The Gulfstream's engines thrummed seductively and lulled him to the edge of sleep. Cracking an eye he glanced sideways at his sleeping partner. Pale hair shimmered in the cabin lights and an occasional soft snuffle escaped the slightly parted lips. Probably the last remnants of his cold. Neither of them had slept much on their final night in Rio and Napoleon sighed and stirred in his seat slightly at the memory of exactly why.
He'd accused Illya of collusion with Waverley, as their boss squired the lovely Miss Pogue towards the last remaining seat on a direct flight to New York. The Russian had merely smirked at him and asked him what he intended to do about it. What he'd done had been to take his arch partner to bed for a night of the hottest, hardest sex he'd had since they'd left New York ten days previously, the lovely Miss Pogue notwithstanding.
Afterwards, of course, they'd still had to shop around for an alternative short-hop route home. He congratulated himself that his charm had won from the luscious Marianna at the airline office, the last two seats on the current flight bound for Puerto-Rico via the Amazon.
He shifted in his seat again and willed his body into quiescence. He'd hoped to have had an opportunity to stretch his legs at Manaus when they'd picked up the remaining eight passengers for the trip to San Juan. The early-morning jungle pick-up had been a fast turnaround, however, and there'd been no time. He drifted again towards sleep.
"Can I get you anything, Mr Solo?" The senior stewardess' lightly-accented voice was like warm honey. He smiled and opened his eyes.
"Why, Adele," he murmured into her dark coffee gaze. He let his eyes rove over glossy, black hair, beautifully-balanced eyebrows and a smile that held all the promise of a warm Brazilian night. "A vodka martini, very, very dry is my ultimate desire..." He gave her his most winning smile. "Almost," he said, and watched her capitulate. As she moved up the narrow aisle he leaned out to watch her retreat.
"Don't you ever turn it off, Napoleon?" came an exasperated growl at his shoulder.
"I have a reputation to maintain, tovarisch," he said and turned to face a pair of discontented, blue eyes, "which is more than can be said for you." He fingered the sleep-tousled fringe back from his partner's forehead and resisted the urge to plant a kiss there. "What? Jealous, querido?" he whispered. That got him a sharp kick on his ankle that made him gasp.
"Can I get you guys anything?" It was the second steward, Illya looked up.
"Your colleague appears to be attending to my partner's every need, thank you," he said in a sour voice. The steward looked him over appraisingly and Napoleon didn't miss the way his gaze lingered on Illya's crotch nor the sudden dilation of his pupils.
"Well," said the steward, his voice husky, "if your partner's needs are being met, maybe there's something I can do for you." He moistened his lips. "My name's Marc, by the way." He had a shock of chestnut curls, green eyes set in a tanned face and a smile that was a toothpaste-ad man's dream.
Illya caught Napoleon's eye fleetingly, then turned his 100-watt blue gaze on the steward. Who caught his breath. "Nothing, thank you—Marc," said Illya. And did Napoleon imagine it or did his testy partner give the "Marc" extra emphasis? "That is..." Illya paused.
"Yes?" The steward almost gasped.
"...for the moment," said Illya holding the man's gaze for a fraction longer than Napoleon felt was strictly necessary. As Marc moved off down the aisle, Illya raised one mischievous eyebrow. "What, Napoleon? Jealous?" he murmured, before turning towards the window and settling down once more.
Brat, thought Napoleon, and began to plan just how he'd make Illya pay. He groaned inwardly and shifted in his seat once more at the thought.
It was half an hour, a martini and a further desultory dalliance with Adele later, that Napoleon felt the hairs on the back of his neck come to attention. Cautiously he pressed his thigh against Illya's and was gratified when, without starting or otherwise betraying that he was awake, his partner's hand slid quietly under his jacket towards his shoulder holster. Napoleon followed suit. Although at a loss to pin down just why he felt uneasy, he'd learned not to ignore the intangible.
There seemed to be a lot of traffic past his and Illya's seats but apart from that, nothing appeared to be amiss. He stole a glance at Illya, fully alert and awaiting instruction, who raised an interrogatory eyebrow. Napoleon had to shrug in frustration. Dammit, what was it...
A commotion from the galley followed by the PA system crackling into life solved his mystery suddenly. There was a gasp over the system from Adele and then she spoke in a voice that wasn't entirely steady.
"Ladies and gentlemen," she began. "Please remain calm and in your seats with your seatbelts fastened." She paused as a male voice in the background was raised in agitation. It spoke briefly in rapid-fire Portuguese of which Napoleon caught only the word 'Cuba'. "We shall be making a detour from our flight plan," Adele's tremulous voice continued, "to fly directly to Cuba..." The audio system clicked off.
The cabin was suddenly alive with murmurs, cries and one or two protests until there was a further crackle and Adele's raised voice burst once more from the speakers. "Please!" she cried, "Please! They have said they will kill the co-pilot if we do not do as they say, or if we give them any trouble."
The curtain at the head of the aisle parted then, as the co-pilot, his hands tied behind his back, fell through landing painfully on his face. A dark youth with an automatic weapon slung over his shoulder followed immediately. He yanked the co-pilot to his knees by his hair and called out over his shoulder. A second terrorist moved into the cabin clutching Adele by the neck. She looked beyond terror.
Napoleon eyed the weapons. Russian-built, he thought. Kalashnikovs probably. Illya would know. With relief he noted that both highjackers wore bandanas over the lower half of their faces. There was still a chance, then, of everyone getting out of this alive.
He'd talked his way out of more apparently-hopeless situations than some considered was good for his ego. All he needed was a strategic opportunity to bring his skills to bear. Slowly he withdrew his hand from his weapon and was aware of an almost imperceptible movement at his side as Illya did the same, following his lead. He settled in for the long wait until the right moment should present itself.
A movement somewhere behind him and harsh voice suddenly sent his hopes crashing and his adrenaline soaring.
"OK, you low-down varmint," drawled a Southern accent from the rear of the cabin. "Y'all ain't the only ones with a gun doin' yer talkin'." There were gasps from behind Napoleon. He risked a quick look at Illya who rolled his eyes, his mouth set in a grim line. "Let the feller go," the voice continued, "'n' ah may decide not to blow yo' brains out the back o' yo' head."
It was all over in a moment.
The highjacker holding the co-pilot suddenly pulled a pistol from his belt, placed it at the base of the co-pilot's skull and pulled the trigger. The man was dead before what was left of his face impacted the floor. Almost simultaneously, from behind Napoleon, there was gunfire and shrieks of terror. He risked spinning in his seat for a quick look down the aisle and saw two more masked terrorists standing over the body of a large balding man that lay in a darkly-spreading pool in the aisle.
As if to underline the shift in the fate of the passengers, the co-pilot's killer slowly pulled down his bandana. His eyes were wide and he panted through moist lips. He looked about eighteen years old. He began to shout at the passengers in Portuguese. When they continued to scream or remain catatonic in shock, he raised his automatic.
"Pare! Pare!" It took all Napoleon's nerve not to jump when Illya's voice suddenly rang out right next to him. Despite the adrenaline coursing through him he remained stock still as his partner continued in swift Portuguese, in the resonant voice he'd heard work magic with nervous innocents; horses too for that matter. Even with his own poor grasp of the language, Napoleon knew that Illya was explaining to the strung-out terrorists that everyone was willing to co-operate but hadn't understood what had been asked of them. He was offering himself, a schoolteacher, as interpreter. And hostage.
Shit. Given the co-pilot's fate, Napoleon hoped the latter wasn't a step too far.
The lead highjacker shouted at Illya, spittle flying from his lips, and waved his automatic at the body of the Texan. Illya somehow made himself look even smaller and less threatening than usual, responding once more in that hypnotic voice. After long seconds the terrorist lowered his weapon and his breathing began to settle. Illya continued to speak soothingly in Portuguese as the wailing of the passengers around them began to diminish.
Using his automatic, the youth motioned Illya from his seat. As Illya moved slowly around back of him, momentarily shielded from the highjackers, Napoleon felt the press of his partner's body along the length of his own. Which was how he knew exactly the moment when Illya un-holstered his weapon. Napoleon feigned a stumble in moving to let Illya pass, and did the same with his own. He waited. It was Illya's show now.
He didn't have long to wait. He felt the pressure of Illya's Special on the outside of his thigh, just above his left knee. Gun in left hand, he read; going in low.
Moving into the aisle, Illya seemed to trip. In a heartbeat Napoleon had spun and put a bullet between the eyes of the lead highjacker and the one holding Adele. He heard Illya's weapon bark twice from the ground next to his feet. There was no answering fire, only the renewed screams and shrieks of the terrified passengers.
Letting out a long breath, he glanced down the aisle to where the bodies of the remaining two terrorists were sprawled, unmoving, over the corpse of the Texan. He hauled Illya to his feet and his appraising gaze was held for a moment by his partner's feral grin, before Illya trotted off down the cabin to check his marks. Napoleon moved to check his own, remove their weapons and comfort Adele.
She was slumped, trembling, against the bulkhead, dry-eyed and keening. Napoleon laid down his collection of weapons and gently took her in his arms. She went rigid for a second and then collapsed like a rag doll, weeping in harsh, staccato gulps. He rocked her slowly as he stroked her hair, shushing her softly. The shrieks throughout the cabin began to settle into moans and weeping as the collective shock dissipated.
"Napoleon!" Illya's voice, hollow with fear rang out.
Without conscious thought he wrapped himself round Adele, rolling her to the floor under him. There was the sound of a pistol shot and then he heard his partner's weapon cough once more. Something heavy landed across his legs, pinning them to the floor . He heard, with relief, Illya's steps charging up the aisle and then the weight was lifted from his legs. He began to struggle to his feet, drawing Adele with him as gently as he could.
Illya helped him up, his face grim. "Five, Napoleon," he muttered through gritted teeth. "We picked up five of them at Manaus." He shook his head and dropped his eyes. "I should have remembered."
"We should both have remembered, tovarisch," he said grimly. "Equal partnership—remember?" There was no response. Napoleon sighed and with a finger raised his partner's chin. The eyes that eventually met his remained troubled but Illya gave a brief nod. "OK, you go up to the flight deck and see if you can give the pilot a hand and I'll check that everyone's OK back here." Napoleon ruffled the blond hair and grinned. "Oh and if you run across your friend up there you might see if he can rustle up some coffee or something stronger back here."
His partner merely glared at him as he moved through the curtains into the galley.
Marc was lying in a heap in the corner. Illya's first contemptuous thought was that the steward had spent the entire doomed highjack attempt in a dead faint and, with a snort, he continued towards the flight deck. His currently over-active conscience held him back, however, and he bent to check him. As he found a strong pulse, he spotted the large contusion on Marc's temple and grimaced in sympathy. That would be sore when the steward woke. He smiled to himself. Napoleon would have to wait for his coffee.
He settled Marc more comfortably then straightened up and headed through the cockpit door. "I wondered if you could use a hand up..." he tailed off. "Shit." The pilot's body lolled in the left-hand seat in a sea of dark crimson. His throat had been cut.
Illya ran professional eyes over the instrumentation. The comms panel had been disabled and... "Fuck." He saw the flashing red light over the fuel gauge.
"Illya?" He heard the anxiety in Napoleon's voice from the galley. He didn't turn as his partner entered the cockpit. "What...? Jesus..." Napoleon caught his breath at the sight before them. "OK, get him out of that harness and I'll get a couple of blankets."
"Yes, Napoleon," he muttered as he bent to his gruesome task. "Perish the thought that you should ruin another suit."
"Senior agent, remember? Besides," he called over his shoulder as he left, "what would Mr Waverly say to the expenses claim?"
"Senior... what just happened to 'equal partnership'?" Illya called after him as he fumbled with the clasp of the pilot's safety harness. It was slippery with blood and his normally agile fingers grappled for purchase. Damn.
Napoleon returned with two blankets, and together they manhandled the grisly burden out of the seat and wrapped it in one of them.
"I hope sleeping beauty won't mind the company," grunted Napoleon as they dragged the body into the galley. Illya merely rolled his eyes at him and they headed back into the cockpit.
"OK, tell me you're trained on one of these, IK," said Napoleon, nodding towards the instrument panel. Illya grabbed the second blanket and threw it over the gruesome left-hand seat. He hesitated momentarily and then slid into the right-hand one.
"That would be the good news, Napoleon," he said grimly as he strapped himself in. His hands began to flit confidently over the panel in front of him.
"And the bad?"
"The comms panel has been disabled and the fuel jettisoned," he replied. There was a momentary judder as he disengaged the auto-pilot and took the controls.
"Destroy the evidence of failure, huh?"
"Hmm," he grunted. No survivors. The world is none the wiser."
He checked their bearing, which, together with their last recorded position thirty minutes previously, put them 'somewhere over Venezuela'. Well, accuracy probably wouldn't have helped anyway. They would almost certainly be out of fuel any minute and...
"How long do you think the fuel will last, tovarisch?" Napoleon tapped the fuel gauge.
The engines coughed, rallied briefly, coughed again and died. Illya rolled his eyes at his partner.
"As ever, Napoleon, your sense of timing is faultless," he growled as he fought with the now-heavy controls.
Napoleon gave a shrug. "What can I say? It's a gift."
Out of the corner of his eye, Illya saw his partner lurch suddenly as the Gulfstream plummeted and the altimeter spun crazily. All his attention was suddenly riveted on his task as he wrestled with the controls, going to half flaps as he attempted to trim the ungainly machine for glide. After a fifteen-second eternity, it began to level off and his stomach caught up. He felt Napoleon's hand clutching his shoulder.
"Can you get us down?"
He snorted. "Gravity will do that with or without my help, Napoleon."
"So I didn't really need to bring you along at all, then." His partner made a wry face. "I could have packed that extra pair of loafers instead."
The aircraft shuddered again.
"I think you'd better get everyone strapped in, if they aren't already, and make sure they know the crash position," he muttered as he peered through the windshield at the jungle vista below. "Oh, and if there's time, the bodies should be secured too. We don't want any unnecessary projectiles hurtling around the cabin."
Napoleon made a face and nodded. "How long?"
"Hard to say. Three, maybe five minutes. I'll try and let you know when, but have them brace anyway as soon as you can."
Napoleon nodded again and began to turn away.
"Oh, and Napoleon...?"
Solo turned back. "Uh huh?"
Illya allowed his attention a brief moment of respite, grabbed his partner behind the neck and pulled his head down, kissing him hard and thoroughly on the mouth. As he was released, Napoleon's eyes glittered.
"You pick the damndest moments, Kuryakin," he growled, and was gone.
Fired by the surge of adrenaline, Illya turned back to the controls and raked his eyes over the forested landscape below. Ahead of them, where the trees occasionally thinned, he was catching tantalising glimpses of a meandering river that more or less mirrored their course. A wild hope flared briefly and died. Without power he had no chance. What they needed was an unfeasibly large dose of his partner's famous luck. Solo's Luck—the 'Scottish Play' of their partnership, never named lest the fates withdraw their tenuous protection.
A random thought struck him and he took out his communicator. There was, as he'd expected, nothing but static on the channels but he activated the homing device, and replaced the pen quickly into his pocket.
He returned his full attention to the controls. The aircraft was now bucking in earnest. He checked the altimeter and airspeed indicator and bit his lower lip. Too low, too fast. He pulled back hard on the stick to try to bleed away more speed. The aircraft kicked in protest and the stall alarm began to scream in his ears. He checked the airspeed indicator once more. Gavno!. He had to find a way to lose more velocity.
The river suddenly loomed up ahead once more as the trees thinned out a little. In an instant, he saw what he needed. Gritting his teeth, and in a quixotic gesture he felt worthy of Napoleon, he took careful aim, went to full flaps, and shoved the stick forward.
It was the last thing he remembered.
The first thing Illya was aware of was the pain in his ribs and a dull throbbing in his skull that left him simultaneously breathless and nauseous. He was far too hot. Noise, like the roar of rush-hour traffic on the turnpike, blanketed him. The acrid smells of fried electrics and hot metal overlay other odours, from which his detached mind instinctively recoiled, wandering off instead in search of other senses to interrogate. He raised a hand to his head, feeling warm stickiness there.
Alarm rose in him as his addled brain refused to supply him with a context for any of it.
He felt movement next to him and a hand touched his face softly and began to tease strands of hair from the stickiness on his forehead. Something cold and briefly moist swiped across his eyelids and brows before moving up into his hairline, gently dabbing. He gasped at the sharp, new pain that lanced through his scalp, triggering an answering jab from his ribs and setting his head pounding like a jackhammer. He groaned and was appalled at the thinness of the sound.
"Easy, babe. Let me do this." The dabbing continued.
Ah. Something from the known world. He opened his eyes and blinked, trying to focus on the scene around him. Vertigo gripped him and he closed them again hurriedly, breathing through the nausea that threatened to overwhelm him. He winced as he tried to breathe more deeply than his bruised ribs dictated was wise.
"Ribs?" The voice again, laced with concern.
He abandoned the nod almost at the thought.
"Dizzy too, huh?"
He tried his voice again.
"A little." It sounded stronger. Good. "How long have I been out?"
"Long enough that we gave up waiting and went ahead with the party without you."
"How long..." he growled.
There was a sigh. "About an hour, give or take. I've been checking back on you but, as usual, you managed to sleep through everything." The hands were back on his face again, feathering lightly over his temples.
"I do not sleep through..." He stopped abruptly. "How many did we lose?" Napoleon let his hands drop slowly but said nothing. "How many, Napoleon?"
"Apart from the highjackers?" Napoleon sighed. "Six altogether; three of those when we lost the tail in the crash."
Illya spat a vehement Russian oath and turned his head away. A firm hand turned it back.
"Hey," Napoleon's voice was sharp. "Look at me, Illya." The hand tightened its grip. "Look at me!" After a moment, Illya raised his eyes. "We don't have time for this now, tovarisch. I need you to focus, need you with me. OK?" Napoleon jerked his head towards the cabin. "They need us both."
It took a supreme effort, but eventually he managed to swallow his self-recrimination. He searched his partner's eyes; saw the concern there.
"I'm OK, Napoleon," he muttered finally. "Really. Apart from the ribs and a little—disorientation."
There was a chuff that might have been a laugh. "Business as usual then, you damned indestructible Russian."
Illya grunted and glanced up at him. "Babe?" he said, one eyebrow painfully canted almost to his hairline.
His partner snorted. "Must have been a slip of the tongue. Don't let it go to your head." He stood up, picking up the first-aid kit, and laid his hand lightly on Illya's head once more. "I need to leave you for a while. OK?"
Illya waved him away dismissively. "Go, Napoleon. I'll be fine."
After a moment or two, he struggled slowly to his feet and peered out through the remains of the cockpit windshield. In the harsh light, all he could see at first was the fast-flowing river eddying noisily around them and he had a moment of panic, wondering why the aircraft hadn't already sunk.
Poised on the brink of a watery grave, the Gulfstream had come to rest on a broad sand bar in the middle of the river. Water roared around their island refuge, between banks lined with impenetrable vegetation. He turned back into the cabin and was immediately assailed once more by vertigo. Damn.
Clutching at the door from the cockpit, he laid his head against the buckled fuselage and waited for the wave of nausea to pass. Deep breaths drew the essence of a charnel-house from the depths of the cabin and his stomach roiled again. He thought for a moment he might throw up, but was suddenly aware of Napoleon beside him once more, laying a steadying hand on the back of his neck.
"Easy, tovarisch," he murmured. "I'd tell you to go sit down but I think I'm going to need your help with the survivors."
Illya closed his eyes again and eventually nodded. This time his head stayed between his shoulders. The hand left his neck and Napoleon turned back to the cabin. Illya lurched after him and nearly ran into him when his partner was stopped suddenly by a stout, middle-aged woman with unruly grey hair.
"I'm sorry to bother you, Mr Solo," she said, her voice clipped in its urgency, "but Adele feels she can't help and I need to turn Matthias quickly. He can't breathe." Illya eased past Napoleon. "I'll go," he muttered, and was led towards the rear of the cabin.
In the aisle lay one of the terrorists. He was struggling to breathe, his face ashen. Illya glanced at the ruin of the left side of the young man's chest. He gritted his teeth, folding away and burying deep the knowledge that it was his own shot that had created the devastation. The mental strong-box where he kept such things was already brimful. He'd deal with it another time. Maybe. He met the woman's eyes as she knelt by the dying man.
"I know," she said softly, "but we can try to make him more comfortable."
Illya nodded and together they gently rolled the youth towards his injured side, easing the burden on his remaining lung. His breathing immediately became less laboured and he sighed deeply.
Moments later the breaths stilled altogether.
Illya raised his eyes to the kneeling woman as she crossed herself and then met his gaze. She wiped a bloodied hand on her skirt and held it out to him.
"I'm Charlotte de Sanchez," she said, her accent straight from the Home Counties of England. "And you must be Illya, Mr Solo's partner. I'm sorry—he didn't tell us your surname."
"Kuryakin," said Illya grasping her outstretched hand. "Illya Nikolaievich Kuryakin, at your service."
She quirked an eyebrow at him. "Russian?"
He nodded searching her face in vain for any trace of hostility.
"And you and Mr Solo are—what? Policemen?"
"Not—exactly..." he began, and heard with some relief Napoleon's call from farther up the cabin. With a nod to his inquisitor he hurried forward to join his partner.
Napoleon was squatting in the aisle next to the seat of a fair-haired boy of about ten. He looked up as Illya approached and Illya saw that the Solo charm was anchored firmly in place. He changed mental gears, preparing to follow his partner's lead.
Napoleon glanced at the boy. "Nicholas, meet my friend Illya Kuryakin. He's a Nicholas too," he turned to Illya, "aren't you, tovarisch?"
Illya gave the boy a half smile. "My father was Nicholas and I bear the patronymic 'Nikolaievich' after him."
Nicholas' eyes were like saucers. "Wow! Is that Russian?"
He nodded. "Do you have a middle name?"
"My full name is Nicholas Alexander James Harrison the third." He looked a bit sheepish. "But I don't use 'the third' much. Especially at school, although Dad says I should be proud of it."
Illya schooled his face to neutrality. "Your father is probably a very wise man."
Nicholas dropped his eyes and blushed. "He also says the Russians will be the death of us all and have to be brought to heel by fair means or foul," he mumbled.
"Ah, I see," said Illya, determinedly avoiding Napoleon's eye. "That makes his choice of names for you somewhat—intriguing." He was careful that neither mockery nor rebuke should colour his voice. "What do your friends call you?"
Nicholas looked up at him. "Nick, or Nicky, usually."
Illya held out his hand. "Well then, Nick-or-Nicky-usually, I am very pleased to meet you. You may call me Illya."
Nick looked at the hand and then shook it, a broad grin spreading on his face.
"Illya," he said, pronouncing its three syllables in a way that Napoleon had been unable to master in four years. Then, a little hesitantly, "What does tovarisch mean?"
Illya caught Napoleon's smile and looked away hurriedly. "It means 'comrade'."
Nick looked from one to the other, suspicion reasserting itself on his face. "Say, does that mean you're—you're Communists, then?"
Napoleon interrupted firmly. "It means that we're agents for the U.N.C.L.E. That's the United Network Command for Law and Enforcement, Nick." He showed the boy his ID. "Illya is my partner. We work together."
Nick stared at the card in awe. "Wow!" He looked up at Illya. "Do you have one of these too?"
Illya produced his own ID and handed it solemnly to Nick whose face lit up. The boy's lips moved silently as he read the unfamiliar Russian name.
Napoleon glanced at Illya and inclined his head towards the flight deck. "Is the cockpit ah... presentable?" Illya nodded. "Well then, Nicholas, how would you like Illya to take you onto the flight deck and show you the controls?"
Nick handed back Illya's ID with a further 'wow' and leapt to his feet enthusiastically.
Napoleon watched in amusement as the boy followed eagerly at his partner's heels towards the ruined cockpit. He stood, brushing off the knees of his pants and glanced down the cabin. With a sigh he headed towards the daylight where once the tail had been.
As Napoleon approached, the steward and stewardess were wrapping the remaining bodies in blankets and stowing them as far aft as possible.
"Ah, Marc?" Napoleon said softly. "There's one more up there with Mrs de Sanchez." Marc made a moue of distaste but nodded. Grabbing a spare blanket he moved off towards the opposite side of the cabin. "I'll be along to give you a hand in a minute," Napoleon called after him.
He hunkered down next to the stewardess who had just finished pinning the last blanket in place. She turned a taut face to him, attempting a professional smile and smoothing imaginary creases from her uniform skirt. He smiled reassuringly.
"Good job, Adele. That's the last. Marc and I will see to the other one."
She turned mahogany eyes on him and her smile faltered. "The terrorist? He's dead?" Napoleon nodded. "Marc wouldn't let me go help Mrs de Sanchez with him, you know." She looked shamefaced. "He said 'Why should we help him? He tried to kill us all.' But... but..." she drifted into silence.
Napoleon reached to brush aside a lock of rich black hair that had escaped her severe bun. "How are you doing, honey?" At the tenderness in his voice, her face collapsed and she buried it in her hands, stifling a sob. Napoleon moved closer and slipped an arm around her, murmuring soothing words into her hair as she sobbed against him.
Nicholas followed the Russian agent—was that the same as a spy, he wondered—into the remains of the small cockpit. The windshield was cracked on one side and there was a gaping hole on the other through which he could see the trees on the far river bank. The instrument panel was damaged in places and the right-hand control stick was twisted out of shape. The pilot's seat was covered with a blanket. Of the pilot there was no sign.
His mouth was dry with an unnamed fear. "I guess the pilot managed to get us down safe before he—er—went away, then, huh?"
The Russian gave him a measured look. "Actually, I landed the aircraft, Nicky." He frowned. "Didn't make a very good job of it though, eh?" He poked a piece of shattered Plexiglas out of the frame and watched as it skittered down the instrument panel.
Nick swallowed his "wow" and regarded his new acquaintance with awe. "Say, Illya, is there anything you can't do?" He paused. "Did you learn all this in Russia?" Illya gave him a sobering look and Nick withdrew a little, feeling he'd just overstepped an invisible mark. "Well you can shoot a gun real fine, land a jet-plane—I sort o' wondered what else you can do," he finished uncertainly.
Illya smiled and ruffled his hair and Nick immediately felt mollified by the gesture. He'd seen Napoleon do it to Illya. It was clearly what comrades did.
"I get by," said Illya. He turned and began to examine the panel closely. "So, Nicholas Alexander, what do you do with your time?"
"I'm in school, mostly. In New York. We live near Manaus but I go to school at The Dalton. That's where I'm going now," he looked around ruefully. "Or at least I was."
"And do you like school?" Illya was working his way down the instrumentation, testing the banks of switches.
"It's OK, I guess." He watched in admiration as Illya's hands flickered competently over the panel in front of him. Nick cast around for something helpful to do to help. Finding nothing, he dropped into the right-hand seat and watched as Illya disappeared under the instrument panel. "I like gym and tennis, and I swim real good. Oh and I'm pretty hot at math and science too.
"Dad wants me to major in Modern Languages like he did, but I want to be a scientist like my Mom. She's a zoologist. You might have heard of her—Dr Chantal Deveraux?"
There was a non-committal sound from Illya from under the panel.
"Well, that was her name before she married my Dad..." He picked up a clipboard from the floor by his feet and idly skimmed the list of names it bore. "Dr Charlotte is on this flight too. Maybe you've heard of her? We know her. She's old but she's great. She had a clinic with Dr Estefan but he's just died. She's a real doctor—not like my Mom."
Nick paused as he tried to work out an explanation of the difference to give this man he was already thinking of as a friend. "Leastways, my Mom is a real doctor," he said with pride. "She has a doctorate. That means..."
Illya spoke from underneath the panel. "I know what it means, Nicky," came his muffled voice. He paused and there were some metallic noises and words that Nick assumed were Russian. "And where did your mother study for her PhD?"
"How did you know..." Nick paused and hope rose within him. "Illya, do you have one of those too?" There was silence apart from the irregular metallic tapping from under the console. "Illya...?" No response. "Illya...!"
"All right—yes," came the gruff reply.
"Wow! You have a doctorate in zoology. Just like my Mom." Nick could barely contain his delight.
"Not quite like your Mum, Nicky." There was a further pause and a grunt. "Mine is in quantum mechanics."
The inevitable 'wow' followed. "So you're really Doctor Kuryakin?"
There was a clatter from beneath the console and Illya grunted again. "It's a bit like your 'the third'," he said finally, as he wriggled out into the limited space next to Nick's feet.
Illya looked at him upside down. "Your 'Nicholas Alexander James Harrison the third'?" Nick was still puzzled as he watched the smile crinkle the corners of Illya's eyes. "I don't use it much." Illya got to his feet and moved to the left of the instrument panel once more.
Nick felt warmed all the way to his toes.
After several minutes of comforting Adele, a noise from across the aisle drew Napoleon's attention and he saw that, with the help of the older woman, Marc had finished wrapping the body of the terrorist. Together they were dragging it towards the rear of the cabin to join the others. Napoleon eased away from the stewardess.
"Thank you, Mrs de Sanchez," he said with a touch on her arm. "Marc and I can take it from here." He met her eyes. "Adele could use a little support, I fancy."
Charlotte de Sanchez handed her end of the blanket to Napoleon and nodded as she moved to take his place beside the stewardess. Together he and the steward placed the blanket-wrapped body with the others close to the ragged opening that had been the rear of the cabin. They gathered the final one from the aisle next to where Charlotte sat with a comforting arm around Adele and placed it with the rest.
By the time they returned, the stewardess was composed once more and the two women were checking the on-board first- aid kit. Charlotte looked up as Napoleon approached.
"We have some antiseptic, some pain meds and a few bandages," she sighed. "It isn't much, so we'll have to hope we don't need it." She handed a packet of analgesics to Napoleon. "Here," she said. "Give these to your partner. They'll help the pain from his ribs."
Napoleon turned the packet over in his hand and raised an eyebrow. "Did he..."
She shook her head with a smile. "No. But I watched the way he favoured them when he was helping me." When Napoleon's expression didn't change, she continued. "I'm a doctor, Mr Solo. My husband and I ran a small medical centre on a tributary up-river from Manaus. We were attacked by insurgents two weeks ago. The clinic was destroyed." She paused. "My husband was killed in the attack."
There was a sharp intake of breath from Adele and she reached out to lay a hand on Charlotte's.
Marc squatted beside them. "Your husband was Estefan de Sanchez?" Charlotte nodded and Marc's eyes widened. "The favela kids in Rio?"
Her lips tightened and she nodded again. "Once the Rio Trust was established I stayed on to secure on-going funding, and Estefan moved to the Amazon to set up a clinic with a colleague to work with the indigenous people there. They were being ravaged by western diseases—they have no immunity you see. Shortly after my husband's team arrived, guerrillas attacked the clinic and my husband's research colleague was killed." She shrugged. "I flew out to join him as soon as I could—and we've been there ever since." Her eyes became unfocused. "Six years..." Her voice tailed off. She sounded drained.
There was a heavy silence. Napoleon eventually broke it.
"I'm sorry for your loss, Dr de Sanchez," he said with feeling.
"Thank you, Mr Solo," she said, giving him a grateful smile.
He nodded. Marc's stomach chose that moment to rumble loudly.
"Always your stomach, Marco," Adele said with a small smile. He bridled a little but returned her smile.
"Maybe the two of you could see what rations we have," suggested Napoleon.
Adele nodded. "Come, Marco. Help me, yes?"
At that moment there was a loud crack and a French oath from the cockpit. Napoleon started and hurried forward, wondering what piece of equipment his partner had managed to annoy in the twenty minutes since he'd left him.
"Say, did you send out a Mayday?" Nick queried. "That's French, y'know. It's really 'm'aidez'. It means 'help me'. My Mom told me."
Illya gave him a look from under his brows.
"Oh—er—you probably know that already." He paused at Illya's continued steady gaze. Finally he swallowed. "I guess you did send it, huh?"
Illya looked down with a small smile and carried on with what he was doing.
There was a sudden crack and a flash from the instrument panel and he leapt backwards with an oath, cradling his hand. "Merde!"
Nick started and dropped the clipboard, then giggled. "Hey, you do speak French! My Mom says that when she drops something; or when my Dad forgets to put gas in the jeep."
Illya glared at the panel. "Well at least we have power," he muttered, shaking his fingers.
Napoleon appeared in the cockpit doorway, his expression sharp.
"I'm OK, Napoleon," Illya said, the irritation clear in his voice. "The console became live—briefly—whilst I was checking the power linkages. I've managed to set the automatic transmitter."
"Well, that's good and the flash sure looked pretty, but oughtn't you to be wearing rubber—ah—gloves?"
Illya raised an eyebrow. "Did you bring any?"
Napoleon snapped his fingers.
"Ah, remiss of me I know, but I thought you were packing them." He turned to Nick with a wink. "Adele and Marc are sorting out rations, Nick, and they could really use a hand."
Nick looked at the two agents, a protest half-formed on his lips. This was where he felt he belonged; with his new Russian friend.
Illya picked up the clipboard from the cockpit floor and handed it to him. "Nicky, Dr Charlotte will need this. I think it's the only copy left of the flight manifest so please make sure she keeps it safe. OK?"
Nick nodded and took the clipboard. "OK, Illya." He looked up and grinned. "Tovarisch," he said, and dived through the cockpit door. As he glanced back he saw Napoleon grin and give the back of Illya's neck a squeeze.
Illya followed Napoleon as he jumped down from the cockpit to the sand. For the first time he was able to see clearly their predicament. The front and mid-section of the aircraft had come to rest in the centre of a broad sand bar in the middle of the fast-flowing river. The wings he'd managed to remove in a final, desperate attempt to lose velocity. He'd used two of the taller trees he'd spotted at the last minute growing about the right distance apart. The tail and rear section of the Gulfstream were gone too, and rearwards the cabin was open to the elements. This had definitely not been part of the plan and he cursed himself bitterly for his less-than-perfect landing.
He caught Napoleon looking at him, a mixture of pride and disbelief on his face.
"What?" he snapped.
"I've always thought the wings and tail-section spoil that pencil-smooth line, myself." Napoleon grinned. "Nice work IK. Oh, by the way..."
Illya caught the pack Napoleon tossed to him. "What are these?" he said squinting at the contents.
"Aspirin," said Napoleon, "for your ribs. With the doctor's compliments." He grinned again. "Seems I'm not the only one looking out for you, partner mine."
He reached out a hand to ruffle Illya's hair. Illya jerked away from his partner's touch and dropped the pack into his pocket.
"Hey," Napoleon's voice was soft. Illya closed his eyes, awash with guilt.
"Three innocents, Napoleon," he said roughly. "Three." He couldn't look at his partner. Instead he strode to the water's edge and stared out across the surging river. His chest tightened and couldn't seem to catch his breath. A moment later warm hands gripped his shoulders and his partner's fingers began to knead the tight muscles there. Warm breath puffed against his ear.
"Is this a private pity party or can anyone join in?"
He shook himself free and swung round to face Solo, fists clenched.
"Napoleon..." He stopped. There was no judgement in his partner's eyes, only understanding and acceptance.
"We'd all be dead if it weren't for you, Illya Nikolaievich," Napoleon said quietly. "Ponimayesh? You saved us, you crazy Russian." Napoleon's arms came round him in a fierce hug then, and Illya felt the fight go out of him. He wrestled the lid shut once more on the box containing the darkness. He knew one day it wouldn't be big enough, but for now...
After a moment he returned the hug.
They stood together on the sand for several moments until their breathing synchronised, then there was a kiss on the side of his head and he was released. He looked up into concerned brown eyes and forced as much of a smile as he could manage. Apparently it was enough. The eyes warmed and Napoleon's face lit up.
"Stubborn..." Napoleon sighed. "Have you tried your communicator?"
"Yes. Nothing. We're too far from a base station. I've activated the homer, though, just in case anyone with a tracker over-flies us."
"What? You think Waverley might notice if we don't make it back?"
"OK, tovarisch," Napoleon said, rubbing his hands together. "We have work to do before nightfall. How much daylight do you reckon we have left?"
Illya checked his watch and glanced up through the foliage. It didn't quite meet over the river but it was close enough to diffuse the natural daylight into a green-stained glow. "Since we don't know our exact location it's a bit of..." he paused. "My, um, best estimate..."
"A wild guess," said Napoleon with a grin.
"A wild guess. You were going to say 'It's a bit of a wild guess', weren't you?"
"I was not..."
"Go on—admit it, Kuryakin. You were." Napoleon's grin widened.
Insufferable... "I do not make..." Illya stopped and glared at his partner who merely raised his eyebrows at him. Irritated that he'd allowed himself to be drawn, Illya snorted. "My best estimate based on the data available, is that we have about two hours—three at most—of daylight left. What did you have in mind?" Realising his partner was about to open his mouth he forestalled him. "And don't..." he held up his hand. "Just—don't, Napoleon."
His partner gave him a hurt look. "Illya, you wound me," he said, laying a hand across his chest. "I was merely going to suggest we—ah—clear out the cabin so that we can sleep there." He paused. "All of us."
The bodies... Illya nodded. "Agreed. And it will be quicker if we can persuade Marc to help us."
Napoleon tilted his head and grinned again. "So, are you going to go ask him or am I?"
Charlotte was coming towards them as they turned back towards the aircraft.
"How are the ribs, Dr Kuryakin?" she asked. To Napoleon's delight Illya blushed and gave her one of his almost-smiles.
"They're fine, Doctor, thank you," his partner mumbled. "Merely bruised." He paused. "I gather you've been speaking to Nicholas."
She smiled at him. "Nicholas and I are old friends. And yes," she said with a twinkle, "he might have mentioned you—once or twice."
Illya's blush deepened. "In that case, Doctor, I'm sure he will have told you that I rarely use the title."
She inclined her head in a slight bow towards him. "As you wish." She glanced towards Napoleon and hesitated slightly. "I need to ask you both something."
"Of course, Doctor." Napoleon smiled.
"We shall need to remove the deceased from the cabin if we plan to sleep there tonight," she said.
He nodded, reassured by her practicality. "We were just about to go get Marc and make a start."
She looked at him carefully. "I know that you'll afford them every possible dignity during that process, Mr Solo."
He nodded slowly and wondered where the conversation was headed.
"When you've resettled them outside," she said quietly, "I'd like to have the opportunity to say prayers of commendation. Would you object?"
He smiled and touched her arm. "Not at all, Doctor. Would you object to some company?"
She beamed. "I'd be delighted," she said.
"It'll be quicker with three of us," said Napoleon. "Then we can use the cabin for our living and sleeping area." He led the steward over to where his partner was waiting by the opening at the rear of the cabin.
Marc nodded at Illya. "What's up?" he asked, and Napoleon didn't miss the coruscating gaze with which the steward raked Illya from head to toe. Damn, thought Napoleon. He moved swiftly into Marc's eye line and motioned with a sweep of his arm.
"We're going to move the bodies out here," he advised firmly. "That way we can use the cabin as living and sleeping accommodation." Marc grimaced. "It'll be over more quickly if we do it together," Napoleon said more gently, and Marc gave him a nod. "Illya will lower the bodies down to us and you and I will stow them round back. OK?"
Marc took a deep breath. "OK," he said and then watched in open enjoyment as Illya grasped one of the blanketed bundles. The Russian's forearms were like corded steel as he tested its knot for security. Illya looked down, caught Napoleon's eye and grinned. The little bastard was milking it, damn him.
"Ready?" he said. Napoleon glared and moved into position next to the steward to receive the lowered bundle.
"Ah, you have tied it properly haven't you, tovarisch?"
Illya rolled his eyes. "Actually, Napoleon, I though it would be rather amusing to watch you and Marc..."
Napoleon raised his hands, palms out. "OK, OK." He suppressed a shudder. "In your own time, then." Illya braced himself and began to lower the first body. Napoleon heard Marc catch his breath at the sight. The load descended smoothly, but Napoleon didn't miss his partner's momentary flinch as the effort taxed his bruised ribs.
By the time they'd relocated three more bodies, he and Marc were gasping and drenched in perspiration. Illya didn't look as though he'd even broken sweat.
"Whoa, Tarzan," Marc gasped. "Let's take five, huh?" Illya gave him a withering look.
"We're half way, tovarisch," panted Napoleon squinting up at his partner. "How about it?"
"One more and I'll be more than half way—to my grave." Marc sank to the sand, fanning himself. "It's all very well for you two supermen. I don't spend my life chasing the bad guys and saving the world."
Illya rolled his eyes, and disappeared into the cabin. Marc watched him go and ran his tongue over his lips. "Oh, God," he breathed. "Those muscles aren't just for show, are they?"
"You're very... observant," Napoleon said quietly, and wondered for a moment where the slight edge to his voice had come from.
"Oh, I am," Marc raised one eyebrow and pursed his lips. "My antenna's always twitching."
Napoleon leaned a little closer until he could feel Marc's breath on his cheek. "Antennae are vulnerable things," he murmured, "and signals they pick up can be misinterpreted. I've always found it best to be—quite—quite—sure before exposing myself." He narrowed his eyes at the steward, and in return got a grin that was just short of a leer.
"Oh, my antenna hasn't let me down yet," replied Marc, apparently quite unabashed. Much to Napoleon's annoyance, the steward's gaze travelled over him lasciviously. "Take you, for instance..." Napoleon felt his jaw clench. "...but then, you're looking after Auntie Adele, aren't you, and she and I have an agreement." He grinned, "Hands off anything that's spoken for."
Napoleon was so rarely in the position of being 'spoken for' by anyone that he was uncharacteristically lost for words. Dammit, if there was any 'speaking for' to be done, he'd be the one to do it.
Marc leaned in conspiratorially. "But what about your 'partner'? Is he off limits too?"
Napoleon bit back the retort that sprang to his lips, appalled to find it there at all. He'd work out later why it was that his stomach clenched.
"You'll have to ask him that, Marc," he said as evenly as he could manage—which wasn't, in fact, very evenly at all.
"Well, you know, I think I just might," replied Marc as he gazed after Illya.
An hour later, the bodies from the aircraft had all been relocated. As the light began to fade, Nick slipped his hand into Napoleon's as they stood with Marc, Adele, and Charlotte in the lee of the aircraft. At their feet, the eight bodies lay side by side, a name tag attached to each blanket. At the far side of the sand bar stood Illya, his back towards them as he faced the riverbank, arms folded. Nick leaned around Napoleon to look at his friend and frowned. As Charlotte began to leaf slowly through a small black book, he gave Napoleon's sleeve a tug. Napoleon bent down until his ear was level with the boy's mouth.
"Why isn't Illya over here with us?" Nick whispered.
"Well, Nick. I'll tell you," Napoleon glanced over towards his partner. "Illya has his own way of—remembering." Nick felt his hand squeezed but Napoleon seemed to speak half to himself. "In fact he has his own way of doing most things."
Another, unwelcome thought struck him. "Is... is that because he's a..." he groped for his father's words, "a Godless Commie?"
"No!" Why did Napoleon seem to smile a bit? People didn't often smile at funerals. "No, Nick. Illya..." Napoleon paused. "It's complicated." He sighed. "I guess maybe you need to ask him sometime."
Nick nodded and looked across to where Illya stood with his head bowed. His friend looked really sad, but cross too. He remembered Dr Estefan had looked like that when the de Sanchez' elder son Robin had drowned. Dr Charlotte had said only God could heal her husband—make him whole again—she'd said. And God had. Dr Estefan had eventually gone into the small church with Dr Charlotte and said prayers and afterwards, quite a long time afterwards, he was better. Maybe God could make Illya better too.
Nick looked at Dr Charlotte. She was still leafing through her book. He stole a glance up at Napoleon. He was looking at Adele who was clutching her rosary and had begun to sniff. Peering around Napoleon once more, he took a long look at Illya. His friend looked sadder than anyone.
Suddenly he slipped his hand out of Napoleon's and raced across the sand to where Illya stood, slowing to a walk as he approached him. Illya didn't move a muscle. It made Nick unaccountably nervous.
"Illya?" he ventured. Illya didn't answer him although he fancied his friend's shoulders pulled a little tighter. He tried again. "Illya? Won't you come join us?" Again there was no response and he was about to try a third time when there was a sigh.
"Why not?" Another long silence. "Illya?"
"But why can't you?" Nick paused only briefly then plunged on. "Napoleon says it's complicated and that I need to ask you..." Illya spun round on him, his face white and thunderous.
Bewildered, Nick shrank back, unable to tear his gaze from the rage in Illya's face. He felt his heart begin to gallop and there was suddenly a lump in his throat. Was it something he had done that had made Illya like this? This couldn't be his friend. What had happened to the thoughtful man who was a doctor like his Mom, who could pilot a plane, shoot a gun and who treated him as an equal? He tried to swallow around the lump in his throat. A thought hit him and he doubled over at the hurt. Nothing! It had meant nothing. Of course—Illya was Russian! That was it. It wasn't Nick's fault at all. His Dad knew stuff all right.
With a sob he turned abruptly away from Illya and stumbled back towards the group. Half-blinded by his tears and trembling uncontrollably, Nick felt himself gathered into Napoleon's arms.
"It's true!" he sobbed. "He is a Godless Commie—just like my dad says..." In his exhaustion he found he had no more words and allowed the sobs to take him.
"Shhh, Nicky. It isn't you he's angry with, I promise. It'll be OK. It isn't you, Nicky..." Napoleon soothed him with soft words and stroked his hair and Nick clung to him and buried his face against his jacket as Charlotte began the words of commendation.
Adele tucked the blanket closer around Nick's sleeping form as he lay curled on Charlotte's lap. The older woman smiled up at her from her spot on the floor against the cabin wall.
"He's out for the count, Adele," she whispered, giving the sleeping boy a quick hug. "He's a tough little chap but he's had a lot to deal with in the last twenty-four hours."
Adele sighed and yawned. "He isn't the only one," she said rubbing her face and pushing back thick strands of hair that had escaped from her bun. "I feel as though we've been here a week." She glanced around the cramped remains of the cabin in the soft light from one of the emergency lanterns.
Marc was clearing away the last remains of their supper. Three of the pre-packed in-flight meals among them all had seemed excessively frugal when they had several in reserve but Napoleon had insisted on caution in rationing. Mercifully the water containers were undamaged. With no means of making a fire on the sandbank, the river might as well have been salt. As she watched him, he looked up and grinned at her.
"Come, let me do your hair, Precious," Mark said waving her over to a spot next to him. "We can't let company standards drop in front of the customers."
"Tomorrow, Marco," she said softly and smiled. She was surprised at how much effort it took. "I know I'm a mess but..."
"Oh, you," he admonished her. "You are never a mess, Treasure, only winsomely dishevelled." He arched an eyebrow. "It's a very fetching look on you." He jerked his head towards the forward end of the cabin where Napoleon was gathering blankets. "Very fetching indeed—for some." To Adele's chagrin he winked broadly.
"Marco!" she said, trying hard to sound affronted.
She allowed herself a quick glance forward. The Russian was sitting with his back to a bulkhead, looking murderous and cleaning his gun. Napoleon was squatting in front of him with an armful of blankets and speaking to him in a low murmur. It was clearly a monologue and eventually Solo rose and turned away sharply. Adele saw the Russian's head sag to his chest for a moment, before he began vigorously to reassemble his gun.
As he passed Marc, Napoleon handed him a couple of blankets. "Oh I think I'll only need one," she heard Mark say as he handed one back and stared pointedly up the cabin towards the glowering Russian. Napoleon followed his gaze then looked back at him.
"Trust me," he said, shaking his head and pushing the blanket back at Marc. "You'll be needing two." He turned and Adele caught his eye. She held his gaze as he moved to her side.
"We could all use some rest, I think," he said softly. She looked up into coffee-coloured eyes and saw warmth and safety. He smiled, and she immediately felt something else entirely.
"Here," he said as he handed her a blanket. "This should do nicely." He inclined his head towards the spot next to Charlotte and Nick and handed her down. She stared up at him, and swallowed, suddenly feeling like a teenager again. After only a second's hesitation he knelt, tucked the blanket around her then lay down next to her.
There was movement from the front of the cabin and she looked up, startled. The Russian loomed over her.
"Don't trouble yourself, Napoleon," he hissed. "I will take the first watch." He snatched a blanket and swept out of the aircraft.
She felt a hand on her shoulder and a reassuring voice whispered in her ear.
"Don't worry, Adele. Everything's going to be all right." She wanted so hard to believe him. A warm hand squeezed her arm and, for the first time since leaving Manaus, she felt the tension drain from her. With a grateful sigh she finally gave in to her exhaustion.
He could tell dawn wasn't far off. The noise of insects was increasing in volume. He'd had to slap them away from his exposed skin more often, rarely before they'd bitten or stung him, though. He loathed the tropics and they, all too clearly, loathed him. Slapping at another marauder, he noted the splash of blood on his palm. Too late again. They never seemed to bother Napoleon.
He thought with mild irritation of his partner curled protectively next to Adele in the aircraft. Napoleon's habitual seduction of anything in a skirt was both an indulgence and a smokescreen and Illya accepted it as such, becoming seriously annoyed only if it endangered one of them or the mission.
He had a sudden vision instead of Marc curled protectively next to Napoleon and ground his teeth. Adele, Marc—he told himself firmly there was no difference. And then sighed and wondered why there was all the difference in the world.
His thoughts drifted hither and thither and eventually turned once more to Nick. He felt his face burn with shame again. The memory of the fear and bewilderment in the boy's eyes in the face of a Kuryakin rage—even one at half-throttle—made him squirm. He'd behaved disgracefully. Napoleon was right—he had to pull himself together.
There was an odd dragging sound and he was instantly alert. His eye caught a movement in the shadows towards the rear of the fuselage. Groping next to his blanket, his fingers closed around the flashlight he'd laid there. His other hand went instinctively for his weapon and clicked off the safety.
The sound came again. Illya braced his hands together, weapon and flashlight now a single unit, and stood in one smooth movement. He snapped on the flashlight and drew in a sharp breath, barely noticing the jab from his ribs. Pinned in the beam was something that belonged in a nightmare. No chimera this, though.
An immense reptilian form, some eighteen feet long, stood over the partially uncovered corpse of one of the passengers that had clearly been dragged from behind the aircraft. There was a loud and angry hissing and the beast took a step towards him. Illya moved his finger inside the trigger guard and braced himself to fire, but an awful fascination made him hesitate.
A sudden yell and a cacophony from behind him spun him reflexively. The flashlight's beam illuminated Nick. The boy stood in the ragged maw of the fuselage banging together two empty water containers and yelling for all he was worth.
At the sound of a splash, Illya whirled again in time to see the immense beast disappearing below the water with its prize. He stood, breathing hard and felt Napoleon at his shoulder.
"Who was that masked man?" his partner muttered. "And what the fuck was that?"
"That was a croc, I think." Illya grimaced and flipped the safety back on before holstering his weapon. "Although it could have been a small aircraft-carrier."
There was a whoop from the open fuselage behind them.
"Crocodylus intermedius," Nick called excitedly. "The Orinoco Crocodile. They're the largest surviving crocodilian species in South America—massive, but they're getting rare."
"Not quite rare enough," Napoleon muttered under his breath. Aloud he said, "Good job, Nick." The boy beamed and flushed with pleasure.
"My Mom's studying them. We see them on the Amazon, more just before the river floods, usually. They tend to be more aggressive then too." Nick looked around at the gathering of shaken, sleepy faces. "Males looking for a mate or females protecting their hatchlings, see?"
Illya flashed the boy an apologetic half-smile then turned and eyed the brown, silt-laden waters with growing unease. "Napoleon," he murmured. "The river is almost in spate. We need to get off this island—before it isn't one any more."
"Well, you're pushing against an open door on that, my friend. Any ideas on how?"
Illya glared at him. "Isn't it your turn to come up with a plan?" His head had begun to throb again and his ribs jabbed every time he took a deeper breath and it was making him tetchy. "I realise that, as a rule, you rely on me to get you out of danger," he growled, "but could you at least try? I for one would rather not have to choose between being eaten or humped by a crocodile."
He strode to the water's edge and, in the waxing dawn light, scanned the banks that were tantalisingly out of reach across the torrent. After a moment he was aware that Napoleon had followed.
"The inflatable life raft..." Napoleon began.
"...would be overturned by the current," Illya tossed over his shoulder. "Unless it was tethered."
"Which means we'd need to get a line..." Illya turned in time to see Napoleon's lips narrow as realisation dawned. "Oh no, Kuryakin. Don't even think it."
"What? You're volunteering instead?" Illya snorted. "That would be amusing. The crocs won't have seen a pregnant camel attempting not to drown before. It would keep them occupied whilst the rest of us took our time about crossing."
Napoleon glared at him, breathing heavily and Illya thought for a moment that his partner might hit him. He met his glare unflinchingly. "You're angry because you know I'm right."
"You know damn well why I'm angry," Napoleon muttered.
His impatience evaporated. "We do not have time for this, my friend," he said gently. "Come, we need to check what resources we have." He laid his hand briefly on his partner's forearm and turned back towards the aircraft.
Napoleon watched his partner gather the others around him and command their attention, and did his best to quell his guilt. Illya had no illusions about the strengths and limitations they each brought to the partnership. Neither did Napoleon, usually. Their joint skill-set was part of what made them the team to beat in the Command. Part of the reason they worked together seamlessly, to the envy and occasional resentment of their colleagues. Rarely had they needed to confer even briefly since the very early days. Each automatically undertook the tasks best suited to him.
In the last year, however, there had been occasions when their collective resolve had been put to the test. It had always required steely determination to implement a plan that put one's partner's life on the line. Latterly the fear had grown in Napoleon that he might no longer be able to do it should the situation arise.
It seemed to him that he found it more difficult than his partner to set aside the fears, or at least to transmute them into a more acceptable form. The guilt he'd felt when Illya had proposed his plan had arisen primarily from the knowledge that he himself was incapable of undertaking the task; that a weakness in him was putting his partner's life in danger. He sighed and made his way towards the group that Illya was briefing. Time later for introspection. He hoped.
"Nick can help me get some supplies together," Charlotte was saying as he approached. "Come along, Nicky."
With a shy glance at Illya the boy nodded as he followed the older woman. "OK, Dr Charlotte."
"Can you two get the life raft and inflate it round about here?" Illya looked from Marc to Adele and gestured with his arm. "And we'll need life jackets for everyone too." He turned as Napoleon approached and his eyes softened. Napoleon met his gaze and gave him a brief nod. He was rewarded with one of Illya's rare, stunning smiles. It made him catch his breath.
"Napoleon, you're with me," Illya said, tapping his arm briefly.
Always, moi droog, he thought as he followed his partner to the rear of the cabin.
Illya indicated the conduits that ran above the overhead lockers "We'll need to strip out the cabling from the fuselage. We can use it instead of rope."
They set to work in silence as the sun rose.
Half an hour later their hands were raw and bleeding from numerous knocks and scrapes. Their prize was some one hundred feet of bundled electrical wiring.
"That should do it, I think," grunted Illya, and Napoleon wiped the sweat from his eyes and flexed his fingers in relief. "Let's get it down onto the sand."
Between them they manhandled the coils of cable out of the aircraft to land in a heap next to the inflated life raft. The others were gathered to one side, all wearing their life jackets ready to inflate them at a word from Illya.
Napoleon felt a surge of satisfaction at the alacrity with which the group had accepted the Russian's leadership in this. He knew that at least part of it was the fact that he himself had deferred instantly to his more technically-adept partner in this particular endeavour. Knew that in this, they'd taken their lead from him as they'd followed his lead in everything from the moment the hijacking had begun to escalate. Now, though, they were coming to recognise for themselves Illya's unparalleled worth in a crisis.
His partner caught his eye and grinned as they jumped down from the aircraft. It was the slightly manic grin he always had just before they launched into a particularly dangerous manoeuvre and Napoleon grinned back as his own adrenaline kicked in.
He ran his eye over the life raft, noting the supplies that had been stashed inside the tented cover at the rear; the remaining highjackers' weapons, the first aid kit, blankets, their meagre supply of food, water containers and a small briefcase he recognised as Illya's, standard issue. His own had been lost, but he knew his partner's would contain several spare clips for their P38's, a conversion kit, a quantity of plastic explosive, detonators and Illya's throwing knives.
"I thought Mr Kuryakin might be glad of that," said Charlotte at his shoulder, following his gaze. "And you of this." He turned as she handed him a life jacket. He smiled at her foresight.
"Thank you, Doctor," he said as he took the life jacket and slipped it over his head. "I know he will. Especially the explosives it contains." He grinned at her shocked expression as he tied the tapes around his waist. "It's OK. They're perfectly harmless until Illya gets at them." She raised her eyebrows but said nothing.
They moved to join the others as they gathered round the raft and together the adults manhandled it down to the water's edge. Illya began to slip a coil of cable between the grab loops on the edge of the raft. When he'd slipped it through three or four he turned and tossed the coil to Napoleon.
"Find something on the fuselage to secure this to," he said. "And I mean secure. The undertow here is huge. It will need to hold the raft plus all of you."
Napoleon found a bulkhead strut and lashed the length of cable to it firmly. He tested the knot and looked up in time to see Illya knotting a loop of the other end of the cable around his waist. He tried to swallow but his mouth was suddenly dry. Dropping to the sand he headed back towards his partner.
Nick trotted over to Illya with a life jacket in his hand. "Here you go," he said shyly. "You nearly forgot this, Illya." Illya looked down at the boy and Napoleon saw relief brighten his partner's smile as he ruffled Nick's hair.
"Thank you, Nicky," he said. He knotted off the cable around his waist then continued. "But I need to be able to swim hard against this very strong current, and I shall not be able to do that if I am wearing one of those." At the boy's look of dismay, he patted the coil of cable around his middle. "That is why I have this," he said, "and Napoleon will be on the other end ready to pull me up if I get into difficulty." Illya looked up and Napoleon met his eyes.
In a heartbeat, my friend, he thought.
"You'll need to give me enough slack so that I'm not fighting you as well as the current," he paused and frowned. "Or the crocodiles for that matter." Illya looked at Nick again. "Nicky, I want you to keep an eye out and let Napoleon know if you see one of those brutes heading our way. Got it?"
Nick looked a bit pale but nodded. "Got it, tovarisch," he said.
Napoleon caught his breath. Unable to stop himself he grasped Illya's shoulder. The blue eyes regarded him steadily and then Illya's hand covered his and gave it a quick squeeze. His partner turned and headed to the edge of the mud-brown torrent.
Napoleon heeled in to the sand next to the life raft and took a twist of cable around his shoulders so that he could play it out for Illya on demand. He fixed his gaze on Illya's back and tried to ignore the knot of fear in his stomach. He was suddenly aware that Marc had moved next to him, a hand on the slack of cable.
"In case you need a hand," the steward murmured with a small smile. Napoleon nodded gratefully as Illya stepped into the raging torrent.
Within seconds, the blond head disappeared below the surface as he was dragged off his feet by the undertow. Napoleon knew his partner's strength in the water but it took all his concentration to push away his own terrors and focus on the cable. It was like playing a fish on a line, now taking, now giving. Next to him Marc let out a breath as the head broke the surface at last. Napoleon continued to play out the cable, hands sensitive to every nuance of pressure.
Illya was almost a third of the way across when there was a yell from Nick and an almost simultaneous shriek from Adele. Napoleon's gaze followed their pointing fingers and his heart began to hammer. Sliding into the water from the far bank, exactly opposite Illya's position was an immense bulk.
"Pull him in," he snapped to Marc and the two of them began to haul on the cable. As they pulled, Illya's head submerged sharply and Napoleon had the sickening thought that if the croc didn't get him, their pulling on the cable would drown him. As if to mock him the glistening head broke the surface again and he heaved a sigh of relief.
Charlotte and Adele ran to join them and added their weight to the cable as they desperately tried to yank Illya from the jaws of death that were gaining on him every second. A moment later Napoleon knew they weren't going to make it as the huge maw opened and then submerged.
Nick turned a stricken face to him. "It's going to take him!" he screamed through his tears.
"Pull harder!" Napoleon yelled to the others as he dropped the cable and raced to the river's edge, drawing his weapon as he ran. As he watched, his partner's head disappeared below the surface again. He braced himself and emptied a clip into the water just beyond the spot where he'd last seen the bright hair. The river erupted in a dreadful thrashing and began to foam red. Then, like a newborn, Illya's head emerged from the blood and foam and he was dragged back onto the sand bar.
Napoleon was on his knees beside him in a second. He rolled the motionless form over and sobbed out a hoarse breath as he tried to feel for a pulse with hands that shook almost uncontrollably.
"Dammit, Kuryakin," he moaned through gritted teeth, "don't you do this to me, you hear...?"
"Let me, Mr Solo." Charlotte's voice was by his ear, and he was shouldered aside momentarily as competent hands took over.
She looked up at him urgently. "He has a pulse but he isn't breathing," she said. "We need to get oxygen into him and quickly. Do you know CPR?"
Napoleon nodded numbly and moved back into position next to his partner. Checking he had an airtight seal he gave two rescue breaths and then knelt back to watch Illya's chest. Nothing. He glanced at Charlotte whose fingers lay over Illya's carotid pulse. She nodded.
"Another two," she said hurriedly. Napoleon bent to his task again and knelt back once more. Still nothing. "Continue until..." He needed no urging and covered Illya's mouth with his own once more. It felt as though he'd been at it for days, and still there was no response.
And then with a retching cough that sprayed river water and more all over Napoleon, Illya came back from the dead. Napoleon wrapped his arms round him, holding him against his chest whilst Illya choked and coughed. He continued to rock him gently, murmuring against the wet hair, even when the spasms finally passed.
Eventually he became aware that Illya's arms had snaked around him. He lifted his head and brushed the river-darkened hair from Illya's face, needing to look into the blue eyes, needing to see the life there.
Illya coughed again. "Call that a rescue?" he croaked. "What took you so long?"
It took all Napoleon's reserves to snipe back. He sniffed hard, tried and failed for a growl. "Brat," he muttered. "Call that a kiss?" Illya rolled his eyes and tried to lever himself upright.
Napoleon became aware of someone beside him. He looked down to see Nick, wide-eyed and trembling and with tears streaming down his face, being comforted by Adele.
"I—I thought you were dead," the boy sobbed, staring at Illya. "Dead!" he yelled and suddenly wrenched himself from Adele's embrace and flew at Illya pounding him with his fists and sobbing. Illya gently pinned his arms and held him, letting the shock dissipate whilst he crooned softly into his hair. His eyes met Napoleon's over the boy's head and Napoleon sighed softly at the bitterness he saw there.
None of them was likely to come out of this unchanged, and that included his partner. Napoleon's innate optimism wouldn't allow for any outcome other than them all making it, but he knew that the cost for some would be high. He wondered if he could afford it himself.
They were loosely grouped on and around the life raft. Nick sat curled on Adele's lap, eyes closed, one small hand fisted in her long hair. Charlotte and Marc knelt in the sand; Napoleon leaned against the raft next to Adele.
Illya paced in frustration and felt the burn of his partner's gaze.
"Not acceptable, Illya," Napoleon growled. "Find another way, because you are not going back into that river until we find a way to deal with the crocs."
"Fine," he snapped. "Another half hour and we can all go and play with them." He glared at his obdurate partner. "In case you haven't noticed, the river is rising by the moment."
"Better think fast then, partner."
Illya dropped to his knees, sighing in exasperation at his partner's unaccustomed fretting.
"OK," he said, running a hand through his still-damp mop. "We have enough of the highjackers' weapons cached. We get everyone in the life raft and you stand armed guard whilst I cross..." Napoleon shook his head.
"Uh uh. I'll be needed on the cable..."
"Then let one of the others have the weapon..."
Napoleon's eyes flashed. "Are you crazy? They might hit you. And besides what if there's more than one croc that likes Russian take-out?"
Illya fought down his impatience. "We need a distraction then..."
"Gentlemen," Charlotte interjected calmly. "We have several." They looked at her in silence. It was Marc who first caught her drift and his face brightened.
"Hey, that's one cool way to get rid of those terrorists."
Charlotte regarded him sadly.
"What?" he challenged, looking round the group. "Feed 'em to the crocs—it's no more than they deserve."
Illya's felt his temper beginning to get the better of him. "Great," he snapped. "That should let them know that we're good and mad at them."
"They're murderers," retorted Marc hotly. "You saw them—what they did. In cold blood."
Napoleon's eyes rolled in disbelief.
Adele let Nick wriggle down from her lap. "Marc, what's left is not who they were. That's gone." She looked at Charlotte who smiled and nodded. She looked back at Mark. "These are just the shells. All of them. It would be like a burial at sea."
"What? You want to use the terrorists and the passengers?" Marc shuddered. It was clear he was conflicted over the identity of the bodies.
Illya was suddenly aware of a diminutive hand on his shoulder and turned to find himself held by a pair of enormous grey eyes. Remorse bloomed in his chest at the uncertainty that clouded them. The eyes brimmed as the hand slid hesitantly to his neck. With a sigh, Illya gathered the boy tight against him and felt the rapid flutter of the small heart.
After a moment he took a deep breath. "I'm sorry I hurt you, Nicky," he whispered against the boy's ear. "It wasn't you I was angry with. Truly." He felt Nick nod against his neck.
"I know, Illya," he mumbled. "Napoleon told me." Illya gave him a hug. Yet another Solo charm-offensive, he thought, and envied once again his partner's facility with emotions.
"I was angry with me—myself," he corrected.
Another nod. "I'm sorry I got angry with you too, Illya," the voice against his neck continued. "I didn't mean to hit you." Illya smiled as he felt Nick's arms tighten around his neck.
The voices above them were winding down and he glanced around the faces. Marc looked somewhat abashed, Adele and Charlotte were conversing in low tones and he found Napoleon smiling at him with his head canted to one side. He grinned back.
Nick suddenly stiffened in his arms.
"Illya?" he whispered.
"What is it, Nicky?" he said, pulling back and brushing the boy's hair off his face. He was pinned by the serious grey eyes. After a moment Nick buried his head once more in the crook of Illya's neck.
"You're going to do it again, aren't you?" he mumbled eventually, his voice cracking. Illya closed his eyes and sighed. He nodded.
"I have to Nicky," he said and the ache in his chest grew. He looked up at Napoleon and held his gaze deliberately. "I'm sorry." His neck was hugged fiercely and he felt Nick begin to tremble.
"I guess you'll need me to watch for the crocs again, huh?"
Illya closed his eyes and gave him a squeeze. "Yes, Nicky," he said. "I'll be relying on you to do that—tovarisch."
Nick's arms tightened almost in a stranglehold, then he let go abruptly and ran to Adele without a backward glance.
Damn. Illya gave himself a mental shake. They needed to move—quickly; he wanted this whole nightmare behind them. He grasped Napoleon's outstretched hand and hauled himself upright.
In less than half an hour, Napoleon found himself once more on the edge of the sand bar checking the coil of cable around Illya's middle. It felt unreal, as though he were simply experiencing a more than usually vivid recollection, stronger than déjà vu. It left his breathing shallow and his stomach in knots.
Nick was in the life raft his eyes sweeping the far bank. His face was a mask of misery. Adele and Charlotte stood downstream on the sand by the row of bodies. Some of these were now partly submerged, their ripeness seeping into the turbulent waters. Marc stood in position by the raft, anchoring the slack of the cable and waiting for Napoleon to join him.
Napoleon grasped Illya's arm hard. His partner looked up at him, his gaze both fond and sad.
"I know, my friend. Later."
"Not now, Napoleon," he breathed, dropping his gaze. "Otherwise... I will not be able to do this."
Damned contrary Russian, thought Napoleon. Move the goalposts again, why don't you? "OK, but in the cockpit..."
The damned contrary Russian cut him off. "That was different."
There was a moment's silence before the blue gaze held his once more. "I thought we were both going to die."
Napoleon swallowed hard against the unaccustomed turmoil behind his breastbone. Somehow he found the strength to unlock his fingers from Illya's arm. As his partner turned towards the water, Napoleon was blindsided by the urge simply to take him in his arms and never let him go. Christ, Solo, get a grip, he thought.
"Hey, tovarisch?" The shaggy blond head turned. "I have your back." He prayed it wasn't an idle promise. "Always."
Illya nodded. "Always."
He grinned and stepped into the turbid water.
Napoleon took a loop of cable and heeled in next to Marc once more. The undertow took Illya almost immediately and Napoleon laid his weight against the wires, never taking his eyes from the sleek blond head as it bobbed in the current. Again they played out the line and Napoleon watched in disbelief as Illya somehow managed to avoid being swept under and, against all odds, began to make headway.
Although anticipated, Nick's yell turned Napoleon's guts to water. He allowed himself a quick peek towards Adele and Charlotte and saw with relief that they were rolling one of the partially submerged bodies out of its blanket into the foaming torrent. Illya's head was now two-thirds of the way across the flow, but Napoleon could see that he was tiring. He was no longer making progress against the current; was barely managing to hold his position.
Nick yelled again and Napoleon risked a further glance away from his task. He almost wished he hadn't. Two immense crocodiles were launching from the far bank. Sick with fear, he fought down the impulse to snatch at the line and try to haul Illya back. He knew that at this distance it would be futile. His eyes were now glued to the huge reptiles in the water...
...which were swinging away from his partner, towards the second body that Charlotte and Adele had rolled into the river.
There was a triumphant whoop from Nick, and Napoleon sucked a huge breath into his starving lungs. He switched his gaze towards his partner once more and saw with relief that the blond head was almost at the far bank. The line continued to play out evenly, although more slowly now as Illya tired. A thrashing downstream alerted him to the fact that the crocs were revelling in their gourmet feast. That's it, guys, he thought. Plenty more where that came from. Far more meat there than on a skinny Russian.
The cable stopped jerking through his fingers and with a sigh he watched his partner collapse onto the far bank, half in, half out of the water. Damn. Not out of the woods yet. Napoleon scanned the bank for any further evidence of imminent peril and then dropped the cable. He turned to Marc.
"Stay here and keep an eye on him," he ordered. "Play out as much line as he needs and yell if you see one of those bastards come within a mile of him." Marc nodded and fixed his gaze on Illya, occasionally flicking it to either side.
Napoleon sprinted to the life raft where Nick turned anxious eyes on him.
"Is..." the boy began, "is he OK?"
Napoleon smiled grimly at him and ruffled his hair. "He will be, Nick," he panted, "Thanks to you."
Nick's face broke into a joyful smile as Napoleon leapt into the life raft and rummaged in the back of the tent. He snatched up one of the AK-47's donated by the highjackers, checked the magazine was full and set the lever to the mid-position. Slinging the weapon over his shoulder he leapt down to the sand as Adele and Charlotte approached. Adele looked a little pale but composed and Charlotte's eyes gleamed. She grinned up at him.
"It worked," she panted.
Napoleon smiled. "Good job, ladies," he said with a nod to each. "And thank you."
He shot a glance across the river in time to see Illya dragging himself out of the water and up the steep bank on all fours. He watched as his partner retched and coughed before sagging onto the ground, his shoulders heaving. Napoleon chewed his lip.
He knew Illya was running on empty. It was only his stubborn, pig-headedness that had brought him this far and there was nothing Napoleon would have liked better than to let him rest; preferably someplace safe where Napoleon could reach out and touch him for reassurance. He wasn't entirely sure whose. Their peril was still very real, however, and it was beginning to get dark. He had to get them all off the island before there could be any thought of respite.
He turned to Marc who was still diligently watching over Illya. "OK, Marc, check the cable's attached securely to the raft."
The steward nodded and began to move around the life-raft after a last look at Illya, who was still spread-eagled on the opposite bank.
Napoleon moved to the water's edge and raised his voice over the river's roar. "Illya!" he yelled. "Illya. Come on, tovarisch, rise and shine." There was a feeble movement but his partner remained prone. "Illya, come on. We have to get out of here." He turned to Marc who had finished checking the lines on the raft. "We need to be ready to launch this thing as soon as Illya's secured the line on the other side."
Marc cast a worried look across the river. "Will he be OK?"
Napoleon nodded tersely, and prayed that it might be true. He called again. "Illya..." In desperation he un-slung the AK-47 flipped off the safety and fired a burst into the air.
The effect was immediate: shrieks and howls and a clatter of alarm from the surrounding jungle. It was fully thirty seconds, however, before Illya slowly dragged himself to his hands and knees and staggered to his feet, swaying alarmingly. He looked disorientated for a moment. Napoleon drew in a deep breath.
"Kuryakin!" he bellowed. "Secure the damn cable."
Illya put his hand to his head, staggered another step and finally turned to look at him. He called something which didn't carry far enough for Napoleon to hear, then raised a hand in salute and began to search for an anchor point.
Napoleon willed him to hurry as he went to help the others to drag the raft closer to the water's edge. The water was already lapping at the craft. In a very short time there would be no need to drag it anywhere. He scanned the opposite shore again and was in time to see his partner clambering up into the dense foliage that grew along the river bank. Napoleon marvelled once again at his resilience. Stubborn Russian, he thought, his chest swelling with pride and gratitude. Often down but never out, so long as there's breath in his body.
Moments passed and Napoleon's anxiety grew. He heaved a sigh of relief as his partner finally emerged from the vegetation and leaned his weight along the cable, giving it a hefty tug. Illya turned and cupped his hands to his mouth to call out, but was seized by another spasm of coughing. He dropped to his knees, retching. Damn, thought Napoleon. Hang in there partner. I'm coming. He yelled across the river once more.
"D'you want us to take up the slack now?"
From his kneeling position, Illya continued to cough and gag but managed to raise a thumb's up. Napoleon nodded to Marc and together they pulled the cable as taut as it would go. Napoleon secured the slack to the bulkhead and turned back to the raft. To his dismay it was almost afloat.
"Everybody into the life raft—now!" he yelled and raced across the thin spit of sand towards it.
Marc had handed the women up and was clambering in himself when a sudden surge floated the craft off the sand. Napoleon took a flying leap and felt his knees hit the water as Marc grabbed at his flailing arms. There was a moment of roaring water and wild terror and then he was dragged bodily into the lurching craft by three sets of hands. He landed in a trembling and undignified heap in the bottom of the life raft. The inflatable bucked and slapped against the churning water but held its position, securely ringed to the cable.
"Get—get the boy undercover," he gasped as the inflatable continued to roll and pitch wildly. "And secure yourselves. The last thing we need is to lose anyone overboard." He shuddered inwardly at the thought.
He took a moment to allow his heart rate to drop back to within normal limits then, almost as an afterthought, inflated his lifejacket. Better late than never, he thought ruefully and knelt up in the pitching craft. He peered over the gunwale to where Illya stood on the far shore, tension rolling off him in waves. Oh tovarisch. Napoleon sighed and raised a thumb's up and saw his partner sag as he raised an arm in acknowledgement.
Someone lurched into him as the life raft continued to heave under them. He looked up to find Marc scrambling to his knees, a worried frown on his face.
"Are you OK, Napoleon?" he shouted over the roar of the water.
Napoleon nodded. "Can you help me pull, Marc?" he yelled back. In answer the steward grabbed the cable that lay towards the far shore. Napoleon grinned at him. "Heave ho, me hearty," he bawled.
Together they braced their feet against the gunwale and began to pull the bucking craft inch by inch along the cable towards Illya. Buffeted by the water, they were soaked through within moments and Napoleon's arms felt as though they were being dragged out of their sockets.
From time to time he glimpsed the pale faces of the three under cover. Adele, white-knuckled and with eyes shut tight, clutched Nick to her. As Napoleon watched, Nick raised his head from her shoulder and smiled, giving him a thumb's up. Ten going on twenty-five thought Napoleon as he grinned back.
A piercing whistle from the far shore cut through the cataract's roar and Napoleon snapped his gaze round to his partner, surprised to find that they'd come almost half way. Illya was waving and pointing desperately towards the sand bank. Before Napoleon could turn round to look, there was a shriek from Adele.
"Napoleon!" she cried. "The aircraft..."
He spun round in time to see the raging torrent roaring around and through the fuselage on the sandbank; the fuselage to which they were firmly tethered; the rocking fuselage that was about to be carried away in the flood...
Before he could move, Adele surged past him towards the rear of the life raft, the tether-cutter in her hand. She leaned out and dragged it frantically to and fro over the cable. The insulation parted in seconds but the wire held. Napoleon spun towards Marc.
"You got the bow cable?" he yelled. The steward blanched but nodded and braced himself to take the strain as Napoleon let go. Heart pounding against his ribs, Napoleon scrambled round Adele, snatching off his belt buckle as he went. He twisted the tongue, clapped the buckle to the cable and dragged Adele to the floor of the craft as, with a whump, the thermic device parted the cable strands.
Three things happened at once.
There was a grinding roar as the remains of the aircraft were dragged into the flood; the life raft became momentarily airborne as it bounced free from the stabilising tether, knocking Marc off his feet; and Napoleon felt his shoulder dislocate as he grabbed the free end of the cable just as it was about to whip through the last two of the grab loops to cast them completely adrift.
The inflatable hit the water with a slap that knocked the breath from his body but he hung on to the cable. Ignoring the searing pain that lanced through his arm, he gritted his teeth and hung on as Marc regained his balance and took up the strain. Dark spots danced before his eyes and he felt Adele clamber over him towards Marc.
"It's OK, Napoleon," she cried. "You can let go. We have it."
He fought against the blackness that threatened to overwhelm him and the roaring in his ears subsided to the dull roar of the water once more. He found that he was no longer holding the cable and as his vision cleared saw that Adele and Marc had managed to secure it to the last grab loop. It wouldn't hold for long but maybe it would until they'd gained a bit more slack.
Who was he kidding? With one arm he was useless in helping Marc pull them to shore. The women weren't strong enough and the inflatable was now bouncing around like a pea on a drum. The next bounce slammed him to the floor of the life raft onto his shoulder and he was unable to bite back a cry at the bright new pain.
This time the blackness won.
When he came to, he was inside the tent and the world was still and there was a lantern, and fuck—his whole arm felt as though it were on fire. He struggled to rise.
"Steady, Mr Solo," Charlotte murmured laying a hand in the centre of his chest. "Just relax a moment whilst I finish this." She was knotting his silk tie around the cuff of a garment that Napoleon recognised had once been one of his best Egyptian cotton shirts. The one he'd, in fact, been wearing when he'd boarded the plane aeons ago.
"You seem to be having a deleterious effect on my wardrobe, Doctor," he muttered with what he hoped was a smile but which may have been a grimace, given the painful jab from his shoulder. She smiled and began carefully to ease his throbbing arm into the ravaged sleeve.
"You'll thank me later."
"Believe me, I'm grateful now," he said. "Truly. I remember shoulder dislocations as rather more painful. Ouch..." He grimaced as the slight movement set his nerve endings jangling once more. "Seems my memory was playing tricks."
"Done it before, eh? That probably explains why it wasn't too difficult to relocate."
"You reduced it?" He viewed the older woman with increased respect.
"I'm stronger than I look, but it's really all about technique you know." He winced as his arm caught. "Sorry," she murmured softly but continued until she had the sleeve in place. "Now," she said briskly. "Good arm in." Napoleon eased himself into a sitting position and obliged. She began deftly to fasten the shirt buttons, batting his good hand away when he tried to help.
"I'm a big boy, Doctor." He raised an eyebrow and tried for suave. "I can even tie my own shoelaces."
"Excellent, Mr Solo. It's a useful social skill," she muttered as she finished fastening the buttons. She looked him in the eye. "This may hurt for a moment."
He caught his breath as she grasped the modified cuff and brought it up to his opposite shoulder, looping the tie around his neck and knotting it back into the cuff. Charlotte sat back on her heels.
"There," she said. "It should keep movement to a minimum. I'm afraid I'll have to ration the pain meds. We don't have many left but let me know if you need any." He nodded, trying to ignore the pulsing burn in his arm, and glanced around.
Nick was asleep, curled tight on a pile of blankets at the far back of the craft with Adele spooned up behind him. There was no sign of Marc. He turned back to Charlotte who was tidying her makeshift med kit away.
"Where's Marc?" he asked, a vague sense of unease beginning to prickle at the back of his neck. Charlotte smiled.
"Oh, it's OK, Mr Solo. He volunteered to take first watch."
The hairs on the back of his neck stood up and waved.
"Marc—watch?" He found it less likely than Nick standing guard. "Where's Illya?" Her eyes flitted away from his for a moment and Napoleon's stomach did a flip.
"Where is he?"
"We... we aren't sure." Napoleon surged upright ignoring the bloom of pain that all but paralysed his arm. Charlotte planted a hand against his chest, as though daring him to pass her. He glared down at her for a moment.
"What happened?" he ground out through the pain.
"Sit down and I'll tell you." He didn't move. "Please, Mr Solo," she said gently. Reluctantly he sat.
"How much do you remember?"
He thought. Roaring. Water. Pain. Blackness. He shook his head. "Not much, I'm afraid."
"Do you remember severing our tether to the aircraft?" He nodded. It was his last clear memory. "Once that was gone our only lifeline was the cable that Illya had anchored on the shore." She smiled briefly. "That was thanks to Marc and Adele. They were quick enough to grab the free end just after you passed out.
"The river was tossing us about so much I thought we'd capsize." She shuddered. "I've had a horror of drowning ever since..." she faltered momentarily, "ever since we lost Robin."
Napoleon's own most-recent terrors were still vivid and he took her hand in a gentle squeeze. "Go on," he said, past the tightness in his jaw.
"They just couldn't hold it." Her eyes were pleading with him for understanding. "The river was too strong. The next thing we knew the pounding had stopped and we were just nudging against this beach."
Beach. Not steep, not wooded... Christ. Illya.
"It's hard to say," Charlotte shook her head in frustration. "Maybe half a mile, maybe more. With everything that was happening..." She tailed off and shrugged in defeat.
Napoleon tried to galvanise his addled senses, but the pain and fatigue made it hard to think straight. Fuck thought. Act, his instincts screamed. He lurched towards the opening of the life raft.
"Mr Solo, wait! It's pitch black and you're injured. At least wait until daylight. There's nothing you can do just now." He looked at her and hated the fact that she was right.
"I'll improvise," he said, and ducked out of the flap.
Marc huddled by the small fire. The night was warm but he'd heard somewhere that a fire would keep wild creatures away and that was just fine with him. He flung on a couple more pieces of driftwood from the pile next to him. The flames licked at it greedily.
He wasn't sure what had possessed him to volunteer to stand watch. He didn't know how use a weapon even if one of those crocs did pop over to them for a midnight snack. Last man standing, he thought ruefully. At the memory of those huge jaws bearing down on the Russian, he shuddered.
Being out of his depth like this felt unfamiliar. Normally he'd engineer a situation to ensure that he was in control—or avoid it altogether. He knew he was good at his job. It gave him everything he wanted from his life of transience: an almost unlimited choice of bed partners with no strings attached; exotic locations; wealthy, middle class passengers who tipped well. The older ladies in particular loved him.
This was to have been his last short hop before his transfer to long haul next month and he'd been looking forward to an even wealthier clientele. Had been. If they ever got out of this hell-hole it would be a miracle. He shivered despite the night's warmth.
Still, he reflected. It could have been worse; stranded with two of the sexiest-looking men he'd ever seen. When he'd told Solo that his antenna was never wrong, he was being truthful. He was sure they were Family—Christ the exquisite blond had all but come on to him during the flight.
They perplexed him slightly, though. Somehow he sensed that these two didn't want what he had to offer, and that was a rare thing, in his experience. He was used to getting what he wanted from a sexual encounter, once he'd set his sights on a target. His fey looks and carefully-contrived aura of vulnerability usually saw to that. Memories of his last night in Rio rippled through him and brought warmth to his face.
He'd found Sergio in the bar of one of the more exclusive hotels. An immaculately-suited businessman, he'd fallen quickly for Marc's seductive scrutiny and promises of further delights once safely ensconced in his suite. Neither had been disappointed, and Marc's eyes slitted as he was overtaken by the recollection of the heat of the man's thick cock nudging against his well-lubed opening. A second later it had surged home and claimed him.
He sighed as he flipped the image and imagined instead first Kuryakin and then Solo running their strong, calloused hands—he was sure they'd be calloused—over his flesh; imagined each of them hard and moist with need, thrusting into his body or mouth. And then he groaned as an image of them both doing it at once sidled into his mind. Mother of God, what a turn-on that would be. Was, in fact. His balls ached.
Catching a movement at the life-raft's opening, Marc looked up guiltily and saw Napoleon emerge. Ruthlessly he purged his thoughts, pulling the blanket over his lap to hide his waxing erection, which had begun to leak wetly against his pants. He raised an arm in salute as he watched the U.N.C.L.E. agent step gingerly over the gunwale of the craft into the darkness and pause.
"It's OK, Napoleon," he called and clicked on his flashlight to illuminate Solo's path to the fire. "I haven't seen anything bigger than a land crab."
Napoleon made his way across the sand to where the steward sat. Frustration gnawed at him as he thought of Illya, alone and unarmed at the mercy of God only knew what horrors. Defenceless was not normally a word he associated with his partner. He let the rest of the world make that mistake, but he'd seen the level of debilitation in the droop of Illya's shoulders as he'd dragged himself out of the water. I have your back...
Arriving at the fire he paused. "Mind if I share your blanket?" He indicated the swathes of fabric bunched in the steward's lap.
Marc flushed and looked uncomfortable. Without meeting Napoleon's eye, he relinquished his grasp on the material. After only a slight hesitation, Napoleon took half the blanket and arranged it on the ground next to the fire. He suppressed a small smile at the cause of the steward's loss of composure.
"Don't worry about it," he said as he sat. "It happens to the best of us. There's enough adrenaline around here to power the eastern seaboard." He watched Marc's shoulders relax. "I—ah—wanted to thank you for what you did back there. If you hadn't grabbed the line when you did we probably wouldn't have made it."
The steward blushed again and gave an indifferent shrug. It made him look—vulnerable.
"All part of the service." He grinned his toothpaste smile and threw another chunk of driftwood onto the fire. "We go the extra mile—'I'm Marc. Fly me'. You know?" He tilted his head and regarded Napoleon from under thick, dark lashes.
American Airlines just had to come up with a better strap line. "Maybe some other time." His shoulder was throbbing and he tried to settle it more comfortably.
"I guess I'll just have to wait then." The green eyes flared briefly. "But not too long, I hope."
Napoleon closed his eyes against a sparkle of pain and groaned inwardly. "Hey, don't be shy. Just come right out and say it, if you're trying to make a pass at me. I sometimes miss subtlety."
"Well as long as we both know what we want, then..."
A piece of driftwood collapsed sending up a burst of sparks. Napoleon's eyes shot open.
"Whoa, there. Rewind a minute. Let's just check that out, shall we?" The pain made his voice sharper than he'd intended. "You've just come on to me with all the delicacy of a herd of wildebeest and..."
"And you haven't acted outraged or tried to punch my lights out," Marc said calmly. "So what gives?" Napoleon took a moment to try to marshal his thoughts. Unsuccessfully, as it turned out.
Marc leaned closer to him. "You're Family, right?"
"I—ah..." Napoleon wondered vaguely when this conversation had got away from him.
"So—what, then? You don't flirt on duty? Didn't stop you with Adele, did it?"
"I..." his sluggish brain wouldn't cooperate. Marc continued without a pause.
"Nah, I can read you, Napoleon. My antenna is never wrong, remember? You're like me; you thrive on it. Anything with a pulse, right? Well, in my case, it needs to be in pants too, of course..."
"Now just..." Indignation began to penetrate the sluggishness.
"I know it can't be because you find me unattractive, so it must be something else."
"Maybe you're afraid your partner might be jealous. That's it—isn't it? He looks the jealous type. Beautiful, blond but I bet he's a bitch if he doesn't get his own way, right? I sure as hell wouldn't want to have to face those muscles, however magnificent. Well I would, obviously—who wouldn't? All that Russian passion, huh? But not in a fit of jealousy..."
Napoleon would have sworn his hand moved of its own volition. He back-handed the steward across the face and his vision dimmed at the resulting blaze of pain from his injured shoulder.
"... the fuck?" Marc wiped the blood from his split lip and stared at him in shock. He looked as though he might burst into tears.
Abashed, Napoleon deflated as guilt pricked him.
"Marc... I'm sorry." He stuttered wearily. "I didn't mean..." He tried again. "I don't know what..."
Marc eyed him warily. "Well that struck a nerve didn't it?" the steward said quietly as he wiped his bleeding mouth again. Napoleon fished a handkerchief out of his pocket and passed it to him.
"Your oh-so-pretty Russian must be jealous as hell..."
"No." Napoleon's anger flickered again and he tried to curb it. Dammit, what the fuck was wrong with him? He'd been in far worse situations without losing his grip. "No. Marc, first of all, Illya is not my partner—at least not in the sense that you mean. We're working partners. Good friends." The best. "We watch each other's back in the field." I have your back... Marc continued to dab at his mouth with the handkerchief. "So you don't have sex with him then?"
Napoleon's brain seemed to freeze as Marc's eyes pinned him, and the moment for the easy lie passed.
"You do have sex with him?" The steward's brow furrowed. "Wait. Let me get this straight, if you'll pardon the expression. Illya isn't your 'partner' but you do sleep with him?"
Napoleon sighed. His shoulder continued to throb and his head ached. "It's complicated, Marc."
"What's complicated? Marc paused and sighed. "You swing both ways; you sleep with your field partner, but not exclusively, and he isn't jealous. No problem." He shrugged. "I'm not offended if you don't want to sleep with me, Napoleon. Maybe when we get out of this I'll take Illya for a test drive instead..."
He thought he'd felt rage before but found that he was mistaken. "You..." he choked out and felt his fists ball.
Marc's eyes widened and Napoleon saw comprehension dawn there. He himself remained resolutely unenlightened.
"Shit!" Marc paused. "You're right, Napoleon, it is complicated." The steward shuffled a bit. "Why didn't you say you're in love with him?"
The air began to seem a bit thin on oxygen. "You're crazy," he wheezed. "Love? I'm not in love with anyone, least of all Illya."
"Says you." Marc snorted. "He isn't the jealous one. It's you."
"You're denying it?"
"Of course I am! It's the most ridiculous thing I've..."
"Tell me you didn't feel jealous the last time Illya slept with someone else."
Marion. He'd felt nothing. Well maybe a little exasperation that Illya had chosen such an annoying bed partner. He allowed a touch of smugness to creep into his voice. "I didn't."
"Yeah, right. What did he look like?"
"She was blonde, petite, reasonably well-stacked..."
Marc rolled his eyes. "OK, scratch that. Tell me what you felt the last time Illya slept with another man."
"What? Doesn't sleep with other men?" Marc's face took on a knowing look. "How do you know?"
Napoleon felt his gut clench. He opened his mouth to speak but was shocked to find he had no words.
"Right." The steward regarded him for a moment and nodded slowly. "Hurts, doesn't it?"
Napoleon rubbed his hand roughly over his face. Between the fatigue and the pain and his anxiety about Illya's whereabouts he felt his grasp on reality becoming perilously fragile. He let his head droop onto his chest. Eventually Marc broke the silence.
"So, Napoleon, when did you first have sex with your partner?" he said softly.
Vienna; twelve months previously...
They barrelled through the door together, laughing and gasping, and Illya flung himself onto the bed. Napoleon locked the room door and leaned back against it, his chest heaving. He grinned at his partner in disbelief.
"Russian film director?"
Illya's eyes sparkled blue and improbably huge as he laughed—actually laughed—out loud. "Irish racehorse trainer?"
"Well I think I was pretty convincing."
"Your accent was execrable—as always."
"You had an unfair advantage. Russia is in your genes."
"Ireland is in yours."
"Ah sure and bejabers..." A pillow hit him square in the chest.
"Do not further massacre the dialect of your ancestors, Napoleon, or I will not be responsible for my actions."
"That a threat?"
"I do not make idle threats, Napoleon. You should know that, by now. I always follow through."
"Yeah? You and whose army, Kuryakin?" He flung the pillow back at his supine partner and immediately followed it, the feint allowing him sufficient advantage to straddle Illya and pin him to the bed.
"Oof... Get off me you great lump. The potato famine was clearly a myth as far as your ancestors were concerned... ow!"
Napoleon grabbed his partner's tie. "What? You're impugning my sainted forebears now?"
"I'm sure even their well-fed thighs were not as beefy as yours, Napoleon."
"Beefy is it? Russian brat..." He met the laughter in his partner's eyes—and allowed his own to be held by the intensity of their blue depths.
And that was his first mistake.
His second was allowing his gaze to drift downwards to the incongruously full lips. The tip of Illya's tongue was sliding over them leaving them glistening in its wake, and Napoleon caught his breath. He found his pelvis grinding down of its own accord, to be met halfway by an answering thrust. Illya was as hard as he. There was silence apart from their panting breaths. He looked back to the blue eyes; except, they were now almost black, the irises all but obliterated. Dear God...
He swallowed. "Illya?" It came out as a harsh whisper.
One tawny eyebrow shot up and suddenly large, deft fingers were miraculously inside his pants, fondling and tugging and drawing him out. He gasped as the cool air whispered around his heated flesh, and then moaned as he was gathered firmly against Illya's matching silk-hard tenderness. So good...
"Napoleon?" Illya chuckled, eyes shining.
He nodded, beyond speech.
And it had been stunning. Fully clothed, in a tiny, nondescript hotel room and he'd never had sex like it. So unbelievably, fucking good. Afterwards he'd plummeted into oblivion and woken later, hot and sticky and with his arms full of Illya, more at peace than he'd felt in all his years with U.N.C.L.E.
The respite couldn't last, of course. The realities of their work soon swept them up again, as the world teetered on the brink of annihilation. And every so often the yearning would peak and one of them would hit the switch on that incredible roller-coaster. And afterwards they'd find themselves once more safe and sated and ready to deliver whatever their organisation asked of them. It allowed them to function at the level they needed, in order to cheat death and THRUSH and the rest of the world's megalomaniacs.
In that sense, sex with Illya, whoever else he took to his bed, had become essential to Napoleon's life. He wondered idly what Illya thought about it. He'd never asked him. They never talked about it—it just happened. And it went on happening. Whenever one asked, the other responded. And in all the heat and the passion and the breathless stickiness—not one kiss. Not one. Unless he counted—Napoleon's heart thudded as he recalled the chaotic moments in the aircraft cockpit as they'd plunged towards the ground.
He shook himself free of the vivid memory and found Marc watching him carefully. He ignored the question in the green eyes and tried to coerce his mind to focus.
"Marc, how far do you think we are from the sandbank?"
The steward gave him a long look before replying. "The one we landed on?" Napoleon nodded. Marc shrugged and shook his head. "Hard to say. It's dark, there was a lot happening."
"Well how long, then? Between us losing the tether and landing here."
"I can't say—really, Napoleon."
Napoleon bit back his frustration. "Marc, you were awake. I wasn't. Take a guess."
The steward looked around as though he expected to see a sand bar materialise out of the shadows. "I... I'm not sure, Napoleon."
"A minute? Five? Ten? Half an hour...?"
"No. No, not that long. Maybe a minute or less."
"No." Marc's voice was becoming tetchy. "I'm not sure at all, but you wanted my answer and that's it."
Napoleon listened to the water crashing along its course some thirty yards beyond the life raft. Less than a minute, but the river was in spate. How far would they have come? He cursed the darkness. Charlotte was right, of course. They could do nothing until daylight and precious little then, given the harsh terrain and his incapacity. He shook off his momentary doubts in irritation. Illya was normally the pessimistic one.
A rustling in the shadows beyond the firelight startled him. Marc gave a cry of alarm and fumbled in the folds of the blanket for the flashlight. Snapping it on he swung the beam towards the source of the noise. It was reflected momentarily from a pair of huge dark eyes—set in the delicate face of a small deer. There was a flash of white as the animal turned and fled into the vegetation.
Marc glanced at him with a rueful smile and snapped off the flashlight once more. As Napoleon willed his pounding heart to calm he let the surge of adrenalin rouse his sluggish thoughts. Deer. There'd be trails through the vegetation, then. Trails he could follow. Trails that would lead him to Illya. He glanced up, impatient for the dawn. The sky was as dark as ever. He sighed.
"Marc, why don't you go try to get some sleep? I'll finish the watch."
With a look of intense relief, the steward nodded. He scrambled to his feet and headed off into the shadows. Napoleon barely noticed him leave, his attention entirely with the images that were sleeting through his mind.
A long time later, as he became aware of the first noises of the wakening jungle, he finally corralled his wayward thoughts.
And was startled by what he found.
Charlotte handed him two painkillers and a cup of water.
"You'll need these, Mr Solo." She frowned. "And don't even think of refusing. I don't want you passing out on me again. I may be tougher than I look but I can't carry you and your partner back to camp."
They were at the life raft, finishing preparations for their search for Illya. Marc and Nick were still asleep inside. He gave her a grateful smile, as much for her tacit assurance that they would find Illya as for the meds. The doctor gathered her makeshift medical kit and stuffed it into a pack, together with a couple of Illya's knives and a canteen of water. Adele handed her a couple of candy bars.
"Here," she said. "We don't have much, but we do have these."
Napoleon kept his voice casual. "Just what do we have left, Adele?"
She shook her head and shrugged. "Two pre-packs, six candy bars, a dozen individual packs of sugar, salt and pepper, some tea, coffee and miniatures of spirits."
She nodded. "The water we've had this morning is boiled river-water."
He patted her shoulder reassuringly. "Well, we'll see if we can't find some venison out there for supper." He hefted the AK-47 onto his shoulder.
"Napoleon?" a sleepy voice murmured.
He turned to find Nick, bleary-eyed and sleep-tousled, yawning behind him. He laid a hand on the boy's head. "Hey, buddy. You sleep well?" Nick nodded slowly.
"Are you going to bring Illya?"
Napoleon nodded. "Uh-huh. Dr Charlotte and I are just about to leave."
"Can I come?"
Napoleon smiled. "Not this time, little buddy." He forestalled the protest he saw forming behind the unfocused eyes. "I need someone here to watch over the camp until we get back. Marc took the watch last night and has to sleep now." He could almost feel Adele's hurriedly-suppressed smile behind him. "Can you take the day watch, Nick?"
The eyes slowly came into focus and Nick beamed at him. "Sure thing, Napoleon." He paused and Napoleon watched thoughts chase across the boy's face. "Say, Napoleon?"
He wondered what was coming. "Uh-huh?"
Nick's eyes drifted to the weapon slung over his shoulder. "Don't I need a gun or something?"
Perplexed, Napoleon appealed silently to Charlotte for help. She rummaged in the pack and came up with one of Illya's smaller knives. "Here, Nicky," she said handing it to him. "This is one of Illya's best knives. Maybe you could shave us some kindling if things get too quiet."
Nick's mouth opened in an 'O' of reverence as he took the weapon slowly with both hands.
"Wow!" he breathed. He looked up at Napoleon. "Tell Illya I'll take real good care of it until he gets back."
Napoleon couldn't help but grin at the earnestness in the boy's face. "I'll tell him, Nick." He turned to Charlotte. "All set then, Doctor?"
She nodded and they set off towards the back of the small beach. As they reached the dense vegetation she moved ahead of him. He frowned.
She stopped and turned. "Mr Solo, it's very difficult to push through this stuff even with two good arms. Besides I'm used to moving around in this terrain." She laid a hand on his good arm and looked up at him. "Let me help. Please?"
He sighed. "Lead on, Doctor."
The animal trails allowed them reasonably free movement through the vegetation but their direction was haphazard along the foraging routes. He spotted Charlotte making obvious slashes at head height as they moved through the vegetation. He smiled to himself.
"Were you by any chance a Girl Scout, Doctor?"
"They're called Girl Guides where I come from, Mr Solo," she called over her shoulder. "And I was thrown out for smoking."
He chuckled. "Doctor, I'm appalled."
"So were my parents. My father made me smoke one of his cigars." She hacked a flash on another tree. "You can probably guess the rest."
"Mmm. Been there."
Trying to keep the river close on their right was an impossibility, and once or twice they were entirely out of earshot of the muted roar. After an hour Napoleon's arm was throbbing despite the meds and he was soaked in sweat. He tripped over a partially-hidden root and was unable to suppress a whimper at the flare of pain as his shoulder collided with a tree trunk. Charlotte spun round.
He closed his eyes and leaned his back against the trunk, breathing heavily as the pain subsided to its familiar throb. "I'm OK, Doctor," he panted. "Just give me a minute." The thought that they might be only yards away from Illya burned in him.
Something cool touched his forehead and he opened his eyes to find Charlotte pressing a damp cloth there. She handed him the canteen. "Drink," she said firmly. "We need to replace what we're sweating." He took a sip and then a swig. It was bliss.
"How far..." he began.
"Have we come? Probably not quite a mile," Charlotte said re-corking the canteen. He groaned. "It's difficult to tell in this terrain," she continued. "These trails are all over the place but they're all we have. The only way we'll get to the river is where they do."
Napoleon swore under his breath. At that moment he'd have sold his soul for a helicopter. Even the offer of a ride to THRUSH central with the egregious Harry Beldon would have been a start. Charlotte pointed ahead of them.
"If it's any consolation, all the trails seem to be heading to the right just ahead." He tried to see where she was indicating but to his untrained eye the jungle looked more dense than ever. "The understorey gets thicker straight ahead. See?"
He nodded. "Ye...es, I think so."
"Well, the trails dip away to the right just before that."
He grinned at her, suddenly energised and unaccountably certain that Illya was close. She handed him one of the candy bars but he shook his head.
"Save it, Doctor."
"You need to keep up your strength, Mr Solo," she admonished.
"You don't know my partner, Doctor. When he wakes, he's like a bear until he's had food." He nodded at the candy bar. "We may need to throw this at him and then retreat to a safe distance until he's finished feeding." He grinned at her bewildered frown. "You think I'm joking? Come on." Moving off ahead of her, he lengthened his stride.
The trail widened as it was joined by others and, after a few hundred yards, dipped down sharply. The noise of the river became louder and within moments Napoleon caught sight of it through the dappling branches as it foamed and crashed along its way.
They emerged, panting, from the undergrowth at the top of a steep but low bank, and his heart gave a lurch as he spotted their makeshift cable hanging from a tree yards away from where they stood. There was no sign of his partner.
He scanned along the bank in frustration and then glanced across the river itself. The sand bar on which the aircraft had landed was gone, swallowed by the roaring torrent. He turned on the spot, his gaze probing the shadows for the slightest hint of movement.
"Illya!" he yelled, then louder over the noise of the river, "ILLYA!"
Nothing but the roar of the water answered him. Fear gripped him then, cold and irrational. Fear that they were too late; that Illya was gone—drowned or worse; that it was his fault for not hanging on to the cable; for not planning better; for not being a better agent, a better person; for not eating his greens or praying hard enough in Sunday School. But his greatest fear was that this was a loss he might not be able to sustain.
Frantically he began to look for a way down the steep bank. It was impossible with one arm out of action. He tried to untie the cuff from around his neck. Charlotte put a hand out to stop him.
"Get this off of me," he snarled, wrenching at the knot in a futile attempt to free himself.
"Get. This. Off. Me." Charlotte flinched away as he grabbed the pack from her shoulder and shook its contents onto the ground. Snatching up Illya's remaining knife, he brought it up to his neck and caught sight of her horrified expression as he did so. As he sliced easily through the silk tie, it dawned on him how he must have appeared. Mortified, he began to mumble an apology as he eased his wounded arm down and began to flex the fingers back to life.
His head snapped up at the urgency in her voice and he caught her incredulous expression as she pointed above him into the low canopy. He followed her gaze and almost choked on a breath. Some three feet above his head, wedged securely into the V of a tree trunk, Illya's lax body slumped at an impossible angle.
Napoleon pledged his soul to any deity within earshot and stretched up for him. He steeled himself against a spear of agony from his shoulder, and then in a confusion of limbs and foliage he found himself on his back in the undergrowth, pinned by the solid warmth of Illya's body, his partner's barely-perceptible breaths puffing against his neck. Alive. He thanked all generic deities and hoped they'd let his soul out to play on weekends.
Charlotte knelt next to them. "Here," she said, uncorking the canteen and pushing it towards him. "Let me check him over, Mr Solo." With an economy of effort she rolled Illya until he lay beside Napoleon and then began to examine him deftly. "His neck seems OK," she murmured. "Can you sit him up a bit?"
He manoeuvred them so that Illya was sitting between his outstretched legs, leaning back against his chest with his head on Napoleon's shoulder. It hurt. It felt wonderful.
"He's dehydrated," she said frowning at Illya's cracked lips and sunken eyes. "We need to get fluids into him as quickly as possible, and we can't do that as long as he's unconscious." She sat back on her heels and smiled a little wanly. "Do you mind if I leave that to you?"
He sighed in relief at last. "No, Doctor," he said. "I don't mind at all."
Someone was stroking his hair. His head ached and there was a loud buzzing in his ears. He felt moisture trickling over his lips and tried to catch some on his tongue; which barely moved. Someone had clearly replaced it with a lump of wood whilst he slept. He tried to open his mouth wider and felt his lip split.
He opened bleary eyes and saw the woman doctor kneeling some way off, smiling. He was cradled securely against a firm torso, water drizzling over his cracked lips. Ignoring the sharp sting from the split he craned bird-like towards the silvery trickle and was rewarded by a mouthful of cool sweetness.
"Tsk—always so greedy." The voice was soft; elated. "Take it easy or you'll choke."
Napoleon. The scent was inimitable. It filled his nostrils. He tried to inhale more of it and succeeded instead in breathing in a mouthful of water. K'chortu. Not wise. Eventually he got his choking gasps under control. The hand was back, stroking his hair and he closed his watering eyes to bask in the sensation.
"Now if you'd minded your manners that wouldn't have happened." A hint of amusement.
He tried to grunt a sharp response but couldn't coax a sound from his parched throat. He settled for a wary shake of his head but gave up on that too as it seemed to upset the angry wasps in there.
"Here," he felt himself eased upright and settled more firmly against the broad chest. "Try some more, but slowly—I said slowly—this time." Napoleon's voice was wry. "Otherwise you'll finish what the river failed to do."
Obediently he took a small sip and swallowed, then filled his mouth again, rinsed, gargled and spat. Better. He reached for the canteen himself and drank more deeply. Nectar. As the noise in his head began to abate, the canteen was eased away from him.
"You might want to leave a little of that for the return journey, tovarisch. And for those who so selflessly came to your rescue. Again."
He opened his eyes and turned to glare at his partner. At the sight of Napoleon's pain-pinched features, the sharp retort died on his lips. He took in the scratched and grimy face, the limp arm and slumped posture. Napoleon was uncharacteristically a mess and looked about all in. The eyes that held Illya's were aglow with triumph, though. Illya felt his own spirits soar and suppressed a grin. They'd done it again.
"Don't let success go to your head, Napoleon," he croaked. "We still have to get out of here."
Napoleon grinned at him then, and he felt something quite complicated happen inside his chest. For a moment he wondered...
"Mr Solo," the doctor's voice startled him; he'd forgotten she was there. "Will you cope if I immobilise that arm again before we return to the others?"
Napoleon made a face. "I'm sure I'll manage, Doctor, if my partner here doesn't require me to carry him back to camp."
"It's a kind offer, Napoleon," said Illya, injecting as much sarcasm into his tone as he could, "but I'm sure I'll be able to walk. Despite being hauled unconscious from a tree to plummet heavily to the ground I think I, and my bruised ribs, remain relatively unscathed."
The doctor gave a snort of laughter.
"In fact," he continued, "it might be better if the doctor were to immobilise both your arms." He stood and snatched up the AK-47 from Napoleon's side, hefting it over his shoulder. "She and I would then be certain not to be accidentally shot, pushed into the river, stabbed inadvertently, or otherwise injured by your clumsiness."
Napoleon sighed and rolled his eyes. "Here, Mr Cranky," he said, rifling through the pack and tossing him a candy bar. "Maybe this will sweeten your disposition." It was unwrapped and in his mouth in a second. Aah... bliss.
"Do not think you can win me with such trifles, Napoleon," he said around a mouthful of chocolate. "What about the roses? A dozen is traditional, I believe." He watched Napoleon's eyebrows shoot up and leaned in closer. "I expect dinner—at least—when we get home."
He stepped back and popped the last of the candy bar into his mouth, closing his eyes as he savoured the richness enveloping his tongue. When he opened his eyes Napoleon was staring at him, slack-mouthed. Holding his partner's gaze, he slowly sucked each chocolatey finger into his mouth, licking them all clean. He had the satisfaction of seeing his partner's Adam's apple bob reflexively, before the doctor moved across him to begin reattaching the remains of the makeshift sling.
Their return to camp had been mercifully uneventful and relatively swift, aided by the markers she'd placed on their outward journey. She'd observed the two exhausted U.N.C.L.E. agents closely, intrigued once again by their extraordinary symbiosis. It was clear that, despite their debility, they remained uncannily attuned to each other; the support never far when needed, but never overt. Even their barbed conversation was all of a piece.
She'd insisted that Solo rest on their return and was gratified that he went without demur. Kuryakin had stayed with him until he slept and then taken a rifle and, without a word, made his way back into the forest. An hour later there had been a single shot and he'd returned eventually with a small deer. Much to Nick's delight, he'd allowed the boy to help as he proceeded to skin and butcher the carcase. They'd eaten well that evening thanks to Adele's culinary skills.
Charlotte sat for a while staring into the fire after the others had retired. Memories of the loss of her eldest son hovered in her mind. Drowned at the age of eleven, Robin's death had hit her husband hard. Now he too was gone. She found she'd slept little since Estefan's death and despite a gnawing fatigue, had no urge to close her eyes. A movement next to her caused her to look up to see the Russian hovering at her shoulder.
"Would you mind if I joined you, Dr de Sanchez?" he said.
She smiled up at him, enchanted by his china-blue eyes. "I'd be delighted, but only if you'll call me Charlotte." She paused. "Unless of course you'd prefer us to remain on formal terms, Mr Kuryakin?"
He lowered himself in one smooth movement to sit cross-legged next to her. "Illya, please," he said inclining his head. "It is hard to remain on formal terms with someone who has saved one's life—twice—Charlotte. And I have been unbelievably remiss, so far, in not thanking you for that."
"I think perhaps you should thank your partner," she said with practised diffidence. "He was the one who did the hard work."
"Napoleon and I have an—understanding," he said. "It is a given that we each will save the other, no matter what the cost,"—there was an almost-smile—"and whether we wish to be saved or not. And we never say 'thank you'." He shrugged. "It has worked for us so far."
She looked at him, so earnest before her. She took in the unruly mop of white-gold hair, the lean body and the torn clothing. Dear God, he looked so young. And yet, if what he was saying was the truth, this was far from the first time his life—and that of his partner—had been in peril. She realised she was staring and felt herself blush.
"Forgive me," she said. "I was staring. That was rude of me."
"Not at all," he said, and then surprised her. "What were you thinking?" For some reason the question didn't seem intrusive. She tilted her head slightly to consider her answer.
"I was just thinking how young you look." He blinked. "I'm sorry," she said with a rueful grin. "The curse of middle age is that all policemen look about twelve years old." She forestalled his correction with a smile. "Even not-exactly policemen." The smile she got in return twinkled.
"I suspect I am rather older than I look," he said. The silence began to draw out and she filled it.
"Your English is very—English, Illya," she said. "Not American, I mean." She knew she was beginning to sound inane and shook her head. "I'm sorry. I'm not very good at small talk, I'm afraid. There was never much use for it at the clinic."
She was rewarded with a smile that could have lit up the sky.
"Napoleon tells me I have no small talk," said Illya. "He is also fond of making fun of my accent." He paused. "I did my doctorate at Cambridge."
"Really? My son, Jaime, is up at Cambridge. He's reading maths."
"Indeed?" He seemed genuinely interested. "Which college?"
"And what did you study for your doctorate?"
"Quantum mechanics." He gave her slow smile. "See? Together we're doing small talk. Imagine that." She began to relax. "Where did you study medicine?" he continued.
"Edinburgh, and I spent a year in Vienna too before the war." She shuddered inwardly, guilty at her good fortune in leaving when she had; at the fate of friends who were less fortunate. He didn't seem to notice her momentary distress. Or maybe he was more perceptive than she thought.
"Vienna is very beautiful," he murmured with a half-smile, as though remembering.
"Before Cambridge, I studied at the Sorbonne, in Paris. Paris too is a beautiful city." He fell silent and seemed lost in thought as he stared into the fire's dying embers.
"Well, Illya," she said eventually. "It seems we have much in common. We don't do small talk, we like our English to be just that, we have fond associations with Cambridge. We're practically related." He laughed and she knew he was being polite. He moved as though to rise and suddenly she was desperate for him to stay.
"How long have you and Mr Solo been partners?" He froze in the act of rising and then slowly settled back. He gave her an appraising look then continued.
"Just over four years. More or less since I moved from London." He seemed to be waiting for her next question. It popped into her mind from nowhere.
"How long have you been..." she sought frantically for a word, "together?" He looked startled and she thought for a moment that she might have gone too far. Again he surprised her.
"We aren't 'together' as such, Dr—Charlotte. It's just..." He coloured slightly and looked down. "It's complicated."
"Yes, I can see it's complicated, Illya," she said, "but it certainly isn't 'just' anything." She dared to lay a hand on his forearm. "Illya, forgive me, but I've seen the way you two are with each other."
He shook his head, his face shuttered. "Charlotte, Napoleon and I work well together. We're a good team; some would say we're U.N.C.L.E.'s best..."
"I'm sure you are," she said, interrupting him. "I was there when the two of you dealt with the highjack, remember? But I've also seen much more than that; the way you always watch his back, take the harder task, let him sleep longer when you change the watch..."
He cut her off insistently. "Napoleon is the senior agent, Charlotte. I..."
"What about the way he cared for you after the crash, Illya? And when we found you this afternoon?" She laid a hand on his arm to forestall his interruption. "There's no need to try to explain that away, Illya. I saw." She watched the blue eyes become defensive.
"Then you'll have seen the way he is with Adele..."
"Poppycock!" she snorted, feeling unaccountably reckless. That's basic humanity, Illya. He gives her just what she needs to get through this; a suave, sophisticated knight in shining armour who will slay her dragons for her—or, in fact, her crocodiles. It's much the same as the compassion you're showing young Nick Harrison." She saw his eyes widen. Good. Maybe she'd just surprised him. He opened his mouth to speak but she ploughed on wildly.
"I saw the way Napoleon was when you nearly drowned. He was almost beside himself. It was as though his own life were ending in front of his eyes." She took a deep breath. "He loves you. I haven't had one conversation with him that hasn't included a reference to you. Even when you're not with him you are. And it's the same with you."
She watched his jaw drop and raced on heedlessly. "My son, Jaime—the one at Cambridge; he has someone like that. His name is Malcolm. When they're together there's the constant awareness of each other that I see in you and Napoleon. The connection's almost tangible. My son's eyes sparkle when he looks at Malcolm the way yours do when you look at Napoleon." She sighed as the moment came back to her in vivid recollection. "I'd noticed it for almost a year before they came to me and told me. Told me they were in love with each other. It was such a relief to know I hadn't misread the signals."
She glanced up at him, seeing the alarm on his face. "Oh yes, Illya, I notice these things. I notice them because it's the way that Estefan and I were for twenty-five years." She felt her throat closing and hurried on to finish whilst she still could.
"It isn't 'just' anything, you silly boy, whatever you tell yourselves. And the only complicated thing about it is that neither of you appears to be able to admit that you're in love with each other."
She gave an inelegant snort and found to her horror that she was sobbing. She wrapped her arms round her knees in a futile attempt to stifle the huge hiccoughing gulps. Her greatest fear was that, now she'd finally started, she might never stop.
After a moment she felt the reassuring weight of a hand beginning to rub gentle circles over her back, and the solid presence of a body next to hers as he leaned in to support her. She became aware of his voice, low and soothing, although she couldn't distinguish any words.
Some time later her breathing became calm once more. She sighed and wiped her face on her sleeve. He immediately released her.
"Thank you... I—I'm so sorry..." she stuttered and was surprised to hear him huff a soft laugh.
"No, Charlotte," he said, "I am sorry. If Napoleon were here he would undoubtedly have about his person, a pristine handkerchief to offer you to wipe your eyes and blow your nose." His expression became grave. "You must have loved your husband very much," he murmured.
"Yes," she said, "I did," and found to her astonishment that she was smiling. She looked up at him to find that he too was smiling; that softly enchanting smile that had captivated her when she first saw it. "I did, Illya. And that gave meaning to every one of our twenty-five years together." She clutched his arm and shook it fiercely. "Don't ever diminish what you have with Napoleon." Suddenly she felt exhausted. "Forgive me, Illya," she said. "I'm not usually so ill-mannered with strangers."
The soft laugh came again. "Please, do not worry, Charlotte. You weren't," he said. "Whereas I often am, or so Napoleon tells me." Standing with the same economy of movement she'd noted in him previously, he looked down at her and smiled—shyly, it seemed. He held out a hand and assisted her to her feet, guiding her towards the life raft. "Goodnight, Charlotte," he said inclining his head in a half bow. For a moment she thought he might kiss her hand. "And thank you."
The massive crocodile was bearing down on him, its open maw an endless black tunnel. As it moved inexorably towards him it began to make a muffled two-tone sound. He found this profoundly annoying and so he punched it hard on the nose to teach it a lesson. It blinked at him then rolled its eyes and shut its jaws with a snap, but the sound continued. He came awake with a gasp just as the noise stopped.
"Open channel D. Kuryakin." Illya's voice was low, just outside the tent. He struggled into a sitting position and rubbed a hand over his face trying to gather himself.
"Mr Kuryakin? Where are you?" Waverly's blessed, imperious tones crackled out of the communicator. "Is Mr Solo with you?"
He stuck his head through the flap and in the chill dawn light saw Illya hunkered down next to the life raft.
"Yes sir, more or less," Illya raised an eyebrow at him. "But I'm afraid I can't tell you exactly where we are," he continued, glancing round as though he expected a signboard to emerge. "Somewhere along the Orinoco I think."
"That's all right, Mr Kuryakin," Waverly continued. "We have an aircraft in the area. Now that we have a signal, they'll triangulate a fix on you at any moment."
Napoleon yawned and shivered and clambered out of the life raft, crowding next to his partner for warmth. That got him a glare but at least Illya didn't move away. He risked a tentative snuggle as Waverly continued.
"What's your situation? Report please."
"There are six of us, sir. All well, although Mr Solo is a little—under par." Illya flashed him a smug grin.
Waverly harrumphed. "Nothing too serious I trust?"
Napoleon drew the hand holding the communicator towards him. "I'm fine, sir, thank you. Since he's slept so much this trip, Mr Kuryakin has very kindly volunteered to complete the report on our return." He flinched, losing his balance as Illya dug him in the ribs.
"I look forward to it," said Waverly drily. His voice became hesitant. "Incidentally, I've had contact from a Dr Devereux asking..."
"Her son is safe and well, sir," Illya interrupted. "And we have Dr de Sanchez and the steward and stewardess from the flight here too."
There was a pause. "I see. Well I daresay the rest will be in your report, Mr Kuryakin. Oh by the way, Mr Solo..."
"Miss Pogue sends you her best. Waverly out."
It took Napoleon a moment to remember who Miss Pogue was.
48 hours later
After their debriefing they'd divided the honours of giving their fellow survivors the post-mission tour of U.N.C.L.E. headquarters. He'd volunteered to take the doctor and Nick whilst, unsurprisingly, Napoleon had elected to escort the two airline stewards. Nick's parents, waiting anxiously for news of their son, had joined them but Charlotte had politely declined, being booked on a flight to Heathrow that afternoon.
Given all that he'd been through, it was perhaps predictable that Nick would be overwhelmed by everything he saw. And if his hand surreptitiously crept into Illya's when he thought no one was looking, well that was just fine. When Waverly presented the boy with one of his de-activated badges bearing the number one as they left, he rallied sufficiently to manage a small 'wow'.
Illya sighed and gave up trying to tune out the muted conversation from across the room. He was tired, jumpy with unspent adrenaline and his concentration was getting a little frayed at the edges. Most of the report was complete, apart from what little fine-tuning he could coerce Napoleon to lend a hand with. He was now simply grinding his way through the routine post-mission forms in Waverly's office. He ran his hand through his hair and flipped the pencil between his fingers.
At the sound of a liquid giggle he looked up and was in time to catch the look of open adoration on Adele's face as she gazed up at his partner. Napoleon was perfectly attired in a dark pinstripe accessorised with toning black sling. Illya allowed his eyes to linger on him. It was inhuman. Forty-eight hours out of the steaming jungle and he might have just strolled in off Madison Avenue. Marc was clearly as susceptible as Adele, the naked hunger in his eyes shameless. The steward's eyes suddenly shifted his way and Illya found himself pinned by a glittering green gaze, full of the promise of any sexual favour he cared to mention. And probably a few he didn't.
He swallowed. It wasn't enough. He realised it had never been enough.
A snap made him jump and he looked down to find the pencil in two pieces on the desk in front of him. The buzz of conversation stopped and there was a harrumph from across the desk where The Old Man sat, signing off the letters of commendation for the two airline operatives.
"I trust that is an indication that you have completed your report, Mr Kuryakin?"
He felt his colour rising. "Almost, sir." His tone was remarkably even. "However, I find I have need of some data from my office." The heat reached his ears as he stood and scrabbled the papers together.
"On my desk in the morning, please."
"And please go easy on the pencils. We aren't made of money you know."
"Of course, sir." He risked a quick glance at Napoleon who was regarding him thoughtfully from the refuge of the window alcove. "Would you excuse me?"
He fled from the office with as much dignity as he could muster.
Napoleon handed her out of the elevator into the plush corridor. The hotel was high end, courtesy of U.N.C.L.E. As she moved ahead of him towards the door of the suite, he admired the soft swell of her hips under the scarlet silk. She'd declined the offer of dancing after their dinner at one of his favourite restaurants, opting instead for a 'nightcap' in the suite. He caught her up, taking the key from her hand and opening the door ahead of them. Her flight bag was just inside the lobby and he gave it a cursory check before sweeping the room from long habit. Satisfied, he allowed her to precede him and locked the door behind them. She turned as she dropped her wrap over the back of the sofa and her glance was shy yet full of intent.
"Would you pour us a drink?" she asked. "I won't be a moment."
"I'll be counting the seconds," he murmured with an appreciative glance that was just too much effort to sustain once the door to the bedroom closed behind her. He wondered vaguely why that should be, as he crossed to the bar in the corner and began to fix them a martini. He was tired, sure—tired and wired, but no more so than after any difficult mission. Sighing, he closed his eyes and rolled his head on his shoulders as he stirred the pitcher then poured into two glasses, savouring the tinkle of the ice.
Ice. Frozen vodka. Illya. His groin filled and the pitcher clattered against a glass. Damn.
The door opened behind him and he spun with an unaccustomed sense of guilt. Adele had changed from the scarlet sheath into a short, ivory silk robe that perfectly outlined her nipples where the full breasts tented the fabric. He'd have bet she wore nothing underneath. Her hair was released from its chignon and flowed softly around her shoulders and down her back in thick waves. She really was an extraordinarily beautiful woman and the vision immensely desirable. So Napoleon wondered why the tightness in his groin was dissipating. He swallowed and pinned a seductive smile in place as he carried the frosted glasses towards her.
"I guess that qualifies as something a little more comfortable," he murmured, allowing his eyes to rove over the voluptuous curves. She smiled up at him as she took the proffered glass and held his gaze as she sipped. He cupped her cheek. "I think we both deserve a little comfort after what we've been through, don't you?"
She shivered a little and nodded and he guided her towards the sofa, watching as she settled herself against the cushions in one corner, curling one foot underneath her like a little girl.
"Mmm, thank you. You fix a mean martini, Napoleon."
"So I've been told." He loosened his tie and set down his glass on the end table. "It's only one of my many talents." It was a long time, he reflected, since a seduction on his own time had required so much effort. He reached for her glass and set it beside his own. "Let me share another with you."
She was warm and willing and came into his arms with the briefest of sighs. He found her mouth with practised ease, noting that she'd taken the trouble to remove most of her lipstick. He set about removing the remainder and allowed his hand to slip beneath the cool silk to cup the warm softness of her breast, tweaking the nipple to hardness. She moaned against him and her lips opened to his tongue. Her perfume enveloped him and her hand found its way boldly to his cock causing a quick reassessment of his strategy. Bolder than he'd expected, then. He found himself beginning to stir again. Good. He could do this.
He investigated the softness of her mouth, running the tip of his tongue over large, even teeth and drawing further interested little sounds from her. She sucked on his invading tongue and his groin responded with interest of its own. The small hand explored him tentatively. As he came to full hardness, he suddenly longed for something larger, firmer and more assured. He permitted himself a small thrust against the hand and got a nervous laugh in return.
"Napoleon," she giggled. "So impatient."
He pulled back, frustrated, and cleared his throat. "Ah, sorry."
She took another sip of her drink and then tossed it down in one. As though emboldened by the liquor-hit, she surged forward and knelt astride his hips, unfastening the front of her robe before settling herself against him. His cock gave a definite twitch. Dark eyes locked onto his.
"Are you going to make love to me, Napoleon?" she breathed and then her mouth was on his and she rocked herself against the burgeoning hardness at his groin. He closed his eyes and gave himself over to the familiar sensations building in him, grasping her full buttocks as he thrust up against her. This was what he needed. Adele gave a delighted giggle and rocked more insistently against his fabric-covered hardness. The delicious friction drew a gasp from him.
He'd have bitten his tongue out if he'd known that was coming. His unprecedented indiscretion appalled him. Adele froze and from her horrified whimper he knew denial wasn't an option. She scrambled from his lap, clutching the thin silk across her breasts and with a sob ran for the bedroom and slammed the door behind her, leaving him stunned and wilting.
With a groan Napoleon thrust his head into his hands and finally admitted defeat.
He paid off the cab and turned up the steps into the building. He couldn't remember when he'd last arrived home from a date before midnight. On another occasion, the doorman's raised eyebrows would have been a comical acknowledgement of the fact. Heading for the elevator, he gave the man a rueful smile.
As he waited for the car to arrive, he squirmed at the image of Adele's incredulous face. He doubted that the dozen red roses and note of apology he'd arranged to be delivered before leaving her hotel could begin to assuage her bewilderment and anger.
The elevator dinged its arrival and he stepped inside. His hand hovered over the penthouse button—and moved lower in sudden decision.
Illya caught his breath and closed his eyes as the icy fire hit the back of his throat. The image burned into his retinae smiled softly and the ache in his throat doubled. Opening his eyes he took another mouthful of the frosty liquid, draining the glass and refilling it with a clatter from the rimed bottle on the table next to him. In the half-light of the apartment, lit only by the faint glow of street lighting, he felt disconnected. The sensation was not unfamiliar.
Detachment worked for him. All he needed he had, most of the time. And for the times he hadn't—well... he caressed the neck of the bottle, half expecting it to purr. And he knew with a sinking heart that he was perilously close to losing the control his non-involvement gave him. He took another belt of the liquor.
At the first knock, his heart surged against his ribs in a moment of wild hope, only to fall back in disappointment as the expected familiar pattern failed to transpire. He was startled to find his P38 in his hand with the safety off. With a mental shrug he took up position behind the door listening. The knock came again.
"Illya? It's Marc."
Disappointment rolled through him. Not what he needed, and certainly the last thing he wanted. The steward was persistent, however.
"My flight was cancelled. May I come in?"
He took a steadying breath, disarmed the intruder system and unlocked the door. Marc was leaning against the jamb with studied insouciance, his flight bag over his shoulder. Green eyes raked Illya as they'd done a lifetime ago before the crash.
"My seat disappeared at the last minute," he continued. "Customers come first," he held Illya's gaze, "as they say."
If it hadn't been for the vodka he'd have slammed the door in the oh-so-winsome face. K'chortu, if it hadn't been for the vodka he wouldn't have opened the door in the first place. He glared at the steward and stepped back, holding the door open and not bothering to conceal his drawn weapon.
He was gratified by the transient look of alarm in the green eyes as Marc stepped over the threshold, eyeing the Walther. "Expecting someone else, were we?"
"I wasn't expecting anyone," he gestured with the weapon. "I am suspicious by nature." He closed the door and holstered the weapon. "May I offer you a drink?" he said, flipping on the lamps and heading into the kitchen for the other of his two glasses. "Vodka?" He turned round to find himself nose to nose with his uninvited guest.
"I'll have what you're having."
He thrust the glass at Marc's chest and stepped around him. "You will, or nothing at all since it's all I have."
He made his way back to the sitting room. Snatching up the bedewed bottle of Stolichnaya once more, he poured himself a healthy slug, then tossed it back and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand, gasping slightly. Without a word, he held the now half-empty bottle out towards the steward, who grimaced.
"Don't you have any orange juice?"
Illya shook his head. "As I said, this is all I can offer you."
Marc sighed and held out the glass. "Well I'll take what you have, then." Illya poured him a measure and topped off his own then sat on the sofa, directing Marc to the easy chair opposite. With only a moment's hesitation the steward complied. Once seated, he sniffed the drink and then took a small sip.
There was an explosion of coughing and Illya removed the vulnerable glass from Marc's hand before it could be spilled. He watched the steward's streaming eyes and efforts to breathe, with a certain amount of malice. Finally taking pity on him, he set both glasses down and moved to clap his visitor hard between the shoulder blades. Eventually the paroxysm ceased and Marc's breathing began to return to normal. He glared at Illya and then wiped his eyes.
"What the fuck was in that?"
Illya merely shrugged in response and took a mouthful of his own drink. He regarded the now slightly rumpled steward evenly. "Why are you here, Marc?"
"Not for your comprehensively-stocked bar, for sure."
Illya drained his glass and set it on the table. At last a familiar, mellow warmth began to wash into his limbs. He settled more comfortably against the sofa cushions. "So. Again—why are you here?"
"Why do you think I'm here, Illya?" He was held by the limpid green gaze. "My flight is cancelled, Napoleon has a date with Adele—what am I to do at," he glanced at his watch, "eleven thirty at night? Oh wait—maybe there's someone else who's alone and in need of some company."
Napoleon was with Adele, then, and he had no right to be jealous. No right at all, because partners were emphatically not jealous of their partner's women. Even partners who had sex with each other from time to time to scratch an itch; to burn off adrenaline; to reaffirm life after a too-close encounter with death—again. No reason, then, for the bitterness that rose in his throat.
Marc stood and moved across to the sofa, eyes glittering, lips moist and parted. Illya recognised the look of hunger and felt a tickle of alcohol-induced recklessness. Marc stepped closer until Illya could almost feel the heat from the distended groin inches from his face. He closed his eyes and breathed in the scent and suddenly the easiest thing in the world would be to lay his face against it and rub at the hardness there; to succumb to the tickle; to surf the adrenaline wave. To be fucked into oblivion—blessed release from the tightness that threatened to crush his chest.
His eyes flew open at the sound of a zipper and suddenly Marc's swollen cock was inches from his face. He shut his eyes against the sight, pulse pounding, and was almost overwhelmed by the smell of the musk.
"Suck me," Marc crooned and Illya felt a hand on his head. "You know you want to. Suck me and I'll make you feel so good." The voice was slightly breathy and Illya felt his own cock stir in response. "You want to fuck me?" Marc continued. The hand began to card through his hair. "You can if you want. Or maybe you want me to fuck you. I promise you won't be disappointed. We'll be so good together. Come on, Illya, he's with Adele..."
It felt as though he'd been sucker-punched.
In one movement he shook off the hand and surged to his feet, barrelling into the steward and staggering towards the kitchen. He made it to the sink, thankfully, before he threw up—vodka and bile only. Nothing else there. Turning the faucet on full he rinsed his mouth then dipped his head under the flow and sluiced it thoroughly. He came up gasping—as he heard an oh-so-familiar rapping on the apartment door.
This time the rising swell in his chest would not be disciplined. Snatching up a tea-towel he rubbed it roughly through his dripping hair and headed for the door. He'd have thought his desperation unseemly if he'd been aware of it.
The door opened and he was confronted with the incongruous sight of Illya with a towel round his neck, dripping everywhere. His gun was holstered and he was panting slightly, dishevelled in all the best ways. Nobody did dishevelled like his partner. He suspected that THRUSH repeatedly tried to dismantle him just to get that look. He chuckled.
"Well if you'd told me you were washing your hair we could have arranged another..." He stopped as his eyes fell on the flight bag tucked against the wall. The twin of the one he'd just left.
He ought not to have been shocked by the jealousy that burned through him. His mouth was suddenly dry and he couldn't look at his partner. He began to turn to leave. "I guess I miscalcul..." The breath whistled from his body as he was slammed against the wall and pinned there by 150 pounds of solid Russian. "What the...?"
Illya's eyes were flint. "Did you?"
"You didn't?" The eyes softened.
"No." His heart was trying to escape through his ribs. He dropped his eyes. "I couldn't."
"Good." A sigh and then the pressure against his chest eased and Illya's big, skilful hands were cradling his head and the thumbs were gently caressing his cheekbones. "Neither did I."
And then—oh God—that firm-soft mouth was inches from his and he could feel the soft puff of vodka-flavoured breath against his lips and finally Illya kissed him. It was simple and unequivocal and it was nothing like the last time—the only time—Illya had kissed him and it was perfect and so blessedly familiar.
Belatedly he joined in, sucking the insistent tongue into his mouth and holding it there, as his hands moved down to grasp that perfect gymnast's ass. He squeezed. One of them groaned and it flared a surge in his groin. An answering hardness thrust against him and he lost control of his knees. He was held securely, though, as he'd been throughout every moment of their partnership. His ears began to sing and drew back his head slightly, desperate for oxygen.
"Illya," he breathed against the fullness of his partner's mouth, and then began to devour it self-indulgently. He was mildly surprised when the Russian let him. Coming up for air again, he glanced down.
No airline bag.
He met his partner's eyes and Illya merely shrugged and kicked the apartment door shut before moving in to plunder his mouth once more. It was intoxicating. Eventually he felt Illya shiver and opening his eyes realised the blond hair was still dripping wet.
"Here," he murmured. "Let's get you dry before you catch your death."
Illya shivered again as his partner took his elbow, guiding him into the bathroom. He suffered himself to be seated on the edge of the bath and watched in the mirror as Napoleon took up a towel and rubbed the moisture from his hair then finger-combed it into place. Their eyes met in the mirror and his partner stilled.
"Would you have?"
"Tonight?" Illya held his partner's gaze for a moment and then gave what he hoped was a casual shrug. The flash of hurt in Napoleon's eyes made him hurry on. "But it would not have been enough. It would never be enough, Napoleon."
His partner nodded slowly. "And this," he waved a hand between them. "This isn't enough for you either, is it?"
Illya dropped his gaze. "I am glad of what we have, my friend."
He felt a hand lift his chin until their eyes met once more. "So am I, partner mine, more than you know. But that wasn't my question."
"It's the one I'm prepared to answer," he said, pulling away. Napoleon caught him and turned him back.
"Illya—why won't you trust me?"
His chin came up and it was all the warning he needed to give. Napoleon tried a different tack. "Over the past four months, with you, I've been having the best sex ever. Ever. Period. And I think you have too."
"But now..." his partner's voice tailed off and then Illya's shoulders were grasped firmly. "You're right," Napoleon said with sudden conviction. "It isn't enough. Not any more." Illya watched the memory of pain flit across his friend's face and found his own fingers moving gently, feathering across the troubled features to stroke it away. Napoleon leaned into the touch and closed his eyes. "I saw you die, tovarisch. It... it changed me. Changed what I want."
"I thought we already had what you want, Napoleon," he said, unfamiliar emotion allowing the peevish tone to bleed into his voice. "Great sex, no complications..."
His partner opened his eyes and shook his head. "Not with you. Not any more."
Despite the warmth from the vodka he felt suddenly cold inside; off balance. "Are you saying that you wish this to stop?"
"What?" Napoleon's face was incredulous. "Stop? No! Is that what you want?" The grip on his shoulders was on the edge of pain and his partner's eyes bored into him. "Is that...?"
An enveloping bear-hug crushed the breath for any further words from him and Napoleon sighed against his ear like a hurricane. "Thank God."
"Shut up and let me finish." He was held at arms' length as Napoleon finger-combed the damp hair back from his forehead. "I'm in love with you, you stupid Russian. Don't you know that?"
And something inside him leapt and cheered as he realised that, yes—actually—yes. He did know that. The unaccustomed joy made him dizzy. Or maybe it was the vodka. The fingers continued to pet his hair.
"What were you thinking, Illya Nikolaievich?"
He came back to himself with a start, startled into honesty. "Oh... I... was afraid that you might not want to have sex with me any more, Napoleon."
That got him a chuckle and a kiss on the forehead. "I don't. Ever."
"You don't? What...?" He caught his breath, off balance again.
"Nope." A nibble on his earlobe. "But I do very much want to make love to you." A nip under his jaw. "Very, very much. Come to bed."
And his mouth was captured in an uncompromising kiss.
They tumbled onto the bed laughing, familiar. His jacket had been lost somewhere in the living room, his tie by the bedroom door, their shoes a trail that ended by the bed. Napoleon buried his hands in blond silk and dragged his partner's mouth down onto his, exultation coursing through him. It was transformative—finally to admit to his feelings.
Buttons pinged against the dresser as he lost patience and pulled Illya's shirt roughly from his shoulders. There was a mild grunt of protest. He grinned against his partner's mouth.
"Just be grateful you weren't wearing one of those damned turtle necks."
"I like them," Illya panted and then moaned as Napoleon nipped and sucked hard at the base of his neck. "Ow! And besides, if you continue to be so careless with your teeth I'll need to wear them even in the showers."
Napoleon chuckled then gasped as his own shirt was pulled from him and disappeared, closely followed by his trousers and shorts. Teeth grazed a nipple and he arched from the bed at the jolt of pleasure that sparked in his groin. There was a moment of delay as his partner skimmed off his own trousers and underwear and then he was blanketed again by Illya's warmth, skin on skin.
"God, you feel good," he murmured as he licked a convenient ear. "So good."
Illya squirmed against him, settling their genitals close together, and began to move, slowly, rhythmically. Napoleon clutched his partner's hips against him, matching him thrust for thrust and was rewarded by a moan.
"Ahh, yes... lyubimyi..."
He caught his breath and squeezed his eyes shut.
The thrusts became more urgent. Illya's mouth mapped his face, peppering it with soft little nips and kisses. This was new. On the previous occasions they'd had sex together, their wild passion had been all about adrenaline and release; neither had dared this degree of vulnerability. Now Napoleon was bombarded by a tenderness he'd never known Illya possessed. It was as powerful in its own way as the underlying roughness that was pushing him inexorably towards the edge. Dear God, if he'd thought he'd had stupendous sex with his partner in the past, it was nothing to the feelings he was experiencing now.
He groaned as Illya rolled off him and his cock, already weeping with pre-ejaculate, was expertly pumped by skilful fingers.
"Ahh... more, please..."
Paradoxically, Illya stilled. Breathing hard, Napoleon tried to focus on the face hovering above him. The Russian's eyes were huge and there was a fine sheen of sweat on his face. He dropped a brief kiss onto Napoleon's mouth then sat back on his heels, head canted to one side as he regarded him, panting. His partner's fully-erect cock was improbably, beautifully thick and Napoleon's mouth was dry as he suddenly knew what he wanted. What he'd never wanted in his life before. What they both wanted.
He swallowed, and held the intense blue gaze as he reached for his partner.
"Fuck me." The steadiness of his own voice astonished him. "Please, Illya? I want you inside me."
The smile he got was incandescent and a moment later his arms were full of squirming Russian and his mouth was engulfed. Abruptly Illya withdrew, leaving him gasping and harder than he'd ever been. With a last nip to Napoleon's chin he slipped out of bed.
Momentarily bereft as his partner padded to the bathroom, Napoleon searched himself for qualms over what they were about to do. He found none. Nothing but an aching desire to be filled, and a confidence that in this, as in everything else they did together, they'd be matchless. He looked up and caught his breath.
Returning from the bathroom, Illya was limned in the glow of the light from the living room, impossibly perfect. He paused under Napoleon's regard.
"You are far, far too beautiful to be a spy, Kuryakin." Napoleon shook his head in mock disbelief. "It's a good job I have your back."
Illya snorted and rolled his eyes.
"I think I may have to call you Mata Hari—oof..." The breath whooshed from him as Illya took a flier from across the room, landing astride him and pinning his arms by his head as he brought his mouth close to Napoleon's ear.
"Do so and I think I may have to make you pay." The whisper was tinged with just enough danger to remind him exactly which Russian bear he was baiting here. "After all, 'Filthy' worked out so well for you before—remember?" He shivered as a warm tongue plunged inside his ear. It was followed by a sharp nip to his earlobe that made him gasp. "Now, are you ready to behave and play nicely or will your lesson in discipline begin straight away?"
Oh God. Napoleon's eyes closed on the image—and flew open again as something cool and slick touched his anus. Illya's finger, coated with whatever substance he'd retrieved from the bathroom traced gentle patterns over the opening and then Napoleon's breath was taken from him again as, with a sudden pressure, the thick digit slipped into him. He arched up reflexively with a moan.
"Shhh, it's OK," Illya crooned against his ear. "I've got you. It's OK."
His partner's weight shifted off him and the finger moved deeper, twisting and opening him. His heart was already beginning to pound when his re-awakening cock was suddenly engulfed in warm wetness. He was unable to suppress a cry as the quick tongue swirled around the head and Illya began to suck in earnest as his finger—no wait—two fingers now, surged in and out of him.
He buried his hands in his partner's hair once more, needing to have some illusion of control as he felt himself begin to come apart. Dear God, how had he ever imagined he'd be the sexual virtuoso in this partnership? Rock hard once more, he felt his balls begin to tighten—and then suddenly the warm wet suction was gone.
He blinked at a touch on his face and found himself staring up into a gaze of such warmth that it took his breath away.
"Turn over for me, lyubimyi?"
He swallowed and rose to his knees, the fingers inside never leaving him, swirling and scissoring him open. Illya eased a folded pillow under him and guided him down onto it. As he settled into position, the fingers inside him suddenly touched something that had him bucking straight back up with a cry. He heard Illya chuckle softly behind him.
"Bingo...? Where d'you... ahh... yesss..."
The fingers found that spot again and he pressed back wantonly, desperate to drive them deeper. He gave a disappointed whimper when, instead, they withdrew. A moment later there was a relentless, slick pressure against his opening and something much, much larger and far hotter was moving inexorably into him. He tried to breathe through the impossible stretching sensation, willing himself to relax and allow this thing he craved more than anything he'd ever wanted before.
He became aware that gentle hands were feathering over his back and sides and there were soft Russian endearments in his ear. And then, finally, Illya's balls were resting against his.
There was a single sob and he felt a tremor pass through his partner. He cursed his inability to see his friend's face and reached back, desperate to reassure himself that all was well.
"You OK, tovarisch?" he gasped.
There was a sniff and a gust of what might have been a laugh or a choked off sob. "You feel—incredible, Napoleon. So...ahhh..."
The response to the squeeze of his internal muscles was all he hoped for. He chuckled as he relaxed once more. "Like that, huh?"
"Like...? I won't last a minute if you do that, Napoleon."
He chuckled again. "OK. I'll try and behave. How about moving in me a little... oh God..." he choked, as his partner withdrew slightly and then slid slowly home once more, finding the spot that his deft fingers had already primed. "Oh, babe, yesss..."
Illya began to move inside him with greater assurance. Strong arms drew him to his knees and a firm hand began to milk his cock, dragging a moan from him. The damp Russian litany continued against his ear, gradually becoming more ragged and breathless as the thrusts became more insistent. He knew he was close and felt the familiar tingle begin in his balls, and then suddenly his orgasm was tearing through him.
Without the support of his lover's arms he'd have collapsed as he hurtled over the edge, coming in great scalding spurts all over Illya's hand. Seconds later, he heard Illya growl as he too came hard, wracked with shudders as he spent himself inside Napoleon's body. Eventually they slid to the bed in a sated, sticky heap.
A lifetime later Napoleon opened his eyes only to have them gently kissed shut again and he laughed, breathless with the joy of it. Fingers were petting the short hair at the base of his skull.
"What? Fishing for compliments Kuryakin?" He sighed. "So unbecoming."
There was a chuckle. "Ah, yes, Napoleon. Remind me again about decorum whilst I get a cloth to clean up this mess."
The bed dipped as his partner headed off for the bathroom but Napoleon couldn't bring himself to fight the lassitude that stole over him. He wriggled just enough to move off the cooling wet spot and winced slightly at the stretch of muscles responding to unaccustomed activity.
"You did the babe thing again."
He opened his eyes to find Illya standing over him, eyes languorous.
"Oh. Do you mind?"
"If I ever hear you use it outside this room I may have to kill you." His partner leaned over and kissed him softly on the mouth. "Just don't use it at headquarters or I think Mr Waverly may have a stroke."
"If there's any stroking to be done, I'll be the one doing it." He fondled the tempting ass.
"So proprietorial, Napoleon."
He stilled. "It works both ways, tovarisch." His partner blinked at him. "I have your back, you have mine." He watched the realisation dawn on the Russian, and if he'd thought his smile incandescent before he'd been mistaken.
"In that case, I think you owe me one." Illya snuggled down next to him and drew up the blankets. "I'll allow you to pay your debt later."
"Arrogant Russian brat." He rolled in his partner's arms and kissed him hard. Finally, he came up for air. "We're going to need to run a tab."