Illya dreams of fire. Of smoke, of saltwater rising and locking his legs into quicksand, of Napoleon’s mouth over his as they bob in the water, breathing life into him.
“My dear Napoleon,” Ms. Cecilia says, so sweetly and gently, one of her hands lingering on Napoleon’s jaw at the dinner table on the rocking ship, the other twisting around his wrists like handcuffs, like seaweed. The crab they’re dining on is still crawling on their plates, which isn’t right, but none of this is right, so Illya pays it no mind. “I’ve been waiting for you. All this time, I’ve been waiting for you.”
It’s a dream. He knows it’s a dream. There’s a knife at his back, but the seawater sucks around him, lapping at the legs of the chair and trapping him so he can’t turn around and see who is at the hilt.
“A captain goes down with her ship,” Ms. Cecilia says, and there’s fire everywhere, hot in his lungs. The crabs scream, and Illya can’t breathe for the smoke curling up in his mouth, can’t see for the water in his eyes. There’s something in the back of his throat and--
Illya woke with a start, choking, and for a long time he was aware of nothing else. There was pain in his chest, and cold and fear, and his body wracked itself with coughs and retching. Later, when his lungs were raw and his violent shaking subdued into shivers, he felt a hand stroking his forehead, wiping his slick hair away from his eyes, and heard Napoleon’s voice.
“Illya? Breathe, Illya.”
The hand on his head was trembling. That, more than anything, prompted him to crack open his eyes. The light was blinding, his head was pounding, and his stomach lurched again. A dark shadow blocked out the sun.
“You’re supposed to be the strong swimmer,” the shadow said from above. The image swam as he blinked his eyes clear of stinging saltwater until, finally, the edges narrowed and refined, and he was left with Napoleon's face staring down at him, pale against the blue sky.
Illya blinked again and rolled his eyes in what he hoped was a dismissive manner. He tested his limbs, and was relieved when all were present and accounted for. Although still attached, they were not particularly cooperative; it took him agonizing seconds to push himself up onto his elbows off his back, and by the time he got himself sitting up, he was already exhausted. He took an experimental deep breath and was immediately taken aback by a coughing attack so strong he blacked out.
Fire. Fire in his lungs and in his throat. Napoleon looking at him, at something on his back. Something *in* his back--
He woke only seconds later with Napoleon’s arms tight around him, holding him pressed to his chest.
“Come on, Illya, come on.” Napoleon's voice was soft against his ear, unselfconscious in a way he was unused to hearing from his friend. Endearing and embarrassing all at once. His breaths rattled in his chest as Napoleon spoke, nearly drowning out the whisper.
“Don’t be dramatic,” he managed to squeeze out of his lungs. He realized too late that he sounded half dead, and not a little dramatic despite himself. He tried to temper it with a second croak. “Where are we?”
Napoleon, with obvious hesitance, even to Illya’s salt-weary eyes, peeled himself away. “What do you remember?” He got to his feet and Illya took this as a cue to follow, grudgingly grateful for Napoleon’s help in standing. The world swayed in time with his pulse, and he stood for a long time, knees wobbling in the sand and with Napoleon holding him up.
They were on a beach. The sand was light and fine and stuck to their wet clothes, and Illya had no recollection of getting there. He closed his eyes against the sun, and tried to remember something, anything, beyond a haze of water and light.
“A ship. We were on it?” It came to his mind as he said it, half shadowed and mostly confused. Memories mingled with a dream he could still taste. An old frigate, departed from Australia, with a THRUSH enclave onboard. The dossier on the mission, read word for word on their flight from France to Australia, was ingrained in his mind. But the mission itself was a frustrating open door, a word perennially on the tip of his tongue. The imagined smell of smoke overpowered him, and the memory of the unmistakable sway of a ship over rough water sent his stomach roiling once more. He doubled over and was sick into the sand. When he was finished, he was at least fairly certain he’d freed himself of whatever saltwater he swallowed. Napoleon’s hand was heavy at the nape of his neck, and he shook it off, claustrophobic despite the open air.
Napoleon was looking at him oddly, face dark and sooty beyond the dirt that had taken up residence there. “That’s all you remember?”
Illya closed his eyes. He remembered the dream. He remembered Ms. Cecilia’s grinning face, the screaming crabs, a pain in his back as someone pressed a knife to his spine. But it was milky, in that way that dreams were, and already fading. “Unfortunately. I seem to have missed a great deal.” Like how they got onto land, for one. He couldn’t recall the voyage, but he memorized the maps. The ship’s course was not designed to stop beyond its final destination off the coast of Hawaii. Wherever they were, it was unintended.
“More than you know,” Napoleon said with a wan smile, winking at Illya’s frustration. “But it’s all finished, now. Ms. Cecilia and her THRUSH companions went down with her ship, as did all the research she was transporting.”
It was too neat. He couldn’t remember it, but it was too tidy. They were never that lucky, Napoleon’s purported luck be damned. Illya could still feel the burn of fire from his dream at his back. “Are you certain?”
Napoleon looked away at the horizon. “Either you remember something or you're being peevish, my friend. I'm getting the sense it's the latter. Since when don't you trust me?" he asked, and cuffed Illya lightly on the shoulder. It was still enough to tip him off balance, and Napoleon immediately caught him under the arm again with a guilty look on his face. "Come on, let’s get off this beach and into the shade.” He took Illya under the arm and helped him towards the smudge of green ahead.
He grilled Napoleon with questions as they shuffled forward. They were old hat at this now, the awkward step-step-drag of two men walking as one. Any other survivors? No. Any idea which of the hundreds of Polynesian islands they were on? No. Any chance of Ms. Cecilia getting away? None whatsoever.
Too neat. He craned his head behind him as they walked and stared out at the horizon. The sun was already starting to set, casting a pink and honey glow over the water as it dipped under its surface. No smoke. He could still taste the fire in the back of his throat, but there was no smoke.
"Was there a fire? Burning?"
Napoleon flicked his eyes over to him. "No. An explosion, yes, but the ship didn't have time to burn; it sank almost instantly."
"Hmm," said Illya. There were no bodies on the shore, no debris, either. Illya was in the navy, and although his posting was short, he had always been always a quick study. He learned how ships sank. He learned the fear it put in sailors’ eyes. Could a ship sink and leave no evidence so soon after its demise? He tried to imagine a scenario this close to land that would bear no wreckage.
"Now, just sit down here and relax," Napoleon said, and helped lower him down onto a felled log, half petrified with sea salt. His head ached mightily, all the way back down his spine in arcing pain that set his teeth grinding. He was vaguely aware of Napoleon pacing around him, busying himself with creating a camp-like alcove, but mostly he pressed the heels of his hands into his eye sockets and tried to will the pain away. It was easier to cope with pain when danger was present, and much harder when it was gone.
Not that he was sure it was. His gut was still twitching, that tell-tale paranoia acquired after years in the military and then years with UNCLE, rearing its head. Or possibly that was hunger and sour bile. He pressed his hands against his head harder.
“Ah, I was wondering when you’d feel that.” Napoleon was kicking the sand with his hands stuffed into his soaked pants pockets, looking everything like a sullen child. He continued to pace, carving dizzying grooves into the turf. He gave Illya a wry grin. “I’m afraid our friend Ms. Cecilia decided to speed up our departure by taking an oar to your head.”
“That explains a bit.” Mostly his dodgy memory of the event.
"I'll go find us fresh water," Napoleon said, still fussing with making some sort of bed from fallen palm leaves. It surprised him, a second later, to feel Napoleon's hand on his shoulder again, guiding him down onto the ground. The ground met him happily, and Illya found himself closing his eyes even as Napoleon wandered off into the jungle. He ought to get up and help him. But his eyelids were so heavy, and the sand under the palm leaves surprisingly soft. He breathed in, and stopped.
He smelled smoke.
"Don't you want to save him?" Ms. Cecilia asks, her voice high and light and dangerous. Illya doesn't realize until the knife touches his spine that she's not talking to him, she's talking *about* him. Napoleon is a shadow in the corner, surrounded by eels and the damned crabs, still screaming their crustacean last breaths. "Napoleon, darling, don't forget."
The ship is burning. Illya can taste it in his lungs, can feel the water suck at his legs and the pinch of something sharp behind his neck.
It was dark when Napoleon returned, the sort of darkness New York City hadn't seen in a hundred years, and the sort of dark he remembered from his childhood. Illya looked up at the star filled sky through the breeze-fluttering leaves above, and swallowed. His throat was on fire, and he was beyond parched. He didn’t remember falling asleep. He did a quick estimation of time lost and struggled to sit up: Napoleon had been gone for several hours.
There was stomping in the jungle, and Illya lept to his feet instantly, only to tip back over again as the blood rushed to his head. But then, a pale face in the starlight, and Napoleon was there, again at his elbow and again holding him up.
“Easy there, Davy Crockett. You’re in no shape to go bounding into the forest.”
“Napoleon! Where have you been?”
“I thought you’d be happier to have a nice cold drink. Ungrateful, aren’t you.” A canteen was in his hands like something out of a biblical miracle, and Illya pushed aside his fear and anxiety and reached for the water instead, an animalistic need for it taking over all training and logic.
It was lukewarm, not cold, but sweeter than honey as it ran down his damaged throat. He drank nearly the whole thing down before, grudgingly, handing it back to its owner. “Did you have that on you?” He didn’t remember seeing Napoleon carrying the canteen before.
Napoleon shrugged. “It washed up.”
“Anything else useful wash up?”
“No. Here, have the rest. I drank at the river.”
Illya ran his tongue over his chapped lips and nodded, gratefully sucking down the rest of the water. Tides were often vicious things, but they were far less often unpredictable. If a lone canteen washed ashore from the sunken ship, but nothing else, he’d eat his Navy cap.
He patted the palm bed Napoleon made up for him. “Rest, I’ll keep watch for a while. I’m feeling much better.” That part wasn’t a lie. The water, in conjunction with his apparent nap, vastly improved his disposition. His guts no longer felt like they were trying to vacate his body, and although his head still pounded, it was reduced to an unpleasant ache he was capable of ignoring.
There was an unexpected silence, and Illya looked up to find Napoleon staring at him with an unreadable expression on his face. “I’m fine to keep watch,” he said. “You’re the one who nearly died on me.”
“Rest, Napoleon. You said yourself, no one else survived. I’ll wake you at sunrise.”
“I’m too wired.” Pale as he was and almost invisible in the starlight, Illya could see it. There was something manic in his eyes, in the jut of his chin and the way his hands kept scrabbling at the fallen tree, picking at it. He swallowed and Illya watched, wishing not for the first time that he were capable of remembering the events that brought them here. Even in the poor lighting, it was easy to see he was as exhausted as Illya, perhaps more so. Illya, after all, got to nap during their rescue, apparently leaving all the work to his partner.
“Exhausting yourself will do nothing, my friend. You’re shaking.”
Starlight was the only illumination filtering through the leaves above, casting Napoleon dark and darker still. Illya traced his movements through sound and touch, and laid his hand across Napoleon’s chest. His friend’s heart was thudding just a hair too fast, a hair too frantic. But he let Illya push him down onto the makeshift bedding.
“Fine. But wake me in a few hours. I don’t want--” He stopped himself. “Just wake me in a few hours.”
“Alright.” If he’d been more awake, Napoleon would have caught the mistake of asking for so vague a promise. Eight hours was a few, certainly.
Illya watched over him until his breathing evened out, apparently against Napoleon’s will as it took nearly a half hour for him to drop into sleep. And then he lifted his hand from Napoleon’s chest, and walked back out onto the beach.
There was no point in going into the forest, although he was very curious to see where Napoleon had gone, and was sure that in daylight he would be able to track his partner’s old movements. But the light was too low, and even walking down the beach was hazardous in the black. But there was something going on, something amiss that Napoleon was hiding from him, and Illya was too long a spy to ignore his gut.
He walked out onto the beach, tracing its length until the natural curve bent around and he could no longer turn and see the footprints from the forest. The beach continued to curve, the ever present breaking of the tidal waves against the sand an echoing cacophony as rhythmic and omnipresent as his own heartbeat. Illya found himself slipping into a half trance as he walked, not entirely aware of where he was going, only that he knew his tired feet must carry him if he and Napoleon weren’t to die stranded here.
There was little hope of UNCLE rescue. His own communicator was no where to be found on his person, and he was sure Napoleon would have mentioned if his hadn’t been lost to the sea or the damp. Since they were so clearly off the predetermined charts of the voyage, there was no way for UNCLE to know where they were, let alone if they were alive and the mission a success.
Napoleon insisted that it was. But Illya couldn’t quite allow himself to give up so easily on his duty. He ought to trust Napoleon’s word; he had a hundred times before, and to believe Napoleon would willfully lie to him was almost unthinkable. But even good agents like Napoleon were sometimes tricked, and so there Illya was, walking alone in the dark along a beach towards what, he did not know. Napoleon’s insistance that they were alone on this island sat wrongly with him, and if they were indeed not alone, he had to know what they were up against, and he had to do so before he lost the advantage of nightfall.
There was something on the edge of the beach now, several hundred yards upwind. A dark smudge that was vaguely ship shaped, although the size of a lifeboat not a frigate, pulled up on the sand. Pulled up, not washed up. It was moored high, nearly to the tree line, and dark, human shapes moved along its sides, busily working on something, although without any flame. They were hiding, carefully cloaking themselves from discovery.
Illya crept forward, keeping his body low to the ground and closer to the treeline than he would prefer to avoid detection. He was close enough that the moving, ant-like shapes of men and women began to take form as bipedal humans, when a gnawing, aching feeling at the nape of his neck began to grow.
It was an unnatural pain, one that he hadn’t felt before. Even as he had the thought, he realized it was a lie. It was familiar, but only in his dreams. He took another careful, low step, concerned pain would make his movements clear to the enemy, and with that step, the pain worsened into a biting, lancing thing that struck him from the base of his skull all the way to the small of his back. He snapped his teeth together and bit his lips to keep from calling out. Out of stubbornness and stubbornness alone he inched forward more, and the pain doggedly increased, until he thought his head would simply explode, and he hoped it would because the thought of the pain continuing was unthinkable. The sand was somehow against his cheek, although he didn’t remember falling. He could only hope that he died silently and did not bring their attention to Napoleon.
“Do you think, Napoleon my darling, that I have any intention of letting you disrupt my plans?”
“Your ship is sinking. I think I’d say we’ve done a fair bit of disrupting already.”
A laugh, high and beautiful and cruel and so wrong, so like the sound of the screaming crabs that dance through the ship’s dining room, cackling at their foolishness.
Illya can’t see beyond a straight line in front of him, can’t turn his head to see who or what is at his back, can’t feel anything beyond the pain there.
“Hurting him won’t help you. We’re UNCLE agents, we--”
A laugh again, and it’s all Illya can do to concentrate on Napoleon, on the sea water rising and flooding them both, holding his arms down and his heart up. Where is Napoleon? He can’t see him. Why can’t he see him?
“Who says I want to hurt him? What happens now is on you, Napoleon darling. Don’t forget.”
The pain lances, the crabs sing, the woman laughs, “Don’t forget,” and Napoleon--
Napoleon’s hand was on his face, holding his lips tightly closed and dragging him roughly, bodily, down the beach. Illya woke that way, not knowing what was happening or where he was, only that Napoleon was deeply angry at him.
Then Illya remembered. The beach, the figures, the landing boat moored against the forest. They were not alone, and, judging from his partner’s dark face in the growing dawn, Napoleon had known that. But he didn’t remember any more. A humming pain still buzzed down his spine, but it was lessening.
“Don’t even think about trying to talk,” Napoleon whispered fast in his ear as he dragged him. He stumbled and tried to get to his feet. There was no reason for Napoleon to manhandle him like this; he was more than capable of walking on his own. But Napoleon had none of it, and, annoyed and gagged by his friend’s hand still, Illya crossed his arms and let himself be carried.
They were silent for another mile. Gradually the pain in his head abated into a headache he associated with dehydration and not something more insidious, and the forestry and beach began to look familiar. This was where they had washed up; Napoleon had brought them right back to the beginning.
Finally he was released, and he dropped into the sand, not expecting to be let go so suddenly. Napoleon dropped down next to him, looking pale and exhausted still. The rest had done him no good.
“Are you done acting like a child?” Illya asked him.
“Are you? What were you thinking, going off like that!”
Illya’s mouth dropped disbelievingly. “That I am an UNCLE agent, or had you forgotten suddenly? Was I supposed to wait for you to hold my hand, Napoleon? Or did you forget that I am actually a trained agent and not an imbecile?”
Napoleon deflated. The sun was tripping against the sea horizon, casting the whole island in a pink glow that was far more peaceful than the reality of their situation. It cast Napoleon in that light too, but without any gentleness. He looked bathed in red.
“I’m sorry, tovarich. But please, don’t go off again. There’s nothing that direction anyhow.” His eyes were closed, probably to prevent Illya from seeing the obvious lie.
It hurt more than he expected. Illya had been lied to thousands of times, had lied back ten thousand more. Lies were their profession, their calling, their trade. But lying to Napoleon was something he only did in the most dire of situations, only if it were so unavoidable that betrayal of either the Soviet Union or UNCLE lay in telling the obvious truth. He preferred lies of omission to those that were outright, and almost always Napoleon understood the delicacy of his position and didn’t press for answers that Illya would be unable to give.
But this lie, that there was nothing in that direction of the beach, was a blatant one. Did he truly think Illya had fallen unconscious before seeing the boat?
The thought brought back the memory of the pain, and he winced before he could stop himself, a hand reaching to the nape of his neck and pressing down, hard, to alleviate the phantom burn.
Napoleon saw the change in him and deflated further still, his shoulders drooping and all but falling into Illya’s narrowed vision.
“Does it hurt? Christ, Illya, how bad does it hurt?”
Through the fog of half remembered agony, Illya noted the turn of phrase. Not, “where does it hurt,” or, “what have you done to yourself,” and spoken with a tremor in his voice, as if Napoleon knew the wound already and its seriousness. Perhaps he did. The gaping hole in Illya’s memory was filled with pain, and Napoleon’s voice, and the dreaming of a burning ship. Already Napoleon had lied to him once. He must accept the reality that Napoleon could have and probably did lie about the rest of it, too.
He raised his eyes to meet Napoleon’s and said, “You can tell me the truth now, Napoleon.”
Napoleon lifted a shaking hand and pressed it against the back of Illya’s neck, enveloping the skin in a clammy warmth that was not as comforting as it might have been even a few hours ago.
The crabs aren’t screaming. He is screaming. The crabs are dying silently and the waves are rising and the ship is sinking and his screams sound through the cabin like a dozen small dying animals.
Illya choked. His body spasmed as the memory, not dream, splashed against his consciousness with all the force of a tidal wave.
“Oh god, Illya, please,” he could hear Napoleon above him, but distantly, unimportantly. He felt weightless, and realized it was because Napoleon was the only thing keeping him from slipping into the sand. “Please. I’m so sorry. I shouldn’t have slept.”
There isn’t a sword at his back, but a scalpel. Sharper than a saber and far more sophisticated and becoming of Ms. Cecilia and her Harvard learning. It cuts deep, and he screams, and Napoleon screams, and he feels something pressed inside him. Something foreign and wrong.
There are eels around his ankles, holding him down. Only they aren’t eels, they’re leg irons, and the monster clutching at him is Napoleon desperately trying to pry them open with a nail file. He tries to laugh at that, because of course Napoleon would have a nail file, the vain man, but he can’t move or breathe or think or do anything, and the ship is sinking. He hates ships.
He took in a shuddering breath, placed a hand on Napoleon’s knee, and looked at him. “It’s alright. I’m alright.”
Napoleon looked ready to be ill, and swallowed convulsively. He was kneeling in the sand, all vanity gone, and holding Illya as if he was afraid he would vanish.
“She did something to me, didn’t she.”
“Not all of it. Some.” He pushed himself up on his elbows again and felt a sense of deja vu for the morning before. But this time he was only damp, not soaked to the bone, and his sense of self was much more certain. “And half still in a dream, so I’m not sure what is real and what isn’t.”
He reached back, pulled Napoleon’s hand from his neck, and felt there for himself. A thin line, one he had ignored and thought to be a scratch, was raised from the third vertebra to the second. A surgical scar, but healed expertly and with technology he was unfamiliar with. It was painless, in and of itself. If it weren’t for the dream-like memory and the scalding agony, he never would have guessed it was even there.
“She... implanted you with something.”
Illya glared at Napoleon and he had the decency to look abashed.
“A bomb. She implanted you with a bomb.” He looked crestfallen. A broken man. Illya began to get the picture that Napoleon had so carefully tried to hide from them before. They had not succeeded in their mission, and Napoleon had failed in keeping his agent safe. But shame was not something Napoleon struggled with, and it was certainly not a good enough reason to lie and hide the reality and seriousness of their situation.
“You had no right to--”
“It’s proximity, Illya. It goes off if you get within a hundred yards of her. Boom. It’s tiny, but right at the base of your skull, of your brain, and--” He lifted his hands off the beach in a shower of sand, and Illya tried to imagine that as himself. Fluttering pieces of something that was once something much larger, turned into shrapnel by time and inevitability. Anger rises in him. Indignant for himself, for the sand, for everything but Ms. Cecilia.
“And you didn’t think I had the right to know? What were you going to do, put me in a hole until she left? Until she took her knowledge and sold it to the highest bidder?”
“Don’t think it didn’t cross my mind! And it wasn’t as if I sat around. I found their camp last evening before you blundered off and almost got yourself killed. I set a few traps and was going back once I’d convinced you to explore the island the other direction.”
The morning was breaking, the gentle crest of pink turning into a glow of orange and yellow, and the beach was once again beginning to look like a tropical paradise. The ever present sound of the ocean was no longer comforting but oppressive, and the endless sounds of birds and the wind through the foliage up the beach was a constant reminder of where they were and their frustrating, stupid situation. Napoleon had grossly abandoned his duties as an UNCLE agent, and Illya would have a very difficult time explaining this in his report. He was no longer sure he should try to hide Napoleon’s actions from Mr. Waverly. At least Napoleon hadn’t completely abandoned the mission. The knowledge that he had been secretly skulking about and foolishly trying to accomplish it on his own in secret was a half relief, and explained a few things.
Illya calmed himself and stood. “Ms. Cecilia is still out there. The mission is incomplete. Unless you intend to knock me unconscious for the remainder of my life, get up and let’s go to work.”
Napoleon stood, stiffly, blankly, and Illya could see him calculating the odds of successfully knocking him down. He glared, and Napoleon shrugged.
“What on earth were you thinking, Napoleon?”
Napoleon dragged himself behind Illya into the makeshift alcove. It looked untouched, and he could only hope it meant their presence here was still undetected. It gave them a fighting chance of completing their mission still. They had destroyed the frigate, which already put them at a slight advantage. The lifeboat would get Ms. Cecilia and her party from one island to the next, but not as far as Hawaii where her contact was said to have taken residence. Of course the bomb in his head made the odds less impressive.
He sat on the log and Napoleon all but collapsed on the ground at his feet. He looked up at Illya, and for once Illya did not see the senior agent, the CEA of Section II, but a man on the verge of losing everything.
“I thought she’d killed you,” he said flatly.
The crabs scream. He screams. Napoleon screams, too. An endless wave of voices that rise above the sound of the ocean, drowning out everything else while he drowns in pain, and then in water, and then in Napoleon’s arms.
“I thought she stuck a knife into your brain, and I thought you were dead.” Napoleon’s voice shook. “You don’t remember. And even if you did, you didn’t see yourself, Illya. It was bad. There was a lot of blood, and then that thing she put in you, and then she threw you overboard, like garbage. She chucked you into the sea like garbage.”
Illya tried to pull up a picture of the event, but was only left with the milky dream, clearly half nightmare and probably only a fraction of the reality. He was familiar with trauma and head wounds both, and knew he might never recall the events in their actuality. But it irked him, and he wanted to reach out and comfort Napoleon, but he still could not abide that the CEA of Section II had abandoned his mission so completely, all for one man. It was a dereliction of duty that would certainly lose him his position, and might even be considered treasonous.
He opened his mouth with the intention of being kind, but failed before the first word came off his tongue. “And so you abandoned your mission, and then lied to me about it.” As he said it, he pushed away the sour thought that perhaps it was the second sin that bothered him more than the first.
“Do you blame me?”
“Yes,” Illya hissed. “We are agents, Napoleon. We expect to be killed in the line of duty. I would have let you drown.”
It was a lie. Napoleon could see it too, if the small smile across his face was any sign.
“Fine. Perhaps I wouldn’t have. But that doesn’t change the fact that we still have a mission to complete. And I haven’t forgiven you.”
But the atmosphere did change. Napoleon seemed to glow, his burden lifted from him, and Illya knew he would be bombarded with kindness until he finally gave up and told Napoleon he forgave him. Which he would undoubtedly do before too long. Despite all his words, and his continued anger at being treated like a child, Napoleon had acted kindly, if stupidly. It was difficult to stay angry at an idiot.
Illya let his head fall back, felt an arc of familiar pain, and raised it again.
“You said it was proximity?” Napoleon stared at him dumbly. “The bomb! You said it was proximity?”
The pain grew, blossomed, swelled, pushed against his mind until he could see nothing more than a spec of darkness and Napoleon’s pale face moored in it, anchoring him to reality.
“She must be moving down the coast,” Napoleon said. It was all Illya could do to hear it over the thrum of his pulse and the grinding of his teeth. “Up, come on, up!” and Napoleon was throwing him over his shoulder and running through the sand.
He bounced on his shoulder, nearly ill from the pain and the sea-like movements. He tried to say, “Stay upland, it will be better footing,” but only managed a groan.
He tried to wriggle free. If he was about to explode he had no intention of taking Napoleon with him, however annoyed he was at the man. His wriggling only served to make him more dizzy with pain, and he felt a selfish, blessed relief when a gray buzzing slipped over his vision and began to tug him into a faint. He wouldn’t have to watch Napoleon die.
“It dissolves, of course. Three or four days, and the body absorbs its components; it’s a biological reaction rather than something so blasted, you’ll pardon the phrasing, indelicate as plastique explosive. We’re still working on the technology. That’s my contact’s speciality, the woman in Hawaii. She does the most amazing things with mice. They’re so small, you see, and they can get into anywhere, infest anywhere, and blow up anywhere. It’s ingenious. It was never meant to be deployed on a man, but I’m creative, what can I say, and it’s hardly the first time. Oh, don’t look at me like that Napoleon, dear. It will be alright. It’s just an insurance policy, after all. I’m sure you have underwriters of your own in UNCLE. Just consider this mine, and that my papers are well held. If your dear friend here gets anywhere close to me, he dies. And it’s not the pretty sort of death you’d want for him, I promise you. I’ve seen men live for days afterwards, their brains leaking from their ears. You care for him. I can see it. I understand that, I do. It’s so rare in men, and I appreciate it, I cultivate it. Napoleon, darling, don’t forget. The choice is yours.”
There’s a touch of a soft hand against his chin, a woman’s hand, a hand he wishes were anywhere but on his skin, and then it’s gone, and the ocean is all around him. His poor, paralyzed body cannot think of staying afloat, let alone swimming, and he think he’ll sink and die, but then Napoleon is there, blessed Napoleon, stupid Napoleon, foolish Napoleon, loving Napoleon.
“Please be alive,” he hears Napoleon say, and he can’t move his lips more than a fraction of an inch, or open his eyes, but he breathes hard in the spray of salt foam and Napoleon’s breath, and wills him to see, to hear, to feel. “Please, god, Illya, be alive. I can’t-- you can’t die.”
He wants to say, “Of course I can. Of course I will. So will you, before we’re each forty unless we’re lucky,” but he has neither the energy nor the will. He is alive. The choice is made.
Illya woke, sick of waking with an aching head and body, to find himself alone in a boat, adrift at sea.
He righted himself and was sick off the leeward side and shaking. He was angry at more things than he could possibly articulate. Primarily, himself, Napoleon, and the sorry excuse for a boat he was in.
He was alone. The island, or at least an island, was in sight, but no more than a strip on the horizon. It was the lifeboat, he was sure of it. Ms. Cecilia and her crew must have surprised them off the other side of the island, and Napoleon had run the mile in the direction they’d just come from, doubling back to go to the THRUSH camp ahead of them. He’d put Illya in it and put him to sea. It would take him all day to row back to it, and he had the presence of mind to be glad Napoleon had left him oars. He must have been rowed out himself, at least past the point where the tide and drift of water would automatically bring him back ashore, and then Napoleon must have jumped overboard, abandoning him and swimming back for land.
It was a moderately clever, if extremely annoying, way of preventing his brain from exploding. He ought to be thankful it wasn’t a hole he was dropped in, but his worry for Napoleon overshadowed his ire and his gratitude both. He took up the oars, ignored his aching head and his cramping belly, his throat and mouth which were both so dry that even breathing was painful, and began to row.
His arms ached, and he was right in his estimation of the time it would take to make it to land. It was nearly nightfall by the time he made it near to shore again, and he was battling the tide the whole way in. He faced the blinding sunset with every stroke, unable to turn without letting the boat drift away from the island, nor able to look down for the ache in his neck. It hurt more, now. A different sort of pain. It didn’t buzz or grow, but ached. A persistent, unpleasant sort of pain he recalled from his childhood. Infection, weakness, a body attacking itself.
The memory, the dream, floated up into his mind and he didn’t know if he was lucky enough to even entertain the idea that it the invasive little bomb was already dissolving, subsumed into his being and made impotent. He couldn’t risk it, let alone bank on it. Such an American term, and yet one he’d taken from Napoleon with glee. Napoleon.
His brain might explode, but he couldn’t leave Napoleon alone. Napoleon had chosen him over the mission, and however that might sit wrongly in Illya’s gut, he knew he himself was choosing a similar fate despite all logic.
He rowed harder, squinting at the sun and berating his weakening body, until his oars hit sand, and he rolled himself out of the boat and into the surf. He stumbled, ever conscious of his head and neck, and flinching with every step, waiting for the pain.
But it didn’t come. He stumbled up the shore until he hit dry sand, and further until he hit the more solid footing of the edge of the forest. The birds sang as if nothing was amiss, and the setting sun made the island hazy and difficult to comprehend. There was no sign of Ms. Cecilia, her gang of merry THRUSH agents, or his own wayward partner.
He dropped to the ground, determined to catch his breath and carry on, when a crashing sound from the forest shot his head up and startled him. His neck ached badly, but the pain didn’t lance, and he ignored it, dragging himself to his feet.
There was an explosion. The birds screeched and flew up and out of the trees, flooding the sky with wings and howls of animals. Cracking sounds as trees were felled, and as the earth buckled under the attack. It wasn’t the largest explosion Illya had seen, and not the largest by half that he’d been responsible for, but it was unexpected, and his first instinct was to wonder if he was a ghost witnessing his own demise. But the explosion was from inland, not the shore where he knew himself to be, and although superstition was more a part of his mind than he would ever admit to Napoleon, even this was farfetched. Illya’s eyes narrowed as he traced the plume of smoke that rose up from the center of the island. From inland where Napoleon had disappeared to that first night.
The traps his partner had laid, finally sprung. He pushed himself into the forest, skirting trees and narrowly avoiding falls over uneven footing. His body was exhausted to the point of stupidity, and grace had long since fled his limbs.
“Napoleon?” Surely Napoleon wouldn’t be foolish enough to set off his own traps. He longed for his communicator.
Rough hands, Napoleon’s hands, grabbed him and pulled him into an embrace. They stumbled, unsure, back towards the beach.
“What are you doing here?” Hands found the nape of his neck and hold there, as if pressure could keep him from popping.
“She’s dead, isn’t she.”
Napoleon looked at the ground. “It wasn’t my intention.”
“I know.” Napoleon was a gentleman. Illya would have killed her without much thought. Not simply in revenge, although he was capable of that, too, but for her knowledge. She wasn’t carrying plans and templates stolen from some laboratory. She was the mastermind of her brilliant and devilish inventions. If she was captured she would undoubtedly find a way to carry on her work. It wasn’t UNCLE policy to kill THRUSH masterminds, nor was it Napoleon’s, but Illya had none of the chivalrous guilt that crossed Napoleon’s face.
“I remember, now,” he says, although it’s only half true. “It was a biological bomb, tied to her own heart’s electrical output. Her heart is stopped, so there is nothing for the receiver to pick up on. It’s actually very clever work, and it might have many applications...”
Napoleon stared at him, uncomprehending. Illya forgave him his stupidity. They were both very tired.
“It’s safe. I’m safe.”
He sunk to the ground and pulled Napoleon down with him. “And the mission is complete,” Napoleon said, his voice airy and without its usual coyness. There were no women to take dancing now. Ms. Cecilia dead before her time.
“If I’d known she had to die for you to be safe--”
“You wouldn’t have killed her intentionally, Napoleon, even if you had known,” Illya said, cutting him off sharply. “Don’t apologize for being a good man.”
Napoleon was quiet on the beach for a long time. Illya reached out and let his hand touch Napoleon’s chest, felt the heartbeat there. Slow and tired and steady. Certain sharks could detect bodies electricity. He’d read about it in a recent journal. Perhaps he was a shark, now, having absorbed Ms. Cecilia’s invention. He laughed, and wondered if his teeth were sharp, and then wondered if he was losing his mind, or merely giving into inevitable exhaustion.
“We’re still trapped here.”
Napoleon looked uncomfortable. “Ah, not exactly...” he said, sounding more like himself than he had in the last two days.
Illya closed his mouth and stared at him.
“Their camp had a radio. I took the liberty of calling the Hawaii outpost and asking for a lift. The should be here by the morning.”
“You lied to me, Napoleon.”
He had the good grace to not pretend Illya was talking about the radio. “I know. I thought I could keep you safe--”
“In the dark--”
Napoleon glared. “Safe, and still finish the mission on my own. I was wrong.”
Illya shrugged. He was too tired for this conversation, although it needed to happen. “You were right. I did nothing in the end, as much as it annoys me. You set the traps and sprung them, and I took a nap in the ocean. Napoleon, you know how much I hate the ocean.”
He got a playful nudge for his attempt at levity, and he smiled. “Ah, had I know it would bother you that much, I would have just let your pretty little brain explode. You could have taken one out with the blast radius. That would have made you feel productive, I’m sure.”
Illya’s mouth was dry. “Napoleon. I can’t ask you to never lie to me again. Our jobs don’t allow that sort of promise and I wouldn’t ask it of you. But--”
Napoleon was kissing him, his lips pressed against Illya’s. His mouth was dirty with two days of salt and brine and little to eat but fallen fruit, and his tongue a desperate push against Illya’s teeth. He pushed back, biting at Napoleon’s lips half angrily and half desperately, and entirely without a measure of self control.
Napoleon pulled back a fraction of an inch, panting and speaking against Illya’s chin. His stubble was rough, and Illya liked it. “I thought I could have it both. I thought I could save you and handle the mission both. God, Illya, the thought of losing you when I had the chance to keep you safe, when it was in my power--”
“You absolute idiot,” Illya said, and bit down hard on Napoleon’s chin. “All you had to do was tell me.”
They were too exhausted to do anything but push at one another’s clothes and then lay down in the sand, giving up. “When we get home,” Napoleon said quietly. “Will any of this be real?” He licked his lips, and Illya resisted the urge to bend over and lick them, too.
“If you ever lie to me without cause--”
“I had cause--”
“Without good cause, it won’t be.” He propped himself up to look at Napoleon. It was almost dark again. Stars were beginning to pop out of the haze of gray-pink and flutter into life above their heads. He flopped back down. “I mean it, Napoleon. Trust in one another is the only thing that keeps us alive. If you betray that again I will request a new partner. And you cannot put me above the mission.”
He got steadfast look in return. “I tried to keep you at equal level to the mission. Was that so wrong?”
Illya sighed. He had done the same before, and would likely do the same again. Napoleon had wormed his way into his heart, electricity of it be damned. They were a ticking bomb, the two of them. There would be no proximity pain to warn them of its detonation, either.
He reached out a hand and wound it into Napoleon’s. The surf crashed and rolled on the beach, the birds had resumed their regular braying after the explosion, and they were alive. Amazingly, somehow, alive.
“I suppose I can live with it,” he said, realizing that he could live only because of it. “Tell me, Napoleon,” he said very seriously. “Do you think there will be crabs to eat in Hawaii? I am very hungry.”
Napoleon started, and then rolled over to kiss him again. Sand wedged itself uncomfortably against his skin under his shirt, but Illya didn’t complain.