A Night Sky Full of Stars - Bealevon Nolan - ebook
Opis

Helsinki, 1952. Two former sharpshooters meet as athletes at the XV Summer Olympics: Andre, a handsome French tailor, and courageous Juvven, a Finish Saami working for the Soviet Union as a guard. Their hot fling ends much too soon when both men have to return to their countries.But neither can forget the other.Andre takes a chance and embarks on the adventure of a lifetime.Can their love survive, despite the impenetrable Iron Curtain and with the Gulag prison system firmly in place?

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A Night Sky Full of Stars

Bealevon Nolan

A Night Sky Full of Stars

Copyright © 2017 Bealevon Nolan

All rights reserved.

No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means, without the prior permission of the publisher, nor be otherwise circulated without the publisher’s prior consent in any form of binding or cover other than that in which it is published and without a similar condition including this condition being imposed on the subsequent publisher.

The moral right of the author has been asserted.

***

This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

Warning:

The story is sexually explicit and intended for adult readers.

No cheating, HEA.

Trigger warning: rape attempt.

Helsinki, 1952. Two former sharpshooters meet as athletes at the XV Summer Olympics: Andre, a handsome French tailor, and courageous Juvven, a Finish Saami working for the Soviet Union as a guard. Their hot fling ends much too soon when both men have to return to their countries.

But neither can forget the other.

Andre takes a chance and embarks on the adventure of a lifetime.

Can their love survive, despite the impenetrable Iron Curtain and with the Gulag prison system firmly in place?

Table of Contents

Dedication

Thanks to…

Translation

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

Epilogue

Also available from Bealevon Nolan

Other Works by Bealevon Nolan

About the Author

Dedication

To my dad.

Survivor of two dictatorships, war and hunger, who, as a refugee, worked his fingers to the bone but put his family first. You were always there when I needed you.

Thank you, Daddy, I love you.

Thanks to…

Thank you, Eepa from the Goodreads M/M Romance Group, for beta reading and providing me with invaluable inside information about Finland and Saami culture. All remaining mistakes are mine. And a big hug to Ofelia for your continuous support and suggestions after beta reading.

Translation

À ta santé!: to your health! (French)

Arrondissement: district in a city (Paris)

Balandra: fish-stock soup

Belomorkanal: cigarette trade mark

Blatnjye: (prison) organized crime members

Clochard: homeless person, beggar

Gauloises: French cigarettes trade mark

Gulag: forced labor camp

Intelligenzia: prisoners convicted for non-criminal crimes

Kozachok: folk dance

Lávvu: tipi-like tent

Lubjanka: former KGB (security agency) headquarters and prison in Moscow

Machorka: wild tobacco

MVD: Ministry of Internal Affairs

Na sdorowje!: to your health! (Russ.)

Nenets: indigenous people of North Russia

Nutukkaat: ankle-high boots

Prawda: official newspaper of the Communist Party

Puukko: small knife

Saami: indigenous people of Scandinavia

Stoi: stop

Chapter 1

Stalingrad, 1942

Juvven

The snow whirled around Juvven’s feet as he raced behind the small girl in front of him.

Another bullet whizzed past his body.

Faster, faster!

Blocks of concrete littered the streets of Stalingrad, covered in white powder. It hadn’t snowed much yet, and Juvven’s reindeer-fur coat blended better in the landscape of brown and gray than the white coats other Soviet sharpshooters wore. Jumping over bricks and pieces of furniture—was that a corpse?—Juvven raced along the street, panting heavily, and spotted in the periphery of his vision the remains of a street blockade. It would be a more substantial cover without being trapped in a house. Ludmilla had obviously come to the same conclusion and angled toward the pile of debris blocking the road.

Two more bullets, this time crossing his path, made Juvven glance to the side. On the second floor of a former elegant apartment house, movement caught his eyes.

Damn, another nest of German soldiers, hopefully not sharpshooters.

His pounding heart accelerated in fear as he climbed frantically, behind the agile Ludmilla, onto the snow-covered heap, and dived over the crest, tucking in his limbs and head while he slithered down the other side. He came to a breathless halt at the base, next to the girl, and pulled the rifle from his shoulder. Immediately he checked the terrain behind the palisade while Ludmilla breathed hard into her pulled-up knees.

The blockade stood across the entrance of a small park, an open area without much cover that broke up the four-story residential buildings bracketing the street along which they were running. The few young trees and meadows made it a less than ideal place to flee across in broad daylight. At first glance, no movement was discernible there. Juvven forced his breathing and heart rate down and took another, more cautious look through his gun sight. Ludmilla huddled her small body against the stones and concrete; as a native of Stalingrad, she had learned quickly to stay low. Another bullet flew over the edge of their pile.

“Clear on this side. How are you?”

The twelve-year-old girl who had introduced herself with a defiant glare and the statement: “I’ve seen what soldiers did to my ma! And if you make one wrong move, I’ll cut off your privates!” was still gasping for breath.

Juvven cursed his commandant in his mind. To appoint this child to him as a pathfinder and pointer was unjustifiable, and he’d tried to decline as respectfully as was possible with his limited Russian vocabulary.

“Comrade Kapitan, I hunt alone. Taking another might endanger—” The eyebrows of his superior officer puckered, and Juvven changed the rest of his sentence from “the other person” to “—my work.”

“How old are you, Private Aalto?”

“Seventeen, Comrade Kapitan.”

Despite the soldier being underage, the kapitan didn’t wince. The motherland needed every able-bodied man, especially one with a high hit rate.

“And how much experience as a soldier do you have?”

“None, Comrade Kapitan. Commissar took me from my tent where I helped herd reindeers.”

“So you are a Nenets and a hunter?”

“I am Saami, Comrade Kapitan.”

And I am from Finland and was only visiting a Russian Saami family when they took me.

But he kept his mouth shut. The Soviet-Finnish war was still raging, and the last thing he needed was to be shot as a suspected spy.

“As a Saami and a hunter, do you expect to have more wisdom than the generals of the Red Army, Private?”

“No, Comrade Kapitan.”

“Dismissed.”

Juvven took a closer look at the dirt-smeared, gaunt face of the girl lying next to him, the clenched teeth and shivering body. It had been close today. Moving on instinct, he reached out to touch the narrow, hunched shoulders. An animal-like sound ripped from the child’s throat, and panicked, unseeing eyes glanced over his concerned face. With frantic movements, her hands hit his own away. The keening sound emanating from her mouth made goosebumps run up his spine.

Lickety-split, she jumped to her feet and mindlessly took off into the park, away from the male hand.

Juvven yelled at her back, “Down! Get down!” but she didn’t heed him, running like a frightened rabbit. From his right, fire opened on the fleeing girl, and the hunter in him intuitively swiveled toward the threat. Scrambling up the heap, he peeked through a gap. In the window of the apartment building, movement became discernible, and another shot was sent after Ludmilla.

Lifting his rifle, Juvven looked through his gun sight and fixed it on the framework of the house, but only a gun barrel was discernible.

Damn, he’s back behind the walls.

The enemy’s weapon moved, and suddenly, a green uniform filled his crosshairs. Juvven pressed the trigger. A second later, he slithered down, avoiding the flying bullets of retaliation shot from the other nests farther down the street. Crouching behind the barricade again, he returned his gaze to the fleeing Ludmilla. The moment his eyes locked onto the running child, a loud bang breached the air, and the small body was thrown up in the air amid a cloud of snow dust.

Mines.

So the innocent-looking retreat was a trap—that explained the absence of machine gun positions. Juvven bit his lip and closed his eyes briefly.

Poor girl.

At least her death wouldn’t be for nothing. Juvven was warned and would, if he made it, pass the knowledge on to his commandant. In a place and time where the individual counted for nothing, and more often than not died for no reason at all, her death would at any rate benefit others.

Juvven crawled along the heap, changing positions, and kept his ears toward the street while the ever-present smoke of burned-down houses filled his nose. As usual, sporadic firing was audible somewhere in the destroyed city, but no footsteps closed in on his cover. A quick glance to the steel-gray sky assured him dusk would fall soon. Carefully, he examined the edge of his barricade without lifting his head above it until he discovered a mess of barbed wire and boards where he could push the muzzle of his Mosin-Nagant rifle through without being detected.

He searched for the enemy’s posts in the houses along the street, but without any targets to shoot at, the wreckages of the houses stayed quiet. Juvven recalled the map in his mind. To reach the River Volga and the Red Army’s position, he would need to go through the house on his right, where hopefully no other sharpshooter would take the place of the one he had shot.

Observing the street and its ruins, he checked every other minute the empty frames of the building that would give him cover and would be his way back to safety. Without any bullets whizzing around his ears, the adrenaline of his flight and fight faded, and fatigue crept upon him. He’d been crawling through the ruins since yesterday morning, and last night, he didn’t get any sleep at all.

The sky peeked out between the apartment buildings. His gaze fixed on a huge cloud, hurried along by the high wind, and Juvven’s mind wandered. Almost a year ago, he’d watched the same sky on the wide plains, his heart full of hope he would find another man like himself among the tribes. Faces of other adolescents popped up, some he’d been interested in, but none were interested in him.

The rifle slipped a little out of his slack fingers, and with a jolt, Juvven came back to the present. He shoved down the lingering disappointment about his failure to find a companion, and looked around, alert again. The minutes passed slowly while the contours of the buildings around him began to blur in the fading light and the buzzing of his anticipation increased again. The hard edges of bricks and chunks of concrete pierced his cold body; despite his constant position changing, there was no escaping them. Again, he longed for the soft forest floor of home.

The waning daylight would be an opportunity to flee this spot, but it would also enable his enemies to approach undetected. Despite his scrutiny, nothing moved on the street or in its bordering buildings. Were the Germans already on his track? Would they try to capture him or wait until he made his move and shoot him then? He bit his lips.

Stay or run?

A ghost from the past shot through his head, a whisper of his father.

Wait for the darkness. You’ll need every advantage to get out of this trap.

His tight muscles quivered as, lying right under the top of the barricade, he checked his surroundings again and again over the next minutes. Juvven began to breathe easier as dusk slowly settled on the nightmarish scene of ruins around him.

A slight scrunch to his left pierced the silence. Immediately, his mind was back in the woods where he had been taught to hunt by using all his senses, even the one no one had a name for. It warned him this sound had not been caused by inanimate objects. Predators were closing in on him.

But he would not stay frozen like prey hoping the danger would pass if he remained immobile. Mastering his flight reflex, he slithered down as noiselessly as possible to the right end of the barricade. His breath loud in his ears, he strained to hear any signs of whether he was already surrounded as he reached the end of his roadblock right across the house’s destroyed entrance. Only six meters and he would be safe—or dead.

He was too young to die. He had not yet lived, nor loved.

My love must be out there somewhere.

I will not die today.

Taking a deep breath, he darted from behind the cover and lunged, zigzagging toward the dark maw of the door frame. A hail of bullets flew around him. One tugged at his coat, as if he were caught on a thorn; another grazed the top of his hood. Two leaps more, and the darkness of the house swallowed him. He had frequented enough of these types of houses over the past weeks to know the layout and the location of the back door. He hastened his way over the debris and turned the last corner of the hall. To his relief, no barrier blocked the back door; on the contrary, an empty frame beckoned him with the promise of escape. The smell of the river grew stronger, and he exhaled.

Safe.

Chapter 2

Juvven

The Great Patriotic War ended several years later, and Juvven returned to Moscow with hundreds of thousands of other former soldiers and got civilian papers. Nobody looked him askance, as many ex-soldiers from remote tribes could only give vague descriptions of their home address. He gave the name of his Russian Saami hosts as his “parents.” During his conscription, whenever possible, he sent money to them, and they bought useful basics like soap, grain, and oil, and forwarded those to his real parents in Finland. It would have been easier to send money, but the ruble was not a free currency. In return, sporadic letters of his family reached him, and he read between the lines how his parents needed his support because life was hard in ravaged Finland.

He could help them more by staying in the Soviet Union and earning a steady income. After considering his options, Juvven applied for a job as a guard at the “People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs”—the MVD. The job was better paid than the mere 600 rubles per year he had earned as a common soldier, and had the benefit of allowing him to travel and meet other men. Even after all those years, he still hadn’t given up his quest to find a partner. Despite the scorn many Russians had for homosexuality, he’d found several one-offs over the passing years, but no one he could fall for. Month after month passed, through heat on the dusty roads, freezing cold in the Arctic winter, and Juvven’s hope died every day a little.

***

Six years later, in the winter of 1951, his unit re-embarked the heated railway car that accompanied the cattle wagons which held the prisoners on their way to their destinations. Again, the travel had been interrupted by a malfunctioning brake on the train, and all guards had to take their posts around the wagons to keep an eye on the prisoners while the mechanic fixed the problem. This lot would be transported to the most advanced temporary labor camp south of Stalingrad to build the Volga-Don shipping canal.

Juvven sat with a sigh on the hard wooden bench, and minutes later, the suburbs of Stalingrad passed his window. It had been nine years since he fought as a sniper in the ruins, and the memories of his youthful self resurfaced—how he’d felt immortal and hopeful of finding a compatible partner. He closed his eyes and leaned his head against the frozen wall of the wagon, remembering how the search began.

***

Usually, sixteen-year-old Juvven loved attending the Saami spring feast with his family—the gathering of relatives, friends, and other boys his age—but that evening, he had shoved and pushed his friends. He couldn’t keep still. At last, his tradition-conscious parents had brought him to the last Shaman of their tribe, asking for the wise man’s insight to determine Juvven’s future. His small, single lávvu, stood aside from the bigger family tents, and Juvven’s parents retreated to the festivities after they had introduced their son.

The Shaman opened the flap and waved Juvven inside. Strange smells of burning herbs permeated Juvven’s nostrils in the semi-darkness. He sat next to the fire and accepted the tea the Shaman offered; maybe it would help calm the bumping of his heart and the unrest in his stomach? None of his friends ever spoke of their meetings with the Shaman, and Juvven’s palms around the tea mug were damp.

But instead of performing magic or tricks, the old man sat down, clad in the traditional Saami clothing, his own mug in his hand. A twinkle appeared in his eye. “Nervous?”

Juvven swallowed the tea, his mind racing. Should he lie and appear as an adult? Or could the Shaman somehow detect a lie? Juvven had few reasons to lie in his life and he chose the truth.

“Yes, a little.”

A smile assured him of his correct answer. The thick, white brows relaxed, and the two men began talking; the Shaman asked Juvven about his life and his view of the world.

Hesitantly at first, Juvven talked about his wide-ranging education in reindeer herding, hunting, and surviving in the harsh climate of northern Finland. He talked of how the examples of his steady father and his uncles had helped him become a hunter with the necessary patience to guard the herd. He spoke of his adventures and failures, things that made him laugh and others that made him sad.

After a long while of listening, the Shaman unhurriedly inquired, “Do you have any questions for me? Things you don’t understand in yourself or others?”

Lulled by the warmth and quiet of the tent Juvven burst out the one thing he had kept close to his chest. “Why am I not interested in girls?”

Startled by his own daring, he looked up into the wise eyes of his counterpart. No censure contorted the serene face.

Encouraged, Juvven explained, “I am sixteen now, and many of my friends talk about the women in our tribe, comparing their bodies, eager to get their hands on them or sneak a kiss. I —I don’t have the urge. But when—” Here, Juvven lowered his gaze to the rim of his gákti, his beautiful embroidered shirt, and played with the cloth. “When I am in the sauna, I watch the—” he took a deep breath “—the men.”

A small smile flitted across the Shaman’s face. “Are you comparing your penis to others?”

“Uhm, well, yes, sometimes. But I look at the muscles and imagine stroking them or,” his voice lowered when he added, “licking the salt off their skin. I want to touch and get closer, feel their strong hands on my cock. In my dreams…” He broke off, feeling the heat rise in his cheeks.

Over the next minutes, he learned about the variety of nature and, despite what the pastor taught, it was not evil or a sin to desire another man, but rare. When they emerged from the tent, Juvven breathed freer, cleansed of doubt and full of energy. He stood proud when the Shaman, in front of all their relatives, congratulated his parents for their son, predicting him a successful life as a hunter.

Later, when the fires burned low and many participants already retired, the old man met with Juvven’s parents and talked to them in private, advising them. Although his mother’s sad eyes had disturbed Juvven, they both wanted for him to be happy and have his own partner. So they let him go, visiting other families, looking for other youth like him.

***

A particularly rough jolt of the tracks brought Juvven back to the stifling warmth of the compartment. For a second, he could have sworn he saw the dejected face of his mother in the dark glass, admonishing him to follow the rules and always be able to look into the eyes of his counterpart. His eyelids closed again.

If you knew, Mother…

Sometimes, even after all these years, the miserable circumstances of the men, women, and children he escorted to harsh labor camps gnawed at his conscience. In the beginning, he had been naïve and sure all these people deserved their lot. But he soon learned how many had been taken into custody due to snitches, anonymous accusations, or simply because they were related to somebody who was, allegedly, guilty. The sentences were harsh, usually fifteen to twenty-five years without the possibility to appeal.

The labor camps managed by the Gulag often sported the most appalling conditions without any regard for preserving human life. Hunger and disease were rife. More often than not, Juvven turned his back to the camps and swore to himself he would not become one of the victims. He kept his tongue, didn’t drink excessively, and didn’t form any deep friendships, to prevent being betrayed by anybody. And he was thankful that his family was safe in Finland.

With a heavy heart, he ignored the pleas and tears of the prisoners he guarded to the farthest outpost of the huge country. He tried to keep his humanity and didn’t stoop to cruelty or sadism against the convicts. It was his job, and he needed the money, but he grew tired of it.

After delivering the last lot, Juvven and his comrades were ordered to stay in the barracks near Kalatch to wait for the next transportation. It was the usual wooden structure with bunk beds and one big oven in the middle. They were about to get comfortable and brought the usual games when the secretary of the office appeared in the door of the six-man room they shared.

“Comrade Aalto?”

Juvven looked up from the game of chess he was setting up. “Yes?”

“The commandant wants you.”

Juvven’s grip on his knight tightened. His oldest fears resurfaced, unreasonable as that was.

They know about me being a Finn Saami. It was followed by a more recent worry: Did somebody watch me and Dimitri behind the wagons yesterday? Is Dimitri a snitch?

His stomach clenched while he forced himself to let the chess piece go.

How would it be to become a prisoner? Too many men had gone to the other side of the fence in the past few years. Even former guards were taken into custody for unknown misdeeds, and then vanished.

The pitying eyes of the other men followed Juvven as he left the barrack and followed the secretary with a stiff gait. Too soon he reached the commandant’s office. Instead of a unit of soldiers waiting to detain him, only the secretary stood at attention next to Juvven. A tiny glimmer of hope flickered in his brain.

The commandant looked up when the secretary announced them.

“Ah, yes. Comrade Aalto.” He reached for a letter on a pile. “You have been with the 13th Guards Rifle Division in Stalingrad under Major General Rodimtsev?”

“Yes, Comrade Commandant.”

“And you have distinguished yourself as a sniper?”

Questions raced through Juvven’s confused mind, but he answered in a calm voice. “Yes, Comrade Commandant.”

The eyebrows of the officer rose as he looked Juvven up and down.

“I have here an order from our National Olympic Committee. You are to present yourself in their headquarters in Moscow to become an athlete in your specialty: shooting. The USSR will send a complete team to the Olympics in Helsinki next summer. You will depart with the next train.”

The commandant stood up and offered his hand. In a stupor, Juvven shook it, too shocked to reply.

“Congratulations, Comrade Aalto. It is an honor to represent the USSR. Make us proud!”

***

Thus, Juvven became a part of the Soviet team and trained in the sports center. The team traveled, in July 1952, to Helsinki under the close supervision of the political officers and officials laced with snitches. The officials held the athletes’ passports, as traveling was forbidden for any USSR citizen, unless they filled an official capacity. Even then, they required a lot of advocates from the party, superiors, and neighbors. The travelers knew that if they defected, their families would take the brunt and be deported. Every athlete’s behavior would be under close observation.

It had been beyond the means of Juvven’s family to make the long journey to the capital in the south of Finland, and despite his longing to see them again, Juvven was glad. He feared he would reveal his true self in their presence. This way, he could take the Olympic Games as a well-deserved opportunity to catch up on fun and partying with his fellow athletes, irrespective of all their watchdogs.

Before they stepped into the buses for the last leg of the journey, the officials separated the men and women. The gruff man in charge informed the male athletes that they would sleep in groups of four. They would not live together sorted by disciplines; the committee allegedly had drawn the names for each group. Inside, Juvven rolled his eyes; the officials made their distrust obvious. The roommates would travel together for the rest of the journey.

An hour later, Juvven and three other men sat near the back of one bus and became acquainted. Niko, a wrestler and Juvven’s seat neighbor on the bus, peered through the dirty windows as they passed the border into Finland.

“Hmm, it looks like before. Woods as far as the eye can see.”

Juvven chuckled. “What did you expect?”

“Towns or villages or—something!”

“You’ve heard about the Winter War?” Juvven felt ancient as he looked at the young face next to him.

They passed broken-down ruins, mere skeletons of houses, which shut Niko up, but not for long.

“Man, I expect to have fun in Helsinki! At least they let us sleep there. Did you know that our National Olympic Committee planned to fly us in and out for the competitions?”

The heads of their roommates in front of them turned and joined in Juvven’s astonishment. “What?”

Niko beamed, enjoying being the center of attention. “Yeah, but they consented to let us stay at a detached fenced-in Olympic Village. I suppose to protect us from possible Finn retaliation or prevent us from defecting…” Niko glanced uncertainly at Juvven and added, “As if I would go anywhere else. The Soviet Union is the leader of the world!”

Juvven nodded, but didn’t comment. Nobody knew who was a snitch and who wasn’t, and it paid to be vigilant. Curious, he asked, “Do you know anything about our accommodations? I suppose it will be barracks or tents?”

“No. I’ve learned the Finns built a new university in a place called—” he scrunched his nose as he carefully pronounced “—O-tan-ie-mi or something like that. We’ll use the housing intended for the students. They’ve even finished an indoor arena! Hopefully, that will keep the mosquito bites down during training.”

Being a part of an outside sport, Juvven winced in sympathy. He was happy that the shooters trained in tracksuits. The wrestlers’ sweat and thin tights would make them the target for every bloodsucking insect on the training premises.

“How do you know so much about our destination?”

Niko grinned unabashedly. “I dated a secretary of the Olympic Committee.”

“Didn’t you say you’re engaged to…what was her name? Lena or something?”

“Yeah, but what can I do? Girls like me.”

Juvven took a closer look and had to agree. The young athlete was good-looking in a harsh kind of way with his broken nose.

“Wait till we’re in competition with the other nations,” Artjom, the young javelin athlete sitting in front said. “We’ll see if we keep even one of our girls looking at us when there are dashing Brits or elegant French around.”

Niko waved a deprecatory hand. “They won’t be around. The other nations live in a huge Olympic Village on the other side of Helsinki. We’re housed together with the other East Block nations, and our girls have their own house on our premises. But I’ve heard the women of the other nations won’t be living with the male athletes. They’re housed separately near the stadium. Fair game, I say.” He waggled his eyebrows.

The fourth man of their group, a lithe rower who had introduced himself as Boris, added in a high-pitched voice, “But how shall we travel to them? I won’t spend my pocket money on driving around.”

“That’s what the identity cards are for.” Niko pulled out the blue carton each of them had received on boarding the bus. “They identify us as athletes, and we can use all public transport for free. Plus, there will be special transport to and from the stadium from our village.”

Juvven was looking forward to seeing something more of Helsinki and grinned in expectation. “Now we only have to find a way around the watchdogs…”

The other three shared his smirk; they were athletes, after all.

***

Three days later, having endured the welcoming ceremony and made themselves familiar with the houses and the grounds, the four men sat at a table in the restaurant, where the Finn serving women placed in front of each a Russian dish for dinner. The noise level was astonishing; all the athletes and the huge improvised kitchen produced a convenient cover for their conversation.

“It’s barely six p.m. now,” Artjom remarked—he was the proud owner of a watch. “The other nights, the control came in between ten and eleven…” The gazes of the four roommates met.

Boris chimed in, “If we take the bus scheduled upon the hour, it takes only half an hour to the stadium, and from there, we can catch the scheduled bus to the other Olympic Village in Käpylä. The French eight claimed they’d meet with their girls there. There are lots of shops in the Village, as well as a barber and a huge restaurant. We should be able to enter with our athletes’ cards and take a look around. Surely, the women will flock there, too.”

Juvven kept his voice low. “After dinner, we’ll return to our room, making sure that the guard in front of the building registers us. Then we can change into our suits—they don’t have an emblem. It won’t be a problem to climb out of the back of our apartment, and the fence is only wire mesh, easy to scale over. Catch the bus at the gate, and we’re off. If we get separated, remember to be back in time! Okay?”

The plan worked without a hitch, and barely an hour later, they queued in front of the gate of the huge international Olympic Village in Käpylä.

“Like home,” Artjom grumbled as each card was checked meticulously.

Niko, last of their group, nudged the other three, and all turned to him. With a satisfied grin, Niko pointed to the street, where a bunch of young women, clad in different uniforms, disembarked a bus. Talking and laughing, they joined the queue behind Niko, who couldn’t suppress a wide grin. “Just in time…”

Juvven kept to his group and walked with several friendly girls from the French team to a huge tent. The sun was shining, and his heart was light like a butterfly. Looking out while riding the bus, he read all the traffic signs, the advertising boards and the shops’ names. Even in Otaniemi, the wood smelled so familiar, the trees the same types he had played and hunted beneath a lifetime ago. Home. His home.