The Russian and the American. Somewhere on the Island of Manhattan, 1964.
A tap on the Russian's door: one he wasn't expecting but recognized. He lifted his head, checked the gas on the stove to be sure the noodles wouldn't boil over, and walked around the breakfast bar to the peephole. Shadows in the crack above the jamb told him one individual waited beyond; he checked the peephole out of habit and he threw both locks open, palming his pistol anyway before he slipped the chain. "My friend."
Oh, he knew that look. The tilt of the head, the hopeful pout. The scent of expensive cologne and the fresh haircut and shave. The American's date had stood him up, and he had decided an evening with his partner was preferable to a Friday night alone. His words confirmed the Russian's suspicions.
"Can I buy you dinner, my friend?"
"I am cooking," the Russian answered, slipping his pistol back into his shoulder holster. He wore it even at home, but didn't trouble with the jacket over it. "Your date stood you up."
"Am I so obvious?" The American slunk into the living room like a lean, self-satisfied cat, wrinkling his nose at the scents of charcoal and boiling pasta. "It's burning," he said mildly, turning to throw both locks and set the chain.
"No," the Russian answered, going back to the pasta and picking up a wooden spoon. "That is the charcoal."
"You're grilling in the living room, perhaps?"
The pasta had cooked. He drained it, clouds of steam wreathing his face and his broad scarred hands as he shook the colander. He wasn't about to dignify the comment with an answer. The American would notice the source of the aroma eventually. "Are you staying for dinner?"
"Not if it's, er, charcoal--"
"It is casserole," the Russian answered, and set about opening cans--cream of mushroom soup, tuna fish, green peas--while the American winced and turned away, picking a box off the counter.
"Kraft dinner? Partner."
The Russian's mouth quirked at the disappointment in his partner's voice. He didn't turn, but kept one ear tuned as the American poked about his living room. "Clear off the coffee table," the Russian said. "There are journals and other clutter all over the dining room table. We'll have to eat in the living room." He'd turned the stereo off and the evening news on before he started to cook, and the muted tones of Walter Cronkite underlaid everything he and the American said. The most trusted man in America.
There is someone whom I trust more.
"Are you sure I can't buy you dinner?"
"And let this go to waste?" He scooped canned goods into the emptied pot, added a double handful of grated cheese, fresh chopped parsley, garlic salt, pepper and dried oregano, and dumped the cooked macaroni elbows back on top along with the contents of the faux cheese package. Stir well.
He couldn't see the American's shudder, but he could visualize it perfectly. "Mad Russian. Is there nothing you won't eat?"
Ah, my friend. If only you knew. The American was remarkably worldly, for an American. But every so often the Russian was reminded of his friend's nationality, usually with regard to some squeamishness or naivete. "I prefer tunafish to rats," the Russian admitted, turning the flame down to low and covering the pot, knowing without looking that the American had glanced over his shoulder, considered the Russian's impassive back, and decided the Russian was joking.
"Everything you own is black, or white." An idle comment, following the sound of shifting clutter.
"Is it?" The Russian measured loose tea, but not yet into the pot. The British knew how to do some things properly, and tea was one of them. Of course, when it came to tea--chai--Mother Russia had advantages of her own.
"Are you sure I should be smelling something burning?"
"Absolutely," the Russian said, and carried pot and tea around the breakfast bar and toward the darkened niche that served him as a dining area. When it wasn't buried under journals and 'other clutter.' "My friend, would you get the lights in the 'dining room,' please?"
The American hit the dimmer switch without looking. And then turned at the sound of water running from an unexpected direction. Hiding a smile, the Russian watched the American's reflection in the darkened window; his eyes widened when he saw the 'other clutter' dominating the Russian's serviceable Formica table.
"Good lord," the American said with sudden reverence, as the Russian warmed the teapot and emptied the steaming water back into the top of the ancient, gilt-brass, red-enameled samovar that dominated the room. "Where did you get that?"
The Russian bit his lip to stop the laughter. "Greenwich Village, of course."
His partner strolled over as the Russian added the tea to the teapot and filled it again with hot water, setting it beside a stack of physics journals to steep. He was six months behind again. It's been that long since I was last hospitalized. Which also made him want to laugh.
The American's lips were twitching. "It must be two hundred years old. How long were you going to wait to show me this?"
"I had thought," the Russian said, catching the American's wrist a moment before he could brush his fingers over the crimson enamel, "that I would give it to you when I returned home. Be careful. That is hot."
"Go--home? You haven't been recalled--"
The Russian didn't miss how the American's face paled when he said 'go home,' and it warmed his heart the way standing close to the charcoal brazier under the samovar did. "No," he said. "But if I am, I could hardly bring that back with me. Would you like some tea?"
"Very much," the American said, stepping back, although the American did not like tea.
The Russian fetched glasses. Two of them, ruby glass in gilt holders that matched the samovar. He shouldn't have bought it, of course. But he hadn't been able to resist. And it wasn't as if an agent whose housing was provided had all that much to spend money on, unless he was a clotheshorse. Like the American. "Sugar?"
"If I'm going to do it I should do it right, nyet?"
The Russian set the sugar bowl on the coffee table and filled the glasses with tea while the American turned off the gas and spooned their yellowish-beige dinner into a pair of unremarkable bowls.
"Spoon or fork?"
"Fork, please." He took a lump of sugar for himself and sat on the floor beside the coffee table.
"It's very red," the American said, settling down kittycorner to the Russian and bending forward to examine the glass. He did not lift his fork, but reached for the sugar instead. The Russian stopped him a moment before he dropped the lumps into his glass.
"This is Russian tea," he said. "You put the sugar between your teeth."
"Rot your teeth doing that."
"A good communist will be provided teeth by the state as needed--"
"--stainless steel ones--"
"--bah. See? Like so."
Dubiously, the American followed his example, managing to sip his tea through the sugar without choking, much to the Russian's surprise. More surprising still, he smiled. "It's good."
"It's like home," the Russian answered. "Except not." He shrugged and picked up his fork. They did not speak again until they had finished eating.
"This is better than it looks," the American said grudgingly, setting his fork down and picking up his tea.
"Peasant cooking American style." But said without defensiveness, for once. The Russian leaned back against the sofa. The tea had cooled enough to hold the glass between his hands instead of by the handle.
The American nudged his ankle with a foot. The American had always to touch people; he was also very European in that. Perhaps another reason the Russian felt comfortable with him. "Are you thinking about going home?"
I've really unsettled him. The realization delighted the Russian. "No," he answered. He stared into his glass, and leaned forward to fetch himself another lump of sugar. The American handed it to him without looking, knowing what he needed before he knew it himself. "The glasses are very red," the Russian said. He looked through the glass at the American, and then lowered it to take a sip. "You know, in Russia, red--krasny--also means beautiful. It is a very patriotic color, red. It reminds me of the Motherland."
The American looked up at him and grinned and shook his head, obviously not understanding the conversation. Which was acceptable. He was only an American, after all. There were many things he didn't understand. "I know why you're home cooking casserole on a Friday night."
"Oh?" Sucking tea through sugar that crumbled over the tongue. Sick-sweet grit against the roof of the Russian's mouth, giving way in eddies to the bitter, tannic wash of the tea. A complex flavor, nothing like American tea softened by milk and with the sugar stirred into it.
"Yes." The American set his glass down, leaned forward. Flicked the well-soaped, flesh-warm leather of the Russian's holster with the thumbnail of his long, well-made hand, and grinned. "If you took a woman to bed you'd have to take the gun off."
The Russian turned his head slightly and smirked, hooked one thumb between black leather and white cotton and slipped it up and down slowly, looking at the American through his lashes. "Do you think so?" With his best Renaissance angel expression, smiling to himself when the American blushed dark red.
The Russian took the dishes into the kitchen when they finished their tea. He poured vodka into two glasses and brought one to the American, turned off the television, found an LP of Thelonious Monk's "Straight, no Chaser," and laid it on the turntable. Vigorous, intricate music: perhaps a little too intricate to support conversation, but the Russian did not think that tonight was a night for dreamy, drifting jazz.
He turned the lights up before he settled on the sofa, glass cupped in broad fingers, one knee drawn up. "Would you like to play chess?"
The American held his own glass between the flats of his palms and smiled. "Actually," he said, "you benefit by more than a dinner companion in having an apartment one floor up from your partner's on a night when his paramour has deserted him for--ah--more marriageable material, shall we say? I am the proud possessor of a pair of tickets to Fiddler on the Roof."
"Fiddler on the Roof?" The Russian couldn't stop the corners of his lips from curving this time.
"At the Imperial Theatre," the American said triumphantly. "On Broadway."
"I know where the Imperial Theatre is."
The American grimaced as he tasted his drink. "Go get your dinner jacket on."
They walked shoulder to shoulder through the weekending crowds, two handsome men, incongruous on foot in their mirror-bright shoes and bowties. The American grinned back at the women who turned to examine them more closely; the Russian pretended ignorance, but that smile wouldn't stop playing at the corner of his mouth. He laughed at the musical more than he had expected, and found the Rabbi's blessing for the Tsar particularly quotable, even as they left the theatre. "I don't suppose that will work on, say, some of our opposite numbers, do you think?"
"May God bless and keep all counter-agents--far away from me?" The American held the door for the Russian, chuckling low in his throat. "I'm not ready to go home yet. I don't suppose you're hungry."
"I'm always hungry," the Russian answered. "Make me a match with a gyro, and we'll talk."
"I don't suppose you know an all-night Greek deli?"
The Russian grinned. "Of course I do."
"I do not believe there was a conspiracy," the Russian said later, cupping a piece of lamb-stuffed flatbread in one hand, considering it more than he was eating it. He kept half his attention over the American's shoulder, and knew his partner was performing the same office. "I think Oswald acted alone."
The American laughed, swirling the dregs in his coffee cup. "Come on," he said. "The KGB made you say that--"
"No, no. You see, I met Oswald."
The American blinked. The Russian found it gratifying. "Met--" His voice trailed off. He tried again. "You met Lee Harvey Oswald?"
"In Moscow in 1962, when he planned to defect." The Russian shrugged. "He was unimportant. I was one of the officers assigned, because of my English. We spent a fair amount of time together." He took a bite of his sandwich, cucumber squeaking between his teeth, and chewed contentedly. "He was deemed... unsuitable for use."
The American had that look again, the half-curious, half-uncomfortable one he got whenever something reminded him that there had been a Russian before there was a partnership. Before there was the Russian and the American, inseparable. "Unsuitable. Really."
The Russian grinned, and let the hand that wasn't folded around the gyro describe a lazy circle by his temple. "My friend," he said. "You have no idea. They sent him to Minsk, eventually, on the grounds that he'd be out of the way. He tried to kill himself, because the KGB wasn't paying him enough attention. Is that insane enough for you?"
"It does indicate a certain, ah, lack of the self-preservation instinct." Pause, chewing. "Still, do you think he could have made that shot?"
The Russian shrugged and finished his gyro, licking his fingers for the last bit of sauce. "I could have." He enjoyed his partner's slow, thoughtful blink. "Come on," he said, standing. "I'll walk you home."
The American stood too, dropping money on the table. The Russian took his elbow to steer him out of the restaurant. "Walk me home?" Their eyes met. The American smiled, suppressed cleverness dancing in his hazel eyes. The Russian blinked and almost let go of his arm. Oh, clever Russian. This time you outsmarted yourself.
"There wasn't any date, was there?"
"Not one that stood me up, no."
"Oh." The Russian chewed that over for a little while as they walked homeward. This time, he did let his hand fall. He stole a quick glance sideways. The American's untied bowtie flopped lightly in the breeze. "If you wanted to spend the evening with me," he said, shrugging, "you only had to ask. Save the elaborate charades for those who are not--"
"I was going to say--your friend--" The Russian looked up before they paused at the street corner. Force of habit; the American scanned the left half of the arc and the Russian scanned the right. Something glittered, halfway up the side of a brownstone, in a window that was both dark and open. The Russian's heart kicked hard in his chest-- "--duck!"
He lunged against his partner's side, knocking the American sideways, trusting his partner to anticipate his action and to break their fall. Something sharp stung the forearm that the Russian threw up in front of his eyes; stung, and not burned. He heard the ricochet whine and strike metal, and a split second later the flat report of the gunshot, followed first by silence and then shouts and running feet as the few remaining pedestrians caught on and vacated the scene. No silencer, of course. He wouldn't want to sacrifice accuracy--
They hit hard and rolled, the Russian lunging into a crouch, the cool crosshatched grip of his modified Walther P-38 heavy in his hand before he was even quite steady on his feet. The American sprawled in the gutter, using the curb for cover, his own automatic readied as well.
"Did you see him?"
"Window," the Russian hissed, crouched behind a blue steel postal box. He jerked his head, pointing with his eyes, ignoring the thin, warm trickle of blood across his hand. The sleeve of his dinner jacket was shredded. Concrete was chipped from the lamp-post base; the fresh gouge shone in the streetlight. "Any bystanders hurt? Any down?"
"I don't see any," the American answered. "I caught a glimpse of him hightailing up the fire escape when you took me down. He was aiming for you."
The Russian nodded, adrenaline like a blow to the throat. Feeling his partner beside him like a paired identity, left hand and right, two bodies and one animal. As if he knew what the American would say, how he would move before he did it. "He missed."
The American lifted his head from the gutter and glared at the bullet gouge, his luminous amber eyes narrowed as if it had done him a personal offense. He pushed himself to his knees under the cover of a Cadillac, sparing a moment of rue for the state of his dinner jacket before he settled into a runner's crouch. "You moved. That would have drilled your head. Think Oswald could have made that shot?"
"I could have," the Russian growled. "You didn't return fire?"
"With a handgun?"
"Good point. He'll be across the rooftop by now. Let's move. Go on go--"
He didn't wait; the American would be right behind him. He ran for the brownstone, scurrying crooked as a rat, and prayed the one with his name on it wasn't already in the air, moving faster than the sound of its own firing. He flattened himself against the wall--small overhang, smell of pavement and soot.
"You're hit," the American said, slapping stone beside him.
"Not this time. You said you caught a glimpse--"
"Tall," the American said. "Three, four inches on me, maybe--" the American was five-foot-ten, and the Russian knew he would have measured the opposition against the flights of the fire escape. "Slender. Cat blacks, dark hair, not so well-groomed as some." He patted his own slightly disarrayed forelock by way of example. "Nasty scar on the right cheek," the American continued as the Russian turned to him, eyebrows rising and eyes intentionally cold. "A mean-looking scowl. Grey eyes, bit of a squint--"
"I recognize the description, but I must say, your eyesight is certainly acute--"
"I'm not the one too vain to wear his glasses except for reading."
"I'm farsighted," the Russian answered, holstering his gun as a few over-bold civilians began to emerge from doorways and under cars. "You noticed all this from several hundred yards, at night, my friend?"
"No." The American pressed his own pistol into the swing of his dinner jacket rather than put it away. "He's hard to misidentify. Even from a distance. But the question remains."
"Yes, my clever American?"
"What would an MI-6 assassin be doing gunning for a couple of lowly international law enforcement types on our side of the puddle, partner mine?"
The Russian swallowed, and raked both hands through his own bright hair. "Well," he said, as dryly as he could manage, "we know he has a taste for shooting smart Russians, neh?"