It isn't the first time and probably won't be the last time that the Russian muscles his way into a room where Napoleon is being held captive, annihilating captors and leaving bodies strewn in his wake. It is, as always, a welcome sight.
“Peril,” Napoleon rasps, as soon as he is sure he can talk without his voice shaking.
“You are a terrible spy,” mutters Illya in his predictable way. His expression is pinched and vaguely murderous. “Life much easier if not have to rescue stupid American all the time.”
For all that, his hands are extremely careful as they free Napoleon from the twisted cords securing him to the chair and he hovers with a frown of concern until he is sure that same American is upright and likely to stay that way.
“Very remiss of me,” agrees Napoleon, keeping it dry and bland, as relieved at the steadiness of his own voice as he is saddened by the thought that his partner still views him as a bit of a liability, not that this is any real surprise. They've been on several missions now, the three of them; they've worked well together, had some good results, but Illya makes no secret of his opinion that Napoleon's lifestyle is overly decadent. In turn, Napoleon has played up to this image and the Russian's subsequent irritation has been amusing in a dry but rather depressing way. He reflects that it was definitely one of the merits of his pre-Uncle existence, when there had been no-one to disappoint but himself - the opinions of his CIA employers/captors not being of any great importance to him.
He bats away Illya's steadying hands with a tight smile.
“I’m fine – just bruised."
He follows the Russian out of the building, careful to stay close to the man’s heels and biting his split and swollen lip to increased bloodiness to prevent any sound of discomfort escaping into the night air. Bad enough to be seen as a liability without adding the label of weak.
They jog quickly down the blessedly smooth road surface for about a mile and then Illya turns sharply to the left, leaving the road behind them as they head upwards across rocks and sparse grass illuminated only by the stark moon that is rising above the surrounding mountain peaks. By necessity their pace slows and it is with a joint sigh of relief that they round some large boulders at the foot of an enormous spur of solid rock, resuming their climb in its shadow, concealed now from anyone who might pass along the road.
The Russian climbs easily, his long legs powering him upwards, as efficient as a finely tuned machine yet far too lithe to be anything but flesh and blood. Napoleon follows with determination, his customary grace greatly hindered by an assortment of injuries inflicted by his captors. As the slope steepens, his pursuit of his partner becomes increasingly breathless as he favours a badly swollen knee and curves involuntarily over his bruised ribs and stomach. Eventually he allows himself to drop back a little, hoping the harsh sawing of his breath will go unheard over the muted roar of the Alpine wind buffeting its untamed way over the ridge of the spur above and beside them.
The climb seems to go on forever, the adrenaline rush of the escape long gone and the pain levels from Napoleon’s beating gradually ratcheting upwards until his head is swimming and his boots catch at rocks more than step over them. It is with a supreme effort of will that he forces himself onwards to the top of the incline where Illya waits for him, a dark figure in his tactical clothing draped in even darker shadows, silently observing every stumble and stagger.
“You are hurt,” he states bluntly when Napoleon eventually gains his side. “This is not just bruises.”
"A routine beating; straight from the textbook," Napoleon reassures him, trying to sound blasé and failing miserably because his breath is too fast and his voice shaky. “All part of the job description, Peril.”
They both know a standard beating is nothing to be laughed at, but it's good shorthand for confirming there's nothing immediately life-threatening.
“We have long way to go, Cowboy,” Illya warns him in a bleak voice, clearly not entirely convinced. He slips up and over the ridge, his figure a brief, crouched silhouette against the patchy, silvered clouds.
Napoleon follows; there is a moment of swooping dizziness in the teeth of the wind and then they are over and descend a short distance into a sloping valley of moonlight and shadow.
Illya gestures to a deeper patch of darkness near the top end of the valley.
“We get there, you can rest.”
“You rest,” the Russian asserts. “I don't want to carry you.”
There is an unspoken implication of 'again' that makes Napoleon wince and brings a terseness to his response.
“That won’t be necessary, I assure you.”
He steps past his partner and begins the long slog up the gradually rising valley floor, pride and shaking muscles carrying him onwards as rocks slip under his soles and dizziness eats at the corners of his vision, heading always towards the darker patch of shadow.
It is difficult to guess how long this second slow ascent takes, Napoleon’s normally sharp senses increasingly confused by the seemingly endless monochrome vista. It is with a sense of real shock that he steps suddenly into darkness and feels the grip of Illya’s fingers on his arm.
“Stop,” says the Russian, his voice deep and quiet and close enough to the American’s ear that he feels the warm puff of breath against the side of his head and is forced to wonder how long Illya has been right behind him.
Napoleon pauses, waits for his eyes to adjust to the shadow and then allows himself to lean against a convenient boulder. His sweat is icy cold in the chill of the thin mountain air and he feels he might be about to faint, something he wishes to avoid doing in front of his partner, especially given his earlier comments.
Perhaps Illya senses the American’s perilous grasp on consciousness, because he takes a firm hold of Napoleon’s upper arms and steers him sideways onto a patch of coarse grass, lowering him gently until his backside is on the floor.
“Wait here,” he says quietly and is gone, a dark shadow slipping away up the valley side.
“I believe I will,” mumbles Napoleon to himself, content to lean against the rock behind him and slowly catalogue his injuries. He hurts all over, so basically there's nothing inconsistent with a harsh beating at the hands of an expert or two, apart perhaps from the vicious nagging discomfort above his left hip. He flexes stiff fingers, raises his sweater a little and presses the palm of his hand into the soft skin of his side, feeling hard muscle beneath the surface but no swelling or bleeding. Nothing untoward then, despite the tremble of his flesh beneath his fingers.
He relaxes as much as he can, stretching a leg out in front of him to ease the swelling in his kneecap, courtesy of a kick from a boot that had been horribly reminiscent of a jackboot. It is a sure indication of his weakened state that the thought of that boot releases a slew of unpleasant memories. He forces them back down, reminding himself it was another time, another place, just the back story of a person who became the Napoleon Solo he now recognises as himself.
He watches the stars glitter overhead and at some point he must sleep because suddenly Illya is shaking his shoulder, expression inscrutable in the grey light of early morning but his voice unexpectedly soft with concern.
“We move now. Rendezvous with Gaby.”
Of course. The rendezvous on the Alpine road north of their current location is at midday, so either they have a fair distance to travel or Illya thinks Napoleon will take a long time to travel a short distance. Either way they need to move. Napoleon nods his assent and pushes himself upright in easy stages, finding himself exactly as stiff and sore as expected, but better for the brief rest.
Illya surveys him for a moment, his face serious as he assesses his partner, then he sets off uphill and Napoleon moves to follow, pausing briefly to check his bootlace. It's as he's straightening that the pain hits, a vicious jolt in his side that steals his breath and leaves him doubled over with his hand pressed against his flesh, his involuntary grimace causing his split lip to re-open.
“Fuck!” The word bursts through clenched teeth. He gasps a few shocked breaths, trying to breathe through it, makes a quick swipe at the warm blood now running down his chin and forces himself upright and into motion before his companion can look back and notice something amiss. Ilya, he thinks, follow Illya and it’ll pass off; just keep up.
His heart sinks when they clamber over the rocks above them. Ahead lies another long and steep climb and as far as he can remember the back-up rendezvous point is on the far side. To add insult to injury, as he forces himself onwards, a scatter of raindrops are flicked into his face by the rising wind and soon the drops become a deluge, driven into their eyes and nostrils, soaking their clothing and stealing warmth and will from a healthy, fit man let alone a battered and tired one.
Up and up they climb, tiny creatures in a vast landscape, the rocks as sharp beneath their feet as the peaks that surround them and the storm turning the day into the semi-darkness of a gloomy twilight. At least, thinks Napoleon morosely, it is unlikely anyone will be able to find them in their black clothing against the wet darkness of the mountain.
He stumbles again and again, hand pressed ever more frequently to the knife-like pain in his side that seems to be moving deeper into his guts. Illya climbs on ahead in short stages, picking out the easiest route and then waiting for Napoleon to catch up. Several times he turns around, his face a pale blur as he shouts into the storm.
“Cowboy! You need a hand there?”
Napoleon holds on desperately to the tattered remnants of his pride. He's been a soldier for Christ's sake; he is a world-renowned art thief, a spy and he's been injured before. He thinks he's better when he works alone; he's going soft, learning to rely on other people. He can do this; anything is preferable to showing weakness in front of Illya, who already thinks Napoleon is decadent and unworthy. He doesn't dwell on the many reasons he wants to impress his partner, because that brings up all sorts of issues that are better left unconsidered.
“I’m ok,” he insists each time, dismissing Illya with a wave of his hand, glad the gloom and the rain excuse and partially hide the pained grimace he can no longer control. Privately he feels so ill he's afraid that he's reaching the limit of his endurance, wanting only to collapse but refusing to do so.
The bout of nausea takes him by surprise. He hasn't had more than a few mouthfuls from Illya's water bottle so there's nothing to come up, but that's no consolation because the retching drives a red hot poker into his gut. He must pass out because he comes to on his knees, doubled over, moaning helplessly and wishing he’d fallen off the side of the mountain and into permanent oblivion. Gradually he becomes aware that the reason he hasn't fallen to his death is beside him, warm and solid and holding onto him as he rides out the spasms. Napoleon tries not to lean into the comfort, but it's not his day for succeeding at impossible goals.
"...can't stay here."
Illya's voice and Illya's strong hands pulling him onto his feet, where he trembles and shivers and hopes desperately that the rain dripping off his face and hair will disguise the fact that he just might be crying. If he was alone, he'd lie down now and let the darkness take him, but he isn't alone and he can't let his partner down and so he struggles on, gradually weaning himself off the support at his side.
At some point they must reach the top of the incline and start down the far side. The rain ceases and the sun comes out and Illya's eyes are the blue of an Arctic sky when Napoleon fails to notice that his partner has stopped walking and runs right into him. He staggers backwards a couple of steps because Illya is nothing if he is not solid.
The Russian says something but, although the deep voice is soothing, Napoleon cannot make out the words through the buzzing in his ears. The man looks worried though and the scar beside his eye makes him appear both younger and more worn than his true age. He should smile more, thinks Napoleon muzzily. Illya's smile is very rare and very charming and makes Napoleon's breath catch, although of course Illya does not know this fact because Napoleon has been very careful to hide it, especially from himself.
Between one breath and the next, there is an odd little blink in time. Napoleon realises he must have lost a second or two because his forehead is against Illya's chest and the man is easing him down to sit on the floor. Once there he crouches in front of Napoleon, supporting him with a firm hand cupped around the back of his neck.
Napoleon is cold and hot and shivery and lost, his customary barriers shattered, so he follows his instincts and attempts a smile of his own, anything to ease that tense look on his partner's face. Illya stops saying whatever it is that he's saying and his expression goes all soft, the way it does sometimes when he looks at Gaby, although the relationship between the two is now more that of the closest friends than potential lovers.
To Napoleon's surprise, Illya reaches out with his other hand and pushes back the tangle of dark curls that have descended over his partner's forehead.
"Not so groomed now, Cowboy," he says and there's something in his eyes that makes Napoleon ache in a way that is both wonderful and terribly dangerous.
"Nothing wrong with good grooming," he manages, although he can't quite pull his face into the suave smirk that should accompany the words.
Illya just looks sad and his palm rests for a moment, warm and calloused and alive against Napoleon's cheek.
"I need to see," he says gently and Napoleon nods and lets Illya ease him down onto his back and slowly prise his fingers away from his side.
There's a flood of cool air as the Russian lifts his clothing and examines the area. He frowns.
"Is bruised," he notes, sounding puzzled.
His fingers skate over the area. At first it's almost pleasant, a distraction, then his thumb catches something and agony flares. Napoleon hears the dull thunk as his own skull drops back against the ground, knows he cries out and hates himself for it.
Then Illya is cupping Napoleon's cheek again and his face is pale.
"These scars, you have been near explosion, no?"
His English is deteriorating, notes Napoleon, a sure sign the Red Peril is stressed.
"An unfortunate...side effect...of war," he breathes; his partner's eyes narrow.
"You have, pieces left?"
"Mmm, shrapnel," agrees Napoleon helpfully.
That must be it then. A sliver of metal from another lifetime come back to haunt him, forced out of its resting place by a vicious kick or two and slicing its way inwards. It's almost a relief; being slowly stabbed is a reasonable excuse for collapsing on a mission.
"I'm sorry," he adds. The Russian scowls at him.
"Sorry? For what?"
"Being a terrible spy."
Illya huffs a little laugh. "Is true. You are." His thumb caresses Napoleon's cheek as his gaze flicks up to the mountain they have traversed. "You are very brave man though."
"Careful, Peril. Someone might actually think you care."
"Is no problem. No-one to hear but you."
The humour is as unexpected as it's welcome. The Russian's gaze is almost fond and Napoleon relaxes into the cold dirt beneath him, allows himself the luxury of just looking at Illya, taking in the symmetry of his mouth and the curve of his lashes over those startling eyes. He knows from the change that comes over Illya's face that his own carefully crafted mask has slipped, his feelings on display for the world to see.
"Oh," says Illya, sounding a bit winded. "There you are. This is real Napoleon I think. Shame only get to see him when something terrible happens."
Napoleon raises an eyebrow, wondering when he's revealed his vulnerability in front of the person he is most guarded against. Illya must read his mind, or possibly his damnably open expression.
"Vinciguerra," he says and Napoleon knows immediately that he means the day Alexander Vinciguerra was killed. Quite honestly he's surprised; at the time it seemed his partner had all his attention on an understandably distressed Gaby.
"You are not what you pretend to be, Cowboy."
"Keep that to yourself, Peril," whispers Napoleon.
"Don't worry. Secret is safe with me."
Illya graces him with a white-toothed smile, then his attention is drawn up and away at the whine of a vehicle climbing at speed in low gear.
The Russian disappears and reappears in record time. Grim lipped, he scoops Napoleon up and there are a few confused images of sky and trees and the inside of a car and then they are moving fast, Napoleon lying half across the back seat with his head and shoulders propped up against his partner. Gaby's voice is sharp and anxious as she hurls the car around hairpin bends at speeds far in excess of those used by normal people.
Funnily enough, despite being thrown around, the pain has finally eased. Napoleon is glad of this although he suspects the fact that he is so cold and clammy is not a good sign. It's strangely peaceful though and he drifts until they screech to a halt and he is lifted out of the car to a backdrop of Gaby on the radio, demanding that the helicopter hurry up.
Illya lies him down on some soft grass that smells pleasantly of late summer and Napoleon angles his head so he can watch the Russian. He thinks the man is like a beautiful work of art and perhaps it's a good thing that Napoleon is dying, because now he will never have to see the look of rejection and disgust or bear the burden of carrying on and never letting Illya know how he really feels about him.
Gaby, radio pleas over, moves in at the edge of his vision.
Her voice breaks and Illya turns sharply back to face them.
He grasps Napoleon's shoulders and gives him a little shake.
"Illya," whispers Napoleon. There's no more speech in him so he tries to let everything he wants to say show on his face. Maybe he succeeds, because Gaby turns away with a sob and Illya's face crumples into anguished lines.
"Napoleon!" His fingers tighten to the point where it should hurt and there are tears welling in his eyes. "No! Don't you...! You don't get to do this; not now!"
Illya's seen it before. Napoleon has seen it before too; held men while they slipped away, some peacefully, some not. He stretches out his hand, surprised he still can, and lets his shaking fingers ghost over the other man's cheekbone. His last thought before his eyelids fall is that he can hear the helicopter and it's far too late.
Later, Gaby tells him that Illya refused to leave his side. Ever the realist, in the end Waverley had to intercede, letting the Russian take his own place in the helicopter.
Her face is petulant, big brown eyes luminous.
"You scared me," she says angrily, unable to express the distress she feels when she remembers standing in the downdraft, watching Illya carry his partner, hanging loose-limbed as a ragdoll, that last glimpse of dark hair blowing around a white face. "I thought you were dead."
"Still here," murmurs Napoleon apologetically, rubbing a thumb over the tiny hand clasped in his own and wondering how these people have come to mean so very much to him.
This of course is much later, long after he comes around briefly, with a sense of enormous surprise, as he's wheeled into the hospital.
Illya is at his side, a constant presence as white coats and tubes and injections come and go in the haze that surrounds Napoleon. Someone explains that it is shrapnel, that they must operate immediately, that the American has been very lucky not to succumb to shock. It's been a close call.
"I'll be close by," the Russian informs him, sending a rather illogical warning glare at the medical staff.
Just before they take him away, Napoleon catches at the other man's sleeve.
"Peril," he whispers, needing to apologise for...for everything.
Illya bends down beside him, his attention entirely on the American.
"You had to carry me, again..."
He would continue but Illya sighs gustily. He lays a hand on Napoleon's shoulder and squeezes gently; he is like an anchor and for a moment the haze around Napoleon clears away.
Illya's eyes flick briefly around and then he leans closer until their cheeks are almost touching and the vibration of his deep voice tickles Napoleon's ear.
"I would carry you anywhere, Cowboy."
After that, thinks Napoleon, dying just wouldn't be the right thing to do.