"Illyusha! Come out now! Your Papa is leaving and you must say goodbye."
From his hiding place in the tree, eight year old Illya Nickovitch watched as his mother scoured the village for him. Sniffing loudly, he wiped his nose along his sleeve. His Mama would admonish him if she saw him doing it, but he had forgotten to bring a handkerchief. Illya had been told, the week previously, that his father was going away with the army and from that moment the boy had avoided his Papa.
Every time his father had tried to talk to him, Illya ignored him and walked away. It broke Nickolai Markovitch's heart that his own child wouldn't speak to him. He understood the boy's reasons, but leaving was going to be hard enough without Illya's stubbornness. When the day came for his Papa's departure, the child woke before everyone else and went to climb a tree at the edge of the village. He vowed to remain there until Papa was gone.
His mother continued to shout for him, and eventually found the boy up the tree. She looked up at him with her arms folded.
"Illya Nickovitch Kuryakin! If you do not come down immediately, I will make sure you are unable to sit for a week."
Illya's eyes were bright with unshed tears as he looked down at his Mama. She was quite a fearsome woman when it came to discipline, but even that threat wasn't enough to spur the boy down.
"Make Papa stay, then I'll come down"
"Oh Sweetheart," Mama said, with a great sadness. "If I could do that, I would. We're all going to miss Papa so very much, but you can't let him go without wishing him well. Please Darling, come down."
Illya had never seen his mother cry, so it shocked him profoundly to see the tears streaming down her cheeks. His own tears broke free with his inability to bear his Mama being so upset. He clambered out of the tree and flung his arms around her waist. She hugged him tightly, and then knelt down in front of him.
"Illyusha, Papa is having to be very brave and he needs us to be too."
"I want to be brave," Illya replied with a sob. "But Kolya's Papa went to fight and he was killed. So was Ivan's Papa."
"I know Sweetheart; which is why you have to be extra brave for your Papa. Come on, say goodbye to him."
She stood up and took her son by the hand. Nickolai smiled when he saw them approach. He lifted Illya into a bear hug, before dropping to his knees and looking him directly in the eye.
"Please don't go Papa," the young boy begged.
"Illya Nickovitch, you are eight years old now. You're almost a man," he told the boy earnestly. "You must learn that a man must always do what he can to protect his family. I will not lie to you. Where I am going is dangerous and I may be killed, but sometimes a man must give his life to protect what he loves."
"You can protect us here."
"Yes, I could," Nickolai agreed. "But, it isn't just my family that needs protection. All of Russia needs protection too and every man must perform that duty. Do you understand?"
Illya nodded silently.
"One day," Nickolai continued. "You may be asked to sacrifice yourself. I know that is not a nice thing for a child to hear, but I might not get the chance to tell you this later. You must always do what is right in your heart. For now, while I am gone, you are the man of our family and I need you to promise me that you will do your duty and take care of your Mama, Babushka and your sisters. Can you do that for me?"
Illya nodded again, tears flowing freely down his face.
"I promise Papa."
"Illya! Wake up!"
Napoleon Solo shook his partner's shoulder trying to rouse him from a dream which seemed to be upsetting him. He'd pulled Illya from many a nightmare, but this was the first time he'd seen him crying in his sleep.
"Wake up Tovarisch."
Illya opened his eyes and blearily looked into those of Napoleon.
Are you okay buddy? You were sobbing."
If anyone else had caught him crying, Illya would have been humiliated. This was never the case with Napoleon.
"I was dreaming of the day my Papa left to go to war," the Russian explained. "Yesterday was the anniversary."
"That explains why you were a little more distant than usual yesterday," Napoleon observed.
"Before he left, he explained about duty. He told me it was my duty to take care of the family as I was now the man of the house. I promised him I would, but I failed him in that duty."
"He didn't mean it seriously Illya," Napoleon said, as gently as he could. "He was only trying to make his leaving easier for you."
Illya sat up and hung his head in sorrow.
"My head knows that, but my heart made the promise."
Raising his head, he suddenly smiled at Napoleon. "He also told me that the day may come when I would have to sacrifice myself. I doubt he ever meant for me to do it on a daily basis."
Solo returned the smile. "If your Papa could see the man his son had become, he would be the proudest man on the Earth. When this assignment is over, I'm taking you out for a drink, and we will honour your father and your family."
"Thank you my friend. We shall also toast your father, as I know he made you the man you are."
"Thank you. Now, get back to sleep, we have to be up in two hours."