He awoke not knowing where he was. All he did know was that there was glass and steel and too much light. He was crouched on the floor, his bare feet chilled by the metal floors, his body ill-protected by flimsy cotton shirt and pants.
He stood and began to run through the gunmetal grey hallways, feet slapping softly on plate metal floor, breath harsh in his ears.
He turned a corner and was surrounded by creatures, part human, part...not. They grabbed him with hands that were too big, looked at him with insect eyes. He struggled and fought, but there were too many of them. They half-carried, half-dragged him down yet another hallway until they reached a closed door. He increased his struggles, knowing that what lurked behind that door was a worse enemy than those that currently had him in their grasp.
The door opened silently as they approached, and he was hauled through it by the man-insects, his fight making as little difference to them as the fight of a small boy would have to him. He looked up, and saw another of the insect creatures, this one all in white, a glint of metal in its claw.
He tried to scream, but found that sound was suddenly beyond him.
And woke, to find himself in his own bed, his heart pounding and beads of sweat standing out on his brow.
He took a slow deep breath and worked at calming his heart, at stopping the slight tremors that played his hands. After all, it was only a dream. A dream. A phantasm. A chimera. Nothing to be concerned about.
"Are you okay?"
A hand reached up to stroke his shoulder, caress his cheek.
"I'm fine, Napoleon. There's no need for your concern."
Strong arms wrapped around him, held him tightly.
"Yeah, I know. You're a big tough Russian spy and nothing bothers you."
Illya relaxed into the embrace.
"Not even nearly being killed by a madwoman's medical experiments."
"And you never have nightmares about anything."
"I'm glad you're so clear on everything."
He rolled over and looked closely at Napoleon.
"Now you're mocking me."
"Me?" Napoleon asked innocently. "I would never do that. Because you're a big, tough..."
"Russian spy." Illya completed the thought for him, then cuffed his partner lightly on the head. "Idiot."
"I'm not the one hiding my nightmares because of some Slavic version of machismo."
"I'm not hiding my nightmares. They simply do not exist."
"Illya, I'm a trained spy. I've even been told by some that I'm intelligent. When my partner wakes up in a panic a mere month after nearly being killed by a Thrush engineered virus, I can figure these things out on my own."
"I must tell Mr. Waverly that his faith in you is misplaced," Illya said, dryly. "I was not having a nightmare."
"Says you," Napoleon replied, an altogether too smug look on his face.
Illya gave up on bald-faced lying and instead decided to play dirty. He leaned over Napoleon and gave him a kiss that started out staid and ended up steamy. Napoleon relaxed beneath him almost immediately and became very amorous indeed. Illya allowed himself to enjoy this simple experience, one that he had been denied while recovering in the U.N.C.L.E. infirmary. After all, it wouldn't do to have the senior Enforcement team caught making out in headquarters. It was good to be home, and accountable to no one but himself.
As he felt the kiss moving into something more, however, he pulled himself away and swung his legs out of bed.
"Illya..." If it hadn't been Napoleon Solo, Illya might have almost said that his voice held a shade of pleading.
"Napoleon, you know I have to do my exercises."
"It's the day before Christmas. Can't you take a day off?"
"Not if I want to be back on duty as soon as possible." He gave his partner a withering glare. "You know that, Napoleon."
Napoleon didn't argue further, but simply gave a deep sigh and a shrug.
"Can't blame a guy for trying."
"You can try again later."
Napoleon's face brightened into a smile.
"After April and Mark have left tonight," Illya finished his thought.
"Party pooper." Napoleon got out of bed himself and pulled on his dressing gown. "You go torture yourself. I'm going to take a shower and make coffee."
"Make it extra strong," said Illya, pulling on sweatpants and a t-shirt and sealing his request with a kiss.
"Your wish is my command," Napoleon replied, executing a sweeping bow worthy of a seventeenth century courtier.
Illya spent the next hour and a half working diligently to restore the strength that Dr. Egret's virus had sapped from his body. He used a stationary bicycle set up in their spare room to build back his endurance and a set of free weights to rebuild the muscles that high fever had wasted away. He pushed himself as hard as he ever had, harder than the doctors had suggested. He hated being weak, not being able to do his share. Not being able to back up his partner.
And when he finished, he was exhausted and sweaty, muscles trembling from exertion. But he also felt good, felt like he would be able to do his job soon. Well, at least in another month or two.
He towelled off the sweat and joined his partner in their breakfast nook. Napoleon had long since finished his own breakfast and was reading the Times, but he had a fresh pot of coffee brewing and bagels and cream cheese laid out on the counter. Illya got a bagel, poured a mug of coffee and joined his partner at the tiny table.
"How's it going?" Napoleon asked from behind his newspaper.
"Good," Illya replied. And he really meant it. "I'm feeling much stronger than even a few days ago." He took an appreciative sip of the hot, strong coffee. "I think I might try running the stairs of the building next week."
Napoleon whipped down his paper and fixed Illya with a steely glare.
"If the doctor approves it."
"Yes, Napoleon," Illya said, wearily.
"I mean it, Illya. I'm not going to have you flagellate yourself for the sake of getting back to work a few days sooner."
"I'm hardly a medieval monk, scourging himself for his god."
"You couldn't tell by me."
"Honestly, Napoleon, there are Russian grandmothers who are less protective than you."
"I don't want you hurting yourself. Not now, when you're getting better." Napoleon's voice was, just slightly, raised.
"And I don't want you out in the field without your partner at your back," Illya said, raising his voice still louder.
Napoleon glared at him, his lips pressed together so tightly they were bloodless. Illya braced himself, certain they were about to have the screaming argument he'd been expecting all week. But then Napoleon's body language abruptly relaxed.
"Christ, we're a pair, aren't we?"
Illya allowed himself a small smile.
"I believe that is exactly what we are."
Napoleon's expression went serious for a moment.
"You don't need to worry about me in the field, you know."
"And you don't need to mother me, Napoleon."
Illya stood and put his hands on his partner's shoulders. Napoleon wrapped his arms around his waist.
"I will be better and back in the field in mere weeks. And then everything will be back to normal."
"Or what passes for normal."
"Ah, but how is one to judge normal with you infuriating Americans?"
Napoleon reached up and punched him lightly on the chin.
"You wing it like the rest of us." Reluctantly, Napoleon let him go. "As fascinating as this discussion is, I think you need to get cleaned up so we can get the place ready for April and Mark."
Illya looked quickly at the clock and saw it was nearly eleven. He started peeling off his t-shirt and walked toward the bathroom.
"When are they coming over?" he said, over his shoulder.
"Three, which gives us..."
"Not too much time," Illya completed his thought. "I'll be as fast as I can."
Illya took his usual quickly efficient shower, lingering only briefly under the hot water to loosen muscles beginning to tighten from the exertion he had submitted them to. When he was done, he came back and began straightening the living room and then helping Napoleon in the kitchen, only to find himself shooed out to take a rest when he found his energy flagging.
He threw himself on the couch, telling himself he was only going to close his eyes for a minute, but awoke an hour later when April Dancer and Mark Slate arrived, bearing chocolates and wine and gifts for their friends.
They both fussed over Illya and commented on how much better he looked. Illya feigned embarrassment, but was secretly pleased by the attention.
They caught up on what April and Mark had been doing in the month since they'd helped rescue Illya--more assignments in Europe, more encounters with assorted villains and U.N.C.L.E. bureaucracy--and listened to the gossip that circulated amongst the younger Enforcement agents, but tended to get filtered out before it reached the ears of the CEA and his partner. And after they had nearly talked themselves hoarse and dusk had firmly settled over the city, they sat down to dinner.
Napoleon had done most of the cooking--he was still far too protective of his partner, in Illya's opinion--but Illya had helped plan the menu. There was broiled salmon and mashed potatoes, turnip and asparagus. And to end the meal, the Christmas pudding that April's mother had sent for the feast.
By the end of the meal, they were all filled almost, but not quite, to the bursting point.
"That was wonderful," April said, finishing a last delicate bite of the Christmas pudding.
"Just be happy that I saved you from the kutya," Napoleon said.
"The what?" asked Mark.
"It's gruel," said Napoleon.
"It's porridge," said Illya, more than slightly affronted.
"Porridge, gruel. What's the difference," said Napoleon, taking his life into his own hands and clearly enjoying it.
"There's a large difference. Kutya is made out of wheat and honey and poppy seeds and it tastes good. And it's good luck to have it on Christmas Eve."
"How much good luck can you have if you're eating gruel?"
"Play nice, boys," said April, intervening at last. "Why don't we adjourn to the living room?"
"That sounds lovely," Mark chipped in, obviously abetting his partner, Illya decided. But since he was really too relaxed, too sated to engage in a proper argument with Napoleon, he agreed with his younger colleagues.
They abandoned the slightly cramped dining room for the more spacious living room. Illya dropped exhaustedly on the sofa. Even with the nap, the excitement of the day was taking more of a toll on him than he was willing to admit. April took over the wingchair beside them while Mark perched on its arm. Napoleon put Nat King Cole on the stereo and took his place on the sofa beside Illya, his hand resting lightly on his partner's shoulder.
In the glow of the fireplace and the Christmas tree, they all consumed their post-meal eggnog--Illya's lacked the rum that everyone else was enjoying, at Napoleon's over-protective insistence--and discussed the weather and family Christmas traditions and hideous gifts from well-meaning relatives. In fact, they discussed any topic that had absolutely nothing to do with U.N.C.L.E. or Thrush or world events in general.
Illya was sure it was all a Napoleon-inspired conspiracy to keep his invalid partner from feeling too out of the loop. In point of fact, it only succeeded in making him want to hear even more about missions and satraps and crazed madmen trying to take over the world.
He decided to take matters into his own hands and steer the conversation straight into forbidden waters.
"So, what cheerful assignment have you two been given for tomorrow?" Illya asked.
April shot a look at Napoleon before answering, confirming Illya's suspicions that his partner had insisted there be no business talk this evening.
"We're flying out to New Orleans," April said.
"They want us to take a look at a possible Thrush satrap," Mark said, taking up the tale slightly less reluctantly than his partner. "There've been rumours of weapons shipments coming in from the Gulf of Mexico."
"Can't Thrush even take Christmas off?" Napoleon complained.
"Sounds like the ruthless agent Napoleon Solo is getting soft," Illya said, enjoying the chance to tease his partner.
"Perhaps the ruthless Agent Solo would like to open his gifts," April offered.
"Oh, yes," Illya said, hoping, after the fact, that his own enthusiasm didn't come through in his voice. From the look April gave him, it was a false hope.
"Senior agents nothing," she said. "You two are just a couple of big kids, aren't you?"
Illya tried to decide between appearing threatening and foreboding, settling ultimately on oblivious. Napoleon simply gave them all a big grin and elbowed him in the ribs.
"They've discovered our secret, Illya," he said. "Looks like we'll have to kill them."
"You could at least wait until after we've opened our presents," Mark added. "I'd like to die a happy man."
"I suppose we can let it go this time," Napoleon allowed. "After all, it is Christmas."
"You are magnanimous, as always," Mark said with a grin.
They all moved to the Christmas tree except for Illya, who was feeling far too relaxed on the couch and decided to remain there. Napoleon served as impromptu Santa Claus and handed out the gifts.
Illya was pleased when April oohed and aahed over the amber necklace he'd gotten her.
"It's beautiful, Illya. Baltic amber?"
"I still have some contacts in Latvia."
"And in the Soviet Union, too," Mark said, holding up the bottle of Stolichnaya vodka that was his gift. "I take it this is the good stuff?"
"You take it right. We don't usually let decadent Westerners have the good vodka."
"I'll save it for special occasions."
Napoleon was appreciative of the cologne that was April's gift to him, and raised an eyebrow over the tie that Mark gave him.
"You're the hardest man in the world to buy for, Napoleon. You're lucky I didn't buy you Old Spice."
Napoleon smiled. "Open yours, Mark."
Mark ripped off the wrapping paper and burst out laughing.
"Blame your partner. It was an American tradition she thought you would enjoy," Napoleon said with a twinkle in his eye.
For April, he had bought a small rhinestone pin in the shape of a bee. It was simple, but exquisite.
Mark gave him a look, and Napoleon shrugged.
"Don't blame me. I've always been best at buying gifts for women. And certain Russian agents," he added quickly.
Illya was the last to open his gifts. From Mark he received a Thelonious Monk record that they had discussed during one of Mark's visits to the infirmary. April's gift to him was a black cashmere scarf.
"I thought you should have something to compete with your clothes horse partner."
"I'm not a clothes horse," Napoleon said.
Illya merely gave a quirk of a grin and thanked April.
"Well, I'm not."
The gifts open, Illya found his energy flagging even more. He drifted to sleep on the couch, listening to the voices of his friends as they talked more about Christmas and missions and everything in between. He roused long enough to wish April and Mark a merry Christmas when they left, but quickly dropped off again. He barely heard Napoleon let their friends out the door and lock up behind them.
The next thing he knew, he was being poked awake by his partner.
"C'mon, sleepyhead. Time to get you to bed."
Illya tried to bat away the intruding hands, but Napoleon was persistent.
"Leave me alone."
"If I leave you alone, you'll end up sleeping out here. And that wouldn't be any fun for either of us."
"I'll get up in a minute," Illya mumbled.
"No, you won't. And I'm not up to carrying you in anything short of life-threatening circumstances. So, upsadaisey."
That got Illya's eyes open.
"Did you just say ‘upsadaisey?'"
"Nope," Napoleon deadpanned. "You must have imagined it."
"I must have."
Sighing, Illya managed to lever himself off the couch and stumble down the hall to the bedroom, one arm slung over Napoleon's shoulder, as much for comfort as support.
Illya collapsed on the bed and managed to undress himself, in spite of fingers clumsy with fatigue. Napoleon helped him with the buttons of his pyjamas, and then tucked him in before climbing in bed beside him.
Napoleon held him close and kissed the side of his neck, before whispering into his ear.
"Guess this means no nocturnal activities for us tonight."
Illya shook his head.
"The spirit is willing, but the flesh..."
"Is nearly comatose," Napoleon said.
"Sorry," Illya said, feeling his eyes drift shut even as the words left his lips.
"No need, mon coeur," Napoleon returned.
He fell sleep, wrapped in his partner's arms.
Illya woke up feeling better than he had in months. The fatigue of the previous night was gone and in its place was a boundless energy. He felt like he could take on all of Thrush single-handed, and win.
He sat up and looked over at his still sleeping partner. Napoleon was on his back, the covers pulled up almost to his nose. In sleep, he looked more like a scruffy schoolboy than a dapper spy, his dark hair in disarray on the pillow, his face slightly scrunched up in dream. The sight made Illya weak in the knees, made his cock stir with interest. The flesh was more than willing this morning.
He pulled back the covers slightly and kissed his partner, slowly at first, then with increasing ardour as Napoleon swam his way back to consciousness.
Napoleon cracked one eye open and looked at his partner with suspicion.
"What?" Illya asked.
"You're not about to get up and do your exercises again, are you?"
"Napoleon," Illya said, affronted. "It's Christmas."
"And yesterday was the day before Christmas, but that didn't stop you from, ah, stopping."
"Well, today is the day when all good spies get what they deserve."
Napoleon sat up, but the scepticism didn't leave his eyes.
"I don't know if I like the sound of that."
"We'll see," Illya said, before abandoning words for actions.
He threw off the covers and straddled Napoleon before capturing his mouth in a deep kiss. At the same time, he began, slowly, to unbutton his partner's pyjamas, letting his fingers play across ribcage and stomach before concentrating on the nipples.
In less than a minute Napoleon was as lost as Illya in the sensation of the moment. Clothes were shed and Illya luxuriated in the feel of skin against skin, cock against cock.
Napoleon's eyes squeezed closed, his face tight with concentration. Illya kept his own eyes open, drinking in the sight of his partner's pleasure. Napoleon's breath began to come faster, harsher, as he approached and attained climax.
Illya smiled in affection as napoleon's face eased in ost-orgasmic bliss. Even has his partner was relaxing, Illya felt his own pleasure overtake him, rip through him, leave him drained and breathless and, above all, satisfied.
Illya let out one last long, shuddering breath before he collapsed on Napoleon, holding his partner tightly.
Napoleon grinned up at him.
"I think we can safely say you're well on the road to recovery."
"Is that all you have to say about my technique?" Illya said, a bit tetchily.
"I could write sonnets about your technique, mon coeur, but for now, I will simply cook you breakfast. In appreciation."
"Breakfast," Illya said, suddenly very interested.
Napoleon got up and threw on his dressing gown.
"Why don't you take your shower first, and I'll have the food ready for you by the time you're dressed."
"I knew there was a reason I moved in with a hedonist," Illya said. He gave Napoleon one last, satisfying kiss, then hurried off to the shower, visions of French toast dancing in his head.
By the time he had finished in the shower, the apartment was filled with the smells of strong coffee, back bacon and toasted English muffins.
"Eggs Benedict?" Illya asked, as he slipped into a seat in the breakfast nook.
"Uh huh. And you have a choice of bacon or smoked salmon."
"Would it be gauche to ask for one of each?"
"Nothing is gauche on Christmas day. And if I hadn't expected you to ask for both, I wouldn't have made them both."
Illya gave his partner a grin, then tucked into the breakfast laid out before him. Napoleon joined him at the table, eating his own breakfast and looking at Illya with an indulgently affectionate expression that Illya couldn't help but return.
Once they'd finished breakfast and cleared the dishes away, Napoleon asked the question Illya had been waiting for.
"Time for the presents?"
Illya only grinned in response and headed for the living room, where the tree had only three presents left beneath it. One was the gift for Napoleon's Aunt Amy. They would deliver that one personally this afternoon when they arrived at her apartment for Christmas dinner. The other two were their presents to each other.
"You first," Napoleon said, nodding his head at the small package that was Illya's gift.
Illya didn't need any urging, but set about methodically opening the gift, making sure not to tear the wrapping paper.
"Jesus, Illya, I've seen you take less trouble defusing a bomb."
"Have you never heard of anticipation?" Illya asked.
Napoleon merely raised an eyebrow in answer.
Illya continued on at his own pace, pausing only briefly before revealing the contents of the package. When he did throw back the last bit of paper, he let out a low whistle of appreciation.
"Do you like it?" Napoleon asked. "I got it at that book store you like. The owner recommended it."
And it was. He held the book in his hands reverently. It was an early edition of Chekov's short stories, in the original Russian. The binding was finely tooled leather and exquisite. He was nearly rendered speechless, but did remember his manners.
"Thank you, Napasha."
"You're welcome," Napoleon replied, a grin spreading across his face.
"I'm afraid mine's not nearly as special."
Napoleon said nothing, but simply began opening his own gift, ripping the wrapping off in wild abandon and tearing into the box inside.
His eyes widened as he saw what was inside.
"I wasn't sure what to get you," Illya said, suddenly unsure if his gift was good enough. "I saw this in a little shop in the Village and thought you could use it on the Pursang."
"It's beautiful, Illya." Napoleon reached in and pulled the sextant out of the box, its antique brass gleaming in the light from the windows.
"You think so?"
"Yes," Napoleon said, definitely. "It's perfect." He turned it over in his hands. "You'll have to come out on the Pursang with me to try it out."
"For you, Napoleon, I will even tolerate seasickness."
Napoleon glanced at his watch.
"We need to get moving. If we're late getting to Aunt Amy's for Christmas there'll be no turkey for us."
Illya chuckled at that.
"She spoils you, Napoleon. You could show up a day late with no excuse and she'd welcome you with open arms."
"I don't think so."
"Still, that's no reason to antagonize her."
"You're right. Let's get going."
Illya headed for the bedroom to change, with his partner not far behind him.
Amy Chapman had a penthouse on Central Park West with a stunning view. Napoleon had introduced his partner to his aunt almost as soon as they'd begun working together, nearly three years ago. Illya knew that Amy's late husband had made his fortune in publishing, that she was Napoleon's aunt on his mother's side, and that she doted on her only nephew, but that was all he could have said for a certainty. Napoleon never talked about his family, and his Aunt Amy couldn't be convinced to break the family silence. The one time Illya had broached the subject with her, in hopes of gaining some insight into a past that Napoleon seemed intent on obscuring, she had demurred.
"My sister had a talent for secrecy that her son seems to have inherited," she'd said. "I don't think I have the right to overturn their wishes."
Illya was left wondering how he'd developed the reputation as the one with the mysterious past when his own partner had a history only penetrable by Alexander Waverly. And he was willing to bet that even Waverly didn't know everything.
Still, in spite of her reluctance to share family secrets, Amy and Illya had developed a bond, based on a shared affection for vodka and a fondness for teasing Napoleon whenever possible.
She began to worry over Illya as soon as he entered the apartment.
"I know you told me he'd lost weight, Napoleon, but you didn't say how much."
Illya was mildly affronted.
"I've gained back most of it."
"Then you must have been a skeleton before. You look like a scarecrow now."
"He's fine, Aunt Amy. Don't fuss." Napoleon kissed her on the cheek and put both their coats in the closet.
"I'll fuss if I want, Napoleon. It's the prerogative of being family."
Amy installed them in the living room and made sure they both had egg nog in hand. She then proceeded to push more Christmas cookies and squares on Illya than even he could manage. He was convinced that she intended for him to gain back all the flesh he had lost in this one day. Illya silently gave thanks that she had not seen him a month ago when he really had resembled a living skeleton, and fended off another bird's nest cookie. He knew from last year's feast that he should pace himself for the main meal. Madame Chapman didn't cook herself, but she had excellent caterers.
He allowed himself to sit in the comfort of the roaring fire, nibbling occasionally at a cookie and allowing Napoleon and Amy to carry the bulk of the conversation.
Flights in small planes are never completely smooth. Even in perfect weather, gusts that would be ignored by large jets can treat a single engine prop plane like a carelessly regarded toy tossed about by a young child.
As a result, the first time their plane dropped like a stone for several hundred feet, April Dancer merely belted herself into her seat a little bit tighter and continued going over the files for their New Orleans mission with her partner.
Normally, it would have been Mark in the pilot seat, with her sitting in as an unqualified co-pilot, reading the files out loud and keeping her partner awake. However, since no one, including the all-knowing Alexander Waverly, knew how long they were likely to be needed in Louisiana, their superior had decided not to tie down an U.N.C.L.E. plane solely to their needs. Denis Béart, formerly of Montreal and the Royal Canadian Air Force, currently a pilot and Enforcement agent for the Command, had been assigned to fly them to the Big Easy and return the plane, and another agent, to New York. The mission was sensitive enough that there was no question of taking a commercial flight.
April had nearly forgotten about their precipitous drop when it happened again.
"Tabernak," Béart said, under his breath.
April and Mark both looked up at each other, then over at Béart.
"Denis, are you okay?" Mark asked.
"Absolutement not, Mark," Béart responded. "I think I need your assistance in the co-pilot's chair."
Mark said nothing more, but immediately moved up to the front of the plane.
April tightened her seat belt one last notch, then looked out the window. She was shocked by what she saw.
Dark clouds roiled beneath them, while a massive storm front rose up before them.
"When did this blow in?" April asked, shocked that such an enormous storm could have arisen so quickly.
"Just in the last thirty minutes," Béart said, struggling with the controls as another blast of wind tried to take control of the little plane. "There was nothing about it on the weather frequencies, and now I can't raise anyone."
"Is the radio dead?" Mark asked.
"Could be the radio, could be the storm. Either way, we can't talk to anyone."
"Can we turn back?" April asked.
Béart shook his head. "Look behind you."
April did, and saw more storm clouds closing in behind them.
"We were approaching Tennessee when this hit. If I divert west, I should be able to get to Nashville."
"Oh good," Mark said. "I've always wanted to go to the Grand Ole Opry."
"Living in America has corrupted you, my friend," Béart replied. "Next you will want to live in Las Vegas, and they will take away your British citizenship."
The two of them almost sounded normal as they entered the storm front and tried to keep the little plane under control even as they were engulfed in snow. April might even have been fooled, if she had only been listening to them. But she could also see them. Could see the whitening of their knuckles and the clenching of their jaws.
But they were all U.N.C.L.E. agents, and the unofficial mottos of the breed were to go down fighting and to never show anything but grace under pressure. April pushed down her own panic and added her own banter.
"I know you two can get us through this. After all, what storm would dare take on the RAF and the RCAF?"
Mark glanced back at her with a grateful, if strained, smile.
"You just keep thinking that, love. With our talent and your confidence, we can't miss."
April reached forward to give her partner's shoulder a reassuring squeeze.
She never completed the motion.
A blast of wind that made everything they'd encountered so far seem puny by comparison chose that moment to grab the plane and send it pin-wheeling toward the ground.
April somehow managed to assume a crash position as the world spiralled out of control.
They spent the afternoon catching up on Amy's travels--she'd been to Paris and Africa since Illya had seen her last--and Illya and Napoleon's work, or at least, what little they could tell her of that. She listened carefully to the details of Illya's exercise routine and asked intelligent questions about his recovery. As he would have expected of a relative of Napoleon's, she was well informed on a number of topics, medicine being just one of them.
Late afternoon found them all engrossed in a game of Scrabble, each of them playing with an intensity that better suited a life and death mission than a simple recreation.
Illya was sulking after Napoleon had made a triple word score on fez, for forty-five points. "I would have been able to use that triple score square on the next round."
"If wishes were horses, Illya," Napoleon said, unsympathetically.
"You're both taking advantage of a man who's native language is not your barbaric English."
"If you'll check the score, Illya, you'll find you're still winning," Amy reminded him, a twinkle in her eye.
"Ah. Yes." Illya cheered up immediately and began examining the board for ways of trouncing his opponents even more thoroughly.
Just as Illya was about to play vex, landing the x right one a triple letter score, the tell tale tone of Napoleon's communicator sounded from his jacket, making them all jump slightly.
"Is that..." Amy began to ask.
"Yes," Napoleon cut her off before she could finish the thought. He retrieved the jacket from where it was slung over the arm of a chair. "Can I take this in the den?"
"Be my guest." Amy waved them in the direction of the requested room.
Illya got up to follow his partner. Napoleon stopped him with a hand to his chest.
"Illya, you aren't on the active list."
Illya didn't even voice his argument, but simply looked Napoleon in the eye, daring him to keep him out of whatever had caused the Command to disturb them on this day. Napoleon didn't hold out for long.
"Fine." He shrugged, and guided Illya into the den with a hand at his back.
"Open Channel D."
Illya knew he should have expected Waverly to be making this communication, but he was still a little disturbed by it, as if it confirmed the gravity of the still unknown situation.
"Is there anything wrong, sir?"
"Yes, I'm afraid there is." Waverly's voice sounded tired. "I've just received word that Miss Dancer's and Mr. Slate's plane is overdue in New Orleans. We've been unable to raise them on either the radio or their communicators."
"Thrush?" Napoleon asked the obvious question.
"For once, no. A storm has unexpectedly blown up in the south. The most likely explanation is that they were caught by the weather."
"Do we know where they might be?"
"When we last heard from them, they were just outside Roanoke. They might be anywhere from there to the Gulf of Mexico by now. Even assuming they stayed on course."
"I'm coming in, sir."
"No, you're not," Waverly snapped back. "Not only do you have the day off, but there is nothing you could do here anyway."
"But, nothing. I don't want your aunt harassing me for disturbing her Christmas dinner. I wouldn't even have called you right away, except I know that Miss Dancer and Mr. Slate are friends of you and Mr. Kuryakin. Mr. Kuryakin is with you?"
"Right here, sir," Illya said.
"I want both of you to return to whatever you were doing and try not to worry too much. We have rescue teams spread throughout the entire search area looking for our missing young people. And Mr. Solo..."
"Wish your aunt a happy holiday from me."
Waverly signed off without further comment.
They returned to the living room far more subdued than they had been.
"What's wrong," Amy asked.
Napoleon was chewing slightly on his lip, a distracted look on his face, so Illya responded.
"Friends of ours have been reported missing."
Amy's face registered the shock and horror that she felt, faced with such bad news. Illya could no longer remember what it was like to feel that surprise when bad things happened. Instead, faced with ill tidings, he felt only resignation and disgust. The horror he could still find within himself, though deeply buried, but he had long since stopped feeling shock that bad things could happen to people, and would continue to do so, for as long as there were people on the planet.
"Was it," Amy paused as she cast around for a way to phrase her question, "your work?"
"No." Napoleon answered this time, his voice tense and brittle. "Oddly enough, no. A snowstorm. Their plane is overdue."
"Do you have to go to your office?"
At last, Napoleon seemed to snap back to the present.
"No. At least not yet. Mr. Waverly said there was nothing we could do and that we should stay for Christmas dinner. He says hello, by the way."
"You'll have to give him my best wishes when you see him. Your Mr. Waverly is a lovely man."
Illya nearly snorted in amusement at the impossibility of Waverly being called a lovely man by any of his Enforcement agents, but Napoleon only agreed with his aunt and sat down.
There were a few minutes of awkward silence as they all attempted to come to grips with the news in their own way. Illya found a ridiculously hopeful streak within himself that kept telling him that April and Mark were resourceful and well trained and that they would come out of it all perfectly fine.
He only wished he could believe it.
April drifted to consciousness with a splitting headache and a stitch in her side. She clutched her head, wondering what the hell had happened to her. Then she opened her eyes, and it all came tumbling back.
The storm, the plane, the crash. She remembered it all.
She was in what was left of the cabin of the plane, snow blustering outside of the miraculously intact windows. She twisted, trying to see the inhabitants of the front seats.
"Mark," she said, feeling the panic well up as she saw that her partner's form was ominously still. "Denis."
She tried to stand up, but was held in place by her seat belt. She impatiently unbuckled the fastener and approached the front.
She stamped down on her dread and concentrated on being the trained professional that she knew she was.
"Mark," she said again, more calmly, and placed her hand at the side of her partner's throat. She was relieved to feel a pulse, and more relieved when Mark stirred beneath her hand.
"Stay still, love, till I'm sure nothing's broken."
Mark's eyes opened and he looked at her, pain in his expression.
"I think I can save you the trouble. My left arm's definitely broken."
April glanced down at the angle of the arm and could see immediately that Mark was right.
Mark closed his eyes, his mouth going tight in concentration. When he opened them again, he had gone even paler than he'd started.
"Nothing else. But it's quite enough."
"Okay. Keep it immobile. I'll splint it in a minute."
"I'm just going to check him now," April said, moving over to their pilot.
Béart also was alive, but was more deeply unconscious, and more obviously injured. His foot was twisted at an angle never intended by nature.
"Well?" Mark asked impatiently.
"Alive, but his lower leg is broken. And he's really out of it." She looked closer at the broken leg. "At least it doesn't look like the break is compounded."
"That's a relief."
"How about your arm?" she asked, suddenly aware that she hadn't checked it closely.
"Straight break," Mark said ruefully. "I'll take any luck I can."
April looked back at Denis.
"I hate to wake him up. That leg of his is going to be agony."
"No help for it, love. We need to check him for concussion. And get that break splinted."
"Same goes for your arm."
Mark gave a grimace.
"I'm trying not to think about that."
It took April yelling in Denis' ear and one slap on his cheek to wake him up, and when he finally did, he was groggy for several minutes.
"Concussion?" Mark asked.
"I'm fine," Denis insisted.
"No, you're not," April said. "You have a mild concussion and a broken leg. We need to keep you awake, and get you help as soon as we can."
"Speaking of help," Mark said, "do you know where we are?"
Denis shook his head.
"We were close to the border of Tennessee, but I'm not sure where we ended up. What does it look like out there?"
April looked out the window. The snow was still falling, though it wasn't blowing nearly as much.
"We seem to be in some sort of valley. It looks like there might be a small mountain behind us."
Denis frowned in concentration.
"It sounds like we might be in the Smoky Mountains. We were in the right neighbourhood.
"That doesn't sound good," April said.
"It's not," Denis affirmed. "Parts of the Smokys are mostly inaccessible in winter.
"Great," said April.
"Have you tried the radio yet?" Denis asked.
"See for yourself." April pointed at the instrument panel. "The radio's smashed. It's not good for anything but spare parts now."
"I can't find mine," said April. "Does either of you still have yours?"
Mark found his, still, miraculously, in his breast pocket, and passed it over to her with his good hand.
"Here goes nothing," April said. "Open Channel D." The only response was static. She gave D several more tries, then cycled through the other continental channels. None of them produced a reply.
Forcing herself to stay calm, April searched through the cabin till she found the other two communicators and tried them. To no avail.
"Damn," Mark said.
"Well, gentlemen, it looks like we're not getting help any time soon." She looked at them both. "We have to look after our immediate needs. Which means staying warm and ..."
"Setting these breaks," Mark completed. "You're going to have to do that, love."
"I know," April said, trying not to sound as grim as she felt.
"I don't want to be ungrateful," Denis said, "but when did you do your last first aid qualifier?"
"Two months ago. And don't worry; I was top of the class."
"I was in that class too," Mark said. "She's a butcher."
"Just for that, I'm starting with you."
"Just having a lark," Mark said in mock alarm.
"It makes sense. If your arm is done, you can help me with Denis."
"Nice girl like you using logic. You've been hanging around Illya too long."
"I'm going to tell him you said that, when we get out of here."
"I hope you have that chance."
"Remind me never to come between you two," Denis said. "I bet you just talk Thrush to death."
"Sometimes," April said with a smile, before getting down to the task at hand.
She made a quick trip outside to cut branches for splints, then sorted through their luggage for clothes she could tear into strips.
Then she set Mark's arm.
She'd only done this for real once before, and it hadn't been a pleasant experience then, either. She could hear the ends of the bone grind together and saw Mark's face go white, then a greenish shade. She stamped out her own nausea and finished the job as quickly as she could.
Splinting Denis' break took even more work. She had to drag him into the main cabin area, grumbling at why all pilots seemed to be six feet tall and ignoring the choked off sounds of pain the two times she caught his leg on the wreckage of the plane.
Mark held Denis as still as he was able while she splinted the break, hoping all the time that she wasn't making anything worse.
The breaks dealt with, she then rooted through the cabin to find anything to keep them warm. There were four emergency blankets in the cabin's first aid kit, but not much else. She wished that she and Mark had been bound for Aspen, not New Orleans. Their luggage would have contained more useful clothes than the lightweight suits and shirts it did now. Still, she gathered together what she could and got them all bundled up and as warm as they could get under the circumstances.
As they lay huddled in the cabin, sharing what body warmth they could and shivering slightly, April started to consider what their next move should be. They were alive and as warm as they could manage, but they had no food, except for two slightly melted chocolate bars, and no way to call the outside world. No one knew where they were and there were only hours left till nightfall. There was really only one choice.
"I've got to go find help."
"No," Mark said, with vehemence. "Absolutely not."
"It's the only way we're all getting out of this, Mark. You know that."
"It's a blizzard out there, and you don't have proper clothes."
"The snow's tapering off and I can use layers and a blanket to keep warm out there. I've even got my hiking boots, so my feet will be fine."
"No," Mark repeated.
"She's right," Denis said. "She is our only hope."
"Experienced outdoorsmen lose their way in snowstorms, April."
"I'm not inexperienced myself, Mark. And I've got a compass."
"You've got no chance."
"I'm the only chance we have."
They were all quiet for a minute, then Denis spoke up again.
"You have to let her go, Mark. It's the only way."
Mark held her gaze with a quiet desperation for several more long minutes before lowering his lashes in resignation.
"You're both right," he admitted at last. "You're right, even though I don't like it."
"What's your plan?" Denis asked.
"I'm going to head for the top of that ridge," she nodded toward the rear of the plane, "and see if I can pick up anyone on one of the communicators. If I can't, I'll pick a direction and start walking."
"Head south," Denis said. "If we are where I think we are, south is your best bet for finding a town. Or a road."
"Then that's what I'll do."
She got ready in silence, scavenging clothes from her bags and Mark's, putting Denis' cap on her head and wrapping herself in an emergency blanket.
"I'll be back with help."
"Good luck," Denis said.
"Take care of yourself, love," Mark said.
"Don't worry, Mark. Thrush hasn't killed me yet. A stupid snowstorm isn't going to manage the job."
With a smile she only half felt, she stepped out into the weather and closed the plane's door tightly behind her.
She slogged through the drifts, trying to use her energy as wisely as possible. The snow seemed to glow in the late afternoon light. When she had been travelling about fifteen minutes, she looked behind her, amazed at how small the plane looked behind her and at how hard it was to see it through the steadily falling snow.
Pulling the blanket around her more tightly, she pushed on.
Their Scrabble game abandoned, Illya and Napoleon spent the remainder of the afternoon alternately in silence or telling Amy about some of the more outrageous, non-secret scrapes Mark and April had gotten into since being partnered.
Dinner came with the caterers. They only set things up in the kitchen and dining room before being shooed back to their own homes by Amy.
Illya supposed the food must have been excellent, but he could barely taste any of it. Still, he ate out of habit, and because he had a very good idea that Napoleon and Amy would strap him down and force feed him if he tried to skip the meal.
Napoleon only picked at his food. Amy tried to keep up enough conversation for them all while looking on with concern at them both.
It was a relief when dessert was over.
Amy must have realized where her nephew's heart really was, because her first words when the last drop of coffee had been consumed were, "I suppose you're going to your office immediately."
"There must be something I can do," he said. "I hate waiting here. Or anywhere."
"I'm coming, too," Illya said, hoping to circumvent the objections he knew were coming.
"You can't, Illya. You're not fit for duty yet." He looked at his aunt. "You tell him. He'll listen to you."
"What do you want me to do: tie him up and keep him here?"
A look crossed Napoleon's face that suggested that was exactly what he'd like his aunt to do, but his sense of survival was too keen to suggest that within Illya's hearing. Instead, he merely shrugged his shoulders.
"Fine. I suppose we're both going to headquarters."
As they got their coats, Amy called them a cab. She fiercely hugged them both before wishing them good luck.
It was dusk as they left the apartment building. The soft glow of twilight suffused the air. A light snowfall had begun, bestowing a measure of stillness on a city that, even on Christmas Day, could not be considered quiet. Illya almost found himself enjoying the snow, until he remembered that the same storm making New York look picturesque had taken down the plane of his friends and colleagues.
The cab took them down the island to headquarters. They found the mood within the building sombre from the moment they entered Del Floria's. The girl at reception, a relatively new recruit, had reddened eyes and a hand that shook, slightly, when she gave them their badges. Illya, remembering that Mark had dated the girl briefly, gave her what he hoped was a reassuring smile as they passed inside.
The communications room was filled with people. Not only was there a full contingent of communication operators overseen by a hovering Alexander Waverly, but there were also a number of off-duty Enforcement agents, mostly from the junior ranks. Chris Spicer, the unofficial social director of the junior agents was there with her partner, Tom Reeves. So was Luke Santos, who had been in Enforcement for mere months and whose first big assignment had been to assist in getting Illya out of Egret's lair. There were numerous others that Illya knew only by sight.
At the centre of it all was Waverly himself, barking out orders and presiding over the room like a mostly benevolent dictator. Lisa Rogers haunted his shoulder, acting professional but obviously worried. As Illya would have expected. She and April had become quite good friends.
"Mr. Solo," Waverly said, his voice rumbling across the room, "I thought I told you not to come in. And Mr. Kuryakin is not even on active duty yet."
"Well, sir, I felt as CEA that I should be here. And I couldn't convince Illya to stay put."
"Indeed," Waverly grumbled. "I suppose you might as well stay, now that you're here. And do find Mr. Kuryakin a seat, before he falls over."
Illya gratefully took the seat offered by Luke Santos, even as he cursed the weakness that made it necessary.
"Is there any news?" Napoleon asked.
"Nothing," Waverly said. "We have four planes running a search grid, but the area they need to cover is enormous. And we've heard nothing from Miss Dancer, Mr. Slate or Mr. Béart."
"Denis was flying?" Illya asked.
"Well, that's something. He trained in northern Quebec. If anyone could have gotten them down safely, it's Denis."
"Is there anything we can do, sir?" Napoleon asked.
"Just stay out of the way, Mr. Solo. We'll let you know if there's anything you can do." Waverly stalked away, leaving them to commiserate with Spicer and the other agents who were there because of their friendships with the missing agents.
The next few hours were both tense and tedious. The worry over their friends didn't abate, but there was really nothing they could do about it, other than wait. So the agents engaged in quiet conversation with each other, or sat in silent contemplation.
Then, slightly after nine o'clock, something happened.
One of the communications technicians, Alice Headley, bent over her console a little more intently and began furiously adjusting her controls. Illya noticed the change in her demeanour immediately, and focused on her actions. Soon, all the agents were watching her.
After several minutes, she pulled off her headphones and caught Waverly's attention.
"Sir, I think I have something."
As soon as Headley spoke those words, all other conversation ceased. The room was so quiet that Illya could hear the slow hiss of the ventilation system and the subtle beeps of the equipment. His own breath was harsh in his ears.
"Well, don't just sit there. Put it on the speakers."
At first, Illya could hear nothing but static. Then, gradually, he began to hear a human voice in the mix."
"...nel D, can you...Mayday...crashed in...location"
"That's April," Illya said. Napoleon only nodded in agreement.
"Can she hear us?" Waverly said.
"Possibly, but it's hard to tell."
"Can you improve the signal at all?" Waverly asked.
"No sir. She must be quite far from a ground station. And we don't have access to Telstar at the moment."
"Get access to Telstar, woman. I don't care who you have to inconvenience in the process."
"Is there anything else we can do in the meantime?"
"We can probably triangulate on her location. I'll need to get as many other stations to home in on her signal as possible."
The woman didn't need to be told twice. She immediately started raising other Command offices and transmitting April's frequency to them.
There was a strained thirty minutes as the technician kept monitoring April's signal and conferring with her colleagues in different offices. It was difficult work, since April's communications seemed to come only every ten minutes, but eventually they received the good news.
"Sir, I think I've got a location."
"Well, where is it?" Waverly said impatiently.
"She seems to be in Smoky Mountain National Park. On a small ridge, on the North Carolina side of the park." She checked her map a second time. "And there's a Ranger station twenty miles from her location."
"Contact our search teams and send them to Miss Dancer's location. And get hold of that Ranger station and see if they can assist."
"Yes sir," the technician said, then got straight to her task.
The watching agents all relaxed visibly and began to hug each other with relief. Illya was amused when even the CEA and his partner received a few friendly pats on the arm from agents who, temporarily forgot to be awed by the most senior team in New York.
Just as he was beginning to think that everything was fine, that his friends were all going to be all right, another thought struck him. His spine tensed up immediately.
Napoleon noticed the change in his partner right away. He took Illya's elbow and whispered in his ear.
"What's wrong? They're okay."
"April is okay," Illya said softly. "But what about Mark? And Denis. We don't know if they're alive or dead."
Napoleon's expression sobered up as well.
"I see your point." He looked at the celebrating agents surrounding them. "But let's keep it to ourselves for now. No need to borrow trouble."
Illya nodded in agreement.
Thereafter, they both tried to act confident and assured, and did a fine job of it. But Illya knew his own act was hollow to the core.
Eskimos lived like this, April told herself. Countless generations of Eskimos had grown up in places like this and lived very happy lives and not frozen to death.
But then, Eskimos had proper igloos and sealskin parkas and boots. They didn't have a hollowed out snow cave barely big enough to hold them, a flimsy blanket to keep themselves warm and hiking boots that weren't high enough to keep out the wet.
April pulled said blanket around herself and tried to convince herself that she was warm. And failed miserably.
Looking at her watch, she saw another ten minutes had gone by, so she pulled out the communicator and tried yet again to make contact with headquarters. Or anyone else.
"Open Channel D. This is April Dancer. Can you hear me?" She paused, hoping that she would hear something, anything, except static. And yet again, the static was all there was. Except once. Once she had been certain that she'd heard Waverly himself bellowing over the static. But she knew she'd been imagining it. Wishful thinking, nothing else.
She felt the shivers wracking her body more regularly now. That wasn't good, but it wasn't the worst. She knew that she was going to be in a lot more trouble when she stopped shivering, when she didn't have the energy to shiver. When it would be far easier to simply lie down and fall asleep.
She shook herself. She wasn't going to die in this stupid cave. A cave that she'd clawed out with her gloved hands. Because she was a fighter. And because she wasn't just fighting for herself. If she didn't make it, Denis didn't make it. Mark didn't make it. And that just wasn't acceptable.
That was when she heard it, the sound of an engine, circling slowly, somewhere overhead.
At first she thought she was imagining it, like she'd imagined hearing Waverly through the static, but the sound didn't fade like Waverly's voice had. It got louder, got closer.
Finally, when she was sure it was real, positive it wasn't some hallucination her frozen brain had cooked up to give her hope, she moved. Forced her cold-stiffened muscles into action and stumbled out of the cave.
It was dark out, the snow dimly illuminated by a sliver of moon. Dark, but she could see the plane, circling over her, blocking out the stars as it passed.
She started yelling, screaming, jumping up and down. Willing the pilot to see her, to notice her, to rescue her. Because they had to be looking for her. They must be. Why else would a plane be circling in the middle of nowhere on Christmas Day? And all the time the plane was getting further away.
She nearly cried with frustration. She jammed a hand into a pocket to keep it warm, and found the one thing she should have thought of immediately.
"You're an idiot, April Dancer," she chided herself. "Let's just hope you're a lucky idiot."
She lit the flare that Mark had given her from the plane's emergency kit. Lit it and waved it and jumped around.
And the plane turned around. Turned around and flew past her and waggled its wings. It was low enough that she could see the pilot and two other people inside waving back at her, all smiles.
This time she did start crying. Tears of relief and exhaustion and happiness that it was all over. Or nearly over. Would be over when she was off this mountain and Mark and Denis were in a hospital and they were all warm again.
The tears didn't last long. Above all she was a professional, a member of the Command, the first female Enforcement agent. The April Dancer who was picked up by the rescue helicopter was grateful for her rescue, concerned about the colleagues who were still left in the plane, but otherwise calm and collected.
The effort cost her dearly, but it was the price of working for U.N.C.L.E., for Waverly, and she paid it. Though not quite gladly.
For the next hour, the U.N.C.L.E. communications room was filled with a quiet tension. The technicians were entirely focussed on doing their jobs. The muted conversation of the Enforcement agents haunting the room had virtually ceased as they followed the progress of the rescue. Each fresh success was greeted with increasingly optimistic murmurs that quickly dissipated as the wait began for the next news.
April's broadcast had been heard; April had been seen by the spotter plane; April had been picked up by the helicopter--that last report had brought a subdued cheer. But the news that really brought the house down, that had Enforcement agents pounding each other on the back, technicians whooping and even Mr. Waverly cracking a genuine smile, right before he yelled at everyone and threatened to throw the lot of them out, was when the helicopter crew found Mark and Denis in the wreckage of their plane. Found them battered and cold and hungry, but alive. They were all alive. U.N.C.L.E. had not lost a single agent to Thrush or the weather or an act of God. Not on this Christmas day.
Illya couldn't stop smiling himself, not even when he thought of the damage such a display of rampant emotionalism would do to his aloof reputation. He even returned the hug bestowed on him by Chris Spicer, surprising her as much as himself.
Illya and Napoleon stayed in the communications room until after midnight, even as the other agents began drifting out, heading home, or out on their own assignments. They waited as they found out that April, Mark and Denis were being transported to hospital in Nashville. Waited until the Nashville hospital reported that April would only have to stay in for a day's observation, while Mark and Denis would be held a few days longer, to make sure there were no complications from their injuries.
Illya had hoped that they would be able to talk to April, but apparently all three agents had succumbed to exhaustion as soon as they were sure they were safe. And Illya couldn't blame them.
He felt his own eyes growing gritty with sleep as the clock ticked its way towards one o'clock. But he didn't realize that he had drifted to sleep in his chair until he felt a touch at his elbow.
"I think it's time to get you home," Napoleon said.
"I'm fine," Illya said, not entirely convincingly.
"I believe you, Illya. Really, I do. But I'm not sure that Medical will when you've ended up back in the infirmary. Not to mention the fact that they threatened to kill me if I didn't look after you when they let you out early."
"Blackmailer," Illya said, an accusatory look in his eye.
"Yup," Napoleon answered, looking entirely too pleased with himself.
Before they could argue further, fate, in the shape of Alexander Waverly, intervened.
"Mr. Solo, would you please take Mr. Kuryakin home? It's unseemly to have agents sleeping on U.N.C.L.E. premises."
"Fine," Illya said. "Since you're all so obviously conspiring against me, I concede." He forced himself to stand, unwilling to bear the ignominy of not leaving under his own power.
"And I'm ordering reception not to let him back into the building until he's fully recovered," Waverly bellowed after them as they left the room.
Illya tried to make an indignant response, but he couldn't quite muster the energy for anything except a baleful glare. Which Napoleon cheerfully ignored.
Illya had no idea how they got home, except for a vague suspicion that Napoleon had scandalously misused U.N.C.L.E.'s resources. But by whatever means, fair or foul, he found himself in his pyjamas in his own bed, with Napoleon's arms wrapped tightly around him.
Struggling against sleep, he forced his eyes open.
"Was it a good Christmas, doushka moy?" he asked.
Napoleon didn't answer right away, and Illya knew why: it had been one hell of a day. But all had ended well. Their friends were alive and safe, they were together. And that was what it all came down to.
"Yes, I believe it was, mon coeur," Napoleon said, holding him closer.
And with that, Illya drifted into a deep sleep that, for the moment, was unshadowed by nightmares.
God rest ye merry gentlemen
Let nothing you dismay...
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