“Did you really think that one would stay after the other was gone?” The voice was derisive, snide and male. “They’ve been a matched set so long I don’t know that one could function alone.”
“No need to be so mean about it, I was just hoping…” the second voice was female and indignant and moving away as the pair left the canteen.
Illya stirred his cup of tea slowly, giving them plenty of time to clear the hall before making his own exit. This wasn’t the first time he had overheard random gossip, or even the first time he had listened quietly to innuendo or supposition or outright prurient speculation. There had been a few accusations over the years as well, straight to his face, so to speak.
On another day, he might have confronted the owner of the voice, or endeavored to prove his independence of thinking, or just tripped the bastard into a bout in the gym and had it out. It was always so easy, really, to let them challenge him, so simple to be the slight foreign scientist that seemed such a pushover. No matter how much the more well-seasoned agents warned them, the new young bucks wanted to prove themselves and he was the perfect target, as he always had been. It was a sucker bet and the older agents never failed to rub it in when they cleaned up from the newer generation. Not today though, he would let it slide, as he was no longer in a mood to care.
He did allow himself the smallest of smiles though. Sometime soon that agent was going to say the wrong thing to the wrong coworker, and he’d have it handed to him, with interest. Napoleon had hit his stride early as head of UNCLE’s North American region, and may well have engendered a fiercer loyalty than even Alexander Waverly, though Napoleon would never have recognized it. Oh yes, Illya smiled to himself, he wouldn’t need to take the wind out of those sails, someone would do it for the young agent soon enough.
“I hope you weren’t paying him any mind.”
Illya’s train of thought was interrupted by a quiet voice to his left. He turned toward the other agent and let a hint of the old predator out in his look to the younger man. “Not to worry. It’s been many years since my sensibilities were delicate, Mr. Andrews. But thank you for your concern. Is it done then?”
“Yes sir, ready for your approval.”
“Shall we then?”
The other agent nodded and led the way from the canteen, Illya following, thoughtfully sipping his cooled tea.
He moved around the apartment, checking one last time that he had packed everything, left nothing behind in some hidden place. All trace of his decades at this address were gone. Someone else would occupy this apartment soon, and he realized that he really hadn’t done much more than occupy it himself, he certainly hadn’t lived here. He’d parked his things here, he’d picked up his mail here, but he had lived, truly lived, elsewhere. He smiled again, and it felt good to smile, to anticipate. It surprised him, that feeling.
“I don’t know why you insisted that we go through with this, honestly, can’t we just go? I have tickets bought, we could leave early, skip out and be gone before they know what hit them.”
“You will be missed. Allow them to say goodbye. Allow them the chance we never got, Napoleon. It is very unlike you to want to skip a party.”
“Partner mine, I never thought we would make it to this day.” Napoleon shrugged, hands spread in a what now gesture. “I thought one or both of us would finally come home on our shield rather than behind it and that would be that. I hadn’t planned for this.”
“Are you sorry? You know you can still change your mind.”
“Hell no, I’m not changing my mind.” Napoleon turned to his partner of decades, watched him tying the black bow tie under his chin, the snowy shirt and gleaming tuxedo making him look very elegant, as it always did. “Are you? Changing your mind, I mean. I didn’t ask you to,” Illya interrupted him.
“I am looking forward to our new roles, Napoleon, I am looking forward to retiring. Now, get your jacket on and let’s be on our way. It is rude for the host and the guest of honour to be late to their own party.”
Parties were wonderful places to learn things, and Illya overheard more than one account of the latest prize match in the gym.
“You should have seen Frankie take Joseph down, she had him begging for mercy in less than twenty minutes. And he sure won’t be making any wise cracks about the old man any time soon, or about how or who with anybody chooses to spend their time.”
“I won a bundle on that fight yesterday. I wonder if Frankie is free next Saturday night, I’d sure like to buy her a drink.”
“You think she goes out with guys?”
“Who cares, I’ll drink with her anytime, or go in the field with her.”
“That was a sweet video, did you see all those photos from back in the day, he was so handsome.”
“He still is.”
“Do you mean the old man or his partner?”
At last the cake was cut and the toasts went around the tables and Napoleon stood for one last toast and a final word to the people who had followed where he’d led all this time.
“I admit I didn’t plan any stirring speeches for tonight, I didn’t plan for, ah, any of this, but I thank you for it.” He held up his glass, “Mr. Andrews, you did a fine job of making me look good in your little presentation, though I am certain you had a little help getting some of those photos,” he grinned down at his partner seated next to him. “And I will make him pay for that another day.” There was laughter all around. Illya just sat with his champagne in his hand and a sphinx-like look on his face that may have been a smile.
“This is not only my retirement, as you all know. Years ago I was a smug bastard who thought all I needed was the brain and charm God gave me and an extra clip for my gun. Waverly had other plans, and those of you who remember him may think that God and Waverly were one and the same, I certainly did wonder at times.” Laughter again and words of agreement from the older members of the audience.
“The truth is, we wouldn’t be having this party at all without Waverly’s intervention all those years ago. I stopped counting the times my partner bailed me out of a bad spot after the first year of our partnership.” Napoleon looked down at Illya again, smiled and then continued, looking back out at the crowd of agents and secretaries and support staff and scientists and literally the whole of UNCLE New York. “If you get lucky enough in this life to find a partner that will not only follow you into hell but carry you back out again, you hold on to that partner. This is a hard job we do, every one of us, from the research and communications and medical departments right up to the Section Two agents who put themselves on the line every day.”
“Alexander Waverly had a vision of a better future for everyone on the planet, not just in this country or on this continent, but for every innocent person on the globe. I hope that I have helped nurture that vision and helped plant it in each and every one of you, but I couldn’t have carried on his dream if I hadn’t had a partner that watched my back and saved my, ah, self pretty frequently.”
Napoleon reached down and took Illya’s elbow, pulling him up beside him, arm around his shoulders and champagne lifted. “Ladies and gentlemen of UNCLE, I’d like to raise my glass in a toast to Alexander Waverly for saddling me with the best partner any agent ever had, and a toast to my partner, the best friend I will ever want.” Napoleon looked at his partner then, holding out his glass, holding his breath as he waited.
Illya raised his and when the glasses met there was a cheer from the room and a sigh from his lover. They emptied their glasses in one swallow while the room started to shout for a speech from Illya. He held up a hand and the room quieted at last.
“Mr. Waverly told me to go and do and I simply did what he asked, as best I could. That is all he ever expected, that we do the best we knew we could. And though I hate to say it, Napoleon saved me as many times as I did him, so I hope after all this time, we’re finally even.” More laughter and champagne flowed around the room.
“Hip hip hooray!” came a shout at the back of the room. The cheer was picked up and repeated as Napoleon and Illya ducked out of the transformed canteen.
Napoleon lay back on the pillows, listening to water run in the sink and then silence when it shut off. The light clicked off, leaving only the moonlight coming in the window to show him his lover approaching the bed.
“Sneaky Russian, where did you get all those wretched old photos, I thought I had them buried so deep in the archives that they’d never see light again.”
The soft moonlight gleamed off of the grin Illya gave him as he slid into their bed. His bright hair had mellowed to whisky and honey and neither of them would be leaping out of helicopters anymore, but Napoleon still saw the lithe grace and felt the strength in that frame when his partner settled against him.
“Old spies never tell their tricks, Napoleon. That is how they become old spies.”
“And are we feeling old tonight, tovarisch?” Napoleon leaned in to press his lips to Illya’s temple.
“Not any more,” Illya turned his head to drag his mouth to his partner’s.
“No, not at all,” Napoleon agreed as he sank into the kiss, then pulled back briefly, “Illya, are you sorry?”
“Never. For what?”
“Retiring, agreeing to move in, any of it, all of …” Napoleon couldn’t say more as his lover kissed him again, and there were no words for the longest time, no words other than their own language expressed with hands and kisses and bodies together in the moonlight like a caress.