The three weary travellers stepped onto the small loading platform. It was a peaceful morning and there were a mere few other itinerants waiting for the train.
Aleksei’s shoulders and back popped as he stretched. “Hooray! We can stop walking!” he exclaimed in jubilation.
Mashka smoothed the fabric of her newly acquired clothing; a cobalt skirt and crimson blouse with a warm brown coat. It felt nice to be in some fresh garments, even though she felt a little guilty about wearing someone else’s things.
“Oh, yeah!” Aleksei cried, “I forgot.” he pulled out a dirty red headscarf and a pair of broken spectacles. “These are what helped me find you two yesterday. I was going to return them.”
Mashka grimaced, “Thanks, but I think I’ll wash it first.”
Chekhov also turned him down, “I only wear them because I’m a tad farsighted, and I doubt they’ll be of much use in their current state.”
Aleksei nodded in agreement and discarded the spectacles at a nearby trash can.
A seasoned conductor approached and addressed Chekhov in a pleasant gravelly voice, “Hello Yuri. These are your charges, da?”
Mashka and Aleksei looked at one another, 'Yuri?' then directed their suspicious eyes at Chekhov.
“That is correct, Kirill. I hope this is not too much trouble.” Chekhov replied, his grin radiating gratefulness.
“Not at all! You saved my sorry-” he paused a moment when he remembered Mashka's presence, and edited his phrase, “well you saved me anyway. The least I can do is give you a ride,” he gestured politely. “This way,” beckoning them to follow him.
In the next few minutes they were seated in a cosy and private compartment with two benches facing each other. After the final call for boarding, the train began to depart the station.
After the conductor left, Mashka raised her eyebrow, “Yuri?“ she hissed.
“In my line of work, we have many names.” he explained, “Yuri was one of them.”
“So he’s doing a favour for someone he does not even know?” Mashka questioned.
“I suppose so. But in all fairness, he did owe me.” Chekhov replied with a shrug.
Mashka narrowed her eyes, scrutinising him, “So who are you really?” Mashka prodded. “We know you as Iosif Chekhov, but what’s your real name?”
“I think, for you own sake, it would be best I kept that from you.” he answered.
Mashka rolled her eyes, “You know how to bolster my confidence.” she quipped, “How can we trust you if we have no idea who you are?”
Her “professor” sighed, putting his hands together in thought as he explained, “I fully intend to tell you. The time will come, just not now. I don’t want to keep things from either of you. However, you knowing at the moment could cause problems for all of us.”
Aleksei squinted his eyes in thought, “It does make it more difficult to trust you.”
“That it may,” Chekhov replied in agreement. “But I think that it is a necessary evil. Do you have an alternative?”
Mashka rose and folded down the bunk above her seat and tersely announced, “I don’t know about you, but I am going to rest after that walk.”
“Fine,” Aleksei stood, and looked inquisitively at Chekhov, “So, where is the food?”
“There’s a dining car next to this one. It should not be too busy and we are in more… generic clothes, so blending in should not be a problem.” Chekhov replied, peeved that he was no longer in his tailored suit.
“Excellent because I am starving.” Aleksei said, “Your treat of course?”
“Very well,” Chekhov conceded with a smile.
Leaving Mashka to her nap, the two of them found a table in the middle of the dining car. Chekhov ordered coffee, and Aleksei asked for a cup of tea and a sandwich. The youth rested his elbow on the table, his cheek on his fist. He stared out the window at the passing countryside. After a few moments he glanced in scrutiny at Chekhov.
“Why are you helping us?” Aleksei asked.
Without glancing up from the newspaper he was reading, Chekhov replied, “Does not seem like I have much of a choice. We all are in the same fire. You know the saying, ‘birds of a feather flock together.’”
“What’s with you and the nonsensical English clichés?”
“Call it a hobby.” he smirked.
Aleksei smiled, but returned to his interrogation, “You still haven’t answered me. Why help us? You can fly and leave easy enough.” He huffed, deciding to cut to the chase, “I suppose what I really want to know is your reasoning. You have no obligation to assist us, actually assisting us only puts you into more jeopardy. You are trying, and failing, to pretend that you are helping out of mutual necessity.” his intense gaze searched Chekhov’s eyes for an answer, "Which means you are doing one of two likely things; selfless charity or entrapment."
Chekhov sighed and looked out the window. Aleksei sat up straight, waiting intently. When he spoke again, the youth was stunned by the change of tone. His voice was heavy and regretful as he spoke, “I could not allow them to do it again. Take two young people and turn them into their pawns.”
“So in a way, this is self-serving. However it is not material, it is ego.” Aleksei appraised. “Though I’ll admit, your reasoning possesses a shred of nobility.”
“Isn’t everything we do self-serving, in a way?” Chekhov replied, taking a sip of his coffee.
Aleksei shrugged and was quiet for a moment, examining what his companion had said. “You aren’t very religious, are you?” he asked offhandedly, seeming to change the topic.
Chekhov was surprised by the shift of the conversation, but responded, “Nyet, I would say I’m not religious at all.”
“Hmm, interesting,” Aleksei trailed off into his own thoughts, then stated, “At least I know what to expect of you.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
Aleksei looked to see if his food was coming. He spoke after a long pause, “You’re walking away from a life you have had for so long. This is going to leave you as a man without a purpose.”
“And what’s your point?” Chekhov asked, sounding irritated.
Aleksei sighed, “I suppose I’m just rambling. There is no point and this whole conversation was just to waste a few minutes of our lives. However, when you find where you are going, tell me. Until then, I consider you unstable. This is a temporary cooperation. Now,” he stood up, “I must excuse myself for a moment.”
“Very well.” Chekhov nodded. Despite his irritation, he had to admit the boy was perceptive, despite being rather confusing.
“Wait,” Chekhov spoke up, stopping the young man in his tracks. “Why are you so concerned about this being temporary? We knew going into this partnership, that once the commotion settles down, we would travel our separate ways. So why should you care?”
Aleksei crossed his arms in thought, “It’s not that I have any such sentiments towards you. My concern is for my sister. She rarely tried to make friends after our parents’ divorce. And here you come along. I can tell already that she respects you, and has developed some form of attachment to you. What I don’t want to see is her becoming distraught, when you cut and leave. If you establish a friendship with my sister, it is going to be one you better expect to continue, even if at a distance. So until you decide who you are, I suggest you avoid being overly, ah-- er… Ah!, 'birds-of-a-feather' with her.”
“I’ll keep that in mind.” Chekhov replied.
The two men exchanged one more meaningful look. Then Aleksei turned, and double-stepped towards the water closet with a quiet whimper, eliminating his formerly oppressive aura.
As Chekhov mulled over Aleksei’s statements, the train sped onward, heading north through Moscow. It left the bustling city and into the wooded northern Russia, which, he hoped, would provide a means of escape.