the feelings that any individual person might or might not have. I don’t have to tell you that.”
He edges toward her again, a shuffle of a step. “I just—I hate seeing you so unhappy. Every time I see you, it’s like something has sucked a little more of the life out of you.”
Elizabeth looks away. She’s not sick every day anymore, but she still can’t sleep, and she hasn’t had a good deep breath in more than a month. It’s not even here yet, and already it’s got her under its spell, like some unseen force that’s taken control.
“I hate it, Elizabeth.” He caresses her arms through her sweater. “It makes me a little crazy.”
It comes to her in a rush of emotion more like time travel than remembrance: the full length of Gregory’s body pressed against hers, his lips on her neck. She’s not up for that right now, but she still wants to gather herself in his arms and bury her head in his shoulder. This is the first time she’s seen him in months, and who knows how long it will be until the next time.
She shifts her weight away from him, locking the memory down again. “You Americans and your obsession with happiness. You think you can just write it into your Declaration of Independence and everything will turn out fine.”
Gregory laughs. “Touché.”
“This is so much more important than me. Or you and me, or—any of this.” She searches for a way to put it that he’ll understand. “You have your ways of trying to make a difference,” she says finally. “This is mine.”
His eyes drop, then travel back up to meet hers. “Okay.” He nods. “I get it. I wish I didn't, but I do.”
Gregory’s always let her steer whatever this is going to be, never tried to talk her into anything. She leans in and kisses him again, a faint flutter against his lips. “Thank you.”
“I never want to be the one standing in your way,” he says. He presses his lips to her forehead and holds them there for a long time. Then he steps back. “I guess I’ll see you around.”
“I’ll be in touch.”
She watches him leave: the shuffle in his step, the slump in his shoulders. He doesn’t look back. He opens the door to the stairs, and then he’s gone.
Elizabeth turns and heads for the other set of stairs, escaping into the stairwell. Her throat is tight, but she grits her teeth and swallows around it, her footsteps leaden against the concrete stairs. On the ground floor she stops for a breath, leaning into the opening in the concrete wall that looks out over the green expanse of park next to the structure.
It’s dark enough that the park is mostly empty now, but two little girls are still playing with a pink hula hoop, a man and a woman crouched down to their height, all smiles. She used to look straight past them, but now they seem to be everywhere: sidewalks full of schoolchildren in impossibly bright clothes, tiny babies in big wide buggies. Elizabeth pulls out another cigarette and lights it. The yellow streetlights lining the path that winds through the park flicker to life, staining the fall leaves a dull brown.
It’s finally turning cooler now, months too late. November isn’t winter here, and sometimes it’s even summer, with that soup-thick air that feels like you’re wading through it. It only makes her feel more alien. That, plus the inescapable sounds of background music and traffic—so much traffic!—and the smells of fried food, and the lights that never go out.
One of the girls trips over the hoop, and then there’s a feral-sounding wail that makes Elizabeth wince. The woman opens her arms and the little girl runs into them. Elizabeth sucks in a breath on her cigarette and holds the smoke tight in her lungs.
Soon there’s going to be another child, another little boy or girl who’s going to grow up thinking that all the clamor and the smells that seep into your pores and the glare are just the way the world is. She pushes the smoke out of her lungs and lets it escape into the air.
Straightening her shoulders, she grinds out her cigarette and leans against the door to the parking garage. On the other side, she tosses the butt into the trash and points herself toward her car.
Elizabeth’s senses heighten as she sees him: a man, leaning against her car, thin and—she squints against the dim light. A mess of brown curls. Her eyes widen, then narrow.
Of course he came to get her. Of course.
Philip folds his arms, steeling himself, then lets them fall to his sides like he’s thought better of it. She steps closer to him, a hand on her hip.
His eyes flicker away, then back again. “All right, I know what you’re thinking.” He stands up.
“I just wanted to make sure you were going to be okay.” He holds up a hand.
She glances around. “How did you even get here? Did you go pick up another car?”
He shrugs. “There’s a bus.”
“You took the bus?” She arches her eyebrows at him. There’s something absurdly un-American about the mental image: a Directorate S illegal who could take out any one of them without anyone being the wiser, sitting on a vinyl seat next to some old lady with blue hair and a college kid home for Thanksgiving break.
“Just think of me as your backup. Just in case.” He steps over to the driver’s side of the car. “You got the keys?”
Elizabeth digs them out of the pocket stretched against her stomach and tosses them at him. “It was a routine meet.”
“Nothing’s routine right now.” He unlocks the car and climbs in, then reaches over to the other side, unlocks her door.
She climbs in and pulls the door shut behind her. “You know, I’ve had the exact same training you’ve had.”
“Yeah, well, neither one of us trained to do this job while eight months pregnant,” he says, his voice a spool of tension. He starts the car.
Elizabeth leans against the car door, her head suddenly heavy. All her joints feel worn down to the quick. She’s not going to argue with him. Philip pulls the car out onto the street, and she turns to look out the window.
All at once there’s a wail of a horn, and Philip’s slamming on the brakes. Elizabeth braces herself, one hand on the dashboard, the other on her stomach. Protecting it is a reflex now, like sucking the wound when you cut your hand.
The other car squeals off, the woman in the passenger’s seat glaring at them over her shoulder. “Sorry,” Philip says, a wince in his voice.
Elizabeth looks over at him. These big American cars are still equally confounding to both of them—there was never much opportunity to practice before they went into the field—but whenever they’re in the car together, somehow he’s the one who always ends up climbing into the driver’s seat. She slides her gaze back out the window.
“So what did he say?” Philip braces the carton against the wheel to pull out a cigarette, lights it.
“Gregory. What did he say?”
Elizabeth blinks. She’s already forgotten that she was there for a meet. Her teeth clench—pregnancy has turned her brain to mush. “It’s all set,” she says, keeping her voice level. “He’s got a bunch of guys lined up for Tuesday.”
Philip puts the cigarette in his mouth and inhales. “A bunch of random guys? Does he really think we can trust them?”
Elizabeth shakes her head. “We don’t have to. They think they’re the eyes for gunrunners. Black Panther stuff.”
“Huh.” Philip’s eyebrows fly up.
“And if they work out, we can use them again.”
“Wow.” He holds his cigarette over the ashtray, tapping the end of it. “That’s really good.”
“Yeah,” she says, a strand of melancholy winding its way through her voice. “He’s really good.”
She looks out the window again. The car wheels rumble underneath her in a steady hum, pulling on her like an undertow.
“You know, I think you should let me take the next meet,” Philip says.
Elizabeth pinches her lips together. That idea’s going to go over terrifically well with Gregory. “He’s my agent.”
“I know you’ve been trying not to think about this, Elizabeth, but you’re going to need to take a break. Just for a little while.” Philip takes another puff on his cigarette and lets the smoke trickle out of his mouth. “You know, you’d be getting a full year of maternity leave back in Gryazi.” He tilts his head toward her, and there’s a flash of eye contact between them. “That is where you’re from, right?”
She shoots him a glare. “I never said that.” Colonel Zhukov let on accidentally once that she’d done a year at the School in Gryazi before being admitted to illegals training, and Philip’s never going to forget even the tiniest morsel of forbidden information about her old life. It’s been a long time since he’s tried to push at that boundary, but he’s always been more prone to disobedience when he’s not getting his way.
Philip’s jaw juts forward. “Or wherever.” He waves a hand, his eyes on the road as he turns onto their street.
Elizabeth sits up straight. “You know what a meet with Gregory entails? The ability to use a telephone. The ability to drive, and to park a car. A bit of walking. The ability to spot potential surveillance. That’s it.”
Philip pulls into their driveway. “Your balance is off, Elizabeth. What if something—”
“Nothing’s going to happen, Philip! For God’s sake.”
“Fine.” He turns off the car, takes the key out of the ignition. “Let’s say you do keep doing this for, what, another month, tops? Then what? Are you going to drag a baby along to a meet?”
She flinches. She can’t picture it.
She turns the image over in her mind, flipping it around, but the other side’s missing too. Staying home with it for months, maybe years. Letting Philip do her job. She closes her eyes.
“How about a two-year-old, a four-year-old?” Philip continues. “Are you going to take our kid with you as your cover? Is that how you see this going?”
Elizabeth opens her eyes again. “I—I don’t know.” She meets his gaze.
His expression wavers from stubborn to sympathetic, and he lets out a little sigh. He extinguishes his cigarette and lets his gaze travel out the front window to the house. Elizabeth’s eyes fall to her lap.
Philip gets out of the car and walks over to her side. He opens the door and offers her an arm. She hesitates for a moment, but she takes it.
There’s another spasm of pain in her back as they walk up to the house, and she presses a fist against it, stumbling a little. “Are you okay?” Philip says. The tension has drained out of his voice, and now it’s pillow-soft.
“I’m fine,” she snaps. She drops his arm.
Philip lets them inside, and Elizabeth flicks on a light switch. He’s right. Nothing’s going to be the same after this. Her work isn’t going to be priority one anymore—it can’t be. And for a while, she probably won’t be able to do it at all, not just physically, not just mentally, but logistically. There’s a wobble of dizziness behind her eyes, and she spreads her hands flat across the table, leaning against it.
Philip nudges her arm with a cold glass of water. “You’re tired. We don’t have to talk about this right now.”
Elizabeth takes it, sets it down on the table. “I’m not tired.” It’s true, she’s wound up, like there’s something spring-loaded in her chest. She walks into the kitchen.
He’s two steps behind her. She leans against the counter, her thoughts fluttering frantically. It’ll be two years, maybe. No, four. Maybe more.
Philip crouches down, his elbow flat against the counter. He leans in until he’s eye-level with her stomach. “I bet the baby’s tired,” he says, playing with the word, trying it on like a wig and a cover name. “Right, baby?” His voice is a dopey sing-song.
Elizabeth rolls her eyes. Her pregnancy is turning Philip's brain to mush, too, and he doesn’t have the hormones as an excuse. “You do know you’re talking to my stomach.”
He glances up at her and shoots her a grin. Then his expression softens, and he looks down at it again, his eyes soft and glassy. Elizabeth turns away from him, stretching her cardigan over herself. He’s probably turned on by her like this. She wrinkles her nose.
“No, it’s beautiful.” He straightens, standing right next to her, too close. “You’re beautiful.”
She flattens her eyebrows. When Gregory said it, it sounded admiring. From Philip, it sounds like he wants something.
And then his hands are on her stomach, one on each side. Her arms shoot out from her sides, her fingers spread wide. “Don’t.”
He moves his hands down, around the curve of her, pressing against it with his palms.
“Stop it!” she says, louder now, an edge in her voice.
She pushes him away, and he jerks back. His arms curl against his chest, and he looks wounded, as if she's punched him.
A wave of anger surges up inside of her, bumping against her ribs. He always thinks he knows so much more about what she needs than she does herself. “Why do you feel yourself so much more knowledgeable…” No, that’s not right.
He raises an eyebrow at her.
There’s a flush of heat in her face. “Why do you feel—why do you think you know so much more…”
Philip smirks. “Oh, yeah, you’re not tired at all.”
Something loosens inside of her, something that was supposed to stay stitched shut, and the room closes in around her. Illegals training engraved the nasal vowels and plosive consonants of American speech onto her brain, so her accent never slips, but every now and then there’s a dropped article, an idiom that takes a wrong turn as it comes out of her mouth. It’s nothing she can’t cover up if it happens in front of a neighbor or a source, but there's no covering it up for Philip. It shrivels her with shame every time. She's never caught him in a similar slip, and she's listened.
Her hands are suddenly shaking, clenching into fists, and she turns away and stalks down the hall to the bedroom. He probably thinks she’s giving in. That chafes against her like the rub of her first too-tight pair of American shoes, but right now she can’t stand to look at him anymore.
The mass of clouds overhead made it dark enough that Nadya had to squint to read the page she’d retrieved from the dead drop, and every gust of wind bit straight through her coat. She moved just a few steps out of the shadow of the alley, spreading the page flat against the concrete wall.
Tolbanova: Well done. You’ve successfully completed the technical components of your exam and arrived at your final task. For this, you will meet personally with an agent, give him this sheet of paper, retrieve an envelope from him, and return to the School with that envelope by four o’clock. You will need to shake off the surveillance team that will be tailing you and arrive at the railway station to meet the agent at 3:30. He will be holding a newspaper. Be sure to use the password you established in the first part of your exam. Good luck.
Nadya folded the page and slipped it into the pocket of her coat. If this had been a real mission, the message would have been coded, of course. She would have had to take it to the Rezidentura and then spent hours deciphering it. But the School had to fit the whole exam into a single day, so corners had to be cut. It was too bad—she was a better codebreaker than Borya, and she needed every edge she could get.
She pulled the fat metal watch that she’d borrowed from one of the other cadets out of her pocket. Already 3:15. A shiver skittered down her back—she was cutting this close, maybe too close. Borya was probably already back at the School. By the time she would get there, he’d probably be leaning against the wall, his arms casually crossed, grinning his smug little grin like he’d spent the afternoon relaxing on some Crimean beach.
The surveillance team wasn’t hard to spot. There were three of them: a man in a Lada who was spending a little too long staring out the window, a woman who otherwise looked far too elegant to be wearing rubber-soled shoes, and a man who kept following just a little too close and walking past her one too many times. Nadya spent five precious minutes trying to outrun them, then tried to distract them by disappearing into a crowd at the square south of the station, but whenever she looked back, they were still there. Her hands went clammy with sweat despite the cold, and she shoved them into the pockets of her coat. She pulled the watch out of her pocket again. 3:25.
Scanning the buildings outside the station, she spotted a small shack and stopped walking. Its only window was broken and coated with a thick layer of grime, but that could work to her advantage—if she could get inside, she could still watch the team through it for a moment without them seeing her, long enough to get her bearings. She rushed over and tried the door handle. It was unlocked, and she slipped in.
The inside of the shack formed a small, cramped room, its rear wall covered in dusty railroad equipment that looked like it had gone unused for years and rows of metal canisters stacked along the floor in front of it. The door fell shut behind her with a thud, and her gaze fell on a man standing off to one side. He whipped around to face her. Her mind did the inventory: a mess of blond curls, legs just a bit too long for the pants he was wearing, skinny arms poking out the sleeves of his coat, freckles dotting his cheeks and nose: Borya.
Nadya’s breath caught. Borya’s eyebrows flew up, and then he glared at her. At least he was as surprised to see her as she was to see him.
“What are you doing here?” Her question came out sharp with accusation.
Borya tried on a shrug. “Oh, you know. Just taking a little rest.” His mouth turned up in what looked like it wanted to be his signature grin, but he was clenching his teeth so hard that it looked more like a grimace. He opened his mouth a little, then shut it again.
“What?” she asked.
His forehead creased. “You don’t happen to…own a watch?”
Nadya unclenched her teeth, and there was a little thrill at the back of her neck. He didn’t even know what time it was. She pushed the left sleeve of her coat up to reveal her bare arm.
Borya turned away from her, hunching his shoulders. A smile tugged at the corners of Nadya’s mouth, and she bit the insides of her cheeks to keep it from spreading across her face.
Back in August, after Colonel Markov had summoned Nadya to his office to tell her that she was being considered for illegals training, she’d walked around for weeks with her feet hardly touching the ground. Illegals trainees were usually pulled from universities, from language schools—hardly ever from the ranks of ordinary KGB cadets—and the idea that her instructors thought she might serve the motherland in such a crucial way was enough to steal Nadya’s breath every time it crossed her mind. By September, though, Borya had dropped enough hints that she’d realized she wasn’t alone. Nadya never responded in kind—the Colonel had asked her not to tell anyone, and she wasn’t about to betray that. But whenever Borya was around, the words still burned on her tongue: they have their eyes on me, too, you know. If she wasn’t special, then neither was he.
“I’ve got an idea,” he said, bringing his gaze back to meet hers. “If you could go out and distract my team long enough for me to slip away, I’ll come back when I’m done and do the same for you.”
Nadya folded her arms. There was no way he was going to do that, no way at all. And if he thought she'd fall for it, he thought she was an idiot.
“Come on,” he said, his grin now firmly in place. He cocked his head at her. “Either we both pass or we both fail at this point, and I’d rather we both pass.”
“Okay,” Nadya said slowly. “But how about you distract mine first?”
Borya chuckled, curling his shoulders into a shrug. “Oh well, it was worth a try.” He leaned in toward the window, staring out it, chewing on his lower lip.
On the windowsill, just to the left of the ball of his hand, was a sheet of paper that looked just like the one in her pocket. The one she was supposed to give her “agent” in the station.
Nadya’s heart started drumming. He was right about one thing. What she really needed was a distraction.
Borya’s eyes were still fixed on something on the other side of the window. She crept over to stand beside him, but he didn’t look over at her. Without looking at the windowsill, she reached down until her fingertips grazed his page of instructions, then swiftly crumpled it into her palm. Her heart racing, she shot over to the door, throwing it wide open.
He was behind her in an instant, his footsteps thudding against the wooden floor. “Hey!” he yelled, but Nadya kept running. Behind her, the door slammed shut again.
The sidewalk was crowded with commuters headed for the station, and Nadya wadded Borya’s paper into a ball and aimed it straight at their feet. A man with a hat stepped on it and walked on, but a little boy stopped walking and bent down to pick it up. Borya’s face was as red as a sugar beet, and his hair was matted with sweat. He bolted into into the crowd, grabbing the boy’s hand. “Don’t—that’s…”
Borya had a full head on the boy’s mother, but that didn’t stop her from leaning in toward him, slapping a hand on his chest, and letting out a stream of curses. Nadya’s stomach coiled with nerves, but a pair of tall men were heading toward the station, and she ducked behind them.
After a few steps, she risked a quick glance behind her. The woman with the rubber-soled shoes was craning her neck in the wrong direction, her eyes snagging on the commotion. Nadya matched the two men’s long strides until she was at the top of the station steps, her breath coming in little gasps.
The inside of the station echoed with footsteps and the murmurs and shouts of a dozen conversations. As promised, a man was standing just inside the door: black coat, greying hair, bald spot. His back was mostly turned, but even from the side Nadya could see he was holding a newspaper. She swallowed around the wobble of unease in her throat and stepped up to him. “Excuse me.”
The man turned around. Like another piece of a puzzle sliding into place, the scene snapped into sharper focus. The disguise aged him by at least twenty years, but that square jaw, those dark brown eyes: it was Dmitriy Olegovich. The muscles in Nadya’s legs started to loosen with relief, but she made herself stand tall. He liked her enough to be fair, even to help her where he could, but he wouldn’t do the work for her.
“Do you happen to know which train I should take to get to Tambov?” she asked, taking care to make the password sound natural.
“I’m afraid there’s no direct train to Tambov from here,” he answered, pitching his voice a few steps higher than normal and enveloping it in a southern, almost Polesian accent. He frowned, leaning in a little. “What kept you? Why are you so late?”
“There were—” Nadya started, then clamped her mouth shut. This was a test: they wanted to know whether she’d admit she’d had trouble shaking a surveillance team, because any talk of surveillance could scare off an agent. “I got held up," she said, straightening her shoulders. "I’m very sorry to inconvenience you. Thank you for waiting.” She took a step closer, reached into her pocket, and handed him the paper. His disguise was good, but now that she knew it was him, she could see a shadow of dark stubble on his face that didn’t quite match the hair. “You have something for me?” she asked quietly.
Dmitriy Olegovich took the paper and immediately stepped back. “You’ll have to connect at Michurinsk to get to Tambov.” He gave the train timetable on the wall a curt nod, unfolded his newspaper, and started reading it.
Quickly, Nadya weaved her way through the crowd and over to the timetable, her eyes scanning the wall for anything out of the ordinary. It took only a few moments to spot the envelope tucked along the bottom edge of the weekend schedule, nearly impossible to see if you weren’t looking for it. She stood directly in front of it, close enough to block everyone else’s view, and slipped it into her pocket.
She spun around and started for the door, barreling straight into Dmitriy Olegovich. “Whoa,” he said in his regular voice, holding up both hands to block the collision. “I guess I should have known better than to get in your way.”
“I'm very sorry,” she murmured. Her face flushed hot.
“No, you go right ahead,” he said, a smile dancing on his lips. “You’ve only got a few minutes to spare. Great work, Tolbanova.”
Nadya had never been so thankful that Gryazi was so small. She took off, shooting through the stone archway of the station, down the front steps and back out onto the sidewalk. The wind thrashed her ponytail against her face as she kept to the back streets, flying past block after block of apartments until she reached the edge of town. The guard waved her through the open front gate, and she made the last dash across the courtyard in under a minute.
The steps of the School were as empty as they always were, but just inside the front door a small crowd had gathered: mostly their instructors, but she also recognized a couple of the young men who had played agents during the technical portion of the exam. A few of them started applauding, and then, slowly, a cheer rippled through the entryway and straight up the walls to the tall ceiling.
The tension in Nadya’s shoulders loosened, her breath slowing. She’d made it. The crowd parted in the middle, making room, and she started up the stone steps.
She stopped halfway up. At the front desk, where the stern-faced, uniformed guard usually sat, was Timoshev.
He was staring at her with the same dispassionate expression he used to look at any of the other cadets, as if what had happened had never happened, as if the things he’d done to her had been nothing but the sick imaginings of her mind. There was a burst of a metallic taste in the corner of her mouth, almost but not quite like blood.
Meeting his stare with narrowed eyes, she steadied herself on the railing and marched up the stairs. She slapped the envelope down on the desk in front of him.
Timoshev glanced up at the ornate clock on the far wall. “The first to return, at exactly three fifty, is Nadezhda Tolbanova.”
The applause from the crowd swelled again. Only then did his words penetrate Nadya’s mind, and she looked around at a blur of smiling faces. “I’m the first?”
“You’re the first,” the German instructor said, a light hand on her arm. “Well done.”
All at once she was surrounded by well-wishers: every one of her instructors came over to shake her hand, to help her out of her coat and hang it up like she was visiting royalty. Their ancient countersurveillance instructor even kissed her on the cheek. Other cadets trickled in as the minutes ticked by, and each time the applause and commotion swelled again, but Nadya had been the first, and everyone knew it. The attention and praise buzzed around her, dulling the knife-edge of adrenaline that had kept her moving all day, and a sleepy feeling came over her like the third shot of vodka.
Just before four o’clock, Borya raced up the steps to the desk, out of breath and red-faced. Nadya leaned against a pillar, crossed her arms, and gave him her best smile. He glared at her and set his envelope down on the front desk, deep furrows of worry stretching across his forehead.
“And at three-fifty-eight, Boris Savenkov,” Timoshev said with a nod.
His breath came out in a whoosh of relief. He stepped off to the side and bent down, his hands on his thighs.
Nadya sauntered over to him, still smiling. “Congratulations.”
He looked up at her and let out a breathy laugh. He straightened, and unbuttoned his coat. “Guess that’s plus one to you,” he admitted, wiping his forehead with his sleeve.
Damn right it was. Nadya shrugged. “We both passed.”
The English instructor, Vera Ivanovna, stepped up to them and put one hand on each of their shoulders. “Savenkov, congratulations,” she said. “And you too, Tolbanova. You can be very proud today.”
“Thank you,” they said in a chorus. Nadya dropped her eyes.
“You will both make fine officers,” she said with a nod to each of them.
Borya ran a hand through his hair, pressing it flat, and gave her a little bow. “Thank you so much for everything you’ve done for all of us this year,” he said in perfectly flowing English. “I look forward to serving the motherland in whatever way I can.”
Nadya swallowed. The switch to English made it clear exactly how Borya hoped to serve, but saying it to an English instructor made it sound generous rather than presumptuous. It was perfectly executed and perfectly infuriating.
Vera Ivanovna gave him a little smile. “Yes, I have no doubt you will,” she said in the same language. Nadya pressed her lips together and turned away from them.
The last weeks at the School flew by in a blur. The cadets who hadn’t passed their exams with a high enough score to graduate said their dejected goodbyes, leaving their bunks unslept in and the lecture halls echoingly empty. But it was those final weeks when the most interesting lectures took place, and a week from the graduation banquet, they finally had their one and only lecture on the illegals.
Nadya knew the illegals only as the heroes of books and films: famous figures who had secretly worked alongside Hitler during the Great Patriotic War, their stories told and retold like fairy tales. Anything closer to home consisted of bare shreds of information whispered over breakfast in the mess, and never in front of the instructors. Rumors had been swirling since Nadya had first arrived at the School that Dmitriy Olegovich himself had been through training to serve as an illegal in America, but he never said anything about it to the cadets, and none of the other instructors ever addressed it, either.
On the day of the lecture, Nadya arrived at the hall early enough to claim a front-row seat. In the first indication that this was no ordinary lecture, Timoshev and two other senior officers filed in shortly after, taking chairs that had been reserved for them off to the side. Dmitriy Olegovich's exam disguise had been traded in for his usual look: a gray suit, dark hair clipped short. The overhead light was trained on him like a spotlight, setting him apart from the rest of the room at least as well as the lectern he was standing behind. He couldn't have been any older than his late twenties, making him the youngest of all of their instructors by at least a decade.
The lecture dealt mostly with distant history—the beginnings of the International Department of the Cheka, the foreign communist parties that had supported it—but it was still more concrete facts about the illegals than they’d heard in all their months of study, and Nadya filled three whole pages of her notebook with furiously scribbled notes.
“Are you able to take questions from the cadets, Dmitriy Olegovich?” Timoshev asked after he was finished.
Dmitriy Olegovich put one hand on the edge of the lectern and leaned in a bit. “I’ll do my best, Captain,” he said with a dip of his head.
Nadya raised her hand.
“Tolbanova,” Timoshev said, acknowledging her with a nod.
A hard edge of rage elbowed her in the throat—she hated the way her name sounded with that man’s voice folded around it. She swallowed it down and looked past him to Dmitriy Olegovich. “So would you say that it was the imperialists who originally set the program in motion to begin with?”
Dmitry Olegovich shook his head. “How do you mean?”
Nadya slid to the edge of her seat. “You said that the original use of illegals to gather intelligence began because the imperialists closed their embassies.”
“That’s right. It seems to have been the only form of intelligence we engaged in for some time after the Great Socialist Revolution.”
“But if they had recognized our government and the embassies had remained open, we would have been able to continue with other forms of intelligence gathering. There would have been no need to send illegal agents into the field.”
A smile flickered across Dmitry Olegovich’s lips. “Not necessarily—I mean, who knows what intelligence techniques they had before the Cheka. There aren’t many records from that time. But yes, I suppose that’s possible. It was a long time before the embassies were reopened.”
Nadya continued. “So couldn’t you argue that the imperialists have been the architects of their own ultimate downfall?”
He cocked his head at her. “I admit I’ve never thought of it that way. But sure, you could make that case.”
A surge of warmth spread through her chest, and she ducked her head down, careful not to appear too pleased with herself. She stole a glance at Borya out of the corner of her eye. He was watching her from the other end of the room, frowning. He looked back at Dmitriy Olegovich and raised his hand.
“Yes,” Timoshev said, pointing at one of the cadets in the middle of the room.
“Sir, I think you must know that we’ve all been wondering about something,” he said slowly.
There was a catch in the other cadet’s voice. Nadya turned around to face him.
“Yes?” Dmitriy Olegovich said, raising his eyebrows.
His hands were clenched around the edges of his desk. “People have been saying that you were trained as an illegal yourself,” he pushed out in a rush.
There was a gasp from the other side of the room. Every rustling of papers, every shuffling of feet ground to a sudden halt, and a silence stretched through the hall. Nadya turned around again to face the front.
There was a tension in the air, and all eyes were on Timoshev. He looked at Dmitriy Olegovich and gave him a quick little nod.
Dmitriy Olegovich’s eyes scanned the entire room. He knew perfectly well that this wasn’t one cadet’s question; he was responding to all of them. “That’s true," he said.
Nadya suppressed a shiver as the room exploded into a buzz of whispers. Several dozen new hands shot up.
“Where did you serve?” one of the other cadets in the front row said, not even waiting to be called on.
Dmitriy Olegovich shook his head. “I haven’t been given a long-term assignment abroad yet.”
“Don’t you want to go?” another cadet blurted.
“Of course,” he said with a smile. “You don’t go through the training if you’re not willing to go. But right now, the motherland needs me right here, training future KGB officers.”
“Have you ever had a cover?” the same cadet continued.
Dmitriy Olegovich hesitated for a moment. “I—have," he said. "Just not in a long-term assignment, not yet.”
“What can you tell us about the training?” another voice called out.
His eyes slid over to Timoshev. “It’s—it takes a long time—”
“How long? They say that it—”
“Dmitriy Olegovich can take one more question,” Timoshev said, standing.
The hands in the air began waving.
“Savenkov,” he said, pointing at Borya.
Borya stood and turned so that he was facing both the room and the stage at the same time. “As you can see, sir, we all have more questions for you than we have time to ask today. But in light of what you’ve just told us, I just think we all need to stop and acknowledge what a privilege it’s been to be taught by you.”
He paused for dramatic effect, and a few low murmurs spread through the room. A couple of the cadets rolled their eyes, but there were plenty of nods. Nadya folded her arms and glared at him.
“Now that we know that you’ve been through illegals training, I really think we need to take the time to think about everything you’ve taught us and look at it in another light,” Borya added.
Dmitriy Olegovich pressed his mouth into a hard line. “No,” he said firmly, holding up a hand. “Thank you, but—okay, this is important.”
Dmitriy Olegovich stepped out from behind the lectern. The muttering stopped.
He gestured at them with open palms. “Every one of you here today is going to have a career within the KGB. You can all be proud of that. There are all kinds of paths to follow after you leave the School, though, and it’s important that you not think of any one of them as more noble than the rest.”
Nadya pinched her mouth into a frown. Some of the cadets would end up pushing papers from behind a desk. Nobody really thought that was equivalent to infiltrating governments and running agents.
“Every one of you is needed, but different people are needed to do different things. Some of those things might involve the romantic notions we all tend to have when we think about a career in the intelligence service, but many of them won’t. Some of them don’t even involve going abroad. That doesn’t make them any less important.”
Nadya traced her finger along the edge of her notebook. She was being arrogant. Her mother was a secretary—even paper-pushers had a role to play. But somehow, this seemed different.
“The illegals do a crucial job," Dmitriy Olegovich said. "They absolutely do. But every job in the service is crucial. I’d like to encourage you all to keep that in mind when you’re given your assignments later this week.”
Timoshev stepped behind the lectern. “Let’s all thank Dmitriy Olegovich for his time,” he said, and there was a quick burst of applause. Then a dozen simultaneous conversations began at once, sending the room humming with an undercurrent of energy. Nadya bent down and slipped her notebook into her bag. Dmitriy Olegovich wasn’t pushing papers, but this couldn’t have been the life he’d expected, either. It took real commitment to be still so devoted after going through years of training, only to end up here.
“I’m going to be thinking about that question of yours all evening,” came a voice from just in front of her, deep but still gentle.
Nadya sat up with a start. Dmitriy Olegovich was right there, her eyes level with his belt buckle. A fluttery feeling rose up from her stomach. “Oh?” she managed, lifting her chin.
He sat down on the edge of the desk next to hers. “I’ve never thought about it from that perspective. I guess because more conventional intelligence gathering did resume once the embassies reopened, and of course that’s the bulk of the work we still do today.” He reached up to rub the back of his neck in a slow, easy gesture. “But you’re right—as far as anyone knows, we didn't start training illegals until they closed. And we never stopped. Different leaders came and went, different institutional structures, but the program still exists.”
“That's just what I was thinking," Nadya said with a nod. "I think we have to wonder whether we would have ever started the program at all, if they hadn’t shut down the embassies.”
“Exactly.” His eyes flashed. “And I don’t know the answer. It makes me wonder about all of the things that might have been different if that series of diplomatic decisions had gone another way right from the beginning. We might never have obtained that tool for winning this war.”
Then he smiled. Not the curious half-smile he’d given her from behind the lectern, but a wide, welcoming one. Nadya returned it, glancing at Borya out of the corner of her eye. He was hovering in the doorway that led into the hall. He glared at her.
“Thank you for making me think,” Dmitry Olegovich said with a nod, and stood.
A warm feeling glowed along the surface of Nadya’s skin. “Thank you for your lecture.”
“Have a good evening.”
She followed him with her eyes as he walked up the steps to the top of the lecture hall, the other cadets clinging to his side like simpering children. He gave them a modest smile and what sounded like a few murmured words of encouragement, but continued on. They were acting like he was a leading man in some Hollywood film, but he didn’t need their admiration. He was above it. No, he was beyond it.
She’d known another Dmitriy once, Dima Mironov from back in the Komsomol. He’d never been anything but Dima, though, even to the organizers. The full form of the name suited this Dmitriy better. She turned it over on her tongue. Dmitriy.
If she’d been with Dmitriy that night, he would have never left her behind. Timoshev could have told him outright to leave, and he would have still found some excuse to stay.
Nadya craned her neck. Borya had Dmitriy cornered now. He was gesturing in the air in front of him, his skinny arms poking out of his too-small sweater. Nadya straightened her spine and turned around again, grabbed the leather strap of her bag, and stood.
If she’d been with Borya that night, he would have sauntered out smirking. Then afterward, he would have met her outside the room with a triumphant grin: Plus one to me.
The last few days sputtered to a close, and then finally the day came when the cadets were summoned to Colonel Markov’s office for their post-graduation assignments. The first few appointments were scheduled for the morning, and Nadya searched those cadets' faces in the mess at lunchtime for any hint of a reaction. They kept their expressions neutral, though, their heads bowed over their bowls, not daring to look even at each other.
Nadya knew better than to ask any questions. Each meeting with the Colonel was private for a dozen reasons that they as cadets could of course only begin to imagine. They had each been instructed not to mention to anyone else where their next assignments would take them, and none of them dared push that boundary. Just a few days and they wouldn’t be cadets anymore, they would be junior KGB intelligence officers. They weren’t about to breach the confidentiality of the first big secret they’d been instructed to keep to themselves.
In the afternoon it was finally Nadya’s turn, and she navigated her way to the administrative wing propelled by a shiver of anticipation. She sat down outside the Colonel’s office. When the cadet with the appointment before her emerged from the office—a slight, quiet boy with brown hair—they exchanged a long look. The color had drained from his cheeks, but his eyes were bright with excitement. He gave her a little smile of encouragement.
Then the door opened again, and the Colonel’s secretary gestured for her to go inside. One of the overhead fluorescent lights was flickering like a candle in a drafty room, and through the window behind him Nadya could see fat flakes of snow falling.
“Ah, yes, Tolbanova,” the Colonel said. A row of four medals lined each side of his uniform. He gestured at the wooden chair on the other side of his big heavy desk. “Sit.”
She nodded and sat down. The Colonel returned his attention to the papers that he hadn't stopped shuffling through.
His hairline reminded Nadya a little of the picture of her father her mother kept in her bureau, but Colonel Markov was an old man already, much older than her father had been when he'd died. The skin on his face had given way to the beginnings of loose wrinkles, his bushy dark eyebrows were threaded with gray, and when he smiled, the dim light picked out crow’s feet around his eyes.
He wasn’t smiling now, though. The muscles in her legs twitched with nerves.
Then he met her eyes and held them. “I have to say, we’ve all been very impressed with you.”
Relief swept through her. She’d made it. “Thank you, Colonel.”
“Your marks are excellent across the board, from martial arts to theory. And I see you had a particularly successful practical exam.”
She smiled. She dropped her eyes to her lap.
“It hasn’t always been easy to be one of the only girls in a sea of boys, has it?”
She flinched. Her head jerked up. “I think I’ve managed to hold my own, sir.”
“Oh, you certainly have,” the Colonel said, his head bobbing up and down in a steady nod. “Your performance has been consistently commendable.”
The tension in her shoulders released again. “Thank you.”
“I’m sure you’re eager to find out your assignment.”
“Of course,” she said, and a rush of recklessness swept through her. This was it. Directorate S. Illegals pre-training.
He folded his hands against the desk in front of him. “Next week you are to report to KGB headquarters in central Moscow. When you arrive there, you will be met by a local agent who will take you to your new post in Directorate K.”
Directorate K—that was counterintelligence, supporting operations abroad. All the moisture in Nadya’s mouth evaporated. She opened it, but all that came out was a rush of breath.
“In the first six months of your new position, you will be a trainee officer. Your training will take place right at Lubyanka. Then, if you perform well, you will be promoted and sent to serve in the field.”
Nausea chewed on her stomach. Not five months ago she’d sat here in this very office, and the Colonel had revealed that Department Three of Directorate S had taken notice of her. He’d said carefully that no one could make her any promises, but he’d smiled at her, and he'd been so proud that one of his own had attracted such attention. Nadya had committed right there to winning them over, and since then she’d been the perfect cadet.
“You look surprised,” the Colonel said, raising an eyebrow.
“I thought—didn't you—”
The Colonel's expression didn’t budge, but the hints of warmth she'd seen in his face were gone. “Yes?”
She swallowed back her nerves and pressed on. “Wasn’t there another assignment I was being considered for?”
He leaned toward her, his forearms flat against the desk. “Directorate K means serving overseas, Tolbanova. Do you have a problem with that? Are you saying that you'd prefer to stick closer to home?”
Nadya's spine stiffened against the chair back, and she snapped her mouth shut. The Colonel's jaw was set, and his message couldn't have been clearer. There was no room to maneuver here.
This was Timoshev's doing. It had to have been.
There was a sudden burst of adrenaline in her chest, then an explosion of rage obliterated it. She could have been an illegal, working side-by-side with a partner with the same ideals and the same goals, taking on the assignments the Rezidentura couldn’t risk. Now she was going to be spying on their own agents, policing them for any slips, and reporting back. The KGB's official turncoat.
Timoshev had convinced the other instructors to place her in an assignment that would get her into the field and out of the way quickly, and one that was sought-after enough that she couldn’t complain outright. But it was still one that was going to make her utterly miserable.
“Now, we know that you’ve taken a particular interest in serving in the United States, but I note your marks are high in German as well. I trust you’d be willing to take an alternate assignment in the Federal Republic if that’s where it turns out you’re needed?”
She gave him a stiff little nod.
“Good. I’ll let your future supervisors know.” The Colonel shoved his chair back, sending it squealing along the floor. “Do you have any other questions?”
A long silence stretched between them. She ground her teeth together.
His eyebrows arched. “Tolbanova?”
“No, sir,” she snapped.
“Good.” He tilted his head toward the doorway. “Please leave the door open when you go.”
She stood, keeping her eyes fixed to him, but he wasn’t even looking at her anymore. She turned around and bolted through the doorway, only to find another cadet sitting in the chair where she’d been sitting just moments ago. He gave her the same searching look she'd given the cadet before her, and Nadya felt her eyes start to burn. She held her head up as she walked past him.
Out in the hallway, she glanced over her shoulder to make sure she was alone, then spread both hands flat against the concrete wall. She kicked it as hard as she could, then again, then again, until the tears gathering behind her eyelids were from the pain in her foot and not from anything else.
Back at the barracks later that afternoon, Nadya unearthed her father’s old suitcase from the storage room and started folding some of her lighter summer clothes into it, but the mushroom cloud of anger in her brain grew and spread, leaving her reeling. The small cadre of girls who bunked with her chattered on about the upcoming graduation banquet, but Nadya didn't join in their conversation.
That evening at the banquet, the vodka and beer started flowing before they even sat down to dinner. The categorical ban on alcohol at the School was usually enforced with a threat of expulsion, but tonight even the Colonel was looking the other way. It loosened everyone’s tongues, and the hum of voices grew and spread through the mess as if someone had grabbed a knob and turned up the volume. Overhead, the usual bright lights had been covered over with blue cloth, transforming the familiar mess hall into something much more sophisticated.
Each table was set for eight, wide soup bowls stacked on dinner plates and four different forks lined up to the left. At the head of each table stood two bottles of wine, one red and one white. Nadya walked over to the edge of the table closest to her, picked one of the bottles up and turned it over in her hand. The label was all in French. She set it back down. She’d never tried French wine, but tonight she wasn’t in the mood.
There was a clink against the table next to her, and she turned toward the sound. Borya shoved a shot glass toward her. “They won’t let us open the wine yet,” Borya said. “But here, have some of this.” He tipped a bottle of vodka against one of the glasses and started pouring. “It’s the good stuff!” he said, wiggling his eyebrows.
“No, thank you,” she mumbled. She looked away. She wasn’t in the mood for Borya, either.
“No vooodka for Naaadya?” he said in English, his imitation of a broad American accent lending the two words the same vowel. “Come on, you haven’t been allowed a drop for a whole year. ”
The English was the first slap, and the big grin on his face was the second. One of them apparently had something to celebrate tonight. “I said no thank you,” she snapped, in Russian, whipping her head around to face him. Her ponytail thrashed against her back.
“Fine, more for me,” he said, continuing in English. He picked up one of the glasses and held it up in the air. “To the future. May our careers in this fine institution be long.” He drank it in one gulp and took a swig of his beer.
Now he was just rubbing it in. She grabbed the second glass and turned it over onto the table, narrowing her eyes at him.
Borya reached down to the table and turned it upright again. “Just a little, in case you change your mind.” He poured a splash of vodka into it. “You look like you might need it.”
Nadya watched him saunter off toward the cluster of instructors standing near the next table. Vera Ivanovna leaned in toward him, and Nadya couldn’t hear what she said, but whatever it was made him grin so wide it looked like his face might split. Then Timoshev stepped up and gave his hand a firm shake.
Nadya’s stomach turned over. That man could have ruined her life once before, but she hadn’t given him the chance. This time, though, he was going to end up succeeding.
Nadya's eyes started to burn. For six months she’d managed to pretend it didn't bother her when they had to breathe the same air, but all of a sudden she couldn't stand to look at him. She whirled around and started for the door, colliding with Dmitriy.
“Whoa!” He held his beer bottle up in the air, containing the worst of the spill. “You can slow down now, Tolbanova. Classes are over.”
“I'm sorry.” Her gaze fell to the floor.
There was a smile in his voice. “You know, this is the second time you’ve tried to plow straight through me. I’m starting to think I should stick to the edges of the room whenever you’re around.”
She looked back up at him, right into his eyes. He knew what had happened with her assignment—he had to. And he wasn’t supposed to tell her why things had gone the way they had, but he would if she asked.
“Dmitriy Olegovich. Can I—can I speak with you for a moment?”
“Of course.” He looked down at her empty hands. “Can I get you a beer first?”
She shook her head. “In private?”
His smile disappeared and he gave her a tight-lipped nod. He followed her into the hallway. The door swung shut behind them, muting the clinking of glasses and the shouts of celebration.
She turned to face him. The anger was vibrating across her skin, gathering in the hinge of her jaw. “Please. I need to know what happened. I need to understand.”
He glanced back at the door, mapping out an escape route with his eyes.
“It was Timoshev, wasn’t it?” She spat the name like a curse word.
He jerked his head toward her. “Tolbanova!”
She swallowed and rocked back on one leg. “I’m sorry.” She sucked in a breath. “I just—I was at the top of the class in economics, coding and cryptography, and surveillance. I’ve done very well at everything else. I passed every one of my exams. Someone must have blocked my assignment, and I can’t think of anyone other than Captain Timoshev who might want to.”
Dmitriy gave her a sour look. “I don’t know what might have given you that idea, but no, it certainly wasn’t the Captain.”
Nadya blinked. “Then who?”
He threw a glance around the hallway. They were alone. He pushed out a sigh. “It was about your English,” he said.
The world tilted, blurring around the edges. “What?”
“That’s all it was.” He held out his hands. “There was no conspiracy.”
The world righted itself again, but now her heart was drumming against her ribs. “But I passed the language exams!”
“For illegals training you need to do more than just pass.”
“What score did I need to get?”
Her hands were shaking. She clutched them into fists. “What score did I—”
“No.” His voice was low, but behind it was a hint of warning.
She ran a hand across her forehead. It was damp with sweat. “Aren’t language skills part of the training, though? Nobody’s perfect at this point in the—”
“Have you already forgotten what I said after my lecture? There are no unimportant jobs in the KGB. You’re going to have a great career in counterintelligence. There’s more to this work than what the illegals do. So much more.”
“Spying on our own people?” Nadya took a step toward him. “Planting bugs in their apartments?”
Dmitriy shook his head. “Maintaining security of foreign intelligence operations, penetrating foreign intelligence agencies by recruiting their members—you’ll do a wonderful job.”
Her last chance was slipping away like water through outstretched fingers. “I don’t mean—” she began. She drew in a breath, forcing calm into her lungs. “I’m not saying Directorate K isn’t important, or that that work isn’t needed, or—anything like that. But half the cadets at the School can do the work of a support officer. Now more than ever, this country needs people who can do the work of a Directorate S illegal.”
The sharp edges of his expression softened. He was wavering.
Nadya regrouped her hopes. “It’s not about the glory, it’s about the work. I know I can do that work. I know I can be good at it.”
He held her gaze for a moment, then let it go. “It’s out of my hands, Nadezhda," he said, his voice gentle on her given name. "It’s not my decision.”
She clutched her arms to her chest. “Please, Dmitriy Olegovich,” she said in English, desperation threading its way through her voice. She was begging, but it was all she had left. “I can learn it. I can learn—anything.”
Dmitriy winced. He looked down at her.
“Please do it for me.”
“All right,” he said with a sigh, continuing in the same language. “I’ll see what I can do.” He held up a hand. “But I can’t make you any promises.”
It was the first time she’d heard his English. It was flawless, like listening to the Americans on their practice reels. She risked a little smile.
He didn’t smile back. “You should ask Savenkov for help,” he said, still in English.
Her eyebrows flew up. “Boris Savenkov?”
“He’s very talented.”
Her eyes narrowed. What was it the Americans said? Over my dead body.
“I mean it. Even if I can get the Colonel to reconsider the decision, you’re going to need help to get the kind of proficiency you’ll need to stay in the program. You’re a very good mimic, and I do think you're talented enough to become proficient if you put the effort in, but you need more practice. A lot more.”
Dmitriy’s accent was even better than Borya’s—he could have passed for Paul Newman’s voice double. If she needed help, she knew who she wanted helping her. “You could—”
“No, I can’t.” His voice was razor-sharp.
Nadya felt heat rise to her cheeks. She shifted her weight and leaned back.
“Think about it,” he said, more softly. “You’ll need to show a hundred percent improvement in just a few months. In grammar, vocabulary, fluency, but especially pronunciation. You need to show them that you have the innate ability to get to perfection with more formal training, because absolute perfection is what it takes. There can’t be any compromise on that. And I—I can’t help you.”
She let his words wash over her. She pressed her lips together and gave him a little nod.
“You should be aware, too—I’m being transferred. As of next month I’ll be working at—another school.” The door behind him swung open, and two of the other cadets wandered into the hallway, their arms draped around each other’s shoulders, singing something unintelligible to the tune of the Farewell Song. Dmitriy shot them a quick glance and then looked back at Nadya. “You’ve done very well, Tolbanova," he said in a low voice. "Please, put this aside and try to enjoy the evening.” He slipped back inside the mess.
Nadya leaned back against the wall, and the muscles in her legs slackened. It hadn’t been Timoshev at all. It had been her own fault: she'd been focusing on the wrong skills all along.
Her rage detonated again, but there was nowhere to aim it but at her own failure. She turned, balled a fist, and slammed it against the concrete wall. A sharp pain shot through her arm from knuckles to elbow, and a muffled sob ripped out of her.
The boys stopped singing and looked back at her, their eyes widening in tandem. One of them coughed, and the other shoved his hands into his pockets. They both skittered away.
Nadya fled back to the barracks once they were out of sight, only to find that the air had grown so cold that frost had seeped around to the insides of the windows. She wrapped her throbbing hand in a wet cloth to keep down the swelling, propped it up on the edge of her pillow, and buried herself under the blankets to keep warm.
She jerked awake whenever one of the other girls wandered in from the banquet, but each time relentless dreams drew her back in, faceless people and blurry shapes always just out of reach of consciousness. In the morning, she woke with sweat-stained sheets and acid in her mouth, but the pain in her hand had faded to a dull ache. She forced herself out of bed, stepping carefully past sleeping, hung-over girls to the shower room.
Later, in the hallway on the way to the mess for lunch, she caught sight of Dmitriy. She gave him a long look, searching his face for any sign that she might have cause to hope, but he turned away from her, his shoulders rigid with tension. With a hollow feeling in her stomach, she escaped to spend the rest of the afternoon in the gym.
She was packing the remaining bits of her life into her father’s suitcase that evening in the barracks when an unfamiliar voice said her name. “Nadezhda Tolbanova?”
Nadya looked up in confusion. A blonde woman, older, dressed for work—Nadya knew her, but she couldn’t place her. All of the other girls' conversations ground to a standstill, and a dozen pairs of eyes were suddenly pinned to the two of them.
The woman smoothed her skirt with a fidgety hand. “The Colonel would like to see you.”
Awareness came in a jolt of recognition: this was the Colonel’s secretary. Dmitriy had talked to the Colonel, and now the Colonel wanted to talk to her.
“Right now?” She looked down at herself: gray exercise clothes, the white running shoes that her mother had stood in line for eight hours to buy before Nadya had left home for the School.
“Please,” the woman said with a tight nod.
The other girls all looked away, and one of them gave an uncomfortable little cough. Nadya grabbed an elastic from her bunk, pulling her hair into a quick ponytail as she followed the Colonel’s secretary out the door and down the hall.
They arrowed their way up two flights of stairs, the Colonel’s secretary leading with a shoulder and Nadya three steps behind, her heart hammering her ribcage. He was either going to tell her he'd changed his mind or reprimand her for daring to question his decision.
When they reached the office, the secretary opened the door for Nadya and pulled it shut again behind her.
The Colonel gestured at the chair. “Sit.”
Nadya hovered just past the doorway. She tried to meet his eyes, but her gaze refused to stick and edged away. Her clothes made her look like a permanent cadet, not a potential Directorate S illegal. “I’m sorry about—" She gestured at herself, chest to waist and back again. "I didn’t have time to—”
“Just sit,” he said again, his tone neither disapproving nor welcoming.
She stepped over to the chair and sat down on the edge of it, her back rigid. Through the window behind the Colonel, the sky was a foreboding gray. She sucked in a breath and held it.
His eyes locked on hers. “You have been granted four months to bring up your mark on the English proficiency exams sufficiently to be admitted to pre-training to become a Directorate S illegal.”
Relief, oh, relief. She released her breath. “Thank you, Colonel.”
He arched one bushy eyebrow at her. “You will travel to Moscow tomorrow along with the newest group of Directorate S recruits, but you will not join them in their sessions. There will be a bed for you to sleep in at night, access to learning materials, and sufficient time for you to study and practice.”
She nodded. Her heart began to slow to its normal pace.
“In four months’ time, you will retake your foreign language exams.”
“I’m happy to do that,” she blurted.
The Colonel held up a finger. “If you pass with a sufficiently high score, you will be admitted as a latecomer.” He leaned in toward her across the desk. “Do you understand what that means?”
Whatever it meant, she would do it. “I think so, sir.”
“It means that you will be four months behind the others. It means that even if you do pass, you will have to spend your own time catching up to them before your individual training begins only two months later. Do I make myself clear?”
“Yes, Colonel.” A flash of excitement burst inside of her, and she wanted to leap to her feet. She grabbed on to the arms of the chair. “Thank you.”
There was a knock at the door. “Yes, come in,” said the Colonel.
Nadya turned toward it as it squeaked open, and then Borya slid into the room, all angles and elbows in his own casual clothes. Her eyes widened. He walked over to stand next to the Colonel’s desk, a united front.
The Colonel acknowledged him with a tilt of his head and turned back to Nadya. “To give you a better chance at success, Savenkov has agreed to tutor you in English alongside his own schedule.”
Borya gave him a solemn nod, but then he turned toward Nadya. As his eyes met hers, a grin spread across his face, like he couldn’t control himself.
“As it turns out, he will also be heading to Moscow, and he will be living at the same place.” The Colonel gestured in the air between the two of them. “It will work out well for both of you.”
“I’m very happy to be of service in any way I can,” Borya said, dipping his head, struggling to tame his grin.
A hot wave of shame slapped Nadya in the face, crowding out her relief. The conversation they’d had just before the banquet had probably already let Borya know that she’d failed, but now he knew why.
“Savenkov, you are not to tell anyone you meet in Moscow what Tolbanova's role is there. If she passes with a sufficiently high score, all will become clear when she comes to join you in your sessions in April. If she does not, she will simply be transferred to another post. There will be no need to discuss her with any of the other recruits.” He turned to Nadya. “The same goes for you, Tolbanova. If anyone asks what you are doing there, you can tell them the truth: that you are there to work on a project of your own in the library.”
“Yes, sir,” they said in chorus.
“And Tolbanova, you will want to thank Savenkov,” the Colonel said, his voice sleek and patronizing. “He wasn’t required to volunteer his time.”
“Thank you,” Nadya mumbled, her eyes dropping to her lap. Her shoulders fell.
“No problem,” Borya said in English.
The Colonel stood, squaring his shoulders. He held out a hand for Borya to shake. “I trust you two will make your own arrangements?”
“Of course.” Borya grasped the Colonel’s hand in his and gave it one firm squeeze. “You can count on me, sir.”
“I’m glad to hear that.” He reached a hand across the desk toward Nadya. “Good luck to you, Tolbanova.”
She stood, shook the Colonel's hand with a quick nod, and followed Borya back out into the outer office. The Colonel’s secretary gave them both a quick glance, then let her gaze skitter back down to the papers on her desk.
Borya turned to face Nadya, his grin narrowing to a sneer. He traced a plus sign and a number one in the air between them, mouthing the words at her.
A surge of anger coursed through Nadya’s body. Everything she’d swallowed in the past six months was pooling in her stomach like toxic waste. She tore her gaze away from Borya and stalked back out into the hallway.
The next morning, Nadya dragged her suitcase onto the train for Moscow. The compartment reeked of sweat and fresh mushrooms, but she claimed a seat between a bearded man with his head buried in an issue of Pravda and a young woman with a baby on her lap. Staring out the window so as not to have to make conversation, she watched the changing landscapes of factories, concrete blocks of apartments, rows of tiny dachas, until finally the rhythm of the train lulled her into her first dreamless sleep in months. The muscles in her shoulders loosened with each consecutive stop that took her further away from Gryazi, and by the time the train pulled into Moscow’s Paveletsky Station eleven hours later, it was as if the shadow in her chest had finally faded. She stepped onto the platform, suitcase in hand, filled with a sudden burst of energy. This wasn’t how she’d wanted to start the program, but she was here, and she was going to do this right.
The School's name had been nondescript, but the new place had no name at all. It was on the eastern edge of the city, far away from the KGB headquarters at Lubyanka. It looked so much like an ordinary block of apartments from the outside that it took Nadya more than an hour of searching to find it. She had her own bed in a room shared with a girl from Leningrad who seemed almost as curious about Nadya's special status as she was wary of it, but their conversation never progressed beyond introductions. On the ground floor of the building, in the interior, was a set of rooms with no windows: a canteen, a small gymnasium, a library full of English-language books and films, and a common area. During the day, the others disappeared to the training wing just to the left of the entryway, leaving Nadya alone.
On the third day, Borya came to find her in the library. His hair had been cut short enough that his curls were smoothed straight, but his arms still poked out of his sweater like scarecrow sticks, and he still had the same infuriating grin. He placed a hand on the edge of her booth, leaned in, and asked her in a low voice if she wanted to get started. Nadya shrugged and agreed that they could meet in the common area in the evening after the library was locked.
That evening, Nadya took a seat on the couch just outside the canteen and flicked on the table lamp next to it. A sour, peppery smell floated around the corner from inside of it, punctuated by the occasional clank of metal on metal from the kitchen in the back. Two workers in black uniforms wandered through with trays of glasses and set them on the table just inside the canteen door.
Borya emerged from the stairwell and made a beeline for Nadya. He plunked a brown leather school bag on the table next to her. “Am I late? Sorry, it was a little hard to get away.”
“It’s all right,” she said. She'd known he was going to be in Moscow too, but it was still so strange to see him here, as if someone had conjured up something entirely out of place: a bear, maybe, or a swimming pool. “You know, you don’t really have to help if you don’t want to. It’s not like I can go complain to Colonel Markov from here.”
“I don’t mind,” he said with a shake of his head. “But we should make sure to speak English to each other whenever we can,” he said, switching languages. He sat down on the couch and unbuckled his bag, pulling out a black notebook.
“Okay,” Nadya said, moving over next to him.
He chewed on his lower lip, thinking. “We could start with some vocabulary if you want. What’s this?” His hand hovered over his bag.
“It’s a bag. A school bag,” Nadya said.
“And this?” He set a hand on the couch between them.
“Or a couch. More American. And these?” He pulled a packet of cigarettes out of the bag, took one, and tilted the package at her.
“Cigarettes.” She arched an eyebrow at him. The packaging was bright green and definitely foreign. “They are yours?”
“Yeah,” he said with a little smile. A flick of his lighter and two of them were lit. He held one of them out for her. “And that room in there?” He pointed at the canteen.
Nadya took the cigarette from him and shook her head. That wasn’t a word she’d learned.
“The Americans call that a cafeteria.” He tilted his head toward her and took a puff. “I guess that would be one more point to me if we were still doing that.” His grin was strangely absent. “Are we still doing that?”
Nadya shrugged. By now he was so far ahead that she had no chance of catching up anyway.
“We should stop,” he said, his voice clipped, like he was making a formal announcement. “It’s really a cadet's sort of thing, isn’t it?”
She took a drag on her cigarette and leaned against the couch, looking for the trap in his words. “What do you mean?”
“Just that we should stop keeping score. It’s a child’s game.”
She narrowed her eyes at him. He was after something.
“Okay?” He stood, disappeared briefly inside the canteen, emerging with two small wine glasses and a bottle of beer. “Let’s drink to it.”
He set the glasses on the table in front of them. “Those are definitely not yours,” Nadya said, an edge in her voice.
“It’s okay,” he said. “Vitya—do you know Vitya?”
Nadya shook her head. She didn’t know anybody.
“He’s one of the—” He waved a hand in the air and tapped the ash from his cigarette into the pocket of his bag. “Anyway. He’s a guy I know here. He picked one up about an hour ago. The workers came through, looked straight at him and his friend drinking it and said nothing.” He set the beer bottle on the edge of the table and popped off the cap. “What do you think? Let’s make a toast to this, American-style.”
Nadya pointed an eyebrow at him. “Americans drink beer from wine glasses?”
“Oh, Nadya, you have no imagination.” He poured the beer into the glasses, first hers, then his. He picked his glass up, swirled it, and sniffed it. “I think this one’s a Chardonnay,” he said, grinning.
She picked up her glass. He wasn’t half as funny as he thought he was.
He held his up. “To no more scorekeeping.”
She clinked her glass against his and took a quick drink, but she gave him another wary once-over. Why was he doing this? They’d both left the School behind, so it wasn’t as if sucking up to Colonel Markov was going to get him anywhere. What was in this for him, just a lingering feeling of superiority?
Borya took a puff on his cigarette and let the smoke out in a sigh. “Why are you always so serious?”
Nadya’s eyebrows flattened. “It is you who are never serious.”
“I can be serious, Nadya. You don’t know me very well yet.”
She rolled her eyes. She knew him well enough.
“You never even smile. I think the only time I’ve ever seen you smile was right after our practical exam.”
The scene unfurled into the front of her mind: the frantic rise in his voice as he’d pursued her out the door of the shack, the instructors’ applause as she’d ascended the stairs. The corners of her mouth turned up.
“That’s the one.” He pointed at her with his cigarette, echoing her expression. She pressed her mouth back into a line, and a whisper of disappointment scooted across Borya’s face.
He leaned back against the couch. “Tell me what happened that day.”
Nadya’s suspicions rose again, a twinge along the back of her neck. She folded her arms. “You know what happened that day.”
“I know, but—just—tell me the story. In English.”
She searched his face. There was no taunting there. He didn’t seem to be baiting her. “We had to take an exam,” she said cautiously, leaning over to his bag and ashing her cigarette into the pocket. “There was surveillance.”
“Good. Go on.” He gestured in the air in front of him.
“And the surveillance was—tough.” She put the cigarette to her mouth and inhaled.
He was nodding. “Tough, sure, go on.”
“And we met in a—" Nadya blew out a smoky breath and racked her brain for a suitable word. "—in a little house.”
He grinned. “I don’t know the word for ‘storage shack’, either,” he said in Russian. He exhaled, releasing his own plume of smoke into the air.
The corners of her mouth turned up in an echo of his own expression. “And then you lost vigilance—"
Borya smirked at her.
That wasn't how you said that in English, then. Nadya bit her lip, suddenly flustered. "—and I—I won you.” No, that didn't sound right, either.
A flood of laughter spilled out of his mouth. “That was a terrible sentence,” he said in English.
Nadya's defenses slammed back into place. Her throat tightened.
He threw himself against the arm of the couch, a fresh stream of giggles pouring out of him. “And then you lost vigilance, and I won you,” he said, in a parody of her accent.
She jerked away, scooting all the way over to the other end of the couch. She glared at him.
“Look.” He opened his notebook and passed his cigarette to his left hand, taking up a pen with his right. He scribbled something into the notebook. “You’ve got to stop trying to translate everything directly,” he said, shoving it toward her along the couch, pointing at the sentence she’d said. “‘You lost vigilance.’ Those are English words, but it’s a Russian sentence. Americans would say ‘you let your guard down.’” He jotted those words onto the next line.
Heat flew to her cheeks, and she felt herself wither a little, a fresh slump in her shoulders. The ash on the end of her cigarette fell to the ground.
“And you can’t say ‘I won you’ at all. That means that I was your prize.” Another giggle erupted out of him.
She wrapped her arms around her legs, clutching them to her chest.
“Americans would say ‘I beat you’ or just ‘I won’.” He tilted his head and gave her a goofy grin. “Although I guess you did win me too, because I’m here with you now.”
“I didn’t ask for any kind of prize,” she said in Russian, sitting up straight again and pinching her cigarette tight between two fingers. “And I certainly never asked for you.”
His grin wilted. He closed the notebook and jerked it away.
Nadya turned her head away from him. She wanted to stand up, stalk out, go straight to her room and not come out again until morning, but it was clear that she needed this. She needed him.
Which meant four more months of this, with her ultimate fate in Borya’s hands. Somehow he’d managed to grab hold of the ground underneath her, and now was going to get to give it a little shake whenever he felt like it. She reached around to the underside of the table, ground her half-smoked cigarette out on it, and threw it onto the table. It tumbled over the surface until it hit Borya's school bag.
Borya shoved the notebook into his bag. “We shouldn’t be doing this tonight,” he said in English. There was an icy cut to his voice. “I need to get up early. I have something I have to do in the morning.”
Her hands clenched into fists. He had to know she was dying to find out what they were all doing when the apartment block was quiet and she was alone with her books and her practice reels.
“Something important,” he said, his nostrils flaring. “For my training.”
She met his stare. He was shoving her with his eyes, daring her to ask.
The words sat on her tongue for a long moment. She tried to hold them there, but the compulsion was too strong. “What kind of training are you doing?” she said in Russian, pushing the question out as quickly as she could.
There was a spark in his eyes. He scooted toward her along the couch. “Say it in English,” he said in English.
“What training do you do?” Nadya said, careful to use the helping verb.
“What kind of—”
“What kind of training do you do?” she amended.
“What kind of training are you doing?” he corrected, moving just a little bit closer.
“What kind of training are you doing?”
He faced her, craning his neck toward her like he was going to whisper it in her ear. Her heart sped up. She leaned in.
“You know I can’t tell you anything about that,” he whispered.
There it was again, that shake of the ground. She jerked away and slumped into a sulk.
A silence stretched between them, so long and so stubborn that the faint noises from the kitchen reached their ears again: a splash of water, the jangling of forks against china, the low murmurs of a conversation. One of the canteen workers wandered through and flicked off the overhead lights, reducing the light in the room to the yellow glow from the table lamp. Then Borya slid his gaze over to meet hers, and his expression softened. He cleared his throat and took a quick puff of his cigarette. “It’s not really so important, what we’re doing right now,” he said.
Nadya injected all of the ice she could manage into her stare. She wasn’t going to ask again.
Borya shrugged. He did a quick check of the room, then leaned in toward her, keeping his voice low. “Remember the first few weeks at the School in Gryazi, when everything we did was just lip service to Khrushchev and the Party? It’s a little like that here too.”
There was a prick of electricity on the back of Nadya’s neck. That was—she had to have misunderstood him. “Lip—service?”
Borya’s mouth curled into a smirk. “Empty words. The kind of blah-blah about the motherland that we always have to get through before they finally give us something we can actually use.”
The prick turned into a jolt and shot straight down her spine. She felt her eyes widen.
He cocked his head at her. “Don’t tell me you grew up in this country but I still have to explain the concept of lip service to you?”
The rush of fury was so hot that she forgot to breathe. This betrayer got into pre-training to become an illegal? “You always talk about how much you want to serve the motherland,” she said, struggling to keep her voice level.
Borya let out a long laugh. “Are you really that naive?” He grabbed his glass and took another sip of beer. He stared at her. “You actually are.”
She sat bolt upright. “Why—why are you doing this if you don’t believe in it?” Her voice came out high and thin with outrage.
He shook his head. “I believe in doing interesting work. I believe in being able to support my future family better than my father seems to be able to.” He gestured in the air above his head, a slow circle. “I believe in getting to see the world.”
The excitement. The pay. The perks. That was all this was to him? This most honorable form of service was just another job? A black coil of disgust unfurled in Nadya’s stomach.
For as long as she’d known Borya, he’d always had the most perfectly phrased statement of commitment and the purest Marxist analysis on the tip of his tongue for every suitable occasion. But it was sheer calculation, a reflection of what people wanted from him. He was treating everybody like a source to win over, when they were supposed to be on the same side.
He set his glass down again and pointed a finger at her. “Don’t tell me you don’t think about those things too.”
“I never think about those things,” she said in Russian, her voice all edges. “And I certainly never look my superior officers straight in the eye and tell them lies just because I think it’s what they want to hear.”
He shrugged. “We can’t all be beautiful girls, Nadya,” he said in English. “The rest of us have to make the most of our other gifts.”
She blinked. “What?”
Out of nowhere, he was blushing like a little boy. He cleared his throat and skittered to his feet, pulling his sweater down to his wrist where it had ridden up his arm.
“What did you say?” she repeated.
Borya dipped his head, revealing a few unruly strands of hair on the top of his head where his curls had been. “You understood me the first time,” he said in Russian, his voice a growl. He grabbed his bag and bolted from the room.
Nadya watched him leave, goosebumps spreading across the entire surface of her skin. Maybe she had the tiniest bit of control over him as well.
Over the next few days, Nadya found her rhythm. As soon as the recruits left for the training wing in the morning, she took advantage of their absence by spending an hour in the gym, then went straight to the library. In the mornings she worked on exercises and practice exams, and she devoted the afternoons to working her way through the library’s assortment of American films, playing them back in segments, mouthing the words of the actors until they no longer felt foreign on her tongue. She let the English language sweep through her, breathing it into her lungs and injecting it into her veins. She noticed progress almost immediately, and it gave her hope. If this was going to be a simple matter of discipline, well, Nadya had plenty of that.
Borya didn’t come back to find her again, so Nadya took to seeking him out in the evenings after the library closed—not to approach him, just to observe him and watch his reactions. The results were interesting. One evening at dinner their eyes met from across the canteen, and when she gave him a long look he was suddenly all thumbs, spilling his drink all over the table while his face turned the color of the flag. Another time she stared at him as he headed into the gym with two other boys, and when he caught sight of her he nearly tripped over his towel. He really did think she was beautiful, so beautiful that she could send him reeling just by looking at him in a certain way.
The very idea hit Nadya like a splash of sour milk in the back of her throat—ughughugh—but really, it was something she could use. Dmitriy had been right about Borya being the clear answer to the parts of this that she couldn’t do on her own. And if he was going to treat everyone else like a source, then she was going to treat him like one too.
By Saturday evening Nadya knew what to do to test her theory, and she waited for Borya outside the gym after dinner. She wore a sweater over the white leotard she’d almost left at home and never used in Gryazi, but now she was glad to have it with her. Just fifteen minutes later, Borya arrived alone in baggy pants and a blue exercise jacket. A ratty brown towel was draped over his arm.
She sidled up to him as soon as she saw him come out of the stairwell. “Hi,” she said, giving him her best smile and standing just a step too close.
“Hi!” he said, his eyes widening. He started playing with his zipper. Zip-unzip. Zip-unzip.
Nadya stifled a smirk. Now she was the one shaking his ground. “What are you doing right now?”
His eyes bounced over to the gym door. “I’m supposed to go to the gym.”
She pulled the sweater over her head and draped it over her shoulder. “I’ll come with you. We can practice while we exercise.”
His eyes dropped to her chest and traced an outline down to her waist. Now his ears were red too. His infuriating self-assurance was gone, just like that.
She tilted her head toward the door. “Come on.” She pushed it open. He didn’t answer, but he followed her.
The air in the small room was thick with the smells of sweat and machine grease, and fluorescent lights glared down at them from the ceiling. There were two other boys in the other end of the room using the freeweights in the corner, and Borya gave them a little wave, but he was still looking in her direction. Nadya threw her sweater on the table in the corner and wriggled out of her pants. He stared at her.
“So what do you do when you come to the gym?” Nadya said, switching to English.
“Um.” Borya crossed his arms, then uncrossed them. One of the other boys gave him a curious look from across the room, and he scrunched one of his hands into a fist around the bottom edge of his jacket. “Sometimes I use the weights,” he said finally.
Nadya gave him a cool, skeptical look. He was as skinny as ever. “I think not so often,” she said, injecting just enough meanness into her voice. Shake-shake.
Now his cheeks were practically purple. “But usually I just ride on one of the bikes.”
“We can ride on the bikes,” she said with a toss of her head. She grabbed one of them and used it for balance while she grasped her ankle from behind and stretched the muscles in her right leg.
A quick glance over her shoulder—he was just standing there again, still staring. Nadya suppressed a roll of her eyes. Boys got so stupid when they were distracted, as if the sight of a pretty girl could make their brains trickle out their ears.
“Are you coming?” She pointed an eyebrow at him.
He moved toward the bike as if in slow motion, still looking at her. He unzipped his jacket, pulled it off, and let it drop to the ground.
Nadya climbed onto hers and started pedaling. “You can focus on two things in the same time?” she said, giving him a long look.
He blinked, giving his head a little shake. The clouds in his eyes lifted a little. “Was that a question? If it is, the verb has to be first.”
“Can you focus—”
“—on two things at the same time,” he corrected. The blush drained away from his face, and he set the dial on the timer on the shelf for ten minutes. It started ticking. “And yes. I can.”
“Good,” she said with a little smile. The two guys on the other side of the room gave Borya a little wave and left them alone.
Borya climbed onto the bike and started to pedal. “Do you want to start with vocabulary again?”
“No,” Nadya insisted, tucking a stray strand of hair behind her ear as she pedaled. “Today we will work on pronunciation.”
His eyebrows arched. “Maybe I can say a sentence and you can repeat it?”
“Try that one.”
“Which—oh.” She reached into the sentence, feeling the rhythm in his words, careful to slur the hard consonants and make her voice turn up at the end. “Maybe I can say a sentence and you can repeat it?”
“Nice.” Borya nodded. “I’m here to work on my English.”
“Say it again.” Nadya pedaled faster, closing her eyes.
“I’m here to work on my English,” he repeated.
“I’m here to work on my English.”
“Don’t emphasize the ‘to’,” he corrected. “Heretawork.”
“I’m heretawork on my English,” she tried again.
“Yes! Very American.”
She opened her eyes. She smiled, letting her gaze travel over to meet his. “Another one.”
“If I work hard enough, someday the motherland might let me see the Statue of Liberty.”
Nadya stopped pedaling. She sucked in her cheeks.
Borya grinned. “Was that one too complicated? Do you need me to say it again?”
She faced forward and started pedaling again, her mouth setting in a grimace. She had to stop letting him get a rise out of her.
“You know, you sound better when you’re repeating,” he said. “Much better.”
She looked pointedly away and let her lack of response stretch between them. He was right, though—she could tell that herself. Dmitriy had said the same thing, that she was a good mimic. A thread of hope weaved its way through her.
“You need to sound more like that when you’re making your own sentences.” Borya chewed on his lip, pedaling a bit more slowly now, then gave her a sideways glance. “So maybe—maybe I can give you a word, and then you can make a sentence out of it? And then we can work on it?”
Nadya gave him a quick nod. “Okay.”
“The man in the corner is wearing a hat,” she said immediately.
Borya shook his head. There were tiny beads of sweat along his forehead as he pedaled, and he was breathing faster now. “The maaan—”
Nadya closed her eyes again. “The maaan—”
“—is wearing a haaaat.”
“—is wearing a haaaat,” she mimicked.
“Good! Hear the difference? Okay, now corner.” He made the 'r's sound dark and almost vowel-like.
“The man in the—in the corner—is wearing a hat.”
“Again,” he urged.
“The man in the corner is wearing a hat,” she said, slurring all of the words together. Her eyes flew open. It was a ridiculous sentence, but it certainly sounded American. She looked over at him.
He stopped pedaling and turned toward her. “That’s it!” His smile was wide, like it might engulf his entire face.
Nadya smirked at him, letting her gaze travel down to his feet. “You said that you can focus on two things at the same time.”
Borya started pedaling again, his already red face suddenly a shade darker. “You said that you could focus—”
“You said that you could focus on two things at the same time,” Nadya repeated, cutting off his correction.
“Now try a harder one,” he said, still pedaling. His eyes slid over to her. “Democracy.”
She stopped pedaling. She glared at him.
He grinned again and kept going. “Can’t you focus on two things at the same time?”
She started up again, doubling her speed.
“I guess that must mean you can’t think of a sentence.” His gaze collided with hers. “How about this one, then: ‘They say the United States is the world’s greatest democracy.’”
She could report him for this kind of thing. He had to know that. She sped up again, feeling the sweat beading along her neck, dripping down her back.
“Cat got your tongue?” He was shouting now, struggling to be heard over the whirring and squealing of her bike, but she could still hear the sing-songy mocking in his voice.
She stood, bearing down on the bike, her breaths shallow in her throat. He could get away with saying anything to her, anything at all. If she did report him, no one would have any reason to trust that what she was saying was true. She was nothing but the background noise of this place. The rest of them all looked straight through her like she was a window.
“That’s English for ‘did you swallow’—”
“I understood you,” she snarled, panting. She stuck out her lower lip and blew the stray hairs out of her face.
His timer emitted a quick ding, and he stopped pedaling. He turned toward her. Nadya slowed to a stop, the whirring sound dying with a clatter. And then, for a long time, there were no sounds at all.
She climbed off her bike and slid over to stand in front of him, grabbing onto his gaze and locking down on it. He tried to look away, but his eyes kept bouncing back like ping-pong balls across one of those wide green tables.
His Adam’s apple bobbed up and down. “I should—we should stop,” he said between little staccato breaths. “I have—other things tonight. Other responsibilities.”
He didn’t move.
Nadya stood on her toes and leaned across his bike, and instantly his eyes were at her chest, pinned to the spot right between her breasts. She held the pose for a long moment, then turned the dial on his timer to half an hour. It started ticking again.
She stepped over to her own bike and climbed back onto it. She started pedaling and met his eyes again. “Give me another one.”
As the months fled by, Nadya continued to fill her days with English vocabulary lists, practice sentences in her notebook, translations of political texts. The characters from American books and films intruded into her dreams, but that meant she was dreaming in English, which of course meant that she was getting practice even while she was unconscious.
Speaking practice was more difficult. She used the practice reels, but it quickly became impossible to deny how essential it was to have Borya there for instant feedback. Almost every evening she came to find him, and almost every evening he followed her back to the common room. He didn’t always need coaxing, but when he did, Nadya was ready with a tight sweater or an encouraging look.
As February bled into March, she caught a glimpse of a familiar dark-haired, square-jawed figure from across the canteen. He was dressed more casually than he’d been at the School, but it was definitely Dmitriy—of course this was where they’d been transferring him to, it only made sense! Nadya felt a sudden warmth in her chest, and she started walking over to him, but he just gave her a quick nod and turned away. It felt like he was scolding her, and her delight shriveled away like dried leaves. But later Borya mentioned that he had asked about her, and she felt a burst of pride: he did think about her sometimes.
Then one day, he was right there, standing next to her table in the library. “Hello, Tolbanova.”
Nadya shot immediately to her feet, a finger in her book to mark her place, a sudden warmth playing on her face. “Dmitriy Olegovich.”
“Oh, don’t get up,” he said in English, holding up a hand. He grabbed a chair from one of the other tables and set it down on the other side of hers, across from her. “We’re not at the School now.”
English. He was testing her progress. Nadya’s heart sped up, but she sat down on the edge of her chair again. “It’s good to see you,” she said, running the words together the way she'd been practicing.
Dmitriy raised an eyebrow. “It’s good to see you too.” He sat down. “Interesting choice of reading material,” he said, pointing at her copy of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. “What do you think of it?”
Nadya held his gaze for a long moment. Was this part of the test? “It’s an interesting story,” she said finally.
He nodded. “It is.”
She smirked. “There’s a lot of religion in it.”
“Is there?” Dmitriy’s forehead creased. “I admit I don’t remember that part, but it’s been a while.”
“They’re always going to church. And there’s a lot of praying.”
Dmitriy shook his head. “I’m impressed that you’re understanding it so well. It’s not an easy book.”
“It passes the time,” she said, trying out the idiom.
Dmitriy tossed his head back, and a laugh poured out of him that felt like the sun on Nadya’s face. She’d impressed him. She smiled back.
She slid her bookmark into the book and set it aside. “So you’re an instructor here now.”
He hesitated for a split second. “I’m a—yes. For a little while, anyway. How about you, are your studies going well?”
“I think so.” She tilted her head at him. “Do you think so?”
He smiled again. “I do think so, as a matter of fact. Do you know your schedule for your repeat exams?”
“They will take place next Thursday and Friday.”
“And Savenkov has been helping you prepare?”
Nadya frowned. “He has.”
“It’s good that he was able to do that.”
She gave him a stiff nod. She didn’t want to talk about Borya.
“So.” Dmitriy folded his arms, looking her over. “Do you feel ready?”
She still had three translations to work her way through, and she wanted to make sure she had the text of Roosevelt’s war speech completely memorized, but she’d have most of next week to do that. “I will be ready," she said.
“I’m very glad to hear that.” He unfolded his arms again and spread his hands flat on the table. “What you’re managing to pull off in such a short time is very impressive, Tolbanova. I hope you know how proud you can be of that.”
She felt a little glow of pleasure at the compliment, but he wasn’t smiling, and the word ‘but’ hovered in the air between them. She waited.
“I just want to make sure you realize that there’s still no guarantee that you will make it into the program. No one can promise you that—”
“I never asked for a promise,” she blurted, leaning in toward him. “Just a chance.”
“—by which I mean that I can’t promise you that.” He held a hand up in the air between them. “Do you understand what I’m saying?”
Nadya leaned back again. She nodded.
“No one can pull any strings for you here.”
She wasn’t going to need that. She was making sure of it. “I understand.”
“Those decisions are made at a very high level, and we all have to respect them. I do, and you do too.”
“Of course.” She relaxed a little against the seat. “But I will pass.”
A little smile flashed across his mouth, then disappeared. “You also need to be aware that even if you do make it into the program, there’s no automatic progression from there. After the first six months of group work, each trainee’s work is different. It’s all individual, for years. Anyone can be removed at any time, for any reason.”
She let his words wash over her. It was more information than anyone else had given her. “Okay.”
“Only a small percentage of the recruits who begin training successfully finish, and not all of those individuals eventually go on to be sent into the field.” His eyes were surprisingly fierce.
Dmitriy had been through all of those years of training himself, and now he was here, training more recruits. Just one step up from the School. He was so smart and so talented, and still they hadn’t given him a long-term assignment. She nodded.
“I just want you to be aware of all of the hurdles that are left.”
“Thank you,” Nadya said. “I appreciate that.”
“You’re an impressive young officer, Tolbanova. Even if this doesn’t turn out the way you hope it will, that will still be the case.”
“Thank you.” She folded her hands against the table and leaned in toward him. “But I will succeed, Dmitriy Olegovich.”
“You really don’t think there’s any possible alternative for you.” His face was a mask she couldn’t read.
She wasn’t going to lie to him. “I really don’t.”
“And I’m not going to be able to convince you that there are other careers where you could serve equally well.” He dipped his chin down and peered over at her. “Am I?”
Nadya dropped her eyes to the table. Back at the School, he’d been so insistent that there were other paths, that they were all equal. But she hadn’t been able to make herself believe it then, and she certainly didn’t believe it now. She slid her gaze up to meet his. “I’m very sorry, I don't mean any disrespect. But no, you’re not. Because I don’t think that.”
His eyes locked on hers and held them, and then his lips were curling around a word: good. He didn’t voice it, didn’t even whisper it, and the two consonants were barely audible pops. His neutral expression never changed.
Nadya blinked, suddenly unsure whether he’d actually said it. She searched his expression for the word, but it was gone.
He stood, holding out a hand for her to shake. “Good luck to you, Tolbanova. I’m sure I’ll be seeing you again before too long.”
His handshake was firm, almost a squeeze. He gave her a nod and headed out into the hall.
She saw Dmitriy in the canteen twice more after that, but respected his distance and didn’t approach him. Their conversation was a constant pressure at the back of her mind over the week that followed, though, encouraging her as she worked and forcing her on task whenever she flagged. Her remaining study time was quickly consumed with tiny accomplishments: translate this text before lunchtime, an hour after that to go over the practice reels one more time.
In the evenings, she and Borya left grammar and vocabulary aside to work exclusively on pronunciation, building sentences, running through texts and repeating lines to each other from the library’s American films: The Day the Earth Stood Still, The Wild One. At one point Borya’s ‘Johnny’ got a bit overeager and grabbed onto the hand of her 'Kathie', and Nadya wanted to jerk it away, but she managed to force her mouth into a mysterious little smile before carefully withdrawing. Throughout, Borya was quick with corrections, which only made Nadya bear down and concentrate harder until finally hardly any more came.
Then, the night before Nadya’s first set of exams, he didn’t show up at all. She worked on her own until the library closed, then spent a little while pacing around in the common area. Finally, she went to look for him. She searched the canteen and the gym and spent a long time staring at the door to the training wing that forked off from the entry hall, but then she spotted the weaselly red-haired boy who was always with Borya in a coat and quickly followed him outside.
The courtyard in front of the building was still covered with an ankle's depth of half-melted snow, but the sky was leaden, threatening a fresh batch by morning. The red-haired boy broke into a sprint and ran across the muddy walkway to catch up with Borya and two others. It was cold for April, and Nadya clutched her arms to her chest for warmth.
“Hey, Borya,” she called out after them. If she’d known they were going outside, she would have grabbed her own coat, but it was too late now.
As if in one single movement, they all turned around. A smile spread across Borya’s face, echoed by a smirk on the faces of all three of the others, one by one. “Hi!” Borya called out, his voice bright.
“Oh, look, it’s your…friend,” the redhead said with a sneer. The other boys laughed, elbowing each other in the ribs like Marlon Brando's motorcycle gang.
Nadya glared at them. The boys had been watching the same American films Nadya had been working with, but it wasn’t just the accents they'd been learning to mimic.
One of the boys punched Borya in the arm, and Borya’s smile broadened into that familiar grin. “Just a second,” he said over his shoulder as he walked over to Nadya. “What’s going on?” he asked, rubbing his bare hands together.
A gust of wind sent goosebumps across Nadya's skin, and she shivered, running her fingers up and down her arms. “Do you have any time tonight?”
He let his gaze skip back over to the others. The redhead’s eyebrows inched up so far that they seemed to disappear into his hair. “I—no,” Borya said abruptly, not looking at her.
Nadya blinked. “What?”
Borya’s forehead creased as she met his eyes again. “I’m sorry," he said.
She felt a pinch of surprise. He had never turned her down, not once. She steeled herself, leaned forward, and forced disappointment onto her face. “Oh,” she said. She looked up into his eyes.
The crease in his forehead deepened. “We’re supposed to—there’s an—a thing tonight. Over in—” He let out a quick little sigh. “I guess I can’t actually tell you about that.”
Nadya leaned in toward him, keeping her voice low. “My exams start tomorrow.”
Borya shook his head. “I really can’t.”
A match lit her nerve endings. “It’s the last time,” she said, letting her lip quiver a little. “The very last time—I promise.”
Borya glanced over his shoulder again, then turned back to Nadya, his mouth tight. “Everybody’s expecting me to be there. There are things I have to—” He clenched his hands into fists, and he shifted his weight from one leg to the other.
Nadya swallowed. She needed his feedback this evening. Every vowel, every intonational phrase in the speech had to be as perfect as she could manage. She had to be so good that they would do more than just begrudgingly admit her and then watch her carefully for however long it took to train her. She had to be so good that they would be convinced beyond any trace of a doubt that the decision to give her this chance had been the right one.
She sucked in a long breath, steeling herself. Then she reached across to Borya, placing a hand on his elbow. “Please?”
Borya looked down at her hand. A blush crept across his face. Nadya slid her hand up to his shoulder and stepped a little closer, forcing an inviting smile. The blush spread to his ears.
He half-turned toward the other boys again. The redhead put his hands on his hips through his coat and shot Borya a caustic look. One of the others gestured for Borya to hurry up. “Come on, it’s getting cold.”
Borya’s gaze slid briefly down to Nadya, then over to them. “Hey, guys? I’ve got something I’ve got to do,” he said finally.
The redhead tipped his head back, rolling his eyes. “Oh, come on.”
“It’s important,” Borya insisted, stalking toward them. He held up a hand in protest. “And it’s not what you’re thinking, okay? Can you—maybe they won’t even—” He leaned in toward them, and then Nadya couldn’t make out what he was saying.
The redhead looked over at her, then back at Borya, his face stuck between annoyance and something much more inappropriate. “She must be some—” he began, just loud enough for her to hear. They all laughed again.
Nadya erased her smile and hunched down into her sweater. Another gust of wind tugged a strand loose from her ponytail, and she reached up to tighten it. She went over to stand by the door, folding her arms against her chest.
Borya followed her. “I’ll catch up with you later,” he shot back over his shoulder, his voice light. There was a collective fit of laughter from the other end of the walkway, and Borya lowered his eyes to the ground with a little smile. He seemed embarrassed, but a little bit pleased with himself too.
Nadya felt a zap of irritation. She opened the door for Borya. “I need to work on the speech I have to recite,” she said in English as she followed him inside.
“Which one is it?” His eyebrows arched slightly.
“The war speech by President Roosevelt.”
"Right, I know that one," he said, nodding. He pulled his coat off and draped it over his arm.
She sucked in a breath and led the way back toward the common area. “This is not a fireside chat on war,” she began, reciting. “It is a talk on national security.”
Though they worked until bedtime, when the written exam began promptly at eight o’clock the next morning, Nadya was still unsure whether it would be enough for the kinds of tasks they were likely to throw at her. She sat pushed up against a table in the library, composing and translating texts until her fingers cramped. Then on Friday morning she was back again for the oral component: first the repetition, then her memorized speech, and finally some spontaneous conversation. The examiner was a middle-aged, uniformed man with perfect American English who didn’t introduce himself and never once let on what he thought of her performance. Nadya’s heart never entirely stopped racing, but she kept her hands steady against the desk, her shoulders steeled and her best imitation of an American accent strong and clear.
Friday evening and Saturday morning slid by without a word. Then, finally, one of the recruits came to find her in her room on Saturday afternoon: she was to report to the third-floor office of a Colonel Lebedev she'd never met, never even heard of. Nadya raced up the stairs, arriving out of breath and red-faced, twisting her hands together with nerves. The Colonel turned out to be a jowly man who smiled at her, took her hand to shake, and finally, welcomed her to the program.
For hours after that the excitement poured over Nadya in waves, and she couldn’t sit still for more than five minutes—she had to find Dmitriy and tell him. She went to wait for him just outside the training wing where the others spent their days, watching as each of the recruits came out, looked at her once, and quickly looked away. No one ever went inside. Then, as evening stretched on and she’d waited for what felt like hours, no one else came out, either.
Finally she gathered her courage, cracked the door open, and peeked inside. The sun had long since set, and the lights were all off inside the wing, making it hard to see. She swallowed. No one had ever told her she couldn’t go in there, not explicitly. And if it had really been off-limits, there would have been a guard.
Her stomach knotted as she opened the door all the way—she wasn't expected down there until Monday. But a tingle of curiosity was gathering along the back of her neck, and she ventured inside.
The walls were an ordinary gray concrete, and off to each side there was a series of wooden doors, all closed. The only glow came from a full moon outside the window at the other end of the hall. A smaller corridor stretched off to one side, and she followed it, squinting as the light dimmed further. One of the doors off to one side was open, and she peered into the room. Right here, this was the sort of room where she’d be spending her days for the next two months. A brash excitement hummed in her chest.
She jumped, her heart banging around inside her ribs, and spun around.
Two boys stood between her and the main hallway, both backlit from the single window there, but there was enough light that she could still make them out: Borya, and the weaselly red-haired guy from Wednesday night. They were both dressed for something athletic: the redhead in what looked like someone else's stretched-out wrestling singlet, and Borya in the track suit he sometimes wore to the gym.
Borya did a quick room check, then looked back at her. “What are you doing down here?” he said in a loud whisper. His exercise shoes made no noise as he took a step toward her.
Nadya felt reprimanded. All of her muscles tensed at once. “I was looking for—” She set her jaw and gave them a stony stare. They didn’t have to know what she was doing here.
The friend snickered. “For Borya, I bet,” he said, nudging Borya in the ribs with an elbow. Borya dipped his head, but he was smiling.
Nadya’s mouth pinched. “Not him.”
The redhead held a finger up in the air, waving it around. “That’s okay, I can see what’s going on here. You two enjoy yourselves,” he said, his voice turning up at the edges, all syrupy-sweet.
“I told you it's not actually like that,” Borya called after him, but it sounded shallow, like he didn’t really mean it.
The redhead's answering laugh was a taunt, like he was goading Borya on. Nadya felt a disgusted, embarrassed grimace spread across her entire face. Borya’s friends really thought she would—no.
Borya turned back to Nadya, grinning and bouncing on the balls of his feet. His expression drained away as their eyes met, taking his excess energy with it, and his shoulders hunched a little. “You know, he just likes…joking around.” He folded his arms tight against his chest for a moment, then let them drop to his sides. “They all do.”
Dmitriy wasn’t here, but she did have to tell Borya at some point too. “I have some news,” she said cautiously.
“Yeah?” He arched his eyebrows.
“About my exams. I passed them.”
“I thought that might be it.” He beamed at her, his voice round with approval. “That’s great. Your English is so much better now, I thought you probably would.”
Nadya let herself smile—even Borya thought she was good enough!—but she lowered her gaze. “I have a lot of catching up to do from the past four months.”
“It’s not so much.” He shrugged. “You’ll pick it right up.”
“It will be good to get started on the other subjects. I’ve done nothing but work on English for so long.”
“When are you supposed to start joining us?”
“They said Monday.”
“It’ll be—good to see you there.” Borya clutched the fabric at the bottom of his jacket with a fist. “I mean—it just seems like you should be there.” He was looking everywhere but at her—the walls, the floor. “I’ve actually always thought that,” he said quietly.
She frowned. She would have never been able to do it without him. She couldn’t give him the satisfaction of saying that outright, but she should still say—something.
Her gaze crept away from him, but she forced it up again. She swallowed. “I really appreciate everything you did for me,” she said finally, in English. “You were such a big help.”
His eyes stopped bouncing around and landed squarely on her. His Adam’s apple bobbed up and down. “Are you saying you want to thank me?” he said, continuing in English. He stepped toward her.
“Because—” His hands trembled a little in the space between them, and then they were on her hips. “—I think we might have both been, you know."
The breath poured out of her. Her throat tightened, like she was trying to breathe through a straw.
“I’ve really been wanting to do this,” he said, bending down. Nadya opened her mouth just enough for a shuddery gasp, and then he was kissing it, wet and slimy and horrible. “Oh, Nadyusha," he said, rubbing his forehead against her cheek.
“Don’t.” She tried to sound forceful, but it came out in a whisper. She turned her head away, but then he inched down to kiss her neck. “Stop!” she managed to squeak out.
Then her back was up against the wall and he was muttering ohyouohyouohyou in her ear and there was a lick of bile in her throat and his hot breath on her collarbone and his fingers in her hair and then he was standing closetooclose with an arm snaking around her and then pulling her toward him and then she was really going to throw up no really right now and then she was yelling, yelling, first sounds then words that became ISAIDSTOP in English and her fist slammed into his jaw.
His head snapped back like it was on a spring. There was an explosion of pain in Nadya’s hand. Borya collapsed, his face planted in the floor, his left arm twisted underneath him. He let out a grunt.
He propped himself up by his elbow and turned onto his back. The right side of his face looked like a lump of raspberry pudding, and his jaw was angled off to one side, like he was trying to talk out of the corner of his mouth. He raised a hand to his chin and rubbed it. He held his fingers up, out of the shadow.
Then they both saw it: blood. Nadya shivered.
Borya’s eyes collided with hers. They flew open wide, flashing white in the dim light, and he shrank back like he was made of elastic. Nadya blinked. He was scared.
He was scared of her.
A bolt of lightning shot through Nadya's veins, sending fire into her arms and straight through to her fingertips. She narrowed her eyes at Borya, and then he was pulling himself along the ground, skittering away from her like a crab, scrambling to his feet, taking off down the hall.
His legs were longer, but Nadya was still faster, and she caught up to him just outside of the training wing, right inside the front door. She grabbed him by his collar and pummelled him, sending a new line of blood streaming out of his nose. She hit him for his contemptible attitude toward the motherland, and again for each time he’d snickered at her English, and again for every lie that had ever come out of his mouth, until sticky dark blood spattered onto the walls and the floor. Then she lost count.
Nadya spent Sunday out of sight, her bloody clothes stashed under her bed in her school bag and her trembling hidden under a sweater, waiting for the knock at her door.
Then, by that evening, the whispers had begun: first overheard in the shower room, then passed directly to her across the sink by her roommate. Four men had jumped Borya outside their building, demanding that he tell them what was going on inside it. He’d managed to get away from them and make his way in, but they’d followed him inside and beaten him so badly that he’d ended up in the hospital. He hadn’t given up a thing, but he was going to be out of commission for a while, and he might not be back at all. Uniformed men had spent all afternoon coming in and out of the building, and the whole entryway had been cordoned off while they carried out their investigation, but the perpetrators were nowhere to be found. Nadya put her hand on the mirror, tracing her fingers along the outline of her reflection. The strength of four men!
On Monday morning, the first thing Nadya noticed on her way to her first training session was the new security: one guard just inside the front door, another stationed just outside the door to the training wing. Then her gaze fell to the floor: a worker woman on her knees, a rag in her right hand and a bucket at her side, scrubbing.
She watched the scene unfold for a long moment, but then she made herself look away, stitching the last threads of regret from Saturday night into that hidden place in the back of her mind. Someday the stakes would be high enough that she'd have to do the things with a source that he'd wanted to do with her—just not yet, not here, not with that little worm of a boy-man. She flexed her hand. There was still a shooting pain when she wiggled her fingers, but with time it would heal.
The door creaks open, but Elizabeth doesn’t turn over. Then the bed dips, and the springs let out a little squeak.
The breath leaks out of her. It may have been a ridiculous luxury, but this arrangement was still easier when the room and the bed were just hers. But the crib and the tiny dresser arrived the other day, and then a man came to pick up Philip’s bed, and now—just like that—his old room is going to be a nursery. It’s how the Americans do things. A whole extra room just for a child.
“Are you awake?” Philip asks, his voice just a shade above a whisper.
Elizabeth opens her eyes and lets the breath travel in and out of her lungs once, twice. Her back is throbbing again, but she doesn't shift position. “Yeah.”
The rain on the roof fills the long flatline of silence with a hum of static. She clutches an arm to her chest.
“You know it’s just because I worry, right?”
It’s the closest she’s going to get to an apology. She swallows.
“Not—not just about you. About the baby, too.”
She closes her eyes again. The rain is suddenly a little louder, with a persistent gust of wind behind it.
Then there’s a hand against her lower back, first just his fingers, then a slow and steady pressure. She stiffens automatically, but relaxes a little as he rubs. She’s carrying this thing in the front, but it seems to think it’s going to be climbing its way out the other side.
“How’s the pain?”
“Nothing I can’t handle.” Her own voice sounds far away, like she’s at the bottom of a well.
“We’re almost there. Just a couple more weeks.” Philip inches closer along the bed, his right hand snaking around to her stomach while his left keeps up the pressure on her back. His shirt is off. He’s ready for bed already—she must have actually slept. She clenches her teeth. She hates that he was right.
Philip touches her in his sleep almost every night now, draping an arm across her chest like his subconscious is staking out a claim. She can push it away, but ten minutes later it’s always there again. By now she knows he doesn’t have it in him to be any kind of a threat to her, but somehow she still needs to remind herself that she’s hardly helpless. Eight months pregnant, but she still has the strength of four men.
He’s closer now, not pressed against her but hovering, propped up by his elbow, an inch of space between them. He lifts the hair up off of her neck and replaces it with the backs of his fingers. “The work—I mean, I get that you’re worried. But it’s going to be fine. I can handle things for a little while.”
Her eyes fall shut again. She knows what worry feels like—she knows it every second of every day. This is more like sitting in a pot of water as it slowly reaches the boiling point.
Philip lowers himself onto the bed and shifts closer, his head sharing her pillow. “I mean, I’m sure that’s one of the reasons why they send two of us,” he says, sleep tugging on his voice. “If one of us can’t do the job for a while, the other one can pick up the slack.”
She swallows. Slack, like slacker. The word they use for lazy teenagers and workers who don’t do their part.
“And when the baby’s a little older I’ll be able to watch her sometimes, and then you can ease back into things.”
To Philip it’s always been ‘she,’ like he knows something she doesn’t. Elizabeth sucks in her cheeks.
“You know what I keep thinking about?” he mumbles.
“How we’ll look just like—I don’t know, people like the Harrisons. A mother, a father, and a baby in a big house with a garage and a car parked in the driveway.” He’s trying to make it sound funny, but underneath there’s a stretch of fascination, like he’s mesmerized by it.
She pulls her legs toward her chest, but her stomach is in the way.
“It’s like we’ll be a real family, you know?” A dozy smile stretches through his voice, his forehead pressing against the back of her neck. “A real American family.”
Elizabeth’s shoulders stiffen, and then inside her it’s moving, reacting, like it’s letting out a silent scream of nononononono right along with her. That’s not a family, it’s a façade.
She could have gotten a prescription—lots of American women are taking birth control pills these days. She could have even gotten rid of it—it isn’t legal in this backwards country, but there are places where you can get it done. She could have chalked it up to trouble conceiving and the Center would have never been the wiser. Instead, when they asked for a child, she gave them one: obediently, unquestioningly. She's become livestock: bred for the quality of her flesh.
She buries her face in the pillow. These are traitorous thoughts. They spent what probably amounted to hundreds of thousands of American dollars training her. She swore an oath to do this job as long as she’s needed, and she’s only been in the field for three years. Rudolf Abel, Iskhak Akhmerov, some of them did this work for ten, twenty. More.
It sounds like a death sentence.
Philip is breathing the long breaths of sleep now, hot against her back. She grabs his arm and relocates it to the other side of her, disentangling herself, and he turns over onto his other side in response. It’s the Center that wanted them together, and they’re nothing but happy with the match. Colonel Zhukov made it personally, so there’s no way they would approve any alterations to the plan anyway.
She chews on the insides of her cheeks. They wouldn’t because they shouldn’t. Anyone with eyes can see how well she and Philip work together: his spontaneity only complements her meticulous planning, and it took them no longer than a few months to intuitively anticipate each other’s rhythms. Their handlers have always passed on nothing but praise for their effectiveness. She reaches down to her legs and clutches them against her stomach.
Elizabeth sits up and sends her gaze around the room. This is the part they don’t tell you about—how there’s nothing left of the young girl who fought so hard for this job once they’re done painting her with enough coats of pretend. The pretend dresser where she keeps her pretend clothes: shirts and shorts and even underwear in ridiculously garish colors. Pretend photographs staged a few years before they came: herself in pretend Chicago, Philip in pretend small-town Pennsylvania. Her pretend husband asleep next to her on their pretend bed, in their pretend ticky-tacky house, their pretend baby on the way. There’s a lump in her throat, and her cheeks are suddenly damp. She rubs the moisture away with the edge of her hand—she’s crying now, actually crying!
The rain is pounding out a hollow drumbeat on the roof now, and she slides off the edge of the bed and steps over to the dresser. The streetlight outside the window catches on her pretend wedding ring, and an image of Gregory tumbles out of the cobwebs of her subconscious. Beautiful, passionate, honorable Gregory, who grew up in this degenerate place but somehow still managed to come down on the side of right, who doesn’t know and can’t ever know anything about her, but still finds her endlessly fascinating. Who’s shown her everything sex can be beyond work—or worse. A sob gathers in her throat, and she claps a hand over her mouth to stifle it.
A woman she almost doesn't recognize looks out at her from the mirror: messy hair, blotchy red eyes with dark shadows of mascara underneath them. She reaches for her ring with trembling fingers, and it pinches as she twists it off. She slides it into her jewelry box.
She’s weaker than anyone knows.
Elizabeth slips into her shoes and out into the hallway without looking back. The walls are closing in around her, and she rushes into the living room as if propelled by a cannon. She walks over to the front door, opens it, and an overpowering smell of an American rainstorm steals into the room: earthworms and wet concrete and the decay of cut grass. There’s a flood coming from the sky now, pounding against the sidewalk, and the streetscape is blurred and hazy, like she could blink and it would all be washed away.
She’s suddenly queasy, a ripple of illness stretching from her stomach to her throat, and behind it there’s an overpowering feeling of self-loathing. If she does this, she’s no better than they are. This means choosing self over country, romance over duty. She’s holding the doorknob in her hand. She’s holding it.
She squeezes her eyes shut and slips outside, into the rain.