It occurred to Illya with startling clarity that he was dying.
He jerked ineffectually at his chains one last time, knowing it was pointless but feeling somehow obligated to go down fighting. As if anyone would ever know whether he fought or not, he thought wryly. He could wet his trousers, declare his everlasting devotion to a nonexistent deity, dissolve into a hysterical, shrieking lump—all in the secure knowledge that his humiliation would remain his secret for eternity.
The chains, of course, failed to break. Illya sighed. His arms and shoulders ached abominably, but his hands were numb. The metal cuffs that bound his wrists to the cold, damp wall were on a level with his head, and blood flow to his fingers had become no more than a fond memory. His ankles were likewise restrained, and the awkward spread-eagle position had resulted in a dull, throbbing pain in his hips and lower back. If Raven had felt compelled to chain him up and leave him to die, why couldn't he at least have chained him up horizontally?
But he knew the answer. He had to be confined this way, just as there had to be a solid brick wall not only at his back but also in front of his face, and in fact, on all sides. He was completely walled up. Raven's obsession with all things Gothic, but most especially with the writings of Edgar Allan Poe, would admit no deviation.
He didn't know how long he'd been here. His internal hunger clock had alarmed twice, alerting him to the fact that he had missed at least two meals, but when he started to notice that the air was getting thin he had become distracted from his growling stomach by the necessity to control his breathing and waste as little oxygen as possible. Since he hadn't had a chance to examine his area of confinement before being shoved into it, he couldn't gauge the amount of air it might contain. He knew only that the brick niche was very small and very dark. It made absolutely no difference whether he kept his eyes open or closed. He closed them and hung his head forward, trying to relieve the pain in the back of his neck.
Suffocation would not be a particularly pleasant way to die, Illya mused, but at least it would be much quicker than starvation. He had seen cases of the latter in the labor camps as a child, and the thought of dying of hunger was so appalling he could not bring himself to contemplate it. This way he would expire relatively quickly, judging by the way his lungs were already beginning to labor. He would grow lightheaded and unable to think clearly, and then he would gradually lose consciousness and never regain it. He would die without ever knowing whether Raven had been caught before he could sell his deadly designer virus, which he insisted on calling the Red Death, to THRUSH. He would die without ever seeing the outside world again.
He would die without ever knowing how it felt to make love to Napoleon Solo.
He shook his head sharply, long accustomed to banishing such thoughts as soon as they forced their way into his conscious mind. Then he sighed in resignation. What difference did it make now? He was dying. Napoleon was no doubt searching frantically for him at this very moment, but Napoleon didn't know where Raven's hideout was, or that there was a wine cellar beneath the house, or that the wine cellar harbored a tiny brick cell which was, Raven had smugly informed him, completely soundproof. "A scientific advance since the days of Montresor and Fortunato," his captor had laughed.
So there was no reason he shouldn't think about Napoleon now. No reason not to call up his partner's big brown eyes, temptingly curving mouth, silken voice that called him "I.K.," "my white knight," "boy" (how he hated that one!), or simply and wonderfully "tovarishch." No reason not to remember the times he had lain awake beside Napoleon in some cramped motel room with only one bed, watching the strong chest rise and fall in sleep, and grimly restraining himself from running his hands over it. Or the times he had been hurt and Napoleon had comforted him. Or the times he had watched Napoleon dancing with a woman, or kissing a woman, or whispering in a woman' s ear, and later found himself projecting those images on his mental movie screen while he stroked himself to yet another solitary climax.
He felt an inconvenient stirring of excitement even now, and almost laughed aloud. He would not have doubted Napoleon's capacity to sprout an erection under almost any circumstances, however dire, but it seemed more than a little ironic that Illya Kuryakin, Ice Prince, should become aroused while breathing his last in the underground cell that would soon be his tomb.
He took a deep breath to calm himself, and choked. Suddenly panicked, he squeezed his eyes shut and forced himself to breathe slowly, pulling air little by little into his straining lungs. His chest began to ache.
He licked his dry lips with a tongue that was almost as dry, and noticed that he was trembling from exhaustion and fear. But it was ridiculous to be afraid. He could do nothing to prevent his death, and he would black out, surely, before the pain became insupportable. He had led a decent life, if not a particularly happy one, and he had few real regrets about leaving it. Only Napoleon...
So the old saying was correct. The only things you regret are the things you didn't do.
Thinking was rapidly becoming impossible. He stopped trying and concentrated solely on the physical, struggling to fill his lungs with air, struggling not to notice the pounding in his temples and the harsh wheezing sound that filled his ears. The pain seemed to fade slightly as dizziness overtook him. He must be just at the point of losing consciousness, he realized distantly, and felt oddly serene. Soon, soon, he wouldn't have to fight it anymore...
Through the roaring in his ears came a crash. He blinked in the pitch-blackness, wondering dully what was going on.
There was another crash, and a sudden flare of light. Illya turned his head, averting his eyes from the brightness. Then he turned back and saw Napoleon standing in front of him, flanked by half a dozen men, all with sledgehammers in their hands. Bricks rained down on the floor at Illya's feet, and he jerked backward reflexively.
Napoleon dropped his hammer and clambered through the ragged opening in the wall. In moments Illya felt the chains drop away, and he sagged forward nervelessly. Napoleon caught him and held him.
Illya felt warm breath at his ear and heard a beloved voice say softly, "I came as soon as I could, tovarishch."
Illya closed his eyes and drew in the sweetest lungful of air he had ever breathed. "How did you get here? By ox-cart?"
The institution of room service, Illya decided a few hours later, was without doubt one of Western civilization's noblest achievements. He practically purred with contentment as he cleaned up the last of his chocolate pudding and set the tray on the nightstand between the twin beds. And tonight the pleasure of the meal hadn't even been marred by the familiar pain of having to open his wallet to part with the tip. Napoleon had taken care of that for him just before disappearing into the bathroom to shower, leaving him to eat alone.
The bathroom door opened, and Illya looked up to see his partner emerging, wrapped in a bathrobe. Napoleon looked tired but relaxed, and in the lamplight Illya could see a few tiny droplets of water glittering among the light dusting of hairs on his chest. He looked away deliberately. Napoleon stretched out on the other bed, and his clean soapy scent tickled Illya's nose.
Feeling the need to distract himself, Illya spoke. "You told me that Raven' s wife tipped you off to my location."
"Yes." Napoleon smiled reminiscently. "A lovely woman, Lenore Raven. Very unhappy in her marriage, though."
Illya shifted uncomfortably on the bed. "But you haven't told me how Raven died."
His partner gave him a dubious look. "You weren't in any shape to hear the details. All I wanted to do was get you to the hospital."
Illya made an impatient gesture. "I am quite all right now, and I didn't need to go to the hospital in the first place. I simply have a few bruises from the manacles, that's all. As soon as I could breathe again, I was fine."
Napoleon sighed. "Well, I'm no doctor, but I thought being buried alive might be considered serious."
"I was walled up, not—"
"Okay, okay. Anyway, it looks like Raven had a heart attack while we were in the cellar getting you out. Mark found him dead upstairs while I was taking you to the hospital. The vial with the Red Death in it was next to the body. Unopened, thank God."
Illya's brow wrinkled. "A heart attack?"
Napoleon laughed, the first time Illya had heard him do so since the rescue. "Mark thinks he heard the noise as we were breaking down the wall, and thought you were coming back from the dead to get him." He wiggled his eyebrows comically.
Illya stared at him. "You mean—"
"He did have quite a Poe fixation, you know."
Illya nodded thoughtfully. "He had obviously read the Tales a few times too often."
"Poor Roderick Usher."
Napoleon rose and went to his suitcase, which stood on the floor of the room 's small closet. He returned with a small square bottle.
"Have a drink," he said, resuming his place on the bed and handing the bottle across to Illya. "I'm afraid it's only vodka, though." He grinned. "I'm fresh out of Amontillado."
Illya smiled. "Vodka will be quite adequate. Thank you."
He took a long pull from the bottle and passed it back to Napoleon, who drank and then set the bottle on the nightstand. He fixed suddenly serious dark eyes on Illya.
"You nearly died, you know."
Illya shrugged. "It was hardly the first time, and I'm sure it won't be the last."
Napoleon was silent a moment. "Would you have any regrets? If you knew you were about to die?
Illya squirmed slightly under his partner's steady gaze. "Napoleon, must we talk about this?" He rubbed his left thumb across his fingers unconsciously. "It—makes me uncomfortable."
"Me too," said Napoleon quietly. "I never like to think about dying, and thinking about you dying is even worse."
Illya turned to look at him, then looked away in confusion. He had no idea what to say, so he said nothing.
"Just before Ellen was killed, we had a terrible fight." Napoleon paused. "Did I ever tell you that?"
Stunned, Illya shook his head slowly. Napoleon never talked about his dead wife. He couldn't remember Napoleon even mentioning his short, long-ago marriage more than once or twice in all the years of their partnership.
"We said some terrible things to each other. She said she didn't love me, that she didn't know why she'd married me in the first place. I said I wished she hadn't. Then I told her I was seeing another woman. I wasn't, but I wanted to hurt her. She got in the car and took off. I remember yelling at her that I wouldn't be there when she got back. I spent that night at a friend's, and that's where the police found me the next morning. They told me Ellen had taken a curve too fast, lost control of the car, and smashed into a tree. She died instantly."
Illya stared. Napoleon's eyes were fixed on a picture on the opposite wall, but he didn't look as if he was seeing it.
"I—" Illya began, and swallowed. "I'm very sorry, Napoleon."
Napoleon didn't seem to hear him. There was a long silence.
At last, Illya cleared his throat nervously. "I suppose we should go to bed. It's late."
Napoleon appeared to rouse himself with an effort. "Yes it is, isn't it?"
Illya had turned the covers of his bed down and was reaching to turn off the bedside lamp when he noticed that Napoleon hadn't moved. He was still sitting on the edge of the other bed, watching Illya intently.
"Aren't you going to—"
"I want to sleep with you," Napoleon said softly. He looked up at Illya with questioning eyes. "Do you mind?"
Illya licked his lips. "I—no, of course not." He looked doubtfully at the narrow bed. "But the beds aren't very big—"
"I know." Napoleon smiled a little. "That gives me a good excuse to hold onto you so you can't get away from me."
Illya's heart gave a painful thud. He turned and looked steadily into Napoleon's eyes.
"I have no desire to get away from you, Napoleon," he said.
Napoleon seemed to search his face for a long moment. Then he rose and placed his hands on Illya's shoulders. He murmured, "Don't die anytime soon, okay?" and lowered his mouth to Illya's.
For a frozen moment, Illya was too shocked to respond. Then his eyes slipped shut and his arms found their way around Napoleon's middle in a fierce embrace. He kissed his partner hungrily, and in an instant his mind was wiped clean of everything but a sensation of soaring, incredulous joy.
But long before he had had enough of the wild sweetness, Napoleon broke the kiss and buried his lips in the hollow between Illya's neck and shoulder. Illya's senses were spinning, and he felt Napoleon shudder.
"You see, you can't die," Napoleon whispered. "Not until I've told you all the things I need to tell you, and that might take an awfully long time."
Illya reached between them and fumbled impatiently with the belt of Napoleon 's robe. "You can tell me anything you wish to tell me, Napoleon, and I will listen. But right now there are things I would like you to show me instead. And things I would like to show you." He smiled crookedly as Napoleon drew back to look at him. "Death is not always unwelcome, you know. Poe found the thought of it quite appealing, in fact. And in the case of the "little death" I would have to agree with him. Wouldn't you?"
Napoleon's eyes shone.
"You make an excellent point, tovarishch," he said softly, and reached to turn off the light.