A Rather Russian Affair
The sounds of the Moscow Patriarchal Choir swelled in the cavernous space. Cathedrals were made for displays such as this. Despite himself, despite how long he had been away from home, despite how he had carved a completely new identity, a completely new career, since his days at U.N.C.L.E., a tear welled in his eye and slipped down his cheek. Oh, but it would be good to go home, just for a while. And he could, he supposed. He had few enemies in Russia, strangely enough. Most of Thrush’s finest had been based in western Europe and the U.S..
But, oh, Russia had changed. It had even split apart, something he had never anticipated, and what he had seen as one glorious whole now split his heart between mother Russia and the Ukraine. He thought both those places had probably changed beyond all imagining. For a while he had been hopeful at the opening up of things, but then his land had slipped back into intolerance, repression, bitter suspicion and intrigue. Even when he had been a good Russian communist he had never loved those things about his country. And now… Now he saw good people dragged into prison, good people beaten to a pulp in the streets, just for their sexual preference. Just for a sexual preference that he, in part, shared.
Bisexual seemed such a harsh word, a modern word, but that was him. Capable of loving women and of loving men, equally, without prejudice. It was just that for the past fifty years of his life he had loved one man. Maybe that made him more homosexual than bi. Maybe it didn’t. He didn’t know about all these modern definitions and didn’t really care.
He laughed silently to himself. How well would that go down here, in the Russian Orthodox Cathedral of St John the Baptist? No matter that he was in Washington, D.C., and all those thoughts, and practices, were quite legal. He couldn’t see the bearded Orthodox priests smiling on that particular perversion.
The music swelled again, and, oh, his heart throbbed. The entire place was overwhelmingly beautiful, like a Fabergé egg turned inside out and grown to massive proportions. He listened to the words sounding out into the chill air, air like ice suspended in separate molecules, air that made him think of vodka straight from the freezer, of the coldest winters in Kiev, of – of the bitter cold of a dry New York winter’s day. And his heart lurched again. New York wasn’t really very far away, but he didn’t allow himself to visit often. It was too hard. He was too old. The memories made nostalgia swell so hard it hurt.
Another chuckle. Yes, no matter how long he had held this new identity, this new name, this new chapter of his life, he was still Russian, and all of the clichés of those sombre, brooding moods could be applied to him. Deep inside, it was there. He didn’t often allow himself to indulge so overtly in his own culture, but people knew him now as a driven, slightly obsessive soul – no difference to the old him, really – and he had put about the idea that he was fascinated with Russian culture, to explain the books he could not rid himself of, the habit of visiting the little Russian café not far from his home and drinking proper tea. And if he spoke Russian with the patrons like a native – well, no one had asked him to explain that yet. He was too old for all this dissembling. Let them find him out. Things had been found out about him before, and he had got through. Maybe, just maybe...
He felt more than heard the person slipping into the pew behind him, felt more than heard him lean forward, until he said, ‘Illya Nikolayevich,’ warm in his ear.
His spine would have stiffened except for the fact that he knew that voice so intimately that he relaxed back into the warm breath. No one called him that name. No one at all. Except…
‘Napoleon,’ he murmured, turning his head just enough to catch him in the corner of his eye. ‘How did you know I’d be here?’
Stupid question. Napoleon knew him, knew him inside and out. He doubted he could get up to go to the bathroom in D.C. without Napoleon knowing it was about to happen in N.Y.C..
Napoleon put his hand on the back of Illya’s pew, and Illya reached back rather awkwardly to lay his over Napoleon chill fingers.
‘You should be wearing gloves,’ Illya murmured. ‘It’s cold in here.’
‘In that case, so should you.’
It was so cold that breath huffed out in frozen clouds, even inside. Somehow that made him feel even more at home, and then he felt that surge of nostalgia again which veiled over everything.
‘Why don’t you just come and sit beside me,’ Illya said in a tone of irritation. ‘My bones are too old for this.’
Napoleon chuckled and slipped rather awkwardly around into Illya’s pew, coming so close to him that Illya could feel his warmth. That was Napoleon all over. Even in his 80s, nothing had changed. He touched. He invaded personal space. He fiddled with your clothing. He brushed off fluff that wasn’t even there. And no one minded, because it was Napoleon, who in his youth had charmed his way through most of the eligible population of New York, male and female and could still charm the underwear off anyone who pleased him. It just so happened that the only person it pleased him to charm out of his clothes nowadays was Illya, and Illya was perfectly happy to be charmed that way.
‘What are you doing in D.C.?’ Illya asked softly, leaning closer to his friend, mentally using the excuse that it was so he could keep his voice quieter and not disturb the other listeners here. Knowing it was just so he could be closer still to Napoleon, whom he loved.
‘Why aren’t you in New York?’
Illya grunted. They argued about this in person, on the phone, wherever they were. Half his phone bills were spent on trying to persuade Napoleon to move.
‘You know I have my career, Napoleon. I can’t give that up. It keeps me alive.’
Napoleon’s hand slipped onto Illya’s leg under the cover of his overcoat, staying just decorously enough away from his inner thigh.
‘Well, anything that does that… But seriously, Illya, do you really need to be here? Couldn’t you be a pathologist in New York? I don’t know why you get such a morbid joy from poking around in dead bodies anyway. Didn’t you get enough of dead bodies back in the day?’
A grin crooked the corner of Illya’s mouth. ‘Maybe that’s why I like it. Maybe it gives me closure. I find it – fascinating. Utterly fascinating. Napoleon, if it’s going to come to that, why don’t you move to D.C.?’
The look Napoleon gave him was deeply wounded. ‘I have Aunt Amy’s penthouse, you know.’
‘And you wouldn’t give that up for me? I have a very nice house.’
Napoleon sighed. They both knew the real reason why neither would move, why neither would be so obvious. It was still slightly anathema to ones of their generation to be open in their sexuality. Each knew the other was bisexual, but that was bad enough in many people’s eyes, and to the world they would be seen as gay. They had lived for years knowing that if they were found out it would spell scandal. But now… Things had changed so much. Surely they could make some kind of arrangements? Surely they were too old for –
‘We’re too old for all this subterfuge, my friend,’ Illya said, his thoughts coming out unbidden. He heard his own voice and knew he sounded very tired. ‘Can’t we just – come out of the closet? Can’t you come and be with me for whatever time we have left? Can’t you do that?’
Napoleon’s hand tightened over his thigh. He could feel the American’s tiredness in his grip. When did they both grow so tired? Under the cover of the sound of the choir Napoleon leant in and gently kissed his cheek. Illya had taken a pew near the back, and there was no one to see. All eyes were fixed on the congregation of singers at the front as their pure voices filled the air. And then a last clear uplifting note sounded out, and there was silence.
Silence. Hung for a moment. And then applause, growing, growing, until it filled the vast arena, floating up to the angels that surely must be hovering in the rafters to listen. There were the whoops of those uncultured enough not to just clap as one should. But it didn’t matter. He’d grown used to the exuberance of Americans, and it flowed over him. For a moment Illya wasn’t even conscious of Napoleon at his side. He wasn’t clapping. He was just sitting, tears in his eyes, overwhelmed by thoughts of the past, loves, nostalgia.
‘Come with me to Kiev, Napoleon,’ he said, suddenly, turning towards his former partner – his current partner too, in another way – and clasping his hands in both of his. He didn’t bother to hide the tears. ‘I’ll take a couple of weeks off. Come with me to Kiev.’
Napoleon smiled, leant forward to kiss him in the only way possibly here in this hallowed space, Russian-style, right cheek, left cheek, right cheek again. The feeling of his lips made Illya tingle. It always did.
‘Of course I will come,’ Napoleon promised.
‘And when we come back, live with me?’ He couldn’t keep the pleading from his eyes, from his voice. His hands tightened on Napoleon’s.
Napoleon looked down, looked up again, and Illya saw the grey in his hair, the puffiness under his eyes, the paunchiness around his jowl. Napoleon had been so, so handsome back in his day. But the brown of his eyes was just the same. It made Illya melt just the same. He couldn’t help it. No wonder Napoleon had conquered pretty much everyone he wanted to. Empires would fall if Napoleon looked at their leaders in just the right way.
They were outside, in air that was a good deal below zero. They both wore their gloves now; Napoleon had insisted. But they held hands. Just two old friends making their way home after a sublime, beautiful evening in the Russian cathedral. The sky above them was clear in patches right the way to the furthest visible galaxies; those were, of course, obscured by the pollution of the Washington lights. But the brightest constellations were there, still visible, hanging in the crystal air, seeming to vibrate with the remnants of the music.
Around them people surged, leaving the cathedral in ones and twos and threes, families and friends together, talking, their faces lit up with cold and joy. Napoleon jostled against Illya’s shoulder, and Illya didn’t protest at the touch. He wanted to touch so much more. Once they were home, they could. They could strip away every pretence; his own changed identity, the platonic nature of their friendship; the thought that they could go on like this, living hundreds of miles apart, only seeing each other for snatched moments when Illya was free and Napoleon decided to make the journey down in his top of the line Mercedes Benz and they both got over their many hang-ups which sat in the background like a closet full of a dead relative’s clothes.
After a few minutes of walking Illya risked slipping his arm around Napoleon’s waist. He was a little thicker than he had been, but still strong, still fit. He could still feel the power beneath the clothes. Napoleon returned the gesture, snugging him a little closer against the cold.
‘Maybe,’ Napoleon said eventually, as if there had been no pause in their conversation in the cathedral. ‘I will consider it. After all, it’s only a penthouse.’
They stopped under the light of a lamppost and it streamed down over them, making the dulled blond-brown of Illya’s hair shine gold again, putting the warmth of youth back in Napoleon’s cheeks. Illya lifted his face a little, Napoleon lowered his fractionally. Their lips met. As they exchanged the heat of their inner cores, outside their bubble of perfection where each was unchanged from the man he had been fifty years ago, it began to snow.