Napoleon taps him on the shoulder in Istanbul and Illya almost punches him.
Almost, because when Napoleon taps him on the shoulder in Istanbul he doesn’t so much as make a sound. The surprise alone is enough to provoke instant retaliation from someone as conditioned toward violence as Illya. Yet when he turns, his fist clenched and poised to fight back, it’s not the expected face of an attacker that he sees, but Napoleon, with his too-bright eyes and expectant grin.
Illya is not used to being touched. His father’s strong yet gentle hands on his shoulders are distant enough to be more dream than memory, and his mother’s rare moments of tenderness overshadowed by the sharp words she wields like daggers and the bruises she leaves during her moments of hysteria. The KGB showed him all the ways touch can be wielded as a weapon, and his only familiarity with intimacy is that which comes with violent intent, each touch the prelude to pain or worse. When his personal space is abruptly invaded by a foreign touch, his first instinct tells him that it is an attack.
The moment recognition clicks, Illya frowns, uncurling his fist and communicating his displeasure with a glare. It only makes Napoleon’s eyes crinkle, and his lips take on a teasing angle that is somehow as disarming as it is frustrating. Anger slips from Illya’s grasp as he stares into Napoleon’s blue eyes, leaving behind only inexplicable confusion.
“I’m heading back to the hotel,” Napoleon says as Illya puzzles over how Cowboy had managed to sneak up on him again.
Illya nods once, and turns away when he catches himself watching Napoleon leave.
The American is like a cat, too stealthy by half and equally inclined to destroy and provoke just to observe your reaction. Yet when he looks at you just so with a slight pout to his lips, it is almost impossible to stay angry at him.
Illya thinks he hates the American with every fiber of his being.
Gaby, when she finds out, tells him he’s just mad that he can’t stay mad with Napoleon.
In London after a mission gone well, Napoleon and Gaby decide to hold a celebratory party in their hotel room. For once, no one got shot at or drugged, and they have never had a mission complete itself so smoothly. To his teammates, it seems to justify the fact that there is too little food and too much alcohol.
Napoleon hands Illya a glass full of whiskey and then dares to bump his shoulders, a giant grin on his face.
Illya freezes up the moment he feels the touch, his arm still stiffly reaching out before him, alcohol in hand. His side, where the warmth of Napoleon’s body had grazed against his, burns with an odd sensation. A strange emptiness fills his heart in an instant, as though something perfect had been wrenched away. Yet Napoleon’s face is lit up with the joy of success, and it fills those same empty parts of him with something light and oddly bubbly.
Illya stares at Napoleon a little longer than he should, until he can’t deny that the American is the cause of this unfamiliar emotion.
He doesn’t say anything and drinks his alcohol instead, draining the entire glass without realizing. The American doesn’t notice anything, and begins a series of self-congratulatory speeches. Illya listens to Napoleon’s voice, lets its smooth, mellow timbre flow over him like a calming wave. He’d complain that Cowboy is too much of a narcissist, if not for the fact that Napoleon’s pride is probably well-deserved. It had been his quick thinking that had got them out of several jams, and at one stage, Illya even nods along while sipping his drink, as Napoleon congratulates Gaby on her sharp aim.
Illya will never say it aloud, but the American isn’t nearly as terrible a spy as Illya likes to claim he is.
His skin still tingles where Napoleon bumped him.
There’s a moment in Brussels where Napoleon brushes Illya’s hand.
Napoleon steps too close for a moment and then he’s gone again, and he acts so normally Illya thinks it’s an accident, though he can’t be sure. His skin where Napoleon had touched him feels like it’s lit on fire, and he keeps replaying the moment in his head, when Napoleon’s fingers brushed against his, the barest touch of skin which doesn’t mean anything at all.
When it happens again in Oslo Illya almost suspects Napoleon of doing it on purpose, though he doesn’t know what the American can possibly be trying to get out of touching him at random moments. They’re grown men, not grudge-bearing toddlers who might pull each other’s pigtails. Illya thinks about grabbing Cowboy’s hand the next time he tries it, and waits and waits for a moment that simply doesn’t come.
By the time his chance arrives in New York Illya misses it. Napoleon’s hand is there, and then it’s not, and Illya doesn’t even snap out of his shock in time to react. Later, Illya glares at Napoleon’s hand, and then at his own hand for the strange tingling that refuses to disappear.
It strikes him that perhaps he’s just overreacting. A touch from Napoleon isn’t somehow special.
He doesn’t mean to get used to it.
Yet something about Napoleon, about the contact, the warm pressure, the startling points of connection, gets past his defenses and catches him somewhere deeper, someplace Illya himself never thought to protect. Illya doesn’t know how to explain it, the strangeness he feels when Napoleon’s hand grazes his without thinking.
Illya does not trust the American’s face, not the sparkle in his shining eyes, the sharp angle of his jaw or the sweep of his fine cheekbones. Napoleon’s physical beauty reflects the same vivid hues nature bestows upon creatures deadly enough to destroy men body and soul. Illya doesn’t trust the man who wears his vulnerabilities as a shield, lulling those around him into complacency with delight and disappointment too genuine to be faked yet too exaggerated to be the whole truth. Every element of himself that Cowboy projects is misdirection and obfuscation, complexity distilled into hyperbole like the masks of the actor thriving in Ancient theaters.
Cowboy uses grandiosity to mask details and imperfections, and it means that Napoleon’s body language is something entirely different. His untrustworthy smiles distract from his more physical tells, which reveal far more about his state of being than his expressions ever will. When Cowboy is hiding something he is always rigid and composed, his hands tucked away in pockets and his shoulders set in what people will interpret as relaxed confidence. When he is happy, however, Cowboy takes up more space, his movements more projected, and his pauses more dramatic. When Napoleon is hurt or sad, he pays extra attention to his surroundings, and to other people, watching them closely both for threat and distraction.
When Napoleon touches Illya, those moments seem somehow uncalculated, tiny slips of genuine interest among countless moments of insincerity. It takes Illya perhaps too long to realize that the touch is happening because Napoleon seems to like him, and even more confusingly, he actually seems to trust Illya. It is a dangerous indulgence for men like them, fighting from opposite sides of the iron curtain, but Illya can’t bring himself to protest, to put a stop to these inappropriate signs of growing closeness.
And so he doesn’t interrogate the small jolts he feels when Napoleon reaches out for him, nor does he question the unnecessary warmth that springs up when he catches one of Napoleon’s rare genuine smiles.
Illya understands boundaries, about what he should and should not allow to affect him.
He doesn’t mean to get used to it, yet he comes to expect Napoleon’s proximity after a job done well.
Worse is that he does not realize he grows to depend on it.
On a train to Lyon, Napoleon falls asleep against Illya’s shoulder.
The moment Napoleon’s weight settles against him, Illya forgets the words he’s reading. He stares blankly at the pages of his book, the printed lines blurring together, and his world shrinks down to Napoleon, the solid weight of him, and the brush of soft curls against his chin.
Illya looks across the cabin to Gaby for help, but she is stretched out on the opposite seat, fast asleep beneath two layers of jackets, oblivious to Illya’s plight. Left alone and helpless, Illya stares back down at his book, yet for some reason, he doesn’t dare turn the page, the imagined sound of scraping paper too dangerous, too intrusive upon this moment.
Around them, the train rattles softly as it steadily speeds toward its destination. Illya sits solid, frozen, waiting for Napoleon to wake, yet not wanting him to move from where he rests, his weight, his reliance, his trust, a point of reassuring warmth anchoring Illya in a way nothing else ever has.
The thought of waking Napoleon never once crosses his mind.
In Madrid, their investigation inside a local apartment is cut abruptly short when the unmistakable sound of the front door opening travels up the stairs to the two of them. They can’t risk the target knowing he is under investigation, and with the tread of footsteps closing in on them, they squeeze together into the closet to hide.
The space is very small for two very large men, and their bodies are all but pressed against each other, elbows and knees poking outward like two ill-fitting jigsaw pieces. Getting in face-to-face was a miscalculation. Illya has his gun trained on the closet door, ready to pull the trigger if someone pulls it open and they are exposed. He’s supposed to be listening to what is happening outside, but Napoleon’s presence is thoroughly distracting. From the alarming amount of places where they are touching to the soft huff of warm air against Illya’s neck, all of it has Illya tense, and his knees a little wobbly.
The worst thing is that Cowboy doesn’t even look uncomfortable with the situation, watching Illya with too-bright eyes crinkled in amusement. Neither of them dare to speak for fear of attracting attention, and the best Illya can manage is an angry glare.
Napoleon’s mouth curves in a pleased smile.
When they finally stumble out after the people leave, Illya’s skin burns cold from the points of contact.
For the rest of the week, Illya feels restless and dissatisfied. He catches Napoleon watching him on at least five separate occasions, and each time their eyes meet, something tickles at his chest, something almost like wanting.
One unlucky event leads to another, in the Swiss Alps, they manage to lose both their equipment and their target. Illya falls into a melting river and nearly drowns.
Their only small mercy is that it’s spring, and the air is not as cold as it would have been during the worst winter months. Still, cold sinks its tendrils deep into Illya’s veins, wrapping around his bones and digging into his muscles, making Illya feel like he’ll never be warm again. They make it to their cabin safehouse through sheer determination, and Napoleon pulls a stumbling Illya inside, locking the door tight before he goes about lighting a fire. Illya, who can barely think past freezing cold, pulls at his clothing with stiff, trembling hands, nudging as close as he can to the growing flame.
The layers come off. Napoleon disappears, and then, a heavy blanket falls around Illya’s naked shoulders, and Illya pulls it tight. He curls there on the floor, unable to speak past the numbness in his lips. The flame flickers in shades of orange, and the rustle of clothes and zippers being undone makes it to Illya’s ears.
He turns awkwardly, and gapes at the sight of Napoleon stripping off his clothes.
“Wh-What are you do-doing?”
Napoleon barely glances at him, and pulls off his boots. “Don’t get too excited, I need to warm up as well.”
Illya catches a glimpse of pale skin as Napoleon pulls off his undershirt in one fluid action. He whips back to stare at the fire, burned by the sight.
Napoleon’s clothes are almost soaked through with snow, and it makes sense he’ll want to warm up. Illya’s thoughts are sluggish, and he frowns at the fire, his mind caught on the image of Napoleon stripping himself almost naked.
Something is pulling at his blankets, and Illya automatically pulls them tighter around his body.
“Peril, let go.”
Illya turns, and then recoils as he is met with naked flesh. Napoleon is dressed only in his briefs and socks, leaving almost nothing left to the imagination. In his shock, Illya’s hold on his blanket loosens, and Napoleon uses the opportunity to slip into the cocoon beside him, pulling the blanket around them both. Napoleon wraps his body around Illya, hissing as he presses against Illya’s chilled skin.
Illya swallows, and stiffens in an instant. He’s had the same survival training as Napoleon, if not better, he knows the importance of conserving body heat, and the necessity of staying warm. But-
“This i-is not necessary,” Illya says, his throat dry.
“Look, we both know this is the best way to keep us both warm.” Napoleon answers smoothly, “Besides, I would prefer not to get in trouble with Waverly if he finds out I let my partner die of hypothermia.”
“I’ll be fine,” Illya says, though he makes no attempt to push Napoleon aside. Then he adds, almost as an afterthought. “Go away.”
In response, Napoleon wraps his arms around Illya, and tucks his chin against the crook of Illya’s neck.
Illya can barely focus on anything aside from heat of Napoleon’s muscled body, the soft huff of warm air against his skin. He should be uncomfortable, yet the only thoughts that register are those of warmth and safety. He feels it seeping through his skin, melting the ice that had frozen over him what feels like an eternity ago.
Eventually, Illya’s exhaustion catches up to him, and there in Napoleon's arms, he falls into pleasant dreams.
In a San Francisco diner, something touches Illya under the table.
Illya kicks back, knowing it’s Napoleon’s foot again. Napoleon shifts in his chair, his gaze flitting down to the table before he looks back up with a frown and accusing eyes. The booth is too small, and there’s not enough room to fit both their too-long limbs. But it’s the only location from which they can safely eavesdrop on their target’s conversation without being spotted by his guards.
Illya puts a fry into his mouth, chewing and deliberately looking away from his partner. He still doesn’t understand why it’s necessary for them both to be in here when just one will suffice for the job. Also, he shouldn’t have ordered a burger, it’s impossible to eat it without leaving a mess behind.
Napoleon sucks on the straw poked into his vanilla milkshake. His leg pushes close again, and Illya kicks him a second time.
Undeterred, Napoleon shifts so their legs are tangled together.
The sensation of Napoleon’s legs pressed against his is slightly distracting, but it’s not entirely bad. At least they’re not stepping on each other anymore.
Focused on listening to their target, Illya forgets it’s there after a while.
In England, Illya acts as a bodyguard to Napoleon, who plays some minor English lord in order to be admitted into a doomsday cult.
An actual doomsday cult, Napoleon laughs about it for hours when they first receive their orders. Illya doesn’t find the situation amusing for the simple fact that the leader of the cult is able to mobilize his wealthy followers to trap and murder innocent people.
Murder of the filthy masses is the ‘cleansing’ act which allows a person to enter heaven. It makes no sense to either of them, but Napoleon plays his part with relish, prostrating himself without hesitation as the cult’s rituals demand. And yet, something, somehow, gives them away, and Napoleon is caught again. It takes only minutes for the situation to deteriorate beyond their control, they are separated, and the cultists come at Illya with bullets and knives, none of which find their mark. Illya, in his single-minded fury, takes out every cultist separating him from his partner.
When Illya makes it to Cowboy’s cell, the American is slumped across his bed, pale and unresponsive. Illya shakes him, calls his name over and over, checks him for injuries, finds nothing, and checks him again, his heart racing in his chest as the swirl of panic inside him rises higher and higher.
He finds the small entry mark of a needle in the crook of Napoleon’s elbow, dark with dried blood. Poison, the realization hits Illya like a bullet to the chest.
Footsteps, shouting, their enemy has found them.
Illya’s grip tightens on his gun. He drags Napoleon into his arms, holding him more tightly than ever before, and he doesn’t let go.
Later, when Napoleon is recovering in Medical, Waverly doesn’t ask Illya what pushed him to shoot to kill.
A month passes, then Waverly sits them both down in his office and talks to them about fraternization.
He doesn’t say it quite so explicitly, but there are subtle references made to partners with ‘close personal relationships’ and comments on UNCLE’s inclusive policies as well as a deliberately ambiguous speech about trust and mutual support.
Illya stares without expression, stuck somewhere between bewildered and mortified. Napoleon looks like a heartbroken child being chastised by his headmaster for something he didn’t do.
“While I…“ Napoleon says, glancing once at Illya, “We… appreciate your concern. I’m a little confused as to the exact reasons for this meeting.”
I am not sleeping with Cowboy, is what Illya wants to say. He traps those words inside a clenched jaw, and doesn’t dwell on the absurd emotion that wells up at the thought which is too much like longing.
Waverly regards them both with amused resignation.
“What I am saying, gents, is that while we don’t encourage intimate relationships between our agents, we will support them, regardless of any social prejudices.”
Napoleon is almost gaping now, Illya would laugh at him if he could think beyond the words intimate relationship. With… Napoleon? Just like that, he finds his head filled with imagined scenes of kissing Napoleon, of touching him, holding him whenever he wants to, of skin against naked skin.
“But,” Waverly continues, “I would suggest taking things down a notch around your colleagues, there may still be many close minded individuals who won’t hesitate to make your lives unpleasant in subtle ways we can’t easily combat.”
Abruptly, Illya wonders if the animosity he feels from some other agents isn’t entirely because he is a Soviet agent. Is Napoleon experiencing the same kind of exclusion? A surge of protective anger arises at the thought, and Illya thinks he needs to stop whatever this is before he dooms himself for eternity.
“I think there has been a significant misunderstanding,” Napoleon says, hesitant.
“I am not sleeping with the American.”
They both stop with the unnecessary touching.
It’s not until Illya has to make the conscious effort to stop that he realizes how easy being close to Napoleon had become, or how comforting it had been when Napoleon’s hand wrapped around his arm, or rested on his shoulder, the occasional nudges and bumps and those rare moments where Napoleon would sling an entire arm over him. Those moments had grounded him, and pulled him more than once from the brink of fury. They were a comfort he had never knew he needed or wanted.
It’s only when it’s gone, that Illya realizes how much he craves Napoleon’s affection. He feels empty, eternally missing some important part of him that he can’t easily replace. His hand itches to hold something, but nothing comes close to being the right shape, nothing he’s allowed to touch has that same kind of warmth. Illya doesn’t want to feel the coldness of the wind against his shoulders, he misses the heat of Napoleon’s hand and his body next to his.
Napoleon used to stand so close.
It would be fine, it would be over, if not for the fact that Napoleon keeps staring at Illya.
They don’t touch anymore, and that’s the important change, because the rumors Illya hadn’t even been aware of begin to die down. But Napoleon keeps staring at Illya and new rumors arise, that of a lover’s spat, of betrayal, mocking laughter and deriding glances follow Illya everywhere he goes. He escaped from Moscow and his father’s mistakes, and still found himself a new shame to carry on his shoulders.
Illya should confront Napoleon, he should tell him to stop, because there never is and never can be anything between them. Things like that simply are not done. They’re on opposite sides, they’re both men, things like that are not acceptable.
But he never does stop Napoleon.
Because when Napoleon isn’t looking, Illya stares back.
And God, he wants.
In the jungles of Argentina, Illya comes down with a cough, and ignores Napoleon’s worried words and glances. He lasts three days before he collapses, twenty miles from the compound they barely managed to escape.
He remembers the suffocating heat, the haze of exhaustion, the struggle to find breath, the agony as every nerve ending inside him seems to burn with fever and pain. Light, then dark, then light again. The coolness of water against his lips. Against his forehead, soft, gentle fingers, brushing back his hair, tracing the lines of his face.
“What am I going to do with you?” There’s a broken note in that familiar, quiet voice.
Illya mumbles, but whatever is next to him is blissfully cool, and he presses closer.
Someone chuckles softly, murmuring something that Illya doesn’t hear. Above him, there is a ragged exhale, it sounds like a laugh, and it sounds like a sob.
Later, there is shouting, movement, the loud thump of helicopter blades.
Later, Illya will remember waking up to find Napoleon curled at his bedside, breathing softly in his sleep.
On Christmas Eve, they’re stuck together in a Dublin hotel room waiting for Waverly to contact them with new instructions. Illya tucks himself in a corner with a book, while Napoleon flicks through the channels with a drink in hand. Illya’s one page of reading turns to twenty, and Napoleon’s one drink turns into three as he stares at the flickering television screen.
When Illya is on page twenty-four, Napoleon climbs to his feet and switches off the television set, then, he crosses the room and pushes through the door onto the balcony. A freezing gust of wind slips through the open exit, and Illya puts down his book with a sigh. He waits a full ten seconds, glaring at the door before he gives up and walks over to it, intent on locking Cowboy out in the cold.
Napoleon stands outside, leaning against the railing and squinting through the overhanging branches at the stars. Their hotel is a squat three story building surrounded by birch trees, and the bare tangle of branches above them allows a glimpse at the sky that is impossible during summertime. Napoleon is not dressed warmly enough for the outside, and when Illya sees Napoleon shivering, his original intention fades from his mind. He follows his inexplicable new urge to step outside into the chill, and in a few steps Illya is at Napoleon’s side, arms hanging over the rails as he joins Napoleon in staring up into the sky, wondering what Cowboy is seeing.
“Look,” Napoleon says faintly.
There’s a tangle of something right above them, different from the tree itself. A bird’s nest. Illya looks at it and frowns, not sure why it’s important. He can feel the warmth of Napoleon’s body next to his, trembling in the cold, and he tries to put together a sentence that will convince him to go back inside.
The next thing he knows, Napoleon’s face is right next to his, his eyes shadowed and his lips twisted in a mischievous grin. Illya shifts in surprise, and his face turns toward Napoleon, his eyes wide. Then, Napoleon’s hands are curling around his head, digging into his hair.
Their lips touch, and Illya forgets how to breathe, his world shrinking into spark and sensation. Napoleon presses closer with a pleased hum, and then there is only the burning heat of Napoleon’s body against his. It’s supposed to feel wrong, yet nothing has ever felt so right. Illya had never known that the taste of mint and whiskey on his tongue could be so good. His arms find their way around Napoleon’s waist, and he pulls him close and holds him tight, the exact way he has always dreamed of. Napoleon kisses him, and Illya’s reality clicks into place, yes, yes this is how it should always be.
It’s only when they pull apart, struggling to catch their breath, foreheads pressed together, that Illya is able to recognize something very important.
He was kissing Napoleon back.
“Why now?” Illya hears himself say, fighting the inappropriate urge to giggle.
“There’s mistletoe,” Napoleon replies. Then he kisses him again, and all the rest is forgotten.
They stop the staring, and they never go back to touching each other as openly in public. The rumors die down, and Waverly looks at them with approval.
As for what happens in private, that is something only for them to know.
Illya now knows that touch can be a wonderful, brilliant thing too, something which warms and heals, and supports you in the worst of times. Touch, as it turns out, also brings about indescribable pleasures he hadn’t known of, pleasures Illya comes to learn much about giving and receiving.
Illya becomes used to being touched. His father’s strong gentle hands on his shoulders are distant enough to be more dream than memory, and his mother’s rare moments of tenderness overshadowed by the sharp words she wields like daggers and the bruises she leaves during her moments of hysteria. The KGB showed him all the ways touch can be wielded as a weapon, but Napoleon shows him the intimacy which comes with love, each touch the prelude to beautiful, incredible things.
In London, when Illya’s personal space is abruptly invaded by a foreign touch, his first instinct tells him to pull his assailant much, much closer.
In Barcelona, Illya wakes up trapped and unable to move, Napoleon sleeps peacefully at his side, his chest rising and falling steadily. Their limbs are impossibly tangled.
As though Napoleon noticed Illya’s waking, his breathing shifts, and his eyes slowly open. His blue eyes blink blearily up at Illya.
A smile comes to Illya’s face, and an answering smile slowly lights Napoleon’s face.
“Good morning,” Napoleon says, his voice still husky from sleep.
Illya kisses him in reply, and pulls him closer.
The terrain in the wilds of Brazil is some of the toughest Illya has ever experienced. The incessant rain over the past few days has finally stopped, leaving the air uncomfortably humid and the ground slippery and wet. As they steadily climb up toward their destination, their boots lose grip in turn over wet leaves and loose gravel.
Half way to the top, Napoleon slips and starts sliding down the slope with an aborted curse, gloved hands flying out to grip the trunk of a tree which finally stops his descent. Illya pauses his progress, brow furrowed, and waits for Cowboy to make his way back up.
When Napoleon is finally back at his side, Illya reaches out and grabs Napoleon’s hand. Cowboy freezes, his gaze flying to their joined hands, and then to Illya.
“We’ll never make it in time if you keep slipping,” Illya explains.
Napoleon stares at him for a moment. Then, he smiles like he knows a secret, and his grip on Illya’s hand tightens.
Illya hardens his grip in turn, indulging the way his heart flutters in his chest, and pulls Napoleon onward.
Even when the path ahead evens out, neither of them let go.