The Reciprocity Affair
It wasn't unusual for Napoleon to lose track of his partner, one way or another.
This time, though, Illya had been taken from right outside his apartment building. Though he'd heard about it within minutes, Napoleon was worried. And growing more worried as each further minute passed. Getting separated from Illya on a mission was one thing, something they were both well used to, but for his partner to be kidnapped off a New York street in the middle of the day was another matter all together.
His tolerance for losing his partner was wearing thin. Every time it happened now, all Napoleon could think of was the possibility that this would be the last time, that this time he wouldn't get to Illya in time. He didn't want to think what his life would be like without his partner—that possibility stretched ahead in a dismal future that Napoleon wasn't sure he wanted to experience.
For all that he might complain about his partner at times, Napoleon had begun to realize that he cared for Illya. And it was that realization that made him snappy with his partner sometimes, as he tried not to let those emotions overwhelm him.
He didn't want to feel this way, it didn't fit well with his reputation. Napoleon had worked hard to create that reputation and discovering he was in love with his stoic, taciturn partner just didn't coincide with that. The implications of it were too much, they threatened to affect Napoleon's view of himself, to turn his world upside down.
And Napoleon Solo liked his world just the way it was. But he'd like it more if he knew where his partner was.
When he woke, Illya found himself in yet another empty warehouse, the latest in a long line of deserted places he'd woken up alone in the time he'd been working for U.N.C.L.E. This time he was handcuffed to one of the hot water pipes that laced their way through the run-down building.
Illya cursed quietly to himself, running through a well-practiced litany of Russian obscenities as he tried to piece together what had happened to bring him to this particular situation.
His head hurt, pounding with a steady dull throb that seemed to echo his heartbeat—a sticky wetness on the side of his face proclaimed he had once again been hit on the head. Illya knew from frequent and painful past experience that head wounds always bled excessively, so he pushed his immediate concern about how badly he might be injured to the back of his mind as he surveyed his latest prison.
Empty. No fittings, no furniture—nothing but the odd scrap of paper and a number of scuffmarks, made, he suspected, when they dragged him in here unconscious. All evidence that this warehouse had been little used in the recent past.
There could be little or no chance of him being found by accident, or he wouldn't have been left here unguarded. There could be no chance of Illya's shouts for help being heard, or they wouldn't have left him ungagged—that or the people who had left him here didn't expect him to wake up at all.
Turning his attention back from his surroundings to himself, Illya began the process of mentally assessing himself for injury—his head still pounded, but the clarity of his vision meant, he hoped, that he hadn't received a concussion. The head wound could after all be a minor one, despite the amount of blood that was currently congealing in his hair.
Apart from some soreness round where the cuffs chafed his wrists, and the head wound, there seemed to be nothing else wrong with him. This puzzled Illya for a moment—why abduct him at all, if the plan was then to leave him in an abandoned warehouse relatively uninjured?
The abduction itself had been well-organized and executed; they'd taken him unsuspecting between his car and the apartment building where he lived. That level of professionalism seemed to argue the involvement of Thrush, rather than a more random or purely criminal act. But where were his kidnappers now? The normal experience for an U.N.C.L.E. agent, on being abducted, was to wake up somewhere unexpected and find themselves on the receiving end of an interrogation, which would involve a greater or lesser degree of violence and torture, depending on who was responsible.
This felt different somehow—unless they intended to leave him there to starve to death, what was the motivation behind his being there? Unless it was a trap, of course, a trap for his partner.
Illya's heart seemed to skip a beat, as he realized the likelihood of this.
How many times now? he wondered. Whenever they want to get Napoleon, I seem to be the method of choice for luring him into danger...
As he thought about this, remembering all the times this tactic had been used successfully before, he heard what he assumed was the sound of the door to the warehouse grating open. Illya twisted round slightly in his restraints, to get a view of the new arrival, a small hope rising in his heart that it might be Napoleon.
The new arrival was a woman, stylishly dressed, her hand gripping a knife that drew Illya's attention like a moth to a flame. She walked purposefully towards where Illya was hanging, eyeing him all the while. He forced himself to look at her face, tearing his gaze away from the silver blade she held so comfortably—what he saw there didn't comfort him, a lustful expression in her eyes made Illya shudder. Wisely, the woman chose to stop just out of reach of Illya's legs, which were untied—still silent, she continued to watch him as long minutes passed.
Illya felt his eyelids begin to close, despite his struggles to keep awake. They felt weighted down, and he realized that he must, somewhere along the way, have been drugged.
Time-release capsules, his struggling brain decided, even as sleep took him.
When Illya woke again, it was to pain.
He jerked awake as the knife cut into his side, slashing through the thin skin over his ribs. Illya stifled a scream as the pain hit him like ice water across his skin, and he bit down on his lower lip.
He was still in the warehouse, still handcuffed, but now his legs were tied together, his ankles tethered to something he couldn't see, and his shirt had been removed.
The woman he had seen before was there with him still, the knife in her hand now glistened with his blood. Illya could feel the warmth on his side as the blood trickled down. Still she was silent, but closed in on him again, knife raised, this time to target his other side.
A wave of pain hit once more, its intensity in awful contrast to the size of the wounds that he knew the woman was inflicting on him. Illya bit down on his lip again, the taste of his own blood filling his mouth.
Again and again, the woman raised her knife to cut into him—Illya forced himself to focus on her face, on the small smile that was her only reaction to the pain she was inflicting.
Then, as suddenly as it had begun, it was over.
The door to the warehouse grated open once more. Its sound cut through even to Illya as he hung there, feeling the warm blood trickle down his torso from the myriad wounds the woman had inflicted.
Through a haze of pain and disorientation Illya saw his torturer react. She turned, raising her knife instinctively towards the newcomer—a single shot rang out.
The woman slumped backwards and the knife flew from her outstretched hand, its blade describing a glittering arc through the air before it clattered to the ground metres away. A cloud of dust blanketed the body of Illya's torturer for a moment as she hit the ground with a hollow thump.
At the sound of the voice he'd so desperately hoped to hear, Illya felt himself slump in his bonds, relief washing through him. Once again, as he heard footsteps nearing where he still hung, his eyelids began to droop, the pain from the cuts on his sides now subsiding to a dull roar, and Illya drifted away into darkness.
One of these days it would happen. One of these days, Napoleon told himself, as he paced the corridor outside the infirmary, he'd be five minutes too late. Even two minutes might be too much in the wrong circumstances.
This time, as he'd slipped quietly into the warehouse, for a moment he'd wondered if his luck had run out.
He'd spotted Illya immediately of course, hanging limply in his bonds, blood trickling down his torso from a multitude of cuts. An unknown woman standing in front of him, a knife stained with his partner's blood still in her hand. From this distance Napoleon couldn't tell if Illya was still alive and he felt his blood run cold.
She turned and he had no choice. The woman stood between him and his partner and her eyes were full of murder—murder by slow degrees, all aimed at Illya. Napoleon shot her without a second thought, crossing to where Illya still hung without bothering to look at her body as the dust settled around her.
Napoleon remembered that his hand had shaken a little as he'd reached to check Illya's pulse, trying not to look at the blood that had trickled down his chest. The pulse was there, if a little faint, and Napoleon felt relief flood through him.
After that it had been a matter of releasing Illya from his bonds, after he'd signalled for a medical team, then an interminable wait till they arrived. Illya's breathing was shallow, his face pale, and Napoleon tried not to think about the amount of blood he'd clearly lost. The cuts themselves had begun to close a little, just a trickle of blood leaving them now.
Illya would be fine. He had to be. Napoleon kept telling himself that, hoping that he'd believe it, even as he continued to pace the corridor. Illya would be fine.
Illya studied the ceiling.
It was one he had seen countless times before, when he had been injured during a mission, and he knew it intimately by now—the ceiling belonged to U.N.C.L.E.'s infirmary. A wave of half-remembered memory struck him then, and Illya struggled to sit up, though the room spun alarmingly round him as he did so. Firm hands grasped his shoulders and he was pushed gently back onto the bed.
"Take it easy, Mr. Kuryakin," a calm voice said, "you've lost quite a lot of blood, so don't go jumping about."
He tried to focus in the direction of the voice, the room now swimming gently round him. After some effort, Illya made out a smiling face, one of the doctors he had come to know well on his many visits there.
"Dr. Cooper," he said, frowning as his voice croaked.
The doctor disappeared from Illya's field of vision briefly; she returned with a tumbler full of ice chips, a few of which she spooned gently into Illya's mouth.
"What happened?" Illya asked, once his throat felt a little less dry. He was reassured by the increasing steadiness of his voice. "How did I get here?"
"You don't remember?" Dr. Cooper asked, frowning slightly. "Your partner brought you in."
Dr. Cooper nodded, then consulted a clip-board she had removed from its place at the bottom of the bed.
"As I said before, Mr. Kuryakin," she continued, looking up at him once more, "you've lost a good deal of blood, not to mention that you're still suffering the effects of the sedatives that we found in your bloodstream. Do you remember anything about where you were? About what happened?"
Illya considered the questions, but all he could remember was the glance of light on metal, the taste of blood in his mouth, the sound of a gunshot.
"Not much," Illya admitted, after a moment.
"It may come back. But if it does, it will happen at its own pace. For now, you need to get some rest."
With that, the doctor gave Illya one last smile, replaced the clip-board and left Illya to his memories.
When he woke from a fitful sleep, Illya frowned as he moved slightly, feeling the pull of bandages across his torso. He pulled up the hospital gown he was wearing, and stared at the gauze taped onto his sides, wincing slightly as even this small movement pulled at the slowly healing wounds.
He was finding it difficult, Illya admitted to himself ruefully as he lowered the gown once more, to determine what was reality and what was dream or nightmare. Now it seemed he had part of an answer to that question. The woman with the knife he remembered had been real. Those were real cuts she had inflicted. Illya could still remember the taste of blood in his mouth—when he licked the inside of his lower lip, he felt a roughness there which surely had to be where he had bitten it to stop from crying out.
Had they asked him anything? Interrogated him? Pried for information he had been trained to avoid giving? He couldn't remember. All that there was inside his head when he thought back was a jumble of images, light and dark, noise and silence.
He started slightly as a shadow fell across the bed.
"How are you feeling?" a familiar voice asked.
"Fine, Napoleon," Illya replied without looking up. He put as much coolness into his tone as he could muster, dropping into their familiar kind of banter with a feeling of relief. "I understand I have you to thank for being here in the infirmary."
"What else are partners for?" Napoleon joked lightly. He looked concerned, though, as if he was eyeing the paleness of Illya's face.
"I should let you rest," Napoleon said suddenly, "Dr. Cooper will have my hide if she thinks I'm pestering you." Turning, Napoleon headed for the door. "Let me know if you need anything," he added, throwing the words back over his shoulder.
Illya watched quietly as the door shut behind his partner. Something about Napoleon puzzled him, but it was elusive, and his tired mind chased it in a futile pursuit.
Later, he decided, I'll think about it later.
Three days later, Illya was released from the infirmary and sent home to recuperate.
In the time he had spent there, Napoleon had visited him each day, like a dutiful partner should, flirting with the nurses and doctors alike as was his usual custom. His partner's reputation had preceded him as always, and Illya had been mildly entertained during the tedium of a forced stay in the infirmary, to see the tactful and professional way they all managed to brush the American agent off.
But now he was going home, and for that, at least, Illya was glad.
Maybe now he would have a chance for the peace and quiet he would need in order to re-assemble his memories, and figure out what had really happened to him in that warehouse. He had pressed his partner for details, but the usually talkative Napoleon had been reticent for once. Illya had seen a copy of Napoleon's report, but it had been sketchy to say the least—its conciseness had niggled at him, creating a feeling that the report concealed more than it revealed.
Still, once he'd had a chance to think, Illya was confident that he could put his finger on what it was about the whole affair that seemed so wrong.
Back in his apartment, Illya had puttered about, putting on a record, sorting through the mail that had accumulated during his time away. Ordinary, everyday tasks, so why did they feel somehow wrong?
This is not helping, Illya thought, as he made himself some coffee.
As he stood and drank it, gazing out of the apartment window over the New York skyline like any other day, Illya thought back. He found himself wracking his brain for the tiniest of details, anything to help him remember what it was his brain seemed so desperate to put to one side.
I was in a warehouse... he thought. Obviously there was someone else there with me... a woman? I remember a knife... Does that mean I was tortured? Interrogated? What other explanation could there be for the cuts? So why can't I remember any more?
Illya's head began to pound as he tried to force himself to remember, a rhythmic pounding that seemed to echo across the room.
"Illya?" The pounding continued, louder now. "ILLYA?"
No, not his head after all—there was a hammering on the door, Napoleon's voice coming from outside, a note of concern clearly lacing through it.
Illya reached the door in a couple of strides, opening it suddenly—Napoleon was outside, his foot raised to kick the door open, leaning back, his U.N.C.L.E. Special clutched tightly in his hand. As the door opened, Napoleon grinned a little sheepishly, taking in the pallor of Illya's face and also the position he had been discovered in.
"Are you okay?" Napoleon asked, still sounding concerned.
"I am fine."
"Then why didn't you answer the door? I was just about to kick it in. I thought.."
"I know what you thought, Napoleon," Illya interrupted, "but you would be wrong. Did you come here for any particular reason or just to kick my door down?"
Even as he spoke, Illya was aware of the coldness in his tone, but the uncertainty he was feeling had caught him off-guard. Normally he made allowances for his partner's impulsive behavior, but Illya's patience was currently stretched to near breaking point, and his temper was fraying slightly.
"I came to see if you were okay," Napoleon said patiently, "so are you going to invite me in or do we have to have this conversation in the hallway?"
"By all means," Illya said, stepping back to allow his partner to enter.
As he always did when entering a new room, even one which, like Illya's apartment, he had been in many times before, Napoleon's eyes automatically swept round it. They catalogued the furniture, its position, the ways in and out, a myriad of calculations going on within the U.N.C.L.E. agent's brain. Seemingly satisfied with what he saw, Napoleon turned back as Illya was shutting the door.
"Why haven't you been answering your communicator?" he asked, eyeing Illya as the Russian walked across to where he had left his half-drunk cup of coffee.
"My communicator?" Illya asked, puzzled. "I was sent home on medical leave, with strict orders to rest. And anyway, I don't know where my communicator is, Napoleon...." He sighed, the frustration of the past few days and his lack of memory very near the surface.
"I thought so," Napoleon said, and reaching into his jacket pocket, he pulled out a communicator. "So, I brought you a new one. I knew that if you weren't answering, there could only be two reasons—either you were in trouble, or you had lost your communicator. I came prepared for both."
"Thank you," Illya said, reaching his hand out for the device. "This is different from my last one."
"New design," Napoleon replied, "or so the people in Section 8 tell me.."
There was silence for a moment, as Illya finished his coffee—as he drank the last of the dregs, he thought that Napoleon was watching him, but when he turned to look at his partner, the American was looking somewhere else.
"What was it anyway?" Illya asked, crossing to the kitchen.
"You said you'd been trying to get hold of me..?" Illya prompted.
"Oh. Yes. The old man wants to see us," Napoleon replied. "You ready to go?"
Taking one last look around, Illya picked up his jacket—shrugging his arms into the sleeves, he gestured to Napoleon to lead the way, following him out.
Try as he might, Napoleon couldn't get rid of the image of Illya's battered body in the warehouse.
He'd killed his partner's torturer without a second thought, without even giving her the chance to surrender, though the look in her eyes had been enough to convince him that surrender was the last thing on her mind. The idea of killing a woman, no matter what the circumstances, didn't sit well with him, but he'd done it anyway.
As he'd thought about it, running over the events for his report to Waverly, Napoleon wondered just how much of his actions had been fuelled by fear for his partner's safety and how much by a desire for revenge. After all, till he reached Illya's side, Napoleon couldn't be sure his partner was still alive. He'd have let nothing and no one stand in the way of rescuing Illya anyway.
That was hardly the behavior expected of the Chief Enforcement Agent, was it? As he signed the report, Napoleon wondered just what Waverly would think if he ever told him the unvarnished truth about what had happened in the warehouse. That was assuming he knew the truth himself.
He could only think about how he'd felt seeing Illya just hanging there, not that this sight was a completely new one. Nor could he forget the relief that had struck him like a blow once Napoleon discovered that his partner was still alive to be rescued.
But he couldn't write about those, choosing to make his report as bland and unemotional as any he'd ever written, not wanting to give Waverly the slightest crack in their partnership to exploit, one way or another.
Would the old man be critical of any implication that Napoleon's feelings towards his partner had affected the mission? Napoleon knew he would. He might even suggest they placed that partnership in danger, or could prove detrimental to U.N.C.L.E. itself.
If that was the case, Napoleon knew that all the fondness that Waverly held for either of them as individuals wouldn't prevent him signing the order to send Illya back to the labs or even back to U.N.C.L.E. London and giving Napoleon another partner, whether they liked it or not.
How could Napoleon explain such a separation to his partner in a way that wouldn't make it crystal clear just why they were being separated?
Illya would see through any attempted deception in a heartbeat, would know that it was because of Napoleon's weakness that their partnership was being dissolved. He could imagine the look on Illya's face, the comments about American self-indulgence, the scorn he would see there.
He couldn't allow that to happen, couldn't let himself be separated from Illya, even though it was torture to see him like this. To be so close, to spend such a vast amount of time together, knowing that Illya had no suspicion that his partner wanted more from him than just a working partnership.
No matter how many times he went there, and the course of his normal work meant it was a frequent occurrence, Illya never got over being surprised. Not by the office, but by the man it contained—Alexander Waverly, at first appearance a bluff old man, in fact had a brain far sharper than he let on, with a mind like a steel-trap in many ways. His finger was on the pulse that beat through U.N.C.L.E., not just in New York, but round the world, but his demeanor belied that—instead, he seemed to revel in presenting himself to the world as something of an absent-minded professor.
"Ah. Mr. Solo, Mr. Kuryakin," he said, looking up from the folder he was studying as the two agents entered his office. "Good."
Illya took a seat, glad for once to rest there—he was more tired than he was willing to let on. Napoleon perched on the edge of another chair, a slightly anxious look flitting across his face for a fraction of a second, before it was replaced by his trademark smile and he settled back into the chair's depths, crossing his legs.
Mr. Waverly consulted his folder again for a moment, while the agents waited.
"I'm sorry to pull you in from your medical leave, Mr. Kuryakin," Waverly said, fixing Illya with an implacable stare, "but I felt that you should be involved in this mission. Unless, of course, you don't feel up to it?"
"I am fine, sir," Illya said, holding Mr. Waverly's gaze as steadily and confidently as he could.
This answer seemed to satisfy the older man, though Illya could have sworn he heard Napoleon make a disapproving sound from where he sat beside him.
"I'd like you to study these files, gentlemen," Waverly said, gesturing towards a pile of folders that stood in front of him before turning the circular desk so the teetering pile was placed in front of where Napoleon sat. "It appears we have a leak, here in U.N.C.L.E. New York, and I would like you to find the culprit."
"A leak, sir?" Illya asked incredulously.
"Indeed, Mr. Kuryakin. It would seem that someone has slipped through the net and is passing information to Thrush." Waverly picked up his pipe as he spoke, and fiddled with it as he continued. "Nothing high-level as yet, which may be a reflection of the status of our leak, or it may just be a matter of time before they get their hands on something more important."
"We'll get right on it, sir," Napoleon said, speaking for the first time since the two men had entered Waverly's office. Waverly nodded his approval and dismissal all at once—the two agents collected the pile of folders between them, then left the room, Napoleon taking the lead as usual.
Illya found himself watching the back of Napoleon's head as he followed him, as if it might provide him with some sort of revelation. Through the twists and turns of the corridors, he was only marginally aware of the passing of other members of U.N.C.L.E.'s staff, his mind filing away the way they smiled at Napoleon, then nodded at him. It was all so very normal, and somehow disturbing as a result—he'd expected someone else to notice the difference but Illya seemed to be alone in noticing that something important had changed.
Turning into Napoleon's office, Illya closed the door behind them. He crossed over to the desk, dropping the files he was carrying onto its surface, and watched them slither across the polished surface. Suddenly he felt himself under scrutiny and looked up, catching Napoleon's eyes on him, a strange expression on his face—Illya felt as though he were being measured in some way, that the American was examining him.
Illya's automatic reaction was to want to look away, uncomfortable, despite his friendship with the other agent. The way Napoleon was so openly examining him made Illya uncomfortable but he steeled himself against his instinctive response—for no reason he could have explained, Illya simply looked back, until Napoleon looked away himself.
After an awkward moment of silence, Napoleon gestured towards a nearby chair, turning his back on Illya before he spoke, and consulting one of his own pile of files.
"Sit down before you fall down, Illya," he said, "you don't have to play the stoic Russian all the time, you know..."
Illya blinked at that, at the emotion in the other man's tone. Napoleon sounded.. flustered? Staring at the back of the American agent's neck, Illya swore he could see a redness lurking there, and realized his partner was blushing, unaware that turning his back was not enough to camouflage this.
Illya tried to turn his attention to the matter at hand, but his brain was whirling, a dizzy dance of words, theories and assumptions, all pointing towards one inexorable conclusion. His usually unflappable partner, the man with ice-water in his veins, was well and truly disturbed about something and that something involved Illya somehow.
Thinking back, the Russian contemplated the report he had read on his capture and rescue, its terseness clear in his mind. There was nothing there out of the ordinary—he had been kidnapped before; tortured before, often with more lasting results; he had been rescued before, generally by Napoleon. Those items were mentally ticked off the list. What had been different about this mission?
Shaking his head slightly, Illya sighed. No matter what way he looked at the situation, he could see nothing that was out of the ordinary, yet his partner was reacting in a tangibly different way to him. Where was the teasing, the familiar banter? Napoleon still flirted efficiently and effectively with whatever woman he came across, that certainly had not changed, but the essence of the man himself seemed somehow diminished.
Looking up from the folder whose contents he was meant to be studying, Illya caught Napoleon unawares again. This time the American was staring at him, and his eyes held an expression Illya had seen there before. Napoleon blushed, a tide of red sweeping up his face in a way Illya had neither seen before or had been able to imagine his self-assured partner being able to do. It was the kind of furious blush that teenagers specialize in, not urbane secret agents.
He had been right. There was something different about Napoleon, and now Illya knew its name. The look he had caught on Napoleon's face had confirmed it, as had his reaction on being observed. More calmly than he could have imagined reacting, Illya stood, placing the file he had been pretending to study back on the pile of its fellows.
"I need to check in with Dr. Cooper, Napoleon." He was proud of the steadiness of his voice when he spoke.
"I'll see you later, then?" Napoleon's voice turned the statement into a question, the slight tremble there in his tone apparent for anyone who concentrated.
"Of course," Illya replied, heading for the door.
Outside in the corridor, Illya let out the breath he'd been holding, and headed towards the infirmary. On the trip down, his mind worked over the facts he had accumulated, but no matter how he examined them, Illya was forced to face the same conclusion.
His partner, his aggressively heterosexual partner, the one who flirted with every woman who crossed his path, had looked at him with an emotion in his face that could only be interpreted as desire.
He'd never considered the possibility. As Illya left the office, Napoleon was left wondering, giving real thought to the possibility that there might be more going on with his taciturn partner than met the eye.
It wouldn't be the first time Illya had surprised him, though that happened less often as their time together continued, but it was rarely over something so important. Not that those sharp blue eyes missed much, Napoleon had to admit. Illya was clever and perceptive, two traits that had stood him in good stead as an U.N.C.L.E. agent, and Illya wasn't averse to using both those elements of his persona on his partner.
So it wasn't an unusual occurrence for Napoleon to find himself being watched by Illya, his eyes missing nothing, that relentless brain filing away every piece of information for later study. It had made him a little uncomfortable when they'd first been partners, but Napoleon had grown accustomed to it—he found himself feeling almost bereft when Illya ignored him now, though doubtless that was his partner's intention as well.
But he'd never expected things between them to be mutual, reciprocal. Napoleon had grown so used to the idea of desiring his oblivious partner that he'd never taken the time to consider the possibility that Illya might feel something towards him as well.
And, of course, now that the seed of an idea had been planted, that was all Napoleon could think about.
He knew it was probably a world away from the reality of any kind of relationship the two of them might have, but he couldn't help himself. If there was one word to describe him, Napoleon knew that he was a romantic individual. Not someone who was a lover of hearts and flowers, though he had to appreciate the results of a carefully-planned use of the latter, but someone who believed in destiny.
If he ever told Illya, his sceptical partner would probably laugh in his face, but he'd always believed that they had been put together for a reason. And if that reason encompassed more than just saving the world on a regular basis, if it allowed the two of them some happiness along the way, who was Napoleon Solo to complain?
Illya had never been uncomfortable with the expression of his sexuality.
A hard childhood, filled with pain and lack of all the things that human life requires, had prepared him to become someone who took pleasure where he could find it. He would be left feeling guilty when he enjoyed something, but be driven somehow to explore further.
His inquisitive mind had pushed the boundaries, and he had explored the darker recesses of his desires—all secretly and dispassionately. Passion was dangerous for a child of the labor camps—it led to emotions he could never afford to experience.
And so the child had become the man. A heart filled with fire, hidden well behind a stoic facade.
Illya knew how his colleagues spoke of him. He did not approve or disapprove, to him their attitude simply was. If they thought him cold, those thoughts protected him, setting a safe space between them and the fierce independence of his spirit. A small part of his mind was amused at them, it laughed quietly at their assumptions about him, that he was ice all the way through. Illya alone knew the depths of his passion, the strength of the fire that burned inside him.
He had been alone for such a long time, his loneliness was like a second skin. Until the day he met Napoleon Solo.
Nothing in Illya's life had prepared him for that day—for once, his defences were inadequate. His protection against the force of nature that was the American proved futile. Napoleon was a tidal wave, and Illya was swept away.
If he envied the American, Illya never gave an outward sign of it. He watched, he listened, he mentally catalogued.
And if Napoleon was aware of this scrutiny, he gave no sign, and for that Illya was thankful. It would have been too difficult to explain the attraction he felt, the need to be a part of the agent's circle—if they had not been partners, there would have been no chance of this, but Waverly had thrust them together, for some purpose of his own, never explained, and that was the end of it.
Through the years they had been partners, Napoleon had become the closest thing to family that Illya possessed—he had thought there were no secrets between them, no thoughts of which he was unaware, but clearly he had been wrong.
Or had he?
Illya pondered this. Much as he hated visiting the infirmary, he had needed an excuse to get out of Napoleon's office, but he didn't put it past his partner to check up on him. That kind of suspicious nature had kept the two of them alive for so many years that paranoia was second nature.
As the elevator doors slid open silently, and Illya headed down the corridor, he considered the possibilities, weighing them up in his mind.
Clearly there were gaps in his recent memories—he could still only remember fleeting glances of the events of the past few days, the rest dancing tantalizingly out of his mind's reach. Napoleon had rescued him from the warehouse in which he was being held, killing his captor in the act of torturing him. Illya had the scars to prove the torture had happened, the slashes on his torso were there to prove that the woman he remembered had existed, whatever the motivation behind her actions.
What was it that was wrong?
Things had seemed strange somehow, too normal—Illya was aware that he alone felt this, that no one else seemed to even suspect that things were not as they seemed. That was the most frustrating thing about the whole matter. If he asked anyone, talked about it, somehow Illya knew the look he would receive in return, the bewilderment he would see upon their faces.
He would have to test his hypothesis. Only then could he prove himself right, or set his mind at ease. Either way he would know for certain.
Dr. Cooper had been surprised to see him, Illya decided, as he headed out of the infirmary. Though she'd disguised her surprise as quickly as she could, the professional façade slipping into place within a matter of moments, Illya had not been fooled. He wasn't surprised at her response—usually it took more than a quietly-voiced request to get him back for a check up.
As the doors to the infirmary slid shut behind him, Illya contemplated the decision he had made. He had turned it over in his mind while he was being examined, concentrating just enough on Dr. Cooper to give the appropriate taciturn answers to her questions, while his mind worked furiously on a plan of attack.
He knew there were risks involved, but he believed he had calculated them accurately. As with any mission, there came a time when you just had to take a chance and jump in, and that time was approaching Illya fast.
Illya paused outside Napoleon's office door, took a deep breath and knocked.
Illya pushed hesitantly at the door, which swung open silently before him. The room was deserted, piles of files still laying scattered across the desk. The office was just as Illya remembered it, as if no time had passed since he had left—all that was missing was his partner.
Illya smiled to himself, a small, slightly calculating smile. He had been right after all.
Pulling the door closed, Illya turned and walked off down the corridor, a hunter in search of his prey.
Illya searched the building, from Research to Records and all departments in between. By the end of it, his legs were aching, his head throbbing slightly, but he had not found the man he was looking for. Returning to his own office this time, Illya opened the door, a small part of him expecting Napoleon to be there, even though the American rarely visited the room.
Every piece of evidence was falling into place—there was something strange about Napoleon's behavior, and each new proof added depth to that hypothesis.
Despite the American's carefully cultivated air of casual nonchalance, Napoleon was a conscientious agent, not one to shirk his duties lightly. If Waverly gave his agents a mission, then he expected them to complete that mission, or he would be very disappointed in them.
Pulling the door closed, Illya left headquarters, heading home. There was little he could do alone to establish where the leak was coming from, and suddenly he felt very tired.
That night, Illya's sleep was restless, filled with flickering images that made no sense.
He was in the warehouse again, handcuffed to the pipe once more, but this time it was Napoleon who stood there, a cold blackness to his eyes, knife in his hand. Illya felt, rather than heard, himself scream in agony, but to no avail.
Again and again the knife glittered, warm blood trickled down his sides, but this time there was no one to rescue him. Illya knew, with a terrible certainty, that this warehouse would be the place where he would draw his last breath, and a coldness gripped his heart.
The last thing he saw was his partner, his friend, stepping closer, knife raised. Then a hand wrapped itself round his face, muffling all sound, and he saw the knife descend.
Illya woke with a scream, a shriek that echoed round the empty darkness of his apartment. With one hand he fumbled for his U.N.C.L.E. special, flailing for the bedside lamp with the other. Even as the light came on, Illya's terror subsided, and his rational mind took over.
Despite how terrifying it had been, it had been just a nightmare.
Illya's heart continued to pound, the adrenaline still rushing through him, as he sat on the bed, pulling his legs up and wrapping his arms around them. Laying his head on his bent knees, Illya tried to slow his pulse, breathing deeply, and after a long moment the shaking began to subside.
Sleep eluded Illya for the rest of the night.
Once his shaking had stopped, his analytical mind took over, seeking to make sense of his nightmare, to gain control of the experience. What could it mean? To Illya it seemed clear, a direct reference to what he was planning, the course of action he was intending to take—his subconscious was telling him, as if he needed reminding, of the risk he would be taking, the possible outcomes.
The morning came slowly, but by the time the daylight arrived, Illya's mind was made up—regardless of the risks, there was no other choice for him. He had to know.
Napoleon's voice was cheerful, ringing out down the corridor, maybe a little more loudly than he meant it to be. He looked unabashed, though, as he neared where Illya was waiting—Illya had paused on seeing Napoleon heading his way, internally steeling himself to put his plan into action.
"Good morning, Napoleon," Illya replied, hoping he appeared more calm than he was feeling, his eyes locking onto Napoleon's as his partner reached him.
Napoleon held his gaze for a long moment, before he tore himself away, reddening slightly and gestured down one of the corridors, in the direction of his office.
"Shall we?" he asked.
Nodding, as he somehow suppressed a small triumphant smile, Illya led the way, conscious of the man walking beside him.
"Where did you get to yesterday?" Illya asked, not looking round. "I came back to your office after my check-up, but you'd gone."
"I.. er.. I was called away."
Really? Illya thought sardonically. Now surely you've had time to come up with a better excuse than that, my friend.
They reached the door to Napoleon's office, the rest of the journey conducted in silence. The files were still lying where they'd been left, scattered across the American's desk, and Napoleon seemed pre-occupied with the chaos there. For a few moments, he busied himself in gathering up the files, turning towards Illya when he had assembled them all.
All the time Napoleon's back was towards him, Illya watched his partner, admiring the play of muscles through the well-tailored suit. Even when Napoleon turned back to him, the files clutched against his chest, Illya's eyes lingered.
Napoleon seemed to swallow slightly, as he realized the way that Illya was watching him, and a slight tinge of red crossed his face. Today he seemed to have better control of himself, compared to the adolescent flush that had swept over him the day before. Napoleon opened his mouth as if to speak, then closed it again, looking like nothing more than a fish gasping on dry land.
"Shall we get started on the files again?" Illya asked, rising from his chair, hand outstretched towards the files his partner was holding.
Was it his imagination, or did Napoleon take a minute step backwards when Illya got up from his seat?
"Oh... er... of course," Napoleon stuttered, lowering the files carefully onto the surface of the desk.
It didn't escape Illya's attention that his partner was keeping the desk between himself and where Illya was standing, or that eye contact between the two of them was non-existent. Napoleon's eyes were on the files, his hands busily sorting through them, as he separated them into two heaps as before.
The two agents read for a while in silence. The only sound in the office was the turning of paper and the ticking of a nearby clock.
Illya tried to concentrate on what he was reading—details of missions, information, agent's personal details, all of which had been leaked to Thrush over the past few weeks. There was a common thread here, he was sure of it, but his mind struggled in vain to see the connection.
All that he could see was that the missions were all controlled by the New York office, so it seemed likely that the leak was here, in Headquarters.
The ticking of the clock seemed to grow louder and louder in the silence—Illya risked a glance at his partner, who seemed engrossed in the file he was reading.
Very convincing, Illya thought with an internal smile, but you need to keep turning the pages, Napoleon, or else it's obvious that all you're doing is staring at the same one.
Illya let the silence drag on for a few minutes longer, then spoke quietly, his voice still shattering the stillness and making Napoleon jump.
"Look at this," he said, spreading a number of the files he had been studying across the desk in front of him. Putting down the file he had been pretending to study, Napoleon got up from his chair, reluctance clear in every line of his body and came round to where Illya was sitting.
"What?" he asked, bending over the files and studying them for whatever it was Illya had seen.
Illya rose from his chair and stood beside his partner, deliberately insinuating himself into the other agent's personal space. Illya almost pressed himself against Napoleon, his arm casually brushing against the other's, staying so near that he could feel the heat rising from his partner's body.
"This is the key," Illya said, reaching as casually as he could across his partner to indicate a few paragraphs in each file.
"Our leak is in this office," Illya continued, ignoring the minuscule tremors that were being transferred to him from Napoleon's body. Today his partner might be able to school his face to obey him more completely, but his body, and its reactions to Illya being so close, continued to betray him.
"How is that possible, Illya?" Napoleon asked, his voice steady.
Well done, Illya thought, a coherent question and your voice so controlled, so calm. If I couldn't feel the way you are shaking, my friend, I'd almost be convinced you felt nothing.
"After all," Napoleon continued, "the security clearances necessary to work for U.N.C.L.E. at all, let alone in this office, should make that impossible."
"Where there is a system, Napoleon," Illya replied, "there is always a way round it. We know that."
"So now what?"
"Now," Illya said, "we set a trap to catch a mole."
A few minutes later they found themselves in Waverly's office. Illya had refused to say any more about his plan, just glaring at Napoleon when his partner had tried to press the matter and that had been it.
"Your report, Mr. Kuryakin?"
Waverly's voice rang out, shattering the uneasy silence that had fallen when the two agents had entered his office.
Illya glanced around to where Napoleon was seated, but the American seemed content to let his partner take the lead—he seemed engrossed in a minute examination of the back of his hands, not even glancing up as Mr. Waverly spoke.
Returning his eyes to the front, Illya noticed the tiny frown that passed momentarily across Waverly's forehead, before he began to speak.
"It is my contention, sir," Illya began, "that the leak does indeed originate here in the New York office. All the information that has been leaked so far, that we are aware of, has passed through here at some time—there don't appear to be any other factors in common."
"You have a plan?" Waverly prompted, when Illya paused. He leaned back slightly in his chair, eyeing the Russian with half-closed eyes.
"We need to set a trap, sir," Illya replied. "We spread some misinformation of our own. False data, carefully tailored for each department, each set of information exclusive and unique, so that we can track down the department where the leak has originated. The only people who will be privy to the entire plan will be myself and Mr. Solo, sir, excluding yourself, of course."
"Very good, Mr. Kuryakin." Waverly paused, as if noticing for the first time that someone else was in the room. "Do you have anything to add, Mr. Solo?"
Napoleon's head jerked up suddenly, as he was shaken from his contemplation.
Waverly's frown returned, deepening, and he held the American's gaze for a long moment, assessing him, it seemed, before turning back to Illya.
"Set your plan in action, Mr. Kuryakin."
The two agents left Waverly's office together, walking in companionable silence until they reached the elevator. Once safely inside, Illya chose his moment and turned to his partner.
"Are you feeling unwell, Napoleon? You hardly said a word back there."
Illya's cool gaze raked over Napoleon—the American looked nervous. He fidgeted slightly, his eyes locked onto the numbers over the elevator doors, watching the lights flick on and off.
"I.. I'm fine, Illya," he replied, finally, without looking in his partner's direction.
Are you, indeed, my friend? Illya thought, smiling to himself.
Taking a sudden step across the elevator car, Illya slapped his hand onto the row of controls, hitting the emergency stop. In seconds, the car lurched to a halt, its inhabitants stumbling slightly as it settled to a halt. Alarms blared.
"What... what do you think you're doing, Illya?" Napoleon asked. His voice was raised over the noise of the alarms as they echoed within the elevator car, but at least he was finally looking at Illya's face.
"What do you think?" Illya echoed, stepping closer.
He was so close now, almost touching his partner, even as Napoleon was imperceptibly backing away from his advance. Minute tremors shook Napoleon's body. He also had a hunted look on his face, the look of a man who wanted nothing more than to escape.
Nowhere to run, my friend, Illya thought.
Napoleon was backing away in reality now, inching backwards until he was about to meet the wall of the elevator, his eyes closing. He was swallowing nervously, his tongue flicking out to pass across his lips, his posture rigid, arms wrapped round himself protectively.
Just as it seemed that Napoleon would explode into action, lashing out in an attempt to escape, Illya reached behind himself and started the elevator again. The alarms stopped, too, silence falling. Moving from his position almost hovering over Napoleon, Illya waited by the elevator door, leaving as soon as it opened, without a backward glance.
A small smile played across Illya's lips as he left the elevator—his plan was working perfectly. Napoleon was so off-balance that Illya no longer had to do anything and he was sweating, nervous, torn between what seemed like desire and fear.
Pushing this matter to the back of his mind as he headed towards his office, Illya contemplated the other matter in hand—they needed to find the source of the leaked information, and quickly. It was surely only a matter of time before Thrush obtained vital information through their source, information which they must not have.
It would only be the matter of a few hours work before Illya had created enough bogus information to pin-point the source of their leak—each piece would need to be an extrapolation of existing material, none of it obvious enough to alert someone of a suspicious nature, as a double agent was sure to be, but a logical addition. The material would then be distributed, each piece going to a particular section, so now all Illya had to do was wait.
After his plan had been put into action, Illya and Napoleon reported to Mr. Waverly once more.
"Is the game afoot, Mr. Kuryakin?" Waverly asked, looking up at the Russian with his customary shrewd expression.
"It is, sir," Illya replied, "and I have made sure that the only people who are cognizant of all the misinformation being circulated are the three people in this office."
"Very good, Mr. Kuryakin," Waverly grunted, before turning to his colleague. "You don't seem yourself, Mr. Solo, it's not like you to be so quiet. Are you feeling ill?"
As his partner was put under the spotlight, Illya sat back in his chair and watched with a certain degree of enjoyment—seeing Napoleon squirm like this was an entertaining sight, one he hoped to see many more times before his plan came to fruition.
"I'm fine, sir," Napoleon replied, somewhat tersely.
Waverly's eyebrows shot up at the American's tone.
"Are you indeed?" Waverly said, glaring at the senior agent. "You haven't commented on Mr. Kuryakin's plan, Mr. Solo."
"Well, as usual, Illya's plan is meticulous, and I'm sure it will succeed admirably, sir," Solo replied, shooting a devastating smile at Illya.
Inside, Illya shook slightly, as if a puff of wind had hit him—this was an unexpected development. When he had been 'in charge', with Napoleon so clearly off-balance, he had known where he was, but now...
Waverly's voice broke through, and Illya jerked slightly as he recalled where he was.
Even from where he was seated, with Napoleon in his peripheral vision, Illya could not have missed the grin on the American's face at Illya being caught out this way, day-dreaming.
"Have you anything else to add?"
"Very well. I expect a further report in 12 hours. Good afternoon, gentlemen."
Damn him, Illya thought furiously, as he stalked from Waverly's office, conscious that Napoleon was hot on his heels.
Napoleon's voice, coming from right behind him, brought Illya to a reluctant halt. Stifling a sigh, Illya turned, looking at his partner as he approached him. They both hesitated a moment, as a member of U.N.C.L.E. staff passed in the corridor where they were standing, then Napoleon spoke.
"We need to talk, Illya, but not here."
Illya nodded, tersely—the conversation he knew was coming was not one that he relished, and was certainly not one that should be conducted under the scrutiny of U.N.C.L.E.'s surveillance equipment.
"Your office?" he suggested, knowing that, as Chief Enforcement Agent, Napoleon's office was not bugged.
"My apartment," Napoleon replied. Illya felt his face heat at the unspoken implications of his partner's words.
"Very well," Illya replied, schooling his face to passivity. "Shall we say in an hour?"
"One hour," Napoleon echoed, turning on his heel and heading away down the corridor, in the direction of his office.
As he was disappearing round the corner, Napoleon's voice came floating back, the grin that was probably on his face also clear in his voice.
"Don't be late..."
As Napoleon had probably expected, Illya was early, making it to Napoleon's apartment before his partner did. As a result, he was waiting on the doorstep when Napoleon arrived, and Illya was greeted by his partner with a slow, knowing smile.
Unlocking the door, Napoleon entered the apartment, Illya following close behind. Once they had ascertained that they were indeed alone, an uneasy silence fell between the two of them, as the two agents watched one another for a few moments.
"Coffee?" Napoleon asked, suddenly, the word shattering the unnatural stillness.
Illya nodded, finding himself suddenly uncertain of his voice, and watched his partner head towards the kitchen.
It had been a while since he had been in Napoleon's apartment, but nothing seemed to have changed. Contrary to the popular opinion in U.N.C.L.E. headquarters, the two agents were not joined at the hip, and spent enough time together to value the time they spent apart. Illya in particular had always been something of a loner, someone who needed, and also enjoyed, his own company.
As he half-listened to the coffee-making noises coming from the kitchen, Illya contemplated his next move. So far, he had been successful in making Napoleon uneasy, but it was clear that uneasy was not enough—the American had bounced back, and in some ways Illya's advances seemed only to have fuelled how he was feeling.
Time to take things to the next level, my friend, Illya thought, as Napoleon appeared with the coffee.
As they settled, Illya taking the arm chair and Napoleon sprawling slightly on the sofa, the silence fell between them again.
"You said we needed to talk, Napoleon," Illya prompted.
The American started as if he had been struck, some of the contents of his coffee cup spilling over the side as he reacted.
"Yes," Napoleon began, "but I don't know where to start."
"Napoleon Solo, lost for words?" Illya teased. "It's a shame there are no witnesses, as no one will ever believe it happened."
Napoleon smiled, a small tight smile, completely humorless, and Illya fell silent again.
If you want to lead this dance, my friend, he thought, go ahead...
"You... well, it's like this Illya," Napoleon began again, with a little more certainty in his voice. "You've been acting oddly the past few days, and people are starting to talk." Illya said nothing, but sat, drinking his coffee. "Illya?"
"You've not been yourself, not since the last mission," Napoleon said, though his eyes were everywhere, anywhere, except looking in Illya's direction. "Waverly hasn't said anything yet, but I think he's worried about you too. Have you remembered any more about what happened?"
Napoleon leaned forward in his seat, his coffee temporarily forgotten, as if his only interest was in waiting for Illya's answer.
Light glinting from a knife. Gunfire. Blood. Images from reality and dreams mingled together, until Illya was not completely certain which was which.
"No," Illya lied, "I don't remember anything except what you already know."
Did I imagine a sigh of relief? Illya thought, as he watched Napoleon settle back into his seat.
"But you are feeling okay?" Napoleon asked, but with only a shadow of the eagerness for answers that he had shown a moment beforehand.
"I am fine, Napoleon."
Finishing his coffee, Illya placed the empty cup on the small table beside where he was sitting. Clasping his hands together in his lap, Illya wished that it was that easy to still the racing of his mind or the pounding of his heart.
"Was there anything else, Napoleon?" Illya asked, gazing steadily at his partner, watching him intensely. "I am very busy, after all, so if there isn't, I should be going..."
As Illya moved to leave his chair, his eyes still locked on the chocolate-brown eyes of his partner, he saw Napoleon's eyes widen slightly as he spoke, then, after a moment's pause, his partner began to speak.
"Illya. I could never lie to you, could I?" Napoleon smiled as he spoke, but the smile did not reach his eyes, leaving them strangely desolate. "I... this isn't easy for me. We've been partners, friends, but when it comes to talking about..." Napoleon's voice ground to a halt, and he was suddenly fascinated by the contents of his coffee cup.
"How many times have we saved each others lives anyway?" Napoleon asked suddenly, after a moment's uncomfortable silence, his voice artificially cheerful.
"You know we stopped keeping count six years ago," Illya replied quietly, his eyes still intent on the American, who was still focussed on the cup he cradled in his hands. "I should go..."
The word hung between them, in the silent apartment, as Illya and Napoleon looked at each other.
Illya's certainty, his conviction that he knew what was going on, the thing he had been basing all his planning upon, was rocked by the raw emotion contained in that solitary word. Round him the world spun, the only constant point within its wild gyrations the pair of brown eyes that were fixed intently on him.
"Are you sure you're okay?" a concerned voice asked, and it took a moment's thought for Illya to identify its source.
"I am a little tired, Napoleon," Illya admitted at last. His voice was so quiet he almost didn't recognize it. Illya watched his own hand come up to rub at his eyes, cataloguing the minute tremors that it experienced, detached from himself in some bizarre way.
"You should go home, get some rest."
"That's not what you were going to say," Illya persisted, his eyes intent on the American. "You were going to ask me something else, I think?"
"It can wait, Illya."
As he listened to the American's soothing voice, Illya felt his grip on consciousness start to weaken, as he struggled to keep his eyelids open.
"Maybe you'd better sleep on the couch," Napoleon said, as Illya tipped headfirst into sleep, his partner's arms wrapped around him.
He knew what Illya's response would be, knew it as if he heard his acerbic partner commenting on it right now. He would question Napoleon's own sanity, then his parentage, before going on to speculate on why Napoleon thought he had the right to interfere in his partner's life this way. His voice would be full of scorn and derision, sharp with the sarcasm that Illya directed towards friend and foe alike with equal enthusiasm.
He hadn't intended for this to happen, but it had and now Napoleon had to deal with it.
He wouldn't see Dr. Lowe in HQ—Napoleon had been forced to pull rank considerably to get the good doctor to agree to a house call, much preferring to conduct any business in relation to his partner in a more secure and less monitored environment. But he'd been struck by Dr. Lowe's apparent good sense, even if the psychiatrist was snappy enough at times to give a certain partner of Napoleon's a run for his money.
That partner of his was currently sprawled on Napoleon's couch, dead to the world, his relaxed face making him look ten years younger. Illya looked even more innocent and angelic, Napoleon decided, looking down at him as he slept—at least to anyone who didn't know him.
"I'm worried about him, doctor," Napoleon said, turning back to where the U.N.C.L.E. psychiatrist sat, his sharp gray eyes following Napoleon intently. "He's been behaving oddly, like he doesn't trust me."
"And this is a recent change?" Dr. Lowe's voice was calming, a slight accent at its edges.
"Yes." Napoleon thought back. "It's definitely changed since the last time Illya was kidnapped. It's like he's up to something. He's suspicious all of a sudden, at least where I'm concerned."
"And nothing has changed with you?" Dr. Lowe asked. "Something that your partner could be picking up on?"
Napoleon considered this for a moment. But there wasn't anything—he still wanted Illya, that hadn't changed. Neither had the fact that he knew there was no chance of anything ever coming of it, that their relationship seemed destined to remain platonic no matter how much Napoleon might wish for more.
U.N.C.L.E. was a relatively liberal agency, and there was such a thing as doctor-patient confidentiality, but regardless of both those facts Napoleon had no intention of airing his feelings for his partner. If he couldn't tell Illya how he felt about him, he had no intention of sharing those emotions with a third party.
"No. Nothing's changed."
He'd hoped asking Dr. Lowe about Illya would help but it didn't seem to have had any effect. Except maybe to make Napoleon more certain that something was wrong, even though he couldn't seem to describe that something to the psychiatrist in a way that he'd understand. But that didn't mean he was wrong about Illya, just that the something Napoleon was picking up on was something between them, possibly something that just wasn't meant to be shared.
Of course, his partner wasn't going to be very happy with him anyway, not once he realized that he'd been drugged.
But Dr. Cooper herself had supplied him with the sedative, had categorically told him that Illya must take them and get a good night's sleep for once, no matter what it took, and who was he to argue with U.N.C.L.E. Medical? They, after all, had the power to ground his partner indefinitely.
Illya swam towards consciousness, flailing for the surface like a diver who'd swum too deep. He stretched out towards the light that was above him and sounds came into focus first, though his eyelids stayed resolutely closed.
A voice he didn't recognize, deep and sonorous, a slight accent at its edges.
"Even Illya isn't strong enough to be able to fight that particular sedative," a voice replied. Napoleon's voice.
There were two possibilities, of course. Either Napoleon Solo had become a double agent, willingly or otherwise, or he had somehow been replaced. Illya refused to believe the former—his partner's loyalty to U.N.C.L.E. had always been unshakable, and the Russian could not believe there was any way to force his compliance with such a plan.
That left the other possibility.
It would be an audacious plan, if they could pull it off—replacing Napoleon Solo with a doppelganger would give Thrush access to every part of U.N.C.L.E. operations. They could pick and choose the information they wanted, then strike at will, crippling U.N.C.L.E. for months, maybe years, if they chose the right target.
Was that why he had seen such a difference in his partner? It was possible, of course, that the expression Illya had seen, that he had considered to be desire, was in fact something baser. That the doppelganger merely lusted after him and that Illya's own unrequited desire for his partner had led him to place a different interpretation on what he had seen.
"Does he remember any more of what happened?" came the voice again.
"He says he doesn't," Napoleon replied, "but I think he's lying."
"Why would he lie to you, of all people? You're his partner after all..."
Napoleon was silent for a moment, as if mulling over the possible reasons. When he finally spoke, his voice was tinged with what sounded like sadness.
"He doesn't trust me. Ever since we got back, I've seen him watching me. I think he suspects..."
A knock at the door interrupted Napoleon, and Illya listened as the door was opened.
"Your car is here, sir," a female voice spoke.
"I'm coming now. Thank you. You should keep an eye on him—I know you have been, but it's clear that things are worse than we feared. If he suspects..." The man's voice trailed off, a menacing silence following the words.
"I know what to do," Napoleon said quietly. "You can rely on me."
The door closed quietly and the room fell silent.
Illya wanted to wake up, to confront the man who was pretending to be his partner, but he could feel the tiredness creeping up on him again. He could resist it no longer, and fell into the darkness again.
When he woke, Illya was alone.
He was still on the couch, where Napoleon had placed him, covered with a blanket. His shoes had been removed, and stood neatly by the side of where he had been sleeping, a note propped up on them.
He had gone to sleep thinking he knew what was going on, and woken to find that he had been wrong.
Was his partner still alive, held captive somewhere? After all, Napoleon was still a source of potentially valuable information for Thrush, and, having been replaced, there would be no rescue mission. Who looks to rescue someone who isn't even missing?
A cold shiver travelled up Illya's back as he reached for the note propped up on his shoes, noting automatically the handwriting, the familiarity of the letters forming his name.
Was his friend out there somewhere, being tortured, maybe even knowing there was no chance he would be rescued? Illya assumed that Thrush would use every advantage they had, so Napoleon would likely know he had been replaced, that nobody was looking for him.
Or was he already dead?
Illya shook his head minutely, unwilling to believe that Napoleon could be killed so easily—it would be worth Thrush's while, even if their other plan succeeded, to see what information they could extract.
He had to believe that his friend was still alive. He had to. The alternative was unthinkable.
Illya had been drawn to Napoleon Solo like a moth to a flame, even when he knew there was a real danger of being burnt alive. The American was his partner, his friend, an endless source of fascination to the Russian. The idea that this vibrancy could just be snuffed out...
Opening the folded piece of paper, Illya scanned the contents, a few simple words from the impostor. An apology for not waking him, the statement that they would meet at work, the suggestion that he visit the infirmary again. All written in a hand that Illya knew as well as his own, an almost illegible scrawl that he had become familiar with over the past few years.
Unusually well-prepared for a Thrush stratagem, Illya thought coldly, as he put his shoes on.
Before he left the apartment, Illya searched it thoroughly, looking for any evidence to back up what he had heard. In an ashtray Illya found cigar ash, and knew he had not been dreaming. There had been someone else here in the apartment earlier.
Closing the door of Napoleon's apartment behind him when he left, Illya headed back to U.N.C.L.E. headquarters, a feeling of helplessness warring with the coldness that gripped his heart. His partner was out there somewhere, and he had no idea where to start looking for him.
However, he knew someone who might.
Illya stalked down the corridor, cold fury sweeping off him in waves. As he moved further into the heart of U.N.C.L.E.'s New York headquarters, the Russian was struggling, for the first time he could remember in a very long time, to control his temper.
That certainly went against Illya's reputation. He'd heard the whispers, the comments, but he'd always chosen to ignore them—what was it to him if people whose names he didn't know thought him cold? Today, however, it was fire that raged in his eyes, the fire of strong emotions.
As much as he wanted just to go into Napoleon's office, grab the impostor by the throat and slam him against the wall, the rational side of Illya's nature screamed at him that this was not the way to go about getting the information he wanted.
What was the saying?
Oh yes, he remembered it now: 'there is more than one way to skin a cat'. He still didn't completely understand the source of the proverb, but the meaning behind it was abundantly clear to him.
So, if violence would not serve, then he must use whatever other weapons he had at his disposal, and Illya knew with cold certainty of one that would be foolproof, one in particular that this impostor could not resist.
When he entered Napoleon's office, the American was seated behind the desk, looking up at him with dark, unreadable eyes. He'd been studying a folder, his long fingers flicking through the papers that it contained, but he closed the folder when Illya entered the room, laying it carefully on the desk.
"How're you feeling?"
Illya was impressed by the normality of it all—despite the strangeness of the situation, the feeling that he had been having for the past days of not quite knowing what was going on, the Russian was impressed.
Whoever had trained this man had done their job well. But not quite well enough. They had slipped up on one detail, the almost-symbiotic relationship that existed between the two agents, the one thing all the reports in the world could not provide information about.
"I am fine," Illya said, now impressed by his own composure, as he stood just inside the doorway of the office. He felt the air move behind him as the door closed, but somehow he could not bring himself to approach where the impostor was seated. He was tired, and what he had to do would be draining enough.
The voice was perfect—the right accent, the right degree of concern. All perfect, all right. All utterly wrong.
A worried expression on his face now, Napoleon got up from where he had been seated and crossed over to where Illya was standing, swaying slightly. Even as he reached the Russian, Illya's hands came up to cup his shoulders, pushing him back gently, and the American did not resist. He allowed himself to be held, even though he must surely feel the minute tremors rippling through Illya's hands.
"I said I am fine," Illya whispered, his face close enough to Napoleon's for the breath to hit him. "You want this."
Those were the only words Napoleon managed to get out before Illya's mouth had fastened onto his neck, sucking as if his life depended on it and all Napoleon could feel was the heat rippling through him from that place. All that was going on within his brain seemed focussed on that spot, as if nothing else existed, all the other senses were bypassed.
The American heard himself moan, felt the tiny breath as Illya chuckled, the laugh echoing through him. One of Illya's hand's moved from their place on his shoulders, fingertips brushing down his chest, trailing heat through the thin cotton shirt he was wearing. Their fleeting touch felt like a brand as they headed downwards, to a greater source of heat.
"No," he managed to groan out. "I..."
Long fingers gripped the zipper of Napoleon's trousers, while at the same time he could feel the Russian's tongue moving gently against the skin of his neck. Illya was tasting him, kissing and licking his way up his neck inch by inch, now settling into the sensitive hollow behind his ear. As he felt the warmth there, Napoleon was distracted, writhing slightly, even as he felt a hand slip into his fly.
He was getting hard, there was no doubt about that, even as Napoleon felt those same exploring fingers travel into his boxer shorts, wrapping themselves knowingly about his length.
He heard himself groan again, as if he were listening to someone else. Napoleon could almost feel the blood that was gathering, his heart pumping to drive the blood downwards, the stiffness that was growing there. When the fingers left him, he felt a pang of sadness, until he realized what was going on.
One hand, the one that had still been cupped around his shoulder, shoved him backwards, and Napoleon's back hit the surface of the desk with a thump. The small part of his brain that was still rational registered the way that the files that had occupied the surface were swept away by his arrival and slithered gently to the floor.
One hand pinned him to the desk, planted firmly in the middle of his chest, while the fingers that had been wrapped around him freed the button of his trousers, then grasped the waistband and began to pull gently. Illya's mouth, that talented mouth that had been sucking at his neck, leaving trails of hot breath against his skin, moved now, his lips gently brushing across Napoleon's ear.
"Samozvanetz," a voice whispered, and it took a moment for Napoleon to realize that the almost hostile voice was Illya's.
His brain struggled to translate, but his grasp of Russian was too shaky, even if his mind had been working perfectly. Napoleon filed the word away for later, reciting it to himself to catch it.
Illya's hand had dispensed with his trousers and boxers, shoving them down across Napoleon's thighs as he lay awkwardly across the desk, his legs dangling. He felt the colder air of the room brush him and shrank slightly, recovering when the long fingers of his partner wrapped themselves around his length once more.
"Illya," he gasped, strangely proud of the ability to form coherent sound as the Russian's fingers stroked at him, brushing the sensitive under side.
He felt himself harden again, then writhed as Illya's mouth moved down from his neck, kissing its way down his body. When the lips fastened onto a nipple Napoleon bucked, his legs banging painfully again the side of the desk, and it was only his partner's strong hand, still planted on his chest that kept any part of him in contact with the desk's surface.
"Illya," he gasped again, as he felt the Russian's mouth move ever downwards.
Napoleon's eyes widened as he realized what his partner was planning and he began to struggle slightly, pushing up from his awkward position splayed out across the surface of the desk. His hands were slick with sweat, though he hadn't realized this before, and they slipped helplessly across the polished surface.
By the time Napoleon was able to react, to try to protest at what Illya was doing it was too late. The Russian's mouth had descended upon Napoleon's length, taking him whole, and Napoleon was lost.
It was over in a matter of moments—Napoleon had been so close to the edge that he had climaxed swiftly, the heat of Illya's mouth wresting from him any self-control he had thought to have. He'd thrust again and again, feeling the way that Illya's fingers gripped his hips now, knowing there would be bruises there but no longer caring as he hurtled towards his orgasm.
When he lay, spent and gasping, Napoleon was only slightly aware of Illya standing over him, and he had to concentrate to hear what the Russian was saying. He could see Illya's lips moving, but he had to concentrate before he could even figure out which language his partner was speaking, let alone discern the words.
"Samozvanetz." Illya spat out the word again. "I know you for what you are. Where is my partner?"
Napoleon had heard the words, his brain had processed them, but they made no sense to him.
Bending over him now, Illya grasped the front of Napoleon's shirt, pulling his partner towards him. Illya's fingers were wrapped in the cotton, their heat flowing through the thin material again—the strangeness of the situation began to filter through to Napoleon as his rational mind began to function once more.
The Russian's eyes were cold, like chips of ice—it was as if the act which had just taken place had been done by another person altogether. There was no emotion in Illya's face, none at all.
"Where is my partner?" Illya repeated, the words full of menace.
"Illya, what are you talking about?" Napoleon replied. "I'm right here."
"Pah," Illya spat, letting go suddenly, and Napoleon's back slapped against the desk. Without another word the Russian turned away, leaving the office without a second glance even as, behind him, a very confused C.E.A. tried to restore his clothing to some semblance of normality.
Even as Napoleon gathered himself together, straightening his clothes, he was struck by the incongruity of what had just happened.
There, in his own office, he had been swept away on a tide of desire, a tide against which he had struggled, but only half-heartedly. He had never pretended to himself about the reality of his feelings for his stoic partner, but Napoleon had prided himself on his ability to dissemble. As Chief Enforcement Agent, that ability had often saved both his and his partner's lives.
Now Napoleon didn't know what to think.
He'd stared into the face of the man he had come to call friend and seen a coldness there that frightened him, had heard the open hostility in Illya's voice. That hostility had been so much at odds with the intimacy of Illya's actions, the passion with which he had laid waste to all of Napoleon's self-control.
Illya had spoken accusingly, puzzling words that Napoleon turned over in his mind even as he tried to remember what the word was that the Russian had hissed into his ear.
Napoleon struggled to concentrate, to try and push from his mind the thoughts of the warmth of Illya's mouth, the surge of desire that swept through him again as he thought of Illya going down on him.
The more he tried to forget, to set those thoughts aside, the more Napoleon knew that he wanted nothing more than the chance to relive those feelings. He longed to experience them again without the coldness—he wanted an equal passion, a depth of desire equal to his own.
Samozvanetz, he thought.
As Illya left Napoleon's office, without looking back at the devastation he had caused to the life of his self-controlled partner, he felt satisfied with what he had achieved.
He had meant to make the impostor squirm with desire for him—he had done so. He had meant to place the impostor in a position where he could not dissemble—he had done so. What he had not expected was the reaction from this false Napoleon—as Illya headed for his own office, he could not drive from his mind the look that he had seen in Napoleon's eyes.
Illya had expected to see lust, but he had not expected the desire he had witnessed laid bare. There had been a vulnerability there, an unexpected openness—it was not the look of a man who feared discovery.
He had hoped for a chink, some sign that he was on the right trail—an indication that this man knew the whereabouts of his partner. So far he had none, but Illya knew that the next move was not his.
Now, his part in this plan was to wait.
Napoleon reclined in his office chair, feet up on the desk, as he flicked through a Russian dictionary—mentally, he blessed the phonetic nature of the language, running the word that Illya had spoken over and over in his mind as his fingers worked through the Cyrillic alphabet.
When he found the word he had been searching for, Napoleon's eyes widened, his feet slipping from the desk with a thump. He threw the dictionary onto the desk without a care for where it might land, and left his office, knowing that he needed to find his partner.
Things were far worse than Napoleon had feared, and he tried to put the experiences from earlier out of his mind. He could not begin to think what Illya had been intending to do when he had come to his office, what he had intended to achieve by his actions. The coldness Napoleon had seen in his partner's eyes was enough to send a shiver down his spine.
There was no way that he could interpret those actions, those words, and feel comfortable with his conclusions. As he hurried down the corridor, Napoleon thought back on what had happened in his office between the two of them—there had been a coldness to the other man, a calculating aspect to the act itself.
What would he say when he cornered Illya?
How could he set this straight between them now, after what had happened in his office only minutes before?
Could their partnership continue, or would it be shattered by that one act of intimacy, viewed so differently by the two men involved? What had Illya been trying to achieve?
Napoleon could only hope that there was a future for the two of them, together. But what shape would that future take—friends, partners, lovers? Somehow, Napoleon could not find certainty within himself—he dared not hope to gain them all. His greatest fear was that he would now lose everything.
The door opening silently was expected—when Illya had run through this scenario in his mind, playing out the options, he had never expected the impostor to knock.
"Illya?" a familiar voice asked, more tentative than he had thought. There was still nothing out of the ordinary here, it was all still going to plan.
Illya looked up at the man standing in the doorway, the man whose dark, unreadable eyes were fixed on him intently.
"Have a seat," Illya said quietly, his hand outstretched to indicate a nearby chair.
"I don't want to sit down," Napoleon replied.
"What do you want?"
"Answers, my friend."
"Are you sure that's all you want?" Illya's voice was cold, mocking. "When I was in your office it was a different matter."
"I..." Napoleon choked out, stumbling over the words. His voice ground to a halt, and it was a few moments before he could speak again. "I know what you said to me."
"It's not true," Napoleon said quietly, coming over to the desk, moving closer to where Illya was still sitting.
"You say this like I should believe you," Illya replied. "I don't even know who you are!"
"I'm not what you say I am."
"What I say?"
"You called me an impostor," Napoleon said, his voice full of pain. "I don't know what made you think that of me."
"Don't you?" Illya blurted out, getting to his feet and approaching the American. "I saw the look in your eyes, I heard you plotting against me, I know you have been passing information to Thrush. Now I want to know the truth!"
"The truth?" Napoleon said.
Illya was very close now, his hand coming out from under his jacket, fingers wrapped round his U.N.C.L.E. Special. Napoleon's eyes were locked with Illya's, as if he was entranced by the fire that doubtless blazed within them now, hypnotized by them as they came nearer and nearer.
"The truth," Illya echoed, raising his gun in an unflinching hand.
"You know the truth already, Illya," Napoleon said quietly. "You've always known it, even when I've fooled myself that you knew nothing, that I had fooled you."
The two men were face to face, within arms length of each other, eyes locked.
"I don't know what you're talking about," Illya began.
"Everything changed for you, didn't it?" Napoleon asked quietly. "In the warehouse... everything changed..."
It was involuntary—there was nothing that Illya could have done to prevent it, even if he had seen it coming. The words themselves were enough to send him back to that place, back to the sensations he had experienced there, the terror that had swept him away.
In less time than it takes to blink it all happened again for him—light on metal, the smell of blood, pain, a gunshot, a cloud of dust.
From his peripheral vision, Illya saw Napoleon's hand move, infinitely slowly. His eyes were still locked with those of the American, and he was startled again by the warmth he saw there, the denial clearly written there of all that he had believed to be true.
He was frozen, locked in the space between past and present, only able to watch, not act. The gentlest of touches, fingertips brushing against his cheek and Illya felt himself dissolve, crumpling to the floor bonelessly.
It was as though he were watching someone else, stepping away from himself to observe what happened next. It was someone else's head that was cradled gently on the American's lap, someone else who was on the receiving end of the caresses, the stroking hand that soothed away the tears that fell unbidden.
Illya himself was not a part of this, he could only watch as someone else was comforted. Watch, and envy.
As Napoleon knelt on the floor of Illya's office, cradling his partner's body gently, he thought back to the latest mission, the latest rescue. The latest in a long line, each more traumatic than the last. As ever, when he lost track of his partner, Napoleon was afraid—every time they were separated, a cold feeling would come to him, a feeling that maybe this time he wouldn't make it, that this time he would be too late.
After all, how many times could the famous Solo luck be on his side?
Whenever he searched for Illya, knowing all along that he had doubtless been kidnapped as bait rather than for his own worth as an agent, Napoleon felt a pang of guilt. At times it seemed as though every low-life Thrush agent knew that the best way to make sure Napoleon Solo came running was to grab his partner and it was a game he was tiring of.
Each time, so far, he would rescue the Russian safely, and then it would happen all over again.
Napoleon shook his head slightly, as if to shake away the absurdity of it all—there were times, so many times that they had given up counting them, that Illya had been the rescuer, but the relationship was different. As far as Napoleon could tell, he was never the bait in a plot to trap Illya.
And this time had been no different.
Illya had been taken, tortured, and he felt oddly responsible for it all. Not that Illya had ever blamed him for it—no, the stoic Russian would just smile that small smile of his and press on to the next mission, seeming impervious to whatever had happened to him last time round.
Not this time though. This time something had been different. Not the kidnapping, sadly not the torture either, as both he and Illya bore the scars of other such incidents. This time it had been Illya's response to the whole thing that had changed. Not only his response—he had seemed different.
As Napoleon looked down at his partner, a man he had come to call his friend over the years they had worked together, he watched his hand stroke Illya's hair as if observing from afar. Illya was curled onto one side, his head still on his partner's lap, one hand clutching Napoleon's sleeve as though it were a life-line.
Over the years, Napoleon had come to know this taciturn man well, to see behind the façade that he erected for everyone else. Though Illya had a reputation for coldness, Napoleon had seen the vein of fire that ran through the Russian, that bubbled like lava just under the surface, as if waiting for an excuse to erupt. His reputation was carefully fortified by Illya's own desire to remain inconspicuous, a desire that had been a survival mechanism in the labor camps of his childhood.
It had taken some time, but Napoleon had worked at their relationship, refusing to let himself be put off by the Russian's initially icy demeanor, and the effort he had put in had been handsomely rewarded. There was no one else that Illya would have allowed himself to be so vulnerable with. But Napoleon had paid the price for the effort he had put into building a friendship between the two of them—he had fallen for Illya, so that he now desired his partner with a fervor that at times he thought would send him screaming over the edge.
Knowing Illya's troubled past and the horrors he'd endured in his childhood, Napoleon had held back—he'd feared that if his partner knew how he felt, then this would destroy what they had between them. So Napoleon had denied it all, even to himself, telling himself that it was not really that kind of love, just gratitude for timely rescues, the natural comradeship of two men facing death together on a regular basis.
And all the time he knew himself to be a liar.
Illya felt safe, more safe than he'd felt in a long time—he tried to think how long it had been but the effort involved exhausted him, making his brain whirl.
As Illya came back to himself, feeling as though his mind was finally re-connecting with his body, he was conscious that he was lying on the floor of his office, his head still cradled in his partner's lap. He could feel Napoleon's hands gently stroking his hair, the material of his partner's suit where he clutched it fitfully.
"You're awake." The voice making the statement was pitched low, reassuring him, and he relaxed again. "Illya?"
That voice again, breaking into his feeling of security. With that one word all the fear and confusion he had been experiencing came rushing back, causing Illya to stiffen where he lay, his free hand coming out to try and push himself out of Napoleon's grip from his prone position. As he began to struggle to rise, Illya felt the grip on him tighten, Napoleon's arm holding him in place as he could find no leverage to escape.
Feeling trapped, Illya began to struggle harder, his limbs thrashing wildly as he tried to escape—what little was left of his rational mind that was not gripped by a nameless terror recognized his partner's voice trying to soothe him.
"It's okay. You're safe," the voice repeated, over and over again.
"No!" Illya screamed. "Liar!"
Illya could feel himself beginning to tire, though the arm holding him in place was relentless—he began to shake as his struggles to free himself lessened, then the Russian began to sob.
"Illya..." the voice whispered. "What did they do to you, lyubov?
The sounds that Illya was making were so pitiful that they cut straight to Napoleon's heart—he was filled with a desire for revenge against all the people who'd hurt his friend in the past. Though he'd killed the latest of them, giving her a quick death compared to the pain she'd inflicted, he wished her alive again so he could kill her once more.
And this time it would not be so swift.
If he had the power, he would track down and kill every last one of them—even as he considered the reality of this feeling, Napoleon was a little frightened by its intensity. He'd never been one to commit easily. He'd always found organizations easier than individuals, making the transition from his time in the Army to U.N.C.L.E. a smooth one—in contrast, the American had many acquaintances, numerous colleagues, but very few friends.
And if someone had told him, when he and Illya first met, that this quiet Russian, so different from him in so many ways, would come to be the top of that list, he would have called them crazy. And if falling in love had been mentioned, then Napoleon would probably have exploded.
But it was all true. He loved this man with a passion he'd never experienced before, something he'd always sought in his dealings with women but had never found, no matter how hard he looked. Some part of himself had always been held back, but with Illya there were no secrets, nothing he could not share—nothing except his feelings.
But was it always going to be that way between them?
Napoleon's mind went back to what had happened in his office and, despite his best endeavors, he felt the warmth beginning to pool in his groin, a guilty stirring. He knew now that what had gone on between them had been a desperate act designed to elicit information somehow, but that knowledge did not remove the experience itself.
How had Illya known that particular scenario, or something very much like it, had been one of Napoleon's fantasies for the longest time now?
"We need to get you to the infirmary," he whispered.
In response, Illya muttered something Napoleon didn't quite catch—the tone itself was enough, it had a defeated sound to it.
"If I help you, can you walk?" Napoleon continued, torn. He wanted nothing better than to hold his friend like this forever, feeling the warmth of Illya's body against his, the way his hand gripped Napoleon's sleeve for security, but this warred with concern for his friend's well-being.
"Illya?" Napoleon said again, when there was no response.
"I... I can walk," Illya muttered. "You need to let go."
"If you promise not to run," Napoleon said, grinning slightly to himself on hearing something of Illya's familiar tones in the few words he had spoken.
"I promise," Illya replied tersely.
Hesitantly, Napoleon released his grip on his friend, unwrapping his arms, he allowed Illya to slip from them, then stood. Illya was still slumped on the floor, having moved so he was seated with his back against the side of the desk. When Napoleon extended a hand to help him up, Illya took it without looking up, and used both that and the desk to lever himself into an upright stance.
"Are you sure you can walk?" Napoleon asked, eyeing the way Illya was standing.
His only answer was a somewhat scornful glance in his direction, a glance that fell the moment it met Napoleon's eyes. Was it his imagination, or was Illya blushing?
"Let's go," Illya said, heading somewhat unsteadily for the door without looking at him.
Damn stubborn Russian, Napoleon thought, as he followed him out of the office.
As he walked through the corridors of U.N.C.L.E., Illya was all the while aware of the steady paces of his partner, trailing a few steps behind. He could hear Napoleon's footsteps echoing slightly in the hallways, now relatively deserted as the daytime staff had left.
His mind whirled, trying desperately to put the pieces together—until a few minutes ago, everything had seemed so clear to him, each piece of information fitting into the pattern his mind had created. But now, it was as though someone had taken those self-same pieces and thrown them into the air, careless of where they might land.
He'd been so certain.
Illya thought back to his time in the warehouse, held captive to the whims of a madwoman, someone who seemed to torture him only for the pleasure it brought her. He could still hear his screams echoing round the deserted building, see the shadows draw across the dusty floor as the hours passed and he was still a captive. He'd given up all hope of rescue, thinking himself deserted, and that thought had cut him deeper than any blade.
As he hung captive, Illya had contemplated his life, knowing himself with an awful certainty to be approaching a slow and painful death. He'd not liked what he'd seen. Illya had seen a man who had always cultivated solitude, a man who loved his own company, even when the hand of friendship had been offered to him.
He regretted all he hadn't done. Illya knew it was foolish—his upbringing, in all its harshness, had prepared him to be alone, to fear being vulnerable, but in his heart Illya knew that this was not the only reason he was alone.
At the end of the day, he liked it. He liked that he didn't have to rely on anyone else, to expose himself in all his frailty to another person's inspection. He also didn't have to face the disappointment in a loved one's eyes, the expression he dreaded more than any other.
And then there was his partner.
He'd been fascinated by Napoleon Solo, had let the American closer to who he really was than anyone had been permitted to come before. He had embraced the flame, only to find that it warmed and did not burn, as he had feared. Illya knew he had come to rely on that warmth, perhaps a little too much. All that he knew was that when it seemed gone, he could feel the ice creep upon his heart once more.
And now he'd really done it—taken a deep breath and blown it all away, with no hope of recovery.
He'd been wrong about so many things, and he would have to pay the price for all of them. He had slotted together his facts, forcing them into a picture that was a twisted reflection of the truth, driving him to take action in a way that had blown his treasured friendship apart.
Thinking back to what he had done in Napoleon's office, Illya managed to suppress a shudder, suddenly conscious of his partner's intelligent eyes as they rested on his back.
He had done some despicable things in the service of Mother Russia, some things he preferred not to think about in the service of U.N.C.L.E., but none seemed to Illya to have the repercussions that intimate act held. He had forced himself on his partner, taking his kindness and surprise for assent, breaching the barriers between them with a finality that terrified the Russian to the core of his being.
As a technique for extracting information, for putting an enemy in a place of vulnerability, sex had no peer, but what he had done had gone beyond that. It was a betrayal of their friendship, the death blow to their partnership, and it was only a matter of time before Napoleon would realize that.
Of course, he would be polite about it, express his regret that they could no longer work together, but the thought of the pain he would see in Napoleon's eyes, the accusation he feared to see there, that thought tormented Illya.
He stifled a sob as he thought of it, even as his hand reached automatically to open the infirmary door.
Even in all the time that they'd known one another, despite all the many trips they'd taken to the infirmary, together and separately, Napoleon had never seen Illya so dejected.
As he walked behind his partner through the corridors, Napoleon watched every step, wondering at the fact that his stubborn partner was on his feet at all. Each movement seemed an agony, Illya seemed to struggle along, all his usual energy lost.
Not for the first time, Napoleon wondered what had been going through his partner's head. He knew that the Russian, a scientist by training after all, was a logical thinker and he'd reached some kind of conclusion. A conclusion he had then chosen to test in the most dramatic manner. That the conclusion was so far off-base appeared to have thrown Illya for a loop, in a way Napoleon had never seen before.
He wanted to reach out and help Illya along, offer him support, but the stiffness of Illya's back told him more eloquently than any words that such an offer would be rejected.
Napoleon felt frustrated, fearing that his friend was taking this opportunity to re-build the walls that had crumbled during their encounter in Illya's office—this was the Russian's chance to re-trench. What would his response be? Would he push Napoleon away now, embarrassed at the intimacy that had passed between them?
Only time could provide the answer to those questions.
"Where do you think you're going?"
"I'm going home, Napoleon," Illya said, trying ineffectually to push his way past his partner.
Napoleon stood in the doorway of the infirmary, his brown eyes unreadable as he gazed at the Russian. Though Illya had spoken to him, he had not looked up, seemingly fascinated by the pattern of the infirmary floor, and his voice had been toneless.
"Home?" Napoleon echoed. "What did the doctor..."
"He said I'm fine," Illya interrupted, "but that I need to go home and get some rest."
Napoleon said nothing, continuing to lean against the doorframe, seemingly casual but all the while eyeing his partner with concern. He knew that, if Illya really wanted to get past him, then there would probably be little he could do to stop him without either of them getting hurt, and he was desperately hoping it wouldn't come to that.
He couldn't imagine hurting Illya and, at least until he had heard the coldness in Illya's voice earlier, he would have relied on the same being true for his partner.
"And how," Napoleon asked, "are you going to get home? You're in no fit state to drive."
Look at you, Illya, he thought, you're shaking like a leaf.
"I can get a cab," Illya said, looking up for the first time, his jaw jutting stubbornly.
"Napoleon..." Illya began, his tone foreboding.
"I said 'no.' This is not a matter for debate, Illya," Napoleon continued. "Either you stay in the infirmary, or you let me drive you home. No other options."
For a moment Illya was silent, his eyes studying Napoleon's face. Try as he might, Napoleon could not decipher any emotion in those eyes, but he was absurdly heartened by the fact that his stubborn partner hadn't tried to argue with him. Well, not yet anyway.
"Very well," Illya said, finally. "Shall we go?"
Napoleon stepped back to allow his partner to pass, feeling the warmth from the Russian's body as Illya brushed past him. Despite all his good intentions, he couldn't help but grin, relishing the tiny victory he'd just won—he'd feared, after all, that Illya would retreat behind a wall of ice and never come out.
He had to get out of the infirmary, one way or another. If not under his own steam, which Napoleon seemed determined to thwart, then with his partner's assistance. It was ironic, really—Napoleon's mother hen instincts always seemed to kick in at the most inappropriate moment, usually when Illya was least in the mood to tolerate them.
Like now, for instance.
Now, when the thing Illya wanted most was to go home and pretend the rest of the world didn't exist for a while. To try and put behind him the enormity of the mistake he'd made, the way he'd single-handedly taken a sledgehammer to his partnership with Napoleon and destroyed it forever.
Napoleon was probably just waiting for the right time, the socially acceptable time, to tell him that their partnership was history.
After all, considering the way Illya had forced himself on his unwilling partner, how likely was it that Napoleon could do anything else? If you ignored the damage Illya might have caused to his self-esteem, Napoleon had his reputation to think of.
Not that Illya would ever forget what had happened between them in Napoleon's office, the way his partner had writhed beneath him, the tiny gasping sound he'd made just prior to his orgasm. If, as seemed likely, Illya would soon find himself cleaning toilets in U.N.C.L.E. Alaska, then at least he'd have some memories to take with him.
He was trying to be positive, really he was, trying to be encouraged by the fact that Napoleon was still talking to him, but it wasn't easy. For all Illya knew, that was only happening because people would ask what was going on if Napoleon wasn't talking to his partner.
He couldn't believe that it was for his benefit, couldn't hope that Napoleon could possibly be that forgiving.
This time Illya knew, though he was finding it almost impossible to feel guilty about his actions if not his motivations, he had crossed the line.
The drive back was a quiet one for most of the way. Illya sat staring straight ahead, as if transfixed, and Napoleon took the opportunity to study his partner.
Normally, Illya's slimness was deceptive—he was far stronger than he looked, both mentally and physically. He was normally pale, that was true, but there was a translucent quality to him currently that had Napoleon worried. He seemed like the wraiths of legend, seeming more substantial than they truly were, dissolving in the sunlight.
The silence in the car became oppressive, bearing down on the two men, each lost in their own thoughts. Napoleon was secretly glad that he was driving, as at least that gave him something to concentrate on, something that would allow him to tear his mind away from the seductive memories of what had happened between them in his office.
Even the thought of it sent warmth shooting into Napoleon's groin. Though his rational mind tried to suppress the memories, pushing them away with great industry, his treacherous body began to react. When he spoke, Napoleon knew that his voice was a little strained and this was confirmed by the glance that Illya shot him.
"We need to talk," Napoleon began, as he pulled the car over to the curb in front of Illya's building.
"Do we?" Illya replied quietly.
"We do," Napoleon replied, with more conviction than he was feeling. "And I think this is a conversation we should have indoors."
"We need to talk."
Those simple words sent a frisson of fear through Illya. It had been bad enough that Napoleon had practically ordered him to accompany him home, using the hierarchy of U.N.C.L.E. for once. And now his partner wanted to talk to him.
Illya's mind, which had seemed to be running on rails for a while now, had returned to its usual active state, and was feverishly coming up with possible scenarios, none of which gave Illya any comfort. With a cold certainty, the Russian knew that Napoleon was looking for a relatively neutral environment in which to end their partnership.
He'd been waiting for this moment ever since they had first met, Illya realized. It was inevitable that it should come to this—they were too different for their working together to ever be a long-term thing. There was no way that Illya could envisage working as an agent without Napoleon by his side but he had forfeited all right to that partnership by one ill-judged act.
Maybe it was time for him to return to the lab? After all, there Illya could be in complete control of the situation, protected by the regularity of the work and able to rebuild the defences he had unwisely lowered.
That it had taken so long for Napoleon to come to this realization too had been a blessing to Illya, but in his heart the Russian knew that he had been the one to deliver the death blow.
Sighing, Illya led the way into his apartment building.
Napoleon watched his partner with a sinking heart. Illya was moving as he imagined someone might if they were walking to face a firing squad, head bowed, feet barely clearing the floor.
What did he think was about to happen?
Napoleon had long ago given up trying to psychoanalyze his partner—he had discovered over the years they had worked together that there were too many layers between the world and Illya for such an analysis to be successful. Some had been created by the Russian's tragic childhood, some by the terrible things his partner had endured in the service of U.N.C.L.E.
Creating a friendship with the taciturn Russian had been a labor of love for Napoleon.
He had once heard it said that a sculptor could 'see' the statue within a piece of stone, only needing to remove the excess material to release the shape itself. In the same way, Napoleon had seen through the barriers that Illya put up to protect himself, straight through to the man who hid behind them.
Though he was not a patient man by nature, Napoleon had devoted himself to chipping away infinitely slowly at the ice that bound his partner's heart. All along, he knew that one false move might destroy everything, sending his partner scurrying for cover, yet it was worth the risk. No one else knew Illya like he did—no one else had been allowed in.
All his effort over the years they had been partnered had paid off richly. The two of them had survived the worst that Thrush could throw at them, foiling that organization's attempts time and time again, and had come out of it relatively unscathed. At least till now.
Napoleon knew that it had been bound to happen one day. No one could go on experiencing the horrors that had become everyday life for the two of them without feeling the strain. For himself, the American had sought solace in the company of beautiful women, telling himself that this would give him what he wanted, though all along he knew it to be a lie.
There was only one person on this planet that he felt comfortable with, that he could be himself with, who he could trust completely to never hurt him.
He had fallen in love, hopelessly and desperately, with Illya Kuryakin.
Illya led the way into his apartment, letting the door swing open behind him as he trudged in.
When Illya had hung up his jacket, he returned back to the living room to find that Napoleon had settled himself into the chair that faced the door. He looked relaxed as he sat there, but the Russian knew better—despite the American's calm demeanor, Illya knew that Napoleon was like a coiled spring, ready for action.
"You wanted to talk," Illya began, feeling as though he were forcing the words out.
Please, my friend, he thought, surprising himself with the calmness he felt, let us end this now.
Napoleon said nothing for a minute or two, his eyes surveying Illya as he sat in the chair opposite. The way that his partner's eyes raked over him made Illya uncomfortable, but he reasoned that it was no more than he deserved.
"Illya..." Napoleon began.
"I'm sorry, Napoleon," Illya blurted out, the words surprising him when they came out.
He had been feeling ashamed of his actions in Napoleon's office for hours now, the words rattling round inside his mind, but he had not intended to say them. After all, if he apologized, then Napoleon would feel obliged to try and forgive him and Illya could not forgive himself.
"Sorry?" Napoleon echoed, one eyebrow raised in enquiry.
This was all wrong. Nothing was going as he intended. Illya brought his hands up to cover his face, leaning forward, his elbows resting on his knees. Napoleon was supposed to say what he came here to say and then go.
"Illya?" Napoleon asked, when Illya stayed silent. "What are you apologizing for?"
Illya raised his hands from his face, dropping them to his lap as he sat back once more. He was aware that his hands were twisting together, and he tried to still them. Taking a deep breath, the Russian finally spoke again.
"I... I am apologizing for everything, Napoleon," he said, his voice surprising him with its steadiness. "You trusted me, yet I violated that trust in the worst way possible. I understand."
"Understand?" Napoleon sounded puzzled as he echoed the word.
"It's over, Napoleon," Illya said quietly, his eyes fixed on his hands where they were twined together in his lap.
"What are you talking about?" Napoleon asked, his voice sharp now. Illya could not bring himself to look up, fearing what he might see reflected in the dark eyes that faced him.
There was silence between them for a moment—all that could be heard was the sound of traffic from the street below.
"I don't believe this," Napoleon said finally. "You think... you really think that I came here to tell you our partnership is over, don't you?" Illya nodded, a small movement, still without looking up. "Why?"
The single word hung between them in the silence.
"How can you ask that?" Illya said, his voice cracking with emotion. "After I..." The words ground to a halt.
"You've not been yourself, Illya," Napoleon said quietly. "I've been worried about you ever since I got you out of the warehouse. You keep saying that you can't remember what happened, but I don't believe you. What happened to you, Illya?"
As he spoke, Napoleon moved out of the chair, coming to crouch before the Russian, his voice still low and calming. His eyes were intent on the huddled form of his partner, his hands coming out tentatively to cover Illya's where they twisted together on his partner's lap.
"I lost it all."
Was it the words themselves, or the toneless way in which they were whispered, that sent the greatest chill through Napoleon's soul?
In all the time they had known each other, since he had been able to see past the façade that the Russian erected against the world, he had always felt himself privileged to be allowed to see inside, to the man who was the real Illya. Despite the great hardships that Illya had lived through, the things he had experienced since they had become partners, Napoleon had never heard such hopelessness in his friend's voice.
He could feel the warmth of Illya's hands as they lay trapped beneath his own, his fingers preventing their frenetic twisting, an outward sign of the Russian's inner turmoil.
"Tell me, Illya," he said, leaning closer.
The words remained unspoken but what need did he have to say them anyway? Napoleon knew that he trusted Illya, as surely as he knew that the sun rose in the east—saying the words would not make that fact more true. But did Illya trust him enough?
"I was dying," Illya began, hesitantly, his words quiet enough that Napoleon was glad he was crouched so near. "And I was afraid."
"Afraid?" Napoleon echoed, trying to stop the surprise he felt from escaping into his voice.
Illya afraid? Those were two words he had never considered together. The Russian was a stalwart companion, following Napoleon into the most bizarre and dangerous situations without a second thought, rescuing his partner from certain death over and over again. And this time he had been afraid?
"What were you afraid of, Illya?" Napoleon prompted, feeling a guilty fascination with what could wreak such damage on his courageous partner.
After all, none of what Illya had experienced was new to him, Napoleon realized. Not the torture, the pain, none of it. Yet something had happened to the Russian which had shaken him to the core. It had changed him, causing him to leap to a conclusion which had almost torn their partnership to shreds.
He waited, his eyes intent on Illya's bowed head, hands still clasped over Illya's—he would wait as long as it took for his friend to speak.
It had taken all the strength he had just to admit his fear. Even as Illya sat there, head bowed, he could feel the strength in Napoleon's hands where they encompassed his own, their warmth trickling through him, melting the ice that had formed around his heart over the past days.
He had come up to his apartment expecting to be told that Napoleon no longer wanted to be his partner, that his own ill-judged action had driven a wedge between them that could not be remedied. And Napoleon had stunned him with his kindness, his acceptance, both gifts unlooked for.
How had he ever come to be so lucky?
It was more than he deserved, more even than he dared to hope for. Even the patience that Napoleon was showing now, his willingness to wait on Illya's ability to speak, told volumes about the man he was proud to call his friend. He did not deserve such loyalty—he had never deserved it.
"I was alone," Illya said finally, his words falling into the stillness that reigned in his tiny apartment like the specks of dust that floated in the autumn sunlight streaming through the nearby window.
He marvelled at the ordinariness of the words. Afraid. Alone. Words so simple, yet they held such a universe of experience, standing as they did mere symbols for the potent emotions locked behind them. Just sounds in a particular order, that was all they were. How could he make Napoleon understand?
"You've been alone before," Napoleon prompted quietly.
"Not like this," Illya blurted out. "Never like this!"
As he jerked slightly with the vehemence of his words, the last of which erupted out of him so loudly that he startled even himself, Illya felt one of Napoleon's hands move, travelling upwards to rest on his shoulder. The sheer warmth of the American's hand seemed to burn through the fabric of his turtleneck, sending filaments of heat through Illya's body.
The sudden warmth made Illya shudder slightly, embarrassed that Napoleon's touch alone was enough to make him re-experience every emotion he had ever felt in the compass of a heartbeat. It was comforting and alarming, all at once—it sent a strength through Illya, a silent encouragement to continue speaking.
"All I could think of," Illya said, "was that I was going to die there. Alone."
"Oh Illya," Napoleon said, the words nothing more than an exhalation of breath as he tried to get his mind round the Russian's admission.
It shocked him, more than he liked to consider—Illya had always seemed so self-contained, resilient, and all along he had been carrying this fear inside him like a cancer. How could he not have seen it before?
His partner had lived through some of the worst things that one human being could do to another and though he'd always been a survivor, it was only to be expected that one day he would reach his breaking point. Even the most resilient spirit could only take so much.
Napoleon cursed himself for his thoughtlessness.
He had always relied so much on Illya, trusted him so implicitly to handle whatever situation Thrush threw at them—had he ever considered that his partner was a human being, with all the inherent frailty that implied? He'd treated Illya more like some kind of robot, the ever-faithful sidekick, always ready to leap into the fray. He'd never thought that anything life threw at the stoic Russian could actually harm him!
How wrong he'd been.
This time, the resilient Russian had not rolled with the punches—this time they had nearly destroyed him.
"I'm so sorry," Napoleon said, feeling the beginning of tears pricking at his eyes as he contemplated his part in this whole nasty affair. The futility of the words tore at him, even as they passed his lips.
"I don't want your pity," Illya snapped, looking up, his eyes glacial.
"I know what you said," Napoleon replied, as he felt Illya's body stiffen under the hand still resting on the Russian's shoulder. "It's not pity, Illya. Don't you know me better than that?"
"I'm not really sure I know anything any more," Illya said, his tone as cold as the frosty blue of his eyes.
"I am," Napoleon said, still gazing intently at the Russian. "And I'm sorry. I should have known, should have done something."
"Ah, the great Napoleon Solo," Illya said scornfully. "A solution for everything."
Illya struggled up from where he'd been sitting as he spoke, brushing off Napoleon's hands. He sent Napoleon scrambling backwards as he rose from the chair, his only intention to escape what he feared the most. He'd made himself vulnerable and his partner's reaction had been to pity him, to diminish the reality of his fears.
The look on Napoleon's face stopped him in mid-sentence—the look of guilty desire there was unmistakable. Illya had seen that look before, he'd faced it so many times in the bathroom mirror when he had barely damped down his feelings for his partner that it was familiar to him now.
As if he realized that his face gave him away, Napoleon turned, crossing to the window. He stood there silently, his back ramrod straight, seemingly contemplating the traffic passing below.
"Napoleon?" Illya said, concern chasing away the cold fury he had felt before.
He'd been angry, despising the pity that the American had offered, the tears he had seen threatening at the edge of the chocolate brown eyes that had gazed so intently at him. But this was something different, something new that he could not categorize.
Try as he might, Illya could not bear to use the American's pain to drive him away, to destroy their partnership.
He couldn't bear to be alone.
He knew that now, with the greatest certainty he had ever felt. If he were alone again, the ice would come and he would be swept away. Even death would be better than that living hell—seeing life, but not participating, too frozen by his own fears to even try.
He knew now that Napoleon blamed himself somehow for what happened, though he couldn't have been responsible. How could he? Illya was an adult, he had chosen this way of life, knowing its dangers, he forged his own path through life. And now, like an adult, he had to choose his next step on that path, knowing that on either side lay the coldness he had lived with up till now.
"It's not your fault, Napoleon," Illya said tentatively, his eyes locked on his partner's back.
Napoleon was silhouetted against the window, the bright autumn sunlight creating a nimbus round him as he stood there, silent. Even when Illya spoke, he did not move. Illya sighed to himself, sending up a silent prayer to the god he'd believed in as a child before he crossed the room, coming to stand just behind Napoleon's left shoulder. An almost imperceptible stiffening of his partner's stance was the only indication that his partner knew he was there.
Taking a deep breath, Illya reached a hand out, placing it gently on Napoleon's shoulder, an echo of the touch his partner had bestowed on him what seemed like a lifetime ago.
"I... I should have known," Napoleon said once more, his voice cracking slightly as he spoke.
"I'm so sorry," Napoleon said again, without looking round. "I guess I always thought nothing could harm you, Illya. You always seemed so..." His voice faltered as he searched for the word. "Invulnerable," he said finally.
Illya shook his head, smiling despite himself at the image that word created in his mind. He was as far from being invulnerable as anyone he could think of—some days, he felt so fragile that he feared he would shatter at a word, let alone a touch.
But this was his own creation. The myth that was Illya Kuryakin. Self-sufficient, resilient, invulnerable.
And always alone.
How could he have been so wrong?
Napoleon had prided himself that he knew Illya like no-one else alive, that the Russian had opened a gate in the high wall that he had erected around himself, granting him entrance to a land few knew existed. And he'd been a fool. He'd been closer to Illya than anyone else, but even then he'd not seen the reality of the man he called his partner.
Like everyone else in U.N.C.L.E., Napoleon Solo had bought into the image that Illya projected for the world—he'd believed the protective lies that Illya spun around himself, ignoring or overlooking the things he could not bear to see within him.
He'd always wanted Illya to be perfect, he knew that now. Even flawed as the Russian was, the coldness that was there at his heart kept him perfectly preserved, undamaged by the realities of life.
Just knowing that Illya felt the same emotions he did made Napoleon feel as though his world had been shaken. It was as though someone had come along and told him that the world was really flat, that all the evidence to the contrary was just supposition, and now he could know the truth.
It frightened him.
"Napoleon, it's not your fault," Illya began again, his voice quiet yet carrying in the silence of his apartment. So little space separated the two men that it seemed to him that the merest whisper could carry his words to his partner. But could Napoleon hear them?
As he spoke, Napoleon glanced round at him, his eyes falling first on Illya's hand which still rested on his shoulder, then travelled up to look into Illya's eyes. The emotions so openly displayed in those chocolate depths surprised the Russian, stunning him for a moment, and Napoleon seemed to take his sudden intake of breath as some kind of dismissal, as he turned to look out of the window again.
"How can it not be my fault, Illya?" Napoleon asked. "You're my partner, that makes your welfare my responsibility."
"I'm old enough to look after myself," Illya replied, feeling annoyance at the proprietary tone that often seemed to appear in Napoleon's voice when he spoke of partnership. "I've done that for a while now, remember."
"What is so wrong with the idea that I might want to protect you?" Napoleon snapped, turning suddenly away from the window. "Why do you always bristle like this at the idea that you can trust me?"
"I trust you, Illya," Napoleon continued, seemingly heedless of the stunned expression on his partner's face, or his abortive attempts to speak. "I've trusted you implicitly for so long now that it seems like second nature to me, relying on you to rescue me time and time again, but it's different for you, isn't it?"
As he spoke, Napoleon advanced across the carpet, driving the helpless Russian before him across the small room. Illya was barely aware of where his feet were treading, all his attention being focussed on the light that was there in his partner's eyes, the slightly desperate expression that shone there for anyone to see.
They had reached the door in a few short strides, and Illya found his back against the wood, his eyes darting round the room, his mind racing in its desperate search for a way to escape this moment.
"Do you trust me, Illya?" Napoleon purred, his hands coming to rest on the wood to either side of Illya's head. His face was close now, his breath warm on Illya's cheek as he leaned forward, pausing again when their faces were a matter of inches apart.
Their eyes locked, and it was as if the last puzzle piece had fallen into place.
They stood like that for what felt like the longest moment that Illya had ever experienced, and it was a long time before the Russian realized that he was holding his breath. He had stopped looking for an escape route, but felt as though he were poised on the edge of a precipice—the slightest breath of wind would send him spiralling down to destruction.
With that single word, Illya moved at last, his hand coming up from his side to wrap itself in the hair at the back of Napoleon's head, pulling the American forward into a scorching kiss. Illya knew he had always been drawn to his partner, like a moth to a flame, from the very beginning—the thought of his impending incineration only filled him with a sense of elation.
The look in Illya's eyes had been enough to send Napoleon over the edge, his heart pounding as if he'd run a marathon—the kiss itself was more than he'd ever hoped for, even in his most elaborate fantasies.
If he'd not been so angry, Napoleon knew he'd never have allowed himself to be so close to Illya. Even as he'd harried the Russian across his tiny apartment, a part of him knew that cornering Illya was not a good idea, that his partner's sense of self-protection, that very sense which had kept him alive for so long, could kick in at any time. The result could be disastrous for their friendship, the final thing that tore them apart.
And then, before either of them realized it, they were at the apartment door.
He could see the slight movements of Illya's eyes, as, even trapped against the wood, his partner's body impossibly close, Illya still sought some escape route. This was the moment that Napoleon had dreamed about for so long and he knew that it would never come again. Should he choose to step away now, to allow Illya to escape from him, Illya might never stop running—he'd retreat behind the strongest wall he could build and never emerge.
"Do you trust me, Illya?" Napoleon heard himself say, his body stiffening as he waited for the answer that could destroy him.
Long seconds passed, their eyes locked together as Illya seemed to come to some decision deep inside. His eyes were not cold now, as they had been in Napoleon's office, fire burned in their depths. All the fire that the American knew to be long-buried in Illya was shining through, all the courage and strength of character that Napoleon had begun by admiring and then come to love.
"Always," Illya replied finally, the word husky with emotion, pulling Napoleon towards him for a searing kiss, a kiss which stole the very thoughts from the American's mind.
All he knew was that he had taken his chance, gambled his life and future, and the wager had come off.
A high-pitched beeping sound brought the two men back to reality—after a long moment, they separated, recognizing the summons of an U.N.C.L.E. communicator.
Reluctantly, Napoleon stepped back slightly, his eyes still on Illya's mouth, watching fascinated as Illya's tongue flicked out to wet his lower lip, even as Napoleon's hand was reaching inside his jacket for the offending item.
"Mr. Solo," Waverly's voice grated through the device. "Is Mr. Kuryakin there with you?"
The innocuous question, so ironic considering what the summons had interrupted, made Napoleon grin slightly and he noted an answering blush beginning on Illya's face.
"I'm here, sir," Illya replied quietly, refusing to look his partner in the eye.
"Well, gentlemen, it seems that Mr. Kuryakin's plan has worked," Waverly said. "We have our mole. As Chief Enforcement Agent, Mr. Solo, you should lead the interrogation."
"On my way, sir," Solo replied, stifling a sigh of frustration at the unspoken summons. "Solo out."
He'd never been so reluctant before to answer the call of duty. As he put the communicator away, Napoleon watched Illya slide out from between him and the door, his face unreadable, his eyes looking anywhere but at his partner.
"Illya," Napoleon began, "I..."
"We should go," Illya said quietly, gathering up his jacket.
"It was my plan, Napoleon," Illya said quietly. "Did you think I was going to let you take all the credit?"
As he spoke, Illya glanced across at where Napoleon was still standing, one hand still pressed against the door, as if it would fall into the room if he were not there. Their eyes met again, and this time Napoleon was heartened by what he saw there.
No coldness, no regret, just an element of promise.
The drive over to U.N.C.L.E. HQ took place in silence.
Illya puzzled over the situation he now found himself in, turning the events of the past few days over and over in his mind.
One moment he had been annoyed at Napoleon's proprietary air, the way that the American seemed to demand something extraordinary from himself in relation to Illya's well-being. Then, even as he was still bristling from that attitude, he had found himself stepping out into uncharted territory, risking the abyss.
And he had not fallen, as he had always feared he would.
That Napoleon was a passionate man came as no surprise—how could it, when they'd been partners for so long, let alone when he'd seen the ardent way his friend chased whatever women were nearby? But that this passion could be directed at him alone, that gave Illya pause for thought.
If only they had not been interrupted. No. He would not think of that, not now—after all, it had been such intimacy that had nearly destroyed them before. Illya knew, despite the way that he wanted to throw himself head-first into the chasm that opened up before him, that Napoleon had to dictate the speed at which they moved this time.
He knew that the time ahead would be difficult for both of them, he was resigned to the fact—all Illya could do was trust that what Napoleon seemed to feel for him was real and could survive the coming days.
Napoleon glanced surreptitiously across at his silent partner as they drove to U.N.C.L.E. HQ. Even as they were parking, and all the way into Del Floria's he watched Illya when the Russian was not looking, not liking the silence that was there between them.
It worried him so much that Napoleon almost forgot to flirt with the receptionist that greeted them—almost.
A sidelong glance from Illya, when the expected words failed to appear, was enough to bring Napoleon back down to earth with a jolt. He trotted out some banal compliment—it sounded real enough to convince the receptionist, and Napoleon was not sure that he'd imagined the look that flashed across his partner's face.
"Good afternoon, gentlemen," Waverly greeted them when they finally appeared in his office.
His voice was cold, and one glance at the grimness of his face was enough to stop whatever glib response Napoleon had been about to come out with. Waverly gestured impatiently for the two agents to take a seat, absently playing with an unlit pipe as they did so.
"Do we know any more, sir?" Napoleon asked cautiously.
"It seems that our mole was not alone, Mr. Solo," Waverly said, with a scowl. "He claims to have had help from a highly-placed agent within Section Two."
"Do we have any idea who?"
"Indeed we do, Mr. Solo," Waverly said calmly, pressing a button on the desk in front of him. At his summons, the door behind them hissed open, revealing three heavily armed agents. "He claims that he received his instructions directly from Mr. Kuryakin."
Illya froze in his seat as his name was spoken, not even daring to look round at his partner. He heard the footsteps of the three newly arrived agents as they came to stand round where he was still seated, U.N.C.L.E. Specials clutched ready in their hands in case he should try to resist.
"That's ridiculous!" Napoleon blurted out. "Illya would never betray U.N.C.L.E. like that."
"It's alright, Napoleon," Illya said quietly, pushing himself up slowly from his chair.
He was aware all the time of the three sets of eyes focussed so intently on his every move. Illya reached slowly into his jacket and loosened his shoulder holster, before removing it, and the gun it held, and handing them to one of the agents who stood nearby.
"Tell him, Illya!" Napoleon ordered, turning to face his partner for the first time since the accusation was spoken. "Tell him you had nothing to do with this."
The unspoken plea in Napoleons eyes was as clear as the words he had said—tell me you had nothing to do with this.
"I can't," Illya said finally, his eyes falling to study the surface of the desk in front of him. "I can't... because I don't know that I didn't. I don't remember."
"That's ridiculous." Napoleon spat out the words.
"Please escort Mr. Kuryakin out of here," Waverly said, breaking the spell that held the two agents together, making Napoleon turn back to face the man behind the desk.
"Sir?" Napoleon pleaded. "Please, you can't believe..."
Even as he spoke, he heard the door hiss open again, as the three agents left with his partner. It took every ounce of willpower Napoleon had not to turn and say something, do something, but he knew that only Waverly had the power to free his partner.
"This conversation is over, Mr. Solo," Waverly said, dismissing him with a wave of his hand, before turning to one of the pile of folders waiting his inspection.
The feeling of powerlessness that swept over Napoleon left him light-headed for a moment—the events of the previous days, and even the passionate kiss that he had shared with Illya only a matter of minutes ago seemed like distant memories.
With one order, Waverly had shattered the only certainty in Napoleon's life. He knew that there was no way he'd be allowed to see Illya, so he did not bother to ask again, turning on his heel and leaving the office without a word, careless of Waverly's gaze upon him.
Could he have been wrong?
Napoleon's mind raced as he stalked along the corridors, ignoring the smiles of the occasional female agents who passed by, focussed as it was on one particular smile. One particular face, the face of the man he trusted more than anyone else.
He knew that Illya had been acting strangely ever since he had rescued his partner from the warehouse, bursting in to find that woman standing so close to him, the knife that glinted with Illya's blood still poised to cut again. Illya himself had hung so limply in his bonds that only the fitful heaving of his chest gave any sign that the Russian was still alive.
He'd killed the woman without a second thought, then raced to his partner's side, forced to use the same knife that had been used to torture Illya to cut him free. Then Napoleon remembered tossing the knife aside, remembered wiping his hands on his trouser legs over and over again as he crouched by Illya's side, waiting for the medical team to come.
It had been too close—he'd known somehow that something was wrong with his partner but never suspected that the wrongness of it all went so deep.
That Illya had acted out of character, revealing a side of himself that Napoleon had never seen before, that couldn't be denied. But for Illya to be a traitor to U.N.C.L.E.? He would not, could not believe such a thing.
But Illya believed it of you, he thought, the memory of Illya's accusatory tones coming back to haunt him, even in the midst of his certainty.
I should have told him, Illya thought, as he sat in the holding cell, his head cradled in his hands. I should never have let this go so far without telling him.
Illya closed his eyes, thinking back to the brief moments of passion he had experienced with his partner, moments that seemed, in his mind at least, to have lasted an eternity.
He'd felt so safe, so accepted, so trusted, and yet he had allowed this to happen. He'd never protested against the culmination of his plan, despite the hurt it would certainly cause his partner. Illya had made his choice—he'd decided where his loyalties lay and he'd chosen U.N.C.L.E.
The door to the holding cell swung open and the light silhouetted the shape of Alexander Waverly in the doorway.
"Mr. Kuryakin, are you sure you're up to this?"
"Quite sure, sir," Illya said, looking up at the older man. "And Napoleon?"
"On his way back to his office, if I'm not mistaken," Waverly said, coming over to sit on the one chair that the holding cell contained. "He seemed... upset. Are you sure it was necessary to keep him in the dark over this part of your plan?"
"The preliminary results indicated that the mole is situated in Section 2," Illya said, hating the words even as he spoke them. "I'm not convinced that Napoleon could give a good enough performance if he knew my arrest wasn't real."
"Quite so." Waverly looked thoughtful for a moment. "And this plan will flush out the mole?"
"If whoever is passing the information to Thrush thinks that I am under suspicion, they may become careless, over-confident."
"Time will tell." Waverly got up from his seat and headed towards the door, banging on it with his stick to alert the guards. As the door was opened, he turned back to Illya and spoke again. "Get some sleep, Mr. Kuryakin."
The southern accent, the words drawled casually, broke through to Napoleon as he waited impatiently at the elevator. He didn't look round, his eyes flicking up to the numbers displayed above and then down again to the doors, as if that action alone would hurry the system.
Napoleon didn't even bother to look when he felt a presence at his side, his memory supplying the name to fit the voice—James Dawson. He'd known Dawson in the army—in fact he'd known far too many people just like Dawson. Men who enjoyed their work a little too much for his liking.
He'd wondered before how Dawson had managed to find his way into U.N.C.L.E., how he'd passed the stringent tests supposed to ensure the organization's agents were the brightest and the best. Still, he'd no proof that Dawson was anything but what he professed to be—mere personal dislike for someone wasn't enough to get them kicked out.
As the elevator doors closed behind the two men, Napoleon glanced across at Dawson, who seemed to be studying his shoes.
"Hear your partner got arrested," Dawson said quietly, without looking up.
Napoleon strained to hear any note of emotion in that voice—he could feel the anger churning inside him as he thought back on Illya being dragged out of Waverly's office by three heavily armed agents. He should have known the story would already be circulating round HQ—within an hour every agent in the building would know.
"Just goes to show," Dawson continued, seemingly unaware of the danger, "you can never tell."
"What?" Napoleon hissed, his fury close to the surface.
The menace in the single word was enough to alert Dawson finally to the peril that awaited him if he continued on this path. He glanced nervously at Napoleon, before looking back at his shoes once more. The elevator door hissed open—the car had arrived at Napoleon's floor. As he passed Dawson, the agent spoke again, more quietly.
"Better find yourself a new partner, Solo."
Napoleon restrained himself, though he had no idea how—every instinct was screaming at him to pound Dawson until he couldn't speak again but he somehow bit his lip and kept walking, pretending that he hadn't heard the words.
He didn't want another partner—he wanted Illya.
It wasn't a new thing, of course.
As Napoleon settled into the chair behind his desk, hoping that the familiar surroundings would help him to make sense of what had just happened, he thought back to the first time he'd met Illya Kuryakin.
He'd never wanted a partner, never wanted to have to rely on anyone else that completely—Napoleon had been proud of his own ability to survive whatever life threw at him. He'd survived the army, survived Korea and he could survive U.N.C.L.E.
U.N.C.L.E. however, in the shape of Alexander Waverly, had a different idea.
Later, Napoleon was to learn that he'd almost become Waverly's pet project—the older man seemed to have set himself the task of finding the American agent the perfect partner, sorting his way through a multitude of candidates, finding fault with them all.
And then Illya Kuryakin had come along.
It had seemed so unlikely, to everyone but Waverly. How could he possibly work with this man? This refugee from a system Napoleon could barely comprehend, educated at Cambridge and The Sorbonne? His first sight of Illya had confirmed his worst fears. The man he was meant to trust with his life was slight and blond—his eyes radiated intelligence, but there was a chilly calmness to his manner that unsettled the American.
But the doubters, himself included, had been wrong. Illya proved to be an asset to U.N.C.L.E., his body far stronger than that first meeting had indicated, his brain even sharper than the list of letters after his name had suggested. And Napoleon discovered that he trusted him implicitly from very early on in their partnership—he'd learned to filter out the scornful comments he had heard other agents making about the trustworthiness of a Russian refugee, protecting Illya as best he could from the slurs directed their way.
Together, the two of them had built a reputation for serving U.N.C.L.E. with everything they had—it had not taken long for a grudging acceptance of his taciturn partner to turn to open pride on the part of other Enforcement Agents.
Illya had become one of them, despite every way in which he was different.
But that had all been destroyed now, the partnership shattered by an accusation Napoleon knew in his heart to be false, and he found himself alone once more.
Illya contemplated the gray concrete of the holding cell floor, his eyes following the cracks while his mind raced. Had he made the right decision, when he had chosen not to tell Napoleon what was going on?
He'd declared his unconditional trust of his partner, in a moment of intimacy quite unlike any other he'd ever shared with another human being. He'd seen the light in Napoleon's eyes, the passion that burned there, the trust his partner placed in him, and yet Illya had kept silent.
What excuse could he give?
None sprung to mind—Napoleon could never believe that Illya had forgotten the intricacies of a plan he himself had devised, so the only option left open to his partner was that Illya had lied to him. That everything Illya had said had been the necessary words to serve the purpose of U.N.C.L.E. in the long run.
After all, if he'd truly trusted his partner, why couldn't he have told him the truth?
Did you trust him? Illya's conscience asked. After all, when did you last trust someone that much?
There was no answer, nor had he expected one. He wondered what Napoleon's reaction would be when he discovered the truth—what could he expect to see in his partner's eyes but a look of betrayal?
The word pulled at Napoleon, sending a responsive shiver through him—he'd grown so used to having Illya to rely on, even if his partner were a thousand miles away, that the thought of going on without him chilled the American to the bone.
If it's true, and Illya is a traitor... his mind began.
Napoleon laughed to himself at the irony of it all—Illya had accused him of being an impostor and now he was doubting his partner? He couldn't believe that anything could make Illya do this and the way that Illya had reacted a little while ago had been unnecessary confirmation of the truth he knew in his heart. There was no way that Illya Kuryakin was a traitor to U.N.C.L.E.
So why is he in a holding cell? his inner voice chided. The tone was glacial, reminding Napoleon a little of his partner.
There could be only one answer to that question—only one that Napoleon wanted to contemplate anyway. If Illya was innocent, and Napoleon had trusted the Russian with his life too many times not to believe him completely trustworthy, this must be part of his plan.
In all the excitement, Napoleon had nearly forgotten that there was a leak within U.N.C.L.E.—the moments of passion he'd shared with Illya, let alone the concern he'd already been feeling for his partner's well-being, had driven that problem to the back of his mind.
Damn you, Illya, he thought, as the feeling of certainty grew within him. Why did you tell me you trusted me and then keep quiet about this?
Because he knew what your response would be, his inner voice replied, sounding even more like Illya.
"You knew how I'd react," Napoleon said to himself. "But you did it anyway."
What could he feel but pride at that thought? He'd been Illya's champion when they'd first been made partners, defending the Russian against any accusation that the needs of U.N.C.L.E. were not at the fore-front of Illya's mind, and now his partner had proved him to be irrevocably correct.
His mind made up, Napoleon got up from where he had been sitting and began to pace, his mind working furiously now as he tried to figure out the best way to use this new information to help his partner.
Napoleon was seated in the cafeteria, deep in the heart of U.N.C.L.E. headquarters, nursing a coffee. He sat in his usual chair, facing the entrance. It didn't escape his attention that each newcomer seemed to look straight at him as they entered and that none of them seemed surprised to see him there.
In response, when he felt it was appropriate, Napoleon glowered at some, ignored others, in between periods of staring morosely into the depths of the mug which sat on the table before him. All in all, Napoleon was quite happy with his performance in the role of an agent who has just discovered that his partner is a traitor.
"Mr. Solo," a voice said from close by his side. Napoleon glanced round, seeing one of the research assistants from Illya's laboratory—a moments thought provided his name.
"What do you want, Peters?" he growled.
"Is it true about Mr. Kuryakin?" Peters asked, his voice shaking slightly. When he received no answer, the man continued. "That he's been arrested?"
Napoleon sighed to himself, lifting the mug to his lips to cover his small smile. A part of him was proud that his taciturn friend had managed to inspire such loyalty in the people who worked for him—so much so that one of them would even approach a pissed-off Section Two agent to ask after him.
"It is," Napoleon snarled, mentally apologizing to the man as he did so. "Turns out my partner is a traitor!"
The last few words were snapped out, echoing in the sudden silence that filled the cafeteria as he spoke. Playing his role to the full, Napoleon glared round at the handful of people there, his eyes challenging each one of them, daring them to say something. After a long silence, Napoleon slammed his coffee mug down onto the table, the small amount of liquid remaining slopping about within its confines. With one hand, he pushed back the chair on which he was sitting and stalked from the room.
Must apologize properly to Peters, he thought. After we sort this whole mess out.
In the corridor, Napoleon ignored the looks he was receiving from the people he passed—he knew that he looked as though he had a small black cloud overhead, and that was just the way that he wanted it. He had to look as though his only concern was not the innocence of his partner, but the preservation of his place in the U.N.C.L.E. hierarchy.
Next stop, Waverly's office, he thought.
Pushing past the startled secretary, Napoleon entered Waverly's office—this was one of the few times that he'd gone there without being invited and he took pleasure at the way that Waverly's eyebrows rose when he saw who his visitor was.
"I hope you don't think I had anything to do with Kuryakin selling out U.N.C.L.E.," Napoleon began, knowing the door to the office was still open so that his voice echoed out into the corridor. "I have my position as Number One of Section Two to think about after all."
Waverly just stared at him for a moment from where he was sitting behind the desk, a puzzled expression clear on his face—this in itself was also an unusual occurrence.
"Just goes to show," Napoleon continued, stealing the words that Dawson had used earlier, though they were like bile in his mouth. "You never know who you can trust."
Waverly seemed to have recovered some of his customary composure by now and gestured Napoleon into a chair near the desk, turning to dismiss his secretary with a glance and a wave of the hand. When the door had hissed closed behind her he turned back to Napoleon.
"What can I do for you, Mr. Solo?"
"Sir. I know what's going on with Illya," Napoleon said, leaning forward in his chair, eyes locking with those of his boss. "I know he set this whole thing up."
He paused, waiting for Waverly to confirm or deny his theory, unsure for a moment which answer to expect. Waverly studied him for a long moment, his eyes seeming to go deep inside Napoleon, as if he could read Napoleon's mind—what he found there seemed to satisfy him and he spoke at last.
"I knew this was a mistake," Waverly said. "But Mr. Kuryakin wanted as few people to know the truth as possible."
"So I was right," Napoleon interrupted. "The accusation, the arrest, it was all a set-up?"
"As I was saying," Waverly began, his voice slightly annoyed now. Napoleon had the sense to look apologetic and the older man's tone, when he spoke again, was less stern. "Mr. Kuryakin felt that you would have trouble giving a convincing performance of a man whose partner has been accused of treachery if you knew that he was innocent. The reports I have been receiving from various parts of this building, concerning your recent behavior, let alone your entrance just now, show him to have been mistaken."
"Can I see him?" Napoleon asked, dreading the answer, but needing to ask anyway.
Waverly looked thoughtful for a moment, before nodding tersely.
"As head of Section Two, you have a responsibility to find out why your subordinate turned traitor, Mr. Solo. Remember that."
"I will. And thank you, sir."
The walk to the holding cells was a long one, giving Napoleon far too much time to think. He knew that he should be angry at Illya, annoyed with him for trying to shut him out of his plan, but all he could feel was concern for what his partner must be going through.
Even though he pretended otherwise, Napoleon knew that what other people thought of him was very important to Illya and he'd seen a marked change in his partner over the years, as his place in the overall scheme of things had become more certain.
To be locked up, subject to the scrutiny of guards who thought him a traitor, receiving only accusing glances, would be a source of torment to the Russian, despite his calm exterior. As would the idea that Napoleon thought him a traitor. As this thought hit, Napoleon quickened his pace, turning the final corner into the holding area, where he was stopped by the guards.
"You're expected, Mr. Solo," one of the guards replied, ticking off an item on a clipboard he was holding. "Kuryakin is in Cell 2."
It didn't escape Napoleon's notice how Illya was referred to here and his heart began to beat faster—he knew that those loyal to U.N.C.L.E. might well decide that a traitor was guilty till proven innocent and the position of a guard to such a prisoner gave ample opportunity to act accordingly.
Napoleon headed over to the cell in question, feeling the presence of the two guards at his back. As he reached the cell door, one of them spoke.
"Do you want one of us to go in with you, sir?" he asked, his fingers moving on the butt of his U.N.C.L.E. special as he spoke.
"That won't be necessary," Napoleon snapped. "I'll call you when I want to come out."
As the cell door shut behind him, Napoleon studied his partner, who seemed to be asleep on the bed. His glance swept the pale face, looking for any signs of rough justice being administered to Illya by heavy-handed guards, but there were none.
Napoleon let out the breath he'd been holding with a sigh, glancing round at the tiny window in the holding cell door to see if they were observed. When he looked back, it was straight into a pair of sharp blue eyes, eyes that seemed to cut straight through him, stirring up emotions within him despite his years of self-control.
"Illya," Napoleon said, then his voice gave out on him, his mind searching for the words that he wanted to say.
Illya sat up slowly, running a hand through his unruly hair, his eyes never leaving his partner's face as he did so.
"I'm sorry, Napoleon," he said quietly, his eyes then going up to the corner of the room.
Napoleon followed his glance, his eyes coming to rest on the grille that lay there—behind it, he knew, was a microphone picking up their conversation and who knew who was listening?
"Why, Illya?" he said, crossing the room to take the single chair, his eyes returning to his partner's face. "Why would you choose to betray U.N.C.L.E. like this?"
I know what you're up to, Napoleon mouthed silently, smiling as Illya's eyebrows rose at the words.
"I can't tell you," Illya said, "I told you before, I don't remember."
I was wrong. Forgive me? Illya mouthed, his eyes entreating, shattering any doubts Napoleon might have had.
"So you say," Napoleon replied, his smile widening. "But how do we know you're telling the truth?"
As he said the words, he moved, cat-like, from the chair to the bed, his hand coming out to stroke Illya's face. The Russian froze, his eyes shifting to Napoleon's hand as it neared. When the touch was discovered to be a gentle one, Illya was forced to stifle a moan and leaned into it, his eyes closing. Napoleon smiled again, glancing once more at the door to ensure they were alone, before leaning forward to brush his lips across the Russian's brow, a gesture of benediction to seal his forgiveness of Illya's actions.
"I can't prove my innocence," Illya said, his eyes still closed. "Doesn't the time we've worked together count for anything?"
Illya's hand travelled across the rough blankets of the cot, his fingers coming to twine with those of Napoleon's free hand before resting on his partner's lap, feeling the warmth pooling there. At the same time, his face turned slightly so that the two men were now facing each other, Napoleon's hand now resting on Illya's shoulder.
"Not if you're a traitor," Napoleon said, his fingers gripping Illya's shoulder gently. He smiled into Illya's eyes as his partner looked at him again. "How long, Illya?"
Always, Illya mouthed, answering the only question that Napoleon truly wanted an answer for, ignoring the true meaning behind the one that had been spoken out loud.
"Why don't you think about that," Napoleon said, with a smile. "Then tell me how long you've been a traitor to U.N.C.L.E."
With only a momentary glance towards the door, Illya leaned forward, capturing Napoleon's mouth with his own, as if returning them to their time together in his apartment only hours before. This time, along with the passion, there was determination, so tangible that Napoleon could almost taste it—he knew that Illya had a plan and would not be swayed from it, no matter what.
Pulling back for a moment, Napoleon waited till Illya's eyes were fully open and focussed on him once more, before leaning forward until his lips brushed the Russian's ear.
"I trust you, Illya," he whispered. "I don't like this plan of yours, but I'll go along with it, for now. What do you want me to do?"
"Lose your temper," Illya whispered back. "Hit me."
Even as he spoke the words, Illya felt Napoleon stiffen and start to pull away. Illya used his grip on Napoleon's hand to hold him as tightly as he could, whispering again, more fiercely this time.
"Please. We have to make this look good."
"I can't," Napoleon muttered. "Don't ask me to, Illya, I can't."
"Shout at me, then," Illya whispered.
His free hand coming up to stroke at the frown that had appeared on Napoleon's forehead, thumb gently tracing its lines. Napoleon nodded once, tersely, then pulled away from where the two men had been sitting, getting to his feet silently and walking across the cell.
"So, you don't have an answer," Napoleon said loudly. "Why am I not surprised?"
"I've already told you," Illya began, his voice starting to shake, even though his face was calm. "I don't remember!"
"I know you're lying!" Napoleon shouted. "How could you do this to me, Illya? Even if you don't care about what happens to you, my career is over! And it's all your fault."
With those words, Napoleon turned swiftly to the door, hammering on it with the palm of his hand. Within moments it was opened and the American left without a backward glance.
With every step he took away from where his partner was still imprisoned, Napoleon felt a coldness begin to grip him—the thought of leaving Illya there, though he knew it to be part of his plan to unmask the real traitor within U.N.C.L.E., tormented him.
The few caresses they'd shared seemed heightened by the fear of discovery, as they played a potentially dangerous game. After all, now Napoleon knew for certain that Illya was innocent, though he'd entertained very few doubts before their meeting in the holding cell, and there was a traitor on the loose in U.N.C.L.E. HQ.
As he returned to his office, Napoleon found himself scrutinizing the face of every agent that he passed in the hallway. Any one of them could be the mole, leaking secrets to Thrush, now thinking themselves safe because his partner languished in a cold gray cell.
But not for long, Napoleon thought, making a silent vow to see his partner free again by the end of the day, no matter what it took.
Illya waited, counting slowly until he knew that his partner was out of earshot.
He'd played a part before, in the service of U.N.C.L.E., but this was one role he knew would be impossible to play if Napoleon were there—his partner's compassion would mean that Illya couldn't take it to the extremes that might be required. It would be too painful for Napoleon to watch, helpless to prevent the lengths to which Illya might be required to go.
Illya took strength from the words that had passed between him and his partner, that dangerous double conversation that had taken place.
When he'd feared to see regret and betrayal in Napoleon's eyes, instead he'd seen trust and even desire. That his partner had understood, that Napoleon hadn't turned against him as a result of what might be seen as deception, warmed Illya to the core and he hoarded that emotion to himself, treasuring it.
It was as though he had somehow tested Napoleon and the result had been better than he'd dared to hope for. Now would come the hard part and it must be done alone.
In some ways, it felt to Illya that he was taking all the warmth that he'd felt when he'd seen the trust in Napoleon's eyes and secreted it deep inside himself.
He could rely on his own life experience to provide enough raw material to work with, without scratching too far below the surface. There'd been so much pain, so much loneliness, so much anguish, that Illya was amply supplied.
He remembered the first night he'd spent alone in the labor camp, shivering as much with the desolation he felt, as with the arctic wind that swept through the ramshackle buildings. Then there was the ache of leaving the few family members still left alive to build a new life in the West, the uncertainty of what Illya might experience there combining with the certain knowledge that he would never see these people he cared for alive again.
And when this was not enough, Illya took the thoughts of his partner, the trust he'd seen in the dark depths of Napoleon's eyes, and twisted that emotion until it snapped, shattering into a million tiny pieces. If that look had been one of scorn, of betrayal, then how would he have survived it?
The sobbing, when it began, surprised Illya as it echoed in the concrete cell and he knew that there was no way that the guards could miss it, let alone the microphone which was recording continually. From where he was sitting, arms wrapped around his legs, pulling them close to his chest as he rocked gently back and forth, Illya eyed the small window in the metal door. After only moments, he saw a shadow cross it and laid his face against his knees to hide his small triumphant smile.
As he closed his office door the communicator unit on Napoleon's desk began to beep—he was there within a matter of strides, his hand reaching out to flip the switch.
"Mr. Solo?" Waverly's voice rasped from the unit.
"Report to my office," Waverly said. "It seems Mr. Kuryakin is willing to make a confession after all."
"But, sir," Napoleon began, only to realize that Waverly had closed the connection and he was speaking to the empty air.
So, Illya, Napoleon thought, as he headed out of the office. You've started without me.
Napoleon was ushered into Waverly's office a few minutes later only to find it already occupied by a number of other Enforcement Agents. Most of them were people he recognized, men and women he'd worked a number of missions with in the past, and the thought that one of them might be the traitor was a difficult one to swallow. Others were new to him and he noticed one or two glancing at him with a mixture of respect and scorn—after all, though he was head of Section Two, they all knew who his partner was.
Taking his place at Waverly's side, Napoleon plastered a look of complete self-confidence on his face, looking round at the other agents as he did so. His eyes dared the newcomers to make something of the fact that Illya Kuryakin was now in a holding cell and he smiled to himself when their eyes dropped.
"Mr. Solo," Waverly growled, glancing up at him, "so glad you could join us." Looking round at the assembled agents, Waverly leaned forward slightly until his hand was hovering over the switch of the communicator unit on his desk. "There's something I want you all to hear."
The first sound that came over the communicator was the sound of sobbing, a broken choking quality making the sound echo strangely. It took a moment for Napoleon to realize exactly who was on the other end of the line and that the man making those terrible sounds was his partner. Even as the thought penetrated, he could feel his jaw begin to tighten imperceptibly and the eyes of other agents focussing on him again.
"I... I can't do this," a shaky voice said. "I'll tell you what you want to know."
The words were punctuated with sobs, the breath behind the words was a series of strangled gasps. Those sobs, along with each struggling breath, tore at Napoleon's heart, stirring up emotions he had not allowed himself to feel for what seemed like forever.
"I know who the traitor is," the voice continued, before grinding to a halt in another bout of sobbing. Then there was silence, only the small gasps as Illya continued to breathe being any indication that the cell was still occupied.
Damn, Illya, Napoleon thought, why didn't you tell me you were going to do this? As if you're not in enough danger in that cell, without setting yourself up as a target.
Waverly leaned forward and flicked off the communications unit—after Illya had last spoken, the only sounds that had come through the system were the small gasps of breath and the occasional choked-off sob. It was clear that the Russian was in no condition to say any more at the moment.
"So, ladies and gentlemen," Waverly began, his eyes travelling across the faces of the agents assembled there in his office. "It seems that Mr. Kuryakin was not acting alone in his treachery."
As Waverly spoke Napoleon looked round the office, his gaze flicking over the faces that were turned towards his boss. Mentally, he did the same as he had done in the hallway when he walked away from where Illya was being held, looking at each face in turn and wondering which one of them was the real traitor to U.N.C.L.E.
Some of the faces were familiar, belonging to agents with whom he had trusted his life in the past, in missions that had been painful, sharing the trauma of injury and death. It seemed inconceivable that any of them could be the traitor but Napoleon knew the fine line that each agent walked and could not deny the possibility. So much of their work together was based on mutual trust, on the belief that they were motivated by noble sentiments, and it only took the decision of a moment for the most honest person to turn away from that.
His gaze halted for a moment on the face of Dawson before moving on again. Just because he didn't like the man, that wasn't enough reason to believe him a traitor—Napoleon knew that reality was rarely that convenient.
As he looked at the newer agents, cataloguing the faces that he didn't know, hoping for some sign to determine their guilt or innocence, one of them spoke.
"Sir," a hesitant voice began. All eyes turned to the woman who spoke. She looked a little nervous at the sudden attention, her face reddening a little when she realized that every occupant of the room was looking at her, but pressed on regardless. "If Mr. Kuryakin is a traitor, surely... Well, should Mr. Solo be here?"
Napoleon stifled a grin, admiring the courage of the woman agent, whose name he didn't know.
"I mean," she continued, her eyes intent on Mr. Waverly, "...either he was unaware of his partner's treachery, or..." Even she couldn't bring herself to make that accusation, her voice grinding to a halt as her eyes dropped to contemplate the carpet.
"Well said, Miss Rickwood," Waverly replied. "And were I not assured of Mr. Solo's unwavering loyalty to U.N.C.L.E., he would currently be sharing a cell with his partner. As it is, we have another traitor in our midst."
As Waverly spoke, Napoleon looked round the agents assembled there once more, his eyes meeting those of Agent Rickwood as she looked up again. The intelligence that the American saw displayed in those gray eyes reminded him so much of Illya that he was forced to look away.
"You will interrogate Mr. Kuryakin," Waverly said. "Find out who the other traitor is."
As the assembled agents began to leave the office, Waverly spoke quietly once more.
"A word, Mr. Solo."
If, as they suspected, the traitor was among the agents who had been gathered there, they had to allow him or her time to try and silence Illya before he had a chance to name names.
Napoleon began to pace as soon as the door was closed, his hands twisting together of their own accord, showing the nervousness he could not disguise. It had been bad enough to know that his partner had placed himself in peril. But now there was an added incentive for nerves, in the feelings that he had discovered within himself for the quiet Russian.
"Do you think Illya's plan will work, sir?" Napoleon blurted out. Even as he spoke, he regretted the words, the way that they gave away the true extent of his fears. Waverly's upraised eyebrow was all eloquence. "If Illya's right," Napoleon continued, coming to stand behind one of the chairs that faced the desk. "If there is a traitor in our midst, how will they be able to get to him?"
As he spoke, Napoleon's hands gripped the back of the chair, the feel of the wood against his fingers somehow grounding him, preventing him from running out of the room and charging to his partner's rescue.
"Very simple, Mr. Solo," Waverly replied. "We will let them. Mr. Kuryakin is currently being moved to an interrogation room."
"You're moving him through the main corridors of U.N.C.L.E.?" Napoleon asked, incredulous. "How many guards?"
"My god. I can't stay here."
As Napoleon turned and headed for the door, all courtesy forgotten, Waverly spoke again, his brusque words seeming to strike like blows.
"Don't you trust your partner, Mr. Solo?"
"Sir?" Napoleon asked, whirling round.
"With my life, sir," Napoleon replied. And more, he thought.
"Then trust him now. He knows what he's doing."
At last, Illya thought, when the guards came to escort him from his cell. He tried to shuffle slightly, stooping his shoulders, wrapping his arms round himself as if he feared he'd fall apart.
Inside, Illya was like a coiled spring, waiting to strike. He'd marshalled his strength, even as he'd played the part for which he had cast himself, and the looks of the people he passed in the hallways only strengthened him. All he hoped was that Waverly would play his part, keeping Napoleon with him till he'd reached the interrogation room, or till their traitor had made a move.
It would only take a look from Napoleon for this carefully-constructed façade to shatter—Illya knew that it would be impossible for him to continue this role if his partner were there, if only for the simple reason that it would hurt Napoleon too much.
He should not have to see me like this, Illya thought. This is not who I am any more, and so much of that is thanks to him.
Even as he travelled the winding corridors of U.N.C.L.E. HQ with his escort, Illya's mind was far away, thinking of how much had changed for him since he'd first walked these halls.
Back then, he'd been a novelty, a refugee from a foreign land, tolerated rather than accepted. Illya had no illusions about the role he was being asked to play, the qualities that had brought him there. His scientist's mind made him want to examine everything, probing for the motivation behind every action, the reason behind every decision. It was in his nature.
And Illya had survived. He'd survived U.N.C.L.E. in the same way that he'd survived the labor camps of his childhood, by locking his true self away, playing every part he'd been assigned, never truly being himself.
Truth was too dangerous.
The truth, for Illya, was that he'd been in love with his partner from very early on. With Napoleon he'd found an unexpected acceptance and in turn he'd allowed himself to be led upwards in the hierarchy of U.N.C.L.E. when every instinct made Illya want to be inconspicuous.
Illya could deny his partner nothing, watching with a benevolent mixture of admiration and jealousy as Napoleon worked his way through what seemed like every woman they met. And now the American had turned his attention to him—he'd dreamed about that moment so many times that he now dreaded that he'd wake and find that this was all it was.
With every person who approached them in the hallways, Illya's conscious mind snapped back to reality, his eyes surreptitiously travelling over each one as he assessed them for threat. As he neared a junction his brain registered movement and he whirled in that direction, his disguise thrown aside immediately, spotting dark hair and a face he recognized.
There was a loud crack, the gunshot slammed Illya against the nearest wall, then darkness took him.
Napoleon had left Waverly's office only moments before he heard the commotion. The sound alone was enough to make him break into a run, charging down the corridors heedless of other people, some primitive instinct telling him that Illya was at the center of whatever was going on.
When he rounded the final corner, coming across a knot of people, the first thing Napoleon saw through a small gap was one of Illya's shoes. He'd stared at that very shoe so many times, focussing on it to prevent betraying himself, that he knew it straight away. Napoleon felt as though he had been struck, his breath stolen away, as he stared at the way Illya was lying there, slumped bonelessly against the wall.
He stepped back, shoving his way out through the gathering of people, feeling the world spin around him. Napoleon rested a shaking hand against the nearby wall, letting his head hang as the reality of his loss hit him.
All his hopes of happiness had been torn away from him by Illya's ill-conceived plan. He'd trusted his partner to pull this off, letting himself be swayed by Waverly's words to let Illya do this alone, and he'd been wrong. Now both he and Illya would pay for his mistake.
Once he had caught the assassin, that is.
Napoleon gritted his teeth, pushing down the cold rage that threatened to sweep away all that he had formerly held to be important. He'd once believed in justice but now he only wanted revenge.
As he stood there, his hand still on the wall, Napoleon could hear the muttering of the people gathered in the corridor, the racing footsteps of the medical team, a voice shouting for everyone to get out of the way.
Too late, Napoleon thought bitterly. Too late for both of us. I should never have allowed myself to feel this way.
He moved slightly, turning his face towards his arm, both to hide and to wipe away the tears that threatened to fall.
"Thank heavens for Kevlar," a familiar voice said, from close by.
Illya had hit the wall hard, the force of the bullet slamming into the bullet-proof vest that he wore, and spinning him slightly with its impact. He had felt his shoulder hit first, then momentum had snapped his head back into the concrete as well and the darkness had overwhelmed him for a moment.
When he'd begun to come to, Illya had found himself surrounded by a crowd, his eyes automatically searching it for the one face he wanted to see more than any other. The world still spun slightly, and it took a moment for him to register that Napoleon was not there.
As he struggled to his feet, Illya was surprised by the number of hands that reached towards him, offering their assistance to pull him up from the undignified position he'd found himself in.
Pushing through the crowd, Illya felt the presence of his guards, their previous lack of alertness now replaced by an edginess that made him feel a little uncomfortable. One of the men reached out a tentative hand, as if to reassure himself that their charge was still alive, stopping the gesture when Illya glared in his direction.
It was then that he saw Napoleon.
His partner was a little way down the corridor, standing with one hand resting on the wall, as if he were preventing it from falling down into the hallway. His head was hanging, and even from that distance, Illya could see the minute tremors passing through Napoleon's body, the almost imperceptible way that his shoulders were shaking.
He was there in a couple of strides, his guards shadowing him silently as he moved to his partner's side. Illya knew instantly what Napoleon had thought—his partner had obviously appeared just in time to see the way he'd been slumped against the wall but not stayed there long enough for the next part.
As he reached where Napoleon was standing, Illya was faced with a dilemma. He wanted to say something but dreaded the likely emotions that his partner's response in this public setting might betray.
"Thank heavens for Kevlar," he said, after a moment's thought.
All Illya could do was hope that his partner could see past the words, through to the reality of the feelings that lay behind them.
For the longest moment, Napoleon was unable to move—the words that he'd heard echoed in his head, the voice the last one he'd ever dared hope to hear again. Even the tone was perfect, the right mixture of coolness and humor, the matter-of-fact words hiding a depth of emotion.
When he could move again, it was as though his heart had skipped a few beats, settling down into a regular rhythm once more.
"Illya?" he whispered, aware that they had an audience of two extremely nervous-looking guards. "I..."
Illya shook his head minutely, his eyes full of concern at the emotions crossing Napoleon's face—Napoleon could almost hear the thoughts running through his partner's head. Taking a deep breath, Napoleon straightened up, running one hand absentmindedly down his tie as he eyed the two guards.
"I need to speak to Mr. Kuryakin about this attempt on his life," Napoleon said, calmness returning to his voice far faster than he expected.
Am I getting that used to Illya's miraculous escapes from near-death situations? he wondered idly.
The older of the guards nodded, his eyes serious.
"We..." Napoleon looked round hastily. He needed to speak with Illya, but not here. Crossing to the nearest office door, Napoleon pulled it open, glancing in quickly to see if the room was unoccupied. "We'll be in here," Napoleon said, watching the younger guard make a swift reconnaissance of the room in question. "Contact Mr. Waverly and tell him that the plan worked."
With those words, Napoleon placed a hand on Illya's shoulder, half-directing and half-pulling him into the office, before closing the door behind them with a definite bang.
Illya was unable to finish his sentence—the moment the door shut, his partner was all over him, hands travelling in an almost frantic movement, as if to reassure himself that Illya was indeed alive and well. At the same time, Napoleon's eager mouth met his, sucking out the words Illya meant to say, driving all thoughts of apologies and explanations from his mind for the longest time.
When they finally separated, their mutual need for oxygen driving them apart, Napoleon still seemed reluctant to allow much distance between them. Steering Illya towards one of the office chairs, Napoleon took the other, one hand coming out tentatively to touch the torn material of Illya's turtleneck.
His eyes were dark with emotion, as his fingers touched the edges of the hole the bullet had made, feeling the material of the bullet-proof vest beneath torn by its passing. Illya glanced down, watching the movement of Napoleon's fingers as they traced the edge of the material, moving gently over his heart.
"Too close..." Napoleon muttered, before looking up at Illya again. "Why didn't you tell me what you were planning?"
There was no reproach in Napoleon's voice, Illya realized, with some relief.
"I had to do it, Napoleon," Illya replied, knowing that this didn't really answer his partner's question. "There was no other way to find out who the real traitor is."
"I know," the American agreed. "But that doesn't mean I have to like it, Illya. If you hadn't been wearing the vest..."
His voice trailed off, and Napoleon sat back in his chair, his hand coming away from Illya's turtleneck. He looked away, swallowing. Illya felt the loss of contact like a cold wind blowing over him.
"I knew that the traitor was an U.N.C.L.E. agent, Napoleon," Illya said, gazing intently at Napoleon, even though his partner was not looking back at him. "As a rule, agents are taught to aim at the body, as the largest target. It was a calculated risk."
"Did it work, Illya?" Napoleon asked, finally looking back at the Russian, his emotions under control once more.
Illya nodded. "I know who the traitor is."
There was a quiet knocking at the office door.
"Come in," Napoleon called, looking round.
The door opened, and the older of Illya's two guards looked in, a sheepish expression on his face.
"Mr. Solo, Mr. Kuryakin," he said, "Mr. Waverly would like you to report to his office as soon as you can."
Napoleon suppressed a small smile at the guard's respectful attitude towards Illya, such a marked difference from their previous encounter outside his partner's cell that morning.
Looks like Waverly's spilled the beans, he thought.
"Tell him we're on our way."
"Come in, gentlemen."
Waverly gestured the two men towards the chairs that faced his desk, his eyes clearly taking in every detail—he frowned slightly when he noticed the bullet hole in Illya's turtleneck as the Russian sat, his jacket falling open.
The question, simple as it was, was a clear one—the unspoken concern for Illya's well-being pleasing Napoleon as much as it obviously surprised Illya.
"I'm fine, sir," Illya replied. "The plan worked perfectly."
"It seems our traitor is someone I hadn't suspected," Illya began, obviously aware of the scrutiny he was receiving from both men.
Not Dawson then, Napoleon thought, wondering if Illya knew of Dawson's scornful attitude towards him. He'd no intention of enlightening his partner if that wasn't the case.
"But I saw him shoot at me, so I have no doubts now," Illya concluded, pausing.
Napoleon had blurted out the question before he even realized that he'd spoken. He reddened slightly as both Illya and Waverly looked at him, noticing the amusement in his partner's eyes.
"Sometimes," Illya continued after a moment, looking back at Waverly, "as Freud said, a cigar is just a cigar. The most obvious answer is often the correct one."
Waverly nodded, one controlled movement, frowning at the idea that one of his agents could truly be a traitor to the organization for which they all worked.
"Dawson," he said.
"Dawson," Illya echoed.
It was only as the two men were leaving Waverly's office that Napoleon saw it.
He was following Illya and was startled to see the small trickle of blood that had dried on the back of his partner's neck. He waited till the door had closed behind them, stopping in the corridor. He spoke Illya's name quietly—Illya turned, a look of enquiry clear on his face.
"You hit your head," Napoleon said quietly, the tone of his voice brooking no dispute.
Illya nodded. With a frown, he reached round to the back of his head, bringing back fingers coated with drying blood.
"I didn't realize..." he began, frowning as he stared at the red. "It must have happened when Dawson shot at me and I hit the wall."
"Come on," Napoleon said, walking away from where the Russian was still standing. He glanced back, to see Illya still transfixed, his eyes intent on the blood that coated his fingers. "Illya!"
Illya jerked, as if startled back from wherever his mind had wandered.
"What?" he asked, looking back at Napoleon.
Napoleon shook his head slightly, concern for Illya taking over from the annoyance that he'd been feeling. The idea that Illya had been injured struck Napoleon with a sudden pang of guilt.
"Let's go," he said, watching Illya as his partner neared him in the corridor. "Time to hit the infirmary again." Illya frowned again, but said nothing. "It's SOP for head injuries," Napoleon said, answering Illya's unspoken argument.
"It's settled then," Napoleon said, leaning back against the doorframe as he looked at Illya. "You'll stay here in the infirmary overnight, then we'll start to look for Dawson tomorrow."
He ignored the glower that these words drew from his partner. That was easy—all Napoleon had to do was think of the bruise that marked Illya's chest, dark purple and black over his heart, let alone the partly-healed cuts that his previous captor had inflicted.
"I'm fine, Napoleon," Illya said, annoyance in his voice. "I don't need to stay here."
"Humor me?" Napoleon asked, with a smile. Then his face changed, a more solemn expression taking the place of the smile. "I need to know you're okay, Illya."
Illya stared back at his partner, his eyes seeming to measure the truth behind that statement.
"Very well," he said, finally. "One night."
Napoleon smiled again.
"I'll see you in the morning, my friend. Get some rest."
It seemed strange to Illya to be alone again. So much had happened in the past 24 hours that he was secretly glad of the chance to reflect on the days' events, not that he would have admitted it to his partner.
Napoleon's protectiveness both warmed and irritated Illya.
He'd grown so used to relying on his own abilities that working with a partner had not come easily to Illya—it had been a reassuring discovery to the Russian that his new partner had found it equally difficult. If it were not for the stubborn streak that ran through both their personalities one or other of the two men might well have gone to Waverly to request a release from this partnership. But that would have been to admit defeat and neither man had liked that idea.
So the two of them had struggled on, learning to work together, learning to trust one another.
Napoleon being protective was just a part of who he was and Illya had long ago learned to accept his partner as a whole, knowing that to change one facet of Napoleon's character would make him someone other than the man he was. And Illya could not allow that.
But sometimes Napoleon went too far.
This was something that Illya had difficulty with—he'd been so resolutely independent for so long that the kind of trust that Napoleon required was not natural for him. It required an effort. It also required knowing when to submit, judging the finality of his partner's statements with an accuracy that time had honed.
Illya knew that this time he stood no chance of winning the argument, so he conceded as gracefully as he could manage.
His thoughts turned inexorably to Dawson.
He'd never liked the man. Illya prided himself on his ability to tolerate other people, choosing the path of least resistance where relationships with other agents were concerned—as long as they did their assigned tasks to the best of their ability, then that was all he asked.
He'd seen the way the man looked at him when he thought himself unobserved. It reminded Illya of nothing more than the kind of look a dog gives to a particularly juicy bone and the coldness behind those looks frightened him a little.
He'd seen that look before, in the eyes of the men and women who had run the camp where he'd spent his childhood. The ones who created terror in the hearts of the people living there, not because it was a part of the job but simply because it was something that they enjoyed. He'd seen that kind of attitude close up so many times that Illya had become particularly equipped to recognize it, no matter what disguise it wore.
All Napoleon wanted to do was collapse onto the nearest soft surface and sleep for as long as he could. He couldn't remember the last time he'd slept properly, sat down to a meal, or observed any of the other social niceties that most people regarded as essential.
In the morning, he and Illya would start looking for Dawson.
It was always difficult when a trusted U.N.C.L.E. employee turned traitor. There would be a core of people who'd refuse to believe it, others who would proclaim that they had always suspected his duplicity, but the majority would operate in stunned silence for the time being.
As he opened the door to his apartment, Napoleon thought back on leaving Illya behind in the infirmary. That the stubborn Russian had not insisted on going home himself had been nothing short of a testimony to the relationship that existed between the two men. A relationship that Napoleon desperately hoped would be deepened by the intimacy that had taken place between them.
He wanted nothing more than to be bringing his partner back to this apartment, to have the chance to show Illya how much he cared for him, to demonstrate the depth of the emotions he felt towards his partner. Even though the vulnerability he felt where Illya was concerned frightened him a little.
As Napoleon stripped, his eyes travelled regretfully over the rumpled material of the suit he'd been wearing. When had he put it on? He couldn't remember.
Within moments, he was on the bed, sinking with a groan into the softness of the mattress, wishing, not for the first time, that Illya was there with him. The thought of Illya sent a shudder through Napoleon's body and he closed his eyes to facilitate his imaginings.
He wanted to see Illya lying there, naked, relaxed, his eyes full of unspoken invitation. He longed to see a look of sheer desire on the face of the man he loved more than he had ever loved anyone else, who he wanted more than he had ever been able to imagine wanting or needing anyone else. It was no surprise that his last conscious thought was of Illya and that Napoleon fell asleep with a smile on his face.
"Wake up, Solo."
Napoleon groaned, trying to roll over and go back to sleep—his fogged brain took a long moment to realize that there should not have been anyone else in his apartment and that he was no longer in his bed.
"I know you're awake," the insistent voice continued.
Napoleon's head felt as though it were stuffed with something. He struggled to open his eyes, feeling strong fingers grasp his chin and turn it, pulling his face upwards. When his eyelids finally opened, he was blinded by the brightness of the light. He tried to pull away from the fingers, but to no avail.
Napoleon focussed his eyes, squinting against the brightness, but the sight that greeted him only confirmed his suspicions. It was Dawson.
"What the..." Napoleon began, jerking suddenly away from the face that was in front of him. His sudden movement was halted before it even began. Dawson let go and Napoleon looked down—he was dressed at least, so at least that particular indignity was spared him, but he was tied to a chair.
"What do you want, Dawson?" he asked, his throat parched and his voice a mere croak.
"What do I want?" Dawson echoed. "I want your partner."
Napoleon stared at the traitor, a cold anger starting to grow within him.
"This is different, isn't it Solo?" Dawson asked, with a mocking smile. "How many times has Thrush used Kuryakin to catch you? And now here you are. This time you get to be the bait."
"He won't come," Napoleon said, knowing the words to be a lie before he even spoke them. He could only hope that there was some truth in them—no matter what happened to him, he had to keep Illya safe.
"He will," Dawson said coldly. "And then he'll die."
"Why are you doing this, Dawson?" Napoleon asked. "Why betray U.N.C.L.E.?"
He'd seen the expression that had flittered across Dawson's face when Illya's name was mentioned and it sent a cold shudder down his back. Like so many that he and his partner had encountered, Dawson seemed secure in his arrogance, all too willing to share his motivations at the slightest encouragement.
"You want to know why?" Dawson began to laugh, a cold rolling laughter that echoed.
Napoleon looked round then, for the first time since he had regained consciousness. There was very little light but he recognized his surroundings instantly. They were in the warehouse where Illya had been held captive, where he'd been tortured.
Suddenly, Napoleon was glad of the darkness, glad that he could not see the blood that marked the concrete floors, blood shed both by Illya and his captor.
"I swore to serve U.N.C.L.E.," Dawson said. "I pledged my life to that organization and how did it repay me? I was an Enforcement Agent, that was all. You started in U.N.C.L.E. the same time as me and now look at you! Number One of Section Two and everyone knows that Waverly has you in mind to replace him in time."
"So it's just thwarted ambition?" Napoleon jeered, his tone cold. He had to goad Dawson into anger if he could—after all, if he were dead, then he was no longer of any use as bait to trap his partner. "You were jealous? Of me?"
"I hated you." Dawson ground out the words, coming closer to loom over his captive.
Napoleon stared back at Dawson, whose eyes were cold, promising only death. Dawson took a deep breath then, getting his temper under control once more, before he turned away.
"My father was friends with Waverly," Dawson began again, his back to Napoleon. "He promised I'd have the best partner possible, that nothing would stand in the way of my progression through the U.N.C.L.E. ranks. But he lied." Napoleon said nothing, staring resolutely at the back of his captor. "You were the best, everyone said so—I thought..." Dawson hesitated. "I thought we would be partners, but instead Waverly paired you with that... that Russian."
Dawson spat the last word like a curse, his voice full of hatred—he turned back to where Napoleon was, his eyes gray and cold.
"And look what he's done—Kuryakin has made you weak, corrupted you. You would have been a worthy successor to Waverly if I'd been your partner, but now..."
"So," Napoleon drawled, putting as much scorn as he could into his voice. "You wanted to be the power behind the throne."
"It was my right!" Dawson snapped, stepping forward again. Napoleon made a conscious decision not to flinch, his mind screaming for Dawson to do something, to make some mistake that would help him save Illya. "We are the same, after all, you and I."
It was the tentative knock on the door that woke Illya, bringing him back from a fitful sleep, filled with strange dreams. The door opened, revealing a face he recognized, even though it was pale and worried looking.
"Come in, Agent Rickwood," Illya said, shoving the pillows behind his back to prop himself into a more upright position.
Melissa Rickwood stood in the doorway for a moment, indecisively, before entering and crossing to the single chair. Illya watched with interest as the agent sank into the chair with a small sigh, contemplating the pattern of the floor with great interest before her eyes rose to meet his.
"Maybe I shouldn't have come," she began, her eyes troubled. "But I had to, Mr. Kuryakin. I know he's my partner, but..."
Illya thought for a moment before his sleep-fogged brain finally realized that she was talking about Dawson.
"What is it?" he snapped, lowering his voice slightly when he spoke again, having seen the way the woman jumped. "What do you know about what Dawson is doing?"
"What?" Melissa blurted, looking shocked. "You can't think I..."
"No," Illya replied firmly, interrupting her. "I know you're loyal to U.N.C.L.E. You can't be held responsible for your partner's actions." The woman agent colored slightly at these words, her eyes dropping to where her hands were wrapped together in her lap. "Tell me, Melissa," Illya coaxed, his voice a mere whisper now.
There was a moment's silence before Melissa Rickwood began to speak again, her eyes still intent on the movement of her hands and the way that her fingers were entwined.
"He hates you," she began, her voice so quiet that Illya had to strain to hear the words. "After... after what happened on that mission."
"He was wrong," Illya said quietly.
"I know," she replied, "but he is my partner."
"That was no excuse for him to humiliate you like that," Illya said, his voice more firm. "Killing someone is not an easy thing to do, even if it's in self-defense. Everyone reacts differently—the way you reacted, no matter what Dawson says, it wasn't wrong, it was just... you."
Agent Rickwood looked up, her intelligent gray eyes locking with Illya's for a moment as if measuring the truth behind his words. A shaky smile began to appear, which was then chased away after a moment by a more solemn expression.
"He wants to kill you," she said.
"A number of reasons," Melissa replied. "You embarrassed him in front of all those other agents when you upbraided him about the way he treated me. And he has an obsession with your partner."
"He was always talking about your missions, about how he'd been cheated, how he should have been Mr. Solo's partner." She frowned for a moment, as if recalling something. "One time, Dawson said that he and Mr. Solo were meant to be partners really, that they were two of a kind."
"Napoleon is nothing like him!" Illya snapped, suddenly angry.
"I didn't mean..."
It was the look of concern on Melissa's face, as much as her stammering words, that grounded Illya once more. Taking a deep breath, he focussed on tamping that anger down inside himself again. He would wait for the chance to unleash it, preferably on Agent James Dawson himself.
"I have to kill him," Dawson said, the coldness of his voice leaving Napoleon in no doubt as to who 'he' was. "Kuryakin has to die, for what he's done. And it's only right that you should suffer too, for your part in it all."
"I have no idea what you're talking about," Napoleon said, injecting as much scorn into his voice as he could. In the small amount of light, he could see Dawson redden at his words and drove on, relentless in his desire to escape the role of bait. "What gives you the right to decide who lives or dies?"
"Who better than me?" Dawson asked. "We both know what war is like, Solo. We're in a war now—but U.N.C.L.E. refuses to fight it with all the tools at its command, hiding behind liberal arguments that only get people killed. You have to fight fire with fire."
Napoleon didn't answer. He knew then, with a terrible certainty, that nothing he could say would change this man's mind. Dawson stared at him without speaking before turning and walking away, leaving Napoleon alone in the darkness.
"Go and find my clothes," Illya said, sharply. "I have to get out of here."
Agent Rickwood scurried away, the door to Illya's private room swinging closed again behind her. As he was swinging his legs out of the bed, it opened once more and this time there was a nurse in the doorway.
"What are you doing, Mr. Kuryakin?" she asked, a frown crossing her forehead as she hurried to his side. Illya shrugged off the hand she placed on his forearm, smiling slightly as Melissa returned from her errand.
"I'm getting out of here," Illya hissed. The nurse shrank back slightly from his tone. "Do you have a problem with that?"
"I... I'm going to get the doctor," she stuttered, practically running out of the room.
"You do that..." Illya muttered to himself as he checked the pile of clothing that Melissa had deposited on the bed.
"What are you going to do?" the woman agent asked.
"I'm going to get my partner back," Illya replied. "And you're going to help me."
She hadn't really known what to expect—that was something she hadn't been able to convince herself of in the hours it had taken for Melissa Rickwood to screw up enough courage to come and see the man for whom she feared she was the bearer of bad news. It had only been in the small hours before dawn that she'd made her decision but when she'd made it, she knew it to be right.
If it had been Napoleon Solo who was currently in the infirmary, she knew that it would have been far more difficult. She only knew the Chief Enforcement Agent from briefings, from seeing his keen brown eyes range over the assembled agents, herself included, cataloguing, assessing, measuring. There was no basis there for any kind of shared revelation, not like the connection she had with Illya Kuryakin.
And she knew Solo's reputation too. She'd heard the rumors that spiralled through U.N.C.L.E. HQ, the censorious tone that accompanied the latest discovery of who Solo had been seeing. She recognized the jealousy that hid itself as scorn, but just the man's reputation, deserved or not, set him in a different world, one she felt she could never inhabit.
Kuryakin was different. She'd heard his reputation too, heard about him when she was based in U.N.C.L.E. London, all the stories about Kuryakin making him sound something otherworldly, not quite human. She'd heard nothing of his sexual exploits, though, which was unusual in an organization as tight knit as U.N.C.L.E.—she could only conclude that Illya Kuryakin was either celibate or far more discreet than his partner.
And then she'd actually met the enigma and discovered that all the rumors and stories had done nothing to prepare her for meeting the real Illya Kuryakin. But meet him she had, on one fateful day that had put the last touches to her own partnership with James Dawson, destroying it beyond all hope of repair.
It had been a straightforward mission. Till then Melissa had felt that Dawson tolerated her—she'd done everything he asked her to, to the best of her ability, but still it had never been enough. She'd no idea whether anyone could ever fulfill the high expectations that Dawson seemed to have for his partners—there was no clear yardstick for them to measure themselves against except the tenuous one that existed only in the other agents' mind.
On this mission Melissa had failed to live up to Dawson's expectations and he had told her that in no uncertain terms, berating her even as she sat shaking with the ebbing adrenaline rush, on the steps of the house where she had been forced to kill a man. After the first few venomous words, only the tone had penetrated her misery, and Melissa had been painfully conscious of the presence of a number of embarrassed fellow U.N.C.L.E. agents.
It was bad enough that Dawson was so enraged, but to berate her like this in front of an audience? She could see the compassion on some of the other agent's faces, as they risked the occasional glance in her direction, but no-one intervened. It was then that Illya had arrived, a cold fury ripping out from him, his words like razors. With a few choice phrases he'd torn Dawson apart, humiliating him for all to see, ordering him back to the rendezvous point.
Illya had missed the look that Dawson gave him then, as he'd been speaking to her at the time, but Melissa had seen it and knew then that, if she was Illya, she'd never turn her back on Dawson again.
It had been his kindness to her, his willingness to stand up for her when others dare not, that had persuaded Melissa in the end that she needed to tell Illya Kuryakin all about her partner.
"I'll wait outside," Melissa said, as Illya began to sort through his clothing. Illya nodded once, then turned his back to her as she left the room.
His mind was racing—though he had no proof that Dawson had carried through on some crazy plan involving his partner, there was no arguing the fact that Napoleon was not here. If he wasn't being held by Dawson, nothing short of an international crisis would have stopped him being in the infirmary to spring his partner this morning. And even then, Napoleon Solo would have called.
As he dressed, Illya thought back over what Agent Rickwood had told him. It seemed far-fetched, that Dawson could become so obsessed, but he'd seen the man in action and could not dismiss the possibility.
There were very few things that were real secrets within the hive of gossip that was U.N.C.L.E.'s New York Headquarters—Illya had heard some of things that Dawson had said about him, relayed third or fourth-hand, but had chosen to ignore them. He'd considered that Dawson was all talk, no real threat, but it seemed that he'd been wrong.
He was pulling on his jacket when the doctor came in, closely shadowed by Agent Rickwood.
"I'm sorry, Mr. Kuryakin," she began, "but the doctor insisted."
"It's fine," Illya said, turning his attention to the doctor. "I'm leaving, Dr. Cooper."
"So I see," she said calmly. "Is there any point in trying to persuade you otherwise?"
"My partner is in trouble."
"I'll see you when you return, Mr. Kuryakin?" Dr. Cooper asked, with a small smile. Over the years she'd come to know these two agents well, but her question still held an element of uncertainty.
"I hope it will not be necessary, Doctor," Illya said, heading for the door. "Thank you anyway."
He'd lost consciousness again, as the drugs that were still in his system took hold once more. Napoleon had woken slumped in the chair to which he was tied, his bonds chafing through the thinness of his shirt.
Napoleon shuddered slightly as he thought of Dawson dressing him. His last memory had been of his own apartment, of stripping for some well-earned rest, but now he was fully-clothed and tied up in the warehouse which had been a mute witness to Illya's torture.
He was alone, as far as he could tell. Napoleon held his breath, listening for any clue as to the whereabouts of his captor but there was nothing but the odd sounds any building makes. He couldn't even tell how long he'd been held prisoner, as the dirt-encrusted windows allowed little light to pass through them.
Napoleon had no idea how long it might be before Illya came looking for him.
He must know by now that something is wrong, Napoleon thought. But how will he find me?
Napoleon gave an experimental pull against the ropes that bound him, but there was little movement in them—he could feel the skin chafe on his wrists and ankles where it met the coarse fibres, the blood beginning to ooze out from beneath the ropes.
He had to do something! He couldn't just sit here and be the bait that lured his partner into danger from Dawson. Napoleon stifled a cold laugh. How many times had Illya been used for just such a purpose?
But now it was different. Napoleon had always been a little over-protective about his partner, earning complaints from the stoic Russian about his 'mother hen' persona. And that had all been before he'd realized that he was in love. Now there was nothing he wouldn't do, nothing he wouldn't risk, to keep the man he loved safe from this madman.
So he had to escape.
That decision made, Napoleon began to manoeuvre on the chair to which he was tied, swinging his weight back and forth while the chair rocked unsteadily. If he couldn't untie himself maybe he could break the chair and free himself that way?
As he teetered unsteadily, Napoleon heard a loud click, just at the moment that he over-balanced completely. The chair toppled, taking him with it, sending Napoleon face-first into the dust, a cloud of it surrounding him as he struggled to breathe.
As he lay choking slightly, the chair still unfortunately intact on top of him, more sounds echoed in the stillness of the warehouse.
"Very good, Solo," Dawson's voice said.
Napoleon looked around frantically, searching for the man whose voice he could hear, but with the dim light and the dust that was still settling he could see little.
"I thought you'd try to escape. The chair is quite solid, isn't it? Can you hear a ticking sound, Solo?"
Napoleon tried to swallow, trying desperately to clear the dust from his mouth. He could indeed hear a ticking sound and it was coming from behind him. Even as he squirmed, squinting through the darkness in search of it, the sound moved.
"That sound you're hearing is my insurance policy," Dawson's voice continued, with a cold laugh.
A tape recording, Napoleon realized, and the other sound...
"You have an hour, Solo," the voice continued, "or a little less now. And I'm going to make sure your partner is there with you at the end, don't worry about that!"
It must have been a mercury switch, Napoleon realized, thinking furiously as he lay there choking slightly in the dust that still billowed around him. Dawson knew too much about the other U.N.C.L.E. agents, himself and Illya included—their strengths and weaknesses, their determination to survive—he would know that Napoleon would do everything he could to try and escape and had planned for that eventuality.
In his uncomfortable position, face down in the dust that liberally covered the warehouse floor, Napoleon could feel the sweat starting to trickle down his back. This was not how he had envisaged his final moments—he'd always hoped to live to a ripe old age, eventually dying in his bed, peacefully.
It seemed as though James Dawson had other plans though, for both him and Illya.
At the thought of his partner and the hatred Dawson held for him, Napoleon gritted his teeth and began to try to heave the weight of the heavy wooden chair off himself. If he could at least free himself from his current position. After a couple of attempts, Napoleon realized that he had no leverage that way and began to throw his weight from side to side once more, making a conscious effort to ignore the numbness that was creeping its way slowly up his arms.
With a crash, the chair moved again, toppling sideways this time, Napoleon holding his breath for as long as he could, as the dust billowed round him once more.
Above the pounding of his heart, Napoleon could heard the sharp ticking of the explosive device that Dawson had attached to the chair—his 'insurance', he'd called it. It sounded uncannily loud in the silence of the cavernous warehouse, each tick marking the inexorable passage of time and cutting another second from Napoleon's life.
Would Illya come? Napoleon had no doubt that he would, knowing his stubborn partner far too well, the two agents having faced death and disaster together more times than he cared to consider. Would he know where Napoleon was?
He'd recognized the warehouse almost immediately, but had no idea how much Illya truly remembered of his time here, or whether he even knew its location. Dawson's recorded words seemed to say that he would make sure Illya would be there, if only so they could die together.
Illya's fear grew as the minutes passed, though he tried to push it to the back of his mind. The continuing silence from Napoleon could only mean one thing—his return to his apartment the previous night had led him straight into Dawson's hands. If there were any other explanation for his not appearing in the infirmary this morning, then the Russian had no doubt that his partner would have called.
As he passed through the corridors of U.N.C.L.E. HQ towards the exit through Del Floria's, Agent Rickwood following close at his heels, Illya's thoughts were solely with his partner. All he could think of was Napoleon, his safety more now than ever Illya's number one priority.
"Mr. Kuryakin!" One of the secretary's voices floated down the corridor after him, her call no doubt presaging a request to see Waverly, but Illya ignored it, lengthening his stride as they reached the door leading into the tailor's shop. In a couple of moments, the two agents were through the shop and heading out of the door, into the cold autumn air.
Illya didn't turn when Melissa began to speak, concentrating as he was on attracting the attention of a passing cab.
"Yes, Miss Rickwood?"
"Are you sure this is a good idea? No one knows what we're doing."
"That's exactly the way I like it," Illya said, opening the cab door and gesturing to Melissa to get in. "Who knows if Dawson was really acting alone."
"Where are we going?" Melissa asked, as Illya leaned forward to speak to the cabbie, giving him an address. Illya settled back into the seat beside her. When he spoke, he did not look in her direction, watching the mid-morning traffic as it swirled around their cab.
"Hunting," Illya replied, smiling to himself. "For Thrush."
Napoleon was beginning to understand how Illya had felt when he'd been held captive here. For the first time since he could remember, he wasn't hoping for a chance to escape, knowing that he was the living bait in a trap set to catch the person he cared for most. That thought tore at Napoleon even as he struggled helplessly against the ropes that bound him to the chair.
If I could trip the explosive, he thought, then maybe Illya would be safe.
Even before that thought had finished, Napoleon could almost hear Illya's reaction to that self-sacrificing idea—he smiled sadly, knowing that Illya wouldn't take such a gesture as Napoleon might intend it.
So selfless, Napoleon, he could almost hear Illya say, his voice dry and sardonic. But did you think what I might have to say about you blowing yourself to bits on my account?
Maybe that's not such a good idea after all, he thought. If I blow myself up, Illya will kill me.
Napoleon's apartment was empty, looking as though its usual occupant had just stepped out. It was only when Illya went into the master bedroom, Agent Rickwood shadowing him, that he found the confirmation he feared.
Napoleon's jacket was lying on the floor, having slipped from its hanger, the creases in it even more pronounced than the night before. The bed itself was rumpled, sheets hanging half off the mattress, looking as though someone had been dragged from it in the direction of the door.
"Dawson has him," Illya said, turning away.
"I have no doubt," Illya replied. "Napoleon would never leave his apartment like this—he is too fastidious."
"What now?" she asked, still looking round the ornate bedroom. On the mantelpiece Illya found what he expected.
"What is it?" Melissa asked, crossing to where Illya stood. Illya looked round as she approached and saw the way she recoiled slightly at the coldness that must be in his eyes.
Doubtless Agent Rickwood had heard the wild stories of his life before U.N.C.L.E., the things he was said to have done in the service of his country. And perhaps, before now, because he had been kind to her once, she had dismissed them. The expression on her face showed that she believed them now.
"An address," Illya replied, answering the question Melissa had asked. "And proof—Dawson has my partner and wants me too."
Illya was silent as the two agents travelled to the address they had been given—this time the Russian took no notice of the traffic.
"It has to be a trap," Melissa said finally, when the silence became too much.
There was a long silence and she'd resigned herself to it once more when the Russian spoke again, suddenly, sounding as though he was speaking from far away.
Those two words drove into her, the certainty and coldness that they held a chilling reminder of the position that the man beside her held in their organization. After all, Melissa reminded herself, he hadn't got to where he was without being ruthless.
"I'm not sure I should be coming with you," she began, uncertain of the reaction her words might engender. "Maybe I should call for back-up?"
"No time," Illya said, sounding as though he were creating the words from nothingness, they were so precise and measured.
The rest of the journey passed in silence, each agent deep in their own thoughts.
It was clear that Illya thought only of his partner, fearing that he was already too late, that Dawson had taken some sick revenge on him as he blamed Napoleon for the humiliation that Illya had caused. Melissa's thoughts were of Dawson too, certain that this time the ruthless nature she had too often experienced had gone too far and that her partner was destined to meet his fate at the hands of the man who sat beside her.
It had taken him some time to find her grave. Even with the darkness of the freshly-turned earth as a clue, the lack of a headstone as the final pointer, he hadn't been certain he was in the right place until he stood there at last.
It was raining, a steady drizzle that soaked through his overcoat, seeping into the jacket below—it matched the coldness of his mood. The grayness of the sky seemed to echo the solemnity of the moment for Dawson as he stood there at the grave of the woman he had loved.
"They'll pay for what they did to you," Dawson said, his voice as cold as the rain. "It's all coming together now, just as I planned—soon both Solo and Kuryakin will die."
"You should go back to HQ," Kuryakin said, as the two agents got out of the cab at the address Dawson had left for them. "I should never have expected you to come with me."
He turned to look at Agent Rickwood for the first time since they'd left Napoleon's apartment together.
"Why now?" she asked, trying to keep her tone reasonable. "Why do you suddenly not trust me, Mr. Kuryakin?"
"I told you," he said, "I shouldn't have expected..."
"But I came anyway," Melissa said, her eyes daring Illya to pull rank on her now, to order her to leave. She knew he could—he was Number Two of Section Two, after all, and she was just a field agent, but somehow Melissa was certain that this would be the last tactic that Kuryakin would try.
"He's your partner..." Illya began, sounding a little less certain of himself.
"All the more reason why I should be here," she retorted, then played her trump card. "Unless you think I'm a coward as well."
Even as she spoke the words, Melissa saw a cold smile appear for a moment on the Russian's face. He nodded slightly, a small mark of respect for her winning the argument, before he spoke again.
"Very well. Since I can't convince you to go, at least promise me you'll be careful."
Illya snorted slightly. "I've heard that one before," he muttered. "I'm going in," he said, more loudly this time. "If I'm not out in 10 minutes, call for back-up."
"What about Dawson?"
"What about him?" Illya replied. "He's your partner, regardless of what else he might have done. I don't want to put you in a situation where you have to kill him."
"I could, if I had to."
It was dark inside the warehouse.
Although Illya knew that this was the same place he'd been held captive, the same place that he'd been tortured, it held no memories for him. There was nothing special about it, no sight or sound or smell that made him think this is where it happened—it was just a warehouse.
He knew this had to be a trap—there was no way that it could be anything else—but Illya pushed that concern to the back of his mind. The most important thing was to find his partner and try to make sure both of them got out of here alive. Anything else, like the slow and painful death of James Dawson, would be a bonus.
Illya's hand groped through the darkness, sliding along the wall beside the door which had allowed him access, but when his questing fingers flipped the switches he found there, nothing happened. No surge of light that would dazzle all concerned, enabling him to pinpoint Napoleon's position.
The door had opened silently, despite the rust that marked the surface, and now Illya hesitated just inside, waiting for his eyes to adjust then holding his breath to listen for any other occupants the warehouse might have.
For a long moment, the Russian heard nothing. Then... there it was... a low voice a distance away, the words muttered and unintelligible.
Illya considered for a moment what to do—deciding in the end that he had to take the chance, he whispered his partner's name. The muttering stopped, there was silence and then a low whistle split the oppressive stillness. Illya smiled to himself when he recognized the tune. Only his partner would whistle the Russian national anthem—it had been an in-joke between the two of them for such a long time.
Illya headed confidently into the darkness, navigating by sound alone. After a few strides, he almost tripped over his partner, his hands coming to rest on Napoleon's prone body as he righted himself.
"Now is not the time, Illya," Napoleon hissed.
"You expect me to turn down a chance like this, when I have you completely at my mercy?" Illya asked, his hands travelling down Napoleon's arms to allow his fingers to examine his partner's bonds.
"I don't want you to get the idea I'm not enjoying this," Napoleon said after a moment, "but there happens to be a bomb on the underside of this chair."
"I knew this was too simple," Illya said. "How long do we have?"
"I have no idea. Care to take a look?"
Illya scooted round to the underside of the chair, feeling for the device. After a moment of gentle probing, he sighed and returned his attentions to Napoleon's hands where they were tied to the chair itself.
"It's in a sealed box, Napoleon," Illya said. "Bolted to the chair by the feel of it. There's no way of removing the bomb, so I think I should concentrate in getting you off the chair instead."
"That's fine by me," Napoleon said, wincing slightly as Illya's fingers brushed the tender areas where the ropes had torn the skin around his wrists.
As his fingers worked on the expertly-tied knots, all the Russian could hear now was the ticking of the device—he hadn't noticed it before, even when he'd reached Napoleon's side, but now he was aware of it, he wondered how he'd missed it. Each stroke was sharp, precise, almost hypnotic.
"Nearly there," Illya said, after a few moment, as he felt the ropes begin to loosen.
He knew, even as he spoke, that he was speaking to reassure himself as much as his partner. Just as the ropes began to give way and Napoleon was pulling free, squirming to reach down and untie his ankles, there was a loud click.
"Well, Mr. Solo," Dawson's voice said. "Is your partner with you yet? If not, then he'll be too late to save you—by the time this tape stops you will have 30 seconds left to live."
"Get out of here, Illya," Napoleon said suddenly, his voice sharp with worry.
He was still struggling to pull himself free from the ropes, the numbness in his arms clearly a handicap as he tried to reach down and untie his ankles. Even as Illya tried to help him, reaching down to where the American was fumbling with his bonds, Napoleon slapped his hands away.
"GO!" he shouted, frustration and fear in his voice.
"I'm not leaving you," Illya said calmly, ignoring the tone of Napoleon's voice and reaching down again to try to help him.
"My legs are numb, Illya," Napoleon said, in a more reasonable tone, as if trying to explain something to a particularly stupid child. "Please."
Even as his hands worked at the knots, Illya knew it was too late—he could feel Napoleon's fingers still working frantically at the ropes even as he pushed himself away, reaching out to wrap his fingers round his partner's hands, to still them.
"Shhh..." Illya said, crouching down in the dust beside his partner. Keeping one hand wrapped around the American's hands, Illya reached out with the other and gathered Napoleon to him, awkwardly. "We're in this together, my friend, like always."
The silence, when it came, was almost deafening.
The timer had stopped ticking with an ominous click—in response, Illya had clutched his partner even closer, closing his eyes tightly to avoid seeing death waiting, reaching out for the two of them.
It took a moment for the two agents to realize that they were still alive, then a new sound invaded the silence—the sound of hands clapping.
"Bravo," a voice said, as a cold light flooded the warehouse.
"Anything?" Waverly's voice was calm but the operative working the communication system was anything but taken in.
"Nothing so far, sir," she replied, noting the frown that marred Waverly's brow. How many times had she seen that expression on the old man's face in the past when agents had been in danger?
Suppressing a sigh, she turned back to her equipment and tried again, calling Solo, Kuryakin and Rickwood, one after the other, each with no response.
It was on the third run through that she heard it.
"Rickwood here." The voice was shaky, little more than a whisper.
She was too late even when she spoke, Waverly had already heard and was pulling the microphone towards himself with a hasty gesture.
"Miss Rickwood? Where are you?" he snapped, frowning when the response was not immediate.
"Sir, I..." she began. "I was with Mr. Kuryakin, outside a warehouse where he says he was held. He thinks Mr. Solo..." The voice, which had begun by being so tremulous, ground away to nothing, only silence coming across the airwaves.
"The signal's gone, sir."
"Get me the file on Mr. Solo's latest case," Waverly said, settling back in his chair. "We need to find that warehouse."
It was Dawson, as they'd known it would be.
"Very impressive, gentlemen," Dawson drawled, his eyes flicking contemptuously over the two agents as they still lay in a tangled heap on the floor. "Your willingness to die together is admirable—I'm sure some suitable fate can be arranged."
Illya glowered back at him, his eyes like chips of ice, full of a cold loathing for the man who'd kidnapped his partner. Napoleon concentrated on pulling free from Illya's grip before turning his attention once more to the ropes that still tied him to the heavy wooden chair.
Within a few moments, Napoleon was free of his bonds, still conscious of the warmth of his partner's body blanketing him. It was as though Illya was trying to keep himself between Napoleon and Dawson and he wasn't sure whether to be reassured or annoyed by this sudden protectiveness.
"Illya," he muttered, pulling reluctantly against the arms that were still wrapped around his torso. Illya ignored him, his attention still focussed on the traitor.
Napoleon began to feel the life returning to his legs, the blood rushing back into the limbs which had been cramped before. From where he was still lying, awkwardly positioned half on the dust-strewn warehouse floor and half on the chair, he looked up at the sneering face of the man before them.
"Why did you do it, Dawson?" Illya snarled. "What did you hope to gain by betraying U.N.C.L.E.?"
"Revenge, Kuryakin," Dawson replied, his eyes cold with hatred. "You didn't go along with my plan—you survived and the woman I loved died. That wasn't the way it was supposed to happen!"
"The woman you loved was a psychopath," Napoleon said, smiling to himself as he saw the way that Dawson reacted to those words, turning his attention away from Illya for the first time.
"She was an artist, so I gave her a subject worthy of her skills—I gave her your partner."
"You set him up?" Napoleon snapped, trying to pull away from Illya's grip, to force life into his legs again so that he could get to Dawson, avenge the torture his partner had experienced.
"How else do you think she captured him so easily?" Dawson taunted, with a cold smile, as he watched Napoleon's futile struggle to stand. "I told her where he'd be, arranged for the drugs she needed, even handcuffed him myself."
"How sweet," Illya said coldly, his voice betraying no emotion.
"I knew that by destroying him, I'd get my revenge on both of you," Dawson continued, raising his gun slightly as if to sight it at the Russian's head. Napoleon tensed once more, feeling as though even a breath taken in the wrong place would cause the traitor to open fire. "Kuryakin didn't understand that I'd been partnered with a weakling, someone who had no place as an U.N.C.L.E. agent—he humiliated me, so he had to pay."
"Your partner is no weakling," Illya replied. "Just a human being."
"She's weak, just like you are," Dawson said. "Solo understands what I'm talking about. He's just like me. He knows that you need to be ruthless, let nothing stand in your way."
"Then what difference is there between us and Thrush?" Napoleon replied, the anger he was feeling coming through in his voice. "If we use their methods, that makes us more contemptible than they are—the ends can never justify the means."
"I thought you understood, Solo," Dawson said. "But now I see that Kuryakin has corrupted you too. Beyond redemption."
With those final words, Dawson pulled the trigger.
The windows of the warehouse exploded, shards of smeared and darkened glass scattering across the dusty floor, as Dawson whirled round in the direction of the blast. He was dead before he hit the ground as round after round of ammunition hit his body, tossing him about as if in some macabre dance then letting him slump to the ground like a puppet whose strings had been cut.
"Mr. Solo, Mr. Kuryakin?" a voice called in the silence that fell afterwards, cutting through the ringing in the agent's ears.
"Here," Illya coughed, trying to clear his throat from the dust that had risen once more when the assault on the warehouse began. "We're here."
As he spoke, Illya began to free himself from the huddle that was himself and Napoleon, disentangling limbs that clung, shaking the layer of dirt and splinters of glass that had settled on the two of them. It was only then that Illya was aware that his partner hadn't moved.
Illya remembered the look on Dawson's face as he was about to pull the trigger, the intentness of his stare, the hatred that was so evident in the traitor's eyes. He'd seen that look before, more times than he cared to remember, in the eyes of camp guards or Thrush operatives, and it always meant the same thing. Death.
And then Napoleon had moved, twisting himself somehow from his awkward position to bring himself in front of his partner, just as the U.N.C.L.E. agents had arrived and begun their fortuitous rescue, just as Dawson's finger had pulled the trigger.
Illya held his breath as he studied the inert form of his partner, reaching out a hand that shook slightly to push Napoleon over onto his back.
It was the redness of the blood that drew his attention, as it trickled down from the thick dark hair at Napoleon's temple, sluggish and thick. His partner's face was covered in dust and his hair sparkled with myriad shards of glass. He looked so peaceful, his face was relaxed and his eyes, normally so full of life and light, were closed.
"Mr. Kuryakin?" An unfamiliar voice came from behind Illya, confident but a little concerned. "Are you both okay?"
"I... " Illya's throat closed on the words, his mind screaming its denial of the scene in front of him.
"What is so wrong with the idea that I might want to protect you?" Napoleon had asked him once, back in Illya's apartment, what seemed like a lifetime ago.
Damn you, Napoleon, Illya thought. Look where your protective urge has got you now...
As the agent brought out his communications device, he stepped away from where Illya and Napoleon were, lowering his voice as he spoke.
"Report, Mr. Watson," Waverly replied.
"We found them, sir," Watson replied, glancing round at where Illya still sat, his head cradled in his hands, by the side of his partner.
"He's dead, sir."
"And Mr. Solo, Mr. Kuryakin?"
Watson glanced round once more, his eyes travelling over the despondent form of the Russian agent, while he considered how to reply. Even as he thought, there was a small sound, almost lost in the relative stillness of the warehouse.
Illya was sitting in the dust of the warehouse floor, as though keeping watch over his partner, though his eyes were closed as he tried to drive from his mind the picture of Napoleon putting himself between the two of them and Dawson. At first, he couldn't believe he'd heard anything, though he knew his eyes had snapped open at what he thought he'd heard, and it was a few moments before Illya could bring himself to look.
"Napoleon?" he whispered.
"Did anyone get the number of the truck that hit me?" Napoleon joked, weakly, reaching up with a tentative hand to touch his head. When he brought his fingers down, shakily, they were smeared with blood. Napoleon frowned at them as if he didn't know what it was.
Illya felt as if he were on a rollercoaster, swooping through a world of emotions that only managed to make him feel disorientated and more than a little queasy.
He'd thought that Napoleon was dead. He'd been so certain—Illya remembered the way that Napoleon had twisted himself round even as the shot had been fired by Dawson, putting himself between Illya and harm for one last time.
He'd been a little surprised at the expression of peacefulness that had graced his partner's face when he had turned him over, conscious of the presence of the unknown U.N.C.L.E. agent standing behind him. Illya had been certain that his heart would stop beating as well when he saw the blood still trickling sluggishly down Napoleon's temple, when he wished for a moment that he too were dead.
He hadn't even bothered to check for a pulse, but had instead pulled into himself, cursing the injustice of a world where loyalty and love demanded such a sacrifice.
That word had echoed through Illya's brain, taunting him with its finality, and it was then that the Russian realized that he no longer cared about anything. Any last interest he had in life had been snuffed out with the final breath of the man who lay on the dusty warehouse floor at his side.
My head hurts... Napoleon thought, blinking up at the light that came through the shattered wall of the warehouse.
After a moment he realized that he was really still alive, despite the memory of Dawson's hate-filled face as the traitorous U.N.C.L.E. agent pulled the trigger. Then everything had seemed to explode, as if the whole warehouse had been blown away, and Napoleon was left to wonder if the bomb had been real after all before he lost consciousness.
"My head," Napoleon said, more to reassure himself that he was able to speak than to say anything specific.
He wondered idly where Illya was but it was all he could do for the moment to keep his eyes open, though a part of his mind was screaming at him not to fall asleep. Napoleon could feel the edges of his thoughts beginning to blur, even as he spoke the words, and it was only as someone called his name that he was able to push back the cotton wool-like grayness that threatened to envelop him.
"Napoleon?" a shaky voice asked.
I know that voice, Napoleon thought, wincing as a further wave of pain rocked him, seeming to make his thoughts echo inside his head.
"Did anyone get the number of the truck that hit me?" he asked, his hand searching for the source of the pain and coming down smeared with blood.
My blood, Napoleon thought, staring at it as if he could not imagine how it had come to be there. Mine.
"Napoleon!" the voice repeated, more certain this time, with an edge of emotion to it that made the American look in its direction for the first time, rolling his head that way.
Illya, he thought, as his eyes landed on the dust-streaked face of his partner.
"Agent Rickwood?" Illya asked, half his mind on the answer and the other half on his partner as they wheeled Napoleon into the infirmary.
"She's fine," replied one of the U.N.C.L.E. agents who had raided the warehouse. "Or she will be once her headache wears off."
"Good. I was worried about her," Illya said quietly, missing the look of surprise that flitted across the other agent's face. "Dawson didn't shoot her at least."
"No. She was pistol-whipped and when we found her she was lapsing in and out of consciousness, but all she could ask about was you and Mr. Solo."
Illya nodded, absently, as he watched his partner being moved from the gurney onto one of the infirmary beds. Even across the distance between them, and the obvious pain of the concussion Napoleon was certainly suffering, his eyes sought Illya's, as if he offered a lifeline.
It was all Illya could do not to rush to Napoleon's side, though there was nothing he could really do for him here. He wanted to offer some kind of comfort and reassurance, but more than that he wanted to throw himself on his partner and never let go. The strength of will that it required to prevent himself doing that worried Illya and he began to consider alternatives.
He wanted Napoleon, more than he'd ever wanted anyone else, longing for him in a way that he had formerly thought only applied to lovestruck teenagers. He could feel his face reddening as he contemplated what he'd like to do to his partner and what he longed for his partner to do to him.
He had to get out of here, before he embarrassed himself.
Illya turned on his heel, startling the U.N.C.L.E. agent who had been standing nearby—in his haste, the Russian didn't see the expression that crossed his partner's face as he watched Illya leave.
It was the way that Illya left the infirmary, without a backward glance, that had alarmed Napoleon the most. He'd thought Illya had come to understand something of the reality of how his partner felt about him, but now all Napoleon could do was wonder.
Illya was now known to be innocent of the accusations that had been levelled at him and his plan to unmask the true source of the leaks that had imperilled U.N.C.L.E. had become common knowledge around the New York HQ.
Was that all that had mattered to him after all?
Napoleon shook his head as he thought back to what he had believed would be their final moments of life, back to the time when he had believed that Dawson's bomb would shortly be ending both their lives. He'd practically begged Illya to save himself, but his partner had responded by tightening his grip, wrapping himself around Napoleon as he struggled to free himself from his bonds, even as he knew that there was no more time.
He had to believe that there was something to all of this, something more than just loyalty between partners, but seeing Illya leave like that had made him question even that. He'd been so certain before, remembering other moments of intimacy between them, but even Napoleon had to admit to himself that they didn't add up to much.
Fortunately, Napoleon had been able to persuade Dr. Cooper to let him go in a matter of hours, though it had taken quite a bit of fast talking on his behalf and many promises to look after himself. One of the conditions she'd imposed was to insist that an Agent take him home. As Napoleon got out of the car in front of his apartment he glanced back over his shoulder briefly to thank the Agent who'd given him a lift home.
That should have been you, Illya, Napoleon thought, more annoyed by the moment. Then I could have asked you up for a cup of coffee, and...
He bit off the thought with an internal snarl as he entered the elevator to take him up to his apartment. Once inside the door, Napoleon turned to hang up his jacket, catching sight of his reflection in the glass of a nearby picture as he turned.
Napoleon's hand went up instinctively to touch the white bandage that he wore, realizing for the first time how close he'd come to really giving his life for his partner. Even if that partner hadn't even bothered to hang around long enough to say thank you afterwards.
Napoleon sighed, before turning and heading to the bedroom.
Knowing he'd been kidnapped from there by Dawson, Napoleon had wondered on the drive over how much mess had been made when he was taken. As he reached out to push open the door, he was prepared for anything and sucked in a breath when the light came on to reveal that nothing had changed.
The room was perfect, the bed looking as though it had never even been slept in, the cover folded down precisely.
As he stood in the doorway, a little amazed at the pristine state of his room, Napoleon was conscious of a movement behind him. He whirled round, one hand reflexively reaching for the U.N.C.L.E. special until he recalled he'd removed the holster along with his jacket, his hand meeting only the fabric of his shirt.
At that same moment, Napoleon's brain registered that the 'intruder' was Illya and his stance relaxed slightly. His partner seemed to realize this, allowing his momentum to push the two of them into the bedroom until the back of Napoleon's knees encountered the edge of the bed and he tumbled back onto its surface.
All the air went out of Napoleon's lungs with a soft whoosh, and he found himself pinned to the bed by his partner. He sucked oxygen back into his lungs for a long moment before he was able to speak, his eyes instinctively going to Illya's, his mind noting in the most analytical way the dilation of the pupils he saw there.
"Illya..." he began, before his partner's mouth stopped him from saying any more.
Illya had lain in wait for his partner, but as the long minutes had ticked past it had seemed like a worse and worse idea. He'd imagined what would happen when Napoleon returned, forgetting for a moment the things they'd both been through in the past few days, thinking only with the limitless energy of the libido.
They would make love for hours, of that he was certain.
So, when Napoleon finally came home, Illya was ready for him. It was only as the two of them landed on Napoleon's bed that he realized reality bore little resemblance to his imaginings.
He didn't have the energy for hour upon hour of anything but sleep.
When he woke, Illya found himself still fully clothed, still lying on Napoleon's bed, Napoleon's arms wrapped warmly around him, his head resting in the hollow of his partner's shoulder.
It was clear when he moved, stiffening slightly in the embrace, that Napoleon had been awake already, and the arms that held Illya so securely tightened their grip almost imperceptibly, as if his partner thought he might flee once he woke.
"I'm not going anywhere," Illya said quietly, "but we're both wearing too much clothing."
He felt Napoleon chuckle slightly, the vibrations passing through his chest, and then the grip relaxed. Illya unpeeled himself reluctantly, pushing back gently with his hands on Napoleon's torso, raising his head until he could see his partner's eyes. There was a depth of emotion there that frightened Illya slightly, a warmth that he'd seen before, a recklessness that made his blood rush southwards.
Illya's hands could feel the way that Napoleon's heart was beating and began to move then, as if of their own accord, undoing the buttons of his partner's shirt, before moving downwards and starting work on his belt.
Illya could feel the warmth of Napoleon's hand as it slipped under the material of his turtleneck and began a slow and almost hypnotic stroking movement in the small of his back. The other hand was working at his waistband, the long fingers pulling gently at the zipper of Illya's trousers, dancing lightly over the hardness that lay beneath.
Napoleon's belt came free, and then Illya's hand went to work on freeing the zipper, moving with a determination that was second nature, before slipping in, under the waistband, and down into Napoleon's pants.
When his fingers contacted hot flesh, Napoleon gasped, arching his back slightly, the warm brown eyes snapping shut. Illya smiled to himself, before concentrating on freeing what he had found there, pushing to the back of his mind the sensations that his partner's fingers were provoking from his own body.
He thought back to the first time he'd touched Napoleon like this and how different that had been to what he was experiencing now. That time it had all happened in Napoleon's office, and once he had realized Illya's intentions Napoleon had struggled, even if his struggles had been in vain—this time, his partner was a willing participant, his long fingers working even now to free Illya from the confines of his pants.
As Illya went to pull back, to free himself and ensure a repeat performance of that scene in Napoleon's office, he felt his partner's hand still its movement on his back.
"We do this together, Illya," Napoleon said quietly, "or not at all."
It took only a few moments more for both men to be naked, and even Napoleon's usual care with his clothing went out of the window. All both could think of was pressing against each other, and the feel of each other's hands.
"Together," Illya echoed, as his hand travelled the length of Napoleon's body, as if his fingertips were mapping his partner for further study, skimming lightly across each scar, trailing gently across the skin that stretched tightly across Napoleon's pelvis.
"Together," Napoleon stated, gazing deeply into Illya's eyes as his own hand moved and he watched the arousal building in Illya's eyes, as well as feeling the movement against his fingers.
All he could think of was what had happened between them in his office, when Illya had been the instigator, and then what had nearly happened in Illya's apartment, where Napoleon had been the driving force. This would be different—this time they would both be equally involved, partners in this as they were in all else.
The two men began to move together, hands stroking, eyes closed. They were truly together, moving in unison, as if they had done this a thousand times before, practiced movements, destined to draw a swift climax from two tired bodies that were already close to the edge from anticipation.
For the longest time, the only sound was the movement of skin on skin, punctuated by the occasional groan, the sounds increasing in tempo as time went on, until, with a gasp and a shudder, both men came within a heartbeat of each other.
There was silence for a while. They'd both used up most of their strength in what had gone before and now by tacit agreement had laid down again, tangled together in the rumpled covers. Illya nuzzled gently against Napoleon's neck as he curled his body into Napoleon's side, his eyes almost closing before his partner spoke again.
"Why did you leave me there, in the infirmary?" Napoleon asked, emboldened by the fact that he could not see the emotions that he was sure blazed in the blue depths of Illya's eyes.
"I couldn't bear it," Illya whispered, "seeing you there like that and not being able to touch you, to comfort you."
"I understand," Napoleon replied. "It's okay."
"No, it isn't," Illya said suddenly, stiffening slightly within the arms that were wrapped around him, though he didn't pull against the embrace. "I'm your partner. It can't be like this... we can't be lovers and work together, it's too dangerous."
"Illya, isn't it a little late for that now?"
"I'm serious, Napoleon," Illya replied, steel returning to his voice though he did not move. "I... I care for you greatly, but it's too dangerous."
Napoleon was shaking slightly as Illya spoke and the Russian pulled back, alarmed. After a moment's inspection of his partner, he realized that Napoleon was laughing.
"I don't see what's so funny," he snapped.
"Illya," Napoleon began again, this time managing to keep his laughter under control, although it sparkled in his eyes. "Whenever anyone wants to catch me, they use you as bait. You hate me trying to protect you, but I do it anyway, despite you moaning about it afterwards. Somehow, I can't really see that there's room for much more to be worried about."
Illya looked down at his partner for a long moment, his eyes narrowing as they took in the bandage on Napoleon's head, and he considered his partner's words.
"Perhaps you're right," he said finally. When he'd conceded the point, for now at least, Illya relaxed once more and nestled into Napoleon's side again, allowing sleep to claim him.