Each snowflake is a pure little miracle. Each snowflake is a six-pointed work of art, drifting down from unimaginably large clouds, unimaginably high. The sky is a blanket of frozen water, layering over the frozen earth. The cold is like a thousand needles pressing into the skin. Nowhere to go. Nothing to see but white.
‘I don’t know which way to turn,’ Napoleon says. ‘Illya, where’s your natural compass sense? Can you tell which way is east in all this mess?’
Illya stands for a moment, just looking. He has never been more Russian than now. His ushanka is pulled down warmly over his head, ear-flaps down and fixed beneath his chin. His coat is zipped right up to his neck. There’s hardly an inch of skin to be seen. Mostly what Napoleon can see is his nose, and blue eyes.
‘North? South? East? West?’ Napoleon prompts him.
His head aches from the ridiculous brightness of the white light that’s reflected from every direction around them. It’s not bright enough for snow blindness, but it’s bright enough to hurt. He’s tired and thirsty. All the snow around them, and nothing to drink. Melting snow in the mouth just makes it worse. It saps the body’s heat, and he knows better than to try it too often.
Illya points. ‘That way.’
So they start walking.
‘How the hell do you know?’ Napoleon asks him, ridiculously exasperated. ‘How do you just know? What difference is there between any of those directions?’
Illya shrugs in his thick coat, the movement hardly visible.
‘I just know,’ he says.
They say animals and birds can sense the magnetic fields of the earth. Maybe Illya is an animal. Maybe he is a bird. Maybe – and Napoleon knows he’s going off on flights of fancy now – maybe he can detach his spirit from his body and let it fly up into the sky, to see the land below like a map. Maybe that’s why Illya can pick out east with almost no pause, and why Napoleon spent two hours once trying to find a restaurant in Rome that he would have sworn he could have walked to with his eyes shut.
His stomach tightens. Restaurants in Rome are not good things to be focussing on right now. How their enemies must be laughing at them. Here are your clothes. Here’s a knife. Here’s a lighter. Find your way home, or starve to death. How droll they must have thought it.
‘Okay, you’re a savant,’ Napoleon says. ‘How about you step up the miracle? Can you direct us to a homely farmhouse? A diner? A Michelin starred restaurant?’
Illya stops for a moment, and crouches down. He is squinting, turning his gaze along a trail in the ground. An animal has been past here. There are animals in this Arctic waste.
‘Do you scent borscht, comrade?’ Napoleon asks. He’s joking, but somewhere, some part of him is hopeful.
‘I scent snow,’ Illya says drily. ‘Lots of snow. No, Napoleon,’ he says then, a little impatiently. ‘I’m looking at the tracks. Don’t you see them?’
Napoleon crouches himself. The cloud is so thick and white there are almost no shadows. Nothing leaps to the eye, but, crouching, he can see the little rectangular punch marks in the snow.
‘What’s that? The Easter bunny?’ he asks.
‘Arctic hare,’ Illya says. He purses his lips. ‘Too early for young, though.’
‘You sound disappointed. What are you – ’ Then he gets it. Illya was hoping to trace the hare to its form, to find the young. ‘I don’t care how hungry we are,’ he says. ‘We’re not eating the Easter bunny’s babies.’
‘Obviously, since they won’t even have been born yet,’ Illya murmurs. ‘Obviously, since the Easter bunny is a ridiculous fabrication of – ’
‘You can’t blame capitalism for this one,’ Napoleon jumps in. ‘The Easter bunny is much, much older than that.’
‘I know that , Napoleon,’ Illya says scathingly, straightening up. He shakes a little snow from his shoulders, and starts walking again. ‘Pagan, far older than Christianity or capitalism. The whole of Easter is older than both of them. I know the Easter bunny wasn’t a bunny, but a hare. I know the whole thing is about cycles and rebirth. It’s all completely beside the point. There isn’t going to be a form full of lovely, tender, juicy leverets, unfortunately.’
Napoleon huffs. ‘How would we cook them, anyway, with no wood?’
‘There’s wood up ahead, but we wouldn’t have to,’ Illya says. ‘We’d could eat them raw.’
Napoleon wrinkles his nose in disgust. Illya is, sometimes, revoltingly practical.
‘At this rate, I’m afraid we’re going to be reduced to scraping away the snow like reindeer and eating the remains of the grass on the ground.’
‘More likely lichen,’ Illya says blandly.
‘You’re following the footprints?’ Napoleon asks, because Illya is doing just that, seeing the zig and zag of the little dints in the snow, and following their general course.
‘Well, I doubt either one of us is up to catching an arctic hare, but there’s a slim chance,’ Illya shrugs. ‘It’s going roughly in the direction we want to go.’ He flashes a grin. ‘Maybe we’ll get lucky, and catch it napping.’
And eat it raw, blood dripping down our chins , Napoleon thinks darkly. He’s hungry, but it’s not an appetising thought. Nevertheless, he carries on, plodding the path that Illya is breaking. After a while they should swap places. Breaking a path is exhausting work.
It’s almost dark. Early, of course, because they’re so far north. It can’t be much past four in the afternoon, but the world is made up of dull gloom and pale, ghostly snow. Maybe there’s an aurora, up above the clouds. There must be bright stars up there, burning against the black sky. There must be a moon. Down here it’s like being deep undersea, in the twilight zone, squinting your eyes to try to see, and seeing nothing.
‘It could at least stop snowing for a bit,’ Napoleon says.
He’s moaning, but he’s also worried. It’s going to get seriously cold, soon. If they’re out here all night, if the weather gets worse, if the wind gets up, they’ll freeze to death.
‘There’s a lot more snow in those clouds,’ Illya replies.
‘What would I do without Russian optimism?’ Napoleon asks.
They’re still following the trail of that godforsaken hare, in amongst scrubby trees, although the tracks have almost gone now under the slowly building snow. They’re little dimples, nothing more, and now the light is almost gone there’s hardly anything to see. But Illya is still following those blasted, never ending tracks, saying things like, ‘We might as well follow them as anything else,’ and ‘Where hares can live, we should be able to, too.’
That seems like fallacious logic. Napoleon has never been keen on rabbit food. Neither of them are hares. Besides, what would make a meal for a hare would be a mouthful for a fully grown man.
‘How’s your head?’ Illya asks.
Napoleon grunts, and Illya sighs. He stops walking, fumbles in his pocket, and pulls out the knife. He brushes a little snow away from the slim bole of the closest tree, and slits off a length of bark, leaving a white wound behind.
‘Thinking of lighting a fire?’ Napoleon asks, but Illya hands the bark to him.
‘It’s willow,’ he says. ‘Chew it. Natural aspirin.’
Napoleon holds the bark dubiously. Maybe Illya really does think they can live like hares.
‘Seriously, Napoleon,’ Illya says a little impatiently. ‘It’s a well known pain reliever. Just give it a go.’
Napoleon sighs. At least it will give him something to focus on. Maybe it will make him feel as if he’s eating. His mouth is so dry it feels like an ash can.
He puts the end of the slip of bark into his mouth, and tries to chew. He notices that Illya is cutting off another piece for himself.
‘You’ve got a headache too?’ Napoleon asks.
Illya snorts. ‘I’ve got an everything ache. We should stop and pitch camp soon. There’s no sign of civilisation. We’re not going to get much further tonight.’
Napoleon pulls the disgusting bit of bark from between his teeth for a moment.
‘Giving up our chance of anything to eat?’
‘We’re not going to die of starvation. Not yet, anyway.’
‘What are we going to pitch camp with, anyway? Does that hare we’re following have a tent?’
‘I don’t know,’ Illya says, and for a moment he actually sounds defeated. For a moment he looks defeated, his shoulders sagging. For a moment he looks immensely tired.
‘Let me take point for a bit,’ Napoleon says, patting a hand on his shoulder. ‘Now, where are those tracks going?’
Illya points. ‘That way. Downhill a little, between the trees. See?’
Napoleon does see. At least, he sees the little slope in the land, and he thinks he sees the tiny dents in the snow that Illya seems to be picking up like ultraviolet under a black light.
‘Okay,’ he says, and he marches on, a yard, another yard, another yard, and – ‘Oof.’
There’s nothing underneath him, nothing at all. For what feels like forever, he’s falling, but it’s not forever. It’s only for a second, and then he’s caught, cradled, surrounded, by soft snow.
‘Napoleon?’ Illya calls from above.
‘Come on in. The water’s lovely,’ Napoleon calls back. He’s panting hard, but he’s okay. Nothing broken, nothing sprained.
A moment later there’s a soft shoof , and Illya is beside him.
‘Well done, Napoleon,’ he says. ‘You’ve found our lodgings.’
‘Huh?’ Napoleon asks.
Illya taps him on the shoulder, then jerks his thumb behind him. There, hollowed out under what must be an earthen cliff, is something like a cave.
‘Ah,’ Napoleon says. ‘Well, obviously, that’s what I was aiming for.’
It’s a homely place, in the end. The yellowish earth is entirely dry, frozen, crumbly. It’s a deep scrape back under what turns out to be the channel of a river that must have meandered left and right and created a shallow scar through the land. There are boulders that were probably once smoothed by the river, thousands of years ago. There are bits of stick and leaf, freeze-dried, on the dry ground. The snow has built up in front of this natural little cave, sheltering it almost entirely from the wind, from the eye, from anything that might disturb it.
They just sit there for a few minutes, catching their breath. It’s not much warmer than being outside, but those few degrees make a difference. The lack of breeze makes all the difference. In the silence, Napoleon starts to hear an odd noise, a tinkling, like something to do with glass.
‘Water,’ Illya says. ‘It’s the river. It can’t all be frozen.’
‘Oh, thank God,’ Napoleon sighs. He hadn’t realised quite how much he needed water, but he does. He’s desperately, ravenously thirsty. ‘Let’s go get a drink.’
‘Be careful,’ Illya warns him, unnecessarily, because Napoleon has every intention of being careful. ‘It’ll be hard to tell what’s solid ground and what has water underneath.’
If only they had a bottle. If only they had any kind of container. They wade through the snow, thigh-deep down between these bluffs, following the sound of water, putting each foot down as if expecting lava to break through the surface and consume them. Freezing water, God knows how deep, would be almost as bad. But the snow thins a little and starts to turn to crusting layers of ice, frills of ice like fungus, only just perceptible in the growing dark. Sticks break underfoot, and Illya mutters, ‘Good. Firewood.’ Then Napoleon’s foot hits something that clinks, and he laughs aloud, because his prayer has been answered. It’s a bottle, label faded and torn, with the screw cap still on.
‘Hey,’ he says to Illya, picking it up and holding it out. ‘Thank God for garbage.’
Illya takes the bottle and scrutinises it. He can probably understand the lettering that’s faint on the label.
‘Lemonade,’ he murmurs. ‘Well, that tells us something. There must have been someone upstream at one time.’
‘A town?’ Napoleon hopes.
‘Maybe,’ Illya says. He’s never been known for his optimism. ‘Or a picnicker, or – ’
‘Lets go with a town,’ Napoleon says.
He’s found the water. It’s a tiny trickle in the centre of so many layers of ice it looks like something made by the hand of God. He takes the bottle back and manages to unscrew the cap, then puts the cap carefully in his pocket while he holds the bottle neck under the trickle, lets it fill a little, shakes it furiously, and empties it again. Then he lets it fill to the top, and drinks.
It’s like a blast of freezing fire in his throat. So good, so painful. It makes him cough. He catches his breath and drinks again. He fills the bottle again and hands it to Illya, who drinks until there’s nothing left.
Illya sighs, and wipes his sleeve over his mouth, then crouches where Napoleon had been to fill the bottle up again. He shoves it into his pocket, so it sticks out like a gun from a holster, and says, ‘Let’s pick up some sticks, and get back to the cave.’
There’s a mercy in a winter which comes so cold. The water in things freezes, expands, and is pushed out as little crystals, which scatter away. The wood is bone dry, once the crystals have been knocked onto the floor. Illya sits carving little shavings from one of the sticks, and Napoleon sits breaking larger pieces into smaller ones. It’s almost totally dark, and all that can be heard, except the water flowing, is the sound of their work.
‘I think I have enough,’ Illya says finally, and Napoleon says, ‘Same here. I’ve got a good pile.’
They fumble in the darkness. Illya’s hand touches Napoleon’s and grips. His fingers are cold, but so are Napoleon’s. It’s good to touch against skin in the dark.
‘I’ll put down some of these shavings,’ Illya says. ‘Then you hand me the sticks. Smallest ones first.’
They build a fire, carefully, at the entrance to the cave. It’s strange and intimate, doing this in darkness, hands knocking hands. Napoleon can feel the warmth, smell the scent, of Illya’s breath. He can hear all the little human noises of his body. They touch fingers to be sure where one another is, and talk in low voices. Somehow the darkness demands quiet.
‘I think that’s enough,’ Illya says in the end. ‘Got that lighter?’
There will be smoke and they will be choked, but they can try to poke something of a chimney through the snow. There will also be warmth, and hopefully they won’t freeze to death.
‘Here,’ Napoleon says, handing it to him.
There’s a scraping click, and suddenly there’s light. Suddenly a warm glow of flame lights up their faces. He sees Illya in the flickering light, his hat off, hair catching copper highlights, the shadows moving on his face. Illya holds the lighter carefully to the little wood shavings and bits of dried leaves and reed, and Napoleon wills it all to catch fire.
There’s a crackle, a snap, a little running line of redness that goes all the way up one thin strand of dried grass and turns it to ash. There’s a smouldering in some of the shavings. Illya leans in and blows, ever so gently. He has closed the lighter, and there’s just the tiniest sliver of red light. He blows again, and again, and more bits of tinder catch. Smoke curls and snakes. The flame is greedy, reaching out for more. It chars a stick, licks at it, and then that stick is alight.
Illya sighs. It’s a sound of profound relief.
‘We’ll be all right,’ Napoleon tells him.
Illya just looks at him, and smiles.
It’s a long, cold night. The fire smoulders at the entrance to the cave, but they can’t keep it going through the night. They huddle together against the earth, as far back as possible, all their clothes on. They lie pressed against one another, Napoleon against the earth curve of the cave wall, Illya spooned into him, tucked against him. The softness of Illya’s ushanka lies against Napoleon’s cheek. The fur tickles his face. His own hood is pulled as far forward as possible, to try to preserve his warmth.
‘Asleep?’ Napoleon asks after a while.
‘Not yet,’ Illya murmurs. ‘Cold.’
‘You and me both,’ Napoleon replies.
He presses himself a bit closer against Illya’s back, pressing his thighs against Illya’s thighs. If only they had a cover to lay over the top of them both. Just one piece of fabric would make such a difference.
Outside there’s the call of an owl. Outside the water is trickling, tinkling, falling all the time.
‘Why don’t you tell me a bedtime story about Soviet Russia?’ Napoleon asks.
Illya huffs. ‘Would you like nightmares? Why don’t you tell me a story about capitalist America?’
‘I thought you loved your country,’ Napoleon objects.
‘I love my country,’ Illya returns. ‘But I could tell you tales that would make your blood run cold.’
‘Hmm,’ Napoleon says. ‘My blood’s already cold enough.’
He tilts his head a little more, so his nose is against the softness of Illya’s hat. His arm is tucked over Illya’s body. He can feel the rise and fall of his breath, the vibration of his words when he speaks.
‘Let’s go to sleep,’ Illya says.
Easier said than done, in this cold.
He wakes with a weird blue light shining on his face. He blinks, moves his arm, and realises there’s nothing, no warm bulk, in front of him. Illya is gone.
‘What – ?’ he asks incoherently, before he’s awake.
The air is full of the scent of smoke. The scent of smoke, and something else. He blinks, his eyes stinging. The blue is the blue of light reflected from snow. It’s the blue of fresh wood smoke. The scent is smoke, and snow, and – food.
He sits bolt upright. All of his muscles scream. He’s too old for sleeping on frozen ground like this.
‘Illya?’ he asks.
Illya is squatting by the fire. He looks around, smiling.
‘Tea?’ he asks.
Napoleon hobbles, half bent because of the lowness of the ceiling, to the front of the cave. The warmth of the fire feels so good. He takes his gloves off and holds his hands out to the flames, and his palms and fingers start to tingle.
‘Tea?’ he asks dubiously. ‘Don’t tell me. You found a tea plantation?’
Illya laughs. ‘Well, not tea, exactly. An infusion of edible barks and leaves in warm water.’
‘Sounds delicious,’ Napoleon says.
The lemonade bottle is sitting just at the edge of the fire, and the water inside is decidedly murky.
‘Give it a try,’ Illya says.
It’s not hot, but it’s warm. It’s the most blessed thing. Napoleon lifts it and takes a tentative mouthful. He mulls it around in his mouth, and swallows.
‘Hmm,’ he says. ‘Tastes like – licorice?’
‘Something like that,’ Illya nods.
He’s cooking on a hub cap. Napoleon tries to think where he might have found a hub cap. More detritus from the river, he assumes.
‘There’s a beaver’s dam a bit further upstream,’ Illya says. ‘Abandoned, but there’s all sorts of rubbish caught up in it. Including our pots and pans.’
‘So, what’s – ’ Napoleon gestures at the black mess on the hub cap. There’s a wonderful, savoury smell. Maybe it’s because he’s so damn hungry, but it smells incredible.
‘You know the Easter bunny?’ Illya asks with a gleam in his eye.
‘You didn’t?’ Napoleon asks. He feels a little sliver of horror, but by God he’s hungry. ‘How the hell – ?’
‘Lucky shot,’ Illya says. ‘With a stone. A lovely big buck, just sitting there drinking from the river. I threw a stone, and that was that.’
‘So that’s – ’ He can’t bring himself to say Easter bunny . ‘That’s arctic hare?’
‘With some edible roots thrown in. Starchy. It’s what we need.’
‘I didn’t know you were such a survivalist,’ Napoleon comments, but he’s intensely interested, intensely invested, in what Illya is cooking.
‘I’m interested in things,’ Illya shrugs. ‘It makes sense to learn some of the basic edibles around the world. Especially this part of the world.’
‘In your blood, huh?’ Napoleon asks.
‘Only if I have a northern ancestor no one’s told me about, but it made sense, anyway. It’s closer to home than, say, the Caribbean. I was more likely to wash up here than somewhere like that.’
‘I bet you know the basic edibles of the Caribbean, too,’ Napoleon says.
‘Some,’ Illya nods. ‘Why don’t you dig in, while it’s hot?’
It’s the best meal he’s ever tasted. It’s a congealed mess. Blood, flesh, offal. Roots that are so stringy and chewy he thinks his jaw is going to break. But it’s the best meal he’s ever tasted. He skewers lumps on the end of a sharpened stick, and Illya does the same, and the hare and root mixture slips down like something gourmet. That warmed mixture in the lemonade bottle is like the best wine.
‘Guess we better get moving once we’ve eaten,’ Napoleon says, although he doesn’t want to leave the fire.
‘Upstream, I’d say,’ Illya nods. ‘It’s impossible to tell how far all that rubbish has washed down, but there must be something up there.’
They step out into a winter wonderland. The clouds have cleared overnight, leaving the sky a delicate eggshell blue at the edges, deep Fabergé blue at the zenith. They are standing inside a great egg, full of jewels. The ice on the river sparkles gold and silver under the sun, and the snow is billowed like meringue, covering everything.
‘Onwards and upwards,’ Napoleon says. ‘We’d better get out of this valley, unless we can be sure we’re away from the watercourse.’
‘Yeah,’ Illya agrees, so they scrabble and pull and slip their way up the cliff, grabbing onto tree roots for purchase, until they’re back on higher ground.
In the light of day they can see they’re in a thin stand of trees, that the river threads past them through the land, making a meandering furrow, and the snow stretches out flat for miles in every direction.
‘Is that smoke?’ Illya asks, shading his eyes.
Napoleon stands next to him, shading and squinting and trying to see. Then he catches it. A thin, darkish spire of smoke against the brilliant sky.
‘That’s smoke,’ he nods. ‘Up river, like you said. A couple of miles away, I reckon.’
It’s hard work, wading through the snow. It must have fallen like feathers overnight, puffing up another four feet on top of what was already there. Every step is exhausting, and the hare starts to feel like not enough, definitely not enough, for a grown man to march on. Napoleon cuts sticks from the willow trees and trims them into walking poles, and that helps, but it’s still an awful, grinding business to drag a foot up out of the snow, to batter forwards through the drift, to put the foot down, not knowing if there’ll be solidity or air or an ankle-twisting rock or branch to falter over underneath the white-out layer above it.
‘Waverly better give us a vacation after this,’ Napoleon mutters, standing up after falling yet again, spitting snow out of his mouth.
‘Where shall we go?’ Illya muses. ‘Rome again? Sardinia? Egypt?’
‘Anywhere warm,’ Napoleon says with feeling. ‘Anywhere where a snowfall is a miracle.’
They see more tracks of arctic hares, but no hares themselves. They see tracks that look like dogs, but which Illya says are more likely wolves. Napoleon feels a stronger urge, then, to keep fighting through the snow. His hands and feet are frozen, but he has no desire to stop anywhere there may be hungry winter wolves.
‘When we get to civilisation, it might be better if you talk to them,’ Illya says then.
Napoleon stares at him. ‘Illya, you do know I don’t really speak the language, don’t you? You’re the Russian.’
‘American might go down better, and they’re not exactly Russian,’ Illya murmurs. There’s something odd in his face, a closed in expression. ‘They might be happier if I speak Ukrainian, if they realise that’s what I’m speaking, but then, they might not understand me so well, then.’
‘Are you serious?’ Napoleon asks, resisting the urge to put his hands on his hips because he’d have to throw down his sticks. ‘Illya, just talk to them in Russian.’
‘You do understand, don’t you, that the Soviet Union is not the coherent whole the government would like us all to believe it is?’ Illya says, not looking at Napoleon. ‘We’re right out in the country here, and anyone we come across is much more likely to be – well, not exactly Russian. There’s – a lot of resentment. I don’t know that being Ukrainian would cut any mustard with them, either.’
Napoleon looks directly at his partner. ‘Illya,’ he says. ‘Speak Russian to them. Speak Russian to them for long enough to explain. You’re not exactly a Soviet poster boy. You’ll get a lot further than I will. I can just about ask for directions to the museum and order a meal in a restaurant. I don’t think either of those things will help us here.’
Illya growls a little, deep in his throat.
‘All right,’ he says finally. ‘I’ll do my best.’
It’s not a house, but a cluster of little houses, low things built of logs, with steep pitched roofs rising up two thirds higher than the low walls, thatched with reeds, roofs with snow on them that teeters and then slips off under the power of the sun with a soft thud. Some of the icicles are as thick as a man’s arm.
As they get closer, they can hear the sounds of children laughing, squealing, shouting aloud. It’s a strange sound after all this silence, after all this solitude. They sound like animals, like birds. As they come upon the village they can see them, bundled up like fat suet puddings, faces glowing where their cheeks show through hoods and scarves. One of the children is holding something aloft like a prize, shouting aloud. It’s an egg. A perfect goose egg, the shell coloured orange as if it’s been dyed.
‘It’s Easter,’ Illya says suddenly. ‘Napoleon, it’s Easter Sunday!’
‘Easter?’ Napoleon echoes. ‘Here? I thought – ’
‘It’s a very isolated community.’
Here, Illya stops, because the children have seen them. For a moment they stop still, their shouts dying away, startled rabbits staring at threats. Then they’re running, one, then all of them, back into the houses, calling their alarm calls.
‘That’s it,’ Illya says fatalistically.
‘That’s it?’ Napoleon echoes. ‘Warmth, shelter, people. These are the things we need, Illya.’
‘They’re Orthodox,’ Illya says. ‘If they get a hint of the State from me – ’
He trails off. He actually looks afraid. What they’ve witnessed is illegal, of course. This simple seasonal piece of fun, this joyous egg hunt, is something the State would never tolerate.
‘They weren’t speaking Russian, were they?’ Napoleon asks.
‘No,’ Illya says. ‘No, they were speaking their native language.’
Something else the State would never allow.
Illya is already holding his arms apart by the time the first man comes out of one of the houses. He’s carrying a rifle, pushing the children back into the house behind him.
‘You’re on,’ Napoleon murmurs.
So, Illya speaks. Napoleon can’t understand what he’s saying. Illya speaks English so fluently that it’s easy to forget it’s not his first language, and it’s like stepping into another world, seeing another Illya, to hear this.
He’s holding his hands out, palms open, conciliatory and soft. He’s speaking quietly, and the man comes to him, while Illya stands still as rock. He hears what he thinks is Illya sounding out the letters for U.N.C.L.E.. He must be trying to explain.
There’s a tense, difficult moment. The man’s gun is pointing straight at Illya’s chest. It would be so easy, up here, to shoot them both and dispose of them in a way that would never be discovered. They would never be heard of again.
Their breath is making little clouds in the freezing air. The man steps closer, closer, until the two clouds of frozen vapour are mingling. The muzzle of the gun is against Illya’s coat. If he decides to pull the trigger, there will be nothing Napoleon can do. There’ll be nothing left of Illya’s chest. There’ll be nothing but the red of Illya’s blood and organs all over the snow.
Napoleon holds his breath, and listens to Illya speak. Maybe Illya had been right. Maybe Napoleon should have blustered in, innocent, American, alien, and convinced them with his own cluelessness. But he doesn’t dare speak now. He doesn’t dare breathe.
Illya is still speaking very quietly.
There is silence. The man is thinking. Then, the gun is lowered.
‘It’s all right,’ Illya says in English, without looking away from the man. ‘Napoleon, this is Andrus.’
He switches to Russian then, but Napoleon hears his own name, and the man raises his ungloved hand. Napoleon shakes it.
‘Pleased to meet you, Andrus,’ he says with a smile.
There is the best of everything. Dark rye bread. Sour cream. Fruit preserves. There are eggs and eggs, although surely their poultry can’t be laying much, in this depth of cold. Children come up to them, shyly, smiling, holding out painted eggs on their palms, proud of these beautiful things. Languages shift and rise and fall, and Illya is the hub between them all, passing on Napoleon’s words in Russian, translating the villagers’ words into English. Somehow, they have become friends.
They sit, later, in the village sauna, steaming in a heat that Napoleon had ceased to even dream of over the last few days. They sit naked and unashamed, six men sitting wherever they can, while water is ladled over hot stones and steams into the air. Every breath is rich with warmth and the scent of pine, the scent of smoke, the scent of men.
‘They’ve broken a hole in the ice of the lake,’ Illya tells Napoleon, ‘so it will be ready for us when we’re done in here.’
‘R-ready for us?’ Napoleon asks dubiously. ‘Are you serious?’
Illya can’t be serious. He must be pulling his leg.
‘Of course I’m serious,’ Illya shrugs. He picks up a bundle of birch twigs from the bench, and says, ‘Shall I do your back?’
He is enjoying this. Napoleon can tell just how much Illya is enjoying this. He’s almost bursting with glee that ripples under his skin. It doesn’t get much further than a quirk at the sides of his mouth, but he’s full of joy.
‘Go on, then,’ he says, sighs, really, and he turns a little, so that Illya can beat him with the bundle of twigs.
It’s curiously pleasant. The scent of the early budding leaves is green and fresh in his nostrils. He can feel the blood pulsing to the surface of his skin. He sits there and lets Illya swipe the twigs back and forth, then offers to return the favour.
‘Now,’ Illya says, when their skin is flushed and the sweat is rolling down them. ‘The lake.’
‘No,’ Napoleon says. ‘Seriously, Illya. The birch twigs I can take. The steam – that’s just pleasant. But no sane man is going into the lake after this.’
Illya arches an eyebrow, and Napoleon knows he has handed his friend an irresistible challenge. He’s not sure it ever was that resistible for Illya, but now he has added impetus. Illya stands, stretching out his limbs, running a hand through his damp hair, utterly unselfconscious.
‘How will I explain your pneumonia to Waverly?’ Napoleon tries.
Illya ignores him. He walks towards the door. Napoleon grabs a towel and starts wrapping it around himself, following Illya out into the snow. There’s a little chorus from behind him, whatever words there are in the native tongue that must mean close the door!
He closes the door. His feet are burning on the ground, his temperature plummeting. The little sauna building faces the lake, a lake he hadn’t even realised was there under the snow, until he saw them cutting the hole before they went into the sauna. He had thought the hole was just for water.
Illya squares himself up with the hole, gives Napoleon a look, and runs. With an unrestrained yell of joy, he launches himself into the air and plummets into the water, a pink streak in a world of white and grey. He disappears under the milky surface just for a moment, a long, long moment, then comes up, gasping, shaking his head like a wet dog. He’s making a formless, long noise that could be joy and could be horror.
‘You are insane,’ Napoleon says as he comes forward, as he holds out a hand to help Illya from the water. He hauls him up with all of his strength, holding both hands, lifting him out onto the ice as he has lifted him so many times, rescuing him from danger, helping him up after being knocked down. ‘You are certifiably insane.’
Napoleon is shivering so hard his teeth are clashing in his head. Illya, naked and dripping on the shore, hardly seems to notice the cold at all. There’s a wild look in his eyes, like fire. He nods his head back at the sauna.
‘Come on,’ he says. ‘This is fun. Let’s go round again.’