An explosion, and in the blink of an eye, existence as many knew it winked out.
Napoleon Solo had been asleep, wrapped in the arms of a conquest, when the rocking woke him. He frowned, trying to put a finger on the sensation. It came to him as he struggled free of the tangled bedclothes. It had reminded him of an aftershock from an earthquake or seismic activity from a volcano. Surely New York hadn't suddenly developed a fault line or sprouted a volcano.
From there, it wasn't a large leap to consider THRUSH involvement, a logical connection to his way of thinking.
"Napoleon, sweetie, what is it?"
"Probably nothing, but possibly something. You just stay tucked in and I'll let you know." Pulling on a robe, Napoleon stepped from the bedroom into the living room of his apartment.
Everything there was just as they'd left it the night before when they'd tumbled into bed for some enthusiastic wrestling of a very sexual nature. Napoleon's hand slipped to his lower back, massaging a sore muscle there. Hmm, that had never happened before, probably time for a new mattress. God knew this one had seen its share of action.
His suit jacket from the previous evening was tossed over an over-stuffed armchair and he dug out his communicator. While he usually kept it beside his bed, it had always served him well to keep it in the living room when entertaining a member of the fairer sex who wasn't U.N.C.L.E. personnel. There were fewer questions when it went off in the middle of the night.
He pulled the cap off, tugged out the antenna and spoke into the slender instrument softly, just in case he had an audience. "Open Channel D please."
"Oh, Mr. Solo, I was just getting ready to call you." Napoleon recognized the voice of the communications agent he'd dated a few weeks prior.
"Phyllis, what's going on?"
"We're not really sure. The reports are scattered but apparently there was some sort of explosion in mid-town Manhattan just a little bit ago."
"Explains why I felt it. Woke me from a sound sleep."
"Just a moment, please." Napoleon resisted the urge to whistle as he waited and instead clicked on the color TV he'd recently purchased. He rarely watched TV, but the new technology fascinated him. He found the local station and turned the sound up.
"Mr. Solo?" Phyllis' sultry southern voice had been replaced by that of his superior, Alexander Waverly. "I'm sorry to do this, but I need you to report immediately to headquarters."
"Understood, sir, I'm on my way. Napoleon out." Napoleon started to tuck the pen away when his eyes froze on the TV screen. The new Technicolor invention wasn't much good when everything being broadcast was in black and grays. Twisted, burned out hulks of cars and destroyed store fronts littered the street along with the glass of a thousand shattered windows. A reporter carefully picked his way through, speaking directly to the camera.
"Reports are scattered, but enforcement personnel estimates of the dead are high; the whole street looks like a war zone." The reporter was stumbling over debris, trying to keep clear as various city crews rushed past him. "The devastation is tremendous - this reporter has never seen anything like it."
"Napoleon?" The woman's sleepy voice pulled his attention briefly from the TV as she joined him. "What happened?" He wrapped an arm around her, kissed her forehead, and then nuzzled her hair.
"Something bad, I'm afraid. I've got to go to work," he whispered into her ear. "Get dressed and I'll drop you off at home on my way in."
To her credit, the woman didn't argue or act petulant, but merely nodded and moved like an automaton into the bedroom, her gaze upon the TV screen. She paused at the doorway to his bedroom. "Napoleon, what could have done something like that?"
"I don't know what," he murmured, his own attention still focused. "But I have a pretty good guess who."
The hallways of U.N.C.L.E. were crowded, more so than he could ever remember. People, many strangers to him, pushed past in a hurry to get somewhere other than where they were. Resisting an impulse to head directly to his office and pick up his partner, Napoleon instead moved in the direction of Waverly's office. Even though the alarm bells were silent, lights flashed on and off, indicating a state of emergency. Napoleon knew by experience it meant the elevators were off and used the adrenaline pumping through him to take the stairs two at a time.
He entered Waverly's office, the door standing open as a stream of U.N.C.L.E. personnel flooded in and out of the room. As he came in, a young woman was handing Waverly a clipboard.
"That's it, sir. We've managed to locate all but four of our off-site operatives: Ramos, Giuliani, Greggs..." Her voice caught in her throat at the sight of Napoleon standing there, his face carefully neutral. "And Kuryakin. They're assigned to a stake-out in mid-Manhattan," she finished in a whisper, "just a few blocks from the explosion."
Napoleon remembered now. Whether it had been in a fit of pique or just something to yank his partner's chain, Napoleon had sent him along with three very green junior agents to handle a routine surveillance of a possible THRUSH satrap. His partner had been less than pleased with the assignment, but it was standard procedure to send a senior agent out on assignments with less experienced agents and to Napoleon's way of thinking, it had been Illya's turn. Of course, as CEA, he was exempt. Rank did have its privilege on occasion.
Napoleon spun, intent upon verifying the information himself, but Waverly's voice caught him. "I think that your services would be best used here, Mr. Solo."
"But Illya...I sent him on that assignment, sir. I need..."
"And I need you to maintain control in your section, perhaps now more than ever. If Mr. Kuryakin was indeed caught in that blast, then there is very little you can do for him. If not, then we will be notified of his whereabouts. I have ordered all New York personnel to report to headquarters. Your people management skills will come in handy now. U.N.C.L.E. needs...Napoleon, I need you here."
Napoleon Solo was tempted to disobey an order from his superior, certainly not a first for him, but in the end, training won out and he nodded, head lowered. Waverly was right. This was where he would be the most useful at the moment, not digging through debris hoping for a sign of his partner.
They had set up a temporary war room in the largest conference room in the building, the one they regularly used was too small to handle the overflow of agents. Even so, it was cramped with the all Section 2 agents stuffed into it. Napoleon couldn't remember seeing quite so many all in one spot before, a testament to the morning's atrocity. The local officials were still groping for an explanation, but Napoleon had more information to go on. An explosion at a possible THRUSH stronghold was all too common in his experience.
"Okay, Gillian, take your men and start here." Napoleon pointed to a map, drawing his hand in an inward spiral. "Look for anything that might indicate that THRUSH had something to do with this." He broke off to take a swallow of cold coffee. "I don't care how insignificant it might seem, a scrap of paper, a bit of wire, anything that will help us to either confirm or eliminate THRUSH's involvement."
"Sir, word on the street is that they lost as many people as everyone else in the explosion." The Section 2 agent was a stranger to Napoleon, possibly in transit from one of their oversea offices to another and caught here. Even so, the man's face was carefully neutral; it hadn't taken more than half an hour for the news to spread. Bad enough to lose four agents, but when one was a top senior agent, the blow was twice as hard. Add into the mix that it was Napoleon's partner and people couldn't help but react with pity and sympathy. Already, he'd begun to endure the conversations that stopped as he entered a room, the looks that ranged from compassion to anxiety.
He shook the thoughts from his head and continued on. "Agreed, but until we can eliminate them completely, I'm still going to operate under the assumption that they were the cause. It's not much, but right now it's the best we have. One more thing, don't go anywhere that hasn't been cleared. Identify yourselves and work with the agencies down there. The last thing we need right now is a shouting match between us and the city of New York. We're here to help, not hinder." The door slid open and an ashen-face woman entered. All heads turned to her, all silently asking the same question, but it was Napoleon who voiced it.
"Peggy, what is it?"
"They found three of our missing agents, Napoleon."
"Which hospital, Peggy?" Even though her face said otherwise, he had to keep his hopes up.
"City morgue." She took a breath and continued. "Illya wasn't with them, but the other agents were found at close to ground zero. The police are theorizing they found the bomb and Illya..."
"...is the demolition expert. He'd have gone in and sent his men clear." A sudden desire to lose his stomach's contents raged in him, but he pushed the nausea back down. The fact was that they faced death, every day and at every turn. The thought of one of them dying was never something they expressed, but something they accepted as part of their lives. "Thank you, Peggy." Taking a deep breath, he turned his attention back to his agents. "You have your orders, gentlemen, go."
Mr. Waverly's voice filtered through to him and Napoleon woke with a start. He hadn't even remembered dozing off. He sat up, grimacing at the crick in his shoulder. "Sorry, sir, I didn't mean to fall asleep." Considering how many empty coffee cups surrounded him, it was amazing that he even managed the feat. He twisted his head left and then right to relieve the cramp. Pushing away from the table, he leaned back in the chair, rubbing gritty eyes.
"That's quite all right, Mr. Solo." Waverly's hand rested upon his shoulder for a moment and Napoleon turned sleepy, discouraged eyes to him. "You should know that they found him, Mr. Solo."
"Thank you, sir." Napoleon blinked, too tired and numb to even mourn. "I'd like permission to accompany his body back to Russia if that's possible, Mr. Waverly. It's the least I can do for his family, to let them know how he died and it'll be easier hearing it from me."
"I think Mr. Kuryakin might have something to say about that, son."
Waverly's mouth played at a smile. "He's alive, Mr. Solo, at Mercy General. It took awhile for them to contact us as he was brought in unconscious and had no ID on him when he was found."
"Illya's alive?" Napoleon was joyous and bounced to his feet.
"According to the doctors, he's surprisingly uninjured, considering where they found him. At the moment, he is the only person to be brought out of the area alive. I have arranged transport back to HQ once he's been stabilized enough to move. I suspected you would like to be on hand to greet the ambulance."
Napoleon was out the door before Waverly had even finished the sentence. "At least one of us has a happy ending in this," he murmured, looking down at the files that lay upon the table. Three other families were going to receive news of a very different nature.
There was no sound at all and at first he was afraid to open his eyes again, for fear that he was still trapped beneath that mass of concrete. His thoughts were too jumbled for him to make sense of them although he remembered the explosion, the dust, flying debris, then everything sort of filtered away into a ball of gray nothingness until he woke briefly, in darkness, to discover he was trapped, pinned beneath who knew how much concrete and rubble. He could feel his feet and legs and, likewise, wiggle his fingers, although his right hand was strangely immobile. That told him his back was probably still in one piece, but the pain the action jump started was more than he could bear, so he remained still. When he tried to blink, his left eye felt strange, but he couldn't tell why and frankly he lacked the energy to do more than think about it.
For some reason, of all the ways he had thought of to die, this hadn't been one of them. That in itself was actually pretty strange, considering his propensity for blowing things up. He'd figured that he'd be taken out by a blast, get a bullet or knife to one of his vital organs, have his neck snapped, be poisoned, but never had he imagined being buried alive to starve to death.
He couldn't even make out exactly where in the underground tunnel he was. That's what he got for taking it as opposed to the bus as was his usual fashion. His other three agents were all subway commuters, so he'd made the effort to join them this time, reaching out to them in a rare show of bonhomie. They had breakfast in an all-night diner and exchanged horror stories about Survival School and Cutter's rather single-minded approach to most situations. Then they'd headed for the subway. At the last minute, he'd paused to grab a few papers, always a boon when dealing with the boredom of a stakeout. Then an explosion, and suddenly his world became very small.
He must have passed out again at some point, but he couldn't tell when. Buried this deep, everything was quiet, peaceful. From the overall weakness and light headedness he was experiencing, he figured he had to be bleeding out somewhere and would be dead long before he starved and that was a good thing to his way of thinking.
Then a light stabbed his eyes and he blinked painfully. The beam bobbed and he raised his still functioning left arm to shield his face from it. A face loomed, its lips moving and his hand went to his ears. He shook his head slowly, letting his rescuer know he couldn't hear him. The man's face was ashen, obviously horrified by Illya's appearance. All around him, he could feel, rather than hear, vibrations and assumed they stemmed from the effort of trying to cut him free. A quick glance to his right showed a sizable length of rebar, pinned at either end, going through his hand. That certainly explained why he couldn't move and he wondered briefly if they'd try to cut the rebar or just remove his hand. Either way it was going to hurt, he decided, but he had a rather detached feeling about the whole thing at the moment. More jolts of pain, movement, light, and it all became too much for his nervous system to deal with. He shut his eyes for a moment.
Opening them again proved a challenge when the time came and after a struggle, only one actually responded to his call. He started to reach with his right hand, but it was still strangely heavy and it was then that he realized it was wrapped, his fingers jutting out from the bandage. Obviously, they had decided to try to save it. His left hand floated up and he touched the bandage over his forehead and left eye.
A blast of white flared in his vision and he blinked madly until it retreated slightly and he made out a nurse's uniform. Must be in a hospital, he decided as he watched her curiously. Her fingers were moving in seemingly random patterns. After a moment, he shook his head at her and she reached for his undamaged hand, bringing it to her lips and speaking slowly.
Who are you? She was asking him his name. He nodded and opened his mouth to speak, but the words turned sideways in his throat and he coughed instead. A long, serious effort to cough up his toes ensued, resulting in him bringing up mouthfuls of gray phlegm and leaving him upon the brink of unconsciousness again. Using his left hand, he made a writing motion and a pencil and pad of paper appeared. Apparently, they were ready for this.
Slowly and with all the dexterity of a five year old, he managed to print, Illya Kuryakin.
She smiled as she read his response and wrote something below his name. Who can we call?
U.N.C.L.E. Alex and he pulled a phone number from memory, hoping it was one that still worked. She took the pad from him, nodded, and held up a hypo. He felt it bite into his thigh and the peace of sleep settled back down around him.
It must have been a working number, for the next time he woke, Napoleon was hovering over him, talking to him. His partner's voice was faint, like he was in the bottom of a great hole and Napoleon was shouting down to him, but the fact that he could hear at all caused him to smile weakly before he once again slipped back into unconsciousness.
And so it went for he didn't know how long, that fluctuating back and forth between brief bouts of painful awareness and blissful sleep. Then something clicked in him, something whispered that it was time to leave this behind and get back to the matter of living.
The room was dark when he opened his one unbandaged eye and that gave him a momentary panic attack, but upon blinking, his night vision kicked in and he could make out the chair beside the bed and his partner sleeping in the chair, Napoleon's neck kinked at a painful angle.
Napoleon, you are going to feel that when you wake up, my friend, he thought and glanced over at the other bed in the room. Empty; either his fellow agents had been released or moved to other rooms. There was a newspaper on the small nightstand beside the bed and he reached for it with his right hand, hissing at the pain it caused. He glanced over at Napoleon, but the dark haired agent stirred only slightly. Assured that he hadn't woken his partner, Illya tried again, this time with his left hand. It took three tries before he actually made contact with the paper, thanks to lack of depth perception, and he pulled it over onto the bed. It took him a minute to rest and build up enough energy to actually turn it around to be able to read it and he stiffened.
It was hard to see clearly, but on the front page was a photo of a man being pulled from the debris, dirty, bloodied, and looking pretty grim. The caption in 64 point type that even a blind man could read, '300 Now Feared Dead. In smaller print - Only Survivor Still A Mystery Man.'
"You weren't meant to see that." It took a moment for Napoleon's voice to crawl its way through to him and even longer for Illya to register the words. He just kept staring at the photo of himself and the incriminating words, 'only survivor.'
Illya tried to speak, but the word came out as a harsh breath. A second attempt only made him cough and brought tears to his eyes. Napoleon offered him a glass of ice and Illya took a small mouthful of chips.
"They had to aspirate you - that's why your throat feels like that. They needed to help you breathe a little too, so you had a breathing tube inserted for awhile." The truth of it was that Illya was pretty tired of breathing now and just wanted to go back to sleep, but he could feel Napoleon's eyes on him.
"Wh...what happened?" he managed after another mouthful of ice.
"We don't really know. Someone planted some massive explosives in the subway tunnel. It wasn't THRUSH, but no one else has come forward to claim responsibility. We just don't know, but we assigned a crack team to investigate."
"Why...you...here?" It was so hard to think in English at the moment, but Illya knew Napoleon's Russian was limited.
"That's how you used to talk when you first came here, partner mine." Napoleon spoke loudly and slowly to him as if he were a two year old. "And I'm here because this is where my partner is."
"And that partner needs to rest, Mr. Solo." A doctor had stepped into the room.
Lewis or something like that, Illya thought. At least he seemed familiar, but right now that didn't mean much.
"Right," Napoleon slipped the paper from Illya's grasp and tucked it beneath his arm. "I'll let you rest now then."
"How do you feel?" the doctor half shouted at him.
Who was this guy kidding? How the hell does he think I'm feeling? Illya railed for a moment at the question, but found that when it actually came time to speak, the words fell away, becoming unimportant as pain settled down beside him, making itself at home in his battered and bruised body. Apparently, the doctor clued into this.
"Pain bad?" Illya nodded once. "Okay then, let's make you a bit more comfortable." There was a pin prick and nothing else.
The next time he woke, his mind was clearer and the need to shake off the loopy effect of the drugs less. He decided they'd been weaning him off the morphine. A nurse was fiddling with something at the other end of the room and gave a start when she realized he was watching her.
"Where's Nellie?" Illya asked. His voice sounded odd, distant and rough.
"On vacation," the nurse spoke carefully. He still had to concentrate to hear her and he shook his head slightly. "Your hearing is still showing effects from the blast. There was no permanent damage though and it should come back just fine."
"How are..." He had to stop and think for a moment. "Ramos, Giuliani, and Greggs?"
"The agents with me?' Illya stopped to take a breath. "Are they here?"
"I'm sorry, Mr. Kuryakin - you were the only one."
"The only one what?"
"The only one to be brought out of the blast area alive..." Illya phased her out though, thinking back to the three agents he'd had breakfast with the morning of the explosion. Ramos was a twin and he'd been set to give his sister away at her wedding the next month. Giuliani - his family's pride and joy, they'd been so proud of his decision to join U.N.C.L.E., and Greggs, the only son of an only son. Three families devastated, changed irreparably and here he lay relatively intact and unharmed because he'd changed his routine ever so slightly that morning.
"You were really, really lucky," the nurse continued, but somehow Illya didn't share her sentiment. All he felt was really, really guilty.
Napoleon Solo walked into Waverly's office four days later, the weight of the world on his shoulders. It didn't take a mind reader to know what the subject of this meeting was going to be. If he had any doubt, it was erased at the sight of U.N.C.L.E.'s medical chief and head psychiatrist seated at the circular table with Waverly. The Old Man looked even more somber than usual, if that was possible, and was fumbling with his pipe, which was never a good sign in Napoleon's experience. Napoleon quietly moved to his traditional spot at the table, glancing briefly over at the empty chair to his right, the chair that Illya usually occupied - usually, but not now.
"You know why we've called this meeting, Mr. Solo?"
"I have a pretty good idea, sir." There was a thick folder on the table and he didn't need to be told it was his partner's medical file. With a twisted smile, he wondered if his own was quite as substantial as this one. "I saw him again last night. I take it there hasn't been much change?" Napoleon addressed his question directly to Dr. Lewis. They weren't just talking about a field agent; they were talking about his partner and his friend.
"His hearing continues to improve, should be back to normal in a few more days, although he may have some permanent loss in his right ear - nothing that would keep him from the field though. Same goes for his hand. We are still trying to figure that one out. For that rebar to go entirely through his hand and miss every tendon and bone is practically impossible. His legs were bruised, but not even fractured. And his eye, it looked gruesome, but popped right back in and only needed a couple of stitches to hold it in place. Physically, considering they dug him out from beneath several tons of concrete, he's in amazing shape, although I'm sure he'd argue the opposite right now. Rather it's his mental state that has us concerned."
Napoleon had to nod in agreement. "He holds himself responsible for the detonation of the explosive." He'd been right there when the ambulance carrying his partner arrived and had seen him escorted into the bowels of U.N.C.L.E. HQ and into the Medical department. The Russian had woken briefly, even gave him a small smile before being whisked into the inner sanctum of the Medical department.
It wasn't until later that Napoleon became aware of a problem he hadn't considered before. Illya learned about the death of his fellow agents and all the others; so many dead and yet, for some inexplicable reason, he lived.
"He was nowhere near it," Waverly said, interrupting his thoughts. "The bomb experts said it was triggered remotely. It was just the luck of the draw he happened to be behind that column when it went up."
"He doesn't see it that way." Brian Peterson closed a secondary file he'd been reading. "This is something referred to as 'survivor's guilt' or 'post traumatic stress syndrome.' He's got the classic signs: sleep disturbance, depression, anxiety, loss of drive, along with his physical injuries. He can't understand why he's alive and so many other people died."
"But it happens all the time. A plane crashes and everyone dies with the exception of one person. There's no real reason for it, it just happens," Napoleon said, drawing a circle on the table top with his index finger.
"That's not enough for Mr. Kuryakin at the moment. He asserts that he did everything contrary to his nature that morning. In short, he spent his whole life turning right and suddenly, for no reason whatsoever, he turned left and this happened. The why is making him crazy."
"Maybe it just wasn't his time to die. Someone else is holding that card." Napoleon studied the invisible circle he had traced.
"A possibility that doesn't sit well when one was raised an atheist, Napoleon," Lewis said.
"No, I suppose not." Napoleon allowed a small smile to escape.
"This morning I found him studying his hands and wondering why he only uses them to kill." Peterson let his fingers steeple before his mouth. "He needs to find a reason as to why he's still alive, a reason to stay alive, or we can't let him back out into the field. Not like this - he's as likely to walk right into the path of a bullet as avoid it."
"What can I do?" Napoleon looked from one doctor to the other.
"That's the problem, Mr. Solo. I'm about out of ideas. If we could get him some place where he isn't constantly reminded about the explosion, perhaps that would help. He needs quiet, some time to reflect and work things out in his mind. He can't do it here, not when all the media is still focused on the blast and trying to hunt him down. He's like a caged animal here, but the minute we release him, the media will descend upon him and I can't help but think that won't do much good for his frame of mind."
Napoleon's lips curled into a smile, his first real one since he'd seen that dead expression in that one unbandaged blue eye. "I know just the place."
Napoleon Solo slowed the sedan as he approached the final curve leading to his family's farm. It seemed like just yesterday he'd made this trip the first time with Illya. The Russian had been in a rare jovial mood that Christmas day, playful, witty and just happy to be alive. The snow had been falling and life had seemed a bit easier back then.
"Sure is different now," he murmured, glancing over at his sleeping partner. He'd tried to keep up a conversation with Illya, only to give it up when he realized the man could only really hear about half of what he was saying over the car's engine. By the time they'd hit upstate New York, pain medication had sent Illya into a deep slumber. That had been hours ago and still Illya slept on. Napoleon suspected it was as much an avoidance issue as anything else. He had been warned that Illya would sleep a lot during the next few days as his body continued to mend. Hopefully, his conscience would have the same opportunity.
The road dipped and Napoleon could hear the blare of the barn's generator over the music softly playing on the radio. He'd been worried that the music would keep Illya awake and now chuckled at that unlikelihood. He even sang along with a couple of songs, hoping beyond hope that it would draw some sarcastic remark about dying cats or nails on a chalkboard from his partner, but to no avail.
"Illya, what am I going to do with you?" Napoleon asked rhetorically, turning into the long driveway that led up to the farmhouse. He'd hated having to shovel that thing by hand as a boy. His first gift to his parents once he'd gotten a steady salary was a snow blower and then he promptly left home before he even had a chance to use it.
He parked the car and climbed out, leaving the door ajar. While Illya probably wouldn't hear the door slam, he'd feel it and Napoleon wasn't quite ready for him to wake up just yet.
Taking the porch steps two at a time, Napoleon pulled open the screen door. Instantly, he was transported back into his youth. The kitchen always looked and smelled the same to him, always declared 'home' to him. The hodge-podge of everything from old Christmas decorations to first grade report cards to abandoned coats, hats and boots occupied every available inch of the kitchen.
"Mom?" he called when he couldn't spot her immediately.
"Be right with you," called a cheerful voice and Napoleon looked past the curtained doorway and into his parent's bedroom. It seemed crazy to have a bedroom right off the kitchen, but during the winter, it was one of the warmest spots in the house and in the summer, the coolest. Napoleon knew where he'd choose to sleep if given the option.
"Hi, Mom, Dad, how are you feeling?" Napoleon said, as the woman straightened from her task of tucking in her husband. Months previously, Julies Solohad suffered a stroke after having had a heart attack the year before. While he survived, it had taken its pound of flesh along with it, leaving behind a mere reflection of the man Napoleon had known. It didn't seem fair that a strong and capable man could be laid so low, but Julius attacked his slowed speech and his weak left side with the same vigor that he did everything else in his life.
"Good, good," Julius said, with a lop-sided smile and a half wave. "Better every day. Back to the barn soon."
"That's right. We'll have you milking before another month's out, Father." Katherine patted her husband's hand and turned off the light. "You get some rest now."
She walked out and back into the kitchen. Even though it was almost July, the heavy maple trees outside the bedroom cloaked the room in dimness most of the time. She moved to her son and gathered him into her arms, holding him tightly. As he stroked her back gently, she shook her head. "He sleeps so much now, Napoleon. I'm so worried about him."
"I know the feeling," he replied sympathetically.
"Likewise, in the car." He kissed her cheek gently and released her. He settled into a kitchen chair as his mother turned her attention to the cast iron cooking stove, stirring the contents of a large pot before replacing the cover. "Appreciate you letting us camp out here for a few days. The media has really been making a nuisance of themselves. They had a picture of Illya being pulled from the rubble and are offering a reward for his identity. It was just a matter of time before they found him and frankly I don't even want to think about the mayhem that would have followed that."
"Ye gods and little pussy cats, don't they have any shame or conscience?"
"Not so you'd know it, Mom. You don't know the half of it. In his present state of mind, that might not have ended well for either party. You know what he can be like when he gets backed into a corner. I'm just glad we have here to call home."
"Nonsense, this is as much his home as yours, you both know that. I put you two in your old room, since we have the rest of the grandkids in the other rooms."
"How is that working out?"
"At first it was a little rough, but they've gotten the hang of it. We hired a couple of permanent extra hands and we are doing just fine. I think Josie is really enjoying it and Doug, you'd think he'd hit the grand prize. He adores it and can't wait for the other house's remodel to be finished so they can move out of here and get into it. It's your father that I'm worried about. There are still mobility issues to deal with. He can't walk any great distance, but he wants to be down in the barn so badly, but it might as well be on the moon for now."
"I'll see what I can arrange, Mom. I'm just glad it worked out with Josie and Doug. It was the right decision, after all." Napoleon stood and walked to the kitchen door. "I'd better go wake Sleeping Beauty."
It was the cessation of motion that woke him finally, rather than the quiet. Although his hearing was slowly returning to normal, everything was still muffled, like he had cotton stuffed into both ears. He sat up stiffly and looked around. He'd grown familiar enough with Napoleon's childhood home to recognize the farmhouse. He didn't even remember falling asleep.
He could recall Napoleon rambling on about something, but words were fuzzy and hard to concentrate upon over the noise of the car engine. It was probably only to apologize and frankly, Illya was getting tired of trying to quell Napoleon's conscience. Napoleon was sorry, yes, Illya knew that. Napoleon felt responsible, he knew that too, but he also knew Napoleon was merely doing his job, just as Illya was doing his. The constant barrage of atonement was wearing thin.
Illya's head felt in a fog, a condition he blamed upon the painkillers and other medications he was still taking. He thought that if he could just give his head a good shake to clear it, all of this would evaporate into a bad dream. Shaking, however, proved only to amplify the dizziness, so now he kept his head carefully still.
He climbed from the car, every muscle and bone protesting the attempt. The pills Napoleon had forced on him before they left the city kept him from feeling any real discomfort, but he knew the pain was there, just buried. He still felt and looked like one giant bruise.
Getting his legs under him, he stood with the help of the car door and struggled for a moment to find his center of gravity. It was cooler here than in the city and much greener, the hills heavy with summer growth. He could smell cut grass, flowers and something that definitely announced that this was a working farm. It was funny. With both his vision and hearing limited, his sense of smell had really kicked in.
Illya used the stair railing to help him get up onto the porch and heard Napoleon talking. It took him a moment longer to actually decipher the words, "I'd better go wake Sleeping Beauty."
"You try to kiss me and there will be trouble." Illya stood on the other side of the screen door, his hand outstretched for the handle. He entered, still blinking sleepily, and looked around. "It's amazing. No matter how much time passes, this room stays the same."
Katherine came to hug him, taking care to keep her grasp loose as she wrapped her arms around him. After a moment, Illya slowly lifted his arms to return the embrace. Over his shoulder, she saw Napoleon's lips move. Speak loudly, Napoleon's mouth urged. She brushed his blond hair off his forehead, mindful of the patch of white across the top left of his face, cupped his cheek and smiled into his half open blue eye. "My thought has always been why mess with perfection?" She asked, speaking clearly.
"So your son is frequently heard to say."
She chuckled, then suggested, "Why don't you two go get cleaned up and we'll catch up over dinner? You're in Napoleon's old room. You know the way, Illya." He nodded and headed towards the back of the house without waiting to see if Napoleon followed. At the speed he was moving, he'd be lucky to make it up the stairs before it was time to leave again. Not that much of a loss though, considering he didn't have anything to go back to.
Katherine waited until Illya had passed from hearing range and turned back to her son. "I can see why you're concerned, Napoleon. That is quite unlike him to be so...well, on the farm we'd have to dock an animal to calm him down like that."
"I remember. He's far from docked, Mom, but his fire's gone, that's for sure. I've been trying to get up his nose all week with no success. Hell, I can't even keep him awake most of the time."
"He's been through a traumatic event and perhaps he just needs some time to reflect."
"And that's why we're here, Mom. If this place can't turn him around, then..." Napoleon trailed off, dropping his head at the thought.
"Then what, Napoleon?"
"Then I lose my partner. He won't be field re-certified, not like he is now. They'll stick him behind a desk and that will be the end of it."
"Is that such a bad thing?"
"A week ago the only thing that mattered to me was that he was alive, but to see him like this," he paused and shook his head. "I'm not so sure now that death wouldn't have been a kinder fate."
"You don't believe that."
He returned to her arms for another hug. "The sad part is that I'm even having to entertain the thought, Mom." He tightened the embrace before leaving her to retrace his footsteps to the car to retrieve their luggage. He was about to head back into the house when he heard a shout and looked up to see a tall figure wave as it ran towards him. As it got close, his mouth dropped open.
"Hi ya, U.N.C.L.E. Napoleon; when did you get here?"
"Just now. My word, what are they feeding you? My neck hurts from looking up."
"Mom says the same thing. Just clean country living, I guess. Did Illya come with you?"
"Great, last time he was here he said he was going to teach me how to shoot." The boy reached to take one of the suitcases from his U.N.C.L.E.. "He in the house then? I can't wait to talk to him. Wait, he knows French, right? I'm hoping he can help me with my conjugating. I hate irregular verbs."
"There's something you need to know, Winston." Napoleon paused and the boy hesitated. "Illya was in an accident and he isn't his usual self."
For a moment, Winston studied him and then chuckled. "Who the hell is anymore, Uncle Napoleon? Six months ago, my dad was an advertising exec in Germany, today he's a farmer. My mom used to run a day care center, now she spends all her time feeding calves and gathering eggs. Everything old is new again."
"You got that from your grandmother and when did you start to use that kind of language?"
"The hired hands - he thinks it's the sign of maturity to talk like that. The problem is that Dad agrees with him." A voice behind Napoleon made him spin and he grinned at the young woman standing there. "Hi, Uncle Napoleon, how are you?"
"Helena, as I live and breathe, just look at you, sweetheart. You're glowing. Pregnancy really agrees with you." He didn't reach out to touch her swollen belly, having been advised by the secretaries at the office that women hated it.
"It's the only thing around here that does these days. As for the glowing, it's heartburn."
"You should know that it's not a sign of masculinity to swear, Winston." Napoleon gave his niece a chaste kiss on the cheek. "It's a sign of the uneducated and unenlightened."
Helena stuck her tongue out at her brother and linked arms with her uncle. "Did Illya come with you, Uncle Napoleon?"
"Doesn't he always?" Napoleon hefted up his suitcase as Winston grabbed the other.
"You said Illya was in an accident, Unc?" Winston resumed walking, shifting the suitcase from one hand to the other.
"Unc? I sound like a Polynesian god."
"Illya was in an accident?" Helena's hand tightened upon her U.N.C.L.E.'s arm. When his niece had been younger, she'd carried a flame for the Russian agent, sending him steamy love letters and promises of eternal love that had promptly ended when she met her future husband. Still, she remained taken with the blond.
"You heard about the big explosion in New York City? He was right in the middle of it, literally." At the stricken expressions, Napoleon smiled in his most calming manner. "He's going to be okay, but it would be best if you don't mention the accident. He's been really bothered by reporters lately and would like to just ignore the whole thing. We should go in now as your grandmother is holding dinner for us."
Napoleon climbed the narrow staircase leading to the second floor carefully. He remembered plowing up and down those stairs a thousand times a day as a boy. He recalled always stopping at one particular one to sit, reflect and day dream about his life ahead, wondering what it would bring and where it would lead him.
He half expected to see Illya asleep again as he entered the room, but the man was standing in front of a window, looking down on a small stream that ran behind the house.
"You okay?" Napoleon asked loudly and slowly.
"Everyone keeps asking me that these days." Illya didn't bother to turn.
"That should be a hint then that possibly you're not your normal self." Napoleon settled the two suitcases down on a long hope chest.
"They are saying that as well."
Napoleon came to stand behind him, close, but not touching; just letting the man know he was there was enough for Napoleon at the moment. "Lots of people are worried about you, old friend, that's all."
"Then they should apply themselves to more practical problems and leave me to me."
"Ah, but that's not the human way - sorry." He placed a hand upon a shoulder and squeezed gently. "Mom's waiting for us."
"I don't know, Napoleon; it's awkward enough just trying to feed myself in private much less with an audience." Illya turned from the window. "My eye/hand coordination is still not what it could be. I tend to end up wearing more than I actually get in my mouth."
"If you can't embarrass yourself in front of family, then what good are they? Besides, we can get Helena to cut your meat up for you - it'll be good practice."
Napoleon held his hands out before him, miming a huge stomach. "Very pregnant and anxious to see you. They all are." A pause as Napoleon waited to see if Illya would make a joke about everyone being pregnant. When the bait wasn't snatched up, he continued, "It's time to face life again, Illya. I know you don't understand it, but you did live and whether or not you agree with the reason, it isn't a debate. Now, come on." For a moment, Napoleon hoped he'd actually have a battle on his hands, but the Russian just nodded and walked slowly towards the door. Napoleon's head dropped as he conceded defeat yet again. "Legs still bothering you?" Illya shrugged and, dejectedly, Napoleon followed his partner out the door.
Illya paused at the top of the stairs, obviously preparing himself for the trip down and into the madness of the Napoleon family. "Forgive me for not asking earlier; how is your father, Napoleon?" His voice was soft, as if he was afraid of being overheard.
"As good as can be expected, given the circumstances. He's not a young man, but he is stubborn. You know, I always thought it would be a farm accident that would get him, but never something as banal as a stroke. He's a fighter, like you used to be." Napoleon waited to see what Illya would do, but it was possible the man either didn't or chose not to hear him. Instead, he started to slowly making his way down the steep staircase.
Napoleon sipped his wine and surreptitiously watched his partner through lowered eye lids. Heeding his earlier request, questions alluding to the accident were studiously avoided and the talk shifted from his partner's health to that of the day-to-day dealings on the farm in short order. Where once he would have been an active participant in the discussion, Illya had taken on the role of observer, at times growing so quiet that Napoleon had to check to make sure he hadn't fallen asleep again
"You about ready to head up, Illya?" Napoleon asked, touching the Russian on his arm. The blue eye, hazy and far away, focused slowly upon him and Illya frowned as if trying to make out the question. Napoleon belatedly realized that with the noise level in the room, Illya was probably having trouble discerning one voice from another. He pointed up and Illya nodded.
Napoleon stood, walked over to his mother to kiss her good night and watched Illya slip quietly from the room. "Napoleon, who was that masked man?" Josie, his sister asked, reaching out to grab his hand. "It looks like Illya sort of and sounds like Illya, or it would if he'd say anything. That isn't the Russian I know and love."
"And thereby is the rub," Napoleon muttered tiredly. "According to the shrink, he's suffering from Survivor's Syndrome. I'm hoping some time here will shake him out of it, but you can never really tell."
"He's not suicidal?"
"Napoleon stared at her for a moment, not wanting to even admit he'd already asked himself the same question. Instead he changed topics. "Mom, are there some chores to do around here tomorrow?"
"Napoleon, I can't honestly believe you'd ask me that with a straight face. When have you known there not to be chores that needed to be done?" She set aside her knitting to eye him as if he'd taken leave of his senses.
Let me rephrase that. Is there something that a coordination-challenged, one eyed, one handed man can do around here?"
"Does he know the difference between a potato and a weed?"
"He will if you show him."
"Then, yes, I have more work than he will know what to do with."
Napoleon hugged her and then his sister. He glanced over at his nephews and nieces, all engaged in a board game and smiled sadly. In years prior, Illya would have been on his stomach, right in the middle of the mess, laughing and joking with them. God, he missed his partner. "I'll see you in the morning then." And he left to rejoin the stranger who had taken the Russian's place.
Illya was already in bed by the time Napoleon made his way upstairs. He was holding a book awkwardly in his left hand, but obviously not reading it.
"Mom said she could use some help weeding tomorrow. That okay with you?"
"It's not like I have much choice, is it?" At Napoleon's arched eyebrow, Illya smiled slightly. "I know what you are doing, Napoleon." He paused. "Thank you. You're a good partner and a better friend. I don't deserve you."
Napoleon walked across the room to open a window and then started to undress as the wind made the curtains billow. "You would have done the same thing for me. Hell, you already have a dozen times over. In this crazy world, we only have each other to look out for us. Besides, if it wasn't for me, you wouldn't have been there to begin with."
"Not this song again, Napoleon. You're the one who Peterson should have on his couch, not me. I know why I'm depressed. But you - you're a mystery. Let it go."
Napoleon stared at him for a long moment. "That's how you feel about it then?"
"Yes." Illya returned to his book for a few minutes, giving Napoleon some privacy as he stripped and changed into his pajama bottoms. It was stuffy, almost too warm in the bedroom, even with the window open, but Napoleon was a creature of habit, even if that habit was to over-dress. He climbed between the sheets and leaned back. Even after so many years, and so, so many beds, there was always something about coming back to this one.
"Will my reading bother you?" Illya asked.
"Will my sleeping bother you?
A long rumble of thunder woke Napoleon and he had to stop and think for a moment as to where he was. He then remembered the crazy thunderstorms they got in this part of the state. Some summers they were so bad, it would feel like the roof was coming off. The bed beside him felt strangely empty and he saw the Russian's form outlined against the bluish flare of the lightning. Napoleon climbed out and padded barefoot across the room to stand beside him and stare out the window.
"What's wrong, Illya? Are you in pain?" His lips were so close to Illya's ear that they nearly brushed it when he spoke, but he couldn't talk too loudly lest he wake the house up.
"To be honest, thunderstorms have always bothered me ever since I was a very small child. I suppose I associate them with the war."
"You mean the Battle of Kiev?"
The man nodded and winced as another peal, loud and seemingly endless rumbled through the night. "1941 - when the Germans first invaded. The city was being devastated all around us. My mother and her parents would take us to hide in the cellar during the worst of it. One night, during a huge fire storm, soldiers came for us. I can remember hearing my grandmother praying to God and thinking it was the end of the world. We thought it was all over, but my father had sent them. We were luckier than most. He was a high ranking government official with connections. Somehow, and to this day I haven't figured out how, they got us out of the city and to a small dacha in the country. It was tiny, but it was about as far away from the fighting as you could get. We lived there for a long time it seemed to me, nearly four years, never knowing whether Papa was alive or not. In the beginning, a little money would arrive on occasion, but when it stopped we assumed he'd perished as had over a million of our countrymen. It was hard, there was very little to eat, but we were Russian, we made do. Then one day, Papa came home. It was the only time during all of it that I saw my mother actually cry. After that, we returned to the city, what was left of it and moved on. Millions of people died and we just went on like nothing ever happened, as if pretending would make it not so."
A flash of lightning and thunder almost coincided and Illya winced. Napoleon brought up a hand and rested it on his friend's shoulder, and placed his chin on top of his hand. If it had been anyone else, the hand would have been knocked away, but Illya permitted the physicality of his partner. "And here we stand, both still trying to face those demons, both still trying to move on," Napoleon said softly.
"With you as well?"
"Too many fire storms in Korea make it hard to sleep on a night like this. Part of me keeps remembering all the devastation and, may God have mercy on me, part of me misses the excitement."
"You're addicted to adrenaline, Napoleon. We both are. It doesn't make us good or bad. We just like to live life too close to the edge, waiting for that one moment we lose our balance and fall."
"Why what, Illya? Why the storm? Why are we, grown men, still fighting the demons of yesterday?"
"Why didn't I lose my balance? Why did all those people die and yet I still live?"
"During the war? You said so yourself. Your dad had connections."
"No, I meant in New York. Why didn't I die along with everyone else?"
"It wasn't your time. Whatever you were put on the planet to do hasn't been done yet. Whether you believe in a Supreme Being or not, Illya, there's someone else dealing the cards."
"I don't understand."
"That's what we're trying to remedy, my friend. The storm is moving off now. Come back to bed."
It didn't surprise Napoleon that Illya was still asleep the next morning, even as the hands of the clock were pushing ten. The man had tossed and turned, finally surrendering to sleep around 3 a.m.
Napoleon moved out of the room quietly and headed back down stairs. His mother and the day nurse were wrestling his father into an armchair and Julius raised a hand in greeting.
"How are you today, Dad?"
"I'm good, never better. Look!" He got his left arm almost shoulder high and beamed a lopsided smile. "Almost there."
"Way to go, Dad."
"He's still asleep?" Katherine slapped her hands together. "I think that perhaps he just needs a firm hand and perhaps a firmer one on his fanny."
"Mom, as entertaining as that mental image is, I would remind you that it probably wouldn't be the safest thing you'd done in your life. Besides, when you figure a week ago he was flat on his back in the hospital, sleep is probably the best thing for him."
"So am I, but if you want to try it, I'd better come with you." He glanced over at his father. "Dad, would you like to kiss Mom good bye - it might be the last time you see her in one piece."
"She raised you. Counts for something." It was the most he'd heard his dad say since they'd arrived and Napoleon's spirits started to crawl out of the well where they'd taken refuge.
Illya sat on an old burlap sack, his head sheltered from the sun by a wide brimmed hat. He felt like an idiot and had no doubts he looked like one as well.
He grabbed a tall bit of goldenrod and tugged it free before tossing it onto the steadily growing pile and sighed before starting the process over again. His arm ached with even this slight effort, but he knew it was good therapy for him, plus it wasn't hurting his eye/hand coordination either.
"How's it going?" Napoleon walked up to him, holding a glass of something. What it was wasn't as important to the Russian as the fact that it was obviously very cold.
"I somehow have the feeling that this is not what you meant when you said I'd been saved for a special task."
"Well, I don't know. Pulling weeds can be pretty important." Napoleon passed over the glass, waiting until he was sure Illya had a firm grip upon it before releasing it.
"Your mother should be licensed as a deadly weapon," Illya muttered before downing the lemonade in a few thirsty gulps.
"She's a woman who knows her mind and what she wants out of life and she wants this potato patch weeded."
"Obviously." Illya handed him back the glass and returned to the weeds.
"It could be worse. They have me shoveling sawdust and believe me when I say it gets everywhere." Napoleon shifted uncomfortably.
Illya reached out for another weed, ignoring the jolts of pain his body was sending him from various parts. It wasn't happy about any activity, much less this sitting on the ground routine.
"Mom says that when you finish this row, you're done for the day. We're going to head up to the pond for a swim."
"I didn't bring my trunks."
"I'm sure we could scrounge something up for you."
"Seriously, Napoleon, I don't think your family would be quite prepared for the sight. I'm still pretty ...colorful."
"Forgot about that." Napoleon checked his watch. "If you're not up at the house in 45 minutes, I'll come looking for you."
"You'll probably find me sleeping under a clump of weeds," Illya muttered as Napoleon straightened and began to pick his way back between the rows of plants.
"How's he doing, son?" Katherine looked up from her own weeding. She was rather amazed at how studious the Russian was about his task. Once she'd made her wishes clear, he worked steadily, his movements slow but nearly continuous. She could see what Napoleon meant about him being a meticulous worker - probably had something to do with his scientific background.
"Grumpy, really grumpy." Napoleon slapped his hands together happily.
"And that's good?"
"That's just about as good as it's going to get." Napoleon helped his mother to her feet. "And he's going to sleep this afternoon like there's no tomorrow. He'd never admit it, but he's already exhausted to the point of collapse and that in itself is good." He brushed his hands together. "Is everything still set for heading up to the lake tomorrow?"
"Still on schedule and within budget. The doctors think the trip will be good therapy for your father. Have you told Illya yet?"
"Nope, he'll find out soon enough."
Illya sat, staring into the fire, not so much that he was transfixed by it or contemplating the shapes, patterns, or significance of the flames, but because people tended to leave him alone when he did. There wasn't really a need for the fire at the moment, but he'd found some water-proof matches and proceeded to make one anyway. He'd built it because it meant he could do it without being pestered by Napoleon or his relatives.
As long as he looked busy, no one peppered him with questions. Now, it was as if they were afraid to intrude upon his reverie. It wasn't that he didn't appreciate all that they were trying to do, but he was tired. He was tired of putting on a brave face and pretending that everything was okay, when, in short, it wasn't - tired of trying to seem calm when all he wanted to do was run and scream. Tired of acting like he wanted to live one more day when he really didn't care anymore.
It had been a long standing Napoleon tradition that the whole family would pack up to make the three hour drive from Chelsea up to Burlington and Lake Champlain for the 4th of July. They had arrived yesterday, amid much hustle and craziness. The holiday was tomorrow and the next day they would return to the sleepy town of Chelsea and, Illya supposed, then back to New York.
He knew Napoleon was worried about him, concerned the depression that had followed him since the incident, as it was called now, still lingered. He also knew that the headshrinkers were never going to certify him for field duty like this. Worse than that, he really didn't care. It seemed like death followed him and he was tired of it. He was ready to just go home, curl up into a ball and be left alone. Napoleon could just muddle through without him.
A blur of activity drew his attention away from the flames and Helena carefully lowered herself to a nearby boulder. She had a plate of food in one hand; she constantly seemed to be eating these days, but he was informed that that was part of being pregnant.
"Do you need any help?" He was depressed, but that was no reason to lose his manners.
"Not in the getting down, just in the getting up," she said, smiling wistfully. She lifted her legs. "I can't wait to see my feet again. Are my shoes even close to matching?" She set her plate aside and tried to lift her feet high enough to see them.
Illya grinned in spite of the very excellent funk he had going on. "I understand wearing mismatched shoes is quite in vogue these days. Long pregnancy?"
"Is there any other kind?"
"That I wouldn't know." He turned his attention back to the fire, ignoring the laughing and shouting of the nearby volleyball game. Part of him longed to jump to his feet and join in the fray, but another part trampled that desire and kept him rooted to this log. With his eye still bandaged, the chances of him actually hitting a volleyball as opposed to being smashed in the face by it were too high for him to entertain. No, it was better to sit here and be still.
Helena lifted a forkful of macaroni salad to her mouth and chewed for a moment. Swallowing, she asked, "Illya, do you think I could ask you a personal question?"
"You can ask, but don't anticipate an answer."
"Are you a homosexual?"
Illya's expression probably answered her, long before his brain could even begin to formulate an answer. Finally, "Helena, why would you even ask me that?"
"Well, I just sort of wondered... I mean, all those letters I sent you...you never even expressed...an interest... in anything."
"And the fact that I am nearly old enough to be your father wasn't in itself a justifiable response? Or my friendship with your uncle?"
The young woman was quiet for a moment and then said slowly, as if weighing each word, "I guess I... I mean... we just sort of thought that you and Uncle Napoleon..." She hesitated at Illya's expression. "Well, I mean... it's just here... you always... sleep together... when you're here, I mean."
There was a movement and Napoleon approached, grinning at the pair. "Am I interrupting something important?"
"No, I think I'm through embarrassing Illya now," replied his niece.
Napoleon looked from one to the other and shrugged his shoulders. "How are you holding up, Helena?"
"To be honest, I'd be happier if there was a flush toilet here, but I guess it's part of this place's rustic charm." She slid a bit closer to the edge of the rock. "Okay, boys, alert the media, I'm going to try to stand up."
Napoleon laughed and stretched out his hand, helping her to her feet. They watched as she gathered her empty plate and moved slowly off. "She is getting to be so much like her mother," Napoleon said, chuckling gently.
"I wouldn't want to be a woman for a million dollars," Illya finally muttered, reseating himself close enough to the fire to watch the flames, but not so close that he roasted with the heat it generated.
"I hear that there are benefits, but none of them seem to come to mind at the moment. She can't be comfortable in this heat. So do you want to tell me what that was all about? You looked a little like the way I did when Dad tried to talk to me about the birds and bees."
"Suffice it to say, I believe your family is laboring under a grave misunderstanding."
A light of understanding sparked in Napoleon's eyes and he chuckled. "Ah, so they finally decided to make you privy to that little conversation, did they? Frankly, I'm impressed they held out this long."
"Does your entire family think...?" Illya broke off, his mind a jumble of protests and indignation.
"What difference does it make? You and I know the truth and that's enough for me. Anyhow, I thought you might be ready for a trip back to the house. I need to go get Mom and Dad to bring them here for the barbeque tonight and I figured that you'd be ready for a little quiet time. With everyone here, you'd have the house to yourself."
"I wouldn't refuse it certainly," Illya admitted. "I am feeling a bit like a fifth wheel today."
"I'm sorry about that, Illya." Napoleon sat down close to the man. "I'm sorry about all of this."
"Napoleon, you've apologized a dozen times already. Again, this wasn't your fault and I do not blame you for anything that happened."
"But you can't stop blaming yourself."
"That's an entirely different thing."
"Napoleon, enough!" Illya snapped and then returned his attention to the fire. "Enough...please," he repeated softer.
For a long moment, nothing was said and then Napoleon stood. "The offer for the boat ride is still open."
"If we can do it quietly - fine." Illya also rose and followed him to the pier where several boats were tied up. Napoleon jumped down into one, holding onto the wood dock as Illya climbed down a bit more slowly.
The water was choppy as the mid afternoon winds kicked up. Napoleon turned a knowledgeable eye to the horizon as he unhitched from the piling. "There's a storm coming in." He pointed to some distant thunderheads. "Wonder if it'll hit or just fizzle out like all the other afternoon storms we've had all week."
Illya seated himself on the aluminum seat, using his feet to push aside some fishing gear. "Considering the odds, I'd say we have a 50/50 chance. Would you rather stay and wait it out?"
"Naw, I've been puttering around this lake long enough to take anything it can dish out."
"Anything except this," Illya muttered, remembering his partner's words. To save time, Napoleon had decided to take a short cut across the lake as opposed to heading back along the shore. Illya studied the clouds, but said nothing, deferring to Napoleon's experience. That had been a mistake. They were midway when the storm hit, kicking up waves that would rival any found on the ocean.
Both had hastily climbed into life jackets and hung onto the boat as Napoleon made for shore. Mistake number two - never turn your back on a storm. Illya knew that from his experience with the Russian Navy, but again, he trusted that Napoleon knew what he was doing. They were about twenty yards out when a wave hit them and the boat flipped.
Now it seemed like slow motion when Illya thought back on it, but then it was immediate and they were unceremoniously dumped into the cold lake water. As rain sheeted over the surface, Illya struggled to get his bearings. It was then he realized that Napoleon wasn't moving.
A few strokes and he was at his partner's side, holding Napoleon's face away from the water. Blood was running from a head wound as fast as the rain could wash it away. Cursing, Illya bobbed up in the water, finally sighting shore during a blast of lightning, and heading for land, hooking an arm around Napoleon's neck as he did so.
After what seemed a million years, Illya felt the lake bottom under his feet and he pushed Napoleon's limp form ahead of him. A moment later, his feet made solid purchase with the ground and he slogged onto shore, dragging Napoleon in his wake. He paused for a moment to catch his breath before turning his attention back to his partner. It was then he realized he hadn't even kicked off his shoes during the rescue attempt and that was the first thing they taught you in lifesaving class. That knowledge made Illya even more thankful for the life jackets. He'd never have been able to keep Napoleon afloat without one.
The rain had let up enough that Illya could actually see the head wound now. Something must have clipped Napoleon when they went in the water. Illya put his ear to Napoleon's chest and frowned as water filled his other ear. He tried again and could make out the faintest of heartbeats. He glanced around the spot where they had come ashore. There wasn't much for shelter, but he could certainly rig something once the rain let up a bit more.
He patted the pocket of his jeans, relieved to feel both the matches and his jack knife still safely within them. Now if he could find something to use for Napoleon's head. He thought of his tee shirt, but he was going to need that once the coolness of night settled in. Then he smiled and dug the knife out. A moment later, he'd cut through one end of the gauze on his right hand and started unwrapping it. Helena had been so helpful that morning, using a mile or so of gauze to hold the square pads in place. He squeezed as much water as he could out of both the pads and gauze and them applied it to the still oozing head wound. It wasn't the most professional or cleanest looking job he'd ever done, but it did what it was intended to do. And it felt wonderful to have his hand free for the first time in days. He looked down at the wounds, three stitches holding each side, top and bottom, closed. They were red, but closed, which meant there was no danger of infection now.
Napoleon's unconsciousness was worrying though. The man was still out for the count and Illya was feeling more anxious as the moments ticked by. He stood and took a step, tripping over a branch, wrenching already painful muscles. Swearing, he pulled the gauze patch from his eye and opened it slowly. It took a moment for it to focus properly and he rubbed it carefully. However, the eye seemed inclined to stay in its socket.
"Binocular vision, what a concept," he muttered as he moved again, this time able to avoid any trip hazards. It took a moment, but he found a fairly dry area sheltered by trees and half dragged Napoleon to the spot. The effort left him feeling as weak as a newborn kitten and he collapsed beside his partner, trembling against the pain and exhaustion.
The thunder and lightning had moved off across the lake, the bolts still lighting up the distant sky, so Illya reasoned that they'd be safe here for the time being. It was going to be some time before they'd be missed.
"Napoleon," he said, patting a slack cheek. "Napoleon, come on." The man moaned and Illya grinned, relieved. "Hey, Napoleon, wake up."
Napoleon stirred and tried to sit up, then panic took over his features and he started to retch. Illya was there immediately, helping him to turn so he wouldn't choke on his own vomit. He patted Napoleon's back as he brought up mouthful after mouthful of water along with his stomach contents.
He eased the still-coughing Napoleon back against the pine needles and got to his feet. It took a few minutes, but he found a piece of bark with which he could scoop up some rain water. He washed the bark in the lake and then filled it from a shallow pool that had collected in the depression of a large boulder of granite.
"Here, drink this. It should be okay." Napoleon did as Illya bid, frowning at the taste. "I know it tastes strange, but it should be safe." Illya used the time to scrape dirt and leaves over the vomit.
"Oh, my head - what happened?" Napoleon's voice was raspy.
"The boat flipped and you must have gotten hit with something." He stared into his partner's glazed eyes. "I'm guessing you have a mild concussion. Wish I had something..." He snapped his fingers and then dug into his pocket. Sure enough, in a plastic bag, he still had his medication from the morning. "I'm not usually one to advocate exchanging prescriptions, but I have some pretty substantial pain meds here. They'll take the edge off."
"Maybe later. Any idea where we are?"
"I am unfamiliar with the lake, I'm afraid, and wasn't inspired enough to study the map your aunt had on her wall." Illya stood and looked out across the expanse of water. "Off hand, I'd say in one of the fifteen hundred or so little inlets or coves that makes up the shoreline of the lake."
"The boat's gone?"
"Swamped last I saw it," Illya said. "I'm going to collect some wood and try to get a fire started. If we generate some smoke, they'll be more likely to find us."
"Or assume it's one of the hundreds of cabins that dot these shores. "
"Knock it off, Napoleon; I'm the pessimist in this partnership. You just take it easy and I'll be back."
Dry wood took a bit to find, considering the downpour they'd just sat through, but Illya finally collected enough to make a fairly substantial fire. Napoleon sat, coughing occasionally, but otherwise quietly watching Illya move about.
Illya pulled his tee shirt over his head and wrung it out before hanging it on a nearby branch. His jeans followed. "You should probably get out of those wet things, Napoleon, and try to let them dry some. It won't be cold tonight, but you'll be more comfortable if they're dry." Naked except for his shorts and shoes, Illya skimmed his hands over his body to brush any lingering moisture from his skin. "Do you need help?"
"I've been undressing myself for years - I think I can manage." Napoleon maintained a brave front until his arms and hands decided to dance to a beat of their very own. Without a word, Illya helped his partner ease his head out of the neck of the shirt and hung it with the rest of the clothes.
Napoleon managed his pants more successfully, grimacing as the pine needles, once comfortable, now pricked him in dozens of places. Unsteadily, Napoleon got to his feet and sat down on a rock not far from where Illya was picking through some berries.
While he'd been searching for wood, he'd found wild raspberry canes and managed to collect a couple of handfuls of almost ripe berries. He'd gone back and filled the tree bark with more. They wouldn't be the sweetest, but they were something.
"You're something else, you know that?"
"I don't understand. "
"You were a moping pile of apathy this morning."
"And I'm guessing that's the concussion speaking." Illya set the berries aside and knelt before Napoleon to stare into his face again. The flickering firelight gave the waning daylight just the boost he needed to see his partner's eyes more clearly. They seemed focused and clear enough. "Do you need to throw up again; are you dizzy?"
"Like you wouldn't believe."
"Pain med offer is still open."
"What about you?"
"I'm a little sore, but not too bad. I'd rather have you comfortable." Illya retrieved the pills again. "I can break one in half."
"No, I'm good right now." Napoleon looked back into the fire. "I should be dead."
"If you hadn't been there, Illya, I wouldn't have had a chance. Those preservers aren't for long term use. I'd have sunk or drowned by now."
"I somehow doubt that." Illya put the plastic bag down. "That famous Napoleon luck and all."
"Only seems to kick in when you're around. Have you ever noticed that?"
"Perhaps that's only when you need it. I do tend to have that effect on situations." He reseated himself on the rock, trying not to wince as the granite cut through the thin material of his shorts.
"Illya, what we were talking about before..."
"You're like a dog with a bone, Napoleon. You just keep chewing and chewing."
"Napoleon stared into the fire for a moment. "No, about a purpose. Maybe it's me."
"It's always about you, Napoleon," Illya acknowledged, smirking. He tossed more wood on the fire.
"What I meant is that maybe you're here to keep me alive."
"Or perhaps I'm simply an ushabti, destined to follow along and clean up your messes 'Verily, I am here when thou callest,'" he quoted sarcastically.
"Same thing; it all boils down to maybe I'm the reason you're alive."
"Okay, now you're rambling. You need to take the pill and sleep."
"Sleeping with a concussion is bad."
"That's for major head trauma, not for a bump." He held out the halved tablet, along with the bark. "Take the pill."
It didn't take long for the medication to send his partner into a peaceful doze and Illya was thankful for both the quiet and the freedom to move without observation. He grunted as he stood, his muscles still protesting anything that didn't involve him sitting quietly. He dressed in his still slightly damp tee shirt and pants.
The clouds were starting to gather again and Illya knew they stood a good chance of having another storm before the night was out. Camping under a tree wasn't that sound an idea, so he searched around until he found a crevice in the granite outcropping that could be covered with branches.
Tugging down evergreen branches wasn't exactly the sort of physical therapy recommended for his type of injury, but he pushed the pain aside and concentrated on his task. The work left him hot, itchy and sticky, but resulted in something that would keep them fairly dry and comfortable for the night.
Checking on the still slumbering Napoleon, he put more wood on the fire and walked down to the lake front. The water was dark now, the distant shore ringed by even darker trees. True to what Napoleon had said, he could pick out a dozen or so flickering lights, other revelers on this holiday. It might be a couple of days, but he knew they would be found. Until then, they would have to make do.
He stripped off and waded into the cold water, gasping as it bit at his skin. Quickly, he washed the sweat and dirt from his body and made his way back to shore. At least he was clean and cool again. Shoving his wet feet back into his sneakers, he headed back to the fire.
Napoleon was tossing in his sleep and Illya watched him. "Sorry," Napoleon whispered, his head thrashing from side to side. Even in his sleep, he was still singing that one note song. Illya couldn't understand why Napoleon kept blaming himself. He'd simply been doing his job assigning Illya to the stake out. The blast was no more Napoleon's fault than it was his...
Illya suddenly stopped, his eyes wide. It really wasn't his fault that he'd managed to survive. Surviving was what he did and, at times, against amazing odds. By rights, he should have been dead a dozen times over, even had died a couple of times, but came back even from that. No white light of oblivion, no sense of peace, just an irrational need to get back and check on his partner. He chuckled suddenly and wondered if Napoleon, brain addled by the head injury, had stumbled upon the truth.
Of course, he'd never admit it to his partner-- he was physically incapable of it-- but to himself, he had to confess a sinking suspicion that Napoleon was right. He still didn't like that three young men had met a premature death, but it wasn't at his hand. He knew that. He'd never even gotten close to that bomb and, in fact, hadn't even seen it. He'd kept getting delayed by things out of his control, a late bus, slow moving pedestrians, a world of interference.
Illya sighed and dressed as fast as he could, both his stiffening joints and the wetness of his skin fighting him. That accomplished, he knelt beside his partner, checking first Napoleon's pulse and then his eyes. His skin was clammy and Illya finally decided it was a necessary evil and tore off the bottom hem of his tee shirt. Dipping it in water, he wiped the perspiration off his partner's face.
"Come on, Napoleon, you're tougher than this." He spoke to the man without anticipating an answer. "I haven't come this far to have you to up and die on me now."
"But dying seems so pleasant right now," Napoleon's voice was gruff, hard around the edges. He coughed and sat up a little. He brought a hand to his head and winced. "How long was I out?"
"Not that long - a couple of hours. Give yourself a few minutes and you'll go back to sleep. In the meantime, I've arranged for something a bit safer than a tree, so we should move." He offered Napoleon his now dry shirt and the man pulled it on unaided. Napoleon got to his feet alone and managed to get his pants on with a minimum of help, but after one swaying step, he stopped. Even before the admission of needing help had fully formed, Illya was there, wrapping his arm around the trim waist and pulling Napoleon's arm over his shoulders. It took everything he had to get Napoleon just the few yards to the new structure, but that was fine.
He settled them both down on the boughs and waited as Napoleon leaned back against them. He pressed the other half of the pill into Napoleon's hand. Napoleon opened his mouth to protest, but Illya shook his head. "You need that more than I do." The truth of the matter was that his body was screaming at him, demanding relief in whatever form it took, but Illya refused to submit. Just in case, one of them had to be clear headed and Napoleon was certainly not a contender for that title at the moment.
Even after the pill should have taken effect, Napoleon tossed and shifted uncomfortably, finally sitting up with a look of pure misery on his face.
"What's wrong, Napoleon?" Illya was there in a heartbeat, looking anxiously for any sign of trouble.
"Head hurts too much to lie it down flat."
"Oh is that all? Here, use me." Illya patted his thigh and then smiled at Napoleon's slightly chastising look. "Napoleon, rest your head on my lap and I shall try to control myself." After a moment, Napoleon shifted so his head was resting more comfortably on his partner's leg.
A sharp crack of thunder woke Illya and he grimaced as he tried to move. Sleeping sitting up was always tough, but even more so when he was sore to begin with. He glanced down at the still sleeping Napoleon, grinning as he wondered what Napoleon would do if he were to suddenly wake up and realize he'd nestled himself into his partner's groin. He wiggled slightly until Napoleon's head was closer to his knee and looked out at the approaching storm. The fire had gone out hours earlier, leaving them in the dark now except for the occasional blasts of lightning.
All the old memories came rushing back and he was instantly transported to the darkness of the cellar, huddling there with his mother's arms around him and his younger brother and sister, her father's armd about her and his grandmother. It seemed like the explosions would never stop and when they did, the silence was even more deafening.
He could even now smell the fear coming off his mother as he'd clung to her, begging her to make it stop, hear his siblings wailing in his ear as he tried to comfort them as best he could. Lowering himself to the ground, he repositioned Napoleon until the man's head was resting on his shoulder and Illya had one arm around him protectively, just as his mother once strove to shield him from the outside world, now he kept his partner safe. Alone he didn't stand a chance against the world, but with Napoleon there, he knew things would sort themselves out eventually.
He woke the next morning feeling like he'd gone ten rounds with Smokin' Joe Frazier. Every muscle, every joint in his body groaned, complained and cramped as he tried to sit up. After two weeks of near inactivity, coupled with their impromptu swim and everything else, he was in serious pain. All of that was abruptly pushed aside when he realized Napoleon was not beside him. Almost instantly, he was out of the shelter, on his feet and looking about the area.
The day was dawning crystal clear and cool, the air made soft with humidity and sweet with the passing rain. Illya spotted Napoleon crouched beside a small fire, feeding sticks into it and talking softly.
"Come on, it's not that wet," Napoleon urged the flames. Relieved, Illya gathered an armful of wood that he'd stashed in the shelter with them and made his way to his partner's side.
"Try this instead," Illya suggested and Napoleon glanced abruptly in his direction, then winced in pain. "Tent it and it will burn better. Once we get it really started, we can add some pine needles. That should generate some first rate smoke."
"Thanks." Napoleon tossed a couple of the smaller branches in and they caught almost immediately.
"How's the head?"
"Still painfully attached, but better - thanks for asking. Those pills were a godsend."
"You're welcome to the rest of them when we return to the house." Illya stretched and again surveyed the area. "I'll be back."
"Need a hand?"
"No, relieving myself is something I've been doing alone for a long time. However, if you feel up to it, the berry bushes are about 20 yards in that direction. Mind the brambles." He pointed to the opposite side of their temporary campsite as Napoleon dropped his gaze back down to the fire.
Napoleon had managed a good collection of berries when Illya finally returned to the fire, carrying a small armful of relatively dry wood. It had taken some serious effort to find anything that wasn't sopping. Napoleon's hands were scratched, but he had an air of triumph about him as he dumped the fruit down on a pile of leaves.
"Not exactly five star, but at this point, who cares?" He brushed the dampness off his hands and grinned over at his partner. Illya was feeling a bit the worse for wear this morning, but he was quick not to let on.
"At any point, who cares? Food is food." Illya helped himself to a handful and washed them down with some rainwater. "My mother always said that if you turned your nose up at something, you obviously weren't hungry enough. For the record, I never turn my nose up at anything." He pushed the berries back towards Napoleon and stared out at the lake.
"So I've noticed. You went hungry a lot as a child, didn't you?" The question caught him by surprise and Illya turned back to his partner, frowning.
"Why do you ask?"
"I've seen your family. You're the oldest, but you're also the smallest. Your siblings tower over you. Not genetics, so I'm thinking malnutrition."
"There wasn't a lot of food. The adults needed it more than I did; so did the babies." He shrugged his shoulders and stood to walk to the shore.
"I'd hate to think of what would have happened if you hadn't been here."
"Then don't. I don't know about you, but I'm ready to go home."
"Really? The shrinks aren't going to make it easy on you."
"It's a two-way road, Napoleon; nor do I intend to make it easy on them."
"Welcome home, old friend."
"I can say in all honesty, it's nice to have one."
A rescue crew showed up later in the day and both were welcomed back much like conquering heroes. Napoleon, as was his fashion, explained, exaggerated and improvised on their adventure, leaving out the more intimate sleeping arrangements and private conversations. Those were for their memories alone, not to be shared. Illya was starting to show more and more of his old spirit. Whatever revelation had occurred, Napoleon didn't know and didn't care about for the moment. He'd weasel that out of Illya later. All that mattered now was that the Russian was at his side again and seemed ready to once again take on the world.
Napoleon came to sit by his father's side and watched the fireworks explode up over the lake. It struck him then just how fragile the man looked and the knowledge that his days with Julius were numbered saddened him a little. He put a hand on his father's shoulder and squeezed gently. Tomorrow they were leaving, but before that happened, Napoleon swore that he'd sweet talk Illya into helping him take his father down to the barn to let him survey his kingdom again. It was important to have a purpose, Napoleon decided.
"You look lost in thought, son." Katherine sat down behind him and hugged him tightly.
"Not so much thought as painful reflection." He, in turn, pulled her arms closer to him. A visit to the doctor had resulted in a change in bandages and antibiotics, but he'd been released back onto the street.
"Illya is all right now?" she half whispered in his ear.
"He's not a hundred percent, but certainly better. Whatever is left we will just blame on his melancholy Russian soul." Napoleon kissed the back of one of his mother's hands.
"Thank God he was with you."
"Agreed. We wouldn't be having this conversation if he wasn't." The fireworks ended in a finale of lights and sound. "Guess that's all she wrote." Napoleon stood and helped his mom to her feet and then they turned their attention to Julius. He was still staring at the sky, as if expecting more colorful explosions.
"It's time to go home, Father." Katherine addressed him by his pet name.
"Yes, now it's bedtime." She led him back towards the house, holding his hand and guiding him up the sidewalk.
"Your father's lucky to have her," Illya said, coming up to Napoleon.
"That's what comes from marrying your best friend." Napoleon smiled at the thought as he bent to grab up a thick blanket and began to fold it. "There's something to be said for that." He started to walk away. "Ready for bed?"
"More than you could possibly know. My body is still complaining about being ill used."
"Well, I'll see if I can find a better use for it," Napoleon quipped and Helena glanced over at Illya, a knowing smile on her lips. The Russian merely shook his head and followed his partner back towards the house. No matter what, at least with Illya, Napoleon always knew where he stood and that his friendship was safe. It might not have been the perfect trip to Vermont, but it was going to be one that he'd carry the memories of for quite some time.