Hung Series - Hung
Illya wonders sometimes if he’s perpetuating a vicious circle. He has a reputation for being able to escape from impossible circumstances, so they tie him all the harder. They like especially, for some reason only Thrush understand, to hang him up from his wrists: he in particular. Napoleon gets off so much easier. They also like to hang him upside down from his ankles whenever they get the chance. So Illya works on his upper body strength fastidiously, works on his abs and his arm and shoulder strength, and spends hours sometimes hanging upside down in the gym increasing his tolerance for having all his blood run to his head. But he does wonder sometimes if maybe if he passed himself off as a little less competent at escape they might go a bit easier on him. On the other hand, that might result in them killing him, and that’s not something Illya wants to encourage.
Right now is a case in point. They’ve tried especially hard this time. He’s being hung from chain, not rope, for a start. Rope cuts into the wrists, true, but it’s more giving than chain, in more ways than one. He swears he can feel the shape of every single metal link where it digs in to the bones and flesh of his wrists and into the heels of his hands. At first he managed every now and then to grab the chains with his hands and haul himself up to relieve some of the pressure on his wrists, but this many hours hanging does something to a man. He has even managed to sleep, in fits and starts, but he can’t push through the raging pain in his joints to grab the chains any more. If he stays absolutely still it doesn’t burn so badly. Anyway, his fingers are too numb to grip. He’s not sure if he’ll ever have feeling in them again.
Meanwhile, his mind drifts. Dylan drones into his thoughts. My senses have been stripped. My hands can’t feel to grip... So apt. He visualises picking that out on the guitar and singing along. My weariness amazes me, I’m branded on my feet. He doesn’t even know what it means, but it fits. He drew the lyrics into his mind on the first hearing and they’re lodged there now, and what would the girls at U.N.C.L.E. think to see him sitting in a black turtleneck holding his guitar and singing that out, when they all think he’s so uptight, so little fun? What would Dylan think if he knew one of the fuzz, near enough, was hanging here from a ceiling using his lyrics to distract himself from the pain?
At least this time he’s not upside down, but no amount of practice in the gym can make being hung like this bearable after the first few hours, and certainly not after the first day. Developed muscles can only do so much. Maybe when he gets back he should talk to someone in the infirmary and find out if there’s anything else he can do, but he suspects not. He looks into his future and fears being crippled by arthritis from damaged joints. All he can do about that is take care of his body. Damage is an occupational hazard, and of course as he ages the breaks and scars and bullet wounds will come back to haunt him. But he hopes he will still be able to move his arms, particularly his hands. It takes a certain manual dexterity to play the English horn. He wants to spend a quiet retirement turning the pages of well-written books, playing his horn and guitar, maybe tending to houseplants. For a long time he has harboured a secret fantasy of owning a greenhouse; an impossibility in a New York apartment well above the ground floor.
If he could see he would have the distraction of his surroundings to occupy him, and a better chance of working out an escape, but there’s a blindfold tied tightly over his eyes, pressing against his closed lids. It hangs down a little over his nose and it smells none too good. It’s too wide to be a sock, but the scent of sweat is thick in the fabric, and he hates to think what it might be. But anyway, the blindfold is there, and his early attempts to get his face close enough to his hands to pluck it off just resulted in a slip and a wrenched shoulder, another thing on the list for Medical later and another thing to torment him while he hangs.
He hopes they haven’t forgotten him. He doesn’t exactly welcome their return, but then he’s been here long enough to have to relieve his bladder through his trousers and long enough that his mouth is parched and his stomach gnawingly empty, and he hates the thought of being left here to die like this. He always imagined something swift – a bullet or an explosion – not a slow, lingering death from neglect.
That thought makes him try again, lifting his knees ever so slowly towards his chest, trying not to jerk his shoulders before it’s absolutely necessary, trying to ignore the clammy damp of his urine soaked trousers as the fabric moves against his skin. He gets his knees to his chest, tries to straighten one of his legs upwards in a pose that would be the envy of many amateur gymnasts, and, twisting, brushes his toes against the chains that hold him. He kicked off his shoes and socks long ago in the hope that having bare toes would help, having already exhausted the possibility of using the devices hidden in his shoe heels. He had dropped the little wire file – he couldn’t have used it anyway – and the reel of plastic explosive had missed its mark.
Dropping his shoes had given him an idea of how high he was, at least. He hadn’t been too conscious when he was strung up, and couldn’t tell later if he had been hauled twenty feet up or was just two inches above the floor. By the sound his shoes had made when they dropped, he was about six feet up, above wood. High enough to make a fall dangerous, but not as dangerous as staying here.
After an experimental feel of the chains around his wrists he gives up on that avenue and tries to straighten both legs now, hauling himself up higher and higher. His legs are together, feet perfectly pointed, like a diver upside down. His shoulders scream agony and he bites his lip into his mouth to try to distract himself, but he can’t bite hard enough for that. He’s hoping for a bar or something that he can hook his knees over and hang from like a trapeze artist, but he’s almost entirely upside down now and he can feel nothing. Maybe he can hook his legs around the chains for a while, but –
He slips and his entire body weight drops, jerking his arms so hard that he screams. The pain is so engulfing that he can’t separate one shoulder from the other, and he doesn’t know if either or neither of his shoulders are still in their sockets. The blindfold grows wet with seeping tears drawn from his eyes not by despair, but simply from agony.
That doesn’t last long. One can’t keep up tears for any length of time, and time is his constant companion right now. Time and pain. For a short space he isn’t really aware of anything. He wouldn’t say he passed out, exactly, but the nausea becomes so strong and the pain so sharp that everything is driven from his head, to be replaced with a blissful nothing.
And then he comes back, and he can feel the thick numbness of his fingers, which feel like frozen, bloated sausages; the ache of his neck; the pain in his wrists and over-extended elbows; his shoulders like a colony of fire ants have set up home inside his skin. His spine is stretched and tired, his hips hurt. His legs have that odd, jerking, itching feeling that they used to get as a child at school, when he had to sit on a chair too big for him and not fidget even though his feet didn’t reach the floor. And every time his restless leg jerks his shoulders scream, and he feels that whiteness consuming him again.
He’s hungry and so, so thirsty and he needs to pee again, and for a moment it’s all too much, it all seems so unfair, and he gives out a sobbing, screaming cry that would chill the blood if it were heard at night. There’s no one here to laugh at his tears anyway, and he knows enough about his body to know that sometimes crying helps. Sometimes crying can pull him back from the emptiness of there’s no hope, to someone might come, Napoleon won’t stop looking for me.
He gets his moment of weakness over quickly. It’s a bit, he muses, like when he lies down on his bed with a jar of cream and a towel and strokes himself hard and jerks out his biological need with strong fingers and wrist. He never flicks through dirty magazines and certainly never pretends it’s someone else touching him. He’s not that starry-eyed. Never visualises Marilyn Monroe or even Montgomery Clift or, god help him, Stanley Baker, touching his hot and aching flesh. He just works at himself mechanically until the pressure builds, and he catches his seed in the towel and then throws it into the laundry basket to go on with the next lot of washing. His hand is perfectly good at its job, and it keeps him sane.
So, crying is like that. He lets himself hang – he has no other choice – and sobs out the pain and the despair without worrying that someone is listening. The blindfold catches the tears nicely and while he’s giving in to weakness he lets his bladder go again too, and then when it’s over he catches in his breath and steadies himself, and feels clean inside, if not outside. His body is a shell, he reminds himself. His skin and bones are no less a shell than his filthy clothes. It’s his mind that matters, and he needs to keep that clear and sane.
If his lips weren’t so dry perhaps he could whistle, but he’s not sure he can even sing. He tries humming a few bars, but ridiculously his shoulders hurt so much that the mere vibration of his larynx causes unbearable pain. He supposes that’s to be expected. After all, the rhythmic thud of his heart is causing him enough pain. But he doesn’t want that to stop. No, he’s not in that much pain.
He drifts away again, because anywhere is better than here. He remembers the holiday he took with Napoleon in Rome that time. They got in a good few days sightseeing and eating in fine restaurants and lying in their twin hotel beds talking into the night before Napoleon’s old flame stepped in and turned the whole thing around. He recalls visiting the Trevi fountain. Napoleon encouraged him to throw in a coin, but his wishes hadn’t come true.
Napoleon urged him to put his hand into the Bocca Della Verità as well, and Illya had put his hand calmly into the mouth of that great stone face, knowing that half of his life was spent in weaving lies, and his hand hadn’t been bitten off. He remembered then and now Audrey Hepburn’s nervous smiling face in Roman Holiday, her terrified glee as she slipped her hand towards the dark mouth. Her character’s escape from her sheltered life was like a mirror of their momentary escape from the other side, from lives of danger and dissembling. Then and now he recalled going to watch that film in a re-run in a New York theatre, persuading Napoleon to come with him and being thrilled at how his partner had melted from hard scepticism to an expression of soft romanticism by the end. Cinema isn’t exactly a guilty pleasure for Illya, but it isn’t a love that he admits to everyone.
Is it odd that he identifies so strongly with Audrey Hepburn? Perhaps it is, but they had both starved through the same war, they were both displaced from their lands of origin, they both kept up their own façades. Perhaps they are both romantics, but they understand the harsh nature of life.
He smiles to himself, even there, even in such pain, wondering what Audrey would say if she walked in on him now. Probably she would do an excellent job at getting him down and tending to his wounds. She might even feed him. But he needs something far less miraculous than a Hollywood film star’s sudden appearance. Anyone would do. Anyone on his side, that is.
There is a strange dizziness at the back of his head that presses through his skull, seeps through his brain. It moves, creeping through lobes, dulling synapses, moving until he can feel it behind his eyes, pushing against the top of his skull. He opens his mouth and pants. He feels so sick, but he can’t afford to be sick, can’t afford to lose what’s left in his stomach of both water and food. He is hanging like a ripe fruit, but he knows he isn’t going to drop.
There was a plum tree in a park back home, and sometimes the fruit didn’t fall in the summer. It just stayed up there, rotting on the branches, drying out in the hot sun. Come autumn the plums were mummified, little wrinkled lumps that bore scant resemblance to the fruit they had once been. Sometimes he’d knock them down with sticks and they rained on him, hard, dead things. He doesn’t want to be found like that by anyone. Not by Napoleon, certainly, but not by a chance visitor either, a boy exploring this place, a couple out for a romantic stroll, come to poke around the old château. What a sight that would make. He takes pride in the condition of his body. He keeps it functional. He doesn’t want to become a mummified fruit hanging from the ceiling of a castle room.
It isn’t really a comfort that at a certain point through the decomposition process his hands will de-glove, his wrist bones come apart, and his body will fall. He almost wishes they could do that now. The loss of his hands would be terrible, yes, but not as bad as the loss of his life. He rather likes his life. It’s the only one he has.
The dizziness is irresistible. It’s enticing. When it comes more fully over him he stops feeling the pain. He is so tired he could break apart. He falls into pieces, arms separating at the joints, legs compartmentalising. He has become cubes, rectangles, each piece packing neatly into its own little box. He has been put into fifteen little boxes like coffins. His fingers are in ten more boxes. His head is laid down finally at the top, but his eyes still blink. The world is upside down, it has righted, it is spinning. He can hear the laughter of his captors, and he watches a kite sailing up against a blue sky, up, up, up until it is a red diamond before the sun.
He realises just soon enough that he is hallucinating. He doesn’t know how much time has passed but he no longer has any urge to urinate. To his shame, his bowels have opened. He doesn’t remember it happening, but he can smell it, pungent and vital. It is a strange slowly cooling bulk inside his clothes, against his skin. He doesn’t know when that happened. Perhaps it was while he was delirious, hanging here, still as a fruit on a windless day. He has the curious urge to not let it go. He could try to shake it down his trouser leg, to be sure, but he is terrified of losing part of himself. He doesn’t want to die. Besides, the thought of that much movement makes his eyes sting again.
He needs to try to focus. When he starts to think of other things he finds himself drifting too far. He thinks of walking the block from his apartment in New York City to the grocery store he likes to use, and then thinks of walking the streets in Kiev, wondering if there will be any food to buy and hoping to stay out of sight of the Germans, and what his mother will say if he returns with bread, and then he is walking down a hundred streets in a hundred places from his whirlwind years with the U.N.C.L.E., and then he is standing at the side of a river, looking down on the floating, bloated corpse of a man in grey uniform and a metal helmet still on his head, and then he is running and screaming, and then he is coming apart again, each part of his body being carefully laid in separate boxes, and he snaps awake to the sound of his voice, cracked, not a scream really because one needs moisture in one’s throat to scream. It’s more the sound of a dying bird.
Birds fly, don’t they? They’re up high like he is, their feet off the ground. But they don’t hang. They don’t swing. He remembers a man they hung during the war, back home. Remembers him swinging slightly, his face purple, his eyes bulging monstrosities. His body looked so small and boneless, his clothes hanging off him. But the strangest thing was the bulge in his trousers. He hadn’t known then that that was what happened when a man was hung that way; that in a final cosmic joke nature gave him an erection, as if underlining with great irony that all his hope of further life was at an end.
They called orgasm a little death, didn’t they? They were keen on that in the Renaissance. Was it John Donne? He had written a poem about a flea. It suck’d me first, and now sucks thee… They were obsessed with sex. If someone wrote like that now their books would be burnt. He thinks of lying on his bed and slicking lotion against the thin skin of his cock, feeling its heat through his palm and fingers. The guitar calluses on his fingertips catch against him and make him gasp. Cruel and sudden, hast thou since… Wasn’t everything connected? Didn’t they, his enemies, kill themselves a little by killing him?
His hand stroking up, down, the lotion slick under his fingers, knowing just how tight to make the pressure, sometimes thrusting his hips upward into that fleshy tunnel, sometimes moving his hand as only he knows how, his other hand absently stroking his balls with his fingertips. Who else knows how to make it feel so good?
Birds fly. Men don’t… He can’t feel his fingers. His arms won’t even move at the joints any more. They wouldn’t make wings. What is a wing anyway? He tries to remember if fleas have wings or if they just jump. He should be able to remember. But then does it matter? There are other things he would rather do before he dies than study the anatomy of a flea.
His tongue feels as if it’s bulging out of his head. He remembers the body in Kiev, the man they hung. When he was alive he had been a bank manager, a prissy little thing. He had lost a lot of weight as the war rolled on, and his clothes became too big for him. Illya didn’t get enough to eat during the war either and his mother still laments that he would have been five inches taller with good food in his stomach. He doesn’t know what the bank manager did to be hanged; just remembers how his face looked so different once he had been hanged to the man who used to walk busily past the apartment block every morning on his way to work and shout at the children to get out of his path. It was a message, a kind of warning. Most people heeded it. People are no longer human in death, and people want to stay human. That’s why we dehumanise the dead and those we want to kill, why we are so scared by the undead.
He opens his mouth and tries to remember the words to the song. How do the words go? He tries to sing, and his voice wavers weakly. Soiuz nerushimyj respublik svobodnykh… His head swims. He tries to remember the next line. He knows this off by heart. He knows a lot of things off by heart. The extension of a spring is directly proportional to the force applied until it reaches its elastic limit. There. He tries again. Soiuz nerushimyj respublik svobodnykh, splotila naveki Velikaia Rus…
But he’s falling apart again, and his voice barely makes a sound. He remembers the words in his head, remembers a whole swelling chorus of men singing it, and his heart seems to swell with the words. He opens his mouth and tries again. It’s the least any good citizen can do when he’s going to die. Remember his country, remember his anthem. Soiuz nerushimyj respublik svobodnykh…
‘Hey, what are you singing about, buddy?’
He gasps in air, jerks his head up, and his shoulders scream. There’s someone touching him, easing a finger up under the stinking blindfold and pushing it up, and he blinks into the first real light he’s seen in days. It is dazzling. At first everything is bleached out, and colour creeps in slowly. He can see a vacant expanse of blue sky through the dirty window panes, and he blinks and focusses on something closer, a face, Napoleon’s face up by his. Napoleon looks so healthy, so real. He is standing on something, he’s on top of a paint-splattered step-ladder, for all the world like a painter and decorator inspecting a ceiling fitting, and Illya almost laughs, but he also cries through his open mouth.
‘All right, comrade,’ Napoleon says, and there’s a world of worry in his eyes. ‘Now, I’m going to break those chains, okay, but when I do there won’t be anything holding you up, and I’m on top of quite a rickety ladder, so we need to be careful, huh? You got that? Your feet aren’t far above the platform.’
Illya stares at him, trying to work out how to speak. He seems to have forgotten how to do that. Napoleon brushes tenderly at Illya’s cheek with his fingertips. Maybe he has some dirt there, but Illya thinks it might be a tear he’s wiping away.
‘Look, Illya,’ Napoleon says. ‘Look down. See the platform?’
Obediently Illya looks down. Napoleon is right. His white toes are hanging just an inch above the top of the ladder. His feet don’t look like his own. If it were only a little higher he could rest his weight for a moment, but in this situation an inch is as good as a mile.
‘You know, that’s quite some odour you have,’ Napoleon comments, keeping his tone light, as he reaches up to push explosive putty into the links of the chains. He pulls a little on Illya’s body and Illya whimpers at the surge of pain. Napoleon’s arms are right around him, right around his chest. ‘Okay, okay,’ Napoleon says, as if he’s reassuring an animal at the vet’s. ‘Now.’
He shades Illya’s eyes with one hand and shades his own against Illya’s chest as the putty incandesces, and he catches his partner as he suddenly slumps. Illya screams as his arms jerk downwards. Gravity has been working against him for days. Gravity is a heartless fucking bitch, and he hates Isaac Newton for pointing it out.
The stepladder wobbles for a moment, but it doesn’t fall, and somehow Napoleon manages to get Illya down to the floor, god knows how, because Illya’s legs don’t work and he is gasping and moaning and incoherent with pain.
Napoleon puts him gently on the wooden floor and Illya lies there staring up at the bas-relief ceiling and the places where chunks of plaster have fallen and the glimpse of blue through the dirty window. He stares at the fitting almost directly above him that had been made to take a chandelier but for the last few days had taken a particularly unfortunate U.N.C.L.E. agent. He can feel the cold, damp, solid lump of faeces in his trousers, and Napoleon’s nose wrinkles, and Illya wants to apologise but his mouth is still open and gaping in pain.
‘God, Illya,’ Napoleon is saying, panting. ‘God, Illya...’
Illya thinks, What god? and stares at the curlicues of leaves and grapes in the plaster above him while his shoulders scream pain at him. His hands are coming back to life and the tingling is almost as unbearable as the agony in his shoulders. He is gasping out his pain in fractured moans and whimpers.
‘I think your shoulders are dislocated,’ Napoleon says.
No shit, Sherlock, Illya thinks, but a tiny smile twists his mouth, not because of the state of his shoulders but at the look of care on his partner’s face. It’s good to be with someone who cares.
‘Illya,’ Napoleon says, ‘this is going to hurt.’
He takes one of Illya’s arms in both of his hands and sets his foot against Illya’s side, and starts to pull. Illya screams, but his body is merciful to him and he blacks out, and when he comes back both of his arms are lying limp and useless at his sides, but he thinks they’re back in. It’s a miracle that Napoleon has managed to re-locate them, considering how long he has hung. Napoleon is stronger than he looks. People think he’s soft, and he can be oh so soft, but he’s also tough as a cockroach, strong as an ox.
Napoleon’s hand is against his cheek, patting a little until Illya’s eyes flicker open. Napoleon’s eyes make him think of hazelnuts and dogs. They’re not dark enough for chocolate. Napoleon is clean-shaven and his hair is perfect and he smells of aftershave. He could walk into any top restaurant right now and get a table without saying a word. He probably wouldn’t be able to bring his partner, though.
‘Illya, they must have cleared out days ago. You’re safe now, as safe as you can be. I’m going to leave you for a moment, just to see if I can get anything to make you more comfortable.’
‘All right,’ Illya says, the first words he’s spoken, and the relief in Napoleon’s eyes is immense.
‘All right,’ Napoleon echoes, and his hand stays on Illya’s cheek for just a moment longer than necessary. Then he is gone.
While he’s gone Illya allows himself to feel the pain. He chokes it out in gasping cries and tears for a bit, because such a loud, indignant protest helps. He tries to judge his injuries. Strange to say, they’re not too extensive. He gathered quite a few bruises before he was finally restrained, but it’s really his arms that are the issue. Saying that is a bit like saying it was only the neck injury that troubled Anne Boleyn; but it’s true. He is dehydrated and exhausted and his whole body aches, but it’s his arms that are the worst of the problem, and they will heal, he hopes. It’s not the same as a bullet lodged in the spine, or a shot to the gut. It won’t kill him.
His eyes drift over the shapes on the ceiling. The little bunches of grapes and the spreading leaves. There are deer up there, and little birds. How strange it is to build a house to keep these things out, then put so much effort into bringing them back inside. Perhaps it’s like his dream of the greenhouse, and pot plants.
‘Hey, buddy,’ Napoleon is saying, and Illya blinks.
His partner is carrying a ceramic bowl, blue and white glazed, and has a swathe of cloths that look like dust sheets over his arm. He sets to ripping one of them into strips. Illya knows his condition is serious because Napoleon hasn’t gone further than buddy or comrade, when he would be well within his rights to call him stinky or filthy.
Illya has started to shake now. He feels cold. Napoleon looks into his eyes and says, ‘Hey, Illya. You’re not going into shock on me, are you?’
He moves to shake his head, and stops. ‘No,’ he says. ‘Just – adrenaline fall-off. Promise.’
Napoleon smiles and touches fingers to the pulse in his neck. Frowning, he drops his hand, but Illya wishes he would leave it there, because it’s warm and comforting. Before he does anything else, Napoleon grabs a discarded cardboard box and uses it to elevate Illya’s feet, because even though Illya says he isn’t in shock Napoleon obviously doesn’t believe him.
‘I’m going to get you out of here as soon as possible, but first things first,’ Napoleon says, and he scoops a little water into his cupped palm and trickles it into Illya’s mouth. He laps at it unashamedly and opens his mouth for more. Slowly Napoleon keeps trickling the water into his mouth and Illya keeps swallowing it down, forcing himself to keep his head back on the hard floor because lifting it, even starting to lift it, is agony.
‘I wish I had the emergency kit,’ Napoleon mutters, and Illya knows what he’s talking about. The emergency medical kit they bring away with them, that this time is in the bottom of Napoleon’s suitcase, contains blessed, blessed morphine.
‘Thank you, Napoleon,’ Illya whispers, and Napoleon’s damp fingers brush the hair back from his forehead and his mouth smiles. But his eyes still look worried.
‘Okay, I’m going to clean you up a little,’ Napoleon says. ‘Can’t take you out in public like this, and besides, what would they say at the car hire place?’
Illya closes his eyes. He’s not ashamed exactly. Bodily functions are just that: functions. But it isn’t going to be pleasant for Napoleon. Nevertheless, he carefully undoes Illya’s fly and peels down his trousers and underpants, keeping his face admirably blank as the stench rises. He empties Illya’s pockets and flings the clothes into a corner. And then he gently lifts Illya’s legs so his knees are up and with a long strip of fabric dipped again and again into the water he cleanses Illya’s groin and buttocks, and the feeling as the itching, burning faeces is removed is so good that Illya just doesn’t care about the exposure.
‘All right,’ Napoleon says, gently laying his legs down again, propped on that old cardboard box, and covering him with a dust sheet from the waist down like an antique credenza. ‘You doing okay, huh?’
Illya smiles just a little. ‘I’m doing okay,’ he says. He’s lying on the floor of an ancient château, naked from the waist down. He’s shaking, and his shoulders are screaming in pain, but he’s doing okay.
‘Good.’ Napoleon’s bedside manner would put any care home worker to shame. ‘Illya, I need to do something about your arms,’ he says.
Illya swallows. He watches Napoleon ripping sheets again with a deliberately detached interest, because he knows this is going to hurt, badly. Even though he knows it, Napoleon warns him of the fact. And then he carefully eases one of his strips of cloth under Illya’s back and he folds Illya’s arms across his chest, and Illya tries hard to not pass out, although passing out would make the whole thing easier. He tries not to sob, too, but he can’t help it. His mouth is wet now and he can make all the noise he wants to, and he runs through every English and American swearword that he knows, and a few French ones too, and Napoleon asks if he wants something to bite down on. But then his torso is swaddled like an Egyptian mummy, his arms bound across his chest in a kind of tight double sling, and although the pain is still horrendous it is almost bearable.
‘Can you walk?’ Napoleon asks.
‘I can try,’ Illya says.
Before he does Napoleon makes him a kind of skirt with another dust sheet, eases his socks and shoes onto his feet, and then helps him up. Illya tries to say something humorous about fancy dress as he gets to his knees, but instead he retches all the water he has drunk onto the dusty floor, and Napoleon holds him as if he’s made of porcelain, hardly able to get a grip that doesn’t mean hurting his arms. Illya rests his forehead against Napoleon’s hip and tries to gather his strength.
‘Are you sure you can walk?’ Napoleon asks again.
In answer Illya totters up shakily onto his feet and stands there as his head spins, terrified of falling because he will fall onto his arms. Napoleon has to hold him awkwardly around the hips, and they look as if they are doing the world’s shortest conga at a Hallowe’en party as they walk out of the room. When they get to the stairs Napoleon carries him, and Illya passes out in his arms.
‘I’m sorry,’ Napoleon says at every bump in the road on the way back to town, and Illya replies every time, ‘It’s all right,’ although he thinks his face is probably the same colour as the dust on the road.
They cause quite a stir as they walk into the hotel, and the man behind the reception desk raises a supercilious eyebrow. Perhaps at first he thinks they’re just young drunks, playing. Illya knows he looks odd, to say the least, but really he doesn’t care, because his arms hurt too much. He can hardly walk. Napoleon gives the concierge such a look that Illya is surprised the man doesn’t die right there and then. He asks for help, and because he is Napoleon he gets it. Illya is carefully lowered into a chair with arms that usually sits in the lobby, and he is carried upstairs by Napoleon and two sturdy men, who are tipped handsomely for the service.
When they get to their room Napoleon helps Illya lie down on the bed that he had complained of as being lumpy a week ago, but now he knows it’s the most comfortable bed in the world. It’s the place where he lies while Napoleon fills a syringe with morphine and shoots it into the thick muscle of his thigh, and he closes his eyes as that blissful sensation enters his veins and sweeps away the worst of the pain. He falls into a kind of half-sleep as Napoleon unwraps the makeshift slings and cuts the rest of the clothes from his body. He half-wakes as with great tenderness Napoleon gives him a sponge bath which, until he reaches his arms, is no less than blissful. Then Illya mewls a little like an injured cat because even the lightest touch is agony, and Napoleon apologises yet again, but he still washes both of Illya’s arms and uses the room’s hair dryer to dry him off, which both Illya and Napoleon smile at. Napoleon even laughs as he plies the warm air up and down his partner’s body, and asks, ‘Now aren’t you glad I paid the extra for this room?’
Illya smiles, a sickly smile, he knows, because even with the morphine in his body the pain is strong again. When Napoleon had upgraded the room, paying the extra that Mr Waverly wouldn’t stretch to, Illya had seen it as an unnecessary extra expense. But yes, he’s glad of the hair dryer, and he’s unspeakably glad that they’re not sharing a bed, because he doesn’t think he could bear to lie in a bed with someone else right now. Not when every tiny movement sets his shoulders aflame.
Napoleon crouches by the bed and examines Illya’s wrists carefully, not moving them, but just looking closely. They’re both horribly bruised and puffy and the marks of the chains are still in them as blue dents in the skin, but his right is decidedly more puffy than his left. Napoleon pokes it gently and raises his eyebrows as Illya hisses in breath through his teeth.
‘Do you know, I think that might be broken,’ Napoleon says, angling his head and looking at it more closely. ‘I think it might be.’
‘It still hurts less than my shoulders,’ Illya says. He looks down the planes of his face to try to see his hands without moving his head, and can only see a mass of purple-red. He knows his fingers look like zeppelins, and the heels of his hands are burnt from the explosive Napoleon used on the chains.
‘How did that happen anyway?’ Napoleon asks.
Illya begrudgingly says, ‘I tried to do a handstand. I fell.’
‘Huh,’ Napoleon replies, his eyes drifting up and to the right as if he’s drawing himself back to that room and visualising the scenario. ‘You know, you can’t always get out of it with gymnastics, Illya.’
‘So I learnt,’ Illya says tartly.
‘Illya, there’s a hospital just down the road,’ Napoleon says.
Illya puffs out breath as an alternative to shaking his head. ‘And how would we explain this to them?’ he asks pointedly. ‘Tell them it was love play that went too far? We’re not supposed to let local law enforcement know.’ He blinks, then asks, ‘What day is it?’
‘Tuesday,’ Napoleon tells him.
‘Mmm,’ Illya replies. They captured him on Saturday and hung him up not long afterwards. Was he really hanging there for four days? ‘Well, there’s a plane tomorrow, isn’t there?’ he asks.
‘Yes, Illya, there’s a plane tomorrow,’ Napoleon says, although he looks as if he’d be much happier if he could take him to the hospital. ‘If they’ll let you on board in this state.’
‘Why wouldn’t they? Just flash your I.D.,’ Illya says. He’s very, very careful not to shrug.
‘How’s that morphine doing?’ Napoleon asks, and Illya kilters an eyebrow.
‘It takes the edge off,’ he says.
‘Good, because I’m going to hurt you,’ Napoleon says.
By the time Napoleon has finished bandaging Illya’s wrists and trussing his arms in slings – luckily there are two in the medical kit – Illya feels sick again and the bed seems to be rocking beneath him. Napoleon puts pillows under his feet and covers him over warmly and tells him that if it weren’t for his hair he wouldn’t be able to see him against the white pillow.
‘Better keep your eyes open so you don’t disappear,’ Napoleon smiles. ‘Now, I’m guessing you’re hungry?’
Since Illya hasn’t eaten since he snatched a quick breakfast on Saturday, that is an understatement. But he’s tired too, exhausted really, and muddled with pain and drugs, and he doesn’t know what to say, because he’d just as soon sleep as eat and he doesn’t know which to do first.
‘Don’t worry. I’ll order for you,’ Napoleon promises.
Napoleon orders steak to put colour back in Illya’s cheeks. When it comes he helps him ever so carefully to sit up against a mountain of carefully piled pillows and touches his hand to the side of Illya’s spinning head to steady him as he adjusts to the position. Then he alternately touches a glass of brandy to his lips and feeds him carefully cut up steak and pommes frites and tips of asparagus. After the first mouthful Illya can’t stop eating. He’s so hungry. He hadn’t realised quite how hungry he was. And it’s all right eating like this, with Napoleon feeding him in bites like a mother bird with its chick. Napoleon is attentive and never impatient. He waits for Illya to finish chewing and swallow, and then waits just a little longer before he gives him the next forkful of food. He feeds him pommes frites from his fingers with a grin on his face. And the brandy is good. So good. It’s not the best brandy in the world, but it combines with the morphine exquisitely.
When he finishes the steak Napoleon uncovers another dish on the cart and starts feeding Illya with the biggest and most luxurious portion of chocolate cake he has ever seen in his life. That combines nicely with the brandy too.
‘Aren’t you eating?’ Illya asks after a while, and Napoleon smiles indulgently.
‘Later,’ he says. ‘I’m a little busy right now. Besides, it’s only six o’clock.’
‘Oh,’ Illya says. He feels muzzy-headed and confused. He glances over at the window and tries to judge the time from the light, but it’s that odd light that is neither full daylight nor dusk. ‘You know, I think I went a little mad in the château,’ he confesses, and Napoleon smiles, that smile again where his eyes are worried even though his lips are curving up.
‘Well, you were strung up for a long time,’ Napoleon says.
‘I think I started to hallucinate,’ Illya says.
‘You’re safe now,’ Napoleon assures him.
That’s the way of it. Never look back. He was in dire straits but he’s safe now. He’ll be all right, and Psych will scour his mind when he gets back, just in case. A part of Illya wants to confess to Napoleon all the things he saw, all the things that swam into his memory. But he doesn’t say anything. Napoleon will never talk about how afraid he was that Illya was dead and Illya won’t talk about how close he thought he was to dying. He drinks another mouthful of brandy and accepts more cake with gratitude. He feels so helpless trussed up like this, but he’s safe. Napoleon will be his arms. Napoleon will be on guard when he sleeps.
‘Are you doing okay, Illya?’ Napoleon asks, his brown gaze penetrating now, as he puts aside the empty plate.
‘I’m all right,’ Illya says. ‘I’m tired.’
‘Do you need the bathroom before you sleep?’
Illya can hardly contemplate moving. The idea makes him wince, even with Napoleon treating him with the care he would lavish on the most fragile glassware.
‘I could bring a pot,’ Napoleon offers, with not a hint of amusement or embarrassment.
‘No, I’m all right,’ Illya assures him. ‘I just need to sleep.’
Napoleon gets another shot of morphine from the emergency case, double checks the dosage, then pushes back the blankets from Illya’s thigh.
‘Just a little prick,’ he says, and Illya is reminded of Donne and his contemporary, Shakespeare, of dried salt cod and pricks and other crude metaphors, and he almost sniggers, so he misses the puncture in his thigh and doesn’t know it’s happened until he feels the warm bliss of the new dose of morphine in his veins.
He doesn’t even remember falling asleep, but he remembers waking and sleeping and waking through the night, always in the grip of pain that sometimes worries him with sharp teeth, sometimes presses in to him like burning brands. It’s a long, long time until dawn. Each time he wakes, whimpering in pain, Napoleon is there in the soft light from the lamp, holding vigil over him. Sometimes he slips another injection into Illya’s thigh. Sometimes he just murmurs soothing platitudes and strokes Illya’s head and hair until he falls back asleep to tangle with dark and painful visions in his dreams.
When finally Illya awakes for good around nine and Napoleon helps him to sit up in bed he can see himself in the mirror opposite, a stark and hollow-eyed figure like a Shakespearian ghost, his hair tousled like straw, his face white as old milk, his eyes surrounded by shades of thunder-clouds.
‘Well, don’t you look fine this morning,’ Napoleon greets him with soft cheer, and Illya smiles wanly. ‘Sure you don’t want to take a visit to that hospital?’
Illya’s shoulders are stiff with burning pain. They hurt worse than last night, worse when he tries to move in any way. The pain makes him want to vomit. It makes his head spin. He can hardly imagine walking on to a plane later, but he has no choice.
‘I do not want to go to the hospital,’ Illya says, because he knows they wouldn’t let him go for days. The plane leaves in a few hours, and he intends to be on it.
He makes it on to the plane. It feels like the longest flight of his life, but Napoleon keeps up with the morphine and he’s managed to persuade Waverly to pay for first class, because Illya can’t even contemplate squeezing in to a regular seat where someone might jostle his arms. An injury really has to be something to persuade Waverly to pay for first class, but Illya supposes it’s cheaper than him attending a foreign hospital, so he’ll be pleased about that.
He sleeps as much as possible, because the slight hum through every part of the aircraft makes him hurt. When they hit a little turbulence out over the Atlantic it leaves Illya panting, teeth grinding, tears streaming down his face, and Napoleon hovers over him, unable to help. All he can do when the plane settles is order him a drink and hold it to his lips, until the alcohol joins hands blessedly with the morphine and sends him to sleep.
He wakes as their plane is taxiing to the gate at JFK, and feels none too steady when he stands, but Napoleon, bless him, has called ahead for a wheelchair, and Illya sinks into it gratefully, moaning gently at every little bump they roll over and trying to listen to Napoleon’s banter; something about bad drivers that he doesn’t really catch. Napoleon gets him into the cab and pays the driver extra to drive slowly and smoothly, and parries the man’s questions about what’s wrong with the woozy guy with both arms in slings. Illya regards the world through slitted eyes and concentrates on holding on to his dinner, not that aeroplane food is much worth holding on to, even the food they serve in first class. But he doesn’t think the cab driver will appreciate him sharing it with him, second hand.
When Napoleon takes him in through Del Floria’s he almost faints in the changing cubicle, and when he gets through he’s grateful rather than annoyed that two men and the doctor are waiting for him with a gurney. When he lies down the doctor presses a mask over his face, and the last thing he sees is Napoleon tucking his number 2 badge onto the fabric of his sling. Napoleon is smiling and saying, ‘See you later, IK,’ and he knows it’s safe to let go.
When he wakes in medical he doesn’t know where he is for a moment. It always happens like that. Then he scents the antiseptic and cleaning fluid and hears those familiar noises, the echoes, the squeak of shoes on linoleum, and he understands. He’s all alone in his room and still in pain, but as if he has a sixth sense that tells him when his partner is awake, Napoleon is coming through the door.
‘They knocked me out!’ Illya says indignantly, and Napoleon grins.
‘That they did, partner mine.’
Illya tries to lift his head, and his shoulders warn him not to.
‘Have I been under the knife?’ he asks with deep suspicion.
Napoleon shakes his head. ‘Just x-ray and so on. You don’t need surgery.’
Illya realises his right wrist is in a cast. He can feel it there, hard around the joint. His arms are bound very securely in special slings. He experiments with moving his fingers on both hands, and is relieved that they do move, albeit stiffly.
‘You were right about the wrist?’
‘Hairline fracture, most probably at the same time as you dislocated your shoulders,’ Napoleon confirms. ‘Apparently you’re lucky your shoulders were the only joint that popped.’
Illya shudders internally. His memories of that moment are going to give him nightmares when this is all over. Of course Psych will get into his head and try to stop that happening, but they’re not always successful.
‘Can I go home?’ he asks.
Napoleon smiles indulgently. ‘Well, aren’t we the impatient Russian? Sure you don’t want to stay here on a morphine drip?’
‘I would rather be at home,’ Illya replies.
So Napoleon pulls strings and cajoles and makes promises, and eventually, after the good doctors of U.N.C.L.E. Medical have dressed Illya down severely for coming back here without seeing a doctor in Belgium, Illya finds himself being signed out of their care and told he can go home, as long as he has someone to look after him. They know Illya, know what he’s like.
It’s the strangest thing, being off work with an injury like this. He has to be so careful when he walks, because he has no way to save himself if he falls. His arms are in essence tied to his torso and he’s slightly unsteady with the infirmary’s strongest painkillers. Later, when things have settled down, he will be given physiotherapy; lots of physiotherapy. Much, much later he will get back in the gym and work his wasting arms back to their full strength.
Meanwhile he can’t look after himself, so he’s in Napoleon’s apartment, having rejected in horror the offer of a live-in nurse. It’s hard on Napoleon, of course, but Napoleon knows Illya would do the same for him. He will have to help Illya with all his sanitary needs – but after all, Napoleon jokes, isn’t that how he started out when he had cut him down from the ceiling? It can’t get much worse than that.
Illya is inclined to disagree, because he’s not out of his mind with pain any more, just constantly tormented by it, but it’s still better than a hired nurse touching him this intimately, especially when he might never be sure that the hired nurse wasn’t a mole from Thrush. On the second evening when he stands under the hot shower with his arms dangling limp and a plastic bag around his cast and Napoleon carefully soaping every inch of his body he thinks it’s very nice indeed. The hot water is a balm on his sore shoulders, it’s a deeper clean than a sponge bath, and it’s so good to feel the fingers of water through his hair.
When he’s finished Napoleon dries him with a hair dryer, and they both laugh even though just that short shower has been exhausting and Illya’s arms hurt so much. Illya asks when Napoleon has the opportunity to use such a thing, and Napoleon admits that he has one for his women, because they hate to leave with a hair out of place. And that makes Illya blush, even though he knows full well what Napoleon does with the revolving door of women who come to his apartment.
He falls asleep after his shower, sprawled on the bed, wearing nothing but his slings, because by now Napoleon has seen so much of him that there’s nothing to be self-conscious about. And there he wakes in the warmth, hearing the sounds of Napoleon pottering in the kitchen making dinner, and he lifts his head and looks down on the hardest case of morning glory he’s had in a long time. He regrets that he can’t use his hands and for once he fantasises about someone else touching him, stroking him, slicking in the lotion and drawing a tight fist along his length and coaxing him to climax. But that’s no good. He has no way to relieve himself and it just makes the problem harder still, and he groans aloud. There’s an amused noise from the bedroom doorway and he glances up to see Napoleon standing there, leaning against the frame, just watching him with no shame and a grin on his face. Illya scowls.
‘You could at least send me a good fairy to make my wishes come true,’ he says in his best Russian growl, and Napoleon grins all the more and helps him to the bathroom, where he sits on the toilet and waits for this conundrum of nature to sort itself out. Napoleon is back in the kitchen clattering pots again, and a delicious smell drifts through the apartment. Napoleon is an excellent cook.
He has to admit there’s something pleasant about the prospect of spending every evening with Napoleon, even if Napoleon has to hand feed him his food. He’s even pledged to bring work back from the office so that he doesn’t have to be there all day, and he won’t be sent out on missions until Illya is a good deal better. Illya can consult with him on the paperwork, and that almost keeps him from going insane with boredom.
As the days stretch out they talk about everything. About that last mission and how it went so wrong. About their plans for the future and moments of their past. About the terrible film that they just watched on tv. About Napoleon’s dating and Illya’s lack of it. Office gossip and the office cat and how the world is managing to turn without U.N.C.L.E.’s best team on the streets. Illya even tells Napoleon about his dream of a greenhouse and pot plants and Napoleon laughingly tells him that in the U.S. they call them potted plants because pot plants are something else entirely. But when he comes back from the office that day he brings Illya a gardenia in a crimson pot and presents it to him with a grin. He can keep it in the office when he’s back at work and the secretaries will water it when they’re out on missions. It’s impossible to keep pot plants at home in a job like theirs.
Illya reads journals, turning the pages with a rubber tipped stick he holds in his mouth, and he bores Napoleon with the details. He’s getting quite good at doing things with his mouth and his feet. He wonders idly if he could take up painting, and then laughs at himself. He’s getting better. When he visits the infirmary and the doctor takes off the slings he can move his arms a little, and he doesn’t need such a strong painkiller to sleep any more. He’s not sure what he says to Napoleon sometimes at night under the influence of drugs. They’re sleeping in the same room so that Napoleon is on hand to help if needed, and when he wakes moaning because of the pain Napoleon is there to give him his next dose; but sometimes Napoleon has the strangest expression on his face and Illya can’t recall what he said to put it there.
When Illya can finally manage a few hours a day without the slings they go out to celebrate. Napoleon escorts him to the car as if he were one of his most valued dates, opens the car door for him, ushers him in. Illya wears the slings just in case, because he can’t bear the thought of the careless knocks and jolts he may suffer without their protection. Napoleon takes him to a cocktail bar over in SoHo and settles him in to a secluded booth seat where he can’t be jostled, but where they can watch the room. He makes sure Illya has a straw in each drink, and keeps an eye on his alcohol intake so that he ends up just pleasantly drunk, not dangerously so with the drugs in his system.
Illya wears his tinted glasses and watches the patrons with a mixture of fascination and amusement. Ordinary people are so unlike him, so unlike Napoleon. A number of attractive women notice them, drawn to the two handsome agents like honey to bees, taken by the care that Napoleon is lavishing on his injured partner. They ask Illya with wide eyes what happened to him, and he varies his responses depending on how he likes the one asking the question. He fell in the bathroom. He’s a professional toreador and was knocked over by a bull in the ring. He’s a trapeze artist who had an accident. Perhaps that one’s the closest to the truth.
‘Bullshit artist,’ Napoleon contradicts in a murmur when that particular lady has gone. ‘You could lie for your country, IK.’
‘I already do,’ Illya says placidly, ‘and for yours. Did I never tell you about the time I joined a circus just outside of Lviv? I grew rather proficient on the trapeze.’
He leans forward, takes a sip of his sharp and fruity cocktail through the straw, then looks up at Napoleon through the green tint of his lenses. He can tell by Napoleon’s eyes that he doesn’t know whether to believe him or not, but that doesn’t make the story any the less true. He holds Napoleon’s gaze for a while, then has to put off another woman by telling her that he hurt himself in the annual Cooper’s Hill cheese rolling competition in Gloucestershire, England. Napoleon comments uncharitably that it doesn’t take a great stretch of the imagination to believe in Illya chasing after an enormous cheese.
Anyway, Napoleon’s eyes sparkle at each ridiculous story and sometimes he swears to the woman that it’s the gospel truth, and sometimes he smiles and apologises for his crazy friend. Later, when Napoleon drives him home, the car doesn’t exactly stay on their side of the road all the time, and it’s a good thing it’s quiet. Napoleon escorts Illya up to his apartment and gets out vodka from the freezer, vodka he insists on keeping for Illya even though it isn’t Illya’s favourite drink, and they have a final nightcap, two nightcaps, three, before checking the alarms and turning off the light and making for the bedroom.
Illya is loose and slack with alcohol, and Napoleon is bright and happy with it. Illya kicks off his shoes and draws his socks off with nimble toes, then stands with his arms crossed across his chest while Napoleon works with none too steady fingers at unfastening his fly and peeling off his trousers. Then he loosens Illya’s slings and gently helps him lower his arms, wincing in sympathy as Illya gasps at the hot, stiff, sore pain. He eases the shirt from Illya’s shoulders. Illya has taken to sleeping in nothing at all. It’s easier, and it’s warm enough, anyway.
Then Illya sits on the side of his bed while Napoleon gets into his own paisley pyjamas, and he smiles at the sight. Napoleon can never, ever be plain, never be ordinary. He passes for ordinary, almost, but there’s always something that marks him as different, apart, above the rest. It’s as if he’s a magician. And he must be. After all, who would have found Illya in that Belgian château when all hope was gone? Who would have put up with looking after such a badly injured man for all this time, performing tasks usually relegated to badly paid and poorly appreciated nurses, putting up with occasional bursts of anger and sullenness? Illya is the first to admit that he can be moody, and when he’s in pain he can be vicious. Napoleon puts up with the whole gamut that Illya lays on him.
‘I appreciate this, you know,’ Illya says softly, sitting there on the side of his bed in just his pants, arms hanging loosely across his splayed thighs. ‘I appreciate every moment.’
Napoleon’s eyes sparkle, and Illya fancies he can see in them the whole of the evening’s fun, every cocktail, every woman who came past their table, every joke Napoleon told and sly comment Illya made. Napoleon was made to entertain the world.
‘Any time,’ Napoleon says warmly, and Illya knows he means it. He knows if the tables were turned he would do exactly the same for his partner, and that Napoleon would do it all again in an instant. He knows that no matter how many times their enemies string him up, Napoleon will save him every time.