The Touchstone Affair

by Graculus

They'd had close shaves before, but this time their escape seemed different. Even as he and Illya lay in the long damp grass on the hillside and watched the exploding Thrush base paint the sky a multitude of colours, Napoleon wondered just how it was they'd managed to get out before the wave of bombers came. Certainly it had been almost a matter of split-second timing—another few minutes inside the base and they would have been inside there forever.

He glanced across at Illya, who was still watching the light show with an engrossed expression, despite the exhaustion that kept pushing his eyes half-closed.

Illya's face was a patchwork of scrapes and bruises that was visible even in the twilight, a testament to the rough treatment they'd both received at the hands of their captors. Illya had spat his defiance at them, for some reason or another only known to him, and he'd paid the penalty for it in terms of becoming the focus of their dubious attentions.

And all of this was mostly Napoleon's fault anyway, since he'd been the one Illya was trying to rescue.

Things had moved on since they'd first become partners, so much so that Napoleon hardly remembered how it had been between them once. It seemed ludicrous to consider how close he'd once been to losing Illya forever, or to recall his stubborn partner's determination to ask for a transfer back to London, let alone how much that had galled him at the time. Galled him even though Napoleon himself had been going regularly to Waverly to ask to be set free from his recently-acquired Russian burden.

Now he couldn't think of life without the man who was nodding again, as he lay beside him in the grass, hardly able to keep his eyes open.

"Come on," Napoleon said. "Let's get down to the main road."

They could meet the clean-up crew, come to sift through what was left of the Thrush base, looking for information rather than survivors, and that way acquire a lift back to the nearest UNCLE office. Their Thrush captors had considerately stripped them of their communicators and various devices secreted around their persons, before shoving them both into baggy blue coveralls. If he regretted anything about the destruction of the base, Napoleon regretted losing his suit—he knew there was no way Mr Waverly would agree to replace it, he rarely did.

Someone had been watching over them.

Napoleon thought back to his grandmother, remembering her insistence that they light a candle and ask for the saint's protection before every journey, every change in routine. He could still remember helping her do the same, his hands wrapped around her arthritic ones, carefully guiding the lit candle into its holder, before he would step back to kneel by her side as she crossed herself. Following her example even as he doubted her beliefs.

Even now the smell of melted wax made him think of his nonna.

Perhaps he'd light a candle to St Michael Archangel when they got back to New York. Not that he'd tell his sceptical partner what he planned to do—the kind of teasing he was certain he'd get from Illya would be all but intolerable. But he had a lot to be thankful for. They were both alive, both in one piece.

Napoleon didn't want to contemplate the alternative, and whatever edge he and his partner could get was absolutely fine by him.

As usual, Napoleon was hovering over him, treating him like he was a small intractable child rather than a capable agent. It annoyed Illya and warmed him in equal measure—it had been so long since anyone had cared enough for him to nag. His partner's words washed over him, their tone enough even as he tuned out the words themselves, his inattention turning them into a comforting stream of nonsense.

His partner's luck had struck again.

Illya had dismissed the stories at first, mentally labelling the tales of Solo's miraculous escapes and split-second opportunities as tales expanded in the telling. It hadn't been until Napoleon was actually his partner, giving him the chance of a front row seat to see it all, that Illya had begun to wonder.

But he was still, after all, a realist at heart—a firm believer in the idea that an agent made their own luck. Illya wouldn't trade the hours of practice he put in for even the slightest sliver of good fortune, preferring to rely on the cleanliness of his gun and the strength of his own muscles. Those were tangible, reliable, and if something went wrong there was no-one else to blame.

Not that his attitude stopped the stories about his partner. If anything the casual approach he took to them seemed to Illya to exaggerate things. As if people suspected he was hiding something, that his denial luck played a significant part in their missions was some kind of subterfuge.

And had it been luck, or fate, or merely the whim of Alexander Waverly that had partnered the two of them?

Some might say, Illya knew, that there were greater forces at work, some kind of destiny that dictated the fate even of those who didn't believe in it. He'd never been a subscriber to that point of view, thinking that a future in which everything that must happen was already dictated was a bleak prospect indeed.

He had no idea what Napoleon thought of it all.

Despite the long hours spent together, there were some things they didn't talk about, and his partner's much vaunted luck was one of them. He'd tried once, soon after they'd actually become partners and the expression on Napoleon's face had been enough to make Illya's already-uncertain words grind to a stumbling halt. It had been an almost horrified look, as if to talk about the good fortune would drive it away forever—perhaps that was what Napoleon believed, he couldn't tell.

By the time he was allowed out of the infirmary after being given a clean bill of health, finally escaping the prying eyes and prodding fingers, all Illya wanted to do was sleep.

It was ironic really, that he'd lived much of his life alone yet still found some kind of comfort in solitude. Even on those rare occasions when he shared some physical pleasure with another, he never stayed the night—he couldn't actually sleep with someone else there, someone he couldn't trust not to slit his throat in the middle of the night no matter what they'd experienced together only hours before.

"Let's get you home," Napoleon said, and Illya found himself agreeing with his partner's words wholeheartedly.

His tiny apartment was his haven, the one place on this planet where Illya was the person who controlled everything and chose what happened. It was his sanctuary, in so many ways, the place where he licked his wounds and mentally prepared himself to face the coming day. Inviolate, for all but his partner.

Who never failed to scowl at it when he entered through the apartment door, a reaction as comforting and reliable to Illya as the rising sun.

"Illya, how do you live like this?" Napoleon always asked, before the door was closed behind him.

He didn't visit Illya's apartment often, and most of the time when he did the visit was related to some injury or other and his partner's need to look after him. Guilt, he supposed, most of the time, was the strongest motivator Napoleon knew.

Illya shrugged.

The first few times Napoleon had asked, he'd tried to answer, before realising the question was rhetorical at best. He'd seriously given it some thought, mentally compared his basic yet cluttered living quarters with the almost-sterile luxury in which his partner lived, before coming to understand that it was part of what made them who they were.

Illya had never clung to material things, had always prioritised doing over having—his upbringing had never given him the opportunity to learn the fine art of acquisition after all. The few things he had of his family were treasures indeed, all else was dross. Books could be bought again, records replaced with a marginally greater difficulty, useable furniture was available everywhere.

"I like it," had become his stock reply.

Illya had also learned that, rhetorical or not, a failure to answer that question would lead Napoleon to look at him. He'd discovered early on as well that he didn't like that particular look, the examination his partner subjected him to, so he avoided it however possible. There was always the chance, after all, that one day his partner would see something Illya didn't want him to, and that could never be allowed.

And, after all, Illya did like his apartment, his life, like that. If all else, it was his. He didn't dare ask for more.

They were lucky to be alive, yet Illya came home to this—an apartment barely big enough to justify the name. Meagre possessions, almost the work of a pack-rat, if such a creature were specifically interested in books and records, hardly what Napoleon would call 'home'.

His own family hadn't been wealthy, despite the façade he liked to project that he was the scion of old money, but he'd learned the value of everything when he was young. And, if nothing else, Napoleon had never wanted for anything, no matter what his extended family had to do in order for him to have it. Instead they'd almost stifled him with their care, would probably be providing for him still if he hadn't flown the nest when he went to Korea.

In some ways he'd never really gone home.

Napoleon had thought himself a man when he enlisted, had admired himself long moments before the mirror in his military uniform, and had no idea whatsoever of what he was letting himself in for.

How could he?

His experience of war was formed from movies, movies where no-one ever really suffered, where nobody died in your arms as their blood bubbled out from a gut wound that no amount of trying could close. He'd never realised before that life itself was so fragile.

Some days he felt as if his hands had never been clean since.

How had he survived when so many of his friends, his brothers in arms, had died? It had to be luck, he couldn't put it down to anything else.

Before he'd left for Korea, his nonna had pressed a coin into his hand, muttering something about it protecting him from the evil eye—he'd laughed, but his hand had tightened around the token regardless. Somehow he'd managed to hang onto it, despite everything, his fingers coming to know every line on the Good Luck Coin, trusting and believing in that when he felt he had nothing else to believe in.

He still had it, somewhere.

He was still searching for something, Napoleon knew that, but he had no idea what that 'something' was. He'd sought a touchstone once, something to rely on, at a time when he wasn't even sure he could rely on himself. He'd left his young bride behind, deaf to her pleas as he sought that tenuous something he needed—had he ever really known anything about her?

Only that she wasn't able to give him what he needed, that was all.

Napoleon wondered what she would think of him now. Would she even be able to recognise the man he'd turned himself into, or would she walk past him without knowing who he was? Some days he barely recognised himself, so nothing would surprise him.

"Go home, Napoleon," Illya said. "Or sit down. One or the other—your pacing makes my head ache."

Was that really a choice?

Napoleon sat on Illya's small over-stuffed sofa, listening to the sounds of his partner making tea. He'd almost come to like the stuff the way Illya made it, even if he did suspect it was stripping layers of enamel from his teeth every time he drank it. It gave him an excuse to stay though, an excuse to watch over his stubborn and intransigent partner, and that was enough to risk anything.

After all, if it were not for him then Illya would keep going till he fell down. Napoleon had learned quite early on in their partnership that this was the literal truth, so now he made plans that involved him being there to break his partner's fall.

"Here," Illya said, shoving the hot glass of tea into Napoleon's hands without any pretence of courtesy. "Drink this, Napoleon. And then go home."

The brusqueness was as warming as the tea itself. Illya was rarely that rude with anyone he didn't like—instead he resorted to an icy civility that was almost ruder than real rudeness could be. Words that were in truth as sharp as knives and as cold as a glacier, despite the thin veneer of politeness that covered them.

"Spasibo," Napoleon said, as his hands closed on the warmth, with a small smile. His partner's cool façade cracked a little when he spoke, as he'd known it would. "Sit down before you fall over."

Illya snorted at Napoleon's peremptory tone, as he'd knew he would, but then did as he was bid.

There was silence for a while, the only sounds in the apartment those of Napoleon breathing on his tea to try and cool it to below scalding, and Illya contentedly drinking his regardless of the temperature.

"I'm going to bed," Illya said, then drained the last mouthful of tea from his glass. "Let yourself out."

Napoleon watched as Illya leaned over and put the empty glass down on the threadbare carpet beside the sofa, then headed for his bedroom without a backward glance. His own tea was still hot enough to scald the tastebuds off his tongue, so he waited and drank cautiously. The sounds from inside the bedroom were faint, indications that despite his tiredness Illya still moved with his usual grace and economy of movement, and then faded to nothing.

Napoleon took another mouthful of tea and thought about the overall strangeness of his life. His parents, were they alive, would think he was crazy. Sitting in the dingy living room of a tiny apartment as he seriously contemplated going in there and climbing in bed in order to wrap himself around his irascible partner. It would be nice, that closeness of skin on skin, at least in the few seconds before Illya killed him.

He smiled at the thought, at the likely mixture of surprise and dismay he'd see on his partner's usually stoic face.

It was starting to get dark now, the long summer day almost over, and Napoleon felt the familiar post-adrenaline tiredness creeping up on him. If it wasn't for the phenomenal bumpiness of the sofa, he'd be inclined to set up camp here—that way, at least, he wouldn't be risking life and limb in an attempt to share his partner's bed.

Just as he was making up his mind to rouse himself, in order to go home like Illya had told him to, movement at the corner of his eye made Napoleon's head snap round. There, in the gathering dusk, fluttering at the grimy sitting room window, was a small bird, dark and inconspicuous.

He watched it for a moment, as cold fingers seemed to caress his spine and his nonna's raspy voice came back to him, clear as if she stood by his shoulder.

"Nothing good can come of this."

Was the omen for him? Birds, he knew, were bad luck—he'd heard his nonna and his much less-superstitious Zia Antonia discussing them on more than one occasion. A bird coming to the window was in search of a soul to take. The bird in question seemed to fix him with its beady eye for a second, settling for the briefest of moments on the sill, before Napoleon's getting to his feet was enough to startle it away.

Whether the soul the bird was in search of was his or his partner's, he didn't like the idea of its appearance one tiny bit.

Illya almost expected to find his partner asleep on his sofa the next morning when he awoke, but instead the apartment was empty. Napoleon had set the alarms before he left, at least, as a cursory glance across the control panel indicated, but he'd expected nothing less.

By the time he got into work, Napoleon was already in the office they shared. He barely looked up from his desk to acknowledge Illya's tardy arrival.

"Yes, Napoleon," Illya said, as his partner turned his attention back to his work. "I'm feeling much better this morning, thanks for asking."

Napoleon looked up properly this time. "You still look like hell," he said, though his expression was almost sheepish for a moment, in strange contrast to his tone.

Illya shrugged. All he knew was that the aches and pains were fading in comparison to the previous day and, though his face was still somewhat multi-coloured, that was a temporary matter and barely worth worrying about. And besides such visible reminders of his dangerous status usually got him larger helpings in the commissary.

He was safely past his partner's mother hen stage by now. Once Illya was actually out of danger, Napoleon's nurturing instincts tended to go dormant once more, or till the next time anyway.

What happened next was usually just what he was experiencing now. Pretended lack of concern, as if Napoleon was embarrassed to have shown any semblance of worry for his partner, as if it somehow weakened him in Illya's eyes. All completely predictable and just as completely ridiculous.

"You could get to work on your report," Napoleon said, leaning back in his chair. Illya scowled at him.

"Our report, you mean," he replied. "Even though I was unconscious for a good part of it."

"I can fill in the blanks," Napoleon said, his tone edging past helpful and off towards over-obliging. Like there was nothing in the world that would give him greater pleasure, though Illya knew without a doubt that nothing could be further from the truth.

"Or I could just make it up," Illya said. "How would Waverly know?"

There was always that temptation. After all, they were somewhat selective a lot of the time when they did the write-ups, sketching over the things that didn't quite fit comfortably with UNCLE policy and procedures, glossing over the incidents where one or other of them didn't quite do things by the book.

"He'd know," Napoleon said. "Because I already saw him this morning and gave him the verbal summary."

"You didn't wait for me?"

Napoleon shrugged.

"What was the point? Like you said, you were out of it for a good period of what I had to tell Waverly about, and even by the time the bombers came you were barely conscious."

"Still," Illya began, then stopped. Something niggled at him, some uncertainty about the whole situation. "Did Waverly make any comments?"


Damn him. Damn Napoleon and his over-protectiveness.

"You know what I mean," Illya said. "Did he say anything about my being beaten up?"

Napoleon had sat forward once more by this point, all four feet of his chair now firmly on the ground.

"He'd seen the reports from Medical, Illya. How could he not comment?"

It was worse than he'd thought. Every paranoid notion he'd ever held concerning Waverly's views of him as an agent seemed to rush to the forefront of Illya's mind all at once—he could be on the next plane back to Moscow before he knew it. And his partner, the one person he was meant to be able to rely on, hadn't ensured he had the chance to defend himself.

"I see," Illya said, as non-committal as he could manage.

It was ridiculous really, and he knew that if he gave it any conscious thought. After all, he was partnered with the heir apparent, so if all else failed would Waverly want to upset Napoleon by separating him from the one agent who he seemed to have been able to create a working partnership with? Illya thought not.

"Relax, Illya," Napoleon said, as he saw the tension flood his partner's body. He was able to recognise the signs of impending explosion quickly now, the familiarity their partnership had bred a useful tool, their unspoken communication almost as accurate as any words that passed between them. "Waverly was happy with the end result of the mission, that's what matters."

He hadn't realised Illya was still so uncertain about his place within UNCLE, after all this time.

"Besides," he continued cheerfully, in an attempt to break Illya's mood, "you only got into that mess because you were trying to rescue me, remember? If Waverly's going to comment on anything, it would be that. And my latest futile attempt to claim back the cost of another suit."

Illya considered that for a moment, his fingers still clutching the pen he seemed to have forgotten he was holding. Then his body relaxed a little, infinitely small movements nobody else would have noticed, and Napoleon let out an inaudible sigh of relief.

When had he grown so adept at manipulation, anyway? Somehow Napoleon always knew the right things to say to calm his partner, or chide him out of one of his odd moods, prompting more than one fellow agent to comment, when he thought the CEA was out of earshot, about how little he'd like to work with that temperamental Russian.

They had no idea of the side benefits of such a partnership, that was all Napoleon would have replied. If it was any of their damn business. Which, of course, it wasn't.

If anyone couldn't appreciate Illya for what and who he was, then they certainly had no right to criticise him—good partners were hard to find in the first place, Napoleon had worked his way through enough abortive pairings to know that for certain. There was something intangible about what he and Illya shared, something Napoleon would be hard pressed to describe to anyone else, some kind of connection beyond the norm.

He was firmly convinced that it was luck, not Waverly alone, which had given him the opportunity to forge this partnership, which had forced the two of them to make it work despite their individual determination to go their separate ways. Not that he'd ever mention this to Illya, of course, since he knew what reaction he'd get, the healthy dose of scepticism he was sure to encounter.

He'd keep his beliefs to himself, use them where he could, relying on the lessons learned from years as an active agent and trusting destiny to give events that extra spin on which he could capitalise.

That was how it worked, after all. The luck people spoke of in connection with his name wasn't the explanation for everything—at times he resented the way it was mentioned, as if that explained all his and his partner's hard work away, glossing over the sheer grind of an agent's life.

One glimpse at the bruises currently marring Illya's face, even as he laboured over the exact wording of his report once more, reminded him how close the line was between success and disaster. And how high the price of disaster could be.

"The gentleman in the picture," Waverly said, as he spun the revolving table in his office to deposit the file in question neatly between Napoleon and Illya, "is Emile Benoit, assassin for hire and currently top of the Sret's most wanted list."

Illya picked up the photo resting on top of the closed file.

"That's a familiar face," he said, then showed the picture to Napoleon, who took it with a frown.

"Too familiar," Napoleon said. "Where was that taken? That doesn't look like San Francisco and I wasn't aware Ward Baldwin had made any out of town trips recently."

"It was taken in London, Mr. Solo," Waverly said. "Two weeks ago. You and Mr. Kuryakin were in Bangkok at the time, if I recall correctly."

Solo didn't even bother to run over the events of the recent past in his mind—if Waverly said they were in Bangkok, that was where they were. The man had a mind like a recently-oiled bear trap, nothing passed him by.

"What is Ward Baldwin doing meeting with a hired killer?" Illya asked, taking the photo back from Napoleon's hand as if it contained the answers he was looking for. "And in front of the St. Paul's Cathedral, of all places."

"That is what UNCLE would like to know, gentlemen. The rumour has it that Benoit is now in the United States working for Thrush, specifically in a certain ghost town in Nevada. Which is where you will both be going this afternoon."

The words were a clear dismissal. Napoleon found his hand straying to his jacket pocket, to the worn Good Luck Coin he'd had to turn his apartment upside down to find. He'd been certain he had it somewhere, had known he couldn't possibly have thrown it away when he returned from his time in Korea. Something told him Illya would have need of that extra protection, the memory of the bird he'd seen still fresh in his mind.

The two agents met in the doorway out of Waverly's office, Napoleon brushing past his partner almost casually, the ideal opportunity to secrete the token in Illya's pocket. One swift yet subtle movement and it was done.

One side effect of their lifestyle was that all the sitting around gave you a lot of time to think. Time to consider just about anything, the choices made, the annoying habit your partner seemed to have picked up that made you want to rearrange his face with your fist, just what it was that made you do the things you did.

And in this case, anyway, on the plane west from New York, for Illya Kuryakin to contemplate just how dependant he'd become on his partner.

He hated the idea of it. That was one of the reasons he'd never really tried all that hard to get along with whoever he'd worked with, seeing that kind of friendliness as the first step on the slippery slope to his present position. Wanting Napoleon to cluck over him, yet vexed by it in equal measure. A sad situation for someone who'd always prided himself on his independence to find himself now.

It was bad enough that they were linked inexorably in people's minds; they were Solo-and-Kuryakin, rather than individuals, a fact which irritated Illya as much as it reassured him. After all, his partner was tipped for the top job, heir apparent to Alexander Waverly himself, even though the old man was likely to outlive them both. And Solo's partner, should Napoleon survive to reach that lofty position, would be able to have just about anything he wanted.

Except Solo's partner wasn't at all sure what that anything might be.

He'd never given his future much thought. Surviving in the here and now had so often been more than enough to contend with, the likelihood of even having a future such a tenuous possibility that it was never at the forefront of Illya's mind. But now, now he was no longer alone, now he had a partner, Illya couldn't stop thinking about it. About what he wanted, allowing himself the luxury of the dreams he'd never previously permitted himself.

Dreams about his partner, for one. His obliviously-flirting-with-the-stewardess partner, who would doubtless be horrified enough by any thought that Illya might be interested in him that way to change his mind about wanting to work with him. Who would probably go straight to Waverly and request that Illya's world, so steadfastly revolving at the moment around the very idea of being Napoleon Solo's partner and Number Two of Section Two, be turned upside down.

The risk was too great, that much was certain. Illya pretended to be engrossed in his book, even as the words on the page danced before him, making no sense at all. Not that Napoleon seemed to notice he had less of an audience for his performance than usual—as if he ever did.

Even if his partner didn't throw up his hands in horror at the idea of Illya feeling more than partnerly feelings for him, there was always the possibility one or other of them might die at any time. Theirs was hardly the best career to pursue if you wanted a stable relationship, and the thought of commencing such an undertaking and then having it ripped from him by his partner's untimely death was more than Illya could contemplate.

A poet might once have said it was better to have loved and lost, but Illya had no intention of losing—if that was the choice, he'd rather not love at all.

It was a long drive to Paradox, Nevada. Illya took the wheel, as usual, insisting that Napoleon navigate the dusty roads leading to the ghost town where Benoit had last been located. He couldn't figure out what an assassin might want, in what effectively seemed to be the middle of the middle of nowhere, but on the other hand, where better to work undisturbed if you were Thrush?

The dust was everywhere, pernicious in its attempts to infiltrate their clothes, their hair; it was in every breath they took.

Nobody talked about that kind of thing when they spoke about the romance of the old west.

Napoleon paused for a moment in his navigating duties to consider the idea of his partner in the wild west. His thoughts turned to bandannas and chaps, to the fabric of tight faded jeans curving as it encompassed and delineated one of the finest asses he'd seen in a lifetime's examination of those of both sexes.

While it was a pleasant thought, it was one he could never speak out loud. There was no way Napoleon could pass that away as an innocent pipe-dream, not if his body's instinctive reaction to the mental image was anything to go by. He shifted uncomfortably in his seat.


Napoleon was jolted back to reality, back from a world where a buckskin-clad Russian slouched his way across the boardwalk towards him, eyes alight with invitation, realising that his not-so-inviting partner was asking him a question.

"This turning or the next?"

Napoleon glanced down at the map.

"This one," he said, using the futile act of brushing of dust from his face to cover his momentary embarrassment at almost being caught out in his fantasy. "Slow down, Illya."

Illya flicked a glance across at him, annoyance written large on his equally-dusty face.

"How much further?" he asked, his voice terse.

"Another couple of miles," Napoleon replied. In his mind, he was already there in Paradox, wishing fervently that the man of his imagination, rather than the man with whom he currently shared this hot and dusty car, was waiting for him at their destination. "We ought to be able to see it when we reach the top of that rise."

The ghost town itself looked just like a movie lot.

Illya had become unexpectedly fond of westerns in his time living in America, relishing the battle of good and evil that he himself played a part in real life. There was a starkness to many of the stories, the hero often being called upon to sacrifice himself for the good of the town's people in many cases, that struck a chord with him.

That was what he had always expected for himself, after all, a nameless grave, with no-one to mourn his passing.

Instead of which, joining UNCLE had made him part of a family. His surrogate father, while he might not openly express any emotions on the passing of an agent, was known by all to be deeply affected by those events. And then there was his partner, an unexpected relationship indeed.

UNCLE's London headquarters had been different, Illya had chosen to hold himself more aloof there and hadn't allowed anyone to break through the walls of self-sufficiency both habit and history had erected. New York had been something else altogether, his unwanted partner somehow breaching those self-same walls, creating something new for both of them.

His death would be noticed now. Illya knew without a doubt that he would be mourned if Napoleon outlived him, and the idea unsettled him.

True to his partner's word, the abandoned town had been visible from the top of the rise, and the car swept down the hill towards it, past a cemetery ringed with a rickety wooden fence, and dotted with tombstones that leaned against one another like lazy drunks. Scoured clean by the winds, one lone tree stood by the graveyard fence. There were few other signs of habitation before they entered the town itself, which looked as empty as its reputation.

But Benoit had been here, they had information to that end, so their job was to check things out.

Illya wrenched his mind back from the contemplation of his own mortality, from wondering just how Napoleon would react to his passing. It wasn't a comfortable thought—he'd never wanted to be the cause of pain to another person, unless it was absolutely necessary, in which case he could be as ruthless as the next agent. More so, in fact, at times—when Napoleon was in danger, for example. In such a situation, the kid gloves were definitely off, and Illya walked a fine line in the ostensible service of the agency.

The idea of his partner grieving shook him a little. He knew Napoleon was a man of strong emotions, even if those emotions were usually masked by the façade he presented of a flippant playboy. Illya had seen the reality and knew just how Napoleon was likely to react.

If he could have crossed himself when they passed the cemetery without a response from his partner, Napoleon would have done it without a second thought. It had been years since that had been his instinctive reaction, something he'd learned from seeing his nonna do just that every time they rode the bus together into town—Napoleon had discovered that he could almost set his watch by her reaction as they neared the local graveyard.

It seemed a reasonable thing to do, he supposed, an instinctive reaction to those tangible reminders of death, calling upon some higher power for protection. Even if he wasn't totally sure he believed in any higher power, not any more.

That ability to believe was another thing he'd lost in Korea, along with his innocence.

But Illya would comment if he did so, his eyes bright with amusement even if he didn't laugh out loud, he wouldn't be able to help it. His sceptical scientist's mind would ensure he had to say something, and that couldn't be borne.

They peeled out from the car, both moving almost before it stopped, heading for what little shelter the run-down buildings provided. Their approach would have been noted by anyone there, the dust cloud they'd generated visible for miles—driving into the main street was hardly the subtle approach—but there was no sign of life. There were no other tyre tracks in the dusty main street, no signs of recent habitation as far as Napoleon could see.

He didn't need to be in earshot of his partner to be able to imagine what Illya would say to that. They'd been sent on a wild goose chase, or so it seemed, with a long flight and an even longer-seeming drive, and for what?

The distinctive creaking sound of wood under strain made Napoleon turn suddenly, his instincts making him leap out of the way as the heavy sign adorning the former Paradox grocery store came crashing down where he'd been standing just moments before. Even as the dust billowed and swirled around him, Napoleon turned to yell to his partner—a warning, a cry for help, he wasn't completely sure.

But the other side of the street was empty, as if Illya Kuryakin had never been there.

His head ached. It was a too-familiar feeling, one he'd lost count of the times he'd experienced it long ago, and one that he wished fervently never to experience again every time it happened. Not that Illya ever got what he wanted, not where that particular wish was concerned, anyway.

At least this time he wasn't tied up. That was something he'd grown accustomed to as well, on waking up, but that didn't mean he necessarily enjoyed it—by the look of it, this time round he'd just been dumped in a small room and left. There were worse things that could have happened, so Illya decided to count his blessings and make a hasty exit.

The fact that he was alone worried him a little; being separated from his partner always worried him.

The door was locked, which was no surprise. He rattled the handle experimentally, pushing against the wood with his shoulder, but it didn't budge.

There was always the possibility that he wouldn't see Napoleon again, that whatever words they'd previously exchanged would be their last. Sometimes that thought made Illya hold his tongue, biting back words he didn't want to be the final things his partner remembered him saying, but he didn't always manage to control himself that well. Not that there was any way of predicting their eventual fate.

There were no other ways out of the room. No sign of a handy air vent, no convenient heating duct, nothing but smooth grey wall.

It was the idea of never seeing Napoleon again that was the hardest thing to deal with. Not that working for UNCLE gave any kind of guarantees—he'd lost enough people he knew in the service of his country, let alone since—but his relationship with his partner was different.

Not as different as he wanted it to be, though, if he had the nerve to risk everything.

Time to try the door again.

He'd been right, then, to believe that coming to this place would put the two of them in danger. Though in some ways that was a sucker bet—when did they ever go anywhere that wasn't dangerous in some way? Even the most innocent of faces could hide evil intentions, the most ordinary place hold some hidden hazard, Napoleon knew that by now.

And now Illya had disappeared.

If only this wasn't an all too familiar scenario. One or other of them would end up in the hands of the bad guys, forcing the other one to come to the rescue—sometimes it would work out, sometimes they'd both end up as prisoners.

The only problem this time was the lurking memory of the bird he'd seen at Illya's apartment, the evil omen that it represented. Napoleon didn't want to believe in it, everything that he knew told him it was nonsense to do so, but what if it was true? What if his nonna had been right all along?

He'd slipped the Good Luck Coin into Illya's pocket on the off-chance that there was something in the whole idea. And Illya hadn't mentioned it, not even in passing, though he was still wearing the same suit. That meant, he hoped that his partner was still under its protection, and would be so until their mission to Paradox was over.

If the two of them survived long enough for him to check that this was the case, of course.

He could almost hear Illya's reproach in his mind if his partner ever discovered he'd been harbouring those kind of thoughts. Waverly's tongue could be sharp at times, the vehemence of the dressing downs he gave his agents disguised a little by his bluff demeanour, but he had nothing on Illya in full flow. At first he would probably make some joke about how he was supposed to be the dour one of the partnership, but there was little chance Illya would stop there.

"So," he said to himself, brushing the dust from his sleeve as he contemplated the best way to search the small town, "where exactly are you, Illya?"

He'd been searched, methodically, while he was unconscious, his gun and other devices removed or else he'd have been out of his makeshift prison within a matter of minutes. Of course, that realisation was no comfort, and neither was the thought of how worried Napoleon probably was by now.

Illya had given up trying to force the door open—it opened the wrong way, so there was no chance of using brute strength to force the lock, even if he was inclined to do so.

But so far his consideration of the fabric of the room itself held no possibilities—no secret doors, no hidden compartments that would conveniently fall open to Illya's probing fingers. Nothing but scraped fingertips and broken fingernails.

It wasn't like this in the movies. There was always a loose board, or a heating duct with a loose cover, a hidden weakness that would allow the hero to force it out, thus permitting his timely escape.

He was standing in the middle of the room, wondering just exactly what he was expected to do next, when he heard the footsteps coming closer. There was nowhere to hide, no point in trying to arrange an ambush from behind the door and take his captors by surprise. Illya waited as patiently as he could, listening to try and gauge just how many visitors he was about to receive.

When the door opened, he wasn't surprised to see four men standing there, the foremost among them holding what looked very much like his own UNCLE Special, its barrel pointed directly at him.

"No funny business, Mr. Kuryakin," he said.

For a moment, Illya considered non-cooperation but decided that might be considered an attempt at being amusing. There were, after all, more of them than there was of him, and they were armed.

He needed to stay alive and in one piece long enough to get his gun back, at least, that was a matter of pride. The last thing he wanted was for it to become some kind of Thrush trophy, on a mantelpiece somewhere for the ignorant to gawp at his initials on the butt as they listened to an exaggerated recital of his final moments on the planet. That just wouldn't do at all.

He raised his hands, trying to look as inoffensive as possible. It wasn't likely to succeed, considering the fact that his captors clearly knew exactly who he was, but any potential advantage was better than none. They might think he was one of those agents who, when disarmed, just gave up and went along with anything. If, of course, they were stupid enough to think such a thing, then in Illya's mind they deserved whatever violence he would be likely to inflict on them in the not-too-distant future.

The one in front beckoned him out with a twitch of his gun, and Illya obeyed. Not quickly, lingering enough to try and gauge his potential opponents likely weaknesses, his eyes watching them as intently as they ought to be watching him.

As he passed them, the one on his right grabbed his upraised hand, twisting it behind his back—even though he pulled it a little too hard, Illya didn't struggle. The other hand soon joined it, what felt like a loop of untanned leather being pulled tight over both his wrists. He gave the bonds an experimental tug, but it was clear he wouldn't be getting his hands free without assistance any kind soon.

"Come on," said the one who had spoken previously, his words punctuated by one of the others giving Illya a hefty shove between the shoulderblades so that he took an involuntary couple of steps forward before he caught himself. "Time's wasting."

Something about the tone of the other man's words gave Illya the impression he didn't want to ask what might happen next.

In the end, Napoleon had decided the simplest thing to do was to search Paradox from one end of town to the other, working his way from building to building in as methodical a manner as his concern for Illya would allow.

As he moved on from grocery store to chandlers, from the telegraph office to the jail, that concern grew. Here and there Napoleon found signs of habitation, a carelessly-discarded cigarette pack, footprints in the otherwise undisturbed dust, but still nothing that would conclusively lead him to his partner. Even where they had clearly taken Illya, while Napoleon was distracted by the falling sign, there was only signs of a scuffle, with no indication where his attackers had taken him.

And there was no sign of Benoit either.

Though this clearly wasn't quite a ghost town, in the literal sense of the term, it was as close to being deserted as it was possible to be. No-one had actually lived here for a very long time. The research they'd managed to get their hands on before they left New York had said that the water had run out at the turn of the century and the townspeople had been forced to move on. It wasn't hard to believe.

It had been almost an hour, Napoleon discovered as he checked his watch, since he last saw Illya. Sixty minutes of worry on his part, a familiar experience that didn't get any easier.

If anything, it was this kind of thing that he'd wanted to avoid, had sought to avoid before Waverly had forced him to consider a variety of possible partnerships. It was so much easier to rely on himself, to only have to worry about himself, even if that existence had been much lonelier than Napoleon had ever cared to admit at the time.

Even now, proud as he was about what he and Illya had achieved, it was difficult for him to say that this was better than working as a sole operative.

It was only as Napoleon reached the end of the dusty street that an unexpected movement from up the hill in the cemetery caught his eye.

"Mr. Kuryakin, how good of you to join us."

They were in the graveyard, the four men who had come to remove him from his makeshift prison having taken turns to shove and jostle him along passageways and into an elevator that led up to the cemetery. It was fitting, if somewhat macabre, Illya supposed, that an assassin should set up business in a graveyard. There, under the lone tree, they met another man, one whose face Illya recognised immediately.

"Monsieur Benoit," he said, enjoying the momentary unsettled look that flitted across the assassin's face. "I was wondering when our paths would cross." Benoit scowled, the expression causing his already plain face to become even more so. "Tell me," Illya continued, "just exactly what are you doing here in the middle of nowhere?"

There was one subtle difference in the way Benoit was dressed from the others—his clothes were immaculate, as if he'd just stepped out of a Paris couturiers, rather than caked with dust the way Illya and the others were.

"In this instance, Mr. Kuryakin," Benoit said, gesturing at one of the men to bring Illya forward to the base of the tree, "I am arranging for what the Americans call a neck-tie party."

Illya didn't twitch as the noose was arranged round his neck. Clinically he noted that the knot was placed at the back, rather than under one ear, ensuring that he was likely to strangle to death rather than have his neck broken. There was also little chance, with where this scenario was being set up, of a suitable drop, making it even more likely that his end would be prolonged. The thought didn't appeal to him and he wondered, not for the first time since making the trip to the cemetery, just where Napoleon was.

"And the rest of the time, M. Benoit?" he asked. He had to concentrate on something to push back the mixture of emotions he was experiencing.

He wanted to be rescued, wanted more than anything to see his partner come sauntering in and take control of the situation, but he also realised how unlikely this was rapidly becoming. He knew more than anything that he didn't want Napoleon to see him like this, not as he knew he was shortly going to be—if his partner was going to mourn his passing, he should at least not have to deal with the grisly reality of it all.

"The rest of the time," Benoit replied, taking Illya's gun from one of the Thrush goons, "Thrush are paying me a very great deal of money to train their assassins. And I dare say they will pay richly for the body of two top UNCLE agents as well."

It was bluster, Illya knew that. If they had Napoleon he would be here now, another sacrifice to Benoit's egotistical need for a performance. He'd read the assassin's profile, carefully compiled from Interpol and the Sret's incident reports, and that streak of theatricality ran through all of Benoit's hits. Illya's death in this manner would amuse him greatly, and he'd doubtless have some similarly bizarre fate in store for Napoleon, should his partner not manage to wreak his revenge on the assassin.

"No last words, Mr. Kuryakin?" Benoit asked, as two of the other men picked Illya up and deposited him on a small box at the foot of the tree, each with a tight grip on an arm as he found his footing. A third disappeared from his view, but his role was doubtless to tighten the rope—Illya could feel the slight pull even if he shifted his weight on the box from one foot to the other.

"Last words?" Illya found himself frowning as he looked down at Benoit from the slight height advantage his position gave him. "Give me an hour or two and I'm sure I can come up with something memorable."

The information they'd received had been good, then, as far as it went. Benoit was in Paradox, it was just that he wasn't alone and the facility he was probably running for Thrush wasn't in the ghost town itself. The lack of signs in the dusty street, the run-down state of the buildings in Paradox itself, combined with the presence now of people in the cemetery, argued for an underground installation somewhere close by.

Napoleon made the most of the minimal cover the abandoned buildings allowed, coming closer and closer to a sight that sent a shiver down his spine. His missing partner, strung up from the lone tree in the graveyard. Not alone, his only visible companion a man whose very demeanour advertised how dangerous he was—Napoleon couldn't see the stranger's face, but he was more than willing to bet that it was Benoit. The assassin they'd been looking for, gloating over Illya.

He'd have to take a chance on a run to the cemetery, the open ground between the last building and the rickety wooden fence gave Napoleon no option. He couldn't think about Illya, forcing himself to focus on running as fast as he could, hopeful that Benoit, if that was who it was, wouldn't spot him till it was too late.

Was there anyone else present? He couldn't see anyone, though he doubted that Benoit alone could have hogtied his partner so easily. Napoleon crossed himself, the action almost complete before he realised it.

All he could hope was Illya would spot him first, that he would keep Benoit occupied and give both of them a fighting chance.

They were alone now, trapped in this bizarre tableau, assassin and victim, executioner and prisoner.

He wanted to close his eyes, deny the reality of what was about to happen to him, but that would give Benoit a victory over him that Illya could never allow. He could feel his legs start to shake, the tautness of the rope pulling him onto the balls of his feet and creating a responsive quiver in his calf muscles. There was no chance he could keep this position for long, even if Benoit intended to prolong the agony.

Illya forced himself to concentrate on Benoit, pushing back all thought of his impending death, focussing instead on the lifeless eyes of his would-be executioner.

"Couldn't Thrush find anyone else for this job?" he asked, taking a desperate jab at Benoit's ego even as the other man turned towards where Illya knew the entrance to the facility was. He wouldn't be complicit in his own demise, not if he could force Benoit into action, one way or another.

"Who better to train assassins than one who is a master in his craft?" Benoit replied, coming closer to where Illya stood.

Illya measured the distance between himself and Benoit. His feet were untied, even though his hands were bound tightly behind his back. If he did this right, he could take Benoit with him, fulfill the mission objectives one way or another, even though it would certain lead to his death. But if he was going to die anyway...

Out of the corner of his eye, Illya noticed a small movement, down towards the last building in town.

The relief was overwhelming.

"A master?" Illya forced mockery into his tone, though he knew what a dangerous game he was playing. Still, if he could get Benoit a little closer... "I've read the reports on that Bucharest job, it was hardly anything to boast about."

Ignore the movement, ignore the possibility of rescue.

"There were unexpected difficulties," Benoit said, his face darkening. He took another step closer to the tree as he spoke.

"A 'master' should be prepared for such things." He knew his voice was scornful, that tone which had so infuriated Napoleon when they'd first met, and still did if his partner would ever admit it. "The Bucharest job looked like the work of a bungling amateur."

More movement, keep him distracted, keep him talking. Closer, Benoit, closer...

Benoit's face grew very still at those words, and Illya took a deep breath. This was it, he could tell with certainty, the assassin's foot coming out to kick away the box Illya was perched on, even as Napoleon's first gunshot snapped out.

He was too far away, moving too slowly, but there was nothing else he could do.

Napoleon's first shot missed, not by much but by enough, taking a chunk out of the tree branch over which the rope hung, rather than severing the rope neatly as he'd hoped. It always worked in movies, so why not in real life?

Illya had kept Benoit talking, must have seen his partner making as stealthy progress as he could manage across the bare ground between the town and the graveyard, only for that progress to be too slow.

Benoit had kicked the box on which Illya stood, turning and pulling his own gun in one smooth movement that reminded Napoleon just what the Frenchman did for a living. Behind him, Illya jerked and swung, like an obscene marionette.

If the distance meant he'd missed, it also meant, Napoleon reflected as he dived behind a gravestone for cover, he didn't have to see Illya die up close and personal. Benoit had him pinned, each shot slamming into the brittle stone and sending chips of it into the air. What the hell was he going to do?

Then, suddenly, there was a single gunshot, an odd cracking sound and then silence.

Napoleon peered around the ragged edge of the gravestone, every instinct telling him to look to his partner. To where his partner was probably slowly strangling to death, no thanks to the great Napoleon Solo. To where his partner... wasn't...

The entire limb of the tree was gone, rope and all. Benoit was laid out on the ground, as was Illya, the remnants of the rope leading to where he lay, the noose still around his neck. Napoleon was at his side within a couple of strides, pulling his partner's body around and removing the noose with hands that trembled from the adrenaline aftermath.

"What the hell..?"

Illya coughed, swallowing tentatively as Napoleon freed his hands.

"I.. I'm okay," he croaked, once he could speak again. "Benoit?"

Napoleon left his partner, unwillingly, to check on the assassin. Who was out cold, Illya's UNCLE Special still gripped loosely in his hand, a bruise already forming on his temple.

"Are you wearing lead-soled shoes, my friend?" Napoleon asked, returning the gun to its owner, who received it with a grimace that passed for a smile.

"Technique," Illya said, gesturing in a pre-emptory manner for Napoleon to help him up.

He could hardly believe it himself. It was a story worthy of the great Solo luck, if such a thing existed. And there was no doubt that Napoleon would believe that was what had happened, rather than crediting the proceedings to chance or expertise on the part of his partner.

There was little doubt that Napoleon didn't want to let him out of his sight, and the bruises that Illya could feel forming on his neck and throat argued that a liquid diet would be a very good idea for quite some time. He could almost list the mother-hen behaviour his partner would shortly be indulging in, once they'd cleaned out the Thrush school for assassins.

"We need some back-up," Napoleon said, placing himself in a direct line of the entrance to the facility and eyeing Illya as if he expected an argument.

Illya nodded, trying to hide the wince even that slight movement created.

He concentrated on tying up Benoit as his partner called for back-up, smiling to himself as the assassin still showed no sign of regaining consciousness.

"Want to tell me what happened?" Napoleon asked, not looking round, even though his conversation with the local UNCLE office was concluded.

Illya coughed, hardly having to force the cough at all. He knew he'd have to talk about it some time, but now it was just too raw, all the panic he'd felt when Benoit kicked the box away too real, too immediate. If he could appeal to Napoleon's sympathy for his injuries, at least he'd get some breathing space—a chance to come to terms with what had almost happened, to put the fears that had been brought to light back into the darkness from which they'd escaped.

Napoleon's face, when he did look round, told him everything he needed to know. His partner understood how he felt—he wouldn't push, at least not now. That was the other side of the mother hen persona, knowing when silence was for the best.

He was more conscious now of every breath his partner took than he had ever been, knowing just how close Illya had come to taking his last. Napoleon watched as the final Thrush operative was escorted from the underground facility, still reeling a little from the knockout gas they'd used to take the would-be assassins unawares. Benoit had regained consciousness, glaring at Illya as if he considered it a personal offence that he still lived, but Illya had studiously ignored him.

Now, as the UNCLE raiding party drove away and the clean-up crew began its work, Napoleon slapped his partner on the shoulder and headed back towards where they'd left the car. He didn't bother to look round to see if Illya was following him, because there wasn't really anywhere else for his partner to go. After a couple of strides, Illya caught up with him, and the two of them walked down the hill into Paradox in silence.

By the time they got to the car, Napoleon was thinking up excuses for why Illya shouldn't drive, but a single glance at his partner's face told him voicing any of them wouldn't be a good idea right now.

The bruises were beginning to show on Illya's neck, livid blue and purple marks peeking over the edge of his turtleneck, vivid reminders of what had almost happened. Napoleon knew his shot had missed, Illya's hands had still been tied behind his back, the noose around his neck when he landed. It was a mystery, and one which Illya seemed unwilling to shed any light upon.

Not that Napoleon could blame him.

Death by slow strangulation hardly featured high on his own wishlist in terms of means of death. He'd thought about it, of course, decided he wanted to die in his own bed surrounded by nubile companions (of either sex, he wasn't particularly as choosy in that matter as some people thought he might be), at an extremely old age. Preferably from having had one too many orgasms, if his entire dream ending could be fulfilled.

As the car turned, climbing up the hill past the graveyard and out of Paradox, Napoleon looked at the tree. They'd come so close, much closer than he cared to think about, to their partnership being broken forever. Perhaps the omen had been true after all, as far as it went.

He'd insisted on returning to New York, turning a deaf ear to Napoleon's comments about getting medical attention in Reno. He was fine, just bruised and banged about; the soreness of his throat made the resultant argument with his partner both more difficult and more certain to end as he wanted it to. Napoleon could see he was fine, other than that, and could also see that Illya had no intention of backing down.

He just wanted to get home, down a few medicinal shots of iced vodka and go to bed.

On the plane, he'd flatly refused to say anything at all, leaving it to Napoleon to charm the stewardess into producing cups full of ice. If he could just continue to wear turtlenecks, he'd be fine—if Napoleon would stop glancing across at his bruises when he thought Illya wasn't looking, he'd be better than fine.

"Stop fussing," he said, turning his attention to the magazine he'd bought before they boarded the plane.

"Considering what just almost happened," Napoleon said, handing him yet another cup of ice, "I think 'fussing' is a perfectly understandable response."

"'Almost' being the key word here," Illya said, turning in his seat slightly to put his back to his annoying partner. He chewed thoughtfully on an ice cube, before crunching it maliciously. Napoleon hated that, it was something he'd discovered early on in their partnership. "I'm fine."

The rest of the flight passed in silence between them, Napoleon dozing lightly in his seat for a little while, even as the stewardesses hovered attentively. Illya took the opportunity to study his partner, noting the small smudge of dirt on Napoleon's forehead that his usually scrupulously-clean partner had clearly missed on his last trip to the restroom. Along with the innocent expression Napoleon's face fell into when he was asleep, it gave him the appearance of a roguish schoolboy. Illya wanted to wake him, somewhat unsettled by this stranger sitting in the place of his partner.

If he knew who Napoleon was, then his partner couldn't surprise him. His emotions concerning Napoleon couldn't surprise him either, if that was the case, no unexpected tenderness towards his partner sneaking in under Illya's radar and taking him unawares. He had to keep reminding himself who Napoleon was, and why getting involved with him any more than he was necessarily involved already, was a very bad idea.

He couldn't live with that kind of entanglement, neither of them could.

"Home," Napoleon said, hustling his partner into a taxi at the airport. "No arguments."

Illya's face showed just what he thought of that idea, the mutinous expression more telling than any words, but he didn't say anything. Napoleon gave Illya's address to the driver, slipping him a couple of notes when he seemed a little reluctant to head into that part of town. The two of them sat back then, watching the lights of passing cars, saying nothing until they arrived.

They were both travelling light, as usual, each with a small suitcases containing the basics, nothing that would be mourned if lost in transit. Once on the sidewalk, Napoleon made a move towards Illya's case but his partner's scowl warned him off.

"I'm not an invalid," Illya rasped.

"Of course not," Napoleon said, following him into the apartment building. The elevator, as usual, was broken, forcing the two of them to climb the stairs to Illya's floor instead, but it was exercise both of them were well used to by now.

Heading into Illya's apartment, following his partner in as he dropped his suitcase by the door, flicked on the light and headed for the alarm control panel, he was about to make some comment on the state of the place when Illya's expression stopped him cold. For once, the words died on his tongue.

"Vodka?" he asked, instead, dropping his suitcase beside Illya's and then turning to shut the apartment door.

If his partner chose to live this way, it was up to him, after all. He'd never been able to get much information out of Illya concerning his upbringing, or what life had been like in Russia before he'd left to study at Cambridge and the Sorbonne, but what little Illya had let slip had told Napoleon that even this spartan life was richer than the one most ordinary Russians enjoyed.

He snagged two glasses from the side, wrestling for a moment with Illya's antiquated icebox which almost refused to relinquish its grip on the bottle of vodka it held. He could tell his partner was watching him, that sixth sense agents so relied on warning him he was being observed, and he redoubled his efforts. After a brief struggle, the bottle was freed, along with a substantial amount of ice that crusted its surface.

When he turned, Illya was sitting on the sofa, his shoes kicked off and socked feet resting on the coffee table. His head was resting on the back of the sofa, the long line of his neck showing more bruises than Napoleon cared to think about, along with a lower red mark that looked like a ropeburn.

As Napoleon headed across, Illya shifted, sitting up a little, one hand rearranging the neck of his sweater to cover the marks.

"Here," Napoleon said, handing him the glasses. "Make yourself useful."

Illya took the proffered glasses in one hand, sitting up to clear a space on the cluttered coffee table with the other hand. Napoleon winced as his partner basically swept a pile of newspapers and magazines onto the floor, before kicking them to the side of the sofa.

"It's the maid's day off," Illya said, placing the glasses down on the spot he'd cleared.

"Inconsiderate of her," Napoleon said, as he opened the vodka and poured a hefty measure into each glass.

It was only as he reached for his, having handed a glass to his partner, that he saw it. Had it been covered by the material Illya had moved, or had it been casually tossed on top of the newspapers, only to slide off when they were shoved off so abruptly?

There was no doubt about it, Napoleon decided, as he picked it up from the coffee table. It was definitely the Good Luck Coin he'd slipped into Illya's pocket at Headquarters.

"I found it when I was packing for the trip to Paradox," Illya said, taking a mouthful of vodka to lubricate his words and sighing with pleasure as the ice-cold liquid slid down his throat.

He'd been puzzled, to say the least, finding something unexpected on the floor beneath where he'd thrown his jacket while packing hastily for their trip to Nevada. There had, of course, been no question in his mind where it had come from, only why Napoleon had surreptitiously placed it in his pocket. A question he could ask now, if not at the time.

"I suppose you want to know why," Napoleon said, holding the token between his fingers, his thumb running over the crude stamping in the metal. Illya nodded, and said nothing, letting his silence speak for him. "I had this feeling you'd need it."

"For good fortune?"

Napoleon threw the coin back onto the coffee table, sitting back on the sofa and raising the glass of vodka to his mouth. Illya wasn't convinced his partner was actually drinking it, just keeping him company, but it didn't matter.

"Perhaps you were right," he said, after a moment. "What happened in Paradox..." The words trailed off, the memories of choking, struggling to breathe, flooding back in all their horror.

"If you're not ready to tell me."

"No." Another mouthful of vodka. It was a good thing his tolerance for alcohol was quite high. Illya reached out his glass and watched as Napoleon filled it for him once more. "It was quite bizarre, I'm afraid. I kicked Benoit in the head, he jerked and the gun—my gun—fired, the bullet hit one of the tombstones and ricocheted, shattering the branch. Simple as that."

Napoleon began to laugh, his hand shaking momentarily and splashing the vodka from his glass, before he managed to get it under control.

"So much for the lucky coin."

"Lucky coin?" Illya picked it up and looked at it, examining the words pressed into its surface, the shininess of the edges where they had rubbed. "What's so lucky about it?"

"It kept me safe all through Korea," Napoleon said, looking down at his glass. "You left it behind, and it didn't matter after all."

Illya laughed, his sore throat making the sound into an odd croak. Did Napoleon really think a small piece of metal, crudely stamped with some kind of sigil, would protect him? The quick glance he stole at his partner's face showed him evidence that this was just what he had believed. His laughter stopped as suddenly as it had begun.

"I am a scientist, Napoleon," Illya said, as earnestly as he could manage. "You know I am also something of a sceptic."

Napoleon nodded. "I know."

"But even a sceptic can understand the thought behind your actions," Illya continued.

His partner's face brightened a little as he spoke, while Illya worked to relieve some of the embarrassment he'd caused by his reaction. Even if he himself didn't believe in such talismans, Napoleon obviously did—it was important to him, therefore it was important to Illya. It was as simple as that.

"So, I thank you," he said. Illya picked up the Good Luck Coin again and studied it for a moment, before placing it back on the coffee table. He looked at his partner, wondering if he was seeing Napoleon as he really was for the first time, elements of him that Illya never allowed himself to recognise before. "But you will forgive me if I do not carry it with me, for fear it might be lost."

Could Napoleon accept that compromise? It was Illya's most fervent hope that he could. He appreciated the thought behind the gesture, the concern that Napoleon had shown for his well-being, but he couldn't be ruled by such gestures himself.

"I understand." There was a moment's silence between them, and Illya found his eyes straying to the Good Luck Coin once more, where he'd placed it back on the coffee table. "We should go and report in," Napoleon said. "Before Waverly sends out a search party for us."

Illya nodded. There would be time for more talk later, their lifestyle dictated that there was always time—the waiting and watching was as much a part of being an agent as the sudden bursts of action. One way or another, he told himself, he would come to understand his partner.

He wasn't sure how Napoleon would react on being compared to a puzzle, though he thought that his partner might preen a little at the idea someone could be so interested in him, but that was what he was. One part ruthless agent, one part a believer in old superstitions, one part compassionate friend. How did those elements fit together and make Napoleon who he was?

It was a puzzle Illya intended to turn his mind to solving.

"Wait," Illya said.

Napoleon stopped, obediently, and watched as his partner crossed from the kitchen to the living room window and opened it.

"What're you doing?"

"What does it look like?" he asked, without turning round. "We never know how long we'll be gone, and I hate to see good bread go completely to waste."

It figured. Of all the things Napoleon should have thought of at the time, if his head hadn't been messed up from the adrenaline of coming so close to being spread across the landscape.

"You feed the birds regularly?"

Illya was closing the window now, having dusted the last crumbs from his hands, and it grated a little as he did so, the wood swollen and warped from the heat.

"When I remember to," he said. "I forgot before we left for Nevada. Why do you ask?"

"Oh, no reason."

Please post a comment on this story.
Read posted comments.

Archive Home