Ecks didn't reappear for the rest of the mission or the flight back, and Illya had plenty of time to think about their strange meetings and his feelings about the last one.
Why had it bothered him so much when Ecks had acted resigned to his fate? They both knew he was dead. And Illya hadn't liked Ecks hanging around him. He had wanted it to stop. So why had he instead encouraged Ecks to fight back against death if it truly was oblivion? Did the thought of death as a nothingness bother him more than Ecks' obnoxious personality?
Napoleon was right that Illya had usually either felt that death was a nothingness or that he really hadn't wanted to think about it. The phantom Ecks' arrival on the scene was the first time Illya's stance had ever really been challenged. With the ghost had come a smidgen of hope, and Illya didn't like to have that taken away with Ecks' loss of hope.
He was, therefore, not entirely annoyed when Ecks appeared before him back in the apartment several days later. "I thought you had gone on to whatever fate awaited you," he commented.
"I still don't know what fate 'awaits' me," Ecks said in frustration. "I've just been in oblivion again, as before. I have no choice over what happens to me; I come and go against my will, as you already surmised."
Illya folded his arms. "Then it would seem that death truly is a nothingness, if not for these bizarre reappearances. I am certain that I am not causing them either."
Ecks sighed. "The fact is, Kuryakin, if even the dead don't know what's going on, I would say that there's no hope whatsoever."
"I don't want to believe that," Illya snapped. "Since there are these bizarre reappearances, there must be more going on than meets the eye. As a child, I was taught that there was nothing after death. You have proved that there is something. I am going to cling to that 'something' and hope that there is more."
That brought a hesitation. "Then, Kuryakin, while you're hoping, I have a small request to make."
Illya raised an eyebrow. "What's that?"
"Remember me." Ecks removed his sunglasses to look him straight in the eyes. "We both know that spies live their lives in the shadows and are quietly forgotten, if they were ever remembered at all. The only ones who think of them are their loved ones and their enemies. I have no living loved ones anymore. That leaves you, as my enemy. I'd like to think that I haven't been entirely forgotten. In that way, I can still live on."
"I doubt I could ever forget you, Mr. Ecks," Illya said flatly. "Even if I would try with all my might."
Ecks smirked. "By the way, how did your mission go?"
"Well enough," Illya answered. "We righted THRUSH's wrongs and quietly slipped away again."
"Hooray for you," said Ecks. "The understated life of a spy, as usual."
"There were quite a few people who saw us when we chased a THRUSH spy through a ski resort," Illya said stiffly.
"They won't remember you in a week," Ecks said in a flippant tone.
"Less than a week," Illya returned. "I have no foolish notions that spies are well-remembered. I know the truth, just as you do."
"I would hope so," Ecks shot back.
Illya sighed wearily and crossed the room to his chair. "So in what manner do you plan to tease me tonight?"
"Oh, I don't know," Ecks said cheekily. "The possibilities are endless."
"Or how about you simply be quiet and read over my shoulder if I choose an English edition of a book tonight?" Illya asked, his voice very dry.
"Do you have any?" Ecks immediately returned.
"Yes." Illya slipped around the chair to the bookcase against the wall and selected a thick volume. "An unabridged English translation of Les Miserables."
Ecks shrugged. "Fine by me."
It was strange to sit there and read and know that a ghost was looking over his shoulder. Every now and then Ecks would comment on what they were reading and Illya would reply, but for the most part Ecks cooperated and read quietly. It was actually, oddly enough, peaceful and pleasant. Although they had been enemies in life, and had continued to be antagonistic towards each other after Ecks' death, tonight they had put it all aside. Tonight they were just two spies . . . no, two people reading a book.
Illya wasn't sure when he realized Ecks was no longer there. He was caught up in the events of the chapter and suddenly came back to himself with the feeling that he was alone. Upon looking over his shoulder, he saw that he was.
He frowned as he closed the book and stood up. Perhaps Ecks had grown bored and decided to explore. Somehow, however, he knew that wasn't it. Ecks was gone again. A quick search of the apartment confirmed it.
He was never sure whether Ecks would return or not, since oftentimes days went by before seeing him again. But after weeks passed with no sign of him, Illya began to suspect that he had heard from his strange companion for the last time. He still knew no better than before what the secrets of death were, or if Ecks had found peace, but he liked to think, even to hope, that he had.
"Goodbye, Mr. Ecks," he said to the night as he stood on his apartment balcony some time later. "Perhaps wherever you are, you have found Mr. Wye again and are happy. I can't really imagine any afterlife could be a dull nothingness with the two of you in it."
He wished that Ecks would have returned to tell him what he had found. Perhaps Ecks couldn't, rather than wouldn't. Perhaps Illya would never know until he died himself. And he hoped that would not be forthcoming soon.
With a resigned sigh, he turned and went back into the apartment.
The oblivion had returned as soon as he had left Kuryakin's flat against his will. As before, he didn't know where he was or what he was lying on or if this was what death truly was. Nor did he know why there seemed to be such a fog over his mind and his thoughts. If he really thought he was lying in his coffin, he would be in a state of panic. But he could not dredge up enough emotion to really care or try to change his fate. He didn't even seem to want to try; all he wanted to do was sleep. Just sleep. . . .
But then he wasn't asleep any more and it wasn't dark around him at all and a stranger was looking down at him.
"Good evening," the stranger greeted.
Ecks stared at him, bewildered, uncomprehending. "What . . . where is this?"
"The same hospital where your chum brought you weeks ago. I'm Doctor Madsen."
Ecks grunted. "Hospital? Doctor?" He slowly raised his hand, giving a blank stare to the thing clamped around one of his fingers. "I . . . I can't be alive. . . . It's impossible."
"You bloody well didn't make it easy," the doctor told him. "We almost lost you several times that first day, and after complications set in, you slipped into a coma. We weren't sure you'd ever come out of it."
Ecks was half-listening. He was peering down at the mattress. "Not a coffin," he mumbled in realization. "A bed. And it wasn't a pull to leave; it was a pull to come back. I really am alive!" Then, stiffening at a remembrance that was already vague in his mind, he looked back up at the doctor. "What about my friend?"
The physician looked caught. ". . . He hasn't been back," he quietly admitted. "We don't know what happened to him."
Ecks turned away, closing his eyes in grief. For some reason, he had a memory of being told that Wye was dead. But he was alive. Why couldn't Wye have survived too? No, he wouldn't believe Wye was dead. Not yet.
He opened his eyes again. "He'll still come," he insisted. "He won't leave me."
The doctor didn't look convinced, but he slowly nodded. "We'll see," he said, writing something on his clipboard. "Now, I need to examine you, and after that you should try to get some proper sleep. Being in a coma isn't the same thing as getting a decent rest."
"No, it isn't," Ecks mumbled. Especially not when he had the feeling he had been wandering during a lot of that time.
He shuddered. Already those memories were vague, and perhaps when he woke up more fully he wouldn't remember them at all, but right now he remembered them well enough to know that he and others had thought he was dead. And he wasn't; death was still a mystery to him. Except . . . now he knew that there was something that apparently carried on after it. If there wasn't, he couldn't have wandered so extensively.
Of course, it could have all been a product of hallucinations and other delusions caused by his injuries and illness. Maybe he had put assorted things together that he had heard about death and had created a bizarre fantasy world for himself in which he took part in repeated make-believe out-of-body experiences. But he hadn't known the name of the agent who had stabbed him. Would he have invented the name Kuryakin?
He frowned. In the end, in spite of any doubts he might have, he really believed that everything he thought he had experienced had been real. Maybe when he felt better he could try to do some research, such as whether Solo and Kuryakin had actually been on a mission to Switzerland recently. For now, he was more concerned with finding his partner and friend.
He watched the doctor examining him, but his thoughts continued to roam far beyond the hospital room. He didn't know why he had always ended up with Kuryakin when he had wandered. He probably never would. But he supposed it had probably been his own restlessness, rather than anything Kuryakin had done. He doubted Kuryakin would have repeatedly sent for him.
Kuryakin . . . I'm sorry I didn't get the answers you sought, but I'm not sorry as to the reason why. After I find Wye, perhaps we will meet again and we'll have that battle of wits and skills.
He smiled to himself as he settled back against the pillow.