Return to fanfiction
Classic, absurdly indulgent h/c, because Gnine asked for it, plotted on the nighttime streets of Hanoi. If you've read my fic in other fandoms, you might well have already read this story - with other characters, and there's sand instead of snow, and hyperthermia instead of hypo-, but really, same difference. Thanks to Gnine, Naye, and UtopianTrunks for shared beta/cheerleading duties.
The THRUSH men never saw him coming. To their credit, neither did Napoleon, and he was Illya's partner, well-accustomed to Agent Kuryakin dropping in unexpectedly and just in the nick of time.
He was somewhat less accustomed to Illya dropping in from twenty feet up, however. And the THRUSH men weren't expecting it at all.
Heat fatigue was partly to blame. They had been driving through the desert for over an hour, by Napoleon's estimate, and the morning sun was rising high over the Sahara by the time they reached the old fort. The fort itself was long since abandoned, not really deserving of being called a structure these days; little more remained than dilapidated piles of stone, half buried in sand and gravel. The dune buggy's driver was occupied maneuvering around the crumbling blocks strewn across the ground. His comrade riding shotgun was busy holding said gun on Napoleon, as he had been for the last thirty miles. No faith in an U.N.C.L.E. man's honor, these THRUSHies.
Napoleon himself had been making himself comfortable on the hard bench seat in the buggy's rear, as well as he could with his hands tied. By now his own rear was quite tenderized by the jouncing rough ride. And all the while he kept a surreptitious lookout over the Sahara's desolate sands and stones, because he knew Illya was somewhere in the area, and it would be convenient for Napoleon if his partner happened to be in this particular somewhere.
But none of them were looking up. So when Illya jumped off the highest intact rampart of the ramshackle fort, the first any of them knew of it was when he landed square on top of the man pointing the gun at Napoleon, as neatly aimed as an anvil dropped on Wile E. Coyote's head.
Only momentarily startled, Napoleon quickly took advantage of the stun potential of a hundred and fifty pounds of Russian secret agent to knock the shotgun out of his guard's hands, while Illya took out the driver with a roundhouse punch. Unluckily the man's foot fell on the gas as he slumped, and the dune buggy accelerated, surging forward like a spurred horse, straight towards the fort's stone wall.
"Get out!" So shouting, Napoleon didn't hesitate; he swung his bound hands over his head to leverage himself up on the seat, and threw himself out over the back end of the vehicle. He tucked his head in under his arms, and plowed into the sand shoulder-first, rolling over twice before he slid to a stop, rough grains of ground stone scraping his cheek.
Dazed from the impact, he lifted his head just in time to see the dune buggy smash into the wall, and almost instantly after go up in a fireball, a blaze of blue-white roaring above the sands. The initial conflagration died in a few seconds, subsiding into a crackling bonfire, orange tongues of flames eagerly licking the charred husk of the buggy.
Pushing himself up on his elbows, Napoleon squinted into the glaring heart of the fire, trying to count the bodies, and for one frozen instant his heart stopped beating.
Then he saw the figure in khaki to the left of the wreckage, sitting up and shaking the sand off his makeshift burnoose. Grinning, Napoleon got to his feet and made his way over to his partner. "Nice kerchief," he said.
Illya was staring at the bonfire in bewilderment. "What in the world happened? Were they using rocket fuel instead of petrol?"
"No," Napoleon corrected, "that was their cargo. Their boss did warn them it was volatile." Though looking at the leaping flames now, he wished the THRUSH scientist had specified how volatile; he wouldn't have been so cavalier about leaning back against the canisters if he had known.
"Ah," Illya said. "So they were actually bringing in a shipment from the medina. And here I was assuming they were transporting an important prisoner."
"Two birds with one stone," Napoleon said. The shipments were what had initially attracted U.N.C.L.E.'s attention—this medina was an odd site for an industrial chemical refinery, being hardly more than a village, even if the largest municipality in fifty miles. Illya was tracking down the final destination of the chemicals, while Napoleon investigated in town. Or at least that had been the plan, previous to his unscheduled apprehension. "And yes, thank you for the rescue. Now shouldn't we skedaddle, before this fort unleashes its armies?"
"It has none," Illya said. "This is only an entrance; as far as I've determined, the THRUSH base itself is underground, several miles from here."
"And that's why you were watching it," Napoleon guessed, "to see who was coming and going. Still, if they're expecting my pals in the buggy, they're bound to come looking if they don't show up."
"True," Illya agreed, and started to climb to his feet, only to have his right leg fold under him. Napoleon grabbed his arm before he fell, and Illya steadied himself on his left leg. His brow was knitted in pain. "Ow," he complained, and then his eyes widened. "Napoleon, look out—"
The standard blue THRUSH uniform stood out as brightly as a painted target against the arid yellows of the desert. Napoleon ducked, dropping to one knee, as Illya drew his special and fired over his partner's shoulder, felling the guard coming around the fort's ruined tower before he got off a shot.
Napoleon reached automatically for his own sidearm, only belatedly recalling that they had taken his special back when he had been captured in the medina. Instead, at Illya's tap on his shoulder, he made a dash for the rocky ridge sloping up behind the fort, while his partner let off a couple of rounds as cover fire. The gravel slid and skipped under his boots, rattling under the loud retorts of semi-automatics. Only two guns, Napoleon identified, before Illya's pistol barked again and silenced one of them.
He tumbled over the ridge's low summit, then flattened himself to the stone and peeked over the edge. Illya had taken scant shelter behind the fort's crumbling outer wall, while the last THRUSH man had concealed himself in the broken ramparts. Napoleon mentally tallied the shots fired, figured Illya for having another two bullets in his clip. Twice as many as he would need to take out the remaining guard, provided he could pinpoint the man's location.
Napoleon looked around himself—sand and barren rock face; no help there. Scooting down behind the ridge's crest, he shrugged out of his beige jacket. Then he grabbed the jacket by the sleeves and held it over his head, above the shield of stone, waving it about like a flag. "Hey, over here!" he shouted.
The jacket was torn out of his hands as half a dozen bullets shredded the expensive linen. Then the crack of Illya's unsilenced Special echoed over the stone, and the THRUSH weaponfire ceased.
Napoleon slid up to peer over the ridge again, and saw Illya heading up to him, limping, but keeping his footing in the gravel. "I think you are right," his partner said when he reached the top. "We should make ourselves scarce."
"We might want to avail ourselves of supplies first," Napoleon suggested. Even if his own U.N.C.L.E. special was back in the medina, he would feel better with one of the THRUSH guns in hand, and the guards might have canteens on them—THRUSH courtesy hadn't provided a continental breakfast, and after the morning's dusty buggy ride, his mouth was as dry as Mr. Waverly's sense of humor.
But before they could descend back down to the fort, they heard the chop-chop-chop of propellers in the sky. Above the horizon, sunlight glittered off a helicopter's whirling blades.
"They summoned reinforcements," Illya said, and stumbled down the opposite side of the slope, clumsy on his injured leg. Napoleon snatched his torn jacket from where it had snagged on a rock, and skidded and slid in the gravel after him. At the bottom of the gully, the sand was more compact, firmer underfoot, though the ditch was too shallow to afford protection from the copter's sights. If it did a buzz of the area, they would be spotted. They hurried along the line of the gully, away from the fort, braced to duck and cover at any moment.
Behind them, the helicopter's engines swelled, vibrating the air, then stuttered and slowed as it landed beside the fort, out of sight. Napoleon breathed a sigh of relief, tapped his partner's shoulder. Illya lurched to a limping halt, leaned against the low crest of sandstone jutting up from the loose sand.
"Give me your communicator," Napoleon requested. "They relieved me of mine last night, and we need to call in the cavalry."
"Mr. Waverly will doubtlessly be displeased to have to dispatch a rescue mission," Illya said.
Napoleon shook his head. "Not for us—THRUSH has to be stopped, pronto."
Illya eyed him. "You know their plan?"
"Some of us do do our jobs," Napoleon said smartly.
His partner's glare was as icy as the sun was hot, but he handed over the communicator pen. "See if you have better luck than me."
Napoleon opened the channel, but only got a faint hiss of static, on D, F, or M. "Jamming umbrella?"
"If so, it's a large one. Last night I covered at least two miles and didn't reach the end of it. It's more likely that THRUSH disabled the geosynchronous satellite over this area."
"So you haven't checked in, either." Napoleon had missed his own check-in last night by about five minutes, or he would have known Illya had been incommunicado.
"In that case, U.N.C.L.E. should be sending in someone to look up on us tonight," Illya said.
"No good." Napoleon glanced at his wrist, only to remember they'd taken his watch, too. He looked up at the sky instead. The sun was still climbing in the cloudless slate blue; it was perhaps two hours before high noon. "If THRUSH stays on schedule, they'll have drilled into the groundwater reservoirs by eight o'clock tonight." And the doctor in charge had seemed a punctual sort of fellow. So, ten hours, give or take—closer than he liked to cut it, personally speaking.
Illya looked up from where he had propped his leg up on the stone to examine the injury. "They are tapping into the Saharan basin?"
"Dr. Talc was more than eager to discuss his scheme," Napoleon said grimly. He'd been kept up half the night hearing about it, and it hadn't sounded any better to him the next morning. "I'm hazy on the particulars, but they need a big freshwater reserve for the production of their latest superweapon, and they don't want to contaminate the local water supply in any of their primary locations."
"Millions will be affected, if they contaminate the Saharan aquifer. Foggara irrigation depends on the groundwater; without that, the oases are dead." Illya's shock showed only in the utter evenness of his voice. To someone less familiar with his nature, he would have sounded bored, rather than horrified.
"Which is why we're going to stop them." Napoleon shook out his jacket and held it up to the sky, examining the rents the THRUSH bullets had torn in the light linen weave. Sighing, he deemed it a lost cause, and ripped off the sleeves and sides, tying the largest remaining piece of cloth over his head. The sun was beating down, all traces of morning haze burned away, and his dark hair would absorb the heat, as well as make him an obvious target against the desert's faded sands.
When he looked over, Illya was gazing back in the direction of the fort with its concealed entrance to the THRUSH base, a speculative look in his eyes. Napoleon shook his head at his partner. "We can't take them out ourselves, this time," he said. "This is just one of their operations; they've got another fifty miles away. U.N.C.L.E. will need to hit both of them in time." In twenty-four hours, they might be able to pull it off, but not in ten. "We have to get word back to HQ."
He climbed a few steps up the slope, keeping lower than the fort's range of sight, and scanned the desert's dunes and rocky plateaus, orienting himself. Then he skidded back down into the gully. "Okay, if we make a broad circle around the fort," and he illustrated with his hands, "then it's a straight line back to the medina. We can contact U.N.C.L.E. via telephone there."
Illya stared at him. "You intend to walk across thirty miles of Saharan desert in broad daylight?"
"Where's your sense of adventure?"
"I left it in the freezer with my vodka, back in New York." Illya straightened up, keeping most of his weight on his good left leg, and looked around himself. "No. That way," he said, indicating the opposite direction. "From the top of the fort, I saw a small oasis, about eight miles distant. Even if there are no people with radios, it ought to be within range of the next adjacent satellite; the communicator should work."
"Should work," Napoleon echoed, not caring for the uncertainty.
"THRUSH will expect us to head back to the medina," Illya pointed out. "They'll be less likely to find us along another route. Besides which, I don't believe thirty miles is humanly possible, even for you."
"If easy enough for you, I suppose," Napoleon said ironically, but Illya shook his head.
"I don't think so," he said, and frowned down at his leg.
"How bad is it?" Napoleon asked, bending down to check it himself.
Illya pushed him away. "Not so bad. Only twisted. If I do not remove my boot, it will contain the swelling."
"So you can walk?" At Illya's nod, Napoleon said, "Then let's get going. To the oasis it is."
Illya started out leading the way, but he soon was lagging behind, hampered by his injury. Napoleon offered his arm, but his partner only glowered sullenly and limped past him, carefully keeping his balance. The gullies had given way to flatter valleys, where the stone had been ground down over the millennia to loose gravel, which shifted treacherously underfoot. Napoleon wrenched his own ankles a couple times, tripping as they crossed between the low plateaus. They offered no surcease from the sun, now high overhead, casting shadows so short they all but disappeared under their feet.
At least they had not heard the helicopter again, and they were leaving no tracks on the stony ground. The only sound in the still heat of midday was the crunch of gravel as they walked, a rhythm as constant as the wash of waves on the seashore. Rather than dwell on that mocking reminder of water, Napoleon talked over it. "It was lucky, that you happened across me before they brought me underground."
"Lucky for you, you mean," Illya retorted, with all the irritation of man walking on an injured leg in the full-on heat of the Sahara.
"For both of us," Napoleon said. His voice was as hoarse as if he had been talking for hours; he worked his tongue to dredge up some moisture in his parched mouth. Illya had but one water bottle on him, and they couldn't waste it. "How successful would our mission have been, if you had yet to even break into their facility by tonight?"
"I didn't realize time was this short," Illya said. "Our briefing on this affair never implied they were so close to success."
"Yes, I'm sure Mr. Waverly would've been quite sympathetic."
"He should not be," Illya said darkly. "If we fail in this..."
"Yes, I know. Millions depending on that water." Napoleon would be able to muster more sympathy for those wretched parched millions if he weren't so blasted thirsty himself. He looked up from his feet to the next ridge, barren and wind-worn rock, not a single leaf of green to be seen. "It's hard to believe so many people live in a place as inhospitable as this desert."
"It's hard to believe anyone, even your ancestors, would live in a place as inhospitable as Canada," Illya returned.
"Why did human beings ever move from the tropics? Sunny beaches, warm seas, fresh fruits ripened on the vine..."
"'Cursed is the ground for thy sake; in sorrow shalt thou eat of it all the days of thy life'," Illya quoted.
"So we can't move back to Eden, but we can vacation there."
"They're building a family resort under the flaming sword, I heard," Illya said, and Napoleon snorted.
At the ridge they took a breather, sitting on a flat stone that was hot to the touch. If the rock were any darker they could have used it as a griddle, fried an egg, had they any on them.
"Is there any water left?" Napoleon asked.
Illya unhooked the bottle from his belt, passed it over. It was too light in Napoleon's hands, almost empty. He unscrewed the cap, took a single sip of tepid liquid more intoxicatingly delicious than a hundred-dollar Bordeaux claret. It was all he could do not to gulp it, but instead he lowered the bottle and handed it back to Illya.
Illya shook it, listening to the water slosh. "You haven't had anything to drink since last night?"
"Not since the bar." In fact the last thing he remembered drinking was the drugged brandy that had laid him out; when he'd revived in the THRUSH satrap, they hadn't provided refreshments.
"The bar where you were captured?" Illya's tone was challenging. "How many men jumped you, again?"
"Not sure," Napoleon prevaricated. "It's a bit vague..."
"Were there any justice in the world, your hangover would be cracking your head open," Illya said. He always was sensitive to the aftereffects of THRUSH concoctions, and resentful that his partner was not. He shook the bottle again, then pushed it back at Napoleon. "Finish it," he instructed. "It'll do more good in you than evaporating from the bottle."
Napoleon hesitated, but he only had so much willpower, and the warm water on his parched throat was more than he could resist. He downed the rest in a single swallow. "Thank you," he said, licking his lips seeking the last drops of moisture. "And that's the last?"
"The rest of my supplies are interred on the fort's parapet," Illya said, "so unless we're going back to make a rush on the THRUSH base, yes, that's the last."
Napoleon squinted up at the blinding sun. "It's close to noon?"
Illya checked his watch and nodded. "We had better get moving again," he said.
Sighing, Napoleon pushed off their rock seat, then grasped Illya's hand to pull him upright. His partner stifled a groan as he put weight on his right leg, but at Napoleon's inquiring look, he gritted his teeth and lurched into a limping walk, striking out across the next gravel plain.
The sun's rays were searing, and the stones here were bleached bone-white, reflecting the light like snow. Napoleon adjusted the linen tied over his head so the hanging hem shaded his eyes, and glanced over at his partner. Illya had pushed back the cloth bound over his blond hair to wipe his brow, marked with a red line where his improvised burnoose's tie had been wrapped. He had his head ducked against the sun, his deep-set eyes lost in triangular shadows on his pale face. His headgear and industrial-strength sunscreen kept his complexion fair even in the desert—that, or the sun didn't dare burn him; Napoleon had never quite figured which.
His own face and his arms below his short sleeves were already red; they'd be peeling and painful later, but they didn't hurt much now. The sun's heat was like pressure bearing down, however, so oppressive it was flattening.
At least it's a dry heat, they'd say in California. Napoleon always had thought Californians were a bit touched in the head. Too much sun, probably.
"You know," he remarked over their crunching footsteps, "I don't actually believe humanity was kicked out of Paradise. I think we left."
Illya limped a couple more steps before asking, "And why would we have done that?"
"Because human beings are insane," Napoleon explained. "Look at THRUSH. Or us."
"I do not believe either we or THRUSH can be considered typical representatives of the human race," Illya submitted.
"Fine, then look at the innocent people we've worked with. Would you consider any of them sane?" Napoleon listened to the gravel rattling under their boots, his steady stride in counterpoint to his partner's uneven, dragging tread. "Illya?"
"I'm thinking. What about Susan, from Minnesota?"
"Susan Callaway, Miss Fiddlesticks? Last I heard, she had become a security consultant for the Las Vegas casinos."
"...You are joking."
"Scout's honor. She directs a team of ex-criminals in testing security systems by attempting to break in. Her company is in quite high demand, I'm to understand."
"Murphy, then, in the Yukon."
"Ahh, Murphy." Napoleon sighed in reminiscing appreciation.
"She was barely more than a girl, Napoleon," Illya chastised.
"It's less the lady herself than her home," Napoleon admitted. "A bit of ice and snow wouldn't go amiss, about now."
"No," Illya agreed. "And what of the woman last night, at the bar?"
"How do you know there was one?"
"THRUSH captured you," Illya said. "There was bound to be a woman."
"I think I'm offended—stop!"
"If you are so easily offended—"
"No, stop," Napoleon repeated, turning back to take his partner's arm and halt him. Illya stumbled and Napoleon quickly shifted his grip to support him, standing them still in the open plain.
Without the noise of their footsteps, the sound was more apparent, and identifiable: the distant thwack-thwack of helicopter rotors. They were too far from the fort by now to hear it lifting off—it must be back in the air, searching.
And they were on open ground here, sitting ducks. Napoleon scanned their barren surroundings. "Over there," he said, pointing a couple hundred feet to their right, where the ground dipped in a shallow ditch, up against a narrow rocky overhang. It wouldn't be much shelter, but if the THRUSH men weren't careful, it might be enough.
He broke into a run, only to realize halfway to the ditch that his partner was not at his heels. Looking back, he saw Illya grimly shuffling along, body canted forward as he strove to hurry, his injured leg a worse hindrance than before.
Swearing, Napoleon sprinted back, grabbed his partner around the shoulders and hauled him up, half-dragging him along. Leaning on Napoleon's arm, Illya could almost manage a jog. The rapid beat of the chopper was getting louder, but when Napoleon spared a glance over his shoulder it was still out of sight.
They made it to the ditch, tumbled down into it and curled under the overhang, their heads ducked down and their limbs drawn in. Illya's khakis and his own white shirt were yellow with dust and sweat, a match to the stone around them. With luck they'd look like nothing but two more rocks in the desert's endless stony expanse. Napoleon stared at the ground between his arms and tried to think still, geologic thoughts as he panted for breath.
Beside him, Illya was catching his own breath in ragged gulps, his shoulder knocking against Napoleon's. He froze, however, as the copter's clatter swelled overhead, keeping as immobile as a deer hearing the rustle of a hunter's approach.
Napoleon held himself as motionless, though his nose itched with the sweat trickling down from his covered head, and his back ached from the morning's jouncing dune buggy jaunt. He tried to focus on the chopper's noise—was it getting louder, changing pitch with the Doppler effect? Passing overheard, or banking around for another sweep?
Nothing to see here, Napoleon thought up at the THRUSH copter. They were only sandstone, only granite. He'd even take fine Italian marble, as a lovely young artiste had once likened Illya to, waxing rhapsodic about Michelangelo's statues.
Seconds ticked past, and no automatic gunfire hailed down on them. Gradually the noise of the helicopter died off, and Napoleon dared raise his head up to scan the sky, found it empty but for the glaring sun. He cautiously straightened up, stepping out of the ditch to peer above the overhang. The chopper was winging away, diagonal to their own route. In a few minutes it would be out of sight.
Napoleon spared a moment to envy the THRUSH men their easy ride, then turned back to his partner. "Come on. Upwards and onwards, as they say, our oasis awaits."
Illya had uncurled from his camouflaged ball but not yet stood, his shoulders propped against the overhang. "How far have we come?"
"Three miles, almost," Napoleon said. He was being generous in the estimate, he knew, but pessimism never got anyone out of a ditch. And Illya didn't call him on it, just nodded. "Only five miles to go," Napoleon said. "It should be in sight soon. Provided you weren't seeing a mirage, of course." And if they were going the right way, but he trusted his partner's sense of direction. Besides, even if they didn't hit the oasis, they should get back in communications range, if they went far enough.
He took out the silver pen and tried again, just in case, but got only blank air.
Illya was still sitting in the shallow gully. "If the helicopter fails to find us," he stated, "they may send men to track us on foot."
"Not unlikely," Napoleon conceded, "which is why we should get going."
"And they would probably come along this route," Illya said. "So if one of us remained here, he could delay anyone who came along, while the other would have a better chance of reaching the oasis in time."
Napoleon looked at his partner sharply, but Illya's face was perfectly schooled; the glaring sunlight was still not bright enough to illuminate whatever hidden intent might lie in his eyes.
Shading his eyes with one hand as he surveyed the scorched, sun-bleached terrain, Napoleon considered, then shook his head. "No—there's no good place to arrange an ambush here. Whoever stayed behind would be taking a chance of getting spotted before he had time to attack. Besides, we only have your gun, so one of us would be left weaponless. Better to go it together. That way, even if one of us goes down, the other might make it."
Illya eyed him sourly, the purse of his mouth a hair's breadth from a pout, but rather than argue he braced his arms on the rough rock and pushed himself upright. The petulant set of his lips twisted, pulling down with pain, as his leg bumped against the stone, and when Napoleon reached down to give him a hand out of the ditch, he didn't shrug off the assistance.
"Just a twisted ankle?" Napoleon inquired.
"A sprain, maybe," Illya admitted, through gritted teeth, but he started walking.
"You know, traipsing across the desert is not how I intended to spend the day," Napoleon remarked as they made their way along the rocky ground. "I was counting on you wrapping up this affair by early afternoon—right about now, in fact—and then I could pick you up and get back to the medina in time to enjoy a Turkish bath before we caught a ride back to Algiers."
"If we do not stop THRUSH," Illya said, "there will be no more Turkish baths here."
He was further behind than Napoleon had thought; the echoes off the low plateaus made distance hard to gauge through the sound of footsteps alone. Turning back, Napoleon stopped and gave his partner a chance to catch up, studying his progress. His limp was decidedly worse, and the perpetual furrow between his brows was a deep gash under his headdress. Moreover, he sounded out-of-breath, though they had only just resumed walking.
"How are you doing?" Napoleon asked, careful to keep any overt concern from his tone.
Illya glared at him for it anyway. "I am walking," he said shortly, and quickened his limping strides, swinging his injured leg with every step like it was a pirate's wooden peg leg, though he took more care in setting it down, and winced every time he did. Napoleon resumed walking, though slower, keeping pace with Illya.
The sun beat down, hotter than ever, Napoleon would have sworn, though he thought he should have acclimatized to it by now. He had given up trying to wipe the sweat off his face and now just let it drip down, stinging in his eyes and sliding unpleasantly down the back of his neck. Sweat was supposed to cool one off, but he rather suspected the physiological benefits were negated when the stuff was as hot as bath water.
And how much wouldn't he give for the real deal, about now? Half a year's salary, at least; a whole year's, if a pitcher of potable water were included. "We have to stop THRUSH, just for the sake of the baths," he said. "I don't see how anyone living here could survive without them."
"Surviving without water for drinking or crops or animals would be that much harder," Illya said.
"'Water, water, everywhere, and not a drop to drink'." At least if THRUSH had their way. Contaminating the aquifer might be worse than simply draining it; who knew what their contaminant might do to the people or animals who tried to drink it? THRUSH wasn't known for safety-testing their products. "And you really have to stop talking about water," Napoleon said. "It's not helping my thirst anyway."
"You were the one to bring it up," Illya muttered crankily, and then made a sudden choked-off gasp, close enough to a sob that for a confused instant Napoleon thought he was crying—but no, he had put his foot down wrong on a patch of loose sand, stumbled and landed hard on his injured leg.
Napoleon had reacted before any of this consciously registered, grabbing for his partner as Illya reached automatically for support. He caught Illya before he fell, propped him up with an arm around his waist. Illya held on, fingers digging into Napoleon's biceps, his eyes shut tight as he struggled to catch his breath.
Finally he hissed through clenched teeth, "Ow. Goddamn it," which was encouraging in that it was English. Illya only resorted to Russian when he was at the end of his rope.
"Are you all right?" Napoleon asked him, this time not bothering to conceal his concern; if Illya needed to use him as a crutch, then he could right well put up with it.
Illya opened his eyes and glowered up at Napoleon. "I am tired, injured, and fast approaching heatstroke. Additionally I am burdened with a partner who keeps talking about baths we cannot have and asking inanely self-evident questions. No, I am not all right."
"Glad to hear it," Napoleon said blithely. "Shall we keep chatting, or can we move? There might be some shade from the sun under the rock over there."
Illya raised his head enough to look at the rock in question, a sandstone boulder shaped like a lumpy potato. "The sun is almost directly overhead. I doubt it's casting any shadow."
"I said there might be," Napoleon said. "Let's go find out."
With Illya propped on the crutch of his shoulder, they managed a decent pace. He proved correct, however, in that there was no real shade to be had; but one side of the boulder was at an angle such that the sun's rays had not hit it, so the stone was still cool to the touch. They leaned against it, looking out over the desert.
The gravel plains were here dusted with sand, and more had gathered around their rock bench, the wind piling it up in drifts. Past the next ridge of stone, yellow dunes swelled, the archetypal Sahara of the movies, gentle undulations of sterile sand marked only by currents of wind. Napoleon frowned at the sight. Those sands would be hazardous underfoot, and worse for Illya with his injury. And they would leave a trail, though the winds through the dunes would disperse it in a few hours.
He climbed up on top of the boulder to see further, and spotted, between the rise and fall of yellow sands, a darker region on the horizon. Shading his eyes and squinting, he made out green shapes against the harsh sky, and grinned. "I see your oasis," he said, sliding down off the stone. "Looks like it wasn't a mirage."
"Or else you're hallucinating from the heat," Illya retorted. He pulled off his burnoose, his hair streaked with sweat and dust underneath, distractedly mopped his brow with the cloth and stuffed it in his pocket.
"It's only a few miles," Napoleon said, immeasurably cheered by the promise of shade and water, and of course working communications. "We'll make it in plenty of time."
"You will make it," Illya said. "I am going to stay here. I'll catch up with you later."
"And how are you planning on doing that?" Napoleon asked him. "Learn to spontaneously levitate? Come on," and he looped his arm back around his partner, cajoled him into walking.
"This is inefficient," Illya complained as they limped along. "You'd go faster without me."
"And with that leg, you'd go not at all, without me," Napoleon returned. Illya was leaning on him heavily, not putting any weight on his right leg, and grimacing whenever it brushed the ground. He must have sprained it badly, and aggravated it by walking on it.
"Which is why—" Illya's breath caught as his boot bumped against a loose stone. He released the air in a harsh hiss, determinedly ground out, "—why you should continue on ahead alone."
"And leave you, a lame duck for our THRUSH friends to pick up at their leisure."
"The helicopter's only passed over us once. And we don't know if they've sent out any men on foot. Even if they have, they'd have little chance of following our trail; I couldn't, not on this terrain. Besides," and Illya essayed a smile, for all his mouth was contorted in a grimace of pain as he hobbled along, "if they find me, I'll peacefully surrender. It won't be the first time I've been a guest of THRUSH."
"And if they don't find you?" Napoleon asked.
"Then I will rest comfortably until you find me."
"'Comfortably'." Napoleon snorted. "There's no shade to speak of, and even out of the sun it's over a hundred degrees. And sundown's not for hours yet." And neither of them had water. At night, with a full canteen, it might be a reasonable plan. With no water—they had to make it to that oasis; they had little choice.
They had reached the edge of the dunes, and Illya planted his good leg and pulled them both to a halt. "Napoleon," he said, balancing with one hand to the low rock formation that shielded the last gravel plain from the open sands, "we have been going too slowly. And that," he waved his other hand out at the dunes, "will be slower going yet. We can't dally, if we're going to get word to U.N.C.L.E. in time."
"No," Napoleon agreed, leaning carefully against the jagged rock. "Which is why we shouldn't be wasting time talking now."
"I cannot make it," Illya said plainly.
"Not alone, no, you can't."
"Not alone, nor with help," Illya said. "Napoleon, my leg is broken. Also I suspect I am going into shock."
Napoleon stared at him dumbly for long enough to start feeling like an idiot. He shook his head and swapped the stare for a scowl. "You said sprained. Actually, you said twisted, first."
Illya had the grace to look vaguely guilty, under the deep furrow in his brow. "I may have initially underestimated the pain, thanks to adrenaline. It's severe enough now I think the bone is cracked." His face was still pale, even after hours in the sun—too pale, and even resting now he was breathing too hard, fast and shallow. Shock, as he had said, or else heatstroke.
Napoleon squared his jaw. "It's only a matter of miles," he said. "You can make it. You've made it this far." He pushed off the rock, then swayed, unexpectedly lightheaded.
Illya's hand on his shoulder brought him back to himself. As miserably sweltering as he was, it wasn't a particularly pleasant return. Napoleon shook his head, squinted against the sun, brighter than ever on the sands. "Come on, we're going."
"Napoleon." Illya reached up to touch his forehead, his fingertips surprisingly cool as he pushed back the cloth tied over Napoleon's hair. Illya's expression drew tighter yet, lips pressed together with more than pain, as he let his hand drop again, before Napoleon could bat it away. "You aren't sweating."
"I'm not?" Napoleon wiped his own hand across his brow, found his skin dry, like parchment, and hot to the touch. It wasn't a good sign, he knew; on the other hand, he was less repulsively sticky. And Illya didn't need to be looking at him like they were starring in the last act of a romantic tragedy. "Well, neither are you," he retorted.
"No," Illya admitted, as if it were a confession. "We both need water."
"That's what the oasis is for," Napoleon said. "So let's go." Not giving his partner further chance to protest, he drew Illya up, and they set out across the dunes.
It should have been even hotter, with the bright sands reflecting the sun and the winds driving heated air between the slopes like a giant convection oven, but Napoleon had finally acclimatized to the temperature. The sandy grit blown over them scratched and stung his burned cheeks, but only a little.
Illya kept his head down, shielding his face from the sand and sun, allowing Napoleon to guide them. His feet dragged in the sand, and with each step his breath hitched, a little tremor racking his shoulders that Napoleon felt every time, with his arm around his partner.
It was somewhat difficult to talk; Napoleon's leather-dry tongue felt swollen, too large for his mouth, irritatingly close to the fuzziness when in the grip of a sedative. But he talked anyway, liking better his hoarse, cracking voice than the wheezing moan of the wind. "We get to the oasis, we report in, and that's it, we're done for the day. For the week. We'll get lost in the casbah, go to the baths and the belly-dancers and not report in until Saturday. Heck, that leg might get you mandatory medical leave and we'll have a month of milk-runs. I wouldn't say no to a milk-run. Or a glass of milk. A glass of anything—God, I can't wait to get to that oasis."
He raised his head and shaded his eyes with his free hand, but they were walking in the low valleys of the dunes now, and he could see nothing but golden sand and blue sky. From his view from the rock before, he had a clear sense of where the oasis was, but right now it was out of sight, if never out of mind.
Illya's head was still dropped, thick blond bangs hanging loose over his brow, his eyes shut against the sunlight. He had his arm draped over Napoleon's shoulders, but he was barely holding on, trusting Napoleon's grip around his waist. He didn't say anything.
"Hey." Napoleon nudged him with his hip. "You were right," he said.
That did the trick. "Hmm?" Illya mumbled, turning his head.
"There was a woman," Napoleon admitted. "At the bar. She had a cloud of black hair and these amazing eyes. Like amber, or honey, sweet. She winked when she brought me the after-dinner brandy, and I thought she was just being playful, but now I think she was trying to warn me that THRUSH had dosed my drink."
"Or she is their creature, and dosed it herself," Illya said after a moment, his voice raspy.
"I don't think so," Napoleon denied. "She was too kind for them. Her eyes were gentle. She suggested I turn in early...I should've listened to her."
"Yes," Illya agreed. "Or, no...you found out their plan."
"We really must figure out ways to get the drop on THRUSH that don't involve getting captured by them first," Napoleon mused. "It's useful for information-gathering, but bad for our health."
He looked up at the dune they were walking along. It dipped here, crosswinds cutting an imprecise pass through the crest of sand. They had to surmount the dune eventually; this was their best bet. Adjusting his hold on Illya, Napoleon turned them to face the slope. "All right, partner, we have a little climb here."
Illya didn't reply, but he nodded his head, bore down on Napoleon's arm and made an effort to lift his good foot as they started up. The sand was loose and heavy, sinking and shifting out from under their boots, more like walking on a viscous liquid than solid ground. They struggled up through it, Napoleon hauling his partner up when Illya could no longer get the leverage to limp.
When they reached the top of the dune, Napoleon scanned the surrounding ocean of sand, and spotted their object, the dark blot of greenery peeking between the dunes, rippling like a mirage in the heat-waves rising from the sand. He jostled Illya, pointed. "There, right there! Practically in spitting distance," if they had any spit to spare.
Illya didn't bother to raise his head, sagging against Napoleon and fighting to catch his breath in rapid, shallow pants. When Napoleon said his name, he shook his head, blindly, like he was trying to cast off a mosquito whining in his ear.
Napoleon set his jaw in determination and began walking them down the slope, carefully. He turned so they were descending sideways, and he could brace Illya against his hip, and took it one unsteady step at a time. He frowned when he looked up the dune at their progress—they were leaving a deep furrow in the sand, obviously visible to a low-flying helicopter. But maybe THRUSH wouldn't be back this way, or else they wouldn't identify that channel as footsteps.
Nearly at the bottom, Napoleon put his boot down in a patch of loose sand and sank in past his ankle. Overbalanced, he tripped and fell, pulling Illya down with him. They tumbled down the last few feet of the dune, landing hard at the bottom.
Lying on his back, Napoleon found himself staring up at the sky, wondering at the complete lack of clouds, not a single whorl of haze breaking up the perfect expanse of blue. The sand under him was warm, but not scalding hot—the sun was a little lower now, and this side, the north-east slope of the dune, was cast in shadow, still bright from the reflected rays but spared the worst of the sun's heat. The warmth felt good against his aching body, strained and bruised; and his head was throbbing dully.
After another few seconds of disconnected revelation, he realized that Illya was half on top of him, flopped over his stomach. Napoleon sat up carefully, and Illya slid off him, rolling onto his side. He was curled up around his leg, breathing in short, painful pants, and when Napoleon touched his shoulder he was trembling, shivering as if he were freezing, for all his skin was warm to the touch.
But when Napoleon reached to lift him up, his squeezed-shut eyes snapped open, narrow with pain but still clear. "Chyort voz'mi!" he swore, braced his arms against the sand and shoved himself sitting to stare at Napoleon. "This is as far as I can walk," he said, the words thready and harsh in his parched throat.
"Okay," Napoleon said. "Then I'll carry you."
"No." Illya shook his head sharply. "It will be too slow. And you're near to your own limits."
Napoleon forced his breathing slower, deeper, filling his lungs with hot desert air, letting it go again. It was so dry it hurt his nose, his mouth. "I'll be all right."
"Napoleon," Illya said, and the unsteadiness of his voice might have been pain and thirst, rather than desperation, "we don't have much time. And it does no good if neither of us make it—the mission—"
"We'll complete the mission," Napoleon said. "We're almost there."
"You will complete the mission," Illya said. "And I will wait here for you to do so. Afterwards—"
"No," Napoleon said, because there would be no afterwards; they both knew it. Not with hours left of daylight, and not out on these featureless dunes. The wind would erase his footsteps; backtracking would be impossible. And U.N.C.L.E. would have no team to spare for the search, not until after THRUSH had been stopped.
Waverly might allow Napoleon to try alone, as he had under other circumstances. But Illya was right; Napoleon was too near the end of his own strength. Even with water, without rest, he wouldn't be able to make it back. Not in time.
"Napoleon," Illya said, "we do not have time for this—you do not have time. You have to get in communications range, if you don't alert U.N.C.L.E. before nightfall—"
"Water for millions. I know," Napoleon said, annoyed; it wasn't as if he'd forget the mission. He pulled out the communicator pen, twisted it open. "Channel D, come in. Is anyone there?"
The hiss might have been static, or just the wind shifting sand grains; either way, no human voice answered.
Illya's gaze was level, blue eyes cool and still as deep water. "It's the only way."
"Yes," Napoleon agreed, crouching beside his partner. "So, fireman's carry, or can you hold on for a piggyback ride?"
Something moved in the depths of Illya's gaze, the flash of a shark's fin at five hundred fathoms. Then he pulled his Walther Special, aimed it at Napoleon.
"I do not want to force the issue," Illya said from behind the Special's black barrel. His hand holding the gun was steady, but his voice was not, quite, uneven with exhaustion, and pleading. "But I will."
Napoleon looked at the gun, then shook his head, sighing. "You were the one just saying we don't have time for this nonsense, Illya. It's not like you're actually going to shoot me, even if it wouldn't defeat the entire purpose."
Illya looked at him, then reluctantly looked at the gun. "No," he yielded, lowering his head, his eyes hooded in shadows. "I wouldn't."
He turned the gun in his hand, swinging it back and up, until the barrel was set against his own head. With his thumb he cocked it with a definite metallic click. "Now," he told Napoleon calmly, lifting his eyes to meet his partner's. "Go."
Napoleon stared at him, at the special, cocked, Illya's finger on the trigger and the black basket of the special's muzzle against Illya's temple, ruffling the blond fringe of his hair.
"Napoleon," Illya said, "please."
Napoleon had thought his mouth was dry before, but now it was hard even to force air through the seared grittiness in his throat, much less words. "Are you crazy?"
"No," Illya said, "and I would really prefer not shoot myself in the head; I'd rather fight until my last breath. But we have a mission, and you have a chance, and if you will not leave me alive, then..."
His eyes were clear, but too bright; glittering and febrile, delirious with sunstroke. There would be no reasoning with him—not that the stubborn Russian could be reasoned with at the best of times. And Napoleon's head was pounding, too sore for him to think.
"All right," he told Illya. "All right. Give me the gun, then. If I'm on my own, I'll have a better chance against THRUSH armed."
Illya stared at him for a long second, utterly still, maybe with disbelief. Then he closed his eyes, body relaxing, sinking down in the sand and letting his hand with the gun fall to his lap. "Yes," he said, soft with relief. "Thank you, Napoleon."
Napoleon picked up the gun, racked the slide and unchambered the round, letting it drop into his palm. He curled his hand around the warm metal of the bullet, and slipped it into his pocket.
Then he snapped the switch on the side of the special, cocked it and raised it again. "Sorry, Illya," he said, not really meaning it, and pulled the trigger.
Illya looked up, eyebrows high with surprise, just as the knockout dart hit his shoulder. He glared at Napoleon, impotent fury raging hotter than the sunstroke's fever. "Napoleon," he ground out, "the mission—you—"
Then his eyes went gray and glassy, and he slumped over. Napoleon caught him before he hit the sand. Even deadweight, Illya's trim frame wasn't that great a burden; Napoleon heaved his unconscious partner over his shoulder without much effort, pushed himself to his feet and started trudging up the next dune, one determined step at a time.
It was past noon, and the sun was lower now. Napoleon could measure its descent in the shadow spreading across the sand in front of him, a stark, wavering pool of darkness, short now but getting longer. Its shape was hunchbacked, strange and cumbersome, two legs and two heads, staggering unevenly along. He had to lean at an angle to compensate for Illya's weight over his shoulder, and it made him stumble in the fluid sand, but he hadn't fallen yet, and wasn't planning to.
Several dunes back he had started counting his footsteps, out of boredom more than any rational reason, and now he couldn't stop, the numbers hammering drumbeats in his head, one-two-three-four-five, two-two-three-four-five, three-two-three-four-five. He'd lost count a couple times and had to start over, but he had reached a thousand sets of five. Five thousand steps, close to a mile, and the oasis was only a few miles away. Though that was as the crow flies—or the vulture, Napoleon thought, casting his eyes up at the sky. There were three now, high enough that they were only black specks against the blue, circling patiently.
His legs kept moving whether he was looking up or down, one-thousand-and-one-two-three-four-five, one-thousand-and-two-two-three-four-five. Somewhere along the line, he had noticed that with every set of five steps, Illya gained another pound, in blatant defiance of every law of physics Napoleon could recall. It hadn't been so bad at first, but now his partner was at one thousand and three pounds, over half a ton. Ants could carry fifty times their own weight, but really, this was ridiculous. He shouldn't be able to keep walking under this, but he was, one-thousand-and-four-two-three-four-five...
Napoleon smelled her perfume first, floating over the desert's dust, delicately tickling his nose with the scent of flowers that should have long wilted in this heat. When he glanced to his left, he saw Angelique walking beside him, elegantly picking her way up the slope. Unfairly, she seemed unhampered by the sand, even in two-inch heels. Her black sleeveless gown was slit halfway up her thigh, and her only concession to the harsh clime was a fashionable white sunhat, which she had taken off and was using to fan herself. "Really, darling, such an absurd place to find yourself," she said.
"I've been worse," Napoleon told her.
"So you have. But not often, and not with me," and she fluttered her lashes teasingly.
"You're not here now," Napoleon pointed out. She was casting no shadow on the sand. He didn't know why this should annoy him so much, but it did; it seemed stupid, that he could imagine her perfume, but not hallucinate a reasonable shadow for her.
"And yet you are seeing me," Angelique said. "I believe I should be flattered."
Napoleon went to take his next step, realized that he had lost count again. He gritted his teeth and started over, one-two-three-four-five, slogging through the sand like it was mud.
"You must admit, I'm better company than him," Angelique said, waving airily at the limp figure of his partner slung over his shoulder. "Even when he's awake—such a cold, dour little man."
"He's never tried to kill me," Napoleon said. "At least not when in his right mind, which is more than I can say for the present company."
"Really, Napoleon, how bored would you be if I didn't? And besides, what else is he doing now, except killing you slowly?"
Napoleon hunched his shoulders, lowered his head and kept walking. The top of this dune couldn't be much further.
"Oh, darling, don't be that way," Angelique said, catching up with him with ease, stepping as lightly up the dune as if the sand were red-carpeted stairs. Her heels left no divots, any more than her body cast a shadow. "You know it's only the truth. Look."
They had reached the crest of the dune, and Angelique pointed with one slender arm, catching at the light lace shawl draped over her shoulders, stirred by the wind. "There, the oasis."
It was dunes distant, still little more than a vision, a green mirage welling up from the endless heat, like the phantom puddles of water shimmering on the sands. "You likely would be there now," Angelique said, "were you on your own."
"If I were on my own," Napoleon said, "then I'd be a prisoner of your THRUSH compatriots now. Illya got me out of their clutches."
Angelique wrinkled her nose in distaste. "So this is a debt of honor? God save me from the masculine ego. What good's your pride, if you die here like a dog in the desert?"
"I'm not planning on dying," Napoleon said.
"You won't make it," Angelique said plainly. "Not if you insist on lugging that burden of honor with you."
"Far be it from me to second a THRUSH opinion," said a new voice, "but I fear that in this she's right."
The aroma of tobacco was as strong as Angelique's perfume, and as distinctive. When Napoleon looked to his right he was unsurprised to see Alexander Waverly standing beside them on the dune, knocking the ashes in his pipe out onto the sand. Tamping down new tobacco, the old man lit up and took a contemplative puff. "A long time since I've been in the Sahara," he remarked. "Can't say I've missed it, but it does have a certain lethal charm. Much like yourself, my dear," and he nodded congenially at Angelique.
Napoleon shook his head at Waverly's inappropriate tweed suit and obnoxious lack of a shadow, and started down the slope, proceeding sideways with staggered steps. Every foot he placed in the sand, he slid a couple inches down; it should have been faster, but balancing Illya's weight against the sand's unstable drift really meant that it was harder than climbing.
Neither Angelique nor Mr. Waverly were the least bothered by the sand, keeping pace with him with a sort of brisk impatience, as if they were wordlessly reproaching him for his slowness. It was terribly unjust that they should have it so easy, simply on account of being figments of his fevered imagination.
"Mr. Solo," Waverly said, "I do hope you remember that you have a mission."
"Yes, sir," Napoleon agreed. "That's where we're going, to see it through."
"And time is of the essence, you understand."
"Do you know what time it is now?" Waverly asked severely.
"Two o'clock?" Napoleon hazarded, not wanting to waste more time looking back to check the sun. "Three? Four?"
"Something like that," his boss said. "You realize, don't you, that U.N.C.L.E. will need time to arrange the strike on the THRUSH bases. It's imperative that you get word to us within the next hour or so, or you'll have failed."
"Or you could just tell them yourself," Napoleon muttered.
Waverly raised his bushy eyebrows. "What was that, Mr. Solo?"
"I said," Napoleon said, louder, "that you could tell them yourself, if you were actually here. Sir."
"Hmph. Yes, I suppose I could, if I were," Waverly said. "Unfortunately, I'm not. So you'll have to make do on your own."
"On your own, Mr. Solo," Waverly repeated.
Napoleon almost stopped to look at him, recalled at the last moment that this would be silly since the man was only a hallucination, and kept walking instead.
"You have a mission," Waverly said beside him. He sounded tired, as he only rarely did, when he had especially unpleasant truths to share. "You must do what you have to, to complete it. No one understands this better than Mr. Kuryakin himself."
"I know," Napoleon said. "I already had this conversation with him."
"And I know what he told you."
It would be pretty pathetic if he didn't know, Napoleon thought, not bothering to say it aloud; this Mr. Waverly was in his own head, after all.
"He was right, Mr. Solo," Mr. Waverly said. "You are U.N.C.L.E. agents. The mission must come first. If you leave him now, you might have a chance of making it."
Napoleon tripped in the sand, stumbled and fell to his knees. Illya's body slid off his shoulder, and Napoleon only just caught him before he landed hard on the burning sand. He was still out cold, head hanging slackly, his fine hair ruffled by the breeze.
"You do know," Angelique remarked, standing over him but providing no shade from the slanting sun, "that it's unlikely he's going to make it anyway. Between his injury and sunstroke, not to mention the tranquilizer you shot him with, he might be dead already."
Napoleon's stomach lurched, acid bile backing up in his throat. Nausea was a symptom of dehydration, he reminded himself, even as he frantically felt at Illya's throat—the skin of his neck was cool to his touch, and that was wrong. But when he pressed his fingers in he felt the flutter of a pulse, staccato-fast but persistent, and Illya was breathing, short puffs of air against the back of Napoleon's hand.
Napoleon shut his eyes, swallowed back the bile—no substitute for water, but he couldn't afford to vomit, couldn't lose what water he still had in him. Ignoring Angelique and Waverly and their nonexistent shadows, he pulled Illya up, crouched to lever his limp form over his shoulder again. "Come on, partner. Just a bit further."
Standing up made him dizzy, and he blinked and swayed in place for a moment, trying to orient himself. At last he thought to look behind him, to the trail he had left in the sand, wind-blurred steps like drops in melted wax. Putting his back to that line, he continued on forward.
"Mr. Solo," Mr. Waverly sighed to his right, "you must be reasonable. You know the importance of this mission, as did Mr. Kuryakin."
"Napoleon," Angelique chided to his left, "you've always been a credit to your gender, so don't be stupid now. Listen to the man."
"Why do you care about the mission?" Napoleon asked. "It's a THRUSH scheme we're going to stop."
"I don't give a fig about the mission, darling," Angelique said, with an artful toss of her blonde hair. "But I would so hate to see our trysts ended because of one silly instance of pigheadedness. Let him go, Napoleon. Put him down and live to see me another day. Don't you want more than to die in this desert? Don't you want the taste of another glass of wine, the sight of another sunrise? Is your honor really worth your life?"
"You must leave him, Mr. Solo," Mr. Waverly said, his pipe puffing acrid smoke. "Millions hang in the balance, and you know your duty. He's your partner, but you both understand the risks, and the cost of failure. Are you ready for that? Do you really want the responsibility of all those millions of lives on your head?"
"Aren't you supposed to disagree?" Napoleon asked, glancing between them. "If you're representing different parts of my ego or principles or whichever, shouldn't you be in opposition, playing out the moral dilemma in my subconscious?"
"Darling, I'm not your conscience," Angelique said. "I'm only telling you the truth. As is this distinguished gentlemen."
"Hrm, yes," Waverly said. "Much as it pains me to agree with the young lady, it's true. We're voices of reason."
"So what does that make me?"
"A man without reason, my sweet Napoleon," Angelique said, with a fond kindness undercutting her irony that he had never heard from her. She was only a hallucination, after all. Though when her fingers brushed his cheek, he could have sworn he felt them, soft and cool against his sunburned skin. "You're quite delirious from heatstroke by now; you won't make it much further. You and your honor will die out here before you reach the oasis."
"Unless you leave Mr. Kuryakin behind," Waverly said, harder and harsher than Napoleon could remember hearing him be before, though perhaps only because he had never had to hear it. The old man could be as tough as he had to be, in his head or out of it. "This is your last chance, your last chance to succeed in your mission. Leave him and go on."
"With all due respect, sir," Napoleon said, "you can go to hell. You, too, darling Angelique. Mr. Waverly, how many missions have Illya and I completed together, successfully, even though we had zero chance of success by any sane estimate? How many times would I have failed if I'd gone in alone, but Illya came through? You should know that our chance of success together is a hundred percent better than mine by myself, whatever the situation.
"And Angelique, don't lecture me on what you know nothing about. There's no honor at stake here—it's not because he saved me, it's not about saving each other. We don't keep a balance sheet, Illya and I, and it's probably best that we don't, or I'd owe him a hundred times over, by now. And it's not because he'd do the same for me, even if maybe he would. It's not even that it's my fault his leg got broken, and I'm the one who knocked him out, and if he's going to get out of this damn desert, then I'm his only chance.
"It's not any of that. But if I'm going to have another glass of wine, I want to be sharing the bottle with him; and if I'm going to see another sunrise, I want him watching it beside me. So I'm just going to keep walking, and eventually we're going to reach the oasis, and complete this mission, and prove both of you imaginary bastards wrong."
There was no answer. Napoleon looked up to find himself standing on the peak of another dune. He was completely alone in the desert, but for his partner hanging heavily over his shoulder. The echoes of his own voice vibrated in his ears, but no one was listening but himself, and perhaps the vultures overhead. They were a little lower now, he thought, and so was the sun; his shadow was half as long as he was tall, and growing.
He kept walking, heading down the slope, and kept talking even with no one to talk to, even though the stream of words didn't make sense even to himself anymore. Counting his steps, and fragments of other things, riddles he'd forgotten the answers to and quotes he'd forgotten the sources of. "Water, water, everywhere," he started, but couldn't remember how it ended, especially since there was no water anywhere that he could see, nothing but sand, forever and ever. Illya's chin was bumping against his shoulder blade, out of rhythm with his footsteps—he rather thought Illya was doing it on purpose. Illya could be like that, even unconscious.
He reached the top of yet another dune without realizing how he had arrived there. The wind against his cheeks felt different, not as itchy, somehow, like it was something he should want to turn his face into, instead of away. The next dune looked different, too, the sand strangely textured, and the wrong color.
Descending, he lost his footing, and almost lost hold of Illya when he fell, but he managed to curl around his partner, enough to protect him from the sand shredding his clothes as they skidded and rolled down the dune's steep slope. When they finally stopped, he lay there, dazed and aching, trying to remember how to move his limbs. It seemed to him like it wasn't usually this hard; but then, it also seemed to him like his body was not usually this heavy. Far more than a half ton, by now, after all those steps he'd walked.
The sand under his cheek felt weirdly coarse, pricking his skin, and cooler than it should be. Somewhere close to where his ear was pressed to the ground, a voice was speaking, an odd small voice, tinny and muffled. "Mr. Solo, are you there? Mr. Solo, come in—"
"Napoleon?" That voice was in his other ear, painfully hoarse, but not so small or tinny, and the accent was different. "Napoleon, is that the communicator—Napoleon!"
Some of the weight lifted from his chest, and a firm grip took hold of his head, lifted it. Slapped his cheek—he heard the sound, though he couldn't feel it, really; it was too soft a blow, after the wind. He blinked his eyes and saw thin lines waving before his vision, back and forth. A hand reached in front of his eyes and blocked them off, then withdrew, silver gleaming between the fingers.
"Channel D, this is Illya Kuryakin," said the voice above him. "We are in the desert, coordinates approximately—" and he rattled off a string of numbers, far more complicated than one-two-three-four-five.
Napoleon stopped paying attention, instead studied the strands dancing in front of his eyes. They were a pale color, but not yellow—green, he finally identified it. Not sand, but grass, and not one stalk but many, thousands, he could see, spreading out under him and all the way up the next slope.
"Napoleon," the louder voice said, "can you hear me?—Yes, I'm here, put me through to Mr. Waverly, immediately. We'll need two strike teams, to handle THRUSH's—Napoleon, stay awake, stay with me, there's water here, nearby, and we just have to get to it, just a little further—"
Water sounded like a fantastic idea, Napoleon thought, but later; now, their mission was completed, and he was going to rest, for a good long week, or more.
In fact, he didn't stay out for more than a few minutes; Illya's shouting summoned the couple of goat-herders camped out at the oasis, and the water they brought revived Napoleon, enough that he was semi-aware when the helicopter landed. Awake enough to be alarmed, flailing for the gun he didn't have, and only his partner's hand on his chest stilled him—"It's not THRUSH, Napoleon, it's U.N.C.L.E., they're picking us up on the way—"
After that, he drifted off again, and the next thing he knew was waking in a hospital in Algiers, where he and Illya spent but one restful day, ministered to by a pair of lovely nurses with heavenly cool and gentle hands, who smoothed healing salve on their sunburns and saw to it that they had as much water as they desired.
Napoleon could have stayed on, but Illya had to fly back to America at the appeal of U.N.C.L.E. Medical, which had been less than happy to hear he'd walked several miles on a broken leg and wanted to verify for insurance reasons that Section Two's Number Two hadn't permanently crippled himself. So Napoleon bade the nurses a reluctant farewell and accompanied his partner back, a gesture that went unacknowledged, as Illya spent most of the flight sound asleep. At least they got first class seats for once, on account of Illya needing the room for his leg.
Back in New York, Medical checked them up, kept Illya but summarily sent Napoleon home for mandatory leave. Two days later, his nose was still peeling, but his lobster-red complexion was transposing to a more acceptable tan, and when he walked into U.N.C.L.E. HQ, Eloise smiled at him when she pinned on his badge, without wincing.
Napoleon first off requested the internal U.N.C.L.E. dossier on the latest affair, confirming what he had already been told, that Dr. Talc had been captured and his scheme halted before a single THRUSH drill had reached the aquifer, with no innocent citizens in the region the wiser. An unequivocal success, and Napoleon only hoped to be rewarded with no more desert missions for at least six months. He'd take his sand on beaches and his heat in saunas, thank you.
Then he reported to Mr. Waverly for his delayed debriefing. It was short and to the point; Napoleon gave his account of their endeavors, Waverly asked a few questions for clarification, which Napoleon answered to the best of his ability; and then he was dismissed to write up his official statement, while his partner was summoned.
It was nearly two hours later when Illya hobbled into their office, the rubber tips of his crutches thudding noisily on the floor. Napoleon rolled Illya's chair out from behind his desk and pushed it over to him. Illya stopped the chair and sat, quickly enough to reveal fatigue, but with a reassuringly cranky glower in Napoleon's direction at the courtesy.
"So how's the leg?" Napoleon asked. He already knew it wasn't too serious, nowhere near as bad as it could have been; their Saharan hike had cracked the original partial fracture all the way across, but the bone had stayed aligned, and the doctors had said he'd be running and jumping again when the cast came off in six weeks.
Or more like four, Napoleon guessed, watching his partner fidget. Still, a month of desk duty was a dreary prospect, and Napoleon sympathized when Illya glared and snapped, "Broken," tersely. He wheeled the office chair over to his desk, propped the crutches against the side and began going through the haphazard stacks of papers.
Looking for a pencil, Napoleon recognized, long familiar with Illya's habits, or lack thereof when it came to keeping writing implements accessible. "Here," he said, plucked a sharpened pencil from the mug on his own desk and tossed it over.
Illya snatched it out of the air one-handed without looking up, bent his blond head over the desk and set to writing.
Napoleon, with his own report mostly finished—save for typing it up, and that he could persuade Gail from the secretarial pool to manage—rocked back in his chair and watched his partner scribble in his notepad. The fast, vicious strokes of his hand looked less like he was writing and more like he was trying to slash the paper apart with his pencil.
"Tough debriefing?" Napoleon ventured.
Illya's pencil stopped moving for a moment, then resumed its attack on the innocent notepad.
"What, did the old man grill you?" Napoleon asked, slightly confused. Illya had been in Waverly's office twice as long as Napoleon himself, which didn't make much sense, given that he had been unconscious for a good part of the action.
"No." Illya put the pencil down on the notepad, crosswise to the college-ruled lines. He looked up, met Napoleon's eyes. "I had to tell Mr. Waverly the truth," he said quietly, in a tone like he was admitting to a homicide, or to drinking watered-down vodka.
"It's the best policy, with Waverly," Napoleon said, still confused. "If you're not honest he'll find out, sooner or later."
Illya sighed and rubbed his temple with one hand. His fair skin was a bit more golden than usual, but that would soon fade, as would the platinum highlights in his sun-bleached hair. The broken leg would trouble them longer, but for the most part this affair was behind them. Or Napoleon had thought, anyway. But Illya looked upset, deep in the eyes where it almost didn't show, distressed and guilty. "Napoleon," he said, "I told Mr. Waverly about your decision. That you wouldn't leave me—that you knocked me out when I tried to argue, and jeopardized your own life as well as the mission."
"Ah," Napoleon said. "If that's all..."
"If that's all—you could be demoted, or lose your position entirely!" Illya snapped. "At the very least Section One will want to review our partnership, question the placing of personal friendship above our duty—I shouldn't have told him. At least not before discussing it with you, before asking you what—"
"Illya, it's all right. I'd already told Mr. Waverly what happened myself," Napoleon said.
Illya paused. "You had?"
"In my own debriefing," Napoleon said. "I told you, honesty's the only way to go."
"And? What did he say?"
Napoleon shrugged. "He agreed with my assessment of the situation. Namely, that you and I both were suffering severe heatstroke, and neither of us was in any state to make rational decisions." He leaned back in his chair and leveled at his partner the same look he had given the old man, eyebrows arched and smiling slightly, completely confident. "At the time, I was thinking of the mission; it just happened that I'd gotten fixated on the idea that I needed you to complete that mission. Which only made sense, considering you'd been the one to get me out of THRUSH hands—I was deliriously certain I'd be in danger without your backup."
Illya cocked his own eyebrow. "And Mr. Waverly accepted that?"
"As it turned out, I did need you," Napoleon pointed out. "By the time we reached the oasis I was in no condition to report anything to anyone; I didn't even realize we'd gotten back into communications range. If you hadn't been there, the mission would've been a bust anyway."
"If I hadn't been there," Illya said, "you would've reached the oasis before the heatstroke affected you so badly."
"No, if you hadn't been there," Napoleon contradicted, "I'd be in a THRUSH cell now, or else executed, and the entire Saharan aquifer basin would be contaminated. Millions of people suffering for Lord knows how long. But none of that happened, thanks to us."
Illya inclined his head, not quite a nod. "All's well that ends well, then?" he said.
"Or close enough for jazz, as far as Section One's concerned." Napoleon pushed back his chair and stood. "Come on, it's lunch time. And we've got nothing to do but paperwork for the next month, there's no rush to finish it now." He fetched Illya's crutches, handed them over while his partner levered himself up with both hands flat on his desktop. "How about we go to that awful hotdog stand you're so fond of?" he suggested, as Illya propped himself up on his crutches. "And save the good Italian cuisine for tonight, if you'd like to join me at Marcone's."
"Ah, did Cynthia cancel on you?"
"No," Napoleon said. "Well. Yes. A rain-check, anyway, for an unspecified future date. But the reservation's for two, and I'd hate to waste it. Marcone's seafood is superb, and they have an unparalleled wine-list."
"The bounty of the ocean, and good wine," Illya said, resolutely making his limping way across the floor. "It does sound appealingly wet."
"Exactly," Napoleon said. "I don't know if I'm ever going to stop being thirsty—four days later and I'm still tasting sand."
He turned to the door, but before he could step through it, Illya set down one his crutches, deliberately, barring his exit. "Napoleon."
On the threshold, Illya's eyes were unreadably dark, shaded from both the lamps in their office and the hall's bright lights. "If ever it happens," he said, "that we have a mission—that there is a mission to complete, against all odds and reason, and I must choose how I'm to attempt it—then I know that I would need my partner to succeed. Whether I was in my right mind, or wrong."
He closed his mouth, and didn't glance at Napoleon's face, just lifted his crutch from Napoleon's path and thumped off down the hall.
Napoleon blinked after him, then shook his head and caught up with his partner in a few long strides. "So, tonight," he said lightly, "shall we go in together for the good red? A properly aged Barolo, perhaps, 'king of wines,' they say."
"Bourgeois decadence," Illya sniffed, though the amusement in his eyes tempered his sidelong smirk to a true smile. "But I could go for a glass to wash out the sand. Yes, let's share a bottle tonight."
Love to know what you think!
Read Comments - Post Comment