The night was becoming increasingly more frigid, and as the men stood there by the imposing tree snow began to fall softly. Napoleon was still watching, hoping against hope that nothing would go wrong.
Illya looked directly in Anikov's eyes as he replied to the challenge.
"Comrade, you and I are both familiar with the workings of our government, and yet despite all attempts to dampen the spiritual influences there are those who believe in the superstitions of our fathers and grandfathers.'
He paused, gauging the other man's interest in this topic. Illya hoped the information they had on the man was accurate: Alexander Anikov was reported to be a mystic of sorts, seeking out that which might gain for him some unexplainable power.
"You are a man who understands that the unknown does indeed hold knowledge and possibly influence, when it is carefully handled."
Anikov was intrigued by this conversation, and indicated to Illya that he should continue.
Illya held open his coat to show that he had no weapons. Anikov nodded, but his expression bore a warning for the smaller man.
Illya withdrew a small box, in appearance it seemed to be made of gold. It was adorned with a simple gold bow.
"This simple box contains that for which you have sought these many years, comrade. I know for a fact that it was obtained from the hands of a spiritual master, a man whose own years remain a mystery for their great number.'
"This is a treasure taken from those who have discovered the secret of eternal life. I offer it to you, Alexander Mikhaelovich Anikov."
Anikov was unsure whether to grab the box from the blond's hand or shoot the man for assuming him to be a fool. There was some uncertainty as to which would be the correct course of action.
"Do you think me entirely gullible? Why should I believe that you are telling me the truth? The idea of eternal life is a myth, and you would attempt to beguile me with this story of old men and wizened yogis. I should shoot you here for your insolence."
Illya feigned indignation at the suggestion of his dishonesty.
"I know it sounds impossible, and if I were not myself the recipient of this miracle, I should welcome the bullet you are now considering shooting me with. Look at me, comrade, and see if you do not recognize me…"
Anikov looked more closely at the young man, for what reason he wasn't entirely certain. Suddenly, a memory came to him of a young musician he had last seen in Moscow some thirty years prior to this evening. Alexander Anikov remembered him because the man's wife had been his own father's eldest daughter, the offspring of an earlier failed marriage.
How Waverly had ascertained all of this, and the likelihood that Illya was the image of his deceased father was another in the list of improbabilities that populated the world in which these men lived.
"Nikolai? No, it is not possible, you are … Nikolai Kuryakin died in the camps of …"
Illya smiled at that, fighting the memories as he maintained the façade that he was, indeed, his own father.
"That was the story they told. In truth, Alexander, there were experiments going on with these fantastic elements and I was chosen to be a part of it. The results were not what they anticipated, so that instead of being tormented and dying a horrible death, I gained my youth so that I stand here, today, a testament to the truth of eternal life."
Anikov was stunned. There was no mistaking that this was, indeed, the man he had known as Nikolai Sergeyevich Kuryakin. He wondered now what had become of Nikolai's man's wife who was Alexander's half sister. Anikov had lost track of her during that troubling time, and had not been much inclined to inquire into her fate.
Illya took the opportunity to put the box into Anikov's hands, knowing without a doubt that the bait had been taken.
"You are the only one I can trust with this, and for the sake of your relationship to my dear wife and the good that you will perhaps do with it, I give this treasure to you Alexander Mikhaelovich."
Anikov was still staring at the blond man whose tale was beginning to seem real. He had searched for such a wonder, always hoping that the stories were real and that he might gain the impossible: eternal life. His future would be very different now if this were all as Kuryakin presented it.
"What do I … how does it work, Nikolai Sergeyevich?"
Now Illya was going to give the best part of his performance. He owed this to his parents, to his father who had been unjustly imprisoned. And for his mother, whose fate had been sealed by a lack of response or intervention from a man who had been her own flesh and blood. There was some small measure of revenge in this plot, and Illya recognized the hand that Waverly was playing, how easily he had maneuvered the Russian into it.
"You will do nothing, Alexander Mikhaelovich. Put this in a safe place, and when the time is right it will call to you. It is the secret of the ages, the paradise we can only dream about. I am living proof that what is in this box is real, that youth can be eternally ours if we will only obey the treasure contained in it.'
Illya's face took on the visage of one in whom only truth existed.
"You can trust me, it will change your future."
Anikov took the box, his greedy desire for eternal youth a greater need than that for any kind of security. He motioned his men away, and drawing closer to Illya he whispered so that only the younger man could hear him.
"Tell me the name of the man who gave you this, and why it has remained with you."
Illya smiled, a knowing expression exuded a confidence that must have come, seemingly, from his own experiences.
"I received this from Comrade Stalin himself. He discovered it while in one of his trances, after entering into Hohha. He was a mystic, tovarisch, as I now am. Why do you think his body never deteriorated? Why do you think it was removed from its place next to Lenin?"
At this Anikov nearly blanched from the inference that Stalin was still alive.
"It is true what you are telling me, Nikolai Sergeyevich?"
"All of it, and so you must take this now. Do not look back and do not open it until it calls you. Live long, comrade, as I am doing now."
Illya reached up and kissed Anikov on first one cheek and then the other, clasping his shoulders finally in an embrace before he turned and walked away. Each step was a risk, every second filled with the prospect of a bullet in his back.
Anikov stood looking at the gold box in his hands. He believed it. He believed the entire story, had known about Stalin's interest in the occult and the stories surrounding the great man's mystical qualities, the Hohha, the pipe…
"I will live forever…"
Illya walked down the street under a soft shower of snow until he reached a doorway that had been designated for him to enter when the time came. Now, as he pulled the door closed behind him, the Russian took a deep breath and only then let his body begin to relax just a little. The tension had been excruciating, the loathing he felt for the man Anikov nearly suffocating.
The sound of his communicator jerked him back into the present.
"Illya, did he buy it? Do you think he'll hold onto the box and not open it?"
Napoleon had watched the scene below him play out, had listened in on the outlandish story his partner told the other man. Now he just needed to hear it from Illya, to have some confirming evidence that their plan would work.
"Yes. I believe he will do exactly as I told him. Russians are superstitious deep down, and Stalin really did do all of what I said, except for delivering the secret for eternal youth."
Napoleon almost hated to ask, but Illya had just condemned a man who, by the sound of it, was somehow related to the Kuryakin family.
"He is my uncle, Napoleon. My mother's half brother.'
A long pause begged for some type of intervention, but neither man spoke for some time. Finally, Illya took a long breath and explained.
"After my father was arrested, when my mother and I were back in Kiev, the authorities finally came for her as well. Anikov could have intervened, he was already climbing upward and his word might have meant something. But…'
"But he didn't?"
Another sigh from the Russian.
"No. They took my mother, and I was placed in a state school with only a remnant of that life to remind me in the years to come that I had once been part of a family."
Napoleon had a surge of pity for his friend, and then he realized it was compassion; the kind one has toward those for whom you care a great deal. This new partnership took on a different kind of value that night.
"I'm sorry, Illya. This must have been very difficult for you, and I'm proud of you partner. Now, what will happen next?"
Illya heard a church bell, and looking out at the snowfall he reckoned it must be midnight. Christmas.
"The box has a tracking element in it that will keep UNCLE informed as well as the Soviets. When Anikov reaches his home base the signal will alert those who want to apprehend him with the location and …"
"And that's the end of Alexander Anikov."
Illya nodded to no one.
"Yes, hopefully that will be the end. He has done much that has been detestable and vicious to Soviet citizens, multiplying the danger when he became involved with THRUSH. He needed to be stopped. It is no coincidence that he was taken in by the suggestion that Josef Stalin pioneered this secret of eternal youth. They are alike in many ways."
Napoleon wanted to put this assignment behind them, hoped that Illya could still have a pleasant Christmas in spite of whatever memories had been resurrected tonight.
"We have a flight to catch, partner. I'll pick you up on my way down."
"Yes… I will be very happy to see New York again. Kuryakin out."
A long flight later found the two friends back in New York City, just in time for Christmas. For Illya, there was lightness in his emotions that he hadn't experienced for years.