Genre: Gen AU
He stands at the cabin door, barefoot, blue eyes bleary with fatigue, his faded jeans and ancient Aran sweater scant protection against the chill morning air. The sweater has seen better days, and the yarn is beginning to unravel in places. Frayed threads dangle from the hem like unanswered questions.
Behind him in the cabin's small bunkroom, Napoleon sleeps the sleep of the dead, an exhausted, boneless oblivion that has thus far eluded the Russian. Let him sleep, Illya thinks. Their flight is not due to leave until four, and the airport in Jackson Hole is less than an hour away.
From the top of the hill, the lake resembles a sheet of glass. Mist rises from the surface, blurring the boundaries of things, blending mountains and water and sky into a pale gray wash. The mist is thick, ephemeral. The water is still. Time is suspended.
He sets off down the hill, allowing the shape of the terrain to dictate his direction. Patches of unmelted snow pack the shadows between the hills. The dead grass crunches beneath his feet, rending the silence. The sound jars him and he looks down, only now realizing that he has forgotten his shoes. The omission seems unimportant. He walks on.
A hawk follows his progress from its perch in the branches of a lodgepole pine. Illya thinks it might be a red-tail, but he cannot be sure in this monochrome fog. As he passes beneath the tree, the hawk spreads its wings and takes flight, keening as it spirals upward into the mist. He watches it ascend, growing smaller and smaller, diminishing to a pinpoint of gray translucency indistinguishable from the sky.
The lake is close now. Little waves wash against the shore, clattering the pebbles on the beach. The sound is like a shaman's rattle. Wind ripples the surface of the water. A hundred yards out, an anchored diving raft rocks uneasily. How different from the calm, glassy surface he imagined at the top of the hill. Things are not nearly so settled up close.
He folds his body into the shelter of a rocky outcropping, pulling his knees up to his chest. The granite is cold; he can feel the chill seeping in through his jeans, raising goosebumps on his flesh. He stretches the frayed hem of the sweater over his knees to conserve warmth, and stares out across the water.
Another mission concluded. Another doomsday weapon destroyed, another THRUSH satrapy shut down. And another, and another, and...
He knows Sir John will call the mission that dismantled THRUSH's Yellowstone satrapy a success but, staring out at the mist-shrouded lake, all he can see are the faces of three dead UNCLE agents, and the panicked eyes of the twenty-two year old Kindergarten teacher as her life bled away. Success is relative.
He looks down at his hands; they are shaking. Fatigue, he tells himself, although he knows it is rage. How much longer must it go on? Quadripartite. Neptune. Cherry Blossom. A litany of early success stories. Five Daughters. Seven Wonders. Ten Plagues. Diabolical schemes thwarted, cell after THRUSH cell shut down. Hard-won victories. Progress toward a better world.
Progress? We are barely holding the line.
How many times have they lopped the head off the THRUSH hydra, only to watch it grow two new heads in its place? A subtle regroup here, a clever resurgence there, and the monster reemerges, twice as hungry as before. He can sense desperation in the corridors of UNCLE HQ, an insidious gray uncertainty leeching out what little hope remains. There are more defeats than victories these days, and the victories are too often bought with blood. UNCLE's Memorial Wall grows more crowded with each passing month.
THRUSH is winning.
Illya cannot pinpoint precisely when the tide began to turn. A year ago? Two? Ten? Perhaps there was no single moment, but rather an insidious, incremental decline, a growing absence of trust on the part of the society UNCLE set out to serve. The people he sees on the streets today are harder, colder than he remembers. They have grown bitter, exhausted by the ratrace and disillusioned by life in a maze that has no exit and little cheese.
Governments, for their part, have always been corrupt, but now the politicians line their pockets with bold impunity, no longer even pretending to care who notices their transgression. They are unimpressed by UNCLE's outdated moral compass. How things have changed since those first, idealistic days, when fresh-faced recruits from every continent flocked to UNCLE's banner, convinced that they could change the world! Instead, it is the world that has changed around them.
We are out of step. Out of fashion. And out of time. A door has opened and, while humanity turns a blind eye, THRUSH slithers in. A birthright is sold for a mess of pottage.
He remembers UNCLE as it was at the height of its power, when the late, great Alexander Waverly sat at the helm. Strong. Influential. Respected. He wonders what Waverly would think, were he alive today. Could he have predicted the current, crumbling state of the organization so near and dear to his heart? Could any of them?
A fish breaks the surface with a loud plop, startling him. He catches a brief glimpse of glistening tail before it is gone. A pair of loons drift by, and the water shimmers with their passing. Across the way, half-hidden in the mist, a house stands among the pines, smoke rising from the chimney. He wonders who lives there, and if they are happy. If they feel safe. Do they know about the war being fought for them, the clandestine battle that will likely shape their future? Can they sense peril looming on the horizon?
He springs to his feet, no patience to spare for such thoughts. He strips off his sweater and jeans and tosses them onto the rocks. Naked, he pads across the pebbles and wades out into the dark water. When he is waist-deep, he takes a long breath and dives in headfirst.
The cold is shocking. It seizes him like a vise, squeezing his lungs and penetrating instantly to the bone. The water is so paradoxically cold he can feel it burn his skin. He surfaces, gasping. This is madness, he thinks but, unlike the world in which he finds himself, it is a madness he can understand. Steeling himself, he dives again, powerful kicks propelling him down into the murk, into the impenetrable darkness.
It is peaceful here, womblike. The world above seems far away. He is floating in a void. Without realizing he has done so, he rolls his body into a fetal position, legs bent, arms folded across his chest. He holds himself still, feeling his heartbeat slow. Peaceful.
He holds his breath until the burn in his lungs becomes unendurable, then stretches out, pulling with sure strokes, swimming up toward the light. He breaks the surface, chest heaving. He is surprised to find how far out he has swum. Turning, he makes his way back to shore.
Napoleon is waiting for him on the beach. The senior agent is winded, as though he has been running. “Here,” he says, handing him a blanket. “You'll catch your death.”
Illya is shivering uncontrollably, huge, shattering spasms that wrack his thin body. He pulls on jeans, slips the old sweater over his head, pulls the blanket around him.
Napoleon's hands are shaking too, but not with cold. “You were down there a long time. I was afraid you were in trouble.” He peers intently at his friend. “Are you alright?”
Illya shrugs. It is the best answer he can give.
A pause. “The schoolteacher?”
He searches for words. “Her eyes – ”
The senior agent nods wearily. “Not our finest moment.”
“The operation was a fiasco from start to finish! Wretched intel, poor planning, dead Innocents. Bozhe moy, Mr. Waverly must be rolling over in his grave.”
“We're doing everything we can. You know how it is – our resources are stretched thin these days.”
Illya is silent. He toes the pebbles beneath his feet, exposing the layer of sand beneath.
“UNCLE has been up against the ropes before, tovarisch. We'll manage. We always do.”
“How? Half the member nations have already pulled their support. 'Throwing good money after bad' – isn't that what the German ambassador said? The French have declared us 'demodé.' Obsolete. Another failure like this one, and we will lose the rest of them.”
“Then we'd better not fail.”
“Easier said than done. With Sir John at the helm –”
“Be fair, Illya. He's trying.”
“'Trying?!'” Illya glares his contempt. “He is inept, and you know it! It should be you sitting in that chair!”
“I resigned, remember? I walked away. I was gone for fifteen years – they had to promote somebody.”
“And in a moment of sheer insanity, they give the job to a man lacking any experience whatsoever in Enforcement? A man with no capacity for leadership, who has never headed a single mission, or worked a day in the field?”
It is Napoleon's turn to be silent.
“Sir John's main qualification seems to be his chummy friendship with Harry Beldon. A ringing endorsement, wouldn't you say?”
“Not the best choice for the post, I'll grant you.” the senior agent sighs. “There's still time to turn things around.”
“Oh, Napoleon!” The frustration rolls off of Illya in waves. “Open your eyes. We have a year at most. Perhaps not even that.”
Napoleon's jaw sets, an expression of steely determination Illya has come to know well over the years. “Time enough.”
He opens his mouth to argue but, in the end, he decides that nothing he can say will change anything. Something inside him breaks. “You always were an optimist. It is one of your most annoying attributes.”
“Then I guess you're in for a year of being exponentially annoyed,” Napoleon snaps, “because I refuse to give up on UNCLE.”
The bold simplicity of the statement sends chills skittering up Illya's spine. The implications are clear. He nods slowly.
“We are going to fix this, tovarisch. We are going to set things right.”
“The glass, half-full?”
“As long as I have breath, it is.”
Privately, Illya thinks the glass is down to dregs, but he says nothing. He gazes out at the lake, watch a family of wood ducks drifting among the reeds. “It is beautiful here,” he sighs. In his heart, he knows this is the last peaceful moment they will have for a very long time.
“Come on, tovarisch, let's get you back to the house. We'll get a fire going, and a fresh pot of coffee. You'll feel better once you're warmed up.”
“Coffee sounds good,” Illya concedes. He turns away, and they begin the steep climb back up the hill to the cabin. “So – I suppose it is too much to ask for, that you might actually have a plan? Some fiendishly clever scheme that will turn the tables on THRUSH and save the day?”
Napoleon's smile lights up his face. Amazingly, he looks as though he hasn't a care in the world. “Nope. I thought we'd wing it.”
Illya cannot help but laugh. “You are incorrigible.”
“Another of my annoying attributes. You might want to start a list.”
The mist is dissipating now, the sun breaking through the clouds to illuminate a single blue crocus, its petals unfolding as it rises from beneath the snow.
They walk on.