written for DtC 9 Challenge
Napoleon dragged his injured partner through the gathering darkness, every sense alert for sounds of pursuit -- the crunch of footsteps in the deep snow or worse, the dreaded snarl of snowmobiles closing in.
Nothing. Silence enveloped them.
Snow continued to fall, fat flakes swirling soundlessly down, covering the Vermont countryside in a thick blanket of white. Ice coated the trees; their glittering branches bent like bowstrings under the weight. Against the unforgiving whiteness, the agents' bright blue parkas stood out like beacons.
Napoleon spun around, Walther cocked and ready, but it was only the branch of an elm tree cracking under the weight of snow and ice. It fell to the ground with a hollow thud. He sighed, and replaced his weapon in its holster.
A few yards ahead, the forest ended. From here on, it was open country in every direction, an endless succession of rolling hills and farmland. They were miles from a major city, their communicators gone, at the mercy of the elements and their THRUSH trackers.
Not the best way to spend Christmas Eve.
He was supposed to be at Aunt Amy's, dining on Oysters Rockefeller and drinking fine champagne. Singing Christmas carols by the roaring fire. Opening presents. Illya had tickets for the symphony. Instead, they were freezing their asses off trying to evade THRUSH trackers in the middle of a blizzard.
Napoleon considered their options. It was no use trying to push on -- Illya couldn't travel much further, not with night coming, and that bullet lodged in him. He was barely keeping up as it was, stumbling along on sheer will. They had to find shelter, and soon.
In the distance, a lonely farmhouse beckoned. Nestled amidst the drifting snow, it appeared deserted. Or maybe the occupants had just turned in early -- Napoleon recalled reading somewhere that farmers went to bed with the chickens. He hoped there would be a working telephone inside, and enough drugs to dull Illya's pain. A full larder would be a bonus -- they hadn't eaten anything but a handful of berries since their escape from THRUSH's mountaintop compound two days ago. His stomach rumbled at the prospect of a meal, even one that started life in a tin can.
Abruptly, Illya halted. With a cry, his eyes rolled back in their sockets, and his legs crumpled beneath him. He began to convulse, arms and legs flailing wildly in all directions as Napoleon fought to hold on. Illya's blue eyes were wide and terrified; he gasped for breath. The convulsions seemed to go on forever, but at last the seizure ran its course. His body went limp, and he sank into grateful oblivion.
Napoleon inhaled several deep breaths, willing his hands to stop shaking. Illya's condition was deteriorating more rapidly than he'd realized, and they still had miles to go to reach their UNCLE contacts in Montpelier. The thought that his partner might not make it that far shook him to the core.
He estimated the distance to the farmhouse at a little over a quarter of a mile, most of it across open field. They would be sitting ducks if THRUSH happened by. On the other hand, it was imperative that they find shelter -- the temperature was falling into single digits again as night descended.
No time to waste. Move.
His decision made, Napoleon lifted Illya's body in his arms, and stepped out of the cover of the trees.
Miraculously, no hail of bullets greeted them. He slogged his way across the snow-packed field, ice-encrusted cornstalks crunching underfoot. Illya lay limply in his arms, little more than dead weight now. Their passage left a trail of crimson droplets glistening against the white snow.
Bleeding again, Napoleon noted grimly.
As they neared the farmhouse, his radar kicked in. He picked out the gingham curtains in the windows, the string of unlit Christmas lights tracing the line of the porch, and the fresh balsam wreath hanging on the door. A wooden sign above the lintel wished visitors a Merry Christmas in bright red letters.
Uh-oh. Definitely occupied.
He hesitated, torn between the possibility of comfort and help awaiting them inside, and the likelihood of real danger to a family of Innocents if THRUSH should find them here.
Napoleon sighed. He knew the cardinal rule of an UNCLE agent -- protect the Innocents at all costs. With a final, longing glance at the farmhouse and all its luxuries, he turned away, detouring in the direction of the barn. Maybe they'd get lucky and find the family pickup garaged inside, keys in the ignition, with blessed heat and a full tank of gas, and a snowplow conveniently attached to the front fender. He lifted the wooden latch above the barn door, and carried Illya into the darkened stable.
It took a moment for his eyes to adjust, and when they did, his spirits plummeted. The barn was little more than a wooden shell, providing respite from the cold, but not much else. The structure tilted sideways at an unnatural angle, and a section of the roof had rotted away, leaving the interior of the building exposed to the elements. A stiff breeze was all it would take to bring the whole place down on their heads.
Not exactly the Ritz, Napoleon thought, but it would have to do.
A line of stalls, weathered with age, stretched into the shadows. The stall nearest the barn door was occupied by a black and white cow; her tail swished nervously as she caught the scent of intruders. A pair of ancient, swaybacked draft horses, some Welsh sheep and a huge sow and her piglets occupied adjacent stalls. Their eyes turned toward him as he entered.
He laid Illya down upon the hay at the back of the barn, folding a burlap sack beneath his head for a pillow. Illya groaned, and muttered something in Russian, but he did not wake. Napoleon felt his brow.
Christ, he's burning up.
He unzipped Illya's parka and carefully peeled back the bloodied shirt, wincing at the sight of the purple bruises left behind by their THRUSH captors. They'd been knocked around a bit by the guards, but Illya had gotten the worst of it as usual, thanks to his annoying habit of antagonizing his interrogators.
As if that wasn't enough, Illya had been shot during their escape -- a bullet in the right thigh that had passed cleanly through, and a second, more serious wound, this one from a high-powered rifle. The second bullet had entered Illya's body just below the left clavicle, its trajectory angled down toward the heart and lungs. Napoleon had managed to dig the slug out, but it had been dark, and they'd been in a hurry. He'd been afraid to dig too deeply, mindful of nicking a blood vessel. He suspected now that he'd missed a fragment.
He palpated the area around the wound -- hot and swollen, a sure sign that infection had set in. It was a miracle Illya had even made it down the mountain. He wondered whether to try and remove the remaining fragment but, in the end, he decided against it. Illya was barely holding on -- he was clearly too weak to endure another round of probing. Further attempts to remove the bullet would have to wait until they reached the hospital in Montpelier.
Napoleon checked his weapon -- a bullet in the chamber, plus one more, and two extra clips of ammo. Not much firepower if THRUSH decided to come calling. The barn offered little in the way of weaponry -- a pitchfork, a few shovels and a rusted scythe. We've been in worse spots, he told himself, although for the life of him, he couldn't recall a single one.
He studied the farmhouse for signs of activity, but saw nothing to indicate that anyone was presently inside. The Christmas lights were still off, and the interior of the dwelling remained dark. Maybe they're away for the holidays, Napoleon thought hopefully. He would hate for Innocents to be caught in the middle of a THRUSH firefight.
The black and white cow lowed softly.
Napoleon's heart sank. She would need milking in the morning, and no farmer worth his salt would leave her in distress. The owners were coming back, might already be on their way. He prayed the storm would delay them for a few hours at least.
His stomach rumbled again, a reminder that they needed food, and Illya needed antibiotics to stem the infection raging through his body. If he wanted to search the farmhouse, he would have to do it now, before the owners returned.
Napoleon drew his weapon, and slipped through the crack in the barn door. Keeping to the ground, he ran a zigzag pattern toward the dwelling, ridiculously reminded of Mandy the Portuguese translator initiating “Evasion Pattern Eight.” Working as quickly as his frozen fingers would allow, he picked the lock on the front door, and stepped inside.
It was blessedly warm inside the house -- “nice and toasty,” Aunt Amy would have said -- and Napoleon sighed with pleasure. It seemed ages since he'd been warm. For a moment, he was tempted to stay -- a hot meal and a shower sounded like nothing short of Heaven to his weary spirit. But there was no telling when the owners might return, and anyway, he didn't think Illya could stand to be moved again so soon.
He bypassed the living room with its well-worn furniture and crocheted afghans. A Christmas tree, draped in tinsel, stood in the corner, and beneath it, a nativity scene -- a flock of oversized sheep and a chipped plaster cow sharing the manger with the Holy Family. He reached down without conscious thought, righting a lamb that had fallen onto its side.
He continued on to the kitchen.
A rotary telephone sat on the kitchen counter next to a dog-eared copy of the Sears Catalog. Napoleon lifted the receiver, and was rewarded with a steady dial tone. He dialed the UNCLE Emergency Secure Line, and gave a quick rundown of their situation, including details of Illya's injuries and the need for an extraction team. He realized that contacting UNCLE was a double-edged sword -- help would be dispatched as soon as the weather permitted, but if THRUSH had managed to tap the phone lines in the area, he'd just handed them their location on a silver platter.
He rifled the medicine cabinet in the bathroom for supplies, and came up with a half-empty bottle of ampicillin and several tablets of tetracycline. He added a box of gauze and a roll of tape to his haul, along with iodine, a pair of cuticle scissors and a bottle of aspirin, and emptied everything into a paper grocery bag.
Back in the kitchen, he snatched a carton of orange juice from the refrigerator, hoping it wouldn't be missed. He took several cans of soup from the pantry, and added them to the bag along with a steak knife, a tablespoon and a coffee cup. He longed to take more food, but it was important not to arouse the suspicions of the homeowners when they returned. He slipped a twenty dollar bill into one of the utility drawers to cover what he had pilfered.
He made one more circuit of the house, checking for hunting rifles and other useful weapons, but came up empty. With a sigh, he left the farmhouse behind, and crept back through the darkness to the barn.
Illya's condition had worsened in his absence. His breath rattled moistly in his chest, and his skin was hot to the touch. Napoleon mashed four tablets of antibiotic into the coffee cup, added several aspirin, and poured a measure of orange juice over the powder. He woke his partner, and dribbled the liquid down his throat, a little at a time. Illya choked and fought, but to Napoleon's relief, the medicine stayed down.
He used the knife to open a can of chicken broth, drank half the can, and spoon-fed the rest to Illya. Hunger satisfied for the moment, he cleaned the bullet wounds with iodine, and covered them with clean strips of gauze. By the time he finished, Illya was asleep again. Napoleon opened a second can of soup and drained it, feeling fatigue wash over him in waves. He popped two aspirin, drank a cup of juice, and settled back to wait.
It was peaceful in the barn. Snow swirled down through the hole in the roof, reminding him of the snow globes of his childhood. If he half-closed his eyes, the individual flakes appeared suspended, weightless pinpoints of light floating effortlessly in time and space.
In the far corner of the stable, the piglets nuzzled against their mother's vast, warm belly; they grunted contentedly in their sleep. The cow nibbled on her supper of oats and hay. The horses nickered softly to one another, tender as lovers. The smell of fresh hay was pleasant, intoxicating...warm and sweet and...
Far off in the distance, Napoleon heard church bells ringing. Midnight. It was Christmas Day. He forced his eyes open. Must have dozed off, he realized with a start.
Through the hole in the roof, a faint dusting of stars twinkled behind swiftly moving clouds -- the storm was nearly over. He sighed. It wouldn't be long now.
The lights were still off at the house, an indication that the family had not yet returned. Napoleon prayed they'd been delayed by the storm, and that they were somewhere warm and safe.
He mashed up more pills, mixed them with the juice and fed them to his partner. Illya didn't protest this time, and Napoleon wondered if that was a good sign or bad. He opened the last can of broth and drizzled it down his partner's throat, a spoonful at a time. When there was nothing left, he curled his body against Illya's for warmth, and covered them both with straw.
The hours passed. In the rafters, an owl hooted and took flight.
Nestled in the quiet darkness, Napoleon thought of Aunt Amy. Dinner was long over by now, and she would be starting to wonder where her young nephew had gotten himself off to. Amy, the perfect hostess, regaling her dinner guests with hilarious tales of misadventure, her worry hidden behind a bright smile.
His sisters, Artemesia and Hippolyta, would be frantic when he didn't show up on Christmas morning. He felt a pang of guilt for spoiling their holiday yet again. They deserved... deserved...
A wave of exhaustion overtook him, and he closed his eyes.
Just for a minute...
Napoleon felt strangely peaceful, despite the long odds. They would survive, or they would not. UNCLE would find them, or THRUSH. One way or another, it would be over soon. He reminded himself that they'd gotten this far. On a wing and a prayer. The phrase came to him unbidden, one of his mother's favorite expressions. In the darkness, he smiled, thinking of her.
He could feel the shallow rise and fall of Illya's chest, heard the rasping intake of air and the long, shuddering exhalations. Napoleon matched him, breath for precious breath, willing him to hold on just a little longer, infusing him with his own life force. In the darkness, they breathed as one. The connection was umbilical, a lifeline, a prayer...
He dreamed of warm desert winds, of cattle lowing and shepherds watching their flocks by night, of travelers bearing gifts and angels singing and a star that shone as brightly as --
Napoleon sat up with a jolt.
Outside the barn, the growl of approaching snowmobiles shattered the silence of the morning. The animals stirred restlessly in their stalls, stomping their hooves and snorting at the unaccustomed disturbance.
Napoleon drew his weapon and crept to the barn door.
A dozen snowmobiles barreled into the yard, the insignia of a black bird plainly visible on the sides of the vehicles. They slid to a halt just out of range of his Walther, throwing up clouds of snow in their wake. Their drivers were armed to the teeth.
THRUSH. He threw the bolt, barricading the door.
The trackers dismounted, and unslung their weapons. Their sour-faced leader barked out a series of commands and, as Napoleon watched, the men fanned out, following the trail of blood and bootprints toward the barn.
It never failed to amaze him, how overconfident THRUSH goons were -- swaggering around in full view as if they owned the place, not even bothering to seek cover.
He aimed and fired; the shots took out two of the trackers before they knew what hit them. The pair dropped soundlessly to the ground. The rest dove for cover.
Ten to go. He snapped in a fresh clip.
Bullets flew everywhere as the trackers returned fire. A bullet whizzed by Napoleon's head, and another burrowed into the wood paneling beside his left ear.
That was close!
In the confusion, several THRUSH had managed to duck behind the corner of the barn -- Napoleon could hear their boots crunching through the deep snow as they circled the structure, looking for another way in. He fired in the direction of the sounds, and was gratified to hear one of the trackers cry out in pain.
Answering fire had him ducking for cover behind an overturned wheelbarrow. A hail of bullets peppered the barn, and he thanked God that Illya was safely out of the line of fire. Now if he could just whittle the odds down a bit further --
The sudden thwop-thwop of an approaching helicopter filled the air, and Napoleon's heart sank. Reinforcements, no doubt sent by THRUSH to make sure the job got done.
The chopper -- a super-sized Sikorsky S-62 by the look of it -- was coming in fast. It skimmed the tops of the pine trees, rotors whirring as it closed in on the barnyard. Napoleon let out a whoop when he saw the familiar gold logo prominently displayed on the belly of the craft.
The chopper descended, the wind from the rotors flinging clouds of snow and ice into the air. An UNCLE sniper leaned out the open door of the craft; he picked off three THRUSH in swift succession. Napoleon aimed, and took out two more. The remaining trackers, caught off guard, clambered aboard their snowmobiles and peeled off toward the forest.
The helicopter landed. Even before the rotors had stopped turning, an UNCLE medical team was climbing out, the physician in charge firing orders at his people. They gathered their equipment and ran toward the barn.
Napoleon watched as they transferred Illya to a stretcher, gave him oxygen, and hooked him up to an intravenous infusion of antibiotics and Ringer's lactate. They worked efficiently, with the kind of choreographed skill that comes from long hours of practice. Napoleon could have kissed them all. Within minutes, they had Illya stabilized, and the pair of them strapped down in the helicopter's bay, headed for the hospital in Montpelier.
Napoleon rested his head against the bulkhead, lulled half-asleep by the vibration of the rotors as the chopper rose into the air. Their ordeal was over; against all odds, they'd come through. He was exhausted, utterly spent. He ached down to his bones -- there wasn't a muscle anywhere in his body that didn't hurt. He vowed to sleep through New Year's.
On the ground below, an UNCLE cleanup crew was busy restoring the farm to its original condition, and repairing the damage caused by the recent firefight. The owners had not yet returned and Napoleon, absurdly, hoped one of the agents would remember to milk the cow.
He reached over, and brushed the sweat-drenched hair from Illya's brow, feeling incredibly grateful for the gift of their lives. He was startled when the blue eyes opened.
“Wh...where...?” Illya tried to say.
Napoleon's heart swelled with joy; He could have wept. “An UNCLE chopper,” he replied softly. “We've been rescued.”
Napoleon nodded, feeling the world right itself once more. “We'll have you home in a jiffy, tovarisch. Merry Christmas.”
Beneath his oxygen mask, Illya sighed. His eyes drifted shut again. “Best...present...ever.”