It was late afternoon when they left the office, and the sun was already low enough in the sky that it was hidden by the buildings. Illya didn’t care. He looked up to the sky and basked in the warm and natural light. It had been more than a week now since he had been outside, since he had seen any scenery other than gray metal walls and hospital equipment. For the moment he didn’t even care that he was confined to a wheelchair, reliant on his partner to help him with the simple task of getting from the chair to the passenger seat of the car. All that mattered was that he was out of medical.
“Your chariot awaits,” Napoleon said as he opened the passenger door. He pushed the wheelchair as close to the curb as he could and helped Illya move from one seat to the other without putting any weight on his feet. Illya used the lever at the side of the chair to lean back as far as he could. During the entire of the drive to Napoleon’s apartment he stared up at the sky.
“I believe we’ll take the elevator,” Napoleon commented as he pushed the wheelchair through the lobby of the apartment.
“You’re not at all amusing.” Illya usually insisted on taking the stairs, eschewing the elevator as a sign of laziness. Napoleon, who he knew took the stairs as a matter of course when he was alone, made a point of arguing for the elevator when they were together.
“I am both amusing and entertaining. You’re simply a poor audience.”
Illya was relieved when the elevator doors opened to Napoleon’s floor. Being trapped in a box suspended by a cable was not his favorite place to be, even taking the security of the UNCLE apartment building into account. He felt even more relaxed once Napoleon had locked the door of his apartment behind them and set the security system. There were few places in the world he could let down his guard completely and this was one of them. Even in his current physical state he felt safe here.
“You won’t be surprised to learn that the cupboards are bare.” Napoleon swept his hand in the direction of the kitchen. Illya knew that in the past three weeks his friend had been in New York only two nights, and one of those nights he had slept in the chair in UNCLE’s infirmary. “If you’re hungry I can order us up something. Chinese perhaps or maybe Italian? I don’t care as long as it’s not Turkish food.”
“No thank you. I think I’d rather go to bed.” It was still light outside but he was exhausted. He hated the fact that something as simple as riding in a car from work to home could take so much of his strength.
“Give me two minutes to make up the bed.”
Illya nodded shortly. He didn’t attempt to move his chair at all, simply stared out the window Napoleon had left him facing. There were people walking on the sidewalk sixteen stories down. Some of them hurried, some of them dawdled. Illya was sure that none of them gave a thought to how much freedom the simple act of walking granted them.
“You’re bed is ready. Clean sheets and everything.” Napoleon came out of the guest bedroom, pulling Illya’s attention away from the scene below.
Illya almost quipped that he should get hurt more often if clean sheets and being waited on was what he should expected, but Napoleon was already acting a little too cheerful. Instead he simply said thank you and allowed his partner to wheel him into the guest room. The simple trip across town had tired him out enough that he needed a nap, a fact that annoyed him beyond measure, but one that he couldn’t ignore. He slept until dinner.
“Napoleon.” A knock on his office door barely preceded April’s entrance. She strode in without pausing, sitting down on the edge Illya’s desk without asking. Napoleon wasn’t sure if it was a relief to have someone facing him across the double desks or not. Two days he’d been back at work, after four days staying home, and the office had never seemed more empty.
“Hello, April. How was Costa Rica?” he asked more out of politeness than anything else. He’d read transcripts of her communications and had spoken to her yesterday when she was still in the field.
“Humid. Mark complained the entire time.” April propped one hand on the desk and leaned forward. “I’m more interested in how you are doing.”
“Me?” Napoleon set his pen down on the desk. “Why me? I’m fine.”
“For a trained agent you really aren’t very good at lying sometimes. There are dark circles under your eyes, two of your nails have been torn and not even filed, and you are doing paperwork without trying to pawn it off on anyone.” She looked pointedly at the piles of papers on his desk neatly sorted into stacks. “But mostly I just know what it’s like.”
“What what’s like?” He spread his hands out examining his nails. April was right, they were a mess. Normally he got a manicure after a mission, something Illya loved to tease him about. He would argue back that his hands were weapons and one should always keep their weapons in top condition. He hadn’t even thought about his nails or the haircut that he had missed a week ago when he was in Turkey.
“Being the other partner, the one that’s not hurt.” From her purse April withdrew a nail file. Walking around the desk she took one of Napoleon’s hands in her own. With a wink she turned her attention to his nails. “I understand wanting to do anything for that other person, up to and including changing places with them if that was possible. When Mark was in a coma last year I didn’t move for two days, not until he woke up and ordered me out of the infirmary.”
“I remember.” He and Illya had been on a mission, but they had arrived a few hours before Mark had awoken. April had barely looked at them when they had visited, so intent was she on her partner.
“How many times during the night do you get up to check on him, Napoleon?” she asked knowingly. She was done with his nails but she didn’t release her hold on his hand.
“Once or twice.” An average was close enough to the truth, he decided. Last night he had only woken up once, a little after two, and had peaked on his partner through the half opened door. The first night he had barely slept. Every noise, from the tick of the clock to the creak of a door woke him up, and every time he woke up he felt compelled to sneak across the hall. Despite the fact that he only took half of the doctor’s prescribed pain killers Illya seemed to sleep fine.
“And do you eat lunch during your lunch break? I know you’ve rushed home yesterday and today to check on Illya.”
“I grabbed a sandwich. Do you have a point, April?” He tried to temper his annoyance, but April sounded as if she had been taking scolding lessons from his partner.
“I’m your friend, I just want to make sure that you’re taking care of yourself. And if you need anything...”
“I promise I’ll let you know.”
“I will. Now go, I have reports to get back to.” He tugged her off the desk, kissing the back of her hand before playfully pushing her in the direction of the door. She was almost out of the office when he looked up from his pile of papers. “Thanks April.”
“Illya? I’m home.”
The moment Napoleon called out Illya was awake, but he didn’t answer his partner’s call. Maybe if Napoleon thought he was asleep he would leave him alone.
“I picked up a couple of calzones on my way...” Napoleon stopped in the bedroom doorway. “Illya?”
“Go away Napoleon,” Illya said sourly.
“What, in all the years of knowing me, makes you think I would do that?” He strode into the room and crouched on the floor next to Illya. “What happened?”
“I fell,” he said tersely. “In case that isn’t patently obvious.”
“And you decided to stay on the floor?”
“After the third time I tried to get back on the bed, yes.” He had almost made it once, but the weight of his legs had been too much to support. He had tried to climb in the wheelchair too, but an ungraceful slip had sent it rolling across the room. Frustrated, he had pulled a blanket off the bed and gone to sleep on the floor. Typical Napoleon, even his guest room had thick plush carpet; it was better than a hundred other places he had slept in the past.
“You could have called me on the communicator. I would have come back.” Napoleon retrieved the wheelchair from the corner of the room.
“What, in all the years of knowing me, makes you think I would do that?” Illya asked sarcastically. He scowled when Napoleon picked him up, but allowed himself to be helped into the chair.
“Partner of mine, you are too stubborn sometimes.” Napoleon wheeled the chair down the hall and into the dining room where dinner was waiting.
“Only sometimes? I shall have to try harder.” After all his stubbornness was more often a gift than it was a flaw.
“What am I going to do with you?” Napoleon shook his head as he opened a bottle of wine.
“Just lock me in a padded room and be done with it.” There were times, when they were rushed from assignment to assignment, moving across time zones in the way most people crossed the street, when all he wanted to do was sit in one place and read. Three weeks of nothing but sitting - or lying - down and he was beginning to believe in the catholic notion of purgatory.
“If everything checks out the week after next you’ll be allowed to go to work in the labs.”
“Like I said, a padded room.” The basement rooms were often a place of refuge where he could lose himself in science. Science was logical, it wasn’t like the cruelty of humans who killed for pleasure. But there’s was a great deal of difference between an occasional retreat and the painful reminder that his future might have been forever changed.
“It’s just a temporary arrangement until you are back on your feet.”
“If I ever get back on my feet.” Illya picked at his calzone with a fork. “Section six could be my future at U.N.C.L.E.”
“You’re not going to escape me that easily. Once the casts come off...”
“Once the casts come off it could prove that my feet are too damaged to allow me to be in section two.” Napoleon needed to stop deluding himself. They weren’t characters in some Hollywood picture where everything ended with a kiss and a happily ever after.
“Pragmatist. You know what they said in medical as well as I do.” Illya took a bite of his dinner and chewed thoughtfully, keeping his eyes on his plate. “You should start thinking about a new partner.”
“It was hard enough to break you in. I’m not going through that again.”
“Napoleon...” He knew Napoleon was going to brush his suggestion off, but it was a reality that they might have to face up to soon. He was dreading his next appointment at medical, though he would never admit it.
“There’s no point building up someone’s hopes, only to crush them when it turns out that you are fine and they don’t get to partner the CEA after all.”
“How do you fit through the door with the size of your ego?” Illya couldn’t help smiling at the outrageous statement.
Napoleon shrugged. “There are almost as many agents who would partner you, if they had a chance, despite the fact that you are such a cynical and caustic black Russian. It doesn’t matter though. Unless the Old Man gives an order you’re stuck with me, partner.”
“At the moment you’re rather the one stuck with me.” Illya looked pointedly at the wheelchair he was seated in. He would let the subject of the future drop, at least for tonight.
“A captive audience, just what I’ve always wanted.” Napoleon rubbed his hands together and arched his eyebrows like the villain in a cheesy movie. Illya had to scowl to keep from laughing.
“Eat your dinner.” Taking his own advice, Illya picked up his fork. His appetite had returned.