His breath came is painful wheezes and his heartbeat was loud in his ears. His body was weak; he couldn't remember the last time he had a full meal. In fact, he was beyond the point of hunger or caring. The car he rode in offered meager warmth, and he relished in it.
He knew his time was short. He knew everything he'd done to this point would be all anyone would remember him by. The car's driver spoke sharply in Russian.
The voice was sharp in his ear, the elbow painful in his side - another bruise added to the collection that tattooed his body. The blood had long dried on the open wounds, leaving either ragged scars or peeling scabs. The odd thought that his body wouldn't have to waste energy on healing anymore crossed his mind.
He heard the car door open and he was roughly dragged from the tepid warmth into frigid darkness and forced to his knees. Sharp needles of pain shot up his thighs when sank into the fresh layer of cold snow and struck the rocks beneath. The sharpness faded quickly, however, because constant agony from every quarter of his body had overwhelmed the pain centers of his brain for a long time now, so. Forever, it seemed. He let his head loll forward to save strength.
He would die with his chin up when the time came.
He heard the click of cold metal on his wrists as key met lock. "You aren't worth the cost of these cuffs," his escort growled lowly, yanking the manacles from the prisoner's wrists in a flash of pain. The black sack was pulled from the blond head and the driver again voiced an order.
"Open your eyes, traitor."
Illya Kuryakin wearily raised his wavering chin and slowly cracked his crusty lids. Blinding light seared his optic nerves, causing instant tears that froze on his cheek. He felt the cold ring of a gun muzzle against his temple. He set his jaw, hoping it showed an air of defiance, but in reality it helped to keep his chin from falling to his chest.
The driver was right behind him. In another time, the sound would have been sufficient for the UNCLE agent to locate him to take him out. In another time Kuryakin would already be in the woods, escaping. In another time, he would have more time. He struggled to his feet, failing on the first two tries, but finally making it upright. He swayed and fought for balance, wondering what the point was. Why should he show them his weakness right now? Why not stay on his knees in defiance?
But defiance did not posture from the knees. Defiance was showing them he wasn't beaten, that he wasn't weakened by their endless torture, that he wasn't through. And he would defy them until the end - the very end.
The cold ring of metal left his temple and he swayed. The disorienting whiteness of blinding light left him without an anchor and a short, drunken laugh left his throat feeling raw. I must be a sight, he thought, shuffling his feet for balance. The gun's muzzle poked him painfully in the small of the back, and he started to fall forward, his legs barely obeying in time to save him from going down.
Walk he did, or at least his wobbly version of it. After a few steps he felt the snow bunch up on the tops of his bare feet. His toes and soles were already numbed beyond feeling, and the gathering of snow insured the tops of his feet would soon share the same fate. He wheezed another short laugh. How many steps until he lost the feeling in his feet? Was that the way he could count down the time until his execution? Which would go first, feeling or life?
An almost scientific curiosity overtook him as he counted his shuffling steps, each one an eternity, each one taking him closer to the blinding light and his grave. He counted slowly to himself, his cracked lips moving silently.
"Odin, dva, tri."
He stumbled over a bump on the ground and his arms flailed the air for a moment. His balance restored, he lifted his bare foot to clear the obstacle. It almost drained him. He continued his count and didn't notice the smoothness of the bridge beneath the snow.
His back burned expecting a bullet. His jaw slackened, exhausted, but he kept his chin raised in defiance. His muddled brain lost track of the count, and he wondered if he should start over. He wondered why he walked. He lost focus.
"Come on, Illya. Just a few more steps."
The driver's voice sounded strange, and he blinked into the light.
"A few more steps. Come on, tovarisch."
Kuryakin's steps slowed. That voice. It was - familiar. He lurched sideways into a cold railing, the icy slash vivid through his thin clothes. He blinked at the light, trying to find a new focus to keep him on his feet.
"I can't help you. You have to come to me."
The bright light had separated into two distinct sources. Eyes? Headlights?
"Just a few more steps. Illya! Move toward my voice."
He felt his head cock to one side and his eyes watered from staring at the lights. His hand groped the cold steel of a railing and he used it to keep on his feet. That voice had saved him before; that voice would save him again. His forced his feet to shuffle onward. A black silhouette moved across the twin beams.
"Almost there! Come on!"
His feet began to fail him now that they had reached the point of total numbness. He grabbed the rail with both hands, using his remaining strength to drag himself toward the reassuring voice. Spent, he fell forward.
But he didn't fall. Arms surrounded him. Warm, strong arms hoisted him up and carried him away from the lights. He was wrapped in warmth and fuzziness. His vision narrowed to a small point and he saw the face he knew would be his salvation surrounded by a halo of muted light.
"You're safe, now Illya. You hear me? You made it. You'll be fine."
Napoleon Solo's voice was like no other and carried a promise Kuryakin knew would be kept. His body automatically relaxed in response. He felt a cloud of warmth and feeling envelope him and begin to carry him away. He felt his dry, bloodless lips crack into a smile.
"You're late again," he whispered hoarsely before he let the darkness take him.