My thanks to Tafizgurl and GeorgiaMagnolia for their Beta help on this...
When people call me brave, I tend to shrug it off. Brave is just another word for being too stupid to be scared and, believe me, I've been scared plenty of times. When people ask if there's anything I'm afraid of, I usually change the subject. The last thing I want anyone to know is what scares me. To know that is to know a weakness. To have a weakness known gives someone else power over you. And I am very selective in who has power over me.
My first clear memories are of when I was a small child growing up in Kiev. I don't remember holidays or happy times; I remember the smell of smoke and gunpowder and rotting corpses. I was introduced to those about the same time Western children are learning about Santa Claus; not quite the equitable exchange, I think. I remember feeling my mother tremble as she held us, my younger brother and sister along with me in her arms, trying to shelter us from the chaos around us. I remember the gut-wrenching hunger of not having enough food andnot being able to eat it when we did due to contamination. Mostly, I remember the explosions, the noise, the screaming of the bombs and of their victims. Even after we were moved further into the country away from the front, I would wake at night with sounds of explosions ringing in my head as thunderstorms would roll through. They seemed to last for hours, the horror they reminded me of lasted much longer. That was when my fear started to build.
Years passed, with the usual muddle of half-forgotten sights and sounds. I was a young man now, just starting my service to the State. Trouble was starting to brew in Korea and we were in training, sometimes for months on end without a break, without a rest. It was as if our superiors knew the demands they placed upon our bodies and minds would prepare us for the horrors we were about to face and tried to keep us diverted from dwelling upon them.
For me, diversion came in a different form. We men had the distinct advantage at that time of having the women out-number us and I'm ashamed to say that we all took that to our advantage. For me, it was Galina, although I tended to her nickname of Galya. She was a big girl, strong and soft at the same time. When we hugged, I could hide myself between her breasts as if they were sanctuary from a cold and uncaring world. In bed, she was an athlete and could match me blow-by-blow. My time with her was a joyous escape and I confess that, even when finding my sexual satisfaction with one of my fellow soldiers, I tended to think of her—her smell, her taste, her softness.
We'd been given leave, a rare two-days of no responsibilities other than to ourselves. After spending months in the company of men, I yearned for a feminine touch and it didn't take long for me to track down Galya. She was plowing in her father's field, but when she saw me, the horse was unharnessed and allowed to roam free while Galya and I danced an ancient dance.
I didn't even allow her to strip, just pressed her up against a tree, hoisted her skirts and got down to business. Her work-hardened fingers bruised me through my thick cotton uniform, tore my skin when she got beneath my tee shirt. I didn't care about anything at that point, except finding my own completion, pounding into her with a fervor I couldn't temper or control. Otherwise, I would have noticed the gathering storm clouds and smelled the approaching rain; I would have realized that perhaps a tree wasn't the best refuge in a summer storm. All I wanted was to lose myself in her.
I heard her cry, felt something wet on my back, then a brilliant white flash, a bone-rattling explosion and then nothing. I woke a day later in a hospital, every muscle on my body on fire from the inside out. I felt as if my skin had been flayed off, leaving thousands of raw nerve endings exposed to the world. I'd survived a direct lightning strike. Galya wasn't so lucky; the doctor's downcast eyes told me that. It was a week before the pain subsided enough for me to return to regiment. The questions my comrades peppered me with were almost worse than the pain. That was when I started linking thunder with physical pain and it got to the point where I signed up for submarine duty, just to escape.
The worse was during the war itself. I had been home, doing a little work for the KGB. It wasn't as if I was given the option. When they drew upon your abilities, you had the option of cooperating or paying the price. It hadn't been the best of assignments, but I was still idealistic, still ready to do whatever my country asked of me. I had been granted a few days to visit with my family, a joyous occasion, marred only by the arrival of the summer storms. They had been especially violent that year and my family was patient with my agitation, the nightmares, and the silence that followed them. Whether it was pride, self-pity or something more, I refused to give my fear words, as if that would give it ultimate power over me. Instead, I hugged my pillow, sobbing like a child, feeling my mother's hand as she rubbed my back and talked to me in gentle, calming words until the worse of the storm passed.
I caught my flight, heading back to France by way of China. Don't ask. Even I couldn't understand the route, but I wasn't asked, merely told and, good solider that I was, I obeyed without objection. And it was then that one of the best and worst experiences of my life occurred.
I was out of uniform the night I climbed aboard the flight. There was no need for it as I was returning to my studies in France and not military duty. I had been deemed too important to risk being lost in battle and I didn't mind. Death held no attraction to me.
Military planes are not the most comfortable of transports, but I found a pile of camouflage netting, made a passable nest for myself and went to sleep, the best way I knew of combating air sickness.
It was the gut-wrenching drop in altitude that woke me and I startled awake to chaos around me. A heavy pack was shoved into my arms even before I was fully aware.
Had I ever parachuted? Someone shouted it to me and I nodded. What good Soviet soldier hadn't had the training? I didn't care much for it, but I was competent at it. Working my arms into the straps, I struggled to stay on my feet, something the plane wasn't about to make easy. It was like trying to stand on a pitching deck of a life raft.
Then abruptly a door was opened and I was tossed out into an explosion-painted sky. A battle was raging all around us and as I reached for the rip cord, I saw our transport go up in an orange-red ball of flame. I didn't mourn for the men still on board; this was war and death was part of that.
I yanked on the straps of the parachute, desperately trying to see anything. I must have been about a hundred feet from the ground when I heard the gunshot and I felt as if my leg exploded. The pain stole my breath from me and with it my consciousness.
I woke to near complete darkness. There was just the hint of a small flickering light and I realized I was lying on my side, staring into the smallest campfire I'd ever seen. Trying to move, I moaned and a hand clamped over my mouth.
The owner of that hand mumbled something to me. I didn't understand, but instinctively knew I need to be quiet. After a few moments, the hand fell away and the voice returned. The language was half familiar, but my brain was too addled by pain to deal with it.
"Parlez-vous du français?" The voice tried again and this time I was able to nod.
"Oui." A common language now and instantly I was peppered with questions.
"Qu'est-il arrivé ?" (What happened?) Whoever it was, his accent was horrible.
Nous avons été tiré en bas. Où je suis ? (We were shot down. Where am I?)
Quelque lieu sûr, pour le moment." (Some place safe, for the moment).
The man, for now I was able to actual see the speaker, was young, probably not much older than me, but his eyes were old. He'd seen too much war.
"Vous avez besoin de rester le plus comme possible," (You need to stay as quiet as possible.) was all the warning he gave me as he torn my pants leg open. Even the ripping of the fabric hurt and I gasped, arching my back in a futile attempt to block the nerves from my brain.
I was handed a wad a fabric and words weren't necessary. I knew what to do. I stuffed it into my mouth, shut my eyes and nodded. Ah, the brave, new worlds of agony I was introduced to in the next few moments. I thought of pain as an old friend of mine, but this brought me to a whole new level of pain, one so pure, so complete, that it overwrote everything I'd experienced to that point.
I knew he was trying to be careful, trying not to hurt me anymore than necessary, but it was all I could do to keep from lashing out. When I saw a glint of a blade, my mind, mercifully, rolled back into itself and I passed out again.
I felt something wet against my lips and managed to crawl out of the hole I'd been hiding in. Opening my eyes, I saw it was still dark, but dawn was beginning to creep over the tree tops. The wetness was water. I was propped up against my rescuer and he was holding a cup to my lips.
"Essayer de boire. Vous êtes déshydraté." (Try to drink. You are dehydrated.) I managed a swallow, choked a little and tried again.
"Qui vous est?" (Who are you?)
"Un ami." (A friend) He helped me to sit up a little straighter and I looked around our immediate area. We are hidden in a small outcropping of rocks. My leg still felt like it was on fire, but it was better than before and I glanced down at the cloth, a strip from my parachute, binding it. Without a word, my friend held out a hand, offering me something. I took it and stared. "Un souvenir de votre temps à Corée du Nord " (A memento of your time in North Korea.) It was the bullet he'd dug from my leg.
I dropped it into a shirt pocket and that was when I noticed his arm. It was bent at an odd angle and swollen.
"Qu'est-il arrive?" (What happened?)
"A cassé l'essayant de s'échapper d'une patrouille Chinois." (Broke it trying to escape from a Chinese patrol.)
So, my rescuer wasn't French. I was able to see his clothes now for the first time and realized that the man who had been rendering me aid was my sworn enemy, a capitalistic Westerner. Funny, he didn't look like the embodiment of evil that my superiors hammered into us. He looked just like me, scared, hurting and wishing he was a million other places than where he was.
I winced as I shifted position and reached out. "Je peut?" (May I?)
"J'ai eu de l'entraînement médical. Je pourrais pouvoir aider. " (I've had some medical training. I might be able to help.).
He looked about as thrilled at the prospect of me messing with his arm as I had been with him poking at my leg, but after a moment, he held it out to me. The wrapping had been poorly done, but with only one hand, it was as efficient as it could be. I got it unwrapped, gritting my teeth in sympathy as I ran my hand over it. The ends hadn't broken the skin, which was good. No chance of infection in this hot, damp climate whereas I'd be lucky to get out of here with my leg intact.
"So, where do you come from?" I asked in English, albeit British accented. He looked at me sharply and I yanked for all I was worth. The surprise had been enough to take his mind away from what we both knew I needed to do. He yelped involuntarily, but then clamped his mouth shut. Thankfully, I didn't have to try and reseat the bone again. It slipped back into place, although I imagined that if he lived to be an old man, he'd be able to forecast the weather with it.
I took a couple of sticks from the small stack of fire wood and splinted it.
"You speak English?" He was still amazed by that. "I thought you were French."
"It's not my native tongue," I admitted, not sure how far to go with my ruse. He still had the advantage over me. I wasn't going to be moving any time soon. I struggled back to give him a little breathing space and my dogs tags fell free from my shirt and he snatched them, pulling me forward in the process.
The change in attitude was immediately. "You're a no-good fucking Commie," he choked out.
"I'm also the no-good fucking Commie who just set your arm and whose life you quite probably saved last night." I couldn't fight him for I'd use what was left of my reserve strength and energy in setting his arm. I settled back against a rock and met his gaze dead on. Now he looked even younger, dark hair glistening in the sunlight, and I felt very old. Without much fear, I watched him pull a pistol and point it at my head, hand struggling to remain still. I imagine this was the first time he'd ever met the enemy one on one and he was scared.
Still I reached out, took his hand and moved it until the tip of the muzzle rested against my heart. "Then two to my temple, okay?" I wasn't going to make this easy for him. If he was determined to kill me, I wanted him to experience it in all its horror.
"You want to die?" He retreated, his eyes wide as he contemplated his course of action. His indecision was almost tactile; he knew his duty, but his humanity was getting in the way.
"No, I want to live, but I don't want to be taken prisoner either. I would rather die."
"You're the enemy."
"And you." I countered. "And yet up to a few moments ago, I was your friend." I sighed, frowning at the ache that was whirling about in my head. "Life is strange, is it not?"
I closed my eyes, expecting a host of reactions, but not his laughter. Looking at him in confusion, I couldn't help but smile back.
"A temporary truce then?" He offered me a hand and I shook it as firmly as I could.
"We used to be allies," I said. "We fought shoulder to shoulder not that long ago." I gritted my teeth and struggled to stand. "Let us fight together once more."
His good arm slid around my waist and my arm around his shoulders. "Together it is then."
I don't know how we got out of that jungle, but within a day, we'd separated back to our own forces. That day, Americans became a bit less the enemy and more of an equal in my eyes.
Fast forward a few years and I stood on the cusp of a new frontier—the first Soviet to take his place in a world organization called UNCLE. It was a time of great confusion for me, learning new customs and rules while still trying to hold on to my roots and my inner sense of being while mourning the lover I'd been force to leave behind in the USSR.
My partner was about as much a capitalistic Westerner as you could find, addicted to fine food and wine, expensive clothes and cars, he was the embodiment of all we held as evil back home. Napoleon was as flamboyant as he was conservative, as generous as he was thrifty. He knew when to pour on the charm and when to cut through your reserve with just a few well-spoken words. And I think I loved him from the moment I met him. I didn't mean to act upon my feelings, but life is what happens when you are making other plans.
It wasn't until the morning after a night of more than satisfactory sex that he noticed my leg. We were taking a shower, washing away the memories of what we'd done the previous evening and beginning to make new ones for the day to come.
He was on his knees before me and he ran his tongue over the scar, its surface still raised even after all the years. "What happened here?"
"A long story," I murmured, shuddering at his touch. "A long time ago. A bullet in North Korea." I was more interested in what his hands and mouth were doing than dredging up old history.
He laughed and I pulled away, frowning slightly. It seemed somewhat familiar.
"I dug a bullet out of the leg of a young Soviet in North Korea," he muttered and pursed his lips.
"And I returned the favor by setting his arm for him."
"Which still aches every time we're about to get rain," he answered, standing.
I blinked, wiping the water out of my eyes. "You?"
"We seemed destined to have our paths cross, mon ami."
"That's impossible." I reached for his arm, stroking it.
"Obviously not, since we're both here." He laughed again, pulling me close to him. "Talk about serendipity."
Suddenly the lights blinked and I heard the low rumble of thunder. In spite of being in a safe haven, the old fear coursed through me.
"Nothing." I'd kept this to myself for too long; I couldn't give my fear a name lest I give it power over me. To leave it unnamed was my only defense against it.
A peal of thunder and I felt his arms tighten. "Let's get out of the shower, shall we?"
I nodded; I was no stranger to hiding beneath the covers until the storm had passed. There would be time afterwards to make up some reasonable-sounding excuse for my cowardice. We moved quickly to the bed, not even bothering to take time to dry off.
The lights flickered again, held on for a minute and then the apartment was plunged into darkness. It was still very early in the morning and the light was struggling to make its way through buildings, clouds and my bedroom curtains.
The room blazed blue and I held my breath until the peal of thunder finished.
"I read in your file that you got hit by lightning when you were younger." Napoleon's voice was soft in my ear.
"Yes, it was...unpleasant." The thunder rolled again and I flinched, even now feeling the after effects from that moment.
"Well, then you are lucky."
English still confused me at times, but I couldn't quite make the leap from having been nearly killed by a bolt of lightning to being fortunate. "Why is that?"
"Because I have just the thing to take your mind off it." At first I thought he meant sex, which was not exactly the first thing that leapt into my mind considering what I was doing when I got hit. Then I realized his hands were stroking my back and he was talking softly, just as my mother used to. It took me a minute to realize he was reciting a poem... in French. Suddenly the absurdity of it all hit me and I started to chuckle. He continued to torment me with his horrible accent and the storm outside was forgotten, replaced by a haven of safety and comfort. I knew that as long as I had Napoleon, there was nothing I had to fear.
Life is a funny old thing, even at the best of times. You think you understand how something works and sort of know how you fit into the giant scheme of things, only to discover that you are just one clueless jerk on a clueless mission among a whole mess of other clueless people bent to the same task. Take for example, my partner.
Illya is smart, brave, and able to think on his feet in a dozen different languages. There's no one I would rather have at my back... or my front for that matter. He's as passionate in bed as he is on the battleground. Fearless and laughing in the face of danger...unless there's a thunderstorm and then I watch him retreat, terrified, into the nearest hole he can find. Thankfully, that's usually my arms and I'm always ready to welcome him. It wasn't always like that though.
People always think my greatest fear is water. Well, the truth is, it's not. True I don't care much for water. Hadn't since I nearly drowned as a young kid thanks to my ass of a cousin, but that's another story. I knew enough to keep from drowning and I was never very comfortable in it, but I didn't fear it.
My greatest fear is being alone.
It's sort of funny, considering my name. You'd figure, Solo at birth, Solo at death, and who cared about the times in between? The days weren't bad, I could get through them, laughing and flirting, but then night came and with it, that sense of aching.
I didn't start out like this. I have to admit that being the center of attention was nice and all, but I didn't mind being on my own. Then I met the young lady that was destined to be my wife. She was everything to me, my sun, my moon, my world. When we married, it was the best day of my still fledgling life.
We'd been at a party and having a good time. Joyce had just found out she was pregnant and we'd been celebrating. We were young and our dreams were so big they filled the room and spilled out into the streets. Neither of us was in any condition to climb behind the wheel of a car that night, but at that age, you don't think about dying, only about how much living you still have ahead of you. For one of us, that was true.
Joyce insisted upon driving; she was a bit headstrong and I usually gave in to her rather than risk her ire. The truth of the matter was that I was tired and didn't want to think about the task of navigating the car home. We'd played this scene out a dozen times and never had a problem until that night.
The night was warm, at least to me, but Joyce was cold and was running the heater at full blast. The combination of alcohol and a long day of work took its toll and I drifted off. I woke to a sensation of flying and impacted hard against something. I found out later it was a thick bush that saved me. Joyce, she wasn't so lucky, she was trapped in the car. They tell me she was dead before the car exploded. I hope so. I wanted to believe it was true and not to think of her last minutes on Earth as painful. A broken collarbone and all I could do was to watch the car go up in flames. I tried twice to make it to her only to be beaten back by the heat.
As the saying goes, I could run, but I couldn't hide. Everything reminded me of what I lost that night, so I ran, joined the service and after putting in my time in Ft. Benning, I found myself up to my ass in Korean swamp. The only thing that kept me together those first couple of months was Billy. He was this giant of an Okie with a heart as big as all outdoors. He and I, we connected the first day of basic and that was it. We trained together, shipped out together and suffered together. Billy was the first man to ever touch me intimately. He showed me that sex between two men could be just as joyous, just as incredible, as it could between a man and a woman. I still preferred women to men, but in Korea, you often made do and as the months went by, I made do more and more with Billy.
Then the orders came through, he was being discharged. Billy was overjoyed; he had a wife and kid back home. I was less happy at the thought of losing him, but it was something neither of us had much say over. We were standing there talking, then I heard a crack and Billy went down. Four hours from climbing on a plane and some son of a bitch Commie sniper shot him.
And I wished he'd shot me as well. The next few weeks weren't pretty, but I came out on the other side, re-uppped for another tour, looking for any mission that would take me into the line of fire. A man on a mission, a suicide mission. Twice I'd loved and twice I'd been robbed. Now I was determined to go down and take as many God awful Commies as I could.
My patrol was stationed just outside of Pyongyang when the Chinese Army decided to advance. We were marching south when the world went to hell all around us. We hunkered down and started fighting, but we were just a small platoon against hundreds, or so it seemed. Then Sammy stepped on a mine and went sky high, kicking me back into a pile of rocks.
When I woke up, I was alone, save for the bodies of my fallen comrades. Just that word made me spit. They must have left me for dead as they made the push through the area. Sammy had masked me from view. It wasn't until I tried to worm my way out that I realized I hadn't escaped injury. My left arm had broken at some point, probably from impact. It ached like a son of a bitch, but there wasn't much I could do. I tried to set it twice, but ended up passing out both times. Instead I bound it as best I could and headed out, keeping low and staying off anyone's radar. Until I knew who controlled the area, I wasn't going to take chances.
That night I hunkered down in a small outcropping of rock just as the war heated up around me. Surface to air missiles blazed and all of them aimed at a single plane. I could see specks of white floating down from the sky and watched the men contort as their path brought them down low enough to be shot. Poor bastards didn't even have a chance.
I heard rather than saw one of them land nearby and once I was sure no one was coming looking for him, I crept out of my hidey hole and checked it out. He was hanging half in and half out of a tree, blood running in rivulets down his injured leg. I cut him free and dragged him back to my shelter, no easy feat with a broken arm, let me tell you.
I'd just gotten him back when he stirred awake and I was shocked at how young he was. He couldn't have been much more than sixteen or so, the same age as my kid sister back home. He was wearing civvies and looked as out of place as a nudist in a church social.
"Hold on, kiddo, you need to be quiet." I said, keeping my voice down, lest we have friends listening in. I clamped a hand over his mouth and listened. He looked back at me with pain-glazed eyes, the bluest eyes I'd ever seen in my life, and held rock still. I could feel him trembling, but I didn't know if it was from fear or pain, most like a combination of both. I could tell he didn't understand me, so I tried something else and let my hand drop.
"Parlez-vous du français?" This time I got a nod and I smiled.
"Qu'est-il arrivé ?" (What happened?) I was thankful that French was not one of the classes I'd slept through in school.
Nous avons été tiré en bas. Où je suis ? (We were shot down. Where am I?)
Quelque lieu sûr, pour le moment." (Some place safe, for the moment). I patted his shoulder to try to reassure him. I needed to take a look at the leg and see what the damage was. "Vous avez besoin de rester le plus comme possible.." (You need to stay as quiet as possible,) I said and carefully eased the fabric away from his leg, then tore the cloth open so I could see what was going on. Just this alone brought a groan from him and I handed him a scrap of cloth.
He seemed to understand what I needed to do and he stuffed the cloth into his mouth and nodded just once.
The fire wasn't much and I couldn't see very well, but I could tell the bullet was still in there and if he was going to keep his leg, it needed to come out. I pulled my Swiss Army knife out and began to heat the blade to sterilize it. When I turned back to him, he was out for the count again and I silently thanked God for his mercy.
I got the bullet out after a little bit of probing around and then cut up part of his parachute to use as a bandage. It was impossible for me to thread a needle with my arm the way it was, so I wrapped the leg the best I could and pulled him close to the fire, letting him fall back against me. I didn't even know his name, but it didn't matter. Tonight, at least, I wouldn't be alone.
Morning was coming, I could tell by the sounds of the jungle waking up around me. My young friend hadn't moved much during the night, but I knew how thirsty I was and decided he was probably more so. He'd been sweating all night from a combination of fever and the God awful heat of the jungle.
I took a couple of good swigs from my canteen, then wet my fingers and rubbed them lightly over his cracked lips. He stirred and groaned as I held a cup up to his mouth.
"Essayer de boire. Vous êtes déshydraté." (Try to drink. You are dehydrated.) He took a sip and choked on it. I rubbed his back as he coughed and tried again. This time he was successful.
"Qui vous est?" (Who are you?)
"Un ami." (A friend) I helped him sit up a bit and watched him grimace as he moved his leg. Even with the bullet out, it still must have hurt like hell. I'd never been shot, but had seen the agony my fellow soliders went through. Still he was more alert than I expected he would be and seemed to be taking everything in.
I held up a finger to him and felt around in my shirt pocket until I found the bullet I'd dug from his leg. I held my hand out to him, dropping it into his outstretched palm.. "Un souvenir de votre temps à Corée du Nord " (A memento of your time in North Korea.)
That was when he noticed my arm for the first time. "Qu'est-il arrive?" (What happened?)
"A cassé l'essayant de s'échapper d'une patrouille Chinois ." (Broke it trying to escape from a Chinese patrol.)
He winced as he reached out for it. "Je peut?" ( May I?)
"J'ai eu de l'entraînement médical. Je pourrais pouvoir aider. " (I've had some medical training. I might be able to help.)
His touch was gentle, but my arm was swollen and hurt like hell. Probably not as much as his leg did, but that was beside the point.
"So, where do you come from?" he asked in perfect English and my head snapped up. Why the little son of a bitch spoke English. At the same instant, he yanked my arm and I am ashamed to say I squealed like a little girl, but he'd set it and almost immediately it started to feel better. He found some wood and made a makeshift splint for it
"You speak English? I thought you were French."
"It's not my native tongue," he said, and I could hear the British accent creep into the words. Then he moved and a set of dog tags fell out of his shirt.
It was still early, but there was enough light for me to see and recognize them. I felt like I'd been sucker-punched and I grabbed the tags, yanking him forward. He didn't resist me, but his face went pale. From fear of discovery or pain, I wasn't sure. What I was sure of was that this was one of them.
"You're a no-good fucking Commie," I sputtered.
"I'm also the no-good fucking Commie who just set your arm and whose life you quite probably saved last night."
I was so angry I couldn't even speak and I had my gun out and pointed between his eyes before I was even aware of moving. Those blue eyes just studied me for a long moment and then he slowly reached out and repositioned the gun until it was over his heart. His blond hair fell over his eyes and he looked just like a kid my sister was dating back home. He was scared, he was in incredible pain and yet he still met my eyes dead on.
"Then two to my temple, okay?" I couldn't believe what he was doing. He was going to sit there and let me shoot him at point blank range. It was probably the bravest and dumbest thing I'd ever seen anyone do. I remembered watching my fellow soldiers run and hide from the mighty Russian bear and here was just this barely old enough to be shaving teen facing me with more courage than I'd seen in forever.
"You want to die?" I could barely get the words out. I was astounded at his moxie, yet I could see the fight or flight look in his eyes.
"No, I want to live, but I don't want to be taken prisoner either. I would rather die."
"You're the enemy."
"And you," he answered back. "And yet up to a few moments ago, I was your friend." He closed his eyes and his brow furrowed so deep it looked as if it had been etched by a knife. "Life is strange, is it not?"
I couldn't help it. The sheer irony of the moment seized me and I started to laugh. He reacted as if I punched him, then he smiled back, a mere ghost of a thing, yet I could see the tension leaving his face.
"A temporary truce then?" I held out my hand and he took it in his blood-caked one and I was amazed at the size of it. He was all hair, hands and feet.
"We used to be allies," he said as he shook my hand firmly. "We fought shoulder to shoulder not that long ago." I watched him start to struggle to his feet and slipped my good arm around his waist. "Let us fight together once more."
"Together it is then." He settled his left arm over my shoulder and managed a step.
By night fall, I was back among my own and he was with his. And through it all, I never asked him his name and he never asked mine, but I never forgot him and his bravery in the face of certain death.
That was when I stopped being quite so afraid myself and started to live again.
I left the military not too long after and headed off to college, determined to make something of my life. I'd seen too much death, too much indifference and suffering. I wanted to -hell, I needed to make a difference. That difference was UNCLE.
I learned to fill my nights with women when possible and with alcohol when they weren't. As often as I could, I stayed up until night was balanced on the edge of day and then slept. Somehow the sense of being alone wasn't quite as bad then. I would still wake up in a panic, my chest heaving and heart racing, but then I could dart a look at the clock and feel adrenaline flood my veins as I raced against time to not be late for work.
I found a woman and thought we could build a life together, but then she made be chose, her or my work. My work was my life and there was only one option open to me.
I went through women the way I went through partners, quickly and with no backward glance until a slender blond got off a plane and my world became very complicated. I didn't mean to become involved, hell, it was the worst thing I could do, until I spent a night in his arms and then I realized different.
We were in the shower and engaged in some pre-sex fondling when I saw the scar. I don't know why, but I drew my tongue over it and I could feel his thighs tremble beneath my mouth. It had been a long time since I'd had such a responsive lover and I was eating this up.
"What happened here?" I continued to mouth it, smiling as his fingers entwined themselves in my hair, stroking my head encouragingly. It had also been awhile since I'd had a more demanding lover either.
"A long story." He shuddered and I could feel goose pimples raise up on his otherwise smooth skin. "A long time ago, a bullet in North Korea."
I couldn't help it but laugh and he looked at me perplexed. "I dug a bullet out of the leg of a young Soviet in North Korea." I pursed my lips and thought about that night.
"And I returned the favor by setting his arm for him," Illya answered back.
"Which still aches every time we're about to get rain," I said getting to my feet and rubbing my arm.
"You?" he was as dumbfounded as I was.
"We seemed destined to have our paths cross, mon ami."
"That's impossible." His fingers caressed my arm just above the break.
"Obviously not, since we're both here." I laughed happily, pulling him into an embrace and reveling at the message I was being sent. After years of being alone, here was someone I'd met but briefly and ended up with again. "Talk about serendipity." And I knew then and there my fear was over. No more being alone, no more having to fight the night demons on my own. I had a madman at my side, one who dared me to shoot and trusted me not to.
A storm was brewing outside and the lights flickered. The shower was not the brightest place to be if they were to go out, and we barely made it back to bed before they died altogether.
That was when I felt Illya shaking and knew it was somehow different than before. This brave warrior, this fearless child who stared down death, was terrified of a thunderstorm.
I knew had had two courses open to me—ridicule him and lose him forever or do my best to take his fear away, make it mine and own it. "I read in your file that you got hit by lightning when you were younger."
"Yes, it was...unpleasant." The thunder rumbled and he flinched as if physically struck by it.
"Well, then you are lucky."
"Why is that?" He was confused.
"Because I have just the thing to take your mind off it." I gathered him in my arms and began to recite the first poem I could think of.
Quand les choses font une erreur comme ils feront quelquefois;
Quand la route vous traînez vous semblez tout montant ;
Quand les fonds sont bas, et les dettes sont hautes
Et vous voulez sourire, mais devoir le soupir ;
Quand le soin vous appuyer sur un peu- le
Repos si vous devez, mais ne pas cesser.
(When things go wrong as they sometimes will;
When the road you're trudging seems all uphill;
When the funds are low, and the debts are high
And you want to smile, but have to sigh;
When care is pressing you down a bit-
Rest if you must, but do not quit.)
I traced circles on his back and felt him start to relax. Then he started to laugh.
"Your accent really is terrible, you know."
I sneered and continued with the second verse, exaggerating my accent even more, just to hear him laugh more. I couldn't get enough of it and knew that no matter what else might happen, no matter what other terror I might have to face in my life, I never had to worry about being alone. I had Illya at my side.
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