He scrabbled at the leaves and the dirt, searching for skin, searching for flesh, ultimately searching for warmth. His fingers brushed what was definitely the tip of a nose, long eyelashes against the side of his hand. Orientated now, he rubbed his thumb back and forth where Illya’s mouth had to be, clearing the space between his lips. Waiting for a breath.
Suddenly his wrist was caught in a tight grip and a rough voice promised, ‘I’m not dead.’
Relief flooded through him and Napoleon dropped back into the undergrowth, sighing soul deep. He closed his eyes, willing his pulse to slow, the adrenalin to seep from his blood stream.
‘I take it Carlos has gone.’
‘He’s.... He wouldn’t tell me what he’d done to you or where he’d left you. I got angry.’
He heard a rustle and his partner’s dirt-stained face came into view. ‘Tell me he’s alive, please, Napoleon. There’s information we need from him.’
Napoleon waved one hand. ‘He’s alive. He should wake in an hour or two.’ He opened one eye. ‘What makes you think I killed him?’
‘You always overreact.’
Sometimes, Napoleon couldn't tell if Illya was being funny or serious. And a part of his brain was warning him that this wasn’t the place for that conversation: the leaf covered grounds of the bad guy’s home, no doubt patrols still active. UNCLE would be in soon to clear up, re-possess anything worth selling, make safe anything worth a look at. Then the house would be sealed. A stray bullet or two might still fly before the day was out.
But it was a lovely autumn afternoon and he was too exhausted to move. The brief scuffle with Carlos and his desperate search for Illya had used up the last of his reserves. He hadn’t slept in three days. And while he hadn’t been the one inside the lion’s den this time, he always found it more stressful to be on the outside. At least when he was the one being tortured, all he had to do was suffer. He didn’t have to worry.
Illya would always find him. The same way he would always find Illya. Always. Until one of them was dead.
The thought depressed him and he decided to plead the fifth.
‘I don’t know what you’re talking about.’
‘Whenever something happens to me. You overreact. I’ve watched you beat people senseless for taking potshots at me. I fear one day one of these idiots will go too far and you’ll put a bullet in someone’s head.’
‘If someone goes too far with you, I would put a bullet in their head.’ No point in denying it. One day, it was going to happen if they kept this up.
‘I signed up for this the same way you did. You don’t have to revenge every scratch.’
He opened his other eye. ‘I do, Torvarish, and I will. I’m sort of disappointed you don’t feel the same need to protect my virtue.’
Illya vanished from view, but he could see feel his movements at his side, the brushing off of leaves, and he heard him perfectly when he stated,
‘If someone were to seriously hurt you, Pasha, I would put them in the ground.’
It shouldn’t have made him feel as warm as it did, definitely shouldn’t have poured liquid happiness into a few of the deeper holes in his heart.
Every day he went to work with a spring in his step, a smile on his face and a glint of mischief in his eyes. And every day that step got a little heavier, the smile a little falser, the glint dulled a little more. But Illya was a constant that never wavered, never dimmed. If anything, the intensity of their partnership, of their friendship, strengthened and brightened. The bond between them, it seemed, was becoming unbreakable, even from the inside. There would come a time when simply threatening one of them would be fatal. And at that moment, they wouldn’t be able to continue, because the job depending on them being adaptable and putting the lives of other people before their own. Not the lives of each other.
Napoleon tapped the back of his hand against Illya’s knuckles. ‘We should get out of here. There are more comfortable places to talk and you need a shower.’
‘Actually, Napoleon, I need a doctor.’
He sat up immediately, looking up and down his partner’s leaf-strewn body. ‘Why?’
‘Carlos broke my wrist when he grabbed my gun.’
Their lives careered from one mission to the next. They bounced from one country to another, one hotel to another, sometimes apart, more often together.
More and more, in fact, as the months rolled on, until one Christmas in Florence when Napoleon realised he hadn't been on a solo mission in over a year.
When he asked Waverly about it, all he would say was that Carlos Armani had been found dead outside his winter retreat in Florida. Napoleon didn't know what that meant. He didn't know who Carlos Armani was. He asked Illya over a fine dinner in a tiny back street restaurant run by an Italian family who didn't like to think of anyone not being with their loved ones at Christmas. It hadn't even occurred to Napoleon that he might want to be elsewhere. His only loved one was sitting across the table from him.
'Do you know who Carlos Armani is?'
Illya looked up from his gnocchi. 'He's the man we prevented from blowing up an oil refinery last year, remember? You found me hiding from his goons in a shallow grave. He'd broken my wrist.'
'Oh! Yes.' But it still didn't make sense. Why would Waverly have mentioned him of all people? Why was he a reason to keep him from working lone missions? He blinked and saw the little smile on Illya's lips, the fine lines of amusement at the corner of his eyes.
'Mr Waverly thinks you killed him.'
Napoleon put down his glass. 'What? Why would I?'
Illya raised his eyebrows but didn't answer, tucking back into his dinner. In their line of work they ate whenever and wherever the opportunity arose, because too often they didn't know when, where or if they would eat again. Still, even the bad guys seemed to take time off at Christmas.
His spirited Russian partner could be as stubborn as a mule when sworn to secrecy, but Napoleon couldn't believe it was a matter of national security.
'He asked me if I knew where you'd been the night Carlos was killed. I didn't.'
'You think I did it?'
'No I don't. It is ridiculous that you'd kill a man simply for breaking my wrist in a fair fight. But Mr Waverly isn't so sure. He keeps us together now, not because it's safer for us, but because it's safer for everyone else.'
Napoleon didn't sleep that night. He walked the empty streets under a light flurry of snow and eventually came to an open bar on the edge of the river. He ordered a beer and sat in the dark with the other silent drinkers. This was Christmas like many before it.
The barman had said, 'you are far from home,' and Napoleon had shrugged.
'Not really. I'm far from my apartment but home is a subjective word.'
The barman had left him alone after that.
The city was beautiful in the cold and the dark. Candles flickered behind the stained glass of churches and chapels, light touched the narrow streets from upper floor windows. Behind closed doors, the residents of this glorious place rested; sated, no doubt, after a gluttonous day. Napoleon felt like indulging himself but couldn't think how. He thought of his partner sleeping in their little hotel; his constant, his loved one. And he thought of the many transient women who'd moved through his life, or maybe he'd moved through theirs.
He wondered if next Christmas would be the same.
This was his fault. It was all his fault. He was going to die because he was a stupid, stubborn idiot who couldn't admit when he'd found something that worked. He needed to be the all conquering hero, he had to be the winner, he had to have the glory.
'Yes, sir, I'm sure, sir, I'll be just fine on my own, sir. Let Illya have his break. That last mission was hard on him. No, sir, I don't think we should wait until his burns have healed.'
Idiot. Jerk. So determined to go it alone. Refusing to admit he needed back up, needed his partner at his side, because the years were marching on and the job was starting to take a toll. He ached in all the places that had taken too many punches. He was slower. Not by much, but enough that without Illya at his back the children - for Christ's sake! - that THRUSH were recruiting now had successfully taken him down.
His wrists hurt. He was grateful he wasn't hanging by them but they were shackled behind his back, the cuffs too tight and drawing blood where the metal had cut into already scarred skin. His arms were pulled uncomfortably behind the back of the chair, making his shoulders throb in protest, the muscles there not as defined as they once were.
The chair itself at least wasn't screwed down and he'd bounced his way around the chilly, damp cell looking for a way out but had come up empty. Now he was sitting as slouched as he could, feeling sorry for himself and more fed up than he had done... ever. Maybe he was going to die and maybe if he didn't it was time to call it quits.
He thought about dying. Would he mind, really? An explosion of pain and then blissful nothingness. An end to the torture and the beatings, the druggings and the fights. No more god awful parties, making small talk with over privileged blue rinses, playing nice with frenetic yappy dogs, seducing vacuous women all in the name of security and diplomacy.
Then he thought about quitting. He could dress in jeans and soft button downs, lie in bed until ten and listen to the coffee percolate before taking a walk in the park and lunching with Illya at Benny's, the little Italian place in Soho he hardly ever made it to because there was never any time.
And therein lay the problem. Because turning his back on UNCLE meant turning his back on his partner and he wasn't sure he had it in him to do that.
Which left him only one option, and that meant leaving Illya too.
The noise from the corridor was so loud it make him physically jump in the chair, pulling on his wrists, jarring his shoulders. He knew the sound of a rescue when he heard it and to his surprise he actually wished it wasn't happening. Rescue meant another mission. After the embarrassing debrief to explain to the old man how he was captured in the first place, and to apologise for using up precious UNCLE resources who should have been better deployed elsewhere, saving the world instead of saving his sorry ass. At least the next mission would see Illya back at his side, both their lives on the line and not just his own.
Was he one day going to take the Russian down with him? Would Illya catch another bullet meant for him and he'd be forced to watch blood drain from an exit wound big enough to get his fist into while Illya died in his arms?
He heard his name called and kept quiet. More shouts, armed agents searching for their quarry. He kept stum. And to his horror, and abject relief, the fight moved on along the corridor outside the cell door: bullets and fists and his name in loud voices until the bullets stopped and the last goon had fallen and he heard one agent tell another that there was no sign of Napoleon Solo. They were going to leave and eventually more THRUSH agents would come to clear up the mess and would shoot him for good measure, laughing at the futile attempt to save him.
'Search again.' Illya.
His heart sank and he knew he was going to cheat himself of an easy out because he couldn't let his partner believe he'd failed. How would Illya feel, when Napoleon's body was found? How would he feel, faced with the realisation of having left his partner behind?
'I'm in here!' He called out, trying to make it sound weaker than he felt, trying to sound as if he'd only just regained consciousness and heard the commotion. Illya kicked in the wooden door and for a while Napoleon believed he'd faked it well enough.
For a while.
'Of all the stupid, selfish, arrogant things you've done...'
In the dark of his living room, Napoleon tried to make him see sense. 'You were laid up in the infirmary, in no fit state for a mission. Be reasonable.'
'Reasonable?!' Illya rounded on him and he was glad the curtains were still closed after a very late night and an even later morning. His uptown neighbours didn't need to witness this. 'Was what you were doing reasonable?'
'I was chasing the bad guy. It's what we're paid to do.'
'That's not what I'm talking about and you know it!'
He honestly didn't, or rather he hadn't, but seeing Illya's eyes up close he realised what this argument was actually about. The Russian was beyond angry, through it and out the other side. What was in those beautiful blue eyes was pure, naked hurt. Not contaminated by anything so tainted as rage. In that moment, Illya was the most breathtaking sight he'd ever seen.
He didn't insult his partner by lying, simply asked, 'How did you know?'
Illya hesitated a second before backing off. Pacing to the open door and back again into the room.
'I know you didn't call out until you heard my voice.' He stopped, feet planted, hands in fists by his side. Napoleon had never seen him like this before. Dirty shoes, creased pants, white shirt open at the neck. It was as informal as Illya got unless he was on vacation. He'd come here for this, in his head he'd left UNCLE behind for the time being. He wasn't a spy now, he was Napoleon's friend. Napoleon knew he could use that to his benefit. There wouldn't be too many more chances the way he was going. 'You were waiting for us to move on. You wanted to be left there. Why?'
'I just wanted it to stop.'
Illya frowned. 'The rescue or the torture?'
'Both. All of it. I wanted... to quit. And failing that I wanted to die. But not in the way you're thinking. I'm not suicidal.'
'There aren't many more interpretations of wanting to die, Napoleon.'
He sighed, shook his head, sat down on the arm of the floral sofa and reached down to pick a white feather from the red cushion. He hated this place and everything in it.
'I'm tired, Illya. My bones ache, my muscles are sore and I'm getting too old to face up to that group of homicidal maniacs week in, week out. I've been pumped so full of drugs over the years I don't even know if you're real any more. I'm scared that one day I'll leave my own head and I won't come back. That scares me more than dying, lyubimyy.' He glanced up. He'd never meant to use that word even though he'd made a point to learn it. Illya was looking at him with a softness he's seen a hundred times before. 'I'm sorry.'
'Take your pick.'
'For staying quiet during a rescue I left my hospital bed to arrange?' He took a step forward. 'For thinking you could let me believe I was too late?' Another step. 'For keeping all this from the one man you're supposed to trust with your life?'
Napoleon swallowed past the lump in his throat and almost choked when he repeated, 'Take your pick.'
He sat on the sofa, turned into Napoleon, tilting his head to look up at him. 'Why do you know that word?'
'You know which word. Why do you know it?'
He decided he might as well come clean. Pushing gently on Illya's shoulder, he made him move up so that there was room to slide from the arm to the seat. 'Do you remember Florence last Christmas?'
'After dinner I couldn't sleep. There was this place by the water. The barman told me I was a long way from home and I told him that depended where home was. He stopped talking to me after that but it made me think. My only home is here.'
'No.' He smiled and met Illya's now curious gaze. 'You and me.'
Illya's quiet nod wasn't the reaction Napoleon had been expecting, or even hoping for, following the most remarkable revelation of his life. 'So you decide I'm more important to you than your aunt's legacy,' he pointed around the walls, 'and instead of telling me this, you decided instead to let THRUSH murder you.'
'It seemed the safer option.'
Illya shook his head. ‘If you’re done with field work, Pasha, you should tell Mr Waverly.’
Napoleon snorted. ‘You honestly believe Waverly would allow me to quit?’
‘I believe he’s been waiting for you to do just that. I think he wishes to retire and to hand over the reins to you. You don’t have to quit UNCLE to remove yourself from the field.’
‘And I suppose you would happily replace me just as easily as you seem to think I can replace Waverly?’
‘Napasha… never think I don’t care for you and appreciate you just as much as you do me. When I came to America I never thought for a moment that I would be allowed the stay in your country, never mind make a friend like you. Don’t think I look forward to the next capture, the next gunfight, the next soulless hotel room. I would be more than happy to remove myself to the UNCLE labs and to help evolve the technology other people can steal from THRUSH.’
‘You would give it all up, just like that?’
It made Illya laugh. ‘Give it all up? You’re my partner, Napoleon. If you stop, I stop, and I’ll be happy to do it. But if you allow THRUSH to kill you, I won’t stop, not until every one of them is dead or I am.’
He nodded slowly. ‘In which case… I suppose it’s time to speak to Waverly, otherwise you might start World War 3.’ His hand hovered about Illya’s knee but didn’t drop. ‘I’ve been agonising over this and you made it so simple.’
‘If you’d talked to me instead of agonising, it would have saved you time. Remember that, in the future.’
‘What the hell is happening to this country?’ Napoleon scraped the feet of the metal chair out from under the table and sat down, breathing in the aroma of strong, fresh espresso.
Illya folded his paper and placed it on the table. This was their routine now, an early coffee after overnight memos had been checked and Napoleon had given the morning briefing. Lunch, if it was convenient, if Illya wasn’t in the middle of an experiment, if Napoleon wasn’t in a meeting. Dinner, more often, or a movie, at least twice, sometimes three times a week.
He picked up his coffee and sniffed it before taking that first sip. Illya had his latte and there was a plate of small almond biscuits between them. He reached for one and caught Illya’s gaze. ‘What?’
‘Please feel free to tell me it’s none of my business, but when was the last time you took a woman out on a date?’
He was surprised by the question, thought about it, hunting for a name, a face, a date. ‘All right. It’s been a while. So? I work hard.’
‘You work half the hours you used to. At least. You used to find time -‘
‘I was younger. Besides, I’m the head of UNCLE now.’
‘You find time to spend with me.’
‘I like spending time with you.’ He took another biscuit and dunked it in his coffee. ‘Is this about me, Illya? Or about you?’
Illya looked as if he might spill whatever was on his mind, but he drank his coffee instead. ‘I’m quite content, I assure you.’
He was, most likely, but there was something. ‘Why don’t I come round tonight, bring a bottle and a takeaway?’
Illya nodded, but countered with, ‘You bought last time. I will come to yours.’
He swallowed his coffee, glad Illya hadn’t brought up the date thing again. He honestly hadn’t realised it had been so long, but recently he hadn’t been interested. He’d tired of having meaningless sex with a never ending parade of strangers around the same time he’d tired of being THRUSH’s punching bag and pin cushion. ‘Okay. But none of those meat pancakes.’
‘Will Chinese suit your culinary sensibilities?’
‘I think so.’
There was an envelope in his in tray when Napoleon got back to his desk. It was small and slight and his name was written in what he recognised as April's cursive hand. He opened it and two small photographs slid out into the surface of his desk: his and Illya's originals from their personnel files.
There was a note too:
Records are having a clear out. Anna thought you might like these. Love, April
He picked them up with a reverence that surprised him. He hadn’t changed much, he thought, a few more grey hairs - one more every morning now, or so it seemed - and there were lines around his eyes. He could perhaps have fooled himself had he wanted to, but there had been more pain in his life than laughter.
Illya looked younger in his photo but he'd aged well in Napoleon’s opinion. He smiled more since quitting the field, presumably since people had stopped - for the most part - shooting at him. And he’d grown his hair out, used his lab goggles to hold it back off his face when he was working, often wearing a second pair to cover his eyes. Too often he’d forget the ones on his head when they met for lunch. Napoleon would make some comment about his failing memory, and Illya would retaliate with a Russian insult Napoleon didn’t know the meaning of but understood the sentiment.
He missed working with his partner. He tried to get down to the lab whenever he could, calling it professional curiosity, aware it was actually something else. Of course, Illya wasn’t his partner now, Napoleon was his boss. Not that, God forbid, the Russian would ever acknowledge that or treat him as his superior. At best he referred to him as Solo, never Mr Solo. At worst, when he was trying to make a point, it was Napasha, an endearment that always made anyone else in the room either cringe or blush. Except April and Mark, who just smiled at them both the way that everyone had smiled at them when they got engaged.
He took the photos home with him that evening, left them on the counter in the kitchen which was where Illya found them when he arrived with fabulous smelling food and a bottle of wine. Napoleon read the label twice before reaching for two of the good glasses. ‘Illya, how much was this-‘ He broke off, because Illya wasn’t paying him any attention, and because the way he was stretched out over the counter, elbows on the granite surface, the two photographs in his fingers, distracted him.
‘Where did you get these?’ He sounded distant, lost in memory.
Napoleon put down the bottle and the glasses and leaned in, looking again at their younger visages, head inches from Illya’s.
‘April sent them up from Records. I don’t think we’ve changed that much.’ Raising his head a little he looked at Illya’s hair, kept back out here in the real world by his sunglasses rather than his lab goggles. Catching an errant strand in his fingertips he tucked it back behind the black Ray Bans. Illya looked up and caught his smile.
He couldn’t stop himself: his glance at Illya’s mouth, the tilt of his head, the hammer beat of his heart against his rib cage. Illya was still smiling, blue eyes dark and playful.
‘You’ve waited long enough,’ he murmured, accent stronger than usual, the way it was all those years ago when he’d first been loaned to UNCLE like so much equipment. Napoleon couldn't quite believe he'd heard him right. ‘Do it, Pasha.’
So Napoleon kissed him. It was nothing, barely a touch, but as he pulled back, more uncertain of himself then he’d ever been, Illya surged forward. He pressed his lips to Napoleon’s, flicked his tongue out and Napoleon met him there, opening his mouth, pushing his fingers into Illya’s hair, holding him as if he hadn’t been the one to back off first.
‘It is truly about time,’ Illya murmured when they broke off. He pushed himself up from the counter. ‘You’ve been wanting to do that since the evening we agreed to quit field work.’
Napoleon didn’t try to deny it. He reached for the bottle and the corkscrew just to give his hands something to do. He could still feel silk soft hair against his fingers.
He worried Illya might say something more, but instead he busied himself with fetching dishes from the cupboard and chopsticks from the drawer. He knew his way around Napoleon’s kitchen better than he did himself.
They ate in the lounge, seated on the sofa with the cartons on the glass coffee table. The silence was comfortable between them, as if nothing had changed. Maybe it hadn’t, not really.
‘I hate this couch,’ Illya grouched as he put his empty bowl onto the table and reached for his glass. They were drinking the wine quickly.
‘I’ve always hated it,’ Napoleon agreed. ‘But up to a year ago I wasn’t here enough for it to bother me.’
‘Now you are.’
‘I haven’t got around to spending money on replacing it.’
‘I’ll go with you if you like.’
Napoleon nodded. ‘I would like.’ Considering what happened in the kitchen it was probably something they were both going to have an opinion on, sooner or later, and how easily he was considering letting go of such a fundamental thing as a conventional life. But what Illya had said was true, even if he hadn’t been actively contemplating kissing his partner for the last twelve months, there had definitely been a slow and momentous shift in his feelings for him, like the movement of tectonic plates across the surface of the earth.
By the time a second, half-empty bottle sat next to the first empty one, they were more relaxed, slumped in the hideous sofa, touching at the shoulder, elbow and knee. Illya had lost a sock at some point in the evening and his bare foot was rubbing Napoleon’s ankle in a way that was making thinking straight difficult.
‘I don’t what this means for me,’ Napoleon blurted out, felt the shrug of Illya's shoulder, and was relieved his partner wasn't the least bit concerned.
‘It doesn’t have to mean anything. We can pretend it never happened and carry on as we were. Or I will pledge myself to you until death do us part.’
He smiled at the slight tease. ‘I’m hoping there’s a middle ground,’ he murmured, finding Illya’s hand and folding his long fingers around it. Illya settled the base of his glass on the hump of Napoleon’s knuckles.
‘There is acres of middle ground. I’m sure we can explore and find somewhere that suits us.’
‘For being my partner.’ He turned his head. ‘For being my friend.’
Illya met his gaze. ’I shall always be those things, no matter what else happens or doesn’t happen between us.'
Much later, before he left, Illya took the dishes into the kitchen and Napoleon followed with the empty bottles and glasses. Picking up the two small photographs of them, Illya told him, 'I think you're wrong.'
'I would say we've changed beyond recognition, wouldn’t you agree?’
The explosion ripped through the back of the building, blowing out walls and shattering glass. Three deafening bangs were followed by a hundred or so screaming alarms and the shouts of those who still could for those who couldn't.
Emergency services arrived quickly. The fire crews needed to put out the flames still licking at charred rubble before they could start to hunt for survivors trapped underneath it all. Napoleon coordinated the efforts without thinking, instincts well honed after years of living in the turbulence of spydom. But once he'd done all he could, and various commanders were in charge of their teams, all doing what they did best, he stood with ash on his clothes and small burns on his skin and stared at what was left of UNCLE HQ. The collapse had come some minutes after the initial blast, giving those on the higher floors time to get out.
The casualties, the deaths, were going to be concentrated in the area around the back. The canteen, almost empty given the time. And the labs.
The cause was as likely to have been something of their own making as it was an enemy bomb. Their scientists tended to quite literally play with fire some days, and although the safety of the building and everyone in it was paramount, accidents were always possible. Illya could have been at the epicentre of the explosion, or he could have stepped out for coffee. Comms were down, Napoleon wouldn't know until they pulled his burnt body from the debris or he walked up to his side to stare at the destruction and share Napoleon's horror.
Vau, torvarish, that was not the ending I had in mind!
Me neither, Illyushka. But I'll see you soon, yes?
Net, Napasha. Net, moy droog.
''Napoleon.' He was startled by the hand on his arm and focused on Mark's face, the ash in his hair.
That was a relief at least. 'Good. Are you okay?'
'I was out at a meeting. This is....' There were very few words to describe the devastation before them. 'Where's Illya?'
'I don't know.' He held out his hands. 'I tried to find him...'
'Jesus, Napoleon! You need to get those looked at!' He supposed Mark was talking about the burns.
'They look worse than they are. They don't hurt.'
'That's not a good thing.'
He didn't fight Mark leading him by the elbow to one of the amassed ambulances. He did as he was told, sat in the back and let a nurse clean and bandage his hands, leaving him basically helpless to search. Helpless to do anything. Someone put a blanket around the shoulders. His shirt was wrecked, pants too.
'Someone should silence the alarms,' he told Mark who had stayed, hovering outside the open doors.
He looked up. 'They've been off for half an hour. Can you still hear them?'
'It's common after an event like this,' the nurse reassured them both. 'It should ease off soon.'
Someone yelled something, louder than the other calls, and Mark straightened, causing Napoleon to do the same. He heard his name, 'Mr Solo!' and was out of the ambulance in two bounds, ignoring the protests of his nurse. Mark knew better than to try and stop him, just followed and caught his elbow when he stumbled. Another medic was ahead of them, momentarily blocking Napoleon's view of the man lying still half buried in the rubble.
The bandages helped when he dropped to his knees to push brick shards and broken glass from the man's legs, Mark's shouts at him barely breaching the ringing in his ears.
'Finally the medic sat back and he was able to see Illya's face under the oxygen mask and the ash, the dust and the blood. His eyes blurred as he reached to touch before realising he couldn't. His bandages were hanging like ribbons from his hands, filthy and torn. He was crying, tears cutting through the dirt on his face. Mark's hand squeezed his shoulder and he followed the unspoken command to stand up. Illya was alive, breathing, and for the time being that had to be enough. They needed to free him from where he was trapped, get him to a hospital.
It hurt to smile but he smiled anyway. 'Welcome back.' Illya tried to lift his head. 'Stay still now. The nurses here aren't as forgiving as the ones at UNCLE.'
'Your face.' His voice sounded like sandpaper on a blackboard: the best sound Napoleon could have wished to hear.
'Superficial. As always. I'll heal. As will you, lyubimyy.'
Napoleon reached for the bowl of ice the doctor had left on top of the tiny bedside cupboard. He slipped a small shard of it between Illya's cracked lips and watched while he closed his bloodshot eyes and sucked on the ice.
It was over an hour later when he opened his eyes again. He mouthed the words, 'What happened?'
He leaned forward so that Illya could see him without having to move. 'We don't know yet.'
'You should be there.'
'Stop talking. Your throat's damaged from breathing in brick dust and smoke fumes. Besides,' he held up his re-bandaged hands, 'I'm a patient too.'
Illya's expression crumpled. 'Net, Pasha.' He tried to reach for Napoleon's arm, clearly distressed. If the nurses saw him they'd kick Napoleon out for sure. Perching on the edge of the bed, he leaned down until their foreheads were touching. Illya smelt of antiseptic and smoke. He'd planned to reassure his partner that they were both going to be fine. But he couldn't get the words out. Tears again gathered in his eyes to fall slowly.
'I love you. Illya,' was suddenly all he could say.
Illya's grip on him relaxed, and after a few long minutes he sat back. ‘Rest. Recover. And I promise I’ll do the same.’
'Two men, thought to work for the Government, were killed this morning when the private jet they were travelling in crashed over Wyoming. The men, whose identities haven't been released, are said to have been in their early fifties. No one else was killed in the accident. The pilot managed to escape and is being treated for minor injuries.'
Napoleon dropped his chin to Illya's shoulder and wrapped his arms around him from behind as he switched off the news report.
'How does it feel, being dead?'
'I can breathe easier.' Still, the sarcasm was difficult to miss.
'It's safer this way, you know that.'
Illya pulled away gently and perched on the arm of the black leather couch he'd insisted went better than Aunt Solo's floral affair in the wooden beamed living room of the ranch's main house.
'You're training race horses, Pasha, how do you expect to stay out of the limelight?'
'Someone else can be the public face of the operation. Someone younger and better looking. I've lived my whole life under scrutiny and surveillance. I intend to spend the next few years at least in the shadows, enjoying my privacy. Our privacy.' He took a step forward, taking his partner in to his arms and for once Illya allowed it, despite the submission it required. 'What about you, lyubimyy?' He kissed the blond hair reverently and smiled at Illya's Russian protest, letting go of him before he was punched.
'The horses are your thing. But this place isn't going to run itself. If you want results you're going to need discipline amongst the staff.'
'I don't want you getting bored and seeking your kicks in other... areas.'
'You don't need to worry about me. Although I've always liked the idea of being a hitman for hire...'
Sometimes, just on the rarest of occasions, Napoleon honestly couldn't tell if Illya was being funny. Or being serious.