“To be happy takes a lifetime, for one sparrow does not make Spring.”
They lounged on the porch of the cliffside cottage they had built, watching the sun set over the waters of Limestone Bay. Below them on the beach, a frigatebird preened, wings outstretched, its soft red belly exposed. Tradewinds rustled the nearby palm trees, shaking loose a few fronds. Illya threw his head back, filling his lungs with the sweet scent of acacia blossoms. He felt utterly free, pleasantly sated, magnificently content.
He touched the simple silver ring adorning his left hand, the first jewelry he had worn since losing his plain gold band during the Thor Affair so many years ago. He twisted the ring this way and that, feeling its solidity, reliving the moment when Napoleon had slipped it onto his finger. Married. We are married. Legally! It was indeed a brave new world.
He glanced over at Napoleon, snoring softly in his wicker lounge chair. In retirement, his face was relaxed, peaceful, as though he hadn't a care in the world. Illya decided that it was worth waiting forty years just to see him like that. He thought about waking him, but relented. After all, we were up half the night. And at our age! The thought made him blush with pleasure.
Deciding to be magnanimous, he reached instead for the book he had been reading, a favorite from his university days. He caressed its worn leather binding, traced the embossed gold letters of the title. The Nichomachean Ethics. He adjusted his spectacles and attempted to pick up where he had left off, but the afternoon was too warm, too safe, too wonderful. His pale eyes drifted shut; the book slipped from his grasp, falling to the floor with a thud.
A hand, spotted with age, reached out to brush Illya's slender fingers. “You've dropped your book,” Napoleon said.
Illya cracked an eye open. “An experiment. Gravity works.” He burrowed deeper into the cushions.
“Lazy Russian.” Napoleon bent to retrieve the fallen tome, wincing as his muscles protested the movement. It had, after all, been quite a night. He glanced at the title. “The Nichomachean Ethics? Aristotelian philosophy? That's pretty heavy reading for such a fine day, don't you think?”
Illya shrugged. “I find it inspiring.”
“So inspiring that you fell asleep reading it,” Napoleon laughed. “Oh, well, I'll just put it here on the tray table, and you can go back to your snoozing.”
“Suit yourself, but it is a fascinating book.”
“I'll take your word for it.”
The sun dipped lower in the sky, casting a glint of orange upon the turquoise waters of the bay. The frigatebird shook itself and took flight. On the porch railing, an iguana, roused by the cooling temperatures, resettled itself in a dwindling patch of sunlight.
“It's going to be a nice sunset,” Napoleon said.
“I said, the sunset is going to be nice tonight, don't you think?”
Illya gave Napoleon's hand a gentle squeeze. “It is always nice.” He sighed. “Have I told you how much I love it here?”
Napoleon took in Illya's fit, well-fed look, and the new laugh lines crinkling the corners of his eyes. “You didn't have to,” he replied fondly.
They had built the cottage together decades earlier, in preparation for a retirement that, privately, neither of them ever expected to reach. The place was tiny, just three rooms and a small porch that faced the sea. Illya, with his socialist sensibilities, decreed that that was more than enough space for two people.
Napoleon had been scandalized. “Only three rooms? We''ll be bumping into one another all the time!”
“And that would be a bad thing?” Illya had replied, his blue eyes sparkling like the waters of the bay.
They purchased several acres of land on the remote north shore of Anguilla, atop the jagged coral cliffs. The land was lush, with mango and banana trees growing wild, and it had a spectacular vew of the Caribbean Sea. A dirt road leading up from The Valley was the only access.
“Every UNCLE agent needs a dream or two,” Napoleon had grinned as they signed the deed. And so it began.
They started construction on the cottage, squeezing in a few days here and there between missions. In the early days, they pitched a tent on the land, and spent their days sawing and hammering, their nights making love by the light of a Coleman lantern. In the morning, they ate fresh mangoes picked ripe and juicy from the trees.
In the late Sixties they had a terrible falling out – a breach of trust, really – and very nearly sold the property. It seemed the sensible thing to do under the circumstances. Their lawyers quietly arranged for the sale of the land and the half-completed cottage but, when push came to shove, neither man could bear to part with it. The sale was canceled, and for the next fifteen years the place sat unoccupied, hidden away from the world in a grove of manchineels and coconut palms, on a quiet island far off the beaten path.
By the time the Eighties rolled around, Napoleon and Illya had found one another again, and had managed to heal their damaged relationship. They began to think of retiring to their little cottage. “A fresh start,” Napoleon declared confidently. They hired local builders to finish what they had begun so many years ago.
But fate, it seemed, was not through mocking them. On a frigid Sunday evening in 1984, Sir John Raleigh died, the victim of a car bombing outside a London railway station. At the time of his death, Sir John was only three years into his tenure, having replaced the great Alexander Waverly as Section head of UNCLE Northeast. He had had insufficient time to train a successor.
Under pressure from the remaining Section One heads, Napoleon reluctantly stepped in to fill the void left by Sir John's passing. Putting aside his personal plans, he ascended to the post for which he had been groomed two decades earlier – Number One, Section One. Illya was unsurprised by the decision. He had seen the writing on the wall the instant he heard the news.
“I have to do it,” Napoleon said, feeling the weight of the world descend upon his weary shoulders. “There's no one else.”
“There is no one better,” Illya replied quietly, and felt their dream slip away.
For the next two decades, the troubles of the world occupied virtually every waking hour – the crisis in the Middle East, Kosovo, Tienamin Square, Darfur, the Twin Towers. There were many nights when Napoleon and Illya slept at their desks, subsisting on sandwiches from the Canteen and far too much coffee. With the world falling to pieces around them, there was simply no time for anything else. If they thought about the cottage at all, it was as a dream, remote and insubstantial, a hazy, starlit Neverland that felt a million light years away.
Now, finally, the years of waiting had come to an end. On New Year's Day, Napoleon passed the reins of command to his heir apparent, and endured the obligatory round of retirement dinners and going-away parties with what Illya thought was exceptional charm and patience. When it was over, the pair collected their bags, paid a final visit to Aunt Amy's snow-covered grave, and slipped quietly out of the country. Six hours and two flights later, they drove up the rutted dirt road to Limestone Bay, and home.
It restored their souls just to breathe the air. They slept, and woke, and made love. They walked the beach, and sailed from bay to bay, exploring the hidden corners of the island. They caught fresh fish for their dinner, watched the sun rise and set, and felt deep in their hearts the almighty preciousness of each day.
They visited the flea market in town for bargains with which to furnish their new home. Illya's favorite find was a rustic rosewood dining table on which a local artist had painted colorful images of tropical fish. The bright colors reminded him of the pysanka found at Eastertime in his native Ukraine. Napoleon found an old-style Coleman lantern, identical to the one they'd owned years ago. “A little cleaning and it'll be just like new,” he declared cheerfully.
On Wednesdays, they frequented the produce stand next to the Traffic Impediment for fresh vegetables, and stayed for the latest island news. Dinner was often beer and crayfish down at Uncle Ernie's beach bar, with Illya improvising on guitar as the evening crowd wandered in. And if the locals knew them only as Erik and Bob, retired teachers from Ithaca, New York, wasn't that a small price to pay for the gift they'd been given?
The sun dipped below the horizon, painting the sky in vivid shades of purple and gold. The shadows lengthened; the breeze turned cooler. The seabirds departed for their nightly roost on nearby Dog Island.
Napoleon and Illya sipped their margaritas and listened as the nightly chorus of frogs exploded in the trees around them. The sound was oddly harmonic, a kind of wheezing organum that never failed to make Illya smile.
“Our friends are back,” he said. “In numbers.”
Napoleon set his empty glass aside with a sigh. “Once upon a time, those words would have had me scouring the surroundings for signs of THRUSH. Life certainly has changed for us, hasn't it?”
Illya glanced up at his partner's wistful tone. “Do you miss it, lyubimy'i? The excitement?”
“No.” A hesitation. “Well, maybe just a little. UNCLE was a part of our lives for so long. Sometimes I find myself wondering how Olivia is making out at the helm.”
“April's daughter is an exceptional woman, and she was trained by the best. UNCLE is in good hands.”
“I know.” He reached over to prime the Coleman lantern. It hissed, and sputtered and caught, bathing the porch in its warm yellow glow.
They gazed out at the darkening sea. In the fading light, a small skiff could be seen speeding toward the town and safe harbor. They tracked its progress until it disappeared around the peninsula.
“You know,” Napoleon remarked softly, “if you had asked me forty years ago to imagine this moment, I couldn't have done it.”
“It was the nature of our profession, I suppose. An UNCLE agent cannot afford to look too far into the future.”
“Too much of a distraction,” Napoleon agreed. He sighed. “We played a dangerous game back then. All those close calls, with the fate of the world hanging by a thread. The narrow escapes from THRUSH satrapys. The desperate, last-second rescues.” He reached up, tracing the faded scar at Illya's throat. “Jesus, when I think of how many times I almost lost you –”
“Shh.” Illya pressed a finger to Napoleon's lips, kissed the corners of his mouth. “'Almost' does not count.”
Privately, Napoleon knew that 'almosts' did count, would always count. Visions of Illya lying in Medical, pale and silent, still haunted his dreams. He leaned back, nestling into the cradle of Illya's shoulder. “Was it worth the price, do you think? Did we make a difference?”
Illya chuckled, a soft rumble like distant thunder. “We brought THRUSH to its knees, rescued countless Innocents, helped to stabilize any number of emerging nations, and even managed to save the world a time or two. Yes, lyubimy'i, I believe it is safe to say that we made a difference.”
Napoleon frowned thoughtfully. “But was it enough? THRUSH is gone, but now there's Al Qaida, not to mention the Taliban, the Russian mob, the –”
Illya drew Napoleon into his arms, feathering a trail of kisses across his eyelids, his cheeks, his lips. The lips parted in surprise, and he took the opportunity to deepen the kiss. Napoleon melted against him with a sigh.
“If I didn't know better,” he murmured, “I'd think you were trying to seduce me.”
“I assure you, my intentions are as pure as the driven snow.” Illya's hands slipped beneath the waistband of Napoleon's slacks. “Then again, I would be a fool not to take what is so freely offered – ”
“Jesus, oh – ”
Fingers fumbled with buttons, tugged at zippers, stroked shivering, urgent flesh in all the most intimate ways. Illya shifted position, rising up to claim Napoleon like a god, like Apollo wreathed in moonlight. Napoleon reached for him, moaning shamelessly, guiding him with eager hands. For awhile, the only sounds to be heard were the tradewinds rustling through the palm trees, and the little gasps of pleasure coming from the darkened porch.
They stirred sometime later, breathless and flushed from their exertions. For a moment, they simply stared at one another in a kind of shocked joy. Then, unable to contain themselves, they burst into gales of laughter that silenced the chorus of frogs, and left them red-faced and gasping all over again.
“It's a good thing we don't have any neighbors to scandalize,” Napoleon declared meaningfully, “although the frogs may never forgive us.” He snuggled closer, pressing kisses onto Illya's bare chest. “You know, I think I'm going to enjoy the next twenty years or so.”
“I intend to see that you do,” Illya replied with a coy smile. He stroked his partner's hair, frosted silver now, but thick and lush as ever, and Napoleon felt his heart melt all over again.
The moon cast its silver light upon the dark waters of the bay. A river of stars arced across the sky, shimmering pinpoints of light as numerous as grains of sand. Illya and Napoleon slept in each other's arms, their bodies bathed in the soft yellow glow of the Coleman lantern, knowing that this moment, and all the moments yet to come, had been worth the wait.