The whole world is looking to you as a force capable of destroying the brigand hordes of German invaders. The enslaved peoples of Europe under the yoke of the German invaders are looking to you as their liberators. A great mission of liberation has fallen to your lot.
Be worthy of this mission! The war you are waging is a war of liberation, a just war. Let the heroic images of our great ancestors inspire you in this war! Let the victorious banner of the great Lenin fly over your heads!
- Joseph Stalin, November 1941
Stefan Rittberger was tall, muscular, with the ash-blond hair and blue eyes of the ideal Aryan man. He was a business owner and an industrialist, supporting the well-oiled German war machine and strengthening the ties of industry amongst the Axis nations. He was an eligible young bachelor, planning to choose his wife and begin a family once the victory of the Reich was assured. He was a proud member of the NSDAP, passionately committed to nationalism and the advance of the German people.
Stefan Rittberger was the mask that Victor Nikiforov wore every day, and neither the Russian nor German language had enough words for how much Victor despised him.
It was January 1942, a bitterly cold and snowy evening, but in the Italian Ambassador's second reception room at the beautiful new embassy building on Hohenzollernstrasse it was perfectly warm. Victor sipped cautiously at his glass of wine, observing the room. It was mostly Italian embassy personnel that night, a smattering of Germans, a few of the Hungarians. Crispino himself wasn't around, but his son was more than making up for his absence, keeping the wine flowing. Quite a lot of it was flowing into his mouth. Heavy drinking was supposed to be unbecoming of the virile, healthy new Italian male, but then fascists were always hypocrites as well as liars.
Victor wished he could stop thinking about Leningrad. Most of what was printed in the German papers was a complete fabrication and a slur on the brave character of the Soviet people, of course, but even with their forces beaten back from Moscow the Nazis were still camped around his home city like filthy wolves, starving its children, despoiling its beauty. He had no doubt that the Germans were doing all they could to destroy the city before they were inevitably driven out.
"You seem very deep in thought, Herr Rittberger."
He blinked, and looked down to his right. "Ah, good evening Signorina Crispino. I was contemplating things much too dull for one of your delightful parties." He smiled at her as charmingly as he could. "How are you?"
The young Italian woman at his side sighed deeply. "Just looking at another night to be spent sobering up my brother. He never drank this much at home."
"Oh, I hope he is not unhappy here in Berlin? You always speak so well of the city yourself."
"He's quite happy, just a degenerate." Sara Crispino could never quite seem to hide the emotion in her voice, which was one of the reasons Victor liked her. The fascists made a terrible waste out of passionate, clever women, and she was much cleverer than most of the men around her seemed to realise. "I think my father is still hoping that the strong morals of you German men will be a good influence on him."
"I am sure the Führer would be delighted to hear that Ambassador Crispino thinks so highly of the German people." Of course he would. Victor had, thankfully, never met the man, but it was obvious what a self-important, bourgeois peacock he was. Sometimes just living in Berlin felt like being crushed under Hitler's gargantuan ego.
"Well if Mickey keeps drinking he might change his mind." Sara gave him a little wink, and then her voice went quieter. "By the way, if you're still interested in Macchi production I may have something for you."
"You are so kind, Signorina." She was both the best and worst kind of informant, slipping bits and pieces to a man she thought was a greedy German industrialist just because she was bored and wanted to prove something to herself. If Victor was another kind of man he'd surely have taken her to bed just to solidify things; in all probability she was still expecting him to one of these days. She would be waiting a long time. He would do many unsavoury things for the Soviet people, for the cause of international socialism, but he thought that they should all be things he could at least be convincing at.
"Stefan, so good to see you!" Victor felt a big hand clasp his shoulder as Elemér Terták came alongside him, nose already red and his breath heavy with wine. "And the lovely lady too." Sara gave him a smile that was only slightly murderous. For as long as Terták had been stationed in Berlin he really ought to have known her name. "It was you who was interested in our Hungarian railway network, wasn't it, Stefan?"
"Oh, certainly." Few subjects could possibly have been as crushingly boring, but indulging the man in his strange hobbies and obsessions had yielded some excellent information in the past. "Perhaps one day I will have the pleasure of travelling on them."
"With a fine young wife, eh?" Terták patted Victor's back and leaned around to leer at Sara.
"I am so sorry, gentlemen, please excuse me," she said, declining to look at Terták but holding Victor's gaze for just a fraction too long before turning and heading for the door. Victor glanced at the clock on the mantlepiece. He'd need to wait a few minutes.
"Ahh, she plays so hard to get," Terták said sadly. "You haven't asked Crispino for her, have you?"
"Oh Elemér, you know I am much too young to be marrying myself off just yet." He turned on another charming smile. "Besides, the Signorina is beautiful but it would be wrong of me not to take a German wife, for the strength of the people."
"Ahh, you party men. All the more for me, eh?" Terták turned to take another glass of wine from a passing waiter; Victor took another small sip from his own. Crispino might be a fascist and a brute but even he would hardly pawn off his daughter to a Hungarian drunk who didn't even know her name.
"Elemér! Stefan! Buonosera!" Michele Crispino staggered as he approached them, grabbing at Terták's shoulder for support and causing them both to wobble. "So good for us all to celebrate in this unholy German weather, eh?"
They shouldn't have much to celebrate, unless the boy was drinking on behalf of his Japanese compatriots across the street, but Victor nodded and raised his glass. He might be trapped in this hellhole but he could at least toast Comrade Stalin and the brave people of Moscow in the privacy of his own head. The Crispino boy was also an excellent distraction for Terták, allowing Victor to slip quietly out of the door that Sara had vanished through earlier.
The hallways of the embassy were no less lavish, lined with thick, textured wallpaper and hung with paintings. The ambassador seemed to be enamoured with a particularly ugly style of art, all lines and hard angles and muddy colours. Some of the pictures might be intended to represent something, but who could even discern what? It was probably best not to dwell too long on the motivations of any artists approved by the PNF.
He followed the corridors where the lamps were lit, eventually stopping outside a room with light spilling out under the door. He knocked once, then twice in quick succession, before pushing it open.
"Signorina Crispino." She was sat imperiously in a high-backed chair behind a desk, leaning forward with her fingers steepled over a manila envelope that lay between her elbows. The light came from the desk lamp, which threw bold shadows over her face. Her dramatic flair was something Victor couldn't help but admire. He stood opposite her and picked up the envelope, letting the papers inside spill out over the desk; maps, manufacturing reports, deployment schedules for a new line of Italian fighter planes and the orders already placed for several by the Luftwaffe.
"It's not much," she said apologetically, "but it seemed interesting." Victor took his microdot camera out of his trouser pocket and began photographing the documents. Sara watched him impassively, until he was about halfway through, when she said, "You're planning to invade us, aren't you?"
Victor took a split second to compose himself before looking up at her. "I beg your pardon, Signorina?"
"Once you beat the Russians. That's what you want this for, isn't it? One day Hitler's going to come over the Alps like Hannibal and besiege Milan just like he has Leningrad, only without this accursed winter in the way."
Victor returned to photographing the papers. "You seem remarkably calm about such a horrible prospect for your great nation."
She laughed, but there wasn't any humour to it. "What's the difference between one fascist and another? At least if we were at war, Papa would be recalled and we would go home. I miss Florence, and Rome too. Berlin is your home, you don't know what it's like."
He thought of gulls calling, the sea wind, long, bright summer nights. "I can't imagine."
"Or maybe the Russians will beat you, and then it will be them at our gates. You know that they let women serve in the Red Army? Papa says it just shows how wicked communism is, that they have truly abandoned God."
"You have many morbid thoughts for such a lovely young woman." He finished the last page and slipped the tiny camera back into his pocket before gathering up the papers and beginning to sort them back into their original order.
"Do you really think me lovely?" Sara leaned forward across the desk again, contemplating Victor now. "You know, I think you were the only man in that room tonight who has never tried to proposition me."
He really didn't want to know if she included her brother in that. "A man can appreciate beauty and still have no wish to possess it," he said. It was probably the most honest thing he'd ever said to her.
"A most diplomatic reply, Herr Rittberger." When Victor handed the envelope back to her, the expression on Sara's face was almost fond.
"I strive to be diplomatic in all things." He winked at her, and she rolled her eyes.
"I am sure you will excuse me for not seeing you out," she said, rising from the chair and switching off the lamp, leaving them both shrouded in gloom. He smiled and nodded as she opened the door.
"Until next time, Signorina."
When he walked out to his car the snow had stopped falling and the moon had emerged from amidst the clouds, strange silver light reflecting off the drifts along the pavements. Victor had known winters colder than this, but none so bitter.
The Landwehr Canal was still completely frozen over. Yuuri's front tire skidded slightly as he turned off the main road onto the path through the Tiergarten that ran along the canal banks, and he shifted in his saddle to stay upright. With his glasses tucked away in his coat pocket the freezing cold air made his eyes water, and he squinted into the distance to watch for anyone coming in the other direction. He felt heartened, at least, that even the Germans were hampered by just how bad this winter was, and that he didn't look too much like a soft foreigner in his heavy coat and with a long wool scarf wrapped around his face. His hands on the handlebars were starting to ache with the cold.
In Hasetsu he had often resented the drawn-out humidity of the summer, how it made you want to do nothing but lie down in the coolest spot in the house and wait for nightfall, but right then he would have given almost anything to be at home, sweating through his jinbei. On the frozen surface of the canal a group of geese paced angrily back and forth, as if they had been personally betrayed somehow by the weather. At least the park looked beautiful in the snow, the branches of hundreds of bare trees delicately outlined in white as if by some artist's brush, criss-crossing each other and reaching into the pale clouds.
It was going to be a quiet day. The Colonel was still on that tour of German armament factories that he had declined to drag Yuuri out on, and the Ambassador would be at one of those lengthy Foreign Office meetings for most of the day. There was plenty of paperwork that Yuuri could catch up on, perhaps enough to extend his hours in the cosy, heated office rather than return home too early to his considerably less cosy rooms. Then again, the last time he had cycled home through the Tiergarten late at night he'd had to swerve to avoid a fox and almost broken his ankle when his bicycle went over in the snow. If he had to die in Berlin, he would rather it not be of exposure in a public park.
The path gave way to a broader street, cobblestones making the whole frame of his bicycle rattle. Yuuri pulled his scarf back up over his nose.
He dismounted after turning the corner onto Hohenzollernstrasse, and bowed politely to Iwamoto-san at the embassy gate as he wheeled his bicycle through. The poor man was wearing enough layers of clothing to appear twice his actual size. Across the street the Italian embassy looked like something out of a story, the soft pink of the plasterwork seeming much brighter than usual under the building's heavy blanket of snow.
Yuuri had thought it would be wonderful, once, to travel the world, to live in beautiful foreign cities, to have sights such as this become his everyday.
The fireplace in the embassy lobby was banked high and giving off a delicious amount of heat, and Yuuri closed his eyes happily as he peeled off his gloves and began to unwind his scarf. In the corridor behind him he heard voices approaching, speaking in German.
"So sorry that you have travelled in this weather for nothing, Herr Rittberger." The Ambassador's second secretary usually reserved that ingratiating tone for superior colleagues.
"No, no, Higuchi-san, today I have learned an important lesson about using my telephone when it snows! Please do pass on my warmest greetings to the Ambassador." And that was a voice he recognised, and really wished that he didn't.
Yuuri opened his eyes just as Higuchi-san emerged into the lobby alongside the tall German man. When Stefan Rittberger's gaze fell on Yuuri it was like a physical touch and he almost flinched at it.
"Ahh, Katsuki-san, you have not been frozen in your bed then." Before Yuuri could bow Rittberger clasped his still-cold hand in a firm handshake, and it would have been unthinkably rude not to look up and meet his eyes. "I trust that Colonel Nakamura is well?"
"Yes, the last we spoke." He worried that if he looked at Rittberger too long, his suspicions would show on his face. There was something about the man that just wasn't quite right, beyond his hair so pale it was practically silver and his manner much more familiar than any other Nazi Yuuri had ever met; something in the way that he looked at Yuuri specifically just a little too long, made his handshakes and touches a little too firm. He had been puzzling over the matter since he had first met Rittberger nearly a year and a half ago.
If it had been 1937 again, a lazy autumn in Oxford and not a freezing winter in Berlin, Yuuri would have been more than a little put out to have not been invited for a late night rendezvous in the man's bedroom by now. And had it been Oxford, and Rittberger some cavalier son of the British upper classes, he probably would have said yes. But although he doubted that the Nazis had been as effective at purging German homosexuals as they claimed, he couldn't imagine why a respected member of the NSDAP would be silently propositioning a Japanese bureaucrat of all possible men, or why he would persist when Yuuri had made every effort not to respond to him.
Perhaps he needed to be more circumspect. There were too many secrets to keep here, and not all of them his own.
"I am afraid I must go to my office now," he said quickly, hoping that both men mistook his flush for a residue of the cold as he pulled his hand back and bowed. "Herr Rittberger, Higuchi-san. Good morning."
The house would have seemed very sparse to a visitor, had Victor ever had any. As it was, it suited him just fine. He had a sitting room with a chair, a bookcase and a writing desk, a bedroom with a bed to sleep in, and the basic accoutrements of a kitchen for the days he didn't take his meals at the restaurant on the street corner. Stefan Rittberger might wear fancy suits and drive a Steyr, but behind closed doors there was no need for Victor Nikiforov to live as if he was any better than the workers of Germany.
He stared at the page of his book, barely registering the words. There was very little edifying reading material to be obtained in Berlin, without taking unnecessary risks to get hold of banned books, but his hopes that poetry would be at least bearable were being thoroughly dashed against the rocks of Agnes Miegel's simpering verses about the glories of birthing German children. At least she didn't seem prone to indulge in the kind of awful Jew-hating most other Nazi-approved German writers were churning out. That disgusting book of Gottfried Benn's had made excellent tinder.
Victor had thought about becoming a poet, as a child- not as a sole occupation, of course, but as another way to uplift the Soviet people. It was like music, or dance, a way to open up everyday things and see the beauty inside of them. Perhaps, once the war was over, he might try to write again. Battles might be glorious, but putting the country back together once the Nazis were driven out would be a long and cruel labour.
He didn't like to let himself think for more than a moment about what would happen if the Nazis were not driven out- about what fate would befall him, almost entirely alone in a hostile city. It was down to him and comrades all over Germany to guarantee victory for socialism.
He sighed and set the book down, finally giving up on Miegel. The next time he visited the bookshop he would have to look for something very old, perhaps some dull novel about being an even duller farmer in former Prussia or something like that, with no talk of blood and fatherlands. He stood up from the chair and, hands in his pockets, walked over to the fireplace. On the mantlepiece was a small, framed photograph, the only truly personal possession he had brought with him. It was a picture of his mother, seated in the front room of their family home in Leningrad, smiling into the camera. The photo was blurry but his memories of that moment were so strong that it didn't matter; he could smell the woodpolish-and-smoke scent of the room, hear the sound of her laughter.
They could still be alive, his mother and father both. He didn't know for certain. Everyone he had known at home, everyone he grew up with, was a fighter, tough and strong and dedicated, from old Pyotr next door, who had lost his hand fighting the Tsarists, right down to tiny, ferocious Yura, who made working at the bakery for his grandfather seem like a military mission.
It was only because of his mother that he could be there at all, that he could make his own stand against the Germans from far behind enemy lines. More than thirty years ago she had left behind a life of wealth and comfort here in Germany to join his father in the socialist struggle. She had brought him up to speak German as well as Russian, in anticipation of a future where the boundaries between their nations would be dissolved. And she had left her affairs here in enough of a tangle that it was not too difficult for someone else to slip into the Rittberger family name and to take up their finances. The first rule of espionage was always that the best lies were mostly true. Victor picked up the photograph, let the light reflect off the glass and obscure it. People always told him he looked just like his mother, with her pale hair and her eyes like the summer sea.
"For you, Mama," he murmured, kissing the glass before setting it down again, slipping his hands back into his pockets and glancing at the desk. He had made a drop earlier in the week, but he hadn't had a face-to-face meeting with Major Feltsman since the end of November, nearly two and a half months ago now. The man lived like the ghost of a vagrant, moving from city to city across Eastern Germany. Perhaps with the weather this poor he could finally persuade the Major to let Victor buy him a hot meal the next time they met.
He sat down at the desk, opened the top drawer that was full of stationery and meaningless correspondence, and slid his hand to the back, pressing his fingers against the right spots in the thin wood veneer to open the second compartment. The letter that he drew out would have looked innocent enough to anyone who committed themselves to breaking into his house, searching his desk, and finding the various secret compartments in it, but Victor was familiar enough with the simple cipher now that the surface text barely registered.
Concerns remain about Japanese neutrality pact. Befriend Oshima.
It was an old order, but one that was still giving him grief. Sara was a great deal of help with any Italian matters, besides Terták's flapping jaw he had plentiful sources among the Hungarians, and the Finns he had started to cultivate last year were shaping up rather well too. But for all the Japanese were polite and eager to please they were uncommonly tight-lipped. He had been trying to befriend Oshima since the man was assigned back to Berlin.
Perhaps he needed a different tactic. The new military attaché, Colonel Nakamura, was much younger and more amiable, and might be pleased to get some German attention of his own in the same way Oshima played lapdog to Hitler. And of course it was Nakamura's handsome young assistant that, every time they met, Victor found entirely too distracting.
Yuuri had been lucky to be able to purchase the radio second-hand. A brand new 'People's Receiver' would not only set him back considerably more of his weekly salary, but none of the models for sale now could access shortwave frequencies, keeping their owners as confined to official government broadcasts as could reasonably be managed. He kept it tuned to German stations most of the time, lest one of his neighbours in the building overhear something, but it was comforting to be able to turn the dials and instantly be transported beyond the country's borders.
Some unknown but clearly wonderful soul at the BBC Overseas Service ran a regular French-language broadcast of jazz music on a Saturday afternoon, and it formed the background noise as Yuuri worked on a letter to his mother. It was always an exercise in the careful excision of information. Anything potentially sensitive would be caught by the censors, of course, although being too loose-lipped would be a black mark against him, but there wasn't much of his own daily life in Berlin that he wanted to share.
He took a long drag on his cigarette and looked down at the paper, his own precise characters.
It seems that there are still many days until the arrival of spring. How have you and father been? Thankfully I am doing well, with the help of my colleagues here. In Berlin there has been a great deal of snow, but I am still able to ride my bicycle to work at the embassy.
Truly his mother would be fascinated by stories about his bicycle. Yuuri sighed and ran a hand through his hair, which was hanging loose and shaggy around his ears. The pomade had mostly washed out and his tin was almost empty. Just another thing to add to his to-do list.
My work is very interesting still, and it is an honour to be able to serve the Emperor overseas even without being in the military.
His mother knew perfectly well that most of the reason he had gone into the foreign service in the first place was to avoid the military.
You must tell me if you would like me to send some photographs of the new parts of Berlin that I have been to, the buildings are very interesting.
She had always loved pictures of Oxford; the weeping willows by Magdalen Bridge, the tall, arched windows, how soft the buttery yellow sandstone looked even in grainy black and white.
Sometimes he felt as if he needed to write another letter in parallel, with everything he couldn't say. I miss you. I hate being here, but I couldn't be at home either. I want the war to be over. I want the war to have never happened in the first place. I don't want to be so alone.
He had been happy enough, as a child. School was strict, and hard work, but he had been good at it. Even when he grew a little older and began to realise that he was not normal, that he felt about other boys the way he was expected to about girls, he had responded by throwing himself into sport alongside his studies to work out his physical frustrations, kendo and running and even ice skating in the winter. He had met Ryuichi-kun through kendo, had discovered that they both wanted to linger after practice and learn other things together in dark corners where no-one else could see.
And then there was Minako-san, his mother's cousin who for most of his life he had known only through the costumed photograph his mother insisted on keeping in the tokonoma and the wild stories that were always told about her. Okukawa Minako who had been the first Japanese woman to dance ballet in Paris. Okukawa Minako who had travelled the world, had lived in New York and in London. Okukawa Minako who didn't marry until she was almost forty years old, and her husband was an Englishman. Okukawa Minako who one day wrote to him directly, as if Yuuri actually registered at all in her glamorous life, and had suggested that if he wished to seek an education abroad, she and her English husband would support him in coming to Oxford.
Maybe a youth spent trading risk for pleasure had primed him for it. He went, and for three beautiful years he almost felt free. He mastered English, learned German and French and a little Italian, bested the sons of dukes and baronets at cricket and even took a few of them to bed. He spent his long holidays lodging with Minako-san and Professor Celestine, who alternated between doting on his wife, cursing someone called Fermat, and creating complex number puzzles for them all to argue about over dinner.
And then he had graduated, returned home, passed the civil service exams, and when he set foot in Europe again it was in Berlin and the whole continent was at war.. Six months later, the RAF bombed the airport where he had landed.
Ryuichi-kun was married now.
A crow cawed loudly outside his window, startling him, and Yuuri checked his watch. He had almost missed it. He pushed the unfinished letter home to one side, stubbed out his neglected cigarette in the ashtray, and reached for the radio, turning the dial away from the announcer's beautiful French and into a sea of hissing static. It was a frequency he knew by heart. Gradually a melody came through the white noise, a few simple piano notes. He reached into the desk drawer for a very specific notepad.
Victor waved the offered packet away and Major Feltsman took one for himself and lit it. It was March and the weather was just about bearable enough for two men to sit in a public park together and make polite conversation. Victor kept his hat pulled low over his eyes, obscuring his face to the various people also taking advantage of the first signs of spring.
"My mother enjoyed your gifts from Rome, thank you," Feltsman said.
"There shouldn't be any problems getting more, if she wants them."
"Oh, you know how she loves to get presents," Feltsman chuckled. Not for the first time, Victor wondered what his actual mother was really like. "But you know it is her birthday soon, and what she would really love would be something from Tokyo."
Victor whistled softly. "She does have exotic tastes. There's a railway line from here into Italy, but it's much harder to get even little things from so much further away."
"You'll try for her though, won't you?" Feltsman stood up, and gestured with his hand for Victor to do the same. "I'm cold, walk with me."
They wandered along a gravel path for a while, silently. Victor studied Feltsman out of the corner of his eye. He looked put-together enough that it didn't seem strange for him to be walking with a man in Stefan Rittberger's fine winter coat, but it was obvious that their work was wearing him down. His face was deeply lined, hair gone entirely grey. There was a hunch to his shoulders now that came from more than just the cold. Just as Feltsman called him Alyosha, the hero, the trickster, the name he was given for Feltsman was Grandfather, and the man had never fitted it better.
When they came around a corner into a little area surrounded by evergreen trees, Feltsman pressed his newspaper into Victor's hands. "It's the usual. But something in there you need to read right now, so I can destroy it." They could speak a little more openly here, away from the crowd near the park entrance.
Victor frowned, thumbing through the pages until he found a small envelope. It was neat and clean with no addressee or other markings, but the scrap of paper inside was warped from water damage and heavy with the censor's black ink. He tucked the newspaper under his arm and moved a little further from the path, into the trees, He unfolded the letter and flinched slightly as he recognised the scrawling handwriting.
Hope this finds you, wherever the fuck you are. Captain ██████ is sending a post bag back on one of the supply trucks on the ice road. If you're reading this it wasn't blown up and Ladoga is still frozen. Also you are not dead, I suppose.
It's shit here. Hope less so where you are. Regret to tell you that after █████ and ███████████ both your mother and father have passed. We miss them. Grandpa is sick, but ████████████████████████.
If you're not dead, hope you have shot a lot of Nazis. I'm up to 50 now. Mila is still ahead of me. They make such easy fucking targets when they █████ and ███████████████████. I know you worry, so don't, okay? We are strong here.
Pte. Y██ P█████
When Victor looked up, Feltsman came alongside and snatched the letter back from him, striking a match and letting the flame catch a corner of the paper. Victor watched as the desperate missive of a child in Leningrad dissolved into ashes.
"Why wasn't he evacuated?" Victor hissed. "They got some of the civilians out before the Germans had the city surrounded, didn't they prioritise children? He's barely sixteen years old, why is he signing off as a Private?"
Feltsman shrugged. "If you were in command in a besieged city, would you be telling able-bodied volunteers, 'sorry, you are too young'? Or checking too closely if they told you they were not? If he is old enough to shoot rabbits, he is old enough to shoot fascists."
"This is no time to be making up fucking proverbs," Victor whispered again, in Russian this time, which earned him a furious look from the Major.
"If we were not in public I would strike you, Alyosha. Do not think that just because you prance around this city in your bourgeois clothes I am no longer your commanding officer. We speak in German or not at all. You know that."
Victor had hoped that Feltsman would hit him. He needed something to take the edge off the anxiety that had surged through his body at the thought of some scumbag handing little Yuri Plisetsky a gun, sending him out to risk death alongside a girl only three years his senior. At least Mila would be old enough by now to at least have the semblance of making decisions for herself. And his parents. His parents. His eyes were filling up with tears and if he wasn't careful he was going to cry in a park in the capital city of Hell itself.
"Snap out of it," Feltsman said between his teeth. "Shit, I knew I should have held that fucking letter back."
Victor took a deep breath, lifting his eyes to the murky clouds overhead before wiping at them with his gloved hand. "No. I apologise, Grandfather. Thank you for bringing it to me. It is good to hear from home, even if…"
"Yes," Feltsman said, and his tone softened just a fraction as he added, "I'm sorry."
"It's no different for anyone else. Everyone is losing people." Victor curled his fingers into fists. "But we will win the war."
"Think about Tokyo," was all Feltsman said in response, before walking away. Victor followed him back onto the path, and when he glanced back behind them there was a moment when he thought he saw something move behind the trees, black against the slowly melting snow. He blinked, and it was gone. Probably just a bird.
It was the sort of thing a character in a bad novel might do. Yuuri had just come out of the barber's, adding a new tin of pomade to his bag of shopping, when he had seen Stefan Rittberger step out of a gleaming car on the other side of the street. He had his hat pulled down low and his coat collar turned up against the cold, and to someone who didn't find him extremely suspicious he probably would have looked normal enough, but something in Yuuri said that the man was up to something.
So, like an idiot, he followed him.
Rittberger walked casually into a small park a little further down the street. Yuuri hung back behind a family who were having a very loud conversation. He watched as Rittberger looked around with affected casualness before taking a seat on a bench next to an old man reading a newspaper.
"Good morning, Grandfather," he heard Rittberger say. Yuuri didn't think he had ever seen two Westerners who looked less related. Rittberger was pale, slim, elegant, whereas his companion had a stocky build, a square face and a ruddy complexion. The old man offered him a cigarette, and then started making conversation that Yuuri couldn't quite make out over the noise of the other people around. Something about his mother? Yuuri edged a little closer, pulling a battered tram timetable out of his coat pocket and pretending to study it. His ears pricked up when the old man mentioned Tokyo. They were talking about gifts. If Rittberger was importing goods from Japan that might begin to explain his interest in hanging around the embassy.
When the two men stood up and started walking off together Yuuri began to follow again, hanging back further now they were moving into a quieter section of the park. Thankfully there were plenty of trees and shrubs he could duck behind to break the lines of sight. When the two men stepped off the path into a dense cluster of trees, Yuuri seized the opportunity to slip around to the other side, where he could hear their conversation quite clearly. This was, naturally, the point at which they stopped talking. Rittberger was reading something
Yuuri kept his breathing as quiet as possible, thinking about sneaking around after kendo practice, tiptoeing back to his own rooms after college curfew at Wadham.
And then Rittberger and his 'Grandfather' were talking again, about sieges and children and 'the Germans' as if that was something that neither of them were, and then Rittberger's strained voice slipped into a language Yuuri understood very little of, but could clearly recognise. Russian. Why did Rittberger speak Russian?
Yuuri turned his head ever so slightly, catching sight of Rittberger's profile between the trees. The man looked like he might be about to cry, and Yuuri felt his heart clench a little in sudden sympathy. 'Grandfather' didn't seem to share the sentiment.
"Do not think that just because you prance around this city in your bourgeois clothes I am no longer your commanding officer," he snapped, and oh, that would be why they spoke Russian. Yuuri put a hand over his own mouth to cover any involuntary sounds of shock. The handsome, blonde Nazi who had been practically courting the ambassador recently, who had been subtly flirting with Yuuri for as long as they had been acquainted, was a Soviet spy.
Yuuri barely registered the rest of their conversation, and only just managed to pull himself completely behind a tree in time as the two men walked away. He could feel his heart racing, his whole body flooded with nervous heat.
His obligation was entirely clear. He should go at once to the police, to the Colonel or the ambassador, to anyone in authority who could have such a threat to the war effort dealt with at once. It was his duty to Japan. But it was hardly the first time that the weight of Yuuri's duty went to war with his soft heart and was utterly defeated, and it wasn't just his homeland that he had an obligation to, after all. He thought about the way Rittberger smiled at him, let his touches linger, things that had always been suspicious but were now entirely transformed by knowing the sort of man he really was. This was going far beyond a bad novel.
He was still fighting his jangling nerves when he sat down in a nondescript café a little while later, ordering a cup of horrible German tea in the hopes that it might help calm him.
"Good afternoon, Herr Yuuri, good to see you!"
The familiar voice still made him jump a little. Yuuri turned his head and gave a slight nod of greeting as the bearded man folded himself into the chair opposite. "Good afternoon, Emil."
"Have you ordered? You getting lunch, or not?"
"I'm having tea, I'm not really hungry."
"Well I am hungry. Practically starving." He gestured at himself. "Soon I will be nothing but skin and bones!"
Emil was certainly slender, but he looked a long way from death's door. He was a dancer, something you could tell even when he had a thick winter coat on just from the way he moved, and his troupe's choreographer currently had the government's favour so they certainly wouldn't be left to want for anything. Emil beckoned over the waitress and made an extensive order. He spoke German with a heavy accent that Yuuri still couldn't quite place.
"Here, you don't look well." Emil had a cigarette between his lips now and had rolled one across the table to Yuuri, who picked it up gratefully and accepted Emil's light. The tobacco would help his nerves settle too.
"I hope you've been well?" he asked politely.
"Oh, you know, busy-busy. We have a new show debuting next month for Easter, so there is a lot of practicing to do. It's all about the glory of German conquests." Sadness, deep and raw, flickered across Emil's face before he composed himself. "I hope your dancing with ink and paper is good too, Herr Yuuri."
"Not a lot changes from one day to another." Except for those days when he decided to interrupt his errands to eavesdrop on Soviet agents. He inhaled a mouthful of smoke and leaned back in his chair as the waitress set down his tea and Emil's coffee,
"Ah, the simple life." Emil reached into his coat pocket and took out a crumpled newspaper. "Well if you could break your simplicity for a little while there's a great review of our last performance in here, if you'd like to see it?"
Yuuri reached over and took it out of his hands, and their eyes met. They weren't friends, exactly- he didn't even know Emil's surname, and didn't plan on finding out- but they had another kind of camaraderie.
"I look forward to reading it." He folded the paper away into his bag. "You know, I was thinking about that old choreographer of yours. I haven't heard from her in a while.”
Victor had been waiting to see Colonel Nakamura for less than half an hour and Katsuki was already on his third cigarette. It was as if he'd been replaced with some kind of automaton that ran on smoke and awkward silence. If he had, it was a very good likeness- just as handsome as the original.
Perhaps the only advantage of being assigned in Germany was that most of the time, when Victor met a good-looking man, he could very quickly stifle any feelings of attraction by reminding himself that the object of his potential affections was almost certainly a Nazi. And even if he did manage to find a man who was neither a fascist nor a collaborator, taking a lover would dramatically endanger the effectiveness of his cover identity. The Japanese might not be fascists per se, but they were servants of an imperial regime just as oppressive as the rule of the Tsars.
And yet there was something different about Katsuki. He had felt it the moment they met at some dry function in the summer of 1940, what was supposed to be a brief introduction. Beyond his controlled demeanour there was a fire in his deep brown eyes, something beautiful and passionate and extraordinary, and Victor had been captivated. He knew Katsuki was playing a role, too; if he wasn't a homosexual Victor would purchase and eat a whole shop full of hats. He probably should have tried harder not to flirt with the man so much, but then the fact that Katsuki so thoroughly shut down someone he thought was a Nazi just seemed like another mark in his favour.
It was extremely silly. Victor was much too old for this sort of thing. He wondered if Katsuki's hair was as soft as it looked.
"Are you sure you don't wish to make another appointment with the Colonel, Herr Rittberger?"
Take me to your bed at once, Captain Nikiforov, his mind supplied unhelpfully in Katsuki's voice. He smiled warmly. "I am happy to wait for a little longer, thank you."
"I could send for some refreshments?"
"No, no, that won't be necessary. Thank you, Katsuki-san."
For half a second Katsuki looked at Victor as if he had two heads, before returning to his work and his cigarette.
If he could seduce him, Katsuki might be able to solve all Victor's problems with getting reliable information out of the Japanese embassy. But he wasn't about to give up his cover, and while he might have been able to stomach it with someone else, he hated the thought of finding out that for all his charm and mystery Katsuki was the sort of man who would fuck a Nazi. He knew it was incredibly selfish to put his imaginings of the inner life of a man he honestly didn't know very well ahead of the security of the Soviet Union's eastern borders, but it blocked his way regardless.
There was still no sign of Nakamura. Victor stretched out his arms and stood up from his chair, walking over to inspect the two shelves of books in amongst the office's files and records. Most of the titles were in utterly impenetrable Japanese, but there was a copy of Rommel's book on infantry warfare, and German translations of Caesar's Gallic Wars and some Machiavelli. On the lower shelf, tucked in the corner against the wall, was a small collection of books that looked quite different. even if he couldn't read the characters on the spines. Some of them were in languages he could recognise, though- a slim volume simply entitled Poems, in English, another, larger book called Middlemarch, and one in French, Romances sans paroles. Victor felt the small hairs at the nape of his neck prickle. Katsuki was watching him.
"Colonel Nakamura has a very diverse taste in literature," he said, not turning around. If Nakamura was a fan of English poetry Victor would eat a whole factory of hats.
"The Colonel is a very learned man," Katsuki said diplomatically, and for a moment he was quiet. "But, ah, the books at the end of the bottom shelf are mine."
Victor ran his fingers over their spines, lingering on the French book. It had been a while since he'd had any call to speak the language, but he was sure he could still read it perfectly well. He drew it off the shelf and turned it over in his hands before looking around at Katsuki, who was still watching him.
"May I borrow this?" he asked. "I run out of reading material so quickly."
"Oh," said Katsuki, and his face was suddenly very red. "Oh, yes, of course." He looked down and had started fumbling for a fourth cigarette when one of the telephones rang, and he went for it so quickly Victor was surprised he didn't fall out of his chair.
"Hai, Katsuki to moushimasu," he said, and then nodded as if the person at the other end of the line could see him. There was more nodding, and more Japanese that Victor couldn't follow, before he hung up.
"Colonel Nakamura is deeply sorry, Herr Rittberger, but he simply will not be able to see you today."
Victor sighed. "Oh well, nothing to be done about it. I am sure he is a very busy man." He walked the few steps back to Katsuki's desk. "Perhaps I will be able to see him another day, and also return your book?"
Katsuki looked up at him and there it was again in his eyes, a whole universe tightly locked away. "I will check the Colonel's diary.”
He was going to talk to Rittberger, or whatever the hell his name really was, but he had to do it right. They needed somewhere neutral, somewhere quiet, but not so far away from other people that Rittberger could just shoot him and run off, or whatever other dastardly things a Soviet agent might do. Yuuri tightened his grip on his handlebars, squinting against the rain that was spilling off the brim of his hat and into his eyes. He was planning a clandestine meeting with a foreign spy and all he could think about was that time Horatio Greenhough-Smith had invited him to go punting on the Cherwell and Yuuri had managed to fall in the river whilst trying to climb into the boat. He was not the sort of man who did these kinds of things.
He had cycled right across the city to Treptow, into a neighbourhood that the Nazi government probably would not want foreign diplomats to see. There were broken windows, boarded-up doors and shop fronts, and what establishments were open looked decidedly different from the smart, clean image of the city centre. He slowed to a stop in front of a narrow, grubby building, dismounting and hoisting his bicycle up onto the pavement before locking the back wheel. He wasn't sure he had the right fare for the tram, and certainly didn't want to have to walk all the way home in the rain.
The man who ran the boarding house curled his lip and looked Yuuri up and down with a faintly disgusted expression.
"Only room is the top floor," he said, his German slow and condescending. "Lots of stairs." He looked Yuuri over again, as if expecting him to collapse with just the thought of such physical exertion.
It was really quite fascinating how Westerners managed to believe that Japanese people were weak and incompetent, and yet at the same time that they were terrifying, cruel warriors. Yuuri smiled and nodded politely, only giving over part of his mind to imagining poking the man in the chest with a shinai. "That won't be a problem." If they met at the top of the building there would be less chance for them to be overheard. He paid for a week, not that he would need it, and the manager's grim expression softened at the sight of reichsmarks being counted out into his hand.
The rain didn't let up until he was almost home, and he laid out his soaking wet outer clothes by the radiator to dry before switching on the radio and clambering onto his narrow bed. He pulled the blanket around himself for some warmth. The French-speaking BBC announcer introduced something by Duke Ellington and Yuuri closed his eyes and leaned his head back against the wall, trying to lose himself in the smooth piano and bright, swinging brass. Somewhere out there were people dancing, enjoying playing their instruments, and absolutely none of them were in any way involved with spies.
When the song faded out he was only half paying attention to the announcer, until he realised that she was talking for much longer than usual.
"It was so beautiful at my cousin's house this morning," she said, her accent pure cut-glass Paris. "The blackbird sang even in the winter."
Yuuri couldn't suppress a shiver even as he pulled the blanket closer around himself, rising and crossing the room to his desk. He hadn't sent any personal letters within Germany before, but he knew the right address.
There was no guarantee that any letter he wrote would manage to make the whole brutal journey between here and Leningrad, or even get past Feltsman, but Victor felt like he owed it to Yuri to at least try. His handwriting felt awkward in the Cyrillic alphabet, shaping each letter very precisely as if he were a child.
Thank you for your letter. I am indeed still alive, and it is good to hear that you and Mila are also. Thank you also for giving me the news about my parents. We can all mourn in the proper fashion once the enemy has been defeated.
I am sure that as a comrade-in-arms you will understand that I cannot tell you anything about my current posting. Please nevertheless be assured that I am devoting my whole heart to victory.
He sighed. There was really no way that Yuri wasn't going to read that as 'I have shot exactly zero Nazis', which was the truth, but not one he would interpret very generously.
I am glad, too, to hear that the situation in the city is improving. I have full confidence that you will soon be free, and able to join in pushing the invaders out of our land for good. Your courage, and that of all the defenders of Leningrad, is a shining inspiration to all. Your selfless love for our people gives us all strength.
Please don't get yourself killed, he wanted to say. Not for Leningrad, not for the Soviet people, not for anybody. You're only a boy. But there were few things he could say that were more likely to inspire Yuri to go out and get himself shot than 'please don't'.
Remember to rely on your comrades to support you, and to support them in turn. Victory will only be achieved when we fight together as one. Please give my best regards to your Grandfather, and to Mila and your commanding officer.
Victor didn't think he had said anything particularly worthy of censoring, so hopefully most of the letter would be legible if it ever did reach little Yura. He blotted the paper dry and folded it, pushing it to the side of his desk, before sliding out of the chair onto his knees. The largest hidden compartment in the desk was at the back, built into the space behind the drawers, and it took very precise manoeuvring of what seemed like an innocuous bit of decorative carving to get it to open. What it contained was probably the most precious object in the whole house. He drew out the heavy black case carefully and set it back on the desk before thumbing the combination lock to get it to open.
It wasn't the kind of complex rotor machine that surely dwelled in many dark back offices in Berlin, but it was enough to encipher simple messages to accompany his microdot film drops. Victor put his pen between his teeth and gently shifted the rings and rotors into the right position for the day of the month.
Italian presence to increase. He carefully tapped out each letter of the message into the machine, and wrote down the resulting ciphertext. Units likely to arrive via Black Sea in summer. The extensive report and exchange of letters that Sara had somehow managed to get for him this time showed far too many purchase orders from German manufacturers than would be needed for the single corps the Italians currently had fighting in Russia. Now they were done pissing around in Africa it seemed they were turning their attentions closer to home. He could only hope that the Americans finally entering the war would keep the Japanese busy enough in the Pacific to prevent them from striking the Soviet Union from the east.
Victor sighed, leaning his forehead on his knuckles. Trying to conceptualise the state of the world at the moment was like imagining a juggler with twenty balls in the air, the slightest hesitation or tiny breath of wind liable to cause catastrophe. One lieutenant making a bad call under fire, one ship caught in a storm at the wrong time, one freak accident at an airfield in England or a factory in Kazakhstan, and the fates of millions of people could be decided.
Or it could be one mistake by a lone intelligence officer in Berlin.
Out in the hall the letterbox rattled, causing him to look up. What little correspondence he got by conventional means usually related to his real or fabricated holdings as Stefan Rittberger, and it was extremely unusual to get something by the evening post. He took a few moments to safely lock up and hide away the rotor machine and then walked out towards the front door. There was a small envelope on the doormat with a Berlin postmark. He tore it open.
I would be delighted if you would join me for dinner this Friday at 7pm, at the address below.
PS. No need to return the Verlaine if you haven't finished it.
Well. Either this was an extremely elaborate trap, or Katsuki was actually offering himself up to have information seduced out of him. Victor had seen the man's handwriting enough times to be fairly confident that it was not a forgery, and frankly 'repressed Japanese bureaucrat' would have been the strangest Nazi honeytrap ever. He couldn't be too careful though. There was no return address, so Katsuki was obviously very confident in the allure of his invitation. Victor folded the note and slipped it into his trouser pocket.
It was Friday. Every particle of air around Yuuri seemed charged with static, tension prickling the hair on his neck. He couldn't concentrate on work for more than a few minutes at a time, and practically leaped across the room every time a telephone rang. The Colonel was in a foul mood too, which didn't help, and treated Yuuri to a long and shouted lecture about scheduling and the poor quality of his lunch. When he finally cried off early, pretending an upset stomach, he had to stop at a tobacconist on the way home to buy another packet of cigarettes.
He felt like he was preparing to actually have a fancy dinner with Rittberger. What should he wear? Should he actually bring some food, in case the Soviet spy was hungry? He stood in front of the small mirror over his washbasin for half an hour, slicking back stray hairs and fiddling with his tie.
He shouldn't go. He should fake his own death and go and join the French Resistance, or become a monk, or move to Australia, or literally anything other than this. Maybe the foreign service would send him home if he pretended to have gone mad. Maybe he had gone mad.
His watch read six o'clock. Yuuri took a deep breath, splashed a little cold water on his face, and headed for the door.
Victor had done a lot of dangerous, idiotic things in his life, whether it was skating on the barely-frozen Lake Ladoga as a child or ditching university in a fit of revolutionary fervour to join the army, but this could easily have been the worst.
He cleaned and loaded his service pistol, normally kept well out of sight in a box under his bed, and secured it in a shoulder holster so it was mostly hidden under his jacket. He'd already made his weekly drop with the only live information he had, and anything else of note was hidden around the house in the spots that Feltsman would know to check if anything happened to him. He hadn't cleared this with the Major, which was going to get him a serious chewing out, but there was no point being an independent field operative if he wasn't allowed to take some risks on his own. If it came to it, he was confident in his ability to shoot first.
The address that Katsuki had given him was some distance across town, much further out than Victor would have imagined any embassy to allow its staff to live, and indeed as he drew closer he began to doubt very much that Katsuki did actually live here. If this really was a casual meeting for dinner then it had better not go on too long or he'd risk having his car stolen.
He pulled up in front of the narrow, sad-looking boarding house, and let his hands rest on the steering wheel while the engine cooled. He still didn't know what he wanted this to be. If Katsuki wanted to be seduced by Stefan Rittsberger- or even do the seducing himself- Victor would need to dispose of the silly fantasies he'd been nurturing about the man and allow the situation to work to his advantage. If things went south… fuck, Victor hated the thought of having to shoot an attractive man, especially one he'd come to rather like. Nor did he especially relish the thought of having to cover it up afterwards. Feltsman would certainly want to ask a lot of very pointed questions about what, exactly, he had been doing alone in a room with a strange man in a seedy part of Berlin, the kind of questions that could cost him his commission and his freedom even in the midst of war.
But he had come all the way out here. Might as well see this through to the end.
The front door of the boarding house was open but there didn't seem to be anyone in the front hall or what he imagined must be the communal rooms. He took the stairs two at a time, counting off the numbers on the doors he passed. His heartbeat sounded louder and louder in his ears as he climbed, until the stairs ran out in front of a scratched wooden door. Room 10.
"It's open," came the voice from inside.
The room was starkly lit from a single, unshaded light bulb overhead. Katsuki was sat at a small table immediately beneath it with a cigarette between his fingers, the smoke drifting slowly towards the bare window. He seemed calm in the manner of someone expending a great deal of energy to maintain control. He didn't look up as Victor closed the door behind him and came over to sit in the chair opposite.
God, he was unfairly handsome.
"Good evening," Katsuki said, looking out towards the window before taking a long, nervous drag on his cigarette.
"Well," Victor said, "I'm obviously not here for a dinner party." He leaned back slightly in his chair, trying to affect relaxation while making it easier to reach for the pistol holstered under his jacket. "So why don't you spit it out?" There was a long pause, even the sounds of the city below barely seeming to register in that small, tense room.
"You're Soviet intelligence," Katsuki said in his flat, accented German, still staring out the window.
He mustn't have told anyone yet, or Victor would be having this conversation with an SS officer in an underground room somewhere, but he definitely was going to have to shoot Katsuki, and figure out some way to get out of the building without being seen, and-
"You're not in any danger from me," Katsuki continued, "although I would advise you keep that gun you're carrying in its holster." He turned to look at Victor then and flashed a nervous smile that made him look almost vulnerable. "I invited you here because my handler advised me to make formal contact with you."
Victor was vaguely aware of the fact that his mouth had fallen open. Katsuki was working for the British.