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"Amateurs," Napoleon huffed in disbelief.

Across from him, Illya grunted in what was probably agreement.

They stood one on each side of the corridor, each flattened to their respective walls, watching the happenings in the main factory floor. They'd spent half the night carefully sneaking in, disabling alarms and dodging patrols, only for this to happen.

The Spanish police had raided the factory, knowing that something illegal was going on, even if they weren't quite sure what – or probably more-like were mistaken in the what. There had been gun fights and shouted alerts and the police had overwhelmed the night guard by sheer force of numbers. The guards were also somewhat at a disadvantage, not expecting to have to deal with legitimate authorities. The police, though, had suffered more losses than they'd probably expected.

It also left Napoleon and Illya stuck for the moment. Their objective was still one more flight up, and the stairs on the other side of where they were right then. They could circle around the building, but with the police spread out, they weren't planning on moving until they knew what the police were doing.

Napoleon hoped that Gaby either hadn’t heard of the police raid or would trust them enough to continue on with her part of the mission, which was providing the distraction. The raid had made its own distraction, but Gaby needed to stay on target and not try and come in or make a dramatic rescue where none was needed as yet. Being the back-up was perhaps harder even than the agents who went in, as they had no information other than their instincts for what to do. Waiting was hard. At least he and Illya could see what was happening.

Right now, the police were poking through the factory floor with what were probably fine procedures for dealing with illegal warehouses and centers and drug cartels, but were careless for the lab work mixed in with manufacturing that the sophisticated organization they were raiding had been doing.

"Think we can walk by? They are very bad." Illya muttered, as he moved over to Napoleon's side to talk.

Napoleon put his gun away. He wasn't necessarily opposed to shooting people in his way, but legitimate police were a different sort of game than the counter-agency guards. "They are bad," he agreed, "but they're also reckless. We can't predict them." That was the worst thing about amateurs.

"We cannot leave. The target will move tomorrow."

Absolutely true. "We'll have to wait them out."

"Let us move to..." Illya trailed off into a sound of disbelief, not related to what he'd been saying, but rather to where he'd been watching the police.

"Uh oh." Napoleon articulated the disbelief slightly more, his eyes widening.

They looked at each other, then looked back to where the police had just accidentally tipped over a piece of equipment that was about to set off a chain reaction.

Illya and Napoleon turned as one and ran.

Napoleon was simultaneously counting how long they had been running, calculating the rate of the reaction to explosion, and figuring just how long they had left. He presumed Illya was doing the same.

They weren't going to make the turn in the corridor. That would have shielded them from the blast, which would be a fairly localized one.

Four seconds. Two to make a choice.

So. No turn, that meant to minimize the effects of the blast... flat to the wall? Or flat on the floor? Floor would minimize the blast force, but increase the exposure for post-blast effects. Wall would leave the sides exposed to the blast force, but minimize post-blast. If they'd gotten around the corridor, side would be best. Not making the corridor...

Floor it was. Napoleon used the last second to go down.

In the half-second after he did this, he felt another body cover his.

He'd expected Illya to hit the ground next to him. Not on top of him. Not protecting him.

Napoleon didn't have long to think about it before the explosion hit. The floor bounced. Braced as he was beneath Illya's large body, though, Napoleon didn't feel any other effects. For a moment, there was stillness. Then there was a rumbling in the building and parts started falling down, jarred loose from the explosion.

Above him, Illya grunted, his body jerking. Probably part of the ceiling layer coming down. It shouldn't be too bad. Here it was mostly tiles and maybe parts of beams but they were far enough away from the initial explosion that the biggest things should be stable. Illya should be okay. Should.

There were a couple more moments of silence again. Napoleon waited but finally had to break it first. "You're a little heavy, Peril."

There was a pause, then with another grunt, Illya got to his hands and knees, straddling Napoleon's body, then he moved to one side before standing up.

Napoleon got up and turned to Illya. The blue eyes calmly met his, and there was the faintest hint of curved lips.

"You are just mad you didn't think of doing it first, Cowboy."

Napoleon glared at his partner. He hadn't even thought about minimizing the damage for two as they’d been running. He'd known Illya was with him, beside him, but... Yes, he was mad as blazes that Illya had been the one to do it. Illya shouldn’t be protecting him.

Illya shrugged. "No point both being hurt. If just me, we could finish mission. Made sense."

There was logic in what Illya said. If the blast had been any more intense, or if they had mistimed it, both of them would be seriously hurt and they would have had to abort in favor of medical aid – or continue much reduced in capacity. Aborting now would mean a lot more than just a single night. There was no way the agency would leave the information in this building after tonight. They would move it, UNCLE would have to track it, and then a new strike force to get it. It was unlikely that they team would be able to duplicate the same steps used to get the location originally.

“If you want sense, then I should be the one protecting you,” Napoleon grumped.

Illya huffed in disbelief. “How is that sense?”

“Because you’re a behemoth. If you’re hurt, it’s more work for me to carry you out than it would be for you to carry me.”

Illya’s lips twitched in amusement, but he refused to concede entirely. “You are no light-weight, Cowboy. All that cooking.”

Napoleon waved a hand, admitting if not defeat than at least a tie. They were fairly well matched. He switched gears back to the mission. "You okay?" Napoleon asked his partner, counting on an honest answer. Illya looked okay on the surface, but with explosions and debris, the worst damage could be hidden.

Illya stretched out, testing legs and arms. He grimaced with pain and then stretched more carefully, wiggling his shoulders and then keeping them still after another grimace. He looked around before nudging a large block lying on the floor near them, standing out among the other ceiling tiles and beams and lighting fixtures that had fallen all around them. "I am bruised. Will be okay." He looked up again and met Napoleon's gaze. "You are unharmed. We finish the mission. You take point."

With a nod, Napoleon agreed. Not much he could do about bruising. There was a small trickle of blood on the back of Illya’s hand that he’d already wiped away. Illya was stubborn but not stupid. They could go on.

Napoleon did, though, still wish he'd thought of it first. They both worked smoothly as a team now, but they were used to being solo agents, working by themselves, and protecting your partner just wasn’t something that came naturally to him. Having a partner wasn’t something that came naturally to him. Really, it was remarkable how well they did work together. And Peril had thought of it first, darn it.

They made their way back through the devastation. The police were in complete disarray, with half their number down and the other half alternating between taking care of the others or reacting in paranoid ways, trying to figure out who had triggered the bomb. They didn’t seem to realize yet that they themselves had been the cause.

From the stairwells, there were people coming down – the last remnants of the late night workers or scientists or people who had just been staying because they’d been afraid to come out before. An explosion in the building seemed to be more motivation than the gunshots before.

“Go or wait?” Illya murmured, watching the chaos.

“Go,” Napoleon decided. They would have a better chance in the distraction, and if they waited too long, the flames might spread, and firemen and building officials might arrive, which would be yet another level to work through.

They then did their best to make their way upstream without drawing any attention to themselves. A few people gave them glances as they rushed by, but not with any serious notice. In disasters, people’s first thoughts were for themselves. A very natural reaction that the agents took full advantage of. The third floor was quickly reached, and the hallways blessedly quiet and empty. The smoke was thicker up here than it had been below, though there was no sign of flames yet. They carefully made their way to the files room, and paused for a moment to make sure they were still alone.

The lock on the door was easy for Napoleon, though it might have given Peril pause. If they'd had time, Napoleon might have let Illya try it anyhow, just to give him practice. As it was, Illya passed him the tools he needed without Napoleon even needing to ask for them – he learned quickly.

In Istanbul, after they'd been there for a week, during one break-in when Napoleon had started to get out his kit, Illya had casually handed Napoleon an oil-cloth-wrapped bundle instead. It had turned out to be a replica of his kit, only much better made, with stronger but lighter metals and finer grades of definition in the tools. Napoleon's had been the best that money could buy in the underground world. Illya's, apparently, had been carefully hand-crafted or commissioned from people he'd traded work with. All in the week since Italy, after the one time he'd been able to look through the kit while Napoleon had been opening the Votbender Lansman 7010 safe. When asked, Illya had shrugged it off, saying if they were partners, then he wanted the best of their team. Gaby had simply nodded her own agreement – apparently some of the work in trade had been hers. A team effort by both of them, to support Napoleon in his thieving ways

Napoleon hadn't really believed in the "team" until then. Worked with his partners, yes, but always expecting to be alone again at any moment. Since then, he'd been trying to adapt and adjust, to truly be a member of the team. Apparently he still had some work to go on the “partners” aspect. But if he’d tried to shield Illya while Illya was trying to shield him... things could have gotten confused. Maybe it was better that only one of them had thought of it.

Lock was open, alarm disabled. He wouldn’t make that mistake more than once. Napoleon went inside, then paused, waiting for his partner. Illya shook his head, while stepping back to a different doorway where he could see in all directions. “I watch here. You look.”

Well, it would help Napoleon concentrate better if he knew the giant Russian was guarding his back, and the room was small. It was logical enough. With a nod, he propped the door loosely open so he could hear Illya if he called, then he turned his attention to the papers inside.

Piles and piles of paperwork, all jumbled in by some unknown filing system, some yet to be filed. With a sigh, he looked first for anything to indicate a process where he could narrow down what they wanted. Finding none, Napoleon resorted to manual sorting, wishing they had at least used a rolodex system or something to categorize the plans.

Gaby had been out in the city providing the initial distraction that had given them this window of opportunity to break in. The police raid had bungled that, but hopefully she was back at the flat by now and staying there even if she saw the explosion. She'd desperately wanted to come with them, but she didn't quite have enough training for this kind of a break-in. They were teaching her as they went along – it would be interesting to see what final skill set she ended up with, between their very different approaches to things.

Different approaches, but they worked so well meshed together. Who would have thought that the first day of their partnership? Not their handlers, he was sure.

There it was. Napoleon pulled out the file with the proposal of a new rocket design. In and of itself, if it had been a legitimate company doing research and working with a legitimate government agency, it wouldn’t be worth their efforts, except possibly to follow the research. The counter-agency, however, was one they’d run into before, with ties to many different criminal organizations. They still didn’t have a name for it. It was starting to become familiar to them, though, along with some of their practices. This device, if created, would be reserved for them, and probably have other payloads than simply explosives. Not that explosives were simple. But they weren’t that far from the point when another Dr. Teller down the line could make atomic advances. Or other uses for new designs. Napoleon copied everything in the file, photographing the details.

Then he hesitated over the rest of the file. The original plan had been to lose key parts of the plans and confuse the issue without making it obvious spies had been inside and pulling out files. However, the police raid and the explosion gave a unique opportunity for some grand mischief that wouldn’t be tied back to UNCLE at all.

“How’s it looking out there?” Napoleon called softly, checking the time.

“Quiet here,” Illya replied. “Downstairs, still noisy. Outside, can hear sirens of fire.” He paused. “No fire yet. You want some?”

That was the question, wasn’t it? Napoleon glanced through the room and thought about the layout. “Can you punch a hole from the second floor that would open a chimney up?” It wasn’t ideal, but depending on what was below, it may not be questioned.

Illya hesitated, appearing in the doorway and also looking around the room, comparing it with plans and schemes. “Be easier to set up an acid drip. There was chemistry lab next room. I will make sure it breeches walls.” He headed out again.

Something explained by a chemist knocking a beaker over during a panicky flight, no doubt. If anybody even looked that far. Napoleon quickly started going through the other files, pulling out bits and pieces that looked potentially useful to UNCLE until his knapsack was full. Just as he was trying to decide if there was enough time left for anything else, there was a small ‘phomph’ noise from the wall and he looked over to see it sagging into the floor, which was starting to look rather acid-eaten. He nodded. With the weakened supports, the fire would make its way up fairly quickly. They would make sure of that on the way down.

Napoleon left the file room and headed for the chemistry room next door. He was met by Illya coming out.

Illya held the doorframe for balance as he stood there. “Solo, you need... take your six back.” He wasn't looking well.

While Napoleon sometimes used full gloves for night or cold work, or to avoid fingerprints, he generally preferred to work in half-gloves. It gave his fingers a more sensitive grip and he could feel things better that way. Like now, as he held his hand up to Illya’s forehead, then cheek. The Russian’s skin was cold and clammy, and he seemed to have a hard time focusing, though he permitted the touch. “What happened? Fumes?” Illya could get rather caught up in his work, but a lab accident would be unusual for him. Still, though...

Illya shook his head. “No. Not from now. Before, I think. Don’t know. Came on slowly.”

Napoleon hissed out his breath. If it was from before, then a slow bleed was most likely, probably internal. He should have checked Illya out immediately. Aborted and gotten them back. God, he hoped it wasn’t internal.

He switched his focus from his partner’s front to his back. That’s where the impacts had been. The thick jacket didn’t show anything – it was specifically designed not to show anything, with a special liner inside even to keep blood from seeping through as along as it wasn’t a lot. Always reveal as little as possible to your enemies. And sadly, to your friends as well – none of them were used to having partners. None of them. Illya hadn’t thought of it either. They had checked... but had relied on self-awareness, the only thing they were used to in their missions. You rely on yourself, because there is no other. Even when the other was standing right there. Napoleon started to tug at the jacket’s left sleeve to get Illya to take it off, but Illya let out a hiss of pain at the movement and Napoleon stopped.

Eyes narrowing, Napoleon thought back to when they had first gotten up after the blast, picturing every wince in the stretches that Illya had made. Upper back.

He ran his right hand over Illya’s shoulder blades, then abruptly drew his hand back with a yelp. He sucked on his cut fingers, even as Illya called his name worriedly.

“I’m okay, Peril,” Napoleon reassured him. “You, however...” He poked a little more carefully, focusing his attention without more risk of cut fingers. There it was. Well, at least it wasn’t internal. Though this was still going to be a problem. “You have a shard of glass in your back. Looks like it came off one of those light fixtures. Pretty well in there by this point – all our running around has just been digging it in.” Digging it in, and bleeding Illya out this whole time.

He should have checked, damn it. How long would it have taken him to check? It wasn’t like it was something Illya could have known about, in the middle of his back, and his body one overall ache from the explosion. Bruises. Damnit. He should have checked. Illya had said he was fine. He hadn't been. He hadn't been lying, he just didn't realize that one ache was anything more. Napoleon hadn't realized that there would be something Illya wouldn't know. Damnit.

“Ignore it. We go.” Illya turned his head to look at the flames that were now starting to appear in the opening he’d made in the chemical room, adjoining the file room. Once those fires hit the files, the whole room would go up fast. The smoke was also hazier, making it hard for Napoleon to see Illya clearly.

The glass was in too deep for a simple extraction and they had to get out now. They had been here for too long already, and the fire was an additional complication. “Can you make it?”

Blue eyes met his. Illya shrugged briefly. “I will have to. Yes.”

“Don’t make me carry you,” Napoleon warned, covering his concern.

The smile that Illya gave him had been such a rare, rare thing at the beginning of their working together. Now, though still infrequent, Napoleon saw it enough that he didn’t consider it a miracle anymore. He did, however, always pause to regard Illya’s smile when it happened. Sunshine out of clouds, and something to be appreciated in the same way.

“As long as you can keep up, Cowboy.” Illya suited words to actions, turning to leave.

Napoleon followed behind, keeping both their sixes, and also an eye on his partner.

...

Somehow they made it back to the flat. Napoleon wasn’t quite sure how, as more and more of his focus had gone towards keeping his partner upright and moving than to any of their surroundings. Once they’d gotten out, the local fire was there along with the police, and their departure would be plenty covered by all the activity. There was a great chance that the agency would never know they’d been raided at all by anybody else. Their good fortune out of what had initially looked like a disaster.

However, that was the mission. For them... Napoleon kept an arm locked around Illya’s waist and sent up periodic thoughts to gods he didn’t believe in, and then kept taking them back and hoping he didn’t jinx anything by sending them in the first place.

Before they even made it up the steps, Gaby opened the door for them, darting down to take a position on Illya’s other side and help them in.

“Gott in Himmel... what happened?”

Napoleon explained in terse words as they went through the front to the main eating area. Illya didn't say anything, concentrating simply on staying as upright as he could. He did, though, make a protesting noise when Napoleon explained how it was his fault. That little bit of noise seemed to exhaust him.

"His back?" Gaby flipped a chair around at the table so Illya could sit in it with his back to them and leaning on the table. Napoleon maundered Illy down into it carefully so the chair didn't break.

Illya put his right arm on the table and folded himself over to rest on it. His left arm he kept tucked close by his side.

Gaby fetched the medical kit where she'd already had it waiting, and opened it, bringing out the scissors and razor blade. "Sorry, Illya, the jacket has to go."

The sound Illya made this time was more grumbling than protesting. He apparently knew that reality. Napoleon figured Illya would spend the recovery time altering a new one.

"Have you done anything like this before?" Napoleon asked Gaby.

Busy cutting first Illya's jacket and then his shirt off, Gaby shook her head. "Some shrapnel work... but that was always sooner and smaller. This..." she eyed the piece of glass in Illya's back. "It's worked it's way in, and I think it's broken."

"Good eye," Napoleon remarked, impressed that she'd seen that. Her training just by growing up in East Germany in the aftermath of war was par to a lot of soldiers. This made things easier. "Give it a go."

Gaby sucked in her breath. "But Illya..." The medical they'd had so far in missions tended to revolve between who was available, who had more experience, and how badly the others were hurt. If it was serious, usually Napoleon took point, unless it was himself.

Napoleon shrugged. "The major thing that has Illya down right now is the blood loss. We can't do much about that until the shard is out." Though, reminded, Napoleon went to the sink and filled a glass of water. He coaxed Illya up to drink some, even as he kept talking Gaby through it. "This is a step up from shrapnel, but you've got steady hands and are used to poking around in machines. Should be a snap for you."

Train every chance you got, and this was a perfect opportunity, even if it was at Peril's expense. But the Russian was nodding his agreement as he finished the water. Napoleon and Illya met each other's gaze, acknowledging how alike they were in their solitary ways. Learning to be a team, with the realities all around them. Learning on the job, because there was no school for this sort of thing.

Taking a deep breath in, Gaby let it out in a long, creative curse. Then she settled in to the work.

After the first time the solid wooden table acquired dents from where Illya was gripping it, Napoleon cleaned off a thick leather strip and offered it to his partner to bite down on. Illya grimaced but took it. It didn't necessarily save the table any, but probably helped Illya's teeth from grinding down too hard. Napoleon wasn't sure if he himself could have stayed that still while somebody was poking around in his back with sharp instruments, without any numbing. Alcohol was an absolute no with the blood loss.

Finally, it was over. Gaby was nearly as white as Illya by the time she was sure all the pieces were out and she'd sewn up the wound, but her hands were still steady and her eyes were clear and just as sharp. She'd do just fine the next time, and the better for remembering this one.

Illya was within inches of passing out, but Napoleon coaxed him into another glass of water and he managed to find some fruit as well to add some sugar. Illya couldn't chew well, and Napoleon sympathized with that one – blood loss took a lot more out of you than just the blood. So they stuck to fluids, as much as they could.

Then off to the largest bed, piling the covers in and around. Illya was out like a light as soon as they settled him, dropping off so fast and going so still that both Napoleon and Gaby involuntarily reached for pulse and breath checks.

Straightening up after he was sure Illya was okay, Napoleon sighed. "We'll take turns with him. You first since I need to take a shower."

Gaby blinked, then seemed to get it and looked between the bed and Napoleon with a raised eyebrow.

Napoleon gave a weary grin. "All part of the same, my dear. He can't warm himself right now, and just a water bottle won't do it alone. Plus, we have to make sure he won't go into shock." With the slow bleed, there was no way to tell how much was lost, but with the way Peril looked... better not to take chances.

Illya might have protected Napoleon from the explosion, and okay, Napoleon was starting to come to grips with that, but it just meant that even more than he would have otherwise that he was going to do his darnest best to protect Illya now. That meant in more than just the moment.

He wouldn't be doing it alone, either.

Team. Partners.

It was the strangest thing Napoleon had ever had to adjust to. He liked working alone, he was good at working alone. But this strange trio of theirs worked. Had been working since they were thrown together. None of them used to working with any other, all deceivers and spies in their own ways and training. They weren't amateurs, any of them. Gaby had some ways to catch up to her partners, but she learned fast and had her own background to bring to it.

No, they weren't amateurs, but they all still had a lot to learn. Partners. Team.

Protecting each other when it made sense... and accepting that protection from each other as well. A much harder thing to do.

Napoleon took another long look at Illya, then Gaby, and then he took himself off to the shower to get cleaned up. He had a shift to take later, and adjustments to make in his world view. They were worth it.


END