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The Little Match Boy

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Falling for the fourth time in as many minutes, Illya began to question his wisdom in escaping from his THRUSH captors during a snow storm. Yes, they were going to kill him and send his body to the nearest UNCLE office as a message to Mister Waverly, but would that have been any more painful than freezing to death?

He had no jacket, no shoes, no socks and no gloves which meant his hands and feet were blue with cold. The spreading numbness in his feet was what was mostly to blame for his many falls. Shivering violently, he spotted something near a charity box - a man's jacket, a donation that had been dropped and was half buried in the snow. True, it was old and far too large for him, but a desperate man can not afford to be picky. Fumbling it slightly as he pulled the jacket free and shook off the snow, Illya wasted not time wrapping it around himself as he looked around for any sort of shelter.

It was Christmas eve and there was nothing around but shops that had already closed for the holidays. With the weather, he had not run into so much as a single person since fleeing the satrap. If his hands weren't already so clumsy, he might have made the attempt to break into a shop. Then he recalled that he hadn't found where the THRUSH agents had put his equipment, so he didn't have his lockpicks to make the attempt any way.

Finally, in an alleyway, he saw what was likely to be his only hope for a shield against the bitter winds. Sitting among some battered trash cans was a wooden packing crate - large enough that it might have held a recliner. Illya fell again as he made his way to it. Pulling out a layer of the packing material gave him a dry surface and he was happy to at least have a spot to place his feet that wasn't covered with ice and snow.

Shivering violently, Illya thrust his hands into the jacket's pocket, then was startled when he felt a box inside one of the pockets. Drawing it out carefully, he saw it was a box of old fashioned kitchen matches. Even better, there were still a few matches inside and they seemed to be dry.

With trembling hands, Illya reached out and removed the dented metal lid from the closest trash can and arranged some of the packing material into a rough pile before striking one of the matches. His numbed fingers dropped it, but luck was with him and the match landed on the small pile, setting it ablaze.

The tiny fire wasn't much help against the brutal elements, but Illya held his hands as close as he dared and found himself imagining himself in front of one of the massive fireplaces that could be found in Scottish castles - one that you could come near to putting a whole tree in to set ablaze for a festive yule log. He could actually feel the warmth of the massive fire on his face when a sudden gust scattered his tiny fire and extinguished it.

The shivering grew worse as he quickly gathered another pile of trash and lit another match. The match shook, but stayed lit as he carefully held it to the small pile, sighing in relief as it caught fire.

Perhaps someone had tossed the papers from their lunch into the packing crate. How else could Illya explain the sudden smells of a hot and savory meal coming from the little blaze? Part of him knew that hallucinations were a very bad sign when he was so very cold, but Illya was to the point of taking comfort from wherever he could find it. His mind obliged his desire by conjuring a vision of a holiday table decorated as festively and as fully laden as any feast ever hosted by Napoleon's Aunt Amy. A roasted goose was nestled on a platter surrounded by sugared fruits and nearby was a suckling pig that had been slowly cooked on a spit until the outer skin was crisp and the inner meat was practically falling from the steaming bones. Bowls were piled with hot, savory vegetables such as roasted Brussel sprouts and creamy mashed potatoes which had butter and boats of hot gravy standing by. Baskets with fresh bread were also plentiful. In his mind, Illya's hand was reaching out to grasp one of the piping hot rolls when a glob of snow fell from the roof of one of the alley's buildings and put out the fire again.

Flinging the now sodden scraps from the lid, Illya felt nearly like crying from sheer frustration. If he had to die in this terrible cold, why couldn't he die while in the middle of a pleasant dream? Why did the dreams have to end while he was still suffering?

His cold-befuddled brain recalled a story he had come across shortly after he arrived in France. It was supposed to be a children's story, but Illya considered it far too sad to tell a child. The story had brought him to tears, which had been the cause of much teasing, but he had been a cold and starving child himself and the story of the Little Match Girl was far too close for comfort and he had known several real children that had met the same fate as that poor child had.

It dawned on him then how like his current situation was to that of the Match Girl. She had seen lovely visions that had comforted her in the light of her matches until she died and joined her grandmother in heaven during her final vision. How had she done that? Ah yes, instead of one match, she had used many of them to keep the blaze going longer.

Treating that memory as if it was the solution to his problem, Illya gathered together all of the dry packing materials and other paper trash that he could reach. There were only three matches left and he discovered that one of them was broken. That one he removed from the box and placed with the rest of the trash as fuel for the fire.

The next match blazed brightly and seemed to leap on its own to the waiting trash. Smiling as the papers flared to life, Illya put the box with the one remaining match back into the jacket's pocket as his mind took him away from his suffering body again.

It was Aunt Amy's lovely home with a Christmas tree larger than any he had ever seen. To his wondering eyes, it seemed even larger than the tree at Rockefeller Center. As he stared at the lovely sight, he heard Napoleon calling out to him and called back, wanting to share the beauty with his best friend. His shivering had finally stopped and Illya felt his eyelids growing heavy as he finally gave in and fell asleep beneath the sparkling tree.

Waking brought renewed pain and Illya started to curse at the unfairness when he began to register differences. He couldn't hear the wind whistling any longer, but instead he was hearing . . . beeping? He opened one eye, then both. Medical. UNCLE. Then his field of vision was entirely filled with the face of his partner.

"Illya - thank God. You nearly gave me a heart attack. You called out to me and then, next thing I know, you collapsed. I got you here as fast as I could, but I thought I was too late. You were like an ice statue."

Blinking slowly to allow his thawing brain to catch up, Illya reached out. All of the visions had vanished when he'd tried to touch them. Would Napoleon disappear as well?

Illya didn't even notice that his hands were bandaged as he touched Napoleon.

"You. You are real."

As his normally stoic partner broke down into uncharacteristic tears, Napoleon sat on his hospital bed and gathered his partner to him as if he were a small child. Illya might profess to not be a religious man himself, but Napoleon closed his eyes and gave thanks heartfelt enough for both of them. After all, he'd gotten exactly what he'd prayed for for Christmas.