For those unfamiliar with the original story:
In this universe, there is no fifteen years' separation, Illya and Napoleon have been partners for twenty uninterrupted years. As the story begins, Starsky and Hutch, two L.A. cops, are assigned to protect the dancers of a touring Russian ballet company who have been receiving death threats, which are a ruse to cover a larger conspiracy against a foreign official attending the opening night. Illya and Napoleon, undercover, are on the scene to prevent the assassination. Illya has replaced the director of the dance company while Napoleon poses as a reporter. The lead dancer, a beautiful, capricious young man, falls for Illya and pursues him relentlessly despite constant rebuffs. At the end, the assassination is foiled, Napoleon is slightly wounded, and Starsky and Hutch find out Illya and Napoleon are long-time partners and U.N.C.L.E. agents. They overhear an encounter between the young dancer and Illya, who is trying to dissuade the boy gently, but the boy is upset, and says, "You're so kind, Illya Nikovitch. So damnably kind. I hope you are blessed by the same good fortune you give me." Illya's response is, "I have been. For twenty years." Later, Starsky wishes Illya luck, and the exchange goes, Illya: I have always had luck. Starsky: Is that all? Illya: That's all I have ever dared ask for. I adore Illya, and my reaction to reading and loving the original story was, of course, a determination to make Napoleon very, very sorry. That's all the excuse I have for the following.
Napoleon Solo flirted with the cute little candy‑striper only as a matter of course, and because she blushed so prettily. She was far too young. Even in his youth he had preferred older, more experienced women. The night nurse had a quick smile and quicker tongue, she was also a grandmother, but what the heck, the banter alleviated the boredom. The day nurse, on the other hand, was just right, maybe with a little excessive covering over her bones to qualify for the fashion of the last ten years. But he was an old‑fashioned man in such things, liked some nicely‑distributed flesh on women. It was a change he could appreciate after the recent line‑up of gaunt, anorexic ballerinas.
The day nurse seemed to have her own preferences in age and obviously had a taste for younger, scruffy men. She had flirted with him, but when the two young cops from Metro who had assisted in the affair showed up to clarify their reports with his assistance, it was clear she wouldn't mind taking one or both home with her. Not that either paid her any attention. They did their jobs and scowled at Napoleon a lot.
Really, he had no idea why. They were supposed to be experienced in undercover work; they shouldn't resent the use U.N.C.L.E. had made of them to stop an assassination. All for a good cause and all that. They should also know that undercover personas were just mantles one assumed and discarded so why were they still treating Napoleon like the prize idiot his cover had been?
Anyway. All the dotting and crossing of their reports was done and they were out of his hair. One more day, and he could go home. Should've been home already. Shouldn't've let Illya bully him into recuperating in the same spot he'd been taken to after the shooting. Illya didn't bully often, at least not Napoleon, but when he put that mulish mind of his to it, he could even give Waverly lessons. Such a minor wound, too. Napoleon could have taken it home and let it be fussed over more properly by some generous Nightingale selected from the pages of his little black book. Here, even the ballerinas who had found his corny midwestern reporter charming would give him a wide berth. Most Russians were almost pathologically averse to enforcement officials.
Of course, he doubted even that fact would have stopped the infatuation that exquisite tawny panther so badly and rudely wanted to lavish on Illya. Not that Napoleon had been in the slightest interested in the attentions of the boy himself. Illya, on the other hand, could've been interested.
At the beginning, with all the prurient speculations running rampant about the enigmatic Russian, it had taken Napoleon no time at all to wonder. It had taken him many years to actually ask.
"Really, Napoleon," Illya had replied, in a rare receptive mood, "granted I'm not in your league, have no wish to be, but there were enough women. Did you think them decoys or transvestites one and all? No, I'm not homosexual."
Napoleon had started the awkward process of extracting his foot from his mouth. But Illya had continued, matter‑of‑factly and with just a trace of smugness for throwing the American a curve, "I am, however, bisexual."
Then he had gone on to assure Napoleon it wouldn't ever become a factor on the job or off. Being the prudent sort, he had never acted on that side of his nature even as a youth, in Russia, and afterwards, older and more prudent and an U.N.C.L.E. agent, well, one simply didn't take such stupid risks. Period.
Of his time in between, as a student in the more tolerant atmospheres of England and France, he had said not a word. And Napoleon hadn't asked.
The star of the dance company was such a magnificent creature, a scorching blaze of talent and sexuality "You're so cold," Napoleon remembered him saying to Illya, "let me warm you."
He also remembered the words that referred to him, spat out hatefully, propelled by misplaced jealousy, "He's old and flabby, he can't warm you."
The ill‑mannered young whelp.
The pathetic love‑sick puppy.
At the very least, Illya should've been flattered. After all, he was only a year younger than Napoleon, both of them old enough to be the boy's father. But he had been neither interested nor flattered. He thought the dancer a pesky child and a nuisance at best. Still, in his refusals to the boy he had been strict but not unkind.
Probably because he could sympathize.
Hmm. Better put away that thought.
Illya could've at least stayed behind to keep Napoleon company. But, no. Job done, back to New York. Of course, the most interesting happening there was, according to his daily calls, some unpronounceable culture growing in one of the U.N.C.L.E. labs. However, right about now Napoleon was bored enough to listen to the last exciting property the blasted culture was exhibiting. He picked up his pen.
The connection took longer than usual. Was Illya off on an affair somewhere? "Where are you?" he asked grumpily when the Russian acknowledged.
"Latitude 36.12 North, Longitude 115.10 West," was the precise but unhelpful answer. "Altitude, thirty thousand." Then he relented. "I'm over Las Vegas, Napoleon, in the U.N.C.L.E. jet. On my way to pick you up, in fact."
Napoleon brightened. "I like your music, tovarish. Play me more."
"In that case, get up and get dressed. I already packed for you."
"Wait a minute, I've got two suitcases full of stuff here."
"Have it shipped home. L.A. wear won't do you much good in Stockholm."
Oh, bother. "Stockholm in December?" As much as Illya didn't like vast stretches of water, Napoleon didn't like arctic climates.
"That's where and when they hold the Nobel ceremony well, the portion you'll be in charge of, at any rate. I'll be leaving you later to follow my charge to Oslo. I wish they wouldn't award the peace prize in Norway; it doubles the security requirements."
"Give me the particulars."
Illya hesitated. "Any devoted nurses in the room?"
"Come on, Illya, if there were, I wouldn't ask the details of a mission."
"One wishes one can always be confident of that, but as one cannot be, one must needs ask."
"One also wishes one's partner wasn't so bloody‑minded so consistently, but one can't always have what one wants, can one?"
A small silence. "Too true."
"Do you know who's getting the Peace Prize?"
"The secretary general of that Latin American human rights organization, Perez‑somebody."
"You're getting as bad as Waverly with names. Adolfo Perez Esquivel. His government would rather he didn't exist, and you know how rabid the Argentine junta has become lately. Add to that the routine annual terrorist threats. We'll be there to make sure nothing mars the `universal joy and hope' of the occasion."
"And freeze our ears off."
"Cheer up, Napoleon. I'll take you to Storkyrkan to admire your prototype, the statute of Saint George and the Dragon."
"Why, thank you, how perceptive of you."
"Not at all. Scaly tail fits you."
Oh, well, he'd walked right into
"Venice of the North" was as cold as Napoleon expected. And as beautiful as he remembered, built on a dozen islands and along the shores of Lake Malar, at the mouth of the Baltic Sea. The agents were there early enough to check out the security measures and visit not only the thirteenth‑century church where St. George perpetually wrestled with the Dragon, but also the museums of the Djurgarden. There Napoleon lost Illya to the ancient charms of the pharmacy recreated from the original at the royal palace in Drottningholm. He got his own back by dragging the Russian on their only free night to a decadent casino on one of the minuscule islands in the Saltsjon Bay. Illya promptly got his revenge by winning more at baccarat than Napoleon. Who consoled himself with a Nordic beauty. Who, unfortunately, turned out to have more of a passion for spending the night watching the roulette wheel go round. Which, of course, made the whole thing Illya's round. Drat.
Perez Esquivel was less venerable than Napoleon expected, around his own age, a lanky, bespectacled man who obviously saw the inside of a barbershop as often as Illya did. Formerly, he had been a sculptor and a professor of architecture. Naturally, he had to explore the seven hundred‑year‑old city. The agents ended up seeing again everything they had seen only the day before. On these forays tagged along the winner of the Literature Prize, Czeslaw Milosz. He was Lithuanian and he and Illya had a lot to say to each other. It left the Argentinian, and his human rights notions that apparently applied to everybody except secret service agents, to Napoleon. Illya had lucked out again.
Illya had lucked out?
The laureates had lucked out. The attendees of the ceremony, too. And Alfred Bernhard Nobel's legacy. And Sweden. And perhaps the whole damn world.
But not Illya.
Illya had been enjoying Milosz. He'd also bemoaned having to take Perez Esquivel to Oslo and miss the lectures of the Chemistry and Physics prize winners. One had something to do with DNA, the other with asymmetry in subatomic particles well‑missed, in the American's opinion. Generously, Napoleon had offered switching assignments. Only to have Illya accuse him of jumping at the chance of taking the easier task. Yes, protecting a single subject was easier, but really, the only specific threat was to that subject. For the party in Stockholm only existed vague, par‑for‑the‑course mutterings of threats. Besides, Perez Esquivel might be a prize winner, but he was no prize to Napoleon. It was a generous offer.
Napoleon kept that opinion well into the late hours of the night of the tenth, through most of the celebrations.
The media stayed ignorant of the terrorists that were stopped at a loading pad in the warehouse district of Stockholm. The helicopter crammed with dynamite the invention of which, ironically enough, had made Alfred Nobel's fortune never arrived for its suicide run into the Hall of Ceremonies. The news the civilian world would never hear reached Napoleon hours too late, by way of the U.N.C.L.E. office in Karlstad.
By then the surgeons had already tried through two operations to repair the damage the automatic rifle had done to Illya. Any next of kin was advised to get there now. He wasn't expected to survive.
The only person approaching a next of kin had a job he couldn't desert until his charge was delivered to his own compatriots.
The bright gala event heedlessly rolled on around him.
Then Waverly came on line and, in a
rare display of compassion, said, "Go, Mr. Solo. I've dispatched Undset
from Drammen to take over. The locals can manage until she arrives. You
leave to charter the fastest flight and take any measures that remain
Nonsense, was Napoleon's first thought when they let him into the Intensive Care Unit: of course, he's going to survive.
Yes, it did look bad, very bad, but not that bad. Not if one froze his emotions and used his objective intellect. Illya was small anyway, and of course he was almost lost amidst the array of the flanking machines. They were only watchdogs, various monitors for the blood pressure, the pulse and the cardiac activity. A light sheet covered his chest and groin, probably not to put too much pressure on the surgery sites, but his extremities were swaddled in blankets to combat shock. Through the sheet indications of the pads of bandaging, the curve of a chest tube and the thinner curve of the catheter could be seen. From under the covers the chest tube extended into a container of water, the drainage tubes from the incisions into pleated pumps, and a tangle‑web of wires led to the monitors. He had an IV in each arm, one of them dripping blood into him. He was on a ventilator, but he was also breathing on his own, the compressor cutting in only periodically. A syringe with a heparin line stuck out of his neck, tamped at the moment, eerily pulsing with his breathing. Even though it looked like an unholy cross stabbed into the life‑line of the vulnerable neck, it was just an expedient way to draw cardiac blood when needed.
Not that bad, not that bad, he kept repeating to himself. He'd seen a lot of hospitals, a lot of victims, learned something of medical measures in the meantime, and he could tell, yes, he could, and Illya was a survivor, and Napoleon Solo was a lucky man, so it couldn't possibly be that bad, it wouldn't dare be that bad.
He couldn't keep ignoring the tube inserted through a nostril, or pretend not to know its implications. He couldn't remember what it was called, didn't know exactly what it did, but he knew it meant abdominal or intestinal damage. Or both.
That was bad.
There was bloody drainage in the water the chest tube led into.
That was probably bad, too.
My God, what have I done to you? You were supposed to be in Oslo. Not here. Not like this. If anybody had to be here, should've been me. That was the way the cards were dealt.
Before I reshuffled the deck.
I'm sorry, Illya. I'm so sorry.
I never did take very good care of you.
He started to reach and touch his friend's hand, didn't dare. The hand close to him had a cap over a finger with a wire that led to a monitor. He pulled back.
Can you hear me?
What answered him was a shrill alarm from the cardiac monitor. Immediately followed by a flurry of activity at the nurses' station and someone urgently calling for "cardiac team to ICU," while someone else paged a Doctor Osborn to report his patient was in V‑tach.
Half a dozen people responded at a run. Fearing they wouldn't let him stay, Napoleon discreetly pulled to a corner, his heart beating in his throat. The specialists were of mixed nationalities, using English as their common language.
"He's in flutter pattern," said one French‑sounding doctor as a nurse started calling out the fast rise in heartbeats the monitor registered. "Where is Dr. Osborn?"
"Right here," hurried in a tall, thin man, obviously British. "Pressure on the heart?"
"All indications of pericardial sack distension."
"I knew it," the Englishman grumbled, checking the monitor and leaning over Illya. "Too much to hope all those fragments missed his heart. He's got a hemorrhage, maybe more."
"160, 170," a nurse read off.
"Cardiac tamponade. Now."
A long needle. Stabbed into the chest. Its long, wide tube rapidly filling with red, viscid fluid. Napoleon looked away. The Frenchman had left Illya to the other doctor and pulled back. He approached the man, and asked to be told what was happening to the patient.
"Who are you?" the doctor wanted to know, of course.
Saying, "A friend," would only get him evicted. He introduced himself, flashed his ID and rattled off the official‑hush‑hush‑business line.
"Deveraux, thoracic surgeon," the man introduced himself back, and readily explained. "Blood is leaking into the sack around the heart. The heart gets squeezed, tries to work harder, beats faster. Finally, cardiac arrest."
"What are they doing about it?" Luckily, he had experience in speaking calmly while wanting to scream.
"Draining the blood to relieve the immediate pressure. But the leak must be repaired, of course."
"They're going to operate again?"
"They must. But, Monsieur, that man was in surgery twice, I'm one of the surgeons, I operated on his lungs. He will not live through another one."
"Yes, he will," Napoleon
said with all assurance.
Illya tried very hard to justify Napoleon's bravado.
They took off the coverings and the light bandages on the surgery table, revealing the true extent of the damage. They sliced him open under the ribs, cut through the diaphragm and proceeded to open something they called a pericardial window. Blood gushed out.
Napoleon heard and watched over and around heads from the observation dome. Farther than he would've wished, closer than he could bear. Rooted to the spot.
The surgical team sounded satisfied by the release of blood, started to talk about repairing the damage. Suddenly, the Englishman exclaimed, "We have a widening median the rupture is in the aeortic arch!"
All hell broke loose.
With deliberate speed, they packed him in ice‑solution wraps to induce hypothermia, hoarding what little life Illya still clung to. They inserted a cardiac cath into the join of the right thigh and the groin to pump in tracing dye, then hooked a heart and lung machine through the fold of the left thigh. They cut Illya open vertically down the chest, split the sternum, wedged a double‑bladed tractor into the cleft bone and cranked apart the rib cage, delved into the gaping cavity, spreading muscle and tissue, exposing him layer by bloody layer.
Too many heads in the way, Napoleon followed the rest through a monitor screen on the side wall of the observation room. The narrowed focus didn't let him see all of Illya. In a way, much better. Dear God, also so much worse.
"As I thought, ascending thoracic rupture," Osborn said in equal measures of desperation and resignation.
It was a race between one after another frantic suture and one after another spurt of blood, the heart ripping itself apart as the surgeon's deft fingers fought to keep it intact.
Napoleon felt like his own was being torn, watching the failing heart in someone's hands, a stranger coaxing it to live. He hadn't been careful with Illya's heart, had he?
After an eternity, the surgeon persevered. They finally started pulling out, slowly warmed up the body, reassembled it in layers, wired the breastbone, clamped the incision, liberated him from the heart and lung machine, applied paddles and compression to the chest. Finally, Illya's heart took over. Napoleon turned to look down as beats peaked and dipped in green lines on the monitor. They made another stab wound under the left nipple to insert a second chest tube, sewed it to the skin, started swabbing and taping.
"Sodium bicarb no, into the chest wall!" Osborn shouted.
Napoleon stopped hearing.
Suddenly, it felt like it would be the utmost cruelty to keep willing Illya to live. How much more could he be expected to suffer? So much carnage already. He had to be tired. So tired.
Napoleon sank to a chair. No longer watching.
The surgeon came to tell him he could see the patient. He also said the patient wasn't breathing on his own, his hematocrit whatever that was, except it was, reportedly, 55 at normal, 21 at lowest acceptable level and 10 in Illya's case was way too low, and machines were keeping him alive. Sooner or later, his blood would poison itself and life‑support would be turned off.
A Swedish intern was with Illya when Napoleon came into the room. Before she left, she told the American the hearing was believed to remain past other faculties. Mr. Kuryakin's eyes were still reactive to light, indicating brain activity, so there was a good chance he could hear if talked to.
I think she wants me to talk to you, Illya. But what do I say?
Forgive me for killing you?
Forgive me for never letting you quite live?
If only I could do it over...
Please, Illya, will you give me another chance?
The tubes and drains obscured half of the pale face, violating it, distorting its clean, fine lines. The pleated pump whooshed in tempo with the pneumatic hiss of the compressor, there was a softly obscene sucking sound somewhere, a bubbling noise like a percolator, the beeping of monitors, things that clicked, gurgled, hummed, and dripped. If Illya could hear, it was a cold, callous composition he was hearing. Somehow, Napoleon couldn't add a human voice to it.
He reached to touch instead, didn't know where. He pulled his hand away, then extended it again, to touch fingertip‑light one closed eyelid, blue‑tinged by the blood loss and the unseeing eye underneath.
No more chances, Illya?
He had let time run out. Not Illya.
From the slight, fair, rumpled young man he'd met in Waverly's office to...this.
Well used up. Never used well.
Oh, yes, I know, Illya. I've always known. At first, I just didn't want to know. Then, I was too selfish. Finally, I was scared to know.
A nurse came in. Held out a plastic bag. Automatically, he took it, only then realized what it was.
"The clothes are not salvageable," she said in hushed tones as if already at a wake. "They were, uh, you will understand, also we had to cut them off of him. If you will permit, best to put them in the incinerator."
He almost agreed before he came to his senses. "No. You mustn't." It was a miracle they hadn't blown away a chunk of the hospital in their ignorance. "I have to do that. Don't let anybody touch them anymore, and I'll see to their disposal...later."
She nodded solemnly and left.
There was a chair and a low table against one wall. He sat. The bag held keys, the innocent and the not‑so‑innocent kind, the gun, the communicator and another pen, the U.N.C.L.E. ID, Illya's reading glasses cracked, loose change, handkerchief, a wallet holding nothing more personal than licenses and credit cards. A small note pad, covered with formulas and diagrams in Illya's impatient scribble, probably the notes from the lectures Napoleon had so considerately dear God! made possible for him to attend. The money clip not the decoy one, the real one held dollars, Swedish kronor, the kroner he'd acquired in anticipation of Norway and never used, and a small amount of Italian lira left over from their vacation just before heading off to L.A. Folded in the middle of all the different currencies was the single ruble Illya never spent but always carried.
The watch. Cuff links. A tie tack. The narrow gold ring. And on its long chain, the worn gold medallion, its inscription or carving long since smoothed to obscurity.
The cuff links and the tie tack were from U.N.C.L.E. labs. They were the fancier ones. Illya must've been dressed for some semi‑formal occasion. Even so, there was no comb to be found in the pile. As a rule, the blond shag got a cursory combing in the morning then was left to fare as best it could.
Napoleon blinked once, twice, raised his eyes. The pale gold capping Illya's head and tumbling over the pillow was as fine and bright as ever, not dulled, not a single white strand in it yet, in a man approaching fifty. While Napoleon's had been speckled since before forty, his temples now totally gray.
He blinked again, looked back down. The watch was from himself. Christmas, three years ago. Bought in London, given in a thatched hut in the Australian outback.
The wedding band. Napoleon was perhaps the only person who actually knew its history, even if it had taken him over a decade to be granted the privilege. A sketchy history, but that's all Illya knew, too. As far back as the Russian could remember, the ring had been on his person somewhere, sewn inside a vest, a shirt, a sweater. By the time he was old enough to know all little boys did not have one as a matter of course and ask about it, there'd been no one left alive to tell him whose it was, where it came from. That, and his first name, were the sum of the legacy of his early past. The patronymic remained from a dim memory, perhaps faulty. The last name he had chosen himself, later, when the lost children of Stalin's purges and Hitler's war were finally being reclaimed. Survival‑smart even then, the Ukrainian boy had assumed a Russian name.
The medallion. Illya had worn it as long as Napoleon had known him, a tell‑tale thin circle that hung to the middle of his breastbone under the dark turtlenecks.
That's all Napoleon knew about it. He hadn't had time to ask further. What it was, where it came from, what it meant to Illya.
Now he'd never know.
So many things he'd never know. Those he had thought he'd have time to find out. Those he had chosen, then, not to know.
"No!" he hurled against
the cold room, the uncaring machines. "No. I won't have it!"
They told him he had to have it. Had no choice but to accept it. At first they were sympathetic and gentle, then they were polite, then firm, and finally, impatient.
The specialists had long claimed more urgent concerns. They had the salvageable to worry about. Only the directrice remained. "This is not a neighborhood trauma unit, Herr Solo," she said in German, a language they were both fluent in. "This is the hospital that treats Sweden's, and the world's, royalty. There isn't a specialist you can bring in who isn't already here or hasn't been consulted. We have even consulted your own U.N.C.L.E.'s private clinics in Switzerland and Arizona. We have utilized the limits of knowledge and technology. What more can you ask of us? What do you want?"
Forever. Failing that, a day. An hour.
Everything. Failing that, a chance to say "Forgive me."
He knew he was asking the impossible. There was no magic wand they could wave over a man torn apart by an automatic rifle and make him well.
Yes, there is.
Or, there was. Once.
So long ago. Fift...no, sixteen years.
The doctor had been in his mid‑fifties then. Could be dead. Or senile.
But the formula.
"If I gave you an alternative, however unorthodox, will you try it?" he asked the woman.
She considered briefly. "I do realize your agency has access to high level, secret experiments. According to the documents U.N.C.L.E. faxed to us, you are Herr Kuryakin's sole executor. Bring us your unorthodox alternative, and we'll apply it. There is nothing left to lose."
He thanked her and asked for some privacy and a telephone. Waverly had given him permission to take any measures, but he'd have moral objections to this one. Best not to use the communicator.
She answered on the fourth ring, groggy. It was the middle of the night in New York. "'Llo?"
"Mandy? This is Napoleon."
"Oh, Napoleon," she came awake, "I'm so sorry. We heard last night. I don't know what to say, Napoleon. Is he...still...?"
"Yes, still. Mandy, I need a favor, love, badly. Will you help me?"
"Any way I can, you know that."
"There's an old, experimental formula for a serum in one of our computers in a long‑closed file. The initial notation of it you'll find in...uh...sixty‑five, spring, I think, when it was first used by THRUSH. I don't know the code we assigned the formula itself, but the code name of the affair was Nazarone. Also check under Professor Kellman, deceased, same year, at the French Riviera. And Dr. Bauer no, Baurel, present disposition unknown. Second notation will be a year later, the fall of the Anchorage satrapy, where we finally located the formula. Cross‑reference is Egret, Doctor, presumed decea--"
"I've been in U.N.C.L.E. long enough to know about Egret, Napoleon. It's twelve years since I switched from the Portuguese desk to Documents."
"Sorry. I need the formula, Mandy. Yesterday." Remembering he was still an U.N.C.L.E. agent with all attendant responsibilities, he added, "I also need two other formulas, anything complicated but useless. There must be hundreds in our files."
"I'll go immediately. Uh, Napoleon, seeing you're asking me, over the phone at that, uh, well..."
"It isn't classified anymore," he lied, "just defunct. I'm by‑passing official channels to avoid all the `in triplicate, please's."
"So if I find it, I can fax it to you from HQ?"
"Of course," he said. Else, she'd balk. As long as Waverly found out after he had the formula in hand.
Oh, yes, the malevolent formula.
When all else fails, fight the enemy with its own weapon. Death with death.
Mandy sent not only the formula but the whole analysis done on it, the other two formulas, followed by a short note of her own: Napoleon, what are you doing?!?
No, Mandy, the question is: Who are you doing it for?
A horrible thing it was, sometimes, to know one's self too well.
He left her query unanswered and kept the analyses to himself. He took the formulas to the hospital's well‑equipped lab. True to her word, the directrice gave it urgent top‑priority rating and, understanding the need for security, assigned three chemists to work separately. Napoleon gave each only the first step of the different formulas, then switched the flasks for the second steps, then again, and again. In the end he had three serums, two useless, one vital, and no chemist who knew which was which or the correct compositions. It was best not to take chances with human greed.
Case in point: himself.
Absolutely nothing happened for four hours. The only incident of note was Waverly's reaction, conspicuous by its total absence. Then again, locking the barn door after the fact wasn't the old man's style. Obviously, he'd decided to wait for the fallout.
For the next two hours, nothing much happened, except Illya exhibited some eye movement, a few muscle twitches. It was the middle of the night by then. At first, curiosities aroused, all the specialists who had been involved in the case had crowded the room, monitoring the machines, waiting, albeit skeptically, to see miracle in action. They had drifted away, pleading other concerns. The cardiac surgeon, Osborn, and the Frenchman were either hardier or had dismal social lives; they stayed, both in surgical garbs.
Napoleon had read the reports Mandy had sent and only then found out the serum had been given to Nazarone before Egret had put her in front of a wall and gunned her down. Maybe this was all for nothing. Just the tantrum of a man who didn't know how to lose gracefully.
He wished the others would leave. If he had to say goodbye to Illya he didn't want to do it publicly.
Suddenly, the body on the table gave one convulsive jerk, arched and froze that way, head thrown back.
"What the--?" The Englishman rushed to the bed. Deveraux joined him, lifting a corner of the covers. Illya started shaking hard enough to rattle the bed, his head tossed. Some alarm went off somewhere. Osborn shouted for assistance.
A whole new crowd piled into the room. Somebody cut off the alarm. Just in time for Napoleon to hear an awful gurgling sound.
"Mon Dieu!" he also heard from one surgeon, echoed by the other's, "Bloody hell!" They were both yanking away the covers, unceremoniously dropping them to the floor.
"Get him to surgery, now," a new arrival yelled. "What for, can you tell what's happening?" the Englishman countered, simultaneously with Deveraux calling for a mobile unit. Nurses and technicians scattered in all directions. There was order in the chaos and Napoleon, against every instinct clamoring otherwise, plastered himself to a wall, out of the way.
"He's bucking the ventilator," Osborn shouted at a nurse leaning over Illya's head. "Pull it out, hurry, it's choking him!" The air pump clattered to a metal table, still hissing out its contents.
Illya had to be breathing. On his own!
He couldn't see. Dammit, he couldn't see. There were too many people, too much equipment, more coming in by the second. He edged closer, to look over shoulders, around heads. A nurse shoved at him, using her elbow to protect her gloved hands. "Sir, please."
He only managed to see someone clipping away the sutures of a chest tube before an orderly took his elbow to steer him out. Behind him frenzied activity continued.
Waiting rooms and lobbies were some distance away. Napoleon chose to stay in the corridor.
He hated this part the most.
Finally, people and equipment started to file out. Osborn approached Napoleon, muttering to himself, "Nobody's going to believe this. I don't believe this. The queerest thing I ever --"
"How is he?"
"He, Mr. Solo, is a bloody miracle. I'm a scientist, sir, I don't believe in miracles."
Don't set too much store by this one either, Napoleon didn't say. "How is he, is he all right, is he awake, is he lucid?"
"From all indications, he's healing, impossibly fast, and not because of a thing we're doing. I don't know what you've started, Mr. Solo, or who you really are, but --"
"He's a sorcerer, that's what he is," the French surgeon jumped in. "Monsieur Solo, I must speak with you."
"Really, Deveraux, let us do try and keep our wits about us, shall we?"
Napoleon cut them both off. "Can he be moved? Is he well enough? Can I get him out of here?"
"If he keeps going at the same rate, by tomorrow you can enter him in a decathlon. He's sedated, of course, and I suggest he be kept that way for awhile. With all undue respect to `sorcery,' he's been through a great trauma. In my professional opinion, whatever that's worth these days, his body and mind must have some respite to acclimate to the upheavals. But he's totally autonomous, so move him all you want."
"Won't he need any more medical assistance?"
The man grimaced. "Frankly, if he does, we wouldn't know where to start. If I may be fanciful for a moment, that witch's brew you insisted on pouring into him has qualities we've never seen or imagined. How're we to deal with its idiosyncrasies? By taking him away, you'll do us all a favor." He stalked off, grumbling, "I don't believe it, I don't bloody believe it."
"Don't mind him, Monsieur," the Frenchman waved dismissingly at the air. "If he does not understand it, he thinks, it is not worth understanding. I must..."
Napoleon left him talking, went into the emptied, quiet room. Only Illya remained, a sheet covering the slender body at rest. He looked peacefully asleep. Illya liked his sleep, could do it anywhere, even in the most impossible places. Napoleon gave himself leave, just for a moment, to look, to smile, and to not think.
"I must know, Monsieur," the surgeon who'd promptly followed him spoiled the brief indulgence. "He healed himself, you see, he came out of the coma and the body repaired itself, the damage of the bullets, our damage, all we did was pull the foreign material out of his body. After a while, we only watched. It is...this is...please, Monsieur, I must know what is in that serum."
"That's impossible, I'm afraid."
"What's impossible is what happened in this room. What's impossible is for me to give up. How can I go on after this, when I know every time I lose a patient, leave one a cripple, there was a way to keep them alive, whole? It is too much to ask of a physician, Monsieur, I beg of you, I plead with you--"
Napoleon held up a hand to stop the barrage of words. "No, Doctor, you don't understand. Oh, hell, here, read this." He dug out the reports he had shoved into a pocket, pulled out the page holding Nazarone's autopsy results. "The one and only other time the same serum was used, it was used on this woman," he explained. "She died of old age, Doctor. She was twenty‑four years old."
And now it was impossible not to think about it. He squared his shoulders. No, not yet. He had a few days until then.
Deveraux seemed a smaller man when he raised his eyes from the report. "I...I see. Yes, I see. My colleague was right after all. There are no miracles."
Napoleon took back the paper. "No. No miracles today."
"But then...why? Oh, yes, I understand. You're a secret service agent. This man, he's Russian. He's your prisoner, he has information you want, yes?"
Too much TV, Napoleon
thought. "This man, yes, he's Russian. This man also has done more for
free world than you can ever imagine. This man is my partner and my
friend." He pushed past the surgeon. "Excuse me, Doctor, I have
arrangements to make, and if you'll appreciate, time has a whole new
He didn't request a helicopter from U.N.C.L.E. He hired one. Orderlies brought Illya to it on the landing pad at the roof of the hospital. He did request the use of an U.N.C.L.E. safe‑house a little over two hundred kilometers away, in the vicinity of Lake Siljan. He requested it of the Karlstad office and got it. The silence between himself and Waverly was taking conspiratorial proportions. The rules of which he didn't quite know. For the time being, he was willing to let sleeping tigers lie, even though he knew one old tiger had an eye open, watching his every move. As long as it wasn't stopping him.
He took off north by northwest. The fanfare of the Nobel ceremonies fast put aside, the city was in a flurry of activity for the preparations of St. Lucia Day. Next morning, dawn would be breaking over the Festival of Lights. He and Illya had considered staying around for it. A million years ago, in another lifetime.
Dal River was easy to pick up at the mouth of the Hedesunda Fjord. He swung a few more degrees west to follow it to the lake. The valleys of the Lowlands fell behind and the mountain ranges came closer. Past the town of Borlange, he set the helicopter down in a well‑camouflaged ravine, next to a large shed where U.N.C.L.E. maintained the terrain vehicles that serviced the safe‑house. He could've easily flown to the house itself. It wouldn't be prudent, though. In a car on a country road, Nazarone had been relatively harmless. If the same stage hit Illya, what he could do with a helicopter didn't bear thinking about. For the same reason, Napoleon bypassed the snowmobiles. They were state‑of‑the‑art ones with speeds reaching 120 miles. He took, instead, the more plodding Sno‑Cat with its wide treads, transferred the suitcases and the provisions to it. Also, it'd be more comfortable for Illya. The Sno‑Cat was built for survival and rescue work in ice storms, avalanches and flashfloods. Tightly insulated, it had a padded truck‑bed in the back, thermal blankets, tents, its own provisions.
Illya stirred for the first time when Napoleon was settling him and using the rolls of blankets to nest him in so he wouldn't slide around. "'Ka...v‑v‑vreymmnnn zzs 'zbud...'tye?"
Napoleon took a wild guess at the impossibly garbled words: Is it time to wake up? "Not yet. Not until you want to. Rest."
"No, we're not late to anywhere, Illya. It's all right to sleep." Maybe Illya wasn't able to comprehend. He repeated it in Russian.
"...'Chatil'na," Illya mumbled: good. "Ya ustal." Promptly proving he was indeed tired, he dropped off again.
Napoleon looked at him for a moment, still unable to believe it. Strangely enough, it wasn't having him back whole that he couldn't believe, but that he'd been anything but. He tucked a blanket around Illya, climbed into the driver's seat. His partner's lapse into Russian didn't worry him. Barely conscious people often reverted to their native tongue. What worried him was this somnolence. Once the sedatives were withdrawn, Illya had slipped into natural sleep or so the medical opinion claimed. Why was it so deep and lasting so long? Only twelve hours after `dying,' Nazarone had been very much awake and aware.
Maybe too much?
After all, her energy and metabolic rate slammed into high gear by the serum had been what had killed her. Illya was now twice her age, his metabolism had been depressed to dormant levels maybe the serum hadn't found enough in him to accelerate into a death rush. Perhaps even the fact he was a he, with male hormones, made a difference. Maybe Napoleon's luck was still in good order and his wasn't destined to be a Pyrrhic victory.
Maybe he was just hoping too hard.
Maybe he should just get them to the safe‑house.
U.N.C.L.E. maintained numerous such houses throughout the world, from only a step up from a rabbit‑hole to those that rivalled Taj Mahal. This one fell somewhere in between, an isolated, perfectly pleasant, if small, mountain villa, high enough on the snow‑covered slopes to look down on Lake Siljan and see Dal and Osterdal Rivers wind away from its opposing ends. Napoleon had been there many years ago, to interview a Soviet official who had taken a great risk to meet him.
He took Illya to the bedroom, laid him down on the large four‑poster bed, haphazardly stuffed away the provisions, secured all locks, including the door and the window of the bedroom, barely managed to take off his coat and fell across the foot of the bed himself. He had been awake for more than two days.
At first, he ignored the rattling. It kept on. Someone was at the windows. He surfaced enough to remember his main reason for locking them. That, and realizing he was alone on the bed, woke him up. With effort, he staggered to his feet. Night had fallen. Illya was a dark shadow at the windows, trying to open them, his movements uncoordinated. "Illya, what're you doing?"
In the light of the moon reflecting off pristine snow, Illya's expression showed confusion. "Akno nye zakryvayista," he complained.
Napoleon opted for English himself, to see if he'd be understood. "Of course it doesn't open. It's locked. Why do you want it open? It's cold out there."
"Ya goladin," Illya said as if it followed.
"Well, if you're hungry, the kitchen is the other way. Through the door, Illya, not the window."
"Ya goladin," he stubbornly insisted.
Napoleon sighed, took him by the elbow. "You're always hungry. Come on, I'll feed you."
"Spasiba," Illya said politely. Just as politely, he pulled his arm away.
So he did comprehend English. Why he wouldn't, or couldn't, speak it was another question. He was wobbly on his feet, looked vague, with a gentle, distant smile on his face, his eyes unfocused as if still half‑asleep. And as usual in those conditions, despite his age, he looked like a sweet little boy.
Napoleon put some milk and cereal in a bowl, placed it on the counter in front of Illya, took out the bread, the cheese, and put the kettle on. He was too tired to fuss with the quality of cuisine, and Illya wouldn't care. If he could chew it and swallow it, to him it was food. The Russian ate as if starved. Napoleon poured hot water into two mugs, squeezed lemon into them, added mint and sugar, passed one over. Illya wrinkled his nose. "Ya vaz'mu kofye."
"We don't have any," Napoleon lied. He had been living on coffee for days himself, wasn't sure Illya should add caffeine to whatever might be brewing in his system. He motioned at the drinks. "You like this, remember?" Illya had been the one to introduce him to it during a stay in Istanbul.
With a shrug, Illya drank.
Didn't he remember Stockholm, what had happened?
"Kak vas zavut?"
Napoleon's mouth dropped open. Didn't he remember anything?! "Napoleon," he answered with disbelief, and a sharp ache, at having to tell his friend of two decades, "Napoleon Solo."
Huh? "Of course I'm not alone. How can I be alone when you're sitting right across from me?"
A sad smile. "Ya adin."
Oh, God. "You're not alone either." He had to reach, touch. "I'm here with you, Illya. I'm here."
The blond head bent to study Napoleon's hand lightly resting over his as if he had never seen it before, then turned toward the window to look at the night outside. "Idyot snyek, kak kraslava."
Yes, it was snowing, and yes, it was beautiful. No, Napoleon couldn't have responded past the lump in his throat had his life depended on it.
Illya rose, pulled his hand away. "Izvinitye. Ya chustvutu sibya plokha," he explained courteously, as if to a stranger, went back into the bedroom.
Napoleon didn't feel well either.
Belatedly, he gave thought to the motion‑sensitive cameras and microphones in the house, went to the hidden control room in the cellar and shut them off at the source, pulling out the already‑recorded material. He called the hospital to describe the symptoms Illya was exhibiting, got the verbal equivalent of a mystified shrug. He went to the bedroom. Illya was sleeping again, still dressed, curled tight into himself. He took up so little space for a grown man. Napoleon carefully sat at the foot of the bed, leaning against one of the sturdy posts. It wasn't at all untypical, was it? For Illya to speak his mother tongue, to huddle wrapped in his own arms, and feel alone? At the core, that was Illya. It would be the final irony, wouldn't it, if, now that Napoleon wanted admittance there, Illya would shut him out like any other stranger?
On the other hand, might serve him right.
Just live, Illya.
"Napoleon, Napoleon, wake up!"
"Come on, Napoleon, wake up."
Groggy, he opened his eyes, found a pair of worried blue ones looking down at him from ten inches away.
"What's wrong, Napoleon? Are you hurt, are you sick, what's the matter?"
Too many responses crowded in at once: Am I hurt, am I sick? What makes you think I'm either? You know me! Did I dream it all!? He just gaped at Illya.
"Napoleon, talk to me. I wake up, I don't know where, or what we're doing here, you're half on the bed, half on the floor, you don't even stir when I pull you--"
He couldn't help it. He grabbed Illya and hugged him tight.
"Ummph," came from the smaller man as air was squeezed out of him. "Napoleon!"
With a knot loosening inside him, he laughed, holding fast. "That's right, that's my name."
"Have you lost your-- Napoleon, let me breathe!"
Suddenly weak with relief, he couldn't have held on anyway. He let his arms drop. Illya immediately put a cautious distance between them on the bed. But that was all right. That was okay. That was purely Illya. Any scientific anomaly, he'd stick his nose straight into it. Any inconsistency in personal interactions, he'd freeze or back off.
He smiled at the man watching him warily. "You're back. Thank God, you're back."
Illya frowned. "I was gone?"
All urge to smile fled. "In more ways than one."
Illya cast his eyes about, looking confused and a little embarrassed. "Where are how did we ? I don't remember, all I remem--" He cut off suddenly to look down at himself. Tentatively, he touched his midriff, raised puzzled eyes. "Napoleon?"
"So you do remember."
"I...I remember the warehouse." He kept prodding at his abdomen, chest. "Then...must've been a hospital...but..."
"It was a hospital. Stop gouging furrows into your body; there isn't anything wrong with it--" the spectre of the riven, gaping body rose, "--anymore."
"Yes, I know, you need explanations." He raised his hands to rub at his face, hard. "And I need a drink, first." He rolled off the bed to his feet.
"If it's that bad, I'll have one, too."
Napoleon reconsidered. "Perhaps we should both keep our heads clear. How about some more hot lemonade?"
"What made you think of that? The last time we had that was in sixty‑something."
Illya didn't remember his previous awakening, then. "No, more like-- " He cut off on a sudden, crazy impulse. He needed time to think it through. "Just got a taste for it again. Give me a hand?"
Gamely, Illya followed. "Where are we?"
Napoleon put the kettle back on. "Still in Sweden. U.N.C.L.E. safe‑house. I was here in '62. Hasn't changed much."
Illya started cutting the lemons. "Where was I?"
"It was the Cuban Missile Crisis, Waverly was making you keep a nonexistent profile."
"Ah, that time."
As early as that in their partnership, Napoleon had been worried about events taking them over and splitting them apart, then he'd worried about letting it matter enough to become a source of worry. He'd decided it was the natural reluctance to lose the impetus the capable Russian was affording to his career successes. That was two years into their association.
Twenty years into it, it was more complex.
They took the drinks into the living area. There should've been a fire in the large, brick fireplace to go with the fur rug in front of it, the weathered wood rafters, hardwood floors, mahogany and wool furniture. Maybe later.
"So. What happened?" Illya asked.
Napoleon took a deep breath. "Not easy to sort out exactly," he started the fabrication. "What you think did, didn't."
Illya looked down at himself again, without probing fingers this time.
"It didn't, Illya." He kept it matter‑of‑fact. Illya knew his persuasive tones too well.
"We don't really know. Maybe you tripped on a conspiracy, or someone thought you were about to. You went missing, and then turned up drugged to the eyeballs. Hallucinogens, mostly scopolamine group, not all of them identifiable. Apparently, you were under the impression you'd stopped an attack by a terrorist group and got severely wounded in the process. Maybe you were meant to believe the threat had passed. No mischief interrupted the Nobel ceremonies, so who knows, maybe you did after all stop whatever was planned."
What good would it have done, telling him the truth? If he survived the serum, there'd be time for it later. If not, why poison the time he had left?
"I don't remember any of it."
Napoleon pointed at the dirty dishes on the counter. "Do you remember waking up earlier? That's from your last foray into food about six hours ago. You still weren't with it then. You didn't know me and you insisted on speaking to me in Russian."
Illya shook his head, as if to clear it. "How long?"
"Three days. It's the thirteenth."
"And what now?"
"Now we have this nice house and a few days for you to get yourself together."
Illya looked around. "That's nice." Flat. He rose to go to the window.
Napoleon followed him, turned his back on the cold pink and purple streaks the dawn had left over the snow‑covered birch trees on the slopes and perched on the wide ledge to be able to see his partner's face. "What's wrong?"
"Nothing. Or so you're telling me now." He wouldn't look at Napoleon.
"You don't believe me?"
"You're not an alarmist, Napoleon. Yet earlier you were being ominous. If I'm here just for a nice rest, why are you?"
"I thought you'd like company. It's too isolated here."
Finally he turned his eyes to Napoleon. There was no suspicion in them, no accusation, only the soft affection he probably didn't know they too often showed. "Sparing my sensibilities is not worth your jeopardy, my friend. If, as all this indicates, there's the danger of the hallucinogens driving me berserk, put me in restraints now."
It broke Napoleon's heart. It also made him want to wrap the man in his arms. Which would only alarm Illya further. Carefully casual, he replied, "Don't be ridiculous. If it were that bad, you'd still be in the hospital already under restraints."
Illya looked at him for a long minute. "All right," he finally accepted. "But please, Napoleon," he lightly touched his partner's shoulder, "don't take chances."
If he didn't take chances, if he hadn't made a life of desperate gambles for better or for worse he couldn't bear to contemplate the dark chasm that yawned past that thought. Turned away from it.
"Hope you have an appetite for Neptune's bounty," he said, rising to head for the kitchen. "Mostly I counted on the provisions of the house. We have a wide and varied selection of," he rummaged through the refrigerator and the cupboards, "tinned anchovies and herring and salmon, cold eel, sardines and shrimp, and for a change of pace, cod."
They combined their espionage talents and managed to find, also, some smoked reindeer and ham. Illya argued the case of fishhead soup as a most hearty breakfast. Napoleon called him a peasant and carried the poll in favor of grilled ham and cheese sandwiches.
The fireplace was properly lit. For full effect, though, it needed to be dark outside. It was only afternoon, the sunlight cold‑bright on snow, turning the frost‑covered trees into a crystal forest. The heavy, security‑shield‑lined drapes would've simulated night, but Illya seemed to enjoy the view, so back they stayed.
It hadn't been hard to steer the Russian away from dangerous subjects into convivial conversation. Many thought Illya a misanthrope. In most cases Illya encouraged the misconception. When he felt like it, he could be the most interesting, stimulating companion, all sharp intelligence and dry wit. Napoleon knew he'd been long since spoiled for other company. He could get his flesh sated anywhere. Nobody else so well satisfied the rest of him.
He'd starve, without Illya.
With a start, he realized he'd let his side of the dialogue lapse. "Sorry. I'm a little tired." He rose, stretched. "Actually, what I need is a shave, shower and a change." He had only given haphazard attention to grooming for the past three days. His fastidious soul was cringing.
After the shower, he found he'd neglected to unpack his suitcase. He had aesthetic objections to wrinkled clothes. He chose a robe instead.
Illya, naturally, had found a book and abandoned the rest of the world in favor of it. He looked so absorbed, so...self‑sufficient.
Napoleon touched a black‑clad shoulder. "What's so interesting?"
"Immanuel, by Swedenborg."
"Isn't that about a hackneyed religion?"
"The Church of the New Jerusalem. It's merely another interpretation of Christianity."
"Doesn't sound like your cup of tea." He didn't care to lose Illya to a book at present.
"It's the writer that's interesting. Most of his life, his sole interest was hard sciences, then he became fanatically mystical, started spouting `heavenly doctrines.'"
"He probably had a brush with mortality."
Illya looked at him quizzically.
"Desperate men grab at desperate solutions, Illya."
"Mortality is a fact. No amount of pablum can change tha what're you doing?"
Only then realizing his hand had strayed to Illya's hair, Napoleon pulled back. "Uh...being jealous. Why can't your hair go gray and thin out like the rest of us middle‑aged members of the human race?"
"Maybe because I don't worry about it."
"Don't be smug." He rounded the couch. "Are you going to keep reading that?"
"It's this or the one about Sweden's role in the Napoleonic Wars. One Napoleon at a time is all a Russian should be expected to deal with."
"You're not dealing with me, you're reading `pablum.'" He lay down in front of the fireplace, pulling the comfort of the throw pillows around him.
"Wouldn't you prefer the bed?"
"You have no romance in your soul. Join me."
Illya frowned. "Why?"
"Because, my ascetic Russian, a fireplace and a plush rug in a winterland setting demand a little decadence of us. Indulge for once."
Illya put the book down and came, but didn't lie down. He sat facing Napoleon, curled around his drawn knees. In equal measure, complaisance and preservation. But when Napoleon smiled, so did he.
"I agree with the poet," Solo said, "it is nice to have time to smell the flowers along the way." The blond hair captured him again, hearth‑warmed topaz‑fire on one side, wintry platinum‑gold on the one facing the window.
"Too common a clich for your repertoire. Besides, it seems to me you find time to smell a great many of them."
The garden‑variety kind. He wasn't sure how to even approach the rarest one. "Another poet, then: `Could you and I with Fate conspire...?'" The rest of it hit too close to home; if he had gone on, he'd have choked.
"And, `All mimsy were the borogoves, and the mome raths outgrabe,' right?"
"No, but if you insist on Carroll," he brushed the back of his hand across Illya's, "`I sent a message to the fish, I told them: This is what I wish.'"
"I hope there's a punchline to all this, Napoleon."
"If there is, the joke's on me."
Illya looked alarmed. "Don't be unmerciful. I'm competent only at professional games."
"Good, because I don't want to play anymore. Grant me some mercy. I know I'm going about it miserably, but I'm too afraid you're going to bolt."
Illya stayed absolutely still for a long moment. "What do you want from me? Simply, please."
"Nothing simple about it, but I'll try. I want everything from you. In return, you may have everything you want from me." He watched Illya distance himself, without, in fact, moving at all. " Told you you'd bolt."
"I'm..." a pause to clear his throat, "...not going anywhere."
"You think you can stretch that to include lying down by me?"
"I'd rather not --"
Illya sighed then. "Would you mind telling me what brought this on? Running out of novelties?"
He sat up. "You're not a novelty, my friend. You're the only solid foundation my life has. Maybe I can stand without it maybe. I don't want to try." Please God, don't make me have to try. "But one thing I know beyond doubt, when I'm too tired to stand, if I didn't have it, I'd fall."
For a long time, only the logs crackled, the fire hissed, a clock somewhere ticked away. The wind outside picked up with a crisp edge of wail.
"Are you tired now?"
Illya uncurled. A slender hand reached. "Come, then."
Napoleon took it, but didn't move closer. "Wait. First, I must say Illya, I'm sorry."
"For...many things. Too many. And for not accepting this," he gently squeezed the fingers between his own, "sooner."
"You didn't need it sooner."
"That's not an excuse."
"I didn't ask for any."
"Illya, from now on-- "
"I'm not asking for that, either."
"You never ask."
"I ask. All I dare."
His insides twisted. "Illya."
"M," said Illya.
It was, too. Whatever he had expected when he had put his arms around Illya to lie down with him, this tranquility hadn't been it. Nevertheless, past the first awkward embrace and the few tentative touches, with only the innocent twining of clad limbs, had followed a serene accord. At bay and anchored, gently rocking.
"Were you--" Illya started the game.
"My turn first," Napoleon interrupted. "You chose the letter. Besides, I won the last round of Superghosts."
"Only by claiming a word I'm still not convinced exists."
Then had come the word games with their mutually established, familiar patterns. Getting a fix on the lodestar before venturing into unknown waters.
"Sore loser. Here goes: Before your political career, were you a teacher at Harvard in the early '40's?"
"I'm not McNamara. Do you believe in personal conscience over secular morality?"
Every time, Napoleon thought, but had to answer, "No, I'm not Thomas More. Did you cross the Ohio River against orders and get your platoon stuck in Indiana when it flooded?"
"I never go against orders," grumbled Illya.
Gotcha. "Then you're not the Confederate General John Morgan. Forfeit a clue."
"My uncle got me into the biggest war of the century," Illya said, smug in his turn.
"Oh, that helps a lot." But he chuckled.
"My turn, then. Did you write Saint Watching?"
Drat. "Not the kind of occupation I enjoy."
"Phyllis McGinley. Forfeit."
"I'm a Canadian, born in Nova Scotia in 1810."
Illya shrugged, conceding Napoleon's turn.
"Are you the writer of Mardi?"
"I'm not Herman Melville."
Who'd have thought the Russian would know the one allegorical romance story of a writer famous for his whaling adventures?
Illya continued, "Are you a historian‑lawyer?"
There were too many of those. But Napoleon was too content to argue. "I'm not...uh, Horace Mann," he ventured.
Oh, well. "What I built set a world record in 1851."
Illya lifted his head to look down at him, comfortably using Napoleon's shoulder to prop his elbow. "Couldn't be, that's too easy."
"With your love of sailing ships, yes. Especially considering you kept a drawing of his record‑breaking Flying Cloud in the cabin of the Pursang. You're Donald McKay."
Napoleon groaned. Not meaning it.
"Easy," repeated Illya.
"Right about now, I'm inclined to be easy," Napoleon dropped a hint.
Illya didn't pick it up. "I'll give you another shot at it. For killing Antilochus, I was in turn killed by Achilles."
"You're Memnon. You only give those kind of clues after you've won."
"Want another round?"
The blue of the eyes seemed to intensify. "No."
Napoleon shivered. Pleasantly. Along his side, Illya felt it, but seemed to misunderstand its nature. He started to draw away.
Napoleon gathered him back. "Wrong direction."
"Are you sure?"
"And a tad put‑upon you can so long stay impervious to my obvious charms."
Illya smiled at him, tapped his chin with a finger. "All due sympathy to your vanity, but I want you to let me get up now."
Napoleon looked at the warm flush spreading over the high cheekbones, the slightly parting lips. "No, you don't."
"No, I don't," admitted Illya. "But I'm still going to get up."
"Because you're too new to this and I've all but forgotten it. It shouldn't be rushed. Besides, I need to shower and shave, too."
Perversely, when he let go, Illya didn't get up. He pulled back a little, and watched Napoleon. A feature at a time. Then he closed his eyes, and touched. A feature at a time. When Napoleon reached to touch his face in return, he pulled his own hand back, kept his eyes closed. As if he preferred using his senses separately, sparingly. To better concentrate on each? Lest they be overwhelmed?
Napoleon leaned up on an elbow and kissed him, brief and light, with the economy Illya seemed to need. The smile it left on his friend's lips was, too, insubstantial. But sweet.
After a few seconds, Illya shook his head, opened his eyes. "I'd better get up while I can."
Napoleon decided to prepare dinner while Illya took his shower, but before he got going in the kitchen, the sound of the water cut off.
"Napoleon," he heard Illya call.
His partner was dripping wet, sudsy, and standing in the middle of the steamy bathroom instead of the shower.
"I don't know." He wiped at the fog on the mirror, which only beaded up with droplets. "I can't quite see." He turned away. "Will you look at my back, please?"
Napoleon looked. "There's nothing wrong with your -- "
Oh, God. No.
There was nothing wrong with Illya's back. His wet‑sheened skin was the color of warm honey, flawlessly smooth. Nothing at all was wrong with it.
When it should've had the crisscross of pale, roughened streaks left by Mother Fear's strap.
Panic rising, Napoleon turned him around. Was the surgery scar some inches above the left hipbone lighter? The bullet wound on the upper right arm was the same as always. But that was a much earlier injury.
The serum was still active.
He wanted to rage, smash something, anything.
He may have already done that. It could be just a cruel joke time's scars were mending before the final shattering.
Rage died. Hollowing him.
He sank onto the edge of the tub. As if holding fast would avert fate, he seized Illya and drew him tight to himself, banding his arms around the narrow waist.
"What is it? Napoleon?"
He wanted to just hold on, not think, not speak.
He let go. "I know what's happening to you."
"What?" Puzzled, but calm, waiting for his partner to tell him what he needed to know.
"It'll take a while to explain."
"Let me dry off, I'll be right out."
He came out in his terryrobe, finger‑combing his wet hair back from the high forehead. "The knife wound in my leg is gone, too," he said informatively. He sat and waited.
Napoleon started to pace, a nervous habit of his youth he'd later carefully eradicated, caught and brought himself to a standstill by the fireplace. As he should have perhaps done in the first place, clearly, sequentially, he told his partner everything. Then it was his turn to wait. For Illya's verdict.
The Russian showed no reaction. He may have been told a not particularly interesting story about a stranger. Wordlessly, he rose and went into the bedroom. Napoleon had long since learned to recognize the signs; he wanted to be left alone. He'd be out when he was ready to talk.
But when Illya emerged, he was fully dressed for the outside.
Napoleon fought down the urge to block his way. "Where are you going?"
"Don't worry, I'm not taking the vehicle." Too calm. "I want to walk."
"May I go with you?"
"It would defeat the purpose."
Ah. "If you want to be alone, I'll go." Last thing he wanted to do. But he'd already made too many decisions for Illya.
"I stand less chance of getting lost."
True. The shortest day only a week away, night had fallen already. It was snowing again. An environment Illya was more at home in.
"You are coming back?" Napoleon needed a little assurance.
Illya sighed, a tired sound. "You have severely limited the options, haven't you?" He opened the heavy oak door, a blast of chill air rushed in.
"What would you have preferred?"
"As opposed to waiting to rot and die just about anything. But as you obviously preferred a second deathwatch to the first one, mine is not to question why."
"There's still a chance, Illya."
The Russian didn't answer. The door closed after him.
Napoleon got a drink.
Then he pulled all the drapes wide open, turned on all the lights inside and outside.
The only way he could think of to say: Come home.
He had left the door as Illya had on his way out, unlocked. It earned him a mumbled, "You ought to know better," when the Russian returned almost two hours later. Then he proceeded to close all the drapes securely and turn off the unnecessary lights. An agent by training, a scrimper by nature.
He went into the bedroom, a little later the shower came on. Good. Would warm him up. Napoleon added more logs to the fire, refilled his glass with scotch. Sat back down.
Illya came out, again in his robe, went to the kitchen. Sounds of utensils, plates, the can opener followed, the kettle boiling, then announcing it shrilly.
"Do you want something to eat?" he politely inquired of Napoleon.
"I ate." He had, not tasting it, but conscientiously. The life‑time habit of an agent who wouldn't drink without taking the precautions against getting drunk.
After a while, he heard dishes being put away.
"You've always known I'm a gambler," he opted to talk before Illya found a way to shut him out. "Maybe I was wrong to make the choice for you. You couldn't make it yourself, and I erred on the side of chance. I know it's hard to deal with. I'm sorry for that. But I won't apologize for not giving up. And I won't give up."
A long silence. Then Illya came around, extending a cup half full of hot tea. Napoleon lifted his glass to indicate he already had a drink. Impatiently, Illya took a hold of it and tipped it to add some of the alcohol to his own cup. Napoleon didn't argue.
The Russian chose the wingback chair. For the first time in a very long time, the silence between them was an uncomfortable, ill‑fitting thing.
Napoleon watched a log crumble, shoot sparks, darken. "If only I'd let you go to Oslo as you were meant to-- "
"Don't be utterly asinine."
Silence descended again.
"Just to set the record straight," Illya was the one to break it, "the first choice you made for me, I can pardon the expression live with. It's the rest that goes past forbearance."
"You mean not telling you?"
"For one. Taking it for granted, in your own arrogant way, if I have a few days to live, what else would I possibly want to do with them except spend them in your company. This cozy setting. Your offer. There's a vulgarism for that you look bewildered," he lifted his cup in mock‑salute, "you do that very well, like so many other things. Shall I expound?"
Napoleon carefully put his glass down; he'd been seized by a crazy impulse to hurl it. "No, I think I'm catching on."
"Then please remember I'm not responsible for what you choose to attribute to me in order to assuage these latent guilt tendencies of yours."
I dare know, and that's what you can't bear? Are you that afraid of your feelings? Do you honestly think
But why shouldn't Illya think it? He'd peeked into the man's heart and studiously refused to acknowledge it. For two decades. Why should Illya now believe it was anything more than granting a dying man's prolonged wish? Conscience‑ransom.
And wasn't it?
Maybe somewhere, at some remorseful moment, it had been a factor. Not now. Not since he'd known the peace of holding Illya to him, only regretting he'd never done it before.
Of course, Illya would never believe it.
"It's not necessary, never was," Illya continued. "Oh, I admit the allure and why not? You're safe; you have more to lose than I do. You're an attractive man, you're clean, reputedly very good, you ceaselessly flaunt your sexuality. I've long suppressed part of mine, and nature will demand. It doesn't have to be humored, though."
Unwise of Illya to change the rules. For in this, Napoleon was the proficient one.
Must I, Illya? Do I have to play to a blood‑draw before we can throw the board away?
He picked up his glass again, leaned back comfortably. "Nothing wrong with humoring one's nature. Or pampering yourself. And it doesn't always have to be safe. Sometimes, danger has a delicious kick." He finished off his drink, "Mmmm, so does this," licked his lips.
Leisurely, he rose to turn off all the lamps, letting only the fire flicker and lick in red tongues about the room condensed to an intimate circle within the illumination of the hearth. Illya's chair was caught in it. Napoleon stayed outside. "I like all different kinds of danger. Dark has its own. Fire does, too." Out of the shadows, he reached around the chair, stroked Illya's arm. "So do you."
Knowing better than to expose even more of himself to someone hidden, Illya didn't start, didn't turn. "Yes, I do," he hissed, warningly.
Napoleon knew him too well to underestimate the threat. That would be truly dangerous. But he also knew how to tap into Illya's inhibitions and turn them to his own advantage.
"How hot does your danger run then? Wildly? Savagely?" he asked in the tones of a co‑conspirator. "Do you have that much fire in you? Will you let me see it?"
Smoothly, Napoleon moved to one side of the chair, sliding his hand up, through the corn‑silk of Illya's hair, to hold him by the nape. Not hard enough to set him off, but firmly. "You're attractive, too. Very. And clean. You do not flaunt your sexuality. But you ought to know, Kuryakin," deliberately impersonalizing, "that only adds to the lure. Ups the stakes."
He sent a command through his hand around Illya's nape. The blond head tilted up in obedience to it. Already? He may have missed his calling as a snake‑charmer. "In fact, it makes you damn near irresistible." A good spy learned early to redefine the quality of mercy to suit the occasion. "You should've told me years ago I had no reason to resist."
"Stop this." Weak protest.
"Why? You're tempted, I'm intrigued. Simple, mutual service, uncomplicated gratification. When that's all it is, it's childish to abstain."
He withdrew his hand, came around the chair to the front. "I'll start, shall I?" He leaned, as if for a kiss, pulled back. "No, that's not quite customary for these encounters, is it? No need to clutter it."
Illya clenched his teeth, turned his face into the wing of the chair, gripped the arm rests. He looked like he would in any THRUSH torture seat.
Napoleon kneeled in front of him. "My experience is in the reverse, of course, but it should be enough of a guideline. Let me know if there's anything special you'd like." He tugged at the edges of the robe. "I'm not averse to even a kink or two, so feel free to state your pleasures along the way," he added breezily, leaned forward.
Briefly, he considered following through. Might do Illya some good right, about as much as an aspirin to a bleeding wound. Anyway, he'd decided to play to a draw, not conquest. He had more than enough trophies.
He sat back on his heels and straightened the terryrobe he'd disarranged. "That's how that game plays, my friend. It's not very pretty, but hell, it's a game and I can play it. If you found it to your taste, we can go on and finish it. It'll probably finish us."
When there was no response, he rose to his feet. The fire was starting to look neglected. He went to one knee and shook the grate‑handle to let the accumulated ash fall through to the bottom.
He looked around. His partner was still anchored to the chair, his face still turned into the side of it. "I'm listening, Illya."
"That was stupid."
"Yes, it was."
"Whatever you want me to admit--"
Napoleon interrupted, "Let go of the damn chair, Illya, and come to me. I can hold you better." He reached and lightly tugged at one hand rigidly gripping the arm rest. It shifted and curled around his. This time he tugged decisively and all of Illya followed.
"There, that's more like it," he said once he'd arranged himself on the floor, his back against the solid couch and legs on either side of Illya. He wrapped his arms around his partner leaning against him. "Now, you were saying?"
"Hmm? Oh, that. Anything you want me to admit, consider it admitted." Now he sounded almost casual about it. "Anything you feel like giving, I'll take might even ask for a few things. After all, chances are too great that I won't have time to rue my folly. One assurance I do need, though." His voice turned serious. "Don't pretend. Restrain your flair for the dramatic and don't embellish this into a fantasy."
Napoleon sighed. "Why is it that you believe I must be pretending?"
Illya patted his forearm. Almost paternally, as if to say: there, there now, you're a good boy anyway. "Maybe because I'm inconvenienced by a certain amount of intelligence."
"You mean if I were so inclined why would I wait so long?"
"Something like that."
"Ever heard of a shock to the system?" He tightened his arms and slipped one hand inside the robe to the living flesh underneath, briefly getting tangled with the medallion. He'd put that, and the ring, on Illya himself before the orderlies had dressed him for travel. It was warm now, rose and fell with each breath as if it had a pulse of its own, not the cold metal he had pulled out of a bag and wondered about. "I watched you die, Illya."
"So this is heaven and you're my reward, all arranged to The Word According to Napoleon Solo?"
A lick of anger. "Or maybe it's hell and you're my punishment. Dammit, Illya, must you be impossible, can't you be merely difficult?"
An apologetic pat. "I'm sorry. I shouldn't be churlish toward you. Yes, a `shock to the system' may have various repercussions, but Napoleon, it doesn't change one's basic nature or create feelings out of a vacuum."
"Don't start that again." An elbow dug back to emphasize the words. "That only leads to square one."
Napoleon wondered how he could make Illya understand. Try the truth for once, an inner voice answered. He shrank from it not something he talked about. But why should his secrets be sacrosanct?
All right, he'd strew them about and let Illya read the entrails.
"That nasty charade a short while ago, no, I didn't mean it, but there was a shred of truth in it. If it were simply sex, I'd have long before now asked to sample it. I thought about it. Sometimes too often."
"But you thought I'd complicate your life. I wouldn't have, you know."
"No, Illya, I knew I'd ruin ours. I'm miserable at certain things. My job, sex, social interactions, I'm good at those. I became successful at a partnership and a close friendship only after you came along. But at anything past that...well, let me tell you a story."
Whatever signals Napoleon's body sent, Illya felt his reluctance. "You don't have to."
"Ssh, don't interrupt me while I'm being honest it doesn't happen that often. But maybe we can move to the couch. My back will appreciate it."
When they removed the upright cushions, the couch afforded enough space to lie together. "Three months after Sharon and I were married, we rented a small student apartment right outside the university. She started work in the cafeteria, I started on my degree," Napoleon told the rafters. "Better cash flow would've been nice, but that's normal, and in youth, basically unimportant. Sharon was the best thing that had happened to me. I lacked nothing. A few months into the year, I started a new course taught by a woman, tall, blonde, cool, sharp. Sharon was petite and like honey all over, in coloring, personality. This woman was like...well, a dry martini."
"And you took a few sips," Illya concluded.
"Lost weekend is more like it. A couple of them. I did sober up eventually. Sharon must've suspected, maybe even knew, but no word about it, no recriminations, nothing. And, yes, I was properly ashamed. I swore to myself I wouldn't be that stupid again. Then the drama department brought a dancer from Broadway to choreograph its spring musical."
Illya's snort gusting across his collarbone clearly said: what else is new? "Another martini?"
"More like a shot of tequila added to a Wallbanger. Latin, fiery. I didn't realize until too late it amused her to publicly tally the notches on her bedpost. I don't remember how I got Sharon out of that party, but I do remember sitting on a park bench later, pleading with her to forgive me. `I'm not angry at you,' she said, `I'm angry for you, at the indignity you suffer when you give yourself to where you do not matter.' That's all she ever said about it. From then on, it was as if it had never happened. The last mistake I'll ever make, I told myself." His chest was aching, he stopped.
"What was next, whisky sour, Manhattan, Bloody Mary?"
"None of them," he said quietly. "Sharon died that summer."
Illya caught his breath, then whispered, "I'm sorry, Napoleon."
He stroked the shoulder under his hand. "It's all right. It was so very long ago. There was no purpose to good intentions after that. Well, there was Clara later and I tried. But my path crossed Angelique's, and, well, anyway, Clara never knew. She had other reasons for preferring her sheep‑farmer. Just as well. I'd have broken her heart, too. One of the reasons I packed Mara off to better climes as soon as she could get to her feet. Eventually, I'd have done the same thing to her. I don't want to, but I do it."
There you are, Illya, read 'em.
When no reaction came, he prompted, "Illya?"
Softly, "Sharon, Clara, Mara, to one degree or another...you loved them."
A long silence.
"You think I'd have cared, where you took your body?"
"I'd have ungh!"
Illya was propped up and didn't seem to particularly mind he was doing it by leaning into Napoleon's stomach. He glared, opened his mouth, closed it, opened it again, said not a word after all. He shook his head in resignation and let it drop back down.
Well, yes, it was rather like telling a homeless man he'd had a mansion all along, but he hadn't been given the choice of living in it because the roof leaked.
But, no, it wasn't. Not really. Illya wouldn't have shown it, but he'd have hurt none the less for it.
Napoleon rubbed at his stomach, minus any indication of sympathy from Illya. "Outside of professional experiences, I'm not good at learning my lessons. For the longest time, I thought Sharon's reproach meant I ought to matter more to those I'm involved with than they mattered to me."
He had applied that to Illya as well, for years, until the day Victor Karmak had dangled the Russian as bait and Napoleon, knowingly, willingly, despite Waverly, had rushed to take it. Only when his partner was safe again had he stopped to consider and ended up terrified of the implications.
Three days ago in Stockholm fate had seen fit to teach him what a real marrow‑deep, mind‑numbing terror was.
Suddenly, gathering Illya to him was more important than easing his sore abdomen. "I'm sorry," he whispered into his partner's neck.
Illya shrugged, a cramped motion in Napoleon's embrace. "You are what you are. How should I want to change that?"
He pushed aside Illya's robe, mainly, for the moment, to touch the whole, warm flesh, the strong, steady cadence of the heart. He buried his head into Illya's neck, closer to the feel and the smell his senses unquestioningly associated with safety, dependability. No need to get used to this body, he'd been counting on it as a natural extension of his own for so long, arms to reach where he could not, legs to carry him farther than a single pair, strength that doubled his, instincts that anticipated him.
And now, it craved him.
So natural, after all, to crave it
So, Illya, what does that do to your theory about the unchangeability of basic natures?
Why should it do anything to it? You've always had the basic nature of a satyr. Of course there's nothing the traffic won't bear. My theory stands.
About the only thing you've got that can, then.
Don't be uncouth.
I thought I was being smug.
Smug, you can be. You've earned it.
Yes, it was, rather.
Now who's smug?
I have a prior claim to it, Napoleon.
In its original Greek, smug means trim.
I've been called old and flabby before, but only by the competition.
In its original, smug also means: neat, spruce.
Ah, requalified. Thank you.
He was a spoiled little brat who confused lofty with transcendent, incendiary with incandescent, shell with substance. How could he possibly have appreciated you?
He more than appreciated you.
No, I merely vexed him by not noticing him.
He was pretty enough to notice.
Hmm, just flash. Not like...the inestimable...incomparable quality of the...classic with refined...consummate lines...
The unmistakable, quintessential...flavor of...rare vintage, delicately, carefully tended... to maturity...ripened to...rich...fullness...
Sssh, I'm trying to...get to...distilled essence...
Are you asleep?
Sorry, silly question.
Was that all right?
Another silly question?
You're so quiet.
Quiet is nice.
I did not mean be quiet, Napoleon.
I'm not sleepy at all.
Your yawns say otherwise.
All right. Anything you want to do?
You'd be hopelessly overestimating both of us.
I'm afraid you're right.
Go to sleep, Napoleon. You can't keep your eyes open.
I'm-- I don't want to.
What do you want?
I don't know. Start a game. Anything.
Were you Georgie's secretary during the Revolutionary War?
No, I'm not Napoleon, that's McHenry. M was the last game. This is W.
Well, it looks like M from my end of this position.
If you wanted me to come around, why didn't you just say so?
Aaah, that's much better.
Good. Maybe now you'll go to sleep.
Don't want to.
You sound like a five‑year‑old.
I don't want to.
Napoleon, I'm scared to sleep, too, but sooner or later we're going to have to do it.
I am. Napoleon?
In the morning...
I want you to leave.
Lea--!? Are you out of your mind?
You didn't see her die. It wasn't pretty.
It's not going to happen, Illya.
It's not! Believe me, it's not.
Sssh. It's all right.
Please. Believe me in this.
Right now, Napoleon, I'll believe you in anything.
Good night, Illya.
It already was. Is.
Will be, too.
I'm perfectly serious, Napoleon.
You really want it?
I don't see why I should suffer when it's you who wants it.
You told me if I wanted something I should ask.
Illya, who closed them last night?
You were sitting there with all lights blazing and all drapes open. Makes an agent shudder to think about it. Of course I closed them.
And who turned the heater down when I wasn't looking?
It was for your benefit I turned it down. As a rule, I turn it off at bedtime.
You're a miserable miser, Illya.
Look at it this way, if you get up to open the drapes, you can also turn the heater up.
It'll take at least an hour to heat this place.
I'll think of something to keep you warm in the meantime.
If I walk naked in this temperature, across that cold floor, it's going to take you that long to find it.
Ah, but think of the fun I'll have searching.
All right, but you're cooking breakfast.
Let's see, the ingredients for fishhead soup, a quart of--
On second thought, I'm cooking breakfast.
If you say so, dea-- ow! Napoleon!
Something wrong dear?
Bring the covers back!
As soon as I comply with your wishes, light of my life.
Vosh! Prokliatyi skot! Zhulik!
Tsk, tsk, such language from such a sweet mouth.
Come back here.
You know, you were right. The sunrise is gorgeous. I can see the lake from here. Lovely. And the trees, the slopes, oh, how should I describe the colors, the exquisite--
Napoleon, please come back here.
Now that you put it that way...
Looks like I'm going to have to do the searching.
You've been sleeping? Only about half an hour.
Are you looking at me?
You're made for being looked at in morning light...open your eyes, vozliublennyi, it's all right.
Don't you mean vliublionnyi?
Lover, too, yes, but I said beloved and I meant it you're blushing.
It's warm in here.
Getting there. You missed the rest of the sunrise, though.
No, I didn't. I had a wonderful sunrise. Thank you.
I'll try and arrange for another one tomorrow.
I'll look forward to it but, Napoleon, if you can't--
I said if.
Don't say it at all.
Are you turning superstitious on me?
All spies are superstitious. Especially the old ones.
Oh, please, Napoleon, I already fed the whole dictionary to your ego last night.
The English dictionary.
More rummaging through the cabinets brought to light a gallon‑sized, heavy tin container. It sloshed faintly when shaken. "What do you suppose this is?" Napoleon asked Illya who had emerged from the bathroom, carrying a pullover in one hand, toweling his hair with the other. "It has no labels. Except a stamp of something that looks like...an udder?"
Illya took one look, then galvanized into action, pulling open drawers, checking through utensils.
"Is it going to explode?" Napoleon asked the tin warily.
"I hope not. It won't be any good then."
"What are you looking for?"
"A can opener."
Wordlessly, Napoleon pointed at the one sitting, big as life, on the counter.
"No, no, a manual one, and bigger than the ones you're used to seeing, with a serrated cutter. The seal‑lip is too wide."
"I didn't see anything like you're describing."
"I can't find one either. Oh, well. Maybe that's why that's still here to be enjoyed by us. We'll just have to get at it the hard way." He picked up a heavy butcher knife and a mallet, sat on the floor and wedged the container between his legs. "Stay back, might splash a bit."
"What is it?" Napoleon asked when the banging allowed.
"For crying out loud, Illya, there's enough cheese in the refrigerator without going on an excavation."
"Ah, but that's just cheese."
"And this is cheese, I suppose."
"Wait till you taste it. Find a frying pan. I want to melt some of it."
Napoleon remembered the crusted quick‑bread in the freezer and turned the oven on. "Does it have a name?"
"If you say so."
"It's akin to feta, though that's a distant, very poor relative. This is the kind Uzbeks, Turkmenians, and the Kirghiz make aaahhh, ambrosia." The tin partially open, he had his nose in it.
Intrigued, Napoleon leaned to sample the bouquet. Took a whiff, jerked back, stared incredulously at the bliss on Illya's face, shook his head, and hurried to find alternative breakfast for himself.
Some off‑white...stuff...was brought out of the briny water by Illya, ceremonially cut, and respectfully dropped in crumbling slices into the hot pan. While the Russian licked the juice off his fingers with obvious relish, the atrocious pungency of the thing rose, wafted through the house.
As his friend looked so transported with joy over it, Napoleon forbore comment, telling his sinuses to be patient, this too would pass. Until he looked at the lopsided block remaining on the counter. "Illya! There are hairs in this thing!"
Ignoramus, said Illya's look. "Of course there are hairs in it. It's aged pressed inside sheep‑skin pouches." He leaned to peer at the hairs. "No, this was done in a camel pouch, probably from Tajikistan, then, or maybe Ghazianthep." He looked up at the expression on the American's face. "You simply pick the hairs out, Napoleon."
"You pick the hairs out. I will do with it precisely nothing. Do me a favor and brush your teeth after breakfast." Wrinkling his nose, he looked at the frying pan in which the thing was separating into gooey globs, bubbling madly as milky liquid mixed with hot oil. "Put something on. It's starting to splatter, you're going to burn yourse--"
As if on cue, a quarter‑size glob shot out and stuck to Illya's bare chest with a sizzling sound. He yelped, brushed at it with the heel of his hand.
Napoleon slammed the pan's lid on with one hand, thrusting a dish towel at Illya with the other. I'll get you some ice." He opened the freezer.
"In a second."
He turned. "What?"
Illya indicated his chest, showed his hand. "Once I wiped it, nothing."
Against the tan of Illya's chest stood a pale circle, just to the side of the medallion, looking like its twin. Healthy new skin.
Before Napoleon could say or do anything, Illya took the butcher knife, ran his left thumb firmly across its cutting edge, hissed in his breath as blood streaked both his hand and the knife.
"Illya!" Napoleon snapped, but by the time he had blotted out the blood, there was only a thin white line left from the cut.
"One can see how this might be useful," Illya commented. A little shakily, though.
"Yeah. But enough experiments." He was none too steady himself. He pulled Illya into his arms, not sure who was supporting whom. He had noticed earlier there were no scars left on Illya anywhere, marks of his quarter‑of‑a‑century‑long trade gone. And for the first time since Napoleon knew him, he didn't walk with his slight list to the right. He wished he knew whether to laugh or cry about it.
"It's the fourteenth, Illya," he said. Well into the third day already. Nazarone had made it only halfway through her second. And she'd been younger, with, presumably, a longer life span in front of her. Another day, maybe two, they'd head for civilization and have some tests run on Illya.
"Yes, trust us to find, of all days, the thirteenth to, er..."
"It's called establishing an anniversary."
Dammit, yes, of course there were going to be anniversaries. Of course.
He let go of his partner. No sense in hanging on to the man as if he were going to disappear. He smoothed the tufts Illya's careless toweling had left sticking out here and there all around his head. "Better check your breakfast. That thing's bad enough without adding the refinement of burning it."
"It's already too hot in here, Napoleon, do we need a fire?"
"I'm not lighting it, just getting it ready. When we want it tonight, all it'll take is a match." Fireplace set to his satisfaction, he rose, brushing at his pants. "If you weren't so vain about that figure of yours, you wouldn't be hot," he pointed out to the man doing pushups on the clear area by the window. Despite his own words, he cast an appreciative eye over the lean muscles working smoothly to stretch and contract.
Illya flipped onto his back, slowly lifted and extended his legs over himself, curling his body, to touch his toes to the floor over his head. "The figure is just the bonus," he said in between evenly‑timed breaths. "I'm one of the few agents in my age group Waverly hasn't been shipping off to The Island for annual overhauls."
A sore point. "So instead of three weeks' torture, you spread it out over the whole year," Napoleon grumbled, bringing himself into the path of Illya's descending legs and making them stay up at extension. "Don't see the advantage myself."
"Ah, but I don't have to hurt anew and whine and complain pitifully every year." His legs scissored open in the air. "And I can do this." They wrapped like a vise around Napoleon's waist. With the same impetus, Illya jackknifed off the floor, forcing Napoleon to catch the upper body rising fast to meet him and try to stay on his feet at the same time.
"Not bad," Illya complimented him when they had stabilized.
Now that he'd caught his breath, and Illya's arms around his neck had distributed the weight manageably, Napoleon could appreciate the position. "No, not bad at all."
"Lower your hands. Not that low, and you can stop leering. Yes, there, a bit more to the sides." He unfolded until his shoulders were on the floor, unwrapped his legs.
"What was the purpose of that, then?" Napoleon asked.
"To get your attention."
"And now that you have it?"
"Hold down my ankles, I want to do situps."
Which was followed by chinups. On a rafter. All of it was followed by, to Napoleon's shudder, opening the window to climb out and measure his half‑naked, heated, sweaty length in the deep snow. He'd seen Illya do that before, when the climate and conditions permitted. It was something Russians did, could probably only be understood by other Russians.
He came back in, shaking himself like a happy, bright puppy, announced his intentions for a cool shower, skinning out of the bottoms of his wet warm‑up suit along the way. Napoleon shrugged, closed the window, and called out his refusal of the invitation to the same shower on the grounds that (A) it was not the time of the year for a cool dousing; (B) Illya was much too frisky at the moment to share any slippery surface with.
After another heaping helping of the malodorous cheese which Illya claimed was even better when dried out alongside some eel and crackers for variety, the Russian went poking about the house and found the storage area in the carport. In it, he found ski equipment. Of course, it was just the most perfect day for it, wasn't it? At times, Napoleon wished he knew if he could take credit for Illya's high spirits or if it was artificially induced by the healing properties of the serum. Most of the time, he just enjoyed watching Illya be happy.
However, he didn't necessarily enjoy skiing. He'd learned how to do it with the rest of the tricks of his trade, but anything that took place in icy weather was on a nonexistent page of his list of Pleasant Activities. It didn't help at all that Illya was proficient at it. He swore he'd take the little Russian sailing at first opportunity on a Lightning sloop and show him the other side of the coin.
The downhill run wasn't bad, except Napoleon kept thinking about all the tiresome herringboning that had to be done to get back up. Maybe Illya thought of the same, for he was soon traversing, angled from the fall line. That was all right, until the Russian started showing off with stem christie and full christiana turns while Napoleon snowplowed through them. He pretended to wrap himself around a solitary tree to dupe Illya into coming to help, then trapped him there for a pleasant break. The clothes too bulky, the skis too awkward, he began to get a glimmer of why Eskimos chose to rub noses instead of kissing.
Illya decided the slopes were too tame for him and went weaving into the trees. Napoleon opted for the better part of valor, sidestepped up the hill briefly, said to hell with doing it like a real skier, took off and shouldered his skis, and trudged home. He had time for a long hot soak, was dressed and starting to give serious consideration to getting worried when he saw Illya returning. The Russian came in, pink‑cheeked and bright‑eyed.
"I hope I left you enough hot water."
"I don't need it hot." Illya went past him into the bedroom.
"You don't have to take them cold, Illya, I'm willing," Napoleon called out after him. As far as he'd seen, Illya preferred his showers hot like any normal person. Until, apparently, today. Perhaps it was all that exercise. Hopefully he wasn't running a fever. He didn't feel or act like he was.
He picked up the history book Illya had earlier mentioned, and was soon involved with the irony of an Italian leading the French against Sweden and a French general becoming the regent of Sweden to oppose Napoleon. Politics made strange bedfellows. Come to think of it, so did espionage.
"Waverly will be retiring next year," Illya noted.
Napoleon lazily reached up to tug at the tousled blond bangs falling over the blue eyes. They were just starting to dry. "So was he ten years ago, until he put it off for five years, then put it off for another five. Don't hold your breath."
Illya tilted his head to nip at Napoleon's hand. "He'll be eighty. He can't put it off any longer."
"Sure he can." Napoleon rescued his hand, ran it down the Russian's throat, back and forth across the delicate collarbone. "He'll outlive us all by a good deal. He'll outthink us all for a good deal longer than that." Absently, he hooked his finger on the chain and swung the medallion to and fro. "Why are we talking of Waverly? It may even be blasphemous to do it from this position."
Illya had vetoed lighting it, but a couple of afghans and a multitude of throw pillows had made a cozy cocoon on the floor in front of the fireplace. They'd arranged it when Illya had emerged from the bathroom, only half‑dry, wearing a scrape‑grace smile, to ask, "Did I hear you say you were willing?"
"So let's leave him alone--" Napoleon continued, intending to say, and tell me about this medallion instead, but Illya interrupted.
"I want you to consider something."
"Taking a desk job until you move into Waverly's office."
"Napoleon, you're forty‑eight years old."
"I was forty‑eight a week ago, too."
"And I was picking you up from a hospital."
Only a week? That was all? Felt like a lifetime.
"You'd put me there, you bolshevik, when I didn't really need it."
Illya's fingers drew aimless patterns on Napoleon's shoulder. "It's getting too ruthless out there; the rules are changing on us. Every faction with a miff can arm itself with the latest technology. There used to be reason, even in evil. Now it's indiscriminate chaos."
"And someone's got to keep his finger in the dam."
"Of course. But not necessarily his body in the line of fire. Think of all the experience you have, Napoleon, all the knowledge. Anymore, it's profligate of you to take all that into the field. Put them to better use at the command center."
Actually, Illya did have a point. "Well, it would please Waverly." Napoleon's determination to stay a line agent was becoming a point of contention between them, as the old man didn't want to lose his replacement to the vagaries of the field. "That is, if he's in any mood at the moment to be pleased by anything I do."
However, Napoleon suspected the ulterior factor of Illya's motives. "What about my partner, then?" he asked.
Before he answered, Illya kissed him. Thoroughly. "Strictly speaking, you don't need one at a desk. You'll not only not need one but won't be allowed one in Waverly's position you don't need me, Napoleon."
Uh‑huh. Exactly as he had thought. No, dammit, Napoleon had trusted his luck too many times and it had never played him false. He wasn't going to start doubting it at this late date. Might even jinx it by doubting it. He wouldn't let Illya do it, either.
"As you've pointed out, I am forty‑eight years old. I don't have long enough to list the ways I need you. Use your stubborn blond head." He ruffled the said head and proceeded matter‑of‑factly. "So, what do you want for yourself? You deserve the top Enforcement position, but everything you said for me goes double for you with all your scientific degrees."
"Napoleon, I-- "
"Be quiet, I'm administrating." To make sure Illya stayed silent, Napoleon tucked his partner's head into the crook of his neck. "You'd be perfect running The Island, but R.H.I.P. Having you in arms' reach is one privilege I will selfishly claim and no one better contest it. How about taking over the labs and see how you like it? Yes, that sounds good, and if you get bored there, there's always our Dirty Tricks department don't tell Grayson what I called his section where you can dabble in mischief, and-- "
"Do I get any say‑so in this?" Illya's muffled voice rose in protest.
"Why, yes, certainly, as soon as I get to planning our free time." He rolled them over to reverse their position, took some of his weight off the smaller man onto his own elbows. "I just got to it. Friday night. Nothing elaborate, dinner somewhere on the way home, a quiet night. Just to rest up for the weekend."
Illya snorted. "How many weekends did you see Waverly have, or uninterrupted nights?" But obviously he was willing to play along.
"I'll be a better administrator," he dismissed the question airily. "Saturday morning-- "
"A jog around the park."
"Heaven forfend. Breakfast, then out for a civilized stroll around, oh, Park Avenue, the vicinity of Madison."
"And there by a great coincidence sits Meledandri, where an Italian suit may be had for a measly sum of eight hundred dollars. To go with the Italian shoes that just sit and wait to be picked up at Fiorucci's."
"I was going to stop by The French Jean Story. I'm not made for jeans, but you are, and how."
"I prefer to get them at the Village. Cheaper. When you're done enriching the haberdasheries, you may find me at the Babcock. It is the oldest art gallery in New York, you know. There's a bookstore, too."
"How fascinating. Lunch at DaSilvano's."
"At Sloppy Louise's."
"Pick up some rare bits at Balducci's for Sunday's home cuisine session, and dessert from Bonte Patisserie."
"Bagels from H&H. They're still twenty cents apiece. Half a dozen for a dollar."
"A little out of the way, but we must stop at Caviarteria for me how can you be Russian and not like caviar? A Broadway show."
"The foreign film revival at the New Yorker."
"Late dinner and entertainment at La Folie."
"At The Ear Inn."
"The what in?"
"Ear Inn. Poetry reading and couscous specials."
"Heaven double forfend."
"The Tin Place, then."
"Isn't that a haunt for Bowery bums?"
"Used to be. It's a small jazz cafe now."
"Oh, the tribulations of loving a bohemian. All right, if we must."
"It's been a long day, Napoleon. My feet are killing me. May we call it a night?"
"We may certainly go home, but we can't call it a night yet, not until oh, you already know that part, I see well, feel." Incredible recovery time at Illya's age, and after the kind of night and day they had had. Of all the things he could have imagined having trouble in keeping up with Illya, this would've been the last one.
Oh, well. This time he'd settle for the spirit being willing. But Illya seemed to think it an imposition. After a while, he sat up and attempted to move away.
Napoleon held his arm. "Where do you think you're going?"
"I'll get some clothes on and maybe fix dinner."
"Later. Come back here."
"No, you're not --"
He was going to have to lecture the little idiot. "The main ingredient of sex is sex. Just to keep it all nice and fair, both partners may need to be in the peak of arousal for it. But it's not strictly necessary in making love; that's a different recipe." He'd found that out in his marriage, had precious little reason to apply it since. "Come here, prekrasnyi."
Illya blushed at the compliment. "I I'm not usually I wasn't like this when I was twenty."
"Late bloomer." The teasing words left a strange aftertaste, a flat, metal tang. With a sudden need of his own not for sex, but to feel the beat and pulse of life he pulled Illya back. Close. Closer. Closer still.
It didn't quite obliterate the metronome that seemed lodged in him, ticking.
First it was a complaint over the heat.
Second was over the food. No taste, Illya said.
Third was light. He said it hurt his eyes.
It seemed the wind was too loud, too.
A period of euphoria followed. He laughed, and hugged Napoleon, cuddled. Whispered sweet nonsense.
Then it was the heat again.
Next came pacing; a caged, quietly snarling wolf.
Then again, the heat.
Finally, a loud silence, a stormy stillness.
Illya picked up one of the tall, cast‑iron‑legged stools from in front of the counter separating the kitchen from the living area. He stood holding it.
Suddenly, he spun with it, round and round, hurled it at the window. It crashed with a shattering sound through the plate glass, shards exploding out, ice‑wind blasting in. With the part of his mind trained to stand back and observe, Napoleon wondered which idiot had neglected to install impact‑proof glass in a safe‑house. The rest of it howled at him.
Your luck just ran out.
For a long moment, Illya
front of the frigid gust, arms and legs spread, head thrown back, black
pale and gold and wind‑tossed, looking like a fragile Boreas inviting,
the cold to invade him. Napoleon expected him to rush out
and meet it on its own grounds. Didn't know what he could do to stop
even know if he should. But when Illya moved, it was to come
to him. They embraced.
"I love you," said Illya. "I've always loved you, I love you now. I was happy here. Thank you." He pulled back so they could look at each other. "Please, don't follow me."
"Don't go," was all Napoleon could manage.
"I must. I have to...move."
"I'll take the skis. You take the truck. Go home, Napoleon. Now. Others can do the rest."
He couldn't speak.
Illya pulled out of his hold. "I'm sorry...I...I have to go. Can't stand still. Can't...stand it."
He backed away, yanked the door open and disappeared.
The cross‑draft slapped Napoleon and snapped him out of immobility. He rushed into the bedroom, scattered things out of his suitcase, found what he was looking for, grabbed a pair of goggles and Illya's fur‑lined parka, ran out again. He got to the carport as Illya was coming out of the shed, dragging the skis.
"Put your coat on."
Illya ignored it. And him. He'd already put on the steel‑enforced boots, was trying to get them attached to the skis, failing in his haste.
Napoleon slipped the goggles over his head, slapping away a protesting hand. "The wind will blind you without them. Here, I'll fix your skis." He kneeled and properly attached the safety‑release bindings, clamped them into place. Illya dug in the poles, pushed off and was halfway down the hill before Napoleon could get back onto his feet.
He didn't even know if Illya had been aware of him. The parka was left behind, on the ground. In the light of the full moon, the black, inadequately clad figure was getting smaller. But there was now a tracer in each boot and a microphone in the goggles. Napoleon started the Sno‑Cat to heat the engine, threw Illya's parka into it, ran up to the house to get his own gear.
The communicator picked up a howling drone, as if tuned to a wind tunnel; the overlay of tinny shriek was the peculiarity of the transceiver turned to utmost gain. The locator on the dashboard showed the green‑flashing dot heading away in an almost straight line. The Sno‑Cat couldn't possibly catch up with him.
Yes, it would. When he stopped.
And didn't move again.
Napoleon negotiated the snow drifts, wishing at one and the same time stupidly, ridiculously, helplessly to catch up to the tiny dot, and for it to keep going and never stop. As if someone heard his impossible wish and kindly gave it attainable proportions, the steady sound through the communicator became an oscillating one, dipping and rising with the skier's speed through tight turns. The truck was running at a tilt to avoid a crevice, and only after he levelled it could Napoleon check the locator. Yes, the indicator was drawing ellipses, mobius bands, covering a lot of distance without gaining much. Whenever the rush of wind dipped, he could separate Illya's breathing from it, harsh and quick.
The Sno‑Cat started gaining the distance Illya was losing, the indicator dot sliding closer to the intersection point of the white cross drawn on the locator. It darted and dodged in and out of course with Napoleon's adjustment of the wheel around snow banks and its own flittering motions. As if it didn't want to be caught.
It didn't. Napoleon knew that. Could also understand it. He wouldn't have wanted it any differently had it been himself. And in his instincts, Illya was forever a lone wolf. Still, he couldn't not go toward that green moth caught inside the circle on his dashboard, burning itself.
Suddenly, it stopped twisting and struggling, stayed fixed. The sound of the wind dropped to sibilant whistling, over it clearly came Illya's breathing, now a grating rasp, then a guttural keening zharka, oy kak zharka, repeated through it over and over: hot, it's so hot...
The words stopped. The breathing quieted some. One more word separated from it: pamagitye...
A whoosh of air. Then nothing.
The truck rolled to a swaying halt against an incline. Without realizing, he'd been easing off the accelerator to be able to hear the diminishing sounds. The backdrop of wind was all that came through the communicator. It lodged inside him like an icicle.
The green dot moved.
He knew, then, that Illya had tossed away the goggles. He could breathe again without the fear of the shard of ice lacerating his insides. He backed the truck, sent it forward.
Illya was going to hate him. He also cringed from witnessing the ravages of the serum on Illya, his dear friend of twenty years, his beautiful lover of only about that long in hours. But somehow he still couldn't believe it would happen. Something wild and tenacious in him insisted it wouldn't, it didn't dare, not if he was there to prevent it. If Illya would let him be there.
He was the only thing out in the wide open running with lights, with floodlights at that. He'd be seen long before he could see Illya. The Russian would of course know how he'd been tracked. He could discard the tracers as easily as the goggles. In his element, he'd lose Napoleon without half trying.
In the distance, he spotted the dark figure, appearing and disappearing with the swell and dip of the landscape. The moon outlined an artificial shape ahead. There was an old barn, a farmhouse, something, out there and Illya was heading for it. The green dot on the locator steadily moved with him.
It stopped. Centered on the cross. Napoleon was at the structure. He stopped, too. The building had been two stories high, split‑levelled, sprawling. Now it was a husk, timbers rotting, here and there charred logs sticking out of pristine snow. Probably a lodge lost to fire.
He started to get out of the truck, paused. All Illya had to do now was to drop the tracers and wait until they lured Napoleon into the building. Napoleon popped the hood, got out, reached under it for the distributor cap.
Clink. Clink. The tracers bounced off the metal of the truck, fell soundlessly into the snow.
He whirled around. Illya was crouched on the roof of the skeletal structure, the white‑light of the moon turning his hair into a halo, a fair wraith posed like a gargoyle.
"Do you seriously think I'd strand you out here?" the Russian called out in a hoarse voice over the wind before he ducked out of sight.
He shouted at the silent building, stomping his feet, moving his arms; it was cold. "Keep running and you will strand me. I'm going to run out of gas sooner or later."
"Go back now," came the disembodied voice.
"I can't, Illya. Ask anything, not that."
A scraping sound, and the Russian was looking down at him again. "Must you see it?"
"Maybe I must."
"Do I have to shout or may I come in?" Even the broken building would be some shelter from the bite of the air which was now eddying with stinging bits of frozen snow.
Illya ducked away again. "It's wide open," remained on the ice‑laden wind.
What was left of the structure was tottering to its final ruin, debris‑ridden, grotesquely shadowed by the fractured walls and the cratered wreckage of the second story. Napoleon carefully picked his way through. Of the roof, bits of buckled sheet‑metal scaffolding and some supports and rafters remained. Illya was up there somewhere. How could he not freeze?
"Why?" the question was shouted down.
"Come down, I'll tell you."
A cracking sound, and he was visible, balanced on a beam. "I can hear you."
"Illya, don't no!"
The Russian jumped to another beam, making the damaged wood buckle and groan, dislodge icicles. Napoleon noticed he had discarded the heavy boots, was now barefooted.
"Illya, please, come down from there!"
Arms outstretched, moving like a tight‑rope walker, "Or what? I'll fall down and injure myself?" a sudden deliberate drop to hang from the same beam, "I can't," a kick and a swing, and he was straddling it.
Napoleon swallowed to dislodge his heart from his throat. "That's right, Illya, you can't." His partner had found a way up, so could he.
"Napoleon!" Illya shouted when he started climbing, hand over hand, the jagged remains of a staircase. "You can."
No kidding. Especially with the cold making him sluggish.
"Stop me, come down."
"Stop. I'm coming down."
He did by launching himself to the second level. The fire‑razed floor splintered under him, but by then he was off of it, rolling on the uneven, littered ground and coming to his feet as if it had been an exercise mat. He was there before Napoleon could scramble down.
"Why?" he repeated stubbornly. The more he talked, the drier and more raspy his voice was getting.
Napoleon pulled his gloves off. "I could say there must be a lesson in seeing through the reaping of what you sow, but I was never that good a Catholic. Can't see where I'm stepping, give me a hand."
Immediately, Illya took his hand, stumbling when Napoleon unexpectedly yanked at him. The movement was just as unexpected to Napoleon; who was only then starting to identify some roiling, churning thing inside him since...since he'd first heard the words he's not expected to survive. "How could you leave me?" he found himself spitting out from between clenched teeth, in anger, without volition, grabbing Illya by the upper arms and shaking him. "All this time, through every rotten thing I did, every careless word I said, you stayed. After twenty years I thought I could at least trust you not to " My God, what am I saying?
Illya didn't point out the unbearable, utter unfairness of it. "I'm sorry," he apologized instead, the blond head bowing as if truly at fault.
Tears sprang to Napoleon's eyes, icing on his lashes. "Oh, Illya, I'm sorry. I don't know what came I'm sorry, Illya." He gathered the slight body close and tight. "I don't think I'm..." He cut off, thinking it unkind to burden Illya with quite sane anymore. "I'm so sorry," he repeated, instead.
"Shhh, it's all right."
He stood holding his lover. Days ago in a hospital he had thought he couldn't live without ever knowing this feeling. Now that knew, he couldn't live without. "If I can have another twenty years, I want it," he whispered into Illya's damp hair. "If I can have more, I want that. If I can only have another two minutes, I want that, too."
"You were always greedy, Napoleon." His voice cracked. He tried to pull away. "Let me go."
"Not far. The snow's cleaner outside."
Of course. He was dehydrating. Napoleon let go and followed.
Shivering, he watched Illya kneeling in the snow, drinking by taking handful after handful of snow. Wearing nothing more substantial than the turtleneck and the pants, thoroughly wet with his body heat turning the icy snow falling on him into rivulets of water, Illya should have hypothermia. Instead, he was fighting diathermia. No, the term was pyrexia. Illya would have a few choice words on the state of American education or the attention Napoleon had paid to it. Why were his thoughts skittering about? I'm starting hypothermia, he guessed.
No matter. The only thing Napoleon couldn't bear at the moment was standing apart from his partner. He sank to the snow, too, filled his mouth with it, took Illya in his arms, took Illya's mouth, quenching his lover's thirst, his own thirst for his lover. Coming down faster by the minute, snow was piling on him, the cold numbing his limbs. So what? One by fire, one by ice. He didn't really care.
"Oh, Napoleon, you shouldn't," Illya whispered the first time he had to pull away only long enough to get more snow, but he clung to Solo, drinking from him insatiably.
He had no idea how much later, but at one point when he'd have pulled back again, now doing it by rote, if sluggishly, Illya didn't allow him, still insatiable. Not for water. Possessive. Devouring.
So. Illya could no more let go of him than he could let go of Illya. Perfect.
Hands burrowed through the cloth layers, heat needing cold, cold welcoming heat, flesh seeking flesh.
With a sob‑like gasp, Illya tried to twist away. "I can't leave, Napoleon. You must."
Nonsense. Napoleon grasped him tighter. At least that was his intention, but he couldn't tell if his arms were cooperating.
Greedy? Yes, he was.
Maybe two by fire. Why not?
For it wasn't cold anymore, it wasn't anything anymore, really, except wherever Illya touched. Hot. Like being branded.
Suddenly, Illya was shaking him. "Napoleon, wake up!"
He wasn't asleep, dammit. Just content. But Illya was pulling at him, forcing him to find legs he wasn't sure were there.
"Get up! Napoleon, get up. Come on, we have to move! No, I won't let go, just get up. Yes, now move. Come on, Napoleon, I must move, you must move. Come on."
"All God's children must move," he said and thought it funny. Well, at least he did have legs. Didn't necessarily want to walk on them, but Illya was being a despot about it.
"You idiot keep walking. You won't even let me-- keep walking, I said!-- die in peace."
"You can't do that," he rallied.
"Not now I can't. Let's hope I have a choice."
He was being pushed and shoved into the truck. "Are...are we...going home?"
"Just get in there."
All right already, he was in. Shortly, the motor started. Fine, they were going home and Illya was taking them there, all right, that was just right.
What wasn't right was the excruciatingly hot air that started blasting at him, encroaching on his limbless comfort and making him hurt. He tried to fumble for its source, but his hand was slapped away.
"Leave the vents alone!"
Okay. If that's what Illya wanted. Putting one hand that he knew he owned through the unpleasant tingling starting in it on Illya's thigh to assure himself of their proximity, Napoleon curled up on the shaking, bucking seat.
Next thing he knew, Illya was pulling at him again, just as despotic about getting him out of the truck as he had been to get him into it. "Are we home?" he mumbled.
"Not yet, we're out of gas." A string of Russian curses followed. "Come on, get out, we have to walk, it's not that far."
The wind through the open door raked like icicle claws. "Must we?"
"Yes, we must. The only other thing I can do is leave you here and go get a gas can from the shed. Napoleon, I don't know how much longer I have."
Leave you sank in, made him focus. "I'll walk. Just...don't let go."
"No. No, I won't. I
Distance was a relative thing. Despite Illya's assurances to the contrary, Napoleon felt like he'd been forced and cajoled to cross half of Siberia. Security was a relative thing, too. His security had been his jeopardy. Knowing that Illya's will would somehow manage to hold out against anything until he was safe.
Out of the icy clothes, dry in the bed Illya was piling high with covers, the door of the room barred against the wind whistling through the rest of the house, the heater turned up and the heavy drapes drawn, he was safe now, and no longer secure. Illya once more tucked back under the covers the arm Napoleon kept reaching out to keep hold of him. "Is it warm enough for you in there? I can't even tell. Everything feels half‑frozen to me."
Stubbornly, he reached out again to grab Illya's hand. In the room his partner had left dark, touch had become vital to him. "I wish--"
This time, instead of firmly returning the hand, Illya held it in one of his and stroked it with the other. "Yes, my tyrant, my love, what do you wish?"
Unfair or not, he asked. "I wish you could lie down with me. Hold me."
Illya sighed, like drought‑grass rustling. "I probably am the hottest thing around all right, just until you're warm."
Napoleon waited until Illya was wrapped around him like a furnace. "Until?" he asked. "You promised not to let go." His greed indeed had no limits.
"No, Illya. What difference can it make?"
"I told you, you didn't see her. I did."
"And what did she look like? Old, ugly? If --" Too daring a hope to put into words? The delirium that had gripped Illya and sent him into a frenzy was now moderated down to a nervous agitation, expressing itself in restless spasms, fitful undulations, unquiet limbs. Maybe that was Illya's will power, like a resolute rider holding a rampaging beast at abeyance. Or the serum could have followed all that sweat out of his body, and these were the minor aftershocks. Or maybe he was simply burning up the last of his waning energy uncontrollably. But what was hope in the first place, if not daring? "If there is a kind fate for us, I want to grow old with you anyway."
"I wouldn't have run away from you for merely old and ugly." His voice was a whisper of aged parchment, his breath across the crook of Napoleon's neck like an arid waft lifting off of desert sand.
"What then? Desiccated? A dry husk?" Oh, God, Illya's body heat had made even the moisture on his clothes evaporate, and did his normally silky hair and soft skin feel brittle and papery because so much sweat had dried on them, or...? Napoleon forced himself to pronounce all the ugly words calmly. "Decayed? Putrefied? Foul? Corrupt? Rotted? I know the words. I know the meanings. I also know you can put me out and leave if you're determined to go. But what would it change? Do you think tomorrow morning I'm going to wake up, put in a call for a mop‑up team from U.N.C.L.E. over my morning coffee? To find and dispose of you as if you were an untidy remnant of a mission while I go on my merry way? If you leave me, Illya, I'm going to come looking for you, you know that. If I don't freeze to death first, I'm going to find you. In the light of day, I'm going to look at what I've done to you, and then I'm going to take you and it in my arms to carry home."
"Why must you?"
"Because I will. Because I love you. Because I wasted twenty years. Because I need to. Because we are."
He felt his partner lift his head up to look down at him, wished for enough light to see, but before he could voice it, Illya took his mouth and his breath, and even his saliva, with the hot, parched cavern of his own. Afterwards, the dry lips traced his cheekbones, temple, forehead, eyelids...
"I want you to know something, Napoleon, and remember it. What you've done to me was to make me happy." ...His nose, back over his lips, his jaw... "No, I don't count the twenty years well‑wasted, nor would I have chosen to die for it, but I'm glad I didn't die before I experienced it." ...His throat, collarbone, like brush of raw, scratchy silk... "But as soon as you're warm, let me go, only as far as the other room. I promise I won't leave the house."
Napoleon grabbed him as if he were fighting to get away immediately, banded his arms and legs around him. "But why?"
"Please, it's torment. This thing, it's like burning, like being on heat...and this is not helping! Like an endless adrenalin rush, with no place to go. How long can you expect me to control it? I have to move, expend it."
"So expend it. Move. Just don't move away."
Desperately, he pressed Illya to him, tightened his arms and legs. "Anything. Take it."
"Are you crazy!?"
"Napoleon, it won't be any better than rutting."
"You won't shock my fine sensibilities."
"I can do worse than that."
"No, you won't."
"I'll hurt you."
"Oh, yes, please. Give me a pain I can deal with."
"You're burning? Let's burn it out and see what remains. If nothing then, then I want everything now. You want to rage, rage against me. If you can find peace, for now or forever, find it with me, on me, in me. If we have to bury us, let's bury it in us."
"Come on, Illya, make me cry, make me scream, if this is the last I can feel, let me feel until I can't anymore, until I'm insensible, but while I can, while you can, let me feel."
"Hush, my love."
The bedroom was dark when Napoleon regained his senses; the flashlight that had been the compromise between his need to see and Illya's need not to be seen having since exhausted its battery. But as any diurnal creature, he was aware it was daylight outside the tightly‑drawn, lead‑lined drapes, the room holding only a fraudulent remnant of the night.
He hurt, yes. But he knew, as he'd known during the night and not cared one way or the other, not irreparably. He still didn't care. Any moment now, he was either going to be too happy to notice such minor inconveniences, or hurt in a way no other pain could ever match.
For the moment, he was strangely at peace, like a man who'd screamed his last scream, cried out all his emotions, shed his final tear, torn out the heart of his deepest rage and consumed his last rebellion.
It was over. Whatever fate had decreed, it was over.
Calmly, he noted he was on his side. Illya, perhaps in his need to hide, had rolled away from him, was lying with his back to Napoleon, just a slight contrast of more solid dark. Except for his hair, as usual catching even nonexistent light. However, there was nothing to distinguish between pale gold and aged silver in the color‑leaching darkness. They were touching nowhere. All Napoleon could feel was the absence of the furnace‑blast of heat that had been unstoppably rolling off of Illya's body. But he couldn't tell if the cold of death had stolen in during the night.
So simple, to reach out and touch.
Slowly, deliberately, ignoring all the too‑specific pains, he rolled over to his other side, untangled himself from the covers, got up off the bed, had to concentrate to find and keep his balance. With carefully averted eyes, he circled the bed, went to the window. He hesitated briefly, then, keeping his back to Illya, firmly pulled the drapes back and let in the uncompromising light of the day.
For a moment, he had to close his eyes against the sudden glare, then slowly opened them. He knew it was beautiful out there, but didn't yet know if beauty still held any meaning for him, so he didn't dwell on it. Impersonally, he noted, although it had felt like Illya had forcibly dragged him through an endless expanse of frozen wasteland the night before, the Sno‑Cat had run out of fuel in sight of the house. It sat, within hike‑reach, and with the reserve gas cans in the shed, a visible tie to the rest of the world.
(A) They could go back.
(B) He could go back.
Only one of the above statements is True. A or B?
If A was True...
Maybe there would be a tear or two left in him just for the sheer beauty of the day.
If A was False...
Would that make B True?
After a stern lecture and possibly some kind of punitive measure Waverly might assign him a capable partner and loose him into the field again.
In due course, the field would, obligingly, kill him.
Also a passive thing, the coward's way out. No.
Then. If B was True...
If he did go back, he'd tell Waverly he'd pulled his last desperate stunt, tossed the last wayward dice, and he was done. He was coming in from the cold for good. From then on he'd settle down and shoulder his responsibilities as conscientiously, as competently as he could, for as long as he could.
If he didn't go back, well, there were a couple of options. He had enough explosives, his own and those of Illya's he'd collected from the hospital. He'd light the fireplace, put them in close proximity, and go back to bed. When the flames reached them the resultant pieces would be too small to reconstruct what had gone on in this safe‑house.
Or, if he didn't care about post‑mortem revelations and at the moment he really couldn't imagine why he should, he could simply shut off the heater, open all the doors and windows, take into his arms the terrible reality and the beautiful memory of his lover and go back to sleep. The arctic cold born in the northern reaches of the steppes of Illya's beloved homeland would sweep down and take care of the rest.
But first, A or B?
He took a breath. Let it out. Took another. Held it.
However long my forever is, Illya...
...I'm going to love you forever.
He turned to look.