Supposed to Be
“You weren’t supposed to go before me,” Illya said quietly to nothing.
He sorted through the personal effects they’d turned over to him and found Napoleon’s watch. Taking off his own, he put Napoleon’s on. Then he held it to his wrist and breathed.
“Illya?” Gaby knocked lightly at the door with just a little bit of warning as she came in. “Are you...” she trailed off. Her voice was rough, her eyes were red, but she was unbent and unbowed, dealing with it as they all did.
Illya leaned back in his chair and regarded the office. His and Napoleon’s both, with their desks together and their things not regarding boundaries. “It is not real yet.” Gaby’s presence made his accent grow thicker, even though it had been years since he’d forgotten articles. “So many missions, so many times he or I were presumed dead, then were not.”
Even though Napoleon had died while he was watching; even though he’d reached the body a second later; even though he’d carried him back himself... it still wasn’t real. Napoleon didn’t feel gone. It felt like he was out on a separate mission and would come sauntering in the door any minute now, with his cocky grin and bright eyes and a mocking tone in his voice that also managed to sound fond and affectionate at the same time. He would be out right now, romancing some woman, perhaps the new front desk security, leaning forward to have his badge pinned on instead of simply taking it from her as all others did. He would come into Illya’s lab and hover over his shoulder until Illya gave in and they went to lunch together. He would give Illya the new mission briefing and they would head out together, partners working in sync.
“Oh, Illya.” Gaby came and sat down on his table, legs dangling. It wasn’t the spot that Napoleon sat on – that part she avoided unconsciously, leaving room for Napoleon.
“You flew in for the funeral?” Illya concentrated and made sure he got all his articles in that time. Years ago, when Waverly, Napoleon, and Illya had moved to New York to set up the UNCLE American branch, Gaby had stayed in Europe with the partners and friends she'd made there.
Gaby nodded, with a slight flash of her eyes that told him it was a stupid question. She refrained from saying it, though, because one didn’t say those sorts of things to somebody whose partner had died.
Illya stood up, holding his hand around the watch tightly. Then he let go and reached for his jacket. “Let us go together, then.”
After the funeral, Gaby left, Illya went back to work, and life returned to normal. As normal as it could be without Napoleon. They tried to assign him to other partners, and Illya worked with them for the mission, and then he returned each time to his office, the office that was his alone now.
“You weren’t supposed to go before me,” Illya said again to the photograph of the two of them on the wall. He wasn’t. Napoleon was supposed to be the one who lived to retirement age, who would take over Waverly’s position when Waverly stepped down, who had his dreams and his aspirations and his plans. Illya was the one who didn’t plan for the future, who always expected each mission to be his last, who collected scars and wounds like no other field agent, who would have died to keep Napoleon alive. He’d failed.
Now that’s not fair, really, tovarishch. Supposed to, indeed. I think I’m insulted. As if we weren’t equals.
Illya’s mouth turned up and he lightly brushed the tips of his fingers across the picture. A silent caress of which there would be no more. He knew it was slightly pathetic of him, but the reassurance he had when imagining Napoleon’s voice and replies was too great for him to put any effort into stopping it. It had started a few months ago, and he’d told no one about it. Simply spoke to his partner as normal when they were alone, and in his head when they were not. Napoleon didn’t say much – not like when he was alive and you couldn’t get him to shut up sometimes. Mostly, just a few lines, a ghost of a touch, a presence that was there, reassuring and helpful, if often sarcastic as well.
If the UNCLE shrink had known about this, Illya knew he would have been taken off field work. So he didn’t tell. Not the shrink, not Waverly, not Mark, not Gaby. This was between him and his imagination, and nobody else. It was something, and something was all he had.
Illya looked at the vault, a loud sigh escaping him. After all the work they had done to get down here, then they found this. This had not been in the mission intelligence they had.
A low whistle announced the presence of his current partner. “WooEee. The device is behind that, ain’t it? Can explosives even get through’a dat?”
As always, Illya’s mouth gave a tug upwards at the accent and diction of the youth beside him. Napoleon, his current partner was not. He didn’t mind – efficiency was all he cared about in a mission partner these days – but the satirical remarks Napoleon would have made had been running through his mind for the last week.
This time, though, it seemed his imagination was on other things. We can crack that. No problem.
Illya raised his eyebrows. Despite years of working with Napoleon, he was not nearly the safecracker the thief had been. He knew when he was out of his league, and this vault was on par with that very first one they had come across, all those ages back in Rome.
Come on, Peril his imagination whined at him, I’ve always wanted to try one of these.
“We’re not going to use explosives.” Illya found himself saying as he holstered his gun and reached to the small of his back. Cowboy’s lock picks were snugged tight against his skin, as they were on all the missions. He rarely lost them unless he was captured, and when that happened, he always made sure to get them back. Once, and once only, he’d had to resort to going to an old safe house of Napoleon’s and retrieving one of the back-ups. He had entered into the home silently, planning to take nothing but the kit. He’d ended up spending the night, making up stories as to how Napoleon had acquired each of the paintings in the place. He’d slept in Napoleon’s bed, and come away feeling both lonelier than ever before, and also secure, as if Napoleon was wrapped close around him.
It was similar to how he felt now as he laid out the tools and eyed the safe.
“Um, Kuryakin, are ya sure—”
Illya waved the youth off. “Watch the corridor.” It would take the other out of his sight – his partner would still be able to see him, but he wouldn’t be a distraction. All Illya wanted right now was his Cowboy with him. It was why he hadn’t had a permanent partner in two years. Nobody lasted more than one or two missions, sometimes three, before being reassigned to an easier agent. Illya never objected, and he never requested. Working alone would be stupid... but he still missed Napoleon too much to have another.
He settled down to work on the safe, moving slowly but surely, Napoleon’s whispered voice talking him through it step by step and informing about all the particulars of this particular brand. Illya’s heart ached for what was not, even as his partner was there with him.
Um, wait a second...
Illya froze, even as his fingers touched the dial. What?
They’ve done something to this... post factory modification.
Illya swallowed slowly and drew his fingers back. What is it?
Give me a minute...
So you can sleep on it?
Napoleon’s laughter echoed through his mind.
Illya stared at the safe, going through everything he knew about vaults and what he’d learned over the years from Napoleon. It looked like a safe to him. A big, large safe that he would never be able to crack on his own in a million years.
Don’t think like that, Peril. You’re distracting me. I’ve got it now. Go back to the hinges and check for wires.
As a field agent, Illya had to work through any sort of conditions, and was an expert at moving on, even when wounded and bleeding. Pushing it all to one side of his mind and living only in the moment, Illya went to check the hinges.
In New York, all Illya would say was that he’d learned more from Napoleon than he’d told UNCLE before. It was true enough, and nobody read a lie from him. Only his own soul knew that. That, and a suspiciously absent voice. He hadn’t heard from Napoleon since they’d gotten through the safe.
After the debriefing was over, Illya went home. He went to the condo unit complex, walked up the stairs to the familiar seventh floor, then took the elevator from there to the penthouse. When Napoleon had died, he had left the suite and all the contents to Illya. There were other things he’d left to his aunt and some other scattered relatives, but it would have been impractical for anybody other than an UNCLE agent to have the condo – they’d made so many changes to it over the years, security, defense, and otherwise. Illya’s own place he’d ended up subletting to various new agents until they found their footing in the city. He lived, though, in Napoleon’s, among all the capitalistic clutter and ease and beautiful things that Napoleon loved. He’d made room for his books and his records... but they fit in with remarkable ease, as if there had always been a place there waiting for them.
Going to the kitchen, Illya pulled out the vodka from the freezer and poured two glasses, putting the bottle back after. It was the same brand that Napoleon had always kept for him. The bottle itself was more recent – he’d gone through the one Napoleon had bought less than a month after his Cowboy had died.
Taking the glasses to the living room, he put one next to Napoleon’s armchair, then sat down on the floor beside it and sipped from his own.
“Cowboy, we need to talk.”
There wasn’t anything for awhile, and Illya repeated himself, more strongly. Eventually, there came a thought.
I’m tired, can’t this wait?
He hadn’t heard from Napoleon since they’d broken into the vault. Napoleon had been more there with him than he normally was. Apparently, for a ghost, it was exhausting, to be so much in the world.
“Why didn’t you tell me? That you weren’t my imagination?” Illya asked quietly, his hands dangling between his knees. He’d mastered the trembling and the tapping years ago – it didn’t mean he didn’t still get angry.
The presence beside him grew a little stronger, as if Napoleon was settling into his armchair. Like that would have done any good, tovarishch. There was a pause. And I wasn’t so sure I wasn’t. You accepted me, that was enough.
Illya smiled at that. He probably wouldn’t have believed him anyhow, and might even have gone to the shrink. Or more likely told Gaby, who would have told the shrink, or Waverly, with the end result of no more field work for him until he ‘accepted’ Napoleon’s death. So for the best, then. “I’ve missed you.”
I know. I’m sorry.
Illya closed his eyes and tilted his head into the soft fabric of the armchair. “I’m glad you stayed,” he said softly.
Always, Napoleon replied.
Peril, Peril, you have to get up.
Napoleon’s voice in his mind, urgent and worried.
Illya, please. Please, get up.
The combination of his name and the plea finally got through to him. Napoleon never begged, and he hadn’t used Illya’s name since he died, staying to their nicknames. With an effort, Illya forced himself to consciousness.
As soon as he did, the pain hit. Pain, and weakness. He was wounded, badly. Concussive blast, he thought, and shrapnel. Or maybe gunshot. Either way, many things were damaged and he’d lost a lot of blood. Perhaps too much to survive this time.
No. No, don’t think that. You have to stay.
Illya slanted his eyes at nothing at that, trying to regain enough energy to do anything else.
I don’t know what will happen, Napoleon’s voice was angry and desperate. I don’t know how I’m here with you, and I don’t know that you’ll join me, or I’ll join you, or how any of that might work. I don’t know. You have to live. You have to. Please.
Being a ghost didn’t apparently make one an expert in being dead. Just because Napoleon came back as one didn’t guarantee anything else for them. Illya breathed and breathed again. “You’re right,” he forced himself to say, and mean it.
Then Illya took stock of everything outside himself. He still had the papers he’d gone in to get, folded into the special pocket in the lining of his jacket. He still had his gun. That was enough to get him out, if he could force his body to function.
There was a rage deep, deep inside of him. It had started when he was ten and his life had been torn apart, when all he loved was tarnished, when the love of his parents was not enough for safety. He had kept it there and fed it as he got older, a tool and a protective vest. Over time, Napoleon and UNCLE had buffered down the edges of it until it was no longer necessary for him to keep it front and center. He had other tools, other vests, and a partner who never let him down, even when he’d died.
Illya pressed his hand to Napoleon’s watch around his wrist and sank down into his center, pulling out that deep core, along with that which surrounded it now, and brought it all out to feed to his wounded body, deadening the nerves and ignoring all that they tried to tell him. It wasn’t important right now. Not as important as the other was.
When he could, he tried to stand up. There was something wrong with his foot, or perhaps his whole leg. He couldn’t feel it, but he couldn’t walk quite right on it either. Grabbing a few things inside the debris field, he made himself a support to tie to his leg, then another to use as a walking stick. There was something not quite right about some of his fingers as well, but he could work around that.
He couldn’t, though, work around not knowing where he was, or what was around him. “Cowboy?”
Shhh. This way. Napoleon’s presence was already strong with him, and he guided Illya through, staying close beside him and with him until Illya had made it to the extraction point.
Illya mostly retired from field work after that. He had not healed quite right after pushing himself so far, and Napoleon was worried about him. These days, Illya mostly lived for Napoleon anyhow, so he was not unhappy to comply when Gaby asked him to. April took his place as Chief Enforcement Officer, and Illya stepped happily back into his labs to tinker around until full retirement. Something a field agent almost never did. Something he wouldn’t have done, if it wasn’t for a silent voice asking him to live. So, for another, he did.
He travelled around, visiting art museums and plays and listened to commentary nobody else could hear. He walked along docks and watched waves and boats and enjoyed the silent company. He went to local farmer’s markets and bought fresh food and painfully learned to cook it, all to specific directions.
They built memories together, memories that were nobody else’s but their own. People thought he was lonely and others tried to share their lives with him, but he turned them all away with a contented smile. He had his company, even if no one else knew it, and he was happy for it.
And many years later, when as an old man he died in his sleep, he stood up from his body. For the first time in forty years, he could see his friend and partner. Not as a presence that he could only feel, not as a voice inside his head, but somebody standing there beside him, waiting for him.
Napoleon was as young as the day he’d first met the other. Illya could feel himself to be the same, all the aches and pains gone again.
He held his hand out, and Napoleon reached to take it. They touched. Illya closed his eyes for the joy of it, but then opened them again so he could keep seeing Napoleon.
Cowboy. Illya stepped forward to hug his friend and hold him. Dearer than his own heart, and finally there in his arms at last.
Tovarishch. Napoleon replied, a sparkle in his eye and relief and gladness in his mood. He gave Illya the formal kiss of friendship, then put both his hands on Illya’s face and gave him another that was more than friends.
Illya accepted it gladly, and returned the forty years of waiting.
Then they turned away from the body and the people sitting in mourning, and they walked hand in hand together to their next adventure. Just as it was always supposed to be.