Stay By My Side
Illya struggled along the narrow dirt track, weighed down by the load he carried, harried along by shouts and the occasional lash of the whip around his bare legs. He had no idea how long he had been walking, where he was going, or who the men around him were. Why they had him was also not clear.
He had first been captured an unknown time ago in New York by one of the few remaining Thrush satraps. His years in Enforcement behind him, he supposed he had been less than vigilant, and he had been caught and sedated, transported while unconscious to a white, featureless room where he woke up, strapped to a hospital bed with two IV lines running.
They tried a variety of drugs on him while they interrogated him around the clock. A minor project he had been working on in his spare time had suddenly assumed great importance to someone—he couldn't think why and didn't really care. It was work information and therefore secret. He wouldn't tell them. He wouldn't answer their misleading questions, wouldn't go along with the little dramas they set up, trying to fool him into talking to them, wouldn't say a word. He closed his mouth stubbornly and kept it closed. The drug dosages grew with their frustration and he combated it as best he could, as he had been taught. And they were getting careless; ignoring their doctors, who hovered around Illya's bed, monitoring his heart rate, oxygen level and blood pressure, keeping him conscious, keeping him aware. Keeping him alive. But despite their ministrations he had twice now been thrown into violent convulsions and once into deep coma and now he couldn't have told them anything if he had wanted to. He barely remembered who he was, and that there was another life beyond these walls.
One night there had been a series of shattering blasts, then three monstrous explosions, one after the other. Everyone had fled and Illya had struggled against the restraints. Was he being rescued? He had held onto the idea of rescue through everything. Napoleon—his former field partner and still closest friend—wouldn't let them abandon the search. He would push them as he used to push Alexander Waverly, and then he would come and take Illya away from here. It was his only hope, his final hope. When things got really bad, when they had been shining the lights in his face and shouting at him for so many hours that his head spun and his eyes closed despite it all and he couldn't be sure whether he was asleep or awake because it was all the same nightmare, he would think about Napoleon with all his might, picture him laughing, talking, serious with concentration or smiling at Illya in the way he had, gently, as if bemused by his own foibles.
"I trust you," he'd said once after a particularly harrowing mission. They were relaxing by the pool at their resort hotel where they had been granted one night of luxury before being summoned back to New York. "And you know I'm not supposed to."
"I know. I trust you too."
"Totally against procedure."
"And I like you. I like you enormously—far more than I should."
"Thank you." He'd been shy of revealing so much, but how could he leave Napoleon without a response? "I like you too. More—much more than is approved."
"You want to hear something truly reprehensible?"
"Sometimes I even find myself thinking that your life is more important than some of the fool's errands they've risked it on."
"High treason." But Illya was smiling, and Napoleon smiled back. "I won't tell if you won't."
"Deal." Napoleon had extended his hand and Illya had taken it. They shook solemnly, then Napoleon's expression had changed. He had held on to Illya's hand, thumb making slow circles on the back. "You know," he'd said and Illya had swallowed, met his eyes. "The field assignments won't last forever."
"No." Illya remembered wanting to hold on to this moment forever, for Napoleon to stay just as he was, caressing his hand, watching him with that look that said his thoughts were deep, and private. Then Napoleon had released him, lay back against the chair and put his sunglasses on. Illya had done the same, and they had not spoken of it again, but in the year since the fieldwork was indeed ended for both of them, they had spent a great deal of time together, and Napoleon's romantic liaisons had diminished in frequency. It had seemed clear that they were heading for something—something Illya couldn't even really picture but Napoleon had a plan, he was confident, and he would follow Napoleon's plan willingly, he would—His foot caught a tree root and he fell, face down in the dust.
They were on him instantly, kicking him and beating him, pouring a torrent of abuse over him in a polyglot of tongues that he had never let on he understood. They had come into his blank white room, these rough men, dirty and dressed in tattered uniforms and pulled him from the bed, yanked the IV lines from his arms and pushed him out ahead of them. The violence had dissolved Illya's hopes of rescue, so he was not surprised when they tied him up outside the deserted building and tortured him for information as to what the foreigners had been up to. Of course Illya didn't know, and the fact that he had been left behind indicated as much but they gave him several jolts with the cattle prod one of them carried anyway, and put cigarette burns on his stomach and the inside of his elbow. He wanted to keep quiet but cried out in pain despite himself and a filthy rag was jammed into his mouth, smothering the sounds he couldn't help making.
On the trail, he found his silence again. They loaded him down with their packs and tied his hands behind his back, shoved him forward and he went with them, still stupefied by the drugs and lack of sleep, still wearing only the green hospital gown and slippers.
It had been many days now. He had no idea. Every day was a torment of walking and falling and beatings, insects and heat, thirst and pain. At night, when they made their camp, they tied him to a tree. They raped him with the same indiscriminate greed with which they ate and drank; it was nothing personal, he was there and available so they used him, grunting and sweating as they drove into him and then left him, always, always making sure his bonds were secure.
It worried him, that his mind was still affected. It seemed the drugs should have worn off by now. But he couldn't track time—sometimes losing whole stretches of the day, sometimes seemingly trapped in the eternity between one step and the next. He didn't know that he was deeply in shock. He only knew that his mental confusion seemed to be getting worse, not better, that there was an odd surrealism to every waking moment, that sleep eluded him even when he was left alone, finally, for the night. He was jittery, and jumped at every unexpected sound, flinched from every touch. Sometimes he couldn't be sure of the path ahead of him as it flickered and shimmered like a heat mirage, making him irrationally convinced that the very next step would plunge him into an abyss, balking and refusing to move on until jolted forward by the cattle prod. He didn't connect any of that with the crumpled leaves they stuffed into his mouth several times a day, telling him to chew. His throat was always parched and at least chewing provided some moisture. And it did seem to give him strength—so he was grateful for the coca leaves without recognizing them, and took them without protest.
He protested nothing. He withdrew further and further inside his mind as his senses became increasingly unreliable. At night he kept his eyes tightly closed until whoever it was finished, and during the day he stared fixedly at the trail and waited for rescue.
They were drinking tonight. They had stopped earlier on the way and waited while four from their party had gone to trade. Illya lay on his side in the dirt, hands still tied behind him, and was thankful for every moment that he didn't have to walk. Another of those odd blanks in time had occurred then and the next time he was fully aware of anything, he was being dragged across a clearing by two of them while the rest waited by a large flat rock, drinking and talking and laughing. Illya closed his eyes when they threw him onto the stone, on his stomach. Someone was holding his arms twisted up behind his back and someone else covered his mouth. He tried to turn his head away because it was dreadful, breathing that hot sweaty palm but the hand only tightened and the whip came down on his back, reminding him to be still.
A shot rang out, and another. Something heavy crashed onto his back, making it hard to breathe but his face and his arms were released. He struggled to get out from under the body because he couldn't catch his breath, he couldn't—he writhed and twisted and suddenly was free. He fell off the rock, landed hard. All was quiet around him, then Napoleon's voice came out of the darkness.
"All right—toss that gun into the clearing. You too."
Napoleon was here! Right here, rescuing him! Illya stood up, looked around, and there he was! Standing at the head of the path where it opened into their campsite, wearing black pants, black short sleeved shirt and sturdy walking shoes, and holding a lethal looking weapon. With safety in reach, Illya stumbled out from behind the boulder and started towards him.
"Illya! Down!" Illya obeyed the shouted order without thought and something sang over his head.
Napoleon fired again, rapidly, raking the trees and bushes with a withering line of bullets because someone had shot at Illya and now that he was exposed, the time for surrender had passed. When he was satisfied that nothing lived within the clearing besides he himself and his partner, he ran to him. "Illya." He couldn't get over the way Illya had just stood up in the middle of a firefight and started walking. He had known that Illya had been drugged and interrogated at Thrush headquarters—"Another Thrush plaything," Alexander Waverly had said of another agent long ago and the phrase had tormented him after Illya's disappearance. Illya was no one's plaything. Illya was—he was special. Brilliant. Courageous. Napoleon had argued until his voice was hoarse against the decision to step down the search. He had cited Illya's record, his scientific achievements, his years of service. His loyalty. The long string of successes he and Napoleon had shared. But Illya had been gone for twelve weeks with not a hint of an information leak. The projects he had been working on had been shut down.
"Policy," Burton had said curtly, "is there for a reason. If they get information, it is within the first few weeks. After that the agent in question is either dead or sufficiently damaged as to be irrecoverable. The very process necessary to protect secured information is traumatic to the brain. You know that." And nothing Napoleon could say would convince them. So he had defied them.
"I'm going after my partner," he'd said finally, bitterly regretting the wasted weeks.
"I am not asking permission. I am telling you. Gentlemen..." He rose, bowed slightly and left the room. He had ignored the messages that came in over his radio, over his telephone, via computer. So they suspended his privileges. They closed down his expense account, and his radio frequency. They barred him from headquarters until a disciplinary meeting could be held. He left his radio and his ID card on his dining room table, along with his standard issue gun—independently wealthy, he could do without them, could buy his own weapons and transport. He had his own lines of communication too; had his reputation, which was formidable and opened many doors. The last thing he had done before confronting them that day was to get papers for himself and Illya, papers that would let them ride public transportation, cross borders and, hopefully, return to the United States without incident.
It had been a difficult search. He used old contacts both legal and illegal, spent a great deal of money—but there was always more money and finally he found his way to the Thrush satrap in the South American jungle. He had stood in the middle of a vast complex, deserted now and stared at the narrow bed with the heavy restraints, two IV poles lying on the floor and thought of how Illya hated being confined, how he loved the outdoors—how he detested being drugged. His eyes hardened as he looked at the bed and pictured Illya on it, suffering and looking to Napoleon to save him. And he would. The hoodlums who had trashed this facility would have left a trail—and they had.
He followed that trail into the mountains, tracked them for days, looking for and once finding a sign that Illya was still with them—a pair of hospital slippers, abandoned in a mud puddle. Napoleon ground his teeth and continued. How could headquarters write Illya off? He didn't understand it. Illya was the best in his field. He was irreplaceable. And Illya was more than a top agent. Illya was smart, and funny, and sweet—with an engaging smile and wide blue eyes, skin as soft as—well, he couldn't think of a comparison but it was soft, it was—and Illya's hair was a golden flood when not prudently restrained in the neat ponytail usually hidden away under his jacket. He and Illya had been moving towards one another since their first meeting and close as they had become there were still new depths to explore. Napoleon knew it and he had made sure Illya knew it too. The biggest mistake he'd ever made was in assuming they had all the time in the world. So they had moved slowly, too slowly—and now Illya was gone. What else could Napoleon do but go after him? Even if it meant his job, his life as he knew it.
He had come upon the campsite at night—pitch-black night and all should have been quiet on the mountain but it wasn't. The men he was tracking were celebrating. They were shouting and singing and laughing and it had been an easy matter to approach unobserved. They were roughing Illya up—it was hard to see details by the torches they were using but Illya's hair had caught the light, and he was surrounded so Napoleon had shot the men closest to him. The rest had scattered, looking for their discarded weapons and Illya had taken cover behind the boulder—or so Napoleon had thought. But he had been wrong, so he had killed them all and now he was crouched beside Illya, cutting the rope that bound his wrists, checking him for blood.
"Did it hit you?"
"Are you shot?"
"I don't—what? Napoleon!" Illya clutched at him, pulling himself to his knees and throwing both arms around Napoleon's shoulders. "Napoleon, Napoleon. I knew you'd come."
"Good." Napoleon patted his back awkwardly. "Illya—are there more of them?"
"What?" The only fact he knew was that Napoleon was here, right here, right in front of him. His hands tightened on Napoleon's shirt.
"We need to move," Napoleon said grimly. "I'll find you something else to wear. Let go."
"No." He didn't. Napoleon couldn't leave him again. His fists closed on the cloth he held.
"Let go," Napoleon repeated, not wanting to push Illya away, wanting him to understand. "We have to get out of here. We just made a great deal of noise and I want to put some distance between them," he indicated the bodies sprawled on the ground, "and us. Illya. Let go of me."
"No!" Illya clung harder, because only with Napoleon's scent right in his nostrils, Napoleon's body solid against his, was there safety. But Napoleon reached behind him, gripped Illya's wrists and pulled his hands free. He rose.
"Are there more of them?" he repeated.
"Never mind. Wait right here." He started to move towards the tents, out of Illya's immediate range of vision and into the haze that surrounded everything. Illya struggled to his feet, ran forward and caught Napoleon's arm again. Napoleon turned to look into his face, for the first time and his heart sank. He had assumed that once they were together, they would escape together—as a team. Despite the dire predictions he hadn't believed that Illya would be—damaged. But he hadn't even returned a coherent answer to any of Napoleon's questions, had he? No, he hadn't. And he looked so frightened—Napoleon sighed. "All right," he said gently. "But stay right beside me so I know where you are. And don't grab my gun hand."
"I won't." Illya wound both arms around Napoleon's own arm and pressed his forehead to Napoleon's shoulder. "I'll do whatever you say. Just don't leave me again."
"I won't." He turned his arm so he could take one of Illya's hands in his own, and squeezed it reassuringly. In the biggest tent, he found clothes for Illya that were better than the shreds of hospital gown he was wearing. When Illya fumbled and dropped them, Napoleon first stripped then dressed him with impersonal efficiency because they had to move, they had to. Illya's feet were bare and Napoleon winced, thinking of the rock-strewn path. It took more time with the bodies but he managed to find a pair of sandals that fit. Illya smiled at him. And Napoleon, who had seen the terrible bruises mottling Illya's fair skin, had seen the whip marks, the cigarette burns and the other burns, the ones that looked electrical and probably were—he had seen the cattle prod, too, propped against one of the tent posts—managed to smile back. He rose, helped Illya to his feet. He didn't really know what to say.
"It's all right now."
"I know." Illya watched Napoleon shoulder his own backpack. "I can carry something," he offered, because for Napoleon, he wouldn't mind, for Napoleon, he would do anything, and Napoleon shook his head.
"Better not. It's a long trip home and you don't look very well."
"I'm not well." Tears filled his eyes, Napoleon's sympathy cutting through his defenses. "I'm thirsty and I'm tired and hungry and I can't think." He looked at Napoleon expectantly, waiting for him to fix it all and Napoleon, who felt dangerously close to tears himself, took his hand again.
"I'm sorry. But we have to leave now, and it's a long walk. Here." He handed Illya the canteen, waited while he drank, then gave him a chunk of bread he'd found in the tent. He could fix the hunger and thirst, anyway. "Maybe this will help." He started down the trail and Illya followed, clutching the bread in his free hand.
"Wait," he said and managed to break the loaf in half. He gave a piece to Napoleon. "You must be hungry too."
He wasn't, but was encouraged that Illya had thought to share it, so accepted it and they ate as they went, which precluded conversation but Illya's fingers never loosened their grip on Napoleon's hand which stayed comfortingly closed around his too.
Napoleon hurried, wanting to get far away from the carnage at the campsite. He was fairly pulling Illya along, but Illya made no protest until the path narrowed down, began to drop at a precipitous angle and Napoleon tried to pull his hand free. "Let go," he said. "We'll have to walk single file here."
"No—I don't want to let go of you!"
Napoleon was at a loss as to how to cope with a partner who couldn't seem to control himself at all. He was clutching at Napoleon's arm with both hands now, bringing them to a stop. But someone had to be in control. "Let go," he repeated, more forcefully this time and Illya's hands dropped. "Stay right behind me." He turned without waiting for an answer and set out again, hearing Illya dutifully fall in. "Good," he said, without turning. It had been a grueling ten days chase up this mountain but he had taken heart from the fact that whatever had befallen him at Thrush headquarters, Illya was keeping up with the rest of the group and therefore must be in decent physical condition. But now he faltered, dragged his feet—dropped behind again and again and Napoleon waited, concealing his impatience because he wasn't impatient with Illya, not really, just with the situation. With the narrow trail and its steep descent. With the insects that buzzed around and stung them. With the dark night, with the distance still ahead of them before reaching civilization.
"Napoleon?" Illya's voice was too distant so Napoleon spun about, strode back to where Illya had stopped.
"Hang in there," he said gruffly, taking Illya's hand because there was room here, starting to walk again. "We'll stop when it's too light to travel safely."
"They traveled during the day," Illya pointed out, stumbling over a rock in his path, making Napoleon stop again and wait while he righted himself. If Napoleon hadn't been holding on to him, he would have fallen.
"Yes. And we will too. But not yet."
Illya made his legs move. He was beyond tired. His whole body hurt—his lungs burned with each breath and the mists were closing in, making it impossible to see Napoleon in front of him, or the ground at his feet. He followed the tug of Napoleon's hand blindly, not noticing when the tree branches began to whip his face again, the jungle closing in, crowding them.
"Behind me," Napoleon said and Illya did because Napoleon was to be obeyed, he knew that, Napoleon was his senior partner and moreover... but as soon as they separated, he was lost again, lost in the shifting scene around him. He couldn't tell where he ended and the dizzying void began and he cried out, terrified. He had lost Napoleon and was once again alone in this vivid landscape that made no sense.
"What?" Napoleon gripped his shoulders and Illya clutched at him, wrapped his arms around Napoleon's neck and held on with all his might, determined not to lose him again. "Illya—what is it?"
"Don't leave me! I'm sorry I'm tired—I'll keep up, I will—don't leave me again, Napoleon, please!"
"I'm sorry you're tired too." Trying to be firm, knowing they needed to keep moving. "I wish this weren't so hard for you. But we need to travel, Illya. It's not safe here. I won't leave you. You just keep right behind me, and—"
"I can't see you! Everything's moving and it's not separate, it's all together, the path and the trees and—and you and—and me! It's all the same and when you let go of me, I lost you!"
"All right. I'm sorry. I didn't know—all right. Take my hand." He held it out and Illya regarded it dubiously. It seemed much better to just keep his arms around Napoleon's neck so he did, buried his face in Napoleon's shoulder. "Take my hand," Napoleon repeated patiently. "I promise not to let go again."
"I don't want to walk any more." Illya's voice was muffled in his shirt. "I'm tired." Maybe Napoleon didn't understand. "I'm very tired."
"That's why I want to get you to a safe place. We'll rest all day long, Illya, now come on. Let go of my neck and take my hand." He began inching backwards and Illya reluctantly took one step, then another, then yielded to Napoleon's urging and unlocked his arms, grabbed onto Napoleon's outstretched hand with both of his. Napoleon faced front again, Illya behind him still clinging to his hand and they were moving again.
Tired. He was so tired. He'd walked all that day as every day with a crushing weight on his back and no food; whipped, beaten, his body driven far beyond its resources by fear of the goad, and by the coca leaves, the drug only adding to his mental confusion. Now he forced his legs to move, one step at a time, feet dragging and then he couldn't feel them anymore, and he fell. "Illya." Napoleon, who had been nearly yanked off his feet, bent over him.
"I'm sorry." He tried to get up, or thought he did but his body wouldn't obey him. His legs twitched but that was all and Napoleon, seeing it, knew they would go no further tonight. They would just have to stop here. Illya was in the last stages of exhaustion and he was angry with himself for not seeing it sooner. He looked around for shelter and saw a tree with wide branches, tall, disappearing into the canopy over their heads. Could Illya do it? Perhaps with a little rest he could, so Napoleon sat cross-legged on the ground beside him and waited. After about half an hour Illya stirred. "Thirsty..."
"Come on then," Napoleon said firmly and stood up, sliding an arm under Illya's shoulders and bringing him along. "We're going up there." He pointed to the tree. "We can bring our backpack and canteen with us."
"All right," Illya agreed and when Napoleon gave him a boost, he did a creditable job of tree climbing. Napoleon maintained his grip on him, not trusting him, doubt confirmed when he yawned—and let go of his hold to cover his mouth. He would have pitched over to the ground, which was already well below them, if it weren't for Napoleon's arm clamped around his waist. Unaware of his danger, he only smiled drowsily. "This is nice," he said, and put his head on Napoleon's shoulder.
"Yes." Napoleon abandoned the idea of climbing any higher, and settled them as best he could in the branches. He gave Illya a drink, and had one himself, and before he finished putting the canteen away, Illya was asleep. Napoleon watched him for a long time, his face white with fatigue, smudged with bruises. We'll slow down, he thought. There were no signs of pursuit, after all. We'll slow down and I'll hold your hand all you want, and stop whenever you need to rest. He sat there, alert to any sound around them, and allowed himself to realize his success. Illya was safe, alive, relatively whole and back with him again. The mental effects were disturbing—surely any drugs Thrush had given him had worn off by now—but there had been more than drugs involved. Illya's mind, like his body, had been pushed to the breaking point and, like his body, needed time to recover. Napoleon brooded over him, restless even in sleep, hands opening and clenching on Napoleon's sleeve, eyes moving constantly under his closed lids, breath coming unevenly. He would recover. Surely he would. And if he didn't, if the gloomy prognostications of UNCLE's board were correct, then he was still safe, and they were still together, and that would have to be enough.
Illya slept for about five hours then woke again, restless despite his fatigue. He opened his eyes and looked up at Napoleon. Dawn had come, brightening the world around them, making it easier to see Napoleon's face, his dear, familiar face, stern now and a little distant as he kept watch. Before Illya could say anything, Napoleon turned to check on him, and smiled. "Well. Good morning."
"Good morning. I can go now, if you want."
"Yes. If that camp is discovered, the natural assumption will be that the perpetrators continued on, over the ridge to cross the border there, where there are no checkpoints. If we stay alert, we should be all right by day, and it will be faster." He bit his lip. Damn. He had just promised himself he would let Illya take whatever time he needed and here he was urging speed again. "Not that that matters," he said lamely. "I mean—there's no hurry."
"Good," Illya said, and pushed himself into a sitting position, reached for Napoleon's sleeve and nearly fell out of the tree. Napoleon grabbed him, pulled him closer.
"Illya!" His voice was sharper than he meant it to be and he softened it. "We are in a tree. Pay attention."
"I'm sorry." Illya put both hands over his face. "It doesn't get better," he whispered. "It doesn't—I had to lose so much, Napoleon, to keep it from them. They kept pushing for more and I kept burying it and wiping it out and all those other damn images they give you and now I've lost everything. What am I without that? Who am I? I don't even know myself anymore!" His fingers dug into Napoleon's arms. "Help me, Napoleon—I'm so lost!" His voice broke and Napoleon held him, stroking his hair, rubbing his back, offering reassurances.
"It's all right, Illya, it's too soon, that's all. It's too soon and you had all this..." He gestured widely at the tree, Illya's battered condition, the wilderness around them "... on top of it. Once we get back to New York, it'll be fine, you'll see. And I'm here now. You're not lost—I've found you. And I will stand between you and anything that might harm you. You know that."
"Yes." Illya leaned his head on Napoleon's shoulder. "I do know." It was so good to see Napoleon again, he had missed Napoleon so much and now he was here, right here, holding Illya in his arms and that warm, sweet tide was rising again, as it had before he had been taken. Their faces were very close, and it was an easy thing for Illya to lift his just a little, and kiss Napoleon on the mouth.
A violent shock went through Napoleon's whole body at that touch, so tentative, and so sweet. Illya's lips were cool, and soft, and when Napoleon traced them with his tongue, they parted. Illya's mouth tasted like honeyed wine and it was only with the greatest effort that Napoleon drew back. He drew back because—because his whole body was on fire, just from that touch of mouth to mouth, his heart was pounding and he was shaking. He drew back because Illya felt so thin in his embrace, so fragile and Illya had been through so much and... and they were in a damn tree to top it off. So he drew back and looked into Illya's face.
Illya was weak with desire, his arms too heavy to lift, his legs useless. When Napoleon stopped kissing him, he moaned, unable even to hold on to him, able only to whisper, "Don't stop. Please, don't stop."
"Are you sure?" He didn't even see how they could—well, yes he did. He could pull Illya all the way onto his lap, facing him—only realizing he was putting action to the thought when Illya's head was tucked into his neck, their bodies pressed together. "Are you sure?" he repeated because he should, he should think of his partner and not just his own need which was painful now. Then Illya moved against him and they were clutching and gasping, Napoleon trying with all his might to remember where they were because Illya had already forgotten twice and if they fell—and then all thought left him. Passion was a raging torrent that took them both with it, buried them deep in the waters and released them, letting them float back up, drifting and smiling and happy.
Illya stirred finally and kissed Napoleon's cheek. "I love you, Napoleon." The truth came easily. "I love you with my whole heart. I've always loved you."
This was moving so fast, so very fast after all those months—years—of build up. But Napoleon didn't hesitate because it was true for him too. "And I love you, Illya. All the best that is in me, is in my love for you." Illya kissed him, at that, and they kissed for a while longer in their tree, slow gentle kisses that spoke of love, and trust and the joy both were feeling because it had happened after all, against all the odds, they had come to one another at last. A new life was opening up to them, both knew it. As Napoleon rummaged in the pack and found cheese and fruit, as they ate, and drank from the canteen, as they packed up again, each one kept stealing looks at the other and on the frequent occasions when their eyes met, they smiled. When all was ready, they kissed once more before climbing back down to the ground.
On the trail Illya took Napoleon's hand without question. Napoleon led them to a small stream and they washed up, refilled the canteen. Napoleon added a water purification tablet and tucked it away. "Ready?"
"No." Illya sat down by the water's edge and began throwing pebbles into it, one at a time. His expression was troubled so Napoleon resisted the urge to hurry him along and sat beside him.
"What if I never—what if I can't work when we get home? What if I never get my mind back at all? Ever?"
"I don't believe that will happen."
"But what if it does? I'm your partner, I'm supposed to be helping you and I'm not, I'm holding you back, I know it. What if I—how will we—I don't want to hold you back your whole life!"
"Listen to me." He took Illya's face between his hands, looked hard into his eyes. "I love you. You. Not the job you do. You. And while I think you will get better, if you don't, or if it takes longer than anticipated, it will still be all right. We will be—we are, together. No matter what." It was the truth, his heart was given and that was irrevocable, but he missed his partner, too. Missed that sharp inventive brain, that sly sense of humor, that stubborn streak. He kissed Illya and they rose, started off again.
They made better progress than Napoleon had hoped. It was far easier in daylight to follow the rocky trail, and Illya seemed better. When the path narrowed down, he was able to release Napoleon's hand on request and twined his fingers in Napoleon's shirt instead. He was keeping up, too, with none of the complaints of the night before so Napoleon took heart and kept on.
He was so tired. His whole body ached and throbbed and he hurt inside, too, where those men had—he pushed the thought away. He would lose that too, he would—he would bury it, erase it, throw it away. He would think about Napoleon and what they had done that morning and how wonderful it had been, and how wonderful it would be when they stopped for the night. If only he weren't so tired. He knew they hadn't been walking for very long unless—unless he had lost time, the way he sometimes did? But he didn't think so. He had been trudging along in Napoleon's wake for a few hours, no more. Napoleon wouldn't want to stop so soon. If only—and then he saw the leaves they had fed him and remembered how they were sharp and bitter in his mouth but good, too, and how he had felt able to keep walking without falling, so he reached out with his free hand and pulled a clump of leaves free, brought them to his mouth.
Napoleon grabbed his wrist hard, twisted it. "Ow!" He dropped the leaves and pulled his hand free. "Napoleon why—ow." He rubbed his wrist. "You hurt me!"
"Sorry." Napoleon picked them up. "What the devil are you doing?"
"They help, Napoleon. They used to make me eat them because it keeps me from being so tired. I don't want to hold you back. It's all right, I'm used to them."
"Are you." And that explained a lot. Napoleon threw the plant from him. "Illya. These are coca leaves. Drugs. Do you understand?" Without waiting for an answer, he drew Illya after him and they were moving again. "That's why you still don't feel like yourself. A narcotic on top of everything Thrush gave you—no wonder you can't think straight."
"You think so?"
"I think you may have a rough day or two ahead of you, but the raw leaves aren't very potent. Just tell me when you need to rest, and we'll rest."
"All right. Can we rest now?"
"Yes, we can." He looked sharply at Illya's pale face. "We certainly can." They found a comfortable niche off the road, under a rocky ledge and Illya leaned against him. They sat quietly and several times Napoleon thought Illya was about to fall asleep—and he would let him, would stay through the afternoon and into the night if need be—but each time he started awake after only a few minutes.
"I can walk now."
"No." His stomach hurt, was cramping.
"It's the drug wearing off," Napoleon said comfortably. They had come to a wide stretch in the path so he dropped back, beside Illya, smiled down at him.
"You know—I could keep eating them until we get to the rendezvous point. I don't mind. After all this time, another few days won't matter—and I could keep up better. We could make better time."
"Oh." He was disappointed. His body craved the stimulant and his mind craved the false sense of alertness it gave. But Napoleon's voice had been firm so he abandoned the idea and concentrated on putting one foot ahead of the other.
"And there is no rendezvous," Napoleon was saying. He stopped to hold some branches aside for Illya. "There's a bus station."
"And that's where they're picking us up?"
"There is no they, Illya. There is only us. We are walking down to the highway, and taking a bus to the city. From there we will fly out."
"UNCLE isn't coming to get us?"
"Oh." That was puzzling. "But you're bringing me back to New York?"
"Yes. Straight to the door of UNCLE headquarters."
"Well—that may be a problem."
He sighed. "I am currently on disciplinary referral. All my privileges have been suspended."
"Insubordination and refusal to obey a superior."
"You were insubordinate?"
"Yes." He had to smile a little. "Extremely."
"And refused an order?"
Illya was quiet for a moment, thinking about that. "It must have been something very important to you," he ventured, and Napoleon squeezed the hand he was holding.
"It is. It is a subject very dear to my heart."
"I won't go in without you."
Napoleon wasn't at all sure Illya would be given that choice. UNCLE needed to know what had happened at Thrush headquarters, what questions had been asked, what—if anything—Illya had revealed. But that was a problem for the future. "Don't worry about it now. First let's worry about getting off this mountain."
"Then we can worry about a six hour bus trip through the countryside in plain view."
"Then we can worry about getting on a plane without our false documents being detected."
"Then we can worry about finding a cab driver at LaGuardia who speaks English." Illya laughed, and Napoleon went on. "I mean it, Illya. There is a whole lot of travel and danger between now and then. By the time we get back to New York, you'll feel better. The cocaine will have worn off, you'll be used to eating regularly and sleeping enough—"
"And not being hit or kicked or shocked," Illya said and Napoleon stopped, and turned. Hugged him.
"Yes. You will have grown accustomed to being loved, and taken care of. Trust me."
"I do, Napoleon." Illya lifted serious eyes to his face and Napoleon swallowed. "I do trust you." He was adorable, suddenly, with his face so solemn and his eyes shining, a smudge of dirt on one cheekbone, his hair tumbling over his shoulders in a mass of tangles and Napoleon kissed him, tasting that sweetness again but briefly, just a promise for later before taking his hand and leading him onward once more.
They took their time, as Napoleon had resolved and the trek that had taken him ten days on his own took twice that. He had begun to wonder if he had taken a wrong turn when they rounded a bend and saw Illya's hospital slippers, lying in the dirt.
Illya looked at them, remembering when he had lost them, falling on his face in what was then an enormous mud slick—dry and parched now, after many days without rain. He had fallen and they had laughed, and laughed harder when it became evident that with his hands tied behind him, he couldn't rise on his own, that the load on his back had him pinned in the mud, choking and strangling. They had their laugh out before they pulled him up and sent him on his way with a kick on his backside that made sitting against the tree that night pure agony. He looked at Napoleon gratefully and squeezed his hand. Napoleon squeezed back.
"We are at most two days from the highway. I remember passing what sounded like a good sized stream close to here."
"You came this way?"
"Yes." He looked at Illya with compassion. "I was following them," he said gently. "Remember? I told you I followed them from the installation." More than once, he had said it, more than once and again he was discouraged. He shifted from hope to despair several times a day.
"Yes..." Illya recognized the look. He knew his memory was faulty, still, he could remember that moment in the mud much more clearly than a conversation he'd had with Napoleon only the day before. But Napoleon looked so worried. Illya smiled at him. "Were you glad, when you saw them?"
"Yes." He gathered Illya into an embrace and they stood there, surrounded by jungle, and held on to one another. "I was very glad—but I was sorry, too, that you were barefoot on this trail."
"I knew you were coming," Illya whispered against his neck. "The whole time, no matter what, I was waiting for you."
"I'm sorry that it took me so long."
"It must have been hard finding me—finding that installation. They certainly weren't worried about anyone following them."
"Obviously they were wrong. Because, after all, I was second."
"Yes. But that's hardly the same thing. Those men live here. Of course they noticed new construction." He sounded so much like himself that Napoleon laughed, hope rising again.
"True. But I wish I'd found you sooner, before you suffered so much."
"I do too." Illya's eyes were very dark, suddenly, and Napoleon caressed his face, watched the shadows lift under his touch, watched them disappear. Filled with tenderness, he ran his thumb along Illya's mouth, which curved upward. Napoleon smiled back. "Let's go find that stream and clean up. We can't sit on a bus with people like this."
"All right," Illya agreed, and fell in behind again, following Napoleon.
The long journey had been good overall, Napoleon thought, forging steadily ahead, ears alert for the smallest change in the sounds behind him. The burns were healing, the bruises faded. Both men were brown and lean from the long days walking. But Illya was too quiet, still. He couldn't bear Napoleon being out of his sight, and preferred to be right up against him. In a crisis, Napoleon had thought, forcing himself to be dispassionate, Illya couldn't be relied upon. His behavior would be unpredictable, he would be slow to react, and his judgment was not to be trusted. It hurt him to think these things, and made him guard Illya ever more carefully.
"Right about here," he said aloud and took Illya's hand again, led him off the path. They made their way through the undergrowth, the sound of the water growing steadily. Finally they emerged from a thicket to find themselves on the shore of a fast running river. They followed it upstream for a little ways and it opened out into a pool large enough for swimming. They stripped and waded in, hand in hand, ducking under and scrubbing themselves with their clothes, which they then rinsed off and laid in the sun. Illya swam across to the other side, then back. He looked so happy that Napoleon was happy too, seeing it and they swam together around the edge, dove deep in the crystalline waters, met near the bottom. Illya's hair was floating all around him and his eyes were so blue... Napoleon kissed him, kissed him as they ascended, hands clasped, kissing when their heads broke the surface, separating to gasp for air. It pleased them both so much that they did it again, and again, the water bitingly cold, their mouths and hands the only warmth, rising from dark into light, into the sun.
A small waterfall fed the pool at the upper end and Illya swam over. Napoleon watched him floating on his back, holding on to the rocks above his head. The water washed through his hair and when Napoleon joined him and put his hands in it, it clung to his fingers, moving constantly with the flow, wrapping around his wrists and forearms. He stood up, the water falling to his hips and waded closer, between Illya's legs and looked down into his face, running with water, his lips blue, his teeth chattering. Napoleon took him, right there, the first time for that, took him hard because he was so ready and Illya arched his back, weightless in the water, cold everywhere except for the secret place where Napoleon and he were joined. It was warm there, pulsing, sending waves of heat through him. He gasped out Napoleon's name and then there was a brilliant flash of heat. He sank into the cold water. Napoleon pulled him upright, and kissed him some more, and warmth surrounded them both.
They stretched out full length on a sun heated boulder, both flat on their backs, hands linked. After an endless time Napoleon turned his head and found Illya looking at him. He hadn't realized how dirty they had been, had grown accustomed to seeing Illya that way but now his skin was fair and touched with sunburn, freckles showing across his nose, pale gold hair soft and loose around his face. There was a faint bruise still, on his jaw and Napoleon kissed it carefully, apologetically, before moving on. He kissed the welts on Illya's shoulders, and the small round burns across his ribs, his stomach. On the inside of his elbow. Kissing that spot made Illya shiver so he kissed the other one, even though it was uninjured, kissed it slowly, lips hot and leisurely, drifting down. Whip marks crossed Illya's legs, wrapping around them and he laid a trail of kisses there instead, smiling when they parted. Napoleon winced at the same marks on his inner thighs, brushed his mouth across them, and across the other bruises too, still dark and painful looking after all this time, finger marks, they had to be. Napoleon drew back a little and looked at them again. Both legs, upper inner thighs. Someone had laid brutal hands on Illya there, had grabbed his legs and—what? "Illya," he said in a carefully neutral voice.
"Roll over for me, please."
"All right." He did, stretched and closed his eyes again. Napoleon looked at the other bruises, nearly identical to the first set, on Illya's buttocks. Deep, angry looking marks where he had been gripped and .. like a slide dropping into place, the scene he had interrupted at the encampment made sense. Illya, pinned on that rock, them surrounding him. "Napoleon?"
"I like what you were doing. I'm not asleep, if that's why you stopped."
And he wavered, not sure what to say, if he should say anything at all. Illya had been raped. Raped. And—had said not one word about it. Why should that be? Illya turned then, propped himself up on one elbow and Napoleon looked searchingly into his eyes. No hint of guile. Illya smiled at him.
"Do we have to leave now?" And how could Napoleon bring him right to the very edge and then abandon him there? But he wouldn't hold Napoleon back, he wouldn't—so he waited and after another few minutes, Napoleon shook his head.
"No," he said finally. "We don't." Maybe Illya had forgotten. Maybe he had blocked it out, as being too terrible to remember. It certainly wasn't inhibiting his lovemaking—even now he was reaching for Napoleon, pulling him down and touching him too, touching him intimately, already knowing what he liked and the rock made a hard bed so they had to be careful and they were, they were very careful.
They camped there, that night, beside the little pool, sleeping on the ground as they had been, covered with the thin blanket Napoleon had snatched off one of the sleeping bags at the encampment. It was cold, and they would have slept close even if their relationship had not changed. Napoleon remembered sharing a sleeping bag one night on assignment, bitter cold and they had huddled together, shivering abating as they warmed up. They had both slept well that night and woke smiling at each other. Had that been the first sign? He thought it went back even further than that, back to the very beginning when he took Illya's hand in his and was struck by those long, cool fingers, that perfect composure that did not waver even in the face of this first meeting with his formidable older partner. And he had held Illya's hand a fraction of a second too long, and Illya had slanted a look up at him through his lashes and the spark had been lit. And smoldered, no matter how much they tried to ignore it. Had smoldered all those years and now—Napoleon looked at Illya's profile, serene in sleep, and smiled. He let himself doze then, never too deep, floating just below the surface of sleep, part of his mind always on watch.
They reached the road while it was still early. Napoleon pulled Illya back, put a finger to his lips and retraced their steps until they were well out of sight or sound of anyone passing by. He sat down and Illya did too. He didn't question—he never questioned Napoleon anymore.
"I need to brief you as to our cover and situation," Napoleon said. He hoped that Illya had recovered enough to be of help. They were about go to out among people now, and they would have to fit in as best they could. "Here are your papers." He handed the bundle to Illya, who took it. Napoleon helped him tuck it into his belt. "Produce it when required." Illya looked blank. "When I do." He put his own packet away. "When I take mine out, you do the same. Got it?"
"I did not change our names, but our documents now indicate that I am your older brother—half brother. You were backpacking across the country when you got sick. I am here to bring you home. Got it?"
"We are going to go back to the highway and begin walking south. Say as little as possible and stay close to me. We will catch the bus a mile or two up the road. It is a six hour ride to Jackahar, where we will fly home. With me?"
"All right. Let's go." They walked back to the road and crouched beside it, under cover of the bushes. Napoleon watched, and waited, and when there was a break in the foot traffic, he grabbed Illya's arm and pulled him out. They kept a steady pace and maintained silence.
Illya watched his feet on the worn blacktop and went over the plan again. Walk, bus, plane. Walk, bus, plane. Home. He smiled and stole a look at Napoleon, whose face had that stern expression again. Illya wondered what he was thinking about. Was he worrying about the mysterious matter of his disciplinary referral? And how could they suspend Napoleon? Napoleon was the best agent they had. Napoleon's record was impeccable. Napoleon—and then it hit him. He came to a stop in the road and, when Napoleon stopped too, looking at him inquiringly, he pointed a finger at him.
"It's because of me, isn't it."
"Excuse me? Come on, Illya, we'll attract attention." He took Illya's arm and pulled him along.
"That you're in trouble. That you're suspended. Because you came after me."
"Illya, I don't—"
"Yes." He tightened his hold on Illya's arm, both keeping him moving and offering reassurance. "But I don't count the cost, Illya, you know that."
"I know, but..."
"You would do it for me." And to that, of course, there was only one answer.
"But I don't want you to be in trouble because of me."
"I know." They walked on in silence for a while, then Illya looked up at him.
"I'm glad you did," he whispered. "Thank you so much. When I heard your voice that night I—you don't even know, how terrible it was, what you saved me from. I was nothing to them. It amused them to hurt me, and they liked me carrying their packs and they liked—" He stopped and Napoleon, who had been holding his breath, released it. "I was less than nothing. But to you—to you I was..."
"Everything." He moved closer. "So you came and you just took me back. Away from them. And when they tried to stop you, you killed them."
"I thought about that—about you. I'd look at them, enjoying their power over me and think—you're all dead men. Because Napoleon is coming, and he'll kill you for doing this to me. And you did."
"Yes, I did."
"And now you're in trouble—and I can't even pretend to be sorry you came. I love you so much, Napoleon."
"And I love you, Illya." He smiled down at his partner. The emotional roller coaster was up. Illya had remembered that earlier conversation, had clearly been thinking about it and had come to the correct conclusion. It was the clearest thinking he'd shown yet. Napoleon smiled at him, encouraged again. "Now we're coming to the bus stop. It might be crowded. If we get separated—"
"Separated!" Illya came to an abrupt stop in the middle of the road. "What do you mean, separated? We're not getting—I'm not letting go of you!" He wrapped both arms around Napoleon's arm again, as he had in the beginning. Separated? From Napoleon? Lost again—no! He pressed even closer, oblivious to the people detouring around them, eyeing them curiously as they did so.
As quickly as hope had risen, it was crushed. Napoleon began walking again, fast, forcing Illya to come along or lose his grip. "Quiet," he rasped. "We're attracting attention and we can't afford that. Stop, Illya."
"I won't stop! Why would you even say such a terrible thing? We can't be separated! I won't know what to do! I'll be lost again—Napoleon, please!" His voice was climbing, and Napoleon ground his teeth. He pulled Illya over to the shoulder and shook him, once, very hard, snapping his head back and causing him to bite his tongue, stopping the flood of words.
"Be quiet," he hissed again. "Be quiet and listen to instructions—Agent Kuryakin!" He hit Illya's title hard. "Am I making myself clear?"
"Yes." It was all he could say. It felt as though Napoleon had slapped him. His tongue was bleeding and Napoleon handed him a handkerchief.
"Good." He started walking again, deliberately not looking to be sure Illya was following but acutely aware of his presence. "We cannot afford to attract attention. Our papers are good, but will not stand up under investigation. Now I will do my utmost to be sure we are not separated, but if we are—" Illya opened his mouth and Napoleon silenced him with a curt hand gesture. "You are to find the nearest secure spot and wait for me. I expect you to weigh distance and cover while choosing that spot because those are the criteria I will use to locate you. Stay there. I will come back for you. Do you understand me?" He had never had to address Illya this way, not even on their first mission. Like a civilian, he thought suddenly. It's like having a civilian along. And I am responsible for him.
"Yes." Illya was hot with shame. But what if Napoleon never came? He was afraid to ask, but Napoleon went on, spelling it out the way he would for any—civilian.
"Two hours. No more. If I have not returned by then, something is preventing me."
"Then what?" It burst out, he couldn't keep it in but Napoleon didn't seem angry, in fact the smile he turned on Illya now was very gentle.
"Then—well, I suppose I will need rescuing. I'll be counting on you." No, he wouldn't, he'd be frantic wondering what had become of him but Illya nodded, face very serious.
"Oh, yes, Napoleon, I will. I mean I would." He would. "I promise."
"I know." Hope rose again, just a little.
"But please—please don't let us get separated."
"I'll do the best I can," Napoleon promised him. "Here's the bus stop. The bus should be along in about thirty minutes."
It came much later than that and Napoleon queried the driver as he counted out their fare. Illya was standing on the step behind him, clutching his shirt with both hands. "You sure? To Jackahar?"
"Yes. Move on in." They did so and the bus started up, spewing clouds of blue smoke. Napoleon eyed the inside of the shabby coach with dismay. Every available seat was jammed with people and animals and children—his head spun at the noise and heat. There were no rails or straps, only the press of other standees around them kept them on their feet. He was openly holding on to Illya now, because the possibility of separation in this crowd was suddenly very real and what would Illya do then? Illya was clinging to him as well, arms around his waist and Napoleon had no idea how it looked but maybe no one was paying any attention to them. Then someone poked his knee. He looked down at the woman sitting on the bench in front of him.
"Was the young man ill?" she wanted to know, indicating Illya and Napoleon looked at him. Illya was alarmingly pale as he struggled to keep his footing and breathe in the crush. Even his lips were white.
"Yes," Napoleon answered honestly. "He's been very sick—my half brother," he explained, hoping that would justify their embrace. "I'm bringing him home." He saw the pity on her face and felt a surge of hope. Women did like Illya—frequently wanted to mother him. He shook his head. "He shouldn't be standing like this." He nudged Illya as he said that and to his relief, Illya responded, legs buckling so Napoleon had to grab him with both hands to keep him on his feet. The woman clucked and began talking volubly in Spanish to the woman next to her. The man across the aisle took up the conversation and it became too fast and many sided for Napoleon to follow. Illya sagged against him, head drooping on his shoulder, a truly pitiable figure and before Napoleon knew it, they were being moved towards the back of the bus, pushed through the crowd which parted for them as best it could until they reached the back and an incredible empty seat. It was tight quarters for two and people crowded in on both sides but it was much more secure as well as more comfortable and Illya's sigh of relief was real. The woman nodded and smiled at them and Napoleon smiled back, and then she returned to her private conversation and Napoleon relaxed. It was crowded and hot and noisy, the air full of the smell of too many people crowded too closely together, but they were moving forward as planned. He had one arm around Illya's shoulders and Illya's own hands were locked together where they circled his waist and—Illya had understood him and followed his lead and that was perhaps the most encouraging thing of all.
They weren't going very fast, and had stopped twice while the driver worked under the hood. Napoleon frowned and looked out at the sun, now near the horizon and no sign of a town. He hoped they wouldn't get in too late—he and Illya had not eaten since early that morning and he had no provisions with him—unlike their traveling companions. All of them were eating fresh bread—long, crusty loaves—and cheese, meat pastries and fruit. Just as he thought that, his nostrils twitching as the man across from them unwrapped a dripping sandwich, Illya, who had been sleeping against his shoulder, stirred and sat up. "Where are we?"
"We are still on the bus, somewhere between where we were, and where we are going," Napoleon answered, and smiled into Illya's eyes. "Feel better?"
"Than what?" Illya rubbed his eyes, tried vainly to push his hair back behind his shoulders.
"Than—before you went to sleep."
"Not as tired, but I'm hungry, Napoleon." He too had caught the scent of their neighbors' food. "I thought you said we'd be there by now."
"I thought so too." He addressed the group of women who had found them their seat. "Ah—excuse me." He switched to Spanish and they turned his way. "We seem to be running a little behind schedule. Can you tell me when we will arrive at Jackahar?"
All three of them burst out laughing. "Signor," one finally said, "this bus knows no schedule. It travels as it will, breaks down often and arrives when it arrives."
"I see." He was dismayed, and angry too, that his information had been unreliable. He would take care of that when they arrived home. Until then—his stomach growled and he ignored it. He was worried about Illya though, and just then Illya put his mouth to his ear. "It's all right, Napoleon. I can wait until we get there."
"Excuse me," Napoleon said again to the women. "My brother and I—we didn't know—we thought we could buy dinner at Jackahar."
"And you still can!" the old man by the window said in delight. "Tomorrow morning, or the next day perhaps!" He laughed at his own joke and the others laughed too.
"He needs to keep up his strength," Napoleon went on. "I don't mind about myself—but he's been so ill. Can anyone spare him something?"
A chorus of assent went up, women searching through their bags, pressing food on both of them, leaning forward to pat Illya's cheek and tell him to eat up, urging Napoleon to eat too, so he could care for his younger brother. When it all subsided, Napoleon had two loaves of bread, a round cheese and three meat pastries balanced precariously on his lap and Illya was already halfway through his first sandwich. A jug of milk came down to complete the meal and with many thanks, Napoleon ate and stored the rest of the food in his pack. "Illya," he said when he had finished eating.
"Yes?" Illya wiped his mouth with part of the wrapping and bundled it all up.
"I'm going to sleep for a while. Can you stay awake and keep watch?" It was safe enough, he sensed no threat from their fellow passengers and any change in the bus' speed would wake him.
"Now if you get sleepy, wake me up," Napoleon warned, sliding down a little in his seat, stretching his legs as far as they would go without kicking the man on the other side.
"I won't get sleepy." Illya looked at the dark circles under Napoleon's eyes and sat up straighter.
"But if you do..."
"If I do, I'll wake you," Illya agreed and after a moment Napoleon's eyes closed and he relaxed. It was his head on Illya's shoulder now and Illya sat very still. He was filled with tenderness for Napoleon, who drove himself so hard, who had sacrificed his career and risked his life, who was so good.
"He is a good brother," the woman who had given him the milk said.
She shook a finger at him. "Now you be a good boy and stay home instead of causing all this worry and bother. Where are you from?"
"New York," Illya said because he didn't know what Napoleon had told them and in that case, sticking close to the truth was best.
"New York!" There were exclamations of surprise and wonder. The woman shook her finger at him again. "Rich like that, living in New York—from now on you stay there. A boy like you—who knows what trouble you could get into here? You could get hurt—or killed in this jungle."
"Yes ma'am," Illya said and she gave him a pastry, dripping with cream, covered in honey. He ate it in three quick bites and smiled at her gratefully. She smiled too and leaned her own head back. Illya looked around. Nearly everyone was asleep. He yawned, then caught himself. It was the heat and the crowd on top of the heavy meal that did it. He looked wistfully at the window and wished he could open it but he would have had to leave Napoleon and crawl across six people to get to it and then probably they'd make him shut it. So he stayed where he was, listening to the even breathing all around him while struggling to stay awake himself.
I will stay awake I will stay awake I will... The thought trailed off into dissolution and his head nodded. Jerked upright. He pushed himself up again. Napoleon needs his sleep, Napoleon needs his sleep... to the rhythm of the bus wheels. The sun had long set—the six-hour journey now stretched to twelve and no sign of a destination. He pinched himself, hard, blinked against the pain, pinched again. I won't wake Napoleon up, I won't wake Napoleon up. It seemed a very long time that he struggled against sleep and then the bus came to an abrupt halt, throwing everyone forward. Illya landed on the floor and then when the bus lurched ahead, he slid back, under the seat.
"Illya!" Napoleon, yanked from a much deeper sleep than he'd intended, groped for Illya who was no longer beside him, was no longer in sight. "Illya!" He had never known such fear. Had Illya been taken while he slept? Perhaps Illya had fallen asleep after all and someone had snatched him up, left the bus—a tug came at his pants leg and he kicked backward sharply. He hadn't actually seen any rats on the bus, but with the food all over, he wouldn't be surprised—he kicked again.
"Ow! Stop kicking me, Napoleon!" Illya's voice was coming from—He bent over, reached behind his feet and dragged Illya out, pulled him up. The bus lunged forward, depositing Illya on his lap and Napoleon wrapped both arms around him, hanging on for dear life as the bus screeched to a halt and the people who had been standing all this way sprawled in every direction. The door opening punctuated the driver's announcement.
"Jackahar." He got off the bus then and went into the little tavern nearby. Napoleon exhaled with relief and scooted Illya off his lap and back onto his seat.
"Here we are. Let's go find ourselves a room."
"No one else is getting off."
"Hmm." Illya was right. Napoleon asked out loud and was told that no inn would take guests this late. The airline offices were closed, the banks closed—so they spent one more night on the bus with everyone else. Quarters were closer than ever, with the addition of early arrivals for the return journey the next morning so Illya was back on his lap but everyone else was equally cozy so no one paid them any attention. Illya snuggled closer, head tucked into Napoleon's neck, arms loose around his waist and Napoleon kept watch all night long, over the bus full of snoring passengers, over the deserted concrete streets around him, over his partner, safe in his arms, smiling in his sleep.
The sun in his eyes roused him and everyone around them began stirring as well. When the line had moved enough for them to stand up, they did so, stretching and yawning and exchanging greetings with their neighbors. They made their way up the aisle, down the steps and out into the morning.
The station was packed with people. No sooner had they moved away from the bus than an announcement came over the speaker system. The express train for the coast was boarding on Platform 12 and suddenly it seemed that everyone on the small platform began running at once, sweeping them along, pulling them apart.
Separated. Separated after all. Where was Illya in this mob—was he all right? Napoleon fought his way back, scanning the area, looking for a flash of blond hair, or the vest Illya was wearing.
Illya had been swept towards the side of the courtyard despite his frantic attempts to make his way back to Napoleon. He called his name but the din around him took the sound away. Panic was very close but he refused it, concentrated on Napoleon's orders.
Find a secure spot, Napoleon had said. Weigh cover with proximity. Well, he didn't need any cover, this was not a hostile situation, and he needed to be very close so Napoleon could find him. He saw a bench bolted to the concrete out of the corner of his eye, and he twisted sideways, ducked under somebody's arm and was on it. The crowd engulfed it but he curled up on the seat, feet tucked under him and held on with both hands, determined not to be swept away again. People swarmed over him but he only ducked his head and clung tighter.
When it quieted down a little, he got up on his knees, gripping the arm, and scanned the crowd. Napoleon would come back for him, he would—and there he was! It was only an instant of contact, their eyes meeting over a stranger's head but it was electric. Illya's heart jumped in his chest and he gasped with relief. And Napoleon put his head down and shoved his way through, able to now, most of the crowd having squeezed onto the train that was even now pulling out. He swung himself onto the bench next to Illya and grinned at him. Here Illya was, safe and sound and moreover he had remembered the plan, had understood and chosen the perfect location. He beamed at his partner. Illya smiled back.
Napoleon looked so happy! He must have been very worried. Napoleon cared—so much. Loved him—so much. And he loved Napoleon. His love was written across his face, and Napoleon cleared his throat. "Well," he said. "Come on." He got up and Illya followed, managing not to hold his hand now because they were surrounded by strangers and it would look odd—would attract attention and the first thing they taught you was how not to attract attention. He followed Napoleon to the nearest inn, a cheap, noisy, dirty place whose sole distinction was its proximity to the station. They had emptied out with the train's departure so were glad to accept Napoleon's money and give them a room on the second floor. Inside, Napoleon checked security and was pleased. There was a good sturdy bolt; a great bar of wood that dropped down and wedged snugly across the door frame, and heavy shutters over the one window, which he closed and fastened. Relieved, he sat Illya down on the bed and put both hands on his shoulders. He would do this fast.
"I need to go out for a while. I need you to stay here."
Illya paled, and Napoleon's hands tightened. He had a new confidence in Illya now, and tried to convey that with his voice and his eyes, even as his hands promised safety.
"The bathroom is down the hall, so use it now while I'm still here." He stood up and brought Illya across the room, gave him a push. "Go."
And Illya went, despite the fact that the very last thing he wanted to do was leave Napoleon, go out into the open without Napoleon's protection but he went, stopping to knock at the bathroom door. When no one answered, he opened it, gave a longing look down the hall towards their room. Napoleon was lounging in the doorway, seemingly relaxed, actually watching him sharply. Relieved, Illya went into the malodorous little room. Napoleon was right there, had been right there the whole time. It cheered him, to think of it and when he washed his hands as best he could and came back out into the hall, Napoleon was still there. He waited until they were again in their room to speak.
"Now you lock up after me and don't open up again until you hear me speak to you. There is still plenty of food in the pack. Don't worry. I promise I'll be back before dark. Yes?"
"All right." Where was Napoleon going? Why was he leaving? How—how could he go? But he held back his questions, and nodded obediently. Napoleon kissed him once, lightly, and left, pausing in the hall until he heard the bar drop into place.
He went back to the station, nearly deserted now, and up to a row of battered lockers. He had a key around his neck, concealed under his shirt and now he used it, removed the parcel inside. It contained his other identification, the cards that said he was a wealthy man, a very wealthy man. With them, he went to the nearest bank. From there he went to an exclusive men's clothing store where the proprietor, long accustomed to the rich and their habits, never blinked an eye at Napoleon's travel worn clothes but sold him a new suit, a set of underwear, and pajamas. Napoleon estimated Illya's size—he had lost weight, during his ordeal—and ordered the same for him. He requested, and received, permission to use the store's lavish rest room where he stripped down and washed himself all over, dried off with the linen hand towels provided and, dressed again in his new finery, discarded the old in the trash can. Carrying the rest of his purchases, he bowed graciously to the store's owner, who bowed in return, and went out into the street where he hailed a taxi and told the driver to take him to the station.
Illya waited, telling himself that he was safe enough here. There were no enemies left to pursue him. Napoleon had killed them all. He was safe. But he wished Napoleon would hurry, he wished Napoleon would come back, he wished... "Illya."
He leapt from the bed and ran over to the door, wrestled with the bolt and opened up. Napoleon came in and Illya threw both arms around his neck. Napoleon hugged Illya in return. "Now go back into that bathroom," he directed. "I know it's a sty—clean up as best you can anyway. Go." He opened the door and, as before, watched Illya safely into the bathroom, waited, watched him come back, locked up behind him. His face was scrubbed and shining with cold water, his hair damp. "Good." Napoleon pushed the new clothes into his hands and waited while he dressed, then tied his hair back again with the string that had closed the parcel. He led Illya out and down the hall. He had left their pack, with its hard won bounty, and now he only carried one paper bag, containing papers, cash, and their new pajamas.
At the station Napoleon handed Illya into another cab, got in beside him and gave an address to the driver, who pulled away with alacrity.
He let them off in front of the city's most expensive hotel. A uniformed doorman bowed them inside, a haughty front desk clerk, resplendent in brass and buttons, lost his hauteur after scanning Napoleon's credit card and welcomed them warmly. He didn't blink at the paper bag, taking it from Napoleon with a bow, handing it to the bellhop who, with equal gravity, carried it upstairs for them. Napoleon accepted it with thanks, dipped inside and produced a generous tip. Downstairs the bellhop and the desk clerk agreed that Americans were crazy altogether but this one, at least, was a generous man.
Inside the penthouse suite, all was silence and luxury, the carpet soft underfoot. There was a living room, a bedroom with a king sized bed, and sliding glass doors onto a balcony. The bathroom boasted a hot tub. After weeks on the trail, it was overwhelming. They walked around, hand in hand, investigating the comforts with barely restrained glee. Napoleon filled the tub; Illya bounced on the bed before going outside on the balcony. Napoleon joined him. "We have plane tickets for tomorrow morning," he said, staring out over the city. "Nonstop to New York and home."
"Home," Illya echoed.
"But meanwhile, here we are in the lap of luxury. It's a big tub—want to join me? Room service will take at least forty-five minutes—we can order, bathe and be in our pajamas when it arrives."
How you like to plan things out, Illya thought, smiling up at Napoleon. Without knowing it, Napoleon had answered a question that Illya had not dared to ask. He had wondered if this new thing between them was for always, or only for this part of their lives that was so different, walking all day, barely finding enough to eat, dirty, tired—and madly, passionately, in love. He had worried about that, but now here they were, back in their own world and Napoleon wanted him naked in the bathtub and they were still madly—He slid down into the hot water, down into Napoleon's arms—passionately—Napoleon kissed him, opened his legs, took him—in love.
They ate ravenously, barely restraining themselves while the waiter set up the table. As soon as the door clicked shut behind him, they fell on the food, on the good steak and tossed salad, the baby tomatoes and fresh bread, the onion soup and shrimp cocktail. Replete at last, Illya lay back on the sofa and stretched, listening to Napoleon stack their dishes on the tray, put it out in the hall. Then Napoleon returned, smiled down at him and began to undress.
"I'm sleepy." Illya put his head back and yawned, covering his mouth.
"That's all right." Naked now, he bent over, began to remove Illya's pajamas. "I like you sleepy. All soft," he tugged Illya's pants down, off, "and warm," pulling Illya to a sitting position, pulling his shirt over his head, "and sleepy." Illya leaned on him all the way into the bedroom and they fell together onto the mattress, both groaning aloud in pleasure as they sank into it, then Napoleon was whispering Illya's name and their lovemaking was warm, and sleepy, and then darkness covered them and they slept, wrapped in each other's arms, surrounded by a strange city, a strange country, in a world of their own.
As the cab pulled away from LaGuardia Airport, Illya looked at Napoleon and his face had darkened. "It's time now, Napoleon."
"To worry about—you know. We're in the taxi." He forced a smile. "Now what happens?"
He had no idea. "Do as I tell you," he answered finally because he still didn't trust Illya's judgment and this could all work out, if handled carefully. And Illya, relieved to think Napoleon still had a plan, nodded, but his hands closed around Napoleon's arm and he moved closer.
He followed Napoleon into the old tailor's shop, still clinging to him because he couldn't bear the thought of separation now, now when he didn't know what to expect. He was very afraid. Why he should be afraid of UNCLE he didn't know but he was, he was cold and sick with fear and only the strength of Napoleon's body next to his kept him on his feet, only Napoleon's forward motion moved him. They were in the fitting room now and Napoleon reached out, pulled the lever and the doors opened.
It was too much, those sliding steel doors, too much like the other place and he hid his face in Napoleon's shoulder, moving again because Napoleon did and he couldn't let go of Napoleon so he moved and the doors closed behind him. He squeezed his eyes shut.
"Agent Kuryakin." They had used his title, those cold smooth men and women who had handled him with such efficient cruelty; had called him the same thing and he hadn't answered them so he didn't answer now and after a moment, he heard the same voice say "Medical, Entrance 4." He shuddered at that, because that was what they always said when they had pushed him too far, they said "Medical". He shook his head against Napoleon's shoulder.
"No." It was a fruitless plea, he knew it, events were happening too quickly and any minute now they'd come in and grab him, strap him down... "No." He turned all the way into Napoleon, clinging to him, feeling Napoleon's arms close around him. More doors slid open, he heard them but he was safe now, Napoleon had him. Napoleon wouldn't let them take him.
Napoleon backed up a step, to buy them time. His eyes met Burton's in an open appeal—Please, he thought, it's not Illya's fault I went against you. Please don't frighten him more than he already is, please don't have him pulled from me, and Burton nodded his understanding. "Agent Kuryakin," he repeated quietly. "I have sent for your own physician—here he is now." Napoleon recognized Dr. James Holt, Illya's own primary care physician. Illya liked him, he knew and dared to hope that this wouldn't end in catastrophe.
"Illya?" Holt came closer but didn't touch his patient. What had been done to reduce Illya Kuryakin to this he didn't like to think but Illya, clearly terrorized by his surroundings, was clutching Napoleon Solo like a drowning man with a life preserver. "Can you hear me?"
"Yes." The voice was muffled against Napoleon's jacket.
"It's Dr. Holt."
"James Holt. Your doctor."
"James?" Illya turned within the circle of Napoleon's arms and Holt smiled at him.
"Hey, Illya. We've missed you Wednesday nights."
"Wednesday... oh. Poker."
"Yes." Good. Illya knew him and moreover remembered their regular poker group. It was more than he'd dared hope for.
"You missed me?"
"Sure did. Everyone missed you. Now I want you to come with me to my office."
"Your office?" That wasn't so bad, it wasn't that bad, he knew James, had been in his examination rooms many times.
"That's right. I'll check you out top to bottom, no waiting. You're my number one priority case."
"I don't want you to tie me down."
"I don't want to have to do that either," Holt agreed. "How long since they stopped drugging him, Solo?"
"Over twenty days."
"Well, good. Illya—I recommend a light sedative. Just to take the edge off during your exam."
"No!" He recoiled against Napoleon so hard he almost knocked him off his feet. "I won't—I won't let you! And I won't go with you either! I'm not—not—" He retreated back to Napoleon's shoulder. Napoleon raised his eyebrows at Holt.
"He needs it, Solo. His body's dumping adrenaline into his bloodstream nonstop. He's shocky—he needs some help. Maybe he'll let you give it to him."
"Get it," Napoleon said after a moment's thought and Holt nodded. He went out, returned almost immediately with a syringe, which he handed to Napoleon.
"It's all right, Illya," Napoleon said. "Roll up your sleeve." Illya did, because he trusted Napoleon but he was afraid, too, shivering as if standing in a cold wind, his fingers white where they gripped Napoleon's jacket. He turned his face away as Napoleon first tested the syringe, then tucked Illya's arm under his, holding it still. "Illya is coming home with me," he said while he injected the sedative, pulled the needle out, applied the Band-Aid Dr. Holt provided. "That means I need to be at his discharge conference." He said that blandly, not looking at Burton, who answered just as smoothly.
"Of course, Agent Solo. Our Board meeting should be ready to break for lunch right about then. You can attend the conference and then escort Agent Kuryakin to the Executive Dining Room. We would very much like to buy you lunch," he said to Illya who had calmed visibly.
"All right." He felt better. It was good to see James. He liked James very much. He smiled at the doctor, who beckoned.
"Come on, Illya. Sooner begun, soonest done."
"And you won't tie me up."
"All right." Immediately Napoleon slid his hand free and turned him into Holt's extended arm. James draped it companionably across Illya's back and they were walking, they were leaving and Napoleon was staying behind! It had never occurred to him that Napoleon would stay behind and he stopped, stiffening his whole body against James's urging. "Napoleon?"
"It's all right, Illya," Napoleon said steadily. "I'll meet you there when he's through." Illya deserved privacy during his physical, and Napoleon was aware of Burton—and the rest of the Board—waiting to give him hell. He didn't mind. It made him furious to think that they had abandoned Illya to torture and death. Rape, torture and death. He was ready to give it right back to them.
"It's all right," Napoleon repeated patiently. "Go."
Illya bit his lip, wanting to protest further even as he obeyed, but his physiological systems were quieting despite his fears; the trembling gone, the sick churning in his stomach gone and he felt pleasantly drowsy. Halls and elevators seemed to float past with no effort on his part and after all, Napoleon had promised... When Holt steered him into the familiar examination room, the bed with its crisp white sheets was a welcome sight. Even the hospital gown didn't arouse the pounding terror he would have expected. It was just easier to let the nurses help him undress, fussing over him, tying the cord in the back, kissing his cheek and exclaiming over and over how glad they were to see him. Then he was flat on his back, floating while Holt went over every inch of him with his hard, trained fingers and his stethoscope, probing and pressing, asking sharp questions. It was easier to tell the truth than to try and make things up so he answered willingly enough about the long walk, and what he and Napoleon had eaten on route, and the coca leaves. He talked about the Thrush satrap, and the drugs there, and the way the doctors had worked with his interrogators and James listened and was gratifyingly angry on his behalf.
Illya was more reluctant to talk about his time with the rebels and Holt didn't press. He could tell for himself that it had been brutal—the whip marks and burns still faintly visible as well as assorted bruising, but Illya had been a field agent for years, harsh treatment no novelty. He sent his patient down for several scans, and drew blood for the lab and by the time he escorted Illya, fully clothed once again, into his office, the sedative was wearing off. Napoleon was there, as promised, and Illya went straight to him, sinking onto the sofa beside him, dropping his head onto Napoleon's shoulder, wrapping himself up in the security of Napoleon's ready embrace.
Physically, Illya was fine. Napoleon had already thought as much but it was good to hear Dr. Holt confirm it. He had been in robust good health to start with, and his body had withstood the traumas it had been subjected to with no permanent harm done. The mental effects were more problematic and Dr. Holt recommended a long vacation—six to eight weeks, he suggested—far from medical complexes and jungles and anything else that might remind Illya of his ordeal. Napoleon listened, and nodded, and wondered about the other injuries, the ones Illya had never spoken of. Evidently Dr. Holt had not noticed any sinister pattern in those faded bruises. Was he—could he be wrong? Because if it had happened, and Illya not reported it—that would be bad. But maybe he was wrong. And maybe Illya didn't remember. Napoleon looked at him, nodding at Holt's admonition to take his antibiotics faithfully. He certainly didn't seem to be harboring any dark secrets. Napoleon set it aside until later and then he and Illya were out in the hall. He smiled at his partner.
"Come on anyway." They walked together to the elevator that would take them directly to the executive dining room. All along the way people stopped to exclaim over Illya's return—he was hugged and kissed, his cheeks were pinched, his shoulders punched—it was a joyful tumult all the way to the elevator and by the time they got on, he had a little more color and was smiling. Napoleon smiled too. "You've been missed."
"I see that." He was pleased. "It's nice. I forgot I had friends here. I thought—" he broke off when the doors opened onto the lavish room with the floor to ceiling windows. Napoleon rather wished Illya had been able to finish that sentence, but Burton was rising to greet them and there were two other board members there as well—Hercut and Waters. They all shook hands and then everyone sat down.
Illya studied his menu, at a loss. The variety of choices made him dizzy and when Napoleon ordered, he asked for the same without having heard what it was. But it must have been all right because no one looked surprised so he sipped his ice water and pulled a roll apart until he saw Burton's eyes on him. He flushed, and dropped it. This was part of the test, he knew—James had looked him over, and later the psychologists and other brainwashing specialists would have their turn but right now they were watching him to see how he would conduct himself and it made him so nervous, he could barely think. So he said nothing, and when his steak came, he cut it all up and pushed it around his plate. Waters made small talk with Napoleon, and Hercut asked Illya how he was feeling, and Burton made a little speech welcoming him back and Illya nodded, or shook his head when it seemed appropriate. When they all prepared to leave, he had the dubious satisfaction that while he had not allayed their concerns, he hadn't added to them either. But the thought of the upcoming debriefing undid him. He didn't know what to expect, but he feared something similar to what he had been through before; he was afraid they'd strap him down to a bed, give him more drugs, shout endless rounds of questions into his face—so before getting in the elevator, he stopped, turned to face Burton and gathered all his courage.
"I want Napoleon with me," he said. "I want—" he reached out, gripped Napoleon's sleeve. "I want him there. When they ask me questions."
Burton regarded him for a long time and his rather austere expression softened. "If you like," he answered finally. "He cannot participate." He gave Napoleon a hard look. "He is clearly far too personally involved. But he can be present."
"Thank you, sir," Napoleon said and meant it.
"Thank you," Illya echoed, weak with relief. Napoleon wouldn't let them do anything terrible to him—he wouldn't let them tie him up, or give him drugs against his will—his fingers tightened and Napoleon patted them.
"Let's go," he said and Illya nodded. "I'm sure it won't be as bad as you expect." He patted Illya's fingers again and drew him onto the elevator.
It wasn't bad at all. Instead of a hospital room, there was a conference room, just like the one used for staff meetings. Everyone sat around a table and Dr. Block, head of the department, made sure Illya was comfortable, that he had water and a tray of assorted cookies, that he wasn't too tired. "Because if you are fatigued, Agent Kuryakin, we can do this tomorrow morning."
It was a tempting thought, to leave right now, to go home with Napoleon, but then it would be hanging over him still. So he shook his head no and moved his chair a little closer to Napoleon's so their shoulders were brushing. Napoleon looked at him sharply and reached out, took both Illya's icy hands between his own, warming them.
Their questions covered every moment of time between Illya's disappearance and the destruction of the Thrush satrap. Like Holt, they were less interested in what came after. Even this low key interrogation was almost too much for Illya, his thin body quivering with the strain of repeatedly going over the same ground, his voice speeding up, climbing when his agitation grew but they were courteous, and careful—stopping frequently to let Napoleon talk to him and rub his back, refill his water glass. That helped, and after a while Illya had to concede their good intentions. He did his best to satisfy them and found he had observed more than he would have believed—knew how many doctors, and what their schedules were, how many guards and the size of their shifts, their chain of command and their organizational structure. When they probed for any information he might have given out, he shook his head. "I wouldn't talk to them. I didn't say one word the whole time I was there. Even when they set up their little plots, to trick me..."
"Can you give us an example?"
"They'd pretend to rescue me. They'd rush in wearing different clothes—different people, so I wouldn't recognize them, and untie me—they told me I had to report on the information I'd kept secret, that lives depended on it."
"But you were not fooled?"
"I wanted it to be true." He had wanted it desperately. "I wanted to be rescued. But I thought it might be a trick—and I didn't see Napoleon. I knew if anyone was looking for me, it would be him. I thought—well, I'll report to Napoleon when I see him." He rubbed his cheek against Napoleon's shoulder. "But he never came and after a little while, they gave up and tied me down again. You—I thought maybe that's what you were going to do. Tie me down and drug me." He trembled as he said it and Napoleon squeezed his hands comfortingly. "Are—are you? Because Napoleon won't let you."
"No," Dr. Block answered gently. "There is no need. What you are telling us confirms what we already know. No information has leaked out. You did very well. You should be proud."
Proud? Was he? No. It was pleasant, hearing the words, but it didn't touch him at all. Dr. Block was continuing. "What did they want to know so badly?"
"I don't remember." It frightened him, admitting that, because now they might... but Napoleon was talking to him again, and Napoleon's arms were strong around him... He ventured to explain further. "I had to hide it so now it's gone. I thought about the sea rising and covering it, and about a mud-slide burying it, and about a computer being erased—" Dr. Block was nodding approval and he was able to continue. "I did that as hard as I could and now it's gone and how can I work not knowing—anything?"
"Some of it may come back on its own, once you are among familiar surroundings again. But practically speaking, we have of course closed down all the projects you were working on. So you won't need that specific information again."
"But I don't remember anything! I don't remember our procedures, or our security codes or—or even where we keep the coffee maker! I should just quit." He put his head down, forehead resting on their joined hands. "I should just quit and never come back." He sounded so desolate that Napoleon swallowed.
"Agent Kuryakin." Dr. Block was leaning across the table, face earnest. "It is perfectly normal for you to feel this way. But please believe me. I have done this work all my professional life and I am telling you that you have come through splendidly. The day to day information you need to perform your job will return and what does not return on its own, can be taught. Please do not distress yourself like this. I see that medical has recommended an eight week leave." Medical had recommended more than that—Dr. Holt had made it very plain that Illya Kuryakin was to be handled with kid gloves, that he had been emotionally as well as physically battered, and that his future productivity depended heavily on his treatment now. Burton had seconded all that in his quick call after lunch.
"This is a man we want to keep," Burton had said. "Give him whatever he needs to continue doing his job. If he's ruined for the field—and he may be—well, he hasn't done that in over a year anyway. But the science department hasn't been the same since he left. We need him." So they had proceeded carefully and now, watching Solo soothe him once more, Block was glad.
"Yes," Illya was saying without looking up. "But James called it a vacation."
"You may certainly consider it one if you like. When you return, you will need to report back to Dr. Holt, of course, to be sure you are physically fit for duty. But we will wait another twelve weeks beyond that before we meet again. We will see what rest and a return to your normal working environment will do. All right?"
"Yes." He still hadn't lifted his head.
"Very well. Agent Solo—" He rose and Napoleon tugged Illya to his feet, shook Block's outstretched hand.
"Is that it?" Illya looked dazed. He had been dreading this for so long and now it was over? Just like that? "I can go home now?"
"Yes. And once again—you have done very well. UNCLE is grateful."
"It is? I mean—you are?"
"Oh." He didn't say anything else, and Napoleon took him out the back way, back through the tailor shop, out onto the street where he hailed a cab, put Illya in it and took him home.
Napoleon's apartment: familiar, quiet, spacious. Safe. Illya stood in the entryway and looked at the expanse of beige carpet, the sunken living room with its fireplace and large screen TV, the sofa that opened into a double bed. When he stayed over, that was where he slept. Now he would share Napoleon's bed. Napoleon had gone into the kitchen and after a moment, Illya followed him, sat at the table.
"I noticed you didn't eat anything at lunch," Napoleon was saying as he took out a bowl and mixing spoon. "And it's almost eight o'clock now. How do you feel about pancakes?"
"Pancakes?" Illya, who had been about to say no, thank you, he wasn't hungry, felt his interest stir. "Like the ones you made last time I was here?"
"I could do that, or I could add blueberries..."
They said nothing more as Napoleon poured and stirred, measured batter, put it on the griddle. He was pleased with himself for thinking of the pancakes—there was something cozy about them, domestic. They had talked, on the plane, about their new shared life—Napoleon wanting to give Illya something to look forward to, Illya, very serious about the details Napoleon was imparting to him. He kept nodding as Napoleon expounded on joint bank accounts and changes to their personnel records, explaining just how they would blend their possessions, all the while looking into those blue eyes and wanting to kiss Illya right there, right there on the plane. Now he slid Illya's plate over and sat down opposite him. "Well." He smiled. "Here we are."
"Yes." It was such a relief to be here, in Napoleon's—their apartment. It was as if he had been returned to the time before his abduction, a time when he wasn't frightened of every new thing, a time when a simple lunch meeting didn't make him cling to Napoleon for dear life. A time when he was himself. "Thank you so much."
"You don't have to keep thanking me, Illya. I wanted to do it. I wanted—needed you back in my life."
"I need you too."
"Want more pancakes?"
"Yes, please." He passed his empty plate over, waited while Napoleon went to the stove and refilled it. "Thank you."
"You're welcome." He sat down again and pushed the glass of orange juice closer. "Here."
"I had some."
"Have some more." He waited until Illya was finished, then cleaned up before going into the bathroom. "Bath or shower?"
"Shower." Illya came in behind him. "I've always liked your shower." He did. Napoleon's stall shower took up nearly half of the bathroom. It had four showerheads and two contoured seats.
"Your shower too, now. This is your home, remember."
"Yes." He could feel himself settling down. "Our shower." They undressed separately, folding their garments, tossing underwear and socks into the hamper. In the shower they embraced, finally, and Napoleon ran his hands down Illya's back, sighing with pleasure, feeling Illya sigh, too, against his neck.
"What...?" Then the water poured down, soaking his hair, running down his back, hot and steaming and completely wonderful. He tipped his head back and let the water cover his face, looked up at Napoleon and he too was standing under the spray, rubbing at his hair. "Let me," Illya said and washed Napoleon all over, washed his hair and his face, his chest and his back, scrubbing with Napoleon's long handled brush, hearing Napoleon's grunt of pleasure. He finished it on his knees, washing Napoleon's feet and his legs, washing him intimately and then drawing him deep into his mouth. Napoleon sat down abruptly, gripping Illya's shoulders, then his fingers loosened and he just sat, watching the drops sparkle in Illya's hair. Finally he placed a kiss there before pushing himself up.
It took longer, to shampoo Illya's hair and Napoleon smiled. "I like this," he said aloud and Illya sighed with pleasure as Napoleon's strong fingers rubbed his scalp.
"See how that works out?" Napoleon said and washed Illya's face, putting an extra dab of soap on his nose and kissing it off. Where Illya had been serious, and engrossed in his task, Napoleon was more playful, teasing him and tickling him and then he knelt and the smile faded.
The bruises were still there, barely visible even after all this time. He reached out, ran a finger over Illya's hip, to his back. Illya whispered something but Napoleon didn't hear him. He stroked Illya's buttocks, lightly, wanting to take the hurt away, and leaned down to press his lips to Illya's inner thighs.
"Tell me about these," he said finally, hands pausing in their caress, fitting right on the bruised places.
And desire was gone in one cold rush of—what? Illya couldn't begin to identify the emotion. Not fear, he wasn't afraid of Napoleon. Not anger even though he wanted to be angry. He didn't know what he felt. But he wished Napoleon hadn't said that, wished Napoleon hadn't noticed those bruises, wished... and Napoleon was standing up now, looking at Illya with somber eyes. How long had he known? Had he just now...
"I've wanted to ask you since that night by the river," Napoleon said in answer to the unspoken question. "But it never seemed the right time. And now..." Now, he meant, when they were home and Illya had not reported it so no one knew except for the two of them. He turned off the shower and there was silence while they both dried off.
Illya was watching Napoleon. I'll never know you, he thought, and accepted the robe Napoleon handed him. All this time you've been waiting for the right time, and I had no idea. I will never know you. He saw the anxious look Napoleon sent his way and realized that Napoleon felt unsure too, that Napoleon wondered why Illya hadn't confided in him, that Napoleon was worried about his response now. "I don't like to think about it," he said finally and they stood there and looked at one another. Illya said nothing further. He had nothing more to add. He didn't like to think about it. That was the truth. That was why he hadn't told Napoleon before. That was why he hadn't told James, or Block. That was why he wasn't going to talk about it now.
"I suppose that's understandable," Napoleon said finally. He looked searchingly into Illya's eyes. They were wide, and clear—and he couldn't read one thing in them. "I just—you should have made a full report."
"No." Illya walked away, out of the bathroom. He shrugged off the heavy robe and turned to face Napoleon again. "I'm not reporting that. Why should I? It has nothing to do with UNCLE. It's not as if it was Thrush, as if that was some new interrogation technique I need to pass on. It was those other men and they didn't take me because I'm an UNCLE agent, they took me because I was there. They took me because I was there, they beat me because I was there, and they—did other things to me too—because I was there—and helpless. It's nobody's business but mine and... and that's all!" He had said this in one breath and now he gasped for air. "That's all," he repeated, and set his mouth, hard.
"No." His face was closed, and Napoleon didn't know whether to be glad—because it was so good to see that stubborn streak again, or disturbed because things buried seldom stayed that way. He didn't know.
"This puts me in an awkward position," he said finally. "If I have information..."
"Nothing happened then. I don't know what you're talking about." He changed direction abruptly because Napoleon was right, that wasn't fair. "When I said other things, I meant the cattle prod. And the cigarette burns. And—the whip. That's all."
"Look me in the eye and tell me that." And he couldn't lie to Napoleon, they both knew it, so he averted his face and said nothing. The obstinate expression was still there, however, and Napoleon smiled despite himself. "All right. I'll pretend to believe that—officially. But unofficially—Illya?"
"I wish—I really wish that you felt you could talk to me. It breaks my heart, that you don't."
And that opened him up, just as if Napoleon had reached out and pulled him apart. His eyes filled, suddenly, and his mouth trembled and then he was in Napoleon's arms, held fast in those arms and he did talk to Napoleon, in brief bursts of words followed by long, shaking silences. He talked about the first time, when they had shocked him until he couldn't move and then tied him down anyway, and beaten him before falling on him, one after the other all through that day and night, and about the times after that, when one or two would come after the camp was quiet and dark, sometimes untying him from the tree and spreading him out, sometimes leaving him there and gratifying themselves standing up.
"And the night I came?"
"They hadn't started on me yet. It—they'd been drinking, that's why—it must have seemed like a good idea, to bring me over. But you stopped them in time. Thank you. Thank you so much, Napoleon, for coming to get me."
"Well." He patted Illya's back. And Illya was right. Why should he report that he had been raped? It had nothing to do with Thrush, Illya was right about that too. And perhaps UNCLE considered it had a right to know—but UNCLE's position had been to leave Illya to his fate. If Napoleon hadn't disobeyed orders, there would be no report to make.
"You're in a bad position now, aren't you?" Illya was saying. "If you—I mean, I don't want you to feel—I'll tell them." He wasn't even surprised that he had capitulated. He had never been able to stand against Napoleon in anything. "If you want me to."
"No. You're right. There is nothing in any of this that need concern UNCLE. You've done enough."
"Oh." Napoleon had capitulated too. How unexpected—and how sweet. "Do you really think so?"
"Yes. It's done, now. Over and done with. And you have eight weeks off which means I do too." He kissed Illya's cheek and felt it curve into a smile.
"You don't have to stay home with me, Napoleon." It was easy to be brave here, where he was safe. "You can go back to work. Since I see they gave you your badge back."
"Yes, they did." It had been a brutal session, with Burton and UNCLE's executive board but he had come through unscathed. "I told them I'd need to be out as long as you were. I told them about us."
"What did they say?"
"There's very little they're allowed to say, beyond 'Congratulations'." They had been surprised—relieved, too, he could tell. All of a sudden Napoleon Solo's inexplicable behavior had a cause they could understand. Illya Kuryakin was his lover after all, not only a former field partner. It gave them a category to fit the whole affair into, whatever their personal opinions might be. They had said their awkward congratulations and looked at him askance when they thought he didn't see them but he didn't care. He would solidify his position again, regain any ground lost—and he and Illya were together now for the whole world to see.
"You must have a lot to catch up on," Illya was saying. "You can go in if you want—I'll be all right here."
"No. Doctor's orders are to take you away. I thought we could go to a South Seas island where I can indulge you to my heart's content. You're not really yourself yet."
"No. I know." He wasn't. He was better, but not himself—two months on a tropical island? Just the two of them? What was he arguing about? "Yes, Napoleon. A tropical island sounds wonderful. But not yet." He wanted some time here first, time at home. "I like it here."
"Well, that's fine." He was pleased. "We can leave next week." He kissed Illya's forehead and Illya smiled so Napoleon kissed his mouth and they kissed for a long time and when they were finished kissing, they went to bed. Napoleon took Illya in his arms, sinking into him slowly until his possession was complete, then moving, slowly at first; Illya moving too now, slow, slow, then a little faster then Napoleon was driving into him with all his might and he was spread wide, pleasure taking them both up in the whirlwind. After an endless time, Napoleon rolled off, gathered Illya in, stroking Illya's hair, pushing it off his face, kissing him again. "I love you," he said with his last conscious breath and Illya's lips brushed his shoulder.
"I love you too," he whispered back and when Napoleon fell asleep, so did he, close by Napoleon's side, journey over, fear and pain, distant memories, Napoleon's arms his only reality, and both were home at last.