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Title: We Used to Be Friends
Rating: PG
Summary: “The world is changing,” Napoleon said to him one day. “Do you really think we can keep doing this forever?”


Illya knew Napoleon was leaving him, and he was determined not to acknowledge it. He was used to being the one who left, the one who changed his name or his appearance or his social circle or his nationality, and it galled him more than a little to feel Napoleon pulling away to a place where he couldn’t follow. After several years of working with the notorious Napoleon Solo, Illya had stopped entertaining thoughts of escape, and every place he went that was not accessible to Napoleon was a temporary stop on his way back to U.N.C.L.E.’s New York headquarters and the office they co-inhabited.

But he could feel Napoleon doing exactly the opposite. Napoleon had begun to drag his feet, to show his reluctance at returning to the job that Illya had always taken for granted as his partner’s reason for waking up every morning. His romantic flings, once remarkable for their variety and brevity, had stretched like saltwater taffy on the Ocean City boardwalk, until Illya had begun to fear that he would come to work one day to find that Napoleon had snapped and run off with his current girlfriend to Niagara Falls, quitting the U.N.C.L.E. and getting married and not bothering to let Illya into his confidences before undertaking either plan.

“The world is changing,” Napoleon said to him one day. “Do you really think we can keep doing this forever?”

Illya had shrugged and changed the subject, but he’d recognized the signs. Napoleon was getting ready to run away, was tensed on the balls of his feet at the starting line, and when he did run, Illya knew he would be left behind to stitch together the holes that would remain in Napoleon’s absence. He knew because he had done it, had left family in the Ukraine, had left friends at the Sorbonne, had left colleagues in London. But he had always been the one to leave and never the one who was left, and he was shocked to find that it rankled like a sore spot on his tongue or a paper cut on his index finger.

The girl was named Lindsay. She was a lovely blonde who was not too lovely, but who had a devilish grin, expressive eyebrows, and an enviable amount of patience—at least she did when it came to Napoleon. Illya didn’t dislike her, but he didn’t particularly like her either. She wasn’t employed by U.N.C.L.E. and Napoleon hadn’t met her while working in the field. Napoleon had found her all on his own, and Illya felt that made her separate, something that was wholly Napoleon’s. He’d met her only twice, exchanged handshakes and pleasantries, and she had been charming without being flirtatious, attractive without being stunning, and good-humored without being malicious. She was, as he had archly told Napoleon the next day, well-suited to being someone’s wife. Napoleon had given him a thoughtful look rather than a knowing smile and a reflexive straightening of his tie, and that had been when Illya had begun to worry.

Years earlier, one of the girls in the translation department had wound up chatting with him in the commissary. Illya had particularly liked her because her interest had been friendly rather than romantic, and she hadn’t cared much that Illya listened instead of adding to the conversation. Her name was Jennifer—“Not Jenny,” she’d said while making a face—and she’d been an Arabic translator just out of school. Her older sister, whom she was quite close to, had a son who was about eleven years old. Jennifer was fond of her nephew, and she had told Illya all about the boy’s various talents and problems.

What had stuck with Illya was something that she had said almost offhandedly, about how the other boys all seemed to be growing up too fast and losing interest in playing cops and robbers and soldiers, in climbing trees and making forts and playing touch football, in collecting jars of frogs or guppies and catching fireflies in the summer and worms on the sidewalks after the rain had ended. Her nephew had been left, frustrated and alone on the fringes, as one by one his friends had begun to discover that girls were good for more than teasing and tormenting.

Illya had reassured her, told her that it would be years before those boys left their childhoods behind entirely. “Don’t worry about your late bloomer,” he’d said with a smile. “His friends aren’t going anywhere—at least, not until they get access to a car or two.” She had smiled back, relieved, and Illya remembered feeling knowledgeable and comforting. But now he was on the other side, just another little boy playing spies and stamping his feet when his favorite playmate showed signs of tiring of the game. Now what he’d said seemed ridiculous and hollow and out of touch, not to mention particularly lacking in anything like good advice.

And yet, it wasn’t so much that he didn’t want Napoleon to leave, he told himself. It was that he resented being left at all.

* * *

The basement of the Thrush compound was dark and cooler than Illya had expected. It was also damp, with moisture condensing on the concrete walls. He sighed. Florida, so far, had proved to be a strange primordial ooze of insects, alligators, wildlife he had yet to positively identify, and extremely bad architecture. A sub-basement that looked like the interior of a prison was a welcome change from the ghastly sunlight and pink flamingo-spotted landscapes he’d driven through to reach the place where Napoleon had last been heard from.

He peered into the cells as he passed them. Each one was empty. He paused halfway down the hall and listened, hoping to hear a sound, any sound, that would tell him whether he should continue or not. When he heard nothing, he decided to check the last few cells, just in case Napoleon was there but sleeping or drugged or even just sitting quietly.

He found Napoleon was lying on the last cell's single bunk, curled onto his side and facing the door. He looked as if he was genuinely asleep. "Napoleon!" Illya hissed. The other man did not stir, and so Illya was forced to try again. "Napoleon!"

He was rewarded with the opening of one eye and a yawn. Then Napoleon was burying his face into the meager pillow, clearly trying to shut Illya out. "Damn you," Illya muttered. He used his ring to tap against the metal of one of the bars, just loud enough to be annoying. "Get up!"

There was an answering grumble, and Napoleon was hauling himself into a sitting position. The hair at the back of his head had been mussed from its Brylcreem hold into an impressive cowlick. As Napoleon scrubbed at his eyes, working out the gum and crust of drying tears, Illya thought he looked very much like a small boy who had been coaxed awake on a school morning. It was not a thought that inspired confidence. “Napoleon,” he said again. “What are you doing?”

Napoleon stood and came to the door of the cell, holding onto the bars and settling himself so he was face-to-face with Illya. He walked oddly, as if he were uncertain of his body and the space it occupied, and that worried Illya. “Hi,” he said. “Hi, Illya.”

“Hi, yourself,” Illya said, his irritation increasing. “We’ve got to get you out of there and get out of this nonsense. I’ve decided that I don’t like Florida.”

Napoleon tipped his weight back onto his heels and, holding onto the bars, swung himself idly back and forth. “’Kay,” he answered.

Illya watched this with his lips pursed and his own hands wrapped so tightly around the bars that his knuckles had gone white. When Napoleon leaned in close to him, it was clear that his pupils were quite dilated. “Did they drug you, Napoleon? Do you remember?”

“What?”

“Do you remember if they gave you a shot?”

Napoleon frowned. “Yeah, they did.” He hitched up his sleeve and showed Illya the angry red mark on his inner elbow. “And no lollipop after.”

“How cruel,” Illya muttered. This was very bad news. “Listen, Napoleon, I want you to stay here and keep quiet. Don’t try to leave. I’m going to go and—”

“No!” Napoleon’s exclamation was like the yowling of a cat. He grabbed Illya’s arm through the bars with both hands. “No, you can’t leave!” His lower lip trembled. Illya watched, fascinated by his partner’s tantrum. “I don’t want to be alone again!”

“I will come back,” Illya said weakly. “And if I don’t, then someone else will—”

Napoleon shook his head, then banged it against one of the bars several times. “No, no, no. I don’t want you to go. I want to go home.” His nails were digging into Illya’s forearm.

Illya hesitated, unsure of how to handle the situation. He wasn’t entirely certain why Thrush was so keen on reducing adult men and women’s intelligence to that of children; wouldn’t it be simpler just to sedate them? He had no idea what the objective had been in this case, but Napoleon had clearly been the guinea pig in someone’s experiment. “There, there,” he said, patting Napoleon’s arm and feeling incredibly awkward about it. “Everything will be all right.”

“Don’t leave me, Illya,” Napoleon pleaded, his breath hitching with little sobs. “I was waiting for you.”

Illya wondered why they couldn’t have given him a Valium, at the very least. “It’s not that scary. Anyway, I won’t be very long, I just have to retrieve—” Napoleon wailed and Illya tried again. “But I need to do this one tiny thing and then I’ll come right back.” Napoleon shook his head. “Please?” Napoleon glared at him. “Well, I can’t stay here forever.”

“Take me with you.”

“I don’t think that would be a good idea, not while you’re in this state.” Napoleon’s pitiful expression was beginning to wear at Illya’s patience. “And if you stay here like a good little boy, I’ll get you that lollipop.”

Napoleon thought about this. “What about an ice cream soda?”

“Instead of a lollipop?”

“Well… and a lollipop.” Napoleon smiled a little and sniffed. “I’ll be really good, I promise.”

“If you promise, then I suppose I can’t refuse.” Illya smiled back at Napoleon reflexively. He thought that things seemed very wrong, that he should have been the one trapped in the cell and grasping at Napoleon through the bars. Initially, he’d been assigned to be the first to enter Thrush’s hideaway, but Napoleon had bargained with him, offering to take on the more intensive job in exchange for Illya doing the paperwork when the affair was finished. “Now, I called for backup before I came in, so if I don’t come back, they’ll find you—”

Napoleon’s hand tightened on his arm. “But you will come back.”

“I—I’ll try.” Illya shook his head. It should have been him, needy and cooing for a treat, for a reward for sitting still and waiting. It should have been him trying to hold on to something that wasn’t his to hold on to. “But just in case, I want you to remember—” He pulled out his wallet with his free hand and flipped up his U.N.C.L.E. identification card. “—this. I have one and you have one. Remember?” Napoleon nodded. “And if anyone comes in here to get you, I want you to make sure he has one of these. Got it?”

“Uh-huh.” Napoleon’s grip loosened. “But… you will come back for me. Won’t you?”

“Yes,” Illya lied. “I’ll come back.”


[First posted here in September of 2008 as part of a guess the author activity.]

*sob*

Date: 2011-02-06 05:36 am (UTC)
From: (Anonymous)
No, Napoleon! Don't leave Illya! Illya, you better come back for him!!

... Wow. This really packed an emotional punch. Any chance of a (happy) sequel? (Probably not. But I had to ask.)

Thanks very much for sharing, even if it did leave me sniffling!

-Kiwi Bird

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August 2011

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