Freedom has different prices. Fourteen months ago they were walking high wires in the Moscow Circus, dreary if well-kept employes of the state, but here they are now, on the other side of their escape, parked behind the Patriot Center in Fairfax in their nifty and Lilliputian and gadget-crazy King of the Road trailer that some guy on a lot in Florida tried to get them to buy for a flat $26,000 but that Lina -- who is learning fast -- said she wouldn't take for a nickel over $22,500.

That's just what they got it for, too: twenty-two five. "Plus taxes, of course," she says, making little imaginary zeroes on the skirt of her shocking-pink cotton dress. Bertalina Kazakova is something, and she hasn't even wedged into her spangled mini-bikini yet. In the Soviet Union her hair gleamed a chestnut-brown under the lights, but in the land of Marilyn Monroe and Circus Vargas she's a honey blond. And why not.

Nikolai Nikolski, her husband of 15 years, is sitting beside her on the tiny sofa. His English isn't perfect yet, so Lina tends to do most of the talking. But he is the real magician in this family, the one who will perform uncanny feats 30 feet off the ground this evening -- like walking blindfolded while holding his wife on his shoulders. That's still two hours off, although the tension is starting to ratchet upward.

Nick, who has a body nearly like Steve Reeves' in the old "Hercules" movies, has just stood up and trimmed a lamp, drawn a frilly little curtain behind his wife's head: Home is where you make it, and better keep the dark out. The death-defying aerialist is padding around his trailer in a pair of chocolate-brown slippers. Maybe he got them at G.U.M. on Red Square, though more likely at T.J. Maxx on Biscayne Boulevard. He is also trying to keep little Julik quiet. Julik is a very neurotic chihuahua -- a sort of bat with legs, as one western scribe has already put it. He's about the size of a woman's glove. This dog just won't shut up, this dog keeps bounding and yipping from coffee table to breakfast nook and back to the sofa. The couple had another chihuahua in Russia but of course couldn't take him along when they defected. In fact, they were able to take practically nothing along when they defected, save of course their awesome gifts of balance and control.

"No pictures, no anything," says Lina, making a kind of sad swept-away motion with her left hand. "The only picture we had was not of our parents but the one in our memory -- of the KGB agent."

Nick is in white chinos with a drawstring, a sport shirt open halfway to his navel. Now he leans over and whispers something very quick in his wife's ear: Is he telling her to cool it with the KGB talk? They look so in love. Who else do they really have but each other? His hair is sculpted to his scalp like a helmet. He has a silver bracelet on. He is very tan. He could pass for an American beach boy getting ready to go out to the Whiskey A Go Go.

On Aug. 4, 1986, Nikolai Nikolski and Bertalina Kazakova, widely considered among the premier wire walkers in the Soviet Union (of whom there are hundreds, if not thousands), took a walk from everything they had been born into and had grown up with. They were both 35 years old and had been planning to do it for at least 10 years. Did their families have any hint? If so, they can't tell you for fear, even now, of retaliation -- not to them but to their loved ones back home. Or so they fervidly believe. But what exactly is real here and what isn't?

"Oh, we know this is real," says Lina. "We have made contact. Through a third country. We cannot tell you more. We have also tried to call. We got through. The KGB taped the conversation."

But how do you know?

"We know, we know. From little babyhood, we know. They will be reading this story, we assure you."

And you can never go back?

"No. Never. Never go back." There is not a trace of humor in it. Or hope.

They were on tour with the Moscow Circus in Buenos Aires when they got up that morning, jammed Nick's special shoes into an attache' case and two of Lina's costumes in a little sling bag, and then -- as coolly as their nerves could take them -- summoned a taxi to the city's zoo, which just happened to be across the street from the U.S. Embassy. It was 10 minutes past noon when they got inside the embassy gate. They were on a postage stamp of U.S. soil. In the previous two decades, about a dozen Soviet performers had defected to America, most of them ballet dancers and classical musicians. The story of the defection of two stars from the Moscow Circus seemed to have a special attraction about it. The tightrope walk to freedom of Nikolai and Bertalina made headlines around the world.

And now they are parked smack in the miracle of capitalism and waiting to go on in an auditorium on a campus named for one of the founders of liberty. Who could have foretold it? Tonight's show at George Mason will play to a nearly empty house.

Their toothbrushes are in a glass over the kitchen sink. A bottle of Dippity-Do styling gel is on the counter in the bathroom. A Radio Shack catalogue is on a bookcase in the living room. The rubber dish rack on the rubber drain board has pots and pans in it. A folded-open copy of this week's TV Guide is on the shelf above their bed. You could blink and swear you had just come home to Nebraska.

"Ah, we love walking in your American shopping centers," says Lina. "We don't have yet credit cards. Our bank promised us soon credit cards."

And then: "Green stamps? We know green stamps. It's very interesting, green stamps. But it takes so long to collect a prize, no?"

Desi's wife Lucy would go white with jealousy over this trailer: got a Sharp microwave in it, got a Sony portable TV in it, got a Panasonic VCR in it, got a recessed fridge with a brown quilted leatherette front door. The refrigerator was made by a firm called Siber.

"Siber, no?" says Nick, speaking in English nearly for the first time in the visit. He gets up and walks the three or four feet over to the kitchen and swings open the door. There are handsomely stocked shelves in there. "This refrigerator is very good, very good machine. Siber. It's funny, no? You know, like Siberia. Means very cold, eh?"

"Panasonic, this is the best firm, yes?" says Lina, showing off the TV in the bedroom.

"And look at this," she says, leading you back toward the kitchen. She flips on a switch over the sink. There is a low grinding sound, something like the noise a garbage disposal makes. What? Can it be true? The living room is compacting. Is this science fiction? Julik is frantic. Nick, sitting on the sofa, which has begun to move toward the middle of the trailer, seems only mildly concerned.

"Terrific, eh? It's for when you are pulling down the road," says Lina. "You can make it come together, so that it's narrower when you're driving on the highway."

"Of course we were afraid." Lina is talking of their defection. Her hand is resting on Nick's knee. Nick has his left arm draped on the back of the sofa. This could be Mr. and Mrs. America, save for the topic, save for the accents. "That day we hoped, we prayed, for everything the best," says Lina. "We defected not to something, but away from something. We are political defectors. We are not defecting for blue jeans, for VCRs, certainly not for money. We had money enough in Russia. We had special housing, titles. We were what you call 'awarded performers.' We had an apartment, a car. A car is a dream in Russia. We had two cars -- a car for Nick's father. Unbelievable. Russians with two cars."

They were in the American embassy in Argentina for two nights and three days. One night they took an American flag off the wall and slept beneath it. What kind of dreams must have been roiling in their brains? On the third day of their new life, a three-car cavalcade escorted them to the airport, where they ran up the stairs of an Eastern Air Lines jet and flew out of South America and then on up to the palms and coral shores of Miami. Practically upon touching down they had offers from three U.S. circuses. Everybody thought they would go with Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey, which of course is the greatest show on earth. Nope.

"We wanted to be -- what is this word? -- free-lance," says Lina. "Yes, ah, free-lance. Ringling Brothers said 'contract for two years, minimum.' And living every day in Mr. {Kenneth} Feld's train. No, no, we did not wish to do this. Ringling Brothers circus in a way very much like socialism model of Russian circus. Not so interesting for us. We wanted to be -- yes, free-lance. And anyway we had better offer from others. More money."

So now they walk the wire for Circus Vargas, which is out of North Hollywood, Calif., and for Circus U.S.A., which is out of Hialeah, Fla. They contract for two and three weeks, then see America in their King of the Road, pulled by their new Chevy pickup. Tomorrow Circus Vargas moves to Capital Centre. Afterward they will take a couple of weeks off, go their own way in their short, short trailer.

"We were so surprised to see how America was," says Lina. "We thought it was going to be all like New York City -- tall buildings, smog. This is what we see on Russian TV. We have seen 22 states so far. All eastern until Mississippi. Mississippi is our West."

So how was Mississippi?

"Ehhhh," says Lina, making a little shrugging gesture. "Kind of poor, no? We hope to see the Great Lakes. Toledo." The town comes out To-lay-do. "We have already seen Kentucky. You know, country music. Ahahaha."

But no joke: "We just love America," Lina says. "A lot of people tell us America is not paradise. Maybe paradise is nowhere. We haven't seen in America yet the shadow side." She hesitates. "Well, only one thing. Maybe too much freedom in America, for us, at least. Freedom for us is almost something too wide. Is very hard to explain." And she doesn't.

Any Russian hand can tell you that circus in the U.S.S.R. is a serious art form, if not on an esthetic level with the Bolshoi, accomplished all the same. Where else in the world but in Odessa or in Leningrad or especially Moscow could one hope to see bears playing hockey on ice skates? The Moscow Circus performs in a permanent 3,400-seat arena shaped like a wide-brimmed hat and set on a broad plaza. The humanities faculty of Moscow University is located directly opposite. It is nothing for the Moscow Circus to employ 20 wire acts.

"Russian circus is like going to theater," Lina says. "Very comfortable. Special music. Big orchestra." She shakes her head, and is there a little wistfulness in this shake? "In America it's entertainment, more for children." But she wants to amend this: "It's interesting, just not the same. In Russia every big city has special circus. The Moscow Circus is like central circus, is like model of entire Russian system."

Six weeks ago, in Skowhegan, Maine, Lina fell off the wire and landed on her back. She dropped 22 feet. She was unconscious. Recounting this now, she brings her hands up to her breast. "Thank God all bones were whole. For my luck I fell down on grass, not to concrete. Boom. Five days I could not move, could not turn around in bed. Nick carried me to bathroom. But, you see, this is our professional risk. Nick was not looking when I fell. He turns. He does not see me on the wire. 'Where is my Lina? Oh, Liiii-naaaah.' "

Her hands are up to her mouth and she is calling sweetly down an imaginary canyon.

How long can they go on performing? Till they are 50? And then what: Margaritaville?

"Maybe 50," says Lina.

"Maybe more," says Nick.

"When we see we are not interesting for people, we will be finished," he says.

"We can plan, but God will do," says Lina.