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Chains Unbound

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Chains Unbound

Napoleon whistled as he walked along the streets of Istanbul. Mission accomplished, and quite successfully. Not without a few hitches here and there, but they were all alive, they had the information they came to get, and the other organization had some fewer of their people. The only thing left was the careful unbinding of their covers.

Since this mission had seen them through without their covers being blown, it behooved them all to keep them up until they could gracefully exit. An intact cover and strategic withdrawal meant a potential future return using the same covers later on. It was how they could keep contacts all over the world, and be able to slip into places as needed. New identities took time to be established – if you had one that had even a few years of background, it was a lot more believable to the marks.

With that in mind, Napoleon entered the hotel where Gaby and Waverly were staying and made his way to the bar.

At a table in the corner, Illya and Gaby were drinking and laughing together. They saw Napoleon and waved at him. Napoleon waved back and detoured by the bar to get his own drink before he joined them. As the barman was fixing it, Napoleon put his usual tip in the payment.

“What’s he having?” Napoleon nodded towards Illya.

“The usual,” the barman winked, pocketing the extra bill.

There was one person who would be sorry to see them all leave. Not only had they been meeting here for most nights for the last month, but Illya regularly bribed him to water down his drinks – paying full price for less alcohol and the hush money for it. Which the bartender took, but also took Napoleon’s money to keep him updated of the Russian’s tricks. And Gaby’s money to let her know about both of them. And Waverly’s money for the same. The waitresses and hotel clerks also regularly kept each of them appraised of the others, greased by tips.

Yes, the hotel staff would be very sorry to see them leave.

With a grin, Napoleon took his drink over to the table. “Ivan,” he nodded at Illya. “Georgia,” he put the glass down in order to take up her hand and kiss it. “As fair and lovely as usual.”

“Oh, look,” Illya said sarcastically, leaning in his chair, “it has been not quite a full day since last you were subjected to such flowery language.”

The funny thing about Illya’s persona was that Ivan was better at speaking English than Illya was. It made Napoleon wonder sometimes. When asked, Illya had shrugged and said he was using a Ukrainian accent instead of his normal Russian. Napoleon had pointed out that diction wasn’t an accent. Illya had ignored him. With Turkey so close to Russia, Illya didn’t stand out in particular, though the locals had initially been wary of him until they decided he wasn’t military but refugee. Courting Gaby had helped with that.

Gaby giggled at Napoleon and swatted briefly at Illya. “Some girls like flowery language, Ivan. You might try it sometime. Stan could give you lessons.”

Napoleon sat down and sipped at his drink. “I suspect our Russian friend would trip over his feet if he tried. Or his tongue.”

“At least the words I use are sincere,” Illya shot back, a grin playing around his lips belaying the harshness of the words.

Napoleon grinned back. After a month of playing their roles, everybody had gotten comfortable with the two disparate bachelors both paying suit to the lovely young guest. Their personas had gotten comfortable with each other as well, and it wasn’t unusual to see them in any combination together, which had been the point of the covers.

“Where is the old man tonight?” Waverly was posing as Gaby’s father – a wealthy British tourist and his daughter travelling for adventure. If there were questions among those who saw them as to whether they were really related or not, well, it wouldn’t be the first time a large tourist city had seen something like that. The team had carefully left it ambiguous, and Gaby didn’t bother to change her accent. Most of the time it was more general mixed European rather than German anyhow – showing her English had been learned on the go, rather than formally. And probably with some British assistance as well, carefully helping their sleeper spy while she was still under cover. Napoleon himself probably should have been more suspicious of the Scottish burr her voice had slipped into when he first met her, but he’d been distracted by finding Illya’s tracker and hadn’t given it a second thought in the midst of the extraction.

“Up in the room still, resting,” Gaby said lightly, but with a serious look in her eyes as she said it. “He should be down soon.”

The mission had seen Napoleon and Gaby unscathed, and Illya with what for him was a minor collection of bruises and scrapes and only two knife wounds. However Waverly had not come off so lightly. When they were still making no headway after two weeks and increasing amounts of frustration, Waverly had changed tactics and gotten them an in. He did it by exposing his underbelly and inviting the animals to the feast, ruthlessly laying bare weakness and opening up to exploitation. In the end, it had gotten him kidnapped and beaten, but that had led the other agents to the headquarters where they had entered, taken what they wanted, created havoc, and rescued Waverly and six other prisoners.

That was two days ago, and they’d been given the clear on the mission, making it a success. It still hurt, though, to see Waverly walking with a limp, and the darkness around his eyes which had yet to clear up. They were all agents, yet it was easier to be the one to take the risk then to let others do so.

The serious note was lingering, and to dispel it, Illya frowned at Napoleon’s drink. “Stanley, my American rival, what are you drinking?”

Napoleon’s mischievous side took center stage. Blandly, he replied, “Why, it’s in your honor, dear Ivan. It’s a White Russian.”

Napoleon raised his drink to Illya, and then took a large sip. Gaby went into peals of laughter as Illya sputtered in vain. There was a look behind Illya’s eyes that said he too wanted to laugh, but it wouldn’t be in character so he didn’t and scowled instead.

The waitress came over, attracted by the laughter and the tips that Napoleon usually left. Napoleon switched his flirting over to her, enjoying the long dark hair, well-formed breasts, wide hips, and open invitation that she gave. He hadn’t taken her up on it yet, being careful that Stan did not poach in the waters where he hoped to catch the golden fish. However, the mission being over and them about to leave soon... Napoleon let his flirting deepen a little, dancing a little closer to a hook. Any fish would do, at this point.

After the waitress left, his companions looked at him. Gaby was amused, perfectly in keeping with her cover – Georgia enjoyed seeing his flirtations, even as she enjoyed Ivan’s devotion. Just as long as they both kept coming back to her in the end. “I’m going to powder my nose, boys,” Gaby said, picking up her handbag. “Don’t kill each other while I’m gone.”

They both watched as she walked away, keeping her trim figure and swaying hips in their sight until she turned around a corner and disappeared from sight, a waggle of her fingers acknowledging their stares. Then they turned to each other.

“You should not be flirting with others,” Illya said disapprovingly, though without a lot of bite. They were all used to it.

“Ah, Georgie doesn’t mind,” Napoleon replied, leaning in his chair and scanning the bar to see who else was in.

“Which means she is not serious about you,” Illya retorted, nodding his head very slightly towards the far right.

Interesting. Waverly’s opium contacts were still there. If they had been truly connected with the larger group, they would have been swept up with the general uproar a few days ago. This probably meant that they were exactly what they seemed – drug dealers scouting the high-end hotel for tourists who were looking for something extra on the side. Their level of contact was exactly that, and they didn’t know anything of what had happened on the deeper sides – or what had happened to Waverly after they’d passed him up the chain. “All it means is that she’s not got the same stick that you do, my dear Ivan.”

Illya snorted. “I think that tonight, you will not.”

Napoleon didn’t see anything else of interest in the bar, though he did nod in greeting to several of the other regulars. “How do you figure that?”

With a half-smile that spoke of mischief, Illya made sure nobody was paying particular regard to them. Then he let the shutters up.

Without moving, Ivan changed to Illya, and not any Illya, but the Illya who had been in Napoleon’s bedroom five weeks ago. The Illya who knew Napoleon’s body, who had memorized it with fingers and tongue and body. This Illya swept Napoleon with a look that was a match to flame, arousing and stimulating, body memory reacting and desire flaring everywhere the gaze touched.

Napoleon gulped, his hand tightening around his glass. The two of them hadn’t slept together since then. They hadn’t quite been celibate – Napoleon had been bringing women back fairly often, both ones that he could get information from and others that just caught his eye, and very carefully men a couple times. Illya didn’t seem to mind, just getting barbs in as Ivan but not appearing to care as Illya. The mission had been more long and careful, instead of fast and exciting, and other than the final raid there had been a lack of adrenaline for most of the month. Which they could have gotten around if they’d really wanted to, but neither had tried.

On his part at least, Napoleon had also stayed away from anything deliberate, seeing if there were any repercussions from that day. He’d had his share of mistakes, and those who clung too long, thinking he’d meant more, though he was usually careful about that. This was different, because it was Illya, and because it was him. It wasn’t usually him. He’d planned on saying goodbye and never seeing Illya again. Working together again was something good, but also venturing into the unknown. He would rather have Illya as a partner than a lover, in truth, and so he stayed away from anything. Napoleon didn’t know what Illya thought. Illya hadn’t said anything, and didn’t try for anything. He didn’t even give Napoleon’s various conquests much of a second glance, like it didn’t concern him at all. Napoleon had even wondered a few times if what had been between them really existed or if it had been his imagination.

Neither of them had spoken, neither of them had done anything different. They had simply moved on, working together smoothly as they had before – more smoothly, in fact, as they got to know each other better and their strengths and weaknesses, learning to support and cover, and without the sniping there had been between them at the start. There wasn’t any tension between them this time around... just fires banked as they worked.

Banked fires... that were now uncovered. Napoleon took a sip of his drink, not losing eye contact with Illya. He’d forgotten. He’d forgotten just how hot those fires burned. Not his imagination. Illya raised his glass, but instead of drinking instead he mouthed the edge, lips tracing along the edge, pushing along the glass, a glimpse of tongue coming out briefly.

Napoleon swallowed. He was an expert at seduction, and he had to admit that the Russian was doing a very, very good job of it. He raised a hand to his tie and loosened it.

With a smile that said gotcha, Illya turned it all off.

After a few seconds of surprise, Napoleon opened his mouth to ask what that had been about. Then the waitress came by with the finger snacks that Napoleon had ordered. Napoleon thanked her absently, then shook himself mentally and returned his attention to flirting with her. And found, to his absolute horror, that it just wasn’t there anymore. All the delicious thoughts he’d just had about her breasts, the anticipation he’d had of kissing her... it was all gone, sublimated by memories of pale Russian skin with scars, strong muscles, a large hand holding his hip. He got through the flirtation on rote alone.

When the waitress left, Napoleon rounded on Illya. “You... you utter bastard!” he hissed, trying to keep his voice low, but his indignation and fury bubbling over.

Illya raised his eyebrows in question, pretending not to know what Napoleon was angry about. But he couldn’t keep it up and was soon laughing quietly. “The look...” he gasped, “on your face, Cow—” he cut the nickname off before it escaped, but didn’t stop laughing.

Not using the nicknames had been the hardest for them. Only three days of making and using them in Italy, but in those three days the nicknames had been ingrained into both of them deeper even than their real names. Both of them had been slipping up with the nicknames their first week in Istanbul, even after seeing the problem. Luckily, nobody had been paying attention to them that first week – other than Waverly, who had made a sarcastic observation and then left it to them to sort out. They’d finally stopped using them, but when they were particularly tired or comfortable, they still slipped. Now with the mission over and things winding down... Napoleon looked forward to being able to call Illya “Peril” again. At the moment, though, he was still annoyed.

“That was low, Ivan! Really low.” Napoleon seethed. There would be no taking home of any waitresses tonight. Nor any other female he knew. He could if he absolutely needed to, but there wasn’t any need with the mission over. This would have been for the fun alone, and that was now completely gone. He didn’t even care all that much about the waitress, or about having a bed warmer in particular – but he was absolutely mortified that Illya had been able to do that to him.

Even this anger had the same focus on Illya – Napoleon’s fury took the form in his mind of putting his hands on Illya and pushing him against the wall, kissing that smug look off his face, bending him over the table...

“What did I miss?” Gaby was back at their table, looking between an obviously amused Illya and a furious Napoleon and her eyebrows rose.

“Nothing,” both men replied in unison.

She looked between them again, the eyebrows not coming down. “Riiiight,” she said dryly, before sitting and stealing some of Napoleon’s food.

Illya gulped down the rest of his laughter, and tried to refocus on Gaby and the covers. “Georgia, if you’re free, I have two tickets to the Oriental Dance – belly dancer performance – night after tomorrow. If you would like.”

Napoleon shifted his expression to Stanley’s potential irritation at a march stolen by his rival. Though they had been alternating taking Gaby out for the last month, usually accompanied by a watchful Waverly... or each other. It had been a useful way to keep them in the public while letting other parts of the team out to roam and explore. It had also had the side effect of keeping Napoleon and Illya from being alone very often, as there had only been a few break-ins that called for their best working team. That, and the final one, which had been the most dangerous of the whole mission and not a point of dalliance.

Gaby’s expression shifted to what on the surface appeared to be real dismay. “Oh! Oh, my friends, I’m so sorry... We’re leaving tomorrow. I was going to tell you.”

Stan and Ivan exchanged looks just as dismayed as Georgia’s. “Tomorrow?” Napoleon asked, with the heartbroken tones Stanley would have used.

Gaby nodded. “Daddy decided it was time to go home. We’ve already been here longer than he had planned, and the business must be returned to.”

“You could stay...” Ivan suggested tentatively, looking like a lost puppy.

A slight smile, still sad. “I’m sorry. I have work as well. This has been truly delightful... I don’t know when I’ve last had so much good company.”

The thing to good acting was always to put some of the real person in the act, which all of them were doing quite well – even Illya, to Napoleon’s initial surprise. However, he thought that Gaby’s last sentence was said as equally as herself as her persona. She was truly settling into the spy business as if she’d been born to it.

Illya gulped down the last of his watered drink in a dramatic gesture. He then got up from the table without saying a word to either of them and strode to the bar.

Napoleon raised his eyebrows after him, then turned back to Gaby, entreating her to stay in as much floral language as he could. He was on his knees pleading when Illya came back.

“Save your breath for the old man,” Illya advised as he sat down and took a very small sip of his new drink. “If he is the one who has said it, he is the one we must talk to.” He carefully breathed out after the sip, letting it go in a controlled release.

Both Gaby and Napoleon looked at the glass that was half full of absolutely clear liquid and not Ivan’s usual anything for the last month.

Reaching out, Gaby plucked it from Illya’s hand and then drank. She quickly put it on the table while her eyes went wide and she fought to exhale instead of cough.

Napoleon’s eyebrows shot to the top of his hairline. Gaby was used to strong drinks. He couldn’t resist picking it up next, though with her reaction he was more cautious in his sip.

That... that was some pretty darn stiff vodka. Chilled, as the best vodkas were, and utterly smooth. It was the sort of stuff that even the heavy drinkers wouldn’t have more than three shots of before taste buds would be gone and the synapses to follow if any more was dared. Horrifically expensive, too, if Napoleon didn’t miss his guess. He took another sip just because, then pushed the glass back to Illya.

Illya gave his half-smile that was also a smirk. Because he usually watered down his drinks or didn’t drink at all, others tended to disregard him in the drinking, or think he was a light-weight, but the truth was when the chips were down or a mission was over, Illya was Russian born and raised and this sort of vodka was served at home with the meals, or in place of the meals. Usually cheaper versions thereof, though probably not less proof.

“Well, it looks like you chaps have found something interesting there.” Waverly’s dry British accent floated over them. As they turned to look at him, he reached for Illya’s glass and took his own sip. His eyebrows rose just like Napoleon’s before him. “How fascinating.”

Before any of them could say anything, Waverly had turned away and was striding towards the bar. His limp was less than the day before, but still noticeable.

The three left at the table exchanged glances but didn’t remark on it. Their boss had proved to be somebody who didn’t like coddling and wasn’t afraid to use his sharp wit and dangerous tongue to enforce his boundaries. Even when he needed it. After the rescue, Illya had been the one to take him in hand and see to his injuries and recovery, and Napoleon and Gaby were both glad of it and slightly ashamed of themselves for being glad. They would have stepped in if needed, but Illya had told them in no uncertain terms to stay out until he was done. Being field agents who were also very independent, they all understood what it was like.

Waverly wasn’t gone long, and when he returned, he had a bottle in hand and four stacked glasses. The hand holding the glasses shook slightly with the tremors that hadn’t gone away yet, but his grip was secure. “Since Georgie has obviously told you about our plans, I suggest we head up to my room for a farewell drink. If you’re amenable to that, chaps?”

What could Stanley and Ivan do but say yes? Napoleon and Illya exchanged relieved glances – they knew the necessity for finishing out the roles, but after a mission was completed, it was harder to do.

They gathered up the food and drinks, left a generous tip, and headed upstairs. Waverly and Gaby had rooms next to each other with a connecting door, but they more often gathered in Waverly’s suite.

Inside, Waverly waved permission to them, and Illya promptly took out his bug sweeper and went through the room quickly but completely. Even with Waverly and Gaby sweeping it each day, Illya liked to do his own checks. Napoleon was more of a trusting soul – trusting in Illya’s ability to catch anything that he himself didn’t plant.

There were only a couple of beeps and at each one, Illya verified that it was his own tracker and not a substitute. After the second day in Istanbul, Waverly had mockingly said that it wasn’t worth his efforts to keep dislodging Illya’s trackers, as long as Illya kept them to a minimum and made sure they would be undetectable to the bad guys. It forced Illya to change his tactics to less in numbers but more in stealth positioning. Napoleon had admired the creative places Illya could work a bug into and still have it be able to transmit. A fair amount of that was Illya’s own engineering – Napoleon had tried a couple of times with the standard ones he had, and while he could usually hide them, they didn’t transmit nearly as well or have the reach Illya’s did. Gaby had been learning from all of them, and while she wasn’t as gifted with electronics as she was with mechanics, she was determined and that counted for a lot.

While Illya was sweeping, Waverly went to his room and gathered up paperwork that he brought out to the table. Then with all preparations completed, he poured shots of the expensive vodka all around. “A few more days and we’ll all be on our way, thank goodness.” Proof that no agent liked sticking around after a mission. “Since we’re heading out on staggered times, and I still have some work to do in making the final arrangements back home, we’ll be meeting in Athens before flying together to England.” He handed them each a slip of paper with the address in Athens, and a second one as a back-up for the meet. There wasn’t any need to tell them they were expected to memorize both and then destroy the copy.

Ignoring the paper, Illya went very still, his hand stopping mid-way along the path for his drink. He relaxed after a moment, but everybody at the table could tell it was forced. “London, sir?” he asked, not quite casually.

“Hum,” Waverly looked at him over the rim of his glass. “No. London is too... crowded. And too much the home of the native intelligence communities. While we have been negotiating with MI6 as much as we have with the other agencies, UNCLE is not established well enough to share such close quarters. I’m not quite sure where we will be – probably York or Lancaster, maybe Glasgow. But it won’t be London.”

During their time in Istanbul, Waverly had filled them in on the new cooperative agency that UNCLE was – not beholden to any of the countries directly but rather working against those plots that were larger and more dangerous, as well as general foiling of crimes that crossed international borders. More than just a code-name, it was a full organization, and had authorization from most of the signatories of the United Nations, even if the UN itself was careful not to directly claim it.

Illya noticeably relaxed.

“Should we be keeping you out of London for the foreseeable future, my very special KGB agent?” Waverly asked dryly.

“It might... be best,” Illya replied cautiously. Then he shrugged, giving one of his half-grins, and sipped his vodka.

“So what mission are we on next?” Napoleon asked. His fingers itched to get back to work. This mission had had too much sitting around, even if the climax had been full of action.

“Rest and recuperation, Solo. That is the next mission.”

Napoleon and Gaby both made faces. Illya was impassive, though he did glance briefly to meet Napoleon’s eyes.

Waverly leaned in his chair and laughed at them. “What we’ll truly be doing is training. Young Gaby here can’t learn everything on the job, and we have several other newer agents that could benefit with a week or two of organized classes. You chaps, of course, need no additional training. However, if you wanted to look in on one or two of the classes, you have my full blessing to kibitz as you like. And if you see anything in the schedule that might need fleshing out and wouldn’t mind taking it on...”

Illya snorted. “One for Cowboy – how to break into fancy safes... and remember retrofitting for alarms.”

Napoleon raised his glass briefly. He was never, ever going to hear the end of that. “For Peril – bullsh—” he glanced at Waverly and hurriedly cut his word off, making a quick substitute, “spinning the yarns 101... making sure they’re internally consistent and the math adds up.”

Illya glared at Napoleon then turned a wounded look on Gaby, who was giggling. “I’m sorry, Illya – but really, I had to tell him. Gave birth at 65!”

“I believe the word you were looking for there was ‘codswallop’,” Waverly said dryly. “And yes, that’s the sort of stuff I meant, though for Kuryakin, perhaps along the lines of modifying trackers, and I dearly want your opinion of our labs.”

Illya perked up, his whole body going on point in anticipation. Then he deflated and turned more cautious, though he didn’t say anything.

Waverly sipped at his drink. “Any information that is proprietary to your respective agencies, of course, should not be shared. Many of the agents we have are in the same boat, as we recruited from all over. However, I dare say that that should give some leeway in your techniques and thoughts that are yours alone.”

Fiddling with the papers and envelopes in front of him, Waverly frowned down at them for a moment before returning his attention to them. “I realize you chaps are in a bit of a no man’s land as far as your positions between UNCLE and your agencies. We’ve been working on that. Well, my superiors and cohorts have been working on it, seeing as I’ve been here in Istanbul with you.”

“You have superiors?” Napoleon asked in surprise. He’d rather thought Waverly was in charge.

Waverly gave him a dry look. “I would hardly be in the field if I was kingpin. No,” he shrugged depreciatingly, “I do run the field agents normally, however when there are assignments that I can best fill, I am active as well and my second runs the agents. So I’ve had others running down your issues for me, and they’ve made a bit of progress there.” He tapped the papers meaningfully. “Neither of you are agents UNCLE would have originally looked to recruit – you’re too valuable to your agencies for us to have touched and had reputations of... hum, maybe we won’t go there.”

Napoleon wished he hadn’t stopped there – he really wanted to know. Grinning, he drank his White Russian, leaving the vodka for later as Waverly continued.

“However, your work with the Vinciguerra Affair, and now here in Istanbul, has proved to us your effectiveness in the field as an international cooperative team who can be relied on to keep the ultimate goal in mind and flexibility in that regard. Not without some hiccups here and there, but that’s to be expected in any mission.”

There was no denying that they’d done better here than they had in Italy. Italy had been a series of mess ups, despite the final triumph. Napoleon slanted a glance at Illya and Illya returned the look with the same sentiment.

“So, if you’ll have us, we would like to extend offers to both of you to join UNCLE.”

Two missions was not usually enough for an evaluation like that, but they’d been working with Waverly, and apparently Waverly’s opinion counted for a lot. Despite his protests that he was not in charge of UNCLE, Napoleon suspected that it was only by choice and his love of the field.

Waverly switched from the vodka to water. “Now let’s start with Mr. Kuryakin.” He sorted through the papers and passed a few of them over to the Russian. “We’ve been very careful with our negotiations with your agency so that you can have a choice. We will have no person working for UNCLE who feels obligated or does not want to work with us.”

Well, that let Napoleon out, what with his CIA bonds, his leash holding him tight. Bitterly, he took a large swallow of the vodka and felt the beginnings of numbness starting through his body and mind. He felt Illya’s gaze upon him, but didn’t look up.

There was a pause around the table briefly as apparently more than just Illya picked up on Napoleon’s mood, but none remarked on it, and Waverly went on after a moment.

“In general, the Soviet Union is eager to have agents with UNCLE. We operate outside of the nations and so are neutral to politics, which is rare in this time. They have... perhaps we won’t go there either. Let it just be said that we have been working for authorization for at least three agents, and both of us have been looking at seven. There will be no disgrace or repercussions from them if you do not want to work with UNCLE – we can arrange matters so it will not look like your choice but a matter of the draw. If you do want to, they will let you. Officially, you’ll be part of UNCLE, however if there are any missions that take us to Russia or any of the other USSR territories they ask for you to return to KGB for primary contact on that mission. Unofficially, they will still ask for reports, of course. Equally unofficially, we would like the chance to review them before you send them on. It will be a delicate balance for awhile.”

That was putting it mildly. Napoleon could see many different roads which that could lead down, and a lot of diplomacy needed to keep it working. He could, though, see the point of a country that had been shut out from many of the political powers wanting to keep good relations with an organization that was independent of them. Even here in Istanbul, it was obvious that their near-neighbor, Turkey, was fearful of the Soviet Union and even America across the ocean was courted for protection. Yes, the KGB would let Illya go in order to keep a hand with UNCLE. They would want to use him, but they wouldn’t want to push it too far, to keep that connection. The KGB wouldn’t be happy, but the political powers would make it happen.

“I will not betray my country,” Illya said softly, the danger that was within him letting through for that moment, giving a weight and intensity to his words.

“That, my dear Kuryakin, is why we want you. We do not want people who would turn on their own.” Waverly let some of his own predatory show through. His was not the sharp violence of Illya’s, or the deadly charm of Napoleon’s; instead, he was solid and sure and confident... and just as dangerous as them.

“UNCLE is not a separate nation, and we have no interest in politics unless said politics threaten the world. We are interested in people like Victoria Vinciguerra and the people she dealt with – that group is still hidden, though we have now thwarted several of their plans. Two World Wars have shown us we do not want a third.” He looked between both Illya and Napoleon. “It was your countries that saw the threat Vinciguerra posed and moved to act. UNCLE did not have a hand in that, other than our own agent that you picked up and took along for the ride.” He nodded at Gaby, who grinned back at him.

Gaby put her own word in. “UNCLE already had agents in place, working on it. You two are the ones who finally got through, not them.”

Napoleon still wasn’t too happy about their performance in Italy – he saw all the mistakes that he and Illya had made along the way, but in the end, they got the job done. The real job, not the one the CIA and KGB had assigned them. They had destroyed the tape, and no one got the technology. He gave Illya a little smile, telling him that he understood Illya’s position and he thought UNCLE did too.

Illya gave a brief nod, acknowledging Napoleon’s message. He wasn’t entirely satisfied, but he would accept it for now. He shifted through the papers that Waverly had given him, the flickering of his eyes showing that he was reading them and absorbing the contents quicker than most people would have credited. After a few moments, he handed a couple of the sheets back to the British agent. “You do not want Orlov or Litvina. They... would not be right fit for UNCLE.”

Waverly accepted the sheets back calmly. “Good to know. Thank you.”

Sitting back in his chair, Illya tapped his finger against the table. It wasn’t a particularly distressed tap, indicating an upcoming explosion, but it did indicate a certain amount of stress. The rest of him looked calm enough. One of these days, they would have to work on eliminating that tell. Napoleon grinned to think of ways which he could create some ‘stress’ for Illya to work through.

Illya shot him a glare, proving that Napoleon’s thoughts were apparent to at least his partner.

Napoleon raised his hand up to cough, covering his laugh.

With a shake of his head, Illya turned back to Waverly with his decision. “I need to see more of UNCLE. I know you. I know Gaby. That is not enough for a decision. You are... You, I can work with. You believe in this UNCLE. I do not know your superiors or other agents.”

Gaby gave Illya a quick smile. She’d been quiet at the table. A part of the team, but this conversation was specific to Illya and Napoleon and other than the one interlude she was carefully staying out of it, letting them deal with Waverly as senior agent of UNCLE.

Waverly nodded, satisfaction in every line of his body. He approved of Illya’s answer and was happy enough to show it as well. “Fair enough. The upcoming training courses should give plenty of opportunity, and we can go through the labs as well.”

That was the second time Waverly had mentioned the laboratories. Napoleon quirked his mouth before covering it with eating a finger sandwich. Illya was incredibly intelligent. There had been glimmers of that in Italy, and even more evidence here in Turkey. His physical prowess had him trained as a near-perfect field agent, but that was just a job for him. Illya only really came to life when he was tinkering with things, figuring stuff out. The specially treated film he’d used in Italy was his own making, and he regularly upgraded all their equipment. One slow night, he’d even taken apart Napoleon’s kit and replaced much of it or made notes and replaced it the week after. Apparently Waverly had noticed this as well. This was a brilliant move on Waverly’s part, to dangle more than just field work as enticement for bringing the Russian over. Napoleon had gotten the impression that for the KGB, the field work had always been first, and the tinkering something only permitted as an enhancement, not a goal in itself.

Wistfully, Napoleon reflected that he would have loved to see Illya let loose, free to be what Illya wanted to do, released to follow his own interests and not just orders and missions. He strongly suspected he wouldn’t actually see all that much he could understand – like when they were going through the shipyard turned to aerospace industry and Illya recognized all the machines in there and Napoleon just scratching the surface of what they were – but watching Illya would make up for what he didn’t know. Or would have, if he himself had been free to go to UNCLE. No chance of that, though, and he hated having to tell Waverly it.

“Now, Mr. Solo,” Waverly turned to him, his gaze losing the satisfaction and instead turning serious. “Your case is, in a nutshell, more difficult.”

That was certainly one way of putting it. Napoleon leaned back in his chair, his sardonic face on, covering the pain. “The CIA will not let me go.” That was definite. He might be loaned out, the first time by accident, the second by some sort of deal Waverly had made, but they wouldn’t do it a third time. He had hoped when he thought they were going to be discussing a new mission... but no, if they were talking full transfer, it was impossible. The CIA would lose their hold if they let him go.

Next to him, Illya shifted in his seat so he could watch both Napoleon and Waverly at the same time. Napoleon refused to look his way, not wanting to meet Illya’s gaze. Gaby was staying very still in her chair, her attention, like Illya’s, on both Waverly and Napoleon. He didn’t think she knew what Waverly was going to say – she didn’t have that expectant look she usually had when she’d been briefed before them, which had happened a fair amount on this mission what with their respective roles and living quarters.

“Rather.” Waverly tapped his fingers on the envelope in front of him. He was still frowning. “As I said to Mr. Kuryakin, UNCLE wants agents and employees who want to be with us, who believe in what we’re working for, and who do not feel... compelled... to be part of UNCLE. We are very much in disapproval over what the CIA has done to you, and it is very much to your credit for how well you have performed in such circumstances.”

Napoleon forced himself not to react beyond a raised eyebrow and a sip of the vodka. People had said better and worse to him, and he wouldn’t let himself read anything into the words beyond that. He waited.

“Yes, well.” Waverly sighed. “We discussed the matter with the original members of the task force that, er, tracked you down ten years ago, those we could find, and they too were not very happy. It had not been the intent of the coalition for the CIA to use you in that fashion.”

That took Napoleon rather aback. They had talked to the international team that had captured him? He well believed they didn’t approve of the CIA turning him into a spy, since, after all, he had been used as a spy against many of their countries over the years. But what good would that do?

“In fact, none of us are really quite sure whether the CIA had any right to make that sort of deal, considering none of your crimes had even taken place in the United States.”

That wasn’t entirely true, but if Waverly didn’t know of them, Napoleon wasn’t going to tell him. It was true that none of those had been in the original list at his bargaining trial.

“You have friends, Mr. Solo. Many friends. Your work in the field through the years made contacts that you have been smart enough not to torpedo. We got together and spoke to the governments, and... well...” Waverly pushed the thick envelope over to Napoleon.

Warily, Napoleon picked it up, most of his attention on Waverly. It wasn’t like the older agent was going to pull a gun and shoot him, but he didn’t know what was up, and he didn’t like uncertainty. He much preferred being ahead of the game instead of behind it.

The envelope wasn’t sealed. Inside it were several more papers tri-folded with the contents interior, each in heavy-weight paper and some that felt a little thicker, like there were seals on them. He pulled them out, handling them like they might be venomous snakes. Before opening any, he ruffled through for a quick count. Thirteen of them, whatever they were. A baker’s dozen.

Napoleon hesitated a moment more, then opened the first one.

It might as well have been a gun that Waverly had shot him with.

Reeling, Napoleon opened the second and third... One by one, he went through them all. Then he drank the rest of his vodka in a single shot. He noticed only afterwards that his hands were trembling. He fought to keep his control, to stay cynical, to be the perfect spy and gentleman. It was hard. So very hard. He’d never been tested like this before.

Illya made a very quiet sound, bringing Napoleon’s attention back to the table. He looked up to see Illya’s worried eyes upon him, and a promise for support if Napoleon needed it. Or maybe he was reading more into it then was there. Either way, it made Napoleon take a deep breath and steady himself. He could face this.

He flipped through the papers again, choosing a couple to study more carefully. He was experienced with forgeries of all types and these looked authentic. He would have to do research to make sure of it. But he didn’t think Waverly would give him forgeries. They had worked together for over a month, and he had seen the older agent under all sorts of circumstances by now. No, these were probably real. Napoleon closed his eyes, trying to absorb it.

When he opened them again, he pushed the pile at Illya, while he focused on Waverly. “You will give these in return for my working at UNCLE?” Napoleon managed to get out, his voice steady despite the shock.

“No!” Waverly sounded horrified. “They are yours. Absolutely yours. Whatever you decide. They are not...” Reaching out to his glass with fingers that shook as Napoleon’s had, Waverly drank then put it down again. “If you have to,” the British voice turned calmer, “you can think of them as payment for services already rendered.” Waverly grimaced, his distaste for that interpretation clear. “I prefer to think of it as righting a wrong. But the other was probably the tactic used for some of the governments, I admit.”

Next to him, Illya was sorting through the papers with as much intensity as Napoleon had. An inhale of breath was all that the other agent had given when he read the first and realized what was there.

Napoleon drummed his fingers. “The CIA allowed this?”

“The CIA has nothing to do with this,” Waverly said fiercely. “We will, of course, inform them. But you will note that one of those was from the United States government. We don’t have any knowledge directly of... er... liberated art from the States, however, we do have plenty of evidence of your long service and good performance.”

Gaby leaned over to Illya, wanting to look at the papers. Illya turned one so she could read it, but didn’t let her have them directly.

“You are free,” Waverly said softly, “to do what you will. Whatever you will.”

Free. Napoleon hadn’t been free in a very long time.

“I need to think about this.” Napoleon got up from the table and turned towards the door. Beside him, Illya folded the papers quickly, putting them back in the envelope, and offered them to Napoleon again. Napoleon paused for only a moment, then he shook his head, motioning for Illya to keep them. They would be safer in Illya’s hands right now than his own.

Illya nodded, acknowledging the request. He put the envelope in his inner jacket pocket, the one with the special lining and seal that would protect against most water damage. He motioned briefly towards the door and then to himself. Napoleon nodded, not even needing to think about it. Then he left.

Behind him, he could hear the scrape of chairs as the others all stood, and Gaby’s brief objection to being held back by Waverly, but then Illya reinforced it and she stayed.

He walked out and down the stairs, all the stairs. Illya followed one flight behind him. When Napoleon left the hotel and started walking, Illya was a block away. Close enough in case there was anything Napoleon needed, but far enough from him that Napoleon could be by himself to think. Protection against the things that went bump in the night – the usual sorts of thieves and muggers in a big city after dark, in addition to any possible lingering revenge for their actions. Just because they thought they got away clean didn’t always mean they did. Napoleon could let Illya worry about those sorts of thoughts while he thought about his own.

Freedom. Napoleon didn’t even know what that was anymore.

Thirteen pardons, from thirteen different countries. Clemencies from some of them. Amnesty. Immunity. Punishments commuted. Whatever they called them. Thirteen countries. A couple of which he hadn’t even robbed anything from. Of the original task force, all countries were there except for France.

Napoleon grinned briefly. France was apparently still angry at him. Of course, he still had many of the paintings and some of the statues as well that he had stolen from those museums and private collectors in his last few excursions. Some of the private collectors had been pretty high ranking government officials. He hadn’t had time to fence the pieces before his capture and they were still tucked away in their various hiding places where he had stored them after the initial jobs. It was why the CIA hadn’t ever sent him to France in all these years, and UNCLE had better not either.

UNCLE. Freedom.

They weren’t diametrically opposed things, but it was hard to think of them in the same context. Napoleon had for so long associated his work with the CIA in terms of his prison sentence. It was always being held over his head. Do his work, or go to prison. There were only those two options, never any more.

And now... bait. Bait offered with a golden hook. Waverly said there was no hook, but that statement and the documents might instead be chum strewn upon the water to entice him in. There was no meal without a hook. Napoleon usually slipped the bait off, leaving the hook dangling while he laughed. But this... this was something different.

Napoleon dodged around other late night travelers and turned out towards the less crowded streets. There might be more danger there, but he didn’t worry about it. His protection was nearby, watching him and letting him be. His friend. His partner.

Napoleon had never had a partner before, not like this. He worked with other agents, of course. But there had never been anything like this. If he took his freedom, he wouldn’t have his partner.

Freedom wasn’t just being free, it was having choices. Before, he’d only had two. Now, there were many. He could work for UNCLE, he could... well, he could not work for UNCLE. That was two. What would he do, if he didn’t have UNCLE? He wouldn’t work for the CIA, that was definite. He didn’t blame them for their manipulation, not really – it had been masterfully done, and he had enjoyed the jobs. He just didn’t like being coerced into them. His plans for five years from now had mostly been along the lines of pulling a great heist, probably at the Smithsonian or the National Gallery of Art – thumbing his nose at them and laughing on the way out. A giant f-you to all of them. Then off to Brazil or Egypt or somewhere and start it all over again.

But thirteen. Thirteen different countries had all believed enough in him, or in UNCLE, to give him those documents. They were unspoken assumptions that he would go and sin no more, not in those countries, not if he took their pardons. Nobody had asked him if he didn’t want to sin some more. They had just... given them to him.

What had UNCLE done to get them? One month. It had barely been a month. He wondered which of the people that called themselves his friends had helped. Napoleon rarely counted any of his acquaintances as true friends, knowing that people betrayed or had other orders and those counted more. Other people, though, did see him as a friend. He’d been taken to task more than once for his cynical attitude. But his view had always held true, at least until Illya had slipped under his skin. There were many who would have preferred to be Illya, to have that place in his life. Illya hadn’t planned it, though, and the two of them had thought to part, never see each other again... Friends. Yes, if Waverly had pulled in the old task force, and his newer contacts... they could have gotten it done. Many, many favors must have been traded along the way – favors he’d been saving, favors they’d been saving. All without his asking.

He would never had dreamed of asking for this. It had never even crossed his mind.

When Napoleon thought of freedom, he thought of slipping the leash. He thought of his safe houses, his foreign bank accounts, his stashes of easily pawned items, no questions asked. He thought of disappearing the name he’d been born under, and reappearing with another, never more the twain to meet. He thought of avoiding the CIA, easy to do, and creating a new life from ashes. Phoenix reborn.

This... This confounded him. He’d had no expectations, no anticipations, no clue that anything like this was even possible. He was confused. He was...

He was walking into an alley. With a sigh, Napoleon reversed course and shrugged at Illya as he passed him going the other way. He turned down a street that would lead to the foreign quarters, where they were both staying. He didn’t want to go back to the apartment just yet, but he was more familiar with those streets and could more easily lose himself walking them – without walking himself into a dead end.

Expectations were another sort of binding. Napoleon realized that he’d been living with one set for a very long time now, and it was hard for him to shake them off. The chains had been bound around him tighter than he had realized. Ten years of one thing. Now... a chance for another.

But what did he want to be? Most people who were free worked somewhere – they didn’t sit around and do nothing. Even rich people had hobbies. For Napoleon’s freedom... what did he want to do? Ten years had left him with dreams that were all well and good for fantasy, but there was a packet of papers in Illya’s jacket that meant this was real. Unbound and adrift. Free. But what was freedom?

Napoleon’s feet carried him through the streets and past the people as he thought and thought. Or sometimes didn’t think, but just walked in a mindless daze. Having your world shattered would do that to you, even if it was a good thing. Every now and again, Napoleon looked at his wrists, almost expecting to see the ghost of broken shackles there, still weighting him down.

A low whistle returned him to the here and now.

Without changing his pace or anything about what he was doing, Napoleon brought his focus to the street and surroundings. He’d apparently gone right through the foreign district and out the other side, into the outskirts between, low rent and high prey area, and he looked like rich prey indeed with his suit and foreign looks. Up ahead was a gap between buildings, probably another dingy alley. Perfect for dragging an unsuspecting businessman into.

Napoleon slowed his pace, and behind him he could hear steps increasing theirs. They kept it low key, but in sync so that by the time he reached the alley, he was no longer walking alone, but another was with him. The one walking beside him was no easy prey, not in anybody’s world. Tall, built like a fighter, with a scar across the face to prove it and hands that stayed uncovered and ready to clench into fists. Practical clothing entirely unlike Napoleon’s, that slid right in with the working class and didn’t speak of luxury. A glower at life and everything in it, and an anger that drove the rats away before them.

The three figures in the shadowy alley melted back into the shadows as they walked by. If Napoleon had been by himself, they would have pulled him in. But with a deadly predator by his side... they knew when they were outclassed.

After they’d passed that block and Napoleon turned streets again to head to safer climes, Illya started to drop back again.

“Stay,” Napoleon said softly.

And just like that, the deadly predator stayed. Heeling beside him like a well-trained pet, even though he was anything but.

It was a heady experience, to have Illya by his side.

They walked together in silence for another few blocks, Illya respecting Napoleon’s thoughts and need to think. He was there for him in support, whatever Napoleon would decide.

It would be a pity, never to see Illya again.

“Why do you like me?” Napoleon asked quietly. He kept his gaze on the way in front of him, and didn’t look to his side.

There was a long silence. “Is not an easy thing to say,” Illya finally replied. “You have deadly charm of cobra, fascinating prey before you strike... but that is just irritating. Fascinating. But irritating.”

Napoleon laughed. He hadn’t thought it was his charm that Illya had fallen for, but he quite liked the description.

“You are quick and bright, always thinking, always planning, always two steps ahead. You adapt, you change, quicker than thought at times, so smoothly none notice.” Illya paused. “That time on lake... aquaplaning over. You encountered problem, stopped, and within seconds had new plan. Audacious and daring – and smart. It was very you.”

The praise lifted Napoleon’s spirits. He loved hearing how good he was, and from Illya it was all the more nifty – even if he had asked for it. It also was quite Illya, to see those things and consider them the most important. Most people would probably have said his charm and personality. Some would have thrown in the intelligence and his work. But Illya went beyond it to what Napoleon considered to be some of his hidden depths.

“But those are words.” Illya shrugged. “Friendship not so easy to define. I could meet two with same qualities and like one and not other. It is not the thing to say, why one especial. What is troubling you?” He merged the question right onto the end of the sentences, no pause to show the different thought.

Napoleon sighed. “Friendship,” he admitted. “I don’t understand why anybody would have gone to so much trouble for me, when I wouldn’t have done the same for them.”

“Would you not?” Illya snorted. “I think you talk more of that, than what you do.” He made a brief cutting gesture, stopping that train. “You connect with people, help them, listen to them. You say it is to learn the mark, but it still is important to them. Like any—” Illya cut off his line of reasoning, returning their awareness to walking in the middle of town where anybody could be listening to them. Most of what they’d been saying was fairly innocuous and could be applied to anything. Likely Illya had been heading down spy territory with the comparison.

After a moment, Illya cleared his throat. “You are so fiercely alone... the connection you make with others... it means more than you know, to them.” He paused. “I would do it. No questions asked. If somebody asked me, for you, I would.”

Napoleon’s heart lurched hearing that. But it was different. Illya was different. Alone of all the others, he cared in return about Illya. He didn’t. Not about the others. “I wouldn’t,” Napoleon said defiantly. “Not for anybody else.”

“So you say, Cowboy,” Illya amusedly agreed without actually agreeing. “So you say.”

Napoleon fumed and quickened his walk, leaving Illya behind when the Russian stayed with the original pace.

They got to the apartment complex where they were staying, and Napoleon paused at the main entrance, waiting for Illya.

As Illya joined him, Napoleon breathed his answer. “Yes. Yes, I’ll do it.”

Illya nodded slowly, his gaze intent upon Napoleon’s face. He opened his mouth to say something, then closed it again and gestured them inside. A conversation could wait, and Napoleon agreed. He just had to say that now, where there was still the night air and the night sky, and the road that he’d been walking fresh upon his feet.

They went up the stairs to Napoleon’s third floor apartment. At the door, Napoleon frowned. His tell-tales were missing. Somebody had opened the door while they were gone. First time this whole month, what with the covers staying so intact.

Illya took three steps back and put his back to the wall where he could watch the stairs, the corridor, and the door. He unzipped his jacket but didn’t make the more obvious direct move to his gun.

Napoleon turned his body to one side as he eased the door open. Then he leaned in for a quick look. When he saw the inside, he sighed and relaxed.

Illya stepped forward to look as well, and then started to silently laugh, his body shaking with no sound coming out. Very, very quietly, he said, “You were one to teach her to pick locks.”

Rolling his eyes, Napoleon silently shut the door again, leaving the sleeping Gaby curled up in the armchair still inside. He looked at his watch. It had been five hours since they’d left the hotel. Now that he thought about it, his feet hurt somewhat.

They stood there for a moment, then Napoleon made grabby gestures at Illya. Illya frowned back, not understanding. Finally, Napoleon stepped next to Illya and rummaged inside his jacket until he found the notebook and pen the other agent always had on him.

He stepped back again, pretending not to notice Illya’s flushed face or the way the other agent’s attention was now so completely riveted on him. Writing a quick note, Napoleon tore it off and went to slip it under his door.

A hand on his wrist stopped him, and Illya brought both hand and note up to where he could read it. Letting out a silent huff, he shook his head and gestured at Napoleon to rewrite it.

What? Napoleon read through his note again.

G – it’s okay. Go home. Am staying. S.

Okay... so the am staying part could be misinterpreted. Napoleon chewed on the pen and then added staying with our— he scribbled out the start of ‘uncle’ and wrote ‘cousin’ instead.

Illya read the note again and shook his head in silent despair.

Okay, so cousin could mean a few other things too... maybe he should have stayed with uncle. That wasn’t too obvious, was it?

Illya grabbed the pen from Napoleon and wrote his own line. Napoleon grabbed both back again and looked at it.

me. He’s staying with us. S is an idiot. I.

Napoleon didn’t miss the first possessive and then the change to plural – he didn’t think Illya had noticed or he wouldn’t have let it stand. Napoleon wasn’t about to correct it. However... Napoleon scribbled I is a bully. We’ll see you later. S.

Illya rolled his eyes and grabbed for the pen again, but Napoleon pulled a sleight of hand and hid it in a different pocket in Illya’s jacket. While Illya was distracted, Napoleon bent over and slid the note under the door where Gaby would see it when she woke up.

When he straightened up, Illya was watching him, a grin playing at the edges of his lips. Napoleon bolted for the stairs, using a gait that would be silent on the wooden floor.

Illya caught him at the landing, hands curving around Napoleon’s waist, stopping him without restraining tightly. Napoleon turned in Illya’s arms and reached up to grab Illya’s head and bring him down for a kiss.

Illya returned it hungrily, pulling Napoleon in until he was flush against Illya’s body, where Napoleon could feel every inch of the larger man against him. He moved his leg to the outside of Illya’s, feeling the heat between them.

Breaking off the kiss, Illya raised a hand to the corner of Napoleon’s mouth, gently touching there before dropping. Then he turned away and started up the stairs. Napoleon followed him, close by his side, a bare step away.

When they’d made one landing up, Napoleon let his giggles escape quietly. “Oh, poor Georgia! Can you imagine her reputation if anybody saw that?”

“She is spending night in your room,” Illya rumbled, his own amusement showing through. “Others will have noted that.”

“The rumors that will be going around after this!”

“Will have to come back just to see what grew from it.”

They got to the fifth floor, the uppermost floor, and went down the hall to Illya’s corner apartment. Illya unlocked it and motioned for Napoleon to stay back as he went in first. Napoleon gave him a few moments, then followed.

Illya pushed him back against the door, shutting the door and locking it as he did so with one hand, while the other held Napoleon’s shoulder. He crowded into Napoleon’s space and kissed him again, bending down for a better angle.

Napoleon let himself be man-handled and dominated, wrapping his arms around Illya’s back and lifting his leg to press along the outside of Illya’s waist, pulling himself up, demanding more.

Illya gave the more to him, both hands going down to Napoleon’s hips and pulling him into him, while Napoleon’s back hit the door giving him a point of stability.

They made out against the door for some time, both giving full rein to desires that had been leashed for awhile. Napoleon wondered briefly why they hadn’t done this sooner... but the wait made it so much better. The mission was over, they were safe – or relatively so – and they could take their time.

When they got to the point where the clothing was starting to come off and something needed to be done about the guns, they disengaged and stepped away from each other. Both were breathing heavily, and Napoleon was sure his eyes were as dark as Illya’s.

“Napoleon, are you sure?” Illya took the moment of adjustment to go back a few points earlier.

Napoleon didn’t make the mistake of thinking Illya was asking about the sex – he was asking about UNCLE. He started to answer, then hesitated. “You haven’t swept.”

Illya shrugged, moving towards the table with two chairs by it. His apartment had been an unfurnished flat with no separate areas except for the bathroom. The kitchen, dining room, and bedroom all flowed one into the other. The first week Illya had spent gathering furniture in second-hand and fourth-hand places... and not incidentally checking for information about their subjects in those areas. Napoleon’s apartment had been furnished – if only barely – and had a separate bedroom. He’d originally had a hotel, if not as fancy as the one Waverly and Gaby were in, and then moved into this building a week after when Stanley had decided to stick around longer. Illya’s idea of furniture barely fit the description. His table and chairs were sturdy but nothing special – he’d spent some time cleaning them up from the grease that had covered them when he’d gotten them, each a mismatched piece. He had a large mattress – no frame or springs for it. When he hauled it up and Napoleon had teased him about it, Illya had assured him that there was no chance of bugs or nasty things in it, that it had come from a good home before. Which made Napoleon wonder where he’d found it, but Illya never said. And that was pretty much it, other than a couple of lamps, some books, and sheets and towels. Spartan was an inadequate word to describe Illya’s apartment. Or rather, the apartment Ivan had. Somehow, Napoleon doubted if Illya’s would be much different.

There was a reason they normally hung out in Napoleon’s apartment instead of Illya’s.

The tools of Illya’s trade were kept in a large trunk that doubled as another seat when needed. The first time Napoleon had been up, Illya had told him not to try opening it. Then, to his credit, he promptly realized his mistake and spent the next twenty minutes walking Napoleon through the various locks, combinations, and booby traps hidden through it. Nothing that Napoleon couldn’t have figured out on his own, but once Illya had explained it all, the challenge was gone.

“Is my place. Do not have to sweep.” Illya said, taking off his jacket and draping it over one of the chairs. He checked the inside pocket as he did so, and looked a question to Napoleon.

Napoleon gestured for him to keep keeping the envelope with the documents. He trusted Illya with them more than he did himself. Plus, if Napoleon ever got into trouble somewhere, if he had the real ones, an unscrupulous lawman could easily destroy them and deny he ever had them. It would be a lot harder for somebody to do that to a very large and probably pissed off Russian KGB agent who would come to retrieve him. “That’s a pretty ballsy statement,” he responded to the verbal conversation.

Taking his gun out and checking the safety on it, Illya gestured towards a lamp in the corner. “See small light by switch? When there are emitters, it is on.” He hung the gun holster over his jacket and made a minute adjustment to make sure he could grab both in a hurry if needed.

Squinting, Napoleon finally figured out what Illya meant. It wasn’t the lamp light itself, but rather a smaller indicator down below the shade, below the switch. Napoleon claimed the other chair and started stripping his own suit jacket and peripherals, not that he had as many of them as Illya. “Sounds fine, except for one small issue – it’s lit right now.”

Illya snorted, taking off his back-up gun and knife and walking to the bed to put them on the floor by the inside wall, out of sight from anybody coming in the door. “Was off until you walked in.”

Napoleon sat down to untie his shoes and he gave them a fond glower. He didn’t love having his every move trackable by the Russian, but sometimes it was easier just to go with it. He also never forgot that it had also saved his life when he’d least expected it. Seeing Illya come in when he’d had no hope... nothing would ever displace that memory.

“That’s clever.” He admired his inventive Russian. The things he came up with were usually both practical and useful. Mostly. There’d been a few duds, like that electronic lock-picker Illya had – that didn’t work anything like Illya had hoped it would, and had gotten him in trouble a few times. Napoleon grinned, remembering the first time at the shipyard. He had so loved getting one over on the KGB agent then.

“Cowboy.” Illya waited until he looked over. “Is truly okay? You...” he hesitated, searching for words and then changed what he was going to say. “Do not feel obliged. Freedom is to be cherished.” His eyes were haunted and his hand went to his wrist and the watch there.

Napoleon finished with his shoes and socks and stood up to continue with his shirt. “Freedom, Peril, means having choices.” He smiled. “I love the work. I’ve always loved the work. You asked me once, what drove me to be the best in the CIA.”

Illya winced, muttering an indistinct apology, which Napoleon waved off. He’d said worse to Illya at the time, each of them getting in their jabs at the other and showing their research on the other. Of course, Napoleon hadn’t known when he was doing his research that they were going to be paired together as a team. He’d simply been curious about the fascinating creature that had chased him through half of East Berlin. Now, it was obvious that there was so much more to the Red Peril then ever was in his files.

“I was the best not because of the humiliation, but because I just wanted to be.” Napoleon grinned. “I wanted the good jobs, the tough ones, the ones that made me think and stretch and go out on limbs and seduce the unseducible and crack the safes stronger than those that held simple valuables and pit myself against others of the best and come out the top. I rose up high, because once I got a taste of field work, nothing else could compare. Thievery, even the sort of top-level stuff I was doing, only has a couple of components to it. This had so much more.” Napoleon walked around the room as he talked, restless still and flying high while thinking of it. He caressed the table edges, the window sill, trailed his fingers along the lampshade. He was very aware of Illya watching him, the predator holding very still, watching the prey, mesmerized by it, wanting it – wanting him. And wasn’t that just the biggest thrill of all? Illya wanting him because he knew exactly what it was that he was talking about. He knew every part of it, because in his own way, he was just the same. There was nothing the two of them couldn’t do, because they were the very best.

“It was never the job I minded, only the leash.” Napoleon walked to Illya and stood close to him, though just slightly out of arm’s reach. “With UNCLE, I have a leash of my choosing, a boss I approve of, missions that will be more important than political blather,” he stepped in that final step, “and my partner.”

Illya let his breath out, his eyes hungry and wanting. He reached to touch Napoleon’s face, stroking lightly upon his cheekbone to just behind his ear. Then he closed his eyes and dropped his hand. “I have not agreed.”

“Yet,” Napoleon put in, his lips curving up. “I’m not worried. They won’t all be Waverly – they can’t be. But he wouldn’t be in a place that he didn’t approve of, and I think he’s more the boss than he says he is. He just likes his field work too much.” Just like them. UNCLE would not have given up so much for Napoleon if Waverly hadn’t pushed it, and Napoleon knew there had to have been a lot for what was received. “You’ll approve too. Eventually. And then I’ll have you too.”

“You are not joining just for me,” Illya said. His voice was positive and sure. His eyes were dark and soulful, hurting deep inside.

“Just?” Napoleon reached up to cup Illya’s cheek, watching how the other agent leaned into the touch. “There is no ‘just’ about it. I’ve had to say goodbye to you once already, Illya, thinking we weren’t going to be together again. I’m not doing it again. You’re my partner. We work together, like nobody I have ever found before. We haven’t even had sex for the last month, and we still work together! There is more to you than I have found yet, and I want it. I want all of it, and I want you. My Peril, if you think you aren’t a very large part of why I’m joining UNCLE, you’re very much mistaken. I love the work... but now that I know what it’s like to work with you, I don’t want anything less.”

Illya’s breath caught and held, his body tight and trembling, his eyes fixed on Napoleon’s as if Napoleon was the only water in the desert, hope and desperation there combined. If Napoleon read that right, Illya wanted Napoleon, but didn’t yet know if he could really have him.

“If you don’t join UNCLE,” Napoleon said softly, “for whatever reason there might be,” the KGB topping that list, “then I won’t join either. I’ll take my freedom, and I’ll go into Russia, and they won’t know what hit them.”

Illya blinked.

“Mikhaylovsky Castle, the State Tretyakov Gallery, the Pushkin Museum... none of them will be safe. I don’t have any pardons from the Soviet Union in that packet there, and after this they’ll never give me one. I’ll take the Red Vineyard, the Lady in the Garden... perhaps, They Did Not Expect Him. Yes?”

Illya’s shaking had changed direction part-way through Napoleon’s list, and by the end of it, he was outright laughing. He grabbed for a chair and sat down, still laughing. “They would not expect you, moy vor. Not at all.”

Napoleon grinned, delighting in what he had wrought. He sank down to the floor, kneeling before Illya, reaching up to take Illya’s hands. “I would do it. I really would.”

“I believe you would. I cannot believe you are blackmailing me by threatening havoc on Russian art museums,” Illya said wholeheartedly, his hands gripping back at Napoleon’s.

“Is it working?” Napoleon asked, interested.

“Yes,” Illya said, still chuckling. “Yes, you crazy American, yes.” He brought Napoleon’s hands up to his mouth and kissed them. “I will join UNCLE, and you will be my partner. Because there can be no other.” He held close to Napoleon’s fingers, and slipped off the chair until he was kneeling next to Napoleon. “I have a safehouse now.”

It was Napoleon’s turn to blink. “You do?”

Illya nodded. “In Stockholm.” He gave the address. “Arrangements were finalized a few days ago. I thought... you might want another. Or I might want. Or... just it might be good.”

Napoleon had managed to corrupt the uncorruptible. He had the top KGB agent thinking beyond just the KGB. Illya had disobeyed orders for him, and now he made plans his people didn’t know about. Yet he told Napoleon about them.

Both of them leaned in at the same time to kiss the other.

They came together with heat and passion, as they had before. This time, though, they were there as a beginning, not an ending. They took their time, they laughed at each other, they made references to ‘last time’ and ‘next time’ and meant it. It was different, it was something unique, and it was a bond. It wasn’t their only bond – they both knew that for them, the sex was the least of what held them together, if it even did that. It was more of an extra between them, something else to share.

It was almost noon the next day before they woke up, curled together.

“Waverly and Gaby will have left by now,” Napoleon remarked, looking at Illya’s watch.

Illya nodded. “Ivan did not find what he was looking for. I can leave any time. You?”

Napoleon shrugged. “I should spend another couple of days finishing Stanley’s business. I’ve been dickering with the tradesmen for weeks and have made some pretty good deals on some of the spices. Waverly gave me a couple of accounts to use for putting in actual sales, and it’ll make a nice profit on some other UNCLE ledger down the line. Most of them know I’ve only been hanging around this long because of Georgia – they won’t be surprised if I finish things up quickly.” He looked at Illya. “Would Ivan like to keep me company?”

Illya smiled. “Ah, the rumors we will start. Yes, I think so. It will be a good thing.”

“Good,” Napoleon said happily. “So, a few days... then we’ll be on our way again. Partner.”

“Partner,” Illya replied, contentment in his voice.