Child of Morning, Child of Night—the End of the Story
Dedicated to Romanse, who inspired it, and me.
They lay together on the bed, darker and lighter limbs intertwined, blond hair tangled with brown in the moonlight. Napoleon turned his head and smiled when he saw that Illya was asleep, smiling to himself. He kissed Illya's cheek and Illya murmured something unintelligible, moving closer. Not asleep then. But still smiling. Napoleon kissed him again. Their lovemaking had been sweet and savage, blinding him, stealing his reason. He couldn't even remember just who had done what to whom, only that it had led to a blazing climax and this dazed, sweaty aftermath. Illya had been on top at some point, he knew, because he had looked up through Illya's hair, which had tumbled over his face, and seen Illya's eyes like stars, blazing down at him. Then he had rolled them over and it was he looking down, and Illya's eyes were still like stars, guiding him home.
"Mmm," Illya said, and kissed him back. Napoleon settled down comfortably, gathering Illya in, feeling Illya's head come to rest on his shoulder in the familiar way. It was all familiar. They had been together for a long time now, and every gesture, every caress, was sweetly familiar. Napoleon sighed with contentment, twining a strand of Illya's hair around his fingers, bringing it to his lips. There were a few strands of silver there now, as there were shades of grey in his own. But that was all right. They might be a little older but they were still together, and that was all that mattered.
He lifted his head to peer at Illya's face, looking remarkably untouched by the passing years. Illya looked as young to him now as he had the first day they met, although Illya always laughed at him when he said so. He said it now, just to hear that laughter.
"Don't get me wrong, Napoleon," Illya said, propping himself up on one elbow. "It's nice that you think so. But that was a long time ago."
"Not that long," Napoleon protested. "It just seems that way because so much has changed."
"Yes it has," Illya agreed. "Are you sorry?"
"No, I'm not sorry. It was glorious, those years in the field."
"Yes they were. Although I'm sure hindsight is rosier than the reality was. I certainly don't miss being shocked with a cattle prod..."
"Tortured by my own partner..."
"Dropped into a vat of cement..."
"Tied on my back while a razor sharp blade swung across tender portions of my anatomy..."
"Swathed like a mummy..."
"This could go on all night."
"Not to mention all those women." Illya gave him a sidelong look. Napoleon patted his back.
"But the best part was being partnered with you, Illya. And we still have that."
"Yes we do." Illya smiled at him, and he smiled back.
"How's George's cough?" he asked, yawning and pulling Illya back down beside him.
"I don't like the sound of it," Illya said. "I told him he might have pneumonia and should see a doctor, but he only laughed at me. He said, 'pneumonia my ass.'"
"He should go, Illya."
"I made him promise he would if he wasn't better by Monday. Mae said she'd see to it. She wants him fit and healthy for their tenth anniversary trip next month."
"Then I'm sure he'll go."
Napoleon was at work when he received the page. He looked at it and his blood went cold. UNCLE's ER. Illya's name.
He ran. He ran through the halls, thumped impatiently on the elevator panel, paced restlessly as it ascended. He ran through more halls and burst through the doors to the ER entrance.
"Illya Kuryakin," he gasped to the woman behind the admittance counter. "He was just brought in." She looked at her computer screen and shook her head. Napoleon's frustration mounted with his fear. "He just paged me," he insisted. "Look." He showed her the screen and she pushed her glasses down, peered over them.
"That's not this extension," she said. "That's Cardiac ICU. Down the hall, first..." her voice trailed off as Napoleon ran again.
Cardiac! What on earth... he skidded around the corner and through another set of doors.
"Illya Kuryakin!" he demanded of the clerk. And, when the man began to shake his head, Napoleon brought both fists down on the counter. "Don't tell me he's not here! I was sent up from —"
It was Illya's voice, very quiet and tight, and he turned. Illya was sitting on a bench. Across from him was a small knot of people whom Napoleon slowly recognized. Olivia, Mae's sister. Reverend Hardy, the pastor at George and Mae's church. "Oh." He crossed over, dropped onto the seat beside Illya. "George?" he asked.
"Yes." Illya's face was as tight as his voice. "It was walking pneumonia."
"Well, that's not so bad. Antibiotics..."
"It went to his heart," Illya continued as if Napoleon hadn't spoken. "He collapsed this morning and was taken to the hospital by ambulance. They brought him straight up here. Mae's in with him now. They're only letting him have one visitor at a time. He saw Mae, and Pastor Hardy, and now Mae again."
"And what about you?" Napoleon demanded. "That hardly seems..." then Mae came through the double swinging doors and walked over to them. Napoleon's heart sank at sight of her. Her face was puffy and swollen with tears and she was twisting a handkerchief between shaking hands.
"Illya," she said. "He wants to see you. Room 212, through those doors and make a right. Don't..." she choked up. "Don't be too long."
Illya didn't answer her. He got up, gave Napoleon a wan smile, and went in. Napoleon looked at Mae, but she had already turned into her sister's ready embrace and was sobbing on her shoulder.
Ah, no, Napoleon thought. It can't be... but of course it could. George was nearly seventy-five, and pneumonia in a man that age was no joke. Heart involvement only made the prognosis bleaker. And what will I do with you then, Illya? He had always wondered, had always dreaded this day... but maybe it wasn't here yet. George might be old, but he was robust. Impossible to picture all that vigor and stubbornness flickering out so quickly. Why, just last weekend... just last weekend George had been coughing. Deep, wrenching coughs and Illya had watched him with that worried little furrow between his eyebrows and Mae had fussed at him to go to the doctor. But still, there was a big difference between a cough and... and the CICU.
Illya walked down the hall. He didn't hurry. He walked at precisely his usual pace, which was a fast stride. He didn't cut any corners and, when he reached room 212, he tapped politely. It seemed as if he did everything the way he usually did, then everything would be all right. Of course it would be all right. Of course it would be.
A nurse opened the door. She beckoned him in and he crossed to the bed, looked down at the man lying in it. And a great wail rose within him, a shriek of pain and fear and it took everything he had to keep it inside.
George was dying. He knew it instantly. It wasn't the tubes and needles that told him, or the erratic lines on the monitors. He had seen death before, had seen it too many times, and he knew its harbingers. George's face was grey, his eyes were sunken and his hands plucked restlessly at the bedcovers. But when he opened his eyes at Illya's light touch and saw who was there he smiled, and it was the same as always, full of tenderness and love and joy at sight of him.
"Oh, George," Illya said. "Why didn't you go to the doctor when we told you? Now look at you. You'll be here for days. You'll miss the opening of baseball season." How foolish, he thought in wonder. What a foolish thing to say. He flushed. "I mean..."
"I know what you mean, honey." He gasped. "Now I don't have much time..."
"Yes you do," Illya protested. "You have plenty of time. If you get tired I can come back later. I can come back tomorrow. I can..." George shook his head.
"Listen to me," he said and although it was a faint echo of his commanding voice it silenced Illya immediately. "Now I've told Mae I want you to have the picture of us, and my old Bible. Illya, let me finish." He gasped for breath, and his face darkened. There was a bluish tint around his nostrils and lips and Illya reached for the call button. George swatted feebly at his hand.
"Don't do that. They can't do anything for me anyway except give me more morphine, and I don't want that. Just listen. I've only got a very little time left, and I want to be with Mae when I go. It's only right. So listen. Can you do that for me?"
"Of course I can," Illya said. "But you're wrong, George. You have... all right, I'll be quiet," he said hastily when George scowled.
"You have made me happier than anything else in my life, and I love you more than anyone or anything on this earth. Now I don't want to say that in front of Mae, because it would only hurt her. But it's the truth. Nothing in my life has given me more joy than taking you in and bringing you up. That trip to Moscow was the best thing that ever happened to me."
"Me too," Illya said, and marveled at himself. His voice was calm, and steady. "Me too, George. I love you too. And that day in Moscow—you were the best thing that ever happened to me, too."
"This isn't the end," George went on. "We'll meet again. You were saved back when you were little, and I think God understands about you and Solo. I'm sure of it. It's not your fault you turned out that way. When it's your time to cross over I'll be there to greet you. I know it. God is telling me so right now."
And Napoleon? Illya thought, but did not ask. Just as he had not been able to tell George that he loved him best of all, he could not say that heaven would be incomplete for him without Napoleon. He only smiled at George, and squeezed his hand.
"I know you will," he said.
"So I won't say goodbye. See you later, honey." George reached out, stroked a strand of Illya's long blond hair back behind his ear. "You should get a haircut," he complained, as he had so many times before. "Makes you stand out, look different from your friends. Even though you're so good at sports, you shouldn't look too different. I want... I want you to have a normal childhood." His voice was fading. "Just like regular kids have. That bastard... I won't let him take that away from you."
"He didn't," Illya said steadily. "He took nothing from me that you didn't give back a hundredfold. You made me very happy, George." He leaned over and kissed that lined forehead, then kissed George's cheek as he had when he was little.
"Pray with me," George whispered. Without waiting for an answer he closed his big hands around Illya's. Illya bent his head and closed his eyes, feeling time slip backwards as he heard that deep rumbling voice talking to God as if He were right in the room with them, as he had heard it every night throughout his childhood.
"God, I have to leave Illya now. I'm ready, Lord. I'm tired and worn out, and I'm eager to see Your face. But be with him. Give him strength and courage, and remind him that I'm still watching out for him. Help me find some way to let him know it. Thank You for entrusting him to me. Thank you for pointing me to that verse, so I knew where Your Will lay. Amen."
"Amen," Illya echoed. There was a moment of stillness, then George coughed again.
"Time to go," he said, releasing Illya's hand. "Fetch Mae for me. I wanted to see Solo too, to tell him he needs to take care of you now, but I guess he'll figure that out for himself. See you soon."
"See you soon," Illya repeated obediently, then he left. He walked down the hall and back into the waiting room.
Mae sprang up. "Is he... can I..."
"Go on in," Illya said. "He's waiting for you." Then he went back to his bench and sank down by Napoleon's side.
Napoleon put an arm around his shoulder. The crowd around Mae had grown while he waited; relatives and friends, people from church. But this bench was isolated. It had been just him, and now it was just the two of them. He squeezed Illya.
"Hey," he said softly. He didn't like Illya's colorless face, the icy feel of his hands. He chafed them, trying to warm them. "You holding up?"
"Yes." It was all he said, but he tightened his fingers around Napoleon's hands briefly and sat back to wait.
It wasn't long. Within fifteen minutes Mae was back out, and the look on her face told the story clearly enough. She flung herself into her sister's arms and burst into wailing tears. Her family gathered around her, the pastor embraced the two weeping women, and a hospital representative was talking to them softly.
Illya sat like stone in Napoleon's embrace. Inside him was a great tearing, a rending of his very being. George was dead? George? Dead? A scream of terror and loss echoed in his brain and he wished he could embrace that little boy somehow, wished he could spread out a safety net for him the way Waverly had done so long ago. But he didn't know how. He didn't know how to do anything except sit here because once he moved, once he went on to the next thing, then this insanity would really be true. Once he began thinking of what happened now, once he... "Mr. Kuryakin?"
He looked up at Pastor Hardy. "Yes?" he said politely.
"I will share this with Mae at a later time, but I want you to know that George has already made all his arrangements. Years ago. I can fax you the details, if you like. There is no need for you to exert yourself at this sad time."
"I see," Illya said.
"And while there is no point in telling you not to grieve, remember this. Right now, as we speak, George is with his Savior. Right now the Lord is telling him 'Well done, my good and faithful servant.'"
"Yes," Illya said. "I suppose that's true. Thank you, Pastor Hardy." He rose—moving on after all, he thought. Moving on to the next thing after all. But he didn't want to. Didn't want to think, didn't want to... well, he didn't have to, did he. No, he didn't.
"Take me home, Napoleon," he said, and without a word Napoleon turned him towards the door. Illya relaxed against him. Napoleon would take care of it. Napoleon would call the cab, give their address, pay the fare and add the tip. Napoleon would bring him up in the elevator, disarm the security system and rearm it, too, once they were inside. There was a safety net after all, and while he wasn't sure how much comfort that brought the little boy he could still sense wailing out his loss deep within him, it was good not to have to think. Not to have to do anything at all.
Napoleon cooked that night while Illya sat on the sofa and stared into space. He cooked, and checked on plans for the upcoming viewing and service, whisking eggs with one hand, holding the phone with the other. He was talking to Olivia, because Mae was in bed under sedation.
"I thought it best," Olivia had said when he asked to speak to Mae. "I'm a nurse, as you may remember."
He did remember. He remembered a child stung by a bee at a summer barbeque, and Olivia's cool professionalism. The thought brought an unexpected pang. That was over, he was sure. Illya and Mae had never been close, and without George holding them together there would be no more summer barbeques out on Long Island, no more Thanksgivings spent all together. He wondered if Illya would mind.
"Give her a good night's sleep," Olivia was going on. "Some time to begin the healing process."
Napoleon nodded. "It was a good idea." A very good idea, he thought, looking Illya's way again.
"The funeral will be day after tomorrow, two o'clock, at George and Mae's church," Olivia continued. "There will be a viewing the night before. Tomorrow night."
"George really did take care of everything. There's even an outline for the program, with his favorite hymns and all. There's a spot for Illya to speak."
"There will also be an open invitation for anyone who knew George to say a few words. I think it would be nice if you did. There won't be a lot of people from his family there. In fact, it will just be the two of you. I don't want it to be too loaded with Mae's side, and besides, she's only known him for a little over eleven years. You and he go back further than that, and of course Illya knew him for the longest time. Do you think he'll do it?"
"If George wanted him to, he will," Napoleon answered.
"All right. We'll see you two tomorrow night?"
"Yes. What time?"
"It starts at five, when most people would be getting off work. But you should come a little ahead."
"All right. Thank you, Olivia."
"You're welcome, Napoleon. And tell Illya I'm very sorry for his loss. It got a bit crazy there at the hospital, and I didn't get a chance to speak to him, but I know how close he and George were. How's he holding up?"
"He's doing as well as can be expected," Napoleon answered, lifting and folding the omelet he was working on. "How is Mae?"
"She cried all evening until I knocked her out. She's still crying in her sleep. Those two really loved each other."
"I know." He thought of that day, standing in the little church watching George lift his eyes in thanksgiving before taking Mae's hands in his. "They certainly did."
He called Illya to the table and Illya came without demur, but once there he poked apathetically at his omelet. Napoleon pushed the plate a little closer to him.
"Eat," he said firmly and Illya did.
Why not eat? It was easier to do so than to argue with Napoleon. He put a forkful in his mouth, chewed and swallowed. It seemed an incredibly onerous chore, but he forced himself to do it again, and again. Then Napoleon was placing a glass of juice in front of him and that would be easier still, wouldn't it. He drank, and when Napoleon put two tablets beside the glass he looked at them with the same profound disinterest.
"What's that for?"
"So you can get some sleep. It's going to be a rough couple of days, and you need your rest." He was prepared for argument, but Illya only nodded, and swallowed them down.
"That little boy is crying," he said then and Napoleon paused in the act of clearing the dishes to give him a sharp look.
"Is he." It disturbed him, to hear Illya talk about himself in the third person, and he wondered what it meant. Was it bad? Good? Illya seemed shocky to him and, as if to confirm the thought, Illya shivered suddenly.
"I'm cold, Napoleon."
"Bed," Napoleon said. "As soon as I get this cleaned up."
"All right," Illya agreed because that was easy too, to go to bed, to climb underneath the warm covers... he yawned and put his spinning head down. It was easiest of all to just close his eyes, so he did.
He was aware of Napoleon carrying him, but saw no reason to do anything about it. Napoleon undressed him and he cooperated enough to speed the process along, grateful when his warm pajamas were buttoned up for him, when the mattress accepted his weight, when the covers were drawn up to his chin. He roused himself enough to catch at Napoleon's hand.
"You too," he said, voice slurring slightly. "Don't leave me alone."
"Of course," Napoleon soothed him and he shucked his own clothes, awkwardly with Illya still clutching his hand, and slipped his pajamas on. Climbing in beside Illya he held him close, kissed his forehead. "Sleep, sweetheart," he said softly. "There's nothing you can do tonight, and I'm right here."
"I know. Thank you." Illya moved a little closer, and fell deeply asleep.
He stayed that way until ten o'clock the next morning, when he opened his eyes and stared at the ceiling. There was no respite from his grief. He felt as if it had dogged him through the night, and lay on his chest now, a crushing weight. George was dead. Dead. George was dead and gone and never again would he feel that rough hand tousling his hair, never again would he lean his head on that strong chest, never again would he be enfolded in one of George's great hugs. Inside him the child wailed on, inconsolable even by Napoleon. He looked at Napoleon and saw that he was awake, and watching him somberly.
"Good morning, sweetheart," he said and Illya turned over, hid his face in the pillow.
"No one will ever call me honey again," he said, voice muffled. "Will they."
Napoleon sighed. "No, I suppose not." Illya made a guttural sound of agony and Napoleon patted his back. "It's okay," he said. "You can cry. I sort of wish you would."
"He's crying enough for both of us," Illya said and Napoleon frowned.
"Don't say it. Don't say anything. You don't understand." He rolled over, out of bed and Napoleon, cut to the quick, watched him pick out a suit and tie, underwear and socks, before speaking again.
"You're not going to work, are you?"
"You don't have to. You're entitled to bereavement leave. Maybe you should take it."
"Why? So I can sit around and listen to him cry? I'd rather be at work. And you should be at work. And you won't go unless I do."
"That's no reason for you to go in if you don't want to."
"I do want to." Illya ran a brush through his hair, tied it tightly back. "Tell me what happens next. I heard you talking to Olivia last night."
"The viewing is tonight at five," Napoleon said. "But we should get there earlier. The funeral is tomorrow, at noon, at Bethany Congregational. He..." Napoleon hesitated. "George wanted you to speak. He left a space in the program for you."
"Speak?" Illya turned and stared at him. "What on earth am I supposed to say?"
"I don't know. You don't have to, if you don't want to."
"But he wanted me to."
Illya sighed. "All right. I'll think of something."
But by the time they assembled for the viewing he hadn't thought of anything. He couldn't imagine what he could say to all these people about George. How could he possibly convey what George had done for him, what George had been to him? How... he was so deep in worried contemplation of that that the viewing itself caught him completely off guard. He stared at the open coffin, at George's placid made up face and balked.
"Oh no," he whispered so only Napoleon could hear him. All around them people were lining up to pay their last respects. "Oh no, I can't do this. How can I just walk up there and look at him and walk on?"
"You don't have to," Napoleon said. "We can just sit out in the waiting room and greet people."
"I don't have to do anything, according to you," Illya said tartly. "I don't have to speak, I don't have to work, I don't even have to dress myself. Never mind what I don't have to do. Should I do it? Would he have wanted me to do it?"
"Well, it's what people do," Napoleon said awkwardly. It was funny, really—he and Illya had dealt in death most of their professional lives, and yet the aftermath was unnervingly unfamiliar to them both. He looked again at the people, pausing briefly by the coffin, some bowing their heads in prayer, some crying... Mae leaning heavily on Olivia and weeping loudly before moving away.
"Yes, I see that it is." Illya straightened his shoulders. "He probably would want me to." Without another word he got in line, and Napoleon stood behind him.
At the coffin Illya stared at George. "How still he is," he said finally. "I never saw him so still. Even when he was sleeping he wasn't this still." He was quiet for a moment, then leaned over and kissed George's cheek, shivering at the chill there. "Thank you, George," he whispered. "Thank you so much, for saving me—for everything. Thank you. That's really all I have to say. I don't know what you think I can talk about tomorrow. What more is there?"
"Maybe he would want you to give his testimony," Napoleon suggested. "You could tell the story of the Bible verse once more. You said it was his shining moment."
Illya made a sound that was almost a laugh. "You'd like that, wouldn't you," he said to George. "You'd want me to tell it. Even if I don't like to talk about it. You'd say it was my duty. How did you know that, Napoleon?"
"I don't know. It just came to me."
"No fair prompting Napoleon from beyond the grave," Illya told George, then turned and walked away.
The evening dragged on. Numerous people came up to Illya and offered their condolences. Some shared their own experiences with George Piper, others just mumbled awkward words and left. Illya nodded and smiled, shook hands, accepted pats and even the occasional hug. "George would definitely have wanted me to be polite," he said to Napoleon once during a pause and Napoleon grinned involuntarily. He well remembered Piper's strictness with Illya where manners were concerned.
When Illya got up to leave he went to Mae first, and offered his sympathy. She had sobbed quietly throughout the event, and fresh tears welled up when she saw him. "He loved you so much, Illya," she told him. "I never saw a man so set on a grown child as he was on you. You made him very happy, moving him into your building. He'd boast to anybody who would listen how his kid had paid for the whole thing, just to have him close by. Anything George did for you, you repaid a hundred times over. I want you to know that."
"I'll give you that picture of the two of them and George's Bible tomorrow after the funeral," she added to Napoleon, who nodded. "And there's something for you, too. Don't let me forget."
"I won't," Napoleon said, touched that Piper had thought of him.
"And don't think that's all you can have," she went on earnestly to Illya. "Anything you want of his is yours. I'm not keeping his clothes, or his tie tacks and cuff links. He wanted it all to go to a Christian thrift shop he liked. But you can go through it first."
"No, thank you," Illya said, still with that perfect courtesy. "I don't think... well... what about his father's ring? He wore that until he put his wedding ring there. Do you still have it?"
"Yes, of course. I'll put it up for you."
"Thank you. If there's anything I can do for you, Mae, just tell me."
"Thank you, Illya." She patted his cheek. "You're a good boy," she said and burst into tears again. "He was such a good man," she cried. "Such a good man, such a good husband. How can I bear it?" She turned into Olivia's arms and Napoleon cupped Illya's elbow in one hand.
"Let's go," he said, and Illya nodded. He walked with Napoleon out the door, and when Napoleon hailed a cab he sank into it with relief.
The next morning Illya went out early, while Napoleon was still in the shower, and got his hair cut. He did it because George had asked him to, and because suddenly it irritated him. Suddenly the weight of it seemed to pull back on his neck, making his head hurt. Suddenly the stray pieces that got in his mouth or crossed his field of vision annoyed him. Suddenly it seemed that if he just cut off this last remnant of his childhood, this last thing he had brought with him from Russia, then maybe the little boy would be quiet. Those cries and wails had sounded in his ears all night long until he thought he would go mad if they didn't stop. For those reasons and for a thousand others he didn't understand, he went to his usual hair salon and had it all cut off.
Other stylists gathered around and watched solemnly as the scissors cut away one long shining strand after another. Illya sat motionless, watching in the mirror as his face emerged, looking high planed and sharp without the masses of hair around it. He didn't get it cut very short—he kept his bangs, and it still touched his collar in the back and feathered around his ears, but the weight of it was off him, the sense of it was gone, and the little boy was quiet.
He was very quiet. Illya paid his bill, shook his head when they offered to wrap a strand up in paper for him to keep, then rethought. Maybe Napoleon would want it. Maybe... he touched the back of his neck. Maybe Napoleon wouldn't like this at all. He hadn't even thought of that. Napoleon loved his hair, loved plunging both hands into it, loved winding strands of it around his fingers. Maybe Napoleon would be angry. So he accepted the little packet they pushed on him and hurried out the door. The idea of Napoleon's anger frightened him, and the new silence inside frightened him more. It was as if... as if that little boy was dead too. Dead and gone. I've killed him, Illya thought and both the thought itself, and its irrationality, pushed him over the edge into terror.
From terror there was only one refuge. He ran for home. He ran for the shelter of Napoleon's arms and never once thought that it would be faster and easier to take a taxi or at least the subway. He ran and ran through the crowded streets of Manhattan. He ran until his legs burned, until his chest hurt, until there was a stabbing pain in his side. He ran with ragged breath and glazed eyes. He was lost in an echoing silence and his entire being was focused on getting home, going in his door and into Napoleon's embrace.
He ran down his street and into the lobby, pounding past the doorman, not hearing his startled call. "Mr. Kuryakin!" He ran onto the elevator, and in unconscious imitation of Napoleon just the other day paced its length again and again until the doors opened and he was running towards his front door. He pounded on it, and when it didn't open he fumbled for his keys and fairly fell inside.
The apartment was empty. He stood, hand on his chest, panting, and stared around. Empty! How could it be empty? He looked in every room, just to be sure, but he had known from the start what he would find. Napoleon wasn't there. Where was he? Was he dead too? George, and the lost child from Russia, and Napoleon—all dead. All dead and gone and only he himself left here. Alone.
The intercom buzzed and for a long moment he couldn't identify the sound. He looked around wildly and finally realized what it was. He pressed the button.
"Yes?" His voice was a ragged gasp.
"Mr. Kuryakin. It's Roberts at the front door."
"Yes?" he repeated.
"I tried to catch you when you came in, but you must have been finishing up your jog?" His voice was doubtful.
"Mr. Solo is out looking for you. He said to tell you to stay put. He said he had his pen with him."
"Oh. Thank you." He left the intercom and hunted up his pen, on his bedside table. He always kept it with him but that morning he had awakened with no thought beyond the need to silence the little boy's cries. And he had silenced them, hadn't he. Had murdered them. Hand shaking, he activated it. It only went two ways now, between him and Napoleon.
"Illya!" Napoleon's voice was tight with anxiety. "You're home?"
"Yes. Where are you, Napoleon? I came here looking for you and you were gone!"
"I've been looking for you." Frantically searching. He couldn't imagine where Illya was, today of all days. "I drove all the way out to Long Island, thinking you went to the house, but you weren't there." Neither was the house, bulldozed so someone could put up a three story monstrosity that took up the whole lot. Even the maple tree was gone, but he wasn't telling Illya that today. His voice shook. "I couldn't find you anywhere."
"Oh. I'm sorry, Napoleon. I didn't think. Where are you now?"
"I'm on my way back to the city. Look, Illya, at this point we should just meet at the church. If I come home first, I'm afraid we'll be late."
"At the church... oh!" He was horrified. "The funeral! George's funeral! Oh, Napoleon, what time is it?"
"It's twelve forty-five," Napoleon answered carefully. "Illya, are you all right? Do you want me to come pick you up after all?"
"No, I am not all right!" Illya flared. "How can I be all right without... without anything? But I'll meet you there. I'll take a cab. What's the address again?"
Napoleon gave it to him. "Write it down," he instructed. "Write it down and give it to the cab driver. I'll call the doorman and tell him to call one for you. All right? You need to leave within the half hour."
"I will. I just have to change. I'll see you there, Napoleon." Just Napoleon's voice, just the sound of that beloved voice had steadied him, enabling him to push the terror back.
"You might beat me," Napoleon cautioned. "But don't worry. I'll be there. Illya—I'm so glad you're all right. I mean physically. I was worried."
"I'm sorry," Illya said contritely. "I didn't mean to worry you. I had something—I had something I needed to do. You won't be mad at me, will you Napoleon? Please don't be. I didn't even think that you might be mad until it was too late."
Now what? "Of course I won't be mad," he said gently. Whatever it was. How could he possibly be angry with Illya now? "Ah, you didn't quit your job, or sell our apartment or anything, did you?"
He laughed. He actually laughed at Napoleon's tone, so seemingly casual, so trying not to sound upset. "No, of course I didn't. Napoleon?"
"I love you."
"I love you too, sweetheart."
Sweetheart. Not honey. Napoleon always called him sweetheart, and it was George who called him honey, and now he never would again. Never never never again. He couldn't speak, so he just hung up.
He put on his good black suit and combed his hair, astonished each time the stroke ended so abruptly so soon. He looked at himself in the mirror and a stranger looked back at him. He shivered, pulled on his coat, and left.
He did beat Napoleon there. The front pew was empty and he knew that was where he was supposed to sit—he and Napoleon. On the other side were Mae, and Olivia, and Olivia's husband and their three children. They gave him subdued waves, acknowledging his presence, and he sat down and looked at the coffin. It was still open, and George looked just as he had yesterday. Illya listened curiously for the child's sobs, but there was nothing. Nothing. Just him and his adult grief. He sat and watched people file in, go up to the coffin again as they had yesterday, then settle in their pews. Buzzes of conversation rose around him and even, incredibly, some stifled laughter. What were they laughing at? He turned around to see, but couldn't tell where the sound had come from. People were discussing their personal affairs, making plans for afterward, engrossed in their own lives. Only for the little knot of people in the front two pews had the world come to a screeching halt. Had it been like this for all those people he had killed? For every Thrush guard or aide had there been people whose lives had been shattered? He shivered at the thought, and then heard Napoleon's voice.
"Illya?" He sounded incredulous and Illya wondered why. He was right where he was supposed to be, after all, doing what he was supposed to be doing. Then Napoleon repeated it. "Illya? What on earth..." he dropped into the seat beside Illya. "What happened to your hair?" he hissed.
Oh! Illya jumped, surprised. He had forgotten all about it. "I got it cut," he answered, feeling foolish at the obviousness of the reply. "That's where I went this morning. George always wanted me to, so I did." The fear washed over him again. "Are you mad? I know you liked it..."
"No, of course I'm not mad. It's your hair. In fact..." he took Illya's chin between thumb and forefinger and turned his face first to one side, then the other. "I like it. It suits you." It did. It seemed to highlight Illya's high, elegant cheekbones, his beautiful eyes. Napoleon brushed the fringe around his ears and smiled. "I like it very much. Do you?"
"It's so light," Illya said. "Every time I turn my head I feel as if I'm going to fall over. But I can't hear that little boy anymore, Napoleon. I haven't heard him since I did it. Do you think I killed him?"
"No," Napoleon said, and hoped it was the right answer. He rather hoped too that Illya had some idea how his question sounded. But he didn't seem to. He was frowning slightly, but then the minister rose and the funeral began. First they closed the coffin lid with an audible thunk and Illya jumped, then put his face in Napoleon's shoulder. It was the first time today that he had openly sought comfort, and Napoleon was relieved. He put his arm around Illya's shoulders and squeezed him, not caring how it looked, not caring what anyone thought. It was obvious that they were there together, and no doubt obvious why. Let them look.
The service wasn't at all what Napoleon had expected. There was no somber music, no laments. Instead they started with an enthusiastic chorus that involved a lot of people raising their hands and a lot of hallelujahs. Then a choir sang about crossing the Jordan and people called out "Amen" or "Yes Lord". George had picked the music, Napoleon remembered, and it suited the occasion which the minister kept referring to as a celebration of George Piper's life. He spoke of George's faith, and of the assurance that he was even now in the bosom of his Lord. At the word bosom Napoleon caught a stifled burst of giggles from Mae's teenage nieces, and he had to smile. Then suddenly the minister called Illya's name, and he rose.
Napoleon heard Mae gasp as she got her first look at him, and marveled again at the fact of the haircut itself, and at the difference it made. It made Illya look both younger and older at the same time. It also accentuated his grief, the dark shadows under his eyes, his pallor. Illya, it was clear, was not celebrating anything. He was mourning.
Standing at the lectern, Illya cleared his throat and cast a nervous look behind him, as if expecting to see Piper frowning at him, waiting for him to carry out this responsibility. Then his face set.
"I was born in Russia," he began and Napoleon settled in to listen as Illya gave George Piper's testimony once more. He repeated the story about the little boy in Moscow, saved by a miracle. He related how God put his finger on George Piper's heart and spoke directly to him, just as He had to Abraham and Moses. It was, as Illya had said once, George's song of praise. It was the exact right thing for this occasion.
All around him people reacted. Many hands were lifted and one old man cried out "Thank You Jesus! Thank You Jesus!" with tears streaming down his face. Illya told it all the way to the end, when George had come into the hospital room and carried him away, carried him home. He described the way George had taken him to church and Sunday School, and brought him to the altar to be saved. He then repeated what a long ago camp counselor had said, that in loving the goodness of his earthly father he was learning to love God, and how wonderful it was that God made it so easy for us to do so. Then he sat down.
Napoleon patted his arm. He was trembling, a fine quiver that told of the strain it had been to talk of these things in front of all these strangers, and he was paper white, but he returned the pat and even managed a small smile for Napoleon. "Good job," Napoleon whispered and he smiled again.
When the minister called for anyone else who might like to speak, Napoleon dutifully rose. He spoke of Piper's honesty, his integrity, his kindness. "George Piper was a good man," he concluded and when he sat down it was Illya patting him.
Thank you," Illya whispered. "I meant to say that, about him being a good man, but I forgot. Thank you."
There was a long pause while the flowers were moved from the front of the church to the wheeled cart that would carry them to the limousine and then to the cemetery. Illya reached in his pocket and withdraw a small packet. He unwrapped it, and inside lay a long blond strand of hair.
"They insisted I take it," he said, so softly Napoleon had to strain to hear him. "I didn't really care, but then I thought you might like it. But now... would you mind if I gave it to George? He used to scold me for keeping it long, and for letting it get tangled, but I could tell he loved taking care of it—of me. He loved taking care of me. But if you really want it..."
"No. I don't need it." He ruffled Illya's new haircut to prove it. "And I think that would be very nice. Do you want me to come with you?"
"Yes, please." So they rose and went together to the minister. Illya spoke to him, and he took them over to the coffin and raised the lid. Illya took the lock of hair out of the wrapper and laid it carefully between George's folded hands. He had to slide it through the stiff, cold fingers but once finished he squeezed them and a tear fell on them. Napoleon looked at him sharply, but there was just the one and then Illya stepped back and the coffin lid was closed for the last time.
At the gravesite the minister read from the Bible. "I am the resurrection and the life" he said and Napoleon could see Mae nodding fervently. He didn't listen to most of it, entirely focused on Illya who was so alarmingly pale Napoleon wondered what was keeping him on his feet. But he stayed there and then it was over, and they were all heading home.
There was food and drink in Mae's apartment, and people laughed and talked, freed of the cloud of death that despite all efforts had hung over both services. Illya ate nothing, but smiled and was pleasant to everyone who spoke to him—and a lot of people did. They complimented him on his speech, praised George to him, told him George had had a good life, had died with his loved ones by his side, had not suffered and to all these things he agreed.
And it was all true. George had had a good long life. He had had no sickness or pain. He had kept his faculties till the end, and had died after having had the chance to say goodbye, and holding his wife's hand. It was all true, and it was no help at all. But it was kind of people to try and offer comfort, and Illya accepted it in the spirit it was intended.
"Goodbye Mae," he said at the door. She handed him the big old family Bible George had cherished so, had taken to Moscow and left out on the hotel nightstand, hoping that the maid would read it. He took it and thanked her. Then she gave Napoleon a battered scrapbook.
"What is it?" he asked, but as soon as he opened it he knew. There was Illya holding that grey cat, and on the next page he would be in swim trunks. The memory of that day, sitting with his new father-in-law on the sofa drinking beer and looking through this album, struck him like a snake and he swallowed. He hadn't really considered his own loss in light of Illya's, but it was true that he and George had become friends, that they drank beer together and laughed together and watched sports on television together. He would miss George, and not just for Illya's sake. "Thank you," he said sincerely, and she nodded.
"I'll get the ring out and take the picture down tomorrow," she said to Illya. "I don't have the heart for it now. In fact, if it's all right with you, I'll just send the whole jewel case. Anything you two don't want you can donate to the thrift shop. All right?"
"Of course," Illya said and Napoleon nodded. He was glad, suddenly. He might like a pair of cuff links or a tie tack himself to make him think of George Piper, of his rough voice and tender heart. They finished saying their awkward farewells, and went upstairs.
It wasn't until the next day that Napoleon looked at the scrapbook, or Illya at the Bible. They had eaten a light supper and gone straight to bed, Illya drained from fatigue, stress and grief and Napoleon grateful for the opportunity to just lie still and hold his partner close. Illya had put his face into Napoleon's neck and kissed him there before falling instantly, heavily, asleep. It had taken Napoleon longer, it being relatively early still, but finally he too had let it all go for the night.
The next morning Napoleon went down in the elevator and collected the picture and the small carved wooden box that contained George's assortment of odds and ends of tie tacks, cuff links and the like. He balanced the box on the frame and thanked her.
"Well," Mae said, and wiped her eyes. "If there's anything else he wants—oh!" She hurried out and came back with a small wooden table. "This is what George always kept his Bible on. It's the right size, and I really have no use for it. He told me he and his father made it together as a woodworking project. Do you think..." her voice trailed off. Napoleon tucked the picture under his arm, wedged the box against it and took the table.
"Thank you," he said again. "If there's anything we can do for you, just let us know."
"I'll probably be moving soon," she said, and tears came again. "Without George I'm really alone in the city—oh, I know you and Illya would be there if I needed anything, but I'd like to be near my family. My sister and her children—I'd like a small place closer to them. That—that would be all right, wouldn't it? I mean, I could sell this condo and use the money to buy elsewhere? You don't want the money back, do you?"
"No, of course not."
"That's what I thought." She looked relieved. "George always said—but I didn't want to count on it. When I move I might need some help."
"It's just too hard living here," she said, and wept openly. "I keep expecting to see him coming out of the bedroom, I keep listening for his snoring at night. It's too hard."
"Thank you, Napoleon." She gave him a watery smile. "Thank you for everything."
She didn't actually say goodbye, but that was what she meant. He did say it.
"Goodbye, Mae. Call when you need us."
"I will." She closed the door and he went down the hall, struggling with his awkward burden, and back up in the elevator.
Illya put the table in the living room, the Bible on the table, and hung the picture over it. Napoleon smiled. "You were very cute," he said and Illya smiled too.
Illya picked the Bible up again and opened it. It fell open easily to the book of Matthew, because there was a bookmark there. No, not a bookmark. A picture. A little Polaroid snapshot. Illya looked at it curiously, and made a choked sound. Napoleon took it from him and held it so they could both see it.
It had clearly been taken on an airplane, because the window was visible in the background. George Piper was looking out of it, and what could be seen of his face was pensive. He didn't look sorrowful, just like a man with a lot on his mind. On his lap, the child slept against his chest. The blond hair lay tumbled around his shoulders, some of it lying across George's arm, and it caught the sun's rays from the window. The little face was wan, and the marks of fading bruises showed plainly. Extravagant gold lashes swept his cheekbones—high and elegant even in the childish face. He was clutching George's hand and smiling in his sleep. Napoleon smiled too, looking at it.
"How beautiful you were," he said softly.
"So they told me," Illya returned absently. He reached out with one finger and touched the child's face. "I remember that," he said wonderingly. "I remember it because it was the best sleep I had ever had. I could never really sleep well at his house—my uncle's house," he added to Napoleon, who nodded. "There was no door to my room, he had taken it off. And he would come on me when I was asleep. He'd pounce on me suddenly and drag me out of bed, or shout really loud right in my ear, or put his hand over my mouth or a pillow over my face—he loved to scare me right out of sleep and then he'd laugh and hurt me. I was always waiting for him to get me, whether I was awake or not."
Napoleon couldn't speak, but he put an arm around Illya and held him close to his side. Illya rubbed his cheek against Napoleon's shoulder, still looking at the picture. "Then in the hospital I was afraid too—I was so afraid of him finding me. How angry he would be at me. I couldn't even conceive of how angry he must be. It terrified me. Every time the door opened, every time I heard voices in the hall, I thought it must be him. I breathed fear in and out all day and all night long. But then George took me. He carried me away and we got on that airplane, and he said we were going to America. Well, I knew my uncle couldn't find me there. They'd never let him leave the Soviet Union. He knew too much. I was safe. And I was more than safe. I was—I was cherished. George had already brushed my hair out for me, and made sure I was wearing a sweater for the airplane. See how he has the blanket around me?" They both looked at the snapshot for a moment longer. Indeed, an airline blanket was securely tucked under the child's arms. "Nobody had ever cared in the least whether I were cold or not. Hungry, cold, scared, in pain—nobody had ever cared at all."
Napoleon kissed the top of his head. "I care," he said huskily. "I cared from the first moment I saw you."
"I know. The first thing you did was offer to take me out to eat!" Illya laughed softly. "I was ravenous because you were late, and I had missed lunch because I was early. I was so nervous about meeting you, and so excited too. I wanted to be a field agent so badly I could taste it, and then Waverly paired me with the great Napoleon Solo. I was honored."
"He said you were the most brilliant student to ever come through training, and of course your record at Survival School was already legendary. I was honored too." They smiled at each other. Then Illya picked up the photograph and studied it some more.
"I fell asleep as soon as the plane took off, and it was wonderful. I knew I was safe, that I could really relax and not listen for him any more, and I just sank into it. I didn't dream—I don't think I moved at all. I was in exactly the same position when I woke up. And I woke up all by myself, just drifting into awareness, hearing George's heartbeat, feeling the plane descending—it was wonderful. I've never forgotten it. But I didn't know he had this picture."
"Marking this place," Napoleon said, indicating the page where George had highlighted, circled and starred one particular Bible verse.
Illya read, "But Jesus said, Suffer little children, and forbid them not, to come unto me: for of such is the kingdom of heaven." (Matt. 19:14). He smiled faintly. "When I was little I thought it really meant suffer, you know, like being in pain and that made sense to me because I was suffering when George saved me. Later they told me it meant 'Let', as in 'Let the little children come' but I still thought it made more sense the other way." He tucked the Polaroid back into the Book and closed it. Napoleon put the scrapbook on the bottom shelf of the table and they stepped back and regarded the still life they had made.
"Is it too much?" Illya asked. "I mean, I don't want you to be bothered by it."
"No, it is not at all too much. I like it. It's a part of your life, and this makes it part of mine, too."
"Yes." They stood there for a moment longer, and then the phone rang. Napoleon sighed.
"I'll get it. Want to go out for breakfast?"
"All right." Illya watched Napoleon go into the living room. On an impulse he reached out and picked up the Bible again. "Oh George," he said softly. "Already my life is moving on without you. How can that be? How can I bear losing you? And are you really in Heaven now?" He opened the Bible, flipping through the pages, then stopped. Just as George Piper had all those years ago he closed his eyes, and put his finger on a page at random.
"In my Father's house are many mansions; if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you." (John 14:2)
He stood very still. "Have you really?" he whispered. "Have you really gone to prepare a place for me? To take me home again, like you did before? And used this way to tell me so?" He listened, and heard nothing. But there, right under his finger, was the verse. Just as God had put a finger on George's heart, he felt as if George were touching his now. He smiled, and went into his room. He hunted through some papers and old pictures, and pulled one out. It was him and George, taken at George's wedding. They were both in tuxedoes and both were beaming. He carried it back into the living room and put it in the Bible, holding that place for when he would need it. He would need it, he knew. The pain of losing George was still raw, and it hurt terribly. The silence where the child used to be was no longer frightening, although it made him lonely. But it was pleasant to think of George making a place for him, and finding this way to tell him so. Very pleasant. He closed the Bible and went to find his jacket so he would be ready when Napoleon finished his phone call.
They locked up before leaving, and Napoleon set the alarm. They went arm in arm down the hall because there was no one to see, and in the elevator Napoleon embraced him once more, kissing his forehead, brushing his bangs with one finger. "It suits you," he said again, and Illya smiled. Then he reached up, kissed Napoleon's mouth. It was brief, but there was infinite promise in it—for later, for tomorrow, for all the tomorrows to come. When the elevator stopped they separated and walked through the lobby, out the door, into the sunshine.
George paused in his climb. In the distance he could see his goal, a shining star of a city, gleaming and sparkling in blazing sunlight. The walk seemed to have taken a long time, but he didn't mind. He had closed his eyes on a wave of pain and opened them to glory. An angel towering high above him had set him on this path, and he knew Who would be there to greet him when he reached the city. Since then he had walked through a vast meadow, seeing flowers and plants of surpassing loveliness, such as he had never known on earth. All the aches and pains of his body, to which he had grown accustomed in later years, were gone, and his stride was as sure and easy as that of a man in the first flush of youth. He breathed in air which seemed to nourish him as he went, so he had neither hunger nor thirst despite the climb.
Ahead of him the path crested a little rise, and on that ridge a figure stood. A small boy, with long golden hair floating all around him, waited there. George laughed aloud and held out his arms. The child ran down the path, his feet barely skimming the ground, and launched himself into George's arms. George laughed again and hugged him, settled him against his chest, before resuming his climb, taking the child home, going Home himself.