"You're a lucky man", the doctor informed me when he finished examining my hands. "There doesn't appear to be any nerve damage, and when these burns heal you won't find yourself permanently disfigured."
I gritted my teeth while he applied a disinfectant. 'Lucky' was not the word I would have chosen, but I had already learned that it never does any good to argue with an UNCLE Doctor. He summoned a nurse to bandage my hands, wrote me a prescription for painkillers, and then released me. On the way back to the hotel I had the taxi driver stop and get me a bottle of scotch, the better to celebrate my good luck.
I don't particularly care for scotch, but there are days when vodka reminds me too much of home.
I closed my eyes and attempted to banish the thought. It was not a good time to be thinking of the life I had left behind me. Better by far to think of the future; after all, I was going to have one. A few hours earlier that hadn't seemed very likely.
One of the first lessons at UNCLE's survival school is that field agents are expendable, and I would have been a fool not to have considered the possibility that some were more expendable than others. It would have been nice, almost, to have somewhere else to place the blame for my recent misadventure, but I didn't really believe it. If the powers that be wanted me out of the picture I would have slipped on the stairs months ago, or perhaps fallen in front of a subway train. A simple accident, you understand, is much neater all around.
It certainly would have been faster and less painful than the situation I had stumbled into when left to my own initiative: Three men, maybe four, and not very happy about my actions in the last 48 hours, certainly not likely to forgive and forget.
It was a struggle to breathe through the heavy burlap sack that they had put over my head. I could see nothing through the coarse material, but my other senses were working overtime. The room I had been taken to was rank with the mingled scent of fear, stale tobacco and body odour. My wrists and ankles had been bound to the arms and legs of a heavy straight back chair. The knots wouldn't budge so I sat completely still, attempting to listen. I was uncertain whether or not I was alone in my captivity. The faint sounds of movement around me could have been made by rats, and that's what I tried to believe right up until the moment when a match being struck made it impossible.
It wasn't much of an interrogation. I couldn't tell them anything except that my partner was long gone with their microfilm. At least that was a satisfying thought – the last one for a long while. Burns are excruciating.
It seemed to go on for an eternity, though I suppose it couldn't have been much more than an hour. They ran out of undamaged skin on my palms and were debating whether to move on to my face or my genitals. If I had been following my training, I should have been working out which would have given me the best opportunity for escape, but the part of my brain responsible for strategy was gone, burned away by the tips of unfiltered cigarettes, and all I had left was the horrible certainty that I was going to die there in that basement.
When the gunfire started, I thought it was the end. Without a silencer, the noise reverberated in the small space, deafening me and distorting my sense of direction. I hardly knew which way to cower. Silence – then hands on my thighs. I whimpered and shied away from the touch. I might even have succeeded in tipping the chair if a whiff of familiar cologne hadn't given me pause.
"Na-Napoleon?" I whispered, forcing his name from my exhausted vocal cords.
"Yeah." His voice was thick, ragged, and for a moment I thought that he must have been injured in the gunfight. "Don't move," he said, "I'm going to cut you loose."
A second later I felt the cold edge of a blade against my neck as he sawed at the cord of the sack and lifted it off my head. The first thing I looked at was my hands – and immediately wished I hadn't. I wondered if UNCLE would cover the dry-cleaning bill if I were to throw up on Napoleon's new suit. I burst out laughing at the thought.
It was shock, but I didn't recognize it then; that was the first time I had ever been tortured.
I tried to warn Napoleon about the risk he was running with his beautiful clothes, but he didn't laugh, or even smile. He cupped my chin with his right hand and tilted my head back, as if he was going to kiss me. I didn't pull away - my wrists were still bound to the arms of the chair. He carefully raised my eyelids with his thumbs and examined my pupils for a long moment. Whatever he saw there must have been acceptable because he let go of my chin, patted my cheek reassuringly, and then started to work on freeing my wrists and masterminding our escape.
Five hours later I stood in front of the bathroom mirror in our hotel room, making my own self-conscious examination of my pupils. The methadone had kicked in and shiny black eclipsed all but a narrow band of blue. The pain from my burned hands had slowly receded, like a tide going out, taking my carefully constructed composure with it. Without the pain to anchor me, I felt cast adrift on a dangerous sea of emotion.
Napoleon's comb lay where he had put it down early that morning, alongside his toothbrush and razor; the mundane artefacts of a normal life. He was still at the Istanbul office, waiting to report back to Section 1 in New York. I was glad for the momentary privacy. When I closed my eyes, my mind kept flashing back to the expression on his face when he untied me. In that moment I understood why all the women he rescues fall hopelessly in love with him.
I sat on the edge of the bed and managed to pour out a paper cup full of Chivas without spilling. The liquor burned my throat going down and felt like fire in my empty stomach. I could still feel the ghosts of his hands brushing over me, stirring up a maelstrom of emotions that I wasn't prepared to deal with. I carefully poured myself a second shot of scotch – taken with the methadone it would be enough to knock me out for a few hours. It was cowardly, but I was drugged and I didn't want to risk making a fool of myself by acting on an inappropriate impulse.
If I had been a woman...
If I had been a woman everything between us would have made sense. Napoleon likes women; I knew that about him. It was all there is his file - when left to his own devices he always chose some innocent woman to assist him on his assignments rather than work with another agent. When we were first partnered, it had surprised me that he hadn't given me the cold shoulder - if not for the assault on his independence, then for the fact that I was more punishment than prize. He was no fool – he would certainly have realized that my promising test scores made a poor substitute for practical experience.
Nothing about him made sense to me, especially not this latest thing. He could have washed his hands of me; he had been under no obligation. His own part of our assignment had gone perfectly. He could have left the satrapy without me and returned to his solitary ways, but instead he had risked his own life to rescue me. It seemed to demand some sort of acknowledgement.
I found a paperclip, straightened one end with my teeth, and used it to scratch 'ns help y'self ik' into the wax on the bottom of a second paper cup. It was hardly a proper thank you, but it was the best I could do under the circumstances. I balanced it over the top of the bottle, sprawled across the bed and passed out.
I put my empty martini glass down on the coffee table and sat beside Napoleon, trying not to be distracted by his arm stretched out along the back of the sofa. Napoleon leaned in to get a better look at the file folder I had propped against my upraised knee.
"Allow me to present... Strigas!" I announced.
Napoleon flipped over one of the pages with a look of incomprehension. After a moment he grinned. "Floor wax?"
I laughed. "I was going to give them an excellent formula for shoe polish, but at the last minute it occurred to me that if their shoes were to shine brighter than yours, you might be tempted to defect on us."
I gave his perfectly polished shoe a gentle tap with the side of my foot, and he retaliated by trying to trap my foot against the edge of the coffee table. Before his victory was complete, my communicator interrupted us. It was Section Four informing me that my false documents were ready.
"Come along and dress me?" I suggested as I untangled my feet from his and stood.
"No. No, I shouldn't..." His gaze dropped to the floor, and he frowned, perhaps noticing a scuff mark on the toe of his shoe. "Illya, you don't mind, do you? The disguises, I mean."
I paused. "Everybody wears a disguise, Napoleon."
He gave me a questioning look, but I shrugged it off. I didn't care to elaborate. There wouldn't have been any point. I had already figured out that he didn't share the feeling of liberation I experienced whenever I put on a costume and briefly became someone else; someone who didn't have to be so many things to so many people. The disguises I donned for work brought with them a brief period of freedom, if not from responsibilities, then at least from my own inhibitions.
Not that I was all that inhibited around Napoleon - I didn't have to be. He had already seen me – the real me – the me that remained when I wasn't trying to please my parents, or the komsomol, or the navy, or the state, or UNCLE. Nobody else had ever seen me reduced to that. He had not only seen me, but seen me and not turned away.
Perhaps that is why it was so easy to trust him.
I might have been the one who put on the costumes, but it was Napoleon who truly wore a disguise. I didn't know what it was covering, and that should have made me suspicious, but mostly I was pleased that he let me get close enough to see the cracks in the first place. It wasn't everything I wanted from him, but it was more than I would ever ask him for.
After all, a disguise is only liberating if you get to choose when to take it off and, as far as I could tell, he never did.
Twelve hours of international air travel followed by another five on a train. It wasn't the homecoming I had dreamed of. In Moscow they were contemplating a declaration of war, but in the countryside there was a much more immediate fear: the wheat that withered in the fields and everywhere the smell of smoke that lingered in the air. The attack on the wheat harvest had to be contained at any cost, so we burned the fields for hundreds of kilometres in every direction. I spent five long days rattling my teeth in the back of a truck with broken suspension, scouring the coast for the sites where the rockets had struck. The driver pretended not to know me, though I wore my Lieutenant's uniform and we had once been six months at sea together when I was a cadet. I didn't challenge him - U.N.C.L.E. might as well have been stamped in indelible ink across my forehead. Any last illusions I had cherished about the possibility that I might come home to the life I had led prior to UNCLE withered faster than the wheat in the fields.
The loss cut me deeply, but the urgency of my assignment distracted me from the wound.
I didn't have time to worry about former friends who now snubbed me or the KGB men who shadowed my family. In the back of my mind I could hear stories told to me by my Ukrainian grandmother in the dead of winter. Stories about what happened to people when the food ran out. My parents had done a good job sheltering me from the most horrific aspects of a famine, but my grandmother refused to let anyone forget. Hearing those stories gave me nightmares; years later, the thought of a famine still terrified me more than anything short of a nuclear war. In the evenings I caught myself shovelling Kasha into my mouth long after my belly was full, and still I felt empty inside except for a hard knot of fear.
Two days later we found the rocket casing and I returned with it to New York. There was no time to lose, but I was still put under hypnosis and questioned about everything I had said and everything that had been said to me by officials in Moscow. The same questions again and again.
Napoleon arrived twenty minutes after the end of my briefing. His lack of concern was provoking. In fact, I was furious with him, with UNCLE, with everything. I was almost trembling with it.
The others left the conference room while I leaned over the map on the table, bringing Napoleon up to speed. I pointed out the sites where the rockets had struck. He was unfazed by the catastrophe that loomed over us, unfazed by my anger. The hand that he had used to squeeze my shoulder shifted to my back, massaging in large circles, rubbing away at the tension that had been building there for over two weeks.
"I fly from Idlewild in three hours. If this doesn't go well-" I began.
I turned to face him and his hand lingered at the small of my back. I was close enough to feel the warmth of his body.
"Illya, I'll take care of things. It'll be fine."
And if things weren't, I wouldn't be coming back. Napoleon should have realized that, but if he did, he refused to take the opportunity to say goodbye. It was that, more than anything he said, that I found most reassuring.
Marion was right about one thing; she had great taste in music.
I stood on her balcony listening to a virtuoso horn player on an obscure LP. The night air was very cold, but it couldn't cool the warm glow inside me - due as much to the exhilaration that had followed me home from work as the champagne I had been drinking that evening. It was a good feeling, and so unexpected coming on the heels of a week that had began with me arriving at the office to find Napoleon once again sent away on an assignment without me.
Not much gets by Waverly, certainly not my disappointed scan of the room.
"Mr. Solo left this morning for Eastern Europe where he will be responsible for recovering the Milo Jans Peace Prize. This affair is politically sensitive; it would be unwise to risk having your name associated with it."
My mouth had fallen open with dismay at this statement. Official UNCLE policy strictly prohibits any mark of preference or penalty based on an agent's nationality, but I knew better than anyone the thinness of the paper that policy is printed on. It wasn't all hazing and hard words though - I had been promoted far faster than my limited experience would seem to warrant, but what good is promotion when one finds oneself sidelined every time something sensitive comes up?
I hated being treated as pawn, and after several uncomfortable years of being shuffled around the UNCLE chessboard, I was thrilled to have a regular role as Napoleon's white knight. Things had got to the point where I had almost started taking it for granted. And why not? Together we made up the best team that UNCLE has. No matter what people might say about me, nobody could contest our record. It was our partnership that made my position in New York tolerable, and I was troubled by the unwelcome implication that my presence could be a burden to Napoleon. I made my expression blank.
"Sit down, Mr. Kuryakin."
I sat. My time in the navy had taught me a thing or to about when to keep my face neutral; unfortunately, none of my commanding officers had prepared me for the discerning scrutiny of Alexander Waverly.
He fussed with his humidor for a moment before directing his attention at me.
"Section Six informs me that your eldest sister has been awarded a Lomonosov Medal. My congratulations. Your parents must be very proud to have raised children who are so accomplished in the sciences."
I nodded. "We are all very proud."
There was a long pause while Waverly tamped the tobacco in his pipe. "I am aware that the life of an UNCLE agent is hardly the life your family would have chosen for you. Indeed, it is not, perhaps, the life you would have chosen for yourself. Nevertheless, you have never given me any reason to regret having you assigned to the New York office."
Waverly paused, and since I did not know what reply I was expected to make, I said nothing. After a moment he continued: "Your performance evaluations have always been highly satisfactory; unfortunately paper praise does little to silence those who suggest that your exceptionally rapid promotion was based on factors other than merit."
I let my eyes focus on the blinking lights of the console just beyond his shoulder.
"In the last five years," he said acerbically, "you have been captured more times than any other agent in this entire organization."
I flinched, biting back the urge to protest. If I get captured more than anyone else, it is only because I trust my partner enough to take the risk more than anyone else. Being able to rely on one's partner is a strength, not a weakness.
"Well, what have you to say for yourself?"
I cleared my throat, "I believe, Sir, that I have a better escape record than any other agent in this organization."
"Indeed," he agreed, and for a fraction of a second I could have sworn he smiled. Then he gave the table top a turn so that an open dossier came to rest in front of me. "A situation has come up in Cuba that requires immediate attention. Since you are not hindered by an American passport, I see no reason why you should not attend to it. Unless, of course, you would prefer to occupy yourself in the labs until Mr. Solo's return..."
I thumbed through the pages, attempting to read everything at once. The details were too complex to take in at a glance, but it was obviously much more important than the simple courier jobs that I had been given in the past when Napoleon was otherwise occupied.
"The clock is ticking, Mr. Kuryakin. If you wish to catch your flight you should leave for the airport at once."
I clutched the dossier to my chest and left to grab my suitcase before he could change his mind.
That affair did not go flawlessly; I was captured twice, but each time I managed to escape unassisted, and in doing so I had proven something to myself, satisfied some inner doubt I hadn't even known I felt. When I returned I felt positively elated.
I made my report and was given a bottle of champagne to celebrate my success. It wasn't until I entered our apartment building that I realized Napoleon was not on hand to celebrate with – the drawback of working independently.
My apartment was large and relatively luxurious, but it made a lonely contrast with the Soviet-style architecture that had sprung up all over Havana. I missed the noise, the bustle, and the camaraderie. I hesitated with the key in the lock of my door, unwilling, for once, to face the silence inside.
From the street I could hear music long before I arrived at Marion's place. It had been a few weeks since I had last dropped in on one of her parties so I recognized only about a third of the people present. Her face lit up when I arrived and it bore no trace of reproach over the time that had passed since I had last called on her. It warmed me to receive so sincere a welcome.
I suppose Marion and I made an unlikely pair, but no more so than Napoleon and I. She didn't work for UNCLE – or work at all for that matter – but we had other commonalities that were not immediately obvious. Since the murder of her father, Marion perfectly understood the horror of an empty apartment.
Marion, however, had a spirit that would never say die. She would never give in to gloom or self pity - if that meant that the party had to last a week, so be it. She was like Napoleon in that respect. She kept herself occupied with a busy social calendar and an interest in photography. People liked her because she was attractive, outgoing -- and able to foot the bill.
My family would be appalled by such a shocking display of decadence, but I couldn't help but admire her reckless pursuit of happiness.
I added my bottle of champagne to the assortment already chilling in a cooler full of half melted ice, and then accepted an overflowing glass from the girl who was playing bartender. For once I wasn't watching how much I drank. The knife wound on my arm wasn't severe, but it had got me placed on restricted duty; I wasn't expected at the office in the morning. This was intended as a reward, not a rebuke, I reminded myself. Get the job done, and then get the girl; that was just how it was supposed to go.
And sometimes, with Marion, I could convince myself that that was what I wanted.
I mingled for an hour before stepping out for air. The music followed me out while the chill kept the more obnoxious guests indoors. I leaned on the balcony rail, watching the lights reflecting off the river and letting my head clear a little. Inside the grey walls of UNCLE it is easy to forget just how much beauty and luxury America has to offer -- for those who can afford it.
After about a quarter of an hour, the sliding door opened behind me and Marion stepped out, a searching expression on her lovely face. The noise level inside had dropped. She shivered in her thin cocktail dress so I put my arms around her obligingly.
"The party is moving to a club downtown," she murmured into my shoulder. She slid her bare arms under my jacket and ran one palm up and down my spine. "But I thought you might like to stay here for a while. I saved you some caviar," she added.
"How did you know I would be here tonight?"
She smiled and said, "I save you some caviar at every party, just in case."
Marion was usually too caught up in her own life to take more than a casual interest in mine - I counted on that, I counted on her growing bored and giving up on me. It was the usual pattern with my liaisons, and not one I made any great effort to change.
On my part, it was not prudent to break it off. I hadn't dated anyone since moving to New York and eventually that is the sort of thing that gets noticed. Not that Mr. Waverly had said anything definitive. A raised eyebrow, a pointed look, the occasional pointed suggestion – from any other man I wouldn't have made anything of it. The band on my ring finger had answered well enough in London and Paris. Of course, it went without saying that I was under greater scrutiny than I ever had been in London or Paris; if official eyebrows had been raised, it would be foolhardy to ignore them.
Inside, I emptied ashtrays, collected glasses, and straightened furniture while Marion was slipping into something more comfortable. On the coffee table she had left the black leather portfolio containing her latest photographs. I flipped it open and looked over pictures of kittens and children and sailboats and sunsets; the things that pass for art in America.
"Illya, can you help me with this zipper?" she called.
The summons didn't quite register; I had turned the page, and the photograph there had stopped me cold.
"Illya," she called again.
I put down my drink and pulled the print from its sleeve. A moment later she emerged from her bedroom, looking slightly exasperated.
I held the photograph in front of me.
Her eyes went wide. "Illya, don't be upset," she said quickly. "It's a very tasteful picture."
My mouth was open, but for a moment English words eluded me. "I work for UNCLE; you know I can't be photographed."
"Don't be ridiculous," she said, crossing her arms in the sleeves of her silk kimono. "UNCLE doesn't own you."
"I can't be photographed," I repeated, staring at the picture with a sinking feeling. I was sleeping in the photograph, and one of her pillows obscured part of my face, but anyone who had met me would be able to recognize me. I wondered how long ago she had taken the picture, if there were other copies, if-
"Illya," she interrupted my train of thought. "The camera loves you," she murmured, stepping close and gripping my biceps. "A shot like this one could make my career. When I showed-"
"You showed this to someone?"
"Another photographer - a professional. He wants me to bring you by his studio so that-"
I shook my head.
"This is your chance, Illya." She gave me a beseeching look. "Once the right people know who you are, you'll be able to leave UNCLE - you'll be free to do whatever you want."
The record had come to a stop and the room was quiet.
"I don't want to leave UNCLE," I said, startled by the truth in my own words. I handed her the photograph. "Please destroy this, and the negative too."
When I shut the door behind me, I didn't look back.
I suppose I should have felt more regret over the end of my relationship with Marion, but all I felt was relief. It helped that the following afternoon Napoleon showed up in Waverly's office, returned - at last - from his assignment in Eastern Europe. He sat next to where I was perched on the arm of the sofa and pressed his shoulder against my hip. I attempted to catch his eye but he seemed too intent on what Mr. Waverly was saying - something about next year's budget. After a moment I realized that Napoleon wasn't listening either. When Waverly turned his back, he grinned at me, reached up and ruffled my hair. I glared at him.
Napoleon pays no mind at all to inter-office gossip - easy for him as his position as Chief of Enforcement insulates him from it. With Marion out of the picture, it seemed wise for me to start noting just what sort of things were being said about us and who was saying them. It took a bit of effort, but eventually I got the racier rumours from one of the girls in Section 4, along with an offer to help put a stop to the story. After I escaped that awkward conversation, I spent an anxious afternoon in Waverly's office wondering if I had inadvertently shown my hand. Eventually common sense prevailed. Prurient stories about Russian espionage tactics would surface sporadically no matter what I did or whom I was partnered with. No one with any sense would credit them. Besides, if Napoleon was truly in the habit of handing out promotions in exchange for sexual favours, UNCLE would have run out of room at the top long ago.
In any case, I trusted Napoleon enough to know that he would not let a malicious rumour change his opinion of me.
No, it wouldn't change his opinion of me, but it might change how he behaved around me. Something told me he would not be amused, and I was certain that he would not touch me so frequently or so casually if he knew the sort of things people said about it.
I didn't want to think about how much I would miss that.
Flirting is second nature to Napoleon, I wasn't certain if he even realized just how much he flirts with me. The one thing I was certain of was that he didn't mean anything by it. No matter how much I might long for it to happen, Napoleon had never made a pass at me, and I know better than anyone that Napoleon Solo never hesitates over the things he wants.
"What's this?" I asked when Napoleon pushed a plane ticket across my desk.
"Your vacation," he explained. "Payroll gets upset if you don't take it before the end of the year. It messes up the budget."
I glanced down at the ticket: Rome. Even after two years with UNCLE the ease with which I could step onto a plane and go anywhere in the world still shocked me. I picked it up tentatively, as if exposing my eagerness was somehow walking into a trap.
"I've never been to Italy," I said.
"I know," he replied. "You said so when we hosted those visiting agents from Florence last year."
It had been a mere passing remark; I was touched that he remembered.
"There's a little restaurant on the west side that I think you'll like," he continued. "I thought we could spend a few days in the city and then borrow a car from UNCLE and head off to the coast."
I put the ticket down on my desk. 'We,' he had said; a little word that gave me a childish thrill every time I heard it. I loved being a part of his 'we.' I loved it when we were in the field, and when we were in the office. I loved it when we went out for dinner, and now, for the first time, I could love it while we shared our vacation.
I fiddled with the ring I wore on my left hand. I couldn't meet his eye. It would all be there on my face and I didn't want him to ever see me as yet another person with expectations.
In all the time we had known each together, I had never seen him drunk. After disembarking from the fishing boat that had carried us across the Adriatic, we raised a parting glass with Emil, and another with Clara and Stefan while I worked my lock picks on the manacle that chained Napoleon to her. When he had his hands free, he poured out another drink to mark the end of our aborted vacation, and another after that. It was after midnight when we finally staggered down a labyrinth of cobble streets in the vague direction of our hotel. His arm was around my shoulders; his body created a warm line where it pressed against my side.
"You're better off without her," I told him when we made it back to our room, but if he heard me, he chose not to reply.
I steered him to the edge of the bed and then dropped to my knees in front of him to unlace his shoes. His breathe seemed to catch as his hands clutched unsteadily at the top of my head, his fingers raking though my hair. His thumb traced a slow arc around the edge of my ear in an absentminded caress that my body was eager to interpret as foreplay.
It would have been so easy to lean forward and unzip his trousers, to take him in my mouth and give him a blowjob that would drive Clara Valder right out of his head; Clara and every single other person who had ever hurt or rejected him. I wanted to do it. I wanted to give him that - but it would have been a mistake. His attraction to me was something he had always turned away from, and I would be no kind of friend if I let him wake up in the morning with one more thing to regret.
Things are what they are I reminded myself as I put on my pyjamas and crawled into my own narrow bed. Still, when I turned on my side and saw Napoleon sleeping a mere arm's breadth away, it was hard not to think about what might have been.
Something changed on the beach that night. I was jealous, but it was not the sort of jealousy Napoleon suspected. I had long ago hardened myself to his habits -- but Susan Callaway? She wasn't anything like his customary flirtations. She was kind and brave and authentic. They went together like the homecoming king and queen; as American as apple pie and the fourth of July. They made a perfect picture, but it wasn't one with any place for me.
It wasn't personal, but it still hurt, a little, and I let it show far more than I should have.
In the car he put his hand on my knee, on my neck. Now that she was gone, on a plane back to Minneapolis, he couldn't keep his hands off me. This was only because he can't stand not having everyone under his spell. I let him touch me, in spite of myself.
Napoleon might not have believed it, but I understood why he chased women like Angelique. We all have our defence mechanisms. I have a wedding band and he has his womanizing. It was effective, too. Nobody else seemed to recognize just how few people he had whom he could really trust, or just how many times his trust had been betrayed.
I couldn't stay angry with him over it, but for once I couldn't seem to let it go either.
As we pulled out of the parking lot I teased him gently, stealing little glances at him out of the corner of my eye to gauge how he was taking it. His hands were still drifting all over the place, the way they did when he was nervous. I kept my eyes focused on the road and made my intonation as even as I could when I spoke.
"If you ever wish to discuss with me whomever it was who hurt you so badly, Napoleon, I hope you know that I will listen, and I will not judge, and I will carry anything you tell me to my grave."
"Ah," he said. "Ah. Thank you, Illya. I will remember that."
"If you need to," I replied lightly.
"I will," he said as his hands settled in his lap. "I will."
Tiffany, Candy, Stephanie, Crystal: It had been a busy month for us and I didn't really want to hear about who had missed him while we were gone.
The problem was I didn't want to not hear it either. The black and white television in the corner of our office was a good diversion, and a reminder of how silly and trivial romantic entanglements inevitably are. Besides, Americans revere their televisions; when I am sick of interested parties inquiring about Napoleon's love life, the flickering blue light is far more effective than a do-not-disturb sign on the door.
In spite of all the emphasis on secrecy and confidentiality, the amount of gossip that circulates around UNCLE New York still beats anything I have ever encountered elsewhere, including such places as a Moscow housing block, a Russian bathhouse, a Soviet submarine, and a geisha house.
I sighed and reached over to turn the television off.
"You okay?" Napoleon suddenly asked. There are days when it almost seems as though he can read my mind.
"More or less," I replied, tilting my face away as I shoved the waxed paper wrapper from my sandwich into the trash. It was not clear to me if his occasional clairvoyance was a result of his natural perceptiveness or carelessness on my part - too often I forget to guard my expression when I was around him.
"How about you?" I asked.
He shrugged. "Holiday moodiness."
I was uncertain how to interpret that.
"Look, Illya, why don't you take a couple of weeks off and go home for the New Year? It's slow. Thrush is all off making plum pudding or something. When was the last time you were home?"
I glanced at the calendar. "Nineteen sixty-four," I said. "And that was on business. But I did see my parents for about five hours, and my sisters--" I paused. "Two weeks wouldn't be too much?"
"Consider it a thank-you for coming to Terbuf with me."
"That was last year, too." I glanced at the calendar again, and he patted me on the shoulder, giving it a quick squeeze.
"Go. Illya, go."
I hesitated. "What will you do for Christmas?"
For two years running Napoleon has invited me to go with him to his aunt's home. The three of us drink eggnog together and she tells me embarrassing stories about things he did when he was young. It wasn't a big deal - I often had to remind myself that it wasn't anything significant for him. Stupid that it should mean so much to me. And yet, those were not the sort of stories any of his girlfriends ever got to hear.
Perhaps he had made other plans this year. My heart crumpled a bit at the thought. Perhaps this sudden offer of holiday vacation time was his graceful way of getting me out of the way so that he could be with someone else-
"I'll take Aunt Amy out to the Ritz dining room for the biggest turkey dinner you ever did see, and make sure she orders two desserts."
I paused, looked at the calendar, and then back at him, considering. "I'll leave on the 25th," I suggested.
"Travelling on Christmas?"
"It won't be crowded. Besides," I added neutrally, "it's not the holiday that's important to me."
He dropped me off at the airport early on Christmas day. The place was emptier than I had ever seen it. Outside, a scatter of snowflakes were descending from the sky like confetti in the crystal snow globes for sale in the gift shop. I tilted one carefully, watching the miniature Santa Claus disappear in a whirlwind of white. No Christmas wishes granted this year. I replaced it carefully on its shelf and left before the smiling sales girl in her red and white hat could come over and talk to me.
After three hours of delays, everyone was certain the flight would be cancelled. I dialled the telephone number for his aunt's home, but when my call was eventually picked up it was by the housekeeper. She informed me that Amy was out of town for the holidays. The words filled me with an uneasiness that was impossible to ignore. Napoleon would not have got that wrong.
I replaced the receiver and hesitated as the boarding call was announced for my flight. For the first time since coming to work for UNCLE, I was presented with a choice and it was mine alone. I would never have guessed that it would be such an easy decision.
I made my way to the exit and hailed a cab.
Napoleon dozed off briefly around five am, his head on my shoulder and his hairy leg thrown over my thighs. The room smelled faintly of sex and pine needles. My left arm had fallen asleep, pressed between his body and the back of the couch. Ordinarily, I wouldn't have been able to shift him without waking him, but his sleep just then was as deep and undisturbed as any I had ever seen; the sleep of a man who has laid down all his burdens.
The coloured lights on the Christmas tree were bright enough to see by. I let my gaze drift among the glass ornaments until my eye found the small brown spider that I had noticed earlier that evening. The strands of her web shimmered red, gold, green and blue - so beautiful and so fragile. I couldn't help feeling that it was a sign. Spiders on Christmas trees are said to be lucky in the Ukraine and with Napoleon asleep in my arms, for the first time I knew that I was a lucky man.
In our line of work it is foolish to believe in happy endings. The life we had built together could be swept away at any time, as easily as a spider web. I didn't need Napoleon to warn me of about that. I had my share of nightmares, but as I drifted off to sleep that night, I sensed that my dreams would be full of borscht, fat pirogies and all the kasha we could eat.