by Linda Cornett
(Appeared in If Only Their Mothers Knew
and ReClassified Affairs
Sheila slipped into one of the heavily padded chairs at the back of the room, glancing around self-consciously. None of the old friends who would remember her were there, and she relaxed a bit in her anonymity.
There were - she counted unobtrusively - fewer than a dozen people scattered around the room, but it was getting late.
The casket, simple and elegant and undoubtedly outrageously expensive, was ... right. She smiled. Napoleon would have appreciated the quality. His familiar profile was just visible against the pale blue satin lining. She craned slightly. He was wearing a navy blue suit, cream colored shirt and dark blue tie with a yellow pattern. Kuryakin would have picked it out, she assumed, since Napoleon never cared much for yellow. Napoleon's expression was faintly censorious, but she supposed it had less to do with the choice of the tie and more to do with the necessary manipulations of the undertaker's craft.
He was there, of course, in the front row, his narrow shoulders squared, his back straight. He looked as though he could sit like that forever, and she wondered how many hours he had already done so. A woman with lustrous red hair and a man with untidy, sandy curls sat beside him.
Finally, the woman touched his arm, whispered in his ear, and the couple left. It seemed to be the signal others had waited for, as one-by-one they either slipped quietly out the door, or stopped to speak to him or pat his shoulder or hug him before leaving.
He nodded at the whispered words, enduring the touches. When they were alone he sat still, doubtless sensing the presence of one more mourner behind him. When she tired of staring at the back of the gleaming head, Sheila made her way up the aisle and stopped beside the chair. He glanced at her and stood for the first time. Their eyes were on a level. They stood a moment, looking one another over. For all the surprise on his bland face, he might have been waiting for her to come-perhaps he had been.
He was older than her image. Of course he would be, the pictures Napoleon had were from their early days together. The angular features had softened somewhat with time, the icy incisiveness of the eyes had been muted by years of sorrow and happiness, and by this latest misery. If the effect of years on her were obvious, he gave no scene of it. He nodded to her once, a gesture at once welcoming and dismissive, acknowledging her right to be there and announcing his disinterest in her presence. Then, he sat again and turned back to Napoleon as though he couldn't imagine anything else to do. Her carefully composed speech still unspoken, Sheila gestured a moment, then left.
The crowd at the church the next morning was quite a bit larger, and there were a few who glanced at her and remembered, and smiled or made their way over to speak to her.
After the funeral, as the crowd began to disperse, Sheila turned to find the tired blue eyes on her from across the plaza. Kuryakin was just sliding into one of the limousines that would accompany the hearse o the cemetery. He spoke to the curly-haired man who stood beside him, and nodded toward her.
The man walked over, introduced himself as Mark Slate, and invited him to join him in one of the limousines. When she smiled gratitude, he took her arm in a cozy grip and led her to a second limo where they squeezed in next to two cousins, whom she vaguely remembered, and three others she took for former agents, judging by their ages and that subtle tension that seemed never to leave them.
Conversation was, as a result, somewhat stilted and they made most of the drive in silence.
The three limos, it seemed, had carried quite a number of mourners. Sheila lingered at the back of the crowd, listening to the droning of the priest's voice. Unless he had undergone a remarkable change in the last four years, she thought ruefully, Napoleon had never met the priest. His relatives must have arranged the funeral - it certainly didn't seem to be Kuryakin's style.
Back at the church she loitered, waiting for a chance to approach Kuryakin. Faintly, she heard two different groups of people ask him to join them, and his murmured rejection of both invitations.
When most of them had left, he turned and appeared momentarily startled to find Sheila standing there still. His eyes were instantly wary.
"I wanted a chance to thank you for making me feel welcome," she began.
He shrugged. "Why not? You were an important part of his life." She had imagined, from Napoleon's stories, a thick accent, but if he had ever had one it was now faded almost completely away. His voice was smooth, carefully controlled, anonymous.
“I, um, was hoping we could talk." Sheila winced internally at the lame beginning. He was already shaking his head. "It's really quite important to me anyway, " she hurried on. "I don't live far away; we could go to my apartment. I know I could use a drink and I know you could, too. In private. Please, I would consider it a favor."
He narrowed his eyes, and pursed his lips slightly, examining her intently. She lifted her chin, just the little bit that smoothed out her throat, but resisted the impulse to smooth the bit-too-smug black dress over her abdomen."
"We have something in common that no one else shares, don't we?" she said, responding to some unconscious insight. It startled him, she could read that much in his blank face. Finally, he nodded once and moved into step beside her They walked the six blocks in silence, their gaits automatically matched.
Inside the apartment, she stepped into the kitchen and he continued, uninvited and unselfconscious, to prowl around the rest of the apartment, catlike in his curiosity.
Apparently satisfied, he settled on the sofa. At the sight of the bottle of Stolichnaya vodka, moisture beading on its chilled sides, one blond eyebrow arched delicately. Sheila smiled, mentally totted up a point for herself, and poured a heft measure into a cut crystal glass, no ice, just as Napoleon had described long ago.
As she raised her own glass of wine, he solemnly mirrored the movement and gave her a slight nod before taking a startlingly large swallow of the clear liquid. It might have been water, for all the reaction that showed on his face.
"Well," Sheila began, sitting in a wingback chair facing him, "you're probably wondering why I asked you here. "She gave him a small smile, but he either didn't get the weak joke, or didn't find it amusing. He simply stared at her and took another sip of vodka.
"I have to ask you a favor," she said. "Information." The blue eyes narrowed to suspicious slits.
"Nothing classified. Just personal." She wasn't sure from his expression whether that was better or worse.
"I was married to Napoleon for five years," she continued, "and they were the best years of my life. He was attentive, funny, tender a wonderful husband ... Well, you know all that. I just mean he was wonderful to be with, and he made me happy and I expect it was the same with you. Anyway, I thought it would last forever; I certainly wanted it to. But one day he just . . . left. There was no warning. He said he didn't know why, it was just something that happened. I assumed, of course, there was someone else. He insisted there wasn't."
"There was of course." She raised her eyes. "There was YOU."
Kuryakin frowned, shaking his head. "Until he looked me up three years ago, Napoleon and I had not seen each other for almost fifteen years."
"I know, but still you were always there. All those years I thought I had him. It took me a long time to realize it. Oh, he talked about you all the time and e was always pulling out the few pictures he had of you. 'Illya would do this and Illya would do that'. At the time I thought he was missing his work for U.N.C.L.E.. I know now it was you he missed. When he finally realized it himself, he left me.”
He took another drink, draining the glass. Sheila paused to pour it fill again.
"What do you want from me?" he demanded quietly.
"I have to understand how I lost him, for my self-confidence if nothing else," she said. "Bluntly what have you got that I ain't got?"
"Aside from the obvious, I haven't any idea. "The voice was carefully devoid of emotion. "And I'm not sure what you gain by trying to analyze it. You had him for five years. I had him for three. Now, we have both lost him. Surely we're even."
"I don't want it to be a competition, He-Loved-Me-Better. I just..." She sighed searching for the words that would reach through the weariness to win his interest. "It's like someone I loved very much four years ago, died very suddenly and no one will tell me why. I have to know why. Wouldn't you?"
There was a considering silence, and she knew she had stumbled on something, perhaps the only thing, that would demand his cooperation.
When he finally began speaking, his voice was coolly detached, as thought he had made a conscious decision to do something, and wanted to complete the task as quickly and efficiently as possible.
"He talked about you very seldom, but it would have been very awkward to do so. He was always careful at causing hurt as I'm sure you know. I do know he kept your wedding pictures, I found them once, by accident. The few times he did speak about you, it was with respect and affection. I don't know why he left you when he did. As I said, he didn't talk about it. Perhaps he was simply tired."
At her confused face, he continued. "With women he was always 'on', always 'attention, funny, clever.' He didn't react as she recognized her words quoted back to her, and Sheila wondered briefly whether he had done it unconsciously. No, she decided, he probably wouldn't do anything unconsciously.
The soft voice continued. "During our time with U.N.C.L.E. I had necessarily seen him at his worst. I think it was restful for him to know that he could not disappoint me. Perhaps it was nothing more than that, knowing that he didn't have to explain or apologize, that I would accept him no matter what. Does that answer you?"
"I would have accepted him no matter what," Sheila insisted, hating the petulant sound of those words.
"Would you? If he turned on you in his pain, and tried to hurt you? If he betrayed you because it was necessary to the job? If he wanted an embrace when he was covered in filth and hadn't bathed in three days. If he", he gestured, with a curiously graceful hand, "bled on this fine carpet? If he was sometimes grim, inattentive and cruel?"
"You aren't describing the Napoleon I knew," she said somewhat stiffly.
"Perhaps you didn't know Napoleon?"
She stared into the hard eyes for a long moment.
If he weren't so depleted, would he take the trouble to be kinder? Probably not.
"Did he tell you that we had lunch two weeks before he died?" she asked, getting in a blow of her own and taking perverse satisfaction at the surprise and hurt that flickered across his face. Clearly, Napoleon had not told him.
"You wanted him back," he concluded.
"I wanted him back, " she admitted, "or I wanted to know why. He couldn't tell me, He was charming, as you say - but he couldn't or wouldn't tell me why he preferred you. He wouldn't even talk about it. You were simply untouchable. I might as well have asked him why he preferred his own arm to a prosthesis." A slight smile flickered in response to the analogy.
"Maybe you're right, " Sheila continued. "Maybe he was just tired. Maybe he was too ill to make the effort. How long had he had the heart problem?"
He waited so long , staring into the glass he had again emptied, she didn't think he intended to answer. Then, softly, "He didn't tell me about it. I came home from work last Wednesday and found him. I tried everything, CPR. Stupid. He was already ... cold."
Another silent pause, and she couldn't think of any words to fill it.
"I found out later he had been taking medication for a couple months. He never let me see it. I have been trying to decide if he just didn't want me to worry or if he was ashamed. It always was a point of pride with him to be younger than his years." The soft voice trailed off.
Sheila reached toward his arm, and Kuryakin stood suddenly and unsteadily. "I'd better go now," he said, leaning over to put the twice-emptied glass with a rattle on the coffee table. He swayed drunkenly and clutched the arm of the couch for support.
"When did you eat last?" Sheila demanded and he looked at her with concentration as though he were trying to interpret a language which he scarcely understood.
"Come on," she said briskly, taking his arm with a no-nonsense grip. "You are going to have supper here with me. But first you are going to lie down and take a nap."
She was aware of his efforts to summon the strength for protest and of his inability to do so. She steered him briskly to the bedroom.
A half-hour later she peeked through the door. He lay on the far side of the bed, facing the door, just as Napoleon had always slept. Sheila shook her head ruefully. Did they ever get over it, were they ever able to sleep peacefully, sit comfortably with n unprotected back? And how did they ever manage it when they were both on the same bed?
His shoes were neatly lined up at the side of the bed, his jacket and tie neatly folded over a chair back, his arm stretching onto the empty half of the bed. Sheila tsked sympathetically. How many mornings after the divorce had she woken in just that position, stretching into emptiness?
Tugging at the zipper of her dress, she walked around the bed to the closet and shimmied the black silk off her hips, hanging it up carefully. She slid off the bra and kicked off the hellishly uncomfortable shoes. Sitting on the bed to remove her stockings, she casually nudged his small rump out of the way. He murmured and frowned in his sleep, but didn't wake.
She glanced at the sleeping face assessingly. How had she come to be so unconsciously comfortable with this prickly stranger? Did their mutual intimacy with Napoleon create an intimacy between them, or had their conversation done that? With a shrug, she abandoned the analysis and slid into the familiar comfort of old jeans and sweatshirt while Kuryakin slept on.
Two hours later, she laid aside the book she had been reading but not comprehending and went again to peek into the bedroom. He was still asleep, still in the same position. She wavered, uncertain whether he needed sleep or food more.
Her own stomach growling decided her and she called gently "Illya" a couple of times. No response. She grasped his arm and shook him gently. He stiffened then, sighing and gave her a sleepy smile, contented and unguarded. His eyes cleared as sleep sifted away and she watched, stunned, the heartbreaking transition from dreams to reality. For one moment, his agony gaped black and immense before her. His expression hardened, shields going up, before she could judge its depth.
The blue eyes narrowed, defensive. She had seen too much and he was prepared to run. Without thought, she scrambled across the bed and closed her arms around him, feeling him harden and pull away from the touch. She held on so tight a determined medic trying to clamp a tourniquet on a victim reluctant to be saved.
So slowly that she didn't darer trust it, the rigid muscles of his back began to relax. His body fitted itself against hers and his arms tentatively slid around her. She realized with surprise that it was she who was crying, the first tears in a very long time.
When the hot flow slowed and stopped, she leaned back to find him staring back at her with uneasy, dry eyes. Apparently, he was only slightly more comfortable giving comfort than accepting it.
Sniffing, she tried to smile. "Sorry, I'm okay now." She pushed herself away from him, then found herself staring in surprise at her hand against his chest. He was warmer than she's expected and she felt his heartbeat faintly through the fine white shirt stained with her tears and mascara.
She looked up to find his eyes on her face, something unreadable in their depths. Desire?
As if in answer, he leaned toward her, cupping the back of her neck strongly, keeping her still as his lips met hers. His tongue eased into her mouth, his breath pushed into her lungs.
She gasped. It might have been Napoleon kissing her - his technique, his touch. Abruptly, with a flicker of surprise and confusion, he drew away from her.
Breathless and angry at both the intrusion and the withdrawal, Sheila followed, jerking him close again, digging her fingers into his shoulders. She sucked gently on his upper lip - another of Napoleon's techniques.
They moved apart again, blue eyes staring into brown, both seeking there for a ghost.
"I think it would be better if I left," he began, hoarsely.
"Shut up," Sheila said and began unbuttoning his shirt.
They lay side by side on the bed, their sweaty bodies touching lightly from shoulder to ankle, their eyes on the ceiling. Like two corpses in a double-wide coffin, Sheila thought with amusement, until she remembered why that wasn't funny.
She lay still, savoring the tingling lassitude that followed a blindingly satisfying orgasm. It had been a long time. She purred softly in her throat and turned slightly to look at Kuryakin. Illya, she corrected her thinking.
He stared at the uninteresting blank of the ceiling, chest still moving fast, sweat drying on his scarred skin. His body had surprised her. Still lean and hard, smooth as it must have been when he and Napoleon had needed such fitness just to survive. But now he was a dress designer, for God's sake, she mused - what did he do, spend half of his day working out? Self-consciously she sucked in her stomach - writer's complaint, she called it, this plumpness that wanted to settle around her hips.
She closed her eyes for a moment, replaying the lovemaking, remembering the feel of his body on hers. Over and over, they had startled one another with some movement some caress both had learned from Napoleon, the sexual tutor. Some of it, enough of it, thought, had been their own.
Illya's body rested lighter on hers, for one thing. His movements were faster, more directed. And, ironically, the cool and controlled Kuryakin had been more passionate, almost desperate in his need, and Napoleon's remembered loving, by comparison, had seemed calculated.
When finally his hard body relaxed against hers, Sheila twisted to reach a Kleenex from the bedside table. She wiped at his eyes and nose, and her own shoulder and looked down into the red-rimmed eyes that tried to slip away from her gaze in embarrassment.
Sheila ran her hand along Illya's hard flank, slipped her fingers over the ridge of his pelvic bone and into the hollow of his belly. Still, he stared at the ceiling in silence that was becoming worrisome. Sliding onto her side, Sheila grasped his jaw and turned his face toward her. She was caught by the eyes, the color now a deep blue. Like a mood ring, she thought, and tried to remember what the deep blue signified. Regret, relief? Peace?
"What are you thinking?" she demanded.
There was a slight smile. "I am thinking that Napoleon would be amused."
"Perhaps he's happy for us, " she answered hugging him tight and feeling her lips curl into a wide smile.
The wariness was instantly back. "Sheila, don't make more of this than it is." He did not, but might as well have shoved her away physically.
"What is it then, Illya?" Her voice shook with a sudden anger that frightened her in its intensity. "An afternoon fuck with the closest thing you can get to Napoleon? Napoleon is dead." Her voice wavered over the words.
"I remember, I buried him this morning."
Sheila lay back, shivering, suddenly cold, the familiar frost of loneliness and despair icing over the bed and their exposed bodies.
"I'm sorry, "he finally said. "This was a mistake. I didn't mean to use you. I am not" - a slight tinge of irony entered is voice - "my usual analytical self."
He paused. When he spoke again, his voice was thick, uncertain. "Things are happening too fast. A week ago Napoleon was... It's just that after all these years of knowing what to do, how to stay alive... I don't know how to survive this."
Crystalline tears, like melting ice, slid from his eyes. Sheila dragged him into a cocoon of arms and legs as he sobbed painfully against her shoulder. It went on, for a long time, and she suspected Napoleon's was not the only loss he cried for.
"It's okay. I know how you feel. It gets easier. It does. At first it feels like you're drowning, but you just keep treading water and after a while, you find out you can dog paddle and then you remember the crawl and before long ... Esther Williams."
His expression was incredulous. "That is the worst metaphor I have ever heard," he whispered hoarsely.
Seizing the tenuous lifeline of humor, Sheila plunged on" "Oh well, how about..You're on a luxury cruise and you think it's going to be a lifetime voyage, but the boat sinks and just when you run out of fresh water, along comes the fishing junk 'Sheila'. Are you going to refuse to climb aboard because it’s not the ship you left port on?"
He shook his head, the pale hair brushing against his cheek. "Absolutely vile," he said with awe and growing amusement.
Sheila warmed to her task. "Okay. Okay. You have to swim the English Channel, but it's too far and the water is choppy you start to sink. Along comes Flipper and nudges you to the surface again and swims along with you to make sure you can finish. What are you going to do when you reach shore make sushi?"
He snorted disgustedly. "Look, can we get out of the water? I'm getting seasick. And hungry."
"Right. You shower, I'll cook."
But, he took her hand and tugged her toward the bathroom. "You come, too and we'll both cook."
He liked the water hotter than Napoleon, but then, so did Sheila. As the hot spray battered their bodies, Illya froze before her, staring transfixed at her breasts. Sheila followed eyes downward; same old breasts, average size, sagging a bit, certainly not worth the awe in his blue eyes.
Tremulously, Illya reached to touch with his fingertips. With a soft moan of pleasure, he cupped them in his palms. "Do you know," he finally whispered, "it has been three years since I have touched a woman's breasts." He leaned forward and gently suckled at her left breast, massaging the right expertly.
“You mean you're not .... That Napoleon was ...”
Illya didn't answer her, but then, his mouth was occupied. Sheila moaned, clutching at his water-slicked hair.
He dropped to his knees, teasing gently at her body. Her knees trembled and she braced herself with a hand on his shoulder.
Suddenly and unwelcome, the image of Illya doing this to Napoleon, pushed its way into her mind. Reflexively, she shoved at him, and he sat back surprised on his heels, staring at her with confusion, water streaming over his body.
Before he could read her thoughts, Sheila squatted, her knees pressing against his sides. She bent to his upturned face, the rivulets from the shower following her tongue into his mouth. In a few minutes, he turned away from her coughing.
Muttering something about her drowning fixation, Illya stood, pulling Sheila up with him.
Sheila wrapped her arms around his neck as they kissed. His hands slid over her buttocks and with a tightened grip and a hoist, he lifted her.
"No!" she thought desperately. "This is something kids do. I'm too heavy." But the hard muscles of his shoulders beneath her hands reassured her and she wrapped her legs around him as they moved together beneath the hot spray.
The warm comfort of her second orgasm was just beginning to fade when he followed pressing her hard against the cold tiles.
As he leaned, trembling against the wall of the shower stall, Sheila washed him quickly. He opened his eyes, sniffing the sweet aroma of Bonnie Bell liquid soap.
"I smell divine," he commented dryly, turning to spread the soap over her shoulders.
A moment later, as he crouched before her washing her legs, he looked up suddenly. "Napoleon and I never did it in the shower," he said, solemnly, and Sheila stared down in disbelief
"How did you know?" she whispered. He shrugged and bent to wash her toes.
A half-hour later they sat down to a candlelight dinner at the small dining room table. Sheila poured the rest of the bottle of wine into their glasses. She looked up to find his eyes fixed on the third chair at the table. The symbolism was unintentional, Sheila wanted to explain. It was just that the room was so small…
Instead, she decided to confront the situation, Raising her glass toward the empty seat, she said softly, "To Napoleon."
The blue eyes turned to her, soft with sadness and gratitude. Illya raised his glass. "And his survivors," he whispered.