Amid the Trials

by Graculus

How fair is a garden amid the trials and passions of existence.
Benjamin Disraeli

There were few things he could remember about his childhood. What happened afterwards seemed to wipe them from his memory, as if the good things had never actually existed and all there had ever been was hunger and loneliness. When he was older, Illya knew that couldn't possibly be the case, but adult understanding didn't help erase the feeling of emptiness any consideration of his blighted childhood raised.

He knew his partner knew, though Napoleon had never spoken of it. It was only to be expected that he'd inspected his partner's file—what use was it to be CEA if you couldn't pull rank once in a while? He'd have an understanding at least, some kind of knowledge of what had happened. As if anyone could know what it was like who hadn't experienced it first hand.

The smell was enough to take him back to a happier time, one of the few memories Illya had of the time before it all fell apart. Turned earth, after the moleben where they had all filed out behind the priest as he blessed the earth and led them to their respective fields.

He remembered holding his father's hand, clasping fingers dark with the oil even the most persistent scrubbing never quite erased. Illya's mother had crossed herself once more, in the Orthodox fashion, before picking up the spade. In former years, he had been told, this was Babtsia's role; now her hands were too gnarled with arthritis the task had fallen to his mother, whose own hands would otherwise only grasp a pen.

"This is our land, Illya," she said, as the blade dug into the rich dark soil. "The gift of god, blessed by Saint George himself."

Even after months living here, there were things about the English that Illya Kuryakin simply could not understand. Some things, however, were universal—the shared Russian and English love of tea, for example. One nation might take it without milk and sweetened with jam, the other with far too much milk, but tea was tea the world over.

And there was something magical about drinking tea in his current location, even though the rational scientist Illya prided himself on being would have been hard-pressed to put it into words. He could see how Lewis Carroll had created Wonderland, if college teas were often held in such surroundings.

"And none of this would be here if not for Professor Willmer," a voice said, breaking into his thoughts. "It's lovely, isn't it?"

"It is... impressive," Illya said, carefully.

He wasn't sure what response the question required, or indeed who this woman was who had sunk down onto the blanket next to him, apparently without a thought for propriety. There was space, of course, as he'd sat at the edge of the group, conscious of his self-appointed role as an outsider even as he wished he could involve himself more with the easy banter of the rest of his study group. In some ways it was a surprise to Illya that he had even been invited.

"You should see it in spring," she continued. "Daffodils as far as the eye can see, like some homage to Wordsworth gone mad." She paused. "Of course, if you were drinking tea here then you'd probably freeze."

"Perhaps not," he said, then hesitated. He didn't like to talk about himself, since everyone seemed to know who he was anyway.

"You could be right, Mr. Kuryakin." She paused again. "But where are my manners?" She stood, brushing imaginary cake crumbs and grass from her skirt, then extended her hand politely. "Jennifer Bale, wife of your tutor."

"I have been expecting you for some time."

He didn't turn. He might be old now, but there was still little chance of anyone creeping up on him, even if his visitor had made no attempt to disguise his presence. Illya kept his attention on the shrub, eyeing it thoughtfully as he wielded the secateurs.

"Isn't that a little counter-productive?" Napoleon came to a halt just behind where Illya was at work. "Cutting off the new growth this time of year?"

"Some plants thrive on being treated harshly in the spring," Illya replied. He cut the last of the new growth, then turned to greet his guest properly. "You look awful, Napoleon. Sit down before you fall over and mess up my lawn."

"Your hospitality is overwhelming, as ever." He didn't argue, though, and the way he was leaning on the cane was proof enough Illya was right. They'd never been prone to admitting any form of weakness and there was no reason to start now. "I like what you've done with the place."

They'd reached a bench, conveniently situated to look out over the garden, across the stand of trees and to the hills beyond. The garden itself didn't have the look of Mrs Bale's garden, that manicured look which seemed to stretch endlessly back into the past, in which Illya had spent so many happy hours, but he didn't mind. This was his land, as surely as the land in the Ukraine had been his family's.

Illya busied himself with dusting off the legs of his trousers; he could pretend as well as Napoleon that there was nothing wrong with either of them.

"It was more work than I expected," Illya said. Even that was something, an admission he would have made to no other man still alive. An olive branch of sorts, offered to the only man he'd ever really trusted, here in the wild countryside he'd come to love. "At least at the beginning."

"You understand, of course," Napoleon said, after there had been silence between them for a while. "Why I had to stay."

"Of course," Illya said, almost automatically, though he knew there was no conviction in those words. He didn't need to turn his head to know what Napoleon's reaction would be, and in the end it didn't matter anyway. "But you are here now."

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