One of These Times
Napoleon came back from a successful mission with a cheerful attitude. All had gone well, the Thrush plans had been foiled, nobody had been hurt – well, other than the Thrush minions – the girl had been intelligent and competent, and she'd also been a good kisser. All in all, a very good mission.
His cheerful attitude, however, turned to suspicious worry when he got in and first the tailor, then the receptionist jumped when they saw him, then put on sad faces but wouldn't tell him anything.
That usually meant only one of a couple of things.
Napoleon headed straight up to Waverly's office, not bothering to stop at his own along the way.
Sarah gave him the same look as the others, but made him wait all the same while she checked with Mr. Waverly. She came out with a section head and a visiting agent, who also gave Napoleon the look as they walked out.
Setting his jaw grimly, Napoleon walked in.
"Ah, Mr. Solo," Waverly waved him to a seat while he refilled his pipe. "Good work in Bermuda."
"Thank you, Sir," Napoleon replied automatically, waiting. He knew from experience that Waverly wouldn't be hurried. At least, though, he wouldn't draw it out unnecessarily either.
Waverly sat down in his usual spot, rummaging through files before pulling out one. He put it on the table and turned the rotating table until the file was sitting in front of Napoleon. "I'm sorry, Mr. Solo. But the odds have always been, one of these times."
"All UNCLE agents are expendable," Napoleon said numbly, even as he opened the file.
"Yes, we are," Waverly replied steadily, his gaze stern and sympathetic at the same time. He placed his pipe back between his teeth and moved his attention to a different file.
That was one thing that all agents knew, and it helped that Waverly never excluded himself. He put himself at risk more often than the others liked, and his early exploits were similar to their own.
Napoleon flipped quickly through the file Waverly had given him, going from the mission briefing, scanning the reports along the way, and then finally to the conclusion.
Drawing in a long breath, Napoleon held it for a few moments. Then he let it slowly out. "There was no body."
Waverly looked up and put his pen down. He picked up his pipe again instead. "Mr. Solo, the place was in flames. They weren't able to make a full search, as you have read, but the conclusion is definite. There were witnesses."
"There was no body," Napoleon repeated stubbornly. "This is Illya, who has been declared dead by UNCLE a grand total of... however many times."
"Eight," Waverly supplied. "Thus breaking your own record by two." Waverly puffed on his pipe for a few moments before removing it and studying the bowl intently. "Mr. Solo. Mr. Kuryakin has beaten the odds many times before. As have you, yourself. This gives the two of you a... unique... perspective on the survivability of an UNCLE agent in circumstances like these. And believe me, I do take into account your abilities when I make final declarations. I have been wrong before, I admit. But too many times, with too many other agents, I have not."
Napoleon was silent. It was more than Waverly normally said. He was typically more stoic and heartless in his approach. And Illya had not died alone, there in the end. Napoleon flipped through the file to look at the other agents, which he had skimmed before. They had lost three others before Illya and Jardish. Napoleon had been in that position as well, the senior agent going in to salvage a previously failed operation. The lone survivor of an action where his co-workers died. The odds were never good, yet that was their job and their privilege as senior agents, to take on the tasks that others could not, the ones that were heavily weighted against them, where the slightest misstep could bring disaster down – or not even a misstep, but simply the enemy not making mistakes of their own. Illya had succeeded in what he and Jardish had gone in to do. That made the mission a success, for UNCLE. But Waverly still had to write the letters for all the agents. As did Napoleon at times as well. But... there was a difference between other agents and Illya. Maybe not for others, but always for him.
"I can either give you leave, or give you work." Waverly put the pipe stem between his teeth, then removed it again. "If I give you work, it will be junior work for awhile," he warned. "I will not lose you as well." Quickly, he drew the other papers back and hunched over them again, distancing himself from his words.
Flipping back a few pages, Napoleon gave the illusion of not having noticed Waverly's lapse into sentimentality. People in the office often thought that Napoleon was Waverly's favorite, given his position and their similarities. However, while Napoleon did think he was valuable and favored in general, the true label of 'favorite' had been Illya's. The Number One, Section One in UNCLE gave Illya unprecedented access and trust. The few times Waverly had gone back on a decision were either for Illya directly, or when Napoleon had asked to rescue Illya. When Illya was younger, he would go to great lengths to avoid disappointing Waverly. Napoleon had thought it was cute, if unnecessary, and would tease his friend mercilessly if their cases weren't perfect. Now, their relationship was more settled, Illya more secure with himself... but he was still Waverly's favorite. Had been. Is. Was.
Napoleon closed the file with a sigh. "Give me work," he said. Junior work was better than leave.
Pulling out a few more files, Waverly set them down, picking up the one he'd been working on, and spun the table. This had the effect of putting the new files in front of Napoleon... and taking Illya's away from him. Well, Napoleon hadn't thought he was going to get to keep it. Not with it so definitely closed.
But there wasn't a body, a whisper repeated inside of him, a voice that refused to be silenced.
There were witnesses, Napoleon replied back to himself, firmly.
Illya. The whisper said that much, and no more.
Napoleon had no reply. He picked up the files, glancing briefly at them as he stood from the table.
"There is always more work than we have agents for," Waverly waved his pipe at Napoleon and the files. "Pick which one you want."
A sop for his soul. Napoleon would take it. Since he had nothing else. They had one less agent to do the work now. Five less, with the others as well. But the truth was there was only one that counted, at least for him.
As he left, Sarah called out briefly. "I'm sorry."
Napoleon wanted to reject it, but Sarah had liked Illya too. Everybody did, except for those who didn't. He nodded to her, accepting it, dredging up a smile from his tool kit of them, something that he used in cases and times like these. As he left for real this time, though, the smile vanished back to the kit.
There were other people approaching down the hallway. Napoleon grimly took hold of himself. It was going to be a very long day.
Waverly hadn't lied when he said the cases were junior work. Napoleon sighed in the privacy of his office, flipping through his options. Boring. Routine. Easy. Nothing worth his time, except that all of it did need to be done, and there were never enough agents. One less.
The phone rang.
"Oh, did it go through? Is this right?" A thick southern accent came across the line. She sounded very familiar, eerily so.
"Who were you trying to reach, ma'am?" Most general agency calls went to the operator, but the particularities of a shared phone system meant that sometimes if the operator lines were all busy, the call went out to a random line in the office. Everybody in the building was carefully trained not to assume that a call to their line automatically was for them. Though, of course, most everybody did so anyhow. Napoleon had learned caution the hard way.
"Oh, Mr. Solo! It is you. I just dialed randomly, thinking of you. Though the first time I got the clothing shop downtown, then the second time I got a bakery. The third---"
"Clemency?" Napoleon asked in utter disbelief. "Clemency McGill?"
"Yes, it's me. Do pay attention, Mr. Solo! I say." She rattled on without pause for Napoleon to reply. "When we were together, I know most of what I said was that dratted hair comb – and I'll never forgive that evil, evil man – but I do still know a few things on my own, you know."
"I'm sure," Napoleon interjected quickly, before he was over run again.
"Well, and all. You were very nice as well. Even if you aren't the marrying type. Only nice to a certain degree, of course, but I'm not that sort of girl, either! Not without a ring, oh no. But I do have a certain fondness for you, sometimes."
Napoleon wondered if he put the phone down on the desk and picked it up again in a few minutes if she would still be talking. Previous experience would certainly deem it possible. Sadly, previous experience also meant he needed to listen carefully because Clemency surely had a reason for calling.
"Miss McGill, why ---" No use.
"And that partner of yours. The one you used to think about all the time. That wasn't entirely the comb, you know. I could tell there was that connection there, when you needed to touch him."
Napoleon flushed a little, glad there was nobody else in the office. When Illya had gotten out of the bat cave, he'd been weak and shaky from blood loss. Normal bats didn't eat people, and even vampire bats usually avoided humans, going after slow-moving cattle who wouldn't notice a little nip and lapping up of the blood. For the bats in the cave to have gone after Illya like that, there was something seriously wrong with them, beyond having been altered for radar somehow. The mad scientists always came up with ingenious and impossible to replicate science.
Illya had been so weak... Napoleon had first assigned Clemency to help him, but she just made it worse. Illya had the rare ability to push aside his hurt and barrel through as if he'd never been wounded, though he tended to crash hard afterwards. But to do it, Illya needed to concentrate. Clemency was not a person any sane being could concentrate around.
So Napoleon had switched places with Miss McGill, letting her have the gun while he helped Illya. In retrospect, perhaps not the wisest of plans. But Napoleon was so very rarely wise where his partner's safety was concerned. And Illya had been so cold... Napoleon remembered holding him, pressing close, providing warmth and his presence – giving Illya what he needed to move into that second wind ability of his.
Napoleon closed his eyes. "Miss McGill!" Remembering Illya was like a bitter, bitter pain. Bittersweet, with the memory and the feel, hollow with knowing there would be no more. Memories were all he had now. They would never be enough.
"Sorry." The southern lady sounded genuinely apologetic, and she cleared her throat. "Tuscarora. You should go to Tuscarora."
There was a click of the phone as she disconnected.
Napoleon slowly cradled the receiver.
He tried not to hope too hard. But... Thrush had picked Clemency for her native ability, and she'd come up with a few things not related to the comb. Not that she had said anything specific. But...
Pulling a breath in, Napoleon held it for a long, long minute. Then he released it and sorted through the files again. He pulled out the one about a small town in Nevada, where the few residents had reported some unusual activity in the old abandoned mine in the hills. It was at the bottom of the pile for investigating, with no links at all to Thrush or even unduly suspicious activity.
Napoleon would take this case. And damn it, he would take the hope as well. Because what was life, without hope?
It took him a week to unravel the pieces. It wasn't in Tuscarora itself, which was a close-knit small community, but Thrush had indeed set up activity in the hills behind it. The reported activity in the mine was reverberations from whatever they were working on further back.
There was no sign of Illya, no mention of an UNCLE captive, nothing that he could find.
Clemency hadn't exactly said Illya would be there. She just said to go to Tuscarora.
All Napoleon had, still and always, was hope. Hope, and his duty. He would cling to it as long as he could.
He reported in to UNCLE dutifully on the day before his raid. He would go in at evening time and penetrate as far as he could. It was a fishing exhibition rather than a true raid, so he specifically said no back-up. He would leave some bugs, a few wires, some surveillance, and they could figure out what Thrush was up to. Still, the Salt Lake City headquarters were on alert. 4 hours away by driving, 2 by helicopter. And that was the closest.
Napoleon shook his head. When Thrush went remote, they really dug in. This was not a junior agent assignment at all. Regardless of why Napoleon had taken the assignment, he was glad it was him and not another. Messing with a Thrush installation was no minor task.
Dressed in his black fatigues, backpack on, UNCLE Special checked and loaded with both darts and bullets, accessories ready, Napoleon settled on a hill top, watching the bunker with binoculars. Daylight wasn't the time for a raid, so he waited for the sun to dip down by the hill lines, and then he moved in.
As he moved in, Thrush moved out.
Napoleon karate chopped the first one that barrel out at him, thinking he was under attack. But even as he took the fellow down, another one ran by, ignoring the two of them. Then a third dashed out.
Blinking, Napoleon moved to the side of the entrance and watched for awhile, fascinated as the rats continued to scurry out.
Something was up. They were running from danger. Which meant that he, as an UNCLE agent, was drawn directly towards it. Napoleon made his way cautiously inside the bunker.
Once he was past the initial facades and entries, he'd gotten past the sound barrier that kept the outside world from hearing Thrush activities. A loud alarm was sounding, the usual "get out now" tones of warning that those types of alarms used.
Well. Maybe Napoleon wouldn't have to do anything about this Thrush installation. Though it would be nice to know what it was for, and if there was anything UNCLE could salvage from it.
Napoleon continued to make his way in. The Thrushies were less plentiful now, either most of them having gotten out his way, another way, or too stubborn to leave. It looked like a fairly typical Thrush set up for underground installations, and Napoleon headed towards what was normally the command center. Either that or the labs. Sometimes it was one or the other, depending on what the site was used for.
After a cautious few minutes, Napoleon got to the heart of the installation. It looked like it was laboratories this time. He opened a couple of doors but didn't see anything obvious. He could be missing any number of non-obvious important things, which a search could have revealed, but with that alarm blaring, he didn't really have time for anything except the obvious – or the lucky. Sometimes, if he just trusted his instincts...
Reaching for the third door, it nearly smacked him in the face, opening before he got to it. Moving back quickly to avoid the door, he wasn't quick enough to avoid the person dashing out right behind it, and they fell in a tangle of limbs, objects that the other had been carrying falling around them.
There was an automatic moment where they started to wrestle, each looking to gain the advantage over the other.
Then the familiarity of it all kicked in and Napoleon froze.
Illya got him into an arm lock before he paused and looked at Napoleon's face. He blinked, then let go of Napoleon and backed off. "It would have been immensely more useful if you had gotten here an hour ago!"
Napoleon opened his mouth, then closed it, not finding anything to say. He didn't think telling Illya that he'd spent that hour waiting for the sun to set would earn him any kudos. Picking himself up, Napoleon reached for one of the objects that Illya had been carrying and was now picking up off the floor.
"Teddy bears?" Napoleon tilted his head, looking critically at the stuffed animal. Then he turned to Illya with raised eyebrows, letting the implication and question fill in by itself. Obviously it was something important, but that didn't mean he couldn't tease his partner otherwise.
Illya grunted, not bothering to reply. Suddenly he looked at Napoleon, eyes narrowed. Napoleon clutched the teddy bear to him, not liking the gleam in his friend's eyes. Then he was surrounded, Illya reaching for his jacket and tucking it inside his waistband, securely so it wouldn't pull out. Another moment went by and then stuffed animals were being stuffed inside his jacket.
"There are more," Illya said, even as he tucked them in. "I didn't have any way of carrying them. But if you're here..."
"I've got a full kit on me," Napoleon held his arms out, letting Illya do what he wanted to him. "There're extra bags in the side pocket."
Illya abandoned Napoleon's jacket to go for the backpack he was wearing. The sound of a zipper, and then an absence behind him made Napoleon breathe out, then turn to follow Illya into the lab.
This one was more obviously the main work area. The others hadn't been empty, but this one had a focus and intensity to it the others had lacked. Plus a couple of bodies. Napoleon gave them a glance to make sure they weren't going to be trouble and otherwise ignored them. It happened in their line of work. And considering the bruises that showed through the ripped and dirty shirt on Illya, Napoleon wasn't going to be fussy. He wouldn't have his own revenge, apparently, but it was good enough to know Illya had.
He wiggled his backpack off and transferred the animals Illya had put in his jacket into the backpack instead, leaving out the rope and the more easily replaceable items to make room. He didn't know why the teddy bears and cats and dogs and ... zebras? fish? were important, but he trusted Illya.
Illya. Napoleon breathed out again, his eyes tracking his very much alive and living friend as he darted around the room. Napoleon would send Miss McGill a giant bouquet of roses just as soon as they got back.
Swallowing, he moved to the other side of the room and collected what other stuffed animals he could see. There were an amazing number of them for a laboratory that seemed to be more about biological and organic research.
Pausing that thought, Napoleon eyed the floppy dog he was holding. "Illya, these things aren't going to blow up on me, are they? Or come alive?"
A familiar reassuring snort came from the other side of the room. "They're stuffed animals, Napoleon. Though they do have computer discs inside of them. Once apiece, each with the specifics of the section they were working on. There wasn't a medium with enough storage to hold the whole thing – not and small enough to hide. So they split it up. Plus samples of the work as well."
Napoleon had gone back to animal collection, but froze again at the last. "Samples....?"
"They're well protected inside the stuffing," Illya impatiently replied. "Do you see a yellow giraffe anywhere around? The yellow giraffe is one of the keys..."
The alarm sirens went up in pitch and intensity.
"Uh oh..." Illya straightened up, abandoning his search. "Napoleon, let's go!"
Napoleon spotted the yellow giraffe on a back counter. He ran over and reached for it – only to have his wrist caught in a painful bite as something green darted out and latched on.
"Napoleon!" Illya ran over and bashed the thing with a pot, breaking the ceramic and knocking the thing loose.
Cradling his wrist with his other hand, Napoleon eyed what looked for all the world like a giant venus fly trap only with teeth. It opened its mouth and hissed at him, and Illya batted it again.
His wrist didn't hurt that bad. Napoleon ignored the injury and grabbed the giraffe while Illya kept the oddity away. "Got it."
"Good." Illya gave a last, vicious whack, and then grabbed Napoleon's good hand and hauled him out. "We have to hurry! The self-destruct will go any moment now!"
"You don't do things by half, do you, my partner?" Napoleon let himself be hauled along, shrugging his pack to a more comfortable position on his back and checking that Illya's carry bag was secure.
All the danger in the world couldn't be enough to defuse his happiness, the bubbling joy that was circulating through him every time he looked at Illya, heard him, felt his grip, knew that he was here.
Even Illya's annoyed growl at his light response got nothing but a laugh from him in return.
Illya glanced briefly back while running, to catch Napoleon's eye as a grin spread across his face as well.
They were in the element now, and they were together, and the world was right. Danger was part of their element, and it always would be, and just as exhilarating as it was now. Together was the important part, and they both understood it without words.
The explosion caught them not quite out of the bunker, but just outside the main section into the facades. The walls collapsed down around them, but not as decisively as the rest of the bunker, and they were able to make it outside a little dirtier and a few more scrapes and bruises, but not any worse.
Outside, they first sat down to catch their breath, then laid down in the dirt path and looked up at the stars. Napoleon could feel Illya next to him. Could hear his breathing. Could smell him... a week or more without showers, apparently. He turned his hand over to touch Illya's arm, needing that one more connection to make it whole. Illya shifted slightly closer without saying anything.
"If I don't move, I'm going to collapse," Illya finally said, sitting up and shaking himself. "Let me see your wrist."
The sun had set completely and there was no light around but the stars – which, as far as they were from any light pollution, were pretty bright. Not quite bright enough for that, though. Napoleon got the flashlight from his inner jacket pocket and handed it to Illya, then obediently sat still while Illya muttered over his wrist.
After a moment, Illya rummaged in Napoleon's pack, getting the first aid kit out of the front flap where it was always the most accessible. "We should at least disinfect it. I believe you're okay, however."
"Why thank you," Napoleon cracked dryly, "I think I'm pretty okay as well. At least the ladies seem to agree."
Illya paused a moment at that before shaking his head in exasperation and pouring alcohol over Napoleon's wrist.
That hurt worse than the bite. Napoleon gritted his teeth and endured. "How about you?"
"I'm pretty okay too," Illya just as dryly responded.
Napoleon snorted, then went serious again. "Shall I call for a medical copter? It will take them two hours to get here."
Illya blinked, even as he wrapped the gauze. "How long otherwise...?"
"Half-hour of us clambering out to where I left the jeep, then either twenty minutes to the closest town, which I warn you, is being generous with the name, or another ninety to Elko, which really is a town, but only a small medical. Another hour to a hospital." He'd mapped it all out, not liking the distances but it was what it was.
There was a long pause. "Where are we? I didn't think any place outside Siberia could get this remote."
Napoleon laughed and stood up, reaching his hand down to Illya and rejoicing fiercely when his hand was clasped in a strong grip. He pulled, assisting Illya up. "Welcome to the other 90% of America that is nowhere near anyplace else. There's a reason I tend to stay in cities."
Illya let himself be braced. "I warn you, Napoleon. I might have that twenty minutes in me, but not much else. I needed to move quickly in there."
In other words, Illya was doing his trick of running on fumes but when those were out, there would be nothing left at all. Watching Illya collapse was often scary yet also scarily familiar for how often it happened. Reassuring as well, since it usually meant they were safe, or more safe than they had been. In the bat caves, when Illya had collapsed after saving the world again, Clemency had been frantic, which, considering her normal state of being, had been rather unnerving. Napoleon, though, had simply caught Illya as he fell, made him comfortable on the floor, then waited for their back-up, spending the time reassuring Miss McGill. What was upsetting for the civilians was normal for them.
"Fifteen," Napoleon promised, retracing the path mentally and shaving some minutes off since they had no more need for stealth. Though they had better keep an eye out for formerly fleeing minions. "You can collapse then. As long as you don't need a hospital."
"No hospital," Illya promised in return, leaning on Napoleon. "Just rest. And food. They gave me water, but were stingy on the food. But mostly I just need rest." He took a step away and hefted his bag of stuffed animals.
Napoleon reached for it. "Let's tie that more securely onto my pack and leave the hands free." He had the yellow giraffe tucked inside his jacket. It could stay there.
A few minutes to secure the loads meant more security for heading out. Grabbing Illya's hand, Napoleon led the way, focusing his memory into the details. He'd known he'd be coming back at night, so he'd taken pains to be careful on his way in, memorizing the route and all potential hazards. They never knew when they'd be coming back wounded, or tired, or with captives who needed minding. Not usually with stuffed animals. But often, thankfully often, with his partner. As he was now.
True to his word, once inside the jeep, Illya secured the seatbelt across himself, then curled up, asleep against the door before another moment had gone by.
Napoleon fussed around the interior a bit, securing his pack and the extra bag, then getting a couple of blankets out and tucking them around Illya. He brushed the dirty hair gently away from Illya's forehead, noticing dried blood stains as well. Feeling around, there was a thicker clot of tangled hair and long-dried blood on one side. That probably explained at least some of the eyewitness reports that had Illya dead before the fires.
Breathe out. Breathe in. Long and deep. Napoleon stood there for an intensely protracted minute, his hand resting on his living partner and reassuring himself of the same.
Then he moved to the driver's side of the jeep and headed them out.
It was a long drive. The first part wasn't on any sort of roads, just going over the rocks and dirt and sand and plants where they could. Napoleon had taken care not to follow the Thrush tracks directly and was on a different path.
He'd had a tent nearby for most of the week, which would have surprised a lot of the folks in the office. With his encouragement, they tended to forget that he was agent first, ex-soldier second, and dignified dandy only third and very last. He hadn't wanted to leave evidence of his camp, though, so had arranged the motel in Elko for last night and this night. A much longer drive, but clear and free away from Thrush if he accidentally stirred things up with his explorations.
Not as much of a worry now, but the motel would still be better for Illya. While the other agent wouldn't have lied about not needing a hospital, he had been known to under-estimate his injuries before, particularly when pushing himself. Tents weren't exactly conducive to good rest either.
They finally got onto the dirt roads, and the driving was easier. Not smooth, but better. Napoleon took out his pen and made a brief report, letting UNCLE know about the destruction of the bunkers and the fleeing Thrushites. He also asked them to call and warn the folks in the near-by town in case the Thrushies tried to go there and extort them. They were too small to have law enforcement, but they were a close-knit community and could hold together with the warning.
Selfishly, Napoleon didn't say a word about Illya. He made a brief reference to "the other agent on the scene" but didn't give details even when pressed. It was petty of him, and maybe a little small, but he wanted Illya to himself for now. Not that anybody was going to swoop in and take him away... but still.
Once they hit paved roads, and then the highway, things went smoother and faster. Illya didn't wake up. Napoleon didn't expect him to – he was familiar with how it was. He still, though, kept an eye on his partner, and listened to him breathe.
After they got to the motel, though, Napoleon rousted him up. "Come on, sleepy head. Up and at 'em. At least as far as the bed."
"Bed?" Illya groggily sat up, putting a hand on Napoleon's arm to steady himself.
"Motel," Napoleon replied. "Fifteen feet in. Just put one foot in front of the other..."
Illya shot him a blurry glare. "I'm not a baby."
"I wouldn't expect a baby to be walking."
Choosing to laugh, Illya woke the rest of the way up and got out of the car, stretching. He followed Napoleon into the room and looked around. "Is the fruit yours?"
Napoleon nodded as he did a quick sweep of the room. "I knew I'd be coming back late and wanted snacks, so I put them out before I left."
Illya gave a slightly disbelieving stare at him, but still headed to the bowl. He grabbed a banana and started eating almost before he'd finished peeling it.
Putting snacks out before they left on a mission was an Illya-habit, not one of Napoleon's. And usually only in safe locations, not motels. What could he say? His partner had been very much on his mind this whole week. He hadn't planned on coming back with him... but he'd still gotten the fruit.
Wrinkling his nose, Napoleon suggested, "Once your empty belly has had the appropriate sacrifices, I suggest a shower before bed."
Glancing down at himself, Illya shrugged. "I can't even smell myself anymore, so you're probably right." He grabbed a couple of apples and headed to the bathroom. "I'll go first."
"Be my guest," Napoleon called back as the door closed to the sounds of clothing hitting the floor. Which, considering clothing didn't normally make sounds, was a little telling for the condition they were in.
While Illya was in the shower, Napoleon sorted stuffed animals. He got all of them from the sack and his backpack, and the giraffe and a couple others still tucked inside his jacket, and he lined them all up on the bed. After a few minutes, he sorted them by type of animal as well. Then he sorted by color. Then animal first and color second.
He might have been just a little bit bored and a little bit still on edge. Maybe.
"Illya, can I take one of these apart?" he called through the door.
A pause, then, "If you like. Just be careful with the test tubes."
Given permission, Napoleon cheerfully chose a sinister looking teddy bear as his victim and dissected it. Inside the padding was the promised computer disc and test tube. The test tube was wax sealed and had been wound with an inordinate amount of gauze before tucked into the stuffing inside the toy. Illya hadn't been understating when he said they were well-packed. Likely the scientists or those who worked with them had been planning on transporting them directly instead of leaving it to minions. They usually took more care when it was their own skins they were worried about.
Thoughtfully, Napoleon packed it up again, using a safety pin to hold the edges together where he'd slit it open.
Illya came out, a towel around his hips, steam following him in a billow wafting through the room.
Napoleon looked up and kept looking. Bruises everywhere, and skin still too pale, even for Illya, but he was moving easily and there didn't seem to be any more serious wounds. He was, though, gingerly dabbing at his head with the other towel and making hissing sounds as he did.
Moving over, Napoleon took the towel from him and gently patted Illya's hair, shifting through the wet, golden strands until he could get a good look at the wound. It had been fairly bad at one point, but looked like it was healing up. The gash was long and red and seeping new blood from where the scabs had been dislodged, but it didn't look inflamed. Considering Illya's condition, that was a touch of luck. The caked blood on his hair probably had sealed it off from dirt and infection.
Deceptively meek, Illya stood still while Napoleon was inspecting him. The only movements he made were to reach around and grab another banana, taking more time with this one.
"You'll live," Napoleon proclaimed finally, dabbing the seeping part of the wound and then leaving it alone. It would be better with fresh air at this point.
"Good to know," Illya said dryly. "How many of them are there?" He nodded at the animals on the bed.
"Twenty eight." It had seemed like a lot more when they had been running around gathering them up. It was still more stuffed animals than anybody but a little girl should have in their room and on their bed.
"Good," Illya repeated, this time with satisfaction. "We got them all. I'd been prepared to leave some... but it will be easier with all."
Without any warning, Napoleon's heart did a twist, recalling that moment when Illya had run into him in the corridor, when he'd known it was Illya, when Illya had been alive again for him. Shutting his eyes, Napoleon breathed in and out again, settling himself.
When he opened his eyes again, Illya was regarding him steadily, knowingly. Napoleon managed a grin, even if it was only a fraction of his normal brightness.
"How is your wrist?" Illya nodded down to indicate it.
Napoleon raised it. "Hurts, but not any worse than a normal bite. I haven't unwrapped it." The gauze that Illya had put around it, proof of his partner.
Illya nodded, this time in acknowledgement. "You'll want your shower now. Go." As Napoleon hesitated, Illya added more gently, "I'll rewrap it when you come out."
Subtle reassurance that he would still be there when Napoleon got done. With a sigh of capitulation, Napoleon went.
As promised, when he emerged, Illya was waiting with the bandages. He was dressed in shorts (Napoleon's shorts), but nothing else since he had no pajamas here. The bowl of fruit was completely empty. The former bowl of fruit, now just a bowl by itself, plus a few orange peels, and even they had been nibbled upon.
"I don't like that it bit you, but it looks all right," Illya said finally after inspecting the wounds again. He didn't use the alcohol treatment again, but wrapped it afresh.
"Dare I ask what it was?"
Illya nodded towards the closet door, where he'd apparently packed up all the stuffed toys. "One of those test tubes. Genetic mutations, mixing plant and animal life together in some very disturbing ways. That was not considered one of their successes, yet they still had a use for it."
"What were---" Napoleon broke off. He didn't want to know what Illya was doing there. He would find out, eventually. But not right now.
Illya regarded him steadily, then moved so he was sitting next to Napoleon on the bed. "They declared me dead, didn't they?"
Not looking at his friend, Napoleon swallowed and didn't answer.
Illya hummed, then leaned against Napoleon, shifting so that Napoleon had to bring his arm around to support them. Napoleon left his arm there, curled around Illya's shoulders, touching Illya. Illya was warmer than he had been – the rest, food, and shower had done a lot to restore him.
"Are you okay?" Illya asked, looking down at the carpet.
He probably couldn't have answered if Illya had looked at him. Napoleon breathed in and out and tightened his grip around Illya. "I'm fine," he said, not quite exactly a lie. "It is what it is. It's what we do."
"I've been on the other side enough times," Illya shrugged, the movement gentle enough not to dislodge Napoleon's arm. "More than you. It is what it is. But it is you, and I, and that is what it is as well."
"You're two up on me." Napoleon gave the faintest of smiles, but a genuine one. "You've got one more cats' life left, and that's it. So no more of this."
Illya blinked, turning to look at Napoleon in surprise.
"Mr. Waverly had the count," Napoleon said softly. He and Illya... they didn't take count. They very deliberately didn't count. Not for themselves, and not for each other.
"Ah." Illya settled back against Napoleon again. "He would." His voice was shaded with hints of sorrow, acknowledging what that had meant for Mr. Waverly.
Unspoken was that he had never made a point of it before either. Napoleon knew he wasn't the only one that Illya's death affected. Still, though, he was glad it was him with Illya now. He breathed again, holding that thought close to him, holding Illya.
"Come on." Standing up, Illya took hold of Napoleon's hands and tugged him upright as well. Then he pushed and prodded until Napoleon crawled into bed. Illya turned off the light and followed him.
There in the dark, Napoleon let himself be drawn into Illya's hold, Illya wrapping his arms around him, Napoleon burying his face in the crook of Illya's neck, Illya tucking his chin to hold that part of him as well, tangling their legs together as well.
There in the dark, Napoleon shuddered and gave in to the week of uncertainty. The moment he'd walked into UNCLE Headquarters and known what they would say. Known that the was days too late already, from their lack of red eyes and immediate reactions. The denial as he'd flipped through the folder and read the eye-witness testimony. All the times before it as well. He'd seen Illya get killed before. He'd had his voice drop abruptly off the communicator. He'd lost contact with him for days on end. He'd waited for explosions, knowing Illya was where the bomb was. He'd seen grenades lobbed at Illya and unable to break cover to stop it. At times, Napoleon had even been the one who had to make that call and told Mr. Waverly. And he was just as glad each time to be proved wrong. Time and again.
It was their job, but it was also their lives. Both of theirs, entwined each within the other just as they worked their cases together. Apart for some, together for others, but always knowing the other was there.
Illya stroked Napoleon's back and hummed gently, an old Russian lullaby. Napoleon had never asked what the words or meaning was. That would bring too much into the light, and they needed to live in the light.
This. This was for the darkness, and for each other.
Just one of these times.
Next time, it might be Napoleon holding Illya. Or the other way again. They didn't exactly trade turns. But it was what it was, and it was them together again. They each knew how far the odds went, and they defied those odds. They didn't deny them, but they defied them. Again and again.
Napoleon closed his eyes, breathing into Illya's neck and feeling him pressed close. He listened to the gentle melody, and traced each movement of Illya's hand along his back. He smelled the freshness of newly washed skin. Opening his mouth, he breathed it in, tasting it in the close air. He did taste, though, his own salty tears as they made their way unchecked along his face. It was nothing he was ashamed of. The man who could not cry for his fellow human was one who could not be human himself. So much more-so for another who was the other part of their life.
The lullaby finished.
"Sleep, Napoleon," Illya whispered softly. "I'll be here. I promise, I'll be here when we wake."
With that final assurance, knowing its truth, trusting in his partner, Napoleon slept.