The noise inside the helicopter is fierce, but Illya doesn't notice it at all. His attention is elsewhere, his concentration focussed on the steady beep in his headphones, the one indication of their target's location.
"E.T.A. five minutes," the pilot says. Illya nods in acknowledgement. He struggles to stay professional, to stay calm, but what he really wants to do is to yell and scream, to force the chopper to fly faster by sheer force of will. But he won't. He'll stay composed and cool, as everyone expects him to. Or almost everyone.
Someone squeezes his shoulder, and he looks up to meet the eyes of April Dancer and Mark Slate. They know him well, too well, and they know what he must be feeling.
"He'll be fine," April says. "We'll be there in time."
Illya finds his throat has closed up--it must be the dry air in the cockpit--and he can only nod and blink in response.
They will be there in time. They have to be.
If Alexander Waverly had his way, Christmas Eve would have been like any other day for the United Network Command for Law and Enforcement. Fortunately for his agents and employees, Mr. Waverly had long ago been convinced that even men and women dedicated to maintaining justice in the world needed a holiday once in a while, and the day found the New York headquarters working on a skeleton staff.
Thrush seemed to have a similar attitude toward the holidays and was causing less trouble than usual. As Illya arrived at the New York offices, there was a festive feeling in the air. The young woman manning the entrance was handing out candy canes with badges, tinsel decorated the hallways and Illya thought he saw a sprig of mistletoe in the commissary as he strode past on his way to his office.
He couldn't help but feel more than slightly festive himself. He supposed it was bad form for a good citizen of the Soviet Union to enjoy a decadent Western religious holiday quite so much, but Christmas was one day he had no immunity from. He enjoyed the decorations and the music. He enjoyed exchanging presents with his friends. And most of all he enjoyed the food.
Christmas dinner in New York was a different affair from what he had been used to growing up in the Ukraine, and even in Moscow, but it was absolutely satisfying for all that. Every year for the past three years, Napoleon's Aunt Amy had invited them to her penthouse for Christmas dinner. Amy was a lovely woman with impeccable taste and her cook made the best roast turkey and stuffing that Illya had ever tasted. Not to mention her cookies. His mouth began watering just thinking about them.
It was precisely in order to avoid missing out on Christmas dinner, not to mention Napoleon's company, that Illya had moved heaven and earth to make it back to headquarters before Christmas Day. Mr. Waverly had sent him on a solo assignment to observe a possible Thrush outpost in the wilds of northern Manitoba. When the potential enemies of freedom had turned out only to be a group of poachers, Illya had turned them over to the local authorities, then spent the better part of a twenty-four hours travelling on snowmobiles, in bush planes and in transport trucks before arriving at the Winnipeg airport and boarding a flight to New York.
He strode through the halls with a spring in his step and a smile on his face. When the extremely formidable Agent Kuryakin wished a group from the translation department a very Happy Christmas--his English training had stuck and he'd never gotten used to North Americans' "Merry Christmas"--he gave them their thrill of the month.
He reached his destination, Napoleon's office, and strode through the door, only to find the room deserted. "Napoleon, where are you?" he muttered under his breath. He hoped that Waverly had not found a last minute assignment for his partner. They had planned to have dinner with April and Mark tonight at their favourite diner and exchange gifts with their friends.
He checked his own office, to make sure Napoleon wasn't waiting for him there, then headed for the office April and Mark shared down the hall.
"April, have you seen Napoleon?"
"Hello Mark, how are you? How was your day?" Mark said with a laugh.
Illya only spared Mark a sardonic glance before turning back to April.
"Ignore him, Illya. He's been doing paperwork all day and he's cranky."
"I am not cranky."
"See," April said with an arched eyebrow.
Illya ignored his friends' banter and repeated his question. "Have you seen Napoleon?"
"He's not in his office?" April asked.
"No sign of him."
"Hmm. Mark, do you know where he is?"
"He popped his head in here a couple of hours ago, when you were out. "
"And..." April prompted.
"You don't remember what he said." April assumed her best sceptical face, the one she saved for irritating Thrush and frustrating partners.
"I was working on a STK-501 form, and you know how much of a pain in the arse those are."
"Yeah, it's so annoying to have to justify blowing up a building."
"I might remind you that you were the one who supplied the explosives."
"This is very interesting, but it's not helping me find Napoleon." Illya leaned against the door, arms crossed, and bestowed his best withering glare on the two younger agents.
"Sorry, Illya," Mark said. "Let me think." He pursed his lips and tapped his pen against the desk for a few seconds while he concentrated. "He said he was going on a courier run with one of the rookie Enforcement Agents to LaGuardia and he'd be back in a couple of hours."
"When was that?"
Mark looked at his watch. "Three hours ago."
"I'm sure it's just traffic, Illya," April said. "It's bound to be bad tonight. Christmas Eve and all. Everyone's trying to get home to their family."
"I'm sure you're right. But just in case..." Illya reached into his breast pocket and pulled out his communicator. "Open Channel D. Napoleon."
They waited a full two minutes, but there was no answer in response.
"Maybe his communicator has malfunctioned," Mark suggested.
"Maybe," Illya said, his festive mood evaporating.
"It can't be anything else, Illya. It's Christmas Eve. Thrush almost never tries anything on the holidays."
"It's the 'almost' that worries me," Illya said, and started out the door.
"Where are you going?" April called after him.
"Communications room," he called back. "Maybe they know more."
The helicopter lands in a deserted part of Long Island, near the shore. The landscape is sere and forbidding, dead grasses covered by new snow. The homing signal from a communicator has brought them here, but at first Illya can see no human beings in the darkness.
The pilot swings the chopper's light across grasses and rocks, and at last Illya's eye picks out...something. Something that doesn't belong here, something that might be the huddled figures of two men.
He's out of the chopper before anyone else, running and stumbling across a field made slick by snow and ice. He hears two people following him and knows without looking that it will be April and Mark. The medics they have brought with them will not be as fast as three Enforcement Agents.
His breath sounds harsh in his ears, sounds louder than the blades of the helicopter behind him, as his strides cover the distance to the two figures. And then he's upon them, and he stops abruptly.
He hears April and Mark pull up behind him.
"No," someone says, quietly, and he's never sure which one of them it is.
The Communications room was busier than any of them would have expected on Christmas Eve. Two technicians were frantically checking their consoles and listening intently to their headphones. Speakers piped an ominous static into the room.
Seconds after Illya, April and Mark arrived, Alexander Waverly entered the room, a grim look on his face.
"Have you heard any more, Miss Logan?" Waverly asked one of the technicians, ignoring his Enforcement Agents.
"No sir. Just the original transmission."
"Keep trying, Miss Logan." Waverly next turned his attention to Illya. "I suppose you know what's happening."
"No sir. I don't. But Napoleon was overdue and I couldn't raise him on his communicator."
"Indeed." Waverly took a puff on his pipe. "Miss Logan and her colleague haven't been able to raise Mr. Solo either, but they did hear briefly from Mr. Richmond, the agent Mr. Solo was accompanying. Miss Logan, could you tell Mr. Kuryakin what Mr. Richmond said?"
Miss Logan was a dark-haired, dark-eyed young woman who always showed supreme confidence in her job, but now she hesitated, just for a moment.
"Miss Logan," Waverly said. "We're waiting."
"Mr. Richmond only said two words before we lost contact. 'Man down.'"
Illya said nothing, felt nothing. It was as if he'd found himself suddenly outside of time, watching dispassionately as other human beings struggled with rage, with grief, with despair. None of those things could touch him, not for the moment.
"Just man down. There was no other communication?" April's voice sounded steady and firm.
"Nothing else. Except..." Miss Logan hesitated and Illya saw her eyes dart in his direction.
"Except what?" April asked.
Miss Logan took a deep breath before answering. "Except that I heard gunfire before we lost the signal completely.
"Did Richmond sound like he'd been hit?" Mark asked.
The technician shook her head. "He sounded panicked, but unhurt."
"So, Napoleon was the man down," Illya said, the blanket of shock still shielding him from his emotions.
"We don't know that, Illya," April said vehemently.
"But it is likely." His emotions might have been mislaid, but his cold rationality was functioning as well as ever.
"We'll have no speculating," Alexander Waverly said. "And I must insist that you three leave this room and let these young women do their job. If they don't locate Mr. Richmond and Mr. Solo, we may never know what happened."
April began to protest, but Illya knew when to choose his battles and when to make a strategic retreat, so he placed a hand on April's shoulder and drew her out of the room.
Once out in the hall, the protective blanket that had been protecting him from his emotions dissolved. He sagged against the wall as concern and frustration and anger overwhelmed him.
"Are you okay, Illya?" Mark asked.
"I should have been with him. It should have been me watching his back, not a novice."
"You can't do anything about that now, old man. We have to wait for Communications to find them, and then we can go to their rescue. But for now, why don't you come to our office and we'll make you a nice cup of tea."
In spite of the turmoil roiling through his gut, Illya found he could still laugh after all. "Spoken like a true Englishman, Mark."
He let himself be led back in the direction of the Enforcement offices, let April and Mark put a mug of tea in his hands, but he couldn't drink it. He just kept hold of the mug while the tea went cold in his hands.
April and Mark kept up a steady patter, but he couldn't concentrate on what they were saying. His thoughts were with Napoleon. He couldn't help thinking that this wouldn't have happened if he'd been with Napoleon. He wished that he'd been shot instead of his friend and partner. He even considered brokering a deal with a deity that he'd never believed in, just so long as Napoleon survived.
He'd never quite felt like this before. Not that he was unfamiliar with death. He'd known death since childhood. No one in Kiev during the war had escaped without making death's acquaintance; he's been intimate with death since childhood. He'd had friends and family die; he'd killed, and had colleagues killed in return. And through it all he'd coped, he'd managed, he'd survived.
But Napoleon's death was unthinkable. Staring down into his cold tea, he tried to fathom why. And came up with a remarkable answer.
He loved the bastard.
Not like a friend, though he felt that way as well. No, he was in love with him, passionately and overwhelmingly. He nearly started laughing, it was such an unexpected development. Napoleon was missing, probably suffering from a gunshot wound, possibly dying or dead, and Illya'd had the revelation that he was in love with him? It was ridiculous.
But not without precedent. Illya knew himself well enough to accept that he was attracted to men, had acted on that attraction once or twice. And Napoleon was a handsome man, and the best friend he had in the world.
So, he was in love with him.
But it didn't make a damned bit of difference. Love did not conquer all, it didn't defeat Thrush, and it certainly wouldn't keep his partner alive. So, he thrust this unwelcome bit of self-knowledge in the cellar of his subconscious and slammed the door shut.
For now, he would deal with reality. He would only unlock his hopes if there was a chance of them being fulfilled.
The sound of the door opening disturbed his reverie, and he looked up to find Alexander Waverly looking at them all with impatience.
"We've got a homing beacon coming from one of their communicators. It's coming from Long Island."
"Let's go get them," Illya said.
One man is lying on his back in the snow. The other is kneeling over him, his hands pressed tight over the other man's gut. If Illya looks closely, he knows he will see blood welling up between bone white fingers.
David Richmond looks up at Illya. "They shot him," he says. "They just shot him. There was nothing I could do." Richmond's voice is steady, but his face is wet with tears.
"Get the medics over here," Illya says. Or maybe he yells the words; he isn't sure. Then he kneels beside Napoleon and takes Richmond's position, his hands putting pressure on the wound, keeping Napoleon alive. Mark leads Richmond away, back to the helicopter. April stays and holds Napoleon's hand while Illya tries to stop the terrible flow of blood.
He can feel Napoleon's pulse, can feel the blooding welling around his hands. Napoleon shifts away from him, tries to push his hands away, tries to pull away from the pain that Illya knows he is inflicting. But there's no other way, and he knows it.
"Stay still, Napoleon," he says. "We're trying to save your life."
Napoleon's eyes flicker at his voice.
"Illya?" Napoleon says. But it doesn't sound like his partner's voice; it's too fragile, too quiet.
"I'm here, Napoleon. We're going to take you to the hospital."
"Good," is all he says before his eyes fall shut again.
Illya is just about to yell again for the medics when they appear. Reluctantly, he yields his place, letting the experts ply their craft. Their job is to keep Napoleon alive, and they will do that as well as they can.
April is at his elbow, standing with him as the medics stabilize Napoleon enough to move him. Once his partner is on the stretcher, it is April who guides Illya back to the helicopter.
He doesn't ask about Napoleon's chances. None of them do. They can see how much blood he's lost, can see that he's gut shot. They all know what that means.
Neither does Illya think about his revelation, about how much he loves the man whose blood now stains his hands, about what it will do to him to lose Napoleon.
But Illya does cling to something else he knows: Napoleon Solo is one of the luckiest men alive. He's survived countless affairs that would have killed other agents, have killed other agents. And he's stubborn, almost as stubborn as Illya, although he wears the trait more gracefully. No, Napoleon will survive this.
He has to.
From the moment the Thrush agent's gun fired, Napoleon was trapped in a nightmare from which there was no waking. And all because he'd been bored.
When Illya was sent off to the wilds of northern Canada, he'd been stuck at headquarters with not much to do. There were no major operations in the offing, no crises that needed his attention. He had nothing to do but wait for Illya to return from Manitoba and fill out the year-end reports that were his responsibility as Chief Enforcement Agent, reports that he'd half-hoped he could rope Illya into helping with.
He'd been so spoiling for some excitement, or even some mild activity, that he had jumped at taking the courier run to LaGuardia. But he knew that Waverly would frown on his CEA doing such a menial task, so he needed to come up with a justification, however flimsy. Looking through the agent roster, he noticed that one of his rookie agents was similarly at loose ends while his partner recovered from a minor injury. The opportunity was perfect: he would assign David Richmond to the courier job, and accompany him on the grounds that he could get to know the young man. It would also be a boost to Section 2 morale, knowing that the boss wasn't averse to taking the small jobs.
One snap decision made out of boredom, and Napoleon sealed his own fate.
Napoleon had enjoyed playing the role of the beneficent mentor so much--drawing out personal details from Richmond, offering him advice--that he hadn't noticed the car following them until it was far too late. They were run off the road on a deserted section of highway, and three goons he recognized as minor players in the Thrush hierarchy emerged from the car to confront them.
If Illya had been his companion on this job, he wouldn't have even broken a sweat--the two of them had confronted far worse odds and emerged unscathed--but being here with an untried agent caused him more than a bit of trepidation. Still, the kid had been through Survival School and Jules Cutter. He put his trust in his temporary partner, took shelter behind the car door, and began returning the fire that was being directed his way. Richmond did the same on his side of the car.
For a minute, he thought that all was going to work out, but then everything went wrong. Something rattled Richmond, probably a bullet hitting closer than he'd expected, and the young man broke cover, leaving himself totally exposed.
Napoleon saw the danger and reacted the only way he could. Swinging in front of their car, he ran at Richmond, hoping he could tackle him and take them both out of harm's way before their Thrush friends got a clear aim.
He nearly made it.
He was a foot from Richmond when he heard the bullet. At first, he wasn't even aware that he'd been hit, just that something had made him stop where he stood. He looked down and saw a neat hole had opened up in his coat. As he watched, thick, red blood began to well from the hole.
The pain hit then, a ripping sensation worse than any he could remember. Clutching his belly, he dropped to the ground. He tried to keep lucid, to understand what was going on around him, but everything started to dissolve into a red haze.
He knew he heard Richmond's voice screaming, thought he heard the phrase "man down," then rough hands grabbed him and he was thrown into the back of the Thrush car. He thought Richmond was in the car, in the front seat, but he wasn't sure.
His captors drove quickly, exiting from the highway as soon as they could. Each bump in the road was like a fresh bullet in Napoleon's gut, the pain making him fade in and out of consciousness.
Finally, the car stopped. The unkind hands grabbed him again, bringing him fresh pain, and he was thrown onto the snow-covered ground. He heard a thump beside him and struggled to open his eyes. Richmond was beside him. He appeared beaten, but otherwise unhurt.
He was kicked, and curled into a ball to protect himself. He thought he heard laughter, then the snap of metal breaking. He looked up in time to see both of the communicators fall to the ground, broken and useless.
There was the sound of a car's engine starting up again, and the Thrush henchmen drove off, leaving them alone in a deserted field as the light faded into dusk.
A sob of frustration pulled at his throat as he struggled, and failed to sit up.
"Mr. Solo, you shouldn't move." Richmond's voice sounded shaky, and his hands trembled as he pressed them against the wound on Napoleon's belly.
He struggled against Richmond. He knew he was going to bleed to death unless they got help soon. And there was only one way that help could reach them even close to soon enough.
"Richmond," he said, shocked by how weak his own voice was. "Listen." He stopped and tried to catch his breath before continuing.
"Homing. Beacon." He gasped out the two words and then nearly blacked out, the small effort required to speak being almost too much for him. He just hoped that the kid understood what needed to be done.
His hope grew as he felt Richmond take his hands away. Forcing his eyes open, he saw Richmond pick up the two ruined communicators. After too many close calls and dead agents, Section 3 had asked Communications to redesign the devices. Even if the basic communications capability of the new ones was destroyed, they could still be modified to work as a basic homing beacon.
Napoleon drifted in and out of consciousness for the next few minutes, always waking to hear Richmond working at his side. Finally he came back to consciousness to find hands once again staunching the flow of blood from his wound.
"Here, sir. I think I've got the homing beacon working. They should find us soon."
"Good boy," Napoleon said, and then darkness claimed him for good.
The next few days Napoleon was trapped in a cycle of nightmares. He went through the shooting endless times. Sometimes the Thrush henchman pulled the trigger; sometimes it was Angelique. Sometimes he was shot; sometimes Richmond took the bullet. But no matter the outcome of the nightmares, they were all washed in red and pain, coloured by his struggle to survive.
But twined through the nightmares were moments of lucidity, brief snatches of time when pain was still present, but dread did not rule all. And each of those times, Illya was there for him. Illya's hands, his voice, his presence brought Napoleon reassurance and comfort when he needed them most.
Illya had become his lifeline, his reminder of what the world was like outside of hospital walls. He'd become the most important person in his world. In fact, Napoleon realized, he'd been that for months; years, even.
But he wondered what, exactly, did that mean?
Hazel eyes stare across the room at him, taking his measure, daring him to move. The eyes are no longer haunted by the pain that has shadowed them for these long weeks. Another emotion lies behind them, an emotion that Illya cannot read. Or does not want to read.
Illya returns the look, willing his own features to remain impassive. He will not reveal his own weakness; he will not expose his emotions.
Even so, he feels naked in front of this man, feels as if there is nothing he can hide. And perhaps the time for hiding is done.
The first twenty-four hours were the worst. Were always the worst.
The flight back to Manhattan was bad, with the medics trying to keep Napoleon stable, trying to slow the blood loss, until they got him to a hospital. Illya tried to keep out of the medics' way, while still staying close to Napoleon. It was irrational--Napoleon was unconscious for all but a few, brief seconds--but he needed to do it, needed to be there for Napoleon, even if his partner was barely conscious of his presence.
They landed at the New York helipad, where an ambulance waited to take Napoleon to Bellevue's trauma unit. Fortunately, the traffic was as sparse as it ever got in Manhattan and the trip took less time than usual. A good thing too, since to Illya's eyes Napoleon became paler and his breathing shallower with each passing block.
They were greeted at the hospital by a full trauma team. The ambulance attendants relinquished Napoleon to the doctors and nurses, and Illya found himself pushed to the fringes, worse than useless, a killer in the midst of healers.
He followed at a distance as Napoleon was taken to the trauma unit, using his U.N.C.L.E. ID like a weapon when a nurse tried to eject him. He accepted that he could not help, but he wouldn't be moved from Napoleon's side.
April and Mark stayed with him, uncharacteristically silent guardians, providing coffee and unspoken support in the face of the misfortune all Enforcement agents dreaded most: the injury of a partner.
When a doctor approached him, Illya tensed, fearing what the next minutes would bring.
"Mr. Kuryakin, you're Mr. Solo's partner?" The doctor--his nametag pronounced him Dr. Michaelson--was tall, skinny and young, with a shock of dark hair and wire-rim glasses.
"Yes. How is Napoleon?"
"He's been seriously injured, as I'm sure you're aware. He was shot in the abdomen, and there is not exit wound. We suspect the bullet hit his liver and possibly his spleen. We're just preparing to operate now."
Illya didn't want to ask the next question, but he had to. "What are his chances?"
Michaelson bit his lip and looked down at the clipboard in his hand. "We're not entirely sure yet. It will depend on how much damage the bullet has done and how well we can repair it."
"When will you know?"
"Two hours at the earliest. I'll have someone talk to you as soon as we have a better idea."
"Thank you." Illya looked over to where his partner was surrounded by nurses and equipment. He wasn't sure how he was managing to sound calm and reasonable when all he wanted was to scream at the doctors and nurses to do something, when what he truly wished for was ten minutes to wreak vengeance on the man who had done this to Napoleon.
Michaelson followed his gaze to where Napoleon lay. "We're prepping Mr. Solo for surgery now. Would you like to sit with him for a few minutes before we take him into the operating theatre?"
Illya nodded, and followed the doctor over to where Napoleon lay. A nurse brought a chair over, and he didn't so much sit down as have his legs give way beneath him. The nurse gave his shoulder a comforting squeeze, and it was a measure of his anxiety that he didn't shrug off the attempt at comfort.
"You can hold his hand, while we get him ready," the nurse said, and Illya followed her suggestion, taking up Napoleon's right hand in his own. The hand felt dry and boneless, barely alive, but Illya held onto it tightly, as if he could channel his own strength into Napoleon. He kept his eyes on Napoleon, focussing on his eyes, even though they were currently closed in an uneasy sleep.
"Live, tovarisch," he whispered. "Live."
Just then, Napoleon's eyes opened. It was only a slit, but they were open, and looking at Illya. He squeezed Napoleon's hand once, and deluded himself that he felt an answering pressure in return. And as quickly as that, Napoleon's eyes were once again closed.
Within minutes, the nurse was ushering Illya away from Napoleon and his partner was being wheeled away to face the surgeon's scalpel.
April and Mark were at his side immediately. They didn't speak, didn't bother telling all the polite lies that were so common at times like these. They just hugged him and then shepherded him outside to the waiting room.
He's caught Napoleon looking at him speculatively these last few weeks, staring at him as if he would discover a long-kept secret. But he's ignored the looks and buried his secret deeper and deeper, buried it until it threatens to spill from his lips every moment.
He clenches jaw and fists, determined to keep his peace for just a little longer. But he cannot keep his distance from Napoleon.
Illya moves across the living room and sits on the couch beside Napoleon. He turns again to face his partner, and is comforted by how much Napoleon has healed, how much strength has returned to him.
He's heartened by how much Napoleon has gained. And troubled by how much he himself has to lose.
"How is he? And no lies, Illya. I want to know the truth."
Illya hesitated before answering, not entirely sure what to say. He owed this woman truth, but he also owed her compassion. Amy Chapman was Napoleon's only living relative. Or at least, the only relative that Illya knew about. She doted on her nephew and had always been kind to his Soviet partner.
"He came through the surgery fine, and the doctors expect him to recover."
"But..." Amy knew him well enough that she could hear the unspoken word.
"But he's quite weak and there is a danger of infection. The bullet did a fair amount of damage and it took some time to find it." Illya paused and thought back to his first glimpse of Napoleon after the surgery. "You should also prepare yourself. You'll find him..." Illya cast around for a way to describe the fragility he'd found in Napoleon when he'd first come back from surgery, the diminishment. "Well, he's changed."
"Changed?" Amy looked alarmed.
"Nothing to worry about," Illya assured her. "But he looks, well, smaller. He's been through a lot." He looked down at his feet. "The nurses say he'll start to improve soon enough."
A hand took gentle hold of Illya's chin and tilted his face back up. Illya met Amy's eyes, and was momentarily shocked at how much they were like her nephew's, a rich hazel whose habitual good humour was temporarily muted by concern.
"Do you believe he will improve, Illya? In your heart?"
A swelling of emotion overwhelmed Illya, and he turned his head, looking away from eyes that were suddenly far too much like Napoleon's. He searched for the answer to the question. Did he believe Napoleon would improve, would recover? And he had only one answer, the only answer he had ever had: yes. A most emphatic yes.
"He will recover, Amy," he said, turning back to her with a confident look. "He's too stubborn not to."
He saw her sigh, and then she took his arm. "Well, let's go see the darling boy, shall we?"
He led her into Napoleon's room, and as always his first impression was of a maze of tubes surrounding his partner. There was a tube down his nose, and an I.V. in his arm. There was a drain in his side and he was still getting oxygen. And there was a multitude of equipment surrounding him. The man at the centre could not help but look smaller.
Illya looked over at Amy, and saw the shock on her face. Though he'd tried to warn her, he knew that nothing could really prepare someone for the change in Napoleon. But she was a strong woman, and the shock only lasted a moment. Then she straightened her shoulders and moved toward the bed.
"Napoleon," she said.
His eyes opened. To Illya, Napoleon's eyes were where the biggest change could be seen. They no longer sparkled with mischief and good humour, but were dulled by a combination of drugs and pain.
"Aunt Amy," he said, his voice barely audible.
She moved forward and took his hand, with Illya hovering behind her. "Illya tells me you're doing well."
"Illya is a big liar," Napoleon said, a flash of humour showing briefly in his face, before it was replaced with a grimace of pain.
"Are you okay, dear?" Amy said. "Do you need something?"
"Just...hurts," Napoleon said. What little voice he had was fading further and they had to lean close to hear him. His eyes closed, and he drifted back into a troubled sleep.
Amy stayed where she was, holding her nephew's hand for long minutes. When it was clear that he would not be waking up again, she gently placed his hand under the blanket and turned to leave. Illya followed her to the hall. When she turned to face him, he could see unshed tears in her eyes.
"You aren't lying to me, are you Illya? The doctors have really said that he will recover?"
Illya nodded. "They say it's serious, but that his chances are very good. He'll begin getting stronger very soon."
"Good." She surprised him then by throwing her arms around him. "You take care of him, Illya Kuryakin. I'm counting on you." She let go of him, and straightened up, restoring herself to her usual dignity. "And take care of yourself as well.
Illya nodded. "I will."
"I'll come by every day, but call me if there's any change."
He escorted her to the elevator, and then returned to his vigil.
He's learned a lot, sitting at Napoleon's bedside for long days and weeks, and not just that he loved the svoluch. He's learned that Napoleon's well-being, his continued existence, is the most important thing in his world. He's learned that he would make any bargain to save Napoleon's life. But he's also learned that he cannot keep his secret any longer, not even if it means that he'll never work with, never see Napoleon again.
Now that Napoleon is back home, Illya needs this to end. He needs to take the next step, whatever that step is. Needs to speak, needs to act.
Napoleon is staring at him with a frown. "What..." he begins to say, but Illya stops him with a shake of his head.
"No," Illya says. "No questions. Not yet. I have something to say first." He takes a deep breath and lets it out. And then he speaks.
He could hear them long before they reached the room, bickering like siblings as they strode down the hallway.
"I still can't believe you bought that for Napoleon."
"It's better than a bunch of grapes, Mark."
Illya turned to the bed with a grin. Napoleon only raised an eyebrow in answer.
"I'll have you know that bringing grapes to a patient in hospital is a long-standing tradition in England."
"Nobody does it here. It's just weird."
"And that's not weird?"
"There's a long-standing tradition of bringing...oh hello Illya," April said as she arrived in the room, her gift held proudly in her arms.
"A teddy bear?" Napoleon said, disbelief dripping from his words. "You brought me a teddy bear?"
"I thought he could keep you company after Illya's back on full duty."
"A teddy bear," Napoleon repeated, shaking his head.
"See, I told you it was weird," Mark said.
"Oh, I don't know," Illya said, taking the chocolate-coloured bear from April's arms, and plunking it down on the bed next to Napoleon. "It looks a bit like Napoleon, doesn't it?" He was only partially successful in keeping the smile off his face.
"It does not look like me." Napoleon threw the bear at Illya, hitting him squarely in the face.
"That actually hurt," Illya said, catching the errant bear and placing it on the nightstand, safely out of Napoleon's reach. "I think you're getting stronger."
"I've been telling you that for days," Napoleon said with a smug look on his face. "Maybe now you'll start believing me."
"I didn't believe you before because you'll say anything to get out of this place."
"Well, the food is atrocious," Napoleon appealed to April and Mark. "Even he won't eat it," he said, waving in the direction of his partner, who merely gave an innocent shrug.
"Napoleon needs to rebuild his strength. I don't want to steal his food."
"You'd steal food from a starving man if it was edible. Which the food here isn't."
"So, are they thinking of throwing you out of this place?" April asked as she plonked down in the visitor's chair.
"Yes," Napoleon said.
"Maybe," Illya said.
"The doctor said they'd release me tomorrow."
"If all your tests are positive."
"Which they will be."
"So you say."
"No fighting, you two," Mark said, breaking their momentum. "It's not like you both don't want Napoleon home."
"Home and well, Mark," Illya said, suddenly very serious indeed. He closed the distance between Napoleon and himself and laid a hand on Napoleon's shoulder. "Home and well."
"I am well," Napoleon said, equally serious for all that he was smiling. "You'll see." And Napoleon covered Illya's hand with his own.
They had been doing this more often lately, Illya had noticed, invading each other's physical space, sharing touches that were more about affection than the snarky playfulness they had been used to indulging in.
He was apparently not the only one who had noticed. Illya noticed April and Mark sharing a pointed glance before April turned an all-too innocent look in his direction. Before he could say anything in response, she jumped to her feet.
"Sorry to bring gifts and run, but we've got a plane to catch."
"An assignment?" Napoleon asked, sounding just the slightest bit wistful.
Mark nodded. "Mr. Waverly has asked us to attend to a situation in Mexico." He grinned. "It will be such a hardship, escaping a New York winter for the Mexican sun."
"I'm sure you'll manage," Napoleon said, laughing.
"We'll be back in a week," April said. "Maybe we can finally have that Christmas dinner you both missed." She pointed a finger at Illya. "You, look after him." The finger turned to Napoleon. "And you, don't give him any trouble."
"No ma'am," Napoleon said, with a hint of insolence.
April and Mark left happily debating the relative merits of tequila and cerveza.
Illya kept his hand on Napoleon's shoulder, enjoying the quiet closeness between them while he could. Soon enough Napoleon would leave the hospital, would return to work and he would no longer have an excuse to touch his partner quite so frequently.
Soon he will have to decide: risk all and reveal his love to Napoleon or hide that part of him forever.
Soon, but yet.
"Napoleon," he says, and then stops. He realizes he has no words for this. In spite of how much he's thought this through, in spite of all the speeches he's delivered in his mind, words have deserted him.
He's left with action.
He leans closer to Napoleon, moving slowly but steadily, keeping a firm grip on the courage that is letting him doing this. Or perhaps it's insanity.
Napoleon looks at him at he approaches, another speculative look to join the many he has given Illya in the last few weeks.
And then Illya is close enough and he can avoid this no longer; he kisses Napoleon.
It is not a passionate kiss, but neither can it be mistaken for the kiss of a friend; male friends do not kiss in this country. Illya feels Napoleon take a surprised breath as his lips cover Napoleon's. He closes his eyes and holds his own breath, waiting for a harsh word or a joke or a blow. But none of those imagined outcomes materialize.
Instead Napoleon's lips open under his, Napoleon's hand tentatively touches his face. He opens his eyes and sees hazel eyes meeting his with affection and pleasure and satisfaction. He risks more and wraps his arms around Napoleon, pulling his partner to him, enjoying the fact that he can, finally, do this without causing pain.
Their kisses grow more passionate, involving tongues and teeth as well as lips. Illya lets a hand drift under Napoleon's shirt, enjoying the feel of soft skin under his fingers, gently avoiding scars only recently healed. Napoleon's own hands are considerably less gentle, pulling Illya's turtleneck roughly out of the way.
Trousers are unzipped and pushed down. Illya stretches out on the couch, pulling Napoleon on top of him. Desire blazes hot within him as he writhes beneath naked skin and rucked up clothes. As they both approach the brink, Napoleon licks then bites his shoulder. The feeling of teeth on his skin drives him over the edge and he comes, arms locked around Napoleon, gentleness temporarily forgotten. Napoleon follows soon after, head thrown back, gasping with pleasure.
Illya rolls so that they are both on their sides on the narrow couch. As they catch their breaths, Illya allows his free hand to wander across Napoleon's body, caressing hip and ribs, face and neck. Napoleon does likewise.
Illya doesn't want to speak, doesn't want to break the spell that has led them to this place. It is Napoleon who finally breaks the silence.
"I just have one question," Napoleon says.
"And that is?"
"What took you so long?" The smile on Napoleon's face is nothing short of radiant.
For years afterwards, Illya is fond of pointing out the restraint he showed in kissing Napoleon instead of hitting him.
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