Child of Morning, Child of Night 9 - Return to Camp
Napoleon hadn't questioned Illya's reasons for wanting to make this final trip. When Illya had looked at him one day in early March, nearly a year to the day since George's death, and said that he wanted to go back to the camp he had attended as a child, Napoleon hadn't even raised an eyebrow. "This summer," Illya had added. "We always went in the summer."
Napoleon had nodded, made the arrangements, and booked them a room in the nearby town. "It won't be much," he had warned, and Illya had nodded because he remembered Spirit Lake very well and it had never been much. "It's the only motel in town," Napoleon had gone on, and Illya had nodded again. That didn't surprise him one bit. It had always been a quiet little town, with nothing of the honky-tonk about it, and he was glad to hear that evidently that hadn't changed.
"I'm sure we've stayed in worse," he'd answered and Napoleon had rolled his eyes and agreed that yes, they certainly had stayed in worse.
"It's a good thing we're going this year," he had said then. "The front desk clerk told me the camp is going to be developed into a luxury resort."
"No!" Illya had stared at him. "They're tearing it down?"
"Yes. They're planning to leave as much of the trees and waterfront as they can, but of course the cabins and other buildings will go." He had eyed Illya thoughtfully, as always these days monitoring his emotional state, worrying. "Do you mind?"
Illya had thought about it. "I don't know," he'd said finally. "I'll tell you after I've seen it."
Napoleon had chartered a helicopter to take them into the nearby airport, but Illya had rejected that plan.
"We always drove," he had said, and Napoleon had looked at him for a long moment.
"All right," he had answered finally, and canceled the helicopter.
So they drove - or, rather, Napoleon drove. Illya offered to take a turn midway through but Napoleon, sensing his reluctance to vary the routine by even the slightest thing, noticing how he just stared out the side window, sometimes in silence, sometimes commenting on changes or the lack of change, shook his head. He would drive. He would let Illya retreat into the passive role of a child being taken somewhere whether he wanted to go or not - and he hadn't wanted to go, at least not that first time. Napoleon had gathered that much from the conversations he'd overheard and been privy to over the years. So he drove, and Illya looked out the window, and they rode that way for several hours.
The surprising thing for Illya was how little had changed. The road still wound endlessly through woods and mountains. It was still two lane in most places, and the exits were little more than side streets, leading to a small tangle of buildings and one or two gas stations. Illya looked, and hung out the open window to breathe the air that still smelled the same, still smelled like pine. But when they passed a familiar exit with a familiar sign, indicating the way to the Catskills Game Farm, and he saw the `Closed' poster over it, sun faded and torn, he turned away. "We always stopped there," he said to Napoleon, and Napoleon, remembering the story about the reindeer Christmas ornament, reached over and patted Illya's knee.
That gesture, so reminiscent of George, struck Illya silent with pain - a pain he couldn't share because he wouldn't hurt Napoleon's feelings for the world. But that was what George had done whenever he had sensed distress coming from the small boy sitting beside him in the front seat, he had reached out with one hand - the other still steady on the wheel, as Napoleon's was right now - and patted his knee.
Tears blurred Illya's vision, but he refused to blink, refused to let the tears fall and after a while they went away. They always did. He wouldn't cry. He'd be damned if he'd cry. The little boy had cried oceans of tears after George's death, and that was fine, but not one of them showed in the adult's eyes and that was ... that was the way it should be. He knew Napoleon felt differently but sometimes even Napoleon was wrong, and this was one of those times.
But Napoleon's hand, instead of returning to the wheel as George's always had, because George took his driving very seriously, slid up a little, and George certainly had never done that, had never flexed his fingers suggestively, trying to part Illya's legs further. Illya tightened them instead, squeezing Napoleon's hand and Napoleon smiled, gave one final tickle, and withdrew. Illya smiled too, the ghosts dispelled for the moment. Soon they would be in the town of Spirit Lake, and would check into their motel. And maybe before they went to visit the camp they could follow up on the suggestion Napoleon had managed to make with only one hand, because Illya's thighs were still tingling from that touch and he wanted ... then Napoleon put on the turn signal, applied the brakes, and they were leaving the thruway.
The room wasn't much, as they had expected, but it was clean. There were two twin beds as requested - this wasn't Manhattan or any of the other cosmopolitan cities they sometimes visited, and there was no sense in attracting undue attention. Both carried briefcases into the lobby, thus wordlessly establishing their credentials as businessmen, perhaps scoping out a new storefront, or meeting with an attorney. Their room was on the second floor, overlooking the small main street. From it they could see the movie theater, a diner, a coffee shop, and a laundromat.
Illya looked down at the laundromat. In his later years at camp he had been old enough to come in to town on Wednesday afternoons to do laundry. Only senior campers had this privilege, and Illya well remembered when this town had seemed like a hive of worldly activity after the days at camp. Despite the fact that while at home he had frequently visited Manhattan, his expeditions there were tightly structured, and closely supervised. All he ever saw was Penn Station, UNCLE headquarters, where Waverly allowed him free run of the lower security areas, and the elegant restaurants and shops of 5th Avenue. He had ridden through Central Park in a horse drawn buggy, and had seen the shows at Radio City, but that was all, and he was never alone. Here, while the clothes spun, he could walk around the streets, read the movie theater posters, put coins in the jukebox at the diner. It had been his first taste of this sort of freedom, and he had relished it. He and the other boys would combine their laundry, stuffing the machines well over capacity so they would have leftover change to spend. The young Counselors in Training, who were in charge of the group, would often give the campers money to run errands for them, and tell them to keep the change. They were all starving for the juke box and hung over it, exclaiming over titles and marveling at new songs that had appeared and shot to the top of the chart over the summer. Illya's camp did not approve of modern music - `the devil's jungle music', the director called it - but the boys couldn't get enough of it.
"Do we have plans for tonight?" Napoleon slipped both arms around Illya's waist from behind, and Illya leaned his head back against that strong chest. How good Napoleon was. This was not his sort of vacation at all but he was doing it, and moreover doing it cheerfully, for him. All for him. He put both hands over Napoleon's, where they were clasped on his stomach, and squeezed. Napoleon squeezed back.
"Eating," Illya answered honestly. "I'm starving. And after that we could ... well, we could go to a movie. Or do laundry. I think that's about it." He laughed, and Napoleon laughed too.
"Actually laundry won't be a bad idea tomorrow night. It's going to be hot and we'll be sweaty. Do you think we can swim in this lake of yours?"
"I hope so."
"Naked?" Napoleon suggested, nuzzling at the back of his neck.
Swimming naked off the camp pier with his homosexual lover. Illya shook his head, amused at the shock he felt. "No. Absolutely not naked. We'll wear our trunks under our clothes. And I want to hike in the woods, too. And see the stables. And the cabins. And the meeting hall. And ... and where we ate. Everything. I know I won't be back, and even if I did come back, all that will be gone."
"We'll do whatever you want," Napoleon promised him. "But - Illya?"
"What do you expect to get out of this?" He asked it carefully, not wanting to press too hard, but he wondered. He knew what he hoped to see come of it - he hoped to see a dissolution of that eerie calm Illya maintained about George, he hoped to see those walls come down here, in this safe place, with him. Because otherwise - who knew when it would happen? Maybe not until his own death and what then? If Illya found himself alone, and overwhelmed by a double load of grief, what then? He feared for Illya's sanity in that event, and all his telling himself he was being overdramatic, that Illya was fine, clearly fine, just look at him - all of that was useless because he knew better, really. Illya wasn't fine. Illya was avoiding pain by refusing to acknowledge it, and that wasn't fine at all.
"I don't know." Illya stared out the window at the theater marquee, which was advertising a movie which had been popular at least four years ago. "But I know what I want to do tonight. I want to walk around the street. I want to eat in that diner and see if they still have those little jukeboxes on each table. And then I want to come back here and make love. I want you to make love to me so thoroughly that I'll fall asleep right afterwards and sleep all night long in your arms. On that narrow little bed, I suppose, because if we push them together they might know."
"How would they know? If we move them back in the morning?"
"It might mark the floor, or ... or something. I don't want any unpleasantness, or even the possibility of any. If you think it will be too crowded, you can -" he didn't finish the sentence because he didn't want Napoleon to sleep alone, he didn't want that at all. But Napoleon was shaking his head.
"It will be fine," he said, and he kissed the top of Illya's head. "It will be just fine."
And it was. The quiet streets were very pleasant for an evening walk, the diner indeed still had miniature jukeboxes on every table, and its country fried steak was just as good as Illya remembered. The night air was cool, and alive with the sounds of crickets and tree frogs. And the narrow bed was perfectly adequate for love, and afterwards for sleep, too. It was all just fine.
They breakfasted at the diner and the eggs, pancakes, home fries, and coffee had been superb. Even Napoleon, jaded traveler and gourmet cook that he was, was visibly impressed. He inhaled the fragrance of the coffee and gave the waitress a smile that curled Illya's toes, even second hand, and made the middle aged woman serving them blush, and make a shooing gesture with her napkin. Illya smiled too, watching it. Napoleon didn't change either. He wore his easy flirtatiousness like a cloak, a magic cloak disguising his relationship with Illya whenever he deemed such a disguise necessary. And clearly he deemed it necessary in this small town, where every store sold Christian trinkets, where the diner's emblem had a fish logo intertwined with its name, where gospel music came out of the supermarket's loudspeaker. They stopped in the supermarket for sunscreen after breakfast, and Napoleon raised an eyebrow at the music.
"A big resort might change all of this," he observed, and the woman in line behind them snorted.
"Not likely," she said firmly. "It's a Christian resort, mister, or it wouldn't have gotten its license passed let me tell you. No swinging singles in Spirit Lake, you can bet your bottom dollar on that."
"Where do the singles go then?" Illya asked, but he knew the answer even before it came.
"Church," she answered. "They go to church just like the rest of us. I met my husband in church - we sang in the choir together. Where are you two fellers from?"
"Manhattan," Illya answered.
"Manhattan? What brings you to this neck of the woods?"
"I went to camp here. I wanted to see it again."
"That camp did a lot of good. A lot of good. I remember them young-uns coming into town and giving out them tracts and singing hymns on the street corner. Did you do that?"
"Sometimes," Illya answered, and Napoleon snorted. Illya poked him. "Don't laugh at me!"
"Don't laugh at him," the woman scolded. "It was a nice thing they did. I always enjoyed hearing them." She looked Illya over, then she looked at Napoleon, and, before the suspicion could even arise, Napoleon smiled at her, eyes twinkling.
"I'm sure they enjoyed singing to you," he said with a little bow and she blushed, and pushed at his shoulder in the same `go on' gesture the waitress had used.
"Welcome back," she told Illya, and he thanked her, and they paid for their sunscreen and left the store.
"It's hard to believe a place like this still exists, so close to Manhattan," Napoleon said as they got in their car. "Church, young man." He shook his finger at Illya. "They meet in church. No swingers here."
"Shut up Napoleon," Illya said, but he was laughing. Napoleon laughed too, and they pulled out into the small main street.
The drive past the entrance, still marked by the same sign, the same rearing larger than life sized horse statue, had struck Illya silent. He'd pointed to it, and Napoleon had asked if it was unchanged, and he'd nodded. Now he looked over the grounds, and marveled. The cabins still stood with their backs against the woods, and the woods spread green and silent as far as the eye could see. The rustic wooden buildings where the campers had shopped, eaten, and worshipped hadn't changed. The narrow tracks worn in the dirt looped and criss-crossed one another across the big grassy area in the center. The volleyball net still stood, and sunlight glinted off the lake as it always had. Illya turned around and looked at the parking lot. Here he had stood watching George pull away, summer after summer, and here he had stood and watched him return.
"My first year here Mr. Waverly came with George to pick me up," he said to Napoleon as they walked towards the cabins. "He wanted to see me ride in the rodeo. I think he was as worried as George was - they both thought I might have a breakdown here. George spent the first night in a motel - probably the same motel we're in," he added in a startled voice. "Just in case I panicked and needed him to come get me."
"Well, he hadn't had you for all that long, had he? I mean, it hadn't been so long since he brought you back from Russia."
"A little over a year. He'd mentioned camp that first summer and I collapsed in hysterics - literally. I fell on the floor and cried and screamed because I thought it meant he was tired of taking care of me and wanted to get rid of me. It was like the world came to an end right then and there. But he sat down beside me and rocked me, and scolded me a little, and he didn't say another word about camp that summer."
Napoleon had moved closer during this recital so their shoulders brushed as they walked, and Illya smiled at him gratefully. "But he brought it up again the next year?" Napoleon asked.
"Yes. He brought these brochures home, with pictures of boys swimming and camping and riding horses - it was the horses that did it. They promised I'd have my own horse for my whole stay, and learn to groom it and ride it and all, and I couldn't resist that. Plus I loved to swim - I was already on the swim team at school - and there were pictures of boys canoeing in rapids and it really did look like fun. I just wished George could come too, and stay in the cabin with me. That would have made it perfect. But he couldn't. I had to choose between staying at home with him and being safe, and coming here into what felt like enormous danger." He looked around and laughed. "I know it doesn't look very hazardous, but at the time it seemed fraught with peril. I was afraid of the counselors - what if they were bad, like he was? What if something terrible happened and George was far away? That first night I almost ran away. I remembered the road, and I thought I'd just walk and walk and walk until I got home."
"You would have, too, wouldn't you."
"Yes. I had no doubt that I could."
"But you didn't."
"No. Before I could get out of bed Michael had a nightmare, and Jake got up."
"Who got up? And who's Michael?"
"Michael was another camper. He was new like me, and just as sad and sorry to be there. Jake was our counselor. I've told you about Jake, haven't I?"
"No." Illya told him so very little that Napoleon had hesitated to interrupt him, but if he was going to listen, and understand, and hopefully help, he needed to be sure he and Illya were on the same page. "But okay. Go on."
"Michael started crying for his mother, and Jake got up, and I was scared." He stopped walking, staring backwards into that night. "I was so scared because he woke Jake up, and I thought Jake would be mad, that Jake would punish him, do something terrible to him. And then Jake saw me, that I was awake, that I could see, and I was petrified. What would happen to me now? Jake wouldn't want me telling anybody what he was going to do to Michael, Jake would ... he would ..."
"I'm surprised at George for sending you," Napoleon said harshly. "Clearly you weren't ready. He should have kept you home longer until you weren't so afraid." Why push him, he thought angrily. Why push that scared little boy right out of the home he had just found?
"He wanted to keep me at home. It took me a long time to really see that, but he did. He hated thinking about me alone and scared, and he missed me too. But he really thought it was best for me to go, to learn that I could be safe away from him. And he must have been right, because when I was eighteen I went off to Cambridge without a backwards look or a second thought, and maybe I couldn't have done that if he hadn't pushed me so early." Then Illya turned and stared at Napoleon. "You didn't just criticize George. I know you didn't."
Napoleon groaned. "What, will the earth open under my feet if I say he might have made a mistake in judgment? If I say that at - what were you, eight?"
"At eight years old, barely a year away from unimaginable horror, you were too young and it was too soon to be wrenched away from the only security you'd ever known and thrown out on your own to - what? Toughen up? Be a man? And am I going to be struck with lightning now?" He was pleased, because this was the most natural conversation about George Piper they had had since his passing. It was the first conversation in which the very mention of George's name hadn't wiped all the animation from Illya's face, and stolen the light from his eyes.
"You're going to be struck with my fist," Illya said, but his lips were twitching. "George was absolutely right, he was always absolutely right. I would think you would know that by now. And it was good for me. I did toughen up. I was lonely and scared, but I survived. And George left me, but he came back. I needed to learn that."
"At twelve, maybe. Not at eight. So what happened that night that you wanted to run away and somebody woke Jake up and he saw you?"
"He got me hot chocolate," Illya said, and Napoleon laughed. Illya laughed too. "He got both of us hot chocolate and I went back to sleep. Jake was so good. I wonder what happened to him?"
"I'll find out," Napoleon promised, and got out his little notebook, wrote `Jake ...' and raised an eyebrow at Illya.
"Williams," Illya supplied. "He was eighteen that summer. It was his first year as a counselor - now what? What's that look for?"
"They should have given you somebody more experienced." What the hell were they thinking? A kid still in high school probably, with no training in exceptional children, and they hand him this fragile, tortured little being and say make a man of him. Napoleon scowled.
"Now you're badmouthing Jake? First George, now Jake?" Illya pushed him with both hands, hard, and Napoleon pushed back. They indulged in a little shove and tussle before Illya broke free and strode towards the cabins. Napoleon followed, straightening his shirt, brushing dust off of his pants, more pleased than ever. Illya turned back around. "For your information they couldn't have found anybody better than Jake. Jake was wonderful. I asked for him to be my counselor every year after that, and he was. He was nice to everybody, he never shouted, and he managed to herd us around from dawn till dusk without so much as breaking a sweat. So. There."
"Okay." Napoleon was smiling and Illya glared at him.
"And I know just what you're doing, Napoleon Solo, so don't look so pleased with yourself. You think you've stopped me brooding by pissing me off a little."
"You have stopped brooding and you're not really pissed off, you're just pretending. Was this your cabin?"
"Can we go inside?"
"When have you ever worried about permission?"
"I'm not really worried. I just don't want to be disrespectful. If it's some sort of sacred shrine ..."
"Oh, now you've done it." Illya pushed him again and this tussle ended with them both on the ground, scuffling and rolling about, first one then the other on top. Illya finished it by pinning Napoleon by both shoulders and sprawling across his legs.
"That's right. Don't forget it." Illya got up, gave Napoleon a hand and they stepped inside the little cabin.
Illya showed Napoleon his bunk. "I picked this one because I could look out and see the trees," he said, and Napoleon nodded. "And Jake slept here, right by the door. I used to sneak out at night, just to be alone and think about George and how much I missed him ... don't say it!" He punched Napoleon's arm. "I always thought Jake didn't know, but it turned out he did all along. Now I see how." He pressed lightly with his foot on one particular floorboard and it squeaked loudly. "Not to mention" he pushed open the screen door and it too gave out a loud screech. Illya laughed. "And I thought I was so subtle, a real spy in the making."
"You were so cute then," Napoleon said, and he tousled Illya's hair affectionately. "I've seen the pictures. You and that long ponytail."
"I know. And anytime anybody made fun of it I beat the tar out of them."
"You haven't changed a bit," Napoleon said, and they came out of the cabin into the bright sunshine again. Without a word Illya struck out through the woods, following a small trail that wound around the thorn bushes and then into the old growth forest, trees going up and up, leaves interlacing at the top, sunlight coming through in shafts of light that danced with insects and dust and pollen. Illya was setting a stiff pace, and Napoleon hurried to catch up.
"So Waverly came with George to get you the first time?" he asked, circling back easily to the beginning of their conversation. "He was really pretty involved, wasn't he?"
"He saw it as his duty," Illya said. "I don't mean that in the cold way it sounds, but he really hated what happened to me in Russia, and he was truly shocked at the role UNCLE itself played over there. He told me later that it took a lot to shock him, but that that had. And he felt that since I had been pulled right out of my life - even though it was a terrible life, and I was so glad to be away from it - pulled out of it without being consulted, that UNCLE had a responsibility to me. And it was his job as UNCLE's Section Chief to carry that responsibility through. It was good for me to see that, because it wasn't all emotionally charged, like it was with George. Mr. Waverly was just a good man. And good men protect children, and don't let them come to harm. That was a good thing for me to ... to internalize. You have to remember that I had no experience with goodness, except in books. So seeing Mr. Waverly - who liked me well enough, but that wasn't the point - step up to protect me and provide for me, pay for my education and my self defense classes because it was the right thing to do, showed me integrity and honesty and ... and goodness better than a thousand books could have done."
"Yes. I see that."
"So he came with George to be sure this had all worked out as it should have, and they took an UNCLE car, never thinking that I would see it, that I would see Mr. Waverly step out and think that George had died. George had died while I was away and Mr. Waverly had come to tell me. I almost died myself right then. I turned around to run into the woods, to run and run and run forever until I died too because without George the world was over, without George nobody would ever love me again, without George there was no safety anywhere because if George was dead ... if George ... if he -" and then a storm of tears broke.
George was dead. He was dead and gone and that long ago horror rose up to engulf him completely. George was dead. George was dead. He was dead. Dead, dead, dead. The safety net was gone, George was gone, and any and all love and protection were gone too. Illya wept and wept, his whole body shaking, his legs giving way and dropping him to the ground where he curled into a tight ball and cried.
Napoleon sat down beside him, rested a hand on his back and waited. Thank God, he thought. Thank God. Here it was. The catharsis he had always known was needed had come, and he firmly believed that it was a good thing, that Illya would be the better for it. But that didn't mean it wasn't painful; just because it was necessary didn't mean Illya wasn't in agony right now, so Napoleon rubbed his back and scooted a little closer so his knee pressed against Illya's side, and he waited.
When it finally ended Illya sat for a few minutes, then wiped his face on his sleeve and rose. "Happy now?" he snapped, and then he turned and walked away, following the trail as it led into the woods. It took Napoleon a little longer.
That had hurt. It had come at him so fast, and so unexpectedly, and so unfairly - this trip had been Illya's idea in the first place. It wasn't as if Napoleon had laid some sort of subtle trap. And of course he wasn't happy. What kind of a thing was that to say? After all the times he had held back, all the words he had swallowed - because Illya's anger flamed hot, and fierce, and like any fire it didn't concern itself overmuch about who it burned - after all that here he sat anyway, scorched to the bone. For a moment he almost went back to the cabins. He could wait for Illya there, let him stew ... no, of course not. He sighed, rose, and went after Illya.
He found him around the next bend in the trail. He was standing looking back, looking for Napoleon.
"I'm sorry," he said, and Napoleon closed the distance between them in three great strides, caught him into an embrace and held him close.
"It's all right," he said, and took out a handkerchief to complete the ineffective wiping up job Illya had begun with his sleeve. Illya took it from his hand and did it himself, and Napoleon acted as if that had been his intention, to hand it to Illya, of course, not do it for him as if he were ... as if he were a child. "Keep it," he said, and began walking again. Illya hurried to keep up.
"It's not all right. It was awful. I ... I was awful. I'm sorry."
"Well. You're welcome, I suppose. Am I supposed to be feeling better now? Because I don't. I don't feel better at all."
"No, not better necessarily. Not right away, anyway."
"Hmph." But Illya didn't shrug off Napoleon's arm when it came around his shoulders, and after some time they stepped into a large clearing.
"This is where we camped," Illya said, and Napoleon smiled, looking around. He pictured this glen full of boys, shouting and laughing and setting up tents.
"Did you cook out?"
"Oh yes; hot dogs and hamburgers and s'mores on a great big open fire. Then we had a missionary speak, and he told us about giant spiders and cannibals and showed us this snakeskin that was so big it took nine boys to hold it straight out."
"Heady stuff for - what. What was the age range?"
"Six to twelve. Yes it was. And then he preached on sin and salvation and if someone wanted to be born again he went up and threw a stick in the fire."
"Big on the whole born again thing in your church, weren't they. Even at camp?"
"Oh, no." Illya looked at him and laughed. "I am seeing George throw you all the way across this clearing for calling it a thing. It was everything. It meant you were going to heaven and not hell when you died, and when the Rapture came - if you were still alive - you got taken up into heaven and missed the Tribulation times." He shook a finger at Napoleon. "And you don't want to be around for the Tribulation times, Napoleon. Take my word on that."
"I will." It was the first time Illya had said George's name as part of a light hearted conversation. He had been laughing when he said it, and he was still smiling now, as he looked at Napoleon and shook his head. Napoleon smiled back.
"But you didn't go to the fire. Because that was one of the first things George did, right?"
"You remember that?"
"I remember everything you tell me about your early years. George took you to church, and talked to Pastor Smith, and you ... I'm not clear on the exact procedure. Surely there weren't sticks and fire involved. In the church, I mean."
"No. I said the Sinner's Prayer, and that was it."
"How much did you understand about what you were doing?"
"I understood that George wanted me to do it. And that I should do what George wanted no matter what it was, because he had saved me. I mean, he had just saved me. A week hadn't gone by."
"Ah. Front burner task indeed."
"Yes. And I understood that George was going to heaven when he died, and I wanted to be with him. And if the Rapture came I definitely didn't want to be left behind without George. I understood all of that perfectly well. As to the rest of it, I had no reason not to take George's word for everything. His credit was pretty good with me right about then."
Napoleon nodded. "I suppose it would be. So you didn't throw any sticks into the fire. What happened next?"
"Ghost stories," Illya answered absently. "S'mores. Then it was lights - by which I mean flashlights and lanterns - out. Taps."
"They actually played Taps?" Napoleon pictured it, the dark quiet glade, the solitary bugle notes. "George really went all out to give you a very typical middle class suburban upbringing, didn't he."
"A normal childhood," Illya said, and turned away from the clearing, struck out on another trail that led into the deepest part of the trees. "That was his fixation. A normal childhood was every child's right, and that bastard - my uncle," he explained to Napoleon who, having heard the reference several times from Piper, nodded. "That bastard wasn't going to take it away from me. So yes, I went to camp and ate s'mores, sang around the fire and played Little League, had a bicycle and even delivered newspapers on it."
"Where are we going now?"
"When I find it I'll let you know." It was a stiff climb and the trail was narrow. After several minutes Illya stopped and looked around, clearly perplexed.
"I thought this was it. I went out that night ..."
" Like you did every night."
"Yes. But I went into the woods. Far - but surely I wasn't on this trail. I was eight. And it was dark."
"If you were anything like you are now, then of course you would have been. Why not? Go a little further on before we turn around. What are we looking for?"
"A boulder. A very large boulder overhanging the path. It looked like a good place to sit and think, and my legs were tired."
"I would think so. What did you need to think about so badly that you came all the way out here in the dark to do it?"
"Oh, not much." Illya laughed a little. "Death, salvation, hell, forgiveness, God. You know."
"Is that it?"
"Is what ... oh! Thank you! I would have walked right by it!"
"Not as big as you remember?" The boulder was big, and would take a little scramble to surmount, but that Illya had been visualizing something the size of Australia's Ayer's Rock Napoleon knew by the look on his face. "I assume we're going up?"
Illya looked at him. "What a good sport you are, Napoleon," he said softly, and Napoleon kissed him. Illya kissed him back, and they kissed on that trail for a moment before separating and climbing the rock. They took opposite sides, and Illya was there first. Napoleon settled beside him, let his legs dangle over the edge with Illya's, and smiled at him. Illya smiled back. "This is nice," he said, and Napoleon nodded. It was nice.
"So what got you thinking about such weighty matters?"
"I didn't think I was really saved. I didn't think it had taken. So when I watched everybody else going up, I thought about George going to heaven and me going to hell, and then I thought that my uncle would be in hell when he died, surely, so I hadn't gotten away from him after all. It worried me."
"I can see that it would. What made you think you weren't saved? I mean, at that age."
"I still hated my uncle. I hated him so much, him and all his friends. It was like this big black mass inside me, churning around, how much I hated him, and how powerless I had always been to make him stop hurting me. I knew that if I had the power I would kill him. I'd strike him dead - I used to think that if I were like Superman I'd throw him into outer space so he'd freeze and explode and all the gory things they say happen to you in space. So how could I be saved? Murder was a sin. I would murder him if I could. Therefore ... ipso facto ... " he laughed again. "I had it all worked out."
"What a terrible load for you to be carrying. Didn't you talk to George about it?"
"I hadn't, because I didn't want to make him sad and worry about me."
"I see." Napoleon frowned. "A lot of harm is done in the name of religion," he said finally. "A lot of harm. So how long did you sit up here by yourself, all alone in the middle of the forest, in the dark and the cold? Come here." He put both arms around Illya and pulled him hard up against him. Illya put his head down on Napoleon's shoulder and sighed contentedly.
"You couldn't hug him, even though you felt so sorry for him, so you hugged me," he said contentedly. "Thank you."
"Uh ..." Napoleon didn't know what to say. He never knew what to say when Illya talked about his younger self in the third person. It seemed wrong to him, and it worried him, but it annoyed Illya when he said anything, so he didn't. "My pleasure."
But then he couldn't leave it like that. "Ah, Illya, you do know, don't you ... I mean, well ..."
"Yes." Illya sat up straight and his voice was tart. " We are one and the same. I understand you."
"Well, good." He exhaled. "That's good. Because otherwise ..." shut up, he thought. Just shut up. Illya didn't bring you all the way out here for this. So he shut up and after a few minutes Illya put his head back down. "So how long were you out here before you decided to go back? I'm surprised nobody missed you. I have to say -"
"Always on the edge of a criticism, aren't you," Illya interrupted and, surprised, Napoleon stopped talking. Was Illya just continuing to take umbrage at everything he did and said, or was there some truth to it? He hadn't agreed that Illya needed to go to sleep away camp so soon, he didn't like that it had evidently been made into some test of courage, or manhood, he didn't like the heavy religious undertones that permeated everything. He didn't see why such burdens had been placed on a vulnerable, wounded child. He didn't ... hmm.
"You're right," he said, and he heard the surprise in his voice. "I'm sorry. I just ... I'm sorry."
"Well. If you expect me to talk about things -"
"I expect nothing," Napoleon cut in hastily and Illya gave him an irritated look.
"If you want me to talk about things ..." he stopped and cocked an eye at Napoleon, visibly daring him to deny it and Napoleon, who certainly did want Illya to talk, nodded meekly. "Then you can't criticize George's parenting, or Jake's, um, counseling."
"I can't have an opinion?"
"You can have all the opinions you want but you can't voice them. All you can do is nod your head sympathetically, make the appropriate listening noises and comments, and hug him when I'm done. And don't say anything about that either! I'm tired of defending my reality against you." And here Illya folded his arms, and set his mouth in the way that said his mind was made up.
"I can't hug him," Napoleon said finally. "I'm your lover, Illya. How can I possibly be expected or even imagined to not relate to you as an adult? It's ... it's not right."
"So no one will ever hug him again?" Illya said, in a tone of such wounded disbelief that Napoleon opened his mouth to utter a reassurance - what it would be, he had no idea, but before he could say anything a ray of sun pierced the clouds over their heads and illuminated Illya where he sat on the boulder. He blinked, looked up into the sky and extended his arms, as if wanting to feel that warmth and embrace it. He smiled, looking more at peace than at any time since waking in Napoleon's arms that morning.
"George is hugging him right now," Napoleon said and stopped, thunderstruck. Where had that come from? Any remark less like him, less in line with whatever belief system he had developed, was hard to imagine. The words had just fallen out of his mouth. Illya was looking at him now, and the smile was positively luminous.
"Is he?" he asked Napoleon. "Is he really?"
Well, metaphorically, Napoleon said, or meant to say. In a manner of speaking, in the sense that George is alive as long as you remember him, and that little boy is part of you, so one could say ... and, "Yes," was what came out. "That's why you don't hear him anymore. He's with George, and he's happy."
"Oh." Illya said nothing more, and Napoleon didn't dare open his mouth in case Piper had some more pearls of wisdom to impart. It was an unsettling experience.
"Let's get back," he suggested finally. "It's a long hike back to the campgrounds and it will be dark soon."
"We can't go back until I tell you what I came here to tell you," Illya said. "If you wouldn't keep digressing ..."
"You have to be sitting on top of this rock to tell me what happened the night you sat on this rock."
"You can't reminisce back in our room over a glass of wine?"
"First of all, I don't know where you think you're getting a glass of wine. This is a dry county." Napoleon said something impolite and Illya went on. "Second of all, no, I can't. Third of all ..." he paused and Napoleon, enchanted by the mischief around the corners of his mouth, kissed him. Illya kissed him back willingly enough, and they sat there, legs dangling, and kissed for a few minutes. Then Napoleon drew back.
"Yes? Third of all?"
"Um - oh. You're digressing again."
Napoleon laughed. "So I am. All right. You hiked out here in the dead of night, all alone in the woods, in your pjs and slippers ..."
"I certainly did not. I wore my hiking shoes and socks."
"Smart Russian. You climbed this rock and thought about death and life and salvation and ...what? What happened next?"
"Jake showed up."
"Oh!" Napoleon was surprised. If the camp counselor had been awake, why wouldn't he have just called Illya back when he began to leave the clearing? Why would he follow him through the dark woods? Because he knew you needed space to think, and he hoped you'd talk to him. Napoleon felt a rise of respect for this unknown kid. "So he followed you?"
"Yes. At first I hid, when I heard him coming because I was afraid - I was always so afraid of getting in trouble and being punished in some horrible way. But he called me, and I could hear how afraid he was for me, so I came out. And he climbed up here and asked me what was going on and I thought he would be a good person to ask. You know, because first of all I assumed he would know, because he was my counselor and he knew everything about the Bible and religion and all, and second of all I knew he liked me but he wasn't liable to lie awake nights worrying about the state of my soul, like George would. And I was leaving in a couple of days so if he didn't like me anymore after I told him about it so what? I mean, I would have felt badly about it but I never had to see him again after this if I didn't want to."
"But you did. Want to, I mean. Didn't you say you asked for him every year?"
"Yes. Because he still liked me just fine, and he was able to really fix it. He said a lot of things about salvation and God that I won't go into with you right now although if you would say the Sinner's Prayer it would really ease my mind about the afterlife and the Rapture and all, Napoleon."
"What? You're trying to convert me now?"
"No, not really. But it would be one less thing to think about."
"Surely I need more inner motivation than that, just giving you one less thing to think about."
"Well, Jake said it was all right that I did it to be with George. So you could do it to be with me."
"Ah huh. If you really want me to, I will."
"Good. George's Bible has a copy. You can read it out loud when we get back. And then when the time comes you'll see him. That little boy." Illya frowned a little. "This is starting to make my head hurt."
"Mine too. Let's get back to Jake. So he told you you could be a born again Christian even without forgiving your enemies?"
"He said it was enough if I wanted to forgive them. And I said I didn't want to at all. And he said to ask God to make me want to. Like if He magically changed my heart, that would be all right with me. If I was willing to let Him work, that was enough."
"And that eased your mind?"
"Yes. Enormously. I never worried about it again. I wondered, you know, as I grew older, and I had questions and doubts and all, but I never worried on that visceral level again."
"So how did that work out for you? Wanting to want to forgive him, I mean. Are you there yet? And can we go now? My butt is freezing on this stone."
"Yes." Illya slid down the front of the boulder and Napoleon followed. They walked back towards the campgrounds. "Well, of course I never got there. You know that. When I did see him again forgiveness was hardly uppermost in my mind."
"No," Napoleon said, remembering. "I'm pretty sure it was murder after all."
"Yes it was." They said nothing more all the way back until they reached the camp proper again. "Still up for a swim?"
"I'd love a swim," Napoleon answered truthfully. He was hot, and sweaty, and had smacked several mosquitoes onto his skin, and was a little worried about ticks too. He looked at Illya, who looked equally hot and dirty. There were a few chunks of the boulder in his hair, and on his collar; fragments that had broken off when Napoleon had slid down behind him, no doubt. Napoleon brushed them out and held one on the palm of his hand. Quartz crystals caught the sun's rays and sent them back in a halo of color. Napoleon slipped it into his pocket and followed Illya to the little pebbly beach.
There was no fooling around - no ducking or tickling, no wrestling in the water. They side stroked, facing one another, smiling and talking a little - nothing serious, just comments on the clarity of the water, the surprising depth, and the cold of those depths, how good it felt on sweaty skin and so forth. After a while Illya floated on his back and Napoleon treaded water beside him and watched him. When the sun dipped below the mountain range, sending cool shadows over everything, Illya swam back to shore and Napoleon followed.
The day had been good, Napoleon reflected as they sat over dinner. They were back at the diner because it was all there was, but the food was excellent, the service was friendly, and the prices were low. No wine, but a fine pot of coffee - and Illya.
He seemed more peaceful. There was no more of that hostility that had seemed to lie just under the surface. He smiled at Napoleon, and acquiesced to everything Napoleon suggested - the shared appetizer plate, the switch to decaf with dessert, and when Napoleon mentioned that the movie currently playing was starting in half an hour he agreed to that too. They sat cozily side by side in the dark, shared a tub of popcorn and sipped their sodas while on the screen police cars careened down the highway, gunfire was exchanged, and the leading man and the leading lady exchanged passionate close mouthed kisses but went no further. "It's as if we're back in time," Napoleon whispered in Illya's ear. "Even the movies are rated G."
"I'm sure this theater won't play anything over PG," Illya returned, and took Napoleon's drink. Napoleon smiled, and settled back in his seat.
Later, in their room, they lay very close together on one bed, twined around one another, moving just enough, just enough to ... without ... the bed squeaked and rocked alarmingly so they tried to move less, and then they forgot and moved a little more and at the end they had to seal their mouths on one another's to be sure no sound would escape. Despite - or because of - all these difficulties the final explosion was spectacular, and the effort to keep quiet a truly heroic one. Finally they lay panting and gasping and laughing in muffled little snorts that they tried to smother in pillows, under blankets, in the other's flesh.
"What on earth will we do about these linens?" Illya whispered finally. "Housekeeping will know just what we were doing."
"It could have been me, on my own. Having a nocturnal emission. Surely hotel maids see that all the time."
"I don't know, Napoleon. It's pretty ... we both ... I mean, I don't even want to sleep here."
"No need. Let us relocate." They got up, took turns using the bathroom and snuggled together in the other bed. Napoleon continued. " And tomorrow morning oops, what an unfortunate accident I will have. I will spill coffee all over that bed. And what do you care anyway? You didn't care what those maids in Paris thought."
"I picture the maids here as being a little more easily offended than Parisian femmes de chambre. But coffee should cover it. Napoleon?"
"Thank you. You've been so good about this whole thing."
"That's all right. I've enjoyed most of it. And you? Are you satisfied? Did you get whatever it was you needed to get from this trip?"
"I don't know. I don't know what I expected. What about you? Are you satisfied?"
"I don't know what you mean. This was your idea."
"I know, but you're always wanting me to talk about it. And cry. And I did both. So are you satisfied?"
"Hmmm. Only if you are."
"Well, I am if you are. I feel good about it. I saw it all, I told you about it, and I'm not worried about that little boy anymore."
"No. You know as well as I do that those words didn't come from you. You would never say such a corny thing as `George is hugging him right now'. You'd say something like `Well, George is alive as long as you remember him, and ... what?" Napoleon was laughing. "What's funny?"
"That is exactly what I thought was going to come out of my mouth."
"And then ..."
"Yes. And then."
"Right. So I'd have to say - yes. I am satisfied."
"Well, good then. I'm glad. If you are, I am."
"Good. Goodnight, Napoleon. I love you."
"I love you too, sweetheart." They managed to get a little bit closer in the narrow confines of the twin bed and fell asleep, the lights of the motel sign blinking red and off, red and off on the wall over their beds.
The next Christmas, after the tree was set up and the ornaments hung, Napoleon handed Illya a small gift wrapped package. There had been no stories this year, about this ornament or that one, nor had there been any the year before. George's death seemed to have ended that tradition, and Napoleon missed it. It was their tradition anyway, his and Illya's, and he didn't see why it couldn't continue. So he had ordered this gift, and now he watched Illya open it. Open it, then sit in absolute silence, staring at it. Napoleon would have thought he didn't like it, but the way Illya was cradling it in both hands said otherwise.
"Where did you get this?" he asked finally, tracing the quartz crystals with one finger. The small piece of rock, with its embedded crystals, was set in a sterling silver oval ornament, and on the other side was the inscription "And the greatest of these is love."
"The crystal is from that rock we climbed at your camp. It came loose while I was making my less than graceful descent. Do ... do you like it? Is it all right that I did it?"
"I love it." To prove it he took it straight to the tree and found a place for it where the lights reflected in the crystals, sending a spray of quivering light onto the higher branches. He touched it again. He knew just what Napoleon was doing; trying, as he always was, to make it up to him, to show him ... well, to show him that life went on, he supposed. He looked at Napoleon, watching him anxiously, and saw with sudden clarity that Napoleon was more than anxious, that Napoleon half expected Illya to turn on him, to accuse him of trying to horn in on his and George's private rituals. So he smiled at Napoleon, and saw Napoleon's brow clear, saw Napoleon smile back, extend his arms. Illya went into them and rested there, sighing. Napoleon backed them up until they were by the sofa, and they sank down onto it together.
Neither spoke for a long time. Illya was perfectly content just to lie there in Napoleon's arms, with the lights of the Christmas tree illuminating the room, with the scent of Napoleon in his nostrils and the strength of Napoleon's arms holding him fast. He couldn't help thinking of George at Christmas - all those ornaments! All those stories! The Christmas throw and the Christmas china! But he thought of Napoleon too, of all their Christmases spent together and apart, the missions that had taken place in December; mayhem and murder amongst the tinsel and the carols. He thought about the aptly named "Jingle Bells Affair", and Chairman Koz. He thought about all the office Christmas parties he had dodged with varying degrees of success - and the failures were always due to Napoleon coming to fetch him and drag him there. He and Napoleon had their own Christmas memories and now there would be this new one, tying Christmas forever to that return to camp.
Napoleon was running one finger lightly down his back now and Illya arched against it, smiling again because Napoleon's traditions almost always led here, to the two of them, pressed up against one another. And there was nothing wrong with that, certainly nothing wrong with that so he turned and sent his own hand wandering, hearing Napoleon's moan with satisfaction.
At some point they tumbled off the sofa, falling together onto the carpet, but the proceedings were so advanced at that point that beyond a muffled `oof' from Napoleon, and a frustrated whimper from Illya as contact was temporarily broken, they paid it no mind and continued on to the enthusiastic finish.
Illya was beautiful in the Christmas lights. Napoleon smiled down at him, stroked sweat damp hair back off his forehead and kissed him there. And then Illya's eyes opened wide, and he stared up at Napoleon.
"But I did, Napoleon," he whispered finally. "I did forgive him in the end - in a way. A small way," he laughed a little, and the lack of bitterness in the sound made Napoleon prop himself up on one elbow, taking his weight off of Illya and looking hard into his face. Because the bitterness had always been there before, when Illya spoke of his uncle; the bitterness that his uncle had never really paid for what he did, that his uncle had chosen his own exit and his own methods after all, that right up till that final meeting his uncle had sneered at him and held him in contempt. But there was no trace of any of that in Illya's face now, only wonder. "A very small way," he concluded and lay quietly, staring past Napoleon, into the depths of the tree which at this point was directly beside them. They had done some rolling around since falling off the sofa, Napoleon noted, and he kissed Illya's mouth, wanting to bring his attention back, back to him.
"How so?" he asked finally, when it became evident that Illya planned to say no more.
"Well, it's a long story," Illya said and began to roll over, to roll away, to get up. Napoleon caught at his shoulders and pinned him there.
"Please," he said. "Illya? I'd really like to hear it."
"Why? Because it matters to you, so it matters to me. Why else? Why not?"
"It made George mad, when I said it."
Illya sighed. "Do I have to?"
"No. Of course not." Napoleon released him and sat up. Illya got to his feet and went into the kitchen.
"Coffee?" he called and Napoleon shook his head without answering. Illya put his head back in the room. "Is that a yes or a no?"
"No. Thank you."
"I'm not ..." but he was, he couldn't deny it. One minute they were as close as two people could be, one minute Illya was cherishing Napoleon's Christmas gift, his offer of a new tradition to - not replace, but continue - the old one, one minute they were wrapped up in arms and legs and love and the next - so yes, he was sulking. He was sitting on the floor in the darkened room declining coffee and ... then Illya was sitting cross legged beside him.
"It was moving day," he said, and Napoleon looked at him. "We were making the last drive from the house on Long Island, with some things - like our portrait - that George didn't trust to the movers. I don't know how we got to talking about him, but you know that move was all tangled up with him coming back anyway. Remember?"
Oh, he remembered. He remembered Illya's rage at Napoleon's interference, he remembered that Illya had driven out to Long Island to ask George to help him murder Ivan Petrovich since he himself was barred from headquarters. And George probably would have done it, that was the damn thing about it. But it hadn't turned out that way at all. It had turned out that George was depressed and lonely, so Illya arranged for him to move into their apartment building and Ivan Petrovich - that bastard, Napoleon thought, and had to smile a little - had been left to his own suicidal devices.
"So I told George that his conscience wasn't at all troubled by what he had done to me, and George said something about it troubling him now because he was in hell."
"What a lovely thought," Napoleon said, and smiled again. But Illya didn't smile back. He looked so serious that Napoleon felt the smile fade and disappear.
"It isn't, though, Napoleon," he said earnestly. "Even in the face of George's anger I had to say it. Hell - it's forever. Burning alive forever, in a lake of molten whatever - earth's core, I suppose. Tortured forever. No hope of rescue, no hope of death. Tortured forever and ever world without end. I - even he didn't deserve that. And when I said that George went off all over me, about hell and heaven and homosexuality and God so all I wanted to do was smooth it over. And I never thought about it again, because I hated that I made George so upset with me. But now it seems that if I could think that, if I could - I can't really say refuse, because it's not up to me, but if it was I'd refuse to consign him there. Even that bastard shouldn't be tortured forever and ever. It hurts to be burned, and it's terrible to be deliberately tortured and I ... even I wouldn't do that to him. Isn't that forgiveness? Of a sort?"
"Of a very good sort," Napoleon said. He wanted to kiss Illya again, but didn't quite dare. They were talking about Illya's uncle, they were talking about George, they were talking about God. Kissing might not be the appropriate response to all of that, although he wanted to. He wanted to badly. Then Illya kissed him - lightly, as if he, like Napoleon, couldn't help himself. Napoleon kissed him back and they sat there for a while longer, kissing under the Christmas tree, before helping one another to their feet.
Napoleon sent out for pizza and they ate it with wine beside the tree, and then they went to bed. They made love again there, slow, sweet love that swept them up at the end into such bliss that when Napoleon heard someone crying out he didn't know which of them it was, and when it ended he knew it didn't matter because they were both panting and exalted, they were both sweaty and clinging one to the other, they were both complete. And afterwards, when Illya had heated up more pizza and they had eaten it in bed, Illya touched his hand.
"Thank you for my present," he said softly. "It was the most insightful gift I've ever received."
"Well. You're welcome, although that puts the pressure on me for next year, doesn't it? I don't know if I can come up with `most insightful' year after year."
"You don't have to. I'll do it next year. We'll take turns."
"Oh." Napoleon thought about that. "All right. And it doesn't have to be an ornament every time. I mean a tree ornament. It can be anything Christmassy."
Illya laughed. Napoleon did love to make rules. "All right, Napoleon. I think I saw a red and green dildo with jingle bells instead of balls. Would you like something like that?"
"Now why would I need one of those?" Napoleon said, caressing Illya intimately, delighted when he felt a distinct stirring. "Of all the extraneous gifts ..."
"All right. No dildos. But be ready for it, Napoleon. I plan to put my whole mind to work on it right after New Year's Day."
"As long as it doesn't blow up, I'll be happy."
"Hmm." Illya smiled at him. "Now there's an intriguing thought. You'll be sorry you started me down that road, Napoleon."
"As long as we're traveling together, you can go down any road you want. I've even said the Sinner's Prayer to guarantee it."
"Always," Illya whispered, and kissed Napoleon's cheek. Napoleon kissed his mouth. There was no more conversation but they were together all the way through, and at the end they arrived at their destination at the exact same moment. And if life was indeed a journey, Napoleon reflected in the last moments before sleep took him, then as far as he was concerned it could go on forever. World without end, together forever.