She’s a beautiful woman, Mr. Solo.
Katrina Lawson was a beautiful woman. Soft green eyes and blond hair that ended just at her shoulders. It had been perfectly straight at the start of the evening but was now wavy and mussed. The black cocktail dress she wore showed off her curves but it was her smile that had first caught my attention. That and her sharp sense of humor.
I hope you had a delightful evening.
We had started the evening at the ballet, where Suzanne Farrell was dancing the lead in Balanchine’s Midsummer’s Night Dream. The tickets had been difficult to get, but Illya had a friend who worked in the box office and had done me a favor. By the middle of the second act her eyes had glimmered with tears at the beauty of the dance. Dinner had followed the show, but we didn’t have the chance to finish the meal.
So glib, Mr. Solo. You look almost relaxed sitting there.
It had been an act, of course; one that I had used countless times. I was anything but relaxed handcuffed to the chair, watching the knives, pliers, matches and cigarettes being set out on the table. It was a matter of pride never to let the enemy see that they had an effect on me. More than that it was about power, and not giving them any over me. So I made jokes and gave pat responses. And maybe, if I was lucky, my casual repartee offered some comfort to Katrina tied to her own chair a few feet away.
It will be interesting to see what it takes to break you.
When I was four years old I had broken my mother’s favorite Christmas ornament, running through the living room too quickly. The look on mother’s face when the glass shattered on ground had been harder to bear than the tanning my father had given me afterwards. I remember trying to put the ornament back together with the glue from my airplane kit, but there were too many pieces. Was the human mind like that? One day, when they finally managed to damage more than my body, would I be unfixable?
You are so quiet, now. Have you run out of small talk?
The inane chatter and subtle aspersions never lasted long once the torture began. A little longer if Illya was there to trade barbs, but even then there was a point at which it became too much and I had to shut down as a protection. If I spoke at all I might speak too much.
I didn’t speak when the cigarette was lit, only winced when the orange tip was touched to skin. When the snap of an arm bone breaking was followed by a series of shallow cuts with a knife, though, I had to bite my tongue to keep silent. I swallowed the blood to keep it from showing.
You are stronger than I thought, Mr. Solo.
There was no clock in the room, but I knew that hours had passed. The window that had shown a glimpse of the moon was now letting sunbeams into the room. My forehead was damp with sweat, my wrists chafed and bleeding from the restraints, and my jaw ached from the force of keeping it closed for hours. I wouldn’t let them hear the scream that threatened to escape.
She was a beautiful woman, Mr. Solo.
They untied her body from the chair and laid her in my lap like a present. A rag doll, one broken arm curled unnaturally at her side, while the other was covered with angry red burns. Sightless green eyes looked up at me accusingly. Blood, no longer warm, seeped into my tuxedo shirt.
Her hair still smelled of honeysuckle.
I didn’t hear the extraction team until they broke down the door to the room. I didn’t know Illya was with them until he touched my hand as he unlocked the restraints around my wrists.
It was late when the doorbell rang, followed by insistent knocking. I almost didn’t respond until the muffled call of my name in familiar tones alerted me to who was standing outside. If I didn’t answer Illya would either pick the lock or kick in the door, and I didn’t feel like explaining to my mother why the door needed replacing. Again.
“How did you find me?” Two days ago I had snuck out of medical and left a scribbled note on Illya’s desk, letting him know that I was taking my holiday time and would return in two weeks. I had waited until Illya was gone for the day before heading directly for La Guardia.
Illya looked at me, raising his left eyebrow marginally.
“Never mind.” I was not sure I wanted to know how he had tracked me down to a small town in the Northwest when I could have gone anywhere in the world. Sometimes, with Illya, it was better not to know.
“Might I come in? It is cold out here.” He was bundled against the frigid winter, but despite the jacket and scarf his cheeks were bright red.
“As always what is mine is yours.” I stepped back from the threshold, allowing Illya to enter the house. After closing the door- but ignoring the lock- I returned to the family room. My scotch was warm and watered down, the ice long since melted, but I finished it off in a single gulp. “Can I get you a drink?”
“No thank you. Something to eat would be appreciated, though. Breakfast was a long time ago.”
“There’s probably something in the freezer.” I waved vaguely in the direction of the kitchen. I had only gone in the room to get ice, and had paid little attention to anything else. “Knowing my mother she wouldn’t have left anything in the refrigerator that was perishable.”
“They are not spending the holiday here?”
“Would I be here if they were?” Family gatherings were a trial during the best of circumstances, with the constant white lies and the nagging worry that one of my many enemies might crash the party. Then there were my mother’s not so gentle hints about grandchildren and my sister’s perfection. I wasn’t prepared to deal with any of that, nor did I think it fair for them to have to deal with me. “The Solo family Christmas extravaganza is at Karen’s house this year.”
“They will miss you.”
“Not as much as Katrina’s family will miss her.” I knew that she had a mother and father that were without a daughter this Christmas, a sister who was now an only child. Because of me.
“Go scrounge for your dinner, Illya.” Turning my back on my partner, I walked over to the wet bar in the corner of the room and poured myself another drink. I didn’t bother with ice this time.
“Would you rather eat in the living room or the kitchen?” Fifteen minutes later Illya appeared in doorway of the kitchen. Apparently he had found something to eat.
“You eat where ever you want. I’m not hungry.” I hadn’t had much of an appetite in the past few days.
“Living room,” Illya said decisively. When he emerged from the kitchen he was carrying two steaming bowls and two glasses of water, carefully balanced. He skirted around a table and ottoman before joining me on the couch, and handed me one of the bowls. “I believe it is beef stew. It was not labeled.”
“I told you I’m not...”
“Eat, Napoleon. Your body needs something to balance out the alcohol.”
I could have argued. While it was true I’d had a couple of drinks I wasn’t drunk. God, I wished I could get drunk, to feel that temporary euphoria, maybe even a period of forgetting, but even that release seemed to be denied to me. I was grounded in stark reality. A reality where my partner was staring at me pointedly, waiting. I took a bite of the stew. “Venison, not beef,” I corrected.
“Yes.” It had been a staple of my childhood, my mother’s venison stew. Mid-November meant early mornings in the woods with my father learning the art of hunting, mother’s stew, and a fast approaching holiday season. I had been twelve the first time I had shot a deer. I still remembered the pride I had felt, sitting at the table knowing that I had helped provide dinner.
“She is the one who taught you to cook?” Illya’s stew was almost gone, while I had only managed a few bites. I poked at a carrot with the back of my spoon and took a bite of the broth.
“Some, but it was more my grandmother’s doing. She said that a man who could cook could attract any woman he wanted, and insisted I learned a few basic meals.” Every time she visited one evening was set aside to make marinara sauce or baked salmon, shepherd's pie or chicken soup. She said that her chicken soup could cure anything from a cold to a broken heart. I still make it sometimes, on those nights when my limbs ache because I’ve left the infirmary too soon.
“A woman after my own heart.”
“She was quite a woman.” She had died when I was in Korea. I hadn’t been able to come home for the funeral.
“I don’t remember much about my nona, but she loved music. She had an old victrola and played the same few records over and over until you could barley hear a tune for the scratches.”
“Sounds like someone else I know,” I said remembering the four records Illya had when I first met him. I was surprised to hear Illya speaking of his family, a rare occurrence since all of his stories had to be from such a young age. By the time he was eight, I knew, he had been on his own.
“You’re not eating,” Illya scolded gently. I looked at my bowl and found that almost half of the stew was gone. I didn’t remember eating that much.
“It’s cold now.”
“You could heat it up.” Ever practical, my partner. I shrugged and set the bowl on the coffee table. There didn’t seem to be a point since I wasn’t going to eat anymore.
“Let me show you the guest room. You must be tired.” The clock hanging on to wall read a few minutes past eleven.
“We need to talk.” Not something I was used to hearing my partner say.
“We’ve been talking ever since you got here.”
“I am not other people, Napoleon. I am not fooled by your polite conversation. You have been avoiding me for three days now, ever since...”
“Tomorrow,” I prevaricated. “Tomorrow is soon enough.”
“I suppose that will have to do.” He didn’t look happy, but I was just relieved that he had agreed. It was a conversation I had flown more than a thousand miles away to avoid. I should have known that wasn’t far enough.
I showed Illya the guest room, making sure that he had everything he needed. For myself I returned to the couch where I sipped another drink and stared at the unlit Christmas tree for hours, finally falling asleep sometime around two.
When I awoke the next morning the house was empty. I might have thought Illya’s late night visit was a dream except for the damp towel in the bathroom and the bowls on the coffee table. I thought about washing those bowls. I thought about taking a shower or at least changing out of the clothes I had slept in. instead I slipped into a pair of boots, grabbed my jacket, and went outside.
Behind my parent’s house is a copse of trees. When I was a child I had played there, spending hours chasing imaginary bad guys or building forts. As a teenager I had taken Ginny Pearson for a walk among the trees and received my first kiss. Now I only hoped for a moment’s reprieve from my ghosts. The snow covered trees were about as far from a damp New York cellar as it was possible to get.
The air was sharp, clearing away some of the fuzziness left over from a poor night’s sleep and too many drinks. There was a light coating of snow on the ground but from the look of the clouds in the east there would be more by the end of the day. With Christmas only a few days away the children in the area would be glad of the snow. I walked between the trees for an hour until I could no longer feel my toes and returned to the house to find Illya waiting for me.
“You have just enough time to take a shower before breakfast.” From the bags on the counter it was obvious that he had been to the store. I could smell sausages frying and the acerbic tang of Illya’s coffee. I hoped that he had remembered cream.
Deciding that it wasn’t worth the argument that I wasn’t hungry I headed for the bathroom. I stripped and stood under the water until my skin turned red from the heat.
The last time I had taken a shower had been to wash away the blood.
Breakfast was on the table when I returned to the kitchen. Eggs, sausage, toast, and coffee. High in protein and easy to make it was a meal my partner and I had shared hundreds of times. More out of habit than anything I found myself clearing my plate. We barely spoke during the meal but once the dishes were cleaned up I knew my reprieve was over.
“I don’t have to tell you that Tower is upset that you left medical against his advisement.” I stood at the living room window, my back to Illya, watching the clouds darken. The storm wasn’t far away.
“There’s nothing wrong with me.” I looked down at the bandages on my wrists. Other than some ugly bruises they were the only physical sign from my capture. Once I had been tied to the chair they hadn’t touched me. I had been prepared for it, expected it. I wasn’t ready for the torture to be focused solely on my date.
“If there was nothing wrong you would be in New York right now, or at your sister's house. You would not be hiding in an empty house like a wounded animal in its den.”
“I’m not hiding. I’m taking a few days off for the holiday.” My partner knew me well; I had had a dozen Christmas parties scheduled for this week with a different date for each one before flying to my sister’s on Christmas Eve to spend a long weekend. I still hadn’t called them to say I wasn’t coming.
“The funeral is tomorrow.”
“I know.” I shot him a look over my shoulder. “I can’t imagine I would be welcome there.”
“It’s not your fault, Napoleon.”
“Isn’t it?” Rationally I knew that Illya was right, but on another level... if she hadn’t spent the evening with me Katrina would still be alive.
“She worked for U.N.C.L.E. She knew the dangers.”
“She worked in translation. She didn’t even carry a gun.” Section two, section three, the girl who worked the reception desk or carried information through the halls- they all carried guns. They knew the risks. Deeper inside the walls of U.N.C.L.E, the support staff like research and medical went unarmed. They were supposed to be safe. We were the ones that took the risks. We were the expendable ones.
“None of the innocents we involve in our affairs...”
“This wasn’t an affair. It was a date.” The innocents we involved in our affairs rarely knew what they were getting into but we always warned them. They knew it wasn’t a risk free enterprise. An evening at the ballet wasn’t supposed to be a risk at all. A quiet evening to rest after a mission in Africa and get to know the new girl who had helped me out with a Swahili translation when I had been in a sticky spot.
“Napoleon.” A hand on my arm meant that Illya had abandoned the couch and was now standing behind me. I kept my gaze on the grey sky and watched the first snow flake as it fell. “You are not the one who killed her. Even if you had talked they still would have...”
“He didn’t ask me anything.” Thrush had a very boring instruction manual, or at least I assumed based on my too frequent interactions with them. Step one, of course, was ‘make plan to take over the world.’ Somewhere between ‘where to buy the ugliest uniforms possible’ and ‘how to take care of your piranas’ was the section on what to do when you managed to catch an UNCLE agent. Tie up (or lock in a cell/closet/basement) Threaten torture unless codes/names/secrets are revealed. Torture. Act surprised when UNCLE agent frees himself or is rescued by partner. it’s the way the game is played. Except this time. There were no questions, nothing Stanislaus wanted from me. he simply watched, and gave orders, and taunted me as his goons slowly and methodically killed Katrina. He made sure I watched too. The only time, after the initial subduing, that I was touched was when I closed my eyes. “They didn’t want anything. It was just... it was an evening’s entertainment.”
“Sadistic bastard. We’ll find him,” Illya promised. “We have two teams on his trail right now.”
“No, i don’t think we will.” I shook my head. Stanislaus was not planning to build a giant rocket, take over a small country, or hang neon signs that proclaimed his location. As much as i would love to spend a few hours alone with him in a small room I didn’t think it would happen. Not unless we got lucky and I seemed to be all out.
Suddenly I felt exhausted, three nights of fitful sleep and unsettled thoughts catching up with me.
“Don’t underestimate us.” Illya, seeming to know what I needed without my saying anything led me down the hall to the room he had slept in the previous night. The bed was made with his usual military precision but he pulled down the blankets and unfolded the quilt. “Besides, I thought I was supposed to be the pessimist in this partnership.”
“Pragmatist, not pessimist.” I stripped down to my boxers and undershirt before getting into the bed. It was infinitely more comfortable than the couch had been. Funny, but as I drifted off to sleep it felt like someone tucked the blankets in around me.
The sun was just starting to set when I awoke. The bedroom that had once been mine faced west and I watched as the fresh snow turned from white to glowing red before fading into black shadows. This far north and just a few days before the solstice night came early. It wasn't yet four o'clock. I redressed in my slacks and shirt and padded barefoot down the hall to find my partner.
Illya was standing in front of the Christmas tree, lit for the first time since I had arrived at my parent’s house. He was examining an ornament, a blown glass angel that I had picked up in Brussels a few years ago when we were there on a mission.
“It did not break.” His finger caressed the slender glass horn the angel carried. “A small miracle, considering.”
“A small miracle indeed.” A morning shopping in the market had ended in a chase though cobble streets and a dunking in a lake. The ornament had been better cushioned than the Thrushie we had taken into custody with a broken arm.
“There are others here I recognize. That snowman is from Oslo, the doll from Kenya, the tin train from that little village in England where we were snowed in last year.” He pointed unerringly to each ornament I had bought when we were on missions together. I didn’t know he had even noticed my occasional purchases. I reached up to point out the one that he had missed, a tiny nutcracker from a trip to Germany.
“I tell my mother that they are bought during my business trips abroad and make up pretty stories she can tell the ladies in her bridge club.” I take great pains to foster her misconception that I’m an international lawyer for a large corporation. She hasn’t seen me without a long sleeved shirt on for years; the scars would be too hard to explain away.
“And what story do you have for her this Christmas?” It wasn’t until Illya half turned from the tree to look at me that I realized how close we were. He was the only person who could touch me without my taking notice. It was a little thing, a hand on my forearm, but with anyone else I would have been aware and either allowed or disallowed the touch. With Illya is was simply another way we communicated.
“Perhaps one about a change in careers.” Illya didn’t blink but his hand flinched against my arm. I regretted speaking out loud.
“That would be a great loss to the profession of international law.” I wondered at his use of my cover story despite the fact we were alone. Maybe it was easier to speak of my leaving in that way.
“International law would survive without me.” No one at UNCLE was indispensable. Not Carlo Farenti, Kitt Kitteridge or George Tenley. Not Katrina. Not me. Not even, though it seems blasphemous to even think it, Mr. Waverly.
“There is more to life than survival.” He looked like he wanted to say more, my pragmatic partner, but he only looked at me. The flickering Christmas tree lights played with his hair, combining with the flannel shirt and jeans to make him seem younger than usual.
“Sometimes I wonder.” Sometimes it seemed as if my life was my work and my work was about three things; completing the assignment, ensuring Illya’s continued existence, and surviving to return to headquarters. Dating was a way to celebrate said survival and to prove to myself that i did have a life outside work. I had been wrong, there was no outside of work.
“I don’t.” I was distracted, just for a moment, by a car honking as it drove by the house. And in that moment Illya kissed me. Not the friendly bussing of lips to cheek that we had exchanged often enough in the past. This press of lips to lips was more akin to the invitation I gave my dates when i drove them home, just before they invited me inside to see their etchings.
“Illya?” I drew away, just a little.
“Shhhh.....” His rested on my collarbone, the heat radiating though the shirt to my skin. it was not as warm as his lips when he tilted his head to one side and kissed me again. Though my brain was still trying to puzzle out what was happening the rest of me was ignoring the confusion and simply reacting. When Illya’s tongue ran across my lower lip I opened my mouth and kissed back.
“What was that?” By the time the kiss ended my brain was half won over, trying to decide if the buttons on Illya’s shirt needed to be unfastened or if I could pull the garment over his head. Despite the whispers in the powder room at work, however, there are things I value more than sex. Saving the world is one. My partnership with Illya is another. A partnership that, even as I questioned my future at UNCLE, I would not threaten.
“If I made a joke, said that the great Napoleon Solo should recognize a kiss when he receives one, would it make you laugh? It’s been too long since you’ve laughed, my friend.” His hand caressed my cheek, one finger tickling the sensitive skin of my ear lobe. I offered him a smile. A pale impression of laughter but it’s all I have for now. His thumb traced the smile and he slowly shook his head. “This is a reminder, Napoleon. That’s all it has to be.”
“A reminder?” All it has to be, he said. Not all it could be. Later I will ask him about the difference.
“You are alive. Survival is nothing more than existence. Breathing, heart beating.” His hand covered my heart and the thum-thum was magnified until I could hear it pounding in my ears. “Being alive is so much more.”
“Show me.” It might have been a flicker of the lights but his eyes seemed to gleam brighter and I knew I’d made the right decision. His hand was still over my heart but somehow without moving he’d already undone two buttons. He looked over my shoulder to the hallway leading to the bedrooms. I shook my head. “Right here.”
The clothing I had so recently put on seemed to melt away, shirt, slacks and underwear in a pile below the Christmas tree like a poorly wrapped present. I found that Illya’s shirt did need to be unfastened, but only at the wrists. After that it was easy to lift over his head. The cuff of his shirt snagged on the lowest branch when I dropped it to the ground. He didn’t wear an undershirt. Illya wearing nothing, his skin painted in ever-changing lights, might be the most exquisite thing I have ever seen.
Without a word he moved to stand behind me. Perplexed i tried to turn but a firm hand on my shoulder stopped me. For a moment he simply stood there, the air between us so thick with energy I could feel the electricity crackle on my skin. Then his lips touched the nape of my neck. So gentle. I don’t think I’ve ever known him to be that gentle with me. He moved lower, kissing the skin just below my right shoulder blade, halfway down on the left, the small of my back. There didn’t seem to be a pattern until he moved to my side and kissed a patch of skin on my hip. The bruises. He was ministering to each place where purple and yellow marked my injuries. “Oh God, Illya.”
“It makes them heal faster,” he said as he kissed the bruise on my solar plexus that had made breathing difficult the first day.
“Mmmm hmm,” I agreed despite the obvious ridiculousness of the statement. His next kiss caressed my left wrist above the bandage and despite the horrible cliché I felt weak at the knees. I grasped at his shoulder to steady myself.
Somehow we ended up kneeling on the floor, facing each other. I remember my hand in his hair, and his hands skimming over my chest. It became a bit blurred after that, more about sensations and less about anything resembling a normal thought process. Thrush could have invaded, or Waverly called and I wouldn’t have cared. Not as long as Illya kept touching me there and stroking that and kissing me as if oxygen was no longer needed. When I came Illya held me tightly against him and whispered my name against my hair. I saw lights and I’m not entirely sure they were the ones from the tree.
“The floor will not be comfortable for long. We should move.”
“Not yet.” I shook my head and held on to Illya’s hand. I wasn’t ready to give up this closeness.
“Just to the couch.” I relented. Illya took the opportunity to slip away, returning with a damp cloth to clean both of us up. Afterwards he joined me on the couch, both of us protected against the cooler air by a faded red and green quilt.
“I’m not ready to go back yet.”
“When do you have to return?” Can you stay is what I really wanted to know but didn’t ask.
“No one is expecting me until the twenty-eighth.” It was the twenty-third now. Five days.
“I don’t know that I’ll be good company, but if you wanted to stay for a couple of days...”
“I thought perhaps you would want some more time alone.” If anyone understood the need for alone time it was Illya. I knew that if I said the word he would leave. He would go back to New York, probably back to work despite the time off, and I could have the silence I had come here for.
“I’d like you to stay.” I leaned back and stared at the ceiling for a moment before looking at him covertly from the corner of my eyes. “If you don’t mind putting up with my being less affable than usual.”
“I prefer less affable, if it means you not putting on an act.” His single raised eyebrow spoke more loudly than his words did.
“No act,” I promised. It’s not like I could fool Illya with false cheerfulness anyway. With him I had no choice but to me myself.
“I would like to stay.”
“At least through Christmas,” I decided. “Then we can catch a flight back to New York.”
“We.” I understood now that I couldn’t give up being an UNCLE agent anymore than I could give up breathing. If I did Stanislaus would win, he would have taken from me something almost as precious as he had taken from Katrina. Working for UNCLE, working with Illya, wasn’t about survival. It was about being alive.
“Now that that is decided can we go to bed? This couch isn’t quite big enough for the both of us and i don't want to wake up tomorrow with a crick in my neck.”
“You’re getting soft, tovarisch.” When Illya pushed me off the couch I made sure he fell with me. When he glared and chased me down the hall I had to laugh. And when we reached the bedroom? Well it was only fair that I let him catch me.