Their first night in America she falls asleep to the traitorous hum of the air conditioning unit, pumping frigid air over their bed. The imaginative part of her that even Gryazi could not beat blames this for her dreams, in which Philip kisses her sweetly and calls her Nadia while in the next room her mother, sweaty with fever, cries out, ignored, for Elizabeth. When she wakes, shuddering, she turns to the body next to her, lying neatly across its side of the bed without a hair brushing her own, and for a moment her heart twists to see that it is not Mama, to remember that it has not been Mama for half a decade now.
Philip mumbles in his sleep as Elizabeth washes her face and crosses to the window. The enormous, gleaming cars are where they were last night, and polite blandness spreads across her face as her mind darts from machine to machine, around their room, and back again. Everything else in the world is right as well, even the man she must work alongside, observe, and pretend to love, whose presence is little stranger here than it was in Russia over the past years of training. They truly could be Smiths or Joneses—they truly could be Jenningses—on their honeymoon.
Nonetheless, at night her mind is still elsewhere, however against regulation it is, jumbling timelines into one mix of tender horror in multiple languages. Before leaving Elizabeth had wondered how soon she would forget Russian, how long it would take for her mind to run up against walls as it had for more than a year learning English. Now, watching her husband stir in a haze of slick coolness, with half-familiar, half-foreign sunlight pouring through the curtains and raising the hair on one arm, she wonders that it does not all come rushing out in one blow, bursting past her lips to the confusion of every person she might pass on the street.
Thankfully, they have taught her well.
He returns with his face speckled with their blood, burning into his skin, having barely had the presence of mind to toss the rock into the river. His veins hum as he deposits the milk bottle onto the table.
Mama looks up from the small range where she boils water. She says nothing as she takes his face in her hands and runs a finger through a spurt of red across his cheek, a silence that continues as she removes the bottle from its bag and examines its graying color.
“Better than before,” she says eventually, turning toward the communal refrigerator. “Thank you, Mishka. Go wash; you’re filthy.” Before Misha can leave she adds, shoulders stiffening, “Did anyone see you?”
He swallows. In truth he has no idea; his head was hot with fear, of the other boys still and of his own hands and the power within them, and what he remembers from his trip home is mostly shattered pieces—sludge along the riverbank, his fingers aching again for that stone as soon as he threw it away, the ankle-deep puddle outside their building.
It’s a whisper, and barely even that. They both cling to it nonetheless in the days to come, as the neighborhood swirls with the news that two boys were found, skulls dented, not far from the store. Misha hears a neighbor speaking to Mama of it the next time he returns with milk, and he stops outside the kitchen to listen further.
“Too messy for them. It must be boys playing rough.”
“And if they want people to think that?” Mama has a taunting bite in her voice that Misha has not heard since Papa died. “Their families are not the strongest in the Party. No boys play that rough. Certainly our boys would never do such a thing.”
“Just boys,” the neighbor repeats, her voice wobbling. “They don’t take boys for their parents’ sins now. Not the little sins, the little boys.”
Mama laughs, a low bark in which Misha imagines both scorn and pride, and as the neighbor pushes past him on her way to her own room he closes his eyes and hears the sucking plunk of the rock falling into the Irtysh.
Her first official act of disobedience is taking Mama to the Lopatinsky Gardens.
“One week, and we will ask for your answer. You must tell no one,” the man, his name as yet unknowable, had said. It was not a necessary warning for Nadezhda, deserter’s daughter, Little Octobrist, Young Pioneer, Komsomolka, eager and clever, ordered by Mama to attend meetings even when doing so meant leaving her alone in a bed of diphtheria. Mama was in all likelihood the reason Nadezhda, buzzing with barely controlled pride, was sitting before him in the first place, in her neatest uniform, ignoring the wet spots in her stockings where her shoes had worn thin. “Not even your mother.”
At that Nadezhda felt her stomach drop and her face twitch. The man stared, watching her struggle, and she breathed in and out until stillness returned. He nodded once before getting to his feet.
Mama, her eyes fixed on the monument to the defenders of the city, her body still and her face expressionless, says much the same after Nadezhda speaks.
“I am no one, Nadezhda. I am not exempt.”
“You are my mother.” A weak excuse—mothers are no more or less important than any other citizens—but one that springs to mind anyway. Mama pulls a hunk of Nadezhda’s hair in retort, sharp but with a gentle brush of fingers against her scalp to ease the pain. “You are a devoted comrade.”
“And for the good of us all, it is best that I know no more.”
Nadezhda hesitates before continuing. “They will take me soon, on my birthday.”
Mama’s face wrinkles for a moment before she turns to face Nadezhda at last, pressing a kiss to her forehead. “And you will serve your country. It is your highest duty and an honor to us both. My good daughter.” Against Nadezhda’s cheek, her fingertips tremble. “You will not fail.”
That night in bed, as Nadezhda lies awake with a thousand pictures of herself, tall and clean and glimmering in service to the people, in her head, Mama wraps a hand around her wrist. In the darkness, under cover of their flatmates’ snoring, she whispers, “Nadia, it will be a fight.”
Nadezhda stiffens and leans gingerly away from her. “Life is a struggle, Mama.”
“It was a fight every moment for me, and I am just the bookkeeper, fighting to be truer than my husband was.” Mama’s voice is uncertain, and Nadezhda’s skin prickles. “A thousand things I said lost into the wind, a hundred pair of hands.” When Nadezhda remains silent, she tightens her grip. “Nadenka?”
“I understand, Mama.” And she does, sort of—there are men even in the Komsomol with quick eyes and quicker hands, playing games both wanted and unwanted, and senior Party men whose eyes slide past her whenever she speaks. But she is chosen this time, plucked from the fits and starts of Smolensk into the fiercest and sleekest machine in the nation, and that will make all the difference. It must.
Paige is three months old when the letter appears in the safe, tucked behind a long blonde wig with less care than Philip would expect of her. He turns the unremarkable envelope twice in his hands, holds it up to the light to see the single thin sheet of paper within, and hesitates before heading upstairs, where Elizabeth is removing her makeup in the en-suite bathroom. Her eyes in the mirror dart straight to the envelope and remain there as he hovers in the doorway.
Elizabeth’s snort—still rare and startling to him when it happens—is quiet.
“Why do you ask questions when you know the answer?”
She does not meet his gaze as she finishes washing her face. Philip watches her, the neat efficiency with which she wields a washcloth, the steadiness with which her hands drape it back over the towel ring. His stomach still flutters, briefly, when he allows himself this.
“It wasn’t well hidden,” he says eventually, extending the envelope. She takes it as she walks past him into the bedroom. “And as we have no correspondents—”
Her shoulders jerk, the faintest movement he nonetheless can detect, before she speaks. “Our parents are dead, Philip.”
“Our parents are dead,” he agrees. Certainly Philip’s and Elizabeth’s are, though he does not know of Misha’s or—or hers. “Or so one hopes.”
Elizabeth looks back at him, and her face is wide and shining with something—fear? love?—he has only seen for brief seconds while she watches a sleeping Paige. “Does one?”
Philip can imagine her reports now (Uncertain as to the extent to which compatriot has outstanding familial connections, written with the same humorless detachment with which she treats all of their mission—their life—together, with the same lack of irony). No matter that she has a private mystery of her own; it’s his rare lack of sentimentality that will be cause for concern, he’s sure, a personality aberration (even if an ideologically correct one) worthy of note. Her mystery comes Center-sanctioned and any complaints about it, he knows, would not be given a second of Zhukov’s time.
“It’s a reward.” In for a penny, in for a pound, he decides, with a flicker of recognition at how even in his thoughts he can finally be thoroughly, correctly idiomatic, when he had struggled for months to learn. “For Paige.” For bearing my child when your body tried for nine months of morning sickness to refuse it. “They let you talk. And you kept it, after?”
“No; I have not read it yet.” Elizabeth responds to the implied breach of protocol first, because she is Elizabeth. Her voice is hoarse; she clears her throat. “I have said and will say nothing; the talk is all her, or what the Center wants from her. And I waited seven years and would gladly wait my entire life more if that is what they asked.”
She leaves him lying on the bed, staring up at the ceiling. He too has not heard even a whisper from outside since the day he was commissioned. And yet if he were offered a letter from Mikhail’s life, Philip would want it to be from Irina, the only face he truly remembers, brighter in Misha’s memories than any from Tobolsk aside from two smashed faces in an alleyway.
He dreams that night nonetheless, locked in an American prison cell while Elizabeth, with his mother’s voice, tells the observing FBI agent in Russian, “Philip has killed for the glory of our nation since the age of ten.”
Her body thrums with energy as she watches Philip put the final bolt in the reattached license plate. At the back of her mouth Elizabeth can still taste the Justice man’s cologne, poured down Molly’s nostrils while she mouthed his neck and palmed him under the table. He’d liked Molly’s directness and had responded in kind, filling her ears with all sorts of nonsense about pumping her full of sperm, ironically echoing Zhukov’s idle remarks earlier that day on the American ideal of a two-child family. (A boy, a perfect match to Paige, would probably be best in America’s eyes. For once she does not want to think about which the Center would prefer, or Philip, or even Mama.)
Philip had his own separate meeting with Zhukov yesterday, and as they enter the house and pay the neighbor’s daughter for watching Paige while they were at a late meeting with a client, he keeps eyeing Elizabeth, unusually direct. Probably Zhukov, with one of his bouts of chivalry that frustrate her, could not bear to remind them of the facts of life in mixed company. Certainly Philip’s own blood is up from examining the Justice official’s car.
She could check on Paige and go to bed, as she has innumerable times before. She could plead a need to brief Gregory, tenuously connected as he is to this mission, and bury herself in his hands and tongue. But Philip is both wary and soft now, his eyes liquid and a spot of hair at the base of his skull still tousled from his wig, and Zhukov does not need to say more than the faintest notion for her to obey. She cups Philip’s shoulder with one hand as she pushes him toward the counter and watches as his pulse jumps in his throat.
“You’re sure?” he whispers as she aligns their waists.
Elizabeth’s reply is to unbuckle his belt. He sucks in a breath and kisses her as she does so, and she does not pull away from the taste of his lips on hers as quickly as she might otherwise. Before she can reach inside his briefs and pull him out, he slides a hand under her skirt and thumbs her underwear.
A jolt goes up into the bottom of Elizabeth’s stomach; she freezes. Philip strokes again, crooking a finger under the elastic, his touch hot against her curls.
“Can I—it feels good?”
Her head tilts slightly as she rests one hand against his hip. Of the many marks she has had, Philip is by far the most conscientious, the only emotional reason she has for allowing him inside her considering how her body and mind together rejected nearly every moment of her pregnancy. (She would regardless, she tells herself, because it is her duty to her people, but anything softer than Gryazi—and that, as Mama promised, is rare—is a small point of satisfaction.)
Philip kisses her again, slides his finger in deeper. She has two spasms in short succession—fear, then pleasure—and widens her stance as he goes to his knees.
For a moment she sees Gregory, his strong hands wrapped around her ankles as he kisses her until she unravels. As Philip looks up at her, smiling, she steps out of her underwear.
His mouth is hotter even than his fingers, his tongue a brand where he kisses one thigh, the other, before transferring to her opening. She braces herself against the counter and sighs, and she feels his smile against her before he presses in harder.
Gregory is lazy and luxurious, full mouth all over her, sloppy, often leaving her gasping for twenty minutes before drawing out her first climax. Philip—because they’re in the kitchen, because of the adrenaline still in his system?—is sharp but oddly tender, little flicks of tongue and the occasional brush of his finger, frenetic and barely contained. Through her narrowing vision she notes that he looks up at her, quick darting glances with no calculation in them, in response to each of her bitten-off gasps.
She comes in five minutes, and the haze does not last, leaving her still tightly coiled, although not unhappy, against the cabinets. Her skin throbs beneath his mouth as he continues to kiss, gradually siphoning off the pressure. Before she can lose her nerve, she reaches down for him, removing his stiffened cock from his pants as he slides, more heavily than usual, to his feet.
She guides him into her, closes her eyes against the intrusion that is, for once, more a satisfying stretch than a violent thrust. Philip kisses her right ear as he moves within her, and after he comes Elizabeth opens her eyes and grips his ass to keep him in place longer, some half-remembered piece of folk wisdom another Komsomolka had told her.
When they separate, Philip’s smile is soft. He strokes her hair as she tucks him back in and massages her shoulders as she slides back into her own underwear, and he even removes his touch altogether before the itchy wariness under her skin has a chance to build again.
“Thank you,” she tells him, resisting a sudden urge to cup his chin. He will not thank her for making this any more awkward than it needs to be. “This was—nice. I will—I think I can do it again, to make sure.”
“To make sure?” Philip is still smiling, though confusion flashes through his eyes.
They were taught much of seduction and contraception, or at least the women were, and for all the things Philip is—sentimental at times, fiery during a capture or kill, gentler with Paige than she herself—he is not stupid, and he does not shirk their family orders.
“It’s a good time, today, I think. This week.” Her cycles are certainly regular enough, and this is nearly dead in the middle of one. “The spacing for a second child is still average, though growing long. And our networks are stable again.”
Philip is too skilled to step away, to let his face do more than twitch. Elizabeth reads his disappointment nonetheless. He doesn’t want more? This is a bad time? But Zhukov—
“I didn’t know they asked. I didn’t know you were—I didn’t realize this was what you wanted tonight.”
She does not misread her superiors; no officer, least of all a female one, does. (Philip himself would not. If Zhukov did not hint to him—only to me, to the girl—) She cannot now read much of anything in Philip’s face, and the unremarkability makes her shiver.
“I am tired,” he says, voice low, turning toward the stairs. “Whenever you are next ready will be...fine.”
Elizabeth, digging the edge of the counter into her palms, listens to the clock tick 164 times before following.
He considers telling her that first morning when he wakes, blissfully cold from the air conditioner. His wife, Elizabeth Jennings, is standing by the room’s window, still in her nightgown, surveying the parking lot. Americans promise to cleave each to the other, in sickness or in health, and by those rights his life is hers. Whatever Misha did, she—Tanya? Masha? Katya?—is no stranger to horrific violence meted out by her own hands. Philip has seen her fight and flirt, and Misha’s mother and girlfriend both were too clever for him to expect anything less than ferocious excellence from an elite female officer of the KGB.
The woman inside Elizabeth is drawn tightly, with the reddest of purpose; she speaks perfect Party in all conversations Philip has ever heard her have, and she looks at General Zhukov with barely restrained wonder. She will give Philip absolutely nothing beyond what is ordered, as is, he knows, only right, and the ghost of Mikhail should stay dead, where he cannot hurt any of them. Let Philip—generous, innocent Philip, prosperous and witty and looking forward to starting a family with his beautiful new wife—live instead.
She ignores him as she dresses and he stretches, his arm falling across her side of the bed, where her body heat lingers. He wants to speak to her of so many things, so many little hopes he cannot help but have, the excitement and the fear. He wants, one day, to call her every stupid thing Misha ever called Irina—zolotse, solnishko, yagodka, a flood of Russian endearments like those Papa rained upon Mama in his earliest memories.
He says, “Good morning, sunshine,” exactly what Philip should tell Elizabeth, and when her head snaps up, wary, hair glinting in the morning light, he cannot hide his smile.