Chapter 1: The Best of Times
There had been no snow drifting down from the sky in Cambridge at Christmas. Instead, it was drizzle that sparkled in the light from the streetlamps, and rain that made halos of glitter on the windows when Illya looked up from his books to the world outside. In Angel Court the doctoral students had been making paper chains from strips of coloured paper, and Illya had wandered into the common room to find it a gentle riot of decoration. He had wandered out again, because Christmas wasn’t his festival. He had grown up every year celebrating New Year’s Day. He had decorated a tree for that, not for the birth of the son of a fictional god. The revolving of the year was a real thing, a thing which could be grasped and seen. At the darkest times one lit fires and lights and feasted on good food, hoping for the new year to bring bounty. That made sense. Stars in the east and angels from heaven did not.
Even the hold-outs who celebrated Christmas at home didn’t do it like this. He would be waiting another few weeks for Christmas in Ukraine. That proved how subjective this supposed nativity of the Lord was. People couldn’t even agree on a date of birth.
There were a few things that Illya could agree on. Mince pies were one of the best things he had ever tasted. He would never turn down roast goose if he had the option to eat it. Christmas crackers were frivolous but fun. And the carols at King’s College were so beautiful that he didn’t care if the whole religious festival were a construct. He could have lived on that music as one lives on fresh air.
He wandered the streets of Manhattan feeling strangely disconsolate. A few Christmases in London had followed Cambridge, and one in Berlin. They were all unique. But this was the first time in a while he felt that he had a permanent home, and home meant New Year and family. He was going to be with U.N.C.L.E. New York for a long time, if the fates allowed, but there was no family here. U.N.C.L.E. was supposed to be a kind of family, but it wasn’t the family he knew. The British were more like the Russians than Americans were, and he felt his alienation keenly.
New York was crazy with Christmas. Thanksgiving had segued into Christmas trees and street decorations and sparkling lights everywhere. The girls in the U.N.C.L.E. offices were humming Christmas carols round the clock, and when they weren’t they were playing on the radio. Someone had hung mistletoe in the map room, mistletoe in the computer room, mistletoe in the commissary. One couldn’t turn around for finding oneself under a drooping bunch of mistletoe and subject to a sudden attack. Illya had taken to wearing his tinted reading glasses as a kind of defence, because no one makes passes at guys in glasses, but it didn’t seem to turn the girls off at all. If anything, it turned them on.
If New York resembled Kyiv in any way it was in the cold that came with the winter months. There was snow drifting down softly from the night sky. Christmas music came in little waves from the shops he passed. Men and women were wrapped up, bustling, arms full of parcels, cheeks red with the cold, hurrying to get those final bits of seasonal consumerism complete before the clock struck midnight. The city was full of Cinderellas waltzing through their personal Christmas Eve balls.
There was only one person for whom Illya felt the urge to buy a gift. At first it hadn’t even entered his head. He would, in his solitary way, observe New Year; not with a tree or a grand meal, but just on his own, just noting the tick from eleven fifty nine to midnight, and noting the clean beauty of the following day. Perhaps he would try to phone his mother, although that was so ridiculously complicated given Soviet bureaucracy that it was likely he wouldn’t be able to get through. If he did he knew people would be listening on the line, and that made for stilted, unnatural conversation where one had to guard every word.
He stood looking in through the window of Tiffany’s like a winter Audrey Hepburn, gazing at the glitter inside. There was a Christmas display there, gaudy and terrifyingly expensive. A reindeer that seemed to be made of glass crystals, with a most unpleasant cherry-red nose, stared at him from soulful glass eyes. Someone had scattered fake snow on the cloth ground. The scene was littered with gold and diamonds and other jewels made up into various glittering pieces. Bracelets, necklaces, tiaras, brooches. It was gratuitous, disgusting. He thought of the people he had seen living on the streets at this time of year. He thought of the soup kitchens and the parents who couldn’t afford doctors for their children. But he looked at one pair of cuff links in the window, and knew they would be absolutely perfect for Napoleon.
He turned away from that tempting display. Even on an agent’s salary, those cuff links were too expensive. What would Napoleon think of such a gift anyway? He had only been working with the man for eight months. What would it look like to buy him a gift that cost a month’s wages, for a celebration that Illya had repeatedly sworn meant nothing to him?
He carried on down the street. He seemed to be moving against the flow, everyone hurrying in the other direction, all caught up in their own affairs. He took a side street to avoid the continual bumping and pushing, but he kept his hand just ready near his gun, just in case. Muggers and other criminals didn’t take account of Christmas, and neither did Thrush.
There was a shop there, a place he had never seen before; and he thought he knew these streets well. He had made it his business to know these streets well. But there it was, a little jewellery shop nestled between shut up businesses. Dark on either side, this sliver of a shop threw golden light onto the street. Snow had settled on the spine of the shop sign. Snow was drifting into the warm gap between Illya’s collar and neck, and as he pulled the sides of his coat together and rearranged his scarf he looked in through the window.
There was no gaudy Christmas display here; just tatty mannequin hands and necks on which were displayed watches, necklaces, and rings. And there, in a little box, nestling on green velvet, were the cuff links he wanted. And the price tag. Thirty dollars.
Affordable. Still, they were shockingly expensive. But affordable. And perfect. The tight writing on the little tag proclaimed them to be gold with an inset of jet. He had thought the pair in Tiffany’s was just right, but these ones were perfect.
Sometimes it didn’t do to procrastinate. He pushed open the door of the shop. A little bell tinkled, and an elderly man looked up from behind the counter.
‘Er – those cuff links in the window,’ Illya said without preamble. His cheeks were stiff with cold, but he smiled in return to the old man’s welcoming smile. ‘I wondered if I could have a look?’
‘Well, certainly, sir,’ the man returned. He moved to the window with a shuffling gait, then bent over the back of the display with a groan.
‘Oh, I could – ’ Illya began to offer, slightly guilty at making this man stretch so much, but he had already retrieved the box and turned to hold it out on an open palm.
They were perfect. They had looked perfect through the window, but a minute’s examination told Illya that the hallmarks were genuine, the gold was good, the jet was flawless. When he imagined them gleaming at Napoleon’s wrists an odd little flutter moved in the pit of his stomach. He handed over the cash, and slipped the worn little box into his pocket.
‘Have yourself a merry Christmas,’ the man called as he left the shop, and Illya didn’t even consider telling him he didn’t celebrate.
It was quiet in the halls of U.N.C.L.E. at this time of night on Christmas Eve. Illya came back to Headquarters because he wasn’t sure where else to go. He often came back to complete work or to potter in the labs when he had nothing else to do. It made people think he was a workaholic, a recluse, a killjoy. But he just liked it. He liked being in this place where he belonged. There was always something that could be done, and he liked to be busy.
‘Well, I thought everyone would be at home at this time of night on Christmas Eve.’
He spun on his heel in the corridor to see Napoleon standing by the elevator doors, head tilted on one side, hands in his pockets. He hadn’t even heard the doors open.
Illya shrugged. That little box seemed to be burning a hole in his pocket.
‘No reason to be home. I thought you would be attending a party somewhere,’ he said, rather darkly. He regretted the dark tone as soon as it had left his mouth, but Napoleon smiled brilliantly.
‘The playboy of U.N.C.L.E. has to rest up sometimes,’ he said, walking along the corridor towards Illya and falling into step with him as he walked on. Then he shrugged. ‘I had a few invitations. I preferred to come back here. I knew you’d be working.’
‘You – knew I’d be – ’ Illya faltered. Why did he feel like a teenager on his first date? Why was his stomach flipping over and over at the thought that Napoleon could read him like a book? He pushed his glasses back up his nose and his hands felt ridiculously large.
‘Well, I know you don’t celebrate Christmas. I know even if you did celebrate Christmas you wouldn’t be celebrating it tomorrow. But I didn’t want you to be alone.’
How soft Napoleon’s voice sounded with those last words. The gap between them had disappeared. When had Napoleon got so close to him? The air seemed to be stifling in his lungs.
Suddenly Napoleon’s arm was around his shoulders, and Napoleon was smiling at him with such warmth that Illya felt as though his face were on fire.
‘You haven’t even been in the country a year, IK.’ he said. ‘You haven’t had a chance to experience an American Christmas. I know you’re a long way from home and I know things are different here, but – ’
‘You thought you would baptise me into the delights of real American consumerism?’ Illya asked sardonically. Why, why did he always retreat into cutting remarks when he felt on the spot? He could have slapped himself.
‘Consumerism, hedonism,’ Napoleon said easily. ‘There’s nothing wrong with having fun. You must do it even on the rolling Steppes. How do you celebrate New Year’s Day over there? An extra pancake for breakfast and a roll in the snow?’
Illya snorted. He remembered so many wonderful New Year’s celebrations, but he wasn’t going to go through them here, walking through the corridors of U.N.C.L.E. with Napoleon. Napoleon’s arm steered him to the right and in through their office door, and Illya saw that the mistletoe had spread even in here.
‘I would like for you to be at my apartment tomorrow,’ Napoleon said firmly. ‘In fact, I’ve come to bring you home with me now. The spare bed’s made up. All the ingredients for a fine Christmas dinner are waiting in the refrigerator. I even managed to source mincemeat, so you can show me what those pies you keep harping on about taste like.’
‘Oh, I – ’ Illya began. Why was he protesting? Wouldn’t Napoleon’s apartment be the perfect place to be, at any time?
‘Now, come on. I turned down my Aunt Amy to make sure I could have Christmas with you,’ Napoleon continued. ‘I came here specially to find you. It’s going to be midnight in a couple of minutes. Even I don’t believe in Santa any more, but I think midnight on Christmas Eve is a pretty special time. Care to share a drink with me, my Russian friend?’
The heat was up the backs of his legs, in his cheeks, flushing through his chest. He felt curiously weak. Could Thrush have piped something through the vents? Would they bother, at a time like this?
Napoleon was opening a bottle, and pouring pale golden liquid into two fluted glasses. Bubbles rose and burst on the surface.
‘Hey, I got you something,’ Napoleon said, handing Illya his glass, and then picking up a small package from the desk. It was wrapped in gaudy paper, and was small and hard and heavy in Illya’s hand. He smiled and fumbled at the paper, and then ripped it in his impatience to see what it was that Napoleon had thought to buy for him.
It was a bell of glass, filled with liquid, over a model of something. Illya stared at it for a moment, and then Napoleon put a hand over his, lifting the snow globe and shaking it. Illya watched, entranced, as little flakes of snow whirled and rose and fell about a perfect, beautiful model of Kyiv’s Saint Sophia Cathedral.
‘Oh,’ he said. For a moment he was lost just watching that miniature scene.
‘It’s Saint Sophia’s,’ Napoleon said unnecessarily. ‘I – thought you might like a reminder of home.’
‘Oh,’ Illya said again, but he didn’t know what else to say. He was remembering his home, remembering the snow falling over the apartment blocks and the factories and the beautiful architectural relics that had survived the Red Army’s retreat and the Nazi occupation. He was remembering standing outside the real Saint Sophia Cathedral and watching the snow whirl about its golden and green domes. He was remembering hours spent inside what had always been a museum to him, moving with fascination from one exhibit to another.
‘It’s okay? Do you like it?’ Napoleon asked, and Illya came back to the present, to this little room and all the heat around him and the mistletoe above him.
‘ Yes ,’ he said. ‘Yes, it is perfect. Thank you , Napoleon.’
‘Don’t mention it,’ Napoleon said. The skin crinkled at the corners of his sparkling eyes as he smiled and lightly patted Illya’s arm.
‘I – er – I got you a gift too,’ Illya said suddenly, trying to pull the box from his pocket. It stuck, and he had to wrestle with it, but eventually it came free. He held it out on his palm as the man in the shop had done to him. ‘I’m sorry, it isn’t wrapped,’ he said rather lamely.
The look in Napoleon’s eyes overrode any guilt he had at not wrapping the present. He took the little box and creaked it open, and then just stood there, staring.
‘Are they all right?’ Illya asked eventually. Had he removed the price tag? Had the hallmarks really been genuine?
Napoleon looked up from the box. In the eight months that Illya had been here their relationship had moved from uncertainty to acceptance, to a friendship that was characterised by irreverence, sarcasm, laughter, and absolute trust. The light that shone in Napoleon’s eyes had no film of self-consciousness before it. He just smiled at Illya, and then touched a thumb to his chin, and then reached out a finger to gently push his glasses back up his nose. He snapped the box closed and put it down on his desk, not once taking his eyes from Illya’s face.
They were standing under the mistletoe. They were right under the mistletoe. Illya could see it in his peripheral vision, dangling above them, moving very slightly. Perhaps it was moving in the heat rising from his body.
Napoleon brushed the hair at his temple and rested his palm on Illya’s cheek, and said, ‘I have never seen anything more perfect.’
‘I – ’ Illya said. He had lost all ability to think of a cutting comeback. Did he even need a cutting comeback? His mouth was open, and Napoleon’s lips were parted too. His hand was cool against the heat of Illya’s face.
‘I’ve been waiting for days to catch you under some of this mistletoe,’ Napoleon said.
His lips were so soft it was like touching roses. His mouth was so warm. Napoleon’s arm was behind his back, his lips pressing so softly against Illya’s lips. His reading glasses bumped against Napoleon’s cheek, and smoothly Napoleon drew them from his face. He heard them clatter onto the desk next to the cuff links, but he didn’t look. He was lost in the taste of Napoleon’s mouth, his heart thudding in his ears, Napoleon’s broad hand holding him upright because he was giddy with the beauty of this moment.
A beautiful Christmas , he thought. This was a beautiful Christmas. He was surrounded by love.
Chapter 2: The Worst of Times
All the tinsel in the world couldn’t make this Christmas. All the music filtering down the corridor from the radio at the nursing station couldn’t make it Christmas. Snow fluttering from the sky, drifting like moths in the glow of the street lights, couldn’t make it Christmas. Napoleon had barely noticed the crossover from Christmas Eve to Christmas Day, because as clocks in Manhattan had been striking midnight he had been crouched in the belly of a helicopter at Illya’s side, trying to hold his guts in with his hands while hot, hot blood spilled around his fingers onto the floor. In the small, thin hours when little children were sleeping and waiting for Santa Claus to come, Napoleon had been pacing up and down, up and down in the corridors of one of the city’s best hospitals, while inside another room a team of surgeons and nurses battled to stem the flow of that precious blood and put everything back inside and stitch up the ragged wounds. He had stood there for a full ten minutes with blood drying to rust on his hands before someone had gently persuaded him to go to the washroom and clean away the mess. But even when his hands were clean he couldn’t rid himself of the sense-memory of the hot reality of Illya’s insides cradled in his hands, the feeling that he was literally holding Illya’s life there in his palms. When he lifted his hands to his face he could still smell the iron of blood behind the soap.
Hoist by my own petard , Illya had murmured as he drifted into unconsciousness. The force of the explosion had thrown him back across the ground and slammed him into the perimeter wall, and when Napoleon had got to his side he had already been lying in a sea of blood. Hoist by my own petard , he had murmured, face blackened with dust and smoke, and the Thrush facility a charred and fractured ruin just a few yards away. The Thrush men inside had suffered far, far worse, but their lives were nothing. It was like pouring boiling water into an ants nest. Who could feel for ants when Illya was dying?
He had been out here for hours. His head ached with exhaustion. He had been pacing, leaning against the wall, flicking his watch face towards his eyes but not really taking in the time. All he saw was minutes passed, not where the hour hand stood.
A bang at the swing doors. The back of someone, green clad, reversing into the corridor. And then a gurney, Illya’s body lying there, a tube leading into his mouth, his eyes closed as if in death, his face so white it could hardly be possible there was any blood in his veins.
‘Illya!’ he said, starting forwards, but they moved straight past him, clustered around the gurney, someone making sure the bag containing dark red blood moved along with him, someone else touching a hand to the tube helping him breathe, someone rhythmically squeezing a bladder of air into his lungs. Through the door he could see blood on the floor and someone diminishing the pool with a mop. There were red footprints tracked over the floor. That was Illya’s blood.
A nurse peeled off and touched Napoleon’s arm with a weary smile.
‘They’re taking him to ICU,’ she said.
It was as if someone had cut the strings holding all of his joints and muscles in taut alignment. The woman hadn’t even said that Illya would be all right, but they were taking him to Intensive Care. Care. They would care for him… Napoleon stumbled backwards and found a chair behind him, and sat without even looking. He wiped a hand over his face and looked at his watch. He had been waiting out here for three hours.
‘Is he – Are they – ?’ he began, but he was incoherent. He couldn’t get out a single sentence. He pushed his hand over his forehead again and didn’t move it away. He was so tired he could have collapsed on the floor.
‘We still can’t be sure,’ the nurse said very gently. ‘He stopped breathing twice. His heart stopped once. We don’t know if he’s suffered any brain damage. He lost his entire volume of blood overall, but we were able to replace it fast enough. We’ve done what we can with the abdominal damage. He hasn’t lost any intestine, so that’s good. But we just need to wait and see.’
He found himself in a room full of softly beeping machines and lights that were too bright, somehow holding his hands around a cup of coffee that he didn’t remember anyone giving him. He lifted the cup to his mouth more by instinct than prompted by thought, and swallowed something hot and thin and black that scalded down his throat and settled in his stomach. He couldn’t even taste it.
He set the cup aside and laid his warm hand over Illya’s. Illya’s hand was like ice. His hair still bore traces of blood and dust. There was a bruise on his forehead that had developed into an ugly purple-red blotch. His eyes were still closed, and his pale lips looked strangely slack, his mouth open enough to admit the tube that ran down into his throat. There was translucent white tape across his chin holding it in place, and the suck and flap of the bellows that were helping him breathe was impossible to ignore.
‘God, Illya,’ he murmured.
It was easy to believe that he had lost his entire volume of blood. He looked so pale. Napoleon felt a sudden, overwhelming sense of gratitude to the people who had donated their own precious life blood, who had made it possible for Illya to still be alive.
‘You know, you need to stop being such a layabout,’ he said with an attempt at a smile even though Illya wouldn’t see it. ‘Doing this to get sympathy. You know flowers make you sneeze, and the girls at headquarters will probably fill this room with bouquets.’
He gazed at Illya’s face, and sighed. He reached out a hand and gently stroked his fingertips down his cheek. He thought of Snow White lying cold and motionless in her glass coffin, but that didn’t do any good at all. He thought back to last Christmas instead. He remembered how he had gone to bring Illya home from Headquarters feeling as if he were offering a home to a lost puppy. How he had been standing with him in their office, the mistletoe lazily turning above their heads in the air currents from the heating. He had brought champagne, and god knows what he had thought might happen. He had stood there in that little space, pouring out a drink that went with celebrations and weddings and perfect times, standing there with his partner of eight months on Christmas Eve with the plan of bringing him back to his apartment to share the most special of days with him. He must have known what would happen, or what he hoped would happen. After all, he hadn’t been thinking of the parade of U.N.C.L.E. girls when he hung the mistletoe there, and in the map room and the computer room and the commissary. Well, perhaps he had thought that in the commissary. But the map room and the computer room and their office were private places. Who did he most often find poring over maps or spending hours tinkering with the computers? Who did he expect to find in their office, for god’s sake?
It had all been built of formless thoughts, of hopes and hardly realised dreams. But when Illya had given him those cuff links in the age-worn box, somehow he had known. Somehow he had been certain that as he moved forwards to touch his lips to Illya’s, Illya wouldn’t be revolted, wouldn’t deck him, or storm out of the room. And so he had kissed him, and Illya had responded like a diver coming up for air after hours in the lonely twilight of the sea.
‘God, Illya,’ he said again.
He had been so afraid in the helicopter. He was still so afraid. Illya was in the best place he could possibly be, but it was still all so uncertain. He had held his guts in his hands. He had felt the raw and immediate heat of the inside of Illya’s body, right there in his hands. Blood had poured through his fingers like water from a tap.
‘You’ll get better, okay?’ he said, pressing his hand over Illya’s. ‘You will get better.’
He had brought Illya back to his apartment just as he had planned last Christmas. They had both drunk the pale gold champagne in their office, and Napoleon had wedged the cork back into the bottle and brought it home. When he had been driving back to the apartment he hadn’t been sure if he were giddy because of the drink or because now he knew what it was like to kiss Illya. Illya had sat in the passenger seat with such an odd expression on his face, as if he didn’t know how to process what had happened in the office. He had looked pleased and afraid and loved, his cheeks flushed and his glasses back on his nose shielding his eyes from any direct gaze.
In the apartment he had turned into a different man. It was as if when he peeled off his winter coat he was removing all of the façade that he presented to the world. He had put those tinted glasses on the sideboard and dropped his coat over the back of a chair, and they had drunk straight from the bottle of champagne and tumbled onto the sofa and there had been no barriers at all. The spare bed had gone unused. The small hours past midnight had been a tangle of kissing and lovemaking and skin against skin. They had finally fallen into Napoleon’s broad bed at four a.m. and slept until midday. They had woken together, Napoleon blinking open his eyes to the intensity of Illya’s blue gaze, and everything had been so perfect it had been hard to believe it was real at all.
‘Illya, you know, you need to get better,’ Napoleon said, and he couldn’t control the minute tremble in his voice. The twelve months that had followed that Christmas Day had been a whirlwind of missions and little foreign hotels and homecoming and falling in love. He had never realised that falling could be quite such a wonderful thing, but all the way down it had been amazing, like a parachute jump from twenty thousand feet over the most beautiful of terrain.
Now suddenly the ground was there, and he was screaming towards it, and when he hit there would be nothing. There would be nothing at all.
‘Illya,’ he said softly.
His eyes moved to the clock on the wall. It was twenty past six in the morning. Excited children would be barrelling out of their beds and ripping open the wrappings on presents. Couples would be blinking awake and sharing their first Christmas morning kiss. Perhaps there was snow falling outside, perhaps there was rain. It must be still dark, but there was no window in this room. Outside there would be Christmas lights twinkling in the darkness. Today was the day when people woke thinking they had everything to look forward to.
Illya had stopped breathing twice in the operating room. His heart had stopped beating...
‘Illya, all I need is for you to be all right,’ Napoleon said. ‘That’s all I need. Okay? I got you to the chopper. I brought you back. Now you need to be all right.’
The hand under his moved a little. Such a tiny movement, but Napoleon felt as though he had been shocked with electricity. He pressed his hands either side of Illya’s and waited for him to open his eyes. He just wanted to see the blue of those eyes. He wanted to know that Illya was in there, intact, undamaged. He wanted to know he would be all right.
But nothing happened. The hand was still again. Illya’s chest moved up and down with the awful rhythm of the ventilator giving him air. His eyes stayed closed.
He jerked awake, staring, trying to work out where he was, what was going on. He was sitting in such an uncomfortable chair. His head had been cricked sideways and his neck hurt. His hand was curled around a colder hand, and he suddenly stared, seeing Illya lying there in the bed, his eyes still closed, his chest still moving up and down with the robotic rhythm of the ventilator.
‘ – so I got special permission for you to eat in here,’ a woman’s voice was saying, and he looked around blearily. There was a table of the kind that could be wheeled over a bed, and on it a plate of food. A young and quite attractive woman was standing there in a pinafore, with her hair stacked up in a beehive on her head. If Napoleon had been more awake and less worried he would have favoured her with his most charming smile.
‘You really should try to eat something,’ she said, nudging the table a little closer on its wheels.
‘Oh, I – ’
He flicked his watch face around to look at it. It was one o’clock in the afternoon. There was something on the tray that looked like roast beef. There were carrots, mashed potatoes, peas, and gravy too. He stared at it for a moment and then smiled and said, ‘Thank you. Yes, I’ll eat something.’ But he looked back towards Illya instead of picking up the cutlery. ‘Is there any change? Do you know?’
She smiled ruefully. ‘I just do the meals, but I saw the doctor checking him about half an hour ago. He said there’s no change yet. He said he just needs time. Said he had quite a blow to the head, and he’s been through a lot. He’s a handsome young man, isn’t he? What happened to him?’
‘Oh, I – ’ Napoleon felt too tired to work out if he should reveal their profession to this woman, and whether if he did he could let slip any surface details of the mission. When you were as tired as this it was better to say nothing, so he just said, ‘He’s been through the mill. Look, thanks for this. I suddenly feel hungry. Thank you.’
‘Couldn’t have you miss dinner on Christmas Day,’ the woman said, and Napoleon remembered with a rush what day this was. Christmas Day, and the anniversary of the beginning of an incredible changed relationship with the beautiful man in the bed beside him.
‘Thank you,’ he said again. ‘Thank you. Merry Christmas.’
Those words felt so empty.
Napoleon didn’t know what they did to food and drink in this place, but the meal tasted of no more than the coffee they had given him in the middle of the night. He ate mechanically, swallowed mechanically, and watched the blank wall on the other side of the room. Even after sleeping he felt exhausted. That mission had been gruelling, and the ending had been terrible. He dropped his fork back onto the empty plate with a clatter and pushed the plate away. There was a cup of coffee there too, and he picked it up. He wished they did hard liquor in places like this, but coffee would have to do.
The afternoon softened into evening, and Illya was still motionless in his bed. He had lain motionless all day, without even the small movements and murmurings indicative of dreams. The medical staff seemed satisfied with Illya’s progress, but Napoleon couldn’t shake the terrible fear that he never would wake up. He had held Illya’s insides in his hands. He had seen the blood all over the operating room floor. His heart fluttered and trembled and lurched with the fear that suddenly everything would go downhill. His eyes burned from tiredness, from sitting there and watching Illya’s face for movement, his hands for movement, his eyes for any sign of dreams. He felt so stiff and stale. He had only moved from the room to go to the toilet, and whenever he did that it felt surreal to walk through corridors adorned with Christmas decorations and to hear carols softly playing on the radio. It felt surreal to look out of a window and see that snow was still falling and traffic was moving slowly and there were people on the streets. There was real life out there when everything should have stopped. He felt that everything should come to a halt, that time should freeze, until Illya woke up.
He got to his feet again and stretched his spine and cracked his fingers and picked up a newspaper and threw it down again.
‘I hope you’re not going to be rude to the nurses when you wake up,’ he said, coming back to Illya’s bedside and standing looking down at him. How could anyone lie so utterly still and still be alive? ‘Do you know how often you upset the nurses in the Infirmary, berating them about taking your temperature? You’re not bullying anyone into taking out the catheter this time, you know.’
He couldn’t do it. He couldn’t keep up a front of banter. Illya couldn’t hear him anyway. He slumped back down in his chair and closed his eyes. He felt dizzy with tiredness. It was all too much. The heart monitor kept its steady bleep and the ventilator hissed and sucked, and he couldn’t pretend it was all right. He dropped his head down onto the bed rail and just let exhaustion and emotion overcome him.
He must have fallen asleep. He came back to himself slowly, feeling the uncomfortable hardness of the bed rail pressing against the side of his head. His eyes felt sticky with dried tears, and his neck ached. He sat up, blinking, rubbing his face, looking at Illya.
Illya was looking back at at him out of clear blue eyes. He looked bleary and confused, but he was looking straight at Napoleon. He was awake.
‘Hi, partner,’ Napoleon said, trying not to let his emotions spill through into his voice. He wanted to jump to his feet and whoop, but he didn’t want Illya to know how worried he had been. ‘Hey, how are you feeling?’
Illya tried to move his mouth and made a half-choking sound. He lifted a hand which quickly dropped back to the bed.
‘That’s helping you breathe,’ Napoleon said, pressing a hand over his to stop him trying to touch the tube. He looked straight into Illya’s eyes, trying to read what was in there. Had there been brain damage? How could he tell? ‘Illya, do you recognise me?’ he asked. He was trying so hard to keep his voice steady, but it trembled all the same. ‘Illya, you can’t talk because of the tube, but I need to know if you recognise me. Blink twice if you do.’
Illya carried on staring at him. His eyes were like pools under a clear sky. Napoleon tried to read something in their depths. And then Illya’s eyelids lowered steadily, lifted open again, lowered again, and opened again.
Something broke inside him.
‘Oh, God, thank God, thank God,’ he said, and he lifted Illya’s hand and kissed his knuckles and turned it over and kissed his palm, and there were tears running down the side of his nose onto his lips and running saltily into his mouth.
Something like a smile lifted just the corner of Illya’s mouth. Napoleon pulled a handkerchief from his pocket and scrubbed it over his own face and then thrust it away.
‘Have you got any idea how much trouble you’ve caused, on Christmas Day of all days?’ Napoleon growled, but he couldn’t keep up a pretence. He smiled back at Illya and brushed a finger down his cheek and said, ‘Welcome back, little flower. I’ll go get the doctor and let him know you’re awake.’
Illya coughed as the doctor carefully drew the tube from his throat. He had lost the confused look in his eyes. There was no doubt that he knew exactly who he was and where he was. He was still under light sedation and heavy painkillers, but Napoleon had no fear of brain damage any more.
‘Now the other one,’ Illya said hoarsely as soon as he could speak, and the doctor looked at him questioningly.
‘He – uh – means the catheter,’ Napoleon said delicately. ‘I’ve already told him he’s not going to have any luck in that department.’
‘You did?’ Illya rasped, and the doctor said, ‘He can have a little water. Just a little,’ so Napoleon filled the glass by his bed and let him take a few sips.
‘Er, I think you were asleep when we had that particular conversation,’ Napoleon told him. ‘But the fact stands.’
Illya glowered at him, and Napoleon smiled sweetly. He moved back to let the doctor go through a thorough check of Illya’s condition, and stood there making faces at him over the doctor’s shoulder. All he got in response were frowns, but he was pleased at that. It mean that Illya was in his right mind.
At last the doctor left them alone, and Napoleon heaved out a sigh and sat back down in the chair at Illya’s side.
‘All right, it’s time for a serious talk,’ he said.
Illya still looked bleary, and his forehead creased a little. ‘N’poleon, I’m not doing any reports yet,’ he murmured.
‘Reports be damned. Illya, I don’t want to ever have to do another Christmas like that,’ he said seriously.
‘Is it Christmas?’ Illya asked vaguely, looking about as if he expected to see a calendar with the date on it.
Napoleon nodded. ‘It’s Christmas. It was Christmas Eve when you managed to blow yourself up. It was Christmas morning when they were sewing your intestines back inside your body. When I ate Christmas dinner you were flat out unconscious in that bed. It’s – er – about one a.m. on the twenty-sixth now, so you’ve comprehensively missed Christmas Day. I spent most of Christmas Day thinking you were about to die on me. You know, I’ve spent Christmas Day in a putrid, freezing cell before now. I’d take that over this any time.’
Illya just gazed at him for a long moment, his eyes half out of focus. He looked like a little boy who had just woken up.
‘I missed Christmas?’ he asked.
‘Yes, you missed Christmas. But more importantly, you almost killed yourself.’
‘Oh,’ Illya said, then he winced, and Napoleon asked, ‘Need a bit more morphine?’
‘Um-hmm,’ Illya replied, and Napoleon hovered with his hand near the release that would feed a little more painkiller into the drip.
‘You sure?’ he asked. ‘That’s this year’s present, you know. You’re not getting anything else after what you put me through.’
‘Give me the morphine,’ Illya glowered.
Napoleon touched the button, and a moment later he could see the relaxation seeping through Illya’s body.
‘Better?’ Napoleon asked, and his tone was completely sincere.
‘Better,’ Illya nodded.
‘A bit sore, huh?’
Illya grimaced. ‘A bit. It feels like – ’
‘Like you slashed open your stomach and almost lost the contents of your body through it,’ Napoleon hazarded. ‘I swear, Illya, if you ever put me through this again – ’
‘It’s our job,’ Illya murmured, and Napoleon pressed a hand over his. As terrible as it was, as miserable as it was, sometimes this was part of their job. Even dying was part of their job.
‘Illya, I held your guts in my hands,’ Napoleon said very seriously. ‘That explosion, some shrapnel, I don’t know, ripped your stomach open, and I had to pack your insides back inside you. I sat with you in that helicopter waiting for you to die. I sat here most of Christmas Day waiting for you to die. I can’t – I don’t know if I can – ’
He faltered into silence, because Illya was right. That was their job. They were in the front line in a war, and agents died. He just couldn’t bear for it to be Illya who died.
‘Napoleon,’ Illya said, and he squeezed his fingers on Napoleon’s. Napoleon lifted the hand to his mouth and kissed it. He sat there resting his mouth against the hard lines of Illya’s fingers. He was alive. Against every vagary of fate, Illya was alive.
‘Ukrainian Christmas,’ Illya said, and at Napoleon’s puzzled expression he said, ‘Seventh of January. I don’t know I’ll be out for New Year, but I’ll make Ukrainian Christmas, I promise. We’ll go to carols. We’ll do everything.’
‘Illya, dear, you’re not going to be well enough by Ukrainian Christmas to sit in a draughty church listening to carols,’ Napoleon said gently, but just the idea of Illya’s willingness to do that filled him with a spreading warmth. ‘Just be alive,’ he said. ‘That’s enough.’
Chapter 3: The Rest of Times
The scar across Illya’s abdomen was still there, just visible as a thin white line that traced across his skin. It was hard to believe that so many years ago he had almost died on Christmas Day, but the scar was there, and whenever Napoleon traced his fingers over it he remembered that night and day so vividly it was like being there. Illya’s body was like a map of memories. Those parallel and crossing lines on his back were where he had been whipped by Mother Fear. That thin trace in his hair was where he had been pistol-whipped by a Thrushie coming up on him from behind. That pucker on his arm was where a bullet had entered, and the other side was where it had swept back out into the open air and thudded into the body of the helicopter they were in.
But that scar… There had been too many times when Napoleon had sat vigil at Illya’s side, or not even known that he was fighting for his life until after the fact, or dragged him out of a situation that should have meant certain death. But that scar brought him back every time. The smell of Illya’s blood, the slippery heat of his guts in Napoleon’s hands, the sight of him lying motionless, his skin as pale as the sheets on which he lay. Napoleon saw it when Illya showered, soaping himself with wet hands from breast bone to hips and passing over that thin white line. He saw it when he walked about the penthouse nude, which Illya seemed to have a love of doing in the early mornings when the sun gilded his body before he needed to get dressed for work. He felt it when his hands slipped over Illya’s skin in bed or in whichever other location they had chosen for their lovemaking. He kissed it and thanked God that despite everything, they were both still here on this earth.
‘Look,’ Illya said, holding up his gloved hand, holding his fingers and thumb curved so that between them Napoleon could see the whirling, falling snow and the domes and gilt of the Saint Sophia Cathedral. ‘Just as you gave me twenty – was it twenty-five years ago? It’s just the same.’
It was just the same, but there was nothing but air between Illya’s fingers. The glass dome was at home, sitting on the shelf to the left of the fireplace, just as it had sat since they had moved in to the penthouse when Napoleon’s Aunt Amy had died. But the view in the circle of his fingers was just the same, better than the same, because this was real, and the building had an intricacy that could never quite be replicated by a little model caught in a bubble of glass. The gilt gleamed in the winter light, the green of the domes was like a vibrant breath of spring, and the white plasterwork became lost in the flurry of white flakes that filled the air.
If all had been perfect, Napoleon would have caught Illya’s arms and turned him towards him and kissed him right there in the snow-drifted square in front of the cathedral. They could just about do that in public in New York now. Attitudes had changed so much. But Illya had warned him sternly about any outward displays of romantic affection here in the city of his birth. Every night when they got back to their room they checked it thoroughly for bugs, and nothing went on that wouldn’t pass the most severe of moral scrutiny until they were sure they were in utmost privacy. The head of U.N.C.L.E. North West and his second in command being caught engaging in homosexual acts in their Kiev hotel room was a scandal that was best avoided.
‘It’s beautiful,’ Napoleon said. ‘It’s all beautiful.’
He meant the cathedral, which was still a museum, and the snow, and the heavy winter clouds, but he also meant Illya in his traditional fur hat and his overcoat buttoned to his chin, and the flush in his cheeks and the way his breath came out in puffs of white when he spoke. Sometimes he joked that Illya kept a portrait in his attic. His own hair was tending towards grey and he fought to keep away a growing paunch, but Illya didn’t look a day over forty. He didn’t understand how a man in his fifties could stay looking so young and so perfect.
‘It is beautiful,’ Illya murmured, but he wasn’t looking at the cathedral. He was turning his head to take in the buildings and open spaces and black-branched trees around. He had seemed entranced since they had got here, excitedly showing Napoleon the apartment building he had grown up in and the place where his school had been, and the parks he had loved to visit as a child. It had been a privilege to see. Even in an intimate relationship Illya had always kept a certain amount of himself private, and Napoleon had never been sure if it were a sliver or a chasm that he didn’t see. One of the things Illya had most reticence about was revealing his past, and now they were here in Kiev Napoleon felt as though he had been given a gift.
‘Listen,’ Illya said, because somewhere in the snow-blurred square behind them there was singing. ‘Listen,’ he said again. ‘That’s a traditional Ukrainian Christmas song. They would have been arrested for that when I was a child.’
Napoleon couldn’t put his arm around him, but he could put a hand on his arm at least, and he did that as they walked, glad of the closeness of Illya’s hot flesh and bone even through the thickness of glove and sleeves. The little group of singers revealed themselves through the falling snow, bundled up as thoroughly as both Napoleon and Illya; four girls in their twenties, more beautiful than Napoleon had thought possible.
‘Good thing I’m taken,’ he murmured, leaning in close to Illya’s fur earflap. ‘They make the girls very nicely in your country.’
Illya smiled. Napoleon was very taken, and had been for two decades.
They stood for a while just listening as the song rose and wreathed into the winter air. When the girls stopped between songs Illya spoke to them in Ukrainian, and Napoleon just stood back and listened, not really trying to understand, but enjoying the sound of Illya speaking his native language in his native land.
‘What was that all about?’ he asked Illya as they walked away with the sweet sound of singing rising behind them. There was joy in that sound.
His partner shrugged.
‘They’re excited because they think this might lead to independence,’ he said in a low tone, looking around him as he spoke.
Napoleon could read the unease in him. His Russian partner had watched the sudden unfolding of Glasnost with a mixture of suspicion and anticipation as it filtered through on the American news channels.
‘You don’t like the idea of that?’ he asked. ‘Illya, you’re a proud Ukrainian, a native of Kiev. Don’t you want your country to have independence?’
Illya was looking down at the dirty, foot-trodden snow on the pavement where they walked, and he shrugged.
‘Yes. No. I don’t know,’ he said. ‘I have always been a Soviet, Napoleon. Living in New York for so long doesn’t change that. I don’t know. Perhaps I’m too old for change.’
‘Don’t be ridiculous,’ Napoleon tutted. ‘You’re not too old for anything.’
Again Illya smiled, and he patted Napoleon’s arm and said, ‘It’s freezing out here, and we had better get moving, or we’ll never make the dacha by evening.’
It was like a fairytale world; a series of low wooden houses half buried in snow, all in their own little patches of land. Driving out to the dacha with Illya was an experience, because once in his native land he seemed to combine all of his experience of driving hard and fast with a kind of recklessness that had never quite come through in other places.
‘What’s the matter, Napoleon? You’re as white as the snow coming down,’ Illya asked with a grin as they pulled up outside one of the low and snow-frosted buildings. It looked like a gingerbread house.
‘You’re a maniac,’ Napoleon muttered as he got out of the freezing cold Trabant and stamped his cold feet in the snow. ‘God, haven’t they ever heard of heaters?’
‘The heater was on. Couldn’t you smell it?’ Illya asked him tartly.
‘The piquant scent of burning oil and rubber and gas, do you mean?’ Napoleon asked. It was wonderful to be out in the open air.
‘Come on,’ Illya grunted, and tugged his arm towards the little snow-covered house. He paused momentarily outside the door, brushing some snow from the wood, and said, ‘I wish my parents could be here...’
Napoleon put a hand on his arm in that sober moment. ‘I wish you could have been here a couple of years ago,’ he said. Both of Illya’s parents had died in relatively quick succession, and work and pre-glasnost uncertainty had made it impossible for him to get home. Now he was here, but it was too late.
‘It is what it is,’ Illya shrugged, and he slipped his glove off and drew a pick from his pocket and bent to the lock.
‘Ah, is this the Russian version of leaving the key under a flowerpot?’ Napoleon asked, watching Illya with admiration. It had been a while since he had needed to pick a lock, but Illya kept all of his skills at peak readiness.
‘I told Mrs Voloshyna to leave the key inside,’ Illya murmured. ‘She thinks I have a spare.’
He looked up with a flashing grin as the lock clicked open, and opened the door.
‘Welcome home, Napoleon,’ he said.
The pine tree shook snow onto the floor as together Napoleon and Illya eased it into the room from the yard where it had been waiting for them. Little clumps of flakes turned into spreading pools in the heat from the newly lit fire, and while Napoleon cut the strings binding the branches Illya found a mop and cleaned away the little trail of lakes. Napoleon arranged the tree in a stand while Illya disappeared into a low little attic and came back with a dust covered box.
‘Decorations,’ he said, opening the lid, and Napoleon peered inside.
‘Er, Illya, it’s not Hallowe’en, you know,’ he said, as Illya reverently lifted out a little wire and paper spider and what seemed to be a hand-woven silvered web of string.
‘Once upon a time,’ Illya said, absorbed in lifting little trinkets from the box one by one and starting to hang them on the tree, ‘there was a widow who lived in a little house with her children. This widow was very poor. She could barely afford to feed her children. Here, Napoleon, put this web up here, near the top,’ he interrupted himself, handing Napoleon another beautiful little string web, this time coloured gold. He put his hand over Napoleon’s and guided it to the right spot, his fingers lingering a little longer than necessary over Napoleon’s.
‘One thing she did have was a great sheltering pine tree in her yard,’ he continued, ‘and from a fallen pine cone grew a young tree. The children were so excited, because when the tree was big enough they could have it in their house for Christmas. They had very little else, but they would have a tree. So they lovingly tended it, and it grew, until it came to the time when the tree was large enough. They brought it inside – ’
‘They cut it down? This tree they’d tended so lovingly?’ Napoleon asked sceptically.
‘Shush,’ Illya told him firmly. He held up a paper spider and watched it dangle, then hung it on a high branch. ‘They took this tree inside. Perhaps they dug it up and put it in a planter, but they brought it inside and set it in the corner of the room so it would be there for Christmas. But they were so poor they had nothing to decorate the tree. Everyone else had beautiful trees, with beautiful ornaments, and they – ’
‘They couldn’t even make paper chains?’ Napoleon asked.
‘Hush,’ Illya said again. ‘Be grateful you have never experienced real poverty.’
He touched his fingertip lightly to Napoleon’s lips. Napoleon kissed it. Illya’s hand smelt of snow and pine and dust. His clothes still smelt of burnt oil and exhaust from the Trabant.
‘Everyone else had beautiful trees with beautiful ornaments,’ Illya repeated, ‘and the children had nothing. So that night in bed they shed tears, because it was hard to be so poor. But there were spiders in the hut.’
‘Of course,’ Napoleon said, looking up at the corners of the room they were in. Spiders had obviously been having a good time here while the place was deserted.
Illya gave Napoleon a hard look. ‘The spiders heard the children crying,’ he said, ‘and they took pity on them. So in the night they climbed all over the tree and they spun their webs, from tip to trunk – delicate webs in the most beautiful of patterns. When the children woke they saw the tree and they ran to their mother in amazement and woke her up.’
Just like kids everywhere on Christmas morning , Napoleon wanted to say, but he stayed silent, because he sensed that Illya wouldn’t put up with another interruption.
‘So the mother came to look at the tree. One would think she’d be dismayed at the tree covered in webs, but at that moment one of the children opened the window, and it was a bright Christmas morning. The light shone in to the little hut, and as the sun rose its beams struck the tree, and turned the webs upon it to beautiful glittering strands of gold and silver. It was the most beautiful thing the widow had ever seen, except the faces of her children when they were born, and from that day on she never felt poor again, because she understood that she was rich in what she had.’
‘The spiders didn’t bring them a turkey, then?’ Napoleon asked. ‘I hope someone brought us a turkey?’
Illya swatted at him.
‘If my grandmother were here she would have produced you a proper Christmas Eve feast,’ he said. ‘We would have fasted all day and she would have been cooking all day. We would eat twelve dishes to remember the twelve disciples.’
‘Really?’ Napoleon asked. ‘Illya, I thought you were a confirmed atheist?’
‘I am. My grandmother was not. But tonight we will have to dine on what I can knock up from the stores. I will feed you properly tomorrow; but not on turkey.’
Napoleon eyed his partner up and down. He had taken off his thicker wrappings and was just wearing trousers, shirt, and jumper now, which didn’t exactly highlight the lines of his body, but made him look less like a dumpling than he had before.
‘I’ll enjoy your culinary talents tomorrow,’ he promised, ‘but I can think of better things to dine on now than food,’ he added, using his most seductive tone.
‘Is that all I am to you? A pliant body?’ Illya asked archly, but Napoleon could read the light in his eyes.
‘Oh, you’re delightfully pliant,’ Napoleon smiled, tracing a finger down Illya’s cheek. ‘And a pretty good cook, too.’
Illya growled. He thrust his fingers through Napoleon’s hair on both sides of his head, making it stick up every which way, and then put his hand to the back of Napoleon’s neck and came close and kissed him so hard that Napoleon was left gasping.
‘God, Illya,’ he murmured, but Illya’s hands were slipping up under his thick jumper, finding the heat of his body beneath, and he mirrored his lover’s actions, helping him off with his clothes in fevered haste. Illya pushed him down onto the floor in front of the stove, which was billowing heat, and Napoleon grabbed his shoulders, turning him roughly so now it was Illya who was lying on his back, naked and beautiful and rippled with the flickering light that came through the stove doors.
He saw that thin white scar across Illya’s belly and paused for a moment, just tracing his finger along the length of it. It had taken weeks for Illya to heal from that one. His recovery had dipped and stalled and then revived. He hadn’t been able to attend Russian carols in the New York churches. He had only just been able to sit up in a chair and eat by the seventh of January, and hadn’t been back on active duty for months.
Illya’s fingers closed around his wrist, and he looked down into his partner’s blue eyes.
‘All that was a long time ago,’ Illya said. ‘We don’t live like that any more. We both made it through.’
‘We did,’ Napoleon said, and he straddled Illya, hiding that scar with the hot press of his thighs. He bent down to kiss him. Illya responded like a starving man, lifting his head, pushing himself against Napoleon’s lips, tasting him, running tongue along tongue, along teeth, about the hot depths of his mouth.
‘This is extremely illegal in this country,’ Illya said with a grin when he came up for air.
‘I know,’ Napoleon said, dropping light kisses along Illya’s jaw and collarbones. ‘It was extremely illegal last night, too, and the night before. I dare say it will be tomorrow. But like so many things that are extremely illegal, it’s also extremely fun.’
‘Extremely,’ Illya murmured, stroking a hand along Napoleon’s bare flank, shielding it briefly from the heat of the stove. ‘Although I do keep wondering about the spirit of my grandmother.’
‘Shut up,’ Napoleon said. He sat up straight astride Illya, running his hands over and over the taut muscles of his torso. Illya was lean as a horse, and almost as strong. ‘Shut up,’ he said again, ‘about the laws of the Soviet Union and your grandmother’s spirit. Shut up about everything. Just lie there and be quiet, and don’t think, and let me fuck you.’
The world was so quiet it could almost be believed that they were the only people alive. Through the crack in the curtains snow could be seen gently drifting down, ash grey against the white sky. Napoleon lay with his head pillowed on Illya’s chest, listening to the rich thud of his heart through the layers of rib and muscle, and watching one flake at a time on its journey past that slivered opening.
He felt Illya stirring under him, heard the slight quickening of his heart. He tilted his head enough to see his face, and was met by a bright blue, blinking gaze, hazed with the film of sleep. He remembered all those times that Illya had woken from unconsciousness, from blows to the head or other traumas, and his heart lurched for a second. But Illya was here and safe and alive. They both were. They were both snuggled deep under goosedown quilts that had been sewn by Illya’s grandmother and great-grandmother, warm in a bed that his parents had shared while alive, warm in a house that his family had used for generations. Back in New York the whole weight of the world-wide U.N.C.L.E. organisation was waiting for their return, but right now they were just men, alive and together, warm and content.
‘Merry Christmas, Illya,’ Napoleon murmured, touching his lips to a dusky areola and feeling the hard little nub of the nipple at the centre of his kiss. It was a privilege to be lying here with him, sharing his home, his country, and a day of celebration that had almost been scoured away by Soviet rule.
Illya stirred and stretched and Napoleon felt his lips against the top of his head.
‘Merry Christmas,’ Illya replied, insinuating his warm arms around Napoleon’s sides and tightening them in a hug, ‘if you want to believe in these things.’
‘Heathen atheist,’ Napoleon grinned sleepily, kissing him again. ‘I don’t care whether or not you believe in a spirit in the sky. I’m happy to share Christmas and New Year, Orthodox Christmas, Hallowe’en, Divali, Eid, Kwanzaa, Newton’s birthday, or whatever your heart desires. As long as I get to share it with you.’
‘Thrush permitting,’ Illya reminded him.
‘Thrush permitting, you horrible practical Soviet,’ Napoleon nodded, ‘but Thrush can be hanged for today. Today is about us. You, and me – ’
‘And good food.’
‘And good food,’ Napoleon acknowledged, ‘and you, and me, and love, and being alive.’
He rested his head back down against Illya’s chest, and listened to the little movements of his digestive system and the rhythmic thud of his heart, and felt the strength of his ribcage and the heat of his blood and the solidity of his presence. They could have been anywhere in the world, and he would have been happy. They were still in love, and they were still alive, and they had so many more Christmases to come.