'Don't fall asleep on me. No, don't fall asleep.'
He shakes Napoleon a little, brushes fingertips over his forehead. His skin is cool and clammy and pale. His lips are pale and his eyes keep rolling backwards in his head.
'No, Napoleon. Don't fall asleep on me. Wake up. Wake up.'
The snow is drifting down outside the cabin window. Beneath its slowly thickening shroud the lake must be like glass. There must be fish swimming languidly in the black and frigid water, their mouths gaping open as if they're shocked at the cold. They can't expect to see light until the spring. Perhaps it's warmer under all that ice and snow. Illya is a cold weather specialist. He knows the insulating properties of snow.
He shakes him a little and is – not exactly gratified by Napoleon's moan, but pleased he's awake enough to make it. The torn strips of fabric around his thigh are bright red, and so is the wadding Illya has shoved into the wound in his soft abdomen. He doesn't want Napoleon to sleep. He doesn't want Napoleon to not wake up, and if he sleeps it is certain he will not wake up.
'Napoleon,' he says again, and then he goes across the room and pours a little water from the tin pot on the primus and brings it over to his partner. He tips it against Napoleon's lips and Napoleon splutters and takes in the lukewarm snow melt, snow Illya scraped from the old falls on the north side of the cabin. Napoleon's eyes flicker open again, a rich brown in a room full of dull browns and greys.
'Napoleon,' Illya says again, and Napoleon blinks, his eyes swimming in and out of focus, and he says something which is probably meant to be a joke but comes out as just a mumble ending in 'brandy...'
'No brandy here, my friend,' Illya says. 'Just snow water. We can be grateful for the primus and oil.'
He wonders if when the snow is thick enough he will be able to go outside and bank snow up around the walls to help keep the warm in here. There's a small supply of firewood, but that won't last long, and he doesn't want to leave Napoleon to fetch wood which will be dark and wet with winter. He needs to be here to keep him from drifting away. That means he can't go out and bank up snow, either. It would take a monumental effort and would be blown away in a strong wind. Besides, Napoleon will probably not last long enough for the snow to settle and for Illya to bank it up into an insulating wall.
'Napoleon,' Illya says again, and Napoleon mumbles again. He's asking about food.
'There isn't anything,' Illya tells him. 'I can keep you hydrated and I can try to keep you warm. That's it.'
And it suddenly hits him so hard and so painfully that Napoleon will die here. He will probably slowly bleed to death. There isn't much Illya can do. He's tried to staunch the bullet wounds and he's trying to keep Napoleon warm, but he can do very little else. He slips his hand under the covers and catches Napoleon's fingers and curls them in his. His fingertips are cold. He feels a raging anger at being unable to find Napoleon food, hot soup to drink, a proper medical kit, any kind of help at all.
'Il'ya,' Napoleon murmurs. His lips are very pale. 'Y'should go...'
'No,' Illya says very firmly, just once. 'We are assuming the distress call was picked up. We are assuming you will make it.'
'You're 'suming,' Napoleon says.
Illya squeezes his hand and goes back to the primus to check the water he is trying to heat. He wants to get more heat into Napoleon as well as hydration. Some of it he will use to fill a glass bottle he found on a shelf. That can go under the blanket. And Napoleon can drink the rest. Illya hasn't eaten or drunk in far too many hours, but that doesn't really matter. He's not bleeding to death.
The water is hot enough now, so he fills the bottle and wraps it in a cloth and nestles it in near Napoleon's feet, saying, 'There you are. That should help keep you warm. Be careful, now. It's glass.'
And Napoleon blinks at him and smiles a little. He's lying on a scrabbled together pile of cardboard and carpet that Illya managed to scrounge from around the one room cabin. Anything to just raise him off the floor a little. He's covered in curtains ripped from the windows, because they're better insulating Napoleon than the room. He's the most vulnerable one here. And so Illya can see the snow whirling outside, the near flakes lit in a soft golden glow from the oil lamp and the far ones disappearing into an endless murk. He watches them for a while and becomes entranced. Then he shakes himself, blinks hot eyes. He hadn't realised how tired he was. He's tired and hungry and his muscles ache. But he has to stay awake for Napoleon, and for himself. He needs to keep Napoleon from dying and himself from freezing to death. Napoleon keeps slipping away, and how he hates that. He hates the aloneness that fills a room occupied by a sleeping person.
'Hey, Napoleon,' he says, poking his arm. There are a few books here and he picks one up. He might need to burn them in the end, but he might as well look at them for now. 'Napoleon, shall I read to you? Do you want me to read to you?'
Napoleon gives a kind of groan on an out breath. His eyes are slits.
'Sleep,' he says, but Illya pokes him again and says, 'No, not sleep. Don't go off to sleep. I need you to keep me from getting bored.'
'You – '
'Napoleon, do you remember last Christmas?' Illya asks. He lays the book in his lap, his fingers trapped between the pages. 'Do you remember what we did?'
'You – Y'said you didn't – '
And Illya smiles. 'I said I didn't believe in Christmas. I said it was a capitalist construct to entice money from the poor and make the rich richer. I still believe that Christmas is a capitalist construct, at least in the way it is celebrated in America.'
'Mmmm-hmmm,' Napoleon says, and the skin around the sides of his mouth creases a little as he tries to smile. He looks so cold and so tired, and older than he is, as if he's racing towards old age in an attempt to make this dying more fair.
'Well,' Illya says. 'You told me I didn't have to believe in Christmas to enjoy myself. You promised me food and wine and welcome and song.'
'You told me ... New year...'
'That I grew up celebrating the New Year,' Illya nods.
He remembers the dull winter days in Kiev and the excitement of waiting for New Year in all that dullness. The thought of Ded Moroz, Grandfather Frost, coming with toys and sweets for him, just for him. That thought kept him on an edge of excitement for weeks, and every time there were delicate frost engravings on the windows he thought that was a harbinger. He would kneel on the chair by the window just staring at those lacy pictures and mama would tell him they were left by Ded Moroz's beautiful granddaughter.
The streets outside were always dull and grey at that time of year. The skies were dull and grey, but there was the promise of festivity to lift that dullness. And there was what he wouldn't tell Napoleon, not at first; that he looked forward to the Western Christmas, because it was something like what happened at home.
'I told you that our traditions are quite different to yours. That we celebrate the New Year. I told you that even if I did celebrate Christmas I would celebrate on the seventh of January.'
'Mmm, seventh,' Napoleon murmurs. 'And you – '
'And you called me a stubborn Russian,' Illya says. 'And I told you that we celebrate the same things in different ways.'
He stands up and walks over to the window. The snow is still swirling but the flakes are somewhat smaller, drier and colder. They will be settling soon. They were lucky to find this cabin before the weather really set in. He had tugged and half carried Napoleon through this barren landscape for too long as the sun inched down towards the west behind the thick banks of clouds. The grass had been withered, tired and dying, patched with snow. The soil was so thin that stone rose in ridges through the ground, bones pushing up through starved skin. It was hard going, although the permafrost made the earth solid to walk on. Hard going with an injured partner. Hard going knowing that at any moment gunshots might ring out again, and they could both be killed without ever seeing who had killed them.
But they are here now. That is what he must focus on. They have found this shelter and there is the blessed mercy of oil and firewood even if there isn't much else. Their chances have increased so much just by finding shelter. And there was the distress call. If someone heard…
His communicator beacon is activated just in case. Just in case there was someone to hear. Just in case someone is looking…
He goes back to Napoleon and kneels down and touches a hand to his cheek.
'Hey, Napoleon. We were talking about Christmas,' he says.
'Last Christmas,' Napoleon murmurs. His face is drawn with pain, and he is so pale.
'Last Christmas,' Illya nods. 'We didn't have to be anywhere. Mr Waverly sent us home with a bottle of whiskey for you and Stolichnaya vodka for me, and you – '
'I said – come t'my place,' Napoleon supplies.
'You said I should come to your place,' Illya nods. 'So I did. Even though I didn't celebrate your Christmas I came, because it's – ' He's not sure how to phrase it. It's an odd thing to be alone in a big city like that, in a city where almost everyone else is celebrating a family holiday, when one has no family to hand and doesn't celebrate that holiday. There's a feeling of deep loneliness in that. He hadn't wanted to go and sit in his apartment on that day which would feel like the quietest of Sundays, like a day when everyone was sleeping, and be alone. So he had agreed to come to Napoleon's apartment. And of course Napoleon's apartment had been full of Christmas. There had been the real pine Christmas tree in the corner of his living room that reminded him of the Novogodnaya Yolka that he would decorate every year with his mother. That smell took him straight back to his childhood. Napoleon's tree was sparkling with lights and glittering with ornaments of blown glass and plastic and carved wood. Some of those ornaments looked fresh from New York's finest boutiques. Some of them looked as though they had been treasured from childhood. They were chipped and scuffed and tired, but they were there, placed just as lovingly as everything else.
Illya had stood there while Napoleon was in the kitchen fixing coffee and he had fingered a little long-robed king that looked as though he had been cast from plaster of Paris and then painted. He had been chipped and the paint was dirty and inexpertly applied. Illya touched him lightly and he swung on the branch, and a few needles scattered to the ground. Napoleon had arranged it so that one of the lights shone directly onto the gilt paintwork of his crown. He hadn't asked Napoleon about him, but he knew that he was special.
'You made us coffee,' he says. 'And you lit the fire. And then there was mulled wine and – '
'Mince pies,' Napoleon murmurs, and Illya smiles.
'We didn't have them. I told you about mince pies and crackers,' he says, remembering Christmasses in Cambridge when he had been left with little choice but to join in with his fellow students, when there had been long nights of alcohol, endless talking, and trays of mince pies carried around and offered up to everyone. And how he had loved those pies, their crumbling pastry and their sweet, spicy mincemeat filling.
'You promised to get mincemeat and make me pies this year,' he mentions, and Napoleon gives a little snort.
'Facilities're lacking,' he manages to say, and then he coughs a little, and then he gives a choked sound of pain.
'Shush,' Illya says, putting a hand lightly on his chest. 'Don't worry. When we get back – '
But if Napoleon dies here… And the thought is like a hand clenching around his heart. If Napoleon dies here...
'Crackers,' Napoleon says.
'Yes,' Illya smiles. 'You can't make them for me.'
'You could,' Napoleon retorts. 'Pyromaniac Russian.'
Illya thinks his tendency towards pyromania is greatly exaggerated by his colleagues. It is true that he gains deep satisfaction in a good explosion, but really only ever in the line of duty, or in the lab, or – No, perhaps he doesn't want to go down that path for fear of incriminating himself. He remembers how much he always loved the fierce exploding passion of Victory Day, the fireworks staining the sky. Yes, he could probably make Christmas crackers, but he doesn't need to. If he ever gets Napoleon to England for Christmas he can share them with him there.
'I'd like to see you in a paper hat,' he says.
'Mmmm,' Napoleon responds.
'So, you made coffee and mulled wine,' Illya says, 'and we sat in front of your fire and you put the radio on and there were carols from somewhere.'
Be quiet and listen, Napoleon had said. Just be quiet, you godless Russian, and listen to Christmas.
Napoleon hadn't known how much Illya loved those soft and piercing voices, the sound of the organ, the almost unintelligible words. He remembered going to the churches in Cambridge to listen to carols being sung, candlelight spilling over the warm stone, voices trembling in the air and soaring up into the vaulted roofs of those beautiful, aged buildings. He remembered sitting there even after the last notes had slipped away, just marvelling at how history and beauty and living beings could come together to create such a thing, and he had felt connected to the deep past and linked to the future all at once. Unwittingly, Napoleon had brought back beauty for him.
It had been such a perfect evening sitting there in the warm room, the air thick with the heat from the fire and filled with the delicate filigree of those voices.
It's Christmas Eve, Illya, Napoleon had said, as if those few words meant something so special he need say no more. And Illya had felt it. There had been a quietness in the air and through Napoleon's window they had seen snow falling over the East River.
'Napoleon, are you all right?' he asks, because Napoleon's eyes are closing again.
Napoleon's lips thin briefly, and then he nods. 'Yeah,' he says. 'All right.'
So Illya goes and pours another little cup of warm water and puts a hand under Napoleon's head to support him while he drinks, saying, 'I'm sorry it's not coffee.'
'S'it Christmas Eve?' Napoleon asks. His lips are glistening with the water on them.
'Yes,' Illya says gently. 'It's Christmas Eve. It's late.'
'I might make Christmas, then,' Napoleon says.
'You will,' Illya nods firmly, but he glances over at the window and the thickening snow, and he isn't sure. He doesn't know. He lifts the covers briefly to look at Napoleon's stomach wound and his heart jolts a little at the gleaming wet red of the makeshift bandages. There's only so much one can do to stop bleeding without the proper equipment.
'We listened to carols,' he says, folding the covers back over his partner, 'and we drank, and I suppose we drank too much, didn't we? It felt so warm in your apartment. Your fire was blazing. You had the spare bed made up for me and there were presents under the tree, and I realised for the first time that those presents were for me. You'd bought me presents and I'd got you nothing.'
'Company,' Napoleon says, and his eyes open a little more, and he looks directly at Illya, and Illya can see the depth of their friendship in that look. There is love in that look.
'I brought you company,' Illya smiles. 'And you'd brought me a new hat and gloves and the latest Miles Davis LP and three books. And you had a turkey waiting to be cooked, and all the trimmings. And all that wine.'
'Company,' Napoleon says again, and Illya knows that is the most important thing. It didn't matter a jot to Napoleon that his Soviet friend didn't celebrate Christmas and hadn't thought to get him a gift. It mattered that he was there to share the day with him, and to share the night before. Otherwise, where would Napoleon have been? Perhaps he would have been out with one of his lady friends, but it wouldn't have been the same. It wouldn't have been as deep.
Illya pulls out his communicator and tries to open a channel, but nothing happens. He doesn't expect it to. The battery is too weak. It's giving all it has to the beacon, in the hopes that someone will trace them.
'Napoleon, don't go to sleep, will you?' he says, putting his hand on Napoleon's cheek. 'Don't go to sleep.'
He doesn't want to be left alone in this one room shack. He doesn't want to be left alone with a slowly cooling body and Napoleon gone from his life. He presses his hand a little harder on Napoleon's cheek, shakes him a little.
Napoleon looks at him again, and he says, ''m tired, Illya. Very tired...'
'You remember Christmas Day?' Illya asks. 'Do you remember that turkey?'
'Radish,' Napoleon says, and Illya knows he's remembering another time, when they had been charged with babysitting a visiting dignitary from the Eastern Bloc, and somehow they had ended up trussed up in a turkey barn surrounded by stinking, gobbling turkeys which improbably pecked them free from their bonds.
'Not that turkey,' he says. 'Christmas Day. The turkey you cooked. It was so enormous we didn't have a hope of eating it. We barely made a dent. I could have crawled inside that turkey and made a home in there.'
That makes Napoleon smile. Perhaps he's laughing, in a way, but he's too tired and too pale to laugh, so he just smiles, and Illya smiles back.
'Do you want me to sing you Christmas carols?' he asks.
Napoleon wrinkles his nose.
'Not your thing.'
Napoleon's voice sounds so weak, and he is right, anyway. They're not Illya's thing. He doesn't know the words. So Illya thinks of the songs that his mother would sing absent-mindedly about the apartment at New Year, and he sings one of those instead, tasting the Ukrainian words full on his tongue and in his mouth, because he so rarely gets to use them. After so long of speaking English his mouth starts to feel lazy, and it's good to taste his language again, especially in song, because songs are made to make the mouth feel good.
Napoleon is listening. He can tell he is listening. His eyes are part open and he is listening to Illya sing. When the song is finished Illya asks, 'How was that?' and Napoleon says, 'Not bad. Godless Russian.'
The wind is making a little howling noise outside. He wonders if it is scudding the snow over those bare bones of rock that push through the cold soil. He wonders if there are animals out there in that, stoically standing with their heads down and their feet planted apart. Caribou, maybe, standing in the wind. And he looks back to Napoleon and his face is so white, whiter even than the snow falling outside, because this is a grey white, a white that reminds him that Napoleon cannot lose more blood without losing his life. Flesh without blood is an awful colour. Napoleon's lips are blue and his breathing is shallow, and Illya grabs hold of his hand and says, 'Napoleon. Napoleon. Don't you dare go to sleep, Napoleon. Stay with me. Please stay with me.'
And his last words come out on a sob.
And then the wind is strumming, it is thudding, and the impossible has happened. That is not wind but the rotors of a helicopter, cutting through the snow. Napoleon's face is whiter than the flakes that are falling and there is blood on the torn curtains that cover him and blood on the bits of cardboard and carpet underneath him, and Illya feels a sudden sick lurch in his stomach because until now he has remained in a kind of denial about just how much blood there is, because there was nothing he could do about it anyway.
And then the door smashes open and there are men running in, guns drawn, their faces muffled and gloves on their hands, but Illya recognises the U.N.C.L.E. logo on their flight suits, and it is such a relief that he hardly knows what to say. Before he can speak they are gathering up Napoleon and carrying him out of the cabin, leaving behind that bright stain of blood. Illya is following, saying useless things like, 'Be careful,' and 'Gently now,' and then Napoleon is strapped to a stretcher in the helicopter and Illya forces himself to stand back on the other side of the fragile metal cavern while a doctor does magical things to Napoleon to keep him alive. The bag of blood they are hanging high on a hook is so dark and so rich, and it is the best gift in the world. Illya would like to find the person who gave that blood and hug him.
It is very still in the hospital, very quiet. Hospitals don't stop for Christmas, but still the air feels different, there's a difference in people's voices. From somewhere down the corridor Illya can hear Christmas music, not the carols that he loves, but modern music, jaunty voices singing of bells and Santa Claus. It doesn't touch him like the carols do.
In Napoleon's room it's quieter still. He still looks white, still reminds Illya of the flaking snow. Snow is falling outside his window and dusting over the leafless trees and shrubs and the half-dead grass of the little park out there. Snow is blurring out the low-rise buildings and the slow-moving traffic. Everything is very soft and still.
'I'm sorry you're missing Christmas, Mr Kuryakin,' one of the nurses had said, and Illya had smiled and hadn't bothered to mention that as a godless Communist it was hardly his holiday. Christmas is Napoleon's, all Napoleon's, and Napoleon is unconscious in the bed with a line running to his arm replacing the blood he has lost. The only gift he has for Illya this year is his life, and all Illya can give him in return is his presence, even though Napoleon is asleep and has no idea he is there.
December 31st, and Napoleon is home. He is pale and he is weak and he walks with a crutch both because of the wound in his thigh and the wound in his stomach, both of which are healing slowly. His Christmas tree is still up, still sparkling. It has sat in the cold of his apartment all through that long week over Christmas time when they had been running from Thrush and then Napoleon had been lying unconscious in a Canadian hospital. The cold has kept the tree fresh and alive.
On the day Illya brings Napoleon home he also brings out a bright and glittering star and he climbs on a small set of steps to reach the top of the tree, and he demotes Napoleon's angel to a lower branch and places his star there, right at the top, and now this is a tree for New Year, perfect. He has kept that star in a box ever since he came to America but he has never bothered getting himself a tree.
For an idle moment he wonders if Ded Moroz will visit, with Snegurochka, his granddaughter snow maiden, in tow. As he got a little older he yearned to see Snegurochka because he thought she must be the most beautiful creature in creation. But there are already gifts under the tree, just a few of them, and Illya knows that they are for him, from Napoleon. He doesn't need gifts because he has Napoleon's life, but Napoleon didn't know what was going to happen when he put those presents under the tree.
'I only have this,' Illya says, taking out a small package from his pocket and laying it with the other presents under the tree. Slipping down to his apartment to pick up some clothes allowed him to fetch that star and Napoleon's New Year gift as well.
'I don't need anything, Illya,' Napoleon says. He is sitting on the sofa with his legs extended along the cushions and he looks exhausted after the flight back from Canada. It is late, very late. New Year's Eve is no day to spend on aeroplanes and in airports, especially when one is injured.
'No, you don't,' Illya agrees, 'but you're getting it anyway.'
And he bustles about the apartment while Napoleon rests, looking to see what food he has in his cupboards and trying to decide whether he will need to run out to the grocery store to get enough to cook Napoleon a proper New Year meal. It has been so long since he has celebrated in this way. For years he has been expected to mould his customs to the customs of the country he is in. He has been called strange, godless, awkward, just for coming from a different culture. But this year he will celebrate the new year, and it will be wonderful. He will cook and he will give Napoleon his gift, and maybe he will teach him some songs.
'Hey,' Napoleon says from the sofa. 'It's almost midnight.'
'Oh,' Illya says, looking up, startled. He hadn't realised it was quite so late. Then a thought strikes him, a memory bubbling up. 'Do you have champagne?' If anyone were going to have champagne laid in it would be Napoleon.
'Oh, yes,' Napoleon says. 'Yes, in the kitchen. Go look.'
'Do you have candles?' Illya asks, and Napoleon's forehead furrows, but then he says, 'Yeah, corner cupboard. And matches. In case of black out.'
So Illya hurries and fetches champagne, glasses, paper and pen. He hands a piece of paper to Napoleon and says, 'Think about what you want to happen. Think about what you want to come to pass in the new year. When the clock strikes you write down what you wish for.'
'Okay,' Napoleon says uncertainly, and Illya smiles, catching Napoleon's gaze and holding it.
'Think about what you wish,' he says.
And then the clock on the mantlepiece starts to strike, and Illya starts to write, and he sees that Napoleon does too. And Illya lights the candle and delicately burns both scraps of paper to ashes. He pours champagne, foaming into tall glasses, and the bubbles star their sides. Into each of their glasses he scrapes the soft grey ash, and he stirs it in with a clean finger and then licks the golden drips into his mouth.
Napoleon looks at him, bemused, and Illya says to him with a smile, 'S Novim Godom. Happy New Year, Napoleon.'
Then he holds out his glass of wishes, and Napoleon takes it in his hands, and drinks.