Disclaimer: Not mine. Which makes it doubly mean of me to abuse them so heartily...
Illya made his way at a crouching run towards the bridge, his lips moving in silent curses at the moon and stars that lit the scene, casting the bridge, the road, the river, and, no doubt, Illya himself, as grey shapes with glaring silver outlines. Pressed hard against the footings of the bridge, he peered along it, searching for the enemy. There was no movement, but then the enemy were not so stupid as to show themselves when they already had him at a disadvantage. Napoleon and safety were on the other side of that river. The bridge was exposed, but the swim across the river was impossible—freezing at this time of year and fast-flowing. With his movements made clumsy by the cold, his splashing would be gunshot-loud in the almost silent night.
He crawled around the railing, onto the bridge, wriggling into the shadows, worming forwards.
'I see you.' Napoleon's voice was the faintest whisper over the open communicator tucked in the pouch on Illya's shoulder. His lips tightened and he crawled deeper into shadow. Three feet, six feet, nine, twelve, fifteen, twenty, fifty, ninety, almost at the far side...
Then the explosion came, flinging him into the air, winding him, dropping him with the debris of the destroyed bridge in the river shallows, head thrown back on a lump of driftwood, body slamming down in the midst of a hail of metal bar and shredded tarmac.
Napoleon watched in horror as the bridge blew. The puff of roiling orange and black seemingly only inches from the invisible-man figure of his new partner, slipping through the darkness near the railings.
'Illya?' he whispered harshly into his communicator, knowing well that Illya's was at its lowest volume setting, yet still straining to hear any sign of Illya having heard him. 'Damn!' he muttered at the silence on the circuit. He shielded his eyes from the bright moon, scanning the area for a body, but dust and smoke filled the air and lumps of rubble were endless, inorganic corpses on the river-bank.
He looked around, then crouched back swiftly, pulling his head below the level of the shrubs as a dark figure ran past him. For a second his heart leapt, but the hair was dark, the form too stocky for Illya.
'Well, there goes at least one of them, Solo,' he said softly to himself once the man had passed. Still at a crouch, he crept out from behind the bush and scrambled down the scree slope to the bank, praying that the dust of the explosion would cover his skittering descent.
'You'd better be alive down here, partner,' he muttered, staggering to a halt at the foot of the bank, one boot squelching unpleasantly in the mud. The bulk of the debris began fifty yards to his left. He headed towards it, picking his way through the wreckage. Three assignments, that's all they'd had together, but it was working. Already Napoleon had had cause to thank Waverly or whatever higher power looks after UNCLE agents, that he had Illya at his back. The man understood him, worked well with him, was exactly where he should be, doing with ease all the things Napoleon found most difficult, leaving Napoleon free to do the things at which he excelled. Him, Napoleon Solo: the man they couldn't partner, because he so fundamentally lived up to his family name.
And maybe, in another life, his new Russian partner would have fitted himself well to the same name. Or perhaps solo was not a good enough term for it. Impenetrable might be closer to the mark, Napoleon thought huffily, even as he tripped and worried his way through the mud. Oh yes, no matter how well he and Illya seemed to fit, no matter how well Illya seemed to grasp Napoleon's unspoken thoughts, any insight into that strong Slavic head was denied with a schooled, emotionless gaze, and a masterful ability to steer conversations away from the personal and back to the general. Already, Napoleon had spent more than he cared to think about on entertaining him, all in the name of making him feel welcome, naturally; and damned if that stubborn man hadn't graciously accepted every time, drinking his way through bottles of spirits like they were mother's milk, without becoming more than comfortably tipsy, certainly without divulging even a single item of personal information. How a man who displayed not a single one of the usual clues to a secret alcoholic could drink so much to so little effect was beyond Napoleon, but he did it without much persuasion and seemed to truly appreciate Napoleon's attention, for all his apparently sullen silence. In fact, Napoleon suspected that the sullenness was slowly lifting. Maybe they were getting used to each other.
He tripped on a steel bar and cursed, grabbing at another as he fell, keeping himself upright by a miracle. A few months ago, Napoleon would have laughed at anyone who had said he would soon have a partner he trusted with his life. But he did. Illya was sarcastic and teasing and infuriating and reliable and loyal and Napoleon had the strangest feeling that going out on assignment by himself was no longer as acceptable an idea as going out into the field with Illya watching his back. The man fascinated him. He had a way of looking at you... well, certainly at Napoleon, that made you feel... Well, if he had been a woman, Napoleon would have said 'undressed'. It could have been a look that made you feel uncomfortable, uncertain, but instead... He grumbled another expletive as his top snagged on a shard of metal. Instead that look made Napoleon feel like he had Illya's unlimited support. Tease and nag as he may, Illya would be there, and that was something Napoleon had never experienced before.
And he was damned if he was going to lose it this quickly. Illya had to be here somewhere, and he had to be alive.
A glint of silver-gold caught Napoleon's eye and he swung himself between two chunks of concrete, sinking to his knees next to the rounded form, a contrast to the jagged shapes all around.
'Illya?' Napoleon laid a hand on his shoulder, squeezing. He was loathe to shake him, loathe to touch his head, move his limbs to wake him, in case his neck was... no, he could not think like that. It did no-one any good.
'Illya? Wake up, my friend. Illya, can you hear me? Wake up, dammit!' he hissed. He thought he saw a slight twitch, but perhaps it was just the light. 'Wake up. We've got to get out of here.' Again, perhaps the tiniest movement, a faint grunt, but no more. He placed a hand on his ribs, felt for anything out of place, gave them a squeeze. 'Please, Illya...' Nothing.
He sat back on his heels, toes sinking in the muck. They had to get out of here quickly. How could he reach him? Good old-fashioned smelling salts might have done it, but they weren't in UNCLE's present field kit, foolishly perhaps, maybe he'd suggest it when they got back. Primal things, that was always the way to reach the unreachable. The smells and sounds of mortal danger, or the smells and sounds of childhood.
Smells? Here? River water, mud, concrete dust, molten tar, explosives and sweat. Nothing unusual there, not for UNCLE agents, at any rate. Sounds then. No sounds of danger more impressive than those of a few minutes before. Sounds of childhood then. Hmm, well, it would have helped if Illya had ever divulged a single useful piece of information about his childhood. All Napoleon knew was that he came from the Soviet Union, the Ukraine, as far as he had managed to wheedle out, and his childhood was not to be discussed. Russian...Russian! That was it.
When Mr Waverly had casually mentioned at the end of a normal morning meeting that he was going to be sending a Russian on assignment with Napoleon, as his working partner; after his initial indignation that Waverly should try this on him again when it never worked had passed; Napoleon had sent out for a course and spent his free hours for several weeks, learning to speak a little Russian. He may not have liked the idea of a partner, but if he was to spend time with him, he was going to make an effort to be sure they could understand each other in extremis. Of course, he did not need it. Illya spoke flawless English, barely even accented at times, which was just as well, since work had got in the way, and Napoleon's total study time had been rather less than the ninety hours recommended by the course handbook.
At this precise moment, in fact, the useful phrases he had known a month or two ago—'How are you?' 'For me, tea and beefsteak and red wine,' 'I speak only a little Russian,' 'Tomorrow I shall take the train to Vladivostock,' all seemed to have leaked out of his head, leaving just two, well-repeated phrases in his head, traipsing across the front of his mind. Rather miserably, they did not appear to him in the glorious exoticism of the Cyrillic original, but in the course-book's mildly bewildering transliteration, a travesty of odd letter-combinations and random apostrophes denoting stresses or gutturals or something—Napoleon had never been quite sure. Oh well, Russian was Russian, he supposed.
'Izvuhni'tyeh, Maladoi Chelovek, vi nyuh pahdska'jityuh g'dyeh nakho'ditsa ristoran?' A soft moan, he went on, 'Oo vass yest samovari?' Illya's arm came painfully up to rub across his eyes and he muttered thickly,
'No, I do not know where the restaurant is, and I have no samovars.' One eye flicked painfully open and he regarded Napoleon mischievously. 'Why do you ask?'
Napoleon let out a heavy breath, relief coursing through him. Illya looked like hell, his eyelids heavy and his movements sluggish, but he was awake and his limbs we're all accounted for and working. 'Ah, I ask because if you can answer those questions, you're clearly fit enough to get out of here with me before someone comes back to check they really did finish you off. Can you sit up?' He proffered a hand. Illya took it and pulled himself upright. He swayed a little, brought his other hand up to the back of his head, winced and brought it round to look at it.
Illya nodded, 'But not much, for a head wound. I could have fared much worse. Here, help me up, I'm a little wobbly.'
Napoleon smirked: where on earth did any foreign language student pick up the notion of describing their condition as 'wobbly'? In the language courses Napoleon had taken for work, you were lucky to get past 'I'm fine' or 'I have a headache'. He took Illya's other hand as well and braced himself against a log, hauling Illya up to stand. Illya closed his eyes, leaning a little on Napoleon.
'After a fashion,' Illya replied. Napoleon clapped a hand on his shoulder.
'You're very wet,' he said, 'Let's go get you someplace dry.'
'I was lying in a river. That makes you wet,' Illya said. He allowed Napoleon to take him by the arm, steadying him. His head was thumping. Napoleon pulled him along, hurrying them through the obstacle course of ex-bridge to the safety of the shadows. Scrambling back up the bank was awkward, Illya's balance was poor just now and Napoleon struggled to get a good footing for the pair of them, but once at the top, it was a relatively simple path to the cover of the bushes, and thence to the barn they had scouted as a safe point earlier.
Napoleon closed the small entry door thankfully behind them. In front of him, Illya flicked on the flashlight he had taken from Napoleon, and headed for a pile of hay, where he collapsed with a sigh to his knees. Coming over to him, Napoleon sat down on the same pile of hay.
'You got it?'
Illya nodded, then regretted it as his head throbbed viciously. 'Y-Yes, it's h-here. A moment, please. M-My head, you...'
'I know. Can I help?'
'N-Not unless you want to go rummaging around in m-my mouth.'
'I didn't mean that, but actually, if you want to hand it over now, you might let me get it. After all, I've been wearing gloves. You might not have looked at your hands, but I wouldn't put those in my mouth if you paid me.'
Illya glanced down. His hands were, indeed, caked with mud, slime, tar and blood. They were also shaking uncontrollably, his whole body was, shivering with the chill of the freezing water in which he had lain, if not with the shock of the explosion.
'It's n-not very c-c-comfortable, in fact, I would ap-p-preciate you taking charge of it for the t-time being.'
Napoleon nodded and tugged off his gloves. His hands weren't exactly pristine, but they were immeasurably better than Illya's. 'Where?'
'Left s-side, b-between the b-b-bottom rear m-molars.' He opened his mouth wide, shining the light on his own face. Napoleon squinted into his open mouth, saw the glint at the back of his jaw, reached in and tugged. It didn't move.
'Ow!' said Illya round Napoleon's fingers, 'Gen'ly, glease. Ih's gigger dan ee 'ere exkeckink.'
'Right. It looks like it's jammed well in there...' Napoleon gripped the little capsule with his thumb and forefinger and wiggled it. Illya groaned softly, his nose wrinkling in pain. 'Don't be a baby, now,' Napoleon chided amicably.
The capsule came loose, and Napoleon transferred it to his pouch. Illya rubbed at his jaw and nodded, 'Th-thank-you.'
'You're welcome. You're also very cold. I'm going to call in to get us picked up. I am not going out there again unless I have to. I couldn't even see them to keep you in the picture.' He took out his communicator, opening it and turning the dial. He was met with a hissing noise. He frowned, 'Open Channel D.' Silence, bar the white noise. 'Ah, open Channel D?' Again, nothing. 'Ah, if anyone can hear me, this is Napoleon Solo, I've got Kuryakin and the microfilm, we'd very much like a pick-up from here, the enemy threat has somewhat multiplied out there and we're having trouble moving freely. I can't hear anything on this thing, so we'll assume we're on our own, but any assistance would be greatly appreciated, Illya's picked up an injury. Solo out.' He returned the cigarette box to his pocket and turned back to Illya, who was shivering more fiercely than ever, though trying to conceal it.
'Looks like we're on our own. Come here.' Napoleon held out an open arm, wrapped it around Illya, then pulled him into a bear-hug, rubbing his arms up and down his back, chafing his skin with the fabric of his shirt to warm him up. Illya's arms were folded around himself already, and he didn't move them, but let them be crushed between their bodies. Napoleon settled himself, now rubbing more slowly to maintain the warmth. It was oddly comfortable sitting there, but it would be better under the hay.
'Here, help me pull this stuff over us, keep us warm,' he said, releasing Illya and starting to tug the hay up around them.
'N-No, it will make me itchy.'
Napoleon stopped. 'Well, as I see it, you have two choices: to resign yourself to being itchy in the comfort of UNCLE Medical, or, if you're lucky, your own apartment, probably by this evening; or you can freeze to death here and never get to find out how itchy it might have made you.' Illya gave him a look of blended amusement and exasperation.
'V-Very well. I s-suppose there are w-worse things.' He helped Napoleon to pull the hay up over them in a sort of igloo, piling it over their legs and backs. Napoleon shuffled up next to Illya, pushing as close as he could without making a nuisance of himself. He was surprised that Illya had let him hug him so close before—the man seemed such a typical opponent of intimate contact, aloof and unfeeling in appearance, though Napoleon had had cause to doubt the veracity of that image on more than one occasion. Illya's shivers were starting to lessen as the hay did its job, but Napoleon wanted to check.
'I sincerely hope that you're stopping shivering in the right direction, Illya. I don't want you checking out on me here.
'I'm warmer, thank-you.'
'And the rest?'
'Apart from a lump on my head, I'm in the same condition as you.'
'No, you're wet through.'
'So are you, since you kindly shared your body heat with me.' Napoleon couldn't deny that.
'Been thrown around by explosions much before? You seem pretty comfortable with the idea.'
'I had a couple of near misses at Survival School.'
Napoleon laughed, 'Didn't we all? No, I mean before that. What about before you joined UNCLE?'
Illya's eyes narrowed for a moment, but then he relaxed and shook his head. 'A couple of times, maybe. Not in entirely normal circumstances. What about you? You get exploded much?'
Napoleon noticed the evasion, but answered anyway. 'In the past, or now?' Illya shrugged, as if it really didn't matter to him. 'Now? All the time. Or at least, it seems like it. Maybe with someone else looking out for me it'll happen less. In the past? Our camps in Korea took a few blasts, and the odd patrol got... no, I've always been lucky,' he finished, watching Illya carefully.
'So, how come your English is so good? Did you speak it at home?'
'Certainly not!' Illya looked affronted, took a breath, sighed, irritation gone as quickly as it had come. 'No, but I learnt a little while I was studying in Russia, then—well, you have read my file, I expect. So you will know I have not lived in my home country for some time now.'
Napoleon shrugged, 'I only saw your basic file, not the details. Your full file is more highly classified than mine, my friend.'
Illya snorted, a wry smile on his lips just visible in the darkness. 'My old masters would not want me to appear to be out-ranked by an American working with me, I imagine. There are items on my file which perhaps... But they are not important.'
Napoleon frowned, but he knew enough about this man to realise that pushing unsubtly in that area would get him nowhere, so he tried from his starting point again.
'You were in France for a time, I saw.'
'Yes, Paris. An extremely pleasant time. And in England for a while. I studied in some excellent institutions and learned to speak the languages well. That is all.'
'You itchy yet?'
'Yes, but you were right, at least I am warmer and itchy. I will have lumps. Hay gives me lumps.'
'Aw,' said Napoleon distractedly. He was still trying to make the roof over them more substantial. 'I guess a roll in the hay is out of the question for you then?' Illya ignored him (probably didn't know the expression, Napoleon thought), but then nudged him in the side.
'Do you have food? I'm starving.'
'I've got both our field rations, but only a day's worth. I was supposed to be your safe point.'
'I know.' But Illya's voice was softer than before. 'Hand mine over then, I'm not going to starve myself now. Eat, drink and be merry,' he said, taking the small package from Napoleon, ripping it open and holding up a piece of dried meat in a mock toast.
'...For tomorrow... yes, quite,' finished Napoleon, one rueful eyebrow raised as he watched Illya tucking in with relish. Illya looked up, saw Napoleon looking at him.
'What are you planning? Rest up here for an hour then move on?' Napoleon chewed on a dried apricot and shook his head.
'Appealing as cover of darkness is, with your head and the fact that we have no idea how many men there are out there, and where, I'm not stepping out there tonight. We'll scout around in the morning. I know there is foliage cover around. If we can move further up the valley, we might be able to get out under their guard.'
'I am inclined to agree with you. There are many good hiding places for them out there in the dark.'
'Good. Well, bunch up close, I don't want to freeze to death. Since I guess you've done the hard work today. I'll take first watch.'
Illya obeyed, which gave some indication of just how bad he actually felt. He tucked himself in next to Napoleon, creating a little pool of heat between them. In moments, his grimy, blond head flopped onto Napoleon's arm. Napoleon struggled for a second wriggling his arm out of the way, allowing the wounded head to rest on his more comfortable chest, wrapping his arm around Illya.
A couple of hours later, as dawn broke and the barn lit dimly with points of light coming through the cracks in the wood, Napoleon placed a rough finger against Illya's lips.
'Illya this is Napoleon. Don't make a sound, don't move,' he whispered, 'We have company.'
Illya was awake in a second, listening intently. Faint rustlings, low voices outside the barn. He made no move to get out from under Napoleon's hand.
The barn door opened and they listened as two pairs of boots stomped in.
'See anything?' a loud, harsh voice asked.
'No. Don't even know if they're still in the area. Spray the hay, just in case, you know?'
Napoleon tensed, his hand tightening around Illya, whose fingers gripped Napoleon just as firmly.
A blast of machine gun fire, rapid and deafening, Napoleon gave a convulsive clench of the hand on Illya's face, and his mouth dropped open. Illya's eyes were screwed up tightly.
'C'mon,' said the voice, and two pairs of boots stomped out.
Illya and Napoleon held still for a minute as they waited to check the enemy really had gone. Then Illya sat up a little, pushing a small gap in the hay to let in enough light to look at Napoleon's face and screwing up his eyes again for a second as his head thumped.
'Okay?' he asked. Napoleon nodded slowly and heaved himself up, shaking the hay from his head and shoulders as he rose.
'Let's have a scout around in here, see if there's anything useful before we go.'
They split up and rummaged through the assortment of clutter scattered around the barn. Coming back to sit on their hay-pile Napoleon saw that Illya was carrying a bottle of some sort of liquid.
'What is it?' he asked cautiously. Illya's eyes flashed as he swilled liquid around in the bottle.
'I believe we might call it 'moonshine'.' He pulled at the stopper, and a pungent cloud of alcoholic fumes knocked them back.
'It's poison!' exclaimed Napoleon, coughing at the fumes. Illya regarded him clearly for a second, nodded, but went on seriously,
'My head hurts, Napoleon. There are no pain pills left.'
'And you think this will help?'
'Frankly, yes.' He tipped the bottle, taking a large gulp. He blinked hard, let out a sharp breath, tipped the bottle again, this time into his hand, and slapped the pool of alcohol against the raw wound on the back of his head. His other hand shot out and grabbed at the nearest thing it could find—Napoleon's leg as it happened—and his fingers dug in like claws for a moment. Then he let go, took another swig and offered it to Napoleon.
Napoleon put out a declining hand.
'No thanks, I like my throat lining where it is.'
'It will help with your arm.'
'What?' Napoleon snapped guiltily.
'Did the bullet go straight through, or is it stuck in there? I'm not blind, Napoleon.'
Napoleon sighed, 'You've got problems of your own.'
'Which I am treating quite successfully.' Illya's voice sounded a little fuzzy round the edges. If three mouthfuls had done that to him, what would it do to Napoleon?
'It just skinned me, that's all, barely touched me,' he said, taking the bottle and eyeing it uncertainly. He braced himself and took a gulp. It seared his throat all the way down and he screwed his eyes shut and pushed the bottle back at Illya.
'I don't know how you can drink that.'
'Practice. You didn't grow up with my Grandfather.'
Napoleon sneered disapprovingly, but carefully stored the tiny nugget of information in the ludicrously small mental file he labelled 'Illya's past'.
'Right, I guess we should get out of here, see if we can get to a phone.'
'Then give me back the capsule. It's safer in my mouth.'
'Why not let me take it for a while?'
'I'd rather have it myself, it's my responsibility, and my jaw's not aching anymore.'
'Okay. If that's what you want. Here.' He fished it out and handed it over. Illya popped it in his mouth and Napoleon watched his face contort as he prodded the capsule back into place with his tongue.
Napoleon went silently to the door and peered through the cracks. He returned to Illya, shaking his head.
'There are too many of them out there. Not too close, but we won't get out right now. I'll go and watch, as soon as some of them move away, we'll have to make a dash for it.' Illya nodded and lay back on the hay, propping his head carefully on his hands. He shivered for a moment, but the alcohol was doing its job and he stared up morosely at the roof of the barn.
Napoleon kept his eye to the cracks in the door. Eventually, around what would have been lunchtime, he clicked his tongue to attract Illya's attention. Illya shot over to him and leant in close so that they could whisper. Napoleon pointed,
'They've all gone from this side now. They'll only be around the corner, but there's the bushes over there, and we can work through those right up over the crest of this hill. You ready?' Illya nodded and Napoleon pulled the door open as narrowly as he could.
They exited at a crouch, making the bushes without arousing suspicion, then crawling through the undergrowth and scrambling up the hill until they reached the top and slid down a leaf-lined slope between stubby trees and landed in a muddy hollow.
'Better than a ride at the fair!' said Napoleon cheerfully. Illya grunted and yanked his top back into place.
'I could do without the amusements,' he snapped. Napoleon tutted.
'How are you feeling? Ready to move on, or do you need to stop for a while?'
'Don't mother me Napoleon, I am perfectly capable of moving more than two hundred yards at a time,' Illya growled back. Napoleon shook his head.
'You're in a very ugly mood, you know that?'
'So would you be, Napoleon – I am in a considerable amount of pain.'
Napoleon frowned. 'Well I did say you could...'
'Not in that pouch, idiot, it's the first place they'll look.'
'No, my trick tooth.'
'It's too big.'
'I've got the gap where they took the other one out. It'll wedge in there. Hand it over.'
'Your hands are almost as bad as mine now.'
'I know. You want to root around in there, or shall I?'
'Give me your flannel.'
Napoleon handed over the small square of towelling from his field kit and Illya scrubbed it, dry, over his hands, removing some of the dirt and spreading the rest more finely. He gave his hands a despairing look, threw the flannel back at Napoleon and dug his fingers into his mouth to remove the capsule, then passed it over. Napoleon took it and threw it into his mouth without a second glance—nothing he could do right now could make it any cleaner. He bit down on it, jamming it between his teeth and groaning as he heard an unusual crack from his molars. Illya gave him a look that was almost sympathetic.
'That is better. Sorry, I get grouchy when I ache.' Napoleon acknowledged the apology with a faint smile and a nod.
'Hmm. Come on then. Which way do we go?' He crawled to the edge of the trees and looked out over the hillside, across a river valley, wide and green, wooded in places, discouragingly clear and open in others. He turned to Illya, squatting next to him.
'Can you work out where we are?' That map showed a junction with another valley round here somewhere, but I can't see it.'
'It's like your hand. I know where we are, it's the curve of the river that's deceptive.'
'Like my hand?'
Illya reached out and took Napoleon's hand. Holding it up so they could both see it, he traced a line across his palm from his wrist.
'The valley we're in is like this line around the base of your thumb, you see?' He looked up. Napoleon was staring at him, but shook himself and nodded. Illya went on, fingertip dragging lightly across the dirt-encrusted lines.
'The other valley you are thinking of is where this line cuts across, but you see, we have to get right around the corner, to almost the back of your hand before they intersect.' He stopped and looked up again. Napoleon's eyes had gone glassy—he had a feeling that every movement of the man's face was now telling him more than he had read before. He hadn't noticed the knowledge creeping up on him, but now it was screaming at him, telling him that Illya's mind, like his own, was struggling to stay focused on the matter in hand—and speaking of hands... Illya's index finger was now stroking across the flat of Napoleon's open palm, pointing out the area between the two valley-lines.
'This area-' He paused, clearly wondering what Napoleon was thinking. He watched him for a second, then dropped his eyes back to the palm held in his hands before saying,
'You might like to try breathing, Napoleon.' Napoleon jumped, coughed nervously.
'I, ah, don't think that's something I'm likely to forget.' Illya didn't reply, just went on,
'This-' He swallowed. 'This area of hillside between the two valleys is much steeper on the far side. We need to get to the confluence of the two rivers. The land going down to the river at the headland there is heavily wooded.'
'Yes, I remember that,' interrupted Napoleon.
'The trees don't really start until you get quite close to the end, so cover is scrub till there. However, as I recall, past that point,' he said, turning Napoleon's hand over, 'If the river flows across here-' He ran his middle finger along an invisible line until he reached the first prominent vein. 'Then around here, we start to get large riverside estates. We might be able to steal a boat.'
'So we're aiming to go left at my knuckle?'
Illya smirked, 'I suppose so. If you care to put it like that.' He turned Napoleon's hand back over and laid his thumb briefly in the centre of it. There was a pause that seemed to last for an incredibly long time. Illya looked up at last, caught dark-wide brown eyes locked on his face. He took a deep breath and swallowed.
'You see now?'
'Yes,' said Napoleon simply. Illya dropped his hand. The light was starting to fade from the short winter day and although darkness might have been a welcome cover, without some light, they would never find the river.
'We'd better go then.'
Napoleon nodded and they left the cover of the shrubby trees, keeping low and racing across the open stretches towards the first of the trees, slipping and sliding on the damp grass. The odd bush sprang up to either side of their path—a hindrance rather than a help now, making them jump, thinking they had seen pursuers—until suddenly, there was no think about it. A rustling behind a bush and a yell told them that they had been seen, and in a moment, they could hear pounding feet behind them all across the hill. Napoleon's gun was out of its holster in a second, the last of his bullets taking down the closest two pursuers, before it was rendered useless and he jammed it back, concentrating on finding the quickest route with Illya.
'Faster!' he hissed. They sped up until they were galloping down the hillside. The rustlings in the bushes faded behind them as they plunged into the trees, stumbling through the scrub at the fringe of the wood before coming out onto the clear, pine-needle strewn forest-floor between the tall trunks. Not daring to slow down, they dodged round the trees. Ahead, the ground sloped away, back down to the river, and through the gaps in the trees, Illya, running ahead, spotted a shape at the waterside.
'A boat!' he gasped. Napoleon sped up, caught his foot on a root and went flying, his ankle twisting away under him. He got up at once, moving so fast that for a moment he barely felt the searing pain that normally would have prevented him from putting the least weight on it. He staggered after Illya, teeth gritted, and hobbled down the bank to the water's edge, jumping into the boat with a yell of pain he could not suppress. Illya cast off, his eyes scanning the shore for movement, but there was none to be seen. With luck, the enemy would not realise that they had found a boat. Illya pushed them out into midstream and sat down to let them drift. He did not feel up to rowing and in the dusk, they might avoid notice if they made no noise.
He looked across at Napoleon rubbing his sore ankle.
'Better give me back the capsule. I think I hurt less than you now.' Napoleon made no protest, but looked at his hands. Illya reached overboard and scrubbed his hands together vigorously in the icy water. He brought them out showing pink through the dirt now, and looked questioningly at Napoleon.
Napoleon opened his mouth and Illya reached in, tugged at the capsule, wincing with Napoleon as it came free.
'I see another joyful visit to the UNCLE dentist coming up,' muttered Napoleon when Illya's fingers had vacated his mouth. Illya grinned,
'You and me both. There are things at an angle in here that they should never be at.' He wedged it back between his own teeth, grimaced and sighed.
'How's your arm?'
Illya grabbed Napoleon's wrist. 'No, Napoleon, I'm not Waverly, I'm not Medical. Now, try again. How's your arm?'
Napoleon laughed quietly. 'Ahum. My arm hurts like hell, but it's not that bad really. Honestly, it's a paper cut.'
'Can I look? Please?'
Napoleon grunted and undid the front of his top, working his arm painfully out of his sleeve. Illya turned the torch on it. Dried blood clotted across his arm around the wound, but Napoleon was right, it was shallow, if full of grease and grit. 'I'll clean it out for you.' Illya pulled the bottle out of his pocket, opened it and splashed some into the wound before Napoleon had a chance to object.
'Ahh!' muttered Napoleon, 'You kept that?'
'With my head doing what it's doing, your leg and arm, my teeth; I am not going to attempt to last the night with nothing to take the edge off. And neither are you.'
'Illya, we can't both-'
'We can. We're safe enough now, we'll find somewhere to moor before it goes totally dark. I do not intend to spend the night completely sober. Drink.'
'Ah, no, thank-you.'
'Drink! It'll warm you up and dull the pain. You know that. Come on, don't be so difficult. Look, take it, there's a mess of logs in the river ahead, we can draw in behind that and moor for the night.'
They were travelling quite fast now, and Napoleon snatched the bottle and took a long drink. He coughed and waited for Illya to paddle them in behind the logs and grab at a branch to moor them, in the absence of a long enough line, before handing it back. Illya grunted as the boat pulled him past the logs, yanking hard on his arm. He kept his grip and tied them up with the short rope, then rotated his shoulder, rubbing it to work the abused muscles back into place. He grabbed the proffered bottle, and tipped it up to his lips, gulping several large mouthfuls, then another, apparently for luck. He stoppered it again and shuffled further down into the boat as Napoleon struggled back into his sleeve.
'Get down here, I'm freezing.'
Napoleon regarded him as he closed up his top and noticed that Illya seemed to be wavering a little before his eyes. Damn, but whatever was in that bottle was strong, he thought to himself. He slid down next to Illya, resting his head on the side of the boat. Illya pushed up next to him, putting an arm out and resting it across Napoleon's chest, snuggling close for warmth. Napoleon brought his arms up around him and squeezed gently.
'Okay?' he asked. Illya nodded, then mumbled,
'It's better with you here.' Napoleon nodded dully; he could have said the same thing. He rubbed softly at Illya's back. Illya tipped his head up, his eyes were unfocused. Apparently he had achieved the impossible and actually got himself slightly drunk. There was a moment when Illya was very close, but Napoleon was already losing consciousness, and what was happening around him seemed distant and unimportant. Wrapping his legs tightly with Napoleon's, Illya relaxed into the curve of Napoleon's arms and was asleep before Napoleon had taken his next slow, sleep-shallow breath.
They woke up in the early morning to a light frost on their clothes, but still warm in the little fuggy ball they had curled into in the night. It was still dark, the stars lighting a clear sky, but they had slept enough, and sleeping just to wear out the darkness seemed like foolishness, and was probably impossible anyway. Napoleon ran his tongue around his teeth and grimaced at the taste in his mouth. He reached a cupped hand overboard, struggling to sit up high enough to do so, and slurped at the icy water, his eyes widening as the cold seared down his throat and set his teeth on edge.
'Shouldn't do that,' he gasped.
Illya sat up, running fingers through his hair, eyes still half shut.
'Hang on to my shirt,' he said.
'Why?' Napoleon looked at him in confusion, till Illya gestured what he wanted and Napoleon grabbed a handful of the filthy black turtleneck, still looking bemused.
Illya leant over the side of the boat, plunging his head into the water, and came up gasping, his hair clinging in damp strands to his forehead.
Napoleon stared at him. 'Idiot. You'll freeze.'
Illya rummaged under the narrow bench and pulled out a grubby towel, wrapping it around his wet head, shuddering with the cold.
'Like you say—better alive and uncomfortable. I was too drowsy, and I get the feeling I'll need to be properly awake today.' He stared at Napoleon through slightly pain-hooded eyes and Napoleon caught a glimpse of a challenge in them, which brought to mind a vague memory of that face coming towards him, leaning in for a kiss. He rubbed his bottom lip absently and pushed the notion away. He had been tired last night; tired and drugged up on Illya's moonshine. Who knew what hallucinatory visions that could let you in for.
'I need a pee,' he said by way of distraction.
'Go then. I'd be quick though—you don't want to stick it out in this for too long, and I'm not treating that case of frostbite.' He actually winked at Napoleon then, though it was a little distorted by the pain, and he busied himself retying his boots with their soaking wet laces while Napoleon relieved himself over the side.
'Any ideas which way we should go now?' asked Napoleon once he was respectably covered up again.
'We'll keep on this route downstream, get to one of those big houses and see if we can sneak in and get a call through to Headquarters. Yes?'
'Yes. I'm happy with that. Come on then.'
'We'd better paddle. I've heard voices and movement coming from upstream. I don't think they've seen us, but I think they know we're on the river. We probably took their boat.'
They cast off and paddled downstream until Illya saw a house with a landing stage where the trees, creepers and rushes had not been cut back recently and would afford them a little bit of protection and disguise for the boat as they landed. They turned the boat in towards the bank, bumping up against wooden posts, green with algae, but firm and strong.
Mooring the boat to a post, they scrambled up the bank, across the lawns and into the cover of the garden shrubbery. Napoleon looked at Illya, outlined against the clear, starlit sky. Despite his displeasure at the unhelpfully good weather and the twin aches in his arm and leg, he laughed. Illya looked at him quizzically.
'Look behind you.'
Illya turned to look and saw a statue of a stag on a low plinth. He harrumphed, 'I suppose those antlers are perfectly positioned?' The faintest grin forced its way onto his lips and Napoleon grinned back and nodded. Then he waved towards the house.
'Look, if we can get into the house, we should be able to to find a phone and call in.'
'How do you plan to get in?' Illya asked, businesslike. Napoleon put a hand on his shoulder, pressing him forwards until he had a better view of the house.
'See? Top left window, dormer in the roof.' Illya nodded and sat back on his haunches, clutching his knees to him.
'Oh good, a climb,' he said humourlessly.
'Can you do it?' Napoleon looked at him in concern, remembering Illya's well-disguised cracked head, sore mouth, pulled arm and general exhaustion.
'Of course I can,' Illya said sharply, 'What about you though? Come on Napoleon, you can't use that arm properly and your leg isn't doing very well, don't try to pretend it is.'
'I've climbed mountains with worse,' Napoleon argued. 'Why not see how many more injuries we can clock up between us, huh? We'll be heading for the Section Two record—'most numerous', rather than 'most serious', I trust.'
'I believe you already hold 'most serious, non-disabling...'' Illya pointed out, slipping a hand under the edge of Napoleon's top, pulling it up a few inches and running a finger along a particularly long, whitish-pink scar. Napoleon's eyes closed for a second, pain-memory reasserting itself at Illya's touch. When he opened them, he found Illya watching him closely, and for a second the man's thoughts became clear. Illya was worried. He was worried that they would not have the strength to keep this up, to get into the house, to keep ahead of the men they knew now were on their tail. He took the hand that rested on his side in his own and squeezed it, then let it go and pulled his top back down to block out the cold, and Illya's gaze.
'If you can make it up there, I can. And vice versa, I'm sure. Get in here and we're home safe, Illya.' Illya nodded and they raced around the perimeter of the garden, Illya supporting Napoleon to keep some of the weight off his ankle. They came to a halt at the corner of the house, where the pillars of a verandah rose to a canopy giving access to the drainpipes rising up the second storey to the roof.
Illya reached the top first and extended an arm to Napoleon, who gripped the proffered wrist gratefully, using the extra leverage to haul himself up onto the parapet. He heard a faint report, somewhere on the ground a distance from the house, and watched in horror as Illya let go of his hand and crumpled into a heap.
Napoleon scrambled down behind the cover of the parapet and caught Illya in his arms, pulling him onto his lap. Illya's eyes were screwed up tightly, his mouth contorted with pain. Napoleon smoothed his forehead, running with sweaty grime from his improvised turban, and hissed,
'Illya, where are you hit?'
Illya opened his eyes and swallowed as if he were preventing himself from throwing up.
'I think some of your famous luck must be rubbing off on me.' He groaned and tried to sit up. Napoleon stopped him with a hand on his chest.
'Keep your head down, idiot. Now, what happened?'
'It's all right. Bullet skimmed my side, caught one of my cracked ribs. That's what hurt so much.'
'Ah, I notice you failed to mention any cracked ribs before you half carried me all the way up here...' Napoleon tried to look stern, but he couldn't. He could read Illya's answer in his face and knew without doubt that he himself would have done the same. For a second he was aware that he was reading this man far better than he had even a day ago, then he remembered what could happen to an agent who daydreamed in the field, and shook his head, clearing it as Illya spoke.
'They'll send someone up in a minute. We need to hide.'
'Ah, you don't fancy throwing yourself on the mercies of the lady of the house, and using your best 'little lost orphan' look to make her let us use her phone?' Illya ignored the description and shook his head until it throbbed painfully and he was forced to stop.
'Not when the guardsmen are using probable THRUSH-issue long-range rifles.
Illya held up the bullet he had found lodged in the lead-work of the roof and rolled it between his fingers in front of Napoleon's nose.
They clambered through the open window and dropped into a room that seemed to be serving as some sort of studio. A painting stood half-finished off to one side, and a plate covered in little dabs of similar shades lay on the floor next to it with a few brushes standing in a pot of something or other. The rest of the room had more of the box room about it, no more paintings, no other supplies or inspiration, just the one painting and a lot of objects covered with sheets. Napoleon stretched, regretted it seriously, and rolled his head on his neck.
They heard voices in the corridor and Napoleon was jolted from his mental mapping of the room.
'They must have seen which room we came into. Hopefully they'll think we left it straightaway. We need to hide.' He looked around the room, hoping one of the dustsheets might cover them, but it was Illya who spotted the door behind the painting. He opened it gingerly, then flung the door wide.
'Wardrobe!' he said triumphantly.
'Illya, we can't hide in a closet. We'd be trapped.'
'It goes back quite a way. We can hide behind the clothes. Besides, it's either that or put your hands on your head right now. Come on!'
He grabbed Napoleon's better arm and dragged him, limping, into the cupboard. Pulling the door shut behind them, they pushed their way past the assorted coats and dresses hanging from the rails. In the back corner, a pile of other clothes that had fallen out with their hangers, and some blankets that had never had the privilege, formed a drift, perfect for hiding two injured agents. Illya dragged it out and shoved Napoleon into the corner, throwing himself down next to him and dragging the heap of fabric back over them.
'Comfy?' he whispered at Napoleon.
'Ah, not really. I've got a shoe in the small of my back, and some sort of animal up my nose,' Napoleon hissed back, biting back a comment about Narnia, just in case Illya didn't get it. There was no time for cultural explanations now.
Illya wriggled, reached behind them and pulled out the offending shoe. He dumped it in Napoleon's lap.
'I guess. Shh.' The door to the room outside had just opened and heavy boots were clomping round it. Napoleon reflexively pulled Illya closer. Their breathing seemed ridiculously loud under their heap of clothes, and as the door to the closet opened, they instinctively held their breath.
The door opened and a light shone, its beam passing over the blankets that covered them. Then it was gone, their door slammed shut, then the door to the room. They waited, not daring to move until they were certain the searchers had moved on. At last, Napoleon took a deep breath. He smelled the river, the tang of blood, heavy, adrenaline-laden sweat, the musty aroma of old furs and dust, and something else: a raw, sweetish smell that reminded him of a day a few months before, when Mr Waverly had introduced him to this incredible Russian and they had shaken hands for the first time. He wouldn't have been able to say what Illya smelt like, but under the dirt and the many unpleasant odours of the hunted, this was it. It made Napoleon's breath catch in his throat, and his heart beat faster than it should have done. Next to him, Illya, too, took a deep breath, as if beneath the brutal scents of injury and mayhem, he caught a subtle hint of something that made him feel safe and, perhaps, just slightly softer than usual, coming directly from Napoleon.
In a few minutes, they reloaded their guns at last, got up, without consultation, and gingerly opened, first the door to their closet, then then the door leading onto the corridor outside. There was no-one in sight, so they stepped out, limping and staggering their was along the corridor and down the stairs.
In a shadowy corner at the bottom of the stairs, Napoleon turned to whisper in Illya's ear.
'Phone in that room, you think?' he asked, pointing at a door across a large, open hall, an atrium of sorts. Illya nodded, and together they stepped into the middle of the hall.
A series of clicks, coming from all around them, was the first indication that all was not well. Napoleon looked up and saw the gunmen. Four men, one lady, also toting a large rifle, surrounding them, all aimed and ready to fire.
'Welcome to the party,' he said wryly.
'I'm too tired for diplomacy,' Illya muttered back.
Without another word, they turned, back to back, drew their guns and fired before the gunmen even realised they had moved. Napoleon took the extra, the lady, without even thinking about it, and she fell, crashing to the floor, her gun firing harmlessly into the wall as she descended.
Not one of the bodies on the floor made any movement.
'That was strictly against UNCLE policy,' Napoleon noted.
'Five people,' muttered Illya, 'Bang! Bang! Bang! Bang! Bang!'
Napoleon slipped his gun back into its holster and felt Illya's shoulder-blade press into his back as he did the same. Napoleon's hands dropped to his sides, and they hit Illya's, coming the other way. Napoleon's fingers twined themselves about Illya's. And they stood there for a moment, back to back.
'Five people. Bang bang bang bang bang,' Illya repeated. Napoleon nodded to himself. No consultation. No hesitation. Just absolute certainty that the other man would do what he expected him to do. And now his fingers, interlaced with Napoleon's, not questioning it, just doing it because they were both too tired and injured to try to explain themselves, and because the adrenaline rush of that one brief moment had almost pushed them both over the edge, and they knew it.
They let go of each others' hands at the same moment and turned to face the door. The place was quiet now, but the shots would have attracted attention, and they needed to move.
'I'd like to think of a more creative explanation of what just happened than: “We were surrounded, so we killed them all”. Somehow I don't think Mr Waverly would like that one very much.' Napoleon said, scratching the nape of his neck in the way he did when he was worried.
'No. We'll think of something,' Illya agreed. 'But first I would like to tell them where we are. I don't want to lose the opportunity, hmm?'
They limped across the hall, entered the room and found the telephone on a small table to one side of a window. They crouched down next to it, taking advantage of the cover offered by an armchair while Napoleon dialled and fought his way through the complex security that protected direct access to the switchboard of UNCLE HQ.
'Solo. No, Solo. No, I'm with my cousin, you know him. No, I don't want the delicatessen, I want dry-cleaning. Look, it's urgent, I've got a message for my UNCLE... Oh for pity's sake... Tell him his suit's going to be ruined if I don't speak to him at once, and I don't just mean a little stain, I mean completely shredded, possibly even destroyed. No! Please! Don't put me through to...' Napoleon closed his eyes and listened to the faint beeping tones coming from the other end of the phone.
'Is it working?' Illya asked quietly.
'I guess. We really need to standardise this. Security's all very well, but I can't even tell whether they believe who I am. For an emergency it's not really ideal. Ah...'
The phone line clicked and Napoleon heard Mr Waverly give him a cautious greeting,
'Is that my nephew?'
'It won't be in a minute, sir. Uh, bread, milk and butter?'
'You remembered!' Waverly replied with the counter code, apparently satisfied of Napoleon's identity after his use of the current code phrase.
'Yes sir. Look, Illya and I are stuck. We're in a house right down on the river, but there were complications getting out of the area, so we've had to dispose of a few people and there are more after us. We've got it, but we've also picked up a few injuries and it's going to be difficult to get out. Our communicators don't seem to be working.'
'Are you able to get out of the house, Mr Solo?'
'Yes sir, I would think so.'
He heard the rustle of paper at the other end of the phone, as something was handed to Mr Waverly.
'Mr Solo, we have traced your call. In the garden of the house in which you are currently situated, approximately one hundred yards to the north, you will find a small lodge. If you are lucky, it will be unoccupied and you might go in. If not, you will be able to conceal yourselves in its vicinity and await rescue.'
'Yes sir. Uh, how long do you think it will be?'
'It will take as long as it takes, Mr Solo. You were not supposed to need any backup at all getting out.'
Mr Waverly cut the line, and Napoleon looked at the phone in resigned disgust. When the boss was unimpressed, he could really make you feel it.
'Can we stay put?' asked Illya, giving up on waiting for Napoleon to tell him the result.
'Nope. We have to get to a lodge somewhere that-a-way.' He pointed out of the window and Illya grimaced.
'It's not far, is it?'
'It had better not be. He said a hundred yards, and I don't honestly think my legs will go much further than that. If it's empty, we're to go in. Why he thinks they won't look for us there, I have no idea, but, ah, he wasn't really in the mood for a discussion.' Napoleon scratched his head again and peered round the corner of the window frame. 'It all looks clear out there. Wanna risk it.'
Illya sighed and nodded. 'If we must.'
They climbed painfully out of the window and limped as fast as they could across the garden. The cover was negligible—all low shrubberies and lawns, but it seemed there was no-one watching for them just now, and as they approached a high hedge and skirted round it, Illya spotted the lodge, tucked in under some trees next to a set of high gates, which stood open to a driveway leading down to a narrow road that tucked itself back into the hills as it meandered away.
'There. What do you think?' he asked Napoleon. They crept up to the windows and looked in. The place was uninhabited, by the looks of things, but not unused.
'I think it's as good as walking into a trap.'
'Well,' Illya continued, 'I think we are between a stone and a hard place. We go in, and are trapped, or we stay here and are seen.'
'Rock,' said Napoleon, wondering at the novelty of being able to correct Illya's usually perfect English.
'I beg your pardon?'
'The phrase. It's between a rock and a hard place.'
'Oh.' Illya didn't seem annoyed, just mildly interested. 'Well, which do you prefer?'
Napoleon shrugged, and instantly regretted the movement as various muscles and bones screamed at him. 'I think I'd rather find a comfortable bush.'
'Do you see one?'
'Nope,' Napoleon started to walk towards the gates, 'But any rescue has to come in this way, unless Waverly sends a helicopter, which we'd hear, so we might as well head down here and set to communing with the local flora and fauna.'
They had barely made it to the end of the drive and collapsed in front a a shrub, too tired to pull themselves under it. when a truck came towards them, slowing as it reached them. The driver glanced at them and then raised his eyebrows significantly. He waved his hands, pointing and gesturing in a way that could, perhaps have been taken for yelling at somebody further along the road, were he to be observed from further up the drive. Then he was gone, driving off down the road and out of sight around the corner. They looked after him then Illya turned questioningly to Napoleon.
'What was that?'
'I believe all those convoluted hand signals meant that he's going to drive on and stop further along to wait for us. We're too close to the house here, I guess. C'mon.' He dragged himself upright, using the shrub as a support.
Illya also staggered to his feet and threw an arm around Napoleon. If they were going anywhere, it was going to have to be a co-operative move between their combined working limbs. Edging cautiously out of the driveway, they headed down the road, following the direction the truck had taken. On one side lay a field going down to the river. On the other, bleak hills stretched into the distance, no decent cover, they noted. With the exception of the deep ditch running either side of the road, they would be covering a fair amount of ground on foot before they could get out of sight. The next house along might have been their best hope if the truck hadn't arrived. Napoleon pointed as they rounded a bend.
'There.' They looked at the van. No markings, no knowing where it had come from. Still, they had asked for a pickup, and that was what this was. Napoleon opened the passenger door and struggled inside, pulling Illya up after him. He looked at their driver.
'Got a word for us, friend?' he asked. The driver chewed thoughtfully on his gum and nodded, his hand already on the door handle.
'Yup. Just give's a minute. Got one more thing to do before we leave. Orders, see?' He was out of the truck before Napoleon could ask him for a codeword again, and they watched him hare off, back towards the house for a second before Napoleon turned and looked at Illya.
'Smell a rat?'
'Big one,' gasped Illya, fumbling for the handle on his side, leaping out and dragging Napoleon after him, both of them yelling with pain as they hit the ground and dived for the ditch. They were in mid-air as the truck exploded, and the flung them down into the ditch, flattening them into the pool of stagnant water at the bottom.
After a few moments, Napoleon lifted his head, grabbed a handful of Illya's hair and yanked his head up, out of the mud. He gasped, choking on the grimy water that had cut off half his air supply.
He rolled over and lay on his back in the ooze, feeling down his ribs for any further damage. Napoleon watched him, and then held out his hand, looking away while Illya, a deep frown on his forehead, swiftly jerked Napoleon's thumb back to a less alarming alignment. He groaned into the grasses lining the ditch. Illya patted his shoulder, avoiding his other injuries.
'At least we landed on something soft. They must have tapped the phone. Do they not trust anybody?' He sounded exasperated, and Napoleon almost laughed.
'We'll choose a less suspicious enemy next time, my friend.'
'What now then? They won't know where to find us.'
'They might. If my short-range tracer is still working. Do you have the capsule safe?'
'I still have a raging toothache, if that's what you mean.' He drew his knees up and hugged them to him. Napoleon considered slipping an arm around him, but on second thoughts, decided it might be taken the wrong way. Instead, he plucked bits of mud and leaves from Illya's hair, tutting at the mess. Before Illya could stop him, the sound of a helicopter cut through the silence, and broke off towards the house. Napoleon cursed and tried to stand up.
'Got to signal them somehow,' he muttered, staggering as his injured leg gave under him. Illya put out a hand to stop him landing on top of him. It slipped around Napoleon's back, and he held him still for a second, steadying him, before he tried to withdraw.
Before he could, however, the helicopter was turning back in their direction, and it took a single turn over their heads before coming to a halt, hovering above them, then lowered down onto the road beside them.
'Order overnight laundry?' the pilot yelled at them.
'Six bags full,' Napoleon shouted back, pulling himself up the bank, reaching back to help Illya.
They fell into the helicopter, squeezing up next to each other on the single seat. The pilot watched as they sorted themselves out.
'Sorry, we could only scramble a two-seater in the time. We don't have far to go, just try not to fall out.'
Napoleon nodded. Illya just stared out of the side, clearly his teeth were really hurting now. The helicopter rose and sidled across the sky, up, over the river, swiftly across the hills, then over open ground, to the outskirts of a town, where they landed in a field next to shack, where an UNCLE car sat idling, its driver watching their descent, uncomfortable exit, and limping progress towards him, with anxious eyes.
They toppled into the back seat and Illya slammed the door. The driver took off at once, not waiting for them to sit up, which was why they arrived at New York Headquarters five hours later, still in an uncomfortable heap, tangled together on the back seat.
Napoleon was trying to figure out just what they had spent the last eight hours doing. They were on their way back to his apartment, in the company of an UNCLE driver, since neither of them was deemed to be in a fit state to take control of a vehicle on the streets of New York. So he was trying to keep himself awake, while Illya's head lolled across the seat, banging against his shoulder every now and again.
The first three hours had been spent in a debrief with Waverly, and a subsequent meeting with the heads of the relevant departments, going over and over the information on the microfilm in the capsule, and making sure that all the additional information Illya had picked up inside the building was squeezed out of him. After that, they had been seized by the medical staff who had been hovering in the outer office, desperate to get their hands on another set of 'victi...er, patients', as the doctor in charge cheerfully put it.
Since they had already been walking around with their injuries, or rather, limping around, for some while, they were first dispatched to the showers for half an hour, to sluice off the worst of the muck they had acquired during their escape. Then they had reluctantly given themselves over to be poked and prodded. Napoleon had clocked up two hours in the dentist's chair, but he knew Illya had been in there longer. A half hour wait followed, after which they spent an hour and a half being questioned, x-rayed, inspected and bandaged up where appropriate. Finally, half an hour of negotiation, whinging and painful demonstrations of obviously fallacious fitness had allowed them to sign themselves out, on the proviso that they looked after themselves and each other, and came back if anything 'extra' turned up.
The car dropped them off, and Napoleon prodded Illya in the arm, trying to pick a spot that wouldn't actually hurt. They helped each other out and slammed the door. The car took off at once, and Napoleon tutted and shook his head, then stopped, because that made his neck scream and his head clang. He winced and nudged Illya, who scowled at the touch.
'Idiot. He's dropped us at yours, not mine.'
'Does it matter?'
Napoleon glanced sideways, considering.
'No. Just there's more space at mine for convalescing agents.'
Illya grunted in reply, too dopey to bother to reply, or to care where they had been dropped. They hauled themselves up the steps into the building, then took the elevator to Illya's floor, swaying a little as they wove their way to his door.
Inside, Illya headed straight to the kitchenette while Napoleon set the alarms, and busied himself making coffee, despite the fact that the doctor had advised against it, for today at least. He handed a mug to Napoleon and raised his own in a toast.
'To gullible doctors,' he said. Napoleon raised an eyebrow and his mug, and drank the health of doctors whom they both knew to be, not gullible, but too used to Section Two agents to bother arguing.
'You'll have to help me pull the bed out of the couch,' Illya said as he sipped his coffee.
'Huh?' Napoleon looked confused. Illya tutted.
'I'll sleep on it. I used to, anyway, before I got a real bed. You can have my bed, it will suit you better.' Napoleon's face registered dawning comprehension and he shook his head again, gritting his teeth as he remembered why he shouldn't.
'Why bother? I've spent every night this week sleeping next to you. One more won't kill either of us.'
Illya rolled his eyes. 'I would have thought you'd be as glad as me to get back to a comfortable bed of your own.'
'What's the matter Illya? Gone off me?' Napoleon purred, his voice a soft caress. Illya's expression was unreadable for a second, then turned to suppressed amusement.
'No, not as such. I would just value a night without your bony elbows digging into my side.'
'Well, I could always put my arm around you,' Napoleon continued in the same tone as before, wondering as he did so why he was saying it, 'Then the problem wouldn't arise.' Illya's head jerked around and he tried to cover the reflexive action by shaking his head. Both actions made his eyes water and he brought his coffee-mugless hand up to grip his skull hard, where it wasn't damaged. He stared hard at Napoleon, then forced his face back into sarcasm.
'Your generosity is overwhelming, Napoleon, but I will be quite comfortable here.' Napoleon nodded as Illya turned to start taking the cushions off the couch, and frowned at the back of the blond head. It wasn't that he was all that worried about Illya sleeping on the couch, after all, it was probably his turn, they were used to sleeping in odd places and odd positions... His mind wandered back to the time, two missions back, when he had left Illya on watch in a goods warehouse and had returned to find his partner lying asleep in the crook of the arms of a forklift truck. He had threatened to tell Waverly, but newly-discovered friendship and extreme amusement at the picture it had given him to store in his head had won the day. No. It wasn't that. It was more that on this affair he had become more and more used to having Illya next to him as he slept.
Illya dropped the last cushion onto the floor and sank onto the denuded couch. He looked utterly exhausted, eyelids drooping, shoulders hunched, his hands hanging limply between his knees. Napoleon knew just how he felt. All of a sudden, he knew exactly how he felt. Not because he felt the same, though he did; but because that part of Illya that surfaced when he was genuinely out of sorts was now so familiar, that Napoleon could read him without thinking about it. He felt a pang of sympathy for Illya, quite out of the usual line of careless disregard he usually exercised with his fellow agents. Anyone else, any other Agent in the UNCLE who turned up in front of him in this state would have been a matter of deepest unconcern. He wasn't dying, he wasn't revealing anything to the enemy. He was just hurt and tired and might need a few days off work. So what? Happens to everyone at some point. No cause for Napoleon to get all emotional about it.
He got down on his knees, his strapped-up ankle protesting until he stuck it out to one side. Crawling up to Illya, he put his hands on his knees.
'Hey! Hey, partner?'
'Mm?' Illya's eyes were nearly shut and his whole body screamed tiredness and pain. The stab of sympathy grew to a chest-sized bubble of concern. Suddenly the urge to struggle up onto the sofa, get his arms around the man and kiss him better was overwhelming.
Napoleon stared at Illya, holding himself back. This was bad. This was very bad. And he could have done something about it, perhaps, if he'd realised earlier. Really, he could have worked his way around it. His training would let him... He laughed inwardly. His training would be all but useless against this. This was something he had realised a long time ago, but had successfully buried. So successfully that he had thought it would never bother him again. But now... with Illya right in front of him, so bruised and battered and so perfect in every other sense. Fight it, Napoleon! he admonished himself. He hated the idea of doing this to himself when Illya was not to be tampered with. But then again, maybe Illya had kissed him? That bit was all a little hazy, the memory jumping confusingly between dream and reality and he was not at all sure that he hadn't just imagined it.
His legs were not happy with his position, so he gave in a little, and got up onto the couch next to his partner. Now, now he could kiss him, and he leant in fractionally, but he didn't quite do it. Fear battled with desire and he backed off before Illya could realise what he was about to do, rubbing his nose with his hand to excuse the movement, and coughing slightly. He got up. He was too close to temptation sitting there.
The chair at right angles to Illya had a stack of books on it. Napoleon lifted them off, one by one—he didn't trust his arms to carry more than that. He sat down and leaned back. His legs slid out and brushed against Illya's. A siren whined past outside the window. Napoleon jerked his foot back, but Illya stretched out, heeling off his shoes in a way that made Napoleon wince, then reached out his socked feet to rub against Napoleon's ankles. Napoleon glanced down, then back up at Illya, who raised an eyebrow, but said nothing.
Napoleon let his eyes drop, the eye contact with Illya was too worrying. Illya's chin was dropping onto his chest, making his lips appear even more pouty than usual. He had taken off his shirt and his t-shirt rode the muscles of his arms and chest, emphasising and defining them past the usual smooth appearance of his compact form.
'Can you get that t-shirt off with your ribs?' Napoleon asked, closing his eyes briefly as he realised how much of a flirtation that sounded.
Illya dragged his eyes open and shook his head slowly.
'I'm not even going to try until the morning,' he said. 'What about you?'
'Ah, no, I don't think so,' Napoleon said, looking down. He still had his shirt on, but he didn't want to sleep in that. No, he would have to take it off. He started to undo the buttons. His left arm ached too much as he bent it. It must have shown on his face, because Illya sat painfully forward and reached out to help. His fingers deftly undid the buttons all the way down, while Napoleon worked on his cuffs. Illya's breath was warm, and the heat from his body was tangible as he assisted. Napoleon shrugged off the left sleeve, but could not get his right arm into the correct position to remove the shirt. Illya reached up, his hands slipping round each side of Napoleon's neck, tugging the shirt around and dragging it down his arm. The shirt came off, and Illya sat back, flinging the bundled up fabric at Napoleon in mock pique.
'There, now you can sleep peacefully.
'You think so?' Napoleon asked. He let his gaze travel downward, but Illya sat forward again, casting everything into shadow. For a moment, it looked like Illya was going to speak again, but he seemed to change his mind, and yawned instead, groaning and rubbing his jaw as he shut his mouth, the numbing from the dental work now apparently wearing off.
He looked up and his eyes locked with Napoleon's again. Napoleon did not look away this time. Illya's eyes were a rich blue today, shadowed by his hooded eyelids. His lashes slowly batted over them as he strove to stay awake, and Napoleon's breath caught. He tried to speak, but the ball of unprecedented emotion in his throat stopped him. He swallowed and tried again.
'You, my friend, are too tired. Time you got to bed.'
'I can't.' Illya seemed on the verge of collapse.
I can't get this bed out. It's too heavy. My ribs hurt when I try to lift things.'
'Then for pity's sake, you have the real bed—your bed—and I'll sleep on the couch as it is.'
Illya seemed to become more alert. Suddenly he was sharp and attentive.
'Napoleon, you are just as injured and tired as I am.'
'Come to bed with me then.'
'Is that an offer?' It was said light-heartedly, but in an instant, the atmosphere between them changed, sparks of knowledge of each other passing between them, intensity building. Illya was on his feet and Napoleon stood to watch him, feeling bold and reckless all of a sudden.
'Of a sort. I guess,' his voice sounding husky and uneven, though he was still trying for jocular. 'Why? Are you...' He tailed off. He could see the answer in Illya's eyes, in the catch in his breath that had nothing to do with his cracked ribs.
Illya looked at him, his head tilting slightly, his chin jutting forward, and what with them already being so close together, it just happened that he ended up in just the right position to kiss. And so Napoleon did, and there was none of the shock or surprise that he felt himself in Illya. There was just a firm, flat hand rubbing across his shoulder-blade and a cupped palm holding the back of his head, preventing him from backing off. There was a darting tongue pressing between his lips and flicking against his own while those lips pushed hungrily at him, sliding over his stubble, sucking at his own lips as if Illya would eat him alive given half a chance. And it really, really hurt. The hand on his back pressed a cracked bone somewhere around his shoulder, and the one on his head was rubbing his hair into a cut he thought he'd acquired in the explosion. His lips were sore and his whole mouth hurt anyway from carrying the damn capsule. He could tell it was hurting Illya too, even though he was the one pushing, he flinched every now and again and his moans were not all of the sexual variety. He tilted his head back so that he could look at Illya. The cut over his eye made it appear slightly droopy, but he looked unblinkingly at Napoleon and said slowly,
'This is not the correct activity for two people with as many injuries as we've picked up in the last couple of days.'
'This is... what?' asked Napoleon, stunned for a second. Yes, it was hurting, but that didn't mean it should stop, did it?
'How many injuries did we clock in?'
'Uh... we... hell Illya, don't ask difficult questions.' He ached to kiss him again, he was so close and looked so... so normal, so Illya. But he couldn't do it now, not when he was being watched so intently, and, to be honest, the moment Illya had stopped kissing him, the edge that had been taken off the pain by the endorphins, or whatever it was, came back with a vengeance and the idea of going through that again started to lose its appeal.
'I'll tell you. Your tame nurse on the front desk at Medical told me to share with you the happy news that we acquired between us, on a single short-term mission, thirty separate injuries considered serious enough to qualify for your beloved record book. That pushes us well past the previous record and leaves her wondering how on earth we managed to worm our way out of spending the night in Medical.'
'I'm not too sure of that myself,' muttered Napoleon. He slipped his good arm around Illya and heard his sharp breath as he squeezed the cracked ribs. 'Sorry,' he said, letting go. Illya pulled him closer,
'What does it matter? I already hurt all over.'
'Teeth any better?'
'You did kiss me in that boat, didn't you?' Napoleon asked, not sure when he'd got up the nerve to ask questions like this of his partner. Probably when he had reaslised that he knew more about the thoughts in Illya's head than the ones in his own, he decided.
'Maybe. I don't remember clearly, but it sounds like me. I was quite drunk.'
'And I'd already guessed you'd be okay with it, though I did lose my nerve a little afterwards.' Illya grinned a sheepish, and rather lopsided grin that made Napoleon's stomach flip uncomfortably.
'What made you think...?'
'When I traced the map of the river on your hand, you stopped breathing. Now, either you have an extremely unusual nervous system that you really ought to get checked out, or my touching you like that hit the button, as it were.' He narrowed his eyes, a cat's smile.
'You did it like that on purpose.'
'I have never had anyone stop breathing on my account before. Well, no-one who started to breathe again afterwards. I think that counts as a success. I might try it again.'
'I beg your pardon?'
Illya took his hand. 'Anything hurting on this one?' Napoleon shook his head,
'Not right now. It was the other one.'
'Good.' Illya rubbed his thumb across Napoleon's outstretched palm, rested Napoleon's hand on his fingers, stroked Napoleon's fingers, then slid his fingers across his palm, wrapped them around Napoleon's hand until he was holding onto it. He looked up at Napoleon with narrowed eyes. Napoleon looked back at him and let out the breath he'd been holding.
'Illya, that's not fair,' he whispered.
'Why not? I can hardly jump on you, can I? Not with the state we're both in.'
'You could, but I might just hit you.' Napoleon leaned in, caught the top of Illya's cheekbone between his lips and plucked at it.
'Ow!' Illya yelled. Napoleon shrank back.
'It hurts too much to do a damn thing,' he said ruefully. Illya nodded, letting go of him and sinking painfully back onto the couch. Napoleon gently lowered himself into the armchair, reaching out to pick up one of the scattered cushions to help prop him up..
'This is very inconvenient,' Illya muttered. Napoleon looked at him shrewdly, thinking that he might as well get as much as he could out of Illya while he was in such an open mood—after all, it had taken him weeks to get his first detail out of the man. This day, however painful, was proving much more informative.
'What would you do if we weren't both injured?'
'I would push you down and eat you up, Napoleon,' he replied, eyes flashing wickedly. 'And I would play till you screamed.' He looked a little sheepish, 'But only if you didn't mind.'
'God...' he whispered, barely audible. He stared at Illya, his heart-rate noticeably up—he could feel it shaking him against the cushions. This was worrying. He didn't react this strongly with women, and he hated not being able to get through to the end with them. It was going to kill him, not being able to do anything about this now.
He swallowed—Illya's gaze was still on him, he was smirking, for some reason. His mouth was a little wonky at the moment, some ache or tear somewhere was stopping him from tweaking the left corner right up. It was horrifyingly sexy.
'And what would you do?' Illya asked in return, his accent making the simple words sound rich and maybe a little menacing.
'I would... I would make you... I would make you...' He faltered, as Illya leant forward in his chair. It felt like they were going too fast. 'I would make you a decent meal to make up for the starvation rations we've spent the last few days eating.' Napoleon stopped. The smile on Illya's face had grown. 'What?'
'Napoleon, given what I see of you with women, I would never have guessed that your first thought when given the opportunity to do anything to me, would be to feed me.'
'As my grandmother would say, you need feeding up,' Napoleon mumbled. Illya tilted his head in an invitation to continue. 'Okay. Then... Hang on a minute, did you say anything?'
'Uh...' Napoleon seemed to lose the ability to form words. He stared at Illya, then sat forward again.
'Give me your hand,' he croaked. Illya held out his right, looking a little confused. Napoleon took hold of it in both of his, one hand supporting his wrist, the fingertips of his other hand supporting the back of Illya's hand, his less painful thumb running along the crease at the base of Illya's fingers. 'Is this hand injury-free?' he asked in a whisper. 'I mean, apart from the cuts and grazes I can see.'
Illya nodded, silent now and appearing more serious. Napoleon let his thumb slide up to the tip of Illya's middle finger, rubbing over the callous on the pad, jolting over the hard, roughened flesh. He followed the line of his nail, tracing the oval back to the tip, before smoothing back down to the bumps of the second set of callouses where fingers met palm.
Slowly, he let his thumb move into the spot at the centre of Illya's palm, which was so much more sensitive than the rest, he knew, though he could never work out why, even on himself. His progress was excrutiatingly slow, and Illya tried to move his hand into Napoleon's touch. Napoleon made a disapproving noise in his throat and gripped tightly for a second. Illya closed his eyes and Napoleon relaxed again.
Napoleon commenced a slow, gentle stroking motion, from the ticklish fleshy mound at the base of Illya's thumb, up the sides to his thumb-tip and back. He let the fingers supporting Illya's hand move now, and they stroked the backs of Illya's own fingers with every movement. Illya was swaying slightly now, his eyes shut, his breath not as even as it might have been.
Now Napoleon let go with the hand holding his wrist, and used it to take hold of Illya's thumb with the lightest pressure of his fingertips surrounding it. Base to tip, he stroked it, four-fingered, before moving on to his index finger, repeating the motion: middle, fourth, pinky. Illya whimpered.
'Mm?' mumbled Napoleon, not expecting a response. None came. Napoleon repeated the pattern on Illya's hand, taking each finger in turn between his own, and smoothing it all the way up. Illya's head dropped back, and a hiss of breath escaped him, making the hair stand up on the back of Napoleon's neck. At the base of Illya's pinky, Napoleon stopped and let his thumb make small circles on the last knuckle. He glanced down. Illya was unmistakably enjoying this. Napoleon took a deep breath, in amongst the shaky ones he was currently managing, and slipped his hand into Illya's grasp, as if he were shaking it. Illya gripped his hand, though not tightly, then his own thumb started to rub a gentle line, simply up and down on the side of Napoleon's hand.
Napoleon found he was breathing in and out with the motion of Illya's finger. His nerve endings seemed to register the touch of Illya's hand more strikingly than he was used to. When he looked up, Illya's breathing was in unison with his, his head still tipped back, his hair starting to stick to his forehead, where a light sheen of sweat glinted in the lamplight.
Napoleon's hand clenched convulsively, and Illya took a short, gasping breath in response. Napoleon gripped again, pressing his thumb deeply into the pad of Illya's palm. Again, Illya's breath hitched, and Napoleon continued, his pulsing pressure on Illya's hand matching the rhythm of the thumb stroking the side of his own hand, which in turn joined the throbbing beat of his heart, shaking his body with the force of its thumping.
Illya's response to the rolling assault of his thumb fascinated him. If he had been asked where the human sexual on-buttons were, this would not be in his list; yet, undeniably, Illya was moving closer and closer towards the edge, his breathing becoming shallower, his head rolling loosely side to side, his mouth just that far open. And Illya's response was certainly having its effect on Napoleon. So much so, that the soothing rub of Illya's thumb was enough contact to up the ante from the pure pleasure of watching someone he loved in the abandon of a sexual high, to a more personal, physical outcome. He was hard as a rock, not only that, but he could feel the build-up, the ascent to climax, as if his hand was acting as proxy for his genitalia, and every stroke to his extremities was translated, redoubled to his groin.
His thumb dug in again, again, again. Counterpoint to the stroking now, and Illya gave a groan, his own thumb digging in hard, before he fell back, his hand still grasping Napoleon's tightly.
Napoleon was so nearly there, so nearly. Illya opened his eyes, his pupils huge and dark. Then he raised Napoleon's hand to his lips, pressed them to the base of Napoleon's thumb and kissed it. Opened his mouth and sucked it. Put forward his hot tongue and licked it. And Napoleon came, wondering at the improbability of it, even as his orgasm shook him; wondering at the power of the circumstances that had overcome the discomfort of pants that were none too loose in the crotch, and the pain of his assorted injuries.
He reluctantly extricated his hand from Illya's grip, needing to adjust himself to a more comfortable position, now that the endorphin rush was subsiding, and the aches and pains returning.
They stared at each other for a while through drowsily dropping eyelids.
'Told you,' said Illya.
'I told you your hands were sensitive to me.'
'Just my hands? Who came first there?' Napoleon grinned, and Illya returned it. Napoleon went on, 'Illya, you know, when we're fixed up again, we could see whether you've got any other sensitive areas. I guess you're more susceptible than me after all. What do you think?'
'I think you're dreaming, 'Poleon.'
'A man can dream. I believe you'll find it's one of our constitutional rights.' Napoleon got up and moved across to lower himself painfully down beside Illya on the couch. He put an arm gingerly around him, not putting any pressure on any part of Illya's body. His shoulder ached from having held his arm up for so long, and his eyes were now so heavy he could barely keep them open. Next to him, Illya, too, was drooping.
'Come to bed with me now?' he asked. Illya glanced at him, smiled tiredly and nodded. They stood up, trying not to lean on each other. Napoleon left his arm halfway round Illya, careful not to push on his aching ribs. His hand rested so very comfortably in the small of Illya's back. Illya reached out his arms and tried to stretch, groaned and gave up. He reached behind him, took Napoleon's hand, and held it as they walked towards the bedroom.
'Napoleon, you have done something to me. Nobody else has ever got to know me as well as this...' Napoleon expected to hear him follow this up with '...so quickly', but he didn't, he just repeated, 'Nobody.' Napoleon started, his hand twitching.
'Pardon?' he asked, but he did not need a further repetition.
The file marked 'Illya', which sat in the forefront of Napoleon's brain, burst as he tried to carefully tuck away his store of Illya facts. His intimate contact with Illya's hand seemed to have worked like overly accurate and revealing palmistry. Information, anecdotes and sensations leapt free and flew in all directions, saturating his mind with everything Illya. And yet...and yet, not necessarily with everything that made up Illya. He squeezed his hand. Even with the man practically living in his head, there was no disguising the fact that despite all he had learned, he still only had what Illya wanted him to know, and that could be everything, or, despite what he had said, it could be nothing at all.