Agony Column Exclusive Fiction


by Elizabeth Bear



"Your name begins with the letter K."

"I knew that."

"Deranged Soviet." The American lowered the binoculars, knowing without having to look that his partner's expression would be perfectly deadpan. "Do you want to play or not?"

A slight sigh, the sound of cold coffee slurped from a Styrofoam cup. "Am I a communist?"

"No," the American said cheerfully, keeping his eyes on the one lit window remaining several floors up. Fatal error. He'll never get it now. "You're not Nikita Khrushchev. That's one."


Maybe there's a war, and maybe you're a boy, and maybe you're a soldier. In any case, you see things--you are things-- that no human being should ever have to see, should ever have to become. Maybe you're seven, eight years old and you watch from hiding as the SS binds Ukrainian captives face to face in pairs, embracing, blood running from the thin wire twisted around their wrists. The Germans line them up along the railing of a bridge and shoot one of each pair. Momentum carries living and dead over the low railing, into the river below, where the difference ceases to matter.

It does save on bullets.

Or maybe you're seventeen years old and carrying a U.S. Army rifle through the minefields of Southeast Asia, and scattered gunfire from a cluster of refugees penned under the span of a railway arch wounds two of your comrades. And the order comes down via a bleak-eyed sergeant, the lieutenant says shoot them all. "Sarge." You squint through your scope, watching mothers cover their children, husbands cover their wives as if human flesh could protect human flesh from spinning lead. "There's women and babies in that crowd."

"I know it," he says. A heavy pause. "Follow orders, son."

You can't be too careful.

Whichever, it isn't something you talk about afterwards. Even to your buddies. Even to the people who were there. Five years, ten years, twenty years--and the old hurts become the foundation for the battlements that keep the world at bay.

Maybe you adopt a suave and charming frictionless surface, a ready smile and a self-deprecating turn of phrase--and a black belt in judo for the days when those don't suffice. Maybe you turn inward, settling into a glass-hard, glass-sharp facade, warded by the barbed wire of cutting wit and disdainful glances, and learn to kill as efficiently as you'd solve differentials.

You don't tell anyone about the nightmares of falling, and bridges, and a corpse leaking brains clutched tight in your arms.


"This is not vodka." The Russian held the heavy crystal glass to the light and sighed at its clarity.

"The tax stamp was intact until I opened it. It's been in my freezer since Saturday." The American stretched his long legs, propping his heels on the ottoman. He inspected his own cocktail -- gin, vermouth, two onions -- carefully. "Unless a spy entered my apartment while we were on assignment and poisoned the liquor supply, that's eighty-proof Stolichnaya. It says 'Vodka, product of Russia' on the label."

The Russian glanced the length of the curved couch and favored his partner with a rare sardonic smile. "Wodka," he said precisely, "comes in bottles with a tear-off foil tab, because one never opens the bottle unless one intends to finish it. It is not sipped, because allowing it contact with the palate or tongue is the direst sort of foolishness. And on an occasion such as this, one shatters the glass in the nearest fireplace, so that it may never be disgraced by being put to a lesser purpose."

"That's Baccarat," the American answered reasonably, as the Russian lowered the glass to his lips, measuring his partner over the rim. "And it's a gas fire. And what's the occasion worth breaking my glasses over, in any case?"


"Am I a defector?"

"No, you're not Kim Philby. That's two."

"I can count." A considering pause. "Do you want coffee? There is still a bit in the thermos."

"Yes. I'm not counting that question, out of the goodness of my heart."

"You are exceedingly kind. Am I dead?"

"No," the American said, and this time he couldn't resist a sideways glance. The Russian had looked over at the same moment, of course: their eyes met in the darkness and then they turned back to their respective tasks. The American watched the window. The Russian watched the door. "You're not John F. Kennedy."

"Three. What is that quaint expression about tiny mercies?"

"Small mercies," the American corrected, and held out his hand for the coffee without glancing down.


You marry young, looking for -- something. Anything. But she dies. Badly. Maybe you leave the Army. Maybe you join the Navy. Maybe you have nowhere else to go, and some smart talent scout notices the strength of your body, the agility of your mind, the charm in your demeanor. That might not mean anything, but coupled with that dead look at the back of your eyes--the one that says I am in this alone, forever--maybe you find yourself recruited. It's the CIA, or is it the GRU?

One thing leads to another. Detached duty first, then a transfer. Maybe you keep wearing her ring, and maybe you don't. If you do, it turns out to be a mistake. You learn what you should have known, to keep things that mean something to you in a safe deposit box, not in your apartment and not on your person. You learn quickly not to get attached. Not to make friends. Not to bring lovers home. Not to get into the car and simply flip the ignition, as any normal person would. Not to turn your back.

Not to trust.

You're a physicist and an athlete, or an engineer and a soldier. A second-story man and a martial artist--with another profession as well. The oldest profession, but there are a thousand ways to sell yourself. When you're with a woman -- for business or pleasure -- or, in the line of duty, sometimes a man, you don't sleep. If duty demands you stay the night, rather than rising and making apologies, you lie awake listening to soft breaths in the darkness. You never, ever doze. Even if it were safe, you couldn't bear to explain the nightmares.

Until, unexpectedly, you meet someone who doesn't need an explanation.


"We are not dead," the Russian answered, and deigned to clink glasses with his partner when the American leaned forward on the deep leather sofa to make the reach. He knocked two fingers of vodka back in a gulp, feeling the insufficient burn of the Stolichnaya, and rose and passed through the door into the kitchen to pour himself another from the bottle in the American's Kelvinator. He pushed back against the refrigerator's door, leaning his abused neck on the cold curve of the metal. "You are going to have a shiner, my friend."

The American laughed. "I'm going to have more than a shiner. The bastard loosened a couple of teeth."

"Do not poke them and they will resettle," the Russian advised, sipping his vodka. Decadent novelty: vodka that could be sipped. America had its advantages.

"The expert on loosened teeth, are we?"

"Somewhat. Is the initial K in my first name?"

"No. You're not Katharine Hepburn."

"Five. Am I male?"

"Yes. Six." The American had not risen from his seat deep in the green leather.

The Russian dropped his glass on the table beside the sofa and came toward him, flicking the crystal with a fingernail to make it ring. "Have another."

"The onions are in the refrigerator. As is the vermouth--"

"If you would drink vodka like a civilized person--" He fetched the necessary items and handed his partner the gin bottle. Standing over the American, the Russian observed what he poured and tilted the bottle marginally higher. He skewered onions on a toothpick, and dropped them into a Gibson that was probably much too warm. "It is good for you to relax."

The American watched in amusement, and killed half the glass in a swallow. "It was a close call, wasn't it?"

"It was closer than I like," the Russian answered, and shoved his partner against the couch, a palm flat on either shoulder, straddling the other man's knees. He raised his right hand and tilted the American's chin up, turning his eye into the light. "You have a hematoma."

"You," the American answered, "have whip cuts from here--" idle fingers marked a place just below the collar of the black turtleneck "--to here." The crease at the top of his buttocks, and by chance the American's fingers pressed hard on the worst of the welts.

The Russian hissed.

"And you're worried about a spot of blood in my eye?"

"Closer than I like," he said again. The vodka made him feel distanced, thoughtful. "Are you drunk yet?"

"Pleasantly--" a slight hesitation, and a smile "--loose."

"Good," the Russian growled, and plucked the pricey glass from his partner's fingers, setting it beside his own. He grabbed two wings of a linen collar in fists that were surprisingly large for his height and pulled, tendons ridging, buttons scattering, baring the American's untanned chest. "Because I almost lost you tonight, and I am not in a mood to play games."

"I save the games--" the American leaned forward, raised a bruised hand, knotted it in the Russian's perpetually untidy hair and yanked "--for people upon whom my life does not depend."

The pain was good, startling, sharp and alive as the tinkle of shattering crystal. Pain was always better than the alternative. "That is as it should be," the Russian said, and bit his partner perhaps harder than he should have.

Silence, broken by little grunts of effort and the wetness of mouth on mouth, mouth on skin, affirmations of survival. The American's lip was puffy, the flesh inside his cheek welted and split from his teeth. The Russian tasted blood. He did not mind. Tasting his partner's blood was also preferable to not.

" We have a plane to catch again, in the morning," he said, leaning back and raising his arms to make it easier for his partner to peel cashmere knit from damaged skin. "You would think our employer would give us a week off at least."

"Tovarisch?" The American laid one callused hand flat on the gymnast's muscle of the Russian's belly.


"Shut up."


"Am I famous?"

Hm. How to answer that? The American smiled, long square fingers tapping idly at the hard plastic of the steering wheel. "Four. In certain circles--"

"That is not a yes or no answer. I should claim forfeit--"

The American cleared his throat. "Hmm. Bathroom light just went off. He's at the window. He's drawing the shades--"

"What is he wearing?" The Russian was suddenly a flurry of motion, turning over the seat back, digging in a black plastic trash bag on the back seat of the babyshit-brown 1962 Dodge Polara with the three small dents in the driver's side door.

"Slumming," the American said, leaning forward with the binoculars pressed to his eyes. "Dark slacks. Your jeans should be fine in the dark. And -- slouchy white pullover. No, ivory. Sweater or a sweatshirt."

"We brought a white sweatshirt," his partner said, and slithered back into the front seat with his prize. He ducked his head, back of his hand brushing his partner's arm in the confined space as he writhed into the shirt. "This should do in the dark. Where do you wish to take him, my friend?"

"If he follows his usual route, ah--" the American looked at his partner, just as the Russian looked at him. The Russian offered a wary flash of smile at the inevitability of that glance. "--I'll take him out behind the tailor shop and hand him off to the boys in the van. Complete the route. I'll be there after you make the pickup."

A stocky blond man emerged from the front door of the brownstone, shuffling along purposefully, his hands stuffed into the side pockets of his slacks, his ivory sweater lumpy and unkempt. "Be careful," the Russian said, and slipped out of the car as if he had never been there, the hood of his inside-out sweatshirt pulled up to cover the brightness of his hair.

Be careful? the American thought. I'm not the one going into harm's way tonight, you crazy Soviet.


On the surface, he's wind to your stone, ice to your fire. The accent is an enemy's, the demeanor suave where yours is stiff, or perhaps brittle where yours is calm.

He's a depraved and godless communist, or maybe he's a decadent capitalist swine. The Cold War takes place in the break room, and your coworkers place their bets on which of you will kill the other one first. You overhear comments about the immovable object and the irresistible force. Matter and antimatter. White and black. Night and day. Us and Them.

Your coworkers are fools.

The détente that matters takes place in greasy midnight alleyways over icy, oily coffee. Peel off the pretenses and the same history lies beneath. Night and day aren't opposites.

They are two halves of a whole.



"Pansy. It's only alcohol."

"Pansy?" The Russian wondered if his partner could hear the raised eyebrow in his voice. He couldn't be troubled to lift his head from the sofa and look over his shoulder to catch his partner's eye. "Consider the source. In any case, the welts hurt enough without your assistance."

"This one's going to scar, I think. You should have had stitches; we seem to have split the scab."

"I do not need stitches -- ow. If you insist on tormenting me, at least permit me to apply more alcohol on the inside, also."

"By all means. It's gotten warm, I'm afraid." The vodka glass nestled into the carpet beside the Russian's left hand. "At least one new scar," his partner said regretfully. "Possibly two or three."

"Who would notice another?" The Russian lifted himself on his elbow to sip pungent liquor, leather briefly adhering to his chest. Cool fingers traced the old and new marks on his back, buttocks, thighs. The touch felt strange--interrupted--prickles and pins and needles that were the legacy of damaged nerves, damaged skin.

The American sighed. "How can you just, ah, shrug it off like that?"

"I'm not a wounded pigeon."

"Wounded dove," the American corrected, cool stroke of an alcohol-soaked cloth following his hand.

"Whatever. My actions will not be dictated by my injuries--" They both knew it was a patent lie. Knew it, and lived it. "Permit me some measure of dignity, my friend." He lay prone and set down his glass, reaching back to run broad fingers up his partner's forearm and shoulder. Fingers traced skin like satin to a knot as hard and slick as leather. "What is this?"

"You know what it is."

The Russian let his silence handle the reprimand, and his partner sighed and gave in.

"It's a scar."

"A bullet wound."


"Did you know that scar tissue is the strongest tissue in the body?"

His partner set the antiseptic cloth aside and caressed one of the uglier marks on the Russian's back, fingers trailing to outline hard muscle. The Russian flinched more than he had from the alcohol. "It's tough," the American admitted. "But it doesn't stretch. And it can interrupt sensation, make pleasure feel like pain. Make you afraid to take chances, get injured again--"

"There is that," the Russian agreed, drowsy now as his partner finger-combed his hair, floating on the scent of warm leather and warmer booze. "But it is preferable to the alternative."


The alley was deserted, and the American gave a faint, satisfied huff. The courier would have had to run full-out to make it here before him, but it was still good not to be wrong. He stepped into the shadows and waited, breathing deeply with exertion. A week's painstaking observation said that this was the place where it must happen. This was the place where it would be.

It all went bad, of course.

He tuned his ears for approaching footsteps--fast, short steps, not his partner's fluid stride and oh-so-insignificant limp. What he heard instead was a scuffle, a rattle of shoes on metal, an angry shout. He ran to the cross street, muffling his steps as best he could, and looked down, both ways, and up--

Two struggling figures on a fifth-story fire escape, interchangeable in the near-darkness. Blond hair a little too long for respectability, pale lumpy pullovers concealing the outlines of the bodies within. The courier had taken to the rooftops--driven by the seventh sense everyone in their line of work shared if they lasted long--and rather than miss the chance to replace him before the pickup, the Russian had followed him there. The American raised his sidearm, wishing it were loaded with darts, and leaned back into a two-handed police stance.

A pistol.

He might as well have been aiming a peashooter, at this distance and angle of fire. He'd have been better off with a peashooter, he realized as he thumbed the safety off. Because his chances of hitting his partner were just as good as his chances of hitting the courier. Even if his aim was true, a bullet could pass through the intended target, tumbling, rending flesh, shredding arteries, and kill what lay beyond. "Fucking hell," he swore, blowing his forelock out of his eyes, the scent of garbage and cool city night rising all around him as he waited for his opening, breath smooth and calm in his chest.

He waited too long.

A grunt, a left cross he thought he recognized all too well, and someone ducked, and someone grabbed, and someone hit the railing hard at waist-level and toppled forward. For a dizzying moment, the American imagined he fell too--flailing, fifty feet down onto asphalt and broken glass with a crunch that promised no survivors.

He couldn't comprehend how it was that his partner fell, and didn't take him over the railing too.

He didn't run. He didn't look down. Everything except his hands trembling with fury, the American switched the custom-made firearm to full auto and aimed with meticulous precision, as if he were on the target range.

And then, five stories above him, the Russian turned around and raked both hands through his hair and leaned hard on the railing, gasping, shaking his head a little when he saw the American leveling the gun. "You had better not be another evil duplicate," he called, when he had his breath under control. "I haven't the energy to chase you if you are."

"Thank God." A sigh, and the gun went down. "I thought--"

The Russian was descending the fire escape. Was swinging down and dropping the last ten feet, not bothering with the ladder. "I used a body double," he said dryly, nudging the pulpy courier with his toe. The American chuckled; he knew as well as the Russian did that the humor was a gaudy veil over the face of the dark goddess Necessity. The world trembled on the edge of a precipice, two great enemies chained mouth to mouth, nearly kissing, vast muscles writhing under fear-sweated skin. It would only take a single well-placed bullet to topple the whole world flailing over the edge. "We will need a cleanup squad. I am afraid he is past interrogation."

"Go on ahead," the American answered, holstering his gun. "I'll call it in. I should have known I'd find you lollygagging. You're likely to miss your timetable for the meet."

"Lollygagging,"the Russian said. He looked up and his eyes met his partner's, and without another word he went.

And of course the evening only deteriorated from there, because their contact hadn't bothered to inform control that the recognition codes for the pickup had been changed.


There will always be another mission. There will always be another risk. And maybe you'll be captured, and maybe you'll be hurt. Maybe you'll be tortured, drugged, beaten. Used as bait. But there's no maybe about this: that you'll come back for your partner even when control tells you in no uncertain terms that it's death and worse than death to try. You'll kick and you'll claw and you'll scream and you'll work miracles.

Left hand and right, perfectly coordinated. How can you feed yourself in pitch darkness without stabbing your lip with the fork? Because you can. Because you're built that way, halves of a whole, kinetic sense that's not so much trust as -- right hand and left, right brain and left, one creature split down the middle. One animal, two bodies, one luck.

And one day you'll run out of that luck. Because that's the job. There aren't any maybes there, either.

You hope when it happens, all the luck runs out at once.


"What are you drinking?"

"Juice,"the Russian answered, pushing the glass around on the Formica tabletop, leaving pearls of icy sweat behind it.

"It's--"The blend of nausea and fascination in his partner's voice made him smile. "--mauve."

"It is guava juice."

"Guava juice?"He reached for the glass, and the Russian let the corner of his mouth curl, just a little, without looking up from the crossword puzzle he was working.

"You will not like it."

"Are you sure?"


The American put the glass down untasted and drew the second chair around into the puddle of morning sunlight. He sighed and leaned back, and the Russian saw the way his long smooth fingers flexed against the tabletop.

The Russian looked up over the rims of his reading glasses. "Am I an American?"

"No, you're not Martin Luther King, Jr.,"his partner said. "Seven. You'll never get this one."

"Hmph."The Russian set the pen down, considering his partner carefully. Considering the gloating smile. He frowned, feeling his eyebrows pull together. "Am I Caucasian?"

"Yes. Eight."

"Am I--" Hesitation, fingers through hair, a sunny smile as he played his victim onto the hook. "Am I a fictional character?"

"Yes. Damn you." That exasperated twist of the American's mouth told the Russian he had the answer. One more question, to be sure.

"Ten. Am I a spy?"

"No. You're an agent, you slick son of a bitch. A spy works for the other side. Put me out of my misery already."

"The other side? Whatever happened to 'godless Soviet?'" No answer except a shrug and a sideways roll of the eyes. The Russian grinned, triumphant. "Clever American. You very nearly had me stumped this time. Except you lied on one answer: not a communist?"

"I thought once I lured you down that backtrail I'd have you chasing red herrings until dinnertime. And how many communists dress in cashmere and drink guava juice for breakfast?"

"My friend, I never claimed to be a good communist. Détente is the art of compromise."

"Ah. I thought it was the art of letting the other fellow have your way."

The Russian answered with a shrug. "Ten games to four. My turn. Your name begins with the letter B."

The End

©2005 by Elizabeth Bear

Illustrations by Dietrich Kleffel ©2005