Seven years. Partners. Two men so different from each other, yet perfectly matched.More than brothers, closer than friends. There was a time they could talk about everything. Until the day they carelessly stumbled into the one thing that demanded their silence. And the silence, as it does, grew until finally they were mute and could talk about nothing.
"Still traveling light I see", Napoleon stood in the entrance to the apartment and nodded at the two valises by the door. Illya's usually casually disheveled rooms were neat as a pin. He'd found shelf space for the long entrenched piles of books on the floor, the stacks of magazines on the tables were gone. The few dishes were put away, the bed was made, the cover was on the record player on top of the console and the albums were all in their sleeves and shelved in a neat row beneath.
"Always", Illya said.
Precise and ordered, like a barracks; Illya tended to fall back on his Navy training when he was disturbed--but it had been a long time since Napoleon needed to remember that. It struck him suddenly how easily everything here could be boxed up and stored, that the vague talk of working in Berlin after the London assignment and then beyond had not really been vague, and he wondered how he could have thought it was, and his heart started to beat much too fast.
"Do you need a ride to the airport", he asked, hoping.
"No that's alright, UNCLE is sending a car." Illya turned away to open the small closet door to get his coat. He slipped into it, the umbrella also hanging there swayed slightly, dislodged by his movements.
Napoleon watched him; their silence was fraught, too much so. He blurted out the first thing that came to mind. "Don't forget the umbrella, you'll need it in London."
Illya fingered it absentmindedly. "It has a broken splint."
"It's a sturdy thing, it can be fixed."
"I'm not sure it's worth it." Illya closed the closet door.
And maybe what Napoleon really was trying to say was stay here with me, but it took so much time to build up the courage to get the words out , to reach out and touch Illya's arm...
And maybe Illya hoped, in the tiniest corner hope could be squeezed into, that he would hear stay here with me; yet he disdained such hope and so he spoke quickly before hope could grow...
"I have to leave Napoleon. The car is here, let me go."
Napoleon let him go; finally not wholly sure that Illya hadn't chosen the more sensible route.
Illya dreams of cold and ice, it's the weapon he knows. Fight fire with ice, the Russian winter has always smothered its enemies, frozen them to death even as it froze its own. He's fighting now to keep from burning, the fire hasn't reached him yet but the heat has. He can feel the hunger of the flames, hears the ice around him cracking, then wakes up; heart in overdrive, sweating, his muscles clenched.
It's an old dream. It's the first time he's had it in almost two years.
He rolls carefully from the futon and kneels at the window, quietly pushing the Shoji screen to the side.
Dawn is minutes away and the sky is pale gray. Two roly-poly cats are grooming themselves by the carved and polished water basin in the postage stamp of a yard behind the old Tokyo house. They're Shizuko's, she makes sculpture and collects strays. He suspects she sees him as one of them.
As the grey mist brightens, his heart slows down, the sweat of the dream dries and he starts to feel the chill of the November morning. At his first shiver though, a robe falls across his shoulders, and a steady hand smooths it across his back. Shizuko is awake and kneels next to him.
"Don't be so careless Illya, you've barely recovered from the infection, the last thing you need is to catch a chill."
He pulls the robe close about him, acknowledging her concern.
"So your life as a nomad is coming to an end. You'll be back home in New York soon."
London, Berlin, Beirut, Tokyo. It's been almost two years. And now with little warning... His breathing quickened.
Shizuko looked at him with concern. Ageless, her dark intelligent eyes curtained by thick black bangs, innately elegant, and tough as the rocks she wrestled meaning from. More than tough enough to deal with him.
"It's your home", she said. "You need one."
"I'm Russian, New York isn't my home." Illya knew he sounded like a sulky schoolboy.
"Home is where the heart is, isn't that what your American friends say? I'm not a fool Illya-kun. Are you afraid to go back?"
"No..." he started but he owed her honesty. "Maybe. I don't know."
"You've never been afraid of anything since I've known you."
"I'm afraid of a lot of things" Illya sighs. "Dogs... bats... women who can see through me."
Shizuko patted his hand. "You're a man. Men are not complicated."
"Maybe you could come with me," Illya said, knowing what her answer would be.
Shizuko laughed, not the small careful laugh of the office girls, but the loud hearty one that made him first notice her. "I've done my travelling. You're my adventure now Illya, my foreign land. Precious because I know you can't stay. "
"Mono no aware."
"You're a good student. Stay here, there's something I want to give you."
She was back a few minutes later with a simple lidded bamboo box and placed it in front of him.
Illya opened it, carefully removed the shredded wood packing material and lifted out a tea bowl. It was old, the deep rust and black glazes swirling into and around each other like storm clouds seen from above. A deep jagged crack ran through one side of the bowl, with spiky branchings here and there like a bolt of lightning. The crack had been repaired with gold, the metal sealing the pieces together, boldly highlighting the damage while making it part of the whole.
He silently turned it around in his hands, his fingers tracing the cool smooth metal, his palm cradling rough fired clay. It vibrated with energy; with the threads of the past and the present, he could feel the intrinsic strength of the join.
"There's beauty in the loss of perfection, in the way things must change," Shizuko said. "In the way we learn to mend what's been broken."
"Not everything can be mended."
"Give yourself the chance to find out. It's time to go home."
The meeting in New York had started early, it was ending just as the normal working day began. None of the three people around the table with Alexander Waverly found it unusual.
Waverly jotted a short note, then closed his folder and looked around the table. "I've already notified Mr. Kuryakin. As he's not able to assume Section 2 duties at the present time, Dr Simpson will have his help with the computer upgrades."
Dr. Simpson nodded happily. "It'll be good to have Mr. Kuryakin back. The work he and Neumann did with the other sector technical systems is top notch, I dare say our computer systems almost rival NASA, and our security may be even better. We've been able to neutralize at least three Thrush attempts to capture our data. We could see them in real time, mind you. As a matter of fact, I have some ideas I'd like to discuss with him about a code that can follow them back to their point of origin, turn them into their own trojan horses. And of course the bomb disposal unit could use some work. I'd like to keep him for as long as possible.
"We'll see. " Waverly allowed the enthusiasm but was non-committal. "Mr. Farnham, I'm told we'll need to send a replacement to Section 2 in Tokyo?"
"They'll eventually need one." Farnham from Personnel had been quiet till now, taking notes while Waverly spoke. "They're making do; Mr Kuryakin was spending most of his time with the technical group anyway anyway before he was incapacitated. I believe Hong Kong can spare Miss Kuh."
"I'd like to discuss it with Mr. Solo before we decide. When is he due back Miss Rogers? "
"Monday, Tuesday at the latest." Shall I get hold of him before then?"
"No need to disturb him in the field. Remind me about the Tokyo matter when he's back.
In the end it was Thursday when Napoleon and Nestor Fotakis finally made their way through the front door of Del Floria's.
Nestor entered the cloakroom and Napoleon heard the familiar whisper as the door to UNCLE's reception area opened. He stopped to grab the package of clean shirts del Floria had bundled for him and entered UNCLE a few steps behind the other man.
The receptionist hadn't been there long, and it took Napoleon a moment to remember her name. Paula. Not that it mattered really, she was making eyes at Nestor and why not, he was the one leaning over her desk, flashing a smile, and letting her pin the badge on his jacket. Napoleon took the No 11 badge from her and pinned it on himself, fully aware of the irony of the moment. It's the changing of the guard. They all knew it wouldn't be long till he was no longer Section 2, and Section 1 doesn't make eyes at the receptionist.
They walked to the elevators together, then parted as Nestor went to see Ryan; there was something wrong with the loading mechanism of his Special, he'd been having trouble with his clips. Not the sort of repair one put off. Napoleon waved him off, took the elevator up to the next floor and the Section 2 offices. He stopped to grab a cup of coffee, the bullpen with the desks for junior agents was almost empty. Only Grynbaum and Kuta were there, both on the phone. He nodded to them and continued on to his own office. He pushed the button that slid open the door, juggling his package and his coffee for a moment, so when he looked up and saw that that there was someone rising up from the sofa to greet him, he was completely unprepared.
"Hello, Napoleon." The familiar voice tore through him like an electrical charge and the wall he'd built between the present and the past cracked. And in the crack he could see everything.
It was pure luck really, that kept them from from becoming iced in the Thrush lab tucked below the ferry terminal in St. George, and they knew it.
"Literally iced," Napoleon said pouring himself a third, or was it a fourth, Scotch. He listened for the slight hiss of the warm liquid gliding over the the cold slick cubes of ice in the glass.
It was a near run thing, no getting away from it, and at Napoleon's apartment now the laughter might have been a little louder than usual, the adrenaline still running a little too high as they celebrated the conclusion of another mission.
Napoleon watched from the sofa as Illya poured at least a half bottle of vodka over the pyramid of ice cubes he'd built. He'd commandeered the oversized glass ashtray on the coffee table for his experiment, now he lit up a match and set the ice on fire. Illya smiled for a moment as the flames shot up, almost out of control. The fire was reflected in his eyes when he looked triumphantly at Napoleon.
"Alright", Napoleon said, "I believe you. You can set fire to an igloo. The secret ingredient is alcohol. But why?"
"High proof alcohol will pool on water and burn until..."
Napoleon shoved Illya's back with his toe. "That's not what I meant. Why did you do it?"
Illya settled down on the floor next to the table, his eyes drawn back to the flames. He prodded the melting tower with a quick finger. "Murmansk in winter is exceedingly dull. Severomorsk is is even duller. There wasn't much to do besides drink. Captain Yaroslavsk led us in that as he led us in all things, but he was a greedy man. While the barracks periodically ran out of vodka, he kept his own supply separate in one of the storage igloos."
Napoleon raised an eyebrow. "Ah, I take it there was an attempt to liberate the supply."
"A small hole in the back of the structure, just large enough to let a small man crawl in and grab a few bottles now and then... we could camoflage it with piled up snow in between raids. It was, we all agreed, a very good plan."
"You all agreed. You hadn't run out of vodka yet it seems."
"We were about to run out. We had enough to let us figure out how to get more. It would have to be a quick maneuver, no sawing at blocks of ice for half an hour. I suggested a small charge. Very small. No stronger than three or four cherry bombs. No fuss, no muss."
"Quite a plan, what could go wrong. You must have been very drunk."
Illya bristled and looked back at Napoleon. "I am very good with explosives. I understand them. A very small charge. "
"It would have been loud."
"It's all in the timing, they were always testing the alarm sirens, just in case of an American attack you know. We picked the right time, I set the right charge, we waited for the siren to go off..."
"And you set the igloo on fire."
"It turned out the comrade captain not only had more vodka than we thought, he'd stored his cases against the wall where we blew the hole. There must have been at least a dozen of them. It made for a very big flame." Illya grinned, remembering. Fire and ice. "It was beautiful."
"Did they catch you?"
"I'm here aren't I? I survived." Illya laughed. "It was worth it."
More and more water was pooling in the bowl on the table, but the flames still flickered. Ice will melt but make the fire hot enough, the fire will last. The crack as the bowl on the table split was as sharp as a shot, both of them rolled for cover, Napoleon's tumble off the couch landing him half on top of Illya.
There was heat everywhere Napoleon's hands touched, a furnace when his Illya's mouth met his. Fire, ice, broken glass, all forgotten in the sudden release of desire. Forgotten for the rest of the night.
Partners. More than brothers, closer than friends. There was a time they could talk about everything. Until the day they carelessly stumbled into the one thing that demanded silence.
They couldn't afford to let it happen again. The first time meant nothing, an accident of timing, of alcohol and adrenaline. A second time would be an admission that it meant too much.
And silent they were as though nothing had happened. Silent through missions and dinners and dark hotel rooms; silent through longing and looks and unavoidable touches.
And the silence, as it does, grew until they were mute and could talk about nothing.
"Illya." Standing in front of him, here, where he should have been all along.
"Still traveling light I see."
Illya has that familiar half smile on his face.
"He traveled with a case full of documents
an umbrella badly in need of splints
a guitar and a bottle of Johnnie Walker
and trouble in the heart, an old disorder."
His voice caught on the last line, he was nervous.
This time Napoleon knew what to say. Why it was so hard before he couldn't remember. "Stay here with me."
Illya's rare full smile bloomed and the silence fell away. "I'll stay. Let's go home. Together, the two of us."