A Promised Love
It was nearly noon when Illya Kuryakin gave up and went home sick. He'd worked for UNCLE for two years now—one in training, one on combined assignment to Enforcement and Laboratory Sciences without taking off even once, but he'd felt ill all day yesterday. He'd passed a restless night, yanked from the little bits of sleep he managed to get by the cough that started the moment he lay down. His head hurt, his throat was sore, and every muscle in his body ached as if he were being ground between two stones. It was no mystery, the flu had been making the rounds and he supposed it was his turn but he hated being sick, it always brought back dreadful memories so he struggled on as best he could but now he couldn't any longer. So he reported to his department head that he was taking sick leave and clocked out.
As he sat on the subway, jolted and shaken, the screech of wheels on metal going right through his throbbing head he tried to count his blessings. He wasn't on assignment, for one—Thrush seemed to be taking a hiatus. After his first year in the field, which had been practically non stop, one mission after another, he and Napoleon being sent all around the globe, there had been a month of nothing. Although his work in the science labs was interesting—he was fortunate, to have that to fall back on—he missed working with Napoleon, his new partner. Over the past year they had forged a bond—not just a working relationship but a friendship, too, and it still awed him when he thought about it.
Napoleon Solo had been a field agent for years. He was the best. Everyone said so, and Illya knew it first hand from working so closely with him. And everyone liked Napoleon—all he had to do was enter a room to become the focus of attention. He was charming, and amusing, and intelligent—women fluttered and sighed around him, which was no wonder—he was strikingly handsome, and always seemed to know just the right things to say. Illya, who hid his shyness behind a veneer of cold reserve, could only watch in admiration as Napoleon carried the situation—any situation—through with his customary aplomb.
And Napoleon liked him. That was no secret—Napoleon liked his young partner enormously and didn't care who knew it. Why—just three months ago Illya had been reported missing when the twin engine plane he'd been piloting had been shot down in the desert. Napoleon, infuriated by the delay in launching a search had come on his own, first following the airplane's tracking device and then, after finding its wreckage, trailing the party that had taken Illya prisoner. He stalked them for three miles, waited until dark, slipped into the tent where Illya was being held and spirited him away before the two dead guards were found. "Nonsense," he'd said when Illya had tried to thank him. "You'd have done the same for me." And he was right.
Illya felt he would walk through fire for Napoleon, would lay his life down for him willingly. He had been admired, respected—even, of late, feared—but he had never been liked before and under the warmth of Napoleon's affection he bloomed. He ventured to speak the wry observations he had always kept to himself and found that Napoleon was both amused and delighted. Napoleon teased him, but gently, good naturedly and Illya found himself teasing back, rewarded by Napoleon's smile and, occasionally, by his laugh. Even over the past month of inactivity, when their paths had of necessity diverged, Napoleon sought him out, stopping by to look over whatever Illya was working on, insisting that Illya stop work to go to lunch with him, and it didn't do Illya any harm with his superiors that Napoleon Solo took such a personal interest, that was for certain.
The train finally reached his West Village stop and he painfully climbed the stairs, emerging onto the noisy street, blinking against the sun. It was an interminable walk to his building, and then he faced the four story climb to his apartment but he made it, one step at a time, clinging to the railing, hauling himself up, and up. The stairs seemed to elongate, making the climb nightmarish, and he knew his fever was rising. By the time he locked his door behind him he was so miserably ill that he didn't even bother to undress, or to pull his long blond hair free of its tight ponytail; he just kicked off his shoes and climbed into bed. His apartment was chilly—the landlord was notoriously stingy with the heat. Usually Illya didn't mind—what they called cold here in New York was nothing compared to the ambient temperatures back in his Ukrainian home in wintertime, but today he huddled under his blanket, shivering violently. He was thirsty, but nauseated too so he stayed where he was and continued to count his blessings.
Yes, it was good that he wasn't on assignment. What use would he be to Napoleon like this? None at all. And it was good that he could take sick time. He had savings in the bank, but he hated the thought of dipping into them and it was far more expensive to live in New York than he'd imagined His small studio apartment was rent controlled and that was a good thing, but since he had arrived with nothing he had had to buy everything from plates to utensils to sheets and towels and furniture—to this day he only owned a double bed with a tiny dresser beside it, a small table with two mismatched chairs and a battered sofa left over from the previous occupant. He had never had physical comforts, and never missed them. His one indulgence was books. Books were everywhere, overflowing their shelves and neatly stacked on the floor, on the unused chair at his table ... oh, how his head ached. And his legs—grimly he forced himself to concentrate on his good fortune. So he was on sick time and would be paid for today—and tomorrow, too if, as seemed likely, he had to stay home again. And if he needed to see a doctor UNCLE would pay for that. And medicine as well. Yes, he was fortunate. But he was so cold—and he hurt all over. Sleep pulled him down, suddenly, but within half an hour he was awake again, coughing and coughing. That made his head hurt even more, and his throat was raw but he was lucky, he was lucky he was alone. No one here to mock him, to pull the covers off and open the window when he shivered, no one to slap him, jarring his throbbing head, no one to torment him for the sheer pleasure of it. And there were no other boys to run in and out, slamming doors, shouting, urging him to get up. He had escaped his uncle and his home, escaped the noisy orphanage that had followed and now he could be as sick as he pleased all by himself with no one to know, or care. He hugged his anonymity to him, counting that his greatest blessing of all.
Someone was knocking at the door. He had been dozing, drifting in and out, bedeviled by the cough; terribly thirsty now, wishing he had the strength to get an aspirin for his pounding head, for his throbbing legs but he didn't. The noise made him scowl. His building wasn't particularly secure and salesmen often made their way up the stairs to knock hopefully at the tenants' doors. Well, he would ignore it. As far as anyone knew, he was at work. He retreated under his blanket, tugged at the waistband of his pants—it irritated him, tight against his stomach but it was too much trouble to do anything about it—and the knocking came again. He wished it would stop—it only made his head hurt more, and then there was a rattle. He pulled the blanket down off his head and stared. The knob was turning, and then came a click as the lock opened. He groped in the night stand for his gun, pointing it at the door as it opened, then banged against the chain. "I'm armed!" he shouted, or tried to—the words were a rasp in his throat and he coughed again, pulled back the safety.
"Good grief Illya, don't shoot." Napoleon's voice held laughter. "It's only me. Let me in."
Napoleon? It was Napoleon? Well, good. He lowered the gun, let it fall to the floor. Napoleon could be at his door, that was all right. He yawned, and shivered some more. Napoleon knocked again.
"Illya. Let me in right now or I'm cutting the chain."
Napoleon would, too. Napoleon never made empty threats. Illya rolled out of bed, landed on his hands and knees and painfully dragged himself to his feet. Napoleon shook the door against the chain.
"I'm coming." He had to lean against the wall while he struggled with the chain, but he finally got it open and then Napoleon was inside, seeming, as ever, larger than life. He brought fresh air with him and it smelled good.
"Look at you," Napoleon said, sounding exasperated and worried, too. "When they told me you went home sick I knew you must be at death's door. What is it, the flu?"
"Yes," Illya said and began coughing again. Napoleon cupped his elbow with one hand and helped him back to bed. Illya collapsed on the tangled sheets and coughed some more. Napoleon stood over him, frowning.
"What can I do for you?"
"Some water?" Illya asked hopefully.
"Sure." Napoleon headed for the kitchen alcove. He opened cupboards, took down a glass and Illya heard him filling it. He licked dry lips and then thought of something else.
"Aspirin," he croaked.
"Sure," Napoleon said again. "Where?"
"Bathroom medicine chest." The three words in succession threw him into such a spasm of coughing that he nearly strangled on it and Napoleon hurried over, helped him sit up, rubbed his back.
"Here." He put the glass in Illya's hands when the paroxysm was over. "I'll get the aspirin." He laid a hand on Illya's forehead. "You're burning up. Where's your thermometer?"
"Don't have one." The gulp of water he took felt so good—for about thirty seconds. Then his stomach turned over and he dropped the glass, not caring that it spilled, lay back down on his side, concentrating on not throwing up. He breathed deeply, tried to relax his stomach muscles and when Napoleon came back with the aspirin he shook his head at it. "Never mind." He wished Napoleon would touch his forehead again—it had felt so cool, and so good, but Napoleon only stood there.
"You need something in your stomach besides that," he said finally, and began opening cupboards again. Illya lay and listened and felt a flicker of resentment. Why was Napoleon going through his things? "Don't you want some toast?" Napoleon called and Illya shook his head, then winced.
"No. Thank you."
"It's cold in here." Napoleon crossed over to the radiator and felt it. "I know you make decent money," he said sternly. "Why don't you take better care of yourself?"
"Leave me alone." He hadn't asked Napoleon here, had he. "It's bad enough I'm sick without you bothering me. Go away."
"I'm sorry." Napoleon sat down on the edge of the bed, brushed Illya's hair back from his face. "I just—look, you can't be sick here. Come home with me. Let me nurse you back to health in comfort."
"What?" He was ashamed of his ill humor. It was nice of Napoleon to care about him, to check up on him. "No, thank you. I'll be all right."
"Illya—I'm not taking no for an answer. Get up. I'll call a cab." Illya watched Napoleon pick up the receiver and huddled deeper into his blanket. Now he could hear Napoleon's voice as he talked on the phone and it was nice, it made him feel safe, he almost fell asleep again then the blanket was pulled off him.
"Come on, Illya. I know you don't feel up to it but you'll be glad later, you'll see. Come on." Napoleon talked and cajoled and Illya soon found himself back in his shoes and coat, going down the same stairs he had struggled up with such effort. Looking down made him dizzy and he leaned on Napoleon who, after a few awkward attempts to hold his arm finally, after he nearly pitched forward down the steep staircase, scooped him up and carried him. Illya pushed at him weakly but it was no use and then he was in a taxi and they were moving.
The motion made him nauseous again and he leaned against the door, breathing through the little crack there, entirely focused on not throwing up in the cab. Napoleon reached across him and opened the window, the blast of winter air helping his stomach while making him shudder with the cold. Napoleon pulled off his own coat, wrapped Illya up in it, rubbed his back some more.
He had never been in Napoleon's penthouse apartment. He had met him in front, so knew it was an expensive building, but the sight that met his eyes as Napoleon unlocked his own front door struck him silent. Space—the ultimate luxury in New York City, and silence. There was a formal dining room, a large eat in kitchen, a sunken living room with a fireplace, a walk in closet where Napoleon hung both their coats. "Come on," Napoleon said and led him down a hall. "You can have the guest room." At the end of the hall was an enormous bedroom, in the center of which was a great antique sleigh bed. Napoleon put Illya in a chair while he pulled off the heavy bedspread and made the bed up with clean white sheets and a matching white goosedown comforter. He plumped up the pillows, then handed Illya a pair of pajamas. "You get into these while I find the thermometer," he instructed. "They'll be too big for you—they're mine, but they're comfortable."
They were—soft and smooth against his skin, cool—he laid his cheek against the sleeve. He had given over protesting—there never had been any arguing with Napoleon when his mind was made up. The bed was soft, and the sheets were a caress on his overheated skin. The comforter wrapped him in warmth without weight—then a thermometer was poked into his mouth and Napoleon was sitting next to him with one eye on his watch. "When you feel better," he said firmly, "we're going to pry some money out of your bank account and go shopping. You need more groceries, and better linens. A carpet and curtains will help with the cold and I'll speak to your landlord about the heat. You work hard—you deserve to be comfortable. Who will see to it, Illya, if you don't?" He pulled the thermometer out, inspected it.
"You will," Illya said drowsily and Napoleon chuckled.
"Evidently I will. This is too high. I'm calling the doctor."
Illya groaned. "Please don't make me go out again, Napoleon. It's so nice here."
"I won't." He stroked Illya's hair back again. "The doctor will come to you. Does that rubber band bother you?"
"Yes." It did. It was tight, and his head ached so badly even his hair seemed to hurt. Napoleon helped him roll over and pulled it out, running his hands through Illya's hair, massaging his scalp where it had pulled. Then he let him lie back.
"There." He smiled down at his partner. "Good thing we're not on assignment."
"I know. I thought about that before." Napoleon was on the phone again and Illya lay quietly. He still felt wretchedly ill, his head and throat hurt as much as before, his body ached so it nearly brought tears to his eyes but the comfort and warmth around him, Napoleon's visible concern, made it more bearable. He dozed again, drifting in and out, racked by the cough, hearing Napoleon's soft footfalls as he came and went, stopping to feel his forehead. Then the bed shifted under the additional weight as Napoleon sat on the edge and wiped his face with a cool wet cloth. It felt good—he looked at Napoleon with gratitude.
"Sure." Napoleon moistened his lips with a fresh cloth, and Illya's tongue came out to lick it. But when Napoleon brought a cup to his mouth and he drank he finally lost the battle with his stomach. He hung over the edge of the bed vomiting into a trash can while Napoleon held his head, keeping his hair back; washing his face again when it was over, giving him a cup and bowl so he could rinse his mouth. When Napoleon returned from disposing of the trash can Illya had buried his face in the pillow. Napoleon sat down again. "You all right?"
"I'm sorry." He was ashamed. Napoleon turned him back over, firmly.
"Illya—we are going to be partners for a long time. We are going to be beaten up, possibly tortured, possibly drugged, sick, starved, imprisoned. If the worst thing that happens is I see you throw up we'll be incredibly lucky. Why, when I was with Douglas and we were in that Mexican jail I got so thirsty I drank the water and, well, I'll spare you the details. Suffice it to say that this hygienic little episode with the trash can is nothing. All right?" And, when Illya didn't answer, he repeated it more insistently. "All right?"
"Yes." The doorbell rang. Napoleon got up.
"That better be the doctor."
It was the doctor. He examined Illya thoroughly and told Napoleon he'd been right to call. "Looks like strep throat," he said, peering intently into Illya's mouth. "See these white patches?" He moved aside so Napoleon could look but Illya closed his mouth obstinately and no amount of arguing could get him to open it. It was bad enough Napoleon had seen him throw up. He didn't want Napoleon looking at some disgusting white patches in his throat. Napoleon laughed a little.
"I'll take your word for it. Is that why his fever's so high?"
"Yes. I am going to give him a shot of penicillin and leave some in pill form as well. Take them for ten days twice a day," he lectured Illya. "Don't leave any over—finish the bottle even when you feel better. Understand?"
"Yes." He felt resentful again. He was a scientist, he knew how to take medicine. "But I don't need a shot."
"Now who's the doctor, young man, you or me?"
Stupid question. Illya rolled his eyes and didn't answer.
"I'm also leaving you some cough syrup with codeine. It will give your throat a rest, allow you to get some sleep and take care of all those assorted aches and pains. I'll leave enough for three days," he said to Napoleon, who nodded. "No alcohol with it, and no driving."
Illya regarded the doctor approvingly. Now that was more like it. He'd stop coughing, and stop hurting, and he could sleep? Here, in this great big comfortable bed? Unless Napoleon didn't want him to stay that long ... "I won't drive," he promised. "I can take the subway home."
"Nonsense," Napoleon said. "You'll stay here until you're well. That's an order, Agent Kuryakin."
"Yes, sir." He was relieved. How good Napoleon was. He had thought himself devoted to Napoleon before all this but now ... he looked at his partner with his heart in his eyes, and didn't understand why Napoleon flushed.
Why did Illya look at him like that? He hadn't really done anything—well, more than he would for anyone else, that was sure, but still ... was Illya so unaccustomed to simple kindness? It hurt him, to think it, but then Illya was complaining about the hypodermic the doctor was filling and Napoleon found himself diverted and amused all over again.
"I don't need that. The pills will be enough. Get it away from me."
"Roll over and pull down your pajama bottoms," the doctor said and Illya nearly choked on his indignation.
"I certainly will not! You can give it in my arm if I need it—which I don't! And stop laughing at me!" This last to Napoleon, who manfully tried to control himself.
"It's the most efficient site," the doctor said, unruffled. "But if you're afraid I'm sure Agent Solo will hold your hand."
"I am not afraid! Fine. But he can't watch."
"I won't." Napoleon turned his back.
"No! Get out! Get out right now!"
"Yes, sir," Napoleon said and Illya snorted. Napoleon went down the hall into the living room and poured out a hefty dose of the cough syrup. The doctor came out, shaking his head.
"All finished?" Napoleon asked.
"Yes—although I'm glad I don't understand Russian. Otherwise I'm fairly certain I'd be insulted. He'll feel better within twenty-four hours but tonight may be rough. Give him aspirin for the fever but it may go up anyway and spike during the evening. Cough syrup no more often than every six hours. Good day, Agent Solo."
"Good day, doctor. And thank you." He saw the doctor to the door and returned to the back bedroom. Illya was lying on his side wearing a ferocious scowl, which vanished at sight of Napoleon. His hair was spread out on the pillow, and it made him look even younger, softer, not so formidable. He held out his hand for the medicine and drank it down.
"Mmm." He licked his lips. "That's good, Napoleon." Napoleon had put a drop to his own tongue and thought it was dreadful, heavily flavored with artificial cherries, but Illya had a child's fondness for sweets, he had noticed it before. And within twenty minutes he was yawning and blinking and had completely stopped coughing. Napoleon tucked him up more securely under the covers and watched with satisfaction as his eyes closed. He offered Napoleon a tired smile, and was asleep.
The fever did indeed spike that night. Even with the narcotic Illya tossed and turned, moaning and talking to himself in Russian. Napoleon sat with him, wiping his face with the washcloth, patiently replacing the covers he threw off, turning the pillows to give a cool surface to his flushed face. Once he awoke with a sharp cry and clutched at Napoleon's arm. "Help—help me!"
"I'm right here." Napoleon patted the fingers gripping him. "It's all right, Illya—I'm right here."
"Don't let him in." Illya's eyes were fever bright, his lips dry and cracked. Napoleon moistened them with the cloth. "Don't let him in, Napoleon, please."
"I won't. I won't let him in, I promise."
"If he tries to get in, shoot him. That would be the best thing. Just shoot him. Then he can't hurt me anymore."
"I won't let anyone hurt you, Illya. You're safe here, with me."
"But if he tries ..."
"If he tries to get in I'll shoot him," Napoleon agreed.
"I hurt everywhere."
"I'm sorry." Napoleon stroked his forehead. It was too soon for more medicine so he just kept up the gentle motion and after a little while Illya quieted again. He lay still, watching Napoleon with heavy eyes and, after the next dose of cough syrup fell deeply asleep. He slept for over five hours and awoke soaked with perspiration and feeling much cooler to the touch. Napoleon took his temperature and exhaled with relief. "Good. Let's get you out of these wet things." He removed Illya's pajamas, dark and heavy now with sweat and it was a measure of Illya's weakness that he made no protest. Napoleon covered him again with the comforter and went to fill a basin with lukewarm water. He sponged Illya all over and again Illya allowed the handling without complaint, only saying "You don't have to do that," when the bath became intimate.
"I don't mind," Napoleon said and Illya nodded, put an arm over his eyes. When he was clean and dry Napoleon helped him into fresh pajamas, supported him out to the sofa, put a cup of chicken broth in his hands and went back in to change the damp sheets. The only other comforter was on his own bed so he got that one, tossed the pillows aside to be cleaned and brought new ones in. When he returned to the living room Illya was sipping the broth and watching the flames in Napoleon's gas fireplace. Napoleon felt his hair—also damp with sweat and needing a wash but now was not the time. He sprinkled talcum powder on it to absorb the moisture and painstakingly combed out the tangles. "Why do you keep it so long?" he asked idly, and Illya's reaction was immediate. He dropped the mug which was fortunately almost empty and clapped both hands to his hair as if Napoleon were about to yank it out by the roots.
"Because it's mine!" His voice was fierce. "It's mine, it's all I have, it's the only thing he never took away from me, it's the only thing I brought with me when I left it's the only beautiful thing I've ever owned it's mine!" Napoleon held the comb and stared at him in surprise.
"All right. I was just asking."
"I'm sorry." Illya dropped his hands, then put them over his face. "I'm sorry."
"It's okay." He began combing it again, working carefully through the knots. Illya bit his lip. He folded both hands in his lap, not meeting Napoleon's eyes. "It's mostly the cough medicine," Napoleon said, in answer to the unspoken thought. "Don't let it worry you." Illya's hair was smooth now, and Napoleon patted his shoulder. "Better?"
"Yes. Thank you."
"Sure. Illya—may I ask you something?"
"If it's too personal just say so. Don't bite my head off." He smiled at Illya, who smiled back at him.
"I know your history—I know you lived with your maternal uncle until you were seven, and then you went into a Soviet orphanage. From there you managed to earn a scholarship to Cambridge."
"Was it your uncle you didn't want me to let in before?"
Illya flushed. "Yes."
"He was cruel to you?"
"Is that why you ended up in the orphanage?"
"You can get it from my records. Level Two. I don't mind."
"I'd rather hear it from you." He watched Illya's face, saw him waver, then yield. When he spoke again his voice was even. He had clearly said all this before, many times.
"He always hurt me. When I was almost seven he raped me. He was drunk—he did it four times over one weekend. But it hurt me—inside. I was bleeding. He took me to the hospital. He warned me not to tell. But the doctors said if he did he'd be arrested. He'd be put away and I'd be taken care of. I believed them. So I told on him. But he wasn't arrested. Nothing bad happened to him at all and I was sent to that place. It was good to get away from him, don't get me wrong, but it was always cold there and I never had enough to eat and I had to fight the other boys for everything—food—everything and I was never ever alone. So I was the one punished, not him. Because he was rich, and powerful and I was nothing. And while I was freezing and starving and learning to fight because they were beating up all the time he was living in his big warm house with all his nice things and plenty to eat and that's why I save my money because I won't be nothing again, I won't ..." he stopped, then. "I'm sorry. Blame the medicine again, Napoleon."
"All right. And don't be sorry. You can trust me." Illya turned, then, and their eyes met. Illya's were wide, and questioning.
"You're not supposed to say that."
"We're not supposed to trust anyone. They told me."
"I know. They told me, too. But I trust you, Illya." He did. Implicitly.
"And I trust you."
"We're a couple of outlaws then, I suppose." Illya's laugh was shaky, but real.
"I'll be an outlaw with you."
"Deal." Napoleon held out his hand, and Illya shook it. Then Napoleon smiled at him. "I've never had a best friend," he said softly. "I like it."
"Oh." Illya bent his head so his hair fell forward, concealing his face and Napoleon, watching him, had a sharp image of a little boy hiding behind the hair which was all he had. He reached out, brushed it back.
"I understand now that you think having money in the bank is a form of protection," he said. "I'll tell you what. You take enough out to make your life more comfortable, and I'll show you places to put your money that will give a far better return than any savings account." He'd get his own business manager to handle Illya's funds. "All right?"
"You said we'd go shopping together."
"And we will. This weekend, I promise."
"I'll like that." Illya yawned. His eyes were drooping and he rubbed them with both fists, yawned again. Napoleon smiled, walked with him into the bedroom and this time Illya fell sound asleep and didn't wake up until morning.
Three days later they said good-bye at Napoleon's door. The taxi Napoleon had called was waiting outside and the doorman had already gone down with two loads. Napoleon had insisted on giving Illya the goosedown comforter and pillows, freshly cleaned, and the Egyptian cotton sheets that matched them. "I've had a grocery store deliver to your address," he said firmly. "Your cupboards, refrigerator and freezer are fully stocked. I may not see you at work tomorrow but I'll pick you up Saturday morning and we'll get whatever else you need. Yes?"
"Yes," Illya said. He had learned a lot about his partner over the past three days and one of those things was that Napoleon possessed an enormous store of caring for him that he wanted—needed to express. Somehow, he himself filled a void in Napoleon's life. "Napoleon?"
"Don't you dare thank me again," Napoleon threatened. "I told you ..."
"I know, I'd do the same for you." Illya smiled at him. "And I would. Because—because I never had a best friend either." He had rehearsed the words, wanting to say them, wanting to give that back to Napoleon and the way Napoleon's face softened now warmed him all over.
"Take care of yourself, Illya. Call me if you start feeling sick again."
"I will. But I think I'm better now."
"Keep taking those antibiotics."
"I dodged an assignment for us this upcoming week. I want you to have plenty of time to recover. But another one is sure to follow, so be prepared to leave in about ten days."
Napoleon cleared his throat. "Illya—money in the bank or no, life of luxury or no, you are not—you have never been—nothing. He should have been punished for what he did to you. That he wasn't reflects on the other adults involved. Not on you. You" he put both hands on Illya's slim shoulders, and Illya met his eyes squarely. "You are—remarkable. And I count it a privilege that you are my friend."
"Me too, Napoleon. You're the best man I've ever known. Your friendship honors me." For one long moment their eyes held, then Napoleon clapped him on the back and Illya picked up the little overnight bag Napoleon had given him, containing his medicine, some homemade soup Napoleon had insisted on putting up for him, and a pair of Napoleon's pajamas, slippers, and a robe. "Thank you," he said, indicating the bag.
"You're welcome. But remember—you'd do the same ..."
"For you." They shared a smile and Illya left, marveling at how well he felt, at how wonderful it was just to be well and resolved that if the day ever did come that Napoleon needed him, he would be there.
It was nearly four years later that he had his opportunity. He and Napoleon had been finishing up what had started out as a routine courier mission and had ended in a blaze of treachery, flight and gunfire. Napoleon had been hit—high in his left thigh. It had slammed him into the ground and Illya had swerved back, assessed the situation and, still under fire, had grabbed Napoleon up into a firefighter's carry, over his shoulders, using one hand to apply pressure to the wound which was pouring blood—like a faucet, he had thought distractedly as he tried to run and hold on to Napoleon and stop the bleeding all at the same time, it's just like someone turned on a faucet. He could hear Napoleon gasping in his ear, and knew his partner was in agony, but there was nothing he could do about that right now. He ran, and after a while the sound of pursuit faded into the distance so he stopped, called for help on his radio and used his own jacket to make a pressure bandage, tying it snugly in place with his socks. Napoleon's face was ghastly but he was conscious, he looked up at Illya and said "Where are they?"
"Back there." Illya felt Napoleon's leg to be sure he wasn't cutting off the circulation.
"They won't stay back there for long. I can travel."
"All right." Illya pulled Napoleon to his feet but at the first step the wounded leg collapsed and Napoleon went down, pulling Illya with him. Illya scrambled around, resettled the bandage and managed to drape Napoleon across his shoulders again. He couldn't move very fast but he was—they were—moving.
"Leave me," Napoleon said. Illya didn't waste breath answering him, just jogged on. "Good thing you're not a smoker," Napoleon said then, and Illya snorted.
"Don't make me laugh, Napoleon, I'll drop you."
"No you won't."
"No I won't," Illya agreed. He felt the subtle change that indicated loss of consciousness. Napoleon was heavier, suddenly, and sliding—Illya stopped long enough to change his grip and then he heard the helicopter above him. He waited and when the sling came down he got Napoleon into it, strapped him securely to the bucket seat and waved his arm, watched the sling rise, carrying his unconscious partner to safety. After a few minutes the sling returned, empty and Illya climbed in, wincing at the bloodstains there. He was pulled up and crouched beside Napoleon, finding a blanket for him, elevating his legs, doing everything he knew to increase his odds of survival. It was an enormous relief when they landed at UNCLE headquarters and Napoleon was put on a stretcher and brought in to the hospital.
He was visiting Napoleon on his fifth day when the doctor arrived. Illya rose to leave but the doctor shook his head. "I'm only here to discuss his discharge," he said and Illya sank back into the seat.
"When can I get out of here?" Napoleon was restless, he said he felt fine except for the bandaged leg and he'd been pestering the staff for two days to let him go.
"The problem, Agent Solo, is that you are not yet ambulatory. I can release you from the hospital, but you would need to go into a rehabilitation center for nursing care."
"The hell I will. As soon as you release me I'm going home."
"Not alone. We can arrange for a visiting nurse to change your dressing and monitor your vital signs, but that would only be for an hour or so per day. You can't stay alone until you are up and about on crutches."
"I can walk on crutches now."
"Even if you could it would be counterproductive. You are not yet finished healing."
Napoleon glowered at the doctor and Illya cleared his throat.
"I can help," he ventured and both men turned to stare at him. He smiled at Napoleon. "I owe you. Remember?"
"Illya—I can't possibly impose on you."
"Did you think it was an imposition, then, when you took care of me? When I was sick?"
"Of course not. But ..."
"You said I would do it for you. And you were right. Would that be acceptable, if I were there?" He was addressing the doctor now, who shrugged.
"That would be fine. But it's up to you, Agent Solo."
Illya didn't say anything else. He wouldn't beg. And maybe Napoleon wanted one of his girlfriends to take care of him. Probably he did. Of course he would. Illya flushed. He was making a fool of himself by offering. "But if you'd rather have Jerri, or Honey, or Angela —"
"No I would not. And how come you can reel off their names like that?"
Illya blinked at him. "Well—you tell me ..."
"Never mind. Do you really think you can put up with me? I'm not the best patient in the world."
"I wasn't a good patient either"
"You were obstructive and inclined to sulk. I'm impossible."
"I did not sulk!"
Napoleon raised his eyebrows. "Pout?"
"You were petulant."
"No I was not!" He looked at the doctor. "I really wasn't."
"I need to file my report. Are you accepting Agent Kuryakin's offer, or are you calling one of your numerous lady friends, or are you checking into the rehab center?"
"I am accepting Agent Kuryakin's very kind offer. Thank you, Illya. But don't say I didn't warn you."
Illya flushed again, with pleasure this time. "You're welcome. And I'm sure you'll be fine." He was. He had never seen Napoleon anything other than courteous and considerate. He wasn't the least bit worried.
I should have listened, Illya thought, blowing his bangs off his forehead in exasperation. I still would have offered, but I'd have been prepared. Because Napoleon was absolutely right. He was bad tempered and snappish, taking Illya's head off at the slightest provocation. He growled at the meals Illya prepared, knocked his hands away when he tried to inspect the wound—"I have a damn nurse for that, Illya! Leave it alone!"—shoved his medicine away with enough force to spill it, and threw his mail across the room. Illya watched him, open mouthed, and his visible incredulity only increased Napoleon's wrath. "I told you," he snapped, while Illya tried to get coffee stains out of his carpet. "I told you I was impossible."
"And so proud of it," Illya said, astonished. "That's what ..."
"Shut up. And stop cleaning. That's what the maid service is for. Bring me some more coffee and no damn sugar this time or you'll be wearing it."
"There was no sugar last time."
"Yes there was! I tasted it! Just because you like everything sticky sweet doesn't mean I do! I happen to be an adult!"
"You are?" Illya set aside the rag he'd been using to scrub the carpet and rose. "I'm glad you told me. It's hard to tell right now." Napoleon threw his newspaper at him.
"Don't complain to me! I told you! You didn't have to move yourself in here! There are plenty of people—women—who would be glad to take care of me. And then at least I'd get some tender loving care with my coffee!"
Three days of this and Illya had been more amused than anything else, but this last jibe stung. He'd been as gentle as he could, remembering Napoleon's own care of him, but Napoleon probably would have preferred Jerri, or Honey, or ... he bit his lip. "I'll call one of them for you," he offered.
"No! I don't want them, damnit. And I said to bring me some more coffee!"
"Shut up and I'll get it!" Illya shot back and then, because it felt so good to say it out loud he said it again. "Shut up, shut up, shut up!" He was nearly shouting by the third repetition and Napoleon's own mouth fell open.
"What did you say to me?"
"I said shut up! I'm tired of listening to you!"
"You were ..."
"Sulky! I know! At least that's quiet! Sit and sulk for a while then while I get ..." he couldn't help it. He began to laugh. And when Napoleon folded his arms, did his best imitation of a pout he laughed harder. Then Napoleon laughed. He threw his head back and roared, and Illya laughed with him and after a moment his legs gave way and he collapsed onto the sofa beside Napoleon and they both laughed. They laughed and laughed and every time they showed signs of stopping Illya would say, weakly, "Shut up" or Napoleon would stick his lower lip out and they would be off again. Illya was leaning against Napoleon, holding his sides because they hurt and Napoleon put an arm around him. Illya put his face in Napoleon's shoulder and laughed some more, feeling Napoleon shaking with mirth beside him. Finally they lay exhausted. Illya turned his head and his rubber band broke, spilling his hair onto his back and they giggled some more at that, both wiping their eyes and then they were quiet, catching their breath. Napoleon sighed.
"Illya. I wouldn't want anyone else here with me and I hope you know that."
"Even without the ... you know?"
"Even without." He turned his head, smiled directly into Illya's eyes. "And I'm sorry I'm so awful. I just hate feeling helpless. It drives me berserk." Illya, relieved, smiled back.
"It's all right. I haven't minded—I know you don't really mean it. But when you said you'd rather your women were here ..."
"I never said that." He was very earnest now. "Illya—I know full well I never said that. I only said they'd be willing."
"You said at least you'd get some tender loving care."
"You've given me that. Don't think I don't recognize it." He smiled again. "No one could give me what you do." He stroked Illya's hair off his face. "How soft your skin is," he said, and his voice held wonder. And what a lovely mouth you have."
Illya shivered. Napoleon was so close! His face was less than an inch from Illya's own, filled with admiration and—an aching tenderness. Napoleon was still caressing his face, his temple, his cheekbones, running one finger along his jaw to his chin, then up to his lips. Napoleon traced them, then leaned in even closer, his own mouth almost touching, almost ... Illya closed his eyes and then Napoleon groaned.
"We can't do this," he said and Illya nodded because Napoleon was right, they couldn't because—because ...
"Why not?" Their lips were still so close, he could feel Napoleon's warm breath on his mouth and then Napoleon groaned again, drew back. Cupped Illya's face between his hands.
"Because." He kissed Illya's nose because he had to, he had to kiss him. "Because if we do that we'll do more."
"All right." He would do more. He would do anything Napoleon wanted.
"And then we couldn't be partners anymore."
"Oh." Napoleon was right. If they were physically intimate, if they were lovers—and how the word sang in his mind, and how close they were to it right now—but if they were, they couldn't be field partners. That was the rule.
"I know we're a pair of outlaws," Napoleon went on, and he kissed Illya's cheek, lingered. "Sweet," he whispered, "So sweet." He sighed. "But that rule is there for a reason. How could I make love to you one night, and send you into danger the next?" He sighed again a deep, shuddering sound. "How do I do it now?"
"I don't know. How do I watch you go?"
"I don't know either. But this ..." he kissed Illya's temple, "would only make it harder. And I'm not sneaking around with you. We'd have to tell them. They'd reassign us. And I don't want you out there with someone else, someone who won't watch out for you the way I do."
"I don't want to be with someone else either. Or for you to be."
"And I don't think I can work with anyone else. I wouldn't know them. I wouldn't trust them. They wouldn't have my back the way you do. I can count on you absolutely. I've never had that before. I can't give it up."
"Oh." He blushed, overwhelmed with pleasure and Napoleon kissed his cheek again, quickly, as if he couldn't help himself.
"Besides, together we're the best team they ever had. Even Mr. Waverly says so."
"And the job—the job is more important than any personal desires we might have."
Illya nodded. That was true. This time they sighed together.
"So we can't do this."
Napoleon drew back, looked into Illya's face, still between his hands. "We'll have to go on the way we have been. Friends."
"Yes. But when the fieldwork is over, Illya—however many years from now that may be—when it is over, we'll talk again."
Illya opened his eyes, looked into the brown ones so close to his. "If you still want to, Napoleon. If you still want to, we'll talk."
"Of all the hard things I've done for UNCLE," Napoleon said, "this is the hardest." Hunger flared in those brown eyes now, and Illya felt an answering hunger rise in his own body. Napoleon kissed his upper lip, and the hunger swelled. "This is the hardest thing I've ever done." He kissed his lower lip. "I'm going to say this once, and then not again until things are different."
"I love you. Illya Kuryakin—my partner and my best friend—I love you."
"I love you too, Napoleon," Illya said and this time it was he who leaned closer, kissed the dimple in Napoleon's chin. "And when things are different—whenever that may be—I'll be waiting."
"Yes." He gathered Illya in to an embrace, holding him hard, as if wanting to hold him forever—then let him go. Illya got up to make more coffee and they didn't speak of it again. But Napoleon's irritability was gone, and throughout the remainder of his convalescence he treated Illya gently, and throughout the remainder of their years as field partners they fit together like hand in glove, and they waited.
Now years had gone by, and there was no avoiding the fact that things were changing. Missions were fewer, and farther between, and tended to involve renegade individuals rather than the organized power of Thrush. Thrush itself seemed to be moving into a different area—managing puppet governments from behind the scenes, amassing huge piles of money. And UNCLE had changed as well. Funds were harder to come by, and competition for available dollars was fierce. It had been over five months since they had been sent out on assignment, and all around them the older teams were being disbanded, reassigned or retired. Illya spent most of his time in the science labs now. Napoleon worked intensively in Personnel and on committees. The work was still satisfying but in a different way, and both were aware that bigger changes were ahead. They never spoke of it, never spoke of that night long ago, but each watched the other and wondered.
They were talking idly in Napoleon's office that Monday afternoon. Mark Slade and April Dancer, one of the last teams from the old days, had been disbanded the previous Friday. Slade had resigned in disgust, Dancer had taken a transfer to the California branch. "It will be us soon," Napoleon said, and Illya nodded. "Will you miss it?"
"In a way. But not as much as I would have thought even three years ago. I'm so busy—I always have several projects going and when I'm called away suddenly I drop a lot of balls."
"Can't anyone else keep them in the air for you while you're gone?"
"Not really. George does his best, but it's not the same." George Piper was Illya's laboratory assistant. "But I'll miss being your partner."
"We'll still be partners." We'll go on just as we have been, Napoleon had said all those years ago and they had. Napoleon had continued his romantic liaisons—it was a familiar pattern and easy to slip back into but they were meaningless, all meaningless. He had stopped openly pursuing women in front of Illya, except in the line of duty, but pursue them he did. He often wondered what Illya thought of it all. Now, looking into those eyes, which were fixed thoughtfully on his face, he came the closest either had come to putting it into words. "They never meant anything to me, Illya. I hope you know that."
"Yes." Illya frowned. He did know that. But—"That won't continue, will it? I mean when—I mean if" he was crimson but since they were talking about it ... "I couldn't bear it." That was the truth. Napoleon might as well know it now, before anything irrevocable had been said, or done. If Napoleon thought he and Illya could be together while he still chased women on the side—well, that needed to be brought out into the open.
"When," Napoleon said.
"What do you mean, when? When—when things are different."
"No, that's not what I meant. You said when—or if. I was clarifying. There is no if about it. Is there?"
"Not on my side. But if you've changed your mind, that's all right, Napoleon. I told you."
"I know you did. And I haven't changed my mind. And no, I will not continue dating if you don't want me to."
"I don't want you to stop just because of me. Then you'd always be wishing ... that would be worse."
Napoleon rose, stood over Illya, who was still curled up on his sofa, forcing Illya to tip his head back to look at him. For the first time in all those years he reached out, touched Illya's hair. Stroked his face.
Years had done nothing to diminish Illya's beauty—had enhanced it. His eyes were more grave than before and there was less of that painful shyness Napoleon had sensed lay behind his reserve. He had the self confidence of a man who has risen to the top of his chosen field, a man who ran five connected science departments as well as being half of UNCLE's most famous and successful team. The elegant planes of his face were sharper, cleaner somehow, chin more stubborn, mouth harder. But his skin was as soft as ever and the color still flooded it at Napoleon's touch—Napoleon swallowed. "I won't be wishing for anything," he said, and his voice shook a little. "I'll have you. And you'll have me. We'll be complete. All those women—it's always only been a stop gap measure. I won't need them. I will be faithful to you."
"And I to you." And Illya meant far more than monogamy, Napoleon knew. Illya would devote himself to his partner, as Napoleon would, and they would be one. Their eyes met and held, and then Napoleon's computer beeped. He turned it on, raised his eyebrows.
"They want us in an hour," he said, and looked back at Illya.
"So it's our turn."
"I wish—I wish we could have had both. It's sad to think of it ending, even though ... well. Even though."
Napoleon pulled up a chair, sat down facing him. He reached out, took both Illya's hands, held them tightly. "It is not ending. Nothing is ending. Everything is beginning." He looked down at the hands he held, brought them to his face, laid his cheek against one. "It's been wonderful."
"And now it's going to be even better." He turned his head, kissed Illya's wrist, then looked back into his partner's face and Illya's mouth wasn't hard, not at all, it was soft, and tremulous and he wanted to kiss it more than ever, the hunger rising again but he forced himself to release Illya's hand instead. "Let me clear my desk so we can leave as soon as the meeting is over. You go do the same."
"Yes, Napoleon. Are you going to keep ordering me around now?"
"Maybe. A little bit. Is that all right?"
"Yes. If it gets to be too much I'll just tell you ..."
"To shut up," Napoleon finished, and they both laughed. Then Illya rose and went down to his own office, to finish up what he was working on, to tell George about the upcoming meeting and his plan to leave as soon as it was finished and George, who, at fifty-seven had seen it all, and had seen, too, the expression on Illya's face when he looked at Napoleon Solo, patted Illya's shoulder and wished him well. Illya hugged him, suddenly, because George was very dear to him, George was like the father he had never had so he hugged George, and George patted him some more, and then Illya went upstairs.
It was as they had expected. Alexander Waverly was there, despite having stepped down from most of his administrative duties, to personally decommission his most celebrated team. "Well done, gentlemen," he said, and Napoleon sat a little straighter, seeing Illya do the same. "You are officially deactivated from Section Two effective immediately. Agent Solo—you are promoted to Department Head for Sections Three and Seven. Congratulations." Napoleon, who had hoped for something like this, nevertheless swelled with pride.
"Thank you sir."
"Mr. Davenport will fill you in."
"We have an assignment for you," Jake Davenport said. Illya raised his eyebrows.
"Yes. We are conducting an exchange with Thrush's New York branch, in the interests of future cooperation. They are sending us Raymond Elliot. He is the head of their Communications Division. He is going to assist us in our new long range miniaturized surveillance devices. We in turn are sending them you. You will assist them in setting up a vaccination program for possible bioweapons. The details and arrangements will be forwarded to you en route. You ..."
"Hold on a minute," Napoleon interrupted. "You're thinking of sending Illya—alone and unguarded—into the heart of Thrush headquarters? Have you lost your minds? Do you think they can be trusted? Do you think they'd send us this Elliot if he were not completely expendable to them?"
"Agent Solo!" Davenport rapped on the table, and fixed Napoleon with a stern eye. "Agent Elliot is no more expendable to Thrush than Agent Kuryakin is to UNCLE. Is that clear?"
Which meant he was expendable as well. Illya knew it, and saw the same knowledge in Napoleon's eyes. Davenport was going on. "There is no reason to suspect treachery. Agent Kuryakin will be treated as an honored guest throughout his stay just as Mr. Elliot will be here. The return exchange will be made under strict security conditions."
"It's out of the question." Napoleon was furious. "I will not consent ..."
"It is not up to you, Agent Solo. This matter is out of your area."
"As Agent Kuryakin's senior partner it certainly is ..."
"Perhaps Mr. Waverly did not make things clear earlier. You are no longer partners. You have neither authority nor jurisdiction over Agent Kuryakin. And, Agent Solo, you are right on the edge of insubordination."
"It's all right," Illya said, seeing clearly that Napoleon's new promotion was teetering in the balance. "Napoleon—it's all right. I'm sure everything will be fine. They've been worried about bioterrorism for quite some time, and they know we are far ahead of them in the area of vaccines."
"They'll want more from you than you'll be able to give them. What about that?"
"I will give them what I can and that is all." Illya's mouth had set. "You know—I hope you all know that."
"We have utmost confidence in you, Agent Kuryakin," Davenport assured him. "Agent Solo—you are dismissed."
Napoleon opened his mouth to argue some more but Illya shook his head—just a fraction but Napoleon saw it, bit back his protest. Instead he merely nodded, touched his watch, once, as if checking the time, and knew Illya would meet him within the hour after the meeting ended.
He waited in his office. His anger and anxiety were high. He didn't like the sound of this, not one bit, every instinct he had was sending the alarm and he would talk to Illya, find some way to stop it. He waited, and waited some more and after a while the realization struck him. Illya was not coming. Illya had already been sent on this unbelievable giveaway of a mission, and he hadn't been notified because they were no longer partners, they were no longer a team and he, like everyone else, would have no more information given him until this exchange had ended.
It lasted for six weeks. Elliot arrived and was pleasant enough, and he did give them several key computer patterns that boosted their miniaturized surveillance operations tremendously. Barriers that UNCLE's scientists had been unable to work around were breached and before the weeks were over two tiny mechanical flies were flitting about UNCLE's halls, sending back their pictures and sensor readings to the delighted scientists in the labs below. All seemed to be going as planned, but Napoleon worried. He was taut with anxiety, and that he had to conceal it made it worse. He concealed it because he didn't want anything to interfere with his being there when the exchange was completed. His rank entitled him to be there, and the last thing he wanted was someone deciding he was too emotionally involved to be allowed to participate. So he covered his concern with his most affable mask, and was rewarded when the six weeks were over by a routine transmission informing him of the time and place for the meeting.
They all came together at a bridge out on Long Island. It was a concrete structure spanning an abandoned waste treatment facility. Thrush was on the eastern side, UNCLE on the west. Precisely at two o'clock in the afternoon two black Cadillacs pulled up, one at each end. The car that slowly passed by Napoleon's group had tinted windows, and behind them was Raymond Elliot. It was hard to see the other car but it was to all intents and purposes identical, and Illya was supposed to be inside. At a prearranged signal the doors opened and, also as prearranged, Elliot got out first. Without hesitation he strode past UNCLE's operatives and started across the bridge. Napoleon's fists were clenched as he saw the door open on the far side. He didn't know what he feared—an impostor? A dead body, tossed carelessly onto the roadway? But it was Illya, he could tell that from here, and he was alive. He too started towards the bridge—but something was wrong. Napoleon saw it first, but from the murmur that rose around him the others weren't far behind. In contrast to Elliot's purposeful motions Illya wavered, seemed uncertain of his direction. The driver of the car got out, put his hands on Illya's shoulders from behind and gave him a hard push towards the bridge. Napoleon took a step forward, and two men closed in beside him.
"Stay right here, Agent Solo," Davenport said. He was standing in front. "If anyone besides the two of them steps onto that bridge the agreement is null and void. You know that."
"The agreement is useless," Napoleon spat. "Look at him!" Illya was moving, but falteringly. He had both hands out in front of him, as though it was hard to see, and seemed in real danger of walking off the side of the roadway to fall fifty feet onto the concrete beneath. One foot actually went out, into the void and he wavered, pulled it back, froze, clearly disoriented. Elliot passed him, gave him a hard nudge towards the edge. Illya dropped to his hands and knees. Napoleon lunged forward, was caught and pinned by the men beside him. "Let me go," he rasped, furious. "Damn it—let me go!"
"We are not jeopardizing the future transfer of information for one operative," Davenport said flatly and Napoleon stopped. Stared at him. "And you would agree if you were not so personally involved."
"What future transfer of information?"
"Several files are set to be downloaded from their computers to ours as soon as Mr. Elliot is across. We need ..." Elliot had walked on and Illya rose, turned so he was actually facing the wrong way, and started moving again. The Thrush agents on the other side came closer, clearly delighted by this new development.
"Illya!" Napoleon's shout carried over all the other sounds. "Turn! One hundred eighty degrees!" Illya obeyed, responding as always to that familiar voice. "That's it! Now walk! Straight on, keep coming, you're doing fine ..." Illya came off the bridge into the crowd of UNCLE agents and was lost to Napoleon's view. He wrenched at the hands holding him but it was useless. The ambulance that had been standing by moved through the crowd slowly, lights flashing, then turned onto the highway and headed for the city. The men released Napoleon who gave each of them a measuring look—he would remember their faces, he would—and had the grim satisfaction of seeing them pale. Then he turned, got into his own car and followed the ambulance.
Illya was lost—had been lost for a long time. He had been so heavily drugged while they tried to get at the information he had refused to give them that all sense of time or place had vanished. He had forgotten that he was ever going to be released, so when he was pushed out of the car he had no idea what was going on. He had started to walk because he wanted to get away, wanted to go home, wanted that desperately, but the world swam and wavered in front of him, sky and bridge and cars and men all merging into one shifting mass and he couldn't tell, couldn't ... he nearly fell off the edge of the earth, someone pushed him, hard, and he clutched the ground, frightened and confused, getting up finally because he couldn't stay there forever. He stumbled forward, more lost than ever and then Napoleon's voice had reached him. He had followed Napoleon's shouted orders without question, wanting Napoleon as he had wanted him through the whole ordeal but then strangers had him, were strapping him down and it was just like the other place, strapped to a bed, needles in his arms and he struggled briefly before the drugs pulled him under again and everything went black.
Napoleon was haunting the hospital lobby. Every moment he wasn't actually working he was there, hoping for some information on Illya's condition. It drove him wild that he wasn't allowed in to see him. He had argued, cajoled, ordered—had tried everything but he was up against a blank wall. Davenport was allowed in—other UNCLE executives came and went and what were they doing? Hounding Illya for information, harassing him in his bed ... what? "He claims he told them nothing," Davenport had reported at the only meeting he had granted and nothing Napoleon could say would convince him that if Illya said he had told them nothing then that was the truth.
"I'd stake my life on Illya's word," he said urgently. "In fact I have."
"He has been very heavily drugged. He may not know himself what he has told them."
"Then he would say so. That's just what he would say. He'd admit that he wasn't sure, that he may have leaked something. If he says he didn't you can take that to the bank."
"I understand that you truly believe that," Davenport said soothingly. "And it may in fact be the case. But we must be sure."
"Let me see him. Just for a few minutes."
"No. You can see him when he gets out."
"When will that be?"
"When the doctors are ready to release him."
"What's wrong with him?"
"You are not cleared for that information."
"Why can't I see him? I won't discuss work at all, if you prefer. I just want to be sure he's all right and ... and let him know I'm here. He must ..." he stopped, swallowed. "He must need me right now."
"He has not asked to see you. Agent Solo, you seem to be under the erroneous impression that Agent Kuryakin is being mistreated in some way. I assure you the reverse is true. He is receiving the best of care."
"Is he being interrogated?" He knew how that went—question after question, endless repetition, looking for some contradiction and then pouncing on it and Illya, weary, sick—"What did they do to him?"
"He was drugged. He was not, so far as we can tell, tortured."
Easy for them to say. For Illya, to be drugged so he couldn't think straight, to be confined, was torture in itself. "I have a right to see him."
"No you do not. You are not a relative, you are not a" he cleared his throat "significant other, you are not even his primary contact. Now that your fieldwork has ended, the two of you are nothing to one another."
Nothing to one another. Napoleon had no answer to such an enormous misstatement. He tried another tack. "If he did ask for me, would that make a difference?"
"Damn you." The image of Illya calling for him and being denied ... he clenched his fists. "Damn you," he repeated and Davenport sighed, clearly baffled by his top agent's behavior.
"Agent Solo—I am trying to be patient. But this meeting is at an end. Agent Kuryakin will be released from the hospital within the next few days. He will then be debriefed by myself and a few other members of the Board. After that you may see as much of him as you please. Dismissed."
So he hung around the hospital. Nurses and receptionists and clerks were uniformly sympathetic but it was as much as their jobs were worth to tell him anything, much less let him in. George Piper was there, too—frustrated, like Napoleon, by the lack of information. "This will never happen again," Napoleon promised him one night as they paced and talked. "Illya and I—when this is over they'll never keep me out again. And I know what you mean to Illya."
"And he to me, Solo. It's hardly one sided."
"Thanks." George had always liked Napoleon, and Napoleon him and now, united in their grief and concern, in the long nights, the endless hours, they sealed their friendship. But they had to work, too, and Davenport waited until both of them were at their jobs before allowing Illya's release.
Illya sat on the edge of his bed and tied his shoes. They said he was well, that he could leave. And he wanted to leave, so he let them write all about his recovery in his chart and didn't correct them. The truth was he felt far from well. He still wasn't sure what had happened, that he was here, in UNCLE's secure ward; he wasn't even sure where that ward was—New York? It could be anywhere for all he knew. He felt weak from the rigorous confinement—he had spent exactly three and a half weeks doing what he had expected to do at Thrush headquarters and then they had wanted more from him. He had refused, and in under an hour had found himself flat on his back in a hospital bed—just like this one, strapped down with various drugs being pumped through his system—just like here, and people asking him all kinds of questions—just like here. They did let him sleep here, which was one way he could tell he had been rescued, and the food was better. And his head was clearer, but he was tired and confused and bewildered by the array of people who had been coming and going in his room, bewildered by their refusal to accept his word that he had not revealed any information. "I didn't tell them anything," he kept saying, and they didn't believe him.
"You may have let something slip without realizing it," one man whom he felt he should recognize insisted, and he shook his head. He had said nothing. He knew the dangers inherent in conversation. He had closed his mouth and refused to open it to so much as ask the time of day. He had followed the procedures he had been taught, had turned the effects of the drug inward, onto the very information they wanted, allowing it to be washed away until he was truly incapable of telling them anything. He tried to explain all that, but the suspicion was still in their eyes and it hurt him, to see it. So he avoided their stares and that made them suspect him more.
And where was Napoleon? Illya wanted him, was afraid to ask, was afraid of being told that Napoleon too believed him to be a traitor, that Napoleon didn't like him anymore, didn't respect him anymore because why else wouldn't Napoleon be there? He always had been before, parked beside Illya's bed as Illya always was for him but this time—nothing. He had thought he heard Napoleon's voice, back there in the confusing haze of voices and vehicles, road and sky, but he must have been mistaken, must have wanted to hear it so desperately that he had manufactured it because Napoleon was nowhere to be found. And neither was George. He was alone, despite the constant company.
"Come with us, Agent Kuryakin," the same man who had asked most of the questions said and he nodded, followed them out the door, through a maze of corridors, up in an elevator, through more halls, down in another elevator, through a series of rooms, more halls and finally into a larger room with a table at which many men sat. He was offered a seat as well, and the same questions were fired at him. He answered as best he could and often hadn't even finished one reply before another question was shot at him from a different direction. He remained patient, answering them, stopping when he was interrupted and waiting for the new query to be finished before responding to that, stopping again at the next interruption, taking no offense at their tone, only wanting it to be over. After a while they stopped and gave him some water to drink, and he was grateful. Then the questioning continued but it was slower, more courteous and he sensed that they believed him now, that what he was telling them fit with what they were reading on their computer screens, and then everyone got up and a lot of people shook his hand and then he was alone with the first man, who also shook his hand, walked him to the door. "Go on home, Agent Kuryakin," the man said, and patted his shoulder. "Well done. You have made us proud. Go home and rest—take all the time you need, and return to work when you feel able. Just check in with Medical first so they can be sure you're fit."
"Yes," he said, to all of it and then the door closed and he was, for the first time in an unknown time, alone. Home. The man had said he could go home. Well, good. His apartment—barren no longer, but comfortable and welcoming—he wanted to go there, to close and lock the door, to get out of his work clothes and into pajamas—not the hospital gown which never made him feel fully clothed but the comfortable linen pajamas Napoleon had given him. His eyes blurred at thought of Napoleon, who had evidently abandoned him to his fate, and he began walking. He walked through the hall and after a while realized he had no idea where he was, or how to get out. Every turn he made led to another dizzying stretch of corridor lined with doors, some open, some closed, but nothing to orient himself from. He walked and walked, found an elevator and got on but the numbers on the control panel made no sense to him. He pressed one at random but when he got out it was onto another maze of halls and after the first few turns he couldn't even find his way back to the elevator. He walked some more, legs trembling with fatigue now. People passed him, coming and going, laughing and talking, and some greeted him with surprise and pleasure but all continued on their way and he couldn't make himself stop anyone and ask—what? He should know his way, clearly, but he didn't. And he didn't know what to do. He was tired, so very tired. His head ached, and he was lost again. Vision blurred with exhaustion he walked right into the man he should know.
"Agent Kuryakin! I thought you were going home." Davenport looked him over sharply. Kuryakin was paper white, and clearly struggling to control himself. "Is something the matter?"
"I'm lost," he said because he had grown accustomed to giving this man the truth. "I'm sorry—I know I shouldn't be—but I'm very lost." He looked up at the man and forced an apologetic smile. "If you could show me —" what? The elevator? Another door? Another hall? His lips trembled and he lost the smile. "I want to go home."
"Come in and sit down," Davenport said gently. He opened the door to his own office and waited until Kuryakin, with an audible sigh of relief had taken a seat, before paging Napoleon Solo. "Wait a minute." He met Solo outside his door. "Agent Kuryakin is in my office," he said and watched Solo light up. "He is disoriented and confused—we released him over four hours ago and evidently he's been wandering the building, unable to find his way out. He blundered into me right about here, so I sat him down and called you. Since you've been waiting so very patiently," he finished, voice dry but Solo only brushed past him.
"Illya," Davenport heard him say and then Kuryakin came out of the chair and was in Solo's arms and Davenport backed out and let the door close behind him.
"Illya." Napoleon held his partner close, heart breaking at the image of him lost in UNCLE's familiar corridors, at the feel of him now, so much thinner, sagging against him.
"Napoleon. Napoleon. I wanted you so much."
"Did you—did you think I talked to them? Is that why you didn't like me anymore?"
"Illya—my heart—I could care less whether you talked to them or not. I ..."
"But I didn't!" That Illya could be indignant even now lifted Napoleon's spirits. "I really didn't, Napoleon, I promise you."
"I know. I believe you."
"Then why ..."
"They wouldn't let me in," Napoleon said and his own voice broke. "Illya—I tried so hard—I tried everything I knew. But they wouldn't let me in. They said—they said we were nothing to one another." He couldn't continue, laid his cheek against Illya's hair. "I am so sorry."
"That's all right. It's not your fault if they wouldn't let you. But you wanted to?"
"I've been going out of my mind, wanting to."
"Oh. Good." It was an enormous relief. "Are we in New York?"
"Yes. You're home, in New York."
"I feel stupid, then, that I couldn't find my way."
"You're tired, that's all."
"Yes I am." He sighed. "I'm very tired. Will you take me home now?"
"Yes. I absolutely will. Right away. Do you—do you want to go to your own place? Or home with me?"
He had a choice? "Home with you, Napoleon. If you want me there."
"I want you there." He kissed the top of Illya's head. "I've wanted you there for my entire life."
"They wouldn't let me meet you that day. They sent me right out the back door."
"But that was my last field assignment, Napoleon. They told me."
"Good." He could feel Illya's weariness in his own bones. "Hold on a minute." He put Illya back in the chair, and put his head out into the hall. As he'd expected, Davenport was waiting. "Sir. I think a wheelchair would be appreciated."
"Certainly, Agent Solo." He got on his radio, ordered one.
"I'll be taking personal leave."
"Somehow I'm not surprised."
"For the record, Mr. Davenport, Illya and I are not nothing to one another. We are everything." Their eyes met, then a medical orderly came down the hall, pushing an empty wheelchair and Napoleon took it from him, backed it into the office and helped Illya into it. He used Davenport's phone to order a cab, then wheeled Illya out. Davenport walked with them.
"I feel silly, Napoleon." Illya flushed at the surprise in the faces of the people passing by. "There's nothing wrong with me."
"How recent a development is this?" Davenport asked abruptly as they reached the elevator. He held the door open button for them.
"Years old," Napoleon said, and pushed the chair onto the elevator, touched the pad for the lobby. "But we haven't violated procedure, Mr. Davenport. We've waited. But we're not waiting anymore."
"I see. I suggest you adjust your records accordingly, then. To avoid future difficulties."
"If you like, I will see to it."
"Thank you sir." Napoleon smiled at him. The doors opened, and Davenport remained on the elevator while they came out into the lobby. Through the double sliding doors Napoleon could see the taxi waiting. "Here we go, Illya. Into the rest of our lives."
"The rest of our lives," Illya echoed, and the wheelchair brought him to the taxi, the taxi brought them to the apartment building, and Napoleon brought him home.
Home. Inside, with the door shut and locked, they went into one another's arms again, without words. There was no need for words. The years between that last embrace and this one had only drawn them closer. Illya laid his head on Napoleon's shoulder and knew the lonely struggle was over. And Napoleon, moving just enough to tuck Illya's head more securely into the crook of his neck, knew the same. "Did they hurt you?" he asked finally, not even sure which 'they' he meant. Illya shook his head.
"No. Not the way you mean. But I was lost and alone and scared. And I wanted you."
"But they didn't hurt me." He sighed. "They wouldn't let me sleep, though. And they never left me alone for a minute."
"Sweetheart." He led Illya over to the sofa, and together they sank onto the cushions. Illya pressed closer, and Napoleon rocked him a little.
"Were you there—for the exchange?"
"Yes. But they wouldn't let me near you."
"I thought I heard your voice?"
"And in the hospital—here, in New York? Was that very bad?"
"Not really. They asked me the same questions over and over—but when the doctor would tell them to let me sleep they did. But I was still lost and alone. And I still wanted you."
"It was like beating my head on a brick wall. They just kept telling me I wasn't a relative, I wasn't your primary contact—I was nobody."
"We kept our secret well then, over all those years."
"Yes. But the cat's out of the bag now."
"I know. I heard you tell Mr. Davenport."
"I'm not sure what to do now, about work. Part of me thinks that any organization capable of using you so callously isn't anyplace I want to be. And yet ..."
"They're right about us, I suppose."
"How do you mean?"
"We're too emotionally involved with one another. If you saw that plan, laid out on paper, and you didn't know me, you'd agree that it was worth it."
"But I do know you. And nothing is worth what you went through."
"Thank you. It's nice that someone feels that way. And I can't really judge right now because I haven't seen the data Elliot gave us. Did those miniaturized devices work?"
"They're the size of a horsefly and they buzz all around and send back pictures and sensor readings, if that's what you mean."
"Yes. That's invaluable, Napoleon. It will save lives, in the long run. As for them, they got the formulas for the vaccines we promised, but then they wanted to know the details of our program and I couldn't give them that."
"I did what they taught me, but I certainly hope no one needs me to come up with more vaccines because I have no idea, now, how I did it. It's all gone."
"It can be brought back. You know that."
"So they tell me." He sighed. "Oh, Napoleon. I was so glad to see you walk into Mr. Davenport's office —" he stopped. "That's where I was. Of course. How could I have gotten so lost in UNCLE headquarters?"
"You were tired and confused and someone should have seen you home."
"I tried hard not to let them know how I felt."
"Obviously you succeeded."
"And now what?" He turned his head so he was looking into Napoleon's eyes, and had to smile. How dear Napoleon was to him. That handsome face, now furrowed with concern and sympathy, those dark brown eyes, filled, as ever, with warmth, and ... and love—the firm mouth—would Napoleon kiss him again soon? Maybe Napoleon thought he was too tired and he was, he was tired but the low , almost subliminal ache he'd repressed all these years was still there and growing stronger, now, with the contact of their bodies. How would it feel, when Napoleon touched him, caressed him, stretched out full length on top ... he blushed, thinking of it and Napoleon, watching him, was delighted.
"Are you sure?"
"Illya—I've been sure for years."
"And all those women ..."
"Over. Over and done with. It's been over since you left. I didn't have the heart for it anymore."
"Really? That's a long time for you."
"I know. I've been saving it for you."
"Well. Thank you."
"You are quite welcome." He smiled again. "Are you sure you're up to this?" Their faces were so close together, Illya could feel his breath with each word.
"Is it that strenuous?"
"Not necessarily." He kissed Illya's upper lip, as he had before; soft, and sweet—he drew it into his mouth like a ripe cherry.
"You like that?" He kissed Illya's lower lip, nibbled.
"Yes. I like you, Napoleon. I love you—and I like you."
"I like you too, Illya. I like you enormously."
"Do you love me? Still? I remember you saying it ..."
"I love you. I am hopelessly, helplessly, passionately in love with you."
"How fortunate we are."
"Yes." He drew back a little, and Illya watched him. "We are extraordinarily fortunate—that we found one another, that we stayed together, that nothing happened over the years to separate us."
"But we deserve it, too. We sacrificed our own desires, and waited—we carried out our duties and responsibilities—and now we reap our reward."
"Right now—and forever." He kissed Illya's mouth then, his whole mouth and he had been right, all those years ago because once their lips met there was no going back, no possibility of stopping; the voice of reason drowned out by desire, a roaring torrent of desire. He controlled it, grateful for the years of experience that enabled him to do so because Illya—Illya was clearly overwhelmed by what he was feeling, clinging to Napoleon, both arms around his neck, unable to reciprocate, able only to hold on and trembling but not in fear, no, Illya wasn't afraid of him. Illya's lips were honey sweet, and that lovely body arched into his own as if it was made to fit there, as if they were made to be together, and they were. Napoleon kissed him some more, then released him and rose, taking Illya's hands, and pulling him to his feet. He undressed Illya carefully, seeing, with a piercing sorrow the black and purple marks in both arms, bruises spreading out from the needle sites, skin raw from the tape that had held those needles in, He wanted to kiss the places, but he knew better so he didn't, just held Illya's arms and looked, then kissed his mouth again. Pulling out Illya's hair band he let it all tumble free, over his hands, over Illya's bare shoulders, then he stepped back. He looked Illya over, throat constricting at the sight. "You are so very beautiful," he said, softly, and Illya flushed up.
"Thank you. So are you."
"Yes." Illya reached out and undressed Napoleon in his turn, those cool fingers on his overheated flesh making him tremble, too and none of his experience had prepared him for this, for passion combined with tenderness. Then, quite unexpectedly, Illya went down on his knees, pressed his cheek against Napoleon's erection, rubbing his face against it. Napoleon shuddered, and hastily helped Illya up because he didn't think he could wait anymore. Leaning on one another, arms around one another, they walked in to the bedroom. Illya lay down and waited while Napoleon closed blinds, adjusted the thermostat, then he came into bed too. Illya turned into his embrace. Napoleon looked into his eyes, and smiled.
"Let me show you," he said, and his hands began moving, stroking Illya, caressing him, plotting out his arousal as efficiently as he'd ever plotted their assignments, knowing just what he wanted Illya to feel, bringing him along slowly, easily, demanding nothing, offering everything. Illya stretched under his hands, moved against them, moaning, whispering, finally crying Napoleon's name as Napoleon rolled on top of him, fitting their bodies together. The fit was perfect, oh, it was more than perfect, it was exquisite and ecstasy was a flood that took both of them away, together, clinging to one another, mouths together, tongues twined in a dance of their own, arms and legs wrapped each round the other's body, ecstasy peaking and then they were one, body and spirit they were one.
We are indeed, Napoleon reflected as they eased back down, bodies still pressed together, everything to one another, and the love each had promised the other all those years ago would carry them throughout the remainder of their lives.