You and I first met in Sunday art class. A portrait of the Thief (stately, flag-bordered) looked on from above at our class: twenty-five kids, hunched over easels. Identically long plaits trailed down your shoulders and mine, yours raven-black and sleek, mine mousey and more fuzz than plait. You chewed on yours. Once, you looked me in the eye while doing it and said, “I hate it.”
I held your eye. “Me too.”
The class was meant to draw and shade in a picture of a white ball sitting on a white tablecloth and lit by a white light. You were tracing an intricately detailed dragon into the surface of your easel, off-canvas; I was doodling a Valkyrie in a corner of mine.
Over time, we stopped paying much attention to the class. The assignments were boring. Other kids poked fun at my thick glasses, your dragon obsession, and your looks (one brown, Buryat face among many white ones).
We moved our real art and our conversations to the downstairs toilet. In between and over other kids’ confessions (I <3 Vasily Petrovich; Dasha is a bitch) we drew our own world. We didn’t have LiveJournal yet, so we made up our own words for who we were. Your name became Smaug. Mine stayed Sasha.
Surrounded by twelve-year-old girls who kissed on the lips to say hello, we never even hugged.
It was me who said, first, locked safely, invisibly in the bathroom cubicle while you doodled outside:
“If I were a boy, I would ask you to go out with me.”
Silence, for what felt like years. Then you said:
“Are you wishing you were a boy?”
“Kinda. I wish I weren’t a girl, anyway.”
“Well, I’m a dragon, so I don’t care if you’re a boy or a girl.”
I had no idea what I was supposed to say to that, so I went for, “I’m an ice giant.”
Before getting out of the cubicle, I breathed long breaths, like they taught me in swimming class. I waited till my heart rate seemed to go back to something presentable and the heat left my face.
As adults, we meet in a revolution. Or at least what I keep hoping will be one.
There’s a sea of shouting faces all the way down Vozdvizhenka Street, and just visible far at the top of Vozdvizhenka, rows and rows of cops in their astronaut helmets, backed up by armoured trucks and water barrel lorries. Behind them, shimmering in the first June heat wave, stands the Kremlin. Inside it, the Thief.
My heart bobs up and down on the waves of the chants. I flew in from London yesterday: I couldn’t stay away when I knew this was happening. Joining in the chants, I try to get the Anglophone accent off my vowels.
I recognise the antique script of your placard, which says, This Thief is not the first one. Give back indigenous land.
I look for your face beneath the placard. I know what you look like now from Instagram―round glasses, neat beard, that raven-black hair short and tousled―but it’s still a jolt when I find it. Our eyes meet and I have to go say hi, ready or not.
“I like your placard. I don’t know if I’m supposed to offer a hug—”
You scoop me in with one arm and slam me into your shoulder with a strength that suggests a lot of weight training. Despite everything, this is our first-ever actual hug.
“Give me your hand,” you said once in the thicket of bushes and horse chestnut trees behind the school. I must’ve looked startled because you added, “I’m not going to bite.”
Your fingers held mine, dry, firm, intent, and brought my hand close to your lips.
You breathed in, concentrated.
Then you blew a thin stream of air over my fingers as if you were playing an invisible whistle, and in a moment, the air was much too hot, just about to singe my knuckles. I yanked my hand away without thinking.
“Ow! What the fuck?”
“I’m just learning to live up to my name.”
A little blister came up on my pinkie knuckle. For the next week, I brushed it up against my lips while I sat through my classes.
A tall, femme-looking person is smiling at me from behind you. A friend or?
“Ah,” you say, releasing me, “this is my friend Nata, and Nata, this is, uh, Sasha.”
I clock two things: one, Nata is just a friend, two, I don’t need any explanation, therefore, I have been talked about. I don’t want to give myself time to think through the implications of the second one, so I say, “It’s so good to meet you. Isn’t this the most amazing thing ever, there’s like half a million people here?”
“I’ll let you two chat,” Nata says and slinks off into the crowd.
The crowd rumbles into a march. The chants against the Thief start up again around us but this time I don’t chant. Your steps match mine, and out of the corner of my eye I watch your smile, tense, expecting. Expecting something of me? Expecting something of where the march gets to?
Being next to you at once feels like home, like I am known for who I am, like we can run away to our own world any minute. And even when I remember that all of that is long gone and was mostly in my head anyway, the warmth in my body does not dissipate.
The march stops again, some sirens wail ahead.
You talk to me about your job. Yesterday you had to decorate a series of sponge cakes with handmade gilt eagles and printed icing depicting the Thief’s face. The chants around us pick up, so I don’t catch the detail of what you wanted to do to the resulting cult of personality confectionery.
I think, and avoid telling you, about what I did in my job yesterday, namely: finish a due diligence report on a Kazakh mining corporation—demand a three-month sabbatical—pack up before my line-manager could say anything.
I work up the courage to grab your arm in my hand.
“Smaug, I can’t hear you above the noise, can we …”
We climb the steps to the statue of Dostoyevsky, work our way around camera people clustering at its feet like mushrooms. Behind it, someone propped up a huge red banner. This shields us from view of both the crowd and the Extremism Prevention Centre camera-vans.
You fill me in on your family. Your mum and grandma are still in your care, though you could not live with them since going on T. Now you pay both their bills and your own place. Not what you hoped for, but liveable, and room for your art, too. You ask after my family. I avoid telling you they still assume me to be a straight woman, or that I bought my mom a flat in a building with a lift in it when her heart couldn’t handle the walk-up. I tell you my mom doesn’t know I’m here because she would worry too much.
I ask after your art.
For half a second, there’s a new glint in your eye, then it’s gone, hidden, replaced by something heavier.
You get a lighter and a pack of cigarettes out of your pocket, one-handed, and pull one out with your teeth. My concerned intake of breath earns me a little smile. You look around checking who else is looking and pocket the lighter without using it.
You look me in the eye when you blow on the end, one sharp breath with a hint of red in it. The cigarette smoulders.
One Sunday, two years into our friendship, you didn’t show up in art class. I stared at the door so much, willing you to come through it, that the teacher asked me to turn my easel around so I could concentrate.
After class you were standing outside the school in the gathering dusk.
“You weren’t there!”
“Duh. Now I work in a pet shop on weekends.” You raise a dramatic eyebrow. “I think the snakes know me.”
“But … ” there were so many buts it was hard to pick one. But why did you choose some snakes over me? wasn’t a good look, I knew that much. So, I said, “But your drawings are so much better than mine, or, like, anyone’s!”
“I’m not gonna stop drawing, dummy. I just …” You switched to a self-conscious whisper, and I imagined I could hear the pent-up furnace in your breath. “My family needs the cash.”
Sheltered kid that I was, I didn’t really know that that was possible at fourteen years old, or what to say to that. So, I switched to a more important but.
“But where will I see you?”
“Come, I want to show you something.”
The sun was setting as you walked with me into the overgrown park and into a corner we had never explored together before. There stood a little bandstand, various bright colours of paint peeling, lost in a tangle of bushes. You gestured for me to enter, as if opening the door to a palace.
Our magical selves stared at me from the columns of the bandstand: a dragon rising out of a lake on one, a lanky figure with a crown of ice crystals on the other. You had scratched them into the peeling paint so that your figure was red on turquoise, and mine, turquoise on red.
When I got home, I told my parents my first ever big conscious lie: that there was now an extra art class on Wednesday evenings.
You look impatient. Your cigarette has burned down to a stub between your fingers, and I still haven’t really said anything of value. I feel like I’m in a game show. The prize is to get that feeling back, the rightness of us next to each other, the belonging. And I don’t know the rules.
“Smaug, I’m so glad to be here. You’re so brave, everyone here is so brave.”
You bristle. “Brave, huh? What do you know about brave?”
Alright, maybe being Captain Obvious wasn’t the right thing to do, but hell, you don’t know me now. You haven’t seen me for fifteen years.
“A few things, and you? Didn’t you used to post all those ‘Politics is for losers’ memes not so long ago?”
“You follow me? That’s nice. Why did you think I posted them?”
Because I didn’t think you were brave enough, I don’t say. Because you have a livelihood to hold on to. I stay quiet. Sirens blare in the distance.
You say, “You ran away from this. You ran away from me.”
I can think of several things that I could snap back at that, that would end up with us not speaking to each other for another fifteen years.
I make myself breathe and listen to the wail of the sirens, which seem to be coming from several directions at once now. The sirens draw closer. Seem to be coming from all sides, which indicates we’re surrounded; somewhere underneath the din of the crowd I can hear a hissing noise. Something goes bang.
I breathe in. Out. In. “You’re the—”
“Sasha, I don’t know if I’m up for you pouring your heart out to me.”
You make to turn away from me.
I reach into my shirt and bring out my necklace, with a pendant made from an old shrivelled horse chestnut. I know you recognise it.
“Give me a reason to trust you,” you say.
Tear gas canisters pop-and-hiss not far away. I catch up with you, holding out a lemon and a face mask. You frown at me, then show me a lemon from your own pocket. “More reason than that.”
You carry on through the crowd and I keep tripping over my own heartbeat, and I can’t keep up.
Wednesday evenings started to freeze over. You breathed various things on fire on the concrete floor to keep us warm.
I was just getting into politics. I reeled off to you lists of things that the Thief stole. You said you couldn’t see the point of cataloguing everything that was wrong and could not be fixed. Nonetheless, the next week you showed up with a realistic portrait of the Thief in hand and blew fire onto some matchsticks for me to burn it with.
When you cut your hair short, I couldn’t decide what I was more jealous of: your fire powers or the hair. You looked a lot more like you and also a lot more like how I wanted to look.
“My grandmom would kill me if I did that. She literally says, ‘when I die, you can cut your hair off and do a satanic dance on my grave for all I care, but not while I’m here.’”
You shrugged. “Well, I bring in the dolla now, so they can’t tell me what to do.”
You keep going and I keep following. I’m scared that something I’ve just done or said will push you to do something that puts you behind bars. (Or am I scared that it can’t possibly be anything to do with me?)
The tear gas makes my eyes stream, scrapes at my throat in spite of the mask. On my way through the crowd, I hand out a few lemons and masks, but most people are better prepared than I am. Much of my Western knowledge of what else one does in this type of situation is inapplicable, such as taking down police badge numbers (none of them are wearing anything identifiable) and filming them (that might get me jailed at this point and won’t help anyone in court).
Would the Thief’s judiciary put you in a women’s prison or a men’s? And which would be worse?
All around me now, people are throwing stuff in the direction of the cops, whatever comes to hand: apples, water bottles, placard sticks, tree branches. In between flying objects, I get a glimpse of you talking to Nata. You place a hand on her elbow, reassuring. She grabs it, doesn’t want to let you go. You shake your head, shake off her hand, and head ever closer to the cops. I’m even more worried now. Whatever you’re thinking to do, you must think it shouldn’t even involve your friends.
Near the line of people shouldering against police shields, you find a lamp post. You start climbing. Halfway up, you turn to look at me, right at me, as if our connection had never broken.
You pull something out of your bag, lift it to your face briefly, and toss it to me.
I catch―a lit flare, beginning to sputter green smoke.
The ceiling of the bandstand went sooty from all the stuff we burned. We traced epics into the ceiling, featuring two anti-heroes in a dark, cloudy world where our magic revealed the true nature of things and people, their real colours, represented in the bandstand’s previous paint jobs: blue over orange over red over turquoise. In these colours, scratched into soot, we battled fantastical beasts and won, and you hoarded treasure while I made people build shrines and temples to me.
Afterwards we would have another fire and the stories would disappear, replaced again by soot. Ashes to ashes.
We took to leaning into each other, back-to-back, beside the fire. We didn’t talk about it at all, just sat there.
“Maybe when I find my powers, we can do this for real,” I said.
My hand was beside yours on the floor, not touching.
“Go adventuring, astound people. Save people. You know.”
I was embarrassed now that I’d said it.
You got up and stretched, took a pack of cigarettes out of your coat pocket and clicked your tongue at it. It lit. You took a drag, your eyes narrowing. I had never seen you smoke before, but this clearly wasn’t your first.
You offered me the pack. I shook my head. My back was cold where you had been leaning against it.
You said, “You can’t even tell grandma you’re gonna cut your hair.”
Flare in hand, I believe I know what I’m meant to do. I elbow my way through the crowd to get just upwind of the lamppost and hold up the flare.
I’m accidentally obstructing a group of people who found some asphalt chunks to throw at the line of cops, so I feel like I need to justify my presence some more. I start up a chant. It comes out with almost no accent and seems to get picked up all the way across the square. Everywhere people are pushing to break through toward the towers of the Kremlin.
“Down with Thieves!”
Up goes the flare smoke in my hand, wheeling up and over my head, drifting over the clanging of asphalt on riot gear, over the whack of batons on bruising arms. So real, I’ve almost forgotten you.
A red flame appears inside the green smoke. The smoke whirls away faster in great big wingbeats radiating from the lamppost, and there’s a scraping noise as talons unclasp from its metal. You emerge in your full glory, like I’ve only seen you in your drawings and my dreams: golden, lithe, nimble-tailed, with huge emerald eyes and a curlicued set of whiskers on top of a jewel-red maw.
There’s a collective gasp all around me: you’ve dumbfounded both the demonstration and the cops. I realise I’m grinning, which, if it weren’t for the mask, might give both of us away to any watching Extremism Prevention camera.
When you start blowing fire at the astronaut-helmeted cops, the crowd roars.
I had news to tell you. I had been rehearsing it all week and every time it came out wrong. When I came to the bandstand, you didn’t give me a chance to start talking.
“I want to show you something,” you said.
You turned your back to me and started taking your jumper off.
“Don’t worry, this isn’t striptease.”
You had a lot of layers to get through, despite it being September and still warm.
When you were done, I looked you up and down, worn grey Levi’s and grey wool-scarf-turned-binder and all. Then I saw: your shoulder blades were topped by line drawings of the folds of big leathery wings disappearing down under your binder. The shapes were your own sure hand, but the lines blurred, surrounded by blotches of inflammation.
“You got wings! But how—”
“Found a stick-and-poke man. Watch.”
You breathed in that concentrated breath before you blew your fire, and then, just for a second, the wings weren’t lines anymore but the dark gold of scale and sinew.
“Amazing,” I whispered.
You pulled your shirt back on and turned around, smiling a smile I hadn’t ever seen on you before, quiet, just looking at me.
I could’ve stayed quiet then. Who knows, I might’ve even kissed you. But that would’ve been all wrong if I didn’t deliver my own message.
“Smaug, I also have something to share. I got a scholarship to go study in Canada. My chance to ...” I hesitated, watched you frown. “To make it out of here. To know what it’s like to be myself.”
I already knew this was the wrong thing to say. Your smile was gone.
“You’re not yourself, here?”
“You know what I mean! I’m myself with you, duh, there’s nowhere I could be more at home than here. But at school, at home, on the bus, in the swimming pool, I’m always hiding. We both have to hide. And I’m done hiding.”
Silence. Then you said:
“Sasha, I’m trying really hard to be happy for you. But you’re also telling me that you’re going and that I have to keep hiding, alone.”
Heat rose to my face. I was beginning to sense you were right to be hurt and could not deal with it. “Okay, it’s not fair. But you know what else isn’t fair? You have magic and I have none. You’re this impossible creature, this dream, and I’m a loser who works all day at being a 'good' 'student'—” I mimed big air quotes around both words—“and then I come here to worship at your altar. Where’s my chance? Where’s my calling?”
While I ranted, you backed away from me until you were in the doorway of the bandstand. I realised that you might just leave and never come back.
I said, “I’m not … I don’t know … do you think I should go?”
You were looking down at your feet, rubbing your arms as if cold.
“What do you think, Smaug, should I go?”
You nodded, slowly, lips shaking, and walked out of the bandstand.
The police line crumbles, sooty and surprised. Cops, their horses, and even their armoured trucks stumble back.
You’ve grabbed a Pride flag from someone, and the rainbow is flying from your talons at the head of the breaking wave of people spilling out towards the red brick wall of the Kremlin.
When this image heads up BBC and CNN World News, will my friends abroad know that I helped out a bit?
I know that any second now, someone in that police force will come up with something stronger than tear gas and batons. Does your magic go as far as repelling bullets? I don’t know that.
You could, at this point, fly away, but there’s a whole swarm of Extremism Prevention camera drones following you by now. They would track you down.
I need to find a way for you to hide.
I hated myself for hurting you. I hated you for spoiling my happy moment, my big break. But more than that, I hated having you be mad at me.
I don’t know how many times I rang you at home. Your mum’s voice, the times she did answer, grew ever more annoyed. On what might’ve been the hundredth attempt, I slammed down the phone, growling, and headbutted the hallway mirror. I cried, face-to-face and palm-to-palm with my mirror reflection, not caring that my parents or grandparents might walk in on this solo drama.
After a while, I realised that my forehead and palms were stuck to the mirror. Frozen. The glass was covered in ferns of frost. I breathed in, out, and the ferns spread further.
When I finally managed to unfreeze my face and hands, I ran to your house, heart hammering loud in my ribcage, equal parts elation and fear.
Your family lived on the first floor of a blocky 1960s walk-up, the kind where the Soviet government, in a hurry to house the burgeoning urban population, hadn’t bothered with things like natural light and ventilation.
Sweat and the last heat gasp of summer stuck my clothes to my body. I threw pebbles against what I thought was your window. Your mom came and pulled the curtain shut.
Then I made and threw a snowball.
The curtain opened a crack.
I yelled, “Here it is! My magic! Come and see!” Silence. “Talk to me, damnit!”
Your curtain closed again.
“Smaug, I’m sorry!!!”
People were staring at me out of windows all over the block. An eternity of feeling like a fool later, the front door opened. You squinted in the sunshine, red-eyed, as you shoved a small parcel into my hand.
“You’ll regret staying if you stay for me. I don’t want to hold you back.”
Then you ran back into the house.
Inside the envelope you gave me was a horse chestnut, gleaming oily brown, engraved in your hand with the dragon among rolling waves on one side, the ice giant on the other.
You didn’t answer any more calls nor snowballs.
At my new boarding school, the chestnut sat on my desk and shrank slowly, giving the drawings wrinkles.
I let myself be carried by the movement of the crowd, closer to you, and I start shouting in any ear that presents itself:
“Go to the dragon! Dragon needs cover!”
I don’t know if Nata knows that the dragon is you, but she follows me.
A different-sounding shot rings out, and I worry we’re too late.
“Make space! Help me make space!” I shout.
Somehow or other, we clear a circle in the middle of the crowd, somewhere for you to land, but I don’t have another flare to hide your landing. If we do this wrong, all those drones will film you transforming back into your human shape. I shout out for a flare, but all I get is shrugs or “Can’t hear ya!”s.
You’ve got fire in you. What have I got?
I check that my mask is on. Fat lot of good that’ll do me against the drones’ ID programs, given I’m now in a clear circle. And where that information goes, I don’t know. So maybe goodbye job, maybe goodbye permission to exit the country.
Right now, I could just disappear back into the crowd. Retain my anonymity, slink back to my hostel room, fly back to London a few weeks later. Or I could try and keep you safe and let what happens, happen. Nata’s looking at me, waiting for my next move.
I windmill my arms, gesturing for you to land, a parody of an air traffic controller. You see me from up high, cock your head.
This is my turn. I crouch down low, and put my hands on the ground. The asphalt is hot with sunshine and stomping feet. I do something I haven’t done in many, many years. The warm asphalt turns to ice under my palm. I work harder—my palm and fingers go numb—the ice spreads out in a little circle around me. I push some more—all sensation from my hand is replaced with dull pain—the circle spreads out, two or three metres wide, and starts growing ice crystals. I’m giddy, as giddy as the first time it worked.
No one is stepping into the circle now, even though all around us, the crowd heaves and strains and yells.
Your talons clink on ice. The air around me stirs with your wings. You crane your neck, fill your lungs, and blow fire at my ice circle.
Everything, everything apart from your golden feet beside me, is steam, hissing, heady like in a sauna. The demo vanishes, the cops vanish, we vanish. My hands detach themselves from the asphalt and scream raw, burning pain at me. And then you’re human again, crouched down beside me in the cloud of steam, still clothed—thank fuck. Your face and arms have some ugly scratches and burns on them.
You lean into my shoulder with yours, just for a second. I want this to stop right here and never come back from the cloud of steam, but it’s already thinning out. I can see feet around us.
I yell, “Cover us! Close in! Someone, give me a jacket!”
At the same time, I’m pulling fresh masks out of my bag for both of us.
Nata swoops in with two jackets and baseball caps at the ready. Hands, placards, banners close in above us so the drones can’t see us change clothes and masks. You’re dizzy, flail into the jacket while Nata and I hold it up. My palms bleed, and I’m going to ruin some kind stranger’s jacket pockets.
Now it’s just a long, slow plod through the crowd to a first aid tent.
“I’m not gonna ask what happened,” says the first-aider once she’s done bandaging up my hands and disinfecting your cuts. “But you both look like you need to take some time out of here.”
Someone gets us a taxi. The driver says, “Down with the Thief,” for a greeting.
We flop into the back seat, adrenaline ebbing, look at each other, and giggle like we’re back at the bandstand.
You say, “Well, that was a start.”
A start to what? I don’t say. Instead, “I’m sorry I left.”
Moscow rolls by outside, streets full of people prepared for anything the Thief throws at them, and no doubt talking about the dragon with the Pride flag.
“You took your time coming back.” You put your head on my shoulder, your shoulder against my arm, and I can sense the tension of folded wings hiding inside it, waiting to spring. “But I’m glad you did.”
I lean my head into yours. You shift a little, uncurling, and onwards we ride.
Editor: Aigner Loren Wilson
First Reader: Ana Maričić
Copy Editors: Copy Editing Department
Accessibility: Accessibility Editors