Child of Morning, Child of Night—the Sequel
Author's note: Please read Child of Morning, Child of Night and Child of Morning, Child of Night: the Prequel (in that order) before reading this one, the sequel. Both are available on Chrome and Gunmetal.
This is a little series of tales set out of time and place.
It was a pleasant drive. The child sat in the front seat, securely buckled in, and watched the countryside go by. The camp was in the Adirondack Mountains of upstate New York, and after a long struggle with traffic getting away from the urban area they had wound along scenic roads for the past three hours. George pointed to a sign that said "Catskill Game Farm." "I thought we'd stop there on our way back," he said. "You can ride more horses, and camels and an elephant and pet all the goats and sheep you want."
"You mean next week."
"I mean whenever we're heading home."
"Even if it's today? Or tomorrow?"
"But you want it to be next week."
George was silent. He had never lied to Illya. So he sighed heavily. "Yes. I want it to be next week."
"Won't you miss me at all?"
"Honey—of course I'll miss you." He stole a quick look from the road, but Illya was staring out the window and George couldn't see his face. He patted Illya's knee instead. "But a week's not so long."
"No. I know." They approached an ice cream store.
"No thank you." They had had lunch two hours ago at a roadside hamburger stand, which was a rare treat indeed. George was usually very stern about meals and nutrition. It was one of the subjects he had studied up on—along with child psychology, childhood education principles and anything else he could get his hands on to fill what he felt to be a frightening void in his knowledge.
The psychology works had frightened him more. It was all on him. The experts were in unanimous agreement that in the home was where a child's personality and future were formed. And although Illya was already seven years old when George took him in, he had never lived in a home with a family. It was all on George. It had seemed a heavy burden then—it seemed so now.
Was he doing the right thing in urging camp on Illya, who was clearly reluctant? Would Illya feel rejected? Would he have nightmares and no one to comfort him? He had had nightmares that whole first year—terrible nightmares from which he awoke screaming and shaking, clinging to George as if he'd never let him go. The first few months had been the worst—George had spent nearly every night by Illya's bed because only in his presence, only clutching his hand could Illya sleep. Would he be able to sleep in this strange place, far from home? Would he make friends? He always had, his athletic ability forging the way for him—everyone wanted Illya on their team—but he had never had to live with boys his own age before.
George had rather diffidently suggested a haircut but Illya had clapped both hands to his ponytail and looked at George with enormous reproachful eyes. "It's mine," he had said, fiercely for him. "Mine!" Then, before George could call him down for his tone of voice he had wilted. "I don't want to cut it," he had pleaded. "It's—it's mine. Please?" And George had tousled it roughly and agreed. But he worried. He didn't want Illya to stand out, to look any more different than necessary. His accent already set him apart, and there was something foreign about his face and mannerisms too. Of course he was doing fine at school, and in his clubs. George told himself he was worrying about nothing. Besides, Illya could take care of himself. George had enrolled him in all the self defense and boxing classes he could find, wanting Illya to feel competent, not so much like a victim and Illya took to that like a duck to water. And the boys would be well supervised, he had checked into that. This was not an ordinary camp. It was, like Broadmere, an exclusive private retreat for children of security personnel and other high ranking officials—the Vice President's children went here. Every employee had top security clearance—from the director to the counselors in training. Illya would not be the only foreigner there. It was as safe an environment as could be found for him. But George worried anyway.
"Remember you can call me any time and I'll come get you," he said again and Illya nodded, one hand going to the radio in his pocket. The camp director had objected to that, had argued that if everyone did it they'd have kids going home because they didn't like the food, or because they stubbed their toes.
"Better for him to tough it out," he'd said and George had shaken his head.
"Illya has been through more than any adult I know. He's not going to make me take this long drive again just because you're serving oatmeal for breakfast. If he needs to leave, I'm there."
"It's not really our policy."
"Then I'm pulling his application. I promised him he could call me any time." And for a while it seemed the whole process had been for nothing, but George had talked to Alexander Waverly, who had made a phone call and no more had been said about it.
Waverly had been an enormous help all the way around. It was he who had gotten Illya in to his exclusive private school, and he who had suggested this camp. George's own position was not high enough to qualify Illya but, as always, Waverly's voice had been final.
Waverly had maintained contact because to him, UNCLE's responsibility to Illya was his responsibility. Illya rode in to the city with George once a month to meet him for lunch, where Waverly talked to him seriously about school, and whatever sports activities were currently in season.
The first time, Waverly had mentioned Grant, about whom George had indeed complained loudly and long.
"Called that baby a whore and a... well," he had stumbled at using the obscenity to Waverly's face.
"A" George steeled himself "little cock sucker."
"Did he," Waverly had said in that same imperturbable voice.
"Yes—made him cry and threatened him and scared him senseless." He had not mentioned the search—Gene had been right in a way. Petrovich could well have planted a suicide pill on the child and instructed him to take it if caught. It all could have been handled better, but you couldn't fix everything. But he had fixed Grant's wagon sure enough.
Illya, knowing nothing of George's complaints, had nevertheless affirmed them once he was convinced that Waverly really wanted to know. The old resentment had flared up again. "Everyone was afraid of my uncle," he had said while the mild grey eyes watched him closely. "Everyone! Even important people were afraid of him! And they could go home at night. I couldn't! I was with him all the time! It wasn't—it wasn't fair to blame me. It wasn't my fault." George had told him that repeatedly, and he was almost convinced. He watched Waverly warily while he said it and was relieved when the older man nodded. "What—what happened to him?" Illya toyed with his spoon.
"Mr. Petrovich has retired from government service."
"How angry he must be."
"I suppose so."
"Do you think he'll come after me?"
"His people would be opposed to his leaving the country, with everything he knows. His estate would be forfeit. You know him best. Is he likely to give that up?"
"No." Illya answered without hesitation. "He's very proud of his house and land—it's been in the family for hundreds of years. I don't think he'd ever give it up. Unless the government changes its mind?"
"If they do, we will know," Waverly promised him. "He would still need an exit visa and our computers would pick that up."
"And then you'd protect me?"
"We would protect you."
"All right. Thank you. It's not forever, you know," he added, not wanting to make Mr. Waverly think he was a lifetime responsibility "When I'm a man I can take care of myself. I'll—I'll kill him, if I see him again."
"Yes." There was nothing childish in the little face now. "I will. When I grow up I can come work for UNCLE and you'll teach me to shoot a gun and—and everything and then if I see him I can kill him."
"You don't have to work for us, you know," Waverly said gently. "The world is very wide, and your opportunities are limitless."
"But George says UNCLE is the good guys. He says not to go by what happened in Russia. He says to go by you."
"We try," Waverly said finally. "There are evil men everywhere."
"But it's not okay with you. When you find out you punish them."
The child nodded, satisfied. "I want to work where it's not okay to be bad. George says you're the best man he's ever known. And George is the best man in the world, isn't he."
Waverly had to smile. "Yes he certainly is."
"Well then. You'll want me," he added, anxious that Waverly not think he was begging favors. "I get good marks, and I'm very good in science. George says you will always need scientists."
"Yes we will."
"And I'm a good fighter, too. I know I don't look it, but I am."
"How old are you now?"
"I'm almost eight."
"When you are ten, I will arrange for advanced fighting classes if you still want them."
"You will?" His face glowed.
"So things are going well? You are happy with Mr. Piper?"
"Oh, yes." He smiled at Waverly shyly. "He's so nice to me. He—he says he loves me."
"Yes he does."
"He's told you that too?"
"Oh." He bounced a little in his seat. "My uncle told me no one would ever love me because I was born bad. But he was wrong, wasn't he."
"Not wrong," Waverly said and his voice was harsh. "Lying. And a more wicked lie to tell a child I have never heard."
The child rested his chin on both fists and regarded him thoughtfully. "It makes you angry, that he said that to me? Like it did George?"
"What about what he did to me? And made me do with those men? Does that make you angry too?"
"And that's because you're good? That's part of being a good man?"
"Yes. Protecting children is part of being a good man—or woman."
He nodded. "I need to understand all that," he explained. "Because I want to be a good man when I grow up, and George says it's not enough just to copy him. That I have to find my own way. But I'm afraid it's hard. I've met a lot more bad people than good ones. It must be really hard to be good."
"Not necessarily." He found himself answering this child as if he were an adult. "There are far more people in the middle than at either end of the spectrum. It is a matter, I believe, of the decisions you make every day. Being evil—or being good—are both a result of the decisions and choices you make. Being in the middle is just taking the easy road every time."
"Oh." The child thought it over. "So every time I choose to do the right thing—to do my work when I'd rather be reading, or to stay after school to help someone with their studying when there's a baseball game going on—every time I do that I'm making myself a good man?"
"Yes. Those are excellent examples."
"Like George choosing to take me even though he really liked being by himself and not having to worry about somebody else." Waverly looked at him sharply.
"There are occasions," he answered quietly, "when doing what is right, and doing what will bring oneself joy, are one and the same. You and Mr. Piper," he smiled into those serious eyes, which smiled back at him "are a perfect example of that. I have known Mr. Piper for many years. I have never known him so happy."
"You think I make him happy?"
"Yes. I know that you do."
"And you wouldn't just say it to make me feel better. Because that would be the easy way."
"You are correct."
"Oh." He sighed, relieved. "Good." The waiter came over then with the dessert tray and Illya wriggled with pleasure as he chose a chocolate clair dripping with cream. The strangely adult look had vanished and he was a child again as he licked whipped cream off his fingers, giggling when the waiter teased him about a hollow leg.
When they left the restaurant a horse and carriage were standing outside and he ran over, threw his arms around the horse. The driver hurried to them, alarmed that the child would be bitten or trampled but the animal stood quietly enough under his attentions, and when Waverly suggested they ride in the carriage to the train station he hopped up and down with glee. At Penn Station they met George and Illya ran to him, shrieking aloud with delight when George tossed him into the air and caught him in those strong arms. He waved good-bye to Waverly over George's shoulder as he was carried towards the escalator and Waverly, smiling to himself, made his way home.
Illya thought about that conversation while he and George toured the camp. It was done up in a Western motif, with log cabins for the boys to sleep in, all with Indian names—Iroquois, Algonquin, Susquehanna. He was assigned to Cheyenne, and poked around curiously while George talked to the counselor. He was an eighteen year old college freshman and he had attended this same camp throughout his own childhood.
"Then I was a CIT—counselor in training—for two years," he explained to George. "This is my first year as a full counselor. I have a CIT of my own in this cabin and we both sleep here all night. The boys are up at six for flag raising and prayers at the flag pole, then we have breakfast." He had raised his voice a little so the kid, who was looking around the small room, could hear him. "After breakfast we break into groups for activities—water, riding, archery, games, crafts. Then there's lunch, then quiet time—we come back to the cabin and they can read or write letters or nap. After quiet time is free time—you can choose any activity," he added to Illya who had come back over and was standing by the big gruff man who was his guardian, "but if you want to go horseback riding then you have to sign up in the morning. You can go in the woods as long as you stay on the marked trails. Five o'clock is dinner, then chapel." George had been pleased that the camp had a strong Christian focus. "If someone is of a different faith they can abstain of course but they need a waiver for that from their family."
"Illya will be at church," George said firmly and Illya nodded.
"Then it's back to the cabin unless there's a group activity—for example Sunday's a get acquainted picnic, and Thursday's an all night hike. We camp out in the woods." He saw the kid's face brighten, and grinned at him. "You like that?"
"Yes. Sometimes George takes me camping."
"Well we have fun. We make s'mores and tell ghost stories. Friday is a farewell dinner and then Saturday new kids arrive and some kids leave. Most stay for two weeks or longer, but we've always got some going and coming on Saturday."
"I leave next Saturday," Illya said, suddenly worried that this strange young man might not know that. "I'm only here for a week."
"I know. See? It's on the register." He showed them his book and beside Illya's name it clearly said "One week." Illya looked relieved and the counselor wondered if he'd be a problem. He was certainly clinging to his guardian's hand. There were always some who were so homesick they couldn't enjoy themselves at all. He squatted down so he was on eye level and extended his hand. "I'm Jake, by the way. Jake Williams." The kid shook hands politely enough.
"Hi Illya. The bunks with the sleeping bags already on them are taken, but you can pick any of the others." Illya pointed to an upper bunk by a window. He'd be able to lie there and look out at the trees and maybe that would make him feel better. He was dangerously close to tears. He had come with the understanding that he could just as easily choose to leave with George, and he knew he still could, really, but he also felt he was caught up in a process it would not be so easy to undo. Everyone assumed he would stay. Right now George was unrolling his sleeping bag on the bunk he'd chosen, and Jake was stuffing his duffel bag underneath the bed.
"Well," George said, and cleared his throat. They had seen everything and he was satisfied that Illya would be as happy here as was possible. He gave Jake a head jerk and the young man left them alone. Outside the window Illya could see him talking to another family. George sat on the bottom bunk. "Illya—I've met everyone, and everyone is all right."
"What's the verdict? Want to stay? Or come home with me."
So here it was. Stay—or go home. He wanted to go home. He wanted to get back in the car and be in his own bed tonight, listening to George pop the top on his beer can and the creak of the recliner as he settled in to watch the news. He wanted that so desperately that tears welled up in his eyes and George sighed. "It's okay, honey," he said kindly. "Remember? It's okay with me either way. We had a fun drive, we saw it all—it's okay."
Illya nodded. It would be, he knew. How easy George was making it for him to leave. But that wasn't how you became a good man, was it. By doing the easy thing. George wanted him to stay. And he should do what George wanted because George loved him and was good to him, and if George thought this was the best thing then it must be, even if he himself couldn't see it. So he straightened his back and lifted his chin. "I'll stay," he said and saw the relief on George's honest face. George put both hands on his shoulders.
"Now you be good," he lectured and Illya nodded obediently. "Don't go running off and not let them know where you are. And be careful in the water. Don't go in too soon after you eat."
"Be careful on those horses."
He had forgotten about the horses and his eyes brightened a little. "I will."
"And when they have quiet time you write me. I put postcards already stamped in your bag."
"I deposited twenty-five dollars in your account here, so you can buy candy or toys or whatever you want." He would have put in more, wanting Illya to have whatever he pleased, but twenty-five was the maximum permitted. "All you have to do is sign your name."
"I know." He had gone to the counter with George and added his careful script to the account card.
"Okay then. Walk me to the car." They did, Jake giving them a friendly wave as they came out.
"Illya," he called and Illya turned.
"Come right back here. I've got four of the other guys and we're going to the stable to see your horses."
That was right—he got his very own horse. He couldn't help a thrill of pleasure. It made the thought of parting easier and Jake, who planned it that way on purpose, smiled as he watched them walk towards the parking lot, the big man and the little boy with the long blond ponytail. He sure was pint sized for nine—he'd be the smallest in the cabin easy. Jake would watch out for him—he tolerated no bullying in his group and worked hard to establish a team spirit that included everyone from the most bookish to the burliest athlete. He wondered how many criers he would have that first night. He wondered if Illya would be one of them. Then he turned his attention to the worried mother explaining to him about her boy's asthma and his sensitive nerves, and was soon busy accepting the small inhaler with its many refills and giving her directions to the nurse's tent where she could deposit his other medication.
George hugged Illya hard and Illya wrapped his arms as far around George's thick waist as they could get, closed his fists around his shirt and clung to him. He was unhappy, and afraid—how could he let go of George? How could he sleep, wake, eat—go through the day without George watching over him? What if something terrible happened? What if... he trembled and George, feeling it, hugged him harder.
Am I doing the right thing? He drew back to look into Illya's face and at the expression in those big grey eyes hugged him again. How could anything that washed the blue from those eyes, wiped the joy from that little face, made him shake so—how could that be right? He wanted to pick Illya up, tuck him into the front seat and drive away. They could send for his stuff. They could stay at a motel on the Interstate tonight, go to the Game Farm, be home by dark tomorrow. "Honey," he whispered finally, voice ragged. "You don't have to do this." He had put too much pressure on Illya, had made his own wishes too plain. "I won't think any less of you for it. It's too soon, that's all." It was. Not even two years yet. Less than two years of safety and security and love to set against a lifetime of horrors.
Illya rubbed his cheek against George's chest in answer. But he set himself against the easy way, and shook his head. "No—I—I want to." It wasn't exactly a lie. He wanted to have done it. He wanted it to be over and have this success behind him, to return home in triumph instead of defeat. And to get to that, he had to go through this. "You'll come back for me? You're not just leaving me here forever and ever?" His voice climbed as the awful thought claimed him. "George? Please don't—please come back!"
"I will, Illya. Of course I will." He knelt so they were face to face. "I love you. It would break my heart to lose you. I will come and get you Saturday."
"Oh." He exhaled with relief. "All right."
"But I'll miss you."
"I'll miss you too, honey." He hadn't really thought about that, so unsure had he been that Illya would stay at all. He was still unsure—in fact he planned to stay at a motel near by tonight so he could come right back and get Illya when—if—Illya called him. "I'll see you next Saturday. Or sooner, if you need me. Remember that."
"All right." He forced himself to let go, to stand up, because if Illya could be so brave the least he could do was support him. Best to end this, then. He kissed Illya's forehead and climbed into the car. As he backed out of the spot, dust rising all around him, Illya waved and George waved back and the last thing he saw in the rear view mirror was the small, solitary figure standing and waving. He was so busy looking, half expecting to see Illya start to run after him that he almost drove right into the fence post at the. By the time he maneuvered around it he couldn't see Illya anymore so he continued down the long dirt drive, put on his blinker and made his turn onto the highway.
When he could no longer see George's tail lights Illya whirled and ran. He ran and ran, heading for the woods he had seen earlier, wanting to lose himself there, to run through the trees where no one could find him but then he heard a familiar voice calling his name. "Illya! Hey! Over here!" He stopped and looked around, wiping his face with the back of his arm. Jake was standing with a small knot of boys. "We're going to the stables!"
Slowly Illya walked over to them. Jake pretended not to see the traces of tears on his face and introduced the four boys with him. "Jasper, Duke, Richard and Michael. This is Illya."
Illya nodded to them. They nodded back. Two of them, Jasper and Michael, looked as miserable as he felt. The other two had the superior air of boys who had been here before and, indeed, as they walked down the trail towards the stables, it turned out Richard was in his third year and Duke, although this was his first time, had already been at camp for a month. They clearly worshipped Jake, hanging on him, showing off for him, looking to him for confirmation of every statement and that reassured Illya that Jake was, indeed, all right. Jasper pulled out a small plastic tube and put it to his mouth. Illya watched him curiously. "What's that?" he asked.
"My inhaler," Jasper answered. "I have asthma. It could kill me any time."
"What does asthma do to you?" Michael wanted to know.
"I can't breathe. It makes my throat swell up and I can't breathe."
"Can I see?" Illya asked and Jasper handed him the plastic canister. Illya examined it, read the directions, handed it back carefully. "So you have to have that with you all the time?"
"Yes. Or I could turn blue and die."
Illya hoped Jasper didn't turn blue and die at camp. He didn't want to see it. He looked away and caught Duke looking him up and down. Illya recognized the look. Duke was thinking that he could beat Illya up. As if unaware Illya bent down, chose a rock and pitched it into the woods. It arched high up and was gone. Duke whistled. "You got a good arm. You play ball?"
"Yes." Illya had learned the things that made for popularity in this country, and having a good arm and playing ball was high on the list.
"Huh." Duke said nothing further, and then they arrived at the stable. Illya, who wouldn't have thought he could forget his grief for one moment lost it entirely in the glory of all those horses. He went from stall to stall, dazed with his new riches. Black horses and brown ones, greys and whites—he admired Duke's buckskin and Michael's white mare and then Jake pointed to two standing in adjoining stalls. "Jasper—this is Fred." Fred was a Palomino, golden with white mane and tail. "And Illya—this is Star." Star was a chestnut, with a white blaze on her forehead. Illya loved her instantly and fed her the sugar cubes Jake produced from his pocket. "Tomorrow after church you come here and they'll show you how to saddle up and then you can take your first trail ride."
"Can I come see her whenever I want?"
"During free time, sure. You want to groom her now?"
He wasn't sure what that was, but he nodded and Jake called the stable hand over. Jasper was backing away from the stalls. "I think I'm allergic to horses," he said nervously. "I think I can't be in here." He used his inhaler again and Jake hastily told the CIT in charge of horses to show Illya what to do before taking the rest of the boys out. Only Duke lingered.
"Bet I can take you," he bragged and Illya looked at him. Duke was big, with short brown hair and large beefy hands.
"Maybe," he acknowledged and, satisfied, Duke leaned against the stable wall while Illya watched and listened and after a while began using the brush himself. Star clearly enjoyed the procedure, leaning towards the brush, almost knocking Illya into the stable wall.
"Can you swim?" Duke asked.
"I never have before."
"I've been riding for years." Illya looked at him with the respect that statement called for.
"Yeah. I got my own horse back home."
"You do?" This time the respect was real. "You're lucky."
"My folks are getting divorced this summer. That's why I'm here. What are your folks up to?"
"George is at home."
"That what you call your dad?"
"Yes. Well, he's my guardian."
"Where's your real parents?"
"So you're an orphan?"
"Yes." A bugle blew and, startled, Illya looked around.
"Dinner," Duke explained loftily. "We gotta get back and wash up. Hope you like bug juice 'cause that's what we always have."
"Yeah." Illya had returned the brush and comb, locked the stable carefully as he had been shown, and they walked to the cabin together.
"Are—are there really bugs in it?"
"Sure. You scared of some bugs?"
"No—but I don't want to drink them."
"You hardly feel 'em. They mush 'em up in a blender. Sometimes the wings tickle a little when they go down."
Illya was horrified. "Do you drink them?"
"Yeah. Got to. Or they don't feed you."
"Oh." Illya decided he would live on whatever he could buy at the Canteen. He was glad George had put all that money in his account.
The dining hall was a big room decorated with moose and deer heads, and animal skins. Jake carried over a tray and began handing out plates. Illya looked at the Salisbury steak, the mashed potatoes, the green beans, then eyed the purple juice being poured from pitchers. Jake called for silence and the camp director said grace, then the uproar began again.
Jake looked around the table. He thought he had a good group—three new kids, three carry overs from last week. The kid with the asthma was going to be a pain in the ass, he could tell, and Michael was already showing signs of homesickness. Illya was sitting quietly next to Duke and Jake saw him push his glass of juice away. "Just for the record," Jake announced, taking a big drink of his own juice, "although this is called bug juice it is not—repeat not" he looked sternly at Duke, "made from bugs. It's Kool-Aid." He waited, grinned. "The bugs are in the potatoes." Jasper blew his out of his mouth, getting it all over the CIT who yelled "Crap!" and everyone laughed except Jasper who was wiping his mouth.
"I'm allergic to bugs," he complained. "When they bite me I swell up all over. Now my stomach's going to swell and I'll die."
"Only kidding," Jake said and took a heaping forkful of his potatoes. "No bugs. I promise."
Duke was laughing and Illya looked at him and started to laugh too. "You shoulda seen your face when I told you about them wings," Duke sputtered and pounded his hand on the table. "Hey. Why do ya keep your hair so long? Only girls wear ponytails. You a girl?"
"No. That's how they wear it where I come from." Illya had learned that most American children knew nothing of other cultures. He could have said they ate bugs at every meal where he came from and been believed.
"Where're you from then? I thought you talked funny."
"Russia." Illya ate and waited for the inevitable next question. It came.
"You some kind of a Commie? Cause my dad won't go for me bunking with a Commie."
"No. That's why I'm here." That seemed self evident to Illya, but he was accustomed to this ritual. Everyone at the table was listening now, even Jake.
"They kick you out?"
"No. I escaped." Illya leaned forward. "I escaped at night. I had to crawl through the snow for five days and then I hid underneath a train and held on until it crossed the border." He sat back, enjoying the open mouths around him. "Then I ran and they shot at me but they missed and then George found me freezing and starving and adopted me and took me to America."
"Wow," Michael breathed and Jake arched an eyebrow at Illya, who looked innocently back at him.
"That's quite a story," Jake said dryly and Illya nodded.
"Why'd you escape?" Jasper asked. "What about your folks?"
"The Communists burned my village," Illya said importantly. "Burned it to the ground with everyone in it. My whole family perished. I was out getting firewood. That's how I got away."
"Wow," Michael said again. "Guess you're glad you live here now."
"Where'd you learn English?" Ronnie, the CIT asked and Illya answered promptly.
"George taught me. He—he played tapes for me in my sleep."
"Wow" Michael said for the third time, then dessert was served and the topic was abandoned. Illya was satisfied. George didn't want him telling stories, he knew, but no one liked you if they thought you were a Communist and knowing what he knew about the men high in the Party Illya agreed with them. He had to tell people something, and he could hardly tell them the truth. He looked at Jake again, eyes openly asking him to be quiet because he hadn't fooled Jake, he could tell—it was a child's story for children and Jake was grown up.
Jake winked at him. He had been given a heads up about this kid by the director—that he'd had a terrible abusive childhood before being taken in by George Piper, and if the kid wanted to dress up his past a little it was no skin off his nose. That all was in the wink, and Illya relaxed, smiled back at him.
There was a cheerful tumult in the cabin after that, the boys taking turns in the little bathroom, the new ones unpacking, setting up their bunks with items from home and then Jake led them in devotions. The bugle blew lights out after the final prayer and everyone settled in. Illya lay in his sleeping bag, familiar from all those camping trips with George, and looked out the little window. He had been having fun. It surprised him, when he realized it. Dinner had been fun, and the joke about the bug juice had been funny and it had been really funny when Jasper blew mashed potatoes all over the table. He had told his story, and he knew from experience that all he had to do now was say sorrowfully that he didn't want to talk about it if someone brought it up and it would be dropped. He might end up having to fight Duke, but then it would be over and they could be friends. He fell asleep thinking that.
Some time later he woke with a start. The camp was absolutely still, and he lay for a moment, disoriented and not sure where he was, listening for George's snoring and not hearing it. Then he remembered. He was here, he was hours and hours away from home and George was snoring in his own bed. Tears stung his eyes. He struggled to hold them back but it was impossible, that he was here. What had he been thinking? He wondered if he could slip out and walk home. He remembered the way, he could... then he heard a stifled sound. Someone else was crying. Footsteps padded across the wood floor of the cabin and Jake's voice came to his ears.
"Michael? You okay?"
"No I'm not okay I want to go home!" The word came in a wail. "I want to go home I want my mother!" He was crying hard now, face buried in his pillow and Jake stood by his bed. Illya was suddenly frightened. Michael had woken Jake up. Might wake everyone up. Was he in trouble? Would he be punished? Jake sat on the edge of Michael's lower bunk and Illya tensed further. Maybe this was when terrible things happened. Terrible things often happened at night, that was why he wanted George to leave his door open. That was why he wanted George there. His own tears were coming now and he held them back, not wanting Jake to know he was awake, that he could see... then Jake rose and turned and their eyes met. Illya squeezed his shut, knowing it was too late.
"Hey," Jake whispered. The little blond kid had been watching and he looked perilously close to crying as well. That often happened—one set the others off. "Illya?"
"What?" He pretended he had just woken up, and rubbed his eyes.
"Michael wake you? He's okay, he's just homesick."
"Is he—is he in trouble?" He trembled as he said it, and Jake's voice softened.
"No, of course not. I'm just going to send Ronnie for some warm milk. Want some? No bugs," he added, grinning but the kid only looked at him with those enormous eyes as if he were a troll or something ready to eat him up. A terrible childhood, the director had said. Jake reached out and Illya shrank away from his hand. Pretending not to see it, Jake pulled the kid's sleeping bag up a little to cover his shoulders. "Hot chocolate?" he asked coaxingly.
"So—you're not mad at him for waking you up?"
"Nah—it always happens the first night. And sometimes more nights than that. Or someone might get sick, or fall off their bunk. I don't mind. I can go right back to sleep" he snapped his fingers. "Like that."
"Oh." Illya relaxed. He had been foolish. George had said Jake was all right, and George knew. "Yes please. I'd like some hot chocolate. If it's not too much trouble."
"No trouble at all. Michael?" He turned back to the other boy. "Illya here would rather have hot chocolate. Would you like that too? Yeah? Ronnie—two hot chocolates please." They heard the younger boy leave and Jake sat on Michael's bed again and talked about the next day, and how they'd better use bug repellent because the gnats were bad in the morning, and how their cabin was scheduled for swimming first thing after breakfast, and how cold the water would be, and then Ronnie came back. Illya drank his hot chocolate and Michael drank his and then Michael cried a little more and Jake talked to him and Illya listened for a while and then he fell asleep again. The next time he awoke the sun was streaming in the window and the bugle was blowing reveille.
It was Wednesday afternoon when George's radio whistled. At loose ends without Illya, he had returned to work and was in a conference with the other technicians and Alexander Waverly when he jumped, clapped a hand to his jacket pocket. Everyone looked at him. "Excuse me," he said abruptly. "I have to take this." He hurried out into the hall and pressed the respond button. "Illya? What's wrong?"
"Nothing's wrong." Illya sounded breathless and behind him George could hear the shouts of other boys, a whistle blowing repeatedly and the unmistakable thud of a ball being kicked. "I wanted to ask you something."
"You need me to come get you?" He looked at his watch. If he left right now... "I can be there tonight."
"Oh!" Illya sounded surprised. "No thank you. I don't want to leave yet. But Saturday—you're coming Saturday, right?"
"Of course I am."
"Well, there's a rodeo at twelve o'clock and I'm in it. I'm in the barrel racing competition. Can you come early so you can see me?"
"Sure." He didn't understand why he felt so heavy. Must have been the jolt of adrenaline, he decided, hearing the radio like that, thinking something had happened.
"Good." Illya sounded relieved. "I just remembered it was a long drive and we didn't get here until almost three and that would mean you'd miss it."
"I'm glad you told me. I wouldn't miss it for the world."
"Good. I have to go now. Bye."
"Bye honey." He disconnected and walked back into the conference room.
"Is everything all right?" Waverly inquired. He knew the significance of the radio. George nodded.
"Do you need to leave?"
"No." He sat down and finished reading his report. When the meeting ended Waverly signaled him to stay.
"Why did he call you?"
"He wants me to come early Saturday to see him in some rodeo."
"So he is enjoying himself."
"Sounded like it." He packed up his papers. Waverly smiled at him.
"They will grow up," he said gently and, startled, George looked up.
"He's only nine."
"You've done a good job."
"It's not finished yet."
"I know. I have never seen a rodeo, Mr. Piper. Would you care for company on the drive?"
"Good. We can take a company car. Meet me here at five that morning."
Illya put the radio in his pocket and ran back over to the field. They were playing kickball and he was at the end of the line up so he had taken the opportunity to call George. Hearing George's voice made him feel warm all over. He was excited, that he had qualified for the barrel race, and that George would get to see it. How proud George would be of him. He smiled at the thought, and when it was his turn he kicked the ball out of the field, sending the three previous runners home and following them home himself.
When George got home that night there was a postcard from Illya in his box—the first. He had been looking for one even while telling himself it was ridiculous. Illya couldn't have had time to write till Sunday, and mail wouldn't go out till Monday—but still, he had looked. Now he stood holding the little paper rectangle in his hand and read it avidly.
Dear Georg,e I really miss you a lot. It's still six whole days to go before you come get me and I wish it were now. My horse is named Star and she is beautiful. I rode her today and really liked it. I told them how I escaped from Russia in the snow. George tried to scowl at that but couldn't help laughing out loud instead. Illya was clearly giving him a warning in case he heard something when he came on Saturday. Michael cried last nigh,t but I didn't. Bbut I was scared and sad for you. I know you think this is a good thing for me so I am trying to be brave because I want to be good but I miss you. And I love you. Illya.
It was a lot to fit on that little card but Illya printed it all very carefully and George had no trouble reading it. He wiped his eyes, surprised that they were wet. Illya sounded so unhappy, and so lonely—he wanted to jump right in the car and go get him this minute. He could call work and tell them... then he thought of that radio conversation. I don't want to leave yet Illya had said and he had sounded busy and... and happy.
George went inside, feeling the heaviness return at the quiet of the house. Ordinarily when he came home from work he had Illya with him, having picked him up at school. School officially ended at 3:30 but there were study groups and clubs every day that lasted till six—a big plus because George wouldn't have wanted Illya coming home to an empty house. So he picked Illya up and they came in together. Illya was always full of news about his day, and then he did whatever homework he hadn't finished after school while George made dinner. They ate together at the table before settling down to watch TV or read. But now the house was empty. Quiet—and empty.
George went upstairs to change, and found himself standing in the doorway of Illya's room. It was neat, and tidy—George would have tolerated nothing less and Illya was in any event orderly by nature. His bed was made, with the red corduroy bedspread and matching pillows he had selected when they moved in, his desk was clear of papers, his shelves lined with books arranged carefully by subject and author. There were no toys—Illya had missed that part of childhood and never shown any desire to reclaim it, but there was a bat and ball and glove, and a hockey stick leaning against the wall. One shelf held games—chess and checkers and Parcheesi and Monopoly, a deck of cards. There were no posters on his walls as there were in the rooms of his friends, but there was a large framed picture of George and Illya taken two years ago, shortly after their move. George sat in a big armchair and Illya stood beside him, leaning one arm on George's shoulder. George walked over and looked at it.
Illya had been thinner then, and pale still but he was smiling and his eyes were so blue—George turned and looked at the rest of the room and suddenly he could see again that little boy in the too big pajamas, cowering in a corner, terrified by his strange environment, terrified of the three strangers who were confronting him. His only defense had been to pretend he didn't understand them. George thought of how cruelly Grant had torn that defense away, thought of how Illya had fallen on the offered food like a famine victim. Thought of that painfully thin body in his arms, stiff with fright. And he had actually considered just walking away. It had taken God's finger right in his face to show him where his duty lay—and what joy he had found in it. How sweet it was, to have Illya curl up in his lap after dinner, to tuck him into bed, to kiss him goodnight. How his chest swelled with pride, watching Illya play ball, or win relay races or swim meets. How wonderful to see the pride in Illya's face when he'd hand George his report card—all A's, always all A's, with those glowing remarks handwritten by his teachers. 'A brilliant mind.' 'A pleasure to teach.' And how special it had made him feel, to have Illya cling to him, to see those big eyes lifted to his face so trustingly, to know that all Illya's security was fastened on him. And now—Illya was not only gone, he was happy.
They will grow up Waverly had said and George had been almost angry. Illya was only nine. He wasn't nearly grown up yet. But now, looking around the empty room, he felt the bitter foretaste of that in his mouth. Illya could do without him. He was glad—of course he was. But it was bitter all the same. He sat down on the bed. He missed Illya. 'Won't you miss me at all?' Illya had asked plaintively and George had patted his knee and answered easily 'Of course I will.' But he really hadn't considered it. Hadn't really thought Illya would stay, for one thing, and when he had, had been fully prepared to have to make a midnight run to go get him. But Illya was staying. He wouldn't see Illya until Saturday. And next year it might be longer than that. And one day—one day Illya would leave for good. Perhaps for college—perhaps for some other venture. But leave he would. It was inevitable. How empty life would seem then. He would be alone—not just for a few days but for always. For a moment he almost wept, thinking of it. But then he looked again at the postcard, at the childishness of the message, so in contrast with the impeccable writing. Illya was only nine. There were years ahead of them yet, far more years together than they had had already. He would have time to get used to the idea, to watch Illya grow up. There was plenty of time. So because George Piper was a practical man, he called the camp to find out how much money Illya still had in his account, learned it was down to $12.56 and arranged to wire precisely $12.44 the next morning to bring it back up to the limit because if he couldn't hug Illya right that minute he could at least be sure he had everything he desired right at his fingertips.
Illya settled his backpack more comfortably and walked along the forest trail. In front of him was Michael, behind him was Duke—the rest of his cabin and Jake were bringing up the rear. Ronnie was in front. The whole camp was on this hike—it was one of the highlights of the week. A pickup truck had gone ahead by another road bringing the tents and food and heavy items and each boy carried his own sleeping bag, a change of clothes and a kit with metal plates, forks, knives and spoons—also a canteen filled with water. Illya's camp uniform T shirt and khaki shorts were already smudged with dirt, his bare arms and legs were tanned a golden brown. They had worried he would burn, being so fair but he didn't—only his face did, over and over again, burning and peeling and now it was sprinkled with freckles. He was happy. He was on this hike, he was looking forward to the campfire and the toasted marshmallows and the rich s'mores Jake had told them all about. A visiting missionary was going to preach by the fire and then they would eat hot dogs and hamburgers and chili... Illya was hungry just thinking of it. He was lucky to be on this hike at all, he knew—the fight with Duke had never materialized but only because of what had happened after the kickball game Wednesday.
Their opponents had been the Apaches, a group of older boys and they had taken their loss badly. One boy, quite a bit taller and heavier than Illya, had jolted him roughly as they were putting away the equipment. Illya had looked at him sideways and decided to overlook it just in case it was an accident but no, less than a minute later he was shoved much harder. He had promptly leaped on the other boy and they had tumbled to the ground in a punching, rolling blur. Duke had jumped in, and then the other boy's bunkmates had piled on and Illya's cabin leaped into the fray as well. It was a glorious melee and when the counselors, blowing furiously on their whistles had peeled them off one by one, at the bottom of the pile Illya was sitting on his opponent swinging away. He had been hauled off by his collar. There was yelling and then Jake blew his whistle again and silence fell.
Jake regarded them, amused behind his stern face. The shouts of "he started it" and "dirty fighter" and "they better not try it again" had died away but all the boys were red faced and excited—some near tears of anger or fear of punishment or both. Jasper was pulling strenuously on his inhaler and Duke was shaking his fist at the others. Only Illya seemed calm—he stood there, cool and collected, straightening his clothes, brushing dirt off his arms—his high color and brilliant eyes the only sign that his blood was up too. It tickled Jake, to watch him. "Well now," he said sternly. "You know it's against camp rules to fight." He released Illya's collar. "Don't you?"
"Yes," Illya said because he did know. But one thing he had learned early was that he had to meet physical aggression with speed and force or he'd be a natural target for bullies. Besides, it was fun. He loved fighting. He didn't mind getting hurt—it felt so good to strike back. He smiled at Jake, not fooled by Jake's scowl. Jake was proud of him. Illya was proud of himself. He had won, after all, and against a much bigger opponent. Jake's scowl deepened ferociously.
"Well then. I'm sending you all back to your cabins. No free time this afternoon." Groans and outcries went up but Illya only nodded. That was fair enough. But Jake's next words struck everyone silent again.
"And I don't think anyone in this group needs to go on the hike tomorrow. Do you Tom?"
"No," the other counselor snapped. "They should be ashamed of themselves."
Miss the hike! Illya's mouth fell open in dismay and he saw the same expression on those around him. But Jake was going on. "I won't have bad feelings between groups. It's not the way you were taught to behave. Do you think the disciples got into brawls with Jesus watching?" A meek chorus of "no" came from around him. Illya privately thought they might have—they certainly argued enough. But he knew better than to say so. "And isn't he watching right now?" Another mumbled round of agreement. "Pastor Lydell has come all the way from South America to preach to us tomorrow night. I don't think he came to preach to a bunch of roughnecks."
"He came to preach to sinners," Illya pointed out reasonably. "And we've all just sinned. A lot," he added, fixing limpid eyes on Jake's face. Jake's mouth twitched.
"Be that as it may. Let me talk to Tom." They went aside and the boys watched them solemnly as their fate hung in the balance.
"My kid kicked your kid's ass," Jake said and Tom turned away so the boys wouldn't see him grin.
"My kid is a whiner and a bully and he's been looking for an ass kicking all week. What do you think—forgive and forget?"
"Yeah—I've got three one weekers and if they miss this hike they won't get another chance. You do it. If Illya says one more thing about sinners I'm going to crack up."
"Your kid's a pistol," Tom agreed and they turned back. "Jesus wants us to forgive our enemies," Tom said gravely. "Now either both cabins miss the hike, or you shake hands and make up and both cabins can go. You decide."
Illya stuck out his hand to the boy who had pushed him and reluctantly he took it. Everyone shook hands and then were dismissed back to their cabins. Illya walked beside Duke. "Don't you think the disciples fought sometimes?" he whispered.
"I'da kicked ol' Judas's ass myself. And Peter cut off that soldier's ear with his sword. He wasn't no pussy."
"That's what I thought too."
"Be quiet," Jake snapped at them. "You're all on restriction. No free time, and no canteen after chapel. And no talking!"
So it had been a quiet, boring night, but the next day it was over. Jake was back to his cheerful self and now here they were. And day after tomorrow he would go home. He was having fun at camp—he really liked it, and wanted to come back next year but he missed George. He hoped George had missed him, too. It hurt him, that George had been so eager for him to leave. But when he had talked to George Wednesday, George had been ready to drop everything and come get him if that was what Illya had wanted. And how good it would be to throw himself into that strong embrace again, to sit in George's lap and watch TV, to have George comb out his hair which was in a sad state by now. He washed it every day, brushed it and tied it back in its ponytail but he hadn't combed it since he got here. George would do it for him, and be careful not to pull. And maybe George had missed him, just a little bit.
The bonfire was roaring now and so was the missionary. He had told exciting stories about South America, had displayed the enormous snake skin he'd brought, told of the many times he had been near death from wild animals, savage tribesmen and violent weather. He talked of the piranhas in the river, the jaguars in the trees, the giant poisonous spiders that could drop down on you from the canopy. Then he got into sin and the need for salvation and offered everyone a chance to give their lives to Jesus by coming forward and throwing a stick into the fire. Dozens of boys did so and Illya sat and watched. He had been saved already—George had made sure of that and he had been glad because George had explained that he couldn't go to Heaven otherwise and since Heaven was where George was going Illya had wanted to follow. But deep down he didn't think it had worked.
He didn't think Jesus would want to come into his heart because it was so filled with hatred for those men—and for his uncle. If he saw his uncle again he would kill him. How could he be saved if he still harbored such a sin as murder in his heart? But how could he help it? Forgive your enemies, Jake had told them and he had agreed—but those boys from Apache weren't his enemies, not really. Not like his uncle was. Not like those other men who had hurt him and laughed at his tears and his shame—not like Grant, who had called him that ugly name. He had never dared ask George his questions because he didn't want George to think he wasn't saved. George would grieve for him, destined for eternal hell fire. But his uncle would be in hell, surely—and if Illya went there he'd be spending eternity not only with Satan and his demons but with his uncle too. It worried him, when he thought about it and now with the missionary's words still ringing in his ears, with his friends going down all around him to throw a stick in the fire it worried him more.
Jake glanced along his row. Michael and Jasper had gone forward and that was great. And there was Illya. Jake stared at him. Illya was sitting quietly enough, cross legged, but he was watching the bonfire and the boys throwing sticks into it with a deep yearning sadness that had nothing of childhood in it. Jake watched him for a little while, resolving to seek him out and try to talk to him later. He'd have to get him alone—but an opportunity would arise tonight, he was sure of it. Illya was a curiously solitary little boy despite his easy way of making friends. He slipped out at night when he thought Jake didn't know to walk to the edge of the woods, staring into them, or up towards the night sky. Jake always heard him leave—there was a loose floorboard in the cabin right by his bed—but he would feign sleep until Illya had quietly closed the door behind him, then go to the window and watch him. If Illya had ever shown any indication of going farther away Jake would have called him back but he never did, just stood there for a while before coming back in and climbing into his bunk. Homesick, no question. He was having fun, he loved his horse, he enjoyed all the facilities of the camp, but he missed his guardian too. Jake never had to urge him to write home—he faithfully filled in one of his little postcards every afternoon during quiet time and made sure it got in the mailbag. Tonight, right in the heart of the woods, Illya would not be able to resist going out again and this time Jake would meet him, as if by chance, would see if he could get the kid to talking, see if he could do something about the sorrow that was still on his face now.
Jake firmly believed that he was placed in his position by God, that each child in his care was there for a reason, because he had something to learn from Jake and Jake from him. He tried to get close to his boys, but Illya, despite his quaint old fashioned manners and that sly sense of humor was closed off to ordinary human contact. Even his friendships didn't run deep—he would leave without a backward look at any of them, Jake knew. But he was vulnerable now, although he was covering it even as Jake watched him, as the preaching ended, as the boys came back to their rows and talking and laughter started up again.
The good smell of grilling hamburgers came to their nostrils and when Jake passed out the marshmallows and graham crackers, the thick slabs of milk chocolate, and they crowded around the campfire Illya took his with all the normal glee of a nine year old boy. Later he got silly with the rest as the counselors took turns telling ghost stories, laughing and shrieking when two CITs dressed as hoboes leaped into their midst at the climax of a murderous tale. But much later, when the fire had died down and the food was gone, when nightly prayers were over and the solitary bugle had played Taps, as the camp settled in to sleep for the night Jake, lying wakeful by the entrance of their tent saw the little figure steal past the shapes of boys in their sleeping bags, shoes in hand, and go outside. Jake whispered instructions to Ronnie, and followed.
It was a good thing he had, Jake thought a little later, because Illya had left their temporary encampment behind altogether and was deep into the woods by the time he stopped. He climbed a boulder that overlooked the path and sat there, knees drawn up to his chin, chin resting on them, arms wrapped around himself against the chill of the night. He wore the practical flannel pajamas he had arrived with, and at least he'd had the sense to put on his shoes but he had to be cold. Jake slipped off the path, made a circuit around him and came back as if returning from a late night hike of his own. He deliberately scuffed leaves and whistled, not wanting to sneak up on the kid and when he reached the boulder a wave of dismay swept him. Illya was gone. Had he taken fright and run into the woods? You could become lost here very easily. Abandoning pretense Jake called out. "Illya? Come back here before something happens to you." When nothing stirred Jake thought of Illya's fear that first night. "You're not in trouble, Illya, I promise. Please come back." Another moment passed and then a blond head appeared over the top of the boulder and those wide grey eyes peered at him. Jake relaxed. Illya had only slid backwards, out of sight. He must have been hanging off the rock, clinging by his fingers, making no sound. A child accustomed to hiding, Jake thought, and felt a pang.
"I'm not in trouble?"
"I'm not supposed to be out here."
"You're not supposed to be sneaking out any night but you do."
More of Illya's face came into view. "You—you knew about that?"
"It's my job to keep you safe, Illya. Of course I knew."
"You never said anything."
"You never went so far away before."
"I know. I just wanted to think."
"You couldn't think in the tent?"
"Mind if I join you?"
"Um—all right." Jake swung himself easily up onto the rock and sat beside Illya.
"Here." He draped his jacket over that thin body and Illya clutched it to him gratefully.
"Thank you. But aren't you cold now?"
"No. See? I have a sweatshirt on."
"Yes." Another silence fell. Jake waited, but Illya was apparently content to just sit there, side by side, listening to the night sounds around them.
"Were you wanting to go forward tonight? To the bonfire?"
"No. I've already been saved. Not like that," he hastened to explain. "Not with a fire. George took me to his church and the pastor talked to me and then we all prayed together."
"Reason I asked was you looked pretty unhappy, watching the others."
"Yes. Want to talk about it?"
Illya considered. Did he? Maybe Jake could answer his questions—and he was leaving in two days. If Jake didn't like him anymore when he was finished it wouldn't be so bad. It would make him sad, because he admired and respected Jake, but then he would go home and it would be all right. As long as Jake didn't... "Would you tell George what I said?"
"No. Well, let me qualify that. If you told me something that made me think you were in danger, or that someone else was, then I'd have to tell. Otherwise anything you say would be just between the two of us."
"Oh, no—no one's in danger. Except—except I suppose I'm going to hell. But that's not what you mean, I know."
"Illya—if you asked Jesus into your heart you're not going to hell. Didn't the pastor explain that to you?"
"Yes, but he also said the Holy Spirit would wash away all sin from my heart. And my heart is still full of sin. Black ugly hateful sin. And I don't think Jesus would want to live there. I didn't think so then, but I hoped maybe the pastor was right—that it would all disappear. But it didn't. I still hate him—them, but mostly him—so much. So much hatred. I'd kill him if I ever saw him again. So how can I be saved if that's still how I feel? And that means I won't go to heaven with George, and when I go to hell he'll be there."
Jake was silent, trying to sort out that mass of pronouns. "He who?"
"My—my uncle. I lived with him before George. He—he hurt me."
"He hurt me a lot, all the time and—and he let other people hurt me too. Really really bad." That was as much information as he was prepared to give out. "And I'm supposed to forgive my enemies but I can't. I don't even really want to because that's like saying what they did was all right and it's not! It's not all right and I hate them so much and I hate him the most of all! All this black feeling is inside me and I could throw the whole forest into the fire and I'd still hate them. But I'll miss George when I die." His voice broke and he lowered his forehead to his knees. This was a lot more than Jake had been looking for, he thought. Jake had probably expected to hear that Illya didn't like his cabin mates, or that he cheated at school or something like that. Then Jake laid a hand on his back, rubbing it gently.
"What a heavy load for such small shoulders," he said finally. "I know what I feel in my heart about this, Illya—just give me a moment to collect it into words."
"You don't have to. I know there's nothing you can do for me."
"I'm not going to start out by being dishonest with you. Not all of this is news to me. I was given advance notice that your life before Mr. Piper was—abusive and terrible, were the words the director used."
"He told you that? How did—oh. George."
Trying to smooth the way, Illya thought. Making sure that everyone was especially nice to him, that no one shouted at him or scared him. But Jake never shouted anyway, and he was nice to everyone.
"First of all if you asked Jesus into your heart you are saved. You were only seven. Did you mean it?"
"Yes—well, part of me wanted to please George because he was so good to me. But yes, I meant it."
"Then you are. You are going to heaven."
"Even if I still hate those men?"
"Yes. Jesus loves you, Illya. He loves all children, and you in particular. He doesn't blame you for anything. He wants to take this burden from you. Remember what He said about people who hurt His little ones? It would be far better for such a one if a millstone were tied around his neck and he was cast into the water." Those big eyes were fastened to his face and it was clear that Illya desperately wanted to believe him. "And Jesus brought you out of that situation, didn't He."
"Oh, yes. George said he thinks that's why he was sent to Russia, to save me. And when he was thinking it over and praying because he wasn't sure—he didn't think he knew enough about children—he opened his Bible and pointed his finger at it and it said 'And Jesus said suffer the children to come unto Me and forbid them not for of such is the Kingdom of Heaven'." He said that all in a rush, clearly repeating a story that had been told to him many times. "George says God put His Finger right on his heart and told him to take me."
The hairs stood up on the back of Jake's neck. "Then it was a miracle," he said softly. "Jesus reached right down from Heaven and lifted you up, put you in Mr. Piper's care. See how special you are to Him? He understands how you feel about your uncle. And forgiving them doesn't mean you let them off the hook. What they did to you was sin. A far blacker sin than any you've ever committed. And you can't do anything about their sin. Who is the only One Who can?"
"Yes. Forgiveness is for you, Illya. It's for you to let go of those black feelings that frighten you and make you feel separate from God. Your uncle has to work out his own salvation or you're right. He's going to hell. But that has nothing to do with you. You are innocent of his sin—of all adult sin. And Jesus wants you to forgive them so your heart can feel lighter. Not that what they did was okay. But that you are okay with yourself."
"I can't even really pray to forgive them. Part of me really wants to keep on hating them."
"Can you pray to want to forgive them?"
"You mean ask God to make me stop wanting to hate them?"
"Yes. Do you doubt that He can do it?"
"No—I know He can do anything."
"And it may be a long slow process, Illya. You start by asking Him to change you. To make a tiny little beginning that you might not even feel. It may take until you're an adult. God works in his own time. But as long as you're asking, you're walking in His Will."
"And you really don't think I'm going to hell? And if the Rapture comes while I'm still alive Jesus won't take George and leave me here all alone?" His voice shook—this particular scenario had caused him some sleepless nights.
"No." Jake reached out, brushed a strand of that long blond hair off Illya's face. "God didn't rescue you to throw you into hell, or to leave you behind either. He wants you to be with Him."
"I want that, too. Is it wrong that I mainly want to be with George?"
"No. God gives us our earthly fathers because he knows we all—grown ups too, but little children especially—need that human figure. And He lives in Mr. Piper's heart, right?"
"Oh yes." Illya knew that the way he knew the sun rose in the morning.
"So when you're loving the goodness of your earthly father you're loving Him. He makes it so easy for us, Illya. Isn't that a wonderful thing?"
"Want to pray about it right now?"
"Will you help me?"
"Sure." He watched Illya bow his head and shut his eyes, and closed his own big warm hands over those small icy ones. "Father—Illya has been carrying a load that no child should ever have to bear. Take it from him, You who love all children. Remind him of how much You love him, and how you turned from the marvelous ordering of the universe to see one hurt child and bring him out of harm's way, placing him in the care of Mr. Piper, who is pointing the way to You. Listen to Illya's words now, and move in his heart so he can know for certain that he belongs to You, that You will never leave him nor forsake him, and that when the time comes You will bring him home, to You. Amen."
"Dear God. I want to want to forgive them. I don't like this black feeling inside me. And thank You for camp, and for Jake and for George. Amen."
They sat for a while longer and then Illya put his arms around Jake's neck. "Thank you so much," he said, voice muffled. "I feel better." He drew back, and smiled into Jake's face. "You're a good man, Jake. Just like George and Mr. Waverly. I'm so lucky, that you're my counselor. Will you be here next year?"
"I plan to."
"Can I be with you again?"
"Thank you." He smiled at Jake, then yawned hugely and Jake hugged him.
"Come on. Let's get back."
"All right." Illya slid down the rock and took Jake's hand quite naturally. After a few minutes he yawned again, stumbled. Jake picked him up, wrapping the jacket more securely around him, and by the time they reached the tent Illya was asleep on his shoulder. He stirred a little when Jake slid him into his sleeping bag but quieted again and when Jake himself stretched out the only sounds around him were of deep, even breathing and soon enough he was asleep too.
Illya stood, straining his eyes to see each car as it emerged from the wooded drive. It was nearly eleven o'clock and he had been there for over an hour. Every white car made him catch his breath, then let it out with a gusty sigh when it was the wrong one. A hand fell on his shoulder and he turned. "Just a little longer," he pleaded and Jake nodded.
"You have about ten more minutes but then you have to go down to the corral. You have to get ready and you have to get Star ready too."
"George might not know where to go!"
"I'll stay here and bring him on myself," Jake promised.
"You'll make sure he gets a seat?"
"The best I can find."
"He told me to be good and not run off without telling you where I am. But I did anyway. Are you going to tell him?"
"No. I trust you to, and I'm sure he'll understand." Neither one paid any attention to the big black car pulling in. Then Illya made a strangled sound as a man got out of the passenger seat.
"That's Mr. Waverly! Why"—then his face turned chalk white. "Something's happened," he whispered. "Something's happened to George. He must be here to tell me."
"Illya—you don't know that." But Jake was uneasy. He too wondered what Alexander Waverly was doing here.
Illya couldn't breathe. Something terrible must have happened. What—how could he live without George? Without George's strong arms, George's kind voice, kind even when George was being stern, George's love? George, the first and only person in the world who had ever loved him? The only person he had given his own love to, unconditionally? And what—what would become of him? He felt ashamed, for thinking that, but he couldn't help it. I'll be sent back, he thought wildly. Only George loved me enough to take care of me. They'll send me back—I'll kill myself. His whole body tensed to run, to run and hide in the woods, to stay there until he died like the lost boy he had heard about from years back. Only Jake's hand on his shoulder kept him where he was and then the other car door opened and George stepped out.
Breath rushed back, life rushed back and Illya was gone, flying down the slope, his feet barely seeming to touch the ground, coming to the edge of the field, leaping off the stone wall separating the field from the parking lot, landing in George's arms which closed around him tightly. He wrapped his own arms around George's neck and covered his face with kisses, pressing his wet cheek against George's own, legs wrapped around George's waist, clinging like a limpet to the rock of his security. He had had fun, he had enjoyed camp, but now—now he was home.
"Honey, honey," George said, squeezing Illya nearly breathless. "What's wrong?" He wiped the tears from Illya's face with one finger, then hugged him again. "What is it?"
"I thought—when I saw him and not you I thought—I was afraid." The bottom of the world had dropped out from under him for a moment and the relief now made him giddy. "Oh George I'm so glad to see you! I missed you so much! And you're just in time because I have to go get ready for the rodeo and Jake said he'd get you a good seat so you can see me." He had to stop to breathe, and George patted his back.
"I'm sorry you got a scare. Mr. Waverly wanted to see you ride, that's all." Illya looked over George's broad shoulder at the grey haired man in the brown tweed suit and smiled brilliantly at him. Waverly smiled back. Then Illya began trying to get free of George's arms, which opened to let him slide to the ground.
"I'm sorry but I have to go get Star ready," he said breathlessly. "I'll see you after the rodeo, all right? I'm so glad you're here!" He took off for the corral and George looked at Jake and laughed.
"He's pretty excited about this."
"It's incredible that he qualified," Jake said. He put his radio in his pocket, having called the director to pass on the news that Alexander Waverly was here to see George Piper's ward in the rodeo, and he knew that even now two prime seats were being set aside for them. "Never ridden before this week, he told me."
"Well, he's a natural. All the other boys in the barrel race have been riding for years. You should be very proud of him."
"I am." Illya came running back and George scooped him up. "What, honey?"
"I wanted to be sure you were really here." He kissed George again, then dropped to the ground and ran off. George watched him go, then saw Jake smiling and smiled back.
"That's a nice little kid, Mr. Piper. Sir?" Addressing Waverly. "Director Stevens says there's time if you want to freshen up at his cabin.
"Thank you, Mr.?"
"Williams, sir. Jake Williams."
"Mr. Williams. I would like that."
"I know Illya's going to give you a tour after the rodeo," Jake said as the three of them fell into step together. "And considering the high voltage he's been on all day you might not have a chance to breathe for a while. So take your time—I'll come back and get you at about 11:40. All right?"
"Thank you, Mr. Williams," Waverly said gravely and George followed him into the director's neat little cabin.
By the time Illya came out of the chute George was a wreck. Barrel racing seemed to him incredibly dangerous. The boys thundered across the arena on their fleet horses, weaving around strategically placed barrels, jumping over hurdles. Three boys had already been thrown and one horse caught its hoof on a hurdle and horse and rider fell together in a tangle of bodies and dust. Everyone seemed to be all right but when the caller announced Illya's name George's hands were wet where they gripped the rail in front of him.
Unlike most of the other riders Illya used neither crop nor heels. Boy and horse seemed one as Star flew down the course. Twice her hooves touched the barrels but those were the only missteps and the two of them soared over the jumps with room to spare. When they disappeared back into the chute George exhaled and pried his hands off the rail. He had been so busy worrying about Illya's safety that he hadn't really been able to assess his performance but the applause around him was sustained and vigorous. As the event proceeded there were other boys who came through with no technical errors, and George supposed that put them ahead but he saw no one else who came close to matching Illya's grace and unity with his mount. But maybe he was prejudiced. He turned to Jake, who had seated himself behind them.
"Illya was pretty good, wasn't he?" he asked and Jake nodded.
"He was great. He won't take first, not with Star touching the barrels, but for a kid who's only been riding a week it was remarkable. He has a real gift, Mr. Piper, and he loves it. If it's at all possible he should be encouraged to continue."
"But it's so dangerous."
"It's not as dangerous as it looks," Jake said and Alexander Waverly spoke at the same time.
"Life is dangerous, Mr. Piper, as your young man knows quite well. If you like, I can arrange lessons for him."
"I don't want it to interfere with his school work," George said, feeling he was being pushed into something he wasn't sure he liked. When he had promised Illya riding lessons last mont, he had pictured slow, gentle trail rides, not this, this... Waverly nodded.
"It is your decision, of course But I am sure something could be arranged for after school."
"He'd have no way to get there." Waverly regarded him, looking amused.
"You know, Mr. Piper, at this moment you bear a remarkable resemblance to your ward." George scowled. "If transportation were not a problem, would you withdraw your objections?" Before George could answer the judge rose.
He announced two honorable mentions, then cleared his throat. "Third place—Illya Kuryakin on Star." There was more applause. Jake stood and put two fingers in his mouth, whistled shrilly. Illya came out, posting nicely to Star's trot and sat while a garland was placed around her neck. Then he accepted his white ribbon and looked around for George. When he saw him he stood up in the stirrups and waved the ribbon, beaming from ear to ear. Beaming too, George waved back. The second and first place ribbons went to riders who had had no flaws and Illya clearly didn't grudge it—his face was alight. Later, when they went in search of him they found him talking to Star and rubbing her down.
"George!" He waved at them over the stable door. He was standing on a stool so he could reach the horse's back. "I won! And those others have been riding for years and years! And it wasn't Star's fault that she hit those barrels—I didn't guide her right. But Hank says if I'd had more time to practice I'd have been in first place easy. And Hank says I should take lessons when I get home."
"He's the riding instructor and he's in charge of the stables. Can I have lessons? Please?"
"We'll see." But he would say yes, George knew. He had never held Illya back before and he wasn't going to start now. "Mr. Waverly said he'd arrange it," he added reluctantly and Illya turned his smile on Waverly, who was looking impeccable as ever in the dusty stable.
"Thank you sir."
"It must not interfere with your schooling," Waverly warned and Illya shook his head.
"It won't. I can do both. George says I can do anything."
"I sure have a big mouth," George grumbled and Illya cocked his head curiously.
"Nothing. You just be careful. I don't want you to fall off."
"I've fallen off hundreds of times," Illya boasted, patting Star once more before coming out and locking the door. "Hanks says it's all in how you fall. And he says I'm so light I don't hit too hard. And it's so much fun, George. It's" he hesitated, awed by what he was about to say. "It's even better than swimming."
George reacted properly. "No! I thought nothing was better than swimming."
"Me too. But swimming—it's something I do alone. I like that, it's nice not to be on a team all the time, you know? But riding—Star and I are together. It's like flying. And—oh!" He whirled around, ran back into the stall where Star was munching on her hay. "I won't see you again until next year!" He hugged her. "I'll miss you so much, Star. I hope the next boy is good to you." He sounded near tears. George looked at Waverly.
"If he's riding anyway," he began, "wouldn't it be better for him to have his own horse instead of taking whatever's available? And he's already attached to this one."
"If the veterinary records check out we will arrange it," Waverly promised. "Best not to say anything to him." Suddenly serious, he put a hand on George's shoulder and, surprised at the unusual contact, George stared at him. "You did a brave and wise thing, encouraging him to come here," Waverly said quietly. "I know it was difficult."
"I wasn't sure. He was so sad, and so scared... how could I know if it was the right thing or not?"
"You couldn't know, but your instinct was good. I am—UNCLE is—very pleased with your handling of this responsibility. You have taken an appalling and shameful episode and turned it into a triumph." He was looking at Illya, who had finished talking into Star's ear and was locking up again. "He wants to be a good man, and I cannot think of anyone better to show him the way."
"Thank you sir. That means a great deal, coming from you." It did. He was overwhelmed, wanted to hide his emotion and was relieved to be distracted by Illya, who was standing in front of him now, looking nervous.
"I have a really big favor to ask you. An enormous favor."
He wanted to stay longer. George knew it without question. Illya wanted to stay another week, or two, or all summer. And he'd say yes, what else could he say, and go back to that empty house. Waverly's words were gratifying but they wouldn't keep him company tonight, when he'd counted on being able to brush the tangles out of Illya's hair and tuck him into bed. "Go on."
Illya swallowed. "Well—the director said at breakfast this morning that they had too many barn cats and kittens around and anyone who wants one and will give it a good home can have it. And there's one—she's shy and the other boys chase her sometimes. They chase all of them—not to hurt them," he added hastily, "but they think it's fun and it scares her I can tell. But she likes me—she sleeps on my bunk at quiet time and I make them leave her alone. Can I—can I take her home? Please? I'll take care of her, I promise. They had a book on cats at the Trading Post and I bought it—thank you for the extra money," he added belatedly, "and I read it and I know what to do. Please?" He knew George didn't want any animals in the house—he had turned down all prior requests for puppies and hamsters and rabbits and everything else that had been offered. He fixed imploring eyes on George's face. "She won't understand that I'm gone. She'll come to the cabin looking for me and they'll chase her and I won't be there to stop them and she won't understand."
"Well now," George said, greatly relieved that Illya still wanted to come home with him and relieved, too, that for this particular favor he had one of his father's scripts ready to go. "A pet is a big responsibility, Illya," he lectured. "You'll have to clean her litter box and pay for her food out of your allowance. She'll need to see a vet regularly and get shots and you'll have to help pay for that, too." Illya was nodding eagerly.
"I will. And if I don't have enough for the vet I'll do work around the house. And I'll bathe her—she's pretty dirty," he added, wanting to be truthful. "And I think—I think she might have fleas. Maybe."
"It'd be pretty hard bathing a half wild barn cat," George said, struggling with the laughter the image called up. "But before I let her in the house she'll see the doctor and get a flea bath too."
"So I can have her?" Illya was jumping up and down. "Oh George, thank you! Thank you so much! Let me go find her right now!"
"Hold on a minute. You know that means we can't go to the Game Farm. You can't leave an animal in the car in this heat. We'll have to go straight home."
"Oh." Illya hadn't considered that. He'd been looking forward to the Game Farm all week. He stood and thought about it while the two men watched him, then he looked up at George again. "That's all right. I'd like to go to the Farm and ride the elephant and all, but her feeling safe with me is more important than me having fun at the Farm. Isn't it."
"Yes, honey, it is." George caressed that expectant little face gently. "You're absolutely right. You go on and find her. I'm sure I can scrounge up a box."
"She won't like being in a box. Can't she ride on my lap?"
"No. If she got loose in the car it would be dangerous." Illya looked mutinous and Waverly intervened.
"And if there should be an incident on the road she might get away and be lost," he warned, and Illya's eyes widened.
"That would be terrible! All right. There are boxes in the tack room. Ask Hank. Oh." He suddenly remembered his manners. "Would you like me to show you around?" he asked Waverly. "George saw everything when he brought me here, but you didn't. I can look for her at the same time. I can show you the lake, and the meeting hall, and the cabin—would you like that?"
"Yes, I would. Mr. Piper—you can arrange about the box and the other matter we discussed while your ward and I explore the grounds. Does that suit?"
"Yes sir. Illya—I'll meet you at your cabin in an hour."
"All right. I'm so glad to see you, George. I like camp, and I want to come back next year and stay for two weeks, because I think it would be fun to be here on a Saturday and be one of the old kids, but I'm really glad to be going home. I missed you a lot."
"I missed you too."
"Of course I did."
"You were so glad when I said I'd stay, I thought... I wondered..." George dropped to his knees so he could look right into Illya's eyes.
"I missed you terribly. I even went back to work because I couldn't stand that empty house. But it was good for you to come, and stay, and succeed. Don't you think so?"
"Yes." He knew it was. He felt immeasurably more self confident and secure. "It was."
"Well, then. It was more important for you to do this than for me to be happy keeping you home with me."
"So it would have been the easy way for you not to send me?"
"Yes." He thought of the agony of that decision, the tearing pain of driving away, watching Illya in the rear view mirror. "Much easier."
"But you really did miss me?"
"Yes he did," Waverly said dryly. "He was irritable and bad tempered and I for one am glad you are coming home."
Illya laughed at the look on George's face. He kissed George's cheek, then George stood again and went off towards the tack room and Illya took Waverly's hand and led him out the door.
They saw the lake, and Illya explained that you had to pass various swimming tests to use the deeper sections, to go off the high dive, to canoe. He didn't brag that he had done it all, he assumed Waverly knew. Then, as they went along the path towards the cabin he stopped, looked at the older man seriously.
"I was really worried when I saw you," he began.
"I am sorry. But it was perspicacious of you nonetheless. If something indeed were wrong, I would have come to tell you myself."
"If anything happened to George—I wouldn't know what to do. I'd have no one who loved me. I'd have no one I loved. I'd be all alone again with no one to take care of me. I'd want to die."
"I understand that your grief would be terrible, and that no one would ever be able to replace Mr. Piper in your heart, or in your life. It would be a wound you would carry with you forever. But you would be taken care of."
"Would you send me back to Russia? Because I know only George loves me enough to be my guardian." Was it selfish for him to even think about that? If George—died—he forced himself to think the word, he would want to die too. But probably he wouldn't. Was it wrong to wonder what would happen to him? It was a question he couldn't ask aloud, but Waverly saw it in his face.
"No. You will never be sent back. You would have the choice of coming to live with my wife and myself, and attending a private school in Manhattan, or going to Broadmere as was originally planned. You could then count on spending your holidays with us. It shows maturity on your part to think of that," he added, answering the other, unspoken question. "Maturity—and courage." Too much of both, he thought, for a child of nine.
"Oh." Illya was relieved. It was as if he'd been looking down from a dizzying height, and now there was a net underneath him. "Thank you."
"You are welcome." They walked on, and when they arrived at the cabin Illya dropped flat on his stomach, peering underneath.
"Smoky," he called softly. "Come here, Smoky." In a moment a scrawny grey cat came out and went straight to Illya, who scooped her up and rose. "I get to take you home with me," he said. "You'll have to be in a box and you might be scared but no one's going to chase you anymore. I promise" He smiled over her head at Waverly, who smiled back at him, struck, as he was occasionally, by the child's beauty. His face was dirty, his hair, pulled back into that ponytail, was a mess, he bore scrapes and bruises on his knobby little knees and on both elbows, but his luminous beauty shone through all that. Waverly thought he might have a difficult time as he went through adolescence, and resolved to enroll him in the best unarmed combat classes he could find.
"Do you still plan to come and work for us when you grow up?" he asked and Illya nodded.
"Yes. I'm getting ready now. George says computers will be the big thing by then and he's arranged for me to take classes in them next year. And electronics. And radios. You'll want me," he said again. "I'm smart and I'm strong—I never forget anything I read, or anything I hear and I won't mind killing people if I have to." Waverly kept his neutral expression with difficulty.
"I know about UNCLE." Illya looked directly at him and Waverly remembered that he did know, knew far too much. "You work on the good side, but you're still secret police in a way. Sometimes you have to kill people when they're traitors, or dangerous. I won't mind doing that if it's necessary. George says it's like being a soldier in a war."
"And who will decide if it's necessary?"
"Mostly you will, I suppose. Or whoever's above me, if you're too old." Waverly blinked at that but Illya went on. "But sometimes I'll have to decide, and by then I'll know how."
Waverly nodded. We will want you, he thought. Brilliant, well educated, striving for integrity yet deadly in a way that will surprise anyone going solely by appearance. Yes indeed, we will want you. "I see," was all he said, and then George appeared with a box. He opened it and Illya put the cat in, pulling his hands out quickly when George closed the flaps. A yowl came from inside and a commotion of clawing that made the box shake. The yowling rose and George, thinking of the long trip in the closed car, shook his head. He looked at Waverly.
"Sorry," he said, and Waverly smiled.
"Can I hold it on my lap?" Illya asked.
"No. We'll put it in the space between the front and back seat—it'll be safe there."
"But I want to hold it!"
"No, I said. Ready to go?"
"Do I have time to say good-bye to Star again?"
"No," George said again, firmly. "And you said good-bye already. Some things are best done once and quickly." He saw Illya's mouth droop. "Besides," he added, "look how unhappy she is." He indicated the box from which mournful wails were coming. "The sooner we get her home the better."
"All right. Where's Jake? I can't go without saying good-bye to Jake once more!"
"He's taking his new boys on a tour of the barn," George said and watched Illya's mouth turn down again. "I hope that's not sulking I see," he added warningly and Illya shook his head.
"Good. Then do something about that look on your face and do it now."
Unexpectedly Illya laughed. "I missed you so much, George. But you know something?" They were walking together towards the car, Illya struggling with the awkward box.
"When Jake sees me look like that he gives me hot chocolate."
"Jake isn't responsible for how you grow up, and he doesn't live with you twenty-four hours a day. I won't tolerate pouting and you know it."
"Yes." Illya rubbed his cheek against George's arm. "Can we get something to eat on the way?"
"Sure." George tousled his hair. He wedged the box securely behind the driver's seat and saw Illya settled in the back before climbing behind the wheel, waiting while Waverly fastened his seat belt, and pulling out. This time he didn't have to look in the rear view mirror, this time he only had to glance over his shoulder to see Illya sitting there, legs curled under him, head craned to see the camp behind them, then he turned to face the front with a contented sigh that made both men smile, and George pointed the car towards home.
In New York they parked the company car next to George's own. Illya, who had been fighting sleep for the past two hours, scrambled out with the box in his hands. Smoky had evidently abandoned herself to her fate because not a sound had been heard from her since they had left camp. Illya wanted to open the box and check, but George was stern. "If she escapes in the parking garage we'll never find her."
"But she's so quiet! What if she's dead?"
"Then there's nothing you can do for her anyway."
"Enough." The sharpness of his tone brought tears to Illya's eyes.
"If you missed me you wouldn't talk to me like that," he accused and George faced him, arms folded.
"Young man, you've picked up a bad habit of talking back and I won't put up with it. You're not at camp anymore, and I'm not an eighteen year old kid. I'm your guardian and you'll speak to me with respect."
"I'm not trying to be disrespectful," Illya protested, then, seeing the thunderclouds gather on George's face, capitulated. "But I'm sorry it sounded that way."
George wasn't satisfied. "It was that way and don't play me for a fool. You're not too big for me to turn over my knee and..." here, for the first time, his father's script failed him. George had been thrashed regularly in his youth and believed stoutly that it had done him good. But he had never lifted a hand to Illya and never would. To do so, to strike him, would violate every promise, both spoken and unspoken, that was between them. So he floundered under Waverly's quizzical eyes, under Illya's uncomprehending gaze. "Well, not too big to stay inside all day tomorrow," he finished. "Now I'm tired, Illya, and so is Mr. Waverly. We had a long drive today. Say goodnight to him and come on."
"Yes, George." He turned to Waverly, who had been leaning against the car, watching the little scene with amusement. Illya saw the amusement and flushed. "Goodnight, Mr. Waverly. I'm sorry to have kept you."
"Quite all right." It had occurred to Waverly that Illya might not be the only one to have a rough time during his adolescence. As a child he was already willful and headstrong, qualities held in check now by Piper's strong hand. As he grew older, and Piper of necessity loosened his grip that willfulness would grow and it would be nearly impossible to control him. Waverly had already considered the question of a future partner for him, for although Piper's view of his ward had him safely tucked away in UNCLE's science laboratories Illya would be a field agent or he missed his guess—and he never did. And it was never too early to think of these things. Someone older, and experienced, someone who would be indisputably in charge. But someone with the insight and flexibility to appreciate and utilize his gifts. Waverly looked at him again. Someone adamantly heterosexual. And kind. With the right partner, what an asset Illya Kuryakin would be. But right now he was still a child, remembering his manners and trying to make amends. Waverly smiled. "Let me take this," he said firmly, removing the box from Illya's arms before he could react. "I will have her delivered to a veterinarian, and Mr. Piper can pick her up when she is ready."
"That's very kind," George said sharply. "Thank you sir. Illya?"
"Thank you sir."
Waverly nodded. "You should have slept in the car," he chided gently, looking at the circles under those blue eyes, seeing the yawns he was trying to smother.
"I don't like to."
"Nosy boots doesn't want to miss anything," George teased and gave him an affectionate shove. Illya smiled at him, then, looking back at Waverly, felt a surge of affection for this man who had come so far to see him, who had calmed his fears and spread the safety net under him. Impulsively he stood on his toes so he could throw his arms around Waverly's neck and kiss his cheek. Startled, Waverly stood still for it. Then it was over and Illya backed away.
"Thank you," he said earnestly. "Thank you for everything."
"You are most welcome." He was touched. "I will meet you in two weeks for lunch. You can tell me how the riding lessons are coming.
"I will. I mean," nudged sharply by George, "yes, sir. I will. Goodnight, sir."
"Goodnight, Illya. Mr. Piper..." he and George shook hands, then Waverly went into his office to call his wife, a veterinarian, and a taxi. Illya climbed into the front seat and settled himself in for the ride out to Long Island.
Later, fed, bathed and drowsy, he lay in bed. He was in new pajamas. George had painstakingly combed the tangles out of his hair and now it lay soft and loose around him. The branches of the maple tree cast their shadows on his ceiling and he was waiting for George to come in and hear his prayers. When George did so, in his own pajamas and robe Illya sat up, arms clasped around his knees. "I have something I should tell you."
"You know how you said not to go off and not tell them where I was? Well, I did."
"Please don't be mad. I didn't go far, just out of the cabin at night to the edge of the woods. I needed to get away and think."
"About you, mostly, and what you might be doing right then, and how many hours there were until I saw you again. I had fun but especially at night I really wished I were here. And it turned out Jake knew where I was, he heard me leave and always watched me from the window."
"Hmph. So you kept him up."
"But you never went farther than that?"
"Well—the night of the camp out I did. I went far away into the woods."
"All alone? At night?" George was horrified. "Illya—you might have gotten lost! And there are still bears and wolves in those woods!"
Illya's lips tightened. Did George think he was a baby? "I wasn't going to get lost, George," he said with exaggerated patience. "I stayed on the trail and watched the markers. And... all right, I was wrong," he added hastily as George's face darkened again. "But Jake followed me anyway."
George frowned at him. He didn't like the tone of Illya's voice, or the look on his face. He hadn't expected to have to lean on him this soon, but clearly the staff at camp hadn't required the same respect he himself demanded. He sat down on the bed. "Illya," he said, not harshly but firmly. "I am not going to battle you over every little thing. You know what I expect from you. That hasn't changed because you've been away, and I'm not going to overlook anything because I'm glad to see you. Now I don't want any more nonsense from you and if I see it again you will spend the next week in your room. Am I making myself clear?"
Illya nodded, abashed but relieved too that he had gone away and come back and nothing had changed. He rolled towards George on the bed, put his head on George's lap. George stroked his hair. "Anything else you need to tell me?" He was pleased, that Illya had confessed his misbehavior. But the fact was, grown men with equipment had been turned around in those woods. The fact was a boy had gotten lost out there ten summers ago and his body wasn't found until the next spring. The fact was... he brushed Illya's cheek with the back of his hand. The fact was Illya was right here, safe and sound, clean and sweet smelling, flushed with sleepiness, smiling up at him. He smiled back.
"No, nothing bad. But I do want to tell you something."
Illya told him all about that conversation with Jake. "So I'm praying to want to forgive them," he concluded. "Jake says that doesn't mean I'm saying what they did was all right. He says forgiveness is for me, to take away those scary feelings. I thought maybe I wasn't really born again because I still hate them—because I still want to kill him. But Jake says I am."
"Of course you are, honey," George said fiercely. "How could you think God would hold any of that against you? You were a baby. And I haven't forgiven them myself. I'd like to kill him too. How long have you been fretting over this?"
"Since we prayed with the pastor. I kept thinking how much I'd miss you when I was in hell and you weren't, and how my uncle would be in hell too and I hadn't gotten away from him after all."
Two years, George thought, looking at him. Two years you've carried that around. I thought I was doing something that would help you, and all I did was add to your fears. "I'm sorry," he said gruffly. "I should have made things plainer."
"That's all right. I mean, it's not like I thought about it night and day or anything. Just sometimes. I thought about it more at camp because they had that meeting and people went down to be saved and that made me worry about it again."
"But you're all right now?"
"Oh, yes. I pray every night to want to forgive them and Jake says that's enough for me to be in God's will." He paused. "You still hate them?"
"Yes." He did. The more he loved Illya, the more he hated those men—Petrovich in particular. He looked at the little body in front of him, so vulnerable still, at nine, and thought again of the terrible things Illya had told him. He leaned over, wrapped both arms around him and Illya wriggled with pleasure, put his own arms around George's waist.
"I'm so glad to be home, George."
"I'm glad to have you home."
"You could pray with me," Illya offered. "You could pray to want to forgive them, too."
"All right." Illya pushed his head into George's stomach and they prayed together in silence, speaking without words of hatred and forgiveness and love. When George opened his eyes Illya was asleep, curled around George, still holding on. George stayed there for a long time, reluctant to separate but finally, when his own head began to nod he very carefully lifted Illya just enough to ease him onto his pillows, drew the covers up to his chin, kissed his forehead and got up. He closed the blinds so the morning sun wouldn't wake him too early and went out, leaving the door open so Illya could hear him snoring. In his own bed he thought about Illya in the next room, safe and at peace under their shared roof, and soon both he and the child were smiling in their sleep.