"Napoleon, watch out."
There was a crash as an irresistible force met an immovable object.
"Bozhe moi, Napoleon. Have you no sense?"
Illya did his best to look cross, but in his faded blue jeans and an old T-shirt he succeeded only in looking unbelievably young.
Napoleon Solo couldn't help it. In spite of his partner's irritation, in spite of the fact that he had just put a sizable dent in the side of a dresser he'd been given by his Aunt Amy, in spite of the fact that he usually hated moving more than just about any human endeavour, he smiled.
"Napoleon!" Blue eyes met his own with increasing exasperation. He tried to school his features, tried to appear serious, but his grin just got wider.
Illya was asking the impossible; he was too happy not to smile. It was a beautiful late fall day. The air was crisp and sharp, the sun was shining and the temperature, while cool, had no hint of snow in it yet.
And today they were moving in together. After today, Illya Kuryakin, partner, lover and curmudgeon, would share not only his life, but his living space. He was far too happy, and he didn't care who knew it. Not even one seriously annoyed Russian.
Napoleon put down the end of the dresser he was carrying and blew his partner a kiss. The action had the desired effect.
"Napoleon!" his partner repeated even more sharply. "Do you want the children to see."
There was clattering on the stairs behind them at that moment. A few seconds later April Dancer and Mark Slate appeared, loaded down with boxes.
"Do you want the children to see what?" April asked, a far too innocent expression on her face.
"Never mind what they don't want us to see. I resent being called 'the children,'" Mark responded, dropping the box he was carrying on the landing with a huff.
Illya had the good grace to appear just a little embarrassed, but otherwise ignored his younger co-workers. He simply picked up his end of the dresser, ready to begin hauling it up another flight of stairs. And since he wasn't feeling particularly suicidal, Napoleon decided to keep his mouth shut and help.
Unfortunately, Mark and April had no such worries for their persons.
"Don't worry about being called a child, Mark. After all, it was the senior citizens who said it."
Napoleon glanced back at April, his lips pursed. She had the temerity to return his look with a grin.
April was apparently feeling a bit less cheerful by the time they climbed the three stories to their new home.
"Napoleon, couldn't you have found a building with an elevator?" April complained as she trudged down the last bit of hallway towards the apartment.
Napoleon said nothing. He simply smiled and opened the door for her and Mark, letting them enter ahead of himself and Illya.
"Oh, my," was all April said for the first few minutes.
Napoleon let his half of the dresser down in the entry hall and grinned widely.
April deposited her boxes in the living room and then walked around the room in wonder, disappearing for a minute into the den. Napoleon and Illya followed her.
"Who did you kill to get this place?" April asked, a slightly awestruck tone to her voice.
"It's great, isn't it." It wasn't a question. Napoleon knew the apartment was a gem, all hardwood floors and built-in bookshelves. The bookshelves were what had sold Illya; the working fireplace had decided Napoleon.
"Great, nothing; it's bloody marvelous." Mark was following his partner through the apartment. The kitchen was small and serviceable, but it had a lovely breakfast nook connected to it that would catch the morning sun. Further back were the two bedrooms. The smaller of the two, the one that would be 'Illya's' to the world, was small and spartan; the master was anything but.
The master bedroom was spacious and airy and had another fireplace--Napoleon had such plans for that fireplace. It also had a walk-in closet. Illya had argued that the closet was unnecessarily decadent, but Napoleon would take his decadence where it was offered.
He found April looking out the bedroom window, clearly entranced by the view out onto the cozy street outside.
"It's beautiful, Napoleon. How did you manage to get it?"
"Yeah, what's your secret? Mark asked as he poked his head into the closet and whistled at its size. "The two of us live in microscopic studios in the Village, and you come up with a bleeding palace."
"I'm the senior agent." Napoleon waggled his eyebrows and tried his best to sound mysterious.
"Don't believe him for a minute." Illya was the last to enter the room. "He is simply good friends with the woman in charge of assigning accommodation." He smiled, his first smile of the day. "And he is not above a little bribery."
"Don't give away the trade secrets, tovarisch."
"Well, Napoleon, Mark and I expect lots of invitations over here, or we'll just have to spill your 'trade secrets' to every Section Two agent in New York."
"Blackmailer," Napoleon said in mock annoyance.
"I'm not the one resorting to graft," April responded self-righteously, then winked and left the room. Mark gave them both a half-embarrassed shrug and followed her out.
"I don't think you're setting a good example for the younger agents, Napoleon."
"Let Waverly set the example. I merely want my just rewards. Speaking of which..." Napoleon took advantage of the absence of their co-workers and took Illya into his arms, planting a quick, heart-felt kiss on his lover's lips. The comfort he took from the warmth of Illya's body against his was worth braving the disapproval on his face.
"Control yourself, Napoleon."
"I am perfectly in control. But you need to learn to enjoy yourself."
Illya said nothing else, but merely growled as he extricated himself from Napoleon's arms.
The pattern was set. For the rest of the day, as they hauled boxes and furniture up to the third story apartment, April and Mark teased, Napoleon glowed and Illya tried his best to fume. At several points, Napoleon was almost concerned about his partner's mood, but he always saw a barely concealed glimmer of amusement in Illya's eye when April would make a particularly pointed barb at Napoleon's expense.
It took two truckloads and most of the day to transfer the contents of two apartments into their new home. At 4 o'clock they were all but done.
"Who's in the mood for pizza?" Napoleon asked as April and Mark brought the last piece of furniture into the living room and Illya fussed over his record collection.
"Only if the senior agents are buying, right Mark?"
"Right, April. Us junior agents have to stick together."
"Of course. It's our treat."
"Your treat, Napoleon." Illya scowled. "But I shall pick up the beer." He picked up his car keys from where they were lying on the mantle. "I'd like to check my apartment to see if I've forgotten anything. I'll pick up the beer on the way back. It should only take forty-five minutes."
"See that it does, tovarisch, or we'll eat all the pizza."
"You'd better not. A hungry Russian is a cranky Russian." Illya opened the door. "And get anchovies on the pizza."
"Your wish is my command." Napoleon performed a sweeping bow as his partner stuck out his tongue and shut the door behind him.
There was a cheerful battle over what to get on the pizza. April sided with Illya on the anchovies question, so they decided on two pizzas, only one of which would have the salty fish on it. The pizza was delivered in forty-five minutes. They decided to wait ten minutes more for Illya. At an hour, Illya had still not appeared and Napoleon was getting nervous. But it was still possible that traffic had delayed the Russian. At an hour and a half even April and Mark were fearing the worst.
By mutual consent, April and Mark set off for Illya's old apartment, while Napoleon waited, with cooling pizza and fading hopes.
Illya Kuryakin sat behind the wheel of his car and tried his best to scowl. Or at least to frown a little. But somehow a full-fledged grin kept threatening to take over.
He clutched the steering wheel, then downshifted viciously and tried desperately to school his features. After all, this should be a stressful day. He had all but declared his homosexuality openly, an act that was foolhardy in his adopted home and considered criminal in his native land. He had just spent the last week packing all of his belongings in boxes and would be spending at least the next week unpacking again. And he would be sharing his home with a man who seemed unable to see what a bad idea the whole thing was.
But in spite of it all, a traitorous voice whispered, you are happy. He turned the wheel more sharply than he needed to at that thought, narrowly avoiding a taxi. Happy. He turned the unfamiliar concept over in his mind. Was he happy? Could he be happy?
How could he? It was ridiculous. He was a Russian who had been disowned by his country. He was living in America, working in a profession that was liable to get him killed sooner rather than later, possessing a desire for men, and one man in particular, that would at best be frowned upon and at worst... How could he be happy?
And yet, all he had to do was think of Napoleon looking at him with excitement and lust in those hazel eyes, telling him that he'd found the perfect apartment for the two of them and he was utterly lost.
And he realized that perhaps he was. Happy.
A slight quirk crept into one corner of his mouth, and this time he didn't fight it.
He drove the rest of the way to his old apartment--not home--with a half smile, half frown on his face, caught between emotions, tilting one way, then the other, but, perhaps, always coming closer to the side of happiness.
Whatever deities controlled parking spots in New York City seemed to be on his side for the moment, since he found a parking spot right in front of his building, or rather, former building. He bounded up the stairs, too impatient to wait for the elevator.
He would tell himself later that he should have known better, that a rookie straight from Survival School should have known better, that he shouldn't have let himself be that distracted. But it happened anyway.
He opened the apartment door, thinking only how he needed to check the bathroom to make sure he hadn't left his toilet kit, and the living room, to make sure he had left no records, and he was grabbed from behind.
Distracted he might be, but he was too good an agent to go without a fight. He broke the hold and took down his attacker before he had consciously thought about it, only to find himself confronted by four others.
He cursed himself for an idiot, traveling without his Special. He tried to size up his opponents, but they didn't give him the luxury of time. He was swarmed, caught in a grip he couldn't escape, his windpipe nearly crushed, his hands struggling futilely against the unbreakable hold on his throat. His vision began to go grey.
"Be careful with him," a voice said from behind. A voice that seemed very far away. "They want him alive, for now."
How nice of 'them,' Illya thought, as he felt a pin prick in his arm. An icy burning crept up his arm, and he tried his best to hang onto consciousness. And failed.
He was falling into a pit of darkness that held nothing. Not fear, not anger, and certainly not happiness.
It was the sort of call that Alexander Waverly hoped never to receive.
He was finishing Sunday dinner with his wife when his communicator chirped. He ignored Irene's disapproving look and excused himself. Only when he was in his study, with its security screens, did he answer the call.
"I hope this is good."
"It is, sir." Napoleon Solo's voice traveled through the air.
"Mr. Solo, don't you have the day off?"
"Apparently Thrush didn't get that memo." Solo's voice was uncharacteristically harsh.
"Mr. Kuryakin has disappeared."
"What do you mean, disappeared?"
"He went back to his apartment alone to see if he'd forgotten anything." Solo paused for a moment. "You remember we were moving in together today."
"I'm hardly likely to forget that, now am I?" Waverly snapped. "Get on with it."
"Sorry, sir. When Mr. Kuryakin hadn't returned after ninety minutes, April and Mark went over to his apartment to investigate. There was no one there, but the door was open, and there were signs of a struggle."
"A few tipped over boxes. And they found Illya's car still parked outside."
"Have you tried contacting him on the communicator?"
"He'd left it in his car."
"Damned stupid of him," Waverly muttered.
"We were off-duty, sir. He had no reason to suspect trouble." He should have known that Solo would spring to Kuryakin's defense.
"Quite," he conceded. "Have you any idea who might have taken him?"
"No, sir. Our last several assignments were fairly routine. If it's someone with an older grudge, it could be any number of people. Unless it's the Russians again."
"I can assure you it is not the Russians," Waverly said sharply.
He paused for a moment and let out a deep breath. He knew, as Solo must, that it would not have been easy to kidnap Illya Kuryakin, even if he was off-duty. It could not have been done by amateurs. He therefore had to assume that the situation was serious, and well planned.
"Well, Mr. Solo, I believe we have a situation. I'm assigning you, Mr. Slate and Miss Dancer to the case. I'll send over a forensics team to Mr. Kuryakin's apartment immediately. We'll see what turns up. Contact me as soon as you have any news."
"And Mr. Solo..."
"We'll find him."
Solo signed off without further delay.
Waverly sighed deeply and eased himself into the leather wing chair that was his favourite piece of furniture in the room. Under normal circumstances, this would have been most disturbing news, but now... He had been hearing disquieting rumours from U.N.C.L.E. outposts in Africa for the last few months. There had been no positive information, just the suggestion that New York might be subject to a Thrush attack. And not just the U.N.C.L.E. headquarters, the whole city.
Now, one of his top agents had been kidnapped. He hoped he would be found soon.
He also wished it had not been Illya Kuryakin. He had gone through too much to keep the young man in U.N.C.L.E. to lose him now. With relations between the U.S.S.R. and the Command frosty at the moment, it was unlikely he would be able to get another Eastern Bloc agent.
Not to mention the fact that he liked the infuriating Russian. Waverly would rather be tortured than admit that he had favourites among his agents, but the Solo and Kuryakin team came closest. He had hopes that Solo would one day assume his role, with Kuryakin not far behind him.
But he would have to find the blasted boy first. And stop whatever plot Thrush had concocted.
He put a quick call into the forensics department to send a team out to Kuryakin's apartment, then put together the materials he would need to take in to the office with him. Irene's hope for a quiet night at home would be sacrificed to the Command yet again.
Someday, someone would invent a knockout drug that did not induce nausea. Or at least, that was what Illya Kuryakin fervently hoped as he began the upward rise to consciousness and tried not to throw up.
Curled in a ball, his eyes firmly shut against any possible light, he tried to think of anything but how he felt. Tried to think of where he might be. He was on a hard surface--that much he could tell without opening his eyes--so he was probably in some sort of cell. And not the sort of damp, dungeon-like cell that it was his usual luck to be thrown into.
He risked opening one eye a slit. The light was a harsh glare, but he became used to it in a few seconds. It was some sort of cell he found himself in, and yet it was an odd sort of prison. The walls were unbearably white, and there was what looked like a hospital bed in front of him. He opened his other eye, hissing as the brightness of the room made his head ache and his stomach lurch.
By force of will Illya managed to gain control over his stomach, and gently raised himself to a sitting position. A very odd prison, indeed. It looked very much like a hospital room. One wall was entirely made of a thick glass that looked to be not only bulletproof, but explosion-proof. Beyond the window was a dimly lit laboratory, tricked out with the tools of biological experimentation, if he were any judge.
With the nausea finally beginning to ebb, Illya felt able to stand and begin to look for a way out. He'd had no gun or communicator to start with, not that he'd still have them anyway. And since he hadn't been on duty, he had no surprises hidden in his clothes. But he'd found his way out of worse situations.
The cell looked odder the more he examined it. The door was not the usual sort one would see on a prison, but an airlock. The glass wall was, as he'd expected, completely impervious to any force he could manage. He tried battering it with the one chair he'd found in the room and made not a scratch. Apart from the chair and the bed, there was a sink, a toilet and a small cupboard. It was frustratingly little to work with.
Still he tried. He examined every corner, every crack, for some sort of vulnerability, but there was none. After what must have been an hour--his watch had been taken so he couldn't be sure--he finally gave up, sprawling on the bed.
Perhaps thirty minutes later, there was finally movement outside. The lights came on and several Thrush soldiers filed into the room, followed by a dark haired woman. The woman was in her early forties and was clearly the person in charge. The soldiers all seemed to look to her for orders and she displayed no hesitancy in giving them.
Strangely, no one looked Illya's way. In fact everyone seemed to go to deliberate pains not to look at the cell at all. If what was going on here unsettled even Thrush foot soldiers, Illya was doubly sure that he wanted to escape from this place.
The woman and her entourage disappeared out of his range of view, behind the cell. Ten minutes later, the airlock to his cell began to hiss open. Illya tensed, ready to run if it was feasible, but the first people to enter the cell were two soldiers holding weapons trained on him. Recognizing the odds against him, Illya backed off and sat in the chair.
The woman entered next, shutting the airlock behind her. Illya felt his ears pop as the lock cycled shut.
For Illya, the worst part of this moment was not being trapped in a sealed room with three members of Thrush and no weapon. No, the worst part was the fact that all three Thrush were wearing the type of biohazard suits you only saw in the type of lab that worked on the most virulent sorts of diseases. The kind of diseases that were only whispered about, even in medical circles. The kind of diseases that could make the Black Plague look like chicken pox.
The woman stepped forward, carrying a very ordinary medical bag in her gloved hand. She smiled at him, like a doctor reassuring a patient. Under the circumstances, he didn't find it comforting.
"Mr. Kuryakin," she said. "I'm so glad to see you again." It was funny, Illya thought, how often the criminally insane seemed perfectly reasonable and charming.
"Do we know each other?" He looked at the woman, but failed to recognize her.
"I forgot. I looked quite different the last time we met."
Illya stared at her and something twigged his memory, perhaps the way she held her head.
"How good of you to remember." She smiled broadly at him. "I, of course, remember you and your part in my last little project. Which is why I asked for you especially when we needed a volunteer for our latest research endeavour."
"I'm hardly a volunteer."
"I never let small details stop me." For the first time, her smile slipped and Illya saw the hardness that lurked underneath. The hardness that allowed this woman to experiment on human subjects, be they female Thrush racecar drivers or male U.N.C.L.E. agents.
She reached into her medical bag and pulled out a small vial and a syringe. The vial contained a clear liquid that could have been water, but Illya was certain it contained his death. Egret filled the syringe.
"I'm sure you'll appreciate my concoction. I was thinking about you and your partner when I developed it."
"Don't be." She made certain the syringe had no air bubbles in it, then looked at him directly. "I didn't have your good welfare at heart. Quite the contrary." She nodded to one of the soldiers. "Hold him." The man slung his weapon on his back and moved forward.
Illya was struck by the fact that he had very little time left. If he didn't try something, he was as good as dead. He didn't delude himself into thinking he might be immune, might escape infection. If he was injected, he would die. And it would not be an easy death.
He waited until the man was almost on top of him, then launched himself. If his timing was right, if he was lucky, maybe he could disarm the one, shoot the other and hold Egret hostage long enough to get out of this hellish place. Maybe.
He managed to get a good hold on the man, struck him hard enough to stun him. He was just reaching for the gun when he heard Egret yell.
He wasn't fast enough. He would die here. But at least it would be a bullet, and not some horror of a disease.
He was struck in the side, and found himself staring down not at a gunshot wound, but a tiny dart. A tranquilizer. He nearly laughed. How unfortunate that Thrush picked this moment to use sleep darts.
Darkness claimed him for the second time.
Sometimes a problem was solved through swift action and daring chances. Sometimes good won over evil because good was brave and strong. And sometimes good won because it was willing to sort through millions of pieces of paper looking for a needle in a haystack.
At least, that was what Napoleon Solo was hoping, as he went through yet another report about Thrush movement around the New York area in the last year.
Twenty-four hours had passed since Illya had disappeared, and it seemed they were no closer to finding him. It was as if he had been plucked from the face of the earth.
The Command forensics team had found no useful evidence at Illya's apartment. Illya's neighbour had thought she'd heard a bumping sound, but she couldn't remember when, and she hadn't seen anything. No other occupant of the apartment had seen anything either.
The one thing that had been able to make Napoleon smile during those interviews, however briefly, was how concerned the other inhabitants of the building were about 'that nice Mr. Kuryakin.' Illya would have been appalled.
Not only was the trail cold, it didn't exist. There was no one to chase, no site to raid. No nothing.
So, Napoleon did the only thing he could: research. He drafted April, Mark and the entire Research department, and they started going through every report on Thrush activity in the New York area, suspected or confirmed, for the last six months.
It was boring, tedious and frustrating work, and seemed to be the only way they were going to find Illya.
Napoleon put down another piece of paper and thought that the hours of frustration might just be paying off.
There was a definite pattern they were finding: odd purchases made through Thrush holding companies for lab equipment and construction materials; communications made with Thrush research sites in Europe and Africa; rumours of visits from scientists that no one saw, to a location that no one could confirm; records of odd seismic activity in the middle of Manhattan.
Put all together, it seemed as though Thrush had built a laboratory in the middle of Manhattan to work on biological weapons of the nastiest sort. Napoleon felt a prickle down his spine as he read a leaked report from one of Thrush's African labs about the viruses that were being studied there. Mark peeked over his shoulder at the report.
"These mad bastards could destroy everyone."
Napoleon nodded, trying not to think that "everyone" included one blond Russian.
"We need to find that lab," Napoleon said.
"If it exists," April added.
"It exists. It has to." Napoleon tried to keep the edge of desperation from his voice. He had to maintain his professionalism. Illya couldn't afford for him to be emotional now. He cleared his head and rallied the troops.
"We need to concentrate around the area where the seismic activity was recorded. That must have been the construction of the lab. April, get Research to look for any unusual deliveries around there, medical supplies, that sort of thing. Mark, try to find any buildings in the area that might be owned by Thrush. I'm going to do some scouting in the area." He was sick of being inactive. He had to move.
Mark and April shared a look that told him they knew how he felt. They both nodded their agreement.
"Right. Let's go."
Illya Kuryakin lay on the bed in the cell and wished that the buzzing in his head would go away. Instead, it just seemed to get worse. He tried to blink the sweat out of his eyes, and when that failed to work, he tried to wipe it out of the way with the back of his hand, only to be stopped by the restraints that bound his wrists.
Chyort, but he wished he felt better. He spent half his time delirious, not sure of where he was, only that he was alone. The other half he spent shifting restlessly, trying to ease the pain that was beginning to eat him up, seeping into his bones and destroying him from the inside out.
He almost looked forward to the visits of the Thrush soldiers, with their isolation suits and their guns. They were less than adequate nurses, but at least they took his mind off the way he felt.
The airlock began to open, some time before he was expecting the next round of clumsy care from ill-trained soldiers. Illya turned to watch, curious as to what was coming next.
Dr. Egret herself appeared, a foot soldier behind her, his gun pointing menacingly in the Russian's direction. Illya nearly laughed at the thought that anyone would need protection from him. Even without the restraints, he barely had the strength to raise his head from the pillow.
"Good afternoon, Mr. Kuryakin."
"Is it afternoon? I'd lost track." Illya did his best to appear bored. Not the easiest task when you were suddenly wracked by shivers.
"And how are you today?" Egret asked. If not for the fact that she was the one who'd infected him, she would have sounded like any other concerned doctor.
"Just fine," Illya said, sarcastically. "I'm sure you won't mind if I leave now."
"Oh, you'll be leaving, Mr. Kuryakin. But not quite yet." Egret began to take his blood pressure.
Illya raised an eyebrow, curious as to her meaning.
"And exactly when will I be leaving?"
Egret at first ignored him as she finished taking the reading. As she put away the blood pressure cuff, she spoke.
"I'm sure you're aware that you are not infected with just any virus."
"I had guessed that."
"I'm sure you had." She smiled, an expression that might have been charming under other circumstances. "The virus is one I've designed myself. One that possesses the best qualities of all the truly great diseases."
"I question your definition of 'best,"' Illya said, but was ignored.
"It kills quickly, in less than a week, but slowly enough that an affected person can infect quite a few others before he is obviously sick. It's debilitating, as you are beginning to find out, and it has an almost 100% mortality rate." She smiled even wider. "It's passed from human to human. So many of the best diseases aren't. It's transmitted through the air. And it remains active in a body for several days after the death of the host."
"A perfect biological weapon," Illya muttered to himself.
"Why, yes, I believe it is."
"And I'm a test subject?"
"Absolutely not. The testing phase was completed months ago. No, Mr. Kuryakin, you are the first step in the implementation phase."
Illya began to shiver even more. Even before Egret had shared this information, he had been certain he would not survive this disease. But if he were to be turned into a weapon...
"I won't allow it."
"You'll have no choice. The plan involves waiting until you are too weak to inform anyone, then returning you to the tender care of U.N.C.L.E. The New York office should be wiped out within a week. You, of course, will die much sooner than that."
"You're insane." Illya could see the glitter of madness in her eyes.
"No, merely highly motivated."
"But you won't be able to control it. You won't just wipe out U.N.C.L.E., you'll destroy the city. Or more."
She laughed, an extremely unpleasant sound.
"Wiping out U.N.C.L.E. is only a bonus. Our true purpose is to destroy Manhattan. Or at least its population."
"Extortion. Once we've proven we have the capability to kill the world's entire population, we will offer the cure. For a price."
"You're unleashing a plague for money."
"For money and power. They are the only reasons we do anything."
"You won't be able to control it for long. Viruses mutate."
"We're willing to bet that this one won't."
He saw there was no arguing with the woman. He lay back in the bed, all his energy spent. He could do nothing but watch as she took blood samples from him and wrote notes for her records, before leaving the way she had come.
Illya was left alone, stuck with the awful knowledge of what Egret and her employers planned on releasing into the world. If it had been within his power, he would have destroyed himself immediately, made certain he was dead and burned, no virus left to infect the world, his friends or his lover.
Instead he could do nothing but wait and hope that Napoleon did not come to rescue him, that he had been sent far away by Waverly, that he had followed the wrong lead and wound up in some remote corner of Iowa. Anything, to keep him away from the death that flowed through Illya's veins.
For Mark Slate, there were a few constants in life: April Dancer was his best friend; Alexander Waverly was always right; Illya Kuryakin tormented him like the older brother he'd never had. And Napoleon Solo never lost his cool.
He'd been steadily watching that last constant unravel over the last two days.
Not that there wasn't good reason. Illya was still missing and they now believed that Thrush was using him to test biological weapons. That would be enough to try any man, having their partner kidnapped.
Of course, Illya wasn't just Napoleon's partner, either. The two men had also become lovers this year. April had sussed that out first, and had gleefully told him the news. He was at first shocked--Solo was everyone's ideal of the consummate ladies' man--then pleased that his two friends seemed so happy together.
There was little left of that happiness. Napoleon was still a perfect professional, doing his job as well as he ever had, making decisions, giving orders and keeping everything in the search for Illya Kuryakin running smoothly.
But Mark could see the toll it was taking on Napoleon to hold himself together, to be the Chief Enforcement Agent, capital letters firmly in place. He'd lost all interest in food and sleep, seeming to exist on a steady diet of coffee, anxiety and adrenaline.
Mark tightened his grip on the steering wheel of the car and looked over at his passenger. Napoleon was staring straight ahead, his arms crossed firmly over his chest. Mark had never seen his friend so closed off from the world. He shook his head slightly and turned his attention back to the road.
He had spent the afternoon and early evening chauffeuring Napoleon to the surveillance posts that had been set up to observe likely locations of the Thrush lab. Mark had to hand it to Waverly, he had spared no expense in the search for Illya. All agents in New York had been assigned to the affair, all leave had been canceled. But then, it was about far more than Illya. If Thrush really was developing biological weapons in Manhattan, the city wasn't safe, and neither was the world.
Napoleon was coordinating the surveillance efforts, keeping communications open between the posts and making sure the necessary information got back to HQ. Mark, in turn, was trying to look after Napoleon. Not that he was doing a very good job. He could barely look after himself.
He yawned and blinked his eyes, trying to ease the gritty sensation brought on by lack of sleep. It had been over forty-eight hours since he had gotten any sleep. Napoleon stirred beside him.
"Let me take over the driving."
"No, I'm fine," Mark lied. He felt like he was doing little enough to find Illya. Taking some responsibility from Napoleon's shoulders seemed the least he could do.
"You're asleep at the wheel."
"You've been awake as long as I have."
"I'm not tired." Mark looked at his friend and saw he couldn't argue with that. Napoleon was haggard, but he had the look of a man for whom sleep would not be a welcome rest.
"Alright, then." Mark pulled the car over.
"Take the back seat. You might be able to take a real nap," Napoleon said.
Mark had to agree. If he didn't get some sleep, he would be of no use to anyone. He crawled into the back and was out before Napoleon could start the car up again.
"Mark, we're here."
He awoke to the feeling of a hand on his shoulder. He blinked hard and sat up quickly, clearing the worst of the cobwebs from his head. He still felt bone-numbingly tired, but not as if sleep was going to claim him any second.
"How long was I out?"
"Forty-five minutes," Napoleon answered. "Traffic was bad."
"Hmm," Mark said, suspecting that Napoleon might have taken the long route 'round to make sure his colleague got a bit more sleep. "Well, let's go."
They entered a warehouse located in the lower east side and walked up to the fourth story. After the appropriate combination of knocks, the door was opened for them.
The grandly named observation post was really a squalid little room with dusty windows and no mod cons, Mark was not pleased to note.
They greeted the two agents manning the post. Ken Daly was an older man, closing in on mandatory retirement. A well-respected agent, he suffered fools not at all.
"Hey Solo, I hear I have you to thank for getting me back to work." Daly waved the cast on his right arm in their direction. "I kept trying to tell the docs I was fine, but they didn't believe me."
"You're welcome, Ken." As soon as they had walked through the door, Napoleon had gone from being a tired, worried man to the charming, capable CEA all Section Two agents expected. "How's it going, Luke?"
Luke Santos was young. Very young. He'd only just finished Survival School two months ago, and was still under the mistaken impression that he was invulnerable. He was a nice kid, and Mark hoped he survived long enough to learn just how vulnerable they all were.
"Fine, Mr. Solo." Santos waved in Mark's direction. "Hi Mark. When are you going to put in a good word for me with your partner?"
"She's out of your league, mate," Mark responded, taking up an old argument.
"Have you got anything?" Napoleon quickly brought things back to business.
"Nothing yet," Daly answered. "Just the usual round of delivery trucks. Nothing much at all for the last two hours. The area is mostly commercial, so the traffic's really slowed down in the last hour."
"We've taken pictures of everyone who's gone into the building," Santos added.
"Mind if we join you for a while?"
"Of course not. Pull up a chair." Daly nodded at the pile of folding chairs in one corner of the room.
Mark and Napoleon both sat near the room's window. Mark tried desperately not to sneeze, while Napoleon stared intently at the building across the street that was the subject of their investigation. To Mark, it looked as though he were trying to determine Illya's location by sheer force of will.
Daly had been right about there being not much traffic. They sat there for half an hour, and saw one truck stop to deliver several bolts of cloth to a sweatshop on the building's second floor, and two men leave. Judging by their clothes, the two men were artists; not the type usually hired by Thrush.
Santos had stepped into the hall for a cigarette and Mark was just about to suggest they move on to the next post when another truck pulled up. As Daly took photographs of the truck and its occupants, Mark and Napoleon paid close attention. The truck looked familiar to Mark. He glanced over at Napoleon and saw the same thought pass across his face.
Napoleon closed his eyes for a second, and when he opened them, he had the answer.
"Two stops ago. Near the flower shop on the west side."
"I remember." And Mark did. The truck had the name of a medical supply house on its side, exactly the sort of thing they were looking for. But they had both discounted it when the driver entered a pharmacy down the street. Now it had appeared again, in another suspicious area.
Napoleon had his communicator out in an instant, and was giving a description of the truck to a chase car in the neighbourhood. When the truck pulled out several minutes later, it had an U.N.C.L.E. tail. Mark and Napoleon took the film of the truck from Daly and were on their way back to headquarters as soon as the way was clear.
Mark drove this time.
"We have them. We must have them." Napoleon repeated the mantra to himself.
"Of course we have them," Mark said. "We're going to find him."
Napoleon didn't answer, but looked over and gave Mark a grim smile.
A woman's voice woke him.
"Are you with us again, Mr. Kuryakin?"
Illya opened his eyes and tried to focus on the person who had spoken.
"April?" he asked, though he knew that couldn't be right.
"Try again." The woman moved closer.
He blinked hard, and finally saw it was Egret, isolation suit firmly in place, looking at him as if he were a new and interesting form of bacteria.
"You," he said, with as much vehemence as he had left.
"Yes, I'm afraid so." She sponged off his forehead. The cool water felt good, even if it was provided by his enemy.
He looked around the room, but there was no Thrush soldier with a gun.
"Where's your bodyguard?" His voice was barely a whisper, and it cost him dearly to speak.
"You've scared them off. No one else will come in here now."
Illya frowned, and tried to remember. Then he had it. There had been a Thrush in here, giving him water. He had coughed on the man, spattering the faceplate of his contagion suit with bright red droplets. The man had stifled a scream and been out the airlock as fast as he could manage.
Illya didn't blame him. He was death.
"Fortunately, you won't be here for that much longer. You're nearly ready to be passed on to your friends."
"No." Illya surprised himself at the volume he was able to manage. The effort caused him to cough, which caused an unbelievable pain to lance through his body. When the spasms finally stopped, Egret sponged the blood from his mouth.
The look of satisfaction on her face was quite as bad as the pain.
Illya tried to wipe his brow, and found himself again stopped by the restraints.
"Please, release my hands." He just managed to find breath to speak. "I can't escape now."
"No, you can't escape, but you have had seizures. The restraints keep you somewhat under control when they strike."
Illya closed his eyes, and honestly wished he were dead.
He did not hope for rescue. He was too realistic, too selfish for that. Anyone who found him now would only infect themselves, and he was sure that if anyone found him, it would be Napoleon.
He could imagine his own death, but not that of Napoleon. He did not want to be the cause of his lover's death.
He coughed, and felt the pain lance through him again, a pain that felt like it should kill him, but didn't.
He prayed to a god he had never believed in that he would die quickly, and that the virus would die with him, but he had no faith that his prayers would be answered.
"Sleep, my dear," Egret said as she stroked his face in a grotesque parody of a mother's touch.
"No," he said, fighting Egret, fighting the disease, fighting the urge of his body to succumb to welcome oblivion. Fighting everything.
Napoleon crouched in the back of the delivery van, MP5 assault rifle gripped tightly in his hands. He resisted the urge to check the magazine of the weapon, to confirm the extra clips in the side pocket of his jacket. Everything was as it should be. He only had to wait.
And that was the hard part.
He'd tried telling himself that this was just another assignment, there was nothing different. But he knew that was a lie. Illya's life hung in the balance.
At least they now had a location, though at the expense of much effort.
The U.N.C.L.E. chase team had followed the medical supply truck to a warehouse in New Jersey with Thrush connections. They had been ordered to observe the warehouse while Research tried to determine which of the two locations the truck had visited would be the most likely place for a secret lab. At the same time, Napoleon had worked with Section Two to come up with a rescue plan that wouldn't endanger Illya unduly. They had come up with a strategy that everyone was satisfied with.
Just before dawn, the research team had decided on the warehouse in the lower east side. Waverly and Napoleon had agreed with their choice and reasons. Section Two's plan was implemented.
The chief difficulty had been how to enter the complex with little or no warning. If Thrush had any idea that a rescue operation was on the way, they were likely to kill their hostage. The solution had taken patience and timing and nerve.
A team had waited outside the New Jersey warehouse for the truck to leave on what everyone hoped was a daily journey. Sometime after ten o'clock in the morning, it did just that. The U.N.C.L.E. team followed at a discrete distance, and after it was several miles from the warehouse, on a deserted stretch of road, they overtook the truck and captured the driver. The man was immediately interrogated with one of the stronger truth drugs the Command had at its disposal. He was questioned about procedures for entering the Thrush lab, and the time he was expected. When asked directly about Illya, he could only offer vague rumours of experiments being done on an unknown agent.
When they had all the information they could obtain in such a short time, the driver was packed off to headquarters and a Section Two agent took his clothes and his place. Luke Santos had been chosen for the job, since he had a passing resemblance to the driver and seemed about the same age. That was the one part of the plan that gave Napoleon pause: Santos was a competent agent, but he was young and inexperienced. It pained him to have to rely on Santos for such a crucial part of the plan, but they had no choice. He tried to take comfort in the fact that Santos wouldn't have made it this far if he wasn't very good at his job.
So that left him where he was, in an unmarked panel van, waiting with the assault team while Luke Santos gained them access to the Thrush stronghold.
Napoleon looked up from his gun to the people surrounding him, the best group he could assemble. April and Mark were there, of course. Napoleon doubted he could have kept them away, even if he'd wanted to. Beside them sat Miles Bronowski and his partner, Frank Leung. Bronowski was Polish American, raised in Buffalo, and one of the toughest men in Section Two. Leung, a native of San Francisco, didn't have the bulk of his partner, but made up for it with skill and sheer guts. He and Bronowski were a damn fine team. The other two members of the unit were also a working partnership: Derek Taylor and Alexander Morris. Taylor was a Canadian, while Morris was a Brit. Napoleon sometimes thought they got on so well because they both made fun of the Americans.
He gave them all a tight smile, which was returned in kind.
His headset crackled, and he heard Santos' voice.
"I'm just about in."
"Confirmed," Napoleon replied, then told his team "Get ready." Napoleon flicked the safety off his MP5 and set it for single round fire.
They waited another thirty seconds, all of them keyed up and set to go. Then Santos came through with confirmation.
"Door open, guards down. All clear."
"Go!" Napoleon yelled. He didn't have to say it twice. They exploded out of the back of the delivery truck and ran the twenty meters to the entrance of the Thrush outpost. The door stood open, and they found Santos inside, standing over the unconscious bodies of the two guards he had overcome.
The U.N.C.L.E. team wasted no time on words, but fanned out immediately. They were all to cover as much area as quickly as possible in an effort to find Illya before he could be killed. Waverly's orders were also clear on what to do with any Thrush followers they encountered. They were to be neutralized in any manner necessary. The entire team had been issued with live ammunition, not merely sleep darts. They all knew it was too important that this lab be shut down with no possibility of its deadly secrets escaping.
Napoleon ran through the corridors as quickly as he could, checking each room he encountered for a small blond Russian. He ran into two Thrush soldiers in his search, and managed to bring both down with well placed blows to the head and without firing his weapon.
He at last reached an obvious dead end. He'd checked all the rooms on his way, and Illya hadn't been in any of them. He panted, trying to catch his breath and considered which direction he should continue in, trying to hone in on the invisible connection that always seemed to join him to his partner.
As he was gathering himself, trying to make a decision, there was a crackling on his headset.
"Napoleon." Mark's voice came through.
"We've found him. In the south end of the complex."
"Is he alive?"
There was an unbearably long pause, during which Napoleon found himself holding his breath.
"Yes." The answer was decisive. "But you'd better get down here quickly."
He didn't have to be told twice. Napoleon set off at a run, guided more by instinct that his sense of direction.
He found Mark and April in the centre of a large laboratory, their guns trained on a woman in her forties. He wasn't sure who the woman was, but she flinched when he entered.
At first he couldn't see where Illya was. Then he noticed that the back wall of the lab was a window, looking into what appeared to be a small hospital room. Illya was on a bed in the room, bound by leather restraints. His eyes were closed, and blood flecked his lips. His breath seemed to come in short, shallow gasps.
"We've got to get him out of there." He moved to the side of the cell, looking for a way in.
Mark grabbed his arm while April kept watch on their prisoner.
"Look at him, Napoleon. You know what kind of work they were doing here, what he's likely to be infected with. If you open that chamber, you'll infect yourself and the whole complex."
"I can't leave him there."
"You have to." Mark slung an arm around his shoulders. "I've called the medical team. They'll be in as soon as the building is secured."
Unfortunately, Napoleon knew Mark was right, as much as he didn't want him to be. He had to force himself not to slump under his friend's arm, force himself to display the strength he no longer felt.
He shrugged off Mark's arm and moved towards April and their prisoner.
"Who's she?" The woman looked sullenly in his direction.
"She seems to have been in charge of the complex. Her name is Dr. Egret."
"Egret!" Suddenly the whole thing made a bit more sense.
"Yes. I take it you're acquainted?"
"Only slightly. Illya and I foiled a little plan of hers in Europe earlier this year."
"In April, to be exact," Egret added, her voice an expressionless monotone.
Napoleon examined the woman standing before him, trying to judge her state of mind. She was completely unreadable, a blank wall.
"Was this your idea of revenge?" he asked.
"Your partner was a convenient subject. Nothing more."
The thought of Illya being a 'convenient subject' overwhelmed Napoleon with a desire to strike the woman. Only his ingrained sense of chivalry held him in check.
"He's much more than that," he spat back, then turned away from her, trusting April and Mark to keep an eye on her. He moved toward the window to keep watch over his partner.
Apart from the rising of his chest, Illya lay motionless for several long minutes. Napoleon focussed on that single indication that his partner was still alive, held onto the knowledge that whatever terrible illness Egret had inflicted on Illya, he hadn't yet succumbed.
After a time, Illya began to stir, shifting his head one way, then the other. Finally, after a long while, he opened his eyes.
Napoleon gasped when he saw his partner's eyes. They were past what could be called bloodshot; the whites were a brilliant red colour, completely overwhelming the blue of his pupils.
Illya blinked repeatedly, frowning as if he were trying to focus. Napoleon tapped on the glass to catch his attention, and called his name. He didn't know if the glass allowed sound to carry, but he didn't care.
Finally, Illya seemed to see him. A slight smile twisted his mouth, and he mouthed a single word.
Napoleon didn't know whether to laugh or cry, so he did neither. He just said, "Help is coming."
Illya nodded in acknowledgement, then closed his eyes, as if even that small movement had drained his energy.
"Where's the medical team?" he asked in frustration.
"They'll be here soon."
"It doesn't matter when they get here. You can't save him now." Egret's voice was completely dispassionate, as if she were talking about the weather instead of the death of another human being.
Napoleon whirled on her.
"We can and we will."
Egret's only response was an infuriatingly smug look.
Napoleon concentrated on the woman.
"In fact, I'm betting that you know how we can cure him."
"There is no cure."
"Now, that wouldn't be smart of you, would it, developing a disease with no cure. How could you keep your own people from getting it? And what would you offer the world in exchange for the no doubt exorbitant ransom you were planning to ask for?"
"Perhaps we weren't smart."
"Not even Thrush is that suicidal." He turned to April. "Have you searched the lab for a possible serum?"
She shook her head. "We didn't have time."
Napoleon surveyed the lab, with its hundreds of drawers and cabinets, all full of vials, syringes and arcane equipment.
"We'll never find anything ourselves." He gave Egret a grim look. "We'll just have to enlist the fine doctor's assistance."
She laughed, a cold, mirthless sound.
"I'll never help you."
"I believe you. But will you help yourself?"
"What are you talking about?" Egret asked, the beginnings of doubt showing in her face.
Napoleon didn't reply, he simply crossed the lab to where she stood and grabbed her by the scruff of the neck. April and Mark made a move to stop him, but he froze them with a look.
"You won't help us save him, but if we infect you, would you tell us where the serum is?"
"You wouldn't dare. Alexander Waverly wouldn't let even you get away with that."
He held he tight with one hand and pressed the barrel of his gun against her cheek with the other.
"Let's get one thing straight. At this moment, Waverly's wishes are the last thing on my mind. You made the mistake of using the one person I care about above all others for your sick little plan. If he dies, I don't care if I'm thrown out of U.N.C.L.E. or into jail." He ground the gun barrel further into her face. "And if he's going to die, I'm going to make damn sure that you die first.
"So, you have two choices. You can let me toss you into that isolation ward. Or you can tell us where the cure is stored."
Egret stared him down. She was clearly judging whether he would carry out his threat. He could have told her that he was deadly serious. He didn't care if he had to fight April and Mark and the whole of U.N.C.L.E.; if this bitch didn't help them he was going to make sure she died in exactly as much pain as Illya was clearly feeling.
She seemed to realize that he meant his threat.
"I'll show you where the serum is."
"You're a smart lady," Napoleon said, pulling back his gun. "Now tell us where it is."
She pointed towards a small refrigerator standing in one corner of the lab. "In there. The serum for curing active cases is in the blue vials on the bottom shelf. The vaccine against the virus is the green vials."
"Mark, could you check that out?"
Mark Slate opened the fridge door, and nodded.
"There are blue and green vials in here," he confirmed.
"Good." He threw Egret back to April. "You can look after her." He found he felt nothing but revulsion for the woman.
He returned to the window of the isolation chamber, and remained there, watching over Illya until the medical team arrived. In their biohazard suits, they looked frighteningly like something out of the B science fiction films Illya occasionally subjected him to.
Napoleon spent ten horrific minutes watching as Illya seizured, and the medical team could do nothing but restrain him. He stayed while they stabilized his partner's condition and prepared him for transport back to headquarters. He followed them out of the complex, with Illya swathed in a mobile contamination unit that made his partner look intensely vulnerable. He would have ridden in the specially equipped ambulance with Illya, if they had let him, but they didn't. Instead, he was steered by April and Mark into a waiting car. He didn't know what had happened to Egret, and he couldn't manage to care.
He slumped in the back seat of sedan, with April sitting beside him and Mark taking the driving duties. He couldn't move, couldn't react, couldn't hope. His mind was stuck in an endless loop.
"What if Illya dies?" he asked no one in particular.
April took his hand in hers and held it tightly.
"We have the cure, Napoleon. He'll be fine."
"What if she lied?" He could only see the darkness. "What if it's poison? What if it doesn't work?" He took in a deep breath and released it. "What if we're too late?" It was this last possibility that most haunted him. That he had failed his partner, not been there when he was needed.
"We weren't too late, Napoleon. Illya will recover, and you two will live in your lovely new apartment together for a good long time."
He had no energy to respond. He leaned his head back and closed his eyes. April gripped his hand even more firmly.
"Hurry up, Mark," she said.
The only response was the acceleration of the car.
Once they arrived back at headquarters, Napoleon left April and Mark to deal with debriefing Waverly and headed immediately to the medical section. He strode through the halls purposefully, but inside he felt numb, as if a piece of his soul had been hacked away.
In the medical section there was a palpable sense of urgency that bordered on panic. Nurses and doctors hurried past on their way to their duties. The activity increased as Napoleon got closer to the quarantine ward. He was stopped from entering the ward by Sam Lawrence.
"You can't go in there, Napoleon. Medical personnel only."
"But nothing. There are times to break the rules and this isn't one of them. You can't help him and you aren't trained to deal with this type of situation. You'll only make things worse."
Lawrence turned away. Napoleon grabbed his arm to stop him.
"What are his chances?"
Lawrence scrutinized him for several long seconds. To Napoleon it seemed as if he were being judged as to how much of the truth he could handle.
"Don't sugar coat it, Sam. I need to know if I'm going to lose him."
Lawrence didn't hesitate this time.
"He's not doing well. He had two seizures in the ambulance and another since. We've sedated him to prevent more, but his vital signs are getting dangerously low." Lawrence ran a hand over his forehead in frustration. "The only hope he seems to have is the serum you found in the lab, but I'm uncomfortable using any treatment that comes from Thrush without testing it. Unfortunately, Illya doesn't have that kind of time."
Napoleon swallowed hard and squeezed Lawrence's arm.
"Do your best, Sam. Please."
"That I will, Napoleon." Lawrence gave Napoleon's arm a quick pat, then disappeared into the quarantine ward.
Napoleon eased himself onto a bench in the hall, oblivious to the bustle surrounding him. He wished there were something he could do. He wasn't used to being helpless. He wanted an enemy he could fight, not a microscopic bug that he was powerless to do anything about.
He tried to imagine his life if Illya died and couldn't. He'd told Egret the truth when he'd said he wouldn't care what happened to him if Illya were gone. In the back of his mind he knew he would continue to do his job and do it well, but it would no longer mean anything.
It was terrifying to realize how much his happiness was connected to the life of a man he hadn't even liked when they first met.
He forced himself to stand and started to leave the medical unit. Lawrence was right; there was nothing he could do here. He would return to the Section Two area and do what he could there to make a difference. But he would leave his hopes in the quarantine ward behind him.
Illya Kuryakin sat on the edge of his bed and concentrated on buttoning up his shirt. The job was harder than it sounded. His fingers didn't seem to want to cooperate and his body was nearly exhausted from what should have been the simple act of getting dressed. He finished the final button and, heaving a sigh of relief, threw himself back on the bed.
Staring up at the ceiling of the medical ward, Illya could think of nothing but how much he hated his body. The smallest task drained him of all energy. It had taken several weeks before he was able to walk the five steps to the bathroom without assistance. He was impatient and ready to get on with his life.
All of which was an improvement. A month ago he had nearly died, courtesy of Dr. Egret's virus. A month ago the act of buttoning up his shirt would have been an impossibility. A month ago breathing was the most strenuous activity he could manage, and even that was nearly beyond him.
Now, he could walk down the hall almost without help, take a bath without fear of drowning and feed himself the ample if unexciting fare that came from the U.N.C.L.E. commissary. He was a long way from being on active status, but he was on the road back.
Being in his own clothes was definitely a step in the right direction. Napoleon had appeared during visiting hours yesterday with a bag of his clothes and the cryptic assertion that if he managed to get dressed today there would be a surprise for him. Illya had been too tired yesterday to question his partner, so today he was looking forward to discovering what the surprise was. Any variation from the routine of the medical department was welcome.
Rousing himself, he moved over to the one chair in the room and bent over to pull on his boots. He was thankful that Napoleon had thought to bring his pair of pull-on Italian boots rather than laceups. Tying a knot would be beyond him at the present. The boots, well-worn jeans and white shirt made him feel almost normal.
He checked his watch, also included in Napoleon's care package, and wondered when his partner would arrive.
Fifteen minutes later, Napoleon Solo strode through the door, an altogether too wide grin on his face. Illya was immediately on his guard.
"Hey, handsome," Napoleon said cheerfully.
Illya frowned. He was usually suspicious when Napoleon was too pleased with himself.
"What have you got planned, Napoleon?"
"What?" Napoleon tried to look innocent, which only made him look more guilty. "Can't a guy be pleased to see his partner?"
"Not that pleased. Not when I know you."
"If that's the way you're going to be, maybe I should leave." Napoleon turned on his heel and started out the door.
"Wait!" Illya knew as well as Napoleon that his partner would not really leave, but he had to play out the drama.
"Why?" Napoleon had a devious look on his face. His question could have only one answer.
"Because I'm sorry." Illya tried to look contrite and figured he was as successful as Napoleon was at looking innocent.
"That's better." Napoleon smiled and sat on the side of the bed. "So, do you want to know what my surprise is?"
He really was looking far too pleased with himself.
"Ye-es," Illya said hesitantly, afraid of what Napoleon had come up with this time.
"Okay." Napoleon gleefully, then disappeared out the door. He returned within seconds with a wheelchair. Illya eyed the contraption as if it were an instrument of torture. He may not be able to walk very far by himself, but he didn't want to admit that.
"What's that for?"
"That, my dear Illya, is your ticket out of here."
"What?" Illya asked stupidly.
"They're kicking you out." If possible, Napoleon was smiling even more.
"But Dr. Lawrence said it would be two more weeks before I could be on my own."
"That's part one of the surprise."
"And what's part two?"
"Part two is the fact that I'm taking two weeks' vacation to look after you. Lawrence won't spring you otherwise."
Illya was speechless for a moment.
"Napoleon you don't... I don't want you making that kind of sacrifice for me."
"Sacrifice, nothing. The sacrifice is not having you home. Especially with Christmas coming in a week."
"I'd forgotten about Christmas." And Illya really had. There was little enough indication of it in the medical section, and it had always been Napoleon who insisted they observe the holiday, no matter where they were.
"We can't have that. Especially since Aunt Amy has invited us both to her penthouse for Christmas dinner. And you can only come if you're not in this place."
Illya couldn't argue with Napoleon's logic. And he wasn't about to miss one of Aunt Amy's famous meals. He moved into the wheelchair.
"You've convinced me. Wheel on, MacDuff."
It took more than a little effort to install Illya in their apartment. The stairs that had been such an annoyance moving in nearly undid Illya. He made it up the three stories only with a lot of help from Napoleon and a long rest at each landing. By the time they made it to their floor he was swearing profusely in Russian and English and vowing never to live in another building that lacked an elevator.
Entering the apartment was something of a shock. The last time he had seen it, it had been full of packed boxes, with the furniture shoved into odd corners. Now the boxes were gone and all their belongings were where they should be. There was even a Christmas tree in one corner, cheerfully decorated, with presents underneath.
Napoleon steered him over to the sofa and then disappeared into the kitchen. He returned in a few minutes with mugs of tea for them both. Illya was pleased to note that his was well sugared, the way he liked it. Napoleon flopped onto the couch beside him.
"How do you like the apartment?"
"It's as homey as I imagined it would be." He looked around, noting that his books and record collection were in a prominent position in the built-in shelves. "How did you manage to unpack it all?"
"April and Mark helped. They made me promise to have them over Christmas Eve. They're on duty Christmas Day."
"Remind me to thank them."
"You should see them in a day or two. They're on assignment in England at the moment."
Illya finished his tea, and found his eyes slipping closed. He leaned his head against Napoleon's shoulder, enjoying the feeling of the solid warmth of his partner's flesh.
"C'mon, sleepyhead. You belong in bed." Napoleon roused him and guided him into the bedroom. There he helped him out of the clothes that he had fought so hard to dress himself in and into a fresh pair of pajamas. Illya collapsed into the bed while Napoleon built up a fire in the hearth. Once the fire was burning brightly, Napoleon started to leave the room.
"Don't go," Illya said. "Join me."
"Of course," Napoleon responded. He quickly shed his clothes and joined Illya under the covers. Illya found himself enfolded in strong arms. He relaxed into the body that held him such a comforting embrace. He felt no arousal--he had no strength for that yet--only an extreme peace. He sighed, thankful that he'd survived to share this moment.
"I've missed you," Napoleon whispered in his ear.
"You visited me every day," Illya said, unwilling to surrender to the unexpected emotion that was suddenly overwhelming him.
"It's not the same thing, and you know it." Napoleon held him tighter as if to emphasize the point.
Illya said nothing for a long minute, but simply let himself enjoy the sensation of being held by the man he loved.
"No," he finally agreed, "it isn't the same thing at all."
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