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It started as a joke. A friendly ribbing between former rivals that had legs, most frequently deployed in exasperation at one of his more unorthodox strategies. He had his own barbs, of course, but none as consistent as his partner’s assertion that he was a terrible spy.

He doesn’t know when it changed. When the words started to convey other things besides annoyance, good-natured or otherwise. Once he realizes it, though, he starts paying attention. That’s not to say he understands everything that’s behind the words. He can’t, or won’t, let himself consider it too carefully. Not for a while, anyway.

 

I.

Napoleon is good at improvising. It’s one of the things that makes him so effective, and it has saved his life numerous times. Most of the time he does it without really thinking about it, other than a quick mental calculus of the risks. He rarely finds them high enough to change his mind.

That was before, though. Before he had a team, before he had a voice in his ear questioning his every move. And that’s what his partner is doing, now. Questioning. Napoleon is tempted to pull the small communicator out and leave it in a glass of water, but he knows that will just result in a very irate Peril storming the gala, and the mission that is already in grave danger of failure will be completely shot. Napoleon has one chance at this, so he leaves the communicator in place and does his best to tune Illya out.

He’d been meant to make contact with the Contessa under the guise of a rich American  businessman with an interest in making inroads into a very particular Italian market. He was not meant to have been instantly recognized by said Contessa, who he’d taken an acquisitions job from years ago. He rarely met his clients, but she had surprised him at the handoff. Too bad he had never learned her name.

“Mr. Solo,” she purred, drawling the second syllable of his name. “What a pleasant surprise.” She extended one diamond-encrusted hand to him and he smiled broadly as he took it, pressing his lips deferentially to the back of her glove.

“The pleasure’s all mine, Contessa,” he demurred.

“You are looking well. Business has been good?” she asked. It was obviously a test, and she wasn’t trying to hide it

Napoleon had inclined his head and smiled mildly. “Good enough.”

“You won’t believe what I heard,” she said conspiratorially, leaning in close. “Did you know there is a rumor that you were caught? And you took a deal working with the government?”

This was precisely the moment that his communicator had exploded with demands that he get out of there immediately. Really, though, is he supposed to just ignore this damage to his reputation? Having that kind of knowledge out there on the open market could be deadly. There’s still a chance he can salvage both it and the mission, and he’s going for it.

“My, that is something,” he says, chuckling. “You know what they say about rumors.” He pauses for effect, and the Contessa cocks an eyebrow at him with interest. “They do tend to have a grain of truth.”

“Are you telling me that you are working with the government?” she asks incredulously. She’d clearly been expecting him to deny it, which is why there was no way in hell that he can. People generally don’t say something like that unless they know it’s already true.

Napoleon affects his most careful nonchalance, which is difficult to do with someone yelling in your ear. He knows he has maybe five minutes before Illya comes storming in after him anyway. “I’m saying that I might be dealing in other things besides art and antiquities these days.”

Not many people could pull off casually implying that they were selling CIA secrets while also working for them instead of a prison sentence. From the way the smile curls onto her lips, Napoleon can tell he succeeded. “Well, then,” she murmurs wickedly. “It seems I might need your services again, Mr. Solo. If you’re interested, of course.”

Hook, line, and sinker. He smiles broadly. “I’m listening.”

By the time he makes it back to the safehouse he is utterly exhausted—pretending to be a traitor really takes it out of you—but secure in the knowledge that he’s gained more intel about the Contessa’s dealings than they ever expected. Waverly will be very pleased.

He finds, unsurprisingly, that Illya is waiting for him. No doubt he and Gaby returned to the safehouse not long before him, although Gaby has already disappeared into her room. His partner is hunched over a chess set and pretends not to notice when Napoleon enters, but he can feel Illya tracking his movements as he shrugs out of his jacket and heads to the liquor cabinet. Napoleon pours himself a healthy portion of scotch and allows himself to slouch down onto the couch, kicking his feet up onto the coffee table.

“That was a dangerous move, Cowboy,” Illya says eventually. His voice is neutral and he still hasn’t looked up at Napoleon, but there’s something about the set of his shoulders that belies his dispassionate act.

“Paid off, though,” Napoleon responds lightly.

Illya hums and finally pushes back from his game, regarding Napoleon with an expression he can’t quite read. “What if she hadn’t believed you were still a criminal?”

“Well I suppose you might have had to come rescue me, Peril.”

To his surprise, the corners of Illya’s mouth twitch upward in something like amusement. “You’re a terrible spy, Cowboy.”

“Why, thank you,” Napoleon grins back, as if Illya had just complimented him.

He doesn’t really want to think about why the look Illya gives him then, unmistakably fond and long-suffering, does funny things to his insides. It’s probably nothing. He is very tired, after all.

 

II.

Sometimes, when a mission goes to shit, it’s like watching a slow motion train wreck. You can see it coming from a mile away, but there’s absolutely nothing you can do to stop it. If you’re lucky, it’s nothing more than a minor derailment, but if you’re not it’s a dramatic plummet off a rickety railway bridge into the raging river below, like in one of those old westerns.

Once, after a moderately disastrous mission, Napoleon had told Illya about his train theory of mission failure, and his partner had laughed. It turns out some of those old movies had made it into the Soviet Union, so Illya could picture exactly what Napoleon was talking about. They’d spent a drunken evening arguing about what different types of failed missions corresponded to in terms of old-timey train wrecks, laughing far more than the topic warranted. The memory of it swims back into his mind now and forms a cold, hard lump in the pit of his stomach.

This one’s definitely gone off the bridge, Napoleon thinks desperately. He hopes he can catch it before it meets a gruesome end in the river below, but it’s hard to be optimistic when he and Gaby are quite literally following a trail of Illya’s blood.

Napoleon had seen him get shot, twice: once in the shoulder, and once in the leg. If he doesn’t bleed out, he should be ok, and based on the trail they’re following it seems that neither bullet hit an artery. At least, this is what Napoleon tells Gaby over and over again, until she puts a steadying hand on his arm and says earnestly that she agrees, Illya will be all right. For a second Napoleon wonders what he must look like, because she seems almost as worried about him as she does Illya.

They catch up just as their opponents are shoving Illya into the back of a van. There is little cover between the building and the vehicle, and lots of gunmen watching eagerly for their approach. It’s dark and Napoleon lost his rifle hours ago, so he won’t be stopping them unless he gets a lot closer.

“Cover me,” he hisses to Gaby as he checks how many rounds he still has in the magazine of his pistol.

“Solo, wait,” she hisses back, catching his arm before he can move off. “We should think about this for a second.”

He shoots a look at the van. They’re closing up the doors, getting ready to drive off, and if they do it will make finding Illya all the more difficult. “No time. They’re leaving.”

“At least cover me so I can get behind that car,” she bargains, gesturing to a vehicle almost halfway between the building and the van, “and then I’ll cover you. I can take more of them out from there.”

It’s worth a shot. He gives a short nod and she takes off. It only takes a few moments for the gunmen to track her movement and start firing, but Gaby is fast and she makes it without trouble while Napoleon does his best to fire on them from too far away. When the guards standing around the van start dropping he figures she’s in position and it’s as good a time as any.

He takes off at a sprint, bullets spraying the ground around him. One wings his upper arm but he barely feels it with all the adrenaline surging through his body. As soon as he gets close enough he shoots out the tires, and it’s then, despite the fact that there are still half a dozen assailants standing, that he believes that they’ll make it.

He expected Illya to be unconscious, given that he’d appeared to be so while being shoved roughly into the back of the van, so Napoleon is surprised but relieved to hear Illya groan and grope at his empty holster for his gun when he climbs inside.

“Peril, it’s me, it’s ok,” he murmurs, reaching out to place a hand on his partner’s knee.

Illya lets out a huff and drops his head back against the floor with a thunk. “What are you doing,” he rasps out, as if it weren’t obvious.

“Saving your ass,” Napoleon mutters back as he tears strips of fabric out of the lining of his jacket and binds up the bullet wound on Illya’s leg. “A thank you would be nice.”

Illya makes a face like he’s trying to laugh, but instead it turns into a grimace and his back arcs up off the floor of the van in pain. He coughs wetly, and Napoleon does not like that sound one bit. After tearing a few more strips he climbs further in and sits on the floor of the van, pulling the upper half of Illya’s body into his lap so he can get the bandages around the wound in his shoulder. Outside, the sound of gunfire has trailed off. It seems like Gaby has taken care of the rest of the guards, because no one approaches the open door of the van. She’ll be clearing the area now, making sure no one else lies in wait for them.

“Did you really run across that open ground to get over here,” Illya croaks, looking up at Napoleon accusingly.

“Gaby was covering me,” Napoleon says around the ends of the bandages he has clamped between his lips. Really, are they going to argue about this now?

Illya winces as Napoleon tightens the fabric over the wound and his hand comes up to grab one of Napoleon’s wrists. His eyes flutter open again, tracking over Napoleon’s upper body until they land on the bullet graze on his left arm. Illya frowns. “You got shot.”

“It’s nothing.”

“It was a stupid risk,” Illya insists.

His eyes meet Napoleon’s now, the glacial blue of his irises shining even in the low light. The argument is a familiar one—they seem to have it any time one of them does something the other deems is an unnecessary risk to save him—but this time it seems more loaded, somehow. Napoleon is done binding Illya’s shoulder but he doesn’t move away, nor does Illya attempt to extract himself from his position cradled in Napoleon’s lap. The hand that had been holding onto his wrist has slid down to clutch the back of Napoleon’s hand where it still lay on Illya’s chest. Pressed over his heart, Napoleon realizes with a start.

“You’re a terrible spy, Cowboy,” Illya says softly, squeezing Napoleon’s hand.

Napoleon lets a small, lopsided smile curl up one side of his mouth and swipes his thumb lightly across Illya’s knuckles. “You’re welcome, Peril.”

 

III.

Napoleon is too busy wrangling pots and pans in the kitchen to hear the door of his apartment open, and far too focused on his risotto to notice the large Russian who’s entered until said Russian is leaning over his shoulder to inspect his work with interest.

“Smells good, Cowboy,” Illya says appraisingly.

Napoleon jumps, splattering hot stock across the stovetop. “Peril! When did you get here?”

“You don’t know?” Illya raises his eyebrows at Napoleon, clearly judging him for this oversight.

“No, I don’t know, I’m quite busy if you hadn’t noticed,” Napoleon replies shortly, turning back to his risotto.

Illya hums thoughtfully and takes a step back to give Napoleon more room. Out of the corner of his eye Napoleon can see him look around the space, silently evaluating all of the other balls Napoleon is currently juggling. “You’re—”

“I don’t,” Napoleon interrupts, shooting him a glare, “want to hear any commentary on my skills as an agent.”

Somehow Illya manages a look of complete innocence. “I was just going to say, your pot is going to boil over.”

Napoleon follows his gesture and sees that yes, that pot is just about to get out of control. He turns the heat down gratefully, but not without catching the barest hint of a smug smirk playing on his partner’s lips.

“I thought you were bringing Gaby,” Napoleon says. “Is she here?”

Illya shakes his head. “She’s not coming. She said she called you?”

“Maybe, I haven’t checked my messages in a while,” Napoleon admits. “What happened? Is she ok?”

“She’s fine, Cowboy. She said she’s sorry for cancelling but she has a date.”

Napoleon twists back to look at Illya again, who’s now leaning up against the opposite counter. “A date? We’ve been back for two days. How’d she get a date?”

The look Illya gives him quite clearly says, you’re one to talk. Napoleon lets it go without comment; it’s better if they don’t get into a discussion about his dating habits. Or ‘dating’ habits, as the case may be. The fact of the matter is that Napoleon hasn’t gone on a proper date in months, and he knows Illya knows that. He would say that he’s been too busy, what with all the missions they’ve been on, but that never stopped him before.

“She could have given me a little more warning,” he grumbles.

He’d cooked for three, one of whom was Illya, so there was a lot of food: besides the risotto, there was a duck in the oven with an accompanying red wine sauce (that had thankfully not boiled over), fresh asparagus he’d scored from one of the UNCLE secretaries’ gardens, warm bread, and a chocolate cream pie for dessert. It’s a tad extravagant, he knows, but if he was going to cook a meal he was going to cook a meal. They’d been on the road for so long that he thought that a quiet night in would be just the ticket. Obviously Gaby did not agree. Maybe she was just sick of them, which he doesn’t know that he can blame her for.

“Don’t worry, Cowboy,” Illya says lightly. “I’m sure we can manage her portion.”

Napoleon just holds back a snort; sometimes he thinks his partner is hiding a black hole in his stomach, for all he can put away when he wants to.

It’s a little later than he planned by the time everything gets on the table, but it’s all worth it when he sees Illya’s contented face at the first few bites. There really is nothing like the joy he gets from someone really enjoying the food he poured his heart and soul into cooking. There’s also nothing quite like seeing his partner unwinding a bit; it’s a rare enough occurrence that it still hasn’t quite lost it’s novelty. By the time they slow down, they’re most of the way through their second bottle of wine and there’s a pleasant pink flush on Illya’s cheeks. Napoleon tries not to pay too much attention to that lest his mind start wandering down roads it had really better stay off of.

“Gaby does not know what she is missing,” Illya announces, stretching back in his chair. He extends his long legs under the table until they very nearly tangle with Napoleon’s. “I don’t even think she really had a date.”

“Why do you say that?” Napoleon asks, tipping his head slightly.

Illya gestures to where his answering machine sits, red light still indicating that there’s an unheard message. “Go listen to her message.”

Shrugging, Napoleon levers himself out of his chair and tries not to sway as he makes his way to the phone. When he punches the button the machine beeps and Gaby’s voice emerges from the speaker a second later.

“Hey Solo, I’m sorry to do this, but I won’t be able to make it tonight. I met someone last night and we’re going out, tonight was the only night that worked. You know how it is. And anyway, I appreciate the invitation but really, you know you don’t have to invite me when you want to cook a romantic dinner for him. Save me some pie, though, ok? Byeeeeeee.”

The silence that settles over the apartment after the final beep is deafening. Napoleon knows he can’t just keep staring at the answering machine, and yet the prospect of looking at Illya is not pleasant. Maybe if he just pretends that neither of them actually heard that…

Finally, he turns to glance back at his partner, hiding his face behind the pretense of taking a drink of the wine he’s still holding. Illya is, perhaps unsurprisingly, giving him a wide-eyed look. His wine-drunk blush has deepened, coloring the tips of his ears, and they stare at each other for a long moment, each seemingly transfixed by the other’s gaze.

Illya breaks the eye contact first, clearing his throat as he drops his eyes to the table. “You see,” he says, too forced to be casual, “she says she met them last night, but she didn’t go out.”

“How do you know that?” Napoleon asks. He heads back to take his seat at the table again, beyond grateful that Illya seems to be ignoring the more damning part, and finds that his partner has carefully folded his legs under his chair again.

“She called me while she was watching reruns of some terrible American TV show. Said she was bored.”

“So maybe she went out after that.”

Illya shakes his head stubbornly. “No.”

“But how could you know?” Napoleon presses.

“I know.”

“Are you telling me you bugged her apartment?”

“Are you telling me you haven’t?” Illya shoots back.

“Not since back when we first started working together,” Napoleon admits. “I pulled them a while ago.”

Illya looks sheepish for a moment before he takes another drink of wine to cover it. “I may have, er, forgotten some.”

“Are there any forgotten bugs around here?” Napoleon asks when he realizes that he hasn't actually swept the apartment in quite a long time. It used to be second nature, but he’s spent so little time lately here it hardly seemed necessary.

“Of course not,” Illya answers definitively, and Napoleon almost believes him.

They are both silent for a moment, staring into their respective wine glasses. “You don’t think…” Napoleon begins, almost hesitantly, “Gaby might have bugged us too?”

Illya gives him a pointed look, and they don’t speak again until Napoleon has swept the entire apartment. He’s almost done when he finds it, in the kitchen of all places, tucked under his mixer. Must get terrible sound when the appliance is on. Napoleon holds it up for Illya to see: standard UNCLE issue, so really, it could be almost anyone’s bug. Waverly could be checking up on him, for all he knows. He drops it in a glass of water and when he looks up again his partner is laughing silently at him.

“You’re a terrible spy, Cowboy,” he chuckles. “When is the last time you swept for bugs?”

Napoleon just grumbles as a reply and fills his wine glass again, not caring that perhaps he’s had enough to drink that night already. “Is it time for pie? I think it’s time for pie.”

Illya nods, clearly as relieved as Napoleon at having something else to do in this moment, and they eat in silence that’s more strained than it has been in a long time. Napoleon feels like he has to say something; what if Illya thinks that Gaby said that because of something she heard on the bug? Which is preposterous, of course, but still.

“About what Gaby said, before,” he forces himself to say, staring down at his pie and raking his fork through the smooth cream with far more nervousness than is really called for, “I don’t know where she got that idea…”

“Of course,” Illya jumps in. Napoleon risks a glance up to see him nodding as he remains extremely focused on his own slice of pie. “She says… crazy things sometimes.”

“Yeah, exactly. Exactly,” Napoleon repeats distractedly. “Crazy.”

 

IV. 

“It’s not going to work,” Illya says stubbornly. His arms are crossed over his chest and he’s frowning, and Napoleon knows it’s going to be a struggle to sell it.

“It will,” he shoots back, straightening his tie in the mirror before him. “Gaby agrees with me.”

He glances in the mirror to where their partner sits in a large armchair with her legs folded up under her, pretending to read a magazine. For once she’s not going to the gala, so she’s wearing her work jumpsuit and her hair is pinned up into a messy bun.

“Gaby is staying out of it,” she says without looking up.

“You are not doing this, Cowboy.”

“C’mon Peril, what could go wrong?” Napoleon prods with an easy grin he doesn’t quite feel. Plenty could go wrong, but it won’t. He’s done ops like this a hundred times before, at least.

Illya makes a face that quite clearly expresses how idiotic he thinks this line of reasoning is. “Everything,” he grumbles. “The mission could be compromised. Bystanders could be hurt. You could be injured.”

“Is that in order of descending importance?”

The sound his partner makes is something between a sigh and a growl.

“This way has the least amount of potential collateral damage, actually,” Napoleon insists. He stops fussing with his tie—it’s fine, perfect, even—and turns to look at Illya. “You’re doubting my skills, Peril?”

“You’re a terrible spy, Cowboy,” Illya drawls, because of course he does. There’s something thick in his voice, though, like he’s actually worried about him, only trying his best to hide it. He looks off into the corner of the room and gives a quiet huff. “But I do not doubt your skills in this area. It’s only that our mark should not be underestimated. You know what happened with Vinciguerra…”

Oh, he does. Only too well. The memory leaves a bitter taste in his mouth, like drugged scotch. “Yes, Peril, I’m quite aware,” he answers dryly. “Look, I know you don’t care for seduction plays, but honestly. I can take care of myself.”

Illya hums his skepticism but holds his tongue, and Napoleon counts it as a win. “Where are you putting the bug?” his partner asks. It’s as much of an approval as he’s likely to get.

“About that,” Napoleon winces, preparing for the next storm. “You read the brief, the Knights are quite paranoid. They’ll have hidden scanners in any room worth going into, I’m sure.”

“You are not going into this operation alone,” Illya states, in no uncertain terms.

“I know, Peril, you’ll know where I am. You guys can come after me if I don’t show later tonight.”

“No way. You wear a bug, or you don’t go.”

Napoleon doesn’t try to hold back his annoyance. “I’m sorry, I don’t remember Waverly assigning you point on this op,” he grits out.

“Well, when the point makes stupid decisions—”

“Oh, enough,” Gaby huffs out over the top of them, dropping the magazine down into her lap. “Solo, run the op how you like, but you’re wearing one of the new bugs. I don’t care if you don’t trust them, tech office put them through every possible scanner out there and they don’t show.”

Napoleon lets out a little hmpf of protest, but even he knows when he’s been overruled by the majority. He snatches up one of the new bugs from where they sit on the coffee table and replaces one of his cufflinks with its replica. “You always side with Peril,” he accuses in a low grumble.

“I certainly do not,” she shoots back from behind her magazine again. “I’m not the one who’s trying to convince you to change the op because I’ve suddenly decided I don’t like you seducing people.”

Illya, who Napoleon noticed had been looking quite pleased with himself, abruptly looks rather stricken. “That’s not—”

“Would you look at the time,” Napoleon interrupts, perhaps a hair too loud. Really, he doesn’t want to have this conversation now. Or ever. “Better get going. Try not to get too bored without me tonight. I’d say don’t wait up, but, well, that’s kind of your job.”

At that Gaby rises and walks over to him, giving his suit a thorough, once-over inspection even though there’s not a stitch out of place. When she’s satisfied, she gives his chest an affectionate pat and smiles up at him. “Knock ‘em dead. Maybe not literally.”

“Not in the briefing, unfortunately,” he quips back.

With one last glance in the mirror, he takes a short, steadying breath and makes for the door. Before he gets there, though, he’s halted by Illya’s hand on his arm, surprisingly tentative. He glances up at the other agent, brow furrowing in confusion at the look Illya is giving him.

“Take care of yourself, Cowboy,” he says quietly, and there’s something else in his gaze beyond just concern, something raw and open.

Napoleon resists the sudden, irrational urge to cover Illya’s hand with his and steals a glance back toward Gaby, but she has returned to her magazine and is apparently ignoring them. When he looks back up at Illya, whatever had lingered in his eyes is gone.

“I’ll do my best, Peril.”

 

V.

Napoleon is highly annoyed. This was not supposed to happen. This mission was supposed to be a milk run. Easy, low-risk intel gathering, the kind of thing they can practically do with their eyes closed. It was supposed to be a break, for Christ’s sake, getting sent to Sardinia. Their safehouse is on the beach.

So the fact that he is currently bound and gagged, bleeding profusely all over one of his favorite suits, is… annoying. To say the very least.

He has a distinct suspicion that this particularly delight has nothing to do with their current targets and everything to do with being powerfully unlucky. When they rolled up a weapons manufacturing operation several months ago a few individuals had slipped through the net, and now it seems that is coming back to bite them in the ass. Or rather, bite Napoleon. He thinks his partners weren’t made, and honestly at this point he can't really consider the possibility that they were also captured.

He should really try to get up and look around, see if he can find an exit, but, well, that is easier said than done. The back of his skull is pounding where he’d been clubbed by some blunt weapon, and the blood loss from the wound in his thigh really isn’t helping with the dizziness. They didn’t bind his ankles, but the pant leg of his light grey suit is almost entirely black in the low light of whatever dank basement they dropped him in, so he’s not optimistic about being able to stand at the moment. Maybe if he just rests for a bit longer.

The next thing he knows, he’s being rather rudely awakened by someone lightly smacking the side of his face. It doesn’t seem to be one of his captors, though, because said person is also cradling his upper body in their lap, and that seems awfully familiar for a torture session. But what does he know? Maybe it’s a new technique. For a moment he thinks he’s onto something because someone else pokes a finger at the bullet wound in his thigh and he jerks fully awake as pain sears through him.

“Fucking hell!” he yells, struggling weakly against the hands holding him down. Oh. Seems he’s not gagged any longer, then.

A heavy hand presses onto his chest, and its weight is somehow reassuring. “Shhh, Cowboy. We have to bind it. You’re still losing too much blood.”

It takes another second for Napoleon’s vision to clear, and he looks up into icy blue eyes full of unconcealed worry. Glancing around, he’s relieved to find that, apart from some bruised knuckles, Illya appears uninjured as far as he can tell. The suit he wore to the party is barely rumpled, although it’s no doubt ruined now that his partner has apparently taken it upon himself to kneel in a pool of blood.

Napoleon tries to push himself into more of a sitting position and gets reprimanded sternly by Gaby, who is the one currently torturing him. He takes a moment to mourn the loss of that evening gown, because she, too, is kneeling in blood where she’s tending to his thigh, and dear lord, is that really all his? But he can’t really think about it for too long because abruptly there is pain as Gaby probes the wound again.

“Bullet’s still in there, but I think it’s slowing the flow of the bleeding, so I don’t want to try to remove it. I can get some compression on it, but we need to get him out of here fast.”

Illya grunts his agreement, which is cue for Gaby to start wrapping the wound tightly. Stars burst in his vision at the pressure and he clenches his jaw to keep crying out again, his fingers digging into Illya’s forearm where it’s still curled around his chest. He knows he’s probably grabbing too hard, but Illya doesn’t make a peep until he starts moving again, trying to lift Napoleon from under his arms.

“C’mon Cowboy. Can you stand on your other leg?”

“‘Course I can, Peril,” Napoleon slurs, but as soon as Illya lifts him to his feet the world spins sickeningly and he starts listing sharply to one side.

“Hmm,” Illya hums disapprovingly. Napoleon can’t see his partner’s face from his current position, but his hands on Napoleon’s sides are definitely the only thing keeping him upright at the current moment. Not that Napoleon would admit that.

“We need to go, now,” Gaby says, and her voice sounds distant even though she’s standing right next to him.

Before he realizes what is happening, Illya scoops him up into his arms, cradling Napoleon to his chest like he’s some kind of small child. Which, really, is hardly necessary. Napoleon makes a noise of protest but it’s too late, they’re already moving, and all he can do is try not to let his head loll too dramatically. Because really, he’s not doing that badly…

 

 

Napoleon wakes up to the sound of waves crashing on the beach.

The light in the room is dim, and it takes him a moment to realize that it’s because the sun has already set beyond the endless horizon of the ocean, leaving the sky a painted twilight of oranges and purples. He recognizes the room he’s in: the one in the safehouse that they’d fought over when they arrived because it had the best view, not like they’d be spending enough time there to appreciate it. He doesn’t remember winning that fight, but he’s in here now, so he supposes that’s something. 

There’s someone sitting in a chair at the foot of the bed, staring out at the ocean. The silhouette is unmistakably Illya’s, and he must be awake because not even he can sit that ramrod straight in his sleep, but he’s also motionless enough to be a statue. Napoleon watches him silently for a few minutes, wondering if he’ll turn, but he never does. Maybe it is a statue, or a cardboard cutout to keep him company so the actual Illya could go off to do more important things.

The idea makes him huff a quiet laugh at his own stupid joke, and the soft sound is enough to shatter the silence of the room. Illya turns quickly, then, pushing out of the chair and crossing the distance to his bedside in a few long strides. The mattress dips slightly as he sits down next to him, the last fading light of the sun illuminating the edges of his face. He reaches out like he’s going to take Napoleon’s hand where it lays on top of the covers, but he stops himself, spreading his palms out flat over the blankets instead.

“You’re awake,” he murmurs, so quietly the words are barely audible over the crashing waves, like anything more would be far too much.

“Didn’t really expect to wake up here,” Napoleon says, unconciously matching his tone.

One corner of Illya’s mouth twitches upward slightly. “You prefer the hospital?”

“Not at all.” Napoleon smiles and glances out at the ocean again. “This is by far the most pleasant awakening I’ve had after nearly dying.”

Illya frowns at that, dropping his eyes, and one of his hands curls into a loose fist on the bed. Napoleon understands. They frequently joke about almost dying, afterwards, but sometimes it’s just… more difficult than others. On an impulse, he slides his hand over to cover Illya’s, and for a moment they just sit like that in the growing darkness. Illya’s sleeves are rolled up to his elbows, and Napoleon can see a series of dark blue bruises, roughly fingertip-sized, arcing across the skin of one of his forearms.

“Did I do these?” he asks, lifting his hand to trail a finger lightly over the marks before settling back over Illya’s fist again.

“Yes,” Illya answers, but when he glances up again he looks amused. “My only injury this mission.”

Napoleon smiles, both at the joke and in relief that his partners did, in fact, come through this relatively unscathed. Another beat of silence passes, and then he asks, “How long have you been sitting there, staring at the ocean?” It’s his way of asking how long have I been out without, well, asking.

“Three days,” Illya tells him. “You lost a lot of blood, Cowboy.”

“Gaby?”

Illya’s gaze flicks toward the door and where the rest of the safehouse lies beyond it. “Sleeping, now. She was here earlier.”

“What about you?”

“You know,” Illya says, frowning at him again.

He does. Illya tends to just… not sleep, when one of his partners is injured. He dozes here and there at their bedsides, because there’s no way to fight the exhaustion that settles over them and works its way in to their bones, but never for long. Napoleon can’t see the dark circles that three days have left under his eyes right now, but he knows they’re there.

“You should get some sleep now,” he says, giving the hand under his a little squeeze. 

“Later.”

The twilight has completely faded now, but neither of them move to turn on the lamp that sits on the bedside table. Instead, Illya’s hand moves under his and then he’s lacing their fingers together, the action hidden by the darkness that cloaks the room. Napoleon desperately wishes he could see the look on Illya’s face as he does this, but he supposes that’s probably the entire point. Illya can’t see his face either, and Napoleon should probably be happy about that.

“This… should not have happened,” Illya murmurs, if possible even quieter than before. “It was too close.”

“Please tell me you’re not blaming yourself for me getting ambushed on my way to the bathroom,” Napoleon says dryly. “I’m the one who let my guard down.”

Illya huffs a soft laugh at that. “Are you trying to tell me that you’re a terrible spy?”

“Maybe I am.”

“Not this time,” Illya sighs. His fingers tighten by a fraction around Napoleon’s hand.

“Hmm. Are you sure you’re not gravely ill?” Napoleon presses, trying to hang onto some levity. “Secretly concussed? You’re gonna make me worried about you, you know.”

Illya huffs, and Napoleon can just barely see him shake his head in the darkness. “You’re a terrible spy, Cowboy. There. Happy?” he says, and the hopeless fondness in his voice makes Napoleon’s heart lurch in a way he can’t ignore. 

 

+1

Under any other circumstances, Napoleon would be certain that hints were being dropped. If said hints involved nearly any other person besides Illya Kuryakin—KGB agent, superspy, his partner and friend—Napoleon could maybe make sense of them. But these were not different circumstances, and they did not involve anyone else, and so he was stumped.

Because there is certainly no possible way that Illya could feel that way about him; the way, incidentally, that Napoleon so wishes he could. Surely Napoleon is just reading intentions into Illya’s actions that aren’t actually there, simply because he wants them to be.

It’s just this: ever since Sardinia, it seems to him that Illya has been behaving somewhat oddly. Most of it is extremely subtle, which on one hand makes sense for a spy, but on the other makes it so much easier to believe that he is just imagining things. The barest increase in physical contact, the occasional comment that seems more loaded than normal, the little thoughtful acts, both mundane and significant. Napoleon is more than familiar with the intricacies of this particular art, but it is unusual that he sees it turned around on him. Unusual and more than a little disconcerting.

Napoleon flat out rejects the most obvious explanation for all of this—that Illya Kuryakin is basically fucking courting him, not to put too fine a point on it—because it is entirely absurd. Maybe the blow he took to the head shook a screw loose or something, because that is more logical than anything else. All of which goes to explain how, despite the frankly unmistakable signs, Napoleon gets completely blindsided the next time they have some downtime between missions.

He’s sitting at his desk in their shared office, trying to finish up the last of his part of the paperwork from their previous mission. He’d been procrastinating, of course, because who actually likes paperwork, which means it’s now several hours after the deadline for getting it in. The dregs of a cup of coffee, long gone cold, sit next to him on the desk, and he contemplates procrastinating further by making a new pot, though everyone else has already left HQ for the day. Well, almost everyone.

“Are you almost done with that?” Illya asks from where he lies stretched out on the tiny couch that they crammed along the one free wall.

His arm is thrown over his face and, to be perfectly honest, Napoleon had assumed that the only reason he was still there was that he’d fallen asleep. His partner’s propensity for napping on what is little more than a loveseat will never stop being baffling, but he supposes that Illya must find something about it comfortable.

“Why do you care?” Napoleon returns absently, not looking up from the paperwork. “I don’t why you don’t just go home to nap, you finished your work ages ago.”

Illya mumbles something that almost sounds like ‘easier to sleep here,’ which can’t possibly be true.

“You’re telling me you’re more comfortable sleeping on a minuscule, threadbare sofa with your legs hanging over the armrest than you are in a bed?” Napoleon says, quirking an eyebrow at him as continues writing. This time, Illya’s mumbled reply is unintelligible. “Sorry, didn’t catch that, Peril.”

Out of the corner of his eye, he watches as Illya pulls his arm off his face and levers himself up to a semi-reclining position, frowning across the room. “I said, it’s not the sofa that makes it comfortable.”

Napoleon’s pen scratches to a halt on the paper and he looks up fully at his partner, blinking no doubt more frequently than is really necessary as he tries to process this information. Illya stares back at him, his stony expression betraying nothing.

Right. He’s definitely reading too much into things again. With effort, Napoleon breaks away from their staring contest and forces himself to continue writing… whatever the fuck he’d been writing before. This paperwork is going to be even more of a mess than it usually is.

“Well?” Illya prompts after another minute. “Are you almost done?”

Napoleon studiously does not look up at him this time. “Nearly. Why?”

“Thought we could go to dinner,” Illya says nonchalantly.

“Gaby’s busy tonight, remember?”

At this, Illya rises from the couch and walks over to Napoleon’s desk, crossing his arms as he leans back against the edge right next to where Napoleon sits. He’s close enough that Napoleon’s elbow will knock up against his hips if he keeps writing, and so he pauses even though Illya had just been hassling him about finishing. Well, if it takes longer then it’s his own damn fault.

“And?” Illya asks, looking down at him expectantly.

Oh. Oh. Napoleon tips his head to gaze up at his partner and tries to swallow down the lump that seems to have taken up residence in his throat. “You meant, just you and me?”

Illya hums his confirmation of this. They haven’t eaten a real meal alone together since the time Napoleon accidentally made an extravagant dinner for just the two of them, and it’s not like it was a common occurrence before then, either. Napoleon would like to pretend he doesn’t know what is behind this suggestion, but that is increasingly difficult with Illya perched on his desk, inches away, staring down at him with that look in his eyes.

“Illya,” he says softly, hearing the strain in his own voice, “what is all of this about?”

“All of what, Cowboy?” He looks coy, damn him. Who said that giant, gruff Russians are allowed to look coy, anyways?

Napoleon gestures in the scant air between them, pen still clutched in his hand. “This.”

“I thought it was obvious, no?” Illya leans down, putting one large hand on top of Napoleon’s paperwork to more completely loom over him.

“Obvious, right,” Napoleon says weakly. “It’s only, well, I’m not sure if I’ve interpreted things quite correctly, you see, so if you could maybe humor me, just this once—”

Napoleon's nonsensical babbling cuts off on its own as Illya moves even closer, a smirk tugging on his lips. “Humor you?”

“Yes?” Napoleon breathes. For some reason it comes out as a question.

“Hmm,” Illya hums, still smirking, like he’s not sure he wants to. Like he thinks it might be more fun to just keep fucking with Napoleon’s head indefinitely, which, maybe he does. “You are telling me that you need it to be more obvious? That the man who is supposed to be the CIA’s finest, who is one of UNCLE’s top agents, cannot figure out what ‘all of this’ is about?”

Napoleon huffs. “Well, when you put it that way—”

He doesn’t get to finish that thought, because suddenly Illya’s lips are on his, a soft press more tentative than his partner’s taunting words might have suggested. Somehow Napoleon is still surprised by this turn of events. Before he can even really process what is happening, Illya is pulling away. Not far, but enough to look down at him again, waiting for a reaction.

“Obvious enough for you?” he murmurs. The smirk he’s is trying valiantly to keep on his lips has lost all of its smugness to the uncertainty that very clearly lurks in his eyes now.

Illya fortuitously happens to be wearing a tie today, for some bizarre reason, and Napoleon grabs it, pulling him down again until their mouths fit together. This time he leaves no doubt on his feelings on the matter, parting his lips and losing himself in the slide of tongues and the scrape of teeth. They kiss long and deep, until they’re both breathless when they break apart.

“Yes, Peril,” Napoleon retorts when he’s caught his breath enough, unable to keep the snark from creeping into his tone, “quite obvious. But you know, you could have just said something.”

Illya’s returning grin is wolfish. “And miss out on seeing you squirm? Never.”

“Bastard!” Napoleon gasps, though there’s a smile on his lips that entirely ruins the effect. “You did that on purpose?!”

“You know, you’re a terrible spy, Cowboy.”

For that, Napoleon pulls him down into another kiss, this one with a bit more teeth than before. Illya still laughs into it.

“No no, you said I was one of UNCLE’s top agents,” Napoleon says against his lips. “You can’t take it back.”

“Damn,” Illya groans, “I’m going to regret that, aren’t I?”

Napoleon hums his assent into the kiss, wrapping his free hand around Illya’s hip to tug him toward his lap. To his surprise, his partner acquiesces, sliding sideways in between Napoleon and the desk.

“What about your paperwork, Cowboy?” Illya teases when Napoleon starts kissing his way across his jaw.

“Fuck,” Napoleon breathes, pressing his face into the crook of Illya’s neck. He can just see the offending papers, still sitting half-done on the desk behind his partner’s body. “What do you think Waverly will do to me if it's not done by tomorrow?”

Illya is smirking unsympathetically when Napoleon pulls back to look at him. “I guess we’ll find out.”

If Napoleon was petty enough he’d push his partner off his lap and make him wait until the paperwork was done, maybe draw it out a bit as payment for distracting him. But as it turns out, Napoleon’s pettiness does not outweigh his desire to keep kissing Illya, and anyway he dares anyone in his position to choose paperwork over a surprisingly affectionate Russian.

Napoleon slides one of his palms along the top of Illya’s thigh and grins wickedly as his partner’s eyebrows arc skyward. “Yes, Peril,” he says, “I guess we will.”