Halfway to the shore, they encounter a party of THRUSH guards who apparently have decided discretion is the better part of valor and are also getting the hell out of Dodge, as Napoleon puts it (or would put it, if a young woman weren't present.) With both parties preoccupied with escaping, the scuffle is abbreviated. Mercifully, because Illya is already out of breath, and his first punch barely connects.
He weaves out of the way of the THRUSH man's return blow, follows up with an uppercut that sends the man stumbling back, if not down, and then throws himself at the guard about to karate chop Napoleon. They're evenly matched, six to six, and Pia's uncles plow into the other men, haranguing them with fists and vivid Sicilian curses. Pia herself has had enough and takes matters into her own hands, or feet as it were—Illya doesn't turn in time to see her kick, but the guard's choked squeak and Napoleon's uncontrollable wince of masculine sympathy leave little to the imagination.
Then the THRUSH men are routed, limping off into the jungle dragging their casualties with them. Not worth wasting bullets on, and Illya lets his arm drop from where he's reaching for the pistol stuck in his waistband, slumps against the palm tree behind him. The sounds of the tropical night, briefly muted by the fight, swell up around them again: insects humming their alien songs, the wind through the branches overhead, and a polyglot ruckus of English and Italian, strangely fitting to the exotic setting.
In the heat of battle in the dark, they've gotten turned around, and now no one's sure which direction the beach is. The wisdom of a compass is contrasted with the significance of moss on the sides of trees and the few stars visible through the canopy of leaves. The Boy Scouts of America are unfavorably compared with the Federazione Italiana dello Scautismo. Napoleon's broad American tones begin to rise above the rich accents of Pia's uncles; his partner's carefree patience only lasts so long, no matter how beautiful the woman present, and they are on a time limit.
Napoleon has been in more tropical rainforests than any of the Sicilians, and Illya would trust his partner's sense of direction anyway; Napoleon is best at finding his way in cities, but he's not bad in the wilds. But Napoleon can handle his own arguments, without Illya's intervention.
Even with the breeze, the night is warm, or should be. Illya can feel the sweat on his face, trickling down his neck and under his t-shirt, though he's not hot; when the wind picks up, he shivers. Napoleon has resorted to his own fluent if flatly accented Italian; it's the wrong dialect, but he gets his point across, to tell by how the dispute subsides into grumbling.
They better get going again soon; the night is getting mysteriously darker, and soon it will be impossible to find their way through the ink-black shadows. The palm trunk at Illya's back is rough, ridges digging into his spine, abrading his bruises. He should stand up, relieve that pressure.
"Illya." Napoleon's voice is unexpectedly close, not so unexpectedly aggravated. "Come on, we don't have all night here."
"Yes," Illya says, "of course." His partner's face is just to his right, round and pale like a lantern in the gloom. Illya sets his palms to the tree's grooved bark, pushes himself away, into the jungle's pitch darkness. Finding his balance when he can't see his feet is an old trick, though the forest floor is uneven and he stumbles on a fallen branch, on a clot of dirt.
"Hey!" Napoleon's voice is to the left now, sharp with impatience. "This way, not that way," he says, insistently and unhelpfully, when Illya can't see which way he's pointing. With effort he drags up his head, squints in the direction of Napoleon's voice, only Napoleon has moved on. But Illya orients on the steady stream of Sicilian conversation flowing through the trees ahead and tries to head toward it.
He manages three steps before the buzzing in his ears, like the jungle insects only louder, drowns out the voices. His skin is cold while his body is burning up, and his darkened vision has tunneled down to a dim pinpoint: all unfortunately familiar signs. And not even a whiff of gas or a curare-tipped dart to excuse them, but it can't be helped.
"Ah, Napoleon," Illya says, how loudly he's not sure, as he can't hear himself over the blood pounding futilely in his ears. "I'm afraid I can't go on."
Then he unceremoniously passes out, unconscious before he finds out if his partner or the ground is quicker to catch him.
Illya comes to with a sharp dash of pain, as his nose impacts a hard surface. Someone's shoulder blade, he realizes; he's slung over a man's shoulder with his head hanging down his back, bumping against him with every jogged step.
This, too, is hardly a unique experience, and Illya readies himself to jackknife sideways, throw himself apart from his captor while preferably knocking the other man down, but before he can make his move, the arm gripping his legs tightens. "Oh no you don't," the man holding him growls.
Illya blinks, shakes his upside-down head. "Napoleon?"
"I will dump you in the surf if I have to," Napoleon puffs. "So don't try anything, if you don't want to get wet."
The thick perfumes of jungle vegetation still drift in the air, but now the scent of sea salt is stronger. Out of the corner of his eye Illya sees the shimmering reflections of moonlight on waves.
Napoleon's stride falters, a misstep, knocking his scapula hard into Illya's nose again. "Ow!" Illya protests, trying to turn his head away.
"I am warning you!" Napoleon insists, but he keeps holding on.
"Already went swimming—once tonight," Illya gets out, as he's jounced on his partner's shoulder. "Would rather not—go again."
"Then hold still," Napoleon says, "we're almost to the boat." He slows to a walk, to avoid tripping in the muck at the water's edge, and also as a breather; his shoulders are heaving under Illya as he pants for air. Running through a jungle in the dark isn't easy, even if you're not carrying someone.
"I can walk," Illya says, twisting around to slide off his partner's shoulder. The shore's silt is loose underfoot and his legs are rubbery, but Napoleon grabs his arm before he staggers, steadying him.
"How bad?" Napoleon asks quietly, as they head toward the little gunboat anchored at the dock. Pia and her uncles are already climbing aboard, shadowy figures against the boat's white paint.
Illya shakes his head. "Not that bad." Under his torn t-shirt his latest collection of wounds and bruises are smarting, but the ache in his ribs isn't piercing enough to be a crack, and while he's dizzy yet with fatigue, the darkness at the corners of his vision has stopped encroaching, hovering just out of range. Napoleon's arm around him, sturdy and secure, keeps it back.
"You could've said something," Napoleon says.
"I did say something," Illya counters, presuming that his final memories are accurate.
"You could have said something sooner."
"I thought I could make it," Illya says, irritated because really, he should have been able to; it wasn't that far a walk.
"Do you also think you can fly?" Napoleon inquires.
"Only when I have a helicopter at my disposal. And I'm not the only agent to go down after a mission's completion."
"No," Napoleon says, sounding more tired than mocking, "you're just the only agent to think he's invincible, up until the point he drops like a rock." Experienced agent, Napoleon means; it's a common rookie mistake to overestimate one's limits. And one, Illya is forced to admit, that Napoleon is rarely guilty of; being without shame, he'll bow out of overexertion without fearing the stigma of sloth. Sometimes it is laziness, but as often it's pragmatism; Napoleon doesn't like to make promises he is not sure of keeping.
Illya doesn't fear a blighted reputation, but he detests weakness, and in himself more than anywhere else. It's galling to lean on his partner as they make their way up the shore—but it would be more embarrassing to fall flat on his face, again, so he doesn't push Napoleon away.
And Napoleon's support is, naturally, unwavering; but he's giving it with a minimum of sarcasm, which is not so natural. Maybe it's only that he's out of breath. He went swimming himself today, Illya recalls; and how long was he in the ocean before the retired mafiosa fishing club pulled him out?
The dock's worn wood is spongy and slippery, and Illya nearly loses his footing when clambering onto the boat's narrow deck. He's saved by Pia grabbing his hand in both of hers and pulling him in, as Napoleon jumps on beside him, the boat rocking under them. It's rather smaller than Illya likes sea-going vessels to be (at least a hundred feet long, and also beached on dry land, is his preference) but it's better than swimming, at least.
Napoleon checks his watch again, squeezes past them to shout at the old man in the cockpit, "All aboard, move out, hurry up!" By the curtness of his growl, they must be pressed for time; it takes undue urgency to so erode Napoleon's civilized veneer.
The gunboat's engines are already sputtering to life, and it pitches in the dark waves as they pull out from the dock and head into the open water. Illya doesn't bother trying to find his sea legs, just hunkers down in the stern, sheltered from the worst of the spray. Pia, crouching next to him, smiles at him, teeth white in the night, and Illya takes a mental note to return that kindness, at a later date, when he can manage it.
Scarcely minutes later, they hear engines in the sky, the faraway hornet-buzz of the approaching bombers. Their pilot pushes the gunboat's engines, but they're still close enough to hear the thunder and feel the blast of the first bombs, concussive force rolling out over the ocean like the ripples of a giant stone dropped in a still pond. The waves rise and fall under them, but the boat doesn't overturn. Small mercies, Illya thinks, as he grimly grips the thick rope knotted around the railing. The ocean's bound to settle before his stomach does.
Once they're further out, Napoleon clambers from his position on the bow back to the stern, jumps down between Illya and Pia. "Now that's a sight," he murmurs, standing to watch their wake behind them.
Illya twists around, rocking up onto his haunches to peer over the edge of the hull. On the horizon, the island is on fire, a brilliant orange blaze under a column of thick smoke funneling up into the night sky, blotting out the moon. "Madonna Mia," Pia whispers.
Illya glances up at his partner. "I didn't notice you calling Mr. Waverly to tell him we made it off," he remarks in an undertone.
"No," Napoleon replies.
He doesn't look at Pia, presumes Napoleon wouldn't have answered so frankly if she had been paying them any attention. They are all expendable. He and Napoleon are agents in the line of duty, of course; but when the lives of millions are at stake, even individual innocence must be balanced against the greater good.
Understanding doesn't mean it sits any better in his stomach than the rocking waves, however. "Still," Illya says, "I'm glad we do not have to swim back."
"Seconded, earnestly," Napoleon says, and that is all. But he turns from the burning island to sit down with his back against the hull, shoulder to shoulder with Illya, so that Illya feels it when his partner heaves a great but silent sigh.
The prevailing winds are carrying the smoke away, not towards; Illya can barely smell it over the ocean, and the sky above them is clear, filled with stars. Idly he picks out the equatorial constellations, Orion, Gemini, Cancer. The celestial sphere in all its naked glory is supposed to make a man feel small, insignificant in the face of the universe's immensity. But Illya doesn't feel small; he feels alive. Breathing and thinking and whatever the discomfort of bruises and seasickness, it's infinitely better than nothing.
If Napoleon had not come, and Pia's uncles with their boat—if Illya had not drowned trying to swim to safer shores, then he would have burned, fallen in the forest. But Napoleon had come, and when Illya fell he did not leave him fallen.
Hours ago, Illya had looked through Strago's telescope at an approaching motorboat, and no matter that it was too far away for him to make out his partner's face; he'd known immediately who it had to be. And when the craft exploded, too bright a flash for him to make out what happened to the figure at the helm—
It was hours ago; it does not bear thinking about now. But he understands why Napoleon did not complain overly much, carrying him, and why Napoleon is sitting mutely now; knows in part what Napoleon was seeing, as he stared at the flames in their wake, the might-have-beens, the ghostly afterimages of pasts that happily didn't come to pass.
When Illya looks back again, the island's inferno has vanished under the horizon, its position marked by the smoke and a sullen reddish glow spread over the sea like oil. It'd be hard to say which of them is most pleased to see it gone, himself, or Napoleon, or Pia—Illya doesn't try to compare, just bids the damned place a heartfelt goodbye, and curls up in the space between the hull and Napoleon, closing his eyes. U.N.C.L.E. will be sending a ship to pick them up eventually, but there's hours before that for him to sleep. His partner's silence, however temporary, must be taken advantage of, after all.