Napoleon slid out of bed as quietly as he could manage so that he wouldn't disturb Illya, sunk deep in slumber. They hadn't gotten home until almost four after Waverly's planning session. Illya had fallen asleep almost as soon as his head had hit the pillow, but Napoleon had lain awake, eyes wide in the darkness, listening to the empty night sounds, mind roiling, until he couldn't stand it anymore. He picked up his robe against the slight chill, closing the door all but the final inch so he wouldn't have to deal with the sound of the latch. He slid his arms into the robe, feeling warmer immediately as he tied it round him, and stuck his hands into the pockets, feeling the more protected cloth still lush and deep there.
The living room was dark and quiet, the shapes of the furniture familiar black splodges against deeper black, made more inpenetrable by the brilliant moonlight pouring in round the edges of the curtained French doors. He meandered over to the doors and drew back the curtain, wooden rings clacking slightly in their slow passage down the rod, letting in all the silver illumination from the full moon, staring out at the skyline rendered in flat planes of white and black. No greys anywhere, just that sharp, cutting light, like a spotlight that hid what it did not illuminate.
He felt... He wasn't sure what he felt. Lost? No, he knew where he was. Disoriented, maybe; restless, that was it. Restless. Maybe he should wake Illya. He'd done that before, after dangerous missions, when the singing relief of being alive had to be balanced by the equal danger of arousing his sleeping partner. In every sense of the word. But this hadn't been a dangerous mission...
Napoleon saw his fingers tighten on the curtain bunched in his hand, his skin numb to its texture and weight. Instead, his entire being seemed to swell with an upsurge of something terrible that he beat back with tremendous effort, concentrating on the black and white of the moonlight, tracing the lines and shadows of his familiar terrace over and over with his eyes, and it did no good. No good at all.
He kept seeing the old woman's face, the patient, patient face that had finally smiled with the joy of waiting ended, and he felt... He didn't want to think about how he felt, keeping himself stubbornly hollow, no, glass-like, trying to let the memory of that brilliant smile reflect off of him, bend around him like light. He closed his eyes, turning away from the window, and saw the mellow red of his eyelids dim into soft, cool grey, then black. By touch, he felt his way back to the sofa, settling himself in the middle, elbows on knees, and sank his head in his hands, trying to keep that blankness whole.
But the past night kept playing itself out against his eyelids, over and over, and finally he yielded to its black and white pictures, let himself sink into them as they warmed into color, into patches of light and dark out on the New York streets, as Illya and he walked down the leaf-covered pavement...
"You Americans are fixated on the oddest things," Illya said absently, looking up and down the windy street, watching leaves being blown through the cones of light thrown across their path from the streetlights as they crossed the street. "All Saints' Day was a church celebration—all good believers stayed inside the night before, since demons walked the darkness. And you—" he paused to let a snickering troop of small witches and cowboys swirl between them and disappear, scampering, down the street "—you encourage your children to walk abroad on the most dangerous night of the year."
"That sounds downright believing of you, Illya. You sure you're all right?" Napoleon teased. "Halloween was meant to be fun. Every little kid in my community looked forward to the day we were encouraged to misbehave, eat candy till we got sick. The big kids showed us the houses to hit up for the best treats. My mother made caramel apples every year for the trick-or-treaters, even after I left home. Isn't there any holiday like that in—when you were growing up?"
"No." Illya looked up at the brownstones they were passing by. "Forty-seven...forty-nine. We're on the wrong block. One more to go." He walked out of the glare of the streetlight and Napoleon nearly lost him in the intermediate dark, light disappearing into the black overcoat, only the faint gold reflection of his hair giving a clue to his location.
"Do you really think she'll be able to tell us anything? It sounds improbable." Illya's voice came softly out of the dark, then he passed through the fall of white light, walking lightly and quickly, as Napoleon was. There was something in the regularly spaced pools of light, the utter dark between them, that made him wary, and he gladly followed Illya down the rough sidewalk, eyes tracking the restless movement of the wind that scattered leaves around them.
"Sorry, Mister!" The little sheet-clad boy wove his way between them, half-loaded paper bag with handles hitting Napoleon heavily in the knees, and darted up the worn steps of the brownstone next to them, hand flying to the doorbell. "Trick or treat!" he yelled as the door opened. Napoleon turned to watch as he walked away, seeing a youngish blonde-haired woman laughingly offer a brimming bowl of treats and the small arm disappeared triumphantly to the elbow before dragging a huge handful out and sticking it into the paper bag.
He realized he'd become distracted when his backward saunter was interrupted by colliding with a body that turned out to be Illya's. His brief flash of alarm died away, and he smiled, nostalgia settling over him, watching the short legs jump two steps at a time down to the sidewalk and flash away to the next household, sheet flapping.
"Thrush probably won't recognize us anyway," Illya grumbled. "Too inept to be secret agents, must be impersonators."
"Oh, we're not that bad," said Napoleon easily, and stuck his hands back in his pockets, looking up and around. It was unseasonably warm for late October, and many windows housing their round orange lanterns stood open, catching the wind as it swirled leaves in small devils then dropped them in falls of amber and brown over the dark street and grey sidewalk.
"There it is, on the corner. Fifty-seven." Illya pointed with his chin to a small comfortable-looking house of reddish brick set a little back from the sidewalk. Each window had a small jack o'lantern, jagged grin wide, and sprays of braided autumn leaves and straw draped over the door and the railings.
They crossed the street on the light, surrounded by a flood of children from before and behind. The sidewalks were more crowded now, even some of the adults dressed up. Napoleon looked appreciatively at a slinky vampire woman. When he looked away, it was to meet his partner's amused glare, and he shrugged unrepentantly. "Nice," he commented.
"Everything in its time, Napoleon. And right now, it's time for work," Illya returned and reached around Napoleon to ring the doorbell.
The door flew open before he could touch the bell and a woman's body bent low through it.
"There you are, darling!... Oh!" Her exclamation upon finding herself nose to belt buckle with Napoleon was comical, and when she stood up, a blush was spreading over her face.
"I'm so sorry, Mr...?" White teeth, slightly crooked, bit into her lip, and Napoleon smiled as she glanced guiltily but merrily up at him, the blush staining her cheekbones all the way up to her ears.
"Solo, Napoleon Solo," he said cheerily, as if he bumped into damsels' noses all the time, and she grinned back at the twinkle in his eyes.
"I'm so sorry, Mr. Solo, I was expecting someone else." Nicely formed dark eyebrows rose toward the fringe of beads on her brow, and as she straightened, they saw it was part of a flapper outfit, both hat and dress lavishly beaded, falling like rain straight to the knee in the approved fashion without betraying a swell of hip.
"Trick or treat!" Little voices rose behind them and Napoleon and Illya moved to the side. With a swift dip into the deep basket just inside the stoop, the woman distributed goodies to the troop of goblins, witches and angels assailing her steps and watched them run back down onto the sidewalk, hooting and calling to each other.
"So are you here for treats, then?" She was laughing as she turned back to them.
"No, actually," Napoleon said, unwilling to break the mood of merriment, "we've come to see Mrs. Sandeman about Moira. Mr. Rosario sent us."
"Oh." Just the one word, and all the gaiety died out of her face, a blind stare replacing it for a second, until she visibly shook herself and wet her lips, forcing a smile and opening the door wider. "Then you should come in."
"Thank you." Napoleon stepped inside, followed by a small swirl of leaves drawn in by the draft of the opening door. He regretted bringing such a woebegone expression to this woman's face, even though she was already fighting to turn it back into a smile. "This is my partner, Mr. Illya Kuryakin."
"I'm pleased to meet you both," she said, extending her right hand to Napoleon. "No, don't—" she said to Illya even as he pushed the door shut. "Leave it ajar, please. It's silly to keep opening and shutting it while there are so many children trick or treating."
Even as she spoke, several childish voices could be heard coming up the path, and she moved back to the door.
"Trick or treat! Stinky feet! Give us something good to eat!" the confusion of little voices shouted and over the babble could be heard the tones of an older boy, telling them to hush.
Napoleon and Illya watched from the crowded foyer as she dropped something into each little pumpkin bag. "What about you, Ronald?" they heard her ask. "No treats."
"I'm the chaperone tonight." Napoleon smiled at the tone of mingled pride and regret in the older boy's voice. "I'm in charge, not trick-or-treating."
"Well, you still deserve something for your trouble. Why don't you have one of the Charleston Chews?"
"Thanks, Mrs. Sandeman. You look really beautiful in that costume, you know."
"Thank you." They heard her laugh a little, a happy, joyful laugh. "Thank you, Ronald!"
She turned sideways on the sill of the open door, put her hands behind her, and leaned back on the wooden frame, one leg bent up against it. Napoleon looked down for a moment, curious, and saw that she had the thin strappy shoes that he remembered from pictures of his grandmother, when she was dressed for dancing.
"So, gentlemen, let me finish the introductions. I am Mrs. Sandeman. And you have come to see me about Moira, my bundle of trouble."
"She is your daughter, is she not?" Illya broke in.
"She is indeed. Never still, always flitting, never walks if she can run, never runs if she can fly. That's why—" She stopped and bit her lip. "I'm expecting her any minute."
"We just want to talk to her," Napoleon said gently. "We received a rather round-about message that she has some information about someone we've been investigating."
"So you're from the police?" A little frown of puzzlement creased the skin between her eyes.
"No, we're from the U.N.C.L.E." Napoleon held out his card. She glanced at it without taking it.
"Sometimes we work with the police, but more often we work on things they cannot touch, either because it's too big or it's out of their jurisdiction. This time, our organization received a message from a trusted insider that we needed to talk to Mrs. Sandeman's Moira in order to land our big fish."
"You may imagine our surprise," Illya interrupted drily, "when that same insider told us that Moira was eleven. That seemed a trifle young to hold such key information."
Mrs. Sandeman looked at Illya for a moment, then laughed. "It's easy to see that neither of you has children. It's amazing what children can get into and what they can find out without your being aware of it."
"Be that as it may, it's very important that we talk to her as soon as possible. When will she be in?" Napoleon asked.
"I'm expecting her any minute. I really thought that you two were her, when you knocked. I opened the door all ready to give her a hug. That's how I came to be polishing your belt buckle with my nose!" Mrs. Sandeman laughed in the same joyous tone as before, excitement audible underneath. "I promise that you'll get a chance to talk to her as soon as she comes in. Meanwhile, sit, sit. Or you can help me give out the candy."
Two more batches of trick-or-treaters had come and gone when they heard a single pair of shoes pounding up the steps, and a girl's high voice shouted breathlessly, "Mommy!"
Mrs. Sandeman, eyes glowing, opened the door wide and dropped to her knees, arms open. "Moira!"
Napoleon estimated that the girl who flung herself into her mother's arms was tall for her age, with the long, helter-skelter limbs of a growing child. She was dressed in the same old-fashioned way as her mother, a straight long-sleeved dress in a muted plaid coming down just past her knee, longish hair held back by a velvet bow on a comb, although some of it was whipped wildly forward over her face. Bits of leaves peeked over the cloth belt of her dress, and one knee had a bandage on it.
Mrs. Sandeman got up from her hug, one hand still on her daughter's shoulder, and her face was shining with love and joy, which she obviously tried to damp down to acceptable levels as she performed the introductions.
"Moira, honey, this is Mr. Solo and Mr. Kuryakin from the U.N.C.L.E. Saul sent them to talk to you."
Napoleon saw the echo of the mother's mobile expression in the girl's wondering grimace as she looked up. "Uncle Saul sent them? Did he say it's time?"
Her mother looked lovingly at her, then at Napoleon, her wide mouth curling up into a rueful smile. "Who sent you, Mr. Solo?"
"Mr. Saul Rosario." Napoleon answered the mother, but looked at her daughter as he spoke. "He said to tell Moira that it was quittin' time."
"Is that all he said?" Moira waited, quick eyes flicking between Napoleon and Illya.
Illya answered this time. "He said that if you needed a second confirmation, that you needed to do it 'toot sweet'."
"Then he really did tell you that," Moira answered. "Nobody knows the second part except him and me."
She turned to her mother. "If Uncle Saul said toot sweet, I've got to do this right away, Mom."
"I know, honey," her mother said. "I suspected it might be like that." She turned her daughter round, brushing the leaves off her dress, pulling her hair back, resettling the bow, her hands gentle and loving in their touch. "What do you have to do?"
"I have to take them to, um, the place, you know, then I'll be back."
"I'll wait up for you. There." Her mother's hands patted her and turned her around again so she faced the two agents. "All tidy. For the moment," she added with a laugh and swooped down for a kiss. "See you in a bit."
"I'll be back soon," Moira flung as she clattered down the steps.
Illya turned over, drifting just under the threshhold of sleep, feeling a change in the air around him, unable to break through the lassitude to actually wake up. He knew that Napoleon was in the living room, as clearly as if he could see through the wall separating them, could feel the trouble surrounding him like a cloud. He knew he was on the brick steps of the house they had visited tonight. He knew he was dreaming, knew that he wasn't really watching the woman in the beaded dress, but he couldn't break through the barrier to come all the way back up to wakefulness. He turned over uneasily, struggling, only to sink under more deeply and see it again...
"Better catch up with her, gentlemen, she's fast," Mrs. Sandeman said. She stood on the steps as they followed her daughter down the street. Illya turned once and she was still there, watching them, her dress flashing in the inconstant moonlight as the wind toyed with the beads, her small smile lingering.
"So, is she a looker or what?" Napoleon said as they followed Moira along the sidewalk.
Illya just grunted in reply and quickened his pace. He hated Napoleon's teasing about this or that woman. Normally he took it in good part, but he heard the flirting note in Napoleon's voice that meant his friend thought Mrs. Sandeman might make a good subject to torment Illya with.
He crunched along the concrete, through the pools of light and shadow, stepping in a pile of dried leaves. He muttered sharply as his shoe sank into something smelly and squishy, scowling at the chorus of giggles that came from across the street.
"Trick! Trick! Trick, trick, trick...."
He caught a smile just being whisked off Napoleon's face, and he sent his partner the special glare he kept for occasions when Napoleon was making a little too much fun of him.
"Be careful, tovarisch. The wind will change and your face will stay that way," Napoleon warned him.
"Let it," was Illya's dry reply. "I will scare all evildoers into fits and they will sin no more."
"Just like the scarecrow in my garden," Napoleon murmured and stepped out more briskly. "Hey, she's leaving us behind."
Moira was standing far ahead of them, arms crossed, hair blown crossways by the capricious wind. "You are such slowpokes! Don't you want to see?"
"Of course we do," Illya said curtly. "Just keep in sight."
Moira sniffed at his tone. "Boy, for such big guys you sure move slow." She swung to the right as they caught up, skip-running in front of them down a smaller, shabbier street. The houses here were more run-down, huddled close together, with only a few decorations, occasional storefronts and warehouses hunching between them.
"Hey, Moira, come and play!" a boy's voice shouted from round the corner they had just left.
"Can't, Eddie," she shouted back. "I gotta show them the place, then I can come."
"Does everyone except us know this 'place'?" Illya grumbled.
His complaint was covered by Napoleon's sharp exclamation, "Your mother lets you stay out that late?" One dark eyebrow quirked, then both drew together in a frown.
Illya could read his thoughts with the ease of long companionship. His Napoleon, so strait-laced on occasion, was comparing the two images he now had of the laughing, pretty woman in the flapper dress against a mother who willingly let her child roam the late night streets of what was, when all was said and done, one of the more dangerous cities in the world. Even when said child was accompanied by what might be, when all was said and done, two of the more dangerous men in the world.
"Just tonight." The answer floated back from the mouth of the alley Moira had just entered, and both men broke into a trot to keep her in sight.
They rounded the corner and fell back to a walk. Moira was picking her way down the alley, around piles of debris and garbage, toward what might at one time have been a lean-to but now just looked like a tumble of broken boards washed gray by time and the elements, covered in trash.
"Ya gotta be careful," she said, voice reflecting her concentration. "There's nails and holes—"
"Ouch!" Napoleon's yelp proved the warning had come too late. Illya tsked with false commiseration at the ragged rip in the cuff, and his fingers inspected the cut beneath with efficiency.
"Iodine will fix that right up," he promised, and grinned at Napoleon's grimace. Tit for tat.
"Where now?" Illya asked as they stood before the wooden pile. A long chain wove through the boards; he picked it up and tugged, but it was fixed tight into the heap. The boards groaned a bit as the rust bit into them, but stayed put. He tried yanking out a board instead and found it was held fast by its neighbors.
"Here, let me try." Napoleon was reaching out to help when Moira said sharply, "That's not what you need to do! Here!"
They looked and saw that she was holding up the flap of a largish battered cardboard box beside the heap. "Come on!" she said, and disappeared inside.
Napoleon exchanged a look with Illya. They both knew it could still be a trap. All of this could still have been a setup. An elaborate, mysterious setup.
"Oh, well, nothing ventured, nothing gained," Napoleon said, shrugged, and bent double to disappear in his turn.
"Don't you mean, faint heart ne'er won fair lady?" Illya retorted, following.
The way was short. Four steps brought him into a blare of moonlight as the moon sailed out from behind her protecting clouds. He ran straight into Napoleon's back as Napoleon came to an abrupt stop.
They had emerged behind the mountain of wood into a small cleared area between the boards and the brick, barely big enough for two men to stand side by side. Right now, Napoleon was standing next to a silent Moira, one hand on her shoulder, and Illya saw his fingers dig in cruelly.
The child made no sound, just looked at Napoleon from under her lashes, waiting.
Napoleon went down on one knee, reaching out, touching the bundle of bones still partly covered in faded, nibbled rags. He ran his fingers down the wrist and ankle bones, scattered among the bits of knotted rope, chewed by rodent teeth, felt the cloth jammed between the skull's teeth, tied so tightly that wind, rain and tiny predators hadn't been able to loosen it. Some bones were held together by ligament dried to the consistency of concrete, others lay somewhat scattered from each other, but the whole was still in a recognizable order, curled in a ball, the tatters of the skirt still lying across the pelvis, the shirt, far more rotted, only visible as a sleeve and a few strips of cloth.
While Napoleon looked at the remains, Illya stepped across them and crouched down next to an old leather bag, coaxing the straps out of their buckles, bending the top open as it cracked. He reached in cautiously, mindful of traps and poisonous insects, and pulled out a modern plastic bag wrapped around something floppy.
The plastic bag yielded a set of notebooks. He flipped open the first, and both eyebrows rose as he took in the contents of the first page. He looked quickly through the second and third, then more slowly at the fourth, eyebrows pulling down into a frown. "Napoleon—" he started, and was interrupted by a choked sound.
Illya whipped round, dropping the notebooks back on the bookbag, his gun out, before he realized that the harsh sound was coming from Napoleon, staring at the wall near the skull.
Illya followed his glance, puzzled, until he realized that what he had taken to be shadow was a stain in the brick. The stain ran a foot in either direction in the brick at the foot of the wall, with random areas showing up above that, and he realized that he was seeing bloodstains, absorbed by the old porous brick when rain and other weather had scoured away any such leftovers from the ground long, long ago.
He raised his eyebrows in silent query: bloodstains were too common in their line of work for this to cause such a response.
Napoleon knelt and ran his fingers along the length of the stain. "Think of it. What must he have done to her to cause this much blood to pool and soak in?" His voice was low and even, and he had a moment of almost vicious satisfaction as he saw Illya's eyes flare with startled recognition before they shuttered, became calm and opaque to him.
Napoleon stood up again. His voice was very controlled, almost mellow, as he asked, "How long have you known about this?" But the eyes he dropped to Moira's were black with anger.
"Oh, a long time," she said, and shrugged, looking back at him without fear. Illya wondered at it. She should be afraid; children who discover awful things should be afraid. Something wasn't adding up. "But I couldn't say anything about it until Uncle Saul said I could."
"Your Uncle Saul has to hide killing children?" Napoleon's voice was awful now, but Moira simply looked at him with exasperation.
"No! How can you be so stupid? It was too dangerous for him to do anything about it. He had to wait till he had proof. And he did find it. You told me so."
"I told you so?" Napoleon's voice rose.
"Yes, you did! Both of you! You came and gave me the messages. Otherwise, I'd never have known it was safe! I promised Mom!" Moira's eyes were stormy now and she was shaking her head back and forth.
"Napoleon." Illya's call was soft but penetrating, enough to break through Napoleon's anger and distract him from Moira.
"You need to look at this. I think it is enough to put our killer away for a long time. He may even be taking a short walk and a long drop."
"Show me." Napoleon stood up, wrenching his attention away from the bones that told so pathetic a story, and Illya handed him the notebooks.
The bright moonlight made it very easy to read the contents, and Napoleon paged through the notebooks quickly, ending in a soundless whistle. "Our Thrush friends will not be happy. Books for their laundering operations in the Northeast—we'll be able to starve them for operating capital once these are shut down."
"Yes, but I meant this one." Illya handed Napoleon the last notebook he'd retrieved from the ground, and Napoleon flipped it open in the middle, expecting the same lists of names and figures. Instead, his eyes fell on handwritten pages, and he skimmed some of the entries.
Illya could tell when he hit the passage Illya had read. Napoleon's throat worked convulsively and one fist curled, then he closed the notebook and brushed it off slowly with his hand, turning it over and over, examining it, before placing it back on the stack that Illya held.
Napoleon leaned his head back against the sofa. God, he wished they'd never found the notebook. Or that Illya hadn't shared its contents with him. There had been pages and pages in that brisk, careful handwriting. The paragraphs he had read had been composed with artistry and literate skill, and their content still made his skin crawl as if rubbed with corrosive slime.
"So our local satrap head likes to do—things—to children. And then write about them." Napoleon took out his handkerchief and fastidiously wiped his hands clean of every piece of clinging dirt. "You're right. With this as evidence, a short walk and a long drop is the best he could hope for."
It took a minute for him to register the thin voice. "Yes, Moira?"
"Is it enough for him to go to jail?" She pushed back the velvet bow which had settled onto her forehead.
"Oh, yes," Napoleon said, and he heard Illya's echoed, "Oh, yes." The predatory note in his own voice was viscerally satisfying as he growled, "It should be enough to hang him."
"Do you need anything else?" The moon chose this instant to start veiling herself again, her fading light diminishing the harsh scene to soft grays and blacks.
"Moira!" Both agents tensed as the same boy's voice they'd heard before called from down the alley. "Moira! It's time to go. You said you'd come play."
"I'm nearly done. Wait a minute!" she called back, and looked at Napoleon and Illya. "Do you need anything else?"
"We will walk you home," Illya said. "It is not safe out this late."
"My friends will walk me home and my Mom will tuck me into bed." She pushed the velvet bow back again, so that it sat a little crazily on the crown of her head, surrounded by a ruff of fine strands.
"Moira!" The call was impatient now. "Moira! Your mom is gonna give us what for!"
"Coming!" She was visibly fretting to go, but remained with her eyes fixed on Napoleon. "Do you need anything else, mister?"
Napoleon flicked a glance at Illya, who shook his head. "No," Napoleon said. "We've seen enough."
"Moi-ra!" The boy's call was demanding.
"Then I'm done," she said, and turned and scrambled through the box. "Eddie! Wait up!"
"Wait!" Napoleon called, but she was already out of sight.
"Eddie!" they heard her call, "wait uuuup!"
Her running footsteps had barely died away when he heard Illya's soft murmur calling in the find and arranging for pickup of the remains and other evidence.
"I wish we had walked her home. Eleven is too young to be out in the middle of the night," Napoleon said.
"I would not worry, Napoleon. Eleven knows a good deal more than most adults think. And this eleven-year-old was in company with others, and managed to keep this secret for a long time. I think she can take care of herself."
Illya knelt to inspect the leather bag more closely and Napoleon crowded in next to him, curious. He pushed at the flap again and the brittle leather broke off in his fingers. Undeterred, Illya flipped the top back. "A McGuffey Reader, a mathematical text, a notebook. It looks like what a well-educated student would carry."
"If it was a close friend of hers, no wonder she would remember it." Napoleon's voice was low with horror. "Seeing a friend murdered in cold blood—that could traumatize any child. Even one that looked to have recovered as well as this one."
"Napoleon, children see horrible things all the time and recover." Illya's voice was patient in response. He had knelt down again and was looking at the older books in the bookbag.
"They shouldn't have to."
"That is your American naïveté speaking. Children through the ages have seen and done and suffered things that only adults should have to deal with. They have handled it."
"Or died," Napoleon muttered.
"Or died," Illya agreed equably, focused on the books he was examining.
Napoleon cast him a sharp glance, thinking he'd heard some nuance of sadness, and remembered the shuttered eyes of a moment ago. His mean satisfaction at having pierced his partner's shell fell away as he realized abruptly that he must reawakened some memory. And, given that he knew the results of all the missions they had been on together and separately, this must have been from much farther back, out of Illya's far-away past.
He knew something about that past, but only generally. Illya's open personnel records revealed only that Illya's parents had died before the war and that he had lived with relatives from then on. His friend never spoke of his parents or, indeed, of any childhood years before university. Even his references to university friends were very specific, usually in the context of some scientific discussion.
Illya must have seen something, maybe even experienced something, in the undocumented time. The turmoil in Russia during the years before and during the war had been huge. Napoleon's agile mind played with the possibilities. Maybe those "relatives" hadn't been relatives. The recognition in Illya's eyes had been intimate, haunted, before it had been smoothed over and masked again.
The image of a young Illya, suffering what this child had suffered, rocked him to his core. Napoleon squeezed his eyes shut, trying to banish the image.
Napoleon had never asked about specifics. He had respected Illya's reticence, and realized suddenly that he'd even been relieved by it. The less he knew about Illya's past, the more he could think about what they had as just a casual investigation of each other on several levels.
No, wait, that couldn't be right.
For a second, standing in the middle of the tiny open space, he thought about the usual patterns of casual investigations in the past. Their interest would peter out, they'd move along. Illya would move back out, might ask to change partners. Just moving along.
Napoleon thought about Illya moving along—about his partner never having been there in the first place—and felt the vertigo of an abyss opening around the paving square he stood on.
This couldn't have happened. He couldn't be in this deep without knowing—
"But the time is all wrong." Illya's voice broke in on his reflection, bringing him back to earth. "These are learning tools from earlier this century. I have seen some of your early schoolbooks at home and they are later than these. The notebooks are recent, although the journal is not. And it takes time for a body to decompose down to bone." Illya frowned at the smaller mystery, then rose hurriedly to his feet as the noise of approaching footsteps came down the alley, relaxing only when he saw a familiar face from the U.N.C.L.E. halls pop through the box.
Napoleon pasted a working smile on his face, ruthlessly shoved down his blinding enlightenment, and got on with the job.
Illya finally awoke completely, his subconscious prodding him awake as it assembled Napoleon's reactions into a more coherent picture. It was not just the bones or the bloodstain, not just the heinous act. Those had simply been the trigger for something else. Something that had started with that controlled anger at the satrap head who had performed his atrocious act. Something which had become a different battle by the end of the evening. Something which had left Napoleon too tense to stay in their bed after an exhausting night, had driven him away to wrestle it out alone.
Illya rolled silently out of bed. He wouldn't leave his partner to fight alone. Even if he were facing himself.
All through the subsequent packing up of the bundles and remains to be conveyed back to the U.N.C.L.E. HQ, Illya was aware of Napoleon's restlessness. Nothing specific enough to give him away to the collecting agents, but Illya saw a coiled tension in the controlled pacing as he supervised the collection, watched the capable hands clench occasionally into fists and then relax. Whenever his partner became this wired, a little action was needed to work it out.
As no evil nemesis obliged them, he was not surprised when Napoleon declined a lift back to HQ, and they watched the car depart in a swirl of wind that had grown noticeably cooler since the early evening.
"I think—" Napoleon said.
"You think we should go back to Moira's house and check that she arrived safely," Illya said calmly.
He blandly caught the irritated look Napoleon threw him as his sentence was completed for him, but also read the relaxation of those clenched fists.
"It is the only thing we can do, Napoleon," he said. "We should also say thank you. Without her, we would never have found this proof."
This time it was Napoleon's turn to let his hand fall to his companion's shoulder for an instant. "I love the way you think of things, tovarisch," Napoleon said in relief. "It's not far."
The wind swirled harder and they struck off at a brisk pace, content to keep in step with each other, companionably silent. The few blocks that separated them from the red brick house were quieter now, streets empty of the laughing packs of children. Many of the houses and apartments were lightless, with the jack o' lanterns grinning their dying, solitary, ghoulish grins in the darkened windows. The clouds scudded in the sky and disclosed the moon in a patch of clear blackness, her cold radiance sharpening the outlines of the streetlamps and fences, throwing pointed shadows across their path.
"Here we are—" Napoleon's voice cut off abruptly as he took the first step up the stone stairs. Illya's head swiveled like a hunting dog's at the note of surprise and he raised his head to see the same thing that held his partner speechless.
The trim red brick house stood tarnished under the yellow porch light. The scraggly vines over its facade covered broken bricks that had faded to a ghastly gray in the moonlight. Little piles of rubbish lay in the corners of the wooden porch. There was a hole in the screen door and the wooden door behind it hung slightly askew.
"This can't be the right house." Napoleon's voice was edged with suspicion. He eased himself back down the step and looked up at the number painted on the wood porch roof.
"It says fifty-seven," Illya murmured.
"But it's not the same house," Napoleon repeated stubbornly. He glanced to the sides. On the corner, yes, and next to a taller apartment building with dull brown sides. It had to be.
"It makes no sense," Illya said. He too was checking their surroundings, comparing what he saw now to the surroundings they'd noticed before.
"It doesn't make sense." Napoleon slipped his hand inside his jacket, and motioned to Illya to take the other side of the stairs, both of them climbing the steps silently. Illya hung behind, fading into the corner of the porch, as Napoleon rang the doorbell.
Illya tightened his grip on the handle of his Special as a dim light from inside silhouetted a shadow shuffling past the window. The door rattled as it was unlatched, then it was swung slowly open. An old woman stood in the doorway, wispy white hair straggling, sunken black eyes looking at them, dressed in a hat and dress forty years out-of-date, lavishly beaded, falling like rain straight to the knee.
Napoleon stood almost paralyzed by a horrible suspicion. At his back, he could feel the same terrible thought rising in Illya's mind, impossible though it was.
"Mrs. Sandeman?" he said through a dry mouth, and was astonished that it sounded as ordinary as it did.
The sunken eyes swung toward him. "I am Mrs. Sandeman."
Napoleon blinked once and heard his own voice, marveling at the charm that automatically imbued it. "Er... I was referring to the younger Mrs. Sandeman."
For a second he saw a vague amusement moving in the dark depths. "I am the only Mrs. Sandeman here. Please come in, Mr. Solo." She stood aside.
They moved into the same room they had stood in earlier that evening. Illya's gaze flicked from area to area, noting that the bright, cheerful yellow was now a dispirited ochre, the floorboards were warped and dusty, but there seemed to be no threat from the back area of the house. He walked quietly through the small rooms, glancing into each, seeing no one else, nothing out of place, and returned to the front room, where Napoleon was still facing the old woman.
She held herself proudly, head thrown back against the curvature of her spine, the beautiful beaded dress pulled awry on her bent body, staring back at Napoleon. Standing with both hands in the pockets of his coat, he was looking at her intently.
Illya saw the tremble of the woman's body and came forward in time to support her weight. He looked around and saw the rocking chair. Motioning to Napoleon with his chin, he supported her until Napoleon dragged the chair over, then let her sink into it.
"Thank you." Her voice was gravelly and Illya dropped to his knees beside her. Napoleon echoed his movement on her other side, his eyes fixed on her face, gaze flat and suspicious. Illya recognized this look. Napoleon was starting to add up some facts and come up with a most unpleasant conclusion.
He turned his attention back to Mrs. Sandeman, sliding his hand from her elbow to her hand, and realized as he encountered wet spots that her voice was gravelly because she was crying. He extended his hand to Napoleon who automatically slipped him his handkerchief, never removing that hard stare from her face.
Illya closed her fingers on the piece of linen. She raised it to her face, pressing it to her eyes, and her shoulders heaved, broken sounds coming through her hands.
Napoleon raised his hand, hesitated, then leaned forward and drew her toward his shoulder, letting her sob against him.
Gradually, she calmed, and pushed Napoleon away, raising her chin a little and looking at Illya. Illya stood up, realized she was craning to see him, and knelt down again. "Mrs. Sandeman, can you tell us what is happening? Where is Moira?"
"Moira's gone." The old woman lowered her hands to her lap, knotting them together around the balled up handkerchief.
"Where?" Napoleon's question was a whiplash.
Mrs. Sandeman ignored it, still looking at Illya.
"Where is she, Mrs. Sandeman?" Illya repeated more gently.
"When Moira turned eleven, she was a joy to behold." Mrs. Sandeman's voice broke, and her mouth crumpled again, but she controlled herself with an effort.
Napoleon took a breath in frustration at the non-response and Illya threw him a quick glance of admonishment. They both were familiar with this pattern: Mrs. Sandeman was going to tell them the whole story—she was past the time for simple questions and answers. Easier to let her tell them everything and sort it out later.
"She was bright, she ran all day, she was my joy and only daughter. Her father died when she was little; she's been my only chick, all my life." Mrs. Sandeman's voice grew hoarse and she stopped, visibly gathering herself.
"She'd been walking to school with her friends since she was eight. They'd go off in a big group; it didn't change much from year to year, people here didn't move around. Oh, there'd be some fights and some rivalries, but they protected each other from outsiders.
"Each day she'd be back by 3:30 and we'd sit and do her homework. She'd help me finish chores, then she'd say, 'May I?', and I'd say 'Yes', and she'd run outside and yell for Eddie or Mary or Ralph and they'd be running up and down the street, swirling like snowflakes. I'd go out on the stoop and call her to dinner at 6, and she'd come running back to me, laughing. That's the picture I keep of her, laughing like she'd just ridden the train or a fast horse, and calling, 'Mom, Mom!'" She stopped again. "She was what I had. I worked hard to keep us fed, clothed, happy, with a roof over our heads."
Illya heard a shifting beside him, the whisper of cloth on cloth. When he turned his head, Napoleon was still crouched beside him, but there was a tension in him that made Illya wonder if Napoleon somehow knew something he didn't. With an effort, he turned his attention back to the woman between them.
"So when she didn't come home from school one afternoon, I was crazy with worry by dinnertime. Everyone on the street went looking. All the kids, all the other parents. We didn't find her. We didn't find anything. No clues, not a hint, not a whisper. No one had seen anything. No one had seen her talking to a stranger, no one had noticed a car in the road, a hobo in the area. Nothing! We checked all the hospitals. We scoured the neighborhood. And no one found a thing, let alone my daughter."
Her voice trembled with the weight of that afternoon's grief and she stopped again.
"I didn't see her for two whole months. And there was nothing to tell me what had happened to her—I couldn't mourn her, I couldn't do anything, because I didn't know anything! My daughter was gone and I didn't know where she was. All I could do was wait and pray.
"Imagine my surprise—" Her voice caught and she cleared her throat. "—imagine my utter joy, to open the door to the trick or treaters and see my Moira standing there, with a gentleman behind her. She launched herself at me and I hung on—" Her voice roughened and caught again, tearing itself free of her throat with a sob. "I couldn't let go of her. She wasn't sad, she was laughing, laughing with happiness, and kissing me and hugging me, and I couldn't let go."
The old woman's lips folded in on themselves and she bit hard on them, tears standing in her eyes and spilling over as she blinked. "I couldn't let go."
She rocked herself back and forth on the chair. Illya came and knelt by her chair again, putting one arm around her and taking her hand in his. "Tell it in your own time. There is time tonight for all stories."
She clung to his hand and he knelt patiently while she recovered herself.
I couldn't let go. The phrase echoed in Napoleon's mind as he clasped her other hand. He saw Illya's quick glance, realized he was moving slowly, but couldn't help it. He felt a turbulent river rushing at some low level of his mind, hampering thought and motion.
"I sat down on the floor and took her in my lap and hugged her, and the trick or treaters outside just kept walking past our door. Why have you stayed away? Don't you know how worried I've been? I asked her, and her head went down, but she was looking up under her eyebrows at the man who came with her and I knew that something dreadful was going to happen.
"He came in all the way and sat down on the floor next to us. I'm Saul Rosario, he said, and there's something ya gotta know.' He talked like that, you know. All Bronx, but a gentleman all the same.
"Yer daughter's dead, he told me. Straight out, like that, and Moira shook in my lap, but didn't bring her head up.
She's not, I said. She can't be, she's here now.
"I'm tellin' ya, yer daughter's dead. She's only able to come back this night of the year, because it's this night of the year."
The old lady threw her head back, eyes blind, seeing something other than the two men watching and listening. "I hugged my Moira and said, It can't be true, you're here now, you've just been hiding, you've been lost, you've been—and she cut me off, my daughter raised her head and her face was wet and she said, I've been killed, Mom, I've been hurt and killed. But Saul said I can come back on Halloweens until he finds a way to find out who he is and make him pay for it. He said it might take a long time, but I can come back then because there's an opening for people who need to do things then. Mom, can I come back then and see you? Will you wait for me to come back and see you then?"
Napoleon saw the small fair-haired boy fall under a rain of blows, felt the river thunder within him, racing, rising out of its banks. He saw the old woman's hand clench on Illya's fingers till they were white, felt her tremble like a thin wire under his arm.
"I had my daughter again, Mr. Kuryakin, I had her warm and real in my lap, when I hadn't seen her in two months. And she was whole and happy. She was the light of my entire life, and I was holding her again. Of course I said it. I said, I will wait for you for all Halloweens to come, my darling."
Her voice was choking on tears now and Illya patted her arm gently, and motioned for Napoleon to bring her water, casting him another concerned glance as he stood. He'd dragged his professional composure back into place by the time he returned, could kneel and offer the glass with a coaxing smile.
She took the glass and drank it as if remembering the actions by rote, but the distraction calmed her, and she was able to go on in a fairly clear voice, "Saul was the go-between. I'd never believed in ghosts, but he said his family had always been able to see them. He belonged to some shady organization, I believe, but he said Moira had found him and told him all about me and her and he'd had to see if he could help. If he found a way, he'd come or send a message."
She fixed both of them with an iron gaze. "It's not praiseworthy, but I wanted her so badly. I'd have promised to go to hell for her if I could see her again. To be given the promise of being able to see her once a year as long as her killer was free—it was an awful choice, but I made it and I'm not going back on it. I've seen her once a year for 38 years now, and the next time I see her, we'll be together." Her gaze caught the startled look that flashed between them. "Oh, yes, that was the signal. In your message, Saul said, it's quittin' time. I'll die sometime in the next year, before Halloween, and I'll see my girl again."
Her eyes closed and opened again and both men drew breath at the incredible joy that shone in them, that softened her entire face, and they glimpsed again the young Mrs. Sandeman they had seen earlier this evening, with that same incredible joy radiating from her. She blinked and it was gone, like a light shaded, and all that remained was the slow patience of a banked fire, left burning against the return of day.
"I can promise you that the wait was not in vain." Illya's voice was soft, but steely. "We found enough—evidence—to convict her killer many times over."
"I'm glad he'll be caught. I'm sorry for the damage he did after, but he never killed another child; Saul knew that much. And I'll be seeing my Moira again soon." Mrs. Sandeman stood up with effort, accepting their steadying help, and she peered at Illya's fingers, clucking. "I'm sorry, Mr. Kuryakin, I must have bruised you quite a bit."
"It is nothing," he demurred.
"It will be something. Put ice on it when you get home." She led the way to the door and held it open, allowing the rich notes of a church bell somewhere near to filter in. "Twelve," she counted off. "And so it ends. Thank you for finding my daughter, gentlemen."
They stood on the little porch, where the wind now skirled nastily at their pants legs, and the moon seemed determined to hide. All the mildness of the early evening had vanished, together with the crowds on the sidewalks. They were on the steps of one of the last lighted houses on the block.
"Mrs. Sandeman," Napoleon broke his silence. He felt as if he were speaking through silt. She had waited, each year an agony, for a single night. The intensity of her waiting blurred into the painful images of the battered boy, the bundle of bones, the abyss, and he hoped he was hiding the turmoil of his thoughts. From the quick look of concern Illya gave him, he wasn't fooling his partner at all. "We understand. You loved your daughter. We're grateful for your help."
"I was clever in my youth, Mr. Solo," she returned. "And I am not blind now. You may wish that I had done this sooner. I would have waited for my girl forever if there were even the smallest chance I could see her again, and prayed that evil would continue so that I could. We're not supposed to pray for evil. I did nothing to stop it, and I will probably pay for that. But I have the memory of my child to sustain me and I will win through. I will see my child again and dwell with her forever.
"Goodnight, Mr. Solo. Goodnight, Mr. Kuryakin."
The door closed firmly in their faces, and the light on the porch clicked off moments later.
Napoleon and Illya looked at each other in the dark. Napoleon stuffed his hands deep into the pockets of his coat. Ghost stories were supposed to appeal to the senses. He was a sensible man.
Illya could see the trouble in Napoleon's face and then he saw it masked by that elegant, urbane persona Napoleon could wield at will. He wondered what Mrs. Sandeman's story had disturbed, and wondered more when Napoleon made no reference to it on the cold walk back to U.N.C.L.E. HQ to lay the facts before Waverly.
"Since when have you taken to chasing down ghost stories, gentlemen?" Mr. Waverly demanded. "Mr. Saul Rosario has been dead these three years."
"Actually, sir," Illya broke in smoothly, "the 'communication' was a letter from Mr. Rosario that turned up in some of his effects that had gone to an auction house. Our contact recognized it as being of some value to us."
"A letter, eh? Odd that it should have come to light now. Must have squirreled it away in some storage space. Well, I suppose I'll find out all about its value in your expense reports. Although I admit that it was a timely find and one that has solved a long-standing mystery and removed a thorn in our side at the same time. Congratulations do seem to be in order."
"Thank you, sir," Napoleon said. Illya merely ducked his head.
"Now that you've set things right in this instance, and since you're both still awake, perhaps you will oblige me by looking at these other folders for the next affair. I'll need your evaluations and a plan of action in an hour..."
As Napoleon picked up the folder that skimmed toward him on the conference table, he shot a look at Illya, wondering if his partner felt the same deeply-buried frisson that Napoleon could feel shivering in his depths, because Illya hadn't told Waverly the whole truth. They had met Saul Rosario. A week ago.
The letter they received from him was simply a note, delivered to Napoleon's address in the afternoon mail, asking for a meeting in some public spot. Napoleon had shown it to Illya as they were sitting on the couch after dinner, reading the papers.
"What do you think?"
"A friend of yours?" Illya hadn't really been interested, being more occupied in trying to work the crossword.
"Pay attention, my friend. Put that memory of yours to work on something useful. I know the name Rosario."
Illya had laid down his pen. "So do I. Connected with Thrush?"
"Maybe. I don't remember. Where have we heard it before?"
Neither of them could remember and they put it aside until they could look it up at HQ.
But later that night, sprawled panting over most of Napoleon, Illya said suddenly in a pleased tone, "Saul Rosario. He is in the accounting family that takes care of half the Thrush offices in the Northeast. Most of them are Jewish, that is why I did not remember the name."
"Your timing could be better, tovarisch." Napoleon moved lazily under Illya, hands still busy. "How you can think about business now, let alone talk... I must be slipping."
Illya grinned into the darkness. "You are not slipping. You are in just the right place. And we will be in the right place tomorrow now that we know who he is."
So the next day found them sitting on a bench in Central Park, while the wind whipped their coattails about under a bright, cool sun. "Do you think he will come?"
"He has no reason not to," Illya said. "He asked."
"Gen'lmen." The voice came from their left, and they both rose, checking at the sight of the skinny man in the vast overcoat.
"Mr. Rosario?" Napoleon's question was smooth, pro forma, and Mr. Rosario's head reflected a gleam of sunlight as he bent it in wry acknowledgement.
"Mr. Solo, Mr. Kuryakin."
"You wanted to see us to discuss something of mutual value. Shall we adjourn elsewhere? A cup of coffee?" Napoleon's solicitousness was not all feigned. Saul Rosario looked as though he had at one time been a sturdy specimen of humanity who had shrunk to this grey man wrapped in a huge thick woolen overcoat.
"No, thanks. I gotta pass on some information, and then our transaction will be over."
"Transaction?" Illya broke in. "What are we promising you in return for this information?"
"Action. I'm giving you information and you'll do somethin' for me. Nuttin' heroic, but there's a lot in it for you."
"What kind of action? For what kind of information?"
"I've gotta contact, she's got information about your organization's enemy. Good information—screw 'em up for a while."
"Why not just give us the information, Mr. Rosario?"
"It's hidden and it's not safe for me to show you where it is. Only Moira can show it to you."
"You need to look for Mrs. Sandeman's Moira two weeks from now and tell her it's quittin' time." Saul's grey features seemed to ease a bit as he said it. "The timing's important, so that she recognizes you come from me."
"That's not much of a password," Napoleon said. "What if she doesn't believe us?"
"Then whoever says it, the other one has to say, 'toot sweet'. That's something only she and I know."
"Mr. Rosario, can't we dispense with all this cloak and dagger stuff? If you know where it is, just tell us what it is and where we can find it." Napoleon recognized the irony of his request even as he formulated it, but he was exasperated.
"I can't," Saul Rosario said, and his face drew into a pinch of agony. "I promised to help her, and this is the only way I can do it safely, without damning us both forever. If you don't do this," he turned to Illya and Napoleon suddenly, coat flapping wildly in the breeze, "you're dooming a little girl to a terrible existence. I found the files and I left them there to help her, but she's the only one who can show you where they are."
"Little girl?" Illya asked.
"Thrush is sinking lower than ever." Illya shook his head. "How do we know we can trust you?"
"You don't. There's nothing but what I'm asking you to do. I worked for one of the families for a long time, steered clear of the shady side, but then I met Moira and got tangled up in trying to get proof for her. I found it, but I can't get it back now. Only Moira knows where it is, and she needs to take someone to it so that she can get it off her heart too."
Illya consulted Napoleon with a quick glance. Saul sounded like a man driven by sorrow and regret and compassion. They'd have to at least investigate the lead.
Napoleon nodded. "Where does Moira live, Mr. Rosario?"
The grey face broke into a wide, exhausted smile. "You'll do it."
"We'll do it."
"Thank God." There were tears gathered in the corners of his eyes. "Yer boss is never going to believe we talked, so a letter will be pushed under your door in an hour. All the details are in there."
Napoleon sighed. He didn't know what they were going to get out of this lunatic, but for a possible Thrush payoff, he'd play along. "Why under our door?"
"Because I'm walking away from it all. Now. And I'm not coming back. Ever."
"What about Moira?" Napoleon asked. "If you're doing this for her, why walk away?"
"She'll understand. Goodbye, gen'lemen." Mr. Rosario tipped his head to them and walked on. The sun gleamed off his head again and he disappeared under the trees.
The letter was there when they returned, a corner showing under the door, and it had held everything he'd told them, and Moira Sandeman's address. Two weeks later, they had walked down the leaf-covered pavement...
Napoleon broke himself out of the spiral of memory by sheer will, shuddering under the pressure of his enlightenment. He should have been horrified. It ran counter to everything he was doing in U.N.C.L.E.'s service, contradicted the underlying probity required below the illegal and illicit nature of many of their activities. And yet it stood out in neon in his mind.
Mrs. Sandeman had prayed for the delay of the capture of her daughter's murderer, done something completely immoral, for the sake of someone she loved better than her soul.
It galled worse than acid to realize he'd do the same for Illya. That below the light-hearted playfulness between them, the unthinking steadiness of partnership, he was so deeply entwined. That he hadn't even discerned it as it happened. The desolation of the abyss in the small space still seared him. Illya was more necessary to him than breathing. Than his soul.
And he didn't know if Illya felt the same. He was a spy and a good spy, but he didn't know this. Hell, he hadn't known about himself.
They all hid secrets.
Braced, resolutely unthinking, willfully blind, he listened instead to the tiny night noises imperceptible during the day. The wind still tapped at the glass with hands of old leaves, but as its scurry diminshed, the tick of the carriage clock grew, steady, implacable in its sentry-like precision. The slight creak of the sofa as he shifted, the random, muted noises of the city beyond the window—he opened himself to all of them, paying precise attention to each, until they filled his mind with non-thought. He finally opened his eyes again, staring into the moon's argent harshness, and let himself remember the young woman's eyes, the old woman's eyes... He shivered deep inside and ducked his head again, gazing unfocused at the bright, bright patch of white at his feet.
He kept seeing her eyes, kept seeing that joyful smile, and he was filled with desolation he could not dismiss, couldn't reason away. To love so wholly...
He heard the brush of a footstep near, the cautious approach muted by the carpet, then Illya was kneeling between his knees, square, capable hands running very gently up and down Napoleon's arms.
"What are you doing here, Napolya?" Illya's tone was low, deep, calm as the flow of light through the window, and Napoleon felt the shiver start again as the moonlight poured into his soul and turned it black and white. Out of the absence of grey, caught in the open, pinned by self-knowledge, he could do nothing but shiver harder as Illya's hands traveled slowly over his arms, barely touching, calming. As they passed over his wrists, Napoleon gripped Illya's hands, feeling them solid under his hands. No ghost here, no ghost his solid, pragmatic Illya.
He stared into the eyes he could not see, into the face he had memorized by sight and touch, that was invisible to him now, backlit against the searchlight of the moon, and he slowly, slowly slid his arms around Illya's shoulders, slowly strained him closer, pulling them together in a grip of iron. Only when they were so close that his chin dug into Illya's shoulder, that he could see each wayward wisp flying over the pyjama collar, that he could feel every breath they took together, was he able to say, "I would have waited for you."
"Aahhh." Beyond the quiet sigh, Illya said nothing, merely returning the ferocious embrace with equal strength.
In the pitiless black and white light, Napoleon saw the past and present together, and whispered, "This is where it started."
Illya's hands resumed in their slow travels, up his sleeves, across the knotted muscles of his back, brushing down his arms, a light, calming touch.
"You were sitting here and I told you you were real."
Napoleon remembered that night, remembered his reassurances to the quiet figure under his hands, reassurance that was being echoed back to him now by the man he had convinced with body and voice that he was real and did matter. The stark inner landscape showed Napoleon clearly that Illya mattered to him more than he had let himself realize. That, without his friend and partner in it, that inner landscape showed up as bleak barrenness.
Illya's hands kept on in their quiet path, his head bent, cheek resting on Napoleon's shoulder. Napoleon knew Illya was listening, his entire body was listening, attention enfolding Napoleon as securely as his arms.
"Tell me what we have is real," Napoleon said quietly. "We're spies. We don't say much that is true. But I need to know."
Illya's hands had slowed and now they stopped their quiet petting. He extended his arms around Napoleon in a light circle, listening, cheek still laid to shoulderbone. His warmth surrounded Napoleon, comforted him. Napoleon knew he could say anything and Illya would hear exactly what he would mean, no matter how badly or well he said it, and it gave him courage for his next words.
"I will never tell you anything less or more than the truth. It's not much as a dowry. But it's what I have to offer. I don't know what you have planned. I don't know when you'll have had enough. But I'm asking you to stay."
His arms came up around his partner's back, slowly, his chest aching from the sadness and yearning he was floundering in, and he wrapped his arms hard around Illya, squeezing him until he thought he could hear the tough sinews creak. The silence slipped over them both, wrapped them both in quiet. It stretched and his throat knotted with the certainty of rejection after such dreadful exposure.
"Ssshhhh..." Illya's voice was as calm as before, quiet sussuration slipping through the bright night, and his hands patted Napoleon's shoulders before starting to move again in the same path as before. "Ssshhh, it's all right. It's real."
Napoleon's throat clenched shut and he bowed his head until it rested on Illya's shoulder, and Illya simply altered the course of his petting, sliding one hand gently up the back of Napoleon's neck to rub gently at the nape.
"Sssshhh, millii moi, it's real." The whisper of the friction of his hands was a tiny repetitive song in the quiet light that was shifting away from them now, stealing almost imperceptibly away, no longer as brilliant, allowing some grey edges to show through what had previously been blackest shadow. But in Napoleon's mind, the landscape still shone with its brightest blaze at the center, where his partner stood firm and immovable.
"There is and always will be truth between us. I am and always will be here." There was utter certainty in Illya's response, in the measured tone.
Napoleon relaxed, limb by limb, under the influence of that calm certainty, and felt himself gathered more securely into Illya's grasp with every unknotted muscle until he was almost bonelessly limp in Illya's arms, emotionally naked to his partner, safe in his regard, feeling the desolation slip away like blackness down a drain, pulling his eyelids shut with the relief of it, and in the silence he heard Illya's whisper:
"I would wait for you."