His lungs are burning as he runs as fast as he can down the dark, deserted street. Guided only by the light of the moon he zigs and zags out of the shadows in a vain attempt to evade the tireless pursuit. He feels it gaining on him, reaching for him. Losing his concentration for a brief moment, he slips on the icy pavement and flails for purchase knowing it’s already too late. The burning hand touches his shoulder and he’s too terrified to turn around. Panic grips him as he struggles for freedom but it’s no use. He couldn’t save them. It was the end of everything. He couldn’t save them.
Illya sat up panting and out of breath as if he’d actually been running for his life; the nightmare lingering a moment before it retreated to his subconscious mind.
It was just a dream. It wasn’t real. Repeating this mantra silently, he rubbed a hand over his sweaty face trying to get his breathing under control. He shakily grabbed a glass of water off the bedside table and gulped it, still feeling the burn in his throat. After a few minutes, he got out of bed and stumbled towards the bathroom. It was only a quarter to five in the morning, but he knew he wouldn’t get anymore sleep; he might as well go in to headquarters and get a jumpstart on the day.
Only lukewarm water came out of the pipes making Illya’s shower brief. He slipped coming out of the bathtub and stubbed his toe, then managed to nick himself three times while shaving. Not the most auspicious start to the day.
Grumbling as he left the bathroom, he went to his closet to find something to wear. He'd been back from his latest assignment for only 36 hours and hadn’t had a chance to do the laundry yet; the only clean thing left on his shelf was a sweater given to him by Mandy Stevens last Christmas. He unfolded it. The sweater itself was handsomely made and fit Illya quite well; the dark green that made up most of the pattern was one of his favorite colors.
“Do you like it?” Mandy was chewing on her thumbnail as she watched Illya open his present.
Illya looked at the intricate design and evenly produced stitches, ghosting his fingers over the soft material. “It’s exquisite,” he said honestly. Then he pulled it completely out of the wrapping and his eyes were drawn to the bottom of the sweater where the green changed into a snowy white background, featuring a row of reindeer that appeared to be engaged in activities not to be mentioned in polite company. “Oh dear…” he spoke before he realized it.
“It was rather dull being just one color so I thought I’d jazz it up with a decorative border.” Mandy came around to his side of the table to point out the details. “See? They’re prancing.”
Illya could hear his partner quietly snort in what sounded to him like an aborted laugh, covered up by a small cough. Out of the corner of his eye he noticed Napoleon attempting to school his features, confirming that he was not alone in his assessment of Mandy’s artistic attempt. Returning his attention to the young lady Illya said, “It’s lovely, Mandy. It really is. I’ll cherish it always. Thank you.”
Scowling at the offending garment, Illya turned it inside out to see if it would be less hideous worn that way. It was worse. Cursing the fact that it was too short to tuck into his black jeans, he grabbed one of his looser black suit jackets and buttoned all three buttons in an attempt to hide the horny herbivores before heading out to face the day.
Illya was pleased he made it to headquarters without further incident; he'd worried that his day would continue in the manner in which it had begun. After checking in through reception he paused at the elevator trying to decide if he should head to the office he shared with Napoleon or go down to the labs. Technically, he didn’t have any work in the labs but he wasn’t looking forward to his partner’s sardonic commentary on his attire and wanted to avoid it as long as possible. Glancing at his watch, he decided that this early in the day it was unlikely Napoleon would even be in the building, let alone in their office. Who knew better than he, exactly how many detours Napoleon routinely made en route from reception in order to check in with as many of his adoring female co-workers as possible.
As the door to their office slid open, Illya was surprised to find his partner already at his desk immersed in paperwork. Napoleon briefly looked up and smiled as Illya entered the room and settled at his own desk. His relief was short-lived as seconds later Napoleon’s head snapped back up and his gaze settled on him. Sighing, Illya closed his eyes waiting for Solo to begin his sartorial soliloquy. Illya could never understand his partner’s apparent obsession with his wardrobe. Almost from the beginning of their partnership, Napoleon would fondle the collar of his jacket or finger the neck of his turtleneck sweater. At first, Illya was annoyed with this tactile exploration of his attire but over the years, he came to accept it as one of his partner’s more endearing quirks.
“Is that the sweater Mandy gave you last Christmas?”
Picking up a random sheet of paper from his in-box Illya began to study it as if his life depended on it. After a moment he replied with a simple “yes”.
Without even looking in his partner’s direction, Illya knew that Napoleon’s hands were steepled in front of him, eyebrows arched with a small smile playing across his face. “Haven’t had time to do laundry, have you?”
“What makes you say that, Napoleon?”
“Well, you’ve never worn it before.”
“That’s hardly evidence that I lack clean clothing from which to choose.”
“It’s a Christmas sweater.”
“It’s not Christmas.”
Sighing, Illya turned to look at Napoleon. “Yes Napoleon, I am behind on my laundry. Yes, it’s an atrocious-looking garment but it was either this or a paint-stained t-shirt and I think between the two, Mr. Waverly would prefer this, regardless of his rather lax attitude regarding the dress code for agents in the field.”
“Okay.” With a shrug, Napoleon went back to work on whatever it was he was working on when Illya entered the office.
“That’s all you have to say on the matter?”
“Yep, that’s all. What else would you like me to say?”
“Nothing! I’m just used to you being more verbose when it comes to my wardrobe.”
“Ah. Well, I’m trying to be on my best behavior myself this week.”
“No reason. Gotta keep everyone on their toes. I’d hate it if I became predictable.”
With a shared smile, both men returned to their respective paperwork.
Napoleon surreptitiously watched his partner throughout the day. Something was niggling at him but he couldn’t quite put his finger on exactly what it was. It was obvious that Illya was exhausted, he could tell by the dark circles under his eyes. They hadn’t been in the field for several days; not since they returned from taking down the Thrush-run casino in the Caribbean.
Even though Illya had been cleared for fieldwork upon returning from the affair, he refused to tell Napoleon exactly what went on while he was in Partridge’s clutches. Napoleon had a pretty good idea though, and internally shuddered at the thought. Illya was clearly still suffering from the encounter.
Glancing at the clock, he saw it was close enough to quitting time that he thought he could talk Illya into leaving with him. At the very least he could make sure he got a good meal, and he was becoming uncomfortable at the thought of letting his partner out of his sight until he could figure out exactly what was going on with him. He made a show of stretching until Illya turned to look at him. “Say, how about bringing your laundry over to my place? We can eat dinner while it’s running instead of you spending the evening sitting in some Laundromat eating a sandwich that came out of a vending machine.”
Leaning back in his chair, Illya studied his partner for a moment before speaking. “It’s Friday, Napoleon. Surely you have a date.”
“Nope, I’m all yours. I’ll even cook.”
“Scouts honor. What do you say?”
“Very well,” Illya said as he stood. “We can swing by my apartment and pick up my laundry on the way. “
Laundry folded and dinner a pleasant memory, the two men were stretched out on Napoleon’s leather sofa watching flames dance in the fireplace and lost in thought when Napoleon chuckled softly.
“What?” Illya asked.
“I was just thinking about your sweater.” Illya grinned, before turning his gaze back to the hypnotic flames. “It reminded me of the most awful Christmas present I ever got. I was 13 and my Aunt Bessie gave me these two painting she’d done in her art class – circus clowns on black velvet.” Illya burst out laughing at the absurdity of giving someone like Napoleon such a gift, even as a teenager. Both men sat there reduced to sudden gusts of laughter for several minutes.
“Do you still have them?”
“You know, I think I do. God knows why. I think I was too embarrassed to even donate them to the Salvation Army just in case they could trace them back to me.” After a few minutes of comfortable silence Napoleon asked, “So, was that sweater the worst Christmas present you ever got?”
“Napoleon I have received so few presents in my life I cherish them all. Even the ones with unattractive wildlife knitted across the bottom. “
“Okay then, what was your favorite Christmas present?”
“Fishing for compliments?”
“Nope, just being nosey.”
“As well you know Christmas isn’t celebrated in the Soviet Union.” Both men were quiet for a few moments while Illya gathered his thoughts. “However, one New Year’s when I was living in an orphanage at the tail end of the war on rations that were barely enough to keep us alive, let alone healthy, a crate of oranges arrived. I’d never had one before, never even had seen one before, but nothing has ever tasted as delicious to me as that orange did. We each got one and we watched the cook demonstrate how to peel the rind and separate the portions inside. I sat at the table for a long time just feeling the texture of the fruit and inhaling its aroma. It made me dizzy it was so intoxicating. I was so careful when I peeled it, I stacked each peel neatly on the side. That first bite was incredible, Napoleon; the way the flavor burst in my mouth, so sweet and tangy.” Illya closed his eyes in pleasure at the memory. “I didn’t dare try to save any of it for later; one of the bigger children would have taken it away from me, but I tried to make that orange last as long as I could. I kept the rind with me for days afterward so I could touch it, smell it and remember. I honestly never thought I’d ever have another one.”
Napoleon watched his friend as he spoke. They so rarely opened up about their pasts; Napoleon knew what an honor this proud man had bestowed upon him by telling him this story. Looking at Illya as the firelight danced across his face, it was difficult for Napoleon to fathom that this was the same person he’d been partnered with a mere four years ago. When they’d first met, Illya was pale, so skinny you could count each of his ribs and his hair was almost brittle to the touch. Now, he’d filled out, his skin had a healthy glow and his hair was, to put it mildly, glorious. He’d let it grow out and it had become full and luxurious; he wasn’t simply a blond, his hair was a sumptuous combination of burnished yellows, golds, reds and browns. The firelight was doing sinful things to that skin and hair; turning Illya from an undeniably good-looking man into something eminently precious and exquisite.
Without conscious thought, when Illya finished his story Napoleon wrapped his arm around his friends shoulder, pulling him into his side and giving him a warm hug. Napoleon was reluctant to move, enjoying the feel of finally having Illya in his arms but was about to do so when he heard Illya sigh and felt him rest his head against him. The two men remained that way for a while; neither of them risking much movement, neither wanting to break the spell. Finally, Illya looked up at Napoleon and unsuccessfully attempting to stifle a yawn said softly, “I should head home. It’s very late”
Other than the minute movement of his head, Illya made no move to extricate himself from Napoleon’s embrace. Smiling down at his friend Napoleon whispered a single word. “Stay.”
The two gazed at one another for a long moment, words unnecessary between them. Illya put his hand on Napoleon’s neck guiding his friend as he tilted his own head back until their lips finally met in a soft kiss. Illya would have liked to have said he was surprised at just how supple Napoleon’s lips were, but after years of overhearing scores of giggling females discuss his partner in every corner of U.N.C.L.E., Illya had known that Napoleon’s lips would be warm, soft and oh so very skilled. In a subconsciously synchronized move, they turned towards one another, deepening the lengthening kiss.
It was Napoleon who pulled back first as he felt Illya’s exhausted body tremor minutely in his arms. Gazing into the face of his beloved friend, he could still plainly see the fatigue written across Illya’s features. “It’s late, tovarich. Why don’t we head to bed? To sleep.”
Illya looked almost affronted. “You mean, you don’t want to…”
“I do! God, Illya I do.” Knowing how loath Illya was to be coddled, Napoleon continued carefully. “I, uh, just haven’t been sleeping well since we got back from our last assignment and I was hoping that with you in my bed I might get a full night sleep.” Leaning forward and nipping on Illya’s tempting lush lower lip he added, “I don’t want to be exhausted our first time together. I want it to be special.”
Eying him skeptically, Illya frowned. “Do not use lines that you would use on one of your bottle blondes with me.”
“Illya, I’m not. Trust me, I’m not. Any of those women and I’d be at their place, not here; and I’d be gone before morning. It’s you that I want to wake up to. It’s you that I want to hold and be held by in the night. I don’t care for anyone as much as I care for you. I trust no one on this planet more than you.”
Illya’s featured softened as he listened to Napoleon. “I’m sorry. Perhaps you are right,” Illya said as he broke into a wide yawn. Secretly he hoped that maybe tonight, here with Napoleon he could keep the nightmares at bay. “I’m also very tired and a good night’s sleep sounds like nirvana right now.”
“You go ahead and get ready for bed. I’ll double-check the security systems and make sure everything is secure.”
Nodding his assent, Illya made his way to the master bedroom while Napoleon set about his nightly ritual.
By the time he arrived in the bedroom, Illya was curled up nearly asleep in the middle of the bed wearing his paint-splattered t-shirt and boxers. Napoleon stripped down before climbing into bed and pulling up the covers. Instinctively Illya turned towards him, scooting closer until his head was resting comfortably on Napoleon’s chest and his arm was thrown protectively around Napoleon’s trim waist. Napoleon smiled as he reached up and switched off the bedside lamp, enfolding his friend closer still as they both drifted off to sleep.
He was so tired. No matter where he tried to hide, it would discover him, sending him back out into that endless, freezing night. Peering around the wall of a bombed out building, he could feel his knees about to buckle. He had to go on. There was too much at stake. He’d been given this second chance to put everything to rights. He could save them all. If only… all of the streets had begun to look the same. He was lost in a maze made up of the remains of smoldering buildings. Looking down at his hands, he saw they were shaking. He’d been too long without food. Too long without rest. His body was failing. He suddenly knew he’d tarried too long. It was behind him, its foetid, pungent odor filled his nose. He could feel the heat of its body. Shivering with fear, he could feel its grip on his neck. Falling to his knees, he screamed.
Napoleon shot up when he heard the scream. Illya was curled up tightly in a ball, trying to protect himself from whatever nightmare had him under attack. “Illya! Illya! You have to wake up!” Without thinking, Napoleon followed his instincts and pulled his terrified friend close to him, holding him tight and rocking him while stroking his hair and trying to soothe him with gentle words.
He could feel Illya stiffen the moment he awoke. Still shaking, he tried to extricate himself from Napoleon’s arms but the battle fought in his sleep had taken what little reserves he had left. Napoleon held him until he felt Illya sigh and finally relax; when he loosened his hold and looked down, Illya curled into himself again. “So, you gonna tell me what that was all about?”
“Napoleon, I…” Illya turned his head away. “It’s nothing.”
“For God’s sake you were screaming! That isn’t nothing.”
“Napoleon, it’s rather difficult to explain.”
Illya sighed. He knew he had to talk about it; to get it off his chest if he wanted to get past it. He also knew Napoleon's tenacious ways, he'd wheedle the information out of him no matter how long it took. “It was Partridge and his damn machine.”
Napoleon had suspected as much, but tried to keep his voice neutral as he slid an arm around Illya in order to pull him close again. “What about it?”
“It was designed to find your deepest fear; the way you most feared to die. He didn’t get very deep into his work, but apparently far enough for something to be shaken loose in my subconscious.” Illya paused for a moment, picking at the blanket before he continued. “When I was a small child, my babushka told me the story of the Krampus. He was the dark counterpoint to Father Frost. Instead of bringing good children presents, he took bad children away from home and carried them to Hell in his basket.”
“Were you naughty?” Napoleon asked playfully, trying to lighten the mood a touch.
“I… was not naughty exactly. Precocious would be more precise.”
“I’m not surprised.” Running his hand soothingly through Illya’s hair Napoleon asked “So, explain to me how this relates to the Krampus.”
“Have you ever seen a drawing of the Krampus? He’s a man-goat with cloven hooves and horns and a serpent's tongue. A terrifying creature that haunted me waking and sleeping throughout my childhood. My babushka threatened me that the Krampus would come and take me away if I didn’t behave and I would run and hide until I heard my Mama calling for me. I… I was very young when the Nazi’s invaded. One night I was huddled with my family in a basement shelter when we were attacked. Everyone panicked. The power was cut off, the roof of the house was set on fire, there was screaming and everyone was trying to find a way out when the soldiers burst in. In my childlike logic, I assumed that they were sent by the Krampus. With their gas masks on, they were demonic-looking; even more so in the flickering firelight and shadows. I thought they were sent because of me; that my family was being hurt because I’d been bad and the Krampus wanted me. That all of this was entirely my fault but if I went with them, then my family would be saved. My Mama wouldn’t let me go even as I struggled to get out of her arms. She held me tighter and tighter… we fell to the ground together and still she refused to let go. It wasn’t until she breathed her last that her embrace finally loosened.” Illya had been crying as he spoke but with the last admission he broke into a sob. “I couldn’t save them. I couldn’t save any of them, Napoleon.”
“Oh Illya, you were only a child.” They lay together, silently clinging to one another, comforting one another until Illya finally fell into an exhausted sleep.
Illya awoke immediately knowing he was not in his own bed. Remembering the events of last night, he shivered. Before he could open his eyes, he felt warm arms surrounding him, turning him and cuddling him close to Napoleon’s bare chest. He smiled as Napoleon ran his fingers through his hair. He’d long known that Napoleon itched to play with his hair, but had managed to restrain himself from doing so. Now that he was free to touch, he didn’t hesitate. “How are you feeling this morning?”
Humming from the pleasure Napoleon was creating with his languid massage Illya could barely lift his head to speak. “I’m feeling quite refreshed, Napoleon. Thank you.”
Chuckling, Napoleon slid down until he was face to face with Illya. “Only ‘quite refreshed’?”
Illya rolled on top of Napoleon, straddling his hips and looking down at him with a mischievous smile. “Allow me to give you a demonstration of exactly how refreshed I am feeling.”***
The Krampus is “the dark counterpart of Saint Nicholas, the traditional European gift-bringer who visits on his holy day of December 6th, a few weeks earlier than his offshoot Mr. Claus. Like his American descendant, the bishop-garbed St. Nicholas rewards good kids with gifts and treats; unlike the archetypal Santa, however, St. Nicholas never punishes naughty children, parceling out this task to a ghastly helper from below. Known by many names across the continent, such as Knecht Ruprecht, Klaubauf, Pelzebock, Schmutzli and Krampus, this figure is unmistakably evil; he often appears as a traditional red devil with cloven hoof and goatish horns, although he can also be spotted as an old bearded wild-man or a huge hairy beast. He comes to punish the naughty children, and is often depicted carrying them in chains or in a basket to a fiery place below.” A set of images of the Krampus can be found here..
 Taken from Krampus.com – Home of the Holiday Devil