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Dog Years

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Napoleon notices for the first time in a little village just outside of Thessaloniki.

They’re hiding out after a mission that didn’t quite go wrong, per se, but certainly didn’t go right. There’s at least three noticeable hitmen on their tail and probably even more unnoticeable ones, so while Napoleon and Illya were running interference, Gaby went and found them a house that’s not entirely safe but that’s certainly safer than a hotel. It’s small and rundown, flowers in the windows and a small vegetable garden out back, and the elderly Greek owner was more than happy for them to hire it out for a few days. The gleam in the woman’s eye tells Napoleon that the price Gaby agreed on was probably exorbitant, but for now they seem to have eluded their tail, so he can live with exorbitant.

The morning after the running and hiding and negotiating with elderly Greek women, Napoleon wakes to the autumn sun flickering in through the curtains and a crick in his neck. He’s sleeping on the sofa—Gaby commandeered the bed, and Illya curled up on the floor next to her without a word—but the sofa’s far too small for him, so his feet are hanging off the end and his head’s at a funny angle at the top. He hisses, stretches out as much as he can, then sits up, blanket still piled across his lap. There are bruises down his spine from the fall out of a second-storey window, scrapes across his cheek from being shoved into a concrete floor, and a gunshot scraped across his thigh that he really ought to check out as soon as he can, but for a long moment he just sits there, listening to the quiet.

Except that it’s not quiet.

Napoleon frowns, because now that he’s paying attention, the back door’s wide open and something’s… yipping?

He levers himself up off the sofa, wraps the blanket around his shoulders, and pads over to the back door. The sun’s bright in the cool sky, bathing the harsh Greek countryside in light, picking out shadows on the hills and flooding through the spindly treebranches – and the back garden is full of dogs. There are at least fifteen, all skinny and scrawny, ribs showing through mangy coats, a collection of all the strays Napoleon’s seen wandering the streets, and Illya’s sitting right in the middle of the pack, long legs stretched out through the aubergines. He’s feeding them, a box of scraps held between his knees, and—what Napoleon’s most surprised by—the strays are just sitting there, waiting their turn, and there’s drool hanging from their jaws and hunger gleaming in their eyes but they’re waiting.

“Peril,” Napoleon says. “What are you doing?”

Illya glances up briefly, then tosses a morsel of what looks like pork between the jaws of what looks like a hybrid between a Great Dane and a werewolf. “They are hungry,” he says, as if that explains everything, and the weredane whines and nuzzles at his cheek.

Napoleon blinks. It’s far too early to deal with this. “Okay,” he says, and then, “Is there human food?”

“In the pantry,” Illya answers, scratching behind the weredane’s ears.

Napoleon goes back into the house and decides to pretend that that never happened.

Except that turns out to be not quite as easy as he expects, because now that he’s noticed, he keeps noticing. There’s the terrier that follows Illya around the Scottish Highlands, then the poodle he picks up in New York, the pug in Paris and the bulldog in Beijing, and before Napoleon really knows how this has happened the three of them are at a reception in Madrid hosted by the German ambassador and Illya’s on his knees next to a magnificent mastiff, getting licked all over the face while he’s supposed to be charming the potential terrorist’s wife. If Napoleon’s honest, though, this alternative tactic seems to be working a treat so he doesn’t kick up a fuss, just leans back in the quiet corner he’s found and adjusts the collar of his tuxedo.

Illya gets his fingers behind the mastiff’s ears and the beast just melts, going limp beneath his hands, rolling over on the rich carpet so that its pale belly is fully on display. Illya rubs its belly, too, in quick, almost-rough motions, and Napoleon’s too far away to make out what he’s saying but from the look on the maybe-terrorist’s wife’s face, it’s endearments and the kind of noises that people make when they’re talking to babies.

“Not being very subtle today, Solo.”

Gaby’s suddenly next to him, wearing a dress that’s made of blue velvet and diamonds that makes her stand out even in this illustrious company. Napoleon was so intrigued by the softness on Illya’s face that he didn’t notice her approach, and he coughs, blusters, says, “Subtle?”

Gaby takes a sip of the champagne she holds in one gloved hand, says, “You’re not supposed to know who Illya is, and you’re lurking like a goblin and staring at him. Hardly very covert.”

“He’s wrestling with a dog that’s almost as big as he is,” Napoleon says dryly. “Half the room is watching. It’d be less subtle to not watch.”

Gaby takes a brief look, and her forehead furrows with all the elegance of pseudo-German nobility. “True,” she says, and then looks back at Napoleon. “It’s cute.”

“Cute?” Napoleon snorts. “It’s unhygienic.”

“Dogs’ mouths are actually just as clean as human mouths.”

“They eat their own vomit.”

“Only sometimes,” Gaby chides, then looks him up and down, ever so scathingly. “Let me guess. You like cats.”

Napoleon had a tabby growing up, but that’s so not the point right now. “I like people,” he answers, “not slobbering giants. Or dogs.”

“Funny,” Gaby says. “So, are you ready to stop staring at our partner’s backside and get back to work?”

“What?” Napoleon splutters, and then: “I was not. You have a filthy mind, Miss Teller. I would never.”

Gaby rolls her eyes. “Whatever,” she says. “Ogle in your own time. The terrorist is upstairs, talking to that Milanese opera singer you don’t like. Would you like to be introduced, husband?” She offers him her elbow.

He takes it. “I certainly would, wife.”

They sweep up the wide staircase, arm in arm, an oil-painting of a German duchess and her American paramour. Illya watches them go, gaze razor-sharp, and when he sees they’re safe he goes back to blowing raspberries on the mastiff’s stomach.

Later, when Gaby’s ‘entertaining’ the man they’re now pretty certain is a terrorist in her and Napoleon’s palatial hotel suite, Napoleon and Illya go to break into his villa. The building’s beautiful and probably ancient, sprawled across acres and acres of orange groves and quaint countryside that’s practically glowing under the starlight, and the two of them, black as shadows, flit through the trees with a quiet that’s practically inhuman. They don’t talk because that would really ruin the point of all the silence, but they work together so perfectly that it feels almost sinful.

Napoleon breathes in the smell of oranges, tries not to think about how right all this feels, and twists the final click in the villa’s back door. He nudges the door open half a foot, tucks his lockpicking kit away into his inside pocket, then shines his torch down the dark corridor, illuminating terracotta tiles, tapestries on the walls—

And a set of slavering, drooling jaws.

Napoleon practically falls backwards, his heart suddenly racing in his chest, and he’s grabbing for his gun because he has precisely no desire to be mauled to death in the middle of the Spanish countryside before he and Illya have even had a chance to kiss

The dog wags its tail, slops out its tongue, and goes bounding over to Illya. Napoleon lies in the grass, still half-stunned, as the same mastiff from the German ambassador’s reception goes snuffling around Illya’s outstretched hands, licking at his fingers and wrists, and then at a firm, quiet command in Spanish, sits at his feet and looks up at him with the kind of adoring expression only a dog can manage. Illya scratches the mastiff’s head, quietly says, “Good boy, good boy.”, like all of this is completely normal and he regularly stops rampaging guard dogs with a headscratch, then looks up at Napoleon, one eyebrow raised. “No time for lying down, Cowboy.”

Napoleon gets to his feet, brushes dead grass off his black trousers. “What it is,” he says, “with you and dogs?”

Illya looks briefly surprised. “Now?”

Breaking into a terrorist’s isolated villa probably isn’t the best time for that kind of conversation. “No,” Napoleon says, and then, “But later.” He peers down at the dog, which doesn’t pay him the slightest bit of attention. “Is that thing going to cause trouble?”

“Felipe?” Illya asks. The dog whines at its name, and Illya silences it with another expert headscratch. “No, he’s well trained.” He crouches down, grips the dog’s muzzle, looks it in the eyes and says in Spanish, “Stay.”

The dog stays.

It’s still there when they come crashing out of the house again, silo plans shoved down Napoleon’s shirt and bullet in Illya’s shoulder, and Illya points to the heavily-armed guards chasing them down the corridor and barks a quick Spanish, “Attack!

The dog attacks. They get away.

When they’re tucked away in a backstreet doctor’s surgery that Waverly assures them is safe, Napoleon watches the sleepy doctor pull the bullet out of his partner’s flesh and says, “How you doing, Peril?”

Illya grunts. “Fine,” he says. “Have had worse.”

Napoleon nods, then says, “Nice trick with the dog.”

Illya gives him a look. “Dogs are simpler than people,” he says with an air of finality, like that’s that.

“Really?” Napoleon says. “That’s all I’m getting. That dog was literally eating out of your hand.”

“I like dogs.”

“I can see that!” Napoleon says with a laugh that’s just a little too sharp to be genuine. He takes a breath, ignores Illya’s watchful, thoughtful gaze, then says, “Sorry. I’m a little on edge.” He smiles a lopsided smile. “Between Gaby ‘entertaining’ that scumbag and you taking a bullet, I guess I’m feeling protective.”

“Protective?” Illya asks, and then hisses as the doctor digs a little deeper into his shoulder. “I do not need you to protect me. Neither does Gaby.”

“No,” Napoleon says. “No, I know that. Doesn’t stop me worrying, though.”

Illya watches him for a moment longer, keeping quiet and still as the doctor finally removes the bullet from his shoulder and sets to stitching the wound up. It doesn’t take long, and when the guy pats Illya on his uninjured shoulder and says in rough English, “Shirt back on. You good.”, Napoleon feels the tension seep out of his body. They’re okay. They’re all okay.

The doctor leaves them in his surgery. Napoleon helps Illya shrug back into his shirt, the ragged, bloody rip now bare to a neat, white bandage, and he says, “Time to go. We should make sure Gaby’s okay, then call it in to Waverly.”

“Yes,” Illya says, then catches Napoleon’s hand, his fingers warm and strong. “Solo,” he says reassuringly. “I am okay.”

Napoleon lets out a breath. “I know,” he says. “I just wish you could control the bad guys the same way you control the bad guys’ dogs.”

Illya huffs a quiet laugh. “Scratch their bellies and give them treats? No. You cannot control men that way.”

Napoleon blames it on the adrenaline that’s still buzzing through his veins. “I don’t know,” he says, half throaty, his hand still caught between Illya’s fingers. “Depends on the man.”

Illya’s blue eyes flash—surprise, confusion, realisation, excitement—and then he says, low and hoarse, “Is that an invitation, Cowboy?”

Despite the fact that they’re sitting in a darkened backstreet surgery, with stitches in Illya’s shoulder and blood under Napoleon’s nails, Napoleon can’t help but smile. “I’m thinking of it as a promise,” he says, “but right now, we need to go. Marquez’s men will have alerted their boss by now.”

Illya’s lips thin. “Yes,” he says. “We must work.”

“Always,” Napoleon says, and squeezes Illya’s dog-licked fingers between his own.

They get out of Madrid that night, the three of them cramped into the back of a tiny Alfa Romeo while one of Waverly’s men drives an even madder drive than Gaby. They’re shuffled around between U.N.C.L.E. agents until they’re put on a tiny boat to cross the Channel and head back to HQ in London, and it’s only when they’re out on the waves that they can finally rest. There’s no cabin, though, so the three of them crouch together under the rough awning, Gaby between them, and the heat of their bodies keeps them warm in the wind. Gaby’s asleep in minutes, one hand on Illya’s thigh, head resting against Napoleon’s chest, and Napoleon listens to the whisper of her sleeping breathing, to the crash of the waves against the ship’s keel, to the squawk of the seabirds overhead.

To the slop of the scruffy black and white boxer’s tongue against Illya’s hand.

Napoleon lets his head fall back against the headrest, against Illya’s arm that’s stretched out behind them both. “Why is there a dog on the boat?”

Illya scratches the boxer around the chin. It whiffles and dumps its head on Illya’s knee in a gesture of approval. “Why?” he asks. “Are you jealous?”

“Jealous? Of a dog?”

Illya’s fingers are strong and sure, working the spots behind the dog’s sharp ears, and the animal’s tail thumps happily against the deck. “Yes,” Illya says, and there’s a slyness and a sureness in his voice that sends a shiver down Napoleon’s spine.

“I’m not jealous,” Napoleon says, and flashes white teeth in a grin. “I’m just waiting my turn.”

Illya’s eyes glimmer, and the hand that’s outstretched behind Napoleon’s head runs long fingers through his hair. His skin is startlingly warm against the chill sea air and Napoleon almost jumps at the suddenness of the touch, which just makes Illya smirk and Gaby stir against him, her forehead wrinkling in disapproval. Napoleon takes a breath, forces himself to relax, and half-closes his eyes as Illya’s fingers work through his hair, digging into his skin, rubbing and scratching and no, Napoleon Solo is absolutely not letting his giant of a Russian partner pet him like a goddamn dog.

Between them, Gaby sniffs and cracks open her eyes. She peers up at Napoleon, glances over at Illya, then settles back against Napoleon’s shoulder and says, already drifting off again, “Boys, I’m right here. Flirt somewhere else.”

Illya’s cheeks flush bright red, but he doesn’t stop.

Nothing much changes after that, except for the fact that Gaby starts knocking and waiting before she enters their hotel rooms rather than just barging straight in. The three of them still work together as a seamless unit, hands and minds practically one, and if Napoleon occasionally gets distracted mid-mission by the way muscles bunch under Illya’s shirt in the Saharan sun, well, it’s no different from getting distracted by the shiny baubles on the wrists and necks of the rich and famous. Years pass, and their efficiency doesn’t change, their success rate doesn’t slip – and the dogs don’t stop coming. The chocolate Labrador in Bucharest that eats food out of Illya’s hands under the table. The Dachshund in Egypt that curls up in his lap when they’re on surveillance. The husky in Canada that looks up at Illya with big sad eyes when they leave the cabin they’ve been camped out in for two weeks.

Gaby’s sitting with Napoleon in the car as Illya says goodbye to the husky. He’s kneeling in the snow, letting the ridiculously creature lick every bit of exposed skin it can, and Gaby snorts, hunkers down further in her seat. The car’s inner light gleams off the thick white scar that’s rent into her right temple, and she says, “If I didn’t know better, I’d say that he loves that dog more than he loves you.”

Napoleon ignores the warmth that spreads through his stomach at that, says, “I’m pretty sure he does. The mutt probably doesn’t talk back quite as much as I do.”

Gaby laughs, her breath icing on the cold Canadian air. “No one talks back as much as you do.”

Napoleon reaches over, ruffles her hair. “Damn straight.”

Illya’s hugging the damn dog, now, arms tight, its paws resting on his shoulders, and Napoleon can’t help but smile at the sight. Illya’s not exactly prone to overt displays of affection—the most Napoleon gets when they’re not hidden away from the world together in the darkness of the night, hands bracketed over bare skin and scars, is a slightly-less-than-murderous smile—and so seeing him like this is refreshing, reassuring. The day Illya stops playing with the dogs is the day Napoleon will start worrying.

Gaby runs her hands over the cracked leather of the steering wheel, and says, tone nervous and full of reluctance, “Waverly’s offered me a job.”

Napoleon goes very, very still. “What?” he asks.

Gaby doesn’t look at him, just stares out of the windscreen at Illya, snow on his shoulders and barking, jumping husky in his arms. “My own team,” she repeats. “My pick of U.N.C.L.E., and a senior position in the New York branch. Less time in the field, maybe, but also therefore less chance of getting blown up. A step further into statecraft, further away from running and guns. It’s a good position, a really good position—”

“You should take it,” Napoleon interrupts.

Gaby’s head rockets around, and she looks at him, eyebrows arched. “You’re not angry?” she asks sharply.

There’s a whole knot of emotion whirling in Napoleon’s chest, loss and sadness, pride and fierce, fierce joy, but that’s all a little heavy for the interior of a little old Jeep. “No,” he says affectionately. “No, of course I’m not angry. Three person teams are rare, so I’m honestly surprised that they kept us together for longer than a month, let alone seven years. And this will be good for you, for your career.” He smiles, says, “Keep this up, and you’ll be director of U.N.C.L.E. before long.”

Gaby snorts ruefully, says, “That’s a bit much.”

Napoleon thinks about her skill with a gun, about how she picked all of this up so fast, about how she can hold Illya on the chessboard and drive a beat-up Mini with all the panache of a Formula 1 driver – and then about how she is so good at the bigger picture, about how their little slice of the action fits in to larger plots and plans and schemes. She’s good, so good, and he says, “I wouldn’t be so sure about that.” He reaches over, smoothes back the hair he ruffled, says, “Is this why you’ve been so tense these past weeks?”

Her lips twitch in a shallow smile. “I’ve been trying to find a time to tell you both,” she admits, “but between the mark and Illya’s new best friend, it never seemed to be the right time.”

“Something like this, there is no right time,” Napoleon says. “Only the least worst time.”

Gaby looks at him sideways. “So you are angry.”

Napoleon shakes his head, reaches over and pulls her closer to him, his arm slung around her shoulders. “For a spy,” he says, “sometimes you’re very bad at reading between the lines. No, I’m not angry. I’m sad, yes, and I’ll miss you, we both will, but I’d never be angry.” He glances up, out of the windscreen at Illya, kneedeep in snow with a mournful husky in his arms, and he says, “And it’s not like Illya and that damn dog. We’re not going to never see you again. You’ll be in New York, and the world has planes and phones and all other kinds of ways of getting in touch.” He presses a kiss to the side of her head, says, “You can’t get rid of us that easily, you know.”

“I know,” Gaby says, and her hand’s worked into the front of his shirt, gripping tight. “You’ll look after Illya for me?”

“If he’ll let me,” Napoleon answers.

Outside, Illya gives the husky one last ferocious belly rub, then jogs to the car and slides into the back seat. His long legs fold up almost neatly in the Jeep’s wide footwells, and he says, voice oddly rough, “Drive, before I change my mind and kidnap the dog.”

The months after Gaby leaves are strange for both of them. There’s something missing, they can both feel it, and sometimes Illya will turn to Napoleon with a smile on his lips that’ll fade the moment he sees who he is. That’s okay, though, because Napoleon sometimes feels himself doing the same thing, feels himself reaching for a pair of round, white sunglasses on a market stall and then realising that he’s got no one to give them to.

They adjust, though, eventually.

In the end, the biggest hardship turns out to be the fact that Gaby sells her flat in London. U.N.C.L.E. HQ is in London, so that’s where Illya and Napoleon end up spending a lot of their time in between saving the world – and it was fine when they were with Gaby, because she had a small flat in Marylebone, maintained by Waverly when they were away, and they could all crash there for the hours or days or months they were stuck in England with nothing to do. That flat’s gone, now, so for the first few months they just stay in hotels, living off room service and trying to ignore the honeymooners in the suite upstairs. That can’t last, though, mainly because Illya’s far too conspicuous and really doesn’t like being stared at by tourists.

Gaby leaves in April.

By mid-August, during a whole fortnight of downtime, Napoleon finds himself in a spacious flat in West Hampstead, inspecting the tiling in the bathroom and the lay of the wooden floors.

“I think you’ll find the price quite reasonable,” the estate agent says, her coiffed blonde hair gleaming under the artificial light. “The current owners are eager to sell. You could move in tomorrow, if you wanted.”

Napoleon nods, pulls open the fridge, checks the cupboard space in the kitchen. “I like it,” he says. “Good height on the ceilings, and I love the wallpaper.” Plus, he’s clocked at least four possible emergency exits so far and there’s a clear line of sight down the street. Very difficult to sneak up on. Very difficult to ambush.

“So,” the estate agent says. “Can I tempt you to make an offer?”

“One more question,” Napoleon says. He flashes her his best smile, the one he reserves for royalty and the end of the world, and says, “What’s the policy on dogs?”

Napoleon buys the flat outright, in the end, because while U.N.C.L.E.’s pay might not be fantastic, it’s not exactly like he’s had many opportunities to spend it over the past few years. It comes unfurnished so he goes on a bit of a shopping spree, buys rugs for the wood floors, a king-sized frame for the bedroom with a mattress to match, then spends forty minutes agonising over a colour scheme before he finally stops distracting himself from the question at hand.

The estate agent gave him two sets of keys.

Over the next two days, Napoleon does the flat up, arranging rugs and ornamental vases to his exacting standards. The shower pressure is perfect, the morning light falls through the windows just so, but the whole place just feels too big, too empty. He’s used to cramped safehouses and shared hotel rooms, to living out of his partners’ pockets, and now he stands in the middle of the living room and doesn’t know what to do with himself.

He calls Illya.

Yes?

“Peril, it’s me.” He pauses, thinks, then says, “Meet me at this address.” He reels it off, and then: “Make it quick.”

Are you okay?

Trust Illya to think like a spy at every opportunity. Napoleon smiles almost affectionately, says, “Don’t worry, no one’s kidnapped me. Just hurry up.”

Illya gets there in a little under an hour, which Napoleon figures is pretty impressive considering he was probably on the other side of London. He’s not out of breath, though, and Napoleon meets him out on the street, jumper pushed up around his elbows, hands in his pockets. He’s trying to exude confidence but his stomach is heaving, and he smiles his best disarming smile, says, “Took your time.”

“Why am I here?” Illya asks, not even out of breath.

Napoleon doesn’t say anything, just turns and heads inside.

Illya spends seven minutes poking around the flat, clocking all four emergency exits and peering down the street at the line of sight. Napoleon’s pretty sure that while his back’s turned Illya’s already snuck some bugs in but that’s basically him demonstrating his affection so he doesn’t complain, and when Illya comes back into the living room and stands in front of Napoleon, sitting on the cream sofa, he says, “Good choice of flat, Cowboy. Easily defensible.”

Napoleon’s heart is thudding in his chest, harder than he’d thought possible. “Want to defend it with me?” he says, and pulls the second set of keys out of his pocket.

Illya doesn’t say anything, but, then again, with the light slanting through the window just so, brushing English summertime across the curve of his lips, he doesn’t need to.

The years pass in missions and danger and the odd stolen week in that flat in London.

Gaby puts Napoleon in touch with a white-haired housekeeper called Simone who lives in Islington, who comes in a couple of times a week when neither Napoleon or Illya are around to open the windows and clean out the dust. She’s a lovely woman, and she never seems to bat an eyelid when they reappear at short notice with bruises and cuts and bullet wounds. One time, Napoleon forgets to let her know that they aren’t going to need her for the next week, and she comes over to find him lying shirtless on the kitchen table while Illya digs splinters of broken glass out of his back. She just blinks, says, “Oh, sorry, loves! Didn’t realise you were back.” She pauses, squints at the gashes in Napoleon’s skin, says, “Do you need a hand?”

Napoleon’s so full of painkillers that he barely understands the question. Illya’s hands are warm on his skin, and Illya says, “If you are offering.”

Simone pushes up her sleeves, goes to the sink and starts washing her hands. “Tell me what to do.”

When he’s laid up in bed, immobilised by the sprain in his ankle and trying to avoid the mangled skin of his back, Napoleon calls Gaby. He times it so that it’s early morning in New York, and when she picks up the phone with a sleepy “Yes?”, Napoleon says, “And why exactly is your housekeeper an expert at sewing up mission wounds?”

Good morning, Napoleon,” Gaby grumbles, and then: “What, you thought I’d let just anyone wander around my home? She’s ex-MI6, idiot.

Which does explain a lot.

Of course, the real perk of this particular housekeeper is the fact that whenever she comes over, she brings with her a yappy little Yorkshire terrier that leaps up Illya’s legs like he’s a goddamn tree. Illya, of course, is more than happy to let himself be climbed, and when Simone’s busy disinfecting the latest gash on the back of his shoulder, he pulls the terrier onto his lap, itches it behind the ears and lets it lick all over his hand and wrist.

Simone laughs, says, “He likes you. Be glad, he doesn’t like most people.”

Napoleon’s lounging back in the armchair. “He’s a dog,” he says. “All dogs like Illya.”

Illya glances back at Simone, says, “He is just jealous.”

Simone ruffles his hair and, much to Napoleon’s amusement, Illya doesn’t protest. “Don’t worry, lad,” she says with a smile. “I’m fairly sure he likes you, too.”

Later that night, when Simone’s gone and taken her yipping bundle of fur with her, Napoleon sits in the same armchair, scotch in hand, and thinks about the smile on Illya’s lips as that terrier sat in his lap and looked up at him with big, adoring eyes, about the ease in the line of his body and the smoothness of his forehead. Illya frowns a lot, nowadays, frowns and scowls and glowers, and yes, he always has done that for as long as Napoleon’s known him, but the lines are getting deeper around his eyes and the downturn in his lips is getting worn through constant use. With a dog on his lap, a dog barely larger than his hand, he looked young again. Carefree.

“Napoleon?” Illya’s standing in the bedroom door, stripped down to his nightclothes and watching Napoleon with the faintest tilt to his head. “We have an early start tomorrow to get to Milan in time for the reception. We should sleep while we can.” His chest is bare in the dim light, still roped with muscle, with strength, but his skin is a patchwork of scars, white and pink, old and healed, fresh and still aching.

Napoleon doesn’t move, just turns the glass in his hand and says, “You ever think about retiring?”

Illya’s forehead furrows. “You want to leave U.N.C.L.E.?”

“No,” Napoleon says quickly. “No, I don’t think I could if I wanted to. And anyway, we’re not talking about me.” He ignores the flush he can feel in his cheeks, says, “I mean retire from the field, from the glass in the back and the bullets in the leg. Live here permanently, not just when someone else is off saving the world.”

Illya doesn’t answer, just looks at Napoleon strangely and says, “Why are you asking this?”

Napoleon thinks about Illya on the day they first met, the day they first tried to kill each other, fast and strong and lean, and about him now, still fast but slower, still strong but weaker, about the grey that’s starting to creep into his hair and the wrinkles that are beginning to colonise his face. He thinks about that terrier, small and delicate, and Illya’s hands in its fur, gentle and careful, about the peace in Illya’s face, and he says, “No reason. Just let me finish this—” He raises his glass. “—and I’ll be right in.”

Illya keeps looking at Napoleon with that strange look in his eyes, but doesn’t argue.

They fly to Milan first thing in the morning, attend a black-tie reception in the evening, and by the time the stars are out they’re running through the city’s streets, Napoleon’s bowtie discarded, Illya’s jacket torn down the back. They’ve got what they came for, of course, the disc of plots and plans tucked into Illya’s pocket, which is why there’s a small army on their heels, bullets ricocheting off the ancient buildings and blasting holes in the stonework. Napoleon’s close on Illya’s heels as they rocket through the twisting streets, but there’s a weariness in his muscles that he can’t quite ignore, a creeping exhaustion that widens the gap between them, slowly but surely.

Napoleon’s breath is coming hard. His fingers are clammy around his gun.

They’re so close to the extraction point when Napoleon feels blazing pain dig its claws into the back of his right calf, and he falls to the ground with a yell that’s verging so close to a scream. His gun goes skittering from his hand, clatters against the nearest wall, and the enemy are just around the corner, too close. Illya skids to a halt, but he’s at least five metres out in front, now, and there’s no time, no time. Napoleon breathes through the pain, looks up, catches Illya’s gaze and barks, “Go!”

Their pursuers are round the corner, and there’s too many of them even for Illya. Napoleon sees the moment Illya makes the decision, the choice, and then he turns, runs, goes.

It’s the only way.

Hands grab at Napoleon, shoving him forward to the floor, cuffing his hands behind his back. Someone spots his leg, says something in garbled Arabic, and then Napoleon feels fingers probing the gunshot in his calf, digging in, going deeper, and by the time those fingers scissor apart in the hole in his flesh he can’t hold back the scream anymore.

Napoleon spends three days in a dungeon somewhere in the Middle East, hands bound behind his back, hanging naked and upside down from a hook that’s embedded in the bullet hole in his calf. The pain is worse than anything he’s ever experienced, worse than the electric chair, worse than the emergency surgery without anaesthetic Gaby and Illya had to perform in Brazil, and his voice goes hoarse from screaming within an hour. He swims in and out of conscious, of lucidity, and after two days he starts hallucinating, dreaming about Illya in the corner, clad in a perfect tuxedo and with a Doberman on a leash. Dream-fantasy-Illya crouches down next to where Napoleon’s head hangs a foot from the ground, lets the Doberman dribble down his face, and says, “At least you didn’t drag me down with you.”

It’s only when Napoleon’s slapped back into consciousness by a friendly punch to the jaw that he realises that the Doberman’s slobber is his own bitter, salty tears.

They keep asking him about his partner, about his agency, about the plans that he stole. They ask him if he’s planning to sell them or if he’s just an altruistic do-gooder, and the question is so ludicrous that he can’t help but laugh. That doesn’t go down well, though, and he ends up spitting his own teeth out onto the stone floor – but he doesn’t break. He doesn’t tell them, because all through it he thinks about Illya, about Illya’s scars and Illya’s weariness, about the look in his eyes when he said goodbye to that husky, the look in his eyes when he held that terrier.

Illya will come. Illya has to come.

On the morning of the fourth day, Illya comes.

Napoleon doesn’t remember much about the rescue, because his mind is pretty much as numb as his body by that point. There was a scuffle in the hallway outside his cell, he knows that, and he vaguely remembers something that sounded like the distinctive snap of a man’s neck, but then after that all there was was white hot pain as the hook was slowly—slowly!—removed from the mangled remnants of his calf. He thinks he screamed, or at least tried to, but then there were familiar hands on his cheeks and a familiar strength holding him close, and he remembers gasping, “Illya.

“I’m here,” Illya says, voice thick and tight. “I’m here, I’m here.”

The rest of the extraction team arrive a little after, and then Napoleon’s being lifted onto a stretcher, his leg wrapped up and immobilised, and there’s a blanket across his body and a whole melee of voices telling him that it’s okay, that he’s okay, that everything’s going to be okay. He knows without having to look at his leg that that’s all a lie but he doesn’t have the voice to say as much, so he just leans back and watches the world go by with half-shuttered eyes.

It’s when they’re carrying him out and to the waiting helicopter that he sees the bodies. They’re littered through the halls, limbs disjointed, fur dull and bloody, each one with a snarl on its dying jaws and a bullet in its brain. Alsatian, pitbull, Rottweiler, mastiff. Doberman. Napoleon knows without asking who it was that killed them all, and it’s at that point that he decides it’s probably best to just pass out.

He wakes in a hospital, warm under white sheets. Machines beep and buzz around him, light fades in through the window, and he can tell he’s shot through with the good stuff because the pain is nothing but a dull, faraway ache. He shifts, opens his eyes. There’s a chair angled next to his bed with a familiar brown jacket draped over the back, but it’s empty. That’s probably a good thing—Illya has been known to growl when asked to leave his injured partners’ hospital rooms, but he needs rest as much as all the non-giant Russians—but it doesn’t stop Napoleon from feeling a little lonely. It would have been good to wake up to a familiar face.

“Napoleon?” The door’s open, letting the bustle and chatter of any hospital across the world spill in, and Gaby’s standing in the doorway, joyous smile on her lips and cardboard cup of coffee in one hand. “Thank God,” Gaby effuses, and lets the door slam shut, dumps the coffee and comes to take Napoleon’s hand. “You had everyone very worried.”

Gaby’s hair is greyer than the last time Napoleon saw her and the lines around her eyes are deeper. She’s still as beautiful as she ever was, though, and Napoleon reaches over with a wince of pain, covers her hand with his. “I’d always come back to you,” he says – or tries to say, because it really comes out as more of a whisper. His throat feels ruined.

Gaby reaches for the waterjug on the bedside table, pours a glass and helps him drink it. “Don’t talk too much,” she says. “You went through a lot, and you need time to recover.” Something dark flickers through her eyes, and she reaches out, brushes his hair back off his forehead. “You really scared me,” she says, softer now. “We thought that maybe—” She cuts off, shakes her head.

Napoleon’s hands are weak. “Illya,” he husks, and hopes that the name will be question enough.

Gaby was always good at understand his gibberish. “I sent him to get something to eat,” she says gently. “He’s been at your side since they found you, and he spent most of last night in this room still in the clothes he executed the rescue in, still covered in blood.” Gaby’s face does a little twist, and she looks at him, embarrassed, says, “Sorry.”

Napoleon shrugs, but figures it’s probably best not to try to speak. He’s used to the sight of his own blood.

Gaby’s eyes are dark. “He’s not okay, Napoleon,” she says. “He hasn’t been okay since we lost you. He blames himself, thinks he abandoned you, that this is all his fault, that—” She cuts herself off again, bites her tongue, but Napoleon just squeezes her hand, rubs his thumb across her skin. He watches her with what he’s hoping are encouraging eyes, and he must be doing something right because after a moment she lets out a breath, squeezes back. “There’s something you need to know,” she says softly. “Something serious. I should get a doctor, they can explain—”

Napoleon tugs at her hand, husks, “What?” It barely makes a sound, but his heart’s beating faster, now, because Gaby is sad and scared, and Gaby Teller, head of U.N.C.L.E. operations for North America, is never scared. He has to know. He has to know now.

Gaby stays, raises his hand in hers, presses a kiss to his knuckles. “It’s your leg,” she says. “Getting shot is one thing, they could have fixed that, but what those bastards did with the hook?” She shakes her head. “It dragged the wound further down, ruptured most of your calf muscle and half the tendons in that leg. Your Achilles in particular is shot, and the doctors say there isn’t really anything they can do.”

A cold hand settles over Napoleon’s heart. He forces his breathing to stay calm and level.

“With physical therapy,” she says, “you’ll be able to walk, possibly even without crutches or a cane. But the muscle won’t ever heal properly, not enough for you to be able to run or even jog.” She pauses, and there’s a glimmer in her eye that Napoleon knows is halfway to tears. “I’m sorry, Napoleon,” Gaby says. “U.N.C.L.E. can’t afford to put a physically impaired agent in the field.”

There’s a rushing sound in Napoleon’s head, so loud it almost drowns out the sky. “Crippled,” he manages. “Broken.

Gaby’s lips twist. “I’m sorry,” she says, “but I’m going to be here, okay? As much as I can, I’ll be here.”

Napoleon closes his eyes and nods, because it’s all he can do to not scream.

The door creaks open. There’s a sudden scuff of shoes against linoleum, a sharp intake of breath, and suddenly Illya is everywhere. A grin splits his lips, wide and ecstatic, and his hands are on Napoleon’s cheek, hair, shoulder, chest, touching and caressing as if making sure that he’s here, that this is real. “Cowboy,” Illya finally chokes out, and then the smile drops, fades away. “Sorry. I’m so sorry, I left you, I should have come back, should have killed them all.” His gaze flickers to Gaby, who’s still holding tight to Napoleon’s hand, then to Napoleon’s leg, then back up to his face, and he says, quieter, “Is all my fault. I have ended your career.”

Napoleon can’t quite suppress a shudder at that, but there’s so much guilt in Illya’s eyes. He grabs Illya’s hand, kisses his palm, shakes his head. “No,” he whispers, channelling all the fear that’s nestled in his heart into that one word. “No.” He kisses Illya’s hand again because he has no voice for anything else, and he thinks about the terrier, yapping and content in Illya’s lap, and then about the Doberman, sprawled out and dead beside its handler, and yes, Illya left him, but Illya brought him back.

Illya’s eyes are dark. “Cowboy—”

Napoleon shakes his head again, harder. “Love you,” he forces out, and that will have to be enough because it’s all he’s got.

Napoleon stays in the hospital for a week. When he’s deemed well enough to travel, he’s immediately taken to an U.N.C.L.E.-issue helicopter in a wheelchair, leg immobilised, and taken back to England. A few more checkups in U.N.C.L.E.’s own HQ and he’s released into Illya’s care, taken back to their flat with crutches and a wheelchair and told in no uncertain terms to not even think about exerting himself.

Gaby comes and stays for a few days, sleeping curled up on their sofa, face buried into the cushions, but she has responsibilities that extend beyond her old team, responsibilities to half the civilised world that she can’t just ignore. She has to go, but the night before her flight is scheduled to leave, she comes and sits on their bed with Napoleon, plays cards with him while Illya makes a hash of cooking dinner, then curls up against him, rests her head in his lap and dozes off to the sound of colourful Russian curses. Illya wakes her when he brings in roast lamb, and the three of them eat in the bedroom, Napoleon in the position he’s been in for days now, Gaby propped against his side, Illya sitting in the chair under the window. It’s like nothing has ever changed, like they were never apart.

In the morning, Gaby kisses Napoleon’s cheek and says, “I’ll keep an eye on your progress. If you need anything, call me.”

Napoleon squeezes her hand, says, “Get out of here before Illya doesn’t let you leave.”

Illya is always quiet, but recently he’s become practically silent. He ghosts around the flat, wraps and rewraps Napoleon’s leg as often as required, does everything he has to, but never talks. He avoids Napoleon’s gaze, spends as much time as he can either out of the room or out of the damn flat, and if Napoleon didn’t know better he’d think that this relationship was coming to an end. He does know better, though, and so one morning a week after Gaby left he pulls himself out of bed, grabs for the crutches that he hates using, and hops himself into the kitchen where he can hear Illya studiously not paying attention to him.

Illya looks up over the top of the paper as Napoleon hops in, and he’s on his feet in an instant. “What are you doing? No, go back to bed. Doctors said you had to rest, you cannot be—”

Peril,” Napoleon barks. “Sit down.”

Only slightly to Napoleon’s surprise, Illya sits.

“Good,” Napoleon says, and manoeuvres himself into a seat. “Now maybe we can have a damn conversation without you running out of the room.”

Illya looks mildly offended. “I have never run out of the room.”

“It’s a figure of speech,” Napoleon says heavily, because as much as he hates to admit it, even hobbling this far has tired him out. His body was a honed instrument but now it’s broken, snapped beyond repair, and there’s nothing he can do except ride it out. He smiles as much as he can, says, “Illya, will you please talk to me? I’m hurt, I’m not dead.”

Illya is quiet for a long, long moment. Napoleon can see the newspaper scrunched up in his hands, creased and deformed, and then Illya says, “I left you behind.”

“I told you to.”

Illya holds up a hand. “I left you behind,” he repeats, “because I was not paying attention to where you were. You fell behind, and that is something that I should have noticed, but then there was no time and you were too far away. I should have noticed, but I didn’t – because I was tired.” Napoleon blinks, because he remembers the ache in his muscles, yes, the way his feet throbbed after the running and fleeing, but Illya practically flew. Illya’s jaw is tight, and he says, “I was worrying about myself, about whether I could stand this work anymore, and I did not worry about you.”

“Not your job to worry about me, Peril.”

Illya gives him a look. “You do not worry about yourself,” he points out. “I am your partner. I have to worry about you, otherwise no one does.” He looks away, and a muscle tics in his jaw. “I did not worry. I slipped, because I am old. And now you have lost everything.”

“I have you,” Napoleon says simply. “That’s more than enough.”

Illya scoffs. “You said that you would not leave U.N.C.L.E. if you could,” he says, bitter and full of self-blame. “Now you have no choice.”

Napoleon shakes his head. “Not true.”

Illya gives him another look.

“Not true!” Napoleon repeats. “U.N.C.L.E. isn’t just frontline agents, and yeah, I can’t do that anymore—” The admission sends a knife through his gut. “—but that doesn’t mean I’m useless.”

“You are no good at statecraft.”

Napoleon rolls his eyes. “No, I know that,” he says, “and, anyway, I’m pretty sure that no one wants the future of the world in my hands when it comes to anything more complex than defusing bombs.” He smiles, lopsided and only half-real. “But there are levels between the people who decide which bombs to defuse and the people who actually do the defusing.”

“Handlers,” Illya says, like it’s obvious, and then peers at Napoleon keenly. “You? A handler?”

“Don’t sound so surprised,” Napoleon says dryly.

“I am surprised,” Illya answers. “You do not like desks.”

Napoleon fights his smile, finally says, “I like desks a lot more than I like sitting in some carehome, watching television and gossiping about the old days.”

Silence hangs between them for a long moment. Napoleon studies Illya, studies the furrows in his forehead and the lines around his eyes, and he’s not okay, not as calm and cool as he was when he had Simone’s terrier in his lap, but he’s less tense than he’s been since they got back from Milan. Illya doesn’t speak, doesn’t look up, and after a while Napoleon can’t take it anymore, says, “And this way, at least there’ll be someone around to maintain the flat. Simone won’t live here more than we do.”

Illya looks up at him, sharp and tight, and he finally says, “This is my fault.”

“My fault, too,” Napoleon counters. He half-smiles, remembers the Illya Kuryakin his mind dreamed up while he was hanging like meat, and says, “And at least I didn’t drag you down with me.”

Illya’s expression is unreadable. “I would have preferred it if you did.”

Napoleon doesn’t heal quickly, because despite what some of the younger U.N.C.L.E. agents think, he’s not Superman. He spends weeks in the wheelchair, months on the crutches. He goes to physiotherapy for an hour every day, flirts with his young, attractive physiotherapist and pushes himself far too hard. It takes eight months before he’s off the crutches, and even then he has to hobble around with a cane. He copes, though, has a whole wardrobe of designer canes made—ebony and oak, clawfooted and gold-topped—and as the years turn he eventually doesn’t even need the canes anymore, only when the British weather takes a particularly cold turn.

He limps for the rest of his life.

The day after the little conversation in their London flat, Illya retires from the field. He looks distinctly unimpressed with the idea of becoming a handler, so he goes into training instead, pushing new recruits around increasingly cruel obstacle courses designed with his KGB training in mind. He rapidly becomes the best trainer U.N.C.L.E. has, but that’s just because he tends to become the best at whatever he decides he’s doing now.

Sometimes, Napoleon goes to watch him work, to watch him push and mould and shape. If he watches Illya run alongside his students as effortlessly as a deer and grits his teeth at the ache in his calf, well, Illya doesn’t need to know.

It’s on one of those little jaunts to watch how Illya’s muscles still flex under his shirt in the British rain that Napoleon finds it. He’s sitting on a treestump at the edge of the facility’s training fields, bad leg stretched out in front of him, cane propped against his hip, when he hears a rustling coming from the undergrowth behind him. This is a top-secret U.N.C.L.E. facility so he’s not worried, but he glances behind anyway, peering through the light drizzle of November rain.

It’s a puppy.

After a second, Napoleon rolls his eyes. Of course it’s a puppy.

The puppy is tiny and black-furred, and it’s nosing its way through the leaves and the mud, searching for something that Napoleon doesn’t understand. It looks up when it stumbles out of the treeline, though, peers up at Napoleon and yips, high pitched and needy. Napoleon knows that it’s probably been abandoned out here by its mother or possibly even its owner, dumped to die in the forest because it’s another mouth to feed and there are too many mouths already – but it hasn’t died. It’s kept going, kept snuffling through the dirt, and it’s so skinny he can see its ribs but it’s still alive. It’s a survivor.

Napoleon rubs at his leg and doesn’t think about Milan.

The puppy noses around for a little longer, then comes and curls up next to Napoleon’s outstretched leg. It butts its head gently against his scarred calf, then yips again and lays its head on his shoe.

Napoleon, for lack of a better word, melts.

When Illya gives his recruits a five minute breather and comes to see why exactly he’s sitting out here in the rain, doesn’t he know what it does to his leg?, the puppy’s cuddled up in Napoleon’s lap, happily fast asleep. Illya comes to a halt next to Napoleon’s cane, peers down with a frown creasing his forehead. “Where did you find that?”

“In the bushes,” Napoleon answers. “We’re keeping him.”

Illya doesn’t say anything, just crouches down and bats Napoleon’s hands away from the tiny thing. He reaches out with one finger, rubs at the ridge behind its ears, tickles its stomach, and then says, lick of humour in his voice, “Her.”

Napoleon names her Alexandra, which Illya insists is far too long a name for a dog. Gaby just mock-pouts and demands why the dog wasn’t named after her, at which Illya rolls his eyes and hands the phone handset over to Napoleon. Alexandra gets a dogbed in their flat and bowls in the kitchen, and, with a proper diet and a proper place to sleep, she grows like a weed. She’s knee-high in three weeks, and she turns out to be the least graceful creature Napoleon has ever met. She runs into the sofa, bumps into windows, and chews up at least three of his canes before he finds a better hiding place for them. She’s also helplessly adorable, and whenever she looks up at Napoleon after destroying the latest item of expensive, irreplaceable clothing with those big, dark eyes, he can’t bring himself to yell at her.

She, of course, loves Illya. Napoleon expected nothing less.

They both still work long, tiring hours, though, so Simone segues from housekeeper to dogwalker, coming by every few days to take Alexandra out for a spin around the city. The dog gets on with Simone’s terrier like a house on fire which Napoleon is also not surprised about, because his partner and his puppy apparently have very similar taste in other dogs.

By the time she’s been with them for two years, she comes up to Illya’s waist and bears a striking resemblance to the weredane that Napoleon saw Illya taming in Thessaloniki, all those years ago. She starts to go with Illya when he’s training on the courses, runs along behind the recruits, gets more exercise than Simone could ever give her, and Napoleon starts to hear trickles of recruit gossip about Instructor Illya and his Monster Dog. Illya raises an eyebrow, but Napoleon mostly just finds it funny.

Alexandra leaves black hairs all over their carpet which Simone studiously cleans away, and when Napoleon gets home from work she runs circles around him in excitement until he laughs and gives her a treat.

Napoleon owns a dog and works behind a desk, and it’s a life he never thought he would ever have.

It’s a bright July day when it happens.

Napoleon’s managing a trio of agents out in Morocco, piped in to their radio chatter all the way from his office in central London. They’re not a trio he worries about, not one of his partnerships that need shepherding and guiding, no, they’re stable and they work well together. In some ways, they remind him of his partnership with Illya and Gaby in U.N.C.L.E.’s early days, but that’s not a thought that he allows to dominate. Every partnership is different, every dynamic has to be treated uniquely.

Right now, this trio are on their way to a rendezvous with a local informant, barrelling along a back road in a Land Rover and bickering about the best way to make coq au vin. Napoleon’s half-listening as he’s flicking through a stack of paperwork—when did his life start including paperwork?—but that’s okay, because ninety percent of being handler is just listening, just waiting—

His earpiece whites out. Static. Blankness.

Napoleon’s on his feet without even realising what he’s done. His leg throbs at the sudden movement and he grabs at his desk to steady himself, barks into his earpiece, “Baines. Baines, can you hear me?”

Nothing. White noise.

“Monfort? Pradelli?”

None of them answer.

Napoleon grabs his phone, dials down to satellite monitoring. “This is Solo,” he barks. “Get me surveillance on Baines’ team in Morocco. I’ve lost contact.”

The tech doesn’t answer, but Napoleon can hear the clicking of keys and the soft inrush of breath. “Sir,” the tech says. “Sir, there’s nothing there.

The tone of the tech’s voice tells Napoleon that ‘nothing’ isn’t quite what’s there. “Elaborate,” he snaps.

A – crater,” the tech replies, subdued. “The image is a little fuzzy, the satellite’s not in the best position, but it looks like an explosion. Metal scattered across several hundred metres.

Napoleon sits down heavily in his chair. He takes a breath, pulls his scattered thoughts together, says, “Get me cleaned-up image. Send them to my office yesterday.” He ends the call without a platitude, dials again, calls the head of African operations. “Xu? It’s Solo. I need a report on my agents in Morocco, I just lost contact. Satellite imaging reports a possible explosion.”

I’ll see what I can do.

“Thank you,” Napoleon says, and hangs up.

He spends the rest of the day like that, ringing around, yelling at people to work faster, calling in favours, namedropping and manipulating, and all of it, all the calls and the shouting and the cajoling, it’s all useless.

They’re dead.” Xu’s voice is half regretful, half businesslike.

Napoleon takes a breath. “What happened?” he asks, trying to keep his voice level.

The car was wired,” Xu explains. “Done by a mechanic in Rabat. Once the engine reached a certain temperature, the whole thing went up. Undetectable. No bodies, only scraps.

Napoleon hurls his phone across the room.

He doesn’t remember much of the rest of the day. He doesn’t stay at U.N.C.L.E. headquarters, he knows that, doesn’t stay sitting behind the desk that he’s practically goddamn chained to, no, he heads out into London, walks across the centre, down the streets, ignores the buses, ignores the Underground, walks until it becomes a limp, limps some more, limps until his leg is aching and he can barely stand. He does stand, though, keeps on standing, keeps on limping, because if he can’t help then he can at least suffer.

His calf is on fire and his head is swimming by the time he makes it back to the flat, and he barely makes it through the front door before his leg gives out. He collapses onto the thick carpet, lets out a noise that’s halfway between a shout and a moan, and grabs at the foot of the sofa, hauls himself to lean against it. He’s wracked by guilt and grief, loss and frustration, but his head’s clearing, now, the clouds of wrath fading away, and, oh, this was stupid. This was so, so stupid, because he knows that ache in his leg, knows the way weak muscles feel when they’re strained, when they’re ripped, and he had recovered so well and now he’s just screwed everything up again.

Baines. Monfort. Pradelli.

Claws skitter on the kitchen tiles. Alexandra comes bounding through, of course she does, because she’s a goddamn dog and she doesn’t understand any of this, doesn’t understand what it is to be weak and old and broken and useless, doesn’t understand what it is to be used up and spat out. She comes and nuzzles at Napoleon’s cheek, licks at his hands, trots around him in concerned little circles and barks once. If Napoleon lets himself imagine, that bark sounds almost concerned. He grabs her collar, pulls her close, because there’s no point in disturbing the neighbours just because he can’t control a damn animal any more than he can control international spycraft, and it’s meant to be a gesture of control, of dominance, of mastery, but the second Alexandra sits obediently at his side and pushes her wet nose into the palm of his tired hand, Napoleon can’t do it anymore.

He grunts, laughs, chokes on the pain that’s riled up in his throat, and he pulls Alexandra closer, buries his face in the soft fur of her throat, ignores the shaking in his shoulders and hides from the fact that he failed. He thought he could do this, thought he could still contribute something to this world of espionage and lies even though that goddamn world already took almost everything from him, but he can’t because he’s nothing, not even an agent anymore, just a crippled old man with a cane and a dog.

Alexandra doesn’t make a noise, just licks at the tears he doesn’t even remember crying.

Napoleon’s body shakes and shakes and shakes. His big, black dog sits next to him, licks him, paws at his coat, and slowly, slowly, the shaking stops.

When Illya gets home a little under an hour later, neither Napoleon nor Alexandra have moved. They’re still on the floor slumped against the sofa, Napoleon still wearing his coat and shoes, but Napoleon is calm, now, fingers scratching Alexandra’s head even as he looks up as Illya enters. His face is tear-stained, he knows, and his hair is wildly out of place, but Illya doesn’t make a comment, just comes and crouches next to him, pats Alexandra’s flank and says, “I heard about what happened.”

Napoleon just nods.

Illya doesn’t even try to shift Alexandra, just sits down on Napoleon’s other side and slips his arm around his shoulders, pulls him close. Alexandra whines a little at being jolted, but then she flops down on the floor with all the grace of a large, clumsy dog and lies her head in Napoleon’s lap, warm and heavy and comforting. Illya doesn’t speak, doesn’t offer empty platitudes or well-meaning advice, just sits there, arm around Napoleon’s shoulders, and holds him close.

It’s dark by the time Napoleon finally shifts. He looks at Illya, offers him a shadow of a smile, says, “Thank you.”

Illya just nods, and scratches Alexandra’s head. “How is your leg?” he asks, and there’s a thickness in his voice that speaks of emotion, of love and worry and fear.

“Hurts,” Napoleon admits. “I think I’ll be on the cane for a few weeks.”

Illya hums under his breath. “Foolish.”

“I know.”

Head still heavy in Napoleon’s lap, Alexandra lets out a huff of breath that sounds almost like a sigh of relief.

They were never meant to live an easy life. Illya’s too stubborn and Napoleon’s too reckless for that, but they live a life of their own making, with each other and a big, black dog with a fondness for belly scratches and cheese, and when Gaby makes it to the top, to the directorship, all three of them go to the handover ceremony.

Gaby finds them, after, greying hair pulled back and suit smart and elegant. She hugs them both, kisses Illya’s cheek, then eyes Alexandra, sitting obediently at their feet, and says, “You brought your dog?”

Illya’s cheeks flush red. “I like dogs.”

Gaby looks at Napoleon in askance.

“I wouldn’t have it any other way,” Napoleon says with a shrug, and smiles the same smile he smiled all those years ago in the backstreets of East Berlin.

 

finis