The cold hand squeezed his weakly, the once powerful grip now waning with the wasting of his body.
"Illya," he said softly, barely enough breath in his lungs to get the name out.
"I'm here, Polya. You know I'm right here beside you." Where I have been for so long, but where I wish to be forever, he thought.
Napoleon opened his eyes, turning to look at his lover, the face he cherished above all others gazing at him with such tenderness. Illya's eyes were bright with unshed tears, the dour Russian reluctant to let Napoleon see him cry, even now. There will be enough time to mourn him later, Illya thought. Now I want to spend every second I have loving him.
Napoleon pulled in a breath, his lungs spasming with the effort. He grunted against the pain, hating that Illya knew how much he hurt. He had refused to be hooked up to a morphine drip, preferring to be lucid as long as possible. Illya had understood and not pressed the issue.
They were lying on their massive bed, spooned together as they had been so many other nights before. But Napoleon knew this would be the last. Illya did, too, but would never allow Napoleon to see him admit it. He had to pretend for both of them that they would go on forever. How could they not, as much as they cherished each other? A love like theirs would not die in this bed tonight. How could it?
Illya rubbed Napoleon's arms with his warm hands, trying to give some of his life force away, enough to allow his Polya to remain a while in his embrace. Truthfully, he could not foresee his future without him and refused to allow that possible future to creep in on his present.
Illya thought back to not so long ago, when Napoleon had begun to have coughing spells at night and in the morning.
"Smoker's cough," he told Illya and had promptly quit the vile habit. Illya hadn't been worried then and was pleased that Napoleon had finally stopped smoking. But his partner hadn't gotten better: indeed, he had slowly gotten worse.
After a particularly taxing spell, Illya sat his lover down and made him promise to see the doctor. The worry in the blue eyes had been enough to make Napoleon assent, and Illya had made the appointment immediately. The health benefits from their U.N.C.L.E. retirement plan were more than adequate, and their mutual doctor was a trusted ally. He knew of their true relationship and had helped them through the physical ailments common to the ageing process.
When the diagnosis was made, neither man was able to comprehend the consequences, let alone deal with it. Second, third and even fourth opinions were obtained, and Illya became expert at reading the doctor's expressions long before the actual words were said.
Napoleon seemed to shrink within himself when he accepted the inevitable. Of all people, he had never expected to live to retirement, but the fact that both he and Illya had done so and had been able to share the last thirty-one years together blissfully was not lost on him. He knew he should be inordinately grateful for that fact, and he was.
His own death didn't frighten him so much. He'd had good life and good love. He had always been terrified that Illya would go first, but in truth, he had hoped that would be their ending. He could go on without Illya. A sadder, lonelier Solo, yes; but he could go on. Deep down, Napoleon was sure that his passing first would kill Illya.
The stoic Russian had fought his love for Napoleon at first, as he had fought every other good thing in his life. Better to disallow the good so as to head off the bad that always tagged along was his reasoning. It was a very Russian philosophy, and Napoleon had been mystified by it. But he had kept at it and worn the man down with his steadfast love and declarations of commitment.
When Illya had finally let the last wall be breached, he had embraced Napoleon fully and weaved him into his very life and very soul. The breaking of that bond would be too much for him to bear, Napoleon knew. The true reason Illya had pushed him away in the beginning would now become a somber reality. Everything and everyone Illya had ever cared for in his life had been taken from him. Getting through the formidable defenses he had erected had been tough going, but Napoleon had instinctively known it would be worth the effort.
In the end, Illya had resigned himself to the fact that Napoleon would not be denied and had allowed him into his lonely heart and his solitary life. He had never looked back. They quickly became almost inseparable, and instead of destroying their working partnership, it strengthened and defined it to a razor sharp edge. Their rumored telepathy coalesced into something almost surreal and saved their lives more than once.
It was the closeness of the bond that terrified Napoleon now. Illya depended on it, needed it almost as deeply as an addictive narcotic. When that was gone, he would go into a withdrawal that would be unendurable.
Napoleon had tried to broach the subject numerous times, but the prickly Russian would have none of it. He could not, would not speak of "after" with Napoleon, and would deflect the conversation to other subjects. Napoleon finally gave up and kept the fear inside.
The doctor's predictions of six months rapidly deteriorated into just over four. By then, Napoleon was wasted, his once powerful body ravaged by the disease inside him. Most days, he barely had the strength to get out of bed, but he made himself for Illya's sake. They read the paper, watched television and talked quietly about past assignments and former missions, laughing together about some of the more hair-brained schemes they had come up with. Old colleagues stopped by occasionally, ostensively to reminisce, but they knew it was to say goodbye. Illya would walk away and hide in their bedroom until the visitor would leave, unable to watch the sad procession of melancholy unfold.
April Dancer stopped by late one afternoon, clucking over the two men and kissing them warmly. She had been widowed herself for over eight years now and knew firsthand the heartache Illya had in store. She talked easily to Napoleon, the two friends slipping into their teasing and flirting mode with a familiarity that pleased them both. Illya paced in the other room, unwilling to watch this particular adieu.
Napoleon had inclined his head in Kuryakin's direction and asked April to talk to him. She knew the problem without having to ask. She knew the Russian as well as anyone could and was sure he was putting up a brave front, but a front nonetheless. She kissed Napoleon's gray head as she went by and saw him smile.
Taking a deep breath, she walked down the short hall to the bedroom the two men shared. She heard Illya pacing back and forth and steeled herself knowing this was for his own good. April hadn't gotten to be an enforcement agent for nothing. She knocked forcefully on the door, and said confidently, "Illya, I'm coming in. You decent?"
She'd felt resistance on the knob as Illya opened the door from the other side. He seemed surprised to see her. "What is it? Is it Napoleon?" he asked suddenly, worried that he needed him.
"No, love. I came to talk to you for a minute or two." Illya relaxed visibly, the worry melting from his body in a rush.
She sat on the bed and crossed her shapely legs. Still beautiful at her age, Illya wondered. April patted the bed next to her and Illya sat obediently. He looked at his hands folded on his lap and sighed.
April took one of his hands in hers and held it. "How are you really doing, Illyusha?" He almost started at hearing that endearment coming from anyone else but his Napoleon, but decided she had earned the right.
"I'm fine, April. Really. We're doing all right," he lied.
"Illya," she began, but was abruptly cut off.
"No, April. I know what you're going to say, and I don't want to hear it. Napoleon is doing fine. He's a little weak right now, but I just need to get him to eat more..."
This time April interrupted. "Illya, he's dying." The silence was deafening as Illya stared at her, anger and grief fighting for control on his face.
Anger won. "No!" he growled and sprang from the bed and stalked to the door. He never got that far. April reached for him, grasping his forearms and turning him to face her. Her face was gentle but her grip was unbreakable.
She searched his eyes and said very softly, "Yes, Illya. He is dying. He knows it, I know it, and you know it. You can't run from it any more than he can. It's time to face it, my love. Time to let go and just be there for him. He needs you to be strong now."
Illya wanted to run, to hide from the words he knew were true. Instead he looked into his friend's eyes and saw the love radiating from them. The last bit of resistance he had crumbled, and he sagged with the release of it. April drew him into her arms and felt the thin body tremble from the sobs that began deep in his chest. He cried quietly against her, tightening his arms around her surprisingly strong body. April rocked him soothingly in the circle of her embrace and allowed the emotions to pour out.
In the living room, Napoleon heard the sobs coming from his lover and a small smile lifted the corners of his mouth. Illya will be all right, now, he thought.
A few minutes later, Illya and April returned to the living room. Eyes bright with tears, April led Illya to Napoleon and placed him in his arms. She kissed Napoleon one last time, hugged him tightly and walked away.
They spent hours that way, touching and crying together, and Illya had finally allowed Napoleon to talk about what he would have to do when he was gone.
That had been yesterday. Today, Napoleon had not been able to get up. Illya brought tea to him and fed him small bites of crackers in their bed. The day had slowly passed and they had kept an easy quiet between them. Illya was calmer now, and Napoleon could rest easier knowing his lover was accepting the inevitable.
Now in their bed with the darkness and the quiet surrounding them, the two men felt the world disappear and their existence shrink down to a small point between them. Illya kissed Napoleon's shoulder, feeling the dry heat of his skin and the sharp outline of his shoulder blade beneath it. His body may have betrayed him, but he was still his Napoleon, still the man he had loved these many years. Illya trailed kisses and gentle caresses all over Napoleon, showing him with touch what he couldn't put into words at this tender moment.
Napoleon sighed and turned into the circle of his lover's arms. He was quiet, and his hand trembled when he cupped Illya's cheek in his palm. He drank in the sight of Illya, blond hair long turned silver and worry lines now deepened into grooves in the beloved face. He was still beautiful, had always been beautiful, and Napoleon loved him with a fierceness undimmed by time.
Illya leaned in close and kissed his beloved's lips. His heart was aching at the look on Napoleon's face, and he wanted to tell him so much, so very much. But he settled on silence, secure that Napoleon knew what was in his heart and understood that part of his soul would be leaving with him tonight.
He leaned into the hand on his cheek and said very softly, "Moya dushka."
"My soul," Napoleon echoed. They were the last words Illya ever heard him speak.
Minutes or perhaps hours later, Illya reached across Napoleon's body to the phone on the nightstand. Something was wrong with his eyes and he blindly pressed the first number on the speed dial.
A sleepy voice spoke from the other end. "Hello?"
He tried to speak and managed to get out one word. "April..."
The answer was immediate. "I'll be right there, Illya. I'm coming, love."
He dropped the phone on the floor and curled up into a ball on the side of the bed. It was then he noticed something white peeking out from under his pillow. He wiped his eyes enough to see that it was an envelope with his name on the outside written in Napoleon's hand. He sat up and pulled the paper into his shaking hands. Opening it, he turned on the dim light on the bedside table.
He read the single line written there and allowed the sheet of paper to fall from his cold fingers and flutter to the floor.
"...and, if God choose, I shall but love thee better after death." *
*Sonnet #43 by Elizabeth Barrett Browning