Illya is bleeding.
He can’t be too concerned about it, though, because it’s a flesh wound at most and Solo’s injury is much worse.
“Trying to help you, Cowboy,” he mutters, wrapping his arm around Solo’s stupid hefty waist and trying to steer him toward the exit. Why can’t the man have a narrow waist like a sensible person. Why is he built like a rectangle all the way through his body. To make Illya’s life more difficult, that’s why, there’s no other explanation for it.
He stops before they reach the door, sighing in exasperation. “I cannot help you if you won’t help me.”
“I’m so sorry,” Solo says, his voice still holding that irritating air of superior detachment even as blood loss and pain make him slur his words. It makes Illya angry, listening to him. Solo is a pig. Every kind of a pig. He cannot die here. He has to live, and continue to annoy Illya to an inhuman degree, so that Illya can shout at him and, someday, bring him around to seeing the error of his ways.
“I’m doing my best,” Solo goes on, and Illya can tell that he’s trying to summon his strength for one of the pedantic lectures he does so well. No time for it. Illya silences him by the simple expedient of crouching and sweeping him into a fireman’s carry, then resuming their route to the door. Taking Illya’s shoulder to the abdomen while in his current state should keep Solo quiet for quite some time.
Illya hates the man. He’s quite sure that he does. But it’s a different kind of hate than it used to be. It’s… warmer. Centered in his chest. Not the ball of ice in his belly that it once was. He isn’t sure what to do with this different sort of hate. He doesn’t know how to use it for best advantage, how to… how to hold it in his hands, so to speak. And there’s very little time to figure it out, while they race all over the world on Waverly’s inexplicable cryptic missions.
He shifts Solo’s weight and tries the door handle. It doesn’t turn. There’s no time for this. He can’t balance enough to kick it down with Solo over his shoulder, so he takes a chance and shoots where the bolt should join. Maybe that will be good enough.
For perhaps the first time since his unfortunate meeting with Solo and Gaby in the streets of East Berlin, luck is on his side. The remains of the door open easily to his shoulder, and he resumes the exhausting, perilous task of extracting Solo from the wreckage of their mission. His partner is over his shoulder; the cassette tape that was their target is in his own pocket; assuming they reach the safe house with both of those things still holding true, the fragile balance of the world under the bipolar system remains.
It is somewhat less than Illya’s pleasure to be of service.
“I’m going to teach you something about my people, Cowboy,” he says, stalking down the next corridor. “We have a reputation for being fixated on suffering.”
Solo makes a vague grunting sound that Illya chooses to take as acknowledgement.
“I blame this on the writers of the last century. They were constantly dwelling on suffering. They presented it as the condition of life. Constantly. All of the great novels of the century, they talk about suffering, suffering, suffering.” He stops, adjusts Solo’s placement, and crashes his shoulder into another door. This one is kind enough to open immediately.
“Under the principles of Communism, this makes no sense,” he goes on, starting down the last corridor between them and a two-mile hike to the safehouse. “The suffering will cease as we make our way to living by true Communist principles.”
The last door opens into night air that smells like smoke and rotten leaves.
Illya shifts Solo to his other shoulder. “That is the idea, at least. An end to suffering. But I’m beginning to see the writers’ point.”
The safehouse smells terrible; like rot and boiled cabbage. Illya spends the first two days fantasizing about burning it to the ground.
The next three days, he doesn’t have time for fantasizing, because they haven’t been extracted yet and Solo’s wounds are infected, leaving him feverish and helpless and extremely annoying.
Illya would never admit to another soul that he fears for the American’s life. To others, Illya fears nothing. He makes a point of not lying to himself, though. And to himself, he can admit that he is very worried, up to the verge of afraid, that Solo will die.
Dying for his country is fine. Dying from wounds sustained on a mission, well and good. Dying in a run-down safehouse, your last breath dissipating into the ghosts of long-ago cabbage, and having it be because Illya failed to save you: no. Unacceptable. Terrifying in the magnitude of how much it cannot be allowed.
“Dammit, Cowboy.” Illya scowls at the wounds, exposed to the air where he cut his makeshift bandages free. He did them poorly, because he thought they would be extracted in short order. Now he has to clean the wounds and re-bandage them, and do it properly this time. He dislikes making mistakes, and he dislikes his mistakes having consequences more. He dislikes the idea of his partner dying even more than that.
He should, perhaps, rank how much he dislikes his partner among those fixed points, but there’s no time for that now, and anyway, for the moment he’s too busy being angry at himself to dislike Solo anyway.
It’s more difficult to dislike Solo when he’s quiet all the time, drifting in his feverish stupor. It makes Illya feel… uncertain. About many things.
He takes a bottle of antiseptic from the first-aid kit and sets his shoulders. “This is going to hurt,” he tells Solo, who blinks slowly at him in reply. “I think you will not enjoy it.”
“I always welcome your attentions, Peril,” Solo murmurs. It’s the closest to his usual snap that Illya has seen since they reached the safehouse.
He gets to work.
Illya is very tired of this safehouse. He has memorized every inch of the floorboards, walls, and ceiling. They have eaten half of the food stores—or rather, he has eaten half of the food and spoon-fed nearly all of the broths and soups into Solo. It should be humiliating for the American, but Solo is either too weak to feel humiliation or simply incapable of the emotion. Illya is torn on which of those he believes to be the case.
One thing he knows for certain, though, is that if they are not extracted soon, Solo will die. He’s too weak to stay in these conditions for much longer, without proper medical care, a real bed, food that isn’t from ancient cans, and heating that is questionable at best.
He cannot imagine what is holding up their extraction. It had better be logistics. If it’s politics, he may have to overthrow two governments out of pique alone.
“Illya.” Solo’s voice is a low, uncertain croak. “Illya.”
He feels much more comfortable about things when Solo isn’t using his proper name. “Yes, what is it?”
Illya sighs and shifts closer to the mattress. “What is it, Solo? Do you need more water?”
“I… yes. But that’s not what I meant.”
“Water first.” Illya grabs the mug and spoon he’s been using to get fluids into Solo. Like feeding an infant, one blessed spoonful at a time. “Easier to talk once your throat isn’t so dry, yes?”
Solo sighs, but does as he’s told, sipping water from the spoon. Illya thinks it’s a big more eagerly than he did earlier that day, which is a good sign. Maybe after sleeping, he’ll be able to drink from the mug properly. Maybe after that he’ll be able to eat solid food, and then hold a weapon, and then they can leave here on their own instead of waiting for the extraction that continues not to come.
Solo chokes on the tiny bit of water and wheezes helplessly. Illya bites back a sigh and discards any hope of their luck changing. It never will.
“Come here,” Solo says, when he can breathe again. “Please?”
“I am here. Right here. Right next to you.”
“I’m right here.” Illya huffs in frustration. “How much closer can I get?”
Solo lifts a hand and grabs feebly at him. It’s alarming and pathetic. Illya leans in close to him mostly to make him stop doing it.
Solo’s hand drops to the mattress, and he smiles a bit, pleased that he got his way. “I’m pretty sure I’m going to die here, Peril,” he says. “You’re too stubborn to say anything, but I know.”
“Don’t talk, Solo. You need to save your strength.”
“Exactly what I mean.” Solo sighs. “But since I’m dying, I can do something embarrassing and overwrought. I’m practically obligated to.”
“You need to be quiet—” Illya’s words are cut off—really, his thought is cut off, and all higher brain functions along with it—by Solo leaning up through the small space left between them and pressing his mouth to Illya’s.
As kisses go, it isn’t much, but the fact of its occurrence at all is enough to make Illya’s mind go white and blank. “What,” he says, when Solo falls back against the mattress, a little smirk of satisfaction on his mouth. “What was that?”
“I’m sure you’ll figure it out if you think about it.” Solo’s eyes drift closed. “Now let me die in peace, Peril. And make sure you lie to them about my last words.”
Illya pours the remaining water over Solo’s face. “Don’t you fucking dare to die, Cowboy, don’t you fucking dare.”
Solo sputters and coughs, but doesn’t open his eyes, and the next hour passes in aching, uncertain silence.
The extraction team comes crashing in through the front door and the side window, which is ridiculous and destructive and burns a perfectly good safehouse for future use. Illya can’t find it in himself to snap at them, though, because their arrival means Solo might live after all.
“I’m fine,” he says when one of the agents veers over to check on him. “Get Solo out of here. And get me comms to Waverly.”
“We’re going to take you directly to him,” the agent says. Illya nods; even better. Making his displeasure known in person is always more effective, and he has a great deal of displeasure to share right now.
He stands back and watches them check Solo over and then carry him away. Another agent is radioing ahead to have medical supplies at the ready. Illya breathes slowly, trying to concentrate on the feeling of air filling and leaving his lungs instead of the rage making its way up through his mind now that worry and the practicalities of survival are fading away. His hands are shaking at his sides, fingers twitching, but taking his anger out on the extraction team won’t do any good at all.
He’ll save that for Waverly.
“What, exactly, took you so fucking long?”
Waverly sighs and cleans his glasses on a handkerchief he plucks from his pocket. “Now, Kuryakin, you know that there are a vast number of variables involved in an extraction.”
“Solo nearly died because of your variables.”
“Your in-field medical work was excellent. I’ve passed word to your supervisors in Moscow that you should be commended.”
His supervisors in Moscow would be much happier if he had let Solo die. “You cannot take this long next time, Waverly.”
“I assure you, we always have and always shall do our absolute best to take care of our assets.”
Being referred to as an asset leaves a sour taste in Illya’s mouth and tension in his stomach. That has never happened before. This is Solo’s fault, somehow, he’s sure of it. Exposure to the man is making him soft.
“Just do better next time, Waverly,” Illya mutters, and stalks out of the room.
He has to turn around and return five minutes later, because he hadn’t allowed Waverly to debrief him yet.
Waverly is polite enough not to comment on it.
Gaby finds him in the canteen after his meeting. She has a cup of tea for each of them, which startles him for a moment. He’s still getting used to thinking of her as a partner instead of a tool. And as kind, instead of unreadable and probably dangerous.
She sits down across from him and pushes one cup to his side of the table. “I visited Solo in the infirmary. The doctors said he’s doing well.”
“And what did he say himself?” Illya sips the tea and closes his eyes, groaning softly with pleasure. It’s wonderfully strong. He should have known he could count on an East German girl. “Something annoying, I’m sure?”
“Extremely annoying.” She smiles faintly when he looks up at her. “And with several very bad jokes. So he’s doing well. You’ll have your partner back in no time.”
“They’re welcome to keep him for as long as they like,” he mutters, but it lacks conviction even to his own ears.
Gaby doesn’t even pretend to believe him. “What did you two talk about, shut up in the safe house together all that time?”
“Nothing. He was unconscious or hallucinating most of the time. Not much for conversation.”
“Mm.” Her eyes narrow slightly. “Something happened. I can tell from how you’re twitching.”
He curls his hands into fists and moves them to his lap. The tremor that precedes a blackout isn’t there, he knows that; it comes accompanied by internal symptoms that are impossible for him to overlook. He won’t be tricked by her. “I’m not twitching.”
“The corner of your eye.” She takes another sip of her tea and raises an eyebrow at him. “It’s a very small tic, but quite impossible to miss.”
“Men in my line of work do not have tics. We don’t live long if we do.”
“Then I’ll be sure it’s a beautiful funeral, because you are twitching quite strongly at the corner of your eye.” She sits back in her chair. “If you and Solo weren’t talking, perhaps there was… something else?”
She waits, motionless, and he realizes after a long moment and several angry sips of tea that she truly will sit there like a stone until he gives in. She is an infuriating woman and she is absolutely worthy of partnership with him and Solo. Not that he will ever tell her that.
Not that he has to, because she clearly already knows.
“There was an odd moment,” he says finally, and she smiles.
“Now we’re getting somewhere.” She leans in again. “What kind of an odd moment?”
He turns his cup back and forth between his palms, his mind racing through alternatives as quickly as if he was in the field. “Nothing specific,” he says finally. “Just… odd. Not typical. Mostly likely it won’t happen again.”
She studies him for another moment, and he tenses in his seat, ready to bolt for the exit or leap across the table at her if he must. But instead she settles back in her chair again, apparently willing to let this round go as a draw.
“Well, please keep me notified if it does,” she says mildly. “Watching you two circle around each other is the most exciting sport I can find around here, since they won’t let me drive.”
“They do let you drive.”
“At the proving grounds, not in the city.”
“When you drive in the city you nearly kill people.”
She shrugs. “Nearly doesn’t count, does it?”
He has to admit it doesn’t.
They finish their tea in silence and escort each other, companionably, to the shooting range.
It takes Solo nearly a month to be field-ready again. By that point Illya is sure that he’s about to lose his mind from stir-craziness.
Perhaps that makes him more impatient than he should be, once they’re finally on another mission. Perhaps he isn’t quite as careful as usual; perhaps he misses some things in the briefing, or doesn’t observe all the elements that he should on the ground. He’s not willing to say for certain that any of that happened. But perhaps.
And he has plenty of time to think about it while handcuffed to a chair in this miserable sweaty warehouse, while absurd henchmen strut back and forth talking about what they’re going to do to him once their boss gives them the go-ahead. As if he doesn’t know perfectly well. As if he hasn’t trained specifically to resist it.
He tunes them out, stares up at the distant ceiling, and grudgingly considers the possibility that he got himself in this situation due to his own carelessness and lack of patience. This can, probably, not be blamed on Solo and his cowboy ways.
He hates admitting that, even inside the confines of his own brain. It’s humiliating.
The henchmen are not very good at torture.
Of course, that is a relative concept. In the sense that they haven’t broken him, they’re not very good. In the sense that he is in a considerable amount of pain and without the use of his left hand, they’re doing very well.
They’ll go after his right hand next, and losing use of that will put him in a considerably tighter spot. He needs to start thinking about his next move.
“This would be a good time for you to show up, Cowboy,” he mutters aloud, smiling when the henchmen jump at the sound of his voice. His mouth is full of blood; the smile must be a grotesque thing. It doesn’t seem to bother them, but he hopes it will haunt them later. Once he’s done breaking each and every one of them in half on his way to the door, with or without Solo’s help.
“I would prefer that it be with, though," he says, and they start shouting at him to be quiet. Amateurs. “It will be easier that way.”
One of them hits him across the face, and blood rushes through his mouth anew. His hands are trembling in the restraints, his pulse roaring in his ears. Going into one of his fits while tied down is a decidedly unpleasant experience. He’s not looking forward to it.
Any time now, Cowboy, he thinks. Any time.
“I knew you would come,” he slurs, hating his own voice as Solo carries him out of the warehouse.
“I’m flattered, Peril.”
“It’s awful, that I knew you would come.” Illya closes his eyes, willing himself not to be sick. That would be even more humiliating than being rescued in the first place, and besides, he’s lost so much blood that he needs all the remaining liquid in his body to stay where it is. “It’s awful that I can rely on you.”
“How awful? Worse than being tortured by our friends here?” Solo pauses to throw a grenade back in the direction they’re coming from. Grenades. The fucker has grenades. They always prepare him better than they prepare Illya. Western capitalist bastards, all banding together.
“Answer me, Kuryakin,” Solo prompts, walking forward again. “Stay awake, now. It’s good for you.”
“Much worse than being tortured.” Illya spits blood onto the ground and then wipes his mouth on Solo’s jacket. Fucker. “Relying on you is the worst thing I can imagine.”
“Harshly put.” Solo walks a few more yards, then stops and pulls a device out of his pocket. “And yet, here we are, with me saving your bacon just as you saved mine.”
“Do you see any fucking bacon here?” Illya’s stomach churns again and he closes his eyes tightly. “Only suffering.”
“It’s a metaphor, my overly-literal friend.” Solo taps at the device a few times. “Pity that our extraction team should be on their way, so we won’t end up in a safehouse together again. I would use the time more productively than you did. Teach you some things instead of just sitting and glaring all day.”
“You were too sick to learn anything.” Illya kicks halfheartedly, trying to escape Solo’s hold, but he’s weak as a kitten and it accomplishes nothing. “And then you kissed me.”
Solo seems to stop breathing for a moment. Illya kicks again.
“Hold still,” Solo says finally.
“You kissed me, Cowboy.”
“We’ll talk about this later. Assuming we survive.”
“What would you teach me in a safehouse, hm? More about kissing?”
Whatever Solo says in return is lost under the sound of gunshots starting up again nearby. It’s too much, the final straw; Illya’s mind simply gives up in self-defense. What blood he has left rushes in his ears and everything goes dark.
By the time Illya is allowed to leave the UNCLE facilities, they have rotated to being based in Paris. His apartment is small, Spartan, and badly lit. The doorframes are not tall enough, but otherwise he finds it acceptable.
He lies on the small couch, which smells of mildew and sweat, and looks up at the ceiling, walking through memorized ciphers in his mind. It’s the simplest of memory exercises, and he finds it comforting. When he finishes fifty rounds, he will make tea. He feels very much like himself again.
The knock at the door interrupts him in the middle of round thirty-seven. He would love to ignore it, but he’s already lost his momentum and will have to start over at the beginning anyway. At least he can get the satisfaction of shouting at whoever is out there.
Of course it’s Solo.
“I come in peace,” he says, holding up a bottle of wine.
“I don’t drink wine,” Illya reminds him grimly.
“I know. This is for me.” He raises a bottle of mineral water in the other hand. “This is for you.”
Illya stares at him for a moment, then sighs and steps back. There is never any point in arguing with Solo. “Keep your water. I’ll put the kettle on.”
“How very British. Waverly is rubbing off on you, I see.”
“We have tea in Russia, too, Cowboy.” Illya doesn’t want to smile, exactly, but he doesn’t want to pitch Solo out the window, either. Peculiar. “Do you need a glass for your wine?”
“Not if I’ll be drinking it alone.” Solo sprawls on the couch and watches him across the small space of the apartment. They’re both big men; it would take, perhaps, two strides from each of them to meet in the center. “I suppose you’re wondering why I’m here.”
“To torment me, I assume.”
“Not exactly.” Solo hesitates, and that alone is enough to catch Illya’s attention. Solo never hesitates. “You mentioned something, when I was carrying you out of the warehouse.”
Illya’s memory of that night is rather blurred, but he can extrapolate. “Yes.”
“You mentioned what happened in the safehouse, after you rescued me.”
Ah. Of course. “Yes.”
“I thought… perhaps we could have that discussion now.”
The uncertainty is clear under his typical polished veneer. Illya wants to draw that out for as long as possible; it’s not something he sees often. Unusual things are better to play with.
He folds his arms across his chest and leans back against the stove, giving Solo his most blank, guarded face. “You want to talk about it?”
“You want to talk about it here. Now. In my space.”
“Ah…” Solo glances around the room, as if he might find a cipher on the walls to decode extra meaning from Illya’s words. “Yes, that’s right.”
Illya lets the silence stretch out for another moment, marking time in his mind, waiting for Solo to look just rattled enough. He can taste it. Sweet as victory.
He snorts softly and turns to lift the kettle just as it begins to steam. “You should have brought more than one bottle, Cowboy.”
“I thought about it. I also thought about bringing vodka instead, but I knew you wouldn’t drink any and frankly, I’m not a fan of it. It tastes like…” He hesitates, and Illya looks back at him, waiting.
“Suffering,” Solo says finally, a hint of a smile at the corners of his mouth. “That old-fashioned nineteenth-century Russian suffering.”
Illya turns back to his tea. “Of all the things for you to choose to remember.”
“Well, I would hate to come off as an uneducated man, Peril. I’ve been brushing up on my reading while you were in recovery.”
Illya looks over his shoulder at him again. “In the original?”
“Then you’re missing the point.” Illya carries his tea to the couch and sits at the opposite end from Solo. “All the layers, the nuance. They’re stripped out in translation.”
Solo’s eyes narrow. “You’re stalling.”
“The other conversation.”
Illya shrugs. His fingers are still on his teacup, without even a tremor. “If you have something to say, then say it, Solo. I won’t stop you.”
Solo’s jaw clenches and he sets the wine bottle on the floor. “All right.”
Illya doesn’t move toward him, but he doesn’t pull away. This time the kiss is warm and lingering, with Solo’s broad hands cupping Illya’s face, not restraining but guiding. It’s… acceptable. Very much so.
Solo pulls back, looking at him. “Well?”
“Your breath is much better this time.”
“Well, I’m not dying.”
“Good.” Illya keeps the teacup in one hand and reaches out with the other, curving it around the back of Solo’s neck and drawing him in again.
Solo’s teeth slip painfully against Illya’s lip, and for a moment neither of them can decide what to do with their tongues. This is going to take patience and practice, he can tell.
It’s not a kiss that great literature is made from. He prefers it this way.