Illya found the letter on his desk when they returned from Geneva. After he'd read it, he sat quietly for a moment, then put the letter back into the envelope, took the ring from his finger and put it in the envelope as well. He folded it once, then again and put it in the inside pocket of his jacket. He took the next paper from his in-basket and began to read.
Napoleon watched him from the doorway. For once, Illya was unaware of his presence.
Your aunt looked on, stricken, when you took the ring off your finger and placed it in Katie’s casket. But you were just locking a door that had already shut.
Aunt Amy has all the albums, the papers. You don't need them to remember Kate. And the young man next to her in the pictures, you don't need to see him at all. He doesn't exist any more.
Crazy in love at nineteen, married the day you turn twenty. Thirteen months later your mouth is filled with the dust kicked up by Chinese artillery shells, your eyes are tearing from the drifting smoke trails of phosporous; there’s blood on your uniform, but it’s the other man’s, the one you stumbled on when sweeping out the bunkers. You fought for your life... now you need a reason to live it. And you find one. You become Napoleon Solo, and perhaps that's who you were always meant to be.
"Sisters yes, but not twins." Illya squinted through his sunglasses at the two strawberry blondes on the bench across the street from their cafe.
"Twins," Napoleon insisted. "A wager. If I'm right we rent a boat the next two days, if you are, we'll go round the island by car."
Illya shrugged his agreement. Napoleon would find a way to chivvy him into that boat anyway.
An unexpected assigment coming up in Madrid, no time to go back to New York, close enough to Minorca to take advantage. The sun was shining, the bougainvillea bloomed across the wall of the taverna where they'd stopped for an afternoon beer.
They were twins. They were Danish and lively, and good humoured company for an evening of dinner and then dancing outdoors in the square by the harbor. Illya was the first to wander off towards the beach with his green-eyed girl, and Napoleon watched him go with narrowed eyes. When he himself came back to their hotel room a little after three in the morning, Napoleon was pleased to find Illya already there, asleep.
They walked down towards the end of the jetty, Napoleon keeping up a running commentary on the good and bad points of the rental boats moored there. He knew Illya was only half listening, the other half hypnotized by the sparkle of the sun on the water. The warmth felt good, both that of the sun, and Illya's company.
Together for seven years; partners, then friends... brothers? those words weren't enough anymore to describe what they'd become Napoleon thought, not for the first time. He'd started to look for another. He hadn't found it yet, maybe he should ask Illya if there was one in another language.
They were sunning themselves on the bow deck of the boat, backs against the curving cabin trunk, too warm to bother with more than a disjointed sentence here and there. Illya took a last swig from his bottle of beer, his arm grazed Napoleon's when he put the bottle down.
Napoleon touched his hand. "Your ring is gone," he said.
"Yes." Illya remained still, not drawing away, his eyes half closed.
"You never told me about it." Napoleon said.
"You never asked."
"I never had the nerve," Napoleon shrugged. "You don't exactly encourage questions about the past," he added in answer to Illya's look of disbelief.
You've been in Paris almost six month when the message arrives. Six months in which you've carefully and quietly let yourself be seduced by a new sense of freedom. The funeral is already over, and what kind of a funeral could it have been when the plane disintegrated over the Caspian Sea. Shock, sorrow... guilt. By then you'd realized she was not the life you want.
You think you loved her as much as you could love anyone; an older woman, all of twenty-seven to your twenty. Mila was warmth to your chill, and then too, maybe you wanted to have someone to come back to.
Emotion is hardly your currency, but you'll continue to wear the ring. You never knew what Mila wanted, but she has nothing now, while doors are opening in front of you. And there's no one else to remember her.
Illya let the silence lengthen. Army divers looking for god knows what, found the tail of the old Pulkova flight a few months ago. Among the remains that were identified, were those of Ludmila Alexandrovna Kuryakina. Thirteen years is a long time. He barely ever thought of her; the ring had been an offering that lost its meaning long ago.
He took a deep breath, and found he didn't mind telling Napoleon at all.
"I'm sorry," Napoleon said when he'd finished.
"She died and set me free. She had nothing and I... have what I wanted. It didn't seem fair to forget her."
"I took mine off when Katie died," Napoleon said. "I loved her so much I thought I had used up my allotment. Everything is black and white when you're young." He leaned his head back and closed his eyes. "I like where I am now."
"Me too," Illya said.
Napoleon had gone below to get two more bottles of beer. He handed one to Illya, then settled in again, next to him.
"I suppose we could motor down to Mahón and see if our lovely Danes still have the evening free," Napoleon said without moving.
Illya looked at Napoleon, his shirt open, skin burnished copper by the sun, face relaxed; the often intense heat banked into warmth. He thought about the soft curves of the charming Dane, and then he thought about holding someone he cared about, someone who knew what he was, someone he didn't have to leave in the morning. He tasted the salt on his lips and wondered what it would taste like on other lips, he felt the slight breeze in his hair and imagined it was hands running through it. He saw the slight bulge between Napoleon's legs and knew he wanted to feel it hardening under his hand.
"We could. Or we could stay here and explore the alternatives," Illya put down the bottle and placed a cool hand on Napoleon's bare thigh.
"Mmmm." Napoleon drew his fingers lightly down Illya's arm, then covered the hand with his own. "Alternatives are good," he said, a smile in his voice.
It was day, and then the sun slipped into the ocean and it was night. No blue hour of soft regrets, just dark sky and the Milky Way blossoming above them. This time, there were no second thoughts, everything had already changed long ago.