Suddenly, all he heard was silence. Heavy, deathly – no. He bit his lips – silence. Flakes of fleecy dust were whirling around like a gray snow in the dim light of an improbable dawn. Gravels hurtled down the slope, bouncing bumping into each other. Bigger stones rolled down, bouncing, too, some of them smashing.
He didn't hear anything like he were in a cone of silence.
He was deaf.
All around, it was the Apocalypse. He could see it. He could feel it on his face, his arms and his hands.
He couldn't hear anything. No rustles, no swish. Nothing
He stood up straight laboriously, struggling with pain and dizziness. How he managed to find shelter on this large flagstone, kind of a stony raft, why it didn't break, he didn't know. He couldn't tell. Luck? He wiped the dust on his face. Usually he wasn't the lucky one.
Napoleon couldn't help whistling at the sight, which caused Alexander Waverly to frown. The Old Man pointed at the photo with his pipe.
“It's a very old stronghold, Mr. Solo, built to be impregnable. Thrush chose it on purpose.”
“The whole area is a fortress,” Illya Kuryakin stated, considering the sharp overhangs and the breathtakingly high cliffs.”
“I'd say that's living on a precipice.”
Waverly ignored his C.E.A.'s comment and pressed a button. A photo appeared on the screen.
“Look at this. First, there were tremors.”
People on the picture were watching huge cracks in the ground and in the walls of houses. They were obviously scared.
“Then, there was the earthquake.”
Another photo. Dilapidated buildings, debris, piece of furniture, plates, a fridge... Waverly pressed again the button. “Eventually, there was the tsunami.”
A gray, muddy wave spread over the entire area. The Old Man banged the table. “There is no fault close by that could cause any earthquake.” He pointed at the photo. “Thrush devils designed a deadly machine which they called Armageddon. You know what Armageddon is.”
It wasn't a question.
“Extortion of money is to be expected, I guess.”
“To be expected? No, Mr. Kuryakin. They already sent messages.” He shook his head. “They swap thousands of innocent lives for ten billion dollars.” He paused for a few seconds, unusually hesitating. “We don’t have much time. Tomorrow is Christmas Eve. The due date is on December the 31st. You, Mr. Solo, and you, Mr. Kuryakin, are proficient in mountain climbing. See to gathering all the equipment you'll need.” He paused again.
The two agents exchanged an inquiring look. Things were amazingly still up in the air. Alexander Waverly tapped on the photo.
“Some people are very interested in getting this ‘invention’. They assert that it might be improved in order to prevent earthquakes. They'd like us to find the plans.”
“Some people…” Napoleon Solo muttered.
“To prevent earthquakes or to get a new ultimate deterrent...” the Russian hissed.
“You'll leave tomorrow at an early hour.” Waverly bent forward, staring at his agents. “Precedence must go to efficiency. This evil machine must be destroyed. By any means.”
“About the plans, sir?”
The Old Man cracked a dim smile. “A l'impossible nul n'est tenu, Mr. Solo.”
They kept silent as they headed towards their office. Waverly wasn't used to give implied orders. The “people” were obviously influential, powerful. And obviously the Old Man didn't trust them.
A l'impossible nul n'est tenu.
You can't do the impossible.
They climbed with heavy bags and scaled steep icy rocks, swinging rope from side to side, trusting small pitons with their lives. Finally, they took refuge in kind of a huge crevice in the mountain below the fortress. They didn't talking during the climbing. They didn't need to. Illya's hand was where it had to be to keep Napoleon from slipping and vice versa.
They were skilled professionals.
They were UNCLE agents.
They faced each other. In this cold, black, gray and white universe, Napoleon's eyes were incredibly warm. He was smiling confidently despite the situation. The so special Napoleon's smile which had gotten on Illya's nerves in the beginning. A smile he had learned to puzzle out. A smile he had learned to trust. A smile...
“We'll make it, Illya.”
“We'll make it” The words were still ringing out in his memory. Napoleon had sealed them with a kiss.
They were skilled professionals.
They were UNCLE agents.
They were partners both different and perfectly compatible. Partnership turned into a friendship which they didn't flaunt. Friendship turned into something unthinkable, something scary, something wonderful though frustrating. Friendship turned into love.
Napoleon knew beyond Illya's aloofness.
Illya knew beyond Napoleon's extroversion.
Gradually, his own pragmatic pessimism had subsided. Gradually, he'd got used to trusting luck. Napoleon's luck.
“We'll make it.”
The plan they drew up was simple. They would arrange explosives in carefully chosen places. Napoleon would take charge of the bedrock of the fortress. Illya would climb up the rampart and put explosives in the loopholes. Then, they'd meet up on the rocky platform and used the rope as a zip-line. Then, they'd take shelter and watch the show.
Napoleon disappeared in the smoke like mist which was surrounding the narrow overhang while Illya was starting to climb up.
The huge old stones provided quite easy grips. The Russian hauled up onto an embrasure and looked around. The fortress seemed to be an island, a dark, deserted island. The mist was rippling like a milky ocean, glittering by the moonlight. Napoleon was somewhere, below.
It was strangely silent.
First, it was an imperceptible vibration, a smooth hiss.
Cries and screams from the inside of the fortress.
Then, the terrifying feeling that the stone wall was about to fall into pieces. Each stone was coming alive. The whole fortress was swaying. Illya climbed down the rampart, as quickly as possible, his fingers gripping, clenching, missing the stones until he fell down, heavily, among gravels and pebbles.
He couldn't remember except for images, shots, snippets of memories. The whole mountain was moving, the whole mountain was howling, roaring. It was pouring stones, all around him, all over him. He shouted, he yelled, calling Napoleon, again and again, but he couldn't even hear his own voice.
Then, the explosion. Deafening conflagration, dazzling flame.
A rope, the rope, the zip-line. He had grabbed it and eventually he found himself on this stony raft.
Deaf, his face, his hands lacerated.
“We'll make it.”
What happened? Some material failure? Some lethal mistake? What did it matter?
They'd fulfilled the assignment. The evil machine had been destroyed.
At what price?
“You know, sometimes, I get the feeling I'm terribly expendable.” Napoleon had stated, one day.
Illya Kuryakin clenched his jaws at the memory.
“Oh you are.” Waverly had answered.
Yes, they were. They knew it and agreed. But at the moment, Illya was confronting himself with an unthinkable, unbearable idea. Inexpressible.
He shook his head. No. It couldn't be. He closed his eyes and focused on the man he loved. Napoleon was a survivor. He was skilled, resourceful. He was lucky.
“And I know you have my back, tovarish!”
He started at Napoleon's words echoing in his mind. He opened his eyes and realized he was hearing some rustles. Sounds were louder, becoming more and more defined: bouncing stones, gravels...
There were still a few flakes of dust but he could now see the plume of smoke which come from what had been an impregnable stronghold at the top of a breathtakingly high peak. The earthquake had wreaked havoc on the fortress. The peak had cracked from top to bottom, scratched with threatening crevices.
“No one could have survived!” his pragmatic pessimistic part hissed.
No. It couldn't be. No. Beyond reason, beyond any logic, he couldn't believe it.
“You can't admit it but...”
No. He took some careful steps toward the edge of the platform. It was all gray, black and white despite of the morning sun and he froze. The rope was swinging ironically, fragile and precarious link between him and the peak. The rope he used as a zip-line was still there, undamaged, defying reason, defying logic. They had put a noose around a rock, anchoring it on either side and it was still there.
Beyond reason, beyond logic.
He opened his jacket and tore his shirt in order to get two strips of cloth which he wrapped his injured hands with.
Beyond logic, beyond reason.
He hanged below the rope suspended by his hands with both heels crossed over the cable, pulling with hands and arms, pushing with his feet to make progress, ignoring the emptiness, ignoring the rocking movement of his lifeline, focused on his purpose. When he reached the other side, he crawled onto the gravels and rested for a few minutes, watching all around. There were debris, stones, warped metal rods, shattered glass. There were smoke and dust. He stood up and bit his lips.
“No one could have survived!” Reason and logic hissed.
No. “Napoleon!” he shouted, shouted and shouted again.
He headed carefully towards the dilapidated fortress. He barely recognized the area, failing to identify the place they had taken shelter in.
It wasn't an answer. It wasn't a word. But he heard something different. No rustle, no crack. “Napoleon!” he yelled again.
It came from somewhere, just below. He started to grab a stone, another one, he snatched a metal rod, using it as a lever until he cleared a passage and crept under a fragile vault.
He was here.
Jammed up against the rock, he was here, alive, smiling despite of his parched lips.
“I told you we'd make it,” Napoleon whispered.
“You... You're...” Illya gave up and began taking away the rubble until he freed his partner. Then he helped him outside.
They faced each other for a while savoring the moment, savoring their luck, beyond logic, beyond reason. They were alive. They were unharmed except for cuts and bruises.
Napoleon removed dust from his friend's lapel, in a very familiar gesture and let his hand rest on Illya’s shoulder. He didn't smile any more. He watched Illya acutely.
“When all hell broke loose...” he hesitated, “a stone hit my head and I woke up where you found me.” He shook his head. “First, I thought I'd lost you.” A smile appeared, curling the corners of his lips. “But I couldn't believe it. I knew, beyond logic, beyond reason, that you'd come for me.”
“This is I always do, Napoleon,” Illya whispered.
No more banter. They looked at each other and exchanged a kiss, long and passionate, deliberately forgetful of the world around them.
They were alive. They were together. They made it.
Suddenly an incongruous beep rang out. It came from the inside pocket of Napoleon's jacket.
They survived. So did the damned communicator. The dark haired man sighed.
“Open channel D...”
“And suddenly there was the earthquake, sir. The fortress and Armageddon were destroyed but I'm sorry to say we weren't part of it.”
Alexander Waverly leaned back against his chair. He smiled, a very cold smile.
“I told you about the people interested in the plans of Armageddon. It seems that they didn't trust us.” Waverly's eyes flashed through the bushy eyebrows. “These idiots had already sent their own team to the stronghold. They don't know what happened, exactly, but the result was the earthquake. None of their men survived.” He considered his agents for a while “At least, you did. I told them about my opinion.”
Waverly's smile softened. “Now, young men, let me wish you a happy Christmas.”
Yes, it was Christmas.
In a few minutes, they would be at Napoleon's apartment.
Mistletoe, eggnog and champagne.
Then, they would have a wonderful Christmas.